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calling out in the dark

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Private First Class Ariko’s handsome face is swelling up something awful.

Usami might have curling lashes and soft lips like a woman but his fists had hit harder than anyone Kikuta has seen. A Russian would seem gentle in comparison, and Ariko had suffered the brunt of it.

“This look suits you better,” Usami comments with no small amount of pleasure as he throws Ariko’s father’s makiri into the air, catching it again and again. Ariko looks away from the provocation, not uttering a word. Tied tight to a chair with his hands bound behind him, there is nothing he can do anyway.

Perhaps it is regret that makes Kikuta reach out to wipe away the trail of blood seeping from Ariko’s split lip, but the other man flinches back like Kikuta had struck him too. Kikuta’s hand falls heavy to his side. “Easy there, Ariko,” he murmurs, having seen the wince that had flashed over the other man’s face. The sudden motion must have pulled at his strained neck.

“I’ll leave you two lovebirds,” Usami sneers, stalking out of the room and closing the sliding doors behind him. No doubt the superior private would listen in from the other side, but Kikuta doesn’t care.

Leaning in close, putting them almost cheek to cheek, Kikuta braces his hands on Ariko’s shoulders and whispers. “You should have told me.”

“I couldn’t have,” Ariko mumbles, his speech slurred by bitten tongue and swollen gums. “I’m sorry.”

He’s sorry. Apologies don’t cut it when one messes up this badly but Kikuta’s not holding a grudge; he’s nursing another deep wound of regret.

Ariko had saved him back then in the trenches, his voice the only thing that kept Kikuta clinging onto a steadily fraying thread of hope. Maybe if Kikuta keeps talking now, he’d be able to do the same, but he doubts it. It's too little, too late. The first lieutenant will be back anytime soon with the skins and then Ariko will be in Hijikata’s hands, forever looking over his shoulder as the shadow of Tsurumi’s threats stalk him.

Kikuta turns his head, brushing his lips against the swelling flesh of Ariko’s cheek as he traces gently along the scar that indents his skin. Ariko twitches slightly at the caress, his brow knitting and his shoulders tensing beneath Kikuta’s hands, but he doesn’t make any sound other than a sharply indrawn breath. “We’ll meet again,” Kikuta murmurs.

It’s a promise; it’s a threat. Kikuta doesn’t know which until Tsurumi paints the targets for his guns.

He straightens just in time for the first lieutenant’s arrival, the drag of the shouji doors announcing his presence. “Ariko!” Tsurumi crows, holding up the bundle of skins and presenting it to the private first class with flourish. Usami is right behind him, smiling his wide, doll’s smile as he rounds them both and gets to work freeing Ariko. The superior private handles the knife with deliberate carelessness, and the makiri slices through Ariko’s palm and fingers just as easily as it slices through the rough ropes.

“Oh dear,” Tsurumi tuts, withholding the skins until Kikuta takes off his scarf and presses it into Ariko’s cupped, bloody hands. “We wouldn’t want to mess up the tattoos.”

Ariko’s eyes are getting too swollen to make out where’s he’s looking, but Kikuta thinks he might have glanced at him. “Yes sir.”

They throw him out of the window.

In the cold aftermath, Kikuta picks up the bloodied scarf from the chair, where Ariko had left it together with his father’s makiri. He can feel Tsurumi’s gaze on him, heavy like the press of a knife along his bared throat. Usami is watching too, the whites of his eyes showing around his irises, his fists clenching in anticipation of another blow.

“Warrant Officer Kikuta.”

Kikuta shakes the scarf out before straightening and meeting Tsurumi’s eyes. “Sir?”

Outside the shattered window, the wind howls and drowns out the shouts of Tsurumi’s pursuing men, and with it, any traces of Ariko’s voice.

“It has been an eventful night. Shall we retire?”