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The Anchor

Chapter Text

The calligraphy was lovely even if the words were not.

“Quite an artistic feeling here,” Kouyou said, brushing light fingers over the downstroke at the center of the part that meant loss, which rested neatly over Chuuya’s lowest rib, the night she brought him into the Port Mafia.

No one knew what the handwriting of a soulmate mark meant, though that hadn’t stopped academics and old wives from speculating for generations. “A reflection of the quality of the bond,” said some. “Simple natural variation, more to do with the bearer than the target of the mark,” said others.

The fortuneteller who worked for the Port Mafia looked over Chuuya’s mark when they brought him in for ability assessment after he’d been found floating rocks around in the Noge-cho zoo after hours. He’d just been playing, but it’s not like he had anywhere else to go. Kouyou had looked so lovely in her kimono and had offered him a sweet.

The fortuneteller was less lovely, a face all of wrinkles and small dark eyes peering at him, as sharp as a crow’s. She was so hunched over, she barely had to look down to meet Chuuya’s eyes. He distrusted her immediately. She laughed.

“What a glare you’ve got on this one, Ozaki-kun,” she chirped. “I used to eat up boys like you for breakfast.” Chuuya imagined she meant it quite literally.

“Isn’t he a little young for that, Ono-dono?” Kouyou’s voice slid through the air like water on glass. Indeed, Chuuya was only twelve and had no idea what she meant.

The old woman laughed. “They’re all a little young for me these days. Hold still, child.” She petted his head like he was dog and Chuuya was about to snap at her fingers when she whispered in his ear: color of the blossoms and the scene in front of him burst into a thousand shards of color, a kaleidoscope where his own vision had been. He wanted to scream but before he could, she whispered faded in his other ear and it was gone.

“What the hell did you do?!” Chuuya clawed at his eyes like they were burning but there was no pain. His vision seemed to be fine again. The old woman just waddled over to her desk and starting writing something in a notebook.

“That’s more than enough of that. Where did such a pretty child learn such bad manners?” After a few moments of writing, she handed a slip of paper to Kouyou.

“‘For the Tainted Sorrow?” My, how poetic.” She clapped her hands together, looking for the first time closer to Chuuya’s own age than she was to adulthood.

“How do you know that phrase? That’s mine!” He didn’t know how he knew the phrase, but he knew it was his. Chuuya scrambled for the paper but Kouyou slipped it into her obi as though it’d never existed. Chuuya tried to grab it but she clasped both of his hands in a grip as cold as the iron bars he’d half-floated himself over to get into the zoo a few hours earlier. He pulled at his hands, caught in her delicate piano fingers like a vice.

“You remember what I said, Nakahara-kun. With a skill like yours, you could have quite a career with my organization. More like a family than an organization, really. We’ll take care of you for life.”

He stopped struggling. She had been kind to him and had sent the police officers away with such confidence. He had a distant cousin he stayed with now, who sent him to school and mostly fed him, but he didn’t have a family and his cousin was nothing like this beautiful, terrifying girl.

She kneeled in front of him and dropped his hands. Instead, with one hand on his shoulder and the other tucking a strand of hair behind his ear, he felt more caught than ever. “I just needed Ono-dono here to check your skills. Her ability lets her assess a few details of people’s lives.”

“It works better without warning, funny thing. Sorry about that.” She didn’t sound like she’d ever been sorry for a thing in her life. “It’s more accurate for abilities than the usual life details, though, so I stand by what I wrote.”

He couldn’t help it; he was curious. He didn’t know anything about his ability except that it was the only thing that had never let him down. “What did it tell you?”

“It told me you’ll be quite a remarkable talent with the right training. Quite an asset to the organization, if you’d like to be,” she said, a hint of light disdain touching on the word “organization.”

Kouyou read from the slip of paper, now in her hands again as though magic. “‘For the Tainted Sorrow: gravity control, limited to objects touched; estimated 10+ rated offensive ability at full implementation.’ A 10+ offense beats even me,” Kouyou said with a frown, “technically speaking.”

“Don’t pout about it, girl. Only at full effect and he’s a ways from that. Get a few good meals in him for a start.”

Kouyou smiled at Chuuya again but this time he could feel the teeth behind it. “What do you say, Nakahara-kun? Will you work for us?”

“It’s not like I have anything better to do,” he mumbled.

“A great reason for any major decision,” the old woman said and Chuuya was sure she was mocking him. Usually he’d fight her, but if Kouyou was his meal ticket for the night and Kouyou liked the old hag, fine.

“That’s lovely, Nakahara-kun. I’m so happy to have you. You must call me your sister from now on, of course.” She clenched a hand in his hair and he felt the scratch of her nails against his scalp. But it didn’t hurt; it was the touch of someone who had never learned to show affection without a threat. Chuuya understood that.

“Then call me Chuuya, Kouyou-neesan,” he said. Her smile assuaged some of the trembling in his stomach.

“That’s lovely, Chuuya, thank you. Now, do you want to ask Ono-dono here about something a little more fun than abilities? My treat to you. She does soulmate marks, you know, that’s quite a big seller.”

Chuuya had a soulmate mark and it felt somehow even more private to him than his ability, even though his mark was visible on his body and his ability phrase had been, until this moment, known only to himself in his own head. But he’d admit, with his limited awareness of the world of souls and mates, to a curiosity about it and if this hag knew something about it he didn’t, he wanted to know. He barely understood the words. He nodded and began to lift his shirt.

With it off, the old lady squinted at the mark. It was worse than going to the doctor. She poked it with one bony finger. She measured it with a measuring tape that appeared from her sleeve. She shook her head.

“What?” Chuuya asked.

She clicked her tongue. “It’s another ability user. That’s definitely an ability phrase. I can smell it. Pure trouble, that.” She wrote another note in her notebook.

Chuuya didn’t understand. “But what does it mean?”

“What do any of them mean, really? Just nonsense mumbo-jumbo hocus pocus.”

“You’re a fortuneteller.” Chuuya thought this woman was honestly out of her feeble mind. Old people were so strange.

“The calligraphy is very intense,” Kouyou said. “Quite an artistic feeling here,” and those sharp nails scratched again against Chuuya’s skin. “Does that mean something?”

Ono grimaced. “It means his life will depend on this soulmate. And I can already tell from his winning personality,” Chuuya glared at her again, “he’s going to hate that from start to finish.”

He looked down, sullen, at the words on his ribs. He already hated it. Another ability user, maybe, but another person to rely on who’d let him down. He pulled his shirt back on.

How could he trust someone whose ability was tied to so dark a phrase, more so even than his own? It was like he’d been assessed and found wanting, branded with a mark of disqualification in four characters flowing down his flank:

No Longer Human.

---

“You must weigh all of 10 kilos sopping wet, but I hear you fight like demon,” the old man said conversationally, his chin in his hands. Chuuya almost lunged for him, but Kouyou tugged on his shirt collar.

“It’s like you adopted one of those toy dogs with a bad personality, Kouyou, sweetie,” the man continued.

“Really, Ougai-san, this sort of taunting before a fight doesn’t become you.”

“He’s been with us for a year now,” Mori said, suddenly sharp. “He should learn to control his temper. Come play with me some time, little boy, and I’ll teach you.”

Kouyou pulled Chuuya a step closer to her. “Are you so lacking in confidence in your own trainee that you’re trying to steal mine?”

Mori stood up straight and tilted his head so his long hair fell to one side. “Not lacking in confidence, exactly, no.”

“Where even is he? Did he run scared?” It was twenty minutes past eight; they were supposed to have started their training session twenty minutes ago.

“Oh, he doesn’t do much running. More of a casual saunter,” Mori said absently. “And usually directly into something that’s going to get him killed.” Whoever this trainee was, he was obviously giving Mori a hard time. Chuuya could appreciate that impulse.

“Then he should saunter right over here and meet Chuuya.” Kouyou could be a harsh mistress, but she always spoke highly of Chuuya to other people. He never felt more proud than when she praised him.

The door opened. “Here he is,” Mori said, and in stepped a scrawny dark-haired boy, about Chuuya’s age, with bandages all up his arms and around his neck.

“Am I late? Sorry about that,” the boy smiled, insouciant, and Chuuya was already itching to punch this kid.

“You’re going to make him fight while he’s injured? That’s sick, Ougai-san,” Kouyou said, though Chuuya knew very well she would make him fight injured as well if it came to that.

“This is as not-injured as it gets, I’m afraid.” Mori stepped next to the boy. “This is Dazai Osamu. Dazai-kun, this is Ozaki Kouyou and her apprentice, Nakahara Chuuya.”

“Very nice to meet you, I’m sure. Shall we get started? It’s quite late already and I’m afraid this isn’t our only appointment of the day,” Kouyou responded with a slight bow. Chuuya just glared.

The training plan was simple: they were to fight with points given for strategic application of their abilities. Chuuya didn’t know Dazai’s but he assumed that Dazai didn’t know his as well. Chuuya had been training with Kouyou and doing mafia odd jobs for the past year—spying in the ways only little orphan waifs who could pass as three years younger than they were could, taking messages, breaking into low-security targets. This training assignment was the first suggestion that the organization was planning on using his offensive abilities in an expanded capacity, so he was ready to beat the shit out of any arrogant kids they put him against to prove himself, if that’s what it took.

They led them into the empty warehouse that served for mafia training purposes. If there was one thing the mafia didn’t lack, it was warehouses.

They stood facing each other in the large empty space. Chuuya felt even smaller than he was for a moment. He sized up Dazai: he was taller than Chuuya, but most of his opponents were and it’s not like he had an issue with gaining height when he needed to. Dazai’s posture seemed to be totally lacking any discipline or intent to attack. Was this kid a total amateur?

“What are you waiting for?” Dazai called. “Let’s get this over with!”

Chuuya glared. “You can come to me, you know!”

“I don’t know, seems like a bit of an effort. You try first!”

Chuuya knew he was being baited, but there didn’t seem to be much else to do. He circled around Dazai and lunged, aiming for a punch to the stomach. Dazai, predictably with such a half-hearted attack, dodged and Chuuya’s momentum carried him past him, but no worries—Chuuya was already spinning for another attack, lighter than air with his ability already in effect, getting in a kick directly to Dazai’s ass.

“How’s that?” he called to Dazai, sprawled on the floor.

“Fine if you’re into that sort of thing,” Dazai smirked and cracked his knuckles. In a second, Dazai was up again and coming for Chuuya. He was fast, but Chuuya was faster, of course, and it only took Dazai a brief exchange of punches to get that something what going on.

“Let me guess—some sort of flying ability?” he said, brushing blood off his lip.

“Close, but not—“ Chuuya jumped and landed heavy, creating a delightful crater in the center of the warehouse’s concrete floor. “—quite. ‘For the Tainted Sorrow,’ it’s called.” Pointless, but impressive.

Dazai clapped and Chuuya felt vaguely patronized. “Gravity manipulation! Wow, that’s cool. Wish I had something as useful as that.”

Chuuya frowned. “Why don’t you show me what you’ve got instead?”

“I’d love to but it’s not half as impressive. Let me get a little closer though, and I’ll show you.”

“Give it a try then, asshole,” Chuuya shouted and Dazai came at him. Chuuya dodged, of course, and Dazai came at him again and again—he was moving faster than he had been, but not quite as fast as Chuuya.

Chuuya could tell where he was coming from, though, he could track where his next attack would be—until suddenly Chuuya was stepping backwards to avoid an attack he thought was come from the left and there was Dazai, behind him, a hand slipping across his neck.

Chuuya dropped like a stone, as all the weight he’d brushed off into the air while using his ability came rushing back and settled around him. The ability he’d relied on just a little too much was now gone. He collapsed—but Dazai had miscalculated as well: he collapsed right on top of him, knocking them both to the ground.

Chuuya rolled over to pin him down. He didn’t need his ability to kick Dazai’s ass from that angle.

“What was that? What did you do?” he screamed, his hands around Dazai’s throat. Dazai coughed in response.

“My ability, No Longer Human! It nullifies other abilities if I’m touching the person!”

Chuuya froze. “What did you say?”

“It’s not permanent, calm down—“

Chuuya punched him in the face. Usually, he had to admit, he adjusted the gravity so his punches were a little weightier than they’d be naturally, but he had no trouble hitting Dazai as hard as could. “What did you call it?”

“‘No Longer Human’? It’s ability nullification—“ Chuuya punched him again. And again and again, until all he could feel was the impact of his small fists against Dazai’s face and all he could hear were Dazai’s small gasps of pain.

“Get him off him! My god!” He heard Mori yell and then someone was grabbing Chuuya’s arms, hauling him off Dazai.

They sat them down on opposite sides of the side office that served as a locker room of sorts for the warehouse training facility.

“That was impressive, Chuuya, I’m sure you know, but you have a lot to work on. What did he do to make you so angry?” Kouyou said.

Chuuya wasn’t listening. He was looking across the room where Mori was berating Dazai. Dazai touched his throat as though being almost strangled had happened to someone else.

“Were you taunting him?” Mori said.

“I wasn’t! Really, for once! I think he’s just a little high-strung,” Dazai answered, laughter in his voice.

“This isn’t an exercise in how cleverly you can get yourself killed, Dazai-kun. If you’re not going to take it seriously—“

All of a sudden, Chuuya got it: Mori thought Dazai had lost on purpose. He didn’t think Chuuya could have beaten him for real. And, from the lazy smile on Dazai’s face, the slouch in his thin shoulders, even as the bruises formed, it was clear Dazai thought the same.

Chuuya wished he’d beaten him to death.

“Chuuya? Are you all right?” Kouyou asked again.

“I’m fine,” he said, adding in a yell directed across the room, “as long as that bastard never touches me again!”

He stomped out and Kouyou followed. He thought he heard laughter in the room as he slammed the door.

---

For weeks afterward, he expected Dazai to say something. He had heard Chuuya’s ability’s name. He must have it as a mark, if Chuuya had his, and so he must have known Chuuya had his too. Maybe he’d known before they fought; that would have been one reason to lose on purpose that didn’t make him a fucking prick. Who wants to beat up their soulmate? Chuuya thought he was probably a rare exception in that regard.

After some time watching Dazai, Chuuya could tell he wouldn’t just keep quiet about something like that. He’d rub it in his face. It would be “Chuuya, my soulmate” this, “Chuuya, my beloved,” that. Dazai never kept quiet about a damn thing.

He watched him a little bit every day they were assigned to train together. Chuuya, whatever Mori thought about his lack of control over his temper, was the picture of discipline through every martial arts instruction. With hand-to-hand, he was number one in their group of new recruits; with firearms, he was rapidly improving. In practical applications of abilities, he’d received the highest marks on creativity and potential strength.

Dazai grinned and slouched his way through all of it, never expending more effort than necessary, but never slipping up either. Chuuya was the only one who could beat him in hand-to-hand. His ability only had one application, but it was an unbeatable defense against ability users. The instructors had him practicing getting close enough to touch opponents no matter their strength.

“Staring at me again, Chuuya?” Dazai smirked. “I can’t blame you, I think this—“ he tapped his eyepatch, courtesy of a new mystery injury, “—really adds to my image, you know.”

“You look like a jackass,” Chuuya spit out. “Did you get so sick of seeing yourself in the mirror that you tried to stab your own eye out?”

Dazai looked at him sharply. “Something like that.”

“Good. It’s just going to make it easier to kick your ass.”

Dazai smiled and clasped his hands together. “Ah, so you admit you have a hard time beating me? I knew I was getting better!”

“More obnoxious, maybe.”

“That’s a fancy word, Chuuya! Have you been reading? We should start a book club!”

“Only if I can beat you over the head with the books.”

“That sounds like fun, actually!”

Chuuya rolled his eyes. “Can we just fucking get on with this?”

Dazai was getting better and Chuuya hated it. He wasn’t getting more disciplined or stronger—just trickier, just more and more aggravating, which was insane since he’d started at aggravation level 11 and Chuuya didn’t think it could get much higher than that.

“If you insist, darling,” Dazai drawled and Chuuya stared at him. Had he—did that mean—did he know? “What? Something on my face?” Dazai poked at his bandage.

“No, nothing, just—” Chuuya was about to ask outright, he realized, if Dazai knew about his soulmate mark, but he stopped himself. No point asking Dazai for a straightforward response. “I’m not going to go easy on you just because you’re injured.”

“I wouldn’t want you to,” Dazai said, with a smile Chuuya thought was as close to a genuine one as he got.

Chuuya kicked his ass with no problem, he was happy to say. But he avoided hitting his face—whatever he said, he didn’t want to make Dazai’s injuries worse.

---

“Sometimes they don’t match,” Kouyou said one evening after he’d been assigned to fight Dazai again. Dazai had won this time, via some completely bullshit trickery.

“What?” Chuuya asked, confused. He’d been thinking about Dazai’s smirk as Chuuya had stepped under the crates he’d rigged to fall—nothing that would stop him for long, but enough of a distraction that Dazai could get his hands on him, stop his ability with that fateful No Longer Human, twist his arms around his back and force him to his knees. He was learning.

“The marks. Sometimes they don’t match,” Kouyou repeated. She was the only one who knew what Chuuya’s mark said, except for the old woman.

Chuuya stared at her. “Are you saying I have that bastard’s mark but he doesn’t have mine?”

“It’s possible.”

Chuuya slammed his fist on the coffee table. “That’s bullshit.”

Kouyou frowned her pouty red lips. “It’s best just to forget about it. This isn’t a world for soulmates.”

“Who the fuck was thinking about it? You’re the one who brought it up.” He stomped upstairs to his room.

Chapter Text

He was sitting with Kouyou when the call came. They were going over the list of new acquisitions in human assets —a few new girls to be trained for the teahouses and a set of young ability users to be assessed.

If Chuuya had known just how much of his job would be paperwork and spreadsheets, he probably would have said fuck off to Kouyou two years ago and continued on his merry way to a less demanding life of crime. But now he had come to like the business aspects of the work. Kouyou-anesan invited him more and more often into her private study to take notes for her.

The antique phone left on the end table in Kouyou’s study rang like a clanging bell. She answered it quickly.

“Hello.” Her back straightened. “No, I’d been expecting your call somewhat earlier in fact.” Chuuya hadn’t realized they’d been expecting a call.

“That won’t be necessary. I’m sure he’ll confirm just what you’ve told him to.” She twirled her finger in a lock of hair that had fallen loose. It was one of her last remaining girlish ticks; Chuuya had watched her smooth them out, one by one, growing colder and more beautiful with each passing year.

“It would be my honor, Ougai-dono.” she said with perfect politeness but there was a slight hint of a laugh. “May I ask a question, if you don’t mind?”

She paused as she waited for permission. “Did he suffer?” She tapped a perfectly manicured fingernail against the arm of her ornate armchair. “I suppose that will have to do. See you soon.”

She hung up and then, without pause, overturned the end table with a crash.

Chuuya jumped back. She turned on him. “Men are so useless!” she screeched with a frustrated groan. “If it had been me, I’d have made sure he’d felt all the pain, all the knowledge of what he deserved! But that snake of a man lets him die in his sleep—probably poisoned him anyway—I bet he never felt a thing!” She smashed a very expensive antique lamp against the wall.

The crash would have been audible to other people in the building, so Chuuya knew he didn’t have much time to get the story out of her before the place was crawling with other ears. “Anesan, calm down! What happened?”

She sighed. “Oh, Chuuya, sweetie, did I scare you?” She hugged him close and he let her. “The old boss died, you know how I hated him—” he had, indeed, heard that rant many times “—but now Mori is in charge and you know no one can trust him, he’s slippery and a nasty pervert—” Chuuya didn’t mention any of Kouyou’s own well-known perversions “—but at least he’s promoting me to executive, so I’ll be able to keep a close eye on him.”

“That’s great news, Anesan.” His first thought, actually, was that it also meant that bastard Dazai would be promoted, as Mori’s closest disciple, and Dazai would be even more insufferable than before. At least he’d be rising in the organization with Kouyou too.

There was a heavy knock on the door. Kouyou leaned back. “Just a minute!” She patted Chuuya’s shoulder. “It’s great news for both of us. I have a job for you first, though.”

Chuuya nodded as seriously as he could. “Anything you need.”

“I need you to speak to that little friend of yours to confirm Mori’s story.”

“My friend?” Chuuya couldn’t think of who she meant.

She continued with perfect casual innocence. “Mori said that Dazai witnessed the old boss die and name Mori his successor.”

“So?” Then it hit him. “Dazai isn’t my friend and how the fuck—”

“Language, my dear—” she interjected with a titter.

“He’s not going to tell me anything, we are rivals and enemies and I hate his guts—”

Kouyou stared at him blankly for a moment and then “Of course, of course, whatever you say. But there’s no way he’ll tell me anything besides what Mori told him to say. With you, he might slip up.”

Chuuya doubted that. “But I’m not an interrogator—” Dazai was, Chuuya knew; he had already been getting notorious as someone who get information out of anyone.

“Oh, it’s not like that. I’ll come up with an assignment where the two of you can be alone. You can bat your eyelashes at him like I showed you and let me know what he says.”

Chuuya sighed. A maid opened the door at last. “Ozaki-dono, is everything all right?”

“Quite all right!” Kouyou smiled. “Just a little accident. Send someone in to sweep up the glass.” The maid nodded and left.

Kouyou turned to Chuuya. “Is that all settled?” Chuuya nodded glumly. “Excellent. Now, let’s see about picking out a new lamp, shall we?”

———

The job Chuuya found in his inbox next week was a standard reconnaissance job to surveil a drop site, a supposedly abandoned warehouse between Isogo and Negishi. Security concerns limited, it was marked for only two operatives.

Dazai summoned bad luck like an old friend though, so there’d been an ambush, five men from a rival organization, dropping in like there being only two Port Mafia operatives there, both skinny kids, was Christmas come early.

Chuuya barely remembered fighting them, but they were unconscious when back-up arrived. Dazai must have called it in. There wasn’t much to back-up against, now, so it was more like clean-up. One of the Port Mafia men looked a little warily at Dazai. Dazai shook his head and nodded at Chuuya. The man smirked at Chuuya, fairly impressed, and Chuuya grimaced.

Dazai squeezed Chuuya’s shoulder. “Come on,” he said, pulling him towards the train station. There was a car waiting for them, but Dazai waved it off.

On the train, Dazai pulled at his tie and unbuttoned the top buttons of his shirt. “August is too hot for this sort of thing.”

“The car would’ve been cooler,” Chuuya muttered, though the train meant more time alone with Dazai, which, as unpleasant as it was, was necessary for Chuuya’s other mission.

He brushed his hands on his knees. His knuckles were still sore from the fight. The train car was mostly empty, but there was a slight whisper around them. He glanced at Dazai. He looked beaten up and was grinning like a loon.

“You’ve got a bit of—“ Dazai said as he reached over with a handkerchief. He pressed it to Chuuya’s cheek and wiped away something. When he pulled back, Chuuya saw it was blood.

Chuuya’s hands flew to his face. “Shit!” There was blood coming from a cut on his cheek. When had that even happened? One of the guys had had a knife, Chuuya remembered; Chuuya had twisted his arm until he’d stabbed himself in the thigh. Not pretty.

Dazai laughed. “We can get off and patch you up. Two stops. I know a good spot.”

At Ishikawa-cho, they snuck off the train and slipped into a Family Mart. Chuuya bought himself various first aid supplies while Dazai whistled all too uselessly at his side. The cashier gave them a look but didn’t say a word.

Dazai pulled him in a direction that Chuuya knew was further from the train and from the Port Mafia headquarters, but Chuuya didn’t stop him. When they got to the foot of the hill, Dazai pointed to a steep flight of stairs, behind a wall overflowing with wisteria, and said, “Want to race?”

Chuuya shook his head. “What’s the matter with you? You were already complaining how hot it is—“

“If your legs are too short, I understand,” said Dazai and he took off.

“Fuck you, asshole!” Chuuya yelled but ran after him. Dazai’s legs were too damn long, skipping every other step, but Chuuya was in better shape. They collapsed about the same time at the entrance to the garden at Italiayama. Chuuya hadn’t even realized that was where they were.

“You had a head start,” Chuuya grumbled. “So I won.”

Dazai chuckled and Chuuya, heroically, didn’t strangle him. “Someone’s going to take advantage of that competitive streak of yours someday.”

“I’m not competitive, you’re just—“ But he didn’t have a word for why Dazai in particular aggravated him so much. Catching his breath, he followed Dazai through the garden until they found a bench. He pulled out the bandages and antiseptic from the plastic bag. “Why’d we have to run up here anyway?”

“We had to run so these—“ he pulled something out of his pocket and dropped it in his lap. “—wouldn’t melt!” It was an ice cream bar and Dazai had one to match.

Chuuya stared at the ice creams. “Did you steal these?”

“No, I paid for them with the allowance my mom gave me,” Dazai deadpanned. “We’re criminals, Chuuya.”

“A little small time for us, don’t you think? I haven’t done that since I was a kid.” The ice cream was, in fact, the kind he liked. He tried to remember if there was a reason for Dazai to know that.

“You’re not still a kid? Could’ve fooled me, littlest mafia.” Dazai said, biting into a matcha cookie crunch bar.

“I’m three months older than you!”

“And about three feet shorter.”

“And I can still kick your ass!”

Dazai just laughed at that, which took the fun out of it, so Chuuya sighed and leaned back on the bench. From Italiayama, all of Yokohama looked far away and yet all around them, right against them, a city that creeped in all directions on the ground far below. The ominous towers of the Port Mafia loomed on the horizon towards Minato Mirai. In the carefully plotted garden, though, there were only flowers and a few butterflies.

He couldn’t see the cut, of course, but he scrubbed at it anyway with bottled water poured on tissue. Dazai stared at him, eating his ice cream, not helping. Chuuya didn’t ask for help, though, until Dazai was waving the handkerchief from earlier in his face.

“It’s already got your blood on it.”

Chuuya grunted and reached to take it but Dazai didn’t let it go. Chuuya tugged and Dazai tugged back. “Let me clean it for you,” he said. “Hold this.” He handed Chuuya the ice cream and took the water. His touch was almost gentle as he stroked Chuuya’s cheek with the wet cloth.

“I thought you were scary to fight against,” Dazai murmured, “but you’re even scarier to watch.”

“W-What?” Chuuya said. “Is that supposed to be a compliment?!”

Dazai pressed a little too hard against the cut and Chuuya hissed. “Maybe.”

He replaced the cloth with his fingers, now spread with antiseptic cream, cold against his skin. Chuuya tried not to move, though the ice cream was melting in the heat. He licked it to catch the drips and Dazai cried out.

“I got you your own!”

“Well, hurry up so I can eat it.” He took another spiteful bite of Dazai’s.

Dazai narrowed his eyes and slapped the bandage on, causing Chuuya to let out a little ouch. Dazai grabbed the ice cream back. Chuuya rubbed his face where the bandage was.

The ice cream was already half-melted when he opened the package, but it was cold and distracting. After a few bites, he said, as casually as he could, “So your guy’s the boss now.”

Dazai scoffed. “That creepy old man is hardly my guy.”

Chuuya almost disagreed but then he thought maybe this was his in. “Yeah, he’s a weirdo. Can’t believe the old boss picked him as successor.”

“That’s because you have a fundamental lack of imagination.” Dazai grinned and finished the last half of his ice cream in one bite. “Doesn’t seem too unbelievable to me.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Chuuya wasn’t cut out for this mission at all; he would have happily beaten information out of Dazai, but that wouldn’t have been subtle. What had Kouyou said? Bat your eyelashes? He looked into Dazai’s eyes and almost tried it, fluttering his lashes just a little. Dazai only stared back and Chuuya was caught for a moment in his dark brown eyes.

“The old man—“ Dazai started. “You want to know how he did it?”

Chuuya nodded.

Dazai slipped a hand across Chuuya’s body and into his jacket. His fingers brushed the part of his chest where his mark was, in fact, and Chuuya didn’t need to be thinking about that right now. And then Dazai pulled Chuuya’s knife out of his inside jacket and Chuuya stopped thinking anything besides how much time he had before Dazai murdered him and if there was enough time before that to kick his ass.

“Right here,” Dazai held the knife to Chuuya’s throat. “He sliced his throat right here. I was the only one who saw. He died in agony.”

Definitely enough time if he was going to soliloquize. Chuuya moved, grabbing Dazai’s wrist and pulling it away from this neck. He twisted his wrist and Dazai flipped, landing on his back on the ground.

Chuuya stood in one swift motion and stomped on Dazai’s wrist until his fingers dropped the knife. Chuuya’s ice cream was on the ground next to his head, dropped and smashed as he’d moved. He leaned down to grab the knife and got up close to Dazai’s shellshocked expression.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” Chuuya snapped. “No way you thought that was a good idea.”

“I was just trying to help you out! Ow, I think my wrist is broken.” He sat up and rubbed self-consciously at the wrist in question.

“Good! You deserve it! Let’s go!” Chuuya adjusted his hat and stomped towards the entrance, pulling out his phone to call a car as he walked. Behind him, Dazai mumbled a snarky “yes, boss,” but he followed.

When he told Kouyou that night, she didn’t crow or demand an immediate overthrow of the Mori regime. She nodded sharply and said, “I’m glad he died in pain, the fool.” Then she studied Chuuya closely and said, “Why did Dazai-kun tell you?”

Chuuya didn’t know what to say. She’d given him the mission because she thought Dazai would tell him, right? Why the disbelief when he did? “Because he’s an unpredictable lunatic who likes to start shit?” was his only answer for her.

Kouyou just hmm’d to herself. After that, Kouyou and Mori worked together like they’d always been the best of friends. Chuuya didn’t extend Dazai the same courtesy—whatever he’d been playing at that day in the garden, Chuuya didn’t know and, as Dazai’s reputation for erratic, reckless cruelty grew under Mori’s leadership, he didn’t want to find out. The words on ribcage stayed hidden and silent, just an accusation Chuuya traced sometimes in the mirror.

———

Being a teenage mafioso was certainly as exciting and time-consuming as anyone would expect, but Chuuya managed to finish compulsory education somehow, by some miracle of Port Mafia influence in the municipal education system. He didn’t go to high school—what a waste of your youth that would be, Kouyou said—but his education in the workings of the Yokohama underworld never seemed to be complete.

Mostly, what he seemed to learn was that the criminal underworld would always find new ways to screw him over.

“They want you upstairs, Nakahara.” His friend Ooka—who had been to high school, actually, and was now in the Port Mafia equivalent of middle management bureaucracy—tapped his desk impatiently.

Upstairs was a meeting of two of the five execs, which would have been intimidating if it’d been any of them except Kouyou, Chuuya’s direct superior, and Mori, who was terrifying but not in an unusual way. His daughter or whatever was balanced on his lap, as pretty as a doll. They were in ornate armchairs in the casual sitting room on the 55th floor.

“Come now, Elise-chan,” Mori said to the girl. “Take a sip of tea.”

“No! I won’t drink out of these cheap teacups, Rintarou—“

“But I had them imported from France! Elise—”

Chuuya raised an eyebrow at Kouyou. She looked like she wanted to die. She was smiling.

“Chuuya, please have a seat.” She gestured to a third armchair and, as he walked around the room towards it, he saw who was sitting in the fourth.

“You came! Chuuya!” Dazai clapped his stupid bandaged hands together like a kid unwrapping a new toy.

He almost turned around and walked out. Instead he said through gritted teeth, “Of course I came, idiot. It was an order.”

“Aww, you always follow orders? What a good little doggie,” Dazai said.

He clenched a fist, half ready to deliver it directly into Dazai’s teeth. “Fuck you, you waste of skin, I do my damn job!”

“Boys, really,” Kouyou scolded as though she couldn’t wait to hear them bicker more.

“Yes, please, tone down the language while Elise is here,” Mori said. Chuuya nodded blankly.

“I’ve heard worse,” Elise said cheerfully. Weird as she was, Chuuya kind of liked her. He smirked at her as he sat and she stuck her tongue out at him.

“I’ll get to the point,” Mori said. “You’ve heard of our problems with this group up north,” he waved one hand upwards in a gesture that seemed to an encompass everything to do with that other city, the capital proper, “the ‘New Tide,’ yes?”

It was a recent development: a group from Tokyo had been encroaching on the Port Mafia’s traditional territories at the edge of Kanagawa. Nothing disastrous so far, but a few skirmishes and a few businesses skipping their protection fees in Kawasaki. Chuuya nodded.

“We’re putting you two in charge of suppressing them. Dazai-kun will take lead; Nakahara, you’ll report to him.”

Chuuya stared. “Excuse me?”

“That’s a much calmer reaction than I expected from you,” Dazai drawled.

“Maybe I’m just in shock at how stupid an idea this is—“ Chuuya shouted. Kouyou giggled behind a delicately manicured hand.

“Ahem.” Mori coughed. “This is a big responsibility. No more of this bickering. Is that understood?”

“Yes, boss,” Chuuya said firmly and Dazai said lazily.

“Good. Mission parameters will be on your desks tomorrow. Dismissed.” With a wave, the businesslike Mori sent them out of the room and went back to doting on his little girl.

In the hallway, Dazai got that look on his face like he was going to make a smart ass remark. His usual look, in other words. “Don’t speak to me,” Chuuya said as they waited for the elevator. “Don’t look at me.”

“But we’re going to be partners!” Dazai cried with fake tears already welling up.

“Don’t even breathe in my direction.” He pressed the down button another six times rapidly in succession.

Dazai scratched the back of his head. “I didn’t think you’d be this mad when I requested you for this.”

Chuuya turned on him in one swift movement and shoved Dazai against the wall. “You requested this? Are you some sort of sadist?”

Dazai looked pointedly down at Chuuya’s forearm against his neck, pinning him in place. “More of a masochist, obviously.”

Of course—Chuuya dropped him, pointedly. He wouldn’t give Dazai the satisfaction of kicking his ass today. “Whatever type of sicko you are, I don’t want any part of it.”

Dazai twisted his mouth into a thin line. For a moment, Chuuya thought he had really upset him and almost felt bad. “I just thought we’d work well together, that’s all.”

“Why the fuck would you think that?” He was angry but also, just a little, maybe five percent, genuinely curious.

Dazai smiled brightly. “Because you’re a total loose cannon and I know just how to aim you!”

“What—what the fuck does that even mean—“ Chuuya stuttered.

Dazai looked pleased as punch that he’d get to explain, but, of course, he didn’t. “You’ll see on our fabulous first mission together as the Port Mafia’s newest duo, won’t you?”

“First and last,” Chuuya grumbled as Dazai half pulled him into the elevator.

“Let’s get a drink and celebrate!”

Chuuya never said no to a drink, even if it involved Dazai.

The Drifting Cloud was a dive, but the Port Mafia owned it so no one blinked at two notoriously criminal teenagers coming in expecting a drink. Average people tended to take Chuuya for somewhat younger than he was, but here everyone knew him by sight, at least, and knew he’d kick their asses if they tried to get between him and a bottle when he was in a mood. Being reassigned as Dazai’s subordinate certainly warranted a mood.

The wood panels had seen better days and the toilets were disgusting, but they had booze that was drinkable and would, occasionally, acquire a bottle of wine that was decent.

The waitress had a pattern of red birds on the back of her hands. They were too finely drawn to be tattoos, so they must have been her mark—maybe a painter who loved birds as a subject or an ornithologist. Had she met them yet? Chuuya envied her like a sharp stab in his side where his own mark was.

Dazai must have noticed where he was looking. When she’d left them with their drinks, he said, “My friend has an ability called ‘Flawless.’ Wouldn’t that be a nice one to have?”

Chuuya stared at his glass of cheap wine, which looked larger than his head. It was hard to focus on Dazai’s nonsense at the best of times, let alone when there were such nicer things in the world. “Depends on what it does, of course.”

“No, I meant—“ Dazai sighed, exasperated, though honestly, how did he expect anyone to follow half the things he said when he was babbling to himself? “It shows him five seconds into the future if he’s in danger, if you must know, but I meant it would be nice to have that as a mark, right? ‘Flawless’, like you’d passed a heavenly inspection board.”

Chuuya very carefully did not unconsciously touch his own mark, which he’d often thought was just the opposite: a heavenly inspection board had determined he was such a failure at humanity, he’d have to be stuck paired with Dazai for the rest of his life. “That sounds like a fucking useless ability.”

“It’s not useless at all,” Dazai chirped, all too cheerful for this dreadful day. “It always comes through for him when he’s in mortal danger!”

“So?” Chuuya muttered into his glass. “If I wanted to kill you, you’d need more than five seconds warning.”

Dazai widened his eyes in a pathetic mockery of self-pity. “You don’t want to kill me? Aww, Chuuya, I thought we had something special.”

He threw an arm over Chuuya’s shoulder and pulled him close. Chuuya ducked away and shoved him back against the booth, a little too hard. “I’d want to kill you as slowly as possible. Five seconds warning would just show you my fist slamming into your face again and again.”

“Promises, promises,” Dazai said, taking a sip of his bourbon. He set the glass down and rested his chin in one hand.

He was smiling and Chuuya, despite having seen a thousand of Dazai’s fake smiles, was disarmed. He sipped the wine and it tasted sour. “You have thing for this guy? Mr. Flawless?”

Dazai laughed, one of Chuuya’s top ten most aggravating sounds. “What?”

“You’re going on like a schoolgirl about wanting his mark.”

Dazai lifted his eyes to the ceiling and dropped them again, which Chuuya knew he did when he didn’t want to talk about something. “Just because my actual mark is so depressing.”

Chuuya swallowed. “What is it?”

“It’s an ability name. The old lady told me that much.” He pushed up the sleeve on his right arm, covered in bandages like so much of Dazai’s scrawny body. He tugged on the small metal clip holding the bandage in place and began to unwind it.

Chuuya realized abruptly that Dazai was about to show him his mark which, while not taboo, was certainly something too private to do so casually, in public, with a colleague he barely knew. He almost stopped him, but instead he waited. His breath caught even though he knew the mark wouldn’t match his—unless Dazai was fucking with him at a heretofore unknown level, which was always possible with Dazai. Still. It’d be strange even for him. He braced himself for someone else’s ability on his supposed soulmate’s arm.

He blinked as the bandages pulled back to reveal the first character: it was dirty, the same at the first character in For the Tainted Sorrow. Chuuya’s heart stopped. Had that fucker—had he, this whole time, had Chuuya’s own goddamn ability on his arm and decided to reveal it like it was nothing, on a random night out, for the hell of it? He was going to kill him. He yanked Dazai’s upper arm, pulling the damned mark closer.

But then the bandages fell away entirely. Two characters, simple and brief, not the dangling phrase that finished Chuuya’s ability name: dirty and impure. Corruption.

That was that, then. The mark was different. They didn’t match.

With that clarity, he could now study it with the distance of an unconcerned party. A mark always healed cleanly, even if the skin around it scarred; some mystical bullshit that made it impossible to escape one’s own marked fate by destroying the skin that held it. Chuuya knew Dazai well enough to know it hadn’t been the mark he’d been trying to destroy when he did it, but the scars were obvious underneath the black lines of the mark: vertical slashes up the wrist, some faded with age, some more recent. The mark seemed to hover over them, protected and complete from Dazai’s attempts to end his own life—this soulmate, corrupted though they may be, remained whole.

The writing was bold, dark calligraphy, similar to Chuuya’s. Without thinking he pressed his index finger to the first stroke in dirty and traced the writing, barely lifting his finger as he moved over the brushstrokes. Dazai shivered.

“So close,” he whispered and Chuuya realized they were close—he was still holding Dazai’s upper arm and now he was leaning over his arm.

He moved away quickly. “What did you say?”

“Nothing.” Dazai started rewrapping the bandages. “It’s depressing, right? Like I didn’t know my soul was corrupted already.” He clipped the bandage in place and nodded at Chuuya. “I showed you mine, now you show me yours.”

“We made no such fucking deal.” If he has to show Dazai his mark after seeing in black and white the final confirmation that Dazai’s didn’t match, he would die. He’d resigned himself emotionally to never having a relationship with his soulmate—he didn’t want Dazai anyway—but he’d be damned if Dazai was going to know it.

“Is it somewhere embarrassing?” Dazai craned his neck around like he was trying to get a better angle on Chuuya’s ass. “You can show me in the bathroom, if you like.” His tone was laughing but Chuuya flushed.

He took a giant gulp of wine for fortitude and decided. “I don’t have one.” The lie felt good. It felt like freedom. He lived like he didn’t have one anyway. A lot of people did. Some people really didn’t have one at all too. It wasn’t that odd, in their line of work, where people tended to die young.

Dazai opened his mouth a little and then closed it, frowning. Chuuya studied the table. He felt a hand against his shoulder and held back his impulse to fight anyone who touched him. He looked up. Dazai was smiling at him and, for a moment, Chuuya let himself feel something like longing. He imagined what it would have been like if Dazai had revealed For the Tainted Sorrow on his wrist, if this had been Dazai’s fucked up method of confessing. Would they have kissed? Honestly, he probably would have punched him immediately for fucking with him and then—who knows, Chuuya thought, because it didn’t matter. It hadn’t happened.

“It’s probably for the best,” Dazai said. “In this line of work.” His hand was still on Chuuya’s shoulder. He moved it a little, closer to the back of his neck. Chuuya felt his fingers tangle in his hair briefly before Dazai leaned back and they were gone. “And you can fool around with anyone you want! Anyone who prefers their men pocket-sized, that is.”

Chuuya kicked him under the table. “You’re lucky I’m here to drink tonight and not to fight.”

“Aren’t those usually the same with you?” Dazai said. “Oh, we almost forgot—“ He raised his glass. “To our new partnership.”

Chuuya clinked his glass against his. “Cheers.” He closed his eyes as he drank, the image of Dazai’s mark against his eyelids.

—-
On the way home, Chuuya leaned against a street light in the right part of Noge until a dark-haired man approached him. He followed him towards the river to a hotel that would rent a room to two men and tried not to note the lankiness of his limbs or consider why he’d picked this one of all the guys giving him the eye.

The stranger wasn’t gentle for a moment as he thrust into Chuuya and all Chuuya could do was grunt through the pain: more and harder, until he was spilling across the already-stained sheets.

After, this fucking nobody, enough of a pervert to be seduced by a sixteen-year-old who looked even younger, caressed his mark and said, “This is a pretty one.”

“Get the fuck off me,” Chuuya snarled.

The man scrambled out the door half in his clothes as Chuuya stood to take a shower. He made a mental note not to take his shirt off with the next one.