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the smoke forever haunts him

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Four people entered an abandoned hospital on that day. Two people walked out. 

The air is saturated with a metallic scent of blood, so much so that you could almost expect the crimson to start bleeding out of the nothing, red droplets materializing out of thin air. It also smells like gunpowder, and with the deafening silence ringing in Kunikida's ears, it's as if the echo of the shots fired seconds ago is still reverberating in the empty halls. 

Sasaki is lying on the ground, her face peeking out from under the heavy, dark cover of hair, frozen forever in a blissful smile of acceptance she greeted the end with. Kunikida is sure that this expression, this hollow tranquility, is going to haunt him in his dreams. 

(He's not wrong, for she will come to him once again, upon a cursed fever dream. She'll wear that white, blood-stained dress and carry a gun in her delicate hand. She will call out to him and he will only have enough sanity to tell Dazai that it started before slipping right under her spell. )

And when Dazai lets go of Rokuzou, he falls to the floor, lifeless just like her. Red stains the light-coloured wool of his vest and Kunikida feels that in that red, in that blood, drown all of his pathetic attempts at ever making things right. It hits him then with a painful clarity that with Rokuzou's father dead, this whole line was gone now.

Dead, dead, dead. All for no reason, no cause. The only ones that survive are him (when he'd so much rather give his own life if it meant he could prevent this senseless catastrophe) and Dazai (the only person who would probably be more content to stay there and greet death on the cold stone floor. ). None of this is right. 

And yet, with all that, there is still one more thing left to loose...

- Justice is a weapon. It can be used to cause harm, but it cannot protect or save others. What killed Sasaki-san was, in the end, the justice of Azure King. And of you. 

It is not characteristical of Dazai to be so serious. He almost seems invested - like he has stakes in this game. 

- Kunikida-kun. As long as you pursue your ideals, the flames that burned Azure King will one day take root in you and raze everything about you.

Here, on that blood-stained floor, Kunikida's whole worldview is poised on a knife's edge. He feels that he's been pushed to his very limits and asked: but can you keep going? And here is the thing: could he? If this really was justice, if that was what was fair, what had to happen, was that what he wanted to pursue? On the other hand, if he did let go now, what was there left for him to hold onto? It seemed that beyond his ideals lied only Dazai's nihilism and making your primary drive an escape from existence from which you yourself removed a point. Was that Dazai's purpose - not only to die, but bring others down with him?

The decision finally slipped off the edge. If he could be better, better than all of this - if there was even the most miniscule chance that he would be, that he would outdo everyone who tried before and be even better, purer, less corrupted - then he will be. He has to be.   

- Still! I'll still push on until I push past it! Don't underestimate my ideals!  

He makes that decision then and there and a couple days later, in a flower shop, as he makes an order that's two boquet's worth more expensive, he's already convinced it was not only the inevitable one, but also simply a good one too. The solution was not to abandon everything he worked for, but to keep pushing, even harder. Maybe if he does, if that one thing he manages to preserve, that day will be just a tiny bit less of a tragedy. 

***

A cloud of black dispersed in the crystal blue sky over the Yokohama sea, like a gust of ink into a glass of water. This ship is sinking.

Literally.

Atsushi is standing on the edge of the burning Port Mafia tanker, looking down on Kunikida with those huge, wide eyes, like he's not completely sure what it is he's seeing. A smell of burn and wreckage hangs heavy in the air. They need to get out of here before this thing goes down, be it from the water or the flames. 

- Stop fooling around! This ship is gonna sink! - Kunikida usher from the motorboat beneath, feeling his knuckels go white as he grabs the steers. 

Nothing. The kid just keeps staring at him, eyes shocked and somewhat vacant. Kunikida feels the anger bubble up from deep inside him. He wasn't even in favour of this mission and yet here he was, the only one responsible enough to be sent out on such an endeavour, and now it seemed even his rescuee couldn't be trusted to cooperate with his own rescue plan.

- You big idiot! - he yells, nothing better to say, because really, he wasn't here to negotiate and he couldn't understand how this damn brat wasn't even on the boat yet, thanking him for saving his life -  How much trouble do you want to cause us?! The entire Agency is working to save you! Hurry up!

And this finally gets a response out of him, a response muttered under his breath to be carried away on the seabreeze, so quiet and weak amidst all the noise Kunikida more sees it in the shape of his lips than hears it:

- But she...

Hearing that, Kunikida immediately understands and he feels his breath hitch in his throat as his righteous anger evaporates and he feels himself stumble in his conviction. 

Oh, now he recognises the pain in those vacant eyes, he sees hesitation behind the stubbornness, the wide-eyed idealism of Atsushi's youthful disobedience. He knows all of these intimately well - but he also sees clearly that this is getting them nowhere right now, chances are it will never get them anywhere, and what Atsushi needs to do is just get in the damn boat...

So back to him he screams: 

- Forget the girl! You can't save every single good person in the world! I've also failed so many times! That's the kind of job we do in this city! 

He knows it firsthand, that this kind of boundless idealism is a dangerous tool - one that he needs to take from the clumsy hands of this starry-eyed kid before he can hurt himself on its sharp edges. Extinguish that flame in his eyes before it burns him. 

- She... really can't be saved? 

Something about the heartfelt sincerity of that question strikes a cord with Kunikida. Is that what an ideal looks like when viewed from an outside perspective? He didn't expect it to look so naive. Atsushi still had that lesson ahead of him, a lesson that Kunikida has already learned the hard way...

- That's right! We are not superheroes! I always wish we were, but that's just not true!

Still nothing. It's like his words were falling on deaf ears. Instead, Atsushi mutters, voice cracking ever so slightly:

- She said the crêpe she had with me was delicious... - at that, Kunikida finds himself groaning, because the last thing this moment was good for was reminiscing, but the boy continues, his voice no longer cracking, picking up it strenght, volume, fire... - Even when she was told that worthless people have no right to breathe, all she said was "that might be true". I... don't think so! Because neither Dazai-san nor anyone in the Agency has forsaken me!

No one in the Agency has forsaken me...

God, if he knew how close it was...

- I'm... going to save her! - Atsushi concludes, before turning on his heels and running back.

Kunikida's first impulse is to stop him, but then he thinks better of it. He didn't feel like he had the right. After all, it was going to be that boy's faith, not yet marred by failure, not his ideals, that could save a life today. 

- Go, Atsushi! - he yells instead, almost like an afterthought, a last moment change of heart, and hopes the encouragment will catch up as the kid runs off into a fight.  

All around him, the sea is peaceful. Small waves, barely more than wrinkles on the blue surface rock the boat gently. The wind carries the scent of smoke and the sound of a struggle. 

Not save everyone? Not even try? Not throw everything you have on the line, if only for one stranger? Hide behind the comfortable delusion that there was nothing to be done? Accept the loss of human lives as an inevitable, mundane fact, the same way one accepts the traffic outside their windows? 

Kunikida was four years older than Atsushi and in the Agency for two years more. Surely, he couldn't have grown that cynical? 

Could he?

He was supposed to be better than this. 

After what seems like forever, the two emerge from between the wreckage, Atsushi bloodied and passed out on Kyouka's shoulders. Kunikida's guts twist with a sudden lurch of guilt when he sees the girl didn't abandon Atsushi - just like he didn't abandon her. Her legs give out just as she's about to jump, landing the two of them less than gracefully on the boat in a shapeless heap of limbs. Kunikida just shakes his head. 

- You big idiot - he tells lifeless Atsushi as he revves up the engine, so the followup is nearly drowned out by its roaring - Good job. 

As they drift further from the burning ship, he tells himself he's first of all proud of the boy, but he can't quiet down that voice in his head that keeps asking in a mockingly amused tone:

What happened to your ideals for a second there, Kunikida?

What happened?  

***

Pale, worm-looking noodles swirl around in golden liquid as Kunikida absentmindedly dabs the chopsticks in a bowl of miso soup. The black laquer is pleasantly warm under his fingertips and the contents smell inviting. He should get to eating if he wanted to soak up some of that warmth, but he still feels queasy and doesn't trust his stomach to hold down the food. 

In front of him, Dazai does not seem to have that problem as he hungirly devours his portion, gleeful as ever despite being drenched in riverwater. He did always say that suicide attempts increase his appetite. Kunikida just wishes Dazai's good appetite did not set him back a thousand and some yen and a set of dry clothes. 

Having picked out all the solids and downed half the soup in three gulps, Dazai pulls a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from his coat pocket. They should be ruined from when he fell into the river, but it seems the pockets of Dazai's coat were waterproofed (wouldn't surprise Kunikida - for all of his carefree demeanor, Dazai was disconcertingly prepared at times) because he manages to light one. Kunikida ignores it, just like he ignores it when Dazai has one shot too many at a bar, or like when he notices some suspicious-looking pills in his partner's bathroom. Kunikida does not care how much toxins Dazai pumps into his body as long as he does so off work hours.

That is, until the smell of cigarette smoke hits his nose and something inside him just revolts

- Put that out - he mutters. He tries to sound to sound offhand about it, not let Dazai know it's getting to him for once, so his voice lacks its usual verve. Granted, it doesn't do much even with everything in place, so naturally Dazai ignores it, slowly blowing out another gust of smoke instead. 

- Aww, are you worried about my health? Always knew Kunikida-kun was secretly a big softie - he coos and it takes Kunikida everything not to hit him over the head. No anger, play it casual. 

- They're going to kick us out - he says - Besides, aren't you looking for something to finish you off faster than this? 

Dazai glances at a young woman behind the cash registry and his mouth takes the shape of his most charming smirk - it's so effordless Kunikida has to wonder if it's involuntary. He can almost see Dazai's train of thoughts arrive at it's conclusion - no, they're not getting kicked out anytime soon. 

- Ah, you know what they say - he muses, leaning back comfortably - What doesn't kill you will hopefuly leave you weaker and more vulnerable.

- Dazai, I'm serious. 

- So am...

He gets cut off as Kunikida all but slaps the cigarette out of his hand. It lands in the bowl, ash mixing with soup. 

For a second they just stare at the remains of a ruined meal. Kunikida's mind is racing as he tries to comprehend what he has just done, why he has done it.  He rarely acts without planning - even the small gestures have their hows and their whys pinned down. And yet this just happened seemingly without his concious input, much less any reasoning. It was almost as if his subconcious has cried out for this smell to just stop...

- I... I'm sorry, I'll get you another one... - he scrambles to fix this somehow and get Dazai's mildly puzzled eyes off of himself...

His partner finally shrugs as his features change into a look of indifference (but no hint of a smile).

- You payed for it, I suppose it's yours to do whatever you please with. 

Still confused and unsure, Kunikida looks down into his own bowl, hoping to drown out the emotions in silence, somehow quiet through this - as if not acknowledging... whatever it was that transpired just now can erase it - but of course it was not meant to be. 

- So... - Dazai starts, and Kunikida glances at him briefly. He's leaning in, chin resting on folded hands. He looks a bit like a schoolgirl about to share some particularly thrilling gossip - What's eating at you? 

An actual gesture of concern? That's a new one. Needless to say, Kunikida does not trust it for a second. 

- Why do you think there is something more to it? - he fires back defensively. 

The bastard actually has the audacity to chuckle. 

- You have everything written all over yourself. You're just as easy to read as that notebook of yours -he states, punctuating it with pointing his chopsticks at Kunikida, before thoughtfully tapping himself on the chin - Except more interesting, I suppose, not that it's that high a bar. 

- If that's the case, you should've figured it out by now - Kunikida replies, a bit of his usual bite back in his tone.

Dazai's mouth curves into a knowing smirk, all honey and venom. 

- Oh, I already have. I was just wondering if you have too. 

Kunikida thinks about it for a second. The cigarette ash floats to the surface of Dazai's soup, soaked in fat. Black, white and grey, it looks like a patch of rot. Disgusting. 

Finally, he pushes his own bowl across the table.

- Here. You can have mine. I think I lost my appetite.

***

Gasping for air, Kunikida wakes up, feeling the adrenaline thrum in his veins. The aggresive red of an electronic alarm clock cuts through the black like a warning - three a.m has passed a couple of minutes ago. 

In a daze, he looks around, trying to figure out what might've woken him up. Finally it hit him - it wasn't something he could see or hear. It was something he could smell. 

Smoke. The air in his apartment reeked of smoke. 

He can't stop his thoughts from racing down a dark spiral of panic, as the worst case scenarios fill his head. A terror attack aimed at the Agency, a bomb planted in the building, the fire, the smoke, the debree, god, he had to go help others...

Breathe in, breathe out, hard though it might be in that suffocating air. If that was the case, there would surely be more commotion outside - meanwhile the only noise he could hear were distant echoes in his head. Much more likely scenario was that he just left some food on the stove. Did he cook something today? He rakes his brain, trying to distract himself from his anxious train of thoughts, as he opens the bedroom door. 

He expects to see a mass of smoke as soon as he steps out. He expects to see its ghostly clouds morph into familiar faces. He expects it to reach out for him with ashy tendrils, to wrap itself around him like a huge, gray cat, force its way into his lungs and quietly suffocate him.

However, when he opens the door, he sees nothing. Well, nothing out of the ordinary anyway. He goes to turn on the lights, thinking that it's sure to filter the mist of smoke particles out of the dark void, but he's only greeted with the sight of his apartment, air as clear as ever. He proceeds to inspect every room, growing more agitated by a second, but nothing looks out of place. It still smells out of place though, that cursed, sickening stench, hanging heavy in the atmosphere, like bad news, like a taunt.

Ultimately, he finds himself out of his flat, wondering whose doors he should knock on. Dazai's are the closest, but Kunikida rejects this option as soon as it comes to his mind. He low-key prefers the smell to Dazai's company and besides, chances are he wouldn't even be home anyway. He tends to wander off in the middle of the nights. Kunikida's best guess is that he walks around, waiting for someone to stab him and put him out of his misery.

So instead Kunikida decides to walk one floor down and talk to Yosano - though the piercing glare she shoots him when she opens the door, holding a robe with one hand and fixing a bedhead with another almost makes him regret that decision.

- Kunikida, it's past three a.m - she greets him dryly - Unless someone is at least on fire, this is not worth my time.

He takes a deep breath (sweet air, fresh air, clear air), before bowing lightly. Her calm and the quiet of the building have already sobered him up a little, and though he still needed to settle this, the manic urgency was gone. 

- I am terribly sorry for waking you up, Yosano - he declares, his mind dressing his thoughts in politeness even at a time like this - but I am afraid something might, in fact, be on fire. Not someone, but...

- To the point - she cuts him off, tapping her foot on the ground impatiently. 

- There is a smell of smoke in my apartment - he explains quickly, seeing her irritation - I wouldn't trouble you with this, but I wasn't able to locate the source and I am worried it might be dangerous. 

Her eyebrows scrunch up and the tapping stops. 

- Alright. Let me go see it then.  

The odour, which has become less noticeable when Kunikida was away from his apartment, hits him with full force again when he walk back with Yosano. if possible, it's even more intense now and it feels like melted tar is poured down his nostrils. His throat feels rough and he coughs. God, if it's so bad here, what kind of hell is going on inside?

He swings the door open, bracing himself for a vapour of smoke tumbling outside in a dusty, translucent avalanche...

But nothing happens. 

- I... don't understand... - he mumbles.

It's all bright and clear as he peeks inside, before walking in with Yosano slowly trailing behind him. 

- Is it gone? - she asks and something about that question strikes him as odd, even aside from the fact she needed to ask it at all, did she have no nose? 

- Of course it's not, it's all over this place! Can't you feel it? - he responds, his voice picking up a hint of his usual annoyance as he tries to identify, once again, where it is coming from - Now, if you could help me look around...

- Kunikida, there is nothing here. 

That statement, blunt and direct, freezes him in place where he was inspecting the stove again. He's about to protest, but as he looks at her, her expression now not angry or intrigued but concerned, the terrifying possibility hits him that there might, in fact, truly be nothing there... 

She puts a hand on his shoulder, her grip gentle, but still firm and secure. Is it pity he sees on her face?

(That's okay. He is pitiful and the only form of compassion he deserves is one that's laced with condescension)

- Kunikida, why don't you come visit me in the infirmary tomorrow? If you feel uncomfortable here, you can sleep on my couch.

He swallows and nods his head, doing his best not to shake as she leads him back to her place. Whatever it is that troubles him, he knows it's not something that can be solved neither with her butterflies nor with her pills.

***

The next day he patiently lets her put him through an examination and questioning as thorough as the Agency's infirmary conditions allow. It's a little funny - he sometimes manages to forget she's an actual doctor with a degree, not just someone who's been dealt good cards with her ability. He sits calmly through all of it, learning a new word along the way - smelling things that aren't actually there, phantosmia, she informs him - but it's when she suggests that her equipment here is too limited and he should perhaps see a specialist for further diagnosis, that he raises objections:

- I don't understand. Why even diagnose it? Couldn't you just... - he pauses, gesturing vaguely towards the chainsaw resting by the medicine cabinet like a completely ordinary piece of medical equipment - ...fix it?

It's going to be ugly and messy and painful as all hell, he knows, but if he comes out the other side a little stronger and no longer waking up in the middle of the night covered in cold sweat, then it's all worth it. However, she shakes her head in response. 

- I could if it was purely physical matter, but I have reasons to suspect it might be a bit more complex than this - her words come out slowly, carefully chosen - You've been under a lot of stress lately and what happened to you during Guild's attack couldn't have helped. I'm not qualified to talk about mental health, but I can give you contact info to some of my colleagues. I'd much rather you talk to one of them first, before we take any... drastic measures. To be frank with you, you'd probably benefit even if it turns out this problem is something unrelated. 

She rips a page out of a notepad and starts casually scribbling some names and phone numbers onto it, like she didn't understand the gravity of what she was implying.  

- You think I'm going insane - he spits out, perhaps more aggressively than he intended.

The look she gives him makes him regret it immediately though - and not even because she's scary (though that is an understandable reason, because you didn't want to find yourself around angry Yosano, especially if you are the reason for her anger) but because of how ashamed and immature it makes him feel. She looks exasperated, annoyed with him.

- That's not what I said, nor do I believe this way of looking at it is particularly productive. Your mental health has as much an impact on your general well being as physical and you don't need to be, as you put it, going insane to care about it. 

She reaches out across the table, seemingly going for the Ideal and he tenses up reflexively (years of working with Dazai conditioned him well) but she doesn't grab it - merely taps the cover with a manicured nail. There is something accusatory about the gesture, akin to jabbing someone on the chest with a finger. 

- You know, for all that I know you have written in this and some things I probably don't know about, I'd suspect there'd be something about taking care of yourself inside. After all, none of that would be worth anything if there's no one to live it, wouldn't you agree?  

Having said that, she goes back to writing, leaving him to mull over her words. What she said was true - he never noticed this particular deficiency of Ideal before, but... Was it really a deficiency? He rarely stopped to wonder whether his ideals should serve him, or the other way around, but maybe it was because the answer always felt obvious. They were at the end of the day standards to live up to, not tools for making his life easier. In fact, that might've been the whole point - not making it easy on himself. 

Finally, Yosano hands the page to him. There is a hint of something that looks alien on her face (maybe it's hesitation? Yosano rarely hesitates) but her voice is as composed as ever when she speaks:

- Look, Kunikida, you are an adult and I can't order you to do anything. However, as your friend and doctor, I trust you to make the right decisions. 

He nods stiffly, not trusting his voice, but he can't chase away the feeling that she can dissect all of him, even without the scalpel he knows she keeps up her sleeve like an ace. Between her, Ranpo and Dazai, Kunikida sometimes wonders if anyone in the Agency can ever truly keep something to themselves. 

- There is only so long you can go before you collapse - she resumes and the next sentence seems oddly packed with meaning - There is nothing wrong with accepting help from others. I hope you understand that.

If he heard that from anyone else, he might've considered it patronizing lecturing, but it's different when it's delivered with Yosano's stern expression and matter-of-factly tone. He knows she means it whe she says she trusts him to decide what's best for him. He believes she will treat him with respect, neither talking down to him nor cooing over him like he was a child with scraped knee. None of that, though, means he has to agree with her - and he certainly doesn't trust that any of that will be true for her acquaintances as well. Still, he slips the list between the pages of his notebook, catching a glimpse of writing on one of the pages with the corner of his eye. No, they wouldn't understand it, and the last thing he wanted was to see the basis of his whole worldview reduced to a collection of nervous tics.

He wonders if she can already tell what his decision was.

- Thank you, Yosano. 

***

The smoke never went away after that day. It wavers and falters, winding its way through his life with varying intensity, soaking through and building into his shadow - never gone for good, merely dormant at times. They become good acquaintaces, the smoke and Kunikida - not like friends, more like dysfunctional relatives, their fates intertwined despite the best intentions on both sides. Kunikida doesn't fight it - he accepts it as an occupational hazard and tries to function his best amidst its haunting mists.

***

He feels it coming from the metro tunnel that the terrorist runs off into. The tunnel is like a dark, hungry maw of some ancient monster, deep in the slumber underneath the fundaments of Yokohama, its breath full of smoke. The smell beckons and repulses him in equal measure, and it only gets stronger the deeper he descends into the darkness. He looks at Aya, hopping ahead at his side without a care in the world, apparently still convinced she's in for an exquisite adventure, and he wonders how she doesn't find herself out of breath.

She looks much less enthusiastic with explosives strapped to her neck. She trembles and lets out choked sobs, tears welling up in her eyes as she blinks at him owlishy. Just as he's about to hurry to her rescue...

- Please toss the gun.

He does not dare turn around to look at the source of the sound, but he doesn't drop the weapon either, his hand tightening around it. The voice is soft, but in a unpleasant, slimy way, like a layer of mould on old food.

- Or would you prefer for me to detonate the bomb and show you exactly how far her head can fly? - the words seem to trickle down Kunikida's neck, cold, oozing and disgusting.

...

The gun clatters against dirty concrete.

- That's it, Kunikida-san - the criminal cooes. There's a sound in the background of his voice, a swish of air like...

Like a heavy object being swung.

The last thing he sees before a lead pipe collides with the back of his skull is Aya with her face still twisted by shock and fear. She's still there, stil in danger and it's all because he let her come here in the first place.

Oh God, what had he done?

***

The light from the laptop blinds him temporarily in the dark of a tunnel as he studies the screen. At first he doesn't understand. Then, he doesn't believe. 

- That's right - Katsura laughs - The signal to disarm the explosives on the train and the signal to detonate the girl are one and the same. If you try to fircibly remove it, it will explode. So you only get to pick one: the girl or all the passengers on the train. 

A classic trolley dillema. Kunikida is ashamed at how easily such simple conundrum leaves him disarmed.

As Katsura keeps mocking him, the button on the keyboard seem to do so as well. 

If you think about it, the answer was ust as simple as the question - it wasn't even a question, not to him. And yet, instead of accepting it, he keeps holding onto that thin thread of hope for a third way - that all of his desperate set up will result in a miraculous payoff. That's what he seems to be doing, anyway, when he tries to prolong it, buy just a few more seconds as he spills his heart in front of Katsura (that's right, he will think later, you were just stalling. That's all it was).

Is that really the best plan he can afford? Everything always prepared, always foreseen, just to be defeated by the oldest trick in the book, forced to rely on a wild card? 

A distant rumbling can be heard from the depths of Yokohama underground and Kunikida knows there will be no more time to decide - he will have to bet his whole destiny on this. The worst possible outcome? He hopes not to live to see it. 

- I will still fullfill my ideal! - he exclaims into the tunnel with way more confidence than he truly has, in spite of Katsura, and Dazai, and all that had led him here, and the smoke. 

And then he presses the button. 

It is done. His options run out here - now everything is left in Yosano's hands. There is only one more thing left to do. 

He turns to the girl, frankly quite ashamed to look her in the eye.

- I'm sorry, Aya.

He half expects her to burst into tears. Instead she smiles at him and on her face he sees acceptance. Not the dead, burnt out kind of someone who no longer has anything to lose, like he remembers from Sasaki, but one befitting a self-proclaimed warrior of justice sacrificing herself for the greater good. 

- It's not your fault. This is for everyone's sake. 

In that short moment, he hates that smile and that acceptance. He wants her to fight. He wants her to cry and wants her to scream, he wants her to grab and claw at his wrists and tell him all the truth about who he is - all of what he deserves to finally hear. He wants her to make him unable to look away from her pleading eyes and render him incapable to make a choice he's about to make - a terrible, heinous choice that will taint his hands with blood no matter the outcome. He wants her to make him realise that he can't actually bring himself to watch her die in front of him.

She's young, stubborn and naive, and yet she's already on her way to being a better person than he felt he could ever be.

He kneels then and hugs her tight, that poor, brave kid who doesn't yet fully grasp the grandeur of the sacrifice she's agreed to make. If the gamble his plan depends on fails and help doesn't arrive on time, then the most his life is good for is making sure she doesn't go alone.

He took quite a beating that day, but it couldn't even hold a candle to the sensation of his flesh being torn into shreds and stitched back together in less than a second. His dizzy mind flickers in and out of conciousness, trying to make some sense of the mangled, pained heap of meat that was his body and decide whether he was actually alive or not.

When his senses return, it's like having been spat out of a washing machine - everything is still swimming and distorting around him, but at least the ground feels steady under his feet

- Kunikida?

Aya is still clutching the vest material at his back. Her whisper is small and hoarse from all the smoke hanging in the air.

She's alive. Great.

He's alive as well. He's not sure how to feel about that part.

As he looks up, he catches familiar glint of Yosano's ability, a refreshing gust of shimmering blue amidst the dispersing smoke.

It's easy to let her take it from here and walk back out, out of the claustrophobic underground and under the vast, open sky. Easy to pretend he had everything planned, that he and Aya didn't survive by barely more than a stroke of wild luck. Another uncomfortable truth to shove back into the recesses of his mind - just like what he told Katsura. Never let it bubble back onto the surface.

They were alive because of his immaculate planning. If it wasn't for his schedule, they'd be done for - how fortunate of him then, to have it all jotted down, isn't it? See? He was right all along - with enough attention, with enough information and detemination, with adherence to instructions, he could seize control of what would be otherwise left to coincidences and whims of capricious fate.  

And now the only thing left to do is to burn these clothes - or at least wash them in bleach. They are so thoroughtly soaked with the smell of smoke he doubts he could ever put them on again without throwing up.

***

It follows him inside a prison cell.

He's curled himself up in the corner of a tiny room, staring off blankly into space. The walls are grey. The door is shut. The windows are none. There is nowhere for him to turn to, but to his own wretched, vivid imagination, to the memories where he already knows it lurks.

He sighs and lets his mind fill the emptiness with pictures.

The explosion. It's always an explosion, isn't it? The terrified, begging eyes of a little girl. His ideals... She had an ideal too, didn't she? Too young to understand it, too young to even know the meaning of this word, but not any less ready to...

To...

That smell. Smoke, yes, lots of it, gut-wrenching, heavy and viscous, flooding his lungs and glueing the delicate fibres together, but also scorched... scorched fle-

No. No, he couldn't.

He thought he could save her. He really did. The incident with Aya had made him self-assured. Did he allow himself, even for a second, to believe he could really save everyone? At this point shouldn't he already know it to be hubris - and that the universe will come to punish him for it? No, not even punish - he no longer believed that the universe upheld any moral system, any ideals of its own to judge him on the basis of. It just wanted to remind him of its power - that no matter how many handy toys he can pull out of thin air, he is still not enough to make the reality bend to his wishes. How dare he ever believe the cosmos would be leashed by his words, by his plans? 

Ah, to hell with that. A child died and here he was, trying to make it about himself.

All of that might be why, when Ranpo comes and promises to get him out, Kunikida finds no words for him. The detective speaks with natural confidence, evidently certain that their intentions in regards to Kunikida's imprisoment overlap, and that's really the crux here.

Because, you see, they don't.

Get him out? Kunikida doesn not want to get out. He does not deserve to walk in the sun again. As far as he's concerned, the guards should keep the door to his cell shut tight and only open it years lates to sweep out the bones.

When he does walk out, the Agency celebrates it like a victory. He does not blame them, does not accuse them of dishonesty and corruption, but still he can't help but see their supposed success as an utter, disgraceful lie.

He's been proven innocent, they say.

Bullshit, he thinks.

Ever since that day, nothing really felt true anymore. When he looks into a mirror, he sees a comical caricature. He's a cartoon version of himself, painted in crude, thick lines and lacking the subtle touch of humanity.

These thoughts come back to him when he and the rest are running from the Hunting Dogs and he's trying to fetch them a car-insured escape. It's laughable, really - he'd been declared a murderer and he did murder, himself, but inconveniencing civilians is where he draws the line. And he's even no longer doing it out of any higher moral prerogative or because he thinks he still has some shred of dignity to save - he's doing it because it's just a given that out of their colourful ensemble he's the stupidly, impractically righteous one. It's his thing.

Isn't it exactly what a cartoonish exaggeration of him would do?

It's so damn pathetically funny.

And it's so, so empty.

***

There is a blade lodged in Kenji's chest.

Just a second ago it seemed salvation was just within arm's reach. Help had arrived - from Mori, no less - and it was okay for approximately five minutes, before taking a sharp turn downhill again. First they learn what price there would be to pay for their rescue, because of fucking course Mori wouldn'nt help them without expecting anything in return. The man didn't do selfless, he didn't even know how.

Miracles just didn't happen to them, did they?

And now there is a blade piercing through Kenji, the purest of them all. The poor boy's face is more childish confusion than pain and realisation hits Kunikida with full force.

They are not getting out of this without sacrifices. There is no silver lining to pull them through and they will not be saved. The Hunting Dogs are out for blood and they will not rest until some is shed.

In that moment, Kunikida's resolve steels.

He'll give them exactly what they want.

No one looks at him, which suits him just fine as he searches the pockets. Even thought his Ideal had been slashed in half (decimated, defiled, desacrated) he still should have some pages hidden in case of emergency...

Ah, here it is.

He pulls one out, examining the words written on it. Elegant strokes of black ink cut through the paper, and he knows his fate is sealed right here, in those very symbols. He can smell it already, strangely at peace with how it's all just in his head.

Smoke.

Soon enough, he will be smoke too.

- Tanizaki -Kunikida speaks up, drawing everyone's surprised stares to himself. That initial surprise might be why no one objects when he starts walking out, no one asks - You have to catch the real criminal.

He stops for a second, gauging just how sincere he can afford to be, before deciding he there will be no second chance to throw it out there:

- I'm counting on you.

There, he said it. And he means it, God, how he does. Because the truth behind all of his anger and constant scolding is that these are the people into who's hands he would put his very life.

And now he leaves it up to them to give meaning to what he's about to do next.

One more step and his feet meet the void at the edge of the aircraft.

There is a delightful moment of weightlessness as he falls, hanging in the vast nothingness stretching between the ground and wherever the sky is. He is only reminded of his own weight and gravity's pull when his body collides roughly with Suehiro's. The world dissolves into a blur of bleak colours where the only distinct element are the Hunting Dog's sharp, glaring eyes

- How stupid - Suehiro snickers, sounding unimpressed - Even from this height, I won't die.

Perhaps. But if it lets the rest escape, it sure as hell is worth a shot.

It was a thought he would only allow himself at nights, in a hazy stretch of conciousness between waking and sleep, one that he now wanted to scream at the top of his lungs.

So to hell with it all, the Hunting Dog was right. Dazai was right, Sasaki Nobuko was right, his worst fears he repressed by day and battled at night were right. This world was not suited for his ideals and there really weren't that many ways out for him. Their flames warmed him, but they needed to be fueled - and fuel them he did, with his thoughts, his beliefs, his words, his actions, with ink from his pen and blood from his veins. Never enough, which is why the flames finally came for his flesh and bone. That's fine, that's fine. If it was unsustainable from the start, if he had to break eventually, at least he'll get to break on his own terms. He might never know the freedom Jouno was talking about, but perhaps he didn't need it. If there was freedom in watching his friends die, he didn't want to be free. He'd much rather burn up than burn out anyway. Haggling with ruthless fate for tiny scraps of perfection was tiring - wasn't one brilliant flash of self-sacrifice so much easier?

As long as you pursue your ideals, the flames that burned Azure King will one day take root in you and raze everything about you.

He hopes a day will come when the Agency is cleared of all guilt and free - and when that happens, Dazai will visit his grave and laugh at how Kunikida has once again failed to prove him wrong. 

He clutches the notebook page, making sure it doesn't flutter away.

- My name is Kunikida Doppo!

The words are still etched into the paper, black lines forming a map of a destination he might've been headed towards all along.

- I will not let my ideals fall! With this life as fuel, I will fly for eternity!

When he activates his ability, he feels the paper come alive under his fingertips, folding, crumbling, tearing, growing, until it's solid, round and most definitely not paper anymore.

The ground is still so, so far away. He really will fly forever - even if his forever only stretches out a single second ahead.

A cloud of smoke rising over treetops is the last his friends see of him.