The sound of dripping water goes, almost in tone with his steps. Slow, careful, strained. He has long since stopped running, the adrenaline wearing away along with the strength in his frail feet. There was only so much durability his sickly body could lend him, so much until he had to stop and let it rest, lest it broke down on him entirely. Yet he’s still dragging his feet, resolute with a hope he doesn’t have, a goal he has yet to think thoroughly of.
There is no point.
He’s never been loved by those people, never been cherished.
Kill them. Kill them. Kill them.
But it’s all he has left.
The hatred. The vengeance. The bloodthirst. He’d been hated and ridiculed, and he’d lived with it. But it was enough that there was something, someone. It was enough.
And now there was nothing. Now, it was hell.
He forces his feet to keep going, even as his knees nearly buckle, even his entire body screams at him to stop. H leans his side against the wall, just to give it some comfort, and continues. He will find them, and he will kill them. And then… then…
Perhaps, if he was not so tired, so weary, he could’ve experienced the sensation of laughing in that moment. Laughing in scorn at himself, like those people he’d lived with before had.
Then, he thinks, it will still be hell.
But, for now, he could revel in it. He could revel in this malice within him, this feeling of something and not nothing, even if in the end it won’t matter, because this moment does. Still he can’t help but wonder why. He couldn’t help but wonder why it had to be this way, why this moment couldn’t be always. He could live with it, live with this loathing. He’d lived with the emptiness for so long, and it had choked him every day when he saw others be better than him simply by a curve of their lips, by a dark furrow of their brows, by a high volume of their voices or so many other things. So many other things that made them more human when he… when he couldn’t even understand the feeling.
Deep in the slums, it was cold. So very cold. He wonders, then, why everything inside him felt like it was on fire, burning and sizzling. Amidst the storm his mind was caught in, he almost doesn’t notice the figure standing further away before him, that he’d stopped walking and dropped down to his knees.
(One or two years from then, Akutagawa wonders, in moments of worthless contemplation of his past, whether he would’ve made the same expression as that woman whose pale, gaunt face had twisted in terror, cheeks stained with liquid lines, as the darkly-clothed man raised his gun and shot her, if he hadn’t seen that person then. He never lingers on those thoughts for long, not when there was more to ponder, to plan. Not when he had yet to reach him.)
When he stumbles through the door of the bathroom, the first thing he does is punching already bruised knuckles against the mirror, and hissing not at the pain, but at the small crack it made. An insignificant marring. Barely there.
He grits his teeth and falls back against the door, which he has slammed shut, and slowly slides down to the floor. Head hung, he felt the exhaustion crawl its way through his aching bones, burrowing deep in his muscles. His clothes were dusty, a shape of a footprint on the front of his shirt, where Dazai had mercilessly stomped his foot on his chest, knocking the breath out of his lungs further. His throat had been scraped raw from coughing, and he didn't need to take off his clothes to see the various bruises painting the sickly paleness of his skin.
It had been a while since he’d failed so awfully. So humiliatingly. He still feels the sensation of feeling like his spine had cracked on his back, a simple kick having sent his body crumbling against the stone wall.
In response to his failure, Dazai had shown his disappointment in a cold glare directed at him from his amber eye.
“Get up,” he’d ordered not with the subtle fondness his voice had just so recently adopted, but with the force of a commander, “I told you you’ll never survive here if you can't stand on your own feet. You've been doing better, what's wrong now? Did I coddle you? Or did you think you can afford to relax as you are?”
Akutagawa’s voice had refused him when as he'd tried to reply, to let out words of rejection and obstinacy and hot anger. So Dazai answered for him, not much kinder and no less unkind.
“You're still a child. Don't flatter yourself with arrogance yet if you want to live.”
He’d left then, saw no point in continuing the training with that child, and the damage of his words were far worse than any wound he could've landed on him.
Because when Akutagawa lifts his hand, allows the long sleeve of his once clean shirt to slide down his wrist, it's not the the ugly blue of his skin that makes him bite his lip until his teeth tear through it, or the way it screams in pain if he shifts it a certain way. It's how that hand had failed to land a single hit against his mentor. It's how it had failed him like all of his body and skill and ability had done that day.
Child. Weak. Failure.
Fight. If you want to live, fight.
He slams his head back against the wall and cliches his eyes shut, tastes iron in his mouth when he bites harder onto his lip and there's something that should be there and it isn't, even as the frustration gnaws at his mind and desperately tries to release itself in some way. He wonders why he can't stop thinking, wants to stop doing so because he doesn't want to remember how, even more important than his loss, was that smile that Dazai had given him yesterday and had not done so today.
It's the amused lilt of his voice as he says he likes Akutagawa’s fire.
It's the light pat of his hand on Akutagawa’s head as he tells him he wasn't half-bad, that he could become even stronger.
It was all of that, all of the little changes in Dazai’s attitude whenever he’s done something the older man actually approved of, subtle but there, that plagued the small, dark corners that he wanted desperately to shut down, lest he think of more things that were insignificant, so simple, because this was not what he needed to live. It wasn't, he told himself, even as he remembered how, in those few moments where he felt like he could just give up, free himself of the thorny vines of life itself, it was those same so insignificant, so simple things that gave him the strength to go on.
(It wasn't at all simple and insignificant, but he liked to say that they were. It wasn't simple when he could hardly understand what it meant. It wasn't insignificant when it was the first thing he remembered when seeing that same man who'd mentored him, hung by chains in the very same prison chambers where Akutagawa’s body had once been sprawled in, bruised and dirty and barely able to move.)
He’s nothing more than a child. Nakajima Atsushi is nothing more than a child.
He’s a boy not older than eighteen, with wide golden eyes and whitish hair and everything about him screams innocence and naivety and wonder. Everything he is not. Everything Dazai is not. He’s something called a moonlight beast and Akutagawa bothers to remember him, this insignificant fly that did not matter, only because of the orders he’s been given.
He’s nothing more than a child. Akutagawa had once been too. But he was not anymore. He had made sure of it. With blunt words and brutal training and betrayal.
When he stands before a chained Dazai, he’s still firm in his belief.
Child. Insignificant. Weak. It was all Nakajima was and will ever be.
“He’s so much better than you.”
And he does not learn the cost of his own bitter judgement until it's almost too late.
“He’s so much better than you.”
It's the echo of those words that are the last thing he hears as his consciousness fades away, and he feels himself falling. Drowning. Going down.
As he’s done so many times in the past. But he wonders, when he’s not caught in the deep well of unconsciousness but his body still refuses his demands for it to function—because he could not simply lay down and hear those words repeating themselves in his head like a broken record—whether he would've felt better if there was not someone standing there on top. If Nakajima Atsushi just didn't exist. He wonders if that's what it would take for him to cool the raging flames within him.
But he knows it won't. And he doesn't want it to. He will not let this go, not until he sees what kind of face Dazai would make when he crushes that boy, kills him, because he will. He will, and then he’ll be the one standing there on top. He’ll be the one standing closer to that person—
It's not much later that he’s standing to his feet, feeling as though his entire body was on fire, burning from the pain of still-open wounds, every step he took pulling at still-tired muscles. But it's not something he pays mind to, he'd long since forgotten how to give in to physical aches until they shut him down completely. Until he’s pulled himself well and far beyond his limits.
But he could not rest, and will not. He was more than glad to take position as an assassin, more than willing to go into battle right then, with protesting limbs and malice staining every corner of his soul.
The man-tiger will be there. And Akutagawa swore, promised, that he will have the blood of his severed head on his hands when he returns to this room, bloody and bruised and victorious.
And then… then that person will know. He’ll know who is better, and who is the child here.
“He is so much better than you.”
The sun is glaringly bright as he steps outside, and it's what makes his eyes squint and clench shut for a moment.
The pain is ever-present in his body, and he’s grateful, when it makes the feeling of something crumbling inside him so easy to ignore.
The room Akutagawa resides in was not very spacious, and it was by choice that it wasn't that way. Too much space meant too much emptiness, and he didn't like it. He hated it. But this room was good. It was not too small and not too big, and within it was only bare necessities he needed. There was a window with its curtain drawn, allowing the view of the early morning sky to be seen, and he stares at it blankly, from where he laid on the bed.
It was yet too early for him to be awake, the sun wasn't even up yet. There were no orders for him today; the recent events and clashes leaving the port mafia not weak but weary, enough for them to lay low just for the time being.
But, regardless of the ceasefire and the lack of duties, he’d been unable to sleep much that night, and had woken up far too early anyway.
Or, maybe, it was because of the ceasefire and the lack of duties that he felt… strange, and confused, and lost. Stranded on an unknown island of addled thoughts and emotions, and it was because things had changed and they were different, in ways Akutagawa did not have the words for, because he never needed any phrases for such things.
He wonders if this is what they call peace. He’d never truly experienced the real meaning of the word. It had always been emptiness, or agitation, or desperation for survival. Something has always been wrong and twisted, and it still was, but it was different now.
He will never be complete. Something will always be missing. Something will always be wrong. But, now, those somethings were also accompanied by just a little bit of wholeness, just a touch of right.
“You’ve grown stronger.”
He’d wondered if those words, spoken with that quiet fondness that he remembers from memories he’d been trying to suppress, were like the ones the man-tiger had said at that time.
It's okay for you to live. It's okay for him to live. It's okay. It's not wrong. It's not just something he has to do, not just a way for him to prove his worth. He'd always struggled, had preserved himself, and fought against the creeping words of just give up already in his head, against those who tried to bring him down. But even as he’d persistently survived, he found himself coming to across a wall, a dead end, with the question of why engraved on it. Why? What was the point? Because he has to? Why? What was the reason, the meaning, behind it all?
Dazai had given him the answer. Dazai had been the answer. And now Dazai had said “you’ve grown stronger” and he hadn't so much as known what to say in reply. So he simply had not.
And now, laying in his bed and thinking of things he’d usually ignore, he wonders what he would've told him, if he’d been able to find his voice. Would he have told him that hearing those words made him feel lighter than he had in years? Would he have said he didn't need such words, simply out of stubbornness? Or would he have thanked him, said he was grateful for that time in the slums as well?
He almost scoffs at the last thought. Of course he wouldn't. Dazai didn't deserve gratefulness, not just yet.
Akutagawa thinks he knows this, and suspects he doesn't really believe it.
It's hard. It's hard and complicated for him to just think about something like this. He wishes he could simply ignore those thoughts and just live with this foreign feeling of serenity until it inevitably left. Wished he could savour it better.
It's easier to do so when he recalls those words in his mind. And he does so, simply because Dazai is that kind of person who persistently sticks in the memory of whoever meets him, his voice echoing in their ears whenever they remember him. At least, Akutagawa thinks so.
But it still makes things easy. And easy is not… bad. Not always. So he tries it. He turns his head and buries it against the pillow, hand clenching over the sheets, and closes his eyes. There's a strange prickling in his eyes and it makes his nose itch a little, but he sniffs once and it's gone.
The news are seemingly insignificant, seemingly unimportant, because Akutagawa hears them only in passing. It comes from an informant as a piece of side information, but it’s the only thing that remains in his mind once he registers it.
A car accident. A suspected suicide attempt. No casualties. Significant damage. Only one person was hurt.
He swallows. And then coughs. His throat feels like it’s clogged, so he covers it as he often does and gives the information broker a dismissive nod. Higuchi is standing by the doorway, and he catches her eye for a moment and sees concern in them.
As if he understands. She doesn’t.
Because he doesn’t either.
He goes and blows up a hideout and kills every person in it and feels nothing, thinks about nothing. Higuchi stands behind and continues to look at him with the same worry in her eyes, and he continues to ignore it. He dismisses her as soon as the job is over and walks away from her protests, the ones that he barely hears. He goes wandering around near the city, feeling as if he was an empty shell on two legs. A stray leaf blown away by a harsh wind, without strength or will. He could distinctly hear the informant’s every word, every syllable, as if the man was walking right next to him, repeating the words to him carefully, over and over, until he found himself turning around to see if he was there.
He wasn’t. There was no one with him. Only the words left behind, as always.
He’s in a critical situation.
Where? Where was he? The fool hadn’t said. But even if he did, what was to be done? He could fine out. The mafia had enough sources to find out where their former executive member was hospitalised. But he probably wasn’t. That woman who worked for their agency has probably healed him by now. So he can’t tell why he still feels almost lightheaded.
Footsteps are approaching him. They’re approaching him, and he whirls around, murderous instincts coming alive at once.
Nakajima Atsushi stands in front of him, and he flinches, when their eyes meet. Akutagawa feels his own narrow, as he stares him down, “What do you want?” he grounds out.
For his part, the mantiger doesn’t seem like he was there to fight. He doesn’t seem like he’s even aware he’s approached him, golden eyed bleary and exhausted, shoulders hunched.
“Can we... not today?” he begins, sounding a little tired but still cautious.
“I’m not doing anything. You’re the one who approached me. What do you want?” Akutagawa retorts with no less contempt, feeling his hackles rise because of all days, just like the mantiger himself seemed to be saying, today he didn’t have quite the patience nor mindfulness to deal with his rival.
At first, Atsushi hesitates, opening his mouth and closing it. By the third time he does this, Akutagawa is ready to turn around and leave, but right at the moment he begins to move his feet, the younger boy finally speaks.
“It never felt so real.”
It feels as if his chest had thundered. He stops, half turned, his face directed away from Atsushi’s eyes. The boy continues.
“It... it never felt so real. It was never so close. You know, right?” the mantiger’s voice borders on pleading, as if Akutagawa’s answer could change anything for him.
Silence stretches between them for moments, until he finally speaks, repeating for the third time, “What do you want?” but his tone is different now. It’s quiet and as hollow as Atsushi’s own averted gaze when he turns to face him again.
“... I thought you would understand better.”
“Nothing will change.”
Silence descends again, broken seconds later by the sound of retreating footsteps as the younger boy leaves. Akutagawa wonders whether he was running away from those words, like he’s been doing all this time.
He also wonders why he hasn’t realised it sooner.
It was never him who was at the bottom. He was always at the top of the mountain, and Dazai had been the one who was falling. He was falling and no matter how much Akutagawa tried, no matter how much the mantiger or anyone else tried, no one could catch up with him. No one could match the speed of gravity, the gravity of everything within that person. That person who always seemed so far no matter how close he was.
It was the truth he’d been chasing all along, the answer that had been right in front of him from the start and the one he’d conveniently ignored no matter what. Dazai had left him and Akutagawa had chased him but there was a time when they had been together, when he’d felt the weight and warmth of the man’s palm on the crown of his head or on his shoulder. There was a time when those things, the memory of them, were the only thing that saved him.
But no amount of chasing will ever be enough to save Dazai, and that was all anyone could ever do for him because they will never catch up.
A light breeze blows against his face and makes him notice the warm wetness on his cheek. It’s trailing down and touches his upper lip, slides down until he can taste its saltiness.
It’s strange how the tears don’t bother him any more than the cool air does. They’re just there, a physical form of the stifling feeling in his throat, the clench in the centre of his chest.
(Akutagawa had not realised that he’d always been human. That that longing for something in his life was human enough.)