Warnings: pretty extensive discussion of abuse.
End Of The Famine
The concept of sleeping through the night is as foreign to Atsushi as that of countries he’s never visited. The nightmares only came after he left the orphanage, but even then, he slept bit by bit, waking up at every footstep he heard, every rattling of a chain. Atsushi has never fallen asleep at sunset and woken up at sunrise. Fear used to keep awake; the absence of it now knots so tightly in his stomach that the difference is infinitesimal.
Atsushi learned as a child to wake up silently. He does so now, choked out of air, his fist already pressed against his mouth so that no sound will escape. He glances to his side, where Kyouka sleeps like the dead, and turns his back on her. Only then does he breathe.
Only then does he cry.
It’s not pretty—he’s not pretty, he never is, but Atsushi has a learned distaste for showing distress. He has never been capable of withstanding it stoically, and his body remembers to tense for additional pain even through the splitting ache smothering his lungs. His nose doesn’t allow in any air. His chest hurts so much he feels like he’s been stabbed again. He can’t stop shaking no matter how much he tries, so he rides it out, sobbing into his blanket to muffle up the noise. It becomes wet against his face. His eyes dry out eventually, but the pain never stops.
Another glance behind informs him that Kyouka is still asleep; it’s his luck, he knows, that she sleeps so deeply and easily. Anyone else would be woken up by him nightly.
Tonight is a bad one.
Atsushi crawls to the door of their apartment rather than walk. It’s easier to avoid banging into anything with his hands spread before him, and the floor tends to creak under his weight when he stands. The night is moonless, the sky devoid of clouds; without them to reflect the city-light, it is way darker than usual, even for him. He manages to find his way out, tugs his shoes with him, and shuts the door behind himself.
He still has fear coiled tight in his stomach, running up his torso like acid, numbing his fingers. Now that he’s fallen silent his body doesn’t bend by instinct to avoid blows, but he still can’t stand completely upright. His belly feels too exposed when he is not slouching.
They never liked it when he cried. It was okay when it was only the Sisters, because his voice grated at them and made them want to push him away. Atsushi had slept in the cellar far more often than in his bed, and even that was fine, even the claustrophobia he developed in the cramped, icy room, was better than when it was the Headmaster he faced.
His mouth floods with saliva—he rushes for the bathroom at the end of the hallway and spits it out in the sink, because he can’t bear the thought of swallowing it back. His tongue tastes of bitter poison.
There’s a noise, then, glass on wood, and a voice—”Atsushi-kun?“
Atsushi allows himself to heave one more time, saliva dripping from his lips, before wiping them clean. “I’m sorry,” he calls back. His voice is a little too rough to be heard, so he clears his throat and tries again. “Ah, I apologize, I was just… did, did I wake you up?”
“I wasn’t sleeping,” Dazai replies. He must be in the kitchen, though Atsushi didn’t notice him when he passed by. “Are you sick?”
“No,” Atsushi mumbles, looking in the mirror.
The Tiger’s power is already drawing blood back to his face. His skin returns to its usual shade under his eyes, his lips smoothing over in the places they had cracked. In a minute he won’t even look sleepless; the bags under his eyes are shrinking by the second.
Atsushi runs water into the sink to rinse it. Then he pushes himself away from it and walks back into the hallway.
It takes him a while to locate Dazai at all. Not one lamp is lit, not even in the kitchen proper; and Dazai is seated in one of the couches, not behind the counter than separates kitchen from living space. There’s a half-full glass of something on the low table before him. The sole TV of the dorm is turned off. Even in the dark, though, his eyes are piercing.
Atsushi can’t look at them. “Did I make too much noise?” he rasps out. “I’m sorry if—”
“I said I wasn’t sleeping,” Dazai interrupts. There’s no harshness to his voice at all, but the words make Atsushi’s belly clench on nausea, make him want to step back and away. “Did you throw up?”
“I—I didn’t. I almost did.”
Dazai uncrosses his legs. He barely makes a noise when he stands up from the couch, and Atsushi can do nothing but watch him move toward the cupboards in the kitchen.
Atsushi never uses it. He’s never seen anyone else use it either, though the others sometimes spend time together here. Every room of the dorm has its own kitchen space and bathroom, and he has never understood why this one is here at all, except for one mention Ranpo once made to him of Kunikida trying to hold common dinner.
Exhaustion is going to crash onto him soon, he knows. It always does after memories of that kind rise up in his dreams. Atsushi watches with empty eyes as Dazai take out a glass, fill it with cold water from the sink, and walk back around.
He doesn’t realize the water is meant for him until Dazai holds it before his face. It’s all he can do to avoid flinching back.
“Thanks,” he says, with his heart on his tongue. He takes the glass from Dazai shakily.
Dazai’s fingers barely linger long enough for him to feel how cold they are. “Drink it,” is all he replies before moving away.
Atsushi obeys wordlessly. The water does come as a relief, soothing the dryness that bile has left behind and snapping wakefulness back into him. He feels less drowsy after finishing it. Less likely to see reality warp out from around him and leave only fear in its stead.
Dazai has taken back his spot on the couch and taken back his glass; he sips from it silently, looking through the lightless window. He obviously expects Atsushi to leave.
Atsushi doesn’t move.
The last time he and Dazai were alone together was two weeks ago, on a park bench, after the Headmaster’s funeral. Atsushi had been raw with indignation, with outrage—he had never been so angry in his life and never so helpless either, not even as a child sacrificed for others’ wrongdoings. Not even after being nailed to the ground through his foot or abandoned in a cage for days, chained by the neck like an animal.
And Dazai had left him there alone. He had left him there to sob and spit bile on the ground without looking back. It had felt worse than being told his own parents had hurt him before throwing him away.
Dazai tenses when Atsushi sits down next to him. Atsushi can’t help the guilt he feels at that, buried under an ugliness he knows to be resentment. He grabs his own thighs with his hands, digging his nail into cloth until he can feel them on his skin.
“Kunikida-san would tell you not to sit in the dark for too long,” he says lowly.
For a second Dazai doesn’t reply at all. He doesn’t make any sound, doesn’t move an inch. Then he snorts softly. “It’s a good think Kunikida-kun sleeps like the dead, then.”
“Does he really?”
“Oh, yes. I broke into his room once, to steal toilet paper. He didn’t wake up even when I tripped over his shoes.”
The picture would be reluctantly amusing any other day, but Atsushi feels very little like laughing. The scars on his ribs ache from the phantom touch of a red-hot poker. The Headmaster’s silhouette hovers at the corner of his vision every time he blinks, the beige robes and the square cut and the cruel, lifeless eyes.
Nausea burns at the back of his throat.
Dazai shifts in his seat. His voice, when it comes, is falsely calm. “You should go back to sleep, Atsushi-kun.”
“No,” Atsushi replies.
Would that he were any good at hiding how he feels, but he isn’t. He’s never been. There wasn’t any use in hiding it when he was punished no matter how much or how little he screamed. Dazai can’t be missing any of his anger now, and yet all he does is sigh.
“You’ll be tired tomorrow at work,” he says.
“So will you. And hungover.”
“I’m not going back to sleep.” Atsushi’s voice is starting to shake now, so he folds his legs against his chest, catches his heels against the edge of the couch. It squeaks a little under the friction. “I’ll just end up waking up Kyouka-chan.”
“Then I should leave,” Dazai says.
It’s so familiar. So achingly familiar. Atsushi has no one but himself to blame for hoping, every time, that Dazai will do something to stop the corrosive pain that eats him night after night. He has no right to be angry at Dazai for leaving him two weeks ago. He has no right now to want to keep him where he is.
“Fine,” he breathes, and it’s awful, truly, that now his tear ducts seem to function again. He used to be able to reach the end of tears and find peace in the numbness that lingered there, but now the Tiger won’t allow him to. The Tiger fixes everything. He rubs a hand over his wet eyes. “Fine, just—you can go, Dazai-san. I’m sorry.”
“Stop apologizing,” Dazai replies.
Atsushi hunches over his drawn-up knees, close to heaving once again. “Just go,” he says.
It’s easier to watch Dazai leave quickly, as he always does, than to watch him put up a front of hesitation. They both know he doesn’t want to stay. There’s nothing in Atsushi worth making him want to stay.
He swallows back the immediate sob that this brings up in him. It’s hard to resist shaking, to quiet his breathing, so Atsushi crushes his chest against his thighs and hopes the makeshift dam will last until Dazai is out of the room.
He glances to his side when he finally hears Dazai move—and finds Dazai’s arm stretched halfway toward him, his hand level with his face.
Atsushi stops breathing.
When he comes to, a second later, it is to the feeling of the couch’s arm digging into his back. His head is turning violently, the world around wavering like a boat at sea; it takes him that long to understand that he has crawled his way here from sheer instinct, out of nothing but mindless panic. The scars on his ribs feel like they’re tearing apart.
Dazai is staring at him, stricken, wide-eyed. His hand is still raised.
The inhale Atsushi draws in then is mortified. “I, I’m so sorry—”
“Don’t apologize,” Dazai snaps.
Atsushi finds himself unable to produce any sound.
Guilt shines sharply on Dazai’s face for a second, before it disappears to wherever he keeps the rest of his honesty. His arm comes down slowly. “I’m the one who should apologize,” he amends.
Atsushi shakes his head harshly. “No, I’m just acting like an idiot, I had a nightmare and I’m—I’m tense. I don’t know why I reacted like that.” He chuckles weakly. “I know you wouldn’t.”
He can’t say it. His face is burning, now that the panic has eroded. Air shudders inside him as his lungs fight to remember how to work.
“Hit you?” Dazai says evenly. Atsushi’s blush deepens with his shame, and it’s all the answer he needs. “And how would you know that? I already have, after all.”
Atsushi blinks at him. “What?” he replies faintly.
“I’ve already hit you once.”
Dazai’s face is impassible. Atsushi can’t do more than stare at him, as he tries to understand what he means. It doesn’t take as long as he would have wished to remember, and when he does, his mouth closes. The side of his face now tingles painfully.
He swallows. “That was different,” he lets out. “I deserved that.”
“Did you,” Dazai murmurs.
Atsushi nods, though he’s not sure Dazai expected an answer. All Dazai does after that is twist around to stare at his other side once more. His glass is raised, but he doesn’t drink from it.
This is… not something Atsushi would have expected. He never thought Dazai would feel guilty over a slap. It had hardly hurt, had only served the purpose of clearing his mind of panic, and Dazai’s words of the time still ring true—he can’t live in self-pity. It’s nothing more than what the Headmaster tried to teach him, perhaps the only lesson of worth to ever be impacted on him in the jail where he grew up.
You’re not allowed to hate yourself.
But I do, Atsushi thinks bitterly. I do.
His lips part, and he says, “You used to hurt Akutagawa.”
He wants to take the words back immediately—Dazai’s posture is so sharply still that he looks made of mirror shards. Atsushi expects him to turn translucent any second, to simply vanish in the thick penumbra that surrounds them; and his eyes may be more beast than man by now, as is his nose, as are his reflexes, but he doesn’t think even he would ever be able to find Dazai again.
That’s the thing with Dazai. He always looks a second away from fading into thin air, like his being corporeal is only an exercise in politeness. Like his true form lies somewhere between nothing and less than.
“I did,” Dazai says, before he can apologize again. “I expected that you’d bring it up eventually. You care about him, don’t you.”
It makes Atsushi’s shoulder twitch, his mouth turn downward in a mix of annoyance and something else, something more, that he only ever feels in the presence of Akutagawa himself. He’s not sure caring is the right word here. He hates Akutagawa, genuinely and wholly; he just can’t help but know him, in ways he has never known anyone.
“That’s commendable of you,” Dazai goes on flatly. “Or very stupid. He would kill you in a heartbeat, given the chance.”
“I know,” Atsushi mutters. “He’s jealous of me.”
“And you’re jealous of him. Those are good foundations for a partnership.”
His voice is a half bitter and half fond. Whoever he’s really thinking of, it’s not Atsushi or Akutagawa anymore. Atsushi can’t even begin to understand what he means by it anyway.
There’s a question lodged in Atsushi’s throat. It’s not a useful question, it’s not even a good one, not one whose answer he has a right to; but Dazai throws him a glance that is as knowing as it is implacable, and so Atsushi asks.
“Did you hurt him like…” He has to push down the rising shame in him, to breathe through the aches over his battered skin. “Like that man hurt me?”
“I don’t know how he hurt you,” Dazai replies. “Though I can make an educated guess.”
He’s probably read the file that Tanizaki did when the Headmaster died. The one detailing the atrocities he went through as an orphan himself. Atsushi still doesn’t know how to feel about that other than furious. He doesn’t know what to think except, Serves him right.
All of his body wants to recoil with guilt. He doesn’t, he doesn’t want to feel any guilt toward the man who made all but the past few months of his life torture, and it feels worse, somehow. It feels worse not being able to take the high road.
Despicable child, the Sisters called him. They were right.
Dazai doesn’t make him ask again. “I punched him around,” he says, crossing his legs at the ankle. He looks relaxed now, no longer sharp enough to cut, but his voice is icy. His eyes are almost black. “Shot him a few times to test his ability. Sometimes he stopped me, sometimes he couldn’t. Mostly I insulted and belittled him, made it so he only cared about my approval. Physical strength isn’t needed with a gun and the right words. And,” he glances at Atsushi again, “I don’t think it matters how I did it. Do you?”
Atsushi knows he would agree were he less wrecked with nerves and memories, were he not seeing that silhouette stand behind Dazai himself, looking at him in disgust. But he is. The Headmaster’s ghostly eyes follow every minute move that he makes. With all the scars on him feeling like open wounds, how Dazai hurt Akutagawa matters more than anything.
“Did he deserve it?” he breathes.
He’s always hanging onto whatever comes out of Dazai’s mouth, be it joke or order, kind word or reprimand; yet he has never felt so close to the precipice before, has never waited with such bated breath for what Dazai has to say.
Did I deserve it? he thinks, feeling much younger than he truly is.
“No,” Dazai answers.
There is no following sermon. No tepid lecture. His voice bears nothing but certainty.
Tension flees out of Atsushi then, leaving him boneless with exhaustion. He’s too tired to truly feel relief, or to express his gratitude, and he isn’t sure he’ll be able to once he’s truly awake, what with the twitchiness that always clings to him. This is okay, though. It’s already more than enough. He’s never had anyone tell him he didn’t deserve what he got.
He can’t help but wish Dazai had stayed long enough to say that much two weeks ago.
He nods, though he isn’t sure Dazai is looking at him anymore. “I’m sorry for… being so angry. At you. That was, that was ungrateful, after everything you’ve done.”
“I haven’t done anything.”
“You saved my life.”
Dazai doesn’t say a word. He’s staring at the inside of his glass, almost empty now; there is no light to filter through it that the human eye could see, but Atsushi knows the color of its content. He can smell the tang of sugar and alcohol from where he sits, tickling his nostrils.
“I think you saved yourself, Atsushi-kun,” Dazai replies at last. He puts the glass back down. “You would have been fine, even without me. You wouldn’t have let yourself die.”
“You’re right,” Atsushi says softly.
He was taught not to, blow after blow, word after word. This one lesson might as well be his entire identity.
It makes him feel so much less than human. More than the Headmaster’s accidental death, more than his now-aimless hatred, more than being chained to a wall for days until his neck bled. Atsushi will never know who he is. Who he could have been. Everything he carries into life was dictated by violence.
“And I think—”
It’s rare to see Dazai stumble on his words, rare enough that Atsushi lifts his head in surprise. He’s still cradled into the corner of the couch, as far away from Dazai as possible considering its size; even from here, though, it’s easy to see the way he smiles.
“You also saved my life back then,” Dazai finishes. “You pulled me out of the water. You were hungry and desperate, but you saw someone drowning, and your first instinct was to help.” His gaze is gentle across the unlit distance. Atsushi can’t breathe at all. “I don’t think it matters where your kindness comes from. It’s yours. You should be proud of it.”
There is yearning in Dazai’s voice, almost a sort of envy. Atsushi can’t comprehend where it comes from at all—can’t compute that the man who fed and clothed him and gave him a reason to live thinks of himself as anything unkind—and he is reminded, starkly, of Kyouka.
Kyouka doesn’t think herself capable of being kind either. She wants to be, so terribly, and sometimes she manages to believe that she is, but the guilt always catches up with her. And Atsushi only knows of one way to help her when it does.
He can hear the hitch in Dazai’s breathing when he starts creeping closer, over the squeak of old leather caused by his hands and knees. His face has shifted from confusion to understanding so fast that Atsushi’s eyes barely catch it, and it shifts again now, into apprehension, into closed-off rejection; but he doesn’t move away.
He doesn’t move when Atsushi leans against his side. He doesn’t move when Atsushi’s arms wrap around his middle, when his face presses into his open collar. The gauze around his neck is rough to the touch, a little loose from moving around all day; Dazai has probably not taken the time to change it yet. He always smells a little clinical—from afar that’s all there is to it, clean fabric and antiseptic, sometimes a hint of alcohol—but now Atsushi can parse the multiple scents on him, skin and breath and sweat, warm against his nose. He can hear how fast Dazai’s heartbeat runs.
“You’re not a bad person,” he says shakily.
Dazai doesn’t gasp, not really, but his chest shudders as if he has.
“Shut up.” He knows he sounds sulky, he knows he’s being rude, perhaps inappropriate, but he can’t bring himself to care. Dazai is not the only one with the ability to impart needed truths. “You’re not, Dazai-san.”
“You don’t know anything about my life.”
Atsushi squeezes him tighter. He can almost feel the goosebumps on Dazai’s skin, the almost-too-much feeling of wanting the hug to last and wanting it not to. It’s the same one he feels every time Kyouka embraces him. It is, he knows, the result of a lifetime spent starved for touch.
“I know you,” he says. He adds, before Dazai can protest: “I know you now. You don’t care how I got to be who I am, well, I don’t care what you used to do either. You don’t do it anymore. You regret that you did it.”
Dazai’s touch, when it comes, is almost too light to be called so. His hand splays over Atsushi’s shoulder blades with no pressure at all.
It is the kindest thing Atsushi has ever felt.
“I had a friend,” Dazai says. He has to pause before continuing, and Atsushi doesn’t make any mention of the salt he smells now. “Years ago. You remind me of him.”
“What was he like?” Atsushi asks.
“Much cooler than you.”
It is faked playfulness, judging by the way Dazai’s throat constricts. Atsushi says nothing.
“You’re nothing alike,” he continues eventually. His voice is wavering, as if he can’t quite remember how to place it. It makes him sound younger. “But I think you would’ve liked each other a lot. He was good with orphans.”
He was good to me, he doesn’t say.
Atsushi smiles wetly.
The fact that Dazai never tries to push him away despite how tense he is, how uncomfortable the situation makes him regardless of his cravings, fills him with more gladness than the hug in itself. Dazai is waiting for Atsushi to decide when it’s over. It’s what makes him choose to end it, even though he thinks he could keep holding Dazai for hours more—and he only realizes how tightly he was pressed against him when the movement chafes at his torso and makes him wince.
Dazai halts halfway through pulling back. “Are you hurt?” he asks.
“No,” Atsushi replies immediately, raising both hands. “No, I’m fine, it’s just old scars.”
“I thought the Tiger healed those.”
Atsushi bites the inside of his cheek. “Not the ones from—from before I came here,” he admits lamely.
The Tiger heals everything, except what Atsushi wants it to.
Dazai spends another moment in stillness, looking somewhere around Atsushi’s face, never meeting his eyes. When he moves, it is to turn away and reach for the switch of the lamp sitting on a table by the couch; Atsushi has to blink at the sudden brightness to chase immediate tears away. After being so attuned to darkness, this light is almost as blinding as the sun’s.
“Show me,” Dazai says.
Atsushi’s air comes thinner at the order, as if his lungs dare not expand. It’s not entirely a bad thing, considering that the scars ache every time they do.
“It’s really nothing,” he says.
“I’ll be the judge of that, if you don’t mind, Atsushi-kun.”
There’s no arguing with Dazai when he uses his business voice. Atsushi grabs the hem of his T-shirt after another long second, and he doesn’t look at Dazai’s face at all when he raises it to expose his belly.
He’s not surprised at the faint sound of distaste that Dazai gives. He knows the sight that the three brown lines draw on his skin, the unmistakable tale they tell; and he knows they’ll be looking more red than brown, now, with how stretched they feel on him. Air alone is enough to make them sting anew.
“Maybe I should wake up Yosano-sensei—”
“There’s no need,” Atsushi cuts in. “They never bleed or anything, they just… sometimes they hurt a little.”
He has to bite down a cry of pain when Dazai’s fingers brush against the highest one, the one pressed onto where his skin is the thinnest, where his ribs are the closest. There are barely any layers of fat or muscle there to keep from feeling the poker’s touch through his bones.
“How old were you when you got those?” Dazai asks softly. He’s not moving his fingers. Not trying to touch anymore. Atsushi looks over the back of the couch when he answers.
“Eight or nine. I think. The poker thing only happened the once, so that was good.”
“They don’t look like they were given enough time to heal.”
He almost wants to laugh—none of his injuries were ever given any time to heal. It seems Dazai is able to read the truth out of him without an actual answer; Atsushi can’t face the knowledge in his eyes for more than a fleeting second.
Dazai pulls his hand away. “Are there others?” he asks.
“Um, other scars?” Atsushi replies, confused. “Or just the ones that hurt?”
Dazai is silent for so long that Atsushi starts believing he’s misunderstood the question.
“Just the ones that hurt,” he says eventually.
His tone makes hot shame flood Atsushi’s face once more, makes his palms tingle and his chest ache.
“There’s, there’s a few, but it’s really not that bad. The others just sting a bit when the weather’s bad—the burns are the worst. They never really stop… well,” he trails off awkwardly.
Dazai doesn’t answer.
It’s not a lie. Atsushi’s left foot has an ugly pink swell at its roof where the nail pierced him, a tiny prick of white skin at the bottom where its extremity came through, yet it barely ever hurts. Sub-zero temperatures make it ache when he walks, but not enough to make him limp. His back is a little worse in that the scars there are many—cuts from belt buckles and burns from worn leather and five atrocious, ridged welts, crisscrossing over his skin like dry earth cracked open. Remnants of the worst lashing he has ever gotten. These pull painfully at his skin every once in a while.
It makes his back a terrifying sight, he knows. Kyouka had blanched upon seeing it the one and only time Atsushi had forgotten to lock the bathroom door while changing. She had spent the following evening pressed against his side in silence, refusing to say anything, one arm held around him loosely.
Atsushi dearly hopes that Dazai won’t ask to see his back, but Dazai doesn’t bother asking. Instead he puts a hand on Atsushi’s shoulder and turns him around wordlessly, and Atsushi complies, every protest caught in his throat, blood rushing to his face. He flinches when his T-shirt is dragged further up. He’s shaking, he knows, under the weight of Dazai’s eyes. The way they trace each of the five ragged lines feels nearly physical.
Dazai doesn’t touch them, thankfully. He takes his hand away and stands up from the couch, saying, “Come on.”
Atsushi sighs in relief upon covering himself once more, even if the cloth rubs at his burns again. He follows Dazai on weak legs until they reach the bathroom; there Dazai opens the mirror above the sink and fishes a case out of the closet it hides.
“There’s some aloe gel in here,” he says, placing the case in Atsushi’s hands. “Use it whenever it hurts.”
“But isn’t this the whole dorm’s kit? I can’t just—”
“Atsushi-kun,” Dazai interrupts. “Yosano is in charge of keeping it stocked. I dare say she’d be quite angry to know you haven’t been using it.”
“Please don’t tell her,” Atsushi mutters.
“I won’t. If you use it.”
Atsushi chews on his cheek again, and his teeth drag blood this time, making his mouth taste of copper. “I might need it every day,” he admits.
“Then use it every day,” Dazai replies, putting his hands in his pockets.
Atsushi eyes the bandages peeking out of his sleeves and collar, knowing what he wants to ask and knowing he doesn’t have the right to. Dazai waits him out in silence.
Dazai has been nothing but accommodating tonight, however. Whatever made him submit to Atsushi’s questions and anger are not for Atsushi to take advantage of, not when it would mean infringing on Dazai’s privacy for the sake of simple curiosity.
“Thank you,” Atsushi says. He grabs the kit a little tighter. “For everything.”
“Once again,” Dazai replies, “I didn’t do anything.”
You did, he thinks. He wishes he were brave enough to hug Dazai again. Instead he adds, “I meant what I said earlier. You’re not a bad person, Dazai-san, even if you were before.”
What Dazai did to Akutagawa is not for him to forgive. Atsushi is never good at placing judgments of morality—all he has is his feelings, what he sees and what he knows. And he knows that Dazai will never hurt him again. That’s enough for him to believe him to be good.
It’s a weird kind of white light that falls all around them, drawing color out of Dazai’s skin, leaving him standing in shades of white and grey. Only red remains in his eyes, from drinking, or sleeplessness, or tears. It makes him look at the very verge of living.
It makes the gratitude in his smile stand out so much better.