Warnings: very vague allusion to potential sexual assault (no actual assault takes place).
Something about the air that day should have given Chuuya warning.
The sky had opened sometime during the night, letting through needles of starlight. He had spent those unslept hours pouring over the files obtained through Sasaki, listening to the whispers of the city and the soft murmur of Katai’s snoring. Katai never did close his bedroom door fully. The change in weather had resulted in a sun-bright morning, colder maybe for it than it would have been through the thick of clouds.
Chuuya was too used to insomnia by now for it to bother him. He showered leisurely as the city awoke, scorching water unknotting his back and flattening his hair against his scalp. The bangs over his forehead were almost long enough to reach his eyes; he’d have to take care of that soon.
He brushed his teeth, dried himself, put on clean clothes. He glanced at his fogged reflection in the mirror; he traced the ugly scar on his cheekbone habitually, feeling the depth and width of it with his index finger; he plastered gauze on it, hiding it from view.
“You’re always up so early,” Katai mumbled when he emerged from the bathroom.
He was stumbling half-blindly toward the couch, a bowl of cereal threatening to spill its content in hand. Chuuya kept it from doing so without thought, milk turning pink under the glow of his power until Katai was seated at last. His roommate thanked him with what sounded more like a groan than an actual word. The TV lit up without any of them touching the remote—whose location had long been forgotten by both of them anyway.
“Gotta get to the agency early anyway,” Chuuya said, grabbing his coat from where it hung on the back of a kitchen chair. “I said I’d help Yosano sort through the archives.”
“Mrrph,” was Katai’s answer. His mouth was full.
“See you later.”
Katai swallowed hurriedly. “Tell them I’ll be around at ten! I promised Kunikida I’d take Atsushi out on his first mission.”
Chuuya waved at him and left, the door creaking loudly behind him.
The outside air hit him like an ice wall once he exited the building. Everywhere he looked people were walking by, scarves wound around their faces and hats pulled over their ears. Chuuya tightened his collar around his throat in a meager attempt to ward off the cold, his scarred cheek flaring with pain under the dry and icy wind. Not even his leather gloves could prevent it from filtering in like tiny little knives, their tips pricking his fingers to numbness. Walking did little to keep him warm that day.
“Hey,” Yosano greeted him once he hurried inside the office.
“You turned on the heaters,” he huffed, tugging off his gloves. “Thank fuck.”
“I’m not about to work in a freezer, am I?”
He shot her an absent smile. It seemed they were the only ones in yet; Kunikida’s desk was stacked neatly with the files of the day, not yet opened for perusal, and Edogawa’s wasn’t yet covered in wrappings or empty bottles of soft drinks.
A loud thumping sound broke him out of his observations. He turned back toward Yosano, standing near the newbie’s—Nakajima’s—desk with several piles of old carton binders. Some were so full of documents that only thick rubber bands held them together, their spine long torn or gone away.
Chuuya frowned. “Is that it?”
“Oh no,” Yosano replied, smiling darkly. “That’s just the first row. We’re going in alphabetical order.”
They sat on either side of the desk and went to work.
The good thing with Yosano was that she valued silence. As flashy as her personality could be given the right circumstances, as dark as her words and eyes could get, she was an accommodating woman. Their interactions easily reduced themselves to asking each other for one file or the next, she telling him what to do and he requesting her advice. The rest was comfortable and quiet in the soft, curtained light, their side warmed by the wall heater and paper shuffling between their fingers. If comments there were, they were equally peaceful. Chuuya couldn’t imagine working with any other member of the agency with such ease. Kunikida would be tense by his side as he always was, Katai nervous and distracted, the Tanizaki siblings or Miyazawa playful. He preferred not to think at all of working with Edogawa.
The others trickled in one by one—or two, in the Tanizakis’ case. Chuuya let their greetings go unanswered, though Yosano took the time to salute each of them. He filtered through the archives, noting down the ones to be copied by hand or on a screen, putting aside those too damaged to be read by anyone but Yosano herself.
“This is gonna take us weeks,” he muttered once they reached the bottom of the third stack Yosano had brought out of the archive room. “Some of this stuff isn’t even from the agency.”
“My old clinic,” Yosano replied. “I still see some of the patients. And Fukuzawa brought in relics of his work to get the agency opened in the first place, alongside Souseki’s own stuff. Plus a ton of other things from the previous occupants of this floor.”
“Loan sharks,” Chuuya said. He’d never been very good at numbers, but he knew suspicious money exchanges when he saw them. Not to mention a few familiar names.
Yosano frowned. “I thought they worked in real estate.”
“Loan sharks parading as real estate agents, then. It’s not unheard of.”
“Bringing back memories?”
Chuuya hadn’t stooped so low as to startle, but the sound of Edogawa’s voice was always an unwelcome one. He eyed with disdain the mug full of hot cocoa that the man put on the desk beside them—firmly enough that droplets of the beverage stained the old documents brown in places, he noticed irritatedly—and then his face, once he had brought close a chair and sat in it. “Morning, sensei,” Edogawa chirped, his piercing eyes fixed on Chuuya.
“Hey,” Yosano replied. “How’s it going?”
“Good, good. Excellent, even.”
Chuuya once more thanked Yosano, internally, for her tact. He had no doubt that she had heard Edogawa’s comment, as she must have all the comments he had made since Chuuya had joined the agency, but as usual she paid it no mind at all. She simply went back to her work.
It gave him the energy to withstand Edogawa’s stare. “Are you gonna help us?” he asked.
“No,” Edogawa answered happily.
“Then fuck off.”
“That’s no way to talk to a senior,” Kunikida declared, announcing his arrival and making a beeline for his desk. “Ranpo-san, Yosano-sensei, good morning.” His eyes landed on Chuuya. “Kashiwamura,” he added.
“Not my name,” Chuuya said.
Kunikida’s face pinched into some sort of pained expression. It was becoming a permanent fixture every time they interacted.
Though by now the exchange was more game than anything else, at least for Chuuya, he still didn’t enjoy being called by that name. It hadn’t been his since he was only a boy, hadn’t been his when Kouyou had forged a new one for him and he had adopted it into the depth of his heart like a secret treasure, a bounty of love and acceptance, the kind he had never felt before.
It was a weakness. He knew it. Having most everyone he met call him by his first name was easily done, but it wasn’t something he should do. Not anymore. He might as well have introduced himself as Nakahara to them, for all that his birth mother’s name was worth as a disguise.
Pain rang hollowly through his chest at the thought of Kouyou, images flashing through his mind as they did every time he slept, every time he let down his guard—the mansion floor awash with sticky blood, her ashen face and limp hair and torn clothes as he stood, still, in the knowledge that he had been too late.
Her cold hand in his as he forgot how to breathe.
It grew inside him like a weed, rotted his heart and lungs with the acrid bite of anger, burned his words to ash at the back of his throat.
Mori Ougai. Sakaguchi Ango.
His eyes landed on the timid silhouette of Nakajima Atsushi, who had trailed into the office behind Kunikida like a scared cat. The boy hadn’t addressed him a word since Chuuya had run his entrance exam, which might have been understandable for someone without the guts to throw themself into the way of a flying knife; yet that had been almost a week ago. Nakajima had opened up to almost everyone else, the eldest Tanizaki especially. He hadn’t stopped looking at Chuuya with worry tensing up his shoulders.
“Hey,” Chuuya called out to him.
The boy jumped as if electrified.
“Er, me?” he said weakly.
“Yeah.” Chuuya turned around in his chair to look at him more closely. Now that he thought about it, he and Yosano were occupying the boy’s desk. No one else’s had enough room for them to sort through the thick binders. “Katai says he’ll be here later to take you out. Show you the ropes. A client has an appointment with us, something about smugglers around her neighborhood.”
“Oh.” The boy blinked, some of his fear abating, probably out of understanding that Chuuya was not about to try and stab him again. “That’s great, then. I need to apologize to him.”
“No need for that. I’m sure he doesn’t even think about it anymore.”
Or at least, Katai had stopped having night terrors about a great white tiger and taking refuge at the foot of Chuuya’s bed for protection.
“Still,” Nakajima mumbled.
There was nothing else Chuuya could think of saying. Nakajima’s eyes had lowered, no doubt to stare at the bandage on his cheek as he had been wont to do since they met. “I’ll take that back with me,” Chuuya told Yosano, grabbing what was left of the pile they had been working on, turning away from the boy entirely. “Same time tomorrow?”
“And the next, and probably the whole week after,” Yosano promised grimly.
Chuuya allowed himself a sharp laugh.
Their short morning hours slugged by uneventfully. The heated air inside the office, coupled with sunlight streaming through the windows, made it feel like a spring day rather than a cold winter one. Chuuya’s desk was next to Kunikida’s, his back to one of the windows, a space made stifling by weather and tension both. Chuuya hadn’t been sent out to do more than investigation and paperwork in a while, and so his workload had consistently dimmed over the days. He took the opportunity to sort through more of the archives, eyeing the elegant penmanship of their director and the unreadable scribbles of who he guessed to be Souseki Natsume, the man’s mentor and the one who had supposedly acquired a permit for the agency in the first place.
Weirdly enough, most of the pages left by him looked like manuscripts of short stories. Maybe even a scrapped novel idea or two. Chuuya let his eyes wander upon the words and thought, not for the first time, of the half-finished poems he had left behind in Kouyou’s mansion.
(A mocking voice by his ear, like a cold breeze on canicular evenings—”Poems.“
“Of all useless things you could be writing—”
Hitches in the words, a paltry attempt at keeping things the same, even as Chuuya could feel the arm around his shoulders grip him for dear life. Even as he could sense the struggle, even as he had to all but drag the weight on his back to the closest place he could find help.
Stop talking. Stop, stop, stop.
There was a bullet lodged between Dazai’s ribs.)
“What did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t say.”
“Ah, um… yes, yes. You didn’t, did you.”
Chuuya paid very little attention to the discussion taking place on the other side of the office. From his desk he could only see a fragment of the reception area anyway: the cut-off silhouette of the sharply-dressed young woman who was their only appointment of the day. It was amusing to hear Katai blubber his way through the questions he ought to ask her and trying his best to appear unbothered and professional in front of Nakajima, who was probably sitting by his side and hunching in on himself.
He was proud of the progress Katai had made, though. He still remembered the pale man he had met all those years ago who couldn’t stand to step foot outside of his home.
“He’s doing well,” Kunikida said quietly, echoing his thoughts, his eyes fixed to the green plants giving the lounge a semblance of privacy. The scent of green tea wafted through the air, similar to the kind Katai always prepared at home.
“He had an appointment in town the other day too,” Chuuya replied. Kunikida gave him a startled glance. “Went out all on his own and everything.”
“That’s… good. That’s extremely good.”
He seemed surprised. Chuuya told him as much.
“I am surprised.” Kunikida’s pen was not touching the paper on which he was drafting his report anymore; it spun between his fingers deftly, an anxious habit that had more than once thrown Chuuya back years ago to another desk and another person playing idly instead of doing any work.
Funny how such different people could develop the same ticks.
“I’ve never managed to really help him with his agoraphobia,” Kunikida said. “I tried, but he never really wanted to improve.”
Once, twice, thud. Rinse and repeat. Kunikida spun the pen and touched it to the desk and spun it again in perfect, precise order.
You’ve got your own issues to deal with, Chuuya thought.
“I guess,” Kunikida continued, voice tense, “I have you to thank for this.”
“I did nothing,” Chuuya replied. It was true; Katai had changed all on his own. “No need to push yourself into having a good opinion of me.”
Katai may have once seen him at his worst, and Fukuzawa offered him pity, but Kunikida would never extend the same mercy. Not after Chuuya had sequestered and threatened his oldest friend, not with what he knew of Chuuya’s past exactions, however little that was.
Kunikida rubbed the lacquered length of his black pen with his thumb. “Kashiwamura—”
Noise from the reception area interrupted him. They both turned their heads toward it, watching Katai and Atsushi rise from their couch and the young woman do the same, her fine suit uncreased despite the long time spent sitting down.
It was rare of a woman to pick such stiff fabric at any tailor’s, Chuuya wondered, eyeing the gloss of the suit’s finish, the sharp and steely gleam of the buttons keeping it close over her upper body. This wasn’t just any wear. It was fitted to her, expansive and practical at once, betraying the youth in her face for a lie—no soft-spoken, demure lady wore such things. If anything the bulky handbag she carried on her arm clashed with the rest of her outfit; it was shiny, cream-colored, digging deep into her sleeve as she carried it up. There was no makeup on her face that he could see, nor jewelry or heeled shoes to balance the femininity of it.
“We’ll join you in a few minutes, then,” Katai told her, hand trembling at his side as he probably considered offering to shake hers. The woman made no such offer on her end, and so Katai refrained with obvious relief. “Feel free to use the bathroom, or… there’s a café downstairs?”
“I’ll wait in front of the building,” she replied bluntly.
She had taken a step toward the exit when her eyes met Chuuya’s. He expected her to stare at the side of his face, but instead her pace turned hesitant for the briefest second.
“Have we met somewhere?” she asked, her voice steady across the room.
All heads turned to look at her and Chuuya both.
He had no memories of ever meeting her. Chuuya didn’t fancy himself able to remember names and faces any better than the next man, but he thought distantly that he would not soon forget someone who cut as striking a figure as she did.
This consideration drowned under the tension suddenly gripping his spine. He felt his heart beat against his palate as he answered, “No,” keeping his voice even.
The woman stared at him for another second, the glimmer of recognition in her eyes igniting something akin to fear in Chuuya himself; it vanished, however, and her face went back to looking as it had since she came into the office.
Chuuya leaned back into his chair, heart beating off-tempo, the collar of his own jacket suddenly suffocating. He undid it a bit too forcefully; the button holding it close to his sternum pulled harshly, its string loosening in the process.
“I wonder what that was about,” Katai said in a strangled voice, shooting Chuuya panicked glances. “Well, Atsushi-kun, we better get going and all. See you guys later!”
Nakajima must have been in the process of saying something—his mouth closed sharply as Katai tugged him toward the exit as well.
Kunikida took a deep breath. Chuuya turned his back to him and said, “I’ve got work to do.”
He couldn’t read a single word anymore.
There were so many reasons this could have been a scare without substance. Chuuya had roamed the streets of the city so many times, face open to the sights of the crowd, attracting looks for his outfits and hair color; he could have met the woman in any sort of way through the years even without remembering it—she could be family of any worker on the docks, perhaps a worker there herself, though he doubted it. She could be one of the paper-filling employees of the city’s many construction companies, which he had visited on behalf of the mafia for so many reasons. Maybe it didn’t have to do with his days in the mafia at all. Maybe he had crossed paths with her in the streets during the past months, maybe she had noticed him and simply had a knack for remembering faces that he himself lacked.
The possibility that she was affiliated with the port mafia, with the ministry, was so thin. No employee of the mafia would come to a detective agency to deal with smugglers, for one. Neither would anyone working for the special ability department.
Sometimes people met by sheer, simple luck—and Chuuya had no memory of her at all. None that could indicate she was a threat to him.
He barely saw Yosano sitting down on the corner of his desk. “You know, I could take care of that if you want,” she said, and for a second he had no idea what she was talking about.
It was only when she pointed to her own cheek that he realized he had been thumbing the gauze on his, feeling the shape of the scar under it unthinkingly.
“There’s nothing to take care of,” he replied at last, lowering his hand.
Yosano’s look was skeptical. “It won’t be pleasant, but I can make any scar disappear. You wouldn’t have to walk around looking like you’ve lost a fight anymore.”
“I don’t give a shit about that.”
His tone had been harsh, perhaps, but he couldn’t find it in himself to regret it. Yosano simply shrugged and walked way, the door to her office left ajar behind her.
Chuuya looked back at his desk, at the scratched and scribbled words left by a man who must have fancied himself an author, and closed the binder sharply.
He spent the following half-hour pushing all thought out of his mind, inhaling dust as he filed the archives of the agency one by one and left traces of his fingers onto paper, the buzz of Miyazawa’s young voice and Edogawa’s snide comments hanging over his head like a wasps’ nest.
He fooled himself so well into complacency that he thought perhaps this would be the end of the day’s surprises. That he would be going home later that night and ask Katai how Nakajima had dealt with his first official mission, that he would spend the dark hours that followed browsing once more through the piles and piles of information he had gathered over the years for a glance, a trace, a whisper of Sakaguchi Ango’s whereabouts.
Yokohama shone in the sun like a beacon, winter making way to spring for the first time of the year. Cold air crawled between the feet of passersby; light flashed off of the ocean’s wave and pulled out of the dark things ready to be woken.
“Shit,” Kunikida murmured after a long string of silence. “I forgot to give them one of the flyers.”
“What flyers?” Chuuya asked mechanically.
“The director got them from the police last night,” Kunikida said, opening the first drawer of his desk and quickly pulling a stack of thin-papered photographs out of it. He slid one of them toward Chuuya, his other hand pulling up his phone. “This guy—no one knows his name—he was witnessed murdering a member of the city council yesterday morning, you must’ve heard about it on the news. He’s an ability user, very dangerous…”
Kunikida’s voice drowned out of Chuuya’s focus.
He picked up the picture. It wasn’t blurry at all, as though its subject had chosen to pose for the snap. Another man may have smiled at the camera, even, smothered in the certainty of his own strength, but not this one. Though he had been caught red-handed and never before cared for witnesses, Akutagawa didn’t smile.
“Kunikida,” Chuuya said, cutting the man in the middle of his monologue. He hadn’t realized that the other was still talking. “Where was it that the woman earlier said there were smugglers to take care of?”
“I just remembered I forgot to tell Katai something.”
Kunikida didn’t immediately answer. Chuuya wondered if it had anything to do with what Kunikida knew of him—that he seldom forgot to do anything—or if he suspected something, the way Edogawa, staring at them from his side of the room, probably did.
“Behind the Red Brick Warehouse,” he said at last. “She said that’s where she suspected the transactions were taking place.”
Chuuya rose from his desk. He grabbed his coat from where he had left it at the entrance of the office, sparing no thought for gloves, and closed the door behind himself carefully.
Then he rushed to the nearest window.
The streets were populated at this time of day. Lunch break was near for many, and although Chuuya could find no one watching up from the street, he had no doubt that someone, somewhere, must have caught on to the exceptionally clement weather and be staring out from a neighboring building. He’d have to take the risk.
He opened the latch with one last glance behind himself and floated out of the window, kicking against the building to drive himself up to the roof.
The Warehouse was about twenty minutes away by foot. Thirty if they took their time, which they must have, with Katai explaining to Nakajima what they would do on the way. Chuuya could make his way there in five with the help of his ability and as long as no one spotted him on the way—and he prayed, for a silent second, that no one would, that by some miracle no port mafia or ministry scion would be out and about at this time and in this perimeter, or at least none who would recognize him.
He flew from rooftop to rooftop with as much speed as he could gather, his feet digging into concrete as if it were butter each time he landed and leaped again. Another day perhaps he would’ve relished in the feeling of flight, in the wind stabbing his marred face, but with Akutagawa’s somber face still gripped tight in his hand, he had not the heart to.
What kind of person would come to the armed detective agency for a matter of non-gifted smuggling that could be handled by the police? What kind of woman wore suits made of fabric so stiff it gave nary a crease—the kind he himself had worn to conceal much more than simple body shape?
He was a fucking idiot. Of course she would have known his face.
Air whistled past his ears at every turn he made, numbing his skin until he couldn’t feel anything at all, not even the sharp tugs his scar gave into the dry and cold. One of the roofs he landed on had clothes and sheets hung up on strings to dry; Chuuya tore a beanie from one of them and shoved it onto his head as far down as it would go. He closed his coat, raised its collar, concealing what he could.
Gunshots rang through the silence when he reached the Warehouse. Chuuya perched himself atop its tower-like peak, heart solidified to ice, listening as screams echoed down in the street and people started panicking.
In a way, it saved him the trouble of trying to be discreet. No one would pay attention to the roofs when a machine gun could be heard from one of the alleyways and all were too busy running to safety. He flew over the red building and the narrow streets behind, fearing the sound of violence as much as he sought it.
Katai was there. He was there, unarmed, with for only defense a boy who couldn’t control his powers.
Chuuya found them in the dark of the smallest alley. It was a foray between buildings with only one exit, like an accidental turn of the pen on the map of the city—and the woman from earlier, whose heavy handbag now rested at her feet, had both arms loaded with firearms.
He didn’t pay attention to what she was saying, or to Nakajima’s screams of anger and terror. It was obvious that she had already proved her willingness to aim and shoot; Chuuya felt no need for sympathy.
He jumped down, lading behind her and kicking her knees out from under her.
One of them cracked ominously, and to her credit the woman only grunted. Chuuya grabbed both her arms and twisted until she did yell out; the guns fell from her lax hands.
“Where’s Katai?” Chuuya interrupted, looking up from the bent back of the woman to meet Nakajima’s eyes.
They were ever so bright.
He didn’t answer, but Chuuya didn’t need him to. The lack of light around them could not mask the slick sound of spilled blood, nor the brownish tint that the ground was taking in the shadow of the farthest building. Katai was lying on the ground, and he wasn’t moving.
“Go see if he’s alive,” he heard himself order.
Nakajima didn’t move.
Chuuya didn’t watch him scramble away. The woman had started squirming under his hold, twisting this way and that in familiar movements. Whatever martial art training she had received would not be enough to push him away, however; he swept her off her knees entirely, making sure her head hit the pavement as she landed on her back, and pressed a foot against her throat.
She choked, pain and anger warring over her face in equal measures. Chuuya bent down to pick up one of the guns. He kicked the other one away, and her bag with it for good measure.
“He’s breathing,” came Nakajima’s trembling voice, “but he’s bleeding so much, I don’t know—”
“Take off your shirt and use it to put pressure on the wound,” Chuuya replied. He didn’t let relief take him, not yet. “Use his phone to call an ambulance and then call Yosano, he’s got her as an emergency contact. The pin code is 0830.”
He looked down at the woman again. She grinned viciously at him, though her leg must be in agony.
“It’s useless,” she wheezed out. “We’ll get the man-tiger, your tiny little agency can’t protect him against the port mafia—”
Chuuya pressed down onto her neck with his foot until she choked again. “I don’t care,” he replied, “I just want to know who you called for back-up.”
Her smile was gone. She didn’t answer him.
For a long while nothing else happened. Chuuya was reluctant to knock her out on the off-chance she would talk; he was reluctant to force answers out of her in one of the many ways he knew as well, not only because of Nakajima’s presence, not only because Katai had such faith in his being able to turn a page from his past.
He hadn’t come back to Yokohama to torture the port mafia’s lower ranks. There was only one among them he planned to find and bring vengeance upon.
Nakajima’s labored breathing came to him in the dark. Chuuya focused on it rather than anything else, though his eyes never left the woman’s face. There was no sound yet of an ambulance coming; no sign of Yosano or anyone else coming to their aid.
“You should kill me,” the woman said.
Chuuya leveled a warning glance at her. Her next words were spat, and no doubt that he would have felt them on his face had she been in any state to stand.
“You moralistic, idealistic fools—if you don’t kill me now you’ll only regret it later,” she said.
“Shut up before I make you.”
“With what?” she laughed roughly, a hint of hysteria shooting through her from adrenaline alone. Her twisted knee spasmed once against the ground. “People like you don’t have the balls to prove your words with action. Pathetic.”
“Nakajima,” Chuuya called instead of answering her, “any update?”
“He’s still alive,” the boy replied. “I don’t—I don’t know how bad it is.”
Chuuya wished he could go and see for himself. If he could get close enough to Katai then he could use the Tainted Sorrow to at least stop the bleeding efficiently, but he dared not leave Nakajima in charge of a port mafia member by himself. She wouldn’t hesitate to shoot again if she got her hands back on a weapon.
Frowning, his tension kept at bay by the news of Katai’s continued living, Chuuya crouched above the woman’s body. He replaced his foot with a hand, gripping her knee in warning so that she wouldn’t move, and used his other to pat her sides.
Her eyes widened. “What are you—”
“Checking for weapons,” he told her.
Her fear was not unjustified. It did little to stop the disgust that washed through him once he understood it. Chuuya focused on stripping her of the knives strapped to her forearms and the handgun concealed at her hip, and only when he pulled back did her eyes stop staring at him in open fright.
She must not be as old as her outfit and attitude would let think. The mafia had always liked to hire them young.
“Did you call for back-up?” he asked her once again.
Now that he was within breathing distance, she did spit at his face. Chuuya wiped it off with a mere grunt of distaste.
“It would be easier for you if you cooperated.”
“Loosen your tongue and lose your life,” she replied.
He smiled tersely. Those words were as familiar to him as nursery rhymes were to some.
He might as well knock her out, then. They needed to be off as soon as the ambulance arrived, and she would be difficult to transport if she fought him the whole way. At least it seemed she hadn’t recognized him; Chuuya was in the middle of thinking through what he should do to make sure she never heard his name or wondered who he was while in agency custody, when she started laughing.
“What is it?” he snapped.
She breathed in deeply, choked by her own laughter. “You’re dead, detective,” she replied.
The very air split around them.
Chuuya used his powers without thinking; a tendril of black matter, sharp as a blade, stabbed the place where he was crouched a second ago. His feet buried themselves deep into the ground as he landed a few feet away, holding the stolen beanie down on his head and waiting for the wind of the attack to stop slapping around him like the heart of a hurricane.
Nakajima was not so lucky; Chuuya felt his heart lurch at the scream of agony he let out and didn’t dare turn around to look, not when all he could stare at was the thin silhouette of Akutagawa emerging from the shadows.
“Move around and I’ll cut the other one, were-tiger,” Akutagawa rasped out.
The woman had moved as soon as she had felt Chuuya’s hands leave her. She managed to get herself up, somehow, limping toward Akutagawa and picking up the gun Chuuya had dropped on the way. She aimed it at him as soon as she was by Akutagawa’s side.
“Shut up,” Akutagawa cut in. “I thought you could handle this.”
She hesitated, sweating bullets from the pain of standing but still keeping her composure somehow. “I could, but that man…”
For the first time in years, Akutagawa met Chuuya’s eyes.
He could have thought himself back at the black tower, in one of the training rooms, looking from the side as Dazai disciplined his student. Akutagawa had changed without changing; the white streaks in his hair had not regained color, he was still thin as a skeleton, he still dressed like someone come from a past century. He was taller, though. His steps quiet enough not to be heard even by Chuuya. The black coat Dazai had once given him didn’t hang limply from his shoulders anymore.
Chuuya realized how futile his own disguise was at the same time Akutagawa did. He could cut and dye his hair, he could dress as banally as possible, hide himself behind high collars and low hats all he wanted… there was nothing to be done about the recognition twisting Akutagawa’s fine features into shock.
For the most fleeting of seconds, he almost wanted to say Hi.
The air moved once more. White light unfurled around them as if a sun had suddenly appeared in the alley, blinding the sky and blinding them, and this time Chuuya did turn around to look at Nakajima.
Except it wasn’t Nakajima anymore.
He had heard all about the white tiger from Katai and Kunikida before. Shapeshifting wasn’t an uncommon ability to have, and Chuuya had expected the creature to look like the ones he had seen in photographs during his life. The beast that emerged out of the pool of blood Nakajima had been lying in was none of that.
Twice as big as a normal tiger and at least thrice as powerful, it sat on the gored ground like a nightmare come alive. Saliva steamed out of its open mouth and light shone brightly off of its claws, each as long as a blade. The tiger’s growl resonated through the very walls. Its golden eyes were fixed to Chuuya’s left.
Before he could do anything, it had leaped at Akutagawa.
Rashoumon opened around Akutagawa like black wings to parry its attack, yet it could not seem to hurt it at all. Its black tendrils, which Chuuya had watched cut through rock and steel in the past, ricocheted off the beast’s fur as if stopped by an invisible wall. Through the chaos of the fight he saw the blond woman open fire on the tiger—saw with his own eyes the bullets fall uselessly to the ground, their target unharmed.
Chuuya took his chance while she was reloading. Her attention was completely caught by the monstrous battle happening a few feet away; she made the mistake of taking her eyes off of her remaining opponent, allowing him to sweep her feet from under her once more and knock her out for good this time.
In the back of his mind, thoughts of Katai bleeding out without anyone to tend to him kept his heart athrill. Chuuya ran to his side and pressed the man’s own hand over his bleeding belly—he could see two holes through it, closer to his flank than his center—and pushed gravity into doing its job. Only then did he turn back to the carnage that the other two were making.
The tiger’s massive jaw had opened around Rashoumon’s barrier. It pierced through it as if breaking simple glass, and in the ashen glow radiating from its form, Akutagawa’s face seemed like a corpse’s.
Chuuya planted his foot into the ground and pulled the beast down.
It fell with a roar, thrashing against the invisible bonds keeping it tied to earth; Chuuya had never had to struggle so to keep anything in his grip, be it man or army, and sweat slicked his temples under the woolen beanie. He fended off Rashoumon’s next attacks more easily, focusing his energy on the coat Akutagawa wore until the man himself had no choice but to kneel down under its weight.
Only then did he let go of his breath. At least seventy percent of his strength had to be focused on the tiger alone, which left very little for the fine control required to keep Katai’s wound pressurized and Rashoumon down. He could only hope that Akutagawa would not notice how thinly he was stretched as he approached him.
Though the tiger was still squirming and growling, its claws scratching the pavement as if tearing through mere paper, Akutagawa was not watching it anymore.
“Nakahara Chuuya,” he murmured, staring at Chuuya with apprehension.
Chuuya stopped a few feet away from him. “I half-expected to see you here, to be honest.”
Akutagawa bristled, Rashoumon fluttering in vain over his back and shoulders.
Chuuya ignored the painful tightness in his chest. He looked at Nakajima’s struggling form for a moment and wondered how to proceed.
He wouldn’t be able to hold on for much longer. Whatever Nakajima’s true form was, it was no simple animal. Chuuya felt as though his strength were being siphoned out of him, each second leaving him more brittle, his hands threatening to shake. He wouldn’t be able to apprehend Akutagawa by himself, not if he had to maintain control on Nakajima and Katai at the same time.
“Fuck,” he said between his teeth.
He glanced at Akutagawa again. The other was still looking at him, face impenetrable.
Then, to Chuuya’s surprise, he asked: “Are you going to kill me now?”
Chuuya found himself entirely wordless.
Akutagawa had never been one to fool around. His bluntness and single-minded attitude had been his downfall the entire time Dazai had trained him; Chuuya had too many memories to count of trying to talk sense into his then-kouhai, only for his words to fall on deaf ears. There was only ever one person who could get Akutagawa to listen, and even he had struggled to.
Akutagawa didn’t back down. He didn’t surrender. He never asked such questions, no matter how battered he was.
“Why would I kill you?” Chuuya replied warily.
The look he was given was even more confusing; Akutagawa seemed more astonished by his words than his very presence.
The sound of a siren reached them, growing stronger by the second and cutting Akutagawa short. His face paled even further. Chuuya felt him start to resist gravity’s hold.
He let go of it.
Part of him expected Akutagawa to attack him on the spot. The man wasn’t exactly the type to pull his punches, no matter how many times it had landed him in trouble. But Akutagawa only rose to his feet and brushed the dirt from his sleeves and legs, still looking like a man headed to the gallows.
Nakajima chose this moment to revert back to his human shape. White light once more enveloped the narrow street, blinding Chuuya to all but its source. When it was gone, the boy lay on the ground, unconscious but unscathed.
“Take the girl and go,” Chuuya said, releasing his grip on Nakajima’s body. He almost reeled back with relief. “Unless you want to try and fight me with the military police on its way.”
Akutagawa was at least smart enough not to tempt the devil. Rashoumon’s tendrils picked up his subordinate with less care than they probably should, and he stepped away from Chuuya without showing his back to him.
The realization made Chuuya ache in a new way. This pain was distant and fogged, like something half-forgotten which he ought to have prepared for.
“You won’t escape alive,” Akutagawa said, almost a whisper. His asthma must not have improved over the years, for he coughed afterward, a frightening gargle rising from his throat. He wiped spit from his lips and added, “Not now that we know where you are.”
“I’m not that easy to kill,” Chuuya retorted.
“I don’t want to hear it.”
He felt exhausted. The ambulance must be very close now, and its siren rang through Chuuya’s head like the beginning of a migraine. He shot Akutagawa another glare, as dark and furious as he could make it when his heart still stung with nostalgia.
“Tell that shitty Dazai not to get in my way,” he gritted out. “Or I’ll grant his wishes and have him eat grass by the root.”
His anger broke apart as the words left his lips.
In the second that followed, Chuuya felt the kind of exhaustion he hadn’t known since that night of blood and grief. He wanted to say something without knowing what to say; he watched Akutagawa hesitate, caught in that same fragile reluctance to part, his thin lips open on air.
He said nothing. The unconscious woman held up by Rashoumon floated away from them both, and Akutagawa followed her, his grey eyes leaving Chuuya’s at last.
Now he was alone, Nakajima’s soft breathing in his ears and in his mind the awareness of Katai’s still-moving chest, caught under the pressure keeping him alive. For now.
There wouldn’t be anyone waiting for him at the apartment. No tea to warm his hands and hollow heart, no voice to quiet the horror and fear in a child leaving his home behind.
Akutagawa didn’t linger in the hospital wing of headquarters after leaving Higuchi there. She had remained unconscious through the journey home, though the resident nurse had assured him that outside of a twisted knee and sprained wrist, there was nothing to worry about. The bump on her head wasn’t dangerous at all—the blow there had been delivered, he knew, with great precision.
He made his way through the long corridors without speaking to anyone. At noon the activities in headquarters weren’t so intense, at least, lessening the risk of someone stopping him on his way. Night was the port mafia’s time, the moon-silver hours the ones which they tainted with their presence.
You may yet claim responsibility for Kouyou’s death.
Why would I kill you?
It made no sense at all.
Akutagawa knew fear very well. He had grown nurtured and shaped by it through all of his formative years; fear for himself, fear for Gin, fear of the world and what it could do to them. His fear had been honed into a weapon in the hands of his mentor, to the point of leaving him estranged from his body each time they met.
Yet he hadn’t known the kind of fear he discovered upon recognizing Nakahara Chuuya in that alleyway earlier.
The man had seemed a ghost himself, utterly unrecognizable if not for his eyes and voice. Akutagawa had not forgot that voice talking to him eons ago, soothing aches he hadn’t noticed with its mere presence. He could never forget the times he had met Nakahara Chuuya as a superior, as a mentor figure of his own, someone he ached to reach for as he failed and failed and failed to win Dazai’s approval.
Dazai had told him that Chuuya would kill him; Dazai had said that his poorly-played part in the Mimic conflict four years ago had been one of the causes for Ozaki’s untimely demise, one of the reasons for Nakahara’s defection and vow of vengeance.
When he had seen him earlier—when he had met his cold eyes in the dark of the city—Akutagawa had felt death stare him in the face. He had felt the need to fall to his knees and beg; he had felt remorse like a bite at the throat, so much more frightening than the man-tiger’s sharp fangs breaking Rashoumon apart.
After this kind of fear, walking to his superior’s office with the news of his failure was nothing at all.
“Enter,” came Dazai’s bored voice when he knocked on the door.
“Akutagawa-kun!” He was greeted thus, Dazai’s obviously fake enthusiasm failing for once to make him shudder. “I’ve been waiting all morning for you. How went the hunt? I expect great things from you, you know.”
“Higuchi and I failed to retrieve the shapeshifter,” Akutagawa replied bluntly.
There was no point in beating around the bush. Dazai would punish him more for excuses than he would for honesty.
Dazai sighed dramatically, letting his chin hit his desk in a mockery of disappointment. His eyes slid away from Akutagawa and toward the man who was always by his side. “Why do I always get my hopes up, Odasaku?” he asked plaintively.
“You like to see the best in others,” Oda replied.
“That is hilarious. Truly, truly hilarious.”
Akutagawa watched the theatrics unfold wordlessly. His fear of Dazai felt for once detached from him, as though dimmed by the absolute terror he had experienced in front of Nakahara earlier. He didn’t twitch even as Dazai rose from his chair and made his way around the desk, his eyes dull with distaste.
“I thought my orders were so simple,” he bemoaned, and Akutagawa tensed only when Dazai was but a foot away, staring down at him. “I said ‘get the tiger boy back alive and as unharmed as possible’, didn’t I?”
“You did,” Akutagawa replied between his teeth.
Dazai shook his head. He was so close that Akutagawa felt the air move against his face. “So tell me, how do the port mafia’s most destructive ability user and his trigger-happy subordinate fail to recover a teenager with no training or control whatsoever? I’m sure this is gonna be a fascinating story.”
Akutagawa could have told him of the tiger’s monstrous strength, of its claws tearing stone apart like mud or its immense, gaping jaw. He could’ve told him that not even Rashoumon’s control of matter had resisted its assault—something that was bound to impress even Dazai, considering his involvement in shaping that defense technique to perfection.
He said, “I found Nakahara Chuuya.”
Dazai didn’t still, per se. He didn’t gasp or widen his eyes or sneer at the name like he had so many times before. Instead Oda was the one whose movements stopped altogether, his bright blue eyes open to the light of late-winter.
Dazai hummed, considering, and the thumb of his right hand started rubbing its neighboring index rhythmically. Back and forth, back and forth, as if massaging pain away.
“Well,” he said in the silence. “This is getting interesting.”