Silver forks of lightning struck the bay, their fury carrying over the black water.
It was only mid-October and winter was already baring its teeth.
Chuuya clenched his jaw to prevent it from chattering, still tasting iron on his tongue. Hands shoved deep in his pockets, he battled through the hostile weather back to his apartment. The brittle ice lining the sidewalk crunching beneath his boots with every step.
Thick clouds hid the stars, and only the moon lit the path. Part of the reason he’d chosen this neighborhood was its lack of street lamps. For Chuuya, it was easier to see his enemies in the dark. He winced as pain shot through his tailbone once more.
Hyper-aware of his surroundings, his body was tense. He hadn’t been in this neighborhood in years, and if anyone recognized him he wasn’t sure he’d be able to control himself. He’d never done well in the cold, and he was aching to find shelter. In his haste to leave work, he’d left his motorcycle behind, and was now reaping the consequences. Since Dazai bombed his car, he refused to buy a new one, lest he risk history repeating itself.
His shirt was soaked with blood, and his teeth stained with it. His tired eyes burned from lack of sleep, and his knuckles were sore from breaking bones. The welt on his back stung fiercely—a gift from a bar stool.
Here, along the port, the wind ripped through the blocks and his cheeks were already suffering despite the short walk from the pub. The waves slapped against the sea wall, hiding the voices of a gaggle of drunks who sauntered his way.
He expertly plucked a lighter from a man's back pocket and lit a cigarette with trembling fingers. His leather gloves were stiff, and he made a mental note to purchase a new pair as he observed the cracks forming around the joints.
His old apartment stood out at the end of the wharf, decrepit exterior and empty windows visible from a good distance. A relic from before the war, it was a heritage site standing only for its willful tenants. The appliances were outdated and the rent ungodly, yet out of all his safe houses he loved it most of all.
He’d always been a sentimental fool.
A short strip of green lined the rest of the walk, small plots where the elderly had planted their gardens. Despite the early frost the grass was a vivid green, and the flowers flourished—no doubt because of an ability possessed by the gardener.
There was no sound from the six-story building; no lights or muffled music. Most of the residents were retired fishermen, after all. All of them born and raised in the building, and all determined to die there.
He took the stairs two at a time, working blood into his calves as he ascended to the fourth floor. His room was west-facing, the Port Mafia headquarters standing in plain view of his kitchen windows.
He was sure Mori could see him too.
Chuuya fished his keys and fumbled for the lock with numb fingers, mindful of his ability lest he warp the metal. Finally, he pushed into his apartment only to be greeted by icy air.
“Just my fucking luck,” he swore under his breath, slamming the door and stamping his boots clean on the welcome mat. Shivering, he surveyed the dark living room and open kitchen for any signs of a forgotten space heater.
Light moved beneath the bathroom door.
He made no move for the ka-bar strapped to his thigh; there was only one person dumb enough to break in.
“Mackerel!” he shouted, wincing at the grate of his voice, “Get out here!”
Something like a bottle of pills clattered about in the sink and he let out a growl.
“The last thing I need is your dead body on my toilet. Grab what you want and get out of here! I’m not in the mood!”
Dazai’s tan coat hung on the coatrack. Chuuya slipped off a glove and slid his hand into the folds of the lining.
It’s still warm.
Chuuya frowned, tugging open a scab on his bottom lip.
Dazai couldn’t have arrived more than a few minutes before he had—that means he’d been watching him. He hadn’t intended to spend the night in this neighborhood, and the pub brawl was hardly in his plans either. There were no coincidences where Dazai was concerned, and the nape of Chuuya’s neck prickled in muted alarm. If the man meant to prank him, Chuuya wouldn’t go easy on him. Dazai was in Port Mafia territory, and their truce held no grounds here.
The bathroom door banged open to reveal the mackerel in all his lanky, bandaged glory.
Back-lit by fluorescent lights, Chuuya couldn’t see his face, but he could feel eyes on him.
“What is it this time?” he muttered, working off his windbreaker and boots with some difficulty. “Finally come claim your shitty cassette player? That thing’s been collecting dust under the couch for years, hurry up and get rid of it.”
Against his better judgement, he felt himself relaxing in the other's presence. Here, in what was once their shared home, this kind of banter felt all too comforting.
“I… I’ve got a prob—”
Something was wrong. The way he swayed in the threshold and how he braced his weight on the doorjamb. Dazai broke off mid-slur and puked on the carpet.
Chuuya vaulted over his couch and grabbed him by a slim shoulder, forcing him back into the bathroom. He opened his mouth, ready to chew the man out for getting drunk again when he realized Dazai’s face was waxy and flush with fever. His lips were chapped, cheeks blistered from the cold, and his mud-colored eyes lolled across the ceiling.
Chuuya’s socks were wet with vomit, but all he could think was how imbecilic his partner had become to seek refuge here.
He wasn’t touched in the slightest.
“For the love of—I’m telling you if you keep working for that useless Agency, all you’ll get is endless suffering. You know your ability doesn’t work on ambient-types!”
He wadded up a bath towel and ran it under the sink, throwing it at Dazai who rested against the wall.
“I just wanted water,” he croaked, pressing the towel to his forehead. Chuuya watched him slide down the tiles until he crumpled on the floor.
“Well, the kitchen was closer than the bathroom and I don’t have any cups in here. And it looks like you were searching for my Codeine.”
He lifted the stopper and let the small pills fizzle down the drain, tutting at the waste. The tipped bottle on the counter was empty.
“If you overdosed on this, don’t expect me to pump your stomach.”
Dazai shook his head, whole body rocking with the motion.
He dry-heaved into the towel, the retching gags echoing in the small space. He looked into it and wrinkled his nose, throwing it into the shower with clumsy aim.
“Was looking for Lorazepam.”
Chuuya folded his arms, lips a hair’s breadth from a snarl.
“You mean Ativan? I don’t keep prescription medication here.”
“You need a prescription for Codeine.”
Chuuya checked the bottle with a raised brow, the expiration date had long passed. He was normally so careful about these things. Where had Dazai found something like this?
His stomach tightened when he realized it must have been Dazai’s, long ago.
“Well, this thing’s past the expiration date, anyhow, so it wouldn’t have helped you with that fever.”
He wasn’t sure if you could overdose on expired medication. That was more up Dazai’s lane.
“Told you I wasn’t… was looking for something for—” he gestured vaguely at the soiled towel in the shower.
“—something for the nausea,” Chuuya finished, “I heard you the first time.”
Normally, Dazai would rise to the challenge, but he stared vacantly at the toilet. Dropping his head between his knees, he groaned and shivered, his sweat cold and sticky on Chuuya’s bare palm.
He found the space heater wedged in the back of the supply closet; the cord tangled around a pair of skis. He went into the kitchen while it booted up and brought a plastic cup to the bathroom.
Dazai was slumped forward between the vanity and the toilet, moaning into the tiles.
“Get up,” said Chuuya, toeing him in the thigh.
“Let me die,” Dazai whimpered. “Just drop me in the ocean when I’m gone.”
Chuuya gritted his teeth and said nothing.
Dazai never understood.
The brilliant fool.
“Here,” Chuuya took out a pack of analgesics from the medicine cabinet and dropped it on Dazai’s head.
Dazai grunted as it made impact, blindly reaching for the package before his knees buckled and he sat in a resigned lump.
Chuuya turned on the tap and filled the cup to the textured line, keeping an eye on Dazai’s hands in the mirror. As disoriented as he was, he couldn't be sure the man wouldn't overdose by accident.
Or on purpose.
Dazai fumbled with the blister pack until Chuuya popped the pills out for him. He took them, fingers closing awkwardly around the white tablets, and downed them dry.
“Wait! Fuck just—”
He held the cup to Dazai’s lips and let him drink until he coughed.
“Thank you,” Dazai croaked.
Chuuya emptied the cup into the sink with a sneer. “Your gratitude is never sincere. I don’t know why you even bother saying it.”
He ignored the way his arms shook. Dazai hadn’t thanked him in years.
He turned around to find him passed out cold across his floor.
Panic flooded his system. He got onto his knees and shook him by the shoulders.
The man didn’t so much as groan when he slapped him across the cheeks.
“Holy shit, you better be joking. This isn’t funny, you bastard!”
Chuuya rechecked that he’d given him generic painkillers. The foil label looked innocent enough.
He sighed through his nose, “Okay.”
Chuuya looked at Dazai’s pallid face, his hair plastered to his forehead like serifs of ink.
Even with the space heater sputtering to life in the living room, Dazai couldn’t remain in his drenched clothes. He’d catch much worse than an ability-induced stomach bug if Chuuya didn't do something about them.
He made quick work of Dazai's shirt and shoes, pulling off his pants and boxers in a single motion. His back flared as he dragged him by his armpits into the glass-paneled shower, heels bumping over the sliding track. Dazai’s chest heaved, painfully thin and near translucent in its pallor. The wings of his ribcage rolled beneath the skin like small waves creasing along the shore.
His bandages would also have to be removed, but he hesitated.
When they shared the same space, the same bed, it was an unspoken rule that Chuuya would never peak under the gauze. Even when he tended to injuries, he could only work on those on exposed skin. When Dazai came back a bit too drunk and tried to strip in the kitchen, it was Chuuya’s duty to wrap him in a blanket and lock him in the bathroom until he sobered up.
Chuuya focused on the wrap clips glinting in the fluorescents, tongue rolling in his mouth.
I’ve got no choice. If he freezes to death in my apartment, Ane-san will never let me hear the end of it.
With shaking fingers, he pried the clips from Dazai’s wrist, the metal tinkling on the shower tiles.
He’d never realized how thin the gauze was, holding the man’s hand in his own as he slowly unwound the bandages to his forearm.
At first, he thought it was a simple wound.
Red and glistening, the cuts were shallow marks along the inside of his forearm. The lines wove together deliberately, and when he realized what they were, he unwound the bandages in a panicked frenzy.
Sitting back on his heels, he stared.
Chuuya couldn’t find it in himself to breathe. The air had been punched from his lungs like a physical blow, and his throat pinched in shock.
All the world had been narrowed down to Dazai’s distressed breathing and the hammering of his own heartbeat.
And the writing.
It was as if someone had taken a scalpel and traced just deep enough to peel off the insides and leave gaping wounds. They were fresh but didn’t well with blood. They had a depth to them, maybe only a millimeter thick. Where the bandages touched his skin, Chuuya could see the kanji reflected in striking red, the edges fuzzing into the thin cotton.
The kanji crossed over his chest, wrapped around his neck, climbed up his thighs, and swirled around his navel. There was a pattern. Breaks in the wording at each change in handwriting. Each sentence penned by a different author. Each character no bigger than a thumbnail.
There were places where the words became unintelligible: in the hollow of his throat and the swell of his kneecaps—where the spaces between the carvings were so slim there was hardly any skin left.
The smell of blood curled off Dazai’s warm body like simmering metal.
The phrase ‘I wish I could die’, was scrawled along his left hip.
Shame crawled up Chuuya’s throat. This wasn’t something he was meant to see.
There was no excuse for this.
He’d witnessed his fair share of torture, had been tortured, had even wielded the knife himself.
But Dazai was untouchable. Pure in the bleakest way. Everything rolled off him like water. Nothing lingered in his expression or in the tension of his shoulders or the bow of his mouth.
All of Dazai’s innumerable scars were on the inside, because Dazai was an enigma who never showed his full hand to anyone.
This permanent display of weakness was unacceptable.
Chuuya grabbed the shower head and gently rinsed him off. His hand shook so much the cool water rarely met its target.
He didn’t dare use soap, and once he’d finished with his front, he rolled him over.
His back was untouched.
Though the kanji skirted up his legs and covered his arms and neck, his back was free of the defacing marks.
Chuuya let out a breath of bitter relief.
He couldn’t be sure if Dazai had actually been hit by an ability. It was entirely possible he’d become sick from the pain. He knew well how agonizing superficial injuries could be.
The motherfuckers who’d done this better be dead, otherwise he was going to peel off their skin and dunk them in alcohol.
He’d make it slow.
Once he’d rinsed and pat him dry, Chuuya laid Dazai out on a dry towel and searched the cabinet for bandages. It wasn’t hard to find them, he regularly sent fresh rolls of gauze to all his safe-houses. If he bought a little extra than one person would need, that was his business.
While he’d never bandaged Dazai before, he tried his best to recreate the same layering and pressure as before, taking care to spot dry wounds that welled with blood. He realized the reason they’d been so clean before was the gauze absorbed all seepage.
He didn’t think they needed stitches, no matter how bad they looked, but the blood sinking through the cotton stirred worry low in his gut.
“Now to find you some clothes. I don’t think anything will fit you here. I burned anything you left behind so…”
Chuuya stared at Dazai’s slack expression, listened to the small whistle of breath through parted lips.
He found a pair of Dazai’s boxers that had gotten lost in his own drawer and tugged them over his bony knees and hips. Otherwise, he left him as is to make sure Dazai knew what he’d done. Dazai would realize it anyway, but he needed to be certain.
If Dazai would punish him for seeing something so intimate, then so be it.
His living room was cramped and cluttered, the overstuffed sofa taking up half of the space. In place of a coffee table, there was an upturned laundry bin. Dusty clothes hung over the back of the couch, crammed into cushions, and draped over the mounted TV that ran just twenty channels.
His bedroom was in an even worse state, and the spare room that had once belonged to Dazai was filled with bullet holes and wine stains.
He cleared the couch and cocooned Dazai on his comforter, careful to prop his head with a thin pillow.
Chuuya threw the clothes into the washing machine and the bandages into the trash, tossing the soiled towel in after them. The vomit came up easily with baking soda and he vacuumed it up after it’d dried.
Afterwards, he went to the wine cabinet and uncorked a Merlot with his teeth. Pouring himself half a glass, he sat on his kitchen counter with a thick wedge of hard Monterey Jack from the fridge. The wine was dry, just this side of bitter, and blistered down his throat like a trail of fire. The glow in his stomach helped ease the knot in his chest.
Chuuya set down his glass and watched the surface ripple silver in the moonlight that shafted through the kitchen window.
His fingers twitched for a cigarette, but they were in his coat pocket by the door. There was also the chance Dazai would wake to the smell, not to say the bastard wasn’t already awake.
The measured breathing and soft snoring could easily be faked.
Chuuya covered a yawn and his teeth scraped along the bare skin of his palm.
He hadn’t the faintest idea where his gloves were—the pair he’d purchased in France, enamored by the cashmere lining and the soft lambskin leather. They concealed the rough callouses he so despised and let him hide the bruised fingertips his trump card left him with.
He hadn't activated Corruption in two months.
Before that, four years.
He dragged his hands over his face with a low groan, splitting his fingers to look at the elephant on the couch.
He’d expected to find skin scarred by burns and deep gouges, scored by bullets and knives. He’d never seen them, but he knew Dazai injured himself more than once in his efforts to stop his rampages. He was told Dazai pulled him out of a burning building once, that he’d thrown himself over Chuuya when a grenade went off nearby. Of course, as it was Dazai himself who claimed these things, he took them with a grain of salt.
He leaned back on the counter, fanning his fingers on the cold marble, when his pinkie brushed something unfamiliar.
The white coffin on a red backdrop was unmistakable, and he angled the book into the light with a sense of coiling dread.
It was something he’d glimpsed in their days as partners, strewn about Dazai’s room or left in miscellaneous cabinets. In those days, the book never left the apartment, but Chuuya hadn’t caught him reading it, either.
The crimped spine, striated in white lines even then, said otherwise.
Chuuya had never opened it. Never touched it. Never given it much thought other than tired amusement.
He’d seen the worn volume a thousand times and never asked himself how often Dazai read it. If he took the words seriously. If he’d tried any of the methods for himself.
Because Chuuya had been blinded by an adoration so fierce it whittled down reality into something fantastical.
After Dazai defected, he realized it had been because they’d fit so perfectly in each other’s lives. Dazai filled the hole in his heart made for companionship, and as many friends as he held close to his chest, none held a place so important as Dazai.
It was the desire for comradery and Dazai’s charisma that ensnared him.
And nothing else.
It didn’t matter that Dazai’s eyes grew glazed and far away when he thought no one was looking, that their first meeting was one in which Dazai was dressed head-to-toe in bloody bandages, that Dazai was the one who skirted death most often between the two and never seemed phased by the prospects.
Chuuya knew better now.
He flipped to the first page, the foreword, and found the white space swallowed up by Dazai’s manicured penmanship.
The similarities frightened him.
2002 2006 2013 2016, impact from a building higher than 200 meters is the fastest but most conspicuous method.
Prevention walls have been installed in all the subway stations in West Yokohama as of September 2008.
Pages 47-52 are too stained to read, replace with handwritten copies.
Chuuya swallowed his bile and flipped to a random page.
It was littered in graphic, self-drawn iterations of self-immolation, the flame heights marked and temperatures labeled.
Dazai’s tiny scrawl drowned the printed text on every page: Chapter 1 was overrun with ingestible substances and their effect on the body in large quantities; Chapter 3 noted all the places in Yokohama higher than 200 meters; Chapter 4 was near illegible behind brown stains. By far, the most inscribed upon chapters were those on hanging and drowning, while self-immolation was the least decorated.
He turned to a page titled ‘Nerve Damage’.
In the bottom right corner, a little oil drum was drawn in blue ballpoint, only the head and feet of a tiny Dazai jutting above the rim.
Waste of time, too painful, called Atsushi-kun to pull me out. Tried again at a later date after sawing off the rim to make it sharper. Also unsuccessful, too much blood.
Chuuya turned and dry-heaved into the sink.
He returned the novel to its place beside the coffee tin and noted the time. It was half-past three in the morning, and even if Mori didn’t expect him to work tomorrow, Kouyou did. He was to lift a grand piano to the seventeenth floor of a patron’s high-rise at 7:00 AM sharp.
Too tired to shower and too sore to undress, Chuuya flopped onto his sheets and passed out before he hit the mattress.
He dreamt of walking through a wheat field, the edges of his vision grainy as if in an old film.
The tall grass bent as a unit in the warm wind, leaves purling across an endless blue sky. The mountains of Japan crested in the distance, dark forests draped about their snowy shoulders.
He was alone in a landscape hand-picked from one of Kouyo’s heirloom paper fans.
The air smelled of budding flowers and fruit, the sweet scent filling Chuuya’s lungs and releasing the tension in his shoulders.
Even so, unease curled in his stomach, and he hastened his steps.
Through a part in the grass he spied an orange shape, and he ran to it in spite of his rising fear.
A fox, ripe in its summer coat, lay spread out on the dark soil, its fur moving with the wind.
Looking closer, the body itself seemed to roil, masses lumping under the skin.
A black beak tore through the luscious pelt, beady eyes blinking at Chuuya for a moment before the corpse exploded in a burst of screaming feathers. Crows massed to the skies in a frantic rush of wings and talons. The air turned black with them, the sound an unbearable crescendo of screeching.
In his shock, he stumbled and fell onto the fox’s corpse. When he raised himself to his elbows, he saw that it was Dazai’s.
Chuuya woke to the sound of nothing. His cheek crushed against his bedsheets, his body stiff and unyielding. His joints popped and his spine crackled as he sat up gingerly, blinking as he wondered how long he’d slept.
Although the room was ice cold, he’d sweat through his clothes.
The space heater must have died, he thought, watching his breath rise in the stale air.
Exhaustion pulled at every muscle, the gash on his lower back feeling as if it’d begun to rot, and yet he refused to sleep. Drenched as he was, he would be asking for certain death.
Chuuya turned and scooted to the foot of the bed, letting his legs hang as he cushioned his face in his palms.
The nightmare eluded him, skirting on the edges of his consciousness as Chuuya dashed after the images with outstretched fingers.
He sighed through his nose and dragged his hands down his cheeks.
His bedroom door was wide open, giving him full view of the kitchen. The moonlight caught the flecks of metal in the marble countertop, glittering diamonds amongst shining pots and pans. He hadn’t been in this apartment in ages, and yet the sterling silver vase Dazai insisted on setting by the window was a beacon of silver flame.
Chuuya never thought he could hate an object so vehemently as he did that vase.
Dazai, unromantic and dispassionate in all but death, would gather flowers from the downstairs plots and arrange them in neat variations on the windowsill. He even polished the vase whenever one of them forgot to close the window and the salty breeze tarnished the silver plate.
He used his arrangements to convey things he was too emotionally constipated to voice: White and yellow poppies when Chuuya returned from a successful solo mission; bluebells and white camellia when Chuuya was away abroad; or white anemone and daffodils when Dazai wanted to flatter him.
When he defected, he’d only left sweet peas.
Now, yellow carnations and white chrysanthemums sat entwined within the vessel.
You’ve truly disappointed me.
Chuuya jumped to his feet.
The tall shadow leaning against the fridge wasn't a discarded coat, as he’d believed, but a man reclined against the counter.
“Dazai,” he breathed, voice soft and alien to his own ears. His heart hammered a bruise into his ribcage, unease bubbling in his throat. He recognized the instinct to flee. He was afraid.
Chuuya’s chest felt crammed with shame.
Dazai was facing him, but in the shadow cast by the fridge, he was barely a black outline. A blot of ink in the shape of a person. Now that he was paying attention, he could hear the soft crinkle of worn pages being turned with care.
Chuuya swallowed bile, feeling like a child caught in a lie.
He squinted at Dazai, catching the ambient light casting silver shadows over the fresh gauze, one half of the man’s face shrouded in complete darkness.
The space heater had dried out the air. Chuuya’s tongue peeled off the roof of his mouth as he curled his lips into a smirk, his lips sticking to his teeth in a bare-toothed grimace.
“Did you break the space heater again? You’re the reason the heating system still doesn’t work, you know. No one can get the pens out of the funnel.”
The pages stopped turning, and Chuuya felt eyes on him.
“It was off when I went downstairs. You can buy one at Fuji’s for half-price this season, but you don’t mean to stay for long, so what’s the point?”
It was like Chuuya had woken up five years in the past.
Dazai was in the kitchen looking for the last can of crab before he would crawl into Chuuya’s bed and jam his cold hands under his shirt. In the morning, they’d argue over who’d burned the toast and Dazai would race him down the stairs while Chuuya descended out the window. Somehow, Chuuya always lost and Dazai never looked out of breath despite his poor stamina.
At headquarters, a switch would flip, and the haunted look would return to those copper eyes in an instant. Chuuya would put away his jokes as they piled up the bodies, and Dazai would make sure any disrespectful subordinates joined the heap.
It was like looking into the void, knowing it looked back with interest.
The words tore through his parched throat, and he tasted blood on his tongue where he’d bit through.
Dazai snapped the book shut, and Chuuya could see the dust cloud from here. He pushed away from the counter, light catching his expression.
The Dazai of the Agency was nowhere to be found, and Chuuya knew better than to look for him. He wouldn’t insult Dazai by pretending to misunderstand.
Chuuya was a man built on pride, but he’d always exerted humility when it was due.
He wasn’t sure he could pay this debt.
“Whatever for?” The demon asked, head tilted like a bird, eyes missing nothing. Chuuya could feel them carving the flesh from his bones.
“For changing your bandages without your consent.”
He watched Dazai’s lips thin, head tipping back to expose the pale expanse of his throat as he examined the ceiling. Chuuya hadn’t checked for mold yet, the water damage from last year’s monsoon was probably hideous.
“It seems you went through my novel, as well.”
Chuuya would hesitate to call it anything other than a bible, but he held his tongue. He gave a sharp nod in response, trailing his eyes down the lean contours of Dazai’s chest.
He’d lost muscle mass after joining the Agency. Time had stripped away the remaining fat in his cheeks, depositing it in healthy places along his arms and legs. There was a softness to his stomach that was new. It was still relatively flat, but it spoke of square meals and rest instead of laziness.
Even with the bandages, Chuuya could still see the grotesque kanji covering every inch of available skin.
The Agency’s doctor couldn’t heal him, and those injuries were too vicious to avoid scarring.His soul was mutilated, and now he had the wounds to prove it.
Dazai sighed with his whole body, looking at Chuuya with deep-seated exhaustion that Chuuya knew all too well.
“It can’t be helped.” He chirped, aura fading, and set his book by the vase.
“I suppose I deserve this for coming so suddenly. I should have guessed you wouldn’t have been able to keep your hands to yourself!”
Dazai swooned dramatically, hand to his forehead, and heat crept up Chuuya’s neck.
“Shut up, as if I’d be into an ass-less twig like you.”
“Ah, so Chuuya admits he’s been looking at my ass. How uncouth of you, mon petite mafia.”
“You know you can’t resist me,” Dazai winked, feet silent against the frigid tiles. He disappeared into the living room and Chuuya made no move to follow.
It’s his method, he reminded himself. Don’t let him get to you.
But if he was honest, a load had lifted from his shoulders and each breath came easier than the last.
It wasn’t forgiveness, but it was enough for now.
He looked at the flowers again and squinted, Dazai had bumped the vase with his book, and he could now see the colors more clearly.
Purple carnations and yellow chrysanthemums.
I’m unhappy with your impulsive decision.
Chuuya closed the door and crawled into bed, this time burying himself under his sheets. The cold was such that he curled into himself, layering his body with pillows to stave off the chill. His sweat was dry but his clothes were not, and he gave up and disrobed, flinging the damp clothes away with abandon. If he died of the cold and Dazai found his naked corpse, at least he would already be dead.
To his surprise, sleep found him easily, the stress hitting him all at once, sapping his limbs of energy.
He did not dream, and he did not stir, not even when Dazai returned from his neighbors with a pilfered space heater that actually worked.
Chuuya was already preparing eggs when Dazai roused himself, the rice cooker on warm and the salted salmon browning on the grill.
“You’re awake,” said Chuuya, turning down the heat under the miso soup to a low bubble. He gestured to the drawers with his spoon. “Start setting the table, if you please. The cutlery’s in the top drawer, second from the left.”
Dazai rubbed his eyes with both fists and Chuuya stifled a snort with a cough.
He swayed when he stood, stumbling into the table with a grunt. The wooden legs scraped along the floor loud enough to wake the dead. His downstairs neighbors would be complaining this afternoon.
Mr. Yamato’s lawn mower was beneath the window, and the pungent smell of cut grass invaded the kitchen through the open pane. Dazai wrinkled his nose but Chuuya didn’t move to close it.
He wouldn’t break eye contact first. Everything was a game with Dazai, and Chuuya had always been competitive.
The grill popped open, and they both looked at the sizzling fillets in surprise.
Chuuya laughed, a grin splitting the scab in his bottom lip, but all he cared about was the look of starved longing Dazai gave the fish.
He turned back to the tamagoyaki, folding over the last bits of omelet with the wooden chopsticks Kouyou had gifted him for his seventeenth birthday.
He wondered if the Agency ever gathered for breakfast. He knew Dazai would never bother to cook for himself and the man had never been one to eat out. He preferred to starve or leech off the generosity of others under the guise of an inability to cook.
Chuuya understood without asking that it was due to loneliness. There’s no point in cooking a meal just to eat it by yourself.
Dazai collected the ceramic plates and set out the matching bowls with a practiced ease that made Chuuya’s heart swell.
When they were children, all sharp angles and the odd proportions that came with youth, Kouyou would gather them for meals like this. ‘To learn proper dining etiquette’, she’d said, but they both knew it was to create a semblance of normalcy in their bloody world.
Chuuya could feel Dazai’s stare burning holes along his spine and suppressed the shivers that came with the gooseflesh breeding on his bare arms. He’d pinned his hair up in a high-pony and the extra skin made him feel vulnerable.
It’d always been like this, a never-ending dance between tolerance and enjoyment, fingers dipped into distrust and malice. It was inevitable in their business.
Now it was just a statement of fact.
He portioned out the meal evenly, peeling the grey skin from Dazai’s salmon so he wouldn’t gripe.
Dazai started eating before Chuuya had even turned off the stovetop or paddled out the rice, but he couldn’t bring himself to complain.
He could see the words carved in his ex-partner’s skin, all the questions they brought knotting his tongue into an impossible puzzle. When he sat across from Dazai, setting the oversized pot of steaming miso on the small table, it was with apprehension.
All the good cheer he’d scrounged out cooking drained from him.
He examined Dazai’s face as he took careful bites of his eggs, knowing he wouldn’t receive thanks or even a smile for his gesture. It was to be expected, but it didn't hurt any less.
“Are you going to move out soon?” Dazai asked, pausing dainty nibbles to gesture with his chopsticks. They were black wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl. A gift from Dazai for a social occasion.
Chuuya regretted not burning them with the rest.
“No,” he replied, letting his spoon clack on the side of his soup dish.
“It’s a nice place to wind down when I want no one to bother me. Of course, this doesn’t seem to have deterred you.”
Dazai shrugged. “It was closer.”
“Closer to what? The Agency’s on the other side of town.”
It was disturbing, how many faces Dazai had.
How many Chuuya couldn't recognize.
“Look,” he sighed, throwing his napkin onto the table. “I made this fucking meal for you. The least you can do is thank me.”
Dazai quirked a grin, cheek bulging with rice, but his eyes were black, dangerous things. The sunlight slanted across his face but Chuuya couldn't see his reflection in those pupils.A predator’s gaze. They struck Chuuya’s skeleton like flint and fueled his anger.
At one time, he’d called Dazai a friend.
At one time, he wanted to call him more.
Dazai’s book sat atop the washed clothing he’d folded and deposited beside the bathroom sink, pages full of evidence that the man thought little of Chuuya’s feelings. If he cared for him at all, in any way, he wouldn’t treat his life with such frivolity, wouldn’t spend hours detailing the newest methods with which to kill himself.
Dazai wouldn’t come to his apartment after years of radio silence, traipsing into his life as if he was welcome. As if Chuuya didn’t bear him any grudge.
Three years ago, he would have struck Dazai across the face and demanded an explanation over glasses of sake.
Now, Chuuya just wanted peace.
He forced a responding smile that tore across his face.
His lip hurt.
Chuuya leaned over the railing and admired the saffron sunset descending over the bay. The water glittered in a gradient of oranges, pinks and reds towards the horizon. The wind carried inland the reek and burn of brine that curled in his sinuses like tongues of flame. A large fish breached, flashing gold, then dipped back into the ocean like a blazing coin.
Behind him, the moon hung over Yokohama like a pale ghost in a cloudless sky. Winter had lost its bite for the evening, the next few days blessed with a deceptive heatwave that Chuuya was certain wouldn’t last long enough to enjoy. Even so, his lips were chapped with cold and his cheeks wind-scarred.
The metal rail creaked under his weight, his shoe tapping a hole into the sidewalk. Anger simmered beneath his skin—a fury welling black and foul inside his gloves, itching to kill.
It was by design he arrived at the meeting place before Dazai.
Chuuya was in shock.
He had been so for several days, and he suspected he would be for several more.
Every time he thought of Dazai, he was torn between inexplicable feelings of rage and a disconcerting numbness that concealed the depths of his concern. The fury towards Dazai’s mere existence was nothing new, but within it lay a frozen core of shock that time hadn’t yet thawed.
The night he’d spent with Dazai in their childhood apartment seemed more and more like a dream with every passing day. The wilting flowers and the bloody bandages coiled in the trash the only testaments that those few hours were more than an elaborate delusion conjured by exhaustion.
“How was the sunset, Chuuya? I seem to have missed it while admiring the water. It should be a good twenty feet here, deep enough I wouldn’t have to touch the bottom before I drown!”
Speak of the demon and he shall appear.
Dazai announced his arrival with obnoxious slurping, stepping with a deliberate heel-toe stride that spoke of craved attention. Chuuya huffed a sigh and turned to find Dazai, once again dressed in an abysmal clash of colors. The pea-colored infinity scarf, red button-down, black jeans and emerald bolo-tie only fueled Chuuya’s suspicion that Dazai was, in fact, colorblind.
The pair of polished oxfords he wore, however, were something Chuuya could approve of.
“Interesting choice of drink, Mackerel,” he answered with a twitching grin, hoping his canines looked as sharp as the knives beneath his clothes.
Dazai raised a delicate eyebrow, his pinkie uncurling from the cup of bubble tea as he took a dainty sip. Even in the dying light, Chuuya could tell it was matcha flavor.
Memories of heat bloomed at his back. A ringing in his ears that wouldn’t abate for hours. The smell of smoke and oil that would cling to his hair for weeks. His Camaro in flames and Dazai by his side, defected at the bubble tea in a chunky green puddle at his feet.
Chuuya snarled at the placid smile on Dazai’s face. Innocent, as if he couldn’t remember what he’d done. He crossed the space between them in two strides and snatched the drink, chucking it over his shoulder before walking away.
“But Chuuya…” Dazai whined, chasing after him half-heartedly. “That was expensive!”
“So was my car.”
“But that was ages ago, and it was so pink! Surely you could have at least bought a black one?”
“It was certainly black by the time you were done with it.”
“Ah—I’d hoped it had turned white, to be honest. Sometimes they do that if the explosion is hot enough. Come to think of it, your bike isn’t much better and you’ve had the same one for over six years—”
“I’m so glad you’ve taken an interest in aesthetics since your wardrobe is in such dire need, but do stay away from my vehicles from now on, won't you?”
Their banter did little to thaw the ice, but it doused the ugly feelings of bloodlust he so loathed. Arahabaki might only take the reins during Corruption, but it’s presence always smoldered somewhere within the darker parts of his soul.
The sun had set; the wind falling still as the temperature dropped.
Nothing but their matching footsteps, blending into one pair of impatient feet, spoke of their presence. The slap of water against the seawall and the sickly smell of decay rising from the bay following them with each step. The line of warehouses to their left was never-ending; identical tin roofs and doorways without doors littered with rolls of rusted chicken-wire and discarded lobster traps. The railing gave way to low poles linked by lengths of stiff chains, and the poet in Chuuya’s soul couldn’t help but rear his head at the sight.
Chained together, one could only go so far without the other.
But that wasn’t true, was it?
Dazai could leave him again without a moment’s notice, without a hint of guilt or lingering tenderness.
He’d done it before.
He would do it again.
Even this mission of theirs was nothing but a show of fragile trust between their bosses. It had nothing to do with them and the shattered glass between them. Dazai made it clear how shallow their partnership was, time and time again. He’d abandoned him four years ago and then left him unconscious in the woods after succumbing to Corruption.
He wondered if the salted air burned Dazai’s wounds even though the layers.
“Chuuya,” Dazai called, dragging his name into a grating moan. “I’m bored! Talk to me!”
He could hear the grin in Dazai’s voice, knew he wore the smile of someone who knew so much but would tell so little. There was nothing sincere about this man.
The word ‘friend’ burned a hole in his throat.
The wind picked up, dragging towards the ocean as the heat drained off the land. Chuuya hiked the hood of his jacket around his ears, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his slacks. Now the bay was a black expanse of space, the moon lost behind a bank of thick clouds.
“How many hours a week do you actually work at the Agency, rather than just blowing them off to find places to drown yourself?”
“Ah! Chibi-chan is talking to me! I’m so happy!” Dazai clapped his hands, the sound stolen by the wind.
“Let’s see… if you discount the time I spend convincing Kunikida-kun to do my paperwork for me? About ten hours at the most. I let the youngsters stretch their legs most of the time.”
Chuuya’s impression of his replacement was blurred at best, their scant interactions skewed by the man’s delusion of morality, but from what he gathered, he had no patience for fools.
And yet I am fool enough to love one, he thought.
“Do you ever manage to convince him?”
“Sometimes, but it’s usually Atsushi-kun who types up my reports for me. He’s so diligent! I taught him well.”
“Well, taking advantage of students is nothing new for you.”
Dazai said nothing, but his silence spoke volumes.
He’d spat the words carelessly and without thought, and now Chuuya just wanted to wring his own neck.
Akutagawa was never to be spoken of between them or in the company of others. The boy who Dazai ruined beyond repair, whose dependency on non-existent praise had bled cracks in his sanity to the point where Chuuya wasn’t sure he’d ever recover. The boy had shown such promise when he first arrived, Dazai’s hand on his shoulder like a dutiful tutor, but now he was a feral beast tearing its own flesh to appease a master who’d abandoned him. Everyone could see it, even Dazai wasn’t oblivious, but no one stepped in to fix it. It was likely no one ever would.
Regardless of how good a man Dazai became, Chuuya knew he’d never give Akutagawa the peace he deserved.
There was no way to do so without killing him.
Chuuya looked at the sidewalk. Dazai turned his face to the sky.
The silence returned like a hungry, hellish thing.
Their target was a cluster of warehouses separated from the rest, bracketed by cranes and abandoned construction pits. Security was minimal and personnel limited, so they had no trouble walking right up to the sliding doors of the only lit building, crouching against the entrance as they exchanged monosyllabic instructions. Their bosses had sent them to convene on a series of underground trafficking operations who dealt in prepubescent ability users.
He’d been there when the Agency was offered the job. He saw the look of revulsion and horror on their faces, while the doctor, Dazai, and Ranpo were utterly unfazed. He wasn’t sure about the detective’s past, but he knew the doctor had once been an underling of Mori’s, and that spoke loud enough on its own.
Dazai had done his fair share of dealing with human traffickers.
Had been one himself, when needed.
Nothing in their world was taboo or too despicable. They were mafia, born with black blood and razor teeth. No matter how much Dazai tried to distance himself from his past, he’d always have those experiences as his foundation.
Chuuya turned to look at his partner.
The moon was out, outlining in the scene in silver light. It highlighted the sagging beneath Dazai’s eyes and the hollows of his cheekbones. His body was painful to look at, with or without the bandages.
He wasn’t sure if Dazai's injuries had healed, those hideous wounds he couldn’t believe were real, but there was no use trying to get him to stay out of the field. When Dazai wanted to do something, it was done, come hell, high water or unrelenting self-harm.
“Now I’m more worried.”
“Just trust me!”
“I’d rather not.”
They’d narrowed down the identity of the ringleader, and Dazai wanted to split up. This was fine, in theory, but the last time they’d partnered up had left a bad taste in his mouth. Hours of suffering with untreated internal bleeding in the middle of a forest did that to you.
Chuuya spotted an ability user with ease, the young man’s flashy hairstyle glinting under the harsh lights. He was rather thin, near gaunt, decked in black leather with an popped collar. His head was wreathed with spikes of glass, his hair a silver-blue.
He stood, going over a clipboard bursting with supply charts, tongue tucked in the corner of his mouth. He wore reading glasses that made him look like a homely thug; a delinquent who purchased flowers for his aging grandparents on the weekends.
The children surged within their cages, eyes rolling with fear and sickness, dragging their nails across the cement floor with enough force to rip them off. Their arms desperately reached through the bars, filth piling around their ankles as if they’d been crated for days on end. Whoever was running this gig had low standards. If one of the merchandise wasn’t the daughter of a patron, Mori wouldn’t lift a finger for such a low-brow operation.
No worthwhile trafficking operation crated their merchandise. The last one Chuuya oversaw kept them in padded shipping containers with proper ventilation, toiletries, and a space heater. He’d even stocked them with books to keep their brains occupied on the long journey oversees, so they wouldn’t go mad before they reached their buyers.
Chuuya was known for his ability to separate his professional and private life, and as such was given the more emotionally and morally taxing jobs.
He didn’t mind; he knew what he was getting into when he accepted Dazai's offer to join the mafia. Kouyou had taught him how to compartmentalize and it was in his nature to be loyal.
“Why don’t you—hey! Dazai, stop!”
Chuuya’s outstretched fingers skimmed the back of his coat as the brunette disappeared through the doorway.
The glass wielder’s eyes doubled in size and he dropped the clipboard, staggering into a poor fighting stance. Perhaps the raid would go faster than he’d thought. Maybe he’d be able to grab dinner after all.
“The mafia send you?” The man barked, a sharp flower blooming in his palm.
Dazai smiled. Close-lipped. Polite. Unreadable.
Chuuya’s skin crackled with energy.
Knuckles full of glass, the man swung a wide right.
The bloodlust from earlier reared its head, and Dazai leapt back as Chuuya moved in, shards flying as they met his ability. The man shouted as his attack was directed back to him, throwing a spiked kick. Chuuya ducked, the points missing his face by centimeters.
It was all he could do not to break out in laughter, watching the man’s face turn puce with rage. He wasn’t a close combat specialist, his moves spoke of repetition and training, not experience: he wouldn’t even count as a warm-up.
The black beast snapped its jaws and in a single move Chuuya hooked his leg around a chair and threw it.
The force snapped the man’s head back, glass webbing into the floor as if to anchor him, and Chuuya finished the job with a quick stab of his knife. All at once the overhanging bulbs fizzled and burst in soft showers of powdered glass.
With a flick of his wrist, Chuuya sent a thick beam smashing through the ceiling, ignoring the shriek of children and metal. It crashed in the distance.
A horizontal shaft of light bathed the warehouse in an ethereal glow it did not deserve. The merchandise chattered and shifted in their cages like desperate monkeys, bare skin pale and ghastly.
More ability users announced themselves with the commotion, and Chuuya efficiently crushed them to a paste. All the while Dazai taunted and twirled and shot bullets that never missed but never killed. They had cleared the warehouses within minutes, looping around to keep an eye out for interlopers. Eventually, Chuuya returned to the cages, running a light check of the children for fatalities and finding none.
Dazai reappeared and Chuuya watched as he glided over to the rows of cages.
They groped for his touch like he was a prophet, knobby joints swollen by stress and malnutrition. Chuuya kept an eye on Dazai’s expression, curious to how this ‘good man’ would react, but his face remained a mask of indifference.
His hands spoke otherwise.
He uncurled their fingers from his clothing, slowly and with care, giving them a squeeze before he moved to check the other cages.
A bullet grazed Chuuya’s cheek, and he returned it with interest. Gathering a grid of discarded ammunition, he circled it about him like a halo. He couldn’t tell where it had come from, so he leapt to the ceiling, looking down on the scene.
Dazai had taken cover behind a pyramid of crates, gun in hand and ears trained for movement.
Chuuya saw the man skid around the corner, too fast for Dazai to react. He propelled himself over the crates, For the Tainted Sorrow reaching for the beacon suspended over the torn roof.
The man raised his gun and a cup of bubble tea splattered on his head.
He shouted, shooting wildly in panic. Chuuya took the distraction to twist his arm and ram his knee into his elbow, snapping the joint. Increasing the gravity behind him, a single punch to the face snapped the man’s neck.
He stepped back and admired his handiwork, the tapioca pearls and shattered plastic mixed in a green-red mess. The contrasting smells, on the other hand, were nauseating.
Dazai blinked and folded over in hysterics.
He hadn’t heard him truly laugh in years and Chuuya felt warm down to his bones.
“You–,” Dazai wiped genuine tears from his eyes, holding his stomach as it cramped with laughter, “You kept it in the air the whole time? Chuuya, it’s been hours!”
“Yes, well, it would be a shame if it went to waste after all your griping.”
“I do not gripe, I tastefully complain!”
Chuuya grinned as he tapped out a confirmation to the recon squad on his cellphone, but after a moment his thumb stilled over the screen. He looked at Dazai, chewing his bottom lip as he contemplated his options.
I could invite him to dinner, he thought to himself, telling Tachihara to bring over his bike. That shake was probably the only thing he put into his body today, liquid or solid.
There weren’t any good restaurants in the area open at this hour, and he wasn’t in the mood to cook or impose on any of his friends.
“Do you know any bars nearby that serve full-course meals?”
Dazai paused his soliloquy on the beauty of death by bubble tea and blinked at him. He was quiet for too long, but Chuuya couldn’t bring himself to break eye-contact, searching Dazai’s gaze for any hint of emotion. It was like his face was molded out of wax, his smile mischievous and false. Brown eyes flat and empty.
“Why, Chuuya,” he purred, “Are you asking me on a date? And to a bar, no less. How forward.”
Chuuya corked his darkened feelings. Dazai's mannerisms rarely met his eyes, as if he was a mannequin pulled by invisible strings.
The emotions he refused to name drew color to his cheeks, and he turned away as Dazai laughed.
“Idiot, you know you haven’t eaten anything all day. Plus, I’m fucking starving.”
“Worried about me?”
“I’m worried about me, and the time I’ll have to spend penning the reason you died of starvation on a mission.”
Tachihara pulled up astride a pink motorcycle, followed by four cars of Chuuya’s cherished subordinates. He wasted no time directing them to take the merchandise into custody and dispose of the bodies.
The naked, desperate children flung themselves from their open crates like rabid dogs, sinking their teeth into empty air as they were hoisted over shoulders and bundled into shock blankets.
Their rescuers were firm but gentle, and made no impression that they would resell the children within a month for the mafia’s profit.
They found the patron’s daughter crammed into a vented shipping container in a separate warehouse. Blind in one eye and missing several of her teeth, the deranged but otherwise unharmed child was carried to a private vehicle and driven off.
Chuuya could feel Dazai’s eyes on him as he wrapped things up. Watching the movements of his hands and his expression, which he kept schooled and professional.
He wondered why. Dazai had conducted countless missions himself, had harmed innocents in worse ways. The lives of mafia dogs were bleak and hostile, and morals had no place in their hearts.
However, contrary to popular opinion, few in the mafia were truly so heartless.
A subordinate who could not value their companions’ safety or separate their heart from the battlefield were detrimental to the organization. Every one of them had their own methods of coping, their own methods of survival, and every mask that broke was rebuilt stronger.
He used to think Dazai fell into the latter category, that the Dazai who warmed his bed and soul, who stayed up late to wait for Chuuya to return, who watched foreign soap operas over buckets of butter-soaked popcorn—was the real Dazai.
Now Chuuya knew otherwise.
The real Dazai didn’t exist.
Not now, and perhaps not ever.
“Come on, waste of bandages!” He called from astride his bike, revving the engine to gather his attention. “Tell me the address and let’s get going! I’m fucking hungry.”
Dazai perked up from his solemn reverie and began a running sprint, leaping over the bike with enough force to topple them both. Chuuya snarled, hitting the gas in time to swing them around. Dipping low to the ground as the wheels gathered speed, he tore into the concrete and launched them into the night, Dazai’s hyena laughter trailing behind them.
The cold air ripped through Chuuya’s open mouth and stole his sense of smell, adrenaline prickling under his skin like an itchy friend.
Dazai was warm at his back, arms wrapped around Chuuya’s waist as his chin dug securely into his shoulder.
It was the most bodily contact they’d had since Dazai’s defection.
In the veil of pain and exhaustion of Corruption, there were many instances in which Chuuya was sure he was being held against a familiar chest, slender arms draped around his waist. He’d slept with Dazai enough times to know what the other’s body soap smelled like, to know the shape of his embrace and the tempo of his heartbeat.
While these possibly imagined times and the nights they slept together were purely platonic, in his lowest moments he wished they meant more.
Oh, how he still wished they meant more.
He ignored the stirring in his heart and focused on all the ways Dazai had let him down. The reasons he hated him. Why an olive branch would amount to nothing.
“Chuuya!” Dazai shouted into his ear. “Where are we going?!”
“What? You were supposed to tell me!”
“But you just sped off before I could say anything!”
“That’s because you fucking bowled into my bike like an idiot!”
“Aw, Chuu-Chuu can’t keep his bike straight!”
“Don’t fucking call me that! I can’t use my ability on the bike if you’re touching it, moron! Just fucking point somewhere, it’s too late now!”
Dazai directed him to the right, saying something that was lost to the scream of the wheels as he banked a hard turn. He watched Dazai’s childlike grin on his wing mirror and hoped the shine in his eyes was genuine.
At the very least, adrenaline seemed to stoke the coals of humanity in him, but Chuuya hoped the company had something to do with it.
When Dazai let go, it was Chuuya’s cue to slam the brakes.
The second Dazai was airborne, he increased his bike’s gravity so it cracked the pavement, bringing it to a stop. Grabbing the brunette by the leg, he surged forward and bashed his head open on the road.
“Chuuya,” he wheezed like a dying fish, still recovering from the punch to the throat. He should be lucky Chuuya hadn’t broken his larynx, although he was sorely tempted. “Chuuya is a meanie.”
“It’s what you get for using my bike to try and kill yourself.”
Dazai blew a raspberry and Chuuya parked the bike.
The izakaya was a booth affair instead of tables, a warp between a bar and a kitschy diner. The photos lining the brick walls were antiques and fading Polaroids, showing Yokohama in its formative years all the way to present day. The linoleum floor was as cracked as the green plastic of the booths, and there was an entire corner dedicated to a desiccated houseplant and another to encroaching mold.
“Dazai, what the fuck is this?”
“How rude, and here I thought you’d appreciate something different. You’re overdue for a change of pace.”
“This place looks like it serves dishwater in plastic tubs. How is this place not a health code violation? No. I’m sure it is. I’m more concerned why you thought this place could serve anything close to a full-course meal?”
“Ah! I thought Chuuya said ‘half-way decent meal’! My apologies!”
“Bastard! I fucking–”
“–May I help you?”
The smallest elderly woman Chuuya had ever seen shuffled out of the backroom, gait stooped and mouth curled in a toothless smile. She wore a loose kimono patterned in cranes and her hands were knobbed and clawed.
He couldn’t look at this little old lady and tell her that her restaurant was a pigsty. Mafioso or not, he wouldn’t do that. He wondered if this was why she was still in business.
She turned to Dazai and her expression turned pudding soft, clouded eyes brightening and her gummed smile full of joy.
She waddled over as fast as her short legs could carry her and Dazai bent down to grasp her hands with equal fervor.
“Misaki-chan! It’s been too long! You look better than ever!”
“You flatter me, Dazai-san. The boys have missed you terribly. Katsuki-kun married Mei-chan, you know? Two great-grandchildren already on the way!”
“Wow! I’ll be sure to send them a little something.”
Chuuya eyed the display with mild suspicion before taking a closer look at the mounted Polaroids. It was clear they were staying.
“Oh, yes.” He jumped at Misaki’s voice, pressing close to point a shaking figure at a photo. “That’s Shuuji-san, rest his soul. He really livened this place up in its heyday, you know? Kept the place running! Oh, Dazai-san, you look just like him now!”
She returned to the brunette and molded his cheeks in her wrinkled hands, Dazai once again crouching to accommodate her. Chuuya stared as she squished his ex-partner’s face, tugging on his hair and pulling on his ears. If it wasn’t so bizarre he would be in hysterics.
“His hair was much longer, and he certainly was skinnier—all skin and bones—but you two are the same heartbreakers! Just the same! This one made my Ryuko cry, you know? Broke her little heart! But that’s young love for you.”
“Ryuko’s got a family now, doesn’t she? I’m sure her crush has faded.”
“Yes, but puppy love just hurts something awful. I had the biggest crush on Daiki-san when I was a tyke, though he was far too old for me, of course.”
Chuuya squinted at a faded image of the first Cosmo Clock 21’s inauguration.
A slightly younger Misaki stood beside a lanky brunette who shot the camera a flirty grin, fingers spread into bunny ears behind a child’s head. There were others in the photo, in all of which he could see the vague resemblance to Misaki, but none were more visually striking than the carbon-copy of Dazai. He looked at the photo’s date scrawled in the corner: 1989.
Dazai was born in 1990.
“Yup! He came here all the time!”
There was no way Dazai’s father ever existed, let alone visited this place in the 90s. Dazai popped out of an egg or Satan’s asshole. There was no way anyone birthed this man.
“Misaki-chan, can we have the usual? Do you think you could do that for us at this hour?”
“For you, Dazai-san, it could be dawn! Just give me a moment and I’ll be right back.”
She shuffled behind the bar counter and into the kitchen. Still grinning, Dazai slid into a booth and Chuuya took the seat across from him, jaw unhinged.
The table was sticky and littered in watermarks, and Dazai's smile was bright and honest. Chuuya couldn’t bring himself to care about the smell of mildew when all he could think about was…
“Your father ate here.”
“Is it so hard to believe I have a father?”
“It’s hard to believe anything you say.”
“But you saw the photo Chuuya! Surely you don’t think I’d come up with such an elaborate prank just to tease you about my parentage?”
“Last week you called every police station in Yokohama and gave them a play-by-play of my whereabouts so I had to destroy a water tower and a pet store to shake them off.”
“I was bored, what did you expect? Besides, you weren’t doing anything important.”
“I was grocery shopping. The week before that you sent me a bouquet of roses.”
“I was being thoughtful! You love romantic gestures.”
“We are not in love and I am deathly allergic to roses. You sent me to the hospital.”
“Ah, mon petit mafia is so dramatic about everything! I’m insulted you don’t believe me. My father came here for almost a decade before he died.”
“So now you have a dead father? How did he die, then?”
“Suicide, of course.”
“Of course.” Chuuya scoffed, leaning back.
What was he expecting?
“Oh dear, let’s not talk about such sad things.” Misaki set down a plate of checkerboard cookies and reheated melon bread. “I don’t want to remember those times anymore, it’s important to spend what time I have left on happy things.”
She looked at the Polaroid that hung above their table: Dazai’s father seated in a booth with a small child in his lap.
Chuuya realized they were sitting in the man’s usual seat.
His stomach roiled.
“His grandfather came here too, you know? Not as much, but he certainly made an impression. I used to play with him during low-tide when I was a little girl, even though he was about your age. Daiki-san came to Yokohama to get away from it all, being a relic of the War. He didn’t stay for long, disappeared out of the blue when the Americans came to ‘check’ on us. When his father wandered through that door a decade later, I just about croaked. Thought I’d seen a ghost!”
She examined her hands, the blue veins bulging along paper skin. Her eyes were full of standing water when she looked at Chuuya, and he shifted under the weight of her gaze.
“Take care of him,” she said, “The men in his family are flighty and unpredictable at the best of times, but they stick to your ribs like no one else. Be sure to cherish him, young man.”
“Misaki-chan! Don’t embarrass me!” Dazai tugged on the sleeve of her kimono, and she managed a weak smile, remembering herself.
“Oh, don’t mind me. I always seem to be trapping myself in the past, as of late. Just an old woman’s rambling. Well, these were made this morning and should tide you boys over while I get your inarizushi.”
“Yes, he always orders the same thing. Just like his father. His grandfather too. They all adore abura-age. Like little foxes!”
“Good taste must run in the family then.”
“Oh, hush now. Enjoy yourselves. It won’t take me long to reheat yesterday’s batch, but they are still very fresh, I promise.”
Chuuya watched her leave, fingers skimming the bar for balance as she returned to the stoves.
He wondered, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, how many sides of Dazai he hadn’t seen. How many he would be allowed to see. If there were some reserved, especially for him.
If this meant Chuuya was someone precious in his life.
He didn’t look at Dazai and hadn’t spoken a word by the time Misaki arrived with two steaming plates of fried tofu pockets stuffed with steamed rice and crabmeat. A pink creamy dressing was served on the side, along with, slices of salted sweet potato on the side.
“I just popped down for some tea so I’ll be going on up to bed now,” she said, wiping her hands on the towel she’d brought from the kitchen. “Just leave the plates on the counter when you’re done. Oh—the liquor’s where its always been, so have your fill.”
She turned to Dazai with a wry smile.
“I trust you’ll lock up, like usual?”
She handed over a pair of keys and he gave her hand a squeeze that turned Chuuya’s stomach.
So much unfamiliar tenderness.
Why did he bring him here?
“Of course. I’ll leave the money on the table.”
“Oh, no need. Just an old lady making some food for a family friend. Enjoy your date, you two!”
Dazai rested his elbows on the table as he gave the woman a mischievous wink.
“Oh, we will... Sleep well, Misaki-chan. I’ll come by next week with gifts for the lot of you.”
Misaki’s soft laughter faded through the closed door, and Chuuya kicked him under the table.
He didn’t know what to think of this whole interaction.
There was too much information being thrown at him all at once to process properly. If Dazai and his father really were regulars here, then that would mean Chuuya was being shown something intimate.
Something private and precious.
Did this mean Dazai trusted him again?
Was he mocking him?
They ate their meal in communal silence, and he had to admit Dazai had good taste. After they’d filled their stomachs, the mood seemed to lighten, and Chuuya watched with amusement as Dazai vaulted over the bar and crashed into the opposite wall. He was still wiping away tears when Dazai returned with a bottle of Junmai sake.
“Mackerel, you can’t just take that! There has to be something less expensive than that here. How can a place like this even afford that?”
“Geez, slug, calm down. I’m an old friend and there’s never been a problem before. We go way back.”
“Yeah, I gathered that.”
“Eh, is that jealousy I hear?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. This whole thing is ridiculous.”
“I’m insulted. I let you learn more about me and you can’t even be thankful?”
Dazai poured the sake for each of them and settled into his seat. Chuuya could tell by his voice that he was joking, but there was an edge to his smile that unnerved him.
“I am thankful,” he whispered. “But I can’t think why you’re doing this other than to…”
He met Dazai’s gaze, full of flint.
“Other than to what, Chuuya?”
Chuuya downed his drink, shivering at the burn. He much preferred wine, but this would do. If Dazai meant to keep up this charade, he wouldn’t join him sober.
His question unanswered, Dazai turned his face to the wall, leaning on his forearm as he took his shot.
“Shuuji would talk about this place all the time. He came here for the company more than the food, even though the recipes are wonderful. If he wasn’t here, he was in some bookstore, writing and reading the years away. This place reminded him of his father, and the kind of person Daiki used to be before he disappeared.”
“You were on a first name basis with your father?”
“We were very alike. It was a casual relationship.”
“And…” he prepared his words on his tongue, mindful of the consequences, “… And your mother?”
“Heteronormativity doesn’t suit you Chuuya.”
He kicked the brunette in the shin.
Dazai continued regardless, “Just my father, who I knew briefly. Daiki, my grandfather, was out of the picture when I arrived. It seems the men in my family live short lives.”
“And you intend to keep the trend going?”
“Here’s to hoping!”
Chuuya frowned, running his thumb over the rim of his glass.
“What did your father do, besides write?”
“Oh, he didn’t write for profit, he used it mostly as an escape. His father imparted a lot of his own trauma before he left, and Shuuji wanted to externalize it without causing anyone too much grief. It was his own way of coping with being left behind, I suppose.”
“I take it your grandfather fought during World War II?”
“No, he was a survivor of the bomb. Ducked out of there before he got hit with any of the worse effects, but he saw the aftermath and it destroyed him.”
Needing to expunge his nervous energy, Chuuya stood and examined each of the photos, searching for one of Dazai’s grandfather. Misaki was right; Dazai was the spitting image of Shuuji, except his father was thinner and his hair longer, kept in a loose ponytail that fell over his shoulder.
There were deep grooves beneath his eyes, making him look older than Chuuya assumed him to be. He couldn’t have been any older than Dazai, but he looked to be in his fifties.
Not even the Dazai of the past looked so bad.
No wonder he killed himself, with eyes like those.
“I can’t find your grandfather anywhere.”
“Americans took off with most of the older photos when they scoured the town. Along with the women, of course.”
There was something in the way he said it that made Chuuya’s head turn, but Dazai’s face was in his glass, on his fourth round.
“Hey, go easy on that. If you get drunk before I do then this isn’t going to be any fun for either of us.”
“You get drunk so easily it’s an utter embarrassment, Slug. Naturally your height is a main factor in your tolerance level: your body’s just too small to process large amounts of alcohol.”
“Keep this up and I’ll put you through the floor.”
“And make Misaki-chan cry? I don’t think that’d be good for her heart!”
“You aren’t good for my heart!”
Dazai laughed into his cup, and Chuuya circled the booth, examining the far wall.
“There should be photos of him in the third drawer under the register,” said Dazai.
Chuuya sighed and returned to the table moments later with a stack of old Polaroids kept together with a flimsy rubber band.
“This looks fragile, maybe we shouldn’t touch it.”
“Those belonged to my father. They’re as good as mine. Besides-,” Dazai leaned over the table. His cheeks were flushed, eyes bright and lips stretched into a smile.
Chuuya wanted to kiss him.
He bit his lower lip until he tasted iron.
Dazai nicked the rubber band with a fingernail and it snapped, stinging Chuuya’s hand.
“These are copies of copies of copies. She’d never keep the real thing out in the open like that. She’s still afraid the government will come back and interrogate her.”
“Because of your grandfather? Was he a spy?”
“No, but my father suspected Daiki was abducted as part of Unit 1644.”
Chuuya handed Dazai the photos without looking at them.
Unit 1644 was a laboratory established in Japanese-occupied Nanking as a satellite facility of Unit 731; a sect of the Imperial Japanese Army abundant with lethal human experimentation. It was said that they infected prisoners with the bubonic plague, cholera, and typhus, carried out deadly vivisections, and even forced pregnancies. After the War ended, Unit 1644 continued to function on Japanese subjects.
Surgeon General Shiro Ishii, chief of Unit 731, was granted war crime immunity by the United States and recruited to conduct more research after the War.
Chuuyatried and failed to not imagine Dazai’s grandfather, apparently identical in all but name, strapped to a table as his own countrymen tore out his guts while he still lived.
Even he had done it before, but never with relish.
“Why would the government come after her for that?”
“Misaki-chan also thought Kitaoka’s men took him, but she thought he escaped and that they would come after her to find him.”
“And what did your father believe?”
“Daiki died in China, without a doubt.”
He leafed through the photographs and handed Chuuya one of a man who looked like Dazai with stubble. His eyes were no better than his son’s, but there was muscle in his stature that Shuuji had lacked, the kind of muscle born from hard work and daily labor, rather than martial arts training.
The man reclined against the bow of a shipping vessel, a little girl with pigtails sitting on his shoulders.
He looked tired.
Yet he looked content.
“Is that her?”
“As a kid, though you can find ones when she was a little older. He disappeared when she was around twelve.”
“He was a fisherman?”
“He worked part time for her parents. He helped bring in their share of haul. Supplies were tight then, so their shop was a lot smaller. They expanded it as the years went on and the economy bounced back. He was gone from the world by then.”
He passed over another photo, this one taken from a distance on a beach. Chuuya assumed he was looking at Shuuji, throwing a ball to Misaki who was now a middle-aged woman.
“Look,” said Dazai, pointing at another with an outstretched pinkie. “Here’s one of Shuuji cooking. I remember him talking about how much it relaxed him.”
Chuuya slid in next to Dazai, repressing a shiver at the warmth along his side as he pressed close to better examine the photos.
Daiki conversing on a pier with an old man, bare-chested with a lobster trap dangling from his fingers.
Shuuji with Misaki laughing over drinks at the bar, her infant daughter bouncing on his lap.
Daiki napping under the sun, a hat over his face and light glittering off the sweat on his chest.
Shuuji sitting in a bookstore, the photo taken through the window, head buried in a book.
They were hard to distinguish, the both of them so eerily similar, and not once did Dazai show up in any photos with his father.
“Why aren’t you in any of these? Shuuji isn’t with Daiki in any, either. Was Shuuji with your grandmother during the day? Where the hell were you?”
“There was never a grandmother in the picture. Shuuji kept to the sidelines or was nursed by friends. Both Daiki and Shuuji were notorious absent fathers. Shuuji didn’t meet Misaki-chan until long after Daiki disappeared. He was born around the time of his father’s death.”
They drained the bottle between them as they laughed over faded photographs and stories in which Dazai’s relatives were as comically insane as him.
He thought about how, even though Dazai left him in the forest after he defeated Lovecraft, he’d folded his coat beside him and placed his gloves and hat on top. How, during their childhood, Chuuya would wake up from a nap to find Dazai had draped him in his coat, despite the brunette’s low tolerance for the cold.
Chuuya lost track of the time, too absorbed in the words floating around them. Too enchanted by the way Dazai would clutch his stomach when he laughed at something Chuuya said, eyes crinkled and face flushed with drink.
He noticed Dazai; how the soft golden light from the fluorescents pooled on his cheeks, shadows fleeing into the creases of his eyes and lips when he smiled.
He looked like a god.
So breathtakingly beautiful.
Chuuya wanted to kiss him.
So he did.
He looped an arm around the brunette’s neck and tugged him close, Dazai opening his mouth and Chuuya covering it with his own. Dazai’s lips were slick with sake and his mouth was a searing softness. He tangled his fingers into the brown curls at Dazai nape and surged deeper into that wet heat.
Dazai tasted like round notes of Summer with sweet touches of Spring.
Chuuya’s heart felt like it was vibrating in his chest, and heat crackled where he pressed against the other’s chest like the scales of Fall.
Dazai was stiff and unyielding against him, and when he pulled back he found Winter in Dazai’s eyes.
All at once the warmth fled, a pit of ice forming in his stomach. His lungs. His hands. He suddenly knew of where he touched Dazai. It was not the hypersensitivity of arousal or the pleasant spark of adrenaline, but rather the burning shame of touching something forbidden.
He was too close, far too close to Dazai, in a way that was foreign between them.
Even in their youth, their touches were platonic, and although Chuuya’s throat was full of butterflies and his cheeks flush with something he didn’t understand, he’d never touched Dazai like this.
He’d never touched with intent.
Now he was lit with cold fire, every nerve screaming in agony as he forced his stiff arm to dislodge from its hold around Dazai’s neck. His knuckles were sore like a man thrice his age, as if glass filled his joints.
Dazai’s mouth spread into a sharp smile. Close-lipped. Polite.
His eyes brimmed with darkness.
“I think you’ve taken enough from me as it is, Chuuya.”
The room was turning on its axis and Chuuya couldn’t breathe. There was nothing he could do but remove himself from the booth, realizing for the first time that he had boxed Dazai against the wall. That Dazai’s opened mouth may have been a protest. That in his fever he had tugged the bandages from his throat.
How hard had he pulled to loosen them like that?
There were red lines against the tender skin where the gauze pulled taut, but the bloodstains were not his doing.
The nightmare words he’d revealed in the cheap fluorescents of his bathroom were raw and weeping, unchanged in the several days that had passed.
Dazai redid the gauze with practiced motions, unfazed despite his swollen lips and rumpled clothing.
Chuuya could only follow him numbly to the door, and when the man paused in the threshold so did he.
Dazai turned, expression impassive and inscrutable.
There was a fire in his eyes, black tongues of wicked flame.
Chuuya was burning alive.
“I’m going to take a walk around the block,” said Dazai in smooth, even tones, chiming the keys from a long finger. “And when I get back, you will be on the other side of town.”
Then he was gone.
Oh, thought Chuuya, fingers curling around empty air and solid threats.
The wounds haven’t healed.
The warmth in his belly felt like a furnace, and the tears on his cheeks burned trails of ice into his flesh.
As Chuuya stood there in the ancient izakaya, a hollow pit carved in his chest, all his mind could do was go back to those red, insidious words he’d glimpsed against the pale skin of Dazai’s throat.
I wish –
I wish –
I wish –
Ambient abilities are simply abilities that diverge from the norm, i.e. ones that can affect Dazai despite his nulling abilities. There is no real trick to them, except that they are more "generalized" in their affect and more affect the area around him than his actual body. In the light novels, while they are not called as such nor have such rules, Dazai is affected by certain abilities. I just wanted to make that clear.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The next time they met, it was by Mori’s request.
Chuuya was panting in front of the Agency’s headquarters. His lungs burned from his mindless sprint, the wind cutting through his clothes and freezing the sweat on his skin.
He’d crashed somewhere along the way, abandoning his beloved motorcycle in the store window of a bakery as he took to the pavement. He couldn’t even remember what he’d been doing when he'd gotten the call, only that he’d bowled Hirotsu to the ground in his frantic scramble to leave.
Concise and calm as always, he’d heard the dark urgency in his boss’s words:
Dazai’s been hit with an ability and has stabbed several civilians. He’s hallucinating, and the Agency requested your assistance. I agreed. Do not make me regret it.
What would this mean for Dazai’s future as a “good man”?
He wasn’t blind to what caused Dazai to defect. In truth, he was glad for it. There had been an increase in the number of times he had purposely slipped up during missions, putting himself in the line of fire. The light in his eyes didn’t even return in the privacy of their home.
It was the correct choice, but that didn’t mean it made him happy.
Now, after all that, a single ability was going to throw away all that he’d worked towards?
That’s impossible, it can’t be that bad.
Chuuya threw open the door, shoving past a pair of crying women with Dazai’s name on their lips. He rocketed to the top of the stairwell and burst into the reception.
Claw marks lined the walls, and the sofa was bursting with stuffing. Two windows were spidered with cracks, three broken, and an uprooted plant littered dirt across the floor, mingling with shards of glass and ceramic.
The door to the main office was ripped off its hinges, giving Chuuya a front-row seat to the pandemonium unfolding.
“This has to be a joke!” Kunikida screamed, tugging on hair torn from his ponytail. “He’s just manipulating us!”
“No, he’s not,” Ranpo said, stuffing his face with chips as if to swallow his nervous energy with them.
“Well,” the blonde retorted, pacing around his desk, “Maybe you're wrong for once!”
The detective put down his snacks and leveled a stare, green eyes narrowed in offense.
“I’m never wrong. Just drop it, you’re overreacting.”
“Director, we can’t seriously be handing him to the mafia! This isn’t what he would have wanted!”
He turned to his boss, who was reclined against an unmarked wall.
“It’s not about what Dazai wants, but what he needs. What the Agency needs. We cannot provide him security while keeping our own.” The man’s kimono was spattered with blood, and Chuuya was struck with how dire this was.
Does this mean he killed people in front of his coworkers? In front of his new partner? In front of Atsushi? If Atsushi fears him, Dazai might never return to the Agency again. He might leave Yokohama for good.
“He’s one man!”
“Who is worth a thousand? In this state, he can’t tell friend from foe. I will not be enough to stop him if he decides to give his all in defending himself, and I will not endanger my employees like this.”
“But Dazai would never—Director, this is…—there have to be other options!”
“It is the only option. Nakahara-san will abide the truce, I can vouch for his loyalty.”
Kunikida jumped and readied his journal, while Fukuzawa and Ranpo merely acknowledged his presence with a nod. There was no one else in the office. It felt too large without the other Agency members.
He prayed they weren’t any of the casualties.
“Nakahara-san, this way,” Fukuzawa folded his hands into his sleeves and swept past Chuuya, deaf to Kunikida’s sputtering protests.
“What happened, exactly?” Chuuya asked, lengthening his stride to match the older man’s.
“He was hit with an ambient-type during a case. According to Atsushi-kun, it wasn’t apparent at first. He became quiet and went to sit on a nearby bench, but then the screaming started.”
Chuuya could count the times he’d heard Dazai scream on one hand, if that.
Fukuzawa unlocked the door to the basement and began the descent, Chuuya dogging his steps with impatience. The stairwell was sparsely lit and descended far more than a standard basement.
This was more of a bomb-shelter than a basement, but Chuuya guessed they weren’t just a normal agency.
Seconds turned to minutes until they were beneath Yokohama’s sewer system.
“How far does this go?”
“And you don’t think it’s unwise, bringing me down here?”
“I think we can agree that Dazai is more important.”
He had nothing to say to that, and when his feet met concrete he choked, the thick scent of terror digging its claws into his heart. Panic rose unbidden in his throat, the fear not his own.
A grotesque violation of the self. A loss of control.
A lack of consent.
“I think you’ve taken enough from me as it is, Chuuya.”
He took a deep breath and gathered his wits. The basement was a hallway of white tiles and concrete; doors were cut into one wall, the portholes dark, the other wall bare. At the end of the long corridor, he spotted the familiar silhouette of the Agency’s infamous doctor.
He left Fukuzawa behind and followed the bloodstains like breadcrumbs, the trail ending in a smear under the infirmary’s door.
“It’s good to see you,” Yosano said, with an expression that said it was anything but.
Chuuya bounced on his heels, nearly jogging in place as he restrained himself from pushing her aside. He’d heard enough from Kaiji to know it wasn’t wise to cross this woman.
She eyed him like she was peeling away his skin, and grunted, going back to peek through the porthole that Chuuya was, unfortunately, too short to see through.
“He’s in there?”
He ran in place.
“And you can’t just let me in?”
“One moment, he’s still throwing things—oh great,” she bit her thumb, clicking her tongue. “There goes the ultrasound machine. Fucking cost me a fortune, will you?”
“Has he been in there long?” He asked, noticing the blood coating her front, the shirt plastered to her chest.
“No, only about ten minutes, it took ages to drag him down here. I’ve used my ability more times today than I have all year.”
“Did he go after the others?”
“Of course. He started by stabbing Kyouka-chan. It was… a close call. He knows where to strike to kill someone quickly.”
“He wouldn’t be Dazai if he didn’t.”
Chuuya had no idea what he would find, what he would have to do to get Dazai under control. It hadn’t even occurred to him what they expected him to do. If Dazai was losing his mind to some unseen enemy, it wasn’t like Chuuya could punch them away and return it.
He didn’t know how to comfort anyone, and yet when Yosano gave him the all clear, he burst into the room.
He could taste the fear in the air, a cloying terror that fed his own. Picking his way over shredded blankets and toppled equipment, he used his ability to slide the larger pieces away.
He found Dazai crammed into a corner, and the sight of him forced the breath from his lungs.
Dazai was folded into a ball with his knees tucked to his chest. His toes curled in blood-soaked socks, shoes nowhere to be seen. His breathing was quick and heavy, nails sunken into his biceps. He was scared silent, possessed by terror; his face crumpled inward with a soul-deep horror whose origin Chuuya couldn’t hope to guess.
Chuuya knelt beside him, hands unsure of where to touch, or even if he should.
Dazai’s tears were silent, endless tracks down pale cheeks. The rocking was not, however, where his back smacked against the wall, his clothes squelching with fresh blood.
He’d never seen Dazai cry before, and, now that he had, he wanted to scoop out his own eyes.
Omnipresent, all-knowing, effervescent—these were the words he could use to describe Dazai. Vulnerable, fragile and emotionalwere not among them.
It was as humbling as it was nauseating, and Chuuya’s breath trembled.
“Chuuya?” Dazai wheezed, voice thin with hysteria. His eyes swiveled obscenely in his skull at invisible terrors, sweeping past Chuuya without seeing him.
“I’m here, shitty Dazai,” he managed around the knot in his throat, his belly full of ice.
Dazai grabbed him by the wrist with enough strength to bruise, but let go just as quickly, as if Chuuya’s skin burned him.
“Can you see them?” He hissed, leaning in until Chuuya could smell the iron on his breath. “Can you see them?” He was hysterical, and Chuuya was sure if Dazai’s eyes opened any wider, they would fall out of his head.
Unsure whether to feed his hallucinations or dismiss them, Chuuya forced himself to speak past the cotton in his mouth.
“Dazai—Dazai, it’s okay. It’s over.” He said softly, hands raised. Dazai’s teeth were pink like he’d bit someone.
“No,” he moaned, covering his ears and rocking again. “It’s never over. Never, never over-” he broke off into a low moan of terror, and rocked harder, back smacking against the wall.
Chuuya was out of his depth.
He swallowed, tongue rasping against his palate, and tried again, moving in on his heels, creeping closer with hands still raised.
Dazai’s head shot up, eyes manic and fevered, his pupils pinpricks in a sea of gold. His face was drawn and bloodless, and words tumbled out his mouth in a rapid mockery of speech.
“Dazai, Dazai! You have to slow down, I can’t understand you.”
The moment he shouted his name, Dazai shrank back into himself like a frightened child.
“Chuuya,” he whimpered, his voice wet with tears, “Chuuya make it stop!”
“I don’t know what to do to help! Do you want me to touch you? Do you want a hug?”
Dazai made a noise of interest, peeking at him through red fingers.
“I’m going to hug you, is that alright?” Chuuya asked again, waiting for a stiff nod before moving in.
Dazai met him halfway, punching his head into Chuuya’s chest, nails clawing into his back.
“Is this better?” Chuuya asked, rubbing small circles into Dazai’s hips, noting the prominent wings of his pelvis.
Dazai only trembled against him, nails digging trenches in his back.
“Dazai do you want to go home? Would that make you feel better? To go home?” His voice was alien to his own ears, soft and gentle to the point of cooing. Dazai whined into his chest, high-pitched and heartbreaking, and Chuuya could only nuzzle his cheek into his hair.
“I’ll pull up a car, everyone else has left.” Yosano hissed from the doorway, and Chuuya was immeasurably thankful she’d sent Atsushi away. Dazai would never forgive him if his student saw him in this state. He mouthed an affirmative and continued to soothe Dazai, rocking him gently as he hummed a nameless tune.
Dazai was stiff against him, nails biting ever deeper into his back. Though he was warm in his arms, Chuuya’s skeleton was carved from ice.
“Oh Dazai, what can I do to help you?” He murmured, hoping Dazai wouldn’t answer. If he broke down any further, Chuuya wasn’t sure he’d be able to stay calm.
“Hurts,” Dazai moaned, clawing at his shoulders for purchase, legs spasming. Bile filled Chuuya’s mouth, and he loosened his hold so the other wouldn’t feel trapped.
“What hurts, Dazai?” He asked over the war drumming of his heart, “Tell me what’s hurting.”
“M-My stomach,” Dazai sobbed, ripping holes into the silence, his gasps wet and desperate as he bawled.
“Let me see it, okay?”
Dazai let out a weak, but affirmative noise, and Chuuya pried the brunette from his limpet hold to examine his abdomen. There was a scary amount of blood, but it was drying and likely not his own. Chuuya hesitated at the hem of his shirt, gingerly prodding at the area instead.
Dazai keened and kicked him in the chest.
Chuuya coughed and put distance between them, hand coming away red and sticky from where Dazai’s sock caught him in the sternum.
“No,” Dazai groaned, “I need that, don’t—don’t take-” His head rolled back, throat vibrating with a guttural moan, and he went boneless in his legs. He scratched at the air around his stomach with cupped hands, like he was pulling something back inside.
Overcome with nausea, Chuuya ran out the door and threw up. The sour taste became a bitter one as he vomited over and over, the sounds of his retching echoing up and down the corridor.
“This is insane!” He gasped, spitting out bile on his ruined shoes.
This can’t be happening, not to Dazai, not to me.
“You have better find that bastard soon or I’m going to fucking disembowel him myself!” He screamed to the lone figure leaning by the stairwell, the Director’s gaze piercing even from afar.
His choice of words prompted another ripple of gagging, and through the open door he could hear Dazai’s pathetic whimpers of distress.
He’s not supposed to sound like that.
He’s better than some stupid ability, why the hell is he breaking down now?
No, calm down, this isn’t his fault. You have to get him home or this will go on forever.
He took a partition curtain this time, holding it out like a net. Dazai hid his face in his hands, rocking against the wall again.
“Dazai?” He tried, toeing away a mess of shattered glass. “Dazai, I’m going to pick you up, okay? I’m going to get you out of here.”
He managed to wrap Dazai up, the flimsy blue material crinkling like a hospital gown, and lifted him in a bridal carry. Dazai melted against him, head lolling into the crook of his shoulder, his arms protecting his belly.
He barely weighs anything. Do these bastards feed him at all?
True to her word, Yosano was waiting outside the Agency in the driver’s seat of her car.
Dazai squirmed weakly when Chuuya squeezed them both into the backseat.
“It’s okay, Dazai,” he bounced the man in his lap, keeping a hand on the back of his head and the other secured over his hip.
He gave Yosano clipped directions, unsettled, as the only place he could take Dazai was the one place he didn’t want to share with others.
She said nothing during the short drive, but he wouldn’t have noticed if she had. Dazai slid down to bury his face in Chuuya’s thigh. He threaded his fingers through silken hair and ruminated on the past.
I used to do this all time, he marveled, but he would only let me do it when he was sleeping, although he probably wasn’t asleep.
Soon, Yosano dropped them off and sped away. Chuuya made sure Dazai was still properly hidden within the curtain, knowing Mori would be watching them from his office.
Despite how hectic and strange the day was shaping up to be, the weather was beautiful. The sky was a slate of flat blue, not a cloud in sight, and the cold autumn breeze carried the salty ocean spray. He lost himself for a moment in the slap of the waves and the thin whistle of wind between the buildings; the rasp of the curtain against the concrete.
Dazai whined as they ascended the stairs, breath warming Chuuya’s neck as he squirmed with little noises of confusion.
He pulled the curtain off his head and Dazai quieted, snuffling weakly into his shoulder.
He’s like a child, Chuuya thought, searching for his keys, he’ll probably fall asleep if I sing to him.
He managed to get them inside and deposited Dazai on his couch.
“Alright,” said Chuuya, stepping back to assess. “I can do this.”
Dazai curled into the arm, tugging the curtain tighter around him. The crinkling fabric sounded like static in the otherwise lifeless apartment. Dazai's eyes focused for a moment, a spark of recognition, only for him to pale and fall stricken with fear. Chuuya sighed, watching him shake, eyes on the blank TV screen.
“Look, I’m going to shower and then get us both something to eat.” He waited, but Dazai couldn’t hear him, shrinking back at the sight of something else. Someone else.
“I’ll leave the door open so I can keep an eye on you. Don’t go wandering off while I’m in there, okay?”
He gave up at the lack of response and went to find a change of clothes.
He’ll have to take a shower as well, or at least get out of those clothes, Chuuya thought.But I guess aside from staining the couch, which, let’s be honest, has seen worse, he's not doing any harm staying like that. I’ll just crack open a window for the smell.
Returning to Dazai, he removed his bloody socks. The brunette moaned and tucked his red feet between the cushions.
From the shower, he was able to see the top of Dazai’s head, and he made sure to keep the temperature low enough that steam wouldn’t be an issue. The gouges in his back throbbed in time with his heartbeat, and the water curled pink around his toes.
Toweling off, he traced the string of kanji printed around his throat in the mirror.
A5158 A5158 A5158
I guess we match now. He mused, but he can’t hide those scars with a choker. I guess it's a good thing he wears bandages.
No one ever saw Chuuya without the strap of leather around his neck, nobody but Dazai and a handful of others in the know.
He found out by accident too, when he snatched it off during training. I was mortified and furious. I felt so betrayed. No wonder Dazai’s been avoiding me. He has every right.
He changed into simple lounge wear—the slouchy kind of clothing Kouyou would chastise him for even owning. If he was going to play babysitter, he might as well look the part.
The sound of retching brought him back into the living room to find Dazai on the floor, curled into a ball as he wept into his fingers. His knees were tucked to his chest, and Chuuya wondered if it was to comfort himself as much as it was to protect his heart. Vomit foamed on the carpet nearby, as if he’d scooted away from the smell.
He knelt down and stroked Dazai’s hair, pleased when he only startled at his touch. Dazai blinked up at him, puffy eyes bright and red-rimmed, before covering his face and sobbing with his entire body.
Disturbed, and unsure of what to do, Chuuya retrieved a pillow from his bed and placed it next to Dazai.
He had abandoned the curtain on the couch, so Chuuya disposed of it and adjusted the thermostat until he'd filed down winter's teeth enough that the cold lost its bite.
Since Dazai’s last visit, Chuuya had taken it upon himself to bring the apartment into the twenty-first century; installing a proper air-conditioning unit and tearing out the wall to fix the heater.
It turned out Dazai had stuffed Chuuya’s drumsticks into the funnel, not a couple of pens.
When he was seventeen, Chuuya had picked up the instrument. Dazai hated the racket so much he ripped the soundproofing foam from the walls so the neighbors would complain. Clearly, he’d gone a step further since.
His missing drumsticks weren’t enough to stop his burgeoning talent, and in the end Dazai flung the kit off the top floor.
He still had the video Dazai sent him of the individual drums hitting the ground. They were forever disappointed that the drums didn’t let out a last note when they hit the concrete, only exploded.
Chuuya tied his hair up and set about making an early dinner. It wasn’t even three in the afternoon, but fuck if he was going back to work. It'd only been an hour since he’d received the call from Mori, and he was already dead on his feet.
He could hear shuffling along the carpet and tried not to laugh when he saw Dazai had squirmed underneath the couch, only his head out to rest on the pillow.
He left the packets of meat on the counter, chewing his cheek to keep from laughing, and returned to the living room.
“Hey, shitty Mackerel,” he said, sitting cross-legged in front of him.
Dazai blinked, chin resting on the overstuffed pillow, the tips of his fingers peeking out from the sofa trim to bracket his head. He looked like a puppy. His eyebrows were drawn together, and he stared at Chuuya without seeing him, his eyes holding large pools of standing water.
Chuuya frowned at his flushed cheeks and pressed the back of his hand to Dazai’s forehead, then checked his own.
“You don’t have a fever, are you embarrassed?”
Dazai looked too distressed for that, his lips wobbling as he fought to stop crying. Chuuya took his sleeve and cleaned his face, resolving to change shirts immediately.
“You’ll make yourself sick, lying like that. You’ll have a kink in your neck and will be moaning about it all evening.”
Dazai didn’t seem to understand him, digging his nails into the pillow with an animal whine.
“I don’t know how to help, I’m sorry,” Dazai whimpered, voice small like a child’s. “I’m sorry, maybe—maybe you should play dead…” He averted his gaze. “Maybe they’ll ignore you… I don’t know… sorry.”
“Uh-” Chuuya swallowed past the lump of ice in his throat, his jaw working as his brain spun out.
“I’m gonna just-” He stood too quickly and tripped, catching himself with his ability before he landed on the couch which spooked Dazai further.
No matter his feelings for Dazai, no matter how much gore and terror he’d seen and caused, there was a coiling dread in his stomach that made him want nothing more than to flee.
He was replying to someone else’s question.
The realization shook his hands as he struck a match and lit the pilot light, setting an oiled frypan over the coils.
He didn't think he'd have the appetite to stomach anything, but he would probably wake up in the middle of the night starved for something.
“I just have to keep him here until they catch the bastard.” He told himself, with a steadying breath. “With everyone out of the office, even their boss would join the chase. It won’t be much longer. It can’t be much longer.”
He cut chunks of liver, each the size of his fist, and dumped them into the pan with some onions.
“You still like liver, yeah?”
Dazai only stuffed himself further under the couch, no doubt stirring up years of unimaginable filth.
Chuuya let out a sharp sigh, focusing on adjusting the heat until the oil simmered.
His mouth was a desert, and he pulled out a plastic cup and ran it under the tap. He finished the glass and drank another, but his mouth remained dry.
I should invest in some good china, if I’m moving back in for good.
It’d been a full month since he’d come home to find Dazai raiding his medicine cabinet, a full month since he’d stepped back into the boiling river of their relationship.
He took out a kettle and teapot and ran the former under the tap before setting it on the stove.
I haven’t made tea in forever; I wonder if Dazai still likes hibiscus. He loves everything sweet but when it comes to tea, he’s always enjoyed the bitter ones.
The meat was cooking now, and Chuuya covered his nose with his sleeve as the apartment began to smell like an abattoir.
Shit, he thought, wrinkling his nose in disgust, staring at his sleeve. I forgot to change this. It’s covered in that shitty mackerel’s snot. He’d better not get me sick, I swear to God.
He cried in front of me. Actual tears.
If Dazai didn’t understand his surroundings, if he truly didn’t think he had anyone to act for, then this breakdown was real. These emotions were real. But could that really be true? A part of him had always been afraid that there wasn’t a real man hidden beneath all those layers. Afraid that he’d unravel them to find nothing at all.
The kettle whistled, and he took it off the stove without looking, rummaging through the pantry for the loose-leaf tea. When he went to pour the kettle into the teapot, however, he noticed that while it was whistling, it was producing no steam. Confused, he popped the top and checked inside; the water was flat and cool, yet the whistling persisted.
Chuuya’s body iced over, belly and lungs and bones all at once, and he dropped the kettle without care that it spilled, steam blooming as it boiled off the burners.
That’s not the kettle; it’s Dazai!
Now that he was paying attention, Dazai’s scream was shrill and grating, a sound Chuuya often associated with those who stared into the barrel of his gun.
Blind, mindless terror.
Chuuya tore into the living room, Dazai’s hideous screams muffled under the couch, and in his panic flipped the heavy couch clear into the wall. Dazai’s screams broke off only to increase in agony and fear as he curled tighter into a ball, clutching the pillow to his chest.
Chuuya fell to his knees and grabbed Dazai by the arms, trying to haul him to his feet.
“NO!” Dazai shrieked, clawing wildly at Chuuya’s face. “GET AWAY FROM ME!”
Chuuya jerked back and Dazai lunged for him, expression crazed.
“Where are their eyes?” Dazai hissed, digging his nails into Chuuya’s biceps, “Where are their mouths—oh god-” Dazai lurched forward and puked down Chuuya’s front.
Chuuya couldn’t move or react, too frozen by horror to be disgusted by the mess on his shirt. Not a single coherent thought entered his brain. He could only watch and witness the pure horror of Dazai falling apart in his arms.
“The smell,” Dazai gagged. “The smell—get away from me. I can’t help you. I can’t help you—get away, oh god, the smell the smell the smell-”
Chuuya jolted into action, letting Dazai collapse on the floor. He flung open the windows in the living room and then vaulted the counter and did the same in the kitchen. He threw the pan out the window, liver and all, and switched on the stove fan. He balled up his shirt and flung it after the pan for good measure.
Chuuya stood bare-chested in his kitchen on the verge of hyperventilating, sweat rapidly cooling on his skin as the November wind invaded the apartment. Dazai was unconscious in the living room, lying in his own vomit, and Chuuya could only stare at him numbly.
He’s going to get sick like that, he mused, breaking out in gooseflesh as he shivered. Damn it all, this is ridiculous.
“Hate me all you want,” Chuuya muttered, hoisting Dazai over his shoulder, “But this has to end.” He climbed over the upturned couch in the bathroom doorway and shucked Dazai of his clothes.
Propping Dazai against the wall, he used a washcloth to dab his face and sweep under his arms. He left the bandages on, even on his feet, sponging the gauze where the blood squelched and rubbing with a dry cloth where it flaked off like rust. By the time he was done, he’d ruined several washcloths.
Light snores rose from Dazai’s mouth, the lines of his face soft.
Finally, sleep as much as you want Mackerel.
“I’m not washing your hair,” he told him, scrubbing the vomit from his brown curls. “You’re going to smell like hell but this is the best I can do.”
His best turned out to be better than he thought when he found a can of dry shampoo under his sink.
“Shitty Mackerel, this isn’t mine. How many things did you leave behind?”
That I overlooked.
“You could have done so much with this hair,” he sighed, combing in a leave-in conditioner with his fingers, “But look at this,” he brandished a lock of frayed ends. “I bet you cut your own hair with a butter knife.”
Yet your hair is still so soft, your skin too.
He let his nails scrape over the shell of Dazai’s ear and eyed the swell of his lips, remembering the feel of them on his own.
That was a mistake, he thought bitterly, chewing the inside of his cheek. I seem to be making a lot of those lately.
“That’s what you do to me,” he whispered. “You make me feel so comfortable. Around you, I let down all my guards. I forget where the line’s drawn. It’s no excuse, but I’m only human.”
No matter what’s inside me, I’m only human.
“And so are you.”
Dazai’s small snores endeared a smile, and he turned the blow-dryer on low so as not to wake him. He was pliant when Chuuya carried him to his bedroom and dressed him in a sleeping shirt. He knew if he put socks on the man he would toe them off during the night and tuck his cold feet between Chuuya’s calves.
He crawled them both into bed and hoped Dazai continued to sleep like the dead. It was Chuuya who was the restless sleeper, the one who kicked off the covers and found himself bouncing against the ceiling, hugging a pillow like an old friend. On particularly bad nights, Dazai would hold him through the nightmares, nullifying his ability and sharing his warmth. Of course, it was for Dazai’s sake as much as Chuuya’s, as the brunette leeched body heat like a snowman.
Chuuya didn’t mind, he’d always run hot.
This time, he returned the favor, and spooned him so he could tuck Dazai’s head beneath his chin. With an arm slung over Dazai’s waist, he marveled at how slender it was, how his body curved in the moonlight.
He drew the covers over them and held him close, hoping the hug would bring Dazai some measure of comfort in the depths of his mind.
Sometime in the night, he awoke to find Dazai had reversed their positions, so his chin rested on Chuuya’s head. He was hyper aware of where they touched, sharing points of warmth where their bare skin met, how Dazai’s frigid feet were snug between Chuuya’s calves.
He was, admittedly, the perfect size for this.
Dazai curled around him, cradling him to a thin chest with his knees under Chuuya’s. The tempo against his back was familiar, a steady, sonorous beat that lulled his eyes shut.
It feels nice—Chuuya thought, a ghost of a smile spreading across his lips—to be held by this man.
Dazai woke in the same manner he always did: in immense physical pain.
He could feel every word, every letter, every micrometer of missing flesh. Pain stemmed from the wounds like tumors, digging through muscle to wrap around his bones.
His skeleton was made of sandpaper, and he was chafing from the inside out.
Dazai took a moment to steady his breathing, blinking back tears. The pain pulsed with his heartbeat, agony coursing through his bloodstream like acid. Years of training and experience let him do so with grace, heart racing until he willed it to slow, taking deep drags of air to compensate for the demand in oxygen. To anyone watching, he looked like he hadn’t slept at all, opening them with all the calm resignation of an insomniac.
Every joint felt like it was grinding glass, cervical vertebrae shrieking in protest as he forced his head to turn naturally, to look at the nightstand behind him where the digital clock glowed red.
He eyes adjusted quickly to the moonlight shafting through the open door, aware of the shadows snaking around the sheets where they crinkled, where Chuuya’s hands balled them tight.
He stiffly extricated himself from around the other male, wincing at every movement without care who saw. Old vomit coated his throat and tongue, and he wrinkled his nose at the taste. Chuuya’s face was slack, drool running down his chin and spreading along the pillow he clutched to his chest. Despite his agony, Dazai relished the lingering warmth down his front. Chuuya had always run hot to his paradoxical cold, and any amount of warmth soothed some fractured part of his soul.
He sat on the edge of the bed, regulating his breathing.
Dazai could feel every straining muscle, locked joint, and spiraling thought like razor blades carving him to bits. He put weight on his heels and sucked in a sharp breath as he stood.
Chuuya jerked awake at the small sound, seizing forward with a gasp.
“Go back to sleep,” Dazai waved dismissively. There were sheet marks on Chuuya’s cheeks like new scars.
Chuuya had always been a restless dreamer, tossing and kicking Dazai until he either fell off the bed or spooned him from the back in a locked hug. When the nightmares got really bad, Chuuya would float up and bounce against the ceiling, and more than once Dazai was woken by a rush of cold air as he took the sheets with him. It was Dazai who was the easy sleeper, and once he hit the mattress, he was as good as dead.
To die, to sleep, what’s the difference?
Chest still heaving in alarm, Chuuya squinted at him through the darkness.
“Dazai?” he hissed, “What the hell are you doing?” He stared at him for a long second and straightened abruptly.
“Did it wear off?” He asked, face white in the moonlight. “The ability?”
Dazai knew he was back-lit against the doorframe, and so he allowed the fond smile to curl his lips at Chuuya’s earnest expression.
“Yes,” he said, keeping his tone impassive. It wouldn’t do for Chuuya to think he was forgiven.
Not just yet.
Chuuya looked down at his hands, curled in his lap like twin cups. Whatever he found there seemed to trouble him.
“Are you alright?” Chuuya asked, lifting his gaze once more. Dazai could never understand how eyes so blue could exist in an Asian face. The hair he could ignore, but the eyes.
They are American eyes, his brain helpfully supplied, America the bold, the brave, and the blue.
“I’m fine, Slug. Go back to bed, dogs shouldn’t yap at night.”
He didn’t miss the way Chuuya’s shoulders tensed, how his lips thinned and eyes narrowed. They were back on the playing field, now.
Chuuya sneered. “I see your mouth is as fine as ever.” He flopped back into the sheets, dust motes rising in the silver air. “Do what you want.”
Dazai padded from abrasive carpeting to frigid tiles, masking his stiff gait with superfluous actions. He straightened the new calendar Chuuya had taped to the fridge, the magnetic kind that was too weak to stay aligned. He found the chopsticks he’d once gifted Chuuya for a forgotten occasion, and rolled the pair in his palm within the light of the window, watching the pearl flakes flash as he angled them.
These were as much a gift to Chuuya as they were to me, though I could have done better to rid myself of these horrid things.
He put them away, flexing his fingers as he found a plastic cup and ran it under the tap. The water was cold, shunted from old pipes vulnerable to the winter’s chill, and it numbed the burning in his chest just a fraction.
He stared out the window as rain drummed on the glass, the panes rattling in their frames as a storm raged outside. There was a draft somewhere, winter whistling through a gap in the mortar. He focused on the cold wind and the ice spreading through his chest.
After a few minutes spent puttering away on useless tasks made to look productive, the aching of his joints settled into the dull throbbing that would plague him until he slept again. Finally able to walk properly, he set about finding some clothes.
Chuuya’s fixed the heater, he mused, opening the battered door to his old room, ignoring how the hinges threatened to give way.
Despite Chuuya’s attempts to erase his existence, Dazai could still spot the marks he’d scrawled on the corner posts of his bed, and into the plaster left to peel from the walls. The small and professionally detailed temari balls were uncolored and uniquely patterned.
Since Oda’s death, they’d taken on a different meaning, but the sentiment was still the same.
He found a set of clothes he’d hidden inside a plastic sleeve slipped into a hole inside his mattress, placed there when he’d broken in last year. They were identical to the ones he’d worn that day, minus his coat, which he found hanging by the door. It was stained with blood and smelled like vomit, but he wasn’t leaving without it.
He left the apartment without bothering to lock the door or say goodbye.
Outside, the storm tore into the wharf, rain coming down in sheets across the concrete; sideways snakes slipping into the ocean with a pelt of glass needles. His first step into it took his breath away, adrenaline spiking as the ice water soaked through his coat. The relief was little, the burning in his skin drilled into his bones, and his body trembled as his core temperature plummeted.
He hastened his steps, shielding his eyes so he wouldn’t pitch off the pier and into the churning waves. He thought of rucking up his coat as an umbrella, if only to stave off the worst it, but shoved the idea aside.
Mori was watching.
The wind twisted the direction of the rain enough that he couldn’t put it at his back, and he took refuge in the thin alleys between storefronts. He navigated around broken pipes and tipped pallets, mentally cursing his decision. When he was forced to shimmy flat against the wall, back grating against uneven bricks, the small part of him that was always screaming made itself a little louder. The pain spiked like a match to his spine, and only years of living with it kept his face impassive.
Beyond the tangle of fishermen’s shops and apartments lay a stretch of concrete jungle—clustered factories and warehouses whose smokestacks bloomed even now. Most of them belonged to the mafia, processing stolen goods and imports to become exports.
Once upon a time, he held ownership over several of them.
He was the one to instate that the engines never stop turning, that the workers were given overtime with an indefinite suspension of salary.
He didn’t have to wonder if those regulations were still in place. He knew they were. Mori appreciated Dazai’s head for business and let him hold the reins when it came to background merchandising. Regardless of his reputation, sending a child to complete vital business operations, particularly those overseas, would be unsightly.
Most of their partners were public companies with underhanded methods.
The Cosmo Clock 21 valiantly stood against the deluge, a kaleidoscope of neon lights that served as a landmark when he could no longer see the street signs. He’d memorized the layout of the city, of course, but he’d turned off his brain to hold the approaching panic attack at bay.
He had numerous safe houses scattered in and around Yokohama, but unlike Chuuya, they weren’t apartments as much as designated spaces he knew he could relax in.
He approached the yellow lights of Misaki’s establishment, pulling out a pair of bobby pins and making quick work of the lock.
The shop’s fluorescents flickered weakly, the wiring in need of replacement. Misaki never believed in heating and stuck out the worst of winter with comforters and tea. Even so, as Dazai stood in the threshold in a growing puddle of icy pain, warmth spread through his body and his eyes lit up with a grin.
Shoes squishing with every step, he went into the utility closet and pulled out a ‘wet floor’ sign and placed it in the center of the room. Misaki would understand, he always came to her place when it rained.
He went behind the bar and took out the stack of photographs in the drawer under the cashier, smiling at the new rubber band binding them together.
“I’m so glad you kept these, Misaki-chan,” he whispered to the empty izakaya. Dazai felt his eyes burn and swallowed bitter saliva. He returned the Polaroids to their drawer and reached under the counter. The bottle of Junmei sake clinked against its siblings kept in a covered crate, the brand she kept around just for him.
A ‘family friend’ indeed, Misaki-chan.
He had his own room above the shop, kept locked and untouched on the second floor of the two-story living space occupied by Misaki. He found the ancient key hidden behind a black-and-white photograph of Daiki on the pier, pulling crabs out of a trap with a little Misaki helping him. Dazai let his fingers linger on the polished glass, over the round face filled with childish admiration.
You loved him so, he thought. I’m sorry he never got to say goodbye to you. You deserved at least that much. You deserved closure, but that’s impossible now.
His bedroom was the same as it was the last time he’d spent the night here. Before his impromptu visit with Chuuya, he hadn’t been back in nearly eight months, and it showed. He could smell the age in the air, the memories lingering like stale ghosts. Misaki never came in here without his permission, and so the room remained undisturbed.
The floor was still paneled in tatami, despite the carpeting covering the rest of the condo. Even the wooden infrastructure remained unadorned.
Other than the lock, the room hadn’t changed since the forties.
Daiki’s futon was set along the wall, the same plain white bedding Dazai had used to quell his sorrows two years before he joined the Agency.
The only other furniture was a low table, on which his ancestor’s relics lay collecting dust.
Daiki’s belongings were few and faded; a frayed straw hat set next to a rusted tin can filled with beach glass and a collection of tiny shells in a pewter dish.
Shuuji’s books took up most of the room, lining the walls and stacked into precarious towers, one of which had spilled over the futon during the last earthquake. On the table were his reading glasses and an empty pack of his favorite smokes. In a hidden panel beneath the table was a folder of photographs that hadn’t seen the sun in over thirty years. A wooden palette with wells of paint long turned to dust sat beside a stiff paintbrush.
Dazai disrobed where he stood and carried the wet mess into the adjoining bathroom. He dumped them into the sink with a splat and looked at his reflection.
The soaked gauze let the wounds bleed through, spreading like spider lilies across the thin material.
He sat on the lip of the tub and unwound the bandages, letting them gather at his feet.
With a heavy sigh, he looked down at his hands, his arms, his chest, his abdomen, thighs, and calves. A story written in gore, his past stenciled in blood.
The writing was too thin and shallow for stitches, but the words glistened in the low light. Yet, in some places the scrawl was so deep he saw muscle roll beneath the skin.
He took a roll of fresh gauze from under the sink and rebound his wounds. Snipping with a pair of tarnished scissors, he attached metal clips to secure his second skin.
Picking up his toothbrush, he brushed his teeth vigorously of the taste of vomit. Misaki had restocked his medicine cabinet with prescription analgesics, and he took out a bottle of pills, leaving it unopened by the sink.
There were two shelves in the old closet: an extra futon on the top and a short wardrobe on the bottom. He found his clothes pushed to one side—Shuuji’s filling the rest of the rack. Daiki’s threadbare coveralls and trousers hugged the wall, cloth thin as paper.
He dressed casually and cleared Shuuji’s books off the futon, slipping beneath the covers with no intention of sleeping.
I nearly killed Kyouka-chan and Atsushi-kun.
Throwing an arm over his eyes, he let out a puff of cold air that condensed in front of him. The well-worn futon was a poor insulator against the cold, and he curled into a ball, tucking his fingers into his armpits. He felt the wounds along his ribs stretch and weep, but channeled his pain into digging deeper into his memories.
As his mind slipped further into the past, the outside world became a blur of color and sound.
The three of them were on a mission to investigate a ‘haunted’ park, in which people claimed ghosts would torment them. Because Atsushi was afraid of ghosts, and because the haunting happened at all times, they went during the day. Plenty of civilians were around. Toddlers on swings and couples lounging under trees, a pregnant woman peeled an apple on a bench.
How many people did I kill?
They’d approached a homeless woman who slept in one of the playground’s plastic tunnels, thinking it would have to be someone who was always around. Dazai bumped into a teenager who was scooping up their crying sibling from the mulch.
And then Misato-san was there, asking if I could save her brother.
The woman looked exactly like how he’d last seen her: legless and crawling in a bloody kimono that was slipping off her bruised shoulders, her red face stained with tears and terror.
It was all he could do not to drop to his knees, to cover his face or cry out in alarm, so he staggered to an empty bench and tried to keep calm.
He could still hear her begging in that wet, gargling voice, pleading with him for help. He stared at his shoes and listened to the sound of Misato dragging her body through the mulch, getting steadily closer.
Someone spoke into my ear and I panicked.
It was reflex and fear that narrated his next actions, but the moment he plunged his knife into her belly and saw Kyouka’s face, he knew he’d ruined everything. Before he could react, cold arms touched his shoulders, and he’d turned to meet the gaping sockets staring back at him. He forgot about Kyouka, withdrew his knife, and stabbed again.
After that, it was a blur.
So many faceless, nameless ghosts were back to taunt him, to beg him for mercy or aid.
He lashed out with abandon, aiming but unsure of who he hit or why they were there or what they were saying. All he knew was that this was wrong, so wrong, and that none of these people were alive anymore.
Then the masses of bloody specters abated and all he was left with was the few that did nothing but stare.
Nothing but watch and accuse him with their eyes.
They were the worse by far and he’d tried to escape, tried to fight his way free of their presence, but they were always there.
Then they too were gone, and he was shown his monsters, the men who made him tremble with their touch and their words. He remembered his own screams, seeing his guts being pulled out under the slice of a scalpel, Mandarin and Japanese and English all blurring together into a single chorus. And Chuuya was there, holding him, hugging him, and Dazai stole his warmth and his safety but it wasn’t enough.
The men were gone, and the women were back. He was in the warehouse and the girl was next to him, crying and begging for a way out, but he was strapped down too. He couldn’t move.
Then the ash fell and he couldn’t take it anymore.
The smell of burning bodies drove him mad as they shambled around him, touching him with melted stumps that were once hands. He couldn’t do it, couldn’t take the smell-
Dazai pressed a fist to his mouth and stifled a sob, teeth digging into his knuckles.
It was so real, not even my nightmares were like that, and I’ve never broken down so quickly.
He sucked in a trembling breath, twisting his feet around his calves, digging his toes into the muscle.
I can’t go back to the Agency like this; they’ll never look at me the same. I won’t survive their judgement.
But where can I go? I haven’t left Yokohama in so long; it’s always been my lodestone. I can’t leave everyone behind.
He sniffed and pried his fist from his jaws, skimming his fingers along the thin cotton. The indents in his skin looked like marks pressed into clay.
Shuuji’s books towered around him, crowded against the wall like children’s blocks. The spines were crimped and buckled, and he knew every novel by heart. They were all he read during those years of stagnancy, when he worked in Misaki’s kitchen amongst her sons and daughters. Most patrons would stop and question him, seeing Shuuji in the lines of his face and the dexterity of his hands. The elderly saw Daiki, but said nothing.
I could stay here.
I could stay here and work in the kitchen and live in this room like nothing changed. I could take care of Misaki until she passes and watch over her grandchildren in her stead. She won’t leave me the shop, God—she better not leave me the shop, the sentimental fool, but I could stay on as a partner. I’ve saved so much money, but she’s never let me fix the place up no matter how much I offer. This place is full of memories, yes, but it won’t last forever in the state it’s in. One more monsoon and the foundations will crumble to dust. When she dies, I’ll pour in all I have on this place and turn it into a heritage sight. Her parents would have loved that.
And then what?
He sucked on his bottom lip, tugging on the chapped skin.
Should I stay more than a decade? Chuuya knows where this place is now and what it means to me. I never should have brought him here, I never should have…
Lightning rent the air, casting skeletons across the paper walls. As the thunder faded, his heartbeat pounded in his ear like taiko drums.
I never should have come here at all, he thought, as his breathing slowed. I shouldn’t have dipped my toes in the past when the present was so good. Everything was so nice, I finally felt like I was making Odasaku proud.And now it’s all gone.
He looked at the sake bottle he’d left by the door.
She’s stocked the cabinets, I could do it.
But he wouldn’t.
He couldn’t do that to Misaki, not after she was the one who found Shuuji’s immolated corpse in the back shed.
There’s a 28% chance she’ll knock on the door, I won’t risk that.
This is one of the few good things I have left.
He wiped his face with his shirt and touched the weathered spines of Shuuji’s collection. Two-hundred and eighty-seven volumes on philosophy, one-hundred and five on psychology, an even one-hundred on medicine, seventy-seven on tactical warfare, forty-two on classical poetry, twenty-six on historical literature, thirteen on game theory, seven on painting, four on cooking—but only one of books was written in Shuuji’s delicate scrawl.
Dazai swallowed bitter saliva and pulled a slender volume from between its neighbors. The stack shook and fell, toppling another like dominos. A cloud of dust bloomed in their wake and he coughed until his throat ached.
The black cover bore a warped red flower, a vacant eye staring out from the flower’s center, the petals resembling a man clutching his head in anguish.
He ran his thumb down the eye as if to close it and clutched the book to his chest.
I’m so, so tired of all this.
He shut his eyes and breathed.
Chuuya shoved Dazai’s clothes into the washing machine with a low growl.
“Fucking Mackerel,” he snarled, pushing the buttons with more force than necessary and then slamming the door hard enough to rattle its frame.
“Who the hell does he think he is? A genius, of course—and a genius, suicidal maniac with not an iota of shame has no problem coming to me again and again just to use me up and throw me away!”
Chuuya fit fresh sheets onto his bed, smoothing out the creases with smacks of his palms. He didn’t want to smell Dazai in his bed. He couldn’t stand it.
“How can I not be a God if you only come to me when you need something?” he sneered.
Two raps at the door in quick succession, and Chuuya deflated like an angry balloon.
Of course, he’s come back, he mused bitterly, stripping out of his dirty sweatshirt and pulling on a tight cotton tee the color of a stormy sky. It complemented the slouchy sweatpants he wore, whose baggy fabric clung low on his hips.
At least if he’s distracted by my body, he won’t talk as much. Mother-fucking lecherous Mackerel.
He ignored the flame that ignited in his belly at the thought. Chuuya was neither blind nor modest; he knew he was attractive on an absurd level and that his exercise regime and martial arts training kept him in peak physical condition. Kouyou taught him how to use the language of seduction to get information out of targets, and Mori taught him the language of negotiation. No one had to teach him the language of power.
He liked to think Dazai taught him how to manipulate others, not only what it felt like to be manipulated.
Chuuya yanked open the door, irritated Dazai hadn’t bothered to lock it when he’d left.
“I could bench-press you with a single hand. Without For the Tainted Sorrow. Why are you here?”
“I’m well aware.” He waggled his eyebrows, and Chuuya resisted the urge to preen.
“Can’t I give you the pleasure of my company?” He simpered, and Chuuya cursed the blush that rose to his cheeks. He kicked him in the shin and the brunette went down in a flurry of gangly limbs.
Chuuya retreated into the apartment with a hidden grin.
“That hurt Chuu-Chuu!” He whined from the hallway floor. “And to think I came all this way to give you a present.”
“Take it back.”
“I haven’t given it to you!”
“I don’t want it.”
“You don’t even know what it is!”
“Doesn’t matter, whatever it is will set me on fire so keep it away.”
“Really, and here I thought the hatrack liked alcohol?”
“Don’t call me that. What kind of alcohol?”
Dazai dragged himself to his feet and dusted off his coat, the hems wet from puddles in the hallway. He brandished a bottle of Junmei Sake he carried in a plastic bag.
“Did you steal from that poor old lady? What the fuck Dazai, show some class.”
“Mister-mean-mafioso-who-can’t-help-an-old-lady-cross-the-street-in-order-to-preserve-his-image, for shame!”
“Shut up and get in here before you scare off the few neighbors who can still hear. Did you poison it?”
“I would never! How can you think so poorly of me?”
“Because you’re a dirty liar who lies. Don’t track dirt on the carpet you imbecile!”
Dazai toed off his shoes and hung up his coat, bee-lining for the wine cabinet.
Chuuya rolled his eyes and locked the door, settling down on the sofa to keep an eye on the man.
Dazai rummaged through the cabinet, clinking around the bottles as he searched for the right glasses. He made a sound of triumph and padded over to the couch.
A bottle of wine leaned into the crook of his elbow, gold foil glinting in the lamplight. The wine goblets in his hands looked like glass apples.
“Hey—that’s my good wine!”
“Yes! And good wine deserves to be enjoyed? Does it not?”
“Where’s the sake you stole?”
“I put it in the cabinet as an exchange.”
“That’s not how that works!” He shouted, but still took a goblet and let himself be poured half a glass.
He remembered when they were children slurping on grenadine, when Dazai would drink sips of Kouyou’s wine when she wasn’t looking and make puckered faces over her shoulder while Chuuya fought to keep a straight face.
Back then he still thought they were two of a kind, wrapped in the same bindings that kept them grounded: Dazai with his bandages and Chuuya with Corruption’s tendrils; a noose large enough for both of them.
The mood between them was sour as they nursed their respective glasses as far apart from each other as the small couch would allow. Chuuya watched the clock turn in silence and wondered why Dazai even bothered coming.
“I don’t understand you,” he finally sighed, shifting so the arm of the couch stopped digging into his ribs.
“All you have to understand about me,” Dazai laughed in a way that rose the hair on his arms, “is that I am a deeply unhappy person.”
Dazai poured the entire glass of wine down his throat, making Chuuya wince at the waste.
“That may be true,” he said carefully, leaning over to refill the brunette’s glass, “but surely something makes you happy? Anything at all?”
Dazai’s eyes were thin, hollow pits in his face, his smile plastic. The look disturbed Chuuya, made his skin crawl.
“Do you want the real answer, the one you know? Or do you want me to humor you?”
Chuuya thinned his lips, squeezing his fingers around the stem of his glass. His teeth creaked.
“What about Misaki and her izakaya?”
What about me? Why can’t I make you happy?
“That place is full of bittersweet memories, Chuuya. I look at her and see everything I couldn’t protect.”
He didn’t know what to say to that and took a large swallow that burned his throat.
“You know what makes me happy.”
I know it makes me sad.
“I… surely that can’t be all that makes…” He broke off and looked into his drink, the redness of it nauseating. He set it down on the coffee table and watched the surface ripple.
“Who hurt you, Dazai?” He whispered, knowing the question was unfair. It didn’t have to stem from a person or a moment in time, but he desperately wanted it to be the case. Just so he could hold on to the belief that one day he’d get over it. That Dazai wouldn’t always be treading water. That he wouldn’t always be waiting for that one phone call. The last one.
“I did,” Dazai laughed, tipping his head to expose the bandaged column of his throat. They were dry and fresh, and he wondered if Dazai had redone them at Misaki’s place. If Misaki knew what they covered. If what they covered still hadn’t healed.
Impossible, it’s been well over a month. They should have scarred up by now.
“You can’t…” you can’t blame yourself for all your suffering. You didn’t ask to be miserable all the time. To be filled with emptiness.
Dazai lolled his head to meet his gaze, expression lax and apathetic.
“I can and there’s no reason for you to care. We aren’t partners or friends or lovers.”
Chuuya blanched, muscles trembling with a quiet rage. He was sure the last one was a barb at him, for crossing boundaries and making false assumptions. Still, it stung, even if Dazai wasn’t lying.
Except that I love you. I love you and I hate that I love you, but I do and I don’t think I can stop.
Dazai looked back to the ceiling, eyelids drooping.
“Even so, too many people seem to care that I’m still around. I can’t see why the Agency wants to keep me on, after yesterday.”
That got his attention, and the anger bled from him. “They contacted you?”
“The Director left a text assuring me I still had a job and that no one blamed me for what happened. It’s ridiculous.”
“They love you, idiot Mackerel. No one blames you for what happened. You can’t nullify everything and they know that. Besides, you were just as much a victim as-” all those people you stabbed. Did they die? “-anyone else would be in that situation.”
Dazai rolled his eyes to give him a flat stare, before sneering and lifting his head to take a long drink. He leaned back with the goblet pressed to his chest, and Chuuya watched the liquid ripple with every heartbeat.
“They love me,” Dazai whispered. “But am I deserving of that love?”
“It’s not about deserving or undeserving; it’s a two-way street.”
“They don’t know what I’ve done.”
“I’m sure half of them have a good idea, and the other half don’t care either way.”
Dazai didn’t seem to hear him. “Since I don’t love myself,” he whispered, “I have no right to love someone or be loved.”
He could tell him now, let a confession slip from his lips as easy as the vitriol they so casually traded. Dazai certainly knew of his feelings, especially after his stunt at Misaki’s, but if he said it aloud, there was no going back. No way to salvage what little of their friendship he’d scrounged over the past few months.
“Everyone’s worthy of being loved,” he said instead, words gentle and measured.
Dazai’s smile was self-deprecating and bleak, and Chuuya’s heart shattered for the poor man.
“To be worthy of love sounds like the most beautiful delusion, Chuuya. I wish I could believe it.”
He swallowed, throat bobbing, and Chuuya watched the faint tremors that ran along his arms, as if he was struggling to keep his hands from turning into fists.
“The weak fear happiness itself,” he recited. “They can harm themselves on cotton wool. Sometimes they are wounded even by happiness.”
Chuuya had never heard that before, but he supposed it was as true as anything else.
“Where is that from?”
Dazai pulled out a plastic sleeve from within his shirt and slipped out a novel with a splash of red on an otherwise black cover.
“Shuuji’s memoir. Here,” he said, holding it between them. “Do with it what you will.” He paused, fingers squeezing the book. Dazai averted his eyes from Chuuya, training them on his glass.
“I can’t forgive you,” he whispered. “But I accept your apology.”
Chuuya swallowed, eyes hot.
“Thank you,” he whispered, taking the novel with a slow reverence.
He noticed the title and paused, eyebrows disappearing into his hairline.
“You named your ability after your father’s memoir?”
Dazai took a sip with a noncommittal hum, and Chuuya turned the book over in his hands. Shuuji’s name crawled along the spine, and he took a moment to decipher the looping curls of the man’s surname.
“Tsushima?” He tried, testing it in his mouth. “Why is his last name different from yours? Did you take your mother’s?”
The brunette shrugged. “I didn’t keep it. If you checked the registry, there are no other people with my name, past or present.”
“You aren’t even listed in the registry, idiot. You’re a non-entity. So, you just came up with Dazai on your own?”
“Misaki-chan picked it out for me.”
He didn’t know what to say and settled for scrutinizing the cover.
“That’s a super disturbing image. Did he paint this?”
“I can see where you get your artistic talent from.”
“Hey! I can draw circles around you!”
Chuuya laughed, grip loose around the stem of his glass. He set it on the table before he added any new stains to the carpet.
He knew how well Dazai could draw—the apartment walls were covered in the man’s pristine sketches. At first, he thought Dazai had a thing for Edo Japan, but then realized it was all about repetition. The drawings were clustered by type; Dazai’s bedroom was filled with small temari balls and hand-sized, elaborately patterned kimonos filled the space behind the TV. He’d installed it after Dazai left, unwilling to destroy the artwork but unable to look at it.
They were all done in pencil, carved into the drywall, and each image was near identical to the last, born of repetition rather than practice. His carvings could be found in Kouyou’s antique tables, along the legs of Mori’s desk and throughout the headquarters, Dazai’s little temari balls, taiko drums, and hand drawn kimonos could be found engraved in secret corners. No one had the heart to remove them.
He had once asked him if he had a sketchbook, if he wanted to be an artist, but Dazai looked at him like he’d grown a second head. He never mentioned them again.
Dazai finished his glass and poured another. Soon his eyes were drooping.
“C’mon,” Chuuya mumbled, guiding Dazai into his bedroom. “Go to sleep before you die of exhaustion.”
Dazai formed a lump under the sheets as he curled into a little ball. When Chuuya was satisfied with his soft snores, he closed the door and returned to the couch.
He cracked the book open, spine creaking in protest, and turned to the first page. It looked like it was handwritten with ink from a fountain pen, but he couldn’t be sure in the dim lighting.
“Mine has been a life of much shame.”
He began, pausing to let each word soak into his tongue, feeling the weight of their value.
“I can't even guess myself what it must be like to live the life of a human being.”
Waking from his false slumber, Dazai walked over to the sleeping redhead, eying the book cradled in his lap. He’d listened to him speak Shuuji’s words until there were none left, when all that remained were the sounds of Chuuya’s smothered sobs. He’d listened until those too faded away, as Chuuya drained another glass before his body gave out to exhaustion, and his deep breathing filled the room.
The sun was just a rouge blush on the horizon, filtering soft purple light through the windows to catch notes of brown in auburn locks.
Chuuya’s glass was on its side, a finger of wine left, and Dazai poured it back into the bottle.
Unlike before, Chuuya’s face was creased with worry even in sleep, a testament to Shuuji’s influence. Dazai let his fingers skim cross the novel, nails scraping over the eye imbedded of the wailing rose.
When was the last time I came so close to telling Chuuya the truth?
He knew the moment, a memory soured by time and circumstance, in which he'd found Chuuya unconscious at Bar Lupin on the night he defected. He'd received a notice from the bartender that his partner was ripping up the place, and, unwilling to allow Chuuya to desecrate the only place he’d felt at peace in a decade, he’d gone to fetch him. Instead, he found the ginger draped over the counter, an empty wine bottle in one hand and his phone in the other. Curious, he’d taken it from his limp grasp and skimmed over the series of texts Chuuya had sent out, not having known the bar never had reception.
I’m going to fucking kill you, shitty Mackerel, you destroyed my car! What the fuck is wrong with you?!
It’s a lie, right?
Where the fuck are you?
I fucking hate you. Eat shit and die, you pathetic waste of bandages!
Please come back.
The last text was still sitting in the text box, waiting for Chuuya to continue begging. He’d wiped his prints and placed the phone back into Chuuya’s hand.
He didn’t speak to him for another two years, during which he replayed their last conversation in his mind. Just a mundane, ordinary conversation over the phone about a mission report. Chuuya told him to mind his own business regarding his investigation into Ango’s betrayal, and Dazai hung up on him mid-sentence, having realized that Odasaku was running to his death and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it.
He, of all people, had no right to wax poetic about the virtue of living.
It’s no excuse, of course, but I’m only human.
Chuuya had said, thinking him asleep.
And so are you.
Dazai dug his teeth into the tender flesh of his bottom lip, warm rivulets of blood running down his chin.
Oh Chuuya, you have no idea how wrong you are.
No Longer Human was published under the pseudonym/chosen name of Dazai Osamu, and not his birth name Tsushima Shuuji. In this world, he didn’t publish the book at all but kept it as a journal, signed with his birth name. I also chose the cover of the first American edition circa 1958 rather than the original Japanese release. I recommend it only to those with a strong will, as it is heavy stuff and will break you down. It is the most heartfelt, realistic piece of work I’ve ever read. As a person who is in a low point in their life, it both charmed and destroyed me.
Two months passed and Yokohama was up to its neck in snow.
Frost coated every window and Chuuya locked his chattering teeth together, fighting the cold. The walk to headquarters was only ten minutes, but snow already covered his hair and coated his eyelashes by the time he arrived.
He took it upon himself to establish a quasi-permanent residence in their old apartment. The memoir burned a hole upon his bookshelf, tucked between volumes of Marx and Jung, and yet it dogged his every step.
Shuuji’s life was a sordid affair, composed of sorrow and insipid loneliness, and though Chuuya had reread the book six times before forcing himself to put it away, not once did he mention his son.
What kind of upbringing did Dazai have with a father like Tsushima Shuuji?
Before all this he thought Dazai might be the son of a socialite, born amidst money and influence and adults who had no time for a quiet, precocious child. He may have spent his childhood alone in an empty mansion with only ghosts for company.
Now Chuuya knew his father had been dirt poor, scraping by as an assistant in Misaki’s izakaya. Shuuji spoke of the joy he found with her family, and of the despair and ‘otherness’ he felt when comparing himself to their normalcy.
He wrote of the comical façade he wore to make friends and be liked by others, when inside he was always weeping and distant. Shuuji learned about the haunting paintings of Amedeo Modigliani, and realized one could express their feelings by drawing their trauma.
He ended up painting a self-portrait so horrific he felt he had to burn it.
From then on, he would paint these abominations and burn them in the shed behind the izakaya.
While he wrote that this was to express the ancestral trauma imparted from his father, he never specified how or what it was. Chuuya figured he meant Nagasaki.
He slept with many women, but eventually tried to have a normal relationship with a single mother, and became a surrogate father to her son. When the woman died he wrote nothing more of the boy.
But the child couldn’t have been Dazai. Not when they were so clearly blood relatives.
He’d ended the memoir with the words: I’m so cold it has become unbearable. I think the shed will be warm enough for me.
Dazai mentioned his father killed himself, did he mean to say Shuuji immolated himself in the shed behind Misaki’s?
Did that mean she found his body?
Because of No Longer Human, his nightmares had become more violent. He never screamed, but he always woke with the tang of blood in his mouth. Sometimes he’d bit his tongue; other times there wasn’t a reason, but the taste was there all the same.
Life went on for Chuuya, but it stalled for Dazai.
Chuuya learned from Yosano he had taken an extended leave from work, and twice Atsushi intercepted him in the street, begging for information on his mentor’s whereabouts.
“Relax, the shitty Mackerel’s just taking time to cool his head. He’ll be back and bothering us before you know it.”
That’s what he’d said, but if Dazai didn’t want to be found then he never would be.
It was something that always terrified Chuuya, that he’d never get that call because no one knew. Dazai could rot for years beneath their feet and they would all just think he’d left for good.
It had been two months, what would his corpse look like now?
He kept his mind on more productive avenues of thought, such as how he would explain to Mori that not only was the Guild back, but that they wanted an audience with him.
There was also the government and the Agency to consider—both becoming increasingly restless as Dostoyevsky wreaked havoc amongst their parties. Mori’s poisoning was a swift blow to their morale, but now things were reaching an even keel to prepare for the evitable battle for the Book.
Its existence came as a surprise to Chuuya, but he supposed if a god could be shoved into a child then anything was possible.
It was Francis’s single-minded pursuit of the Book that bothered him.
Men who became their obsessions were the most dangerous kind of allies, and while he would lend them power against the Rats, he was also bringing along his weakness of restraint. There was no telling what would happen if he went for the Book when it was discovered, not when the goal of the Tripartite was to protect it from outsiders.
His worries were ultimately dismissed, the Tripartite became a Quadripartite, and when Dazai turned up on the cusp of New Year, it was, of all places, in a submarine.
“A lead to the Book’s whereabouts,” Mori had said, but the displeasure in his face was keen.
When Chuuya brought up the chance that Yokohama would be attacked with all their firepower in one place, Mori merely smiled.
“In my absence, I trust Hirotsu to the keep the peace. It is but for a few hours, Chuuya-kun.”
Due to the importance of the dive, the leaders came along, in addition to Chuuya, Kouyou, Yosano and Kunikida. Fitzgerald brought along Lovecraft, while Sakaguchi came alone as a proxy for the government.
Captain Nemo’s ability, Twenty-Thousand Leagues, allowed him to manipulate his surroundings to withstand immense pressure; as long as the man remained within the vessel it would be impervious to outside forces. Of course, this meant surveillance and protection within the craft was necessary, lest anything be tampered with.
In was for this purpose that Chuuya explored the submarine.
Any exposed metal was polished bronze, and the floor was carpeted in Turkish rugs. The chilly halls were lit with raw bulbs set in red cages along the ceiling, and the only ambience was the occasional rush of water through the piping. It was an immense craft, plucked out of an 18th century sci-fi novel.
A stranger waltzed past, twirling a cane topped with a brass cat’s head, whistling as he went. Chuuya stopped to watch him leave, noting the dual copper tones of his hair and mustache.
Where do I know him from? He asked himself, I’ve seen him in Mori’s office, once or twice, but I never caught his name. He wasn’t introduced with the others, maybe he’s another representative of the government?
He found Dazai’s partner shadow-boxing in front of a panoramic window, his sharp movements silhouetted against the navy blue of the Pacific. Chuuya let him be and carried on unhurried.
In another room, he found a collection of Victorian silverware mounted in individual glass cases. A large executive desk took up the majority of the space, on which sat an ancient typewriter. The walls bore silk wallpaper and there was a polar bear pelt on the floor, its eyes replaced with pink pearls the size of golf balls. He exited the study and shut the door behind him.
Chuuya followed a narrow corridor and entered a private lounge, only to find a familiar brunette reclined in a leather armchair nursing a glass of whiskey. He looked up from the book on his lap and smiled, the yellow lamplight creasing his face with black smudges.
Chuuya strode across the room and grabbed the bottle set on the coffee table, upending it over Dazai’s head.
Francis made a motion of shrugging, checking the placement of the guns strapped to his shoulders. The disgrace of his defeat taught him many things, one of which was not to place all his faith in a trump card. He had broadened his horizons with Alcott’s help, whom he was surprised to find was an excellent shot. Of course, she thought her marksmanship was average, but the empty eyes of the training targets would beg to differ.
He stood amongst the representatives in a vintage common area fitted with chaise lounges and Victorian portraits melting in their frames. Francis scoped each occupant for weapons, keeping his actions subtle.
The Agency’s Director, Fukuzawa Yukichi, had a katana strapped to his person. He kept a hand on the hilt as he softly conversed with Yosano Akiko and his second-in-command, Kunikida Doppo.
He could make anything at all, as long it fits the parameters of that journal. It’s a shame he’s on their side, he would make such a lovely addition to the Guild. Poe would have-
He tried to ignore the absence of the Guild’s resident author, knowing re-recruitment was a lost cause. He was always too embroiled in besting that detective, his departure shouldn’t come as such a shock to me. But it had, and he felt a pronounced ache from his compatriots’ defections, lamenting the halcyon days spent aboard the Moby Dick. I think we were friends, he thought somberly, eyes listing over the frigid mafia members, absently noting that one was missing. They were weapons in and of themselves. I don’t think I’d ever been so content since Zelda was well.
Sakaguchi Ango stood alone, leaning against the wall. His glasses were opaque in the glare, but Francis could feel his gaze; taking him apart. He suppressed a shudder.
Someone was talking to him.
“Sorry? I didn’t catch that,” he straightened his suit, smoothing out his best smile, and faced the head of the Port Mafia.
“I asked if you could clarify the ‘prophecy’ you claimed to have received from your associate.”
Mori’s eyes were fuchsia in the low light, his smile a slit across his face. He disturbed Francis deeply. One might even call it fear.
“The Book is impervious to fire and all abilities,” he recited, his own smile pleasant and plastic. “It is located in Yokohama, and can be found by the Tiger-Man.”
“They had a clairvoyant ability, yes? Do you trust their prediction?”
“With my life.”
It was true, he would follow Ginerva’s word to the gallows. Their romance may have been short, but it was passionate and ended on good terms. Zelda held his heart but Ginerva had his soul, and she would never lead him astray. Her ability allowed her to convey her predictions through letters, one of which predicted Scottie’s death.
He’d ignored her then. He knew better now.
“You can get more information on how Nakajima Atsushi factors into this.”
It wasn’t a question.
“Consider it taken care of, old sport.”
He couldn’t take care of that—he had no idea how the boy factored into the prophecy other than what he’d told them, but he couldn’t lose face. Not more than he already had.
While his defeat was disastrous to both his pride and his reputation, his finances were hardly touched. If money could pry the information out of the woodwork, then it was a task designed for him.
The boy wouldn’t bend to force, but would buckle for cash.
“Excuse me,” Kunikida interrupted. “He is part of the Agency. He’s not some random person you can just exploit for money!”
The Agency’s Director held out his hand and the irate blonde fell silent. The man locked eyes with Francis, and he felt the weight of his flinty gaze.
The Silver Wolf, indeed.
“We will pursue that end and make note of the places Atsushi-kun frequents and areas he has never been. I will let him know of the situation and give him control of this avenue of research.”
Fukuzawa’s tone brooked no argument, and Francis’s smile was tenuous as he conceded. He could feel the cracks widening in his reputation by the second.
When a man in a bespoke suit and bowler hat waltzed into the room, twirling an ornate cane, Francis just about lost his temper at the absurdity.
Calm down, he told himself, you employ a sea monster who demanded your soul as payment for his services. Nothing is more absurd than that.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” the man said, and Francis bemoaned the tonality of his hair. Blonde or brown, pick one but not both, dear Lord. He looked like he had stepped right out of a Dickens novel.
“My name is Natsume,” he continued, “I am grateful you came at my behest. I know it was on short notice for most of you,” he nodded at Sakaguchi, who straightened himself nervously.
Whoever he is, the people in this room hold him in great esteem.
“I created the tripartite pact in order to keep the peace in Yokohama, and above all, protect the Book.”
“A Book,” Francis said, unable to restrain himself any longer, “that cannot be located.”
The man nodded with a curl of his lips, flexing the gloved hands folded atop his cane.
“If no one knows where it is, why try to protect something that nobody can find?” Yosano asked, “Surely keeping it hidden would be the best form of defense? Why would you be trying to find it, in that case?”
“Because at this point,” Sakaguchi said, “we can’t even be sure it exists.”
“I assure you, gentlemen, the Book most certainly exists. I have seen it with my own eyes.”
“If you’ve seen it,” Francis interjected, “then why can’t we just press you for information and be done with it?”
“Because that is not how this works.” Mori said, his voice a slow roll of poison, “Natsume-san doesn’t agree with us wanting to find it, but neither will he stop us, so he’s here to observe.”
“In that case, there’s no telling that he won’t lead us astray in order to protect it!”
“I do not manipulate others, it is beneath me.”
Francis’s hands turned into fists, gritting his teeth until they creaked. And we are just going to take you at your word?! He wanted to yell, but he was at a disadvantage to this party. The odd man out.
“While I disapprove of its discovery,” said Natsume, “I agree in finding the stylus that accompanies it. That, is why I gathered you here today.”
The silence was deafening.
“The…stylus…” managed Sakaguchi, pushing up his glasses. “There is more to the Book than simply itself?”
“In a way. The stylus is the only writing implement that can be used with the Book, and its current location is under threat.” He gestured at Francis, his eyes a piercing green, “You alone managed to scrape the container’s outer walls with that ship of yours. Now it is no longer hidden, although I will admit it was never hidden well. I’d rather it be in our hands than that of our enemies.”
I was your enemy, you old fool. What are you, Fifty-five? Sixty?
“If you don’t want the Book used or even found, why not just destroy the pen?” Kunikida asked.
“Stylus,” Natsume corrected, “And it cannot be destroyed. If it is reduced to ash, it will reform.”
“And where would such an artifact be kept, if not in Yokohama?” Kouyou prodded with a vacant smile, annoyance made known only in the snap of her fan. Francis could imagine her fingering a blade hidden within her sleeve, thinking of all the ways she could make Natsume talk, and all the ways she could keep him silent.
“In its bay.” Natsume supplied, adjusting his hat.
That is a hat from the 1850s. I can’t deal with this.
“There is a container,” he continued, “or a facility, if you will, on the seafloor just miles from the bridge. It’s a relic of the Second World War, an experimental compound designed for underwater reconnaissance—to detect for submarines and enemy ships off the coast. But it also holds relics that they couldn’t bear to part with. Particularly those they wanted to keep hidden from the Americans when MacArthur came along.”
Francis’s eyes darted over to a surly ginger who appeared behind the Port Mafia’s boss, hair matted to his face. He could smell the alcohol from the other side of the room.
Nakahara Chuuya, manipulator of gravity and host to an unknown entity which enabled him to defeat Lovecraft. Helooks of mixed-race—European, maybe? American?
He frowned as a man sidled past Nakahara and skirted the room so to not block the flow of conversation. He too was drenched in liquor and took his place with those from the Agency.
Francis stared at him for the rest of proceedings, scarcely listening as the others discussed who and how they access the underwater facility.
He nearly captured Dostoyevsky and was the one who directed the Moby Dick into the bay. Dazai Osamu, was it? He has the face of a fox, Zelda would have found him charming. He unnerves me more than Mori.
The conversation ended and Natsume swung his cane around to take his leave.
The others disseminated in his wake, mumbling to each other in hushed voices. Francis felt near to madness and split from them to search for his subordinate.
He found Lovecraft in a remote corridor with its nose squished against a porthole, expression bored and body held in a boneless slump.
“What are you doing?” He asked the creature—not for the first time—and received the same answer of silence he expected. He waited for his words to settle, to slog through the creature’s primeval brain and parse into language it could understand.
“Observing the ocean… it is not unlike my home.” Lovecraft said, never moving from the black glass.
Francis could see nothing but darkness and realized they had reached the sea floor. He wondered if the creature missed Steinbeck. He knew the two were close. Well, as close as a human could be with an otherworldly horror.
“Then let me not interrupt your musing,” he replied, and paused, “But allow me to ask you something.”
“You are allowed.”
Good Lord, how did John stand this for days on end in that filthy truck of his?
“What do you think of Dazai Osamu?”
Lovecraft blinked slowly, rotating its head in thought. It was quiet for so long, Francis thought the creature fell asleep with its eyes open.
“He is like me,” it finally drawled, craning its neck to look at him, as if unwilling or unable to turn its body to do so. “He is Other… from the Outside.”
Francis sighed, scrubbing his forehead with no small degree of exasperation.
"What do you mean, Lovecraft? That he is like you?"
He could feel a migraine coming on.
"I come from the Ocean… not your oceans, but the Ocean that connects to them… from the Outside. He is the same." It pointed upwards, "He came from the Sky that connects to yours, but is not of them… do you understand?"
"Not in the slightest."
Lovecraft sighed, shoulders drooping. "I see… it is hard to convey such things to humans... your lives are so very short… you die as nothing but cells. It is frustrating."
“Yes,” said Francis, his smile tight. “Quite.” He stood, closing his jacket with trembling fingers. “If you will excuse me.”
Lovecraft nodded once and returned its eyes to the window, to the black void. The nothing.
Francis stalked the halls, fuming.
If the Agency has their own Contract, then it would explain the man’s ability to remain ahead of even Alcott’s predictions.
He froze mid-step and backpedaled to an alcove where the marble bust of a child stood in the corner. He strode over and touched its cheek, feeling the cold stone against his skin.
I’m wearing thin Scottie, he bemoaned to no one, but Daddy’s going to get you back in one piece, precious. No matter the cost.
Chuuya toweled off his hair in the cramped bathroom, scowling at his reflection.
I’m an idiot. Mori’s going to have my head for making such a scene. What the hell is wrong with me?
Dazai slid under his skin like he belonged there. He’d shaken off the whiskey with a laugh and a derogatory nickname and Chuuya could only seethe in fury. He hadn’t seen him in two months, had even considered the idea Dazai might be dead—truly dead this time—and he had the gall to show up unannounced?
He could do nothing for his clothes, but when he deemed his hair sufficiently dry, he returned to Kouyou’s side in the library. He was certain submarines weren’t supposed to have those, either.
“Perhaps sending out the two of you is unwise,” she said behind the wall of her fan. “I could object now and have Kunikida Doppo go in your stead, if you wish.”
He combed his fingers through damp locks, wincing at their brittle texture.
“I don’t need you to protect me, Ane-san,” he said with subtle warning in his tone. “I am an Executive, not a child. You would do well to remember that.”
Her eyes narrowed, and he felt the cold press of her blade at the junction of his shoulder, centimeters from his brachial artery. He met her glare and increased the weight of her knife, enough that he felt her arm shaking under the strain.
“A family spat?” Dazai trilled, slipping into the room. With his arrival came a wave of alcoholic fumes that made the pair wrinkle their noses.
“You couldn’t have toweled off, at least?” Chuuya asked, following Dazai with his eyes as he perused the shelves with exaggerated interest. He recalled Shuuji's words.
As long as I can make them laugh, it doesn’t matter how, I’ll be all right. If I succeed in that, the human beings probably won’t mind it too much I remain outside their lives.
“Dazai,” Chuuya said, “have you been in this facility?”
He could feel Kouyou examining their interactions like a scientist hovering over a microscope. Searching for his sympathies, for weakness.
As an Executive, she can’t have me fraternizing with him, but, as Ane-san, she is only worried about us. He reminded himself, appalled that he had to. He was normally so reserved, so apt to keeping personal feelings from his work life. Dazai simultaneously brought out the worst and best from him.
“Of course not,” Dazai chided, pulling a slim novel from the shelves and flipping through it. Chuuya watched his eyes dart across the pages, knowing he was memorizing every word. Whether through the use of a photographic memory or sheer processing power, Dazai never forgot anything.
Chuuya used to envy him for it, until he realized it meant he wouldn’t forget all the horrors he’d seen, either.
“But I am the one who told Natsume-san where it was.”
Kouyou snapped her fan shut with a resounding clack, but Dazai neither stopped browsing nor gave any notice he was aware of her presence.
“I’ve seen him around headquarters,” Chuuya admitted, Kouyou stiffening beside him.
“Yes, he was Mori and the Director’s mentor. He knows what he’s doing and is far more capable than anyone in that meeting. He has a peculiar taste in fashion, though, but I’m sure you can relate.”
Dazai eyes twinkled with mischief, but Chuuya could sense something there beneath the surface. A question that hadn’t been asked with words.
“The boss seems to trust him,” he answered. “That’s all that matters.”
“Is that right?” Dazai’s voice remained jovial, but he slowly slotted the book in place in a manner that meant he failed the test.
I can’t play a game with rules I don’t know, but there don’t seem to be any rules to begin with.
Kouyou cleared her throat, announcing herself again by slapping her fan into her palm.
Dazai turned around, feigning surprise, “Oh, Kouyou-san! I didn’t see you there. How are you doing after my generous massage?”
Chuuya worked his jaw, struggling to rein in his emotions.
“It was wonderful,” she purred, her painted smile sharp and lethal. “I’ve so missed having someone to pamper me.”
“I’m glad to be of assistance.”
The docking tone sounded and Chuuya swept passed Kouyou to drag Dazai by his upper arm, his nails digging in.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” He hissed once they were in the corridor, his breath rising in front of him as the submarine’s temperature dropped to divert energy.
Dazai smiled, eyes thinning with mirth, but the honey color was thick enough to drown in.
“Why, can’t I catch up with old friends? She was frightfully pale the last time I saw her.”
“Don’t you start,” he snarled, an impotent need to protect curling low in his belly. He knew what Dazai was playing at, riling him up in this way, but it was so hard to control his temper around the man.
Dazai crowded in, using his height to tower over him.
“Start what?” He husked, eyes narrowing.
Dazai’s teeth—white, even, and sharp—sunk into the plush of his bottom lip. Chuuya’s anger dissipated at the gesture, his brain experiencing whiplash at the change in mood. Heat rose up his neck, limbs tingling, only for ice to wash over him.
He’s mocking me, he realized, he knows.
Chuuya thrust his chin up and met his gaze, gathering his courage whilst his heart shattered.
“Don’t be a child,” he said, proud of the way his voice remained steady.
“I think we are both far from children,” Dazai replied, not moving closer but not retreating, either. Chuuya felt the heat from his chest and watched his breath rise like cigarette smoke.
“Then stop acting like one and treat me with an ounce of the respect I deserve.”
A storm of emotions tumbled across Dazai’s face, only a flash of movement before he schooled his expression. But it was enough to stoke flames of hope in Chuuya that maybe Dazai cared. That maybe, somewhere deep inside, was a man who could feel a measure of happiness for all the sorrow he wallowed in.
Whenever I was asked what I wanted, my first impulse was to answer "Nothing." The thought went through my mind that it didn't make any difference, that nothing would make me happy.
Chuuya broke away first, heading to where they would receive further instructions. His fists trembled, nails biting into lambskin leather.
Of course he knows, he chided himself. I kissed him. Even if I hadn’t, Dazai would know, long before I did.
Mori met them at the door to the decompression chamber, eyes alight with warning.
“As you can repel the ocean if the structure collapses,” he told Chuuya, “you will be sent to receive the stylus alongside Dazai, who has had the fascinating pleasure of having once been inside the facility.”
Chuuya resisted a flinch and kept his eyes on his boss.
“Yes boss,” he said with a light bow, ignoring the soft snicker at his back.
“Dazai,” said Fukuzawa, materializing beside Mori. He looked haunted where the dark sweeps of shadow crossed his face, “Do be careful. Your death is not acceptable.”
“Of course, Director,” he said, and Chuuya could hear the sincerity in his voice that he never used with Mori.
The submarine quaked, and they stepped into the decompression chamber, tumblers spinning behind them. He half expected water to come pouring in, but instead the air became heavy and difficult to breathe. When the green light flashed the all-clear, they exited the submarine and entered a time capsule.
Before them stretched a metal corridor that extended unevenly into a dreary gloom. Raw bulbs winked in their sockets, dim and unhelpful. The hallway seemed to twist as it went, metal warping into a hypnotic spiral.
“This place is falling apart.” Dazai said, face grim, “It wasn’t like this the last time.”
The struts, rusted and coated in sour niter, jutted out much further than they should, threatening to completely unscrew from the brass panels. Water trickled from a fissured pipe, contributing to the sizable pool beneath their feet. The ocean sloshed around their shoes, the floor slick with silt and salt. Oxygen was thin here, and Chuuya took quick, shallow breaths.
“I would be able to keep the facility intact if it collapsed,” he said, “but I can’t do it if you’re touching the floor.” He looked at Dazai who was skimming the walls with the pads of his fingers, a distance in his eyes that unnerved him.
“Dazai?” He repeated, and the brunette startled slightly, gaze returning to the present.
“Yeah?” He asked, voice rough from the salt in the air.
“I asked why you were sent with me if I can’t use my ability here. You’d have to be floating for that to work.”
“There would be enough water for that to happen if a leak sprung,” said Dazai, half in jest, “and I’d probably be sucked out before that happened.”
“If a leak sprung, more than it has already, the whole place would implode in an instant.” Chuuya said, frowning, unease rising in his throat. He stilled the trembling in his hands to a light tremor.
“That would mean your death.”
“Mori has never been preoccupied with my wellbeing, Chuuya.” He said, so matter-of-fact it sparked a flame of pity that was quickly snuffed out.
There was no room for pity in their lives.
They made their way slowly through the twisting corridor; the metal groaning around them like a great beast ready to crush them.
He thought of Lovecraft, of that hideous eldritch being whose existence defied logic. It wasn’t an ambient ability, that monster was the man himself, not an illusion, and yet it touched Dazai and remained intact.
Did such monsters swim around them now, moaning in the gloom?
Chuuya hadn’t seen the layout of the building from the portholes, even with the floodlights it looked more like an elongated shipping container than a military compound.
“When did you last visit this place?”
“Years ago.” He replied, his voice echoing up and down the hall.
“This way,” Dazai said, and led them down an adjoining corridor in a worse state of disrepair. Here, the water came to their calves, wading through thick silt and holding their breath whenever the walls shuddered around them.
I should have asked how deep we were, thought Chuuya, if this place implodes I don’t think I’ll be able to react fast enough to protect myself unless Corruption takes over. At that point, Dazai would be dead and no one could stop me and I would die on the sea floor-
The corridor of rusted metal changed as the structure sloped downwards. The air was thicker here. Chuuya covered his nose, as if filtering his breath would make it easier. Dazai stepped over the jagged crumples of sheet iron where the structure was weakest.
“We’re beneath the sea floor, now.” Dazai said. Chuuya had to squint to make out his outline, the lights shattered or dead.
“How are the lights working?”
“I helped install a generator down here the last time I visited. There’s other stuff down here besides the stylus, it wasn’t only the Japanese who used this base. The Americans used it for a bit during the occupation.”
“You’ve… been part of the tripartite a long time, then.”
“Uh,” he searched for the right words, a way to pry information without setting him off.
“When I joined,” Chuuya said, hopping over an iron spike, “we were both fifteen. Mori told me you joined when you were fourteen.”
“That’s correct,” they passed beneath an intact bulb, illuminating Dazai’s squared shoulders and the lithe expanse of his back. He disappeared into the darkness, continuing without a pause.
Down here it was a maze of identical crumpled corridors and locked doors. The floor was a thin layer of sand under his soaked shoes. He regretted wearing his good balmorals.
Dazai stopped before a frame of amber light; a door.
Chuuya groped in the darkness, gripping the ancient turnstiles and throwing his weight against them. The tumblers moved with a thunderous crack, grating as he turned them until they clicked. He wrenched the door open, hearing rust ripping off the wall in thick sheets.
Chuuya expected something grand and mystique, but instead found a cube of copper metal in which decayed crates and leather satchels crowded against the walls. A raw bulb shone valiantly from a ceiling spidered with mold.
“It’ll be in a tin that looks like a Western pencil case,” Dazai said, sweeping past Chuuya with a seriousness he hadn’t seen in years. He still didn’t know how he felt about being on this mission with him, when at any moment Dazai could be crushed by the Pacific.
Dazai pushed a few crates around and tossed an American army-issue duffle bag over his shoulder. Chuuya unzipped it and rifled around, but only found old gun magazines and a stack of postcards with bikini-clad women. They would be old by now, maybe dead.
Chuuya smashed a crate and war medals cascaded over his feet. In another was a Nazi flag kept in mint condition within a plastic sleeve. Dazai lightened the mood when he found a framed photo of Hitler on which someone had scratched devil horns and a forked tongue.
“Someone should come and collect all this stuff for a museum.” Chuuya realized, “If every room is like this, then this place is worth a fortune. There aren’t many military bases from that era left untouched.”
“Most of the facility is empty, I’ve checked. There are thirty-six rooms and only seven of them have anything in them. Only three have things of value, and nothing in them is worth being crushed to death.”
As if in agreement, the walls shuddered around them, metal protesting with a shrill scream.
“We should get going,” Dazai noted, looking pointedly at the corners where the struts protruded furthest. The ceiling looked fit to collapse at any minute.
Chuuya hastened his search, digging into sixty-year-old supply packs and tearing apart crates padded with shredded paper. He ripped apart another duffle bag and more postcards fluttered down, along with a slim metal case that clattered to the floor. Chuuya shouted in triumph and popped it open, only to recoil in disgust.
“Is this a rib?” Chuuya asked, horrified. “The stylus is a fucking rib?”
“It appears so…” said Dazai absently, trailing off as he made a slow circle around the ransacked room, looking for something.
“This is vile.”
“Don’t be a baby, Slug. You’ve touched worse things. Internal organs, for instance.”
And you, Chuuya thought with a grimace, picking up the stylus and examining it.
It weighed nothing, sitting in his palm like air, the bleached bone a sickly hue in the tawny light. He could tell it once belonged to a human or was at least fashioned to look like it. He prayed it wasn’t real, but he’d handled enough bones in his lifetime to tell the fake from authentic. One end was filed to a curved scoop. It was too small to have belonged to an adult.
It was so dry, he felt he could crumble it into powder with just his fist. Natsume-san said it would reform if it was broken.
He was half tempted to try, but they didn’t have the time.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Dazai pick something up.
“What’s that?” He asked, putting the stylus back into its case and slipping it into his coat pocket. “Another picture of Hitler?”
He crossed the small space to hassle him, to take the edge off the claustrophobic fear that was mounting in his chest, when an explosion shook the compound.
Dazai grabbed his wrist and pulled him from the room, sprinting down the hall awaywhence they came.
“Dazai!” He shouted, trying to yank his hand from Dazai’s grip but the brunette was flying headlong into the darkness.
Chuuya stumbled and staggered, trying desperately not to trip. The world was pitch black around him, the absolute darkness of an enclosed space. The metal screamed around them at a deafening volume, and Chuuya plunged chest-deep into ice water.
For one terrifying moment, he thought the facility was collapsing, but Dazai pulled him forward, slogging through the seawater.
“Dazai-,” He gasped, voice small from the shock, terror clawing at his throat in the form of a scream he refused to let loose. He felt like a child trapped in the dark.
“Dazai, where are we going?!”
He said nothing, pulling them up a slick incline without ever letting go of Chuuya’s hand. The landscape became indecipherable to Chuuya as he moved, praying he didn’t fall, didn’t stumble, and above all that he wouldn’t lose Dazai’s guiding hand.
They hit a wall, and he heard the shriek of tumblers dislodging years of decay. Red light swallowed him whole, and the door slammed behind them.
Dazai let go of his hand and Chuuya collapsed, panting as adrenaline made the room spin. The walls didn’t scream here, and he could finally hear his heartbeat hammering in his ears.
“Where…” he gasped, the air thin to the point of dizziness. “Where are we?”
Dazai was a sweeping shadow over him, hauling him to his feet and grabbing his hand once more. He caught of a glimpse of his face, lined with determination or concern, the darkness creating pits in place of eyes. Chuuya shut his mouth.
They were in a cramped vertical room with a ladder running up one wall and into the darkness above. An emergency light bathed them in red, the words ‘fire escape’ were printed above a rusted hose socket.
Chuuya chased Dazai up the ladder, hand over hand into the darkness, leaving that fulvous glow far below. His clothes clung to him, salt stinging against his skin and socks squelching.
The rungs ended, and he crawled over the lip, scraping his chest on the sharp metal. He grasped for the others coattails and found a hand; Dazai lacing their fingers together before pulling him once more through the void.
Something kept smacking his thigh and Chuuya almost flung it aside before he remembered the stylus.
“How are we going to get back?” He asked, voice high with panic. He was too nerve-wracked with cold and fear to remember. All he could think about was that if the metal failed, they would both die—Dazai to drowning and him to Corruption. He wasn’t ready to die yet, not when they were finally making progress.
Another screaming door and they were in the light, this time the familiar yellow glow of the gaslights. Dazai dragged him a few steps before turning to him, wet chest heaving and eyes wide with what could only be fear.
I’ve never seen Dazai afraid, he thought distantly. That Dazai was frightened only fed his own panic. He squeezed the other's hand until his fingers hurt.
“There’s an escape hatch,” Dazai panted, sounding winded—he’d always had the worse endurance. “Soseki knows to attach there if we came across any trouble.”
Dazai looked at him for a moment, brows drawn as if to respond in kind, when blood spattered across his face and pain erupted across the side of Chuuya’s head.
He heard the sounds of someone running behind them and turned to look, but Dazai put himself in the line of view and shoved him backwards. He stumbled and hit the ground, touching his ear and finding a wet hole.
Dazai shouted and Chuuya looked up in time to see a young blonde male in army fatigues pinning him to the wall. Chuuya thought he was an American ghost, but then his eyes adjusted and he saw the colors were wrong.
Those are Russian military fatigues, he realized, recognizing the monochrome camo he’d seen on some of Dostoyevsky’s men.
The man drove a gloved fist into Dazai’s stomach, and Chuuya jumped to his feet, only for a searing pain in his leg to bring him down again. His ears rang and blood squirted through his fingers where he’d been shot through the knee.
A dart stung him in the hip and he hissed, yanking it out and letting the feathered needle tinkle to the floor and roll away.
He cursed as the world spun away from him.
Chuuya woke in confusion, the sounds of fists against flesh drawing him out of his stupor.
“WHERE. IS. IT?!”
He jerked upright and realized he was still in the compound, chained to a wall in a small room. He reached for his ability but felt nothing, and his stomach plummeted. His body ached, the side of his head was on fire and his knee felt stuffed with knives. He could do nothing but watch as Dazai, bruised and bloody, was beat into the ground.
The man yanked Dazai up by the collar and screamed in his face, fury in his voice.
“You bitch!” he snarled, spittle flying from his lips. “Where is it?!”
Dazai stared back at him with dry eyes. His irises were a thin rim of gold around blown pupils, the whites yellow in the light. His skin was ashen, lips pressed together into a white seam, like he was holding something back. Or pretending to.
“WHERE IS IT?!”
He drove an elbow into Dazai’s ribs and they crumpled inwards as the bones shattered against his lung. He crashed to the floor in an aborted curl, mouth opening without sound.
He’d watched Dazai limp away from Mori’s punishments without a crease to his face, with nails driven through the joints of his fingers and shoes full of glass.
He’d seen Dazai act when they were tortured at the hands of enemies looking for information It was Dazai’s specialty. When Mori wanted an organization wiped off the planet, he sent in Dazai as the hapless victim. He could gain more information from hearing his captor’s footsteps than the intelligence division scraped up in a month.
Something was different now.
Dazai was a brilliant actor, but there was something about his reactions now that were genuine—more pronounced than a ploy.
His eyes were tight with pain, body curling instinctively as he gasped for breath. His hair was an unruly mess of curls, damp with sweat. Even through his clothes, Chuuya could see the hard lines of muscle standing up like cables beneath his skin.
But he didn’t so much as whimper.
Mori would be proud to see him now.
Chuuya only felt sick.
The man dragged Dazai to his feet by his hair. The fistful of hair creaked and snapped under his weight, and he released his grip. Dazai sagged backwards against the man’s chest, his scalp beading with blood and running down the sides of his nose.
A flash of silver and he stabbed Dazai through the back.
He arched back on the tips of his toes, as if moving along with the strike to minimize the damage. The point of the blade created a tent in his shirt, not even breaching the fabric.
His eyes bulged like boiled eggs, mouth working silently around a protest or a scream, and when the man withdrew the knife he buckled with it, folding to his knees in a parody of prayer. Chuuya screamed and threw himself forward, neck muscles cording as he strained against the chains.
Dazai’s shaking fingers touched the wound and spider-lilies bloomed forth, crimson spreading across his heaving chest. His eyes were wild, his pupils pinpricks, and his skin was pale. Chuuya had seen Dazai stabbed a thousand times: with poisoned knives and swords and rusty pipes—but never there, not through the heart.
His mouth was a red horror, blood surging from between his teeth, thick and pasty like sludge. It extended red fingers down his throat and soaked the collar of his shirt.
“Chu-Chuuy-ya-” He gasped, bloody bubbles appearing from his nose and the corners of his mouth. His eyes rolled up into his skull and he slumped forward into the growing puddle.
Chuuya wasn’t breathing, he couldn’t remember how.
He could feel tears climbing down his cheeks, his brain stuttering to process.
“D-Dazai?” He croaked, forgetting about the assailant still standing over his partner’s body, his body oh god-
“H-Hey, this… this isn’t funny Dazai. I can’t punch you better when I’m all chained up, you know?”
He hiccupped a miserable laugh, vision blurring Dazai into a red ruin. He didn’t care for his appearance; if Mori showed up, he wouldn’t even notice. Reputation be damned, he couldn’t even breathe.
The man kicked Chuuya in the stomach and felt up his legs and arms.
“Where the fuck is it, you stupid whore,” he snarled, accent thickening, and Chuuya didn’t think of fighting back, letting the man shake him about like a rag doll as he searched his clothes.
He took off Chuuya’s shoes and the metal case fell into the man’s hand. He popped it open and checked the contents, relief slipping onto his face.
That’s not where I put it, Chuuya thought in a daze. You have no right to look like that.
“I’ll leave you to mourn,” the man said, he looked around the room, smiling with too many teeth, “and to suffocate.”
He backed out the door and spun the tumblers behind him. The final lock clicked into place, the bunker creaking around them, but all Chuuya could hear was the roar of blood in his ears.
“This can’t be real,” he choked out, staring at the growing puddle of blood around Dazai’s inert form. “You’re joking, right?” he raised his voice, echoing off the narrow walls. The compound answered him with a protracted groan. The air was thin, sour even, but it could have been the panic.
Chuuya grunted, looking at the chains where they met his wrists and bit into his waist.
His right leg was useless, every twitch of his toes sent a bolt of agony up his thigh, but he managed to get his other leg under him and tried to stand. The metal held firm against him, bruising into the tender skin. He kept straining, putting all his strength into his hamstrings. The muscle bulged against the sodden fabric of his slacks.
“C’MON!” he yelled, forcing his right knee to bend.
He screamed as the bullet ground inside the joint.
His ears rang with his own voice, with the blood roaring in his head. All he could see was Dazai, limp and unmoving. Cheek pressed to the metal grating, his hair splayed around him like a brown halo turning ever redder.
His vision tunneled, blurring around the edges from pain or lack of oxygen, and he let out a bellowing roar, feeling something in his hips finally give.
Pain tore through him as the wings of his pelvis chipped and fractured, the chains ripping down his legs, taking strips of his thigh with it. It was blinding, agonizing pain. He felt blood squirt from the hole in his leg and wash warm down his legs like urine. But he pushed through the smell and the sounds and the agony, because there was no way Dazai was dying three feet away from him.
Not while Chuuya was still breathing.
From there, the chains binding his wrists were easy, and he kicked clumsily at the cuffs with his good leg, balancing unsteadily on the bad. The mooring ripped from the wall and the compound gave another moaning cry, but it was enough. He strained, reached for Dazai whilst the other chain pulled him back. He snagged him by the sleeve and yanked him closer.
He let out a sob when all it did was smear Dazai through the blood, his shirt tearing to reveal swollen burgundy bandages.
Exhaustion was incoming like a barreling train, but Chuuya put the last of his energy into one last tug. Dazai’s body collided with his bad knee but he couldn’t even feel it. He hooked his arm around Dazai’s chest and tipped backwards, hauling Dazai over him with the momentum.
Dazai slipped off him, head on Chuuya’s arm.
Chuuya lay there for a moment, vision scattered with hundreds of shooting stars.
He turned his head and looked into Dazai’s face, only inches from his own. Where blood didn’t soak his ashen skin, bruises stood out in dark purples and reds along the swollen ridge of his chin. His lips were shredded like he’d bit through them to hide his pain and his eyes were open, pools of honey swallowed by his pupils.
He looked at Chuuya, but didn’t see him.
He was gone.
Chuuya touched Dazai’s cooling cheek and began to fall apart at the seams.
He’d never mourned for a subordinate like this. Oh, he raged and cried in private over a full glass of wine, but not like this. He’d never felt grief like this. But Dazai wasn’t his subordinate, never had been—he’d been a partner, a brother, a friend—and to Chuuya he’d always been so, so much more.
He hid his face in the blood swelling beneath them, spreading around them like death’s embrace. Sounds were muffled in his remaining ear, and pain was all he knew.
He heard his name. Someone was calling him, but when he craned his neck, smearing himself in Dazai’s blood, he couldn’t see them. Everything was red, and the dark shapes around him were stretching, distorting his name like a broken record.
He let his cheek thump back into that crimson spill and closed his eyes, not caring if he woke at all.
Dazai was gone, what else mattered?
Since much of what Shuuji’s (my Shuuji’s) life was does not corroborate with that of Dazai Osamu or Oba Yozu (the titular character of No Longer Human) this version of No Longer Human has a different “plot” and can be considered a different book overall from the one in real life. However, the feelings of alienation and otherness remain a core thread. So many things are different that I recommend reading the actual work to understand that what I gave was not a summary or even a synopsis.
Ginerva is based on Ginvera King, who was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s paramour from 1915-1917. She was a debutant and Chicago socialite whom inspired the character of Daisy and several other women of desire in his works. They corresponded through letters throughout their lives, of which he kept all of those she sent to him. These letters were then returned to her after his death. She never shared them with anyone.
No Longer Human Quotes (the one about the shed was my own quote):
"Humans do not submit to other humans."
"As long as I can make them laugh, it doesn’t matter how, I’ll be all right. If I succeed in that, the human beings probably won’t mind it too much I remain outside their lives."
I AM LOOKING FOR A BETA: this would entail editing and suggestions on prose for easier readability. Of course, this would also mean you get the chapter earlier than everyone else! Please reply as a comment with your Facebook information and I will contact you and then delete the comment for your privacy. Thank you!
Francis stared out into the Pacific, the panoramic windows black as tar. He felt unbearably empty, staring out into the nothingness, but also a strange sense of peace. As if he was the only person left in the world.
He wondered what Zelda would think if she could see him now.
She’d adore this ship; perhaps I’ll buy a replica and take us to the Philippines. She loved the reefs in Australia.
His wistful smile hardened into a tight frown.
But if she knew what I did to get here, she’d call me a fool.
Her mind turned to rubble in the wake of their daughter’s death. When Scottie died, his wife died with her.
Scottie had only been five when she was diagnosed with throat cancer, and although he poured in every resource he could find, state-of-the-art drugs and experimental treatments, she passed away in her bed, weighing a third of what she should. Her little bedroom outfitted as a gentle infirmary.
His wife wailed herself hoarse, and he’d torn down half the mansion with his bare hands before he came to his senses.
He found his wife in the solar, kneeling on the floor with her hands balled in the lace of her skirts, but when she turned to him her smile was bright and her face dry.
“I’m so glad Scottie got to go to Florentine. It’s a lovely school. I know she’ll be so happy there. But I miss her. I hope she will return soon so I can bake her those cookies she wanted.” She said, standing with the aid of an armchair—they weren’t as young as they used to be.
He stood there, dumbfounded, sagging against the threshold with bloody knuckles and vomit down his front. He wasn’t crying. He didn’t have the energy.
“Yes,” he’d gasped, managing a wet smile, chest hollowed out like a loaf of bread. “She’ll be back before you know it. Just you wait.”
Two years and every day she stared out the window in her wicker chair with a satin shawl about her shoulders, watching the driveway for their daughter’s return.
As much as he loved her, he couldn’t stay and watch her deteriorate. It was all he could do just to answer her phone calls, all he could do to not scream when she brought up Florentine when there was no boarding school called Florentine in London. Zelda’s wet nurse was named Florentine, a wrinkled woman from Iowa who couldn’t recognize her own reflection.
The black ocean erupted in orange light, illuminating the military compound as a collection of geometric buildings pressed into silt. That’s an explosion, he realized, watching a section of the facility evaporate as it imploded in a fraction of a second. Thick sheets of iron crumpled into balls of metal as dense as diamonds.
He rushed to the navigation center where the rest of them stood, stone-faced and pale. Those brats fucked this whole thing up, he thought, eyes darting from screen to screen. Most of the buildings were intact; perhaps they could salvage the operation.
“It’s set up to seal off the water before it cascades to the other sections.” Natsume said, calm enough Francis wanted to throttle him. He was the only one who looked unconcerned, despite being in charge.
Captain Nemo spoke up—a twig of a man with a black beard so bushy it swallowed half his face—his baritone voice filling the room like a warm swell.
“We don’t have to worry about the depth charges in here,” he said, as if that wasn’t the whole reason they were employing him, “but, if you want me to go in there and make it so the whole thing doesn’t collapse, you’ll be forfeiting your lives. All of our lives, really. No other vehicle can get to these depths nowadays.”
Then how was the compound created in the first place, he wanted to scream. Wait, when the Ability War struck in the nineties, users suitable to warfare went underground to avoid conscription. There really may be no one left who can get to this place.
Another explosion rocked the compound, and Mori’s hand settled on the captain’s shoulder. Francis thought his fingers were more like talons as he leaned into the man’s face. His eyes glowed red, dark hair spilling over his shoulder like satin.
“I think it’s time we moved on, don’t you?” he hummed, expression pleasant but eyes burning like poison flame. His grip creaked.
Natsume tapped his cane on the floor, a dull thump on the ornate rug.
“Quite so,” His eyes were trained on the screen, mouth inverted to a frown.
Glad to see you aren’t all smiles, old man.
“Aren’t we going to counterattack?” Kouyou asked, fingers twitching on her fan. Her eyes darted across the images, as if her colleague’s body wouldn’t be smashed to atoms at these depths.
“Later,” the Director said, heading towards the docking bay. “There are more pressing matters to attend to than saving face.”
Francis took a last look at the screens, compound rotating out of sight as Nemo disengaged and revved the engines. The submarine creaked around them. He could only imagine how loud it must be for Nakahara and Dazai. If they still lived.
They hadn’t been in there for twenty minutes and already they were sending out a search party.
For the stylus, he reminded himself, if the stylus is lost to the enemy, we can kiss this alliance goodbye. I’m after the Book—they can go running after the fucking pen on their own time.
Kouyou was the first one into the decompression chamber, slamming the door after her so fast Francis just slipped by. There was no way he trusted any of them to keep the stylus safe from the enemy, and Kouyou’s nervous tapping of fan-to-palm only heightened his nerves. The oxygen grew thin, and he squared his jaw, smoothing a hand down his buttons and tucking a stray lock of hair back behind his ear.
The woman wrenched open the exit in an impressive display of strength and the stench of salt and sour metal immediately assaulted them. Faint screams rippled down the twisting corridor, and Kouyou took off like a woman possessed.
He sprinted after her, following screams so animal Francis wasn’t sure they belonged to a human being.
When they reached the source, it was too late.
Francis paused, hanging back and pinching his nose. Gore never sat well with him and the scent was nauseating. An image of Zelda in the solar sprung to mind.
That’s despair, he thought, watching the boy. They are both just boys, how did he ever think Dazai was a man? That’s love.
Kouyou put up a tough front, but he could see the fissures in her self-control. Her voice trembled as she called Nakahara’s name again, hands unsure of where to touch. There was so much blood and there was something misshapen about the ginger’s pelvis.
Nakahara whimpered and pressed his face into the blood pooling around them, and how did a human body have so much blood? Francis was no saint; he’d smashed his fair share of people into nothing but a smear on the sidewalk, but this was a gore born of grief. Nakahara’s wrist was shackled to the wall, the other chain yanked out but still clinging to his wrist, the skin shredded where he’d supposedly fought to escape. To reach his friend, and all in vain.
He’d ripped off his own flesh to get to him, when Dazai was likely already a corpse, and the arterial in his knee was squirting and his thighs were skinned of muscle and even his ear was gone – relegated to a bloody hole.
And he still held onto Dazai as he bled out, face crumpled in sorrow as he cradled the other’s pale cheek.
The agency’s doctor shouldered past Francis, and he watched her own expression turn from desperate to devastated. She put her hands on both of them.
Nakahara’s wounds repaired themselves like time reversed.
Dazai’s did not.
Nakahara fainted, and Kouyou sliced off the final chain, cradling him in her arms before sweeping them both out the door. They look enough alike, Francis mused, they might very well be mother and son.
Yosano knelt over Dazai with her head bowed, as if this was a personal failing. It was the Director who closed the boy’s eyes and wrapped him in his haori. Francis noted the way his arms shook as he carried the body out the door, dogged by his subordinate.
They left Francis alone in the gore splattered room, staring at the mess, listening to the facility moan as the metal struggled to hold its shape.
There’s no sign of the intruder, he thought, if he left the compound to implode and didn’t take either of them for hostages, that must mean he had a reason to leave.
He broke into a run, following the group back to safety.
The submarine hummed around them, shaking as it unclasped from the compound and made its departure. The group collected in the library, and Francis watched Kunikida lead Yosano into an armchair while the Director laid the body on the couch. He arranged the haori, so it draped over Dazai’s head and upper chest and laced the boy’s hands over his abdomen.
“I’m sorry,” Yosano babbled, tears rounding her cheeks. “Thou Shalt Not Die doesn’t work after brain death.” She whimpered out the last bit like it physically pained her. Her eyes were unfocused and darting across the floor as if afraid it would accuse her.
Kunikida said nothing, only ran his fingers through her hair and let her bury her face in his stomach. His silent tears glinted in the lamplight beneath the glare of his glasses.
Mori rolled up his sleeves before pressing two fingers to Dazai’s limp wrist. He frowned, but otherwise looked unconcerned a major chess piece was now off the board. He pushed aside the ruins of the boy’s shirt where the blood was thickest and pursed his lips.
“Sasha’s Kiss,” he said. “It’s a technique used by the Siberian special ops and takes years to master. Not even I could do anything to stop the hemorrhaging if I was there. He would have bled out within eight seconds. There are no arteries left to tie off.”
Yosano shuddered and Kunikida let out a strangled sound close to a sob.
The Director stood vigil by the body, staring at Mori. His expression was hard, implacable, but his eyes were raw with poorly concealed grief. His scabbard clinked against his side as his hand trembled on the pommel.
Kouyou slipped into the room, face haggard, and fell in line beside Mori. She whispered in his ear, but her voice carried in the small room. She kept her eyes off the corpse, whose blood leeched into the fabric of her kimono.
“Chuuya’s unconscious. I believe he will be under for quite some time. Perhaps it is best he remains so?”
“I think it best we leave him be.” Mori agreed with a nod, smile thin and unreadable, “If he wakes now he will be volatile, and we cannot risk him unleashing his ability without Dazai to nullify it. Not here.”
Her lips trembled for a moment before she remembered herself. Her eyes darted to the body and back to her boss, shining with unshed tears.
“Of course, sir.”
This boy was not the monster I assumed, Francis realized, many here cared for him.
“Where is the stylus?” he asked, ignoring the hateful daggers sent his way. Francis was not a man comfortable with grief.
Dazai’s blood was seeping into the upholstery, and the air conditioner circulated the stench of gore. His stomach roiled with nausea.
“Did the assailant leave with it? If it was one of Dostoyevsky’s men-”
“-Dazai would have them take a decoy,” Mori said, turning from the body. Francis held no love for the boy, but even he was offended at the man’s apathetic demeanor. Fuchsia eyes were unclouded by anguish, despite his former subordinate’s body rotting behind him on the couch. The smear of the boy’s blood on his white gloves.
I know this man raised him; I counterchecked Dazai’s background as best I could. You are essentially his father, you callous fuck.
He forced himself to calm down, snipping off that thought as quickly as he could. If he thought any more of family, he may well punch a hole through the submarine and kill them all.
“I found this in Dazai’s pocket,” Yosano sniffed, wiping her eyes. She turned over a rib in her palm, vigorously rubbing the blood off with her skirt. Kunikida stilled her hand, and she slumped forward.
It looked human, but was too small, like someone had snapped it in half.
“It’s not his,” she added, and Kunikida sagged against the chair with relief, as if it mattered. Your friend is dead.
“If it is the real stylus,” Natsume said, “it will be a child’s rib. Am I correct?”
Francis’ blood turned to slush, the world screeching to a halt.
“I beg your pardon?” he whispered, drowned out by the doctor’s reply.
Yosano turned the bone in her hands, “Yes, it’s a floating rib,” splaying a hand over her left side, “Probably the 12th rib.”
She bit her lip, dissolving into sobs. “I can’t feel my ability. Did…”, she turned to the Director, one hand fisted in Kunikida’s trousers, “Did I kill Dazai because of this thing?”
The man furrowed his brows and said nothing.
“Your ability worked on Chuuya,” Kouyou injected, uncharacteristically gentle. “Dazai was already gone when I arrived. There was nothing you could have done.”
Yosano’s face crumpled, but Francis couldn’t hear her over the sound of Scottie flat-lining and Zelda’s hysterical wails, over the sound of splitting concrete and the screams of the medical team as he ripped them apart.
Something wet slipped into his palm and he jerked back into the present, realizing he’d been hyperventilating in the corner.
Francis remember something had touched him and looked at his hand, finding a film of slime on his palm. He wrinkled his nose and wiped it discreetly on his pant leg, reminding himself to thank the sea monster with pounds of milk chocolate.
Mori plucked the stylus from the doctor’s grasp and gave it a once over.
“Interesting. My ability is gone.” He set it on the arm of the couch, eyes alight with morbid curiosity, “… and now it is back,” he breathed. “Fascinating.”
“It’s from a child between five and six years old,” Mori continued. Francis tasted bile on his tongue.
“Why would you know that?” he blurted, vision shivering as a migraine pulsed behind his eyes. “Why the fuck would anyone know that?!”
Mori raised a manicured brow. “I am a doctor.”
“What kind of doctor knows that just by looking?!”
“You are being ridiculous.”
“And now you are being hysterical.”
“How many children have you butchered you goddamn pedophile!”
“Fucking shut up, the both of you.” Dazai groaned. “Oh my god.”
A bloody hand reached up and dragged the haori off his face, unaware of the room’s deathly silence. Dazai sat up with a heavy sigh and swung his legs off the couch.
“I'm hungry,” he grumbled to his hands, rubbing them together to scrub away the blood. He lifted his head, exposing the deep grooves of exhaustion carved beneath dull eyes. He squinted at Natsume, who stood smiling in the doorway.
“Soseki,” he rasped, blood dripping off his fingers to puddle on the rug, his clothes soaked to the point of obscenity. He barked a wet cough, and spit blood at his feet.
“Can I have a glass of water?”
Natsume’s smile was playful, eyes twinkling with amusement.
“But of course, Father.”
The plates of Dazai’s skull were doing their best to separate. There was lead in his lungs, and every breath stirred a bout of productive coughing that sent blood spraying past his lips. His heart was beating, whole and strong, but with every pulse the writing pulsed too. The agony was shattering.
He could feel their eyes on him, though he couldn’t see them. He waited for the language center of his brain to reboot, ignoring their syncopated shouts and garbled questions.
A cold glass was pressed into his hands by someone smelling of bergamot cologne.
“Thank you, Soseki.” He said—or at least hoped he did. The ringing in his ears had him as good as deaf.
His son put a warm hand on his shoulder, and he melted into the comforting gesture.
Dazai’s hearing eventually cleared but his vision did not, so he kept his smile pleasant as his world crumbled around him.
Kunikida whipped questions at Soseki faster than the man could answer, but continued to stand in front of Dazai like an obelisk. Dazai listened to Soseki speak, responding in an even, practiced tone, and was so thankful for his son’s presence he wanted to break down in tears.
Calm down. You’re used to this, he reminded himself, wanting nothing more than to crawl into Soseki’s words and hide there—to rest in the dips of his syllables and bask in the warm baritone of his voice.
His stomach was tied in knots and the water burned a trail of ice down his throat, subduing the pain to a dull ache. He took a deep breath, steeling his nerves as his threshold rose back to where it should be.
Dazai crunched on an ice cube to drown out their voices.
He didn’t plan for this to happen.
Well, he had, but it had only been a 12% chance. It wasn’t supposed to go this way, but he supposed it was best to rip off the bandage all at once. With all the important people present, he’d only have to go through this once.
His vision finally greeted him with the brown expanse of Soseki’s coat, the outlets clasped with bronze buckles. The polished heels of his shoes were spaced evenly apart, and the butt of his cane stood firmly between them.
Dazai swallowed the remaining ice cubes. He wouldn’t hide behind his son’s coattails, not when Soseki was risking so much for him.
[Daddy! Look at this cat, she’s so cute! Can we keep her? I promise I’ll do the laundry for a whole month and-and I’ll make you inuzarushi every day! Misaki-chan taught me the recipe so I can do it for you just like she does! Oh, can we, can we please?]
Dazai set the glass on the floor and stood with aching joints, feeling each vertebra creak into alignment. He clapped a hand on his son’s shoulder, putting his thanks into a tight squeeze that sent a spasm of agony along his arm.
“I’ve got it, thank you Soseki.” He held in a wince at the husking rasp of his voice, blood vibrating in his lungs. I swear to god if I dry drown here I’m going to fucking scream.
Soseki stepped aside and Dazai was assaulted by six, very uncomfortable stares.
Ango was absent.
He rolled his shoulders and rubbed his hands together, blood squirting from between his fingers. Kunikida turned eight shades whiter and if Kouyou’s mouth opened any wider, her jaw would dislocate.
He couldn’t help the way he stiffened at the deep voice, and turned to his left, where Fukuzawa was staring at him.
“I am glad you’re alright.”
Dazai blinked, and his throat grew tight.
He told himself it was just the blood.
“No.” Kunikida laughed, eyes wide and mouth twitching into a hysteric grin, “No. What the hell is going on? I’m sorry? Didn’t you die? What the hell is going-”
Yosano slapped a hand to his chest, standing on wobbly legs. Her face was pale, but she looked determined. And pained.
Everyone looked pained.
“Did I do this?” She whispered, sounding hollow. “I didn’t, did I?”
“No.” He said, and she slumped back into the chair.
“Then what did?” Mori asked. “Because I know you were dead. I could see your spine.”
Kunikida became translucent and sunk to the base of Yosano’s chair.
Dazai hummed and looked at Soseki. The man let the stylus peak from his breast pocket and Dazai brandished a smile he didn’t feel.
“I am the Book of–oh.”
Chuuya stood in the doorway, staring at Dazai. He was panting with his whole body; his hair wild and face ashen, drenched head to toe in blood and his pants were in tatters. His hat and coat were missing, even the jacket, and half the buttons on his vest were undone to expose the carmine of the stained button-down beneath it.
Relief hit Dazai like a bullet train—you’re safe.
Chuuya hit the floor.
The sound of him smacking against the metal grating of the hallway shocked the room out of its stupor. Kouyou rushed to his aid and Mori bristled. Yosano tried to stand, but Kunikida grabbed her skirt and she flopped back into the armchair. Fitzgerald, who looked like his soul had left his body, stalked towards him but then evaporated, as if something had whisked him through a portal.
Soseki led Dazai to another door, the warm press of his body heaven to his aching bones. Ango met him at the threshold, similarly disheveled. Dazai was about to berate him when the man swallowed him in a tight embrace.
The sickeningly familiar scent of ink and paper and cinnamon lies assaulted his nose, but as quickly as Ango embraced him, he retreated, adjusting his glasses so the glare hid his tears. Dazai said nothing, feeling nothing but contempt.
His son guided him to a secondary control center, all metal panels and iron grating and idle screens, but Dazai denied the tempting offer of a folding chair. They would come soon, with a wave of questions and accusations and requests, and if he didn’t get it over with now, then he would never find the courage. Best power through it while he was still groggy with pain and adrenaline and then find somewhere quiet to fall apart.
If Chuuya had kept his mouth shut, maybe he could board at Misaki’s for a while.
Fukuzawa was the first to join them, but he back to observe. He nodded at Dazai with a smile full of genuine affection, and then Mori entered and it was gone.
He pulled out a gun and shot Dazai between the eyes.
Chuuya awoke to Kouyou slapping his cheeks, and when he jolted upright she ducked to avoid bashing skulls. His heart in his throat, he leapt to his feet, despite his foggy memory and confusion. All he knew was Dazai may be alive, and that was enough for him. He stumbled, and Kouyou supported him with Golden Demon.
“Where is he?!” He shouted, too loud for the small hallway they were in.
“He was headed to the ancillary control room.”
Yosano sat folded in a Chester armchair, elbows on her knees and head bent between them. Her hands were clasped at her crown as if in prayer. Kunikida was slumped at her feet, staring into the distance.
Unnerved, he stepped into the library with caution, eyeing the couch soaked in blood and the fresh puddles nearby. His shoe squelched as he stepped onto a circle of soggy carpet. Brine and decay met his nose, and he worried there was a hole in the submarine, like a plug pulled from a tub. But there was no rise in water. The wet spot was small and Dazai was alive.
Dazai came to in his son’s arms, his blood splashed across the man’s satin vest. Soseki’s eyes were comforting pools of somber green, the color of verdant forests and sprawling gardens. He breathed in bergamot and coughed out more blood, this time into a handkerchief pressed over his mouth. Soseki’s arms were warm, and Dazai loved him unconditionally.
He pulled himself to his feet, dusting off imaginary dirt. The blood on his chest was dry, and the clots pulled at his bandages unpleasantly. Warmth ran down his face in twin streams, bifurcating around his nose.
Mori stared at him, wide-eyed and unblinking, his face a pale mask of shock.
“How old are you?” He asked, lowering the gun.
Dazai smirked, licking the blood off his lips, and gave him a red grin.
“For the one with the sharpest blade, you’ve always had the bluntest tongue. Ask something more interesting.”
“I think that is plenty interesting.”
“I’m older than anyone in this room.”
“You were a child under my care.” The man said, insistent, and Dazai barked a laugh.
“I’d hardly call that care,” he said, relishing the narrowed eyes and tense jawline. He could get used to this; making Mori frustrated was so much more freeing when everything was out in the open.
“It’s my ability,” Soseki supplied, and Dazai’s stomach dropped through his knees. His son’s ability was something special, something just his own, and he loathed to see him make himself vulnerable.
For his sake.
“Your ability turns you into a cat,” the Director said, and wow—Dazai didn’t think the betrayal would come from him.
Soseki laughed, warm and rich and free of worry. He’d raised him well, if he could laugh like that now.
“My ability is multi-faceted and highly unusual.” His eyes twinkled, and Dazai prayed he would lie—there was no way to prove his claim was false, so wouldn’t Soseki do himself a favor, do his father a favor, and keep himself safe?
“In that I have two of them.”
“It is rare,” said Ango, a shadow beside the door, “but not unheard of.”
“There are tiers of abilities: ranging from the Transcendentals, who only number in the single digits as of today, to ambient abilities that affect the area around a person, and can be attached to the target like a virus. These are the only known types that Dazai hasn’t been able to nullify.”
“Exactly, Kokoro allows me to alter another person’s shape, while I Am a Cat allows me to alter my own.”
For some reason, the Director looked put out at the notion Soseki’s ability wasn’t only to turn into a cat. Dazai didn’t know if he should be concerned.
It was at that moment Chuuya came barreling into the room, Kouyou on his heels.
The ginger bowled into his chest knocking the breath from his lungs. His back hit the wall, rattling dials and instruments. He allowed himself a moment of weakness and combed his fingers through the thick auburn locks, frowning at the blood that caught on his fingers.
“Well, I can see you are awake.”
Chuuya dug his nails into his shoulder blades and stayed in place. His face pressed into the rent of his shirt, as if trying to cram himself into the wound that was no longer there.
Chuuya peeled away, cheek crusted in blood, and he cupped a palm to Dazai’s cheek. He sagged into the touch and let his eyes flutter closed, forgetting all about their audience.
Chuuya is so warm.
Mori cleared his throat.
“If you are the Book, how does one go about using you?”
Confusion swept through azure eyes, but his response was automatic.
“Humans do not submit to other humans.”
Dazai’s heart stuttered to a halt before picking up at thrice the pace.
“Pardon?” Mori replied, perplexed, but the moment was gone and Chuuya stepped away, hand falling to his side. Dazai’s skin was cold in absence of his touch. Somehow it did not soothe his aches.
“So, you are…” Chuuya words were cautious, but Dazai wouldn’t fill in the blanks for him. Not when he stared at him like that. As if he’d betrayed him again.
“Not human.” Mori finished, eyes glowing in the low light of the dead screens. They were red now, and Dazai wondered, not for the first time, if his eyes were part of his ability. Even now, he wasn’t entirely sure what Vitas Sexualis did. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to know, with a name like that.
“Correct,” said Dazai, smile wan. “I am old and mysterious and powerful.” He cocked his head in a manner of false cheer, “Like a witch!”
He opened his mouth and smiled with too many teeth. “And I know exactly what you would wish for, if you could ‘use me’. You forget I was your shadow for so many years. That I was the one who suggested you slit the old man’s throat and take over as boss. Didn’t it strike you as odd, for such an idea to come from the mouth of a child?”
The Director stiffened, and Kouyou was pale in the doorway. Chuuya looked like he’d been submerged in ice.
Few knew the nature of Mori’s ascent into power, and none of them were in the room.
Bloodlust rolled off the man in waves, his smile faux and fanged, and Dazai couldn’t be more delighted.
He continued, noting Soseki’s descent into the rows of screens and control panels towards the navigation room.
“Soseki is my son, you know, and he was the one who founded the Tripartite pact on my behalf. It was actually his idea, his way of trying to protect me. I am sure you’ve realized by now that a Book that is a person, not an object, makes it substantially more valuable. If the Book was an actual book, it could be explained away as a product of an ambient ability, something easily manipulated and obtained. But a person…”
He looked specifically at Chuuya.
“A person is volatile and unpredictable, and much more valuable as a weapon, rather than a tool. Laboratories and government agencies, rather than partisan parties, would be after my head. Which is why-” The submarine stalled, dead in the water—a hundred miles beneath the Pacific Ocean, “-we are going to come to a little agreement.”
Chuuya felt the cracks in his sanity widening with every passing second.
Dazai is the Book? Natsume Soseki is his son? The man is seventy. The Book? Dazai's son?
The words didn’t seem to fit together, and no matter how many times he ran the words through his flailing brain, the sentence wasn’t processing.
He felt so cold, every drop of blood drained from his limbs to the point of numbness, and he wasn’t sure how he was still standing upright.
“What kind of agreement are you implying?” Said Mori, sweet as poison, and there was that too—I knew he had a hand in the previous boss’s death, but to kill him outright and keep it under wraps for so long? No one might contest it, but to think he forged the man’s will to manipulate the line of succession. To what end? And Dazai gave him the idea, wasn’t he the witness for the ‘speech of succession’? So he was there too…
“It wouldn’t do for this to get out to the public, so can’t we all come to terms with this in a calm and rational manner?”
“Fuck that-,” It was Kouyou, and Chuuya put Dazai at his back in an effort to shield him. His adrenaline was still making his head spin, and Dazai blood stained him like a second skin.
“If you are the Book then this changes everything. There are so many ways this could go wrong and… who knows what you’ve schemed if you’ve lived so long-,” Her voice was rising in pitch, and he could see the panic in her eyes. The whole room was on edge, unnerved and unbalanced. None of this made any sense and there was only so much they could take before someone truly snapped.
“If the Tripartite pact was created to hide you from interested parties,” Mori said, “then it would mean the Book’s abilities are of enough value to cause global wars. This goes beyond Yokohama and the realm of abilities. There has never been an ability to allow such longevity and immortality. Your mere existence would cause an uprising in both religious and scientific circles.”
“Which I would like to avoid. Such things are so bothersome.”
“What makes you think you can? You will inevitably outlive us all and fall under someone’s knife, somewhere, at some time. Who knows? The next War might be over who keeps your remains.”
“Honestly Mori-chan, I know you don’t like to air your dirty linens but you don’t have to be so rude.”
The gun went off again; the bullet ricocheting off a wall panel and setting off a small fire in the circuitry.
Dazai slumped to the floor, and blood slid down from the slice in Chuuya’s cheek.
He was going mad.
The seconds ticked by in a tense silence, Chuuya’s skin prickling in gooseflesh as he stared at Dazai’s corpse. His eyes were open and there was a puckered hole in the center of his forehead. There was grey matter on the wall. It was on his face, he could taste it-
A hand rested on his shoulder, and he turned to Natsume, trembling.
“I-Is…” His voice was weak, he barely recognized it. He tried again.
“Is he really going to come back to life?” He sounded like a small child asking for reassurance from their parent.
Natsume squeezed, his green eyes warm and soothing and smile gentle.
He looked nothing like Dazai at all.
“He will, but it will take 127 seconds. Mori.” He said, the name sharp on his tongue. He looked over Chuuya’s shoulder as he said it, ah, I think I see it now. “I know this is strange and unnerving for you—you were never one for surprises, but please do refrain from unloading your gun in here. I thought you had more sense than that.”
Chuuya could feel his boss’s murderous intent, a ripple of fear running up his spine on reflex, but his eyes remained on Dazai’s forehead.
It felt like an eternity, like a hallucination, like a miracle sent from the gods, when the holes puckered closed and light stuttered in his dilated honey eyes. Dazai rose disoriented, and Chuuya grabbed his hand and pulled him to his feet without thinking. His hand was colder in his grasp than usual, and Chuuya held on without care who saw.
“Why don’t you go downstairs, Father?”
Chuuya was so confused he was close to tears.
“Yes, you said you were hungry, right? There’s food downstairs.” Kunikida said, a ghost beside the Director.
Chuuya and Kunikida corralled Dazai to a side door that opened into a short metal staircase that descended into a small lounge, complete with a snack table that wouldn’t be amiss in a corporate holiday lunch.
They reached the bottom of the steps and Chuuya reached out, grabbing Dazai by the bicep. “Hey, Da-”
His head exploded with pain as Dazai’s collided with his, ears ringing, and he dropped to the step, the edge of the stair digging into his back.
Did Dazai just head-butt me?
He rubbed the sore spot, vision still sparking with stars, and looked up.
“Don’t act so familiar with me.” Dazai snarled, jaw tight and eyes cold as he looked down on him. There was a rage in his expression, boiling off him like searing heat, and Chuuya shrunk back with a twinge of fear.
His mind swirled like the plug of reality had been pulled, and he followed Dazai stiffly to the couch, watching with what could only be a vapid expression, as the brunette ripped off all the overstuffed pillows and fling them over his shoulder. A bolster pillow bounced off Chuuya’s chest and another beamed Kunikida in the face.
When he’d cleared the couch, and punched the cushions enough to raise a considerable amount of dust, he settled in the far corner. He sat there with a grumpy scowl as he played with the ruined hems of his sleeves.
Visibly deflating, Dazai draped himself over the side of the couch and stretched for the snack table. He flapped his arms, the table too far to reach.
While it would otherwise be comical in any other setting, Chuuya’s brain continued to stall at the surreal sight as he watched Dazai huff and grumble to himself, eventually heaving himself far enough that he could snag a paper plate which he then used to smack the tower of cookies over and knock them onto the floor.
Kunikida settled in the middle of the couch, staring with wide eyes and Dazai folded over the arm to pick the snickerdoodles and gingersnaps off the rug.
He shoved all four of them into his mouth and crossed his arms stubbornly. Chuuya wordlessly handed him a glass of water. His eyes burned from going so long without blinking.
Dazai glared at the cup so he handed it to Kunikida, pulling up a chair so he sat in front of Dazai. They both leaned in, faces slack, and Chuuya was both at a loss for words and filled with immense concern.
“What?” Dazai scowled, mouth full of crumbs. He swallowed and wiped his mouth with a sleeve, smearing blood across his chin. Kunikida dabbed the hem of his own sleeve into the water and went to wipe the blood off, but Dazai pushed him away and shrunk into the couch.
“What do you want?” He growled, but Chuuya saw there was a wariness in his eyes, a fear curling in their depths.
“This was a possibility,” Chuuya said, “But it wasn’t planned, was it, Dazai?”
Dazai looked at him with a child’s eyes: large and vulnerable. He blinked, and the expression vanished. Chuuya cast his eyes to the floor to spare his heart.
“No,” Dazai whispered, fingers winding into knots and knuckles turning white. “No, I didn’t plan this. I knew there was a chance, but…”
He chewed on his lip and silence stretched between them like an ocean.
“I didn’t think it would be so short.”
It was barely a whisper from his parted lips, but the admission caught Chuuya off guard.
“What do you mean?” Kunikida asked, and Chuuya had forgotten he was there. He only had eyes for Dazai, the rest of the world narrowed down to the man turned child on the couch.
Something had been scraped off during this whole encounter, something strong and thick and used for self-protection. Now is was gone, Dazai was vulnerable, unsure and frightened. As if the admission of his true nature had destroyed the foundations he had built.
Perhaps it had.
The muffled sounds of yelling drifted from the stairs. He felt like they were children taken from the room so the parents could argue. He felt like his reality had fallen apart.
“It doesn’t matter,” Dazai said softly, and took the drink Kunikida was holding, taking a sip. Chuuya watched his throat bob, and a hideous realization ripped through him like he’d been gutted from throat to pelvis. He sat there in cold horror, organs splattering to the floor as it all fell into place like puzzle pieces made of human skin.
Kunikida spoke before Chuuya could find his tongue, and he reached out to still Dazai’s trembling hands, but his own were just as shaky and only made it worse.
“Of course it matters.”
Dazai shook his head and Kunikida moved to touch his cheek. He winced away and Kunikida dropped his hand.
“Okay,” the blonde said, “Okay. It’ll be alright, Dazai. No one’s going to hurt you for this.”
How can it be, Chuuya thought, more awestruck than bitter, that this man can say all the things I can’t?
Dazai’s laugh was hoarse and terribly sad. “I’ve been hurt my whole life for this.”
Neither of them could respond to that, and Dazai read it on their faces.
“It’s fine,” he continued, uncurling his fingers from the blonde’s and leaning back. They took it as a cue to do the same. To give him space. When had they crowded in so close?
He looked to the side at portraits too heavy with paint to be considered beautiful.
“I’m used to it.” He said and turned to them as the Dazai they knew. The one Chuuya knew. The Dazai with haunted eyes and cruel hands with no tolerance for pity.
“I’m over six hundred years old,” He said, letting the numbers hang between them; they wrapped around Chuuya’s throat to choke him.
“It’s always been this way, when the truth comes out. I was prepared this time, so it won’t be like the last… but it’s never easy. It becomes more difficult to let go, once you’ve worked so hard to rebuild what you’ve lost.”
Chuuya opened his mouth but Dazai carried on, looking through him like he was reciting a well-practiced speech.
“I can’t bring back the dead. Still, everyone tries anyway, no matter how many times nothing happens. But no one likes being denied what they want, so they take what they can and still dig for more, as if my screams are soundless.” He locked eyes with Chuuya, and the pain there was fathomless.
“I’ve been vivisected. I’ve clawed out of my own grave. I’ve been raped and beaten, mutilated and eaten alive by beasts and humans alike. I’ve gone into war without being a soldier and haven’t been able to leave. It’s been like this, always, and it’s not going to get any easier and-” he swallowed, his dry tongue audibly peeled off his palate, “-and still I have to keep going because I never stay dead.”
Words died on Chuuya tongue like cicadas in summer. There wasn’t enough oxygen to take a breath. All the color drained from the room, spiraling underfoot like a drain determined to swallow him whole.
Kunikida didn’t look like he’d understood anything, instead struggling for a way to respond to a confession of centuries of suffering.
Dazai’s hands were clasped behind his neck, and his knees tucked beneath him like he was trying to protect them.
Dazai looked at Kunikida, lips pulling into a strange smile that was both warm and withdrawn. The blood was crusted black on his chin and in twin streams from his hairline, parting around his nose. His eyes held a sheen to them, the gloss making them glow like polished amber.
Chuuya realized he was about to cry.
Winter set in aggressively, and the freezing air forced Chuuya to breathe through his scarf. The snow sifted down gently, and he kept his gaze lowered so he wouldn’t get snow in his eyes.
Dazai trudged behind him, hacking dryly all the way down the wharf. Sometimes he broke out into a fit of productive coughing. Chuuya never looked back. He didn’t want to see the blood on the ice.
Getting inside the apartment only took two minutes, but still Chuuya’s teeth were chattering by the time he closed the door behind them. He was glad he’d fixed the heating, but it made his face sting even more.
Dazai stood on the doormat, hands tucked into his armpits, his shoulders at his ears as he shivered with cold. His breath plumed white as his body adjusted to the change in temperature. He looked dazed and a little lost.
Frost clung to his hair and settled on his coat like a white shawl. He’d brought a change of clothes on board the submarine, on the slim chance this all occurred. He even had an extra coat, but it wasn’t suitable for cold weather. His face was red and his nose irritated.
Chuuya shrugged out of his coat and toed off his boots by the door. He went to the kitchen, the tiles cold even through his socks. He cranked the heater and drew the curtains, setting a kettle on the stove.
Dazai replaced the coffee table with the kotatsu from the supply closet. The hum as its fan whirred to life and the low bubbling of the kettle were the only ambience aside from the faint whistling of wind outside. He’d finally found the cracks and caulked them.
Chuuya busied himself in the kitchen, a thousand embryos of sentences aborting on his tongue.
What have you seen? How many days have you spent alone? Were you ever going to tell me? How many lovers have you taken?
How many friends?
How many lives?
How can I help you? It’s nice to have you back. Do you want my help? I’m glad you’re alive.
“What tea do you want?” came out instead, flushed with shame that curled his toes.
It took twenty seconds for Dazai to respond, during which time Chuuya had a nervous breakdown over the sink.
“Hibiscus.” Dazai said in a soft undertone. He was seated at the kotatsu. His posture was stiff as he stared at the wall, but at least he was warming up.
“Right,” Chuuya said, feeling the need to fill the silence, “Hibiscus tea it is.”
He placed the bloom inside the glass teapot and grabbed the ceramic cups he’d bought for Kouyou’s visit. Now canceled indefinitely.
He’d tidied up for her arrival: deep-cleaning the carpet and cleaning off the counters. He’d left the vase alone, unwilling to move it. By now the silver was cold enough it would burn skin. He kept it empty, and the negative space where flowers should be made his stomach writhe in knots.
He kept it empty anyway. There was no one to talk to.
Chuuya poured some water into the vase to save it from cracking in the cold. Steamed hissed from the opening like a plume of breath, ghostly shapes twining against the dark backdrop of the curtain.
He returned to the living room and placed the teapot on a trivet so they could watch the flower bloom inside. Dazai always enjoyed that.
He stared through Chuuya at the blank screen, his gaze hollow.
Chuuya swallowed his trepidation as he set out their glasses and focused on pouring a steady stream of hot water. A soft fragrance rose into the air, and he flicked his eyes to Dazai. He was watching the flower bloom with a blank expression, but there was recognition in his eyes.
Chuuya grinned in triumph.
It was a start.
He returned to the kitchen with the kettle, returning it to the stove and lowering the temperature. There was leftover pineapple rice in the fridge which he portioned out and placed into the microwave. While the bowls rotated behind the frosted glass, he went to the overflowing fruit bowl to search for ripe candidates.
He returned to Dazai with the steaming bowls, yuzu in the crook of his arm, and set them down quickly as the shellac scalded his hands.
The color had returned to Dazai’s skin, and a faint smile curled at his lips. A knot of tension loosened in Chuuya’s chest, and he let himself slip under the comforter and into the balmy warmth. His socked feet touched Dazai’s, and he hesitated before drawing them back, crossing his legs.
Dazai stared at Chuuya’s chopsticks with a frown, and Chuuya chewed the inside of his cheek. He’d forgotten and brought out Dazai’s gift to him. Again.
“Is something wrong?” He asked, moving his hand over the chopsticks as if to shield them. The inlaid pearl flashed like flecks of silver.
“No,” Dazai replied curtly, and dug into his meal.
They ate in silence, Chuuya growing warmer as he filled his belly.
Halfway through his bowl, he was content. He felt like all someone had sucked the marrow from his bones, but he was unwinding, letting himself climb down from the adrenaline-fueled panic and hypervigilant state he’d been in for the past eight hours.
“My past extends so far that I’ve forgotten most of it.” Dazai said, bifurcating the silence. Chuuya startled, eyes finding the brunette’s.
Dazai caught his gaze and dropped his to the yuzu, laying his chopsticks over his bowl.
“The beginning and the more recent memories stick out the sharpest.”
He picked one up and peeled it with his nails. Chuuya watched him pry out a section of orange flesh and pop it into his mouth. His lips were cracked from the cold.
Chuuya poured their tea, the water a bright red, and the bloom unfurled, its petals stretching across the width of the pot.
Dazai peeled two wedges from each other, a string of fiber connecting them, and Chuuya was struck with the image of a lung.
He placed the teapot back on the trivet.
Vivisected, he’d said, not dissected, and, oh, what a difference a few letters could make.
A surge of white-hot rage welled inside him, and he felt Arahabaki coiling in his muscles, eager for blood. He put a cork on the darkness and focused on the sight of Dazai lining up the yuzu peels.
“I used to be a samurai,” Dazai said, picking fiber from under his nails, not looking at him.
“A samurai?!” Chuuya dropped his chopsticks. They bounced off his bowl and clattered to the table where the brunette tracked them with his eyes. One rolled into Dazai’s lap and the other veered onto the carpet.“No. No, you’re joking—that’s ridiculous!”
Dazai’s mouth tightened, a crease forming between his brows, and he placed the chopstick beside his own bowl with a deliberate clack.
“So, you used a katana?” He continued, too blinded to see the weariness in Dazai’s posture. “And practiced bushido, and all that?”
“Yes, well, it was the time-period” Dazai muttered, sounding very old, and reality hit Chuuya like a ton of bricks.
He wanted Dazai to still be the same asshole who kicked ice cubes under the fridge and replaced his shampoo with hair dye and… maybe not that last part, but he wanted to believe this wouldn’t change things between them. That what he knew of Dazai’s true self, what little he’d seen, wasn’t a lie.
“It’s easy to decapitate someone if you aim for the junction between the base of the skull and the spinal cord.” Dazai said with a hint of pride, picking through his rice again. Chuuya held his breath.
“I used to execute prisoners so quickly their heads remained on their bodies even after they were cut.”
Dazai allowed himself a smile, small and sad and directed at his lap.
“I became very good at killing, if only because I was afraid of being killed. The emperor promoted me to general and, although I took part in plenty of battles, I was never in any wars.” He froze, lips growing red as the rest of his face drained of color.
“Well… I’ve only been in one war and I was kind of caught in the middle of it.” The words rushed out of him.
He straightened the chopstick with one hand, the other folding and refolding his napkin. He avoided Chuuya’s eyes and his breathing was shallower. He swallowed thickly.
“I-,” Dazai swallowed again, his expression hard. He cleared his throat and ran his tongue over his teeth. His breathing evened out, and he took a breath, exhaling slowly. “I hated it from the start. I should have gone with archery, but a katana seemed so much easier to learn and the Emperor wanted me on the front lines. An immortal solider is like an instant buzzkill for the enemy’s morale, you know?”
Dazai’s smile was wan and joyless, and Chuuya’s heart ached for him.
“The arrows were the worst, because I could never deflect them. And once I was down, I had to stay down or risk being riddled with holes.” He chuckled dryly and traced a finger along the rim of his cup.
“Once we were fighting atop battlements beside a lake. I was killed and dumped over the side of the wall. Back then it took thirty minutes to come back, so I thought I would be okay—by the time I revived, the battle would be over and I wouldn’t have to worry about getting killed again. But the lake was deep, and I’d sunk to the bottom.”
His eyes grew cloudy, and he slid his finger into the red liquid up to the first knuckle.
“I was down there for five days—drowning and dying, drowning and dying—it was so painful. I’d never drowned before.”
Chuuya watched him lower his finger, giving the drink a swirl. The liquid rippled like molten glass. Steam gathered condensation on the back of his hand, droplets clinging to the reddened skin before trailing down and around the swell of his knuckle into the tea.
“By the time I clawed my way along the bottom and reached the edge, I was down to twenty-five minutes. I hadn’t screamed so much since my formative years.”
He withdrew his finger and dried it with the comforter, scattering drops on the wood. He wiped them away with his sleeve and took a sip of his tea. His arm was trembling.
Chuuya reached out and took his other hand. It stayed limp in his grasp so he squeezed it tight. His thumb stroked along green veins, bumping in the swell of his palm. If he focused, he could feel his heartbeat—too fast and wild for his liking. He pressed deeper, feeling the pulse against his own.
His hand was like ice.
Dazai’s pulse stopped completely before starting at a much slower rate.
Chuuya jerked his hand away, and suddenly the kotatsu wasn’t warm enough.
He swallowed and took a deep drag of his tea.
“Was that the thing…” Chuuya said, cold sweat beading on his forehead, “… that thing where you control your heartbeat?”
Dazai looked guilty, like he’d done something wrong.
“Did-,” Chuuya wet his lips. “Did Mori teach you that, or is it…?”
“Something I can do because of what I am?” His laughter was self-deprecating, “No, Mori taught me how to do it. He can do it too.”
“Is it-,” Chuuya continued, leaning forward slightly. The heat rose off his rice and warmed his chin, but his appetite was long gone. “-Is it painful?”
Dazai blinked at him, and the guilt fled, laughter creasing at the corners of his eyes. He was smiling, but his cheeks looked like wax.
“I can’t tell what hurts anymore, Chuuya. I’m always in pain and have been hurt so much it’s become almost impossible to distinguish painful stimuli from non-painful ones.”
Chuuya’s tongue turned to lead.
His words were dense with implication and Chuuya wouldn’t insult him by pretending to misunderstand.
“So, they never heal.” Chuuya whispered, his throat tight like he was going to cry. The air was dry enough that tears couldn’t form, but his eyes burned anyway.
Dazai inhaled with a nervous hitch, his gaze locked on his tea as he exhaled determination.
He unclasped the metal clip on his left wrist and let it tinkle to the table. In a tense silence, Dazai unwound the bandages towards his elbow to expose red blotches on the other side. Around and around he unraveled them, and each inch of exposed skin sucked more oxygen from the room. He stopped at the elbow and let the excess dangle into his lap. He brandished his arm, hand a light fist, but he didn’t need to move closer for Chuuya to smell the blood.
It had been three months, and yet his wounds looked exactly like that first night he’d glimpsed them, glistening in the fluorescents. Now they were near black in the low light, the ugly characters carved in deft strokes against his flesh.
“They called me something else,” Dazai whispered. “In the beginning, the very beginning.” He swallowed, and Chuuya heard his throat work, “I wasn’t… I wasn’t born, I think. The priests said they found me in their garden, despite it being walled and guarded, sitting against a tree. I can’t be sure because I gained awareness in bits and pieces. I was full grown for almost sixty years before I ‘woke up’, and even then, I was like an infant.”
Dazai lowered his hand, propping his wrist with the base of his palm, and blood ran down his arm like red tears.
“They thought me to be a personified houju; ‘a wish-fulfilling jewel’.”
It comes to awareness in bits and pieces.
It’s first memory is the warmth on It’s skin, a blue sky dappled with white, and something smells pleasant. It fades in and out of consciousness, always finding Itself looking at the same thing, but sometimes it is light and sometimes it is dark and sometimes there are moving shapes that lope across It’s vision.
It learns to follow them with Its eyes, and soon they are leaning in close, rolling Its head and pulling at Its face. It makes sound from deep inside and the creatures leave It. When they come back, they carry It from the green and the warmth and the sweet smells into some place brown and hard and full of those leering, touching things.
It learns the things are people, and It is not one of them but that is okay, because they bring It back to the green and the warmth and the sweet smells.
The people try to speak to It.
It doesn’t know what the sounds mean and only scoots into sunny spots and dips Its fingers—they are called fingers—into the warm water to let the koi nibble on them. When It sees Its reflection for the first time, It doesn’t understand, and warbles sounds from Its throat—It has one of those too!—trying to mimic the others and nearly drowns trying to greet the lady in the water.
It learns later, dry and warm and bare to the summer night, that It is a man, which is different from a maiden, and a maiden with a red-painted smile teaches him how to speak.
Her name is Kiyoko and names are important.
He doesn’t have a name, but he is important anyway.
When he can shape sounds into words, and words into sentences, they bring him back to the brown place—a room, it is called—and there are candles lit in every corner and there is a man on the floor, bowing low. The man does not lift his head at his arrival.
The shrine maidens do not speak to him, and they do not have to. Something about this is familiar in a way he cannot remember. He has never been here before and yet he knows he has been here all his life.
He folds his legs and holds out his left arm and the shrine maidens push up his sleeve to reveal a leather bracer.
They unlace the stiff piece with gentle fingers, and yet each tug whites his vision with pain. He knows this pain; it is familiar, it is constant, and yet something in the room is causing his sensitivity to skyrocket. Forcing him to notice the pain that is always there, always throbbing beneath the bracer.
The piece comes away in two sections, and he is so entranced by the marks on his skin that he does not notice the pillow being brought it in. The thin bone it carries. It is handed to the bowing man, and he is close enough that the man’s breath is hot in his face.
He wants to go outside now.
He wants to be with the fish and Kiyoko who teaches him how to read and write. Who pats his head and lets him braid flowers into her hair. Who does not laugh when his words come out wrong, when he is spooked by thunder and wets his kimono.
He does not want to be here anymore and yet the shrine maidens are holding him tight, holding him down as the man takes the bone and puts it to his wrist and writes.
The sound he makes is unlike any he’s ever made, and the pain—he knows this pain, he hates this pain, this pain is scary and bright and he is screaming. He thrashes like an animal and the priests press him into the tatami with bruising force. His throat rips with pain and the screams make his ears ring and the women are weeping over him as they hold him down.
When it is over, it is not over at all.
The man leaves, disappears, vanishes, and so do the priests—they look displeased. What has he done wrong? The maidens touch his hair, his face, and coo to him, but he cannot hear them over his own screams, over the sobs that tear through his chest. They apply an ointment to the wounds, but all it does is make the skin cold. It does not hurt any less, and they look surprised when he does not stop crying.
“You are a man,” one says, brushing a comb through hair that aches at the roots. “You should not cry like this.”
“We should change his clothes, now that he is awake.” Another says, wrapping his sticky arm in silk bandages.
When she ties the bracer back in place, he feels more grounded, but the pain pulses with each rapid beat of his heart. His breath is coming so fast he fears he will choke on it.
“No, the men like the way he looks. Leave the kimono be. We must wash him before nightfall and return him to Kiyoko. She will stop his weeping.”
They return him to the garden and the stars are winking like a thousand distant eyes. His face feels swollen and his throat is raw. Kiyoko shares a futon with him upon the balcony, but she cannot quell his weeping.
He can’t smell her past the tears and the taste of blood, but he knows she smells sweet.
Her body is warm around him, arms secure around his back, and she lets him bury his face between her breasts.
“I am sorry little one,” she says, her voice deeper than the other maidens but no less beautiful. “We never knew this would cause you such pain. You must bear it, little one. It is your gift to the world. It is your duty.”
Days pass. Weeks.
The pain does not abate, and he realizes it was there before the writing; he’s just been made aware that it can get worse. There is an added layer of hurt, resting along his wrist, but he does not want to look at what it says. It is scary, and the air is sweet and if he runs barefoot on the tatami Kiyoko will scold him only if she catches him.
One year becomes two. Five. Ten.
Kiyoko’s face folds like paper but his stays the same.
She still plays catch with him despite her aching back and still sings him lullabies with her deep voice.
The kanji crawls up his arm like lines of angry ants.
The world he knows is narrow. The garden. The painful room. The bathhouse.
Twenty. Forty. Sixty-three.
One night, Kiyoko does not come to sing him to sleep.
She does not come the next.
Or the next.
She is not there to let him cry his agony into her chest or listen to him babble about the birds and pretty flowers.
The shrine maidens are brittle, older, and they have no patience for him anymore. They say Kiyoko is dead. They say he must learn to be quiet. They say Kiyoko is not coming back because she is in the ground.
He does not understand.
He digs up the garden by the handful and beats his fists at those who tell him to stop. He does not understand. He is being good. He is looking for Kiyoko. He is helping.
He is struck across the face by the head priestess and cries for hours.
There are fresh faces the next day. All the maidens are gone.
“They have been dealt with for their insolence.” Says the head priest, the only face he knows. “My deepest apologies. It will not happen again.”
He has another bracer to match the first, and he is given a new caretaker. Her name is Mei and her voice is soft.
He understands now.
The men who write on his arms also touch now. He doesn’t like the places they touch, but he has learned not to shy away. The new head priest will do worse than them if he does.
He does not understand these things, and Mei will not explain them to him. She looks sad when he scrubs himself raw in the bathhouse, so he has learned to scratch his skin when she cannot see him.
One-hundred and ten. One-hundred and twenty.
Mei is gone too.
The touches stop with the new head priest—the third one.
He understands a lot of things now.
He asks the man for a name.
He does not ask again.
One day, the wish-granting ceremony is different.
The man who comes to him is adorned in red silk and gold foil. He is stern of face and wise of eye but his tongue is silver. Wicked. They do not allow the shrine maidens in the room. Not even the head priest.
It is only the two of them, and the candles make the gold of his raiment spark like flames.
"I wish to become the Emperor.” The man says, “If my eldest brothers are killed, I will succeed my father upon his death. In return, I will give you anything you desire.”
The pillow is there. The bone. The rib.
The man, Yoshizume, does not reach for it.
He realizes the man is waiting for his permission.
“I want a name.”
“You will have it.”
“I want to leave.”
“And so you shall.”
When he takes the name Ookami Shogo, he is given an infantry to command. It is his eighth life, though Yoshizume still lives—now an old man, but no less bitter. They call him General, and he wins many battles. The men he leads are beasts in human skin, and he cannot find kinship in their need for war and honor. He just wants to be warm; there is nothing else he wants but this.
When their armor is still tacky with sweat and blood, they swarm Kyoto like starving dogs. He watches from a distance as they froth at the seams. They are mad with adrenaline and death and spill into the izakaya and ryokan to drown in drink and drug.
Shogo follows them to the brothel where they crowd against the red latticed cages of the harimise. The women wear smiles like paint and kimonos that bare the milk of their necks. He watches the men leer and growl, sees the bloodlust in their eyes and knows they want to sink their teeth in those pale throats. To tear them open and wet their chests with blood.
He ignores them—they will do as they always have, and he will not lose their respect over something like this.
Instead, he watches a woman’s fingers as they set the pins in place, as they sew colored thread onto the temari ball. He stands there for hours, eyes never straying from those slim fingers as they transform the drab object into one of beauty—red starbursts on a yellow field interspersed with indigo thread. It is dark when she finishes, and his legs are stiff as iron. He is tired and hungry, and the blood on his skin has dried into scales.
When he turns to leave, he catches her eyes in the light of the candles—the soft brown of freshly turned earth. Her hair surrounds her like a satin waterfall, black tresses framing a slim face no different from the others. She isn’t special, but there is something in her gaze that snares his interest. She has noticed his stares, knows where he looked and where he hadn’t, and the smile she gives him is small and grateful.
He places a coin on the counter and purchases her for the night.
She looks at him with great betrayal, but her deft fingers undo the obi at her waist. The kimono slips off her shoulders and the bite marks are silver in the moonlight.
He readjusts the fabric and ignores the way she stiffens at his touch.
She is new to this life as much as he is unused to the pressure of command, and there is a collection of temari balls clustered in a corner of the pleasure room. He wonders where she sleeps. Why she keeps her possessions in a room which defiles them by proxy.
It occurs to him that they have all been made today.
There are too many of them, too many hours spent with free hands. If she has so much time to make them, she is either not purchased often or granted days of rest to recover from particularly vicious patrons. His warriors visited the town only four days ago; it is entirely possible it was one of his own men.
His lips tighten and there is fear in her eyes, but still he fixes her clothes and undoes the pins from her hair.
“I wish to sleep with you.” He says, the first words he has exchanged with her. He does not even know her name. He does not ask.
Mothers make Temari balls for their children.
“How do you want me?” She asks, and her voice is nothing special, but to him, it is the softest voice he’s ever heard.
“I just wish to sleep beside you. I do not ask for anything else.”
He watches the way her mouth dips in confusion, how the creases form around her eyes.
Her face smooths out, and she smiles for him again—that small, grateful smile, and he sleeps more soundly than he has in forty years.
He sees her often.
Her name is Misato, and she is a mother of blood and grief. She is far from a home that no longer stands, and her brother thinks her dead.
“When I was a child, I wanted to be an adult,” she says one night. “But now that I am, all I want is to go back.”
Her body is warm beside him, pressed as close as they dare. She smells like flowers in the blush of the spring that passes, and with every season he holds her closer, and feels his heart swell in her presence.
Somewhere in his soul he is always screaming, but in her arms the voice is faint.
Some nights, he finds a tear trapped on the bridge of her nose, pooling beside her eye. He will wipe it away and she will whisper her brother’s name in her sleep, so he will turn over and not sleep for the remainder of the night.
He cannot give her freedom.
Not even his station holds enough clout against the endless coffers of a Kyoto brothel.
He dips his fingers into the hollows of her collarbones and traces the pulse he finds there. He cannot touch her more than this. He cannot bear it. He isn’t sure if he loves her, but knows he is loved by her.
“I don’t think I love you in the way you do,” he whispers one night, when the heat of summer has sweat pooling behind their knees and in the bends of their elbows.
Her expression softens. He cannot find hurt in her eyes, only warmth.
“That is alright. We can love each other in our own way.”
The stars glitter and the moon spins across the sky. It is a world they have built between them over these two years, in which he’s spilt too much blood and too much life and still Misato looks at him with love.
Soon, Shogo spends more time in the brothel than he does at the compound. Yoshizume asks so little of him now, time is gnawing at his mind, so when he begs to be stripped of rank, he is allowed to do so. But time had not made the Emperor kind, and though he does not ask where he spends his days, Shogo is brought onto trial for crimes others have committed. He is given their sentences and their shame and he plunges his katana into his stomach and lets his guts spill at his owner’s feet.
He sheds the name Shogo and cuts his hair off like a limb.
He takes the name Jin and is demoted to infantry. His responsibilities are less but they bind him all the same. He cannot escape death and dying, and, so, when he returns to Misato, he cleans the wounds she has borne in his absence, and she ties his injuries close with nimble fingers and colored thread.
She takes his change of name in stride and calls him Shogo, regardless. He calls her ‘lovely’ and ‘gentle’ and ‘dear’, but still he cannot love her in the way she wishes.
He has only ever wanted warmth, and he has found that in her arms.
Anything more makes little sense to him, and so he does not touch with intent.
Three years. Four. Five.
The world narrows to their tight orbit, and he has never been happier.
If he has learned one thing in his many years of life, it is that good things do not last.
He is not the only one to pluck her from her cage, and one night he returns to find her missing from the harimise. It has happened before, but this time her unfinished temari lays discarded by her designated pillow.
“I have ruined it,” he says when the body is cold and the room is dark. The blood has doused the candles, and the moon casts grey shadows through the paper walls.
“I have ruined it,” he says again. “I have ruined your life here.”
He looks at Misato, and she closes her torn kimono in shame, hiding the chewed peaks of her breasts, the bands of bruising at her throat. The stain has reached her feet, and she takes a step back. Putting distance between them.
“There was nothing to ruin,” she whispered. “It was tainted from the start.”
“They will be after your head.”
“And what of yours?”
“I dare say they will be disappointed. I am not an easy man to catch.”
He studies her face, her round eyes and the way she tucks her lower lip between her teeth. She looks too young, in a kimono too small, and where her skin shows he only sees the bruises. The scars. A constellation of pain on a body forced to grow up too fast.
“I’ll take you to your brother.” He says after a breath, stepping around the body and through the blood. His socks are soaked in an instant, but he sees only her. He doesn’t touch, but lets her fall into his chest. Lets her thread her fingers into his sleeves. Her hand finds his bracers and squeezes them, and the pain that blooms forth is a balm to his soul.
“Okay,” she breathes, and they ride throughout the night and most of the next day.
Her brother greets them with suspicion.
He is a farmer with a modest crop, and he has dealt with bandits before. Shogo—he is Jin to others now—stands back while the siblings embrace. It is not his place to intrude on their happiness.
Misato’s brother has a simple house by the river, surrounded by trees bearing sleeves of pink flowers. They sift down like snow, and he feels at peace.
He is welcomed into the man’s home as Misato’s husband, because a man does not travel with a woman who is not of his blood without sharing her bed.
They are given the same room, and Misato blushes while he does not—he hasn’t blushed in a long time.
He takes to the earth and Misato to the rice paddies. Farming comes easy to him and the crops double with the extra hands.
Misato tells him one day, when they are standing by the river, that she is making a temari just for him.
“I am not a child,” he says, but wonders if that is true. The need for warmth and safety has never left him, and though he is happier than he has been in half a century, he longs for the days he’d spend on a tatami warmed by the sun. The days spent with just the blue and the green and the sweet smells.
Misato laughs, there are sakura petals in her hair.
“They are not only for children,” she says, eyes bright with mirth. With every year, the patterns have become more complex and painstaking, and her brother has insisted she sell them for profit.
She refuses, and the collection grows to accommodate a spare room, and Shogo counts them every night, lest her brother make off with one. He works double shifts in the fields to increase their yield, but knows her brother will ask again.
He is familiar with greed.
“They are a symbol of the wishes of a happy life and good fortune. Do you have a wish of your own?”
Her voice is gentle and kind and his forearms burn like ravenous flames.
“I do not,” he replies, and does not meet her gaze.
Six years. Seven.
The crops fail two seasons in a row.
Misato’s brother grows increasingly restless. He leaves for long hours, abandoning Shogo to tend the fields and Misato the paddies. When he returns, it is with alcohol on his breath and violence in his eyes. Misato mourns against his shoulder in the safety of their bedroom, and Shogo puts the temari in chests he makes himself. There are eight boxes, each the length of his body, and he buries them in the dead of night.
“It is the most intricate one to date!” Misato says to him of his gift, smile wan but eyes hopeful. She is paddling rice into their bowls, and Shogo sets the table for three even though they both know her brother will not return until dawn.
It has been two weeks since she started the pattern, and though she spends several hours each day, it is not complete. He takes her shift in the afternoon so she can lose herself in her craft.
When he comes back in the evening, it is to a house lit in anticipation of his arrival, and he wonders if this is how it is to be married. To have someone to return to. His feelings have not changed, and she has been no less accepting of them, but he wonders.
Most days, when dusk has shaded the sky, he finds the house by its illumination, lit like a beacon across the rice paddies.
Tonight, it is in flames.
He runs, mud sucking at his feet and nails scrabbling when he falls. He finds the house bursting with plumes of black smoke and thick tongues of live heat. There are men in the wreckage and men in the yard, but he ignores them all as he screams her name until he is hoarse.
He braves the fire and retrieves his katana from the hidden panel in their room.
The bandits rush him at the sight of the blade and he cuts them down. There are too many to be passersby, and when he sees the trenches dug beneath the burning trees, he knows they came with a purpose.
Whether to reclaim debts owed by Misato’s brother or acting on the man’s drunken grievances, it matters little. The house is in flames and the temari are stolen and when he finds Misato he finds only half of her.
She is in a stand of reeds by the river, by the bridge he had crossed to reach the house, and, though he binds the stumps of her thighs, she no longer bleeds. Her body is warm and her eyes are clouded and he’d missed her by minutes.
He’d run right by her and never noticed.
The rage that eclipses him is cold and full-bodied, and his tears mix with blood on his face. Fury dulls his blade, and he is driven to the bridge, to its peak, and over the side with an arrow to the throat.
He watches with lazy focus as the bubbles thread through his fingers and ascend without him. The glass above him erupts in twists of orange and gold. It is the most beautiful thing he’s even seen, and it distracts him from the burning in his chest, of the taut strings snapping under his skin. Even his blood is drowning.
It would be nice, he thinks, to return to nothing, and, for a moment, he does.
“Afterwards, I got away from the emperor’s claws and became a rounin. When that became illegal, and Perry’s ships came to shore, I became a farmer in Kyoto and then a schoolteacher in Nagasaki.”
Dazai’s face stalled. His brows spasmed, mouth working with unspoken thoughts, before he pressed his lips into a white seam and looked into his cup.
“I’m tired of talking,” he whispered, the red surface of his tea rippling as his palms trembled around it. “I’m going to sleep.”
Chuuya watched him fold his legs under himself and stand, swaying as the blood rushed to deadened limbs. He towered over Chuuya, and the shadows stretched down his cheeks like deep trenches. His eyes glowed gold, his smile small and grateful.
Dazai disappeared into the bedroom, leaving Chuuya in a stunned silence. The flower in the teapot looked bloated and grotesque, the liquid around it red like blood.
The heater was on and the kotatsu warm with life, and yet Chuuya had never felt so cold.
1853 - Admiral Perry’s Black Ships, which forced Japan to open itself to trade with the rest of the world
Yoshizume is not a real emperor, but is intended to be part of the Ashikaga shogunate, installed between 1450 and 1500
Chuuya flipped the last pancake onto the stack, admiring them. He was quite a good cook, but pancakes had always been difficult. He’d make a dozen, decently thick, growing lighter and fluffier as the stack grew. He was almost proud of them. At least the bottom ones weren’t completely burnt.
Untying his apron, he looked out the kitchen window and frowned. Snow was falling, obscuring Yokohama and the bay behind a wall of white. There was no way he was going out to restock the cupboards in weather like this. Frost encroached around the front door and along the window panes. Ice even covered the doorknob on the inside.
He was certain he would lose several neighbors to the cold, adding to the ever-increasing number of vacancies that would never be filled. When the final occupant passed, the ancient building would be torn down. At this rate, it looked like Chuuya was going to be the last one standing.
Yokohama was used to harsh winters, but they usually peaked mid-February. It was only the second day in January.
Chuuya washed the dishes and was infinitely grateful the water still came out warm. He couldn’t say the same for the shower, though. That morning, he’d filled a bowl with hot water from the kitchen tap and taken it into the bathroom to give himself a sponge bath.
He slid the milk carton into the fridge and gave a sidelong glance to the closed door of his bedroom.
Dazai had retreated to Chuuya’s room in the aftermath of his confession, his own room threadbare and the mattress unsalvageable.
Chuuya slept on the couch.
He’d always been a light sleeper and jerked in and out of nightmares on the lumpy cushions.
I should really buy another one. At this rate, it’s going to stink up the whole apartment.
He massaged the crick in his neck, letting out a sharp hiss when the vertebrae popped under his fingers.
He recalled the sound Dazai’s skull had made when the bullet tore it apart, the splatter of gray matter and its taste on his tongue.
Chuuya bent over the sink and emptied bile into the basin. He coughed and spat until he expelled all the sour saliva and sank to his knees, forehead skimming the dishwasher.
He sobbed once—an ugly, fake sound—but then openly wept, his chest straining to contain his panic as he cried.
“If you are the Book, then this changes everything. There are so many ways this could go wrong and—who knows what you’ve schemed if you’ve lived so long-,”
His shoved his knuckles into his mouth to constrain his cries, eyes darting to his bedroom door. He bit down and tasted blood.
“I can’t bring back the dead. Still, everyone tries anyway, no matter how many times nothing happens. But no one likes being denied what they want, so they take what they can and still dig for more, as if my screams are soundless.”
The walls were bending, warping around him, sucking in closer like the stomach of a ravenous beast. He’d been swallowed whole, and now he was dissolving in its belly.
“I’ve been vivisected. I’ve clawed out of my own grave. I’ve been raped and beaten, mutilated and eaten alive by beasts and humans alike. I’ve gone into war without being a soldier and haven’t been able to leave. It’s been like this, always, and it’s not going to get any easier-”
“-and still I have to keep going because I never stay dead for long.”
His skin burned through his socks; the floor was unbearably cold. The white tiles looked like broken teeth. Torn pages of a novel.
“I can’t tell what hurts anymore, Chuuya. I’m always in pain and have been hurt so much it’s become almost impossible to distinguish painful stimuli from non-painful ones.”
Blank pages dreading to be filled.
“By the time I clawed my way along the bottom and reached the edge, I was down to twenty-five minutes. I hadn’t screamed so much since my formative years.”
How many times had Dazai said ‘no’ and was ignored? How many hands had touched him? How many men thirsting for things they shouldn’t? Hadn’t they heard him screaming? Seen how young he was? He still had a wet nurse—he could barely form sentences!
“Well… I’ve only been in one war and I was kind of caught in the middle of it.”
When had Dazai realized it would stretch on forever? That he would be used and abused for hundreds of years and ignored when he cried out for help?
“Afterwards, I got away from the emperor’s claws and became a rounin. When that became illegal, and Perry’s ships came to shore, I became a farmer in Kyoto and then a schoolteacher in Nagasaki.”
And when he found some measure of peace, he lost it to human cruelty. What was different now? Now that his true origin was revealed, to what extent would he lose the life he’d made?
“It’s always been this way, when the truth comes out. I was prepared this time, so it won’t be like the last… but it’s never easy. It becomes more difficult to let go, once you’ve worked so hard to rebuild what you’ve lost.”
What did that mean for Dazai? For Misaki? Could he afford to stay in Yokohama now that Mori was aware of his existence? Chuuya wasn’t blind to his ways, he knew what Mori did in the War and the wreck he’d turned Yosano into, but would he do what so many others had and take a scalpel to Dazai in the name of science?
“What makes you think you can? You will inevitably outlive us all, and fall under someone’s knife, somewhere, at some time. Who knows? The next War might be over who keeps your remains.”
Yes, yes, he would.
Dazai hadn’t mentioned Daiki, hadn’t spoken of Shuuji, but he didn’t have to to get his point across.
“Kiyoko was my mother, and when she was gone I was given Mei, who was kind but unfailingly useless. She couldn’t even explain what the touches meant, why I wanted to rip off my own skin. She didn’t smell like sakura. She smelled like rice.”
“He gave me the name Fuyumine, but it wasn’t the name I wanted. I don’t think I wanted to be called anything. I just wanted to be left alone. I wanted to be warm.”
“I found so much of Kiyoko in Misato, and I think she was both my mother and my friend. Our relationship was gentle and ambiguous, but we had an understanding. I wasn’t able to find another person like her again, but I also don’t think I looked very hard.”
He trembled with cold sweat, aware of how cramped his muscles had become. Dazai’s face was creased with worry and the confusion of disturbed sleep. His palms were searing as they cradled Chuuya’s cheeks.
“Chuuya can you hear me?”
He swallowed, struggling to uncurl stiff toes. His stomach felt empty and his chest was hollow like someone had scraped it clean.
“Yeah,” he rasped, and took stock of his surroundings.
He was wedged into the corner between the refrigerator and the dishwasher. The sink was still running. Dazai’s eyes were tired and bloodshot, and the bags beneath them were smudges of charcoal. He was wearing Chuuya’s pajamas—the hems too short and the fabric loose around his chest and arms. He was too close, Chuuya felt his warm breath against his face.
“Dazai,” he didn’t recognize his voice; it was hoarse, quiet. He’d blown out his vocal cords. “Can we pretend this never happened?”
Dazai wet his chapped lips and Chuuya followed the movement of his tongue. He caught the man’s gaze and his eyes were alert, the edges sharp enough to cut.
“No,” he said, the sleepiness gone from his voice, Dazai stood and Chuuya craned his neck to look at him, feeling small. “We can’t.”
Dazai set the table and divided the stack into three, leaving the rest to store in the freezer. He brought out the paper plates and plastic utensils and lay the placemats flush to the edge of the table so he wouldn’t have to touch the cold wood. It was so innocent, such a puerile desire for warmth, that it made something swell in Chuuya’s chest that was too close to a sob.
Chuuya’s appetite was gone, but he forced himself to tuck into the pancakes. He wasn’t going to let his hard work go to waste, and neither, it seemed, was Dazai.
He allowed himself the simple pleasure of watching the brunette dig into the warm stack with sleepy interest.
When they finished, he stored the leftovers and wiped down the counters, while Dazai returned the placemats and threw out the trash.
Chuuya thought of the way he’d smiled last night, small and grateful, like he’d done him a service, but the pain in his eyes was raw and writhing. How many people had to betray him to have eyes like that?
“Dazai,” he asked, voice raspy and brittle.
Chuuya steeled himself, swallowing his fear. He knew it was a mistake, but he would say it, anyway. He must. He went to Dazai, who settled into the couch, feet tucked between the cushions, and sat beside him. In the apartment's warmth, there was ice in his stomach.
Dazai’s head snapped up so fast Chuuya swore he heard his spine crack. His pupils were pinpricks, his face severe. “Yes doesn’t matter if you can’t say no.”
Chuuya swallowed hard. Dazai’s mask slipped into place, expression smoothing into something far more frightening. He raised a hand and traced Chuuya’s jawline with his fingertips, his eyes gold and sickly; like amber ready to entrap him.
“Oh, Chuuya.” He purred from deep in his throat. The bow of his mouth curled into a feline grin and his smile grew teeth.
Chuuya swallowed as the fingers skimmed to his throat. His skin tingled where Dazai touched him. Feather light yet razor sharp.
“You can say no as much as you like, but if no one listens, it doesn’t matter.”
Chuuya felt himself slipping into eyes like fathomless voids.
“Of course it matters.” He said, but couldn’t tell if his lips were moving.
“No, it doesn’t. I don’t think you know what that’s like to be denied that choice. You always do what you’re told with little reservation. Like a pet. Like a dog.”
“I do what is needed of me.”
Dazai’s eyes thinned with mirth, and his smile stretched to obscene proportions. He leaned in close, lips brushing the shell of Chuuya’s ear.
“Liar,” he breathed, hot and moist into his ear, and a shiver ripped down Chuuya’s body. His toes curled and he could feel Dazai smile against his skin. His canines scraped across his cheek as he pulled back.
His grin was cruel.
“You do what keeps you needed.”
Chuuya was drilled into the floor, his stomach a ball of lead that pulled at his organs. He thought of all the havoc he’d wreaked, all the pain and blood and suffering, and felt only pride.
He planted his feet on Dazai’s chest and forced him backwards, and his ears rang with Dazai’s piercing laughter.
“What the fuck was that?!” He shouted, because it was easy to be angry, easy to hate. He rolled with Dazai, pinning him down. Brown hair haloed his pale face, and his teeth were a string of broken pearls. “Don’t you fucking dare speak to me like that, not after all this!” He spat, clenching his fingers around the front of Dazai’s shirt. His voice wet and choked. “Don’t shut me out like you always do—it’s not going to work!”
Dazai’s smile only grew, and Chuuya wanted to punch him until those pretty teeth shattered into splinters.
“If you want me to hate you, you’re making it pretty fucking easy,” he threatened, hand recoiled in a fist.
How many times had they held him down in this way, carrying through on the punch that he was threatening now?
His fingers loosened, the fabric stretched out of shape.
“You can hit me, Chuuya.” Dazai said, but the words came out of a doll’s mouth. He had withdrawn into his shell, leaving a plastic expression behind.
Chuuya swallowed as ice fed into his bloodstream. His fingers loosened as he stared at the fabric stretched out of shape. At the emptiness behind honey eyes.
Slipping arms under Dazai’s torso, he gingerly helped the man sit up. Dazai stiffened as he pulled him into a crushing hug.
“Chuuya?” He felt the brunette’s eyelashes flutter against his neck. “What are you doing?”
“I’m hugging you.”
“Why?” Chuuya barked out a laugh, tears climbing down his cheeks. Of course Dazai wasn’t used to hugs, not when his ability—no, his nature—was to nullify the abilities of others. To make them less than whole.
“Oh, god, Dazai—you’re so broken… you’re so fucking broken.”
Dazai was still against him, arms hanging limply at his sides like he didn’t know what to do.
“What should I do?” Dazai asked, monotone. “What you want me to do?”
Chuuya buried his face into Dazai’s shoulder, and he stiffened at the warmth of his tears.
Like he couldn’t understand how anyone could cry for him.
“I’m sorry. Do you want me to feel sorry?” He tried again, a fine tremor running through him like the humming of a live wire.
“No,” Chuuya said, twisting his hands in the fabric at Dazai’s back, listening to it creak and snap as it submits to his nails. “I want you to be happy.”
It was Dazai’s turn to laugh, but it was a pitiful, reedy sound.
“Then I think you’ve gravely overestimated what I can do. I can’t grant my own wishes. I can’t stop the pain, or the suffering,” Dazai finally returned the embrace, splaying his palms across Chuuya’s shoulder blades.
Chuuya never had the right words to say; he felt like he’d missed out on that manuscript. Never got that list. He knew how to charm and harm but never to heal. He floundered where others flourished, but he liked to think time had made him kinder.
“Pain is not the same as suffering.” He said, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is a choice.”
“Bullshit.” Dazai laughed, burying his face into the crook of Chuuya’s neck. “Life is built on suffering; choice has nothing to do with it. That’s something only someone who has never suffered can say… but that’s not true either, because you have suffered plenty. Your life is steeped in suffering.”
Verlaine saw that, in his final moments, and offered Chuuya an olive branch.
“Live. Who you are, where you came from, there’s no longer any way to know, but even if you’re nothing more than a surface frame to power, you’re you.”
“Who can remember pain, when it’s over,” Dazai quoted, “but I don’t think Margarete Atwood had to deal with chronic pain. Having your flesh ache to your very bones,” Dazai’s jaw was rigid, nails sharp into Chuuya’s spine.
“Every day I wake up and it’s a battle not to scream, because a part of me is always screaming, always crying, and every time I put on clothes I scream louder because it hurts, Chuuya—it’s hurts and they fucking lied, because time never made it any easier to deal with!”
There was moisture against his skin and Chuuya realized Dazai was crying.
His choked out syncopated syllables, body shaking with anguish.
“I’m just a toy that’s lasted longer than all the others. They think—they think I can take anything because I can’t truly die, because I’m a m-monster and I choose not to show pain, but that doesn’t mean I can’t feel it!”
“I-I’m so sick and tired of living! It hurts so much and no one notices or cares!” Dazai’s whole body heaved with the effort of his sobs, and Chuuya held him tight. Afraid he would shatter if he didn’t.
“One-hundred and twenty-seven seconds…” he whispered, and Chuuya never heard him sound so defeated. So desperate.
“I’m down to one-hundred and twenty-seven seconds… it wasn’t that short last Tuesday.”
Chuuya recalled what he’d said before, breaking down on the couch. ‘I didn’t think it would be short.’ He’d deflected then.
“What do you mean, Dazai?” He asked, stroking his hair.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“I don’t understand most of this, to be honest, but I know you’re hurting.” Dazai leaned back, looking up at Chuuya with the face of a child. He bit his lip and averted his eyes, the surrounding skin red and puffy.
“Breathe, just breathe” Chuuya cooed, rubbing his back.
Minutes passed as Dazai struggled to compose himself, sniffling and rubbing at his tear-stained face.
“There’s nothing you have to do but breathe, Dazai. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t feel comfortable saying.”
“A little late for that,” he laughed, keeping his shoulders folded, his body leaned against Chuuya’s chest.
Chuuya was close to crying himself, and his throat was still raw from his breakdown. His back ached from supporting Dazai’s frame, but his weight was negligible. He ate like a bird. Chuuya wouldn’t be surprised if he could perch on his collarbones. The mental image of Dazai swarmed by songbirds brought a smile to his lips, and he squeezed the man’s hand in reassurance.
“I can’t die!” Dazai blurted, his pupils small and hands curled into fists above his heart. Chuuya cocked his head, his grin twitching, this time fondly.
“I know that. You have no idea how scared I was.” He felt the grief welling in his chest, as if it had been real. As if the damage was lasting.
“No one ever reacts well to it. When I die people mourn for me, and when I revive they end up fearing me. So they try to kill me again. Man will always fear that which he does not understand, and so he seeks to destroy it. But I…”
Dazai disentangling himself and rose to his feet.
“I can only find solace in death.” He said, retrieving The Complete Manual to Suicide from his coat. “It’s not like I’m not depressed. I’ve had the symptoms since the beginning, but was only diagnosed by Mori. I know I’d want to die even if I couldn’t come back to life, but I’m in so much pain, Chuuya,” He turned to him and his eyes were bright with oncoming tears, his smile trembling, “And the few minutes I’m dead, there’s no pain.”
Dazai handed him the book but Chuuya’s mind was focused on one thing.
“Do you… go to an afterlife?”
Dazai blinked, perplexed, before breaking out into genuine laughter.
“No, but since I don’t actually stay dead, I don’t think I’m the person you should ask.”
“Who should I ask? A zombie?”
“Talk to Kunikida after 36 hours of no sleep and he’ll tell you about the angels in the ceiling.”
“You spike his coffee.”
“I spike his coffee.”
“You’re incorrigible, how are you still employed?”
“I don’t think I am, actually. I’ve never received a paycheck from the Director, but I think it’s because Kunikida fields my checks into a savings account under his name. To force me to save.”
“That’s illegal, isn’t? He’s the one who loves rules, right?”
“He doesn’t like rules he disagrees with. He’s a bit of a gung-ho activist who wears a sweater vest and makes dad jokes.”
“I’d drink all day if I had to work with that.”
“The best thing about whiskey is that it looks like tea, and you can drink tea at work.”
“Why are you telling me these things, Dazai?”
Dazai paused, smile freezing, before growing in false cheer.
“I thought you always wanted to hear about my day? Isn’t that what couples do?”
Chuuya didn’t rise to the taunt, instead exhaustion hitting him like a freight train. Dazai’s smile fell at his slumped shoulders, and he looked away.
“Because it would be nice to live without guilt.” He whispered and squeezed Chuuya’s hand.
Dazai’s own was warm.
Dazai is an ugly soul.
When he kills, he feels nothing, and when he lets them live, he feels too much.
His is a story told in parts, and he is missing most of it.
Missing is not the right word, because he can touch those memories in the middle, see and feel their shape, but they are foggy and irrelevant and much of the same.
It is the beginning and end that haunt his waking moments, and he is tired even when he is asleep. He wakes and wants to return—wants to sleep even in his dreams.
He searches for the Big Sleep when he cannot afford to stay in bed. He says he's fine because he isn't and smiles because he's sad. He crosses streets during rush hour walks through construction sites in the hopes a stray nail will enter his brain.
When he’s granted those scarce few moments of peace, when Mori puts a bullet through his skull, he allows himself to weep. He has long since learned to cry without tears, but they are of joy. Of relief.
The world spirals away and he is pulled into a soothing darkness.
My friend, we meet again too soon.
He cannot feel his body. Weightless, he floats along a current that drags him steadily towards a mouth of blinding light. Dazai lets his eyes fall shut, breathing in the smell of nothing, using the few moments he has to soothe himself, to remind himself that he can do this. That he can always come back here and start again. There is no hurry.
He wonders if Misato felt this peace - this freedom, but fears the answer.
He always misses her; he sketches temari in every possible design and imagines they are the one intended for him. When it becomes too much and his heart is heavy, he draws kimonos and pretends they are hers. It makes the pain worse, and yet he does it anyway, sketches the taiko drums that narrated his battles and the sakura Miyako smelled like.
He sees Miyako in Kouyou, but it is a fleeting look in rose pink eyes that he struggles to name. He tries his best ignore it, to shy away from anything that reminds him of his birth because those are wounds that may never close.
The rest of his life has only compounded his fear of touch, of getting too attached, but his first memories stir a sort of existential terror in him. As if he is not so unnatural as to grant wishes through his pain, he has never aged. Has never stayed dead for good.
How did he end up in a walled garden, propped against a tree with not a hair out of place or a thought in his skull?
Can he refer to himself as male, when thinking of that time? He was the closest, then, to the object everyone takes him for.
He fears returning to that empty state, as much as he longs for it with every fiber of his being.
It is how he got by, how he copes with the world.
Just one more day and I can rest.
It won’t be long before someone notices, before someone questions how he can hang himself so many times but never break his neck.
How can he tell them he rarely fails?
It isn’t all bad, living as Dazai Osamu.
The first half of this life is dark and piteous, but he chose this. He was the one who came to Mori, his son’s student, with a broken arm and fractured hip from a miscalculated jump off the bridge.
His body buzzing with Natsume’s ability, smaller and younger than it’s ever been, he pantomimes a twisted childhood.
It is as fun as it is disheartening, and his only saving grace comes in the form of a pacifist former hitman and a bespectacled pencil-pusher. They come into his life as quickly as they leave, but the wounds they leave are deep and only fester with time. He leaves the mafia and forgets about the ginger with the god inside his bones, rallying for freedom, and about how easy it is to kill without remorse.
He spends two years lying low, holed up inside Misaki’s, working as a line-chef and reading his old books until his eyes cross. Misaki rarely brings up Shuuji, and Daiki is not even brought up in private. He aches to give her closure, to point to the photos on the wall and wonder aloud how three individuals could look so alike, down to the style of their bangs and the number of freckles on their necks, but he doesn’t.
He leaves with her blessing and enters the world of light. The Agency blinds him with their naïve idealism—the innocence of youth and a sense of loyalty to one another that he simultaneously admires and despises.
There is bitterness and fury inside him—it will never leave, only grow—and though some sense its presence writhing behind his eyes, they accept him like an old friend.
He becomes an old friend.
Dazai is an ugly soul, but perhaps this life won’t turn out as bad as the others.
WARNING! This chapter is extremely graphic with disturbing images of gore and human suffering, as Dazai is a victim of Nagasaki. If you cannot read such things for your mental health, you can skip it when you hit the italicized section.
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The Port Mafia headquarters were empty. Most of its employees were on holiday—it was a business, after all. Francis’ shoes clacked on polished marble as he walked through a jury of elk busts. Their reflective eyes missed nothing. They would be perfect for hiding a camera, but he knew there weren’t any. There wasn’t anywhere to hide in this tower, everything in it saw without eyes.
There was something about being in a place meant for the many but occupied by a few that made one feel as if they were being observed.
Francis entered Mori’s private office and was met by an eerie, absolute silence. The enormous room was lined wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with antiquated books.
He picked up a lowball and poured out a whiskey on the rocks. It was a vintage from 1814, aged in Spanish oak barrels. The decanter was so old if filled with water it would still be worth several estates. He rolled an ice cube in his mouth, enjoying the sound it made against his teeth.
A hand landed on his shoulder and he suddenly gulped it down, spinning around to face Mori. Fuchsia eyes bled with warmth but he wore a mouth full of malice. His throat burned.
He returned the smile, plucking the hand from his person with mimed pleasantries.
Courtesy cost nothing but his pride.
Draining the glass, he took a seat in a corner where he could watch the oak doors.
He pressed the empty tumbler against his temple to soothe his pounding skull. The glass felt cold in his hands, but was lukewarm against his skin. He was running a low fever brought on by stress and hadn’t eaten in two days. Exhaustion chewed at the edges of his vision as he followed the man pacing around the room with his eyes.
The Director entered through the double doors, flanked by Natsume Soseki, and Francis curled his lips, exposing a line of teeth. It was the closest to bared teeth his company would allow.
“What a fine morning, gentlemen,” Natsume greeted, his voice bouncing around Francis’ brain like a tennis ball. He bit back a moan and forced himself to go boneless against the stiff leather.
“Dazai will be arriving shortly,” Natsume continued, ignorant of the way Francis’ skull lanced with pain at the mention of the source of his ails.
Lovecraft spirited him away to a warehouse in Shanghai and left him there. It was a six-hour flight back to Yokohama, only to find the Book—Dazai Osamu—was squirreled away somewhere in the city. The only thing standing between him and Yokohama being leveled to the fucking ground was the agency’s director who took him aside to explain the situation the best he could.
Afterwards, he closed his hand around Francis’ bicep like a steel manacle.
“Do not make the mistake of thinking you are the only one who has experienced loss and is unwilling to accept it. I doubt you are the first to approach him with this, and you will surely not be the last. I may not have much in the way of money or influence, but I am as much of a father to Dazai as to any of my employees. If he refuses your request and I find you’ve tried to force his hand, I will hunt you to the end of my life and rip your head off your shoulders with my teeth.”
Francis was a business man, dirty he may be, but he’d never met a man with eyes like Fukuzawa Yukichi.
He suppressed a shudder at the memory, at the feeling of utmost certainty that this man would kill him if he did not keep his word.
But Francis was singularly driven, and his life meant little to him.
Without his Scottie, what use was living at all?
“Dazai,” Chuuya said exasperatedly, striding through the doors without sparing a glance at the occupants. “I’ve watched you fucking waffle-iron an egg.”
“Don’t start Chuuya, not everyone can be a master chef like you.”
“The day you cater for someone is the day you’ve committed mass genocide.”
“We’ve both done that.”
“Your food will make them hear color and see sound.”
“It’s not that bad!”
“MY BIRTHDAY CAKE SENT ME TO THE HOSPITAL!”
“Children, so glad you could join us!” Mori laughed, teeth sharp, and Chuuya bowed his head in shame. Dazai blew the man a raspberry.
“The government is convening with themselves, unfortunately,” said Natsume, “but we should continue posthaste.”
He struck his cane on the hardwood, and lightning pulsed behind Francis’ eyes. He swallowed past the apple in his throat, past the nausea threatening to turn his stomach, and quelled his pride at being the only one sitting. If he stood, it wouldn’t be for long.
“We came to an agreement, Father, that in exchange for their cooperation, you would answer their questions.”
Francis had not agreed on this, but he was outspoken three to one. In business, it was best not to rock the boat, although that ship had already sailed.
“Let’s see,” Dazai said, trailing his finger along the shelf, inspecting it for dust. “I could if I would, but I can't so I won't.”
“You-!” Francis jumped to his feet, his ability thrumming beneath his skin with an ice-cold fury. His vision tunneled on the brat’s feline grin, how dare you mock me you imbecilic-
His chest struck Natsume’s outstretched cane, and he glared at him, his fist shaking with restrained destruction. Fukuzawa had a hand on his sword, mouth a tight line, and Mori looked twice his age.
“Father,” Natsume supplicated, and wasn’t that a bizarre sight, when the man sported silver streaks and crow’s feet while his ‘father’ didn’t look a day over twenty-five.
“This isn’t up for debate. You can answer some questions. I’m sure Nakahara has asked you plenty.”
“I haven’t, actually.” The ginger interjected, having gravitated towards Dazai as if his bodyguard. He wasn’t even supposed to be in this meeting, but no one was going to object when the circumstances were so strange.
“Fine,” Dazai sighed, theatrically, hopping onto Mori’s desk and taking a seat on the edge. He spread out his arms.
“Shoot—not you, Mori.”
Francis set his tumbler down on a nearby shelf. The light reflected through the pattern to create a lattice on the table. It looked like a chessboard.
“Can you revive the dead?”
Nonexistent wind ripped past Francis’ ears, the words closing over his head like an ocean. He reached out for the surface but was still breathing as he was dragged to the depths of a despair he couldn’t feel because-
“You can’t or you won’t?”
If there was urgency in his voice, a desperation that debased him, he couldn’t care less.
He moved to stand, hauling himself to his feet on pure adrenaline.
“You owe me-”
“-I OWE YOU NOTHING!” Dazai snarled in a voice barely human, his face ruined with rage. Francis shrunk away, despite himself, and Dazai crowded him back into the chair, blocking out the overhead lights with his imposing frame.
Dazai leaned in close so Francis could stare into eyes like glass marbles. The brunette’s arms caged him in the chair, and Francis felt like a child in his presence. Dazai smelled like maple syrup and cigarette smoke.
“You don’t have to listen, you just have to learn. Money means nothing in the face of power, and power means nothing in the face of death.”
Two cold hands gripped either side of his head, and honey eyes undulated like melting amber. There was no reflection in his small pupils. They swallowed all the light.
“Have you ever been eaten alive, not only by emotions, but by teeth? Left to flounder in dark water as you feel each alveolus of your lungs pop like bubbles? To watch your companions wither and die around you, plucked from their youth or disfigured by time? I am no stranger to the impotence of grief—the pain of coming to terms with your own helplessness in the face of death.”
His lip curled back to reveal twin rows of white, and the depths of his pupils expanded by miles.
“Do not think,” Dazai breathed, barely a whisper in the deafening silence, “that you are the only father in this room who still grieves for his daughter.”
The sky is clear, and the air is full of bugs that aren’t biting.
Daiki takes the cloudy rice water and waters the flowers out back. The fuchsia heads of cosmos bounce under the impromptu shower, and he waves at the neighbor weeding under their porch. They do not respond, and Daiki leaves the door open as he returns to the kitchen.
He keeps the house open when he cooks, so the smell doesn’t leech into the tatami. Tomoe is such a sensitive girl, and she can’t sleep near strong smells.
His daughter is only seven, the adopted war orphan of the Suzume family who lost all means to support her when they fled town.
As the single father to a child not born of his body, he is the town pariah, and they push for his relocation at every opportunity. Even if his family has lived in the area for three generations, tending the land and providing enough crops to meet the district’s quota, most families shun both him and Tomoe. It is by sheer force of charisma that he is able to keep Tomoe in school.
She is warming up to him, bit by bit, and now she snuggles up to him at night, and lets him do her hair in the morning.
He sets the rice to cook and takes a deep breath.
The silence is welcome, but his skin prickles with an apprehension that hasn’t faded in months. Every drone of a B-29 sends him bolting for the door, ready to make the race for Tomoe’s school. Everyone else cowers beneath tables and trees and watches him sprint through the empty street like the oddity he is. He isn’t sure how much longer he will be able to endure their stares when he inevitably begins his walk of shame back to his house, each time more awkward than the last.
He’s only had Tomoe in his life for three years, and yet he loves her like nothing else.
She is the first child he’s ever adopted. As a rounin it was easy to escape suspicion—he never stayed in any place for longer than a week. Life as a farmer is vastly different, but he’s changed his appearance in subtle ways—removing a few fingers for Shouta and dyeing his hair black for Ryuu. But once he notices the long stares of his neighbors, when they sprout grey hairs and his skin remains supple with youth, he knows it’s time for an accident and an estranged son to pop up at the funeral.
Having a child poses the unique challenge of having someone within the know. He’s told no one what he is—most people won’t believe him until he’s risen from an arrow to the heart or a slit throat, by which point they don’t care what he is as long as he dies.
He thinks things might go well with Tomoe. She is so cheerful and bright and lets him make her flower crowns and talk about his life under the guise of a fairy tale.
The world turns orange, and he is flung across the house.
Darkness greets him, death opening its arm like an old friend, and he floats along that black river with distant thoughts. The relief from his crushing agony wipes any concerns from his mind, and he weeps when the light pulls him back into the waking world.
The first thing he registers is the scorching heat.
He coughs out billows of thick dust and moans when the pain hits him full force. It differs from what it’s usually like, and his eyes bulge at the intensity. He recognizes broken bones and burned flesh, but forces himself to his feet.
His head is swimming, and he is so confused—the clear blue sky has been replaced by an expanse of black. The air is sulfuric. His eyes burn as he looks around and his lungs crackle when he coughs.
The city is flat .
The buildings are collapsed in the same direction, as if combed by a giant’s brush.
He absently plucks out the splinters of glass lodged in his arms, watching the blood run in warm streams. His skin is black and blistered, and although he registers the pain, it is duller than it would be for anyone else.
There is an odd shape to the silence.
It is absolute and paralyzing, and he would think himself deaf if debris didn’t crunch so loudly beneath his feet.
He trips into the street and finds bodies sizzling in the dirt.
The living dead emerge from a screen of ash, flesh. dripping and purple. Most of them are studded with triangles of glass. Their hair sticks out in frizzy patches, their mouths open but silent. A mother trails her toddler by the hand, her eyes dripping out of her head.
The ghouls walk listlessly, grouped together, their bodies naked and raw. One man’s guts spill from him and trail like an umbilical cord. A child follows its parent with its genitals melted and stringy. A mother carries an infant on her back, fused to her body like a parasitic twin, the baby’s face and mouth charcoal holes.
They pass him like ghosts.
A horse runs by in flames, screaming like a butchered pig. It tumbles headfirst into a ditch and catches the bramble on fire.
He heads for the river to escape the spreading inferno, and the ghouls follow him without a sound. Their arms are outstretched and their eyes ooze from their skulls. He doesn’t know how they know to follow him. The ground beneath his feet is ash so hot his feet bubble with blisters. The crackle of distant flames is the only ambience for miles.
It is both a relief and a horror when other sounds join in: the moans of the dying and the pleas of those caught beneath debris.
“I’m burning mommy! Mommy where are you?!”
“Help me! What are you doing? Why aren’t you helping me?!”
A staggering line of schoolchildren follow their blackened teacher—backpacks glued to their backs like turtle shells, the weight enough for it to slough the skin off their backs and arms to expose pink flesh.
The children jump into the river, seeking relief and paddle feebly. The water swirls with dirt and oil and their heads dunk beneath the surface one by one.
He watches them and feels nothing as the current clogs with corpses.
He crosses the bridge and is met by more burning statues, melting corpses with just enough breath to moan in agony. Some manage weak steps to the mouth of a well, dipping the bloody holes of their mouths into putrid waste.
Black rain falls, and it is hot like a summer shower.
It slicks every surface, pouring down into hopeful mouths to drown them. It ruins rare sources of clean water, and those who drink seize up and die in an instant.
He shivers even though he’s hot.
He feels something run out his backside and when he touches his pants, they come away red. His scalp itches, so he scratches and his hair comes away in clumps. Blood pours out his mouth and the pain is all-encompassing. He wheezes, squirting from both ends, and he hits the ground. His skin slides off like butter, muscles falling off like good beef.
He dies and returns not much better.
The oil rain has ceased and his hair has grown back brittle. It comes out in brittle clumps by the roots.
He finds a storehouse of rice and tears open a bag. It looks like charcoal. The potatoes are baked from the heat, and they taste like rotten eggs, but he manages to keep it down. His gums are bleeding by the end, and his molars fall out.
“Urakami?” He asks a man he meets in an empty space that may have once been a street. The man’s chest is burned and his charred skin hangs down like a fleshy apron.
“Gone.” The man croaks, revealing black teeth.
The land is full of crying children, regardless of age. They are all desperate squalling children, frightened and confused.
Someone is crying. He goes to them.
The old woman moans, her wrinkled face screwed in pain. She is trapped beneath the beams of what was once her house. Her son is already there, putting his shoulder against the beam to push it aside. The skin rips right off the bone and he falls with a moan. Daiki is pristine in comparison, his skin unmarred by the blast, but his insides are cooking. He lifts the genkan roof off her, but the woman’s lower half is missing and her son is quiet now.
He walks away in search of Tomoe’s school, and only finds it from the water tower that stands on a single leg, crooked and melted to the foundations.
The building itself is a hollow husk with few remaining walls, and those that do are shorn low to the ground.
His heart does not pick up its pace; it is slow, unhurried and calm. He is calm when he enters the wreckage, when he finds the only classroom it houses.
He is calm when he finds the same scene as everywhere else.
The bodies are evenly spaced on the floor, curled tightly into themselves, and they are so, so small. He could mistake them for sacks of rice or sleeping cats.
They all look the same—burned and bald and silent. There was no air siren, and yet they managed to scurry beneath desks that are now splinters in their backs.
One child’s skull is open, their brain pouring out in a puffy, purple mess.
It is impossible to tell which is Tomoe.
He’d missed her orientation—he wasn’t sure where she sat in class. Was she one of the children by the window, whose sides are riddled with glass? By the hallway—where the children are smeared on the ground like ink stains?
He counts them—one, two, three—and when they tally up full, he counts again.
Could they have swapped her for another child at the last minute? Did he get the roster wrong?
Their corpses are blackened husks that crumble at his touch, and when he puts a hand on one’s chest the skin slides off to expose the raw flesh beneath. He cannot bear it.
The sky is a bruise above him; the roof blown off and walls destroyed to expose these tiny bodies to the hungry sky.
The shock has not waned one inch since he woke beneath his house, but now it slides off like the skin on Sonozaki sensei’s ankles as he drags him out from under his smashed podium. He drops the body, half uncovered, and staggers back to the children in their neat rows and columns like shoots of rice.
His tongue is fat and dry in his mouth and he can’t feel his feet anymore. He is smeared in soot and oil and evaporated fat, and he cannot feel the tears on his cheeks.
Blood roils in his stomach, and he vomits on his hands and knees.
He is crying now, open and loud. His lungs ache with every gasping sob, and the ground is hot under his palms.
He cannot be sure which child is his own, and so he weeps for all of them.
He grits his teeth and they slide into his gums. His sobs turn into screams that rip open his throat and the oppressive silence. Too many of the moans have gone quiet, too many bodies festering in the streets and clogging the river, and he doesn’t think he’s ever screamed so loud.
It is so great a noise that he cannot hear it. All he hears, all he sees, is the neat little grid of bodies that are so small and silent and one of them is his daughter but he doesn’t know which.
He presses his forehead into the ground, screaming into the earth. He curses the Americans, the gods, his fellow countrymen who did not know.
But they did know.
The military collected all the flyers as soon as they fell, squirreling away the pamphlets saying their town would burn on August 9th.
Few knew of the warning, only those in the military who told their family and friends. Some built shelters in preparations, and others already had them stocked and collecting dust. He held Tomoe from school yesterday, hiding beneath their house in their bomb shelter, and the day had come and gone and they laughed it off.
America is a day behind.
The screams subside with his emotions, and he is left a carved-out husk.
He goes through the motions, finding a smoldering wreckage nearby that he uses to light a torch. The tiny bodies are still in neat little rows when he returns, and the clouds are dark and bulbous.
They ignite in a moment, aided by the black rain, and he lights them systematically. He doesn’t bother saying prayers for them. His mind and heart are empty spaces.
Once he’s set each one to cremate, he leaves in search of the living.
He doesn’t make it very far before his senses return to him—when the stench of rotting bodies and burning flesh reduces him to retching. Sour bile turns to blood, and he keels over.
When he wakes he is in a truck bed entangled with corpses, and he screams himself hoarse until he’s dragged out by men in uniform.
They are his people, and they say that they think it’s all over. That they’ve lost the war.
He spits in their faces.
“You think?!” He snarls, and the truck moves on without him.
Corpses are laid out on the train tracks, interspersed with the dying.
He rips off the corner of a soiled mattress and finds water to soak it in. He squeezes water into their parted mouths, and moves to the next. It’s from a cellar storage, so he’s confident they won’t be poisoned, but they are dead by the time he circles back.
“It’s not your fault,” someone says. “They are all going to die soon, anyhow.”
Human shadows are seared into stone walls. He can make out the line of a cane. The wide brim of a hat.
They set a hospital up in the skeleton of the Shinkozen Primary School, and he does what he can to aid the attending physician. Patients die under his hands and mid-conversation. The flies settle in swarms, and the maggots have already set in. One woman comes in with her kimono pattern burned into her skin.
There is a little girl under a shredded blanket, the same age as Tomoe, but when he looks in her eyes he sees fear, not recognition. Her scalp is burned and her face swollen and red. She dies in his arms an hour later while he is singing her a lullaby.
A medical team from a naval hospital arrived in the evening, and he leaves in the morning on one of the few trains still running. He sneaks on board—his injuries are no longer visible, but he can feel that something is wrong inside his body—and hops off at the next town.
He steps onto the platform, tugging his coat around him, and takes a deep breath.
There are people here, flittering in and out of the station to deliver supplies and carry the injured. Through the double doors of the entrance, he can see greenery and dusty streets and people going about their day.
He can take a new name and start a new life.
He isn’t sure what number he’s on now, but he’s long passed one hundred.
He cannot take a single step forward.
He wants to go back.
He wants to go back.
Back to his simple life as a farmer, planting rice and raising Tomoe, playing with Tomoe, eating with Tomoe, holding Tomoe…
He is pushed to the ground in the medics’ rush to get victims off the train, and he curls into a ball to protect his head.
Daiki thinks of those blackened bodies, curled up like cats, and sobs.
Chuuya pulled Dazai from the office, mindless of Fitzgerald’s boneless sprawl or the way Fukuzawa’s hand trembled on his katana. Dazai was crying—full bodied sobs that wracked his frame with harsh tremors. Chuuya’s own tears blurred his vision to the point of blindness, but he knew the layout of headquarters like his bedroom. He guided them into the main hallway and pulled Dazai towards him, propping his own back against the wall.
He pressed a gentle kiss to Dazai’s forehead, meant to soothe, and the brunette sagged against him.
“I’m so tired,” Dazai moaned into his shoulder.
“Why can’t they just leave it be, Chuuya? It never changes… at least they could ask new questions. Demand something of different of me. Wish something-”
He curled his fingers in the hem of Chuuya’s coat, mashing the zipper between them. “I’m sorry, Dazai,” Chuuya whispered into dry locks. “I don’t know what I can do for you.”
“You’re doing it,” Dazai mumbled into the fur trim, shifting to press his cheek to Chuuya’s neck. It was warm, and Chuuya wondered if Dazai got more or less sick due to his ability. Dazai probably killed himself at the first sign of a cold, and the thought didn’t soothe his nausea. He secured his arms around Dazai’s waist and closed his eyes.
“I’m sorry to intrude on such a tender moment.”
Dazai pulled away. Chuuya snagged his thumb into his belt, keeping him close, while giving his boss the least disrespectful glare he could manage.
“While that was indeed… enlightening… that wasn’t what I’d hoped we’d conserve about.”
“B-Boss, I don’t think-“
“What do you want, Mori?” Dazai asked, exhaustion weighing his words. Chuuya stared at him. Tears were drying on his cheeks, and his eyes were dulled and defeated. It was a look Mori would delight in—any sign of weakness was one to be exploited.
“Before you go, I’d like to ask you a handful of questions, if that’s alright?”
“It’s fine. Go ahead.” Dazai’s tone was flat and lifeless, and it turned Chuuya’s stomach to hear him so empty.
“Wouldn’t you like to take this somewhere more private?”
“Everyone’s on holiday.”
“We have cameras.”
“I know you don’t. Hurry up. I’m tired and I want to go home.”
Mori raised a delicate brow and locked his eyes on the hand Chuuya had on Dazai’s hip.
“Of course. When were you born?”
“At the turn of the 14th century on the outskirts of Edo.”
“To natural parents?”
“No. I appeared in an Inari shrine. There was no knowledge of how I arrived there.”
“I see.” Mori took long strides closer, and Chuuya restrained his shivers.
“Anything else?” Dazai asked, impatience creeping into his voice.
“What is the cost, to write on you?”
“To you? Nothing.”
“And to you?”
“Nothing of your concern. I take it Soseki explained the mechanics?”
Mori stopped, heel squeaking against the marble. It was clear from his expression that the mention of his teacher unnerved him.
“He explained enough, but I wished to hear it from you.”
“Well then, you’ll have to settle for disappointment. This meeting was purely for Fitzgerald’s benefit—to ensure he remained in the alliance while simultaneously eliminating his obsession.”
“And where will you be?” Mori asked. “When I want to implore you further?”
“I’m not going anywhere.” Dazai said, tipping his weight into Chuuya’s side. “If you want to bother me, you know where I’ll be.”
Outside, the sun rose over the bay.
Winter tunneled through their coats to find thermal underwear, so it slapped their cheeks and chewed their lips.
The ground around the entrance was salted, wet cement dressed with blue crystals that crunched beneath their boots. He led Dazai across the median of snow to get a better look at the sea.
Chuuya leaned against the railing and Dazai mirrored his position, pressing side-to-side. The water was a placid stretch of dark purple beneath a mosaic of pale pinks and peach-yellows. The sky was clear of clouds, and the stars peaked through the fading night.
“You never said the shrine was Inari’s.” Chuuya said, sneaking a glance at his companion.
Haloed by the rising sun, the light glanced off the gold in his irises, causing them to spark like wells of precious metal. His hair was windswept, fluffed by the constant breeze and the sunlight brought out shades of mahogany in the ends.
“I didn’t think it mattered.” Dazai shrugged, his lips raw and scabbed.
“It suits you.”
“Of course—foxes have always been your thing. You always know how to one up everyone, and there isn’t a trickster on the planet slimier than you.”
“Why, thank you, Chuuya. I am truly flattered to receive such high praise. Would you care for a smoke?”
Chuuya startled at the pack of Winston Reds offered by gloved hands. They were navy leather, lined with rabbit fur. Chuuya thought he’d discarded the sixteenth birthday present years ago.
He took a cigarette and watched Dazai choose his own, pulling out a custom matchbox engraved with S.ODA in calligraphic font along one side. Chuuya never had a lighter on him, something he always filched from others or lit off the end of Hirotsu’s cigarette, let alone a matchbox. He didn’t need to ask where it came from.
Dazai leaned in, offering the smoldering butt of his cigarette, and Chuuya blushed as they touched the ends together.
They stayed there for a moment, looking at each other through half-lidded eyes, exhaustion expanding in Chuuya’s chest like a yawn.
Dazai pulled back and let the smoke stream from his nose like a dragon’s breath. Chuuya blew jellyfish rings and admired the timbre of his partner’s laughter.
Dazai entered the Agency and was greeted by silence.
The office had been rebuilt and refurbished, not even sparkles of powdered glass remained between the floorboards. He took a hesitant step beyond the threshold, eying his coworkers who’d paused their various activities in lieu of his arrival.
Kunikida’s pen scratched off the page, and Ranpo froze mid-chew, potato chips crumbling to the floor from his fist.
Atsushi—the person he was both the most and least eager to see—vaulted his desk to tackle him. The boy barreled into his chest knocking the breath out of him, but a knot of tension unraveled in response to the warm embrace.
“Dazai-san!” Atsushi cried.
Kunikida cleared his throat and shared a look with Yosano.
When aboard the submarine, he hadn’t intended for them to become entangled in this mess. Yosano, he’d predicted, but Kunikida’s presence was wholly unaccounted for, and when he’d broken down in front of him he had no way to gauge the repercussion of his actions.
The clap of sandals on lacquered hardwood lifted his gaze to meet the Director’s.
Fukuzawa’s hands were tucked into the sleeves of his kimono, hip propped against the doorframe, but his eyes were warm pools of silver. Dazai returned his smile with a shy dip of his head.
“Dazai-san!” Atsushi exclaimed again, climbing him like a tree, “Y-you’re really back?” The boy locked his ankles around Dazai’s waist. Atsushi’s breath was hot against his throat.
“Are you really, really back?” he whimpered, body trembling. Dazai’s throat squeezed around his words, so he settled for humming a small affirmation.
Kyouka materialized at his side, squirming between Atsushi’s gangly limbs.
“Welcome back,” she murmured against his ribs. He stroked her head and Kyouka sagged her weight into his side, overbalancing him. Kenji rushed to their aid, sweeping the three into an encompassing hug that had nothing to do with his ability.
Kunikida slapped a book on his desk—not the Ideal, of course—and they extricated themselves from Dazai. Atsushi clung to him, however, and he allowed himself to be guided to his own desk.
Dazai sat down in the familiar chair, greeted with an unfamiliar sight.
Cards and twists of candies lay scattered over his workspace. There were pieces of toffee overflowing his coffee mug and childish drawings of flowers. He picked up an envelope with numb fingers and peeled off the seal with care.
Hello! You’re probably at the Agency when you read this. Kunikida-san won’t let me mail any of my letters—he says you need time to yourself.
Please come back.
I hope you are doing well. That whatever you’re doing is nice and relaxing and not anything dangerous, though it probably is.
I just realized this is the first time I’ve ever written a letter. There wasn’t a need to do so in the orphanage. Ah, I’m getting off topic.
I wanted to let you know that I don’t blame you for what happened. Neither does Kyouka, by the way. It wasn’t your fault. None of us could have known it was an ambient type or that it would be so awful for you. I may not know specifics about your past or much about how to comfort someone, but I do know what it’s like to deal with trauma and the guilt you feel when people get hurt in the process. It was you who told me never to pity myself, that I will just suffer twice as long for it, and I think you should try taking your own advice this time.
I hope you are eating enough and drinking something other than coffee. Water, preferably, and taking vitamins for your health. You probably aren’t doing any of those things, but I wanted to let you know that I—we—are thinking about you often and miss you terribly. The office is lonely without you, and I miss our walks. I don’t miss fishing you out of the river, but I’m starting to.
P.S. Kunikida said I should end with ‘Sincerely yours’, but that doesn’t sound right to me.
Atsushi was blushing over his shoulder, and Kyouka watched from behind her desk with mute anticipation.
He leaned back and took a stuttered breath, holding the card over his heart.
For Dazai, kindness was painful. Like heat rushing into a frostbitten limb, every rush of warmth revealed how much damage he bore.
These people were too kind to him. Too forgiving of his faults. If they had any sense, they would shun him. Fire him on the spot. Yet here they were, welcoming him with opened arms and kind words.
He held the card to his face so they would not see his tears.
“I want to formally introduce you to Soseki.”
“I’m just wrapping up a case at the moment, it won’t take more than another ten minutes, and I’m starved.”
“It’s not even noon? Anyway, I’m getting groceries right now, maybe another time.”
“I’ll meet you at Misaki-chan’s in an hour!”
“Wait! Don’t hang up—dammit Dazai!”
Chuuya wasn’t doing anything pressing for work, the majority of his coworkers were still on vacation, and though he was normally exempt from such frivolities as an executive, Mori was keeping him at arm’s length. He wasn’t sure if he was going to be fired, nor how he felt about the prospect, but any excuse to stretch his legs on a much-needed trip to the grocery store was one he gladly accepted.
He ran home to put away the food and spent half an hour in front of the mirror. A suit would be too much, a T-shirt too little. Figuring he was going to be wearing a jacket over it anyway, he threw on some dress clothes and an overcoat from Germany.
Chuuya’s chest rattled with nervous energy.
He felt, in a strange, obtuse way, that he was being taken to meet Dazai’s ‘folks’.
He had been forced to chain his motorcycle a block down, mildly impressed at the thick grid of cars parked out front. Despite being over half a century old and crumbling at the seams, the izakaya clearly had a loyal set of customers.
The chatter was a rumble of raspy voices, low enough that the bubble and spit of a fryer dominated the ambience. He fell in love with the smell—a combination of fried foods and the bite of winter spices. A stalwart woman with her hair in a blonde bun adorned with fresh orchids shouted a greeting to him from behind the bar.
It struck him how unlike an izakaya Misaki’s establishment was. There was no sense of privacy, no tatami floor seating for which he needed to remove his shoes. Only the single wall of four booths and the eight bar stools in front of the open kitchen. The front door was wood instead of frosted glass, and although the noren curtain hung over the entrance, the red lantern was missing.
The linoleum squeaked under the treads of his boots, the floor slanted and uneven in a way that spoke of a decaying foundation, and the brick walls were clean of flyers and calligraphy pamphlets.
It was decidedly Western for an owner who despised Americans.
“Nakahara-san!” Misaki crooned, waddling out from the kitchen in a stained apron over her kimono. Her entire face folded with her smile, and he met her just as she crossed the bar. His fingers quietly hummed with his ability, ready to catch the woman if her tottering gait failed her. If it was anyone else, he wouldn’t bother, he had a reputation to uphold, but this was someone impossibly precious to Dazai.
“Dazai-san will be here any minute,” she said, eyes crinkling with warmth. Several men at the bar turned at the mention of his name, lifting their glasses with broadening grins. Someone in a booth cheered, and the woman with orchids in her hair blushed and smoothed the creases in her blouse.
It was clear that Dazai was more than just a family friend—he was a staple of the izakaya. He was loved here and had been for as long as the building existed, and Chuuya was reminded once more of how much of privilege this was. How much trust Dazai was putting in him to allow him into such a sacred place.
“Natsume-san is sitting in the back. I’ve already set out the sake and food, so be sure to have your fill before Dazai-san shows up. He always eats so much!”
Chuuya paused, and Misaki watched him with shining, pale eyes whose edges threatened cataracts.
Dazai eats like a bird, he thought, but didn’t say, and only nodded in response.
Chuuya slid into the booth opposite Natsume, and drowned in the awkward silence between them.
There was nothing in the man’s features that suggested a resemblance to Dazai, but the disarming charisma pouring off him in waves was unmistakable.
Oh, he realized, this is the son Shuuji wrote about.
“It is lovely to finally meet you.” Natsume said, eyes creasing with a smile.
“Yes,” Chuuya cleared his throat, poking at the slices of raw fish. “Likewise.”
Natsume’s laugh was soft and pleasant, eyes glittering as he rested his chin atop laced fingers.
“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry you were dragged into all the chaos at the base. It wasn’t my intention for things to go pear-shaped, but these things do happen from time to time.”
“It’s fine. We both have jobs to do.” The fish was chewier than he liked, and he washed it down with sake. He could tell it wasn’t the Junmei by the taste. She really does save the best for him.
“Yes, well, Dazai wanted us to meet. I do wish I had been more present in the past decade, but I’ve been needed elsewhere.”
“Like I said, it’s fine. What can you tell me about him, as your father?”
“There isn’t much I can say on the matter, my father’s a rather tender subject here.”
Chuuya’s eyes drifted to where Misaki puttered behind the bar, fussing over blonde’s hair.
“Yes, of course, then how should we-”
“Dazai-kun!” Misaki’s voice peeled back the clamor of voices, and Chuuya turned in time to watch the izakaya erupt to flock around the newest patron. He pantomimed a wave, smirking as Dazai clapped hands with aged customers. Their eyes met.
“Chuuya!” Dazai squealed, joy bubbling through his broad grin. Chuuya couldn’t help but return a shy smile of his own, neck flushing at how gorgeous Dazai looked when he was happy. Innocence was becoming on him.
Lunch was a quaint affair of tempura and miso soup, coupled with eight accounts of embarrassing stories about Chuuya and only three about Dazai. It gave him time to marvel at how Dazai could say so much but divulge so little, allowing Natsume to steer the conversation with memories he couldn’t speak of as himself.
Afterwards, Natsume bid them farewell, giving his father an affectionate kiss on the cheek before he disappeared around the block.
“He’s a lot like you,” Chuuya remarked, following Dazai back inside.
“You think so? It’s the hair, right? I’ve always said he got my hair.”
Dazai swept past their booth and unlocked the door to Misaki’s apartment.
Chuuya hesitated before ascending the staircase, holding his breath as the door shut behind them, muting the patron’s clamor.
Intimate, was all he could think when looking at the low table cluttered with bobbles and trinkets. Books were everywhere, toppling across the well-used futon like dusty towers.
“Have a seat anywhere,” Dazai laughed, but there was a strain in his voice and the muscles in his upper back were wound tight. He wouldn’t look at Chuuya.
“Okay,” Chuuya said, taking off his shoes at the door. The air was heavy with mildew. He hadn’t seen tatami mats so old since his visit to Kouyo’s estate in Hakone.
Dazai righted the book towers and settled atop the futon.
Chuuya’s lips were so tightly pressed together they might disappear entirely, and his heart hammered like a taiko drum. He couldn’t seem to cool down despite the chill permeating every inch of the room.
“This is where I went after I left the Mafia,” Dazai mumbled, snapping the band of his sock and watching the dust motes rise in the shafts of daylight.
“I want to tell you more about me, but…,” Dazai whispered, and Chuuya reached out and grabbed his hand.
“You don’t have to,” he said, “We don’t have to do any of this.”
Dazai laughed and met Chuuya’s eyes beneath the fringe of his hair.
“I’m aware,” he slipped his fingers through Chuuya’s, “but I want to talk about Shuuji.”
Shuuji arrives in Yokohama on the coattails of Autumn.
He observes the izakaya from afar, afraid of returning to that gentle world. Afraid of tainting it.
Misaki has given birth in his absence, and the boy is blonde.
She is convinced Daiki is alive—she’s hung his photos on the wall. He cannot bear to see her suffering, and so he hides away and does not greet her.
His clothes hang off his skeleton and food refuses to stay in his belly. His revival does not improve his health, and his emaciated appearance would only fuel Misaki’s determination that he is Daiki.
He is not Daiki, not anymore, and so he does not go to the izakaya or alert anyone of his presence. The hovels he takes shelter in are drafty houses through which the breeze whistles like lost voices, and it reminds him of the sea without the pain of seeing it.
He lives like this, in squalor and minimal awareness, until his frame fills out. He can still see his ribs moving under his skin when he breathes, but his clothes fit better and there is color in his face.
When he returns to Misaki, she thinks he is Daiki anyhow.
After weeks of deliberate unfamiliar mannerisms and a backstory of neglect that taints Daiki’s image, she is convinced and nothing is well.
He is given Daiki’s room under the condition he not remove his father’s belongings, and Misaki avoids him with all the derision and despair of a disillusioned woman still in love with a ghost.
He cannot take to the sea again, his heart aches at its sight, so works behind the counter. The izakaya is full of people who remember who he isn’t, and though he finds a place among them, there is an otherness that pervades his every social interaction. His flirting falls flat, but no one seems to notice, and if his hands shake when he cooks red meat, no one says a thing.
He works part time so he can recover in bookstores.
It is in the written word that he can escape the screaming, and he rips into psychological works and eschatological discussions.
When he isn’t reading until he sees double, he is out of his mind on recreational drugs. Sometimes they soothe him with disassociation, and other times he is back in Nagasaki, puking out his internal organs over his daughter’s charred corpse. When he hits too many lows and not enough highs, he abandons the needle and pill in favor of more physical pursuits of nirvana. He has never experienced sexual desire, but his body should react to stimulation like anyone else’s. He lets people get him off but cannot bear to reciprocate, to take or be taken. It is a lost cause, and though orgasms are pleasurable on their own, the aftermath is too wet and intimate for his liking.
At night, he sleeps very little, and in the day, far too much. When he passes out, he makes sure to do so with a towel between his teeth, lest he alert half the neighborhood when he inevitably wakes screaming.
He paints his feelings and burns every one.
It is when the flames become inviting and he raises his voice at Misaki one too many times that he finds Natsume Kimi.
She is a struggling woman of kin with Misaki—a middle-aged single mother. He does not fall in love with her, rather he falls in love with the way she looks at the world. Her child was unwanted, born of a quick relationship and a father who would not let his daughter abort the pregnancy. Unlike Misaki, she has nothing but adoration for her son and works triple shifts to provide him with a future. Her smiles are real and her eyes unshadowed, and he becomes a surrogate father for nine-year-old Soseki almost immediately.
Kimi holds no delusion over their relationship, although he tries to love her in the way she needs, and they become roommates. He moves out of Misaki’s because he can longer stand the bitter tears she hides. Kimi and Soseki brighten his life but not his mind, and there are many days in which he cannot bring himself to leave his futon.
Sometimes Soseki comes home from school early to lie in bed beside him, and sometimes Shuuji can bring himself to recite poetry to the boy.
Shuuji teaches him how to use his powers and holds him when their existence becomes too much.
When Shuuji’s depression steepens and Kimi’s health deteriorates from stress, Shuuji homeschools Soseki from under the safety of his covers. The boy is brilliant and absorbs information like a sponge, and he takes to Shuuji’s lessons while working odd jobs to support his ailing family.
No amount of food seems to erase the fatigue from Shuuji’s bones, and his skin is translucent on the best of days. The Americans have been expelled from Japan, and yet their presence is still felt in his nightmares and the shadows beneath Misaki’s eyes. Her son grows in spite of her absence, and though she tries to connect with him, her affection falls short.
Kimi dies of tuberculosis when Soseki is nineteen, and Shuuji drags himself out of bed for the funeral.
Soseki is inconsolable, Misaki is getting married to a local entrepreneur, and Shuuji finds himself in the shed behind the izakaya, watering his paintings with oil and contemplating joining them.
He burns the paintings but saves himself for another day.
Soseki needs Shuuji for a while longer, and people are more preoccupied with the booming economy to give his youthful appearance any note.
The days melt together, twisting into a monotony of sleepless nights and hectic days. He’s returned to work and socializes like a talking doll. Soseki graduates college as a famous author and Shuuji cannot attend because he is being beaten to death behind a bar for unpaid loans. They leave before he returns to life, and the break from pain carries him for the next few years.
Soseki is twenty-seven and Shuuji should look forty-three but he looks twenty. Nagasaki is still there, smoldering behind his eyes, and the Americans are digging into his intestines so he sets himself on fire in the shed and lets Misaki find him.
He is down to five minutes, and it is Misaki who finds him and Misaki who runs away, allowing him to escape unseen.
He moves to Kyoto and hates every second.
Soseki tracks him down within a week, the clever boy, and he forces him to spill his secrets. It soothes him, in some way, to give to Soseki what he could not for Tomoe, but it is a bittersweet revelation, and he does not mention her.
His son leaves his side on the condition that he return someday. He does not know if he can do it again—face Misaki and those who have known and loved him twice.
He does not know if he can return to the city that betrayed him, where he will always fear for his life.
It is Soseki who suggests a city-wide reform, who reminds him that abilities have more use than personal enjoyment. Soseki leaves to find two young men he heard of in passing, and Dazai—he is Dazai Osamu now, whoever that is—wallows in emptiness for eight years before his son gives the all-clear.
He has gained enough weight and learned about makeup and when he returns, it is under the guise of his son’s ability. It is refreshing to move in a body changed by time, but he cannot bring himself to act the part of a child when his heart is so full of darkness and death.
He jumps off the bridge and lands in a way that breaks his limbs but not his neck, and he wakes up under the scalpel of a mafia doctor who knows his son.
Dazai allowed Chuuya to spend the rest of the day in his bedroom. He ran his fingers through auburn locks, smile soft and demure. Pressed up against one another, Chuuya’s head cushioned in his lap, they imparted their warmth to one another. The man’s soft snores accompanied Dazai’s unhurried breaths, the air suffused with Chuuya’s rich perfume. Cologne, he’d insist with red-tipped ears, but they both knew better.
The desaturating sky drained the shadows from the room. Gentle wind rattled the screens, registering with Chuuya only in the faint creasing of his brows. Dazai’s eyes were unfocused on the page in front of him, sake glowing in his belly. A weight had been lifted from his aching shoulders, and he succumbed to exhaustion. Scooting himself down so he could curl into Chuuya, resting his head on the ginger’s thighs. He tugged the thin covers over their midsections and tucked his feet into the warm folds of his knees.
Dazai slept, dreaming about the memories he’d kept to himself, because there were some things he would never tell Chuuya.
Daiki travels far before settling in the coastal city of Yokohama.
Tending the land for three generations, he flees to the sea in search of solitude. Manual labor is always in demand, no matter the time period, and it is easy to find work on the docks—hauling nets and crates. He lasts for a week before the pain in his bones is too much, even for his penitent soul, and takes to the seas as a fisherman. He finds serenity in the cobalt shades of twining surf—the slap of waves against the wooden hull of his vessel. He masters the skills of a sailor and keeps his skiff out longer than anyone else.
When he isn’t sleeping, he’s on the water, and most nights can be found floating on the moonlit bay—trailing his nets, setting his traps and crying.
He does a lot of crying.
He also does a lot of drowning.
The sickness has lingered under his skin, in his marrow, festering in wicked ways within his body. His hair still comes in brittle, his teeth are loose in his gums, and he’s lost vision in one eye. He routinely dunks his head into the ocean and breathes in deep, flopping back into his boat to thrash and drown. It doesn’t help, the sickness stays, and he realizes it’s because he is only reviving, not regenerating. Whatever lives in his flesh is unimpaired by the momentary interruption of blood flow, and so he resolves to burn himself.
He goes outside of the city to do it, unsure if the flames will spread his disease.
He is struck with nostalgia, longing for the days before the Black Ships arrived, before Western industrialization obliterated virgin soil. On his country-wide journey from Nagasaki to Yokohama, he always searched for a skyline without wires, straining his ears for the absence of cars and planes.
On Yokohama’s mountainside, he is plunged into the past, only to have it ruined by the realization that the trees are of the same height, age, and pattern. This too was a forest planted by man.
He digs a pit and fills it with dry wood, settles down in it like a nest. When he burns, it is after he’s died—biting off his tongue so he doesn’t have to smell his roasting flesh. It is futile, and when he wakes, he screams and retches and claws the taste of evaporated fat off his tongue.
Roughened with sleepless nights and renewed visions of blackened bodies, he visits the beach on the eaves of morning.
He removes his shoes but hesitates on his shirt. His belly concave from starvation born of grief and his skin pasty.
His revival has reverted his tanned skin to its original shade, so he leaves his shirt on to avert suspicion.
The beach is empty in the early dawn, and he walks over the hard ribbons of sand at low-tide like he’s the last person on the planet. This thought comforts him, and so he walks until he hits a seawall and then doubles back, cold water lapping at his ankles as the ocean surges over the sand.
This time around, there are people on the beach, but only two. A mother is sleeping soundly in the shade of the tidal wall, while the child throws themselves shrieking into the spray, sprinting until they trip.
When the naked child emerges from the ocean, he realized it’s a little girl around Tomoe’s age with black hair plastered over a pudgy face as she runs on fatty legs back to her mother. The poor woman is exhausted, with smudges under her eyes like tattoos, still she smiles and takes the starfish.
The sun emerges from behind the cloud cover and the mother gives her hat to her daughter. The surf arcs in tunnels of navy glass, and the sand is warming beneath his bare feet.
“You’re so skinny!” The little girl squealed, pattering over to him. The straw hat is like a bucket on her head, swallowing her face to just leave her smile. She’s missing her front teeth and sports her dimples proudly.
“Really?” He replies, kneeling to tip the hat back so he can see her eyes.
They are an astounding stormy grey, and there’s a mole beneath her left eye. He swallows. It is said that a woman with a mole in the path of her tears will live a life full of them.
“And pale! Here!” She takes off the hat and puts it on his head. She pats the top with a broad grin, “There you go!
Daiki had never fallen in love so fast.
Her family has just opened an izakayas, and he is hired on as the family’s direct supplier, brought into the fold with a hospitality he cannot accept. Misaki adores him, clinging to him when she can, and crying when she cannot. She doesn’t grow out of this attachment, and by the time she is ten it is clear she harbors romantic feelings for him. As adorable as it is, he recoils at the age difference and lets her down politely. As often is the case, this doesn’t stem her affections, but Daiki learns not to let it bother him.
The business grows along with the family, and soon the burgeoning izakaya becomes a hub for dock workers and locals alike.
When Daiki isn’t fishing or walking along the beach with Misaki on his heels, he is in the restaurant, laughing and sharing ribald jokes with the regulars. It is obvious he is a staple of the izakaya, nearly a mascot, to the point where they offer to design a logo based on his hat. He declines with a laugh.
Misaki is seventeen years old, and he hasn’t an age line to show for it.
No one notices, but perhaps it is the deep brown of his skin or the considerable muscle he’s put on that hides his youth.
It is clear Misaki will never let her love for him go. She denies a marriage offer, and he confronts her behind the izakaya, her hands dunked in a washbasin as she launders the towels.
“Misaki, I am fifteen years your senior. I’ve known you since you were a toddler. I could be your father.”
“It’s doesn’t matter! I’ll always wait for you.”
“No! I love you!”
It tears at his soul, but he leaves her there, crying into her soapy hands as she kneels in the dirt.
He cannot give her what she wants and so he gives her space instead.
She is eighteen when the Americans come—when both she and Daiki are destroyed.
Just so everyone knows, in actual history, Yokohama was destroyed during WWII due to an air raid and earthquake. As such, the events in this story would be impossible if I based it on reality. Therefore, keep in mind the timing of the American occupation of Yokohama is wildly incorrect, so let’s pretend abilities delayed their deployment.
Dazai and Chuuya returned to their apartment just as dawn broke over the bay.
“Oh my god,” Chuuya moaned, stretching his arms above his head, “I slept so badly, why are you all skin and bones?”
He turned to Dazai, who was already playing a video game on the couch.
“Because all those muscles go straight to your head.” Dazai replied, leaning with the handheld as if it would angle his character across the finish line. “No wonder you can’t defeat me at Mario Kart.”
“Please, Ikillyou at Mario Kart every damn time.”
“Lies, is what you mean – just watch, hook that up to the TV and I’ll prove it to you.”
They spent the next hour screaming as the AI consistently pummeled them into last place.
“No fair~” Dazai whined, “I had Yoshi!”
“Yoshi doesn’t mean shit – you still fuck up when you turn.”
“You aren’t much better, you failed Rainbow Road even with the bumpers!”
“Yeah, yeah. You know you love me.”
“No. I don’t.”
Chuuya startled. The brunette stared back, expression implacable, and a pit of ice formed in Chuuya’s belly.
He threw his hands up.
“For fuck’s sakeDazai! This shit again? Why can’t you just be civil for like, fiveminutes, before you go pressing on my bruises?”
Dazai shook his head, laughter catching in his throat like a sob.
“It doesn’t matter,” he whispered, bowing his head, “even if I did love you, what difference would that make? Do you want me to go through life knowing I’ll have to see you die, even if your job or Corruption doesn’t kill you? Not to mention I’m a liability. Mori will make his move sooner or later, and when that happens do you want to choose between your boss and your friend, or your boss and your lover?”
Chuuya could say nothing.
Dazai nodded, running his tongue over his teeth, “Yeah, I thought so. You aren’t special Chuuya.”
“I don’t accost you or beg you to love me!”
“Or really?” Dazai scoffed, “Like you didn’t shove your tongue down my throat in my daughter’s house?”
“That was onefucking time –”
“As if you don’t eye-fuck me every chance you get. I’ve seen the way you watch me eat.”
“Are you going to blame me for being sexually attracted to you? Are you serious? Are you fucking serious right now? I don’t act on my feelings, I don’t stalk you or guilt you or – hell, I haven’t even confessed to you! It’s not like I’m going to jump your bones the first chance I get? Did you think I wanted us to be friends again so I could fuck you? Is that what you think?”
He wouldn’t look at Chuuya. Ice spread through his veins, dousing the fire.
“Dazai, do you really think I only want you around for sex?”
Dazai winced, eyes locked firmly on the edge of the coffee table. His hands shook around the controller enough for the buttons to rattle.
“Oh, Dazai,” He breathed, “How could you think that? Do you really think there’s nothing I could love about you?”
Dazai recoiled, and Chuuya’s heart sunk into his stomach.
“To be worthy of love sounds like the most beautiful delusion, Chuuya. I wish I could believe it.”
“I love you,” Chuuya said.
Dazai looked at him, eyes wide and straining. His lower lip wobbled, but he shook his head.
“No, you can’t –”
“Don’t you dare fucking tell me that I can’t love you. You don’t have that right!”
“That’s–” Dazai choked on his words, and the tears came. He shook with full-bodied sobs, despair weighing down his shoulders until he’d curled into himself.
Chuuya floundered, surrounding him in an awkward hug. The brunette wriggled in his arms until he could bury his nose into the crook of Chuuya’s neck.
“How can you love me?” He whimpered, “I’m so f-fucked up and broken and you said that I’m fucked up, you know that and –and…”
Chuuya clutched the back of his head, rocking him gently.
“You’re so smart,” he said, combing his fingers through brown silk, “you always know what to say to get out of any situation, and you run circles around anyone who dare thinks they could beat you. You’re the most manipulative bastard I know and are annoying as fuck on the best days and an insufferable buffoon on your worst but I love that about you. I love how you kick ice cubes under the fridge and think I don’t notice. I love how you can’t cook for shit, but somehow bake the best pastries I’ve ever had. I love how your fashion sense belongs in a dumpster, and you know this but just don’t care. I love how kind you are. Yeah, you can be a cold killer but that’s not really you. You’re soft and squishy and you light up every room. Nakajima, Kunikida, and Kyouka-chan all adore you – so many people love you, Dazai. I never would have the life I have now, would never have even learned what it meant to be human, if I hadn’t met you. I meant what I said Dazai, when I said you were human. You’re the most human person I know, and I’m so glad to have met you.”
Dazai openly wept, staring up at Chuuya like he hung the stars, and the ginger swallowed hard. His face erupted with heat, but he refused to look away. Dazai was breathtaking, and he deserved an audience at all times.
“Y-You mean that?” he whispered hoarsely, dripping snot and tears but still gorgeous.
“Yeah,” Chuuya swallowed, throat clicking, “I do.”
Dazai managed a weak smile, one that softened his face into warm honey. The ginger coughed into his fist, looking away before he did something he would regret.
“No one’s ever told me they loved me before. Not like that,” Dazai whispered. “Not like that.”
The silence stretched between them, during which Dazai struggled to compose himself.
He sniffled, face red and tear-streaked, and jolted when the air compressor came to life with a whistling scream.
“Shit,” Chuuya mumbled, “It broke again. You didn’t shove anything in there, did you?”
Dazai laughed, the sound wet and weak, and wiped his nose on the hem of his sleeve.
“No, but you’re the one who thought it was a good idea to fix it yourself.”
The brunette grinned, and his eyes were nearly glowing. He was beautiful. Chuuya held his tongue and looked at the screen, the scoreboard scrolling on an endless loop as their characters went around the track in the background.
“I can’t believe I got 14thplace.”
“I can’t believe you green-shelled yourself into me.”
“Not my fault you can’t dodge.”
“I think it has to do with your aim, Chuu-chuu.”
They devolved into playful banter, smacking each other with couch cushions. Chuuya shoved down his disappointment so it wouldn’t show on his face.
Francis dismissed Alcott’s offer of morning tea in favor of sleeping until noon. The man drifted in and out of consciousness, grasping at his daughter’s hands only to wake and find his fists stuffed with his pillows. His joints ached where the bed was too hard, his throat raw from crying.
The few who remained loyal to him kept to themselves somewhere in the executive tower that now functioned as their base. At least, he hoped they were still in the building. He couldn’t even remember how many stayed behind – wasn’t it only Alcott? No, Steinbeck came crawling back when his leg became too infected to treat with conventional medicine.
After Steinbeck came a shambling Lovecraft, whose illicit presence in the basement Francis felt from the penthouse. He wasn’t sure if the creature had finally come for his soul or if it had already taken its payment. Lovecraft seemed to have an affinity for Steinbeck, perhaps he has latched onto him for some reason? A pact, maybe?
With the Eyes of God as his disposal and several conglomerates under his belt, his wealth grew exponentially in response to the market crash. He could feel latent power coating his neurons, encapsulating muscle fibers and weaving into the fabric of his organs.
But what was power without purpose?
Francis clawed out of the covers and slipped onto the floor, his face scuffing against Turkish carpeting. He limbs creaked, splayed at odd angles, and he lay there for a few moments, blinking dry eyes at the dust gathering beneath the bed.
His stomach snarled, but he wasn’t hungry.
Alcott’s timid voice crackled over the intercom; his first name sounded foreign, coming from her mouth.
He grunted a response; there was no point in moving, it wasn’t like he was going to do anything today. He might as well spend the rest of it on the floor.
“Mr. Francis, you have a v-visitor.”
A laugh tumbled out of him like a wheezing dog on the verge of death.
“I know you don’t want to see anyone b-but I don’t think we can say no to t-this one.”
He managed to stand, only to sway back into bed.
“Send them in,” Francis groaned, “might as well get this over with.”
“V-Very well, b-but sir?”
The ceiling was decorated in stucco swirls he now knew by heart.
“You should get d-dressed f-first, I think…”
Ah, yes, that’s why it’s so cold.
His skin felt grimy and his hair was a tangle of greasy knots. He couldn’t imagine how long he’d gone without a shave to have his stubble grow out so much.
Francis pulled himself to a reluctant sit and went about getting dressed. With the windows tinted he didn’t have to worry about peeping toms, but then again, he wasn’t in the state of mind to worry about anything, anymore.
Francis showered and washed his hair, snipping the knots he couldn’t comb out. He forwent a mirror and shaved by touch alone, slicing his chin several times for the effort. When he was finally dressed in a rumpled button-down that smelled the least repulsive and bandages taped over the cuts on his face, he opened the door and hoped his guest wouldn’t mind the abhorrent state of his room.
His wife smiled, the movement accentuating her lack of makeup – the deep creases beneath her eyes and the bitten skin of her lips, “Hello, dear, may I come in?”
Fukuzawa considered himself a man of action. This did not mean, however, that he was not also a man of a reason. He’d discarded his bloodlust in search of expiation, and stepped into the light. His relationships were harder to abandon, and so he found himself in his office long after closing, waiting for his husband’s call.
He answered on the first chime.
“Good evening, Yukichi, how are y-”
“When were you going to tell me you could turn into a cat?"
Natsume paused on the other line, and Fukuzawa could see him twirling his finger around the phone cord. He always held a fondness for land lines.
“…I don't think that's the issue here, Yuki.”
"I named the Siamese in Neko Atsume after you, now I have to find a calico."
"Do you know how much time that will waste? How come you haven't let me pet you?"
“I considered him my own son.”
Fukuzawa bent over the desk, chair creaking in the stillness of the room; his fist white and shaking on his thigh. His chest was tight to the point of pain, pressure building behind his eyes as his emotions culminated to a head. He broke skin on his palm. This wasn’t the time to breakdown, he only had precious few moments of his husband’s time, he wasn’t going to waste them on theatrics. Not tonight. He eased back into his seat, letting out a sigh that shuddered through his lungs and across the line.
“I’m deeply sorry,” Soseki husked, his own voice thin and fraying, “It was my intention to deceive you, but not to the point of harm.”
“It will pass,” he whispered, unsure if he meant it. He certainly didn’t believe it. For all his compassion and ardor, his fury ran cold and deep - a fault line through his soul.
The silence stretched between them, and Fukuzawa mapped the grains of his desk - turned silver in the moonlight.
“I had lunch with him and Nakahara-san yesterday.”
He closed his eyes, ignoring the lurch of his stomach.
“Yes, in a place that holds much meaning for him and me. I’ve taken you there quite a few times, I believe. I took you there last year for our anniversary, you enjoyed their sukiyaki.”
“You must be Soseki’s partner,” Misaki said, her lips curled into a warm smile, “I’ve heard only good things about you, I promise. He’s was a such an earnest child; it only makes sense he would choose such a steadfast man.”
“I remember. You worked as a line chef to help support your family. Your parents were bedridden.”
“Yes, I asked Misaki to remove the photos. I’ll take you there to see them, if you wish.”
“Perhaps not for a while.”
“I’m unsure of how to proceed from here, Soseki.” He said, finally feeling the cold inching through the windowpanes. Winter swirled outside, the flakes batting at the glass like a flurry of white insects. Somewhere in the building, he could feel Yosano roll over from a nightmare.
“Have your feelings for him changed?”
“For all his experience and subsequent wisdom, Dazai has always been a child at heart. His needs and desires are simple because they have always been denied to him. I know he craves safety and warmth, which the agency provides in abundance. He has told me himself that he feels safe with you. He cares for you dearly. I suspect in the same way you care for him.”
“He will outlive us.”
“He will. It is part of why I wish to maintain peace in this city. If not forever, at least he will have a haven in a place that once knew him.”
“Mori will advance on him.”
“He will try.”
“And he will succeed if he is not deposed!”
“I knew of his character before I formally approached him. Duty runs through that man deeper than loyalty, yes, but also deeper than his curiosity.”
“Dazai has become capital, we are not equipped to protect him against the government itself.”
“I’m afraid he has been capital for a long time now, and the government has already had its fill.”
His skeleton was carved of ice, and he squared his jaw lest his teeth chatter.
“He was captured by Unit 1644 when the war ended.”
The phone screen shattered against his cheek, the metal creaking in his grip.
“I’m sorry?” He managed, voice tight and forced. I have misheard. Please, let me have misheard. If there is a god with but an ounce of mercy, bestow it now.
“I’m sorry, as well.”
Ango tapped the side of his glass, the ice shifting in the lowball. It was rare that he drank hard liquor, but this mission required it in spades.
The glow of Bar Lupin’s interior was too much to withstand, the scents hanging like taunting specters. How many times had he come here under the guise of friendship? When had it ceased to be a lie?
Behind the bar, the bartender polished a glass with efficient swipes. It occurred to Ango he’d never heard the man speak, let alone share a conversation. He’d be hard-pressed to even recall his name.
“Punctual as always, Ango?”
He raised his fingers in greeting and looked up. This would be the last stand, Ango needed to make it count.
Dazai looked as immaculately disheveled as always, the beige trench coat a memento that now felt like a snub. The smile stitched across his face suggested a tenderness that wasn’t there. He wasn’t sure Dazai had ever truly meant a smile in his life. Such a long life…
The other man’s loose-limbed saunter belied the ice in his gaze. Ango himself felt wound tight and nauseous, longing to be anywhere but here where he could still smell the ghost of his lover’s cigarettes.
Dazai slipped onto his customary stool, and the hairs rose on Ango’s nape at his proximity. He kept his eyes trained on the ice in his glass, hyperaware of the space between them.
“Do you know the story of the White Flamingo?”
“No, I don’t suppose I do.”
“Well, it’s not so much a story as it is a lesson - but flamingos are born white. It’s only once they’ve consumed enough canthaxanthin, a natural dye found in shrimp, that they become pink. The more they consume, the darker they become. However, that is only for the American species, other species only turn pink in certain spaces. There is even speculation that a blue variant used to exist, but couldn’t cope with human involvement.”
Ango watched as Dazai took a long sip of his whiskey, the ball of ice balanced at the bottom of the glass. One time, when Ango hadn’t been looking, Dazai dropped the ball down the back of his shirt. Oda snorted whiskey out his nose and the night devolved from there.
“I see,” he said, but all he could see was the immaculate layering of gauze around a throat that bobbed with every swallow.
“Is there a point to that story?”
“Beats me, I’ve never seen a flamingo before.”
“You’ve never been to the zoo?”
“Of course! I was banned for entering the jaguar enclosure.”
Ango snorted, “Of course.”
If he closed his eyes, he could imagine the three of them together again, alive and enamored with the invisible bonds they’d forged. A time when he’d been truly happy - a time when the warmth beside him didn’t burn.
There were so many things he wanted to ask Dazai about his life.
When he saw Dazai was dead his stomach dropped into his pelvis. He hadn’t felt grief or anger, only a ringing emptiness. The blood dripping from slender fingers and soaking into the haori-shroud had been too much, and he only managed to cross the threshold before he collapsed in the hallway. All he could think was that he was alone again, only this time there was no one to blame him. This time, there was only his own self-hatred.
Dazai’s revival elicited so much relief he hadn’t cared for the specifics. His former friend was the holy grail of ability-objects? He was six-hundred years old and never aged, even though Ango had distinct memories of marking his height on a doorframe to compare with Nakahara?
Fantastic. He didn’t care. Dazai was alive and that was all that mattered. He hadn’t died before they had that desperately needed conversation, before Ango could explain his reasons and be subsequently rebuffed. He could still atone, even if he was denied. Dazai would still have a chance to find happiness in a world that wished him ill.
When he’d left with Nakahara and Kunikida, reality descended with weight.
“As a person, the Book has agency. The very foundation of Yokohama is at jeopardy, never mind the country.” Mori said, thumbing Dazai’s blood from his cheek.
Ango tensed, digging his fingers into furrows of his ribs.
“As Dazai,” he stressed, being sure to modulate his voice, pushing up his glasses in an attempt to self-soothe, “the Book’s whereabouts are no longer under question. Dostoyevsky cannot hope to continue his plans without taking time to change them.”
“That is assuming he was unaware of the Book’s identity. He knew to come here for the stylus, it is only natural he knew how to use it.”
“Enough,” Fukuzawa’s snarl froze Ango’s hand over the butt of his gun.
“This squabble is meaningless. There was never any intention for us to use the Book unless it was to undo what Dostoyevsky wrought.
“You can’t give the boy special treatment now that you know his true nature.”
“He is one of mine, that’s the only nature that matters.”
“Utopia is inherently impossible, it’s very name dictates its futility. All are pieces on the board. Dazai’s existence is unsettling, yes, but Nakahara’s is no more incredible or unknowable.”
The mention of A5158 instilled a lengthy silence.
“One supernatural being at a time,” Ango said, “if you please.”
“Will you report him?” the Director asked him, leveling a silver stare, “Will you betray his trust?”
The ‘again’ goes unsaid, but Ango hears it just fine.
“No. The government’s involvement in the Book’s search is superfluous. We are more concerned on the action of foreign bodies of power.”
“I’ve been alive for a very long time, Ango,” Dazai said, ripping him from the past, “and I’ve been betrayed countless times.”
“I’ve never forgiven any of them,” he continued, “I won’t give you what you want.”
The gasp punched from his lungs without permission, and Ango bowed in reflexive shame. He knew it was coming, he’d always known, and yet his throat felt as if he swallowed barbed wire.
“You shouldn’t spend your life chasing after ghosts, Ango, nothing good will come of it.”
Dazai stood and fished a handful of coins from his pocket, scattering them on the bar.
“You may not have my forgiveness,” he said in an undertone, “but you should have figured out long ago that you always had Odasaku’s.”
The bartender ignored how the coins rolled off the counter and the violent trembling of Ango’s shoulders. He could feel the gentle weight of Oda’s hand atop his head, or perhaps it was simply the alcohol. The lighter left on Dazai’s stool slowly cooled from the warmth of his pocket.