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Cut Him Out in Little Stars

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“Are you—happy now?” he rasped, flecks of blood and spittle flying from his lips. Those stupid sunset eyes still gleamed with light Akutagawa was about to snuff out.

 

“To see you broken?” Akutagawa mocked the werecat. “Yeah, I am.”  

 

Six months he’d been nursing his instincts, restraining himself, tunneling new paths out in his mind to avoid killing while still being an efficient member of the Port Mafia. He hadn’t even killed Tachihara after what he’d done to Gin, though the moments where he’d found out, he’d considered going to Jinko’s and demanding Jinko kill him for him, or else give him a special license.

 

In the end, he hadn’t. Because he wasn’t going to beg Jinko for anything.

 

And now it all paid off. They fought. Akutagawa’s shoulder was mauled, raw meat weeping down his chest. Sweat glued his hair to his temples, the back of his neck. But Rashomon had landed the final blow, pinning Jinko to the ground.

 

It was all worth it for this.

 

And then what? Akutagawa glared. And then—and then—  

 

It’s not like he’ll take me back. It’s not like he’d rejoin the mafia. It’s not like I’d leave.

 

Jinko looked up at him, breaths coming too rapidly, trembling him his chest was shaking. The brat still wanted to live.

 

Akutagawa would be doing him a mercy. Taking him out before this crushing darkness inevitably pressed into him.

 

It’s all empty, isn’t it?

 

Wouldn’t it at least be satisfying, just a smidge, to see Dazai lose someone else he mentored? But did Dazai even care? Was Akutagawa thwarted before he even did?

 

You. It’s you. It’s your fault. He chose Jinko over Akutagawa.

 

Because…

 

Because he’s stupid!

 

A cough wracked his chest.

 

Because I was too weak. And no matter how strong I am, he isn’t coming back.

 

I can’t do anything.

 

Useless, worthless, this shitty life of his, killing, killing, blood warm as it ran over his hands, but he still felt cold. These past six months, even the ones he spared—one girl died anyways, a few days later, a fucking overdose. How pathetic. How pointless.

 

Well, the light wouldn’t spare Jinko’s life. It’d just kill him. Still, a mercy.

 

Akutagawa clenched his jaw. He stepped over Jinko, who squeezed his eyes shut, and Akutagawa wondered who he saw: him, or that stupid orphanage headmaster? I’m not him!

 

He knelt over Jinko, knowing he could feel his weight crushing his body. He reached for Jinko’s face, grasping his chin, hauling it up. “Look at me.” See, I’m not him.

 

Jinko screwed his eyes shut. “No.”

 

“Look at me!” Before—

 

Before— I let you go.  

 

He could beat Jinko. He’d proven that. And he—that was enough. He was strong. Strong enough. Still Dazai’s best pupil. Akutagawa shook him.

 

Jinko didn’t obey.

 

Oh, come on! At this rate he was going to break the brat’s neck out of sheer frustration. “Go back to Dazai and tell him—”

 

“Huh?” Jinko’s eyes flew open.

 

Now, he looked. Akutagawa wanted to smack him. He shifted. “I said , go and tell Dazai that I—”

 

He felt a knife hilt press into his thigh. Fury surged. Of course. Of course Jinko was taking advantage of his moment of weakness—he never should have considered giving into the light— was it all a trick and I fell for it?

 

“Can you make up your mind?” rasped Jinko. “Are you going to kill me or not?”

 

Huh? Wasn’t Jinko trying to kill him? No, both of the werecat’s arms were still pinned by Rashomon. And his legs lay limp, slowly healing. So the stupid knife was uselss after all. At least he could embarrass—

 

He shifted again. “So much for doing the right thing, huh? Dirty tricks and—”

 

Jinko’s brow wrinkled. Akutagawa went to grab the knife and, when his hand closed around something clothed, he realized, and his brain broke. He froze.

 

“What are you doing?” shrieked Jinko.

 

He really should kill the werecat for humiliation. Instead, his legs were moving on their own, forcing him to his feet and scrambling backwards. He gaped at Jinko, slowly pushing himself up. Rashomon had released him?

 

You—

 

“Akutagawa—” Jinko managed. "Wait, it's not—what the hell!" 

 

He turned. He was running, running away, wind ripping at his face which felt warmer than it had in years, more burned than after he had to spend a summer day outside tailing someone. He only stopped running when his stupid coughing brought him to his knees. He wheezed.

 

What the fuck, Jinko?

 

Jinko hated him. He hated Jinko. They wanted to kill each other. Dazai thought they worked well together, but Dazai was a moron. And wasn’t Jinko into Kyouka? Do you swing both ways?

 

What if Jinko told people? Why would he advertise that? He surely wouldn’t. Not with Akutagawa . He scowled.

 

“Akutagawa-senpai?”

 

He turned. Of, fuck. It was Higuchi. His subordinate was among the best in the Port Mafia, loyal beyond words, had saved him multiple times, and according to Gin was in love with him, though he’d never so much as thought about her in dreams in that way. His face was probably still scalded red.

 

“Are you hurt?” Higuchi dropped down, trying to pull him to his feet.

 

He shoved her away. “I’m fine.” He covered his mouth as he coughed again. Damn pleurisy.

 

Higuchi arched an eyebrow, skeptical. Her gaze ventured towards his shoulder.

 

Oh, right. He’d fought with Jinko. “It doesn’t matter. I won.”

 

“So he’s dead?” Higuchi’s eyes widened.

 

“No.” Akutagawa offered no more information, walking.

 

“You should get that treated,” Higuchi recommended. “Some antiseptic, see if you need stitches—”

 

“I will.” He gritted his teeth. What on earth would he say? He let him go. That’s all. He let him go. He didn’t have to specify why . Well, he was going to let him go anyways! It didn’t matter! He would have let him go regardless of the—the—

 

Jinko, why?

 

Had he not truly fought Akutagawa? Was he always looking to spare him as much as Akutagawa decided to spare him? Was he the punchline? Was he really not that strong after all?

 

“What happened to you?” demanded Chuuya when he stalked by.

 

“None of your business,” Akutagawa retorted. His shoulder was starting to smart, but he didn’t care.

 

“It would be my business, though,” interrupted another voice.

 

Oh, shit. Akutagawa scowled. He turned to Mori. “It’s nothing. I got into a fight with Jinko. I won.”

 

Mori narrowed his eyes. “And are we going to have to anticipate retaliation from the Armed Detective Agency?”

 

Akutagawa shook his head. “I didn’t kill him. He wasn’t worth it.” His cheeks flamed.

 

“All right,” Mori said slowly.

 

Chuuya looked pissed. “What?” Akutagawa snapped.

 

“Your personal grudges are fine, but if they drag us into another war, particularly one in which I have to cooperate with You-Know-Who, I’ll personally ground you, brat.”

 

Are you and Dazai like this? They hated each other, but they worked together well. Had they ever—did they really hate each other? Or was it all a sheen for—

 

“You could try.” Akutagawa kept his head up.

 

Thirty stitches later and Akutagawa headed home, giving Higuchi a “thank you.” She deserved it. She smiled.

 

She liked him. And she sought to save him, even when it looked hopeless. If Jinko liked him, why did he agree to fight him? Why didn’t he say something? Why did he mock him every chance he got? Why did he not want to be lumped in with the likes of Akutagawa?

 

Too bad; your mentor lumps us in together. Which obviously means he’s wrong .

 

Jinko couldn’t like Akutagawa. But his body… why else?

 

Does he think I’m attractive? Akutagawa scrutinized his face in the reflection of a shop window. He looked like a grim reaper, pale, hair faded, shaggy and unkempt. His clothes hung off his slim frame.

 

Who cares? He’s weird.

 

When Akutagawa entered his tiny apartment, he found his sister waiting for him, arms crossed and her war frown etched into her chin. She held up her phone. “Higuchi called me.”

 

“Then she told you I’m fine.” Akutagawa rolled his eyes, stomping past her. He should drink something. He felt incredibly thirsty.

 

“Don’t snap at me,” Gin retorted.

 

“I didn’t die. He didn’t die. I still won.” Akutagawa grabbed a carton of milk and poured it down his throat.

 

“Fantastic,” Gin said sarcastically. “You didn’t kill him?”

 

Akutagawa set the milk down, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. “I let him go. What, do you think that makes me weak?”

 

Gin folded her arms. “You know the answer.”

 

No . It was always no. He never had to worry about impressing his sister. Akutagawa screwed the cap back onto the milk. “Sorry.”

 

Gin shrugged. “Dazai-san will probably be proud.”

 

“Dazai-san can stuff his pride up his asshole.” Akutagawa cringed. “Hey, Gin?”

 

“What?” She grabbed some thread and a needle. Gin sucked at sewing, but Akutagawa would rather just wear the coat with a gaping hole in it than spend the energy fixing it. She gestured.

 

He sighed and pulled off the coat, tossing it at her. The shirt he’d just dump. She didn’t even flinch at the sight of all the blood.

 

“Have you ever dated anyone?”

 

Gin’s eyebrows flew up. “What’s that about?” She stabbed the needle into his poor coat, cussing. “Remember when that guy told me he loved me at first sight?”

 

“And you rejected him.” Akutagawa was proud of his baby sister. Breaking guys’ hearts.

 

“Love at first sight is stupid,” Gin said, biting her lip as she wrestled with the thread. “And we don’t get to know people well enough to date them except for those in the mafia. So, no.”

 

“Hmph.” Akutagawa leaned back against the wall. Their apartment was really just one room with two beds and a tiny bathroom attached to it. But at least they had a roof over their heads now. “Would you want to?”

 

“If someone comes along and I like them well enough.”

 

“What if someone just wanted to have sex? Have you done that?”

 

Gin yelped. “Are you screwing Higuchi?”

 

“No!” He glared.

 

She winced, holding her hand up. The needle had gone through her finger. Akutagawa swore and stomped over. “I’ll do it.”

 

“You won’t.”

 

“I will; you can tell me what to do!”

 

“Why are you asking me this?” Gin asked as he struggled to get the thread through the eye of the needle. Blast it!

 

“Dazai’s a womanizer.”

 

“Dazai talks a lot of talk.”

 

“Fair.” Akutagawa finally got the stupid thread through.

 

“If I ever felt like I wanted to be close to someone, I could,” said Gin, shrugging her shoulders. “At the moment, I don’t. You’re here.”

 

“Don’t act like those creepy Tanizaki siblings in the Armed Detective Agency.”

 

Gin swatted his shoulder. The needle went into his palm. He moaned.

 

“You know,” Gin said as Akutagawa extracted the needle from his skin. “If you wanted to sleep with someone, you’d probably just have to ask them. You’re in the Port Mafia. You’re high up in it.”

 

He wondered if Jinko was taking after Dazai—or after Dazai’s talk, at least. No way. Jinko looked too scrappy. “I don’t really feel like it.” The closest he came to feeling like it was sometimes at night, when he woke up from dreams. Usually he was clutching his shirt tighter around him and just waited for his body to relax. He wasn’t ever taking away Rashomon for some body.

 

Gin shrugged.

 

Does Jinko sleep with Kyouka? No, he’d never. Why, why, why had Jinko's body reacted that way? Why?

 

He hadn’t even finished telling Jinko that he was letting him live. I ran away from our fight. Not Jinko. Without finishing . Now he felt like even more of a failure.

 

Akutagawa held up his mended coat, seams squiggly and chaotic. Gin smirked. “Not bad for your first try. Actually, better than me.”

 

“Is not.” He wasn’t going to let Gin think she failed at anything.

 

He just needed to sleep it off.

 

Of course, when he woke up around three in the morning in a cold sweat to one of those ridiculous dreams again, this time with an actual face attached to it, he briefly wondered if for the first time he could understand why Dazai enjoyed jumping in rivers as a hobby.

 


 

 

“What happened to you?”

 

Atsushi was bent over the computer, frowning as he scrolled through various medical websites. He jumped to his feet, wincing. His body was healing thanks to Beast Beneath the Moonlight, but he still bore a few bruises and strained muscles. He hadn’t expected to live at all. The moment Rashomon pinned him… “Just a fight with Akutagawa.”

 

Kyouka’s eyes swept him up and down. “Is he alive?”

 

Atsushi nodded.

 

Kyouka’s gaze focused on the computer behind him.

 

Atsushi’s face bloomed red. “No! No, it’s not what you think!” His arms windmilled. “I’m not looking up anything sketchy or—or adult, really, I’m not!” He wanted to melt like candle wax.

 

Kyouka held her hands up. “Not my business.”

 

He cringed. “Really, Kyouka—”

 

“Are you okay?” she asked, concerned.

 

Atsushi swallowed, logging out of the medical sites. “I’m fine. Akutagawa’s just—Akutagawa. You know how he is.”

 

“How is he?” Kyouka sat down on the floor.

 

He sat across from her. “Drunk on power. Always making everything about himself.” Did he think Atsushi liked him now? That he had any sort of—designs on him? It was a natural biological thing! The websites said so! Especially with him crawling all over Atsushi. Who was the real creep?  

 

Of course Akutagawa would think everyone liked him and wanted to be with him. He was so narcissistic.

 

A thought niggled in the back of his mind. He wasn’t going to kill me.

 

Why not?

 

“Mm.” Kyouka cocked her head to the side. “I’d say it’s more like he always makes everything about his dislike of himself.”

 

“Huh?” Atsushi blinked.

 

“He doesn’t like himself,” Kyouka repeated.

 

“Then why does—” He stopped.

 

“He’s like me,” said Kyouka. “He doesn’t like himself. But he’s also like you. He wants to live. He doesn’t want to die because of it.”

 

Hearing Kyouka say that she still didn’t like herself cut at his chest. “ I like you,” Atsushi protested.

 

“I like you too.” She smiled. “And because of you and the agency—you all like me, so it’s easier to believe—the mafia isn’t exactly interested in saving each other.”

 

He’s like you. Atsushi bit his lip. He wants to live.

 

Then why is he constantly inserting himself in life-or-death fights? Why does he kill everyone? Does that make him want to live? What, does he think he’s the only one who wants to live? Does he think that killing grants him the right to live?

 

Don’t you know no one can live without a reason to live? Okay, Akutagwa might have said before that killing made Kyouka’s life useful. Maybe he did think that way. But then… “He ran away from our fight. I mean, after he won.”

 

Kyouka frowned.

 

“Why?” Atsushi asked.

 

Kyouka shrugged. “No idea. Did he say anything?”

 

“To go and tell Dazai, but he never finished what he wanted me to tell Dazai.” Atsushi pressed his lips together.

 

“He just up and ran?” A snort emerged. Her gaze flickered to the now blank computer screen.

 

“No!” Atsushi protested. “I mean, yes, but—”

 

“You or him?”

 

He did not want to talk about boners with Kyouka. She was too young. He hid his face in his knees. She giggled. He groped for a pillow and swatted her with it. She laughed harder.

 

“It’s normal!” he squeaked, voice muffled. “He was on top of me—moving around—I mean—”

 

“I never knew he was a furry.”

 

“I never knew you knew what that was!” Atsushi shrieked.

 

“I did live with the mafia after my parents were killed; I saw some things, Atsushi.” She sounded calm.

 

Atsushi moaned. “Well, it was normal biologically speaking. According to Google.”

 

“Mm.” Kyouka still chuckled. “I would have loved to see his face before he ran away.”

 

It’d looked mottled, scarlet and purple from the blows Atsushi had landed, and his eyes looked as if they were about to pop out of his skull. “He would have let me live anyways.” Atsushi lifted his head up, resting his chin on his knees as he looked at her. “I think, based on what he was saying.”

 

“Maybe he’s learning,” Kyouka said softly. “To let the light in.”

 

Was Akutagawa even capable of that? Not that he would ever know. “I doubt he ever wants to see me again. His precious masculinity has been threatened.”

 

Kyouka rolled her eyes. “What will happen next time Dazai-san wants to use you together?”

 

Atsushi clapped his hands to his cheeks. He could just imagine. “Akutagawa will want to keep it a secret, right?” He was pleading.

 

“If it was him, yes. If it was you, as it seems like you just implied it was, I have no idea.” Kyouka leaned back on her palms.

 

He could just imagine. If Dazai found out, everyone would know. The entire Armed Detective Agency. What if they all really thought he wanted to get into bed with a Port Mafia member who tried to kill him multiple times? Atsushi did not have tastes like that! He did not have tastes at all! At least not that included Akutagawa Ryunosuke!

 

He’d never live it down. He could hear Dazai-san’s voice on his fiftieth birthday. “Atsushi-kun! Remember when you popped a boner fighting your mortal enemy?”

 

“How do I blackmail him?” Atsushi asked desperately.

 

Kyouka’s mouth fell open. “You’re protesting an awful lot.” She got to her feet.

 

“Kyouka-chan!” he cried out. “You can’t tease me on this!”

 

She smiled, holding out her hand to help him to his feet.

 

“Don’t you hate him?” Atsushi asked, looking for reassurance. “After all he did to use you and Demon Snow to kill for his selfish—”

 

“No,” said Kyouka. “Well, sometimes. But not most of the time. You showed me the light. He just hasn’t seen it yet, and he sees the light as an enemy—you know, since it took me away, and it took Dazai-san away.”

 

“Why you? I thought he didn’t care about you.”

 

“I don’t know,” Kyouka said. “He wasn’t nice to me, but no one seemed to be very nice to him either.”

“But don’t you hate him for not being nice to you?”

 

“Yes,” said Kyouka, boiling water for tea. “And no. The more light I feel, the more I—he told me he was happy for me. I don’t know how to feel. Maybe someday I will. But I get to choose.”




Chapter Text

“Dazai, which river did you jump into this morning?” Yosano called.

 

Atsushi jumped at the sound of his mentor’s name. He focused on the report he was trying to write—the report Dazai had asked him to write on an investigation they had just completed.

 

Dazai’s shoes squished on the floor. His hair stuck to his forehead. An uncomfortable feeling squirmed in Atsushi’s stomach. He glanced away.

 

“Inappropriate!” Kunikida jumped to his feet, pointing his finger at Dazai. “Go and change! You can’t work looking like that!”  

 

“If I go away, I’ll just sleep again, Kunikida-kun,” Dazai replied, plopping down in his chair and resembling a soggy badger.

 

Atsushi wondered what would have happened if Akutagawa had actually killed him. Would the Armed Detective Agency be looking for his body? Would they find it? Of course Akutagawa would want to brag.

 

Would he still want to brag? What would he be more embarrassed about, letting Atsushi go or the fact that he’d grabbed a boner?

 

Would the Armed Detective Agency have killed Akutagawa, if he’d killed Atsushi? Would the Port Mafia then retaliate?

 

Atsushi’s face burned. He felt lower than a cockroach. I could have endangered all of their lives .

 

Or, maybe they wouldn’t have done a thing, understanding that the risk wasn’t worth it. He wasn’t worth it. Still gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe.

 

“Atsushi-kun. Atsush-kun. Nakajima Atsushi!”

 

A palm slapped him across the face. He flinched. Yosano peered at him, butterfly still perched in her hair. “Yes?”

 

“I said, about five times, that I’m going to get coffee with Dazai so that he doesn’t ruin the wooden flooring, and Kyouka is coming too. Do you want to come?” Her eyes searched his face.

 

“Sure,” he said quickly. He folded his worry up and pocketed it. He could think about it later. When he was done working.

 

“I’m coming too!” hollered Tanizaki.

 

“Fine,” grumbled Kunikida, getting to his feet. “I’ll go with you and see if they kick the drenched otter out.”

 

Dazai stuck his tongue out.

 

Naomi pouted until Tanizaki promised to bring back a latte for her. “Mocha,” she specified.

 

Dazai’s damp hand landed on Atsushi’s shoulder as they headed down to the cafe. “Atsushi-kun…”

 

Atsushi blinked up at him.

 

Dazai narrowed his eyes. “You look distracted. Don’t be thinking about jumping into rivers; some of them are really quite foul, filled with trash and—”

 

“Why did you jump, then?” Atsushi retorted.

 

“I had to rescue someone. A fair maiden.” Dazai sighed, slapping the back of his palm to his forehead. “And she was ever so grateful, you—”

 

“In your dreams,” called Yosano.

 

“Oh, so he’s started hallucinating now, how nice to know,” Kunikida sniffed.

 

Atsushi shook his head. He could never tell just how serious Dazai’s suicidal tendencies were. Or how serious Dazai was about anything.

 

No, he knew. His mentor disguised his goals with frivolity, even towards his own life. And yet if he truly sought to die, he’d had plenty of opportunities so far.

 

Atsushi ordered a coffee from Lucy, who grinned when she saw them, and sat down at a booth next to Kyouka, who sipped her tea. Demon Snow floated above them.

 

Atsushi’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out to check. Maybe they had a new job, or—

 

Nope. Worst case scenario.

 

Akutagawa.

 

let’s meet and talk jinko.

 

about yesterday, came the follow-up text.

 

Atsushi gulped his coffee too fast. The liquid scalded his tongue. He coughed.

 

“Has the tiger forgotten the milk he usually adds to it?” Yosano wondered.

 

“It’s fine black!” Atsushi squeaked. He tapped back: what’s there to say?

 

i spared your life you owe me, came the response.

 

He jabbed Kyouka with his elbow, sliding the phone onto her lap. She took the phone and texted back for him.

 

KYOUKA! Atsushi sucked in his breath, fighting the urge to wail.

 

When? was all she said.

 

Texts poured in quick succession. now. by the docks. come alone.

 

i’m not going to kill you.

 

unless you don’t show.

 

then maybe i will.

 

Threats are unnecessary, Kyouka responded.

 

shut up kyouka and give it back to atsushi i won’t kill him ok? plus now you know where so that’s insurance.

 

He knew. Atsushi gulped.

 

“Milk,” interrupted Lucy, slapping down a small pitcher in front of him.

 

“Thank you,” Atsushi managed, getting to his feet. “I—have to go now. I have to meet someone.”

 

Lucy’s jaw fell open. “So you won’t be drinking your coffee? I made it for you and you don’t even drink it? What’s with that?”

 

“I paid you for it!” he squeaked out. “Um, I forgot—I had this meeting. It won’t take long! It’s by the docks!” Come find me if I don’t return. Though to be fair, Akutagawa was probably still injured from their fight and Beast Beneath the Moonlight had healed his injuries already, so he’d be stupid to try anything. Then again, it was Akutagawa. “It’s very important! I am sorry!” He turned to leave. Kyouka sighed.

 

“Just a minute.” Dazai blocked the door, wiggling his eyebrows. “And just whom are you going to see?”

 

Atsushi gaped at him. Why? “Some—one. It’s important. We just need to have a conversation. It doesn’t affect the Armed Detective Agency at all, or put us at risk, or the Port Mafia, or anyone. I promise.”

 

Great, now every single face was looking at him. Kyouka and Lucy looked incredibly unimpressed.

 

“Aha!” Dazai clapped his hands together. He grabbed Atsushi’s hand. “Congratulations! Who is she? I’ll need her name, birthdate—”

 

“What?” Atsushi cried out.

 

“Do you have a girlfriend?” He looked towards Kyouka.

 

“Don’t look at me,” Kyouka replied. “I’m sitting right here, aren’t I?”

 

“But you might, er, have information,” said Tanizaki, draping himself over the booth.

 

“He doesn't have a girlfriend.” Kyouka gulped more tea. Lucy rolled her eyes.

 

“Ah, Atsushi-kun has gotten Kyouka-chan to lie for him!” Dazai clutched his face. “A terrible influence! My mentee!”

 

“You’re one to talk,” groused Kunikida.

 

“He’s your best mentee. Remember the other one?” asked Tanizaki. The words set the few sips of acidic coffee he’d taken jumping in Atsushi’s stomach.

 

“I don’t have a girlfriend! Why would I?” Atsushi insisted. “It’s just a—I have a misunderstanding!”  

 

“Well, that’s a way to talk,” Lucy mumbled.

 

“Don’t let her hear you saying that,” Yosano warned, pointing her finger. “That’s a sure way to upset her, you know.”

 

Oh my god! Atsushi cringed. He ducked around Dazai, grasping the door handle “Kyouka-chan, don’t let them follow me!”

 

“Demon Snow will take care of it,” she promised.

 

He took off running, wishing he’d drank more of the coffee to give him energy. When he had to stop for red lights, he pulled up articles on his phone.

 

After this, we can forget about it.

 


 

He couldn’t kill for six months. He couldn’t kill the werecat. Had this been Jinko’s plan? Get him out of the habit?

 

Well, whatever. He’d made his decision and he’d live with it. He just wanted answers. He wanted to know the reason.

 

Am I useless? He’d asked Higuchi that morning, and she immediately leaped to list all the attributes he had that made him not useless, in fact incredibly valuable to the Port Mafia.

 

Why, then, did he still feel so empty, as if he was grasping at shadows? For six months he’d been eagerly anticipating it, snapping Jinko’s life away, proving that he deserved to live, that Dazai was fucking wrong for leaving him, for leaving the Port Mafia.

 

He couldn’t prove anything.

 

The sea-salt air blew around his face. He remembered Jinko dumping him into the sea, hitting the black water, thinking that this was it. Or had he thought at all? Had it just been acceptance?

 

“Akutagawa?”

 

He turned. Jinko approached, choppy pale hair fluttered around his face. Akutagawa frowned. “You come alone?”

 

Jinko nodded. “Listen, Akutagawa—”

 

He curled his fist. Jinko flinched. “For God’s sake, I’m not gonna hit you.” I just want answers. He wanted to know why.

 

Do you like me? Why? Is it because you hate yourself?

 

Now Jinko just looked confused.

 

“I just want to know.” Akutagawa planted his feet, sticking his hands in the pockets of his repaired coat. “You—are you really like that? How could you?”

 

Jinko scratched his scalp. “Like… what?”

 

Shit . “I thought it was a knife,” he offered in explanation. “I didn’t think that you would—that you were att—”

 

“It’s not like that at all!” Jinko shrieked, cutting him off. He waved his hands about. “Akutagawa, seriously, don’t you know any biology? It’s normal , it’s just—a random involuntary biological reaction, it happens—”

 

Random. Involuntary. Normal. Don’t you know any? Akutagawa gritted his teeth. He couldn’t tell whether to believe Jinko or not.

 

“If it doesn’t happen randomly to you, maybe you should see a doctor—” Jinko rambled.

 

Now Akutagawa’s face felt like the skin was boiling again. “I can get it up perfectly well, thank you!”  

 

“I don’t need to know that!” Jinko cringed. “I looked up all these articles—you were the one writhing all over—”

 

The hell? “I was not writhing!” Akutagawa screeched.  

 

“You were so! I’d like to see someone sitting there on you, and then we’ll see—”

 

“Well, you’ll never be sitting on me!” He hadn't meant that! Not at all! “You should’ve been able to tell I wouldn’t be interested in the likes of you!” The words burned as he spat them out.

 

Jinko gaped at him. “You’re the one bringing positions up! And for the record, neither am I, not in you!”

 

Akutagawa bit his cheeks so hard he tasted blood, bitter. “Well, no matter what, I could never, ever bring myself to like you , Jinko!”

 

Jinko looked down at his ugly shoes. A ship’s horn sounded in the difference. “You already said that.”

 

“I just wanted to make sure you got the message,” Akutagawa retorted.

 

Jinko clenched his fists, hunching his shoulders. “I know you’d never like me and never remotely thought you grabbed—me on purpose. You’re the one having delusional fantasies.  You don’t even see me as a person, just a werecat.”

 

Akutagawa blinked. “You are one. Man-tiger. That means man and tiger. Or did you ever learn what words mean?”

 

“See?” Jinko glared. “My name is Atsushi!”

 

Oh, get off your self-righteous high horse! Everyone just exists to hurt you, is that it? And I’m part of everyone. You’re the one who got aroused! “And what do you see me as?” Akutagawa shouted back. “Just some demon with a shadow that comes from my clothes? Dark matter itself, devouring everything? What right do you have to tell me off, huh, Atsushi?”

 

Atsushi’s eyes widened. He shielded them from the sun. He didn’t answer.

 

“But oh, I forgot,” Akutagwa continued, something cold burning inside him, like ice sticking to raw skin. “You’re the one who doesn’t kill. You’re the one Dazai-san chose, while I’m the one he threw away, as you’ve said yourself. That gives you the right, right? You have goodness and light bestowed on you, while I’m—” How fucking stupid Akutagawa had been, even wondering, and how bitchy his subconcious was, poisoning him with dreams. Of course Atsushi would be the type of person to keep his legs crossed until his wedding night. He probably thought Akutagawa was loose trash and that was why—

 

Atsushi gaped. “I never meant that.”

 

“Bullshit.” He wanted to throttle him. Why had he spared him again? “You have it all!”

 

Atsushi swallowed. “Are you—yelling at me like this because what you’re saying, about how I see you—is that because that’s how you see yourself? Is it because you don’t like yourself?”

 

What? Of everything Atsushi could have said, Akutagawa had not expected that. He trembled, and his mouth opened and closed, wordless. No. You don’t get to do this. Not when you hate me!

 

Akutagawa coughed, covering his mouth. “You’re one to talk about disliking yourself. Everything you do waters your river of self-pity, the one you plan on jumping into eventually!”

 

“I won’t jump!” Atsushi shot back. “I want to live!”

 

“And Dazai-san gave you a reason to live? How generous of him!” Akutagawa sneered. He remembered the chill of that night, the tears running down his face, his throat aching as he wailed.

 

I can give you a reason to live.

 

Why did you leave me?

 

“Why did you agree to fight me, if you want to live?” Akutagawa asked. “Did you really think you could beat me?”

 

Atsushi shrugged. “I have before.” He nodded to the water lapping at the docks.

 

Anger flashed. “I call you Jinko because I want to be better than you in one thing. I don’t want you to be my equal no matter what Dazai-san wants. And yesterday, I proved you weren’t, Jinko .”

 

“I never thought I was your equal,” said Atsushi, meeting his eyes.

 

Akutagawa froze. He felt a lump in his throat. He didn’t know what to make of it.

 

“I asked you not to kill not to spare my life,” said Atsushi. “But so that you might lose some abilities or strength. Because I knew it’d be rare for me to be able to beat you, since you’re so much more powerful and experienced with Rashomon.”

 

Powerful. You see me as powerful.

 

But Atsushi still hated him? Akutagawa didn’t know why the lump in his throat got even more jagged. “Well, joke’s on you. I got stronger and I didn’t kill you.”

 

“Clearly.” Atsushi closed his eyes. “You know, Kyouka doesn’t hate you all the time.”

 

“Huh? Why are we talking about her now?”

 

“She doesn’t hate you all the time,” Atsushi repeated.

 

“How very magnanimous of her.”

 

“Why did you treat her like that? If you said you were happy for her, that she’s found the light, then why—”


“I wanted her to be useful,” Akutagawa interrupted. “Plus, my training methods were no different than the ones I went through.”

 

“So you treated her how you were treated?”

 

Akutagawa tapped his foot. Go on… take that thought to its natural conclusion.

 

Atsushi cleared his throat. Huh. The boy was no coward at all. “How Dazai treated you?”

The lump felt like it was strangling him. “But not how he treats you.” Akutagawa glared as he fought to keep his voice from cracking. “Do you have to rub it in? Is that what you want?”

 

“Who’s drowning in self-pity now?” Atsushi snapped.

 

Akutagawa scowled.

 

“I don’t think not killing for six months weakened you,” Atsushi said. “I think it strengthened you.”

 

He was getting whiplash. Do you like me or admire me or hate me? Make up your mind, Jinko—Atsushi!  “Well, good.”

 

“To the light.” Atsushi smiled. “You have choices, Akutagawa—”

 

Aw, shit. Akutagawa shook his head. Of course. Atsushi only wanted to use him just like everyone else. And at least being useful was—a reason to live. And yet—and yet—hearing it from Atsushi ignited a rage inside of him, a rage he had seldom felt since the slums. “How very simple of you to say, Atsushi . You have no idea. You spent how long without food? I’ve gone longer. You had a roof over your head; I slept in the rain. Your biggest fear was yourself; mine was random sickos who picked kids like us off the streets or shot us. You were cast out like garbage? I was garbage from birth to everyone, and to crap like you I still am. Except I’m not! I’m not!” He stomped his foot. “You’re wrong!” I deserve to live! I want to live! Tell me! Tell me!

 

Atsushi swallowed. “Is that true?”

 

No one was coming to tell him, and the one person who had left him. He was stupid to try to find it again, someone to listen to him break in weakness and tears, and not think it affected his strength. Akutagawa stared out at the sea stretching towards the sky. “Get out of here.”

 

“I am sorry about the—boner. It was—really an accident, Akutagawa, I don’t have any designs and I don’t blame you; you didn’t mean to. I won’t tell anyone—except Kyouka, she figured it out, but she won’t say a word—”

 

“No one would care. They’d just laugh at you.” Akutagawa refused to look at him. “Just go.”

 

The worst part about all of this was that Akutagawa wasn’t surprised.

 

Footsteps echoed as Atsushi walked away from him, and Akutagawa stared at his own reflection in the water, watching the waves ripple his face into shards.

 


 

 

“Ah, you.”

 

Dazai sauntered forward. “Miss me?”

 

“Yes, no, maybe so. Depends on my mood.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky sighed, regarding Dazai with the same unreadable expression Dazai wore. Now imprisoned, Fyodor was often bored and Dazai kept visiting for a few reasons: to ensure he stayed in prison, to get more information out of him when it was useful, and because frankly it was intellectually stimulating.

 

“For a lazy man,” Fyodor remarked. “You come here a lot. Take a swim?”

 

Dazai rubbed his still-damp shirt. At least it was drying, finally. “Didn’t try to pull the world with me.”

 

“Don’t lie,” Fyodor said sweetly. “You didn’t try to kill yourself, not today, and that’s why you’re here, because you wish you had and you want me to tell you to go ahead, rid the world of one more deadly sinner. Go ahead. Rid the world of one more deadly sinner.”

 

Dazai sighed. “And I knew you would figure it out.”

 

“That’s the fundamental divide between you and me,” Fyodor agreed. “I become the enemy of others as soon as they come into contact with me.”

 

Fyodor would pull the world in with him. Dazai, cursing himself, had jumped in after the world’s biggest idiot, Nakahara Chuuya. They had only crossed paths accidentally, when Dazai was studying the bridge for a future attempt, and then Chuuya stood next to him, jeering him about how if he let go he wouldn’t come to save him, and how he better not send Atsushi after him in revenge because he would have Akutagawa tear him apart as they all knew Akutagawa was waiting for the chance, and then Chuuya hopped over the rail with him to goad him more, and then Chuuya fell because he was too short to agiley jump the rail.

 

“Now you’ve ruined the bridge for me,” Dazai had whined, treading water. “When I thought about a lovers’ suicide, Chuuya, you were not whom I had in mind—”

 

“Go to hell, moron!” Chuuya slapped him. “I can swim!”

 

“Oh good, your hat will appreciate that,” Dazai said, pointing to where it bobbed in the waves and dodging Chuuya’s kick seconds later.

 

“You’ve survived so many attempts that I wonder if you’re Lazarus, cursed to rise again in this world, or if you really would rather live,” Fyodor mused.

 

Dazai leaped back, resting his ankle on his knee, a serene smile on his face. “And you? As you rot in prison? I wonder why you haven’t rid the world of your sins, yet.”

 

Fyodor scowled.

 

“Ah yes,” Dazai said. “The man-god that you are. A Napoleon, a special human. You know Napoleon led his troops to freeze in the Russian winters, right?”

 

“Mean, mean, mean! Shoot yourself in the head; it’s a surefire way to end things. You may bite my finger first,” Fyodor responded. He leaned forward, grinning. “So how’s your little kitten? Your queen in chess?”

 

“More like the bishop, rook, and knight combined,” Dazai responded. Akutagawa, as well. They rounded out his chessboard.

 

“Do you know,” Fyodor said. “I was reading a rather fascinating book lately, about a man who had three sons by two different women—and perhaps a fourth, by another, a peasant, homeless thing wandering the streets. One was a monk, one a scoundrel, one a proper, learned man. The third woman, the mother of the fourth unacknowledged son—simple, she was, known as an idiot by all. And yet though no one took her into their homes, she was all of theirs, and when she became pregnant, they were angry at whoever defiled her. The baby? He took it in after the reeking woman died to give that forced child life. It was raised as a servant. An epileptic, but not an idiot like its mother. Do you know that this servant outsmarted the man and his three sons, murdering his father, framing the eldest for his father’s murder, confessing to the second before the second descended into the madness of his own inferiority, and killed himself, blaming no one and exonerating no one, and leaving the pure monk the only free one?”

 

“What did the monk do?”

 

“No idea. The author died before he could write the sequel. How very human of him.”  

 

Dazai laughed.

 

“Tell me,” said Fyodor. “Do you plan on abandoning Atsushi like you did the Port Mafia child?”

 

Dazai yawned. “You’ll have to sharpen your barbs to get under my skin today, Fyodor. I’m still his mentor, but from a distance.” Atsushi was sharpening Akutagawa, and vice versa.

 

“Really? Does he see it that way?” Fyodor’s lips stretched into a smile. “I daresay they will kill each other. Do you recall how your Atsushi began his life: in a cage? To the Port Mafia boy, you lured him into that cage and went off with your friends, throwing away the key. You left him in that cage.”

 

“Interesting perspective.” Dazai shrugged. “You don’t know them at all.”

 

The image of Akutagawa falling, fainting, when he praised him filled Dazai’s mind.

 

“But I know cages,” said Dostoyevsky, spreading his palms, gesturing to the bars separating them. “The most painful one is your own skin, wouldn’t you agree?”



Chapter Text

“You’re still alive,” Kyouka commented when Atsushi slipped back into the office. He cast her a sidelong glower. She shrugged.

 

“How’s the girlfriend?” called Ranpo.

 

“How’s your boyfriend?” asked Kenji, trying to be helpful.

 

“Poe’s working on a new story.” Ranpo rolled a pen between his fingers. “About two lovers from opposite gangs. It’s going to be quite the story.”

 

“Let me guess: they both die,” remarked Yosano.

 

“Aw, Yosano…”

 

Well, Ranpo just owned up to it. Atsushi nodded. Not that Atsushi had a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend. Or anyone. Or prospects at all.

 

Kyouka’s words and Akutagawa’s burrowed into his mind. He tapped out a text to Kyouka. He does hate himself.

 

She looked at him from across the room as if to say “duh.”

 

But Atsushi couldn’t understand why. Akutagawa had belonging. He had a prestige. He had a sister. He was the mafia’s best dog.

 

“Maybe he doesn’t want to be seen as a dog,” Kyouka offered that night, when they had retreated to their apartment.

 

“Huh?”

 

“Honestly, I don’t know why you’re still going on about it. Sounds like things were settled today, no one has feelings and all, you hate each other, accidents happen, whatever.” Kyouka lay down on her pallet to sleep. “Except you keep talking about it.”

 

“It’s not like that!” Atsushi protested.

 

“Mmph.” She buried her face in her pillow.

 

It really wasn’t that. It was—he’d never seen Akutagawa act like that before.

 

Like what?

 

He didn’t even know quite how to describe it. Afraid, maybe. Like the first layer of anger had peeled back ever so slightly. Even though he was still angry and didn’t hesitate to tell Atsushi what he thought of him.

 

But he’d called him Atsushi . When he’d asked to be seen as a person.

 

Dog…

 

Atsushi rolled over, tucking his knees into his chest, waiting for sleep. He glanced at Kyouka’s sleeping form. He got up early to make tea on rice, because sleep was still stingy.

 

“Morning,” he said brightly, handing her a bowl when she woke up, rubbing her eyes.

 

“What’s this?”

 

“I was just thinking,” Atsushi said quietly. “I have a sister, too.”

 

Kyouka smiled.

 

Of course, when they got to the agency, all of Atsushi’s goodwill dissipated in a few words from Kunikida, directed, as usual, at Dazai with the force of a baseball bat. “What do you mean, Akutagawa wants to meet with you?”

 

Akutagawa what the hell?

 

Kyouka glanced at Atsushi. He contemplated hurling himself out the window.

 

A hand in his pocket. Kyouka had dug out his phone and was marching off to dial that traitor.

 

“I don’t know what it’s about,” Dazai said, throwing his hands in the air.

 

“It could be dangerous!”

 

“Ryunosuke? Not hardly.” Dazai smiled.

 

“You wouldn’t be telling me about it unless you thought there was a risk! You’d just go off and do what you were gonna do, like you usually do!”

 

“On the contrary, Kunikida-kun. Careful, you’re going to go bald before you even find a wife. It won’t help your situation.”

 

Kunikida erupted. Atsushi felt nauseated. Kyouka returned, shaking her head. “No answer.”

 

Atsushi wanted to jump into a river now. To think I was feeling sorry for you all night! I’ll maul your face off next time I fight you, you—you—demon dog!

 

“There’s an option,” Kyouka whispered.

 

“Which is?”

 

“We tail Dazai-san.”

 

There was no way that would work. Dazai would certainly notice. And yet, Atsushi needed to be there to be humiliated in person and to immediately lie and tell Dazai Akutagawa was clearly losing it. Like Dazai-san won’t catch your lies. Especially if you follow him.

 

Ranpo wandered by, a cup of coffee from the cafe in his hand. He slid a slip of paper onto the desk, towards Atsushi.

 

An address.

 

That’s right! Dazai wouldn’t notice if they took another route to get there and arrived at the same time. Atsushi frowned. Ranpo, what do you know? He couldn’t know much. Definitely not. Maybe about the fight? Akutagawa would certainly be…

 

Would he brag?

 

“We’re getting coffee!” Kyouka announced that afternoon, soon after Dazai had left, leaping to her feet and clutching Atsushi’s hand. “See you later!” She raced out before Tanizaki could cry that he wanted to come with them and Kunikida could bewail their work ethic.  

 

They hurried through the city, Kyouka navigating on her new phone—though she still had the old one from her mother, of course—until they arrived at a warehouse. Atsushi checked the door before slipping inside a back entrance. Dust coated the empty floor, and a mangled staircase blocked the view of the corridor. But Atsushi still heard voices.

 

“I beat your little kitten.”

 

Atsushi scowled. Kyouka squeezed his arm.

 

“Did you? And yet you let him live.”

 

“It was pointless to kill him.” Akutagawa sounded almost hopeful.

 

“Ah, I see.” Dazai sighed. “What did you bring me here to talk about?”

 

“That! That I beat him!” A cough.

 

Atsushi frowned. You aren’t going to embarrass me? You seriously went through the trouble of trying to arrange a sketchy meeting just to tell your former mentor, who left you of his own accord, that you beat me?

 

“And did you learn more strategies for how to work together? If the two of you—”

 

“Oh, don’t you say it.” Akutagawa cussed. “We’re not a team! That time was only to save—”

 

“You polish each other’s strengths,” Dazai said. “On your own, you’re strong, but together, you’re—”  

 

“I don’t want to be used to make him better! What about me? I’m strong enough on my own! I’m enough on my own!” Akutagawa bellowed.

 

Atsushi took a step forward. He bit his lip, glancing at Kyouka.

 

“You are enough,” Dazai agreed, calm. “But, Akutagawa, your potential is—greater than you know. But you need someone who’s on par with you and Atsushi—”

 

“Shut up! He’s not!” Akutagawa sounded almost as if he was pleading.

 

“You can only reach your full potential when—”

 

“You’re a dumbass!”

 

“I said I would give you a reason to live. I said I would help you be strong. This—”

 

“Through him? ” Akutagawa laughed.

 

“I would really rather you stopped trying to fight him; I think it’s giving Chuuya gray hairs and while I think it’d make him look rather distinguished, he thinks it’d just make him look old, and cranky Chuuya makes me—”  

 

“Fuck you! Rashomon!” A crashing sound. If Atsushi had to guess, Akutagawa used Rashomon only to get instantly nullified by Dazai. And then the sound of footsteps. Dazai, just walking away. Or, no, yes, also—Akutagawa rushing towards the back exit, not even noticing Atsushi, running away for the second time in two days.

 

Wow. Atsushi gaped. Dazai, you were kind of a jerk. Though Dazai had never been good with feelings.

 

“Do you remember when you found me?” Kyouka asked.

 

He paused, realizing he’d already taken several steps towards the door.

 

“I was crying. When he let me go when we were trying to kill their boss, he said we had the same eyes.”

 

Huh?

 

Kyouka met Atsushi’s gaze. “He just screams instead of crying, that’s all.” She turned to head towards the main entrance, where Dazai had left.

 

Atsushi raced across the street, panting, whipping his head about to look this way and that. There! A flash of black. “Akutagawa!”

 

The black coat ducked into an alleyway. Atsushi swore, creeping down it. Shadows from buildings blocked the sunlight, even though the sky was still clear blue above. A dumpster sat steaming in the heat. Atsushi covered his nostrils.

 

“What the fuck are you doing here, Jinko?” snapped Akutagawa’s voice. “You better have a good reason, because you’re the last person I want to see right now.”

 

Atsushi spun around. Akutagawa pried himself away from the wall he’d been leaning against, stepping towards Atsushi with his eyes flashing.

 

“You didn’t tell Dazai-san about—”

 

“Why the hell would I advertise that? Didn’t I say I wouldn’t?” Akutagawa covered his mouth, coughing.

 

“Do mafia members keep their word?”

 

“How would you know? It’s not like you’ve ever really tried to trust one of us.”

 

“Should I?”

 

“No.” Akutagawa coughed again.

 

“What’s with that cough?” Atsushi blurted out.

 

“Huh?” Akutagawa blinked. “Why are you asking—”

 

“Why do you cough all the time? Do you smoke a few packs a day, or—” He’d always wondered. Why would someone so obsessed with strength have such an obvious weakness?

 

“I’m not an idiot, Atsushi .” Akutagawa wiped at his mouth. “It’s pleurisy. Inflammation. You know, pretty chronic in my case after living in the slums for a decade.”

 

“Well,” said Atsushi. “It doesn’t seem to slow you down any.”

 

Akutagawa’s brow wrinkled. “What do you want? Why did you come?”

 

“I thought you’d tell Dazai and Kyouka helped me tail him. Well, we met him there. We didn’t tail him. We got the address from—”

 

“I don’t need a novel; a short story would be enough.” Akutagawa scowled. “And I wouldn’t say anything. It’s just a stupid thing. We talked yesterday about how stupid it, and you, was and are.”

 

Atsushi glowered. Well, fine. If you want to be an asshole .

 

“For something so stupid, you bring it up an awful lot,” Akutagawa added, cutting Atsushi off.

 

“Me?” Atsushi’s face burned despite the shade. “You’re the one who wanted to talk yesterday! I wanted to forget it from the start!”

 

“Right.” Akutagawa glanced towards the dumpster, wrinkling his nose. “If you want to forget it, then why are you the one bringing it up?”

 

Atsushi gaped. The rancid air tasted putrid on his tongue. He didn’t understand. Why was Akutagawa bringing it up so many times? Wasn’t he humiliated? How did he deal with embarrassment, by blaming everyone else like he dealt with all his feelings?

 

Or was it… not trivial and not nothing to you?

 

That was a stupid thought. Atsushi dug his fingernails into his palms. “What was that all about, back there? Did Dazai-san… really promise you a reason to live?”

 

Akutagawa snorted, sticking his fists in the pockets of his coat. He walked off, Atsushi following. “Yeah. You know, Jinko, at least they fed you in that orphanage.”

 

“He picked you up off the streets?”

 

“That’s one way of saying it.” Akutagawa squinted as they stepped out into the sun. He crossed the street, heading towards a fire escape. He hauled himself up. Atsushi hesitated. “Coming, or scared?”

 

“Screw you.” Atsushi clambered up the fire escape to the roof. Akutagawa sat with his legs dangling off the edge. Atsushi was not getting so close. Nope. No way.

 

“I used to run around with a group of eight or so of us,” Akutagawa said. “All street kids. Rashomon made it easier to steal food, and protect us from people who see street kids as cash.”

 

“Was Gin one of them?”

 

Akutagawa stiffened. “You know?”

 

“That she’s your sister?” Atsushi nodded, settling down near the edge, but with enough distance so that a gust of wind wouldn’t send him over.

 

“Yeah,” Akutagawa said. “She is. And she was with me then. And then one day we overheard the mafia talking about information—we shouldn’t have heard. But we weren’t trying to hear it. It was an accident. And they came with guns, and Gin and I were the only two who got out. That’s when I met Dazai. He offered to let me—and Gin, because of me, because of Rashomon—join the mafia.”

 

“And you wanted protection?” From the people who—

 

“No, idiot, I wanted a reason to live. And I asked him as much. And he said he could give me one. And he did. And then he left.”

 

It was a good thing Atsushi wasn’t sitting on the edge, because he might have keeled over. He dug his fingertips into the rough, scratchy roof. Your reason to live wasn’t the mafia, or Rashomon, or being strong enough.

 

It was Dazai-san.

 

Do you even know that? Or do you still think it’s what Dazai-san could offer you in terms of praise?

 

Atsushi’s reason to live wasn’t the tiger. He knew that. It was the Agency, Kyouka, Yosano, Kunikida—all of them. Family who wanted him, protected him.

 

Akutagawa cussed again, kicking his legs.

 

“Don’t fall,” Atsushi said, reaching his hand out.

 

“Rashomon would save me, just like the tiger would save you.”

 

Oh. He was right. Atsushi frowned. “Do you think that Dazai-san will care more about you only when I’m out of the picture? I don’t think it works like that.”

 

“Shut up!”

 

“I mean, you have Gin, and you still care about Dazai, it’s not like that—”

 

“I said shut up!”

 

Atsushi swallowed. “Do you want me to leave?”

 

Akutagawa said nothing, kicking his legs again.

 

You want someone to stay with you. Kyouka was right. Atsushi kept quiet as the sky bled maroon and bruised purple, night pummeling away day.

 


 

Atsushi was still there. Akutagawa didn’t understand why the stupid werecat wasn’t just running home to Dazai with his tail tucked between his legs. Was it because he felt sorry for Akutagawa or something? The thought rankled him.

 

Akutagawa turned around. “Hey.”

 

Atsushi opened his eyes, leaning back on his palms. “Yes?”

 

“Why do you have to pretend like you’re better than me?” Akutagawa asked point-blank. “You mocked Dazai leaving me so many times. You think you deserve him because you’re all nice and sweet, and you think I don’t. You deserve him because they fed you in your cage even while telling you you were worthless and didn’t even tell you about your ability, while my ability was the only thing that made sure Gin and I had food in our stomachs, and you had no friends but I did, and they were all killed. Now you—”

 

Have friends.

 

And I don’t . Except Higuchi.

 

“Why do you have to pretend you’re stronger than me?” Atsushi asked.

 

“I beat you.”

 

“And so we’re even now. 1-1 instead of 1-0. Do you want to be locked up in a cage?”

 

“Why do you have to deny there’s a part of you that would love to go unfettered and unchecked?” Akutagawa jabbed his finger at him. “I’ve seen you fight. I know you would. You used to, when you didn’t know what you were.”

 

Atsushi flinched. And then his eyes popped. “Wait, are you saying I fight well?”

 

Dammit. Akutagawa lifted his shoulders. “It’s true. For whatever the word of a mafia dog is.”

 

“You’re not a dog.”

 

Akutagawa flinched. The words seeped into his ears, chilling him, tingling as they moved to his brain and then down his spine, into his abdomen.

 

You’re not a dog.

 

He let out a barking laugh. “Then what am I?” Just a useless soul floating around in this void they call earth?

 

“I don’t know,” said Atsushi. “A big brother. A murderer. A—”

 

Akutagawa grabbed some pebbles and chips of cement that were loose, hurling them at Atsushi. He yelped, but he laughed. Akutagawa smiled.

 

“I don’t like dogs,” Akutagawa said.

 

“A dog-hater, then. I like cats.”

 

“They’re cute,” Akutagawa agreed begrudgingly.

 

“I never thought I’d hear you say that word. Cute.”

 

“Fuck off. I like tea.”

 

“Tea over rice is my favorite food,” Atsushi admitted.

 

“I really like calligraphy and antique paintings. I have snuck into every museum in this city multiple times.”

 

“Dangerous,” Atsushi teased.

 

The moon glimmered behind some clouds. Akutagawa pointed up. “Is it tiger time?”

 

“I can control it now, Akutagawa .”

 

The first time he’d said Akutagawa’s name without hate. It sounded like it was bouncing, each syllable rising and falling. “I—wasn’t going to kill you anyways after I beat you. I just wanted you to look at me while I told you I’d let you go. You know, because you weren’t worth it.”

 

Atsushi studied the roof at his words.

 

“I didn’t mean it like that. You’re not worthless,” Akutagawa interjected. I just… I don’t understand.

 

What makes you have worth, to you? Tell me!

 

He already knew the answer, and it was in part why after Dazai had left the mafia, he felt a gaping hole inside his chest, where the wind whistled through. But he didn’t want to brood on that right now. Deflect. “And then your body had to go and out your deepest, darkest secret.”

 

Atsushi covered his face. “There’s no secret! It was a normal biological reaction! I have proof!”

 

“Proof?”

 

“I looked it up online! Medical sites! And—and—”

 

“You actually spent time researching?”

 

“Well—” Atsushi moaned.

 

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone about your secret crush. Wouldn’t want to risk your friends in the agency getting mad.” Akutagawa’s heart pounded.

 

“They wouldn’t; they’re not like that—” Atsushi’s jaw fell open. “And I don’t! It’s not like that! There’s no crush! We hate each other!”

 

We hate each other. Right. Akutagawa’s chest felt like a brick had fallen into it. He coughed.

 

“Maybe I don’t hate you anymore,” Atsushi admitted. “Okay, I don’t hate you. At all. Sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

 

Huh? Akutagawa lifted his chin, blinking. He was apologizing? Hadn’t Akutagawa done enough to him to make sure Atsushi truly hated him? How can you not hate me? I could be tricking oyu and plotting to kill you! Are you this naive?

 

“I don’t understand why you’re such a jerk sometimes though.”

 

Gah! Akutagawa shrugged. “Look at Beast Beneath the Moonlight. That’s why.”

 

Atsushi bowed his head.

 

“You repress it. I let it roam free.”

 

“Aren’t you repressing something, too? If no one, not even Higuchi, knew Gin was your sister.”

 

Akutagawa had no answer. He wasn’t repressing. Not really. He’d just… lost. Eight laughs, eight colors of blood, all red. A promise, a smile and a joke, a ruffle of his hair. “Well, if almost getting killed is a turn on for you, who’s really repressed?”

 

“The more you go on about it,” Atsushi mused, tapping his finger to his chin, a rather new, rather fascinating devilish grin spreading across his face. “The more I wonder if you’re the one with a crush. Maybe you can’t quite let it go—”

 

“Hey!” Akutagawa squawked. “Rashomon!” The dark shadow pinned Atsushi down.

 

“We’re in the moonlight; I’d win,” Atsushi retorted. Neither of them were really interested in fighting, though.

 

“Recent history suggests otherwise.” Akutagawa got to his feet and shuffled.

 

Atsushi rolled his eyes. “Don’t leave me here all night or I will send Kyouka after you.”

 

“Well, I wouldn’t want to make her mad.” Akutagawa crouched down next to Atsushi, releasing Rashomon.

 

“Thanks; you’re so thoughtful.” Atsushi rolled his eyes, sitting back up. “Not that this is helping your situation. Maybe you’re into tying people up—”

 

Akutagawa was stung. “I am not!”

 

But Atsushi wasn’t moving away from him. His eyes glowed like the sunrise, like he was really having fun teasing Akutagawa, and he wasn’t intending to use his words to cut him. “Recent history begs to—”

 

“You don’t get to quote me!”

 

“Oh, yeah?” Atsushi rolled his eyes. “Rashomon, this! Rashomon, that! I’m—” He stopped at the look on Akutagawa’s face. “I was just teasing.”

 

Akutagawa wanted to speak, but he didn’t know what to say. Thank you?

 

He never really felt this way, except with Gin. Like someone was around him because they wanted to be, not because they had to be, not because they were sworn to serve him. And hell, there wasn’t even blood tying them together. Just a man who walked away.

 

“Are you okay?” Atsushi was asking him.

 

Akutagawa felt his lips opening on their own. He laughed.

 

Atsushi blinked. And then he chuckled, and Akutagawa’s stomach tightened when he recalled that he was laughing with someone he supposedly hated, someone who had everything he had lost or never had.

 

The moonlight lit Akutagawa’s face. Atsushi’s jokes echoed. “ Maybe you’re the one who…”

 

Shit.

 

No, that wasn’t the case. Akutagawa didn’t have a crush. He was just curious. To be close to someone—to laugh with someone and joke around, where his strength was funny but not in a mean-spirited way.

 

It didn’t have to weaken him, right? He didn’t feel weak now. He felt strong. And learning, as Atsushi himself demonstrated no matter how ridiculous him looking up spontaneous erections online was, was never a bad thing. Learning would make him stronger. Atsushi clearly realized this. And Atsushi…

 

Atsushi tilted his head. His hair dangled across his chin. “You okay?”

 

I don’t know.

 

Like Gin had said, if he wanted to—he could just ask.

 

Atsushi had asked. Do you want me to leave? And then, Atsushi stayed.

 

Akutagawa hesitated. He leaned forward.

 

Atsushi’s eyes widened. His breath felt warm on his cheeks. It smelled like tea, slightly bitter, floral.

 

Akutagawa pressed his lips against Atsushi’s, squeezing his eyes shut so that he wouldn’t have to see Atsushi’s expression.

 

Atsushi pulled back.

 

“Sorry,” Akutagawa managed. No, no—how do I—did I fuck up—

 

“Have you kissed a lot of people?” asked Atsushi.

 

“Lots,” he lied.

 

“I’ve never kissed anyone,” Atsushi admitted.

 

You’re telling me this? Akutagawa swallowed. “Me, either. Don’t see what the big deal is; it’s just—”   

 

Atsushi’s eyes widened. He grasped Akutagawa’s wrist.

 

And then his lips met Akutagawa’s. Akutagawa hesitated, and then opened his mouth, Atsushi’s opening with his. His teeth scraped Atsushi’s tongue. His hand grasped the back of Atsushi’s skull; his other hand he had no idea what to do with, so he kept it curled in his lap.

 

This is… nice.

 

He liked it. Atsushi breathing on him, tongues sliding against each other, both of them squeezing their eyes shut and opening them awkwardly, Atsushi’s hands clutching his shoulders, pressure, exploring.

 

So this is why people like kissing.

 

When Akutagawa finally broke away, panting, he wasn’t sure how long it had been, but there was no trace of sun in the sky, and the moonlight lit the roof silver. Atsushi’s lips were swollen. His probably looked similar.

 

“Bye,” Akutagawa said, turning to scramble down the fire escape.

 

What did we just do?

Chapter Text

The first thing Akutagawa did when he woke up in the morning was check his phone. Nothing from Atsushi.

 

He scowled, dragging himself up. Gin had already been asleep when he got home.

 

“Morning,” Gin said, tossing him some bottled coffee from the nearest convenience store. “How’d your talk with Dazai go?”

 

“Shitty.” He gulped the coffee. Too sweet. He liked it.

 

“You were gone a long time.”

 

Akutagawa coughed. “Did Higuchi worry?”

 

“Of course.” Gin rolled her eyes, pulling her hair up in her usual updo. She adjusted her mask. “See you later.”

 

He glared at his dark phone. Text me.

 

But why would he? Atsushi wouldn’t actually like him. He just wanted experience. And that’s what Akutagawa wanted too, so it was fine. Normal for people their age. People kissed. And Atsushi was, at the very least, pretty.

 

In all likelihood, though, the light would burn Atsushi for making out with Akutagawa, inflicting Atsushi with guilt. He would never be able to keep a straight face in front of his stupid detective agency. Akutagawa would be their laughingstock for sure. Dazai would chuckle, patronizing.

 

Screw it!

 

He stormed out of his place, marching down the street. Clouds blew in, bloating and decaying, dripping water.

 

A saber screeched through the air. Akutagawa skidded to a halt, stopping with the blade millimeters from his chest. He gaped. Since when was he so spacey? Get it together, fucking moron!

 

“Don’t move,” came a soft voice.

 

“Kyouka?” Was it all a trap? Was—

 

She stepped out from behind a telephone pole, arms folded behind her back. Her brow furrowed as she scrutinized him.

 

Demon Snow kept its blade directed towards Akutagawa’s heart. Rashomon surged, protecting him. He leaped back. “What the hell are you—”

 

“I’m not looking to fight,” she said flatly.

 

“Then what are you—”

 

“Atsushi-kun came back late yesterday. He missed all of work.”

 

Akutagawa wanted to melt onto the pavement. “What’s that got to do with me?”

 

“His lips were all puffy and red and he tried to hide it, but I noticed.” She circled him. “It’s okay, Demon Snow.”

 

The ghost-like form relented.

 

“I don’t know what stupid story you—”

 

“If you hurt him, I’ll have Demon Snow kill you,” she told him. Thunder crackled in the distance.

 

“It’s not like that!” Akutagawa shouted, even as something leaped inside of him. Atsushi… kept it a secret? Or tried to? Atsushi—he couldn’t have been upset or crying or anything, because then surely Kyouka would think he’d already hurt him—

 

“Don’t care. Do what you want. I’ll even help him hide things,” said Kyouka.

 

“You will?” Akutagawa’s eyes widened. With Kyouka, Atsushi maybe stood a chance of keeping the agency from finding out. She was smart.

 

Kyouka nodded. “Just keep your mouth shut, too.”

 

Yeah, I’m going to brag to the entire mafia that I made out with the weretiger. Higuchi would boil him for dinner. “Jealous?” he jeered.

 

“I thought you said it wasn’t like that.”

 

“It’s not, but who knows what you’re thinking.” The first few raindrops pattered down. He started walking. Kyouka fell into step behind him.

 

“Just don’t do anything to hurt him while you’re—friends with benefits or whatever you are.” Her hand caught his arm. “I mean it, Akutagawa.”

 

He studied her. Rain soaked her hair now, and her gaze was unrelenting. Lightning flashed. “We’re not friends with benefits either.” Though… “Don’t worry, Kyouka.” He pulled himself free, walking on. His boots landed in a puddle. He swore.

 

“Akutagawa,” she called.

 

He turned.

 

“I’m happy for you,” she said.  

 

He scowled. “You have no reason to be!” He jogged away from her this time. His heart pounded in his chest. Atsushi… did she mean he was happy? Did it matter?

 

He was fun to kiss. Her suggestion wasn’t bad.

 

When he got to the meeting point to discuss a new job with Chuuya and Mori, Chuuya greeted him with a glare someone so short should honestly never wear. “You missed our check-in yesterday.”

 

Oh, Christ. “I was busy.” Akutagawa shrugged.

 

“You were busy? I was busy too, but then I wasted time waiting around for you—”

 

“Chuuya, Chuuya,” interrupted Mori, lacing his slender fingers. With the dim lighting from the storm, his high-backed chair, and his odd collar, Mori looked like a vampire who was trying too hard. “Akutagawa always goes off on his own and then somehow gets the job done. I trust it wasn’t trivial.”

 

Making out with the enemy was not trivial. It was his first kiss. “See?” Akutagawa retorted.

 

“Watch your mouth, brat.” Chuuya rolled his eyes. “An important shipment’s coming today.”

 

Mori nodded. “We need to protect it; remnants from the Guild and other yakuza families might try to steal it.”

 

Akutagawa checked his phone again while listening.

 


 

“Lovely afternoon, isn’t it, Chuuya?”

 

“It’s raining, dimwit.” Water dripped off the brim of Chuuya’s hat.

 

Dazai groaned. “What do you want?”

 

“Your brat is provoking me to kill you instead of waiting for your inevitable suicide.”

 

Dazai narrowed his eyes. “If you’re complaining about Akutagawa, you’re the one raising him now, and he sought me out yesterday.”

 

“Not how it works, dummy.” Chuuya blocked Dazai’s path to his door.

 

Something cold gripped Dazai’s stomach. “Did he get hurt?”

 

“No, but he’s been... off today. We were protecting—a shipment and he almost let a bullet through.”

 

You threw away the key. A voice that sounded like Fyodor’s nibbled at the back of his mind, wriggling its way inside. What was the key? Himself? But he couldn’t save others in the mafia. He couldn’t save Akutagawa in the mafia. His complex plans always yielded results with patience and plotting, because he observed and knew people’s quirks, strengths, weaknesses.

 

Getting yourself killed is not part of the plan, Akutagawa! Was he suicidal? The brat always seemed reckless, sure, but not exactly hunting his own death.

 

Can one kill so many without looking for their own? Was Akutagawa that arrogant? Or did he think that by learning how often people could die, his own wouldn’t shock him anymore?

 

Shit .

 

“And he blew me off yesterday,” Chuuya added.

 

Dazai poked at Chuuya’s hat. “You really compensate for your height with that ego, don’t you?”

 

Chuuya’s face burst into rage. He slugged Dazai in the shoulder. “What the fuck, dude? How are you the person who jumps off bridges like it’s a sport—”

 

Dazai held his hands up in the air. “It is a sport—”

 

“You’re not doing it as a sport; shut the fuck up. You jump off bridges, but when I fell, you jump after me. You act like you think I can’t swim but I’m telling you Akutagawa almost got shot after whatever the hell you said to him yesterday, and your reaction is he’s not mine he’s yours?”

 

“You say it like he’s our child,” Dazai said. “We’re two years older than he is.”

 

“His emotional maturity is lower than even yours!”

 

“Mm.” Dazai scratched his chin. “Well, we’re both taller than you.”

 

That did it. Chuuya launched himself at Dazai. He dodged. The two of them knew how to fight each other, kicking up mud and puddles at each other, landing glancing blows. Dazai finally stole Chuuya’s hat and ran down the street, cackling.

 

“Give it back!” Chuuya screeched. Dazai laughed, waving it in the air. And then his foot landed in a pothole.

 

Whoops.

 

He tumbled down to the pavement, smacking his chin. He spat a mouthful of blood. Chuuya swooped in, snatching the hat. And then his boot flew towards Dazai’s face.

 

Dazai’s arms shot out. He grabbed Chuuya’s ankle. He fell down, knee landing in Dazai’s stomach. “Ow! How cruel, Chuuya!”

 

“You’re the thief!” Chuuya snapped, knee digging into Dazai’s sternum now. He glared down at Dazai, who stared up at him. In moments like these, it was easy to forget that Chuuya was not a human.

 

But he was, wasn’t he, for all intents and purposes? He felt heavy. “Don’t use your gravity on me now, Chuuya.”

 

“I want to.” Chuuya’s eyes sparked. Wet tendrils of hair dangled aside his cheekbones. “Push you down into the center of the earth.”

 

“Kinky.” Dazai wrapped his arms around Chuuya’s waist.

 

“The fuck?” Chuuya shrieked.

 

“Dazai-san?”

 

Dazai craned his neck back. Chuuya looked up. Atsushi stood there, gaping.

 

Chuuya looked as if he’d died. Dazai burst into laughter. “Hello, Atsushi-kun,” Dazai sang out. “Don’t get the wrong idea, he’s just my chosen method of suicide this afternoon.”

 

Chuuya scrambled off of him, flipping Dazai off. Atsushi’s face looked as if he’d stuck it in boiling water. He backpedaled fast.

 

“You’re lucky, Jinko,” hollered Chuuya.

 

Atsushi froze. “I—I am?”

 

“That Akutagawa didn’t kill you.”

 

“Oh right. Yeah.” Atsushi nodded. “Mmhm.” He turned and ran.

 

“Well, Chuuya, he probably thinks I’m screwing the enemy, and in public, no less!” Dazai clapped his palm to his forehead. “How will I ever overcome the—”

 

“I will push you down again!” Chuuya bellowed. “But I meant what I said!”

 

“What was that?” Dazai pushed himself to his feet. His pants and shirt were soaked through.

 

“I don’t know what you said to Akutagawa yesterday, but it clearly rattled him.Not everyone is exactly like you! Just because you had to grow up without adults and were fine doesn’t mean everyone else is fine! If you really wanna push him and Atsushi to partner with each other more, then get your shit together , because I doubt you predicted him almost blowing a mission for the first time in years today!”

 

What had Akutagawa been yelling about again yesterday? That he was enough?

 

You don’t want to be too much better than everyone around you, Akutagawa-kun. Trust me. It’s lonely. Dazai’s teeth chattered.

 

“Not everyone is suicidal,” Chuuya snapped. “Some people want to live. Akutagawa’s one of them. He just needs a damn reason.” He turned to stomp off.

 

Not everyone is suicidal. Dazai couldn’t imagine not wanting to die.

 

Dostoyevsky’s latest conversation echoed. Skin is a cage.

 

Life itself. A trap, something he just wanted to break free of already. He wanted to want to live. Someone like Chuuya would never understand it. Which was why Chuuya was so fascinating, that ingrained desire to stay alive, to forget whatever lurked underneath and just take his place in the mafia. He was so loyal to Mori-san he wouldn’t even think about stabbing the man like Mori had stabbed their boss.

 

But Dazai had been a waste and a burden since he was born.

 

Save the weak. Protect the orphans. He remembered Odasaku managing to say that. But Odasaku’s orphans still died. By teaching Akutagawa and Atsushi to be strong, they weren’t helplessly awaiting slaughter in a supposed safe house. Neither were Gin, or Kyouka. They were capable.

 

Who arranged the safe house, now?

 

He laughed again, but at least laughter was warm. At least its flames chased away the cold dark water he breathed in and out, a drowning man, every second of every day.

 

Reason to live: save the weak. Protect the orphans.

 

He was too strong to be saved, and he always protected himself.

 


 

 

You’ll never believe what I just saw, Atsushi texted.

 

A few minutes went by. And then a text. what

 

Atsushi chewed his lip. Should we meet up to talk about yesterday? I can tell you then! :)

 

ok

 

Atsushi got directions to meet Akutagawa tomorrow afternoon and sighed, flopping back on his sleeping mat. Kyouka stirred the curry she was making. The spicy scent tingled Atsushi’s nose.

 

Did Dazai and Chuuya hate each other? Or was it more like Dazai and Kunikida, friends despite hating each other? Or was it more like—

 

We’re not like that .

 

“Texting with your boyfriend?”

 

“He’s not!”

 

“Boy toy?”

 

“Kyouka!”

 

She giggled.

 

He propped his chin up on his palms. “You’re awfully bold lately.”

 

“You called me your sister.” Kyouka shrugged. “It’s nice to have that extra reassurance.”

 

That you belong. That you’re wanted.

 

Everyone wanted a reason to live, to know that it was okay for them to live, really. And seldom if ever did people want to do it alone.

 

Atsushi scrambled to his feet. “Let me help you.”

 

The next day, they met on the same rooftop, Kyouka making excuses for him again and Dazai side-eying him while Kunikida managed to turn purple and yet not go all apoplectic. Atsushi pulled himself up the fire escape, shoulders aching, to find Akutagawa already standing there. The sunlight seared Atsushi’s eyes. He shielded them. “Hi.”

 

“What did you see?” Akutagawa asked, turning away from looking out over the city, turning to look towards Atsushi. His coat billowed around him in the wind. “You mentioned yesterday—”

 

“Oh.” Atsushi chuckled. He described what he’d seen between Dazai and Chuuya.

 

“No way,” Akutagawa scoffed. He shook his head. “What the hell.”

 

“Are you going to ruin Chuuya’s life with it?”

 

“No, just filing it away for when I need it.” Akutagawa tossed him a smirk. “We had a mission together yesterday.”

 

Atsushi swallowed.

 

“Only one person died, and Chuuya killed him because he shot at us.”

 

“Oh.”

 

“Are you judging me?”

 

“No,” he lied. Was he? Was it a lie? “I’m glad you didn’t get shot. Though, I guess you can’t.”

 

Akutagawa snorted.

 

Atsushi swallowed. What did they have to say? Sorry I kissed you? Let’s kiss again? Because he definitely would. Did that mean something was wrong with him? “Kyouka’s—doing really well.”

 

Akutagawa narrowed his eyes. “Why are we talking about her right now?”

 

Atsushi shrugged.  

 

“Listen,” said Akutagawa. “Thinking about Dazai and Chuuya—don’t you think they’re most likely friends with benefits?” The wind blew his hair across his face. He extracted the strands from his mouth.

 

Atsushi swallowed. “You mean—”

 

“Like… friends or enemies when convenient, but they trust each other when they absolutely need to. And they might occasionally make out. Or sleep together. And yet they’re still constantly bitching at each other.”  

 

“Maybe,” Atsushi said, sitting down. “Dazai always talks about women, and flirts, but—”

 

“Yeah, I know. But have you ever seen him with a girl?”

 

Atsushi leaned back on his hands. “Nope, except one time when he was trying to set Kunikida up.”

 

“Everyone just wants a reason to live,” said Akutagawa. “I guess sex helps them enjoy life.”

 

Atsushi swallowed. “It’s not like they could have a normal—having been in the mafia.”

 

“Why are you like this?” Akutagawa demanded.

 

“Like what?”

 

“We’re not monsters.”

 

“You tore off my leg the first time we met.”

 

“It grew back!” Akutagawa colored. “Look, I’m sorry.”

 

Atsushi blinked. He was apologizing? “It’s okay. I’m not really mad about it anymore. We—fight well together, I guess.” He cringed, digging his hands into the roof, expecting Akutagawa to yell.

 

“Yeah,” said Akutagawa. “I guess.” He looked out at the cityscape. “And, Jinko, you’re not bad at kissing.”

 

Atsushi gaped. “Well, it’s not like you have much to compare it to.”

 

Akutagawa flinched.

 

“You were nice, too,” Atsushi said. “I mean, kissing you.”

 

Akutagawa leaned forward, sighing. “Do you want to be friends with benefits? Like Dazai-san and Chuuya might be? Just because we both are—don’t have experience, and there’s some degree of—I know you’re not going to kill me and—even if we still don’t like each other as people and we’re part of two opposing groups we could still enjoy sex, right, without risking anyone on the outside, like you said yourself, we couldn’t have normal relationships either—” A cough broke him off.

 

What? It was good Atsushi was sitting down because he was quite sure he would have fallen over if he’d been standing.

 

You want to kiss me again.

 

You’re asking for this kind of arrangement?

 

You want to have sex with me?

 

You don’t hate me at all . At least on some level, Akutagawa—liked him? Even if it was just his body. But no, Akutagawa was actually opening up. He’d asked him for something. A favor, really, an offer. Akutagawa never asked for things. But this…

 

Why would I trust you?

 

His heart pounded. He remembered the feeling of Akutagawa’s lips covering his, his tongue in his mouth, how in that moment everything else fell away, and he could just be there, focusing how how it felt.  

 

“Yeah,” said Atsushi, butterflies flapping their wings in his stomach. “Yeah, okay.”

 

Akutagawa’s mouth fell open this time. “Really?”

 

“Yeah,” said Atsushi. “Okay. Let’s be friends with benefits.”

 

“Or enemies with benefits.”  

 

“Sure,” Atsushi agreed. Is that a lie you tell yourself? Well, he’d play along.

 

“A few rules, then,” said Akutagawa. “No telling anyone. Not even Kyouka. I won’t even tell Gin or Higuchi.”

 

Atsushi nodded. “Okay…” He was willing to bet money Kyouka would figure it out anyways.

 

“And—” Akutagawa scowled. “We don’t spend nights together. I mean, we can meet at night, we probably will, but we’re not falling asleep or doing any of that shit. I trust you enough , but I don’t trust you not to turn into a tiger and eat me while I’m asleep.”

 

Atsushi laughed. That sounded ridiculous, but truthfully he didn’t want to sleep next to Akutagawa either. “Fine. You’d cough too much anyways.”

 

Akutagawa rolled his eyes.

 

I’m going to make out with Akutagawa again.

 

I’m going to have sex with him. His stomach felt as if the butterflies started pumping their wings at full strength. The sun felt strong for so late in the afternoon. Will we text? Like, let’s have sex today?

 

What an awkward text. But this whole situation was awkward. So why put it off? Life didn’t slow down. “Do you want to go now?” Atsushi asked.

 

“Huh?”

 

“To a hotel. On that mafia salary, you’d pay for the room.”

 

Akutagawa blinked. “Now?”

 

What am I doing? “Why not?” Atsushi shrugged. “Unless you have mafia business.” He wanted to feel it again, that close to a human being. His stomach churned.

 

In truth, if they delayed, he might talk himself out of it. Maybe Akutagawa was only doing this to play mind games, maybe he just wanted to upset Dazai, maybe he had a horrible STD and planned to kill Atsushi with it. maybe he would realize that Atsushi that a man-tiger and short to boot, with choppy hair and—

 

He would never like me.

 

No one would.

 

“Yeah, okay,” Akutagawa said, echoing him from earlier. “Let’s go.” He hesitated. “If you want to—you know, not do everything, or if you do, or if you want to try something or I do, you just have to say so, okay? No—pushing each other here.”

 

You really want to? Atsushi nodded.   

 

They climbed down the fire escape, neither of them looking at the other. Atsushi followed Akutagawa, tugging his sleeve to signal to stop at a convenience store, where Atsushi bought a box of condoms. Black. Because Akutagawa liked black. Also he felt like everyone was looking at him, and his skin crawled.

 

Akutagawa was waiting outside. His brow lifted. “Did you get lube?”

 

“Um—” Oops . He was so stupid. Of course they’d need that. He was just too focused on his ridiculous anxiety—

 

Akutagawa rolled his eyes and entered, coming back out with a bag of his own.  He led them to a fairly nice hotel, the kind Atsushi had only been to on missions with the agency. His shoes squeaked on the shiny tile floor. “This is—super fancy.”

 

Akutagawa snorted. The room was small, but cute, with a large bed. And Atsushi’s heart was pounding now, and heat washed through him.

 

What’s it like?

 

He never thought it’d be with Akutagawa, of all people. And then he saw Akutagawa’s pulse hammering in his throat. You’re nervous, too.

 

And with that realization that he wasn’t alone, and either neither of them were stupid or both were for being nervous, his anxiety calmed from a swell to a gentle rocking. He reached for Akutagawa’s hand, parting Akutagawa’s lips with his own.

 


 

 

Akutagawa wasn’t sure how long they kissed, but the light the curtained windows let in had dimmed by the time Atsushi took off his shirt. When he kissed Atsushi, his head felt like it was spinning, yet he was rooted in place.

 

“You can be on top,” Atsushi said. “For now.”

 

I can? He’d been worried Atsushi wouldn’t want that. In truth, Akutagawa didn’t care what he did. But at least this way he looked like he cared about being in control. “Okay.”

 

Atsushi leaned in again. They both were now in the situation that got them into this in the first place, and this time they couldn’t claim accidental biology.

 

“Wait,” Akutagawa managed, pulling back and panting. Atsushi had a mark on his lower neck. He’d have to cover that tomorrow. Akutagawa had the feeling he had a matching one. “I want to—try something.” If you’re going to be on the bottom this time.

 

“Okay…”

 

“Sit down,” Akutagawa requested. He fumbled for the box of condoms. Atsushi obeyed, perching on the edge of the bed.

 

Akutagawa took a deep breath. He’d seen people doing this in the slums, sometimes on street corners. Often it was a woman with a man, but he figured he’d be able to do it, too. He knelt in front of Atsushi. Atsushi’s eyes widened.

 

Akutagawa’s fingers tugged at Atsushi’s pants, unzipping them. He slid them down Atsushi’s legs and rolled a condom onto Atsushi.

 

“Are you sure?” Atsushi asked.

 

Akutagawa nodded. He felt pressure on his head and realized Atsushi was gripping his hair, but not tight enough to hurt him, but to let him know he was there with him. Akutagawa kept his eyes closed at first, and then as Atsushi’s breaths got faster and faster, he opened them.

 

You—you really want me to do this to you. You’re enjoying it. I’m making you happy.

 

It felt like the opposite of dirty, like it had looked on the streets. He knelt because—he hated himself? Or did he want this, to feel like he was being pulled up, just like Atsushi pulled him up when he finished to kiss Akutagawa again?   

 

And then Atsushi shifted back, and Akutagawa realized he was completely naked, and Akutagawa still had his clothes on, still had Rashomon. Akutagawa swallowed. He walked a few steps away, towards a crimson stuffed chair, and removed his coat, tossing it onto the chair and kicking off his shoes. He turned to Atsushi when he unbuttoned his shirt, watching Atsushi’s face.

 

He had scars. Lots of them. He focused on the burn scar on Atsushi’s side as he tossed the shirt down, and then lastly, his pants. His face was red, but Atsushi’s eyes counted his scars without any kind of recoiling.

 

Akutagawa moved towards Atsushi. He rolled a condom onto himself and grabbed the lube. He glanced at Atsushi. “Do you still—”

 

Atsushi nodded. He reached for Akutagawa, pressing his lips into his, teeth clacking. Atsushi pulled Akutagawa over him.

 

He’d been worried when Atsushi first said today, now , that he’d panic and have exactly the problem Atsushi had teased him about before. But that didn’t seem to be a problem. Atsushi’s hands slid up Akutagawa’s side, sending shivers in Akutagawa’s abdomen. His own palms pressed Atsushi’s chest, damp. He smelled nice, and Akutagawa didn’t feel like he just needed to get it over with. This is—fun.  

 

His hips rested between Atsushi’s legs. “Tell me if I’m hurting you.” Akutagawa gritted his teeth, clutching Atsushi’s shoulders when he pushed in.

 

Atsushi scrunched up his face. “Ow—” He shifted, breathing in deeply, and then letting it out. Akutagawa could feel him relax. “Okay, that’s better.”

 

This is really happening. And it felt good. Akutagawa sucked in his breath. 

 

And then he laughed.

 

“What?” What am I doing wrong?

 

“This is just incredibly awkward,” Atsushi admitted. “But not—in a bad sense.”

 

Awkward because it’s me? Would you have rather done this with someone else?

 

Atsushi’s arms wrapped around Akutagawa’s shoulders, and he pulled Akutagawa’s head down for a kiss, cutting off Akutagawa's anxious thoughts. "It's okay," he panted. 

 

A jolt of something electric shot through Akutagawa. Okay, it is awkward. But—it doesn’t have to stay that way. He clutched Atsushi’s shoulders as he moved, kissing between pants and gasps, Atsushi craning his head back and Akutagawa wanting him to look at him, at him. One hand rose to brush Atsushi’s cheek bone. Atsushi arched his hips. A small moan escaped his lips. Akutagawa felt his muscles tensing, sweat dribbling down his temples. He clutched Atsushi tighter. He wanted to be close, so close, to someone. He wanted to have an effect on them, for them to move him, to have skin sticking together, mixing warmth, not think about living in shadows or anything, anything at all, other than the body under him and his own, both soft, not sure where his ended and Atsushi's began.

 

The muscles were so tense he gritted his teeth, opening his eyes. Atsushi met his gaze, and waves broke inside Akutagawa, brightening everything, blinding everything, but his skin was stuck against Atsushi’s with sweat, and when he dropped his head, he found a shoulder to meet it and an arm to curl around it.

Chapter Text

Kyouka’s eyes narrowed when Atsushi came home at one in the morning with damp hair despite the fact that it hadn’t been raining while he was gone. He’d taken a shower when they pried themselves out of bed, and when he came out, Akutagawa had already left. He’d sent a text, though. see you soon

 

I let Akutagawa inside me. We had sex. I’m not a virgin anymore.

 

Someone wanted me, even for a little bit. Akutagawa Ryunosuke, of all people. 

 

Atsushi lay awake during the night. For a few moments, he felt like he couldn’t even feel the shadow of the orphanage master, couldn’t even remember his words. They’d crumpled into dust. Now, he could still hear them, but they were mere whispers. 

 

He wondered how Akutagawa felt. He rolled over, grabbing his phone. No, he shouldn’t text him. Akutagawa had made it clear what he wanted.

 

Is it what you really want?

 

Atsushi didn’t even know. Akutagawa was still holding back. 

 

When he’d coughed once during sex, he’d glanced down like he was afraid Atsushi would change his mind, shove him off him. But in truth, it actually felt good. The problem was that Atsushi had no idea how to say those kind of things, and whether they were even appropriate or would be trespassing over the boundaries they’d set. He only knew to keep kissing Akutagawa, hope that showed him he liked it. 

 

He imagined what would happen next time Dazai wanted them to work together. Now he knew where Akutagawa’s scars were, his weakest areas. Atsushi could focus on protecting those areas. His scars… his scars were mirages, seared into him as a man, and irrelevant to him as a tiger.

 

Why do you have to deny there’s a part of you that would love to go unfettered and unchecked? Akutagawa’s voice, this time.

 

Because I don’t trust myself. He always wanted to tightly control every action, because if he messed up, it’d be more proof that he was bad, that the orphan master would kick him out, that he should never have been born, that his parents never wanted him. And yet when he slept, he’d never been in control. 

 

He held his hand up, watching white fur and claws appear. He traced the black line through the white. It was soft. 

 

Do you trust yourself, Akutagawa? Did Dazai-san teach you that? 

 

Is it hard? Is it easier on some days? 

 

These questions weren’t related to sex. He could definitely ask them next time they met. Or, now. Atsushi rolled over and tapped them out.

 

it’s three am and i’m calling you jinko again because of that fact

 

Atsushi rolled his eyes. 

 

i don’t know, Akutagawa responded. you can’t really second guess yourself in the slums. if i hesitated that night, gin and i would be dead. jinko 

 

i guess i never really had the luxury of not, jinko

 

not that your life was a luxury jinko. cages must suck

 

They did. Atsushi sighed. I guess I get to choose now.

 

A thumbs up emoji. Atsushi pressed his hand over his mouth to keep from laughing. 

 

He dozed as dawn opened the sky’s curtains.

 


 

 

For someone who lied to himself so brilliantly, Atsushi was a terrible liar with everyone else.

 

Dazai was watching. The boy had been acting incredibly strange since his fight with Akutagawa, and as time went by, he acted only stranger and stranger. He kept jumping whenever Dazai was around. It was like he had sinned and Dazai was the Holy Spirit seeking to convict. 

 

Dazai rubbed his chin. He actually missed the boy’s chatter and eager-to-please attitude. Not that the latter was gone. It was just jumbled now, with promises and late fulfillments. Kunikida was going to blow up any day now. 

 

What deep dark secret are you hiding to make you so spacey?

 

But the mafia was planning something big, and Dazai felt tension in his fingertips every hour of the day. He might need an Atsushi-Akutagawa team up again, if it turned out the Port Mafia wanted to take out a mutual enemy. Or, worst case scenario, the Port Mafia was aiming to strike against the agency yet again, in which case a team-up would be moot, but it’d also be a stupid move on Mori’s part. 

 

Unless Mori feared the agency was moving against him, which they weren’t. 

 

Unless Mori had an ace up his sleeve, and Dazai couldn’t figure out what that would be. But if it was a mutual enemy, why so quiet? 

 

Well, no matter. Dazai couldn’t die before shit hit the fan. After, he might jump into another river. Maybe it’d give Atsushi the push he needed.

 

Does that count as protecting the orphans? Death by sacrifice? No, no, suicide by sacrifice. He must be in charge of his own death. He always had been in charge of his own life. No one had been able to kill him yet, and he wasn’t going to give in yet because living no matter what, because he was always two steps ahead of everyone else, proved he needed to die. 

 

He went to see Fyodor if for no other reason than to fill his mind with Fyodor’s prattle and refute as much as he could. 

 

“Greetings and salutations,” Fyodor drawled. “Lonely again?”

 

Dazai studied him.

 

“Why see me when you could be seeing that strawberry muffin from the mafia?”

 

Chuuya? Dazai stiffened. 

 

Fyodor snapped his fingers. “Oh, that’s right. You don’t want to not be lonely. You want to see me because there’s a glass between us, protecting you.”  

 

“I think by now you would not I’m not afraid of you, Fyodor.” There was a hard edge in his voice. Dazai wondered why. He’d have to try— 

 

“The glass is protecting you from you , Dazai. Not me.” Fyodor kicked back in his chair, grinning. He set a book down. 

 

Dazai nodded at it.

 

“Sylvia Plath,” said Fyodor. “She stuck her head in an oven. Efficient.”

 

“Indeed,” Dazai greed. “Though I’m not sure how I feel about risking the oven turning on and cooking me.” At least, if he was dead, he could rest….

 

“Shall I read to you?” Fyodor lifted the book, clearing his throat. “This is a poem called ‘Daddy.’”

 

“Calling me Daddy, now?”

 

“That’s reserved for said previously mentioned muffin.”

 

Dazai wrinkled his nose.

 

“If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two——

The vampire who said he was you

And drank my blood for a year,

Seven years, if you want to know.

Daddy, you can lie back now.

 

“There’s a stake in your fat black heart

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.

They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”

 

“Lovely.”

 

Fyodor sighed. “Poor Plath, talking about creating a model of her shit dad in a husband and finding out he was shit too. And you?”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Who are you modeling yourself off of?” 

 

Himself? Dazai was trying to model himself on Odasaku. But he could never feel like him, and he would never be through. Odasaku was kind. He crossed his arms, refusing to answer. 

 

Your orphans were young and sweet. Mine are teenaged brats. Intriguing, but Dazai couldn’t remember being any different even now.

 

Of course, Odasaku had rescued Akutagawa that one time. Dazai sighed.

 

Choosing good felt useless at times, too. But at least, if Odasaku was really out there, reunited with his five orphaned kids like he believed he would be, he might smile at Dazai. Maybe.

 

“Trouble with the kids?”

 

Dazai said nothing.

 

“You know, I killed a kid once. After the mafia had that kidnapper abduct me. He was nice to me, that kid. He wanted to be part of the Port Mafia, run it really, but he got sold by traffickers. And I killed him? Do you want to know why?”

 

“Because you are god.” Dazai was not impressed. 

 

“Because he was nice,” said Fyodor. “He did not deserve to join the Port Mafia in his freedom, wreck his life with more sins, bring more suffering. I snuffed his life out in a moment of mercy. It was agonizing for me, and yet exhilarating in its meaning, setting him free. Sometimes, when I see these walls, I retreat to that moment in time.” He closed his eyes as if savoring a piece of cake. 

 

Dazai crossed his arms. “You seem to be very happy, Dostoyevsky.”

 

“Yes, very happy.” 

 

“But you do get distressed.” Dazai gestured to the walls of the prison. 

 

“Yes, but the agony I’d felt—I didn’t know then that I was happy, having done the right thing, contributed to the good of the world. Have you seen a leaf, a leaf from a tree?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I saw a yellow one the day they caught me, a little green. It was decayed at the edges. It was blown by the wind. When I was ten years old I used to shut my eyes in the winter on purpose and fancy a green leaf, bright, with veins on it, and the sun shining. I used to open my eyes and not believe them, because it was very nice, and I used to shut them again.”

 

“And so you fancy them now, here in a winter of your life? An allegory? The leaf is the boy’s death?”

 

“Man is unhappy and fears death because he doesn’t know death is freedom. It’s only that. That’s all, that’s all! If anyone finds out he’ll become happy at once, that minute, knowing it can end.”

 

“And if anyone dies of hunger, and if anyone insults and outrages a little child, is that good?”

 

“Yes! And if anyone blows his brains out for a child, that’s good too.” Fyodor leaned forward, eyes glittering. “If they knew that it was good for them, it would be good for them, but as long as they don’t know it’s good for them, it will be bad for them. That’s the whole idea, the whole of it.”

 

Clearly I need to be on whatever you’re on

 

“They’re bad because they don’t know they’re good,” Fyodor repeated. “They have to die to be good again.”

 

Dazai tapped his chin. “I’ve been on both sides. Nothing much has changed, except that I try to help people now. That is good. The mafia was not.”

 

“And you feel happier, now that you’re good?”

 

“I feel nothing at all.” 

 

“I feel ,” Fyodor said. “I feel the pain of a world bound in sin. So I wanted to purge it.”

 

“And now you’re here.”

 

“And now I’m here,” he agreed, tilting his head with a slick smile.

 

You want to be here, for some reason. Dazai tilted his head to match Fyodor’s. 

 

“Do you know,” said Fyodor. “The—affection, the kindness, the compassion I felt for that boy? It is more than you have ever felt for your mentees.”

 

Dazai laughed.  

 

“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labor and fortitude, self-mastery. You don’t love your mentees. You dangle dreams in front of them, but you refuse to even make them a reality. You’d never put in that hard work. But they love you; that’s their dream. You aren’t protecting the orphans. You’re harming them.”

 

“Already have put in the hard work,” Dazai said sweetly, though the words burned into his mind. He thought of Atsushi and Akutagawa, their team-up. It was never easy. They both resented him for it. 

 

“Are you sure? Having a plan doesn’t matter if the plan isn’t what they want. Or do you think you know what they want? They want you to feel for them. You don’t feel for them, though.”

 

“And the boy? Did it matter to him that you felt for him, when you murdered him? You kill because you want to help. You genuinely, truly want to help, and yet to do that, you won’t listen to anyone. You don’t care what they want, only what you want. And you didn’t win. You never contemplated not winning. The world does suck, Fyodor. But—” He couldn’t continue. 

 

Even if it’s wrong, does it cancel out the good? 

 

If you’re a god, do you cancel out the humanity? 

 

Fyodor’s jaw tightened. “Someday, Osamu-kun, Akutagawa and Atsushi will see that you’re made of straw, and they’ll be done with you. They only like you for what you can offer them, and the only thing you offer that’s different from what his boss and his president offer is direct mentorship, except you don’t really offer that..”

 

“I’m hardly concerned with being liked.” 

 

Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

 

Vampire who said he was you… drank my blood for a year… four years, if you want to know. Dazai’s jaw tightened. Was Fyodor implying something about Akutagawa? And Mori? 

 

All Dazai knew was that despite the good Atsushi had done, he refused to understand Akutagawa. And despite the cruelty of Akutagawa, there was also a little boy who protected his sister and cried over the loss of his friends. 

 

Is that what it means to be human?

 

Dazai was done with the bullshit. His jaw clenched. He waved. “Farewell.” 

 

“Farewell. Don’t come again.”

 

“You’d die of boredom.”

 

Fyodor smiled. “Don’t be so full of yourself.” 

 

Confirmed , Dazai thought. So someone else, probably from the Port Mafia, was visiting Fyodor. Dazai stalked back to the agency. He’d have to ask Ango just who else was visiting. 

 

His phone buzzed. Kunikida.

 

Atsushi almost got himself killed. Yosano’s fixing him

 

Fuck! Stupid kid. 

 

Dazai halted in the middle of the sidewalk. A woman stepped into him. “Sorry!”

 

Chuuya’s bitter comments about Akutagawa flooded his mind. No doubt Chuuya would mock him for both of his mentees—and fucking Fyodor would—!  

 

Or— 

 

Hmm . Dazai pressed his lips together. Both of them?  He knew them both. He knew neither was generally spacey. And he knew himself and Chuuya.

 

What are you two up to?


 

 

Atsushi felt like a moron, sitting there listening to Kunikida lament how foolish he’d been. 

 

It’d been two weeks since he and Akutagawa hooked up for the first time, and since then, they’d only seen each other once, though they texted more. Atsushi had no idea how often friends with benefits were supposed to meet. Google said about once a week. Akutagawa had texted asking to meet up right before they got jumped by a guard for a shipment they were supposed to be watching for, something illegal though they didn’t know what. Drugs, probably. 

 

He left the agency before Dazai could arrive and lecture him. His mentor seemed distant, too, and Atsushi couldn’t tell how much of the distance was his fault and how much was Dazai’s. Was Dazai regretting taking on Atsushi instead of continuing with Akutagawa?

 

No way. Dazai didn’t want to be part of the mafia anymore. Akutagawa would never leave.

 

What if he did want to go back to Akutagawa? Maybe this was—no, he was being paranoid. Paranoid because his stupid brain was so used to being scraped by life’s sandpaper, cruel words, hit by hammers, crushed, left disgusting.

 

And even more horrifying thought occured to Atsushi as he stopped in the cafe for coffee first. What if I am a man-eating tiger? Even in my human form? 

 

He’d taunted Akutagawa before about Dazai leaving him. Did some part of Atsushi enjoy that fact, enjoy that Akutagawa was chewed up? That Dazai had left Akutagawa, the boy of impeccable strength, and helped Atsushi instead? That someone finally chose him above someone who was obviously more talented and better than Atsushi? Except morally, but then again, Dazai and morals weren’t exactly synonyms.

 

Did he eat people’s hopes? 

 

“You okay, Atsushi?” questioned Lucy, handing him a coffee.

 

He lifted his shoulders. 

 

“That’s a no.”

 

“Do you ever feel like you’re a bad person?” Why couldn’t he have Akutagawa’s lack of guilt? 

 

Lucy tossed her braids. “Why are you asking me this?”

 

“Because you might not think so?” he offered. Along with Kyouka and— 

 

“I don’t think you are,” Lucy affirmed, wiping up a spill from the counter. 

 

“What if you might be happy about someone else’s misfortune if it benefits you?”

 

“Depends.” Lucy shrugged. “I was happy the Guild broke apart. That was bad for some people, good for others like me.”

 

Atsushi nodded. Is it so wrong of me to want to be chosen, and to be happy about it? And to think it’s good Dazai left the Port Mafia? 

 

He heard Akutagawa bellowing at Dazai again in his mind. I’m enough on my own!

 

Could Atsushi really put those thoughts from his mind every time he worked with Dazai, especially seeing all the scars on Akutagawa’s body? 

 

“The other day Louisa came in here and got a coffee,” Lucy said. “I hid out back. And I didn’t hide because I was afraid of her. I hid because I felt ashamed.”

 

“You shouldn’t,” Atsushi said. 

 

“But I did. It’s hard to sever that tie.”

 

Atsushi knew exactly what she meant. He paid for his coffee and left, trudging to the hotel where he met Akutagawa. 

 

“What’s wrong?” Akutagawa asked right away. 

 

“Almost got myself and Ranpo killed today,” Atsushi responded, finishing his coffee and tossing it into the trash can.

 

“What happened?” 

 

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Shame curdled in his stomach, damp and moldy. He didn’t want Akutagawa to hear that he was distracted by something stupid. 

 

“Okay…” 

 

I’m sorry.

 

I can’t blame you anymore. No wonder you hated me. I am weak. 

 

Akutagawa shrugged out of his coat, sitting next to him. “Do you want to be on top today?” 

 

Atsushi felt surprised. “You’d really want that?”

 

“I mean, I’d let you.”

 

That was probably a yes. But why couldn’t Akutagawa just say it?

 

Why couldn’t Atsushi just say what happened? Why couldn’t he voice that there was a tingle of electricity in Atsushi’s stomach when he entered the room, without so much as brushing his skin against Akutagawa’s yet?

 

I think I’m failing. 

 

I won’t. I won’t let you down. 

 

Atsushi pushed his lips into Akutagawa’s. This was why people had friends with benefits, wasn’t it? To drink away concentrating on anything else. Except, it wasn’t working for Atsushi. The more he focused on Akutagawa, fingers tracing his scars, lips meshing together, biting his collarbone—”use your tiger fangs and I kill you,” Akutagawa rasped—the more he found that instead of his senses dulled, every nerve seemed to come alive. 

 

He wanted to focus on all of Akutagawa. The scars were from fights Akutagawa had lost—or fights he had sacrificed to win? How and why did he make those choices? 

 

His coughs were small and Atsushi wished he could melt them away. His body was stick skinny, and Atsushi’s fingers could fit between his ribs, and when he let Atsushi inside, Atsushi feared he was hurting him as Akutagawa gritted his teeth, twisting his face in a grimace. 

 

“It’s okay,” Akutagawa managed when Atsushi went to pull out. “Really. Atsushi. It’s okay.” He  breathed slowly and deliberately. 

 

“I don’t want to hurt—”

 

“I’m not weak enough to break,” Akutagawa snapped.

 

“I know you aren’t.”

 

I’m the broken one

 

In the beginning he was the one who wanted to save Akutagawa like Kyouka had been saved. As colors flashed through his mind, he could only think that the one in desperate need of saving, the one with a gaping hole inside, was himself.

 

“Do you want to do this?” Akutagawa asked. 

 

Atsushi hesitated. Electricity still felt like it was surging form the crown of his head to the soles of his feet. He nodded. “I—want to.” 

 

“Are you sure?”

 

He nodded again. “I—like this. You. You’re pretty good, I mean, but I want to try, too—”

 

“I am?” Akutagawa flushed from his face to his chest. 

 

“Yeah,” Atsushi said, watching as Akutagawa’s eyes lit up. “You are.”   

 

Akutagawa pulled him closer, and he almost felt full. 

 

Are you afraid of the same things? That you’re worthless? You’re not. I want to make you happy. 

 

Akutagawa finished first, tilting his neck back. Atsushi heaved a sigh, his limbs feeling like jelly, peace like a blanket floating over him.  He rolled off Akutagawa, closing his eyes.

 

Atsushi dreamed that he was in a cage, and Dazai held the key, tossing it away, saying he knew Atsushi was dangerous. And then his orphan master came in, shoes clicking on the floor.

 

“Hate me. Go on.”

 

And for the first time in his life, Atsushi lashed back at him, screaming the same names he used to be called.

 


 

Akutagawa stirred. Darkness blanketed a strange room. Oh, right. The hotel. His backside ached, but not too badly. And the clock read, in red flashing numbers, four in the morning. 

 

A moan. Akutagawa sat upright. Atsushi lay in bed next to him.

 

We broke our deal . Akutagawa cussed internally. He hadn’t meant to—Atsushi just seemed upset and he wanted to lie there for a few minutes after, see if Atsushi would say what it was about—and then— we fell asleep.

 

He said I was good at sex. He said he liked sleeping with me

 

Atsushi twisted under the sheet. His face screwed up as if in pain. He mumbled what sounded like half a curse. Sweat beaded his temples.

 

Huh?

 

Atsushi let out a cry. 

 

“Hey!” Akutagawa smacked him. “Hey! Atsushi! Wake up!” 

 

Atsushi’s eyes snapped open. He gaped at Akutagawa hovering over him. 

 

“You were having a nightmare.” Would he think Akutagawa was trying to kill—

 

“I know,” Atsushi said, voice vacant, empty. 

 

It reminded Akutagawa of Dazai’s.

 

“What happened?” Akutagawa managed, still kneeling. Atsushi sat up, shaking his head as if he could shake the thoughts away. “Look, Gin used to tell me when she had nightmares, and we’d make up a story about how exactly we’d defeat the monsters or creeps.” All his friends in the slums used to come to him after nightmares.

 

He remembered Kyouka, coming to him, asking him to kill her. 

 

No, you’ll learn to fight back. 

 

But Dazai had kicked him, beaten him up when he was weak, and when he did that to Kyouka, she hated him for it, and she had found the light.

 

She did learn how to fight back. But because of this boy, not because of him. 

 

“The orphanage master,” Atsushi said in a small voice. “Calling me—all those names, saying I was worthless, a curse, I should never have been born, my parents didn’t want me, which they must not have. And—even if he died proud of me—I can’t forget it. I can’t forgive him. I hate him for dying, you know?” He glared at Akutagawa, rage shaking his voice. “I hate him for dying, because if he was alive, I could hate him without feeling this—this—”

 

Akutagawa frowned.      

 

“I’m glad he got hit by a car coming to see me! No, no—” Atsushi laughed wildly. “What if that just proves him right? I shouldn’t have been born; even when he tried to do something nice for me, it meant his own doom—”  

 

Do you believe him? All the things he says?”

 

“I don’t know.” Atsushi yanked on his hair, covered his eyes, drew his knees up to his bare chest.

 

Akutagawa grabbed Atsushi, yanking his hands away from his face. Atsushi yelped. “Well, I don’t believe that moron.” 

 

“Huh?”

 

“It’s bullshit,” said Akutagawa, eyes locking with Atsushi. “Those assholes in the slums who murdered my friends just for overhearing—even if they were from the mafia, even though they were strong, they were wrong. My friends weren’t fucking useless. And neither are you. We took down Fitzgerald and the Guild together, remember? And stopped Cannibalism. And I don’t want to be fucking useless either!”  For some reason, he felt inexplicably frightened, bones cold. 

 

Atsushi gaped at him.

 

“Dazai-san hit me,” said Akutagawa. “He told me I might as well die if I was so weak. And then he left—”

 

“Not because you were weak,” said Atsushi, staring at him, eyes a dark gold and violet. “Because he was.” He closed his eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to take him away from—”

 

“It wasn’t your fault,” Akutagawa cut in, surprising himself that he really felt that way. 

 

“He’s never hit me.”

 

“I guess he thinks you’re strong.”

 

“I guess.”

 

“Or else he’s learned a little.” 

 

Atsushi frowned.

 

“Even if you were born worthless,” said Akutagawa. “Even if you were born unwanted. You’re not now. Kyouka’s life’s gotten so much better because of you. She changed. Dazai—too. And you might have, too.”

 

“But then I could change into worthless again.”

 

“I don’t think so, but if you do want to practice fighting at some point, we could do that too. Another benefit,” Akutagawa added hastily. But…

 

Did it matter? If Atsushi lost to him every time, he’d still want to fuck him. He’d still want to talk to him. He’d still— 

 

Is there worth just in being born? How? 

 

If he said everyone had worth, he’d have to believe it. And if he had to believe it, he’d be— 

 

He couldn’t remember most of their faces. Hundreds. Dead. His Rashomon.

 

Akutagawa didn’t want to think about that. He couldn’t quite offer the comfort he wanted to offer Atsushi, because it would damn himself. 

 

He made it home around dawn. Gin sat up, hair mussed, and flicked on the light.

 

He yelped, covering his face. She folded her arms. “Where were you?”

 

“Out on business,” Akutagawa replied, kicking off his shoes. 

 

“Your shirt is inside out.”

 

“Yeah, well, I put it on like this this morning.” His face heated.

 

“Why are you dodging?” 

 

“I am not!”

 

“Sure.” Gin lay back down. “I hope you’re happy. Mori wants to see you in the morning.”

 

“It is morning.”

 

“In—” Gin checked. “Two hours.”

 

“How late were you out?” Akutagawa asked, setting an alarm. Damn fucking Mori. 

 

“I was working. You know, dealing with the Hunting Dogs. Jouno was being a bitch as per usual. You were...” 

 

Oh hell, she knows . Akutagawa jammed the pillow over his face.

 

Are you happy?” she asked.

 

“Mmph.” He had no idea what that even meant. 

 

“Well,” Gin said. “Then I’m happy for you.”

Chapter Text

“Chuuuuuuya!” 

 

“What did I do to deserve this today?” Chuuya scowled. “Not in the mood, Dazai.”

 

“You’re never in the mood.” Dazai jumped in front of his former partner. Chuuya looked as if he was contemplating stabbing him. “What’s distracting you?” 

 

“At the moment, you.” Chuuya adjusted his hat. The sun glared at them from up above.

 

“I meant from me,” Dazai chattered.

 

“Ah yes, I’m going to just spill all the Port Mafia’s top secrets to you.” Chuuya stormed past him. 

 

“How generous!” Dazai called, clapping his hands. 

 

“Fuck off,” Chuuya groused, but he said nothing as Dazai kept following him. Chuuya was such a brat. Dazai enjoyed poking his former partner with all the barbs he could muster. “Are your agency friends really so bad that you have to annoy me instead?” 

 

Dazai smirked. He rested his elbow on Chuuya’s shoulder as they stood at a crosswalk, waiting for the sign to switch.

 

“I will cut you,” Chuuya warned.

 

“I look forward to it.”

 

“Damn suicidal bastard.” 

 

“Listen,” Dazai said, swinging in front of Chuuya as the crosswalk finally turned, keeping him on the sidewalk. Chuuya’s face twisted as if he was about to kick him. “How’s Akutagawa?”

 

“Now you care?” Chuuya darted past him, making it just before the sign turned back. Dazai hurried to keep up. “Why, you have plans to use him for our groups’ mutual interests again?”

 

“Oh, I don’t have plans,” Dazai teased. 

 

Chuuya folded his arms, squinting. “If you think I’m letting that dad of your agency use Akutagawa for just some agency business, you’ve got another think coming.” 

 

Not what he meant, but it wasn’t a bad idea. “Even if we lent you Atsushi?”

 

“You’d never do that.”

 

True. “Is there a reason you think we might need to use the two of them again? Is there a hidden danger?” He gasped, pretending to be afraid.

 

“Who knows?” Chuuya pushed past him again. “Maybe give a thought to what they want, instead of what—” 

 

Dammit, he’s getting away. Dazai stayed where he was. “Has Akutagawa been acting strange recently?” 

 

That did it. Chuuya shuffled to a stop, turning slowly. “Why?”

 

That was a yes. Dazai’s face broke into a grin. “Since when do you think about what mafia members want? They all serve Mori-san—”

 

“We want,” said Chuuya. “We want to earn money, to have fun, to not lose our comrades except when they’re exceptionally annoying. It’s called humanity, Dazai. Human beings want things.”

 

“Oh, like I want to die?” What else did he want? To annoy Chuuya. To laugh. At Chuuya. To train Atsushi and Akutagawa so that they would be safe. 

 

Chuuya threw his hands up in the air. “You’re hopeless. What were you saying about Akutagawa? If that brat—”

 

“Has he been distracted lately? Missing at odd hours?”

 

Chuuya chewed his lip. “What does it matter?”

 

“Atsushi’s the same,” said Dazai. “Sneaking around. Kyouka’s helping him but she keeps her mouth shut. By any chance was Akutagawa unaccounted for last evening?”

 

Chuuya said nothing.

 

Dazai rubbed his forehead. 

 

“Well, congratulations,” said Chuuya. 

 

“They’re training together,” Dazai said. “On their own.”

 

“Eh?” Chuuya’s mouth fell open.

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing.” Chuuya still looked at Dazai like he was a fungus growing on his favorite hat. 

 

“Well, catch you later.” Dazai turned to stroll off.

 

“Can you warn me next time?” yelled Chuuya. “Someday I’m going to step into my shower and you’ll be there, and I—”

 

“Ooh, would you like that?” Dazai teased.

 

“In your dreams!” 

 

But Dazai rarely dreamed beyond the mundanities of life. His brain did too much work during the day; sleep was the only time he could let it rest, although sometimes it would replay scenes from the day. Dull scenes. 

 

And Odasaku’s death.

 

Nothing in this world can fill that lonely hole you have. 

 

You will wander in the darkness for eternity. 

 

Because… I am your friend. 

 

He wanted… to not be lonely. 

 

He heard laughter as he climbed the stairs towards the agency. Friends. He was still empty, friends just baby peas rattling around in his empty chest cavity. 

 

Do good anyways. Even if nothing would fill the void. Even if. Even so. 

 

He pushed the door open, and he saw Atsushi smiling.

 


 

 

Atsushi had staggered back to his apartment as dawn’s first light dribbled over the pavement. Kyouka would be waiting up for him, or so he thought. Instead, she was asleep. 

 

Atsushi let out his breath, crawling onto his sleeping mat. He curled up on his side, knees against his chest, arms around his knees. He could still hear the words of his headmaster, crawling through his brain, swelling, hurting. 

 

And he could hear a cooler voice, a salve, soothing him.

 

You aren’t worthless.

 

Coming from someone who used to hurl the accusation at him. It gave him more comfort than the orphanage master coming to seek him out with flowers. If Akutagawa wanted to mock him, he had the perfect opportunity.

 

You’re not worthless, either

 

“Atsushi?” Kyouka had woken up.

 

His fingers brushed his cheeks. He was crying. “Just a nightmare.”

 

She looked unconvinced. “Did you and Akutagawa have a fight?” 

 

“No.” If anything, the opposite. He wiped at his eyes. “I had a nightmare when I was—with him and he was—he said my orphanage master was wrong.”

 

“Dazai-san has said that too.”

 

“I know.” 

 

“But it meant a lot to you to hear it from him.”

 

Atsushi nodded. “I guess.” More tears fell. “I don’t know why I’m crying.”

 

Kyouka said nothing. She knew it was a lie. Atsushi knew it was a lie. This isn’t just friends with benefits. 

 

I trust you. You changed. You—if you can change, then can’t—even if—there’s always hope, isn’t there? Always.    

 

You don’t have to prove that you deserve to live.

 

You just deserve to live

 

And now, Atsushi sat in the office, typing a report and texting with Akutagawa, who had asked him if he was okay. But it wasn’t getting at what Atsushi really wanted to say. 

 

Can we talk about last night? he wondered. What would you say if I told you I liked you? 

 

“Spacey, spacey, spacey.” Yosano thwacked Atsushi on the head with a magazine. “Kunikida will stuff your brain with work if you don’t—”

 

“Yosano!” yelled Kunikida. 

 

Atsushi laughed, and the door flew open. Dazai. His gaze latched onto Atsushi. “Dazai-san! Is everything okay?”

 

Dazai hummed to himself. He grabbed his chair and plopped down backwards into it, resting his chin on the back of the chair. 

 

Oh crap. Atsushi froze. Kyouka slunk lower in her chair. 

 

“So,” said Dazai. 

 

Atsushi focused on his computer. He was sure his ears were melting off from anxiety.

 

“Hey. Atsushi-kun.” Dazai snapped his fingers. “Sleep well last night?”

 

“Eh?” His stomach churned. Oh God, oh God.

 

“You really have an advantage, you know. Your Beast Beneath the Moonlight heals you, so you don’t have to worry about bruises and things.”

 

What the hell? 

 

“What are you getting at?” demanded Yosano.

 

No! Go away! Atsushi felt like he was choking. 

 

“You and Akutagawa.” Dazai grinned evilly. 

 

“Do you have another mission for us?” Akutagawa managed. Maybe Dazai would get the hint and have mercy and not blurt it out in front of everyone. 

 

Dazai stroked his chin. “I don’t at the moment. Why, are you anticipating one?”

 

“N-no.”

 

“So, last night—” 

 

“I went—to sleep early. Can we—” 

 

“Didn’t see anyone else?”

 

Oh no. Atsushi froze. 

 

“Tiger didn’t make an appearance?”

 

“I—no—”

 

“Are you forgetting yourself again?” called Yosano.   

 

“No, I didn’t turn into a tiger last night!” Atsushi cried out. He knew that for a fact. “Dazai-san, please, let’s get coffee and I can—”

 

“Did you meet up with this mysterious person?”

 

“The girlfriend?” piped up Naomi. 

 

“I don’t have one!” 

 

“I believe you,” Dazai said, staring into Atsushi’s eyes. Ranpo slouched in his seat. 

 

Huh? Atsushi blinked. “You do?” You don’t know after all? 

 

“Mm-hm.” Dazai rubbed his chin. “You went to see a certain boy from the Port Mafia, didn’t you?”

 

Just like that. It was out in the open, splattered over the floor. Atsushi’s face bloomed red. “We—”

 

“Who?” demanded Kunikida. 

 

“Rashomon’s worser half,” Dazai joked. 

 

“You and Akutagawa what?” yelled Kunikida. “You better not be fighting again, or—” 

 

Ranpo coughed and vanished under his desk. Kenji, Tanizaki, and Naomi turned towards Atsushi. 

 

“They’ve been training together,” Dazai announced just as Atsushi blurted out a sticky lie: “It’s just friends with benefits!”

 

“What?” shrieked Naomi. Dazai’s brow remained furrowed. Kunikida looked as if he’d been petrified into crumbling stone. Kyouka’s face hit the desk. 

 

“Like training benefits?” managed Kunikida.

 

“No, prude. Like sex ,” Yosano retorted.

 

Now Atsushi truly wanted to die. His face broiled. He turned and hid his face in his hands. 

 

“What?” Dazai squeaked.

 

A crash. Atsushi peeked out between his fingers to see Kunikida crashing to the ground, having fainted. 

 

“Kyouka, you knew!” Yosano pointed at her. 

 

“Mmhm.” Kyouka did not seem interested in lifting her face up from the desk. 

 

“Can we change the subject?” Atsushi wailed.

 

“No, no we can’t,” said Dazai just as Tanizaki screamed: “you mean to tell me you’ve been having sex with Akutagawa?” 

 

“It’s not your business!” Atsushi yelled back. “It’s not, it’s really not!” 

 

Dazai looked like a warmed-over corpse. Kenji sniggered. Ranpo crawled out from behind his desk to slap Kunikida awake. And then, the only thing that could make this worse emerged from the back room: the president. 

 

“What is going on?” Fukuzawa demanded. 

 

Everyone froze. 

 

“Please kill me,” Atsushi requested. Anyone. Please. 

 

“You and Akutagawa are seeing each other!” shrieked Kunikida, coming to. “How can you not think about the damage this will do it—the budget—” 

 

“It’s just friends with benefits!” Atsushi managed. The lie hurt now, burning and scraping. “Nothing serious!”

 

Kyouka lifted her head to scowl at him. Dazai burst into laughter, cackling as he doubled over.

 

“Just like you and Chuuya!” Atsushi pointed at Dazai. 

 

That did it. Dazai almost fell over. “Me and Chuuya what now?”

 

“I knew you and Chuuya were fucking,” said Yosano. “Tanizaki, you owe me ten thousand yen.”

 

“We don’t have sex!” Dazai protested. “He’s too short!” 

 

“I saw the two of you lying in the street,” Atsushi said, a seedling of revenge growing. “He was on top of you—”

 

“I tripped him! And I need to call him right now!” Dazai pranced away. “He’ll surely want to know this development!”

 

“You’re a terrible dad!” yelled Tanizaki. 

 

Atsushi grabbed his phone. He had to warn Akutagawa. The jig is up.

 

Fukuzawa rubbed his forehead. “Everyone, calm down. We cooperate with the mafia when it benefits us.”

 

I’m not spying on him . “I—”

 

“Is it true?” Fukuzawa asked, looking directly at Atsushi. 

 

Atsushi trembled as he looked up into the president’s eyes. He nodded. “I’m sorry. It was just—after our fight, we were talking more—”

 

“He is the one who tore off your leg and kidnapped Kyouka.”

 

“I knew,” said Kyouka. “Since the beginning. About them.” She stood, too. Defending Atsushi. 

 

“And yet you still willingly entered into this… arrangement,” Fukuzawa said, studying Atsushi.

 

He nodded again. “I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense—but we’ve teamed up before, we—” Have a lot in common.

 

I think I understand him in a lot of ways, and in the ways I don’t, I want to.   

 

Am I a traitor to the only place that ever wanted me? 

 

But he wants… no, no, it’s just my body. Right? 

 

“You’re not worthless.” Akutagawa’s voice echoed in Atsushi’s head. 

 

“Did he blackmail you into this?” yelped Kunikida. “Because I’ll kill him if so, I don’t care—” 

 

“No!” Atsushi shouted. Akutagawa would never . “It was my decision! And it’s my private life—”

 

A hand landed on his shoulder. Fukuzawa. Atsushi stopped, voice stuck in his throat. He wanted to say, please . And he was afraid to finish that sentence.

 

“Just be careful,” Fukuzawa said softly. “I don’t like it, I’ll be honest with you, Atsushi. The mafia has been known to play all sorts of dirty games. But, you of all people should know this, and if you and Kyouka are both okay with this, then I won’t stop you. It’s your life.”

 

Atsushi’s eyes stung. Really? 

 

He wasn’t going to get kicked out of the agency. He heaved a sigh of relief. “Thank you, sir.” 

 

Fukuzawa nodded. 

 

Atsushi glanced down at his phone. 

 

WHAT THE HELL JINKO 

 




He’d been having a good day and then a single text had to go and ruin it. 

 

Mori’s meeting turned out to be about an ambassador from the United States who had an ability that trapped people in bell jars. Akutagawa didn’t care very much, and even Mori said there was an easier way to take care of it than sending the Black Lizard to kill her.

 

“You really want to start an international incident?” complained Kouyou, but no one would dare oppose very much. 

 

“Why not send us?” Higuchi interrupted. “Akutagawa would be able to break through—” 

 

Oh, right. Akutagawa sat up straighter, but Mori demurred, and a strange relief settled in his stomach. 

 

“I have something else,” Mori said again, but he didn’t elaborate. 

 

“He’s always given you the biggest assignments,” Higuchi complained.

 

“It must not be very big, then.” Akutagawa trusted Mori enough with this. “Or whatever else he has under his sleeve.” 

 

Higuchi slid her gaze to him. “Are you okay, Akutagawa-senpai?”

 

He nodded. Shit . Was he letting on? 

 

“You were smiling this morning,” Higuchi commented. “It was nice to see.” 

 

I was? His fingers rose to trace his lips. He watched his subordinate as she checked and rechecked her gun.

 

Gin had said Higuchi was in love with him. Well, that was pointless, and fruitless. And yet—when she smiled, was it because of him? 

 

He should push her away. Request a transfer for her.

 

She saved his life that time. Because… you loved me? Not because duty? Did she love him, or did she love the idea of him? He kept himself closed off. She probably didn’t even know that he liked to break into museums late at night. She definitely didn’t know where he lived. 

 

“Higuchi-chan,” he said. For your own wellbeing, you should be transferred away from me. 

 

She froze. Her eyes lit up.

 

But I don’t want to lose you . Even if he couldn’t love her in that way. As if he could love anyone. “Thank you.”

 

“For what?” she asked, blinking. 

 

“Getting me tea this morning.”

 

“I always bring you tea.”

 

“And I’ll start thanking you for it.” Would you still love me, if you knew I couldn’t love you? 

 

Transfer her. It was the best thing to do.

 

Not yet. 

 

His phone vibrated. Akutagawa checked it. And that was when he thought about asking Higuchi to shoot him.

 

Because the only person finding out who could make Atsushi send a text to warn him was… 

 

No!

 

“Akutagawa!” bellowed exactly the voice he expected.

 

He gritted his teeth, stuffing his hands and his phone back into his pockets. “What?” 

 

Chuuya marched towards him.

 

If you yell it out I swear to God I will—

 

“We’re having a little talk,” Chuuya told Higuchi. “If I find out you were listening, I’ll cut your ear off.”

 

“You will not,” Akutagawa snapped. 

 

Chuuya’s brows flew up. “Well, well. Aren’t we feeling forward today?”

 

Akutagawa swallowed. Sweat prickled on his forehead. 

 

“Come here .” Chuuya grabbed Akutagawa by his ear, dragging him down the hallway and shoving him into a room the size of a decent closet. He jabbed his finger at Akutagawa. “I just got a phone call from Dazai , and—”

 

“And what?”

 

“You and—the werecat—” Chuuya’s lips bubbled. He looked as if he was about to have a seizure. 

 

“He’ll hesitate next time we have to meet in battle,” Akutagawa said. “It’s a good strategy. He’s light. He’s weak.” The lie sliced at his skin. He wrapped his hand around his wrist. 

 

“There are other strategies that don’t require you prostitute yourself,” Chuuya informed him.

 

Akutagawa jerked back. “Hey! That’s not what this is!” How could Chuuya say such a—he remembered Atsushi over him, himself flat on his back, last night, and his face burned. He’s not weak at all. 

 

“I’m aware it’s not,” Chuuya retorted. “So be honest with me so that I don’t have to provoke it out of you, or don’t tell me, I don’t care. Just don’t lie to me again or I will go to Mori.”

 

“You’re not going to tell Mori?”

 

“Did you take a stupid pill or were you up all night with your little—” Chuuya slapped his forehead. “Okay, look. Akutagawa. I don’t care what you do with your tongue, but if I have to fish Dazai out of the river one more time, I swear I will—”

 

Akutagawa rolled his eyes. 

 

“Please tell me you used condoms.”

 

“Huh?” Akutagawa gaped. 

 

“If you’re going to be having sex, you have to do it safely. That means condoms and—”

 

“Oh my God,” Akutagawa interjected. “You are not trying to give me the talk.”

 

Chuuya’s face was as red as his hair. “Do you want me to get Kouyou to do it? Because that’s what I had to deal with when I was a teenager!” 

 

“I’m out of here.” Rashomon unlocked the door. Akutagawa streaked down the hallway. He texted Atsushi in all caps. CHUUYA JUST TRIED TO GIVE ME THE TALK

 

OH MY GOD ARE YOU OKAY

 

NO 

 

Akutagawa panted, leaning back against the wall. He saw Atsushi sending him traumatized messages explaining what had happened. And he smiled, again, and his chest cramped up, a fit of coughing overtaking him. For a moment he almost felt like he was in way over his head, and drowning.

 

No, I’m not okay.

 


 

“He ran away before I could finish talking to him!” Chuuya cursed into Dazai’s ear.

 

Dazai scowled. “How can two people who hate each other kiss each other?” Well, humans’ emotions were always twisting and shifting. He wondered what exactly made Atsushi and Akutagawa not just tolerate each other and work together, but to actually—sleep with each other. Regularly. 

 

Dazai had never had a girlfriend. He slept with people, sure, but not in a relationship. Though Atsushi insisted they were just friends with benefits.

 

But that hardly sounded like Atsushi. 

 

“Oh dear Lord,” said Chuuya. “Give me patience or I’m going to kill this man.” 

 

“I mean, when I wanted them to work together, this wasn’t what I had in mind.”

 

“Yeah, well, this is all your fault. You owe me.” Chuuya hung up.

 

Dazai snickered. He hung up. 

 

But he wasn’t asking to goad Chuuya. He really wanted to know. It could be key to a greater partnership for them. For everyone. 

 

What is it about humans?

 

“You’re stupid,” said Fyodor, the only other person who would hear him out on this. “Hate and love are two sides of the same coin, a coin you’ve never possessed, because you’re apathetic and on the outside looking in.”

 

“I’m aware that they are.” He wanted to know what tossed the coin up in the air, made it flip. 


“Let me tell you about another story,” said Fyodor. “A man believed the world was nothing. Empty, pointless, throw it all in the fire. And he met a woman.”

 

“And suddenly a black-and-white world was splashed with colors?”

 

“No. His friend liked the woman. He didn’t. And then they started talking, and before he knew it, he’d fallen in love with her, and his friend who initially liked the woman fell for her sister. And he hated being in love with her, because it tore a hole in his nihilism, the one thing keeping him afloat in this shit world. And he told her, and she still rejected him, which you’d think would patch over the hole in his raft. But then he went home and focused on trying to help people, being a doctor, yet he contracted blood poisoning, and before he died, he simply asked for her to come so he could tell her how beautiful she was.” Fyodor leaned forward, hair falling around his face. 

 

Dazai crossed his arms. 

 

“It changed nothing,” Fyodor said. “His philosophies. His love. Nothing. And yet, in the end, his love for her was all that mattered to him, yet it couldn’t save him.” 

 

“And?”

 

“You’re scared,” said Fyodor. “You want people to know you, and yet you don’t want that at all. You want someone to see your weakness, but you don’t really have many weaknesses besides that pesky inhuman part of you. The one person who saw you that way died.” 

 

Dazai stiffened.

 

“You don’t have to be human around people you trust, and you don’t have to be inhuman. Yet you persist. Probably only around that man with the stupid hat.”

 

Dazai curled his fists. “Don’t bring Chuuya into this.”

 

“Sounds to me like you hate him.”

 

“Everything about him.”

 

“Sounds to me like you love him.” Fyodor leaned back. “The coin doesn’t flip on its own, Dazai. You have to flick it.” 

 

Love? Chuuya? Dazai laughed. He could only imagine Chuuya’s rage if he heard it. Not to mention Chuuya wasn’t even human. Fyodor’s grin grew wider, and Dazai wanted to slap it off him. “And for you? Do you want to not be human? Do you have a coin to flip?”

 

“Does it matter? I’m in a cage. I can’t escape. Cages are inherently animalistic.” Fyodor smiled. 

 

“So, life is inherently animalistic,” Dazai said. “The greatest cage is our skin, no?” 

 

“And yet people make it more, even if it doesn’t work out for them.” Fyodor snorted. “You’re not as different as you think you are from everyone else, you know. You’re just a man-child, if I am a man-god. You refuse to grow up. Most people take these steps far younger.”

 

“If I’m a man-child, what are you, the one who thinks he can save everyone?”

 

“You know you can’t,” said Fyodor. “And I believe I can.”

 

“By killing them.”

 

“Are you only interested in saving humans for your own ego?” Fyodor tutted. 

 

There’s nothing else . It was only him. No one could relate, no one could fill him, nothing. 

 

“Might explain why you threw yourself away from that poor mafia boy. You were his key to leave the cage. Thankfully he found another one. Does that bother you more than you thought?” 

 

If Dazai were to die, what would he want to see or do before he died? 

 

Tell Akutagawa and Atsushi to keep working together, whether or not he understood it.

 

Tell Chuuya to help them. Because they could do so much good. And they could connect. And Chuuya could help them. 

 

Because… they trusted each other. And he trusted Chuuya.

 

I am human, and I can’t feel that way.

 

You are not, and you feel that way. 

 

You have it all! 

 

What was this? Anger? He looked down at his clenched fists. 

 

“You’ll never connect,” said Fyodor, goading. “Your old friend, the one who told you that? He must have been a god, knowing the truth of how your life will end.” His eyes glittered. He was in checkmate.

 

“Maybe not,” he said. “But I’ll keep saving people’s lives anyways.” I’ll keep trying. If you’ll win, I’ll flip the chessboard, so we can’t even remember our positions. 

 

I still want to connect. 

 

I’ll keep trying no matter what! 

 

“Keep trying,” Fyodor said. “But you’re still keeping blinders on, and you’re almost out of time.” 

 

You’re in prison. You can’t get the Book. 

 

So just what do you mean? 




Chapter Text

“Mori wants to see you,” Kouyou told him. “Alone.” Her gaze skittered to Higuchi.

 

Shit. Akutagawa shrugged. 

 

“Fine,” huffed Higuchi. 

 

Akutagawa wished he could blame Atsushi, but he couldn’t. Dazai was too intelligent. He’d have figured it out eventually. 

 

I’m still nothing compared to him.

 

But Atsushi didn’t see him as nothing, right? He’d texted him to warn him that they’d found out. And to Higuchi and everyone in the mafia—they depended on him. It was his purpose.

 

Would Mori be angry? He could pull the same line on Mori that he pulled on Chuuya. Though it’d be even less likely to fly with Mori than with Chuuya. But he could argue that Dazai set them up to work together, that they could cooperate with the detective agency as much as possible in order to keep the peace. Maybe Dazai would even come back if it went well.

 

Bullshit. All bullshit. 

 

What if he wants me to stop seeing Atsushi? 

 

He coughed into his hand. If he were Mori, he’d probably say the same. He wouldn’t trust someone to maintain their loyalty. But he had nowhere else to go. He definitely didn’t belong with the detective agency.

 

The Port Mafia is my home.

 

He wished he could text Atsushi about this, but he wouldn’t before he knew the outcome. 

 

He pushed the door open, striding into the creepy room where Mori sat at the head of a table, Elise pouting next to him. Akutagawa shifted his gaze away from Elise.

 

“I heard something interesting today,” Mori began. “I’m sure you know what.”

 

It did no good to lie. Lying would sow doubts about his loyalty. “From Chuuya?” 

 

“No. From another source.”

 

Then who? Akutagawa wondered. He slumped into his seat, as if he were bored and didn’t care at all. “It’s casual. Hook ups.” Mori was the last person to judge anyone for— 

 

Mori studied him. 

 

“I haven’t slacked off in any of my missions.”

 

“Aside from almost getting yourself shot.”

 

“But I didn’t get shot.” Akutagawa folded his arms. 

 

Mori’s fingers traced his own throat, where the pulse beat. “It’s true, you haven’t.” 

 

“He’s sentimental,” Akutagawa added. “I’m sure it’ll come in handy some day.” 

 

“So you’re leading him on, as they say?”

 

“No. I’m—it’s strictly friends with benefits. But you know how those people are.” Akutagawa tilted the chair back, holding onto the table to keep from pitching over. “It’s like with Dazai and Chuuya. We can team up when necessary. He knows I won’t show mercy if their interests conflict with ours.” His heart pounded. This place is my home.

 

“And will he show mercy?’ Mori asked quietly.

 

“Probably. That’s his problem if so.”

 

Mori smiled. “I don’t think we’re quite of the same mind in this.”

 

Fuck. Fuckfuckfuckshitfuck. Akutagawa righted the chair. The legs thudded against the floor. “How so?”

 

“I think it presents a fascinating opportunity. I’m just slightly disappointed to hear that it wasn’t your intention.” 

 

Huh? Akutagawa frowned. But at least Mori thought there was an opportunity…

 

Mori leaned forward. “How do you think the weretiger would feel if he were to become part of the mafia?” 

 

Akutagawa snorted. “You’re kidding, right?”

 

“I’m not,” Mori said. 

 

“He’d never join,” said Akutagawa. “He’s too soft for that. He even took Kyouka away from us. He’d also—” Well, soft wasn’t a terribly accurate description of Atsushi. No, it was. He was soft with teeth. A tiger. 

 

“But he is capable of more than he’d ever achieve with the Armed Detective Agency.” 

 

“Depends on how you define achievements,” Akutagawa said. “He probably values shit like fluff and love more.”

 

“And you?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“What do you value?” Mori shifted. Elise sighed, fiddling with something on her lap. 

 

“Here,” Akutagawa said, gesturing. “My loyalty is to the mafia. Not to him.” A horrible idea occurred to him. “Besides, he brings misfortune wherever he goes. He’ll probably bring down the Detective Agency on his own, through sleeping with me or whatever. If he came here, he’d bring us down.” 

 

“And yet you’re sleeping with him.”

 

“I don’t care about pain.” Akutagawa met Mori’s eyes. His heart pounded. Atsushi, I’m sorry. If Atsushi had heard him saying this… “The agency will turn on him when they find out anyways. He has a lot more to lose than I do. The agency is made up of fools. They’ll be unable to see the gray and there will be seeds of doubt next time we get to one-up them.” The words tasted bitter, slimy. His stomach ached. 

 

Mori nodded. “So is there no way to recruit him? That’s rather disappointing. I do think you two make a good team.”

 

Akutagawa scowled. “Yeah, well, we can’t.”

 

“You defeated him recently.” 

 

“I probably wouldn’t be able to again,” Akutagawa said honestly. “He’s strong.”

 

“Precisely why he’d be good here.” Mori got to his feet, pushing his chair in. Elise scowled. 

 

Would you replace me? Akutagawa narrowed his eyes. 

 

“Especially if his guard is down—”

 

“The tiger would take over,” Akutagawa said. “That’s the thing about Atsushi. His tiger’s always sleeping inside him. If he turns into a full tiger, I couldn’t beat him. It’s why I won. He didn’t completely turn. He heals himself, and he fights without any human instincts when he turns into a tiger. Even if I were to attack him one night, it wouldn’t work. Rashomon would keep me from getting my head bit off, but I’d have to run away and I’d rather never do that. He’s too strong. The things I thought made him weak actually just strengthen him.”

 

“Hm.” Mori paced. “I’ve never seen anything like that, and yet how you describe it—no wonder the Guild placed such a bounty on him.”  

 

Akutagawa stood, leaning against the table.  “He doesn’t have any weaknesses to exploit. It’s really indescribable.” 

 

Mori suddenly burst into laughter, stopping in front of Akutagawa.

 

Akutagawa cocked his head to the side. “What’s so funny?” You don’t have weaknesses either, so— 

 

“I think,” Mori said slowly. “He does have a weakness, Ryunosuke-kun.” 

 

Ryunosuke?

 

A smile grew across Mori’s face. “I truly think he does. Elise?” 

 

Akutagawa whirled, turning to see that Elise scribbling in what looked like a thick library book.  His hands tingled. His legs felt like they were made of static. He stumbled. “What—” 

 

Mori’s face went in and out of focus. 

 

Akutagawa found himself lying on the wooden floor, grit digging into his cheekbone. He couldn’t so much as lift his arm. Rashomon—Rashomon— 

 

“Don’t worry,” said Mori. “You can still breathe; it won’t affect that.” He crouched down, gripping Akutagawa by the hair and yanking his head up. His arms flopped, limp. 

 

I’m trapped. Trapped in my own skin.

 

Panic as he’d never felt before, not even in the slums, burst inside of him, like Rashomon was tearing at his entrails. He gasped, choking on his own breath. 

 

“Thanks for your great work,” Mori said, voice cold. “Next time, don’t refer to someone by their real name when you never used it before.” 

 

Fuck. 

 

Akutagawa wanted to laugh. “He—won’t—” He could just barely grind the words out. 

 

He won’t come.  

 

Because Akutagawa was the weak one, not Atsushi. He’d know it was a trap. And he didn’t care enough to lead his friends to their deaths, and Kyouka would stop him from attempting any heroism on his own. 

 

You’ll lose .

 

Something smacked the top of his head, and the world went black.

 


 

 

Akutagawa hadn’t texted him since he’d texted about Chuuya yesterday. Atsushi sat stirring his coffee, Kyouka across from him munching on tofu. What if he really had rethought things? Would it be because Atsushi was stupid enough to let Dazai find out, or because they fell asleep together like they’d said they wouldn’t? Or had Atsushi’s texts been annoying? 

 

Atsushi sighed.

 

“Calm down,” Kyouka said. “Friends with benefits don’t need to text every day. He’s probably on a mission.”

 

“What if the mafia—”

 

“Worst case scenario, they’d tell him to end it and he’d call you to call you Jinko again and tell you to get over yourself.” Kyouka stuffed more tofu into her mouth. “Mm—ish—noff—”

 

“Swallow please,” Atsushi teased.

 

Kyouka swallowed. “Are you missing him?” 

 

“No.”

 

“You seem like you are. Is the sex really that good?”

 

Atsushi cringed, clamping his hands to his temples. “Stop, Kyouka!” 

 

She shrugged. “Get me Gin’s number.”

 

“Kyouka!” Atsushi frowned. “Wait, what?” 

 

“She was always nice to me.”

 

“No way!” Akutagawa would literally skin him alive. 

 

“Well,” said Kyouka. “Never mind.”

 

He heaved a sigh of relief.

 

“Because she’s here right now,” Kyouka added.

 

“Wait, what?” Atsushi shrieked, leaping up. Lucy came rushing from out back just in time to see Higuchi aim her gun at Kyouka’s head and Gin put a sword to Atsushi’s throat. Demon Snow hovered above Higuchi. 

 

A flash, and then they were all inside an alternate reality. Anne’s Room. Lucy glared at them. Higuchi’s gun fell. Gin sheathed her sword, having yanked it back in surprise. 

 

“What the hell?” Atsushi managed, whipping around to face her.

 

“No one’s leaving ever if they try to kill someone,” Lucy said, hands on her hips. “And definitely not until answers.” 

 

“You can’t keep me here!” Higuchi bellowed.

 

“Oh, yeah? Watch me!” Lucy screamed back. 

 

“Where is he?” demanded Gin.

 

She could only be talking about… “What do you mean?” Atsushi asked. 

 

Kyouka’s gaze darted towards Atsushi. Higuchi and Lucy kept bickering. 

 

Gin scowled, studying him. 

 

“What happened?” Atsushi eked out. He didn’t text because… because… 

 

“He didn’t come home last night, which isn’t unusual except he’s not answering my calls, and I’m going to guess he isn’t with you. Chuuya doesn’t know either. Mori says he’s on a mission, but it’s very odd for neither of us to have any fucking clue what it is.” She gestured towards Higuchi.  “I know he and you are sleeping together, so I figured we’d—” 

 

“They’re what?” yelled Higuchi, focusing on Atsushi instead. Her eyes glittered raw, as if Atsushi’s words had peeled the lining back. His lips trembled. 

 

Kyouka sighed. 

 

“He hasn’t contacted me since yesterday,” managed Atsushi. Akutagawa, you better not have — 

 

“You’re having sex with him?” screeched Lucy. Higuchi nodded as if she appreciated Lucy’s outrage. 

 

“Kyouka, please end my life,” Atsushi requested. 

 

“No more speculations on Atsushi’s sex life, next,” Kyouka said.

 

“After Dazai and Chuuya found out—” Atsushi began.

 

“They found out?” Gin glared at him. And then she reached up and unhooked her mask. “They found out?”

 

“Chuuya wouldn’t do anything to him,” Higuchi said, swallowing. “He wouldn’t, Gin.”

 

Trying to reassure Gin. Even though she now knew… well, friends with benefits, so maybe she didn’t know. 

 

“He wouldn’t.” Gin pointed her sword at Atsushi. “Call him. Please. Try. I’m—you know I have no love for you and your agency, but I saw my brother smiling the past few weeks. So please, if that means anything to you, if you mean any of the crap you and your people are always spewing about hope and second chances—promise me you’ll help me find my brother. And I’ll let you live.” 

 

Atsushi’s heart hammered. Akutagawa is missing. He was smiling. 

 

Gin wants the agency’s help. Atsushi nodded. “I promise.”

 

Anne’s Room vanished. They were back in the coffee shop, the bitter and sweet smells mingling  in the air around them. Atsushi dialed Akutagawa’s number. Gin paced. 

 

A click. “Hello?” 

 

Atsushi yanked the phone away from his ear. That definitely wasn’t Akutagawa’s voice. He gaped.

 

Higuchi opened her mouth, but Lucy clamped a hand over it. Higuchi bit her. Lucy yelped, but she didn’t let go.

 

“M-Mori?” Atsushi managed. He hit speaker. Higuchi stopped struggling when she realized what was happening. Lucy winced, releasing her and grumbling about her hand. 

 

“Jinko?” 

 

Gin’s gaze darkened. 

 

“How good to hear from you. I was wondering how long it’d take.”

 

“Where is he?” Atsushi demanded. How could—how— It was just the two of them fooling around! Why would Mori—  

 

Atsushi hated that even in this dire moment, his heart jumped with a burst of hope. Does Akutagawa feel the same way?

 

Does he like me? Atsushi glanced at Kyouka. She nodded as if to encourage him, though she couldn’t know his thoughts. 

 

I saw my brother smiling.

 

Kyouka knew, didn’t she? She’d known for… since it began. Higuchi pressed her hands over her mouth, eyes dripping tears. 

 

“Ah, well, I’m afraid I can’t tell you that,” said Mori. “I can, however, give you a deal. You join the mafia, and he’ll be free to go.”

 

Gin looked as if she wanted to stab the phone. Higuchi’s pallor grew gray. This was their boss. 

 

“Very likely he’ll still work in the mafia so you can even continue your trysts from inside here. Oh, and bring the files from the agency with you. I’ll text you which cases.”

 

“M-me?” Atsushi stammered.

 

“Of course you.” Mori’s voice came slick. “It’s all your fault.” 

 

Kyouka curled her fists. Gin mouthed a curse word. 

 

“How do I even know he’s still alive?” Atsushi asked, fighting to keep his voice even. He couldn’t. It wobbled. He heard another voice on the other end, the voice Akutagawa tried to silence but couldn’t.

 

Worthless. Should never have been born. A curse, a cursed child. 

 

“Everything’s always about you, isn’t it?” Mori continued. “You make everything about yourself. You’re incapable of caring about anyone. You just want people to love you so that you feel good.”

 

Atsushi’s mouth hung open. He wanted to vomit.

 

“Bullshit,” Kyouka mouthed. 

 

He didn’t know. He didn’t know. 

 

“Farewell.” Mori hung up. Atsushi slammed the phone down on the table. He wanted to skin himself. 

 

“Nakajima Atsushi,” said Kyouka. “Don’t you—”

 

“He’s a—” Higuchi started. 

 

“It’s not true,” Kyouka said. “All you did to help me—”

 

“Not to mention me ,” Lucy cut in, stomping her foot. 

 

“Right,” said Kyouka. “It’s not true, Atsushi. You can ‘what if I was’ ‘did I want to feel good’ it however much you want. You are human, and you want a reason to live, and you want others to have one too.”

 

“It’s not either/or,” Lucy added. “You can want both.” 

 

“You are not that way,” Gin agreed, voice bitter. “He—”

 

The phone lit up. Atsushi grabbed it. A video. Akutagawa, unconscious from the looks of it, but his bare chest rose and fell, and there was still a love bruise from Atsushi on his collarbone. 

 

“I’ll text you when and how to turn yourself over. Lovely conversation we just had,” said Mori’s voice, and then the video ended. 

 

“You guys should head back,” Atsushi managed. “If Mori find out you’re—” You’ll be killed. 

 

“I’m not letting you save my brother on your own!” Gin glared. “That isn’t how this works, Jinko!” 

 

“He’s my senpai,” Higuchi said, straightening even as she wiped at her eyes. “I’ve broken the rules before for him.” 

 

“Um—” Atsushi began.

 

“You won’t be able to go back to the mafia,” cut in Lucy. “I know. When I left the Guild after helping him escape.” She nodded at Atsushi. “If you do this, you’re giving everything up. So ask yourselves if it’s worth it. There’s no going back. You’ll have to make a whole new life, and you’ll always feel like someone’s over your shoulder!” Her voice broke. 

 

Higuchi glowered at Atsushi. “Why you?”

 

“I’m sorry,” Atsushi whispered.

 

“I’m not leaving him in trouble,” Higuchi said. 

 

“He doesn’t love you,” Lucy said coldly, as if she was defending Atsushi from Higuchi’s jealousy.

 

“He doesn’t need to!” Higuchi shouted back. “I love him! And so—whether or not he even acknowledges me—I can’t let him—” 

 

Lucy swallowed. She looked to Atsushi. “I know what you mean, Higuchi.” 

 

Me? Atsushi’s head swam. You have feelings for me? But his feelings were glued to Akutagawa. Romantically. And Lucy knew, and she was still helping him, even though he couldn’t give her what she wanted.

 

Because she really does love me . He didn’t have to be useful. Atsushi’s eyes stung. 

 

“He’s always taken care of me,” Gin said. “I’m going to take care of him, now.”

 

“I’m not letting you go alone, Atsushi,” said Kyouka. “Between me and Gin and Higuchi, we know the mafia’s various hideouts.”

 

“I’m helping, too,” Lucy declared, watching Higuchi. “You helped me escape once, Atsushi, by escaping yourself. I’ll help him.”

 

If we do this, can Akutagawa even go back to the mafia? Would he even want me to save him? Mori wouldn’t really kill him, would he?

 

I don’t care. I have to

 

Lucy put her hand on Higuchi’s shoulder. The girl cried into her own hands.

 

“Should we tell the agency?” Kyouka asked. “I realize Kunikida and the rest won’t—but if Dazai—”

 

“No,” Atsushi interrupted. “Not Dazai.” The words sounded hollow, rattling inside his throat as he spoke them.   

 

“We’ll need more people.” 

 

“Actually,” Lucy mused. “I can call someone who owes me a favor, if we need extra resources. You won’t have to endanger the agency.” 

 


 

 

It hurt. Akutagawa stirred, trying to move, and then realizing that his neck was held in place by what seemed like a metal collar.

 

Just like a dog.

 

He was in a tiny room, dark. He tugged at the collar, trying to pry it off himself. His coat—where was his coat? Panic shot through him. “Rashomon!” 

 

Nothing.

 

What the fuck? Akutagawa kicked the wall.  “Rashomon!”

 

The dark shadow didn’t appear. Terror clawed at him. What had that asshole given him? It couldn’t be gone forever, right? Where was it? Where was it? 

 

I’m not weak! He hit the back of his head against the wall, letting out a scream. Mori— 

 

If Gin finds out— 

 

Don’t hurt her!

 

If it turned out he’d led her to her death… 

 

It’s not my fault! It’s not! Akutagawa gritted his teeth, straining. His neck popped. He jerked his fingers to make sure he hadn’t broken anything. 

 

“Rashomon! Rashomon!” He was reduced to pleading now. “Come on, come on!” 

 

Mori—what the bleeding hell was he thinking? That Atsushi would rescue him? He wouldn’t! Atsushi wasn’t stupid. He’d know it was a trap. Then Mori was a sentimental fool, just like Akutagawa. 

 

Why did I even start this? I should’ve stayed hating him!

 

Killed…

 

No, if he’d killed Atsushi, he’d—

 

It’d be disgusting, and he’d never know what he wiped away from the earth.

 

Just like all the other people he killed. Hundreds, if not more. Were some of them like Atsushi? 

 

Akutagawa’s stomach churned. He doubled over, retching. His teeth chattered. Cold sweat prickled his forehead . I don’t want to die!

 

Neither did they.

 

Because they did, do I have to? No, Mori surely would let him go. No, he wouldn’t, because Atsushi wouldn’t come. But then—wouldn’t Gin—or did Mori think her loyalty was to the Port Mafia, or that she was expendable?   

 

I killed people to protect her! And myself!

 

The only way to live in the dark was to accept it. The light would burn you. And the dark— it’s suffocating me. He could barely see his own hand. 

 

Footsteps echoed outside. Akutagawa stiffened. Should he yell? Or was he supposed to stay silent? Did it matter? Did Mori want him muzzled? 

 

The footsteps stopped outside the door.

 

What would he say? Help? He never said that word. And if they did, where would he go? He’d be cast out from the mafia. Atsushi couldn’t take him; it’d be too dangerous. He was much more notorious than Kyouka, and the police would love to have his head, and even now, he felt a flash of rage and knew he would never give them the satisfaction.

 

No, the only option was to wait. And the footsteps started up again, the person walking away. 

 

No one was coming to help him. It was just him.

 

Wasn’t it always? 

 

Mori’s voice echoed. It was like the blasted man actually thought that it would be good for Atsushi to join the mafia, give in to the dark. Hadn’t Akutagawa thought— 

 

“It won’t be good for him,” Aktuagawa choked out, even though no one could hear him. “He’d die.” Atsushi burned too bright. He shined light whenever he went. In the stifling walls of the mafia, he’d burn out, crumble to ash.

 

I don’t want to see that.

 

It was strength Atsushi had, but strength of a different kind than Akutagawa understood. He bowed his head. 

 

He won’t come. He’s not the fool I am.

 

I still want somebody, anybody, to help me. 

 

I’m pathetic. I’m weak. Killing so many—I did it because—I could and I needed to prove I wasn’t weak.

 

A cough rocked his chest. He killed them because the blood would mask the fact that he was, in fact, weak. 

 

Akutagawa curled up on his side, leaning against the wall so the blasted collar wouldn't choke him, and for the first time in years, he cried.  

 

I don’t want to die. 

 


 

Atsushi and Aktuagawa are having sex.

 

Dazai lay face down on the floor of the agency office, arms spread out. He wailed. 

 

“I will step on you,” threatened Kunikida. 

 

“Why?”

 

“Didn’t you want them to work together? Against my better judgment?” Kunikida reproached him.

 

“Enemies to friends to lovers,” said Ranpo, entering with his eyes closed. “Tale as old as time.” 

 

“I hate you,” mumbled Dazai.

 

“Hate and love are two sides of the same coin. Apathy is the opposite.”

 

Dazai craned his neck back, resting his chin on the floor. “Hmph.” 

 

“They clearly always had feelings for each other. It just shifted, that’s all.” Ranpo beamed. “Poe was rather inspired for his story.” 

 

“Um, it’s friends with benefits,” Dazai said. “That sounds apathetic.”

 

“It sounds like a lie.” Ranpo leaned back against Kunikida’s desk, kicking his legs out. 

 

Dazai whimpered.

 

“Stop being a baby,” Yosano reproached him. “You’re not even that surprised. You predict everything.”

 

“I didn’t predict sex.”

 

“Are you really telling me you and Chuuya never—” Ranpo started.

 

“Ranpo-san!” yelped Kunikida.

 

Dazai rolled over, flopping onto his back like a dead fish. “Never. We hate each other. Everything about each other.”

 

Ranpo laughed.

 

Are you actually outsmarting me ? Dazai pushed himself up. He stared at his hands. Are there still things in this world that can surprise me? 

 

“Hey! Hey!” bellowed Tanizaki, skidding as he raced into the office. “Hey!”

 

“Hey yourself,” said Ranpo. 

 

“The Port Mafia! The—executive! He’s here!” Tanizaki gasped for air, pointing at Dazai.

 

“How timely,” remarked Ranpo, tucking his legs underneath him as he sat on Kunikida’s desk. But he didn’t seem surprised.

 

Dazai swallowed. 

 

“I’ll get the president,” said Yosano, stalking past.  

 

A moment later, they were all gathered in the main office area, Naomi and Kenji joining them. Kyouka and Atsushi were still out, so if Chuuya planned to threaten him, he could threaten Dazai instead. Fukuzawa stood behind them all. 

 

The door crashed against the wall. Chuuya stomped in. 

 

“Could you not damage the floors?” Dazai asked. 

 

“I’m doing you a favor, so I’ll act as pissy as I damn well please,” Chuuya snapped, blowing a strand of red curl off his nose.

 

“A favor?” asked Kunikida, eyes narrowing. 

 

Chuuya folded his arms. “Your brats are about to get themselves killed.” 

 

A sliver of fear cut through Dazai’s throat, leaving him bleeding, and he knew instantly why. “Mori.” 

 

Chuuya nodded. “I didn’t tell him shit, but he found out and he wants your mantiger.”

 

“Excuse me?” snapped Yosano.

 

“I don’t even know why,” Chuuya mumbled, rubbing the back of his head. 

 

“So Akutagawa is working for—” Kenji squeaked. 

 

“No, Akutagawa’s currently trapped as bait,” snapped Chuuya. “He didn’t know.”

 

“You sound awfully defensive of him,” observed Yosano.

 

“Because I am. And because his sister and Higuchi took the fuck off and there’s only one person they’d go to and that’s Atsushi, and if he’s getting involved then Kyouka will be involved, too. If they break into the base, they’ll die. I can’t stop that.” 

 

“He’ll know it’s a trap,” said Naomi.

 

“He won’t care,” Dazai said. “He’ll go.” He could hear his heart beat. How long had it been? 

 

“Look,” said Chuuya. “I’m not helping you shitheads besides giving you a heads-up. And if you hurry, you may find that tunnel we used to use, Dazai , empty, but not for long.” 

 

“Chuuya,” said Dazai.

 

Chuuya arched his brows.

 

“Why?”

 

“You’re welcome,” Chuuya said instead, turning and stalking away.

 

Chapter Text

“I can’t believe you’re making me do this,” Fitzgerald complained.

 

“Shut up,” hissed Lucy. “Or I’ll call Ango.”

 

Atsushi kept his arms crossed. They were hiding at a warehouse near where the Port Mafia’s headquarters were. If Akutagawa wasn’t there, someone who knew where he was might be. Though Higuchi and Gin seemed convinced Mori wouldn’t tell people about it.

 

Because… 

 

Because he’s afraid of you, Akutagawa , Atsushi realized. You have the mafia’s respect. Maybe even rivaling his. 

 

And he can’t risk that.

 

You’re not alone.

 

Higuchi checked her guns. The clicks echoed in the abandoned building. Dust covered the floor. The sunset bled red though the shattered windows. 

 

“So,” said Gin, aiming her sword at Fitzgerald. The woman next to him, Louisa, yelped. “Tell me. What information do you have?” 

 

Lucy arched her eyebrows. “All I know is that I overheard Louisa saying last week when she came in for coffee and I hid under the counter, that you knew of an important shipment you wanted instead of Mori getting his hands on it.”

 

Fitzgerald pressed his lips together.

 

“What is it?” Kyouka demanded. Demon Snow materialized. 

 

Wait, Atsushi was quite certain he’d heard of something Fitzgerald would want before. If it was— “The Book!” 

 

“The Book,” Fitzgerald demurred, tilting his head. 

 

“The What?” asked Lucy and Higuchi at the same time. They glared at one another. Gin folded her arms. 

 

“It’s a book that alters reality,” Atsushi explained. “Anything written in it—becomes reality.” 

 

“That’s ludicrous,” said Gin.

 

“That’s terrifying,” Kyouka said quietly. Gin glanced at her, brow furrowed. Atsushi had a pretty good idea what she was thinking: she knew what it was like not to have any choices. 

 

“So does the mafia have this book?” Gin asked.

 

Fitzgerald let out a sigh. “Most probably.”

 

“What the fuck?” Higuchi yelled. 

 

“Fine,” said Kyouka. “Help us get into the mafia, Fitzgerald, save Akutagawa, and then you can write whatever you want in that book.”

 

“Uh, whatever he wants? He tried to destroy Yokohama!” Atsushi protested.

 

“Tut, tut,” responded Fitzgerald, smoothing his golden hair. “You know, Atsushi-kun, it really is remarkable. I told you that you and that other boy were so much alike. Maybe I am the living embodiment of the Book.”

 

“Gin, stab him,” requested Higuchi.

 

Fitzgerald sighed. His eyes took on a haunted look. “No, I’m not.” 

 

It was a look Atsushi had seen many times. He swallowed. “You—lost someone.”  

 

“My daughter.” 

 

“And you want to bring her back.” 

 

“Fine,” snarled Higuchi. “We’ll let you write that. Then we keep the book.”

 

“Do you think you’ll still have a place in the mafia after this?” Fitzgerald asked. “Weren’t you a rather by-the-book rule-follower? Orders? All of that?” 

 

Gin swallowed. Her knuckles whitened as she clutched her sword. “If you listen, you survive.”

 

“But not right now,” Kyouka said.

 

“Not right now,” Gin acquiesced. 

 

When she ran through the slums with her brother, had she hesitated, had she disobeyed, would she still be alive? Unlikely, Atsushi knew. And then her brother might not have been either, because Atsushi doubted Akutagawa would ever leave her to die. Their survival depended completely on their trust in one another. 

 

To trust someone like that, growing up with that trust—Atsushi could only imagine it. And she trusted the mafia, because her brother did, and now she couldn’t. 

 

“You threatened me that night I went to rescue him before,” Higuchi shot back.

 

“And then saved you,” Gin pointed out. “And thereby, him. His loyalty was to the mafia, then.” 

 

And it’s not now? Atsushi wondered. His face felt hot.  

 

“So if Mori could write whatever he wanted and have it be true,” interrupted Lucy. “Why not just write ‘Atsushi is part of the mafia now?’ And have that be enough?”

 

Fitzgerald stroked his chin. “Nonsensical indeed.”

 

“No, it isn’t,” Louisa said quietly. “My guess is your boss still wants Akutagawa around, but wants to teach him a lesson—that he’s not as powerful as the boss is. Maybe he’s seen subordinates go wrong before.” 

 

Or maybe he’s been a subordinate who went wrong before . Atsushi swallowed. 

 

“Oh, and Jinko,” said Gin, turning to him. “If you hurt my brother, I will kill you. The end.”

 

“I’m trying to save him!”

 

“She meant after ,” Higuchi cut in. 

 

Aren’t you in love with him? Atsushi wondered. And yet you’re still trying to help him . His hands shook.

 

Well— 

 

Aren’t you just a friend with benefits to Akutagawa? Something to be used? Yet Akutagawa wasn’t just that to Atsushi. He didn’t want to use him. He wanted to embrace him. 

 

Whatever he was to Akutagawa, he was. But Atsushi… I love him.

 


 

In the end, he was the worthless one. Time spent splashing blood everywhere, all amounting to nothing in the end. The worst part was that every time he killed, he chipped away at his own worth, and now there was nothing left, and no one was coming.

 

I don’t want to die!

 

He just wanted a reason to live. 

 

When Higuchi came to save him that time, he hadn’t expected it. He hadn’t even wanted it. And yet, he was grateful. Because then he had another chance to prove himself and take revenge, killing the werecat. 

 

He still wanted another chance even now. He just didn’t want to kill Atsushi anymore.

 

Atsushi might be about to die anyways. Even if this plot to use Akutagawa to lure Atsushi didn’t work, and it wouldn’t, if Mori wanted Atsushi, he would get him. And Atsushi would drown here. 

 

It was all useless. Sparing you. In the end, I just killed you indirectly. 

 

Akutagawa slammed his fist into the ground, choking back tears. He wanted to scream. He wanted someone to hear him. But if they did, they’d just laugh, probably. No one would dare help, because Mori was that strong. So strong he could do whatever he liked. 

 

And Akutagawa? He was trash. Useful to the mafia until he wasn’t. 

 

Was this what Atsushi felt? Locked in a cage. 

 

I understand now.

 

I hate it. 

 

But the voice yelling at him wasn’t Mori’s or an orphanage master’s. It was his own, bellowing, casting him in a dark shadow. It beat into his skull, turning his brain to mush, and he couldn’t silence it. 

 

I want to live.

 

I want to matter.

 

But all of the people he killed probably had, too. Tears slipped out Akutagawa’s eyes. 

 

Don’t kill for six months.

 

At least he’d given those who died anyways a chance. But did that matter in the end? He was still trapped here, and even Rashomon had deserted him. 

 

A scuffling sound. Akutagawa closed his eyes. The action didn’t make things any darker or brighter. He rested his head on his knees, throat aching from the stupid collar. He didn’t know if he wanted to wake up, or if he should hate himself more for feeling that he did or that he didn’t. 

 

The door crashed open. Light cut at him. Akutagawa yelped, covering his eyes. Too bright! Even with them closed, it was like liquid fire. 

 

“Akutagawa!” 

 

His neck jerked back. He looked up. His mouth fell open. He couldn’t breathe. You— 

 

Atsushi stood there, Kyouka by his side. 

 

Both of you? 

 

No!

 

He had to be hallucinating. This couldn’t be real. Another trick. 

 

“You’re okay!” 

 

No, no, the real Atsushi wouldn’t be saying that. He wouldn’t care. He just thought of Akutagawa as someone to fuck. Not this. Not like this. 

 

“We’re getting you out of here,” Kyouka said, down to business. 

 

She’d tried to stab him that time. She threatened him. This wasn’t Kyouka. This had to be—his dumb broken brain imagining—

 

“Hurry!” Atsushi ducked in, and that was when Akutagawa noticed a bruise still on his collarbone, the bruise he’d given him. “Are you hurt?” 

 

Akutagawa just gaped.

 

“Maybe they drugged him,” said Kyouka.

 

“Well then, he can ride me out of here; we did that when we were—” 

 

Stop ,” Akutagawa croaked out. “Go away!” 

 

“No way!” Atsushi glared at him. 

 

Are you really here? No, no. “Are you stupid?” Akutagawa rasped. “Mori wanted you to come, Atsushi—he’ll be on his way, he wants you!” 

 

“Shut up!” Atsushi examined the contraption over his neck. Akutagawa’s face colored in shame. Chained like a dog. And Atsushi’s eyes sparked as if he wanted to tear it apart. 

 

You are really here. 

 

“Stand back, Atsushi,” Kyouka ordered. He scrambled to Akutagawa’s other side. Demon Snow’s saber swung, cutting the chain. The collar was stuck for now, but he could move. 

 

Akutagawa staggered to his feet and almost fell. Whatever Mori had done to him hadn’t worn off yet. 

 

“Can you walk?” Atsushi was asking him, crouching in front of him. “Can Rashomon help?”

 

Akutagawa shook his head. He met Atsushi’s gaze. “I can’t—use Rashomon right now. Mori did something—” 

 

Atsushi’s face paled.

 

“Please tell me you weren’t counting on Rashomon to get us out,” Akutagawa requested. He had to think in a mission-mode. He couldn’t be distracted by Atsushi’s naivete rushing in here. Not now. You have to get out of here! 

 

“We’ll get out,” Kyouka said.  

 

Akutagawa’s eyes stung. I hope so . He didn’t want to let them down. “Why the fuck would you come for me, Jinko?”

 

Atsushi hesitated, and then grabbed him in a hug, tightening his grip around him. He didn’t say anything, but his arms were definitely solid, and warm, and holding him. 

 

Huh? You—you’re hugging me? Even though I’m a murderer and a— 

 

Do you have feelings for me? 

 

Akutagawa couldn’t eke out the words, not yet. But he pressed his forehead into the nape of Atsushi’s neck, and he was pretty sure Atsushi could feel his chest shake with a repressed sob. 

 

“We didn’t come alone,” said Kyouka.

 

“Huh?” Akutagawa lifted his face. Atsushi kept an arm around his waist, helping him up, holding him secure and on his feet. 

 

“Onii-chan!” 

 

“Akutagawa-senpai!” 

 

Both of them almost knocked him over. Atsushi held onto him tighter. “Gin? H-Higuchi? You—” 

 

You’re saving me, again, Higuchi? This isn’t your job, like you said it was last time. This is—this will get you fired—no, executed—  

 

You came for me. 

 

Gin beamed at him. Akutagawa gaped at her. 

 

You’re all grown up now.

 

“You’re not the only one capable of working with the Armed Detective Agency,” informed Gin. 

 

“Was it really Mori?” Higuchi whispered.

 

Akutagawa nodded. “I can’t use Rashomon right now.”

 

They exchanged a look. A crash echoed behind them, along with maniacal laughter. “What the—”

 

“Lucy’s with us,” Atsushi interrupted. “And she got Fitzgerald and Louisa to help.”

 

“Fitzgerald?” You’d go that far to save me? 

 

“Come on,” shouted a girl with red braids, jogging towards them. Lucy. “This way’s clear right now.” She gestured towards the right staircase. 

 

“I’ve got him,” Atsushi assured Gin and Higuchi. They nodded. Demon Snow hovered over their heads. “If you get tired, you can ride again.”

 

This is real. “It wasn’t that comfortable last time,” Akutagawa rasped. 

 

“Shut up.” But there was no animosity in Atsushi’s voice. 

 

“Hey, bastard!” shouted Fitzgerald from up the stairs. “You—” 

 

He never got to finish. A cracking noise. A gunshot. Fitzgerald ducked, and then let out a shout. Atsushi dragged Akutagawa to the top of the stairs, into a dimly lit corridor. And three men in suits rushed around the corner to the left, weapons drawn. 

 

And a woman with light brown hair was crumpled, clutching her leg.

 

“Louisa!” Fitzgerald dropped to the carpet. He grabbed her. He ripped off his belt, tying it to make a tourniquet. Except, except— 

 

“There’s no time!” shouted Higuchi.

 

Fitzgerald ignored her. Red dripped off his fingers. 

 

“Go,” insisted the injured woman. 

 

Fitzgerald shook his head.

 

“We have to go, now!” bellowed Gin. 

 

Lucy swallowed. “Go!” She pushed at Atsushi and Higuchi both. She was going to use her ability, saving her former Guild colleagues and yet giving the rest of them time to escape— 

 

Atsushi let out a wordless cry, and Akutagawa knew that Atsushi would never leave friends, and yet—to survive— 

 

He remembered standing on the Moby Dick, Atsushi frantic to stop it, his hand surging out, dragging Atsushi from the ship, and he wasn’t quite sure why. 

 

“Akutagawa—” shouted one of them. Akutagawa couldn’t remember their name. An idea snapped into his mind. 

 

They don’t know I was imprisoned, do they?  

 

“Stop firing!” Akutagawa shouted, and all of them—the dozens of mafia members now surging into the corridor—began to lower their weapons. Hirotsu pushed his way towards the front, gaping at Gin. “This is all a misunderstanding,” Akutagawa interjected. “Stupid idiots, killing each other for no reason—” 

 

Me, me, me.

 

Atsushi looked up at Akutagawa in awe. Akutagawa’s heart pounded. He didn’t have Rashomon, but he still had some kind of power. 

 

“Pick up your guns,” said a soft voice from behind them, shattering that thought. “But don’t fire them.” 

 

Kyouka cringed. Lucy turned pale, clenching her fists as her gaze darted around, trying to decide whether she needed to transport them yet or not. 

 

Mori stood there, with Kouyou and Chuuya. Chuuya scowled, looking as if he smelled something rancid. Kouyou’s face twisted at the sight of Kyouka. Akutagawa remembered the story he’d once heard, that Kouyou tried to leave the mafia with a boy she loved when they were young. The boy was killed, and Kouyou was dragged back.

 

I can’t leave.

 

We can’t. Gin. Higuchi. 

 

The rest of the mafia hesitated. They're actually not sure who to listen to? 

 

Mori’s eyes flashed, and suddenly Akutagawa understood, and he wanted to vomit. So that’s what this is. 

 

Mori held his phone up. “Fine, then.” 

 

Akutagawa’s own voice filled the air. “My loyalty is to the mafia. Not to him. Besides, he brings misfortune wherever he goes. He’ll probably bring down the Detective Agency on his own, through sleeping with me or whatever. If he came here, he’d bring us down.” 

 

No! Akutagawa jerked, clamping his hands over his ears. He hadn’t meant that! He was just trying to—to— 

 

“And yet you’re sleeping with him.”

 

“I don’t care about pain. The agency will turn on him when they find out anyways. He has a lot more to lose than I do. The agency is made up of fools. They’ll be unable to see the gray and there will be seeds of doubt next time we get to one-up them.” 

 

Time seemed to slow. Thoughts slammed into Akutagawa. Kyouka turned to him, eyes dark whirlpools. 

 

He was damned either way. Stand by those words, and Kyouka and the others would die and Atsushi would be dragged into this flaming hell, and then Mori would surely punish Akutagawa and Gin and Higuchi, maybe even execute the two of them. Deny those words, and everyone would know he wasn’t working in the best interest of the mafia, and they’d open fire and every single one of them would die right here, right now. 

 

No! None of it is the way it looks! Not for either side! 

 

But it wouldn’t look like it. Atsushi’s shoulders were shaking, hearing Akutagawa say those words, his worst fears, like he believed them. Hearing that he claimed to be using Atsushi. 

 

Gin and Higuchi both looked to him, pale. No matter what Akutagawa did, it’d affect them. This is it.

 

Wait—Lucy can—  

 

“I realize you may not want to kill him just yet, but I think it’s enough to take down the agency,” Mori said smugly, taking his silence as a choice. 

 

Fuck you! “No!” Akutagawa snapped. “No, I—Atsushi, I didn’t mean it—I was trying to convince him it wasn’t—I don’t mean that! You’re not worthless! I don’t want to hurt you!” And yet I did. To protect you. 

 

I hate you, Mori.    

 

“Well then,” said Mori. “Now you see. He’s a traitor.” 

 

Chuuya gaped at Akutagawa. His jaw clenched. 

 

Elise peeped out from behind Mori. Lucy jerked, and then she collapsed. 

 

“Lucy!” shouted Atsushi. 

 

The hell? There went their escape. Fitzgerald swore. He got to his feet, eyes glittering, and then— 

 

Nothing. He gaped at his arms. 

 

Your power isn’t working either ? Akutagawa glared at his coat, at his limbs. Work! 

 

Seconds left to breathe, to live, to find a purpose. Seconds. Akutagawa swallowed. “Atsushi—I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—” Nothing else mattered right now. He looked at Gin, at Higuchi, at Kyouka. “I’m sorry—” 

 

We’re all fucked.  

 

“I know,” Atsushi whispered, and Akutagawa realized Atsushi’s arm was still around him, holding him up. 

 

You… you believe me? Akutagawa gaped. “Fuck you, Mori!” 

 

“Aim your weapons!” barked Mori, and now they obeyed. 

 

Fuck. He didn’t want to die, he didn’t want Atsushi to die, he didn’t want Gin or Higuchi or Kyouka or the Guild members to die! 

 

“Akutagawa,” Chuuya interjected. “Surrender. Right now, and your—”

 

“Don’t—” Kouyou started, moving towards Kyouka. 

 

“Listen to me, you idiot!” Chuuya yelled. 

 

Akutagawa tried to summon Rashomon again. This time, black tendrils seeped out from his shirt, but they didn’t stay. Oh, come on! He pushed Atsushi behind him. He could feel Rashomon now, like a snake inside of him, writhing and beating against the lid of his skin, struggling to get free. But not quite yet. Not quite.

 

Almost— 

 

“Surrender now,” said Mori. “Or, on the count of three, we’ll open fire.” 

 


 

 

“Three—two—”  

 

“Time out!” called Dazai. Geez . They just barely made it in time, from the looks of this chaos. Are you trying to kill me, kids? 

 

Chuuya groaned at the sight of him approaching. The way the area was structured now, Mori, Kouyou, and Chuuya stood between the agency and the kids. A flood of mafia members stood behind the kids, surrounding them with weapons. 

 

Kunikida gritted his teeth, clenching his fists. Dazai glanced to Kenji. If all else failed, the plan was for Kenji to grab Kyouka and Atsushi and leave. But Atsushi was clinging to Akutagawa, gaping at Dazai.

 

You’d have to take him, too, Kenji-kun. He knew that look. Atsushi wasn’t leaving without Akutagawa. Can you take three people? And Gin— 

 

Higuchi too? She and Gin stood side by side with Kyouka, almost as if shielding her. And Lucy and that Louisa woman lay crumpled by Fitzgerald, splattered in blood and pressed against a wall. He stood in front of Lucy and Louisa, as if ready to attack anyone who got too close. 

 

“Mori,” said Fukuzawa, stepping forward. “We’re here to collect our members.”

 

“And then some,” Dazai added.

 

Akutagawa clutched Atsushi’s shoulder. Rashomon was nowhere in sight. Shit . If he wasn’t using Rashomon, he couldn’t use Rashomon. “Let me guess,” said Dazai. “You used the Book to take away Akutagawa’s ability. And Fitzgerald’s, by the looks of it.”

 

Akutagawa flinched. 

 

“Only temporarily. It should be on its way back for Akutagawa, so we’ll have to settle this before it returns,” replied Mori. “Fitzgerald’s got a few more hours.”

 

Fitzgerald didn’t look amused. 

 

“We’re not here to fight,” said Fukuzawa. “We both have the goal of maintaining the city. They should not have come. They will be appropriately punished.”

 

“They’re on our turf,” Mori returned. 

 

Dazai’s heart pounded. He glared at Chuuya, who swallowed. “I thought Akutagawa was your top dog, and from the looks of it, you put a collar on him.” 

 

“He gave himself that name,” Mori said. 

 

Chuuya looked as if he was going to chew his lip clean off. Akutagawa lowered his head.

 

“Don’t get greedy now, Fukuzawa,” Mori said softly. Elise appeared, pouting and tapping her food. Golden Demon hovered above Kouyou. “If I allow you to take your members, how will I know you won’t plan a retaliation that will put more of the city at risk, open Yokohama to a flood of blood? And even if I did, why would I hand over the Guild members—or my own subordinates? Their crimes and punishments are none of your concern.” 

 

Fukuzawa glanced at Dazai. Of course. The man knew what he was thinking and feeling.

 

No fucking way. 

 

That’s not true. 

 

It is my concern.

 

I threw away Akutagawa’s key, but I’m unlocking it today. 

 

“Fuck you, Mori!” snapped Yosano, trembling. She’d come, damn the consequences. Tanizaki scoured the room with his gaze. Even Naomi held a gun, aimed. Kunikida, no doubt, was taking in the sight of the people in danger. They came, because there were people who needed them. And it wasn’t just Kyouka and Atsushi, and they all knew it. 

 

None of them were innocent. Gin, Higuchi, Akutagawa especially not. And yet, Gin was still a child, and the other two— 

 

They're with Atsushi and Kyouka.

 

“He’s less emotionally mature than even you!” Chuuya’s voice echoed. 

 

He’s a child. Dazai remembered Akutagawa crying, wailing in the slums, grief and relief all at once. He had a place to belong. And it had turned its jaws on him now, mauling him apart, consuming everything he could be. Just like it did with Odasaku.

 

A mafia member who doesn’t kill. 

 

“If Odasaku happened to pick you up from the slums, I’m sure he wouldn’t have abandoned you.” He’d said those words as his knuckles throbbed from punching Akutagawa’s face, as the boy groveled on his knees, as Dazai held a gun and prepared to fire three bullets at him to see if he could stop them. And if he couldn’t, he’d die. How badly do you want to live? 

 

That wasn’t for him to decide. How badly did he want to live? Dazai didn’t know. The desire was fleeting.

 

No, he wanted to live. He just didn’t want to live like this.

 

Live, kid. Even if it sucks. 

 

“Fine,” said Dazai. 

 

“Huh?” Atsushi cried out.

 

“Fine, they’re yours to deal with,” Dazai repeated. Fukuzawa narrowed his eyes as if to say you better have a plan

 

Ranpo and Poe waited outside in a van, bullet-proof and ready to sweep away from the scene. The others would know this. Kunikida could get them to safety. 

 

“But are they really worth your time?” Dazai continued, opening his arms. “Your top dog, Mori. My, my, I wonder if you were getting slightly anxious? Only so much power is safely able to serve. Once it grows too much, it becomes a threat. Worried he’d slice your throat with Rashomon?” 

 

Mori stiffened. 

 

Just like you sliced our old boss’s throat? Dazai pressed his lips together. Want me to reveal that to everyone? It wouldn’t do much. Not now. It had been too long. But it would sow seeds, and Mori well knew it. “ Both Akutagawa and Atsushi are walking out of here. So are Kyouka, Gin, Higuchi, and the Guild... ex-members.” 

 

Mori snorted. “If you want to save the dog, then the werecat stays. He came to our territory. Maybe you should have chained him.”

 

“No.” Dazai could feel Kunikida looking at him. He hoped Kunikida was able to laugh about this some day. This is my ideal! Protect the orphans. I don’t know why. I just know I sucked at it for Akutagawa. 

 

Odasaku, are you proud of me now? 

 

I want to hear you say it. Maybe I will, soon. 

 

“It’s one or the other,” Mori said. “And Gin and Higuchi are Port Mafia—” 

 

“I’ll—” Atsushi started before Akutagawa kicked his shin. “Ow!” 

 

“Why do you want Atsushi?” Dazai demanded. 

 

Mori didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. 

 

Because we would never, ever be able to strike back against him. Mori used his emotional relationships as weapons against them. 

 

Dazai spent his life been looking for a way to live, and he spent his life looking for a way to die. The same thing, all intertwined, and he’d always known it. Emotional ties, connections, to life and death; he couldn’t have a connection to one without the other. 

 

“Let all of them walk out of this building,” said Dazai. “And I’ll stay and serve you and the mafia.” 

 

“Excuse me?” bellowed Kunikida. Fukuzawa inhaled.

 

“What?” cried out Atsushi and Akutagawa at the same time. 

 

Chuuya swore. Dazai avoided looking at him.

 

“Why would I trust you? You’ve promised yourself to the mafia before, and you—”

 

“We both know why ,” said Dazai. “You won’t chase them or tail them. You’ll let the three of them leave the mafia without repercussions: Ryunosuke, Gin, Higuchi. And of course, our members, and the Guild.” 

 

Gin’s eyes filled with tears. 

 

Chuuya interrupted, clearly knowing something was amiss. “You already have the power of the Book, don’t you, Mori? So—”

 

“My need for more power, even yours, Dazai, is nonexistent,” Mori snapped. Chuuya clenched his fists. 

 

“Is it?” Dazai asked sweetly. Because your need for revenge and for prestige is more than a book. A Book could never satisfy you.

 

And where would the safest place to hide it be? 

 

He knew. With Elise. He just needed to touch it. As a remnant of an ability, that should cancel its control. And then he’d be killed, but Mori would be touchable. 

 

If Mori refused and tried to kill them all, they’d fight, and Mori knew damn well that now that everyone knew he had the Book, they’d all target him, and his best dog couldn’t defend him this time. Chuuya and Kouyou could, but Dazai knew how to beat both. 

 

The city, or you? 

 

He was asking the question Mori had always tried to balance. Choose

 

“You have a book to control reality?” Kouyou asked. “Where’d you get that?” 

 

“A caged bird sings,” Mori replied.

 

Dostoyevsky. 

 

You fucker.

 

“Was his deal that you would free him? You should have known he’d kill you afterwards,” said Dazai. 

 

“His deal wasn’t with me,” Mori said, gesturing to Chuuya. 

 

Chuuya’s face was the color of gray paste. “I had no idea it was this!” 

 

“Well, that is a surprise,” Dazai said. Though he doubted it was the full truth. There had to be someone else involved, too, working to deceive Chuuya. And of course he’d fall for it, because he wanted to belong. 

 

“Do we have a deal?” Dazai asked, focusing on Mori again. 

 

Chuuya clearly would have realized Dazai’s plan by now. Do you believe Mori has the best interests of the city in mind? Do you trust him with that kind of power? Because with it, no other organization will need to exist… if he gets to use it. Which was why they would kill him no matter what, if it came to fighting. 

 

Will it just satisfy you to see me die, Chuuya? 

 

“Deal,” Mori said. He turned to the Guild members and to the kids. “Scram.” 

 

“Dazai, you can’t!” cried out Naomi. Fitzgerald staggered to his feet, carrying Louisa. 

 

He didn’t respond. Instead, Dazai kept his gaze on Akutagawa and Atsushi, Gin and Kyouka. I’m sorry. 

 

Akutagawa glared. The kid would never forgive him, and he couldn’t blame him. Hey, maybe he’d shed a single tear, that’d be— 

 

A roar. “Rashomon!” 

 

What?

 

The dark shadow wrapped around Akutagawa and Atsushi both, covering Atsushi’s fist with its monstrous face. A fist that soared towards Mori. A sword. Two swords. And guns. Demon Snow, Gin, Huguchi. 

 

“Stop!” bellowed Dazai. You’re going to get yourselves— 

 

And it didn’t hit Mori at all. It hit a little girl ability. 

 

Elise wailed, her shrieks slicing Dazai’s eardrums. Mori had used her to shield himself. 

 

The floor fell away. Dazai swore. His knee slammed into cement, and then the crumpled floor soared upwards. Dazai expected the pieces to crumple next, crushing them all, but no, they’d sealed the hole. Blocking most of the mafia from finding them.

 

Akutagawa and Atsushi staggered to their feet, covered in dust and hacking. The agency was behind Dazai still. Higuchi, Gin, and Fitzgerald struggled to stand. Louisa moaned. Lucy was still knocked out, but Atsushi checked, and she seemed to be breathing. 

 

Golden Demon helped Kouyou up. Elise helped Mori. And Chuuya—

 

Mori let out a barking laugh to see Chuuya facing him, hands clenched by his side. “You traitor—”

 

“You can’t possibly be doing this for the sake of the city,” said Chuuya, breathing hard. “You can’t, Mori. You would have subjected us to unnecessary bloodshed just for your ego. Let me destroy the—”

 

“Go ahead and pretend you’re doing this for the Port Mafia’s good,” Mori snapped, gesturing to the basement they’d fallen into when the floor caved in. “You’re not. You’re doing it because you’re a sentimental fool who can’t bear to see your old partner die, and you’re going to get people killed for it. Elise?”

 

Elise pulled out the Book. As expected. Dazai glanced at Chuuya. I need to get to her. 


Chuuya didn’t have to nod. A quick meet of the eyes, and Dazai knew he was on board. 

 

“Let’s see,” said Mori. “Last time was temporary. Elise-chan, be a dear, and—” 

 

The pen hit the page. 

 

He couldn’t wait. Dazai shot forward. Chuuya lunged at Kouyou. Demon Snow soared to meet the Golden Demon, and Dazai—he slammed his hand into Mori. 

 

Elise vanished. The book fell. Kunikida pulled a blade to Mori’s throat. Gin and Fukuzawa aimed their swords too. Higuchi aimed her gun.

 

And Golden Demon and Demon Snow—weren’t fighting. They were both pointing their weapons at Mori. 

 

A roar. 

 

“Too late,” Mori crooned. 

 

In horror, Dazai turned. Rashomon slashed through the air, but as a shield, not as a blade. A howl from a tiger erupted from behind the shield. 

 

Atsushi! 

 

Dazai glanced down at the book. In it was written: Atsushi will be a tiger forever. Well, he could fix this. 

 

Atsushi snarled, lunging at Akutagawa again, who ducked and twisted to the side. Gin hesitated, and then joined her brother. 

 

“Don’t hurt him!” bellowed Akutagawa. Rashomon surged in front of Gin. 

 

“Vita Sexualis,” Mori spat out, using the shock and chaos to twist his way away from the swords. And Elise appeared, and he clutched her in front of him, shielding himself. “Thought it’d be a better idea to trap the werecat in his ability rather than trapping him without.” He held her like a hostage. 

 

“She’s not real,” snapped Kunikida.

 

“Then don’t hesitate,” Mori taunted. “What, remind you of something? You hypocritical—” 

 

Dazai held the book in his hands. “I’m taking away your ability. Forever.” 

 

“I won’t exist?” shrieked Elise. 

 

“It’s all right, I’m holding you,” soothed Mori, like she was his actual daughter and not some toy he abused. Kunikida’s sword trembled. So did the two demons’ swords. Higuchi had joined the fight to help Akutagawa. 

 

“I don’t want to die!” screamed Elise. Mori’s eyes glittered. 

 

Fitzgerald stiffened. 

 

Stab through her! She’s not real! It’ll hurt less; he’s using her to manipulate— 

 

Just like he’d used those orphans of Odasaku’s. Just like he’d used the Sheep members against Chuuya, and Dazai had even helped him with that one. Just like he’d used Akutagawa and Atsushi just now. 

 

Fuck! 

 

Save the weak.

 

Protect the orphans. 

 

Kunikida swore, looking away. Tanizaki joined the fray calming Atsushi, using illusions. 

 

Dazai scribbled. Elise is a real girl, free from Mori’s control.

 

Elise’s elbow immediately slammed back into Mori’s nose. Blood poured. She screamed, scrambling, terrified. Kunikida dropped his weapon, grabbing her and yanking her away from the man. She still screamed, flailing. Higuchi whirled around, rushing to help subdue Mori without Kunikida there now— 

 

“Elise!” bellowed Mori. “You—get back here—what did you do?”

 

Not these orphans. Even the ones you created. Dazai scribbled. Atsushi regains— 

 

A howl. Mori ripped a gun from Higuchi’s grasp, firing. Kouyou shoved Kyouka behind her. A bullet went into Kouyou’s stomach. Kyouka screamed. 

 

More flew towards Dazai, knocking him down before he could finish writing the sentence. And now that Mori no longer had an ability, Dazai couldn’t fight back. His former boss’s fist collided with Dazai’s chin. His head smacked the ground. And his fingers—a paper cut, a slice, blood in a single droplet, but no book, no book, no book—   

 

“No way, asshole!” Another bellow, as loud as the tiger’s. Chuuya flung himself at Mori, knocking him down before he could write anything. Mori crashed into the floor, and dust flew up, stabbing Dazai’s eyes, blinding everyone. 

 

“Fuck!” Dazai gagged, trying to blink his eyesight free from the grit and stagger towards Chuuya and Mori. 

 

Chuuya raised his foot, eyes unconnected, bringing his foot down on the man’s head. 

 

Shit! Dazai scrambled. He could still hear Atsushi’s tortured cries. He flung his hands towards Chuuya. He had to stop Corruption. 

 

The moment his skin met Chuuya’s burning temples, Chuuya moaned, sagging towards the ground. And then Dazai saw.

 

The Book was pulverized. Shards of paper, no larger than confetti, fluttered through the air.

 

“What—” panted Chuuya. “Oh my—shit, shit, I didn’t mean to—”

 

Yosano had rushed over to Kouyou and Louisa. Kunikida and Fitzgerald had thrown themselves in front of Elise, protecting her from debris. Tanizaki held Naomi. Kenji shook off a collapsed pillar. Akutagawa had dived atop Gin, and Demon Snow protected Kyouka, Higuchi, and Lucy. Fukuzawa held his sword, stomping over to make sure Mori was truly dead.

 

Fitzgerald rose, face pale. “The—Book—” His hands reached out, fingers grasping at air. 

 

It’s over.

 

But it isn’t. 

 

No, no— 

 

Dazai turned at the sound of a gurgled roar. A tiger stumbled out of the rubble. 

 

“Shit!” shouted Chuuya. “I’m—”

 

We save our own. It’s the detective agency’s way. Always. Always. 

 

How? Why didn’t destroying the Book work?

 

It can’t change the past. 

 


 

 

Shit.

 

The Book—

 

Akutagawa staggered to his feet. Gin sucked in her breath.

 

Atsushi. 

 

No! 

 

I lost again? Again? 

 

My fault… 

 

Tears streamed down his face. The tiger growled, pacing as it eyed him.

 

“We have to go,” Gin managed. “We can’t bring him back like—” 

 

“No!” Fuck this! Fuck fate, fuck magic books that were the most powerful things in the universe, fuck it all! “Come back!” he screamed at the tiger. 

 

It snarled, jaws pulling back to reveal teeth.

 

“Akutagawa-senpai!” hollered Higuchi. Lucy sat up, rubbing her head. 

 

Take my ability! I don’t— 

 

There was no way. It was hopeless. Unless he found a way to have Rashomon— 

 

No! I refuse! I don’t care what a fucking book that got ripped apart says!

 

Akutagawa ran towards it. The tiger lunged. “Rashomon Spider Thread!” 

 

It sprung from him as if it’d never left, wrapping Atsushi in a net. The tiger howled, biting and clawing at the threads, but Rashomon wouldn’t break.

 

A cage. He’d put Atsushi back in a cage again. It’s that or he—

 

No! “JINKO!” 

 

There’s a part of you that would love to go wild, unfettered. 

 

There’s a part of you that’s me. 

 

And there’s a part of me that’s you. 

 

You believe in the light, in hope, in goodness in people, in second chances no matter what. 

 

You came to save me, set me free. 

 

I’m too scared. But I want to believe. 

 

Akutagawa walked closer to the cage. His heart hammered in his throat. Please. He released Rashomon.

 

“Nii-san!” screamed Gin.

 

“Akutagawa, get—” shouted Dazai. “Cage him again, let me try to have No Longer Human—”

 

“It won’t work!” Akutagawa shouted back as the tiger leaped at him. They both knew it. Its massive paw slammed into Akutagawa’s chest, claws digging and bruising. Blood gushed. He fell to the ground.

 

“No!” cried Higuchi. 

 

Rashomon pushed him back to his feet before the tiger could bite his throat. “Atsushi! Listen to me!” 

 

The tiger snarled.

 

“I know you’re in there!” I hope . Dammit, Akutagawa was losing too much blood. His left arm dangled useless. Akutagawa sucked in his breath, the stench of his own blood and raw meat filling his nostrils. “The tiger—you are a tiger forever, remember? Because it’s part of you! You’re Jinko! You’re a man-tiger! You’re both! And that’s okay!”  

 

The tiger clenched its shoulders as if preparing to pounce. 

 

Fuck . He staggered back, more blood splashing down. “You’re still the real you! It’s always been the same as the man-you! The tiger—it heals you when you get hurt—but it’s also your healing in—every way! Don’t fight it! It’s the same you!” 

 

And I—I don’t care.  

 

“I love you,” Akutagawa managed. He said the words quietly, hoping most wouldn’t hear.

 

The tiger froze. Its eyes flickered. The purple descended over the lightning yellow, calming them. The tiger tilted its head. 

 

You recognize me.

 

“Atsushi?” Akutagawa stumbled to his knees, falling towards the tiger. He grabbed it. The fur was soft. And the tiger rested its head on Akutagawa’s shoulder. He squeezed his eyes shut. 

 

Thank you. 

 

And then it was smaller, but warmer. Akutagawa’s heart slammed in his chest. He opened his eyes. 

 

“Akutagawa?” Atsushi managed, pulling back. Gray, chopping hair. Skin. A nose. A human face. “Wh-what?” 

 

And for the second time in Akutagawa’s life, he burst into loud, unfettered sobs. This time they didn’t last very long, though, because he passed out.

 

Chapter Text

“Did I do this to him?” Atsushi shrieked, Akutagawa’s blood streaming down his arm. “Did I—”

 

“Calm down, Atsushi-kun,” ground out Yosano, stumbling over to them. “Well, looks like I won’t need to almost kill him to heal him; he’s already pretty much there.” 

 

“Not helping,” snipped Gin. 

 

“Let’s go,” Chuuya barked. “Unless you all want to die, morons.” 

 

He refused to look at Dazai. Dazai wished he was less bothered about it. They scrambled towards the exit, Atsushi turning to Dazai, eyes reddened. Dazai squeezed his shoulder. He had no words, not now.

 

“I’m sorry,” Atsushi choked out as they piled into the back of a truck, Chuuya dragging Kouyou. Yosano went to work on the injured.

 

“Exciting,” commented Ranpo, setting a spyglass down. “Poe was about to yeet you all into a book, but thankfully, it wasn’t needed.”

 

“Never talk about books again,” moaned Tanizaki, massaging his scalp. 

 

Atsushi still kept looking up to Dazai, to Fukuzawa, to everyone, his face gray as if he thought they’d hate him. For attacking Akutagawa? That was Mori’s doing.

 

No. For saving Akutagawa. Without trusting us.

 

And yet Dazai knew just why he hadn’t trusted them. Dostoyevsky’s voice taunted him. 

 

Our ideals are people. He watched as Fitzgerald and Kunikida both tried to comfort a sobbing Elise. Fitzgerald cried, too. 

 

Save the weak. Protect the orphans.

 

Dazai patted Atsushi’s head. “It’s okay, Atsushi-kun.” 

 

Atsushi peered up at him. “It is?” His voice wavered.

 

Dazai nodded. Chuuya watched him, finally. 

 

“We’ll talk tomorrow,” said Fukuzawa. “Once everything is settled. But don’t worry, Atsushi-kun.” And he patted Kyouka’s shoulder too, as if to reassure her. She sat down next to Higuchi and Gin, both of whom looked completely lost. 

 

“I didn’t mean to endanger you,” Atsushi mumbled. “I just—”

 

“You saved my life,” Dazai said. 

 

“Again.”

 

Okay, fine, that was how they met. Why did you have to interfere? Dazai tilted Atsushi’s chin up. And, even though he didn’t quite feel it, he knew what it meant to Atsushi. “Thank you.” 

 

Chuuya stifled a guffaw. Atsushi pitched backward, as if he was about to faint. Dazai caught him. “Uh oh, can’t have Yosano getting overworked.” 

 

“Useless men,” Yosano groused. 

 

They arrived at the agency building, and within a few hours, Yosano announced that the injured would be fine and just needed to rest. 

 

Everyone needs to rest,” Fukuzawa said, rubbing his temples. 

 

“I’m not leaving my brother,” Gin said, glaring up at him as if to say I don’t take orders from you, scum. Higuchi nodded.

 

“You don’t have to,” he assured her. 

 

“Poe and I will guard everyone,” Ranpo said cheerfully. He was sitting in Poe’s lap. Poe was grumbling about it. 

 

Whatever . Dazai spotted Chuuya slinking towards the exit. Oh, hell no . “Listen, Polly Pocket, don’t you have something to say to me?” 

 

Chuuya halted. His fists clenched. “ What did you call me?”

 

“You’re pocket-sized for my convenience.” Dazai gestured for him to follow.

 

“I will obliterate you.” But he did follow. Probably because of that pesky thing Chuuya could feel. Guilt.

 

But he’d felt it too, hadn’t he? Or, not exactly. It was there waving at him, through a curtain, when Atsushi apologized, when Atsushi and Akutagawa risked their lives to save his , when for a moment when Atsushi tore through Akutagawa’s chest and Dazai truly thought he was going to lose both of them. 

 

Fitzgerald wandered towards the window, peering out of it. “I failed.”

 

“Failed what?” Dazai asked as they passed by.

 

“My daughter,” Fitzgerald mumbled. “She—the Book—”

 

“You wanted to revive her?” Dazai arched his brows. 

 

“Zelda will never be right now,” Fitzgerald said. “And Louisa got shot. I couldn’t—”

 

“Louisa might at worst have a scar,” Dazai said. “Yosano’s quite skilled. She’ll be fine.”

 

“She still will have been shot because even though I told her not to come, she insisted.” Fitzgerald dragged his fingers over his skull as if he wanted to tear his hair out from the roots.  

 

“I’m sorry about your daughter,” Chuuya said.

 

Fitzgerald blinked in surprise. His eyes filled. 

 

“Hey!” barked Kunikida’s voice. Dazai winced, turning to flee before receiving a lecture. “No, not you, Dazai, chill. Listen, money bags, I—”

 

Elise appeared. Dazai suddenly had an idea, crouching and waving at her. She scowled at him. As expected.

 

“What are you even up to?” hissed Chuuya.

 

“Where are you going?” Elisa asked Chuuya directly. 

 

“I have to talk to this one.” Chuuya gestured towards Dazai. “Gin and Higuchi and Akutagawa—”

 

“But the rest—” Elise’s lips trembled. “The Mafia—my family—”

 

“Mori won’t hurt you again.”

 

“But they’re all gone, or here!” Elise screamed, curling her fists. Her eyes streamed. “I want to go back!” She stomped her feet, tugging at her hair. “It’s not the same!” 

 

Fitzgerald instantly dropped to his knees, pulling out a gourmet chocolate from his pocket and offering it to Elise. “There, there. Don’t cry.”

 

Viola . Dazai ducked out, Chuuya following him.  

 

“Your place?” Chuuya asked when they arrived. “It’s ugly.”

 

“At least it doesn’t wear a hat.”

 

“Fuck off.”

 

Dazai shut the door, turning to Chuuya. 

 

For the first time in… ever, he didn’t have the slightest clue what to say. Not even a quip. The silence stretched on. And then— “Oh, your shoes are still covered in remains of Mori; please don’t defile my house.”

 

“Idiot.” Chuuya kicked them off. 

 

“You told Mori about Atsushi and Akutagawa.”

 

“I didn’t,” Chuuya said. “Dostoyevsky probably had another person visiting him who did. Like Goncharov or Gogol.” 

 

“I thought he was dead.”

 

“As if.”

 

Dazai believed him. “So,” said Dazai. “You’re the new head of the Port Mafia.”

 

“I mean, everyone saw me killing him and blocking them from getting to us. I’m not so sure that’s gonna work out.”

 

“You’re powerful enough.”

 

Chuuya snorted. “Power can only get to a certain point before it breeds disdain. I’m—I’ve got something other than human inside of me. They see that now.” 

 

“I don’t see the problem.”

 

“Of course you don’t.” Chuuya cussed.

 

Dazai was genuinely confused. “Huh?” 

 

“You have it all!” Chuuya yelled at him. “You are human! You—”   

 

Oh . All those times, stronger and smarter than everyone around him, able to quench their abilities with a brush of a finger. Unstoppable. 

 

Who wanted to hold the hand of someone who would nullify the thing your worth was often measured by? He clenched and unclenched his hands, space between his fingers cold. 

 

“I get it now.” Dazai sat down on his bed. 

 

“Took you long enough,” Chuuya said sarcastically.

 

But had he ever asked someone? Or was he more afraid of a no , more afraid of a refusal fueling the void he felt inside, that void utterly consuming him? 

 

I don’t… know how.

 

I don’t know. 

 

For once, he didn’t know something, and he laughed. 

 

Chuuya arched his brows. 

 

Dazai leaned back on his hands. “So. You’ve been visiting our ratty friend.”

 

“Did you really think the Port Mafia would leave the Detective Agency such a valuable resource to use on its own? Enough government officials were open to a bribe.” Chuuya’s gaze skittered away. “He’s a bitch. He reminds me of you, having a god complex.”

 

“And he told you where to find the Book,” said Dazai. “Though, I’m curious. If he knew, why did he not get it himself, and allow himself to be captured?” 

 

“Don’t ask me to psychoanalyze him; I’d get lost in that scary place.” Chuuya stuffed his hands into his pockets. 

 

“Thank you for warning us about Akutagawa and Atsushi.”

 

“You’re thanking me?” Chuuya snorted. “I almost got you killed.” 

 

“Why?” The same question he’d asked at the beginning, when Chuuya first showed up at the agency to warn them. 

 

“I thought he’d use it to end the wars, to protect the mafia and our interests, protect the city like he claimed to want.  Instead he wanted to use it to incite a war, use it to manipulate fights and battles of his own entertainment, and argued that it was for balance when it wasn’t.” Chuuya cussed. “And he was willing to sacrifice as many men as he wanted. His ultimate goal was himself. He pitched so far over the edge of that fence he tried to walk. Taking Atsushi was always going to be a ploy to cause a war, but he would be able to destroy everyone with that book.”  

 

“He was drunk on his own life.” Too obsessed. Refusing to let it go. Refusing to see anyone else’s as on par with his own. If he kicked people off the spider’s thread and into the abyss, then Dazai huddled in the depths, refusing to so much as reach up for a hand that might take his, or might kick him off. 

 

“No shit, Sherlock.”

 

“How did you not know that he would be like that?” Dazai demanded, getting to his feet. “You knew he slashed the previous boss’s—” 

 

Chuuya glared. “Well, it might’ve helped if someone had been a little less self—”

 

“Well, we don’t exactly get along.”

 

“Wow, how intelligent of you yet again.” A crack.

 

Huh? Dazai blinked. Chuuya had folded his arms now, glaring away, towards the door the led to Dazai’s bathroom. And his Adam’s apple was bobbing like he was swallowing again and again, repeatedly, pushing something down. “Are you... crying?”

 

“I am not; fuck you.” 

 

“You are .” Dazai moved towards Chuuya. 

 

Chuuya glowered up at him. His face glimmered wet in the light. “You stupid—” 

 

You’re crying. 

 

You almost got all of us killed. 

 

And then Dazai laughed again.

 

Chuuya’s mouth twitched. 

 

“Sorry,” Dazai said, holding up his hands. “I was just thinking. You know—trusting the wrong person, making that kind of mistake—it’s pretty human, Chuuya.” 

 

Chuuya smacked his shoulder. 

 

I’m not angry at you. 

 

Maybe nothing will fill the void you have, give you what you want.

 

But I can help you get as close to it as possible. 

 

Because… I am your friend.

 

Shit . Dazai reached out, threading his fingers through Chuuya’s. And Chuuya’s palms pressed against his. He didn’t kick him away, kick him down to the floor.

 

Now what? 

 

Fuck. Dazai lowered his lips, grasping Chuuya by the base of his skull to pull his head up. Chuuya met his lips with his own open. He flicked Chuuya’s stupid hat off and Chuuya didn’t even flinch. He pulled Dazai’s face down, calloused fingers scraping Dazai’s cheeks as he pressed his tongue into his mouth. Dazai’s hands roved down Chuuya’s shoulders and sides, his bony spine, squeezing and feeling. 

 

You’re warm. You’re filled with blood. Isn’t that human? 

 

Atsushi was tiger and human. Couldn’t Chuuya, too, be both? Destruction, and life? Hope, and danger? Man, and god? 

 

“Fuck you,” Chuuya panted, hands on Dazai’s chest as he pushed him away. 

 

“Okay,” Dazai agreed.

 

“Huh?” Chuuya blinked. “Are you serious?”

 

Dazai nodded. “Why not?” He backed up, flopping down on the bed. “Go for it. I’m too lazy to be on top.” 

 

“I don’t think so.” Chuuya climbed onto the bed, sinking his lips into Dazai’s again, nipping his tongue with his teeth. “If you want me, you’re gonna have to work for me.” 

 

Well, okay then. Dazai rolled over, pinning Chuuya to the mattress. His red curls were strung out from his head, mouth open, panting. “I think I have a condom. And lube, I know I have that—” 

 

“Get a lot of action?” Chuuya jeered. “And here.” He grabbed a condom from his pocket and shoved it into Dazai’s hand.

 

“Jealous?” And no, not really. He had the feeling Chuuya knew it, too. 

 

“I always knew you were gay,” Chuuya said.

 

“Same with you. I mean, the hat might as well be a giant blinking sign announcing your sexuality to everyone in Yokohama. And what were you doing carrying around condoms?” Dazai grabbed the container of lube from a messy dresser drawer. 

 

“They were for Aktuagawa ’cause he ran away from my attempt to talk to him.” 

 

“What a good dad.”

 

“Someone has to be.” Chuuya scowled as he shrugged out of his vest and shirt. “Does this mean I have to adopt Atsushi too?”

 

You don’t want this to be a one-time thing . “Absolutely,” Dazai sang as he slid back onto the bed.

 

“Come here.” Chuuya yanked off Dazai’s shirt, sending a button flying. He pressed his mouth to Dazai’s pale neck, twisting the skin, sucking. Dazai let out a gasp. Something flickered inside him, something wonderfully alive and grasping, wanting, needing. 

 

It’s human to want.

 

He pushed Chuuya back, tugging off the belt, kicking off his own pants. 

 

It felt the same as every other time in some ways, and yet not in other ways, because this time, there was a layer peeling back, dribbling blood, a vulnerability in knowing just who was letting him inside, just who he was entering, just who was seeing him completely naked, selfish, stupid, suicidal, and who wanted to do the most human of things with him. This time, as he rocked his hips, moving in and out of Chuuya, Dazai studied. He studied every change in Chuuya’s sapphire eyes, the times when he squeezed them shut, the way his mouth opened and closed in little huffs, the swears coming from his tongue, and the way his fingers dug into Dazai’s shoulder blades. This time, when Chuuya shifted to meet him, he realized that someone knew him, knew what he liked somehow, was listening to his gasps and keens, wanted to hear more of those sounds from him. 

 

When he finished, he felt like all his energy was depleted, and Chuuya let him rest. 

 


 

 

His eyes opened. Bleary gray clouds greeted him.

 

And then the clouds parted, and then he saw the sunrise, yellow and purple. “You’re awake!” 

 

Akutagawa gasped. He sat bolt upright. “Where—”

 

He couldn’t continue. Atsushi was squeezing him in a hug. “What the hell?” he croaked. 

 

Atsushi pulled back, eyes shining. “You’re okay.”

 

“Um—” Akutagawa glanced at the area around them. Drab curtains cloaked a small cot. His coat was lying at the foot of his bed, and when he shifted his shoulder, it didn’t even sting. “Yosano?” 

 

Atsushi nodded.

 

I’m in the agency’s building . He glanced towards Atsushi. “Are you—there’s no lasting effects—”

 

“Gin and Kyouka told me what you did for me,” Atsushi said, clutching his hand. “I’m so sorry, Akutagawa, I couldn’t control—”

 

“Well, I got to see full feral Atsushi,” Akutagawa said coldly. Ah, shit. “It was hot.”

 

Atsushi’s jaw fell open. And then he laughed. “Yeah. It’s a part of me.” 

 

And it doesn’t need to be caged . Trust yourself.

 

And this — He glanced at his hands, pale, his chest, wearing a papery hospital gown, his shoulder healed. This is a part of me, too. Humans, fragile and strong. 

 

“I heard what you said,” Atsushi said. “It was like your voice calling to me, and I—I don’t remember anything before that, only like—terror and some kind of rage eating at me like an army of ants, and nothingness, and then what you said.” He swallowed.   

 

I love you. Akutagawa felt his face burn. He’d said that. He’d actually fucking said that. To Nakajima Atsushi. Him. He told him he loved him. Love. In front of everybody. He cleared his throat. “Thanks for believing me. I still shouldn’t have said that to Mori, the recording he showed you, I—”

 

“I know,” Atsushi cut in. “Ryunosuke.”

 

My name? Akutagawa closed his mouth. He didn’t know what to say, what he even wanted to hear Atsushi say. Did they have to do this now? If— 

 

“I feel the same way,” Atsushi said quietly.

 

You do? Akutagawa almost sagged in relief. “Yeah, well, breaking into the Port Mafia’s headquarters kind of suggested that, but—” 

 

Atsushi rolled his eyes. “I love you.”

 

“How embarrassing.” 

 

“I didn’t confess in front of a full room of people.”

 

Akutagawa thought about telling Atsushi he took it back, but the words Atsushi had just spoken to him were too precious to even tease. He grabbed Atsushi, kissing him. “Gin—”

 

“Here.” Atsushi drew the curtains back. Gin, Higuchi, Lucy, and Kyouka all sat against the wall outside the curtains, empty coffee cups surrounding them. Kyouka and Gin’s heads rested against each other’s. Her mask was off her face. 

 

“Gin,” Akutagawa called. 

 

Her eyes popped open. She leaped to her feet, rushing him and throwing her arms around him. And then Higuchi grabbed him, too. Even Kyouka. What the hell? 

 

He’d really thought no one would come for him. And now—Higuchi was crying, Gin was threatening to kill him if he ever scared her like that again, Kyouka was beaming. 

 

You were right about the light. 

 

“Someone’s finally awake,” commented Yosano’s voice. She rounded the corner, and she smiled at Akutagawa as he jerked back, not wanting to be seen fighting tears in so many peoples’ arms. 

 

An agency member. Smiling at him. He swallowed. “Thank you.” 

 

“Welcome.” She drew back more curtains, revealing Kouyou in a bed next to him. Kyouka smiled at her. 

 

“Heard some noise,” called a voice. Akutagawa stiffened.

 

Dazai. And Chuuya. Chuuya’s hair looked slightly more rumpled than usual under his hat. Dazai’s shirt hung open. Atsushi narrowed his eyes. 

 

“Everyone, we have some words to say to these two young men,” Dazai announced. “So if you please.” He yanked the curtains again, encasing the four of them.

 

“You realize they can still hear,” snapped Chuuya, folding his arms. Was that a bruise on his neck? 

 

“No matter,” Dazai said, his smile vanishing. Both his and Chuuya’s gaze focused on Akutagawa and Atsushi’s intertwined hands. 

 

“What?” Akutagawa demanded.

 

“How are you feeling?”

 

“Peachy.” Akutagawa’s heart pounded. Are you—are you— 

 

“You almost got both of yourselves killed and I—” Chuuya started.

 

“I have something to say and we already agreed upon it, Chuuya-kun,” said Dazai.

 

Chuuya rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. Get on with it then.”

 

“Never mind; I chicken out.”

 

“I will break you next time.”

 

Huh? 

 

Dazai clutched his forehead. “I’m sorry.” 

 

Akutagawa froze, words in his throat. Atsushi almost keeled over. 

 

Chuuya gestured, prompting Dazai on. Dazai eased himself down on the edge of the bed. “To both of you. But especially to you, Ryunosuke-kun. I—” He stopped. 

 

“Is that why you offered yourself for us?” Atsushi managed.

 

“In part.” Dazai cringed.

 

“Go on,” Chuuya said. 

 

“Akutagawa, I truly never gave up on you. I wanted to make you stronger, to help you, but I—went about it the wrong way. You felt abandoned. I thought it necessary. It wasn’t in the end. You did not deserve to be abandoned. You did not deserve to feel like you didn’t deserve to live, like my leaving told you not to live, which it did. You—”

 

“I killed lots of people,” Akutagawa interrupted, guilt crunching his spine again. “I—” He closed his eyes.

 

“Yes,” said Dazai. “But you might not have if I hadn’t exacerbated what you’d already experienced in the slums. And then I never told you not to, even when I left. I set up that expectation for earning my praise.” 

 

“But I did it.”

 

“So live better,” Dazai told him. 

 

Is that what you’re trying to do ? Akutagawa hung his head. And he felt a hand on his shoulder, squeezing, reassuring him. He looked up.

 

“I’m proud of you,” Dazai said quietly. 

 

The lump in Akutagawa’s throat broke. Tears streamed down his face. Atsushi smiled. 

 

“Oh thank God, finally,” Chuuya said. 

 

Akutagawa leaned into Dazai, who seemed extremely scared of a hug, but he gave one. Atsushi joined. “Chuuya?”

 

“Fucking hell no.”

 

The curtains flung back. “Okay, you’re done,” Kunikida barked. 

 

Nor just Kunikida. Everyone . Tanizaki and Naomi glared, no doubt remembering when he had attacked them. Whoops. And the president, the one Akutagawa had saved after trying to help kill to save Mori. Freaking Mori. 

 

Akutagawa gulped.

 


 

Gin and Higuchi blinked up at the president, both of them clearly uncomfortable as well. Akutagawa was terrified despite his stoic mask. Atsushi kept his hand through his and could tell because of the pulse beating faster in his wrist. I’m here.

 

I don’t want to leave you alone again.

 

I almost lost you.

 

The greatest risk to tear down the entire agency, the home Atsushi had found, had never been Akutagawa or the Port Mafia. It had been himself. 

 

“Well,” said Fukuzawa. “I’m glad to see you looking healthier, Akutagawa-kun.”

 

Atsushi nodded in agreement. 

 

“We won’t ask you to leave until you’re fully back to—”

 

“He is,” Yosano cut in. “Do you doubt my abilities?”

 

“Not at all,” Fukuzawa said, smiling. Ranpo and Poe leaned back against the wall, holding hands too. “Where will you go now?” 

 

Akutagawa stiffened. “No one knows my apartment, so—” 

 

“We have no place to go,” Higuchi said slowly. “We betrayed the mafia. No boss will ever trust us again. And they’ll find us, and you know it, Akutagawa-senpai.”

 

Contradicting him. Akutagawa looked surprised, but not exactly displeased. 

 

“If this one is the boss now, he might disagree,” said Fukuzawa, nodding to Chuuya.

 

Chuuya scowled. “I can’t.”

 

Huh? Atsushi’s eyes widened. 

 

“I don’t think I can prioritize the interests of the mafia now,” Chuuya stated. “And a boss would need to. Akutagawa—it’d be difficult, but if you—”

 

Is he actually saying Akutagawa could take over the Port Mafia? That’s so much power. Atsushi glanced at his boyfriend.

 

“There’s no chance,” Akutagawa said flatly. “Stop acting like a dumbass, like you think it could work.” 

 

“Are you sure?” pressed Chuuya. “You could use your power to—”

 

No .” 

 

“Good.” Chuuya leaned back. Was that a test of some kind? 

 

Kunikida rubbed his head. He glanced at Fukuzawa and nodded. 

 

“Well,” said Fukuzawa. “I’ve discussed things with my subordinates. While there have been—issues in the past—our agency requires an entrance exam to join, and the exam is to test whether you will risk your own life to save innocent lives.” He regarded them all. Atsushi’s heart pounded. “All five of you did that. Higuchi, Gin, you helped Atsushi and Kyouka break into the headquarters. Kouyou protected Kyouka. Chuuya killed Mori before he could use the Book again to curse more of us, or to get Elise back. And Akutagawa, you and Atsushi helped save Dazai, and then saved Atsushi knowing full well you might die.”

 

Higuchi gaped. Chuuya smirked.

 

“There’s going to be chaos in Yokohama, what with what happened to the Port Mafia,” said Fukuzawa. “I think we’ll be busy these next few months. And having people who used to work for—”

 

“Like me,” sang Dazai, sticking his hand up.

 

Atsushi studied Tanizaki and Naomi. Both of them looked wary, but hopeful.

 

Higuchi and Gin looked to Akutagawa. They would follow his lead. Kouyou kept quiet, but Kyouka took her hand. And Chuuya looked so bored Atsushi could tell he’d already agreed.

 

“I’m not going to be your stupid agency’s dog,” grumbled Akutagawa. 

 

Atsushi snorted. “You just had to get one insult in, didn’t you?”

 

Akutagawa scowled. 

 

“We don’t have dogs here,” said Fukuzawa. “We have people.” 

 

Akutagawa glanced at Atsushi and then Dazai, as if checking with them. “O-okay.” 

 

“I accept,” Higuchi stated, getting to her feet and bowing to Fukuzawa.

 

“I do as well,” Gin said quietly. 

 

You have more than eight friends, now, and we won’t let any of them die. 

 


 

“Flowers? Why would you buy something like these?”

 

“It’s better than bodies,” Atsushi retorted.

 

“They’re both dead, so what’s the difference?” 

 

“Well, if you don’t like them…”

 

Akutagawa snatched the bouquet of daffodils, planting the vase down on his new desk. “Thanks,” he mumbled.

 

Dazai snickered. Both of his proteges stuck their middle fingers up at him. Gin bickered with Kenji. Higuchi entered, clutching a coffee she’d gotten from the cafe. 

 

“How are you?” Atsushi asked her. 

 

Higuchi shrugged. “Fine. Lucy said to say hi.”

 

Dazai had at first wondered why Higuchi was staying when Akutagawa was clearly with Atsushi now. Had she been hoping they’d break up?

 

No. She genuinely loved him, not an idea of him. Higuchi had been staying at Lucy’s place, probably both of them sharing tissues and ice cream. As for Lucy, she seemed to be doing just fine for herself in the cafe. 

 

Louisa had healed from her injuries thanks to Yosano, and Fitzgerald now knew the Book would never be able to give him his daughter back. 

 

“Lies,” Fitzgerald had said when Dazai remarked upon this—just to make sure. “It did after all.” He sighed. “I didn’t fail. It just gave me a new daughter. Zelda will love her.” He nodded to Elise, who was curled up on a bench, fast asleep. 

 

“You’re going to raise a mafia brat?” Dazai pressed. 

 

“Elise is no brat!”

 

Good . “She won’t be your daughter,” Dazai warned. “Mori already tried to model her after Yosano.”

 

“She’s not a model of my first daughter,” Fitzgerald declared, narrowing his eyes. “She’s—another daughter. She won’t like the same things or—”

 

“I don’t know if she’s had likes or dislikes on her own,” Dazai said.

 

“Well, then, we’ll find out.” Fitzgerald sat down next to her, stroking her hair. Louisa smiled. 

 

Kouyou didn’t want to be part of the Detective Agency, but she still had their protection for at least awhile. She had also taken Q in. 

 

It was almost a week later when Ango called, in the middle of the bloody night. “What?” Dazai snapped, rolling away from Chuuya, who kicked while he slept like a loser. 

 

“You better get down here quick.” Ango hung up.

 

Dazai swore. “Looks like something happened with our rat friend.”

 

“He’s no friend,” said Chuuya. “He doesn’t deserve any visitors.” But he was on his feet, yanking his pants up. 

 

“I’ll drive,” said Dazai.

 

“Like hell you will!” Chuuya shoved him. 

 

“Oh, thank God,” Dazai said, wilting. “I’m too tired.”

 

Chuuya growled. 

 

“I wonder what on earth the man who sees life as a tragedy he has to fix has to say for himself,” Dazai mused, watching the stars glittering in the night sky above.

 

“After?” Chuuya prompted. 

 

“After winding up strengthening the Armed Detective Agency.” 

 

Chuuya yanked the wheel to the side. Dazai yelped. “That’s all?”

 

“Can’t think of anything else.” Dazai scratched the top of his scalp.

 

“I’m dumping you.”

 

“Oh! Oh, Chuuya! You mean us? What he would say about us?” Dazai clasped his hands together. “My, I—”

 

“Well, now you’ll have to report a tragedy! You’re single again!”

 

“I’ll just tell him the epic story of you and I together in bed an hour ago—” 

 

“Eat shit!” 

 

Still bickering, they entered the prison complex to see a gray Ango. 

 

“What?” Chuuya demanded crankily. “It better be important.” 

 

“Why are you two together?”

 

“I work for them now,” Chuuya said at the same time as Dazai said, “We sleep together.” 

 

Ango’s mouth hung open. He shook his head. “Well, Fyodor—” He swallowed. “Fyodor escaped.”

 

Bloody hell. Dazai’s heart leaped to his throat. He knew Fyodor wanted to be in the prison for the time being, but he didn’t know that meant he could escape when he wanted, too. 

 

“The fuck?” cried out Chuuya. 

 

“He left you this.” Ango held out a piece of paper.

 

Dear Chuuya & Dazai,

 

“He put my name first,” Chuuya hissed. 

 

I’ve been ill a long time, but society longer than that. Vague and objectless anxiety in the present, and in the future a continual sacrifice leading to nothing—that was all that lay before us. What do I have to live for? What have I to look forward to? Why should I strive? To live in order to exist? If only fate would send me repentance—burning repentance that would have torn his heart and robbed him of sleep, that repentance, the awful agony of which brings visions of hanging or drowning! But it hasn’t, and so I won’t repent. 

 

I found it quite interesting to hear of your exploits ending Mori. To think your proteges decided to save your worthless self, Dazai, because to them you weren’t worthless. Deceived? Probably. But then to bring the tiger back to himself—now that’s intriguing. Bringing him back to humanity. It’s like the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.

 

“Is he insane?” Chuuya groused.

 

“Duh,” taunted Dazai, continuing to read.

 

I certainly didn’t expect things to end up that way, and surprise—that I would feel that surprise! How very odd and inexplicable. 

 

I’ve gone to search for the source of this surprise.   

 

Chuuya suckerd in his breath. “Does that mean Akutagawa and Atsushi are in danger?”

 

But that is the beginning of a new story, and our present story is ended.

 

There was no signature. 

 

“No,” Dazai said, scanning the letter again. “No, they’re not.” 

 

“Where should we look?” asked Ango.

 

“You won’t find him,” Dazai said, folding the letter. 

 

Chuuya glanced at him. Dazai took his hand. “What to go buy some dead daffodils? Or we could buy some bulbs, then even Akutagawa couldn’t say they were dead—” 

 

“Excuse me?” squawked Ango. “You have to help—” 

 

“Not even I know where he’ll go,” Dazai said. It felt like such a relief to say he didn’t know.

 

Chuuya furrowed his brow. “Where has he gone?” he hissed as they left.

 

“I genuinely don’t know. Some slum, probably. Or a nursing home. Or an orphanage. Some place with less abilities, or with more.” 

 

“Ah.” Chuuya’s eyes widened. 

 

“He learned from the best,” Dazai said, pointing to himself. 

 

“The worst,” Chuuya corrected.

 

“No,” Dazai said. “I learned from the best.” 

 

“Odasaku?”

 

“One of them, yeah.” Dazai skipped ahead. “There was another one, too.”

 

“You’re not five anymore!” hollered Chuuya.

 

“I never was!” He turned around, watching Chuuya standing in the moonlight, shaking his head. But a smile cut across his face. He damn well knew who the second “best” person Dazai learned from was. 

 

And as for Fyodor, he wouldn’t find a simple answer. He might not even find a satisfactory one, to what it means to be human. It would not be given to him for nothing. He would have to pay dearly for it, and it would cost him great striving, great suffering.

 

But maybe it will be one you can live with.