Warnings: spoilers for Dead Apple, Fifteen, and the latest manga raws.
Chuuya’s oldest memories were only of intangible things.
Water slipping through his fingers. White light turned green like the sun below sea. The blurred faces of strangers looking at him through glass, too distant to touch, too foreign to memorize. Dreams he couldn’t remember of things he had never seen: destruction and chaos, blood tinting the earth red, squeals torn from the mouths of the dying like prayers at an altar. Those memories were few and far-between. He did not linger on them. If they found him during his sleep then no one but him had to know. If he felt, sometimes, that this life in utero clung to him with ghostly hands, he only had to shake it off with a shrug of the shoulders.
Awareness came to him in slow waves. Despite the impression of liquid surrounding and choking him, his throat was dry. The water of his childhood had been kept religiously body-warm, so much so that Chuuya had not discovered warmth before discovering cold, yet today, he shivered.
He sat up in his bed. The window he had left foolishly open the night before had chilled his room and sheets. Daylight had not yet made itself known to the morning, though with winter underway, it told him little of how late or early it was.
His head ached fiercely.
“Should we even be here?” Atsushi muttered, anxious.
He had asked the question before, though not so explicitly yet. Are you sure I should come with? Isn’t this police work? So many words to indicate how little he wanted to be present. Dazai couldn’t really blame him for it.
“It’s a request from above,” he replied jovially. Cold air slithered through a gap in his scarf which happened to match another in the gauze around his neck. Dazai closed it with gloved fingers and added, “I’ll get us coffee to make up for it, don’t worry.”
It was the coldest day of winter yet. The sea-breeze had turned painful on every inch of exposed skin that passersby showed; they walked along the shoreline in a hurry, pulling hoods and beanies over their heads or sticking scarves to their open faces. Atsushi sighed almost inaudibly and snuggled tighter inside his thick coat.
Staying outside in sub-zero temperature wouldn’t be so painful if the job weren’t so boring. The oh-so-precious shipment that the special ability department had asked them to watch over was already in the ministry’s car, but the young lady from the department itself was still speaking with the ship captain in a low voice. She didn’t look in any hurry to finish.
Damn you, Ango, Dazai thought, restraining a yawn. His entire body shuddered.
“When I saw the mission details, I didn’t think…”
Atsushi didn’t finish his sentence, but his eyes said it all. Dazai followed their direction to the shadows in-between two rows of containers. Chuuya met his eyes for a second before turning away, coughing against the back of a hand; Akutagawa was too busy glaring at Atsushi to even notice him.
“We’re in port mafia territory,” Dazai said evenly. “Of course they’d be here to make sure we don’t start sniffing around.”
“Like I’d want to,” Atsushi mumbled. “This place stinks anyway.”
Dazai laughed brightly. Chuuya shot him another annoyed glance.
“Don’t worry,” he said, grabbing the boy’s shoulder. “As long as we stay put those two dogs won’t do a thing to us. Be nice.”
He had spoken loudly enough to be heard across the distance and expected Chuuya’s voice to shout at him in answer—arguing with him might make time go faster—but Chuuya said nothing.
From the corner of his eyes, he saw Akutagawa murmur close to Chuuya’s ear. He realized with some amusement that frail and skinny though Akutagawa was, he had still grown taller than Chuuya in the past four years. The old curse seemed to hold true. Dazai chuckled to himself; his mood had taken a turn for the exceptional since being freed from that cold European prison, and it seemed today would not yet have it plummeting.
Chuuya coughed into his hand again. Akutagawa’s frown deepened. Dazai’s smirk softened until it vanished, and then the woman from the special ability department finally turned around.
“I think we’re good to go now,” she said, walking toward them. “I’m very sorry for making you wait.”
Dazai smiled at her while he ransacked his brain for her name. “No problem, Tsujimura-san,” he replied. “Atsushi-kun loves the cold.”
Atsushi, who did not enjoy the cold, gave him a dark look under his fur-lined hood. The effect was somewhat ruined by the cat ears sewed onto it by Yosano and Ranpo the week before.
It was no matter, though, for Tsujimura seemed to have lost interest in the conversation. Her eyes were turned toward the two mafia members standing some distance away. Dazai saw a shy smile creep onto her face. She waved her hand hesitantly.
With some surprise, he noticed Chuuya approaching, though Akutagawa stayed behind. Probably on his orders. “Nakahara-san,” Tsujimura said to him, cheerful. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Tsujimura, right?” Chuuya replied. “You look good.”
His voice was hoarse.
Now that Chuuya was within spitting distance, Dazai was half-tempted to go away himself. The ministry’s car looked a lot more comfortable—a lot warmer—than the stabbing wind, and Atsushi himself kept sneaking glances at it with despair on his red face. He was curious about Chuuya’s obvious efforts at ignoring that he was standing right here, though. Usually he would’ve gotten at least a couple insults.
He kept his eyes on Chuuya’s face as the conversation between the two went on, knowing that Chuuya hated being stared at—hated being stared at by him—more than anything. Indeed, Chuuya’s frown became so stark against his forehead that Dazai thought with some humor that the wrinkle it created may never fade. But Chuuya said nothing to him and kept talking in a surprisingly low voice, so low sometimes that Tsujimura looked like she couldn’t hear him.
He walked away after that. Still without a word Dazai’s way. Dazai watched him give out more orders to Akutagawa, who looked hesitant to obey. He left, eventually, looking over his shoulder at Chuuya one more time.
Dazai turned his head toward Atsushi, who was sitting at the back of the car. Tsujimura had already climbed into it as well.
A vague idea in mind, he replied, “I think this will be a good test of your independence, Atsushi-kun.”
“I have business elsewhere,” Dazai said. “So I’m putting you in charge of security all on your own!”
Atsushi tried to climb out too quickly—his head banged noisily against the frame of the door, and he yelped. “But this is a mission for the both of us!” he protested, rubbing the crown of his head. “Dazai-san—”
“It’ll be fine! I’m not much use in case of an attack anyway, I’ll just get in your way, dear kouhai.”
“You just want to skive off!”
Dazai tutted, stepping backward in the direction Chuuya had taken. “What a way of talking to your seniors! You’ll be fine.”
“You’ll be fine,” Dazai repeated, allowing his tone some more faith. He felt his face soften with trust; saw Atsushi’s fade of a little bit of worry. “You’ve grown a lot.”
A few years ago this would’ve been nothing more than simple manipulation. Atsushi took to praise like a flower to sunlight, after all. Even now he looked like his heart should burst out of his throat, his eyes bright, his breath halted. Dazai could not pretend that he hadn’t known that from the moment he had met him and heard him say to himself that he should be better off dead—met him and understood without the need for proof just how much this boy had gone through for the simple permission to live.
This was not a few years ago, though, and Dazai now was not the same as he once had been. His words were true.
“Good luck,” he said gently.
Atsushi nodded, helpless.
Dazai did not watch the car go. He turned around and scanned the harbor quickly for a trace of black against the whitened shore, for a flash of bright red in-between the shadows. His feet walked without the need for direction, as if drawn this way or that, until at last he found what he was looking for.
He hesitated. Chuuya’s pace on the other side of the street seemed a little too slow, a little too controlled. Dazai’s hunch was only that, after all, and there was no guarantee that Chuuya wouldn’t attack him on sight now that they were away from the port.
“Chuuya!” he called anyway.
He saw his partner’s gait falter. Dazai took the opportunity to shorten the distance between them, walking as quickly as he could without running outright.
“Still so obedient,” he commented once they were side by side. “Dogs really do recognize their master’s voice no matter what.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Chuuya spat back without looking at him.
His words had been nothing more than a whisper. It seemed the cold had gotten the better of his usual attire, for the coat he wore was made of thick fabric, and a silk scarf was wound snugly around his throat. He still looked dashing, of course.
Not that Dazai would ever tell him that.
“What do you want?” Chuuya asked with a curt glare.
Dazai realized that his contemplation had made him a bit too silent. “Just to catch up,” he replied. “We haven’t talked since the Shibusawa incident. I thought I’d see how my least favorite partner is doing.”
“That’s not very nice of you to say. I did save your life last time.”
Insults, outrage—whatever Chuuya wanted to express then seemed stuck in his mouth. He had been pale despite the biting cold, yet now his face reddened and his throat trembled, and no sooner had he shoved one gloved hand in front of his mouth that his whole body spasmed with the strength of his coughing. It sounded painful.
“You saved my life?” Chuuya rasped, blinking back what looked like tears, his body wavering slightly. His other hand brushed against the wall of a building to find balance. “Remind me who the fuck got stabbed with a poisoned knife?”
This proved it, then. Chuuya was sick.
Now that he was certain of it, it was easy to see the marks of distress over Chuuya’s face. His skin, which had always been a tad darker than Dazai’s, seemed washed out. The bright patches of red at his cheeks were an ill contrast to the rest of his complexion. Dazai realized that his hair was sticking to his temples from sweat that should not exist in this cold, that his eyes were fever-bright, almost teary.
He had stayed silent for too long. Chuuya had not let go of the wall, which was as good an indicator of his surprising lack of balance as any, and his fingers clenched against it as he asked, “What?” with exhaustion painting his voice.
Dazai looked away. “Let’s get coffee,” he said before he could help it, watching people trot into the never-ending street, disappearing into grey light. “My treat.”
“What the fuck is wrong with you,” Chuuya snapped. “What do you want?”
“Nothing. I’d just rather talk somewhere warmer.”
“I’m supposed to believe you want to talk to me?”
Dazai frowned. He didn’t turn toward Chuuya again, disinclined to see him struggle so obviously for reasons he couldn’t quite figure out. It didn’t matter anyway: he could hear the soreness in Chuuya’s body and voice.
“Why is that so hard to believe?” he asked. “We both know we have no reason to attack each other now.”
“I have no reason to keep you alive.”
A smile tugged at his mouth. He could still feel the weight of Chuuya’s body post-Corruption on that foggy night; he remembered the glint of Chuuya’s knife completely untouched at his hip as he fell asleep into the frame of Dazai’s body, trusting like he never was. “You’re not going to kill me,” he said. “Not now.” Not ever.
Chuuya’s trust, after all, was a very difficult thing to lose.
Chuuya didn’t answer. Now Dazai could hear just how pained his breathing was in the wintery silence. He could feel that phantom ache at his own throat as if he were the sick one. A glance sideways told him that Chuuya was looking down, his mouth slack, his forehead tense with effort.
“Your place isn’t far from here,” he murmured. It wasn’t what he had meant to say at all—there was a café right across the street, no need for him to step into Chuuya’s home at all, but… “Let’s go there.”
“You’re even more suicidal than I thought if you think I’ll let you—”
Dazai didn’t quite realize was he was doing until his hand was gloveless and an inch away from Chuuya’s face. Chuuya’s own fingers wrapped themselves around his wrist immediately, but their grip was weak, and the movement too hazardous; Chuuya wavered once again, tripping against thin air, his shoulder hitting the wall painfully.
Dazai grabbed his arm with his free hand to stabilize him. He pressed his fingers to Chuuya’s forehead, dislodging his hat, ignoring the full-body shudder that his contact brought. He could only imagine what No Longer Human felt like to the gifted, what sort of emptiness it created in the heart of those who spent their lives with power running under their skin; he could only guess how Chuuya felt about Dazai touching him like this when there was no Corruption to undo.
Chuuya was burning up. The very touch of his skin made Dazai’s fingertips sting.
“You can never do things like normal people,” Dazai mused, his own hearing a little fuzzy. His palm trailed down on Chuuya’s face. He felt the dip under his brow, the soft of his eyelids closing under the pressure, much warmer than they should be. “Not even catch a cold.”
Chuuya took in a shuddering breath. His grip tightened around Dazai’s wrist, and at last he pulled Dazai’s hand away, catching his hat before it fell. “I’m fine,” he lied.
“I wasn’t asking.”
Dazai let go of his own hold around Chuuya’s arm, now that the man looked like he could stand on his own feet. Chuuya’s face was damp with sweat and as pained-looking as before, but at least now it was entirely flushed and not quite so pale.
Dazai put his glove back on. The touch of leather on his fingers didn’t erase that of Chuuya’s burning skin.
“You’re useless like this,” he declared, looking at Chuuya once more. “You should go home.”
“I have work,” Chuuya retorted.
“What happened to your perfectionism, Chuuya?” Chuuya seemed to shiver again at the sound of his own name. Dazai continued, “Not that you were ever very good, but in that state you might as well be nothing more than a no-name lackey. Akutagawa would make a better executive.”
“Go die in a ditch somewhere, Dazai,” came the answering hiss.
“Tempting, but I think I’ll pass this time.”
Whatever Chuuya wanted to say next was lost to another bout of coughing. Dazai felt the strange urge to wince at the very sound of it, so wet and aching. He almost expected Chuuya’s hand to come away from his mouth stained with blood.
There was no hint of red on Chuuya’s glove when it parted from his lips. Dazai chose not to linger on the relief he felt at the sight.
“Come on,” he said, grabbing Chuuya’s arm once more. “I should at least make sure you don’t pass out in the middle of the street. That would be very unsightly.”
Chuuya’s lack of reply said a lot about his exhaustion.
They walked slowly through the near-empty streets. Part of Dazai was wondering what exactly it was he sought in Chuuya’s company when he had done his utmost to avoid it in the past; why exactly he couldn’t let go of him when Chuuya was perfectly able to walk on his own even through the fever.
Perhaps it was simply that Chuuya and sickness didn’t compute in his mind. He had never seen him so out of it aside from the ravages that Corruption brought on his body. This lackluster image of Chuuya brought back memories of the child he had first met who couldn’t stand up to the people using him for fear of being abandoned.
For a second, Atsushi’s face superposed itself to his former partner’s.
They reached Chuuya’s apartment building soon enough. Dazai dropped his hold on Chuuya’s arm a little too slowly as they waited for the elevator, and once again Chuuya showed no sign of having noticed it at all. He simply leaned against the wall, his forehead pressed to the metallic door, his eyes closed. His breathing was still uneven.
Chuuya didn’t say a word to him as they entered his home. He dropped his outerwear on the floor in a surprising show of messiness and made a beeline for his room, closing the door somewhat harshly behind him. Dazai picked up the coat, scarf, gloves, and hung them by the entrance. He fingered the opening of his own coat for a second before deciding against taking it off.
Sliding his hands out of his own gloves, he followed in Chuuya’s footsteps, glancing around himself as he went. As he had presumed, Chuuya’s apartment hadn’t changed much in the past few years. Paintings hung from the walls where rock band posters once did, and there were a few more potted plants here and there, but he found the same wine brands aligned on the kitchen counter. He saw the same lumpy couch he had once slept on when he was too lazy to go back to his own empty home.
Chuuya was mostly done undressing when he entered the room. He hadn’t bothered knocking, and his eyes could not help but watch as Chuuya pulled his shirt over his head, the hem of his undershirt following along and baring the lowest part of his back to view. He had to blink and turn away from the glint of sweat on skin, the outline of bones and muscles dragging shadows across old scars.
There was an apology on his tongue. He frowned and willed it away.
“What are you still doing here,” Chuuya muttered, unbuckling his belt with no mind at all for the present company. “Get lost already.”
“Just wondering if you have any cold medicine around,” Dazai replied. “I’d love to have a taste of it.”
“Don’t you dare kill yourself in my bathroom.”
“You’re so prickly about those things.”
Bathroom, then. Dazai turned away as Chuuya was tugging his slacks off, ignoring the warmth he could feel creeping up his nape, and made his way toward the only other door of the room.
Chuuya’s bathroom was achingly neat. There was not a speck of dust in sight. He probably hired someone to clean his place for him; Dazai doubted that his duties left much time for housekeeping. The mirrored cupboard above the sink gave him back the image of his face still reddened by the cold wind, his chapped lips, his messy hair. With a smile, he pocketed the chapstick standing by Chuuya’s toothbrush.
There wasn’t much medicine inside the cabinet. Chuuya didn’t often fall sick, after all. What was there consisted of things more in line with his work: powerful painkillers meant for graver injuries, some sleeping pills, a first-aid kit.
An old box full of unused gauze.
Dazai found some aspirin at the very back. He dragged it out quickly. This time, he didn’t linger on his reflection.
Chuuya was thankfully already under the cover of his bed when he entered the room again. His blanket rested above his hips, and one of his bare hands was rubbing his forehead. He took it away when Dazai cleared his throat.
“There,” Dazai said, throwing the pill bottle at him. Chuuya caught it one-handed. “I’ll make you some tea.”
Their eyes met for a second. Lying down like this, it seemed that Chuuya had an even harder time keeping focused, for he blinked several times. Dazai swallowed back words and turned away.
Quiet followed him all the way to the kitchen. It clung to him through heating water and letting the tea rest, foreign, haunting. Never had he known Chuuya’s home to be so silent; his memories of it were full of high voices, of background music, of loud video games. He watched the tea darken and wondered absently whether he would find Chuuya gone from the bedroom when he returned. Perhaps he would escape from the window and return to his work. Perhaps he would turn to ashes on the bed as if fate had caught up to him and decided, after all, that he was not supposed to exist.
He wondered how Chuuya had felt when Dazai had vanished from his life.
There was a pot of honey in the cupboard where Chuuya kept his coffee and sugar. Dazai put a spoonful of it into the largest mug he could find, poured tea into it, and returned to the bedroom telling himself that he did not fear what he would find there.
Chuuya had turned his back to the door in his absence. Cold light filtered in through the shut blinds, striping his bare arms with bright lines, highlighting the fever-sweat gathering on his skin. He looked to be asleep. His damp hair splayed behind his head, ochre against the white pillow, like a painted halo darkened by time.
Dazai put the mug on Chuuya’s bedside table. The pills he had given him were there, next to a bottle of water. He wondered if Chuuya had even taken them.
“Chuuya,” he called.
No answer. Dazai stood in the stuffy warmth of the room, suddenly very aware of every layer of cloth covering his body. He unwrapped the scarf from around his neck; loosened the bandages wrapped there to allow for more air; toyed once again with the collar of his coat.
“Chuuya,” he said again, with no hope of anything but echo.
Chuuya’s legs were folded in the direction opposite him, leaving room for one to sit on the mattress. Dazai did so warily, expecting Chuuya to wake up any second now and kick him away.
He should leave. He shouldn’t have come at all. He should be in that car with Atsushi, doing boring work for Ango’s department, small-talking Tsujimura into telling him where exactly she had met Chuuya and why Chuuya seemed to hold her in high esteem. But he couldn’t look away from Chuuya’s prone form on the bed. He couldn’t stop his thoughts from rushing with memories of watching him sleep, drunk or simply tired, with his body spread every way as if to occupy any inch of room available around him. Chuuya was never a meek sleeper. Never one to fold in on himself like this and make himself smaller.
“Chuuya,” Dazai whispered, and this time he did not stop his hand from reaching out.
Even Chuuya’s shoulder was warmer than it should be. Dazai had thought of shaking it, perhaps, of waking the other up so he could drink his tea and properly tell him to leave. His body had another idea, though; from shoulder to neck, from neck to temple, his fingers traveled without truly daring to touch, brushing over the full of Chuuya’s cheek or the corner of his eye, until at last his palm rested against Chuuya’s forehead.
Dazai had warmed his hands around the tea mug while taking it into the bedroom, but even so, Chuuya’s face felt hot. He let his hand rest there unthinkingly. Let his thumb find the thin strands of hair sticking across his face and push them away slowly.
He didn’t know how long he spent in that position, in the silence and the dark, rubbing his thumb through Chuuya’s hair. He only knew that the effort he made to finally move away was immense.
And then, there were fingers around his wrist, just like in that street earlier.
“I just wanted to tell you that tea’s ready,” Dazai said too-fast, unable to take his hand out of Chuuya’s grip. “You should drink it before it’s—”
“Dazai,” Chuuya interrupted.
Dazai’s words faltered. Chuuya struggled for a silent second, his face turned away still, before his fingers tightened around Dazai’s wrist. They were hot, too hot, almost brand-like on his skin.
“I should go,” Dazai said.
“Don’t,” Chuuya replied.
Chuuya rolled onto his back, hair once more clinging to his forehead. His eyes were unfocused, but they found Dazai anyway.
“Don’t go,” he said, and his voice sounded pleading.
Dazai had never heard Chuuya beg for anything. Not once. Chuuya roared and raged and demanded, but he never pleaded.
Please went unvoiced by him, yet Dazai could form the shape and sound of the word as if Chuuya had cried it out.
“I can’t stay,” Dazai lied.
Chuuya’s grip became almost painful. “Don’t you dare come here,” he breathed, the words weak now that the fever was truly running its course. “And then leave. Not again.”
I can’t stay in your bedroom forever, Dazai wanted to joke.
He wished he didn’t know what here meant to Chuuya.
Chuuya’s grip slackened. Dazai found himself catching his hand before it could fall; found himself holding it, palm to palm, against Chuuya’s covered chest.
“I know you’ll leave again anyway,” Chuuya said. His eyes had closed during the exchange, as if keeping them open were too much of an effort. “I know you will.”
Dazai had nothing to say to that.
Chuuya’s mouth twisted sideways. “People always leave, in the end,” he said.
“Is this about Michizou-kun?” Dazai asked.
Chuuya’s hand trembled for the barest second.
It made sense. Michizou had joined the port mafia only a few years after them, and Chuuya had always liked his company despite their difference in age and grade. Dazai should have realized sooner that Chuuya would not take well to his betrayal.
“You’re stupider than I thought if you think you had any way of controlling that,” he said. He breathed in slowly. “He was always planning to leave,” he went on. “He played his cards well. Black Lizard business isn’t your jurisdiction anyway.”
Chuuya stayed silent.
There was no way he would have said anything if not for heat clouding his judgment. Chuuya loathing showing weakness even more than he loathed the thing inside him that had caused his whole life to go haywire before he had time to live any of it. If not for the aches and the exhaustion—if not because he had probably worked himself to the bone after Michizou had left, like he must have when Dazai had defected—Chuuya would never have said a word of this to anyone.
Guessing his thoughts now was child’s work. People always leave me, Chuuya must be telling himself. There must be something wrong with me.
People had left him in a lab and then left him out of it, alone and confused, a child born into disaster. People had used him and abandoned him. As far as he could remember, Dazai had always belittled Chuuya’s devotion to the relationships he formed with others; now, with the ache of grief ever-resting at his heart, he finally understood what loss was worth.
Chuuya’s free hand came up to his face again, rubbing it slowly, chasing away tears brought by either sickness or sorrow. “Fuck,” he said. “I hate being sick.”
His hand didn’t stop holding Dazai’s.
There was nothing Dazai could, or wanted to, do about the people who had left Chuuya behind. Himself would not change his decision to leave the port mafia, not even if he could go back and prevent Odasaku’s death. Not in a million years. And even if he felt the willingness to come back to some things—to come back to Chuuya—he couldn’t promise never to leave again. That would be akin to promising to hold water in his palm; to curb the power of a storm.
Chuuya was right, as always, where Dazai was concerned.
He didn’t move, though. He let Chuuya hold onto him physically instead of any other way. He watched steam float over the mug on Chuuya’s dresser until ceased to produce any. He watched the surface of the tea become murky. He saw dregs gather against the porcelain in tiny black specks. Even as Chuuya fell asleep again, sweat beading at his brow, overheated under his covers, he didn’t leave.
He pulled the blanket back up when Chuuya tried to kick it away in his slumber. He wiped his forehead. He held his hand.
At least for a while—at least this once—he could stay.