"What a carnage," the man said.
His footsteps were very light. His bloodless face almost sheet-white in the dark of the alley. He had been the very opposite of this when they had met hours ago; he had asked for her age with a mocking glint in his eyes, even after she refused to answer. He wasn't used to guarding little girls, he had said. He didn't know why they had assigned a little girl to a hit, he had mused. He could help her if she didn't know how to pull the trigger, he had offered.
Now he looked at the place where Golden Demon had faded as if its yellow light still shone upon him. He stepped into the blood of the beheaded woman at their feet with a squelch that would never fail to upend her innards. He looked at Kouyou with fear and pity.
"You lot," he said. "Gifted people. You can't even live in society, can you."
"Be silent," she replied.
He ignored her, as many did. "I didn't even know you people existed before I got in. Thought the talk of superpowers was all shit—you know, yeah, I can believes in espers and psychics and stuff. But this?"
He pointed to her face, to the abnormal red of her hair, to the faint glow of her ability still clinging to her skin like sweat.
He said, "All of you'd be put in a lab somewhere and vivisected if normal people knew."
She looked at him fully for the first time. He was broad-faced, short, thick all over except for his hands. That had been the only thing she had noticed about him before then—how thin his fingers were. Almost as delicate as her own.
"Is there a point to this?" she asked slowly.
The man shrugged. Stepped away. The viscous, sucking noise of congealing blood ran through the air once again and made nausea crawl up her throat. "Just pity," he replied. "Can't believe a girl like you has this sort of power. It's like you were born to be a killer."
I didn't ask for it, she thought.
"You don't have any parents?"
"Let's just go back," she bristled, turning around.
He grabbed her by the arm—she almost punched him, would have, had he not the presence of mind to grab her wrist and hold. "Easy," he growled. "Shit. What did you say your name was again?"
"I didn't say."
"Well, fuck you too."
He could insult her all he wanted. She had heard it all dozens of times. Kouyou tore herself out of his hold and walked out of the alley, making sure to avoid the blood he had so thoughtlessly smeared under his own steps. Death hovered around them even with the distance. Tainting the starlight, settling ice-cold inside her chest. This part of Yokohama at night was somewhere anyone but them would fear to be in. The woman she had just killed should have feared it more.
"How old are you?" the man asked again.
"Sixteen." She could tell him as much. It wasn't as if any of it would matter once her turn came to lose her head. And handymen like him died by the handful, day after day, their bodies piling up in the half of the hospital wing that might as well be called a morgue.
"Sixteen," he repeated. "And there's nowhere for you to be but here."
"No," she replied curtly. "Please stop talking."
She didn't technically have authority over him, but she was gifted. He was not. The port mafia prized its rare gifted members more than the others. She could become an executive if she survived long enough, if Hirotsu found her adequate enough for a recommendation, if their boss managed to look past the fact that she was a woman to see the strength she held. She didn't care either way. She hadn't cared about anything for a very long time.
Life for her was an endless string of blurred days. Spilled blood and withheld secrets and open, hateful glares. She went through the motions of existence and lived none of it at all.
They were getting closer to the meeting point where a car would pick them up when the man spoke again.
"If you could leave," he said.
Kouyou's skin broke with shivers under the soft of her clothes.
Hirotsu was as much of a mentor as one could hope to have inside the mafia. He wasn't kind, was never soft, though he was always polite. Kouyou had grown used to seeing him in training and seeing him in the place she had called home for two years. His visits went by mostly unacknowledged by her conscious; he didn't seem to mind that she was so distant.
That day, he came in holding a child by the neck.
Two children, actually, and it was the second one who caught Kouyou's eye, more than the dirty and scruffy one who kept struggling in-between them. Mori Ougai's protégé met her eyes with the fleeting hint of a smile at his lips. Cruel and dead-eyed and absolutely uncaring of the way the child he was holding by the wrist tried to tear away from him—tried to bite him, at one point. Hirotsu had to turn his grip into a choking one around the child's neck; they gasped, and squirmed, before stilling, red-faced and breathless. When the man's hand loosened, red fingerprints lingered on the child's skin.
"I'm sorry to bother you, Ozaki-kun," he said in his deep, guttural song of a voice.
"Who is this?" she asked.
The filthy child threw her a virulent glare. They weren't struggling anymore, but their breathing was hurried and shallow, almost a whine. Anxiety had imprinted onto them just as strongly as anger; with the way Dazai stood, cool and silent and eminently bored, it felt even more obvious. Dazai's controlling hold on their wrist looked like a parody of handholding.
"He's an ability user," Hirotsu replied, making her look at him once more. His face looked pained. "A powerful one. He was found making a rampage by the harbor—Dazai-kun was the only one who managed to stop him."
"It was nothing," Dazai said politely.
The boy next to him growled like an animal.
"He is completely fine, physically," Hirotsu said. "Mori-sensei cleared him of everything except minor bruises and cuts." His nostrils flared. "And the dire need for a shower, I think."
"Fuck you," the boy rasped.
"Language," Dazai replied, looking like this was the most fun he'd had in years.
It might as well be, for all Kouyou knew.
"You took him to Mori-sensei?" she asked mildly. It was hard to see much under the layers of grime that had turned the boy's skin grey in places, or the muck clinging to his threadbare clothes. The palpable fear he wore around him made something in her want to flinch back, though. The soulless quality of Dazai's eyes even more so.
Hirotsu's reply was even. "I stayed with them during the whole examination."
She nodded. "What do you want from me?" she asked.
"Our boss would like you to have him."
It made her freeze for a second.
"I'm—not sure I understand," she said delicately.
"He is very pleased with your work as of late," Hirotsu went on. He barely seemed to notice that the boy had started squirming again, choking every time his grip tightened. "As you know, it is something of a tradition for higher ranking members of our organization to take on apprentices."
"But..." She paused, looking for words. "I'm just an assassin."
"He feels it's time to give you a bit more authority."
She couldn't have told what she felt at his words. Some distant part of her urged her to be proud, whispered that this was what she was meant to be, the only thing she could be; she had worked hard during the past two years, ever since Golden Demon had come to her and sliced the neck of her enemy for the first time. She had withstood the silent resentment directed at her from all sides. She had made her place into the port mafia, little as she wished to.
Maybe she felt a bit like that child did. Bursting with rage, filthy to the core, watching as strangers decided her fate for her.
"We can't let him go," Hirotsu said more lowly. "I can't tell you more until I get full official clearance, but this boy is… let us just say it would be very foolish to let him fall into the hands of any other gifted organization. It's a miracle he managed to hide from us for this long."
The boy smiled through his fury, proud and venomous. He didn't say a word.
"I'm not—" Kouyou started. She had to swallow before continuing, before being able to meet Hirotsu's eyes once more. "Should I train him as an assassin, then? I don't even know what his powers are."
"Some sort of gravity manipulation, I believe, though there is more to it than that." Hirotsu nodded at her. "As for training, do whatever you feel is required. Find out what he can be useful for. It's up to you."
She didn't have time to wonder what he meant by that exactly—gravity manipulation felt very vague and very impressive at once. Too impressive for the tiny child standing in front of her. He didn't look a day older than ten, though his voice had already been rough. Rougher than Dazai's.
Hirotsu braced the full of his palm against the boy's throat and shook him, once, until his eyes rose from the ground to meet his. They were very blue.
"You will stay here," Hirotsu said, slowly, menacingly. "You will not cause Ozaki-kun trouble. If you try to run away, we will find you, and we will punish you."
"I'm not scared of you," the boy said. "You can't hurt me."
"Do you know what they do to runaways?" Dazai asked from behind him.
"Let go of me," he replied, electric.
Dazai raised the wrist he was still holding, until the boy's bloodstained hand was level with his face. He nudged the boy's pinky with his index without releasing him. "They take a finger," he continued. "That's for us gifted. We get a second chance because we're valuable. The non-gifted, they just get killed."
"I'm not scared."
"You should be. My power is stronger than yours, after all."
He released the boy at last, stepping away with mirth all over his face. The boy shook in place, still held by the throat.
"One day," he breathed, "I'm going to kill you myself. I swear it."
"I'd love that," Dazai replied, smiling widely. "Please feel free to try."
Tension swelled between them until the air was thick with it. The boy must not be able to use his power yet; Kouyou once had the disagreeable experience of feeling Dazai nullify hers, back when Mori was trying to figure out if Dazai's No Longer Human worked on everyone without exception. It had felt like a void inside her, nauseating, and like sharp relief in her mind for the barest second—just long enough to think, I'm free.
The boy only looked panicked. Fraught with fear, shaking without realizing it. She didn't think he wanted to be free of his power at all.
Hirotsu released his neck. "Stay here," he repeated calmly. Then, to Kouyou: "I'll be back with more information as soon as possible. Subdue him with whatever means necessary. The boss is very diligent about his staying with us."
She wanted to ask him to wait, to be given the choice to refuse. But Hirotsu left, Dazai in tow, and the last she saw of them was the dark smile Dazai gave to the seething boy standing in front of her.
They were alone, then. Still at the entrance of her apartment. The boy didn't let his eyes trail over the living-room before looking at her in defiance, and the anger in them was so vibrant that she felt it in her own chest.
"What's your name?" she asked.
He didn't answer. His hands trembled, no matter how tight he made his fists.
"This will be easier if you talk to me, boy."
"I don't have anything to talk to you about," he replied. His mouth twisted as he added, "Bitch."
In the next second, Golden Demon unfurled from her back like a butterfly taking flight for the first time; she saw the horror on the boy's filthy face with some distance, watched the yellow light of her curse wash over him until even the scabbed blood on him glowed. The boy stepped back into the door, scrambling to open it, and then he stilled, deathly, the tip of Kouyou's demon's blade pressed into his jugular. His life or death resting at the tip of her fingers.
"I think some ground rules are needed," Kouyou said quietly—the boy's eyes snapped to her in a heartbeat. "To get the first out of the way: you will address me with respect. You will not insult me, you will not embarrass me, and if I hear that word leave your rotten mouth once more, I'll be the one to cut off your tongue."
He had stopped breathing altogether. Her control over the blade was complete, he wouldn't have been cut even if his throat had shaken, but he didn't know that, and she felt no need to tell him.
"Do you understand me?" she asked.
It took a while, but he nodded, eventually. Kouyou lowered the sword. She didn't call back the spirit.
"My name is Ozaki Kouyou," she went on, now taking the time to properly look at him. He was absolutely disgusting. More animal than child. It was hard to say what, exactly, he was stained with, but it was all over him, as if he'd tried to swim in the middle of an oil spill. "I don't care much what you call me, as long as you're respectful about it."
Tears were gathering in his eyes now. She thought they might be more due to the exhaustion of having felt so much fear in so many hours than because she or her ability were the most terrifying thing he'd seen. They couldn't be, if he had already met Mori Ougai and their boss.
"You can stay here." She turned her back to him, Golden Demon still hovering at her side. "I have a spare bedroom you can use. You'll take a bath first."
She threw him a glance over her shoulder. The boy unstuck his back from the door reluctantly, following two meters behind her without trying to close the distance.
The tour of her home was quick. There were only three rooms, one of which—her bedroom—she didn't allow him to see. She had to rummage for a while through her clothes to find anything his size, and all she found was an old pajama from when she was fourteen. It would be too big on him still; she had always been tall for a girl.
"The window's too small, even for you, so don't even try to escape while in there," she said as she pushed him into the bathroom. "You'd be found out in a minute anyway."
He slammed the door shut in her face with a click of his tongue.
She busied herself by making water boil and cleaning a teapot. It was probably a bad idea to give a child tea to drink this late into the night, but the movements were habitual enough to soothe her somewhat. She let herself relax to the rushing sound of water that her walls couldn't filter out. It lasted for a long time, probably because he was so caked with dirt. She'd have to clean the tub once he was done.
Finally, she heard the door open. There were no footsteps to be noticed as he joined her into the kitchen, and for a second, as he fell under the light, she didn't recognize him.
"Oh," she let out, looking at him from head to toe.
Blue eyes weren't the most striking thing about him. His skin was pink now from the heat and the steam, damp in places, and he was drowned in the blue pajamas she had lent him. His glare was a lot less impressive when added to the softness of his face and the faint dusting of freckles over his nose. He looked even younger somehow, though she knew he must be around twelve at least.
All the difference was in his hair, however. It had been so filthy it had matted—a solid, brown mess of grease and other unspeakable things. Now it was still tangled, still too long; but it was orange, just as bright as her own, marking him as gifted just as hers did. No regular human could have hair that bright.
"You're actually cute," she commented.
He blushed furiously and replied, "Fuck you," through clenched teeth.
"I'll let this slide because you must be tired," she said, lips twitching as he recoiled from the reappearance of her power at her back. She gestured toward the table. "Tea?"
He took a seat looking like he expected the chair to grow spikes and stab him.
He really was a scrawny thing. Kouyou didn't have much to compare him with except Dazai, who must be around twelve or thirteen himself. Where Dazai was already getting broader in the shoulders, though, this boy remained thin as a stick. His wrists skinny enough that she could see the outline of each fragile bone. She could probably snap them with nothing more than the strength of her fingers.
He was also more bruised than she expected. His hands and wrists were marbled with green and blue, and when the sleeves of the pajamas fell back, she saw that the marks went up his forearms as well.
"What happened to you?" she asked, sitting down.
She wasn't surprised when he didn't answer. He watched like a hawk as she poured the tea for them both and waited for her to drink first before even laying a finger on his cup—she couldn't help but approve of this, at least. He winced at the burn of his first sip but then seemed to enjoy it well enough.
"You might as well talk, boy." Her cup was set back with a soft sound. "You'll realize soon enough that you're stuck here for the foreseeable future. No one escapes the port mafia."
"I could," he muttered. He wasn't looking at her. "I'm strong."
"Gravity manipulation, right?"
He glanced at Golden Demon almost shyly.
"Is this the first time you meet someone like you?" she asked. Once more, he ignored her. "Ability users are more common than you'd think. Most of them either get taken in by the government or join a gifted organization just like this one. You're lucky we found you rather than someone else."
"You don't sound like you're lucky," he retorted.
"It's a tough life," she replied, stroking the handle of her cup lightly. "You'll have to get used to violence. Though," she eyed the bruises on his hands, "something tells me you have a head start."
"I don't wanna be here."
He wouldn't have let her hear how vulnerable he felt if he were less tired. His grip on the cup was tight enough that she knew he must be using it to hide shivers, and his eyes were bright, still, with unspent tears. He looked angry through all of it. Furious and desperate and ready to bolt and scream.
It was an achingly familiar feeling. It made her feel young, too. Reminded her that she was only sixteen herself—that she very much wanted to scream.
"You are here," she said softly. "The sooner you accept it the easier it'll be for us both."
All of a child's strength and despair poured into a single word.
Kouyou drank her tea and said nothing.
The boy tried to escape that same night. She caught him long before he even left her home, because he was not as silent as he thought he was while rummaging through her cupboards and cabinets, looking for money and food.
Kouyou slept lightly. Sleep paralysis turned to nightmares turned to sleep paralysis. Slumber for her was an endless cycle of seeing dark shadows transform into bright nonsense and then back, always with fear tight in her stomach, always with a scream lodged in her throat. She tore herself away from the heavy gaze of the monster in her room to step out of bed when the first sounds of doors opening and closing reached her. Footsteps light onto wood, eyes grown attuned to the dark from staring at it for too long.
He was in the living-room, and he was floating.
She stared at him silently for a while, admiring the red glow of his power around him. He directed himself from table to closet without ever needing to touch ground. The things he intended to steal from her trailed weightlessly behind him, like ducklings after their mother.
Gravity manipulation, Hirotsu had said. And something more. Something that had needed Mori's prized student himself to put a stop to. The boy seemed to have complete control over his movements, as if he had been born using it. Nothing at all like her.
A powerful ability indeed.
"I think that's enough," she called, turning on the light.
The boy fell to the floor with a yelp. Her things followed suit. Surprisingly, there was the cup she had put his tea in earlier among them; it broke into pieces with a sharp noise, and the boy inhaled loudly from it.
He was back on his feet in a second, still glowing red, looking at her with hatred.
"I'm leaving," he growled. "You can't stop me."
"I can, actually. I am stopping you right now."
There was a second of hesitation, a flash of pleading despair in his eyes, before he threw himself at her.
Golden Demon stopped him before his blows could land. The boy squirmed and yelled in the hold of the spirit, but even the weight of his power couldn't pierce through its otherworldly skin. He seemed to realize it soon enough. His struggle died down. He panted, hovering in Kouyou's ability's arms.
This time, his tears did fall. He sobbed without strength, exhaustion crashing into him visibly, the glow of his powers now slithering over his skin and darkening his bruises. Every single one of his breaths was the rasp of someone close to dying.
"I hate you," he said to her, and his eyes were so bright with anger, with a rage she had never known before, that she knew she would find him in her future nightmares. "You and all those people. That kid earlier and that old man and that fucking boss of yours"—he sucked in a breath—"I hate all of you, all of you, and one day I'll fucking kill you."
She found that she didn't doubt him one second. Just as she didn't doubt that Dazai was serious when he talked of his own death. She could imagine, with stark clarity, that this boy would one day explode under the pressure of his own painful loneliness. That he would take everything with him.
"Go back to bed," she said, releasing him.
He slumped onto the floor, tears streaming down his young face in utter silence, the thick of his heartache burning in Kouyou's throat.
"Heard you got a student," the man said.
Kouyou cleaned her sword on the leather of her victim's jacket. It was a man this time. Or boy, really. He couldn't be older than twenty years old. His split forehead shone under the moonlight like jewels.
"News travel fast," she replied, standing back up. The hem of her kimono had been spared bloodstains this time.
If the man was surprised by her willingness to talk, he didn't show it. "Heard about it from the Black Lizard squad leader," he said. He shoved a hand into his pocket inelegantly and pulled out a lighter; it was then that she noticed his lisp had been due to the cigarette already stuck between his lips.
He lit it with a flick of his thumb.
"I didn't know my life was of such interest to you," she said.
The man shrugged. "Just not used to little girls being killers is all."
"You're a criminal."
"That I am. Call me old-school if you want. I feel like I gotta keep an eye on you, you know?"
His hands were so very fine. A pianist's hands. Kouyou kept her eyes on his fingers as he brought the cigarette back to his mouth, and found that for once, the smell didn't bother her. It almost soothed the slick warmth of blood, ever-present on her tongue.
"How is he?" he asked with a sigh. "That student of yours."
"So far?" She tried to put words onto the boy's behavior toward her, the overwhelming weight of his hatred and hurt, and couldn't. She didn't think anyone could. "Young. Foolish. He mostly glares at me."
"You should find him something to do."
"I don't think he likes to do anything."
The man laughed roughly. "Boys that age are all about girls and fights," he said. "Get him enrolled at a dojo somewhere."
She privately thought that this boy might not be very much about girls, but the dojo was a good idea. He already had extensive experience at fighting his way into life, after all.
"I'll think about it," she replied.
The man's face was rough with stubble, most of his chin shadowed with it. Under the streetlights he looked as though he were wearing a mask of sorts. The thought wouldn't leave her as they walked further into the light, just like that of his surprisingly delicate hands, stuck to such a bulky body.
"Still, this is good news for you," he said.
"What do you mean?"
He smiled at her. Took in another drag of smoke. "Higher rank means you get to move around without raising suspicion. That's always a good thing."
"Why the fuck do I have to go to school?" the boy hissed.
It wasn't the first time he had asked. He had hated the idea just as he hated everything she told him, just as he hated the clothes she had bought him, just as he hated, hated, hated, with every hot drop of his blood.
He hated even the mafia's martial arts instructors. He went to every training session they held without fail, did better at them than any other trainee, and still hated them. What a spiteful creature.
During her long, sleepless nights, Kouyou thought about what it might look like for this boy to love something. To love someone. She tried to envision what devotion, what loyalty, could match this much rage.
"You'll not be uneducated on my watch," she replied simply. "It's not really school anyway. Just a few classes a week with some teachers. You won't be alone either—Dazai's taking them too. I took them too."
She glanced down at him. "The boy who restrained you when you arrived."
His face turned bloodless with anger, his fists clenching in his leather gloves tightly enough to produce sound.
Unsurprisingly, he hated school as well.
Still, he went to every class, swallowing down knowledge like water in a desert, soaking himself with every weapon he could find. His body grew less skinny with food and training. His hair softer now for being washed and brushed regularly.
"I need to cut it," he said, during the fourth week of his stay.
"Why?" she asked.
She didn't try to touch him, because he had flinched every time she tried, even for things as simple as correcting his posture. The boy eyed her hands as if they always concealed blades. He wasn't entirely wrong.
She looked at his hair anyway—the bright shine of its color, the soft frame of it around his face. He gathered looks for it everywhere they went, just as she used to.
"It's beautiful," she continued, ignoring the way he flushed. "I'm sure it'll get curlier if you grow it out."
"I look like some weak girl."
"Is that supposed to be an insult?"
He seemed to hesitate.
"Boy," Kouyou said softly, looking at the drying polish on her nails. The air of her living-room was sharp with the scent of it; he kept sniffing, as if his nose tickled. "What am I?"
It took a long time for him to answer. "A girl."
"Indeed. And am I weak?"
"I hate you," he replied.
She was so used to hearing him say it by now that she felt nothing at all. "Yes, but am I weak?"
He hissed. "No."
Kouyou nodded. She blew on her fingers and said, "Then stop being an idiot. Hair is just hair. Shave it off or let it grow as you want."
She should've known better than to let herself relax around him.
She had never met a child as closed off and private as he was. Not even Dazai. She only knew Dazai enough to be aware of the desperate, crazed plea for cruelty he carried around like a shadow; Dazai was polite to a fault, achingly well-mannered, mysterious as a well. He was thirteen years old and could carry torture like a grown man. She had no doubt that he had already been sent out to kill and collect.
Somehow, the boy she housed was even worse. She didn't know so much as his name five weeks in, didn't know his age or birthday, what his favorite color was, if he even liked the food he ate. He ate everything, because, she guessed, he had spent too long not knowing whether he would be able to eat enough.
Kouyou let herself be complacent anyway. She grew used to catching him in his escape attempts before he could step foot outside her home. She grew a tough enough skin not to let herself burn every time he burned, not to feel like a failure at every white-hot look he gave her. His anger was so familiar by now that she never thought to look under it to find what he might be planning.
He didn't try to take anything for this attempt, and so she did not wake up.
It was long past three in the morning when someone knocked fiercely at her door. Kouyou was out of bed instantly, terror still hot in her belly, the shadow of her dreams crouched along the walls. She didn't try to turn on the light, for fear of seeing it better.
The person who opened the door was Hirotsu. The second it took for her to recognize the shape he was dragging along the floor almost like a bag for the child himself was the longest of her life.
"My men found him," he said darkly, "running through the port on his own. He'd broken into the armory and taken the boss's ornamental swords with him."
The boy was unconscious, his hair matted with blood. It came out of a cut in his forehead, out of his nose and busted lips, out of every split-open inch of skin that she could see through his ruined shirt. His breathing was a wheeze, pained and high, because his ribs must be broken.
The grip Kouyou had on the frame of her door was the only reason she didn't waver.
"Please don't tell him," she heard herself say from very far away.
Hirotsu dragged the boy's body the rest of the way in and dropped him onto the floor. He moaned from the pain without waking up.
"Your orders were to subdue him," he said evenly. "To make him loyal to us."
"I," she tried. Her nails dug into wood, and the one on her index broke as it did. She swallowed. "I'm trying, I have been trying—please, Hirotsu-san." She grabbed the lapel of his coat with shaking fingers and looked up at him, knowing she looked pathetic, looked the part of the little girl they had once dragged away from the only home she knew. "Please don't say anything."
"I should take his finger for this."
The revulsion she felt at those words was soul-deep, shuddering through every bone, gathering like acid on her tongue.
"He's just a kid—"
"Dazai-kun is no older than him," he cut in, merciless. "You are only a girl. If I am soft on any of you then I am soft on all of you, and this organization crumbles."
She fell to her knees regardless of the humiliation, regardless of the fear shaking through her; her forehead touched the floor between his feet, and the air from her lips rushed over her own face when she whispered again, "Please."
She stayed kneeling for so long that her feet ached, and her back moulded itself so well into the posture that she thought she may never be able to stand again. When Hirotsu sighed above her, she barely heard it at all.
"Should I take your finger instead, Ozaki?" he murmured.
Tears dripped from her nose as she replied, "Yes."
She did so trembling from head to toe.
"I will let this slide," he told her—her breathing hitched, and the look he gave her was one of deep pity. "But if it happens again, I will take his whole hand. Make sure he knows this."
She could only nod at him.
"You've never betrayed us," he went on, "so there would be little reason to take anything from you so permanently. You're not entirely to blame for his insubordination."
There was no more fear for her to feel when his gift came alive, metal-like light surrounding the hand he lifted in her direction. She didn't move at all.
"Even so, you need to receive punishment," he said softly. "I hope you understand."
She was still sat on the floor when the boy opened the only of his two eyes that wasn't bruised shut. His first groan of pain felt very distant from her, as did the way he pushed himself upright, rasping breath after breath through his small, aching chest.
He was so small. In all the ways that mattered. Freckled and soft-looking, a bird trying to fly with plucked wings. The fact that he could really fly made very little difference.
She heard him gasp at the sight of her, and she said, before he could open his mouth, "I never asked for this."
"Shut up." He fell silent. "You can hate me if you want," she continued shakily. Her broken arm still ached with the languor of deeper wounds, slow and steady, spiking alongside her heartbeat. All of her mouth tasted of bile. "You can even try to kill me if you want, you selfish child, but do you really think I enjoy this?"
She looked at him. There was shock on his face, she thought, under the blood and bruises.
"I never asked to be saddled with you." It wasn't what she wanted to say, but all of her hurt, heart and body alike. The bile she did pour out was in the shape of words, of an anger she couldn't reign in anymore. "I warned you. I told you you wouldn't be able to escape. I sheltered you and fed you even though you have been nothing but ungrateful and spiteful, and this is how you thank me? I wish I'd never met you."
She wished she didn't have the heart to care for this lonely, angry little boy, who reminded her so much of herself.
"You're probably just the bastard spawn of some man who never wanted you," she said hollowly. The breath he sucked in was as good as confirmation. "Born out of wedlock and thrown out to die in the street like the animal you are. You should've stayed there and disappeared. It would've saved me the trouble."
"Fuck you," he replied weakly.
It made her chuckle, and her own ribs ached with it. "You don't understand anything at all. Stupid boy."
"I'll get away next time—"
She grabbed him by the arm, regardless of his flinch and of the way he grunted as it rustled his shoulder. "There will be no next time!" she yelled at him. "Don't you get it? The port mafia is everywhere. They have eyes and ears in this entire city, and you may have managed to escape them for years by sheer luck, but they know you now." She released him, panting. "They know what you look like. They know what you can do. If you try to escape again, they'll cut off your hand—you hand, and then your foot, and then every little piece of you until there's nothing left."
He was white as a sheet now, wet with blood and sweat, the cute stains on his nose looking like dust in the darkness.
"Get up," she breathed, struggling to stand herself. "We're getting you patched up, I have work tonight. One of Hirotsu-san's men will watch over you while I'm gone. You should count yourself lucky that it was him who caught you and not someone else, or you'd have one less finger by now."
The boy was silent as he followed her out. She told herself she felt no disappointment, no regret, nothing at all.
There were ten of them this time, men and women both, and Kouyou knew that this was punishment too. Each of their screams branded into her heart as she cut them down, the man who often accompanied her on her hits standing by her side silently, keeping watch over the hallway of the inn.
It had been a lovely place, before she drenched the floor with blood and guts.
"We're done here," she said as soon as the last woman fell.
"Not even time for a cigarette?"
She didn't answer.
"What happened to your arm?" he asked anyway, eyeing the white cast she had let Mori place onto her. His rough treatment hadn't even bothered her. She had been too busy making sure his hands never strayed while fixing the boy—nothing mattered next to that.
She said, "I'm going to die."
Then she choked up, because these were not words she was supposed to say or think, not to herself, not to anyone.
The man stilled at the entrance of the dining room, his cigarette halfway to his lips. His thin fingers curled loosely.
She realized that it was true, then. She was going to die. She was going to die because the boy would not stop fleeing as long as he found nothing to love, and she would never be worthy of his love. She was going to die of the punishments she would take for him every time, because she could not stand to see him hurt. She would die of the very violence she enacted night after night on the orders of a mad boss. She would die of her nightmares. She would die of the roaring loneliness crushing her heart to smithereens, echoing through her empty ribs with every icy breath she took.
She thought, sometimes, that Golden Demon was maybe the only one inhabiting her limbs anymore. The only presence in her that her blood kept flowing for. She thought she must look just the same as Dazai.
No one could love a soulless shell.
"You're not going to die," the man said, and he was standing in front of her now.
There were no words on her mind for her to reply with.
He placed a hand on her unhurt shoulder. "Kid, listen—you're not going to die."
"It's okay." She smiled pleasantly enough. "Forget it, I'm just tired."
"No." It was weird, how worked up he seemed about it. She had never seen him look less than casually disgusted, reluctantly helpful. His palm was gentle as it slid down to cup her arm. "I promise. I'll find a way."
She didn't try to understand what he meant by it.
When she came home, there was a cup full of tea on the kitchen counter.
She bid good night to the man Hirotsu had sent to watch over the boy with clipped words. The boy must be in his room already. She had not seen him all day, not even as he left for his lessons and then returned. He had made himself scarce since they came back from the hospital wing. Probably buried himself in one of the books he took from her shelves when he thought she wasn't looking.
The tea was cold. It looked over-steeped. She would have believed it to be made by the boy's watcher, if not for the fact that no one but him dared to touch what was hers, and if the cup it was in had not been the one she had drunk from on the night he arrived. The one whose match had been broken that same night in the boy's attempt to flee.
Kouyou drank all of it, stale and bitter as it was. She wept into it until she could taste her own warm tears in her mouth. She let it settle in her stomach and squeeze the barest edge of hope out of her wrung out self.
"Ah, Kouyou-kun," Mori said in greeting.
They were walking toward each other in the main hall of the ground floor. She had come to fetch the boy from his training, not trusting him to walk the way from there to her home anymore. Mori himself seemed to be heading toward the elevators, Dazai in tow as always, followed by the wavering steps of Yumeno.
The boy twitched by her side at the sight of them. A quick glance informed her that his lips had curl in something close to a snarl. Dazai himself seemed absolutely fascinated by the sight; he was staring at the boy with cold amusement in his single unhurt eye, his own mouth twisted in a parody of politeness.
His leg seemed to be broken. He was walking with a crutch.
"Hello," he said.
"I'll kill you," growled the boy.
Kouyou put a hand on his shoulder. He didn't even recoil from the contact, so entranced was he in his own dislike. It seemed even stronger than the one he held for her.
She didn't know what to think of it. She never knew what to do around the strength of his emotions. Dazai was a cruel genius, more feral in many ways than the boy himself; she didn't know how to read the way he looked at the boy. There was something brewing here, in the electric space separating them, that she feared could go one way or a terrible other.
"I see you're making progress," Mori commented, eyeing the hand she had on the boy. Her fingers clenched reflexively—the boy hissed as her nails dug into him. "Dazai-kun tells me he's quite apt at martial arts as well."
"What else has Dazai-kun told you?" Kouyou asked mildly.
Dazai gave her a knowing look. Mori's own hand came to rest on his shoulder, light and easy, mimicking the way she held the boy—and her stomach tried to upend itself at the sight. She felt the almost primal urge to rip Dazai out of his grasp physically, to tug Yumeno toward her, to plunge the tip of Golden Demon's sword into Mori's throat.
"Nothing much," Mori replied, unaware or uncaring of the violence she exuded. "Well, it was good seeing you. I see you're both recovered as well." His eyes slid down to the boy once more.
He must have guessed what had happened that night the moment they stepped into his office, broken-boned and furious.
Kouyou stepped forward, dragging the boy with her. She felt him strain to look back once they were past Mori, and she knew, if she were to turn around, that she would find Dazai doing the same.
"Who are they?" the boy muttered once they reached her apartment.
Her hands paused in the process of unlocking the door. He was looking somewhere at her waist, not at her face, but there was no doubt that he had addressed her. She just hadn't expected him to. He never asked question. He barely ever talked. When he did, it was to insult.
"Mori Ougai and Dazai Osamu," she replied, opening the door. He shuffled inside silently, dragging his feet out of his shoes inelegantly and leaving them as they were in the entrance—she bent down to align them more cleanly, and he didn't thank her or apologize. "Mori-sensei is our boss's personal physician. He takes care of other injured when he feels like it."
"You don't like him."
"No. He's a despicable man." The boy looked as if he wanted to ask, but she didn't think she could handle telling him the truth, so all she said was, "I don't want you to go see him on your own."
He frowned. "What if I get hurt?" he asked. "He fixed me last time."
"Then you come to me. Or Hirotsu-san." She made her tone more final, hoping he would understand how serious she was about it. "You will not be alone with him in any way, shape, or form. Am I clear?"
The boy glared at her. She could only hope that he would heed her warning, at least for this.
His next question was easier to answer. "What about that bastard?"
"Dazai-kun?" His shoulders raised at the name, some instinct deeper than words making him react to it alone. She chuckled. "He's Mori-sensei's student," she said. "Sort of. No one knows where he comes from exactly, but Mori has been very diligent about training him. There's talk that he might be made executive in a few years. He's smart, and his gift is quite useful as well."
She had expected the overt resentment on the boy's face, the bare glint of his teeth on aggression—not the flash of jealousy in his eyes.
He masked it quickly enough, before she could wonder what he was jealous of. "I hate his guts," he declared.
"You hate everyone," Kouyou replied tiredly.
"He calls me by my name."
She halted the steps she had taken toward the kitchen to look back at him again.
"Isn't that normal?" she asked.
The boy struggled for a moment, looking at her and then down, and he said: "I haven't told anyone here my name. I don't know how he found it."
Oh, she thought.
She had assumed that his secrecy about it was reserved for her alone. She hadn't asked him again after that first night, and he had seemed unbothered by the fact that she had nothing to call him but boy, lad, child. He had never called her by name either. Only you, as rude as he could make it without stepping over the strenuous line she had drawn during their first conversation.
He aborted a movement in her direction. His foot came to rest again from where it had risen, hesitantly; it looked a little as though he were trapped in his spot by the door. Barefoot under the yellow light of her home, hat in hand, orange hair shining softly.
"Chuuya," he said very quietly. His face grew crimson, and the quick look he gave her before looking away once more was accompanied by a hurried inhale. "My—my name. It's Chuuya."
Kouyou could hardly breathe. She dared not move either.
"Chuuya," she repeated eventually.
The shiver than ran over him at the sound had very little to do with rancor. "You probably don't give a shit, and I don't care either, so—"
"No," she cut in. "No, I do care."
She cared so very much.
"It's a beautiful name," she said, looking at him with what she thought must be obvious longing. Chuuya, her mind told her again. Chuuya. A name to say in one heartbeat. "You should be proud of it."
Chuuya looked up at her from under his lashes, cheeks flushed, eyes bright. He always wore vulnerability around him like cloth, but this kind, she had not seen before. This kind she felt in her heart at the turning point of anger; this kind she felt under her skin like a second set of ribs.
The next time she saw the man was not during an assignment. It was not under the moonlight, with blood pooling under their feet. The scent of the tobacco he favored was not hot in the air but cold on his unwashed skin, and the thick stubble on his face had turned into a beard.
He caught her between one place and the next, in the down hours of the day. He dragged her into darkness by the arm, and he was lucky that she recognized him, because Golden Demon had already started unfolding from her spine, leveling its sword with his neck.
"Drop that," he hissed at her.
"Drop me," she replied coldly.
He did. Her elbow ached from the imprint of his thin fingers anyway.
"What is wrong with you?" she let out, looking around. There was no one that she could see, no cameras that she noticed, but they were close to headquarters. Eyes could be anywhere.
He must know it as achingly as she did, because his tone was low enough that only she could have heard it. She had to strain despite the uncomfortable closeness of their bodies.
"We don't have much time," he whispered. "Listen, there's a boat."
"A boat," he repeated. "It's heading for Singapore. Me and some guys, we've taken over the original crew, the mafia doesn't know."
She stared at him without understanding.
"Kid." His hand rested on her shoulder once more. "You can get out. You can leave now. I'm leaving now, I'm not staying and dying here for this fucking insane boss. I'm getting a new life."
"That's impossible," she said faintly.
"It's not. You can leave. Just get any money you have on hand, I'll come with you."
She couldn't even finish the thought. The world around appeared to her as if through a blur, grey walls blended into grey ground blended into grey sky.
"You can go," he said again, more softly. "I talked it over with the others, they'll let you in. You can leave all of this behind. Never use that demon of yours again."
Her throat closed up. Golden Demon burned along her spine like a single trail of fire.
"They'll know I'm gone immediately," she let out, not even daring to breathe.
"No," he replied, and this time he was smiling. "I told you—you're a high ranker now, you have people under your orders. They're not watching you so much. You walking around with me won't raise any suspicion for hours."
He was right.
Kouyou had not realized it at first. She had thought the lack of eyes on her meant only that they were better hidden. She had thought Hirotsu's words about their boss being pleased with her were nothing more than a threat. Yet for three months now she had not been stopped and glared at. She had not been subjected to searches and suspicion. Hirotsu and Mori both looked at her the way they would an equal.
She was in the talks for being made executive in a few years, just as Dazai was.
"I," she said, heartbeat stuttering on her tongue, against her palate and teeth.
"Come with me," the man all but begged. There was nothing in his eyes but sincerity. "You'll never have to kill anyone again."
Kouyou's chest shuddered, pressure building up inside her from all the hope she had denied.
The man stood in front of her like something come out of a dream, like one of the fantasies she had entertained in the first few months she had spent here. She had seen it so often in her slumber: someone, anyone, taking her away, sparing her the empty drag of days and the blood she could never quite get out of her fingernails. The vision had been so frequent, it had turned into a nightmare.
"No one knows. No one will stop us. We'll be long gone by the time they find out, and they won't know the direction we've taken."
"When?" she breathed out.
"Now," he said. "Come on, let's go."
He didn't take her by the arm again as they came out of the alley. Kouyou kept her head up and her face clear of guilt with nothing but habit; she had spent years by now hiding how much she longed to leave, never straying out of mafia territory, never so much as uttering treason. Not a single person she crossed paths with gave her more than a cursory glance. Even the man at her left seemed to have disappeared out of their collective awareness.
She really was not being watched.
They reached the streets outside, crossed the very few blocks of buildings separating headquarters from her home, were not once stopped in their tracks. It was with ragged hope at her throat that Kouyou unlocked the door of her home and walked in with the man behind her.
"Get some money and clothes, nothing more than a bag, all right?" he said. "Hurry."
She rushed to her room.
Money was quickly taken out of the loose floorboard she kept it under. She bagged a pair of pants, a few shirts, knowing she couldn't change now but would need to be less glaringly visible once they were out—
She was leaving. She really was leaving. The realization popped like a bubble inside her, making air rush out of her mouth and nose almost like a sob.
"Fuck," came the man's voice from the living-room.
Kouyou froze where she kneeled. There was the sound of a struggle, another low-voiced swear, furniture moving onto the floor with a wooden moan. She let Golden Demon out as she pushed herself upright, shaking, fear once more clogging up her lungs.
She found the man on the floor, bruised but fine, and Chuuya sitting on top of him with his small hands around his throat.
Chuuya's face brightened at the sight of her. "D'you know who this guy—"
"Let him go," she cut in.
He blinked at her in confusion.
Kouyou breathed in slowly. "Chuuya," she said again—his shoulders shook slightly at the sound of his own name, like they did every time. "Please let him go."
His fingers loosened around the man's throat. The man pushed him away, and Chuuya floated until he was standing on the wall behind her bookshelf, his back almost stuck to the ceiling. The glow of his power always made him look bigger than he was.
"I thought," Kouyou said—she had to swallow before continuing. "Ah, I thought you were in class."
"That ended ages ago," Chuuya replied.
She nodded nervously. She hadn't noticed how dark the sky outside had become. The man had risen to his feet once more, now, looking between the two of them in irritation. Or maybe concern. Kouyou couldn't have told the difference now, in the midst of realizing that she had forgotten about Chuuya.
"Let's go," he told her.
Kouyou didn't move.
She watched Chuuya unstick himself from the ceiling. Lower himself back to the floor noiselessly. His eyes were fixed onto the bag she carried in one hand; they rose from it and to the man behind her, and then to her own eyes, and he looked—
"Where are you going?" he asked.
The man grabbed her arm.
She saw understanding make its way through Chuuya inch by inch. His face painted the picture of disbelief first, fear second, and betrayal last. Kouyou's back ached with the way he hunched his shoulders. Her palms bled from the dig of his nails. When he sucked in a breath too choked with fury to carry any air at all, it was her throat collapsing.
"Fuck off," Chuuya breathed.
I hate you, she heard in his voice, as if he had shouted it. You fucking liar.
The man started dragging her toward the door, his fingers painful against the bones at her elbow. "There's only room for one person, kid," he said. Because he called her kid the same way she called Chuuya boy, Chuuya startled, as if kicked out of a dream. "Come on, we've wasted too much time already."
Kouyou couldn't move. She couldn't look away.
"They'll leave without us!" he all but yelled, tugging harshly at her, making her shoulder scream. "It's now or never, kid, either you come with me or you stay here and rot."
She rasped in all the air she could; Chuuya glared at her with renewed loathing, with betrayal and hurt so stark on him it cut into her skin, and she thought, I'm sorry.
Chuuya's eyes welled with tears.
I'm so sorry.
Chuuya didn't stop looking at her until the door closed, cutting the sight of her home away, and the silence after that was inside of her. It drowned even the rush of her blood. It was in all the wide space between her bones, where nothing but the demon lay.
She walked behind the man through the streets of Yokohama, heading for the very harbor she had come to despise. The sea behind it glinted with yellows and reds from the city's shine, fading out into blackness so dark not even the horizon could be seen. Clouds masked moon and stars alike. Night had fallen in the time she had wasted losing whatever ghost of trust Chuuya had put into her hands. Kouyou didn't feel alive at all.
She wondered if he would be able to trust anyone again, after that. If he'd live his entire life without ever telling someone his name.
"We'll have to dye your hair once we're on board," the man said, tugging her behind him through the length of the port. To anyone else they'd look like they were holding hands. "Not enough that you gifted have such freaky powers, you also have to look like that."
She didn't answer.
He was starting to pant lightly. Their walk had turned into a jog of sorts, the deeper they went into the dark, where no one would see them. Kouyou didn't think anyone could recognize her now and not think she was running away. It wasn't even enough to make her fear—she didn't have the room in her for fear anymore.
"Was that your student?" he asked lowly.
Her wrist spasmed into his grip. "Yes," she replied.
"Looks a lot like you. I thought he was your brother."
Her tears were silent. Unbearably hot on her skin. It only made the cold more biting in contrast.
They slowed down at the end of the harbor, in front of a wide ship full of cargo. The man flickered a light quickly above his head; there was an answering flicker from the desk, held by a silhouette she could barely make out.
"We're good," he said with relief. His gentle eyes found hers. "Well, come on then. Time to say goodbye to this hellhole."
Kouyou looked away from the ship and the sea, back to the city itself. She could only glimpse the very top of the mafia's headquarters from here—the rest of the building was hidden behind a pile of shipping crates that must have been unloaded during the day. The topmost floor was lit. It almost looked like a lighthouse.
She had spent her entire life here, in misery and loneliness, just like Chuuya had. She had been dragged out of freedom and into violence. She had resented every second of it, had wished for nothing more than escape because she was not strong enough to wish for death. She knew herself in Dazai's empty eyes and she knew herself in Chuuya's unbridled rage, because she lived through both every day.
This was the fate she was abandoning and the one she was abandoning them to. Dazai to be raised into a monster; Chuuya to be alone once more with nothing but the boiling rage that would one day spill over and burn everything in its wake. She could see it now even more brightly than she had upon meeting him: the slow agony of his life, the feral struggle he would put up against everything and everyone trying to reach a hand toward him, whether to shake or stab.
He really would kill them all one day. Kouyou knew it as deeply as she knew herself. If Chuuya grew up like this, he would make good on his promise.
She breathed in deeply. Her eyes closed themselves off to the city glow and to her own desperate wishes, and she tugged her hand free of the man's grasp.
"I'm not going," she said.
She had to drag the words out with every single strand of willpower she possessed.
"What are you talking about, girl?"
She smiled at him wetly, knowing how she looked—exhausted and broken and close to hyperventilating. Panic rumbled lowly in her. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm not going with you. I can't go."
"Yes you can," he roared, too loud in the silence. The bridge that led to the belly of the boat shook behind him with a wind she could not feel, rattling its rusted skeleton. "Come on—"
She avoided him when he tried to grab her again. There was no need for her gift—he was only a handyman; she was an assassin. The best assassin the port mafia had seen in years.
"Please go," she pressed, knowing they didn't have much time now. "Thank you. Thank you, so much, for trying to give me a chance. I'll never forget it. But I can't accept it."
"Why?" he asked, bewildered. His wide face was slack with disbelief. "This life is killing you."
"That's the thing," she replied, "I have a reason not to die anymore."
One lonely little boy against the rest of the world.
The man looked at her with aching regret. It didn't last more than a second, not after he understood how serious she was. His eyes roamed over her as if trying to commit her to memory, and Kouyou thought this might be enough anyway, that a person she had known and trusted would go on to live freely and carry her memory with them. He nodded, turned around, grabbed the railing of the bridge without saying another word.
There was no sound at all when the bullet lodged itself into his head. His body shuddered upright for a second, blood spraying out of the exit wound in his forehead where she couldn't see it; he fell to his knees and then to his front, and Kouyou heard none of the metal shake under the weight of his lifeless body, because all the blood in her had rushed to her head and muffled everything down to the whisper of the ocean.
Hirotsu's hand fell on her shoulder. His knife rested under her throat. At their side another silhouette emerged, a quick-fingered woman, already taking the silencer off of the mouth of her gun.
"I have to say, Ozaki," Hirotsu declared. His voice was heavy with regret, his palm searing hot on her skin. "I really did not expect this of you."
"I want her head," the boss wheezed, his crazed eyes burning into Kouyou's.
His voice was no more than a whisper now, from how sickly he looked; but he was frothing at the mouth with pink-tinged saliva, his skin so pale and thin over his bones that she could've counted every vein under it if she tried, and his emaciated face was torn into a scream.
Kouyou didn't try to fight the hold that the woman from earlier had on her. She felt too numb to. From the corner of her eyes, she could barely make out Hirotsu's dark silhouette. He had dragged her here in silence, pushed her to her knees in the middle of the room and then gone to fetch Mori, so that he could assist their boss out of bed.
She had not seen her employer in almost a year, now. She had known he was sick, because everyone had, but she hadn't expected his office to have been relocated to a bedroom. It was a lavish thing, dark and brooding at the top of the skyscraper. She could watch the city sprawl at their feet out of every wall.
None of it mattered.
"You stupid little whore," the boss spat at her, and he was only standing upright because Mori was helping him. Mori himself seemed vaguely amused. "Did you think you could escape? Did you think I wouldn't know? I own you."
Kouyou kept her mouth shut.
"Answer me!" he roared.
"No, sir," she made herself say. It was a wonder any sound could leave her lips when she had no lungs to breathe out of anymore. "I did not think so."
"I will have your head," he replied through awful coughs, "your head and the head of that boy I gave you, have you both bite the curb in public like the traitors you are—"
"Boss," Mori interjected quietly. He was watching Kouyou now, no doubt drinking in the crushing fear she felt was not worth hiding now—not when her mind ran with nightmare-bright pictures of Chuuya with his jaw broken open and three bullets through his chest. "I think this is only her first offense. Isn't that right, Hirotsu-san?"
Hirotsu moved like a shadow. There was barely a whisper of cloth on carpet as he turned sideways and answered. "Yes, it is. And the boy has not done anything reprehensible yet. Considering that she left him behind, I think it's safe to say he was not part of her plans."
"Are you talking back to me, boy?" the boss said to Mori.
He must be spitting in his face, he was standing so close. Mori never showed any sign of being bothered by it. He kept holding the old man up and replied, "Not at all, sir. But Ozaki is your best assassin. She's taken entire groups down by herself. Her continued living may prove valuable in"—his mouth shivered very lightly—"these trying times."
The man seemed to think over it for a moment, though he was still glaring daggers at Mori and Kouyou both. Only Hirotsu was spared his contempt. The woman holding Kouyou didn't even seem to register as a human being in his eyes.
"Can't trust traitors," he hissed.
"You can trust one you have leverage on," Mori replied. "Ozaki cares very much about that boy we found. Don't you, Ozaki?"
She felt cold through her entire chest, as if ice had solidified there out of her very blood. She wanted to deny it, to keep Chuuya safe of being used like this, but there was a glint in Mori's eyes. A deeper current to the way he looked at her.
"Yes," she said lowly.
"This boy," the boss said. "He's the one you told me about. The one who can't stop his powers."
"That's the one," Mori replied. He had slipped a hand into his pocket discreetly—she could see it, but not the man he was holding. "Some training might help with that, or it could be that Dazai is the only one who can stop him… but either way, you remember how adamant you were about having him. You remember what I showed you."
Kouyou had no idea what they were talking about.
"I do," the old man said weakly.
Mori nodded. "I'll have Ozaki's finger on your desk by morning," he went on smoothly, and his hand emerged from the folds of his white coat, holding a syringe. Their boss didn't even seem to notice the needle of it slipping into his neck.
"Make it hurt," he ordered breezily.
"Oh, I will."
Mori caught the man's unconscious slump in his arms, under Kouyou's wide-eyed stare. The woman behind her had loosened her grip on her shoulders too, in her surprise.
"Hirotsu-san," Mori called. He was carrying his patient back to bed. Letting him down gently on the mattress and pulling the blanket over him with steady hands.
There was a flash of steely light, the gut-wrenching sound of bones snapping, and the woman fell at Kouyou's side, her entire body twisted grotesquely. She was dead without a single drop of blood being spilled.
"What," Kouyou said.
"Simply getting rid of witnesses," Mori answered. "Hirotsu-san, if I may excuse myself…"
"Go on, sensei," Hirotsu replied. "I'll take over if he wakes up."
Mori nodded, looking grateful. The steps he took toward Kouyou then were muted against the floor, his white coat ruffling lightly against his sides. He looked like a ghost.
"Let's go to my office, Kouyou-kun," he said as he walked past her.
Kouyou pushed herself to her feet feeling like she was dreaming.
She kept some distance between them as they walked. Mori had long stopped looking at her the way he looked at the few rare children who roamed port mafia grounds, but she still felt in his presence as she had at fourteen; helpless, hollow, fear fluttering at her throat alongside every word he said. She knew Golden Demon must be putting a glow under her skin now, ready to burst out of her.
He held the door open for her when they reached the hospital floor. She walked inside his office with tension aching in her shoulders.
"Are you going to take my finger now?" she asked once the door closed behind them, locking with a click. It came out almost voiceless.
Mori didn't answer immediately. He shrugged out of his coat first, sitting down in his chair slowly. The look he gave her was pensive; she bore it with a shudder.
"What you did tonight was not very smart of you," he started. "Thankfully, no one but Hirotsu, myself, and that woman he took with him know about it. Our esteemed boss will not speak of it either, for fear of his authority running thin with the rumors."
She didn't ask about the men that her would-be-savior took as accomplices. Mori smiled darkly anyway, and added, "The other runaways have been dealt with."
"If you're trying to scare me—"
"I think you're quite scared enough, girl."
Kouyou bit down on her tongue until she tasted blood.
"Of course," he continued, "there is the issue of your little student. He seemed quite angry when I went to see him."
Her breathing died like a candle blown out of existence. "When you went to see him," she repeated blandly.
"Don't worry," he murmured. "He was very wary of me, he didn't even let me through the door. I imagine you had something to do with that."
The silence that followed was icy. His gaze implacable. Kouyou tried to decipher it as anything—anger, disappointment, envy—and almost threw up. Her heartbeat was so loud in her ears that she thought he must be able to hear it.
"What are you planning?" she asked slowly.
Once more, he left her question hanging. "Chuuya-kun obviously knows what you tried to do," he said. Kouyou didn't have the time to feel more than a jump of fright upon hearing Chuuya's name come out of his mouth. "Even if he wasn't part of your attempted escape. Which makes him a witness."
"If you hurt him," Kouyou replied, "There won't be enough left of you to bury."
It made him smile widely, sweetly. "I don't plan on hurting him."
"Then what are you planning?" With the lack of aggression on her person, the complete absence of any torture tools meant to maim her as the mafia's law would, her fear was starting to abate. Exhaustion threatened to take over, but it was anger she fueled herself on. "You tricked our boss into letting me go alive," she said. "You sedated him against his will. Hirotsu-san didn't even seem surprised. What is going on?"
Was Mori a traitor? The boss's confidant, the one he trusted more than his own right-hand man, the one who practically slept by his bed and fed him every meal? It made no sense to her. Kouyou had always thought that at least Mori must be loyal to their leader, if he was loyal to nothing else.
"How often are you sent out to kill, Kouyou-kun?" he asked.
It was so far from what she expected that she couldn't even answer.
"Every week?" he pressed. "Every day?" His smile widened at her tell-tale twitch, then. "I don't know the full details, of course. Our boss is nothing if not paranoid. He'd order his own shadow murdered if he thought for a second that it might one day try to kill him. For all I know, he might have already tried to strangle it.
"Assassins like you are at the frontline of his… politics. Tell me," he said, "how do you think the mafia is doing under his tutelage?"
She had no idea of the mafia's state financially and politically. All she knew were the faces of the men, women, children roaming its halls. Dazai's injuries and Hirotsu's mournful voice and her own burning exhaustion.
"I don't know," she replied.
"I think you do."
She didn't grace that with an answer.
"I think," he continued carefully, "that the port mafia has lost quite a bit of its shine over the last few years. Our activities cannot take precedence over the fact that we are, first and foremost, a gifted organization." His lips twisted into humor. "However illegal it is. I think we've been at war for quite long enough. And I think it's time for our boss to be relieved of his duties."
This made her head snap up sharply.
"Not immediately, of course," Mori said, watching every reaction she gave. "I'm still quite a recent addition myself—I've only been around for about three years, not much more than you. A year from now, however…"
"I could report you," she breathed. She didn't know if what she felt was panic or elation. "I could go to him now, report everything. Have your head on a spike before morning."
He wouldn't be able to stop her. She didn't know the specifics of that awful ability of his, but she was strong. Strong enough to take on even Hirotsu if she tried. He knew it as well.
"Will you?" he replied, not looking the least bit worried. "You haven't even heard my offer yet."
It took effort to look past the need to see him dead and at the bigger picture. "Offer?" she repeated.
"I already have most of Hirotsu's approval, as you've no doubt gathered," Mori said. "He's the first of three elements I'm going to need if I ever want to secure myself as the new boss."
"Why would anyone want you as a boss?"
"Why would anyone want out of a state of perpetual bloodshed and back to one of milder violence?" he mocked. "I know you've seen Dazai-kun in action before, Kouyou-kun. Who do you think taught him how to exploit his mind? He hardly needs to bloody his own hands, he's so very good at getting others to do it for him."
It was true. It didn't stop her from hating him, from the way he spoke Dazai's name to the very sight he made in front of her. His smile was like sandpaper. Like glass dust.
"I still don't know why you're telling me all this," she replied. "Unless you're planning to kill me immediately after, but then, why waste your breath?"
"Very good," he crooned. She bristled at his praise like she would at his insults. "You are the second element I would need in order to succeed. I intend to spend the next year campaigning, if you will," he had the audacity to grin, "but I'm going to need more than just approval from the other executives. I need the approval of the men and women doing the brunt of the job—men and women like you.
"I don't think you realize how popular you are. The people who make up our numbers know your name and your reputation. You have no fondness for unnecessary cruelty but always carry your jobs to success, you are young, you are, to most, rather attractive…" Her anger felt like smoke on her skin, like it was vaporizing out of her to choke her and everything out. Mori watched her with no remorse in his eyes—no consideration for it, or for her disgust toward him. "Many will follow you if you decide to support me," he continued. "You have the sort of influence that is inaccessible to me as of yet."
"What's the third element?" she asked between her gritted teeth.
If he had kept it for last, even after what he said about her, then it could be nothing she approved of.
"Isn't it obvious?" he replied.
He opened a drawer of his desk during the moment she took to try, and fail, to understand. The item he dragged out of it was a camera, an old thing, almost obsolete now. He opened the small screen at its side and pushed it toward her.
"Take a look," he said.
She took it in hand tentatively. The only video on it started playing once she found the right button.
It had been taken in front of a mall, one she recognized for having visited it a long time ago. One she had seen on the news recently, when it had been destroyed in a freak accident. The black-and-white images were blurry, taken during night time; but she would have recognized the silhouette at their center even in pitch darkness.
Chuuya floated, still in the air, body parts littering the ground under his feet. The sound was too scratchy for her to make out more than screams and shattered laughter, and his voice was so different in it than it usually was that for a second she thought it must be fake. His face was faraway. His clothes stained the same as they had been when she had met him. Some energy was bursting out of his fingers in black spheres relentlessly; entire chunks of wall disappeared every time he released them, making the structure of the mall shake and crumble, and still Chuuya did not stop.
"He seems to have no control over this power," Mori said quietly. Kouyou couldn't look away from the tiny screen. "It was probably the first time he used it at all."
In the video, Chuuya keeled over. He dropped down onto the ground he had gutted and kept laughing, kept launching the black spheres in every direction he could, even as his voice turned to a wet rasp of blood and exhaustion—he kept going, more and more, until at last something flashed onto the screen that wasn't his ability.
It was Dazai. Avoiding the bombs and rubble, running toward him, and finally touching his bare fingers to the filthy skin of Chuuya's arm. Chuuya stopped making any noise after that. He looked like he had fallen unconscious.
"What is this?"
Kouyou didn't realize that it was her who had spoken until Mori answered.
"It's hard to say." He extended a hand; she put the camera in it reflexively, too numb to think. "It's obviously a facet of his gift, perhaps even its true form. It must have been triggered by the people who were attacking him then. Yet he seemed unable to stop it on his own." His tone was even, as if he were discussing the weather. Kouyou hadn't regained the ability to feel anything but cold. "His enemies were completely destroyed, but he looked as if he'd be happy to keep going until he died. I sent Dazai to stop him once the path was safe enough."
"This is the reason the boss wanted him," Kouyou said blankly. "No. It's the reason you wanted him."
"I thought he might make a good asset," Mori replied without remorse. "This much destructive power… if harnessed right, it could prove priceless. Even if he can't control it. I've never heard of an ability this physically and materially dangerous before. It could become the port mafia's greatest weapon—its greatest deterrent."
It made terrifying sense. If enough people saw it, if enough people died from it… fear was the greatest defense of all. Few would dare oppose them and risk facing unstoppable power.
It would also make Chuuya into a prime target.
"This is a partnership I intend to build my foundations on," Mori went on, voice soft with promise. "My third element. Your Chuuya and my Dazai. They are the future of this organization, alongside you. Don't you agree?"
His hand was raised for the taking this time. His eyes dark and heavy on her, waiting for her answer.
"Think about it," he murmured. "I would make you executive despite your treason. I would never send you out to the field for assassination again unless you wanted to go. In just one year, you could be free of everything you despise so much, Kouyou-kun."
Kouyou's lips were dry as she put her hand in his. She kept her grip lax until his loosened as well—and then she dug her nails into his wrist until skin tore, and she dragged him toward her across the length of his desk, unsheathing the blade at her waist and pressing it under his chin.
He watched it happen with a crazed smile on his lips. She heard the giggle of a little girl echo through the room, making her stomach revolt, but she held still. The bare edge of her blade scratched above Mori's Adam's apple. The little girl's voice vanished.
"You forgot to tell me," she hissed at him, "what you intend to do about the fact that you are a monster."
"Are you not a monster as well?" His eyes were so bright with excitement they looked almost childish; Kouyou pushed down on her own nausea and brought up her knee, placing it on the hand he had used to break his fall.
His face twitched when she pressed down on it. She thought she felt a finger snap.
"I'll take your fucking deal," she growled at him. His exhale washed over her face, but she didn't let him speak. "I'm tired of this place. I'm tired of being a pawn in the hands of men. I'll make you the boss, and you'll fix this organization into something livable."
"That's the plan," he replied breathlessly.
She wasn't finished. "And if I catch you so much as looking at them in a way I don't like, I'll kill you," she said. "Dazai and Chuuya and that boy with the doll—I will cut off any finger you lay on them and feed them to you."
"I have never touched Dazai-kun."
His tone was conversational. Almost as if he were scoffing at her, calling her a silly girl, like the idea alone was preposterous. But it didn't matter if he had never touched Dazai in that way—Dazai had already grown in his shadow, had already suffered his influence. He already knew what Mori was capable of.
She wanted to throw up on him right there. She wanted to spit out the bile gathering in her mouth and watch it burn him like acid, wanted to stab her blade into his eye and let Golden Demon split him open until his entire skin was turned inside out on the floor of his office. She wanted to render this man to nothing, to erase so much as the trace of his existence.
Instead, she released him. "You never will," was all she said.
Mori picked himself up from over his desk slowly. The middle finger of his left hand was crooked, already bright red, but he showed no sign of feeling the pain of it. She flattened her own hand atop the desk once he was back on its other side. It was easy enough to master her shaking with the wake of her anger still so bright through her veins.
"Get on with it," she ordered.
A finger was a low price to pay for the promise of making things better.
He looked at her hand for a long while, back to his composed, thoughtful self. "You know," he said, "our boss will probably never even be in your presence again. There's really no need for this, as long as you keep your head down for a year."
"He said he wanted my finger in the morning. He's not likely to forget that."
"Yes," Mori answered. "He wants a finger. It doesn't have to be yours."
Kouyou looked up at him in confusion.
"I happen to be in the possession of four corpses," he said. His smile was as cold as the air now spreading through her, as vicious as winter wind. "One of which," he added, "has very delicate hands."
Walking home alone felt like an out-of-body experience.
Kouyou had been dragged away by the wrist. She had been brought back by the neck. She had thought she would be free, then that she would die, then sworn to help the devil himself. It occurred to her, as she stepped through the empty streets of the city, that she could leave now, if she wanted. The man who tried to save her—who died trying to save her, whose body was now butchered for the sake of preserving hers—had been right all along.
She hadn't even known his name until she had glimpsed the note stuck to the bag he was in, awaiting burial. Nakahara, it read.
She made her way home on weightless legs, her bag in hand, still full of the money she had taken and the clothes she had planned to wear. The cordon she held it by was stained with a blood not hers.
Chuuya was sitting in the middle of the living-room when she opened the door.
He gasped in a breath at the sight of her. His face was streaked with the shiny, dry remains of tears; he pushed himself to his feet without thinking to use his ability as he always did, and he was trembling, with anger or something else, she didn't know.
She deserved either.
"You're back," he said. His voice was rough.
She nodded. All of her words seemed withheld, caught somewhere she couldn't reach them. She watched him watch her, followed the trail of his eyes up and down her body as he no doubt looked for the same kind of injuries they had both suffered only weeks ago. He halted around her hands. They were bloody, but whole.
It seemed Chuuya didn't know what to say either. His glare was broken by confusion and relief, seemed to be forced out of a need to cling to habit rather than true feeling. But he was a creature of feeling, just like she was. He was never made to deceive. His eyes shone from the lit door of the kitchen, and when he spoke again, it was hoarsely.
"You tried to leave." She accepted the accusation with another bow of her head. Chuuya clenched his fists by his sides—she didn't think he realized that his shoulders were shaking now. "You're a liar," he growled, "you're a fucking liar—"
"I'm sorry," Kouyou breathed.
He flinched as if he had been hit. "You lied to me," he roared; her chest squeezed so tight she thought her ribs would snap, burst open and expose the bleeding, hollow remains of her heart—"I, I was starting to think that you—but you're just like everyone else, you're the fucking same as everyone who's ever—"
Chuuya choked on his own breath. Kouyou's suspended itself in tandem, as if only his lungs had the ability to keep her alive now.
"I hate you," he cried.
"I love you," Kouyou replied.
He recoiled bodily.
Kouyou barely felt her own tears fall down her face. She felt as though she had done nothing but cry her entire life, as though she ought to be out of water to spill now, just as she was out of love; but she loved that boy, had loved him since the second he had entered her home, filthy and broken and full of anger.
"I tried to leave," she sobbed. Her hand rose to her face uselessly; the tears spilled from between her fingers even as she tried to hold them back. "I tried to leave because I thought I couldn't live like this anymore—but I couldn't. I couldn't do it."
"You're fucking stupid," Chuuya moaned. "You're so strong, no one could stop you. You're a fucking idiot."
She took her hand down. The shape of his body was blurry now, a black and white silhouette and a bright orange stain of hair. "I couldn't leave you alone," she said.
He looked at her, open-faced, hurt beyond the hope of trust. But he was still here.
He was still in her home. He was still in front of her. The both of them standing at the turning point of anger.
"I'd rather be here, with you," she confessed, "than anywhere else in the world."
He believed her this time.
She was still crying as he stepped toward her. So hard that she barely saw him anymore. Her chest shook with sobs she refused to let out, the light and colors of her home blurring around her until she couldn't tell floor from ceiling; she lost her ability to breathe in the midst of it, lightheadedness coursing through her from the physical and emotional strain of the night, and still something in her found the strength to collapse on itself when Chuuya wrapped his arms around her middle.
It was such a gentle, warm touch. He splayed his small hands onto her spine through the folds of her kimono, linked them together so that the inside of his elbows were flush with her waist; Kouyou felt him press his face into her sleeve, and the wetness on his tears seeped through the fabric until it touched her skin. She had never been held that way.
"I'm sorry you couldn't leave," he said, muffled against her. His arms tightened around her; she thought it must be to hide his shaking and because he was afraid she would push him away. Her sides ached from the strength he poured into it.
"I'm not," she replied weakly. "I'm glad I didn't."
He didn't flinch away when she put a hand at the back of his head and slid her fingers through his hair, stroking it in time with his heaving. He just pressed his face further into her. Trembled against her with all of his body.
Kouyou promised herself, then, that she would become strong enough to overcome the pain of living this way. That she would dig inside herself for every scrap of strength and will until she made things right. She would take over the entire port mafia if she had to, and she would teach Chuuya everything. He would never end up awake at night, staring into the eyes of monsters, wondering why he was even alive.
She would teach him to thrive in the darkness until it couldn't hurt him at all, and she would teach him not to become the monster under his own bed.
"Thank you," she whispered.
His head shifted under her fingers when he looked up, wet-faced and exhausted.
"I don't hate you," he replied. "I lied."
"It happens to the best of us, I've found."
He gave something close to a snort of laughter. One of his arms unhooked from her so that he could wipe his nose with the back of his hand; she didn't let hers fall from his soft hair, and he didn't seem to mind.
For a while they stood like this by the door of their home. Quieting their lungs, drying their tears. Kouyou hadn't felt like a child in a very long time, but she found that she did, now. Chuuya's presence made her feel younger. It made her feel as if she were living the years that life had robbed from her.
"That," Chuuya said eventually. He bit his lips. "That bastard, he, he calls you…"
Kouyou stroked a strand of his hair against the pad of her thumb. "Ane-san," she replied. "It's how Dazai-kun refers to me, yes."
Chuuya's face was very red. Even his fatigue couldn't mask the yearning he wore on it then.
"Can I call you that, too?" he asked, soft as a secret.
He looked at her, and Kouyou thought, He'll be okay. She saw the promise of the man he would become in the harsh severity of his eyes, in the inch of height he had shot up since meeting her, in the rough, pleasant growl of his voice. A man just as capable of loyalty and love as he was of violence. One who could turn anything weightless with a touch of his fingers, including his own misery. Not a little boy killed and buried by his own rage.
Chuuya's mouth softened into the very first smile he had offered her; it dimpled the skin around his eyes, more of a bare-toothed grin than anything else, still feral in its own way. As rough as his embrace.
Kouyou smiled back.