Higuchi had seen a lot of things in her time at the port mafia. The hierarchy here wasn’t the kind she thought she’d find in any organization chart; outside of the boss and the five executives, not all of whom chose sub-execs, positions were appointed individually, temporarily, and sometimes randomly. Authority shifted from hand to hand depending on the present needs. Higuchi’s went from bodyguard to secretary to handyman, and if she commandeered the Black Lizard’s deployments whenever her boss gave her the go, they were still led, in truth, by Hirotsu.
She wasn’t affected by the violence she lived in as much as some of them, even if her propension to worry for her coworkers made her vulnerable. Truly, it was this sort of situation that exhausted her the most—the eccentricities and quirks of the people she worked with and the disasters which they brought.
She had walked in on Kajii almost blowing himself up too many times to count; she had stopped Gin from cutting her nails with knives in public after the third time the people she was supposed to interrogate collapsed from the fear of seeing her do it in the back of the room; she had understood, after the second month, that it was better to knock loudly on Chuuya’s door and wait for an answer, no matter the hour, rather than use her key to walk in and find him naked on top of some guy. Or under some guy. Or in other frankly unreasonable positions.
She really wondered how Chuuya found the time to have so much sex while still working twice as much as she did.
She still hadn’t expected to follow Tachihara’s shouting from the end of the harbor and find him, Gin, and Hirotsu arguing around a stroller.
There was a baby in it.
“Should I take a photo?” she asked faintly, holding up her phone.
“Not you too,” Tachihara groaned, turning away from his glaring contest with Gin.
He tried to step toward her, but his hands were still on the stroller’s handles—Higuchi made a noise of visceral disgust at the sight of the baby approaching her, asleep as it was, and held up her gun.
“What the fuck?” he said, freezing in his steps.
“I hate babies,” she replied. All of them looked at her in consternation, and she blushed hotly, adding, “What? They’re—they’re drooling and noisy and full of germs and they’re little monsters that grow inside bellies and scream their way out like savages—don’t laugh at me! I’ve seen Alien! I don’t want to remember I can grow one too!”
“You were a baby once,” Hirotsu pointed out calmly.
“Please don’t remind me,” she replied, nauseous.
Gin snorted, and Higuchi flushed even further, all of her face warm to the touch. “Whose is it anyway?” she asked. She lowered her gun but didn’t holster it.
“That’s the problem,” Tachihara said, not trying very hard not to laugh at her. “I found it here.”
“Then what are we supposed to do with it?”
At least the thing wasn’t awake. It looked just like any other baby, chubby and pink and a little ugly, with very fine black hair at the top of its round head and ten ridiculously tiny and swollen-looking fingers. Higuchi couldn’t tell what gender it was supposed to be, and she approached carefully, step by step, until she stood only two meters away. It was wearing pale blue clothes, a small long-sleeved shirt and a small pair of denim pants. The sort of thing she hadn’t been able to find less than horrifying even as a child looking at dolls.
“Does it have a name tag or something?” she muttered, swallowing back her revulsion.
“It’s a baby, not a dog.” Tachihara was grinning so hard, she thought, his teeth were foolishly exposed to the full strength of her knuckles.
“Did you at least go through all that stuff under the seat, see if there’s anything from its parents?”
Tachihara looked at Gin and Hirotsu in turn, but they were both staring at the sunlit sea in front of them with absent eyes. He clicked his tongue, offended, and crouched to do as Higuchi had suggested.
“There’s nothing there,” he mumbled a second later. “Just a bunch of blankets and toys.”
He made one of them squeak loudly, and Higuchi jumped in place, heart rushing up to clog her throat. He was chuckling when he stood back up—his humor vanished as she raised the gun in his direction again menacingly.
They all stood around the stroller and stared at the sleeping monster. It didn’t seem to have noticed the noise or the attention at all; its head rolled sideways, a trail of shiny saliva escaping from the corner of its mouth at whatever dream it was having. It was a warm and sunny spring day, thankfully, the wind surprisingly quiet even this close to the beach. The baby didn’t look cold.
“Can you believe that thing came out of a womb?” Gin said after a while.
“Ew,” Higuchi and Tachihara exclaimed in tandem.
“Ew, ew, ew—Gin, what the fuck—”
“Grow up,” Hirotsu murmured, hitting Tachihara in the back of the head. “Will you react like this when your wife gives birth, boy?”
“I don’t have a wife, old man.”
“I’m never having kids,” Higuchi said shakily. “Never. I swear it. I’d rather die.”
“You already have my brother to take care of anyway,” Gin replied.
“At least he doesn’t drool.”
Gin lifted an eyebrow as if to ask, Are you sure?
“What do we do?” Higuchi asked again, not wanting to explore any of the images that this brought to her mind.
She looked at Hirotsu hopefully, but all the man did was stare at the stroller in utter silence. It was all any of them did, truly. In other circumstances, if she weren’t feeling so sick, Higuchi would have found it funny; these were people she regularly sent out to murder and fight, and she herself often saw her time split evenly between deskwork and the field. They had taken out organizations and tortured people trained to withstand it. They had burned down buildings still roamed by living humans. But they had no idea what to do with a lost child.
The baby squirmed without waking up.
“Let’s just call Chuuya-san,” Higuchi said in defeat.
The others released a collective breath of relief.
Chuuya hadn’t seemed more than the regular kind of irritated upon being asked to join them, and Higuchi forced herself to smile and say thank you instead of blurting out her panic through the receiver. She felt bad for not telling him exactly what he was needed for, but it was better he be here to yell at them and take care of it than not.
She waited with apprehension next to the Black Lizard members, staring at the sea without seeing any of it. She held her breath every time the baby sighed; she twitched helplessly every time it moved.
Chuuya arrived within a few minutes, turning around the side of the building mostly hiding them from view. He stopped walking the second his eyes landed on the stroller, and for a moment all he did was look with a slack face, his coat still swaying gently around him.
Then he opened his mouth and said, “Tachihara.”
“It’s not mine!” Tachihara exploded. “I just found it, God damn it, why does everyone think—”
“I think I’d have noticed if Gin or Higuchi’d had babies. And what the fuck do you mean, you found it?”
Tachihara threw his hands up in the air. “I just did, okay? It was here! Alone! I was walking back to headquarters and I found it and then Gin and Hirotsu and Higuchi found me, and then we called you! All right? Just,” he breathed in and pointed his index at Chuuya, ordering, “just deal with it.”
Chuuya glanced at the hand Tachihara had extended toward him, unimpressed. Tachihara lowered it immediately, his face red from exertion and embarrassment alike.
“A baby,” Chuuya muttered. “You called me to deal with a fucking baby.”
“I’m sorry,” Higuchi said pathetically.
He clicked his tongue and walked a little closer, peering inside the stroller and to the drooling, lax face of the thing inside with faint distaste. Higuchi had never related this much to anyone in her life.
“Any idea why it was here?” he asked. “Was it abandoned or…”
“It doesn’t look like it,” Hirotsu replied smoothly, as if he had done anything but stand there uselessly the whole time. “It looks healthy at least, appropriately dressed, the stroller looks new… It’s probable that its parents lost it.”
“Just drop it at an orphanage and be done with it, then, for fuck’s sake.”
“But what if its parents are looking for it?” Tachihara said hurriedly. “We should try to find them. They can’t be far.”
It made Higuchi look at him again. There was the faintest hint of distress in his tone and posture, and she remembered, suddenly, that Tachihara had grown up an orphan. It was all in his file. Abandoned at an orphanage at birth, he had run away from it before the age of twelve.
A quick glance in Chuuya’s direction told her that he was looking at Tachihara as well. She wasn’t surprised when he replied, “Fine,” instead of trying to argue.
Next to her, Gin had pulled down her mask. She was smiling.
“I guess I’ll just call the police or something,” Chuuya muttered. “But you’re on your own to drop it to a station. Fuckers still have a picture of my damn face from that casino fiasco five years ago.”
“Watch your cheek, Gin.”
The baby woke up as Chuuya was digging his own phone out of his coat.
They stared at it. It squirmed some more, blinking tiredly at them. Then it noticed that they weren’t who it was used to, or something, and suddenly its mouth was open wide and screaming.
“Fuck,” Chuuya said over the horridly loud wailing, “make it shut up, Higuchi!”
“No way,” Higuchi replied, frozen all throughout. “I’m not touching it.”
“What if it needs its diaper changed?” Tachihara replied with unveiled horror.
Chuuya glared at Gin. “Oh, look,” Gin said flatly, holding up her arms. A blade was caught between each of her fingers. “It seems my hands are suddenly full of knives.”
Hirotsu had disappeared.
“This is your mess,” Chuuya said between clenched teeth, once he was done looking around for him. “I shouldn’t have to deal with it at all.”
“Whatever you say, senpai,” Gin replied easily. “But we might gain some unwanted attention if it goes on, that baby’s really loud. The police already know your face, they’ll definitely think you abducted it if they see you, and then whatever lengths shall Ozaki-sama have to go to in order to free you from jail?”
Higuchi looked at her in silence, her mouth gaping.
The baby’s screams spiked up in volume again, making her wonder through her disgust how it wasn’t ripping apart its own vocal cords—and then Chuuya grunted, “I fucking hate all of you.”
He was stepping closer to the stroller before any of them could answer. The good thing with Chuuya was that once his mind was made, he never hesitated. He bent over the seat of the stroller with one last glare, daring them to say anything; he unbuckled the grey belts keeping the baby from falling forward; he slipped his hands behind its legs and back with a sound suspiciously close to shushing and lifted it in his arms.
Higuchi could only stare, riveted, as Chuuya sat the baby above his forearm and let it lean against his shoulder and neck, one hand gently braced at its nape. The baby seemed to revel in the proximity. Its screaming quieted to heaving hiccups, and it was probably staining Chuuya’s collar with tears and snot and other unspeakable things that made Higuchi’s very soul shudder at the mere thought, but Chuuya showed no sign of being bothered by it. He simply sighed, his mouth turned downward in annoyance but nothing more, and stroked the thing’s back until it calmed down.
Once that was done, he said, “First one who laughs gets a whole month of Kajii-watching duty.”
Tachihara choked on his budding snicker.
“You’re practiced at this, Chuuya-dono,” Hirotsu commented, reappearing out of nowhere.
Chuuya glared at him. “You don’t need practice to hold a baby,” he spat out. When the baby hiccuped loudly again, his shoulder shifted immediately to brace it. “What the hell is wrong with you guys, you use guns all the damn time, what’s so scary about this that you’d rather keep your hands on a piece of junk that can malfunction and explode on you any second?”
“There’s no way you haven’t done that before,” Higuchi replied weakly. “Look—it’s almost sleeping again.”
And it was. Its head had rolled to its side in Chuuya’s hold, its eyes closing and opening slowly, its breathing evening out.
Chuuya withstood their inquisitive stares for another moment before relenting.
“Kouyou’s secretary, Chise, she gave birth a year ago,” he admitted quietly. His face was flushed now, red high on his cheeks and at the tip of his ears. He cleared his throat. “When, uh, when we visited her in the hospital, she wanted me to hold her. Her daughter, I mean.”
He looked a little as if he were bracing himself now, his hold on the baby more defensive than strictly necessary. There was something quite ethereal about seeing him like this. Higuchi had witnessed many sides of Chuuya through the years, the sweat-drenched fighter and the sharp-dressed executive, the loosened version who sat with them on uncomfortable barstools and melted his anger out with wine, the man who snapped and yelled after the death of a subordinate. She had never before seen him like this, tense and blushing, his arms folded delicately around a child’s body.
“Chise’s kid calmed down quickly too,” he continued, looking away. “Apparently they like it when I make them a little less heavy. With my ability. No idea why.”
Higuchi heard herself murmur some sort of agreement from a distance, her own face strangely warm, her thoughts floating through a haze. Tachihara and Gin were wearing similar lost expressions as well.
The recognizable shutter sound of a camera reached them.
It took a long time for her to react. In that lapse of seconds she saw Chuuya tense through all of his body, his feet digging hard into concrete and his shoulders squaring themselves in preparation for a fight.
“Dazai,” he said lowly. His head turned to look toward their side, his chin brushing over the baby’s scalp. “I’m going to fucking kill you.”
“Go ahead, Chuuya,” a voice replied.
Higuchi snapped out of her confusion at last.
The man from the detective agency, Dazai Osamu, was standing some distance away. His eyes were fixed onto the screen of the phone he was holding in front of his face, and his mouth was straining at the corners. “After seeing that, I think I can finally die in peace,” he went on.
The man-tiger was standing by his side. He looked like he wanted nothing more than to be swallowed whole by the ground.
“They’ll have to collect your body in a bucket, I’ll have sliced you so thin,” Chuuya snarled.
“Promises, promises,” Dazai replied without looking up.
“Delete that picture.”
“Senpai,” Gin said quietly. Chuuya stopped and looked back at her—he was entirely crimson now, all the way down his neck. “The baby.”
It had squirmed anew at the sound of his raised voice. Chuuya sucked in a furious breath but stilled, his hand rubbing over the child’s back in afterthought. It pressed its face back into his neck and slept on.
Dazai looked up from his phone to watch it happen, and he seemed a little dazed too.
“I’m gonna get that phone,” Chuuya whispered angrily, “and I’m going to send it flying out of the atmosphere.”
Dazai’s lips stretched widely. “I’ve already emailed the picture to the office,” he replied.
Higuchi had an idea what sort of retort was at the tip of Dazai’s tongue now, what with the way his eyes lit up, so she cut it in the making. “Chuuya-san, we’re not allowed to attack the agency.”
“I’m breaking this shitty alliance now.”
“And risk me spilling out the mafia’s dirty laundry to the right authorities?” Dazai interjected, still grinning. “Come on, Chuuya. Surely you can handle one picture in exchange for your freedom.”
“You’d be in just as much trouble as me if you did that,” Chuuya replied through his teeth. “You’re a criminal.”
“The only criminal thing here is how adorable you look with a baby in your arms.”
“Oh my God,” Gin murmured from the back, sounding very close to gleeful. “Oh, this is gold.”
“I’m going to frame that photo,” and Dazai’s voice was faraway now, set to a reality only he was privy to. “This is maybe the best day of my life. My new birthday. I’m going to celebrate it every year from now on.”
“Please, shut up,” Chuuya breathed onto his hand. He had raised it to his face carefully, his forearm still pressed against the baby’s back, in a poor attempt to hide just how red his skin was.
“Dazai-san,” the man-tiger said awkwardly. “Um. The kid.”
The atmosphere may be broken through with nervous hilarity and crushing embarrassment, but Higuchi wasn’t out of it enough not to raise up her guard as the agency members approached. Dazai flicked her a quick lopsided grin when he noticed. He raised his hands in surrender.
“There’s a very distraught mother waiting at our office,” he said placatingly. “I think she’d appreciate it if we delivered her son back to her as soon as possible.”
There was a tense second, during which everyone stared at Dazai and Dazai himself stared at Chuuya, whose blush was finally abating.
Then—”Oh,“ Tachihara said. “Are you sure it’s…”
“The description she gave us fits, Michizou-kun. She lost him about an hour ago at the top of the slope, same stroller, same clothes…” Dazai held his chin between his fingers. “She was afraid he’d been kidnapped, but it’s likely she just forgot to secure the brakes and he rolled down the street all the way here while she was distracted. We’re in mafia territory, it’s not like a lot of people would’ve seen it.”
“That was careless of her,” Hirotsu said wisely.
“Wasn’t it?” Dazai replied. “It’s good he didn’t get hurt. And we only had to follow the sound of his crying once we got here. Thanks for not calming him down too quickly, Chuuya.”
“Go fuck yourself,” Chuuya replied sharply. “We were gonna take the kid to the police anyway, it’s not like he was in mortal danger. Stop patting yourself in the back.”
He didn’t make a move to attack or defend as he walked toward Dazai, though. Dazai watched him approach without a word, his lips still curved into a smile, his eyes glancing between Chuuya’s face and the baby he was still holding. It vanished when Chuuya tried to hand the child over to him—his expression hardened for a second before he stepped out of reach, his hands limp by his sides.
They watched each other in silence, two steps separating them.
Higuchi had done her homework since first meeting Dazai. She knew that he and Chuuya had once been a team, she was aware of the frightened rumors surrounding Double Black, she had listened as Tachihara recalled the deployments he had witnessed then, no more than a child himself. She remembered one such conversation now, seeing the way time seemed to slow around their standing figures.
“It’s like they never needed to talk,” he had told her. “Or like—well, they talked, they argued a lot, but on the field they didn’t really need to. And even when they yelled, sometimes you’d feel like there was a second conversation happening that you couldn’t hear.”
“You’re an idiot,” Chuuya said eventually. His voice had gone softer. “Well, whatever. Man-tiger,” he called, “get over here.”
Nakajima yelped. “W-what?”
Chuuya lifted the baby a little higher. “You don’t expect me to carry him all the way to the agency, do you?” he asked.
“I can’t hold a baby,” Nakajima replied, horrified.
“I swear to God, the only babies here are all of you. Some detectives you are.”
“Listen to him, Atsushi-kun,” Dazai said, not looking away from Chuuya. “He’s an expert baby-holder, as we’ve just seen. Must be the height making him feel closer to them than regular human beings.”
Chuuya marched in Nakajima’s direction with nothing more than a hiss of irritation. Nakajima seemed to have frozen in place in the second that followed, and he nodded unseeingly as Chuuya gave him quick instructions and slid the sleeping child into his arms, securing his hold for him. It was a little funny. Higuchi considered for a second taking out her phone again and snapping a picture of it to show Akutagawa later—but then Gin was elbowing her side and saying, “Look at Dazai,” lowly enough not to be overheard.
Higuchi did. Dazai was still looking at Chuuya, still smiling, still standing right as he had a second ago; yet he looked nothing at all like he had then.
He already was different now, she knew, than he had been in the pictures she had found—shorter and round-faced, with hollow eyes and bloodstained clothes. Yet in that moment his face looked painted with a different brush, with newer and warmer colors. His smile had turned to a shallower, softer curve. The skin around his eyes had creased.
He seemed strangely oblivious of the fact that he was not alone; Higuchi realized, without knowing him at all, that this was not a smile meant to be seen by others.
Gin’s phone didn’t make a sound when she took the picture.
“Really,” Higuchi muttered.
She shrugged, slipping the device back into her pocket. “It’s only retribution. We can’t let Dazai-san hold all the blackmail material.”
“He’s not the only one you’re going to blackmail with that.”
Gin tugged her mask back in place wordlessly. It was as good as a confession.
“Now get lost,” Chuuya grunted in front of them, stepping away from Nakajima. The boy looked a little pale, but his hold on the baby was secure. It hadn’t woken up during the transfer at all. “Dazai, you better not come by here again. I’ll finish you off if you do.”
“You keep saying sweet things like this and yet you never deliver.”
Chuuya managed, by some miracle, to control his temper enough to just flip him off and walk back toward them. Dazai and Nakajima turned around the corner of the building again, disappearing from sight.
The scolding that followed was not as harsh as Higuchi had expected, although she was made to bow again and again alongside the others, apologizing profusely for bothering Chuuya over something she could have handled if she only had the brains to think. Gin was silent and poorly contrite, Tachihara embarrassed beyond measure, Hirotsu quietly complacent.
On the way back to headquarters, Higuchi walked by Chuuya’s side. He was silent now, relaxed after yelling at them. He was never one hold grudges past the point of what he considered to be just reprimand. This attitude had made him popular before Higuchi even joined the mafia, and it hadn’t taken her very long to be of the same mind. There weren’t many things she was proud of and a lot more she felt helpless around; but Chuuya had never once hesitated to trust her or rely on her, and it hadn’t been six months before she was given a spare key to his place in case of emergency. As far as she knew, the only other person in the possession of one was Ozaki.
“I’m really sorry,” she couldn’t help but say again.
Chuuya blinked slowly, dragging himself out of his own thoughts. “It’s fine, Higuchi,” he replied. “I’d have probably panicked for a while if I’d found the kid on my own too.”
“It’s a shame Dazai showed up.”
“Yeah.” Chuuya’s eyes flew over her shoulder to stare at the unending see beyond, sunlight pouring over him warmly, his collar still stained from the baby’s weeping. “A shame.”
He was smiling.