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Road to the Light

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Port Mafia had many enemies, but rarely any of the enemies proved to be a significant threat ever since the event of Dragon Head Rush. Enemies that dared to attack the mafia head on would be crushed mercilessly, making smaller organizations scurried around like rats. They took any scraps carefully, hoping the big predator wouldn’t notice. The mafia’s supremacy was never questioned, except for the rare and foolish few that thought they could mess with the mafia.

So it’s wasn’t weird that Oda Sakunosuke, one of the lowest members in the mafia hierarchy, was given the unimportant job of investigating one of the lesser criminal organizations. While he may not have any authority within the mafia, the weight of the organization’s name itself was enough to make others fear and submit to him. This job was one of his more unusual jobs, but Oda had enough experience with infiltrating and information gathering to not be too worried about it.

At least he was spared today from having to resolve a dispute between a husband and a wife.

The enemy’s organization were small compared to the mafia. They barely reached fifty people, but it was an old organization. They didn’t participate in Dragon Head Rush, which means they weren’t ambitious or stupid enough to risk it all. The organization had been going for more than twenty years, smuggling and stealing things the mafia didn’t care enough. Although lately, they had been more brave.

It took him almost a week to uncover that much without attracting eyes to himself. Oda also found out about their founders; the original team of six who created the organization. Most of them had all died while the only one still alive had retired from the criminal world and build a new life for himself. As someone who also wished to someday replace his guns with pens, Oda felt sympathy with the man he had only seen from photos.

He parked his car outside of the institute where he would find the ex-founder. Hopefully that man would work with him and shared some information. If things worked out in their favor, maybe they could even avoid bloodshed.

Oda steeled himself and climbed out of his car, walking towards the black steel gates where a woman in white clothing waited for him.

“Are you Oda Sakunosuke?” the woman asked, her eyes and tones all sharp and business like. “The Headmaster is waiting for you. Please follow me.”

Oda entered the orphanage, built by a former criminal.

 


 

While he may not be as active in battlefield as when he was a former assassin, Oda’s believed that his instinct was still as sharp and dependable. The moment he entered the cold white building, his instinct rang a warning bell inside his head noisily as if to make up for the lack of noise in that place. Odasaku had only spend nine months with his orphans, but in that short time he knew that children were supposed to be noisy and cheerful. They always screamed and shouting at the top of their lungs, squealing and laughing in delight at every little thing only their innocent eyes could see.

All Oda heard was silence. Cold silence with no signs of young, innocent life. Oda wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that this building was already abandoned.

His eyes carefully survey his surroundings without moving his head too much, trying to catch a glimpse of any children that may be hiding. His eyes narrowed the longer they walk the silent and cold halls, questions bubbled up from his heart and he had to bit into his lips to prevent himself from blurting those accusations out. He could feel his mood darkened like the cloudy sky outside and he had to clench his fists, reminding himself that he didn’t know anything about this place.

‘Maybe the children are having afternoon naps.’

‘All of the children? Even the teenager who don’t need naps?’

‘Maybe because he was there and the staffs don’t want the children to bother a guest?’

‘But even if they were somewhere else, why no sounds at all? Why is there no marks on the wall, no signs that there are children living here?’

He wished he had a brain as clever as his best friend. Then he didn’t have to torture himself with all this ‘why’ and ‘but’. If it was Dazai, he would know immediately what was happening and what to do in this situation. But there was only him now and his mind.

‘Remember your mission.’ He harshly berated himself. ‘You are only here to gather information, not to judge an orphanage. Maybe this is a questionable orphanage, but I can only compare this with my own experience. Maybe all orphanages were like this, maybe not.’

Oda swallowed all of his suspicion and followed the silent woman. They walked through the halls until Oda could see a big garden with lush green carpet of grass separating the two buildings. An old and beaten stone road leading to a smaller building across the garden and he felt like he was walking into the lair of a monster with how devoid of life the building was.

“The Headmaster’s office is on that building.” The woman informed, tone flat like she was reciting a page from a textbook. “I do not know why do you want to meet with the Headmaster as you are not a possible adopter, but I warn you to keep your business short. The Headmaster is a really busy person.”

“I won’t take long.” If the Headmaster agreed to work with him, everything would be over quickly and Oda could leave this place that made his skin crawls.

The woman nodded and continued on walking. Being outside made it easier for Oda to breath, so he took his time to prolong his unavoidable obligation to enter the ominous building. His eyes carefully mapped out the building, counting the windows and possible escape routes should everything went down badly. While his ability gave him an upper hand against ambush, he couldn’t fully depend on it alone. To increase survival rate, he had to plan out several escape plans. He had memorized the halls leading to the backyard should he needed to run. He could also jump over the gate if he really needed it, but he had to be careful if they planted a bomb in his car.

Oda was giving the building another once over when his red eyes found the only sign of life he had ever saw in this place. A young short boy was carrying a large basket filled with clean white laundry. Judging by a steel hanger nearby, the boy must be handling a chore.

It looked perfectly normal, even if the boy’s dull gray hair was a bit of oddity. Yet, something other than his ability made him stopped in his tracks. His red eyes sharpened and focused on how the boy was stumbling, favoring his left side as his hands clutched on the basket so tightly his fingertips turning white. Oda didn’t have to be a doctor to know that there was something wrong with the boy. His legs stumbled once again and his body helplessly fell to the ground, soundless despite how his face scrunched up from immense pain.

It was a weird sensation, to feel his body moving without his brain fully comprehending what he was about to do. Flawless always showed him the best way to survive, so he trusted it completely. But now his body moved not because of his ability, but because of something gnawing at his heart. A sensation that he had become familiar with ever since he rescued the orphans that now had become his responsibility. He faintly recognized the woman calling for him, but he ignored her and sprinted towards the fallen boy. The thin boy was laying on his right side the grass, his body curling up as he bit his lips to prevent any sound from coming out. His hands hovered above his left side, as if he couldn’t decide to touch it or not.

Oda gently put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Boy, are you alright?”

Only Oda’s years of experience as assassin let him to see everything that happened in a flash of a second. The boy’s eyes snapped open like a startled animal and he threw himself away from Oda. That bubbling pool of lava inside his heart felt like it was now boiling over when his red eyes met with severely frightened yellow and purple ones. His still outstretched hand curled into tight fist, but he hurriedly opened it again when the boy only crawled even further from him. He took a few deep breaths, trying to calm down his emotions enough.

Children were really sensitive to adult’s change of expression. Oda took a moment to erase all the fury from his face and smiled as gently as he could. He tried to remember the nights when Sakura keep on crying as she demanded her parents and Oda tried to emulate the way he smiled at her as he held her little body in his arms until she fell asleep.

“It’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you.” Oda kept his tone slow and soft. “Are you hurt? I see you are favoring your left side, is there a wound there?”

The boy’s whole body was still trembling and his eyes still honed on him like wary deer that was ready to bolt at any time Oda showed any signs of hostility. Oda repeated his question, careful to keep himself from showing any impatience. The older man offered the boy his hand, although he didn’t force the boy to take it.

“Will you come closer? I am not a doctor, but I have experience in first aid.” Oda remembered that he brought a first aid kit in his car. He had also brought a roll of bandage and analgesic cream on his person right now, preparation if he was ambushed. “It’s alright, take a deep breath. You can come to me when you have calmed down, only if you want to. If you want to run, at least please take this bandage and ointment with you.”

The boy stared at him suspiciously and Oda moved his other hand as slowly as possible as he took the roll of bandage and a tub of cream from his coat’s pocket. The boy tensed when Oda brought his hand out, but Oda could see a breath of relief when he showed him the first aid kit in his hand. His heart beat frantically, hoping that the boy’s wound wasn’t so bad that he needed to go to the hospital. While Dazai had teased him for charging into a flaming building to save a child, he couldn’t just scoop up the boy in front of him and took him away. Even if he was really tempted to.

After a few seconds that felt like hours, the boy finally mustered up enough courage to reach out his hand. Oda let his smile widened a bit, his own relief must be felt by the boy since the boy’s shoulder loosened up a bit. The boy’s hand was about to reach his when—

“You useless child! What have you done!?” a cruel shout torn the little peaceful moment between them and the boy retracted his hand, his whole body trembling so great and his eyes now locked on towards the approaching woman that had guided Oda there. “You have dirtied the sheets! Do you want the other children to sleep on dirt stained sheets?”

The woman walked sharply towards the frightened boy, her hand holding a folding stick. The boy cowered like a ball, protecting his head with his thin arms. The woman lashed out the metal stick, fully intending to punish the boy.

To Oda’s eyes, the stick was moving slow enough for his hand to catch before they could hurt the boy.

The woman looked at him in fury, like Oda had insulted her ancestors. “Let it go! I have to punish this lazy child!”

“He is not lazy, he is hurt.” Oda’s superior strength let him wrenched out the metal stick from her hand and threw it to the ground. “The laundry is not even that dirty, if you wipe it away it will be clean again.”

“Sir, you are an outsider. Please don’t act as if you knew our rules and stay away.” The woman looked at the stick on the ground and glared back at him. “You are only here to see the Headmaster.”

Oda heard the boy behind him sucked a breath sharply. “What kind of rules let you hurt an innocent boy?” The volcano that had cooled down when he spoke with the boy returned with vengeance. “It seems I do need to meet with the Headmaster. If he lets his staff abuse a child, I have to change my opinion of him.”

Other than the tightening of his fists, Oda didn’t show his any of his anger to the woman. It was a habit from his younger days, when showing any signs of weakness could lead to your death. Although maybe he should, then at least he could take her wrath away from the young boy and into himself. Oda had met face to face against way more dangerous opponent than a child abuser, he could take her on easily.

“What is happening here?”

Oda felt his breath slowed and his eyes honed on the approaching man. For those that had walked the path of blood and carnage, it was easy to see another that had once walked the same path. The mere presence of the man intimidated both the woman and the child behind him. The woman stepped aside and bowed in respect and fear as he walked past her. Their eyes met, a former criminal sizing up the other. The guns hidden inside his coat were the only comfort he could held on as he faced down the rigid faced man. If the man noticed the guns, he didn’t show any other reactions other than the way his shoulders tensed up.

When the man spoke, it felt like icy breeze had frozen everyone around him. “I said, what is happening here?”

The woman hurriedly lifted up her head, speaking in a rush to avoid the man’s ire. “I was about to discipline that boy for failing his chore, but this man stopped me. He accused me for abusing the boy when I merely carried out his rightful punishment.”

The man’s lips twisted up as he huffed in cold irony. “A man like you saying that you know better than us, whose responsibilities are to make sure they don’t turn up like you someday?”

The volcano threatened to explode at any moment, but Oda tried hard to remember a rainy day in a teahouse. The third volumes of a book with ripped pages at the end. The laughter of the children awaiting him in a curry shop.

“Even a person like me can care for a young innocent life.” Oda stared straight at the man with no shame. “Just like how you supposed to, after you discarded your past.”

The man’s amusement turned cold. The two of them glared at each other, their will waged silent war between them. Oda had purposefully let it slip that he knew about the man’s past, just like how that man must have noticed who he was.

“Atsushi.” Oda heard the boy behind him jumped in fright. Was that the boy’s name? “Minus ten points. Go back to your chore. I want those sheets clean.”

“I—I understand…” Atsushi hurriedly retrieved any fallen sheets to the basket. Oda could hear the boy’s subtle hiss of pain whenever he moved his body too suddenly, but the fear made him ignored it. He stood up and walked away quickly, not daring to look back in case the Headmaster were going to punish him after all.

“Wait!” Oda stopped the boy, who froze in place. The boy didn’t dare to move even when Oda approached him. His eyes watched in trepidation as Oda once again brought out the roll of bandage and analgesic cream tube from his coat and put it on the basket. “Here. Take care of your wounds, alright?”

When Atsushi’s eyes met his again, it was painfully similar to how his kids once looked at him at the day after their family and home destroyed in fire and explosion. It was of suspicion, sorrow, anger, but also hope. A tiny, fragile hope that Oda had to carefully grasped in his hands so he could nurture it into a realization of happiness.

Oda smiled, small and gentle. “I will see you again.”

It was an impulse. Just like how that day when he was only supposed to check up on the children he had saved to make sure they were alright and then the next moment he knew, he was already signing up the documents for their adoption. Just like how his supposed to be another day of killing was changed forever the moment he picked up the two volumes of a book from his victim’s bookshelf. Just like how he agreed to a night of drinking with a weird teenager with a fake sparkling eyes that told him he was interesting for refusing to kill.

Maybe it was because of the nature of his ability. Even if he couldn’t see that far into the future, he could feel the choices that would change his life forever if he made it. It felt like he was binding their life together. A former assassin meeting with an abused orphan in a once in a lifetime chance. It was a promise, even if he couldn’t see what would come out from that promise. But he remembered the laughing children, his daily nights of drinking in a bar with his best friends, his oath to not kill anymore.

Oda let the hands of fate tying up both of their path together, believing that something beautiful was what waiting for them at the end.

For the first time since Oda had seen him, Atsushi’s eyes showed a glint of light and the corner of his lips quirked up in a tiny and fragile smile. “Okay…” the whispered words carried with it all of his contained emotions, that had been for years trapped in the deepest part of his heart and neglected.

Atsushi quickly left, feeling the Headmaster’s impatience. Oda watched the boy’s back until he disappeared inside the building and let out a breath. He turned around and his eyes met with the Headmaster’s once again. He saw the disagreement in those cold eyes, but he held his ground. With annoyance, the Headmaster turned around and walked back towards the smaller building where his office was. Oda quickly pursued the man, walking behind him with determined steps.

Because this was no longer just information gathering mission for him.

It had become a battle to make sure his path wouldn’t be torn away from the boy’s.

Chapter Text

He remembered a rainy day, two books that had been read over and over again, and conversation with a man whose words guided him to the path he took now. He was seated in that same seat of that day, looking outside through a blurry glass that sheltered him from the cold rain. In front of him was an empty seat, three old and beloved books lined up on the table, and the silence of the empty teahouse.

Nine years had passed since that rainy day, yet he still had not discarded his guns and picked up a pen instead. His eyes stared at the books, every passage and words inside each book stored in his memories. But no matter how fast he always tried to open the third book and flipped it to the end, the same torn pages always mocked him. His red eyes blinked in surprise when suddenly another person was seated in front of him. A young teenager who had the same face as him, but his expression was as blank as a clean sheet of paper.

“Why are you hesitating?” his younger self asked, voice and eyes emotionless. There was no judgement in those eyes nor accusation in the words he spoke, yet Oda felt his chest hurt nonetheless. “Isn’t this what you wish for?”

Oda felt as if black claws crushed his lungs. Each breath he took felt empty of oxygen he desperately needed. His hands clenched into tight fists, the calluses of his years using guns were like a painful reminder of who he was despite how hard he tried to step into the light.

“Because I haven’t gained the right to write it.” His words sounded hoarse, like a broken tape that had been repeated over and over.

His younger self tilted his head in confusion. “Haven’t you stopped killing already?”

“I have.” Oda had never snuffed out another life since that rainy day nine years ago. “But it’s not enough. I still haven’t learned the way people lived.”

“So you took the children, in hope of learning how people live through them?” the younger Oda blurted out, exposing the truth that Oda had tried to avert his eyes away from.

Oda remembered the five children he saved that chaotic day. The young lives about to be trampled under the merciless boots of adults with greed and lust for power lording over their hearts. When he visited them again in the hospital, he had looked at the children and his mind wondered.

‘Will saving these children be enough for my redemption?’

Kousuke, Katsumi, Yu, Shinji, and Sakura. In less than a year he had with them, those children had wormed themselves into his hearts and became a beacon of hope. Hope that he would be pardoned, hope that he would finally able to pick up a pen after discarding his bloody past.

“But there is no pardon in this world.” The younger Oda lifted up his hand, his fingers making a gun shape with his thumb and forefinger and aiming it at Oda. “There is only revenge. A cruel death awaited us who have drenched their hands in blood.”

There was no sound of gunshot, but Oda felt like he was punched in the chest. He looked down, seeing a familiar gunshot wounds hitting right on his heart. He felt no pain, but his body slowly swayed back. Everything slowed down as his eyes caught the emotionless eyes of his younger self, who still pointed his finger at him. He wondered if this was how it felt for his targets, dying in the hands of a blank faced teenager who showed neither joy nor remorse for their deaths. As if their life didn’t matter in the end, just another body to be buried and forgotten.

Oda’s body hit the floor and he laid there in silence. Blood pooled beneath him like a blossoming camellia in winter. He was dying, but he couldn’t feel anything. He was just lying there, waiting for the end to come, when he heard the sound of crying.

It was the sound of children sobbing. Oda weakly turned his head and his eyes widened when he saw his five children around him crying. All of them clinging desperately on his limp body and sobbing their hearts out. He felt no pain from the bullet, but seeing the children crying made him feel like his chest was torn apart. He tried to lift his hand to comfort Sakura whose wailing was the loudest and most heart broken, but no matter how hard he tried his limbs wouldn’t cooperate with him.

His blurry eyes caught a shadow behind Sakura, who watched him like a silent ghost. A young boy, barely a teenager, stood there without any sound. But Oda remembered those heterochromatic eyes. He remembered the bottomless depth of pain inside those too young eyes, and those sorrowful eyes were mourning for him right now.

‘Ah.’ Oda thought as the children turned into gentle lights, moving around him like fireflies. ‘Even so, I still want to hope. I want to hope that someday, when these children can stand on their own feet and found their happiness, I can write about their life and my own redemption.’

When Oda woke up from that dream, he remembered crying children and gentle lights that filled his heart. He saw the three volume of his favorite book laying there on his lap, leftover from reading all night until he unknowingly fell asleep sometime near dawn. He checked his phone and his heart nearly leaped out from his chest at seeing the time. He put the books carefully on his bookshelf and rushed through his morning ritual, forgoing breakfast as he ran outside his apartment.

 


 

“Look, that man come again.” An orphanage staff in white clothes stopped his colleague, pointing towards a red haired man in front of their orphanage gates.

“Again? Is he crazy?” the other staff scoffed. “Even after the Headmaster kicked him out three weeks ago?”

“I don’t know if he is stupid or brave, to blatantly disobey Headmaster’s order to never come again.” The first staff jabbed his thumb towards the bizarre man. “What is it that he wants anyway that he comes here three times a week? He came from Yokohama right? It’s not like that port town is close to this place.”

The other staff whispered, as if he was about to tell a horrible secret. “I heard from the staff that first guided him here that he wanted to adopt that good-for-nothing child.”

His eyes widened, but then he laughed. “You are joking, right? Who wants to adopt that waste of space?”

“Hey, a man can dream right?” His colleague shrugged. “But I can see why it’s impossible that someone wants to adopt that child. Either the first staff is lying or the man got ulterior motives.”

“Maybe he is ‘that’?” the man made air quotes with his hands. “You know, like those in the news.”

The disgust in his colleague’s face made him laugh. “Bleh. Well, I don’t care what he wants with that child. I hope the Headmaster will quickly hand over that boy so it will be less work for us.”

As both of the staff continued their walk while laughing and jeering, a small shadow slipped beneath their notice.

 


 

The smell of smoke that he had given up after adopting the children calmed his frustration enough that he felt less like a tangled black string and more like a human. The glass of cold alcohol in his hand also helped with the headache after standing all day from late afternoon to late at night. He let out a long sigh, feeling his bones sagged like a decade had been added to his age.

He had been trying to meet with Atsushi again, but the Headmaster banned him to ever enter the orphanage again after that first time. Oda got the information he needed, but he didn’t manage to make the Headmaster agreed to get Atsushi out of there.

“You get the information you want, now get out.” The Headmaster had said, cold and unnegotiable. “I don’t want to deal with the mafia anymore.”

“Just one more thing.” Oda didn’t falter beneath that icy gaze. “Let me adopt that child.”

“Declined.” The man spat out. “Do you think a blood stained mafia like you know a thing about raising a child?”

“I am in charge of five orphans.” Oda calmly pointed out. “I can support one more.”

“Do you think human children are like pets that you can throw away after you grow tired of them?” he banged his fist on the table, but his gaze was still as cold despite the rage he showed. “A mafia that bathed in blood and death won’t be able to raise a life.”

It took Oda a few moment of intense glaring before he finally spoke. “I have stopped killing for years, even when I am in mafia.”

The man’s eyes widened a bit. He scanned Oda thoroughly, as if searching for deception. “Yet you still do crime. You never truly discard your past.”

“Have you?” Oda blurted out the words before he could think them through. The Headmaster’s fists tightened and he stood up, shoving his chair away roughly and pointing towards the door.

“Get out of my orphanage. Don’t you dare show your face again.”

Oda sighed again. He should be more careful with what he said. Ango had said that sometimes he insulted people without knowing it, although Dazai was perfectly happy watching the result. Speaking of his friends…

“Odasaku!”

Oda jolted out from his thoughts, the glass of whiskey in his hand nearly crashed to the table if not for his quick reflexes. After he made sure he wouldn’t spill his drink, he turned his head towards his side and his eyes found a pouting teenager poking at his own glass of whiskey.

“Odasaku, don’t you hear what I said?” one of his best friends, Dazai Osamu, whined when he could see the guilty look on Oda’s face. “You don’t! That’s mean! It was so important too!”

“Sorry.” Oda felt really guilty. He had come here to the bar hoping to get some company after another day of being rejected, but he mulled in his thoughts rather than spending time with his friends.

“It’s okay, Odasaku-san. It’s nothing important.” The calm voice of his other best friend, Sakaguchi Ango, could be heard from Dazai’s other side. “Are you okay? It’s rare for you to look so tired.”

“Ango, what do you mean it’s unimportant? I was talking about my new chicken hotpot recipe!” Dazai protested, mock glaring at the spectacled man. “It is so useful too! After eating it, you won’t feel sleepy for three days!”

Ango fixed his glasses, unaffected by Dazai’s pout. “If I don’t know better, I would be tempted to try it.”

“Don’t need to sleep for three days, huh?” Oda muttered. “That’s neat.”

Dazai brightened at Oda’s approving words. His grin was so wide that Oda was afraid his face would be torn in two. “Do you want to try it, Odasaku?”

“Hmm…” Oda pondered about it. The last time he ate Dazai’s mystery cooking, he was so spirited that his work was done in no time and he even had enough energy to play all day with his children. But for the next three days, he was so lethargic not unlike a zombie who could only moaned and stumbled around lifelessly. He shuddered remembering those dark memories and considering Ango’s pale face, he also remembered it. “Maybe later when I have a long holiday.”

Ango’s sigh at this point was expected, along with his scolding. “Odasaku-san, if you don’t stop agreeing with his ridiculous ideas, Dazai-kun won’t stop.”

“How mean, Ango! Even after I painstakingly making this recipe thinking of your sleepless days because of work!” Dazai whined again, though the slight sparkle in his eyes convinced the two older man that he wasn’t really offended. “Odasaku, Ango is being mean to me!”

“I think your thought alone is enough.” Ango smiled wryly. “But I prefer to be able to sleep when I can. I have almost forgotten what it is feel like to have a constant eight hours of sleep everyday.”

“The work as information specialist is really that busy, huh?” Oda thought about his own work. While he was busy running around doing all kinds of chores nobody else wanted, but at least he got to sleep and had enough free time.

He remembered seeing dark circles underneath Ango’s eyes on the days after Dragon Head Rush event, how sluggish he looked despite always carrying energy drink in hand. He wondered if Ango got enough sleep these days, but that question got buried in his heart along with so many questions he didn’t dare to voice. Their friendship, despite how Oda cherished it, was built on meaningless conversations that never scratched anything beneath the surface. This bar was their only escape from the darkness of the mafia world and Oda didn’t dare to risk this only utopia he had with the two person he called friends.

“I am also so busy these days.” Dazai shrugged. “I think Ane-san needs to fire her subordinates. I’ve been called these past weeks so many times to help with interrogations, even though it was so easy to make them talk. You just need to know what to push and they will squeal louder than dying pigs.” Dazai smiled lightly, despite how morbid his words were.

Ango drank his whiskey, his tone without sympathy towards Dazai’s victims. “But your quick work really helped me out. Thanks to you, the paperwork is really smooth and easy.”

Dazai waved off Ango’s gratitude. “If my hard work can help Ango, then it’s okay.”

“Speaking of helping,” Ango glared at Dazai. “Dazai-kun, you haven’t submitted your paperwork about the last heist yet.”

“Ehhhhhh?” Dazai grumbled. “But I already asked Akutagawa-kun… well, I will scold him later.”

“It’s your paperwork, you should do it yourself.” Ango scolded Dazai. Oda blinked before turning his body slightly towards his friends, wondering if the Master got any curry flavored popcorns.

“But it’s boringgggggggggggg…!” Dazai whined, every bit like petulant child as he draped his upper body to the table and ignoring Ango scolding him.

“Dazai-kun! You said you wanted to help me, not adding more of my work!”

“Why Ango took care of Dazai’s paperwork though? It’s outside of your job, right?” Oda wondered. Ango was one of their best information specialist, he didn’t need to take care of anyone’s paperwork. Even an Executive’s paperwork.

“The administrative begged me. They said that without my help, Dazai’s paperwork would be left behind by more than a year.” Ango massaged his forehead, imagining such a mountain of paperwork made his head hurt.

Dazai giggled, his smirk showed how unrepentant he was. “Ah, I remembered Mouri-san also scolded me about that sometime ago. But he had given up making me do it.”

Only Dazai could get away not doing his work even after being reprimanded by the Boss.

“How about you, Odasaku? Anything new or interesting?” Dazai glanced at him, ignoring how Ango still talked about responsibilities and deadlines.

It took Oda a few moments to think, but he couldn’t find anything new or interesting. “Kousuke is teaching bad words to Sakura. I wonder where he learnt those words. Katsumi showed really big interest in baseball after I taught him how to throw a ball a week ago. Yuu has been begging me for a video game since five days ago. Shinji managed to read a children book without assistance. Sakura really loves drawing and has been dominating the arts supplies.”

Dazai and Ango blinked before both of them smiled softly. Dazai sighed out loud. “Man, Odasaku has really turned into a proud dad stereotype.”

Oda blinked in confusion, making both Ango and Dazai laughed.

 


 

The ghost at the gates.

The person who had been waiting at the gates three times a week had become really popular among the children. Each one of them would whisper under their breath, wary of the staffs who would beat them up for talking about that man. Their whispers were filled with curiosity, suspicion, and hope.

‘Who do you think will be adopted?’

‘Why he didn’t take one of us already?’

‘Will he take us out of this place?’

Atsushi heard all of the whispers, despite not joining in the groups of children that discuss the man secretly. His presence was unwanted, so he could only hide and eavesdropped on their conversation. He tried to sneak a peek whenever he got chores outside or on windows cleaning duty. Most of the times, his heterochromatic eyes would find the man he remembered waiting by the gates. The older man was just like he remembered; hair and eyes as red as the sunset, probably even taller than the Headmaster, yet not intimidating like that cruel man. Atsushi would watch him discreetly, how his hands keep reaching towards his jacket pocket before his eyes blinked in realization and he put his hands down, how sometimes he would fiddle with his phone, eyes soft and gentle as he texted someone he knew.

The boy wondered if the way he was watching the stranger similar to how a cat would watch a new thing curiously, wondering if it’s dangerous, prey, or something that will pet them.

He remembered the man’s words that day weeks ago. How he promised to see Atsushi once again. Atsushi felt unfamiliar warmth lit on his chest as he remembered those gentle eyes and strong back as he stood up against the staff who tried to punish him. The bandage and ointment given from him in concern that Atsushi still carefully stored inside a plastic bag and buried to prevent it being taken away from him. For the first time in his life, he experienced kindness from a complete stranger. He was disliked and shunned by the rest of the orphans because he kept getting into trouble, even when he was completely innocent. The staffs hated him and always punished him for every little thing he did or didn’t. The Headmaster locked him up in the basement on random days every month, intentionally starved him, and injected him with mysterious substances that made him lose his consciousness.

He was used to pain and sorrow. To harsh and cruel words. To glares and disgust. He never expected that he would be treated gently, like he was something precious rather than just a waste of space. It felt too good to be true to him, yet he still couldn’t help himself from watching the man in secret. Seeing the man, confirming his existence was not just a dream from feverish and desperate mind. Just to get a glimpse whenever the man would smile at his phone and Atsushi could remember clearly the way the man smiled at him that day.

That was enough for Atsushi. He must not get greedy, for the moment he started to wish for something, his hope would get crushed into pieces by the adults. Like what the orphanage staffs said, it was impossible that the man came here to adopt him. A child that was forsaken by his own parent didn’t deserve to wish for anything. He couldn’t trouble the man who had shown him scraps of kindness. He didn’t want the man to realize how useless he truly was and those warm red eyes would turn cold just like the Headmaster—

Atsushi shivered, barely managing to keep the tears in his eyes from falling. No, he must not get greedy. He must be content in watching the kind stranger from afar, despite how his chest twisted and screamed for him to approach the only person that had treated him like a human being.

Yellow and purple eyes caught the man’s movement and Atsushi froze, keeping himself as still as possible. He saw how the man took out a small book from his pocket and write something in it. It took him a few minutes before he finished writing, which made Atsushi wondered what it was that the man wrote about with serious expression on his face. The man then walked along the gates, his eyes watching the building carefully as he walked. Atsushi followed the man silently, careful to hide amongst the shadow of the early night. When the man finally stopped, a lone small tree stood behind the gates. The man once again looked at the building before he dropped his small book under the tree. He smiled in satisfaction before pointing towards where he put the book down, his eyes directly gazed at Atsushi. Atsushi flinched in shock, didn’t realize that the man knew where he was hiding all along.

The older man waved at him and walked away back towards his car. Atsushi watched until his car disappear from the road and he ran. He almost tripped and stumbled from how he desperately ran, the distance from the shadow of the orphanage building to the small tree felt so far despite how close it really was. When his hands finally touched the tree, Atsushi panted as he fell to the ground. His eyes hurriedly sought the book, which was hidden from sight among the gaps of the roots. Atsushi carefully picked up the book, his head turned left and right, wary of anyone seeing him with a stranger’s book. To his surprise, he found that the tree was located in a place where this side of the building had no windows. The entrance and exit of the building also located on the different side, so he would be able to hear someone coming far before they would be able to see him.

‘Does that man already know about this place?’ it seemed too weird for the older man to accidentally finding place. Could it be that the man was looking for a place like this as he waited for weeks?

Atsushi felt afraid to open the book. That man had looked at him and pointed at this book, but Atsushi still felt like it wasn’t for him. Maybe there was someone else hiding with him in that direction, and this book was for that child? Atsushi hid behind the tree and waited, his hope shone brighter and brighter as the minutes passed and no one came for the book.

‘Maybe it’s for me. But why would he wanted to give me this book?’ Atsushi inspected the book carefully. It was a normal, small notebook with light blue cover and a pen stored inside the black rings that kept the book together.

He gulped down his fear and let his curiosity guided his hands. He opened the cover of the book and there were words written in really neat penmanship, as if the man who wrote it made sure to keep his writing as easy to read as possible. But it wasn’t just the man’s obvious effort in penmanship that made tears blurred his eyes and fell upon the pages. It was the words written on the pages.

“Hello, I hope you can read and write. I noticed that you have been watching me since the second week I waited by the gates, but you never approached me. If you are not ready to talk to me directly, can we at least talk through letters? My name is Oda Sakunosuke, but my friends called me Odasaku. I remember the Headmaster called you Atsushi, but is that your name? I will return here tomorrow. You can write all you want in this notebook so I can read them later. I never have a pen pals, so I will be very happy if you want to be my first pen pals.”

Tears continued to stream down his face. ‘He wants to be my friend. He waited for me to approach him.’ His chest felt so full that he was afraid that he would explode. The joy that he had thought he would only get from eating ochazuke now filled up a hole in his heart that he thought would never be filled. The warmth spread across his body like when he drank the tea broth of ochazuke. His lips and cheeks started to hurt from how he smiled so widely.

It took Atsushi hours to think about what to reply to Oda’s letter. He even practiced writing on a piece of leaf because he couldn’t bear to leave a mess of crossed words and bad handwriting due to his seldom opportunity to write.

“Hello, Oda-san. My name is Nakajima Atsushi. I would love to be your pen pals. I am sorry that I couldn’t be brave and approach you… but I’m really happy that you came back to see me.”

Chapter Text

“Thank you for coming yesterday too, Oda-san. But are you alright? It’s raining all day yet you still wait there by the gates. I don’t want you to become sick. I was worried the book will get wet, but you have wrapped it in plastic. Thank you and I’m sorry I can’t go out and offer a towel or anything…”

 


 

 

A faint sneeze attracted the attention of the middle aged man with plump stomach. He grinned as he leaned over the counter to get better look at his customer’s face. His best customer’s face looked hilarious with how he attempted to keep stoic face while adamantly eating his curry, even when his nose was bright red and he had to from time to time get up and went to the toilet to clear his stuffy nose.

“Odasaku-chan,” the curry restaurant owner said with twinkle in his eyes as Oda returned from the toilet for the fifth time. “If you are sick, you should take some medicine and rest at home. You can visit the kids when you are healthy.”

“Curry is all the medicine I need.” Oda finished up his curry to the last bite, appetite for his favorite food not lessening despite being sick.

The curry owner watched as Oda sneezed three times in a row. Oda was about to stand up again and went back to the toilet, but the curry owner shook his head. “Just do it here. There is no other customer to be offended by a sick person.”

Oda hesitated for a moment before he hurriedly took a napkin and whispered. “Thank you.” He blew his nose until air could enter his lungs again.

“So, what is on your mind Odasaku-chan?” when Oda looked at him in surprise, the curry owner just laughed out loud. “You are not the type of person who will risk the children get sick too by coming here with a cold. Even if you really want curry you will just order take away. So there must be something you want to talk with me or the children.”

Oda coughed a little and hummed. “Am I that easy to read?”

“With people who have spent a long time with you? Yes.” The owner laughed again. “So what is it? Is it about the children? If it’s about Katsumi-chan breaking the window last week, it’s really fine Odasaku-chan.”

Oda winced as he remembered that Katsumi got too excited playing with his brand new softball that he threw it across the room too hard and it broke the window. Thankfully, no one got hurt and the uncle wasn’t upset. He just laughed and said that they were kids. He just scolded Katsumi and asked him to play outside after Katsumi cried from guilt. Oda had insisted on paying for the damage, but the uncle wouldn’t have it and threatened to not cook curry for a month if he tried to pay. Oda immediately backed down.

“It’s not that, it’s… something else.” Oda fidgeted in his seat. The situation he was in was painfully similar to when Oda was at lost with all the five children he had just adopted out of blue. Back then, Oda was mulling how he was going to house all those growing children in his small apartment. The uncle kindly asked him what was going on and after hearing his problem readily offered his house for the children.

“My dear wife passed away before we could have children. This house is far too big for myself, it needs the laughter and cheerfulness only children could provide.” At that time, the uncle smile at the fond memories of his beloved wife and patted his shoulder. “Just think that you are granting a lonely man wish for children he never has. I’m sure my late wife would also be pleased.”

The familiar feeling of not wanting to bother the man who had been so kind to a mafia like him resurfaced, but the uncle showed him that gentle and patient smile. Oda faintly remembered his own father who used to smile like that and he swore he could see the memories of his parent shadowed the uncle like a gentle reminder of his life before he picked up his guns.

The memories that he thought had been blurred and locked away with time cleared the blockage on his throat and let the words flowed from his lips. “I… I want to adopt another child.”

The uncle ever present smile dimmed a bit in surprise, but he didn’t blatantly reject Oda’s plea before he even brought it into words. “I found him in an orphanage I visited in my mission. He… doesn’t have a happy life there. I stopped a staff from beating him as punishment, but it was just that one time. Who knows how many pain and sadness he had to endure after that one time, and before that? I—I want to save him from that place. I know it’s not fair that I only rescued him and not the other children. I am sure that he is not the only one who suffered, but… but that child looked at me with so much gratitude over the smallest hint of kindness. I can’t abandon him, Oyaji-san.”

The uncle didn’t say anything at first and Oda feared the worst. Housing five children was already a big responsibility and here Oda was trying to beg the kind uncle to house one more. He could take Atsushi in his apartment, but his apartment was cold and lonely for a child to grow up alone. Especially because Oda was rarely at home too because of his work. He wanted Atsushi to live here with the other children, so he wouldn’t feel lonely. So he could feel the joy for having siblings who loved him and played with him.

A warm hand on his shoulder made Oda looked up, having unconsciously hung his head at the thought of Atsushi being alone in his apartment. He saw the uncle smiling at him and the shadow of his parent once again wrapped around him like a familiar picture.

“My house is always open for anyone you picked up, Odasaku-chan.” The man patted him strongly at the shoulder, before he grinned. “But you have to share this happy news with the children, they will be ecstatic to have another member helping them to defeat you.”

Oda could imagine that. He could see the children seriously instructing Atsushi how to build a trap for him. Oda thought that Atsushi would be flustered at first, but he was sure that Kousuke and the others would be able to convince him. Oda and the uncle himself never could say no to their sad puppy eyes.

Oda smiled as well, the joy the man in front of him exuded lifted the veil of doubt in his heart. “I have to be prepared then.” He had once again become indebted to this man with heart of gold and Oda feared that he wouldn’t be able to repay the immense tab he had owed.

The curry restaurant owner laughed loudly when Oda sneezed again and advice the younger man to meet the children later after his health returned.


 

 

“Don’t worry, I am fine. Just like a poem I read sometime ago, I won’t be defeated by rain. Do you remember the children that I adopted? All of them wished to meet you. When I said that I can't bring them here, everyone gave me this sad puppy eyes. Oh, do you receive the gift? All of them gave something for you. Take it, the children will be really happy.”

 


 

 

“A new brother?” Katsumi had squealed in delight, his cheeks flushed with excitement as he jumped up and down in front of him. “Where? When can we meet him?”

Kousuke also grinned so widely that Oda feared his face would be split in half. “Yes, a new member for our gang! How old is he? Is he strong? Tall? Eh, it didn’t matter even if he is weak, there is strength in numbers after all!”

Shinji perked up from his book, his eyes shone with happiness. “Will he read a book with me?”

Yu looked at his game console and groaned. “Odasaku, I want a multiplayer game! Give me one, so we all can play together!”

The boys bombarded him with questions like automatic machine guns that Oda struggled to answer, since his communication with Atsushi was limited to what the boy told him through letters. Still, their enthusiasm brought warmth to his chest as he realized that Atsushi would be accepted and loved by the children.

“He is older and taller than you, Kousuke. But since he is so thin, you can’t be too rough with him. At least until uncle fattened him up with curry."

“I am trying my hardest to bring him home soon, Katsumi. I am sure he can’t wait to meet with you guys too.”

“Yu, I have just bought you a new game two weeks ago. But when I can bring him home here, I will make sure to buy you that popular multiplayer game so you can teach him to play.”

“Atsushi said that he loves to read. I am sure he will love to read with you, Shinji.”

It took five minutes of back and forth quiz between the boys and him until the boys huddled in the corner and began speaking in hushed whispers. Oda let out a sigh of relief from surviving the onslaught of questions. He was just about to leave while the boys were distracted when a gentle tug on his pants stopped him.

Sakura stood there, her innocent eyes staring at him in wonder. Oda crouched down so she didn’t have to strain her neck looking up at him and smiled. “What is it, Sakura?”

“Brother?” Sakura mumbled, her pronunciation had improved so fast these days.

Oda nodded and patted her short hair. “Yes, you will have a new brother. Just like Kousuke, Katsumi, Yu and Shinji.”

“Brother…” Sakura hugged her teddy bear tightly. Her eyes stared at the boys excitedly hatching a new plan involving Oda and the new boy, then it seemed like a light bulb switched on above her little head as she smiled brightly at her guardian. “Brother!”

Oda proudly praised her. “Yes, a new brother. His name is Atsushi.”

“A- Achuu—“ Sakura pouted as she struggled to pronounce the new word. “A… Achushi.”

Smile brightened, Oda tickled her sides which made the little girl squeaked in surprise and giggled cutely. “You will have a lot of time to practice saying his name.”

“Achushi!” Sakura giggled, her eyes brightened as she escaped from his tickling fingers. “Achushi, Achushi!”

Kousuke shielded the still giggling Sakura behind his back from evil Odasaku’s hands. “It’s Atsushi! A-tsu-shi!”

“Achushi!”

“Odasaku, you broke her! Revenge!” Kousuke tackled him and tried to tickle him back, but Oda quickly sidestepped and caught the back of Kousuke’s shirt before the boy could hurt himself. The other boys roared their battle cry and all launched themselves at him to avenge their fallen comrade.

After he wrestled the boys to submission, Oda was once again trying to leave when he felt another tug on his pants. He looked down at Sakura who persistently bumped her tiny fist to his knee.

“For Achushi!” Sakura opened her fist and gave Oda three fruit flavored candies in bright colored wrappers. “From Shakura!”

Oda took the candies from her hand and her bright smiles made him wonder if Atsushi would smile the same way when he received the candies. “Thank you Sakura. Atsushi will love this.”

“Ah! It’s not fair, I want to give something to Atsushi too!” Kousuke shouted from underneath the pile of bodies.

“Me too!”

“Me, me!”

“M-me too, Odasaku!”

It took Oda fifteen minutes to convince all of them that Atsushi probably couldn’t receive all of their gifts and they should settle for little things like candies or chocolates. It would be bad if someone from the orphanage realized that Atsushi got all these things he couldn’t hide or just ate in one go. In the end, the children relented for a handful of candies and chocolate bars that Oda tightly wrap in plastic bag to prevent ants crawling in as he hid it by the tree’s roots.

The next time he approached their secret place, he was surprised to see that not only the lone book was waiting for him. Atsushi was there, looking around him every few seconds with his body trembling not from the cold winds of the night but from fear of being caught. He was clutching a bunch of flowers close to his chest, like it was the only anchor that keeping his feet planted there despite how afraid the boy was. The moment those yellow and purple eyes found him, Atsushi visibly let out a huge sigh of relief and the fear in those eyes became diluted. The tenseness in his body didn’t lessen, but Atsushi no longer looked on the verge of hysteria like the day they first met.

Atsushi opened his mouth, but no words came out from his trembling lips. The boy closed his mouth in dismay and hung his head, the grip of his fingers on the stalks of dandelions and other wildflowers that Oda didn’t know the name of tightened. Oda moved as slow as possible to not startle the already skittish boy and he smiled gently.

Atsushi tried his best to return his smile. Despite how crooked and unnatural the smile was Oda still held it precious in his memory. “Is that for me?”

The young teen nodded hurriedly, relief washed over the boy for not having to speak to convey his thoughts. Oda slowly slipped his hands between the small space of the metal fence. “May I?”

Atsushi nodded again, slower this time and it took Atsushi a few moments before his shaking hands offered the flowers to him. Oda took the flowers gently from Atsushi and took a long moment to inspect it appreciatively. The stalks of the flowers were crushed from Atsushi’s tight grip, but the flowers themselves are beautiful. Atsushi must have painstakingly only picked the best flowers he could find on the orphanage grounds, despite how rare it was to find any in that bleak garden Oda remembered. A strip of torn cloth tied the stalks together and Oda’s heart clenched tightly in his chest when he saw the way Atsushi’s threadbare shirt got a bit of tear on the bottom.

Oda swallowed the bitter feeling on his tongue and smiled gently instead. “Thank you. This is really beautiful.”

Atsushi’s eyes widened hearing Oda’s gratitude. His lips trembled a bit before he roughly rubbed his eyes with his arm. The boy wordlessly picked up the book they used to communicate and politely offered it to him. When Oda’s hand touched the book, his eyes widened a bit when Atsushi smiled at him. Not his usual forced or wry smile, but a full warm smile that looked as soft as the gentle rays of morning sun. Atsushi’s eyes were red, but his smile was genuine. However, the precious sight in front of him quickly disappear as Atsushi slowly backed away.

His sharp red eyes caught the words whispered soundlessly from Atsushi’s lips before the boy ran away, back towards the ominous building that was his orphanage.

“Thank you.” Oda whispered the words that Atsushi couldn’t say and he felt torn between sorrow and joy from being thanked by a boy who had probably never experienced the happiness of receiving and giving a gift to someone else.

 


 

 

“Yes, I received them! Is it really alright for me to take this? I… I can’t eat them. I am so happy to receive something from someone that I can’t eat it. I want to cherish it forever, but they will go bad… I also can’t hide it too long or the ants and bugs will eat them. Please convey my gratitude to them. They are so nice to give sweets to a stranger like me, but I can’t give them anything. I tried to gather some wild flowers that grew around here, but I can only find a few. I am so sorry… I think it's better if they never come here at all, the orphanage is not a place for happy children like them. But... I would be happy to meet them.”

 


 

 

He returned to his children next day, Atsushi’s gift carefully put inside a plastic bottle since he didn’t actually have any vase himself. Sakura smiled so brightly as she cradled the bottle close to her chest while Shinji immediately opened a book about flowers as he tried to find out what kind of flowers they were with Yu helping him. Kousuke and Katsumi watched Sakura carefully, their quick reflexes saved the flowers everytime Sakura stumbled.

 


 

 

“Don’t worry, Sakura loves the flowers you gathered. The boys said that you don’t need to worry about giving them anything. Shinji asked what kinds of books that you read here in orphanage. Kousuke and Katsumi asked if you like sports. Yu had been excitedly piling up a list of games that he wants to play with you. The uncle asked if you like curry and spicy foods. All of them asked so many questions because they are eager to meet you. How are you today? Did they punish you again? Are you hurt?”

 


 

 

The words on the newest letter were blurred and Oda didn’t have to possess a mind as sharp as his best friend to know that they were blurred from tears.

 


 

 

“I am so glad that Sakura loves them. There are many books here in the orphanage, but none like the picture book you described a few days ago. There is a book that I love the most, it’s a tale about a man who became a tiger but managed to meet with his old friend before he truly lost himself in his sadness. I… don’t know any sports. I never played any too. I don’t know how to play games, so I’m afraid I will only disappoint him. I have eaten a curry in the orphanage a few times, but I still prefer ochazuke. I never eat spicy food, so I can’t say for sure.

I am fine, Oda-san. You don’t have to worry. I am used to them beating me, I deserved it anyway. But… thank you for caring about a person like me, you are a really good person Oda-san.”

 


 

 

Oda and Atsushi exchanged many more letters. Oda would tell Atsushi about his day, his childrens, and even sometimes about his friends. However more than anything, Oda would tell Atsushi about the world outside of the gates of the orphanage.

 


 

 

“Today I went to the new sweet shop that Kousuke told me about. It’s really colorful and crowded, I was shoved back by teenage girls. I didn’t realize that it’s a taboo to come between girls and their cravings. Oh, I also saw a short boy there too. He wore clothing like how detectives from western novels look like and to my amazement, he bravely entered the crowded store and not a long after escaped unscathed with arms full of sweets. He made it look so easy I wanted to ask for tips, but he disappeared really quickly. In the end, I waited at a nearby café until the store was less crowded. But by that time, most of the sweets were gone. Kousuke got mad at me that I didn’t get what he wanted.”

“T-that sounds really scary. Is sweet shop such a really scary place? Do they only sell candies and chocolates? What was it that Kousuke wanted?”

“I think I saw cakes being sold there too, but I didn’t manage to get any. Kousuke wanted this supposed to be all flavors jelly beans. I have to go there at other times and hope it’s still there. Oh, today I found this really cute puppy inside a baby stroller pushed by it's owner. I tried to draw it, but my friend thought that I was drawing a four legged alien. When I showed him the photo of the puppy, he frowned in disgust and said that my alien is better. I know he hates dogs, but I think the cute puppy is better. Probably.”

“…that was a puppy? I thought it’s a chameleon! I was so happy when I thought that you remembered my favorite animal beside cat… o-oh, it doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the drawing you have drawn for me! I liked it, really! It’s just… I think drawing is not your greatest talent?”

“Fair enough. Even the kids laughed when I showed them the picture so it’s not your fault. Your comment is actually nicer than my friend’s ‘alien’ and the kids ‘monster’. It’s been raining so hard lately that the river water level has risen. I know this from my friend, who wonder if the current is dangerous enough for someone to drown in. Speaking of river, it’s too late now since it’s already fall but maybe next summer I will take the children to fish. My father used to take me to the mountain while I was young and I had a good time swimming and trying to catch a fish, so maybe they will appreciate it. I hope next year you can join us.”

 


 

 

Atsushi’s hand shook as he read the last letter Oda wrote to him. Tears streamed down from his eyes no matter how many times he wiped away the tears using his hands. He couldn’t cry, a kid without a parent like him didn’t deserve to cry. No one would care no matter how loud he cried and he would only get beaten by the cold staffs. The Headmaster had said it; no one would care about him. A worthless life that keep living by mistake. He could die tomorrow and no one would mourn him. He would become one of the unmarked graves that no one would visit nor cared for.

Atsushi covered his mouth and forced himself to stifle his hiccups. Lately, it had been harder to prevent the tears. It felt like a dam that had been holding back his sorrow had cracks and was on the verge of being blown away by the force of his tears. Atsushi closed his eyes and cursed himself. Why he broke down now? Nothing had changed, he was still an orphan without anyone to care for him. No one would wipe away his tears nor comfort him. So why his heart betrayed him now by being unable to lock away his feelings like how he survived until now?

A sharp pain roughly shoved his deprecating thoughts away and he looked at his hand. He had been gripping the pen Oda gave to him so hard that the casing broke and a small sharp piece of it pierced his hand. He immediately went to panic, not because of his wound but because the pen was a gift from Oda. He couldn’t believe he had broken something that he treasured so much. What a useless, worthless—

Atsushi’s eyes found the book still open by his lap. A few droplets of his tears had fallen on the book and Atsushi quickly dried it as best as he could. Thankfully, none smeared the letter that Oda had written for him and he let out a small sigh of relief. Oda’s neat penmanship urged him to reread the letter and he felt like his tears only returned when he once again saw Oda’s hope. Hope for Atsushi to join him and the kids next summer. Hope that Atsushi could leave this place behind and be with them someday. Hope that he would be able to adopt Atsushi.

Atsushi felt like he could finally saw a light at the end of the long cold and dark tunnel that was his life. He wiped the blood on his hand to the grass because he would be scolded if his clothes were dirty with his blood and he picked up the book carefully, making sure it wouldn’t be tainted by his blood.

The Headmaster’s words were no longer the truth, right? If he could be so bold, then now he had people who cared for him now. Oda was so happy that Atsushi had become his pen pals. The children gave gifts to him, appreciate his meager gifts, and even said that they couldn’t wait to meet him. The uncle had said that he had prepared the best curry in the world for him.

He was wanted.

For the first time in his life, there were people who cared for him.

Even if it was just pity. Even if someday they would see how ugly and useless Atsushi was, but for now, he had this.

Atsushi felt like the knot in his chest started to unravel. Bit by bit, the tight knot became looser and looser until the binding on his heart and body no longer held him down. The shackles still wrapped around him, but for the first time Atsushi felt like he could finally breathe. The words that had become like a curse no longer felt as heavy and if he tried, maybe he could stand on his own two legs now. He would stumble and he would fall, but maybe… maybe there would be a hand that helped him. If he just stretched his hand—

A strong blow to his head shattered his imagination. The last thing he saw as his body crumpled to the ground were a lot of feet, the ticklish feeling of grass on his face, and the blurry image of his book being picked up by someone. His hand sluggishly tried to reach for the book, but he was roughly pulled up and dragged somewhere.

Atsushi could hear himself muttering. “Book… my book…” before his consciousness blanked out and his senses replaced with only the loud ringing in his ears.

 


 

The sky had become dark as Oda drove back home. It was later than usual today, which made Oda cringe. He would be late to today’s meeting in the bar. ‘Maybe I should skip dinner… no, that would only make the hungover worse tomorrow.’

Thinking about dinner only made him even hungrier. Oda pulled over to the side and released his seat belt. He was sure that he kept some crackers on the car from his previous job where he had to patrol the streets. He opened the glove compartment to search for something to fill his grumbling stomach, but the sight of what was inside made him pause.

“Oops.” He sighed out loud when he remembered box of cookies that was stored inside. The children had been devastated when Oda said Atsushi never had cookies and insisted that he delivered the store bought cookies to the poor boy. He had forgotten because he had to take a call from his superior when he arrived at the orphanage and now the innocent cookies sat there, making him felt guilty.

He looked at his watch and sighed again. Atsushi probably already picked up the letter book and already went back inside. Maybe he should just give it to Atsushi tomorrow. Who knew, maybe he got lucky and Atsushi would meet him face to face again. After that day Atsushi gave him the flowers, Atsushi would sometimes wait for him at their secret place. The boy was still too shy to speak much, but Oda smiled as he remembered Atsushi stuttered as he called his name for the first time.

He didn’t meet the boy today, which was a shame. He wondered if Atsushi was still there, waiting or reading his letter. The image of the boy smiling so brightly and happily in his memory made up his mind. He sent a quick text message to his friends saying that he would be late today and put the small box of cookies on his coat pocket and turned back his car. His hunger could wait and he was sure Dazai and Ango wouldn't mind waiting a bit.

 


 

It took a few minutes before his brain could comprehend anything. His head felt like it was stuffed into a box and all he could sense was the dull sounds of conversations and the way his limbs dragged on the rough floor. The moment his consciousness fully returned, he was greeted with sharp pain on the back of his head. Atsushi whimpered in pain, his hands tried to reach for his head but to his shock he felt his hands unable to move. He opened his eyes, the gentle light of fireplace overwhelmed his sensitive eyes for a moment before everything stopped being blurry and he could finally see everything around him.

Atsushi took a sharp breath as he realized where he was. There was only one room in the orphanage with a fireplace and that was the central room where all of the children spent their breaks in silently. The side of his stomach burned painfully as he remembered the last time he was punished there. By the person who currently stood looming before him, being even more intimidating when Atsushi was forced to kneel by the two male staffs that held his hands in their grasp.

Atsushi could feel his breath becoming more and more erratic as he gazed at the cold and ruthless eyes of the Headmaster. His body was shaking just like a leaf, legs desperately trying to escape from the man who had brought nothing but harm and pain in his life. However, no matter how much he struggled the two staffs easily held him down.

‘Why? Why? I always make sure that I won’t be noticed. I always make sure that no staff see me go outside!’

Atsushi’s eyes desperately escaped the Headmaster’s gaze, looking at anywhere but the man in front of him. That was the moment his eyes found the reason of his capture. A group of children were standing by the door, all of them looking at him with emotionless eyes. No guilt, shame, or even sorrow for his fate. Atsushi had foolishly forgotten that his enemy in that orphanage was not just the adults, but also the other children. Children that would threw him under the bus remorselessly if that mean they would get additional points. Points that would ensure their own survival in that harsh orphanage. He had hoped that Oda’s presence would attract their attention from him enough for him to slip away unnoticed, but it seemed their hungry eyes would never leave their best prey for too long.

Atsushi yelped in pain as the Headmaster’s hand grabbed his hair roughly and yanked his head up to meet his gaze. “You have not only disobey the curfew, but you also communicate with the man I have clearly ordered all of you to avoid.” Atsushi’s face paled as his widened eyes saw his most treasured book in the Headmaster’s hands. “Do you think that after a stranger showed you scraps of kindness you are better than your peers? That you are above the rules, rules that I set in this place to maintain order?”

Atsushi quickly shook his head, despite knowing that no matter what he answered his fate would remain the same. It was the fear, the terror that was taught harshly on him ever since he was old enough to understand the unfairness of the world that left only absolute obedience in him. Desperately trying to pick any answer that would lessen his punishment, however miniscule. He had learned to not speak back, or he would experience even worse pain that made him wish he had died instead.

The Headmaster released his hair like how one threw away disgusting trash. Atsushi watched with trepidation as the Headmaster opened his book and his cold eyes scanned pages after pages of his letters with Oda. It felt like an invasion to his privacy, but who was he kidding? No one in that cold kingdom had any privacy, nothing was secret to the cruel tyrant who ruled over them all with iron fists. Still, Atsushi felt pain and shame in his heart from being unable to protect Oda’s privacy too. He was an outsider; he didn’t have to be shamed by the Headmaster like this.

The dull sound of book closing made Atsushi looked up again from his misery. The Headmaster was watching him with unreadable eyes, but he was a fool if he even hoped that the Headmaster felt any ounce of pity towards him. The Headmaster turned around and walked slowly, his cold tone dripping with poison echoed through the empty room.

“Do you really believe that man’s words? His sweet lies about wanting you, a menace without any worth, as a part of his family?” the man’s words felt like cruel knife that jabbed his heart and forcefully tore it, letting the doubt and distrust in his heart that he had locked away to fester like infection rotting him from the inside. “What makes you think he isn’t just tricking you? What proof do you have that all what he writes here in this book is truth? He could just spew out a fantasy family to make you feel accepted. He could write his letters to you while laughing with his friends of how gullible you are. How an orphan that has never been loved by anyone practically wagged his tail and eat any kind lies the man fed you with?”

With every words, Atsushi felt like the light he had finally seen at the end of tunnel was being slowly devoured by the darkness of his doubt. He struggled to keep the light alive, to keep hoping that he had finally found happiness in this cold and cruel world. Yet he couldn’t stop his ragged breath, his sight getting blurry with tears he refused to spill as he struggled to free his hands and covered his ears. He didn’t want to hear anything anymore. He wanted to shove all the doubt in his heart back into the corner of his heart and locked it away.

Even if it was a lie, he was happy. Even if in the end he would only be thrown away, the tempting hope made him feel alive for the first time in his life. Even if it was all just illusion, he wanted to cover his eyes and ears and let himself be fooled.

‘Why? Why I have to be thrown again outside of my dreams back into this cruel world inside the gates of the orphanage?’

“Never think that anyone would want you.” The Headmaster’s eyes were as cold as ever, no pity for the crying boy in the brink of despair. “Hope is just a delusion. The world is not so kind for a worthless orphan like you. An orphan that can't save anyone have no worth. The fact that you are still alive is the biggest flaw of your existence.”

Atsushi's gaze dropped to the floor as his dreams and hope crumbled. His existence was just like a stain on the floor, unwanted yet still there no matter how many times he was beaten and left bloody and starving. Even Atsushi didn’t know why he struggled to cling unto his life that brought nothing but pain and sorrow, but nonetheless he still lived.

Had he been hoping to someday be rescued? Like a fairy tale princess, someday a knight would save him from the cursed tower where a dragon had kept him captive and brought him to a home where he would live happily ever after? But when had life been as sweet as fairy tale? He was no princess; he was just an orphan nobody wanted. He would just rot here in the orphanage until he finally dropped down and died, without any meaning in his short and painful life.

The Headmaster stood in front of the fireplace and his voice cut through Atsushi’s depression. “Be thankful that I saved you from that false hope. You will no longer be deceived by that stranger.”

The Headmaster brought the book up and Atsushi’s eyes widened in horror as he watched the book being thrown to the fireplace. Everything slowed down in Atsushi’s eyes. The book slowly fell into the roaring flames and the fire engulfed the book in it’s fiery embrace. Atsushi faintly heard screams and his body moved on it’s own. It took him a few moments to realize he was the one who screamed.

The Headmaster frowned. “Stop screaming. That book is nothing but a trash of lies.”

“No!” Atsushi snapped, shocking everyone there for no one have ever talked back against the Headmaster. “Even if it’s just lies, even if it’s just delusion… that book is mine! It’s the first time someone gave their hope to me! It’s the first time I ever own something!”

That book was his source of his happiness. The reason why everyday he woke up giddy and excited for new letters Oda would write to him. The only way Oda could teach him about the outside world, a world that was too bright and dreamlike for him. That book was his most precious treasure, among the irreplaceable gifts given to him so far by Oda and his children.

He couldn’t let it burn. He wouldn’t let it get destroyed.

The crescent moon peaked over the clouds and it’s gentle light cut through the veil of darkness. The Headmaster’s eyes widened as Atsushi felt a surge of unfamiliar yet familiar power through him. The strong grips that bound his hands suddenly felt like wet tissue paper as he easily tore his hands free from his captors and he lunged towards the fireplace, ignoring everything else in his haste to save his treasure. Uncaring of his own safety, Atsushi thrusted his hands into the flame. It burned. The fire was so hot that Atsushi felt like his hands was being cooked alive, but he gritted his teeth through the pain. Atsushi grabbed the burning book and snatched it away from the roaring fire.

He put the burning book on the floor and hurriedly tried to smother the flame. He tore his shirt in frenzy and snuffed out the fire, uncaring how the blisters on his hands popped and cracked skins peeling painfully. When the last of the fire had finally been snuffed out, Atsushi fearfully lifted his singed shirt. He choked up painful sobs when he found out that the cover of the book had turned black and the border of the pages had been eaten by the fire. He carefully opened the book and he finally felt like he was able to breathe when he saw that despite the black and burnt parts, most of the words themselves were still intact.

“I’m glad…” Atsushi hugged the book close to his chest. “I can save it.”

Atsushi’s relief was short lived. He felt his head and body being roughly slammed to the floor and he wailed as his burnt hands were twisted behind his back as the two staffs captured him again. The room was darkened and the strength in Atsushi’s body left him. With just the light from the fireplace, he couldn’t really see the Headmaster’s expression as he returned from the windows that were now covered with thick curtains.

The Headmaster picked up the burnt book, which made Atsushi struggled again. “I will toss this again to the fire if you struggled.” Atsushi immediately stilled, didn’t dare to even breath. “Take him to my office. I will deal with his punishment myself.”

Atsushi’s eyes widened in terror. Everytime the Headmaster took him to his office, only misery awaited him. Memories of nail being stabbed into his feet, being drowned in cold water, and other similarly horrifying punishment made Atsushi’s body trembled. He wanted to run, he wanted to escape.

‘But where? Nowhere is safe.’

Also, the Headmaster still held the book hostage. Atsushi could only whimper in defeat as he was being dragged forcefully to the Headmaster’s office. The pain of his burnt hands didn't even compare to the terror that gripped his heart with every steps closer to the building he had feared all of his life.

In the distance, a car sped down the empty streets towards a gloomy orphanage.

 

Chapter Text

After quite a long journey back towards the orphanage, Oda’s car parked once again on it’s usual spot near the gates. He opened the door and walked briskly, hoping to meet with Atsushi if the boy was still there. The box of cookies on the pocket of his coat felt more important than secret files and luggage he sometimes had to deliver as his job in the mafia. The moon was hidden behind the clouds tonight, leaving Oda to only rely on his memory after more than a month tracking the same path almost every day to go to their secret tree.

Despite the darkness, Oda had survived through the hellish environment of his assassin days. Even the slightest unnatural movement when there were no winds caught his attention and his habit froze him in his track. Oda hid himself by the bushes, still calm despite the risk of ambush because his ability had not been triggered. With his eyes useless to see through the veil of darkness, Oda closed them and focused on his hearing. The world seemed like it was slowing down around him, every sounds and noises filtered and sent to his brain. He discarded the natural sounds of the night and focused on the faint sounds.

He heard the sound of dragging, which he was familiar with. The footsteps were louder than normal, meaning that they struggled to drag whatever it was. A really faint sound of sobbing attracted his focus the most and to his horror, he knew that sound. He had memorized the voice of the boy so well after all.

Oda opened his eyes wide and he struggled to see the movement in the darkness. As if sensing his distress, the moon peeked over the clouds and illuminated their surroundings. With the moonlight gently lifting the shadows, Oda’s red eyes finally found the image that made his heart went cold like ice. Atsushi, the boy that he and his children adored so much for the last month, was sobbing as he futilely struggled in the hands of his two staffs that roughly dragged him to the building of the Headmaster. The Headmaster walked ahead of them, his posture stiff and intimidating. They were just about to enter the building that Oda had thought of as a lair of a monster and Atsushi’s face became paler the closer they get with that building, his cries bordering on hysteria.

Before his brain could think, his hands had subconsciously grabbed the metal fence. With the grace of a professional killer, he easily climbed up the gates and leaped down. His feet barely produced any sound as they touched down on the grass. His body sprang up and dashed towards where they were forcing Atsushi through the door. The moment the staff was closing the door behind them, Oda’s hand stopped it from fully closing and roughly pushed it open. The shocked faces of the staffs greeted him as he stood there by the door, his red eyes shone with fury as he glared them down.

“Let him go.” His voice was calm, but the fire in his eyes made the two staffs unable to rebuke the intruder. At that moment, the staff didn’t feel like they were facing a human. It was just like staring at natural disaster in the eyes and all humans could do facing such wrath were just to surrender quietly and wait for the end.

Atsushi whipped his head up in shock, his wide eyes glued to him as recognition finally managed to temporarily halted his hysteria. “O-oda-san…?”

Just like the first day they met, Oda quelled down the storm of anger in his heart and he forced a tiny smile for the frightened boy. “Yes, it’s me. Are you hurt?” the heaviness in the air dissipated and the staffs exhaled a shaky breath, didn’t even realize that they had stopped breathing.

Oda stepped closer to the boy, the air around him really ominous. The staffs once again tried to shout at the intruder, but one look at the mysterious man made them feel like they were staring into a barrel of a gun aimed on their forehead. When Oda pushed them away from Atsushi, the two staffs hastily stepped back as if Oda’s touch burned them.

Oda slowly and gently cupped the boy’s cheeks, which seemed unreal for the staffs after they witnessed the fury in those eyes. He tilted Atsushi’s face right and left, checking for wounds and frowned when he could feel a lump on the back of the boy’s head. When Oda’s hands touched his shoulders, Atsushi winced. Oda’s eyes went lower and he took a sharp intake of breath when he noticed the burnt wounds on Atsushi’s hands. His hands were bright red or black, most of his skin had peeled, along with blisters up to his wrists. But to Oda’s horror and pain, even though the wounds on Atsushi’s hands were the only fresh ones, he found another faint scars on the boy’s uncovered chest. The burnt scars on the side of his ribs looked especially painful and Oda wondered if that was the wound that hurt Atsushi on their first meeting.

A bright and hot volcano erupted in his heart, the anger burning furiously inside him was far hotter than any anger he had ever felt for a really long time. Yet he was still so calm, despite the white hot fire roaring in him that threatened to burn everything down to ash. The fire burned away every unneeded thought; leaving only the targets of his anger and the shaking boy in front of him. The two staffs instinctively cowered, unable to even speak to justify themselves facing Oda’s wrath. Oda removed his thick coat and put it around Atsushi’s shoulder. He hadn’t brought his guns, which was good since he feared his fury would tempt him to break his oath.

Oda’s grip to the boy’s shoulder tightened a bit as his body froze. The void that he had long thought to be forgotten threatened to engulf him again in that horrifying numbness. The memories of the time when he would pull the trigger of his guns without feeling anything at the loss of life made his hands shook a little. He desperately fought the temptation to go back to those times, but he could feel the fire burn and burn until there was nothing left and—

A soft touch on his hand felt like a splash of cold water to his face. His eyes focused at the burnt hand touching his own and he stared straight into Atsushi’s eyes. Those yellow and purple eyes were terrorized by fear, but he could see specks of worry in them. To his surprise, Atsushi wasn’t worried about himself. He was worried about Oda and he wondered if the emptiness in his heart had surged into his eyes. Thanks to Atsushi, Oda could feel the flames died down in his heart. A warm light of fondness shone even brighter than the glow of the fire and the trembling on his hands stopped.

“Can you wait for me a bit outside, Atsushi?” Oda carefully helped Atsushi to stand, avoiding to touch his burnt hands. “I have to talk a bit with them.”

Atsushi fearfully looked at the Headmaster who glared at them, the only one beside Atsushi unaffected by Oda’s fury. Oda stepped between Atsushi and the Headmaster, becoming a barrier that protected Atsushi from the man’s cold glare. “It’s okay Atsushi. I won’t let him hurt you.”

Atsushi, still shaken from the terror and pain, weakly nodded his head. Oda felt a gentle bump hit his back for a few moments as Atsushi tearfully whispered ‘thank you’ and he ran outside. The two staffs also tried to escape, but Oda’s pointed glare stunned them from even taking a step.

Oda warned them. “Leave Atsushi alone.” The two staffs nodded shakily. The moment Oda’s attention returned to the Headmaster, the two staffs scrambled to the door. Oda heard both of them slammed the door shut behind them and waited until their footsteps disappear.

“I’m taking Atsushi with me.” Oda said in clear and calm voice, daring the man in front of him to object. “I won’t let you hurt him anymore than this.”

The Headmaster scoffed. “In the end, a mafia is still a mafia. So you want to kidnap a child from an orphanage?”

“I’m not kidnapping him. I’m rescuing him from this place.” Oda’s eyes were hard, liquid fire dripping from his voice. “This is no place for a child to grow up.”

“I won’t let you drag that child down with you to the underworld.” The Headmaster’s threat sent chills down Oda’s back, his eyes as cold as ice.

Oda frowned. “I’m not adopting him as a mafia member. I’m adopting him to live under the sunlight, not to live among the shadows of underworld.”

“And you want me to believe that? What does a criminal like you know about the sunlight? Hideous beings like us who bathed in blood and suffering of other people are forbidden to step into the light!” The Headmaster spat his words full of venom. “Even if that child is unwanted, he would one day leave this orphanage. I won’t let you ruin his chance to be able to prove his worth to live by submerging him in that same filth as your origin!”

Oda didn’t answer to that. Both of them glared at each other, fire and ice conflicting between them. He knew that he wasn’t a saint. His hands were stained with too much blood to be even called innocent. But he had glimpsed into the world of sunlight when he was with his children. He wished to enter the same world as them and maybe, just maybe, he could finally know how to write about life. But this man insisted that such a redemption for both of them were impossible. All they knew were to survive in this dark and bleak world of the darkness.

The flame of anger in his heart that had died down somewhat after Atsushi snapped him out before now turned into flickering embers. He took a deep breath and counted to ten, and as he exhaled he felt his rational mind coming back. It was foolish of him to lose his cool and threatened the man. He had been so determined to show the Headmaster that his feelings were genuine, but now he felt that he had taken ten steps back. He tried to salvage the situation somehow, racking his brain how to repair his odds. Oda remembered the files, the information that he had gathered about the man in front of him. He remembered why he felt sympathy to this man before.

He thought they were similar, with how they tried to search for redemption by raising children. So that the children would have happier lives than their own, to keep their hands clean from bloodshed, and to bring back light into their eyes. But it seemed that he was wrong.

“I know about your past.” The Headmaster’s lips twitch unpleasantly, but he didn’t appear to be surprised. “You have experienced even more hellish life than Atsushi. So why did you inflict the same pain to that child?”

The Headmaster’s glare was colder than ever, but Oda stood his ground. Moments passed between them in silence until the Headmaster clasped his hands behind his back. His words were bitter, but his eyes were frighteningly empty. “An unwanted child like us have to learn to endure suffering, otherwise we won’t survive in this cruel world that has forsaken us.”

The emptiness in the Headmaster’s eyes was familiar. Oda knew it well, because that was the same emptiness that once belonged in his eyes in the days when he emotionlessly pulled the trigger and killed many lives. It was unsettling to see a man who had also experienced the emptiness like his past yet ended up so different. Oda wondered if he had never met that gentleman who told him to write a book, would he ended up the same like this man? Or even worse?

“You don’t know how to raise them differently.” Oda muttered, his eyes watched intently as the man flinched in surprise. “You who had only relied on your anger at life itself can’t even see other way to raise your orphans. You thought because you are still alive until now, that means the same will work with them.”

The Headmaster scoffed, his lips upturned in an expression close to a wry smile. “How can you make such an assumption about me? Do you think by just knowing my past you know everything about me?”

“Because that was once what I thought.” The Headmaster’s eyes widened at Oda’s confession. “I killed. Again and again, with no remorse nor pity. It’s just something that I’m good at. I have an Ability and shooting skills that supported me as an assassin. So I became one. Because I didn’t know any other ways to live.”

The Headmaster relied on his anger and endurance to live for so long that he didn’t know how to live without them. Oda had lived as assassin for years and he only stopped after a mysterious man showed him that he could do other thing than just taking away lives. Oda learnt to nurture lives, while the Headmaster raised his orphans the only way he believed would work.

Oda tried to redeem himself by saving orphans and stop killing. The Headmaster didn’t even believe that he deserved a redemption yet he still tried his best to make sure the orphans under his care wouldn’t die uselessly like his comrades. What the man had done was cruel, but the Headmaster was trapped in his past of darkness without anyone to open his eyes to the light like what had fortunately happened to Oda.

The Headmaster looked at him intently and Oda imagined that the mask of evil villain that he had continuously wore for years slowly slipped away. Under that mask, he saw the expression of a lost man. A man who shouldered the hatred of children under his care to give them strength to live.

Oda couldn’t forgive what the man had done to Atsushi, but at the same time he also wished that the man in front of him could save himself. Just like that day he had been saved by the words the gentleman told him. The former assassin froze when an idea flashed in his mind. It was stupid and maybe foolish of him to hope that the same thing that saved him could work with others. He wasn’t even sure if he should, seeing that both of them were strangers who didn’t even like each other. But that gentleman was a stranger to him once. That gentlemen didn’t have to save a young assassin, it wasn’t his duty, but that gentleman did it anyway.

That courage to step into someone’s else path in life. To show them that there was other path to take in their life than the one leading to their doom. He wondered if the urge in his heart was what the gentleman felt when he talked to his younger self years ago. The urge to not see a possibility for a better life snuffed away before it could even begin.

Before he hesitated even more, Oda blurted out the words that had persistently lodged in his throat. “Do you like to read books?”

The Headmaster’s confused expression was understandable. “Books?”

“I want to recommend a trilogy. They are marvelous.” Oda smiled fondly as he remembered the first time he read the third book. “I remembered when I would spend all day reading them, over and over again. They are really good books.”

The confused man frowned at him in disbelief. “Why should I—“

“I will bring the books with me next time I came here.” Oda resolutely said, leaving the Headmaster staring at him incredulously. “But for now, I have to take Atsushi to a doctor.”

The Headmaster’s glare returned. “Do you think I will let you kidnap him just like that?”

“I’m not kidnapping him; I am just taking him to a doctor.” Oda frowned as he remembered Atsushi’s wounds, the ember in his heart threatening to burn again. But Atsushi didn’t need his anger now, he needed his care. “I will return with him after I make sure his wounds won’t get infected.”

“Why should I believe you? You said it yourself that you want to take him away from here.” The glare sent his way was full of disgust. “Or you actually don’t really care for him at all? That your words of wanting to adopt him are just lies.”

“It’s not a lie. I do want to adopt him, but like you said I can’t just take him away from here without your consent. That is the same as kidnapping.” His words were strong with conviction. “I can’t say that I won’t let him fall into mafia’s hands if I resorted into the mafia way. So I will just show you my genuine feelings and wait until you finally believe me.”

The Headmaster’s eyes watched him like a hawk, investigating for any sort of lies or tricks. “What if I never let you adopt him?”

Oda’s heart sank for a second before his shoulder sagged a bit. “Then I would just visit him everyday like this until it was time for him to leave your orphanage.”

The two of them spent another long moment of just staring at each other, unable to find other words to say. When the sparks of conflict between them had calmed down, Oda turned around and walked towards the door. His hand lingered for a second on the door knob, before he finally spoke without turning back.

“I will return with the books next time I came here. Please let me enter the gates next time.”

He heard the Headmaster amused scoff. “Even if I don’t let you in, you will just jump the gates again.”

“If I have to. Can I return with Atsushi tomorrow? I want to let him feel safe before having to come back here.” Oda hoped he could at least let Atsushi rest for the night and took him somewhere tomorrow. Or maybe it would be even crueler to return him here after letting him witness the outside world.

“No. Return him here after the doctor finished treating him.” Oda sighed dejectedly at the rejection, but at least Atsushi’s wounds could get treated.

“Alright.” Oda pushed the door open, leaving the man inside. A strong breeze of the night assaulted his body and Oda shivered a bit, defenseless against the cold without his coat. Thankfully, the moon was still out so his eyes found Atsushi easily, huddled near the other building like a ball.

Oda approached him slowly, making sure his footsteps were loud enough to alert Atsushi. The boy immediately looked up and he could see the relief in Atsushi’s eyes when it was him that approached the boy. Atsushi stood up with difficulty and stumbled towards him, worry in his eyes.

Despite the cold winds, the boy didn’t hold his coat. In fact, his hands avoided to touch his coat at all. “Oda-san…! Are you alright? Did the Headmaster harm you?”

Oda blinked, surprised that Atsushi thought he would be hurt by the Headmaster. Still, Atsushi’s concern made the rays of sunlight in his heart chased away any remaining shadow in his heart. “Don’t worry, I’m alright. I was just talking to him.” Oda patted Atsushi’s head gently, hiding the pain showing on his face when Atsushi flinched at the touch. “I managed to convince him to let me take you to a doctor.”

Atsushi’s eyes widened in shock. “Really…?”

Oda’s smile dimmed as he regretfully muttered. “Unfortunately I have to return you here afterwards.” Atsushi’s hopeful face shattered and a knife stabbed Oda’s heart seeing the boy’s dejected expression. “I’m sorry.”

Atsushi shook his head. His bangs hid his eyes as he hung his head. “It’s alright.”

Oda patted Atsushi’s head again. “Let’s go to a doctor, your wounds have to be checked and treated.” Oda put his hand around the boy shoulder as he gently led the resigned boy towards his car. The night was late, but he knew a doctor who worked for the mafia that wouldn’t ask questions. For now, treating Atsushi’s wounds were the highest priority.

If Atsushi’s gaze was glued to the window of the car as he watched the scenery went by, Oda didn’t say anything and let the boy enjoyed his little free time outside of the orphanage.

 


 

Oda accompanied Atsushi all the time as the doctor checked his hands and head. Atsushi flinched every time the doctor touched him, but he didn’t protest or ran away. He just sat there, obeying the doctor’s instruction with empty eyes. He only whimpered and almost jerked away his hand when the doctor brought out a syringe, his whole body tensed like a scared dog ready to lunge or escaped as the doctor injected him with antibiotic.

After wrapping up Atsushi’s hands with bandages and giving him icepack for the lump on his head, the doctor looked at Oda. “It’s done. He should change the bandage everyday and prevent the wounds from drying out by applying ointments. You can treat it yourself, or you can come back here.” The doctor was more flexible with his patient appointment, since in the underworld treating the wounds yourself was more preferable. After all, neutral ground like this could turn into warzone at any moment. “But it’s not as bad as you said. In fact, did he burnt his hands some time ago?”

Oda blinked in confusion. “No, I don’t think so. It’s probably around less than three hours.” He felt bad making Atsushi endured the pain for hours, but it was better to go to a doctor he trusted rather than a hospital who would ask questions. As a mafia member, bringing an abused child would only end ugly.

“Huh.” The doctor hummed for a second, before he shrugged. “Well, as I said, his wounds aren’t that bad. It would heal before two weeks and probably won’t leave any scars. He had a mild concussion, but his head would feel better by tomorrow if he keeps icing it tonight.”

“Really?” Oda was not a doctor, but he was sure burnt wounds that severe would leave horrible scar from his experience. Then again, maybe he was panicked and the dim lighting of the orphanage building made the wounds looked more severe than it should. If it wouldn’t leave any scar, Oda was glad. Atsushi already had too many horrible scars reminding him of his abuse in the orphanage.

After Oda paid secretly to make sure Atsushi wouldn’t feel too bad since underworld doctor like this costs a lot more than usual clinic, Oda led the boy back to his car. “Do you still feel pain? The doctor said the usual pain reliever would work, but if the pain is too great maybe I can ask for stronger medicine.”

“It’s alright, I am used to pain. Besides, it feels way less painful than before.” Atsushi looked at his bandaged hands. “I’m sorry for troubling you like this.”

Oda smiled at the gloomy boy. “It’s alright. I am glad you feel better now.” He looked at the watch on his wrist and winced. “We should probably return, it’s already midnight.”

Oda sighed as he remembered that he probably should inform Dazai and Ango that he couldn’t make it. His musing about his friends made him oblivious to the way the boy flinch and stopped walking beside him. Oda opened the door of his car for Atsushi, his thoughts finally went to halt when he turned around and found the boy standing there a few meters from him with his head hung low and hands tightened into fists.

His feet barely managed a step to approach the distressed boy. “Atsushi—“

“I don’t want to return.” Atsushi’s voice was hoarse and heavy, like he forced the words that had long lodged in his throat out. “I don’t want to return to that place.”

Oda wondered if Atsushi realized how his words drove a knife deep into his chest. “I’m sorry, Atsushi. I promise I will take you away from there soon, please wait a bit more—“

“I have waited for almost thirteen years!” Atsushi whipped his head up, tears of frustration pooling in his heterochromatic eyes. “I don’t want to wait anymore!” the boy gripped his coat tightly, shivering not from cold but from immense grief. Atsushi was a thin and short kid even for his age, but at that time Atsushi looked even smaller and frailer than ever.

He closed his mouth, his lips narrowed into a thin line as he watched the dam finally broke in Atsushi’s heart. He wished for nothing more than to gather the trembling boy in his arms, but approaching the boy right now would only agitate the hurting child even more. The distrust in Atsushi’s eyes pained him, but Oda felt like he deserved it. He knew that he should take the boy away from the orphanage sooner, but he had been content with the bond that he slowly built with the boy. He didn’t think of the boy’s pain. He didn’t think that the boy could break sooner than he could take him away from the orphanage. He had been so afraid of the boy’s rejection that he hesitated to grab his hand despite seeing the boy was in risk of falling to the depths of his despair.

Atsushi wiped his tears away, his anger directed more at himself than Oda at that moment. He saw the resigned look in his eyes, which somehow hurt Oda more than Atsushi’s anger. “I am afraid, Oda-san… I am afraid I won’t be able to cling into that hope anymore. Today I gained hope for a happier life and almost lose it immediately after. It’s hard… it’s really hard to keep hoping when all I hear in that place is that everything is just a lie and delusion.”

Oda thought that he could hear the sound of Atsushi’s heart crumbling as his eyes became void of even sorrow. “Or maybe it is? Maybe everything is just this wicked dream? Maybe I will finally wake up, still alone and hurting, then realize that everything is just this imagination of my desperate mind? Maybe you are nothing more than a figment of my loneliness, Oda-san.”

“Atsushi!” Oda felt like the boy was slipping away from his grasp. The chasm between both of them had widened and for a moment Oda was hesitant to cross them.

Atsushi smiled, but it was so empty of any emotions but disillusion. “Yes, it’s easier to believe that. After all, a mistake like me wouldn’t be loved by anyone.” Atsushi’s tears flowed even harsher than before, as if he tried to cleanse his heart out of his foolish hope. “I just want to live, but why is life so hard to me? Why am I even born then, if the world hates me this much?”

Oda’s eyes widened as he saw shadows gathering around Atsushi. His children, who looked at him with empty eyes that day after he rescued them. His friend, Dazai, whose eyes were so empty he wondered would those eyes ever be filled with peace if he finally attained his wish to die. His younger self, who just lived to kill because he didn’t know what else to do with his life drenched in blood and sins.

Atsushi was breaking apart, the ground of endless abyss beneath his feet would swallow him whole and leaving nothing but the shell of the boy who had smiled so warmly at him. The chasm between people that he had always been too afraid to cross was his only obstacle. If he didn’t do anything, then everything would be lost forever. But what he should do? Even if he did anything, would it help? He didn’t know. His ability couldn’t show him the future of whichever path he chose. He wasn’t Dazai who could predict accurately what would happen with every plan he took. He wasn’t Ango who always knew what to say in any situation. He was just himself, a former killer who tried to achieve redemption by learning about life.

‘I thought that I could learn about life just by watching people lived their lives.’ Oda thought bitterly. ‘It’s wrong, isn’t it?’

So Oda stepped forward. His own fears and hesitation rose from the ground like wraiths that threatened to drag him back, but Oda shoved away all of them in order to save the boy about to drown forever in the same void that had engulfed his precious friend.

Atsushi stifled a gasp of surprise as Oda embraced the younger boy in his arms, Atsushi’s whole body tense and stiff like a robot. But Atsushi’s stream of self-deprecating words stopped and Oda’s let out a sigh of relief in his mind. Oda didn’t know what do to. He didn’t have the books that had saved him and the gentleman words wouldn’t have the same impact to Atsushi as it was to him. If only he could open the lid on his heart and showed it to Atsushi, showed how genuine and how loved Atsushi was inside his heart. But there was no such a lid and he was left with only his words.

Oda let his emotions seeped into his words, so the boy who really needed it could hear it. “I’m not a dream nor a delusion, Atsushi. I’m here.” Oda tightened his hug as he heard Atsushi sobbed. “You are strong, Atsushi. You have endured all that pain for almost thirteen years of your life and you still endured it. I trust you. Even if you can’t trust yourself to cling into hope, I trust you.”

Oda gently pat Atsushi’s head, relief seeped through his body as Atsushi slowly relaxed and leaned his head to Oda’s chest. “You are not a mistake, Atsushi. I want you in my life. The children and uncle also want you in their life. It may take time, but I promise you that I will take you home with me. All of us will live together, as a family.” The front of his shirt was soaked with tears, but Oda didn’t mind. Atsushi’s hands clung into him, despite how painful it must be for his wounds. “Will you believe me?”

The cold winds of the night breezed, the silence of the city at night became their only companion as both of them stayed there. Oda continued to gently pet Atsushi’s head as Atsushi slowly let Oda’s words sink in. The moment felt strangely peaceful, compared to how catastrophic their hearts were just moments before. Oda raised his head, looking at the sky where the crescent moon quietly basked them in it’s gentle light.

When the trembling of Atsushi’s body ceased and he almost completely leaned his exhausted body to Oda, Atsushi finally rose his head to look at him. His eyes were dry of tears, but they were still red and puffy. Oda only hoped when he could finally adopt Atsushi, those beautiful eyes would rarely be so drenched in sadness anymore.

The corner of Atsushi’s mouth slowly twitched into a smile. His smile was brittle, but no less genuine. His words almost a whisper, but the silence of the night let Oda heard it.

“I will believe in you, Oda-san.”

Oda let Atsushi saw his own grateful smile as he gently thumbed away the remaining tears from Atsushi’s face. When Oda stepped back a bit to let Atsushi had his own space, he heard the rustling sound from the pocket of his coat. Atsushi lifted his borrowed coat, letting Oda took whatever it was inside the pocket. When Oda took out a crushed cookies box in his hands, both of them looked at each other with blank faces until finally they couldn’t hold their chuckles.

Oda opened the crushed box. The cookies inside were in similar condition, but not too crushed that it would be inedible. “Do you want some cookies?”

Atsushi nodded and both of them sat inside his car for a while, just enjoying a box of cookies and old music from the radio of his cars. They didn’t speak, the presence of the other was enough to comfort them silently. All the while, the moon was shining down on them as if the moon itself blessed their rough journey ahead.

 


 

After a silent journey back to the orphanage where Atsushi struggled to keep himself awake, they finally arrived. To his surprise, the Headmaster was there waiting by the gates despite how late it was. Atsushi tensed as his sleepy eyes caught the man he feared the most, but Oda put his hand on Atsushi shoulder.

“It’s alright, I’m here.” The fright in Atsushi’s eyes were lessened from hearing his words, and he obediently crawled out of the car.

Both of them walked side by side, Atsushi hiding behind Oda as they got closer and closer to the Headmaster. The Headmaster wordlessly opened the gates and let them inside, walking in front of them. Oda followed him, while Atsushi cautiously trailed behind Oda like a baby duck. Their footsteps echoed along the silent halls and Oda wondered if this place couldn’t look even more creepy, like an abandoned hospital where ghosts would haunt.

The Headmaster stopped in front of a door. He opened the lock and opened it wide before turning to look at Atsushi.

His words were cold, but not intimidating nor filled with venom. “Go to sleep, you have chores in the morning.”

Atsushi hesitated for a second, looking at Oda and the Headmaster. Oda ruffled his hair gently, smiling in promise. “I will see you tomorrow.” If his smile was a bit wider from usual because Atsushi didn’t flinch from his touch, only the boy in front of him would know.

Atsushi pouted a bit at his messy hair, but his wide smile betrayed his happiness. “See you tomorrow, Oda-san.” He carefully removed the coat Oda had lent to him from his shoulder and folded it neatly.

Oda watched fondly at the boy’s thoughtfulness and he accepted the folded coat. The young boy slowly entered the room that Oda thought as his shared bedroom with the other orphans, smiling and waving at Oda until the Headmaster closed the door. They waited until the sound of Atsushi’s footsteps died out and then Oda turned around to leave. The Headmaster didn’t stop him, but both of them knew that Oda would come tomorrow and meet with Atsushi no matter what the Headmaster tried to stop him. Also with the books that Oda practically forced him to read.

The Headmaster turned around and his steps echoed in the hallway, both of their paths split away.

 

Chapter Text

The Headmaster was writing on his documents when a knock disturbed him. He had a feeling he knew who it was behind the door. “Come in.”

The source of his headache himself appeared as the door opened and the Headmaster massaged his forehead as he saw the books cradled on the man’s hand. “You really bring those books.”

The man actually had the nerve to smile as he looked at the Headmaster’s incredulous stare. “I promise; these are really good books.” Oda put the books carefully on his desk. His eyes stared at the books carefully. They were old, but they were clearly loved. Despite the yellowing pages and slight damage on the covers, all of them were still in really good condition that Oda could probably still sell it in second hand stores with a good price.

“What makes you think I will read them?” the Headmaster glared at Oda in annoyance. “I can just burn them away. Or throw them away like a trash.”

Oda stared at him, which made him unnerved at how deep those gaze inspected him. Like he was discarding away masks he had worn for years and looked for the truth underneath it all. To his surprise, the man’s smile widened a bit. “No you won’t. You are curious, curious as to what it is that I want to tell you through these books.”

The Headmaster was really tempted to burn them just to prove Oda wrong, but he couldn’t deny the curiosity. ‘What is it in these books? Will I find the reason as to how you can change Atsushi so much in just two months?’

But he kept the words hidden in his heart, suspecting that Oda somehow knew them anyway. “Go away, I’m busy.”

“I want to meet with Atsushi today. I have brought him a surprise.” Oda warned before he walked away.

“You don’t have to tell me. You already climbed the gates.” Even if he tried to kick the mafia away from his orphanage, the man would just find a way to sneak back in. They had an unspoken agreement; Oda could meet with Atsushi all he wanted, but he couldn’t take him outside of the orphanage.

Oda closed the door behind him and the Headmaster was once again left alone with his work. If one didn’t count books that was left behind. The Headmaster looked at them once again and picked the uppermost one, the cover faded from age but the worn pages told him that the book had been read again and again. He wondered what kind of story was written on the old pages. The Headmaster wasn’t someone one could call an avid reader, but he had read some books. But all books that he had read were nothing but mere fantasy of someone and it wasn’t something that stayed with him after he closed the book. He was a busy man, reading three thick books recommended by a rude mafia who keep climbing his gates wasn’t supposed to be his top priority. But his own curiosity had taken control of his mind and he couldn’t put the book in his hand down.

The Headmaster opened the first of the three books and started to read.

 


 

It turned out, wiping windows with both hands wounded made it way harder. Atsushi winced as he tried to wring the soaked rag, his bandages drenched and the wounds underneath it stung. Even wounded, no one would be permitted to ditch their chores. After what happened last night, in addition to his daily chores, he had been ordered to pick the growing grass in the garden. By hands. Not to mention that he had to finish before the sunset.

He managed to bear the pain and did all his chores, but it already took the better part of the day to do all of his chores. Even if he started now, he would only be done by midnight. He wouldn’t be permitted to come inside the building until his job was finished and he would be punished to for being way past the deadline. He had been hoping to meet with Oda that morning, but it seemed like he wouldn’t be able to spend any time with the kind man.

‘Maybe if I spend a little bit time with Oda-san, it will be alright. I am going to be punished either way.’

Atsushi brought up the rag and started wiping the glass. However, his drenched bandages that was already loose became unravel as he lifted his hand. His wounds exposed, Atsushi bit his lips to prevent the pained yelp as the cold and dirty rag touched his wounds. In reflex Atsushi let go of the rag, which fell with a wet slap on the wooden floor. He closed his eyes as his hands throbbed, the sting triggered tears in his eyes but he stubbornly shook his head. Atsushi took a deep breath, waiting until the throbbing on his hands died down a bit before he knelt on the floor to pick up the fallen rag.

His eyes widened in surprise when someone beat him to it. Atsushi hurriedly raised his head, his mouth opened and closed in silence as he looked at the man who had been kind to him so many times. Also the man who became the target of his frustration last night despite being the last person in the world to deserve it.

“O-Oda-san!” Atsushi squeaked, part surprise and part horror. The moment he woke up that morning, he was mortified by his own rudeness last night. He had hoped he could meet with Oda to beg for forgiveness. But the moment he actually met with Oda, Atsushi’s body froze despite how he wanted to apologize or even kneel to show how much guilt he harbored in his heart.

But contrary to Atsushi’s distress, Oda’s smile was as gentle and patient as always. Atsushi felt his body relaxed seeing the usual smile, the terror in his heart slowly dissipated. “Hi.” Oda’s smile dimmed a bit as he saw the condition of his bandages. “Where is the ointment and bandages the doctor gave to you last night?”

His hands clumsily rummaged through his pocket. He didn’t trust the other kids to leave his belongings alone, so he brought them everywhere with him. “I bring them with me.”

Oda ushered the boy to sit down on the floor as they couldn’t find any chair on the hall they were in. Atsushi obediently sat down in front of Oda, but the moment Oda took his hands in his and beginning to gently unravel his bandages Atsushi’s voice raise a pitch. “I-it’s fine Oda-san! I can do it on my own.”

The older man’s hands stopped, but the dejected look on his face made Atsushi want to kick himself. “I want to help you.” His hands still didn’t move, still holding Atsushi’s bandages in his hands. “Can I?”

How could Atsushi refuse when Oda looked at him so earnestly? He would sooner jump from the window before disappointing the only person who had shown his kindness. “I-if Oda-san wants to…”

Oda’s bright smile coaxed him to relax and smile softly. He kept his hands still as Oda expertly removed the soaked bandages, cleaned his wounds, and then applying the ointment for his burns. Atsushi wondered if Oda also got wounded a lot as the man rolled a new clean bandages on his hands, way neater and tighter than how Atsushi usually did it himself. First aid kit was a rarity in the orphanage after all, he usually just let his wounds heal on it’s own. Getting treated took a lot of points in the orphanage and no children wanted to forego meals for days just to treat meager wounds.

Atsushi looked at his bandages hands in wonder, amazed at how fast and neat the man treated them. “You are so good at this, Oda-san!”

Oda’s smile got a hint of bitterness when Atsushi’s gaze returned to him. “It’s a skill from my jobs.”

Atsushi blinked. “Are you a doctor, Oda-san?” Atsushi could see Oda being a doctor. The man was so kind and caring of others, even an orphan like himself.

Oda’s smile was wry now and his chuckle sounded forced. “No, far from it.” Oda looked at the bucket and rag next to them. “Is this your chore?”

Atsushi knew that Oda was changing the subject, so he relented. If Oda didn’t want to talk about it, then Atsushi wouldn’t pry. “Yes. I have to clean all the windows in the orphanage. This is the last floor.” The younger boy hung his head, his voice just a whisper as he mumbled. “I can’t spend time with you today, Oda-san. I still have to do my punishment and picked the grass on the garden.”

Oda’s eyes blinked once, and then twice. “The garden… you mean the garden around the buildings?”

Atsushi nodded. “I have to do it before sunset or I will get another punishment. I’m sorry, Oda-san, you have come so far here but I can’t accompany you.” Atsushi’s voice trembled as his hands gripped his pants tightly, the pain on his hands didn’t even compare to the pain in his heart. “I even lost our book so we can’t exchange letters anymore…”

Atsushi had fearfully begged the Headmaster to return his book, but the Headmaster told him that he had already burnt the book. Atsushi was left there staring at nothing in shock, even after the Headmaster left. He couldn’t even cry as another staff ordered him to start working. Now that he remembered that he had lost his book, the tears threatened to fall and only his refusal to cry and worry Oda anymore prevented them to fall.

Oda stared at Atsushi for a few seconds. Atsushi wondered if Oda was angry, but his face was carefully blank. He looked more like he was in deep thought. Atsushi fidgeted in place, waiting anxiously until Oda nodded and smiled at him. “Thankfully, I brought helpers today.”

Atsushi blinked, unable to comprehend Oda’s words. “Eh?”

Oda stood up fluidly, unlike Atsushi who awkwardly trying to stand up without putting weight on his hands. The older man picked up the rag from the bucket and wrung the rag free from water. Before Atsushi could even stopped him, Oda quickly wiped the window, having easier time than Atsushi thanks to his tall figure and uninjured hands.

“We have to hurry, right?” Oda said without looking at Atsushi, focusing on wiping the glass spotless. “Then let me help you. Not to mention your bandages will get dirty again if you wipe the window now. Don’t worry, I’m used to do this at my job.”

Atsushi flailed like headless chicken as he tried to find anything to do to counter the man’s words or do anything to help him, but to his dismay Oda only picked up the bucket and carried on to the next window. Atsushi helplessly trailed behind him, only able to watch as Oda wiped all the windows until they sparkled and spotless. Oda dumped the dirty water on the bathroom and left the bucket before leading Atsushi outside, his other hand typing on his phone.

When the cold winds hit them outside and Atsushi looked at the sheer size of the garden he had to pick clean all the long grass, he suppressed a dismayed whimper. He really wouldn’t be able to finish by midnight, maybe he would spend all night picking grass.

However, rather than leaving Atsushi to his fate, Oda led the younger boy to the gates instead. Atsushi looked at Oda, who kept silence the whole way as they walked to the gates. His eyes looked around, not finding anything besides Oda’s car parked on right beside the metal fence. Atsushi felt Oda’s hand stopping him, before he heard a sharp sound of whistle. Atsushi jumped in surprise, looking up to find Oda had his fingers in his mouth. Atsushi was once again surprised when the car door on the other side of the fence suddenly thrown open. His eyes caught a flurry of movement from the inside before four pair of footsteps rushed towards them.

Atsushi’s breath stopped as he was suddenly face to face with four children, who all smiled so widely and stared at him in wonder. All of them gripped the metal bars, as if trying to squeeze in so they could get closer to him. Strangely, he could figure out their names despite had never meet with them in his life. After all, he had imagined and wondered the faces of the children Oda had so fondly wrote in his letters. The faces that didn’t match exactly with his imaginations yet burned in his memory so strongly now that he had seen them.

“Everyone.” Oda’s voice was Atsushi’s only anchor as he gripped at Oda’s coat to balance himself, his chaotic mix of emotions making it hard to keep standing. “This is Atsushi. Introduce yourself to him, boys.”

“I’m Kousuke!” the eldest boy pointed at himself proudly before pointing to the others. “This is Katsumi, Yuu, and Shinji!”

Katsumi groaned, frown on his face as Kousuke stole his introduction. “Hey! I was gonna introduce myself!”

Yuu laughed as the oldest boys started to bicker, but Shinji looked behind him worriedly. “Where is Sakura?”

“Here. You guys ran so fast that she got left behind.” A plump man laughed as he approached them, a young girl carried in his arms. The girl impatiently patted his arms the moment her eyes met Atsushi’s and the man let the girl down to walk herself.

She was so small, her steps careful and she kept stumbling. But she stubbornly walked on her own feet tentatively until she reached the gates. She gripped the bar, mimicking the older boys and smiled so brightly and full of joy that Atsushi adored her immediately.

“Achushi!” she squealed in delight, her hands patting the gates in joy. “Achushi! Achushi!”

“It’s Atsushi, Sakura!” Kousuke groaned as he crouched next to her. “Come on, we have practiced this morning! A-tsu-shi!”

“Achushi!” Sakura innocently repeated, to Kousuke’s dismay and the others’ amusement.

“She is Sakura.” Oda smiled, his eyes soft and full of adoration as he watched them all. “And the man who carried her before is the uncle who promised curry for you.”

The uncle laughed. “I haven’t got delivery service, but I have prepared curry for us all.” He waved at Atsushi. “My name is Terada Satoru, but everyone just called me ‘oji-san’.”

Atsushi couldn’t believe it. The people that until this morning had only existed in his imagination and longing now appeared before him. All of them with a wide smile on their face, truly excited meeting with him. The back of his eyes burned and Atsushi had to take deep breaths to calm himself. He hadn’t even said a word to them, he couldn’t add crying and made everything awkward. For a moment, Atsushi didn’t know what to do. What should he say? What should he do to convey how happy he was?

He looked at their smile and he felt so stupid. ‘It was so simple; why can’t I figure it out sooner?’ so Atsushi once again took a very deep breath and released it. Once he was sure his voice wouldn’t crack under all the pressure of emotions in his heart, Atsushi smiled the widest in his life and spoke with trembling lips.

“My name is Nakajima Atsushi… nice to meet you, everyone.”

If the way everyone’s smile widened, then Atsushi must had done the right thing. He felt joy winning out from the whirlpool of emotions he had and his smile became more natural, happier than ever.

“Nice to meet you too.” The children said in perfect chorus, as if they had practiced before. However that perfect chorus immediately crushed by voices overlapping with each other as each children fought for his attention.

“How old are you?” Kousuke asked excitedly. “Odasaku said you are older than me, that makes you the oldest now!” He whined, but his wide smile told Atsushi his real emotion. “Aww man, I had to give the privilege of being the oldest now!”

“Odasaku said you don’t know baseball? That is bullshit!” Katsumi quickly covered his mouth and peeked at Oda and the uncle, fortunately the adults were busy discussing something. “Ah, your hands are still injured. Well, we can play soccer until they are healed! Kousuke is better than me at soccer, so he can teach you how to play. But I am the ace for baseball!”

Unlike the oldest boys, Yuu was calmer but even his eyes sparkled with delight. “Don’t listen to Katsumi. Injured person should stay indoor and play games. I brought my games, we can play together!”

Shinji’s voice was overwhelmed by the other three, but Atsushi still strained his ears to catch what he said. “U-um. I bring my favorite book. Do- do you want to read with me?” Shinji’s face was blushing from shyness, his hands gripping a hard cover book with a cartoon strawman and crows painted at the cover.

Atsushi was overwhelmed with emotions and the children talking to him in rapid fire that he only noticed that Oda and the uncle had been speaking when Kousuke suddenly interrupted them. He almost sigh out of relief as everyone’s attention zeroed on Oda and the uncle now.

“I can hold her!” Kousuke volunteered, “I promise I will hold her tightly!”

Katsumi nodded. “Yeah! This is the only time Odasaku and Oji-san actually let us do dangerous thing!”

“Only this time.” The uncle warned, for the first time showing a frown on his face. “Because we have to help Atsushi-chan.”

“Eh?” Atsushi blinked rapidly, watching everyone smiled secretly. “What do you mean?”

The uncle just beamed at him. “Well Odasaku-chan, the roof of your car might get bend. I am heavy after all.” The man pointed at his plump stomach jokingly.

“It’s okay.” Oda nodded. “Compared to what happened to my previous cars, just a little bend is nothing. Wait here, Atsushi.”

All of the children and the uncle walked towards the car, making his heart sunk as he thought that they would leave so soon. However, his disappointment quickly replaced with shock as the uncle and the children actually climbed towards the roof of the car. Even Sakura, with the help of Kousuke, stood there proudly mimicking the boys who all had their hands on their waists. Atsushi’s mouth closed and opened in silence as he watched in trepidation as the uncle slowly lifted the children one by one. Kousuke held Sakura in his arm as his other hand gripped the top part of the fence tightly. He climbed on, clumsy since he was holding Sakura with one arm, but to Atsushi’s horror Kousuke fearlessly vaulted over the fence. Atsushi was about to run to catch the falling children, but Oda beat him to it and caught both of the children safely in his arms.

Sakura, unlike Atsushi whose legs felt like jelly, squealed in delight as she was being put down by Kousuke. Atsushi actually fell to the ground as Katsumi and Yuu took their turns, also jumping without fear and actually shouting ‘yahoo!’ as they jumped. Only Shinji looked like he was having a hard time, perching on the top of the fence for a long moment before gathering his courage and leaped to Oda’s waiting arms.

The uncle climbed back down the car and Atsushi was glad the man didn’t follow the children. His heart already beating furiously in his ribcage from all the tension. “How will you get out though, Odasaku-chan?”

“There is a tree near the fence a bit ways from here. The boys could climb on that tree and you can catch them from the other side. I will climb outside by myself, taking Sakura with me.”

“Achushi!” Atsushi felt something small bulldozed it’s way to his chest. To his surprise, Sakura had pounced him and clung like a baby koala he had seen in books. She looked at him expectantly and Atsushi flailed as he didn’t know what to do. His eyes begged Oda for hints at what to do and Oda made a hugging motion with his hands. Atsushi gingerly wrapped his hands around the smaller child and Sakura snuggled to him, giggling happily.

Atsushi’s felt like his heart was already stolen by the young girl as he tightened his hug a bit, afraid to hurt her. She was so small, yet she was so warm. It felt like hugging a fluffy and warm cloud and Atsushi was afraid she would go away like one. But she stayed there in his arms, content on just snuggling him.

Oda’s voice snapped him to attention. “Now that Atsushi is busy taking care of Sakura, let’s get to work boys.”

Kousuke, Katsumi, Yuu, and Shinji all raised their hands as one, determination blazing from their eyes like forest fire. “Owh!”

Atsushi’s eyes widened as all of them suddenly crouched on the ground and started picking grass with their hands. “W-wait! It’s my punishment, I should—“

To his surprise, Kousuke was the one who rebuked him. “Wounded people should just sit there and be pretty!”

Katsumi rose his head as he looked at Kousuke. “Isn’t pretty for girls?”

“Then sit there and be handsome!” Kousuke fixed his words.

Shinji chuckled. “But Atsushi is pretty, isn’t he?”

Kousuke scratched his head furiously. “Then what do you guys want me to say!?”

Yuu laughed at his brothers’ antic and looked at Atsushi. “Take care of Sakura for us. She can be pretty demanding and curious, so it’s better if someone keep watch of her.”

Atsushi was about to beg for them to stop, but Sakura suddenly rose her head and stared at him stubbornly. “Achushi! Stay!”

He wilted under her glare and sat frozen on the ground. Oda and the boys worked seriously, picking the grass as if it was their sworn enemies. From time to time the boys started conversation with Atsushi, even joking and throwing grass at each other but Oda stopped them before it went out of hand. Sakura sat on his lap, fully focused on her task to keep him from joining the others. At times, she was tempted to get up and ran to wherever had caught her attention. Even after being freed, Atsushi chose to chase after Sakura and made sure she was safe.

By the time the sun finally set, the garden was picked clean of grass. The four boys laid there on the ground, groaning as they refused to move another step. Oda was the only one still moving, sweeping the grass into a big black plastic bag to throw out later. Sakura was sound asleep, her head on Atsushi’s chest as he rocked her small body gently. On her head was a crown made from the wildflowers the boy found while working. Since no one of them actually knew how to made a flower crown, it was more like a bunch of flowers tied together haphazardly. Yet Sakura still loved it and refused to remove it from her head.

Oda tied up the last plastic bag and stretched his back. Atsushi could hear Oda’s joints cracking, feeling guilty for making all of them did his punishment when it was supposed to be him who was laying there exhausted.

“Hey!” the uncle shouted from the fence, carrying a pot in his hands. “Anyone want curry? I reheated it on campfire I made while you guys worked!”

Atsushi was surprised to see the uncle had followed them to the secret place where Oda and Atsushi used to exchange letters. He thought the man had go home, but instead had been waiting for them to finish.

He heard Kousuke complained loudly. “Ehhh? I want to eat other things besides curry for picnic, Oji-san!”

“Don’t complain.” Oda lightly knocked the boy’s head with his fist. “Oyaji-san’s curry is delicious.”

“That’s because curry is your favorite food!” Kousuke pouted, his hands shielding his head from Oda.

Shinji and Yuu walked over to the man waiting with their food and took a paper plate from the man. The man served rice and curry through the fence with a little difficulty. Oda picked Kousuke up by his collar and then carried him under his arm as the boy keep complaining. Katsumi gingerly stood up from where he was almost dozing from exhaustion. Oda looked at Atsushi who still sat there holding sleeping Sakura, before smiling and nodding his head to where the uncle was serving curry for the other children.

“What are you waiting for, Atsushi?” Kousuke grumpily asked, still not satisfied having to eat curry again outside. “Let’s eat together.”

Atsushi swallowed the lump in his throat before he carefully stood up, carrying dozing Sakura in his arms. “Y-yes!”

He didn’t expect to be invited for dinner together. He didn’t expect that the Uncle had brought another set of plate and portions for him. He didn’t expect to be sitting on the ground near the fence, eating together with Oda and his family. Atsushi looked at the steaming rice and curry in his plate. The drool inducing aroma made his stomach growled loudly. He hung his head in shame, but he soon heard another growl from someone’s else stomach. All of them looked at Oda, who scratched his chin sheepishly. Kousuke was the first one who laughed loudly, soon joined by the others. Atsushi, to his surprise and horror, found himself laughing as well. Oda didn’t mind, he even chuckled.

“Let’s eat!” everyone said in gratitude and everyone began devouring their food, clearly hungry after all of that day’s hard work. Even Kousuke who complained the loudest had a match with Katsumi as to who was the fastest and asked for seconds. Oda looked like he was in cloud nine, savoring each bite as he ate slowly. The Uncle also ate, his portions bigger than everyone else. Yuu secretly dumped the onions to Kousuke’s plates whenever the eldest was bickering with Katsumi. Shinji wiped Sakura’s messy face as she clumsily ate her curry.

Atsushi looked at his plate of curry. He had eaten curry before, but it didn’t invoke happiness that threatened to burst his heart apart at the seams. He slowly brought the spoonful of curry into his mouth and the warmth of the curry spread from his mouth all the way to the tips of his fingers. Atsushi’s eyes were blurry, his breath coming out in sobs as tears streamed down freely from his eyes. No longer able to contain his emotions, Atsushi cried softly as he ate another spoonful of curry. Another, another, and another until his plate was clean.

Shinji was the first one who noticed him crying. “Atsushi? Are you alright? Is it too spicy for you?”

Shinji’s concern attracted everyone’s attention. It took everything of Atsushi’s will to shook his head and raise his head. His tears felt warm, different from other tears he had ever shed until now.

“N-no, it’s really delicious…” Atsushi’s voice trembled as he remembered the taste of the curry. It was a bit spicy, savory, creamy from the raw egg, and absolutely delicious. But there was a hidden taste, a taste that he had never thought would ever experience in his life.

It was the taste of home.

“It’s the best curry I ever had in my life.” Atsushi laughed softly, feeling his heart lightened from all the pain and sorrow he had carried in his life and soared to the sky.

The uncle smiled gently at him and reached through the gaps of the fence and ruffled his hair. “You can eat it anytime when you join us in the future.” He raised his curry pot. “Do you want seconds?”

Atsushi nodded and let the man served another, bigger portions for him. Kousuke and Katsumi also demanded another helping of curry. As Atsushi’s eyes met Oda’s, he could see the adoration and promise in those red eyes.

‘Yes.’ Atsushi thought as he ate, his tears exchanged with a smile full of happiness as he eagerly ate another portion of the food that had became his favorite just like ochazuke. ‘I believe in that future.’

 


 

When the sky began to darken, Atsushi knew that they had to part ways for now. Sakura was crying when Oda told them that it was time to go and no, Atsushi wouldn’t be coming with them. Shinji also sniffled, with Katsumi and Yuu looking gloomy. Kousuke, the ever reliable eldest, put his arm around Atsushi’s shoulder.

“It will be okay! We will come again!” Kousuke shouted confidently, his voice shaky as his lips trembled. But the promise in his eyes was as clear as day. “I will hide us on Oda’s car if we have to!”

Atsushi felt his lips twitched into a smile, wondering how many times he had smiled and laughed today just from the presence of the other children. It felt so natural, to share happiness with the children who had so warmly welcomed him into their family. “Maybe you shouldn’t expose your secret plan to Oda-san…”

Kousuke squeaked as he noticed the flaw in his plan. He looked at Oda who stared at him blankly. “I-it’s nothing! It’s not like we will sneak into your car like tomorrow!”

Yuu stared at both of them and laughed. “Wow, Atsushi is not that much taller than you Kousuke.” Atsushi felt a stab to his pride when he heard that. He was never one of the bigger boys in the orphanage. “There goes your dream of being even taller than Odasaku when you reach fifteen.”

Kousuke pointed at Oda in indignation. “I will get even taller than Odasaku someday and stomp you down!”

Katsumi chuckled. “You even drank milk three bottles a day to get taller quickly.”

Oda smiled amusedly. “Well good luck. You have a lot to chase.”

Kousuke pulled at his hair in frustration. “I know… don’t remind me…”

Sakura finally giggled, cheered up a little from Kousuke’s plight.

The uncle laughed. “Well, boys. Say goodbye for now.”

Kousuke hugged him tightly. His hands patted Atsushi’s back strongly a few times. “We will meet again, promise.”

Katsumi and Yuu pounced on both of them, clinging like a pair of stubborn octopus. Shinji look torn, confused as to how he could get in the group hugs before he found a gap and pushed his way inside. Sakura pouted as Atsushi was surrounded from all sides. She hit the other boy’s legs until they made way for her to hug Atsushi’s waist. She clung to him like a stubborn koala and refused to budge despite how stifling it was.

Atsushi’s voice was muffled from under all the limbs that surrounded him. “I look forward to it.” He was smiling so wide that his cheeks started to hurt, but it was a good kind of hurt that he didn’t mind bear if he got to stay in that group hug for a second longer.

Much to his disappointment, the group hugs was over far too soon. Oda ruffled his hair and smiled when Atsushi didn’t flinch under his sudden touch this time. “I will try to come again tomorrow. I got work, but if I finish quickly then I should be able to come here by sunset.”

Atsushi nodded, leaning his head to the touch. “Don’t force yourself, Oda-san.” When Oda retracted his hand, Atsushi clung his hands to Oda’s sleeve. “Also… I’m sorry.”

Oda frowned, his confusion clear on his face. “For what?”

“I… I got angry at you yesterday, when you have done nothing but be kind to me.” Atsushi looked at the other children who watched both of them confusedly. “You even brought them today to meet me. I’m so ungrateful to you. I’m really sorry.”

Oda ruffled Atsushi’s hair again, stronger this time to wipe away the sad look on Atsushi’s face. “It’s alright. It’s okay to be angry. Because you get angry, I finally made up my mind to bring the children here. You all have a good time today, because you get angry at me yesterday.” Atsushi looked up from underneath his bangs to Oda who smiled at him. “It’s okay to be selfish, Atsushi. It’s okay to want to be heard. Words exists to convey your feelings after all.”

Oda’s eyes trailed to the distance and Atsushi felt that Oda was talking to someone else’s shadow as well. ‘Will Oda-san’s words reach that person too someday? But still, I want to share this happiness with them. Will my words, my feelings, also reached them?’ for the people who had brought light and happiness in Atsushi’s life. His gratitude and his happiness overflowed from his heart, like a blessing of rain that had quenched the dessert that was his heart.

“Thank you. For everything.” Atsushi smiled, opening his heart and letting his emotions showed in his voice and face.

Oda hugged him tightly just like last night, but this time Atsushi didn’t hesitate to hug back. The other children who saw this grinned and tackled both of them in another group hug. Sounds of laughter filled the air, as if combatting the usual silent glumness of the orphanage.

“Kids, you should hurry up. If it’s got too dark you won’t be able to safely climb the tree.” The uncle advised as the sky continued to darken. His face showed how much he didn’t want to disturb their happiness, but as a responsible adult he had to prioritize their safety.

“No need.” Atsushi felt his breath stopped when he heard that voice. “A gate exists for a reason. Only thieves climbed over fences.”

Atsushi instinctively hid behind Oda as the Headmaster approached them. Oda stood tall in front of him, like a sacred barrier that would protect him from everything cruel and evil. The other children, who saw how Atsushi cowered under the man’s gaze and how Oda stood in front of them, all flanked around Atsushi to hide him from sight. Warmth chased away the fear in his heart seeing how all of them cared for him and protected him despite how even the children were shivering under The Headmaster’s cold and unforgiving eyes.

“Atsushi did his punishment in time of the deadline.” Oda’s words made him tense. “You won’t punish him again.”

It took a long moment before the Headmaster spoke. “I didn’t tell him to do it alone, yes. He had done his punishment.” Atsushi was shocked that the Headmaster actually permitted this. He heard the sounds of footsteps getting farther and farther as the Headmaster left. “I already told my staff to open the gates to let you out. Now get out.”

He waited until even the footsteps disappear before he dared to come out from behind Oda. He let out a sigh of relief when he could no longer see the Headmaster. The other children stopped clinging to Atsushi and Oda, although they still stayed near them.

“Who is that jerk?” Kousuke grumbled. “Acting all high and mighty…”

“You said that but you were shaking, Kousuke.” Katsumi teased, despite looking pretty shaken up himself.

Yuu sighed loudly. “That man is scarier than the last boss of my game.”

Shinji, who was clinging to Sakura with pale face, let out a shaky voice. “That man is scary…”

Sakura watched the direction the Headmaster went and tilted her head. “He is sad.”

“Huh?” everyone looked at her in confusion, especially Atsushi who couldn’t even imagine that tyrant feeling anything but cruelty.

“His eyes are sad.” Sakura explained. “Like he wants to cry.”

Oda looked at the same direction as Sakura and whispered. “Sometimes, adults can’t say what was in their heart. Unlike children who are brave, they looked at the chasm dividing them with others and too afraid to take a step.”

Oda’s mysterious words were left unexplained as Oda ushered the kids to go. Atsushi bid tearful goodbye to them from the gates and watched until the car disappeared from the road. Yet, despite being once again left behind in the orphanage he wasn’t resentful nor scared. From the desert in his heart that had been soaked by the rain, seeds that he had thought would never bloom had taken roots and cracked from their shell.

He wondered if those seeds would someday bloom into flowers that would spread among the dessert, turning the wasteland into a paradise?

Chapter Text

A week had passed since the day Oda brought the kids to meet with Atsushi. He had not the chance to bring them again, because of his sudden work load. Dazai had said that there were minor problems on the Port Mafia’s territory and Oda as one of the lowest member in the mafia’s hierarchy got the short end of the stick. Thankfully, it was not as dangerous as Ango had feared. He just had to catch thieves that stole from the shop under the mafia’s protection and also dealt with a false bomb threat. All in all, everything like usual but in way higher frequency.

Dazai complained that Oda got all the interesting work while he had been slaving away from the sheer amount of paperwork. He was sure that Dazai just ditched his work to someone else.

Still, his overtime meant that his time with Atsushi was restricted. He barely able to visit the orphanage everyday to treat Atsushi’s wounds. The children had complained, demanding to meet with Atsushi again. Kousuke even really sneaked into his car when he wasn’t looking, although he was found out in the end. He promised the children that he would take them there on his next day off, which managed to appease them. For now.

The sun had begun to set to the west when he walked towards the gates with Atsushi by his side. The wounds on Atsushi’s hands were healing nicely and thankfully with no infection despite how Atsushi still had to do his chores everyday. But it was not just the wounds that slowly healed. Oda’s eyes watched fondly at Atsushi’s excited smile as he wrote a long letter for Kousuke and the others. Since they had lost their original book, Oda had bought another journal for Atsushi to write letters since he was so busy that he couldn’t talk for long. Before, Atsushi only written barely a full page of letters. But to Oda’s surprise, Atsushi’s first letter in the new book was three pages long. Now his letters weren’t just meant for Oda, but also the other children and the uncle. When Oda couldn’t visit the children, he took picture of Atsushi’s letters and sent it to uncle, who read it for the children. On his breaks, Oda would write down the children’s reply on the journal.

“Done!” Atsushi offered the book to Oda, who carefully put it on his coat pocket. “Thank you for coming as always, Oda-san!”

“It’s my pleasure.” Oda ruffled Atsushi’s choppy hair, wondering if he should offer a haircut to Atsushi. Then again, he had only ever cut his own hair so he wouldn’t know if he could style it the way Atsushi wanted.

Atsushi practically glowed as leaned his head to the touch, still giddy from any gentle human contact he received. “P-please come again tomorrow… or anytime you are free. I know that you are so busy these days, but I…” his face flushed slightly and his request stopped as he remembered how selfish he had gotten, but Oda patiently waited until the boy gathered his courage to continue. “I really appreciate time spend with you and the children. I also want to eat Oji-san’s curry again.”

Overjoyed from finding a curry comrade in Atsushi, Oda resolved to bring a takeout of uncle’s curry tomorrow. “I will. Tomorrow is a bit of busy day for me, but if you don’t mind me being a bit late I can probably arrive here by around 8 pm.”

Atsushi shook his head. “I don’t mind!” his smile brightened. “I will wait.”

The younger’s boy smile was contagious and Oda felt his lips twitch into a smile as well. However, the cheer in the air vanished as Oda heard ominous footsteps approaching them.

“Get inside, boy.” Atsushi flinched as he turned around, his smile disappeared and his face paled as his widened eyes met with the Headmaster’s cold ones. “I have to talk with him.”

Atsushi nodded shakily. He looked at Oda, guilty for not waiting for him by the gates until he went home. Oda patted his shoulder and smiled. “It’s okay. I will meet you again tomorrow.”

This time, a small smile appeared on Atsushi’s face as he ran inside. His feet stopped at the doorway and he turned around to wave at Oda before closing the door quickly. Oda and the Headmaster waited until the sounds of Atsushi’s footsteps disappeared. The atmosphere between them remained heavy, but no longer outright hostile like before. The Headmaster’s eyes watched him intently, which Oda had recognized as his habit before speaking.

“I heard that you are planning to come here tomorrow.” The Headmaster’s tone wasn’t as cold and cutting, which was unusual. “If you do, I will meet with you here. There is something that I want to show you.”

The invitation sounds fishy, especially for Oda who had dealt with many ambushes and traps in his life. “What is it?”

The Headmaster turned around, clasping his hands behind him as he walked away. “If you want to know, wait until tomorrow.”

Oda wondered if the man was trying to get rid of him or genuinely wanted to show him something. His intuition leaned towards the later. “I will come at night, it’s that okay?”

“Actually.” The Headmaster stopped for a second, he turned his head to see Oda. “It’s only at night when the moon comes out that you can see it.”

The man left Oda with his cryptic words. Oda didn’t have any choice but to follow along for now, but that didn’t mean he would forsake personal safety. He better remembered to bring his guns with him just in case.

 


 

The full moon shone brightly in the dark sky. Tonight the sky was clear from the clouds, revealing the moon and the stars in all their majestic glory. He took a moment to appreciate the view, something he usually didn’t do back in Yokohama where night meant that the underworld had taken reign. In Yokohama, night was the time when blood would be spilled. When mafia could hide from the light, blending among the shadows.

His thoughts were put into a halt as he realized that his guide had gotten ahead of him. Oda quickened his pace, keeping the man in sight as they walked silently through the halls on the Headmaster’s building. The halls were dark with only the light from the moon showing them the way. His senses couldn’t pick up any trace of people as well, they were probably the only people in that building.

The Headmaster stopped in front of a door and picked up the ring of keys attached to his belt. Despite the limited light, he easily found the matching key and inserted it to the keyhole. The door opened with a creepy creak, revealing a set of stairs down to the basement. With how dark it was, he couldn’t see where the stairs lead to. The Headmaster confidently began to go down the stairs, his memory alone was enough to prevent any accident as he went in the darkness. Oda slowly followed, his hands on the wall and his steps careful. The descent wasn’t that long, but being in total darkness made the journey harrowing. A gentle light from lanterns at the end of the stairs felt really welcomed after that tense moments.

The moment Oda stepped into the rough concrete floor, his eyes widened in horror. Like in horror movies, the basement was made entirely of cage. On the other side of the wall behind the bars, Oda could see shackles… that was currently holding a familiar boy with choppy gray hair prisoner. Oda ran to the cage, his hands gripping the metal bars as if he could actually pry them apart with just sheer determination. The cage wasn’t very big, but Oda still couldn’t reach the boy even after he stretched his whole arm from between the bars. He had wondered where the boy was after finding no one beside the Headmaster by the gates, but the Headmaster just said that he will see Atsushi later. He didn’t expect he would see Atsushi in this condition, chained to the wall like a criminal. He knew many people that deserved to be put behind a jail, even himself, but Atsushi was not one of them. The boy was as innocent and pure as Kousuke and the others.

“Atsushi!” he tried calling the boy, but Atsushi was sitting there with his neck, hands, and feet chained to the wall. With his head hung limply, Oda couldn’t see whether the boy was conscious or not. “Atsushi!” he shouted louder, but the boy didn’t show any reaction.

“It should be anytime now.” The calm voice of the Headmaster felt really abnormal in that situation.

Oda turned around and glared at the Headmaster, his fury tempted his hands to reach for his guns hidden on it’s holster in his coat. “Release him.”

“You shouldn’t stand with your back to the cage.” The Headmaster warned. “That thing is dangerous.”

Oda opened his mouth, rebuke prepared when he heard the Headmaster called Atsushi ‘that thing’. However, he felt a familiar sensation. A force from behind his back shoved him away roughly, toppling him to the floor by the Headmaster’s feet. Wetness spread from his back, soaking his shirt and coat as sharp pain riddled his back. Blood puddled underneath his body and his consciousness fading quickly from the heavy blood loss.

The pain lingered for a few moments even after Flawless faded from his mind. Trusting his Ability, Oda rolled his whole body to the front. Just in time when he heard loud banging against the cage and a growl. The Headmaster was stunned, his hands stretched and mouth opened to warn Oda a few moments too late. The Ability user turned around, expecting to see ambush. However, not even his wildest dream could compare as to seeing a majestic white tiger inside the cage with it’s strong claws raking the cage angrily. A sharp claws that just barely missed it’s target.

His eyes frantically searched for Atsushi, but the boy was nowhere to be found. Also, the white tiger was shackled on it’s neck, and all four of it’s strong legs. The chains rattled and looked almost broke from the sheer power of the beautiful creature as it paced around the cage, it’s intelligent yellow eyes watching them maliciously.

Oda couldn’t imagine the beast in front of him as the sweet boy with a smile as bright as the sun, but there was no other explanation that his panicked brain could think of. “Atsushi…?”

“Yes, that tiger is Atsushi.” The Headmaster grabbed his arm and pulled him up. Oda appreciated the assistance, as he felt like his whole world was still in shambles after seeing the tiger and the fact he was almost killed by it. “Or to be exact, that is his Ability.”

Oda blinked a few times, his training as assassin let his mind calmed down quickly. “Atsushi is an Ability user?”

“I suspect so.” The Headmaster looked at the tiger who roared at them, sharp fangs bared threateningly. “But he can’t control his Ability. He became nothing but a beast when the moon was full.”

“Like the myth of werewolf.” The tiger’s roar vibrated the air around them. Oda’s felt himself trembled a bit as he imagined what if there were no metal bars between them. Could he, even with his Ability, survived from such a strong predator? The image of his death, with his back torn apart in just a single swing of those claws…

Oda’s hands tightened into fists to stop the shaking. Rather than seeing the tiger in front of him, he tried to see Atsushi behind the fearsome fangs of the tiger. “Does Atsushi know?”

He saw the Headmaster shook his head on the corner of his eyes, most of his attention still honed to the most dangerous thing in the room. “No. I hide it from everyone, even Atsushi himself.”

Oda almost asked why. But as he remembered the death image of himself and Atsushi’s self-hatred, he thought he could fathom the reason. “Atsushi won’t take it well.” Then Oda changed the question to the curiosity that burned in his mind. “Why tell me then?”

“Because you said you want to adopt Atsushi.” The Headmaster pointed at the growling tiger. “That is the one you want to adopt. Now that you know about his uncontrollable Ability, do you still want to adopt him?”

Oda stood straighter as he turned his attention to the Headmaster now, trusting his Ability to alert him if the tiger somehow escaped from the cage and attacked them. This was the last test, he realized. The Headmaster wanted to see his resolve, whether or not he would adopt Atsushi even after knowing the risk. He thought about the children and the uncle, who would be defenseless if Atsushi’s Ability went berserk when Oda wasn’t there to stop him. But could he even stop Atsushi? His Ability in the end only ensured his own survival, not others.

The Headmaster nodded, appreciated it that he took his time to really ponder and decide. “For your information, the tiger had killed someone in the past.” Oda’s heart skipped a beat, his eyes widened as he stared at the Headmaster in disbelief. “A mysterious man kidnapped him and did experiments on him that made his Ability went berserk and killed that man. I got an anonymous tip that told me where to find Atsushi and when I went there, Atsushi was unconscious in a pool of blood next to that man’s corpse. After taking Atsushi back I went back there to burn away all the evidence, but the corpse went missing. Atsushi seemed to remember nothing from that traumatic event and I had kept it a secret.”

“So that is the reason you are so wary at me in the beginning.” Oda realized this, but also the implication that there was someone out there who knew everything really disturbed him. It felt like he had stepped into a board of chess he unintentionally got involved in without even knowing who was moving the pieces. But there was nothing he could do but wait and keep alert. He didn’t have the capabilities as a chess master who could see ten steps ahead.

Only two people in his life that he knew were capable of being chess masters; Dazai and the Port Mafia Boss.

But the fact that the tiger had killed someone only made him even more hesitant. He adored Atsushi, for that he had no doubt. He wanted to adopt him, but he also had to think about his other children. It would be alright if he was the one who had to face the tiger, at least he had a chance of survival. But the children and uncle? How could they even resist? If the tiger managed to kill him in one hit, how could the frail children survive?

The Headmaster saw how Oda deep in his thoughts. “Do you want to get out of here to think?”

Oda nodded numbly. “Yes.” But his eyes went back to the tiger. “But I want to come back here.”

The Headmaster picked the key to the basement and removed it from the keyring. He tossed it to Oda, who easily caught it. “Suit yourself. I will come back again by sunrise. Tell me your answer then.”

Oda followed the Headmaster to the outside, where the Headmaster left him alone with his thoughts. Oda sat on the ground with his back leaning to the building, his eyes watching the moon who still shone beautifully in the sky. His hands reached for the chest pocket of his shirt, where he usually kept his matches and cigarette. He frowned as he remembered that he had stopped smoking after he adopted the children because he didn’t want to risk their health. Oda ruffled his hair, really needing cigarette right now or he felt like he would lose his mind.

‘I have to choose.’ Oda thought as he exhaled a long sigh. ‘Between risking the children by adopting Atsushi… or keeping things like now.’

He could still bring the children here to visit Atsushi periodically. As long as he avoided full moon nights, they wouldn’t be in danger. The Headmaster clearly knew how to keep the tiger hidden and to cage it everytime it appeared. Atsushi didn’t have to know about his Ability, he could just keep living in ignorance for the rest of his life. Atsushi wouldn’t know that his Ability had made him killed someone.

But the weight of the promise he had made with Atsushi stopped him from making the most logical choice. The way Atsushi had chosen to believe in his promise and the way the boy was chained alone in that cell everytime the tiger would appear felt like a knife piercing his heart. Atsushi wanted to be a part of his family. The children and the uncle also wished for the same thing. All of them would be heartbroken if Oda choose to abandon Atsushi to his fate. Not to mention that someday Atsushi would have to leave the orphanage for good when he entered adulthood. Where would he go then if Oda didn’t take him in?

However, it didn’t mean it would be easy to keep his promise. He would have to know when the tiger would appear way ahead of time so he could prepare. He didn’t think his small apartment would be enough to contain the tiger. That didn’t count the fact that if there were other moments when the tiger would appear randomly. What if Atsushi turned into the tiger when he was with the children?

‘If Atsushi hurt the children or worse—‘ Oda swallowed the bitterness on his tongue. ‘What will I say to Atsushi? I know that it’s not Atsushi who killed the children, but can I forgive him then? What if Atsushi realized that he was the one who killed them? He won’t be able to recover from that.’

His head imagined Atsushi sitting in the pool of the children’s blood. Tears streaming down from his face as he blankly looked at his bloodied hand. Would Atsushi scream and begged for forgiveness? Or would he become the shell of the boy he used to be? Wishing for death the way Dazai did?

Oda covered his mouth with his hand, his mouth tasted so bitter and he felt nauseous. For a few minutes he paced his breathing, slowly erasing the horrendous image from his mind. He leaned his head back to the building, his gaze pleading to the moon to show him what he should choose. But the moon didn’t give him an answer. He was the one who had to choose, because he was the one who first wished to join Atsushi’s path in life with his. Whichever he chose, he had to deal with the effect for the rest of his life.

The question was, which one he would dedicate himself to?

 


 

The Headmaster didn’t find Oda outside of the building, so he went straight towards the basement. The sky had glowed bright orange, although the sun had yet risen. The thick folder in his hands along with the book Oda had lent to him felt really heavy for a reason he didn’t want to ponder upon. The tiger no longer roared and the basement was eerily silent except for his footsteps as he went down the stairs. He found the man sitting there near the cage, brave despite how ferocious the tiger was just hours ago. He approached the man who didn’t look up from his observation. His eyes were bloodshot red and his face pale, proof that he was up all night thinking. He was sure his own face was the same.

“Good timing, I was just about to search for you.” Oda nodded at the tiger laying down on the floor of the cage. It looked exhausted yet restless. It’s eyes fought to stay open but from his experience, it would lose the battle as soon as the sun rose in the sky. “The tiger is getting more and more lethargic as the dawn approach. Is this normal?”

“The moment the sun rises, the tiger would revert back to Atsushi.” He answered with his voice rough from the lack of sleep. But just one sleepless night was nothing. He never slept when Atsushi transformed into a tiger. “I don’t know if it’s weak to the sun or just because it was exhausted after raging all night long.”

“I see.” Oda hummed and said nothing more. Both of them waited in silence until the tiger’s head dropped to it’s paws and closed it’s eyes. The tiger’s body shimmered like a mirage in the dessert before it’s fur and body shrunk back like a rewinding video, leaving Atsushi behind at the end laying there on the cold and rough concrete floor.

Oda outstretched his palm to the Headmaster, who wordlessly handed over a set of keys. His hands opened the padlock to the cage silently, before he crawled inside the cage and freeing the still unconscious boy from his shackles. With gentle hands that made the Headmaster wonder if the man truly was a former assassin, Oda carried Atsushi in his arms outside the cage. Then he stood there outside the cage silently, Atsushi sleeping on his arms and his eyes stared straight right at him.

The determination and acceptance in those red eyes were enough of an answer for the Headmaster. For the first time in years, he felt his lips upturned in a resigned smile. “You are more foolish than I thought.”

“I am not a smart person since the beginning.” Oda smiled fondly as his eyes glazed with memories. “My friends always say that I’m oblivious.”

“I can see that.” The Headmaster let out a sigh, somehow the burden that he always carried on his shoulders felt lightened enough that the next breath he took felt clear from the smog of war that always followed him. “Have you think about what to do with his Ability?”

“I have a plan for it.” Oda nodded, his expression once again serious to show him how much he had thought about it. “If all else fail… I have a backup plan. I don’t wish to bother that person, but if need to I have someone that can help me.”

“As long as Atsushi was outside the radar of the mafia, it matters not what your plan is.” The Headmaster gently dropped the thick folder and the books Oda had lent to him to Atsushi’s stomach since Oda’s hands were full holding Atsushi’s body. “That’s yours.”

Oda carefully distributed the weight so the folder and books wouldn’t fall. “What is that folder?”

“Atsushi’s adoption paper.” Oda’s eyes widened upon hearing his words. “I have filled all the forms and wrote down your name. You just need to sign up later when you are free. I have also included my observation of Atsushi’s Ability, so you won’t be left in the dark. Mind you, I am not an Ability user myself and there may be some error of my biased judgement.”

“You have planned this.” The newly appointed guardian of Nakajima Atsushi whispered, his eyes knowing. “This is not something you can arrange in just one night. You have prepared this for quite some time.”

He had prepared all of this since that day when he saw how happy Atsushi was playing and eating with the children that he had thought of as only lies. How Atsushi fit like a missing puzzle piece among the children. How he felt the fondness in his heart as he remembered children’s innocent laughter. How his brain picked a single shining light from his dark and tainted past, the memory of his own youth when he laughed with the other orphans he had called his family.

That precious memory once again resurfaced, but now he didn’t have time nor privacy to drown in his past. “Nakajima Atsushi is your charge from now on. Take care of him.” He turned around, clasping his hands on his back to hide the faint trembling as he started to ascend the stairs. “I will open the gates. I had collected his belongings, so you can take him home right away.”

“Wait.” Oda’s voice held a weight in it that stopped him in his track. “You have read the books. What is your opinion of them?”

The books. He did have read them. And they are—

“They are really good.” He remembered how when he read the book a week ago to try to erase the painfully nostalgic feeling that lodged in his heart stubbornly, he was truly fascinated by the story. He had never been an avid reader, but somehow the book kept his attention glued to every words and every page. He also remembered the disappointment when he saw the last few pages torn off, leaving the dissatisfaction of never knowing the ending. “But leaving the reader hanging at the end is truly rude.”

He heard Oda laughed, sharing the same agony for the mystery that would never be exposed. “The man who gave the last book to me said, ‘then you write it’.” His body moved on it’s own and now he was face to face with Oda once again. “That is the reason why I stopped killing. Because to write a book is to write about life.”

‘People live to save themselves. You will understand that just before you die.’

The last line of the last book made him wonder if both of them were seeking for redemption, even in different ways. Yet unlike him who could never let go of his past, it seemed like Oda had truly found his redemption in his children. He remembered the way the children under Oda’s care laugh without care for the world, the way he and his friends longed to do when they were children. When was the last time he stopped to wonder what he had to do as a guardian for the orphans so they would not have to experience the same pain as him? No, he stopped caring for the children’s happiness and just their survival. But really, wasn’t that loss of happiness that forced his comrades to their early demise?

He once again turned his back to Oda, hiding a pained and bitter smile. “Then maybe someday I can read your book.” If it was this man, he knew that he would achieve that dream someday.

Before he could escape from the nasty envy that rot his heart, he heard Oda spoke again. His voice calm and careful. “I have a friend. He used to write reports about the casualties on the battlefield. However, he refused to just leave the report to a cold numbers of death. He would investigate the dead and then wrote the tale of their life, even though it would only make his job way harder. He would write about them in detail and those people came to life in my mind.” Somehow, he knew what Oda would be saying next, but he found no power in him to stop the man. “If you can’t let go of your past, then why don’t you write it? Write about the life of your comrades. Write about the people who grew up with you, whose stories only remembered by you.”

The sounds of laughter that once had faded among the cries of despair and shouts of anger echoed inside his mind. He had forgotten, or he thought he did. He thought that his memories were too stained by blood and agony that any happiness never existed at all. But that had been a lie. After all, without happiness, how could he held his comrades so dear in his heart? He thought by clinging on to his anger he could somehow preserve their own fury at the injustice of their life? He had only remembered their last moments, full of agony and despair, that he forgotten that once they used to laugh together too despite all the sorrow.

He could imagine facing the stained murals of his life, a rag in his hand. If he scrubbed and wiped all the stains in his heart, would he finally able to see the painting of smiles on his comrade’s faces?

“Do you really think I can do it?” the Headmaster laughed at himself for having such a hope. “A man who tortured and abused children like myself?”

“I used to take people's lives.” He recognized the regret in Oda’s voice. “But I still want to try.”

The Headmaster laughed again, although his laughter was closer to sobs. If Oda who had carried an even greater burden than him still stubbornly carried that weight, what could he say as excuse?

 


 

The warm and bright rays of the sun made him whimper as his consciousness slowly returned from his blissful sleep without nightmare. ‘It’s so nice and warm…’ he wondered if he was still dreaming, because his body felt like it was floating. He was leaning on something hard, but since it was so warm he didn’t mind. In fact, he didn’t want to wake up just yet from how comforting his bed was.

“Atsushi? Are you awake?” he heard voice calling his name, which made him frown. Bed wasn’t supposed to talk, right? Only human could talk and he was sure that voice sounded really familiar—

He opened his eyes so wide and whipped his head up so suddenly that his head collided with something. Atsushi whimpered in pain, holding his throbbing head.

“Ow.” He heard that voice again and Atsushi raised his head slowly this time in horror. His eyes met with red ones—wait, even the usually white part of his eyes were red now—and Atsushi’s brain finally kicked into full gear. He looked below and found out that he was being carried in Oda’s arms. He had been sleeping on Oda all this time…!

“I-I’m sorry!” Atsushi blurted out in rush, cheeks pink from shame. “A-are you alright, Oda-san?”

“I’m alright. I was more surprised than pained.” Oda smiled but Atsushi himself didn’t know what to do. Should he ask to be let down? Should he obediently stay there? Thankfully Oda offered an option for him. “Can you stand?”

Atsushi felt his whole body heavy like lead and he was really exhausted despite just waking up from deep sleep, but he didn’t want to impose on Oda. “I- I think so.”

“Hold on to those books and folder on your stomach.” Atsushi’s barely awoke mind just noticed the thick folder and three books piled up on his stomach. He carefully held onto them as Oda slowly let him down. The moment his feet touched the ground, his legs stumbled and he had to cling to Oda’s coat to keep himself standing.

Oda steady his body, his free hand taking the folder and books from Atsushi. “Hang in there. You can sleep again when we get to the car.”

His brain could barely comprehend Oda’s words. “Car? What do you—“

“This is his belongings.”

Atsushi whole body jerked like someone threw a bucket of cold water to him. His yellow and purple eyes honed on to the Headmaster who approached them with a tan worn sling bag on his hand. He remembered screaming as he struggled to escape from being dragged by the hair by this man. He remembered being shoved inside the cell and shackled on that basement he always locked up in at least once a month for days. He remembered sitting there staring at the bars blankly as his stomach forgot even hunger and his lips cracked from how thirsty he was. He remembered being injected with unknown substances everytime on the end of his isolation.

He clung to Oda more tightly, his whole body trembled as he tried to make himself as small as possible to hide from the man’s cold eyes.

The Headmaster wordlessly opened the bag, showing the meager belongings of the boy. Atsushi could see his ointment and bandages, a few threadbare old shirt and pants, and the books he loved the most. Atsushi stared at the man suspiciously. ‘How did he know my favorite books?’ and more importantly, he never owned the books. The books belonged to the orphanage and the children could borrow them if they got enough points. All of Atsushi’s points were spent on books and foods. So why now the Headmaster said that he owned them?

He saw Oda putting the books and folder inside the bag and slung it on his shoulder. Then to his surprise and horror, Oda was pushing him gently to stand before the Headmaster. He tried to struggle, but Oda’s hands were firm. Resigned, he stepped ahead and stood before the man. Oda kept his hands on Atsushi’s shoulder, but Atsushi didn’t feel restrained. He felt like those hands stayed there as support, not as cages.

“Say goodbye, Atsushi.” Atsushi raised his head to see Oda was smiling, despite how exhausted he looked. “You will be leaving the orphanage today.”

His heart stopped for a second, his brain went blank as he looked at Oda with his widened eyes. He opened his mouth, but no words came out besides pieces he couldn’t even string into words. Desperate for confirmation, Atsushi even looked at the Headmaster. For once in his life, the Headmaster’s eyes weren’t cold. Actually, Atsushi couldn’t even guess what kind of emotions swirling in those black eyes.

But to his shock, the man actually nodded. He took out a small box from his coat and presented it to him. When the Headmaster opened the box and showed it’s content, Atsushi’s sharply inhaled a breath of air. “Congratulations for your adoption.”

A simple wristwatch was placed inside. It was a simple analog watch with black leather watch strap. Yet it was something akin to the biggest desire among all the children in the orphanage. The Headmaster had forbid any children from having one, as he said that was a proof of somebody with their own will. It was also a graduation present the Headmaster gave to any children who was adopted. Facing the highest proof that what Oda and the Headmaster said to him was the truth, how could he think that this was a cruel lie anymore?

The young boy felt lost. He didn’t know what he should feel right now. Should he feel happy? Should he feel sad? Should he be afraid? Should he be eager? His head spun from how chaotic his emotions spun endlessly without letting him identify them and react accordingly. Everything felt like too much yet at the same time not enough.

“Atsushi.” The hands on his shoulder tightened a bit. “Breathe.”

Atsushi didn’t realize he had stopped breathing. When his lungs remembered how to breathe and he inhaled deeply, he wondered if this was how freedom tasted like. Freedom. Yes, he was free. Free from the place that had caused nothing but agony in his life.

“Ha. Hahaha…” Atsushi’s lips twitched into a smile as he laughed, but tears flowed from his eyes. Neither joy nor sorrow felt right, but he didn’t know how to express his whirlpool of emotions. “Hahahaha—“

Neither Oda nor the Headmaster stopped him as he fell into his knees, sobbing and laughing at the same time until his voice went hoarse. Atsushi continued to cry and laugh until he felt like everything in his heart was emptied and left him nothing but an empty husk. Oda knelt there by his side, his hand patting his back comfortingly. The Headmaster just stood there, but he didn’t reprimand Atsushi for crying.

He didn’t know how long he drained his tears and voice until he just sat there, blankly gazing at the distance. His mind and heart felt clear for the first time since… since he remembered. He was exhausted and he wished nothing more than just to sleep, but he was afraid to close his eyes and awoke back in his prison.

He felt Oda gently scoop him up from the ground, holding him close as he stood up. The warmth of Oda’s body felt more inviting than the rays of the sun and Atsushi leaned his head on Oda’s shoulder, his eyes drifting shut despite how he fought against sleep.

He heard conversations, but everything sound muffled to his ears. A soft touch on his head made Atsushi opened his eyes, looking dazedly at the Headmaster who patted his head. Not unkindly, but the man’s movement was awkward as if he too had forgotten a touch that didn’t involve pain. If Atsushi was more alert, he would flinch and struggled to escape. But now he was just too exhausted to care so he let the soft pats on his head from the man who used to only hurt him with those hands.

“I believe this belongs to you. I’m sorry.” The Headmaster handed him a book. His drowsy mind became a bit alert as he recognized the burnt cover of the book he had lost forever. “Also—”

Atsushi embraced the book tightly in his arms, storing the Headmaster’s last words in his memory to ponder about later. But the relief from having his most precious treasure back when he thought he would never have it again made his body sagged in Oda’s arms more. He closed his eyes, welcoming the darkness that brought him to a blissful oblivion once more.

The last thing he really felt before his consciousness drowned in the darkness was his hand reaching for the hand on his head that lulled him to sleep and clung weakly on it.

 


 

Oda gently put Atsushi’s unconscious body on the passenger seat next to his own. He clasped the seat belt, making sure it wasn’t too tight and reclined the seat back slightly so Atsushi would be comfortable. He put the bag containing Atsushi’s belongings, folder, and his own books on the back seat. He carefully inspected the boy, making sure that Atsushi still sleep peacefully before closing the door softly. The Headmaster was still there by the gates, watching them in silence.

“I will contact you from time to time, informing you of Atsushi’s condition.” Oda bowed his head sincerely. “Thank you for everything.”

The Headmaster returned the bow. “You don’t have to. He should be free from this orphanage once and for all.” The smile on his face was somehow similar to one who was grieving. “I don’t deserve to say those words to him. I don’t deserve his forgiveness and he doesn’t have to forgive me. I know that he will be happier with you and that is enough for me.”

Oda knew that the past between Atsushi and the Headmaster was too horrible for both of them to forgive and forget. Maybe Atsushi wouldn’t forgive the man for the rest of his life and he had the right to not forgive him. But there was difference in forgiving and moving on. He didn’t want Atsushi to hold his anger in his heart forever. Just like his bloody past, Atsushi wouldn’t be able to erase his painful past. But just like he was trying to let go and move on, he wished Atsushi would someday reach the same goal. It was hard, he knew that better than anyone else. However, because it was hard that it was all the more important to struggle for it. For he knew that they would be happier if they walked that road. He understood that he couldn’t force the boy to walk with him, but if he could walk first and showed Atsushi the footprints he left behind… maybe Atsushi could one day freed himself from the chains and stepped forward, following those footprints until he caught up with Oda.

The man in front of him had seen the light. He knew that someday the Headmaster would also walk down the road of redemption. Maybe the next time they met, both of them would be different men. Their next meeting may be years from now, but Oda was looking forward to it.

Oda extended his hand, smiling to another person who would struggle walking the same road as him. “When we meet again, maybe we can exchange books. Our books.”

The Headmaster was shocked, his face a bit comical with how wide his eyes and how his mouth was agape. But when the shock died down, the Headmaster laughed. Oda was a bit surprised since this was the first time he saw the man actually laughed freely in front of him. But the Headmaster shook his hand, their hands gripped each other determinedly like an oath.

When Oda drove his car away from the orphanage, he could see the image of the Headmaster watching them by the gates on the rear mirror until he became smaller and finally disappeared from view.

Chapter Text

It was hot.

That was the first thing Atsushi noticed when his consciousness finally surfaced from the murky water of sleep. The wisp of dream faded away from his grasp, becoming nothing but forgotten memories. The heat burning through his body felt uncomfortable, but he dared not to make any sound of discomfort. He had not heard the bell of morning chores, so it wasn’t the time yet to wake up. The children who slept in the same room as him would get angry if he disturbed their sleep over his own discomfort.

With difficulty, Atsushi exhaled. Even his breath felt really hot and his mouth was as dry as a desert. The itch in his throat made Atsushi hurriedly covered his own mouth with his trembling hand, muffling the sound of coughing as much as possible. The dry coughing only agitated his own breathing and his panting sounded really loud in the silent room.

“Atsushi? Are you awake?”

A warm hand gently combed his bangs back and stayed there for a few seconds. The gentle touch startled Atsushi, freezing his body up. With great difficulty, Atsushi opened up his eyes. His sight was blurry and the haze in his brain only made it really slow for him to realize who was it in front of him.

He opened his mouth, chapped lips pained him each time he moved them. “O…da-san…”

Oda shushed him as he tried to speak more. A cold glass touched his lips and the hand on his forehead moved to behind his head and supported him. “Drink up.”

Compared to the heat of his body, the water was cold and refreshing as Atsushi greedily gulped down the clear liquid. With the dryness of his mouth and throat relieved, Atsushi let out a long sigh. He almost finished the whole glass before he weakly pushed the glass away. Oda carefully lied his head back down to the pillow.

“How are you feeling? Do you feel pain anywhere?” Oda’s words sounded garbled because of the ringing in his ears, but Atsushi more or less understood what he asked about.

“It’s hot…” other than the heat, everything else were still bearable for Atsushi.

“Your body temperature is high, yet you are not sweating.” Oda checked behind his neck and his back, but Atsushi’s body didn’t sweat even a bit. “Wait a bit, I will take ice packs. I also have to call the doctor to check you again.”

Atsushi weakly rose his hand to catch Oda, but the older man had swiftly rose from his chair and almost running to somewhere Atsushi didn’t know. The throbbing in his head slowly diminished, clearing the haze of sleep from his mind and for the first time since he woke up Atsushi could truly absorb the sight around him. He was lying in a foreign bed in a foreign room. The room was simple, adorned with just the necessary furniture and little to no private possession that could tell someone of the life of the owner of the room. Everything was neat and clean, the only thing out of place in that room was a worn-out tan bag placed on the sofa with papers sticking out of it haphazardly like Oda had hurriedly shoved everything inside.

The heat was really uncomfortable and Atsushi weakly kicked away the thick blanket covering him to no avail. His hands tried to yank them away, but a slight pain and tugging from his left hand startled him. Atsushi’s eyes widened in surprise when his eyes landed on a thin clear plastic pipe attached from his left hand to a bag of clear liquid that continuously dripped.

“That is intravenous infusion.” Oda’s voice startled Atsushi, as he hadn’t realized that the man was already back with arms full of blue packs. “I called a doctor this morning to check on you when we got home, he said you are dehydrated. It may be uncomfortable, but please bear with it for now.”

Oda helped to get the blanket off Atsushi, then he put the ice packs on his temple, neck, under his knees, and other places. Atsushi sighed out in relief at the coldness from the ice pack, his right hand keeping the ice pack on his temple from slipping off. He watched Oda folded up the thick blanket and put it on the sofa, next to another folded up blanket. He took the other blanket and draped it above Atsushi. The new blanket was much thinner and didn’t keep heat as much as the previous one.

Oda returned moments later, his gentle smile compelled him to return it albeit his smile was weak from exhaustion. “Can you eat? I can prepare something.”

Atsushi’s hand rubbed his stomach. He no longer felt hunger, but his body felt weak and sluggish. He didn’t want to bother Oda, but Oda’s worried look stopped him. Reluctantly, Atsushi nodded. Oda’s smile brightened a bit and with a quick pat on his head, Oda once again almost ran to somewhere Atsushi thought was the kitchen. He wanted to curl up, but it was a hassle to move with all the ice packs on his body and the tubing on his hand. So Atsushi just pulled up the blanket close to his neck, no longer bothered with the heat thanks to the ice pack and thinner blanket. A faint and familiar scent made the corner of his lips twitched up.

He wondered if this was how it felt to be like a caterpillar wrapped up in a cocoon. Safe and happy.

A hand gently shook his shoulder and Atsushi jerked awake. He must had dozed off while he was waiting. Atsushi tried to get up, but his weak body only managed to lift for a few centimeters before he plopped back down. He panted like he had been running for hours and he stubbornly tried again, although this time a pair of strong hands supported him. Oda kept Atsushi’s body steady with one arm while his free one stacked the pillows. The younger boy leaned to the pillow, grateful for the support because he didn’t think he could support his own body.

“Here.” Oda put a tray on Atsushi’s lap. On the tray was a simple bowl of rice with pieces of seared salmon, which was submerged in a broth smelling faintly of green tea. “Do you need help eating?”

Atsushi’s eyes brightened the moment he saw his favorite food. His hand was shaky as he picked up the spoon, but he determinedly scooped up the rice with his spoon and brought it to his mouth carefully. Atsushi hummed in delight as the familiar taste of ochazuke bloomed in his mouth and he ate another spoonful. Despite not feeling hungry, his favorite food made it easy to regain his appetite and the warm food made it easy to keep the food down. It took no time at all until the bowl was scrapped clean and Atsushi pat his stomach with a satisfied expression on his face.

“You remembered my favorite food.” Atsushi smiled at Oda. “Thank you.”

“Of course I remember.” Oda patted Atsushi’s head. “Do you want to sleep more?”

With his stomach full and warm from ochazuke, he did feel sleepy. Seeing Atsushi yawned and rubbing his tired eyes, Oda once again helped him to lie down. He sat on the chair next to the bed and petted Atsushi’s head as he slowly dozed off. He was somewhat grateful that Oda chose to not talk about what happened in the orphanage. He was afraid and even confused as to what he would say with his own brain feeling so stuffed with cotton that he could barely think of anything. He regretted that he didn’t ask about the children though, and Atsushi only faintly remembered Oda saying ‘good night’ before he was once again drowned in the ocean of dreams.

 


 

Dark red stains on the wall.

He was running. His breaths came out in pants and tears blurred out his sight.

The stench of blood and death.

In this blank landscape, nothing existed but himself. He and that beast…

Different place, yet another cage.

Atsushi ran and ran, desperation and terror fueling his body to keep running. But far in the corner of his mind he knew, he wouldn’t be able to escape from the beast.

Freedom stolen once again, the tight space around himself seemed to shrink with each seconds.

He heard the growl first before everything and Atsushi knew that this deadly game of tag would soon end with his defeat once again.

Atsushi screamed, but the walls around him echoed back a fearsome roar.

 


 

“Achushi!” an excited scream greeted him the moment he opened the door of Oda’s car. A smile bloomed on his face before he knew it and Atsushi kneeled on the rough pavement, his arms outstretched to catch a small body that tackled him. “Shakura miss Achushi!”

“I miss you too, Sakura.” Atsushi fondly embraced the younger girl that determinedly clung to him like a baby monkey. “Where are the others?”

“Here!” He lifted his head to see the other boys hurriedly walked down the stairs, while Kousuke himself was already on the bottom of the stairs.

‘He must be waiting with Sakura.’ Oda had called the uncle beforehand that they were coming, but Atsushi didn’t expect that they would wait for both of them outside like this.

“Odashaku!” Sakura wriggled in his arms, pouting at Oda who had just barely stepped outside of his car and outstretched her tiny arms demandingly. Oda blinked for a second before scooping up the tiny girl from Atsushi’s arms and lifted her high above his head. Sakura squealed loudly and patted Oda’s cheeks when he let her down to his chest. “Again! Again!”

Atsushi smiled fondly as he watched Oda entertaining the youngest child. He felt a poke on his shoulder and directed his attention to Kousuke who looked at him with frown on his forehead. “Are you alright now? Oda told us that you got sick when he took you away from that gloomy place.”

If Atsushi was honest, he didn’t really remember what happened when he was in and out of consciousness while he was sick. Sometimes when he woke up, Oda was there. But most of the time, he couldn’t find Oda. On the rare time that he managed to wake up when Oda was there, he had asked where he was.

“I’m sorry, but I had to go to work.” Oda had said simply and Atsushi didn’t ask anymore. He didn’t want to get Oda in trouble with his work after already taking care of him. Not to mention that Oda looked really exhausted too and there were horrible dark bags under his eyes. Only when Atsushi got better that he actually saw Oda taking a nap on the sofa.

He had insisted to sleep on the sofa instead, but Oda just rolled him with a blanket and kept him on the bed.

“You got sick for almost a week.” Katsumi sympathetically put his hand on Atsushi’s shoulder. “You must be bored out of your mind. When I got a cold and was bedridden for three days, I thought I will go crazy.”

Shinji pouted. “You threw used tissues at us instead. That was really disgusting.”

He wasn’t awake long enough for him to get bored, although… “I miss you guys.” He admitted, feeling a bit shy. Back at the orphanage, whenever he got sick he always got lonely. He used to couldn’t even imagine being cared of when he was sick. His loneliness felt really hopeless when he didn’t even know what it was that he really longed for. But everything was different now. Oda had taken care of him when he was sick to the best of his ability, the children—his siblings – got so worried for him. He remembered Oda read to him the messages from them, like a replacement for a bedtime story that lulled him to peaceful sleep.

“Hey, your hands!” Kousuke caught both of his wrists and inspected both of his completely healed hands. “I heard from Oda that your hands are badly wounded and when I saw the bandages I believed it, but they are already healed?”

“I always heal quickly.” Atsushi wondered if that was the only reason why he was still alive with all the torture he had to endure back at the orphanage. Only really terrible wounds left scars, like the burn on his left side. “But you are right, I was surprised myself when I realized they had already completely healed.” Not any scars remained, which was surprising. He was positive that the burn wounds on his hands were almost as severe as the burn wounds he had received before.

Yuu grinned widely. “Well that is perfect! Now you can play a game with me!”

“No! Atsushi is playing baseball with me!”

Shinji tried to object, but his meek voice got drowned by the older boys. “I want to read books with Atsushi…!”

“Hush!” Kousuke slicked his hair back and said with utter confidence. “I am the second oldest, so my words are law! We are playing soccer!”

The younger boys all rebuked him. “That is cheating, Kousuke!”

Atsushi wondered if he should split himself in four by the end of this, but Oda came to his rescue. “Boys, you can play later. Today we are going to help Atsushi shopping.”

Sakura, perched on the tallest man’s shoulder with Oda securely holding her legs, raised both of her hands and shouted. “Shopping!”

The new adopted child sighed. He had begged Oda to not spend so much money on him, but Oda looked at the old and threadbare clothes given by the Headmaster and called for backup. With the other boys all raised their hands in unison, Atsushi was already defeated.

The uncle opened the door to his curry restaurant and laughed seeing all of them so cheery in the morning. “Have fun children! Remember, always stay with Odasaku-chan! It will be bad if you get lost!”

Oda smiled a bit. “Don’t worry, Oyaji-san. My friend suggested a good idea to keep them all in line.”

Somehow Atsushi got a shiver ran down his back and he could swear he heard a mischievous laugh from somewhere in the distance.

 


 

Despite all of them arriving at the department store not long after it was opened, but there were already quite many people shopping and enjoying themselves. That day in particular, Atsushi realized as he hung his head, probably made many people laughed.

“Chu-chu-po-po!” Sakura loudly shouted, holding the rope in front of her proudly as she walked in front all of them. “Chu-chu-po-po!”

“Chu-chu-po-po.” Shinji, right behind her, also shouted the sounds of a train they mimicking in time with Sakura. Despite not as excited as the younger girl, Shinji also had a wide smile on his face.

“Chu-chu-po-po.” Yuu said blandly, holding the rope laxly on his waist. From time to time, he would elbow Katsumi behind him when the boy wouldn’t say anything. “Come on, you will make Sakura cry.”

“C-chu-chu…po…po…” Katsumi’s winced as he almost whispered the words. His face was bright red from embarrassment. “Oh come on! I am already seven years old! The last time I played this game was when I was still in kindergarten!”

Kousuke, behind Katsumi also exploded with his flushed face. “Odasaku, damn you! What kind of shitty idea is this!?”

Atsushi saw Oda’s hand reach around him and flicked Kousuke on the forehead. “No bad language in front of Sakura.” To Katsumi, Kousuke, and also Atsushi horror Oda just continued on. “Chu-chu-po-po.”

“Have you no shame!?” Kousuke furiously whispered, the only thing keeping him walking forward was the fact that the rope he was holding on his waist kept pulling them forward.

“Should I?” Oda pondered for a bit when he saw Kousuke rolled his eyes to the sky. “I see.”

“Not ‘I see’! This is embarrassing! Let us go already!” Katsumi also protested, but keeping his voice down as to not upset the two youngest children still playing the train make-believe happily.

“But this is effective in keeping all of you in one place. Dazai has also lend me this rope, it will be rude if we didn’t use it.”

Atsushi heard the chuckles of people seeing them and wondered if any hole would open beneath him already.

Oda ignored Kousuke and Katsumi’s protests and raised his voice a bit so that Sakura could hear him. “Sakura, go to the left. That is our first destination.”

Like a good train conductor she was, Sakura steered them to the clothing store to their left. The clerks working inside the shop giggled behind her hand at seeing the adorable sight coming to her store. Unfazed by the giggle and swooning from the women in that shop, Oda set the children loose from the ‘train’. “Alright children, help Atsushi find clothes. If you want to buy anything for yourself, you can tell me. I can only buy one for you guys, since we have to get a lot of clothing for Atsushi this time.”

Katsumi and Kousuke immediately stepped away from the ropes and each of them held to Sakura and Shinji before the youngest could ran off anywhere without supervision. “Roger that!”

Yuu dragged hesitant Atsushi with him. As all of them walked together from one aisles to the other, Atsushi’s hesitation turned into wonder. He was too embarrassed when he was walking in the department store to really notice, but now he was amazed at how big the store was. There were so many clothes, pants, hats, shoes, and many others placed neatly in many sections. Clothes for girls and boys, for children and adults… Atsushi felt a bit intimidated by the many choices he was suddenly faced with. Thankfully, his siblings didn’t give him that much time to really choose on his own as all of them pushed many clothes for him to try.

“Sakura! That is a skirt! Atsushi is a boy; he can’t wear that!”

“But Achushi will look cute!”

“Why don’t you help me look for accessory instead, Sakura?”

“Atsushi, you have to get a sport shoes!”

“Hmm… I think this color will suit Atsushi…”

In no time at all, the children already stormed the store and created an enormous pile of clothing that Atsushi now had to try. Even Oda patted his back in encouragement when he saw that pile. With the help of a constantly giggling clerk, he managed to get the pile into a changing room. He picked one by one in random until he suddenly shrieked.

“Why is there a skirt in here!?”

“Sakura!” the boys all whined at the mischievous imp, confused as to when she managed to sneak a frilly pink skirt amongst all of the clothes.

Atsushi didn’t have to see it to know that Sakura rebelliously stuck her tongue out at them.

With even more heavier heart, Atsushi put the skirt aside and continued on picking the clothes one by one as he tried to choose which one he should try first. All the clothes’ material felt soft under his hands and way more colorful than the clothes he used to wear at the orphanage. There were no tears or stray unraveled threads on them. For Atsushi who had never bothered with fashion, seeing the pile in front of him confused him just as much as how he stared in confusion at the escalator and how colorful the world was outside that cold white and dull orphanage.

When Atsushi finally gave up and picked one randomly, his whole body froze the moment his yellow and purple eyes landed on the glistening picture on the front of a black clothes. A white tiger glared back at him, drawn so majestically and cool looking. Yet Atsushi’s heart wasn’t filled with admiration, his heart felt like it was suddenly gripped by ice cold claws.

“Atsushi? Everything alright? Do you need help?” Kousuke’s voice cracked the ice that had freeze him over. His reflex made Atsushi threw the clothes and buried it underneath the pile, as if he was hiding his shame.

It took him a few seconds to find his voice back. “I-I’m alright! I was just confused where to start!”

“The skirt, Achushi! The skirt!”

“Sakura!”

The sounds of everyone’s voices helped Atsushi to lock away the fear deep down in his heart. The constant motions of changing clothes and showing it to Oda and his siblings eventually made him even forgot about his irrational fear of the tiger.

 


 

It took longer than Oda had predicted to buy clothes for Atsushi. The children keep arguing over the clothes and Atsushi’s own incapability to deny his younger siblings’ wishes only made it even worse. Kousuke had to physically stop Atsushi to really trying the skirt when Sakura almost cried. In the end, after almost three hours of arguing and exhausting Atsushi and the clerks with their demands, the children finally agreed for five t-shirts, three pants, ten underwear, two shoes, one jacket and one sweater. Also a bunch of accessory for Atsushi and the children.

Kousuke got sunglasses, Katsumi a new bandana, and Sakura wanted a pair of cute hair ties. Yuu and Shinji didn’t want anything, preferring a game and book each.

Atsushi changed his orphanage clothes with a plain black t-shirt, a white sweater with dark blue patterns, a dark tan pants that stopped mid calves, and a pair of shoes with the same color as his pants. Oda was impressed, the children had done really well in finding clothes that suited Atsushi. Atsushi himself look changed, he was no longer a pitiful orphan Oda met at the orphanage. He had now become a part of his family.

Oda patted Atsushi’s head when he stopped fiddling with his new clothes. “It suits you.”

Atsushi looked at himself in the mirror, his eyes full of wonder as he saw his own transformation. He gripped the bag of clothes in his arms and smiled brightly at Oda. “Thank you! I will take very good care of them!”

Oda nodded, a smile also adorned his face seeing the satisfied and happy expression on all of their faces. “Alright,” Oda brought out the ropes, which immediately turn their happy grins to sour pouts except for Sakura and Shinji. “Next location.”

 


 

Terada Satoru was busy closing his curry restaurant when he saw a familiar car parking in front of his store. He grinned and wiped his hands with a clean towel and walked outside. The cold winds of fall didn’t affect him, thanks to the protective fat on his body.

“Did the children have fun?” he said as greetings when he saw Oda stepped out of the car, his face completely blank. If he hadn’t known the younger man as long as he was, he wouldn’t be able to see the faint exhaustion hidden carefully behind that blank expression.

“I think so.” Oda opened the backseat door carefully. Terada suppress down his chuckles at seeing the children all sleeping, leaning against each other. He could see Atsushi seated on the front also sleeping soundly, clearly exhausted from all the shopping today. “All of them fell asleep near the end of it.”

Terada patted Oda’s shoulder. “Good job today. Come on, I will help you get the children upstairs.”

It took a few trips back and forth before Oda and him managed to get all the children and the stuff they had bought today safely in their room. He gently tucked all of them in the big futon they shared, petting the head of each of them gently before as quiet as he could go down the stairs of their buck bed. To his surprised, Oda was busy changing the curtain of the single big window in the room with a heavier curtain. He even went as far as applying a window tint. By the end of Oda’s surprisingly silent work, the room was completely dark as no moonlight able to go through inside.

A faint light suddenly appeared on the corner of the room. Oda had turned on a new night lamp that enveloped the room in gentle warm light. With his hand, Oda instructed him to follow him. Terada followed without hesitation, curious as to Oda’s weird actions.

When they closed the door to the children’s room behind them, Terada walked behind Oda to the restaurant. Everything had been put away and cleaned up, but he still smiled at Oda when the younger man sat on his usual seat by the counter. “Have you eaten? Do you want curry?”

Oda had probably eaten dinner with the kids, but the man’s love for curry enabled him to have a second stomach for his favorite food. “Yes please, if it’s not too much of a bother.”

“Nah, I know you will want a curry so I already prepared it for you. Wait a bit.” He took out a pan to heat up the curry he had set aside for Oda and turned on the stove. For a while, there were no other sounds than him preparing the curry. Terada didn’t push as he had seen the exhaustion on Oda’s face, like he was shouldering a great burden that he couldn’t just discard. If by eating his cooking he could help the poor man, then for Terada that was enough. As a cook, nothing made him happier than seeing people smiling after eating his cooking.

“Here you go.” Terada cracked an egg on top of the piping hot curry, just the way Oda loved it. “Eat up.”

Oda’s eyes brightened a bit, the veil of exhaustion lifted up for a moment. Terada watched fondly as his favorite customer ate the curry, seeming unaffected by the spice that would leave lesser man to crying baby. Oda was probably the only man capable of eating such a spicy food with straight face.

“How is the curry?” he asked when Oda finally finished with his food, his body’s tension way more relaxed than before.

“Just like always.” He nodded as he heard it. He picked up the plate and cleaned it up, waiting for Oda to say what was in his mind or leave it at that.

“Oyaji-san, I have something to tell you.” Terada immediately turned off the tap and put the plate away. He stood once again in front of Oda and waited. “It’s about Atsushi…”

What he heard was shocking. As a normal civilian, his experience with Ability user was really limited. Even when he knew that Oda was an Ability user, he didn’t see any difference that he could see plainly. To him, Oda was just another human. But now, he was suddenly faced with unknown threat. A threat that hid behind a young boy. The young boy that had cried when he ate his curry, so grateful for a plate of food that other people usually took for granted.

“I see.” Terada crossed his arms. “So that was why you made sure no moonlight came inside the room.”

“For most days, it should be safe to leave Atsushi with the children.” Oda spoke, but his words carried a desperation that made his voice trembled slightly. “It’s just for the week around full moon that we should take caution.”

“Do you have any plan for when that week comes?” because he would admit that facing such dangerous Ability, he wouldn’t be able to do anything. He had entered the war as a soldier, he knew the danger of overestimating himself.

“I do.” Oda let out a long sigh. “I have tested it too. It should be fine.”

“Any emergency plan?” he pushed. This wasn’t something that could be treated so lightly that Oda could just prepare one plan without any backup in case everything went downhill.

Oda’s grip on the glass of water tightened a bit. “I… have a friend. In case I couldn’t handle it on my own, I will ask him for help.”

‘ ‘Will’, not ‘can’.’ Terada sighed. “Does this friend of yours will really help you? Without harming Atsushi-chan?”

Oda didn’t answer, which was enough to make him worry. But everything was out of his capability to help. All he could do now was following Oda’s request to watch over Atsushi and made sure that the curtain was closed near a full moon. “I understand. I will do it.”

Even when he was the one who asked, Oda seemed surprised hearing his agreement. “Is it okay?”

Terada laughed. “It’s not only you and the kids who cared for the boy.”

Hearing his words, Oda smiled. Terada could see a little bit of the burden was lifted from his shoulder. “Thank you.”

 


 

Atsushi didn’t know what to expect when he started to live with the children. When he heard from Oda that the children lived with the uncle and not with him, he was disappointed since he wouldn’t be able to be with his siblings and Oda at the same time. But Atsushi had learnt to be grateful for anything he got in this world. So he threw away his disappointment and instead being excited to live with his siblings. The short time he had spent with them only made him greedy for more.

He didn’t expect for everyday to be so loud and chaotic though.

“Kousuke, help me!”

“I can’t Atsushi! I have my hands full with tackling down Katsumi! Katsumi, apologize to Sakura already!”

“She is the one who doodled on my baseball glove!”

“Sakura, please stop crying… Shinji! Be careful! I will get that book for you so please get down from that table!”

“Yuu! Stop playing that damn game and help us!”

“Ehh… but I am on the last boss now… survive for a few more minutes, then I will help you.”

If there was anything Atsushi had learnt after two weeks living with his siblings, it was that he finally managed to say ‘no’. After all, when his younger siblings continued to insist in dangerous things he would be forced to stop them. Not to mention when they started arguing.

He was sure without Kousuke help he would be crazy right now. The chores that he had to take care of wasn’t that intimidating, he was used to bone breaking chores on the orphanage. At least now he actually knew whose stuff he was cleaning for.

After two weeks, his siblings wonder of having new brother had died down somewhat. They no longer insisted on spending time with him and instead started doing their own things. Atsushi found out that he was closer with the younger children (Sakura and Shinji) compared to the older ones. So Kousuke and him split jobs. He would be taking care of Sakura and Shinji mainly, while Kousuke took care of Katsumi and Yuu. Of course, most of the times he would ended up taking care of all of them at once. With his high energy, Kousuke could keep up with Katsumi’s endless stamina and both of them would play sports all day until they came back home dirty and exhausted. Yuu sometimes would join them whenever he was out of games to play, but the moment he got a new one no force in this world would be able to drag him away from his consoles. Shinji’s hunger for knowledge was admirable. He spent most of his time reading a book or studying, sometimes he would even ask Atsushi to help him read a more advanced book than the usual children books. From time to time he would join Sakura watching child friendly anime. For Sakura, he wasn’t so sure. The youngest and also the only girl seemed to be unable to decide what she loved to do the most. One moment she would doodled on everything with crayons, then she would suddenly stand up and ran outside to pester the boys to join their game. One thing for sure was that Sakura hated silence and being alone. She would cry loudly until one of her siblings comforted her and keep her company. Most of the time, Sakura was content in following Atsushi did the daily chores and ran around keeping everyone alive and not crying. She would also insist in helping him… which ended up only adding up his works. But Atsushi didn’t mind, it was kind of her to want to help him.

Despite everyday full of shouting, arguing, whining, chaos, and frustration, Atsushi didn’t think he could be happier. Each moment he shared with his siblings were precious and in these short time he lived with them he couldn’t imagine living without them anymore. He wouldn’t be able to return to the silence and despair he had endured back at the orphanage. Kousuke may be loud and Atsushi had to rebuke him everytime he cursed in front of Sakura, but Kousuke was also caring and responsible. Whenever Atsushi felt overwhelmed or exhausted, he would immediately take charge and forced him to rest. Katsumi may be unbearable with his limitless energy, but he was always the first to help Atsushi with the heavy lifting. Katsumi also always shared his snacks with everyone. Yuu sometimes seemed to be uncaring at times and also had competitive streak in games, but Atsushi also saw the hidden wisdom in him. Whenever there was argument that got really heated up, Yuu was the one who could force both side to cool their heads and reached compromise. Shinji sometimes got so lost in his book that he forgot to take a bath or even eat, his shyness also made his voice kept drowned out by the other children. But he always shared his knowledge. He taught the other children with what he learned from the book and always managed to find a book that would suit the taste of the others, even Katsumi who couldn’t sit still for more than ten minutes. Sakura was a stubborn and demanding child. She was quick to get upset and cries really loudly. But, she was also the most sensitive one among them. Whenever one of them was upset, Sakura would be the first to notice. She would do everything in her power to make them smile again.

Each and everyone of them were irreplaceable. His younger siblings were his most precious treasure. Sometimes, he would get nightmare that everything was just a dream and he would wake up back at the orphanage. Those days were the worst, because he wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep and spent the rest of the night watching his younger siblings sleep peacefully. Atsushi was glad that he had learnt to wake up from his nightmare as silent as possible, or he would keep waking up his siblings. Sakura would still notice when she woke up and saw him though, and she would stay by his side all day. Her presence chased away the lingering tendrils of shadow that surrounded his heart and he was able to smile again, no matter how faint it was.

Everyday that passed never ended up the same. In a flash, days turned into weeks.

He also realized that none of them went to school.

One day, when he asked why to Kousuke, the younger boy scoffed. “There is no need. I want to be a mafia; school doesn’t matter as a mafia. Can you imagine Katsumi in school? Yuu is like a hermit whenever he got a new game. Probably only Shinji and Sakura that would be happy in school, but I am afraid Shinji will get bullied seeing how meek he was. Sakura will cry when she can’t see us.”

Atsushi was surprised. “Why would you want to be a mafia?” he could see the reasons of the others not wanting to go to school, but Kousuke’s reason was the most absurd one.

It was Kousuke’s turn to be surprised. “You don’t know? Odasaku works for mafia.”

The moment Atsushi got a moment with Oda who finally visited (while Oda visited the restaurant to eat curry three times a week, it was rare for him to actually visited them. He only visited once a week since he was busy with work and didn’t have time to play around. Atsushi felt bad whenever he thought that he took up Oda’s precious time with his siblings on the months before he was adopted) he gathered his courage to ask. “Oda-san, do you really work with the mafia?”

Oda’s hand stopped on the handle of his car’s door. “Kousuke must have told you.” The older man turned around and faced him, his face carefully devoid of any expressions which made it hard for Atsushi to read him. “Yes, I am. I am the lowest member of the mafia in the Yokohama.”

He had heard from Kousuke and also the others, even Uncle confirmed it. But to actually heard it from Oda’s mouth didn’t lessen the shock he felt.

Oda’s lips turned up in a wry smile. “Are you afraid of me?”

How could he? Oda was the first person who showed him kindness. He was the person who saved him from the cruel punishment of the orphanage and even helped him with his punishment. He was the one who showed him the colorful and brilliant world outside of the orphanage. He was the one who gave him hope and taught him how to nurture that light in his heart. He was the one who made these wonderful days spent with his new family possible at all.

It didn’t matter what job Oda had. The fact that the man saved him from the orphanage would never change. “No, Oda-san. You are still the same Oda-san who is always kind to me.” Atsushi smiled, genuine and confident. “You saved me. That is the important thing.”

Oda’s eyes widened a bit hearing Atsushi’s words. Atsushi didn’t flinch when Oda put his hand on his head and gently ruffled it. The shadow on his eyes lightened and Atsushi wondered how he could ever doubt the man who possessed the gentlest eyes in the world. “Thank you.”

Atsushi’s hair was messy when Oda lifted his hand, but he didn’t mind. The wind would mess it up again shortly anyway. His curiosity threw that thought aside and focused on Oda. “If you don’t mind me asking, why did you decide to work in the mafia?” He couldn’t really see the reason why such a gentle person like Oda would want to work in a job as bloody as mafia.

“I admit, at that moment I simply didn’t know what else to do.” Oda looked at his hands. He wondered what it was that Oda was seeing on his own hands. “I had seen the light, but I had stayed too long in the darkness to know how to even step outside of it.”

Oda’s cryptic world only left him even more confused. However, seeing how shadow started to murk the beautiful eyes that reminded him of the sunset made him reign his own curiosity. Instead, he followed Oda’s words. “Can you step outside of the darkness now?”

Oda’s faint smile told Atsushi that Oda knew he didn’t get the meaning, but he answered anyway. “I am trying. Lately, the light has gotten stronger and brighter. Maybe the time I will finally take a step outside of the darkness is coming near.”

 


 

The sun was starting to set on the far west. The remains of sunlight bathed the world in deep red and orange hue, while the shadows started to rise in enthusiasm of the night soon to come. The cries of seagulls last cries echoed on the port, signaling the end of the day as they all flew in the sky.

Using the cries of seagulls as cover, a figure ran among the shadow of the buildings. It moved so quickly and expertly hiding in the shadows, sneaking it’s way hidden from sight of people or security camera. It kept moving, as if there was a time limit that chased it like the devil. Farther and farther the figure moved away from the society, until it arrived at the ruins old buildings long abandoned near the port. Swiftly it ran between the buildings, with familiarity born only with days of navigating it’s way in the ruins of glory and memories long forgotten.

The figure finally stopped in front of a large, yet abandoned building with broken windows and cracked walls. Out of the shadows, the sunlight showed the figure true self to the world. Oda Sakunosuke, former assassin and also a member of Port Mafia, stealthily entered the building. On his back was his newest adopted children, sleeping soundly with a coat covering his head and back from view. The shattered glass made a faint cracking sounds as his shoes stepped on them. Oda continued on walking until he arrived at a hall ending with dead end. With his hands occupied in holding the sleeping boy, Oda used his feet to kick at a certain part in the wall. The brick wall gave in, which uncover a hidden lever. Oda pulled the lever and the hidden mechanism opened up the dead end, showing him a stairway to the basement. He quickly went down the stairs, wincing a bit as he saw blood splatters on the stairs and the walls. He kept going until he reached the basement, and he let out a breath of relief when he saw no signs of people ever entering the place for years.

Before his eyes was the hidden cruelty of the mafia that was hidden from even the government’s eyes. A long lines of cells occupied both left and right sides of the room. In the middle of the room, pillars with shackles clearly visible from all of the cells. This is the torture and prison the mafia used almost daily back when the previous Boss still ruled. The dark red stains of blood everywhere became the proof of how much suffering and death the mafia had inflicted on their victims here. This wasn’t the place a child should come and see, yet this was the only place Oda could think of.

Oda walked into one of the better looking cell with less questionable remains and blood stains and opened the cell door. With heavy heart, he laid Atsushi down gently on the floor of the cell. There were shackles in the cell, but he couldn’t bear it in his heart to shackle the boy with the shackles that had been drenched in blood. Oda left Atsushi there, locking the cage behind him with the key hidden on the wall near the entrance.

Exhaustion of both body and mind forced Oda to sit near the cell, watching the boy still sleeping soundly due to the drug Oda had hidden in his meal. He had made an excuse that he needed help with cleaning up his apartment and Atsushi eagerly agreed to stay by his place for a few days to clean up his home.

Oda didn’t know if the scent of blood and death still lingered in that basement or he was just imagining it. After how much the previous Boss kidnapped people and tortured them here, this prison’s had been found and raided by the enemy’s organization. That was why the current Boss decided to move their prison to someplace new and left this one to rot away after eliminating all traces of evidence that could be linked to them. Exploding the building would only attract the attention of the government and worse came to worse, they could use this place as a bait or diversion. Oda had come here before to clean up the place, so he knew about this place. Most of the younger generation didn’t even realize this place still existed.

Oda waited in silence until he heard the growl. He instinctively rose to his feet as he saw Atsushi slowly rose, his eyes shining bright yellow as the transformation happened in front of his eyes. White fur stripped with black grew from Atsushi’s skin. His nails and teeth sharpened into claws and fangs. In no time at all, the harmless and gentle Atsushi turned into a blood thirsty beast who now watched him like a predator that had cornered it’s prey.

The tiger leaped, but the cage held strong under the assault of the beast. The tiger roared in frustration, swiping it’s claws to him in vain attempt to reach Oda. Despite already far from the reach of the tiger’s claws, Oda reflexively gulped and backed a few steps away from the cage. For his own safety, Oda reached a steel long box he had put in this place when he had scouted beforehand. He opened the box, where a tranquilizer gun that he had borrowed from a mafia member who owed him a favor resided. He held the gun on his hands, which put the tiger on guard.

While Atsushi was sick a month ago, Oda had repeatedly took him here at night. The tiger would appear and acted up like this, but the transformation usually only lasted for a few hours. Tonight was the night of first full moon that Oda would face the tiger on the peak of it’s power. Already he could feel different weight in the pressure that enveloped both of them right now. All of his senses were in high alert, reminding him of the times when he still worked as assassin. He could feel Flawless alert and ready for anytime the tiger attacked. The cage was still there, but the way the tiger glared at him today made it seemed it was nothing more but a sheet of paper.

Now that his senses were as sharp as a knife, he noticed difference in the tiger in front of him with the tiger he saw a month ago back in that basement. While it’s ferocity and thirst for blood remained, the fluidness of it’s movement and the way the muscles rippled underneath the thick fur were way different than the starving and sluggish tiger he had seen that day.

“You are becoming stronger, just like Atsushi.” Oda’s heart fell to his stomach as the realization kicked in. Atsushi was no longer pitifully thin with his ribs visible underneath that pale skin. With how the uncle feeding him with curry and chasing around the younger children around him, Oda wasn’t surprised seeing the boy becoming more and more healthy every time Oda saw him. He didn’t think that the tiger would also be affected with that change.

As if to prove Oda’s words, the tiger leaped from wall to wall. With a great clanging sounds the tiger slammed with it’s whole boy to the steel cage that separated it with Oda.

Oda didn’t doubt his eyes when he saw the metal bent a little. The tiger also noticed it, because it repeated it’s attack again. And again. And again.

The muffled sound of the air gun going off distracted the tiger. However, to Oda’s shock the dart harmlessly bounced off the tiger’s fur. He tried it two more times, but the same results only made the dismay even more apparent.

“Fur that can deflect even bullets.” Oda humorlessly laughed. “If the mafia knew about this, Atsushi wouldn’t be able to escape from the mafia.”

Seeing that Oda’s attempt were unsuccessful, the tiger resumed it’s vigorous attempt for freedom. Once again, Oda was faced with difficult decision. He could continue on holding the tiger back by himself, but would he survive? Even if Flawless could see the future, if he was unable to change that future then the future that he saw would be reality. Oda didn’t even dare to think that he could survive for a prolonged battle against the tiger. It’s superior speed and strength, not to mention bulletproof fur left Oda with little to nothing to fight back. Maybe if he had a better weapon, he had potential to hold it back. But could he actively tried to harm Atsushi? If Atsushi’s condition reflected back on the tiger, wouldn’t the reverse be the same?

He didn’t want to bother Dazai. His best friend already struggled with his job as Executive of the mafia. Dazai didn’t need Oda to add up to his burden just because of their friendship. Not to mention Atsushi’s Ability would probably interest Dazai greatly as a potential asset for the mafia. Would he avert his eyes from such great asset just for the sake of their friendship? He couldn’t bear the thought of Atsushi joining the mafia. He could disobey order to kill because while useful, his Ability wasn’t that powerful. Atsushi’s Ability however, would be the greatest living weapon that the mafia would ever get their hands on.

The metal cage already almost bent all the way. Oda’s time was ticking away…

“You saved me. That is the important thing.”

Oda bit his lip and he took out his phone from his pocket. He would risk it all with this. Even if everything went downhill from this, he would accept his mistakes and worked his hardest to protect the boy’s happiness from there. His short contact lists showed the name of the only person that he knew could help him out of this situation. Oda clicked the call button and held the phone next to his ears, each ring echoed with the clanging sound of metal.

The moment he heard Dazai’s voice, he felt a great relief washed over him. “That’s rare for you to call! What’s wrong? Finally got your paycheck for this month? Then tonight is Odasaku’s treat—“

“Dazai, I need your help.” Oda felt bad cutting his friend’s words, but the condition of the cage in front of him was really worrying. “Can you come alone to the old prison?”

“I hear something… Odasaku, are you in danger? Why do you want me to come alone?”

“I am currently in danger of being eaten by a tiger.” Oda heard Dazai’s confused ‘huh?’ on the other end of the phone. “Dazai, please come alone. I can’t have anyone else know about this.”

“Odasaku… don’t tell me you keep a pet tiger and hide it there?”

Oda wanted to say that was wrong, but it wasn’t entirely wrong either. “Dazai—“

The metal cage finally broke. The tiger landed on it’s feet for just a second before it lashed out at him. Oda only had a moment to see the claws coming and the next time he realized, he was already on the floor. His neck broke from the sheer impact and his phone was thrown to the floor, the voice of Dazai screaming his name was the last thing he heard before everything went dark.

Dazai’s screams echoed in his mind as the image stopped in his mind and Oda ran with all of his might. He heard the metal broke off from the walls and fell with a loud banging on the stone floor. With the roar of the tiger behind him, Odasaku ran with all of his might towards the other side of the room.

“I am going there. Stay alive, Odasaku!”

Oda’s heart beat against his ribcage as another image of death played through his mind in a flash. He rolled to the left, his phone swiftly thrown blindly to his pocket as the tiger barely missed him with it’s pounce.

‘That will be easier said than done, I think. Still, I can’t die here. Atsushi would be devastated if he knew that he killed me.’

 

Chapter Text

Oda didn’t really remember all of the people that died from his hands. He could roughly count the estimated number of victims, but no face or name appeared in his nightmares. Even the one where he got his treasured books. The members of mafia, who had killed a lot of people, sometimes talked about how they couldn’t erase the memory of their first kill. Oda couldn’t even remember the first person he killed as assassin. Sometimes, when it was raining and he stood near his apartment window watching the gloomy yet peaceful town, he wondered if he had ever met any of his victim’s family or friends in passing. Would they hold a grudge against him? If they had a chance, would they point a gun to the center of his forehead and pulled the trigger with cruel satisfaction and flames of vengeance in their eyes? If that moment came, what would he do?

A righteous person would give up their life as repentance. A villain would kill the avenger to save their own life.

But what would a criminal who sought salvation do?

That thought haunted Oda’s mind everytime the light dimmed in his life. Whenever he felt the familiar handle of his guns. Whenever he was faced with a blank paper and motionless pen in his hand.

He wished for salvation. He wished to live a life where he no longer had to sacrifice other people just to keep living. He wished to exchange his guns with pen and paper. He wished to raise the children until they all grow up to respectable adults who live under the sunlight. He wished to never return to those days where he kept going day by day blankly, each passing days filled with no thoughts other than how to kill the next targets.

Oda wished to continue on living until he reached that salvation, and he thought he had found it with his adopted children. He saw with his own eyes how precious life was. The image of his children, the uncle, and his friends burned into his memory and he no longer would be able to forget them even if he wished for it. He had grasped the light in his hands, precious young lives filled with possibilities that he couldn’t even think of. To protect and nurture these lights, these frail and easily snuffed lights, that was his reason to live. By learning from them how precious life was, Oda felt that someday he would be able to write the ending of the book that the gentleman had kindly given to him. A suitable ending, an ending that will satisfy people who would read it. The ending of the murderer who stopped to kill and his reason.

The ending of this life he had. The end of his story.

But to refuse to kill in the world of mafia, that meant he would always endanger himself. Everytime he kept himself from firing back whenever someone attacked him, despite the possibility of his Ability unable to save him. Whenever his life was put in a scale with someone else, he hesitated. Even with all of his wish in his heart, he couldn’t let the scale fell to his favor.

He wished to life and understand life. But to do so, he couldn’t kill. He couldn’t dirty his own hands again, because he couldn’t touch the children with hands dirtied by blood. He always wondered, would the time come when he was forced to put his life and his opponent on a scale with no escape route, or someone else that would dirty their own hands because Oda was unable to?

‘Is this that time?’ a stab of pain hit his heart, but unlike the other wounds on his body this pain was unseen by other people eyes. ‘If it’s other people, maybe it will be harder for me to choose. But now…’

Maybe when someone came up to him and demanded his life as retribution for the life he had taken, Oda would waver. But the one who thirsted for his blood now was the white tiger. Atsushi’s sentient Ability. Oda couldn’t give his life if that meant he would be dumping a heavy burden on Atsushi’s shoulder. A burden that would destroy the frail boy to pieces. He also couldn’t destroy the boy’s and also his hope to live and grow together in that family that both of them had never thought would find within this dark and cruel world.

That was why Oda struggled with all of his might. Flawless continuously humming in his mind, reading futures of his death that he managed to barely avoid. Phantom pains of sharp claws raking his body, strong jaws biting on his neck, heavy weight from the tiger’s body relentlessly trapping him and crushing him underneath it, or even from accidents as he blindly ran away from the tiger. Those pains throbbed along with the actual wounds that he couldn’t avoid. His left knee felt weird ever since the tiger slammed his body to the wall and some of his ribs probably bruised. His right arm dangled uselessly on the right side of his body, probably dislocated when he had to threw his whole body away from the tiger’s jaws. There were also countless cuts, some light enough to be called scratch but some also deep enough that it continuously dripping blood.

Oda had countless fights in his life where his life was at risk, but none quite as hopeless as this battle that he couldn’t lose. He couldn’t retaliate, he couldn’t hide, he couldn’t escape, and unlike the tiger seemingly unlimited stamina, his own was running dry as the minutes passed.

He raked his brain for any other solutions to prolong his life even for a minute longer. Images of his death, all equally gruesome, flashed through his mind. Oda picked the safest choice and ran to the side, but to his shock, once again another image appeared. Oda put up both of his hand to the front as a shield, grunting from the pain as the tiger whipped out it’s tail to smack Oda and missed his face. That moment of shock was enough for Oda to be momentarily stunned and even with Flawless already foretold his death, Oda still feel shudder running through his body as the jaw of the tiger was dangerously close to his face.

Oda threw his head back, those fangs closing in just a hair away from his nose. However, his desperate escape from death made him fell to his back in front of the tiger. His limbs hurriedly scrambled to push him back, but all of the wounds he received and the blood loss made his movement felt slow. Too slow. Unlike humans who would probably gloat about their victory, a tiger was a beast. It wouldn’t stop until it’s prey was dead. The tiger loomed above him, once again opening it’s jaw filled with sharp fangs to end Oda’s life once and for all. Even without Flawless, Oda could see death coming for him.

Another image passed through his mind, but this time Flawless didn’t show him his death.

The absence of fear in Oda’s eyes must have alerted the tiger, for it didn’t went in for the kill. However, unless the tiger also had clairvoyance Ability like his, the tiger wouldn’t know what was coming. Who was coming.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

Three loud sounds of gunfire, followed by the clanging sounds as it hit something hard and impenetrable echoed in the old prison. Oda heard the sound of the tiger’s surprised growl as it looked back behind it. Oda didn’t have to look, as Flawless informed him of what was happening, and he used that moment of the tiger’s carelessness to scoot back as far as he could and pushed his body up to his feet. The tiger let him, probably because the new threat was far more dangerous than his own miserable state.

Still, despite knowing it from Flawless, the breathless voice of his savior was comforting. “Odasaku! Status update!”

The formal order made Odasaku reflexively straightened his back and replied in loud and clear voice. “Personnel condition yellow.” It was true that he could stay alive, his wounds were not that life threatening. The blood loss was a bit worrisome, but he didn’t loss enough to faint and he could still move. “The tiger’s fur can deflect bullets. I have never fought a tiger before, but I am sure it’s safe to say that this tiger is way stronger than normal tiger. Also—“

“This one is Ability user, also one of your adopted children. Probably the newest one. Am I right?”

Dazai’s words left him speechless for a few moments. ‘Then again, it’s Dazai. With how that brilliant mind of his work, it’s no wonder he already knew everything.’

Oda discarded his surprise and replied back as he carefully stepped back from the tiger that wouldn’t keep it’s eyes away from Dazai. “Yes. He can’t control his Ability. Dazai, please…” he didn’t know what to say. Could he even beg Dazai to not hurt they boy? But he was risking not only his life, but also Dazai. The thought of hurting Atsushi pained him, but now it was not only him on that scale but also his dear friend. The plea stuck to his throat, yet all Oda could do was close his lips and let his words hang in the air uncompleted.

“I know. Because this one is Odasaku’s precious child, I won’t hurt him.” To Odasaku’s surprise, his words reached Dazai and was returned with a promise.

With his better position now, he could see Dazai smiling cheerfully as he walked calmly to the tiger. The gun in his hand was thrown without care back to the holster on his waist. The tiger growled, the fur on it’s back rising up as it perceived a threat despite Dazai’s relaxed approach. Maybe because the tiger was a beast, it could smell the blood that clung to Dazai like a secondary skin, or the dark aura of one that had stared at Death countless times yet still lived.

“While death by getting eaten by a beast doesn’t sound too bad.” the smile on Dazai’s face seemed out of place at that moment of tension. “But it’s painful and you can’t kill me anyway.”

Oda had heard the tiger growled at him before, but the growl the tiger gave at Dazai was different. If before the tiger acted as the predator, now it growled like a cornered animal ready to lash out at the last moment. That unnerving moment came when Dazai had walked all the way from the entrance of the old prison to just a few meters before the tiger. It charged at Dazai, fangs and claws out to tear him apart. Yet Dazai just calmly lifted up his hand. Oda watched in horror at how serene and even hopeful Dazai’s eyes were.

With just the slightest touch of Dazai’s fingers on the tiger’s temple, Oda watched as the beast’s body started to rewind back like a video until all the furs, claws, and fangs disappear, leaving the true form of the unconscious boy who was floating right where the beast was nearly pouncing at Dazai. Oda quickly ran, despite how his left knee now acting up with the danger gone, but to his relief Dazai caught the boy in his arms.

Dazai waited until Oda finally dragged his feet to their side before dumping the boy in his arms. “Here you go. You sure adopted a very interesting child, Odasaku.” The serene and hopeful light in his eyes disappeared, replaced with mischievous look he was too familiar with. Yet Oda couldn’t shake the memory of those eyes out of his mind. Unfortunately right now he couldn’t wonder on the weird feeling on the pit of his stomach, he was more afraid of what would be Atsushi’s future.

Oda’s hold on the boy tightened slightly as he saw that glint in Dazai’s eyes. A glint that made Ango always asked for another glass of whiskey and massaged his forehead despairingly. “Dazai—“

“I know, I know.” Dazai easily waved his hand. “You don’t want him to be involved in mafia, right? You won’t ask me to come alone if that isn’t the case.”

Oda blinked. “You are okay with it?”

Dazai looked at Atsushi like how Yuu looked at a brand new game on the shelf of a game shop longingly. “While his Ability is interesting and shows a lot of promise, but if Odasaku doesn’t want him to join the mafia then I won’t recruit him.” He put his hand on his chin and murmured. “Still… I wonder if he is better than Akutagawa-kun? Such a pity.”

Dazai continued on comparing Atsushi and his subordinate, but Oda was relieved since Dazai always kept his words. “Thank you, Dazai.”

The Executive smiled brightly, like a child getting praise. “It’s nothing. I will be very envious if Odasaku dies before me! Oh how cruel Death is, even after I tried to seduce Her to take me with Her, She came to Odasaku instead!”

The teen before him whine on and on, barely acting like one of the five Executive of the fearsome Port Mafia. Oda just nodded and replied with ‘is that so’ to every one of Dazai’s whines. He thought they would pass the night with Dazai talking all the way, but his friend stopped and looked at all the wounds on his body.

“We should go to a doctor, or you will really be knocking on Death’s door.” Dazai’s advice sounded really good now that all of his wounds started to ache really bad with the adrenaline drained off.

Still, the boy in his arms made him hesitate. He didn’t know if Atsushi would transform again or not.

“My Ability will keep him in check.” Dazai approached Atsushi and lifted the boy’s arm to rest on his shoulders. “Let’s go. I drove a car here since you said to hurry, we can use that or your car.”

Oda took the other arm and together the two of them carried the unconscious boy on their shoulder as they slowly escaped from the old prison. “You can drive?”

“That was my first time, but it’s easier than I thought.” Dazai grinned widely, his excitement radiated with such childish curiosity. “Very exhilarating too. I feel like I can understand that slug’s love for his bike a bit. Maybe I can use it to run him over?”

Oda thought for a bit. “Then you can drive, my left knee will make it dangerous for me to drive.”

He was sure he could see sparkles on Dazai’s eyes. “You can count on me, Odasaku! I will drive us quickly to the doctor!”

Oda nodded without hesitation. “I believe in you.” he swore he could hear Ango berating him to prioritize safety than speed, but he trusted Dazai. The Ango in his brain sighed really loudly and massaged his head in despair.

True to Dazai’s words, they arrived at the doctor in no time at all. Oda was also grateful that Atsushi was still unconscious and the last time he ate was too long for it to went back up. Maybe he should listen to the Ango in his brain more.

 


 

He dreamed of the moon. He knew he was in a dream because he was back in that white space that was his world. Sometimes the full moon would appear in the endless white ceilings, bathing him with the gentle light that always comforted yet also terrified him. Like always, that beast always appear to bathe under the same moonlight. However, to his confusion as he started running, the beast didn’t immediately chase him and tear him apart. Atsushi fearfully looked behind him, already expecting the red jaws of the tiger just behind him but the tiger stood still. It growled at him and it’s tail flicked side to side in annoyance. The thirst for blood in it’s eyes were still there, yet the tiger didn’t move at all and just glared at him.

Atsushi stopped running, his whole body tense and ready to dash if the tiger showed any sign of movement at all. With the tiger not moving even when Atsushi stopped, he felt his body relaxed for a bit. For the first time in his life, he could stare the tiger eye to eye. He had never seen the full form of the tiger, only remembered the flashes of fangs and claws as they teared him apart. But now with the tiger frozen in place, Atsushi could see the details that always eluded him. To his confusion, there were already blood on it’s claws and fangs.

‘He hadn’t hurt me yet, so why…?’ Ice spread from his heart to his whole body, sending chills down his back. “Whose blood is that?”

The tiger growled at him again, contempt and disgust that he knew so well from his time in the orphanage flashed through those yellow eyes. Yet the tiger didn’t answer his question. It just let him suffered in silence.

Atsushi repeated, the terror in his heart shook his voice until even he couldn’t understand his own words. “Whose blood is that!? Who did you hurt!?”

Streams of images that the tiger gave him was drenched in hatred and wariness, but the sight of the one in those images hurt and bloody slapped him more painfully than the punishment he had ever experienced in the orphanage. He saw from the tiger’s eyes how Oda was hurt again and again, his eyes showing fear and desperation that was mirrored in Atsushi’s own eyes whenever he was chased by the tiger.

Atsushi screamed. “Why did you do that!? Why did you hurt Oda-san!?” he screamed his despair until his voice became hoarse. “Just hurt me! Kill me and devour me! I don’t care what you do to me, but don’t hurt Oda-san and my siblings!”

He wondered if he could go crazy from guilt and grief. “I am the one you hate! Don’t hurt anyone else!”

‘It’s fine if the tiger hurt me with it’s hatred. I hate myself too.’ Atsushi's sobs broke through the dam inside his heart. ‘Oda-san and my siblings didn’t deserve this! The target of the tiger’s hatred should be myself, not anyone else!’

The white space around him started to crack with loud ringing sound. The tiger roared in accordance to Atsushi’s broken dreams and hopes, it’s roar echoing with Atsushi’s screams as the world around them break and shatter to pieces.

‘Because if the tiger hurt the people I loved, how can I ever return to them?’

 


 

A sharp strike to his cheek made Atsushi opened his eyes. Through the blur of tears, the image of the white landscape dispersed from his mind like mist. His throat hurt and his chests rose and fell chaotically, unable to breathe despite how he inhaled and exhaled rapidly. Sweats dampened his pajamas. Everything felt wrong to his senses. His eyes saw a completely foreign place to him. His ears missed the loud voices of his siblings. His nose picked up the nauseating smell of antiseptics and blood. The bed underneath his body felt different than the one he usually slept in Oda’s apartment or his home in the curry restaurant that he shared with his siblings and the gentle uncle.

“Atsushi.” That deep voice that always bring him comfort called his name and Atsushi clung to it like a lifeline. “Atsushi, I am here. Please look at me.”

Atsushi slowly turned his head. His purple and yellow eyes saw the man who had saved him from the orphanage and gave him a home and a family. His mouth morphed into a smile from habit and he lifted his hands to reach Oda, but the sight of bandages made his whole body freeze.

Oda’s right arm was in sling. A gauze covered his left cheek. He was standing up with the help of a crutch and the most importantly, Atsushi could see and smell blood from Oda. The images that his mind desperately tried to wipe away now came back with vengeance and Atsushi screamed.

He didn’t know if it was instinct or his own guilt, but Atsushi felt his body moved without his control and he crawled with speed he didn’t know he had away from Oda. That made his body fell to the floor but the pain wasn’t registered in his mind at all. His mind was full of the images of Oda being hurt again and again and the foreign yet familiar satisfaction of the tiger whenever it landed a hit.

“I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry—“ Atsushi didn’t realize that he was muttering apologies like a broken record, with each ‘sorry’ his words became more and more distorted from guilt and hysteria. The nightmares that always tormented him, of him standing in the center of carnage and remains of his family, now felt less than a nightmare and more of a prophecy.

‘Why? Why my nightmare turned into reality!?’ Atsushi could see Oda tried to approach him, but what Atsushi wanted now was to escape. He couldn’t face the proof of the reality that he buried deep in his mind with denial. “No—no! Don’t come any closer!”

Atsushi’s desperation to escape from the guilt that would surely destroy him awaken the tiger. He could hear the roar of the tiger in his mind as he felt his consciousness started to waver. His teeth elongated into sharp fangs and fur started to grow on his arms as the purple in his eyes drowned in bright yellow. He almost welcomed the empty white that dragged him away, the call of his name was the last thing he heard before the beast took control and—

Something grabbed his wrist tightly and Atsushi screamed along with the tiger’s roar once again as his consciousness was forcefully torn away from the solitude of his mind and back to the real world. Atsushi felt the fangs and fur disappeared, leaving his weak body to fell from the wall his claws had clung on for dear life. A pair of hands caught his falling body, a sharp grunt emitted from his captor when his elbow dug in to their chest as both of their bodies crashed to the ground.

“Well, that answer the question whether he can transform again or not.” An unfamiliar voice made Atsushi weakly lifted up his head. His eyes stared into a cold brown eye, the other covered with bandages. “Get up, you are heavy.”

Atsushi tried to get up, but his whole body felt sluggish. Even his brain was on brink of shutdown. He couldn’t think, his mind was too much in shambles to even form any coherent thought. A familiar warm hand caught his elbow and pulled him up as gently as possible until Atsushi was sitting on the floor rather than laying above the person with brown eyes.

“Atsushi.” That warm hand shook his shoulder hesitantly, the voice of that person sounded really worried. Why worried about him? He was alright. It was him that hurt the person that had saved him from his hellish life. “Atsushi, I’m fine. It’s not your fault. Please… look at me.”

Atsushi wanted nothing but return to that white space. Even with the tiger always hurting him, at least that was a familiar pain that he could endure without flinching. But he was anchored into the reality, and he was forced to face his sin and his true form that he had denied so strongly in his mind that he forgot about it everytime he woke up.

Guilt hurt even worse than the hot poker that scarred the side of his chest. It grabbed his frail heart and showed to him the ugliness of his existence. The memory of the children in the orphanage who shunned him and insulted him with names came up and tears welled up as one of those names in the end suited his entire being well.

“I am a monster.” Atsushi hoarsely sobbed as tears fell from his eyes. “I shouldn’t exist. I am not good for anything.”

The hand of the first person to be so gentle towards a monster like himself grabbed onto his shoulder and shook him hard. “Atsushi, that’s not true. You are not a monster; you are a human.”

Those gentle words, the care etched into them, he didn’t deserve any of it. Even dogs would not bit the hand of a person who fed them. What was he if not a monster that knew no gratitude or debt? “No! I’m a monster! Just like the Headmaster said, I should just die in a ditch somewhere I won’t bother others!” a thought drenched with despair came into his mind. It was so horrible and Atsushi knew that choice would end him. But to him now, there was no other choice he could think of. “Return me…”

The grip on his shoulder went slack for a moment. “Atsushi?”

“Return me to the orphanage!” Atsushi’s voice sounded more like the dying scream of an animal. “I shouldn’t be here… I already hurt you, what if I hurt Sakura and the others…?”

Atsushi knew that returning to the orphanage would kill him, if not his body at least his heart. He had seen the light, and he had enjoyed happiness along with a family that he always dreamed off back in the orphanage. The silence and torture of the orphanage would no longer be bearable. He would become insane. But at least, the Headmaster knew how to cage a monster like him. Maybe the Headmaster would even take pity of his existence and killed him. Atsushi didn’t want to die. He wanted to live together with the family that had become a part of him. But if his selfish wish would hurt the only people in this world that had shown him kindness, then he should just die like the monster he was. Just like the fairy tale he always read to Sakura, where the terrible monsters being defeated by a hero so they could have their happy ending.

“I’m sorry—please forgive me—I don’t want to hurt you but I can’t control it—“ Atsushi sobs was muffled as he cried into his arms and prostrating himself in front of Oda, curling his body into a small ball like a frightened animal. “I don’t want to hurt the children too… please just return me to the orphanage. A monster like me—a monster like me doesn’t deserve to be happy. I should just be caged for all of my life in that dungeon.”

How many people he had hurt? He couldn’t remember anything from when the tiger took control because he had denied it’s existence for as long as he lived. Had he hurt anyone else? The fact that he remembered that he had hurt Oda was a miracle. Dread made him wept harder, because what if he had hurt someone else and he couldn’t remember it? How much blood stained his hands? It was just as he thought, he should be caged so he wouldn’t hurt anyone else. He had to beg the Headmaster to take him back—

Atsushi felt his body being harshly pulled up and he braced for the pain. It’s no wonder that Oda wanted revenge for all the pain, he should take it because it was his fault—

His face was suddenly shoved into Oda’s chest and an arm wrapped around him. His body pressed against the wounded arm in the sling, yet Oda didn’t even flinch. He hugged Atsushi tightly, like he was trying to squeeze away all of the negative thought in Atsushi’s mind.

Atsushi froze in Oda’s arm. He didn’t deserve this kindness and warmth. Oda shouldn’t bother with a beast like him, but… but that small act of love that he had been so starved for all of his life made him unable to resist. Atsushi clung to Oda fearfully, because if Oda shoved Atsushi away now he would never be able to recover. It would be the cruelest punishment he had to take. But Oda didn’t let go. He hugged Atsushi in his arms as tightly as humanly possible with one arm.

“It’s not your fault, Atsushi. If this was anyone’s fault, it’s mine.” Atsushi tried to protest, but Oda shushed him. “I underestimated the tiger and think I could handle it on my own. All of this wounds are the result of my own foolishness. It’s not your fault, Atsushi. You said it yourself, you can’t control it. Why blame yourself for things that are out of your control?”

“But—but I’m a monster—“

“You are not a monster, you are a human just like me and Dazai.” Atsushi thought he heard a soft intake of breath from nearby, but he didn’t know who it was. “We just have something other people don’t. We are Ability user. Our Ability may be a gift or a curse, but no matter what your Ability is, you are a human. Stripped of our Ability, we are no different from others.”

“I hurt you!” Atsushi forced his fear to manifest in his words. “What if I hurt you again? What if I hurt uncle and the children?”

“Then we will find a way to ensure that never happen again.” Oda’s words shocked Atsushi to his core. “Mistakes happened, but it happened so we can learn. Now that we have learned, we can do better. Sakura, Shinji, Yuu, Katsumi, Kousuke, and Oyaji-san will be devastated if you leave. You are a part of their—our family. As long as we are together, we can think of something. We will help you Atsushi, you are no longer alone.”

Oda’s words was like a thunder from the sky that struck down on Atsushi’s world. His tiny and suffocating world of nothing but white space cracked and tumbled down. From the cracked parts of the ceilings, sunlight which glowed more brilliantly than the moon basked the empty world with it’s warm light. The sprouts that had grown in the dessert of his heart basked in the sunlight and grew into a large tree. The dessert turned into a rich soil and five different but beautiful flowers bloomed brilliantly. His world was ruined, but from those ruins he slowly pieced together a new one. There was nothing in that world except the tree that held the pieces of the world together with it’s massive roots, the rich soil, and the flowers, but unlike his previous world, this new world would grow with him. The tiger growled at him, but Atsushi was no longer afraid. He could always climb the tree if he needed to escape and the flowers would confuse the tiger sense of smell.

There were people who would stay by his side and help him. If those people wouldn’t give up on Atsushi, how could he give up on himself? For those people who believed in him, believed that he had the strength and courage to stay by their side despite the beast inside him…

Just like that time when Atsushi first believed in hope, Atsushi chose to start to believe in himself. It would be hard to keep that believe. His fears and doubt would drag him down. There would be time when Atsushi would break down again and just wished to escape from everything, but at least his belief in his family would never waver. He believed that his family would catch him again just like how Oda caught him and guided him to where his home was.

There was no guarantee that the future he wished for would come true. Maybe the future would be darker and more painful than now, still—

“Not once… have I regretted the things that I did. I only ever regret the things that I did not do. I want no regrets.”

The words from one of his favorite book with the name of the author torn off rang in his head. He also didn’t want any regrets. If so, then his choice was obvious—

The ruins of his old world weighed him down, but he could see Oda just ahead in that dark and lonely road. In the darkness, Oda’s footsteps left behind a bright trail. He wasn’t that far ahead. If he took the same steps as the one Oda had walked through, he knew he wouldn’t fall to the eternal darkness.

Atsushi, despite having to drag his exhausted and heavy body, took his first step following Oda in that road.

Atsushi clung tighter to Oda, his sobs slowly died down and the next time he spoke his voice was way more steady and resolute than before.

“I want to live with all of you. If—if it’s alright for me to life, I want to live as a human with my family.”

Oda slowly drew back so both of them could see each other eye to eye. In his crimson eyes, Atsushi found nothing but pride and affection. “Of course. We will live together, because we are family.”

Atsushi basked in that pride and affection like a cat basking in sunlight. He could feel his body’s tension melted down into exhausted peace. He leaned again to Oda, unable to support his sluggish body. His body felt way more exhausted than anytime he transformed into a tiger back at the orphanage, but his heart felt way lighter than ever before in his life.

“Dazai, are you still there? Sorry, can you help me?” he heard Oda called to someone and Atsushi faintly remembered brown eyes. His dazed mind couldn’t remember anything else.

“Sure.” He felt the pair of hands that had caught him before pulled him from underneath his armpits and dragged him all the way back to bed. It wasn’t the gentlest treatment he had ever gotten, but it’s also paled in comparison to the rough handling he was used to back at the orphanage.

Atsushi heard the tock tock sounds of the crutch Oda used and he lifted his heavy head to look at Oda. “Do you want to go back to my apartment now?”

Atsushi nodded, too exhausted to do anything else. He wanted nothing but to sleep like the dead for a whole week just like when he was sick.

“I will take care of the payment then.” He heard the voice of the teen with brown eyes. Atsushi tried to get a good look at him, but his sight was getting blurry…

“Sorry to bother you like this. I will pay you back soon.” Oda’s voice was getting farther and farther…

“It’s no big deal. I have more money than I can spend anyway.” Atsushi could barely hear that person voice and his steps as he walked away.

Atsushi felt Oda’s warm hand on his forehead. “Sleep, Atsushi. We will talk more after you rest.”

Oda’s advice was the only thing Atsushi needed and he let himself fall to the dark abyss.

 


 

After finally sitting on the seat next to the driver so Atsushi could sleep on the backseat, Oda let out a deep sigh. Dazai turned on Oda’s car and looked behind him as he got the car out of the small parking area. He drove more slowly and carefully now after Oda asked him to be careful because Atsushi was sleeping. Dazai whined that it wasn’t any different from before, but he still slowed down and be more careful than his previous daredevil racing.

Dazai was humming to himself as he drove the car, his fingers tapped the wheel following the tune of his humming. Oda fidgeted in his seat, for once in a long time the atmosphere between the two of them was way too unfamiliar and heavy. It took a few minutes for Oda to be able to open his mouth. Usually it was easy to start a meaningless conversation with Dazai, but tonight everything was too close to his heart. Dazai must had sensed his hesitation too, because he didn’t speak any words other than the necessary after the incident at the clinic. He was indebted to Dazai, not only for controlling Atsushi’s Ability, but also for paying and calming down the angry doctor after Atsushi claws dug to the wall leaving holes and when he tried to escape he had broken few things in his haste. It would be really bad if the doctor refused to give them treatment anymore.

“Sorry that you have to see that.” Oda began, feeling less awkward now that he had started but no less hesitant. “I am really indebted to you tonight.” And many more nights if what they had planned when Atsushi was unconscious came true.

“It’s for Odasaku, I don’t mind.” Dazai just smiled brightly. “Besides, his Ability is interesting. From what you tell me, even the notes from the Headmaster didn’t cover all of what his Ability can do. I wonder what will happen if I uncover all of that potential… maybe he will be even stronger than Akutagawa-kun? Ahh… it’s truly a pity he is your adopted child, Odasaku.”

Oda had heard of Dazai’s spartan teaching method for his subordinate, the one named Akutagawa who rumor said had a lot of potential as a weapon for the mafia, and couldn’t be more grateful that he found Atsushi before Dazai. “I am glad he is.” He spoke the words expected of him, despite how he also noticed the hidden tremor in Dazai’s words.

Dazai burst out laughing hearing Oda’s words, the darkness in his eye being replaced with light. The next time he spoke, the tremor in his voice was gone and replaced with genuine curiosity. “Can I try to uncover more of his Ability? Don’t worry, it’s just my personal curiosity. It will help him in the long run to better control his Ability.”

Oda looked at how Dazai was smiling from ear to ear. There was a familiar twinkle in his eyes that he had only seen twice in the few years he had befriended Dazai. The first was when they first met, and the second when they found Ango. Oda smiled a little to himself, which made Dazai tilted his head a bit and stared at him weirdly. If it was that twinkle, then he could trust Dazai. Who knew, maybe it will be good for both Atsushi and Dazai.

“Sure.” Oda nodded, which made Dazai grinned again like a kid who had gotten a present. “But I think Atsushi is too young to be brought to the bar.”

“Ehhhh?” Dazai whined. “But we drink before we even reached twenty!”

Oda had first tasted alcohol back when he was twelve, given to him by the man who taught him how to be an assassin. He didn’t know when was the first time Dazai drank alcohol, but when they first met two years ago Dazai was already drinking. Still, if there was something that he learned from today, it was this—

“Ango in my head told me that you shouldn’t give alcohol to a minor. Especially because Atsushi is still so young.” Oda muttered, looking at sleeping Atsushi and nodding to Ango in his head when he saw how young Atsushi was.

“Buh—“ Dazai’s shoulder trembled greatly and Oda wondered why until Dazai suddenly burst out laughing. “Ahahaha! You have Ango haunting your mind, now? Oh my, this is so priceless! Hahahaha!”

Oda watched his friend laughed so much that he had to take the wheel when Dazai let go of it to hold his stomach. “My stomach hurts! Odasaku, you are a genius! We should tell Ango this, I wonder what kind of expression he will make. Hahahaha!”

It took minutes of co-op driving between Dazai and Oda until the supposed to be driver’s laughter died down and he could take the wheel once again, but the mirth was still there in his eyes. “Then, Oda’s apartment it is. Too bad Ango is busy.”

That, and Dazai also said that it’s better if there were less people in the mafia who knew about Atsushi’s Ability. Maybe they would bring Ango with them if Atsushi had managed to control it to the extent that his secret wouldn’t be compromised at every moment.

“But is it really okay for you to help us?” Oda asked again. After all, the teen beside him was an Executive with way more important works than a low ranking member like him. “You are busy too, right?”

“Don’t worry, everything is peaceful lately. I was getting bored too.” Dazai just smiled mischievously. “If it’s not important, I will just dump it to Chuuya.”

Oda thought about the red haired teen he had met once on the Dragon Head Conflict and his angry eyes that glared at his best friend like he couldn’t wait to kick Dazai in the face at least ten times. “He will be angry with you.”

“When is he not angry at me?” Dazai laughed without a care and Oda pitied the other young Executive.