Several days later…
The group of six arrived in yet another new town, this one much more bustling than any fringe settlement with its three-storey hotels, post office, bank, theatre house and even a racehorse track. The party was spoilt for choice - if only they had the money to indulge in such extracurricular activities and weren’t fresh from finding the latest tattoo just over eighteen hours ago. Disregarding the win, Shiraishi was of course the first to shamelessly ask for spending money from the newest addition who seemed to have bottomless pockets. To the surprise of the others, she had handed the ex-con a tidy sum along with a strip of the newspaper she had bought from a paper-boy broadcasting what he was selling as soon as they arrived in the early afternoon.
Handing over a selection of coins, she informed Shiraishi to place a bet on a specific horse and gave him a charge for his time and effort. Except, it wouldn’t be much effort as the man in question was heading straight for the tracks even without her request. Sugimoto, Tanigaki and Asirpa were going to sell the dried organs, antlers and pelts they’d accumulated over the last few days, and then find a place for them to stay. Ogata said he was going to scout the town to find the nearest escape points just in case they happened to come across any soldiers but his plans were dowsed by his suspicion when the newest addition informed them that she was making a trip to the mail-office.
Splitting up into three groups, the party of six agreed to meet on the side-street facing the town bank at 3pm. If there happened to be any altercations or unforeseeable incidents, they should back-track and go South, rather than their intended direction and then meet up in one of the fishing villages to avoid being chased down an obvious route.
Following the woman rather than walking with her, Ogata shadowed the blonde like an obnoxious spy - he really did nothing to hide the fact he was tailing her down the thoroughfare filled with people inspecting the well put-together stores and street vendors. Fed up to the point her body involuntarily halted and her arms flung up, she pointed at the first thing she came to to mess up his timing. The woman told the seller that she would take one without even looking at what ‘one’ was just to glare at the man who had unintentionally caught up as he was more interested in the upper portions of the surrounding buildings.
“Hah!” She shoved her hand out and jabbed the man in the chest with a long nail. “Not so smart now, are you?”
Expression unchanging bar a raised brow for what was being held out to his company by the store-owner, Ogata grunted. “Why would you buy that?”
“What I buy is none of your busin-”
Eyes horrifically wide and muscles stiff, Sen glanced to her purchase. Practically pushed into the hands at her chest, the woman was left with a warm sooty ball of fine-haired fluff, it’s left eye mostly shut due to what seemed to be a birth deformity.
“Oh, no.” She held the animal back towards the seller, but even the set-up had gone. “No, no, no, no - I don’t fucking think so!” Head thrashing from side to side, eyes wild and her untamed hair whipping her skin, she looked for the man who had just done a runner while she was distracted.
“You really are selective of which defects you take to, aren’t you?”
Scowling, Sen bit at the growing gap between them as Ogata began to walk away. “What it looks like has nothing to do with it - the fact I hate cats is the issue.” She opened her mouth to unabashedly yell a string of colourful curses after her company but all that came out was a high-pitched ‘Atchooo-oouhah~’.
Ogata, and half of the thoroughfare, stopped what they were doing to see what the obscure noise was. He pinched his lips at the streaming eyes and quivering full lips split on the bottom left. The woman he was quickly beginning to think was immutable twitched and snotted on herself while the animal a little smaller than her palm padded at the breasts it was almost snuffed out by. To think that she was outdone by a kitten.
Backtracking, he jut his chin at the female and held his nose in the air. “You could sell it.”
Pinching the bundle weighing less than her gloves by the scruff of its neck, she held it up to her watering eye-line. “I guess we could always eat it.”
“What?” The sniper swiped the animal out of her grasp and turned his shoulder away when her line of sight caught up with him. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Well, I can’t keep it - for multiple reasons - and it does have more meat than a squirrel.”
“You’re a monster.”
“Hey, considering I can’t hold it without sniffling and coughing like I have the White Plague, and you like to keep your distance but follow me anyway, you hold onto it.” Without waiting for an answer, Sen set off walking further down the street.
“Where are y-HAH? You can’t leave me with this-wait, where are you going?”
“My intention was to send two letters, so the post office, obviously.”
“What about the kitten?”
“That isn’t anything to do with me any more - you took it, so now it’s your problem.”
“You can’t just buy things and then hand them off to abandon your responsibility.”
“Isn’t that just what life is right now?” Opening the post office door but not quite going through, she stared down at the sniper from atop of the single step. “Fantastical tales are made real by the amount of people who put their lives on the line, and then those lives become currency at one point or another, right? People who risk everything are eventually abandoned by those who bought them via one method or another.”
Staring up and then glowering away when he didn’t like the expression he got in return, Ogata slinked past a young family of three trying to avoid their open dispute in a confined public space.
The young man behind the counter peered up to get an eye-full of inappropriately uncovered breasts. “W-what can I d-do for you…?”
Making matters even more tense for the poor employee, Sen brazenly pulled a slip of paper from the fold of her shirt and slapped it on the top workspace. “I need to send two letters immediately.” Pausing when the weight on her back was enough to irk her, the foreigner glared over her shoulder. Standing up straight and pushing the ex-soldier back in the process, she returned her attention to her company. “I really have no issue reading what I have to say so can you back the Hell up until I’m finished? You’re hurting me, sending the employee into a fit, and fucking up my handwriting.”
Gripping her free hand, Ogata dragged the woman around to see her face. “You knew where the 7th were going to be, but you gave a head-start of where the tattoos were to the Immortal. You called me by a name only those in the military would know yet you’re out here trying to play big sister to the Ainu kid.” Hips pressed against hers, his weight pushing Sen’s back into the sharp edge of the counter, Ogata stared the woman in the eyes as his voice came out low. “Are you a spy for Lieutenant Tsurumi?”
Tilting her chin up and looking down her nose with a lop-sided smirk, Sen’s breasts pushed against her company’s chest when she took a long, slow breath. “What if I am?”
“Then you’re a dead-woman-” Before he could grip the strap of his rifle, Sen had snatched the weapon and yanked it towards her torso.
When his first attempt was left wanting the desired result, calloused hands shoved her aside and reached for the metal envelope opener left out on the counter. Swinging the narrow blade, Ogata managed to slash the woman’s outer forearm when she held it up to defend her face. Snagging the front of his jacket, she threw her head forward out of habit. Forehead connecting with his hairline from the bad angle, the woman stepped onto her back-foot as Ogata tumbled back into one of the waiting chairs.
Hissing, Sen swiped her forehead with her inner wrist, her sinuses stinging from the attack which probably did her more damage than it did the man. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re quicker than I am, Wildcat.” Aligning the rifle with her company’s heart, she pulled back the bolt of the stolen weapon and raised her head to see the man past the sight-line. “Just because we may have crossed paths, doesn’t mean I’m beholden to that man. I mean, you saw me murder a man in broad daylight and didn’t tell on me. You even helped me carry dead stags up a mountain, and now you’ve been following me around all day and I’m not asking you to marry me.”
“Are you here to relay information to the Lieutenant?”
“Hah?” Quirking her brow with a slack jaw, Sen scoffed. “Even if he paid me to do that, I’m not his dog; he has plenty of those from your ranks.”
“Then why did you approach us that night?”
“For the reason I told you. I was following those poachers and I initially thought you were them.”
“I just can’t trust you.”
“I never asked you to. But at the same time, I really don’t see how that’s my problem when I’m the one with your gun and I know from many of the 7th Division’s tellings that you’re more useless than a wet piece of paper when it comes to hand-to-hand combat...which I happen to excel at. So, that leaves us at a very one-sided stand-off, doesn’t it?”
"Is that how you messed up your ribs, being proficient at hand-tohand combat?"
"My ribs are like this because some men can't understand when they're being warned about danger."
"Is that why you're constantly on the edge of snapping? Did they break you in one after the other like a wild horse, or is it because they didn't?"
Snorting a gentle scoff but knuckles turning white around the weapon, Sen's brow flickered. "You're awfully cocky for someone with a gun to their chest and a murderer on the trigger. I'd ask if you were just that brave or if you're just looking for an easy way out because you're unable to do it yourself, but I think we both know the answer to that."
“So, what now? 'You going to shoot me and run?”
“I could, but what would that bring me but trouble? Trouble from the law, trouble from that bone-head so-called immortal, just trouble all around, I guess.” Poking her tongue out to wet her lips, the foreigner grinned. “Besides, I find it a waste to kill intelligent men, especially when I find them attractive and potentially useful.”
“I feel like I should be flattered.”
“Regardless of how you take it, I want to know that if I lower this gun and let you go, you won’t try to get revenge.”
“And if I say I will?”
“I won’t make the retaliation quick.”
“What say we make our own deal concerning this little adventure?”
“What could you possibly offer me that I couldn’t get all by myself?”
“What do you want?”
“I want everything I want…in due time.”
“I knew there was something different about you when I saw you stab that man a few nights back. You weren’t remorseful, nor were you a lunatic out for a fix. You were bloodthirsty though. I knew it as soon as I saw your face. That look in your eyes when you snuffed him out - you enjoyed seeing him suffer.” When the woman didn’t give him a verbal reply, Ogata sniggered and returned to a relaxed posture, one hand up lazily by his chest as the other wiped blood from his forehead before swiping his hair back off his face. “You really are wicked, aren’t you?”
“I suppose that depends on who you ask.” Sniffling her nose clear of the city dust kicked up by horse-drawn carts and wares-sellers that had seeped into the wooden building since its construction, Sen returned the bolt to neutral and tossed the rifle back to its owner in an underhand motion. “Now, can I finish writing my letters without you shooting me in the back?”
Startled by the return of his weapon, Ogata didn’t say a word to the female as she went back to her task. The glower he gave the employee on the other hand was enough of a warning to make the worker’s legs give way. Whether it was the look on the young man’s face Ogata had seen a million times before - the face of a coward about to run screaming for help - or the intermittent glances to the exposed cleavage of his company, nobody could be sure.
Completing her messages, she tapped the top of the scuffed worktop with her nail to garner the attention of the worker. “This one has to go out right now - I want to see you send a runner.”
Amongst the man’s spluttering call for a runner, Ogata cooed up to the ceiling while leaning back in the chair he’d fallen into during the attack. “’You keeping in touch with an equally psychotic lover?”
“Would you be jealous if I was?”
“Not especially. I’m just curious about what makes someone like you want to rush things along.”
“Somebody very dangerous is holding the last person I love hostage.”
Back instinctively straightening and muscles taut, the sniper hummed as his inspection of the rafters fell to the female handing over more than was necessary for the postal fee. “Hehhhh~ so there is a beating heart in the well-overdeveloped chest of yours?”
“I’ve known her for a long time. She has always helped me when I needed it and I made a promise to her a long time ago. No matter the circumstance, I don’t intend to go back on my word with anyone if I can help it: not with you, certainly not with her, ever.”
“I didn’t expect you to be into the weaker sex.”
“Bar yourself, I’ve never met a woman who would metaphorically - let alone physically - stand up against their designated fate.” Flicking dirt from under his nails, Ogata quirked his brow. “It wouldn’t surprise me if you really were in league with Tsurumi; he has a way at finding the exact course of action to coerce people who are good at disarming and manipulating people on his behalf and you're just his cup. You’re really quite the commodity.”
“Then why don’t you just sell me off now while we’re in a trading town?”
“Don’t tempt me. I’m broke.”
“Do you want me to buy you some shaved ice? Perhaps a kite or a paper ball?”
“Are you mocking me?”
“Yeah, but if you actually were hungry, I wouldn't see you starve.”
“I’m not sure whether I want to shoot you or...” The back end of his sentence faded out as they headed out of the door and he advanced straight down the thoroughfare.
“Do murderous snipers even like sweet things?”
“No. we survive off the blood of our enemies," the nasally tone stuck between the pair only separated by a handspan. "Besides, is there even such a thing as a non-murderous sniper? Or even a non-murderous soldier of any kind in this day and age, for that matter.”
“Ouh, fish-cake sticks.” Making a B-line for the singular hut on the corner of a side-street, the woman practically drooled as she gazed upon the skewers simmering in silky golden broth. “A dozen mixed in two trays, please.” Handing over a little more than was priced, the woman's calloused hands took the flimsy hot tray as quickly as the store-owner had finished the order. Makig a dash despite her legs aching after the non-stop travel over the last several days, Sen had caught up with the ex-soldier. “Here,” she nudged him with her elbow, already half-mouthful into the first skewer. “Ah, ah-ha-ha-hotttt~”
“Did you not learn how to eat while you were up in those mountains?”
“I did, but I’ve always been unable to handle hot food. I’m hungry, so I’ll suffer.” Gnashing her teeth and trying to suck in air to cool the mushed food in her mouth, the slightly older woman vibrated from the discomfort. “I did grow up in luxury before living in the mountains, y’know? It was a long time ago, but I do remember the foods cooked in butter and herbs, salted and spiced meats, and rich confections - oh Gods, I miss cheese more than you could even begin to comprehend.” Writhing in the pleasure the memory brought back, the taller female was on the verge of orgasmic groaning before she snapped back to an appropriate manner. “I get sick of eating wild plants, berries and animal innards day after day. Fresh food is the best but after days of hunting and hours of butchering, you sit down to eat and you don’t even feel the appetite for it any more. I refuse to just throw it out, so at points it’s like a form of torture to force myself to eat it.”
Scrunching his face, the sniper accepted the street-food and managed to eat the first of five skewers without any issue. “Do you miss living like that? Soft beds, hot baths and being waited on?”
“The food, occasionally; the siblings I shared a mother with, every day…Everything else that went with that kind of life, I could live a thousand life-times over without any issue.”
“I guess no matter where we come from or what kind of family we were born into, some things are the same no matter what. Although, I was an only child for a long time - or at least, I thought I was.” Eyes not on the high rooftops for the first time since they’d hit the hub, Ogata nipped tiny bits off one of the fishballs and fed it to the kitten riding inside his uniform jacket.
“I heard a little about it. It was a rough deal for you.”
“No shit it was.”
“I understand where your feelings could have come from in a situation like that. When my father remarried a woman who already had kids the same age as my sister and I, and he chose her eldest son as his heir, I couldn’t feel anything other than betrayal on my mother’s behalf and a sense of abandonment for my older brothers who had been classed as missing in action. They weren’t even officially dead.”
“But what did you feel for yourself?”
“Hm,” she glanced up to the surprisingly blue sky mostly cleared of its dark grey clouds in thought, “he always put me down for not being genteel enough and told me all that my pinnacle of being would to be somebody’s wife and the mother of sons who would carry on our bloodline. That just wasn’t enough for me, even as a kid - it made me angrier the older I got. I enjoyed climbing trees and horse-riding, and adventuring, and I often got into scraps with the young sons of my father’s friends during social gatherings which got me caned at least once a week.”
“I can see it. Some wily snowball ripping through your overly-privileged household, doing nothing but causing trouble.”
“I never hated him for disciplining me. I mean, I was told from the very beginning what was expected of me and what was unacceptable, and he was the head of the family who had a very severe reputation to uphold. But when he told me without any misunderstandings that I never could nor would be something in my own right…I resented him for it. With what he did to my mother and siblings, trampling on the only memories I had of them and replacing them so quickly with such abhorrent people forced to be called my new family…I really couldn’t abide it. He was the first person I hated. The first person I really felt any serious volatile emotion towards was my own father.”
“Do you think he hated you?”
“I don’t know and honestly, I don’t care enough to give a second thought about it. But just for you, I’ll ask him when I see him.”
“He’s still alive?”
“Why do you sound so surprised?”
“I just brushed off the idea as if you’d already killed him.”
Chuckling, Sen’s eyes glittered at the stores selling potions, perfumes, fabrics and consumables from all over the country and as far as her homeland. “In all due time.”
“You know, there’s no coming back from that.” Munching on the last of the afforded snack, the sniper tossed his head aside with first-hand knowledge.
“Do you regret it-” Glancing to her right, Sen’s face morphed into that of a guardian demon when she saw Ogata chewing his free food without a hitch for the temperature. “Agh, never mind. Screw you for showing off,” shoving an entire stick of fishcakes into her mouth and scraping off its contents with her teeth, the blonde’s alabaster skin turned red and perspiration beaded down her face and chest in the instance they hit her tongue, “asshole.”
Munching away comfortably on the food he didn’t have to pay for, Ogata strode as far as his short legs would allow, his uniform giving him a free-pass through crowds. “You’re actually sweating. How much are you adverse to someone doing something better than you?” He glanced away to scout the tops of the buildings close together and no more than fifteen seconds later, he turned around to see his company with her cheeks full and her skin chilli-paste-red. “You look like you’re going to choke.”
“Ah cahn takch ehht…”
Spluttering at the double entendre, the man stopped in front of a tea shop and ordered the woman serving. As soon as she was passed the refreshment, he set off again.
Eyes shooting between the ordered brew and the man’s back quickly disappearing through the crowd, Sen ground her teeth and clenched her fists. Not wanting to waste the thing she would be unable to drink unless she waited another fifteen minutes for it to cool down, she handed it to a passing beggar, paid, and gave chase after the man making her life more difficult than it already was.
At the same time, Sugimoto, Tanigaki and Asirpa had sold the their intended goods, getting a pretty penny for the stag antlers and bear gallbladders especially. Literally rolling down the street with bags of coins, the trio bumped into an unexpected gathering. Selling her niche, a young woman dressed in traditional Ainu clothing tossed tiny animal bones down on a bright woven rug as she rested a slender animal skull on the crown of her own. Thick hair flicking her cheeks when she turned her head in recollection for the passing group, the diviner finished her telling the fortune she was paid for and bid her customer - and the potentials - farewell.
“Ah, Tanigaki Nispa, Sugimoto Nispa, and little Asirpa.”
“Inkarmat San!” Tanigaki bent over to bow and half of the bag on his back spilled in front of the woman. “I’m so sorry-”
“No, it’s fine, don’t wor-” Grasping at the belongings, Inkarmat’s hand grabbed a thin pipe. The older Ainu pulled back with a deep scowl and stood up, instinctively backing away from the item. “The person that belongs to is in grave danger.”
“Ah,” Asirpa scraped up the collective mess as the two men listened to the woman, “that’s Sen Sapo’s things.”
“Who is Sen?”
Springing up, the little girl stuffed the wooden cases, glass vials and slender pipe into the tanned deer-skin pouch they’d fallen out of. “She’s the poacher-hunter we met on the mountain a few days ago. Uh, they aren’t her two jobs - she was hunting poachers.”
“If she had white hair, you’ve picked up even more trouble.”
“Why would you ask that?”
“Is she going to betray us?”
“If you want to ask a question, sit down and we’ll see what the ancestors want you to know.”
“I’m not playing, Inkarmat.” Sugimoto grabbed the front of the woman’s traditional dress only for Tanigaki to grip his fellow soldier’s wrist and pull tighter still.
“Don’t take your anger out on others, Sugimoto.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry.” Turning to the woman he’d manhandled, Sugimoto looked away with furrowed brows. “I’m not usually like this. I didn’t mean to hurt you, I’m sorry.”
“I understand, you have an aggravating issue amongst you. It’s going to be hard from here on out, but you can’t lose the favour of that stranger.”
“I just want to know whether she’s going to betray us.”
“Ossu!” Hand smacking down on Asirpa’s shoulder, the little girl bouldered into the diviner due to the force of the greeting.
Turning around ready to scold the interruption, Asirpa was met not only Shiraishi, but the sniper and the stranger apparently just that moment recognizing the congregating group as they came from the opposite direction of the ex-convict. Turning her attention back to Inkarmat, the youngest gestured to the approaching female.
“That’s Scat-King," she pinched the ex-convict's growing beard and then pointed to the pair covered in mud. "Ogata and Sen Sapo are here too.”
Inspecting the tall female ambling beside her shorter company wearing the standard military uniform, the pair of them bickering something about nonsense and both bleeding, Inkarmat felt her gut sink.
Updated: 6th October 2020 - 20:54