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“Fire at will.” 

 

Tsukishima had known it would come to this. Or at least, he should have known, should never have let himself believe that any other end was possible. Loving him can only ever end in an early grave. There was no chance that the third time could ever be any different than those that came before. It had always been folly. And yet, in Koito’s naïve conviction, it had almost been possible, to hope. 

 

There is so much hope in Koito. The hope of youth, of a man who has not yet seen horror close up, has not yet looked into its face, and felt its fingers pierce through him, claws digging so deep into his brain that he will never again sleep easy, will never again know the freedom of being unguarded, of being true. Koito is a shining light, brighter even than the sun, so strong, and beautiful. He is a promise that Tsukishima could not help but believe, warmth, and spring, in the frozen tundra of his soul. He is everything Tsukishima could never be, everything he has never deserved, and for the grave error of his uncomplicated, wonderful love, he will die, here, by Tsurumi’s word, and Tsukishima’s hand. 

 

There was never any other end to this story. There is no choice among Tsurumi’s handpicked men, no space for love other than the love of their master. He had signed Koito’s death warrant on the day he had told him his truth, or maybe before that, even, on the day he had not pushed him away. There is nothing Tsurumi doesn’t see, nothing that escapes the cruel trap of his mind, stored away to be used at the most impactful moment. It has always been inevitable. And it will always be Tsukishima’s fault. He is no better than Tsurumi. 

 

He is nothing but an empty pit masquerading as a man.

 

And yet, it screams inside him, the tribulation of his sins, the fear and the hurt that never leave him, that have long since consumed any good in his soul. It is pain and rage coiling in the crypt of his heart, consuming his mind in a last-ditch shriek of ruined hope. He should never have let Koito love him. He should never have let Koito believe that there was any chance. That he could ever be more than this.

 

The things Tsukishima has done in Tsurumi’s service are unspeakable, a weight that cannot be carried. But that cannot be forgotten, and so he carries it nonetheless. His life, his end, is as inevitable as the tide. But he did not have to drag Koito down with him. Koito did not have to fall. 

 

But perhaps this has always been part of Tsurumi’s ineffable plan. Had he contrived to test Koito’s loyalty by sending him away? 

 

Koito’s loyalty had always seemed so unshakable, but there is always another stage in Tsurumi’s schemes of entanglement. And Tsukishima knows now that Koito had never been deep enough. It had always been possible for him to break away, (the way a man like Tsukishima never can) because true loyalty does not stem from obsession or infatuation. 

 

There is a reason that a trained horse is referred to as broken. Loyalty is something deeper than a desire to please, or a hunger for praise, or a determination to serve one's country. It is an inability to do anything else, because there are no other options. It is a death of self, a death of hope, a death of freedom. 

 

Tsurumi understands loyalty, just as he understands all things, just as he understands Tsukishima. He has peeled back the surface of him so many times, bloody to the elbow in the viscera of Tsukishima’s conscience, tonguing over every open wound inside him in the macabre delight of pillage. He knows Tsukishima’s every weakness, every visible and hidden scar. And so Tsukishima knows this is not a test, it is a punishment. A punishment for both of them. 

 

His loyalty has never been in question. Tsurumi knows that he could never, would never, stray, that the ghosts he carries are so plentiful, that without the force of Tsurumi’s will to guide him, Tsukishima would be consumed by them. He would be eaten alive by his own ravenous guilt, by the twisted faces of every man, woman, and child he has helped to destroy in Tsurumi’s service. 

 

Faces like Ienaga’s, like Edogai’s, like Ogata’s. Faces like Koito’s.

 

The ghost of the boy who Tsukishima helped to kidnap five years ago already follows him. The ghost of the man who will die by his hands tonight will just be one more face in the crowd. Just another grinning skull in Tsukishima’s collection of nightmares, a reminder from his smiling god that there is no place in Tsukishima for sentimentality, that anything he cares for can be taken away from him, and that it is better not to care. (Not that he had ever forgotten. And yet, he had fallen all the same.)

 

The punishment for Koito is so much worse. It is not just death. Death is only its consequence. The true punishment is the moment leading up to it; it is this moment. It is Tsurumi showing Koito that everything Koito has, he has because Tsurumi has granted it to him. That he has always existed only on Tsurumi’s whim. His life, his position, his love, were never really his, only a loan, only a gift that can just as easily be snatched away. In ordering Tsukishima to do this, Tsurumi is forcing Koito to see, in his last moments on earth, that no one cares for him in the way he has always needed, the way he has always craved. That even his lover will turn on him. He is reminding Koito that he has only ever been a pawn for the more important players, that his life is meaningless outside of the purpose he serves. 

 

It is unbelievably cruel. 

 

And yet, Koito does not waiver in facing it. He stares Tsurumi down with the firm composure that Tsukishima could not have even imagined of him before their time in Karafuto. He is straight-backed, at attention, and though Tsukishima can feel the panicked fear, thunderous beneath Koito’s skin, he does not tremble. He does not turn. He does not flee. 

 

And Tsukishima is so overwhelmed by his bravery. 

 

For five years, for Koito’s entire adulthood, he has worshipped Tsurumi, has cowered, and kowtowed before him, and yet now, facing his idol, facing his own death, Koito stands proud. He will not die like Tsukishima will, like all of Tsurumi’s disciples will, spreading their infernal deity’s poison. He will die on his own path, the master of his own fate, not the servant of a disinterested god. He will die a man. Better than Tsurumi, better than Tsukishima, better than any of them. He has grown so much in the short time Tsukishima has been close to him. He deserves so much more than this.

 

Tsurumi smiles, cheerfully neutral in the brilliance of his own cruelty. And Tsukishima hates him. He hates him with everything he is, with every broken part of himself that Koito has tried so hard, and so impossibly to heal. He hates him for what he has done to Koito, for what he is doing to Koito. He hates him for every life he has destroyed in his own petty quest for revenge, for every lie he has told and every fate he has altered, every weapon he has forged from the love of a man. 

 

The old anger rises in Tsukishima, the disease that has infected him since his childhood, the last sick gift from his father. It has never been a righteous anger, never a force for justice, only a disastrous moment of release. Tsukishima’s rage is as black as tar, as viscous and blinding, boiling over and destroying all it touches, leaving only ruin in its wake. This life is all Tsukishima deserves; he has always been contaminated. And as much as he hates Tsurumi for all he has done, for the twisted way he has wielded his love and his power, Tsukishima hates himself even more. Because he has loved Tsurumi. Because he has never stopped him. Because he threw away the last of his treasured memories for a man who would never do the same. (Because somewhere inside him, in the trampled and fractured shards of his heart, Tsukishima loves him still.)

 

For years it has warred inside him, the increasing dissonance of love and hate. For years he has let himself be used, because he cannot break away, even as he watched the path of destruction Tsurumi carved, even as he helped to carve it, helped him turn more lost boys into more devoted, ruined men. The anger and disgust inside Tsukishima has grown and festered, but it has never been enough. He is too tightly bound, too far gone. To cut his way free would require hope. And hope is something Tsukishima has never had. (Hope is everything that Koito is.)

 

Tsukishima has always known he deserved no better than this. He had signed his own death warrant on the day he gave into his rage, bloody fists and his father’s shattering skull. Maybe even before that. But Koito should have had a future. Koito should have had a life, not this perverse existence of worship and poison. Koito deserves everything. So much more than Tsukishima could ever give him. So much more than Tsurumi has ever promised, in that wordless way that he does not promise, only leads to believe. 

 

“Fire at will.” 

 

Those same words on another man’s lips, not so long ago. Tsurumi in his rifle’s sights, orders from his superior officer. It was a chance Tsukishima did not take. A chance he has had so many times before and since, when Tsurumi has relied on him, when Tsurumi has taken him into his most private space, when Tsurumi has touched him. Tsukishima could have done it, with the bitter taste of Tsurumi still on his tongue, the contamination of his touch creeping under his skin. Tsukishima could have killed him. But he had not. (Why hadn’t he? Why had he let it come to this?) 

 

He stands frozen, despite the rage boiling inside him, paralyzed by its anthesis, by his own insurmountable fear.

 

He is so afraid for Koito. For a world without him in it. —Not for himself, never for himself. Tsukishima has long since accepted the inevitability of his death, but he is afraid of a future in which he lives and Koito does not. Since when is the idea of a future something Tsukishima even believed in? There has never been any future for him.

 

Tsukishima has told himself this, again and again, read it like gospel to quiet the errant parts of himself that still long for hope. He has always been nothing. He has always known it —since the first dirty village children had kicked him to the ground and spat on his bleeding scrapes. Since he had come home to his drunken father and been beaten senseless for losing the fight, or worse, laughed at for thinking he deserved anything else. (So why, again and again, has this beautiful spectre raised its head inside him? Why does he keep searching for something to believe in? Why had Tsurumi seemed like a promise? And why hadn’t he learned?)

 

Tsukishima Hajime has always been nothing. And everyone who has ever loved him has died for that sin. There is no place for hope inside him, no place for light and life. There never has been. 

 

There is nothing left for him but to follow his orders. To do as he is told.

 

It should not hurt as he raises his rifle and steps back to line up the shot. It should not feel like the world is ending around him, his heart bursting in his chest, because he should not have any heart left inside him to shatter. He is nothing but the empty shell of a man. And yet, his blood is boiling, heartbeat thundering in his ears as if to tell him it is not too late, as if in a desperate attempt to convince him that he is still alive, that he is more than the ghosts of every despicable thing he has done, more than the amalgamation of his sins. As if he is a fraction of the man that Koito believes him to be, the man that Koito (so foolishly) loves. 

 

The rifle should not shake as Tsukishima rests its butt in the familiar spot at the base of his shoulder, as his finger tightens around the trigger. (But, something inside him insists, he has never before loved the man whose life he is about to take). Tsurumi smiles, omniscient, gleeful smile; and Tsukishima fires.

 


 

Kiroranke’s death is a blur. Tsukishima must have hit his head in the bomb blast because everything after is ringing silence, and afterimages, and blood. He remembers feeling the heat of it soaking through his clothes, and then freezing, iron stench amidst the gunpowder sulphur. He remembers looking at his gloved hands and wondering where it all had come from, sticky red coating his fingers. It couldn’t be his. It’s too much. And he is still standing. 

 

Until he isn't. 

 

“Tsukishimaaa!!!”

 

Koito’s voice cutting through the noise in his head. He sounds panicked, and Tsukishima can’t figure out why. The world is slipping away from him. 

 

“Are you injured, Second Lieutenant Koito?” His words come out all wrong, filtered through the gurgle in his throat. He feels like he’s drowning. It hurts, but the pain is far away, a strange throbbing, welling up over him, warm fingers of unconsciousness creeping from the sides of his vision. He’s aware of the hard surface of the ice under his shoulder, the twisted position he’s lying in, more than the pulsing tear in his neck. The world is skewing around him, far away, refracted through glass as thick as his arm.  

 

Or maybe that was before? Maybe this is the second time he has hit the ice?

 

He cannot clear his head. 

 

There is a terrifying calm in Koito as he charges off after Kiroranke by himself, and Tsukishima’s heart swells in his chest. Koito is acting so competent, so in control of the situation, so far from the man he was when this journey began. He has grown so much in these last weeks, become a commander that any man should be proud to serve under, an officer who protects his men, even in the heat of battle. And Tsukishima is so proud of him. (Tsukishima is so afraid for him.) 

 

He tries to yell for Koito to stop, not to go alone, but the wind snatches his words away. He cannot stand, cannot remember how to move his body. There is so much blood, a sticky pool spreading beneath him, freezing him to the ice. But Tsukishima can’t not follow. 

 

It flashes, dreamlike. Stumbling. Falling. Endless snowblind white. Light reflecting off the ice. Silence, and Koito’s scream. “How dare you do that to my men!!” 

 

There is a knife through his arm and still, he is not thinking of himself. And Tsukishima is raising his rifle, though he cannot focus his eyes to shoot. He cannot help Koito. He cannot save him. 

 

But Koito does not need to be saved. 

 

He fights like a man possessed, like a man who is not afraid of dying, like a man who has something to protect. And Tsukishima wonders, vaguely, what it is. 

 

And then Tanigaki is there. 

 

And then he is on the ice again. 

 

“I’ll be fine, sir.” Or if he won’t, it is too late for it to matter. It is over either way. 

 

Koito is safe. He is bleeding, but he is alive, he is still standing. So it is alright. Tsukishima tries not to let go, but the pain is overwhelming, and they have secured the girl, and he is so tired. Maybe this would be a good way to die. He hopes someone will make sure Svetlana gets home. Her parents deserve peace.

 

The last thing Tsukishima hears is Koito’s voice. He can’t make out the words, but hearing it in his last moments is a comfort, and he clings to it with grasping, bloody fingers —before losing his grip, and slipping away. But that’s alright. Dying by Koito’s side is more than he deserves anyway. 

 

It is dark when Tsukishima wakes up. 

 

He takes stock of his body slowly through the ache behind his eyes. All his fingers move which is a good sign, but when he tries to turn his head the pain is blinding, and the idea of trying to sit up makes him feel ill. He is wrapped tightly in blankets, too weak to fight them, unable to move his arms. But he is warm, even as his head throbs, and his body shivers. He focuses on his breath, rasping in, and out, harsh in his dry throat. He can smell smoke, and people, the lingering scent of cooking, but his eyes can make out little in the darkness. 

 

Densely thatched roof, swimming above him — A hut then. He’s not sure how he got here. 

 

He feels like something is missing.

 

Memory comes back in flashes. The Ainu girl, Asirpa, and Sugimoto holding her. The murmur of voices speaking a language he does not understand, and more voices layered over them, in a language he does, but cannot find meaning in. Koito’s body next to his, warm, and alive, draped gingerly around him in the tiny cot, long limbs sprawling. His words, whispered in the dark, breath hot against Tsukishima’s skin. “You’re not allowed to die on me, Tsukishima, not here. Promise me. You’re not allowed to die.” 

 

“I’m fine, sir,” he had tried to answer, but his mouth had not made the sounds, and then all had been fuzzy blackness, muffling as the pelts he’s wrapped in. He wonders where Koito is now, and realizes that that is what is missing. This is not the first time he has woken, but it is the first time Koito has not been by his side. His heart aches. It’s unfair to Koito to be causing him so much worry.

 

A sound in the darkness snaps Tsukishima back into the present. His pulse is racing but there is nothing he can do. His nerves are always a hair-trigger, but his body is as useless as a stone. The sound again, a rasping cough, harsh breath so familiar. And Tsukishima remembers something else. Ogata’s bloody face, his mouth fixed in that insane grin, the smugness of daring the world to kill him, and not caring if it succeeds (hoping it will). Or maybe that is an older memory. They’re all muddled in his head. 

 

It is not good to see Ogata again. It is not good to remember.

 

There is no place in a man like Tsukishima for regret. Or maybe regret is all he is, maybe his mistakes are so myriad that each has become indistinguishable in the wash of his guilt. The men he has killed. The men he has failed to save. He tells himself that Ogata has made his own choices. But they both have. And the repercussions have led them here, breathing pain into the wounded space of what, once, could have been. What now can never be. 

 

“You’re awake.” Ogata’s voice is a broken croak, and Tsukishima’s blood is frozen in his veins. 

 

Those same words filter back to him through the years, through the haze of cigarette smoke on a frigid Russian morning, through lips still split from the taste of each other’s teeth. Tsukishima does not move, he does not want to answer. He does not trust Ogata not to pry out the most painful parts of himself with careless fingers and put them on display, to critique them with smug, self-satisfied words just for the joy of watching Tsukishima squirm.

 

“Don’t pretend you can’t hear me. I know you’re listening.”

 

He has always been able to crawl right under Tsukishima’s skin, to see into the deepest, most secret parts of him. Or maybe he is just very lucky, very good at guessing, very good at lying his way into places he should not be. Ogata has never known when to shut his mouth. 

 

“What do you want?” The words sound hollow, splintered in Tsukishima’s parched throat. He does not want to do this. Not now, when his head is spinning, and his thoughts feel slick and disordered as fish.

 

He can almost hear the smug smile in Ogata’s reply, can so easily picture it. “Oh come on, is that any way to greet me after all this time?”

 

(He has always been so merciless, but once, there was something else there as well. Once there was a chance. A long time ago.)

 

It was always rough between them, harsh words and harsh touch. It was as if without the violence, Ogata couldn’t remember how to feel, couldn’t remember what it meant to be gentle in anything other than a lie. He had only ever been honest with the edges of his teeth. And Tsukishima had been younger then too, the fire in his blood had been easy to mistake for love, for freedom.

 

“What else is there to say?” Tsukishima asks. But the answer, probably, is everything. Because they have never been much for talking, the two of them. They have always spoken with action, and with its lack, and have left so much unsaid. Perhaps if it had been any other way, they would not be here, half-dead in a foreign country. (Where once they had been so alive, where once they had had the chance to build something together, maybe, if they had not both been so broken.)

 

“How does it feel,” Ogata asks, after a stretch of silence in which Tsukishima’s heart is beating much too fast, “after all the shit he put you through, to end up dying here, in the same godforsaken hut as me?” It sounds like genuine curiosity, not an attack, but Tsukishima knows better than to trust him. 

 

“I could ask you the same.” 

 

And this time, he can hear the smirk in Ogata’s reply. “Point taken. Then let me ask you something else...” 

 

“I wish you wouldn’t.” But it’s not true exactly. He does not trust Ogata. He does not like any of the places this conversation could go, but still, somewhere inside Tsukishima, he is glad of the voice in the dark. He is glad he is not alone.

 

Ogata’s next words are painfully casual, not an ambush, but a pistolshot at point-blank, so easy to see coming, but impossible to avoid. “Tell me, do you get off on getting blown-up for your superiors?” 

 

“What?”

 

“I overheard what happened to you,” Ogata croaks, and his voice is so broken Tsukishima would almost feel bad for him if he were not being an awful little shit. “Tsurumi, i understand, we both know you’ve always been his dog, but Koito? Is your sense of duty really so strong you couldn’t just let the brat die?” 

 

That hurts more than it should, more than the pain in Tsukishima’s head or the torn flesh that had recently been the side of his neck. To compare Koito to Tsurumi. It feels like sacrilege. There is nothing the same in them. Koito is the sun, hope, and beauty, and openness, where Tsurumi is the smiling mouth of hell. There is nothing the same in Tsukishima’s instinctual need to save them, to protect them with his body, even at the cost of his own life. 

 

Except that there is. 

 

It is exactly the same. It is the same reason he would have done it for Ogata, once. Because Tsukishima does not think when a bomb is going off; he just jumps. He protects the men he loves. 

 

“I don’t want to talk about this,” Tsukishima grits out. 

 

“Well, too bad, because you’re stuck with me.” 

 

Ogata laughs, and it is as cruel and as beautiful as he is. Because as much as he wishes otherwise, Tsukishima is glad that Ogata is not dead. And he hopes, that he is not the one who will have to kill him. (If either of them even leave this room again. Fitting perhaps that they should die together after all this time, back in Russia, where it all began, a tribute to their failure to ever be more than the sordid history they share.)

 

There are two possibilities here, either Ogata is grasping at straws, does not know what Koito means to him, or he is being intentionally cruel. The latter is much more likely; if Ogata has been awake long enough to overhear how Tsukishima was wounded, he has been awake long enough to overhear other things as well. 

 

But Tsukishima hopes it is the former. He does not want Ogata to believe, (to know,) that Koito has stepped so easily into the place in Tsukishima’s heart where Ogata had never quite been able to fit. The place where, once, they had torn away at each other’s scabs, fighting to uncover the smooth skin beneath, and only ever managing to toughen the scars.

 

It is not fair that time has worn the shattered edges of Tsukishima smoother, has made hospitable a place, where Ogata had found only blood and broken bones. And even more cruel, it is not just time that has worn him. It is Ogata, too. In the mistakes they made in trying to love each other —too afraid to build something new from the ashes of their pain— Tsukishima has learned the importance of letting himself be opened. He has learned that he must trust, as well as care. Even if it still seems impossible.

 

“You love him,” Ogata says, and it is an accusation. There is no more pain in his voice than that of his injury but Tsukishima knows that he feels it all the same. Ogata likes people to believe that he is immune to pain, but Tsukishima knows better. Tsukishima has seen him hurt, has touched the bitter, starving parts of him, has kissed them with frozen lips and known it would never be enough to fill the howling. 

 

They have always been broken in the exact same place. They were on the exact same trajectory to destruction. But Ogata had run, and Tsukishima had not been able to break away. Not that it had mattered in the end. They had wound up here, together, nonetheless. They have always had far too much in common.

 

Tsukishima does not know how to answer him. He does not want Ogata to know that he has found in Koito the thing that they could not share, the thing that Ogata may profess not to believe in, but has always been so clearly starving for. Ogata is a very good liar, but there are some things he has never been able to hide. Not from Tsukishima.

 

“No.” Tsukishima lies. “He’s just my superior. You know how it is when rank comes into play.” And he knows Ogata will not believe him, because he too is a good liar and Ogata has always been able to cut right to the truth in him. (Even when Tsukishima had believed his own lies).

 

Or maybe it is not a lie. Is it even possible to love with only the scarred remains of a heart that has been shattered beyond repair? 

 

(But there are no other words for the feeling of relief when he is in Koito’s arms, for the power of the longing inside him, the need to touch Koito, the need to protect him, the need to be all the things he failed to be for Ogata. All the things he could not promise. He should not feel this, and yet it strains inside him, strong enough to pull him, unthinking, in the path of a bomb. But he cannot say it. Tsukishima does not take pleasure in cruelty, the way Ogata has always pretended to.)

 

“I’m happy for you.” It sounds like a curse from Ogata’s parched lips. Not because of his tone —even now he is much too controlled to slip— but because Tsukishima knows him. He knows that it is not in Ogata’s nature to forgive. He knows that it kills him to see others have the things he cannot. “If only he knew who you really were…” And there is the epitaph. “Can’t you just imagine the look on his face when he finds out?” There is the grinning mask Ogata always wears to cover his pain, to invert it and feel it instead as pleasure. 

 

It is a trick Tsukishima has never been able to learn. 

 

“It’s good to know you haven’t changed,” Tsukishima says, and Ogata laughs again, cruel, and broken, and no less beautiful, blood shining crimson in the pristine snow.

 

“Neither have you, sir. You’ll never be free of him.”

 

And as he stares up at the shadowed ceiling, Tsukishima knows that he is right. Despite the fragile thing, growing perfect inside him, Tsukishima’s soul is not his to give. He is bound, inexorably, to the will of a devil, to the ghosts that will always follow him, to a past he cannot change.

 

And still, as he hears the rustle of Ogata rolling over, and knows that this conversation has ended, Tsukishima is sick with the guilt of it. Because Ogata, once, he had the chance to save. (Because Koito, now, he can only destroy.) 

 

When the rest of their party returns to the hut, Koito settles back in beside Tsukishima, laying a cool hand on his aching forehead and murmuring uncharacteristically quiet encouragement as the bustle of cooking a meal begins. It is too much relief, more comfort than he should feel, more comfort than he should ever be afforded. Tsukishima pretends that he hasn’t woken, and through the night, with the warmth of Koito’s body beside him, he does not sleep. 

 


 

They stop at the lighthouse again on the way back. Ogata is gone, fled into the frozen wilderness with nothing but a hospital gown and a stolen pistol, and Tsukishima is glad he was not there to see him go. It’s too easy to imagine Ogata’s feral smile. It’s too easy to imagine what he might have had to do.

 

Everything looks the same as Russia shifts back to Japan, the same snow, the same forest; no difference between them but lines on a map, lines so many men have died for. Men he has known. Men like him. Tsukishima is constantly on watch. He cannot trust Sugimoto now that their goal is achieved, that they have caught up to the girl and his ridiculous friend as well. They are all in such good spirits, being together again, and Tsukishima cannot trust them not to run. Sugimoto has made no mystery of how tenuous his loyalty to the First Lieutenant is. 

 

But this too is part of Tsukishima’s job, and so he watches. Though he is worn down by sleepless nights, and still recovering from a wound that the Russian doctor said could well have killed him, he must be ever-vigilant. Their mission is not a success just because they have secured their target, they must hold it as well. And this, he knows, is often harder. Koito does not seem to understand, he is also cheerful as they trek slowly back across Karafuto, looking only forward to his reunion with Tsurumi. But Koito has not yet been to war. There is so much he does not yet know.

 

By the time they reach the lighthouse, Tsukishima is exhausted. He feels sorry for their hosts being put upon— housing them, feeding them. There are so many more of them now. But at least he is able to deliver Svetlana’s letter, a small allusion to peace. And Koito will pay them for the food they eat.

 

Tsukishima steals away from the bustling kitchen as soon as he has a chance. He is used to long days in the company of other men, but the call of space, of walls separating him from his companions is too tempting to turn down. He can feel the tug and pull of his stitches, the tight restriction every time he turns his head that means they need to come out. He’s not sure how many days it’s been exactly, and the doctor’s instructions are all a blur, but this is not the first time he’s been stitched back together. He knows how scarring feels.

 

In the past, there has always been a medical tent, a doctor, but Tsukishima has never been squeamish. He knows what needs to be done. He borrows the Ainu sewing kit that Tanigaki brings out in increasingly futile attempts to keep his buttons attached to his shirt (and stares at longingly sometimes when he thinks no one is looking.) A gift from the woman Tsurumi is holding hostage, presumably. Tsukishima wonders if Tanigaki loves her. He does not have to wonder what it feels like to have something to return to, a future outside the army. He remembers, even if he wishes he did not.

 

Tsukishima runs the point of a needle through a candleflame until it burns his fingers, and then lets it cool. And he’s glad that this woman —who Tanigaki may, or may not love— has embraced some level of Japanese influence, because the needle is metal, not bone, and there is a tiny pair of scissors in the kit. Tsukishima sterilizes these too, and then stands before the mirror in (what he now knows to be) Svetlana’s bedroom, to begin the arduous task of unpicking the thread from his newly melded skin. 

 

It takes some trial and error to understand the construction of the stitches, how to slide the needle underneath so they can be lifted and then snipped away. His fingers are clumsy with the tiny ends of thread, and each stitch tugs strangely, though not painfully. Still, the task is more difficult than Tsukishima expected. —And also unexpected is the vasovagal response, the way it makes his hands shake and his vision narrow, as he prods and picks at the newly twisted flesh. He has seen so much blood in his life, and plenty of it his own, but it is different, apparently, to sustain an injury than to poke at it in excruciating detail. 

 

It is as if his body itself is telling him to leave off, not to reopen old wounds, to let it scar in peace. But Tsukishima knows that this is an integral stage of healing. (Healing clean, with minimal scarring. Sometimes it hurts more to make wounds right.)

 

He has removed less than half of the stitches when Koito finds him, and though he is redressed in his uniform, his hair is damp still from bathing in a small tub in the lighthouse keepers’ kitchen. He had insisted on going first, when the water was fresh, and Tsukishima had heard him complaining at the scalding heat of it, even through the walls. He will have his bath later, he figures, when the others have finished and there is more peace in the busy kitchen. 

 

“Tsukishima!” Koito gasps. “What are you doing?!”

 

Tsukishima keeps his voice neutral. The answer is obvious. “Removing my stitches, sir. It was time they came out.”

 

“By yourself?”

 

“It’s no trouble.” Tsukishima lowers his hands from picking at a particularly difficult suture, and turns over his shoulder to look at Koito. His neck aches from being craned to the side, and it is getting harder, and more awkward to see the stitches in the mirror as he works backwards. This really is more difficult than he anticipated.

 

“Nonsense, Tsukishima!” Koito sounds agast. “That should be done by a doctor!”

 

“We don’t have a doctor, sir.” 

 

Koito doesn’t have to stop to think about that. He rarely stops to think about his words. It is so easy for him to just say what is on his mind, and Tsukishima hopes he never loses that ability. He hopes that Koito never has to learn to hide. “Then surely you could have asked someone else to help you!” 

 

The idea had never occurred to Tsukishima. He is not a man who is used to asking for help. He is not a man who is used to receiving it. “It’s no trouble,” he says again, because it isn’t, not really. He’s doing fine. But Koito is having none of it. 

 

“Sergeant Tsukishima, you will sit down on that bed and you will let me attend to your wound,” Koito says, and it is an order, though it does not feel like one. “Really. After all we’ve been through i can’t believe you wouldn’t just ask me!”

 

“I’m sorry, sir.” It is an instinctual response, but, he realizes, it is also true; because Koito seems hurt, worried, and Tsukishima never wants to worry him. He is a burden Koito does not need.

 

“And stop it with the ‘sir’,” Koito says. He steps close to wrap his arms around Tsukishima from the back, resting his chin on the top of his head. And it would be so easy to let his eyes slip shut now, to relax back into the relief of feeling Koito hold him, but he cannot. He should not. 

 

Tsukishima looks at their reflection in the mirror and sees them for what they are, a bright, beautiful young man with the whole world ahead of him, and an old broken veteran, a damaged wreck. He has nothing to offer Koito, nothing but pain, and heartbreak, and yet, it is so difficult to pull away.

 

Koito nuzzles his nose in Tsukishima’s short-cropped hair; and it is so easy for him to just show affection like this, it is so easy for him to be honest with his feelings. (It was never easy for Tsukishima, not like this, but once, it was so hard to stop himself, and even now he feels his body relaxing all on its own.) Tsukishima’s heart is in his throat. How can something be so painful, and so beautiful, and so tempting all at once? 

 

Koito presses a kiss to Tsukishima’s temple, and then pushes him to the bed, instructing him to sit down as he retrieves the sewing kit, and then starts in on the remaining stitches. Tsukishima has to explain exactly what to do, but Koito’s hands are clever, and confident, and he was right, it is much easier this way. There is still that strange tugging pain as Koito cuts, and the stitches give, but the unexpected dizziness has mostly faded. Tsukishima tells himself that whatever remains of it is the aftereffect of fumbling fingers against a wound so close to his vital arteries, and nothing to do with the man beside him. 

 

Tsukishima seems to be telling himself a lot of things these days. 

 

(He wants to reach out and lay his hand on Koito’s knee, just rest in there as they sit beside each other on the bed, as Koito works intently, face screwed up in concentration, so close Tsukishima can feel the heat of his breath. And it’s not lost on him that this is the same room, the same bed, that this space feels like theirs.)

 

It’s too easy to develop a soft spot when you’re sleeping with someone regularly, too easy to have more feelings than either of them can afford. There is no space for softness in Tsukishima’s life, and still, he aches for it with whatever remains of his soul. The thing that he cannot have. The thing that he will never deserve. 

 

Koito puts the scissors down and leans in, pressing his fingers gently to Tsukishima’s newest scar. He cannot feel the temperature of them for the twisted skin, and he supposes, this will be another place that stays numb, another part of his body with which he will never feel. It would be better, perhaps, if the scartissue covered all of him, if he could feel nothing at all. 

 

There is blood on Koito’s fingers when he pulls away, and so much concern in his eyes. He looks at his hand, and then up at Tsukishima. “I’m sorry… It’s just a bit, just from where the thread was...” 

 

There is still no pain, so Tsukishima is not worried, “It’s alright, sir. Nothing to worry about, i’m sure.” 

 

“Tsukishima…” Koito pulls out his handkerchief, still, somehow, clean, bright, white, and presses it to Tsukishima’s neck, “i worry about you so much.” 

 

“Sir...” Their fingers brush as Tsukishima brings his hand to his neck to apply pressure to the bleeding. Koito feels so warm, breathless, all-consuming temptation of touch.

 

“I care for you so much, Tsukishima.” There is so much emotion in Koito’s voice. And how long has it been since Tsukishima has heard those words from anyone? How long has it been since anyone has looked at him like this, has spoken to him like this? It hurts too much to remember. 

 

“Sir,” Tsukishima says, and his voice is almost even, “that’s a terrible decision.” 

 

Koito’s eyebrows draw together, and he pulls back, obviously stung. “It is my decision to make, Tsukishima!” 

 

And he has always been so sure. He has always been so proud. 

 

Even knowing a fraction of who Tsukishima really is, even knowing that he was there those days in Hakodate five years ago, that he was the one holding a young Koito hostage —Koito does not back down, he does not blame him. 

 

It is so reckless, so foolish, but Koito has always been ready to stand by his decisions; he knows what he wants, and who he is, and Tsukishima is continually astonished by him. Even as a boy, facing his assumed death, he had been determined, ready to die for his father and his country, ready to go down fighting. Koito learns, and grows, but he does not let the world stray him from his path. He is proud, and honourable in a way that Tsukishima has never been, and it is both so hard, and so tempting to believe in Koito’s truth. 

 

That this could be easy. That this could be good, and right. 

 

(It cannot be.)

 

“Do you really think you are worth so little?” Koito demands, and Tsukishima knows the answer. He knows exactly what he is worth, the price of a lifetime, a promise for a weapon for a lie. But that is not an answer Koito wants to hear. 

 

“I’ll never be able to give you what you want,” he says, and it does not even hurt to say it. It is just the truth.

 

“It’s not up to you to decide what i want!” Koito’s voice is as hard as his words, and then he is taking Tsukishima by the shoulders, pulling him in, and then he is kissing him —and it is not gentle. Koito’s fingers are tight on the back of Tsukishima’s neck, and his mouth is rough, searching, demanding, and Tsukishima is so surprised he does not even think to push him away.

 

(He has been telling himself that this is just a fuck, just dispassionate mutual release, because in the army there is no space for feelings. He has been telling himself that this is a problem, one he doesn’t know how to solve, and can only worsen. But the problem starts and ends when Koito kisses him.)

 

Tsukishima’s mouth opens to Koito as if on instinct, inviting him, kissing him, tongue, and lips, and jaw, beard rough against smooth golden skin. And it is so easy. Nothing in the world should be this easy. It feels like he’s cheating.

 

When Koito pulls away, he is panting, they both are, cheeks flushed red. But his eyes are hard, so impossibly sure, and his voice is steady. “You are a good man, Tsukishima. You are exactly what i want. And i intend to keep telling you that for as long as it takes you to believe me.” 

 

And Tsukishima knows he should contradict him, he knows he should put an end to this, but instead, he is kissing Koito again, soft, and starving, and the very idea seems to melt on his tongue. 

 


 

There are many reasons to be glad they are back in Japan, but sinking into the water of a hot bath is not the least of them. (There are many reasons to be glad they are back in Japan, but somehow Russia always feels (too much) like freedom, as if in distance, in space, there is room to breathe. Or maybe it’s just that each excursion to Russia has held its own brand of impossible promise.)

 

It is never easy for Tsukishima to relax, but in the warm embrace of water, his muscles cannot hold on to their constant tension. It is the smallest taste of peace, of bliss, a quiet comfort he cannot help but allow himself. After all, everyone needs to bathe. It is alright if Tsukishima also enjoys it. 

 

The water, the heat, seems to sink through his skin, pouring into him, soothing the ache in his body, quieting the noise in his mind. It is easy, almost, to let himself drift off here, to let the water hold him, to forget the constant buzz of his nerves, forget who he is in the quiet ripple and lap of serenity. Tsukishima has always loved the water; since he was a child growing up by the ocean, rocked to sleep by the sound of the waves. It has always been his greatest peace. 

 

Steam rises off the surface of the pool, haze obscuring the wooden walls, condensation dripping softly in the distance. This is a public space, but it is late, and it is empty, so it is quiet. This ryokan is nicer than anything Tsukishima would have chosen, but Koito had insisted, and he is the one paying. 

 

“Tsukishima, i’m perfectly fine now, there is no reason for us to stay in the hospital any longer,” Koito had said, and he had not mentioned the bloodstain on the floor, the corpse of the woman who had treated him, another life on Tsukishima’s hands. “We’ll find somewhere in Otaru, somewhere nice.” And it is just like Koito to be so simultaneously frivolous and practical. 

 

But he is right, it is nice, and it is good to be out of the hospital. It is good that Koito has healed, good not to be sitting by his side day after day as he fidgets, and rails against the need for rest. Koito has never been a man who likes to sit still. 

 

There is so much energy in him, so much life, so blindingly, beautifully brilliant. It is exhausting to be in his presence sometimes, but it is also wonderful, leaves unfurling in the heat of the sun. Though caring for him, through his endless chatter and baiting of Nikaidou, had been more of the former than the latter.  

 

But Tsukishima had not left him. He could not leave him. And he wonders now if that might not be for the worse. Ienaga might still be alive if Tsukishima had not been there. They would not know where Tanigaki had gone, and that would be safer, for all of them. (He had not wanted to kill Tanigaki, he is so grateful to Koito for saving him from that. Stupid, kind Tanigaki, who Tsukishima has also cared for, has seen come up through the ranks. He had not wanted to kill Ikarmat, flush with new life, he had not wanted any of it, and Koito had given him another path. It has been so long since he has believed another path existed.)

 

The quiet sound of footsteps pulls Tsukishima back to himself, and he prepares himself mentally to face a stranger, make polite conversation while they soak, because the world is not kind enough to send him someone quiet.

 

It is not a stranger entering the bath, just Koito, damp from scrubbing himself clean, and though he is rarely quiet, Tsukishima cannot help the way his heart softens at the sight of him. 

 

There are new scars on Koito’s body, forearm and shoulder, shiny twisted pink in smooth bronze skin. And it hurts to imagine, to know, that they will not be the last. That Koito lives a dangerous life. That he cannot remain pristine forever. But even old, even scarred, he will always be beautiful. Tsukishima has no doubt of that. And he hopes also, that he will always be as pure and uncomplicated as well. He hopes that Koito will never lose his easy sincerity, his simple, straightforward openness, the way he can hope, and believe without fear. 

 

Tsukishima has enough fear for the both of them. 

 

He had been so worried about Koito, in the hospital, before, more worried than he knows he should ever be. But seeing Koito bleeding, again, gory hole in his shoulder, soaking through his coat, had filled Tsukishima with a buzzing sort of panic, and he had not been able to leave him. (He will never be able to leave him). He had not been able to go after Sugimoto and Asirpa, he had not been able to do his duty, even though Tsurumi had been there. Tsurumi had seen. 

 

Tsukishima is so afraid for Koito. Because Koito’s heart is an open book, and if Tsukishima is failing in his duty in the face of this thing between them, what will happen when Koito cannot keep his secrets? 

 

He hates himself for the fact that he is the root of Koito’s secrets, that he is the thing that has forever altered the course of Koito’s life, that he had broken down, and answered his questions, and told him the truth. He can only be poison for Koito, and yet he cannot help the way that Koito seems to slide beneath his skin, into his heart and his soul, opening him up and letting all the demons inside escape. They are toxic. There is no way to come in contact with them and not be tainted. And Tsukishima can only hope that it is not already too late.

 

“You can believe in and follow me,” Koito had said. And it had been impossible not to trust him, because Koito’s faith shines like a beacon, and Tsukishima is a creature of the darkness, starving for the sun. 

 

There is a quiet splash, a ripple, as Koito slips into the pool at Tsukishima’s side. His lithe body is smooth and gorgeous, always so much control in his movement, the body of an acrobat, of a dancer, a swordsman. Tsukishima wishes he could have been anything but the latter, that all Koito’s grace and beauty could thrive in the service of creation rather than death. But that is not their world, (and it is so strange to wish).

 

Koito settles next to Tsukishima, shoulder to shoulder, skin on skin, and there is nothing immodest in his nudity —they are in a public bath— but still, Tsukishima feels the thrill of him. Koito is so beautiful, long and lean, cheeks flushed pink from the heat, hair falling damp into his face. It seems impossible that Tsukishima could touch him, could want him, and yet, as Koito leans in to rest his head on Tsukishima’s shoulder, it is impossible to think of anything else. 

 

“I thought i would find you here,” Koito says, and his voice is as warm as the water that cradles them. 

 

Tsukishima just nods as Koito reaches out to tangle their fingers together, and he can tell that Koito wants to say more, but he is holding back. And Tsukishima is as impressed as he is grateful. It is so much tact from Koito, so much more than Tsukishima would have expected months ago, but Koito has changed in his time in command, in their time together. He has learned to listen, and he has learned to understand. 

 

(And it feels wrong that he should be able to see Tsukishima so well, that he should be able to know what silence means to him without ever having been told. Tsukishima had never meant to open himself so far, but there is something in Koito that cannot be denied. Tsukishima is so weak to him, and it is breathless, and it is wonderful, and it is terrifying.)

 

Koito turns his body to Tsukishima, drapes his arms around his neck and his legs in his lap, sliding weightless in the water. And Tsukishima’s muscles are already liquid from the heat, so it is easy to relax against him, to wrap his arms around Koito to lean into him as well, to let himself be lost in the comforting tangle of limbs.

 

And this is too much, this is always too much, it is so dangerous, and so wrong. But though Tsukishima tells himself this, there is something inside him that —no matter how he tries— he cannot seem to deny. Something deep, and vital, and desperate. Something that needs to hold Koito close, to feel the life in his body, and the pulse of his heartbeat. Something starving that can only be sated by the taste of Koito’s breath. It is the part of Tsukishima that cannot let Koito go, cannot walk away from him, because it is (so recklessly) sure that this is the one thing in this world still worth living for.

 

“Let Ikarmat tell your fortune,” Koito had said, back in the hospital, bored and bedridden, and Tsukishima had not been tempted, there had seemed no point. He knows his future, or he knows it as well as he needs to. It is the same as his past, an endless chain of duty and death.

 

And later, (it can't have been only a few days, but still less than a week has passed) the jawbone falling, the name of a woman unspoken on Tsukishima’s lips, he had realized he did not want to know. He does not want to know the future, and he does not want to know the truth, not because it would change nothing —though that is still true— but because, for the first time, he has something other than an impossible future to cling to. (Try as he might not to need a lifeline, to accept the inevitability of his pain and his existence, there has always been a part of him that is searching, a quiet, hungry part of him that refuses to die.)

 

He will always want it, part of him, that life that ended so many years ago, that future that died with his father, or maybe even before, but there is something else now, filling that void, there something he could not abandon, even given the impossible chance to claim his old life. (For the first time, there is hope, there is beauty in something other than Igogusa.) 

 

Koito's hand comes to rest at the back of Tsukishima’s neck, fingers sliding up to massage his scalp, and Tsukishima cannot help but sigh at the gentle pleasure of contact. He leans into Koito, only slightly, so aware of all the places they’re touching, thigh against thigh, arms around backs, cradling each other like lovers. 

 

But they are lovers. That is what this is. There is no more denying it. 

 

It is so different than any other touch Tsukishima has known in a decade and more. There is no ulterior motive in Koito, but more than that, he is so open in his lack of one. There is desire here, there has always been desire between them, but it is so much more than that now. This is touch simply for the sake of touch, love for the sake of love, for the pure pleasure of being together. And it has been years since Tsukishima has cried, he is not that kind of man, but he can almost feel the sting of it behind his eyes. Because this feels right. Because this feels beautiful, in a way he does not know how to allow himself. Because he is happy, and he should not be happy. He should never be happy.

 

There is so much goodness in Koito, so much that Tsukishima should never be allowed. It will never be simple between them, it can never be simple, complicated by everything they are, everything they have done, everything they are meant to be. But it does not feel complicated when Koito’s lips press to the corner of Tsukishima’s jaw, when his hand at the back of Tsukishima’s neck guides it to turn, and it is his lips Koito is kissing. It does not feel complicated to love Koito. It feels as easy as slipping into the sea, as easy as drowning. He is drowning in Koito’s love, and yet he breathes, because Tsukishima comes from the water, he is at home in the water, water has always been Tsukishima’s peace. 

 

There is no need to swim when the sea washes over him. 

 

“You’re so beautiful,” Koito whispers against Tsukishima’s lips, and then he is moving to straddle him, and they should not be doing this, not here, they are still in public, but it is so hard to say no with Koito’s mouth against his ear, lips gentle against newly scarred flesh as they move down Tsukishima’s neck. It feels like lightning, crawling beneath Tsukishima’s skin, and he was already too hot from the water, sweat dripping from his brow, but now he is burning. There is fire in Tsukishima’s veins as Koito kisses him, slow and gentle, tracing scars from shoulder to ear, moving back to his mouth as Tsukishima opens to him. As he unravels for him. It is impossible not to unravel in the heat of Koito’s kisses, they undo him completely, slipping into every invisible crack in his armour until he is left naked, and exposed, and gasping.

 

Koito rocks in Tsukishima’s lap, water heavy and close around them, hot and slow as blood. His body is so hard —so smooth, and strong and beautiful, his breath heavy with desire against Tsukishima’s ear, “I want you. Let me touch you?”

 

As if he is not already touching him, as if Tsukishima could ever say no to him, could ever dream of wanting something more than this.

 

But they are still very much in a public place, and even Koito would not be so bold, would he? (He would.) “...Not here.” 

 

Koito pouts, but there is so much light in his eyes, warm and sparkling. “Come now, Tsukishima, where is your sense of adventure?” 

 

“I’ve had enough adventure for a lifetime,” Tsukishima grumbles, but even he sounds unconvinced. 

 

Koito laughs, pressing himself close to Tsukishima’s body, hand slipping between them to paw at Tsukishima under the water where his body is already responding, hardening in steady pulses of anticipation. Tsukishima bites down on a gasp as Koito takes him in hand —but then he is pulling away, and sliding out of the bath as graceful as a seal while Tsukishima sits, flushed, and stunned, and wanting. 

 

“Well come on then,” Koito tosses over his shoulder as turns away and strides from the room, grinning. “I think you’ve been in the bath long enough anyway.”

 

Their room is simple, traditional, tatami floor, but Tsukishima hardly sees it. His eyes are only for Koito. He is gorgeous in a yukata, wrapped quickly around him for their walk back from the bath, crisp cotton pale against his flushed dark skin. But Koito would look gorgeous in anything, and Tsukishima is far from disappointed when he strips out of it the moment the door slides shut behind them. 

 

The fabric pools on the floor at Koito’s feet, leaving him naked, and damp, and perfect, and he looks almost pornographic, more erotic than any shunga , as he steps forward, into Tsukishima’s space. He slides his hands into the collar of Tsukishima’s yukata, parts it to lay his palms flat against Tsukishima’s chest, callous, and skin and scar —caressing him. 

 

“Gods, Tsukishima…” There is reverence in Koito’s voice as he presses forward, lips on Tuskishima’s neck, kissing down to his chest, his sternum. He sinks to his knees, fingers working at Tsukishima’s obi, mouth open, hot against broad battle-scarred muscle, flawed and damaged skin. “I want you. I can’t get enough of you.” 

 

Tsukishima’s yukata falls open and Koito presses kisses to his abs, tracing the trail of dark hair that descends down his stomach. He is so much more confident now, so different from the first few fumbling times, and a wry part of Tsukishima almost regrets how much he has learned, because he is not sure he likes being teased like this, but it is good that Koito knows what he wants. It is good that he is not afraid to ask for it, to take it. Even if it will never make sense to Tsukishima that the thing Koito wants is him.

 

Koito’s hands travel up to cup Tsukishima’s chest, squeezing, fingers sinking into the heavy muscle and he sighs in pleasure. “You’re so gorgeous, Tsukishima, i just want to taste every part of you.”

 

“...sir?” Tsukishima’s heart is pounding in his ears, his body flushed and straining, and he is as elated by Koito’s words as he is embarrassed.

 

Koito is laughing, even as his mouth moves down, kissing to the junction of Tsukishima’s hip. “Not ‘sir’. Otonoshin,” he corrects, “just stay still for me, just let me…” And then his hands are moving down to Tsukishima’s hips, grounding and solid, and his mouth is opening against Tsukishima’s skin again, tongue tracing inward, and Tsukishima’s breath is catching in his throat. 

 

It is not easy for Tsukishima to hold still as Koito mouths along his hipline, as his hands caress his torso, fingers pressing into the spaces between his ribs, palms moving to cup the curve of his pec, of his ass. It is never easy for Tsukishima to receive pleasure, he has always preferred to be the one on his knees, the one giving, no focus on himself. It is easier that way, to quiet the voice in his head.

 

His hands go to Koito’s shoulder, trying to pull him up, but Koito will not be moved. He traces two fingers along the thick scar that cuts across the left side of Tsukishima’s chest, cheek pressed flat to the hard plane of his stomach, looking up at him with hungry eyes. “I love your scars,” he breathes, and Tsukishima is so startled he almost laughs.

 

“That’s ridiculous, they’re horrible.”

 

“They’re not!” Koito insists, and his breath is so hot, his mouth so close to the aching hardness of Tsukishima’s cock, teasing just shy of pleasure, but pleasure all in itself, pleasure in anticipation. “They’re beautiful because they’re you. They’re yours.” Koito’s lips trace to the scar that cuts across Tsukishima’s abdomen, gentle, kissing down the line where, once, shrapnel had nearly ended him. “They’re proof that you’re alive,” Koito breathes, and Tsukishima shudders. (It has been a long time since Tsukishima felt alive, but here, now, he almost believes it.)

 

He does not know what to do with all the feeling swirling inside him, doesn’t know how to respond to so much openness, so much truth, when his life for so long has been armour and lies. Koito has slipped into every crack in his subconscious, not with the point of a blade, prying him open, but like water, pouring into him, filling him up until he is overflowing, until he is awash, until all his secrets are spilling out of him, cleansing him of all his pain.

 

Koito is nothing like the other men Tsukishima has known, brief encounters that meant nothing (and the longer ones, the one that almost meant something, but only ended up cutting him deeper, draining him dry, and the one that meant everything, the one that has torn him apart for fifteen years, claws so deep in his flesh, in his heart, in his brain, that even now he can feel them, that he will never be free of them. He does not want to think of that now.)

 

“Hajime…” Koito whispers into his skin, “i love you.” 

 

Tsukishima shudders. No one ever calls him by his given name, no one in years. And it surprises him now, how little it hurts to hear it, how it thrills through him, an old promise on a new tongue, but no less impactful.

 

And Tsukishma knows he is blushing, and he knows it is ridiculous for a jaded veteran in his thirties to be so undone by words and kisses, but he cannot help himself. Because with his name on Koito’s lips, here, in their own private space, shut away from the world, Tsukishima feels almost young again. He feels like the man he once was, when there was still hope, when he still had a future.

 

It has been more than fifteen years since anyone has looked at Tsukishima the way Koito looks at him, has touched him the way Koito touches him, and Tsukishima feels as if the weight of them is melting away, as if he could fly, again on the secret fantasy of a life that will never be his, that he can never let go of. 

 

His fingers tangle in Koito’s damp hair, body shaking with tension, with vulnerability, with need, and then Koito’s mouth is opening to him, and Tsukishima is gasping. (And still, this is hard, it is hard not to pull him away, it is hard to let him do this, but it is also impossible not to. It is impossible to do anything but grip tight to any part or Koito he can reach, as Tsukishima’s knees go weak and his whole body shudders with relief, with release.) 

 

Koito’s mouth is wet velvet, gorgeous heat, wrapping around him, spilling pleasure like molten gold through Tsukishima’s veins. And it is a wonder he is still standing, it is a wonder he can remember to breathe as Koito’s lips and tongue work over his cock, wrapping around him, desire, and sensation glowing like an ember inside him.

 

It is so good, so blindingly good, and Tsukishima is biting down on his own lip to stop the sounds that want to come spilling out of him, the desperate gasps of need, and elation. And as the pleasure builds inside him, overwhelming his vision with sunspots and blackness until he cannot keep his eyes open, cannot even see the beautiful lines of Koito’s body beneath him for the fireworks exploding in his head, the part of Tsukishima that always insists that he should not have this, that he cannot want it, finally falls silent. And the breath that sighs out of him is a low, quiet moan.

 

He is shaking, losing himself, and when Koito eventually pulls off of him, Tsukishima's knees buckle. He cannot think for the hunger growing inside him, for the want, and the love. He cannot worry, because all that exists to him is Koito. In this moment he is all that matters. Tsukishima pulls him close, kissing him as they tangle together on the floor, hungrily desperately, clinging to Koito with arms that shake for the sheer need of him. It feels like finding a part of himself that has been gone so long he forgot it was even missing. It feels like transcending through his skin, becoming whole in a way he had no longer believed was even possible. It feels like redemption.

 

Koito is smiling as he pulls away, and he is so beautiful that this cannot be real, this cannot be anything but a dream, but Tsukishima’s dreams are never this kind, never this quiet.

 

“I want you inside me,” Koito says, “i want to feel you like you’ve felt me.” He worries his lip between his teeth, but there is no shyness in him now, no fear, only trust. His face is flushed, eyes bright with hope, and so hungry, and Tsukishima could never deny him. He also wants. He is also starving. 

 

And then Koito is kissing him again, pulling him down to the floor on top of him, mouth open, thighs parting to draw him in ever closer. They hardly make it to the futon.

 

It is slow, and gentle as he stretches Koito open, preparing him. It is slow and gentle as they fit their bodies together, as Tsukishima lines himself up with the soft give of Koito’s body, and presses forward, into him.

 

The sound that Koito makes is ecstasy, elation, tumbling from his open mouth as Tsukishima rocks into him. And Tsukishima knows that no matter how long he lives, no matter how many times he hears it, no matter how many times he is blessed with the perfect heat of Koito’s body around him, he will never forget this moment. He will never forget how it feels to be in love. (He has never forgotten it, only pushed it aside, only tried to tell himself that he should not miss it. But he cannot miss it any longer, because he cannot deny the bliss that holds him.)

 

Koito’s fingers grip tight on Tsukishima’s shoulders, ankles locked behind his thighs, shuddering as he pulls him closer, deeper. His mouth is hot against Tsukishima’s mouth, breathing his breath, whispering love between cries of pleasure as Tsukishima rocks into him over and over, as they come apart in each other’s arms. Koito’s body is so hot, and so hard, and so perfect beneath him, blinding beauty, and Tsukishima is gasping, losing himself in the pleasure of him, of touch, of love. His heart is on fire, beating behind his ribs, growing, bursting, swallowing him until there is nothing left, until there is nothing between them, until they are lost to each other.

 

They burn together, flame feeding flame, glowing pyretic, as they rock like a ship on the waves, an island of calm in a lifetime of horror. They move together, slowly, as if they have all the time in the world, as if nothing matters but this. Pleasure, and elation and love, bones igniting as passion courses through them. And Tsukishima knows, in the distant part of himself with which he can still think, that this is what happiness feels like, that this is what it means to be whole, to be alive.

 

“I love you,” Koito whispers into Tsukishima’s mouth, skin sweat-damp, and lips kiss-bruised. “I love you.” 

 

And there is nothing Tsukishima can do but answer him. 

 


 

“Tsukishima…” Koito’s voice is so quiet. The shot is still ringing in his ears and he feels as if he might collapse to his knees. “Hajime…!” 

 

There is no space to breathe. “He wanted me to kill you,” Tsukishima says, and his eyes are wild. Like a wounded animal, a deer caught in a beartrap. “I couldn’t let him…”

 

“I know,” Koito breathes. “I know.”

 

The rifle falls from Tsukishima’s grip, clattering to the floor, and Koito is too stunned to even jump at the sound. The world feels like it is padded in cotton, behind a metre of glass, like he is only observing the actions of his body, not controlling it. They stand shoulder to shoulder, and as the silence rings, too loud, deafening Koito reaches out and takes Tsukishima’s hand. 

 

He is dead. 

 

Tsurumi is dead. It is over. 

 

Or maybe it has just begun. 

 

Tsukishima steps forward, and Koito goes with him. He cannot let go of Tsukishima's hand. He cannot lose this connection. 

 

Blood stains Tsukishima’s fingers as he presses them to Tsurumi’s neck, searching for a pulse he will not find. Because Tsukishima is a good shot, and at point-blank range there was no missing. Tsurumi’s forehead is a wreck of shattered enamel— blood, and scar, and bone, gore splattering the wall like crimson rays over the horizon, sun on the flag they have killed for. It is horrible, a macabre display of consequence, and Koito cannot look away. 

 

Tsukishima is so calm as he kneels beside the corpse of the devil, the creature that has shaped both of them, so nearly destroyed them. He does not flinch at the sight of Tsurumi’s still smiling teeth, grin now rictus in death. But Koito can see the tremble of his hand as he reaches out to touch that disgusting thing, and he understands. Tsukishima needs to be sure. He needs to know that there is no going back. That it is over. That they are free. 

 

He is so strong, and so beautiful, and Koito is so afraid.

 

His life has ended as surely as if the bullet had been for him, the predetermined path of his future aborted in violence, and dripping bloodsplatter. But Koito is not sorry. He does not know what will happen next, he does not know where they will go from here, but it can only be better than this theatre of lies. They will find a way out of this. They will find a new future.

 

“He’s dead,” Tsukishima says, and he sounds almost as if he does not believe it, as if it is impossible that Tsurumi could be killed by something so mundane as a bullet, as if he truly were a demon, because he is certainly more than just a man. Tsurumi is rot in both their veins, sickly blackness that has poisoned them, that it will take years of patience, and surgical precision to excise. He is the deepest fracture in Tsukishima’s wounded heart, every shard of glass that Koito has tried to pick out, that he is not sure he will ever find the last of. 

 

But perhaps it is more than a bullet which has killed Tsurumi. Perhaps it is the repercussion of a lifetime of violation, decades of abuse finally coming back to destroy him. Perhaps it was not a gun, but rage and pain wielded deadly by a man who thought he had nothing to live for, but has found something to protect. 

 

It is not lost on Koito that Tsukishima did this for him.  

 

He tugs Tsukishima away from the corpse, drags his eyes and his hands from the false idol at which they have both worshipped, and holds him to his chest, nose pressed to Tsukishima’s close-shaved hair, hands stroking down his back to quiet his trembling. “I know,” Koito whispers. “I know. It’s over.” 

 

“...It will never be over.”  

 

He is stiff as a statue in Koito’s arms, shaking as blood pools beneath Tsurumi’s head, black and viscous as ink. And Koito understands that there is no absolution in Tsurumi’s death, no purification in blood. This was not revenge, but the last desperate act of a man who had thought he had nothing left to lose. And had realized he was wrong. 

 

It will take so much more than this to exorcise the demons of devotion. But perhaps now, there is a chance. Perhaps now, there is something other than inevitability. 

 

In the simple act of putting a bullet through his commanding officer’s head, Tsukishima has chosen to step onto his own path, to walk for once, and not just follow. 

 

He has chosen life. He has chosen freedom. Even if he does not yet see it. 

 

“Otonoshin…” Tsukishima’s voice is a broken wreck, his arms wrap around Koito’s back, clinging to him, as if in the wake of his anger all will has gone out of him. As if he cannot remember what he is without rage and pain to fuel him.

 

“Shhhhhhh,” Koito soothes, and only then does he realize that he too is shaking. That the only heat in the room seems to come from Tsukishima’s body, that he is terrified, and breathless, and only in Tsukishima’s arms does he feel whole, as if the world has not just ended. As if they will be okay.

 

And, Koito decides, they will be. They will get through this. Together. 

 

He has promised Tsukishima that he can trust him, that he can follow him, and though he never wants to give Tsukishima another order, he never wants to control him, he will be his light in the darkness. He will lead him forward even if he does not know where they are going, because he is an officer (for now, for as long as they remain in the army, for as long as necessary), and it is his job to make decisions. It is his job to be brave. 

 

Tsukishima is always so brave, but right now, Koito can be brave for both of them. “He’s dead, Hajime. We’re free.” 

 

And surely someone has heard the gunshot, surely someone will be coming to find them. They may have to fight their way out of this room, fight men they have served with, have laughed with, have cared for. But for now, that does not matter. For now, time is frozen, quiet save for the shaking sob of Tsukshima’s breath. 

 

“...What are we going to do?” he asks, and his voice is empty. He seems so small in Koito’s arms, so lost, without his unshakable composure, without his quiet, controlled strength. 

 

Koito presses a kiss to Tsukishima’s forehead. “We’re going to run away together,” he breathes against his skin. “Maybe i’ll join the circus after all, and i can blow you kisses every night.”

 

Tsukishima looks up at him, bewildered, and then he is actually smiling despite the tremor in his body, and the haunted look in his dark, narrow eyes. “I don’t think they’d have much place for me, sir.” Shocked smile, smile of fear, smile of too many emotions all boiling to the surface at once and escaping in a torrent, leaving him hollow, and alone.

 

But he is not alone. He will never be alone for as long as Koito can cling to him.

 

Koito cups Tsukishima’s face in his hands, runs his thumb along one strong cheekbone, and he too smiles, but it is a very different smile. It is a smile of love. It is a smile of promise. “Tsukishima, no matter where i am, there will always be a place for you.” Koito leans in, and kisses him, softly, holding him close to his body, breathing life back into the frozen trembling of his lips.

 

There is blood on Tsukishima’s hands as he grips Koito’s shoulders, blood on Koito’s, iron stench of it in the air, pervading everything. But they will always be bloodied, there is no purity in war, in the life of a soldier. They will never repay the things they have done, the lives they have taken. They will never be free of the ghosts that follow them. But maybe, one day, they will learn to live with them, to accept them as companions so they are no longer haunted.

 

Maybe, one day, in Koito’s arms, Tsukishima will sleep easy. Maybe, one day, he, at least, will find rest.

 

Because for all that has been his doing, none of it has ever been his fault. It is the world that has made him what he is, made them what they are, cruel fate, and cruel intention shaping them into blades, into weapons. There has never been any choice for either of them. Until now. And they have chosen each other. 

 

It is quiet, as they kneel together in the aftermath of devotion, holding each other beside the corpse of their dead god. It is quiet, as death pools on the floor around them like a promise, and they kiss each other, bloody, and shaking, and free.