Dazai wasn’t unfamiliar with human life being put to a price, or with those prices being on the high side of the scale, but even he had to admit that he had never before seen anyone willing to pay so much money for catching someone alive.
He looked at the note Akutagawa was holding up again. He whistled appreciatively. He ignored the face Akutagawa made, or Oda’s sigh at his side.
“That’s a lot for one teenager, isn’t it,” he said.
“He is gifted,” Akutagawa replied needlessly.
“He turns into a tiger. Unless you want to make his hide into a rug, I fail to see what use he could have.”
He attempted, without thought, to lean against the wall at his back; his hip flared with dull pain immediately, and this time he was the one having to hide a grimace.
Oda’s gaze weighed heavily on him.
“Maybe they really do want to make him into a rug,” he mused. “Or have him fight other animals for show. Those kinds of freaks exist all over the world.”
Akutagawa lowered his arm at last and asked, “Should I go after him?”
Dazai made a show of holding his chin thoughtfully.
He was more than a bit uncomfortable with Akutagawa being here while he was still drowsy from the medication, still in pain from the biopsy, but at least Akutagawa was always oblivious to his moods. He probably thought that his wavering gait was just another way to mock him.
The fact that his office was mostly plunged in darkness helped. Akutagawa wouldn’t notice how little he had slept even with light glaring upon them, but Dazai would rather he did not see it at all.
Still, Akutagawa had asked instead of running off on his own. That deserved some sort of a reward.
“It would be foolish of the port mafia to miss out on a bounty of seven billion yen, wouldn’t it?” he asked.
Akutagawa’s eyes lit up, as always, with the promise of violence. “I will not disappoint—”
“I’d like to figure out where this very generous offer comes from, however,” Dazai cut in. He snatched the paper from Akutagawa’s hand, walking through the pain despite his slight limp. He crossed the length of the room to stand by Oda’s desk, where the only light came from. “This report is very thorough,” he murmured, reading over it once more. “Nakajima Atsushi-kun has not lived a very happy life.”
Oda took the paper from him wordlessly. Dazai didn’t need to look at him to appreciate the shadow of disapproval his face wore as he read it as well.
“We could recruit him,” he said eventually.
Dazai almost heard the sound of Akutagawa’s teeth clenching.
“He does fit the profile, doesn’t he?”
Whoever had gathered these notes had done so in painstaking detail. From the place where Nakajima slept, from the names of his tormentors, to every kind of abuse that this buyer could get evidence of. The range of it encompassed petty brutality and outright torture alike, with no actual reason that Dazai or the warrant’s author could deduce.
“It’s a wonder they even want him,” Dazai said lowly. “Whatever use they would have of him… this boy can’t be in a good enough shape to help in any way. Mentally and physically. And if they only want to kill him, why pay so much to get him alive? It can’t be revenge.”
“Dazai-san,” Akutagawa rasped out. “The bounty?”
Dazai stayed silent for a moment. It hurt less to sit than to stand, and so he sat, at the very edge of Oda’s desk. Oda didn’t protest it, despite the paperwork Dazai crushed as he moved. This was proof enough that he knew something wasn’t right.
“They barely talk of his ability,” Oda said.
Dazai nodded. “Everything is so precise, and yet the only thing they’re willing to give out on his powers is shapeshifting. This isn’t even an exciting or unheard-of type of gift.”
“Who cares,” Akutagawa muttered, “as long as they’re willing to pay?”
“I care, Akutagawa, and this should be all you care about.”
Akutagawa’s mouth snapped shut.
“That was unnecessary,” Oda commented.
Tension ebbed out of Dazai’s shoulders. He slumped over the desk, hip aching and head fogged, and sighed into the palm of his hand. He had to fight off a yawn. Oda probably saw all of it from where he sat.
“Come here,” Dazai said tiredly. He lifted a hand, waved it between himself and Akutagawa.
Akutagawa approached with dragging steps. He still wore the coat Dazai had given him so long ago, and it did not dwarf him now; he cut a striking silhouette in the dark of the room, his feet silent on the floor, the stench of death hovering around him.
He made the port mafia proud. Dazai, in the sparks of feelings that shot through the numb nothing of each day, wished that Akutagawa made him proud also.
He still put a hand on the man’s shoulder. Still felt it stiffen as it always did, as it always would, in preparation for blows.
“It’s good that you brought this to my attention,” Dazai said, pushing some modicum of approval through his voice. “So, I’ll let you bring this boy to me. Alive, and if you can manage it, unharmed.”
“Yes, sir,” Akutagawa replied breezily.
“I’ll decide what we should do with him once I have him. I’ll leave the search to you.” His grip tightened on Akutagawa’s shoulder, not to the point of pain, yet Akutagawa tensed as if he had been struck. “You may use your sister and Higuchi of the Black Lizard for help.”
“Higuchi’s help will not be necessary.”
“You know how I feel about you overestimating yourself.”
Akutagawa stayed silent.
Dazai released his shoulder and pushed him backward lightly. Akutagawa fell obediently, putting between them just enough distance that Dazai could turn his head aside and not have to see him.
“Don’t mess this up,” he concluded, gesturing toward the door.
He didn’t look at all as Akutagawa left.
He waited, sat atop hard wood and blinking sleep out of his eyes, for Oda to speak up. When he did, Dazai smiled.
“For you, that was almost nice.”
“Please let the day I’m nice to Akutagawa be the day you make use of those guns of yours for real,” Dazai replied.
Oda leaned back in his chair. Dazai looked at him over his shoulder and found him sticking a cigarette between his lips, readying himself to taint the stale air with the stink of tobacco. “You know you don’t have to be such an asshole to him,” was all he said.
Oda was ever-so-good at passing judgment; and his judgment weighed more in the scales of Dazai’s own morality than anything Dazai himself ever did.
Today’s verdict was not so heavy, so Dazai hopped off the desk, stumbled to stay upright, and declared, “Let’s drink.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Oda replied immediately.
“Mori gave me the rest of the day off and you think I shouldn’t use it to drink?”
Oda’s eyes roamed over him carefully. “Mori gave you the rest of the day off because he did something to you again and he thinks you need to sleep it off,” he said. “So sleep it off. You can barely walk.”
“I hate anesthetics,” Dazai mumbled, catching himself against the desk. “My brain is so slow I can actually feel myself think.”
Dazai chuckled dryly. Oda smiled, brief and still weirdly solemn, before rising from his desk and catching one of Dazai’s arms around his shoulder. He pocketed the hunt order for Nakajima Atsushi with his other hand.
“What did he take this time?” he asked, exhaling smoke with every word. “More blood? Skin?”
Dazai leaned against him, comforting himself with the smell, with the warmth, with the never-ending wonder of having someone who could touch him like that without eliciting the urge to flee.
“Bone marrow,” he replied drowsily.
“Still not willing to tell me what he’s planning to do with all that?”
Dazai smiled and did not answer.
He enjoyed the walk to his quarters more than he should have, considering the pain. There was something about having Oda half-carry him, about allowing himself to flirt with sleep upright and in public, that kept the hollow of him warm. Oda used his key to open Dazai’s apartment; he helped Dazai out of his shoes, then put on the same slippers he always did to drag him inside. He went so far as to lay Dazai on his bed and pat his shoulder gently.
His hand came to his pocket again. Dazai heard the cracking-shuffling sound of paper as he fiddled with the warrant in it.
“Don’t worry,” he slurred, pushing his face into his pillow. “I’m not going to sell that kid.”
“I thought so,” Oda replied. He took the warrant out of his pocket and flattened it against his thigh one-handedly. “So what are you gonna do with him?”
“I was thinking he’d make a good playmate for Akutagawa.”
Oda snorted softly.
It made Dazai want to smile again. This idea was still at the hatching phase, still messy with half-thought plans and nothing more than his intuition to run, but it wasn’t a joke. He sighed and said, “I want you to find out who this buyer is.”
“If Akutagawa is successful, we’ll figure out what’s really behind Nakajima Atsushi’s ability on our own. It can’t just be that he turns into a white tiger. Not with the amount of detail these guys dug up about the life of one orphan.”
He waited for Oda’s question, staring blankly at the taupe wall that the head of his bed rested against. His hip throbbed steadily.
“Should we go to the special ability department with this?”
Dazai closed his eyes. “You know you won’t find Ango even if you go to them,” he muttered.
“There’s only one way some outsider could’ve found so much information about an ability user in Yokohama, Dazai.”
“I know. But Ango won’t show up for some small-fry shapeshifter, not even if someone from inside the department leaked the information.”
Ango had stayed too carefully hidden. So very carefully hidden that for the past four years, it seemed he had vanished from the surface of the earth entirely. Dazai had found no trace of him; Mori had found no trace of him; the ministry was so tight-lipped with his name that each liaison agent they sent to the port mafia seemed to suffer from localized amnesia.
If Chuuya hadn’t killed Taneda and found a way to not only tamper with the department’s heavily-guarded archives, but also cut its access off from the department itself, this probably wouldn’t have happened.
Dazai still wondered, occasionally, how in the world he had done that within ten hours of his defection. Within ten hours of using Corruption and being shot point-blank and losing—
“Don’t tell the department about this, Odasaku,” he said, rubbing the side of his right index with his thumb, massaging sudden stiffness away. “They’ll probably just end up taking the kid for themselves and claiming the bounty. No one’s more thirsty for money than government-approved gifted groups.”
“Right,” Oda replied quietly. “If you think so.”
Dazai nodded. He wrapped an arm around his pillow, wincing through the ache of both finger and hip. He listened to Oda’s footsteps as he left, all the way to the entrance of his home. He heard the lock fit in place and allowed himself to breathe.
Sleep claimed him quickly, but it wasn’t kind. It wasn’t peaceful.
Twelve hours, and Atsushi was still sore through all of his body. He followed the man named Kunikida through the streets of the city, nose tickling from the cold, smelling snow on the very air. Yokohama shone with the same bright winter light that had bathed the courtyard of the orphanage year after year, and Atsushi felt his hands sting with remembered pain, even through the leather gloves he now wore.
“Sorry about that,” Kunikida said, gesturing for him to enter the red-bricked café they had come to. He must have noticed how tentative Atsushi’s steps were. “We had to taser you—the tiger—for a while so you’d turn back.”
Atsushi knew that. Kunikida’s partner, Tayama, had spent the better part of the evening apologizing profusely for it.
The warmth inside the café hit him all at once, sticking him to his spot by the door and scorching over every bit of his exposed skin. He fidgeted, waiting for Kunikida to unwrap the scarf wound around his own neck so that he would lead the way. Atsushi wasn’t exactly sure how one was supposed to act inside a café, or even why he had been invited to one by Kunikida knocking on the door of the dorm room he had borrowed at eight o’clock sharp.
“Take a seat, kid,” Kunikida murmured, checking his watch distractedly.
Atsushi looked around nervously. The place didn’t seem too populated—only two booths were occupied, one by a pair of student-age youth, one by someone so bundled up that Atsushi had no way of guessing so much as their gender. Above the line of the collar riding up to their nose, their eyes were steel-grey.
He looked away, shivering, and asked, “Um, where?”
“Mmh?” Kunikida raised his head. “Oh, near those two. They’re the Tanizaki siblings, they work at the agency too.”
He pointed at the younger people. Atsushi would have preferred to sit alone if at all, but he figured it was better than that stranger dressed all in black. Kunikida left him to it, making his own way toward the counter, engaging the old man standing behind it in a low-voiced conversation.
“Hi,” said the boy with orange hair, once Atsushi sat gingerly in front of him. “You’re Atsushi-kun, right? Katai briefed us on what happened last night.”
“That’s me,” Atsushi mumbled. “And you…?”
“Tanizaki Junichirou. This is my sister Naomi.” The girl sitting next to him, who was staring at Atsushi with rapt attention, smiled somewhat darkly. “Kunikida-san said you were interested in joining?” Tanizaki asked. His grin was friendlier, and Atsushi felt his face warm.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I just—he said it would be better, for me. To be in a group.”
Tanizaki nodded slowly. “I don’t know how much you know about abilities, but yeah, it’s generally better for us to join organizations like the agency. Especially for you, since you’ve been deemed a public threat.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” said Kunikida’s voice. He had joined them with no warning, and Atsushi almost jumped at the sound of his voice. When he looked up, Kunikida was staring at the booth behind theirs where Atsushi knew the only other patron sat. He was frowning. “You’ve given us ungodly amounts of paperwork, but it’s hardly your fault, and as it turns out you haven’t actually hurt anyone.”
That was a relief. Atsushi had carried that fear since first hearing the words ‘man-eating tiger’.
Kunikida sat down next to him, forcing Atsushi to scoop closer to the window at his left to make room on the couch. He placed a steaming cup in front of him, and Atsushi had to take a second to understand that he was meant to drink it.
The cup shook against the saucer when he brought it to his lips, but at least the tea was good. It burned away the last icy dregs from outside, soothed some of the aches that still rang through his body.
“Are you both gifted too, then?” Atsushi asked the siblings, and they laughed in answer.
“Brother is, not me,” Tanizaki Naomi replied with a grin. “His ability is very useful.”
“It’s nothing much,” Tanizaki muttered, face pink. “Not really suited for combat.”
“Not,” Kunikida said in a clipped tone, “that the agency deals in much combat. We’re detectives first and foremost, kid. You won’t have to participate in any fighting if you don’t want to.”
“You really want him to join, huh.”
Kunikida seemed to take offense at Naomi’s remark, but Atsushi paid little mind to it. He already knew he wanted to join, if only because Tayama and Kunikida had been so kind to him the previous night, even with Kunikida’s complaints—if only because they had managed to contain him and prevent him from harming anyone. Being given someplace warm to sleep, new clothes, and food helped as well.
Atsushi wondered if all the members he had met the night before were equally selfless.
“Where’s Tayama-san?” he heard himself ask.
“Home today,” Kunikida answered. “He works remotely most of the time.”
“He’s getting better, though, isn’t he?” Naomi interjected. She was toying with her own drink, some outrageous chocolate thing covered in whipped cream that spilled over the rim and rolled down the stained glass in big dollops. “A year ago he couldn’t go out at all.”
“He’s got issues,” Tanizaki said to Atsushi, no doubt catching his curiosity. “Ask him about it if you want, he usually doesn’t mind.”
“It’s none of my business,” Atsushi mumbled.
Tanizaki shrugged. “Everything is kind of everyone’s business here.”
Atsushi wasn’t sure how much he liked the sound of that.
Kunikida tapped a nail against his own cup of tea. The sound rang clearly in the space they all shared, and Naomi moved as if prompted, nudging her brother out of the way and murmuring, “Bathroom,” with a wink in Atsushi’s direction.
Atsushi watched her more attentively than perhaps necessary. Something about her posture kept him alert, made the sudden and weighty silence unfold slowly, thickly. It trailed goosebumps along his arms. She took the direction of a wooden door left of the counter, where a sign indicated the toilet was, and Atsushi followed her with his eyes, brow tense and mouth downturned—that was when he realized the only other occupant of the café had moved as well.
They walked quickly enough that they were behind Naomi in less than a second; and Atsushi had barely that much time to formulate a warning in the confines of his mouth, to part his lips and let out a strangled sound, before the stranger’s hand came out of their pocket holding a knife.
Kunikida was on his feet almost instantly. Tanizaki swallowed back what sounded like a cry. The bartender moaned, dropping the glass he was holding, and the sound of breaking glass sharpened the world into motion again.
The stranger grabbed Naomi by the hair; they put the knife at her throat and ordered, in a rough, low voice, “Sit the fuck down.”
“Brother,” Naomi whimpered.
The person—man, probably, though they were shorter than her by a bare centimeter—tugged harder at her hair, forcing her to bend her head back and expose more of her neck. The blade dug deeply enough into her skin that Atsushi could see it crease around it from where he sat.
Saliva pooled in his mouth, bitter from bile and fear alike.
“I’m going to kill you,” Tanizaki growled at the man. “I’m going to tear you piece by piece—”
“Tanizaki,” Kunikida cut in harshly. “Shut up and sit down.”
Tanizaki stayed standing for a second longer, eyes wide and pale with fury, before obeying. His knees cracked under the action; his tendons were so visible above his collarbone, pushing so starkly outward, that the strap of his undershirt chafed his skin red.
Kunikida sat as well, once he was sure Tanizaki would not move. Atsushi watched, paralyzed, as the eyes of the man holding a knife to Naomi’s neck colored with amusement. “Good,” he said, in that same smooth-raspy voiced he had used earlier. It sounded too deep for someone of his stature, Atsushi thought faintly. “Now we can talk.”
“If your business is with the agency, please feel free to take me hostage instead,” Kunikida said, voice sharper than Atsushi had ever heard it. “That girl is only a part-time desk employee—whatever grief you have with us, she can’t be—”
“I’m keeping the girl,” the stranger replied curtly. “I don’t want this one,” he pointed to Tanizaki with the knife before placing it back on Naomi’s neck, “to use his bothersome gift on me. My grip my just slip if he does.”
Tanizaki’s face was completely red with rage by now.
Kunikida had raised his hands in surrender earlier. They faltered slightly at the man’s words. “So you know who we are,” he said.
“Yeah. Speaking of, I want all of you lined up in front of me. That barkeep too. Keep your hands where I can see them.” Once again, he gestured with the knife, so close to Naomi’s face that Atsushi’s blood ran cold with fear that he would accidentally cut her.
Knife wounds were some of the most painful he had ever suffered.
“You first, Kunikida.”
“Okay,” Kunikida replied tightly. “Okay, just don’t hurt her.”
Only the man’s eyes were visible, but he looked like he was smiling. Atsushi followed behind Kunikida with his own hands raised. He eyed the frightened look Naomi wore and thought, I wish I could turn into a tiger right now.
His heart was beating so fast in his chest that he could feel skin flutter at the hollow of his throat. His nape felt damp, his muscles ached from being tasered the night before, and every step he took felt like a thousand.
“Atsushi,” Kunikida said from the edge of his lips, right as the stranger turned his head aside to order the bartender around, “I need you to distract him.”
He stepped on Atsushi’s foot before Atsushi could yelp or suck in an undignified breath.
“Just talk to him,” he whispered furiously. “Tanizaki and I will take care of the rest.”
“But I can’t—”
“Silence,” the masked man ordered.
Atsushi shook through his body with the way his voice rang. The man looked at him, grey eyes glinting in the hooded light; and Atsushi watched the easy grip he had around the knife, the fold of Naomi’s skin where the blade connected with her, ready to tear through, and suddenly, he found his voice.
“W-Why are you doing this?”
The bartender was still whimpering slightly. Naomi had fallen silent, but her eyes were pleading. Tanizaki’s worry and anger could be breathed through the air.
The stranger either noticed none of it or didn’t have a care in the world. He tilted his head aside and said, “I don’t know you.”
“I’m,” Atsushi said.
He choked a bit. He had prepared no excuse, no plan whatsoever.
Distract him, he repeated to himself.
“I’m a, a friend of Tanizaki-san’s—”
“Why should I care?”
Atsushi breathed in shakily. “Why are you hurting her?” he asked again.
“I want to teach the armed detective agency a lesson,” the man replied flatly. “I suppose I can tell you as much, since you’ll be dead shortly.”
Terror seized control of Atsushi’s body, then. He shook so hard where he stood that his first step forward was a stumble, that every step that followed was him barely catching himself upright, resisting the pull of the floor. He wanted to fall and never stand up again. He wanted to curl into a ball in age-old defensive instinct.
“Step back!” the man ordered, shaking Naomi by the hair once more. She cried out a small, terrified sob.
“Please,” Atsushi stuttered, “whatever you’re upset about, you can’t just kill people—”
Several things happened at once.
Naomi opened her mouth wide and bit down on the hand keeping the knife level with her neck, now that it had faltered slightly. Kunikida grabbed Atsushi by the collar of his shirt. Tanizaki sprung forward like a leaping beast, arms stretched outward and face twisted.
And the masked man bent at the knee so quickly that Atsushi barely saw him; he picked up the fallen knife with his unarmed hand, kicked Naomi savagely aside, and plunged the blade deep in Tanizaki’s guts.
Atsushi stopped breathing.
He didn’t hear the scream Tanizaki must have let out, nor the agonized, “Brother!” that Naomi bellowed. His ears rang like they would after a blow to the head, after being shoved head-first into a wall. He didn’t move as Kunikida put a hand over his eyes and muttered something lowly, didn’t react as bright light overcame the dining room, stopped only by the fingers keeping his eyelids closed.
When Kunikida released him, he fell to his knees.
By some miracle, Kunikida reached the masked man before he could stand up again. He was stumbling, rubbing his eyes with his bleeding hand. Kunikida stuck him to the floor with one knee pressed against his lower back, ripping away the black beanie the man wore to fist his hand into equally black hair—and Atsushi slowly, haltingly turned his head toward where Tanizaki lay. He wasn’t moving at all.
“How could you,” Kunikida whispered, voice rough with emotion.
On the floor under him, the masked man chuckled. “This is all you deserve.”
“Atsushi, go put pressure on Tanizaki’s wound, call the emergency number in his phone—”
“I don’t think so.”
Whatever the masked man did knocked Kunikida off of him; as Kunikida managed to grab him again, one arm locked around his opponent’s throat to choke him, the man curled an arm around himself and extended it forward too quick, too fast, for Atsushi to see more than the glint of the now-flying knife.
It was headed toward Naomi.
Atsushi would have liked to think that he went over things in his head; he would have loved to believe that his actions were the result of selflessness, or stupidity, or carefully-planned rescue; but he heard the voices in his head, he felt the lessons he had been taught burn over his skin like fire-wounds, and he leaped forward with greater speed than should be humanly possible.
He landed between Naomi and the knife, breathless, and closed his eyes.
The knife never pierced through any part of his body. Instead the stranger’s voice came again, much less frightening than before: “That ought to do it, right?”
“Yes,” Kunikida replied. “Thank you, Kashiwamura.”
“No problem, but don’t call me that.”
“What,” Atsushi breathed, eyes still tightly shut.
It was Tanizaki’s amused, “It’s all okay now, Atsushi-kun,” that convinced him to open them, gasping.
Tanizaki was standing on his own feet, completely unharmed. Atsushi glimpsed flecks of green light around him, like snow, vanishing as quickly as they shone. He had to take a moment and stare at him, still without air, to truly believe that he wasn’t bleeding out of his belly. His sweater didn’t even look torn.
“What,” he repeated weakly.
Naomi giggled. She entered his line of sight, standing close to her brother and ruffling his hair affectionately; on her other side, Kunikida was standing next to the man who had attacked them all.
The high collar he had worn over the bottom half of his face was lowered. Atsushi saw the shape of his grin, the patch of white gauze stuck high on one of his cheekbones. “That was kind of ballsy, getting in the way of the knife,” the man said. “When they tested me I just straight up socked Yosano in the jaw.”
“Is she still mad at you for it?” Naomi giggled.
“None of your damn business.”
Atsushi sucked in a painful breath. It seemed his lungs had to relearn how to work after the shock of what just happened. “What’s going on?” he asked again.
Kunikida cleared his throat. He took a notebook out of his pocket; scribbled a few notes down. “There is an entrance test that all prospective members of the agency must pass,” he explained in what Atsushi was starting to recognize as his business voice, very different from the tense fear and ruthless reactivity he had shown moments ago. “Each one has to prove their willingness to protect human life.”
“A test,” Atsushi said faintly.
Kunikida nodded. “A test.”
“So he’s not really…” He gestured, shakily, toward where the formerly-masked man stood.
“Don’t call me that, and no, I’m not actually here to kill you,” the man cut in. “The name’s Chuuya. I’m a member too.”
“Chuuya-san’s kind of terrifying, so we thought he’d be ideal for it,” Naomi added. “Plus no one else wanted to terrorize you, poor thing.”
Chuuya made a face, as if deliberating whether her comment was worth getting angry over. In the end he shook his head and dragged the collar-scarf thing above himself, taking it off. He ran a hand through his own hair with a grimace and said, “I’m disgusting. I’m going home if you guys don’t need me anymore.”
“You still need to cover Kenji’s afternoon shift.”
“This is only the seventh time you remind me, Kunikida, I got it. Stop getting your panties in a twist.”
Kunikida spluttered. Chuuya grinned wolfishly and stepped away.
He stopped beside Atsushi on his way, patting him on the shoulder only once; Atsushi didn’t flinch back, but Chuuya looked as if he had noticed that he wanted to anyway. “Sorry about that,” he said in a low voice. “I wasn’t actually gonna hurt any of you.”
“I know,” Atsushi replied warily.
Chuuya looked him in the eye for a moment longer. His were not grey, Atsushi realized, but blue.
The rest of the day sped by too quickly for Atsushi to properly register. He was dragged up the flights of stairs inside the same building that the café occupied, introduced to all the people he had met the night before and to a few more again—such as the director, Fukuzawa, and his secretary, Haruno. He was given a desk and schedule. He was offered to stay at the dorm free of charge. He saw smiles directed his way, and polite enquiries, and admiration for what he had done the same morning.
He forgot to feel shame for the reason he had done it.
“Who is he?” he found himself asking Tanizaki sometime during the afternoon, as the man from this morning, Chuuya, went through files over his crossed legs. Kunikida had not stopped eyeing him with something akin to disapproval; judging by the lack of reaction from everyone else, this was a common sight.
“Chuuya-san?” Tanizaki replied. At Atsushi’s nod, he said, “He’s one of our non-gifted members. He’s one hell of a martial artist, though, and he’s really good at catching criminals. If you’re lucky you’ll get to see him and Kunikida-san spar.”
He laughed quietly at his own words, looking fond, before getting distracted by his work once more. Atsushi looked over the papers he was supposed to finish filling out by the end of the day and touched none of them.
His eyes kept going back to Kashiwamura Chuuya.
Maybe it was because he had first seen the man dressed like a criminal himself, body wrought in black and eyes glinting with malice, that he could not fully relax in his presence. Maybe he could not find him non-threatening, not for his short height and not for his quick smiles, because he had seen him hold a knife with more ease than the Headmaster ever had. His appearance was nothing out of the ordinary now, if one dismissed the white gauze over his cheek; short black hair and a rumpled suit, something Atsushi had seen multiple times in many men of the city, and yet…
And yet, Atsushi shivered at the sight of him the way he had upon meeting his steely eyes in the café for the first time. He saw the bruised skin under them; he felt how off his presence was in the warmth of the office, like static in an old film, like sepia stains on pictures. Like a monochrome patch of space.
Chuuya had once lived nowhere at all.
He held only a handful of memories of the woman who had birthed him and the decrepit studio they both shared. What he remembered was dream-like, blurred at the edges and tasting of rotten sheets. His mother had been absent a lot and violent the rest of the time; she had no name that he could voice, no face that he could see. At most she was a shadow. Any feelings he might have held for her were blunted by the years.
He didn’t consider that he had lived there at all. He could not remember what had first put him in the system, if she had died or if he had been taken away from her; all he knew was that after the fifth foster he tried to call father raised a hand on him, he had no hope left for parenthood. Some people were better off raising themselves.
Chuuya had lived nowhere—in a studio, then in the houses of strangers, then in the streets—and he had lived in a mansion. He had owned a room all his. He had grown, and thrived, and found his place in the world. He had learned that although he would never name anyone father or mother, he could still call someone family.
He had not known true homelessness before losing that.
The apartment he shared with Katai was at the very opposite end of the city, as far from the port as one could be. Chuuya shoved his key into the lock and pushed against the door, which chose to be more difficult today than usual. He kept his irritation at bay, habit and paranoia alike reminding him not to use the Tainted Sorrow to make the job of opening it easier—or break it altogether. He had to struggle with it for a good ten seconds before it finally gave in.
“Shitty fucking thing,” he muttered, dropping his keys on the kitchen table.
“Stop insulting our door,” Katai replied from where he sat on the couch, entirely wrapped in blankets.
“It insulted me first.” A breath, and Chuuya felt his nose twist in disgust. “Fuck, have you not opened any window all day?”
Katai didn’t answer, but he folded in on himself a little tighter. The only light in the room came out of the laptop sitting in front of him. It shone off his glasses, sinister.
Chuuya opened the window above the couch, causing Katai to shrink even further and yelp, “It’s cold.”
“And this place smells like hot garbage,” Chuuya replied. “Where were you this morning?”
Katai’s following words were indecipherable, muffled through the blanket and his own lack of will to share. Chuuya rolled his eyes and tugged the blanket off of him sharply.
“I said I was meeting with Sasaki-san,” Katai whined, trying and failing to grab onto the fabric. Chuuya let it fall back onto him. “I don’t know why she insists on meeting with me, it’s you she’s doing business with.”
Chuuya had to smile at that. “You can’t even guess?” he replied.
Katai looked at him with wide eyes.
As amusing as Katai not realizing that a woman found him cute was, Chuuya felt a little too tired to indulge in teasing. He let himself sit into a kitchen chair with less grace than necessary. His fingers twitched without need for thought, and the pair of dirty chopsticks that Katai must have used for lunch flickered red in the shadow, floating gently above the table.
He made them turn around each other with vague thought, letting his ability flow through him as it too rarely did.
“Are you okay?” Katai asked.
He had been staring, Chuuya realized. He schooled his face into something more relaxed and shrugged. The chopsticks fell into the sink with a soft clicking noise. “Just tired,” he replied. “This place exhausts me.”
Katai didn’t go into his usual, stammering spiel that his regular checks revealed no proof of Chuuya having been discovered, but his face said it all. Chuuya looked away without a word.
Yokohama was stifling in a way Katai would never understand. Chuuya did not dare take a train or drive a car. He did not go anywhere he hadn’t checked a dozen times for evidence of old acquaintances being around. He walked to the agency every morning for a half hour, came back at night the same way, and had to move each of his limbs through tension, tasting blood on his tongue, hearing guns in the distance.
He could go nowhere without feeling like Dazai could walk out of every door he passed on his way. Six months since he had come back, and he still thought every far-off voice was his, every silhouette on a rainy day that of his body.
Chuuya scraped the skin off his lip with his teeth until it ached; running a hand through his hair, he asked, “So what did Sasaki say?” in as conversational a voice as he could manage.
“Same as usual,” Katai replied. He sounded sympathetic, which Chuuya chose to ignore. “She says Ango’s still in hiding.”
Sakaguchi’s name lodged itself through Chuuya’s chest like ice. The feeling was as familiar as it was hated.
“And the port mafia?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary, but Chuuya—”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
Katai hesitated, but Chuuya knew he now believed—within right—that he would not be harmed no matter what he said. He was somber as he spoke, but not worried. “You know where to find the port mafia. They’re not moving away anytime soon.”
“I don’t want them to know I’m here before I find Sakaguchi,” Chuuya replied.
“Ango’s not going to let himself be found until they find you first.”
“Why do you even care?” Chuuya snapped.
The way Katai jumped back made guilt tighten in his throat, but Chuuya was still too wrecked by his evening walk, by the feeling of having the agency’s newest member look at him as if he were a ticking bomb, to apologize just yet.
“You’re still hoping I’ll just fit in with everyone at work and be happy with my life,” he said. “That’s not going to happen and you know it.”
“You’re the one who said you wanted to join,” Katai replied weakly.
Maybe this argument had been brewing since the start, Chuuya thought. Maybe he had put off having it for too long, because Katai had been so genuinely relieved to hear from him all those months ago, because he liked the people he worked with against all reason, because Fukuzawa had heard his story and looked at him without judgment and hired him.
Maybe he had grown weak.
“You know there’s only one reason I came back,” he went on. “I’m not forcing you to help me, you’re doing that on your own.”
“But I don’t know,” Katai said more heatedly. “You’ve never actually told me.”
Chuuya felt his mouth twist in poor imitation of a smile. Katai knew more about him than anyone alive he was willing to talk to.
“Chuuya,” Katai called. He rose from the couch and shuffled closer, his slippers soft against the wooden floor. “I can guess what you’re planning, but it’s not going to…”
Chuuya waited, anger coiled tightly through him, stale air filling his lungs.
Thankfully, Katai shifted away from what he originally wanted to say. “I’m helping you now,” he muttered, “I’ll make sure you’re not found out yet, but I draw the line at—at violence. If you’re really trying to kill more people, I’m not going to help you. I thought you wanted to get out of that life.”
“I don’t need your help,” Chuuya replied flatly.
“I know you don’t. I’m just telling you how I feel.”
Silence hovered tensely; then all the air flew out of Chuuya’s lungs at once. He slumped over the table, holding his forehead with one hand, thumbing over the gauze on his cheek to feel the edges of the thick scar under it. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I’m not going to ask more stuff out of you. I can move somewhere else if you want.”
He heard the chair opposite him crack as Katai sat in it. “I don’t want you to move out,” he said. “I’m just worried about you.”
Chuuya smiled, hidden in the space between his arm and the tabletop.
“You don’t sleep, you barely eat, you don’t socialize—”
“This is so fucking rich coming from you, Katai.”
“I do socialize,” Katai protested. Chuuya looked at him over his hand and found him flushed, the red visible on his face even across the unlit room. “I have tons of friends now.”
“Your gamer pals don’t count.”
“Now see, the only reason you think that is because you’ve never played a video game in your life.”
Laughter pushed itself out of Chuuya’s lungs, helpless and a little warm. He found Katai wearing an answering smile; the kind of nervous, genuine sympathy that had stayed Chuuya’s hand four years ago before he could strike him.
This silence was not so heavy. Chuuya leaned back in the chair, unsticking the gauze from his face and touching the torn skin under it with thoughtless fingers. It tingled at the contact, not painful but not far from it. Katai watched him do it wordlessly.
“I’m not here to make friends,” Chuuya said eventually. “And they wouldn’t want to be my friends either if they knew anything about me.”
“Maybe they would,” Katai replied.
“Not everyone can be as weird as you.”
“This reminds me,” and Katai’s voice was a higher pitch now, his face lit with brighter feelings than before, “you met Atsushi-kun, didn’t you?”
“The tiger kid?” Chuuya flew the dirty bowl on the table toward the sink as he had the chopsticks earlier. He’d have to take care of that later as well. “Yeah, Naomi said I should be the one to test him,” he said, pushing himself out of his chair. “He passed with flying colors, by the way. Threw himself in the way of a damn knife.”
“Kunikida told me about that. I thought he was a sweet kid when we met.”
“You had night terrors about him attacking you.”
“That wasn’t his fault, was it?” Katai replied defensively. “It’s not like he can control it.”
That had been a little familiar, a little bittersweet, when Katai had first told him of the shapeshifting boy the night before. He had still been shaking then, scratched at the elbows from falling when the tiger had leaped at him, or so Kunikida had said. Katai hadn’t even protested the tea Chuuya made him. Usually he always found it oversteeped.
A boy with anger shining at the back of his wide eyes. A boy with an ability he had no control over, with a life he had little choice in.
“At least now that should be fixed,” Chuuya said lowly, bending over the sink. “No more rampaging around as an animal at night.”
From the pit of his stomach came a long-forgotten rumble. It spread through his veins languidly; it blackened the edges of his sight.
Chuuya closed his eyes and ordered the beast back to sleep.