December 6, 2016
The sky was beautiful today. Painted with vibrant yellows and hints of gold from the setting sun, a promise was hung in the clouds for a peaceful tomorrow. If he focused on just the skyline, he could believe that he was ascending into a warm embrace. He only had to look below at the graffiti painted bridge and the littered lawns of the shore to distort the perfect image.
Except it wasn’t perfect. Not for long. The bitter cold wind tugged at his cloak. In his haste, he had forgotten to secure it. His cheeks, drying from the frantic tears, stung from the slap of the wind.
Dazai stepped forward, the metal railing of the bridge overlooking the waters prevented him from moving any further. The cold metal pressed into his bruised sides. Blossoming pain traveled up to his ribs, but he remained firmly planted before the railing.
How had it all gone wrong? He wasn’t delusional in thinking that everything was fine , but they were decent.
So where had he stumbled? Where had he fallen over the cliff and destroyed everything once more? Was it a week ago? Had it been a month when he had been careless and lenient in his own home? Or had it been the very moment he dared to believe he could strike out on a new and better life?
Recalling the memories of the precious few years was hard. Everything was hazy. Details that did not belong in the story filtered their way into the moving pictures. Black, gaping holes consumed the crucial components of the story as he was denied his answers.
Three days. Three days of this frantic dash for a search of semblance. Dazai had wandered dark roads before, existing but not thriving in the hole he was thrown into. But instead of climbing out, he continued to dig himself deeper with his own hands. It was his existence, and he was fine with that.
Perhaps that’s why it hurts so much now. As he looked over the murky waters, he realized that he had seen a bit of light peering down at him from that hole.
He had only dared to try and scramble out of the hole before the walls collapsed in on him, burying him away from the light.
Someone like him didn’t deserve to return to the life he had so carefully constructed for himself. His existence had already destroyed that life anyway, and he still didn’t know how he had achieved that.
Chuuya would certainly tell him. Kunnikida too.
Yeah right, keeping him in line…what fool thought they could keep him in line and reach through the murky stains of his sins?
The water looked so inviting. The malevolent waves had lost its destructive force and now calmly called to him, lapping against the shores.
His foot connected with the railing. He was a coward. He was proving everyone right and taking the easy way out.
It was so hard carrying on, acting as if he had planned this entire mess out. In a way, he had. He saw this failure coming long ago. He had just deluded himself into believing that his failure was in the distant future, ignoring that the future would have to become the present at some point.
His present. Right here and right now.
His body was weightless, the wind caressing his face as he fell. Closing his eyes, his breath was stolen from his lungs with a fleeting thought.
I hope Atsushi will be alright.
July 10, 2016
Yokohama, 6 months ago:
Atsushi stiffened, the burning sensation traveling up and down his hand engulfing his skin. He gripped the armrest of his chair, willing himself not to move. The fear of damaging his skin and forever living with the blemish of his mistake was seared into his mind.
Right, one wrong move, and he could ruin everything.
He wished he had something to bite on, something to channel his pain. Clenching his hands would help, but he feared the twitch in his muscles would vibrate throughout his body and ruin the process. Squeezing his eyes shut had helped until he saw stars within the blackness and felt the stinging pain of squeezing for too long.
This time, he let his eyes rove around the small back room of the tattoo parlor. Gray walls stared down at him while various paintings adorned the space. Only one small window permitted the afternoon sun to filter through, the fragile dust calmly floating in the air.
The humming sound of the machine stopped. The fragile dust particles ceased to entrance him as his senses immediately went on high alert. Still, despite the silence and the temptation, Atsushi didn’t dare to move or even dart his eyes to look.
The smooth, cold surface of a rag wiped at his warm arm. Atsushi cracked an eye open to glance down at his skin.
“Don’t be such a wuss,” Akutagawa huffed. He snapped the rag, giving Atsushi one of his dead-pan expressions. I’m so done with you, those dark eyes said. Yet his grumpy mood did nothing to deter Atsushi’s sudden exhilaration.
The process was done. He could finally breathe and admire the finished product.
The area around his skin was irritated and red, a stark contrast against his pale skin. But resting in the middle of the healing skin was the black design of Akutagawa’s work.
“It looks so…” Atsushi searched for the words. He wouldn’t call it beautiful, but it was unique. Unique! That’s a word! But before he could use it, Akutagawa prowled on.
“Magnificent is what you should say. Impressive, even, for how much you squirmed like a worm on a fishhook.” He was already turning away to place the tools down, the swivel chair squeaking in protest against the movement. “I told you to go for the bicep. It would have hurt less.”
“Yeah, but then I wouldn’t be able to see it.” Atsushi admired the tattoo. “I’ve never seen you actually perform before.” He beamed. “Am I your first customer? Your ‘canvas’ as they call it?”
Akutagawa rolled his eyes. “You weren’t exactly a practice dummy, idiot. I have performed art before.”
Atsushi nodded, deciding not to broach the subject that he had never seen Akutagawa perform on anyone. Not that he was able to linger in the tattoo shop when it was open for customers, but Akutagawa was not one who couldn’t stay quiet on his accomplishments.
“Well, I am flattered to be your ‘official’ first canvas.” Atsushi smiled, wiggling his fingers to further admire the artwork.
“Off the books,” Akutagawa warned. “Give me the money at school so that no questions are asked.”
Atsushi rolled his eyes. “What is this, a money laundering scheme?”
“Oh, sure, we can reveal that we illegally performed tattoo art on a minor with under the counter money while I, the tattoo artist, don’t have a license. I’m sure your agency would have a field day with that case.”
Atsushi winced. “Fine, fine. I get it.” He stared at his wrist. “Um, is it supposed to burn?”
“It will feel like a sunburn,” Akutagawa tutted. He was already pulling out some clear wrapping from one of the many desks neatly placed around the small room. The practice room specifically reserved for Akutagawa may not have been as large as the rest of the parlor, but it still contained all of the necessary tools. Atsushi wondered if the practice room was stocked better than the main ones to indulge in Akutagawa’s hobbies.
Akutagawa wrapped the clear plastic carefully around Atsushi’s wrist. “Just follow the protocols, and you should be good in a few weeks.” He glanced at him with a questioning gaze, the first lingering look of worry reflected in his eyes. “Will you be able to hide it?”
Atsushi nodded listlessly, still admiring the tattoo. “Yeah, don’t worry about it.” He pulled away, flexing his hand and watching how the flesh moved the tattoo. “This is…” he let out a choked laugh. “I can’t believe I even did this!”
“Want to climb up to the roof and shout for all to hear?” Akutagawa’s dry tone did nothing to deter Atsushi’s sudden and gleeful moment.
A tattoo. He actually went and (secretly) got a tattoo. He didn’t feel particularly rebellious, nor was he immature enough to think he was living dangerously, but he definitely felt the shells of his comfort zone begin to crack.
The weight of his actions was slowly settling down onto his shoulders. His body suddenly quivered from the effect. This is what he gets without planning any further ahead and acts on pure impulse. How was he going to casually explain the appearance of the tattoo? He didn’t feel comfortable hiding it for the rest of his life. Maybe when he finally graduated, he could roll up his sleeves and act oblivious to it. ‘Oh, this old thing? Yeah, it’s my graduation present.’
He gulped, picturing how that exchange with Dazai would go.
“It is rather nice,” Akutagawa admitted, staring at the tattoo. For all his bluster, his gaze could not hide how he was admiring his original work.
“Where did you even come up with the design?” Atsushi wondered. “I don’t recall seeing it on the menu.”
Akutagawa shrugged; his eyes lowered as if he was still analyzing his work. “From a book I had read.”
Atsushi waited, but that was all Akutagawa said. He busied himself with removing the gloves and washing his hands. His white work shirt was stained from all manors of other labor, yet Akutagawa took the time to dry his hands on a blue towel. He was always meticulous with his clothing. Even his school uniform was in better shape than most.
Atsushi looked down at the tattoo, wondering at the inspiration behind its creation. It wasn’t something Atsushi would have settled on. He would have liked something with a cat or a tiger, but Akutagawa had expressed interest in the design he had been fiddling with in his notebooks, and that was as close to excitement as Atsushi had ever seen him express.
Atsushi glanced out the window, noting the golden sun in the sky yet the absence of a sunset. “Hey, we’ve got some time to kill. Want to go to our spot?”
Akutagawa shrugged. “I suppose. I have been meaning to spruce up the place. The storm might have caved in the walls.”
Atsushi raised an eyebrow. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again-”
“You will stop that sentence right this moment,” Akutagawa warned. His glare was fixated on Atsushi, but he felt no real threat from the gaze. He had learned long ago that many of Akutagawa’s intimidating aspects were only surface level.
Atsushi rolled his eyes. “Fine. But how effective is a hideout if a mere rainstorm will wash it away?”
Akutagawa shrugged on his coat. “You didn’t protest against it last year.” The keys in his hands jingled, a warning that he was leaving with or without Atsushi.
Atsushi hurried after him, taking care not to disturb the wrapping around his new tattoo. “That was until I found out how stingy you were with sharing your personal space.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Akutagawa demanded. The backdoor shut behind him, yet Atsushi didn’t look back to give him a response. Instead, he glanced over his shoulder with a smirk.
The fence dividing the green lawn and the road was easy to climb over. While Atushi accepted the challenge with ease, Akutagawa was more dignified in his approach and merely opened the gate. Atsushi glanced back at the well-kept lawn of the tattoo shop. He had always thought it was rather barren despite the emerald, green lawn, a stark contrast to the garden in Atsushi’s backyard. The gardener within him visualized where he would plant small trees for a restful shade and a few rose bushes for a splash of color.
“Don’t even think about it,” Akutagawa warned, brushing past Atsushi.
Atsushi glanced away from the yard. “What?”
“You want to plant some flowers,” Akutagawa sniffed. “Your efforts would be wasted.”
Atsushi furrowed his brow. “Only because someone mowed over them!”
“Chuuya thought it was a weed and was within his rights to protect me from my allergies.”
“How do you mistake a lilac bush for a weed?”
“Weed or not, it was making my nose stuffy.”
“Maybe,” Atsushi confessed, glancing away. “But there are other plants that don’t cause allergies, like tulips.”
Akutagawa hummed but remained silent. Atsushi glanced over at him, feeling a twinge of guilt. “Okay,” he started, voice soft. “I’ll drop it.”
“Liar,” Akutagawa scoffed. “You’re obsessed with your plants.” His foot scuffed against the sidewalk. “Besides, you know how Chuuya is.”
Atsushi winced. Though he had never met Chuuya, only heard his voice in passing, he was well aware how much Akutagawa worried about their friendship being discovered by anyone. Atsushi held the same worry when it came to Dazai.
He glanced up at the little flower shop on the hill, his own home in sight. Flowers adorned the front in all different hues of pinks, yellows, and purples. Atsushi knew without a doubt that the backyard was just as lively and colorful. He remembered kneeling in the dirt, shovel in hand, planting seeds under Dazai’s careful supervision. He wondered if Akutagawa had such fond memories of Chuuya when they first set up their own shop.
Chuuya probably didn’t let Akutagawa anywhere near the needles at such a young age like Dazai let Atsushi with a shovel, but he probably allowed the hot-tempered youngster to observe on a small stool.
Without warning, Akutagawa left the sidewalk for the dense brush of the overpast. Atsushi followed without question, his home suddenly becoming obscured from view. Though Atsushi said nothing, he wondered if Akutagawa feared that they would be spotted from the shop.
“Dazai told me he wouldn’t be back until late,” Atsushi said in an attempt to reassure Akutagawa. He forced out a chuckle. “Something about a case that Kunnikida needs his help with.” Though, Atsushi could just see Kunnikida using lethal force to keep Dazai at work and actually do his job. “Guess I’m having dinner alone again.”
“I’m not coming over for your mediocre cooking.”
Atsushi blinked, indignation turning his face pink. “What? No! I don’t want you over!” He groaned. “Nevermind.”
“Ah, I see. You think I’m afraid of Dazai then and sought to reassure me.”
“You know, a simple ‘thank you’ would be very appreciated,” Atsushi grumbled.
“Thank you for warning me about the obvious.” Akutagawa’s deadpanned voice caused Atsushi to roll his eyes.
“Sometimes I think that you’re being overly cautious about this,” Atsushi said, moving aside a branch that Akutagawa oh so rudely left in his path. “It’s not like Dazai would kill you if he found out about us hanging out.”
“No,” Akutagawa admitted reluctantly. “But it’s Chuuya I’m worried about.”
Atsushi paused as Akutagawa’s words sunk in. Though he did not know the full details about Chuuya’s profession, he knew the tattoo shop was a front. Akutagawa was never specific about Chuuya’s main profession, but Atsushi had been at the Armed Detective Agency on numerous occasions to visit Dazai, and he had seen the pictures. He could come to his own conclusions.
The only mystery is how they have remained neighbors for so long without any shots being fired. For a private investigator, Dazai sure wasn’t doing anything except avoiding Chuuya altogether.
“Ah, just as I had hoped.” Akutagawa’s voice pulled Atsushi away from his musings. “Our little shelter is still intact.”
‘Intact’ was a strong word. Atsushi would have used ‘clinging to its last thread.’
The little wooden shed was caving in on itself with various degrees of wildlife scaling the walls and roof. Atsushi was actually hesitant to crawl in and see the inside. He could just imagine the lack of floor, probably sunken into the mud.
Atsushi cringed as Akutagawa observed the little shed. At least Akutagawa had the decency to not kneel in the mud. “It may be a little rundown,” Akutagawa observed. “But it’s nothing we can’t-”
“We’ve outgrown it.” Atsushi’s blunt statement caused Akutagawa to glare.
“What makes you say that?” Akutagawa demanded.
“Well, for one thing, our shoulders were touching despite your best efforts to press into the wall the last time we were here. We didn’t have that problem last year.” Atsushi shrugged, knowing he would have to approach this matter delicately. He didn’t know why Akutagawa was so attached to this shelter. “We could always…renovate it.”
He was expecting some protest, maybe even a snide comment. What he wasn’t expecting was thoughtful silence.
“What would we renovate?”
Atsushi brightened up at Akutagawa’s reluctant acceptance. “We could always do a tree fort instead.”
“Fools and smoke share a liking for high places.”
Atsushi frowned, folding his arms. “Alright then. What do you suggest?” He hesitated. “You know…we don’t need a hideout. We could always…meet at my place.”
Again with this argument. “Why? Dazai’s out most of the time and-”
“And is as unpredictable as ever,” Akutagawa cut in. “He could waltz in anytime and catch us unawares.”
Atsushi rubbed his eyes. “Fine. Then your place. The attic is suitable-”
“There’s no way for a quick escape. The window is too small, and you would fall two stories. You’d get caught.”
“Caught by what? Chuuya? You act like he’s going to kill me!”
The last statement was meant to be a tease. Though Atsushi didn’t really believe something like that would happen, there was always the ever-lingering fear of what the consequences would be should they get caught.
Atsushi feared grounding by Dazai’s hand. But…considering his suspicions about Chuuya’s profession, the consequences might involve kidnapping, ransom, and a whole slew of other unsavory outcomes.
Akutagawa sighed. “Whatever. The attic…might do with some modifications.”
Atsushi kneeled down beside him. They both stared at the rundown shed in silence, a remnant of two little boys finding a way to strike out on their own for a few hours and escape from the constraints of the real world.
“You should get home,” Akutagawa said. “Like you had stated, Dazai can be unpredictable. Wouldn’t want to worry him if he comes home to an empty house.”
A lump appeared in Atsushi’s throat. No, he would prefer to be there when Dazai came home. The last time he walked through the door when Dazai was home first…
He shook off the thought. No, Dazai hadn’t relapsed in almost a year. He didn’t need to worry.
He smiled, hoping his expression conveyed ease and happiness. “Fine. I’ll see you at school then.”
Akutagawa nodded. “Make sure to not get that tattoo wet and put the cream I specified on the area.”
“Don’t let direct sunlight touch it!”
Atsushi rolled his eyes as he sprinted through the brush, but he remained vigilant in protecting his wrist. Akutagawa had already gone over the care and healing process of the tattoo weeks before they had even entertained the idea of going through with the tattoo.
It was a physical reminder of their…friendship. Though Akutagawa might not use that term, Atsushi certainly would. They had been through too much to be called simple classmates. But this tattoo…it was one of the first steps Akutagawa had taken to acknowledge their connection.
A small pit of worry formed in his stomach. It was a physical statement of their connection, one that could easily be found out. Of all the things in his life, this was the biggest he had ever kept hidden from Dazai. He didn’t worry about Chuuya and Akutagawa, but a small part of him wondered if Dazai would understand.
He had hoped…after sharing such a raw and honest childhood, that Atsushi could identify with Dazai the one he’d share all of his truths with. Yet here he was, hiding a precious friendship from someone he really cherished.
It wasn’t that he was afraid, no, Atsushi was not afraid of Dazai. He saw no explosive anger or disowning on Dazai’s part. Rather, it was Akutagawa who had instilled the fear that their friendship should be hidden in the shadows. Atsushi, when he was still a child and had nodded empathetically to Akutagawa’s promise for fear of losing his only friend, had not thought to consider that there might be more going on.
But he had other things to worry about. If his friendship with Akutagawa wasn’t going to make Dazai spazz out, it would most certainly be the tattoo.
Besides, he had to plan dinner. Dinner for two because everyone liked coming home to a warm meal after a hard day's work.