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Ace: Blackjack

The man seated in number two had not moved for twenty rounds, making him either drunk or stupid, or both. The four rounds he won had offered him but pittance compared to what he had lost, especially with the type of odds this establishment offered. He frowned at his chips—then he waved his hand, drawing the attention of a waiter to his emptied glass.

Drunk, then. Dazai tapped a finger in a slow rhythm on the soft green table, waiting until the man turned his glazed look back to him. After a long moment of thought, accompanied with half the glass being gulped down, he placed two small chips in his lot. Dazai nodded.

With a swift move, he shuffled the six decks, a rhythmic clipping sound of glossy cards sharp enough to cut. He smiled at the man. The man ignored him, staring at the table instead. It was the type of customers Dazai was familiar with: more than a little lost in the haze in their heads, seeking something to jolt them out of it or allow them to sink further in.

“Another game, sir?” he asked.

The sole occupant at the table grunted in response. Dazai chuckled and dealt the cards with a sure hand.

Even by casino standards, the man’s hand was a poor one; a nine and seven left little room for him to play with. He frowned at the king on Dazai’s side, squinted eyes going squintier like he could see the hidden card that way.

“Hit,” the man commanded.

Dazai placed the new card down and flipped it over. The eight of hearts gleamed at them both, catching the bright lights of the casino. “Afraid it’s a bust for you, sir,” Dazai said with a mournful sigh. He flipped his own remaining card over, revealing it as a safe seven.

The chips were retrieved, House wins again. Something about a loss in his twenty-first round must have pierced through the man’s drunken haze in a way the previous sixteen losses hadn’t; he grunted and stumbled off the stool, staggering in the general direction of the exit. Soon, he was merely one among many of smartly dressed men and women, swallowed into the overly bright lights of a world that promised riches.

Left at the dealer’s table, Dazai shuffled the decks in the same rhythm, smiling, and smiling, and waiting.

.

Two: Dazai Osamu

This was Dazai Osamu’s life.

Every day, he woke closer to two in the afternoon. On days he could be bothered, he got something vaguely healthy into his system, whether that meant an old banana or dry crackers. His pantry resembled a ration store with its hoard of canned food and instant meals, his stovetops as pristine as the day he moved into this apartment. There probably wasn’t a single pot to be found in his cupboards.

After waking up, time was a vague concept. Sometimes he read a favourite book again, sometimes he went to the park and considered which tree had the strongest branches, an effort that took him hours of pondering. Sometimes, he played with an old deck, the cards having long lost their shine. 

At seven, or whenever it got dark enough that he noticed the change in his environment, he might eat something resembling dinner before showering and shrugging into one of the dry-cleaned suits. The deck was carefully kept away in his pocket.

At nine, slicking his hair back and pulling on white gloves, he was no longer Dazai Osamu, random city straggler, but Dazai Osamu, a dealer in the largest casino of the port. Occasionally, he manned the roulettes. But mostly, he was known as the main dealer for blackjack.

The nights he worked, the blackjack table reaped thrice its usual amount of House earnings. It was probably the influx of ladies to the table. Dazai didn’t remember what he talked about with them by the time the night was over, only the vague memory of flirtatious but respectfully polite tones ringing in his ears.

As the sun rose over the city, he stumbled back into his apartment, a trail of clothing from the entrance to his room marking his passage towards unconsciousness.

Wake up, rinse, repeat. On the rare occasion, he joined his only friends for a drink. His days off were spent, notably, sleeping.

This was Dazai Osamu’s life: twenty two, high school dropout, IQ of over two hundred, promoting the illusion of riches and glamour in a dazzlingly bright casino.

.

Three: Three Card Monte

Before he worked at the Port Casino, he played three card monte for a living.

At that time, there hadn’t been a casino yet, and the port was his to own. All he needed was a queen of hearts and two knaves, the guards to the queen. Ace was a good enough shill, though Dazai hadn’t liked him much. His smiles, Dazai concluded, were too slimy. He preferred Gab, who was mouthy and cheeky and honest, but then Gab decided to join Nemo in other acts of petty theft. He had wished the boy well, gave him a deck of cards for his own amusement, shook his head whenever he read of another of Nemo’s jail breaks in the papers.

The woman that night was lonely, looking for a cheap thrill as most denizens here did. She had too much makeup on, her hair was well-maintained, and she had been eyeing Dazai with obvious interest ever since she stopped to observe Ace’s games with him. With Ace now disgruntled and choosing to stand a fair distance away to glare instead, Dazai smiled at her, flipped the card to press its back against his lips. The queen was glossy in the lamplight, her back cool on his lips. It tasted of paper and deceit.

“Can you find the queen of hearts, love?” Dazai asked. “I’m sure you’ll be much more successful than that unfortunate soul over there.”

Ace, on cue, scowled at him, playing his part of player too dull to have caught the movement of the queen in his last few rounds.

She smiled and sat, crossing her legs in a deliberate motion. Her dress pulled tight against her thighs. She looked exactly like any other person who eyed Dazai like he was a prize to be won, so Dazai didn’t bother memorising her appearance. “What’re the stakes?” she asked. It was probably meant to be sultry. It sounded frightfully eager instead.

“Whatever you’d like, beauty.”

She must be at least fifty, though her makeup hid it well. She leaned forward, and when she spoke her breath was stale with drink. “Tell you what, darling. If you win, I’ll pay...twenty thousand yen.”

Dazai raised an eyebrow. “That’s an excellent deal. Do you wish for double that, should you win?”

She laughed, like she found him genuinely cute. “Oh, honey, I’m swimming in money, I don’t need to win.” She did look it, her dress pitch black but in a designer’s cut, the earrings she wore likely to cost Dazai a year’s rent. “I’m looking for something else, if you understand what I mean.”

“Well, I’m all ears.”

Smilingly, drunkenly, she reached out and traced a finger down his cheek. Her breath was abhorrent, her touch sticky. Oh, he understood alright. He had been speaking the language of the street since he was half the age he was now. Dazai wanted to throw up his meager meal.

“Isn’t it obvious, handsome?” she purred.

After a second, Dazai nodded. It had the added effect of allowing him to slip out of her touch. He flipped the card, resting it on the surface, queen now hidden among her guards. “Let us begin,” he said.

He felt Ace’s eyes on him the entire time, narrowed, accusatory. Like he thought Dazai might deliberately lose this time, might seek his own cheap thrill. The woman’s gaze was sharper than her drunkenness belied, tracking the queen carefully. Left, right, center, left, center, left, right, center, right—

Without a pause, Dazai slipped the cards once, twice more, before they were lying on the crate again, innocuous, the weight of twenty thousand yen or his body for a night weighing on them.

She frowned. After a long moment of deliberation, she pointed at the middle card. The polish at the end of her nail was chipped.

Dazai flipped the card over. The queen’s guard caught the sheen of the lamplight, knave of clubs winking in the night. He could feel Ace physically relax. 

“I’m so sorry, love,” Dazai murmured. “Looks like the bet went my way.”

Without even a moment’s hesitation, she withdrew her purse from her bag and passed two crisp notes over, enough to cover his convenience store meals for two weeks. “Again,” she said. It wasn’t a request.

“Same terms?”

Her scowl was answer enough, humiliation a stronger drug than any that could be sold on the market. Dazai flipped the cards over, revealing the queen resting leftmost, before he hid their faces once more.

“Follow my heart and catch it, love.”

If she was amused, she didn’t show it. Her eyes narrowed, gaining a fierce glint under the artificial wash of lamplight. Dazai’s hands were swifter this time, right, center, right, left, center right center right left center right left center—

Fifth round, the distant wash of the sea in the background, the queen still under the guard of her knaves, when the woman leaned forward and said, “You’re cheating.” She looked at Ace, under the impression that she had an ally in him. “He’s cheating, right? He cheated you of your money, too.”

“Oh, lady,” Dazai said. He was heartbroken, truly. So heartbroken he wanted to laugh. “That gentleman won half his rounds, fair and square.”

Ace grunted in unwilling agreement. “He’s right. I won some, lost some. Bad luck, madam.”

She sneered. It was an ugly look, uglier than her drunk one. Dazai wanted to laugh again. A hundred thousand yen under his belt was an exorbitant price for a night’s pleasure she couldn’t gain. When he smiled she looked like she might slap him or kiss him. He flipped the queen of hearts around again, pressing the back of it to his lips.

“Want to give finding my heart another go, love?”

She spat in his face.

Later, Ace had the audacity to laugh at him while he pocketed his share of the earnings. Dazai went home to an apartment where the faucet was leaking, and he listened to the drip of the water until the sun rose.

.

Four: Oda Sakunosuke

Dazai liked Oda. He was about ninety percent sure that Oda didn’t quite know what to do with him, but that didn’t matter to Dazai. Oda took things in stride and wouldn’t understand a joke if it bit him in the nose. He used the strangest metaphors all the time. It was wonderfully refreshing. It was only a pity that he was the sort of adult Dazai would never grow into.

Oda taught at the high school Dazai had dropped out of, and he was a large reason why Dazai regretted skipping the entire last year of school. In his defense, it was just a smidgen difficult breaking out of a drug haze long enough to register that he had lessons to attend, lessons which were really just far too boring when he already knew the answers to all of them.

“You’re an idiot,” Oda said at his bedside.

Dazai thought it was pretty convincing, considering he had no memory of what had led to his lying here with an IV drip hooked to his vein. He had the vague sense that maybe Oda had been the one to find him, but it hurt to think. Ango, the only friend whom he managed to retain—which was all sorts of funny, with Ango being all prim and proper and following the rules and yelling at Dazai whenever he lost his tie—was passed out on the other chair. But worst of all, even worse than Oda stating a truth Dazai had known for a long time, was his Disappointed Face. Dazai liked Oda but hated that face. It made him squirm.

“...I, um. I survived?” Dazai pointed out.

It did not win him any cookie points. Oda continued looking disappointed, and Ango continued lying in an awkward position, glasses skewed. Dizzy and grimy and more than a little uncomfortable, Dazai picked at his blanket. Dying would have been easier to deal with than this.

Oda finally sighed. Now he looked sad, which was, if at all possible, even worse than his disappointed face. Oda hadn’t even looked sad when Dazai thrashed them at poker ten times in a row. Quietly, he said, “I can’t tell you how to lead your life, but...you need to clean up your act, Dazai. I don’t want to find you dead in a ditch one day.”

It was the closest, in the three years they had known each other, that Oda had ever come to confronting him. Dazai looked at him, then he stared at the ceiling. It was ugly in the way all hospital ceilings were, and clear white in a way more painful than the blurry view he had had of the world for a year.

“Odasaku?”

“Hmm?”

Dazai mumbled, tugging at the bandages on his arm, “I think...I don’t wanna go back to school. It’s...” School was cheerful and full of drama and boring; the thought of being back, alone in a crowd, was as nauseating as it was lonely.

Oda thought about this for a moment. Then he said, “Okay.”

For a few seconds, Dazai blinked at the ceiling. Oda’s one-word answer echoed in the room. Then he giggled, though it hurt to do so. “Really? That’s all you’re gonna say? Aren’t you a teacher? ‘Young man, you need to finish your education,’” Dazai intoned solemnly, in a voice halfway passable as Oda’s.

Oda seemed puzzled. He smoothed out the blankets, stopped Dazai messing with his bandages, and shrugged. “I never thought school was suitable for you.” He considered something before he continued, “Maybe you could go out into the world, do some good out there.”

That startled a true laugh out of Dazai. Ango grumbled in his sleep and shifted into another awkward position. When he recovered his senses, enough to respond, Dazai said, slowly, “Me? Do some good? Odasaku, I never knew you’ve developed a sense of humour.”

Oda looked confused this time. It was, at least, better than his disappointed or sad face.

“But I wasn’t joking?” he said.

Dazai giggled. It developed into a full-blown belly laugh.

He continued laughing even when Ango woke up and began fussing over him, and he continued laughing even when he started crying.

.

Five: Poker

He might have grown up playing poker with first his father, and then later Oda and Ango, when he could cajole them into a game. But out of school and into the world, he found the perfect practice partner in Tanizaki. And practice partners who played together for no ulterior motive had to be jealously guarded. Dazai, especially, hated anyone taking from him what he wasn’t willing to give away.

Tanizaki had a naturally cheerful or nervous countenance, both of which went a long way to hiding his true ruthlessness. He had no qualms cheating either, which first surprised Dazai, then pleased him. It meant he could go all out and squash Tanizaki. It also meant no pretense of any moral grounds between them. 

“Naomi is very ill,” Tanizaki explained. They were about five months into knowing each other, Dazai twenty, Tanizaki a high-schooler of sixteen. He was in Oda’s form class, which obliged Dazai to look out for the kid and shoo him into the safer betting zones. Dazai hummed, managing the correct mixture of distant concern and encouragement. “Part-time doesn’t pay as well,” Tanizaki said sheepishly.

Dazai shrugged. “I’m not judging,” he said. He threw out a card and picked another. With some careful planning, he had managed a straight flush, though he was relatively certain Tanizaki had a good hand as well. He tapped a finger against his knee, considering. Some distance away, a group of kids laughed, enjoying their ice creams on the pier, basking in the late afternoon warmth. This must be what they called the twilight zone, two worlds surviving with a fuzzy line in between.

“I knew you wouldn’t, which is why I could admit it.” Tanizaki threw out two cards and drew two to replace it. Dazai was sure he caught the subtle manipulation Tanizaki did to the deck. It was truly skillful. Ango—and probably Oda too—would be mad if he praised the kid for it, so he only nodded in acknowledgment. Tanizaki considered his hand and said, “Show.”

Dazai smiled and revealed his hand. Tanizaki was used to the deck Dazai preferred, and he didn’t bat an eyelid at the joker replacing the ace of hearts, the hand forming a perfect straight flush. Next to it, Tanizaki’s four of a kind was impressive but still a losing hand.

Tanizaki sighed, entire countenance drooping, though Dazai thought it an excellent result, especially considering Tanizaki had to use his own methods to counter Dazai’s sleight of hand. Tanizaki offered Dazai one of his homemade rice balls.

“That was a good game,” Dazai said. He munched on the rice ball, feeling slightly queasy. His stomach hadn’t had anything this nutritious since Oda and Ango banged down his door and forced him to finish a plate of curry. He swallowed, following it up with water. With his free hand he absently gathered the cards into a loose pile, scraggly edges all lined up.

Tanizaki chewed thoughtfully on his own dinner. After he swallowed, he asked, “Did you notice? My, uh, cheating, that is.”

Dazai nodded. “Most people wouldn’t, though,” he reassured.

It was mostly true. Tanizaki just had to avoid downtown, where games were played faster, dirtier. He slid the ace of spades down his sleeve, the classic trick he had used to thwart Tanizaki’s attempt at a royal flush. It had a faint gleam in the afternoon light when he turned it just right.

Tanizaki gaped, then he groaned. “I should have guessed.”

Looking at the far away horizon and the orange glow, Dazai smiled. “If I have one advice, Tanizaki-kun?” He waited for Tanizaki to look at him before he continued, “Don’t use too many moves at one go. You’ll need to keep an ace up your sleeve.”

It took a couple of seconds to register. When it did, Tanizaki groaned even louder this time. He laughed helplessly. It was a look that made him look sixteen, without the burden of his sister’s health on his shoulders. He was laughing so hard the rice ball in his hand was in danger of being squished out of shape.

“Are you—are you actually making a dad joke, Dazai-san?”

Dazai grinned, sliding the ace of spades into the deck, just below his joker ace. It was a rare, warm feeling, a temporary lull. “So I was, young man,” he said, and he sounded so ridiculous that Tanizaki laughed again.

.

Six: Sakaguchi Ango

Ango’s job, since they entered high school, was to confiscate Dazai’s cards before school. Even Dazai could admit it was a thankless job: the deck found its way back into his hands by lunchtime, and Ango could only silently fume. Attuned to his friend’s moods, Dazai knew this was the time to shut up and eat the lunch box Ango had brought for him. That was how they worked, a cycle of annoyance and concern, Ango worrying over Dazai’s habits and Dazai eating just enough to assure Ango he was alive.

The half of the box that was neatly packed was by Ango, the other half was by his adopted father. Dazai was familiar with their culinary skills by now, after having stayed with them all through middle school. He poked at a dubiously cut sausage; it was probably meant to look like an octopus, but it looked like a misshapen shuriken instead. Taneda would laugh if he pointed that out. Next to him, Ango primly popped his own share of dubious octopus sausage into his mouth.

The spring sun was warm, Dazai was lazy and lax, he had only one cut on his cheek, he had learnt a new trick the day before from a vagrant in exchange for teaching a trick of his own, and a class taught by his favourite teacher was after lunch. Excepting his questionable lifestyle, the world was pretty good at the moment.

“You never said where you’re staying now,” Ango said casually.

Trust Ango to break the moment. It was like Ango hoped he could fool Dazai into talking when Dazai was lulled by the peace, only that he didn’t realise he was broadcasting his intentions even minutes before he spoke.

Dazai smiled and flopped onto his side, blinking at Ango lazily. “That’s because I never did.”

Ango did the frowny look, the one that in their younger days meant he was annoyed because Dazai had forgotten to bathe while engrossed in his book. He poked at the crease, laughing when Ango swatted his hand away.

“You know you didn’t have to move out, right?” Ango insisted. It was a rehash of a conversation they have had for weeks. Best friends duty aside, even if Ango wasn’t tiring of it, Dazai was.

“I’m fine,” Dazai said. He waved a joker card in the air, grinning up at Ango. The card had faded edges, and there was a wobbly ace of hearts drawn on it with red marker. “It’s an exciting life, you could try it.”

Ango’s frowny look deepened. “What exactly do you do, then?”

“Loads,” Dazai said breezily. Just a few days before he had punched a man for propositioning him, and the other day he had won chocolates by winning a raucous game of Go Fish. That’s probably what people called duality. Ango wouldn’t be impressed if he told him those. “I’ve got myself a proper job, y’know,” he said instead.

Ango’s eyebrows shot up.

“Oh, ye of little faith,” Dazai reprimanded. He’d be hurt if he weren’t busy giggling.

“Forgive me if I find that hard to believe. What is it, then? At least let me have something to tell dad so he can sleep easier.”

Dazai hummed. “Would you believe it if I say I’m working in a cat cafe?”

“A what?”

“There’s this old man, Fukuzawa, who runs a cat cafe.” He just conveniently left out that he had run into Fukuzawa on the streets while running away from aforementioned man whom he had punched. Fukuzawa had then judo tossed the man over his shoulder. It had all been very exciting, and now Dazai was sort-of employed at a cat cafe. The cats didn’t care that he practised sleights with them, and he didn’t care that they got fur all over him and the cards. “Anyway, I can go there after school any time I like. He’s cool, for an old man.”

“Huh.” The crease between Ango’s brows didn’t completely disappear, but his countenance did lighten. “Okay. That’s good. You’ll let us know if you need anything, yes? Anything at all.”

Dazai smiled up at Ango. His friend was going to follow in his father’s footsteps one day and work for the side of the law, and maybe then he wouldn’t be saying the same thing. It was sweet, this sincere belief he still had in Dazai.

“Sure,” Dazai said, slipping the card back up his sleeve, where his body heat warmed it. He closed his eyes, wondering if Ango noticed the lie, or if, disappointed, he had simply chosen not to call him out on it.

.

Seven: Cheat

It was in an elaborate game of Cheat that Mori Ougai found him.

Dazai was twenty one, a well-known face in the alleyways. The port had been overtaken by a casino, and he preferred settling far from its glitzy lights. Three card monte wouldn’t hold up well next to proper establishment.

Well, as proper an establishment as a casino could get. Dazai had heard things about it, and it was enough to make any journalist looking to make their name lick their lips. Ango couldn’t say where in the government he was now, but Dazai suspected he had his eye on the casino as well, and it was pointless making life difficult for his friend by hanging out in the area. In any case, Ace had vanished one day, and while Dazai could look for another shill he decided it was too much bother. There was enough game in the alleys if one knew where to look.

This group that he occasionally hung out with was a friendly one. Among friends they bet over food and snacks, child’s play compared to betting over money and information. After Dazai had promised to go easy on them, meaning he promised not to actually cheat outside the rules and to thrash them only once every three games, they settled on Cheat. They used their own deck of cards, which suited Dazai fine—except when needed, or when he was sentimental for whatever reason, Dazai didn’t want to use his own deck. It was near fraying.

The game turned out to be laughably easy, even though Dazai had promised not to deliver a thorough thrashing. He threw down a seven and a nine and said, without batting an eyelid, “Two queens.”

They scrutinised him with wary eyes. The sting from the previous round, where they flipped over his cards only to find out he had been honest that one time, must not have faded yet. The blonde girl, Higuchi, declared, “I think he’s not lying this time.”

“Sis, I’m damn sure he’s lying,” the boy with a band-aid over his nose insisted. Tachihara frowned at the two cards lying face down. There was a sizable stack beneath it. “I say we give it a go.”

“Are you stupid? Remember what happened last round?” Higuchi, having been the victim of the previous round, gripped onto her cards defensively. “You do it if you want.”

“What the hell, why am I the scapegoat!”

Gin looked at them, then at Dazai. He had never seen her smile before, but he could swear her lips were close to twitching, a lighter mood than when he had taught her how to steal medicine for her sickly brother. She asked him, “Were you lying?”

“Sure I was,” Dazai said breezily.

“See, I bet he wasn’t!” Higuchi said, waving her cards around and inadvertently divulging some of her hand. Dazai politely pretended not to notice. “It’s reverse psychology, he wants to make us turn over the cards and then, ah hah, he wasn’t actually lying, and then we lose again!”

“Fine, fine!” Tachihara threw down a single card and growled, “A king.”

“Cheat,” Dazai said.

Tachihara squawked. He squawked even louder when Dazai flipped over the card to reveal that it was, in fact, a seven. Higuchi squawked in sympathetic dismay; there had to be at least twenty cards in that pile, making this round quite assuredly Dazai’s win. Their combined squawking, however, was insufficient to cover the sound of genteel chuckling from behind them. Only Gin and Dazai didn’t outwardly tense. Dazai was the one to slowly turn around.

By all appearances, the man before them appeared to be homeless. His hair was scruffy, and he hadn’t shaved in days. But his shoes were clean, and that shirt underneath a scuffed jacket was too classy for this part of the port. Dazai snapped the cards in his hand shut and placed the small pile down.

“Can we help you?” he asked.

The man apologetically waved his hands. “Oh, no, I’m sorry! I got lost and was simply, ah, amused by the little game you were having there.”

Higuchi’s shoulders relaxed; it was a wonder how she had survived in the streets so far. “Oh, do you need help getting out?” she offered.

Tachihara, a little more street smart, quickly added, “For a suitable price, of course.”

“Ah, that’s very kind of you, but it won’t be necessary. I’m sure I can find my way out easily enough,” the man said. Tachihara’s shoulders drooped. “What’s that you were playing there?”

“Just a little game of Cheat among friends,” Dazai said. He didn’t take his eyes off the man. Funnily enough, the man didn’t take his eyes off Dazai either, like he had known exactly whom he was looking for when he got...lost. Dazai had never seen anyone like him around before, but he didn’t need to know him to know his type.

This man was no petty criminal.

He was something much more dangerous.

The man’s eyes lit up. “Oh, I do so love a game of Cheat! Could I play, too?”

“You got something to bet with, old man?” Tachihara asked. He pointed at their little stack of food. “Course, you being an outsider, hope you got something good before we let you join.”

“Oh dear, no, I do not.” He made a show of turning his coat pockets inside out. “But maybe I could offer you something other than food, if I should lose?”

Tachihara sniffed. “Like what?”

“Like a job.”

That got their interest and made something along Dazai’s neck prickle unpleasantly. Jobs in this part of the society only changed their form, never their core.

“What sort of job?” Higuchi asked.

“That’d depend on you,” the man said cheerfully. He sat down, not quite in their circle, but close enough that he was blocking one entry into the alley. “I’ve got lots of connections, if you’ll believe it. And if you don’t want a job, I can still offer you something you need. Like medicine,” he said casually. Gin stiffened next to him. “A good deal all in all, eh?”

“Hmm. And if you win?” Dazai asked. The man looked back at him, smile curling into something less cheerful and more unsettling. “You just want this stash of food then, if you win?”

“No. You can keep it even if I win.” Higuchi and Tachihara exchanged bewildered looks, while Gin remained silent and wary. “In exchange, let’s see...I’ll ask a favour of one of you, how about that? You can even decide whom I shall ask the favour of.”

Bullshit, Dazai thought. It was already clear whom the man was targeting. Though it wasn’t an especially cold day, a shiver went down his spine. It was a strain to keep his smile on.

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Higuchi said softly. “And it’s just one game, right?”

“Exactly,” the man said. He settled more comfortably, edging into their circle. “Just one game. Think of it as indulging a man’s love for a simple card game.”

Tachihara looked at Higuchi, Higuchi looked at him, then at Gin. And as one, their gazes all flicked to Dazai, awaiting his response. On some instinctive level, they must feel that he had to make the call.

Dazai didn’t like this. The dangerous sort of charm the man had, the pressure of his presence—and above all, the unwilling curiosity within Dazai himself. Just this morning, unable to drift free of the cloud that had clung to him, he had clutched the joker ace and promised himself that if nothing of note happened this day, he would make a trip to the riverbank to see if the waters had risen after that thunderstorm.

And if there was one thing he had promised himself, it was to never go back on his word, even if it was a promise he had made to himself.

He gathered the cards and began shuffling them expertly. “You’re on, then.”

“Excellent!” the man pressed his hands together cheerfully. Like a gentleman, he dipped his head in proper greeting. “My name is Mori, it’s a pleasure to meet you all.” His smile, lazy and vapid, hid the fang of a snake beneath it. “I hope we can get along.”

.

Eight: Fukuzawa Yukichi

Fukuzawa never asked any questions. In that way he was like Oda, contented to observe the world around him, run his cat cafe, and understand how the coffee machine works. There was an air about him that spoke of past scars, a certain twitchiness that being around cats didn’t fully get rid of. But Fukuzawa never probed, and so Dazai didn’t either.

Fukuzawa preferred a game of go to a game of Old Maid, and when Dazai was sixteen it had taken a couple of rounds before he could beat Fukuzawa. The cats knocking pieces off the board didn’t help. The calico, Natsume, had a particular fondness for claiming their attention. When Dazai was eighteen and out of hospital, he was able to win all the games of go and Old Maid they played. Fukuzawa didn’t seem to mind.

He cradled Natsume, now fatter than ever, and made a cup of coffee for Dazai. In the quiet, the go board set aside, deck of cards atop it, Dazai picked at his bandages.

“I’ve decided to drop out of school,” Dazai announced.

Fukuzawa looked at him for a long moment. Then he looked back at the coffee machine. Natsume yawned in contentment.

The coffee was brewed perfectly, especially considering the disaster it had been when Dazai first visited that day, twitchy and keyed up. The perfect coffee now, two years afterwards, almost made Dazai nostalgic for that weak coffee-coloured water Fukuzawa used to make. He accepted the cup and let Pochi climb into his lap. Fukuzawa sat with his own cup of tea, examining the way the light hit the clean, deep green.

“Where will you go?” he asked.

Dazai turned the cup around and around in his palms. He shrugged and said, “Dunno. Around.”

Fukuzawa took a long drink of his tea. It was a slow afternoon, and most of the cats were asleep in the warm patch of sunlight. They looked out the window in companionable contemplation.

“Let me rephrase that,” Fukuzawa stated. “What’re you looking for?”

That was quite a lot harder to answer, like the sheets they had received in the middle of their second year asking them where they wanted to go after high school. And now he had finished—dropped out of—high school, and his mind was as blank as the piece of paper he had turned in to his homeroom teacher. He thought, longingly, fearfully, of the sensation just a few weeks ago, giddy and high and puking and closer to death than to life. It had been terrible. It had been freeing.

It had been utterly empty.

“Something to make me feel alive,” he mumbled. He hadn’t admitted that to even Oda or Ango.

Fukuzawa gazed at him like he had already known that might be his answer. Dazai ducked his head, not sure what to feel about the lack of judgment. Fukuzawa’s gaze was always piercing. He didn’t know if the man himself was conscious of that, of the way it felt like he could see other people’s souls.

“Fukuzawa-san?” he asked. His voice sounded smaller than ever, even to himself.

“...yes?”

“Why did you—” Dazai shook his head, then he tried again. “Why were you there, that day?” Fukuzawa blinked slowly. Dazai pressed on and said, “In that alley. When I was running away from that guy. What brought you there? It had nothing to do with this cafe. It was nowhere near.”

For a long moment, Fukuzawa sank into thought, like he was remembering that day too, when Dazai had run straight into him, heart rabbiting in his chest and up his throat. Fukuzawa had tossed the man over his shoulder like he weighed a couple of grapes, leant down and said something to him. Even if he hadn’t ushered Dazai out of the alley with him, he doubted the man would have resumed his pursuit. The look on his face had been one of sheer terror.

“I—” Fukuzawa began. He paused. There was something regretful in his gaze. Slowly, he said, “Old habits die hard.”

“...your past job brought you to places like that?” Dazai asked.

Fukuzawa nodded. He might not have offered any information if Dazai hadn’t asked, but he was utterly like Oda in a way that mattered: an atrocious liar.

Dazai huffed out a little laugh. “Is this cafe what you want then?”

A black and white cat, in prime sunniest spot, yawned. Her tail flicked lazily. Fukuzawa’s eyes were soft as he gazed out at the cafe. They were incredibly lonely.

“Yes,” he said. Then, “But not everything.” A longer pause, before he said, “I needed a break. A long one. To think about what I want to do.”

Dazai thought for a while. “You ran away,” he concluded. From what, he didn’t know. But Fukuzawa didn’t have to know what Dazai did, and Dazai didn’t have to know what Fukuzawa used to do, for them to know what it meant to be lost.

Fukuzawa’s silence was answer enough. He rubbed Natsume between the ears and eventually rested his hand where he could feel the cat’s rumblings. He didn’t seem to know what to say, but that was fine with Dazai. He was fine with silence, especially when it was an honest one.

When Dazai left, neither of them said goodbye.

.

Nine: Magic

If his father taught him anything worth learning, it was how to deceive. Otherwise, he was a total scumbag. Either his mother was even more of a scumbag, leaving him with his father, or she died. Dazai switched up his fantasies from day to day, never quite deciding which it was he preferred. In his defense, he was still nine, kept alive through his only elementary school friend bringing his share of food everyday. He supposed he was allowed his daydreams.

His father lied to everyone all the time. He lied to his son, lied to the bank, lied to the police, lied to the mafia. He was so proficient a liar Dazai had trouble keeping up with it. He wasn’t even sure what his father’s job was, except that it probably included lying.

The only saving grace was how he treated Dazai as air. It was a lot better than the horror stories Dazai heard about kids getting beaten up. Maybe it would have been merciful though. At least it would have been quick.

His only toy was an old deck of cards. When the man was in a good mood, he taught Dazai all sorts of games, fifty four cards wondrous in all their possibilities. Dazai liked to think, when he mastered a trick, that his father clapped him on the shoulder out of love. When he was in a bad mood and pretended Dazai didn’t exist, Dazai played in the park. He was fine with that. He could stare at the sky if he wanted while playing by himself.

One day, while he sat on the swing that he called his, there came a little boy to the park, crying. He slipped into the corner and was crying, and crying, and crying. It was grating. Dazai had only wanted to master how to hide aces up his sleeves while shuffling. He looked around, but there were no other children this near dinnertime. There were no other adults either.

He thought for a while, biting the inside of his lip. Then he slid off the swing and walked towards the corner. He couldn’t see the boy’s face clearly, but he looked small enough to be maybe four or five.

“Hey,” he called. The boy continued crying. He tried again, louder, “Hey.”

The boy lifted his face to meet Dazai. It was a mess of snot and tears. His eyes, watery, met Dazai’s straight on. It was vaguely uncomfortable, being stared at instead of being treated as air. Dazai scratched his neck. The boy continued looking at him, cries quieting into sniffling. He had scratched-up arms and knees. 

“You’re...lost?” Dazai guessed.

The boy shook his head. His eyelashes were quivering with tears.

“Okay. Uh. You’re hurt?”

Hesitation, then a slow nod this time. Dazai was beginning to wonder if the boy couldn’t speak.

“You fell?” he asked.

Neither a shake of the head nor a nod this time. Dazai shuffled from foot to foot. He had never been taught to play nice, only how to lie. This was unprecedented. It was terrifying. Ango would have known better what to do.

“P-pushed.”

So the boy could speak. Dazai heaved a silent sigh of relief. His voice might be high and choked with tears, but that Dazai could work with.

“Oh. While you were playing?” Dazai asked. The concept was as foreign as it was intriguing. Even with Ango, they didn’t play physical games the way other kids did. “Your friend pushed you?”

The boy’s lips wobbled. “N-not friend. H-he doesn’t like me.”

“Oh.” Then, because he didn’t know what else to say, Dazai said once more, “Oh.” After a moment, wracking his brain to find the correct answer, he said, “Then you should push him back.”

The boy startled. At least his eyes were wide with something that wasn’t tears this time, though Dazai couldn’t honestly say shock was that much of an improvement. “I c-can’t do that, t-that’s mean!”

“Well, he was mean to you first,” Dazai pointed out.

The boy looked down at the ground, sniffling. He shook his head, paused, and shook his head again.

“Okay…” Dazai looked around and squatted in front of the boy. “You should find better friends.”

The boy’s tears welled up again. Dazai’s horror mounted. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. Now the boy was going to cry once more, and instead of a stranger’s fault, it’d be Dazai’s fault. His father probably made his mother cry too, if she hadn’t been a total scumbag. He hadn’t wanted to think about like father, like son in this context.

“No, hey, wait—” Dazai scrambled around for something and remembered he was clutching a deck of cards. He stared at it as the boy’s tears rolled down his cheeks. “Hey, look—if you stop crying, I’ll show you a magic trick.”

That got his attention, even if it didn’t stop the tears. The boy looked at the cards in something akin to wonder. “Big brother, you’re a magi...magision?”

“Magician,” Dazai corrected. “Uh, yeah, something like that.”

The boy gaped. In the dim lighting his eyes shone with awe through a film of tears. Now that they had both calmed down somewhat, Dazai could see it was a pretty colour, like the sky in this hour. “Will you really show me?”

“Mmhmm. I made a deal, didn’t I?”

“Deal?”

“A promise,” Dazai said. That word the boy seemed to understand. “My father doesn’t really keep his promises, so I thought I’ll make sure I do.” With that, the boy’s hands lost their death grip on his knees, and he lifted his head further. Dazai smiled reassuringly. “Watch carefully, okay? See this card here?”

The boy nodded, staring at the eight of clubs, a random card that had been on the top of the deck. His little fingers shook when Dazai offered the card to him to touch, to feel that it was only one piece. He returned it to Dazai after solemnly affirming that there was no hidden device there.

“Don’t even blink, okay?”

Receiving the boy’s enthusiastic nod, Dazai turned his hand around and snapped the fingers of his other hand. When he flipped his hand back over, the ace of hearts was resting there instead.

The little boy gasped. His eyes widened, and widened. It was like they might pop out at any time. Dazai began to panic for a completely different reason.

“That’s...that’s so cool, big brother!” the little boy squealed. With Dazai’s permission, he held the card reverently between both palms and shook it a little. Like the previous eight of clubs, this was just one card, no hidden device in it. “How diju do that!”

Dazai shrugged. “It’s magic, and magicians never reveal their trick.”

The boy tilted his head to the side, but if nothing else, he seemed to understand the word magic. His gap-toothed grin was wobbly and bright, stretching his tear-streaked cheeks. He was holding the card like it was a precious jewel, like it meant more than the illusion that the trick had been. Dazai ducked his head to hide his smile.

“You, um. You can keep that, if you want,” Dazai offered.

“R-really? Nobody’s ever given me a gift before.”

It was an old piece of hardy paper, without the gloss it once had. It could hardly be called a gift. Dazai didn’t quite understand the boy’s train of thoughts. But maybe he had thought that way when he was the boy’s age, too. And he didn’t dislike the thought of it being a gift. It was his first time giving one as well.

“Yeah. Keep it.” Dazai pushed himself to his feet, watching as the boy scrambled up. Their shadows were long against the walls of the playground. “But you should go home now. Me too, I guess,” he added after a moment.

“...okay.” The boy was still holding the card with both hands. Dazai slid the rest of the deck into his pocket, vaguely wondering if he could still practise with one missing card. Maybe the joker could stand in for the ace. He looked at the boy, and the boy at him. Neither seemed to know what to say. It was getting a little more difficult to see each other in the approaching gloom, though the boy’s smile was clear even now.

“Go home safe,” Dazai said. He stuffed his hands into his pockets. “Don’t get caught by the bullies again.”

“I won’t!” the boy exclaimed. “I’ve got big brother’s prote...proteshun charm with me!”

Startled, Dazai giggled. It was, he thought, a little like when his father had clapped his hand on his shoulder and praised him, only loads better. The boy giggled too, though Dazai doubted he knew what the laughter was for. That was fine though. Laughing with somebody was a new sensation, and Dazai thought he might quite like it.

.

Ten: Mori Ougai

Even if Mori hadn’t said it, there was definitely something fishy about the casino. Of course, it didn’t mean much coming from Mori, who was fishy on a whole other level, but living near the port was enough to give Dazai the feeling that something was very wrong here, besides the fact that the business was competition to Mori’s equally illegal business.

“The boss is very private, you see,” Mori said. He laced his fingers under his chin and offered Dazai a cup of tea. Dazai took it, but he had read enough tales to know it was unwise to drink. Unlike Persephone, he had no desire to be bound to hell. Mori’s office might seem unassuming, but it smelt of black money. Dirty money. “Very powerful too, and proficient at certain...underground deeds. You know what the mafia is like—” Mori sighed mournfully, like he was bemoaning his own deeds—“we don’t like funny business we can’t control.”

“Of course,” Dazai said. He had it on good account that his words were desert dry.

“That’s where you come in, Dazai-kun.” Mori smiled. It was worse than Ace’s slimy smile—Mori smiled as though he genuinely meant it. “He hires only personnel he trusts. And unfortunately, he has a very keen nose, and thus sniffed out all the spies I had tried to send. I need an insider. I need hard evidence of what I believe is his underground slave trade. There’s probably more—I’m suspecting organ trade—but any hard evidence will help.”

Dazai arched an eyebrow. “I hardly believe losing a game of Cheat should bring about such high stakes.”

“Cheat?” Mori looked puzzled. After a second his eyes widened, like he now remembered. “Oh, that deal! Dazai-kun, surely you can’t be so foolish as to believe I am contracting you based on that.”

“Then you have no deal,” Dazai said simply. “I do not want any part of this. I just want to live my life the way I want it.”

“Drugs, three card monte on the port, and now poker in the alleyways?”

Dazai placed his cup down with a deliberate clink.

It was strange: when he looked at Mori, he thought Mori should have dropped dead on the spot.

Mori shrugged. He seemed regretful. “For the longest time, I thought it was a mistake for the predecessor to not have killed the son. But now it seems I should thank him. Perhaps with some flowers at his grave?”

Cold spread from his fingers, reaching through his veins into his core. It was a familiar feeling. Like what he had felt when he arrived home from school to find an empty apartment, and then his father just never came home. Shortly afterwards, Taneda had corralled him into Ango’s room, and he hadn’t been allowed to leave their home for the longest time. Even when Ango carefully gripped his hand, the cold had remained.

“They do say the debts of the father are paid by the son,” Mori mused. “From what the records said, your father refused to give up any information of where you were. Take heart, he died bravely,” Mori said, words dripping with sympathy. “He even said the mafia will never hold a candle to you. Then he passed away from severe trauma and blood loss.”

His father had been a scumbag. He had lied to everyone about everything, he must have died a liar. 

Dazai couldn’t feel the fingers he was using to grip the tea cup.

Mori smiled gently. “So: a proposition, Dazai-kun. Be my inside man. Give me the information I need, and your debt shall be considered repaid. You can even keep the money you earn.”

“...and what if death is what I seek?” Dazai said. His voice was hoarse. “Then you still won’t have a deal.”

“Fair point.” Mori sounded contemplative, like Dazai had merely pointed out a flaw in his research paper. “What is his name...Tanizaki Junichirou, isn’t he?”

The cup shattered on the floor. Standing in a spreading pool of tea, Dazai snarled. “Don’t you dare—”

“One vital mistake you made,” Mori said. He held up a finger. “Reveal your weaknesses, and your opponents will use them against you. Strange, though. I hadn’t thought you cared for the boy.”

It wasn’t about that. It wasn’t. Tanizaki was his territory, just like Oda and Ango and Fukuzawa were, and Dazai hated anyone taking away what he wasn’t willing to give. They were like his deck, faded though it was—if anybody were to touch his cards without his permission, he would bite that hand off.

In the wash of artificial light, surrounded by the scent of tea, Dazai stared at Mori, and Mori at Dazai. Mori smiled, ever so gently. 

“Do we or do we not have a deal, Dazai Osamu?”

.

Knave: The Bureau of Crime Investigation
Queen: The Port Mafia
King: The Detective Agency

Once, on one very, very good night, his father had told him a story.

In hindsight, it probably hadn’t been intended as a story. Everything his father said were lies anyway, so his ramblings were taken in the same stride. He chatted through their games of uno, not seeming to care or notice if Dazai was paying attention. It was nice in a strange way, the last peaceful night Dazai remembered before his father didn’t go home.

His father had an awkward sort of face, neither handsome nor ugly, the sort of awkward face only a mother could love. It was the sort of face that could tell a lie without flinching. He placed his card down on the table, and after Dazai placed his own card down his father stared at it, then at him.

“Boy,” he asked. He nodded at the card. “What happened to the real ace?” For the first time since Dazai was conscious of the world around him, he thought his father actually sounded curious about him.

Dazai averted his gaze from the joker with its large, lopsided heart in red marker. He muttered, “I lost the card.”

“Hmm.”

His father gazed up at the ceiling and its damp patches. He stared up at it for so long that Dazai began to wonder if the game had been abandoned. As Dazai contemplated if he should collect the cards into a pile, his father murmured, like he was in a dream, “We used to be happy once.”

“...who?”

“Me and your mother,” he said, still in that dreamy tone. “We used to work together. In the bureau.”

That sounded vaguely familiar, like he might have heard the term bureau in class before, or maybe Ango might have mentioned it. Dazai placed the rest of his cards down and thought for a while, squirreling the information away. “So what happened?”

“You were born,” his father said simply. He didn’t seem aware that Dazai had flinched. “And it’s a dangerous job. It involved making enemies. So she left. But she left a little too late, after already making enemies.” He paused to let the information sink in. Dreamily, quietly, he said, “After that, I left too. You were just a baby. Just—” he held his index finger and thumb a distance apart, the length of a pea. He laughed. He must have forgotten how babies looked like.

“...then what did you do?” Dazai asked.

His father made a thoughtful sound. A card fluttered from his loose grip onto the table and he didn’t care. “Lots. Would you believe it wasn’t the mafia that did her in?” He giggled. “Started my own investigation while doing odd jobs. Taneda tried to interfere, told me to leave it to the pros, but eh, I told him he should know how busy the bureau can get. You understand, right?” Dazai didn’t, actually, but he nodded anyway. “Good. I even employed some independent detectives, we got ourselves a bodyguard too. Couldn’t pay them enough, but they were the sympathetic type. The type full of justice. They worked practically for free. We liked to think of ourselves as a detective agency. Our bodyguard hadn’t a bad mind either, helped us find new pathways of thought.”

It was hard to imagine. It sounded almost like a myth. Dazai couldn’t bring himself to interrupt. He tapped a card, ever so softly, on his knee.

“Then we began to be done in. Another one bites the dust...and another one gone, and another one gone, another one bites the dust. Hey, I’m gonna get you too, another one bites the dust.” He waved his hand in the air. Maybe it was supposed to signify people falling. It looked mostly drunk. He laughed at his own wit. “So we had to stop. Dispersed. The bodyguard, what was his name...he tried to refuse, but I made him go. All the time I was thinking, what enemy could your mother have made? What did she with her stupid righteousness try to stop? What is this monster? Why was she so goddamn stupid? Why did she insist on giving birth to you?”

His gaze had lost its manic quality. He was listless now, eyes tracing vague circles in the ceiling. In the kitchen, the faucet leaked, drip, drip. Dazai pressed his chin against his arm, stared at his father. The card in his grip twisted, lightly.

“You know—” he smiled, sharing an inside secret—“the mafia is a small fry compared to this enemy. The mafia wasn’t that huge anyway when they were just starting out. But they had enough power. And the boss didn’t really care as long as I could pay the money back. He doesn’t care about much, but he is greedy. So goddamn greedy. But even then, even now—” he giggled. He giggled like it was a compulsion. “What was the point? I’m still no closer to finding the truth. Your mother died, and along with her all the knowledge she had.” He breathed out a long breath. “She was the ace, and I am just a lowly knave.”

The ceiling light flickered. They might have to replace it soon. Dazai had no idea whether they even had a spare one. It was casting light and shadow over the table and the cards.

“Where did you lose your ace, boy?”

Dazai looked at the table. The joker winked at him, big wobbly heart over it.

“I’m not telling,” Dazai said. It might be the first honest thing he had ever told his father.

His father laughed. “Smart kid. To a smart kid, I’ll give a piece of advice. Wanna hear it?”

He didn’t, not particularly. His father’s mouth tonight was like the faucet though, endlessly dripping with words even if they weren’t particularly welcome. Dazai shrugged. He smoothed out the card that had bent from his grip.

“Okay,” he said. 

His father breathed out slowly. “Go free, Osamu,” he said in a low voice. “I wish you had never been born. But you, above all...you deserve to be free.” 

He chuckled. Then he let the rest of the cards drop onto the table, and his breathing steadied out into that of a dreamless sleep.

.

Ace: Nakajima Atsushi

This was Dazai Osamu’s life: twenty two, high school dropout, IQ of over two hundred, promoting the illusion of riches and glamour in a dazzlingly bright casino. Spy for the mafia, gathering information from table conversations and employees’ rooms, writing them in a code only he could decipher, figuring out ways to get closer to the boss, all the while thinking vaguely, numbly, of when he used to roam the streets.

This was Dazai Osamu: waiting, waiting, and waiting for something even he couldn’t define.

A warm spring night after winter had thawed brought more hope to the streets. It had a trickle-down effect, bringing hope into the casinos too, as though somehow from winter to spring the odds of winning might have changed any. It was no busier than he could handle, but in between rounds of blackjack he didn’t have too much time to think himself into a spiral. It was the usual dance of dealing and talking and smiling and casually siphoning information off his customers.

An hour to midnight, and the customers in front of him were pleasant but vapid. Gently probing proved they had nothing to offer, truly just friends trying their luck. Dazai kept the conversation light, smiled sympathetically when they lost, and went through the motions of simple arithmetic, twenty, twenty-one, it’s a bust, sir, House wins. Number one groaned good-naturedly and headed for the roulettes, not before clapping his friends on the shoulders. What fortune it must be to have so little to worry about, Dazai thought. He dealt the cards again with nothing of note happening for three rounds, skipping the empty seat.

It was when he was preparing the table for a new round that a young man slid into the empty number one spot, making it a full table once more. Dazai allowed his gaze to flick to him in greeting. His smile froze for the briefest of seconds.

You made one vital mistake, the Mori in his head crooned sweetly, softly.

Swiftly, he switched his attention to shuffling the cards. “Gentlemen, your bets, if you please,” he said. Not a single card was out of place while he shuffled. Numbers two through four had already placed their bets and were chatting, the way friends were wont to do while waiting. The young man, carefully, after observing the bets the other men had made, placed a chip in his lot.

Dazai snapped the cards together and dealt them with a swift hand. If he paused for a quarter of a millisecond when he flicked his gaze towards number one, nobody but him had to know. The young man fiddled with his full glass of drink, seeming bewildered and trying not to show it. There was an ace and six before him.

“Hit,” number two said. Number three followed, making it a bust. Number four chewed on his lip and chose not to draw any more cards with a safe nineteen.

“And you, sir?” Dazai asked softly. Even then, even when he was trying not to, his voice seemed to startle the young man. Beneath the hood of his hat, his eyes darted up to meet Dazai’s.

There was no mistake. It hadn’t been Dazai’s hallucination. 

Dazai managed a smile, lifting an eyebrow in question. He wondered if that was confusion that flickered in the young man’s eyes.

“Ah, I’ll...I’ll keep it as it is, thank you,” the young man mumbled.

“As you wish,” Dazai said. He revealed his hand and drew another, making it a solid twenty. “House wins this round.”

The friends groaned, though they didn’t sound exactly surprised. Three more rounds went in similar fashion, with numbers three and four recouping a small percentage of their losses back, before they conferred and all decided to try the roulettes too. Dazai cleared the cards from their positions and, after a second’s pause, turned back to number one. The young man had yet to touch his drink and was biting his lip instead.

“...are you not enjoying yourself, sir?” Dazai asked.

“Huh?” the young man jerked his head up and stared. Then, like he realised he was staring, he flushed and focused his gaze somewhere towards the middle distance. He shook his head. “No. It’s just, uhh…”

Dazai shuffled the cards slowly, movements lazy but not losing their precision. “First time in a casino?”

“How did you—”

The young man pressed his lips shut then, like he realised the fundamental error he had made. He fiddled with the glass, condensation collecting on his finger.

“We get newcomers, it’s not that unusual,” Dazai said easily. He continued shuffling the cards, in no hurry to deal them when number one didn’t seem that interested in the game in the first place. He looked at the hat thoughtfully, and the silver strands that peeked out from under it. The young man fidgeted under his gaze. “Forgive me for the blunt observation, but you look entirely like a deer under headlights.”

The young man let out a long breath. “Am I that obvious?” he asked, sheepish.

“Quite,” Dazai agreed. He placed the large stack of cards down and took out chips from his end. Holding up the smaller one, he said, “This represents hundreds—” he swapped it for a bigger one—“and this represents thousands.”

“I knew that much, at least,” the young man protested.

“Ah. Forgive me then, I thought you were merely copying the gentleman beside you just now.”

The flush spread all the way to the young man’s ears. It was adorable and entirely discordant with a den of deception.

“I was just...observing him,” the young man said.

“Hmm. Did you find out how to play the game through, ah, observing them then?”

The young man finally looked up at Dazai again. He sounded a tad lost when he said, “Get the highest number possible? But then one of them lost when they got a high number.”

With difficulty, he stifled his laughter. It had been a while since somebody genuinely amused him. “That’s the right track. The aim is to get as close to twenty one points as possible without going over it. What you have here—” he turned over a card, revealing an ace of clubs—“is an ace, and it can be one or eleven. Kings, queens, and knaves are all tens. The rest are as their numbers suggest.”

“Oh. So that explains it,” the young man muttered under his breath.

Dazai smiled. “The aim is to beat me, the dealer. Not anybody else at the table.”

He paused there, letting the information sink in. The young man still didn’t know what this world entailed, that could be seen immediately. But he wasn’t stupid either. He considered the deck resting before Dazai, and he asked, “Why are there so many cards though?”

Dazai tapped on the top of the deck. “We play with six decks here. More cards, more possibilities, right?”

The young man nodded slowly. Dazai took a subtle glance around. The crowd was thinner today, and nobody seemed about to approach his table for the moment. After months and months here, he had finally succeeded in ensuring the security guards weren’t observing his table the whole time.

He smiled. “How about this? Let’s play with one deck for now.”

“Eh? But—oh, I didn’t mean to distract you from your job—” the young man waved his hands around, flustered. “I just wanted to—”

“Wanted to?”

His lips snapped together, and the young man went completely silent.

Intriguing, Dazai thought. Much more interesting than anyone else he had played against the entire evening. Under the table lay several brand new decks of cards. He bypassed them and picked up a familiar deck instead, gripping carefully to ensure no missing cards.

“As a special offer—no bets this round, alright? Though I doubt losing money is the least of your concerns right now.” He smiled and dealt them two cards each, face down. “Isn’t that right, agent?”

The young man jerked back as though he had been burnt. Dazai picked up his cards and examined them. Though the cards were old, it was no hindrance to reading the numbers and suit. Acutely aware of the young man staring at him, aware of the shock on his face, Dazai asked quietly, “Do you want to draw more cards?”

“I—”

After a long pause, the young man warily picked up his cards. The tip of the ear Dazai could see was red. He would bet his apartment that the other ear had a communication device in it. The young man’s wariness turned to contemplation when he saw his cards.

“Do you wish to draw? I can help you think about it, if you aren’t sure.”

“Um...I think I’ll draw?” the young man said.

“Please do,” Dazai said.

The young man drew one card and made a funny sort of face, like a little spasm. He sighed and placed his cards down. “I suppose this means I lose?” he asked, with a total of three eights making twenty four. If this were a poker game, Dazai would have marvelled at his natural luck.

“Quite sure it does,” he agreed. He placed down his cards, revealing a hand of nineteen. “Bad luck, sir. That must have been a tough decision to make.”

But the young man no longer seemed concerned about his own loss. He stared at Dazai’s two cards and murmured, “You didn’t tell me that the joker is included too.”

“That’s because he isn’t.” Dazai picked up the card fondly. Even if all else had changed, he still touched up on the large red heart every now and then. “I had to find a suitable replacement for the card I gave away, after all.”

The young man stilled.

His eyes, the colour of a sunset a decade and more ago, stared up at Dazai.

Dazai gathered the cards and shuffled them, taking more care than he did with the casino’s decks. Around them it was a low buzz of conversations and chips exchanging hands and the click click click of roulette tables and the dazzling whiteness of the lights. The young man had not stopped staring at Dazai. One of his hands had gripped tight around his glass.

Dazai dealt the cards. He picked his up. From behind the cover of cards, he murmured, “So what brings a fine agent to this side of the city?”

“...what gave me away?”

Dazai smiled. “More like what didn’t give you away. You were new, but you were examining everything you could of the casino. Not the games themselves, but those running them. Like me,” he explained. “No casual visitor would do that unless you wanted to bed one of us.” Since the young man wasn’t drinking, he had to resort to choking on air. “If you aren’t careful, you could get hauled out and beaten to death for this, you know.”

A bust for him, after drawing an additional card. The round went to the young man. Shuffle, deal.

The young man sighed. After some thought, he said, “But you’re not ratting me out.”

“I’m not,” Dazai agreed. “I don’t really care either way, but I wanted to talk to you.”

“Why?”

An easy hand of twenty, round went to him. Shuffle, deal.

“Because you reminded me of somebody I met a long time ago.” The young man nearly let slip the cards out of his grasp. “That, and I’m not really part of this casino anyway.”

Be free, his father once said. That might have been a lie, but he was smiling again. It felt a foreign sensation. It felt terrifying.

The young man asked, curiosity writ all over his face, “What do you mean? You look like a proper employee here.”

“There’re all sorts of ways to be agents. Even if they’re not as proper as yours.”

Not the strongest hand, but he’d take an eighteen and a tie. Shuffle, deal.

“You mean you’re a spy?” the young man whispered. Dazai wanted to tell him he made it more obvious this way, screaming a secret with every pore of his body. He wanted to laugh because he doubted the young man knew anything but broadcasting his thoughts and feelings for the world to see.

“Sort of. I’m not a good guy though,” Dazai warned.

The young man bit his lip. His eyes seemed to look through the cards instead of at them. “Well...what can you tell me about the casino?”

“Bold move, showing your cards at once. But what do I get in return?”

“I’ll...have to check. I don’t make the call here.”

Shuffle, deal. Shuffle, deal.

Dazai tapped carefully on the table. He said, “I wouldn’t mind sharing...for a suitable price. This place’s getting boring anyway.”

The young man’s gaze flicked up. He looked puzzled. “So you agreed to work here only because it was interesting?”

Reveal your weaknesses, and your opponents will use them against you. The young man didn’t need to know everything, not now, not yet, and how did one bring that into a conversation anyway, the lives hanging on what Dazai said and did? So he shrugged. “In my view, everything is merely a way to fill time until death.”

“...why...why do you say that?” the young man whispered. He placed his cards on the table, face down. There was genuine sadness in his voice. “Is there not something you want to live for?”

“...what do you live for, sir?”

Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. Dazai tapped a finger slowly on top of the reshuffled deck. His cards, like the young man’s, lay face down. They stared at each other. Dazai wondered if the young man truly remembered. He wondered which result he was hoping for.

“...my family,” he said. “The agency that took me in.”

“It’s wonderful to have family worth living for,” Dazai said. He was even able to be sincere about it.

“And for a memory.”

Shuffle. The back of the joker card more familiar to him than any other, resting at the top of the deck.

The young man continued, “Somebody once gave me the strength to believe in magic.”

“...all acts of magic are lies, illusions of the eye,” Dazai said quietly.

“Perhaps. But I’ve carried the magic of his protection through the years.”

Dazai closed his eyes. He had long given away his ace, he knew. There had never been a going back since that sunset day years ago. He opened his eyes once more, and he smiled at the young man sitting in front of him, the boy who had once cried because he had no friends, who had looked at Dazai and saw only magic but no lies.

“He’s a fortunate man, to gain your favour so.”

The young man smiled. He picked up his cards again. After the space of two heartbeats, Dazai picked his up as well.

“Do you wish to draw?” he asked softly.

“...I think I will,” the young man said. He drew a card, and he considered his hand.

“Shall we show, then?” Dazai asked.

“Let’s.”

The twenty of Dazai’s hands was strong, but even it couldn’t compare to the ace of hearts, a king, and a queen. The ace of hearts, faded, was held in a trembling hand. It looked right at home next to the other two cards.

Dazai couldn’t smile. He couldn’t laugh. He could only stare. The young man stared too, first at the cards, then at him.

“You mastered that trick,” Dazai said.

“I’d prefer it if you called it...magic.”

That brought a twitch to his lips. Then a chuckle. And then a laugh, strong like a bird that had swept out of its cage. He reached out and touched, carefully, the edge of the card. It was a decade and more older, lovingly faded.

“Oh, sir. This is the House’s unequivocal loss,” Dazai said. Chuckles still slipped out of him.

Like the young man was still a boy, he laughed too, like he was laughing just because someone else was. His cheeks were flushed, but no longer with the anxiety of before. His eyes were bright under the lights.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever introduced myself. I’m Nakajima Atsushi, and I work for an independent detective agency.”

“Fair’s fair, hmm?” Dazai held a hand out, and when Atsushi grasped it he thought he might laugh again. His palm was sweaty, but so was Dazai’s, and it was wonderfully warm. Dazai smiled and said, “I’m Dazai Osamu, but you might have known me as a magici—ah, pardon. As a magision, yes?”

Atsushi groaned. “I was a kid.”

“And so was I,” Dazai pointed out. He let go and touched the card on the table fondly, the ace of hearts that had found its way back. “Can I safely assume that I’ll be in your care from now on, then?”

Atsushi’s smile widened, and widened. It was like his eyes might pop out. The sight made Dazai grin.

“It’s a deal.”