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The Narrow Space Between Breaths

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“How fortunate that you are all in the same spot, it makes things easier,” Dostoyevsky smirked. “I’m going to rid the world of unsightly Ability users with a godlike power. You can’t stop me yourself, Dazai. Only gods can duel one another, and I don’t plan on being challenged.”

Dazai’s eyes widened.

“Armed Agency members,” Dazai’s voice echoed across the warehouse, gaining everyone’s attention by the urgency in which he spoke, “Protect the chibi!”

“Who?” Kunikida yelled.

Dazai pointed to Chuuya with a dramatic swoosh of his arm.

“What?” Chuuya started as all the eyes of the Agency members turned to him, “I don’t need any of your shitty people protecting me!”

“Don’t worry, Mister Fancy Hat City Guy!” Kenji said, raising his fists over his head, “We’ll protect you!”

“I don’t need your—that is not my name!”

“Port Mafia, do the same. Defend your executive with your lives,” Mori said calmly, leveling an intense glare at Dostoyevsky. “And if there are any of our men left standing should Chuuya-san die, I will kill them myself.”

“Hey, hey,” Chuuya’s eyebrows shot up, deeply confused at the concern Mori was showing as well as the threat against his subordinates, “What the hell is going on?”

“Chuuya-chan is the biggest threat to Dostoyevsky’s plan right now,” Dazai said, more for the benefit of the Agency members, “He just said it, ‘Only gods can duel one another’.”

“But what the hell does that mean?” Kunikida shouted.

“While it’s true that I’m the only one that can match Dostoyevsky intellectually, this isn’t just a battle of wits. And in terms of pure power, even god-like power,” Dazai left off to glance at Chuuya, a dark, assessing glint in his eye that knocked the other man back a couple of years and dozens of missions. “In its raw form, there is no match for Chuuya’s Ability.”

Chuuya grimaced and looked down at his gloves, “You fucker. So, I guess that means...”

“If you would,” Dazai nodded, before forcing a cheesy smile on his face and tilting his head, “Only if you want to, of course.”

“You fucker,” Chuuya repeated harshly, tugging off his gloves and throwing them to the ground. “You better stop me, when it gets too—”

“I will.”

Chuuya’s breathing quickened, ”None of that suicidal bystander bullshit. You void me when you get a chance.”

“Have I ever let you down before?”

“Don’t ask me a question with an answer like that right now!”

“Chuuya,” Dazai said in warning, his teasing smile gone as he watched his Agency members fighting Dostoyevsky’s henchmen.

“I got it.” Chuuya grit his teeth and put the appropriate amount of dramatics into his next words as he stared at his hands waiting for the black and red stains to overcome him, to rewrite who he was and control his body as if Chuuya Nakahara never existed in the first place.

“‘O, grantors of

He was cut off as a bullet bent around him and ricocheted off the floor, it was high caliber enough that a large divot was left in the cement. Chuuya turned around to glare at the sniper laying on the rafters above everyone.

“...That could’ve hit my hat,” Chuuya said darkly, clenching his fists in outrage, “I’m gonna kill that fucker first.”

“Actually, Chuuya would be much more useful if he focused on Dost—”

“‘O, grantors of dark disgrace,’” Chuuya recited again, forgoing dramatics this time for pure fury, “‘Do not wake me again.’”

There was a lot of carnage, a lot of blood, a lot of dust, rocks, and the groaning, broken, dying, dead bodies scattered throughout.

Yosano came to after healing herself, blinking blood out of her eyes and coughing up dust. She wiped a line of spit and blood from her lips as she pushed herself up with one hand, looking around for her comrades. Dazai had yelled for everyone to retreat from the building not long after whatever Nakahara had become...the pure hell that had been unleashed. Yosano had seen destructive Abilities before, but never anything as raw and indiscriminate as that, not when being channeled through a person—a person who supposedly was their ally. The last thing she had seen before turning her back to try to make it out was Nakahara sending a massive black hole toward his own men, cackling madly from blood-soaked lips while doing it. The sight and sound had chilled her to the bone. She hadn’t envied Dazai having to wade into that chaos for the chance to get skin on skin contact, though she knew that was the only hope they had to make it stop.

It was quiet now, quieter, at least.

Yosano gave one more hacking cough and stayed kneeling on the floor till she was sure her shaking was under control.  One of her heel tips had snapped off, which was going to make it difficult to balance, but she wasn’t about to walk around without anything covering her feet, not with all the jagged pieces of stone, rebar, and nails littering the floor.  The clothes and shoes Yosano was wearing were beyond salvage, though even she would not have wanted this kind of excuse to go shopping.

Thankfully, she hadn’t gotten pinned down beneath any columns or large stone slabs. It would have been horribly inconvenient to be crushed and just waiting to slowly bleed out before being able to heal herself, over and over as the cycle repeated.  Yosano had seen the kind of mental break that kind of stress could induce on someone second hand, she had no desire to experience it—

Her eyes went wide.

“Kuni-Kunikida!” She yelled, getting to her feet quickly, wobbling on her uneven heels, to hurry to her friend’s side.  The man was further away from the door than she was, which meant he hadn’t given up on trying to get Dazai to leave with him, even as load-bearing columns were being destroyed.  He was limp on the floor, the longest strands of his ponytail were quickly being stained from blond to red.  The puddle of blood and hair were stretching away from Kunikida’s head like the corona of the sun.  I might have enjoyed it, Yosano thought in fragments, each step on the cement floor jolting a different thought into her brain, I might have thought it was pretty, maybe I would be laughing…

Yosano tumbled gracelessly to Kunikida’s side, her hands trembling as she reached toward his neck, his skin cold as ice against the pads of her fingers.

“Idiot,” She cursed in relief as she felt a thready pulse almost the same instant her butterflies gently landed on his cheek.

Once he was safe to move, she began dragging him toward the door herself, an exhausting task as she did her best to avoid the worst of the debris as well as keep balanced.  Eventually she had to stop and take a break before attempting to continue, barely holding back a frustrated yell.

“I got him,” A voice behind her said, a head of bright blond hair accompanying it. “Is he all healed?”

Yosano gave Kenji a quick once over, but the young boy looked as hearty and hale as he ever did and nodded, “Yes, just get him out of the building for now.  Is Tanizaki with you?”

“Yep!” Kenji smiled, “He had to call Naomi first, and I think she’s yelling at him ‘cause he has a silly expression on his face.”

Yosano brushed the comment aside easily, “Come back in when he’s done, I still don’t see Dazai or Atsushi anywhere and we need all the hands we can get.”

“Okay!” Kenji flashed a thumbs-up before lifting Kunikida up enthusiastically.  Yosano almost laughed at the sight of the two of them walking away, a young boy carrying a man almost two times his body length like he was an overgrown baby, his legs hanging off the side and skimming the ground.  Instead, she let out a heavy sigh and looked around again, only a few people were up and moving now, and none of them in an off-white coat or with white hair.

“Yosano-sensei, if you’re done staring into space, your assistance could be used,” Mori called out to her, his voice lilting and recognizable in a strange way.  Yosano felt an irritated twinge go up her spine as she glared at him and that disgusting smirk on his face.  But she was still a doctor, and there were people, mostly Port Mafia members, bleeding all around who needed her help.  Just because Mori was here didn’t mean it was the same as the other time.

Over the next few moments, muscle memory took over and Yosano quickly got to work on the people around her. As expected, Mori was unscathed, almost suspiciously, taking into account where he had been when the major wall had collapsed, but he was tending to the injuries he could as well as performing a kind of reverse triage for Yosano.

“He’s dying,” Mori could be heard saying in a bored voice and Yosano would rush over, regardless if that person was Port Mafia. Working like this with him as a partner brought up bad memories and a sickening feeling of familiarity that she fought hard to ignore.  She concentrated on her work, the broken bones, the gashes and gaping wounds.  Most of her own had just been wounded superficially, only Kunikida had, unfortunately and thankfully, been the worst. Kenji had left him leaning against a miraculously still standing wall outside in the sunshine, dazed, covered in his own blood, but not a scratch or bruise on him.  Atsushi made quick work of a rock that had pinned him down toward the back of the building, pushing it off with transformed tiger arms, and then had tried to make a hasty retreat in the wake of Yosano’s generous, yet overzealous, offer to heal him.  Much to Yosano’s delight, he had not been fast enough.  He was now lifting stone slabs along with Kenji as Tanizaki very reluctantly played nurse to Mori. The young boy could be heard making noises of disgust every once and a while followed by Mori chuckling.

Yosano opened her mouth to snap at the doctor to leave him alone—

“Did you hear that?” Tanizaki said, his head perking up, but he didn’t move from his task of keeping the Black Lizard member from bleeding out. “Did anyone hear that?”

Yosano wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, “Hear what?”

“I did,” Mori said with a curious tone. “It sounded like—”

A cough.

Kenji pushed and lifted concrete pieces until the infinite black of Rashomon could be seen under it. As soon as there was no more reason to be activated, Rashomon returned to its owner, unveiling what it had been protecting.

“Hello~” Dazai greeted them all chipperly, looking as if he was perfectly at home underneath a ton of rocks, two Port Mafia members, and covered in blood.

Yosano raised her eyebrow at his tone, “I almost got my hopes up seeing that much blood, but it’s too bad my Ability won’t work on you.”

Dazai grinned at her, “The only thing I’ve been in danger of is being bored to death by my abysmal company.  It’s such a disappointment I wasn’t able to be buried alive with two beautiful women instead, I wouldn’t have minded that as much.”

Akutagawa let out a cough.  Despite Rashomon having returned to a coat and the danger of being crushed gone, he still hadn’t moved from his shielding position over Chuuya and Dazai, supporting his body on shaking arms.  Chuuya was pinned below Akutagawa and on top of Dazai, bleeding heavily from his mouth and head, soaking Dazai’s shirt and coat.  He appeared to merely be unconscious, but Yosano could see he was breathing shallowly.  She couldn’t even begin to fathom the physical toll an Ability like that took on the body of the one using it, Nakahara had looked like he was being crushed from the inside out just a few moments after activating.  But from how he and Dazai had been talking before, this probably wasn’t the first time, which meant he had survived before and would survive again.  As long as Dazai got to him in time.  Yosano wondered if she would be able to trust Dazai that much with her life, deciding on the answer before she had even finished the thought.

“This one’s been coughing in my face for the past ten minutes,” Dazai said drolly, lifting his chin up at Akutagawa. “Tuberculosis would be such a terrible way to die. Too slow.”

 “Give the hat guy here,” Yosano said gruffly.

Dazai held up his hands, “What, do you think I’ve been clutching him to my chest the whole time?  He fell on me, and then this idiot fell on both of us, ruining a perfectly good death by crushing.  It would have been fast and lethal.  Akutagawa, get off.”

Akutagawa finally seemed to come back to himself and rolled off to the side.  In the back of her mind Yosano made a note to check on him as soon as she was done with the Port Mafia executive.  She carefully turned Chuuya on his back, without any help from Dazai, who merely stayed laying down on the ground like it was a comfortable bed.  Or perhaps he was imagining it was a coffin with the way his hands were folded peacefully against his chest.

“Is he dying?” Dazai asked, a smile creeping on to his face.  Yosano gave him an answering grin of her own.

“Not fast enough,” She said gleefully, raising her machete she had pulled out of nowhere, and letting loose a truly terrifying cackle.

--

A few feet away from them, as Yosano worked, Akutagawa was pushing himself to his feet, stumbling away from the wreckage with a determined look on his face, before tripping over some smaller pieces of concrete.  He went to his hands and knees hard, his breathing slowing as sweat rolled from his forehead and down his face.  He squeezed his eyes shut and a few more drops hit the floor.

“Are you okay?” Atsushi bent down next to Akutagawa slowly, laying a gentle hand on the other’s shoulder.

His hand was roughly shrugged off as Akutagawa got to his feet with the same dogged determination as last time.

“Get off me,” He leveled a glare at Atsushi, though the effect was diminished by the paleness of the other’s face and the tremors of fatigue running through his body.  Atsushi backed off anyway, holding his hands up with a nervous smile.

“I was just—”

“Shut up,” Akutagawa snapped, “I don’t need your help.”

Atsushi watched Akutagawa take a few more shaky steps before collapsing to the ground again. This time he stayed down, his breathing coming out in ragged gasps even in unconsciousness.  Atsushi moved to check on Akutagawa again without the other being able to refuse his help, but another Port Mafia member with long black hair reached him first.  The man in black gently moved Akutagawa’s head to his lap and although Atsushi couldn’t see the other man’s mouth, he could tell he was smiling.

“He reached his limit under there, continually using Rashomon in a defensive position against tons of rock, knowing any slip of control could mean his executive getting smashed,” Dazai explained in a bored tone of voice.

“And his mentor,” Atsushi added with a meaningful look, “You were in there with him too.”

Dazai shrugged.

“You should probably thank him,” Atsushi pushed, not bothering to tear his eyes away from Akutagawa and the Port Mafia member to look at Dazai’s reaction. “I know I will.”

“Thank him?  If he had practiced using Rashomon defensively when I wanted him to, it wouldn’t have taken that much concentration in the first place and he wouldn’t be in this mess.”

Atsushi pursed his lips, “I’m still going to thank him.”

“Atsushi-kun is so thoughtful,” Dazai’s voice lilted in his ear, “Doing unnecessary things.”

The comment made Atsushi frown even more, and he turned around to retort, but Dazai was already walking away.  At first Atsushi thought Dazai was hanging his head because he was somewhat cowed by what Atsushi had said, but that didn’t seem likely.  Atsushi watched him for a few more seconds in confusion, as Dazai slowly walked a random path through the rubble, his eyes focused on the ground, before understanding.  Though he couldn’t think of anything that Dazai had with him that he would have been able to lose.  Maybe it was his book on a thousand ways to commit suicide.

Atsushi turned back toward Akutagawa, intending to attempt to approach the other man again, but something caught his eye several feet away.  It was wedged between two large pieces of cement, bent out of shape and covered in a light layer of dust, but still recognizable.  Atsushi used his tiger arms to push the pieces apart, pulling it out gently once there was enough room.  He was pleased when it almost immediately retained its former shape.

“Dazai-san,” Atsushi called out, holding the item up in his hands, turning it, “This?”

Dazai turned around, his eyes going wide in surprise for a half second as he saw what Atsushi was holding up.

“Heh,” He let out a light chuckle as he walked forward, “Like I said, Atsushi-kun is too thoughtful.”

Atsushi beamed and held it out for Dazai to take, “I wasn’t the one looking for it.”

Dazai shrugged nonchalantly, slapping it against his leg to try to get even more of the dust off.  He held the object up and squinted at it, assessing, “But seriously, isn’t this the ugliest hat you’ve ever seen?”

--

Chuuya felt light and bubbly, like his body and insides had been given a power wash.  He also felt strangely naked with his coat, hat, and gloves missing in the wreckage of the building.  Chuuya didn’t want to look around for them though, he didn’t want to see any of the bodies of his subordinates that had been caught in the crossfire, either when part of the building had collapsed or by his own hand.  Mori and the Agency’s doctor had been able to heal some, but Chuuya could still remember the looks on the faces of the ones he had aimed at himself, their screams as limbs were blown off or the silence as they were swallowed up into nothing.  Chuuya looked down at the pale skin of his hands, clenching them hard enough that his short nails dug into his palm and they ached from the tension.

“Shame, even Yosano-sensei’s Ability couldn’t fix your ugly face,” Dazai quipped from behind, extremely disappointed when Chuuya did not react.  He could see the other man was still dazed from the aftereffects of Thou Shalt Not Die, a bright, glassy look in his eyes as he stared at his lap.  It was the best shape Dazai had ever seen Chuuya in after using Corruption, he was kinda pissed about being robbed of being able to see the stupid face Chuuya made as he slept.  It had been too dark in their makeshift tomb and Dazai had to perpetually turn his head away every time Akutagawa coughed.  It had been doubly annoying that neither of them had even responded just a little to his genuine, sincere attempts at a meaningful conversation.

“Here,” Dazai shoved a black bundle under his nose, sitting down beside him once Chuuya had taken the clothes with a shocked expression. “Close your mouth, I can smell the wine from here.”

Chuuya blinked slowly as he looked down at the pile.  His coat was folded in a precise square with his pair of gloves laid neatly on top.  There wasn’t a speck of dust on either of them.  Chuuya put on the gloves first, feeling more like himself once the leather covered his hands and the cotton-headed feeling of the doctor’s Ability began to fade.

“Hey, you wouldn’t happen to know where—” Chuuya was cut off as Dazai plopped his hat on his head with a put-upon sigh, pressing down till it covered Chuuya’s eyes.

“Yes, though it pained me to even touch such a tacky thing.”

Chuuya righted the hat on his head, “You didn’t wait around as long you usually do before stopping me.”

“Chuuya was bringing down the whole building and Dostoevsky escaped, so there was no more need.  Besides, it wasn’t as much fun watching this time.”

“He, what?  Escaped?”

Dazai shook his head, “Don’t worry about it now.  We’ll see him again, you can avenge your subordinates.”

Chuuya absentmindedly shook his head, “I won’t be able to avenge my subordinates unless I kill myself.”

Dazai grinned slyly, leaning back on his arms, “What a strange mood you are in this evening.  You’re not my usual type, but I suppose an exception could be made considering our history.  How about it, does Chuuya want to die with me?  We can spend eternity in the afterlife together.”

“Ugh, I had been taking peace in the fact that I wouldn’t have to deal with you in death, but you’ve just soured that thought.”

“Chuuya started it.”

“I was—” Chuuya started, his voice coming out hoarse and tight, “I was saying that the one who killed my subordinates was me, only my death would avenge theirs.”

“I can follow a basic conversation, you know.  I’m not as dumb as you.”

“Shut up.  I’m obviously not going to do that though, so…I can only offer compensation to their families, if they had any, maybe donate to a charity or something.”

“How altruistic of the Mafia member.”

“Not altruism, business.  The Port Mafia donates money to a lot of charities, you should remember that.”

“I do, it is a good strategy.  A great strategy, one might say.  A genius strategy—”

“Shut up.”

“It’s not going to help.  Not you, anyway.  Donating an outrageous sum of money to people in need won’t get the screaming out of your head, the terror-stricken faces, and the knowledge that you’ve killed people who were under your command.  Who looked at you like you were a monster in their last moments.”

Chuuya swallowed heavily, missing the numb, tingling feeling he had before this, wishing he could go back to that time a mere few minutes ago when he felt like he was floating above his body, that none of this was real.  He didn’t want to hear what Dazai was saying, it was insensitive, and ill-timed, but nothing that hadn’t already been ringing around in his own head.  Chuuya had killed people before, people he knew, people he didn’t, men and women, young and old, but he had always done it with the knowledge that they were enemies of the Port Mafia.  He had always done it in his right mind, for the past four years at least, and even before then, Dazai had been there to control him.  This had all been Dazai’s plan today, a stupid plan, in hindsight.  Unleashing Corruption in such a small space with so many of their allies around, it had been a Hail Mary, and it had failed.  Dostoevsky had escaped, and as usual, the Mafia had suffered many more casualties than the Agency.  Chuuya’s authority might have even been damaged over this with the survivors, and he couldn’t help the small thought eating away in the back of his brain that perhaps Dazai had done this on purpose.

Chuuya slowly brought his gaze to Dazai’s, narrowing his eyes, trying to assess what was going on behind that dead stare.  Maybe Chuuya would be able to see something to prove that Dazai had planned all this in an effort to cripple the Port Mafia and take down Dostoevsky all at once, if that good-goody two shoes persona he showed the Agency was really just a big act like Chuuya had always suspected.  Chuuya had seen Dazai do similar things when they were younger, he wouldn’t put it past him now.  Dazai might have been able to change the color of his clothes overnight, but re-dyeing the soul took a lot more effort.

“So don’t b—” Dazai paused to reconsider what he was going to say, either ignoring or unaware of Chuuya’s suspicious stare, “Speaking from experience, performing a couple of good deeds doesn’t completely erase your past wrongdoings, nor does it lessen the burden on your soul, or magically make you a better person.  But it helps, if you really try, it does help.  It’s all you can really do anyway.”

Chuuya’s eyes widened, that wasn’t flippant or teasing.  It didn’t make light of the deaths that Chuuya had caused or taunt him for caring about them.  In fact, it had almost seemed…honest.  Chuuya’s heart started beating faster as a thought occurred to him.

“Is that why you left the Mafia?” He asked, pushing himself into Dazai’s space, deciding to quickly take advantage of the rare sight of a serious, candid Dazai.  Dazai looked taken aback by the question, his eyes popped open comically, and Chuuya grinned at having caught Dazai by surprise for once. He spent the next few moments in breathless silence, aware that should Dazai deign to answer, almost four years of doubt and hurt feelings could be resolved.

“Yes, and no,” Dazai finally said.

Chuuya dropped away from his former partner, his former executive, “What does, what does that mean?  What kind of shitty, ambivalent answer is that?”

“It means yes and no, Chuuya-chan,” Dazai sing-songed out, his eyes squeezing shut as a large grin spread over his face.

Chuuya’s shoulders fell, and his eyes slowly drifted back to staring at his hands, clenching and unclenching them with the calming feeling of tension from the leather against his knuckles.  These are a new pair, He thought absentmindedly.

Chuuya knew he wouldn’t be getting anything else out of Dazai now, the other man’s mask had already been put on, the walls were fortified, and Chuuya had never been allowed past them.  He may have been given glimpses, but never trusted with more than that.  Dazai…Dazai had seen everything of his, whether he had waited for Chuuya’s trust or not.

“Thanks,” Chuuya said after a moment, unable to think of anything else and deeming it innocuous, and true, enough for him to get away with.  No matter what he told himself, it felt like dust coating his tongue. “Asshole.”

Dazai’s smile stayed as big and fake and cheesy as ever, “Of course, partner.”

Chuuya looked away. The conversation still felt unfinished, an inhale that had been stopped before filling the lungs, incomplete and unsatisfying.  It hung in the air around them, permeated by dust and rubble and death, by all the words Chuuya wanted to say, and all the words Dazai wouldn’t ever.

The silence stretched on between them, as usual.

How long would this one last?

--

End