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1899, winter

The buck that they’re stalking is handsome and well-fed, its body thick with fat and fur. It turns its head lazily as it places one silent hoof after the other, pressing a trail through the powdery snow that blankets the forest floor. Like the firs that surround it, the heavy rack of horns that crowns its head is laden with white.

Thirty paces behind it, hidden behind the broad trunk of a tree, Kikuta’s soulmate raises his bow. An arrow is nocked and balanced on a curled index finger and the side of his thumb gently steadies the shaft. Somewhere out of sight, one of those strong, tanned hands pull the bowstring taut. The oiled bow bends, the strength of the wood surrendering to the guidance of his hand, and it is a testament to his strength that it does not tremble in the slightest.

Everything is silent. Deep in his sleep, Kikuta holds his breath together with his soulmate and counts the spaces between the beats of his heart. The buck bows its head to scrape its horns against a tree, fraying bark in order to mark its territory, but it is oblivious to the arrow aimed straight at its heart—

A muffled thump has Kikuta jolting awake with a gasp and throwing himself into a defensive crouch. Alarm snaps through him when his hands slap against nothing but worn cloth and his own ribs. Where are his guns—

“Ah! I’m sorry!”

“Shit,” Kikuta curses under his breath and slumps when he sees his younger sister’s contrite expression. “No, no, I’m fine.” The thump he’d heard must have been the metal pot being set on the table. Even years after he’d returned to his hometown, any sudden movement or sound is still liable to have him flinching. “Is that nabe? You shouldn’t have been exerting yourself,” Kikuta scolds. There’s a pale sheen to her face that makes him worry.

She just smiles and begins ladling out bowls for both of them. “You looked so happy that I didn’t want to disturb you. A simple hot pot like this isn’t too difficult to make. You worry too much, brother. Now tell me what you dreamt of this time.”

With a fond sigh, Kikuta shuffles up to the kotatsu and slides his cold feet under it. “We were hunting a deer. A big buck, with lots of meat on it. I woke up just as we were taking aim.” Despite his thumping heart, he is unable to wipe the lopsided smile from his face. Every time he closes his eyes and dreams, his heart leaps when he is greeted by new sights instead of the hazy blurs of grey that he’d been dreaming of all his life.

“How is he?” his sister asks, always eager for new information on his soulmate. “He must be freezing out in this weather.”

Outside their small cottage, the wind howls eerily. “It was calmer where he was,” Kikuta muses, taking a deep breath of the rich scent of miso that has permeated the room. “All still and silent, like walking through a photograph.”

He has every confidence that his soulmate is huffing his way back into his village with the weight of a buck over his shoulders right now. Even though the dreams had only sharpened into clarity a few years ago, Kikuta already knows that his soulmate is an excellent shot. There would be raw, fatty liver on his kotan’s table tonight.

“Anyway,” Kikuta says, “he’s Ainu. They know how to take care of themselves.”

The bittersweetness on his tongue must have accidentally seeped into his voice, as his sister’s brown eyes soften with guilt. “You should go find him,” his sister urges. “Go to Hokkaido and climb a few mountains. I can survive by myself for a few months.”

Perhaps he could, one day. But not now.

“I’ll see about that after your headaches get better.” Placing his hands together, he bows his head briefly. “Ittadakimasu!”

 

1900, winter

Ariko never knows for sure when he’d catch his soulmate awake. He wakes early and sleeps early, following the cycle of the sun, but his soulmate’s sleeping schedule seems erratic at best. During the warmer months, Ariko sometimes manages to sleep in late enough to catch his soulmate at work, but winter has come and his bonded no longer toils over the small green field that borders his home. As the days grow shorter and the winds blow harsher, Ariko spends his nights rolled up in furs and warmed by a smouldering fire. His mind, however, flies far away across the mountains.

His soulmate’s insomniac nights are nearly always spent on the veranda of his house, with a thick blanket wrapped around his body and a cigarette perched between his gun-calloused fingers. The bright smoulder of the rolled tobacco is a brilliant orange spark against the monochrome night. When he exhales, it’s a mixture of smoke and crystallised breath, slow to dissipate.

Ariko could watch him breathe smoke forever.

Sometimes his soulmate would sit and gaze at the frozen fields, his vision blurred by his lashes; other times, he would lay down and let the smoke drift up towards the moon, which waxes and wanes with the steady trickle of time.

The cigarette burns slowly, its clumped ashes falling onto the worn wooden planks of the veranda until finally the tobacco is gone. His soulmate would always sweep away the ash diligently, making sure that no traces remain before shuffling back into the warmth of the house.

On rare occasions, Ariko would catch glimpses of his soulmate’s family—a woman with sparkling doe-eyes and kind smile. He’d been despondent after coming to the conclusion that she is his wife. It is not altogether uncommon for things like marriage and age differences to separate soulmates. Thankfully, his limited lip-reading skills later clarified his misapprehension. Seeing her call him “nii-san” had sent such relief crashing through him that he’d woken up.

Ariko had not always been so taken with his soulmate. The realisation that his bonded is a man had been difficult to accept at first. Unless he ignores their bond and marries another, he would have no children. It had been even harder when it became obvious that he is not Ainu. He had never heard of such a thing happening to anyone in his kotan. When he had worked up the courage to share his dreams with his elders, however, they had been gently adamant that the guardian spirits make no mistakes.

It made him grateful that his dreams had come late—so late that for years he had worried that his soulmate had died or had severed the bond through some method he did not know. If he had been younger, more foolhardy and reckless – Ipopte, boiling in an instant – he would have accused his guardian spirit of toying with him.

On those hazy, smoke-filled nights, Ariko feels the heaviness weighing down his soulmate and wonders if any part of him blames Ariko for who he is. That Ariko cannot change, but he aches to comfort him.

 

1901, spring

As the dreams only carry images and not sounds, those who are lucky enough to be educated would write love letters and read them as often as they can, on the off chance that their other half would dream of what they’ve written. Eventually, they would write their names and addresses too so they would finally be able to meet.

It’s another new year and Kikuta still hasn’t gone hiking through the mountains for his soulmate, or tried writing him. The excuses are easy and honest: the land that he must farm, a commonsensical fear of bears, his sister’s worsening health. The salary that Kikuta had earned during the war is rapidly disappearing one bowl of medicine at a time.

If he is honest with himself, if he really dares turn around and reach his hand into the murky waters of his soul—

He’s afraid.

He’s thirty this year. A washed-up veteran. When he closes his eyes, his ears still ring with the sound of gunshots and exploding shells, and in their echo, there’s a scream in the distance. Maybe it’s himself. Maybe it’s tinnitus, like the doctor says. But his heart pumps too fast and he gasps awake in the darkness, his hands sticky with blood that he can’t wipe away.

The silent dreams that he shares with his faraway partner are his only comfort. He relies on them like he relies on rice to keep him alive. His soulmate’s hands are steady on the bow; they wield a knife with lively, youthful energy. It makes Kikuta wish that he still has his guns with him. The warm metal in his hands, weight of the trigger, the energy of the recoil moving through his arms.

But his thoughts are a double-edged sword. What will his soulmate think of him, when he realises that Kikuta had spent years in the trenches blowing men’s brains out the back of their skulls? If man-eating bears are wen kamuy, Kikuta must be a far worse monster. The imagined disgust of his faceless soulmate weighs Kikuta’s bones down with dread as he sits on his reservist papers and waits for another war to begin.

It’s just after the fresh sprouts have been planted that he begins dreaming of his soulmate’s new project. For a while, it takes his mind of his increasingly morose thoughts. There’s something hypnotising about watching his soulmate carve the makiri, always late in the evening and by the light of a fire. For several weeks, Kikuta heads off to bed early in anticipation of what new progress there is to be made.

First is the broad shape of the sheath, sketched out by generous cuts from the wood, before it is formed into a taper and curve. There are two halves to it, each with its insides hollowed out to eventually fit a blade. The hilt is made by halves too, long and shaped to fit against one’s hand.

His soulmate sketches a design into the sheath, outlining lines, notches and curls in beautiful, stylised patterns. Kikuta watches in fascination as the other man lets the tip of his knife bite into the wood again and again, wielding the blade with a delicacy and skill that Kikuta would not have expected from such large hands. Wood shavings curl beneath the edge of his blade and he blows them away, sending them tumbling onto his lap.

“A knife and sheath? Isn’t that what the Ainu make when they want to court a lady?” his cousin comments carelessly when she visits one morning. It earns her a weak smack on the shoulder from his usually mild-tempered sister, but Kikuta’s delight over his soulmate’s skill is already crumbling into a sudden pit of darkness.

How had he forgotten?

“I see,” Kikuta replies stiltedly, leaving the breakfast table despite the rudeness of doing so. “Excuse me.”

“Mokutarou—”

“Leave him be,” his sister warns under her breath. “You’ve said enough.”

The sheath is sanded and oiled until it is gleaming. A beautiful steel blade is fitted into the hilt and sharpened with care, and Kikuta can see his soulmate’s restless excitement as he turns the finished makiri over and over in his hands. Kikuta hates the way his heart shrivels at the sight of it.

He waits for the moment it’d disappear, or if he’s unlucky enough to see it, the moment his soulmate would present it to the woman he intends to marry. For several torturous months his insomnia worsens, now that his dreams have become another facet of his torment. But the makiri still remains, hanging on his soulmate’s hip together with his own. Every so often his soulmate would hold it in both hands and stroke the patterned wood, but that is all that happens.

Gradually, Kikuta’s dread turns to puzzlement, then cautious relief. Guilt comes soon after—had his soulmate been rejected? Despite his selfish longing, Kikuta would not wish his soulmate ill.

Epiphany strikes at midnight, and Kikuta has to muffle himself against his pillow in order to keep his incredulous laughter from waking up his sister. “You fool!” he chides himself, feeling his eyes ache.

The handle of the makiri is too large to fit a woman’s hand. His soulmate had made it for him.

 

1902, winter

When the army comes to their kotan asking for help, Ariko snatches the opportunity and volunteers. More than a hundred men in the 5th infantry regiment have been estimated to have perished in a training exercise on the Hakkoda mountains but there is still a chance that there are survivors. If they move fast, several may be saved.

Ariko’s father grouses and tries to talk him out of the expedition, but he is determined. With his hunting gear and food supplies on his back, he reports to the officers together with several other young men from the village. The officers assure them that they will be paid for their trouble but Ariko cares little for the money. What is more valuable is the chance to speak to the soldiers. The military keeps a register of soulmates amongst their troops, so they may have an idea of how he may begin his search.

It’s a hard trek up into the Hakkoda mountains where the men were last headed. The blizzard had completely smoothed over any tracks, even the tracks of a staggering 210 men, and the ground is covered in the messy footprints of the earlier search and rescue groups. There is no choice but to trawl the entire landscape, even though frozen rivers and deep snow, but they press on.

The thought of his soulmate spurs him on. There are others’ loved ones who are buried here in the snow and he would not let them down despite their dwindling chances. That optimism quickly fizzles out into grim determination, however. The days become darker—they find more corpses than men, stiff and pale. The two that they manage to dig out of the snow are barely clinging to life, with blue-grey skin and limbs blackened with frostbite. With one look, Ariko knows that there is no hope of returning life to those limbs. One of the men in his kotan had frostbite like that before and his fingers had fallen off a month later. Their small group gradually dwindles as they send people down the mountain: two to carry the survivors and one to lead the officers to where they had laid the corpses.

Eventually, all they find are the dead. Their faces tend to wear a look of blank serenity because the cold numbed them to the core and put them to sleep, but occasionally they would find one whose expression is still twisted in pain or fear. Never had Ariko seen so much death.

He hopes, for his soulmate’s sake, that he has only seen the snow and the mountains instead of the piling corpses. But one night, he dreams of his soulmate holding a slip of paper.

“がんばって” it says, in neat characters. Ariko reads it again and again by the light of the oil lamp that his partner had lit and silently thanks the older Ainu who had taught him hiragana. The first tangible proof of his soulmate’s affections, simple as it may be, fills his heart full to the bursting.

He also takes it as a sign of his soulmate’s recovery. His sister had passed a month ago and ever since then his soulmate’s nights had been a blur of misery and burnt-out cigarettes. She had wasted away towards the end, and Ariko had been shocked to glimpse her drawn face and sharp cheekbones. He can only imagine the depths of grief that his soulmate is in.

His soulmate falls asleep holding the note, his eyelids growing heavier and heavier until the dream fades to black, and Ariko had never felt closer to him. When the following weeks bring with it more frozen corpses, the dream sustains Ariko as much as his rations do.

Just as the search is about to be called off, however, a new person appears in his dreams. The sleek black of the officer’s uniform almost blends into the darkness of the night but Ariko recognises the embroidery on his sleeves—the pattern is the same as the 5th infantry first lieutenant’s.

Ariko’s soulmate seems just as bewildered to see the lieutenant on his doorstep. His gaze flickers quickly between the man’s refined, scholarly looks and the panting horse behind him, which is being led towards the half-frozen water pump by the officer’s subordinate. The lieutenant smiles slightly, his lips moving as he speaks, and his soulmate’s gaze lowers in a bow.

The rest of the dream is a strange, silent conversation. His soulmate stares into the teacup cradled into his hands, occasionally lifting his head to meet the lieutenant’s calm gaze before averting elsewhere—his mouth, his ear, the wall behind.

Ariko finally understands when the lieutenant presses conscription papers and a revolver into his soulmate’s hands. More words are formed on the lieutenant’s lips, before a smile is offered and a hand clasped over the other man’s. The spark of jealousy that ignites is a surprise, but Ariko relaxes when his soulmate withdraws his hand under the pretence of drinking more tea.

Long after the lieutenant leaves, his soulmate stares at the revolver. Ariko is more interested in the number on the conscription papers—the Seventh Division. The discovery should lighten his heart, as he is one step closer to tracking down his soulmate, but instead new realisations trouble him.

His soulmate must be a veteran of war. For the lieutenant to pay him a personal visit, he must have been someone of skill too. The next morning, morbid thoughts flood Ariko’s mind as he carries the last of the corpses down the mountains and piles them onto carts.

How many people has his soulmate killed? Will the next war be the one to take him away?

 

1902, spring

The Ainu men have been left unrecognisable. Someone had butchered them with such viciousness that the corpses had been left scattered in bloody pieces, and the bright daylight exposed the lurid violence of it all. Kikuta covers his face with a gloved hand to block out the smell of days old blood and guts, his stomach churning. A wild animal would have been neater.

“What carnage!” Tsurumi’s voice carries an unmistakeable current of intrigue as he steps past Kikuta.

“Bandits perhaps, sir? Or a bear?” Kikuta murmurs, pointing at the large pawprints at the edge of the road. 

“No. Bears either eat their prey, or bury them for later. This is the work of a human.”

Tsurumi observes the scene with sharp, glinting eyes and Kikuta does the same, looking from bloody piece to bloody piece in hopes of some clue. The scattering of their makiri and weapons seem artificial, as if they’d been deliberately laid down beside the bodies. Frowning, Kikuta rounds the edge of the trampled road to get a closer look.

A severed hand, dark-skinned and thick knuckled, catches Kikuta’s eye suddenly and almost stops his heart. The makiri laid beside the hand is carved with familiar, twisting curls. Two crossed lines had been carved into the wood near the opening of the sheath.

“Found something, Warrant Officer Kikuta?”

Kikuta’s head whips up at Tsurumi’s expectant voice. “No… sir.”

Although the hand had looked familiar at first glance, it is slightly thicker and bore a faint scar across the several fingers. The makiri is different too, although part of the design is similar. Perhaps he had been someone from his soulmate’s kotan.

The thought sits uncomfortably with Kikuta as he searches for the rest of the body. “Shall I put them together, sir?”

“Go ahead. Don’t touch the weapons with your hands though. I want them sent for fingerprint analysis.”

It is grim work assembling the corpses. After putting together thighs and calves, forearms and torsos, and heads on necks, Kikuta counts seven men in total. Each of them wears clothes and weapons slightly different from the other. “They seem to be from different villages, First Lieutenant Tsurumi.”

Eventually, they leave the scene for the others to clear. Tsurumi had collected the makiri of each of the men, saying something about identifying the bodies. Taking the chance to compare the seven different makiris, Kikuta is even more shaken when he realises that none of the other men have designs remotely similar to the one he’d first seen.

“There’s something troubling you, Warrant Officer Kikuta. Perhaps it would help to speak your mind?” Tsurumi prompts gently. The lieutenant brings his horse closer until their knees are almost bumping, a faint frown of concern knitting his brow. “I find it quite cathartic, myself.”

Kikuta doesn’t want to speak of it but he can’t escape Tsurumi’s tenacity. If he doesn’t speak now, Tsurumi will find out some other way.

“I have an Ainu soulmate, sir. The killings made me worry for a moment.”

“Ahh. Your soulmate is a man?”

Tsurumi certainly lives up to his reputation of unnerving perceptiveness. Kikuta had been purposely vague but Tsurumi had nonetheless come to the correct conclusion. “Yes sir.”

There is a brief pause as Tsurumi puts on a contemplative look. “While we investigate this incident, it would be easy to ask around for your soulmate. An Ainu man dreaming of a Japanese partner should be rare enough.”

“It’s quite alright, First Lieutenant Tsurumi. Thank you for your offer, but…” Kikuta trails off.

His soulmate’s makiri had cemented his intentions in Kikuta’s mind and assuaged many of his worries. After all, he’d seen the Kikuta’s smoke-filled insomniac nights and lackluster attempts at farming, and made a gift of his affections anyway. Kikuta is still keenly aware of the fact that they live in different worlds, however. With the growing tensions between Russia and Japan, Kikuta has no doubt that war would erupt soon. Even if Tsurumi had not conscripted him, he would have been drafted to serve in another division.

His soulmate is yet unaware of the blood that already stains his hands. Once the gruesome images of war begin to filter into his soulmate’s dreams…

The Ainu despise murderers. Any mention of the Ainu amongst the troops would inevitably involve a regaling of their punishment for murder: first goes the nose, then the ears. Any chance that Kikuta might have had at building a relationship had already been destroyed from the beginning. But war had always been the only thing that Kikuta had ever been good at.

He remembers the bear tracks surrounding the corpses. Even it had been repulsed by the work of man.

The clap of Tsurumi’s hand on his shoulder almost makes him flinch. “Say no more,” Tsurumi assures, squeezing slightly before letting go. “I understand.”

 

1903, winter

His father’s death had been far too sudden. Ariko had hardly believed it until he’d heard it from one of the officers delivering the news. The grief that had struck him had been like a punch to the gut. While he and his father had never quite seen eye to eye regarding the Japanese, particularly after Ariko had revealed that his soulmate was one of them, he was the man who taught Ariko everything he knows today.

After settling his father’s final affairs, Ariko had stayed in his kotan for more than a year in order to ensure that his mother would be taken care of in his absence. Most of the time had been spent hunting alone in the mountains before venturing down to trade his pelts with the small village below. Gradually, he saved up a small sum, which he gave to his mother.

His time in the mountains was also a period of reflection. He’s surprised at how little he cares that his soulmate is a soldier and a killer. Maybe he’s just selfish; maybe he doesn’t believe in hell and the afterlife. Or maybe he has more faith than anyone in his guardian spirit and is confident that they had made the right choice.

Amongst all these doubts, the one thing he is certain of is the person in his dreams. He is someone who had taken care of his ailing sister until she had passed. He works diligently until exhaustion blurs words before his eyes, and together with the first lieutenant, he pours over maps and diagrams in order to ensure that his men will make it out onto the other side alive. When he makes his rounds, his subordinates greet him with respect and admiration in their eyes.

Ariko thinks he can learn to love a man like that.

It’s a way to travel to the seventh division barracks, so Ariko ends up staying overnight at a restaurant. For a day’s work helping the elderly proprietress scrub the kitchen and reorganise the storage room, he receives a hot dinner and a spare futon to sleep in. There’s plenty of space on the tatami floors of the dining area, so Ariko beds down there for the night. Tomorrow, he would arrive at the seventh.

When he dreams, he dreams of his soulmate playing with a new gun. He already has two in his collection but he insists on wearing all three on his person. Two of them are on a chest holster, with one gun under each arm, and the third sits in another holster strapped to a muscled thigh. The chest holster is a curiousity to Ariko, who had only used bows and occasionally, a rifle. The tanned leather straps run over each shoulder and sit snugly against the uniform, adjusted by shining buckles to frame the man’s chest. He catches a glimpse of broad shoulders and firm pectorals when his soulmate unholsters his guns, and the image stays with him, making his cheeks warm even in his sleep.  

The new gun puts his soulmate in high spirits. His fingers dance over the disassembled components that he’d laid out on his desk. With gun oil and a polishing rag, he cleans each component until it shines. Ariko is entranced—he fits the revolver together with the slow reverence of someone handling sacred objects, but he also plays with it, rolling bullets across the back of his fingers and stroking appreciative fingers all over the sleek muzzle of the gun.

The chamber spins, heavy with golden bullets, and Ariko can almost hear the whir. His soulmate aims with a quick movement of his arm, bringing the muzzle level with the entrance of his office. His aim remains steady for a second before he loosens his grip and lets the gun swing from his trigger finger.

The show sends a frisson of longing through Ariko. He wants to bring his soulmate hunting in the mountains. They would fell a deer together and make a meal of it, and Ariko would try one of those cigarettes that his soulmate always has in his pockets.

For the sake of that dream, Ariko could fight a war.

 

1903, winter

Kikuta yawns again, feeling his jaw crack and tears come to his eyes. It’s late but there is paperwork to be done, as is part and parcel of the duty of an officer. 

The upper echelons are still in negotiations with Russia but day by day the possibility of war looms closer. First Lieutenant Tsurumi is in fine form as he put the swelling ranks of the 7th division to work preparing for war, giving orders and making fine speeches as if combat could break out at any moment. Second Lieutenant Yuusaku is a responsible young man, but his inexperience means that the burden of executing Tsurumi’s orders falls upon Kikuta and Sergeant Tsukishima.

Given all these late nights, it has been a while since he’d last dreamt of his soulmate. Some days ago, he’d dreamt briefly of his partner travelling through a village, but he had woken up before seeing any recognisable landmarks. He itches with a restless desire to go searching but his time and body now belongs to his country. Duty would not allow him to go on a frolic of his own.

A firm knock on the door of his office shakes him from his reminiscing. “Warrant Officer Kikuta, sir.”

“Come in! At ease, Private.” Kikuta plasters on a smile and pretends to busy himself putting away his papers, hoping that the sudden jolt in his heart had not shown on his face. It would not do to be caught staring open-mouthed at his subordinates. “Your name?”

“Ariko Rikimatsu, sir.”

“Welcome to the Seventh. I assume First Lieutenant Tsurumi had briefed you already?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good, good…” He runs out of words, his mouth dry.

It’s not that strange, is it? To have an Ainu man volunteer for service, even if it is slightly out of time with the usual recruitment periods. It is First Lieutenant Tsurumi’s prerogative after all. Forcing himself to look up, he notes the new private’ thick eyebrows and sturdy nose, both of them distinctive features that would remain seared in Kikuta’s memory. The downturn of his mouth reveals his nervousness, as does the stiffness of his stance, but his dark brown eyes are fixed on Kikuta with unwavering intensity.

Unable to hold his gaze, Kikuta glances down at other man’s hands, but they are covered by thick gloves. There is no makiri tied to his belt.

With his throat clenching in disappointment, Kikuta fixes his attention on the other man’s long hair instead, which had been tied in a bun high behind his head. “You’re going to have to cut that off, Private Ariko. I don’t mind it myself but regulations, you see.”

“…yes sir.”

It’s becoming difficult to keep his smile casual. He would have dismissed any other new recruit by now, but he finds himself dragging the conversation on. “I’m curious why you’ve enlisted. We don’t see many Ainu in the army. We have a Matagi, and you’ll meet him I’m sure, but he was an unexpected addition too.”

“Excuse my directness, sir, but is my heritage a problem?” Ariko asks, his voice rough and his brow knitted. Kikuta hurries to correct the misunderstanding.

“No, no, of course not. We’re glad to have you here. It is simply that most Ainu do not look favourably upon war and what it entails.”

Something flits across Ariko’s handsome face too fast for Kikuta to decipher. “My soulmate is Japanese, sir. I was hoping to find him here.”

Kikuta’s stomach drops so fast that for a moment he feels lightheaded. Surely fate isn’t so capricious!

“Take off your gloves please, Private Ariko.”

The standard issue gloves, still stiff and new, are carefully stripped off and discarded on his desk. Kikuta is flying from his seat at once, staggering as he rounds his desk and clutches those beloved hands in his own. The strictures of rank and discipline have never seemed as far away as they do now. “Ariko,” he whispers on a shuddering breath, “it’s you.” He’d recognise those hands anywhere.

“Kikuta,” Ariko murmurs equally reverently, turning his hands so they can hold onto each other, palm to palm. His breath warms Kikuta’s cheek and he realises, all of a sudden, how close they have pressed together. Even though the other man is only slightly taller, he feels towering. The heat of Ariko’s hands seep into Kikuta’s own cold fingers and Kikuta sways forward, drawn inexorably to the warmth emanating from his partner’s body. “Finally I am able to see your face.”

It is much too cheesy, but Kikuta only has one opportunity to say it and he’d be damned if he didn’t: “Am I dreaming, Ariko?”

A grin cracks across his soulmate’s face, making his eyes crinkle and showing off blunt canines. “No, you’re not,” he answers, perfectly seriously. “I want to give you something.”

Kikuta is reluctant to let go of Ariko at all but he compromises by letting go of one hand. If this is what he thinks it is… Smiling like he’d read Kikuta’s thoughts, Ariko reaches into the pocket of his jacket and pulls out the makiri.

“You’d really made it for me,” Kikuta says, giddy and in awe. The lovely, polished knife lays balanced in Ariko’s open palm, just like he’d seen in his dreams.

Any remaining seed of doubt vanishes when Ariko gives a little “mm” and replies, “Who else would I make it for?”

Kikuta holds his breath as he closes his hand around the carved wood. The patterns press into his palm as he tightens his grip. “Thank you. But—”

Ariko’s face falls, disappointment beginning to cloud his eyes, but Kikuta holds onto his hand tight. Would it really be alright to keep him by his side, to selfishly drag him into the hell of war as well? “The war, Ariko. You came here to find me and you’ll always have me. Are you sure fighting a war is what you want to do?”

“Is that what you’re worried about?" The tension in Ariko’s body eases as he exhales in relief. "Yes. I’d made my decision knowing what I’d have to do. Besides, I cannot desert now.”

Kikuta’s heart swells painfully with guilt and joy. “Forgive me. I should have picked up the courage to find you.”

A flush colours Ariko’s cheeks a shade darker than they had been as he traces Kikuta’s jaw. “I understand. We’re here and that’s all that matters.”

The frightening thing is that Kikuta believes him, wholly and unreservedly. Fervent with adoration, Kikuta raises Ariko’s hand and presses his lips to his knuckles. “Those dreams of you were the best parts of my life,” he murmurs against winter-roughened skin, “I fell in love with you a bit more each day, but I was afraid I’d be someone you’d hate.” Glancing up beneath his lashes, Kikuta presses another kiss to Ariko’s hand, his palm, the heel of his hand, the inside of his bared wrist—until Ariko seizes his chest holster by a strap and pulls him up into a soul-searing kiss.

“I never saw anything that I couldn’t love about you,” Ariko gasps when they finally part, breathless and shaking. 

Kikuta’s soul vibrates like a plucked string. “Never did I,” he breathes, and their lips met again, softly.