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Trace Decay

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Usami suppressed a sigh, realizing he couldn’t show any pressure right now. “Do you want to try eating a bit, Nikaidou?”

The figure hiding under the blanket in front of him stayed still, a messy lump of fabric curled up on the bed.

“What do you think of trying just a bite? And if it agrees with you maybe adding some more on top of that?”

Still not answer. Nikaidou just laid still on the bed, not even sticking his head out from under the blanket.

Silently Usami slouched down on the chair he was sitting on. No matter what they had been trying during the last few days, Nikaidou just wouldn’t eat. He wouldn’t even talk. At least stopping to talk wasn’t harming him directly. Refusing to eat though... Usami couldn’t help but getting worried. There was a state of getting too thin for it to be healthy any longer and Nikaidou had reached that since some time ago.

There were steps outside of the corridor and then the door opened. It was Tsurumi. He addressed the lump on the bed: “Hello Nikaidou. How are you doing today?”

No answer. Not even a movement. Usually Nikaidou would at least stick out his head out a bit or shrug his shoulders as an indication he had been listening.

Tsurumi gave Usami a questioning look, nodding towards the untouched plate of food standing on Nikaidou’s bedside table. The concern in his eyes was apparent.

As an answer Usami simply shook his head, not bothering to hide the worry on his own face. Nikaidou hadn’t eaten one single bite today. Again.

Tsurumi stepped closer to the bed. “I have a suggestion, Nikaidou. I brought some morphine with me. If you eat up properly I’ll let you have some, what about it?”

Usami felt his anticipation rise. It wasn’t the first time they had tried that method but so far all those attempts had failed in the last moment. Nikaidou was so deeply stuck in his hurt that the smallest occurrence could be enough to discourage him and let him crumble together into a pile of desperation again.

But trying that same old idea again didn’t seem to be the wrong thing: The lump of blankets on the bed started moving and the next moment Nikaidou hesitantly stuck his head out.

Unable to hide his relieve over this little bit of progress Usami couldn’t keep silent any longer: “Real morphine, Nikaidou! You’ll get it after eating!”

Now Nikaidou was crawling out from under the blanket for real. He blinked rapidly, as if to take the scene in front of him in, expression in his sunken in eyes getting clearer. With a sceptical glance he looked at the plate of food standing on his bedside table. Now that the light of day was falling on his features it was impossible to miss how emaciated Nikaidou had become.

Nikaidou had already sat up when his still wandering glance came to a halt. His eyes widened and the next moment an intense hurt gleamed up behind them. Usami followed his line of sight. It was the prosthetic hand lying unused on a table in another corner of the room that had caught Nikaidou’s attention. Tsurumi had now noticed it too. Apparently he wanted to say something but before he got the chance to do so Nikaidou had already grabbed the blanket, pulled it over his head and crumbled down on the bed again, once again hiding from the world around it.

Usami and Tsurumi looked at each other in silent resignation. Nikaidou hadn’t reacted well when Lord Arisaka had brought him this hand, it actually should have been clear seeing it still had the potential to upset him.

Tsurumi’s thoughts must have been on a similar track. He walked towards the prosthetic hand, picking it up. “Nikaidou? I put your new hand into the trunk together with your other things, is that alright?”

No reaction.

Beginning to feel restless Usami stood up, walking close to Nikaidou’s bed so he could use a whisper only when talking to him. “We put it in a deep corner of the trunk so you no longer have to see it. And if you ever feel in the mood to have a look at it anyway it’s still there. Okay?”

For a moment the pile of blankets on the bed remained still. Then there was a slow movement, it could have been Nikaidou shrugging his shoulders.

Tsurumi came closer, addressing Nikaidou. “I still have the morphine with me. The offer is still standing: Eat up your food and you’ll get some morphine. How does that sound?”

There was a rustling sound coming from under the blanket, just for everything to remain silent again. Then Nikaidou made that shrugging movement again.

Usami and Tsurumi looked at each other. A shrugging was better than no reaction at all. Usami nodded, just having to express they were on the right track again.

Tsurumi seemed to think the same. His eyes went thoughtful, thinking. Then he looked at Usami, at the full plate of food and then at Nikaidou. He gave Usami a heavy look that carried a trace of guilt before he started speaking: “Usami, before I forget it: Our other patient in room 9 is wanting to see you. She’s getting worried about how Tanigaki is doing and I just couldn’t manage to erase her concerns.”

Usami raised his eyebrows, nodding in understanding. “In that case I should make sure to see her. Nikaidou, I’ll be back again as soon as I can, okay?”

This time the faint shrugging under the blanket came immediately. With this Usami left the room. Judging from Tsurumi’s behaviour it was very apparent their other patient hadn’t requested to see Usami at all but he could understand the idea: Nikaidou felt pressured so fast these days so with Tsurumi’s idea about the morphine reward resonating with him it might be the best to let those two alone for a moment. With the situation being as it was right now they simply had to try out different approaches to find a solution that would make Nikaidou eat again.

But that didn’t mean there was no reason to see their second patient anyway. With these thoughts Usami opened the door to room 9. Hearing the sound of the door opening the Ainu woman -Inkarmat- had already noticed him arriving.

Usami felt a hesitant smile spread across his face. “I thought I come and pay you a visit or are you too tired for that right now?”

Despite her still looking exhausted from the strain her injury was having on her Inkarmat shook her head. “Not at all. Just come on in.”

“Honestly? It’s just, you look really tired.”

“Tired and bored. I don’t mind you being here right now.”

“Fine then”, Usami sighed, taking a few steps closer to the hospital bed. “I heard you’ve gotten a lot better in the last few days?”

“According to the doctors I’m no longer in the gravest sort of danger.” She smiled, a weird mix of dismissively and genuinely amused. “I’m beginning to suspect they’re just saying this to have an excuse to give me less medication against the pain though.”

That didn’t sound pleasant. Usami took another step closer. “Is it that bad?”

Inkarmat sighed. “It’s not dramatic or anything but no pain at all would be better.”

“I see. I mean yeah, of course it would be.”

“Yes.” Inkarmat went silent, giving Usami a long and thoughtful look. “If you’re here to get any more information about Wilk and the skins I have to disappoint you: I already told First Lieutenant Tsurumi everything I know.”

Usami shook his head, lowering his gaze. “That’s not why I’m here.”

“I already suspected so”, Inkarmat said, sounding oddly content. “Why are you here then?”

“Just wanted to say hello.” For a moment Usami went still, remembering something. “Besides, when Tanigaki left he asked me to keep an eye on you. So I guess that’s also me being here to keep an eye on you.”

Hearing this her face went blank, erasing the many small indications worry had left on it. “He was asking that?”

“Right before he left.”

“I see. I didn’t know that”, she said, a warm and content smile lighting up her features. Right in this moment Usami could easily see why she had become Tanigaki’s most important person.

Witnessing her reaction felt almost invasive though. Usami avoided his gaze, looking out of the window instead.

Just a moment later he could already feel her eyes on him again. “I was complaining about the pain but in fact I’ve gotten a lot better.”

“Have you? That’s good to hear”, Usami said, looking her in the eyes again.

She still looked tired but the gleam behind her eyes got sharper. “Yes”, she sighed, slightly sitting up, unable to hide a grimace while doing it.

“Hey, wait! Are you sure this is a good idea? Maybe you should lie down again.”

“I’m sick of doing nothing but lying around all day. Sitting up for a short while is okay now, the doctors just confirmed this.”

“Well, if you say so”, Usami said, not feeling convinced in the slightest.

Seeing his growing discomfort Inkarmat had to laugh, almost looking self-conscious while doing so. “I’m sorry. I’m not a very good patient, aren’t I?”

“I didn’t say that.” At least she wasn’t trying to starve herself Usami thought, glancing shortly at the empty plate standing on her bedside table.

She had stopped laughing but her eyes were still carrying that thoughtful look. “I’m not used being a patient in the first place. Whenever I catch a cold or something I try to get better as soon as possible.” She didn’t add that this was because she had no one to look after her whenever she fell ill. Well, these days she apparently had Tanigaki with them being engaged and everything. But Usami knew she had travelled the island on her own before while making her divinations.

Usami found that he had to avert his eyes again. “Oh, I get that. I can’t lie around and do nothing for any longer span of time either.” Just like her he didn’t add either that this was because he had no one to look after him when he got ill.

Inkarmat sighed. “Yes.” When she continued talking her voice sounded cheerful again, maybe a tad too much so: “But now that I’ve gone through the trouble of sitting up I want to make good use of it. Now I can finally make a divination again.”

Usami’s eyes widened in surprise. “Divination?”

“Yes. I haven’t been able to do any since such a long time, it feels like something is beginning to lack.”

As an answer Usami just nodded. He didn’t really believe in divinations and the like but he could see why not being able to make any would begin to upset her.

She pointed at the trunk standing in the corner of the room. “Would you be so kind to bring me my fox skull? It should be right on top, once you open the lid you should see it right away.”

Usami was on his way to the trunk before the sentence had fully sunken into his mind. “You need a fox skull for that?”

“It’s my preferred method.”

“I see.” It was not like Usami knew anything about divinations to begin with. Even less so what methods Ainu were using for this. Feeling slightly puzzled her brought her the skull.

“Thank you”, Inkarmat said, smiling at the fox skull. In a strange way it looked like she felt happy to finally meet an old friend again. She looked up at Usami and gestured at the chair standing next to the bed. “Please sit down. It’s easier for me to concentrate like this.”

“Ah, uh. Alright.” Beginning to feel more puzzled by the minute Usami took place on the chair.

Inkarmat’s expression turned serious. “After all we should make sure I can make a divination in ideal surroundings for you.”

Usami needed a second to realize what he had heard. “You want to make a divination for me?”

“Absolutely.”

He was already making a rejecting gesture with his hands before he continued talking. “That’s uh... very nice of you but you don’t have to. To tell you the truth I don’t exactly believe in divinations.”

“You don’t believe ‘exactly’ in them. So maybe you believe in them just a little bit?”

“That’s not... I’m just saying it’s not necessary.”

A wistful smile showed up on her features. “If you look at it like that what is necessary in the first place? Won’t you let me make a prediction for you? I really would like to.”

Now that the surprise of the moment was fading away Usami felt himself giving in. What kind of harm could some fortune telling do? And besides, for her it was probably important because for so many days she hadn’t been able to do the very thing she was dedicating her life to so denying her this idea would have felt a bit mean after all. Usami huffed, shaking his head. “Alright, if you insist so much why not?”

“Wonderful”, Inkarmat said, sounding content. The next moment she was already putting the lower jaw of the skull on her head, getting ready for whatever method this divination needed.

Usami started to feel at loss. “Mustn’t you ask me what I want to know about or something?”

“I usually would do that but in some cases I have a pretty good idea what someone wants to know about the most without them telling me.”

“Oh.”

“So can I use this impression of mine then?”

“Sure, go on.” It wasn’t like Usami had wanted a divination in the first place.

With this she bowed down her head until gravity got a grab on the fox jaw and let it fall down on the bed. Inkarmat studied the bone with focused eyes, a content expression gradually showing up on her face. She looked at Usami. “The prediction had a good result.”

“What does it say?”

“It says you still have a chance to win the heart of the person who drew those two figures on your face.”

Usami felt his stomach cramp together, painfully and sudden. Was she trying to mess with him? “Did someone tell you who drew them on my face?” To his own surprise his voice had sounded almost hostile.

Inkarmat’s face got serious. “No one told me anything about it. I was using the power of divination right now and nothing else”, she said, sounding sincere.

There was still a restless turmoil storming though Usami’s mind but looking at it like this: She honestly wasn’t making the impression that she was lying or trying to mess with him. And what were the chances of such random gossip reaching her ears? Sure, Tanigaki could have told her something that would have let her reach this conclusion but he wasn’t the type to engage in the rumour mill in the first place so that possibility could practically be ruled out. “So, no one told you anything about my tattoos?”, Usami asked, this time trying to let his voice sound neutral again.

“No one did. I managed to make a strong divination, that is all there is to it.”

“I see.” Usami decided to believe her. He still didn’t believe in fortune telling but maybe she was simply good at figuring out people without needing any gossip to do so? That would have explained it all.

“The bond between you and whoever made those drawings is in turmoil”, Inkarmat simply stated. The gleam behind her eyes was turning sympathetic.

“I wouldn’t say turmoil. It’s just complicated.” Complicated indeed. How on earth was Usami supposed to let Tsurumi know about his feelings? He had been in love with him since years and had never found an answer to that question.

“Complications can be overcome. The divination clearly stated that you still have a chance.”

“That might be. But this is easier said than done.” All previous irritation had left Usami. The only remaining emotion was a spreading exhaustion. Chance, chance, chance. He knew he actually had ideal possibilities at the moment: Tsukishima and more importantly Koito were literally located on another island since weeks, leaving Usami most of the time alone with Tsurumi and Nikaidou only. He knew he should think of a way to use those perfect circumstances already but just didn’t know how – If Usami messed this up... if he messed this up... he couldn’t even bring the thought to an end, that’s how terrified he was to lose his chance.

Inkarmat picked up the fox jaw, gently holding it in her hands. “You love this person a lot, don’t you?”

As an answer Usami only shrugged his shoulders. Did she have to be so painfully clear? But then, as someone making divinations all the time she probably had to.

“Facing your feelings can be terrifying, I get that. I wasn’t saying any of this would come easy to you. The fox simply stated a chance still exists.” She had sounded absentminded as if she had been talking to herself. Usami wondered if she missed Tanigaki. She probably did with him being away since weeks.

Weeks Usami had let pass idly. Oh, he had thought about possibilities if there might be a way to somehow... say what he had always wanted to say to Tsurumi. In fact had thought about it many times but had never found a situation that would have let him allowed to act. But Usami knew he had to act. He couldn’t put into words why that was but he got the feeling since some time once Koito returned his own chance would be lost for good. And yet Usami just didn’t know what to do.

He studied the fox jaw Inkarmat was still holding in her hands. “I guess the prediction was at least a positive one, despite everything”, he said.

“Oh, it absolutely was. You know, predictions have the power to let us know about what fate is awaiting us but how to deal with those incoming events, that we still have the decide four ourselves.”

She wanted to say more but then the door opened, a nurse stepping in. “Oh, you have a visitor today, how nice!” But then her expression turned into one of accusation: “But Miss Inkarmat, I hope you haven’t been sitting up this entire time. You know you’re only allowed to do this for very short spans of time.”

“I got it, I’ll be nice and lie down again.” Inkarmat looked at Usami, smiling apologetically. “I already told you I’m not a very good patient. As you can see everyone has to scold me this entire time.”

Hearing this Usami couldn’t help but smile back.

Chapter Text

When Usami returned to Nikaidou’s room he got confronted with a small miracle.

“Nikaidou, you’ve eaten something”, Usami said, too overwhelmed to keep the relieve out of his voice, too overwhelmed to even consider if saying something was a good idea in the first place.

Nikaidou looked up, giving Usami a thoughtful look. Then he shrugged his shoulders, still looking at Usami but eyes shifting out of focus.

“Ate and got his reward. As promised”, Tsurumi said, looking at Usami and then at Nikaidou again. He was slightly smiling but it did nothing to hide the concern set in his eyes. When Usami stepped closer he could see why that was. Nikaidou looked dazed out, practically near the border of oblivion. It wasn’t the first time morphine had such a strong influence on him but it also made it clear that bribing him with the stuff every time he was supposed to eat something couldn’t be a permanent solution.

But for now concentrating on the positive developments seemed like the best thing to do. Usami made a point of smiling at Nikaidou: “You even managed to eat all up.”

Eyes still caught in that unfocused haze Nikaidou looked into Usami’s general direction, nodding slowly. Looking like sitting up was becoming too exhausting out of a sudden Nikaidou sighed absentmindedly, lying down again. This time he didn’t hide under the blanket. He just continued staring into space, looking completely exhausted. It wasn’t quite how he usually acted when on morphine. Normally he didn’t become this level of apathetic.

As if gotten upset by a silent alarm Usami and Tsurumi exchanged a glance, not even trying to hide their worry.

Usami lowered his voice: “The doctors confirmed how much you were allowed to give right now, right?”

“They did. And I checked. Twice.” Tsurumi stepped closer to Nikaidou’s bed, speaking in a normal volume again: “Are you feeling tired Nikaidou?”

Nikaidou nodded, this time not even bothering to look into the direction of who had been talking.

“Is it the morphine?”

The question finally managed to take Nikaidou out of his stupor, at least gradually. He shook his head, looking surprised.

Unable to stay still any longer Usami stepped closer as well, looking at Nikaidou with a look he knew had to be more concerned that questioning. “Sorry. It’s just, you look a bit dazed out.”

Understanding slowly erased the fog on Nikaidou’s face. He leaned on his elbow, gesturing at the empty plate and then at himself.

Usami needed a moment to think but then his eyes widened in understanding. “Oh, I believe I get it now! Is it that thing where you haven’t eaten anything in some time and then you eat lots of food and get really drowsy from it?”

Nikaidou sighed, nodding in confirmation. Appearing like the matter was dealt with this for him he laid down again.

Usami looked at Tsurumi. “It’s nothing grave, see? Eating properly again just made him tired.”

Tsurumi was still giving Nikaidou a good look, not looking convinced in the slightest. “Apparently.” Looking like he had reached a decision he closed his eyes for a short second, the moment he opened them again turning his head towards Usami. “I think it’s still better if you stay with him for the time being to keep an eye on him. Call a doctor if something’s getting out of the ordinary.”

So that’s how it was then. Of course Usami would stay. For one because it was Tsurumi’s order. For the other because keeping an eye on Nikaidou felt like the sensible thing to do these days anyway.

Tsurumi got ready to leave, looking like his mind was already occupied with his next task.

The question was out before Usami had decided he wanted to say something: “Are you going to try and figure out the code behind the skins, Sir?” It was a bit of a pointless question, it was after all the main thing Tsurumi seemed to be doing these days.

The question didn’t seem to bother him though. Door handle already in hand he turned around again, giving Usami a clear look that now was cleansed from any worry or lingering doubt that had been looming on his face for most of this day: “I think I’m slowly getting there.”

Usami had to suppress a disapproving glare. He didn’t know what he was supposed to think about him concentrating so intently on figuring out the code these days. Obsessions like these had the tendency to mess with the mind after all, Tsurumi had pointed it out himself. And Usami was not so detached from uncomfortable truths that he was not aware that Tsurumi was especially vulnerable of getting his mind spiralled out of control given he was confronted with the wrong sort of input. “Sir, it seems like such an effort of time. I could still go and fetch some expert to speed things up.” One expert, ten experts, if needed Usami would kidnap them all and deliver them here. Everything to prevent trying to figure out that code would end up having a bad influence on Tsurumi’s mind.

For a split second Tsurumi’s expression appeared to be oddly blank. Then he focused his gaze on Usami again, not quite smiling but expression looking warm. “I’d rather get as few people involved as possible. Decoding isn’t that much of a deal. It’s important to not put you under any kind of pressure, then then the solution will find a way to reach you.” With this Tsurumi was already opening the door, disappearing before Usami had a chance to say anything else.

Silently Usami looked at the now closed door again. If it had been up to him he would have preferred staying at Tsurumi’s side every time he tried decoding the skins, just to make sure he could intervene in case a negative influence would start to get hold of Tsurumi’s mind. But that wasn’t possible anytime; sometimes like right now Usami had to keep an eye on Nikaidou or was held back by other things.

Usami could feel a gaze set on him, the realization breaking him out from his ponderings. It was Nikaidou, still lying on the bed, looking as tired as before but now studying Usami with a sharp gleam behind his eyes that hadn’t been there like this before. Getting confronted with this look Usami felt caught off guard.

Usami took a deep breath. “I think it would be nice if we would manage to figure out the code behind those skins soon, you know?”

Nikaidou weakly nodded, the sharp look in his eyes staying intense.

“It seems a bit unfair the First Lieutenant has to carry the main burden in trying to crack it. But I guess what he just said is not wrong, getting only few people involved in the matter sounds reasonable.”

This time Nikaidou’s nod looked more energetic.

Despite the intense look in his eyes Nikaidou still made such a worn out impression. Usami took the blanket, arranging it around Nikaidou. “So, you’re tired from eating all this food. But is everything else still feeling alright?” The doctors were supervising the amount of morphine Nikaidou was given these days but still. It wasn’t the first time Usami had witnessed someone getting addicted to it and things beginning to spiral out of control. And knowing Nikaidou had already once gotten into the habit of stealing morphine didn’t help.

Nikaidou looked Usami deep into the eyes, nodding shortly.

“Otherwise let me know.”

Nikaidou avoided his gaze, settling in more comfortably into the bed. It had been weeks since Nikaidou had stopped talking but in the meanwhile they had developed their own way to communicate. There was no use to pressure Nikaidou to start talking again. Pressure was making everything just worse for him at the moment, no matter the aspect concerning. He would start talking eventually on his own again. Or maybe he would not, staying silent for all of eternity instead. There was no way Usami was in a state to predict those things.

Predictions. He felt his expression turn into a joyless smile. Maybe Inkarmat would have been able to do that but Usami wasn’t the one with a fox skull. He wasn’t even sure how exactly she had used the bone to make her divination.

Getting confronted with this sudden smile Nikaidou gave Usami a questioning look.

Usami shook his head, trying to get his expression under control again. “Ah, it’s nothing. I was just thinking. Nikaidou, did you know that Ainu have a method to make predictions by using the skull of a fox?”

Now Nikaidou’s attention was grabbed. He shook his head, looking interested.

“Neither did I. You know, when I went checking on Miss Inkarmat earlier she offered to read the future for me.”

The look in Nikaidou’s eyes stayed attentive.

“I wasn’t asking, she suddenly made the suggestion on her own. So now I have a prediction for my future without having planned to get any.”

Now Nikaidou looked downright curious.

Usami felt his face getting hot. Inkarmat hadn’t figured out all the details about who it was Usami was in love with but still. He folded his arms in front of his chest. “Ah, but it’s kind of embarrassing. I really can’t tell any detail about the prediction, I’m sorry.” Usami took a deep breath and continued: “I said Ainu use a fox skull to make a prediction but actually that’s not entirely correct. Inkarmat was using the lower jaw of the fox skull only. She laid it on her head and then bowed it down, until the bone fell down. That’s how it’s done.”

Nikaidou nodded, managing to look interested and dazed out at the same time.

Feeling his embarrassment finally leave Usami sighed. “Well, that’s how it’s done.” He let his gaze wander, until the empty plate standing on Nikaidou’s bedside table managed to grasp his attention. “I’m really happy to see you managed to eat today, you know?”, Usami said, surprised how quiet his voice was sounding.

For a moment Nikaidou went very still. Then he pulled the blanket up until it reached his nose, not entirely hiding under it but using it as a shield.

Usami felt a heavy melancholia set into his lungs, making it difficult to breath. No matter what they tried with Nikaidou these days, eventually it always ended up feeling like the wrong thing. But they couldn’t just stop and give up either. In this case Nikaidou would just end up hiding from the world under his blanket forever, not moving and not eating until weakness had overtaken his body and his last bit of strength would have left him. They wouldn’t allow this to happen.

When Usami addressed Nikaidou this time he didn’t care how his face looked, wasn’t even considering putting up a forced smile: “I don’t know if those kind of things interest you in the first place but if you ever want to I could ask Inkarmat to make a prediction for you too. You know, I still don’t take these things seriously. Not even remotely, I mean, it’s all just superstition. But now that she made one for me I don’t regret it either. Funny how that works, huh?”

This time Nikaidou didn’t nod. But he didn’t hide further under the blanket either. Instead his eyes slightly focused on Usami, a faint curiosity gleaming behind his eyes.

Usami stayed with Nikaidou until the nightshift nurse came to check in. Until she appeared he hadn’t even realized how much time had passed. Odd. But then, if Usami was honest everything had started to feel kind of off since Inkarmat had offered to make a prediction for his future.

The only future Usami could predict for right now was that he needed to go to sleep. Wishing Nikaidou a good night he went on his way to bed. Which wasn’t far. In fact, was only a walk on the corridor away. With Nikaidou’s mental state having reached such a dire condition and Inkarmat being under the threat of attracting attention from all the wrong sides Tsurumi had simply arranged for him and Usami to stay at the clinic.

Usami opened the door to the room he was currently staying in. Being in the same building than the two people they needed to have all of their eyes on was doubtlessly convenient but he couldn’t deny that the heavy hospital atmosphere was beginning to weight on his mood. In an odd way it was a bit comparable to staying in the trenches. Usami wondered if Tsurumi might have the same impression or if the hospital atmosphere didn’t bother him at all. Usami raised his gaze, looking at the wall that was dividing his room from the one Tsurumi was staying in. Feeling his face getting hot he quickly looked towards the floor, deciding he would get ready for bed now and forget about every weird thing that had occurred on this day.

Still lost in these thought Usami’s attention was caught by a movement in the corner of his eyes. Feeling his instincts build into something sharp and merciless he turned around. Realization reaching his mind Usami felt silly. The movement had been his own reflection in the small mirror placed on the table and nothing else. He already wanted to walk away when he felt his attention getting grasped despite everything. It must have been the exhaustion of this day catching up with him, that must have been the only reason he was slowly walking closer towards the mirror, sight never leaving his own face.

It was the tattoos on his face. For some reason Usami couldn’t stop looking at them. You’d think he would have gotten used to them after having them since some time but that wasn’t the case at all. The truth was Usami still couldn’t quite comprehend how they had ended up on his face. The fact he had set the memories of the moment they had been drawn on his face into eternity by making tattoos out of those drawings didn’t change that in the slightest.

As if on its own volition Usami’s hand came up to his face, tracing first the right tattoo and then the left one. Tsurumi had drawn them on his face, he had really and actually drawn them on his face. If Usami concentrated he could still feel the faint echo of Tsurumi’s hand on his face, holding him in place while drawing. Though holding him in place hadn’t been necessary at all; Usami would have been just too happy to follow his order and hold still. Suppressing a tortured sigh he felt his face blush, hot and sudden, eyes fixed on the reflection of the tattoos. With a sharp clarity he realized he absolutely couldn’t meet the gaze of his own reflection in the mirror right now, not while being this distracted by the memories of getting those drawings on his face. Tsurumi had been so close to him.

Getting overwhelmed by the memory Usami hid his face in his hands, the mere prospect of seeing his own face in the mirror right now abhorrent. Tsurumi had been so close. This aspect hadn’t been anything Usami had been able to hold on though, it had fallen out of his grasp as soon as the moment had ended. It had been months since that memory had taken place. And it wasn’t anything that would repeat itself ever again if Usami didn’t overcome his hesitation and finally confronted Tsurumi about his feelings.

The mere thought made Usami’s stomach cramp together in horror. He knew he had to act but what if it went all wrong? What if he got rejected? As long as he was hoping for things to fall into place by themselves he still could hope everything would end well but as soon as he would decide to directly confront the matter there was the chance of it going wrong.

Chance. According to Inkarmat’s prediction Usami still had a chance. That wouldn’t be of any use if he didn’t try his luck and someone else got brave faster than him. Suddenly feeling very tired Usami rubbed his hands against his face. Koito and the others already were in Karafuto since many weeks, they could return anytime soon now.

The fox jaw appeared in front of Usami’s inner eyes. The bone had looked so white and clear, the brightness it carried questioning and mocking any excuse Usami had used so far as a reason why it was better not to act and to continue idly waiting for a miracle to happen instead. Usami sighed. This was silly, he didn’t even believe in fortune telling. Not really.

Chapter Text

Inkarmat sat up some further in her bed, looking at the scene in front of her with bafflement. Finally she turned her head, addressing Tsurumi. “I really don’t see how I could be of any help to you with this.”

Usami tried to look unaffected by her confusion, continuing to lay out the human skins on the floor next to her bed.

Next to him Tsurumi seemed unbothered by Inkarmat’s objection. From the corner of his eyes Usami could see how he was brightly smiling at her. “I simply came to the conclusion that it’s worth a try.”

The doctor standing next to Inkarmat’s bed cleared his throat. “Remember what I told you: No longer than twenty minutes for today. After this the patient needs her rest.” He walked over to the door, handle already in hand when he turned around one last time. “I’ll come checking so make sure you’re finished until then.” With this he left the room.

Letting hear an absentminded sigh Inkarmat looked after him, at the door falling shut again. Then she sceptically glanced at the human skins laying on the floor. “This code doesn’t make any sense to me either. I can’t read it just because I happen to be Ainu.”

“That’s not why I got the idea to show this to you. I’m doing so because you mentioned you spent a lot of time travelling together with Nopperabou”, Tsurumi said.

Hearing this Inkarmat’s eyes widened in surprise. She lowered her gaze, a blush crawling across her face.

“You also mentioned how it had been you teaching him about the language and customs of the Ainu”, Tsurumi continued.

“It’s been many years since then and I was just a child.” Inkarmat shook her head, beginning to look resolute. “Once we parted ways Wilk must have forgotten quickly about me. There were other things in his life demanding his attention: His wife and soon his child. You overestimate my importance in this.”

Tsurumi’s face got serious, an atypical softness showing up behind his eyes. “Maybe. Or maybe not. Letting you have a look at this can’t hurt either way, don’t you think?”

“I wouldn’t even know where to start.” Inkarmat sighed. “I know nothing about decoding or how to read hidden messages. Those lines here make as little sense to me as they do to you.”

Finished with arranging the skins in a clear pattern on the floor Usami stood up, standing next to Tsurumi, despite better knowledge giving Inkarmat an apologetic look. The thing was, he knew Tsurumi had good reasons letting her have a look at the skins. But knowing that by doing so she would constantly be reminded on the important person of hers who had been shot in front of her eyes just a few weeks ago wasn’t easy to dismiss either.

Tsurumi gestured at the skins. “The important thing about decoding is this: Don’t pressure you about it. Look at the tattoos here. Think about the time you spent with Nopperabou, moments and occurrences that were important. If there is a connection it will eventually surface to the consciousness of your mind.”

Inkarmat showed a grim smile. “That sounds a little too easy to be true.” She shrugged her shoulders, appearing resigned. “Fine, I can have a look at them, I actually don’t mind about that. I’m just saying you will be disappointed keeping your hopes up. I still can’t see how any of this will help.”

“But why, that was already everything I was asking you to do”, Tsurumi said, sounding content. His hand went to the leather straps of his forehead protector, adjusting it. “And seeing as too many people hovering around prevents one from thinking in peace it’s the best if I will stop lingering around for now.” He addressed Usami. “It’s enough if only you stay. And you heard the doctor, twenty minutes only.”

Usami nodded. “Understood.”

“So you’re alright with the time limit?”, Inkarmat said, smiling knowingly.

“Sure. You can have another look at them tomorrow. I told you there is no need for you to rush in the slightest.” With this Tsurumi was already out of the room.

Inkarmat took a deep breath, looking out of the window. Then she addressed Usami: “If your First Lieutenant says ‘no pressure’: Does he actually mean it or is that his way of saying ‘you better try and hurry up’?”

“What do you think?”

“What I think? That he actually means what he’s saying. But you’re the one who knows him better so I’m asking you.”

Usami took a step closer towards the skins. “Your impression is right, he actually means it when he says it like that. So there was no need to ask me, your own judgement is enough.”

Inkarmat gave him a long and sharp look. “You don’t like it when people try to rely on you as a reference, don’t you?”

Usami felt himself getting tense. What was that about? He smiled, still looking at the skins. “Why are we talking about me all of a sudden?”

“I’m just trying to get knowledge that makes the reading of what the fox oracle said clearer.”

She was still going on about that? Usami looked up, forcing himself to meet Inkarmat’s gaze. “You’re um… no pressure and everything but you’re actually not supposed to think about me but about Nopperabou. In case he used some information about the time the two of you spent together for the code.”

The expression on Inkarmat’s face stayed collected. “Oh, but that’s what I’m doing. I am thinking about Wilk right now.”

Usami needed a moment to process what he was hearing. “You’re thinking about Nopperapou… while talking about someone else.”

“Is that really a concept so hard to understand?”

Well, actually if she put it like that it wasn’t. At all. Usami shrugged his shoulders. “As long as it helps you thinking, whatever.”

As an answer Inkarmat only nodded, sitting up a bit further. For a moment she went entirely quiet, just looking at the skins with an absentminded expression on her face. She was still staring at them when she started to speak: “Getting those tattoos on your face, did it hurt a lot?”

Well, that was… that was a good question actually. Had it hurt? Usami’s fingers traced over his tattoos, first the left one, then the right. “I guess… a bit. It really hurt in the beginning but I was too nervous to actually notice it that well. And when I had gotten used to it the whole thing was over already anyway.”

“I see.”

“Yeah.”

She pointed towards her own lips, sight still set on the skins laying on the floor. “I was just wondering because that thing here hurt a lot. I was glad when it was finally over.”

Usami needed a moment to realize what she was actually talking about. But then it hit him: Of course, that tattoo on her lips Ainu women would use to get. All this time her tattoo had appeared like a fixed thing of her appearance, making it easy to forget it was in fact artificially caused. “Oh, your own tattoo. So that’s how it was.”

Inkarmat nodded, shortly looking at Usami but then continuing to study the tattoos right away.

Once the Doctor appeared to let them know the time for decoding was over she still had found no clue in the code whatsoever. But if Usami was honest, he hadn’t expected her to get one this fast. Even if she eventually would be able to see anything, this odd code looked like it was designed to keep things as nebulous as possible, even for people potentially able to decipher it. Lost in his own thoughts he left the room, planning to report the result to Tsurumi.

Except that he couldn’t find him. Well, maybe he was with Nikaidou. But when Usami went to check Nikaidou wasn’t in his room either. Now, that was weird. Beginning to feel at loss Usami wandered around the room, looking at Nikaidou’s empty bed, his trunk, checking for clues.

His restless gaze wandering towards the window gave him the answer he was looking for. Right outside, sitting on a bench of the small hospital garden were Nikaidou and Tsurumi. Usami went entirely still, staring at the scene in front of him. In all those weeks they had been here Nikaidou had refused leaving the bed unless it was absolutely necessary, not feeling like leaving his room altogether. And now he was outside, for the first time since they had been here.

This was… this was good, wasn’t it? Unable to stay still any longer Usami felt his legs coming into motion, leading him outside into the garden. His crunching steps on the path filled with dry leaves announced his arrival before he had even said anything. Tsurumi and Nikaidou looked up at him practically at the same time, greeting him with a curious look.

“Any success so far?”, Tsurumi asked, giving Usami a small smile.

Usami felt his heart beat faster for reasons that had nothing to do with him having hurried outside. He shook his head, hoping doing so would prevent his face from blushing. “Nothing so far, no. But she was really trying to see if there was any connection hidden, I could tell.”

“I’m happy to hear that. Well, it’s nothing you can force. We can’t even be sure our idea is the right one. No harm in trying though.” Tsurumi didn’t look surprised by what he had been told. He didn’t seem disappointed either. The smile had disappeared from his face but the gleam behind his eyes still looked open. “Nikaidou and I thought we go outside for a moment as long as the sun is still around. Because next time we know it there might be rain for weeks again. Right, Nikaidou?”

As an answer Nikaidou only nodded. He looked up at Usami, not quite meeting his eyes but scooting slightly closer to Tsurumi so there would be more room on the bench.

Following this silent invitation Usami sat down next to Nikaidou. “Today is really nice for once, true. And it already gets dark so fast these days, that didn’t help with all the rain either.”

“Right? I thought so too”, Tsurumi said, that smile from before appearing on his face again. Despite them not being closer to deciphering the code, the fact that he had managed to convince Nikaidou to come outside for a moment seemed to have brightened his mood. The entire sight was utterly adorable.

Usami felt his chest becoming weight down with a desolate feeling. Realizing a blush was threatening to appear on his face he looked up, studying the pale blue fall sky hanging over them. It really was an unusually bright day today, only a few harmless and small clouds were in sight. Concentrating on the vast sky above him Usami could feel his heartbeat slowing down again.

Still looking at the sky Usami could feel a gaze set upon him. He turned his head. It was Nikaidou, looking at him with questioning eyes.

Usami gestured at a point low in the sky. “It’s… Look, you can see the moon already. Even though it’s still day.”

Nikaidou followed Usami’s line of sight, slowly nodding in understanding.

“It’s almost full moon again too”, Tsurumi added.

“True. And it looks so clear.” It really did. After the fog and clouds present during the last few days it stood out even sharper.

For a moment Tsurumi studied it in silence. When he continued talking his voice sounded thoughtful. “The way it is right now you can see the rabbit in the moon very good too.”

Hearing this Usami almost twitched together in surprise. No one seemed to have noticed though. Next to him Nikaidou slightly angled his head, looking at the moon in concentration. Silently Usami scolded himself. To get upset out of a sudden like this, and that though no one was around who would have tendencies to make comments about that one. Taking a deep breath Usami started talking: “You can see how it’s baking its rice cakes and everything.”

“Ah, yes, the rice cakes its baking”, Tsurumi said, sounding completely absentminded.

Nikaidou turned around, giving him a questioning look.

Tsurumi teared his gaze away from the moon, looking at Nikaidou. “I was just wondering what kind of rice cakes it might be making? There are so many different kinds. And why is it going through the effort of making them? Rice isn’t exactly the kind of food you associate with rabbits.”

Hearing this Nikaidou went still, thinking.

Usami couldn’t stop thinking about those questions either. “Maybe it’s baking them because it has guests coming over?”

Tsurumi gave Usami a thoughtful look. “Guests? I like that idea.”

“And for some reason I always assumed it’s making sweet ones. I don’t know, it just seems to make sense.”

Tsurumi was still looking at Usami. “The moon rabbit is baking sweet cakes for guests coming over. I really like that idea.”

It truly had become apparent fall had arrived for good. Once the sun had disappeared behind the horizon it was becoming much colder, making the decision easy to go inside again. The short trip outside seemed to have left Nikaidou exhausted. He immediately laid back into bed, crawling under the blanket but at least not hiding behind it. But convincing him to go outside for a bit still had been a good thing to do, right?

Usami had no time to ponder about these doubts though. Though night had already set Tsurumi insisted on getting another look at the skins, this time with Usami telling him in detail what Inkarmat had said while studying them.

Usami tried to remember and telling about it all. He mentioned everything except the part about Inkarmat bringing up the prediction she had made for him. He did not see how that would have helped deciphering the code.

Tsurumi listened to all Usami had to say, his sight never leaving the tattooed skins lying on the floor in front of them. “I’m surprised she was already able to make so many connections”, he finally said.

Usami felt baffled by the comment. “…connections? I wasn’t under the impression any of this would prove to be of much help.”

“Maybe not yet. But the direction her thoughts are taking are a productive one. Maybe the code of the skins really is not connected to any knowledge she possesses whatsoever. But if Nopperabou used information she told him as source for the code I see a good chance of her eventually realizing the meaning behind it.”

Well, hearing it explained like this made kind of sense. “I see.”

“Continuing to let her think about it is definitely the right thing to do at the moment”, Tsurumi said. With this he finally teared his gaze away from the floor, looking out of the window instead. Dismissively he gestured at the skins. “I think we’re finished for today.”

Usami felt a weight leave his chest he hadn’t been aware had been there this entire time. Seeing Tsurumi getting obsessed over the skins, it always managed to upset him. The fact that the timespan he used to study the skins seemed to get bigger did not help. Yes, witnessing him gazing out of the window right now was preferable to this by far.

Still feeling relieved Usami crouched down, gathering the skins together and carrying them away to their usual place into the safe. Maybe it was the odd pace of this afternoon finally catching up with him but for some reason he was beginning to feel so hot. And that though it truly had become fall by now, the increasing cold and darkness a stable reminder of this. But he couldn’t help it, the room suddenly felt so warm. Giving in to the urge he took off his jacket, absentmindedly shoving up his shirtsleeves while he was at it. It would be alright, Tsurumi wasn’t the kind of superior getting upset about such things as long as they were in a closed-off setting like this.

Feeling less jittery like this Usami packed away the skins, for no apparent reason feeling oddly glad he no longer had to touch their leathery surface.

Still seemingly lost in thoughts Tsurumi’s aimless gaze got focused, looking at an object located somewhere outside. “Like this you can see it even clearer. Now that it’s gotten dark.”

“Sir?”

Usami’s voice seemed to have ripped Tsurumi out of his ponderings. He turned his head, looking Usami sharply into the eyes while gesturing him to come closer. “The rabbit in the moon I mean. If you look outside like this you can see the moon just outside of the window.”

Walking closer Usami needed a second to realize Tsurumi was referring to what they had been talking about this afternoon in the garden. He came to a halt next to him, looking out of the window. True. From out of here you could see the moon just perfectly, compared to this afternoon it had already risen high in the sky too. Usami was talking before he had even decided he wanted to say something: “The rabbit is looking no different from earlier though.”

“It’s still baking rice cakes for its guests.”

“Now that I think about it what kind of guests might a moon rabbit even be expecting?”

The question made Tsurumi pause. His eyes got that distant expression they would always show when he was beginning to sink deep into thoughts. Usami had always loved seeing that expression but lately it had almost exclusively shown up whenever Tsurumi emerged himself in the mystery those skins were holding. Seeing that look appear on his face to matters completely unrelated to it brought a feeling that was almost peaceful. “I guess it's waiting for other kinds of moon animals”, Tsurumi finally said, sounding lost in thought.

“Like moon frogs and moon deer for example?”

Tsurumi looked Usami in the eyes, content expression showing up on his face. “I guess. And I doubt there would be any moon fox allowed to be present.”

The remark made Usami laugh, out of a sudden, he couldn’t help. “No, I don’t think so either. Too dangerous for a rabbit.” Feeling so oddly hot again Usami forced himself to calm down. “A moon tanuki would be no guest either then. They’re no safe company for a rabbit after all.”

“They are not”, Tsurumi said, nodding in agreement. “So no moon tanuki allowed.”

For a moment they silently looked out of the window, studying the moon whose shadows were still showing the picture of a rabbit. The thing was so far away, there was no way to see how its surface might actually look like. In the end it was just a light in the sky. Usami remembered something: “Moon rabbit, moon fox... I wonder, would moon animals be much different from the ones on earth?”

Tsurumi instantly started talking, as if the answer to this question had been clear to him all along. “I would assume so, with the moon being a place different from earth.”

“It probably isn’t looking the same as here on earth, right.”

“Most likely.” Tsurumi adjusted the leather straps of his forehead protector. “For some reason I always imagined moon rabbits to look taller but lankier than the rabbits on earth.”

Now that was a surprising thing to say. Usami turned his gaze away from the moon, looking at Tsurumi. “Oh? So that would make them quite different then.”

Tsurumi shrugged his shoulders, eyes still firmly set on the scenery outside. “A bit, maybe.”

Usami was beginning to feel so hot again. He tugged at his shirtsleeves, pushing the hems further up, right up to his elbows. “Taller and lankier... to be honest I still can’t imagine how they would look like exactly.”

“Not that much different from normal ones. They would still clearly be rabbits.”

“Oh.” Usami still felt at loss. His entire head was suddenly feeling so muddy. Trying to clear his mind he took a deep breath. Bad idea. Like this he became fully aware of how good Tsurumi had been smelling this entire time. When had they ended up standing so close to each other anyway? Their shoulders were almost touching, Usami had no recollection how any of this had happened. “I still can’t imagine how moon rabbits might look like, I’m sorry.”

Tsurumi was still looking out of the window but no longer was holding the moon in sight. He looked like he was gazing at a place far beyond the night sky, at a place of the universe creatures far more odd than moon rabbits or moon foxes might reside. The calmness he was doing this with seemed to be in jarring contrast to the restless nervousness building up inside of Usami.

Slowly Tsurumi turned his head, looking at the desk standing at the other side of the room, looking like he had come to a decision. “That’s a pity. In that case it would be the best I just show you how they’re supposed to look like.” With this this he walked towards the desk, picking something up standing on top of it.

When he returned Usami could see that those mysterious objects had been a pen and a glass of ink. Tsurumi placed those items on the window sill, his right hand reaching towards Usami’s arm but not quite touching it. “Would you give me your arm?”

Not daring to speak, not daring to move any further than necessary Usami turned his exposed forearm towards Tsurumi, the words he had just heard echoing through his head. He knew he had heard right but that didn’t make the situation any more graspable. In a weird way it felt Usami was just witnessing what was happening right now instead of being a part of it.

Tsurumi got the pen ready, his other hand gently touching Usami’s wrist. “Turn your arm the other way around. Right, like this.” Tsurumi set the tip of the pen right under the inside of Usami’s elbow, beginning to draw something.

The pen gliding over Usami’s skin felt firm but gentle, an echo of the time Tsurumi had drawn those figures on his face. It was an echo but at the same time it felt completely different as back then. Back then everyone else had been present, the added attention he had been getting only increasing Usami’s confusion. This here though felt different. Unexpected and overly real at the same time. And too gentle to be truly confusing. But it still felt so overwhelming. Usami felt himself getting more upset with every passing second, concentrating on nothing but keeping his arm still.

Before he had fully come to terms with the situation Tsurumi was already finished with what he had been doing. He lifted the tip of the pen away from Usami’s skin, letting go of his arm entirely but still looking at the drawing he had left on Usami’s forearm. “Here, that’s how I imagine moon rabbits to look like.”

With slow motions that felt very unreal Usami lifted his arm up in an angle he would be able to look at the drawing properly. True, the lines that now resided on his forearm doubtlessly formed the shape of a rabbit. The animal was in the middle of running, its lanky body only emphasizing the swiftness and speed of the movement. The entire drawing looked like the essence of a rabbit distilled down into its clearest core, a symbol of its spirit.

Usami was still staring at the ink lines. “That’s a cute rabbit.”

“Does the image fit the way I described them?”, Tsurumi asked, voice strangely empty.

Usami forced himself to meet Tsurumi eyes. “Yes. I mean, I guess that’s how moon rabbits look like. It looks all very logical like this. This is a good rabbit.”

For a short moment Tsurumi’s expression looked devoid of an emotion, his eyes fixating Usami with an intensely searching look. Apparently having found what he had been looking for the gleam behind his eyes lit up, a small but genuine smile appearing on his face. “A good rabbit indeed. I’m glad then.”

Usami tried to come up with something to say but the blush still spreading violently over his face prevented him from uttering even the simplest words. And it wasn’t only his face, his forearm felt as if was on fire, as if the ink of the drawing was boiling and burning deep into his flesh. Trying to muster up some kind of answer anyway he felt himself nod weakly in agreement, the slight movement already enough to make his head feel even more dizzy, muddying up the last clear parts of Usami’s mind completely.

Chapter Text

Inkarmat leaned her chin onto her hand, looking in concentration at the skins lying on the floor next to her bed. “At the time I didn’t realize something as simple as a wild deer would be something completely new to Wilk. The moment we saw the small herd he made this surprised noise, just from seeing them.”

Usami straightened his back, slightly fidgeting around on the chair he was sitting on. “Because of some deer?”

“Yes. You see, this kind of deer didn’t live in the place he was living at before. So the first time we came across them he was completely caught by surprise”, Inkarmat said, the memory making a slight smile appear on her lips.

“I see.”

“He soon got used to them though. The second time we saw one the animal ended up as our dinner for that day.”

The poor thing. “Oh no.”

“Well, we hadn’t eaten proper meat in days so we were kind of glad to come across it.” Inkarmat shrugged her shoulders, looking at Usami. “But I always end up feeling sorry for deer anyway too to be honest. I don’t know, maybe because they’re so tall? It’s easier to dismiss a smaller animal you catch for eating, like a duck or a fish.”

“Must be it.” Usami scratched the inner elbow of his right arm, trying to soothe the slight pain still set in there. “I never went hunting or anything, not really. So I can’t say much about the subject, I guess.”

“At the end of the day most people aren’t hunters.”

“I certainly am not. Now that I think about it, there never was a situation I needed to kill an animal. Be it for food or otherwise.” There had been countless people Usami had needed to kill, many of them for the sake of being the one to stay alive. But there was no need to mention this, he decided.

“Maybe that’s not even for the worst”, Inkarmat said, sounding thoughtful. For a moment she went quiet, gaze falling on the spot of his arm Usami was scratching again. “Did you get hurt or something? You look like you’re in slight pain”, she finally said.

Usami stopped his movements. He hadn’t even been fully aware what he had been doing. “Something like that, I suppose.”

“You suppose?”, Inkarmat asked, looking more critical by the second.

Had Usami really left such a restless impression the entire time? He should just tell her he had gotten an annoying bruise and leave it at that. Bringing the attention away from himself would be best, they were supposed to talk about her memories after all. “I’ve gotten a new tattoo.”

Now Inkarmat looked completely baffled. “A tattoo? On your arm then?”

“Yes. It uh… was a spontaneous decision.”

“What kind of tattoo? Could I see it?”

Well, why not. It was only located on his forearm after all. Usami got rid of the fabric covering it, showing her the spot under the inside of his elbow.

Inkarmat looked at the tattooed picture of the rabbit, how it was running for all of eternity over his skin. “It’s a rabbit.”

“It is.”

She teared her gaze away from the new tattoo, giving him a careful look. “That tattoo: Did the person who drew those figures on your face draw this rabbit as well?”

Of course she had figured it out. It didn’t come as a surprise but Usami felt his face getting red anyway. “Well, ah, yes. It was sort of an unplanned occurrence.”

For a long moment Inkarmat stayed quiet. The look she was giving him implicated she was convinced she had just gotten confronted with an act of huge foolery but at the same time was trying to stay polite and hide her thoughts about this. “Did you get a chance so far to follow the advice the fox oracle has been giving you?”

Usami had to avert his eyes. “No.”

“Making a tattoo out of it every time he doodles on you, I’m not exactly sure this is the kind of thing bringing you closer to your wish.”

“I know that!”

“Well, if you’re aware of it then it’s good”, she said, sounding perfectly calm.

“I would think so”, Usami said, rearranging his clothes again. Something she had just said caught his attention. “Wait, ‘he’?”

“Am I wrong?”

Usami just glared at her.

“You don’t have to answer this, I’m sorry.” She took a deep sigh. “I’m sorry, I not saying any of this to upset you. I just want to deliver the prediction of my fox oracle as clearly as possible. You see, interpreting the message of the fox in the best way is something you have to learn and you’re never done improving.”

The thing was, judging from what he was seeing that was most likely the case. “You talk about that fox spirit as if it’s some kind of friend of yours.”

For a moment Inkarmat looked surprised. Then she had to smile. “Well, I guess you could say in a certain way it really is.”

Almost despite himself he had to smile back. Usami huffed, shaking his head. “So, you were just telling me about deer.”

O O O

The grip of Usami’s hand on the tray got stronger, the desperation he was beginning to feel difficult to suppress. “Come on, Nikaidou. Just a few bites, okay?”

Nikaidou averted his eyes, looking out of the window, making no attempts to accept the food. At least he wasn’t hiding under the blanket. For now.

“You don’t have to eat up everything. As soon as you’re full you can stop. Is that a deal?” A bit of food was still better than refusing it entirely.

Nikaidou wasn’t moving, only sitting upright in the bed and refusing to look at Usami. The only thing that happened was that a shadow laid itself over his expression, as if he was beginning to feel guilty or something.

Usami looked down at the plate. “You’re annoyed having to use the fork, is it that? Look, there are chopsticks too. I know you still can’t hold them properly, but…” Usami took the chopsticks, getting a bite of food ready. “You don’t have to hurry either. I can stay until you’re done.”

The shadow over Nikaidou’s face darkened. He slowly started moving, leaning towards Usami but not quite looking him in the eyes. He accepted the food Usami had made ready for him, starting to eat with a detached look in his eyes.

Well that was progress, wasn’t it? Everything was better than Nikaidou continuing to starve himself. Patiently Usami got another bite ready, feeling a desolate weight leave that had stuck in the centre of his mind this entire time. He didn’t care how much time it would take and neither did he mind having to feed Nikaidou. As long as everything just got better.

Nikaidou took another bite, the gleam in his eyes gradually losing its bleak edge.

Usami felt the corners of his mouth rise. “It’s not that bad, see? Even though it’s only hospital food.”

The comment earned him a small, a very small smile. And even more importantly, Nikaidou finally looked him in the eyes, for the first time on that day.

Seeing how rocky things had started out today it was almost unbelievable Nikaidou had managed to eat up everything that had been there. Moving the plate aside Usami felt a jittery impulse roam through his mind. He looked at Nikaidou, hesitating. The thing was, Usami didn’t think it was a good idea to praise him for the smallest things as if he was a child or some sort of pet getting trained to do tricks but… “I’m really glad you managed to eat all of it.”

Nikaidou lowered his gaze, shrugging his shoulders. Looking at loss how to react he laid back into bed again, not bothering about the blanket or the pillow that in the meanwhile were laying messily around.

The sight sent a cold stab through Usami’s lungs. He took the blanket, arranging it carefully around Nikaidou. “It’s freezing outside today. Make sure you don’t get cold.”

Nikaidou shrugged his shoulders, shortly meeting Usami’s eyes. He made the impression like he wasn’t avoiding looking at him with purpose but just couldn’t stand the sight at the moment.

Beginning to feel uncertain about the situation Usami started to think. Maybe he was just making matters worse with continuing to hover around like this? He addressed Nikaidou: “Hey. So. You still need anything?”

No reaction.

“Shall I stay?”

No reaction.

Well, maybe Usami acting so pushy this entire time had just become annoying. He took a deep sigh, straightening his back. “I’m leaving now, okay? I’ll come and check in on you later again.”

He had already stood up and turned around when he felt his arm being held back. Surprised he turned around. It was Nikaidou, holding Usami’s arm, tugging at the sleeve, his gaze cast down low on the floor.

Usami felt another stab shoot through his chest, a painful mix of relieve and sadness. “If you want I can stay though.”

Nikaidou nodded, still not meeting Usami’s eyes. His remaining hand held on faster on Usami’s sleeve, refusing to let go.

Suppressing a helpless groan Usami sat down at the edge of the bed, laying his hand over Nikaidou’s. “I’m still here, see? I’d love to stay if you want me to.”

Hearing this Nikaidou finally calmed down. His hand remained clasped firmly around Usami’s arm but the desperate edge he had been holding on with was gone now.

Usami started patting Nikaidou’s shoulder, an attempt to calm him down further, an attempt to distract himself from the deep set melancholia spreading through his mind. No matter what they tried to make things better for Nikaidou, in the end it always seemed the wrong thing to do. Had it been a mistake to suggest he should go outside into the garden with them the other day? But Nikaidou had seemed to be alright with it, so maybe his slump today had nothing to do with it after all.

Usami’s gaze fell on the stump Nikaidou’s right arm ended in these days. Really, had that been necessary? After he had just gotten used to his new leg? It just didn’t feel fair he had to go through all of this. How old was Nikaidou again? Nine, ten years younger than Usami? And despite being so young he had already been through so much.

Nikaidou raised his gaze, finally looking Usami in the eyes. The expression on his face was oddly wary and hopeful at the same time.

Following a sudden impulse Usami took Nikaidou’s hand into his own. “I just told you: If you want me to stay around I’d love to.”

For a long moment Nikaidou went still, looking Usami deep into the eyes. Then he nodded, closing his eyes and strengthening the hold of his own hand on Usami’s.

Usami felt a solid warmth spread through his mind. In an odd way all of this felt like a better result than he could have even been hoping for.

Chapter Text

Tsurumi leaned his chin onto his hand, studying the skins lying on the floor in front of him with an absentminded gaze. “Like the way cats tend to wander”, he murmured.

Before he had planned to Usami was already talking, unable to keep the concern out of his voice: “Sir? What cats?”

Hearing Usami’s question Tsurumi turned his head, looking for a moment as if he had been caught completely off guard. Maybe he hadn’t even realized he had been voicing his thoughts out aloud: “The pattern. It was just reminding me of how cats sometimes tend to move when there’s many of them in the same space.”

“Oh?” Did they tend to do that? Usami wasn’t really familiar with cats, let alone how an entire group of them tended to act.

“Did you ever happened to have a cat?”

“Not so far, no.”

“I see. You know, the thing is a bunch of them can act rather peculiar when kept in the same space.” Tsurumi took a step away from the skins, closer to Usami, the entire posture of his body gradually relaxing. “Like humans every cat tends to have their own personality. There are some who are more curious and some who prefer to stay for themselves. And everything in between. Like this some cats meeting one another, it can result in them getting along with each other well or not. Depending what personality they have, do you understand what I mean?”

“I guess I do. Some tend to like each other, some do not?”

For a very short moment a smile showed up on Tsurumi’s face. “Basically like this, yes.”

“And how does that relate to the pattern?”, Usami asked, still feeling a slight unrest in his chest.

“The pattern, yes. It’s nothing special. The way the lines cross each other just reminds me how cats sometimes move around each other, avoiding each other when it’s clear they would prefer to stay for themselves for the moment.”

For a moment Usami had to think. “Wouldn’t it be best to keep those cats separated then?”

“It’s not always that easy an answer. You see, cats tend to get lonely too”, Tsurumi said, eyes becoming distant. Looking like he was beginning to be lost in thoughts a heavy silence descended upon the room.

“I take it you on the other side used to have cats then?”, Usami quietly asked, adjusting his hat. He felt the question to be almost too personal but at the same time couldn’t stand the heavy silence for any moment longer.

Tsurumi didn’t seem surprised by the question though: “Used to, and then again, after a long time. Even if I don’t plan to get one, it always seem to be the cats who tend to be the ones finding me.” The expression on his face stayed distant.

“Cats are cute but I never really thought about getting one”, Usami said, once again just trying to fill the silence that was trying to expand itself again. Though Tsurumi was giving him his attention right now there was still that vacant gleam behind his eyes, Usami didn’t know what to make out of it. In a strange way he felt he himself not being here in this moment wouldn’t have made any difference at all; whatever attempt he made to try and establish a connection to Tsurumi’s thoughts, right now it was impossible. As if Usami was fated to be the eternal outsider.

Trying to fight this feeling Usami was already thinking of something more meaningful to say when there was already fluid leaking out of Tsurumi’s forehead wound, the thin substance dripping on his nose. Usami felt his mind go blank, feeling as if his entire chest had become a hollow space. Acting more on instinct than anything else his hand had already reached for one of the clean handkerchiefs in his pocket, silently offering it to Tsurumi.

Tsurumi looked at the handkerchief, a questioning expression spreading through his face as if he hadn’t realized yet that his wound had begun to act up. Then he straightened his back and that expression was gone. “Thank you”, he said, calmly taking the handkerchief Usami was still holding out and starting to clean his face up.

Usami nodded, not really knowing what else to do. Lately all things tended to do was to become more complicated instead of clearer. Inkarmat talking about her fox oracle giving her predictions about the future wasn’t really about her listening to the advice of an actual fox. Usami making a tattoo out of the rabbit figure Tsurumi had drawn on his arm hadn’t anything to do with Usami liking or disliking real and actual rabbits. And Tsurumi talking about the way cats tended to behave right now, Usami felt that there was more behind it than Tsurumi just telling trivia about pets.

Tsurumi was still busy cleaning up his face. With an absentminded sigh he opened the leather straps of his forehead protector, taking the thing off. Usami felt his breath hitch. He had seen Tsurumi not wearing that thing many times but never before had Tsurumi taken it off so casually. But then, right now it was only the two of them alone in this room. Usami felt like he should make a connection out of those facts that was rather obvious but right now his mind felt almost confused, refusing to think properly.

There was still more fluid dripping out of the wound. Tsurumi already looked like he was about to get another handkerchief ready when the movement of his hand suddenly stopped. He looked up at Usami, his eyes for the first time on that day looking like they were set on Usami only. “Would you happen to have another one?”

Before he had truly processed the words directed at him Usami had fished out another handkerchief out of his pocket, holding it out for Tsurumi to take. Now he felt truly confused. He knew that Tsurumi tended to have several handkerchiefs ready for exactly a case like this, and it wasn’t something he tended to forget either. There was absolutely no reason he needed to rely on Usami right now.

And yet he did it anyway.

Face now clean Tsurumi quietly put on his forehead protector again, his movements those of automated routine. Whatever distraction had seemed to be on his mind before, it appeared to be gone. At least for the moment.

Usami couldn’t stay silent anymore: “Might I make a suggestion?”

Doing the last few movements to adjust his forehead protector into place Tsurumi looked at him, the expression in his eyes as clear as just before. “Of course, go on.”

“We’ve been busy in here all afternoon. What about getting a break?”

Expression turning thoughtful Tsurumi nodded. “It’s been a while since we started, yes. Let’s take a break.”

Usami felt a weight fall off his lungs he didn’t realize had been there until now.

“Now that I think about it, we’ve been coped up in here since days. I know, why don’t we go to that place Kato discovered, and get some dango?”, Tsurumi said.

“Sounds good.” Usami felt a relieved surprise wash over him. Not far away from the hospital Kato had discovered a place that sold dango and other sweets. According to Tsurumi the only acceptable dango you were able to get in Abashiri. They had been to the place to get some sweets before, but not since a while.

Tsurumi nodded. “Let’s tell Kato and Higashi to keep all of their eyes on the place then and go.”

Usami nodded. Of course the easiest thing to do would have been for Tsurumi to simply order either of his men to get the dango instead of going with Usami. But though he hadn’t voiced it out aloud Usami could tell that Tsurumi felt just as glad as him to have an excuse to leave the hospital for a short while. The heavy atmosphere of the place must have started getting to him as well, Usami could feel it.

They had already put the skins into the safe and were about the leave the room when Tsurumi halted his steps, giving Usami a heavy look.

Usami kept his gaze, feeling like he was practically freezing into place.

After a moment that couldn’t have been more than a few seconds but felt like aeons Tsurumi started talking: “Usami?”

“Sir?”

“If you ever get the feeling my mind is starting to decay you will let me know, won’t you?”

Usami felt his heart starting to beat faster. “Of course I would do that.”

For another eternal second Tsurumi’s face stayed expressionless. Then a weight seemed to lift of his posture, the gleam behind his eyes gradually turning into something warm. “Of course you would. Let’s keep going then.”

The way to the sweets shop wasn’t a long one, but thanks to today’s cold it felt a lot longer than usually. And leaving the warmth of the place again, packed up dango in their hands, the way back to the hospital felt even colder.

Usami wasn’t sure if he minded the weather all that much though. It felt solid and real in a way the air in the hospital never did. Besides, compared to the merciless frost that he had encountered in Manchuria it wasn’t even that cold.

A gush of wind came along their way, bringing icy air with it. Okay, it was awfully cold after all. Especially when that wind acted up. To think that just the other day it had been nice and sunny, giving the three of them the opportunity to sit in the garden. Yes, just lately Nikaidou had agreed to come outside with them and soon after that he already had descended into such a dark mood again. Usami had tried to find the cause for this but without success. But maybe he was searching too far. He actually knew since a while what one of the reasons was that made it so hard for Nikaidou to get better. And if he was right with his suspicion the reason was beginning to affect Tsurumi as well. Was beginning to affect all of them. Hesitantly Usami turned his head around, looking at Tsurumi: “Sir?”

Tsurumi slowed down his steps, holding Usami’s gaze. “What is it, Usami?”

“I’ve been thinking about Nikaidou.”

For a long moment Tsurumi stayed silent, just holding Usami’s gaze. The expression in his eyes getting utterly serious he finally turned his head away, looking at the street in front of them instead. “Have you? Tell me about it.”

“All this time since he’s gotten injured he has been staying here. I don’t think this is doing him any good. The entire place is completely unfamiliar to him.”

Tsurumi was still staring ahead. The expression looked just like the one he had shown before, when they had been talking about pet cats. “I get what you’re saying. It would be better for him to be back in familiar surroundings.”

Usami had to fight against a lump in his throat before he could speak again. “Yes.”

“In fact, I’ve been having the same thought in mind since a while.”

Usami raised his eyebrows, looking at Tsurumi with questioning eyes.

For a short moment Tsurumi looked at Usami, just to stare at the road ahead of them again right away. “As long as Inkarmat was still in a critical condition we couldn’t consider moving her. But she’s gotten a lot better and according to the doctors soon should be able to.”

That sounded… that sounded good. Usami felt the pace of his steps quicken, a directionless unrest coming over him. “Really?”

“Yes. There are many reasons I would prefer being back in Otaru again as soon as possible anyway.” Tsurumi turned his head, finally giving Usami a clear look into the eyes. “As soon as Inkarmat is in a stable condition to do so all of us can move back. She and Nikaidou will still be in need of medical attention, but for that we can just hire a nurse. I think even like this the entire situation will be a lot more convenient, not only for us but for the two of them as well.”

“That sounds like a wonderful idea”, Usami said, unable to hide his excitement anymore. It sounded so much better than letting Nikaidou stay in this this foreign place that was so completely unfamiliar to him.

For a moment they walked in quietly next to each other. The atmosphere felt light thought.

It was Tsurumi who broke the silence: “So, once we’re back: Shall we tell Nikaidou about our plans?”

Usami hesitated, feeling his steps beginning to slow down. “It’s not just an idea, we really would be able to move soon, wouldn’t we?”

“As soon as Inkarmat is ready. And the doctors agree this won’t take very long.”

Feeling relieved Usami couldn’t hide a smile any longer. “Let’s tell him then.”

Chapter Text

Usami kept himself busy arranging three portions of dango on platters, addressing Nikaidou: “We brought you one as well, Nikaidou. I told you about that sweets shop that has all that good stuff before, didn’t I? The one down the street.”

Nikaidou eyed the dango lying in front of him suspiciously. He didn’t look averse, exactly, but making the impression he was cautious of what was to come next.

“We just asked the doctors. You’re allowed to have some”, Usami said, trying to sound encouraging.

“They’re delicious”, Tsurumi agreed, taking a bite of his own dango. His expression turned thoughtful while eating. “They really are. I can tell because all of the other ones we tried in this town before weren’t much to write home about”, he said, words sounding almost melancholic.

Watching this small display of genuine sweets enthusiasm the last bit of reluctance vanished from Nikaidou’s face. He picked up his own dango, tentatively taking a small bite.

Usami cheered inwardly. Trying to appear nonchalant he started eating his own food. Nikaidou deciding that he wanted to eat something was always, always, always better than him resisting to try any food. But showing his enthusiasm for Nikaidou’s progress too obviously might look condescending so he tried not to make a fuss out of it.

For a while the three of them were eating in silence. The only sound was the roaring of the wind outside. Listening to it you got the impression an actual storm was incoming.

Then Usami had to remember something: “It was awfully cold outside though, when we went into town. The wind is going crazy today”, he said, giving Nikaidou a thoughtful look.

Nikaidou looked up at him, expression sympathetic. He nodded and continued eating his dango.

Tsurumi had witnessed their exchange silently, giving Nikaidou a pondering look. “We’ve been thinking about a few things as well, on our way back.”

Now Nikaidou stopped eating, looking at the both of them with cautious eyes. He appeared to be ready to forget about his food and hide under the blankets should any incoming bad news force him to.

Tsurumi continued: “Nikaidou say: What would you think about all of us moving back to Otaru anytime soon?”

Nikaidou had frozen, expression now entirely sceptical.

“Inkarmat has gotten stable enough to soon be ready for making the travel for this move, so we’re thinking about leaving Abashiri and going back”, Usami explained.

Nikaidou appeared less surprised but still looked tense. He gestured at himself and then at Usami and Tsurumi.

“Yes, all three of us together. To our old place. Would you be okay with this idea?”, Tsurumi asked. At first glance he appeared relaxed but Usami noticed how hard Tsurumi’s hands were gripping the dango skewer he was still holding.

The cautious look gradually disappeared from Nikaidou’s face. He nodded, slowly and carefully, as if he was concerned there was still an unpleasant surprise to come.

“Well, yeah, that’s it, that’s what we were talking about on our way back”, Usami said, taking another bite of his food and doing his best to appear unthreatening and supportive.

Nikaidou nodded, picking up his own skewer again but not yet eating.

Tsurumi looked at Nikaidou and continued: “We get you and Inkarmat back to our old place and get a nurse hired for the medical stuff the two of you still need. It’s more practical to have everyone and everything in the same spot again, isn’t it?”

Nikaidou nodded again, continuing to eat his food, apparently having decided having to deal with a nurse in familiar surrounding instead of an entire foreign hospital was a surprise he could live with. More, the expression on his face looked tentatively happy.

That was… that was good. Nikaidou appearing to feel alright about their plans was good. Things would turn out well, both Usami and Tsurumi would see to that. Feeling a tension falling away from his body Usami lowered his eyes, his gaze meeting the plate of dango located on his lap. Daring to feel relieved about the reaction Nikaidou was showing Usami picked up the skewer and continued eating. Taking the bite he realized that until now he hadn’t really payed attention to how the food was tasting. More, until now things had tasted somewhat bland and ashen. Now chewing in concentration Usami had to agree with Tsurumi: Those specific dango here honestly were delicious.

O O O

Inkarmat smiled, shortly looking up from the list she was writing. “So, we will be moving soon then?”

Usami nodded. “As soon as the doctors say you’re in a state to do so.”

“That’s wonderful to hear!”

Usami couldn’t help but feel slightly surprised. “You like it better in Otaru than in Abashiri then?” From what he understood she had travelled for the most part of the last years, never staying for very long in one and the same place. Had she ties to Otaru or something?

“I like to be out of the hospital. I don’t want to complain but to tell you the tell you the truth, it’s sort of a ghastly place. The doctors and everyone try their best to make it bearable but if you’re here for such a long time, well…”, Inkarmat said, apologetically shrugging her shoulders.

“No, I think I get what you mean. It’s just… what it is.” Usami truly could understand what she meant. He wasn’t even a patient but couldn’t help but to feel affected by the heavy atmosphere of the place as well.

“Just like this”, Inkarmat sighed, looking like she was getting lost in thought.

Usami had to remember something: “By the way, we hadn’t forgotten about you, before I mean. We had brought you some dango as well. But according to the doctors you’re not yet allowed to eat them, I’m sorry.”

Inkarmat looked up, expression one of hurt disappointment. “Oh, they really allow you not even the slightest bit of fun!”

“Well, they said your stomach is still too weak to handle heavy food and…”

“Oh, I know, I know. I actually do understand why the doctors are so strict with their instructions but well…” She picked up her list, continuing to write down more things. “Having a wound to your gut really is no fun at all”, she said, now practically glaring at the piece of paper in her hands.

Usami could understand the sentiment. Feeling his curiosity getting stronger after all he nodded towards the list she was still holding in her hands. “What are you writing here?”

“Oh? This?” Inkarmat looked at the list, looking surprised by the question. “Nothing special. I’m just writing down what kind of animals Wilk and I managed to hunt down for eating when we were travelling together.”

“Oh? Got a clue then?”

“Not really. Maybe a bit, I don’t really know. It’s just… It felt like a good idea to write it down like this.”

“I see.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know, it’s just a vague idea.”

“That’s fine. We’re here to listen to every input of yours”, Usami said.

Inkarmat shrugged her shoulders again, looking self-conscious. She held out the piece of paper for Usami to take. “That’s today’s outcome of inputs then”, she said.

Their time for today was nearly up now. They doctors were still strictly regulating the amount of visiting hours Inkarmat was allowed to get. Taking this into account it appeared more understandable they were still not allowing her to eat unsuitable food either.

That stabbing wound to the stomach really had affected her awfully hard, hadn’t it? Usami supressed a sigh, putting the list she had given him away into his pocket. “Thank you.”

As an answer Inkarmat just shook her head. She leaned back into bed, looking like there still was something on her mind. She lifted up her gaze, giving Usami a thoughtful look. “How is it going on your front? Had any opportunity to bring your issue up yet?”

Usami couldn’t suppress an uncomfortable smile showing up on his face. “Not yet. But getting there, I hope.”

Inkarmat looked at him with a sympathetic expression. “I can only say how it is for me: But in my experience it’s sometimes best not to ponder about it too long but to just force yourself to act. Even if it feels hard.”

What she was saying wasn’t really helping Usami with his dilemma but he could see that she was trying to help. He tried to give her a smile: “I’m not sure that’s what would be best in my situation though.”

“I see. Well, I guess those things are different for everyone after all”, she said, looking at the trunk standing in the corner of the room. With the fox skull not sitting at her bedside table right now it was most likely located in there.

Curiosity made Usami continue talking: “Did the fox tell you in the meanwhile who it is I’m trying to talk to?”

“The fox might have narrowed it down a bit.”

“So? What did it say then?”

Inkarmat took a deep breath, looking serious. “As far as I can see it’s either your ill friend or your First Lieutenant.”

Now that was an answer Usami hadn’t quite seen coming like this. “Your fox makes interesting statements.”

“It sometimes does”, Inkarmat admitted.

Neither of them mentioned that Usami had neither confirmed nor denied any of her claims. But then, in the meanwhile it had gotten time for Usami to leave her rest again anyway. Strict as the doctor’s orders for her still were, the depressing thing was that apparently they still were the reasonable thing to do. But well, they could continue talking about the matter next time.

Chapter Text

Tsurumi read through the list Inkarmat had just written, expression in his eyes getting sharper. He nodded, stayed silent and read through it another time.

Having the feeling something was incoming Usami set his restless gaze on the skins displayed on the floor in front of them.

“So, Inkarmat made the connection between the skins and those animals here she used to hunt with Wilk”, Tsurumi finally said, a sharp edge hovering around the frames of his words.

Usami took a deep breath, searching for the words to clarify. “Maybe not exactly a connection. She stated thinking about the skins made her remember these animals, so she thought it to be a good idea to write them down.”

Tsurumi looked unimpressed. “That’s the same as making an unconscious connection. Maybe it won’t lead to anything but it might be worth having a closer look at this.”

Only with effort Usami managed to suppress a worried sigh. Getting a closer look at an idea might sound better than the vague guessing they had done so far, but for some reason the prospect of it still left him restless. The thing was, he still didn’t like how Tsurumi immersed himself in the task of trying to crack the code this intensely, it was that simple.

But well, despite his objections there was nothing Usami could do against it. Trying to hide his disdain he made a step closer to Tsurumi, now glancing at the list himself. “I had a closer look at it, before. None of the animals standing on it is in any way special. Just the common ones you would meet on this island when going into the forest and being forced to look for food there.”

“In the ordinary the things of outstanding meaning are to be found in the detail”, Tsurumi said, attention still caught by what was standing on the list. “You know, exactly because these animals are common here should make us think in what ways you could use them and their habits to transmit information with.”

Use them to transmit information with? “I don’t know. Sometimes a rabbit is just a rabbit.” Usami felt his face turning hot. He hadn’t even planned saying this out aloud, his reluctance had just gotten the better of him.

For a moment Tsurumi stared at him, stuck in bafflement. Then he started laughing, silent and genuine. “Well, this is important to keep in mind too, though. Not every rabbit can be a moon rabbit. Sometimes they’re just the ones you find on earth, minding their own business instead of baking sweets.”

Usami was still violently blushing due to his blunder but seeing Tsurumi’s reaction already made him feel calmer again. More, hearing him making a reference to that conversation about moon rabbits they’ve had that one time probably meant things were still alright. “Yes, that’s what I wanted to say. Sometimes things just are what they appear to be on the surface, no hidden meaning intended”, Usami said.

“Right”, Tsurumi confirmed, no longer laughing but a small smile still visible on his lips. “It’s important to make things not any more complicated than they already are.”

For a moment they were silent again, comparing the list with the tattoos lying in front of them, trying to look for a pattern. But if there was one it had to be a hidden one. Even with Inkarmat’s additional information the tattoos looked like they always did – an unsystematic mess of lines, a tangle of randomness you could lose yourself into. Usami had never been aware of it this clearly but now he realized that he actually despised those tattoos. Getting the gold would have been nice, for the reason alone that it was Tsurumi’s goal and he had a concrete idea what he could use it for: For an idea he would have tried reaching with no hidden treasure existing anyway. For all of this Usami was more than ready to deal with the tattoos and the mess attached to them. This didn’t change the fact though that he never had gotten used to the fact someone had found it to be a good idea to scatter information on the very skin of actual people. What a hopeless mess.

Usami’s ponderings were interrupted by a sigh reaching his ear. He turned his head. Tsurumi seemed to have become completely absorbed by the content of the list, looking like the piece of paper interested him more than the scraps of human leather lying on the floor.

A dull feeling of unease started spreading itself through Usami’s stomach. “Sir?”

Tsurumi blinked, looking like he needed a moment to realize Usami had addressed him. “Did you just say something?”

“It’s just… is there some issue with the list? You keep looking at it.”

“It’s nothing. I just noticed that absolutely every animal standing on this list was also among those Edogai had made taxidermies from. Most of them were standing right next to some exotic one, you know? These species listed here truly are awfully common to find on this island, aren’t they?”

The words felt like a punch into Usami’s guts. For a short moment he couldn’t properly breathe in and when he finally did manage to get some words out they sounded strangely muffled, as it wasn’t him who was saying them: “I wouldn’t know, Sir. I’m not exactly an expert when it comes to hunting or knowing what animals you would find when going into the forest.” Why? Why had Tsurumi needed to mention Edogai out of a sudden? Every time he did Usami felt like he was being suffocated though he couldn’t say exactly why that was.

Tsurumi scratched the nape of his neck, displaying a smile that looked forced. “To be honest, neither am I. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even know you could eat half of the animals written on this list. For example, a tanuki? Who would think to eat something like this?”

“Someone feeling very hungry?”

“See, that’s what I wanted to say. I guess when you’re in need you can eat pretty much everything. But still: A tanuki? Or an otter?”

Usami nodded, glad their conversation was heading in a completely different direction now. “Or what was standing there… here: Squirrels. I can’t even say why that is, but for some reason I would feel very averse eating one.”

“Each to their own and all that stuff but you know: Likewise.”

With this subject on their minds Tsurumi continued to try and make sense out of the tattoos. Usami felt himself fall silent, still trying to recover from that unexpected surprise moments ago. He felt his gaze wander to the safe the skins rested in when not needed. Located in there were also the fake skins Edogai had made for them.

Usami had never met the guy. He had already been stationed on his undercover mission in Abashiri prison when Tsurumi and the others had gone to Yubari. And Usami had still been stuck in Abashiri when the poor sod had died in that mining incident. Tsukishima had once mentioned how he himself had barely managed to make it out alive from that mine but had sounded reluctant to say much more about it. So Usami hadn’t asked.

Next to him Tsurumi had went quiet, no longer looking at the list but studying the skins in front of them. He looked completely absentminded, the last trace of that forced smile from before vanished.

No longer feeling able to bear the sight Usami averted his eyes, looking at the safe again instead. He knew the headgear Nikaidou was wearing to prevent his scalp wound from getting messed up any further had been made for him by Edogai. That had been sort of a nice gesture. Yes, that had been nice. Usami felt the direction of his thoughts getting clearer. It was like this, Usami had realized since a while that every time Edogai got mentioned in conversation Tsurumi started looking sad. For whatever reason, but the result was clear, the subject made Tsurumi look sad. Oh, he tried to hide it but in the end never managed to erase the expression entirely from his eyes. Maybe other people didn’t notice it but Usami always did.

He raised his gaze, looking out of the window. Despite all that wind it had been a bright day outside but now it was already getting darker. Once New Year had happened the days would start getting longer again, that was a comforting fact to keep in mind. Yes, it would get brighter again.

Not for the first time on this day Usami had to withhold a sigh. The thing was, he had missed so much of what had went on during the time he had been stuck at Abashiri.

Oh, sure, his mission there had been vital for their successful attack on the place some time ago. But remembering the entire thing still made him feel like a failure; in the end Usami had barely survived his undercover mission. He felt his hands clench into fists. If at least he knew what had given him away in the end. For no particular reason Usami had out of a sudden the impression he could smell the strong stench of a pig sty He shook his head, trying to get rid of the impression. No, his stay in Abashiri hadn’t been much fun at all.

Usami’s ponderings got interrupted by Tsurumi’s voice. “By the way, a telegram arrived while you were upstairs with Inkarmat. I forgot to tell you about it.”

“A telegram?”

“From Tsukishima. He and Koito are about to return any time now.”

Usami need a moment to comprehend the meaning of the words he had just heard. “They’re finished then?”

Tsurumi sighed. “Finished… well, as finished as is possible at the moment. I’d rather they return for now. But for the time being they seem to be somewhat stuck at a place near the Russian border. The weather there seems to be crazy at the moment. Lots of snow. Let’s hope they will be able to make it back soon. But from what I gathered it will probably take them some time.”

“Let’s hope they make it back soon then”, Usami echoed. His words hadn’t been a lie. He wanted them to make it back safely. He just didn’t want them to return this soon. Couldn’t Koito stay in Karafuto for the rest of this winter or something? Feeling an immediate pang of guilt Usami cleared his throat. “Are they okay? You said they’re stuck in some place.”

Tsurumi smiled, a faint trace of concern still visible around his eyes though. “Just due to the weather. Otherwise they’re doing fine.”

“Well, that’s good to know”, Usami said, feeling his ability to form more complex sentences had left him for the moment. Once Koito was back that would have been it, wouldn’t it? Usami’s chance would have been vanished by then. Koito was so aggressive in his determination to get what he wanted, Usami didn’t know what he was supposed to hold against it.

A dull feeling of dread descended from the edge of Usami’s mind into his awareness. The entire world seemed to be conspiring to keep Usami from Tsurumi away, wasn’t it looking like that? And yet all he had to blame for was himself, for being unable to act whenever it would have counted.

If Usami hadn’t survived the murder attempt directed at him in Abashiri, would Tsurumi then look sad too every time Usami’s name got mentioned? For some reason he strongly doubted it.

Trying to get his thoughts under control again Usami got struck by surprise the next time he looked out of the window. In the meanwhile it had gotten completely dark outside. You could still hear the wind roar outside as well. “Dou you think there will be a storm coming in tonight?”, Usami heard himself ask.

Tsurumi looked up from the skins. For a moment he listened to the wind outside, his eyes looking at some spot set far behind the walls of the building, as if trying to spot the origin of this stormy weather. “Sounds like it, doesn’t it?”

“It does.”

“Makes you glad there’s no reason we have to go outside any time soon, huh?”, Tsurumi said, eyes now all set on Usami. Seeing the warm gleam behind them almost let Usami twitch together in surprise. This wasn’t the kind of look Tsurumi directed at him often. But usually Usami could guess the reason behind it. Not so this time though.

Usami heard a tense laugh escape his throat. “Haha, yes. I wouldn’t want to spend the night outdoors tonight.”

“Neither would I.” Tsurumi sighed. “We got a lot done today. Let’s call this a day for now.”

Something about hearing this sentiment managed to set Usami at ease again. He nodded, beginning to put the skins away.

The wind was still roaring outside. It kept muffling out the noises of the hospital, the busy footsteps of the doctors and nurses hurrying from one room to another. Not that they ever heard much of hospital noise whenever they were in this room. The hospital had agreed to let them stay with Nikaidou and Inkarmat but had given them the rooms at the end of the most forlorn corridor, apparently having the opinion they wished the military stationed in this building would disturb the daily life of the place as little as possible. Usami couldn’t blame them. It had been generous they had agreed to let them stay at all, he thought, closing the safe.

Turning around he saw Tsurumi standing by the window. Usami walked closer. “What’s there to see?”

“It’s really gotten stormy now. Look at the branches of the trees outside, how they keep moving.”

“Oh. Oh, right. That’s the strongest it’s been today.”

Tsurumi nodded. “Right?”

For a long moment they kept standing at the window, looking outside. It was dark yes, but the part of the trees being lit up by the street lamps and the light coming from the houses, there you could see clearly how strong the storm kept breezing through. Usami was still lost in his observations when he felt Tsurumi giving him sideway glances. First short ones, then his looks getting less discreet. Usami pretended he didn’t notice any of this, firmly staring at the trees outside.

He kept pretending until Tsurumi started talking to him: “Usami?” Tsurumi’s voice had sounded soft and tentative. For a moment Usami had trouble breathing in properly. He couldn’t remember anyone ever having said his name like this. Not even once.

As if directed by an outside force controlling his moves Usami finally turned around, instantly getting overwhelmed by the warm look Tsurumi was directing at him but feeling physically unable to turn away again. “Sir?”

“Forgive me for prying. But you know, I’ve been wondering about your tattoos.” His hand gestured towards the right corner of Usami’s mouth, hovering over the tattoo located there but not quite touching it.

“About my tattoos?”

“Yes. I was just asking myself why you made those drawings into tattoos in the first place. It came as a bit of a surprise, once I realized.”

“Shouldn’t I have made tattoos out of them?” Usami felt a leaden distress spread through his mind. His stomach started feeling heavy. He had messed up again, hadn’t he?

Something akin to remorse showed up on Tsurumi’s face. “No, that’s not how I meant it”, he said, voice quiet but urgent. For a moment he was searching for the right words: “I just think, maybe I shouldn’t have drawn those stick figures in the first place. Not in front of everyone else. I actually was thinking that already shortly after. And then you had already made tattoos out of them.”

Usami felt a dull desolation sink upon him. How had they ended up talking about any of this anyway? They weren’t supposed to be talking about this. Instead, they were supposed to talk about those things Usami had wanted to tell Tsurumi since years but had never mustered up the courage to do so. But then, he would never muster up the courage to say what he wanted, wasn’t that the sad truth? Since the moment it would have mattered, since the moment he had realized he had fallen in love with Tsurumi, Usami had been running in circles. Thinking of what to say, of how to say it, thinking about the thousand different ways Tsurumi might answer and what Usami was supposed to say to these possibilities in return. So often he had went through those possible options in his mind, through every single one he could think of.

He had become trapped in this directionless mess and that though what he wanted to say was so very simple in its core: Usami loved Tsurumi so much that it hurt and the prospect of these feelings never amounting to anything was beginning to drive him crazy.

All of this Usami wanted to say but in the end all he managed to stammer out were the few words directly going from the desperation festering deep in his mind to his mouth: “I had to make those tattoos because they might be the only thing I will ever get from you.”

Hearing this Tsurumi didn’t appear surprised exactly. Instead his eyes widened in a pain that seemed to have been too sudden and acute to hide.

Usami tried to clarify: “I mean… I mean, spending time with you, I really like that. But that isn’t enough. I know it’s selfish of me thinking that way, but that doesn’t change it. It doesn’t feel like enough in the slightest, not since a very long time. So, when you made those drawings on my face, it felt like it was the only way… I was thinking since so long what to do but I didn’t know… how exactly… I didn’t know what there possibly was I could say or do…”, Usami said, feeling himself trailing off. He had just tried so hard to explain everything but hadn’t managed to. Why was it so hard to put these things into words? It wasn’t fair.

He tried to say more, desperately hoping to somehow to be more clear this time when Tsurumi shook his head, the expression in his eyes turning into one of pure hurt: “It’s fine. Usami, it’s fine, I understand now.” He took Usami’s hand, holding it in a gentle grip. “You don’t need to say anything anymore, I think I got it.” There was still this unveiled hurt in Tsurumi’s eyes. “It’s difficult to find the right words sometimes, isn’t it this?”

Usami steadied the grip of his own hand around Tsurumi’s, feeling like he was fundamentally incapable of letting go of it anytime soon. “It is, yes.” He fastened his hold on Tsurumi’s hand, pulling it tentatively closer.

The wind outside intensified itself to a deep roar, its force seeming to shake the walls of the building for a long and archaic second. Usami was still drawing Tsurumi’s hand closer to himself, looking at him with an expression he was pretty sure must have looked nothing short of pleading.

The next moment Tsurumi had already thrown his arms around Usami, pulling him into an embrace.

Usami’s hands clung into the fabric of Tsurumi’s jacket, refusing to let go moments before Usami even realized what had happened. What was still happening. His eyes were beginning to sting, the confusion of the situation threatening to overwhelm him. Usami still wasn’t fully understanding what was going on, but at the same time he could tell with certainty that he wanted this moment to go on forever.

Tsurumi was still holding Usami close to him. “I’m sorry. I really made this unnecessarily complicated, didn’t I?”

Usami could hear a pained noise and realized he had been the cause of it. “I wouldn’t say it like that.” He strengthened the hold of his arms around Tsurumi. This was really happening, right? Usami rubbed his face against Tsurumi’s shoulder, an attempt to clear his head. But all that happened was that he got even dizzier. All of this felt too good, and from up this close Tsurumi smelled so good, it was insane.

“I’m not good talking about these kind of things, I’m sorry”, Tsurumi said, voice all soft and quiet. He let his hand wander to Usami’s nape, his thumb absentmindedly caressing Usami’s skin, wandering up to the back of his head.

Usami sighed. “Neither am I. I should have said something.”

“You sort of did. You made those tattoos. It was kind of apparent what they were supposed to mean.”

Usami shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe.” He should have done more.

Tsurumi stopped patting the back of Usami’s head, steading his arms around him instead. Neither of them seemed to have the urge to let go anytime soon. Now that Usami’s mind was finally catching up with the reality of the situation even more so. He wanted this moment to go on forever.

A slight realisation dawned on Usami: “Was that why you kept drawing rabbits on me? You were doing that instead of talking?”

He could feel Tsurumi getting tense. “I didn’t want to impose on you. Or to make you feel pressured. So it somehow felt like the best option”, he finally said.

Usami went thoughtful. He had found himself unable to talk for such a long time, for entire years, but the situation hadn’t looked much easier from Tsurumi’s perspective, hadn’t it? Usami leaned slightly back, looking Tsurumi into the eyes. “The rabbit you’ve drawn was a nice one though.”

Tsurumi smiled, looking as awkward and self-aware as Usami felt. “The moon rabbit you mean?”

Usami tried his best to smile back. Now that they were looking each other in the eyes again he felt his cheeks blush violently. “Yes. The best sort of rabbit.”

The light in Tsurumi’s eyes went sharper: “The second best rabbit.” His thumb started tracing invisible lines on Usami’s nape again. “The best sort of rabbit is right here with me.” His voice had sounded practically teasing.

The expression on Usami’s face froze into place. For a very long second he could neither move nor talk. Then he finally found his voice again: “That’s... I was being honest.”

“So was I”, Tsurumi said, sounding content.

Usami wanted to say more but then he could hear footsteps sounding through the corridor, coming closer.

The next moment he and Tsurumi had already let go of each other, doing their best to look as unsuspicious as possible.

Someone knocked at the door. “Dinner is ready.” That had been Higashi’s voice.

Oh yes. Dinner. In the hospital. With other people. Despite the last few moments having developed in such an unexpected fashion the reality around them had stayed the same. Feeling restless Usami adjusted his jacket, his hat. Just in case something had ended up looking messy.

“We will be there in an instant!”, Tsurumi addressed the door. Outside Higashi’s footsteps could be heard again, this time moving away.

Usami lowered his gaze, adjusting his sleeves, suddenly feeling very self-aware.

Tsurumi looked at him, staying silent for a long moment. “Let’s go downstairs. Higashi and everyone else must be waiting right now.”

“They must be.”

“Usami?”

“Yes?”, Usami asked, forcing himself to look Tsurumi into the eyes again.

Tsurumi was giving him an intense look, the light behind his eyes all affectionate. “The moon rabbit is only the second cutest rabbit to be found. The one standing next to me deserves to be on place number one. I have to insist.”

Hearing this Usami felt the biggest part of his tension leave. He was still blushing but he felt himself smile: “Alright. If you insist then I have no choice but to accept it.”

Chapter Text

Usami kept his gaze fixed on his plate, glad the entire circumstances of eating dinner gave him the excuse to appear busy. To do something else (something besides) than thinking about what had just happened between Tsurumi and him.

Following an unconscious instinct Usami raised his gaze, his inner unrest making it impossible to stay still anymore. His eyes met Tsurumi's, instantly. As if hit by an electric jolt Usami lowered his gaze, focusing on his dinner again. He needed a second or two to realize Tsurumi's reaction had been just the same.

Odd. Not what had taken place on the upper floor not even 20 minutes ago. Not really, no. But the simply awareness it had happened let mundane things like taking meals with everyone suddenly appear in such a changed light, as if something major had shifted.

Trying to appear unsuspicious Usami took another bite of his food, casually glancing up at Higashi and Kato, who were sitting at the table with them. But both appeared to be perfectly unbothered, lost deep in discussion with each other.

The realization made an alert part of Usami's mind relax. Not just the fact neither comrade seemed to suspect something was amiss. No, more, witnessing both behave as their usual selves felt almost comforting. The last few months had brought unexpected changes but some things had remained constant.

Realizing he actually had felt starving this entire time Usami teared his gaze away from Higashi, continuing to eat his dinner. Though he was looking at his food now, the only thing he was seeing was an old memory insisting to show up in his mind.

The noises of war roamed around them. The echoing sound of bullets, loud ones and the dangerous quiet type that arrived to kill in such an unspectacular way. Voices forming into sentences, screams and more often than not these days, forming into the archaic kind of noise that had no real descriptions attached to it.

The source of this third kind if noise was usually the location Usami was needed. That or places an eerie silence had gripped the wounded. Being met with silence and that archaic noise was usually the worst case. More often than not those factors indicated the patient was beyond help and it would only be a question of time until the end arrived. But those cases still wore suffering and pain that needed to be lessened, so it was not as if Usami's presence was beyond a point.

He kept telling himself that.

At least those were the cases the suffering soldier in question could still be reached, there were times alert gunfire made the simple act of reaching the wounded lying outside of the trenches impossible, resulting in them dying in agony without anything that could be done about that.

So Usami kept following the noise and the silence, his best indicators something was amiss in a world the smell of upturned earth and blood had mingled so much it would mislead his eyes at times, adding to the impression he was located in a nightmare he hadn’t woken up from yet.

The thing was, getting your attention distracted happened all too easy in the chaos that was existing on and around the fringes of the battlefield. And losing focus for only one moment could be enough to cause unsolvable destruction, Usami had witnessed it often enough.

In hindsight he couldn't have said what had been distracting him. Maybe distraction hadn't even been the right word. He had sensed some sort of danger was near their trench (it had been too quiet for too long) but he had misjudged the direction it had been coming from. When he had reached the realization he already found himself in the grasp of another person, getting pulled to the ground while the projectile hit their vicinity victimless but with a soaring noise.

Before he had fully realized what had went down he could hear the answering shots from their own sides, one of their snipers shooting towards the direction the projectile had come from.

"Stay down, there will be coming more from that direction."

Usami turned his head, only now seeing the person who had ripped him away from certain doom. It had been First Lieutenant Tsurumi.

Usami nodded in agreement, intending to answer but finding that all words had failed him. The situation was too odd, despite their close proximity once again neither of them mentioning out loud the fact that insisted connecting them, a bond neither of them had ever been able to influence. Usami’s thoughts wandered towards Ogata, who was in a similar situation as him, concerning the Flag Bearer. Sometimes you happened to be related to people but that didn’t make them family; having the same father sometimes was a coincidence (an accident) that wasn’t enough to leave impact enough on its own: In the end Usami and Tsurumi were not much more than mere strangers who had ended up meeting during this war per chance.

Despite (or because?) the situation still being dire, the question stormed to the front of Usami’s mind: Why was the First Lieutenant helping him, having brought himself into danger like that? Was he fuelled on with genuine concern and affection? Or was it Tsurumi's feeling of duty towards Usami driving his actions, an attempt to make up for being a sort of estranged brother?

A shadow laid itself over the First Lieutenant's face while he glared into the direction of where the fire had been coming from. "I had the feeling something would happen soon."

"It had been too quiet for too long", Usami agreed, to his relief finding that he could form words again.

Tsurumi still looked tense. "Let's hope our snipers will be able to deal with it."

They were able to deal with it good enough. At least the noise stopped. At least no further causality was to be seen. For now.

Usami was still shocked but that was a small price to pay for staying alive. It might have been an instinctual reaction, but the First Lieutenant had pressed him to the ground the entire time until the gunfire had stopped.

Here in the trenches all of their instincts had been sharpened, the natural form to ensure further survival, of the individual, of the group.

The shock faded. The impression didn't. Usami couldn't help but feeling his attention getting divided afterwards. Or maybe distraction wasn't the right expression. Maybe it was just that he started noticing what he hadn't before, acknowledging an urge that already had been there.

The traces of concern never leaving the First Lieutenant’s face, during a battle and after. It was more than the mere tension the moment would bring. It was more. Well hidden anger, suppressed outrage. Neither emotion directed at his subordinates. Not at them, never. But directed at the people responsible for continuing this pointless slaughter, as much had become apparent. There were people deciding the broad strokes of how to advance next and there were the ones having to deal with the details. The ones deciding the broader strokes weren’t the ones having to make their way through the battlefield while at the same time having to do their best avoid getting hit by an enemy bullet. They weren’t the ones finding themselves unable to change the reality of comrades around them falling, seeing how sometimes the erased were not leaving as much as a body behind when canon fire tore their bodies to shreds. (Could it be that all of those surviving yet another day shared these impressions? Was anything else imaginable?)

More than once Usami saw Tsurumi using the body of a fallen comrade as a shield and he could not blame him. The thing was, in itself the idea was the kind of recommendable practical advice that would get picked up and silently spread around, the kind of advice no one talked about but had found its way in the arsenal of tools that helped keeping you and your comrades alive.

The war demanded its causalities anyway.

One day the Flag Bearer had fallen (Usami couldn’t help but wonder if Ogata felt grief, but never even dared doing as much as implying the question whenever the two of them were interacting). And then the weeks and months kept marching on, feeling too quick and too slow in passing at the same time and the other day Kikuda had gotten injured. One example of many; constantly comrades would get injured, would die away: People Usami had known and whose death had happened while he hadn’t even been close to the location. There were people dying he had never properly met but who had ceased to be under his hands, letting his efforts as a medic appear to be in vain. At least in those immediate moments of loss: Sometimes you could save people or at least help them enough to make a difference but that wasn’t always the case. And besides, no matter how the results started to affect him, Usami had to try anyway.

It had been him trying to make a difference when he had gotten distracted in the wrong moment the second time. The week had been drenched in blood. Comrades dying immediately, next to those other cases: People he managed to get back to the trenches just for the environment of the place to make a mockery of his efforts, insisting to remind him that the space was covered in mud and grime, the kind of grime which origin wasn’t always rooted in the soil of the earth, playing up it was surrounded by frosty Manchurian weather, playing up actual doctors with their treatment tents were a long way to reach and the efforts of any medic could only go this far.

In those circumstances another unlucky soul had been ripped to shreds by a stray splinter, the blood keeping to gush out as if in mockery to the vast and open sky above. Usami had tried to make a difference, even though he had actually knew it to be in vain. The sky above was bright and blue, bristling with energy as if set ablaze by the below zero degree temperatures of the place. Bright and blue, as if insisting to make a contrast to the mud stinking of death and decay covering the ground, the coppery smell of blood that was so intense you almost could taste it.

Usami couldn’t pin down the exact moment the man lying on this bleak stinking ground had died underneath his hands but in hindsight it already must have been a while. In hindsight he should have known better and have given up, many long moments ago, should have closed off his heart from the confused and scared expression set so gravely around the eyes of the wounded.

But in the end he hadn’t. In the end his instinct had won over, instincts telling him it was his duty to look out for others, not even entertaining the though anyone should look out for him. You had to look out for yourself or you joined the formless mud on the ground, it was that simple.

This time Usami heard the sizzling noise before realization hit him. It was hard not to, with people standing right next to him getting hit and falling.

The sky had been too calm, he should have known.

In the split second between realization taking place and him searching for a way out he sensed the silhouette dragging him this time, more surprised by the awareness someone had went through the trouble of getting him out of the line of fire than having been surprised someone had been there.

The next moment Usami found himself pinned down to the earth by a stable weight, his elbows digging deep into the mud of this soil that seemed to have overcome mere physical presence these days, leaving the impression it was seeping in the tense parts of his mind as well as into the parts of his heart that he had numbed out. Every distracting factor needed to be pushed aside for the sake of staying undisturbed and clear but Usami’s attempts had been in vain: The mud had already gotten hold of these cracks, holding blood and guts in one hand and the mocking clear vastness of the sky above him in the other, drenching the parts Usami had wanted to keep separated from his self that was forced to stay in battle.

The dirt of this place really must have gotten a life of its own, because it had brought the dreaded blood with it, splashing it all over Usami’s face and chest. The blood was warm, an obscene contrast to the freezing temperature of the day and it tasted like iron. The moment Usami tasted it he got aware it wasn’t his own, the awareness reaching him that the shells over him had not succeeded to injure him.

There was nothing special about the taste of blood, it just tasted like iron. “Sir… you’ve gotten injured.”

Lying on top of him Tsurumi was still conscious. Or at least he had his eyes open, a nameless emotion overflowing his gaze that was bordering on confusion. The common expression on people’s faces before the full scope of the incoming pain would reach them. Hearing Usami’s words the focus in his eyes got clearer, their gaze now directed at Usami. “I think my head hurts.”

“You… you got hit.” He had been. Tsurumi’s entire face was drenched in blood, the thick liquid seeping into his hair, almost hiding the fact his entire forehead appeared to be burned.

Around them the noise was increasing, their own forces answering the fire of the enemy, keeping their immediate surroundings free from impact for now.

A delayed realisation reached Tsurumi’s face. “Are you alright?”

“I… I guess.” Usami was. But Tsurumi was not. He was not. And all because he had went through the trouble of yanking Usami aside. (Again! Had it been a weird form of compensation to atone their connection of blood could never be as much as brought up in this place or had he done it because he had started to care for Usami as an individual?)

Routine kicking his guilt aside Usami went into action, ensuring the bleeding of Tsurumi’s wound would stop. Would bleed less severe. Would stop bleeding so much. Why wouldn’t the blood just stop coming?

“Why did you do that? You shouldn’t have!” Usami twitched together hearing his own voice. He hadn’t planned saying something to begin with.

The look in Tsurumi’s eyes got distant, refusing to return to the present. He just held still, needing the last bit of his strength to stay conscious, Usami could tell. “But I wanted to.”

Their surroundings started to bristle with activity, the unrest of the ones in unhurt condition ensuring the ones gotten hurt got looked after. Transported away. To the kind of care that hopefully could make an actual difference.

Usami’s guilt kept kicking. “It’s my own fault. I should have payed more attention.”

Tsurumi’s answer followed immediately, voice tense and distant with the pain that had started to spread: “While looking out for others? How?”

Not knowing what to say Usami shook his head. Not ‘how?’, that was not how these things worked; that’s simply how it was. Some people were supposed to look out and care but that didn’t mean they could expect someone watching over them from afar in return. It’s just how these things were.

“Why did you do that?”, Usami finally asked. He blamed the overwhelming smell of blood for loosening his tongue, shoving the rest of his composure aside.

For a moment the expression in Tsurumi’s eyes got clear. Enough so that the effect almost overshined the blood his entire face was now drenched in. “Because you’re still asking that question.”

After that Tsurumi hadn’t been in a state anymore to form coherent sentences, too affected by the blood loss and the spreading pain. Usami had never asked what he had meant with that. And Tsurumi had never mentioned the incident either.

A noise ripped Usami out of his ponderings, loud and sudden, making him look up from his dinner in alarm. He needed a second to realize it was a muffled laugh. The source of it had been Kato, looking caught off guard by whatever Higashi had just said. Getting control back over himself he gave Tsurumi an apologetic look. “I’m sorry.”

But Tsurumi shook just his head, a persistent smile still present on his own face. “No it’s… it was quite funny.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be”, Higashi clarified, almost looking offended. He absentmindedly combed his hand through his hair, the strands appearing wavy now he hadn’t cut them short since a while. Not for the first time it occurred to Usami that their stay here in Abashiri appeared almost like some sort of break, a short while of rest before things would continue with their usual fast pace. He guessed it wouldn’t be long now until Higashi couldn’t avoid cutting his hair all short again.

Usami took a deep breath, feeling the tension in his muscles leave. The realization now fully arriving that the noise that had put him on alert had been harmless after all, it just had been one of those exchanges.

He hadn’t realized his gaze had begun to wander on its own until his eyes met Tsurumi’s. Usami felt his face getting blank, mind becoming completely empty.

Maybe he wasn’t all alone in his directionless confusion. For a moment that seemed to be terribly long Tsurumi looked getting caught off-guard himself. Then a small smile showed up on his face, one that had nothing to do with the sudden laughter Higashi’s comment had just spread across the room. It was the kind of smile that was almost invisible, more apparent in the eyes than on the lips. Usami couldn’t pin down exactly why, but it managed to erase the persuasive worries that had kept his mind running since the both of them had come downstairs, since they’ve been interrupted from what they’ve been doing. Before.

He smiled back, shortly, and in a way he was sure must have looked awkward. But awkward wasn’t always something bad, at times it was simply a sign you cared for the world surrounding you and were willing to show it even if you had not figured out the best way to do so yet. Tsurumi was still looking at him, the light behind his eyes turning even warmer.

Today the sky above them hadn’t been clear at all and out of a sudden Usami was convinced that this had to be a good sign.