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Setsujoku [雪辱]

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Awake before the birds found him alone on the futon.

Across the room, dull light outlined the shaded window and below it on the floor lay the extra sleeper. Upon it, shrouded in a bearskin blanket, lay Lord Hijikata Toshizou.

Fingers crept instinctively over the scars lining his mandibles. No good would come from crawling over and joining a man who now chaffed at his touch.

A bitter severance or abrupt departure would’ve healed his wounded heart, but each new day in this platonic cage brought nothing but pain.

Outside his breath floated toward the sky.

Wood planks chilled underfoot, replaced by cold blades of grass. Restless trees whispered on his walk to the overlook; Mount Hakodate was a modest peak compared to the Tsukuba of his childhood. 

Robe pulled tight, he lined his toes to the precipice and studied the ribbons of smoke curling up from Motomachi, a port town that spread across the hourglass between the bay and the strait.

Daylight invaded as the sun broke the sea line, revealing a patchwork of thatched roofs that covered the isthmus like a quilt.

Inside the house he started a fire in the irori pit and dressed quietly as not to wake the old man. Socks were a bother when he was a boy, but in Hokkaido they were a man’s best friend.

Soon, flames lashed out from the charred wood in the sand. He hoisted a water-filled filled kettle onto the hook above and lowered it enough to catch the heat.

Yesterday he’d spent the entire afternoon over the kitchen kamado. Long cooled, the cast iron pot was now filled with enough cooked rice to last the week. He slid its cedar top aside and with a paddle, scraped a thin layer of hardened crust off the top.

Tossing the hard puck of white out the window, he carved out a handful of sticky grain and formed it into a ball. After wrapping it in a hair-thin cloth, he tied off the top and dropped it into a deep clay bowl. 

The kettle was hot to the touch. Rag in hand, he grabbed the handle and tipped some steaming water into the bowl, submerging the clothed ball.

Outside a fresh egg awaited.

The coop was guarded by a nasty fowl whose sharp spurs pricked his ankles defter than any blade or bullet. He was resigned that when the old man departed for another of his week-long stays in Motomachi, the aggressive bird would befall an accident and become his dinner.

Egg in hand, he unwrapped the soaked cloth, dropped the steaming rice ball into a clean bowl, and then cracked the egg over it. Salted and with a splash of soy in the yoke, he ate until the sun illuminated the paper panels of the front door.

Belly full and tea consumed, it was time to work his body.

He set a folded rag upon porch and pressed a bristle brush to it. Crouched with both hands on the brush, he speedily scuttled down the narrow engawa, racing from one end to the next, working the muscles in his back legs until there was no more dust on the veranda.

“You’re up early, Hyakunosuke,” said the old man.

“Planks needed a polish,” he panted, wiping his brow.

“That’s fine Ezo timber, the summer rain up here will polish it,” a gentle hand touched his back. “When you wake before the sun, you fall asleep before the sun,”

Hyaku stood and stepped up behind him.

“I don’t have much to do at night, except sleep,” he said, arms wrapped around the old man’s slender waist.

Hijikata gently broke free, “You should pull the amado,”

“Is there a storm coming?” he asked, standing alone.

Hijikata replied, “Autumn rain in Ezo is alarmingly cold,”

“I’ve gotten used to the cold,” he grasped the railing until his knuckles turned white. “Am I so repugnant to you, Toshizou, you can’t even sleep by my side?”

“We’ve lost the fight for Hakodate,” Hijikata often let remarks like this pass. “We must regroup and move north-”

“—then I’ll make the journey with you,”

Hijikata shook his head, “You’ll remain here,”

“I’m not invalid, Toshizou!”

“You cannot swing a sword fully-”

“—I can shoot a pistol-”

“—I’ll not have you killed!” Hijikata cried.

“My life,” he said. “Is forfeit in service to the Shogunate,”

“Our deaths should mean something,” it was Hijikata’s turn to come up behind him. “It’s one thing to die in service, it’s another to sacrifice yourself for no greater good,”

Strong hands found his shoulders.

“Another year,” Hijikata added. “And you’ll be fit to fight,”

Hyaku tried to hold him again.

“I’m fit for other things,”

Hijikata retreated into the house.

“There’s no time for that today,”

“At least let eat with me before you go,” he followed and knelt beside the irori. “There’s plenty of rice,”

“Nihei Tetsuzou is coming by,” Hijikata said. “He’s brokering a deal for some matchlock rifles from Akita,”

He started, “I wasn’t informed of any outreach to Honshu?”

“Ichimura sent the correspondence,”

His chest tightened, “You brought that boy to Hakodate?”

“He’s my page, Hyakunosuke-”

“—I’m your page!” he growled.

Hijikata set down his teacup, “The moment you became Nagakura’s apprentice, you left that role behind,”

“Tell me, Toshizou,” he moved into the old man’s space. “Does Ichimura share your futon, as I did?”

Cold eyes narrowed, “I didn’t touch you, Hyakunosuke, until your eighteenth year,”

He was on the edge of sixteen when the regal samurai introduced himself. At the time he was employed in the house of Niimi Nishiki in Kyoto, and after his lord’s downfall within the Shinsengumi, he accepted Hijikata’s offer to serve as his secretary.

Years later, the samurai made him a man.

“No matter if I carried a sword or a pen,” he stared at the old man’s long silver hair. “It never mattered when we were alone,”

Silence held sway until the sound of horses invaded.

“Nihei’s here,” Hijikata peered through the window and pulled on his coat. “Prepare some tea-”

“—It’s a pity Ichimura isn’t here to serve it,” he sassed.

“You’re still under my command, Ogata,” said Hijikata. “With or without a sword in your hand,”

Defiant, he strolled out to fetch some water.

“Ogata!” Hijikata followed. “Put some proper clothes on,”

“I’m recovering from my wounds, remember?”

“Remove the hapi,” Hijikata softened. “And put on a proper yukata, please,”

On the march toward his room, he kicked over the washi shaded lamp and slammed the panel door behind him hard enough that it lifted from its floor tract.

Eyes closed he took a breath.

Stripped out of the hapi, he splashed water under his arms and over his face and refused to change his dirty socks; there were still chores that needed tending.

Hijikata’s voice carried, “I didn’t know Master Tanigaki had another son,”

“This is Genjirou,” came Nihei’s familiar grate.

The salty hunter brought his usual entourage—some horses, that damned dog, and two of his toughest daughters.

“Your older brother was an honorable man,” Hikijata bowed to a broad-shouldered figure who stood with his back to the house.

“Honor didn’t keep him alive though, did it, Lord Hijikata?” his deep voice spoke with respect.

“Master Tanigaki’s got twenty rifles,” Nihei said, quickly.

“Did you bring them?” asked Hijikata.

“We planned too,” Nihei jerked his head to the tall newcomer. “But this one’s skittish,”

“I advised my father to keep himself and our goods off this mountain,” the Matagi turned to divulge an attractive profile; a neat line of hair ran along his jawbone, rich brown like the cropped locks upon his head. “No disrespect to your station, Lord Hijikata, but the last Tanigaki to broker a deal with you, face to face and with goods in hand, ended up dead,”

“Shrewd, and good advice,” Hijikata made his way to the horses. “We’ll make the journey together,”

Nihei called out, “Nakamura made a deal,”

From inside the front door, Hyaku watched as Nihei handed Hijikata a piece of paper. The old samurai read the document, lifting his craggy face to the Matagi and then pursing his lips.

“No disrespect, young Genjirou,” he said. “But I underestimated your involvement in clan Tanigaki’s affairs,”

“I’m their only surviving son,” said the Matagi. “I think they’re trying to ensure I stay that way,”

Hijikata shifted his eyes to the house and for the first time in many months there was a fire in them—the same smolder once reserved for Hyaku; only today they were shadowed by regret.

***

Isolation is poor comfort when conflict brings sorrow.

Mother’s causal observation stung Genji more than he cared to admit. Yes, he was running away, all the while pretending to seek the man responsible for his brother’s death.

“I agree with the terms set by you and Lord Nakamura,” the samurai was older than expected, but this mattered little.

“I’ll take nothing I didn’t earn, Lord Hijikata,” said Genji.

Hijikata said, “Your father’s terms are very clear,”

“I won’t make your home a form of recompense,” he explained. “War is an ugly business, uglier when fought between countrymen. Regardless of what that paper says, I’m a guest and will remain so for the duration of my stay,”

“You’re an honorable man,” said Hijikata.

Nihei grumbled, “You two lovers or business partners?” They shared a laugh at the huntsman’s discomfort with civility. “Either jerk each other off, or shake hands like a couple of Gaijin,”

Suddenly, a slender man approached from the house.

“Let’s get moving,” said Nihei.

Barefoot and unarmed, he wore a winter kimono colored blue like the sky. His hair was short in the back, but the long tendril over his brow whispered that he too was once a samurai.

Hijikata said, “I’ll journey with young Tanigaki,”

“I’ll remain,” said Genji, eyes on the new arrival, whose suture scars bragged of a previously broken jaw. “I want to scout these woods for hunting,”

“Watch it, boy,” Nihei moved alongside him and whispered. “Wildcats look docile when they’re in a samurai’s cage, but pet them and you’ll get scratched,”

“Come now, Nihei,” Hijikata turned cordial. “Tanigaki Genjirou, this is Ogata Hyakunosuke,”

Genji didn’t return Ogata’s stunted bow.

“Genjirou will remain here until I return,” Hijikata added.

Ogata started, “You’re going down the mountain this early?”

“Our guns are in port,” Hijikata spoke softly to him, then raised his voice. “You’ll tend to the Matagi’s comfort in my absence,”

Unsatisfied with this, Ogata pulled the old man away.

They exchanged heated whispers and Nihei grinned at Genji when an angry Ogata marched off to the house without so much as a polite dismissal.

“He’s a veteran of this conflict,” Hijikata explained. “He’s convalescing-”

“—I’ll not disturb his recovery,” said Genji.

Hijikata eyed him a moment before getting too close.

“He means more to me then this house,” said the samurai.

Clearly he wanted to protect his land investment by offering up his battle-scarred plaything; it wouldn’t work.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Genji remained content to burn everything the samurai owned in Hokkaido, to the ground.

Hijikata slapped his arm.

“I’ll return with the cargo in hand,”

“If you think that’s best,” said Genji.

Hjikata paused before mounting his horse.

“Is that a suggestion, young Tanigaki?”

“No, Sir,” said Genji. “Just an observation,”

When their horses vanished in the tree line, he turned his attention to the house.

A charitable relic from the days of Takadaya, the single-story sanka needed a fresh roof and proper downspouts. Despite maintaining a reasonable distance during his survey, each step brought a shuttered window and in every exposure he spotted an abruptly placed shōji.

His orbit complete, a teapot awaited him on the stairs with a single cup set upon its spout.

There was no sign of Ogata.

Genji sat upon the step and with his rifle beside him, helped himself to some tea. Bancha wasn’t to his liking, but he appreciated the courtesy.

Several moments passed before he pulled the scarf from his neck and retrieved his rifle. He popped open the Snider’s breech-loader and dropped its unspent cartridge onto his lap.

A thud sounded off behind him as he wiped down the wooden stock. Fresh from napping on the getabako, the house's third resident yawned while giving her ear a scratch.

Black as coal, she padded over the genkan and staked claim to a nearby patch of sunlight on the narrow porch. Curiosity lured her to his empty tea cup. Dishes clanged inside the house, leveling her ears.

After he reloaded the Snider, the cat rubbed her face aggressively on his boot.

“She’s not usually friendly to strangers,”

Genji didn’t turn to the voice behind him, he took aim at the trees and peered through the Snider’s scope, “There’s a trick to earning a cat’s attention,”

“What trick is that?”

Genji walked off the porch, “Ignore them,”

At the edge of the property was an overlook with a stone bench covered in deer hide. He set his Snider alongside it and took in the valley below.

The cat appeared on the bench, showing her prowess by scratching into its hide cover. Beyond her display was a long-handled ax, buried in the carcass of a fallen tree.

Hijikata wasn’t doing the chopping around here; rumors had him most nights down in Hakodate. Someone butchered it, and for the trouble made little progress in cording any real firewood.

Genji dislodged the ax and began swinging.

A few four-stacks later, he began to feel the heat. Like his father, he was prone to sweating while performing the simplest of tasks. He took off the happi coat and after tossing it into the grass, watched the feline move onto it and begin grooming herself.

He’d been forced to chop wood as a boy, while his brother hunted with their father. Mother had insisted Genji learn numbers and bartering, and when accomplished to her satisfaction, only then was he allowed to join the hunt.

Linen shirt damp with perspiration, he pulled it from his shoulders and used it to wipe his face.

Clouds gathered in the west, magnifying the sun’s rays to illuminate every paper-shaded panel on the house. Silhouettes of cupboards appeared, along with the shadow of the man inside. 

Genji returned to his labor, determined to chop enough wood to surround the house. He grunted his way through splintering fresh cuts into smaller pieces, catching a shadowy figure from the corner of his eye.

It watched him, and from the panels of a long window its arm was bent and moving as if tossing seed upon the soil; the more Genji toiled, the faster that arm moved.

Mother often bragged that no Tanigaki man needed to advertise as his mere presence sealed the deal. Her words bred a confidence he chose never to display. She also used to say that only a desperate man pleasures himself in the company of others.

Warm rays gave way to overcast, cooling the air enough for him to pull shirt back on; his coat still belonged to the cat. He tossed the ax into a nearby tree and sat winded upon the stone.

Ogata stood there with a water pail in one hand and a saucer over the other. He sat at the far end and placed the little bucket at Genji’s feet.

Genji glanced the saucer set between them as he brought the ladle to his lips for a drink.

“A green-skinned Smith,”

“It’s Australian,” said Ogata. “It’s tart, not sweet like those Davis reds,”

Genji plucked a slice from the plate.

“I hope you washed your hand,”

“What?” asked Ogata.

“You were cleaning in there,” said Genji, smiling. “I don’t like eating dirty food,”

Ogata’s eyes roamed his body.

“You don’t strike me as fussy when it comes to food,”

“It’s true,” Genji chuckled. “I fatten up fast, but Hokkaido will keep me lean,”

“I’ve never met a Matagi,” he said.

“You weren’t in Bonari with Lord Hijikata?”

“I never met your brother, Tanigaki,” he snapped, but then relaxed. “I was part of the garrison that scouted the retreat path to Sendai,”

“I thought Shinsengumi never retreated,”

“We’re of no use to anyone if we’re dead,” he spat.

“Just what is your use, Ogata-san?”

“I’m a swordsman-”

“—Flesh or steel?”

“What?” Ogata demanded.

“The swords,” he said. “Are they steel, or do they have a foreskin?”

“That’s a rude question,”

“Just being friendly, Ogata-san,”

“I’m not looking for a friend,”

“I’m always looking for a friend,”

“Then you should travel back to Akita,” on his feet, Ogata snatched up the saucer and reached the pail’s rope handle.

Genji fixed his boot upon the pail.

“Leave the water,”

“Remove your foot,” Ogata demanded.

“I said, leave the water, please,”

Ogata retreated a step before letting out a sigh.

“Why are you cutting up all this wood?”

“Something to do,” he replied.

Ogata turned back to the house, “If you’re bored, you should’ve gone down to Hakodate with the rest of them,”

“You’re a nice hostess,” Genji said and began petting the cat. “You know how to entertain a guest with idle hands,”

Ogata stopped a moment, before proceeding to the house.

After getting his fill of the water, Genji returned to the porch with the cat on his heels. He put the pail down so that she could duck her head and lap up what was left, but Ogata came and snatched it.

“I don’t allow her contact with our dishes,”

“She’s a mouser,” said Genji. “Part of your household,”

“You know nothing about this household,”

“You’re a private man, I can see that about you,” Genji declared as the man walked away. “Let’s begin again, Ogata-san,”

Ogata turned in the genkan.

“You ask me anything,” Genji held up his hand and spread his fingers. “And for every five questions I answer, you answer just one of mine,”

“I’m to oblige you with drink and food,” he said. “Nothing more, Tanigaki Matagi,”

“Lord Hijikata’s exact words were, tend to my comfort,” said Genji, patting the space beside him. “Conversation makes me comfortable,”

“How did Akita end up with so many Matagi?” Ogata sat on the far step. “I thought you’re all from Iida,”

“Matagi didn’t really exist before the Genpei War,”

“That’s not a complete answer,” Ogata brought his knees to his chest and hugged them. “Please elaborate on your answer to my first question, Tanagaki,”

“After the final fight between the Heike and Genji, about a thousand Heike fled to Shinshu," he said, amused enough to explain. “Some migrated to Niigata, and some went further north to Nikko.”

A breeze caught the hem of Ogata’s robe, giving Genji an unobstructed view of his wares.

“My direct ancestors went farther north and settled in Ani,” he was unable to look away from that mess of pubic hair. “About a hundred years ago now,”

“Your people hunt bears?” asked Ogata.

“Only those with the biggest balls hunt black bears,” he averted his gaze and scratched the cat behind her ears. “Most hunt serow, their hides are more profitable, and their meat tastes better,”

“I met a squid fisherman once,” said Ogata. “He wore a serow horn around his neck for good luck,”

“My mother takes all our horns to port, trades them for stonefish,” he made a point to noticeably refrain from looking at him. “The bear hunters, their wives sell gall bladders for top coin,”

Ogata picked up on his discomfort and upon realizing the impropriety, quickly brought his knees down.

“When was your first hunt, Tanigaki?”

“I followed the hunters around when I was eight. If they caught me, they whipped my ass, but after a while, they couldn’t catch me,” Genji looked into his eyes. “A couple years later, I went into the mountains with my father and my brother. You don’t get a spear or a rifle, until you can read the land,”

“Read the land,” Ogata raised a finger. “That’s not a question, Tanigaki, it’s an observation,”

“I learned by looking,” he laughed. “And before you ask, yes, we have our own language. The old-timers believed that animals understood our language, so they made up new words,”

“This one has selective hearing,” Ogata snatched up the cat and held her tight. “Do you still live at home with your family?”

He shook his head, “My mother put me out with the berries, years ago,”

“What?”

“Mother bears lead their older cubs to the wild berry fields, and while they’re eating, she runs off,” he explained. “Matagi women, they put their sons out when its time, and won’t take them back, ever,”

“That is a strange rifle,”

“It’s a Snider,” he said. “Got it from the British,”

“Is that Snider what you’re selling the Republic?”

“That’s your fifth question,” he said, as Ogata released the cat. “Yes, we’re selling Lord Hijikata a crate of these,”

“How’d you get them?”

“You don’t get a sixth question yet,” he shook his head. “It’s my turn,”

“That’s fair I suppose,”

He scooted closer, “What are you doing here, Ogata-san?”

“I live here,”

“That’s not a complete answer,” he countered. “Please elaborate on your answer,”

“What you want to ask is what happened to me,” Ogata narrowed his eyes. “I was on the Kaiten when we rammed the Kotetsu,”

His stomach turned at the thought.

“When we boarded, the Army let loose their Gatling,” Ogata spread his robe slightly, revealing a band of scar tissue under his chest. “I was struck too many times to count. My parry is limited to close combat for now,”

“What happened to your face?” he asked.

“I bashed it on the steamer’s hull on my fall overboard,” Ogata folded his arms over his chest. “I’m here until the tendons in my back heal,”

“To answer the first of your second set of five questions,” said Genji. “We acquired the guns from the Imperial Army, when they returned my brother’s body to Ani,”

Ogata swallowed hard and gazed at the swaying trees.

“His body was left at Bonari Pass,” Genji added. “Officials considered him an innocent bystander selling pelts in the wrong place at the wrong time,”

He nodded, “That’s why Toshizou left him there-”

“—So, you were at Bonari?” Genji snapped.

“You don’t get a question yet,” he barked. “But I’ll answer it, anyway. I wasn’t there, but Toshizou wouldn’t leave an ally behind. He was likely thinking-”

“—you weren’t there, you can’t speak to his thoughts,”

“I know what he thinks because I know him-”

“—Like a good wakashū?”

“Tread lightly, Tanigaki Matagi!”

“I’m bordering on disrespect, I apologize,” hands up, Genji moved away from him. “Please, ask your next four questions-”

“—nine questions,” he said. “I replied to your second question that was asked out of turn,”

Genji grinned, “You’re far too sly for the likes of Hijikata,”

“I’m an educated man, Tanigaki,”

“We’re all educated these days,” said Genji. “Emperor insists that common men read, write, and count, if they wish to be counted,”

Ogata wanted to speak, yet he held back.

“I wonder,” Genji baited. “If the notion of farmers and hunters acquiring an education is what really scares the Samurai class,”

“We’re loyal to the Emperor, Tanigaki!”

“That’s why you created this Republic of Ezo,”

“Ezo isn’t about usurping the Emperor,”

“Tokugawa was trouble from the moment he stepped down,” Genji argued. “When he didn’t get a place at the Emperor’s table with those rich bastards from Satsuma, he showed his ass and was beaten for it,”

“You’re well apprised of political matters for a Matagi,”

“I told you, I’m an educated man,” said Genji. “The kind of man the Emperor needs for a future Japan,”

Ogata cracked, “A drone willing to die for the oligarchy,”

“You pro-shogunates want to live in this little bubble that lets you remain above the every-man,” said Genji. “With no real responsibility except picking up a sword or a gun, well that’s our job now,”

“If we’re so repugnant to an educated soldier like you,” he said. “Then why sell us guns?”

Genji turned, “Eight questions left,”

“I’m through playing this game,” he was already in the genkan.

“Please, Ogata-san,”

He reeled about, “What!”

“Why are you yelling at me?”

“You don’t get another question!”

“You said we were finished,”

His eyes narrowed, “You’re antagonizing me,”

“You keep staring at my gun,” said Genji. “Would you like to handle it?”

Ogata softened before returning to the porch.

“I’ve only ever fired revolvers,”

Genji grinned, “Never handled anything long and thick?”

“I’m an expert blade master, Tanigaki Matagi,”

“I wasn’t talking about steel,” Genji loudly removed the cartridge, catching his attention. “Here, take it,”

Ogata hesitated before taking hold of the rifle.

“It’s heavy,” he whispered, taking aim.

Genji pushed the barrel down, “Please,”

“It’s not loaded,” he said.

“For a Matagi, it’s bad luck to point your gun at others,” Genji explained. “We don’t even point sticks at each other,”

Ogata mused, “Explains why none of you were ever swordsman,”

“If you can’t stand with it aimed,” Genji reclined and then rolled onto his stomach. “You can lie down, or sit,”

“It can be fired while lying down?” he asked, joining him.

“Sharpshooters lay on their bellies, marksmen sit in the trees,” said Genji. “Men like that can stay still for hours until it’s time to pull the trigger,”

Ogata laid upon the wood and with elbows fixed to the planks, aimed the gun. The front continued to dip, so Genji grabbed the barrel and laid beneath it.

“Let my chest hold the weight while you set your target to the knock,” he said.

Quickly, Ogata moved away.

“What did I do now?” he asked.

Ogata set the gun his feet, “You’ve gotten too familiar,”

“Rules of familiarity apply only to women-”

“—and wakashū,” he snapped.

“I teased you earlier,” Genji couldn’t help but laugh. “But I never thought you were an actual wakashū,”

Ogata scowled, “Not all wakashū are little boys,”

“That young Ichimura,” Genji rolled onto his feet. “He’s what I imagine is a wakashū,”

“Tetsunosuke’s a page,” he snapped. “Nothing more,”

“Weren’t you Lord Hijikata’s page?”

“When it was time to pick up a sword,” he said. “I ceased being his page-”

“-Is that when you ceased being his wakashū?”

If Ogata’s eyes were spears, Genji would’ve been dead.

“You know nothing about my life,”

“It’s clear to everyone,” Genji stepped into him. “That old Hijikata’s replaced one n’suke for another,”

Firm fingers caught him across the chin.

Shocked by his actions, Ogata stepped away.

“Forgive me, Tanigaki-”

“—The fault is mine,” Genji shoved a cartridge back into the rifle as Ogata took a fearful step back. He held the Snider out to him. “Take this to the woods, I’ll remain here on the porch,”

“This is ridiculous,”

Deftly, Genji swung the rifle around him, and catching the barrel with his other hand, trapped Ogata. One tug brought their bodies and lips together until Ogata shoved at him and tumbled backward onto the veranda.

“How dare you!” he exclaimed.

“Your body growls like an empty stomach,”

“You keep your distance!” he warned.

“That’s not what you want, not what you need,”

Ogata jumped to his feet and raised his fists.

“When was the last time he touched you?” Genji backed him into a wooden beam. “Not a slap on the arm, or fingers in your hair. When was the last time his cock found you in the dark?”

Ogata pushed past him, “You know nothing!”

“Why aren’t you with him now?”

Ogata rushed into the house, “Stop following me!”

Genji stabbed the gun barrel between Ogata’s shins and sent him stumbling to the floor. The fallen man turned to find Genji over him like a wave.

“They say a man that watches his woman bear a child, never mounts her gain,” he whispered against Ogata’s lips. “He stopped wanting you when he watched them sew up your face, watched them pull those bullets from your ribs,”

Ogata growled and slithered out from beneath him.

“You stopped being his lover,” Genji taunted from his knees. “The moment he had to hold a bottle to your cock and collect your piss on the recovery cot!”

Faster than light, Ogata turned with a sword in his hand.

“You’re being neglected by a man that no longer sees your worth on the futon,” Genji stood and slowly walked toward him. “All he sees is another comrade in arms, and comrades can’t be compromised with affection,”

A tear fell down Ogata’s cheek.

“You’re nothing but his housekeeper,” Genji goaded. “Cleaning his robes, scrubbing his floors, and cooking his meals,”

Ogata pointed the sword, “You know nothing!”

“I know that every night you lay here alone, with only your hands to comfort you,” he whispered. “I think it’s a crime, denying a man like you,”

Ogata lowered the sword, “Please, just go-”

“—You deserve a man that wants you as you are now, passionate, bold, and fierce. Full of magnificent scars, testaments to your bravery,” he was close enough to reach for him. “I want to taste every part of you that’s broken,”

Genji felt something akin to a bee sting beneath his eye.

“I’m sorry, Matagi,” Ogata gasped.

Stunned, Genji brought his fingers to the tiny cut on his upper right cheek. Ogata dropped the blade when Genji took him by the back of his neck, kissing him hard before shoving him at the wall.

“Batten down the amado, Ogata-san,” he stepped out into the wind. “Late summer rain in Ezo is frighteningly cold,”

***

No rainstorm could camouflage the barrage of a Gatling.

Thunder shook the floor beneath him, booming several times before he realized that no lightning had come before or after.

Beyond his front door loomed a merciless wall of water. There was no time for shoes or an overcoat. Through the downpour he reached the edge of the property and found a jumbled medley of chaos on the isthmus below.

“Toshizou!” sword in hand, Hyaku dashed toward the road.

Rain stung him as he sloshed though deepening veins of russet water. An unseen hole tripped him up, driving him into the mud.

Suddenly, he lost his katana to a sliver of water that carried it into the trees. He clamored after it, a chance to reclaim it earned when the blade became caught under an exposed root.

Arms out, he slid on his chest and closed the distance between them. Fingertips grazed the black band upon his hilt, until he collided with the tree.

Soil melted beneath him, plunging him downward upon a torrent of mud. His back and legs battered by grounded tree roots, the ravine awarded a soft landing.

Distant rifle fire snapped amidst the pounding of canons.

Everything was lost; his entire life wasted on a man and his cause with nothing to show for his work but a damaged body and a broken heart.

No more tears to cry, Hyakunosuke Ogata crawled out of the ravine and fell onto the cold grass.

A line of white smoke drifted in the trees overhead.

It was likely his nation, coming to collect the bill for his part in the failed uprising. Pleading love wouldn't save him from seppuku, but they’d have to gut him before he’d admit to never loving Hijikata Toshizou.

He followed the cloud to an abandoned Ainu kotan, and found every home in a state of disrepair. Smoke drifted from a roof gap in the smallest, where a stretched hide beckoned in the doorway.

Inside a fire raged within the centered square of sand, and draped over a discarded loom was a familiar set of clothes. Rifle standing against the wall, the Matagi sat naked upon a bed of bearskin covered reeds.

Hyaku’s teeth chattered enough to drown out his voice, but drawn to his heat, he walked to him and stared down into his dark brown eyes.

Tanigaki wrapped his arms around Hyaku’s legs and peeled away the sodden kimono.

His body covered by the Matagi’s, every touch led to something Hyaku craved deeply enough that Ezo’s demise became an afterthought.

Through the window came the rain, a lone witness to their strange dance. A pair of snakes, they moved upon one another, kissing and caressing until their passion made a mess of the bearskin.

Hyaku watched the Matagi pull on his pants.

“You should leave and never return,”

“Nakamura sold my clan the house,” he said, stepping into his boots.

“It’s my house,” he whispered, desperate to scratch his nails gently through the Matagi’s chest hair.

“No, it’s my house, Ogata-san,” strong hands rolled him over and pulled him up to sit. “You’re part of my house, that makes you mine,”

Carried across Tanigaki’s back like a skinned pelt, Hyaku slept on the walk back to their home.