Nurture

Rated: G

Length: 2,100

Warnings: mentions of child abuse, self-harm.

Nurture

Atsushi doesn’t expect to find Kyouka in any of the places they visited together on the day they met, but he tries anyway. One after the other, hour after hour, until the sun sets over the bay and washed everything over with red. The light vanishes fast at this time of the year. It’s as though the streets have swallowed it. He can see the bright sky between the roofs of the city, still pale even as the moon rises, but every wall wears darkness. He can only see so far because he is barely human.

He feels like he’s swallowed lead. The wounds of his body are long gone by the time he rejoins the agency’s building, but his feet drag on the concrete. He has a hard time remembering to breathe. Each of his limbs seems detached from the core of himself, cut off and badly sewn back together. It is how he felt for a while about his leg, after the first time he fought the port mafia’s Akutagawa. The ability to move and feel from it came almost with panic.

The office is still lit.

Atsushi looks blearily at the soft glow of its windows from down the street. Then he inhales with a gasp and opens the door, rushing up the stairs.

He doesn’t find Kyouka—he doesn’t know if he even hoped to—but he does find Dazai. Reclining in a chair, feet propped atop his desk, staring at the ceiling.

“Dazai-san,” Atsushi says.

He’s sure Dazai didn’t hear him come up. The look on his face is strangely distant, the reflexive curl of his lips an automatism, the same kind he offered Atsushi while pushing him out of the infirmary hours ago. But Dazai doesn’t so much as jump. His face smoothes itself into amiability with no hitch that Atsushi can see.

“Atsushi-kun,” he greets. “Did you need something?”

“No, I just saw the light…” Atsushi steps further into the office. It looks almost unfamiliar without the presence of the rest of its employees, as if the only part of it he can recognize is Dazai himself. He clears his throat. “How come you’re still here?”

“Watch duty,” Dazai replies with a faint smile.

For a moment Atsushi doesn’t understand; then Dazai nods his head toward the open door of Yosano’s office, where more light is shining.

He remembers.

“It’s a good thing you’re here, actually,” Dazai goes on. He takes his feet off of the desk and stands up—something cracks in his back, and the sound almost makes Atsushi flinch. “You can relieve me.”

“Relieve you,” Atsushi repeats.

“You can watch over Kouyou. I’d like to take a nap.”

“But—”

The very name of the woman, as unfamiliar as it is, makes anger surge up Atsushi’s body. It makes Kyouka’s terror flare behind his eyelids like a badly-healed wound, makes him feel as he did back then—powerless to stop her, powerless to help her.

He jumps when Dazai touches his shoulder; Dazai takes his hand back after a second without so much as a squeeze.

“Just for a couple hours,” he says softly. “I trust that you can refrain from attacking her for that long?”

Atsushi clenches his fists. “Why,” he says between his teeth. “Why do you care? She hurt her.”

He can’t even say Kyouka’s name. Not with her disappearance weighing on him like a cloak.

Dazai is silent for a long time. Atsushi would think him thinking on his words, if he didn’t know that Dazai never hesitates to say what he does.

“I know you don’t understand, and I won’t ask you to try,” he replies eventually. “Not you. But Kouyou is far from being the worst member of the port mafia. I’d appreciate it if she came to no harm while in our custody.”

There are a lot of things that Atsushi could say to that—about Kyouka’s fear, about her young face drenched with her tears, about the terrifying resolve in her eyes as she stabbed her knife into Kouyou’s belly. About Kouyou stabbing him, looking at him like she would look at dirt.

He doesn’t get to say any of it, because a voice comes from the open door of the infirmary: “Either speak less loudly or include me in the conversation, boys. This is getting distracting.”

Atsushi sucks in a breath.

Dazai’s face turns a complicated shade of pained. He steps toward the door, Atsushi on his trail, and opens it more widely.

Kouyou is sat in one of the beds, a book open in her lap, her makeup smudged and her face pale. Atsushi can see the relief of the bandages wound around her middle under the thin yukata she wears.

“Don’t look at me like this, Dazai-kun,” she says, looking between the two of them. “You knew I wasn’t asleep.”

“My apologies for the noise,” Dazai replies.

She waves a dismissive hand.

Atsushi watches the exchange, and the exhaustion and fear of the day hook into his belly; his next exhale comes shaky, comes with the thought that he should be spitting out smoke rather than invisible air.

Kouyou meets his eyes, and fury vaporizes his insides, makes him feel like a hot stone plunged into icy water. His lungs are full of steam.

“Atsushi-kun,” Dazai says sharply.

Atsushi realizes belatedly that his nails have turned to claws.

“Don’t scold the child,” Kouyou interjects. Her tone is tranquil—Atsushi snarls at her, knowing that by now he is bearing fangs as well. All it does is make her smile wryly. “I think I understand how he feels.”

“Don’t mock me,” Atsushi growls.

“I’m not mocking you. You love Kyouka very much, don’t you, boy?”

The question takes him by surprise; for a second the air seems to shiver, the hairs along his arms lengthening and shortening, not knowing how to settle.

“Yes,” he says. He realizes.

His eyesight blurs. He jerks a hand up with a start and rubs them until the wetness leaves. Kouyou is smiling at him when he looks at her again, and Atsushi doesn’t know how to process it at all. He doesn’t feel like dirt under her eyes anymore.

He glares at her anyway.

“Such anger,” she says lowly. “I’ve only known one person brave enough to look at me this way.”

At Atsushi’s back, Dazai shifts on his feet.

“I don’t know why I didn’t see the resemblance sooner. It must be that you’re not quite as scruffy.”

“Is this truly necessary,” Dazai mutters.

His tone is enough to make Atsushi blink at him in surprise. He looks almost sullen, back hunched and mouth twisted, and Atsushi is reminded, sharply, that Dazai is not much older than himself.

For some reason, Kouyou laughs.

“Don’t tell me you didn’t notice it, Dazai,” she says, eyes alight with humor.

“I don’t see a resemblance,” Dazai replies. He sounds annoyed. “Fortunately.”

“In some ways, you haven’t changed at all.”

Dazai doesn’t say anything.

Kouyou opens her book again. “Go get some rest, lad,” she declares. “I’ll stay put as long as your man-tiger is content glaring instead of attacking.”

At Dazai’s pointed glance, Atsushi mumbles, “I won’t do anything.”

Kouyou doesn’t take her eyes away from the book when she calls Dazai’s name once more. He halts in his steps, one hand on the handle of the door.

“He was happy to see you,” she says. Her smile is thinner than before; it looks something close to sincere. “He didn’t say it in so many words, of course, but I’m not easily fooled.”

“Good for him,” Dazai replies evenly. “I can’t say that it’s mutual.”

“You never could,” Kouyou murmurs, as the door closes behind Dazai’s back.

Atsushi stands between the bed and the door, not knowing whether to move or not.

“Sit down, boy.”

He sits.

He can’t tell what ends up stalling his will to hurt her. It could be fatigue, or pain, or it could be that Kouyou paints such a different picture here than she did surrounded by the halo of her ability. Then she looked something like a demon herself, inhabited by a rage to rival his; now she doesn’t seem so much as resentful. Her lips look dry once wiped free of the sharp orange she wore on them. She resembles, in fact, a patient at a hospital making the most of her stay.

“Ask away,” she says without looking away from her book. She must’ve felt him staring at her.

Atsushi has to unclench his jaw forcefully. “Who were you talking about?” he asks.

The glance she gives him is almost fond. “Dazai might tell you once he stops pouting about it,” she answers.

This is obviously the most she’s willing to say.

Atsushi wonders if this how the whole thing will go: Kouyou reading, him watching her with sparks of bright rage occasionally stinging his tongue. He wishes, suddenly, that he were still outside and looking, no matter that he doesn’t know where to look anymore.

“If something happens to Kyouka-chan, I won’t forgive you,” he says slowly.

“I wouldn’t forgive myself either, man-tiger.”

Kouyou’s voice is icy.

He feels scrutinized, peeled open and backward, but he withstands it. He’s gone through worse than one enemy’s ire.

“Why would you—”

He can’t finish his thought. He can’t give voice to the guilt on Kyouka’s voice everytime she speaks of her time in the port mafia. He hasn’t slept a night since meeting her without seeing her jump out of a running train, a bomb strapped to her small body, tears streaming down her grieving face.

“You’re lucky Dazai found you first,” Kouyou says.

She sounds mournful, too, and Atsushi breathes in and shakes. His teeth hit together with a chatter.

“An orphan with a very destructive ability… you make a fine prize for the port mafia. You would’ve been right at home with us.”

“I would never have joined you,” Atsushi vows.

“Don’t be so quick to judge us,” she retorts. “I don’t expect you to understand, but there is more to the port mafia than violence.”

It’s the second time he’s told this in one evening. Atsushi wishes he had the words to express how little he wants to understand anyway, how little he cares. The only thing that matters to him now is to make sure Kyouka is safe—make sure she never again meets with the woman who hurt her.

“You’re always angry, aren’t you,” Kouyou says. “You can try to hide it all you want, you can act out of kindness every day, but you can’t escape it. You can’t stop feeling it.”

“You don’t know anything about me,” he says, hart beating off-tempo. His shoulders ache with tension.

“I know everything that matters.”

His claws dig into the heel of his palm, drawing blood. The coppery tang of it rests heavy in his nostrils. He presses his hands together rather than allow himself to lick the dripping cuts.

“Anger is not necessarily evil,” Kouyou goes on. “It creates attachment. It fosters loyalty. Even in a criminal, anger can be nurtured into something good.” Her smile is whimsical. “People like you have so much potential for love,” she says. “Those of you who never shy from your emotions… you’re capable of the best and worst humanity has to offer. For those of us who fell out of touch with our own hearts, there’s nothing more frightening than to be loved by you.”

Atsushi stares at her, mouth open, tongue still.

He doesn’t know any anger that doesn’t result in pain. He can’t imagine fury without imagining the Headmaster—can’t picture screaming voices without hearing his own, without remembering. His own anger is sticky with shame, marred with memories of undue punishment. He never feels anger without feeling fear.

Kouyou doesn’t seem bothered by his lack of answer. She goes back to her reading and never moves from the bed at all.

It is two hours later, as the night has turned thick and starless around them, as the glow of the bedside lamp she sits by weakens, that she says: “Nurture Kyouka’s happiness, please.”

Atsushi’s ears catch the faintest scratch of fabric, a sharper intake of breath from the far side of the office. Dazai is waking up.

“She’ll be happy when she never has to see you again,” he replies.

“That is true,” Kouyou agrees. Her head turns toward the door, pulled by the sound of Dazai’s approaching footsteps. “But she will be even happier with you.”

Her smile, this time, creases the corners of her eyes.

“She deserves a brother too.”

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