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remember when we used to pretend we had direction?

Chapter Text

Tsukishima wakes up in his office with sunlight spilling in through the small window. He blinks a few times before realizing that he’s been drooling on a report he was working on the night before. He sits up in his chair, still groggy from sleep and lets out a small sigh. It’s good to be back in Hokkaido where he can feel the sun on his face and hear the crunch of leaves under his boots, but he hasn’t been outside in days. Instead, he’s been holed up in his office working on this report. To say that Tsurumi had been furious upon discovering that Asirpa had gotten away would be an understatement. Newer recruits had cowered for weeks while seasoned soldiers like Tsukishima had barely batted an eye at the sight of Tsurumi storming up and down the barracks, strangely silent about the whole affair. Tsukishima could have sworn he saw him playing with the finger bones again and it would have been near comical if he didn’t know how much of that fury was directed at him. So here he has been for a better portion of the week, writing up a comprehensive report on what he learned during his time with Sugimoto's group. He is under no impression that Tsurumi will ever forgive or forget the gross insubordination he witnessed that day in Karafuto, but he can only hope that this placates him for the time being. He’s wiping a line of drool from his face with his sleeve when he sees Private First Class Ariko standing in the doorway.

Tsukishima stands to salute him, nearly stumbling in the process. “What can I help you with, sir?” he asks, hoping that Ariko pays no attention to his disheveled appearance.

“There’s someone on the phone asking for you.” Ariko informs him before leaving promptly, presumably to avoid the possibility of bumping into Tsurumi.

Tsukishima gathers the pages of his report before putting them inside a drawer. As he makes his way to the common area, he wonders who could be calling him. Some of the other soldiers have families and he often sees them lined up to use the single phone, waiting to talk to mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and on the rare occasion, lovers. Tsukishima has none of these, so when he picks up the phone, he is surprised to hear the voice of Rear Admiral Koito Heiji.

“Hello, Tsukishima?” comes his gruff voice from the other end.

“Sir!” Tsukishima nearly salutes, but quickly lowers his arm upon remembering that the admiral cannot see him. “Were you able to resolve any issues with the ferry that we encountered while pursuing Sugimoto and his cohorts?”

“Yes,” he pauses to clear his throat. “Tsurumi spoke with the captain and he was able to stop it from becoming an international incident.” Tsukishima can’t help but roll his eyes at this. Tsurumi could talk a child into giving up their favourite toy, so convincing the ferry captain not to make a scene is child’s play for him.

“So…” Tsukishima waits for Admiral Koito to say something else. He doesn’t know him all that well, but has always felt a great deal of respect for the man, which is more than he can say for most of his other superiors. From what he does know, Rear Admiral Koito is a man of few words, so for him to call Tsukishima is a bit of a puzzle. “How is Koito?” Tsukishima finally decides to ask.

After being stabbed by Sugimoto back in Karafuto, Koito’s father had brought his son home to recuperate. It’s been a little over a month since then and he hasn’t returned to the barracks. Tsukishima would be worried if he wasn’t so relieved. Tsurumi has been on the warpath ever since they came back to Hokkaido and Tsukishima does not want the lieutenants to collide. At least, that’s what he tells himself. The truth is, he’s not sure what to say to Koito, so he’s been avoiding him. After dragging his half-conscious body onto his father’s ship, he spent the journey back to Hokkaido at his side, shouting at him every time he closed his eyes, worried that he’d slip into an eternal slumber. He has no clue whether the second lieutenant remembers any of that, but he’s certain that Koito hasn’t forgotten the conversation they had just hours before he was stabbed.

“He’s doing fine. He’s…” Rear Admiral Koito trails off and for a second, Tsukishima wonders if their connection has been cut. “Actually,” the admiral lowers his voice. “He’s not fine. He stays indoors all day and he’s not eating as much. The doctors tell me it’s nothing to worry about, that he’s healing well, but a father worries about this stuff, you know?” Tsukishima doesn’t know, but he doesn’t correct him. He also doesn’t bring up the fact that Koito is most likely struggling to come to terms with the fact that he and his father have been manipulated by a man he once held in such high admiration.

“I’ve tried talking to him, but he doesn’t want to…" he says before trailing off again, as if he can’t find the words to explain what his son is going through.

“Sir?” Tsukishima chews on the inside of his cheek, starting to see where this is going.

“Can you please come by and try to talk to him?” And there it is. Tsukishima is thinking of some excuse to avoid what is sure to be an awkward and long overdue conversation with Koito, but then he hears the elder Koito’s voice crack. "I can’t bear to lose him too.”

Chapter Text

An hour later, Tsukishima arrives at Koito’s house. He has seen the looming mansion many times in the past, but has never had a reason to enter it until now. As he brings his horse to a halt, he spots Rear Admiral Heiji standing on the porch. Upon seeing Tsukishima, he rushes down the path to greet him. His eyes are warm and jovial, but there’s a strained quality to his smile, as if he’s putting on a front.

“My wife’s out of town and I have to go run some errands,” he explains, hands trembling as he helps Tsukishima tie his horse to a post. “I didn’t want to leave him alone,” he says, gesturing to a window on the second floor that Tsukishima assumes looks into Koito’s room. “So I’m sorry to bother you on-”

Tsukishima holds up a hand. “It’s not a bother at all, sir.” His stomach is in tangles over the thought of seeing Koito again, but he couldn’t ignore Rear Admiral Koito’s request. Standing before him is a man who once risked waging another war with Russia just to get a glimpse of his son one last time. How could Tsukishima deny him this?

Despite Tsukishima insisting he doesn’t have to, Rear Admiral Heiji thanks him over and over, his eyes growing misty. "I wasn’t sure who I could turn to, but he mentioned you quite a bit in his letters.”

Tsukishima barely masks his surprise at this. He knew that Koito had been writing letters while they were in Karafuto and later in Russia, but he had always assumed that they were to and about Tsurumi. He’s tempted to ask the admiral about the content of those letters, but he’s certain they’re riddled with complaints about how cruel a certain sergeant is.

After repeated reassurances from Tsukishima that he’ll be able to handle Koito, Rear Admiral Koito finally leaves. When Tsukishima enters the house, he is struck by how simple it is. Usually mansions like these are home to some of the most vapid people with the tackiest tastes - Tsukishima would know, he’s had to accompany Tsurumi to countless dinner parties in hopes that some rich merchant would throw money at their cause. Unlike those other homes, Heiji’s home tells the story of the family who inhabits it from the porcelain tea set sitting on a table in the living room to the military medallions decorating the walls.

Tsukishima makes his way upstairs to Koito’s room. Even though he has never been inside the house, he knows the layout by heart after Tsurumi made him memorize it many years ago. The First Lieutenant had anticipated every contingency and had worked out alternative plans months in advance. Had they not been able to get their hands on Koito, Tsukishima and Kikuta would have had to grab his mother while Ogata held her at gunpoint. The thought unsettles him now as he stands on the landing of the second floor. He can’t remember how he felt when Tsurumi told him they had to kidnap Koito, can’t remember how far gone he was by then. He wonders if he had even bat an eye at the order.

There are four doors on this floor, one looks into the bathroom and another looks into what must be the master bedroom. There is a door near the end of the hall that gives him pause. It doesn't look drastically different from any of the others, but he can see a thin layer of dust on the floor before the entrance, as if nobody has thought to enter that room in quite some time. He shakes off the thought before moving on to the door next to it where he knows the second lieutenant will be.

"Sir?" Tsukishima knocks on the second lieutenant's door. For a moment, he wonders what he will do if he is turned away. He’s scared that despite telling him not to give Tsurumi any reason to suspect that anything is amiss, Koito will defiantly (or stupidly, there really is little distinction when it comes to the second lieutenant) disobey Tsukishima’s warnings and end up a dead man. What scares him even more is living with the knowledge that the blood will be on his hands. Doing Tsurumi’s dirty work was supposed to get easier over the years, but Tsukishima could never quite shake the nameless ghosts that haunt him. Because of this, he knows with a chilling certainty that if he had to kill Koito, he would never know a moment’s peace for as long as he lived.

"I’m not here." comes Koito's voice, his words muffled.

"Sir, I'm here to…" he trails off. Why the hell was he here anyway? Although Rear Admiral Koito had been adamant that this was not an order, Tsukishima had arrived in full uniform anyway. Besides, it was partially his fault that his son was injured. Had he never helped to kidnap him, Koito could have lived a blissful life without witnessing nearly half the horrors that he had come to see in the past few months alone. Tsukishima takes a deep breath and tries again. "Your father called me to come check on you. He says you haven't been doing well. You're not eating, and you've barely left your room. He's worried about you." When there is no reply, he sighs. "I'm worried about you."

Silence fills up the space between them until it is nearly unbearable. Then, Koito asks. "Are you alone?"

Tsukishima can hardly stop the smile that's making its way up his face. He scolds himself, but it's futile. He hasn't seen the second lieutenant in a while and although he'd never say it aloud, he misses his company. Dealing with the pampered pain-in-the-ass takes a toll on him, but he's come to realize that the void that accompanies his absence is far worse. "Yes, it's just me."

There’s silence on the other side of the door again and Tsukishima raises his fist, contemplating whether he should knock once more when Koito seems to make up his mind. "...Come in."

Tsukishima's smile slips off his face the second he steps into the second lieutenant's room. The first thing that hits him is the stench. Although it isn't as putrid as it had been in the trenches, the lingering scent of dirt and decay is undeniable. The curtains are drawn shut, effectively blocking out any sunlight from entering the room but even in the dark, Tsukishima can see Koito's uniform crumpled on the floor near his feet. In the corner of the room curled up with his back facing Tsukishima is Koito. The scene before him stings and Tsukishima realizes that his eyes are watering both at the stench and the sorry sight that lays before him. He's no stranger to these things, he's seen soldiers sink into the depths of despair before, when they retreat into themselves, seeking out an answer that will never reveal itself. However, seeing Koito like this leaves Tsukishima feeling as though he’s drowning alongside him. Koito, who laughs at all the little miracles in life. Koito, who wears his too big heart on his sleeve. Koito, who makes Tsukishima feel like every awful thing he’s done hasn’t been in vain.

That same Koito who has never been on the front lines and who bares no scars from the battlefield is here at home fighting a war with himself. He will not win it, the safest way to survive it would be to surrender. Tsukishima himself has come to accept the stalemate that came after a pyrrhic battle between his unwavering loyalty to the first lieutenant and the devastation that came with discovering Tsurumi’s deception. The combined stress and the secrets of the past few months have conspired to leave the second lieutenant a mere shell of the soldier that he used to be from the initial separation from Tsurumi with a promise of praise for a job well done to the unquestioning loyalty that guided his hand in delivering the killing blow to Kiroranke. The night at the hospital had led him to suspect that the man he most admired was not who he appeared to be, and Tsurumi's deception was the knife that had buried itself to the hilt in Koito's chest. Pulling it out would only serve to leave his heart bleeding out on the floor.

Tsukishima makes his way over to Koito's bed and upon closer inspection, realizes that there are half-used tissues scattered around the perimeter, probably after having missed an already overflowing trash can. The second lieutenant usually prides himself on his personal hygiene, pointing out how filthy the rest of the soldiers are compared to himself yet here he is, wallowing in his own filth. Taking care not to step on the tissues is no easy feat, but Tsukishima does it and eases himself onto the edge of Koito's bed. He places a hand on the back of Koito's knee and after a second, the second lieutenant turns to look at him. His hair is disheveled and dirty, lacking all its usual luster and he's only wearing a sleeveless undershirt and boxer shorts. Tsukishima watches as he sits up, his movements slow and uncertain. He scootches over to the edge to sit beside Tsukishima, one leg crossed and the other hanging off the side. Up close, Tsukishima can see stubble dotting his chin and above his upper lip, his gaze lingering for a second too long on the latter. He swallows, trying to think of something to say, but the words die in his throat when he sees the haunted look in his friend's eyes. They're ringed with circles no doubt borne from countless nights of restless sleep, but that's not what catches his eye. Koito's eyes are tinged red. He's been crying, the thought registers somewhere in the back of Tsukishima's mind, immediately followed by another. He had nobody else to burden this with, lest he let it slip to his family what Tsurumi had done to him, to all of them, so he’s been carrying this burden on his own.

“After all that I've done for him, how could he just do that?" Koito asks, breaking the silence. There isn’t anything else to say. Although learning about the deception undoubtedly devastated Koito, Tsurumi leaving him to die destroyed what feeble faith he may have been clinging onto. Even as Koito had been bleeding out on Tsukishima’s lap, he had ordered Tsukishima to go after Asirpa. For the first time in his life that day, he had disobeyed direct orders from a superior officer. He suspected that Koito’s decision to be left for dead had less to do with his belief in Tsurumi's cause and everything to do with his faith in the man himself. He wants to tell the second lieutenant that he is wasting his time, that the only reason Tsurumi ever looked his way was because he saw him as a piece in his ploy to get his father's support. The younger Koito's loyalty had been an unexpected bonus, but Tsurumi could just as easily make do without him. Tsukishima isn't sure he can say the same. But he doesn't say this, can't say it because he can’t tell Koito what he means to him, not like this. It wouldn’t be fair to him, not when he’s in part to blame for his current state. When Tsukishima doesn't say anything, Koito nudges him with his shoulder. "That's not rhetorical, I want an answer."

Tsukishima wants nothing more than to give Koito concrete answers, he wants to give him the closure that he so desperately desires, but words fail him. He's not even sure he has the words to tell Koito what he is to Tsurumi. What they all are. Puppets in a play written by a power hungry person, prancing about the stage as he sees fit.

"I'm afraid you're not going to get one, sir." Tsukishima says quietly, and Koito's face crumples completely, his body falling forward like a marionette whose strings have been cut. Tsukishima catches him before he falls to the floor. Koito's arms wrap around him in a fierce embrace, and Tsukishima lets him. He's done this before with other soldiers, but never quite like this. Tsurumi breaks soldiers and Tsukishima is supposed to try and put them back together. He often fails to do so, but Tsurumi only needs them well enough to fall in line and execute his commands. He can't imagine Koito ending up like the dozens of soldiers he's failed to save; the ones who are dead or might as well be. Koito is different, he deserves better, but in the end, it's not about what he deserves. It's about what Tsurumi requires. An army of endless sacrifices to adorn his altar of ambition.

He feels something wet near the crook of his shoulder where Koito buries his head and finds that his eyes are growing wet with tears too. "There, there," Tsukishima murmurs, bringing one arm up to stroke Koito's hair and the bringing the other down to rub small circles on his back. "Let it all out, sir." Despite being the larger of the two, Koito feels impossibly small in his arms, the second lieutenant's shudders and sobs reverberating against his own bones. Tsukishima can't remember the last time he cried, he's not even sure he let himself cry after finding out about Harumi’s disappearance, but away from the prying eyes of he who would turn his tears against him, he lets his own tears fall freely. With Koito crying just as hard, he hopes he won't notice a few extra tears.

“He did so much for me and to me,” Koito's words come between sobs and coughs, “And even after everything you told me, I still don’t know what he means to me!” Tsukishima presses his lips in a grim line, he doesn’t have the answers Koito is looking for, and he’s been searching for them for significantly longer. All he can do to console Koito is to let him cling tight, although he can't say for sure who's anchoring who. They stay like that for a few moments, Koito's arms around his neck and his face buried in his coat while Tsukishima strokes the second lieutenant's hair, his own face thankfully hidden. Tsurumi breaks soldiers, and Tsukishima is supposed to try and put them back together, but who is supposed to put him back together?

Suddenly, Koito pulls back, his eyes wet and full of accusations as he crosses his arms over his chest.

"Sir, is everything-" Tsukishima starts, but is quickly cut off.

"Did Tsurumi send you here?” Koito's tone carries equal parts curiosity and contempt. Curiosity, hell, maybe more at whether the first lieutenant could even be bothered enough to put on a performance of caring for his men after what conspired in Karafuto. Contempt at the whole charade, the possibility that Tsukishima's presence is part of some convoluted scheme to win back Koito's loyalty. Tsukishima swallows the lump that's forming at the back of his throat. He's grown so used to Koito being so open with him, so the closely guarded expression on his face right now catches him off guard for a second. He's defensive and angry even though he has no right to be, Koito has every reason to doubt him after everything he’s been through. That doesn't make it hurt any less. He wants to be seen as someone worth trusting in Koito's eyes again, he wants a friendship that he knows he doesn't deserve. His shoulders slump with the weight of the knowledge that whatever they had before, there's no going back to that. The little things he took for granted like their conversations under the stars in Karafuto every night long after the others had fallen asleep are a thing of the past. Tsurumi may have been the mastermind behind the kidnapping, but Tsukishima had willingly been a pawn in a game that the first lieutenant had been playing with Koitos's life.

“No,” Tsukishima said truthfully, eyes downcast. “I’m here because I was worried about you.” He had spent sleepless nights after Koito was stabbed, reliving the moment in his memories. He's still not sure what compelled him to run to Koito that day. He's still not sure why despite the Second Lieutenant's insistence otherwise, he stayed by his side until he was sitting on pins and needles. He's certain that he must have been possessed when he stared down the devil himself in a desperate gamble to protect Koito. “I miss you, Koito.”

Koito’s expression softens, but his arms are still crossed. “What about Tsurumi?”

“What about him?” Tsukishima asks. He’s tired of thinking about Tsurumi, tired of tiptoeing around him for the past few weeks trying to stay on his good side.

“Does he know you’re here?” Koito asks, one eyebrow raised.

Tsukishima almost laughs out loud at that. He wonders what Tsurumi would say if he were to see him right now. “He doesn’t even know I’m here. I told him I was going into town for a bath.” When Koito’s expression doesn’t change, he adds, “A really long one.”

A chuckle escapes Koito's lips and Tsukishima feels his heart skip a beat. It’s a dizzying knowledge he holds, that something he says is able to elicit such a response. He feels a hand on his knee and looks up to see Koito looking into his eyes, a small smile playing at the edge of his lips. "I believe you." he says, and even though there's still something heavy in his eyes, his trust is more than Tsukishima could have asked for.

“You should take one yourself, sir.” Tsukishima says, to which Koito smirks. "Yeah, you're right. I stink worse than you do."

Tsukishima laughs and gives him a light shove and Koito shoves right back and for that moment, all else is forgotten as they continue their playful back and forth, eventually leaning on each other when they've exhausted themselves. With his head resting against Koito's shoulder, Tsukishima lets himself dream of unspoken possibilities.