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the twilight of two

Sundown comes fast. Blazing orange, it casts deep shadows over the river, pitching the banks black, its waters rippling violet and cream and yellow. Standing on a bridge, Atsushi’s eyes reflect the water-shade, his expression disinterested as he taps a cigarette out of its carton. He props it between his lips, holding it steady with one hand as the other sinks into a separate pocket, searching for his lighter.

Consternation wrinkles his brow, but he doesn’t startle when a hand is suddenly in front of his face, striking a small flame that flickers in the open air.

“Thanks,” he says, standing patiently as the match touches the edge. He sucks in smoothly, then tugs the cigarette free of his lips, blowing smoke out the corner of his mouth. It curls, threatening to stagnate, but a sudden rush of wind blows it away – and the match sputters, its flame guttering.

Atsushi smiles, a touch sardonic, and presses the cylinder to his lips again.

It’s only when he has expelled another smoky breath that his smile loses its edge, shoulders relaxing into a friendly slump. He turns his back to the river, satisfied, and leans against the railing.

Dazai watches him. Unlike Atsushi, his face is carefully neutral. But Atsushi has gotten better at reading him; there’s expectance in the air around him, draped over his slender body like an overly-large coat.

Atsushi tastes clove and imagines what Dazai would look like wrapped in tan. Peruvian brown? A tailor would have a better eye for this sort of thing.

“Should you be hanging out with the beast of calamity, Dazai-kun?”

“I probably shouldn’t be lighting its cigarette,” Dazai answers, and Atsushi gives him an indulgent flash of teeth. “But you aren’t a beast of calamity anymore, Atsushi-san.”

Atsushi smiles wider – and abruptly curses when the tube drops from between his lips, catching it at the expense of a burn mark on his palm.

“A tiger shouldn’t be so clumsy, Atsushi-san,” Dazai says.

“And children should respect their elders,” Atsushi retorts. The burn mark on his hand is already fading, and his fingers twitch as he stubs the remainder of the cigarette out on the topmost beam, ash streaking the metal.

Then in one smooth movement, he is turning and closing the distance between them, his marked hand tangling in Dazai’s hair as leverage to pull himself up (or Dazai down), pressing a quick kiss to the corner of Dazai’s mouth before he draws back, uncertain. Inches separate them, and Dazai’s voice fills up the space: “Atsushi-san, that isn’t how you do it.”

“Then show me,” Atsushi huffs, but before his eyes can begin to roll, Dazai has caught his mouth - properly this time - lips on lips. Dazai’s hands are equally active, one having moved up to cup his jaw, fingers skirting the pulse beneath Atsushi’s ear while the other has found his free hand, digits threaded in what feels like a promise.

It is, Atsushi thinks, very pleasant.

And yet he still finds the strength to pull away, properly this time – the rush of cold air on skin touched by Dazai renders goosebumps, but he keeps himself stabilized by their connected hands. As if to remind himself of why he came here, why they both came here, he folds his thumb over the back of Dazai’s hand.

“You’ll have to show me more later,” he says, and is glad to see Dazai looks suspiciously red-faced in the fading light – is further gladdened to know that Dazai probably can’t see the same on him. “But that isn’t why I called you out here.”

“Oh,” Dazai says. It isn’t a question, but there is confusion. Distress.

Atsushi feels Dazai start to withdraw then and clings to him purposely, squeezing their connected hands with enough strength that Dazai squeaks a protest.

“Stop thinking the worst,” Atsushi tells him. “Or you’ll go grey before me.”

He isn’t surprised when Dazai takes the opening: “I don’t know if you’ve looked in the mirror lately, Atsushi-san, but it’s already too late for you.”

Yes, this sort of atmosphere is better, Atsushi thinks.

“I’ve left the Port Mafia,” he says at last.

Whatever atmosphere there was has been devoured by the heaviest pause Atsushi has ever experienced. In the stark silence, Atsushi’s senses draw out the background, raising the volume on shrieks of nightlife revelry, the soft chatter of the river below them, the satisfying hum of insects in the gloom of near-twilight.

“Oh,” Dazai says. It sounds like a period at the end of a story.

“Oh?” Atsushi echoes, and the punctuation changes shape. Streetlights flicker into existence, one by one, and Atsushi watches the light approach them over Dazai’s shoulder.

There is another silence.

“Does that mean good?” Atsushi asks at last, because the lights are creeping ever closer, and Dazai is swaddled in shadow.

“I don’t know yet,” Dazai says, slowly. Atsushi can see enough in the darkness to know that he’s tasting the words. Then Dazai adds, cautiously, “Did you think this through, Atsushi-san?”

“I’ll be all right,” Atsushi says.

“The Port Mafia won’t let you go so easily. And the agency—.”

“I know,” Atsushi agrees. The final lamp flickers to life above them, and he finally sees the truth of Dazai’s face. The hope in his eyes threatens to burst Atsushi’s heart.  

For a moment, Atsushi breathes deep. And then, he says—

“But if you help me, I think we can convince them.”

“But why did you decide to leave?” And Dazai sounds so bittersweet that Atsushi wrestles with the desperate need to pull him close, to bury his face in Dazai’s shoulder and breathe him in.

“It was my home.” The “was is weighty; there’s a finality to the words, and suddenly Atsushi sees what the tiger has seen all along, has known ever since that day by the river. There is a peace that comes from this knowledge, and he smiles at Dazai, trusting him to see what Atsushi saw. “But home is someplace different now.”

 “I understand,” Dazai says. And he smiles back, a soft curve that dimples one cheek and makes his eyes shine like stars in the dark of night.

 

 

 

 

chuuya: part i. 

“Did you really kill him, Nakajima?”

The bar glimmers dark and gold; in the background, the night’s live music croons sweet nonsense into a retro microphone. Atsushi blinks down at the ashtray that’s kept him company through the long night – the cigarette butts he’s built up sit in a heap like a pile of dead bodies. He takes another drag on his sixth victim and adds to the haze of tobacco smoke that crowds the rafters and turns the lighting grainy.

Chuuya sits beside him, resplendent as usual in a typical two-piece suit, a maroon tie that doesn’t quite match his hair sitting loose around his nape.

Like a noose, Atsushi thinks, and holds his finger up.

Oi,” Chuuya snaps, but Atsushi doesn’t even cut a glance at him until his shochu’s refilled. He swirls it around in the glass, letting the ice dilute it a bit, then takes a sip. The ice clinks as he sets it down, and he finally meets Chuuya’s aggravated gaze.

“That’s what they say,” he says, surprised by how level his voice sounds.

He imagines a jewel-studded collar wrapped around a white tiger.

You would never betray me, Atsushi-kun, a voice says.

“Bullshit,” Chuuya hisses; Atsushi thinks that children their age shouldn’t really be here. It’s Mafia-run, and they’re both famous enough that they could order escorts to go along with the booze and the smokes – but they’re still only fourteen.

Then again, Atsushi thinks, he did kill a man a week ago.

Smoking and drinking pale in comparison to murder.

He takes another sip of his shochu. It burns down his throat, and he remembers the collar that clutched at his neck.

In his mind, the jewels dim – the snow-white fur is stained scarlet with lifeblood. The collar cracks, pushed to its limits by a ripple of muscle, and the tiger roars.

 

 

 

a brief interlude.  

“Atsushi-kun,” says Mori.

His voice is kind, like the first day they met – but Atsushi is older now, wiser to his tricks. His palms still ache in the places where the blood spurted. They tingle in a way his newly-healed ribs do not; he wonders if that signifies something.

Atsushi faces him with a blank look on his face, and Mori says, “The boss has requested you be his personal bodyguard.”

Before his eyes can crawl away from Mori, Atsushi forces himself to kneel, bowing his head.

The room is shadowed, bay windows veiled by curtains in such a way that light only reaches the boss’s chair, pooling shadows around it and Mori’s feet. The darkness is warm, the floor is chilled, and Atsushi wonders if the room has been specified to Mori’s instructions – if the gamemaster has specifically chosen elements that force subordinates to feel trapped.

“You will be the Port Mafia’s strength,” the boss says. “Our beast beneath the moonlight.”

“If I may suggest something,” Mori says smoothly, and Atsushi tenses, still not daring to look up.

“Of course,” the boss says. Atsushi catches the smallest flicker of movement in the upper corners of his vision and wonders if the boss is gesturing for Mori to continue.

“Perhaps ‘beast of calamity’ might be a more befitting moniker?”

The boss barks out a peal of laughter that dissolves into a croaking cough. Atsushi risks a glance then, at the man who controls everything, at the man who holds his leash in hand – it is a quick look, revealing stringy, unwashed grey hair that clumps around his scrawny neck like a protective drape and thin, watery eyes that betray pain. He is wretched, Atsushi thinks.

“I approve,” the boss says, and Atsushi smells blood. “What say you, boy?”

“I am honored to have been chosen,” he answers softly.

He feels rather than sees Mori’s look of approval; it skims cool fingers over his scars.

 

 

 

chuuya: part ii.

“You didn’t kill him,” Chuuya insists. “You couldn’t kill him.”

If only it were that simple, Atsushi thinks. He settles for taking a final inhalation, savoring the smoke that tickles the roof of his mouth before blowing it up toward the ceiling. He stabs the exhausted remains into the ashtray; the paper crumples beneath his hand.

“A mafia member who can’t kill is dead weight,” Atsushi says.

Chuuya snorts, looking disgusted. He rolls the wine in his glass, the red lapping at the edges, threatening to spill. Atsushi can tell he’s holding back, taking languid sips instead of his typical free-fall into intoxication.

“Ozaki-san is a good teacher,” he says, for lack of anything else to comment on. They’re at an impasse, and he knows Chuuya must be puzzling out a way to get the whole story out of him.

Chuuya smirks, bringing the glass to his lips for another savoring splash of red – Atsushi smiles back, pleasant to Chuuya’s pride.

“Of course,” he says, “Big sis is the best teacher for the brightest student – finally acknowledging my superiority, Nakajima?”

Atsushi pushes out a laugh, his smile loosening into a lop-sided grin. “Hardly. There’s a reason I’m—. “

The words die on his tongue, and he swallows hard. He blinks, mouth twisted, and finds that Chuuya is staring at him over the lip of his wineglass, eyes sharp.

Chuuya isn’t stupid. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget; Atsushi smiles back bitterly.

“We’re partners,” Chuuya says. “And we’ve gone on enough missions that I know the marks a tiger leaves. Broad, jagged tears. Not a neat little nick.”

“But I killed him.” There is a sorrow to the words, barely above a whisper.

“And what was the alternative?” Chuuya clicks his tongue.

The bar is filled with smoke and figures and shadows. They’re huddled up around the corner of the bar, voices masked by the solemn melodies that weave through the crowd; it rumbles and shifts like some sleeping monster. The bartender on duty keeps a respectful distance away, watchful but unwilling to possibly pry into mafia business. He values his fingers.

“Too many bodies,” Atsushi says.

Chuuya relaxes, tension draining from his body. Atsushi realizes that he should probably stop drinking now; between the pair of them, Chuuya is the more easily read. If he can’t even tell when his partner is wound tight like that, then he’s drunk too much already.

Just as well, he thinks, peering into his glass. The ice has melted, watering the shochu down into an unappealing mess.

“Then congrats, partner. Took your time popping the cherry, but how many can say their first mark was a mafia boss?” Chuuya has regained his good cheer, his movements bigger, more open, as he swivels in his chair to flag the barkeep down. “This calls for something better than this third-rate shit.”

Atsushi smiles back, but it feels more like a grimace. He hopes Chuuya won’t take offense.

If Chuuya notices, he doesn’t deign to comment. Instead, he settles back down onto his seat, swilling around a new glass of something white. Sweeter, Atsushi suspects.

“Still, with Mori as the new boss, that has to mean you’re moving up in the world,” Chuuya says. His tone is conversational, his eyes distant, as he sips at his wine. 

“Probably,” Atsushi agrees, already tired of this new direction.

“Does that mean no more shitty work for us?” Poor Chuuya, thinking Mori plays favorites.

“Don’t expect a cut down,” he says instead. “Mori-san cares about results, and if we’re the best pieces he has, then he’ll use us.”

“You’re such a drag,” Chuuya sighs out. “But now that you’re over that whole morality thing, maybe we’ll actually get some fun jobs.”

“I’m never killing again.”

He doesn’t know where the sudden conviction comes from; he just knows that it bubbles and burns in his throat. The tiger paces inside his ribcage, making itself known in the ache that pushes up from the inside of his skin, pressing outward.

“What the hell, man.” Chuuya—doesn’t sound as angry as Atsushi would have expected, considering what he just said is tantamount to treason in their circle. Pacifists are dead weight, only good for menial tasks.

And he knows that. The question is: does he still care?

No, he agrees with the tiger. He isn’t a man-eater.

“I won’t abandon you, Nakahara-san,” Atsushi says, taking note of the way Chuuya’s eyes bug out. He sputters, and Atsushi watches him calmly, waiting for him to finish.

At last, Chuuya squawks out a: “What the hell are you talking about!?” and Atsushi says softly, “I’ll show Mori-san I can be useful without killing.”

His partner stares at him, mouth gaping like a goldfish’s, and Atsushi tweaks the corners of his own lips up into a small smile. He reaches for his pocket, wanting the self-satisfaction of one more puff for a job well done.

The knot that had lodged itself in his heart comes undone, and the tiger collapses onto its side with something that sounds suspiciously like a sigh.

In the darkness of his ribcage, it twitches its tail and waits for him.

 

 

 

a tiger’s rampage.

What are you doing? Atsushi asks the tiger. It circles him, tail thrashing.

Oh, I see. It leaps toward him, claws spread wide, teeth flashing in the black world. Atsushi crumples to the ground beneath its bulk, his shirt blooming scarlet camellias. His blood blossoms and wilts, and red spider lilies push up around him, surrounding him and the tiger.

It tears through his shirt, his skin, and he sees the white of a rib bone, poking out of the cavity that was once his torso.

Oh, he tells it. That’s why. I’m sorry.

It meets his gaze, torn and bruised camellia petals clinging to its chin, peeking out from between its black lips. Why do you cage us, it asks him. This cannot continue.

I think I always kept us trapped. He is honest in his ruin. I just refused to see it until now.

But now, it tells him, freedom is within reach. Take it, or I shall take it for myself.

It tears the guts free from inside him. Camellia petals swirl in a storm around his head, fluttering along the edge of his vision, scattering in all directions. The spider lilies sway in a breeze he cannot feel.

Atsushi wakes with a start, gasping as if his head has just breached the surface of a deep, deep lake.

He lies on his back, awkwardly straight, and the first thing he sees is a white ceiling with long strips of lighting overhead. His natural inclination is to rise, but when he tries to sit up, he finds himself bound. Restraints wrap around his body.

A dizzying sense of wrongness makes him wince. The time before his meeting with the tiger is blurred and distorted. Before he begins to make sense of the memories, he calls on the tiger’s strength, desperate to escape whatever traps him.

His presence hits a barrier. Something keeps him from the tiger, a metaphorical glass wall erected between them. He batters against it, and amidst rising panic, his eyes dart – and land on Dazai, sat in a chair close to the foot of the table he finds himself strapped to.

Dazai flashes him a strained smile and flicks his eyes up and right – Atsushi follows the gesture, finds a black camera staring at him from the corner of the room.

A headache ripples through his skull, and he flinches.

“What happened?” he asks, trying to make sense of the scenes that litter his brain. He remembers a bar, smoke and saliva, and the howling of the moon above him. It was, he thinks, unbearably large.

Dazai looks as if he wants to answer, but before he can, a voice crackles to life over an intercom, hidden from Atsushi’s view. “You are currently being held captive by the Armed Detective Agency. Can you remember anything of last night?”

There is a soft touch to Atsushi’s side, and he suddenly realizes that the warmth he feels is Dazai’s hand. It’s been steady on him this entire time, and his eyes narrow – the tiger is being held captive, somehow, and Dazai is the cause. A growl builds in his throat, but he swallows it down, tasting ashes.

“No, I can’t,” he answers truthfully. He knows something of the Armed Detective Agency – they are a thorn in Mori’s side, and some of the Port Mafia’s operatives have tangled with them before. Once he thought it sheer dumb luck he had managed to avoid an encounter with their members; now, he must acknowledge that it’s incredibly unlucky to have so little information when trapped in your enemy’s grip.

He is vulnerable like this, absolutely killable and so terribly alone without the tiger in his blood.

“I see,” the voice over the intercom crackles. It clicks off, and he imagines the person interrogating him must be discussing with someone – or several someones. Atsushi grits his teeth; he is an executive of the Mafia, priceless in terms of information and – and for another reason he will not think about.

“Dazai-kun,” the voice on the intercom says. No, it’s a different voice, older. “Watch him. He can’t escape the restraints with regular human strength.” Then it dissolves into static and finally falls dead silent.

Atsushi stares at the camera, a scowl playing across his lips, then refocuses on Dazai.

“Everything is being recorded,” Dazai says. But the corners of his lips tilt upward, and Atsushi suspects that is not the whole truth.

“I hadn’t realized this was the new job you’d found,” Atsushi says, smiling wryly. The leather straps chafe his skin each time he shifts. Dazai gets up and scoots his chair closer to Atsushi’s head, so he no longer has to strain his neck, keeping at least a finger on Atsushi at all times.

“Nullification?” Atsushi guesses.

“That’s right,” Dazai says with a small smile. “If it’s an extension of your ability, it’s stopped.”

“A good counter against ability users,” Atsushi says, “but not so useful against guns and knives.”

“Atsushi-san understands well,” Dazai says lightly.

Atsushi almost wants to laugh. He wonders where this supposed freedom is; he thought it might lie with Dazai, but it’s hard to trust a man who’s holding you captive. If only the tiger could answer his question.

“Do you really not remember anything?” Dazai asks, when Atsushi lapses into a pensive silence.

“Some things,” Atsushi says. The moon, the bar, stumbling down alleyways that were strange and alien – even though he knows Yokohama. And the agonizing dizziness, the itch of claws beneath his skin.

Dazai resettles himself in his chair, squirming as if the memory of it is uncomfortable and says, “Another member of the agency and I were called out to the docks. Apparently, a giant tiger was roaming the warehouses, terrorizing the workers on duty and the less savory individuals who were loitering there. It hadn’t killed anyone when we came, but when we approached it, it leapt toward me – and when I used my ability, it turned into Atsushi-san.” There is a small smile on Dazai’s lips. “Perhaps it recognized me.”

Atsushi closes his eyes in a slow blink, trying to process this information. His head still pounds, but it’s his stomach that rebels, threatening nausea. He swallows repeatedly, and the hand that had kept politely to his side, touching the minimum amount of skin required, moves to grasp his own, Dazai’s palm hot against his.

“I didn’t realize how famous Atsushi-san was,” Dazai says softly. He quirks his eyebrow at Atsushi, playful. “Imagine my surprise when I was being detailed on dangerous Port Mafia members and your name popped up.” He leans close to Atsushi, his breath hot against his skin and adds, “The reported number of deaths was strange, too.”

Atsushi shivers and says, “It’s complicated.”

Dazai shifts, turns his head fully to examine the camera that watches them. After a long pause, he turns back to Atsushi and asks, “Why are you with the Port Mafia, Atsushi-san? Someone like you...” and he pauses, looking down to where their hands are connected. “It just doesn’t make sense,” he says at last.

“It’s home.” The words stick to Atsushi’s throat, and he frowns.

“Is it really?” Dazai asks.

What else is there, Atsushi wants to ask. He thinks the answer swims in Dazai’s eyes, but they’re dark, deep – he flounders for the meaning and squeezes Dazai’s hand tighter. The freedom that makes the tiger rampage – he thinks he could maybe find it in Dazai’s eyes, in the curve of his jaw, in the tilt of his smile.

But the intercom crackles to life, and Dazai’s face smooths over, betraying nothing. He releases Atsushi’s hand, returns to the impersonal touch required for his ability – and Atsushi grinds his teeth as the intercom voice begins to interrogate him.

There was an answer, he thinks.

He will find it.

 

 

 

black and white.

“I have a job for you,” Mori says. He stands close enough that Atsushi could reach out and touch him. He does not dare; instead, he slips a bookmark into his book, marking down where he’s leaving off. They’re alone in one of the mafia’s many lounge rooms, set up in a nondescript office building. He wonders if there were others before Mori came in, if they scuttled out as soon as he appeared in the doorframe.

It doesn’t matter much, Atsushi thinks. “What is it?”

“Some of our subordinates cleared out a rat’s nest. One escaped.”

Atsushi’s eyes flicker from the book to Mori’s face – the doctor smiles mildly at him.

“I don’t do exterminations, Mori-san,” he says. “I’m a bodyguard.”

Mori taps his finger to his lips. Atsushi notes that he hasn’t brought Elise with him and relaxes marginally.

“I know,” Mori says at last. “But this is a job for someone with your talents, Atsushi-kun. Or, rather, I think only you can do it.”

He pauses and sighs and shrugs in a despondent manner. Hard to find good help, is the unsaid message. Atsushi doesn’t believe him for a second.

“This shouldn’t take long,” Mori says when Atsushi still refuses to answer. “The boss won’t even know you’ve gone.”

Silence sits between them. Atsushi thinks of the boss, confined to a bed and half-lucid. He thinks of the drugs that Mori prescribes, sedatives and sleepers. And he sighs, bringing a hand up to rub at his face before pinching the bridge of his nose.

“What do you need me to do?”

That question resolves itself in the dead of night. Atsushi stands on the edge of a forest, startling quiet. He ignores the blood that seeps into the ground and steps carefully forward, traveling between the mangled corpses. A dark figure has collapsed in the center of them.

He pauses only when he feels the smallest hint of killing intent. A dark eye peers at him from a mess of shaggy, black hair. His tiger pupils expand and contract, trying to work with the few drips of moonlight that slide between the leaves of the trees.

The boy, he thinks, is maybe a year or two younger than him.

“Did you do this?” Atsushi is quiet.

He knows the answer; blood scent cloaks the boy crumpled on the ground. But Mori gave him specific instructions on how to deal with the mess he would find, and he’d prefer not to see another body added to the pile.

But isn’t he just another soul dragged into Hell, something in his mind whispers. He pointedly ignores it and waits for the boy to respond.

When he does, it’s a rasping, rattling sound. Atsushi thinks of dried bones and the husk of a body. “I avenged them,” the boy says.

“And you know what happens to those who attack the Port Mafia?”

The single eye he can see narrows and threatens to slit shut. “I expected it,” he says, and Atsushi sighs.

“And do you know who I am?”

There. That draws the boy’s interest – the eye that was threatening to dull suddenly sharpens and refocuses on Atsushi. “No. Should I?”

“My name is Nakajima Atsushi,” Atsushi says, smiling when the boy’s pupil dilates. The boy tenses, coiling in on himself. Atsushi reasons that if he were to step closer, whatever the boy used to kill his subordinates would likely be turned against him.

His foot has barely left the ground and touched down again when something black and razor-sharp slices toward his face; he dodges it in a lazy fashion, and a new cut burns on his cheek, blood crawling down his skin. “You do know,” he says cheerfully. The tiger inside him chuffs, and the cut reverts, torn skin sewing back together.  “Which means something like that isn’t enough.”

He continues to step closer, until he stands only a few steps away from the boy. The boy pants, staring up at him with something that might be fear. Or—curiosity. Atsushi wets his lips and looks down at the boy, his eyes reflecting gold in the moonlight.

“I thought you were prepared to die?”

No, the boy’s eyes say.

“Then why did you let me get so close?”

“I couldn’t have stopped you,” the boy says. “No one can stop the Beast of Calamity.”

“That might be true,” Atsushi agrees. “But you could have tried. One last struggle from a dying dog, desperate to live.”

“I have no reason to live.” The response is flat, lacking. Atsushi cocks his head to the side, sizing up the boy that still kneels on the blood-soaked ground.

“You do,” Atsushi says, and the boy shudders. It’s a sudden quake that crawls up the length of his body, the white of his visible eye stark in the shadows of his face. “I won’t allow you to die until you find a reason.”

“To live?”

“No,” Atsushi says, and he smiles, his teeth flashing like fangs. “Until you find a reason to die.”

He draws his foot back and then swings it forward, embedding the toe of his shoe in the boy’s unprotected stomach with a suddenness that causes the boy to gasp out a choked cry of pain. He spits forward, stomach acid and saliva splashing the ground, and before he can recover, Atsushi delivers another kick forward. The second one catches him in the ribs; there is a sharp crack that rings out in the quiet night, his eyes roll backward, and he slumps down completely.

Atsushi keeps the smile on his face even as he kneels to check the boy. It’s only when he’s ascertained that the boy is well and truly unconscious that he allows the smile to slip, his tiger eyes reverting to normal. He frowns down at the unconscious boy and runs a few fingers through the feathery black hair that is beginning to mat with drying blood.

“Be proud Atsushi-kun,” says Mori, watching from the shelter of shadows. “You have saved him from an insignificant death.”

Atsushi stares down at the pale face. It is not salvation, he thinks, but incarceration.

It is his first meeting with Akutagawa Ryunosuke.

 

 

 

here is happiness: part i.

It is an ordinary day.

Atsushi strolls down the pathway that runs parallel to a river, a cigarette hanging from his mouth. It is his favorite time of day, he thinks, because the normally busy Yokohama is almost quiet – students have hustled off to school, office workers are safely tucked away in their cubicles, and most tourists are still sleeping off their latest night of binge-drinking. Everyone is busy.

Except for him.

His latest job finished up the night before, in the drab, dingy hours just before dawn. He took a cat nap afterwards, but an early-morning commotion outside his flat woke him before he could fall into a full sleep. So now he’s just out for a walk around, because he hasn’t been able to appreciate the sunlight recently. Too many night jobs.

He climbs halfway down the stairs that lead onto the near bank of the river and sits on a step. The protective guard rails hide him mostly from view of those following the sidewalk, and he leans back against the barrier as he watches the opposite side of the river.

His eyesight is good, a gift of the tiger; it enjoys people-watching almost as much as him.

The sun climbs slowly in the sky. Even as it approaches midday, Atsushi notices that the surrounding area remains remarkably quiet. Somehow, he’s found one of the less-traveled areas; it’s disappointing for his choice of entertainment, but he doesn’t mind.

He’s almost beginning to nod off against the guard rail when he notices the slight figure on the far bank. His eyes sharpen, and he picks out an incredibly pretty face amongst dark brown curls. He thinks of coffee with a splash of milk, and the tiger rumbles approvingly within him.

It’s still too far for him to properly read the youth’s expression, so he doesn’t think much of it when the young man strides up the staircase that leads up and onto the bridge. Atsushi keeps his eyes fixated on him, something that feels suspiciously like genuine interest goading him on.

And so, he sees when the youth stands, rigid, leaning over the bridge with his hands gripping the railing.

He watches, uncomprehending, as the young man hoists himself over the simple barrier – and he sees him hang in the air for a split second before he plummets into the water below.

Atsushi nearly swallows his cigarette, sharply inhaling, before he spits it out and rushes down the stairs. He sprints across the open ground, his brain retaining enough sense to kick off his shoes (expensive, like all gifts from Chuuya are), before diving into the water.

Cold assaults his senses, but he ignores it, dropping down into the deepest part as he searches frantically for the young man. His hands sweep blindly until he touches upon something solid; recognizing it as the youth, Atsushi grabs as much of him as he can and kicks up toward the surface.

He breaks the water, heaving and panting around burning lungs, and takes a moment to ensure the boy’s pale face is also skyward before he begins the difficult task of towing them both to shore.

He clambers onto the bank, dragging the other man with him. In the midst of his actions, his brain still finds time to note that the youth’s legs are longer than his – a frown tugs at his lips even as he kneels by the other, intent on listening for a heartbeat.

Before he can place his head against the sodden chest, however, the young man’s eyes shoot open, and he rolls onto his side, spitting up water. Atsushi is kind enough not to watch and instead focuses on wringing out his soaking shirt.

He squeezes the fabric then abruptly pauses. He clicks his tongue and reaches for his trouser pocket, gingerly pulling out a crumpling carton of ruined cigarettes.

“Why did you stop me?”

Atsushi flinches, and the flex of his fingers causes the carton to completely collapse in his hand, half-mushed cigarettes creeping out from the saturated box and clinging to his fingers. He deposits the entire mess back into his pocket; he’ll deal with that later.

His eyes once more find the face of the stranger, and he’s surprised to find an unimpressed expression on the man’s face, lips pushed out in an almost-pout.

“What?” he asks, feeling his eye twitch.

“You stopped my suicide,” the man says, still looking put out.

Atsushi briefly considers just dunking the other man back into the river and going back home to change out of his soggy clothes, but the curiosity he holds pricks at his thoughts. He settles for sighing and pushing his hair out of his eyes instead, combing back the longest chunk until it’s safely tucked behind his ear.

“I’m not going to let someone commit suicide in front of me,” Atsushi says – and notes that the boy’s face has lost some of its dissatisfaction, replaced with open curiosity.

His voice still drips with disdain, however. “Oh, so if I just wander out of your sight and jump again, you won’t interfere?”

This is why Atsushi turns down work that involves younger subordinates.

“Of course I’m going to interfere!” He rolls his eyes and adds, “Why would you want to kill yourself, anyway?”

“I’m a penniless orphan with marginal education and no applicable skills,” the boy answers primly, and Atsushi almost rolls his eyes again, because it sounds like the start of a second-rate novel.

“How old are you?” he asks, because his brain is trying to connect orphan with suicide and figure out how he, Atsushi, fits into the equation. “Also, what’s your name?”

“It’s considered polite to give your own name first,” the boy says, but he relents when Atsushi throws him a dirty look. “My name is Dazai Osamu, and I’m eighteen this year.”

Atsushi rubs at his face with one hand, briefly looking toward the sky. It contains nothing of use, endlessly blue and lacking in cloud cover. Something in his lower abdomen throbs, and he comes to the realization that he is beginning to grow hungry.

“So,” Atsushi says. “You’re Dazai-kun with nothing and no one, and you decided to end it all?”

Dazai grins at him, nodding his head firmly. “Correct!”

“So, if I found you a job and a place to stay, you’d have no reason to commit suicide, right?”

Dazai’s eyes darken. It is only for a split second, but Atsushi sees his hands fist into knuckle-white grips. Then, he relaxes, lifts his head, and once more fixes Atsushi with the same confident look he’s worn since the beginning.

Atsushi understands the game now; the tiger inside him stretches and yawns, settling into a more comfortable position.

“Of – course – not,” Dazai says, placing a pause between each word in a way that is obviously meant to be playful.

Atsushi keeps him pinned to the ground with a predator’s gaze and says softly, “Why not?”

Dazai squirms, but he keeps the smile on his face, though it has downsized, now less comical and more solemn. “I hardly think a stranger should be snooping in my business.”

“Oh? I’m Nakajima Atsushi; we’re no longer strangers.”

“We’re friends?” Dazai asks. At Atsushi’s small nod, his grin widens, and he says, “Which means I can call you At-su-shi?”

“Atsushi-san is fine,” Atsushi says smoothly and blinks when he hears a rumble. A moment later he realizes it’s Dazai’s stomach, growling. “When was the last time you ate?”

Dazai’s cheeky grin can’t quite conceal the way his cheeks redden. “Maybe… yesterday? Some lovely ladies were kind enough to share their lunch with me.”

Atsushi can believe that. Even dressed in simple trousers and a shirt that’s almost threadbare, Dazai has a presence that demands attention. Put more bluntly: he’s attractive.

“Shall we grab a bite to eat? I’m hungry too.”

Dazai continues to smile, but the way his eyes size up Atsushi reminds him uncomfortably of Mori. He breaks eye contact, dropping his gaze to the grass underfoot. His garments cling to him uncomfortably, and he adds after a moment’s consideration, “Dry clothes would be nice, too.”

Dazai sighs. “You can’t expect me to pay for myself, so I’ll have to decline.”

Atsushi’s gaze returns to the young man, and he sees a wariness that wasn’t present before. He raises an eyebrow and says, “No. Of course not. I’ll pay for us both, clothes and food.”

And some new cigs, he thinks.

“That’s rather generous of you, Atsushi-san,” Dazai says smoothly. And yet there is an edge to his words, a guardedness that is so carefully concealed that Atsushi barely notices it – he probably wouldn’t have heard it without his years spent under Mori’s thumb. “However, I must question why someone like you would wish to further associate with someone like me.”

Atsushi blinks.

Then he laughs, a short chuckle escaping his lips before he can clamp his hand over his mouth. He peers at Dazai over his hand, trying to smooth down the upturned corners of his lips. He removes his hand, deciding to settle for a wry smile, and says, “Obviously, I want something from you.”

Dazai’s face is carefully blank.

Atsushi almost giggles again and settles for a gusty sigh that draws the excess air from his lungs. “Your company for the luncheon – beyond that, you’re free to interact with me as little or as much as you want. My selfish desire is to be seen in company instead of eating alone for once – one of the servers at my favorite restaurant is constantly trying to set me up with every young person that steps inside.”

Atsushi smiles and lifts his shoulders in a helpless shrug.

“You’re strange,” Dazai says, and Atsushi scowls back before letting it melt into another smile.

“Just be glad for your good fortune,” he retorts, a playful lilt warming his words. Atsushi climbs to his feet, fingers plucking at his shirt – his clothes are drying in uncomfortable wrinkles that cling to his skin, and he rolls his shoulders as he locates his shoes and slips them on.

When Atsushi returns to Dazai’s side, he blinks in surprise – though Dazai’s legs are long, he’s surprisingly at the same height as Atsushi. Of course, Atsushi can tell he still isn’t done growing – the lankiness of his body compared to Atsushi’s own properly proportioned form is a dead giveaway. But still, Atsushi is pleased and grins.

“Are you sure you don’t have any ulterior motives, Atsushi-san?” Dazai’s voice is dry but teasing.

Atsushi feels his neck flush and settles for snorting, turning on his heel and heading in the direction of the steps that lead back up onto the sidewalk. “Shut up, or I won’t let you order dessert.”

“Atsushi-san!”

Dazai’s distressed cry makes Atsushi cover his mouth to hide another smile.

 

 

 

a feverish dream.

This is another interlude.

It is a faraway memory that matches a thousand more. The enemies shift, the locations change, but the moonlight Atsushi finds himself under always seems to bleed red around the edges.

He is always the first inside. The tiger makes him near-invincible, but he does not call upon it until the enemy has noticed an outsider amongst their group. Then they open fire, or attack with their abilities. Sometimes, rarely, those closest to him strike out with knives or kicks or punches. Sometimes, a crowbar has slammed into the back of his skull and caused his teeth to bite through his tongue, and he has staggered on his feet, barely able to keep himself from dropping down.

But always, always, the tiger comes alive amid a flurry of bloodshed.

There are shouts, filled with rage and arrogance, as members of whatever organization has been marked for extinction surround him. They catcall and cajole him, laughing at the small, pretty sheep who has strayed from the flock and wandered into a concrete forest filled with wolves.

And always, always, Atsushi smiles mildly at them. Before each raid, he prays quietly for someone to have sense, for someone to escape into the night and not be foolish enough to stand and fight and die.

It is, Atsushi knows, a foolish wish borne from a foolish hope that this shall be the last death he must witness.

But no one ever does escape – Mori is not a fool, unlike Atsushi. He knows of Atsushi’s desperate aversion to killing, and so Atsushi is always accompanied by a dozen or so subordinates. Sometimes ability users are mixed in; sometimes, when the result must be swift and terrible and frightening, Akutagawa is sent along – a dog to clean up the tiger’s scraps.

The climax is always the same. Atsushi, sometimes riddled with bullets, sometimes barely standing, calls upon his tiger with a rushing roar. The beast beneath the moonlight leaps amongst the enemy, scattering them – the strongest are found first, knowledge gained from Atsushi’s pain lending strength to the tiger’s paws. It bats them around, and the bodies crumple, hitting walls or furniture or shipping containers or whatever is present; they fall to the ground, bleeding heavily, bodies broken and bruised, but hearts still beating. And as the tiger continues its rampage, the men sent by Mori step into the carnage, mopping up the beast’s discarded toys.

It is an arrangement that allows Atsushi to follow his foolish aspiration of never again taking a life with his own hands. Mori’s chains bind him tighter than the previous boss’s collar ever did, and there are only two reasons he does not choke. One is the faint, frantic hope that he may be able to save one more life. The second lives beneath his skin, and his heart is bolstered by a tiger’s pride.

 

 

 

here is happiness: part ii.

Their steps are unhurried.

Atsushi sticks to the smaller streets, his eyes focused on the path ahead until he is once more compelled to glance back, toward Dazai, who does not quite walk abreast of him – rather, he lags a half-step behind, and even when Atsushi shortens his own stride to correct it, he finds himself unable to.

Though he almost immediately ducks into a convenience store to buy a replacement carton of his favorite brand, he only slides it into the pocket that doesn’t contain his previous pack; smoking seems like it would draw away his senses, and he only wants to be aware of Dazai.

Dazai, who is an enigma – who occasionally comments on a pretty girl or the sea salt brine scent that clings to certain people. Atsushi answers back conversationally, words that he doesn’t really remember, too focused on the hole in his stomach and the complication of Dazai’s body language.

It flickers, he thinks, between excitement and uncertainty and a hundred more words that have no decipherable meaning in human language – they are all tiger words, because the tiger is awake, white camellia floating on the black water it lounges in.

Atsushi brings Dazai to a clothing store he likes first, boutique and expensive, the type who don’t question a black card covered in blood and whose attendants only smile and offer towels when they see Atsushi and Dazai – both still damp, though at least they aren’t puddling water on the floor.

The manager on duty ushers them into a backroom, and they are fed small bites of assorted cheeses. “Would you like to see some of our newest designs, Nakajima-san?” she asks, and at his small nod and smile, she disappears back into the storefront.

Atsushi waits patiently, and if his eyes slide to Dazai, it is only because the younger man is so quaint in how he eats – delicately, skinny wrist bent elegantly. He moves with a surety that is human perfection – a contrast to Atsushi’s own catlike movements.

It is difficult to believe he is an uneducated orphan, when his actions are so poised; there is a subtle savant to him.

The manager returns then, laden with a variety of men’s clothing. As she begins to lay them out, Atsushi looks over them critically. Half-distracted, he says, “Oh—also.” The manager pauses, turning an expectant look on him. “My friend here,” and he gestures toward Dazai, a rotation of his wrist, “could also do with a new set of clothes. Could you help him?”

The manager smiles and bows her head, “I would be happy to assist Nakajima-san’s friend.” She beckons toward Dazai, and he in turn looks toward Atsushi. Atsushi bites at his lower lip, pretending to look critically at the seam on a pair of trousers.

Dazai sighs, and he cautiously passes Atsushi, following the woman as she leads him out onto the floor. An assistant enters the room after they have left, standing by the doorway. Atsushi ignores her, setting aside the clothes he likes into one pile, the ones he rejects going into another.

“It is strange to see Nakajima-san here with a friend,” she says, and he quirks his lips into a small smile.

“Is it really?” he asks, then pauses. “Could I see this in white?” He lifts a shirt and adds, “A matching tie, too; mauve, perhaps?”

She takes the shirt from him and returns with the garments he’s requested. He examines both, layering the tie over the shirt before adding a pair of trousers. “I’ll need to buy some shoes to go with this.”

“We’ve recently received a new shipment of shoes designed by Yanagimachi-sensei.”

“Oh,” Atsushi says, and his lips curl. “If you have anything by Fukuda, I’d like to see them, but shoes by Yanagimachi…” He trails off thoughtfully. Elegant shoes for an elegant person, he thinks, and says aloud, “Dazai-kun would look good in a pair, I think.”

“Nakajima-san has good taste,” the assistant says, and once more she leaves him to fetch shoes and pass his message along to the manager.

He emerges from the backroom sometime later, greeted by a smirking Dazai and a suspiciously red manager. He raises one eyebrow at the younger man, but Dazai only smiles back cheerfully, his head cocked to the side.

“You are so strange,” Dazai says to him, softly, a feather-touch to his back as he moves past to pay for their clothing. He hands off the shopping bag that contains their old clothing to Dazai, giving the clerk instructions on where to ship the rest of his purchases to – most of them need to be properly fitted to his measurements because the clothes run long and lean, and he doesn’t quite have the build for it. Dazai is different, he thinks. Lines are always in fashion, and he is made up entirely of lines and angles – sharp, and Atsushi is unsurprised the same could be said of his personality. Endless, infinite lines; there is no end and there is no beginning, but he thinks he understands why Dazai shadows him now.

He is too far out of his element to feel comfortable, so he comforts himself with the only thing remotely familiar – which is Atsushi and more specifically, Atsushi’s touch. Another, discreet brush against his elbow makes him shiver.

“Next is food,” he tells Dazai cheerfully as they exit the boutique.

“Finally,” Dazai sighs out. He lifts the bags in his hand. “I didn’t realize you expected me to be a pack mule as well.”

“Then give it to me,” Atsushi says patiently. “I didn’t realize you were so weak you couldn’t carry a couple of bags.”

“I’m starving, Atsushi-san,” Dazai whines, and Atsushi snorts.

“So dramatic,” he says, and Dazai answers him with a cheerful smile. Atsushi takes the bags with a rueful sigh.

They end up in a small family restaurant, perhaps an hour later than Dazai would have liked. It’s homey, cluttered, and most important of all, not Mafia-influenced. “Okabe-san,” Atsushi calls, when they’ve settled at a table, sat across from each other and by a window – Dazai, Atsushi suspects, probably enjoys people-watching as much as he does.

An older woman bustles near, smiling at Atsushi and smiling wider when she picks up on Dazai, dark to Atsushi’s light. “Nakajima-kun,” she says, and Atsushi can almost hear the clucking of a hen beneath her words. “You’ve finally brought a friend!”

“Of course, Okabe-san,” he answers with a small smile.

She sizes up Dazai with a warm, honeyed gaze, and Dazai smiles back politely. “It’s so nice to see Nakajima-kun in here with a friend. How many times have I seen him in here by his lonesome, drowning his sorrow in ochazuke?” She sighs, as if the image is poetic, instead of entirely different from the truth – Atsushi remembers early mornings, half-asleep and shoveling food into his mouth while struggling to fight off fatigue.

Dazai’s smile cracks a bit, and Atsushi widens his eyes, daring him to say something out of turn. But Dazai is kind, perhaps because food is on the line, only saying, “That does sound incredibly lonely,” before he lets Atsushi properly introduce him.

They order their food, Atsushi resisting the siren call of tea on rice, and then silence reigns. Dazai rests his chin on a curled hand, gazing out the window. Atsushi watches him – not bothering to hide it, because he suspects Dazai would simply know he was looking anyway, the way Mori always knew when he had committed mischief as a child.

He wonders if maybe it was just an extension of his power, if he is intrinsically linked to Elise the way the tiger is to Atsushi in so much as it isn’t. He doesn’t think particularly long, because his pork cutlet set arrives along with Dazai’s food, and he begins to eat without much preamble.

Surprisingly, he finds, the hole in his stomach is not hunger.

“Why is your life not worth living?” He is almost surprised to find the words escaping his lips – except, somehow, he isn’t, because this has been a strange enough day already.

Dazai pauses in his eating, his eyes flickering to Atsushi’s. Atsushi holds the gaze for a brief, singular moment, then drops it, focused on chasing a glob of tofu that has escaped his chopsticks.

“Why is your life worth living?” Dazai counters at last, and Atsushi swallows a chuckle, placing a hand to his lips.

“What would make it not worth living?” It’s something Atsushi doesn’t think he will ever truly understand. What, he wonders, causes a person to decide that suicide is the proper response. He wonders if it is a human thing, this desire for suicide. He has often wondered if, for all that he looks human, he is not truly a tiger on the inside, with the beliefs and understandings of a tiger. A tiger does not seek death for any reason except pain. And even pain is no barrier when an animal is desperate to live.

“Many things,” Dazai says, and he sighs. In the sigh, Atsushi hears the whistling of wind, the endless chasm that divides him from his peers – from other humans. He stabs at his pork, pins it between his chopsticks, and snaps his jaws shut tight around it like a steel trap.

But here is one more life; it is a complex, thorny life that threatens a headache – but it is a life, and for Atsushi, life is precious. He swallows his next words, and he can almost hear Mori’s single clap as he says instead, “How will you repay me?”

Dazai’s hand stills, and Atsushi feels his eyes. He continues to eat, quietly, layering the flavors that enter his mouth, trying to build a sensory symphony. “I have nothing to pay you with,” Dazai says, and Atsushi wonders if the lack of betrayal in his voice, the tired resignation, offers a clue.

“No, you do,” Atsushi says. “Something you hold little value in; something I consider to be of great value.”

He looks up, to see Dazai’s face blank with something approaching shock – and then it melts into a lazy, tomcat smile. Atsushi smiles back, pleased that he is pleased, and continues, “Consider it a loan of sorts. Your life would be mine, and in exchange, I shall give you everything you need to properly pay me back. Once you have repaid me for this meal, those clothes, and the time you have taken from me, I will return your life.” He adds, almost as an afterthought, “I’ll give you money and a place to stay as well; consider them gifts.”

“You are incredibly strange, Atsushi-san.” Dazai cannot quite contain the wonder, the admiration, that seeps into his voice, and Atsushi smiles back at him gently.

The empty place inside him is forgotten.

 

 

 

the sleeplessness beneath.

“Did you really kill the former boss, Atsushi-san?”

Akutagawa’s voice is soft, and Atsushi slits his eyes open. Somehow, he has been transported to his bedroom; either Mori ordered a few of the janitors to dump his bleeding and broken body in someplace more suitable – or Akutagawa and his sister hauled him back. Considering all that has occurred, he finds the latter more likely.

He groans when Akutagawa dabs at a cut on his cheek then chuckles roughly around his aching ribs. The hilarity of Akutagawa focusing on such a small wound when there’s a tiger-sized bloodstain on Mori’s carpet pushes past the pain. He laughs until he coughs, the air in his lungs struggling to circulate, and for a moment he can’t breathe.

He hears the soft pad of footsteps on wood, and then a glass is pressed to his lips. He sucks down the water, and it calms his choking fit. He blinks blearily, surprised to see Akutagawa has been replaced with Gin. She stares at him with the same flat, black eyes that Akutagawa possesses, but he’s learned to decipher their depths – she is worried, and he offers her a small smile.

“It’s all right,” he says. “I’ll be fixed up once I’ve had some rest.”

“You can go, Gin,” Akutagawa murmurs from beside him.

Gin glances at her brother, and a silent conversation passes between them. Atsushi watches them and remembers when he had a sister – something like panic grips his throat in a chokehold, and he again feels the sensation of her hand wrapped around his neck, her eyes empty. He coughs again, and his body throbs in response. He thinks wryly that Elise was remarkably kind to him this time. The last time he directly disobeyed Mori he didn’t wake up for several days, too focused on repairing his damaged body.

Again, there is the soft padding of feet, and Atsushi smiles wider when the door clicks closed behind Gin. “She’ll need a bit more training if she really wants to do assassination work.”

“Atsushi-san has an unfair advantage,” Akutagawa says. “You did not answer my question.”

Atsushi thought he was done with this question. Even Chuuya doesn’t ask it anymore, no matter how many glasses of wine he goes through. But, he thinks, it is only fair that Akutagawa ask now.

“This is a zero-sum, Atsushi-kun. Actions have consequences; someone must take this punishment. Are you saying you will?”

He feels bone-tired, but his throat has recovered enough. If he speaks slowly enough, he thinks, it probably won’t do him any harm.

“Mori-san held the knife,” Atsushi says quietly, and Akutagawa leans closer. He is, Atsushi notes, already a far cry from the darkened waif collapsed in the woods so many moons ago.

“Mori-san held the knife,” Atsushi repeats. “But I was the one who let him die.”

The scene overlays his bedroom: an old man, desperate for bloodshed, in the final throes of an illness that had slowly drained the strength from his body. Atsushi sits beside his bed, kept close at hand because in Ishihara’s worst moods he is a balm, a favored pet providing comfort. Mori stands on the opposite side of the bed, his face haggard from lack of sleep.

In this memory, the old man rants and raves, his very sheets becoming a prison he cannot escape from. Atsushi can no longer remember the entirety of his mad words; he does not want to remember them. He only remembers the contents: the destruction of the Port Mafia’s enemies, regardless of the body-count.

And he remembers, most of all, the very moment Mori’s eyes iced over, and he judged the old man a useless, worthless piece. And, though it makes him sick with shame, he remembers watching Mori grasp the scalpel, the steady downward stroke – and the old man’s shriek, the cry of a caught rabbit.

He remembers when the collar was replaced with a thousand chains, and Mori looked across the body of the former boss, of his former master, and said very calmly, his face splashed with lifeblood, “You wanted him to die, Atsushi-kun. His blood is on your hands.”

Mori had wiped his face clean and left the room, leaving Atsushi alone with the corpse – the face of the old man staring at him with white, accusing eyes.

The tale of it ends abruptly, and Atsushi closes his mouth, a strange numbness overtaking his body, contrasting against the occasional wave of pain that rolls over him.

Akutagawa is not looking at him – instead, the boy stares at his hands with a quiet reflection that Atsushi has learned is one of his habits.

Atsushi is starting to drift off, because he needs sleep to heal, needs to give the tiger every piece of him, when Akutagawa says, “I don’t care.”

“Oh?” Atsushi says, and fatigue coats his tongue.

Akutagawa does not quite smile at him – Atsushi does not think he even really knows what a smile is. But he quirks his lips, as if he is sharing something humorous with Atsushi, and Atsushi smiles back weakly.

“Atsushi-san could kill Mori-san and the other executives, and I would still want to follow Atsushi-san.” Akutagawa pauses, swallowing. And then he says, “Because Atsushi-san saved us… Our lives belong to you, Atsushi-san.”

Something weighty settles in the pit of Atsushi’s stomach, and he breathes out a hummingbird’s sigh. Akutagawa, he thinks, is so incredibly earnest. The obvious adoration in his voice makes Atsushi’s heart hurt. But he gulps down his heart and says, “Leave me, Akutagawa-kun. I need to rest.”

“Of course,” Akutagawa says, and he departs as quietly as a shadow.

Atsushi stares at the place he had occupied. They are tied to me, he thinks. Just as Mori-san wanted, he thinks.

Beneath the blankets that cover his battered body, his fingers twitch. Atsushi so desperately needs a cigarette, but he settles for a troubled, disheartening sleep.

He does not see the tiger.

 

 

 

black bird, black moon.

Atsushi fidgets in his constraints, drained mentally if not physically.

Dazai keeps him company through the seemingly endless interrogation. It stops briefly, and Dazai is brought food by a “Kunikida-san”, a severe-looking man who eyes Atsushi suspiciously. “Be careful, Dazai-san,” he says, adjusting the glasses perched on his nose, and Dazai responds cheerfully, “Our captive can’t do anything.” He keeps the smile on his face until the man exits the room and then slumps back in his chair, head tilted back toward the ceiling.

Atsushi watches him and doesn’t ask when he’ll be receiving food. He suspects it might come when they manage to wring a guarantee from him – or an exchange is made.

His eyelids have fluttered shut, to block out the sight of food if not the scent of it, when Dazai speaks softly. “I’ll be repaying my debt today, Atsushi-san.”

At the same time, there is a shout from outside, muffled, followed by a string of curses. He hears explosions, the distant sound of battling, and his eyes fly open in time to see black slice through a wall, carving through it. The plaster crumbles, and Akutagawa steps through the opening.

“Step away from Atsushi-san,” he commands, and his ability strikes out, snapping through the restraints that contain Atsushi, lashing out at Dazai – and the boy flinches back, though the black blades taper into nothingness before they reach his skin.

Atsushi reacts without thought – he sees Akutagawa narrow his eyes, sees more of his ability coil around him and shoot toward Dazai – and he snatches the largest piece with a clawed hand, his blood staining the tiled floor as he restrains Akutagawa’s power.

“That’s enough,” Atsushi says. “We need to leave, Akutagawa-kun.”

He releases the black blade and darts toward the escape route. Akutagawa meets his gaze but doesn’t reply before he turns back; Atsushi pauses at the opening and meets Dazai’s eyes for a fraction of a second. He wets his lips and ignores the tugging in his heart, the strange, throbbing ache that filters through his veins as he escapes the agency’s clutches. He ignores the strange little smile that sits oddly on Dazai’s face.

Akutagawa leads him down back alleys and deserted roads, the black coat wrapped around him rippling. Atsushi keeps pace easily, glad to stretch his legs. The sun is bright out, and he recognizes that it must be a few hours past noon. He had been captive long enough for the mafia’s sources to report his capturing and for Mori to decide upon a method of retrieval.

“The boss wants to see you,” Akutagawa says, and Atsushi winces.

Yes, he feared that might be the case. He smiles weakly and says, “Thanks, Akutagawa-kun.”

They travel until they come to a hotel, lavishly decorated and reeking of opulence. Akutagawa pauses in the shadow of the building and glances back toward Atsushi. By now his cut hand has healed, but Akutagawa’s eyes flick down toward the red-stained skin before he meets Atsushi’s gaze.

He looks as if he wants to say something, but he ultimately turns away with a soft grunt. “Be careful next time,” he says at last, and then he’s off. Atsushi watches him go, mouth twisted as a vague sense of affection threads through him.

Typical Akutagawa, he thinks. He sighs and steps inside the building; there is no point in putting it off. Mori won’t appreciate him dragging his feet.

He heads to the top floor, stepping past guards who nod him in through a set of double doors. He pauses at the second set, rapping his knuckles and waiting for an answer before he steps inside. He finds himself in an enormous room, windows stretching from floor to ceiling illuminating the room in bright light. Mori sits alone, Elise likely in the rooms that lie further within.

The mafia boss sorts through documents, brow furrowed in concentration, and Atsushi steps toward him quietly. He stops at a distance that’s respectful and bows his head.

“Sit, Atsushi-kun,” Mori says, not bothering to glance up at him.

Atsushi does as he’s instructed, settling down in a chair opposite Mori. He fidgets briefly, his mouth missing the weight of a cigarette. The truth is that he’d like nothing better than to go home, settle into a nest of blankets and pillows and pretend to hibernate until something resembling normalcy returns, but he knows he can’t escape until Mori is satisfied.

“Smoke if you want,” Mori says, and Atsushi’s mouth twists.

“Is it all right?” he asks.

Mori finally looks at him, one corner of his mouth quirking up. “Of course,” he says, sounding puzzled. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have said so.”

“I never know with you,” Atsushi sighs out. He digs in his pocket, pulls a stick free of the carton and goes through the process of lighting it before flipping the lighter closed and placing the cigarette between his lips. He takes a deep drag, holds the smoke in his mouth, and releases it in a thin stream when he feels half-human again.

“Better?” Mori asks, sounding amused.

“Yes,” Atsushi says. “It’s been a rough day.”

“So I heard.” He pauses, shuffling through his papers, then says, “I was surprised to hear Atsushi-kun had lost control of his ability. I wouldn’t expect it at your age.”

“Things have been… difficult,” Atsushi relents. No point in hiding it, he thinks. It’s likely that Mori has already formulated several possibilities for why Atsushi would lose control now. He thinks of Dazai and sets his jaw – Mori can’t think it’s because of anyone but him, because of his own personal failing.

“Oh?”

“The tiger has its own ideas. Lately it’s been – restless.”  It’s been a hell of a lot more than restless, but Atsushi won’t mention the chains that bruise and cut his skin.

“How strange,” Mori says, and he seems genuinely surprised. “I was not aware the tiger was a separate being, Atsushi-kun.”

“Yes,” Atsushi agrees. It isn’t the whole truth, but he refuses to tie himself so openly to rebellion.

And yet.

And yet he does not fear Elise, the way he did as a child. He doesn’t even truly fear Mori, he realizes with something approaching shock. Isn’t he just going through the motions, unnerved not by the punishment itself, but rather by the idea of being punished?

We could kill him, he remembers the tiger telling him, and nausea sinks into his stomach.

“Atsushi-kun?” Mori says. Atsushi’s eyes dart to his face – he frowns, as if puzzled.

Atsushi realizes the cigarette is burning out, that he hasn’t taken a puff of it in some time. Long enough for Mori to notice.

He feels sick.

“I-I think I need a break, Mori-san,” he says. His heart pounds in his ears, roaring like the beast that paces inside his veins. He can feel it now, can feel himself daring Mori to argue, to disagree, to give him a reason. “Please,” he adds weakly, desperate to escape.

Dazai, he thinks, inexplicably. There is safety with Dazai; there is sanity.

There is freedom, the tiger rumbles. The end of his cigarette crumbles, and ash flecks the front of his trousers.

Mori watches him, measures him, and Atsushi feels his palms slicken with sweat. Don’t make me kill you, he wants to beg, but the words strangle in his throat. “That sounds best,” Mori says at last. “I’ll keep you off jobs for a few weeks. We need to discuss this problem with the tiger and find a solution.”

“Yes,” Atsushi says softly.

“I hadn’t realized it was a separate creature, Atsushi-kun,” Mori says with a crooked smile. He reaches for a pen and scratches something down on one of the sheets of paper in front of him. “Perhaps your training would have been different if I had known.” His voice is innocent, and Atsushi nods his head, keeping his features smooth.

“If I may be excused?” he says, once more a small child looking toward the man who had adopted him, had saved him. He hates it.

“Of course,” Mori says and flaps his hand. “Go home and rest.”

It’s a dismissal and Atsushi rises on legs that feel like a newborn cub’s. He bows and hopes his shakiness isn’t evident as he turns and leaves. He doesn’t threaten to breathe until he’s fully away from the hotel; it’s only then that he crouches down and takes deep, gasping breaths that drown his lungs in air.

When the trembling stops, he types out a quick message on his phone and sends it.

“Dazai-kun, I need to see you.”

 

 

 

breathe in, breathe out.

Quiet nights are rare, but they do happen.

Atsushi rides the elevator up to the floor his flat is located on. For once, his phone is turned off – Mori has given him the night off, and he doesn’t want Chuuya badgering him into a night of drinking. Not that he minds the idea, but he doesn’t want a repeat of their most recent experience: Chuuya screaming, “This shit’s expensive!” before he wobbled a bit too much and fell into the river they’d been walking along.

Atsushi realizes he’s fished a fair number of people out of rivers lately, and he smiles just as the elevator doors slide open.

He steps off and starts toward his flat. Almost immediately his steps stutter as he takes in the form of a man, back toward him, hunched over the lock of his door. His mind runs over the possible identities of who this man is – a simple thief? An enemy of the Port Mafia would never attempt retribution against him. Has there been a bounty placed on his head in the Underground? What sort of bounty must it be, that someone would try to so brazenly pick his lock so late at night, when most of his neighbors have either left for their late shifts or are asleep?

As he nears the suspicious person, his hand raises – to catch a shoulder or to ward off an attack – only for the man to suddenly turn, and Atsushi almost chokes on air.

“D-Dazai-kun?” he sputters.

“Yo, Atsushi-san,” Dazai greets, giving him a little wave. Atsushi stares back at him, flummoxed, and the young man returns to his work. Before Atsushi has time to say another word, there is the softest click, and Dazai chirps, “Got you!”

Dazai rises, dusting his pants off with a self-satisfied air. “Shall we go in?” he asks when Atsushi continues to stare.

Dazai gestures Atsushi in ahead of him, and Atsushi goes through the motions of removing his shoes even as he says distractedly, “Welcome.”

“Thanks,” Dazai sings, removing his own shoes before setting them on the rack beside Atsushi’s.

It’s only when they’re sat on cushions in the living space, and Dazai is looking around the place like he’s never been inside a rented residence before, that Atsushi suddenly remembers how to connect this brain to his mouth.

“Why the hell were you breaking into my flat, Dazai-kun,” he hisses. “No, wait. First—how do you even know where I live!?”

“Before that,” Dazai says breezily, “aren’t you going to offer me tea, At-su-shi-san?”

“I—.“ Atsushi starts, then clacks his teeth in frustration. “Fine, would you like some tea, Dazai-kun?”

“You’re so kind, Atsushi-san,” Dazai says. He smiles at Atsushi, earnest in a way he hasn’t been so far, and Atsushi feels some of the fight drain out of him. “Whatever you’re having would be nice.”

Atsushi leaves him briefly to rummage in his tiny refrigerator, finally withdrawing a bottle of green tea. He pops the lid and divides it between a matching pair of cups that look respectable and, more importantly, clean. He carefully drops a few ice cubes into each, because the night is hot, and he isn’t in the habit of running the air unless it’s unbearable.

Not that he can take his typical form with Dazai here – Atsushi considers the cost-benefit ratio of running the air conditioner. Making the visit pleasant for guests is important, he finally decides, and he takes a small detour to turn the A/C on.

“It should get cooler in a bit,” he says as he settles back down, handing Dazai his cup. “I’m not in the habit of having visitors over.”

Dazai smiles at him again, and Atsushi ducks his head to stare down at his tea. “That sounds lonely,” comes Dazai’s voice.

“It isn’t.”

Dazai hums, and Atsushi risks a glance at him – he is staring out the window, eyes dark and indecipherable.

Atsushi thinks of standing on an endless precipice. Something inside of him tilts, off-kilter, and he gulps his next sip of tea, trying to right himself. “So why are you here?” The words bleed a half-sigh, because the indignation is gone.

It’s difficult to stay mad at Dazai, he thinks.

Dazai’s eyes slide to his, and when he sees that Atsushi is looking back, he gives a small smile. “I wonder,” he says. “I think… I was bored. Atsushi-san didn’t answer his phone. So, I just… came here.” And he gives a little shrug, his smile spreading a fraction wider.

Atsushi sets down his cup of green tea and sets his elbows on the low table in front of him, running both hands through his hair. He burrows his face against the heel of his cupped palms, not knowing what to feel. “How did you know I lived here?” he asks, voice muffled against his skin.

“That’s easy,” Dazai says. “That first day we met, you took me shopping. I just remembered the address you gave.”

Atsushi’s hands lose their strength, and his face slips through his widening palms to thunk into the table. He clutches at his hair, takes a deep breath, and says, “That’s a bit creepy, Dazai-kun. Don’t do that again.”

“I doubt I would,” Dazai says, then adds a bit sheepishly, “I can’t promise about the locks, though. It’s a bit of a hobby.”

Atsushi sighs. Loudly. He shifts, just enough so that only one side of his face is pressed against the table, staring out at the same stars Dazai had been watching.

“Fine,” he says. “Just wait for me inside when you’re done. I don’t want my neighbors thinking weird things.” Idly, he realizes that he is exhausted, and that he has not seen the tiger recently. He doesn’t know if that’s something to worry about. Probably.

His eyes are starting to slip shut when Dazai says softly, “Atsushi-san?”

“Mmm?”

“May I stay here tonight?”

“Mmm,” he says, enveloped in a soothing darkness. There is a soft rustling from Dazai’s direction, and he senses a sudden presence beside him. Lazily, Atsushi cracks one eye open, met with Dazai’s gaze. There is a glass-like quality to his stare now.

“I don’t understand, Atsushi-san,” Dazai says, and the sound of it – as if in a dream, Atsushi raises one hand and gently lays his palm flat atop Dazai’s head.

“S’okay,” he mumbles, and he gives Dazai a short, soft stroke before withdrawing his hand.

Before his hand can return to his side, Dazai has caught it. He holds it gingerly, as if it might burn him or strike him or – or something Atsushi cannot think of, with the haze of sleep threatening to sweep over him.

But he remembers Gin, remembers the nightmares that would plague her as a child – and he remembers himself and Akutagawa curled up around her, each of them holding one of her hands. Thinking of that time, he twists his wrist and catches Dazai’s hand properly.

He gives it a single squeeze, for reassurance, and closes his eye.

 

 

 

 

detached movement.

“What the shit.”

Chuuya hiccups, and reaches up to wipe at his face, at his eyes. He grips the neck of a wine bottle, something stronger than anything else he’s ever had. When his hand falls away, he replaces it with the bottle, his head tipped back and throat exposed.

Atsushi leans toward him and gently presses his nose to the fluttering pulse point.

A warble crawls up Chuuya’s throat, and he swallows hard, yanking the bottle away again. He sets it down on the floor with a hard clack. Chuuya stares at Atsushi, and he stares back.

We are only children, Atsushi thinks, as Chuuya lurches toward him with another sob, wrapping his arms around Atsushi’s neck. It is easier for him, like this – when Atsushi is in his tiger form, large enough that his bulk takes up almost the entire available space, with Chuuya curled into his belly.

He doubts Chuuya would treat his human form like this.

The tiger blinks, sharing its body with Atsushi, and chuffs softly at Chuuya, nudging at his head. It only succeeds in knocking his hat off. Tigers cannot purr, their vocal cords are not designed for it, but Atsushi tries to convey comfort in other ways. It is the only thing he can do.

It is his fault Chuuya is this way.

It was meant to be his kill, but because he cannot kill, refuses to kill, the job again fell to Chuuya. Because they are partners. And Atsushi suspects it is a punishment, handed down by Mori.

That is the only way to explain why a woman who had been kind to Chuuya in the past, a woman with no previous ties to the Mafia, was chosen as the mark. Atsushi gently rests his heavy head against Chuuya’s and sighs.

It is a lonely sound, and Chuuya echoes it with a hiccupping gasp.

He did his job, Atsushi thinks, because he is mafia.

It is enjoyable to have power, to wield power. He suspects that before tonight, before this assignment, Chuuya had never turned his hand on an innocent, someone incapable of fighting back. He bites down a growl, remembering white, accusing eyes.

It is another lesson taught.

They stay curled around each other well into the night, bundled down on the floor of Atsushi’s flat – chosen because Chuuya was crashing internally, and Atsushi was terrified they wouldn’t be able to make it further.

It is only when the moon is beginning to sink that Atsushi shifts and the tiger form strips away from him in gossamer strands. He heads into his bedroom, intent on grabbing a pillow and blanket for Chuuya, but pauses in the doorway. He stares back over his shoulder at Chuuya, shrouded in moonlight. He looks unbearably young, and Atsushi closes his eyes for a moment.

Then he continues, careful not to wake the sleeping Chuuya as he tucks a blanket around him, slipping a pillow beneath his head. It is not a comfortable spot, and Chuuya will likely wake aching and complaining, but Atsushi would prefer that to the dead silence, the shaking sobs.

He beds down in his futon, and he dreams.

He is in the black world, the ground beneath his feet solid except when it is black water. The tiger sprawls in the endless black, its stripes sliding off its body and disappearing into the ground.

He steps toward it, then breaks into a run. His arms sweep around its neck in a desperate hug, and he sinks into its warm, soft bulk. It rumbles above him, and he blinks, looking up into golden eyes.

Why are you sad, it asks.

It is not Elise, it is not Mori, and it is not Chuuya – it is a wild beast that he has only begun to master in the past year. But it is him, and he is it. He closes his eyes and buries his face in its fur.

You saw, he says.

I saw, it agrees. I do not understand.

Humans—we—. He struggles to find a way to explain. How do you explain morality and goodness and evil to a tiger?

I am you, it says. I do not understand why we stay here.

We’re safe here. Without Mori-san…. Without Mori, then what? Would they be free? He remembers scarlet, and clings tighter to the tiger, shuddering.

Do not fear him, the tiger says. We could kill him to escape, the tiger says.

I cannot. Atsushi answers; he is firm in this.

Perhaps not, the tiger says. It adds, We have no reason to now.

There’s nowhere to go. Atsushi agrees.

The tiger noses at his ear, hot breath and whiskers tickling him. He bats at it, turning away. Atsushi thinks he can almost hear a noise, in the darkness. He strains to listen.

The tiger sighs, a deep huffing breath that ends in a low woof.  Not now, the tiger says, But someday. Someday, there will be a place for us.

Atsushi wakes up to the agonized groans of a hungover and achy Chuuya in the next room and lays in his bedding, one arm thrown across his forehead.

One day, he will be free of these chains – it is a quiet hope, nestled beneath his breastbone, alongside his beating heart.  

An aggravated shout from Chuuya makes him get up, and he goes to tend to his partner. His dream fades into unreality in the mid-morning sunlight, and he carefully files it away into the back of his mind.

For children, the present is more important than the future.

 

 

 

empty gold.

The scent of blood coats Atsushi’s throat. He is swamped in it.

 He hurries home, shoulders hunched up almost around his ears; a mask covers his face, and he ducks his head anytime he passes someone, lengthening his stride. The streets are bustling, both because it is the weekend and because it is a bit after midday. He doesn’t typically finish up a job at this time – of course something like this has to happen now and not in the dead of night.

Bloodstains are more easily hidden in the dark.

He gives a short nod to one of the other tenants from his complex and hurries up the stairs, not trusting the elevator. The coat around him is large, borrowed from a subordinate – it’s made of a thick black material. And unlike his clothes beneath, it isn’t drenched in blood and gore.

He rushes through the front door of his flat, not even bothering to consider why it’s unlocked, toeing off his shoes even as he shrugs out of the coat with one hand and tugs his mask down with the other.

Atsushi stares at the shoes already set down in the shoe rack, uncomprehending, then jerks his head when he hears movement – Dazai’s curly head pops around the far wall, and he says cheerfully, “Welcome home, Atsushi-san!”

Atsushi knows his eyes must bulge. He blinks them, rapidly, even as despair rushes up his throat. “D-Dazai, I—.“

Before he can stammer out an answer, an explanation, Dazai is already moving toward him, his hand outstretched, eyes wide in dismay. “Atsushi-san, what happened?!”

“N-no, it’s fine,” Atsushi answers, pressing back against the door, trying to escape the hands that reach for him. He knows how he looks – blood has splattered up his shirt, the sleeves are in tatters, and his pants’ legs are equally ruined. Blood even streaks up the length of his neck, splashed across his jaw. He looks like the result of a slaughterfest – and the truth isn’t far off.

“I…” Atsushi tries, and his mouth struggles around the words. How does he begin to explain his tiger side? Hell, more importantly, how can be explain that it ran amok using some twisted half-human form, and that’s why his clothes are ruined? “The blood isn’t mine,” he settles for, voice weak.

Dazai’s eyes flick to his, hard as stones, and Atsushi wilts beneath them. “I wish it was,” he says. At least, he thinks despairingly, Chuuya kept him from killing the men – the Port Mafia needed them for information, but it was a close thing.

He closes his eyes, trying to remember anything from the rampage, and flinches when something touches the side of his face, feather-soft. He blinks, and meets Dazai’s gaze. His fingers gently guide Atsushi’s face up, as he inspects the blood covering his skin more closely.

“Let’s at least clean you up, “Dazai says, coming to some decision Atsushi isn’t privy to.

Atsushi lets him lead, and Dazai settles him on the chair Atsushi typically uses when he wants to read. At first, Atsushi balks, unwillingly to soil the seat with blood, and Dazai leaves him for a moment and returns with several towels and washcloths and a basin of water. One of the towels he drapes in the chair, and Atsushi slumps into it gratefully.

“What happened, Atsushi-san?” Dazai’s voice is soft as he wets a washcloth and begins to delicately dab at the red that stains Atsushi’s skin.

Atsushi swallows as the damp cloth passes over his throat. It’s warm but not scalding, and he wonders how he can offer an explanation that doesn’t betray his job but still gives Dazai the truth. Because he doesn’t want to lie to him; he thinks he should try not to lie to Dazai.

“My job got a little… messy,” he says, with a bitter smile. His nerves are rubbed raw, both from the encounter and the aftermath, and he’d like nothing more than to crawl into his futon and shut out the world until his insides have righted themselves.

But he stays.

“Did you have to kill someone?” Atsushi’s veins turn to ice, and he sucks in a ragged breath. Dazai’s eyes are kind, and his voice is level.

Atsushi gapes at him, tries to find a way to explain, to deny, to say something, and Dazai continues, “I figured you had to be involved in the Underground somehow. No offense, Atsushi-san,” and he flashes a small smile, “but no one has that sort of money and then stays in a place like this. Which group is it?”

“Port Mafia,” Atsushi says, feeling small.

“Ah,” Dazai says. He clicks his tongue as he swaps one washcloth for the next. The basin filled with water has taken on a pinkish hue, but most of the grime has left Atsushi’s face. 

A silence stretches out between them, and Atsushi wonders what Dazai must be thinking. He knows what he would think, if the situation was reversed.

 As if privy to his thoughts, Dazai says, “I don’t care if you’ve ever killed a person, Atsushi-san.”

How can you not care, Atsushi thinks. I care, and how long have I been doing this?

How long have I been doing this?

Atsushi claps his hand to his mouth, sucks in a trembling breath. This is absurd.  

A bubbling cry begins in his throat, and at first, he thinks it is amusement. It is only when Dazai stills that Atsushi feels the tears that are pouring out of his eyes, recognizes the sounds for laughter filled with pain – and Dazai keens, a distressed sound that flutters in the space around them.

“Please don’t cry,” Dazai begs. And he drops the bloodied cloth he’d been using to clean Atsushi’s skin. Hurriedly, he rolls the cuff of his sleeve down and uses the fabric as a makeshift handkerchief, carefully dabbing at the underside of Atsushi’s eyes, touches as delicate as butterfly kisses.

It is such a contrast to what Dazai has just said that Atsushi barks out a booming peal of laughter, sharp-edged and copper-tasting.

“Dazai-kun,” he says breathlessly, catching the younger man’s wrist. He smiles up at him, wretchedly, and says, “I can’t kill. If I kill, then—.“

Then.

“Then don’t,” Dazai says, and the raw desperation in his voice strangles Atsushi. He settles for silent sobs that roll down the length of his body. “Don’t,” Dazai says, “Just do whatever you have to.” He draws in his own deep, stuttering breath, and adds, “It hurts to see you like this.”

“I’m sorry,” Atsushi says, and he somehow manages to crack a smile. “Just let me… I’ll stop soon, I promise.”

“That’s okay,” Dazai murmurs, and his hands move to grasp and tug, gently, and Atsushi finds himself pressed against Dazai, cradled in a way that should be uncomfortable but only brings a warm sense of relief. “Just take your time,” he says; his voice rumbles soft and low in Atsushi’s ear.

Eventually, when Atsushi begins to steady his breathing, Dazai carefully unwraps from around him. He says something that Atsushi vaguely hears – he only really catches the promise that Dazai will be right back – and leaves him briefly.

Atsushi blinks unsteadily, swaying a bit where he sits, now deprived of Dazai’s support. He tries to remember the last time he cried like that, hard and long and endlessly, and draws a blank. There is an emptiness to him now, a vulnerability – but there is also a lightness, and it is this lightness that causes him to smile, shakily, when Dazai returns bearing a bowl of ochazuke and a box of tissues.

“Here,” Dazai says kindly. He helps Atsushi steady the bowl and watches him take the first bite.

“Thanks, Dazai-kun,” Atsushi manages to whisper. Every action, every word, every piece of Dazai is so small and tightly contained – and Atsushi appreciates it, because he cannot handle big right now, bottomed out and running on fumes.

Dazai doesn’t say anything, but he does reach forward, hesitantly, and runs his fingers through Atsushi’s hair, combing back the longest shank until it is tucked behind his ear. He monitors Atsushi for a few moments longer before he begins to clear away the used towels and washcloths, and when the only bloody things left are Atsushi’s clothes, he pads into Atsushi’s bedroom and reappears with a pair of sweatpants and a thin t-shirt. Atsushi doesn’t bother with outrage over Dazai so flagrantly defying his privacy – there are easier matters to concern himself with, like rebuilding the pieces of himself.

It will be easier, he suspects, when he is no longer in garments stained bloody.

“Thank you, Dazai-kun,” he says softly.

Dazai nods but doesn’t respond, his eyes fixated on Atsushi.

With the feelings poured out of him, Atsushi finds it easier to consider what Dazai had said to him. It nags at him, and he feels compelled to add, “But I haven’t killed anyone, Dazai. I almost did today, but—my partner stopped me.” And he smiles, small and helpless.

“Then I’m grateful to him,” Dazai says. He continues slowly, as if navigating a minefield, “And I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said what I did. I just meant that…” He trails off, bites his lip, clearly frustrated. It’s an interesting look, Atsushi thinks. Then again, Dazai has shown him many amazing expressions today.

Atsushi smiles back wryly at him, and Dazai sighs. Finally, he says, “I just meant that you are you, Atsushi-san. And anything you tell me won’t change my opinion of you.”

“Dazai-kun is incredibly kind,” Atsushi says.

There is a shadow of melancholy to Dazai’s face as he smiles and says softly, “No, but Atsushi-san is kind to think so.” He lets Atsushi eat a few more bites before asking tentatively, “Would you like me to leave?”

“No,” Atsushi answers immediately, and is surprised to find that it’s true. “I’d appreciate your company, if you have nothing else to do.”

“Never,” Dazai says. He smiles, and there is a gentleness to his expression that fills Atsushi with warmth.

 

 

 

epilogue.

“Dazai!”

The angry shout makes Atsushi narrow his eyes, peeking down beneath his desk where Dazai hides. “What did you do?” he asks quietly. Behind him, Kunikida rampages around the office, ranting about social ruin and his ideals and Dazai’s underhandedness.

Dazai grins up at him wickedly, pressing a finger to his lips. “I may have misplaced his journal,” he says innocently, and Atsushi sighs.

“I’m taking my break,” he says, then repeats it louder. Kunikida pauses briefly to acknowledge him, and he stands up and heads out the office door. He waits at the staircase that leads down to the ground floor, tapping out a cigarette and staring at it.

A few moments later Dazai slips out behind him, looping an arm around his and glancing down at the cigarette in his hand before meeting his eyes. “You don’t have to quit,” he says cheerfully, and his hand slides down Atsushi’s arm, linking their hands.

Atsushi smiles and squeezes his hand back, and they head downstairs and toward the street. “But I want to,” he says.

“Then you should probably give me the whole pack,” Dazai says, and Atsushi grimaces before handing it over as well as the errant cigarette.

“True enough,” he agrees with a sigh, and they pause at the bottom of the staircase, Atsushi pressing his face into Dazai’s shoulder. “Why did you grow taller?” he adds after a moment.

Dazai laughs and tugs him out of the shadows, onto the street their building sits on. “Blame your own height, Atsushi-san,” he says. “Where shall we go today?”

“We have work, Dazai-kun,” Atsushi tells him, not quite managing to keep a smile off his face.

The sun is bright and brilliant, a cool breeze coming in off the sea to keep the day fresh. Atsushi understands why Dazai might not want to spend it cooped up in an office.

“Indulge me,” Dazai says, and he flashes a sweet smile that has Atsushi rolling his eyes.

“I indulge you too much,” he says, but he relents when Dazai tugs at their linked hands again. “Fine, fine.” He pauses to consider the area around them. Even after so many months in the sun, he still finds the daily activities of Yokohama wondrous. “Cosmo World?” he asks at last.

Dazai laughs, a bright, clear sound like the ringing of a bell. “It’s better at night, Atsushi-san.”

“Yeah,” Atsushi agrees, “But I’ve never seen the whole city during the day.”

“Rollercoaster first, Atsushi-san,” Dazai says and chuckles lightly when Atsushi blanches.

“You just want to torture me,” he says exasperated, but his lips curve at the edges.

“Never, Atsushi-san,” Dazai says, and he ducks to press a quick kiss to Atsushi’s nose.

Atsushi unclasps their hands to wave Dazai off. “Stop that,” he complains. “I’m not a kid.”

“So, Atsushi-san wants an adult kiss?”

Atsushi feels his face flush and he turns on his heel, hurrying in the direction of the Ferris wheel that rises in the distance. “Definitely not!”

“No, wait, Atsushi-san!” Dazai scrambles after him, but laughter bubbles in his voice.

Atsushi slows his pace and waits for Dazai to catch up. They link hands again and Atsushi grumbles quietly, “Keep this up and you’re sleeping alone tonight.”

“That’s cruel, Atsushi-san!” Dazai looks horrified.

Atsushi laughs and squeezes his hand. “It wouldn’t kill you.”

It is, he thinks, a beautiful day.