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Bright Star

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The skin on the soles of his feet were cracking. His shoes were frayed and the ends were tearing themselves up, the material cheap and not meant to last long. He stared down at his feet dully and toed the ground. He could feel the pavement through the thin layer of plastic and fake leather. It wouldn’t be long before the bottoms of his feet started to bleed into his shoes, cutting into the skin.

 

He didn’t care.

 

It’s worth it, he said to himself as he pressed his back against the wall and slid down. Sighing in relief at now finally being able to rest his feet, he tucked his legs in to preserve some warmth in the shade of the dark, dimly lit alley.

 

Any pain is worth it as long as I don’t have to be there anymore.

 

The boy’s name was Nakajima Atsushi. He was nine years old, and he had run away from the only home he’d ever known.

 

It was a home he never wanted to go back to.

 

Closing his eyes, Atsushi let his aching legs rest and slept against the wall, not caring about who would see him. There was nothing to steal from him. He had no possessions but the clothes on his back, his decaying shoes, and a little pack he’d found in a dumpster in Tsurumi, filled with whatever scraps of food he could find and a bottle of water.

 

And given how filthy he was, there was little chance that anyone would dare approach him. He hadn’t had a proper bath in weeks. Maybe he’d be able to find a pond or a river near a park.. that would be enough. He could hide under a bridge and sleep there while his clothes dried. Atsushi was sure he could find some clothes in the trash somewhere that fit him well enough.

 

Atsushi swallowed down the sudden fear and anxiety churning in his stomach that felt like bile.

 

He could do this. He would be okay. He’d be fine, he would survive.

 

He would survive and he was never going back to that place.

 

Atsushi would not go sniveling back like a coward to a place that didn’t even want him there.

 

With that resolve, Atsushi steeled himself awake and found himself staring into a dark sky. The lights of Yokohama were still alight in the distance. Atsushi thought they were pretty from his current seat. Shame he couldn’t see them in full.

 

The lights of Yokohama were but distant stars to those that lived in the slums. They’d burn your fingers if you tried to touch it and soon, you became numb to its warmth and brightness. That brightness could never reach you.

 

Atsushi always wanted to see its light for himself. But-- what right did he have to that light?

 

He was thrown into a garbage bag as an infant and lived in place where everyone looked at him as if he were a piece of wet trash they’d stepped on along the curb. Atsushi knew that he didn’t deserve to be in its light.

 

What right did an abandoned, dirty child have to it?

 

Atsushi woke up to the shades of the sun on his face and the clatter of a garbage lid falling off of a can. With a yelp, startled tawny eyes followed the tail of a cat darting away. Sighing, he relaxed and leaned back against the wall once more. He stared up at the grey sky and the tall skyscrapers in the distance before forcing himself to stand.

 

He hissed at the pain in his legs shooting up to the back of his kneecaps. He exhaled harshly as he waited for the pain to pass and then stood properly. Atsushi glanced around him and cautiously walked toward the end of the alleyway to see a tower of ramshackle buildings and houses, stacked on top of each other, reaching towards the walls of the outer edge of the city. It was midday.

 

A low growl coiled in his stomach and Atsushi gasped at the sudden pain that clawed at his abdomen. He rubbed his stomach and frowned; it was a pain he knew well.

 

He was hungry.

 

Atsushi stepped out onto the streets and stood in the middle. That was when it began to sink in; he was truly on his own now. Whatever scraps of food he could get, he would have to find on his own. There were no hands to feed him now.

 

He was alone.

 

His stomach coiled with a colder emotion than hunger.

 

“What am I gonna do?” he breathed.

 


 

There was one upside to being refused meals on a regular basis; it had Atsushi already used to the sensation of starving at the tender age of nine. He didn’t enjoy the sensation, but he could survive with it, however briefly. Just mere slices of bread he could find, sometimes barely half a slice, were enough to hold him off for most of the day, if he rationed well enough. Sometimes, he’d be lucky enough to find a stray apple or half-rotting piece of fruit in a nearby trashcan.

 

There were several convenience stores scattered around the neighborhoods Atsushi filtered through, but with no money on his person it would be useless just to go inside and buy a bottle of water or a snack. Most of the time, he settled for the dumpsters and garbages. It was where he found the most food.

 

For two weeks, he scavenged for food and slept under bridges or in alleys. He used ratty blankets to cover himself for the cold nights. He was lucky enough to have left the orphanage in late summer; it was still warm most of the time, so he didn’t freeze to death.

 

Nobody gave him a second glance.

 

Atsushi wasn’t surprised.

 

Oh, sometimes he’d receive stares of curiosity from other children, glancing at him once and staring long and hard before they went about their ways. He’d just stare back and move along. Sometimes, he’d see the pitying stare of adults when they saw no one else with him, but they did nothing to change it. Nobody stopped to ask him for his name, if he’d like some water or if he was hungry.

 

Nobody wanted an orphan, not even in the Nadir.

 

His stomach gave another angry rumble and Atsushi nearly keeled forward with a pitiful groan.

 

It was a struggle to force himself to sit upright on the dirty alley floor, his fingers curling into the dirty and dust as he shakily sat up. He curled his legs in and shivered as the hunger pains shook through him.

 

I think I’m gonna die, Atsushi thought.

 

It was but a whisper to his nine-year old mind, but one that shook him to the core.

 

If he didn’t find some food and soon, he was going to die here. Alone in the backwaters of Yokohama, with no family, friends or anyone who gave the slightest inkling him. He would die namelessly and forgotten in a moment.

 

No. I don’t want to die.

 

I won’t die.

 

I’m not going to die.

 

Atsushi could feel the Headmaster murmuring in his ear, biting in his vowels as he told him that he was worthless, that he would amount to nothing, that he didn’t deserve the food that those who had it far worse than he did struggled for. What right did he have to take what they needed more than he did? Maybe he could just die here, in this alley?

 

“No,” he whispered, “I don’t want to.”

 

They would be better off.

 

“Shut up.”

 

What gives you the right to live?

 

SHUT UP!”

 

A cat leaped out of a garbage bin with a screech, knocking it over as it ran off. The bin fell with a loud, angry clang and Atsushi jumped, his tawny eyes widened as he panted harshly. He blinked rapidly and the cold hand of his Headmaster’s on his shoulder disappeared. Tension lessening, he sighed and pressed his back against the wall.

 

He was so hungry.

 

He had no money to buy himself food with, and rifling through garbage could only bring him so much. There was only one other option available; to steal someone’s wallet or food right out of their hands and run as fast as he could before they could catch him. His chest constricted with reluctance, but his stomach twisted in hunger.

 

If he didn’t find himself something to eat soon, he was going to die. And Atsushi refused to die. This was nothing compared to the orphanage and he refused to let this outside world defeat him. He would survive just to spite them.

 

Coming up with how to steal food or money from someone was a much more difficult task, especially in a part of the city where few carried much in their purses or wallets. Atsushi steeled himself, watching the way other children would slip their fingers into coat pockets and run off on silent feet with a wallet in their hand. Then, he started watching the few shops, bakeries and vendors that could be found around town. Some would leave entire loaves out on display and turn their backs on them, not seeing if someone was about to take them.

 

The thought of stealing someone’s wallet still unnerved Atsushi but stealing just a loaf of bread? He could do that. If he tried hard enough, he could.

 

If there was one thing he was good about doing, it was making himself go unnoticed.

 

There were some weeks when punishments were light because Atsushi made an effort to not be noticed, keeping his head down and mouth shut so that he didn’t say or do anything that could get him in trouble. It made for easier nights for sleeping, and meals that didn’t leave him with a shrinking stomach, however rare they were.

 

And it made snatching food that much easier.

 

He was nearly caught the first few times because he hesitated out of fear and turned around at the last moment before sharp eyes could catch him. He learned that he had to be casual and quick, to find a blind-spot. He’d seen it done before at the orphanage; older children would nick food from the kitchens without ever changing their expressions, keeping a blank slate and biting down whatever fear they felt through clenching their jaw.

 

Atsushi tightened his jaw, hauled the minuscule bag over his shoulder and began walking behind a middle aged man carrying a bag of groceries from the convenience store just down the block. Making sure to make himself seem as small and silent as possible, he swallowed down the hammering of his heart in his throat, and clasped the plastic covering between his fingers.

 

Atsushi pulled it out of the bag and ran before the man could notice that he was even there.

 

His pulse raced in his ears as he clung the loaf to himself, already feeling his stomach twist in agony and hungry glee as he held it close. The loaf was probably crushed against his chest, but he didn’t care. His legs shook as he tried to calm himself down, breathing heavily and open-mouthed as he waited, straining his ear to find out if he’d been caught.

 

He waited.

 

Silence.

 

No one had seen him.

 

Sagging, he sighed and pressed his back against the wall.

 

The plastic rustled as he set it down in his lap, and he frowned at the slightly squished bread in his lap. He ran his thumb over the side.

 

He stole this.

 

He really stole this.

 

His bottom lip trembled and he bit down on it as his stomach growled ever louder. Atsushi closed his eyes and drew his legs closer to himself.

 

...Well, how else was he supposed to be able to feed himself? He had no other option, right? Then.. that didn’t make him a bad person for stealing, did it?

 

Atsushi didn’t know.

 

Too tired, frazzled and hungry to be able to contemplate on the morality of stealing food for the sake of not starving to death, Atsushi sighed and unwrapped the plastic. His parched mouth watered as the smell of warm bread wafted over him and his stomach twisted in desperate glee. Slightly shaking fingers tore off a piece and he began to lift it to his mouth.

 

He paused when he heard the sound of shuffling feet down the dark shadows of the alley. He sucked in a breath and lowered his hands, tucking his knees in close to his stomach. Atsushi waited, feeling a tremor of fear he’d been to starved to feel this past week.

 

Grey-blue eyes stared dully at him as a young girl about his age, maybe a year or two younger, stepped out of the shadows, her long locks of dark hair framing her face, some strands in her eyes.

 

Atsushi stared at her.

 

She blinked at him.

 

Her skin was pale, almost sickly, Atsushi noted. Her dress was old and frayed at the bottom, and a grey color. It looked as if it hadn’t been washed in days and it hung mid-shin.

 

The girl lowered her stare down to the bread still in his lap and then sighed. She moved to the opposite side of the alley and sat down, lowering a little bag to the ground against her leg. She hadn’t said a single word.

 

Atsushi watched the girl warily, taking in her bored stare, and concluded that she wouldn’t try to do anything to him. Not yet, anyway.

 

He started unwrapping the plastic, feeling his dry mouth water ever more as his fingers brushed against the bread. It had a faint melon smell to it, and it was soft to the touch. His stomach rolled and groaned low in his gut.

 

He was about to pull a piece out when his shoulders went rigid. Slowly, Atsushi look up and found the dark-haired girl staring at him. No, not at him; she was staring at the bread. Her grey eyes had a bright sheen to them and she pursed her lips, still staring at the bread in his hands. She still hadn’t said a word.

 

Oh. She’s hungry, too.

 

Something grew and twisted uncomfortably in his chest, growing tighter by the second as he tried to ignore the clear hunger and want on her face. He was still so hungry, but each time he tried to bring it up to his mouth, his muscles froze and he’d stop.

 

And then Atsushi would look back up at her and see her trying not to look at him or the bread anymore.

 

He bit his lower lip and furrowed his brows down at the bread.

 

An internal battle swirled in his too-tight stomach and he sighed.

 

The girl, having lowered her despondent stare to the ground, blinked and looked up when a shadow fell over her. Her eyes widened as they fell on the bread held out to her.

 

Atsushi’s glance was to the side, not quite looking at her.

 

Her brows knit together, bewildered. “What are you doing?”

 

Uncomfortable, Atsushi shifted on his feet, though a bit startled by the girl’s soft voice. It had an almost sweet sound to it, if it weren’t for the obvious suspicion in her tone.

 

“Y-You, uh,” he fumbled, “You looked hungry, so....” he held it closer to her.

 

Her frown deepened.

 

“That’s yours, isn’t it?”

 

“Uh, well, sort of,” Atsushi mumbled, feeling his face start turning hot out of shame.

 

She just stared at him. She didn’t have to ask him how he’d gotten it.

 

“Ju-Just take it!” He managed to squeak out, mortified, as he shoved it towards her, leaving only inches between the end of it and her nose. “Please, take it,” he mumbled, staring down at his feet. Bare. His shoes were but ribbons a week into his living on the streets. He still held onto the scraps, but they were useless now.

 

Her grey stare lowered from his face to the bread held out to her. She swallowed and raised her hands. She pulled a piece off of the loaf and ate it.

 

Sighing in relief, Atsushi stepped back and watched the girl eat. The corner of his mouth quirked upward. Some of his guilt ebbed away.

 

When she was finished, the girl stood and brushed down the front of her skirt. “Thank you.”

 

“Ah, well, you’re welcome,” Atsushi said, his smile spreading a little further at the girl’s unusual kindness; it wasn’t something he’d seen much of since arriving in Yokohama.

 

She wasn’t smiling, but her face was not nearly so cold as it was before. “Most people wouldn’t do that. Why did you?”

 

His smile dropped, confused by her question. “Oh-- I..” He looked down at the arms that were still wrapped around the bag of bread. They tightened their hold a little. “I don’t know,” he admitted quietly, “I just wanted to.”

 

She stared at him, silent.

 

He said nothing and kept staring down at the ground.

 

“You haven’t been here long, have you?” She said suddenly.

 

Atsushi started and, shoulders stiffened, turned widened eyes onto the girl. His mouth opened and closed, but no words came out.

 

The corner of her mouth quirked upward, giving a soft snort. “I thought so.”

 

Atsushi wilted, resisting the urge to let out a groan of embarrassment at the amusement on the girl’s face, minimal as it was.

 

“I’m Gin,” she said suddenly. “Come with me.”

 

Atsushi was used to bowing to authority, but that power that overcame him usually came from adults, not from girls who were his age but also possibly younger than him. She carried herself not so much like a child as she led him down the dark, shadowy alleyways and streets, but like the tired teenagers that looked down at him with a mixture of pity and apathy back at the orphanage. But Gin was not apathetic, to his relief.

 

Maybe he shouldn’t have been so willing to trust her right off the bat in this strange city with sharp corners and deep shadows, but..

 

He stopped when they arrived at a tiny house that resembled more like the shack that held all of the gardening tools at the orphanage than a warm home that housed a family. The wood was damp from rain and on the brink of falling apart, and, confused, Atsushi was about to ask Gin why she’d brought him here and what this place was, when she lifted the curtain hanging in front of the entrance. Looking over her shoulder, he thought he saw the corner of her mouth soften into what might’ve been a smile as she beckoned him over with a hand.

 

Cautiously, he walked closer and came through the entrance. It was as small looking on the inside as it was on the outside, and Atsushi nearly tripped as he walked in. Looking down, he saw that he nearly stumbled over a pile of books.

 

His brows furrowed and he jumped at the sound of a raspy cough.

 

“I’m home, brother,” Gin said softly, lowering herself down into a sitting position. “Did you rest well?”

 

Atsushi watched her place the bag she’d been carrying in front of her on the floor, right next to a dark shape huddled in the corner of the little room. His back went rigid at the sound of a quiet grunt and the rustle of sheets. The only thing he could do as the shape sat up was stare.

 

“About as good as ever,” the shape said-- male, young but raspy and croaked, as if his vocal chords were dry and cracking from lack of water. “Did you just get back?”

 

Gin hummed and opened the bag. She pulled out several bottles of water, what looked like a bottle of pills, and to Atsushi’s surprise and curiosity, a book.

 

He heard a sigh; reproachful and tired. “Gin--

 

“Shush,” Gin chided, “It’s for you to keep. You can’t just keep rereading the ones we have, it’s bound to get boring.”

 

Silence, and then a resigned, reluctant grunt.

 

Then, there was a pause, and Atsushi’s skin prickled at the feeling of a stare landing on him; heavy, sharp and cold.

 

Calculating, suspicious.

 

“Gin... who is this?”

 

Atsushi swallowed as another pair of grey eyes joined the ones that stared at him through shadows, and the air was heavy. He thought the shadows behind the boy that was beginning to sit up started moving, as if sentient and alive.

 

Gin’s were yielding and kind.

 

The other pair’s were hard and stony.

 

Never had Atsushi met eyes so intense that he felt locked in place--- but not frightened. No.

 

They were staring right through him, as if the boy in the shadows were trying to find the soul beyond the body.

 

The plastic of the bag crinkled in his grip.

 

“Nakajima,” he whispered out.

 

The boy with dark grey eyes and black hair that ended in tips of white cocked his head. His eyes narrowed a little.

 

“My name,” Atsushi said, “is Nakajima Atsushi.”

 

And so Nakajima Atsushi, nine-year old orphan, found himself in the home of one Akutagawa Ryuunosuke and his sister, Gin.

Chapter Text

The streets of Yokohama’s underbelly were not so darkened with shadow and frightening when there was another person to accompany and guide you through its labyrinths and hidden trails. Atsushi wasn’t sure what Gin’s reasoning was; he doubted that it was out of pure kindness when she had herself and her brother to take care of, but he also didn’t believe that she let him follow her around out of amusement.

 

“Where have you been sleeping?” She’d asked, handing her brother an opened carton of cold noodles.

 

The boy’s-- Ryuunosuke (and what an apt name it was, Atsushi thought privately; he felt as if a dragon’s stare was burning into his skin whenever the other male looked at him without saying a word) slurping filled the silence before Atsushi could bring himself to speak.

 

“Whatever alley I could find, really,” he admitted.

 

Gin’s eyes narrowed, only slightly. “How long have you lived here?”

 

“Only a week and a half, maybe,” he mumbled. “I haven’t been here that long.”

 

“Where did you last come from?” She tilted her head, lowering her own cup. She hadn’t said where she’d gotten it and he was baffled that she’d share her food with him, still.

 

(‘You can call us even now,’ she’d said, handing him the first half of the cup. It wasn’t chazuke, which he doubted he would get again, but he appreciated it and was grateful to Gin nonetheless.)

 

“...I came from an orphanage,” he said, staring down at his knees.

 

He half-expected the question, ‘you’re an orphan?’ and the pitying stares that he hated so much, like he was a kicked or half-run over animal on the side of the road. A pitiful sight, but one far too gruesome to come any closer and give a sense of peace to. But the question never came.

 

Gin’s brows creased and the corners of her mouth softened, and she closed her eyes with a hum, not asking any further. It was an understanding noise, but it wasn’t pitying. For that, Atsushi was relieved.

 

Ryuunosuke stared at him from above the cold broth of his noodles, the light bouncing off of the surface of the liquid heightening both the tired shadows and lines underneath his eyes, and the sharp, steel tinge of his gray eyes.

 

“Where was your orphanage?” Gin asked.

 

Atsushi hesitated.

 

He felt the narrow of Ryuunosuke’s eyes on his face and he didn’t dare look back at them

 

“...Outside of Tama Hills,” he murmured into the styrofoam, “In the countryside.” He slurped loudly into his noodles, the wet noise banishing images he no longer wanted to see anymore.

 

Gin’s eyes widened beneath her dark hair. Ryuunosuke’s was unblinking.

 

“That’s quite a long way from here,” Gin said.

 

Atsushi shrugged and managed a wavering smile. “I didn’t mind.”

 

His destroyed shoes did, but since Atsushi had no real affection for them and where he’d gotten them from, he didn’t find it in him to care. His feet were so thick from the pavement already that he barely noticed their bareness.

 

Gin pursed her lips, hesitating, before she asked, “Do you have any family here?”

 

Atsushi’s smile disappeared. “No,” he said, tone neutral. He lowered his cup and stared at the orange broth sticking to the insides, staining the white styrofoam. “I don’t have any family.”

 

Ryuunosuke’s eyes closed and he drank the last of his broth in little sips, coughing quietly into the cup.

 

“Ah,” Gin said, “It’s just me and my brother. We don’t have any other family, either.”

 

And she left it at that, inquiring no further, and Ryuunosuke didn’t speak at all. The older brother didn’t speak much at all, Atsushi quickly learned in the week he stayed with the siblings. It wasn’t a stay he’d expected to occur; after she offered him food and some clothes that her brother had no difficulty parting with (although there was an oddly pinched expression on his face), Atsushi thought he would overstay his welcome within the next hour and depart, never to see them again.

 

He’d gathered what little things he had, eyes scanning over the books with curiosity, and stood, ready to leave.

 

“Keep sleeping outside or in alleys and you’re bound to get yourself robbed,” Gin said glibly, picking up the empty cups and handing her brother another water bottle. “Stay here for the night, we don’t mind.”

 

Atsushi stopped, eyes widened and shocked. “But--” he tried, biting his inner cheek. “I don’t want to be a burden on either of you, I can’t possibly--”

 

“You’re not.”

 

Atsushi stilled at the rasp.

 

Ryuunosuke coughed and covered it with the back of his hand, steel grey boring at Atsushi over his knuckles.

 

“You helped her,” he said quietly, Atsushi’s ears twitching in attention, “This is not about us letting you stay here because we feel guilty or whatever nonsense you might be imagining. So stop being ungrateful and accept it already.”

 

Atsushi stared at the other boy, astonished at the rude curtness of his tone, but the boy just closed his eyes and leaned back against the wall, ignoring him.

 

Gin sighed. “What my brother means to say is that it won’t be a burden to us at all. You helped me today. People rarely help each other like that around here. It’s the least we could do.”

 

She put an old blanket in his arms and she gestured towards a corner of the shack.

 

“Sleep wherever you like,” she’d said, handing Ryuunosuke a bottle of the medicine from her bag.

 

Ryuunosuke took it from her, murmuring a thank you under his breath, not looking away from the book he had open in his lap.

 

Atsushi moved to a corner of the shack, the blanket covering his shoulders. He stared at the Akutagawa siblings as the boy read, and the girl started filling the room with a soft warmth from the little, man-made hearth in the middle. The light flickered on the top of the books. There was a worn-out looking one with a black spine that caught his attention, but it was a name written in another language that he couldn’t read. He’d slept, and no longer tried to protest.

 

He just didn’t think it would last more than a day, at least, and certainly not edging on a week.

 

He expected that he would be made to leave within only a few days of his stay at the Akutagawa residence, but neither of the dark-haired siblings asked when he planned on moving on, nor how long he planned to stay.  He was surprised when two days later, stomach not full but not shriveled on the brink of starvation, Gin asked him to come into town with her. She told him with a faint smile that he’d slept most of the first day in their home and now that he was awake and readied, she was going to show him the best routes of the slum.

 

Atsushi had stared at her, astonished, unable to move. Gin waited, her eyebrows raised and expectant.

 

There was a nudge against the small of his back, not forceful, but enough for him to stumble onto his feet and, wide-eyed, look around the shack to find out where it’d come from. It could’ve only been Ryuunosuke, but he was on the other side of the room, legs tucked in and staring down at the book in his lap. He wasn’t paying attention to either of them.

 

“Well, come on then,” Gin said, and soon enough, she was leading him outside.

 

Gin knew the slums like the back of her hand; she knew every corner, where to dash into its darkness whenever crafty hands snatched what they needed, where the best places to find food were, and where to find water that was clean enough for them to drink. Atsushi watched her move about the streets with a faint sense of awe; every step she made was soundless and silent, as if her feet barely touched the ground at all. She knew how to hold her breath and not announce her presence when she snatched a few fruits out of an adult’s bag of groceries, disappearing into darkness before they could even notice.

 

It was easy as breathing for her.

 

“How long have you lived here?” Atsushi asked, quickly adding, “If you don’t mind me asking.”

 

Gin shrugged and handed him a mango. The flesh was just soft enough beneath his fingers. It wasn’t pretty like it was in adverts for grocery stores he sometimes found on the ground.

 

“As long as I can remember,” she said. Standing up, she stuffed the remainder of the fruit in her back and started walking, Atsushi following in tow. “You’re allowed to ask, you know.”

 

Atsushi bit down on his bottom lip and stared down at his bare feet. He hadn’t realized how dirty they’d become ever since he lost his shoes. “That’s how it was for me, too,” he said softly. “I’ve been at the orphanage all my life.”

 

“And yet, you left,” Gin said.

 

Atsushi didn’t reply.

 

Her brows knit beneath her hair. “Why’d you leave and come here?

 

A laugh fell out of his mouth. It had a sour taste to it and he felt a faint throb in the middle of his left foot.

 

“I wasn’t wanted,” he said blandly. “It was time to leave.”

 

And I had nowhere else to go.

 

Gin stared at him and he couldn’t read her face; she looked far too old and mature than she had any right to be, tired and hungry. Holding her stare long, she blinked and said okay, then let the subject fall into silence. He was grateful that she didn’t pry further.

 

He was even more grateful for the lack of pity in her eyes.

 

But Atsushi felt Ryuunosuke’s stare on him, silent and sharp as his cheekbones, until he’d walked out the front door upon Gin’s request that he join her into town. Her brother didn’t follow them. He stayed curled up in a corner of the little shack, a book propped in his lap as he squinted into the dim light as he read.

 

Gin didn’t request much of Atsushi on these ventures, which, as Atsushi quickly realized, were food runs of the illegal sort. If Gin felt any guilt or shame for shifting her fingers through pockets for money, candies, and food from opened grocery bags, she didn’t show it. If anything, she looked bored and sometimes apprehensive, depending on what she was stealing. Atsushi wasn’t sure if he was impressed or unnerved by her nonchalance towards the act of thievery, although she didn’t seem to enjoy it, at least.

 

Nor did she often have Atsushi be the active thief in her escapades. “Your hair, it stands out too much,” she’d said with what might have been a smile at his flushed ears, “Unless you’re quick, leave it to me and just keep them occupied.”

 

Atsushi was too relieved to be insulted at her calling him slow and happily took on his role as decoy. While he looked around at stands or tables, under the suspicious glances of vendors and salespeople, Gin quickly grabbed fruit, some other foods, noodles and some items of clothing, stuffing them in her bag and dashing into shadowy corners.

 

Atsushi’s stomach still twisted uncomfortably each time Gin took him along with her and he had to watch her steal from someone who didn’t have a clue as to why their pockets were suddenly lighter, but..

 

Sitting on the doorstep of the shack and hearing the faint sound of slightly haggard breathing, drinking in the grey light of late morning, he rubbed his fingers over the cool apple in his hands.

 

..She always shared her haul with him and her brother, giving her brother most of her share. And when she slipped into pharmacies and convenience stores, arms much more rigid and stiff, she came out with bottles and boxes of cold and cough medicine with heaving sighs of relief. Gin never asked more than what Atsushi was capable of (not much, in his opinion, though Gin never expressed so) or comfortable with.

 

Gin was kind enough to let him stay in her home with her brother, tiny and run-down as it was.

 

Even her brother, while aloof and rather rude, had not said a word about when Atsushi would leave. In fact, he seemed to regard Atsushi with a faint disinterest and apathy (with some trickle of suspicion), or he ignored him completely. Atsushi wasn’t going to make any strides to change otherwise.

 

Atsushi bit into the apple, swallowed, and stared up at the sky. He saw the faint outline of the moon, a waning crescent.

 

Atsushi wondered how long this temporary homestead would last until the Akutagawa siblings grew sick of him.

 


 

 

Nearly two weeks passed before Atsushi began to worry and wonder with an anxious churn in his stomach-- when were they going to tell him to leave?

 

He stood in the alley outside of the pharmacy with a nervous roll of his feet against the ground. He stared at the black flats Gin had given him four days ago. Apparently, they’d belonged to Ryuunosuke and since he didn’t venture outside much, Gin gave them to Atsushi to use whenever she needed him to come along with her on an errand.

 

Ryuunosuke’s eyes, so gray and intense that Atsushi had difficulty meeting them, pinched and narrowed with some displeasure. But he never said anything about it, so Atsushi was willing to guess that, while not happy, he wasn’t going to kick up an issue about Atsushi wearing his things, second-hand and worn down as they were.

 

They were roughly the same size, though Ryuunosuke looked far skinnier than him.

 

The reason they were at the pharmacy was for Ryuunosuke. Gin never said why she had to steal medicine, but Atsushi didn’t have trouble guessing.

 

Sometimes, while Atsushi was still sleeping, she’d come back from a long night away from the shack with plastic bags in her arms and lay down an assortment of boxes and bottles in the corner where Ryuunosuke slept. Placed right next to a large pile of well-tended to books, some empty, others halfway finished, others new.

 

While Ryuunosuke mostly ignored Atsushi, he once caught him curiously staring at the black-haired boy as he gulped down foul-looking liquid-- cough medicine, Atsushi could read on the label.

 

Atsushi’d choked on a yelp of alarm as pure steel grey glared at him.

 

Ryuunosuke drank the medicine, grimacing, but held Atsushi with such a furious stare that it seemed challenging--- as if he was daring Atsushi to ask about the array of medication by his spot, or to inquire why he rasped harsh sounding coughs well into the night when they were supposed to be asleep, or why he so rarely ventured outside.

 

Swallowing, Atsushi had lowered his eyes and said nothing.

 

He still felt Ryuunosuke’s stare a long while after, hairs on the back of his neck prickling from the intensity. But it’d lost the animosity it’d had before.

 

Atsushi wasn’t sure what to make of that.

 

Ryuunosuke made it very clear, whilst not yet verbally admitting so, that he did not like Atsushi being in his home, around him and his sister. Atsushi could tell when he wasn’t wanted and made a point to make himself as small as possible so as to not bother the other boy as much as he could. He was used to being disliked and being in small quarters with others who didn’t want him there, but it still made him uncomfortable and on edge. At first, the dislike coming off of Ryuunosuke had come out in silent waves that dissipated into a cool indifference. Less suffocating, but no less comfortable.

 

He likely saw Atsushi as a burden. Atsushi was inclined to agree with him.

 

Sagging against the wall and tapping his feet against the ground as he waited for Gin, he sighed and lowered to the ground. He tucked his knees in and glanced around, brows furrowed in anxious worry and restlessness.

 

A soft breeze blew and something nearby fluttered, crinkled and hissed softly.

 

Lifting his head, Atsushi blinked.

 

“...A book..?”

 

Laid flat out on its back, pages exposed and flapping in the faint wind, Atsushi picked it up gingerly. He brushed off the dirt clinging to the cover and blew it off the pages, frowning. Closing the book, he squinted at the cover; the name of the author had been all but scratched out, but he could see what might have been a Western letter inscribed in the cover, but he was able to read the title; The Penal Colony.

 

His fingers were gentle as he flipped through the pages, eyes scanning over the words briefly. They fell on the second short story in the book and found himself reading the first few paragraphs. He all but forgot where he was and did not hear Gin sidle up to his side, plastic bags jostling audibly.

 

Gin only raised her eyebrows at his squeak of alarm at her sneaking up at him and glanced at the book he kept tucked against his chest before turning away to walk home. He followed after her and rubbed his fingertips along the spine of the book, thoughtful.

 

She left the bag of cough medicine for her brother and left to find them food; they were starting to run low on supplies and while she had energy to spare, she was not sure about Atsushi and instead told him to stay and rest. Her hard stare shut Atsushi down just as he began to protest.

 

Ryuunosuke simply watched their exchange dully, thought there was an odd twitch in his jaw as Gin stepped out the door of the shack.

 

A familiar, stifling silence fell upon them once more and Atsushi swallowed.

 

This was why he preferred going along with Gin instead of being stuck alone with her surly, quiet brother who’d never seemed to like his being there at all. Even now, after swallowing down the pills with a grimace that pulled his pale skin against his sharp cheekbones, Ryuunosuke picked up the book resting by his hip and placed it in his lap, reading. He didn’t say a word.

 

Atsushi glanced at the book; a warm brown color, handled with care and aged. Ryuunosuke held it delicately, as if it would fall apart in his hands had he treated it otherwise. With how easily he turned the pages, eyes darting across the page as he reclined against the wall and the pile of blankets he surrounded himself with, it seemed to be a book he’d read many times.

 

Biting his bottom lip, he dragged his nail against the pages of the book in his lap. He looked back up at the other boy and watched him turn another page before lowering it, feeling the back of his neck grow warm.

 

Come on, Nakajima, he told himself, you managed to leave that place, you can do this, at least.

 

Invested in his reading, Ryuunosuke wouldn’t have noticed him at all if it weren’t for Atsushi’s anxious shuffling. Thin brows knitting and eyes narrowing into a glare after widening a fraction in surprise, Ryuunosuke looked up at the other boy, book still in his lap.

 

Atsushi swallowed hard at the frigidity in the other boy’s stare.

 

“What?” Ryuunosuke snapped.

 

All right, maybe a bad idea.

 

Ryuunosuke was definitely not as approachable as his sister was, and that wasn’t saying much.

 

Biting down on his tongue before he made a strangled noise under Ryuunosuke’s withering stare, Atsushi pulled out the book from behind his back. He shoved it forward, just barely inches from hitting the other boy’s nose.

 

“Here,” he somehow managed to force out, his voice cracking, much to his mortification.

 

Eyes clenched shut, Atsushi didn’t see the widened gray eyes nor the aggression that’d seeped out of the other boy’s face. He knew only the long silence between holding onto the book and then feeling air. He heard the flipping of pages and slowly cracked them open to find Ryuunosuke darting between sections of the book, eyes flitting over the titles of the short stories. And Atsushi was taken aback by the brightness in the boy’s gray eyes that he’d not seen before; in fact, his entire face was the most relaxed and open he’d seen yet.

 

He seemed fascinated and... well, excited.

 

Ryuunosuke lingered on one short story, ready to flip to the next page, before he remembered where he was and closed the book with a firm ‘thunk.’ The brightness was gone, replaced with a detached coolness that quickly became suspicion.

 

“Why did you give me this?”

 

Having seized up at the hardened stare from the other boy, Atsushi swallowed and shifted on his feet, trying for a half-smile. The nervous ticks of his body language gave him away.

 

“Well--” he started, biting his inner cheek. “Gin-san brings you books sometimes and you’re almost always reading-- not that it’s a bad thing!” Atsushi added quickly as Ryuunosuke’s expression darkened, the other boy pursing his lips tightly. “It’s just-- ah, um.”

 

Fiddling with his fingers, he ducked his head, chin against his collarbone as he shrunk into himself.

 

“It’s.. it’s nice to be able to read new ones, isn’t it?” Atsushi smiled, small but true.

 

Tight lines around Ryuunosuke’s eyes relaxed, though he did not return the smile. “..Yes, it is,” he replied quietly.

 

Ryuunosuke never asked his sister for new books, Atsushi’d noticed. He seemed to be content with the ones he had, but with each new book she brought him, he devoured the pages, reading for hours at a time before he fell asleep or into a coughing fit. The orphanage did not get new books often, either; being the place it was, it had a rather substantial collection already and Atsushi often hid away in the library to escape the headmaster and the older children that treated him coldly. As long as he was out of the way, they didn’t seem to care what he did and he spent hours in the library reading. Many of the books he chose were old, laden with dust, and it was easy to tell which books were new based on the smell and dust covering the binds.

 

His favorites were always the tales and legends of China. Some editions had the Chinese written next to the Japanese, and he’d mouth the words out as he read.

 

The headmistress had smacked his right hand hard enough to bruise his knuckles for days when she caught him reading the Chinese out loud, ordering him to speak in Japanese and ripping the book out of his hands.

 

He hadn’t read it out since, but he still read the books while he’d still been there. He missed those books. He wished he could’ve brought them with him, but he’d been so hasty in his... departure that he hadn’t thought to grab them.

 

Atsushi wasn’t sure what kind of books Ryuunosuke liked and curious as he was, he hadn’t asked to borrow them. It felt wrong to dirty those precious pages with his hands, not when he would be asked to leave in due time.

 

It hadn’t happened yet, but he knew it’d happen. It had to.

 

They would never let him stay.

 

“I just found it while out with Gin-san, and... it felt wrong to just leave it on the ground,” Atsushi shrugged, lowering hand to rub at his other arm. He still couldn’t quite bring himself to look at the other boy yet. “I thought that-- you’d.. might like it.”

 

Eyes closed, he managed a smile.

 

Ryuunosuke was silent, but Atsushi felt that piercing stare on his face.

 

When he opened his eyes, Ryuunosuke was looking down at the cover of the book, lightly dragging his palm over it.

 

“I’ve never read this before,” Ryuunosuke said. “I think I might enjoy it.” He looked up at Atsushi from beneath the tips of his dark hair. He still didn’t smile, but he gave a little nod of his head.

 

Eyes widening in surprising, a smile grew wider on Atsushi’s lips.

 

He supposed that was Ryuunosuke’s way of saying thank you.

 

It made his chest feel lighter.

 

“I’m glad.”

 

Ryuunosuke made a small humming nose, already settling back into his place with the book propped up in his lap. The tension that’d always been between the two boys dissipated slightly.

 

Taking his cue to sit down, Atsushi did the same in his usual spot, the opposite side of Ryuunosuke’s. He glanced at the pile of books by Ryuunosuke’s side and smiled, leaning back against the wall. He heard the turning of a page and some shifting of legs underneath blankets.

 

“You didn’t have to give me this.”

 

Taken aback, Atsushi stared at the other boy, but Ryuunosuke wasn’t looking at him. His eyes were on the words, the picture of concentration. Then, those deep grays cut towards him.

 

“I know I didn’t,” Atsushi said after a short beat, lowering his eyes to finger at the hem of his shirt. Some of the threads were poking out. “But I wanted to. Take it as a, ah... thank you gift, I guess.”

 

Ryuunosuke’s eyes narrowed.

 

“A thank you gift?”

 

Atsushi nodded and he smiled. It was wry and crooked. “For letting me stay here as long as you have. I can’t thank either you enough.”

 

And there would be no way to repay the Akutagawa siblings for their generosity in letting him stay. They’d done more than enough for him, and he didn’t want to be a further burden for either of them. And he knew; they would grow tired of his being there soon.

 

There was finality in the book he’d just given to Ryuunosuke.

 

Whom had not replied to Atsushi’s words of gratitude, but Atsushi didn’t begrudge him for it; the boy never said much, not even to his sister.

 

Ryuunosuke’s stare, long held and heavy, finally moved back to the book in his hands.

 

The brief conversation over, Atsushi leaned back against the wall and settled in for a nap, ignoring the longing he felt to have a book in his hold again. He was started out of it when he felt something hard nudge against his calf. Blinking and sitting up with a start (and definitely not with a high-pitched yelp), Atsushi looked to the source--

 

Three or four books in a pile pressed against his leg.

 

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a dark shape, thin and slender, ripple through the heavy shadows before he was gone. It led Atsushi back to Ryuunosuke: still reading his book, not looking at him, the too-big black sweater hanging loosely on his slender body. He appeared to not have moved at all.

 

Atsushi looked at the boy and then back at the books.

 

They hadn’t been there before.

 

“If you want to read something, go ahead and pick something up,” Ryuunosuke said as he turned a page, not looking up. He coughed into his hand once and shifted his legs so he was more comfortable. “I’ve read them all. I don’t care if you read one.”

 

Tawny eyes wide, Atsushi’s mouth opened and closed.

 

“T-Thank you!” he squeaked out, blushing at how it pierced the quiet of the shack.

 

Ryuunosuke sighed, but said no more.

 

Atsushi fought the little smile threatening to twitch onto his lips and he reached out to take a book.

 

As he began to read, greedily devouring the pages as they took him to a world elsewhere, he didn’t see the little tendril emerge from Ryuunosuke’s left sleeve. Raising a finger to lightly scratch at the top of its head, the corner of Ryuunosuke’s mouth twitched upward, almost invisible.

 

When Gin returned home with dinner she’d found after skulking around Yokohama, it was to the sight of her brother sleeping lightly, and Atsushi’s nose buried in one of her books. His breathing was soft and even, body more relaxed than she’d seen it. Books were spread about the floor.

 

She set down the food and went to her perch by the window where the waning moon beamed down its light, into the shack. She ate her apple and smiled into its core.

 


 

 

There wasn’t much for him to pack. Only a few clothes he’d managed to take out of waste bins, a pair of thin shoes Gin found for him and a single book he’d found near an abandoned department store. The sun was setting and he saw the full moon rising above the high roofs of the skyscrapers in the distance. Light didn’t make much of a difference in the slums, and yet he felt the cold settle in more thickly as the sun went down.

 

He meant to leave by the time Ryuunosuke and Gin were asleep. They wouldn’t notice him going. He made sure that he wouldn’t leave a mess, keeping his things in a tidy pile in the corner where he slept.

 

Ryuunosuke making the decision to go with Gin to find food threw his plan out of order. Atsushi had offered to go in a rush, but the hard look sent by the other boy stopped him.

 

“You’ve gone with her more than enough times, it’s my turn, now. Stay here.”

 

With a baleful smile, Gin mouthed ‘it’s okay’ and went outside. Ryuunosuke waited to say one more thing before he left with his sister, the clothes on his back hanging more loosely as he stood. When it spoke, he did so more quietly, looking over his shoulder at Atsushi with those deep, deep gray eyes that Atsushi could scarcely read.

 

“Besides, you were tossing and turning all night. Sleep.”

 

That was the last word he had to say as he stepped outside, leaving Atsushi gaping stupidly after him. Then, he was left alone in the Akutagawa household.

 

His plans quickly changed.

 

And now here he was, back on the roads of Yokohama’s slums, at a loss for what to do next as the sun started setting. He was carrying more than he originally had, though he still had no food. He wasn’t going to take anything from Gin and Ryuunosuke when they could barely feed themselves as it was. He’d find something, eventually.

 

Atsushi knew he was too young to be hirable. The most he could hope for was to beg someone to let him do their household chores. He could do that. He could read, he could write well enough. There had to be something he could do.

 

He wanted to avoid anymore stealing as much as he could. It’d become a necessity but he didn’t enjoy it.

 

He didn’t want to get Gin and Ryuunosuke in trouble along with him if he got caught stealing. Gin was quick, she was clever, and on her own she wouldn’t get caught. Maybe Ryuunosuke was similar to her. But Atsushi...

 

His grip on his bag tightened.

 

I don’t want to be a burden. I don’t want to be useless.

 

He had to leave. They’d be better off for it.

 

Atsushi might’ve been halfway to the edge of the slums when he felt something wrap around his ankle, pulling him to a sudden stop with a harsh tug.

 

Some of the dirt got in his mouth as he fell forward, flailing, with a shriek. He yelped as his face met the ground.

 

“And where do you think you’re going, Nakajima?”

 

Atsushi promptly spat out the dirt and twisted around, his foot still caught in firm grip. Air sucked itself out of him at the sight of Ryuunosuke’s furious face.

 

Next to him stood Gin, her mouth in a tight line, but her brows drawn together in shades of hurt.

 

“Wh-What---”

 

Ryuunosuke’s lip curled as he strode forward, eyes tightened with anger and Atsushi was startled at the sheer emotion on the boy’s face. He’d never seen him so expressive before.

 

He hadn’t noticed the grip on his foot was gone, a flicker of a shadow slithering away and disappearing behind Ryuunosuke.

 

“We came back nearly half an hour ago,” Gin said quietly as she helped a shocked Atsushi to his feet. Her frown deepened. “You weren’t there.”

 

Atsushi’s mouth opened and closed. He felt his mouth dry. “I--”

 

“Did you think we wouldn’t notice?” Ryuunosuke growled, making Atsushi jump. Ryuunosuke’s mouth opened to say something else before stopping, taking in the wide-eyed expression on Atsushi’s face and the hands pressed against his chest defensively, before it closed. The dark-haired boy clenched his teeth and looked away, arms crossed. “..We went looking for you as soon as we got back.”

 

It was a quiet admittance, one that Atsushi thought he’d misheard.

 

“..You did?” he murmured.

 

“Wasn’t hard to find you,” Ryuunosuke bit out, tone dry and curt. He wasn’t looking at him anymore.

 

And, unless Atsushi was seeing things, his clothes seemed to ripple and tremble of their own accord.

 

Gin touched her brother’s elbow, squeezing it lightly. The trembles came to a stop. “Well, we found him, so it’s all right then,” she said, speaking more to Ryuunosuke than Atsushi. She turned to him and she gave Atsushi a small smile. “Let’s go home, now.”

 

She began to walk and Atsushi could only stare after her and Ryuunosuke,

 

Wait--

 

The siblings stopped in unison.

 

His breathing heavy and chest hurting as a tight feeling twisted beneath the bone, Atsushi swallowed and clenched his trembling hands into fists. “You.. want me to come with you?”

 

Gin blinked. “Yes.”

 

Something thick grew at the bottom of Atsushi’s throat. “You want me to.. to stay? I can stay? With both of you?”

 

Gin’s expression closed off as she searched Atsushi’s face, unable to say anything right away.

 

Her brother, usually so quiet and terse and only talked when needed, spoke first.

 

“If you want,” Ryuunosuke said simply with a small shrug of his shoulder. “We never said you had to leave.”

 

Atsushi stared at the dark-haired boy and gray eyes met his. They were deep as ever, but the coldness and suspicion that Ryuunosuke had looked at him with so openly just three weeks before was not there. There was... something else. It wasn’t soft and it wasn’t warm.

 

But it was something that made the hotness welling up behind his eyes burst forth as he choked out a laugh. Fat tears rolled down his cheeks and didn’t stop.

 

Gin quickly took over in place of her brother, who didn’t know what to do with a nine-year old boy who was sobbing in the middle of the street, after that and helped Atsushi get his bearings. Grasping his hand, Gin led both of the boys home. The crying had stopped by the time they’d arrived and Atsushi took the lukewarm rice given to him with a smile and reddened, puffy eyes. Ryuunosuke handed him another book as he finished, the dark-haired boy returning to the book Atsushi’d given him just a week before.

 

The book tucked against his chest, Atsushi fell asleep with ease.

 


 

 

The tiger was always hungry.

 

Hunger was an emotion the tiger had known from the first night he’d bathed in the cool moonlight. Some nights, he awoke to anger, to loneliness, to hate. Tonight, he woke up only to hunger and contentment. Even the hunger was subdued. And since the tiger was not angry and hateful, he felt no desire to sink his claws into whatever came closest. He had no urge to sink his teeth into warm flesh and lick up the remains. He felt no need to hunt, not just yet. The tiger only wanted to sleep.

 

The tiger lounged in the moonlight bearing down into the darkness of Yokohama’s underbelly, smelling the two sleeping humans (young, one more sickly than the other, would not taste well) inside the shack he laid in front of.

 

Gold eyes looked at their faces, unaware of the beast so close it could kill them with a mere swipe of its long claws, and lowered his head onto his front paws. He closed his eyes and curled his tail against his body.

 

Before he slept, the young tiger cub dug his claws into the dirt, digging deep. He gave a low growl, rumbling into the dark; a warning.

 

This place, it’s mine. It’s mine to protect. Do not come near.

 

Neither of the young humans stirred at the tiger’s deep rumble.

 

Satisfied, the tiger cub laid on its side and went to sleep in the shade of its new home.

Chapter Text

They hadn’t always lived in the slums. Gin didn’t remember since she’d only been born for less than a year when their father died, but Ryuunosuke’s memories, while faint, were vivid enough that he knew that their home used to be warm. That his belly never had to shrink down to ease the hunger. He remembered when he didn’t have to worry about making sure there was a roof over their heads.

 

Minimal as those memories were, he still carried them.

 

His father’s face was a blur, but he could sometimes recall a low voice reading out words he couldn’t recall, lulling him to sleep. His aunt, with cold eyes, said that Ryuunosuke was the spitting image of his father. It hadn’t been a compliment.

 

Ryuunosuke preferred not to remember his mother.

 

Everyone else who knew of her remembered for him.

 

The Madwoman of Yokohama, and her children, the Madwoman’s Daughter and the Madwoman’s Son.

 

No adult ever called her a madwoman to his face and her family avoided talking about Akutagawa Fuku as much as they could when her children were in the vicinity. But when they thought he wasn’t there, he listened and he heard;

 

“Something was never quite right with her.”

 

“It’s for the better.”

 

“Her poor children... What do we do with them?”

 

“They can’t possibly stay here, and certainly not with her---”

 

“He had no family, that’s out of the question...”

 

“How troublesome.”

 

When they spoke of his father it was with disdain.

 

When they looked at him and Gin, they cringed at how much she looked like their mother, and their noses wrinkled at Ryuunosuke’s resemblance to his late father. Gin had the same long, dark hair that belonged to their mother, the same curved, angular face and pull of her lips when she smiled. Gin smiled much less when they were forced to live with their mother’s family.

 

“You have your mother’s eyes,” his uncle told him.

 

There was no affection in his voice when he told six year old Ryuunosuke this. He looked and saw his beloved but strange sister’s eyes on the face of the man who, in their eyes, had disgraced her.

 

She’d disgraced herself by marrying Akutagawa Toshizo, a man far below her social station.

 

They hated Ryuunosuke. They did not love Gin, but by looking so much like her mother, they would’ve been willing to accept her being in the family to give the appearance of care when the social workers came to check up on the siblings. They never told them anything about what happened to their mother, why she’d been taken away, nor why they hadn’t been allowed to see her.

 

“It’s just not the time yet,” they’d said, strained smiles on their lips. “Your mother needs to get better first before you can see her.”

 

And they never told him what was wrong with her, only that she was sick. She hadn’t seemed sick to him. She’d been worried when men in suits kept stopping by their home on the outskirts of the slums, slamming the door and locking it before they could step inside. She kept the curtains drawn in their two-room apartment and she told her children to practice caution before going outside.

 

The last time he saw his mother, the men in suits were grabbing her by the arms and pulling her out of the threshold of their home. She’d been screaming, yelling something he couldn’t remember. She’d been crying.

 

She told them that she would come back.

 

When he and Gin escaped their uncle’s house, they returned, expecting that she’d still be there, just as she’d promised.

 

Their house, falling apart at the beams, was empty and barren, covered in dust. There was no trace of their mother and they hadn’t heard word of her since.

 

Something had always been wrong with her, it was whispered, no wonder she would abandon her own children.

 

Ryuunosuke heard it so much he began to believe it; now, he knew no other truth.

 

Father dead. Mother god knows where. A side of the family that hated their very existence.

 

They couldn’t go back to their uncle’s house even if they wanted to.

 

They wouldn’t.

 

They didn’t have a family anymore and it was left to Ryuunosuke and his sister to try to survive in the decrepit underworld of the slums. Ryuunosuke knew, his ailing coughs drawing little sympathy and his sister’s fraying clothing overlooked by apathetic eyes, that no one would step in to help them. They were on their own, and Ryuunosuke had to do his part to protect himself and his sister.

 

Gin was the provider and Ryuunosuke was the protector. Though, often, Gin wound up being his protector. He did not resent her for this; only himself.

 

Weak as he was, angry as that made him feel, he would not be useless.

 

He had to get stronger. He had to get stronger and quick so they could escape the slums, so Gin could live the better life that she ought to already have. He had to do it on his own because no one would ever lend a hand to help either of them.

 

Then, a boy with twitchy, nervous fingers and eyes the most curious shade of gold-purple handed Gin a few slices of bread when she was starving and gave Ryuunosuke a book he’d never read before, just because Ryuunosuke loved to read. No pretenses, no expectations.

 

Only kindness.

 

It was a rare warmth Ryuunosuke hadn’t felt in a long time.

 

-

 

“You’re fidgeting, Nakajima,” Ryuunosuke muttered under his breath, thin brows knitting together irritably, “Stop it.”

 

Not having realized what he was doing, Atsushi stopped fiddling with his fingers and looked at him, though he was still rather tense. “I’m sorry,” Atsushi said, cheeks flushed in embarrassment, “I’m still not used to this, I can’t help it.”

 

Ryuunosuke sighed, tightening the park around his shoulders so it laid more flat. “You’re going to have to, and to do that, you need to be relaxed or at least look it. If you keep looking so nervous and guilty, they’re going to notice.”

 

The lower ring of Yokohama was not nearly as plentiful with fresh fruit, vegetables and other foods as the inner city itself, but when it was warmer, there were more vendors and stands out full of food. Not the highest quality, but enough to get by on, so long as you had the money to buy it.

 

Penniless Ryuunosuke and Gin had no means to buy things. Nor did Atsushi. Thievery had became a mundane fixture for Ryuunosuke at eleven years old, but for Atsushi, who was clearly new to living on the streets, it still sent the boy into a moral dilemma.

 

Gin had Atsushi serve more as a distraction or a look-out when she had to go out and find things, but she was sick. She tried to hide it, but her usually quick, silent movements were sluggish, tired, and her skin was flushed unnaturally. Ryuunosuke knew his sister and caught on before she could take one step outside, demanding that she stay and use what medicine they had to recover. She tried to protest, but one desperate look from her brother stopped her and she settled into her usual sleeping place, grumbling quietly and laying down to sleep soon after.

 

Gin knew that Atsushi was uncomfortable with stealing, though he did snatch the minor things when he had to. She did her best to not make him do anything he wasn’t comfortable doing.

 

Ryuunosuke took no pleasure in taking Atsushi with him for the purpose of stealing but the younger boy had to get used to it if he was going to stay with them. Until they somehow found a means of income, they had to steal. They had no other choice.

 

And that meant that Atsushi needed to learn to not look so guilty and shifty as they moved about the crowd, unnoticed.

 

“How do I do that?” Atsushi whispered.

 

Ryuunosuke looked at the other boy, surprised to see not only that anxious expression but flickers of determination. He’s not joking, he thought, he really wants to know.

 

“...Remember that you’re not doing it because you enjoy it,” Ryuunosuke murmured, “You’re doing it because you have to. When you’re taking something think of it as if you’re just.. plucking a flower. Something innocent. You’re not taking it out of greed, but because you need it.”

 

Ryuunosuke wanted to cringe at his horrid analogy, ears flushing angrily; he enjoyed books, but he was admittedly not the most well-spoken person. Speaking was not his speciality.

 

But Atsushi was paying close attention, the nervous ticks bleeding out of his expression to one more relaxed and calm, eyes unblinking and attentive. He didn’t even poke fun at Ryuunosuke’s fumbling.

 

“All right.”

 

Ryuunosuke stared at the boy’s determined, if uneasy, expression.

 

“...If you’re still nervous, just stay close to me,” Ryuunosuke finally said. He turned away before he could see Atsushi’s reaction, focusing his attention on looking for small enough objects and clothes that would go unnoticeable. He ignored the warmth in his cheeks.

 

There was a pause before the other boy responded and Ryuunosuke felt Atsushi’s eyes on the back of his head. “Okay.”

 

Ryuunosuke, surprised, glanced over his shoulder at Atsushi.

 

The other boy looked at him, corners of his mouth quirked upward.

 

Without another word, Ryuunosuke looked forward and continued to walk, the other boy trailing after him. He didn’t speak further; it wasn’t necessary.

 

-

 

Skittish as Atsushi proved to be at times, he was a steady learner, Ryuunosuke discovered. He was still nervous, but the more they walked through the large crowds of the outdoor market, he learned to hide his more nervous ticks as he watched Ryuunosuke’s expressionless face not move an inch as small fingers quickly snatched little tools and foods. He learned to make himself seem unassuming and small as possible so that he’d go unnoticed; something he must’ve learned from Gin.

 

When he needed to be a distraction, Atsushi could stand in front of a stall and appear curious, leaning forward to take a closer look as Ryuunosuke slunk into the shadows and took what they needed.

 

He wasn’t as stealthy as Ryuunosuke was, though he supposed he couldn’t hold that against Atsushi. He had an advantage over the other boy, after all.

 

The beast rumbled and purred as it reached out to snatch a bottle of flu medicine from an unsuspecting bag, the tendril disappearing into a mere shadow as it returned to his parka. It went unnoticed and Ryuunosuke tucked it into the small bag against his hip. It would hopefully help Gin. She was made of stronger stuff than he and would recover quickly.

 

Gin was too stubborn to be cowed or weakened by illness.

 

The bag, heavier than it was before, rustled against his hip and Ryuunosuke was glad he chose to wear a parka. It made the bag less noticeable. Sitting down against the wall of an alleyway, Ryuunosuke exhaled and pressed his back against the cold wood.

 

The beast growled quietly, shuddering against his skin and Ryuunosuke drew his legs closer, muscles sagging and exhausted. He’d used it too much today. Normally, it wasn’t a problem, but he had to be quick and unseen, and so it’d eaten much of his energy and strength. Fatigue was slowly creeping on him and Ryuunosuke forced open his eyes, frowning to see that Atsushi was no longer with him.

 

Well, maybe he chose to go back already. He knew the way back by now. Gin and himself had shown him enough of the slums for Atsushi to have a general idea of where things were. Maybe he saw something that he wanted.

 

Maybe someone caught him and Ryuunosuke needed to go get him before anything else could happen. Not that the police were much use in these parts of Yokohama, but it would scare Atsushi. The boy was nervous enough, he didn’t need a run-in with those thugs.

 

Or...

 

Ryuunosuke grit his teeth and closed his eyes.

 

He’s done it before, he could very well do it again. He did it while you and Gin were gone and he could’ve lost you in the crowd on purpose. He might have--

 

Fingers curled into his palm, digging into the skin as their empty house forced its way to the front of his mind after years of not thinking about it--

 

Clenched shut eyes shot open at the sound of feet and a crinkled bag. He looked up, and Atsushi’s shadow fell over him as the younger boy panted, trying to catch his breath.

 

Ryuunosuke stared at him, shoulders stiff. “Where did you go?” His eyes narrowed. “I thought you were right behind me.”

 

Atsushi flushed at the sharp tone and twisted the long strand of hair nervously. He held a brown paper bag against his chest with one arm. “I, uh, got a bit side-tracked. I wanted to get something, and I saw you sit down so I already knew where to look for you, so...”

 

His shoulders sagged. A thin brow raised. “You got something on your own?”

 

Atsushi’s eyes narrowed, that strange shade of purple-gold flashing with annoyance as his cheeks puffed out, indignant. “I’ve done it before! You don’t need to look so surprised!”

 

“Yes,” Ryuunosuke drawled, feeling the muscles in his cheeks twitch, “But you’ve mostly been a decoy for Gin instead of doing it yourself.”

 

Atsushi huffed, and Ryuunosuke wondered when the other boy grew relaxed enough  around him to give him such attitude, minor as it was. He saw Atsushi glance at his bag, parka half draped over it.

 

“Do you.. think we’re finished for today?”

 

Ryuunosuke hummed and stood, knees shaking with little strings of fatigue. “Yes,” he said simply.

 

Atsushi waited until he stood and they began walking together, Atsushi half-hiding behind the slightly taller boy in order to make themselves as unnoticeable as possible. It wasn’t until they were out of sight of the larger crowd, where their haul couldn’t be seen, that Ryuunosuke indulged in his curiosity.

 

“What did you get?”

 

Atsushi stopped, blinked and looked down at the top of his bag. It was folded to keep whatever was inside covered. It crinkled as he opened it, wincing at the loud noise, but Atsushi held out his hand to Ryuunosuke.

 

Ryuunosuke’s eyes widened.

 

“A fig?”

 

Atsushi shifted. “Y-Yeah..”

 

Widened grey eyes looked up into slightly nervous gold. Ryuunosuke peered, leaning closer to take a look inside the now open bag; more figs. Not the prettiest, a little misshapen, but lush purple and bound to be sweet to the taste.

 

He looked at Atsushi. His brows furrowed, mouth parted in a silent why.

 

Atsushi swallowed and looked down, pressing the bag more firmly against his chest. “I-- I noticed that you were looking at them earlier, and you don’t really seem to like oranges much, so...”

 

Watching the other boy bite his lip, Ryuunosuke was taken aback by the bright expression on his face when Atsushi looked back up. Only the furrow of his brow betrayed his anxiousness. “If you don’t want them, that’s fine, too--”

 

“No,” Ryuunosuke said. “No, it’s--”

 

He paused.

 

He glanced downward and scuffed his foot against the ground. “It’s.. it’s fine. It is,” he said firmly. “I just..”

 

I didn’t expect it. I never asked for it.

 

Why did you get them? You got them for me?

 

Ryuunosuke was unable to ask and was unsure if he wanted to hear an answer. He bit his lip, teeth digging into the flesh and felt Atsushi’s curious stare on his face.

 

Atsushi had become less scared of looking at him directly in the weeks since he’d given him that book. His chest tightened at the thought and an odd warmth coiled beneath his collarbone.

 

(It unnerved him.)

 

Ryuunosuke looked at him, thin brows furrowed into a hard stare.

 

“Why?”

 

Atsushi blinked slowly at him, those peculiar eyes of his slightly widened.

 

“...Well, because you like them, don’t you?”

 

Ryuunosuke stared and Atsushi looked down, shuffling his feet, a faint flush coloring his pale cheeks.

 

“And I just-- Wanted to get them for you. That’s all.”

 

Ryuunosuke’s intense stare heightened, searching for any lie on that face that expressed far too much emotion, emotion that nearly got them caught with the sheer guilt he exuded while snatching the things they needed-- he found none.

 

Atsushi’s face was far too honest.

 

The back of his neck felt warm and Ryuunosuke coughed into his hand.

 

“...Thanks.”

 

The brightness of Atsushi’s surprised gape and smile that followed was nearly blinding, not quite like the sun-- but the moon on a crisp night, no clouds to be found. It strengthened the gold sheen of his eyes.

 

Warmth grew in his pale cheeks and Ryuunosuke muttered a ‘let’s go’ under his breath and tried not to look at the smile that looked so natural and right on Atsushi’s face. The other boy said nothing apart from an agreeable hum, and they returned to the shack.

 

Gin swallowed down the medicine with a grimace but smiled as Atsushi handed her an orange out of Ryuunosuke’s bag. Gin admonished her brother for making a face at the fruit and Atsushi giggled quietly under his breath before handing the older boy a fig.

 

Ryuunosuke considered the fruit before him and the knife they all shared. Pursing his lips, he cut it in half. He kept his eyes lowered when he held out half of it to Atsushi. He didn’t have to look to feel the surprised expression on the younger boy’s face.

 

“Here,” he grumbled, “We can share. It’s partially yours, anyway.”

 

He looked up when Atsushi’s fingers brushed against his as the boy took his share, chancing a glance at his face.

 

Atsushi’s smile was like the sun and Ryuunosuke could feel its burn. It was pleasant.

 

“Thank you.”

 

Ryuunosuke hid a cough behind his hand and muttered, ‘it’s nothing,’ under his breath. 

The corners of his mouth twitched upward when Atsushi hummed happily as he ate his half of the fig.

 

Gin smiled into her orange slice as she caught glance of the pink dusting the tip of her brother’s ears.

 

---

 

He’d always treasured the books Gin found for him while on her runs, depositing them into his lap when she returned. The books they’d taken from their childhood home were few and far between, the majority already taken by social services after their mother disappeared. Many were too heavily worded and difficult for a seven year old to understand, but Ryuunosuke took them up as a challenge and kept them tucked away for safety in the shack. What books he’d already read and had no desire to read anymore, he gave to Gin.

 

When her eyes grew watery and lonely, when the puppet shows he gave her weren’t enough to make her smile, he read his books aloud to her. He allowed his beast to wrap around her to keep her warm and waited until she was sleeping before closing the book.

 

He would always share his books with his sister, but they were still his possessions and he felt a rigid contempt towards the thought of someone taking them away from him. To allow another to touch his books, to read them to their content--- that was something he never anticipated.

 

Atsushi held the books Ryuunosuke let him borrow with care, understanding their preciousness, and he read them with such rapt attention that Ryuunosuke thought it looked like hunger. Some of the books Ryuunosuke had were for children older than themselves, and yet Atsushi still read them. Sometimes his brow wrinkled in confusion and he’d bite his bottom lip as he tried to figure out what a character meant, occasionally mouthing out words to himself.

 

Ryuunosuke noticed that sometimes he’d hear Atsushi muttering the words on the page under his breath. He’d look up and Atsushi would see the curious look on the older boy’s face.

 

Then, Atsushi would pale, pallor turning sickly and he’d purse his lips shut. He’d try to hide beneath the book itself, pulling his legs in to make himself smaller.

 

Ryuunosuke’s eyes narrowed, suspicious.

 

“Did they not let you read?”

 

Atsushi jumped, gold eyes blinking wide. “What? Who?”

 

“The orphanage,” Ryuunosuke said. The sudden tension in Atsushi’s body didn’t go unnoticed and his frown deepened. “Did they not let you read there?”

 

Atsushi looked down, staring at the pages but not reading from them. His lips were pursed tight.

 

“Not exactly,” Atsushi said, “As long as I was out of the way, they didn’t care about me reading in the library. Almost no one went in there, anyway.”

 

There was a slight upturn of his lips and Ryuunosuke didn’t like it; there was no warmth in that smile. It looked false and cold on Atsushi’s face.

 

“They just,” Atsushi paused, lowering the book to his lap and now fiddling with his fingers, picking underneath the nails, “Didn’t like how or what I read.”

 

Ryuunosuke’s eyes narrowed; for once, he was glad that Gin was out on her usual errands, because Atsushi rarely spoke about the orphanage he’d come from in front of Gin, let alone before Ryuunosuke. And Gin chose not to press the issue, though she had her suspicions.

 

She shared those same suspicions with her brother.

 

He’d started wondering when Atsushi shrunk back in fear, flinching, when Ryuunosuke shouted at him for running off without warning several months ago. Ryuunosuke strove not to raise his voice in front of the other boy afterwards. Not a difficult task, but that fear in the boy’s face had him stilling. Atsushi was more relaxed around Gin from the start, though he was now just as relaxed around Ryuunosuke.

 

And Ryuunosuke didn’t mind his presence anymore. Not since Atsushi had given him The Penal Colony.

 

“What didn’t they like?”

 

Atsushi swallowed. “..I like to read books aloud to myself sometimes. I don’t even realize when I’m doing it. The staff, ah... didn’t like it when I did that.”

 

Something flickered in the boy’s face that made Ryuunosuke small stomach go cold.

 

Ah. So that’s the kind of place you ran away from.

 

Atsushi was clutching the book again, this time pressing it against his chest as he tucked his knees in. The lower half of his face was hidden behind it, and he was beginning to tremble. He didn’t elaborate, and though he didn’t explain what would make the staff so angry as to punish a child for reading out loud to himself, Ryuunosuke didn’t want to press for more.

 

Paper crinkled as Ryuunosuke picked up a book and flipped through the pages, eyes scanning over the words lazily. “I don’t mind if you read out loud to yourself.”

 

He heard Atsushi sit up. He could imagine the surprised look on the boy’s face. “You don’t?”

 

“No,” Ryuunosuke said.

 

There was a pause, and then a soft thank you muttered out. Ryuunosuke glanced up from his book to see Atsushi staring down at his knees, still tucked up to his chest, a smile on his lips.

 

“What do you like to read the most?” Ryuunosuke asked, surprising himself as the words blurted themselves out.

 

Atsushi sat up and his legs lowered, relaxed. His expression turned thoughtful and tapped his fingers against the cover of the book.

 

“..I like Chinese fairy tales and books,” Atsushi said quietly. His cheeks flushed, embarrassed. “It’s stupid, I know.”

 

“It’s not,” Ryuunosuke said. “I like them, too.”

 

It wasn’t a lie; he hadn’t thought of the stories read to him when he was much younger in years. But he remembered faint stories that once brought him to sleep. His uncle had several Chinese classics in his library that looked as if they’d been untouched for years. The time spent in that awful house had been short, and yet he’d itched to touch them.

 

Such books were a rarity in the Nadir, much as he longed to have them. In all likelihood, he would never get to read them.

 

Atsushi had been given an opportunity to read such books and yet he was condemned for it. He was punished for reading books in a way that he enjoyed.

 

There was something not quite right with that picture, as if an important puzzle piece was missing, but looking at the other boy’s face now, how he tried so hard to hide himself, how rarely he talked of the orphanage, what he did say when it was spoken of-- the picture had already taken form.

 

Ryuunosuke wondered just how terrible this orphanage was and felt anger stir in his blood. He felt his beast respond, growling deep below the fabric, and quieted it. He didn’t want to startle Atsushi.

 

“What was your favorite story?”

 

Atsushi dragged a finger over the spine of the book.

 

“..Ye Xian.”

 

Ryuunosuke hummed and both eventually returned to their own respective books as Gin arrived back from her errand run. He waited until both were asleep, bellies half-full with the haul Gin brought back, before he left.

 

It hadn’t been an easy find, but many of the old department stores and decrepit bookshops had items lost to dust and time. Many that no other would pick up, nor miss. It was not the finest copy and it was not anywhere close to the best translation, but Ryuunosuke was nothing if not stubborn and determined.

 

Atsushi had been confused when he woke up to Ryuunosuke holding a book out to him, eyes wide and mouth parted, surprised.

 

“It has Ye Xian and other stories, it’s not the best copy, but it should do,” Ryuunosuke said, shifting on his feet and unable to quite look at Atsushi in the eye. “Think of it as a thank you.. in return for the one you gave me.”

 

Atsushi’s hands shook as he took it, tracing over the title with the tips of his fingers.

 

“And if you want to read them out loud, you can,” Ryuunosuke said, hoping to fill the silence; he couldn’t remember talking so much to one person in such a short span of time. “I wouldn’t mind.”

 

Atsushi made an odd hiccuping sound and Ryuunosuke looked, only to find the other boy’s eyes welling up with tears.

 

“Brother, I can’t believe you” Gin scolded from her watchful corner, “Why would you make Atsushi-kun cry--”

 

“I wasn’t trying to!” he hissed with some hysteria he’d rarely felt before, feeling much like that day they’d caught Atsushi trying to leave without a word. He’d been able to take care of his crying sister before, but not a boy so close to his age that he didn’t know all that well. “I was just--!”

 

“Nobody’s given me a gift before,” Atsushi sniffled, his voice thick with the tears rolling down his cheeks, cutting Ryuunosuke off from his defensive tirade. Despite the tears, he was smiling and hugging the book. His gold eyes were shimmering.

 

“Thank you, Akutagawa-kun.”

 

Ryuunosuke’s breath caught at the brightness and warmth of the other boy’s smile, feeling it seep into his cold skin and bones. He looked away before he let himself drink it in too much, hiding the lower half of his face behind his palm as he faked a cough.

 

He wasn’t worthy of that light.

 

“It’s nothing,” he said harshly, quickly, before the red dusting his face could make itself visible, “I just don’t want to be indebted to you.”

 

Atsushi laughed, breathy and light; it suited him. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “Thank you anyway, Akutagawa-kun.”

 

Ryuunosuke made a non-committal noise, a grunt to show that he was listening, still hiding his face and looking away.

 

Atsushi settled in to read and Ryuunosuke began to tidy up the shack, rearranging the books into a more organized pile by the wall adjoining Atsushi and Ryuunosuke’s usual spots. Gin started to prepare their modest but warm meal for the night and hid a smile behind her hair, glancing at her brother with a knowing glint in her eye. He pretended not to notice.

 

-

 

“You like him being here.”

 

The moon was shining through the open window, the makeshift curtain drawn back to let the warmth of a fading summer through. He’d been using the moonlight and the lamp Atsushi had found to read. He was almost finished with The Penal Colony. He only had a few select short stories to read. He’d enjoyed reading it far more than he expected and knew he would be rereading it soon.

 

Atsushi had gone on an errand just after sunset, urging both of the siblings that he could handle going by himself after two months of tagging along after them and Ryuunosuke showing him how to snatch items without being noticed. He still didn’t enjoy stealing (Ryuunosuke and Gin both saw it on his face, a smile too nervous and shaky, and had looked at each other knowingly), but he seemed determined. And so, after being faced with the boy’s unexpected stubbornness, both of the siblings let him go. It’d been nearly two hours since.

 

Such a lengthy time away from the shack was not unusual for either of the siblings. But neither were used to Atsushi being the one absent instead of one of themselves.

 

Ryuunosuke read to both relax himself and distract himself from the empty space beside the books where Atsushi had been reading.

 

Gin’s sudden declaration had him pulling away from his book slowly, leaving it laid open in his lap. He trained his face to reveal nothing, neither the surprise of Gin’s bold statement, nor the nervous twisting in his stomach that suddenly began.

 

“What makes you think that?”

 

The corners of her mouth twitched upwards.

 

“You can’t trick me, Ryuu,” she said, ghost of a smile playing on her lips. She drew the blanket Atsushi found for her closer around her shoulders. “You wouldn’t give a book you found yourself to just anyone.”

 

“I’ve gotten you books before,” he said, frowning.

 

Gin snorted. “I’m your sister, dummy. You have to get things for me sometimes.” Her smile grew. “You got Atsushi-kun that book because you wanted to. Because you like him.”

 

Saving his page, Ryuunosuke closed the book and put it aside. He looked outside the window instead of his sister’s knowing, almost smug face.

 

“That doesn’t mean anything,” he lied.

 

“Yes, it does, brother,” Gin said softly.

 

Pursing his lips, Ryuunosuke shot a glare at the full moon beaming through the window. “..You’ve never told me, you know.”

 

The brush in Gin’s hand lowered to her lap, long locks of her dark hair thrown over her right shoulder. “About what?”

 

Ryuunosuke looked at her. “Why you brought him back here in the first place.”

 

This time, it was Gin’s turn to be silent.

 

His eyes narrowed, not unkindly. “You wouldn’t bring anyone back, before. You never have. Why him?”

 

Gin pressed her lips together and sighed as she brushed her hair back over her shoulder. Several long seconds passed, Gin considering her thoughts and words with care, and when she did speak, it was with that same soft voice.

 

“He didn’t look at me with pity. He looked at me and he... understood. He’s,” Gin bit her lip. “He’s good.

 

Ryuunosuke said nothing, closing his eyes.

 

“I know,” he murmured.

 

He heard and felt Gin shuffle towards him, her shoulder pressing against his own. Ryuunosuke let his head lean against hers as Gin rested her head on her brother’s shoulder.

 

“I’m glad he’s here,” Gin whispered.

 

Ryuunosuke hummed.

 

Gin closed her eyes with a smile, understanding Ryuunosuke’s answer without needing the words. She fell asleep to the shadows that Ryuunosuke created with the puppets, given to him by his beast. Body exhausted, he joined his sister in sleep before he could hear the scrape of claws on the roof, digging into the wood as a mark of territory. Nor could he hear the curious snuffle of a large snout, nor could he see the gold eyes that studied him before they, too, came to sleep.

 

There was an abundance of fruit when they came to and Atsushi was sitting in the sunlight beaming through the window, a rare breakage in the clouds, a book in his hands.

 

“Good morning,” Atsushi said with a smile.

 

It rang in Ryuunosuke’s ears like a soft bell, tinkling awake in the dawn, and he wanted to grasp it in his hand before it was gone.

 

-

 

By the time Atsushi had been living with them for three months, it was as if he’d always been there.

 

Atsushi was still skittish at times, but he was relaxed around the siblings, and Gin was pleased to see that he no longer regarded her brother with caution, as if he were some wild dog ready to bite him. He was learning to hide his guilt on his face, not being so expressive in front of the strangers he filched from. He was learning how to be quick and silent as he moved through the crowds.

 

But to the Akutagawa siblings, he gave his smiles and kindness that hadn’t been weathered away by the harsh cold and sharp edges of the slums.

 

When Gin left on her errands alone, gathering food, clothing and other supplies they needed, the silence between the two boys was no longer stiff and awkward. Sometimes, they both read in silence, sometimes they had short conversations, others, Atsushi would softly read a more dense book out loud to himself and Ryuunosuke would listen. He didn’t mind the sound of Atsushi’s voice sounding out the words on the page.

 

It was a pleasant addition to the usual silence of the shack.

 

He was reading the book Ryuunosuke had given him, the older boy noticed. There was a tug to his mouth, a relaxed smile as he read, and Ryuunosuke wondered which story he was reading. It was a collection of stories he had only vague memories of.

 

He nearly began to wonder which of his parents read those stories to him. He quickly squashed the curiosity.

 

“Which story are you reading right now?” Ryuunosuke asked.

 

Atsushi looked up, blinking. A tiny smile grew, the book still open in his lap. “The Waiting Maid’s Parrot.”

 

Ryuunosuke hummed. “I don’t remember that one. Could I hear it?”

 

Atsushi sat up, surprised. “You.. want me to read it out loud?”

 

Ryuunosuke cocked his head. “Aren’t these sort of stories best heard read aloud?”

 

The other boy gaped at Ryuunosuke, mouth parted as if to say something before he thought better of it. He said, ‘all right,’ shifted in his spot and cleared his throat. Then, he began to read.

 

His voice began shakily, then became steady as he grew used to Ryuunosuke’s rapt attention as he read, and Ryuunosuke became absorbed in both the story and the contentment on Atsushi’s face.

 

It was a silly story of a woman reincarnated as a parrot guiding her sister, a parrot now reincarnated as a human girl, towards a happy marriage with a scholar and a poet, sending messages between the lovers and ensuring the match while keeping the waiting maid away from the emperor. It was one Ryuunosuke hadn’t heard before and had anyone else read it to him, he would’ve scoffed derisively. Even now, he thought the ending too optimistic and wondered why the parrot would put such effort into marrying off her sister despite getting herself killed as a result. A foolish choice; she could’ve saved herself the trouble by not interfering. Perhaps they would’ve found each other either way.

 

Ryuunosuke listened to the lilt, fall and rise of Atsushi’s voice as he read and saw the smile spreading across his face as the story came to a happy end. Rather than distract him, Atsushi’s caring voice and obvious love for the story he was holding only enhanced the story itself.

 

And Ryuunosuke was content to listen.

 

“Do you want to hear more?” Atsushi asked when the story was finished.

 

Ryuunosuke shrugged and turned to glance out the window. “I wouldn’t mind.”

 

Atsushi’s smile broadened into a grin and he turned to the next page. The next story was of Li Ching and the Rain God.

 

It soon became a routine and the shack was no longer so quiet as night fell. The sound of Atsushi’s voice rereading tales to both of the siblings lulled them into more peaceful sleeps than either could recall.

 

When Ryuunosuke took his turn in reading aloud to his sister and the younger boy, Gin hid her smile behind her hair and was ever more glad that she chose to bring Atsushi home with her that day in the alley.

 

“I like it when you read out loud, brother,” Gin said one night over a cold bowl of rice. “It’s nice.”

 

Ryuunosuke grunted, continuing to eat his rice in sullen silence. His cough had gotten worse that day and Atsushi went on their daily errands in his stead.

 

“I do, too,” Atsushi admitted quietly, smile shy and smile as Ryuunosuke’s gray eyes looked at him sharply. “You have a nice voice when you read, Akutagawa-kun.”

 

Gin knew her brother well and knew that he was not terribly expressive most days, but she knew him well enough to see the faint red dusting his cheeks at the other boy’s compliment. She also saw how he gradually began to read to them both more, his voice low and quiet but soothing in its calm.

 

Thank you, Atsushi-kun.

 

-

 

There were two unspoken rules of living with each other that the three children had come to make;

 

The first, that Atsushi was not to ask about the circumstances that led to the Akutagawa siblings living in a shack that was falling apart in the seam of Yokohama’s underbelly.

 

The second, neither were to ask the details of the orphanage Atsushi’d run away from, nor why he’d left in the first place.

 

None of the children had ever pushed for this, but there was a clear reluctance from all parties to delve into that uncomfortable territory. It was best left unsaid for all three. They’d only decided those rules for themselves when basic questions were met with terse replies, revealing neutral fact and none of the details. The three were fine with this. Their rules had gone unbroken in the five months since Atsushi began living with them.

 

Ryuunosuke was the first to break the rule.

 

Baths were rare; to stay clean, they wiped themselves down with wet cloth and Gin and Atsushi took turns with the small amount of laundry they had. Now that it was beginning to grow colder, the fall and winter months creeping closer, showers and baths had to be done quickly. They were lucky that day; a fire hydrant had burst and there was an ample supply of water to take before they stopped it up. They took the opportunity to bathe.

 

Ryuunosuke hadn’t meant to see it.

 

He let Atsushi wash himself down first. Gin already had hers and she was off getting more water to use for cooking later. Atsushi insisted on letting Ryuunosuke going first, but he’d refused, never explaining his reasoning and hoping that Atsushi wouldn’t press the subject too much. Both were too stubborn for their good, but Atsushi eventually cowed with a huff, agreeing to take a quick wash first and took off his shirt. Ryuunosuke looked away then, hearing the sound water rushing off of a small body.

 

He bit his inner cheek at the high-pitched yelp and mutter of ‘cold! cold!’

 

Atsushi was quick about it and so Ryuunosuke chose to hand over the other boy’s shirt before Atsushi had to scramble around for it. His glance had been brief, but it’d been enough.

 

Ryuunosuke saw two large scars emboldened on Atsushi’s right hip, faded but jagged and angry. It looked old and giant on the boy’s small body. They made his skinny bones look even frailer. They held Atsushi’s hip in a vice grip and for that one split second, Ryuunosuke was speechless.

 

Rage spread throughout his body and Atsushi remained oblivious to his stare, back turned to him. He was wiping down his wet mop of hair, the locks uneven and choppy.

 

Ryuunosuke had his own scars. But none were like that.

 

They looked as if they’d been burned into his body.

 

“Ah, where did my shirt go--” Atsushi murmured, “Let me just get changed and then you can have yours, Akuta---”

 

“Who did that to you?”

 

Atsushi stilled. Slowly, he turned around.

 

Ryuunosuke was still holding the fresh, clean shirt, but his lips were pursed tight and his grey eyes were flashing. He felt his beast growl and thrash against his skin, ready to be cut loose and find the source of Ryuunosuke’s anger, but he clung onto his last thread of restraint; he didn’t want to startle Atsushi.

 

“Who--” Atsushi bit his lip and looked away, eyes lowered beneath his wet bangs. “Who did what? I don’t know what you’re talking about, Akutagawa-kun---”

 

“Yes, you do,” Ryuunosuke said sharply as Atsushi took the shirt from him and hastily put it on. He grabbed Atsushi by the wrist before he could run away; he saw it in his face. Unless he’d done something to stop him, Ryuunosuke knew that he’d try to run. “Scars like that don’t happen naturally. Who gave those to you?”

 

He loosened his hold when he felt Atsushi tremble, fingers only half-gripping the thin wrist as Atsushi bit his lip and looked down at his feet.

 

Ryuunosuke was silent, waiting, as Atsushi breathed shakily and looked up at him. The look on the other boy’s face made something in his chest tighten painfully. It wasn’t because of a cough.

 

“Can-- Can we go inside first?” Atsushi murmured.

 

Ryuunosuke’s nod was slow and he didn’t say a word, but led the other boy back inside. His fingers were still gripping the other boy’s wrist. It was the first time he’d ever held his hand.

 

The wet strands of Atsushi’s hair stuck to his forehead, that longer, uneven lock brushing against his kneecap as he drew his legs in.

 

“I don’t remember how I got it,” Atsushi admitted quietly, muttering the words into his knees. “I only remember how much it hurt.”

 

Atsushi swallowed hard.

 

“It’s always the bone that hurts first, then it’s everything else the day after.”

 

Ryuunosuke’s fingers, still lightly wrapped around the other boy’s wrist and not realizing they were still there, twitched. His skin was warm to the touch, he’d noticed.

 

Atsushi was also trembling again.

 

Hearing the shuffling of feet outside the door, Ryuunosuke sharply glanced towards the source of the noise, then after determining who it was, returned his stare to Atsushi. The other boy still wouldn’t look at him, but the words spilled out before the boy could stop himself.

 

“I don’t remember how I got those scars, I’m sorry,” Atsushi whispered.

 

Ryuunosuke lightly squeezed the other boy’s wrist. “It’s all right.”

 

“It’s not,” Atsushi said harshly, making Ryuunosuke stiffen. “It’s not all right, there’s--” Atsushi’s fist unclenched and clenched. “There’s.. a lot I don’t remember and I can’t tell you why. But.. there’s a lot of things I do remember.”

 

Ryuunosuke hated the strain of Atsushi’s smile, how haunted his normally bright eyes were, he hated how just speaking of the orphanage put the other boy in this state.

 

He hated the orphanage most of all.

 

“Nakajima,” he said firmly, lips pursed tight and brows drawn, “That’s enough, you don’t need to keep telling me this---”

 

Atsushi shook his head with ferocity. “No, no, I-- I want to, it’s just-”

 

Swallowing, Atsushi closed his eyes, tilted his head back and exhaled slowly.

 

“You and Gin-chan have been so nice to let me stay with you, you deserve to know.” Atsushi lifted his head and gave Ryuunosuke a strained smile.

 

“You can ask me whatever you want.”

 

Ryuunosuke stared at the other boy, studying his face, the mask that Atsushi was trying so hard to keep up; he saw right through it. There were too many questions he had for him, but only one was deemed important enough.

 

“What made you leave?”

 

Atsushi’s smile twitched and a light left his eyes, gold eyes dull. He looked like a ghost.

 

Ryuunosuke didn’t like it.

 

It wasn’t... right.

 

“The headmaster hammered a nail into my foot.”

 

-

 

Gray eyes cracked open to slits when Ryuunosuke felt a blanket being draped over himself and Atsushi. The other boy’s head was tucked against his shoulder, his messy, uneven locks of hair bunched against his cheeks. Atsushi would’ve looked peaceful as he slept if not for the swollen eyes, still red from when he suddenly burst into tears as he told Ryuuonsuke of his life in the orphanage.

 

He’d cried for a long time, hiccuping and choking on his own words.

 

When he spoke of the room in the basement where he was kept when he was being ‘bad,’ he started to shake.

 

Ryuunosuke grabbed the back of his head and forced his face into the crook of his neck. He ignored the screaming of his beast as it reacted to his own wild emotions.

 

You’re not there anymore.”

 

Atsushi had paused, and then proceeded to sob into Ryuunosuke’s shoulder until he fell asleep with quiet sniffles. Ryuunosuke watched him as he fell asleep, his sniffles turning into quiet snores. The end of his scarf, worn out and gray, moved by itself to wrap around Atsushi’s shoulders.

 

He hadn’t fallen asleep, though he was close to, until Gin put the blanket over them.

 

He looked at his sister. She gave him a grave look in return. The corner of her mouth was quirked upward, sad.

 

“How much did you hear?”

 

Gin sat down and put on a sweater she’d stolen. It was black and looked warm. Good, Ryuunosuke thought. He didn’t want her getting sick again.

 

“Most of it,” she said quietly. “I’d had my suspicions. But I didn’t....”

 

Her fists clenched and her eyes, gray as his, glittered with something dangerous.

 

“He’s not going back,” Ryuunosuke announced, his voice like steel; quiet and unmoving.

 

Gin paused, looking at her brother. She saw that he was still holding the sleeping Atsushi’s hand. He hadn’t let go of it since he’d sat down with Atsushi hours before.

 

“No, he’s not,” she murmured.

 

Her eyes met her brothers and saw the same steely determination that she felt. Without words, both siblings came to the same conclusion. They agreed to it, despite knowing that it would be more of a strain on what little they already had. They hadn’t spoken about it before, never said it in words, but both Gin and Ryuunosuke felt the same way.

 

Gin decided it when Atsushi helped her on her runs for supplies, food and clothing despite his own fears of being caught, of his own moral dilemmas, and yet still sharing his keep with her.

 

Ryuunosuke, when Atsushi was kind and giving enough to hand over a book without being asked. When he read stories out loud for him and encouraged him to do the same. When he gave Ryuunosuke a fig to share.

 

They’d known for weeks, but now, both of the Akutagawa siblings made it an immoveable decision.

 

He’s not going back there.

 

Atsushi is staying.

 

With us.

 

-

 

“You don’t need to keep calling me by my surname anymore, you know.”

 

Blinking, Atsushi looked up from his modest bowl of rice, a piece sticking to his cheek. “What?”

 

“You’re living with us,” Ryuunosuke said flatly, rising up to flick away the bean of rice, making Atsushi squawk in embarrassment. “You already call Gin by her name, I think you’re allowed to call me by my own, too. Stop being so formal already.”

 

“But-- But that’s--” Atsushi stuttered, swallowing down the rest of his rice and rubbing at his cheek where Ryuunosuke had flicked it off. “I.. wasn’t sure if I was allowed to...”

 

Ryuunosuke kept his frown from going heavier, having an idea of where the hesitance came from. “Well, you are. So.. stop calling me ‘Akutagawa-kun’ already.”

 

“Um,” Atsushi blinked, surprised by the other boy’s insistence. He thought about protesting until he saw the tight muscles of Ryuunosuke’s jaw and sighed; there would be no arguing against him now.

 

Ryuunosuke, he’d learned, was nothing if not stubborn.

 

“..Okay,” he said, a small smile curling on his lips. “What do you want me to all you, then?”

 

Ryuunosuke shrugged, opening the book in his lap and squinting down at the words. “I don’t care, whatever you want.”

 

Atsushi’s smile quirked upward with a little giggle at Ryuunosuke faux nonchalant attitude, and then his expression became contemplative.

 

“...Can,” he began, hesitant, then stopped to purse his lips when the other boy looked at him. “Can I call you ‘Ryuu?’”

 

Gray eyes widened and, subtly, Ryuunosuke’s grip tightened on his book while something warm grew in his chest at how the syllable rolled off of Atsushi’s tongue. He lifted the book so that it hid the lower half of his face, feeling his cheeks burn. He coughed and pretended not to see the inquisitive gold-purple eyes on him.

 

“That’s fine,” he said shortly.

 

Surprised, Atsushi stared at him and his smile widened into a broad grin. “Okay... Ryuu.”

 

Ryuunosuke’s fingers pressed into the spine of his book, one he’d reread several times over, and felt warmth rush into his face; he had to hide it behind his book or else it’d show on his horribly pale skin. He waited until it’d passed before he lowered it, just so that Atsushi was looking at him again.

 

“Do you still want me to call you by your surname?” He asked slowly.

 

Atsushi sat up straight, eyes widened, and he shook his head. “No, you don’t have to.. I won’t mind if you call me something else.”

 

Ryuunosuke exhaled and lowered his eyes back to his book, seeing the words but not reading and absorbing them. “All right.. Atsushi.”

 

Cheeks flushing pink, Atsushi beamed at the other boy and dug back into his little bowl of rice with a smile, bringing the tiny shack a glimmer of light with the sheer power of it. He had a habit of lighting up the room around him when he smiled like that.

 

Ryuunosuke liked seeing it.

 

For his part, his ears still flushed pink against his dark hair, Ryuunosuke hid a faint ghost of a smile behind the pages of his book, mouthing the other boy’s given name to himself silently.

Chapter Text

On rare occasions did Atsushi witness his fellow orphans being adopted.

 

It’d been a consensus made amongst his peers; that too many of them were too old to ever be adopted, that their society looked down on them as unwanted mistakes, as shameful to be rejected from their birth lineage and blood, much too shameful to ever be adopted. To be adopted was a rare gift, a treasure that Atsushi could never hope to grasp.

 

The disbelief came first. Then, the realization. After, happiness pooling into their eyes and faces. Sometimes, they cried. The youngest were often the ones who got adopted. Rarer were the older children, and they cried the most when they were adopted. They were children who’d all but lost hope of ever being adopted. The majority of the children who lived in the orphanage stayed there until they were of age. Then, they left, and Atsushi never heard from them again.

 

Those who were blessed with the gift of being adopted left with tearful eyes and smiles that looked so happy as they walked out the doors with their new families.

 

Atsushi had always wondered if he would ever know such happiness.

 

As he got older, past the age of ideal adoptability, and as those rare visitors interested in adoption passed him over at the sight of his raggedy clothes and anxious disposition, he lost hope of both ever being adopted and of having that happiness. When he finally found the strength to leave in the middle of the night, his left foot still throbbing from the pain of the needle that’d gone straight through the bone, he didn’t hope to find anything resembling a home and the happiness it would carry.

 

Atsushi certainly didn’t expect to find it in a shack that was falling apart at the beams, littered with cans of cold noodles, rice, and books spread about the floor.

 

His stomach was still tight from lack of food and he was still in want for warmer clothes, cloth that didn’t keep falling apart from the hems, but he was no longer alone.

 

“Let’s go,” Ryuunosuke said softly as he nicked a sweater out of a trashcan, which he then gave to a stunned Atsushi.

 

Atsushi’s fingers curled against the fabric. It was old and had an odd smell, but it felt like it’d be warm. The colder months were coming in and people were already starting to bundle up with what little they had.

 

They were out on a run to find as many things as they could in preparation for the colder months. Ryuunosuke and Gin had endured Yokohama’s winters countless times by now, they knew what they had to do. It was Atsushi’s first winter on the streets and he was woefully unprepared. Ryuunosuke promptly told Gin to stay at the shack to keep watch over their things while he and Atsushi went out on a run for supplies. With less people milling about due to the dip in temperature, they had to be more careful about who, when and where they stole things from. And yet, despite this setback, Ryuunosuke hadn’t been worried at all.

 

Atsushi hadn’t even seen how he got all of those clothes, blankets and other things that he folded neatly into a bag that was underneath his parka. Gin was quick, but not nearly so quick as Ryuunosuke. It was odd.

 

And sometimes, he thought he saw Ryuunosuke’s clothes move of their own accord.

 

Atsushi looked down at the fabric of the sweater Ryuunosuke had taken. It was a deep blue color, almost black in the darkness of the streets. It looked a little too large for him and would hang over his skinny limbs heavily. But it would be warm.

 

He looked up at Ryuunosuke’s back and smiled.

 

“Okay, Ryuu,” he said, trotting forward to catch up with the other boy. He kept the sweater hugged to his chest as they returned home.

 

Gin was waiting for them, moving aside the plank of wood they used to keep the draft from coming in. They shared noodles and old fruit between themselves, and when it came time to sleep, Gin turned on the space heater she’d stolen (Atsushi was surprised to find that the shack had an outlet. Gin and Ryuunosuke just shrugged) and they huddled together under layers of blankets.

 

Ryuunosuke was in the middle, Gin on his left, and Atsushi on his right.

 

Ryuunosuke had rolled his eyes at how flustered Atsushi had been at first when Gin told him that for warmth, they’d sleep under the same blanket. Atsushi tried to back out under presumptions that Ryuunosuke wouldn’t want him sleeping right against him, and Ryuunosuke lightly flicked his nose, chiding. He smirked faintly at Atsushi’s indignant squawk.

 

“It’s fine. Stop worrying so much. Just get under here already.”

 

Grumbling and giving Ryuunosuke a half-hearted glare, Atsushi did as he was told and crawled beneath the blankets. If Ryuunosuke minded how Atsushi all but nuzzled into Ryuunosuke’s side, his own face burning, he did not say. Ryuunosuke just closed his eyes and leaned against the wall, Gin half-laying her head on her brother’s shoulder. Atsushi didn’t go to sleep right away, stare glancing between the moonlight beaming through slivers and cracks and the sleeping faces of the Akutagawa siblings. Ryuunosuke’s half finished book was still resting by his feet.

 

He’d made a bookmark from a piece of cereal box cardboard. Ryuunosuke was quite adamant not damaging the pages inside; he found the idea of dog-eared bookmarks an act of heresy.

 

Giggling softly into the fabric, Atsushi closed his eyes and snuggled beneath the thick layers of blankets, pressing his side further against Ryuunosuke’s. The other boy’s shoulder was bony and thin, but it fit just right underneath Atsushi’s chin. Some of his hair tickled Atsushi’s forehead.

 

Atsushi fell asleep to the sound of Gin and Ryuunosuke’s even breathing, eased by Ryuunosuke’s warmth, and wondered idly if this was happiness.

 


 

 

Though the slums were not modest in size, it was not the chaotic mill of the city above, and anything odd or strange spread like a wildfire licking along the blades of dry tall grass. Several knew of the Madwoman of Yokohama and her two children that lingered in the shadows, all sunken-eyed and cold gray stares. Many knew that the daughter and son of the Madwoman kept to themselves, and those of the younger generation knew of the Madwoman’s Son’s strange ability.

 

When several people caught sight of an animal far too large to be just an ordinary cat, words began to spread and mill.

 

It did not appear often. Perhaps once every few months, and the beast did not stick around to be seen or caught by any human. The beast only appeared at night--

 

--Below a full moon.

 

Parents scoffed and assured their children that monsters such as werewolves did not exist, for some children wondered if it was a giant, white-colored wolf. But wolves had not lived in Japan naturally for decades. They’d never been able to give explicit detail on what the beast look like; all most could remember were a flash of white and black stripes and a pair of golden-purple eyes that seemed to glimmer in the dark.

 

Too small to be a cat. Perhaps a very large dog, though it did not explain the stripes. It fled too quickly for anyone to catch a glimpse of it.

 

Some children began to whisper about a ghost that flitted between the alleyways. Adults scoffed but watched the shadows warily, searching for eyes that glowed yellow in the darkness.

 

The monster did not harm anyone, but any unexplainable presence would leave anyone on edge. The only evidence left behind of any kind of damage or disturbance were vendors that’d been ransacked of their fruits and vegetables. There was no saying where they’d gone.

 

Such instances were rare, but few as they were, they were enough for word to spread around the slums, which trickled their way to the downtown lights of Yokohama itself.

 

It was only a matter of time before a whisper escaped the city itself.

 


 

 

It didn’t snow in Yokohama that year. Snow was another rarity in the city, though the cold lingered in fogs deep within the streets of the slums. Gin said they were lucky to have found so many items to stay warm with this year. There’d been some years that were scarce of supplies, though they’d managed to get on well enough throughout them. Winter would not be difficult to get through this year.

 

None of them had taken Christmas into consideration. They did not find presents for each other, as none of the three really celebrated it. The Akutagawa siblings had their reasons, ones Atsushi did not ask for, and they had an idea as to why Atsushi didn’t.

 

And yet..

 

Atsushi was just going on a food run, gathering whatever canned foods, what would last long, and whatever fruits he could find. He didn’t expect to linger: Gin and Ryuunosuke were waiting for him on the other side of the open market. Sales were going on due to the new year closing in.

 

He overheard chatter about modest celebrations families would share with each other upon the new year, staring at the adults leading each other and children about the streets from the loop of his scarf. The fabric was warm from his breath. He looked at groups of family with a distant, dulled sort of longing before he continued to walk.

 

The sting had long since lessened. It’d been far stronger before, so strong that it felt as if he were bleeding form the inside out from the Headmaster’s words, telling him over and over again what a sad, pathetic thing he was, to be abandoned by his very own parents.

 

He didn’t even have any pictures of them.

 

Atsushi told himself he didn’t want them anymore.

 

Shaking himself out of his descending stupor, Atsushi kept his bag tucked against his hip, adjusting the strap so that it stayed firm on his shoulder. There was a faint rim of golden red hovering over the city skyline and the cold was gradually becoming more biting; it was nearly dusk. He had to leave soon. They’d agreed to convene down the street from the house.

 

Well..

 

He fingered the end of his scarf. It was black in color, a little world weary, but still warm despite everything. Ryuunosuke had given it to him just days before Christmas, unable to quite look him in the eye as he handed it over to him.

 

“It’s not much. But it should keep you warm.”

 

Atsushi smiled and drew the scarf closer, tighter around his shoulders and neck. It did.

 

And he wanted to give Ryuunosuke something in return. Gin, too.

 

There was a department store nearby that often had thrown way items behind it and Atsushi had to duck into an alleyway to get to the dumpsters. It was where they found the majority of their clothes and other menial items. It took some digging, but Atsushi eventually found a deep mahogany dress, just about Gin’s size and thickly made. It’d keep her warm.

 

It took Atsushi a little longer to find what else he needed. Deep red and purple was bleeding into dark navy blue just as his fingers curled around the hardback cover. He squinted at the title; I Am a Cat. The title made Atsushi smile and he flipped through it, the sound of the pages flapping together pleasing to his ear.

 

This is it. I hope he’ll like it.

 

Ryuunosuke’s fondness for cats was not lost on Atsushi. More than once had he caught Ryuunosuke kneeling down to the ground and reaching out a hand for a stray cat to lick and nuzzle. Most cats were wary, but when a rare few happily indulged in some petting, it made Ryuunosuke’s pale face brighten.

 

A few times, Atsushi thought he even caught a smile on his usually stoic face.

 

Hugging it to his chest briefly, smiling into his scarf, he put it into his bag along with the warm, simple looking dress he’d neatly folded into it. He leapt out of the dumpster and started to walk. He looked up and frowned; it was getting late and they were meant to meet up soon. Gin didn’t like it when he wandered off too far.

 

“Brother gets very agitated and annoyed when you disappear, but don’t worry, it’s how he shows he’s worried” she’d said with a devious smile, Ryuunosuke giving her a withering, half-hearted glare in response.

 

Atsushi giggled quietly at the thought and looked forward to going home with them. His pulse quickened a little as he wondered how Ryuunosuke and Gin would both react to their gifts. He hoped they would like them. He really, truly did.

 

Getting home was the forefront of Atsushi’s thoughts as he half-power walked through the streets, the air growing steadily colder as the sun went down. He’d become mostly accustomed to the streets and their winding natures, as well as their sharp turns; he didn’t know them as well as Gin or Ryuunosuke did, but Atsushi thought he’d come to know them quite well so far. He’d learnt from the best, after all.

 

He was so focused that he didn’t even see the people around him, they were blurs of color in his determination to reunite with the siblings and return home. Atsushi weaved through the minimal crowds, keeping his bag clutched against his hip and scarf firmly wrapped around his neck and shoulders. But, perhaps he should’ve paid better attention to his surroundings..

 

Atsushi teetered back and nearly fell to the ground with a yelp at a sudden hard impact, stumbling on his feet. “Sorry! I’m sorry--!” he breathed, giving a quick bow to the stranger without looking at their face.

 

..Otherwise, he would’ve known to have taken a completely different direction.

 

Ready to move around them and continue on his way after apologizing, Atsushi lifted his head.

 

A heavy hand suddenly gripping the top of his hair, fingers digging into his skull firmly stopped him. It was familiar.

 

And it made his stomach cold and his heart to freeze in his chest. His breath quickened, and his skin grew peaky. Sickly.

 

Atsushi felt like he was going to vomit.

 

(...And he would’ve never had to see him again)

 

“Mere apologies will not be enough to save you from punishment, Nakajima Atsushi.”

 

Those fingers curled against his scalp, gripping the hair between them tightly. Just enough for Atsushi to feel the first pinpricks of pain.

 

Atsushi couldn’t bear to look up. He felt himself beginning to tremble as he stared at the ground, wide-eyed and unblinking. His mouth opened and closed without noise or word.

 

“You’ve been far too much trouble than you’re worth these past seven months, Atsushi.”

 

Atsushi’s eyes burned.

 

No. No no no no nono nonoNO --

 

The Headmaster’s expression darkened as he tightened his grip, making the child in his hold whimper at the pulling of his hair. His staff looked gravely on, staring down at the child they’d been looking for for months. Their expressions ranged from apathy to anger; it’d been difficult trying to look for him. As unusual as his appearance was, he’d managed to hide himself quite well since running away.

 

(Once they caught rumor of a mysterious white beast roaming shadows of Yokohama’s slums, they knew where to go.)

 

Atsushi gave a strangled half-sob when the headmaster suddenly tugged harshly at his hair, making his scalp scream in agony and causing him to stumble on his feet. The bag hit his leg painfully.

 

“We’re going home.”

 

No. No, that place isn’t home. It’s never been home. This--

 

Atsushi’s eyes swam as his feet numbly moved below him and he saw Gin and Ryuunosuke’s faces. A wet, choked whimper fell out of his mouth.

 

That isn’t home. This is.

 

They are.

 

Eyes burning until he could barely see what was front of him, Atsushi parted his mouth and his heels dug into the ground.

 

Then, he screamed.

 


 

 

His beast was agitated.

 

It dug into his skin through his clothing, he felt it rumble through the fabric and into his very bloodstream. Normally, unless his emotions were far out of bounds and it was reacting to them, or unless Ryuunosuke required something from his beast, it never awoke on its own. Only when the beast sensed something amiss did it awake like that, and as the beast was a part of himself--

 

Ryuunosuke knew something was wrong.

 

In the middle of the crowd, Ryuunosuke came to a stop, wide gray eyes staring at the dirty ground and his torn shoes.

 

When she no longer felt her brother following her, Gin turned. “Brother?” Her brows furrowed, worried by the look on his face. “Is something wrong?”

 

“I don’t know,” Ryuunosuke said. “I think so. Maybe.”

 

Gin frowned. “...We should go home. Atsushi-kun should be finished by now, too.”

 

“I’ll go get him,” Ryuunosuke said quickly, taking his sister aback as he turned on his heel and made his way through the dwindling crowd. The people around him moved out of his way or ignored him entirely, and he maneuvered between them as he felt his blood start to steadily race. His breathing grew heavier the more he walked, gray eyes scanning for any sign of silver hair. He felt his beast curl further along his skin, growing more and more agitated alongside its master’s feelings, working in tandem with one another.

 

The longer it took to find Atsushi, the greater his agitation grew. Ryuunosuke coughed harshly into his scarf and his actions grew more frantic and sporadic as he moved between people, trying to remember where he’d last seen Atsushi. They’d separated at a fruit stand and Atsushi had gone the opposite way, assuring him with a smile that he’d be fine on his own.

 

I should've never left him.

 

Growling under his breath and gritting his teeth to the point of pain, Ryuunosuke nearly missed the mutters spreading around a small crowd of adults.

 

What caught his attention was a single comment--

 

“Poor child, he seemed so frightened... I suppose its good that they found him, apparently they’ve been looking for him for  months.”

 

“Was he a runaway?”

 

“Mmm, something like that. He said the boy was ‘troubled,’ and that he was worried after not being able to find him after so long..”

 

“Well, with hair like that, it was only a matter of time before they found him--”

 

They were quite thrown off by an eleven year old suddenly forcing himself into the conversation as Ryuunosuke demanded to know where they’d gone, what color the boy’s hair was, who he’d been with. Normally, he would’ve been brushed off as a nuisance, but something in his face had the adults stopping.

 

Once they cautiously gave him the direction they’d gone in after confirming his suspicions, Ryuunosuke broke into a run.

 

His legs muscles screamed as he ran, faster than he could ever remember running before. Throat and lungs burning, he coughed roughly and nearly stumbled to his knees, his weak body unused to so much activity. But his beast was growling so loudly, biting into his skin and spurred him to keep going--- he could not stop. He would not stop.

 

His ears were ringing with the rush of blood in his veins and his own pulse by the time he heard it.

 

A noise so unnatural and wrong.

 

Their clothes clashed harshly with the grime, dirt, and earthy colors of the slums, far too clean and white, so much so that it blinded Ryuunosuke. So clean that Ryuunosuke knew that they had to come from the outside, perhaps even from outside of Yokohama itself. Those sorts did not venture into the Nadir often, if ever. That kind preferred to believe that the underbelly of Yokohama and its inhabitants didn’t exist at all, turning a blind eye to it. Nobody came down to the Nadir without a reason.

 

Ryuunosuke and Gin, because they had only each other and no family that would take them back.

 

Atsushi, because there was nowhere else for him to go.

 

But them--

 

Ryuunosuke saw their reason for arrival, and who they were, when he saw Atsushi thrashing under a tall man’s, with short-cut hair and a grave expression, grip, and heard him screaming. He screamed so loudly and cried so much that it sounded as if Atsushi’s lungs were about to burst.

 

The noise rattled his bones.

 

Atsushi continued to struggle, screaming at the man to let him go and he was digging his heels into the ground as the man tried to drag him along. Ryuunosuke realized with a start, one that had his beast screaming in his ear drum along with the anger bubbling forth, that the man was pulling Atsushi along by his hair.

 

And he wasn’t alone.

 

Ryuunosuke couldn’t hear what the man’s companions were saying, he only saw that they were trying to grab the thrashing boy by the limbs to get him to stay still and stay quiet.

 

Most of the people who lived in the slums turned away at such scenes; runaways were not unusual in their neighborhood, nor were adults of authority coming to retrieve them, though they were almost always runaways from outside of the slums. Nobody was going to interfere with the scene, even with a small child screaming his lungs out.

 

It wasn’t their business.

 

But Ryuunosuke was not going to stand quietly--- not when the sight of Atsushi screaming, eyes bright and glittering with angry tears as his face turned red with panic, trying his damndest to escape their grip burned into Ryuunosuke’s mind.

 

Just as the last time he ever saw his mother was forever branded into his memory, loathe as he was to recall.

 

They were not going to take him.

 

Not him not him not him NOT HIM ---

 

Give him back.

 

The beast roared and coiled, rearing back once before it rippled and burst forth.

 

RASHOMON!

 


 

 

The scream that pierced Atsushi’s ear was not his own.

 

He’d long since lost the ability to distinguish his own words, shouts and screams, scalp burning from his hair being pulled hard for so long, and bruises were already starting to form from hands trying to grab him. His throat burned and his lungs were sore, to the point it felt as if his very vocal chords were starting to peel off by the skin. Atsushi’s head was ringing but he tried so so badly to get away, out of the Headmaster’s grip.

 

His hold promised punishment.

 

Atsushi remembered how the Headmaster had nearly drowned him years ago by keeping his head in a basin of water, screams and gasps for air muffled. And he struggled even harder.

 

His energy was almost completely spent, much as he tried to keep fighting, when he saw something dark burst forth---

 

And a shout belonging to a voice that was not his.

 

One of the orphanage staff that oversaw housekeeping and made sure that all the children did all of their assigned tasks, Atsushi often given the most humiliating and painful of work (scrubbing the baths until his skin began to peel and his nails broke) shouted and pulled his arm back. Blood trickled between his knuckles as he gripped his arm, stumbling back.

 

The grip on Atsushi’s hair was finally gone when a dark spike suddenly sliced through the Headmaster’s shoulder.

 

Blood just barely splattered onto Atsushi’s face when he felt a sudden pressure wrap around his waist. He looked down, and saw something black and sputtering with what could’ve only been red lightning tighten itself around him. Gaping, Atsushi stared wide-eyed at it.

 

It’s so... warm .

 

He could not even shout or yell in shock at whatever it was wrapping around his middle in a forceful hold. He could neither he take in the shouts of pain from the Headmaster as he clutched his shoulder, nor the alarmed calls of the staff, when Atsushi nearly had the wind knocked out of him as the black tendril yanked.

 

The ground fell out from underneath him as he was suddenly lifted up and Atsushi yelped in alarm. Air whipped around him and slapped his face and Atsushi began to struggle in its hold--

 

Just as he suddenly felt his back slam against something else. Something much more warm and--

 

Ryuu?

 

Red electricity crackled around Ryuunosuke as the black tendrils drew back, retreating into the worn jacket he’d stolen last month, a wild expression on his face. His arms had wrapped around Atsushi’s middle tightly, clutching Atsushi close to him. Dust settled from the impact of Atsushi slamming into him, Ryuunosuke’s feet having dragged hard against the concrete.

 

Eyes wide, Atsushi’s voice cracked hoarsely as he breathed out his name.

 

Blood dripped off of the hems of Ryuunosuke’s jacket as the boy trembled, clutching Atsushi in a vice grip. “Let’s go,” he said harshly. “Now.”

 

His eyes were wide, zeroed in on the orphanage staff, still startled and caught off guard from their injuries. Never had Atsushi ever seen such malice and hatred and fear on Ryuunosuke’s face before.

 

He always thought Ryuunosuke was too strong to ever be afraid of anything.

 

“R-Ryuu--” Atsushi murmured, twisting as much as he could while caught in the other boy’s grasp. “What--What was that?”

 

Now-- there was no mistaking it. Now that they were so close, Atsushi could see it so clearly---

 

Ryuunosuke’s clothes were moving of their own accord, trembling in a mirror of the rage on Ryuunosuke’s face. Atsushi thought he heard a growl coming from Ryuunosuke; not one of hunger, but that of a distorted yowl from a threatened, cornered animal.

 

Atsushi saw it once more when one of the staff-- the same woman who’s smacked his hand for not speaking in proper Japanese, who’d taken his favorite books from him and sent him to his fate in the Headmaster’s office, their ‘teacher’-- tried to rush towards them.

 

Only for a dark spike to slam near her feet, bringing her to a stand-still. It did not pierce through her, but it was enough to make her stop in her tracks.

 

Months and months of thinking he’d just been seeing things culminated in one piece of knowledge that Atsushi now cradled to his chest;

 

Ryuu is an ability user.

 

Ryuunosuke’s arms trembled and shook around him, then they lowered, only for him to grasp one of Atsushi’s hands tightly. “We need to leave now.”

 

Atsushi glanced over his shoulder only once-- just a spare gaze sent towards the man whose memory still made his left foot throb from the phantom pain a metal nail being jammed through flesh and bone and those that worked below him. Just one look at the eyes that blazed at him now when they were once so cold.

 

He felt no remorse nor regret when his feet carried him along with Ryuunosuke’s frantic run, grabbing Ryuunosuke’s hand back just as tightly.

 

I’m not going back. This is my home now. They’re my home.

 

He’s my home.

 


 

The pain had gone from piercing and white-hot to a dull throbbing, the blood still slowly dribbling down his arm and staining his white coat dark red. It was not that he was unused to pain of this sort; in fact, he’d known it quite well. But it’d been a long time since he’d felt pain of this sort.

 

The Headmaster watched as the two boys disappeared into a dark alley, jaw clenched when Atsushi looked back at him only once.

 

It was an expression of cold defiance.

 

Those tiger eyes blazed and then they were lost to the darkness of the slums.

 

Jaw clenched, the Headmaster clicked his tongue and stood up. “Honestly, the lot of you-- collect yourselves already.”

 

His staff silenced their squabbling and licking their wounds, turning towards him; waiting for some kind of guidance. His most qualified teacher, a women who disliked Atsushi the most out of the staff, spoke up, “Shall we continue looking for him?”

 

Her frown was heavy, brows furrowed together thickly in extreme dislike for the boy they’d been looking for for the past seven months. For a boy with such distinctive features that would make anyone take pause, he’d been absurdly difficult to track down, at least until rumors of a ghostly, monstrous cat trickled its way outside of Yokohama.

 

The Headmaster glanced at her, expression heavy and stony. He glanced down at his blood-stained fingers, glaring down at the sticky coating and recalling how he’d gotten the injury to begin with.

 

The other boy had been an unexpected wrench thrown into the equation.

 

He supposed there was some serendipity in that Atsushi had found an accomplice in a fellow ability user, one with a power possibly just as destructive as Atsushi’s.

 

For he had never seen such desperate malice on such a young face before.

 

“If that boy is going to be with him, finding him again is going to take even longer than before,” he finally said. “No doubt that the child he was with will be even more violent should we stumble across him once more. For now, we will return home. We’ve been away for far too long, the orphanage is under-staffed as it is. We will go and tend to our injuries. Chances are, he’ll still be here when we return. After all--”

 

He smiled without mirth.

 

“--What is a child without any family, no money, and no resources going to do in the slums? He will be here for the rest of his life even if we do not interfere. When we come back, he will still be here. Let’s allow him to suffer the consequences of his actions a little longer.”

 

Any other child would probably starve to death or die from the elements on their own in the slums, that he’d survived for this long already, on his own or not, was an impressive feat.

 

But surely, that was the resilience of the tiger.

 

He collected himself, entered into a nearby clinic so that he could dress his and his employees wounds. Once their injuries were clean and tended to, they collected the rest of their things and bought train tickets to return to the orphanage back in the countryside.

 

The Headmaster never saw the girl that hid behind the shadow of a dumpster, her knuckles white from how tightly she held the handle of the knife. Her hold didn’t relax until after they’d gone and her brother and Atsushi were safe in the darkness. Were it not for Ryuunosuke interfering, she would’ve stabbed that man who’d grabbed Atsushi so violently in the leg without hesitating.

 

If they went after him and Ryuunosuke again after they’d run, she would not have hesitated.

 

And they never would’ve seen it coming.

 

Her eyes, dark and gray, watched them as they left, tails tucked between their legs, and her vice grip loosened. She did not let go of her knife.

 

He has no money, no family, and he may have nothing, but he has me and my brother.

 

Sheathing the knife, she tucked it into her bag and stepped out into the dim light, eyes trailing from the retreating backs of the orphanage staff to the alley in which Ryuunosuke and Atsushi disappeared into.

 

“Do not come back,” she whispered.

 

If you do, neither Ryuunosuke nor I will hesitate.

 


 

 

“...Ryuu.”

 

Ryuunosuke was silent. His back was slumped against the wall of the alley they’d darted into. His arms were once more wrapped around Atsushi’s middle, Atsushi’s back against his chest, and his forehead was resting on Atsushi’s shoulder. He hadn’t said a word since they’d started running.

 

Atsushi’s legs were burning from running so much and he was still trying to catch his breath.

 

Ryuunosuke had fallen into a coughing fit and he’d trembled so violently, Atsushi was worried that he would start coughing up blood or get sick all over the alley floor. Neither had happened, thankfully, but Atsushi was still worried.

 

And now, after suddenly pulling Atsushi into a tight hold, he’d not spoken a word, hiding his face against Atsushi’s back.

 

Atsushi didn’t know what to do.

 

He’d never seen Ryuunosuke like this.

 

“Ryuu.”

 

Ryuunosuke started to tremble, and Atsushi felt how his hands shook, laced together against Atsushi’s stomach.

 

The shaking stopped once Atsushi lowered a hand on top of Ryuunosuke’s, holding it in a gentle grip.

 

“I’m okay, Ryuu,” he murmured.

 

His voice was still hoarse, nearly ripped from how much he’d screamed, and he still felt the last tremors of how much his body shook once the Headmaster grabbed his hair and began to pull him away.  To talk at all made Atsushi’s throat hurt and he was starting to feel stiff in Ryuunosuke’s hold, but he couldn’t bring himself to move.

 

Ryuunosuke was warm. He was firm.

 

He was safe.

 

Minutes seemed to pass before either of them spoke again and Atsushi had no desire to, throat still sore and too warm in Ryuunosuke’s hold to bring himself to move. They sat there, neither noticing the slight chill of the winter air. Despite the cold, Atsushi was so exhausted and yet felt so secure he could’ve fallen asleep there.

 

“Did he hurt you?”

 

Slowly, Atsushi lifted his head.

 

“..Who?” Atsushi asked quietly. He could feel Ryuunosuke’s breath against his neck.

 

Ryuunosuke’s arms squeezed around him. They shook, as did his voice, still muffled into Atsushi’s cloth covered shoulder. “That man,” he growled out, fingers curling into the skin of his arms, tightening the grasp he had on Atsushi. “Did he hurt you?”

 

“..No, not really.”

 

He felt Ryuunosuke’s skeptical gaze burn into the back of his head and Atsushi looked at the tops of his tucked in legs, staring at the knee as if it would make the lie ever more convincing; but to Atsushi it wasn’t a lie. The Headmaster had hurt him far more deeply before. Pulling at his hair was harmless in comparison.

 

He tucked his legs in further when he felt his foot throb faintly.

 

“Thank you, Ryuu,” he whispered, his voice shaky and breathy. Atsushi whimpered as Ryuunosuke’s arms tightened around him, though he jumped when he felt something soft wrap around his ankles drawing him closer. He looked down, and saw dark tendrils wrapped around his legs, keeping him close.

 

The very same that grabbed him by the middle and ripped him out of the Headmaster’s hold.

 

Unable to contain his curiosity, Atsushi reached down and brushed his finger against the tendril; cloth.

 

It was... warm.

 

Like a heartbeat.

 

Like it was alive.

 

Atsushi was fascinated.

 

The black tendril shirked from beneath his touch and retreated back into Ryuunosuke’s clothing. Ryuunosuke was still against Atsushi, barely breathing. His face was still pressed against his shoulder. He hadn’t said a word.

 

Atsushi swallowed and twisted around in Ryuunosuke’s hold so that he could better look at him. He met a mess of black hair, the other boy’s head still lowered to his shoulder, stiff and unmoving. He’d barely responded to Atsushi moving.

 

“Ryuu.. was that your ability?” Atsushi asked softly.

 

Ryuunosuke jolted, a twitch of his arms. This time, Atsushi saw how the hems trembled with movement, just as Ryuunosuke did.

 

He wasn’t just imagining it.

 

All this time..

 

“It is.. isn’t it?” Atsushi asked, expecting no answer.

 

Ryuunosuke remained silent.

 

Hesitating and holding his breath, Atsushi pursed his lips and dragged his finger along the hem of Ryuunosuke’s coat sleeve. It was still now, as a normal piece of clothing was, but it was still so vivid; how it’d moved to Ryuunosuke’s will as if it were a living being of its own.

 

Atsushi had heard of ability havers in passing. No one at the orphanage, as far as he knew, had one. They were a small percentage of society as a whole but, should their abilities be uncontrollable, they could wield a lot of destruction. He used to wonder what it’d be like to meet someone who had an ability.

 

And now, this entire time, one such person had let him live in his home.

 

Atsushi grasped the fabric between his cold fingers and gave it a small tug. “Ryuu,” he said firmly.

 

“Rashomon,” Ryuunosuke rasped after a long beat. “It’s called Rashomon.”

 

He still would not lift his head up, and so he missed the awed, fascinated gleam of Atsushi’s eyes. Atsushi looked at Ryuunosuke’s dark jacket, now unmoving. “Rashomon...” Atsushi murmured, rubbing the worn cloth with his thumb. It was warm. “What.. does it do?”

 

He felt Ryuunosuke swallow and breathe against his shoulder. “..I can manipulate my clothing and turn it into anything I want. I can make it move however I want, as long as I’m wearing it.”

 

Oh. That’s why he always bathes alone.

 

“..Will you show me?” Atsushi whispered, lips brushing against the messy, wild strands of Ryuunosuke’s dark hair.

 

Ryuunosuke said nothing, nor did he move.

 

Atsushi held back a sigh and remained still in Ryuunosuke’s iron hold, unused to the other boy being so willing to touch but not minding it; it felt.. nice. Atsushi parted his mouth to tell Ryuunosuke that it was okay not to show him, that he didn’t mind, they could just go home--

 

--When Ryuunosuke lifted one arm from around Atsushi’s middle.

 

Atsushi’s breath sharpened as a black flower with little stripes of red along the petals emerged from the hem of Ryuunosuke’s jacket sleeve.

 

Silent from awe, Atsushi reached up to touch it. The petals were not as soft as a real flower’s, but the fabric was so warm that Atsushi could not help but admire it. As if it were something truly precious, he cradled the flower in his palms gently.

 

“Ryuu.. this is amazing.”

 

Slowly, he felt Ryuunosuke lift his head off of his shoulder. Thin brows knit together into a skeptical, anxious expression.

 

“‘Amazing’?” He repeated, disbelief coloring his tone.

 

Atsushi smiled at him, still stroking the edge of the petals. “Yes, it is. It’s... Amazing, Ryuu. And you saved me from--” Atsushi’s face paled, eyes darkening as he remembered, but he returned to the present after a firm squeeze of Ryuunosuke’s arms. “..From that place, with this ability.”

 

Letting go of the flower, Atsushi grasped Ryuunosuke’s shoulders. When the boy did not shirk away from his touch, Atsushi beamed at him, eyes slightly misty.

 

You’re amazing, Ryuu.”

 

The tears of relief that he’d been holding back were finally let loose when Atsushi wrapped his arms around Ryuunosuke in a firm embrace. His shoulders shook until Ryuunosuke’s unsteady arms, trembling, wrapped around him, clearly unused to such touch from Atsushi--or anyone that was not Gin.

 

Atsushi croaked out thank yous in a mantra as the tears streaked down his face, gripping at the same clothing that saved him from being returned to that awful place, and buried his face in Ryuunosuke’s thin, firm shoulder.

 

Thank you.”

 

Ryuunosuke’s embrace became more firm, more true and strong, and he let Atsushi cry into his shoulder until he was too tired, too sleepy, to keep them coming.

 

The two boys, orphan and orphan, embraced in the chilly darkness of an alleyway in the slums, and the cold did not feel so all-consuming.

 

Atsushi was asleep when Gin found them, eyes swollen red, but expression peaceful as he stayed curled up in Ryuunosuke’s hold, head resting against the other boy’s thin chest. Ryuunosuke glanced at his sister as she lowered down to sit beside him. He exhaled and sagged against the wall as she perched her head on his free shoulder. Their dark hair meshed together as both stared at the boy that gave them such a clean gleam of light in the dreary underbelly of Yokohama.

 

Who gave them something neither thought either would have; a friend.

 

Gin watched how Ryuunosuke kept his chin atop Atsushi’s messy locks of silver hair, holding Atsushi so gently against him, and not for the first time, was grateful for Atsushi.

 

“Brother,” she murmured, “Let’s go home.”

 

Ryuunosuke’s gaze flickered to her, then back to Atsushi, listening to his even, steady breathing. “Yeah,” he rasped, “Let’s go home.”

 

Careful not to jostle Atsushi around too much, keeping him in his arms, Ryuunosuke pushed himself up from the ground. Gin steadied him when he stumbled a bit from Atsushi’s weight, though he wasn’t too heavy, and helped Ryuunosuke upright. She quietly suggested that he wake Atsushi up or let her carry him, but Ryuunosuke shook his head, no.

 

“I don’t want to wake him up,” he said softly.

 

“..Okay,” Gin replied, smiling.

 

Carrying an exhausted and sleeping Atsushi the entire way, despite how his thin arms screamed in sore protest, Ryuunosuke and Gin took their friend home, where he was meant to be.

 


 

 

They infiltrated all parts of the city, in the highest of skyscrapers to the bottom sewers, like the rats that made tunnels and labyrinths through buildings, using the pipes to scavenge for food. It was their job to keep an eye on the entirety of the city so that nothing would ever go unnoticed; the chaos that wrangled their organization under their old boss had come to an end, and now a more stable power was in place. Now, he made sure that all of the cities were under his watch, even the darkest underbelly. After all, what better place to discuss matters with clients, make their exchanges and dispose of waste after a job well done?

 

Nobody would ever think to look in the slums, after all.

 

While the slums made a good front and hiding place, there was not much of note or special interest that came from inside the slums itself.

 

Sometimes, though, exceptions were made.

 

Bored hazel eyes glazed over the blurred letters on the pages of his book, glancing them over but not absorbing them. He glanced at the girl with long blond curls and scowled, returning to his book that he barely read.

 

She was eating cake again, eating with her mouth open and loudly, the frosting on her cake squishing audibly with each bite and stab of her fork. She wore her new dress grudgingly, but felt pride in showing off to the one who begged that she wear it.

 

He didn’t even look up when he heard the door open; an underling doing a daily report after disposing the bodies of those suspected to be traitors. Dumped right on the outskirts of the slums. The underling gave every single necessary detail of how the job went. Nothing out of the ordinary and nothing that captured the bandaged boy’s interested.

 

He fiddled with the dirty end of a loose bandage, bored, until the underling mentioned hearing about an odd scene that sounded rather violent, something he’d heard murmurs about in the slums.

 

It wasn’t one of theirs, and violence was nothing unusual to the them.

 

How boring, he thought, yawning. So loudly and purposefully it earned him a sharp, violet-eyed glare.

 

He pretended not to notice.

 

Bored, he barely paid any attention---

 

Until he heard one particular, odd little detail.

 

Uses his clothing as a weapon, hm?

 

Smile curling on his lips, Dazai Osamu twirled a loose bandage around his finger.

 

Interesting.

Chapter Text

Two Years Later

 

They were children who, too, knew the cold concrete of the slums and no guiding hands to lead them into a safe, warm home. Together, in silent agreement, they worked with one another in order to survive as they lived out in the fields. But they stared at the boy with dark, dark gray eyes that seemed almost black in the shadows of the slums and whispered amongst themselves, ‘maybe he has no feelings, maybe he feels nothing,’ fearful of his expressionless face and how his power could cut flesh as if it were paper.

 

Akutagawa Ryuunosuke, the Madwoman’s Son who felt nothing.

 

The anomaly to the young children who worked and lived alongside him, was boy with hair silver like the moon who smiled with genuine warmth and stood by Akutagawa Ryuunosuke and Gin’s side, always. His name was Nakajima Atsushi, and he was a soul far too kind to be beside the likes of the Akutagawa siblings.

 

Rarely were the three ever seen without each other. Even rarer was it to not see the elder Akutagawa and Atsushi without one another, without Ryuunosuke hovering by Atsushi’s side as if he were a looming shadow, glaring at anyone who did not have a kind word for the younger boy and muttering lowly in a threatening voice to speak to Atsushi more politely, or else.

 

Atsushi, for his part, didn’t seem to care and simply brushed off rudeness and hostile behavior and words sent his way by other children with a baleful smile. He calmed down Ryuunosuke with only a gentle word and light pat of his hand on Ryuunosuke’s. Like a feral dog, Ryuunosuke would calm in an instant, and they would retreat to their home to read, Atsushi reading out loud softly under his breath. Gin would often join them, offering to chime in and read along the parts of the dialogue, as if they were reciting a play.

 

The other children of the slums didn’t understand the close-knit trio that they were; how the children of the Madwoman of Yokohama and a boy whose origins were completely unknown and who was so unlike the stoic Akutagawa siblings were so close was inconceivable. And yet, they were.

 

Maybe there was serendipity in it; that a boy who felt nothing and a boy who felt too much would wind up finding each other.

 

Either way, the other orphaned children of the slums, who feared Ryuunosuke’s expressionless face and Gin’s far too quick gestures when she held a knife, could make no sense of it. Still, when it became necessary, as resources dwindled and survival was becoming more difficult, they worked with the Akutagawa siblings and Atsushi.

 

Atsushi’s easy smiles and polite nature made it easier to approach the trio and through Atsushi, they and their fellow slum-dwelling peers communicated and convened with each other. If Atsushi minded playing the messenger in any way, he made no indication of it. With his help, the Akutagawa siblings lent a deft hand in finding food, gathering supplies and stealing the resources they needed to live through the harder months. Without Atsushi, it surely would’ve been much more difficult and Ryuunosuke wouldn’t have been so willing to help.

 

Atsushi was nice and he had only kind words to say to the other children, though he, too, was strange in that he often kept his distance from the other orphaned children, despite being so kind and polite. A strange expression often crossed his face as some of the younger children spoke of the foster homes they ran away from, the parents who’d left them to the elements, and other miserable tales. That was when Ryuunosuke would interfere, send a sharp, cold look and quietly call, “Atsushi,” and they would leave together, side by side.

 

Later, Atsushi would come back and smile as if nothing had happened at all.

 

Strange and distant though he was, it wasn’t hard to like Atsushi. Rarely did he have a cruel word to say.

 

Unless he overheard the things they said about Ryuunosuke.

 

“Don’t talk about him like that!” He’d shouted at another taller, older boy who’d muttered to a nervous younger one that, ‘that boy over there? The one with black eyes? He has no feelings, like an animal, or rabid dog--’. “Don’t ever talk about Ryuu like that!  He’s not some animal or a dog!”

 

Atsushi’s eyes gleamed an almost dangerous, angry gold as he shouted, fiery and glinting. The children were stunned; they’d never seen Atsushi angry before. He’d always been so calm and nice.. nothing seemed to bother him.

 

(Oh, how wrong they were. But only Ryuunosuke and Gin knew when something was wrong, when something bothered Atsushi, when memories of that place and fears of he’s going to find me again he’ll take me back to that place no no no came back to haunt him. Only they knew, and only they knew how to soothe those fears.)

 

It would prove to not be the last time Atsushi shouted at someone for talking about Ryuunosuke like that, for even he shouted at adults when they talked down to Ryuunosuke and Gin both. When one adult started treating him roughly, despite knowing the power Ryuunosuke held, Atsushi kicked him hard in the back of the knee and promptly ran off with both of the siblings. He didn’t have a single regret in doing so and though it earned him the ire of the adults around him, calling him the ‘little beast’ that followed the devil child around, he didn’t care.

 

The other orphaned children of the slums quickly learned to not say such things about Akutagawa Ryuunosuke when any of them were in earshot. Then, they learned not to say anything bad of Atsushi when a blade formed dangerously on Ryuunosuke’s sleeve or when Gin stared hard at them with fathomless, icy gray eyes that cut through the bone.

 

They learned not to say anything at all.

 

It was better to stay on Atsushi’s good side because then you would also be on the more favorable side of the Akutagawa siblings. And that was beneficial to better surviving in the slums, especially with the murmurs of the monstrous white cat that lurked in the shadows and alleyways of Yokohama’s seedy underbelly.

 

Nakajima Atsushi and the Akutagawa siblings were always seen together. They were almost never seen apart. And to the children and some adults of the slums, they were untouchable.

 

But they, too, were only human. And misfortune often had a way of finding them.

 


 

Leaving his muddy, worn out shoes on the makeshift mat they’d made by the doorframe, Atsushi shivered and disposed of his jacket as he went to check that no rain was dripping inside. He felt warm fabric being draped over his shoulders and he smiled, dragging his fingers along the hem of the blanket before he looked over his shoulder.

 

Rashomon’s tendrils sank back into the thin white shirt Ryuunosuke was wearing, an open book propped against his knee. Gray eyes flickered up from the pages to meet Atsushi’s. “It’s fine. I checked already. None of it will leak into here.”

 

Humming, Atsushi nodded and sat down to join Ryuunosuke, moving the blanket so that it was draped over the both of them. Their shoulders brushed against each other as Atsushi sat next to him, and Atsushi leaned over to take a glance at the page number; he had to be a couple chapters ahead of where he’d last been. With the rain and Ryuunosuke’s already fragile health, the older boy remained inside while Gin and Atsushi went out to gather food with the other children. Once they were finished, they split it amongst themselves and Atsushi came rushing home just as it started raining.

 

Hopefully Gin found somewhere to stay dry before she began her trek home. Atsushi was not so fortunate, and Ryuunosuke had more than a few dry, sharp words to say to him for risking his own health like he had.

 

Atsushi didn’t mind.

 

It was better that he get sick rather than Ryuunosuke. He’d seen Ryuunosuke ill to the point of nearly coughing up blood too many times to desire seeing it again. If he could avoid it, he would. Atsushi could handle being sick more than once, as he’d proven to be lucky enough to recover with some haste. If Ryuunosuke ever got seriously ill...

 

Atsushi didn’t want to think about it.

 

Chin nudging against Ryuunosuke’s thin, sharp shoulder blade, Atsushi peered down at the page number and blinked, interested. “You got ahead by a few chapters?”

 

Ryuunosuke hummed, turning another page slowly, the paper wrinkling pleasantly in Atsushi’s ear. “Do you want me to tell you what happened from where we last were?”

 

Atsushi nodded and Ryuunosuke obliged, indulging him, and Atsushi listened with rapt attention as Ryuunosuke retold the basic elements of the story to him again, catching him up and answer his questions about the finer details when asked. The rain tapped against the roof and dripped off of the edges, the small cracks in the window left damp and stained from raindrops, but with the blanket, Rashomon thrumming beneath the surface of Ryuunosuke’s clothing, docile, sleeping and alive, and Ryuunosuke’s warmth--

 

It was enough for Atsushi to forget, or perhaps not care, that they were still just two orphans still living on the street with almost nothing.

 

“Can you read it out loud?” Atsushi asked, half-speaking into the fabric of Ryuunosuke’s shirt, his head now lowered onto the other boy’s shoulder. The sharp angles of his limbs fit almost perfectly underneath his chin. “It’s your turn.”

 

“Sure,” Ryuunosuke said simply, turning another page.

 

Beaming, Atsushi gave the other boy a bright smile and sidled up to him, keeping the blanket covering them both even as he felt Rashomon’s tendrils wrap lightly around his wrist underneath it, as if wanting to keep him close. As Ryuunosuke’s low voice, cracking as it sometimes did but always smooth and soft as ever, read aloud the words he absorbed, Atsushi’s smile softened and he let himself be taken by the story they’d been taking turns reading to each other.

 

The sound of the rain and Ryuunosuke’s voice combined together made a soothing melody, and when Gin returned with a bag of food she’d stolen, they made a feast of it (always so rare but treasured). It wouldn’t have been a filling meal to any other person, and even then they had to ration it amongst themselves while keeping in mind of the other children they worked with, but for Atsushi, it filled him with enough warmth to rival even chazuke.

 

Underneath the same blanket, to the sound of rain and the lingering words of the folktale Atsushi read to Gin and Ryuunosuke both, they slept and Atsushi carried no nightmares with him. Sleeping in between his two favorite people, Atsushi was as safe as he could be.

 

Life in the slums was not easy. A roof over his head was never guaranteed, and some days, some stretching over a series of days, they went without food. It’d been years since he last slept on an actual bed, a futon, or felt the texture of a tatami mat beneath his feet. Atsushi couldn’t remember the last time he felt the warm fullness from green tea chazuke.

 

Atsushi didn’t care.

 

For as long as he could remember, he had no one and nothing. The orphanage had not been home. The children there were not his friends, nor his family; in the orphanage, only blood relations could call themselves family. Everyone else was out for themselves to survive that awful place, hoping meaninglessly for adoption or living long enough to leave and never look back.

 

That man was not his family.

 

He would never be this family.

 

That place had never been his home.

 

Here, between two siblings who were just as alone as he, cursed with the same misfortune as Atsushi, if not more, he was home. And he would not let anyone or anything hurt or marr that. With everything he had, he would protect this precious thing he’d been given; a home, and people who cared about him in it. People he cared for just as much.

 

Stirring awake briefly at the sound of cars moving through the slums, rubber tires rolling softly, he looked at Ryuunosuke’s sleeping face and his lips curled into a sleepy smile.

 

They’re wrong about you, you know.

 

Gin nuzzled against Atsushi’s shoulder in her sleep, mumbling quietly (as she always did; it was a cute habit of hers) as she curled her legs in to stay warm.

 

You don’t feel nothing. How can you? When you care about Gin so much? When you saved me--- when you let me into your life?

 

Sighing, Atsushi was lulled back to sleep, head tucked against Ryuunosuke’s shoulder, feeling the white tips of his hair brushing against his forehead.

 

I’m glad you exist, Ryuunosuke.

 

As he slept, Atsushi knew he would protect this precious thing with everything he had.

 

Tigers are said to be solitary creatures.

 

Once out of their mother’s care, should they survive the first two years, they are meant to roam and make their homes for themselves, hunting for themselves, living by themselves, rarely communing with one another.

 

But when a tiger marks its territory-- alone and tired and hungry as it may be-- it will fight and kill to keep it safe and secure.

 

The white tiger cub who remembered no mother, no father, no family apart from this one it’d found on its own by pure luck, was still learning to survive; but it would still fight to keep its home and its precious people safe from anything. Just as it’d done for nearly two years under the light of the moon and the safety of the darkness.

 

It never could’ve lasted.

 


 

 

The men in suits and dark shades made the children nervous.

 

The fabric of their fine suits was too clean, their shoes shining and untouched from the grime and mud that was such a trademark of the streets they slept on. They carried heavy belts that clinked together as they walked, mouths in hard lines and stares cold behind their shades. They often lingered by the docks and the fields, where smugglers were said to live, thrive and trade.

 

Most knew better than to go anywhere near them. They knew to keep their heads down and eyes looking away from whatever activities they were doing, legal or not. Most of the time, they weren’t legal.

 

Most knew what happened to anyone who happened to catch them while they were working.

 

And nobody would ever find out what happened to those poor, pitiful witnesses unless they wanted to find a body that had a face completely crushed in to the point of being unrecognizable. Even the children knew what could become of them should anyone interfere in the affairs of the Port Mafia, and they knew it was best to avoid them as much as possible

 

Even though the chaos they’d wrought years before had been pulled to a sudden, relieved stop upon the appointment of a new leader, that did not make them any less fearful and frightening.

 

Under new leadership, they were more dangerous than ever.

 

Their off-shoot groups and subordinates could not be relied upon to mind their own business, often operating under their own rules and regulations. Some of these groups proved to be traitors and punished accordingly. This one such group had simply been transporting goods of the illegal sort and the slums were the best area to remain as low as possible as the exchange occurred. However, they had their own aspirations in mind while they worked under the Port Mafia. If the children noticed them at all, there was a chance word could leak out to the executive heads themselves and any tongues that said such things needed to be cut down.

 

Despite everyone’s attempts at staying out of their business, accidents happen.

 

Sometimes an eye wandered to where it shouldn’t be by pure coincidence.

 

Whether or not you were innocent didn’t matter to those who ran with the Port Mafia, only that you were in the way. And that you could be a potential snitch, and for smugglers such as them, only under the protection of the Port Mafia for a short time as they did their business, there could be no witnesses.

 

The boy didn’t even get to break into a proper run before he was shot in the leg. He was found beaten beyond recognition by the time Atsushi stumbled upon the bodies in the fields. He’d screamed when he saw the others littering the ground, blood already starting to dry in pools around them. The last body dropped to the ground as the frantic smugglers, their metal poles soaked and bent, laid eyes upon the three that were still alive.

 

Who could still snitch and breathe word to any authority that would listen.

 

The life he lived with Atsushi and his sister wasn’t an easy one, but it was a life made bearable with Atsushi’s warm smiles and gentle touch, Gin’s quiet voice that soothed their worries when the nights got cold and their stomachs pained from hunger. It was a hard life in the slums, but Ryuunosuke found joy in the little abode he shared with Gin and Atsushi.

 

That it’d lasted this long was a rare brush of good fortune. But now, it was gone.

 

There was a gash on his shoulder where the smuggler slashed at him before Gin stabbed him in the leg. The blood stretched down his arm in pools and stained his stolen clothes, dripping all the way down to his fingertips and in between his knuckles. He hadn’t hesitated for a moment when the smuggler rushed in to swing at their most vulnerable.

 

Ryuunosuke launched himself in front of Atsushi before the man could even touch a single hair on Atsushi’s head.

 

The Akutagawa siblings only had to look at each other once before making their silent pact to make sure that Atsushi did not get involved in the fray and with Gin’s help, they escaped the bloodied, body strewn scene. Ryuunosuke separated from them with a curt word to not follow, ignoring the numbing burn on his shoulder that would’ve left him incapacitated for more than a month. But his feet kept him moving as if he’d just scoured an entire five course meal, filling him with an energy he didn’t know he could possess.

 

Those children were not his friends. They weren’t his family. None of them meant to him as much as Gin and Atsushi did. But they still looked out for one another as children of the slums, left to their own devices to survive, and promised to protect and take revenge for each other should the need arise. They never trusted Ryuunosuke and his expressionless face, or Gin and her silence.

 

But they trusted Atsushi and his warm smiles that burst through like sunlight. Were it not for Atsushi, they never would’ve worked as well together as they did.

 

And now that way of life was in peril and hatred, hatred unlike the kind he had for his uncle and the mother who’d abandoned them, filled his heart and gave him the momentum to keep running.

 

He did not stop until he came to the tree, bodies of grown men scattered about its base, blood splattered and drying on the grass.

 

The teenage boy covered in bandages, a dark coat and a cold smile stared at Ryuunosuke and his rags under the watch of the full moon.

 


 

 

Gin felt nothing when she shoved her knife into the man’s thigh. She barely heard his scream and roar of pain as he collapsed to the ground. They meant nothing to her; she only felt a quiet, cold rage at the sight of sticky red dribbling down her brother’s arm and shoulder and Atsushi’s terrified, wide-eyed face at the sight of the bodies and the threatening arm lifting towards him.

 

Her arm swung with no effort.

 

She and her brother only had to share a single glance before she grabbed Atsushi’s hand and ran. Ryuunosuke went the opposite direction.

 

Gin had to trust that wherever he’d gone, whatever he was going to do, her brother would come back. To her, to Atsushi, to them. That he would come back home and they could put this all behind them and continue their lives.

 

She knew they never could. Not now. Not anymore. But she still wanted to have hope.

 

They ducked behind a barely standing shed and Gin’s next order of business was trying to keep Atsushi from completely shutting down. He was shaking uncontrollably and his eyes were bright, practically glowing yellow in the darkness, and his skin was shining with sweat from sheer distress. Atsushi barely seemed to hear her at all and if Gin didn’t do something, she was afraid that he was about to be sick all over himself.

 

Ryuunosuke had always been able to calm him with just a simple touch when Atsushi got into his dark place, but those had just been bad dreams and haunting memories. Even Ryuunosuke would’ve had trouble trying to calm him down now, and it was going to be a herculean task for Gin.

 

“Atsushi-kun,” she breathed, hands on his shoulders as she gave it the smallest of shakes, “Atsushi-kun. Look at me. Look at me.”

 

His response was slow, unsteady and jerky. But when Atsushi lifted his eyes to hers, silent and peaky, Gin managed a small smile.

 

“You’re okay, Atsushi-kun. We’re okay. Just breathe, all right?”

 

Atsushi didn’t give her a verbal response, but he nodded and slowly, his breathing evened out to something more regular and easy. He sagged underneath her hands and she sighed, relieved.

 

Blood was sticking to her fingertips, she suddenly noticed. She carefully drew her hands away from Atsushi once he seemed okay enough to not need her touch.

 

They sat there together, Gin now huddled against Atsushi’s side. She was glad that the close contact brought Atsushi some comfort. Neither of them said a word, simply drinking in the sudden quiet and the sound of each other’s breathing. Atsushi was still shaken up, but he was not crashing, and for that, Gin was relieved.

 

Minutes that felt like hours passed before either one spoke, and it was Atsushi who finally broke the silence. “Where did Ryuu go?”

 

Gin pursed her lips, glaring into the darkness. “..I don’t know.”

 

Atsushi exhaled, the breath shuddering. “He didn’t-- go after them, did he?”

 

Gin didn’t answer.

 

Ryuunosuke could’ve killed the Headmaster and his staff two years ago, but didn’t. She would’ve in a heartbeat. But even then, Atsushi’s life hadn’t been so directly threatened and they’d had no other allies like they did now--- as they used to have. Ryuunosuke had no affection for them, just as they had none for him, but--

 

Her brother’s stubborn streak was endless and when it came to Atsushi and protecting him, he would do anything that was necessary.

 

For him to go after the same men who’d killed the children of the slums, hoping to seek revenge, regardless of what would happen to him..

 

Both of them knew it was entirely possible.

 

Resolved, Atsushi stood up, eyes bright and wide. “I’m going to go look for him.”

 

“Atsushi-kun, no--” Gin stood just as Atsushi started to march away, back the same direction they came, back to where the bodies were, where those men had been. “No, Atsushi-kun, Ryuunosuke will be fine, I’m sure of it, so just sit back down--”

 

“I saw him get hurt, Gin! I know he’s strong, but-- It looked so awful and--” Atsushi closed his eyes and shook his head fiercely, jaw clenched. “He can’t fight when he’s injured like that! He shouldn’t be fighting at all!”

 

No matter how much she privately agreed with Atsushi, she couldn’t let him go after her brother. She would never be able to forgive herself if she let something happen to Atsushi by just letting him take off after Ryuunosuke.

 

Her brother would never forgive her and she knew it.

 

“If you go after him, you could get yourself killed--”

I don’t care.”

 

Gin was speechless when she met Atsushi’s stare, beheld by the ferocity of it, how his eyes seem to glow pure gold in the darkness. The light of the moon over them just their color ever more vibrant.

 

Had it been anyone else, she would’ve found the bright shade of gold almost inhuman.

 

“I don’t care if it could get me killed, whoever they are-- I don’t want them anywhere near Ryuu. I won’t stand for it, and I won’t just let him take off like that when he’s hurt just so he could get hurt more. I can’t--

 

Atsushi sucked in a breath and his lips trembled.

 

“..I can’t lose him. I can’t lose him or you I just can’t. Please, Gin..”

 

How?

 

How could she have possibly fought against that?

 

How could she possibly fight that stubborn streak that Atsushi shared with her brother? That deep concern that she too shared over his fate? Even her argument had been weak because she too, felt the same as Atsushi.

 

And that’s why, a deep sigh leaving her, she looked at him and no words were necessary. She nodded and he gave her a little smile that reminded her why she would never hesitate if anyone got in the way of this little hamlet they’d created together.

 

“Thank you, Gin-chan.”

 

You’d better be safe, brother, she thought as the cold night air whipped around her face, tangling her hair, if not for sake, then for Atsushi’s. I’ll never forgive you if you’ve gotten yourself killed.

 

It was never going to be as simple as that.

 

Gin kept her eyes level and did not look towards the the bodies they ran past, she only squeezed Atsushi’s hand when she heard his faint whimper, urging him onward and not letting him distracted. She was no longer bothered by the smell of blood. Though Atsushi’s throat closed at the sight of corpses, he never stopped running. There even came the point, much to Gin’s bewilderment, when he started to run ahead of her, being tugged forward by something he couldn’t explain.

 

All he knew was it would lead him to where he needed to go--- to Ryuu.

 

He saw the men in suits and dark shades before Gin did.

 

Gold eyes widening, Atsushi let go of Gin’s hand and he skidded to a stop. The moon peaked out from behind dark clouds, pale blue light piercing through gray and smog. Something trembled deep in his blood, his veins and the tendons of his muscles as he heard the sharp click of a safety guard.

 

Several of them.

 

At once.

 

They would not be so sloppy as the smugglers, they would make sure that they couldn’t even make a single sound before they fired. The nominee for the next executive was underway with business and would not be interrupted, though he’d more than well taken care of the smugglers on his own accord.

 

Taking on an apprentice was monumental and an important step forward for him, after all. It was best not to interrupt that.

 

They didn’t give warning shots.

 

“GIN!”

 

Her knees scraped painfully against the ground as she skidded forward, cutting open the skin and she grit her teeth, ears ringing from the snap of the first bullet. Gin slipped her fingers into her boot for the handle of the knife she kept inside it; a modest little thing, but one she’d used often.

 

It wouldn’t do much against mafioso, if anything. Gin didn’t care.

 

She was going to get to her brother no matter how.

 

She could dodge a few simple bullets.

 

Gin just hoped that Atsushi would stay out of sight, gray eyes scanning wherever she could to look for an opening, the knife held tight in her hand. Her knuckles were white from her grip.

 

Distracted, a bullet grazed the side of her forehead and she let out a shout of pain.

 

Gin never heard the odd noise Atsushi made from behind her.

 

Nor did she see how he suddenly went still at the sight of blood sliding down the side of her face, all the way to her chin. It made strands of dark hair stick to her face. It looked like silver in the moonlight.

 

Gin heard a deep, throaty growl ripping out of a human voice and her blood went cold. Slowly, she turned, a murmur on her lips,

 

“..Atsushi-kun..?”

 

There were many monsters that flitted between the pages of the fairy tales Atsushi read to her and Ryuunosuke, monsters of both animal shape and human flesh. She knew several monsters who masked their faces with human smiles, she feared them more than she did animals or any kind of horrible beast that belonged in nature and in storybooks.

 

Gin wasn’t sure what she was seeing, if it was a monster or a human.

 

A ghost lives in the streets of the slums, a beast, so they say. A dog, a wolf--- no--

 

Bones cracked, muscles shifted and tore tendons only to grow thicker, stronger, and silver hair became white fur streaked with black. Teeth grew past a jaw that broke itself only to grow larger and extend.

 

Gold spread throughout the eyes until a pair of slit purple eyes fell upon the men in suits.

 

In a flash of blue light and a roar that could split the earth, Atsushi was gone.

 

It is a tiger that lives in the slums of Yokohama.

 

The sniper rifle fell to the ground as the man screamed, and Gin watched, open mouthed and frozen on the ground, as an adolescent tiger cub--- white furred, streaked with black stripes and long claws, the size of a very large dog, teeth pearly white and large and deadly-- leapt over her and tackled the man to the ground.

 

Blood that was not hers splattered against the ground as the tiger cub bit hard into the man’s arm, ripping flesh from bone.

 


 

 

“What is your answer?”

 

Dazai waited.

 

He crossed his legs together and waited, hands perched in his lap lazily as he watched the thoughts rush through the young boy-- only two years younger than him, had a sister, both parents dead; it was rather easy to scope info out on him-- eyes black black black as the ink Kouyou wrote all her letters in. Bottomless and empty of color.

 

Like a rabid dog that knew only instinct.

 

He waited for the dog to howl, to lament for the dead that insubordinate smugglers enacted. To pour out all of that anger that had to live in that body, all of that hatred towards the corpses that littered his feet, nearly dirtying his shoes.

 

Dazai thought himself quite capable of reading people and their thoughts before they could be voiced. He was not entirely sure what the boy in front of him, Akutagawa Ryuunosuke, was thinking as the blade from his filthy white shirt retreated.

 

The boy bit his lip hard, nearly breaking skin, until Akutagawa exhaled.

 

The howl did not come.

 

Dazai blinked.

 

“If I go... I won’t be weak anymore.”

 

What an odd answer.

 

Betraying no thoughts of his own, Dazai smiled.

 

“That’s right. You won’t. You’ll be stronger, and you will finally have a purpose to your life.”

 

Those dark eyes lifted from the ground once more and Dazai did not see a child lost and  on the verge of despairing death; he saw resolve.

 

How.. interesting.

 

Akutagawa Ryuunosuke’s fists were clenched at his sides, jaw tight and eyes blazing even through the darkness. The dog didn’t howl, but the dog looked at Dazai Osamu with all the determination of a starving wolf coming upon meat after a long winter.

 

He smiled.

 

“Good answer.”

 

Not the answer he’d expected or wanted, but, well-- it would do.

 

While he sincerely didn’t wish to take on another child with him, Dazai was certain that Akutagawa didn’t want to just leave with him to headquarters without his little sister. Not that either of them would be living with him, most certainly not! But he did not want to be responsible for her. She had no ability, he could do nothing for her.

 

But perhaps Black Lizard could.

 

Contemplating on what to do with the girl, Dazai hummed and leapt back onto his feet. He ignored the corpses around him as he leaned and stretched out his arms, dramatically popping his joints with a whine. Akutagawa remained quiet, uncertain as to what to do now.

 

Dazai rolled his shoulder before turning his attention back to the boy, as if he’d forgotten he was there.

 

“Well, we should be getting on our way then, shouldn’t we?” His lips tugged into a faint grin, effortless in its lie. “Shall we fetch your sister or is she going to stay behind?”

 

Akutagawa started, dark eyes wide and thin brows furrowed tight beneath his messy, matted dark strands of hair. He mouthed the words, “How do you know abo-”

 

Dazai simply waved the boy off. “Did I not say that I’ve been keeping track of you? Of course I know about her, so let’s retrieve your sister before we depart, hmm?”

 

Sticking his hands in his pockets, Dazai waited for the boy to follow him.

 

Akutagawa remained in place, hesitating.

 

The faint echoes of Dazai’s somewhat good mood deteriorated and a frown twitched onto his face, as usual. It felt more familiar. “Well?”

 

The boy started, (how like a spooked animal, Dazai mused) blinking, and then glanced at him. “...Okay,” he muttered. His frown grew heavier.

 

An eyebrow raised.

 

The boy was like an open book; there wasn’t much for him to hide regarding his sister, and with that determination Akutagawa gave him about joining the Mafia, well, Dazai didn’t see a point to his dawdling. But at least he’d answered him.

 

Dazai observed the boy before shrugging, “Lead the way already, then. It’d be rude to keep your mentor waiting for much longer.”

 

He smiled. It was curved like a blade.

 

Akutagawa saw it and his shoulders tensed, taut as a rope. Good.

 

They didn’t even get to take more than a few feet before Dazai heard the gunshots. And the screaming.

 

Dazai knew the sound of gunshots as intimately as lovers would know each others bodies. The sound of screaming stirred his soul none. It was as dull to him as radio static.

 

The screaming that was not human, the shout that was marred with a rumble and a deep, guttural anger that could only be described as a growl belonging to a beast had Dazai coming to a standstill.

 

Rarely did anything surprise Dazai so much as to stop him in his tracks.

 

Dazai heard the shouts for him first, then the sound of pained screams and breaking bones, the squelch of blood pouring out of flesh. In between such visceral sounds were the growls, the breathing that stuttered with a wild, untamed nature.

 

He heard the growl, and then he saw the eyes.

 

His lips spread into a grin so wide it threatened to split the skin of his mouth.

 

Splendid.”

 

Gold.

 

Royal violet.

 

Vibrant, encircling the pupil that was slit and gleaming with rage and hunger as black lips curled back. Trickles of blood mixed with saliva as Dazai’s subordinates groaned and moaned on the ground, not dead, but severely injured and their dark clothes masked the blood coating the fine texture of their suits.

 

Sharp claws dug into the ground, ripping the grass from their roots.

 

The white fur shimmered in the moonlight.

 

A tail twitched and the young tiger lowered down onto its haunches, teeth bared into a growl that Dazai could feel sink into his very bones.

 

“Hmm... Death by being devoured by a beast, then?” Dazai mused, hands slipping out of his pockets. “A rather messy affair, but painless enough-- if you could just aim for my jugular please, Mr. Monster.”

 

The striped fur stuck up along its spine as the tiger half-growled, half-roared at him, ripping the night air around them; he only seemed to make the beast angrier.

 

Dazai was delighted.

 

The boy however, was frozen.

 

Akutagawa could only gape as the tiger-- the apparition that’d stalked the alleyways of the slums for nearly two years, something he’d only heard of in passing, a poltergeist he’d just thought of as a stupid urban myth-- suddenly leapt forward, very real and very angry, jaws wide and claws extended.

 

It streaked straight towards Dazai with a roar that could break dead branches.

 


 

 

The tiger’s claws sliced through the fabric of Dazai’s trousers and the laugh that trickled out of him was more genuine than any other he could remember. The sharp end had just barely missed his skin and he bemoaned it. His laughter only made the tiger angrier and Dazai’s smile widened as it launched at him once more, claws leaving deep grooves into the ground and the surrounding trees.

 

His subordinates had scattered away from the scene.

 

Akutagawa was stock still. He seemed too shocked to move.

 

Well, useless as he was proving to be, Dazai supposed he couldn’t blame him; rarely did any other child see a tiger outside of a rare zoo visit. Let alone a child who’d probably never dreamt of meeting one at all. Especially not one in the slums of Yokohama, of all places.

 

What’d been chalked up to be nothing more than a silly rumor on all accounts for the past two years... well, now Dazai saw that they bore some fruit.

 

And to show up on the same night that he take on his first apprentice..

 

How peculiar.

 

The tiger slammed into a tree as Dazai dodged once more, practically dancing backwards as he swept out of the way of its claws.

 

“I didn’t realize you had a pet, Akutagawa-kun!” Dazai trilled as the tiger’s growls grew ever louder, ripping bark from the tree as it lunged forward. “I don’t know how we’re going to feed it, though, it’ll be quite expensive--”

 

Had the tiger dug its claws any further into the trunk, surely the tree would’ve snapped in half from sheer force as it ran once more towards him.

 

How fearsome it would become once an adult, Dazai mused; from what he could glean, this tiger was barely past the age of a cub. By any indication, it was still a child, and even so it was massive and each step it made was powerful. Dazai’s dancing out of its wrathful swipe of its claws made the tiger even angrier, eyes so bright with hunger and fury it could burn through flesh.

 

Dazai and the tiger would both tire of the game, and Dazai had an apprentice who was proving to be too stiff for his new position. Surely Mori would want some report on the smugglers and how he’d disposed of them. So boring.

 

He’d much rather play with the tiger more.

 

Alas, duty called.

 

Dodging out of the tiger’s way once more, Dazai made to grab Akutagawa by the back of his shirt, knowing that his ability would hurt him none upon first touch. He wasn’t even feet away from him when the tiger suddenly ran back, dirt kicking up from its claws and fur raised high as it skidded in front of him.

 

The muscles in Dazai’s back tensed, the delighted smile now curved into a dark frown, and Rashomon twitched to life of its own accord, reacting to its owners shock.

 

The tiger’s eyes gleamed in the darkness as it bared its teeth, a low, deep growl shuddering through the air.

 

It stood in front of Akutagawa in a stance, shoulders hunched, head lowered and tail high and stiff in the air, that could only be described as protective.

 

Dazai was rarely surprised by anything.

 

But there was always an exception to the rule.

 

Smile long gone, cold hazel eyes met burning gold and purple, growls ever increasing in volume as he stepped forward. Claws dug deeper into the ground and fur seemed to stand on end, lips twitching with a snarl that promised to taste his flesh.

 

No rumor was not without some pebble of truth to it, just as any myth carried a genuine meaning no matter how the details of the story changed; the story of the ghostly monster of the slums was only somewhat interesting to him, whether it be just monstrous dog or some kind of urban legend-- But now--

 

Ah, of course.

 

In his keeping track on Akutagawa Ryuunosuke, he’d made only the one mistake; overlooking the third member of their party.

 

There’d been nothing on him, nothing significant of note apart from his parentless, wandering existence, a mere blip and therefore unimportant to Dazai in his lazy journey to acquire his apprentice. A mistake he would not make again.

 

“I almost forgot, didn’t I, Akutagwa-kun?” Dazai smiled.

 

The growls were loud enough to pierce eardrums as Dazai stepped forward, a cautious movement.

 

Gray eyes widened, unable to move as he was stuck between shock and sheer awe as his gaze fell over the tiger before him, Akutagawa silently lifted his stare towards Dazai. His legs were stuck, unable to move; he could feel the heat and power coming from the tiger before him and it had him frozen in place.

 

And its eyes---

 

Where had he seen that shade before?

 

“Akutagawa-kun.”

 

Gray eyes flickered once more towards Dazai, mouth parted in silence.

 

Dazai’s smile widened.

 

“Where is that boy you live with?”

 

There was a flash of gold and purple, an opening of a maw that wanted to kill kill kill and devour, and a leap with claws extended to a bandaged throat, belonging to the man with an empty smile--

 

Tendrils of Rashomon emerged from Akutagawa’s shirt, prepared to pull the tiger back in a sudden desperate need that he didn’t understand, something that made his chest seize with panic, and Dazai raised a single hand upward, pointer finger extended.

 

The tiger’s teeth just barely grazed the tip, and a single bandaged fingertip fell upon the tiger’s snout.

 

No Longer Human.”

 

A blue light burst over the hollow, blinding and painful, a strange humming noise mixed with a garbled roar that made Akutagawa’s ears burst. To look at the light hurt him, and yet he couldn’t look away.  The youth that would be his mentor, his path into finally leaving the slums and finding a purpose to his sordid existence was stoic and unflinching as the light flashed. The large figure of the tiger began to fade, shrinking into something much smaller.

 

Ryuunosuke’s breath caught and his stomach dropped, a violent cough threatening to rip out of his throat.

 

Dazai stared duly as the boy with silver hair fell, unconscious, to the ground.

 

The air was silent as Dazai gazed down at the boy; thin and slender, a year or two younger than Akutagawa, hair an unusual shade he hadn’t seen before.

 

He heard the faint groans of his subordinates, struggling to stand despite their wounds, and the blood was thick on the wind. As far as Dazai could tell, none were dead. But some were injured, and quite heavily. It was fortunate that they weren’t all killed. He glanced at the tree he’d been leaning against; it was on its last strings, already half-bent from the sheer force of the tiger slamming into it. If an adolescent tiger cub, who wasn’t even fully grown yet, could cause quite this much damage..

 

Dazai sighed, rubbing the back of his head in agitation. “I guess you cannot give me what I want most then after all, Nakajima.”

 

He saw Akutagawa tensing out of the corner of his eye as he lowered down to crouch in front of the unconscious boy. He didn’t care. Perching his chin on his palm, Dazai hummed as he observed him, tapping his fingertips against his cheek.

 

“What a conundrum,” Dazai murmured. “But I suppose you could be useful..”

 

He began to reach out to grab the back of the boy’s shirt.

 

A sudden spike of white cloth stabbed into the ground before him, just as he was inches away from the top of the boy’s head.

 

Shielding the boy from Dazai’s touch, the sharp end had only been centimeters away from piercing through his hair; and yet, not a single strand had been touched.

 

Don’t. Touch him.

 

Dazai blinked.

 

He looked up, and those dark, dark eyes that seemed so empty and lifeless just moments ago burned with something wild.

 

Akutagawa’s clothes seemed to tremble in a mirror of its master’s anger, and Dazai could imagine that beast that carried so much potential growling against Akutagawa’s skin. He could almost hear it.

 

The Silent Dog of the slums, the boy who could feel nothing, was trying to protect this boy from him. A boy who could transform into the same tiger that’d been roaming the slums for two years and on. And if Dazai guessed correctly, as he always did.. Akutagawa never even knew.

 

It was laughable.

 

And it was infuriating.

 

Annoyance began to curl at the bottom of Dazai’s throat and a scowl drew heavily on his mouth.

 

“I suggest that you listen very carefully, Akutagawa-kun--”

 

Soft as his voice was, Akutagawa wasn’t deaf to the threat trickling beneath the surface. His shoulders were tense and muscles tight, but he did not move. Jaw clenched, Akutagawa Ryuunosuke glared back at Dazai Osamu, Rashomon just waiting to burst out from the hems of his clothing.

 

“You are going to come with me back to base, with your sister if she pleases, and the Port Mafia will also be taking Nakajima. And he will not be joining you.”

 

Akutagawa seized, lips pulling back into an animalistic snarl, and tendrils of Rashomon began to form.

 

Dazai grabbed the spike of white cloth and, just before it could dissipate under his touch, pulled hard.

 

Akutagawa stumbled, distracting him as Rashomon retreated back into sleep within his clothing, and Dazai seized the chance to grab Nakajima by the back of his shirt. He was light, clearly underfed and malnourished, just as his peer was.

 

Nothing at all like the pure muscle and brutality that was the tiger.

 

Dazai lifted him up and held Nakajima above the ground, legs dangling limply. Hazel eyes were frigid as he stared into panicked and furious gray ones.

 

“If you try to attack me one more time, I will make sure that you never see him again. Do you understand?”

 

Akutagawa’s teeth ground hard and his hands were clenched into fists. Blood trickled between his fingers, nails digging into his skin.

 

Dazai’s eyes narrowed and his fingers curled dangerously into Nakajima’s collar.

 

Do you understand?

 

Akutagawa pursed his lips, eyes flickering between Dazai and Nakajima.

 

The annoyance festered when they lingered on the boy he held above the ground.

 

Dazai watched as, slowly, Akutagawa sagged, the tension not leaving, but the threat and wild anger simmering down. Akutagawa glared at him, fists still held at his sides, but he did not resist.

 

Dazai smiled.

 

“Good.”

 

He watched for any further sign of resistance or retaliation from Akutagawa as he handed Nakajima over to one of his uninjured subordinates. When the threat didn’t come, though he felt Akutagawa’s glare burn into his skin, Dazai smiled and returned to his false, superficial cheer as a young girl with equally dark hair and cold eyes come up to him, boldly stating that where her brother went, she would, too.

 

For such a small girl with a cute voice, Dazai saw the killer that lurked beneath the surface.

 

No ability, but she could prove useful.

 

“Ah, there’s just one more thing I’d like to ask you both before I lead us back to base,” Dazai chirped.

 

Gin’s stare was wary, eyes narrowed and suspicious; he saw her distrust of him with ease.

 

Akutagawa glared at him, hard. He waited.

 

Dazai’s smile widened cruelly.

 

“Did the both of you truly not know that your friend was an ability user?”

 

Dazai knew his answer when neither of the Akutagawa siblings replied.

 

Under his breath so that neither of the siblings could hear him, Dazai murmured to his subordinate who was carrying Nakajima, “When you return to base, put him in the basement. Make sure its locked up tight; that ability of his is unstable. He can’t control it.

 

And once he’s there, make sure he stays there.”

 

His subordinate nodded and Dazai put all thoughts of the tiger boy behind him as he took his new apprentice back to base, where he would then announce his taking Akutagawa on as his student to Mori with cheer.

 

As for the tiger boy.. Well, Mori didn’t have to know about him.

 

Dazai would deal with him later.

 

-

 

It was cold and his body ached.

 

Groaning, it was a struggle to sit up and Atsushi had to press his palms hard against the ground to push himself up. He only made it up to elbow. Darkness and a faint yellow gleam met him as Atsushi forced his eyes open.

 

The ground beneath his hands was cold. Damp.

 

Stone.

 

Eyes widening, Atsushi sucked in a breath.

 

“Gin--! RYUU--!”

 

Stumbling to his feet, joints and muscles twitching in protest, Atsushi frantically searched for the pair of siblings. Only shadows met him and his voice echoed in the dark space surrounding him. He was still struggling to regain his vision fully.

 

When it finally returned to him and everything he saw became more clear, he stopped. He felt the cold beneath his bare feet, how his skin prickled with gooseflesh at the chill in the air, nothing at all like the warm night he’d just been in. He heard the faint drip of water rolling and falling off of a pipe.

 

Atsushi turned and saw metal bars, casing him inside of something.

 

His heart raced and it was becoming painful to breathe.

 

Spinning around on his feet only to find a wall and more metal bars caging him in, Atsushi felt his throat begin to close up, chills and shivers trembling through his body and his chest tightening. He could hear blood rushing in his ears and he panted for breath, clutching at his chest.

 

It was so cold, in that basement. The metal chafed against his neck, not enough to choke but enough to feel its weight on his collarbone and shoulders. He would stare emptily between the bars as the Headmaster approached, white clothing bright in the darkness of the basement.

 

“Do you know why you are here?”

 

No, no, I don’t, I didn’t do anything I didn’t do anything it’s a lie I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING WRONG--

 

Atsushi would see the syringe, glistening under the light of the oil lamp the Headmaster carried around, and he would try to run. There was no where to go but beat at the wall that kept him inside that cage.

 

Atsushi would pass out to the sound of his own screams as pain rushed through him, the tip of the syringe digging deep into his arm.

 

When he would remember, his body would shake--but then he would feel Rashomon’s warmth and its pulse as it wrapped around him; his wrist, his shoulders, sometimes as small as his fingers. Atsushi would feel its life and look at Ryuunosuke, the other boy wordless, but not uncaring.

 

He would open his arms and Atsushi would press against his side. He would feel Ryuunosuke’s heartbeat through Rashomon and those memories would go away.

 

He would feel Ryuunosuke’s breath and Gin’s gentle touch of her hand on his and he would feel safe.

 

Ryuunosuke and Gin were not there.

 

Atsushi didn’t know where they were. He didn’t even know where he was.

 

It was cold and he was alone.

 

Atsushi couldn’t hear his own screams as they ripped out of him.

 

Screams were not unusual in that basement; as it was a chamber used to hold prisoners and hostages, screams and cries of agony were common background noise to those who were lowly enough to work there. Torture was often the source of that static. Rare was it that they were caused by anything else.

 

The distraught cries of a child weren’t uncommon.

 

Rare was the roar of a lost and confused tiger.

 

The tiger slammed against the bars, shaking the metal but not breaking. It clawed furiously, only leaving faint scratches and grooves and causing the tiger to roar and growl with even more panic. It paced about the cage, tail twitching furiously before it leapt at the lock, attempting fruitlessly to break it open.

 

It didn’t budge.

 

The roars began to steadily quiet and the slamming of a large body against metal began to cease. Claws scraped against the ground as the tiger paced in the small room it’d been given within the cage. The roars and growls became soft whimpers and huffs as the tiger, still only just a cub, retreated to a corner and curled up into itself. The tiger cub shook as a lost child did in a crowd of people, crying.

 

Where are you? Gin Gin Gin Ryuu Ryuu where are you RYUU --

 

The tiger cub’s whimpers echoed through the dungeon and torture chamber of the Port Mafia.

 

Its only witness watched with wide blue eyes as the tiger cub became encased in a soft blue glow. Where the tiger cub had once been was a child, legs tucked tight into his chest, face buried in his arms as he trembled.

 


 

 

Oda Sakunosuke was used to working jobs that were menial, labor intensive, sometimes disgusting, and altogether unpleasant. It varied from telling a young boy off from trying to shoplift a store that resided within the Port Mafia’s territory to rounding up corpses after a particularly brutal shootout. Cleaning out the blood and shit in the prison and torture rooms was hardly one he batted an eyelash at.

 

At this point, little could faze him anymore.

 

Stretching out the kinks in his shoulders, Odasaku cleaned out the last spot of blood he could find and exhaled. He’d been cleaning the rooms out for hours by this point, nearly the entire day and he was exhausted. He’d heard the faint sound of the heavy door upstairs opening and closing, but he hadn’t paid much attention to it, too focused on finishing his work so he could go home and finally sleep. His work continued on for several hours later, shrugging off the noise; new arrivals and hostages weren’t unusual. Odasaku ignored the unpleasant swirl in the pit of his stomach. He’d gotten good at ignoring it.

 

Odasaku’s work didn’t stop, scrubbing out the blood, bits of rotten flesh and putrid shit he could find.

 

Then the screaming started.

 

The screaming wasn’t unusual.

 

It was the young voice--

 

A voice that could only belong to a child--

 

--That had Odasaku stopping.

 

He listened to the screams mutely, all movements of his hands stopping and felt his chest constrict. Odasaku closed his eyes and clenched his jaw, feeling disgust pool at the back of his throat as the screams continued. Odasaku stood up as his ears rung, hands clenched tight as his sides. He made to leave, to step out of the basement and chambers until the screaming stopped, then he would return to work and finish his job--

 

Odasaku froze when he heard a roar.

 

His feet moved his body before his mind did.

 

He’d seen pictures of tigers and through plexiglass that protected zoo visitors from their teeth and claws. Odasaku never thought he’d see one in person, just a few feet and only metal bars separating them. This one--

 

Odasaku squinted as the tiger rammed against the bars, teeth exposed in a mighty snarl, shaking the metal. The sound echoed in the windowless basement.

 

..It was no larger than a fully grown German Shepherd. Still only just a cub, a baby.

 

How the fuck did the Port Mafia get their hands on a tiger cub?

And a white tiger cub at that. They were rarer than even regularly colored tigers. The boss must’ve paid quite the handsome sum to get his hands on such a young one...

 

It didn’t make sense to Odasaku though.

 

What could the Port Mafia possibly do with a tiger?

 

And where had the screaming gone..

 

Odasaku got his answer to both when a sudden cool, bright blue light beamed through the basement-- from the tiger.

 

He watched, eyes widening in shock and mouth open in a gape, as the tiger retreated to a corner, whimpering pitifully and curled up before it began to glow-- and change shape.

 

In place of the tiger cub was a young boy with silver hair, tucked into a tiny ball in the dark corner of the cell. His cries and whimpers were faint, but they pierced through Odasaku until he found himself stepping back, chest suddenly seizing with something tight and painful.

 

He was trembling and Odasaku thought he heard him murmuring something. A name. Odasaku couldn’t hear him.

 

He didn’t stay to find out what the name was.

 

Odasaku stared at the boy who’d once been a tiger for several long, heavy and silent minutes before he turned on his heel and went upstairs. His footsteps echoed on the stone, loud and commanding.

 

His expression revealed nothing as he stood before the guard who carried the keys to all of the cells. He reached out his hand and kept his palm open, waiting.

 

The guard gave him a sour look and raised an eyebrow. “What?”

 

“Give me the key to the cell holding the kid,” Odasaku said.

 

The guard narrowed his eyes before he scoffed, smirking. “Why the fuck would I give you the key?”

 

The narrow of Odasaku’s eyes was subtle, but dangerous. “Because you’re going to give it to me either way.”

 

The threat, implicit though it was, had the guard stilling; he’d been in the Port Mafia long enough to know of Oda Sakunosuke’s potential for violence-- if he’d only used it to kill.

 

“..I have orders from Dazai-san to not let him out, under no circumstances.”

 

Odasaku was careful to hide his surprise and sudden rush of anger, his expression as stoic as ever. “..Then I will deal with Dazai myself when the time comes. You won’t be punished for it.”

 

They remained at a standstill for several long minutes.

 

Just ten minutes later, Odasaku unlocked the door to the cell as quietly as he could and opened it. He put the key he’d taken (after swiftly knocking out the guard) in his pocket and inhaled as he stepped inside.

 

The boy was unmoving and for a staggering moment, Odasaku thought the boy had stopped breathing entirely-- but he saw the subtle fall and rise of the boy’s back. He exhaled. Lowering down into a crouch, Odasaku frowned as he inspected the boy’s face.

 

Shit, he must only be ten or eleven years old..

 

The boy was shivering in the cold, shadowy corner of the cell as he slept on, and his brows were tightly furrowed in distress. His lips moved without words coming out, soft whimpers and mumbles escaping. His eyes were swollen and cheeks reddened.

 

Odasaku stared down at the boy and he closed his eyes.

 

He breathed out.

 

Careful to not jostle the boy awake, Odasaku gathered the boy into his arms, tan jacket covering him in a makeshift blanket to keep him warm. The torture chambers were left purposefully cold for the sake of tormenting their hostages and the boy’s skin was like ice.

 

The boy’s trembles didn’t stop until after the coat covered him and Odasaku’s warmth began to seep through his clothes.

 

Odasaku watched beneath red strands of hair as the boy stilled and then curled further into Odasaku’s hold. The boy’s cold forehead pressed against Odasaku’s neck.

 

The distressed wrinkles between his brows and lines of his eyes lessened, relaxing, and his breathing became more regular, easy and slow.

 

Adjusting his arms so that it was comfortable for both him and the boy, Odasaku walked out of the cell. He carried the boy who’d once been a tiger, whose name he didn’t know, out of the basement of the Port Mafia and into the warm waft of night.

Chapter Text

Ryuunosuke felt as if he’d been thrown into a large pool of water, the roar and rush of it surrounding him entirely as he sank further and further, drowning out all the noise around him. He’d never liked the sensation of being submerged. Even when he still could take baths, he’d always detested them.

 

It made him feel vulnerable, exposed.

 

Weak.

 

He was not in water, but with how the words being thrown and spoken over him sounded muffled and distant, he might as well have been. Ryuunosuke felt Gin shift uncomfortably beside him, arms tucked against her chest and her face stoic, hidden behind her hair.

 

They looked at each other and their elbows brushed (a source of comfort) as the man with eyes cold and his body bandaged beneath his clothes spoke with a man with violet eyes that smiled but cut sharply, their words muffled and like radio static.

 

Ryuunosuke paid little attention to what Dazai said, catching snippets of the man’s cheerful introduction of the Akutagawa siblings to the man that was the head of the Port Mafia; a slight, unassuming looking man with a young girl with long blonde hair and bright, plasticine blue eyes that was drawing, bored, on the floor beside him. Dazai swept his arm out as he introduced the siblings.

 

Mori Ougai. Boss of the Port Mafia.

 

In a large room that was far more extravagant than Ryuunosuke could’ve ever imagined standing in, Mori observed him and Gin, determined the benefit of admitting them into the Port Mafia, and Ryuunosuke should have cared about the way cold violet eyes roamed over him and his sister both, lighting up with interest as Dazai told him of his ability. Ryuunosuke didn’t even blink as his beast roared and rumbled to life, glaring at the fascinated Port Mafia boss with burning red eyes as it emerged from Ryuunosuke’s shoulder blade, black teeth baring a snarl.

 

He barely even looked at the man before him.

 

The only ones he paid any attention to were his sister, and the man who’d given him a pure black coat that was too large on him, heavy and thick. It was trying to drown him.

 

Ryuunosuke looked at him from the corner of his eye and his jaw tightened, seeing the curl of his mouth as he spoke that did not reach the one eye he could see. The few times Dazai glanced his way, it was with a bored glance and then a growing sharpness to his young face as his smile widened.

 

His beast growled and writhed within his clothing, just beneath the fabric and crawling against his skin, as his fists clenched at his side.

 

Neither he nor Gin moved nor said a word apart from answering what few questions were asked of them. There was nothing either of them could say that could draw Ryuunosuke’s attention enough to focus on them.

 

Not unless it had to do with Atsushi.

 

And Dazai did not say a single word about Atsushi to his superior. Nor did he make any attempt to explain the injuries on his subordinates that did not resemble any weapon in their arsenal. Dazai only sent them off to the medical ward with a blase reply of, ‘a wild dog must have gotten to them.’

 

He’d smiled to himself, amused.

 

Ryuunosuke hated it.

 

How his smile paled in comparison to the tiniest ones Atsushi would offer him when they huddled together for warmth, murmuring sentences from a book that Ryuunosuke could barely see in the darkness. But Atsushi could see the words on the page, somehow, even with only the smallest of candles lit, and he could hear the smile in his voice as the stories drew them to sleep. Ryuunosuke had never thought much of it at the time, but now..

 

How did I not see?

 

Why did he not tell me ?

 

How could he not have known that Atsushi, after living with them for nearly three years, was an ability user just like he was? Dazai’s words, mocking and full of taunt, echoed in Ryuunosuke’s mind and his grip on the black coat tightened to a painful, white-knuckled degree.

 

He’d never paid much attention to the silly rumors that flew around the slums, as they were not important to him; unless some rumor involved Gin or Atsushi, he didn’t care, and he didn’t waste time to listen. Of course, he’d heard snippets of some animal that’d been lurking in the shadows of the slums, just barely hidden underneath the moonlight-- but stray animals were nothing new, nor were they noteworthy. Ryuunosuke assumed it to be some large, stray dog and that had been that.

 

And then he saw the shimmer of white fur, stripped with harsh black and eyes that glowed bright gold and fierce violet in the darkness.

 

Large as a dog, eyes brighter than the stray cats that roamed between garbage cans, and claws sharper than any knife that Ryuunosuke had ever seen.

 

Ryuunosuke had only seen tigers in pictures, tucked between yellowed pages of books he’d found on the ground. If he’d ever seen one behind the plexiglass at a zoo, he didn’t remember. Never had he thought he’d see one in person.

 

The tiger had looked at him in the darkness and Ryuunosuke had been frozen still.

 

He was unable to move.

 

He was utterly transfixed.

 

The white tiger was beautiful.

 

He’d looked into those animalistic eyes of the beast and his chest had seized with a painful familiarity, unable to find out where he’d seen them before--- his own beast had roared, ready to stretch out when Dazai held out his hand towards the enraged white beast baring his teeth at him.

 

And then he’d watched the tiger become Atsushi in a flash of blue light.

 

He’d still not quite absorbed it all.

 

Ryuunosuke had difficulty associating the Atsushi he knew and the tiger that’d tried to attack Dazai to be the very same being.

 

Now, he had no idea where Atsushi even was.

 

His beast’s agitation grew the longer they were forced to stand there, waiting for Dazai to explain his plans with Ryuunosuke, and offering to have Gin brought up with Black Lizard. He felt his sister seize up and glare coldly at the Port Mafia Boss as his eyes flitted over her with a certain attention that he did not like, lingering over her young face. His beast growled and trembled, ready to claw its way forward from the hems of his dirty white shirt.

 

Mori hummed, observing them over his gloved knuckles, his stare indifferent and calculating before they closed as he beamed brightly.

 

“Well, I don’t see why not. Very well; allow me to formally welcome the both of you into the Port Mafia!”

 

The cheerful quip did nothing to stir the pair of siblings, expressions coldly blank.

 

Gin’s placement was still undetermined, though she heard vague rumblings between boy with cold hazel eyes and the gloved man that they would place her with the Black Lizard, but where she was to go was the least of her worries.

 

They waited until after they left that room, far more vast and furnished than any they’d ever been in before, Dazai leading the way as his coat that clung to his shoulders, billowing behind him.

 

“Where is he?”

 

Dazai paused, and turned slowly to look at Gin, blinking.

 

She stared up at him, her jaw taut and eyes cold and narrowed.

 

She’d always been faster than Ryuunosuke, not just in speed-- but in her direct nature, as well. Her words were few, but they were sharp as knives.

 

A smile grew.

 

“Oh, you mean your feline-inclined ... friend?” Dazai trilled.

 

Ryuunosuke’s nails dug into his palms as his beast roared in his ears.

 

Dazai chuckled, stuffing his hands into his front pockets. “Don’t you worry, Atsushi-kun is just fine where he is, where he can’t hurt anyone else, nor himself.”

 

Gin’s eyes narrowed and Dazai returned to his walk, humming a faint song under his breath and a quick beat to his steps. Nothing about what he’d said brought Ryuunosuke any comfort and the hiss of his beast grew that much louder in his ears.

 

He had not forgotten how close Dazai’s fingers were to Atsushi’s neck. He remembered the bodies strewn about the older boy’s feet. Nor, could he forget how cold and empty his eyes were as he held unconscious Atsushi just inches above the ground.

 

“I did as you asked,” Ryuunosuke said.

 

Dazai paused, looking over his shoulder with an inquisitive purse of his lips.

 

Ryuunosuke barely felt his skin breaking as his nails dug into his palms.

 

“I came with you,” he bit out between ground teeth, “And I didn’t attack you again, just  as you told me to. I could’ve taken every chance possible to do otherwise, and I still didn’t. Now--”

 

His eyes widened, bright and alight with wild ferocity akin to that of a cornered wolf when intruders stumbled upon their den.

 

Give him back.”

 

The ends of his shirt trembled and he felt Rashomon slip into the black coat around his shoulders, the sleeves shivering as his will and self sank its teeth into the fabric. Ryuunosuke barely felt the trickles of blood between his knuckles as he waited, his chest tight and heaving as he tried to resist coughing.

 

Dazai observed him, indifferent, before he crossed his arms over his chest and hummed. The corners of his mouth curled upward.

 

“Well.. normally I would take such offense to you being so demanding of me, rather spoiled of you, actually--” Dazai sighed, scratching the back of his head. “But I guess that you did do as I said, so..”

 

He felt two pairs of eyes on him like knives, the sharp edges pricking into his skin. It bothered him none.

 

“I suppose I can let the both of you see him, for the time being.”

 

Their body language was ridiculously easy to read; he saw the tension slowly thread out of Akutagawa as soon as the words left him. Even the girl, Gin, seemed to relax, if only enough for the tight lines of her eyes to lessen. Their eyes were suspicious, but Dazai found their determination to be with their friend all that more intriguing and amusing.

 

Annoying.

 

Noting to himself that he would first need to work on teaching Akutagawa how to hide the moves he intended to make in battle, Dazai stepped aside and slipped out his phone. Several messages told him that his subordinates were already arranging a new home for the Akutagawa siblings (Dazai of course made sure that they would not be living with him; it was no place for children and he did not enjoy sharing space with anyone), and he flitted over them with bored disinterest before ringing up his subordinate that he’d given Nakajima to.

 

Lightly tapping his feet against the floor as the Akutagawa siblings meandered and waited behind him, talking to each other under their breaths, Dazai heard the phone ring and waited.

 

“Dazai-san?” answered the voice on the other side, respectful yet cautious; just as Dazai preferred.

 

“Hello, Takeuchi,” Dazai chirped, “So sorry to interrupt you in the middle of... whatever it is that you were doing, I would just like to inform you that I’m coming downstairs to pick up the little kitten.”

 

Dazai felt the malice directed at his back in a sudden furious burst of anger from the children behind him, the boy more than the girl, and he heard a faint, distorted growl come from the boy’s clothing. He paid it no mind.

 

The boy could never even hope to touch him.

 

“He hasn’t gotten into too much trouble, has he?” Dazai grinned. He was careful to not mention any hint of Nakajima’s abilities; Mori had ears and eyes everywhere and even Dazai didn’t know where all of them were. He did not want that man catching wind or hint of his prize. Not when he himself wasn’t sure what to do with the boy just yet.

 

If they could just find a way to control the tiger, perhaps..

 

Dazai was beset by the odd pause on the other side of the phone, then, the agitated breathing of a man biting his lip nervously as he refrained from answering. He was hesitant.

 

His grin fell.

 

“Well?”

 

Takeuchi pursed his lips on the other side. “In any other circumstances, Dazai-san, I would have no trouble telling you of his conditions..”

 

Dazai’s fingers pressed against the sides of the phone. “And what might those conditions be now?”

 

There was a heavy pause.

 

“..There will be no one for you to come retrieve, Dazai-san. He’s not here. The weretiger is gone.”

 

Just a single twitch more, and Dazai could’ve crushed the phone in his hands, shattering the device to pieces and let the shards cut into his flesh. The words echoed in his ears, the nervous syllables beating against his skull as Dazai absorbed it.

 

Ryuunosuke and Gin narrowed their eyes at Dazai’s back when his silence grew longer, when his voice began to lower to a point where they could barely hear him. Ryuunosuke did not dare come closer to listen, even as every instinct screamed at him to, wary of what the youth would do if he tried.

 

What do you mean he’s gone.”

 

Takeuchi swallowed audibly on the other side, the quiet, softly spoken hiss so sharp and cold that he felt it streak all the way to his feet, trembling. “I-I mean, that he is no longer in his cell. I cannot say how long he has been gone for, but there was no forced exit--”

 

“Then why, exactly, was the gate-keeper not paying attention to what a cat was doing in its cell?”

 

Dazai heard his subordinate swallow anxiously and anger flooded him far too much to take any blase enjoyment in the man’s intimidation of him.

 

“He was unconscious when I found him.”

 

Dazai straightened. The ends of his coat brushed against his thighs as he walked further down the hall, paying little attention to the two children behind him; whom were now listening on bated breath.

 

“..Who did he last see?”

 

Silence.

 

Dazai’s eyes narrowed sharply, barely to slits.

 

Answer the question.

 

An inhale, sharp and trembling, and then an exhale.

 

“..The last person the gate-keeper saw was Oda-san.”

 


 

Odasaku stood on the balcony of his apartment, a half-finished cigarette between his fingers. The light breeze was cool and settled on his skin nicely. He looked over his shoulder, through the glass, and saw the little bundle on his modest bed, curled up into a ball with white hair splayed on the pillow. A light blanket had been laid over him. His chest rose and fell evenly, and the worried lines of his face and mouth had relaxed.

 

The entire time Odasaku had carried the boy (none too suspiciously, as it was three in the morning and not a single soul would be caught dead awake at such a time) all the way to his apartment, he’d been sound asleep, murmuring gibberish sleepily that almost sounded like a name. It didn’t stop until Odasaku lowered the silver-haired boy onto the bed.

 

The boy was stiff at first, then he’d curled up and sank into the sheets with a sigh, the tight lines around his mouth and eyes lessening; as if he’d never been in such comfort before in his life.

 

Odasaku had frowned before he went to his balcony, fishing out the cigarette box and lighting up. He made sure to close the door behind him so the smoke wouldn’t waft into the room. Even with most of the city asleep, the skyline was still bright and all the lights were gleaming in the distance. The night was clear and the moon was full.

 

Odasaku had been awake for more than twenty hours. And yet, he could not sleep.

 

He breathed in the nicotine, let it seep into his body and senses, and with a close of his eyes, he blew it out into a gentle cloud, dissipating into the light breeze. The boy slept on. Elbows leaning against the railing of his balcony, Odasaku watched as the dawn began to break over the skyline.

 

As he blinked the rising sunlight out of his eyes, grimacing as he let the last of his cigarette drop to the ground two floors below, it began to sink in.

 

I just broke a kid out of a cell belonging to the Port Mafia.

 

Ordered by Dazai.

 

I don’t even know his name .

 

Holy shit, Odasaku thought, I’m going to die.

 

He was not quite yet an executive, though it was common knowledge that Mori was grooming Dazai to take place as the youngest executive known yet, and Dazai’s name carried a lot of weight and more importantly, power. Any word he said, any order he gave was practically law. And if anyone were to go against his orders or question him, or worst of all, even attempt to conspire against his wishes and whims..

 

Little was left of them by the time Dazai was finished.

 

His temper was not easily triggered, but when it was, it was apoplectic and Odasaku had been fortunate enough to be spared his temper in the short time he’d known him.

 

Odasaku doubted that he would be spared Dazai’s fury when he found out, and it would only be a matter of time before he did; a foolish few would let a missing weretiger locked up in a cage escape their notice.

 

Once Dazai’s anger with Odasaku reached Mori, there was no doubt of what would happen to him. A swift, quick shot to the back of the skull would be a mercy in comparison to what those two would do to him.

 

Panicked and frantic as his thoughts grew, Odasaku was eerily serene as he put the cigarette box back into his coat pocket before he quietly slid the door open and went back inside. The sun’s rays began to glow through the slits in the blinds as the day came and Odasaku pulled out one of his journals and wrote, his body exhausted but not ready to sleep. His mind wouldn’t allow him. The only sound was the boy’s breathing and the scritch of his pen on lined paper.

 

It had to have been nearly seven in the morning when he hears the stirring of blankets and a faint grunt and groan of sleepiness coming to an end from on top of his bed. Odasaku went still, and a head of silver hair slowly lifted itself up.

 

The boy blinked lethargically and rubbed his eyes, brows furrowing as he banished the sleep from him and sat up on his knees, the blanket falling to a pile around him. He winced at the sunlight-- and then he froze.

 

Slowly, the boy looked around the room, out the window and down at the mattress, fingering the blankets and comforter he was sitting on.

 

Odasaku carefully lowered his closed journal on his desk, and the boy jumped at the faint noise. His expression did not change from its usual stoic mask as he observed the boy, now looking at him with wide eyes.

 

He blinked.

 

...What an odd shade of gold and purple.

 

The silence that settled in his room was stifled and uncomfortable, and the boy whose name he still didn’t know shifted uneasily as they stared at each other, not saying a word. Now that the boy was awake and staring at him like a frightened deer (how ironic) as he curled his legs in tighter, scooting further away from Odasaku, despite being on the other side of the room, Odasaku found himself at a loss to say anything. The boy’s brows knit, confused and suspicious, his mouth twisted and curling his legs in as he tried to make himself smaller.

 

Odasaku had seen such defensive positions before. Far too many times to count; it was a fetal, protective pose that waited for violence. His frown grew heavier as the first stirrings of anger boiled in his chest, but he did not let it show on his face as he leaned forward, elbows on his knees, muscles relaxed and his palms open as his hands folded together.

 

“Good morning,” Odasaku started glibly. “Did you sleep okay? It’s not the most comfortable mattress, but it does its job.”

 

Jolting when he spoke, the boy’s fingers curled tightly into the front of his shirt as his face twisted into a glare.

 

“Who are you?”

 

His voice was hoarse, but still so young and soft. It hadn’t even broke yet. Once the boy saw that Odasaku wasn’t going to hurt him, Odasaku would ask how old he was. Seeing now as the boy curled tighter into himself, his legs were far too skinny than any young boy’s had a right to be.

 

Odasaku tried to remember what he had stored away in his fridge and pantry that he could feed the kid with as he sat up.

 

“..Oda Sakunosuke.”

 

Blue eyes flit towards cautious and fearful gold-purple ones.

 

“Can I know what your name is?”

 


 

 

Atsushi could not remember the last time he’d slept on a mattress.

 

The mattresses in the orphanage were old and cramped with several children attempting to fit on a single bed. The older ones, the ones who earned the most points with the Headmaster and the teachers, were able to have beds of their own. The special ones could have their own rooms if they earned enough points. If Atsushi wasn’t crammed onto a single bed, sharing with two other children, he slept on the floor in a pile of blankets.

 

The little shack had no mattress, but with Ryuunosuke’s warmth pressed against him as they all huddled underneath the blankets, curled up together for warmth, it didn’t feel so bad. Never had he felt so.. safe, as to be sleeping next to them, in between them, Ryuunosuke’s chin pressing against the top of his head as Atsushi nuzzled against his side.

 

Sometimes, he thought it was better than having a bed of his own. With Gin, Ryuunosuke and himself underneath the blankets, Atsushi had all the warmth and security he could’ve ever needed.

 

When he woke up to find himself in a blanket on top of an actual bed, not the cold floor of that cage he’d been trapped in, Atsushi wondered if he was hallucinating. After feeling the fabric to make sure it was real, he turned and saw a man he’d never seen before.

 

A man with buring red hair and piercing gray-blue eyes on a stoic face, sitting across the room from him.

 

A man who called himself Oda Sakunosuke.

 

Can I know what your name is?

 

Atsushi clenched his jaw, eyes flitting across the room; small, but larger than any place he’d slept in at the orphanage, and even bigger than the shack. Sparse of furniture aside from a tall bookshelf and a desk. There was a handsome amount of books on the shelves and Atsushi forced down the flicker of interest as he slowly sat up properly, still keeping a healthy distance from the man who called himself Oda Sakunosuke.

 

He hesitated.

 

..It was possible that he could leap out the window to escape, or try to dodge around the man to rush out the door. He’d gotten quick after years on the streets, taught by Gin herself, who was the quickest out of the three of them. But Atsushi had no idea where he was; this was not the slums, and this was not the cage he’d been trapped in. He didn’t even know what day it was.

 

Training his jaw, Atsushi bit his lip.

 

..He had no idea where Ryuunosuke and Gin were. If he didn’t know where he was, how could he even hope to find them again? He would get horribly lost in a city he didn’t even know, and who knew when he would find them again?

 

He had to get back to them, to find out if Gin was all right, if Ryuunosuke was safe. Atsushi would not stop until he found them again.

 

Perhaps, this man could...

 

“...Nakajima Atsushi.”

 

The man sat up, eyes subtly widened.

 

Atsushi swallowed and turned, sitting more easily on the mattress. Nervously, he fingered the blanket of the bed. “My name.. is Nakajima Atsushi.”

 

The man called Oda Sakunosuke looked at him with a gaze that was infuriatingly hard to read, though it didn’t seem that he was angry, but Atsushi couldn’t be sure. “It’s nice to meet you, Nakajima. Well, properly, anyway.”

 

Atsushi pursed his lips, eyes flickering nervously across the room. “Where... Where am I?”

 

Oda stood up from his chair, the tatami mats groaning from his weight, and Atsushi jumped at the sound, tucking his legs in tighter as he flinched. The man stilled, staring at him in a way that he could not read (even more difficult to read than Ryuunosuke’s, if possible); but the corner of his mouth tightened for a brief second. And then it was gone.

 

“..You’re in my apartment,” Oda said, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his pants.

 

Atsushi gripped his ankles. “I’m.. still in Yokohama?” he asked softly.

 

“Yes,” Oda answered, “You are.”

 

Training his jaw, Atsushi hesitated before he asked, “There-- There was another boy, and a girl, siblings-” Atsushi pressed his lips together before lifting his eyes to the man, meeting gray-blue with frantic gold and purple. “Their names are Akutagawa Ryuunosuke and Gin, do you-- do you know where they are?”

 

Oda frowned and his silence was long, and dread began to pool in Atsushi’s stomach. The man’s brow furrowed as he thought and after a beat, he gave a small click of his tongue and shook his head.

 

“...No. I don’t know the name.”

 

During his time on the streets, learning from their examples, Atsushi had learned not to allow his more visceral emotions show on his face, to be too obvious was to be easily seen among the crowd, and he could get caught with in the middle of looking for food and taking off with anything they needed. He’d learned how to keep his emotions muted, not to be so openly expressive.

 

But every now and then, the cracks came through.

 

Atsushi bit down on his trembling bottom lip and drew his legs closer against his chest, wrapping his arms around them. “I-- I see,” he murmured, and it came out like a croak. Atsushi looked at the top of his knees and his fingers trembled as he gripped hard at the fabric of his pants.

 

Oda was quiet, and Atsushi felt his stare on him, long and thoughtful on his expressionless, closed off face (how very like Ryuu, who so few understood was fully capable of feeling and much of it even if it didn’t always show up on his face), but Atsushi couldn’t bring himself to look at this stranger.

 

A little voice in the back of his mind told him that he should be more cautious, to be more suspicious of this man with deep red hair and piercing blue eyes. Atsushi couldn’t tell just by looking at him how old he was-- but he had several years over him, and Atsushi had more than well known and learned that adults could not be trusted. All they would do is hurt him.

 

If Atsushi gave a single inch, this man named Oda would do the same, and Atsushi resolved to not let his guard down, not until he was with Gin and Ryuunosuke again; but that didn’t explain one important question;

 

Why had he taken Atsushi out of that cage?

Atsushi didn’t understand. He didn’t understand any of it.

 

Atsushi pressed his face further into his knees, the ridge of his eyebrows pressing hard against the bone, and did not look up until he heard the creak of a chair as Oda lifted himself out of it. Cautiously, Atsushi looked up and Oda looked at him.

 

“..I don’t know the name right now, but I can find out where they are for you, if you want,” Oda said. “You said their surnames were Akutagawa, right?”

 

Gaping, Atsushi gave a slow nod. His jaw snapped shut and his brow furrowed; nothing about this man made sense.

 

“..You would find them for me?”

 

Oda nodded, hands still in his pockets.

 

Atsushi’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”

 

Oda’s expression, so unreadable and heavy, remained unchanged. He only blinked. “They’re your friends, aren’t they?”

 

Atsushi paused, the tightened lines around his eyes relaxing. He looked at the top of his knees and curled his hands around the caps, pressing his fingers down tightly. Never had his chest ached so much before and Atsushi wished he could feel Rashomon’s warmth as it curled around his wrist in a gentle grip; a gesture that always brought him such comfort.

 

“They are..” Atsushi murmured, “Much more than just my friends.”

 

They’re my family.

 

They’re my home . Gin is my home, Ryuu.. he’s..

 

Oda continued to look at him wordlessly, maintaining his distance from across the room.

 

“Then that’s all the reason I need,” Oda said.

 

Atsushi was left to gape once more in growing confusion towards the older man as Oda walked towards the door and looked over his shoulder at Atsushi. “Are you hungry at all? It wouldn’t be anything fancy, but I can make something for you real quick”

 

Atsushi’s mouth opened and closed, and his jaw clenched hard, ready to decline Oda’s offer out of suspicious reflex-- when a rather loud growl emitted from his stomach, clenching and twisting around with hunger. Atsushi’s face reddened and he hid his face in his knees as Oda blinked slowly at him.

 

He did not see how the corner of Oda’s mouth twitched, just so.

 

Oda’s home was not large, nor was it the most pristine, but Atsushi did not have much else besides that place and the shack he lived with the Akutagawas in. But it was enough space for Oda to have something of a kitchen where he began cracking eggs as Atsushi sat, awkwardly, at the small round table in the middle of the room. As Oda cooked, not saying much apart from asking Atsushi if he had any allergies that he knew of, or what his preferences were, Atsushi took the time to look around. His toes curled along the tatami mats (how he had not felt them in such a long time, he’d nearly forgotten what they smelled like) as he looked out the window, the sun steadily rising over the city skyline he always saw from afar in the slums.

 

Oda didn’t have much in terms of furniture and other homely items apart from necessities and essentials. Had it not been for the books piled and stacked all over the room and kitchen, coupled with the handsome bookshelf in his room, Atsushi would’ve called it empty and barren.

 

The pan sizzled and Atsushi’s curious eyes fell upon a well-worn paperback on the table. It had a title in English and the Japanese title above it, the characters enlarged, and Atsushi mouthed the words to himself.

 

His fingers moved before he realized it, as if with a mind of their own, and he picked the book up.

 

As he cracked eggs and added appropriate seasoning, Odasaku contemplated on where to go to from here about the boy, Atsushi, and the repercussions he would face for breaking the boy out of his cell. Regardless of what would happen, Odasaku did promise him that he would find his friends for him, the Akutagawas (and what a peculiar surname, surely it wouldn’t be too difficult to find their whereabouts), and Odasaku would do exactly as he promised.

 

He had something of a knack for finding people no matter how hard and how well they attempted to disguise their footsteps. Now, it was a skill he could put to better use.

 

As for what he was going to do with Atsushi after they’d found the Akutagawas and reunited them..

 

The memory of the tiger cub with white fur and black streaks all around its body, huddled in a corner of a cold cell that belonged to enemies of the Port Mafia, returned to Odasaku and his frown grew heavier.

 

The flap of paper fluttering against each other drew his attention and Odasaku turned.

 

His eyes widened and he blinked.

 

Atsushi was so absorbed in the book that he did not look up until after Odasaku approached, his footsteps careful and purposefully non-threatening, to stand to the left of him. Odasaku’s stare flitted to the title and the corner of his mouth twitched.

 

“I’m not sure how appropriate that book is for a kid your age.”

 

Atsushi jolted with an almost squeak-like sound in his seat, eyes wide at being caught off-guard before his lips twisted into a childish scowl. “I’ve read books with heavier content than this before.”

 

(Given that he’d spent the past two years on the streets and the rest of his life in a hellish orphanage, Atsushi thought he could very well handle the heavy themes the book seemed to offer.)

 

Odasaku raised a dark red eyebrow, feeling the subtle twitch in his jaw that almost felt like a smile. “Have you?”

 

Atsushi sniffed as he nodded, and Odasaku found himself amused at the sliver of attitude the silver-haired boy was showing, not bothered by it at all. He glanced at the title once more. “You can understand the language all right? It’s not the easiest read in Japanese, let alone in its native language.”

 

Atsushi pursed his lips, fingering the edge of the table as Odasaku moved to turn the stove off before the eggs burned. “I---I always read whenever I can, where I used to live, it had a library.”

 

Odasaku hummed. Before he could stop himself, he asked, “What was your favorite?”

 

Atsushi stared at him from beneath his bangs, choppy and uneven, and Odasaku saw the guarded body language slowly relax at his genuine question.

 

“...The Chinese classics and books written by Chinese authors were always my favorite,” Atsushi said softly.

 

Odasaku looked over the cover of the book once more and gently passed it back to Atsushi. “You can keep reading it. If you want, you could tell me what you think once you’re finished.”

 

Atsushi looked at him, wide-eyed, and Odasaku pushed over a plate of simple eggs and leftover rice and beef from the night before. He settled for a simple cup of coffee. He drank and closed his eyes as he inhaled the bitter liquid that made his belly and bones warm and seep with relaxation.

 

“Once you’re done with that, you can read whatever you like. My collection is completely open to you from now on.”

 

Not yet touching the food before him, Atsushi bit his trembling bottom lip as Odasaku continued to drink his coffee. “Why? What-- What do you mean? Why are you doing this for me? And why--”

 

He pursed his mouth.

 

“...Why did you take me out of that place?”

 

His soft murmur drew Odaskau’s stare from above the rim of his cup. Odasaku did not answer for a long held beat, the city beginning to wake up outside with the sound of cars, trains, and the chirp of birds.

 

“...If I didn’t, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life.”

 

Closing his eyes, Odasaku took another long swig of his coffee and flipped through a book of his own as Atsushi stared wordlessly on at him, unaware of the words that echoed out of a dusty cold book that Atsushi had read and loved so long ago.

 

I do not regret the things that I’ve done, I only regret the things that I do not do.

 

At Odasaku’s quiet urging to eat, Atsushi took a hesitant bit of the rice, eggs and beef medley that he’d been offered, lowering the beaten copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being onto his lap. It settled in his shrunken stomach with warmth and so filling and delicious in its simplicity. His mouth watered and he inhaled the rest in moments.

 

Atsushi wished he could’ve shared it with Ryuu and Gin.

 

As he drank his coffee, Odasaku made a mental note to himself that he should buy new clothes for a significantly smaller size, clean up the mess of books all over his apartment, stock up on food, and make room for the newest permanent member of his abode.

 


 

 

Dazai had never strode down the street with such harried intent in each footstep before, his hands clenched into fists at his side as his chest tightened with an unfamiliar, anxious feeling he’d never felt before. He kept one hand in his front coat pocket, fingers curled around his phone for any feeling of vibration; it did not come.

 

Tching under his breath, Dazai kept walking. He made the left turn down the street, creeping into a familiar alley coated in the light fog of early evening, the sign lit up and gleaming in the growing darkness. The English letters beamed down at him cheerfully, but Dazai took no pleasure in their bright colors, not as he usually did.

 

His jaw tightened and his chest eased when he saw a familiar, taller figure standing by the entrance to Lupin’s, a white plastic convenience store hanging by the handle in his grip. The bar wasn’t open yet (one of the few that was well aware of Dazai’s mafioso status, and didn’t bat an eyelash at an obviously underage boy drinking strong alcohol), but that didn’t matter.

 

This was their place.

 

How strange it was, for someone like him to have a place that’d become so precious to him in such a short span of time, when he didn’t even plan on being around for much longer-- someone finally being able to kill him or a convenient, suicidal end be willing.

 

Perhaps it would be a place that he would miss, but-- such earthly attachments would only deter him from his goals.

 

The relief he felt upon finding no blood trickling down Odasaku’s skin, nor any cuts or bruises on his body that he could see from sharp claws that would only grow sharper and deadlier with age, scared Dazai. It was a fear that settled belly deep, but it was one that he swallowed down as he strode forward, smoothing down the front of his shirt and coat.

 

Blue-gray eyes flitted towards him, and the lines around them tightened.

 

“Dazai,” Odasaku greeted. “Sorry, I can’t do a drink tonight. I don’t want to let this get too warm, maybe later or tomorrow--”

 

“Where is he, Odasaku?”

 

Odasaku’s mouth fell into a flat line. For a long pause, he didn’t reply.

 

Hazel eyes flashed with a sudden anger that festered in his chest, and Dazai’s jaw tightened as he waited.

 

“..Where is who, Dazai?”

 

The corner of his mouth twitched, and Dazai huffed what could have been a laugh. “Come on, Odasaku. You know you can’t play dumb with me, you know better than that.”

 

A fond, ghostly curve of his mouth fell into a hard frown as Dazai narrowed his eyes at Odasaku, hands in coat pockets curled into fists.

 

“Where’s the weretiger, Odasaku?”

 

Odasaku’s brow twitched and something flashed across his face; it looked like anger.

 

“..The weretiger has a name, Dazai.”

 

Dazai blinked, taken aback by the heat behind Odasaku’s stiff retort.

 

Quick to regain his composure, his frown returned and he crossed his arms against his chest. “Yes, I’m aware that he does. But regardless of what Nakajima’s name is, he needs to go back, Odasaku.”

 

Odasaku’s fingers curled around the handle, crinkling audibly in the alleyway. “Back to that cage you put him in?”

 

Odasaku was almost always soft-spoken, rarely speaking up unless he had something important he wanted to say, if someone had spoken to him first and he had a response, or wanted to make a deadpan rebuttal. Dazai found his low, quietly uttered words and voice soothing when his ear drums nearly burst from the sound of familiar gunshots and explosions.

 

The steely tone and the flash of blue eyes that bore into him left Dazai cold.

 

Just as firm in his resolve, Dazai’s frown grew heavier. “..Did you see it, Odasaku? His ability?”

 

Jaw clenching, Odasaku said nothing. He didn’t blink.

 

“Then you understand how dangerous it is for him to just be walking around on his own.”

 

Odasaku’s eyes narrowed subtly into a glare. “He’s just a kid.”

 

Dazai’s expression did not waver. His own stare settled into a stubborn, icy glare. “He may just be a child, but the tiger was powerful enough to nearly kill several of my own men when I went to retrieve my new apprentice.”

 

(‘Retrieve,’ Odasaku’s jaw twitched at the very word as it settled in his ears unpleasantly, so cold and distant, as if he were talking about a package rather than a person. Curiosity, piqued as it was, was set aside as the anger steadily began to grow; it wasn’t a feeling Odasaku enjoyed.)

 

Taking several steps forward, Dazai’s face contorted into something that he could’ve called pleading. “What do you think will happen when he gets older, when that tiger stops being a cub and becomes a fully grown adult tiger and he still can’t control it?”

 

Odasaku’s fingers pressed hard enough around the handle to nearly make it sink into his skin. He just barely managed to hold his strength back.

 

“He could learn to control it,” Odasaku said softly.

 

Disbelief colored Dazai’s face, confusion flickering across his pale features before it twisted with a scowl.

 

“...Maybe,” Dazai murmured. “Maybe he could, with the right mentor. In fact, should he learn to control it, he would make a fine asset to the Port Mafia---”

 

Eyes closed, he either chose to make no comment on how Odasaku tensed, back going rigid as a furious expression flickered across his face, or did not notice. With Dazai, it was always difficult to tell.

 

“--Until it comes to that point and I find a proper teacher for him, he’s going back there, where he can’t hurt himself or anyone. It’s for the better that he stay there until I figure the best plan of action out.”

 

Nakajima is not going back there, Dazai.”

 

Dazai, frozen, slowly lifted a wide-eyed stare to Odasaku. He nearly started at the look on his face.

 

Never had he seen the other young man’s face so angry and expressive before.

 

Annoyance flickered in his chest, the same that twisted beneath his breast bone when the Akutagawa brat tried to fight him to keep him away from Nakajima, despite having seen the destruction the tiger could wreak. Now, something dark and ugly festered in the pit of his stomach.

 

The boy’s ability was unique, certainly, for Dazai had not heard of an ability where the owner turned into such a vicious animal. Ability users who could not control their powers weren’t uncommon. But the power to shape shift?

 

That was rare, indeed.

 

It would be an impressive and formidable ability to be used in the future, and Dazai contemplated on who would be best able to handle wrangling with such an uncontrolled beast and made a small note to himself to look into the boy’s background further. He did not fail to see the potential behind such a powerful gift.

 

Dazai failed to see what was so special about that boy to stir this reaction out of Odasaku.


Composure steadily beginning to slip, Dazai ground his teeth. “Have you been listening to me at all, Odasaku? It is not safe for him to just be-- running around the streets of Yokohama or wherever he is now--”

 

“I know,” Odasaku retorted, “That’s why he’s staying with me, at my place.”

 

Dazai stared at him in utter disbelief, whatever composure he had left completely thrown to the wind. “With-- With you--?

 

Odasaku did not waver, and his jaw hardened. “Yes, with me.”

 

Dazai had never felt such an urge rip his own hair out. “Did you not hear me when I told you that he can’t control his ability at all!?”

 

“I heard you, Dazai,” Odasaku said. “And I understand that he can’t control his ability. I know he can’t, because I saw it. And I don’t care.”

 

Dazai gaped at him in disbelief. “He’s not safe to be around, Odasaku!”

 

Odasaku’s eyes narrowed. “And he’s not safe being stuck in a cage meant for traitors and prisoners. What the fuck were you thinking, Dazai.”

 

Ears ringing from how the other man’s voice rose, Dazai reigned in his growing shock and disbelief and clenched his jaw tight. “It is as I already said, Odasaku-- he is a danger to himself and everyone around him so long as he cannot control that tiger.”

 

“He’s a kid, Dazai, not-- not some animal you can just lock up in a cage!”

 

“And how much longer do you think it will take until that cub isn’t a cub anymore and you have a tiger raising up to tear your throat open before you even have the chance to blink, Odasaku!?”

 

Blue eyes widened, and with a step back, Odasaku stared at the heavily breathing Dazai, the cool veneer of indifference long gone and replaced with desperation. Hazel eyed widened in a plea and Dazai stepped forward, coming closer to him.

 

Odasaku’s chest constricted as he looked at just how young Dazai’s face was. It was so easy to forget that he was only fifteen.

 

And even at nineteen, Odasaku’s bones felt so much older.

 

Nor had he, indeed, ever seen Dazai so lost of composure.

 

“..You know the nature of my ability, Dazai,” Odasaku said slowly. “Even if he did try to attack me, he wouldn’t be able to. Flawless would catch it before he could even reach me.”

 

“Maybe it won’t kill you,” Dazai snapped, his growing ire causing him to miss the violent twitch of Odasaku’s jaw at the use of ‘it,’ “But you could still get hurt, Odasaku. Flawless can protect you from sudden death-- but that doesn’t mean the weretiger can’t hurt you.”

 

Odasaku sucked in a breath through his nose, forcefully calming himself down. “..Then we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we get there, Dazai,” he grit out, composed as he could be, “I don’t think he even knows he has that ability, he would not attack out of malice--”

 

Dazai snorted. “I’m sure several of my subordinates who’d gotten the privilege to meet his teeth and claws would have some words to say in response to that--”

 

“Then what happened, exactly, Dazai?” Odasaku snapped, his patience dwindling. It was getting darker and he didn’t want to leave the kid by himself at his apartment, fuck, he wasn’t even sure that Atsushi would still be there. For all he knew, he could’ve run off on his own somewhere, and that was more worrisome than anything else; the kid wandering alone on the unkind streets of Yokohama.

 

Dazai’s eyes narrowed. “You want to know that badly?”

 

“Yes, Dazai. Tell me what happened. The kid doesn’t remember anything; all he remembers is someone trying to shoot his friend, to waking up in a cell, and waking up in my apartment, and nothing in between.”

 

The lines of Dazai’s young face relaxed, taking in the new information as if it were data on an LED screen and his expression briefly became contemplative before he dragged out an aggravated sigh; like an irritated child who couldn’t have the toy he wanted, Odasaku noted.

 

“Fine. I’ll tell you.”

 

Dazai didn’t waste time on extraneous details, much as he was wont to be dramatic and theatrical  in his exaggerated retellings of several events; he spoke of the incident with treacherous former allies that led to him being drawn out to the slums, a grand opportunity to pick up the boy he’d chosen as his apprentice. Dazai described the boy with a detached manner that settled in Odasaku’s stomach uncomfortably, how waifish and underfed the boy was, how wild and untamed his dark eyes were-- and the monstrous ability that formed out of his clothing.

 

Odasaku asked him what the boy’s name was, and Dazai blinked. “Ah, his name is Akutagawa Ryuunosuke.”

 

He went on to say that the boy’s form was sloppy, uncontrolled and his ability was not anywhere near close to being of any proper use in battle, though Dazai could easily change that with the rigorous training he’d promised him. Dazai also took note of how Odasaku stiffened at the name and kept the soles of his feet firmly placed to the ground.

 

No doubt the boy had already asked where Akutagawa and his ability-less sister had gone.

 

Just trying to get the furious Akutagawa to keep from attacking him had been an ordeal in of itself when Dazai told him, plainly, that they’d kept him locked up for safe keeping, had proven to be something of a tiresome activity. Dazai saw a hint of the deadly weapon that could become Rashomon when streaks of white cloths sharpened into blades that breathed with life came streaking towards him as Akutagawa howled with rage.

 

But he was not ready, yet, and he had no hope of combating against Dazai.

 

Rashomon disappeared into dust the moment Dazai’s fingers grasped the cloth.

 

And then he went for the boy’s dark hair, pulling it taut until the boy shouted.

 

Dazai idly wondered if the Nakajima boy had had a similar reaction when he woke up in Odasaku’s apartment. Granted, Odasaku didn’t appear harmed in any way, but if he was.. well. Dazai had no reservations on giving just retribution, even to small children.

 

Hazel eyes slowly cracked open as he watched Odasaku train his jaw.

 

Both Nakajima and Akutagawa appeared to have a certain fixation on each other; the tiger had erupted in the middle of his initiation, and the silent dog finally snarled and raged as a rabid mutt only could.

 

How.. annoying.

 

Odasaku pursed his lips, eyes flitting towards the sky and the streets that gradually began to light up as darkness fell. “Akutagawa... he’s your new apprentice.”

 

Dazai hummed and, with a heavy sigh, rubbed the back of his head. “Yes, yes-- and I fear he’s going to be quite the troublesome student.”

 

Odasaku put aside his difficulty in picturing Dazai being a mentor for what seemed to be a pre-teen boy and unclenched the free hand at his side. “...Dazai, you should,” Odasaku started, pausing as he chose his next words carefully. “..You should consider letting Akutagawa and Nakajima see each other, soon. They appear to know each other--”

 

“Oh, I know,” Dazai said brusquely, hands shoved into his pockets as he took on a more relaxed stance. “They’ve lived together for the past two years or so in the slums. From what I glean, they’re quite attached to one another.”

 

His mouth took an unpleasant curl, sardonic and amused.

 

The lights of the city began to gleam more fully in the growing darkness and Odasaku’s fingers curled tighter around the bag of take-out and miscellaneous groceries he’d bought on his way back.

 

I’d guessed as much...

 

“Then, they should be together, shouldn’t they?”

 

Dazai slowly turned his eyes towards him. He did not smile.

 

“No.”

 

Odasaku stiffened and the chorus of cars rushing down the darkening streets and highways filled the silence.

 

“Akutagawa-kun has already agreed to be inducted into the Port Mafia,” Dazai said, “As has his little sister. He will have to learn that attachments as a member of the Port Mafia is dangerous and detrimental, and what better time for him to start learning that than now? Letting them meet again would just put him even further back than he already is.”

 

There was much work to be done on the boy that thought he could bring Dazai to his knees, running on pure anger and a rage that Dazai didn’t understand, screaming, ‘GIVE HIM BACK’ before Dazai flipped him and pinned him to the ground. Akutagawa had a far long way to go before he could even fathom matching up to him.

 

Dazai did not understand his attachment to Nakajima. But once he was through with Akutagawa, he would understand why attachment was dangerous and unnecessary.

 

But perhaps, the possibility dangling before him would be enough to keep the rabid dog calm and obedient.

 

Now, he had to rethink his plans on what to do about the weretiger. Matters had been complicated.

 

He just never predicted that Odasaku would be the wrench in his plans.

 

And Odasaku realized that he would have one more uncomfortable conversation with the boy that was sitting in his apartment kitchen, flipping through a book and looking out the window anxiously, missing the familiar comfort of a cold shack littered with books. This one, Odasaku would have no good answers to.

 

Grinding his back teeth together, Odasaku asked once more, “..There is no possible way that you could let them just see each other for at least an hour?”

 

“Nope,” Dazai said, rolling his syllables with a superficial purr.

 

He knew the take out against his thigh was growing colder the longer he stood there beneath the Lupin’s sign. He would have to heat it up once he got home. But Odasaku could not leave until he knew.

 

“..Is,” Odasaku began, “Is Akutagawa all right?”

 

Dazai hummed. “You could say that.”

 

“What is that supposed to mean, Dazai?”

 

Dazai smiled. “Well, he’s alive, at least.”

 

It didn’t make Odasaku feel any better, and he felt a sudden rush of guilt that he couldn’t quite explain. “...I see.”

 

Dazai blinked and started when Odasaku, after standing in place for as long as he had, finally moved, starting to walk away once he’d walked around Dazai.

 

“Odasaku,” he called out, his tone losing all mirth, “He can’t stay with you.”

 

Eyes closed, Odasaku didn’t stop. He continued walking. “This food is going to get cold if I don’t leave now, Dazai.”

 

“You don’t know when he’s going to change form. You could very well have an adolescent tiger destroying your apartment right now, Odasaku.”

 

Odasaku shrugged, adjusting his hold on the plastic bag. “He’ll just have to help me clean up once he’s done throwing his tantrum. Some manual labor might help him work out some frustration.”

 

He heard the patter of steps coming closer from behind, but Odasaku did not turn nor did he stop, not until Dazai was once more standing in front of him, the curled browns strands of his hair wild as they framed his face Hazel eyes were wide and they were bright with anger, and--

 

Had it been anyone else, Odasaku would’ve called it desperate worry.

 

“If you don’t give him back, Odasaku, he’s going to hurt you!”

 

“No, he won’t,” Odasaku murmured.

 

Derisively, Dazai scoffed. It was a harsh sound, and Odasaku found himself stunned as the expressiveness of the young man’s face, for he’d only known the clownish mask that drank with him at Lupin’s despite being so clearly underage.

 

So many other members of the mafia regarded Dazai as something other.

 

Not quite human, but not quite beast. A whole other being unto himself, and in that otherness, he was regarded with respect and awe broiled by fear.

 

But only someone so human could look at him like that. Perhaps, in any other situation, Odasaku would’ve bent and acquiesced to Dazai’s determined will, if only to see something so genuine as that again.

 

Odasaku remembered the whimpers of a lost, scared animal that became the sniffles and reddened eyes of a young boy who didn’t know where he was, crying out for someone that was now out of his reach entirely.

 

“You can’t know that, Odasaku, how many times do I have to tell you--”

 

“I know that I can’t, Dazai, and as I just told you, I know the risks involved,” Odasaku said. “And I don’t care. He’s staying.

 

Frustrated, Dazai stomped his foot. “I am not going to let him hurt you, Odasaku--!”

 

You’ve hurt him enough, Dazai,” Odasaku snapped, his voice raising to such a degree that it bounced off the walls of the alley they stood in, an octave that Dazai had never heard before.

 

It was not loud, but there was so much heat and anger in it that Dazai could not help but gape at him. Never had Odasaku seen Dazai so stunned to silence.

 

“...I understand that you’re concerned about me, Dazai,” Odasaku began, losing none of the cold, firm determination even as a wave of pity for the boy in front of him came in a rush, “But I will deal with the consequences when they come, but for now, I am not giving him back to you just so you can put him into a cage again like some kind of animal.

 

Whether you like it or not, Dazai, Nakajima is staying with me. And if it means that I have to get through you, or that the Port Mafia will have my head for it, then so be it. He’s staying, Dazai, and that’s final.

 

Closing his eyes and sucking in a breath through his noes, Odasaku looked at the boy in front of him (for that was both what they were, just boys, the years were long on his own face but his body was not so old yet), and he did not waver.

 

Not even this strange friendship of theirs would not stop him from doing what needed to be done.

 

“..So move aside, Dazai, and let me go home. Or I will go through you.”

 

For a man-- no, boy-- whose tongue was so clever that he could make women and men alike melt one moment, and then tremble with fear the next, who always had a witty retort to everything, theatrical in his love for death and his desire for oblivion, Dazai said nothing as Odasaku walked around him. His messy bangs, curled around his eyebrows, hid his eyes in a hood as the nineteen year-old reached the edge of the alley, towards the busy streets and the lights of the city.

 

It was when Odasaku was on the precipice of stepping onto the pavement that Dazai finally spoke-- a whisper that carried on the darkness.

 

“Why are you doing this, Odasaku?” Dazai breathed. He did not turn around to face him.

 

Why him?

 

What makes him so special?

 

Odasaku paused. He looked down at the bag clenched between his fingers, the plastic rubbing against his palm.

 

“...Regardless of the answer I gave you, it wouldn’t matter, would it?”

 

The rustle of the plastic bag and the tap of his shoes against the concrete filled Dazai’s silence as Odasaku left the younger man in the alley, alone, the light of Lupin’s neon sign brightening the growing darkness and fog.

 

A faint rim of orange and purple hung over the lights of the city when Odasaku returned to his apartment, no messier than before. He found Atsushi sitting on the couch, his legs tucked in and a book splayed against his knees, glancing out the window with a contemplative expression on his face.

 

Atsushi jumped when he heard the door open, his back stiff and straightened as Odasaku walked through the door. He regarded Odasaku with caution as the older man placed the take out on the counter, but with a bite of his lower lip, he steadily relaxed.

 

“Um,” he began, awkwardly, the words rolling off of his tongue nervously, “Welcome back, Oda-san?”

 

Odasaku hummed with a nod, his ears taking in the words  pushing the take-out box to the wide-eyed boy, quietly murmuring for him to eat.

 

Atsushi blinked down at the food, holding his chopsticks between his fingers clumsily. He quietly whispered, “..thank you,” before taking a strip of beef and rice between the two sticks, shaking in his unsteady grip.

 

Odasaku retreated as Atsushi ate, his pale, sunken pallor already brightening as soon as he took the first bite. Atsushi wolfed down the food, remembering to slow down as soon as his stomach tightened in protest, and Odasaku ate his own, chewing slowly and not indulging in the taste. His mind was elsewhere, and his eyes wandered towards the darkened window.

 

He wondered if Dazai was still standing there, under Lupin’s sign, or if he’d gone to wherever ‘home’ was for him. He wondered where the Akutagawa boy was, and what he could do to make sure Atsushi reunited with him, as well as the younger sister.

 

He wondered if Dazai would tell Mori, and when he would find his body riddled with bullets before even Flawless could save him.

 

Fingers itching for a cigarette, he stepped outside onto the balcony as Atsushi ate on, having bought more than enough for two people; the kid was so underfed, Odasaku couldn’t help but splurge and give him at least three meals worth. As he breathed in the smoke and blew it out, he heard Dazai’s voice.

 

Why are you doing this?

 

Odasaku closed his eyes and blew out another stream of smoke from between his teeth. He felt and heard shuffling from inside and he turned at the sound of the door sliding open. He lowered the cigarette, so that the waft didn’t reach Atsushi.

 

He blinked, and Atsushi swallowed.

 

“Um, thank you, again,” Atsushi stuttered, fingering the hem of his shirt (it hung off of his body loosely, that would have to change). “I.. haven’t eaten so much food in a long time.”

 

Odasaku squeezed the cigarette between his fingers tightly when Atsushi offered him a ghost of a smile, a subtle upturn of his mouth.

 

“...You’re welcome,” Odasaku murmured.

 

You would’ve called me ‘too soft’ if I told you why, Dazai.

 

Odasaku dropped the cigarette to the ground and followed Atsushi back inside once he was finished, closing the doors and locking them tightly shut.

 

Or.. perhaps you would’ve called me selfish.

 

As Odasaku showed Atsushi around the tiny kitchen area, showing him where all of the dishes and kitchenware was, he took in how Atsushi stood a safe distance from him and looked apprehensive when his hand got too close. He held back the clench in his jaw.

 

Would you have believed me if I told you that I saw myself in him, behind that cage? That--- even if I couldn’t escape it, I suddenly wanted to make sure that he didn’t have to go down the same path I did?

 

If I make sure that he doesn’t fall out of the light like I did, if he doesn’t become any way like me...

 

..Would I be able to write a story at last?

 

Can I finally become a better person?

 

Once Odasaku was done showing Atsushi around the kitchen, he directed him to where the bathroom was, and even on the sink, a small pile of books stood. A pile that immediately fell to the tile floor.

 

Rubbing the back of his neck, a bit embarrassed, he blinked at the rough, soft exhale of laughter from Atsushi.

 

His ears turned pink as soon as Odasaku looked at him, wide-eyed, and pretended it hadn’t happened at all as he strode further inside to explore.

 

The corner of Odasaku’s mouth twitched softly.

 

May I be allowed to become a better person?

Chapter Text

Oda’s apartment was not large. There was room for a small kitchen, a sitting room that doubled as a place to eat and a spare bedroom, but it was far larger than any room Atsushi had ever been allowed in at the orphanage, and many times warmer than the shack he’d lived in with Ryuunosuke and Gin. It was overwhelming in how spacious it was, though Oda might be inclined to disagree.

 

Though his place was not that large in size, whenever Oda left to do.. whatever it was that he did for a living, it felt all the larger and emptier. Quieter.

 

It was almost confining.

 

Whenever Oda had to leave the apartment, Atsushi did what he could to make himself occupied so that he did not go stir crazy. The temptation to leave and look for Ryuunosuke and Gin himself was there, and when night fell the first day, he was all the more tempted to climb out the window and look for them. But he did not know this part of the city like he did the slums, and..

 

Atsushi’s fingers clenched around the cover of the book he was half reading and bit his bottom lip as he looked out the window, and then back at the empty bowl sitting on the table counter.

 

..For everything that Oda had done for him, giving him food, a warm place to sleep (to even give up his own bed despite Atsushi’s protests), and taking him out of that cage, it would be cruel to leave without a word. Especially when the older man was away on what Atsushi presumed was work.

 

Oda hadn’t really specified what it was that he did, and in the tumultuous mess of everything that’d occurred in the past forty-eight hours, Atsushi was hesitant to ask. He was worried about coming across as invasive or rude to a man who’d done this much for him without even knowing his name at first. Admittedly, he was curious, because Oda carried himself with such stiff precision despite how slack his shoulders seemed to be whenever he put his hands in his pockets, that he looked forever tense; as if he was waiting for something to come at him without notice.

 

But whatever his job was, it left Oda enough money to have collected a handsome amount of books that left Atsushi altogether surprised and suddenly hungry to devour; Oda even gave him permission to peruse through all of them if he wanted.

 

In the time spent when he was alone during the past two days, he’d already finished three.

 

Atsushi got so invested in the stories Oda had in his collection, that on more than one occasion, he’d forgotten where he was; that this was not the shack with the leaks in the ceilings that they had to cover up with metal planks they found in dumpster, old, thrown away books littering the floor, and Rashomon wrapped around his shoulders. Atsushi would become so lost in the words and characters that he would read aloud, alone in Oda’s apartment, and he would turn his head to ask Ryuunosuke to take over in reading, so that he could listen to his low voice that somehow always soothed him during cold nights—

 

And he would find himself alone in an alien apartment.

 

With an uncomfortable, tight twisting in his stomach, it was difficult for Atsushi to continue reading until he wanted to escape his worries.

 

That was another thing they had yet to talk about: Ryuunosuke and Gin.

 

Oda promised that he would find the Akutagawa siblings and with that promise, Atsushi’s worries had been soothed some. But in the past two days since he’d first woken up in the man’s apartment, Atsushi had been hesitant to ask any further. He wasn’t even sure how to broach the subject. The most he could hope for was that Oda would tell him what he knew, before Atsushi finally went mad with worry.

 

He just needed to know if they were okay, if they were safe.

 

The last thing he’d seen of Ryuunosuke was when his clothes turned deep red as blood poured down from his shoulder, shielding him.

 

Of Gin, just as gunshots fired out, her wide-eyed and terrified face.

 

The book was left abandoned on the floor as Atsushi tucked his legs into his chest, knees pressed against his collarbone, and his face buried in the top of his knees as he fought back a sudden wave of nausea.

 

It took some heavy, deep breaths before he felt calm enough to lift his head and not feel as if he was going to vomit all over his front. Then, sucking in a deep inhale, Atsushi looked out the window with a determined frown;

 

Tonight, he would ask. He would ask Oda if he’d found out anything about Ryuunosuke and Gin’s whereabouts, and then… he would ask how long Oda planned on letting him stay.

 

He wouldn’t be here much longer, Atsushi knew.

 

Atsushi meant nothing to him, Oda had nothing to gain from taking care of him and letting him stay in his home. Oda wasn’t like Ryuunosuke or Gin; together, all of them had nothing but each other. Oda was different. He had a roof over his head and some kind of job he made a living out of.

 

Why would he want to let some dirty orphan stay and leech on all of his resources?

 

Atsushi put his palms over his ears as the Headmaster whispered in his ear, calling him a roach and an ungrateful leech, not being thankful for what little he had, and shook his head until the whispers were gone. Then, he forced his normal breathing to return, telling himself over and over again that soon, he would be with Ryuunosuke and Gin again, and then once they were together, they would go home.

 

He wouldn’t go home until he was with them again.

 

That was why he had to ask, later.

 

Outside the door to the apartment, Atsushi stewed so deeply in his thoughts that he didn’t hear the sound of approaching footsteps until he heard the turn of the knob and click of keys unlocking the bolt to the door. Stomach dropping, Atsushi felt every single muscle in his body spasm and stiffen as the door began to swing open, the sound of heavy footsteps walking through the threshold of the apartment.

 

“Sorry for just walkin’ on in, Odasaku-chan,” the voice said, the sound of shoes being discarded carefully by the entrance. Low, male, older than Oda’s. “Haven’t seen ya in a few days, and just wanted to make sure that you were still eatin’ okay and not skippin’ ‘em again—“

 

Atsushi was stock still as he heard the voice grow louder as the owner of the heavy feet approached and heard the shuffle of plastic bags. Eyes wide, he felt his heart leap into his throat as an older man (even older than Oda, appeared to be in his late forties, portly and balding) walked into the kitchen with several bags of what Atsushi guessed to be food.

 

“Hrm,” the man said, scratching the back of his head, “Guess he’s off on assignment, or somethin’. I’ll just leave these here for him— Oh.”

 

Atsushi didn’t dare breathe as the man settled his stare on him, heart beating fast and his chest tight.

 

The man peered at the small, rail-thin boy with odd silver-white hair sitting at the table low to the floor, legs tucked in and skin pale. His eyes wide and glassy with what might as well have been terror.

 

He lowered the bags onto the counter and took a casual step back, eyes crinkling as he smiled.

 

“Well, hello there. I didn’t mean to startle ya,” he said warmly. “If I knew Odasaku-chan was havin’ someone stay at his place, I would’ve called the room first before I came up.”

 

Atsushi said nothing, training his jaw and swallowing hard. His eyes relaxed but his body remained tense.

 

The man didn’t approach further, but he made sure that his body language was open and welcoming rather than tense and defensive. He knew these sorts of children all too well; not too long ago had he looked at a starving red-haired boy with eyes far too old and empty for his young face, looking at him with apprehensive suspicion. This boy before him was just as thin and underfed.

 

Well, that would have to change.

 

The man waited, letting the boy slowly realize that he was not only familiar with the apartment, but that he wasn’t going to hurt him.

 

Atsushi didn’t relax, did not let down his guard (he was still an adult and he couldn’t trust them, he never could), but some of his tension eased only enough for him to respond slowly.

 

“…You know Oda-san,” Atsushi said softly.

 

“Yeah, I do,” the man chirped, smoothing down the front of his shirt. “I’ve known him for a few years now, and I like to just check up on him sometimes to make sure that he’s eatin’ properly. I have a key to his place,” he explained, patiently.

 

Atsushi slowly lowered one of his legs, still apprehensive.

 

“Oda-san’s been gone for most of the day,” Atsushi said. “I.. Don’t know when he’ll be back, exactly. I’m sorry.”

 

Chuckling, the man laughed and shook his head. “It’s all right. I just wanted to drop these off, anyway. Luckily, I brought more than enough for two. And while I’m here for the time bein’— can I ask for your name?”

 

Atsushi pursed his lips and peered at the man, slowly lowering his other leg to sit more comfortably. Atsushi had come to be able to suspect when adults were angry or lying to him; though Oda was few in words, he seemed honest enough, and this man hadn’t been ready to throw him out or call him some kind of invader.

 

“…Nakajima Atsushi,” he said, finally.

 

The man hummed and with a wan smile, inclined his head in a small, casual bow, returned awkwardly by Atsushi. “Well, Atsushi-chan, it’s nice to meet ya. You can call me Mishima. I run a restaurant not too far from here, so you’ll see me come in and out on occasion.”

 

Atsushi nodded, eyes flickering to the bags of food on the counter curiously before returning to ‘Mishima.’ “You, um,” he faltered, “You seem like you’ve known Oda-san a long time. Mishima-san,” he added, because even after living on the streets, Atsushi was loathe to forget his manners.

 

Mishima laughed.

 

“I have, so there’s no need to call me by any title like that, kid. Oh, by the way— ya hungry at all?”

 


By the time Odasaku came back, the sky was starting to turn a light purple in the distance and there was a warm waft of recently cooked tonjirou coming from the stove. Atsushi stiffened as soon as he heard the door open and backed away from the chopping board that Mishima was cutting shiimeji on, as if he’d been caught doing something wrong. Odasaku resisted the urge to frown heavily or scowl, and kept his expression trained neutral as he nodded at Mishima.

 

“I see you’ve met Nakajima, Gramps.”

 

Mishima hummed, continuing to cut the mushrooms and dropping them into a pan to sauté before he put them in the tonjiru. “You should’ve told me ya had a new roommate, Odasaku-chan, I would’ve brought more food for ya. Your cabinets are practically empty. We barely had just enough to start makin’ this.”

 

The older man shot the nineteen-year old an admonishing frown that had the tips of Odasaku’s ears grazing with pink, nigh unnoticeable. Atsushi ducked his head, shoulders hunched as the back of his neck flushed in embarrassment, feeling responsible.

 

Odasaku glanced at Atsushi as Mishima threw the younger boy another smile, and cleared his throat and went into his room to take off his coat. He didn’t want to make Atsushi see the holsters clasped to his ribcage, nor the guns.

 

Odasaku especially did not want to let Atsushi see the guns.

 

Of all the uncomfortable conversations that had yet to come between them, his occupation took second to the whereabouts of Akutagawa Ryuunosuke and his sister, and he knew that he would have to tell Atsushi both at the same time.

 

But, well. They would cross that bridge when they got there, which was sooner than he was comfortable with. But not much about his life was comfortable at all.

 

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Odasaku said, returning to the kitchen just as Mishima was finishing up, beckoning the quiet Atsushi to return to his side to watch. “No curry tonight?”

 

“I’ve made more than enough curry to last you a week, though I’ll have to bring more now that you have a new roommate,” Mishima said with a chuckle. “He’s all skin and bones, Odasaku-chan, you need more than just this to feed a growin’ boy.”

 

Odasaku hummed in agreement, thanking Mishima quietly for the food and peering over his shoulder to get a closer glance at the tonjiru; it smelled delicious. Noticing the other occupant of the kitchen being oddly quiet, he turned towards the head of white hair, looking down seriously at the daikon laid out on the countertop, Mishima urging Atsushi, gently, to help him chop it up.

 

Odasaku blinked. “You’re helping Gramps cook?”

 

Atsushi jumped when he addressed, eyes wide as if he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t, and Odasaku kept his expression neutral so that Atsushi did not feel like he was about to be punished. He waited patiently until Atsushi relaxed, biting his lip before he nodded. “I’m— I’m used to working around in a kitchen,” Atsushi murmured, fingering the end of his shirt; a nervous tick. “It’s.. been a while, though.”

 

Odasaku could imagine; given what little he knew about Akutagawa Ryuunosuke and what Dazai had told him, he doubted that they lived anywhere that had a kitchen at all when they were in the slums. Now, he wondered where Atsushi used to live before he wound up on the streets, and why he left.

 

Though, guessing by how tense Atsushi was around him, watching him warily, he could guess.

 

He resisted the urge to clench his hands into fists.

 

Odasaku kept his hands in his pockets and leaned over Mishima’s shoulder, glancing into the pot and the sniffing the smell of cooking meat. “It looks good.”

 

Mishima smiled as he stirred the pot. “Atsushi-chan’s been a big help, he knows his way ‘round the kitchen already.”

 

Atsushi’s shoulders twitched at the compliment, eyes widening briefly before he turned his attention back to the daikon, cutting it into careful slices, his face hidden behind his messy strands of hair.

 

Odasaku noted the slight upturn of the muscles around Atsushi’s mouth and the pink tint to his ears, and left Mishima and Atsushi to continue cooking as he made tea for them both.

 

Mishima didn’t stay much longer after the tonjirou was finished stewing. He made sure that the meat was cooked well enough, that both Odasaku and Atsushi took their fill, before he gathered his things and left. Before he left, Odasaku took a moment to speak to Mishima in private, quietly thanking him for stopping by and for the food, to which Mishima smiled and shook his head with a it was no trouble.

 

“If ya don’t mind, though, I’ll stop by every now and then to make sure that you’ve got enough food; Atsushi-chan is far too skinny, and he needs to have a better appetite than you, Odasaku-chan, he’s a growing boy! You’re gonna have to keep him well-fed if he’s gonna be your new roommate.”

 

Odasaku responded with a nod and a murmur of, of course, it’s fine, you can come by whenever you want, you’re the only other person with the key after all, and with a satisfied noise, Mishima waved goodbye to Atsushi and left.

 

They ate in relative silence, the faint sound of music playing in other apartments and the city below and around them filling in the quiet. Odasaku watched in between bites as Atsushi nearly wolfed down half of his bowl in minutes before slowly eating, so as to not upset his stomach. It would not do to be puking all over himself from eating too fast. Once he finished the bowl, Atsushi stared down into it, hands in his lap as he tried to keep as still as possible.

 

Odasaku paused from the book he was reading, and looked at Atsushi.

 

“..You can have seconds, if you want.”

 

The shocked but delighted expression that flashed on Atsushi’s face made Odasaku’s chest tighten.

 

When leftovers and dishes were put away, Odasaku turned on the radio to stifle the silence that soon settled between them, letting soft jazz play as he tidied up around the apartment. He let Atsushi read in peace (though the boy looked over the top of his book to watch Odasaku curiously, furrowing his brows when the older man kept moving things around) as he cleaned up his room and then set up the pillows on his couch in such a way that it’d be more comfortable to sleep on. By the time he was finished, he felt exhaustion creep up on him and beckon him to sleep, and as Atsushi sat cross-legged on the floor beside a large pile of books, Odasaku collapsed onto the couch.

 

“You know where the bed is,” Odasaku said, “You can go to sleep whenever you’re tired, take a couple books with you.”

 

Atsushi glanced in the direction of Odasaku’s room and back to him, pursing his lips. “Are you… sleeping out here?”

 

Odasaku hummed, closing his eyes with a nod.

 

Atsushi bit his lip. “You— You don’t have to sleep out here, Oda-san, you’ve already let me use it, I can sleep out here, it’s fine—“

 

Odasaku shook his head, eyes opening with a frown. “I’m not gonna make you sleep on the couch, Nakajima. You haven’t slept on a bed in years, right?” At Atsushi’s silence, the tight lines of his brow relaxed and he leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “Then you can have my bed for now, I don’t mind sleeping on the couch. I usually wind up sleeping on it, anyway.”

 

As was often the case when his line of employment oft left him too exhausted to even prepare getting ready for bed; being an errand boy for the Port Mafia was more exhausting than most realized.

 

Atsushi blinked owlishly at him, brows furrowed into tight confusion as Odasaku rubbed the back of his neck.

 

“It’s just until I can get another futon,” Odasaku said, in hopes of banishing that guilty earnestness on Atsushi’s face. “Then I’ll start usin’ my bed again, all right?”

 

Atsushi stared at him. “..Why are you getting another futon?”

 

Odasaku’s fingers stilled at the curve of his nape.

 

“..Because you need to have your own bed, too, Nakajima.”

 

Fingers clenched into fists that shook against Atsushi’s knees. His eyes widened and they were glassy in such a way that it left Odasaku unnerved.

 

“That—“ Atsushi started, breathy and choppy. He made a sound that was like a distorted laugh; high-pitched and disbelieving. “That makes it seem like you want me to stay.”

 

Odasaku did not blink. He said it without hesitation.

 

“I do.”

 

Atsushi went rigid, eyes bright and wide. His mouth opened and closed without words, and his fingers were starting to tremble as the shock ran through him.

 

Odasaku folded his hands and laced his fingers together.

 

“..You thought I wasn’t going to, didn’t you?” Odasaku murmured. “Let you stay: you didn’t think I would.”

 

Mouth closing with a harsh click, Atsushi looked down and he gripped his knees so tightly that his knuckles turned white. He didn’t answer, and that was enough for Odasaku.

 

Even without him being there, Atsushi could feel Ryuunosuke’s admonishing stare on him, those narrowed gray eyes that always saw through Atsushi’s feeble attempts at cheer when he began to doubt whether or not the Akutagawa siblings truly wanted him there. He could hear him, even; that low rasp and murmur that said he was stupid or foolish for thinking such things, no bite in anything he said.

 

It was always so easy to believe Ryuunosuke when he told him that he wanted Atsushi to stay with him and Gin.

 

The gray-blue of Odasaku’s eyes were just as piercing, but even more unfathomable and distant—- strange and unfamiliar— even as he destroyed all of Atsushi’s expectations about him.

 

Atsushi couldn’t look at him, because he was right.

 

Odasaku was not Ryuunosuke, he was not Gin, he had no reason to rescue Atsushi from that cage and bring him here, and even when he’d asked— the answer had been so vague, so softly-spoken that Atsushi had been left at a loss. Atsushi didn’t understand Odasaku, a man he’d only known for a few days.

 

A man, an adult, and Atsushi had no reason to trust him; he was never able to trust adults. Their hands hurt and left him and Ryuu nothing but bruises to remember them by.

 

And yet, the tiniest part of him wanted to believe him.

 

“..I can really stay?”

 

Atsushi’s whisper was so soft, anyone else wouldn’t have been able to hear it.

 

“Yeah, you can stay,” Odasaku answered, not missing a single beat. He didn’t hesitate for a moment. “That was my plan from the start, anyway. So, tomorrow, I’m going to buy you a futon.”

 

A pause, and Odasaku’s casually glancing over the shirt Atsushi was wearing; one of the few he still kept from his previous.. employment. It hung over Atsushi’s skinny body loosely, hanging off of him like elephant skin, too big on his small frame. All it did was emphasize how underfed and thin the boy was.

 

“..We should probably get you some new clothes, too. The rest of mine are a bit too big for you.”

 

He said it in such a deadpan manner that Atsushi couldn’t help the strangled laugh in the back of his throat, muffled and closed mouthed. The corner of Odasaku’s mouth twitched.

 

It soon fell back into a frown as he mustered up his nerves and exhaled softly. The cup of tea he’d brewed had been left lukewarm and barely touched since he made it. Atsushi had nearly finished his.

 

“..Since you’re going to be staying with me from now on,” Odasaku started, “There’s a couple things you should know.”

 

He almost smiled at how Atsushi, stirred out of his stunned stupor, straightened and paid attention with such stern focus it was almost comical. Atsushi quietly murmured ‘okay’ and waited.

 

His almost smile fell as he pursed his lips. He considered his words carefully before he sighed, lifting his eyes back to the younger boy’s.

 

“I work for the Port Mafia. I’m their.. errand boy, you could say.”

 

It was with a heavy heart that Odasaku watched as Atsushi stiffened, blinking as his eyes steadily widened with realization. There was an unpleasant clench in his stomach that was unfamiliar to him; nervousness.

 

Silence fell between them as Atsushi absorbed what little he’d said and Odasaku could see his mind racing behind his clenched jaw; as a former resident of the slums, he’d have to be completely oblivious to not know of the Port Mafia and its infamy. Training his jaw, Atsushi closed his eyes and exhaled. When he opened them again, they were far more grave than any eleven year old’s had a right to be.

 

At least they’re not empty— or soulless.

 

It was a less distorted mirror of himself staring back at him, and Odasaku allowed himself some reprieve that Atsushi had not been turned that way as he had. Not yet.

 

“..Do you kill people?” Atsushi asked.

 

Odasaku blinked.

 

“No, I don’t. I don’t kill people.”

 

Not anymore.

 

Some tension rippled out of Atsushi as he sat up, eyes widened with surprise and some lines around them relaxed. Brows knit together and Atsushi cocked his head in such a catlike fashion that Odasaku almost snorted.

 

“..You’re a mafioso that doesn’t kill people?”

 

The skepticism in the boy’s tone, subtle though it was, made Odasaku exhale a quiet huff. The muscles on his mouth twitched and curled the corner of his mouth upward.

 

“I get that a lot.”

 

The corner of Atsushi’s mouth turned into a faint half-smile

 

The tight coil in Odasaku’s chest and stomach unwound.

 

After the long haul of explaining (in the simplest, barest of terms, as Odasaku was not willing to go into the gorier details with Atsushi about the nature of the Port Mafia) his current occupation, their talk went thankfully smoother from then on. Atsushi would hesitate after having a moment to absorb what Odasaku told him, and then quietly as him more questions; he watched Odasaku cautiously, as if he were waiting for some kind of reaction that he could shield himself from, almost afraid and cautious of it. Odasaku answered his questions with diligence and patience, each and every time. In time, Atsushi began to lean forward to him and listen with rapt fascination as he described his errand for the day (ending a disruptive brawl between one mafioso and the lover of his wife), and Odasaku grew amused at Atsushi’s inquisitive nature.

 

The evening began to dwindle into night and exhaustion crept on Odasaku like a rising tide does, and when he saw Atsushi start to yawn more and more, his eyes becoming less focused, Odasaku said that they ought to get some sleep. In the middle of a yawn (that he tried in vain to disguise and stifle), Atsushi agreed with a quiet noise and a nod. As Atsushi began to stand and go to Odasaku’s room, Odasaku made himself comfortable on the couch and pondered on his plans for the next day. Shopping for a new futon and some clothes for Atsushi was a given, and he had enough for this month to spend more than usual on the boy.

 

There was also what Atsushi was to do during the day to consider. To throw him into the schooling system at this age would be a poor decision, given that he’d been living on the streets for this long, but nor could he imagine being able to afford the private tutors those higher up in the Port Mafia provided for their children and younger relations.

 

Mishima had sent him a brief text, saying to bring Atsushi with him the next time he came to the diner and hummed thoughtfully; Mishima was well-educated and had a way with children that Odasaku never quite understood so, perhaps…

 

“Oda-san.”

 

Just as he began to sink into the comforting folds of the couch, Odasaku opened his eyes at the soft murmur.

 

Atsushi pursed his lips and tugged at the bottom of his shirt. Face half-hidden beneath his hair, Atsushi hesitated and with a deep exhale, looked up.

 

“..What about Ryuu and Gin?”

 

The muscles in Odasaku’s shoulders jolted, stiffening.

 

Biting his inner cheek, Atsushi stared determinedly at Odasaku.

 

“Are— Are they safe? Are they okay?” He breathed, his voice cracking on the last octave. “Can— Can I..”

 

Cutting himself off and hugging his arms, Atsushi looked away. He didn’t continue.

 

Odasaku stared heavily at the boy before he closed his eyes, sighing through his nose in a soft exhale.

 

“..They’re alive, and from what I understand, they’re safe,” said Odasaku. His grave expression did not change even as Atsushi twisted his head around with wide, bright eyes full of relief and elation. Chest twisting with discomfort, he continued. “…They are now also in Port Mafia hands.”

 

Atsushi froze.

 

Odasaku trained his jaw and sat up on the couch, straightening. “A—…”

 

He paused.

 

“..A colleague of mine has taken them under his wing,” said Odasaku. “They’re going to be trained as mafioso, the both of them. The boy you mentioned— Ryuunosuke.. right?”

 

It felt odd to use the given name of a boy whose face he didn’t even know (Dazai’s description, brief though it was, notwithstanding), almost wrong, but it felt even worse to see the anxious nod from the still silent Atsushi.

 

Odasaku pursed his lips. “He’s.. training directly under my colleague. His name is Dazai. So long as he’s in Dazai’s hands, he should be fine.”

 

He ignored the uncertainty festering in his gut as he said them; Dazai had never taken an apprentice before, though he had many underlings. Many of his subordinates were far older than the very young Dazai Osamu, and as far as Odasaku could recall, this was the first time he was taking a younger subordinate under his wing. Odasaku couldn’t say how Dazai would fare as a mentor (he had difficulty even picturing such a thing), but..

 

As the most feared member of the Port Mafia, Akutagawa Ryuunosuke was bound to be in one of the safest positions possible while playing as his apprentice.

 

The sister’s fate was less certain, and at Atsushi’s quiet inquiry, Odasaku said that as far as he knew, she was going to be trained by someone else, though he wasn’t sure who just yet. He and Dazai hadn’t spoken since that night outside of Lupin’s, not through text nor encounter, but maybe with some time, Odasaku could ask about Gin’s whereabouts. He made another promise to keep tabs on her the moment he saw Atsushi’s face twisted with distress and worry.

 

It didn’t entirely go away, but upon being assured that Gin would not go to someone that Dazai didn’t deem best fitting, Atsushi’s worried fidgeting and widened eyes came to a relaxed stop.

 

Odasaku could only hope that he wouldn’t regret the words coming out of his mouth.

 

Atsushi exhaled a shaky sigh, a breath that rattled out of him as he allowed the worry to leave him, contented with the knowledge that Ryuu and Gin were okay and alive. He didn’t know this Dazai person, and that they were in Port Mafia hands, leaving him rather filled with unease, if Dazai were friends with someone as kind as Odasaku… perhaps, he wouldn’t be so bad. Perhaps Atsushi could be content knowing that Ryuu and Gin were in good hands.

 

He hoped.

 

Training his bottom lip, Atsushi looked up to ask one more question.

 

“When can I see them?”

 

Odasaku never thought he would have to be in such a position. To have to watch the disappointment crush the hopeful and expectant expression on such a young face that was far too tired and world-weary than it had a right to be. That he would have to be the deliverer of news that Odasaku himself didn’t entirely know the answer to. Errand boy though he was, he did not want to play the part of messenger like this.

 

“..I’m not sure when you can, but right now isn’t a good time to see them,” Odasaku said, each word biting out of his mouth with reluctance as he watched the realization fall over Atsushi’s face.

 

His chest twisted with discomfort as Atsushi looked away, the messy, choppy strands of his hair hiding part of his face as he gripped the front of his shirt.

 

“..Oh,” Atsushi murmured.

 

Odasaku clenched his jaw hard, his hands clenching into fists at his sides.

 

“I’ll see what I can do,” he blurted, earning a sharp, wide-eyed stare before he could take it back. “I’ll talk to Dazai, and I’ll find out when you can meet with Ryuunosuke and Gin again.”

 

Slowly, as stunned silence fell between them, Atsushi’s lips curled into the widest smile Odasaku had seen from the reserved, distant silver-haired boy yet. It made his eyes glimmer with light, gratitude that Odasaku didn’t feel deserving of coming off in waves, and he finally, finally, looked like the eleven year old he was supposed to be.

 

He didn’t deserve such a smile.

 

“Thank you, Oda-san.”

 

Don’t thank me just yet, Nakajima, Oda thought as Atsushi sleepily wandered to bed. I don’t deserve it.

 

Burying his face in a hand, Odasaku exhaled heavily.

 

He knew he would have to speak to Dazai again, eventually, but he didn’t know how things would be between them after the last time they spoke. A part of Odasaku dreaded it, uncertain if this unsteady quasi-friendship between them would continue on  from this point. But.. he’d promised Atsushi that he would find the Akutagawa siblings for him. He had. Though Odasaku didn’t hold that much sway in the Port Mafia and Dazai was stubborn to an infuriatingly childish degree at points..

 

If he could see Atsushi smile like that again, it would be worth it.

 

What have I gotten myself into?


 

The light hurt Ryuunosuke’s eyes.

 

Closing the blinds and curtains, Ryuunosuke covered the windows that oversaw the distant skyline of Yokohama and slid against the wall until he was on the floor. He tucked his knees in, and Rashomon pulsed within his fabric, growling faintly as its master’s mind and emotions raced.

 

The air in the apartment was cool, pleasant against bruised skin and the sound of the city below was faint and muffled.

 

It brought Ryuunosuke no comfort.

 

On shaky legs, a cough ripping out of his throat as he stirred, Ryuunosuke brought himself to his feet and looked into the darkness of the living room of the apartment. His apartment. His and Gin’s. It was massive, several times larger than the shack, and it was empty. The most it had in it when Dazai first pushed Ryuunosuke and Gin into the room were tables, futons, and the standard kitchen tools. But it was still more than Ryuunosuke had ever hoped of having.

 

His scalp still burning and sore from his hair being pulled hard enough to make him cry out and grind his teeth, Dazai had left Gin and Ryuunosuke inside the apartment nights before with a lazy wave of his hand and a trill of make yourself at home that was so honeyed that Ryuunosuke could feel its falsity seep into his bones. Gin said nothing, throwing a cold, nasty glare over her shoulder as Ryuunosuke stared at him beneath his bangs, eyes wide and wild.

 

Dazai’s smile, bored and wan, only widened and twitched as Ryuunosuke trembled, the hems of his clothing twitching with the rage of his beast that lived in the seams.

 

“I’ll let the both of you, ah.. settle in for the next couple of days and get used to your new accommodations. Then, you will begin your training with me, Akutagawa-kun, immediately.”

 

Hazel eyes narrowed, sharp and cold.

 

“Perhaps by that time, you will know better than to try to attack me again, hmm? Unless you truly do not wish to see your friend again.”

 

With a theatrical wave, Dazai chirped a goodbye and left the siblings and their burning, silent rage with the click of the lock.

 

Neither Gin nor Ryuunosuke was able to sleep that night. They sat on the floor in the kitchen, the tile cool on their feet and Rashomon wrapped around them both in a blanket as they stared blankly into the darkness. Ryuunosuke’s left shoulder felt empty, missing the weight of a chin on him and the brush of soft, silver hair against his cheek. He got no more than fifteen minutes of sleep in intervals.

 

Gin’s hand sought out her brother’s and she squeezed gently.

 

“We’ll get him back,” she whispered. “We’ll find a way.”

 

His fingers shook around his sister’s. He didn’t answer.

 

Two days had passed, and Ryuunosuke had heard no word from the boy who called himself Dazai Osamu. The cell phone that had been given to him, practically dropped lazily into his hands, something he still did not entirely understand how it worked, had gone untouched and did not ring.

 

And as the days bled away, greater did his need and urge to find Atsushi again grow.

 

Gin slept on in her room (for they had their own separate rooms, now, something they never conceived having before, that they could have something that was truly theirs) as Ryuunosuke sat in the darkness, watching with a vacant stare as the night began to ebb into dawn. As the sunlight beamed through the window and Ryuunosuke blinked blearily, he looked out at the skyline to see shades of orange, gold and violet streak over the city with the rising of the sun.

 

He swallowed hard as his chest tightened, and he coughed, harsh and sharp as they racked his small, thin frame.

 

Ryuunosuke stared into the growing light of the morning until he heard the faint vibration of plastic on a stone counter.

 

Jumping at the sound, muscles twitching in alarm mixed with exhaustion, Ryuunosuke turned sharply towards the source. Rashomon slowly reached out from his scarf, taking the phone in its grasp and bringing it to its owner. Ryuunosuke’s thin fingers were unsteady as he learned the different functions on the fly, until he finally opened the message that belonged to an Unknown number.

 

His fingers tightened around it as he read.

 

We start today. Bring the coat I gave you and come to the location I will send you in just a moment. Gin-chan will not be joining you.

 

Grinding his teeth together in a hard clack, his fingers dug into his palm with his free hand and Ryuunosuke contemplated throwing the phone out the window in some spur of rebellion and fury that’d consumed him the past three days.

 

Before he could do something so foolhardy, the phone vibrated and beeped with another message.

 

As he read, his breath caught and his pulse beat with a ragged rhythm at the bottom of his throat, threatening to send him into another barrage of coughs and sharp hacking noises.

 

I know who has Nakajima-kun. If you do not obey my orders, I will tell you nothing about where he is and whether or not he is safe.

 

Ryuunosuke nearly bit through the skin of his lower lip.

 


 

 

Though Gin didn’t stir from her bed, she heard the soft shuffle of feet and fabric being pulled onto a thin body, and she glanced out through the sliver of the door as Ryuunosuke put on the coat that was too big for him, hanging off of his body like loose skin, and went out the door to their apartment. Her fingers gripped her pillow (so soft, so cool, so unfamiliar, like a memory caught in fog) tight, and she curled underneath the covers.

 

It felt so much colder. Emptier, and lifeless.

 

Like the sun had been trapped behind a storm cloud.

 

Gin would not receive her message until hours later, when she learned how to work the stove top without burning her fingers again, another Unknown person telling her to go to a certain location, sent by one of Dazai’s subordinates. Gin looked at the clothes that she’d been given with distaste, but changed into them, feeling more clean than she could ever remember as she slipped on simple pants and a shirt.

 

The location was not far and the phone led her to where she needed to go so she did not get lost (though, with the black cars littering the streets, if she had, it wouldn’t be shocking if one or more of them belonged to one of the Port Mafia). She kept her head down, glancing between the dark strands as the people walked by her, never looking down or noticing when her sleeve brushed against theirs just so.

 

Gin came to a stop at a tall black building, the windows sleek and shining in the faint sun as the city roared around her. There was so much noise that it was almost overwhelming. The men in suits with dark shades hiding their eyes glanced at her as she walked through the doors, her feet soundless and light, even as she struggled to adjust to the feeling of having shoes protecting her feet once more. The air inside the tall skyscraper was cold, almost biting on her skin, and Gin shivered. Rubbing her arms, Gin looked around the lobby of the building, flinching at the harsh, sharp light that glittered on the marble. She started to shuffle, anxious to return to her brother, when no one came out to appear to her. Wondering if this was all just a mistake (or worse, a trap), Gin quickly went to turn and walk out the door.

 

“You’re very light on your feet.”

 

Gin paused.

 

There was the metallic shnip of a lighter opening and rubbing to start a little flame, a crackle, then an inhale and exhale. She could smell the smoke from where she was. It tickled her throat, though she did not cough.

 

Tailored, pristine shoes tapped against the floor as the owner of the voice came closer.

 

“You also breathe so quietly it’s as if you’re not breathing at all. Barely anyone noticed you walk by them, or even enter. Clearly you’re used to moving about quickly and silently. Beneficial, for a little thief.”

 

Training her jaw, Gin slowly turned around to look over her shoulder.

 

A man, a much older man than Dazai, with a fine-trimmed beard and thinning hair that was deep gray, peppered with dark streaks of hair as a last call of youth, blew out the smoke from the cigarette between his fingers. His clothes were even more expensive and fine looking than Dazai’s. On his nose rested the frame of a monocle.

 

Gray eyes narrowed at her as Gin clenched her jaw.

 

“..Though, those are skills that could be put to better use elsewhere. Especially since you have no ability like your brother.”

 

Gin seized up and her fists clenched at her side.

 

“Who are you?” she hissed.

 

The corner of the man’s mouth twitched. He chuckled and tucked away his lighter as he lowered his cigarette.

 

“…Or, perhaps that sweet voice of yours can be used to our advantage. That it remains that way as you grow older be willing.” Throwing the half-finished cigarette away, the man strode forward and he inclined his head to Gin.

 

“I’m Hirotsu Ryuurou. I am Dazai-san’s associate— you could say.” His mouth twisted wryly. “I am the commander of the Black Lizard Corps, and from this point on, you will be training with me.”

 

Hands tucked into the pockets of his coat, Hirotsu paced around Gin, and watched how her jaw clenched hard, how her gray eyes followed him as he walked, watching his every step as if she were a prey animal being stared down at by a wolf or a large predatory cat. But fear did not light her eyes.

 

Anger and a cold determination made her eyes glitter a sharp gray.

 

Hirotsu stifled the urge to smile.

 

“You will not say anything then? Not even an introduction of yourself? That’s quite unbecoming for a young lady.”

 

Gin resisted the urge to snort. Instead, she narrowed her eyes at the older man and lifted her head, her chin raised strong and proud— she would not let this man scare her, not when she had a brother to go back to, not when their dearest friend was in some limbo that they could not reach. Gin had faced death and starvation for years, she would not cower here. She did not cower before the demon behind a human skin and she would not stray here.

 

“..Given how you already assumed that I have an older brother, I thought introductions might be unnecessary,” Gin said cooly. She only felt a glimmer of satisfaction when Hirotsu stopped pacing around her, clasping his hands behind his back as he stared down at her. He rose a single brow and she fixed her cold stare to him.

 

“I’m Akutagawa Gin, and I’m supposed to be training with you, aren’t I?”

 

Hirotsu grasped his chin contemplatively at her bold question, looking down at her with gray eyes that were unfathomably unreadable, much like her brother— but she always saw through him. Gin knew Ryuunosuke. She did not know this man.

 

But Gin glared up at the older mafioso with a stare that could only be described as cold, hardened defiance.

 

Hirotsu narrowed his stare.

 

“…You understand that once you enter the Port Mafia, leaving it with be nigh impossible, don’t you?”

 

Jaw clenched, Gin nodded. “I understand.”

 

Hirotsu lowered his hand.

 

“You will be asked to commit crime. Robbery, physical assault, the theft of important information, torture.” He stared down at her, mouth in a hard line. His eyes did not leave her even as her body language turned stiff and rigid, taking in the weight and unforeseeable implications of the world that she was about to enter in.

 

“You will have to kill. Are you prepared for that?”

 

You will become a killer and there is no going back. You will carry that blood on your hands and it will stick beneath your fingernails no matter how much you clean them, how much you pick at your skin; it will stain them forever until you die.

 

To be a member of the Port Mafia was to become swallowed in the darkness. The light was but a distant dream or something to be abhorred.

 

Gin had forgotten the touch of the light years ago. She found glimmers of it in a tiny shack in a damp alleyway in the slums, a shack full of books, blankets they’d pilfered out of the trash, shadows dancing on the walls and laughter like bells.

 

Gin would not that become a mere dream.

 

Clenching and unclenching her fists, Gin exhaled.

 

“..Yes, I am prepared.”

 

Hirotsu pressed further, eyes narrowed. “You are ready to become a killer?”

 

Gin scoffed and the corner of her lips curled upward. It was haunting and eerie on such a young, pale face as hers.

 

“You think I haven’t seen death before?”

 

Hirotsu’s mouth twitched. He rose a hand and stroked the end of his beard; it was growing quite long again. Perhaps he should consider trimming it again. It’d been nearly two months.

 

“You have no ability,” he said, “You will train nearly three times as hard as any ability user in the Port Mafia. Perhaps four times more, or five. Impossibly harder. There is no softness in the Port Mafia. Nor will they treat you kindly just because you are a young girl. I will do you no favors.”

 

If anything, it would be even more difficult for her to make her way into the ladder of hierarchy in the Port Mafia— just by virtue of being a young girl, and a young girl with no family who’d been plucked from the streets. Women were not uncommon in the Port Mafia, whether they be family members of mafioso, wives, lovers, and members that entered on their own. But high in the ranks?

 

Apart from a few exceptions, they were quite rare.

 

The most exceptional women in the Port Mafia, those who gained the most traction in the organization, were those of powerful abilities and gifts.

 

Akutagawa Gin had none of those things.

 

Training would not come easy to her. But, if she survived…

 

Gin looked at Hirotsu, and she was unswayed, unwavering.

 

“The world has done me and my brother no favors, no kindness,” she said slowly, her voice but a whisper but spoken so coldly it could make grown men shiver. “What makes this so different?”

 

Gin could barely remember a life with kindness, with warmth that surrounded her and when her stomach didn’t clench with a hunger that would never be fulfilled. She remembered no father, she preferred not to remember the glimmer of a mother long gone, and as far as she was concerned, she had no other blood family apart from her brother. Yokohama and its slums had taught her that there was no room for kindness in the darkness.

 

A glimmer of light, just a sliver of it, came with a kind, nervous hand holding out a piece of bread to her when she was starving. Eyes like a sunset and a smile that made the tight skin over her bones ease.

 

Atsushi became part of her family when he made Ryuunosuke smile for the first time.

 

And if she had to make a monster of herself in order to protect that rare sliver of happiness that Gin once thought they would never have— she would. She would stain her hands, her fingers, with blood, if it meant that she could protect that little patch of sunshine that they’d been so fortunate to be allowed.

 

Akutagawa Gin looked up at Hirotsu boldly and he saw not a little girl with dark hair and a soft voice, but the cold, sharp determination of a dagger.

 

“When do we start?”

 

Hirotsu smiled.

 

“Now.”

 


 

 

“Ah!” Dazai chirped, closing his phone with a click. “There you are! I was starting to worry if you’d gotten lost! Or taken off without a word, which would have been rather rude of you, you know.”

 

Dazai’s admonishing tone almost would’ve come across as gentle and teasing if not for the hard steel of his glare, even as his lips curled into a wide smile as the doors to the warehouse closed behind Ryuunosuke. Ryuunosuke did not return Dazai’s smile, nor did he bow as he stepped closer. The black coat was left hanging on the crook of his arm. He did not want to put it on. It was heavy and hang awkwardly on his small, thin body.

 

As the older boy looked at him, Ryuunosuke felt the phantom pull on his scalp where Dazai had grabbed him, just as he streaked forward upon learning where Dazai had put Atsushi, before he disappeared— he’d thrown Ryuunosuke to the ground, and then grabbed him by his hair as Gin screamed at him to let her brother go, and whispered dangerously in his ear—

 

Do that again, and I will not even give you the benefit of knowing whether Nakajima is alive or not, once I find him.

 

“I do hope that you’re well-rested!” Dazai said, leaping off of the shipment box he’d been sitting on, a book left with a mark on the page he’d just been reading, “We have a long day of training to start, and you’re already behind.”

 

Ryuunosuke trained his jaw.

 

“Where is he?”

 

Dazai blinked owlishly at Ryuunosuke, a dark glint entering his eyes that looked like a flash of annoyance before he sighed, rubbing the back of his head. “Not even a greeting or a simple good morning? We’re going to have to work on your manners, Akutagawa-kun.”

 

Nails dug into Ryuunosuke’s palm in angry red curves as his fists clenched.

 

“I did as you asked,” he ground out. “You said you would tell me where Atsushi is: now fulfill your end of the bargain, as I have already done mine.”

 

Dazai observed Ryuunosuke with a half-lidded stare that was bored, almost empty in those dark, dark hazel eyes. He tried to see through Ryuunosuke straight through the bone, making a contemplative noise before he shrugged. “Very well, I suppose that you did fulfill your end of the bargain—“

 

Stuffing his hands into his pockets, he leaned against the tall crate box.

 

“Your feline inclined friend is currently in custody of one of my accomplices,” Dazai said, picking at his nails and frowning at the dirt beneath the bedding, paying no mind to how Ryuunosuke jolted with wide eyes. “Took him straight out the holding basement himself, at that! Oh, and his name is Oda Sakunosuke, and you’d do well not to make him angry. Just a side note.”

 

Ryuunosuke’s mouth opened and closed as he breathed heavily, the name ringing in his ears and his chest constricting with a wild storm of emotion; anger, relief, and a flood of want. He bit his inner cheek hard, glaring at the ground before turning his resolute stare to the older boy.

 

“..Is he safe?”

 

Dazai hummed, crossing his arms against his chest, casually hooking his ankles together as he leaned against the crate. “He is. For now.”

 

Rashomon trembled within the seams of his clothing and Ryuunosuke’s heart hammered at the base of his throat, tickling at the back of his mouth with coughs springing forward. He did not speak again until after they’d passed.

 

“..When,” he started quietly, “When can I—“

 

“See him?” Dazai interrupted. Stopping the younger boy short of a response, Dazai pushed off of the wall and stepped closer. His smile long gone, half-lidded hazel eyes bore down at Ryuunosuke with an empty but hard gleam.

 

Ryuunosuke, body stiff and back rigid, stared hard up at Dazai.

 

The corner of Dazai’s mouth twitched; it was a mocking curl.

 

“..We’ve barely even started training and you’re already making demands of me,” Dazai purred. The sound made the hair on the back of Ryuunosuke’s neck stand.

 

Dazai slid his hands into his pockets and he bent forward, narrowing his eyes at Ryuunosuke. His cold smile spread wider.

 

He’d been… displeased, by the turn of events regarding Nakajima Atsushi.

 

He’d not told Mori anything of the were tiger and had no plan to until he had some idea of how to wrangle with the boy’s uncontrolled ability. The tiger would be advantageous in battle, but Dazai still knew little of its finer details and the set-backs of such an ability; the boy didn’t even know he had it, most likely. He’d planned to keep the boy in a holding cell until he found a better way to control the tiger or find a proper mentor for him.

 

Chuuya was certainly a possibility, but Dazai loathed the thought of handing over such a prize to his short-stack of a partner.

 

(Ugh, how he hated the word.)

 

There were other options, of course, such as selling the boy to another foreign organization that would make some use of him. Dazai barely even knew what to do with himself once he had the boy in his possession. That Akutagawa had such a visceral attachment to the were tiger was.. unexpected, but perhaps could work in his favor.

 

Odasaku taking the boy and defying his orders threw all of Dazai’s contemplated plans to the wind.

 

Dazai’s chest clenched with an unfamiliar, tight feeling as he recalled Odasaku’s back retreating further and further away from him, carrying food for both himself and the young, thin and malnourished boy that was waiting at his apartment. It made him feel sick, his body shaken and trembling as he reflected on the many emotions he rarely saw on Odasaku’s ever stoic face.

 

The plea, the stubbornness and the anger.

 

He’d never seen him so expressive before.

 

Dazai didn’t know what was so special about Nakajima that caused Odasaku to turn on him in such a way, and not knowing infuriated him.

 

He’d not spoken to Odasaku since that meeting outside of Lupin’s days ago. He’d barely touched his phone and his fingers hovered over Odasaku’s number, trembling before he’d put the phone away. He wanted to and yet he did not want to. He didn’t know how.

 

Admitting that to himself was even more rankling.

 

But this?

 

Looking down at this wild young boy picked from the slums with an ability he’d barely tapped into, that had such potential for strength—

 

This.. he could use.

 

Dazai’s smile spread wider, and he stood up straighter.

 

“You want to see him that badly, don’t you?”

 

He could see the way Akutagawa’s clothes seemed to tremble and come alive as the boy looked at him with wide eyes that were far too bright on a dirty dog from the slums. Something ugly twisted in his gut, an unnamed emotion he would not acknowledge, as he saw the determination and what might have been an echo of hope on that young, pale face.

 

Hope that a child of the slums shouldn’t have.

 

Akutagawa would regret showing him such vulnerability, and he would learn that such things would only get him killed in the Port Mafia. Dazai would make him stamp out that weakness.

 

In a world of darkness, there is no room to hope for light.

 

Hands still in his pockets, Dazai walked away from Akutagawa. “Very well, I’ll let you see him. I will let you see just how safe he actually is.”

 

He heard Ryuunosuke’s breath hitch sharply as soon as he let the words, honeyed with false warmth, leave his mouth. But before the boy could get too hopeful, Dazai looked over his shoulder and his stare cut through that hope like a knife.

 

“But only when you show me how strong you’ve become. When you show improvement the more we train, I might just let you see your tiger lily.”

 

Dazai began to shed the coat off of his shoulders; the very same coat Mori had given him. It was an ugly thing. Akutagawa’s eyes flashed with something other than that hope as he began to realize the depths of the threat laden within Dazai’s promise, and when Akutagawa’s teeth ground into a snarl, a soft growl emitting from his clothing as the ends trembled and shook, Dazai’s smile widened.

 

“But if you don’t, well…”

 

Dazai chuckled, and he strode forward.

 

Ryuunosuke’s entire body tensed and trembled as Dazai came closer, cupping his knuckles and lacing his fingers together. The rub and snap of bone was audible as Dazai cracked his knuckles.

 

Hazel eyes were dark and cold as his smile broadened into a grin, full of teeth.

 

“Then who’s to say just how safe your tiger will be for much longer. Now then… let’s begin.”

 

His eyes narrowed.

 

“Show me that you are not weak, and I will give you what you want,” he promised, knowing that it was too tempting of a treat for Akutagawa to refuse. He would be a stupid, foolish child to even dare say no.


Dazai had seen how Akutagawa had tried to attack him twice, just for Nakajima. He’d heard of how he’d nearly killed the director of an orphanage that Nakajima had come from when they found him in the slums. He knew— this was an offer that Akutagawa would not dare say no to.

 

“Tell me, Akutagawa-kun,” Dazai trilled, “Are you weak?”

 

Yes. Yes, I am. I’m weak. My body is weak, my ability is useless and weak, I know that I am. I’m weak, and always have been.

 

But—

 

Fingers that trembled with nervousness as a book was given to him, eyes that looked at a black flower springing from his sleeve in awe, a fig being handed to him along with a shy little smile.

 

Eyes like a sunset that seemed to glow as Atsushi told Gin and Ryuunosuke the story of a young, downtrodden girl who overcame the cruelty of a stepmother that did not love her and prospered, with or without her, into happiness.

 

The majestic white fur that seemed to shimmer under the moonlight as teeth bore back into a growl, muscles rippling as a tiger cub stood in front of Ryuunosuke in a protective haunch.

 

How warm Atsushi’s skin felt whenever their fingers brushed as they huddled for warmth during the cold and rainy nights, where the roof leaked and dripped water into buckets they’d found. His soft his hair was as it tickled his cheek.

 

His smile.

 

Rashomon’s growl grew louder and reverberated throughout the abandoned warehouse belonging to the Port Mafia as it slowly slithered out of the back of the coat Ryuunosuke wore; pure black and eyes burning red. His beast spread out, using the fabric and twisting it to create beastly knots that growled and trembled at the nonchalant, uncaring mafioso that bore down at him with cold hazel eyes.

 

If it means that I can see him, if it means that I can see his smile again, that I can protect him—

 

Gray eyes, dark as the bottomless fathoms of the underworld he came from, sharpened and brightened with deadly intent, and the demon living in a human visage smiled in satisfaction.

 

Rashomon bent and coiled, ready to strike at Ryuunosuke’s first instinct.

 

Then I will shed this weak body and prove it to you. I will become strong and I will get him back.

 

Rashomon—!

 


 

 

By the time Atsushi had been living with Oda Sakunosuke for two weeks, a routine had begun to settle in.

 

After some discussion with Mishima on what exactly Atsushi was going to do when Odasaku had be away at work, on an errand or a mission, they came to the conclusion that Mishima would make as many stops to Odasaku’s apartment as he could in order to keep the boy company. When Odasaku had to go to leave, he would tell Atsushi that he could read whatever he want, heat up or make anything he liked and that he would be back, hopefully, before nightfall.

 

Still in a disbelieved daze that he was not going to be tossed out on the streets, Atsushi could only nod quietly and watch as Odasaku left, leaving the radio on to play some soft jazz and foreign music that Odasaku found quite relaxing when he read. Atsushi seemed to enjoy it, Odasaku even caught him humming along to some of the more fast-paced songs, tapping his feet against the floor as he read.

 

When Odasaku had to be away at work, Mishima would drop by with more food, lunch, tea and secondhand clothing that was more fit for a skinny pre-teen than anything Odasaku had. While there, Mishima began to slowly edge into casually tutoring Atsushi; his reading level was already quite high and he was an apt, quick-paced learner, but when it came to matters of math and more complex subjects, Mishima found himself frowning in concern when Atsushi grew silent, ashamed of his ignorance.

 

Odasaku soon found books on astronomy, biology, and various other scientific disciplines as well as history sitting on his kitchen table, Atsushi quietly devouring them.

 

“He wants to learn, Odasaku-chan,” Mishima remarked warmly, rubbing the dishes in his sink down clean in his diner. “He’s very studious, and well-read! I get the impression that he wasn’t really allowed to learn wherever he was…”

 

Odasaku hummed in agreement, frowning at his plate of curry.

 

It was something that went beyond the slums he once lived in; wherever he’d lived in before had a kitchen, and he was already so well-read that there had to have been a library. Atsushi didn’t talk about where he’d once lived before, before living with the Akutagawa siblings, and Odasaku was hesitant to ask. The boy was still skittish and nervous around him, as if he made the wrong move Odasaku would hurt or punish him, and he looked at both him and Mishima warily, not entirely trusting them, but not suspicious, either. As if he were waiting for some kind of fall out.

 

What the hell happened to you?

 

Mishima began to structure his tutoring sessions with Atsushi more like lessons, even contemplating giving him assignments after Atsushi began to show interest in learning more, and Odasaku did what he could to make Atsushi feel more comfortable around him, assuring him over and over without words that he was welcome here, that Odasaku would not toss him back out onto the streets to starve and die. He’d only just started to not jump every time Odasaku walked through the doorway or came into the kitchen; it was an improvement. He smiled a little more easily, but his shoulders were often still tense for long periods of time being he finally relaxed.

 

Odasaku was careful to give Atsushi enough space to feel comfortable when he saw how taut the boy’s muscles could be, thick with tension. And, in time, he would see Atsushi begin to smile a little more easily around him, his shoulders and back not so rigid.

 

Each smile that was a little more genuine felt like a victory.

 

Soon after Odasaku came back, Mishima would gather his things, make sure that everything was all in order with Atsushi and Odasaku and return to his diner. He couldn’t be at Odasaku’s apartment all day, after all; he still had a business to run. Mishima would say goodbye to both him and Atsushi, offering a gentle wave that was slowly returned as the days passed, and Odasaku would settle in for the evening as he made an easy meal for dinner.

 

Though Odasaku himself wasn’t much of a TV watcher, the sound of the various programs seemed to ease Atsushi’s nerves (though with the way he’d been so skittish with the remote, it was as if he’d never been faced with such technology before in his life. Odasaku had to explain what each button did, patiently gesturing to and pointing each rubber button on the device), and he’d often put it on just for some background noise as they both read. So often did he get lost in his own books that he occasionally forgot that he wasn’t the only person living in his apartment anymore.

 

More than once did he catch Atsushi curled up on the couch, asleep, face half buried in one of his books, long after midnight had passed.

 

After marking the page where Atsushi left off, Odasaku would carry the boy to his futon to sleep, and he would stare at the ceiling of his bedroom until he fell asleep for those few spare hours he could get.

 

Getting adjusted to having a new person in his apartment, a much smaller person, was a surreal experience.

 

As was the knowledge that Atsushi had the ability to turn into a tiger, one he could not control, and each time the moon beamed through the windows, Odasaku would watch out of the corner of his eye; waiting for a blue flash of light, a streak of pure white and silver, and glowing gold eyes—

 

To see if the tiger would emerge.

 

Every night, he would wait.

 

And it hadn’t. Not yet.

 

Odasaku had not seen a single sign of Atsushi turning into that tiger form he’d found in the basement nearly two weeks ago. Odasaku couldn’t let him feel relief just yet, nor could he expect that Atsushi would eventually transform— whether by the pull of the full moon or something else, Odasaku didn’t know, but he could not let his guard down.

 

Dazai would never be so.. outwardly emotional if it weren’t for a reason.

 

It was only a matter of time.

 

But since the beast had not yet shown itself, Odasaku was not going to fret just yet, nor would he hand Atsushi back to Dazai whom he had.. not spoken to in nearly two weeks. Oh, texts and messages had been sent, sporadically, short and curt, but Odasaku had not seen him in person yet. He’d avoided Lupin since that night; it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to spend long, late night hours at the bar when there was a pre-teen sitting alone in his apartment. Nor would he hear the end of it from Mishima.

 

Odasaku had even avoided messaging Dazai in general, unsure how to even start after such a cold parting—

 

Until Atsushi asked him, a book cradled to his chest and grip on the cover tight, in the quietest voice—

 

“When can I see them?”

 

He did not have to say their names; Odasaku already knew. Their names lived in the silence, surrounding them entirely whenever Atsushi looked out the window, lost in his thoughts and own world.

 

Odasaku had no good answer for him.

 

His silence spoke the I don’t know for him.

 

When Atsushi bit his lip and softly told Odasaku to forget it, it was nothing, Odasaku fished out his phone and finally typed out the words he’d too hesitant to say in person;

 

Hey, Dazai.

 

A simple message. Laughably simple, almost distant and cold, nothing else left for him to say— but Odasaku was a man of few words, and who else knew that better than the young man he’d found an odd friendship with, even if it was over the cleanup of a pile of corpses.

 

His response came not long after, Atsushi fast asleep and curled up in his futon. Odasaku was outside on his balcony, cigarette held between his lips. He never smoked when Atsushi was in the vicinity.

 

Hello, Odasaku.

 

A brief pause, then minutes later—

 

No claw marks on your couch yet?

 

Not ideal. But, it was a start.

 

The conversation after the initial awkward greetings was brief; an assurance to Dazai that he was perfectly fine, that Atsushi had not yet transformed, and that work had been going on as it normally did. They did not talk about that night under Lupin’s sign. The conversation was not long and full of short sentences and quips, but Odasaku felt a familiar sense of comfort settle between them once more, as if that night had not happened at all. But it could not last, and it didn’t.

 

When Odasaku forced himself to bring up the subject of the Akutagawa siblings, when Atsushi would be allowed to finally see them, to let them be reunited, the tone of the conversation swerved so quickly, it was as if a whiff of cold air burst over the back of his neck.

 

No.

 

The answer was always the same.

 

Atsushi’s attention would drift, Odasaku would reach for his phone, and Dazai would give him the very same answer, each time.

 

No.

No.

Absolutely not.

Not yet.

 

There was no change.

 

Verging on the end of the third week, Atsushi quietly asked, as he’d asked every few days, always in a hush, “Can I see them?”

 

Odasaku lowered his cup of cold, lukewarm black tea, and frowned into his darkened reflection in the water.

 

Atsushi’s mouth twitched and his eyes lowered to his book. His lips curved upward; there was no mirth in the little smile he gave.

 

“…Still no, huh?”

 

Gripping his mug tightly, Odasaku looked away, a hard clench to his jaw.

 

Atsushi’s murmur of I see echoed into the silent living room, the sound of the city below barely audible. It rattled Odasaku’s bones as he looked out of the corner of his eye, watching Atsushi get up from the couch to settle on his futon by the window. He sat down, took his book with him in a futile attempt to read, and looked out through the glass.

 

When Odasaku turned off the lights, drawn by exhaustion to his own bed, he saw Atsushi’s shaking form in the darkness as he tucked his legs in, arms wrapped around his shins and face buried in his knees. He heard a sharp intake and a shuddering exhale. The book was laid open and face down on his futon, unfinished.

 

Odasaku’s hand gripped his doorway hard, creaking against the wood.

 

Sleep did not come easy to him that night.

 

It felt like hours of staring at the ceiling before Odasaku felt himself begin to drift off, battling with himself and what he could do; there was only so much he, a simple errand boy could do, and when Dazai wanted his way.. it was difficult to stop him or change his mind. His annoyance could be felt even through text form as Odasaku asked, over and over again, in subtle messages, when he would allow the Akutagawas to reunite with Atsushi. And Dazai was adamant on keeping them separated.

 

Odasaku didn’t understand, and that frustrated him beyond reason.

 

He’d promised him.

 

A foolish mistake, but he’d promised.

 

And Odasaku wanted to keep that promise. He wanted to see that glimmer of a true, sincere smile on that young face that shouldn’t be as tired as it was now.

 

He just.. didn’t know how.

 

What could he do to convince Dazai to let the siblings reunite with Atsushi? Could he even succeed?

 

It was with those thoughts haunting him that Odasaku drifted into an uneasy sleep.

 

Silence settled over the apartment. Throughout the complex, nary a foot did creak against floorboards and tatami matts. The air was cool and still, barely a faint breeze that shook the cloth laid out to dry on hangers along the various balconies outside. Even the city lights were still.

 

The moon hung in the sky, not yet full. A curve of darkness swallowed the left side of moon, slim but sharp. It billowed through the open slits of the blinds and danced along the soft lines of a young boy’s face.

 

The silver light became a soft, faint blue, and a rumble stuttered through the walls.

 

Odasaku woke to the sensations of muscles clenching all over his body in pure alarm, at the intrusion of something unusual, not right, not normal, unsafe, eyes snapping open—

 

To find a pair of bright gold glaring at him in the darkness, white teeth bared as moonlight shimmered over pure white fur, streaked with fierce black.

 

Claws dug into his sheets as a tiger cub growled lowly at him, inches between his face and the cub’s nose, lips wrinkled with anger and hunger as sharp fangs let a deep rumble leave them.

 

Odasaku stared at the tiger cub, unblinking, not daring to yet move for the gun he kept beneath his pillow.

 

The tiger cub narrowed his eyes— so bright, so golden, rimmed with a rich, royal violet that was so distinct— and let out a louder growl with a snap of his teeth and jaws, the hairs on his back standing as he hunched.

 

Odasaku was prepared for the tiger cub to launch forward, teeth aimed for his jugular, ready to sink into soft flesh— ready for Flawless to rescue him, to appear before him in that brief flash of watching his own blood spill before his eyes—

 

The claws ripped tears into his sheets when the tiger cub leapt off of the bed, streaking for the window that was left slightly open, to allow the faint breeze cool the stifled air of his bedroom.

 

Odasaku’s chest seized as the tiger cub’s claws gripped the window seal, pulling himself up.

 

The sheets were thrown to the flower, untangling his long legs, just as the tiger cub pushed up and off of the floor. His feet moved before his mind did, just as the windows were forced open by the tiger cub’s muscular, lithe body.

 

The moonlight against the tiger cub’s white fur seemed to emanate a soft blue glow.

 

The tiger cub pushed off of the window pane, to leap to the ground below, and Odasaku’s feet pushed off of the floor.

 

The cool night air met his skin with a roar of wind and a deep growl in his ears.

Chapter Text

The taste of iron rushed out of his mouth in a downpour.

 

“Get up. Again.”

 

His chest clenching with pain at each cough, the blood spitting out between his lips, Ryuunosuke clawed at the cement floor. His body trembled with each heavy pant, the left side of his rib cage throbbing in pain from where Dazai had kneed him. One of many new bruises that would surely join the others if Dazai hadn’t broken any of his ribs yet. Wiping his mouth with the back of his head, blood streaked against his pale skin, Ryuunosuke glared over his knuckles at Dazai wordlessly.

 

Dazai’s one visible eye narrowed to a half-lidded stare, his mouth curling downward into a scowl.

 

“Have you become deaf from a single kick to the stomach, Akutagawa-kun? Get up.

 

Ryuunosuke ground his teeth and felt Rashomon weakly tremble within his coat, hot and sweat-laden against his thin, spindly body. His beast growled and Ryuunosuke staggered into a kneeling position, struggling to push himself up.

 

Stroking his chin, his other hand propped on his hip as he observed Ryuunosuke’s difficulty in standing up, the boy’s harsh breathing loud in the empty warehouse; nearly a month had passed since he’d taken on Ryuunosuke as an apprentice and Ryuunosuke was proving to be stubborn learner. He had a propensity for disobeying and not doing as he said right away and his body was weak. Rashomon took much of his energy and strength away from him when he used it too much and his endurance was laughable. At the beginning, he was left winded and unable to stand for nearly ten minutes when Dazai landed a hard hit in his solar plexus.

 

The movement of improvement and change was slow. Now, Ryuunosuke began to stand after five minutes on the floor, wheezing and breathing with a hard rasp as he fought back the blood in his mouth.

 

Dazai faintly wondered about the boy’s chronic illness.

 

Well, given his previous life and the lineage behind his name and within his blood, perhaps it was little wonder that Akutagawa Ryuunosuke would be wrought with illness for most of his life. Especially if he’d not had the means to treat it. That would make it a much more difficult time for Dazai to teach him how to become a proper mafioso, to learn to be strong

 

“If you cannot stand now, what makes you think that I would be willing to let you see your tiger?”

 

But for the most difficult student, Dazai had a single advantage that he would dangle before the rabid dog.

 

Ryuunosuke went rigid, his body tensing and a deep growl emitting from the depths of the coat he wore. Red sparks of electricity crackled at the ends of his coat, the hems of his sleeves and his iron gray eyes, so dark and void, suddenly burst with a light of pure fury.

 

Dazai smiled.

 

It was intriguing, yet… annoying.

 

“Well? Are you going to get up or not, Akutagawa-kun? Or are you just going to sit there while your little tiger friend wallows and waits?”

 

The growl that left the beast called Rashomon mixed with a human snarl as Ryuunosuke forced himself onto his feet. His chest heaved with each breath, and though his ribcage ached with each movement, muscles protesting and blood pooled behind his gums, Ryuunosuke stood up. He didn’t let his feet tremble as he straightened. He wiped the last trace of blood off of the corner of his mouth.

 

Ryuunosuke didn’t say a word as Rashomon slowly began to emerge out of the back of his coat, crackling with red and with life.

 

“Hmm.. You’re getting up quicker than the last time, but your endurance still leaves much to be desired…”

 

Dazai stretched out his fingers and the bones cracked, rubbing against each other, loud in the empty warehouse.

 

“When you can stand up straight away and land a hit on me, perhaps I shall let you see your tiger, Akutagawa-kun. Now—-“

 

Dazai’s hazel eyes glimmered, not with light, but cold delight as he sought the enraged iron glaring back at him.

 

“As I said—

 

Again.”

 


 

 

Only years of training and acrobatics kept the bones of Odasaku’s ankles from breaking as he landed on the ground two stories below. He braced himself with his palms, flat to the ground, and landed in a perfect crouch. Once settled, he broke out into a run just before the tiger cub would disappear out of sight. The tiger cub was young, but he was fast.

 

He’s going to be seen. Someone’s going to see him.

 

People won’t just ignore a goddamn tiger running around the city.

 

He’s going to be seen.

 

He’s going to get shot .

 

Only did the wide brightness of his blue eyes betray Odasaku’s growing panic and fear.

 

It was too dangerous to let a tiger, even one as young as this, roam about the city; animal control would sooner shoot him dead out of panic rather than simply sedate and tranquilize him. And they would never know about the boy beneath the white fur, completely unaware of what he is and what he was doing.

 

Odasaku didn’t know what caused the boy to shift— though he had a faint idea— but he could not let that happen.

 

He would not see the cub be shot, only to see that fur recede and fade into flesh, stained with blood.

 

He wouldn’t. He couldn’t.

 

He couldn’t let that happen.

 

Odasaku had a promise to keep, and by god, he would keep true to it.

 

Odasaku ran faster than he could last remember doing, not caring how his bare feet slammed against the cement and pavement, following the streak of white and black stripes not too far off in the distance. How fortunate that he had such good endurance, or else his lungs would’ve given out on him quite a while ago. And run, Odasaku did—

 

He had to end this quickly.

 

The further the tiger cub got, the easier it would be for Odasaku to lose track of him, or for him to dart into an alleyway that Odasaku couldn’t follow him into.

 

As he ran, Odasaku caught glance of a golden-yellow stare glaring back at him over the muscular white fur and a flash of ivory teeth. The sclera a pure royal lavender, those tiger eyes were filled with anger, rage, frustration— desperation.

 

Snarling at Odasaku, the tiger cub looked away and cantered off with more purpose, claws barely seeming to graze the cement as he ran.

 

Odasaku cursed under his breath as he nearly tripped forward due to a manhole snagging onto his toe and he grit his teeth.

 

He had a feeling what the tiger cub was doing, where it was going— and Odasaku’s chest clenched at the thought because as much as he understood why, Odasaku couldn’t let Atsushi run wild.

 

Not like this.

 

No matter why, Odasaku couldn’t let Atsushi run off and search for the Akutagawa sibligns, not when he was completely unaware and so vulnerable. He was a cub that could do some serious damage, but he was still a cub.

 

And Odasaku swore to himself that he’d let nothing happen to him. That much, he could at least try to keep.

 

The tiger cub’s pace grew more frantic and Odasaku glanced around him, taking in the buildings that stood to the sides of the street and the different alleyways that stuck out in-between apartment complexes and houses. The tiger’s path was aimless, for now, but Odasaku saw his ears twitching, aware that he was behind. Clenching his jaw, Odasaku swerved to the left.

 

Pressing his feet hard against the wall, curling his toes into the stone and plaster, Odasaku gripped the drain pipe hard.

 

When his feet left the cement, the tiger paused.

 

He turned, looked over his shoulder, a deep but amateur growl rumbling in his throat. His ears twitched for any sign of footsteps following him. The tiger watched and waited, eyes narrowing before another low, deep rumble left him and he began to walk once more. This time, his pace was more leisurely and slow, careful, and the tiger cub sniffed the air. The thick lines around the tiger’s face crinkled as he gave an annoyed huff, tip of his tail curling.

 

So many smells. Too many smells. Too many unfamiliar, the scent of the boy with pale skin and the girl with the soft voice nowhere to be found.

 

The tiger cub felt the panic deep within himself, that overwhelming desire to be reunited, to go home, and the tiger was determined to ease his pain.

 

He would not stop until he’d come home.

 

Large as he was, the cub was almost silent in his trek through the streets, lowering his nose to the ground in attempt to search for those tell-tale scents that belonged to the boy and girl that’d become part of his pack. The city was asleep and had yet to take notice of the beast wandering through their streets— all for the better.

 

The tiger cub sniffed and smelled the metal buildings around him, eyes bright and narrowed in the darkness, a soft blue glow seeming to ebb off of him, stepping one paw in front of the other as he walked. He continued to sniff along the ground and raised his head, ears twitching and tail curling as he stared off into the distance with a bright, intelligent glare.

 

It was faint, barely a whiff that even the most talented of bloodhounds wouldn’t have been able to catch— but he found them.

 

Their scents danced teasingly on the breeze and the tiger cub growled lowly in his throat as he raised his head higher, seeking out those scents that made the tiger feel safe and happy. Lips curling back into a faint snarl, the tiger’s ears pressed against his skull and he began to walk into the direction of the scent.

 

As the scent steadily grew stronger, the tiger cub began to crouch, prepared to break into a run.

 

A roar broke out through the alley the tiger cub had wandered into when Odasaku leapt off of the roofs he’d been running along and grabbed the tiger cub from behind.

 

Odasaku used to see children’s books with illustrations of humans playfully wrestling with bears, and even pictures of carnival men doing the very same— it was not as whimsical as the reality of wrestling with a furious, enraged tiger cub that weighed as much as a fully grown german shepherd, if not more. Odasaku used to wrestle with grown men even as a child, but they didn’t have claws that threatened to dig into his arms and rip them open, or the teeth that snapped at him as the tiger cub snarled and writhed with ferocity, trying to violently wrench his way out of Odasaku’s clutches.

 

He clenched his teeth when claws scrapped loudly at the ground, scratching at the cement and pavement and just barely missing his own clothes. Odasaku had to twist and turn to avoid those claws ripping through his skin. His biceps screamed as he looped an arm around the tiger cub’s stomach, and the other around his neck. The tiger cub began to wheeze, but only fought that much more ferociously, snapping his jaws and glancing back at Odasaku, golden eyes burning with what Odasaku could only describe as anger and hatred.

 

I’m sorry, Atsushi.

 

Clenching his jaw until his muscles strained, his arms aching as he grappled with the cub, Odasaku wrapped a leg around the tiger cub’s hind legs to keep him as still as possible as he reached into his coat pocket. He clutched the syringe in between his fingers and nearly was thrust forward when the tiger cub gave a sudden jerk forward, attempting to buck Odasaku off of him. At any other point, Odasaku would’ve admired the sheer strength the tiger (and consequently, Atsushi) possessed and had taken the time to truly see how beautiful the tiger looked in the moonlight, as if born from it—

 

But the cars flying down the street in the distance and the loud noises the tiger made that would only serve to disturb any tenants nearby, his roars and growls frightening all who might hear— Odasaku couldn’t waste any time.

 

I’m going to reunite you with your friends and I am not going to let you get killed—-!

 

Gaining his bearings, Odasaku kept a tight grip on the tiger cub and aimed for the base of the tiger’s neck.

 

The tiger cub yowled when the needle of the syringe pierced past the thick coat of white fur and black stripes, wriggling and writhing against Odasaku, who now held on for dear life as he pushed the syringe down, the clear liquid being pushed into the tiger’s bloodstream. The cub thrust and threw his paw out and Odasaku grimaced with an aborted cry when claws slashed against his arm, ripping through cloth and the tips of his nails scraping against his skin.

 

Barely a graze, fortunate for Odasaku, because even that was enough for him to smell blood hitting the air and feeling the warm, numb pulse of open flesh on his arm.

 

Odasaku bled onto the tiger’s white fur as his roars and growls came to a slow, wheezing stop, his bright-eyed glare turning hazy and movements sluggish, even as the cub continued to try to fight against him. The blood dripped down his arm as the cub’s eyes fluttered to a slow close, weakening as the sedative ran through his blood.

 

Given his attempts at avoiding murder as much as possible, sedatives and tranquilizers had become a common tool of use for Odasaku. Granted, he’d never pictured that he’d actually have to use it against a child.

 

A child that could turn into a ferocious beast in the moonlight, but still a child.

 

Odasaku sighed with relief as the cub slowly passed out, but couldn’t linger on it for long with the throbbing left arm and the cub’s massive weight against him. The cub’s back rose and fell with each slow, lingering breath, finally at peace— but he made no move to get up any time soon, and he was heavy. Nor could Odasaku be sure when the cub would shift back into human form.

 

Atsushi didn’t even know that he could transform at all, that he had such a power. Of course he wouldn’t know how to change back. He didn’t even seem to recognize him…

 

Knowing that, regardless of Atsushi currently being unconscious, he could not let anyone see him in this form, and Odasaku quickly considered his options and resources. Quickly dismissing Dazai as an option, as he would undoubtedly just use this as a chance to take Atsushi back to that place and lock him up as if he was some kind of animal or a monster—

 

With his free, uninjured arm, Odasaku shifted as much as he could with the weight of a tiger cub sleeping on his lap, and dialed Mishima.

 

First, he was going to need a car.

 


 

It’d barely been a manageable two-person job, bringing the tiger cub in, but even though his muscles ached, Odasaku slid against the wall of his sitting room and exhaled. He rubbed his forearm, frowning as the felt the bandages wrapped around the slashes and wounds beneath the fabric. He turned his head to the sound of even, deep breathing.

 

Heavily sedated by the tranquilizer, the tiger cub slept in his patch of moonlight, lumbered on the couch.

 

There hadn’t been much time to explain to Mishima when he pulled up in his van at the exact alley Odasaku had given him directions to. He got out of his car, looked at Odasaku and then at the tiger cub he was trapped beneath. His jovial face was shuttered and eyes wide with shock and intrigue before he slowly turned his head to Odasaku.

 

“Odasaku-chan— how did you get yourself caught up in something like this?”

 

There was only so much Odasaku could explain but before Mishima could jump to conclusions that he’d stolen some kind of prized tiger cub from the Yokohama zoo that hadn’t been revealed to the public yet, he told Mishima, “This is Atsushi.”

 

Mishima had seen many, many things in his long years, especially in the city of Yokohama that seemed to be a centerpiece of strange occurrences coming together all at once. He looked down at the unconscious tiger cub, then back at Odasaku and said, “All right.”

 

This was bound to be the strangest sight he’d seen yet in all of his years, but Mishima wouldn’t have ever let that stop him.

 

With the two man team, Odasaku and Mishima managed to carry the tiger cub into the back of his van, careful to make sure that they didn’t somehow jostle Atsushi awake, angering the tiger cub they were about to keep in close quarters. Odasaku stayed in the back of the van with the tiger cub despite Mishima’s protests; he had to assure the man over and over that due to Flawless, he would be all right and he’d know if Atsushi tried to attack him at all, and he’d be able to get out of the way. It took several minutes of convincing a doubtful Mishima, but in the face of Odasaku’s iron brand stubborn nature, Mishima started his car and quietly, carefully, drove them all back to Odasaku’s apartment. The claw marks lingered on the window frame, he’d noticed as he walked through the doors, carrying the unconscious cub with Mishima up to his second floor apartment. He’d been reluctant to leave Odasaku alone with a dangerous tiger cub, insisting that he stay until Odasaku’s stubborn assurance that he would be fine was stated over and over again.

 

Once he’d made sure that Odasaku was absolutely confident about being left with the tiger, Mishima left. And Odasaku was left alone with the unconscious tiger cub.

 

He didn’t dare let himself sleep.

 

Each stir or the tiger, just a huff or snort for breath when the cub breathed in a bit too quickly, or one of his limbs twitched whilst he was in the middle of a dream, Odasaku jumped and promptly stiffened. He kept his hand in his pockets, ready to pull out the syringes of tranquilizer fluid in case he woke up.

 

But the tiger cub was quiet and slept on, and Odasaku slowly felt his worry and tension begin to ebb, but he didn’t ever stop watching him. Just in case.

 

Odasaku was used to sleepless nights and nights where he would get small increments of sleep throughout a span of four or so hours; staying awake to make sure that the tiger cub didn’t try to escape again wasn’t going to kill him. He rolled the syringes gently between his fingers, frowning down at the clear glass with pursed lips as the guilt rankled through him.

 

He’s not an animal, he’s a child .

 

That’s what he told Dazai just weeks before. Dazai had caged Atsushi up as if he was some kind of animal and meant to keep him there, like those tigers in those carnivals and circuses that would only be let out to leap through rings of fire or to let an attractive, acrobatic woman ride atop their backs as the ringleader whipped at them. Odasaku wasn’t going to allow Dazai to treat Atsushi like one of those circus tigers, not as a weapon, not as a tool— not when he saw that the tiger was just a scared, lost boy.

 

And yet, that was what he’d just done— sedated him like he was an animal gone rogue.

 

Odasaku didn’t realize that he was gripping the glass syringe so tightly that the glass was about to crack between his fingers until he heard the tiger cub stir.

 

Looking up sharply, he watched as the tiger cub’s face crinkled, lips curling back to show his sharp teeth— but he didn’t wake, though Odasaku was prepared to raise to his feet and wrestle with him once more. Instead, the sound of the softest of whimpers gave Odasaku pause.

 

Halfway kneeling, Odasaku watched as the cub curled in on himself, tucking into a large, white-furred ball as his whimpers and whines grew louder— just as he had when he was trapped in that cage— and trembled.

 

A sliver of moonlight came through the window, the curtains unmoving from the closed window, and Odasaku watched as a soft blue light consumed the tiger cub.

 

When claws became hands and a large snout shrank back into a small human face, Odasaku lowered a blanket over Atsushi once he’d placed him back onto his futon. The boy’s face remained troubled, his jaw clenched and brow furrowed, the lines on his young face worried.

 

Though he didn’t speak, Atsushi mouthed words in his sleep— Odasaku didn’t hear his voice, but he saw the movement of his mouth, and the name upon it.

 

Odasaku’s nails dug hard into his palms, enough to break through flesh.

 

The next morning, Atsushi would wake up and sleepily stumble into the kitchen where Odasaku would already be awake and standing. Odasaku looked up and nodded his good morning to the younger boy, the pot on the stovetop brimming and boiling.

 

“Do you want anything else in your miso?” Odasaku asked.

 

Shaking his head and blinking awake, Atsushi took his bowl with a small smile and thanked Odasaku softly. He clapped his hands together in thanks, his smile a little giddier at being able to say such words when he hadn’t been able to before. As he ate, Atsushi paused in between raising his bowl to his lips and staring at the empty seats at the table.

 

Beneath the long sleeves Odasaku wore, keeping the bandages hidden, the hand on his left arm clenched into a hard fist.

 

Shuffling Atsushi gently off to Mishima’s for the day’s lesson (linguistics and English, of which Mishima noted with humor that Atsushi was particularly interested in), Odasaku pulled out his phone and typed out a simple message.

 

Meet me at Lupin’s.

 


 

There were several things that Dazai had concluded within the month of taking Akutagawa Ryuunosuke under his wing.

 

The boy had enormous potential with his ability; Rashomon was a weapon that he could use at any point so long as the boy wore clothes (and with how averse he was to the notion of bathing, as Dazai had discovered after one particularly trying event, that would never be an issue) and it had many destructive capabilities. However, using Rashomon too much seemed to drain Akutagawa of his energy quickly when he used it too much, and the boy, malnourished and sickly as he was, did not have the greatest endurance. It was slowly growing now that he had a more stabilized diet and appetite, but he had a long way to go before he could even hope of fighting Dazai on a level playing field.

 

Akutagawa Ryuunosuke was also stubborn as an ox. When he did as he was told, Akutagwa didn’t relent or finish until he was inches within passing out, either from fatigue, pain, or blood loss. Dazai had not been easy on him in return, and he found the boy’s stubborn will and determination useful. Of course, his stubborn nature made him something of a slow student; he was built into his ways and had difficult adjusting them with quick timing. Having Akutagawa as a student and apprentice was proving to be quite stressful already, and they’d barely gone on any missions together just yet.

 

The most aggravating of all?

 

Akutagawa Ryuunosuke’s attachment to Nakajima Atsushi.

 

At the end of each training session, which they had almost every other day in that warehouse, Akutagawa would say, I want to see him.

 

I want to see him.

 

I want to see him.

Where is he?

 

Akutagawa would look at him with gray eyes that should’ve been empty yet burned, and something ugly and dark would fester in Dazai’s chest. He had no name to it. He had no desire to admit to what it was.

 

“You can’t see him. You haven’t proven to me that you’re strong enough.”

 

Closing his fingers around the dark hair, making Akutagawa clench his teeth at the pain from his scalp, Dazai leaned in. Those eyes glared up at him, biting back a snarl, and Dazai’s cold hazel eyes narrowed.

 

“Prove it to me, and I’ll let you see him.”

 

Those nights when Akutagawa particularly got on his nerves about the weretiger and his whereabouts, Dazai sent him home with blood sticking to his lips and gums.

 

If asked, the growing barrage of messages from Odasaku asking if he would allow Akutagawa and Nakajima to reunite had anything to do with his treatment of Akutagawa growing that more aggressive, Dazai would’ve just smiled coldly and called it a mere coincidence.

 

Getting the simple but imperative message from Odasaku after he’d sent a limping Akutagawa home (they’d been practicing with knives, something that the elder Akutagawa proved to not be as skilled at as his sister was, so Hirotsu told him, and he’d gotten a good hit into his calf; it would heal. Dazai wasn’t concerned), came as a pleasant surprise to Dazai.

 

Within minutes of receiving the message, Dazai cleared his schedule for the evening and made the journey to Lupin’s Bar.

 

His feet knew the path to the poor with memorized ease and as he passed under the glowing neon sign, the man in the sign winking down at him, Dazai waved at the cat that napped over the entrance. The cat yawned at him, showing sharp teeth, and curled its tail as Dazai stepped through the doorway.

 

As always, it was almost completely empty. The lights were dim and low, glowing orange and bouncing off of the smooth polished surface of the bar itself. The faint smell of cigarettes lingered in the air. Soft jazz music and a crooning singer played on the radio that crackled when the bartender adjusted the volume. The bartender lifted his head when Dazai walked through the door, giving him a wan smile and gesturing for him to make himself comfortable.

 

Dazai folded his coat onto the crook of his elbow and ice clinked against a clear glass, swirling with whiskey.

 

Dazai smiled.

 

His red hair reflected like wine and blood against the glass.

 

“Long time no see, Odasaku.”

 

Odasaku closed his eyes and took a sip from his glass while Dazai settled down into his seat.

 

Chirping for a request of bleach cocktail, only to be turned down once more, Dazai requested an amaretto on the rocks. He was in the mood for something sweet to match the semblance of a good mood as he sat down in their usual bar. The bartender poured him his drink and settled it in front of him. That Dazai was obviously underage was undermined by his status in the Port Mafia. Only a fool would be so stupid as to not allow Dazai, a future executive, a drink. Promising to leave him a generous tip (protection of the Port Mafia, as always), Dazai took his glass with a wide smile and sipped. The sweet liquor licked at his mouth and Dazai sighed, satisfied. He swirled the glass and watched the ice swing within the warm amber liquid.

 

Tapping the ice to make it bob, Dazai closed his eyes, smiling.

 

“Found enough time in your increasingly busy daily life to meet with me?”

 

“I found an opening in my schedule,” Odasaku responded, taking another sip of his whiskey. Dazai could smell it on his mouth just a seat over.

 

“How wonderful,” Dazai smiled.

 

If it and his smile were genuine, Dazai would never say so aloud.

 

They sat together in silence and it was almost just like the old days— days that weren’t that old, but had been put on hold long enough for their weekly nights at Lupin’s to feel like a distant memory. Dazai drank his amaretto and Odasaku his whiskey. Jazz continued to play on the radio and the bartender cleaned his glasses with a calm, closed eyed smile. Lupin’s was always warm inside, settling into Dazai’s bones.

 

It almost made him feel as if everything outside of Lupin’s was just some illusion. He could’ve let himself be lost to it. With a sudden greediness, Dazai was desperate to hold onto this moment. This little, insignificant moment that nonetheless made his very bones warm.

 

Dazai didn’t want to interrupt it. He didn’t want to let it be over. He wanted to believe that this would be another night where he’d beg the bartender for a poisonous drink that would finally kill him; the bartender would say, we don’t carry that, and Odasaku would stare at him over the rim of his glass with something like amusement on that ever stoic face.

 

When they could be together like this, Dazai felt—

 

He couldn’t put a name to it, but when they were together in this dimly lit room, the smell of smoke and liquor on the air, and Odasaku’s warmth next to him, Dazai could forget about the world outside of Lupin’s. And he wanted to treasure it— something he never felt for anything else.

 

He wanted to believe that nothing had changed, he needed to pretend things were the same as they’d always been— before an orphaned brat stumbled into his plane of existence.

 

Sighing dramatically, Dazai slouched on the surface of the bar, poking at the large ice cube in his glass. “Truly, I don’t know how school teachers do it! Handling those brats for more than half of the day, especially when students refuse to listen to what they say to do—“

 

He felt Odasaku tensing beside him, just a subtle shift of the shoulder muscles, and Dazai ignored it.

 

“Is such patience even possible?” Dazai groaned, sitting up only to mouth against his glass. “I think I’ve been cursed with the most troublesome student of all.”

 

Odasaku took a sip. “Akutagawa giving you trouble, Dazai?”

 

“Trouble doesn’t even begin to describe it!” Dazai hit the bar table with a loud thud of his forehead against the wood. He groaned and the bartender gently told him not to smear dirty bandages on the surface, he’d just cleaned it.

 

Odasaku was quiet the entire time Dazai went on about Akutagawa and what he was like as a student; defiant and angry, but always ready to prove himself regardless of the consequences that would bring on his body. Dazai didn’t go into detail about their training sessions, nor did he inform Odasaku of the boy’s incessant inquiries and demands to see the were tiger. Even if he was able to talk about Akutagawa, he had no desire to bring up the wretch currently in Odasaku’s care.

 

Odasaku listened, quiet apart from nods, a sip from his drink, and a soft hum to acknowledge that he was listening and understood. There was more than half a glass left by the time he even spoke; he was taking his time enjoying his drink and being at Lupin’s. Dazai was relieved. Part of him wondered if he’d be in more of a hurry to be at beck and call for the brat back at his apartment rather than sit and relax with him. A dark triumph settled in his stomach, if temporarily.

 

It was only after Dazai took another long sip of his amaretto that Odasaku spoke.

 

“Has he not improved at all, then?”

 

Dazai paused, lips on the glass.

 

“…For all of his stubbornness, Akutagawa-kun is determined.” A wan smile spread across his lips, not quite genuine, but not quite false. “He has the vitality of a dog that’s been starved and on the streets for years— he won’t rest until he finds sustenance. He has great potential, if only he learns how to use it and use it well. He’ll make a fine asset indeed to the Port Mafia.”

 

He smiled faintly into the curve of his glass.

 

“However slowly, he is learning.”

 

There wasn’t fondness in his tone; there was no affection, only blunt practicality and a hint of amusement at Akutagawa’s vigor. Dazai took a drink and with it, ended the conversation about Akutagawa completely, before Odasaku could even have a chance to bring up the tiger in the room that’d put a strain on the delicate half-friendship between them for the past month. Dazai attempted to keep mention of the boy’s name away from him by filling the silence between himself and Odasaku (who’d been staring at him with those blue eyes that were far too analytical and all-seeing for Dazai, whose walls were countless, to be comfortable with), but he could only keep the apparition away for so long.

 

“Why are you so against it?”

 

A long pause settled over Lupin’s bar.

 

Taking another drink, Dazai avoided Odasaku’s piercing stare.

 

“Whatever do you mean by ‘it,’ Odasaku?”

 

Odasaku’s eyes narrowed and his grip on his glass tightened.

 

“Letting Akutagawa and Nakajima see each other.”

 

Dazai’s fingers tightened around his glass so hard that it could’ve shattered in his hand.

 

Releasing his hold on the glass, Dazai slouched backwards into his chair, humming thoughtfully to himself. “Well, as I’ve told you each time that you’ve asked me about it— or even danced around it, Akutagawa-kun has yet to reach such significant improvement that I can reward him with the opportunity to meet with Nakajima.”

 

Dazai’s smile spread, cutting and sharp.

 

“I can’t let the dog have his treat too soon, or else he’ll just keep begging for more.”

 

Odasaku lowered his glass hard enough on the table top for the noise to echo sharply.

 

Dazai,” he said loudly. His blue eyes flashed, and Dazai felt a thrill at the danger that flickered in those eyes. Annoyance pulled at his chest knowing the source of Odasaku’s ire.

 

Closing his eyes, Dazai sipped his amaretto. “I don’t see why you’re so concerned about Akutagawa-kun, Odasaku. You’ve never even met the boy. If you’re really that interested about his well-being, I suppose that I could introduce you to him— But you alone,” Dazai added, noticing Odasaku straighten up with interest.

 

“I will tell you the same that I did Akutagawa-kun; when he’s shown me that he’s become more capable as a member of the Port Mafia, then I will let Nakajima meet with him.” Dazai licked his lips, feeling a faint, pleasant buzz from the sweet liquor. “You know I don’t break my promises, Odasaku, and I will adhere to it when he’s proven his worth. As for now, his progress isn’t enough; and that’s my final answer. Besides—“

 

Dazai’s lips curled into a smile that felt even more forced and fake than usual, a now familiar, ugly irritation clawing at his chest. “Don’t you have enough on your hands dealing with your own little student at home? Surely you don’t mean to take on another orphan this soon!”

 

Chuckling into his glass, Dazai ran his finger over the rim of his glass.

 

Odasaku didn’t reply. Even as Dazai felt that hard stare bore into the side of his face, Odasaku said nothing and only continued to drink from his glass. When he finally spoke, it was lowly said into his glass. “I think I’m busy enough as is.”

 

Dazai hummed. “I figured as much! While we are on said topic..” Taking another sip, Dazai glanced at him.

 

“How is Nakajima-kun? You’ve not gotten bored of taking care of your little Oliver Twist, have you?”

 

“Use his name, Dazai,” said Odasaku, eyes narrowing slightly. Dazai simply shrugged with a faint grin and Odasaku pursed his lips. He rubbed his thumb against the side of his glass. His left hand remained resting on top of the table surface. It hadn’t moved since Dazai first came inside the bar. The wounds weren’t terrible, for he’d had far worse, but the flesh was still sensitive.

 

And Odasaku didn’t want Dazai to see the bandages.

 

“…Nakajima is fine. He’s mostly settled in.”

“Hmm, and what does he do when you have to be away on Mafia duties?” Dazai didn’t ask because he cared in any way about the boy, but courtesy for his friend and his curiosity demanded it of him. “If he knows about that bit about you, of course.”

 

“He does,” Odasaku said shortly. “When I have to be away, he stays at my apartment or with Mishima. Sometimes Mishima comes in to check up on him. He reads a lot. He likes it.”

 

“Birds of a feather, then,” Dazai murmured, his smile taking a sharp turn. His hold on his glass tightened. “How natural that you’d take in a bookworm of your own.”

 

Odasaku glanced into the warm brown of his whiskey. “He’s very smart. Well-read. He’s read Journey to the West twice.”

 

Dazai snorted into his glass and Odasaku couldn’t stifle the fondness that crept into his voice, minimal and subtle as it was. He couldn’t help it.

 

And that scared him in no small amount.

 

“What a darling,” Dazai murmured, chest twisting with annoyance. “Then, in that case, you’ve had no incidents with his… furry little problem, are you?”

 

Odasaku’s rubbing of his glass stilled.

 

“No,” he said. “Not a single one.”

 

“Oh,” said Dazai. “That’s good. I’d reasoned that he’s more susceptible to transforming around the full moon, but I’m relieved to see that nothing has happened yet.”

 

The tension in Odasaku’s shoulders relaxed and he took a drink from his whiskey.

 

Dazai drummed his fingers against the table top before cradling his chin in his palm. “So, I wonder how exactly your left arm got injured.”

 

Odasaku froze in lifting his glass to his lips midway.

 

Dazai bobbed the ice cub in his glass. “It’s rare for you to get injured while on assignment, due to Flawless. And even when you do, most of your injuries were results of your enemies and targets trying to hit your vitals. Your left arm is stiff and you haven’t moved it from its place the entire time I’ve been sitting here. You usually hold your drink with your left hand, not your right. You’ve been taking care to avoid using it and you won’t even shift in your seat to look at me properly.”

 

The soft jazz of Lupin’s was growing drowned out by Odasaku’s increasing pulse.

 

Dazai’s grip on his glass tightened.

 

“Did you think,” Dazai whispered, soft and quiet and oh so dangerous, “That I wouldn’t notice, Odasaku?”

 

The stool creaked beneath Dazai’s weight as he turned to look at Odasaku, hazel eyes blazing with a fury that Odasaku had never seen on him before. Anger manifested like ice on Dazai’s face; this was fury like fire, anger plain on his expression. It made him seem more open; and it astonished Odasaku.

 

“I can surmise that you wanted to meet me here out of some ploy to let me reunite Akutagawa-kun and the weretiger, but surely you don’t think I’d be stupid enough not to notice that you’re injured?”

 

Dazai slammed his glass down on the bar, earning a sharp glance from the bartender at the loud noise.

 

“What happened, Odasaku? And do not even think about lying to me.”

 

The rush of a running faucet filled the stifled, tense silence as Odasaku considered his next words carefully. His grip loosened and tightened on his glass interchangeably, and he unconsciously pulled the hem of his sleeve on his left arm down further.

 

“..If it was something serious, Dazai, I wouldn’t be here at all.”

 

Dazai’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t evade the question, Odasaku. What happened.

 

Odasaku clenched his jaw hard, and the glass in his hand tightened hard enough to nearly make it crack. The still healing scratches on his arm throbbed faintly as he sucked in a breath, exhaled, and took one more drink before he finally told Dazai the truth.

 


 

 

It went about as well as expected.

 

Hazel eyes blazing with such angry emotion that Odasaku had never seen on Dazai’s face before, Dazai stood up so fast that his stool fell to the floor in a loud clatter.

 

“I knew it,” he hissed. “I knew it I knew this would happen—-

 

Dazai grabbed his coat in a flourish, shoving his arms through the sleeves and slamming his payment on the countertop, far more than needed but not caring about the change.

 

Odasaku slammed his glass down so hard on the surface that it almost shattered as he reached forward, desperation in each move.

 

“Dazai, Dazai wait—“

 

Dazai jolted when Odasaku grasped him by the elbow, stopping him in place. Those hazel eyes still burned with anger, but shock and surprise marred the darkness in his face. Odasaku twisted on his feet, back towards the door of the bar, still holding onto Dazai’s arm.

 

“It’s not Nakajima’s fault, leave him alone, Dazai, he’s done no wrong.”

 

Dazai’s mouth twitched with mirthless laughter. It left him in a chuckle that rattled Odasaku’s bones.

 

“Then I suppose that the injury on your left arm came from a stray cat then, Odasaku? Don’t make me laugh.”

 

He looked down at Odasaku’s hand, still holding onto his elbow, and wrenched his arm away. His face darkened with anger and frustration. The bartender slid his glasses behind the bar so that if a fight broke out, they wouldn’t get broken. Bar fighting would be an unusual turn of events for his most frequent customers.

 

Dazai made to step around Odasaku, but the redhead used his height to his advantage in order to block the younger man’s way, arm extending to bar from him from the door.

 

Dazai’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

 

“Odasaku,” he whispered, tenor low and threatening enough to make any smarter man tremble in fear, “Move.”

 

Odasaku didn’t waver.

 

“No.”

 

Move, Odasaku.

 

“No, I won’t,” said Odasaku, “If I let you go past me, you’ll just try to lock Nakajima up again like some kind of animal.”

 

“That’s what he is, Odasaku! Or do you not see the claw marks on your arm!?”

 

“You said yourself that Nakajima doesn’t know that he has an ability, Dazai,” Odasaku snapped, “He doesn’t know, and he has no idea that he did this and it’s not his fault. It’s not even that bad—“

 

He still hurt you, Odasaku!”

 

The wine glasses hanging on the walls trembled from the sheer force of Dazai’s shout, earning a sharp look from the bartender and a stunned one from Odasaku. Dazai breathed heavily, his hands clenched into fists by his sides.

 

Odasaku bit his lip and clenched his jaw. He exhaled, closing his eyes briefly.

 

“Nakajima wasn’t in control of himself, Dazai, but I took care of it; he— I think he only transforms under duress, because of some kind of stress and the tiger takes control when he can’t.”

 

“Exactly,” Dazai breathed, “He can’t control it and that’s why he can’t be around you!”

 

“I handled it fine, Dazai,” Odasaku said stiffly, ire growing the more and more Dazai tried to frame Atsushi as some kind of uncontrollable monster.

 

A monster wouldn’t have curled up into a ball with a book pressed against his chest, falling asleep midway through a riveting chapter. A monster wouldn’t be able to talk about literature on almost the same level as Odasaku (who thought himself quite well-read indeed, not so much as Dazai, but enough). A monster wouldn’t see Odasaku’s relation to the Port Mafia as something mundane.

 

You don’t hurt people, do you?

 

I try not to.

 

Then, I guess there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

A monster wouldn’t smile as warmly as Atsushi did.

 

And a monster, a wild animal, wouldn’t cry like Atsushi did when he was kept from seeing his best friend and the family he’d found for himself in the slums.

 

“You got hurt.”

 

“And yet I’m still standing right in front of you,” Odasaku ground out, “They were minor scratches, I am fine and I am alive. He only attacked me because he was distressed and he was scared. That's the only reason he transformed in the first place.”

 

Dazai scoffed. “Oh, he was upset, and that was why he transformed. Good, wonderful! I feel so much more at ease leaving you to deal with such an emotionally unstable weretiger in your home—“

 

“He wouldn’t have been upset enough to transform if not for you, Dazai.”

 

Dazai’s mouth opened and closed with a harsh click, blinking rapidly at the furious Odasaku before he clenched his jaw. “Me?”

 

“Yes, you,” Odasaku said, straightening his back. “You know perfectly well why I’ve been asking you over and over again about your apprentice’s condition.”

 

Hazel eyes flickered to the side with a harsh click of the tongue and arms crossing against his chest.

 

“So it’s not just some scheme to take another orphan under your wing, then?” Dazai grinned, sarcastic and biting. It was cold and almost grotesque on his young face. “Nakajima-kun must be annoying you so much, too, to beg me to let them see each other just so you can shut him up—-“

 

“Why is this such a problem for you, Dazai?!”

 

The barkeep looked at the pair of them over his glasses, slowly removing the sharp utensils out of view and any glasses nearby; as a safe zone, no fights between mafia members or even law enforcement that came into his bar broke out, but as their voices raised, seeming to have forgotten him, the barkeep would try to keep his establishment as bloodless as possible.

 

Dazai worked his jaw, lips pursed, and Odasaku would’ve seen his expression as childish and petulant on anyone else— since it was Dazai, he knew the dangerous thread he was walking on.

 

Odasaku thought of Atsushi’s expression growing ever more defeated by the day, desperate to see his friend but not able to, not expecting to, and decided he didn’t care.

 

He had a promise to keep.

 

“Since you’re adamant on not allowing Nakajima-kun to participate in the Port Mafia or allow me to use his abilities, then he is simply going to be a burden on those who are,” Dazai said, his tone taking a harsh monotone. The angry light in his brown eyes faded.

 

“Akutagawa-kun needs to let go of any weight that will hold him down if he plans to survive in the Port Mafia. His sister is training on her own and they’ve barely seen each other since. She can handle her own, so Hirotsu-san says. Akutagawa-kun has a weak body and constitution, but he has potential for strength—“

 

Hazel eyes sharpened.

 

“But Nakajima-kun is his weakness. When he learns that this attachment he has to the weretiger is holding him back, that trying to hold onto one not even willing to fight is a burden, he will understand and maybe I’ll allow them to meet.”

 

“They’re like family, Dazai,” Odasaku tried, voice going softer.

 

Dazai didn’t even blink, his expression blank.

 

“What does family have anything to do with it?”

 

There was nothing Odasaku could say in response to that.

 

Mouth opening and closing, Odasaku inhaled and considered his next words carefully, still refusing to move from the front of the doorway.

 

“…You said that Akutagawa was giving you trouble, didn’t you?”

 

Dazai’s eyes narrowed and Odasaku explained further, hands splayed outwards towards him in a display at appearing less threatening and combative. But his expression remained firm and hard, jaw clenched.

 

“Not listening to your orders, he’s stubborn, always asking you questions that you don’t want to answer— asking them over and over again—“

 

Odasaku had never met Akutagawa, but Atsushi, though he spoke of him sparingly and in slips of the tongue, had told him enough to know that despite how the world spat at him, he kept on trying to live. He kept surviving. He had a drive, and if Atsushi was just as determined, then—

 

“He keeps asking you to see Nakajima, doesn’t he?”

 

Dazai worked his jaw, pursing his lips into a hard line.

 

He said nothing.

 

And that was Odasaku’s answer.

 

Considering his options quickly, Odasaku exhaled and rubbed the back of his neck; Dazai, for all of his flamboyant mannerisms, was stubborn and hard-headed when he wanted to be. He wouldn’t budge. Odasaku didn’t know what it would take for them to just let them see each other, why Dazai was being so stubborn about it. It had to go beyond his worry for Odasaku’s safety (he could take care of himself perfectly fine), but why—

 

Slipping his hands into his pockets, he straightened and looked at the petulant Dazai.

 

“…Okay, Dazai. I won’t ask you to let them see each other.”

 

Dazai stared at him from beneath his curled bangs, eyes narrowed a fraction in suspicions.

 

Odasaku’s stare didn’t waver.

 

“So let me meet Akutagawa instead.”

 


 

 

As soon as cool blue-gray eyes met his own, Ryuunosuke felt hatred and loathing burn in his heart towards Oda Sakunosuke.

 

He’d been left in a state of shock and uncertain feelings when Dazai, off-handedly, told him that he was going to meet Oda himself once his leg had healed from their last combat session. Dazai’d been nonchalant at first, but his stare was cold and cutting as he curled his fingers at the back of Ryuunosuke’s collar.

 

“Behave yourself, Akutagawa-kun. If you don’t— I will make you regret it.”

 

Ryuunosuke stumbled back when Dazai roughly removed his fingers from his clothing, practically pushing the younger boy away, and leaving Ryuunosuke to his stormy thoughts before the fateful day came— meeting Atsushi’s current caretaker.

 

He wasn’t sure what he expected.

 

Dazai had told him nothing of the older man before meeting him; only that he’d taken Atsushi into his care (after learning of where Dazai had dumped him, Ryuunosuke wanted Rashomon to rip his very throat open, but he stood no chance against him). He knew only that, according to Dazai, Ryuunosuke would never be able to defeat him.

 

Oda Sakunosuke had Atsushi, and if Ryuunosuke tried to take him back, Oda Sakunosuke would beat him down.

 

His face revealed as little as Dazai’s did; oh, Dazai put on a playful facade, one that faded into cold, brutal indifference once the time for play was over. Ryuunosuke preferred the cold truth to a superficial lie. But Oda’s face revealed nothing to him. He showed even less emotion than Dazai did when he no longer felt the desire to play at friendliness.

 

He didn’t deserve the light that Atsushi brought.

 

Oda Sakunosuke didn’t deserve it.

 

Oda Sakunosuke didn’t deserve to have the light and warmth that Atsushi brought through a single smile alone, a single gentle touch, and he was the reason Ryuunosuke hadn’t seen him in more than a month, nearly two.

 

Ryuunosuke hated him.

 

He stewed in silence as Dazai introduced him with a flourish to the stoic red-haired man (could ‘man’ be the appropriate term when he looked barely years older than Dazai?), mouth in a hard line and jaw clenched. His eyes narrowed into an ugly glare when Oda’s stare fell onto him, studying his face, and Ryuunosuke raised his chin; a show of defiance.

 

He wouldn’t be cowed by this man, this errand boy of the Port Mafia.

 

At Ryuunosuke’s darkening expression, his refusal to speak to Oda beyond grunts and noises in the back of his throat, Dazai’s smile slipped into a sharp frown. Oda’s brows rose a fraction on his forehead and despite the boy’s clear dislike of him, he continued to study Akutagawa, hands remaining in his pockets.

 

Oda kept his distance from Ryuunosuke as Dazai rattled on about his progress (or lack thereof), other bizarre and bloody incidents that’d occurred while Oda was off baby-sitting. He watched the young boy’s stiff body language, the gray eyes that burned at him, his thin (far too thin) frame and his peaky skin tone. There were permanent shadows beneath his eyes, heavy and sharp. Ryuunosuke looked as if he barely got more than three hours of sleep a night.

 

(With Atsushi leaning against his shoulder, his breath warm, Ryuunosuke could rest and sleep for a full night. The nights were so much colder now, he could barely sleep, not even in an actual bed.)

 

When Ryuunosuke did speak, it was barely more than a few muttered words, mostly enforced by a cold look from Dazai or a motion of his curling fingers. Ryuunosuke’s stare would flicker to Dazai, and then back to Oda. His stiff manners improved only marginally with a simple warning glare from Dazai. But his eyes burned all the same.

 

Oda said little and Ryuunosuke said near to nothing, Dazai filling up the silence with his chatter. Their introduction was brief and meant to be so; why Dazai even bothered to introduce them, Ryuunosuke didn’t know. Perhaps as a way to taunt him, to see if Ryuunosuke would relent or if he’d just work harder at getting stronger. Or perhaps even out of spite.

 

Ryuunosuke didn’t care what his reasons were; he already decided that he would get stronger and prove that he could stand on his own two feet. And Oda was a hurtle in his way.

 

No matter what it took, Ryuunosuke would climb over it.

 

Their meeting was meant to be cut short and Dazai would return himself and Ryuunosuke to their training session. He was just about to say goodbye to Oda when he received a phone call. The name on the ID made Dazai grimace and sigh with annoyance. “I will be right back, duty awaits me,” he drawled, pulling out his phone and walking away to take care of it.

 

Ryuunosuke glanced at his mentor once and then away, scoffing under his breath; all the better that he finish that call quickly so they could leave. He didn’t want to spend another moment with Oda.

 

His beast growled lowly in his sweater sleeves when he felt a taller presence walk up to him. He turned, whipping his head around, and came to see Oda coming closer to him, now only half a foot in between him.

 

Immediately recoiling, Ryuunosuke stepped away from Oda and sneered at him. His lips curled just as he felt Rashomon growl and writhe within his sweater, the hems of his sleeves raising and curling, ready to attack. “What do you want?” he hissed.

 

Oda blinked, glancing down at his sleeves before turning his eyes back up. He didn’t move to come any closer.

 

“Checking to see if you’re in good health; he asks about you, a lot. I figured I’d might as well see for myself if you are.”

 

Odasaku didn't miss how Akutagawa jolted at the eponymous he, big iron eyes widening and his face softening, just for a brief second, vulnerable and young.

 

The sight of the young boy made Odasaku’s chest twist sharply.

 

He’s so skinny, he’s even skinnier than Nakajima, he looks, so sick

 

Akutagawa held himself stiffly in front of Odasaku, shoulders haunched forward like a defensive, caged dog, ready to bite if he came any closer. Odasaku wisely kept enough of a distance from Akutagawa and carried relaxed body language, so that he knew that he wasn’t a threat.

 

“Well?” Akutagawa said roughly, catching Odasaku by surprise at how hoarse and raspy it was. “You’ve seen me, you know my condition— so why’re you sticking around still? Just to make fun of me?”

 

Heat and anger grew in a crescendo as Akutagawa hissed at him and Odasaku was taken aback by the sudden hatred in the younger boy’s face.

 

Atsushi had mentioned that Akutagawa had something of a temper, but he had nothing but good things to say about the other boy, a soft, fond smile on his face. If he had a temper, it’d never been directed at him.

 

It was just Odasaku’s luck that it was directed at him instead.

 

“No, I’m not here to make fun of you,” said Odasaku, tone neutral and controlled.

 

“Then what do you want?”

 

Dazai was still occupied with whomever he was talking to on the phone; by the grimace on his face, it was someone he really did not wish to speak to but was higher up than him, so he had to listen. Odasaku took a quick glance over to the younger man, watching him for about fifteen seconds just to see before turning his attention back to the still irate Akutagawa.

 

“To make right on a promise I made.”

 

Ryuunosuke’s nose crinkled in confusion, but his shoulders tensed even further when Odasaku’s hand moved faster than Rashomon could defend against, panic seizing his already tight chest—

 

“Keep that close to you,” Odasaku said, the slip of paper safely hidden in the front pocket of Ryuunosuke’s jacket.

 

Ryuunosuke clutched the fabric, catching his breath— he hadn’t even seen Oda move, not before his fingers had already slipped something into his pocket. His face darkened further, and he would’ve had Rashomon raise up and demand to know what it was he’d just given him when Dazai cut him off before he could even start.

 

“Well!” Dazai chirped, clapping his hands together. “Now that that’s done and over with, it’s best that Akutagawa-kun and I continue our session. I’m sure that you’ve got plenty else to do, Odasaku. A rather furry problem of yours that needs to be attended to.”

 

Dazai smiled waspishly as Ryuunosuke seized up, teeth clenched hard and his fists so tight that his nails dug into his palms.

 

Odasaku said nothing, but his eyes narrowed by a fraction.

 

Ryuunosuke didn’t get a chance to look at what the older man had put in his pocket until his body was sore and aching after another brutal training session. Not even Rashomon responded to his sour mood. It hurt to move, but Ryuunosuke eventually propped himself up against the wall by the window that looked over the city, his coat in his lap. His muscles screamed in protest, but Ryuunosuke unfolded the little piece of paper.

 

He blinked down at the numbers on the paper; six digits and an area code. The same code that belonged to his own cell phone. The little paper crinkled in his fingers as he glared down at the messaged jotted beneath the number.

 

If you’re free this Thursday afternoon, text this number. It’s mine.

 

Ryuunosuke stared at the piece of paper for nearly two hours.

 

On another side of the city, Odasaku pulled out his phone at a faint buzzing noise, vibrating against his hip as Atsushi helped him with washing the dishes (niritama donburi was their choice of dinner that night). He huffed through his nose at the characters on the screen.

 

Is this some kind of joke?

 

Odasaku could feel the anger through his phone; an impressive feat.

 

He slipped his phone back into his pocket just before Atsushi handed him the modest pile of plates; he was still too short to reach the shelf he put the dishes on. He had to strain on his tip toes to reach it and it led to more than one broken dish since he began living with Odasaku, much to Atsushi’s mortification.

 

It’s not a joke. Just trust me; he needs this as much as you do.

 

He didn’t receive a response that night. The next morning, before Atsushi woke up and while Mishima made breakfast for them both, ready to start his tutoring lesson for the day, Odasaku sent him another quick message.

 

East Gate at Chinatown, at two PM.

 

That was all Odasaku had to say. Mincing words would do nothing to get the young Akutagawa to believe him. He could only put faith in Atsushi’s bond with him being strong enough to get the young boy to understand his message without saying outright.

 

Odasaku nursed his coffee just as Atsushi rolled out of his futon with a yawn that rippled through his entire body. He watched as Atsushi rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and mumbled a good morning and his grip around the mug tightened.

 

Please let this work.

 

Thursday came quicker than either could’ve anticipated.

 

Atsushi remained unaware when Odasaku suggested that they take a venture to Chinatown, sunset colored eyes widening in wonder and excitement; Odasaku wasn’t blind to Atsushi preferred taste in Chinese literature. It was easy enough to get Atsushi to accompany him after assuring Atsushi that no, he had no work to do today, as he’d taken the day off (mercifully there were no assignments for him to do; it was quiet on his end of the city). Odasaku hadn’t been to that end of the city in quite some time, he figured it would be a nice treat for Atsushi. He’d seen so little of the city and now that the tiger hadn’t made another appearance (yet), Odasaku didn’t worry about any incidents occurring while out and about.

 

Just walking with the boy and seeing how his clothes fit him more comfortably, no longer hanging off of his limbs like wet rags on his skinny frame, Odasaku could already see how much more lively he was. How much more healthy he looked.

 

Odasaku’s chest twisted oddly as he watched Atsushi drink in the colorful sights of Chinatown, eyes wide and bright with wonder. He finally looked like the child he ought to be.

 

While Atsushi enjoyed himself, Odasaku stayed nearby and watched both the time and the crowd around him. The closer it drew to two, the more he gently urged Atsushi to follow him to the east gate. Promising Atsushi that he’d get to see more was plenty enough to get the young boy to follow him, befuddled as he was. There was so much to see that Atsushi felt a little overwhelmed. He would’ve shrunk into himself if not for Odasaku’s pillar of poise next to him, unfettered by the crowd.

 

Odasaku looked over the crowd as more and more people milled about while Atsushi’s attention was drawn to a vendor selling bao of all flavors, meats and fillings. On the stand was the painting of a white tiger sitting in a bamboo brush. Atsushi’s attention was caught by it so much, feeling a strange tug in the back of his mind that he didn’t notice Odasaku’s exhale of relief at the sight of dark fabric slipping the crowd, unnoticed and uncomfortable with the amount of people around.

 

He blinked when he felt Odasaku nudge his elbow against his back gently. “What is it?”

 

Odasaku glanced at him, wordless, and Atsushi thought he saw the older man’s mouth twitch— just the slightest.

 

The redhead jerked his chin forward over the crowd, and Atsushi, curious, turned his eyes to the direction indicated.

 

Breath hitching, his eyes widened as he met equally an wide gray-eyed stare.

 

“…Ryuu?”

Chapter Text

Atsushi couldn’t remember the last time he ran so fast. The half-eaten crepe fell out of his grip as soon as he saw him, slipping from between his fingers. His heels hit the ground as he stepped forward and soon, he was running into a sprint.

 

That head of dark hair was so distinct he would’ve known it anywhere; dark as the inked characters on a book, tipped with white, framed around his face. He saw the hair first, the dark clothing and then the stormy gray eyes that let him know, always; I’m here, too.

 

“RYUU—!”

 

Atsushi didn’t notice the people crowded around him as he ran, bumping into their elbows, arms and hips, earning sour glares, but he didn’t care at all. He didn’t notice them, they weren’t important. Atsushi waved through the crowd just as he did in the slums, his feet taking him ahead of his mind.

 

Closer and closer, the faster he ran, people moving out of the way as he dashed forward, and with a choked noise, Atsushi leapt forward.

 

“Ryuu-!”

 

He didn’t receive more than a mouthing of his name before Atsushi threw his arms around Ryuunosuke’s neck, slamming against him so hard that the other boy stumbled back by several steps.

 

They were drawing stares and disdainful glances for disturbing the crowd, but neither of them cared. Bystanders rolled their eyes, clicked their tongues and walked around the two boys as they stumbled back, some of their noses wrinkling at such a display of emotion between the two boys— but neither of the boys noticed. They didn’t care.

 

“Ryuu Ryuu Ryuu —“

 

So elated that his eyes started to burn, Atsushi squeezed his arms around Ryuunosuke’s neck like he was drowning and he buried his nose against the other boy’s shoulder. He repeated the other boy’s name over and over and he trembled. He laughed a wet peal of chortles when thin arms hung awkwardly around his waist, just for a beat, before they wrapped around his middle, just as tight if not more so.

 

Atsushi smiled into the fabric when he felt Rashomon wrap around his pinky; warm, pulsating and joyous.

 

Ryuunosuke didn’t say anything in return, he barely made a noise outside of harsh, raspy breathing, but his dark hair tickled Atsushi’s cheek as Ryuunosuke hugged him back with as much strength as he could muster. Ryuunosuke held onto him as tightly as he could, trembling, and Atsushi was awash with a burst of warmth and comfort.

 

Finally, finally, things were starting to feel right again.

 

Atsushi felt Ryuunosuke’s breath against his neck, his nose burrowing into his shoulder, and Atsushi couldn’t help his watery laugh of joy.

 

This is how it should be.

 

As the two boys embraced, Odasaku hung back a safe distance; not too close for Ryuunosuke to feel threatened by him, but not too far that Atsushi and his friend could get lost in the crowd that moved around them. Keeping his hands in his pockets, tension eased out of him and Odasaku exhaled.

 

The bustle of the crowd around him didn’t feel so heavy as he watched the two boys embrace each other.

 

It wasn’t long before Odasaku saw Atsushi start crying on the other boy’s shoulder, sniffling and rubbing his eyes, much to Akutagawa’s floundering distress (he seemed almost nervous and unsure until he put his hands on Atsushi’s elbows and Atsushi’s trembling slowed), but this time, his chest didn’t ache tightly at the sight.

 

Because Atsushi was smiling.

 

He was smiling brightly than Odasaku had seen yet from him; like light reflecting through a stained glass window, it was stunning.

 

It suited him.

 

Akutagawa didn’t smile, nor did he cry. Even on such a young face, the only emotions Odasaku ever saw from him yet was anger and an apparent hatred, otherwise his resting expression was.. empty and emotionless.

 

There was nothing apathetic about how tightly he’d embraced Atsushi.

 

There was nothing lifeless in how he said something to Atsushi, something that Odasaku couldn’t hear from this far away, something that was enough to make Atsushi smile and laugh.

 

There was nothing emotionless or unfeeling in how his hands held onto Atsushi’s wrists and elbows, the dark tendrils of his ability slipping around Atsushi’s fingers in ringlets.

 

Within the moving crowd, Odasaku stayed back and kept an eye on them both; he let them have this moment together, however brief it would be. This was only temporary, and it was likely Akutagawa knew it, and perhaps Atsushi, too. But—

 

Atsushi wrapped his fingers around Akutagawa’s and led him through the crowd, his cheeks flushed happily and eyes bright, pointing out vendors and other sights as he waded them both back to Odasaku.

 

Just to see Atsushi smile like that was more than worth it.

 

-

 

Past the initial awkward, tense reintroductions between Odasaku and Ryuunosuke, Atsushi was all too elated to have the other boy join them in their visit around Chinatown. Odasaku walked behind them, keeping a close eye on the pair, and Atsushi led Ryuunosuke by the hand as they walked around and slipped between throngs of people, drawn in by the smells of food and sweets in the air.

 

Their fingers intertwined and Atsushi didn’t want to let go.

 

Being in a crowd where they didn’t have to worry about being caught stealing something was odd for the both of them; though Atsushi had gotten steadily more used to it now that he’d been living with Odasaku for over a month, going out shopping with him on the occasion, he still felt tense, like he was being watched or about to be reprimanded and kicked by another adult. Ryuunosuke seemed to feel much the same, guarded and coldly glaring out at the crowd whenever it felt like too many eyes were on them.

 

When the crowd began to dwindle and Atsushi led them to a stand selling manjū, Ryuunosuke started to relax. Frowning at the paper money in his hands, Atsushi looked at Odasaku. Odasaku nodded and Atsushi smiled. They came away from the stand with three buns; red bean paste for Odasaku, and green tea for Atsushi and Ryuunosuke.

 

Beaming as he munched happily on his manjū, Atsushi chattered away about the latest book he was reading to an attentive Ryuunosuke with a bounce in his step he hadn’t had for quite a long time.

 

Ryuunosuke didn’t always talk very much, not very much was expressed on his face, but even Odasaku noticed how much more relaxed the boy was; how content he seemed when he was with Atsushi. It was such a contrast to the hostile and hateful boy he’d met just a week before. And Atsushi didn’t seem to mind that the dark-haired boy rarely spoke.

 

Odasaku watched as Ryuunosuke paused before the entryway to a store containing pieces of calligraphy art. Atsushi stopped his rambling mid-sentence and looked at his friend, at the entry to the store, and back at Ryuunosuke. Throwing away the wrapper to his manjū, Atsushi tugged Ryuunosuke by the hem of his sleeve into the store to admire the artwork on the walls.

 

No words were exchanged between them.

 

Ryuunosuke tensed and went rigid when an elderly store clerk approached them both as the dark-haired boy admired the brushes and inkstones. The hems of his shirt trembled, threatened with the man’s presence, and Odasaku’s shoulders stiffened. His fingers brushed against the pistol hidden his shirt, ready to intervene in case the boy got violent (Dazai told him what his ability was capable of, just how destructive it could become if he learned how to use it—).

 

“We’re just looking,” Atsushi chirped shyly, approaching from behind. He lightly gripped the back of Ryuunosuke’s shirt and the trembling hems came to a stop.

 

Odasaku watched in awe as Ryuunosuke leaned into Atsushi’s touch.

 

“..I’ve never seen brushes so large before,” the dark haired boy murmured. Ryuunosuke’s stare returned to the glass display case, where a handsome set of brushes almost as long as his arms were being propped up.

 

“Oh,” the clerk laughed, wrinkles stretching as he smiled and clapped his hands, “Those are mostly used for performance calligraphy. It’s becoming quite popular with the high school youngsters,” he added at the boys’ confused expressions, grinning. “Would you like to try out some of the brushes?”

 

The store clerk (who turned out to be the owner of the shop) showed Ryuunosuke how to use the inkstone, how to grind for the ink, and moved to the side to let Ryuunosuke try. Atsushi hovered over the other boy’s shoulder and watched, smiling widely with awe as Ryuunosuke dragged a slow, careful line of a character onto the paper. Atsushi praised how pretty and smooth Ryuunosuke’s handwriting was, and with the tips of his ears turning faint pink, Ryuunosuke grumbled at Atsushi to shut up.

 

It was minuscule, barely there. Just a twitch of the muscles on the mouth, but Odasaku saw it— the upturn of a smile on the dark-haired boy’s mouth as Atsushi took his turn with the brush, ink and paper, staining his fingertips with the ink as he drew his brows together in concentration.

 

Odasaku stood near the back of the store, and watched in intrigue with a heavy heart.

 

Family, huh?

 


 

 

The crowd was finally beginning to dwindle by nearly five in the afternoon, many going home or retreating into the various restaurants on all sides of the street, and the evening lights were being turned on. Atsushi didn’t realize how long they’d been walking for until Odasaku suggested that they take a rest before a quick dinner, it’d been a long day and Ryuunosuke was getting visibly sluggish the longer the hours went. Atsushi made himself comfortable on the steps of the Kanteibyo. The lanterns swung lazily in the faint breeze and he smiled up at the light that beamed down at him. His knees brushed against Ryuunosuke’s as the other boy sat back and drank water.

 

Odasaku was on the other set of stairs, talking to Mishima on the phone. He figured it was best to leave the boys alone, they were tired and needed to rest their legs; and it didn’t pass by him that Ryuunosuke grew quiet when Odasaku was close by or standing next to Atsushi, far too close than he was comfortable with. Odasaku took the pains to give them enough distance so that Ryuunosuke wasn’t uncomfortable.

 

He hadn’t been hostile, but he clearly still didn’t like Odasaku much.

 

That was fine. Odasaku didn’t expect anything otherwise. He would keep his distance and let the boys have their private time together while they could.

 

Odasaku couldn’t say when or if they would get this chance again.

 

Elbows brushed against each other as Atsushi tilted his head up to look at the lanterns swaying in the faint breeze, light warm on his skin, and Atsushi smiled.

 

It felt nice to be able to be out in public, enjoying themselves, without having the need to steal food and clothing. His stomach didn’t feel as tight with hunger anymore, and his feet didn’t ache from shoes fraying at the tips. His skin didn’t stretch over his bones as much anymore, dry from hunger. There was so much to be thankful to Oda for.

 

Bringing them back together was something that Atsushi could never return the favor for, and Atsushi could never thank him enough.

 

“It’s almost like the pictures,” Atsushi murmured. “But it’s even nicer in person.”

 

Ryuunosuke grunted, crossing his arms. He lowered the bottle to the side of his foot and kept his eyes closed even as Atsushi started to lean against him. It was his uninjured side, thankfully. Despite the warmth of the autumn evening, his long sleeves and high collar hid the bruises underneath the fabric. Atsushi hadn’t noticed, not yet.

 

He hoped to keep it that way.

 

“Those weren’t even pictures,” he said, leaning to the side just enough that their hair brushed. “Those were illustrations, and not even very good ones.”

 

Atsushi snorted, rolling his eyes. “It’s not like I had anything else to go on, Ryuu.” He nudged his elbow against Ryuunosuke’s and grinned ruefully at the scowl he received in return.

 

The tips of their pinkies brushed when Atsushi scooted closer to the other boy. He sighed, content, and pressed his full arm against Ryuunosuke’s. They watched the crowd bustle around the temple, taking their pictures, poses, and then taking their leave as the day grew darker and the lights brighter. Atsushi could still smell the food from here; it made his stomach feel full.

 

They sat together in silence, listening to the faint sound of music in the distance, the bustle of cars and feet on the pavement, while leaning against one another. Atsushi was almost close enough to put his chin on Ryuunosuke’s shoulder, where he’d always rest his head on when they fell asleep back in the slums.

 

“I miss you,” Atsushi murmured.

 

Ryuunosuke’s fingers jolted, pausing, and then placed his fingertips over Atsushi’s. Rashomon stretched out in a tendril and wrapped around Atsushi’s thumb, and it pulsated with comforting warmth. He sucked in a sharp breath and tucked in closer to Atsushi, fingers curled over the other boy’s.

 

Atsushi smiled, eyes feeling misty.

 

Ryuunosuke didn’t have to say it out loud; Atsushi understood.

 

“…You look healthy,” Ryuunosuke said.

 

Blinking, Atsushi sat up and tilted his head. “Do I?”

 

Ryuunosuke looked over Atsushi briefly; his face no longer so thin and gaunt, his clothing fit him more comfortably instead of like skin barely hanging off of his bones, the healthy flush to his cheeks. Even the heavy bags beneath his eyes had faded to mere faint shadows.

 

Ryuunosuke had never seen him look so…alive.

 

“You do,” he said. “I.. I’m glad.”

 

Ryuunosuke squeezed his hand and Atsushi smiled warmly, squeezing back in return.

 

At last, a part of Ryuunosuke was soothed; he’d seen that Atsushi was alive, well, and looking more well-fed and healthier than either of them ever thought possible. Relief flooded through him, and after months of being separated and no word of his condition, Ryuunosuke finally knew that Atsushi was all right. That he was in safe hands. He was being treated well.

 

He was safe.

 

That was all that mattered to Ryuunosuke. Knowing that, he could rest easy.

 

“I.. Well, I’m glad, too, then,” Atsushi laughed. He sat up and smiled up at the swaying lanterns. “Mishima-san always brings food over, almost every other day. He’s a good cook, and he lets me help out sometimes, so the fridge is full all the time. Apparently he comes over all the time because Oda-san can barely cook more than microwavable meals for himself.”

 

Atsushi stifled his giggles at Ryuunosuke’s scoff, recalling the several occasions in which Mishima chided Odasaku for skipping one too many meals. Odasaku wilted underneath the man’s hard stare like a child caught trying to sneak a treat out of the kitchen.

 

Ryuunosuke glanced at the red-haired man from the corner of his eye. “..He seems to treat you decently.”

 

Atsushi closed his eyes, humming. His smile softened.

 

“..He’s quiet. He doesn’t talk that much and whenever he’s not at work, he reads a lot. I, was really intimidated by him at first, he’s just so, tall—“ Atsushi sat up, gesturing with his free hand, imploring Ryuunosuke to understand.

 

When the other boy nodded, Atsushi lowered his hand.

 

“..I was scared of him, when we first met. I was— I don’t remember where I was, but all I remember is cold and dark—“

 

Atsushi trembled, stilling only when fingers clasped around his in a firm squeeze. He exhaled, leaning into Ryuunosuke’s touch, comforted by the pulse of Rashomon spreading to wrap around his wrist. When he heard Ryuunosuke breathe sharply— so sharp that Atsushi knew he was angry— he rubbed his thumb over Ryuunosuke’s. When the other boy’s breath calmed, Atsushi lifted his head and continued.

 

“And then I wasn’t in that cold place anymore. There was a roof over my head and I was covered in blankets. And Oda-san was there. I didn’t know who he was, or how I got there, and I was so scared because you and Gin were gone, I didn’t know where you two were and if you were hurt—“

 

Atsushi pursed his lips.

 

“..I would’ve tried to run away from Oda-san. I almost did, just so I could find you two again. But.. then he promised that he’d find you two for me. He let me stay with him, he gave me food and new clothes. He lets me read his books. He.. He’s giving me a place to stay.”

 

His smile turned watery.

 

“He gave me a place to stay and he brought us back together. I can never thank him enough for that.”

 

Just as the skies were finally turning dark, Odasaku approached the boys and suggested that they have a quick dinner before they had to part. Atsushi was all too thrilled to keep exploring Chinatown and agreed easily. Ryuunosuke shrugged, not saying a word but agreeing nevertheless, and it didn’t escape Odasaku’s notice that the dark-haired boy stuck to Atsushi’s side the entire time, just as he did all day.

 

Before they stepped into a quaint, but comfortable looking restaurant to eat at, well within Odasaku’s budget, Ryuunosuke suddenly stood next to him, clearing his throat.

 

Odasaku blinked, and turned to look at the shorter boy. He could’ve snorted at the pinched look on his face.

 

Instead, he hummed inquisitively.

 

Akutagawa parted his mouth, closed it, looked down and then looked away. He was quiet, and Odasaku waited. The silence stretched on before Odasaku hid a sigh, striving to just ignore it—

 

Akutagawa’s voice was a rasp whisper.

 

“Thank you.”

 

Odasaku stared after the boys as Akutagawa rejoined Atsushi, a black tendril stretching out of Akutagawa’s sleeve to wrap around Atsushi’s wrist, and his chest squeezed tightly.

 

In the dim light of the restaurant interior, he saw the ghost of a smile on the dark-haired boy’s face.

 


 

 

Atsushi knew that Ryuu would eventually have to leave and this night would end, that they would have to go their separate ways again, but as the hours drew on, his stomach full with the food being sold on street vendors and the sweet taste of manjū buns, he was content to pretend. Even when it started getting dark and people were going back home, Atsushi didn’t want to leave. He wanted to prolong it as much as possible.

 

It wasn’t the same as all three of them being together, but Atsushi had missed him so much… and now that they were back together, he knew Gin would be back, too.

 

Soon, they would all be together again.

 

He’d make sure of it.

 

So absorbed in having Ryuu with him, now that they didn't have to steal anymore, Atsushi didn’t catch onto how quiet and distant Odasaku was until just a couple of hours before they had to leave. He didn’t disappear, but he didn’t talk much, and there seemed to be a tension that Atsushi didn’t understand between him and Ryuu. Odasaku was polite and civil enough, but Ryuu (especially at first) was stiff and on edge. Gradually, they relaxed around each other, but they still didn’t talk much at all. Odasaku gave Ryuu especially a large berth. It disappointed him, but Atsushi was hopeful that they’d learn to get along more easily.

 

As the night drew on there was something else that Atsushi noticed that started to worry him—

 

Ryuu’s injuries.

 

He wore long sleeved shirts to cover them up just enough, but there was a certain stiffness to his movements that Atsushi was all too aware of; he’d move the same way whenever some adult or older child would hit him too hard for his body to take. He still moved shiftily and he didn’t talk about what he’d been doing before their reunion. He seemed to make it a point to avoid the subject entirely, always asking about Atsushi, what living with Oda was like, and had he been eating properly, now— He kept the subject off of himself as much as he could.

 

Atsushi knew when Ryuu was trying to stay quiet about something or keep things a secret. He knew him far too well, and Ryuu knew it.

 

When the streets were quieter and they stood beneath the lights of a teahouse, Atsushi bit his lip. “Ryuu,” he murmured.

 

Ryuu answered him with a hum.

 

Atsushi pursed his lips, frowning. “..Have you been eating?”

 

Ryuunosuke blinked slowly.

 

“More than I’m used to.”

 

Atsushi made a small noise, shuffling his feet. “That’s good.”

 

“Why do you ask?” Ryuu replied, looking away with his arms crossed.

 

Atsushi rubbed his thumb against his oppose wrist bone.

 

“I just wanted to be sure that you’re not sick with anything,” he said softly. “You look.. tired, more than normal.”

 

Ryuu paused and dark eyes briefly glanced away, fiddling with his small box of calligraphy brushes. “I’m not sick.”

 

Atsushi’s frown grew heavier. “Ryuu.”

 

The other boy’s jaw twitched, all too familiar with that tone. His teeth clenched, his tone turning steely. “I’m fine, Atsushi.”

 

“You’re injured, Ryuu.”

 

Ryuu was silent.

 

Swallowing, Atsushi stepped closer to the other boy and gently took his hands. He frowned at how rough they felt— almost rougher than they’d been when they lived in the slums together. The other boy’s hands twitched, and then curled over his, clenching.

 

“What’s going on, Ryuu? I know you’re injured, you can’t hide that from me.”

 

Conflict flashed on Ryuunosuke’s face, lips pursed. He didn’t answer.

 

Squeezing Ryuu’s hands, Atsushi’s brows rose in pleading. “Ryuu..”

 

Eyes closed, Ryuunosuke exhaled sharply.

 

“..I’m training under somebody,” he said finally. “That’s why I have bruises and some injuries. It’s from training.”

 

Atsushi straightened, blinking. “Training?” When Ryuunosuke nodded, Atsushi tilted his head, curious. “With who—?”

 

“Nobody important to you,” Ryuu said shortly, and there was a flash of something familiar and dangerous on his face— anger— before it settled back into its usual stoic countenance. When Atsushi was visibly startled, Ryuu’s expression relaxed. His fingers gently squeezed Atsushi’s and Rashomon trickled out to wrap around his wrist loosely.

 

“..You don’t know him, but he’s training me to become stronger— to teach me how to fight, to use Rashomon to defend myself,” said Ryuu. “He’s, the reason that we have a place to live now, a roof over our heads. He’s the reason that we’re not on the streets anymore.”

 

Atsushi’s brows furrowed, “But— I don’t understand, Ryuu. When did you even meet him?”

 

Ryuu gave him an odd stare, searching his face for something that Ryuu couldn’t find, a stare that was critical and carefully watching. He seemed confused about something.

 

Atsushi’s brow only crinkled further and he squeezed Ryuu’s fingers, worried. “Ryuu..?”

 

He doesn’t remember, Ryuu realized. He doesn’t remember turning into a tiger.

 

Ryuu rolled his tongue between his teeth, considering his words carefully.

 

“..You remember when those smugglers came into the slums and killed those others that we were living with?”

 

Sucking in a sharp breath, Atsushi bit his inner cheek, looked down and nodded. It was a memory he’d been content to put behind him.

 

Ryuu kept it as brief as possible as to not upset Atsushi; he wasn’t unfamiliar with death in the slums, even the death of fellow children, but Atsushi had a kinder heart than most that was still stirred with grief at the sight of murdered orphans, the same orphans that worked with them in order to survive. He told Atsushi that he’d left him and Gin behind so that he could take revenge for their slain comrades. And there, at the hollow and the tree stump, Dazai was there. The smugglers were already dead by the time Ryuu arrived

 

Then, Dazai offered him a chance to escape the slums. A chance for them all to escape the slums.

 

Ryuunosuke took that door offered to him and didn’t look back.

 

Atsushi absorbed it all quietly, brows furrowed as Ryuu explained how Dazai came to be his mentor (unsettled by the notion that his best friend was also going to be in the Port Mafia, just like Oda was—). He nodded, understanding, before he pursed his lips.

 

“I don’t understand something, though,” he murmured. “I don’t— I don’t remember ever meeting this Dazai before—“

 

Atsushi stared at his feet, frowning, and missed how Ryuunosuke’s shoulders tensed.

 

Atsushi’s hands clenched into fists at his knees.

 

How did I wind up there ?

 

Ryuunosuke was quiet, then he asked, “..What do you remember last?”

 

Atsushi bit his lip. “..Someone tried to shoot Gin, and I— My head just started hurting and I—“

 

He stilled. Atsushi stared down at his hands, splaying out his fingers and curling them back in. He watched the shadows form and disappear on his hands, like stripes.

 

“I don’t remember anything after that.”

 

It settled in his skin uncomfortably.

 

Ryuu suggested that perhaps he’d just gotten hit on the head and he’d passed out after, and Atsushi made a small noise of agreement, because that would make sense.

 

(And yet it didn’t, it didn’t make sense at all.)

 

“This.. This Dazai-san,” he started. “Is he nice?”

 

Ryuunosuke chose his words carefully; nice was not a word he’d ever use to describe Dazai, certainly not for what he’d done to Atsushi before Odasaku retrieved him from the basement holding cells, and not for his brutal training sessions. If he gave any other indication that Dazai was anything other than genial and decently minded, Atsushi would not react well.

 

“He’s fair,” Ryuunosuke said.

 

If he thought about it a certain way— his treatment of Ryuunosuke that would prepare him for the harshness and brutality of the Mafia life, even more so than his life in the slums, in exchange for a chance to live and prove his strength, was fair.

 

In exchange for that brutality, Ryuunosuke could be certain of Gin and Atsushi’s safety.

 

They would be safe, and that was all that mattered to him.

 

Atsushi narrowed his eyes subtly at Ryuu’s response, as it didn’t really answer his question at all and didn’t leave Atsushi feeling much comfort. But.. Ryuu seemed certain, and while Atsushi wanted to press further— about the bruises, how exhausted he looked, how Gin was— he didn’t want to tarnish their time together with an argument.

 

Sighing, Atsushi gave Ryuu a small smile, squeezed his hand and said okay.

 

Ryuu held his hand back tightly and Odasaku’s fingers clenched tightly around his cigarette, frown hard on his face as he glanced over the dark-haired boy’s various bruises.

 


 

 

Their bellies full and warm with oxtail stew, Odasaku told Atsushi that it was getting late and it was time for them to go. Atsushi understood that it was coming, but his hands still fisted in his lap as he nodded at Odasaku. Ryuunosuke scowled but said nothing. Odasaku didn’t fail to see the black tendrils stretching out to wrap around Atsushi’s wrist as they walked back to the East Gate.

 

“Will you be okay leaving by yourself?” Odasaku asked.

 

Ryuunosuke gave him such an affronted look that it bordered on disgusted. “I can take care of myself just fine,” he said, a hint of snide in his tone.

 

Atsushi gave him a frown that had the tips of the boy’s ears tinting red, swiftly nudging his knee against the other boy’s leg, and Odasaku watched in bemusement as Ryuunosuke mumbled that he’d be fine by himself in a more polite tone of voice. Rashomon would protect him if anything were to happen.

 

Odasaku nodded, his stare flitting between the two boys. Putting his hands in his pockets, he walked a few feet away to give the boys space, turning his back to them.

 

Atsushi immediately broke forward to embrace Ryuu, who stumbled back but then wrapped his arms around Atsushi in turn.

 

“I had fun, Ryuu,” Atsushi said, muffled against Ryuu’s shoulder. He smiled into the boy’s coat when he felt Rashomon tremble with happiness against his hands. “We’ll do this again. Right?”

 

Ryuu tightened his arms hold on the other boy. He closed his eyes and clung to Atsushi’s warmth.

 

“..Yeah,” he said softly. “We will.”

 

Odasaku’s hands clenched into fists as they parted ways at the East Gate, Ryuunosuke leaving in the opposite direction as them. Atsushi looked over his shoulder to see Ryuu slowly disappear into the darkness until he could no longer see the other boy’s outline. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand, ignoring the clench in his chest and how his eyes burned suddenly. He cradled The Water Margin against his chest and smiled.

 

The very first book that he could call his own.

 

Ryuu bought it for him and didn’t allow Atsushi to refuse.

 

The walk back to Odasaku’s apartment was quiet. Atsushi made a soothing green tea an hour before he went to bed (Atsushi was far better at brewing tea than Odasaku ever would be), and he was in a content daze, reading The Water Margin under the lamplight until he started getting drowsy.

 

But before he fell asleep, Atsushi came up to Odasaku and offered him the warmest, most open smile he’d seen yet.

 

“Thank you, Oda-san.”

 

Odasaku could’ve cracked the tea cup in his hand from how quickly his chest clenched at the sight of that smile, so free of any hardship or sadness.

 

Don’t smile at me like that, Oda thought as he watched the boy crawl onto his futon near the window, surrounded by all the books and notebooks he was reading, and fall asleep in minutes. I don’t deserve it.

 

The moonlight shined down on the sleeping Atsushi, peacefully, and not a single hint of the tiger revealed itself.

 

Odasaku took barely a moment’s notice to come to his decision. He went out to the balcony, lit a cigarette and took a slow inhale. He blew the smoke out and watched it float to the city skyline. Cradling his cigarette between his fingers, he pulled out his phone.

 

The next time you have a free day, text me. I’ll find a way to do this again any day you have free.

 

It took nearly ten minutes for a response.

 

Why are you doing this?

 

It took Odasaku less than two to reply.

 

Because it makes him happy.

 


 

 

“..Your footwork needs vast improvement still, and unless you learn how to defend properly, you will be utterly useless in battle,” Dazai drawled, lazily playing with his game console as Akutagawa coughed harshly, arm wrapped around his stomach.

 

The boy was still on his feet. He was bruised all over, his ribs were sore and he had a split lip. But he was standing, ready for any more attacks to come his way. The ends of his coat fluttered to life.

 

Dazai looked up slowly, lowering his console. He worked his jaw, exhaled with a sigh and closed his eyes.

 

“..But I suppose that your movements have gotten sharper and more controlled. We’re done for the day. Clean yourself up and go home. Gin-chan is also finished for the day, last I recall.”

 

He turned around and walked away before he could see Akutagawa’s eyes widen in astonishment. He kept his hands in his pockets, whistling light-heartedly to himself as he heard Akutagawa gather his things, collect himself and leave the warehouse. As soon as the boy was gone and Dazai was outside, standing by the edge of the pier, he frowned at the growing sunset.

 

He’s improving.

 

It took just a few days worth of training with Akutagawa to notice the subtle changes; his reflexes were growing quicker, more alert, and Rashomon was starting to strike with more strength and vitality without weakening Akutagawa’s body too quickly. He’d become more attuned to the tasks Dazai assigned him and began to listen without too much complaint. Oh, he was still stubborn and surly, especially in the face of Dazai’s teasing, but he didn’t talk back as much as he did before.

 

He listened, and he didn’t ask about Nakajima as much as he did before.

 

A nice reprieve, but Dazai was unsure as to what the cause was.

 

He hated to admit it, but Akutagawa was getting stronger.

 

It was slowly made, but the progress was steadily becoming obvious, so much so that not even Dazai could deny it, not anymore.

 

He wouldn’t give the boy praise, but he would give him more days of rest until the inevitable came.

 

Dazai was uncertain of how he felt about this new development; part of him was somewhat annoyed that Akutagawa had suddenly become more obedient and confident, as it took away some of the shadow of fun he got from dangling Nakajima’s safety before him. He didn’t take the bait Dazai put before him as much; he was still temperamental and stubborn, but he didn’t fly into a rage at the mere indication that Dazai might return Nakajima to the cellars or that he was unsafe.

 

Another part of him felt relief, small as it was. A burden had been taken off of him, however the thought of the boy’s attachment to Nakajima led Dazai into thinking more deeply about Odasaku’s apparent attachment to the were tiger than he cared to. The thought of how strongly Odasaku cared about the boy and how protective he’d become over some no name orphan that he’d be willing to go against Dazai’s direct orders settled in his stomach unpleasantly.

 

It made something ugly twist in his chest, threatening to choke him.

 

The sun hadn’t fully set yet, but the fog still followed him down the alley into Lupin’s. He settled into his usual chair at the bar, and when denied a bleach cocktail, ordered a Boulevardier. He sipped quietly and dragged his fingers along the spine of the white and brown spotted cat that’d settled into his lap.

 

Humming to the soft jazz on the radio, Dazai drank his cocktail that carried whiskey on its heels and waited.

 

Not more than twenty minutes later, he heard the bell on the door chime softly.

 

Dazai smiled faintly against the rim of his glass.

 

“Yo, Odasaku.”

 

A comfortable ambiance settled over Lupin’s as Odasaku settled into his usual chair, ordering his usual drink, and listening to the usual jazz that played on the radio above the bar, against the wall lined with liquor and spirits. He’d nodded at Dazai as he pushed his stool forward, close to the bar, and put his jacket over the back of the chair. They didn’t talk for about ten minutes, a comfortable silence settling between them.

 

In comparison to the silence that’s formed between them since the last time they were at Lupin’s, voices raised, it was one that Dazai cherished and treasured. There was no animosity and tension, not this time.

 

They slipped into conversation at last when Dazai mentioned, off-handedly, of the latest mission Mori assigned him; to deal with a well-known member of the supreme court that’d been using the loans the Port Mafia had lended him for the sake of hush money in a manner that More did not especially like (associating with outside gangs to destroy evidence from cases that could possibly trace back to the Port Mafia), and Dazai’s boredom with the assignment given to him.

 

He slouched against the bar counter with a sigh. “I hate blackmail negotiations,” he whined, tapping the ice ball. “Please tell me you’ve been doing something more interesting.”

 

Odasaku paused, staring upwards thoughtfully before taking a sip. “I de-escalated a bomb threat in one of the supermarkets that’s part of our territory and took him into our custody. Does that sound interesting?”

 

Dazai made a noise that was practically an excited squeal.

 

It was laughable how easy it was to fall back into their usual order; complaining and talking idly of their jobs and missions as if they were discussing the weather, winding down from the long day as they always did.

 

Dazai had missed this with a desperation that frightened him and wanted it to last as long as possible.

 

Odasaku didn’t realize how much this had been missed until he sat down with him as if nothing this past month had happened at all. Talking with Dazai like this, sharing a drink and space with him, listening to him wine at the elderly bartender for a cocktail that could kill him beautifully like the teenager he was, seeing the slivers of a smile and laughter that seemed almost genuine made his chest tighten.

 

He didn’t realize how much he’d wanted this, too.

 

Throughout the evening, they never mentioned Atsushi and Ryuunosuke once.

 

It was the elephant in the room that both were willing to put aside for the time being. Dazai knew that this particular mission would take some time and he wanted to savor this moment as long as possible. Nakajima was still the subject of which Odasaku refused to budge on, but upon glancing him over as soon as he walked into the bar, Dazai was relieved to see that not only had the injury on his left arm healed, there was no sign of any other damage or injury on him.

 

He wasn’t entirely sure if there was a pattern to the were tiger’s transformations, but it seemed as if he hadn’t transformed since that night, or Odasaku had it under such control that he was able to keep the tiger contained.

 

Dazai found that doubtful, however; despite being only a cub, it was big enough to draw a lot of attention and to cause significant damage. Odasaku was lucky he’d only gotten a scratch. For now, it seemed as if Odasaku had a decent enough handle on the situation.

 

However, if it were to ever turn sour— Dazai would feel no remorse upon tossing Nakajima back into that cell.

 

For now, now that he was assured that Odasaku was safe, if only for a while, he was willing to let the matter rest.

 

For now.

 

For now, Dazai could forget.

 

They talked, Odasaku made his deadpan, witty remarks that had something like genuine laughter bubbling out of his mouth, Dazai edged closer to the other man when he murmured something under his breath like a secret he’d let only Odasaku in on, and he’d almost forgotten about the outside matter that Odasaku had now dedicated so much time to. He could’ve stayed inside Lupin’s for hours more.

 

Odasaku hadn’t had more than two and a half drinks before he offered the rest of his last drink to Dazai and put down his payment for the bartender. He’d taken his time drinking, but Dazai was startled by how it seemed to go by so quickly.

 

“I should get going,” Odasaku murmured.

 

“Ah,” Dazai said flatly.

 

Odasaku peered at him curiously, a subtle narrow of his eyes, and Dazai drowned his drink, swirling the half-melted ice cub in his glass. He smiled widely at Odasaku.

 

“I’d hate to keep Nakajima-kun from waiting on you for too long,” he said cheerfully.

 

“He can take care of himself,” said Odasaku, even as he slipped his arms through the sleeves of his jacket. And he believed it; when Atsushi wasn’t doing the assignments Mishima gave him or reading, he’d been a big help in cleaning up Odasaku’s apartment. When Odasaku tried to tell him he didn’t have to, Atsushi was insistent on doing so. He’d even started making small meals on his own.

 

But even though the tiger could easily protect him from harm, Odasaku was hesitant to leave him alone for too long just in case.

 

The last thing he wanted was a repeat of the first, and so far only, incident of the tiger appearing.

 

Dazai swirled the melting ice cube in his glass. “Any incidents with your… furry little guest as of late?”

 

Odasaku closed his eyes, hands in his pockets. “If there was, you’d be able to tell, wouldn’t you?”

 

Dazai laughed and it almost sounded real.

 

“Til’ next time then, Odasaku?”

 

Odasaku nodded with a small hum, walking towards the door. “Til’ next time.”

 

“In two more days, perhaps?” Dazai offered, tone nonchalant.

 

There was a pause. Odasaku looked at the door and then over his shoulder.

 

“We’ll see.”

 

It was as much of a yes as they would ever exchange between each other.

 

The calico lounged in Dazai’s lap, purring loudly in tandem with the soft jazz when Dazai lazily ran his fingers along its back. He stared at his half-finished drink and through the faint buzz that permeated through his skull, like a thick cloud pressing against the walls of bone, Dazai frowned.

 

Not once had Odasaku asked about Akutagawa.

 


 

 

Over the next couple of months, as summer faded into cool autumn, a sporadic pattern emerged.

 

Whenever Akutagawa had a free day, he would send Odasaku a simple message: a day and a time. Odasaku would respond in turn with a place. Never anything more than that. Akutagawa wasn’t a talkative boy and Odasaku was just as terse and short spoken in text form as he was in person. They didn’t dawdle on details. It wasn’t Odasaku whom Akutagawa wanted to speak to.

 

Whatever time Akutagawa had, Odasaku would arrange for him to meet with Atsushi and for them to spend the day together as much as possible. Sometimes they’d be able to spend time together several days of the week, others a week or two spread out. Sometimes Akutagawa would arrive looking healthier, stronger and healed. Others… Odasaku could see the limping, the bruises he hid beneath long sleeves and the haggard shadows beneath his eyes.

 

It made him frown.

 

He knew that Dazai would not be the softest mentor, nor the kindest, but to see such injuries on a young, frail body as Akutagawa’s..

 

Atsushi worried also, he knew.

 

Despite his worries, Atsushi welcomed Akutagawa’s sporadic free time with open arms and a smile that could rival the sun after a cloudy morning. Atsushi kept his worries in hushed murmurs to his friend. Their time spent together wasn’t limited to outings and visits to different parts of the city, over time; a few weeks into these secret meetings, Odasaku allowed Akutagawa through his door.

 

As soon as he walked through the door, Atsushi took Akutagawa’s hand and led him further in, towards the stacks of book near the window facing the street, showing him all of the new and old titles that he’d read and had yet to read.

 

Akutagawa was still tense around Odasaku, but the hostility had faded into quiet respect. As a member of the Mafia himself, it was understandable that Akutagawa didn’t fully trust him just yet. He wasn’t sure if the boy ever would.

 

He doubted it.

 

As the boys sat in the den, Odasaku went into his own room, stood on his balcony and smoked a cigarette while leaning against the railing.

 

He hadn’t told Dazai. As far as he knew, Dazai had no idea that these meetings were happening. He hoped it would stay that way.

 

As the weeks stretched on and Akutagawa’s visits became more frequent now that he knew where Odasaku and Atsushi lived, it’d started to become a routine. Akutagawa would step through his door, Odasaku would start boiling the water in the kettle and quietly retreat into his own room while the boys sat with each other and caught up. Sometimes, he’d stay as late as nightfall and he and Atsushi would eat dinner together, a book resting open on Atsushi’s knee.

 

They took turns reading out loud, Odasaku noticed. Whenever one was finished reading a section, the other would take over once they were done talking about what just took place in the story they’d been reading. They always sat close to each other, silver and black hair meshing together as Atsushi pressed against Akutagawa’s side. Sometimes, he’d even pressing his chin or jaw against the dark-haired boy’s shoulder, reading the book along with him as Akutagawa read. Instead of recoiling from the touch, Akutagawa leaned into Atsushi and continued reading on.

 

Odasaku found them asleep together several times, their young faces relaxed and peaceful.

 

He loathed having to wake them up so Atsushi could say goodbye to Akutagawa.

 

Atsushi would always say, “I’ll see you soon,” and Akutagawa would nod, squeezing the other boy’s hands, and then he would slip out of Odasaku’s apartment, as quiet and quick as a shadow. Atsushi watched Akutagawa walk away from their street into the darkness of Yokohama’s nights from the window, watching until he was just out of sight. Atsushi always went to sleep soon after, an emotion on his face that was both joyous and sad.

 

Odasaku hated seeing that war of emotion on the boy’s young face, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it. Not right now. The most he could do was try his damnedest to let the boys see each other as much as possible. And Odasaku had to maintain the balance of allowing Atsushi that happiness with his best friend and saving Akutagawa from Dazai’s wrath, should he find out.

 

That, Odasaku worried about the most; Dazai finding out.

 

Their sporadic visits to Lupin’s continued and the topic of Atsushi came and went. Dazai seemed dubious of Odasaku’s subdued stubborn questioning about Akutagawa at first, but he continued to talk about his progress (and his complaints about the boy’s stubbornness and insistence on going off on his own, constantly; which was worrying) with or without the topic of Atsushi coming up.

 

Dazai’s most frequent question about Atsushi was whether or not he’d transformed again.

 

Odasaku would take a sip from his whiskey on the rocks and say, “No, he hasn’t. Not once.”

 

Dazai would hum, stare at him over his glass with that sharp hazel glare of his before his face was once again flush with the alcohol, relaxing his smile. “Good. And if he ever does transform again, I expect you to tell me, Odasaku. Don’t bother lying to me, all right? I’ll see right through you.”

 

Understood, Odasaku would murmur into his whiskey on the rocks.

 

Dazai would certainly be able to tell if Odasaku was lying to him about Atsushi’s transformations, but as far as Odasaku knew, he still wasn’t aware of him going behind his back to arrange meetings between Atsushi and Akutagawa. He wasn’t sure how much longer that would last.

 

He didn’t want to think about how Dazai would react.

 

Will react.

 

Until the inevitable came, he would cherish these meetings at Lupin’s as long as he could.

 

As Odasaku let the bourbon leave a pleasant burn down his throat, he wondered if it could ever be possible to have it both without all the complications.

 


 

 

The blood trickled from a cut on Ryuunosuke’s forehead down to his chin, tasting it on his mouth. He spat it to the ground and stood, glaring through the throbbing pain in his head and stomach where Dazai punched him. His legs didn’t shake so much.

 

Dazai raised his eyebrows, chin in hand. His sharp eyes roved over Ryuunosuke; his stature, how he held his arms and legs, how Rashomon retreated back into his coat, its usual stutter of fatigue not as long as before, and the pallor to his skin. His skin was as pale as ever, but there was a hint of a healthy pink flush to his cheeks instead of the clammy sweaty sheen usually left behind after a long, brutal training session.

 

Eyes narrowing before closing them, Dazai sighed.

 

“One week of rest.”

 

Ryuunosuke shot a wide-eyed glare towards him.

 

“What..?” He croaked.

 

Dazai crossed his arms, tapping his left foot. “As I said; I’m giving you one week of rest. You’ve proven yourself capable enough to get up after a minute instead of the seven it initially took you. You’ve made enough of an improvement that I think you’ve earned yourself rest. Now go and stop gawking at me before my goodwill runs out.”

 

Closing his mouth with a click, Ryuunosuke stood up straight and murmured a breathy thank you with a modest bow. He collected his things and left the warehouse, fingers itching to reach for his phone and tell him.

 

A week, a week, a week .

 

For a whole week, they could be together.

 

A rare smile twitched on his lips.

 

Hazel eyes stared after him long after the warehouse doors shut with a loud noise that rattled the metal walls. A bandaged hand clenched so tight in his pocket that red seeped through the thick layers of bandages.

 


 

 

“When he’s of the right age,” said Mishima over the steaming pot of curry that he was stirring, “You should think about sending him to school.”

 

Odasaku paused in his turning of his page in his book. “He doesn’t have any paperwork.”

 

Atsushi was on the balcony, chewing on the end of the pen Mishima gave him as he frowned down at the sheet of math problems in thought, puzzled. He didn’t hear a word of their conversation as he started writing out solving the problem. A cup of green tea sat by his foot, half drunk. His bare feet tapped contentedly against the balcony floor.

 

Mishima hummed, shrugging. “I’m sure if you asked someone, they could forge papers for him. Atsushi-chan is smart, he could more than handle it.”

 

That’s not the problem, Odasaku thought, holding out his bowl for curry with a murmured thank you.

 

The problem is— can he adapt to it?

 

That Atsushi had adapted to living with Odasaku was undeniable. He’d stopped being so jumpy whenever Odasaku suddenly strode into the room, he stopped looking over his shoulder cautiously or flinching away from Mishima when he put a large, gentle and worn hand on his shoulder as he guided him through a word problem or cooking. Atsushi and Odasaku had open discussions about the books they were reading and Odasaku found himself pleasantly surprised by Atsushi’s sharp wit and literary banter, especially for his age.

 

Clearly, it was no wonder that he got on so well with Akutagawa.

 

But apart from Odasaku and Mishima, Atsushi was still jumpy around adults.

 

Wide-eyed at all the clothes that were now available to him at the department store, Atsushi flinched away from a friendly young clerk who offered to help him. Even when Odasaku was standing right next to him, he looked over his shoulder suspiciously, like a cornered animal, waiting for some predator to come stalking out towards him. He recoiled away from adults that weren’t Odasaku that come too close to him. When Akutagawa was there, they held hands and didn’t part from each other from a moment, wading through the crowd like ghosts.

 

Odasaku would never forget how Atsushi retreated into a corner, his body hidden by shadows and the walls around him, when Odasaku gave him new clothes to try on. He hid his body from Odasaku and turned his eyes away, even when Odasaku left the room to let him change.

 

It was just a small flash of pale skin, and anyone else not so observant as Odasaku, someone who hadn’t had those sharp skills of observation burned into them, he wouldn’t have noticed;

 

An angry, ugly knot of pale pink that crawled up Atsushi’s left side.

 

He’d gripped his glass of water so tightly it nearly shattered in his hand.

 

The most Atsushi ever revealed about his past was his time in the slums with the Akutagawa siblings, who he stayed with for nearly two years. Anything before didn’t exist. Like a poltergeist hidden away in a crawlspace, hung with cobwebs and dust, Atsushi ignored it and tried to forget. But its memories clung to his body and his reflexes, in his fear of each and every adult around him. A ghost followed him everywhere.

 

Odasaku saw the signs and clues just begin to pile up the longer Atsushi lived with him, all the more clear and obvious as time passed, and a hot anger unknown to him continued to build in his chest and stomach.

 

He couldn’t make Atsushi tell him about the Before. He wouldn’t, and he didn’t want to. He knew better than anyone to push that on such a young child. It was possible that Atsushi would never tell him about the Before. Odasaku didn’t like it, he wanted to know, just so he could find some way to ease that pain, to punish some person he would never meet— but that was foolish.

 

If Atsushi ever trusted him enough to tell Odasaku about the Before, the time would come.

 

And for someone who held an infinite amount of secrets, to force Atsushi into spilling his own would be hypocritical.

 

Atsushi, so absorbed in his homework, didn’t look up until he heard the door to the balcony slide open.

 

“Curry’s ready,” said Odasaku. “Come inside before I eat it all.”

 

Atsushi, used to Odasaku’s deadpan sense of humor, knew that the older man wasn’t being serious and smiled, laughing as he stood. Collecting his books, he strode into the kitchen and Odasaku watched after him. Atsushi helped himself to a plate of curry and not for the first time did Odasaku feel a little twist of warmth at how the heat of the food didn’t bother Atsushi any.

 

He finished the rest of his drink on the balcony and returned inside, where he sat at the table with Atsushi and Mishima departed after cleaning the dishes to close up his diner for the night. Atsushi ate enthusiastically; he was in a good mood. Ecstatic, even.

 

Atsushi’s face nearly broke with sheer joy when Odasaku told him that Akutagawa was free for the next week. He was so delighted that Odasaku bemusedly thought he was about to start bouncing on the balls of his feet.

 

Haltingly, he asked, “Could he stay here for a few days?”

 

Odasaku only felt a beat of hesitation; the consequences of Dazai possibly finding out weighed on him heavily, but the eager and hopeful look on Atsushi’s face…

 

“Sure,” he said, “I don’t see why not.”

 

In a burst of gratitude, Atsushi ran forward and wrapped his arms around a stunned Odasaku’s waist in a firm hug. Realizing what he did just a second later, Atsushi flushed a deep red, quickly removed his arms and mumbled Thank you, Oda-san, before rushing to the bathroom, embarrassed.

 

He didn’t allow Odasaku a chance to hug him back, but it left the corners of Odasaku’s mouth twitching upwards from muscles rarely used.

 

His ghost of a smile didn’t last for very much longer when he finally retired to bed, Atsushi having already tucked in for the night after cleaning the dishes (although Odasaku told him no less than five times that he didn’t have to), as his thoughts came to him in full swing. All were centered around one question that Atsushi asked him over a spoon of curry;

 

“What kind of person is Dazai-san like?”

 

Odasaku laid on his bed and stared up at the ceiling in the dark, the curtains to his window half drawn. His unfinished book laid open on his chest, unable to keep his mind focused anymore. The answer he’d given Atsushi still didn’t feel satisfactory to him.

 

“He’s… like a rubix cube.”

 

Atsushi’s brows had knit together in confusion, nose crinkling. “A rubix cube? What do you mean?”

 

Odasaku closed his book after putting in a bookmark and turned on his side, staring out at the half moon out the window, and closed his eyes.

 

“Because you think you’ve got him figured out, but then he surprises you with something altogether new and more confusing.”

 

It wasn’t the answer Atsushi was looking for, but it was the only one Oda could give him; not even he, after a tenuous year of quasi-friendship with Dazai, could really sum the younger man up in a simple sentence for an eleven year old to understand. Not even he understood Dazai— not really. He wasn’t sure he ever would.

 

For half an hour, Odasaku listened for the sound of heavy paws and sharp nails dragging against the floor. He continued to hear just the sound of the city below and faint sleeping noises from the next room over. The moon never changed its hue. Odasaku closed his eyes and slowly, let sleep take him.

 

For hours, the apartment was still. Quiet, carrying only the sound of a leaky faucet dripping and soft breathing.

 

It was not with a scream, but with a gentle sigh that the living room glowed with a blue hue.

 

At 2:37 in the morning, Odasaku felt his mattress dip under sudden weight, warm breath on his face and a rumbling sound vibrating in his ears.

 

Odasaku opened his eyes and stared into golden pupils surrounded by royal purple, brightened by the moonlight sifting through the smooth white fur streaked with black stripes.

 

The white tiger cub bore his teeth in the darkness.

Chapter Text

Two years before Atsushi joined them in the slums, Gin was targeted by a pimp and a human trafficker to be a child prostitute. Despite her living conditions, she had long dark hair that shimmered in the daylight and pale skin. Her youth and her pretty features made her attractive to potential customers and the words that she heard rasped in her ear when the man grabbed her by the bicep—

 

You’ll be a pretty sight once you’re cleaned up.

 

It was the first time she’d ever stabbed someone.

 

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a broken discarded knife on the ground. She reached down for it, gripping it in her palm and stabbed the man in the back of the hand. He howled with rage and pain and screamed curses at her as Gin ran, wrenching herself out of his grasp. He chased after her, screaming obscenities at the little bitch who stabbed him, earning the wary eyed stare of every person she ran past. Gin ran until her lungs were about to give out, rushing back in a panic to her brother, her brother who was her one constant, her one pillar of strength in this unforgiving world—

 

The broken knife had cut through her palm when she held it so tightly and blood was sticking between her fingers, knuckles, and sliding along her forearm to her elbow. Gin practically slammed into her big brother, shaking and breathing heavily. She clung to him and his voice raised in alarm when he noticed the blood on her, asking her what happened what’s wrong who did this to you

 

Gin felt too sick to tell him anything beyond a whimper as the fear finally settled in.

 

As soon as that man touched her, dark intent in his eyes, her instinct to flee and to survive outweighed her fear. Now it all came crashing down on her. Gin hiccuped for breath and Ryuunosuke held her shoulders, repeatedly asking her what was wrong—

 

The man came back, bloody hands swinging and reaching out for her, intent on truly making her suffer once she was in the hands of a brothel madam or a pimp. He gave her brother a single glance over. Whether or not the man would’ve planned to take Ryuunosuke too, Gin would never know. As soon as the man reached out for her, a darkness suddenly struck out from the front of her brother’s dark shirt, his eyes wide and wild, lips curling back into a snarl—

 

And an animalistic, gravely roar emitted from her brother’s clothes as something with sharp ends like fangs for teeth grabbed hold of the man’s hand and bit down.

 

Blood erupted in a spray from the pimp’s stump where his wrist used to be. He screamed, and Ryuunosuke and Gin ran. The man never attempted to find her again.

 

The first day Gin ever stabbed someone was the first day Rashomon ever tried to kill someone. After that day, Gin learned to carry a knife around everywhere.

 

It wasn’t the first time that an unsavory individual would try to pull her into the oldest profession against her will. That’s what happened to young girls left on the streets and in dire conditions, whether they wanted to take up the job or not. She learned that if she cleaned her face, men’s eyes would follow her and think of all the ways they could make use of her. They’d walk after her and try to grab her by the hair or arm.

 

And then, she’d sink her knife into their arms, hands, their legs, anywhere she could reach— and just as silently as she’d pulled out her knife, she’d run. When Atsushi came to live with them, more than once did those men and some women eye him with that same intent, glancing at his strange hair and his pretty eyes to consider the price others would pay for him.

 

Gin stabbed them in the back of their thighs and carried on her day with Atsushi with nothing more than a smile.

 

Her quick feet and her knife were her best tools of protection in the slums and as she stood before the current Port Mafia Boss, dread and fear coiling in her stomach at the way Mori Ougai looked at and smiled at her, Gin was all too glad to be carrying it with her at all times.

 

“You’re lucky I’m the one who picked you up,” said Dazai on that fateful day (when they were still unaware of what he’d done with Atsushi, his safety in the balance), patting the top of her head.

 

She glared up at him, suspicious but curious, and his smile sharpened with something grim and so dark it made the skin on the back of her neck prickle.

 

“Mori-san doesn’t deal in human trafficking— too messy of a business— but his taste is no different from those who reap the fruits of such an unseemly trade.”

 

When Ryuunosuke finally fell asleep that night, Gin threw up in the bathroom of their new apartment. She did her best to not wake him up with her loud retching noises.. The plaster of the toilet was cold against her sweaty skin and she heaved into the echoing bowl. She washed her mouth before joining her brother, missing Atsushi’s warmth.

 

Gin was more than aware that her gender made her an easy target. They’d see her as frail, underfed, weak. Little girls were always weak. And so; Gin had to work three times as hard to prove and protect herself.

 

She had to protect herself and her big brother, because no one else would.

 

When her training first started with Hirotsu, he didn’t take her out on missions with him. Instead, he told her to practice her targets and aiming, leaving a large briefcase of different sized knives and daggers out for her to use before he left, joining a group of men in dark suits outside. Gin would be left in a training hall alone. Immaculate as the gym room looked, the smell of disinfectant only barely hid the smell of blood. She trained alone.

 

And Hirotsu nor Dazai, who she saw rarely and who she also felt a sharp burst of hatred for, told her nothing of Atsushi. For weeks that stretched into months, she wondered and worried and feared and was angry. Dazai held Atsushi’s fate like a piece dangled before a starving animal and Ryuunosuke trained even harder. He wrung his body until its last breath and he came home limping, bleeding, bruised, barely conscious. Dazai could’ve so easily killed her brother anytime he wanted and Gin hated him even more for it. He played with him like he was a rag doll, tossing and throwing him around to his pleasure. It was thoughtlessly cruel, careless and bemused.

 

Hirotsu was no kinder, but his cruelty came across as necessary to the tasks at hand. He trained her hard, until she was staggering back to her feet, sweat on her neck and forehead. Calluses were forming on her palms and fingers from working with the knives.

 

On a warm autumn evening, Hirotsu returned from a mission completely clean but smelling of blood, to the sight of Gin slicing a dummy’s head clean off of its shoulders. When she noticed him, she turned and bowed in respect, silent.

 

Hirotsu’s expression didn’t change, but his hands were tucked behind his back, pleased. “Good,” he said. “I can barely hear you breathe at all as you throw your knives, it’s become that easy for you. You’re still going to hide your gender, then?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Hirotsu’s eyebrow lifted. “That long hair of yours won’t give you away?”

 

Gin stared at him, a pause. She grasped the long strands of her hair that fell to her hips and she looked at it, holding a handful in her palm. She lowered her hands and pulled out a knife that’d been tucked away in her back pocket, hidden by her clothing.

 

Hirotsu’s eyes widened a slim margin as long strands of black hair fell around Gin’s feet after a swift movement of her wrist. Choppy, the strands of her hair looked sharp and ragged. It heightened the angles of her face and her bangs covered her eyes in shadow.

 

Raising her chin to Hirotsu, she dropped the knife at her feet. The blade landed into the mat, sinking through fabric and cushioning innards. It cut through without a single noise.

 

“Does it give me away now?”

 

Her tone was snide and sarcastic.

 

Hirotsu threw back his head and laughed.

 


 

Oda was careful to remain perfectly still and keep his breathing calm and easy as the tiger looked down at him, inches between their noses. The cub’s teeth bared in the moonlight as the tiger softly rumbled. From his peripheral vision, he saw a thin tail twist and turn slowly in the darkness.

 

He knew the body language of cats well enough, that the gentle turning of a tail signaled friendliness— but this wasn’t a simple stray cat or a house kitten that he could easily remove from his person without struggle.

 

If Oda made a single wrong move, Atsushi could slice his throat open in seconds and not even Flawless would save him.

 

The cub growled and it was like a crackle, soft and not yet broken (just like Atsushi’s voice) and Oda quickly lowered his eyes when those gold ones met his own. He let his palms open and spread his fingers out, his eyes turned away from Atsushi to show submissiveness. The cub remained still, assessing him— for what, Oda didn’t want to contemplate on for very long.

 

Though he tried to relax his body as much as he could, Oda felt his heart racing in his throat as the tiger cub stared down at him, large paws outside of his shoulders and knees. He’d almost forgotten how large the cub was— just as big as a German Shephard and far more muscular, despite his youth. Atsushi stood over him for minutes that stretched into what felt like hours; to Oda’s surprise, unlike the last time, Atsushi didn’t try to make a break for the window.

 

Atsushi didn’t seem interested in running away again.

 

How strange..

 

The minutes stretched and Oda was starting to get worried when Atsushi didn’t move, continuing to stare at him with those unblinking, predatory eyes. His fingers itched for something to protect himself with, anything he could grab, anything he could use to stay safe but also to make sure that Atsushi wasn’t hurt—

 

He’d never forget how the cub screamed when he’d struggled with him a month before. Oda never wanted to hear that noise again.

 

At last, the cub began to move, blinking those large golden eyes of his and Oda’s breath hitched sharply. His chest seized as the tiger’s snout lowered and his jaw clenched, his hands slowly clenching into fists as he prepared himself—

 

A low noise rang out in the small bedroom, one that rattled through Oda’s bones from the sheer power of it. It was powerful and it was… warm.

 

Oda blinked slowly as the tiger cub made a deep-throated, rattling noise that was thick and low; not like the gentle or loud purr of a cat, but like a pleased feline moan surrounded by muscle.  But it wasn’t fully matured— the cub’s voice cracked and Oda had to restrain a snort.

 

He realized belatedly that the tiger was chuffing.

 

The cub cocked his head at Oda as the man relaxed, and lifted himself up. A large black nose sniffed around Oda’s face, blowing at his hair with his warm breath, observing him. The cub blinked slowly and then he rattled a chuff right in Oda’s face.

 

The cub lowered his face and pressed his nose against Oda’s forehead in what could only be described as a nuzzle.

 

Oda stared.

 

He stared, and continued to stare as the tiger cub kept nuzzling at his forehead, cheek and nose. Oda did his best not to jolt when the cold pink nose streaked against his face, gentle and damp. He felt the cub’s hot breath on his face and the whiskers tickled. In the corner of his eye, he saw the cub’s body wriggle and sway, much like the spotted cat in Lupin’s would when he was feeling playful.

 

The cub’s lips parted and Atsushi gave him a squeaky, raspy whine.

 

Sticking out his tongue, Atsushi nuzzled his snout against Oda’s cheek and rubbed his body against Oda’s side. He made those odd noises, like he was blowing his lips but deeper; chuffing. The way that he was chuffing and nuzzling against Oda was in such a way that could only be described as affectionate.

 

Lips parting in surprise, Oda blinked, and slowly brought one of his hands up.

 

The cub didn’t appear to notice or take much care in Oda’s approaching hand. He watched the cub’s movements carefully as he raised it, his palm hovering centimeters from the striped white fur. He hesitated; he could feel the warmth emanating off of the little tiger, all of his strength and power in such a small body for his species. Atsushi continued to make those same noises, yowling playfully in Oda’s ear, and he sucked in a breath.

 

The cub paused his movements when he felt Oda’s hand pressing against his shoulder, gentle as his fur slipped between his fingers. Oda held his breath and he waited.

 

The tiger’s eyes were a bright violet in the darkness, circled with that strange gold color and he stopped chuffing. The cub looked at him and Oda stared back. His hand remained still, touching the cub’s fur without pressing down.

 

..It was soft.

 

Whatever thoughts the tiger cub was having swam in those odd eyes of his, in such a way that Oda would never be able to discern but all too well reminded him of just how intelligent and dangerous this animal was— no matter the human boy that lived beneath the tiger’s skin— and readied himself, prepared to deal with the consequences and hopefully have Flawless save him at the last minute before the cub tore into his voice box.

 

The cub shifted beneath his hand and Oda braced himself.

 

A soft rumble of a chuff echoed in his ear and Oda gaped as Atsushi moved so that he could rub his head against Oda’s palm.

 

Stunned, Oda’s fingers slowly curled into the thick fur and ran down the slope of the cub’s neck, pleased chuffs and soft growls of content responding to his touch. His hand followed along where Atsushi lifted his head for more, rubbing against his fingers and palm, and which made Atsushi’s tail curl in delight the most. The cub kneaded his claws happily into Oda’s bedskirts and he looked so content that Oda didn’t have it in him to be annoyed at his ruined sheets.

 

Oda’s fingers scratched underneath the cub’s chin and Atsushi’s chuff was so loud it settled in his bones. His golden eyes were closed in content and there was a curl to those dark lips that hid sharp fangs that almost looked like a human smile. Chest tightening, Oda slowly began to sat up. Instead of being disturbed and upset by the movement, the tiger cub adjusted to the movement and curled up in Oda’s lap, much like a dog.

 

His legs strained under the cub’s weight, groaning in protest, but Oda ignored it in favor of watching how Atsushi rolled onto his back, legs bent and paws dangling in the air, relaxed. The curl of his mouth stretched further, making the feline smile widen, showing off an underbite that was just simply adorable.

 

Oda raked his fingers through the fur coating along Atsushi’s chest, admiring how warm and soft the fur was, and smiled at the loud chuffs that echoed through the room.

 

Some of his sheets and blankets were torn, cut by the sharp claws on Atsushi’s paws, but Oda didn’t care. He wasn’t in danger. If he was, Flawless would’ve told him. If he was truly in danger, Atsushi would’ve already attacked him by now, and never would his tiger form had allowed him touch a place as sensitive as his chest and belly.

 

This was a gift he was being given.

 

It was trust.

 

The last time Oda saw the tiger, it’d been a night where Atsushi had cried himself to sleep, missing Ryuunosuke and Gin so badly and worrying about them so much while trying to hide it from Oda. The first time, it was because he’d been locked into a place he’d never been to before, cold and alone and terrified.

 

This all but confirmed Oda’s suspicions that not only was the tiger not controllable, nor was Atsushi even aware of its existence, but the tiger only came out when Atsushi was under great emotional stress. Since the last incident where he had to stick a syringe in a child’s neck and felt sick for hours over it, Oda took the pains to ease his young, troubled mind and heart.

 

But Atsushi hadn’t been any under particular stress lately. His studies with Mishima were continuing and the diner owner praised Atsushi’s intelligence and eagerness to learn. He was putting on more weight, eating more, and he was now in contact with his dearest friend. Happiness was something Oda was unfamiliar with, but it was the closest word he could come up with to describe Atsushi’s mood as of late.

 

So, if he wasn’t in any emotional distress, why was the tiger here?

 

After spending several minutes rubbing at the cub’s chest and belly, Atsushi suddenly rose to his feet, backing up to stand on the bed, and shook himself out. Unlike the carefree motions of a dog, letting all of its weight loose, each movement of the cub was poised and graceful. There was a childish clumsiness to some of his motions that made Oda almost smile, but each movement was made with intent. The cub yawned, stretched out his back, and golden eyes cracked open to look at him.

 

Oda stared back at the tiger, and after a long held beat, the cub slowly blinked back at him.

 

The cub leaned forward and touched his cold, wet nose against Oda’s, and then a prickly tongue licked at his chin. Softly grooing at the older man, Atsushi twisted around and turned until he’d laid back down onto Oda’s lap, curled up into a ball. His eyes fluttered to a close, and soft, chuff like sounds vibrated through his small body. Every muscle in the cub’s body was relaxed. There was a curl to his lips, much like the spotted cat that frequented Lupin’s; it was a facsimile of a smile.

 

Oda’s hand rose and fell onto the top of Atsushi’s head. He stroked the white fur, marveled at its shine and smoothness, and sat there. He continued to stroke at the tiger cub’s fur and wondered if this was the same animal who’d growled at his face just a month before.

 

But— No, that was wrong.

 

This wasn’t an animal.

 

Oda cupped the cub’s jaw under his palm and curled his fingers into the fur, stroking gently.

 

This was a boy.

 

Under the moonlight glowing in from the window, between the blinds, a blue light shone and in place of a tiger, was a boy. A boy with silver hair, sleeping peacefully for the first time in weeks. Not a single nightmare in sight.

 

As Oda adjusted the boy to pick him up and carry him back to his futon, keeping him wrapped in a warm blanket, he wondered.

 

He wondered, and he knew that he would treasure this gift as long as he could.

 

Atsushi had given him his trust, and through his trust and happiness, so did the tiger.

 

Oda would never take that for granted.

 


 

 

“He’s all skin and bones, Oda-chan!” Mishima barked, his kind, warm face twisting into a disappointed glare at the redhead, who blinked rapidly. Before he could get a word in to defend himself, Mishima pointed his spatula at Ryuunosuke (who looked like he’d prefer to be anywhere else). “How could you let this continue?”

 

“He doesn’t live with me, Mishima-san,” Oda tried, “I can’t control what he eats—“

 

“Get back to stirring my pot, Oda-chan!” Mishima ordered, and under the man’s hardened gaze, Oda could only obey. Mishima then pointed his spatula at Ryuunosuke again. “I am going to put some meat on those skinny bones of yours if it’s the last thing I do. I am not leaving until I see you finish two plates of food!”

 

Despite being scolded himself, Oda found it quite amusing that Ryuunosuke could only nod mutely at the man pointing a greasy spatula at him, staring at it like it was an angry dog snarling at him. Atsushi tried (in vain) to stifle his snorts of laughter and assured Ryuunosuke that Mishima’s food was very good. The third guest at Oda’s table watched Mishima in curiosity, her dark eyes following him as he moved about the kitchen.

 

Akutagawa Gin, the mysterious sister that Oda had only met just hours before, nodded her head in a bow of thanks to Mishima when he put a bowl of beef gēng in front of her. It smelled warm, rich and flavorful. The thick soup was full of vegetables and freshly cooked beef.

 

The corner of her mouth pulled upward when she noticed Atsushi practically vibrating from excitement, eyes glimmering with hunger and delight. They raised their hands, clasping their palms together, bowed their heads and murmured thanks before they all picked up their bowls and started to eat.

 

Ryuunosuke sputtered at the hot liquid on his tongue, Gin laughed softly behind her hand, and Atsushi brought a glass of water over to the other boy, grinning sheepishly.

 

The boy scowled “You got it all over your mouth, Atsushi,” he sighed, half-heartedly annoyed.

 

“I can’t blame him,” said Gin, bemused as she watched Ryuunosuke throw a napkin at Atsushi’s chest, to which the younger boy nudged his hip against Ryuunosuke’s in retaliation. “It’s very good, Mishima-san,” she said in that soft voice of hers.

 

The man beamed. “Thank you, Gin-chan. I’ll leave plenty for you and Akutagawa-chan to take home.”

 

Ryuunosuke muttered don’t call me ‘chan’ under his breath and Gin lightly smacked his elbow, admonishing him for being rude.

 

“I dunno,” Atsushi grinned. “I think it suits you, Ryuu-chan.”

 

“Call me that again and I’ll shove your face into that pot.”

 

It was hard to believe that these were three hardened orphans who’d been living on the streets for most of their lives., undertaking pain that they were far too young to contend with. From where Oda stood, when the three of them were together, he would’ve mistaken them for ordinary children coming home from their day at middle school and joking around at the dinner table.

 

Even more unbelievable was that two of these three were being trained to be killer dogs for the mafia.

 

Oda knew, vaguely, that Ryuunosuke had a little sister. Atsushi talked about her often, with Oda and with Ryuunosuke, mostly to ask how she was doing, if she was well, and when they’d be able to see her again. From what little Oda overheard, Ryuunosuke barely saw much of his sister himself. That all three of them were finally together was practically a miracle.

 

When Ryuunosuke said that Gin finally had time to see him, Atsushi cried. He cried and tackled Ryuunosuke to the ground, and they’d held each other, clinging to one another as if they were both drowning. Oda turned away to leave them to their privacy.

 

It wasn’t his place.

 

They met Gin at a neutral location before returning to his apartment, the young girl joined by her brother. He’d heard Atsushi’s breath hitch sharply, saw his bottom lip tremble before he bit down on it, and watched as his lips wobbled into a bright smile. Atsushi’d launched forward and pulled Gin into such a firm hug that he lifted her off of the ground.

 

Turns out that, while a bit more sociable than her brother, Akutagawa Gin was also a bit awkward with physical affection, blinking rapidly at the older boy, before she too hugged him back with just as much firmness.

 

After several minutes of an embrace, Atsushi pulled back and gave her a confused look of horror.

 

“What happened to your hair?!”

 

Blinking, Gin took a short end between her fingers and peered at it. Shrugging, she smiled faintly despite Ryuunosuke’s stern frown. “I got tired of taking care of it, is all.”

 

It didn’t take Oda long to realize: the three of them were each others’ world.

 

He saw it well enough as they all walked together, purely in sync with one another, talking as if they’d never left the slums at all. Atsushi smiled more easily around Gin and Ryuunosuke both, Ryuunosuke was more relaxed and at ease, he didn’t frown so severely (much too haggard on his young face), and though Oda had only just met Gin, he saw the shade of a young girl enjoying her childhood, however briefly.

 

They truly were a family, broken, tired and lost as they were. Together, they weren’t so lost.

 

She has the feet of a well-trained assassin, Oda thought as he added more Lao Gan Ma chili oil to his gēng. Soundless, barely making any noise; if Oda were just an ordinary man in the middle of a crowd, big or small, he wouldn’t have noticed her. She knew how to make herself invisible, to make others unaware of her presence. No wonder she was the best thief out of the three of them.

 

No wonder she’d be trained as an assassin.

 

It was with a heavy heart as Oda ate his meal, quietly listening to the children’s chatter, so light-hearted and full of warmth it was almost easy to forget that they’d been ensured by the greedy, hungry clutches of the Mafia. Atsushi was temporarily free of it; Gin and Ryuunosuke….

 

They didn’t have that look about them yet, that look in their eyes, that last thread of light in them, just a tiny, flickering flame on a weak wick—

 

But they would.

 

It was only a matter of time.

 

I can’t save them.

 

I’m sorry, Nakajima.

 

There was nothing he could do to save them from the inevitable. Looking at the Akutagawa siblings, he saw the ghost of a young boy with gray-blue eyes with nothing in them; the light was gone.

 

He couldn’t save them.

 

But he could protect Atsushi from that very same fate.


 

 

There was a comfortable familiarity in sitting together again, but this time under a firm roof, at a proper table, and their legs covered in a warm blanket instead of rags. It was rare that Gin got to see her brother so relaxed; the few times they could be together freely was spent tending to his injuries and inspecting his bruises. Ryuunosuke never talked about his training sessions but Gin didn’t have to be told to know just what was going on during his sessions with Dazai. They’d been lighter than normal, not as severe and long-lasting, but each bruise and cut she found on her brother, each splash of blood on his clothing and every tear, every weak rattle of his breath fanned the fires of hate and loathing in her for the man who’d given him that black coat he now wore.

 

For now, his bruises had lessened and he was perfectly relaxed, sitting next to Atsushi as they read a book together. Atsushi was reading out loud for the both of them, their elbows brushing against one another. Atsushi smiled as he read and Ryuunosuke leaned in close enough to listen that his chin was inches away from Atsushi’s shoulder.

 

Gin smiled and helped collect the dishes at the table. The sink was running, where the older man, Oda Sakunosuke, was cleaning the dishes. She carried them over to the taller man, placing them on the countertop by his arm. He glanced down at her and nodded in thanks, but he frowned.

 

“You’re the guest here,” he said, “You don’t have to clean.”

 

She gave him a small smile. “I like to keep busy.”

He raised an eyebrow at her, but Gin continued to make herself comfortable by walking around the kitchen and helping to put away the leftovers that Mishima brought with him. He’d urged the Akutagawa siblings to take an entire bagful home with them, to put a little meat on those stick bones of yours! he’d said to Ryuunosuke, laughing when the boy’s pale cheeks turned a smudged red, mortified.

 

As she helped the older man in the kitchen, Gin observed Oda Sakunosuke.

 

She’d heard small snippets about the man from quiet, simple conversations over breakfast and late dinner with her brother, whenever they were able to have them. At first, both siblings hated him; he was the barrier between them and Atsushi, and he had their friend in his care where they had no idea if he was safe or not. Dazai refused to give them information about how Atsushi was doing, smiling at their growing anger and annoyance as if it were a delight to him. It wouldn’t surprise Gin in the slightest if he did indeed take enjoyment in their frustration— especially Ryuunosuke’s.

 

It was a month after they’d started training with the mafia that Ryuunosuke finally got in contact with Oda and, through him— Atsushi.

 

Rarely did she ever see him so happy and at peace.

 

She was jealous of him, too, that Ryuunosuke managed to sneak away often and long enough to be with Atsushi while she couldn’t, but after a time, just knowing that he was all right was enough— for the time being. From Ryuunosuke’s assessment, Atsushi was being well fed, clothed, and cared for. He had a roof over his head and he wasn’t training to be in the Mafia like they were. He was studying with a man who owned a Western style diner, who smelled of spices and curry, who gave Atsushi work books and math equations to solve. The very same math problems that Ryuunosuke took to like a fish to water and helped Atsushi with, much to the latter’s delight.

 

Gin saw it on his face; the healthy flush to his cheeks, a brightness in his eyes that wasn’t tampered by their living conditions. He was.. content.

 

He was safe and he was free.

 

He wouldn’t be tainted like Gin was. Like Gin would be.

 

The day would come, she knew. She didn’t know when, and her hands weren’t unfamiliar with blood and violence. She wasn’t afraid to kill to defend herself, to defend her brother and the boy who was family in all but blood.

 

“Thank you,” she said softly, making the older man pause. “Thank you, for taking him in.”

 

To kill another not out of self-defense or protecting another… that was something else entirely.

 

Something in Oda’s face twisted; his stoic expression made it difficult to discern what it was. Over the soft sound of Atsushi and Ryuunosuke talking under their breaths to each other, it almost looked like guilt.

 

“..He’s a good kid,” he murmured.

 

Gin closed her eyes, smiling. “I know. He is.”

 

There was a boy, once, tired, shy, scared and starving but still so kind enough to offer bread to someone just like him.

 

“He talks about you both, all the time,” said Oda, turning off the faucet. “Once he gets talking, he can’t seem to bring himself to stop. He asks about you, too, when your brother is around. It’s.. It’s good. It’s good, that you managed to come today. He’s happy.”

 

Gin’s smile widened.

 

“So are we.”

 

Gin told Ryuunosuke that he could stay a little longer if he liked because she knew when he looked tired and sleepy. When he was tired, he blinked more rapidly and widened his eyes in a vain attempt to appear alert and awake, but his leaning against Atsushi’s side gave him away. Hiding a smirk to herself, Gin assured her brother that she’d make it back to their apartment (home? Could she call it a home yet?) just fine by herself.

 

She knew how hungry her brother was for time alone with Atsushi, even with Oda’s careful eyes chaperoning them. It was funny, now that she thought about it; when Atsushi first started living with them, he rarely left her side, intimidated and fearful of her cantankerous older brother. But now, if they could help it— they’d never leave each other’s sides. Ryuunosuke wasn’t the only one who was eager to stay with Atsushi for as long as he could— she saw it in how Atsushi leaned in so close to talk to him, a brightness to his eyes that only Ryuunosuke could bring out, a curl to his mouth that was so rare and so genuine you couldn’t help but want to protect it, it was that precious.

 

But before she left, she pulled Oda Sakunosuke aside. She stood at the threshold of his door, gazing inside the warm atmosphere of his apartment with longing. Folding her hands, Gin looked up at him.

 

She whispered, “Don’t let them get him, too.”

 

The stoic mask of Oda’s face didn’t quite crack, but it twisted; a flash of emotion that sat awkwardly on his face, unused to the change and shift in muscles.

 

He looked over his shoulder to where the two boys were, Atsushi spreading out his English homework on the table and showing Ryuunosuke the words and letters he struggled with. Ryuunosuke’s low voice fumbled on a certain vowel and his face went scarlet as Atsushi laughed. Mirth and joy came off of him in waves and a more muted, quiet, but no less intense emotions came from the other boy as well. His chest twisted.

 

Oda looked at Gin and she saw a ghost in the man’s face, something that had her breath stalling from how familiar it looked— that sorrowful emptiness.

 

“I’ll try,” Oda whispered.

 

The night stretched on into day. Gin woke up, made breakfast and tea for herself. Ryuunosuke wasn’t in his bed. She didn’t expect him to be. She kept leftovers in the fridge (not before breathing in the cool air of the machine and the fresh food inside it) for her brother. Gin changed and as soon as she walked out the door, dressed in dark clothes, her black hair a sharp, choppy mess pulled back into a loose ponytail that made her look jagged and wild, she returned to her usual training place with Hirotsu.

 

He wasn’t alone.

 

Gin narrowed her eyes at the sneering youth standing across the mat from her. His eyes were hazel, sharp and angry, but not intelligent. He wore a bandaid on his nose and had short messy red hair. His clothes hung off lazily on his form. He appeared roughly the same age as Gin, if not older.

 

Slouching, the boy sized her up.

 

Gin gave him a withering stare and said nothing.

Hirotsu looked at the pair of them with bemusement. A faint smirk curled on his mouth.

 

“Gin, Tachihara Michizou. A recent recruit like yourself. You’ll be training with him, today.”

 

Crossing his arms, Tachihara gave a faint scoff. He didn’t seem impressed with the person in front of him.

 

“Can’t introduce me yourself, hah? Seems kinda rude of ya, Gin.”

 

Gin’s eyes narrowed to slits, dislike and agitation flaring. Her hands clenched at her sides into fists and her shoulders seized. The sheath of her knife rubbed against her hip, hungry.

 

Tachihara’s eyes flashed and his lips curled back into a snarl like a wild street dog, anger visible on his young face.

 

“Well? You gonna reply or not?”

 

From behind her high collar that obscured the lower half of her face and made her body bulkier than it was (hiding the frame she was growing into), she scowled.

 

Dark iron flashed under the light on the ceiling; a pistol tucked into sleeves that were too large and baggy for a twelve year old.

 

“Wanna fight or something, you shitty brat,” he hissed.

 

Gin fought many boys and grown men while living on the streets. Some of them managed to land hits on her or pull her by the hair before she slipped away after a forceful stomp on their foot or punch to the gut. Most of the time, she won those fights because they underestimated her nimble form. They underestimated her because she was a girl.

 

Tachihara didn’t think she was a girl. The thought of fighting him while holding nothing back on either end gave her an unusual thrill.

 

Hirotsu gave the boy an unimpressed look, narrowing his eyes with a click of his tongue. “Is that not why I brought you here? To see how two assassins of mine stack up against each other and by extension— see if you’re fit enough yet to on the field, to allow you both to accompany me on assignment?”

 

His violet eyes were hard, his mouth set, and the severity of the years and experience he carried with him hung over and around him like a cloud. Violet sparks spat from between his knuckles, folded against the small of his back while Hirotsu glared down at them in a silent command to behave.

 

Both children, who would be powerless against such an ability user as Hirotsu, retreated their hostile stances towards each other— but their glares remained.

 

Satisfied, Hirotsu stepped back until it was only Tachihara and Gin still standing on the mat. Digging a hand into his coat, Hirotsu flung out two knives towards them. The sharp ends sank into the mat.

 

Gin peered down at the knives, and then back up at Hirotsu.

 

His hardened expression didn’t change.

 

“Whomever draw first blood wins—

 

Try not to kill one another just yet.”

 


 

 

Across the city, Ryuunosuke’s bones ached.

 

Breathing harsh, Ryuunosuke gripped his knees and pushed himself to an upright stand, forehead wrinkled in a hard, stony glare at the cold hazel eyes that watched him. He stood tall and refused to let his muscles twitch. He refused to show any weakness in front of this man. He no longer would.

 

You have no hold over me anymore.

 

Holding back a sneer of triumph, Ryuunosuke ignored his pained legs, the forming bruises in his abdomen that he could now brush off as nothing it was nothing this pain was nothing— and stuck his hands in his coat pockets with a casual stance. There was a faint numbness beneath his skin, but nothing like the completely debilitating pain from before, when this first began. It didn’t have him staggering to his knees again.

 

He stared Dazai in the eye, determined and unwavering, and watched the subtle twitch of the older boy’s eye with petty satisfaction.

 

He’s safe and you can’t hurt him.

 

Dazai continued to stare at him, causing Ryuunosuke to raise his eyebrow in a slightly petulant way that he couldn’t quite stamp down. Dazai noticed it right away and scoffed, rolling his eyes like a melodramatic teenager.

 

“Don’t look so smug, or else we’ll see how quickly you can make yourself stand up straight next time when I shoot at you without warning.”

 

It was a cold warning. No, not a warning nor even a threat; a simple statement.

 

Ryuunosuke hummed.

 

“I thank you for the advice, Dazai-san.”

 

Hazel eyes narrowed, the turn of his mouth distinctly unamused. “You’d best not be getting smart with me, Akutagawa-kun.”

 

Ryuunosuke closed his eyes, dipping his head in an act of subservience. “Of course not, Dazai-san.”

 

His kneecaps knew better than to have an attitude with the young man in front of him.

 

..Well, at least not openly.

 

Dazai glared at him for a second longer before he snorted and turned away, his coat hanging off of his shoulders moving with him. “Get out. I’m in great need of a long nap and two bottles of sake and I’m sick of looking at your face for any longer. I’ll send for you for our next meeting when the time comes. Leave.”

 

Mumbling, yes, Dazai-san, Ryuunosuke wiped the blood off of his mouth and the dirt on his face, gathering what few things he had in the warehouse and began to stride away. The angry hum of Rashomon in his coat quieted, calmed as the pain subsided into a manageable numbness. He carefully tucked his phone into his front pocket and ran his fingers along the edges of the case, before pulling his hand back out, his body relaxed. At ease.

 

They would be seeing each other again soon.

 

It was the whole reason he was doing this. He was why.

 

Just as he started to step through the warehouse doors, Dazai’s voice echoed against the high ceilings.

 

“I’d suggest giving those clothes a wash as well, Akutagawa-kun— you reek of chili powder.”

 


 

 

When his days weren’t spent with Ryuu, Gin, Oda or doing the homework Mishima assigned him, Atsushi was left to his own devices for long stretches of time. Atsushi had to fill his time on his own, and when he didn’t spend it reading the vast collection of Oda’s library, he started exploring the neighborhood Oda lived in. On the condition that he didn’t go anywhere by himself past dark and that he always message Oda about his whereabouts, the older boy didn’t have a problem leaving Atsushi on his own.

 

Before he left, Oda would leave some money on the counter for Atsushi in case he wanted to go out to get himself some food. He figured that since Atsushi lived on the streets with the Akutagawa siblings for as long as he did, he’d know his way around town and how to navigate the city.

 

With these opportunities given to him, Atsushi took advantage to get to know the city he’d lived in the underground of for so long, but this time within the light, to his great joy.

 

Yokohama was beautiful.

 

With the port, the eye of the ferris wheel watching over them and the bustle of the lights and cars and the trains, it was easy to forget the dirty secret of the slums as Atsushi walked along the streets, watching the people around him. Keeping to himself, he’d take walks along the pier after a short train ride (Mishima had been kind enough to buy Atsushi a metro pass) and explore the English gardens that tourists stopped to take pictures of with their friends and families. Bringing a book with him, Atsushi would read while listening the various languages being spoken around him.

 

Once, a young Chinese couple asked him to take a picture of them with her phone. She and her girlfriend laughed when Atsushi held the phone unsteadily and thanked him graciously when he was finished.

 

In an act of courage, he replied, “Bú kèqì.

 

The couple beamed with delight and complimented him on his pronunciation, making him blush. He couldn’t stop beaming for nearly an hour after.

 

The Headmaster and Headmistress hated it when he tried to speak in Mandarin back at the orphanage, reading off of the pages of the books he read, wanting to understand the stories in their full beauty that only its original language could provide. As a port city, Yokohama was no stranger to Chinese immigrants and residents and Atsushi heard it the most in Chinatown. When he pronounced a vowel incorrectly, some shopkeepers would laugh good-naturedly and correct him. He loved walking around Chinatown and hearing Mandarin, Cantonese and even Korean all around him, spoken freely.

 

In an act of self-indulgence, he bought himself a dictionary and language guide to Mandarin Chinese. Oda and he practiced together. When Ryuu was able to visit, they studied together. Ryuu was better at reading Chinese than he was at speaking, much to his chagrin.

 

Gently squeezing the bag of pastries and bread from Little Mermaid to his chest, Atsushi smiled brightly, cheeks flushing slightly.

 

A slight chill was coming in now that the end of summer was approaching, moving into autumn and winter. The scarf around his neck was secure, keeping him warm despite its wear and age. It was the same scarf that Ryuu gave him all those years ago in the slums, during the first winter he spent with the Akutagawa siblings. On his last visit, Ryuu gave it to him, freshly cleaned and repaired.

 

“If you don’t want it anymore, that’s fine,” he’d said gruffly, harsh sounding if Atsushi didn’t know him so well. “I know you probably have a bunch of new clothes now—“

 

Atsushi had taken it out of his hands without another word and wrapped it around his neck and shoulders snugly. “No way,” he said, “This one’s my favorite. Thank you for bringing it back, Ryuu.”

 

His smile hadn’t left his face for what felt like ages after, only growing more when Ryuu looked away and muttered whatever under his breath (the messy strands of black hair hiding how red his ears and cheeks were). He was wearing the scarf, now; it was one of his most treasured belongings. His neck and shoulders felt heavy and cold without having it on him. He’d missed it. He was happy to have it back. No amount of new clothing would bring him the same joy as this little scarf did.

 

Rubbing the end of the scarf in between his fingers, Atsushi’s smile widened.

 

He was… happy.

 

It was a strange sensation, one he felt rarely with such a.. lack of burden.

 

It’d barely been more than a few months and already his time at the orphanage and on the streets felt so far away. The weeks spent without Gin and Ryuu felt like they stretched on for agonizing months. But now that they were here and he’d seen them— spent time with them, ate under a roof without any fear of it collapsing on them in the middle of the night, older children trying to steal their food and supplies, or adults trying to drag them out for nefarious purposes— it all felt so far away.

 

The pastries in his arms weren't just for himself, but for Oda, Ryuu and Gin. They had a special fig-stuffed roll for sale and Atsushi took as many as he could afford for Ryuu. Castella for Gin’s sweet tooth, and cheesecake for Oda. He bought more for those three than for himself, and he looked forward to being able to share them the next time they could all be together.

 

A bounce in his step, Atsushi went up the stairs to Oda’s apartment and fiddled with the key to let himself inside. The room was slightly dark, a faint ray of orange sunlight bursting through the window blinds from the sunset. It was almost dark.

 

“Oda-san must not be back yet..” Atsushi mumbled, setting his bag on the counter. “I should start making something.. I’m starting to get kind of hungry..”

 

He hung up the keys, his shoes left at the front door, and already started a new pot of tea. While the water started to boil in the kettle, Atsushi took a look inside the fridge and contemplated on what he could start for dinner before Oda came back.

 

As soon as he opened the door, the cool air came over him in a waft, but that wasn’t why the hair on the back of his neck suddenly stood up in alarm.

 

“Oh! Those smell so good, Nakajima-kun!”

 

Nails scraped against the handle of the fridge as the door slowly closed. Atsushi stared in front of him, his heart leaping in his mouth and his pulse loud in his ears. He smelled sake, blood, gun powder and something else that tasted unpleasant and rancid on the tip of his tongue.

 

He turned, and cold hazel eyes peered at him with a wide smile sharper than any of Gin’s knives.

 

“I’m sure that Akutagawa-kun and Gin-chan would like them very much, don’t you think, hm?” trilled Dazai, arms hanging lazily off of the couch. A half empty glass of clear sake swished around in his cup.

 

His smile widened.

 

“It’s wonderful to see you again, Nakajima-kun.”

Chapter Text

He should’ve seen the signs the moment movements had been made against his wishes. More than he was that secrets had been kept from him, that he’d been lied to, Dazai was furious that Akutagawa had managed to dupe him for as long as he did. Expressionless and emotionless as he was said to be, Akutagawa Ryuunosuke wasn’t subtle with hiding his anger. His less hostile emotions were more difficult to discern, but anger, hate, rage— those were all easy to spot.

 

Dazai was familiar with the younger boy’s hatred of him and he reveled in it, knowing that he could use that anger to get what he wanted and needed out of the boy. Dazai knew how to work with that rage to mold Akutagawa into what he needed to become. Dazai knew how to control anger to his own ends— whether it be through Chuuya and the wild emotions he wore far too easily on his sleeve or Mori’s wariness and suspicions of him, they were all tools that he could use.

 

Seeing the boy in a peaceful stasis, determined, not friendly but not raging with fury—

 

Something was off. He’d known that from the start. But he hadn’t known why.

 

No, he knew. He simply didn’t want to fathom it.

 

Odasaku would never lie to me.

 

Dazai was a liar. A masterful liar. Ever since being taken under Mori Ougai’s wing— whether he’d wanted that or not— he’d become an even better liar, treating his face and mirth like a mask. Lies came off of his tongue as easily as compliments, which were more often than not bled with lies. The only ones that didn’t reek of deceit were his threats. Dazai’s black heart and tongue was tainted by lies.

 

But Odasaku? Odasaku was too honest, too good for that.

 

He was nothing like Dazai.

 

For such a foolishly long amount of time, Dazai willed himself to ignorance and ignored the signs. He ignored it until he couldn’t anymore.

 

He couldn’t ignore it when that ugly, thorny knot in his chest grew too much to bear, grew too much to the point he nearly couldn’t avoid naming it anymore. Suspicions eating him from in the inside, Dazai took the necessary measures—

 

He studied Odasaku’s body language when he brought up Akutagawa and his (admittedly) growing improvement as a fighter, when he asked whether or not the tiger had come out once more, and how Atsushi was faring. In hindsight, Dazai knew what the first sign was—

 

Odasaku stopped asking about reuniting the boys and Akutagawa ceased to look at him with such burning hatred even as Dazai beat him hard enough to make him bleed from the mouth. If he’d learned how to read the emotions on Akutagawa’s face outside of his anger, he would’ve known sooner.

 

Dazai cursed himself for his stupidity.

 

As his suspicions grew, he started to purposefully make Akutagawa’s schedule more erratic. He played it off as practice for the unstable life of the Port Mafia, how unpredictable and dangerous it could be, and while that wasn’t a complete lie, Dazai had another agenda behind this sudden change.

 

After a particularly grueling training session that left Akutagawa coated in blood and mud, Dazai threw him into the showers and took the brief time, standing three rooms away, to look at the boy’s phone. As the boy had only been introduced to modern technology quite recently and Dazai knew himself to be quite clever, it wasn’t hard to figure out the boy’s password.

 

It took less than a minute to learn what had been going on behind Dazai’s back.

 

He’d nearly broken the phone in his grip, the screen threatening to crack. He stopped himself before he could and put the phone back where he’d found it. Even if Akutagawa ever found out, there was nothing he could do to harm Dazai. Dazai knew that well.

 

When Akutagawa came out of the shower looking like a drowned cat, eyes crinkled with annoyance and suspicion, Dazai pretended as if he hadn’t looked through the boy’s phone and messages and insulted the shoddy state of his haircut.

 

And then, he waited.

 

He bided his time.

 

He waited until he knew Odasaku was out on an assignment, hovering by a nearby restaurant around afternoon until he was certain the other man’s apartment was empty. An ordinary burglar would have a difficult time trying to break in; Dazai wasn’t ordinary.

 

Odasaku never made it easy, but Dazai liked a challenge.

 

The sun began to set, and Dazai waited.

 

The door opened with a creak, the footsteps behind it far too light and small to be the careful, heavier steps of Odasaku. A paper bag rustled and the sweet smell of pastries wafted through the apartment. Dazai saw the white head of hair, shimmering black and silver and gold in the sunset peeking through the blinds.

 

Each step the boy took was far too casual— far too comfortable. He slid out of his shoes with ease and relaxed practice. His smile was bright, eyes at peace. The weretiger was perfectly at home in Oda Sakunosuke’s apartment, as if it were were his place of rest as much as it was Odasaku’s.

 

A familiar ugly feeling coiled in Dazai’s chest and it burned like bile in his throat, seeping all the way to his jaws.

 

Dazai felt his lips curl.

 

“It’s wonderful to see you again, Nakajima-kun.”

 


 

Atsushi felt his heartbeat racing in his ears as the fridge door closed with a subtle, quiet noise, the cool air leaving him and his body starting to feel hot and cold all over at the same time.

 

The boy lounging on the couch— no more than a few years older than him, Atsushi guessed, judging by his youthful face even as he took a long sip of the strong alcohol as if he did so every single say— drummed his fingers against his glass and hummed cheerfully, seemingly not bothered at all by Atsushi gape-mouthed reaction.

 

Closing his mouth with a click, Atsushi pursed his lips. Gripping the bottom hem of his jacket, Atsushi took a cautious step forward. The closer he got to the other boy, the more he felt the hair on the back of his neck raise and his skin prickle.

 

“..Who are you?”

 

The boy on the couch blinked widely. A single hazel eye peered at him, the other covered in pristine white bandages. The color was quite pretty.

 

How empty that eye was, how cold and dispassionate and calculating the boy’s stare was, unsettled Atsushi.

 

The boy smiled and it didn’t make Atsushi feel any more comforted.

 

“Ah, you don’t remember.”

 

Taking another drink from his glass, finishing it off with a content sigh, the boy put the glass on the table in the middle of the commons sitting room and sat up. He made his perch on the back of the couch, legs crossed lazily. He sighed exaggeratedly, chin propped on his palm. His lips curled a little more widely.

 

“Well! I guess I should’ve expected that!” He laughed; the sound tinkled like a bell and didn’t leave Atsushi feeling any better about this whole thing. “From what I understand, it’s not surprising that you don’t remember anything.”

 

Atsushi swallowed. “How— How did you get in here—“

 

“Easily enough, nothing for you to worry about, Nakajima-kun,” the boy said swiftly. Raising his arms, he stretched with a grunt. Exhaling, his lowered his arms back into his lap. “Besides! You have nothing to worry about! I’m well acquainted with Odasaku, he won’t mind me being here at all.”

 

Atsushi paused, his rapid breathing and quickened pulse coming to a slow.

 

“….Oda-san? Are you… Are you a friend of Oda-san?”

 

There was a heavy beat as a complicated expression shadowed the boy’s face.

 

“I suppose you could say that,” he said. “But, ah— I’ve almost forgotten myself, Nakajima-kun. Now that we can be properly introduced— Dazai Osamu, at your service.”

 

The boy— Dazai— smiled at him in such a way that made Atsushi feel like the grasshoppers and butterflies that the older boys at the orphanage used to trap underneath the dirty glass cups they stole from the kitchens, causing them to flutter in a panic in their prisons before they eventually died. Something about the boy sent Atsushi’s nerves into alarm, making his heart race in such a way that it felt difficult to breathe.

 

Dazai looked at him as he were a rather amusing insect.

 

His hackles raising, Atsushi swallowed. The name niggled with familiarity and slowly, Atsushi’s panic subsided into understanding.

 

“….You’re Ryuu’s mentor?”

 

Something in Dazai’s face twitched at the usage of the nickname, but he hummed in affirmation. “I am! And Akutagawa-kun has mentioned you quite often, Nakajima-kun. To an annoying degree, actually.”

 

Sighing, Dazai threw himself back onto the floor, off of the couch, and walked towards the kitchen to put away his glass. He moved with such languid care, like a cat or a fox, as if he’d been in this apartment so many times he knew it like the back of his hand.

 

(Something in Atsushi blood was screaming, raging, writing— ENEMY ENEMY ENEMY RUN RUN BITE BITE CLAW KILL

 

It roared and rang in his ears, in his gut, in his bloodstream— something earthy and deep within himself that his mind refused to see, to listen to— to acknowledge existed. His mind, his will wouldn’t hear that cry, that roar of rage and the all-encompassing need to protect—

 

His mind couldn’t handle it.)

 

Biting his inner cheek, Atsushi stepped out of the kitchen slowly, clutching the front of his shirt like a protective blanket. “Oda-san isn’t here. If I knew he was having a.. visitor, I would’ve cleaned up more. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude—“

 

“Oh, he doesn’t know I’m here,” Dazai said glibly, frowning as he looked for the cabinet storing Odasaku’s liquor, to no avail.

 

Odasaku had gotten rid of most of his liquor as soon as it was clear to him that Atsushi was going to be staying with him indefinitely. He wasn’t going to be storing any alcohol in his apartment with an underage pre-teen in his home; much the same had happened with his smoking habit. Atsushi tried to pretend that the smell didn’t bother him, but Odasaku saw the way he stifled his coughs at the smell of smoke.

 

Imbibing in his vices were reserved solely for the quiet, somber evenings spent at Lupin’s.

 

But, of course Dazai wouldn’t know about that. That those nights were quiet escapes of comfort that brought Odasaku something close to joy as he could articulate. Even if he did— any sense of rationality was blind to him as he stood in the same room as the boy who ruined everything.

 

Alarm creeping into his bones, Atsushi swallowed and slowly edged towards back the door.  His fingers inched for his phone in his back pocket. He wondered when it started to feel like such an object of safety. “Well, um— I can just, give him a call to let him know you’re here, and I’ll, I’ll go so you both can talk—“

 

“There’s no need for that, Nakajima-kun,” said Dazai, closing the cabinet doors. He sat on top of the counter, next to the kettle sitting mundanely on the stove top. “I didn’t come here to see Odasaku.”

 

RUN RUN RUN KILL HIM KILL HIM KILL HI—

 

Atsushi bit his inner cheek and asked, with great reluctance, “Then… What are you here for, Dazai-san?”

 

Dazai looked over his shoulder and smiled brightly.

 

“I’m here to talk to you, Nakajima-kun,” he trilled.


 

 

Dismantling bombs didn’t put any fear in Odasaku anymore. Though there was always that sliver of anxiety that this time, this time, the bomb might go off before he had a chance to stop it, Flawless would save him each time. Odasaku knew he couldn’t always count on his ability to save him from all danger, not if it came seconds too late for him to stop doing something that could get him hurt, but he trusted in his ability enough that he could calmly dismantle the bomb without any overwhelming fear or terror.

 

Of course, he couldn’t tell Atsushi any of this; he didn't want to strike any unnecessary terror in the boy when he was already so anxious about Ryuunosuke’s safety on a daily basis. So long as Odasaku made it clear that he didn’t kill for the Port Mafia, the boy didn’t seem too anxious about what he did, which was a relief to Odasaku. The less he knew, the better.

 

It was an easy job; the bomb had been set up by an amateur in a spot far too easy to find, in the financial district of Yokohama. The bank belonged to the Port Mafia and as the resident delivery boy and handyman of the Port Mafia, Odasaku was called in to take care of it.

 

Huddled in one of the data rooms, blissfully empty of any employees, Odasaku pursed his lips as his careful, steady fingers cut the wire. The incessant beeping of the bomb came to a stop, freezing with a solid minute to spare before going off. A few more cuts with his little pair of pliers, he completely removed the bomb, breathing a soft sigh of relief.

 

The president of the bank offered him a very generous tip for displacing and disposing the bomb, to which Odasaku thanked him for with immense gratitude. It wasn’t often that he was given tips for doing his job, but when he did get them, they were nothing to sniff at.

 

Atsushi wasn’t a burden, not in the slightest— but Odasaku’s paycheck could cover only so much now that he not only had one more mouth to feed, but also to clothe and provide with everything that he needed. Not to mention, Atsushi was only eleven years old, and he’d be growing out of those clothes soon enough, he’d need more, especially when he started going to a proper school, his books and uniforms to consider—

 

On his way back home, lounging in a seat on the train while reading Brideshead Revisted, Odasaku paused and straightened. He blinked, the book sliding into his lap as his spot was lost.

 

When did Atsushi gain such a permanent place in his life?

 


 

 

It’d been a long time since Atsushi felt unwelcome in this apartment.

 

When he first woke up in Oda Sakunosuke’s apartment, he’d been disoriented, confused, and scared. He’d jumped from one place, the slums, to another— that cold, cold place that smelled like blood and vomit and was wet and so so cold— to a warm bed, and he’d thrown himself into a panic. He knew the apartment wasn’t his and he moved about it with the utmost care during those first two weeks he was there (before it was made clear that he wasn’t about to be shipped off anywhere else or told to get lost). He knew that it wasn’t his space; he’d moved about the orphanage in a similar way, back then. Before the slums, before the Akutagawa siblings.

 

With the passing of the months, Atsushi felt like he could really call this apartment home.

 

Hands curled into fists into his pants, Atsushi looked up from his lukewarm tea to the older boy across the table from him, drinking from his cup without a care in the world.

 

Dazai Osamu spoke brightly, cheery enough to be infectious. His smile was wide and he lounged about the apartment as if it was his own home, with all the comfortable laziness of a house cat.

 

Atsushi didn’t like it. With Dazai here, it felt like Atsushi didn’t belong here at all.

 

Dazai smiled, but when he looked at Atsushi, he was suddenly struck by the sudden sensation of malice coming from the older boy.

 

Flinching at the loud slurp of tea, Atsushi cleared his throat.

 

“What did you want to talk to me about, Dazai-san?” he asked, hesitant.

 

The slurping stopped and Atsushi looked down when he felt a cold eye fall on his face. The cup was lowered to the saucer with a soft clink and the floor groaned quietly at the shift of Dazai’s weight.

 

“You know, you’re not the easiest person to dig up information on, Nakajima-kun.”

 

Shoulders stiff, Atsushi looked up sharply. Confusion colored his face and his brow furrowed.

 

Dazai’s lips curled into a cold smile. He dragged a finger along the rim of his cup.

 

“Your birthday is May 5th. You’re, as of right now, eleven years old, and when you were about a year old, you were dropped off at an orphanage with only your name. Not one single mention of any parents, not even of the woman who gave birth to you. Not one. Single. Name.”

 

Atsushi’s back went rigid.

 

His breath caught and blood rushed in his ears.

 

“Records show that it’s likely that whoever gave birth to you had so little inclination to keep you that they didn’t even want to give their name,” said Dazai, still playing with the rim of his cup.

 

Heart leaping into his throat, Atsushi clenched his teeth together so tightly his jaw started to hurt. Anger came in a sudden flood and his neck started to feel hot. Heat spread throughout his entire upper body and his breath quickened. He clenched at his knees so tightly he felt his nails dig through the fabric. The pain didn’t even register.

 

I know. I know that. I’ve been told that hundreds of times when I lived there that’s all the others ever said to me I know I know I KNOW why are you telling me all these things I already KNOW

 

“And then when you were about nine years old, you ran away from that orphanage and from that point on, you disappeared off the face of the earth, it seems!”

 

Atsushi could feel his arms shaking and his chest was hurting. He exhaled slowly, trying to calm himself down. Without Odasaku there, without Rashomon’s gentle touch around his wrist and Ryuu’s low voice murmuring that he was there, he wasn’t back at the place anymore, it was that much harder.

 

“I know,” Atsushi said lowly, frustration bleeding through his voice. “That’s why I was living in the slums. Oda-san knows this all, already.”

 

So end the subject already!

 

Go away go away go away GO AWAY—

 

Dazai hummed, cupping his chin in his palm. His eyes narrowed and the skin on the back of Atsushi’s neck prickled. “Does he?”

 

Slender fingers tapped at his chin. His smile widened and it was sharp.

 

Atsushi stiffened, mouth in a tight line and eyes wide— panicked and afraid.

 

(An ugly sense of satisfaction twisted in Dazai’s chest.)

 

“Does he know that you came from an orphanage? That you ran away from it and attacked the staff when they came to take you back? That, while you were at that orphanage, there was more than a few reports of you being found in the wreckage of vandalized chicken coops, gardens, and so on, so forth?”

 

Nausea crawled up Atsushi’s throat in a hot flood. He swallowed hard and his voice shook as he murmured out, “I didn’t— I didn’t do anything—“

 

“Maybe, maybe not,” said Dazai smoothly, appearing not to notice the younger boy’s growing distress. The way that Dazai looked at him as he said it told Atsushi what he really seemed to think—

 

The very same way the Headmaster used to look at him like.

 

It sent a chill through Atsushi that made him feel like he was there all over again, back in that basement, the metal chafing and tight against his neck and legs, how cold it was, wet and dirty—how trapped and lifeless he’d felt down there and the fear that wracked him when the headmaster forced that syringe of yellow liquid through his arm, stabbing at his soft skin like he was some animal to be put down—

 

Dazai Osamu looked at him and Atsushi had not felt fear like this in such a long time.

 

It was like the ghost of the Headmaster staring back at him on a younger, more handsome face.

 

It was terrifying.

 

Is this really Ryuu’s mentor …?

 

The dread he’d been suppressing for months, after having seen so many of Ryuu’s injuries from his ‘training,’ grew into horrified realization as Dazai’s laughter echoed throughout the apartment.

 

“Why are you telling me all this?” he breathed, sweat starting to pool on his forehead. It was cold and Atsushi felt a shiver up his spine.

 

Dazai beamed, chuckling. “Just trying to see if I can jog your memory any— but it seems that you really don’t remember at all, do you?”

 

“Remember what,” spat Atsushi, with far more heat than he’d intended.

 

Dazai’s brow rose and then his eyes narrowed subtly in challenge, but Atsushi was too fueled by fear and a growing anger for his best friend to care in the slightest about his tone.

 

“The night I accepted Akutagawa-kun as my apprentice,” he continued, “Just how much do you remember? Not much, I’m guessing.”

 

Jaw clenching with a tight, loud sound, Atsushi said nothing. He glared down at the table, wishing he could burn through it if it would just make Dazai go away.

 

“If I might ask once again, Nakajima-kun— What do you remember?”

 

Though his tone was light, Dazai’s hard gaze on him gave Atsushi the impression that he wasn’t being given a choice in whether or not he could answer.

 

That night wasn’t one Atsushi liked to remember. Nor was it something that he could bring himself to remember. When his mind wandered towards that night, something just— stopped, with a screeching halt that Atsushi couldn’t understand. He had many memories like that when he lived at the orphanage; it would be a lie to say he wasn’t curious as to why, but he wasn’t so much that he was willing to touch something that should just be left alone. For whatever reason, something in Atsushi’s gut said— don’t touch this.

 

Knowing that the other boy wasn't going to give him any choice, Atsushi exhaled.

 

“..I remember seeing the bodies. I remember Ryuu protecting us from getting killed, and then him running off to—“

 

“To take revenge on the smugglers that killed your.. comrades, friends, was it?” Dazai finished for him.

 

Atsushi raised hard eyes at him, to which Dazai didn’t bat an eyelash at. Dazai’s smile widened and he laughed quietly through his nose; he recalled that all too well, himself sitting at the stump of that dying tree, the bodies at his feet, the smell of blood in the air mixed with the thick stench of sea foam, and the bony figure with black black black eyes glaring at him in shock and fury.

 

Dazai waved at the younger boy to continue, and Atsushi’s glare didn’t lessen even as he finished, “Gin and I went the other direction, to get away from the ones who killed the others, and—“ Jaw locking, he paused. “..I went back.”

 

Dazai’s brow rose and Atsushi’s eyes lowered down to his knees. His hands clenched tight in his lap, the images of the dead bodies and terrified faces with empty eyes on the ground— and how much it terrified him to think of of Ryuu and Gin joining them.

 

“I couldn’t—“ Sharply inhaling, Atsushi stumbled on his words and his shoulders shook with emotion. “I couldn’t let him face it alone.”

 

I had to make sure that he was safe, that he survived— I couldn’t leave him behind.

 

A pause fell between them before Dazai sighed. “I knew I figured you to be the sentimental type, Nakajima-kun, even though Akutagawa-kun wasn’t truly in any danger— as I was the one that killed the smugglers before Akutagawa-kun even reached me.”

 

Wide sunset colored eyes looked up at him, the hostility washing away to be filled with curiosity instead, one that Dazai took little interest in. He was growing tired of this charade. He had other goals in mind and this whole inane conversation was just a stepping stone to getting there.

 

But frustrated though he was at times, he was enjoying watching Atsushi squirm uncomfortably when he asked once more, “Do you remember anything else?”

 

Atsushi’s mouth parted to reply— and his mind came to a screeching halt.

 

Wide-eyed, Atsushi slowly looked down at the table and his untouched tea, brows furrowed.

 

He tried. He tried, so many times to remember what had happened in-between the sound of the gun going off and Gin’s terrified face and waking up in that cold cell— but there was nothing. When he woke up again in a warm bed and Odasaku’s concerned glance and everything else that came after, he’d put it behind him and all but forgotten it.

 

I can’t remember. Why can’t I remember …?

 

“You can’t remember then, after all,” sighed Dazai, pushing away his now empty cup of tea. He folded in his arms on the table and slouched forward, pressing his chin on top of his arms. His one visible eye slit open, staring at the frozen Atsushi lazily. “I figured as much. If you did, then you’d know why I had you locked up in the holding cell.”

 

Heart leaping into his throat, almost choking him, Atsushi looked up in alarm.

 

Dazai’s smile was serene.

 

“Ah, so you do remember that at least! I’m surprised, since you were barely in there for a day.” Curling his hand into a slight fist, Dazai rested his cheek against it. “Had I had my way, you’d have stayed there longer, but Odasaku seems to have quite the bleeding heart when it comes to orphans.”

 

The icy stare took an angry glint.

 

“Even though being around you could put him in danger, and already has.”

 

It felt as if Atsushi had been slapped. It was a far worse blow than anything the Headmaster had ever done to him.

 

The back of his throat feeling hot, Atsushi swallowed down a sudden burst of nausea.

 

“W-What do you mean? Me, putting Oda-san in danger? I-I would never—!”

 

“Had anyone else set those orders to keep you in that cell,” Dazai interrupted sharply, the smile dropping into a cold line, “He would’ve been killed for insubordination after breaking you out.”

 

Gaping, Atsushi slowly closed his mouth, lips pressed tight together. He looked down at the table, staring at nothing. Grip on his pants so tight that his knuckles were turning white, Atsushi trembled.

 

“Odasaku’s lucky that it was me who made the order and not anyone else, or else he’d be dead now—“

 

Because of you .

 

“—Although, given your apparent luck in attracting danger to you, it’s only a matter of time before Odasaku does indeed get hurt or put in danger as a result of being associated with you. His kindness won’t be enough to safe him from that eventually, Nakajima-kun.”

 

It was unlike him to be this openly emotional. It was rare of him to even show any emotion that wasn’t a complete farce or a mask so that he could test the patience of those around him, particularly his enemies, Mori, and Chuuya, trying to see how far he could push them before he got what he wanted. Odasaku was one of very few allowed to see shades of who he was— shades, ghosts of the fifteen year old boy he actually was instead of the cold-blooded, empty and cruel young man that the rest of the world knew him as.

 

He was still a fifteen year old boy trying to hold onto the one thing he hadn’t known for most of his life: his friend.

 

Dazai didn’t have friends. He had associates and subordinates. Chuuya was in a strange limbo state of being more than an associate, but not quite friend in the way that most would see. Much as both disliked it the majority of the time, they needed one another, especially when sent on important assignments that required their brute force. But Odasaku…

 

Dazai Osamu didn’t really understand what ‘friendship’ was. Life hadn’t been so kind to him as to teach him what that meant, what that felt like. The only thing that he really understood was that Odasaku had become more important to him than he expected and this boy in front of him posed danger to Odasaku’s safety.

 

This boy in front of him was someone that Odasaku was willing to risk his own safety and openly go against Dazai’s wishes for.

 

The thought of it made something angrily twist in his stomach, palatable and spreading all the way to his mouth where it left an unpleasant taste in the back of his throat, spurring him onward.

 

The look of rising terror on Atsushi’s face gave him only a little satisfaction. The anger overwhelmed most of it.

 

Good, he thought viciously.

 

“I— I didn’t—“ Atsushi stuttered. His skin was pale, awash with a sickly veneer and his breathing was short, too quick. He was trembling. “I’ve never put Oda-san in danger—!”

 

“Maybe not yet,” said Dazai cooly, curling his hands together. “But Gin-chan and Akutagawa-kun have gotten hurt because of you before, haven’t they?”

 

Atsushi froze.

 

Eyes glassy and shimmering, Atsushi’s breath caught and his heart leapt into his mouth. It was getting difficult to breathe.

 

He couldn’t answer. All words left him.

 

Dazai hummed. “Well, given that Akutagawa-kun was more attuned to living on the streets compared to you, it’s no wonder that that he had to step up and do more to protect you and his sister when there was nothing you could do. He even brought it upon himself to even try to avenge others outside of you. It’d be admirable if not for him getting gravely injured in the process, wouldn’t it?”

 

I didn’t I didn’t I never wanted him to get hurt I never asked him to protect me I didn’t I didn’t —!

 

“After all…” said Dazai quietly, eyes hard, “It wouldn’t be the first time, would it?”

 

There was a door. It was cold, made of iron and had white handles. There were intricate designs on it that Atsushi didn’t understand. All that he knew was that something about those doors told him: do not enter

 

If you enter here, you will regret it.

 

He always felt eyes on him when he stood before those doors, eyes that burned into his skin and asked him, Are you prepared for the consequences? Are you ready to know?

Are you brave enough to step through those doors?

 

He wasn’t.

 

He was young and he was confused and he was scared.

 

Dazai put the same kind of fear in him as those doors and the Headmaster did.

 

“What do you mean..?” Atsushi whispered, afraid of the answer.

 

He was right to be, because Dazai smiled and it pierced through Atsushi’s very soul.

 

“Did you not notice the bruises and injuries that Odasaku had on him about a month or so ago?”

 

The sharp catch of Atsushi’s breath echoed in the apartment, silent apart from the muffled sound of cars and the trains out in the city.

 

“I— I thought they were from a work accident,” he stammered, his chest hurting from his sudden difficulty in breathing. His heart was racing to a painful degree. “That’s what Oda-san said! He just got them during work—“

 

“Did he say what that work was?” A thin eyebrow rose.

 

“It’s not my place to ask what he does at work—“

 

“Oh? Is that so?” A single eye narrowed. “And you’re not curious about what it is he does?”

 

“I know he works for the Mafia!” Atsushi retorted, his voice raising an octave. “I already know that! Oda-san knows that I do!”

 

Dazai seemed faintly amused. “And that doesn’t bother you?”

 

No,” Atsushi said stiffly, eyes hard, tone sure and unwavering. “It doesn’t. Because I know that he doesn’t kill anyone, and he doesn’t hurt anybody. That’s all that matters to me!”

 

Dazai was silent for a beat and for one brief, victorious moment, Atsushi thought that that would be the end of it and the older boy would finally let this matter die. He didn’t know what he did to make the boy so agitated, he didn’t even remember meeting him before (familiar as his voice sounded—), but Atsushi already decided that he didn’t like him.

 

The bruises and injuries he’d seen and found on Ryuu had been more than enough for Atsushi to dislike the older boy before ever meeting him face to face. Talking to him now just solidified it. And he was ready for Dazai to leave.

 

“Would it matter to you to know, then, that Odasaku got those injuries because of you?”

 

Pausing, Atsushi slowly turned his stare back to the other boy.

 

Dazai didn’t give him a chance to ask him what he meant, leaning forward on his elbows to whisper with unconfined, malicious glee.

 

“His right arm was injured, don’t you remember? Maybe he said it was just a work accident, but no— he got that injury trying to protect you. If he’d been any stupider, he could’ve even lost that arm or something worse. He could’ve gotten himself killed.”

 

Because of you .

 

Atsushi felt himself start to tremble again.

 

“I—I w-wouldn’t—“

 

“Chances are, he’s going to be hurt again trying to protect you, and you won’t even realize it’s happening— because your memory is quite faulty, isn’t it, Nakajima-kun?”

 

It suddenly became hard to breathe again. There was a faint ringing in his ears and his heart was racing so fast it hurt. He breathed in weakly, soft distressed choking sounds leaving him as he tried to say anything to deny what Dazai was saying, anything that he could say to prove that no, it wasn’t, that Odasaku had never gotten hurt because of him—

 

But he couldn’t.


Because Dazai was right.

 

I don’t remember what happened between the firing of the gun and waking up in that cell. I don’t remember how I got from that cell to this apartment. I don’t remember.

 

I don’t remember I don’t remember I don’t remember I don’t remembering I do—

 

“Akutagawa-kun has gotten hurt so much, so often, trying to protect you when you both lived on the streets. So did Gin-chan, didn’t she? It’s already dangerous enough living on the streets, even for an adult. You were all only children and you all just barely evaded death time and time again, didn’t you? How many more times had they nearly experienced death since you came to live with them? Would they still volunteer to join and offer their lives to the Port Mafia if not to protect you?”

 

Dazai’s stare bore into him, cold and unrelenting, and Atsushi saw black spots in his vision.

 

Deep within, something began to churn and roar to the surface, ready at any moment to defend Atsushi, defend itself, ready to strike out with its claws.

 

“If not for you… would they still be put in the danger they’re in?”

 

His vision wavered.

 

“I wonder if you even know, Nakajima-kun, the hurt you’ve already caused to those you care about.”

 

Atsushi suddenly couldn’t see anymore. He stared ahead of him, not looking, not seeing, the sound of his blood rushing in his ears to the point of numbness. It was getting harder to breathe and his eyes were stinging. He couldn’t hear the sound of footsteps heading towards the door, the sound of them pausing, then rushing forward.

 

His entire body was shaking, nearly convulsing, and if not for the faint sound of the door handle twisting, Atsushi wondered if he’d have passed out.

 

A clear voice broke through the rush of anxious emotion and fear that gripped Atsushi in its tight hold, loud and firm and angry.

 

Dazai, what are you doing?!

 


 

In hindsight, Odasaku should’ve known better than to have thought that he could’ve kept it a secret forever. He knew that there would be a point that Dazai would find out; the other man certainly wasn’t stupid by any stretch and he was incredibly perceptive of even the smallest details. It was only a matter of time before he found out.

 

But Odasaku would’ve rather been there in the moment of Dazai finding out instead of coming home in a fairly good mood to the sound of Dazai’s voice in his apartment, cold, biting and cruel, venom practically dripping from each word with more visceral dislike than Odasaku had ever heard from him—

 

And the sound of the sheer fear and distress in Atsushi’s, the raspy sound of him trying and failing to breathe normally.

 

That way, he could’ve had control over their interaction. He could’ve kept a safe barrier between them with himself, and he wouldn’t have had to come inside to see Dazai’s surprised face turning to look at him and the sheet white Atsushi staring into space, looking more terrified than he’d ever seen him.

 

Rushing past the doorway and throwing off his shoes, Odasaku ignored the surprised call of his name from Dazai and instead went straight towards the catatonic Atsushi. There was a light sheen of sweat on his forehead and his breathing was too rapid and quick than was normal. Odasaku cursed under his breath and took gentle hold of the boy’s shoulders.

 

Nakajima,” he said firmly, pressing his fingers into the boy’s shoulders.

 

When the boy didn’t respond, Odasaku lowered to his knees and gently moved Atsushi so that he was facing him.

 

“Nakajima, Nakajima look at me.

 

If Akutagawa were here, the gentle touch of Rashomon curling around Atsushi’s wrist would’ve been enough to bring him out of what Odasaku was quickly realizing was a panic attack. But the boy was god knows where and Odasaku couldn’t depend on Dazai to help him. Not when he barely knew the boy, and if his suspicions were correct— Dazai brought him to this state in the first place.

 

He saw that Atsushi’s hands were shaking, fisted tightly against his knees, and Odasaku reached down and took them. He lifted the younger boy’s hands off of his legs, nails digging through the cloth, before he could hurt himself.

 

Nakajima.”

 

Dazai watched in stunned silence as Atsushi stilled, then blinking slowly. His breath was still shaky and he was still white as a sheet, but he was slowly reorienting himself. Shakily, he lifted his stare to Odasaku’s face and blinked rapidly, eyes wet and shiny.

 

“Oda-san..?” He croaked.

 

The look on the boy’s face made his grip tighten, a slight press of fingers on a thin shoulder, but Oda managed to keep his face relaxed and gentle despite the anger brimming beneath the surface.

 

Thankfully, Dazai seemed to know that he needed to not intervene, because the younger boy was being conveniently quiet.

 

Good. I’ll deal with you , later.

 

“Hey, Nakajima. You..” He paused, kicking himself for only being able to ask so awkwardly, “You good?”

 

Atsushi nodded after a soft beat of silence, his brow drawn together as if he was unsure if he was okay or not; Odasaku didn’t really believe him, but the boy was breathing normally now and not shaking. He was still pale and sickly looking, but Odasaku would take what he could get.

 

Hearing the shift of legs beneath the table, Odasaku looked at Dazai sharply. The younger boy never flinched before anything or anyone, especially not in the face of possible death (which, he instead faced with glee and hope, distressingly), but there was a quick flash of emotion on Dazai’s face that echoed shame.

 

Shame, not guilt.

 

With only a blink of his eye, the emotion was gone (for Dazai would never allow anyone to see his vulnerabilities), replaced with the cold, stony mask he reserved for subordinates that dared to step out of line around him.

 

Odasaku felt his patience, already strained as it was, thin.

 

Sliding his hands off of Atsushi’s shoulders, Odasaku stood. “Sleep in my room tonight. I’ll sleep out here, and I’ll make dinner. There’s extra hōtō I can heat up for you.”

 

Distress colored Atsushi’s face, “You don’t have t—“

 

Nakajima,” he said firmly.

 

Atsushi’s mouth closed with a click, lips pursed and shoulders tense.

 

Odasaku’s expression softened, as did his tone, “It’s okay.”

 

Seeing the quick side glance Odasaku gave towards the room’s other occupant and the nod Odasaku gave Atsushi once his stare returned to the younger boy, Atsushi understood what the man was doing. Gratitude filled him in a flood.

 

“Thank you,” he whispered, rising to his feet.

 

He spared Dazai a single wary glance, swallowing.

 

He was both relieved and unnerved when the other boy didn’t even acknowledge him with a glance, and he took his chance to sprint towards Odasaku’s room, closing the door behind him gently, if quickly. Leaving the two older men in the living room, Atsushi threw himself into the furthest corner of the room, which turned out to be Odasaku’s closet. Tucking himself underneath the coats and shirts hanging up, Atsushi drew his knees in close, wrapped his arms around them, and buried his face in his knees.

 

In that darkness, Atsushi breathed. A shudder, a tremble, an exhale.

 

The darkness of the closet lit up as Atsushi pulled out his phone (one of the first gifts Odasaku gave him, one he took extreme care of) and the soft noise of the dial accompanied his breathing. The longer it rang, the more his heart raced anxiously, waiting.

 

Please please please please

 

Atsushi?

 

Letting out a choked noise from the back of his throat that sounded wet, Atsushi laughed.

 

It wasn’t the same as hearing it in person. Not the same as hearing it so clearly and not through the alien filter of the phone speaker, muffled and crackling. Not nearly as organic and real—

 

But it was still him.

 

When Atsushi didn’t reply right away, Ryuunosuke called his name again, taking a subtly worried tone. He repeated himself again, his voice growing louder and more concerned, they didn’t call each other often, after all, so unless it was an emergency—

 

“I’m okay, Ryuu. Sorry for worrying you.”

 

The sound of Atsushi’s voice responding, soft and thrumming with emotion, was enough to quell Ryuunosuke. A beat of silence fell between them; Atsushi imagined Ryuunosuke sitting somewhere in an apartment far away, watching the dark skyline from his window, phone to his ear, phone to his lap, and pictured himself sitting next to the other boy. His hands craved to touch Rashomon’s warmth, to feel the weight of Ryuu’s body next to him; it would never be the same as being with him, but this—

 

..What did you call for?

 

Atsushi eyes closed, and he smiled shakily, a true sense of calm and peace falling over him.

 

“I just needed to hear your voice.”

 

This was enough.

 


 

 

A long pause, heavy and stifling, fell between the two left in the sitting room before Odasaku breathed out, low and brimming with fury,

 

“Care to explain, Dazai?”

 

He hadn’t even turned to look at Dazai yet, instead keep his eyes on the closed door of his room to make sure that the boy hiding away inside couldn’t here.

 

The murmured words were enough to make the hairs on the back of Dazai’s raise.

 

Mouth open, Dazai closed it, his jaw tightening. He’d heard this similar anger before. Back in Lupin’s over a month ago, when Dazai had all but begged Odasaku to give up Atsushi to him for his own safety and the older man had refused with more vitriol than he thought possible of the placid, stoic man. He’d heard this before.. but not with this much coldness before.

 

“..Even if I were to, would it make any difference to you, Odasaku?” Dazai said cooly, folding his hands together and closing his eyes. His fingers curled against the surface of the table, dragging his nails against the wood. “You’re angry, I know— But I think I also have a right to be angry with you, seeing as you’ve been lying to me for a month.”

 

Despite himself, the emotion bled through and the tension in the room rose. The floorboards creaked underneath Odasaku’s weight as the taller man turned. Furious gray blue eyes burned through the dim light of the room and Dazai raised his chin to meet them.

 

Had it not been for the seriousness of the situation, Dazai would’ve admired and taken in how domestic Odasaku looked right now, wearing socks and a comfortable looking, loose sweater that hung off of his shoulders. He was clean shaven and his hair was slightly mussed.

 

All of these and more made the sharpness of his glare and his anger all the more evident.

 

“And you couldn’t have saved this discussion for another time and place?” Odasaku’s voice steadily rose, his face twisting with the firm anger of his words.

 

Dazai refused to be cowed and gave Odasaku a dark glare in return. “It was of the utmost importance— I couldn’t let you and Akutagawa-kun both keep lying to me like you’ve both been for the last month.”

 

Odasaku twitched, a shimmer of the guilt that he felt, buried deep beneath all of his raging and steadily uncontrolled emotions, but the fresh memory of the look on Atsushi’s face kept him steady.

 

“You could’ve done this without involving Nakajima,” he ground out, fists clenched against his sides.

 

Dazai’s brow twitched angrily. His lips curled into a childish snarl. “How can I not involve him when he’s all but the center of this entire situation? I hadn’t done anything to him, anyway, so I fail to see what your issue is—“

 

“You were tormenting him, Dazai!”

 

It was getting more difficult to keep his voice low enough as to not alarm Atsushi, Odasaku’s anger bleeding through each vowel. The last thing he wanted to do was make the boy even more anxious.

 

“He was on the verge of a panic attack because you were purposefully trying to manipulate him into one, and don’t try to bullshit me about it, Dazai,” he growled out, legs moving into a hostile stance even as Dazai’s eye widened at the use of foul language he rarely heard from the older man. “I’ve seen how you get people to confess and tell their secrets without even laying a finger on them, and those are just against enemies or targets— Nakajima didn’t do anything.”

 

“Oh?” Dazai crooned, a sickly sweet tone dripping with venom and growing anger, “So he hasn’t been part of this whole charade you’ve been doing behind my back?”

 

Odasaku grit his teeth, “It wasn’t his idea! It.. It was mine.”

 

Silence fell between them.

 

Trickles of guilt joined the anger when Odasaku saw the strangely blank look on Dazai’s face. Even worse, when Dazai’s lips parted and his voice had lowered to a murmur, looking at his hands instead of him.

 

“So,” he whispered, “You really were doing this all, behind my back. And you even lied to my face, for more than a month..”

 

He laughed softly and it was like broken glass against his skin.

 

Discomfort twisted in Odasaku’s chest and he exhaled a short breath, fingers curling and unfurling. His eyes closed, brows drawn tightly. “..When did you figure it out?”

 

“I’d been suspicious for more than two weeks, now,” said Dazai flatly, “Your sudden lack of asking me to let Akutagawa-kun and Nakajima-kun meet was the initial tip-off. It solidified only recently. Akutagawa-kun really must learn how to take better care of his possessions— and figure out a better password.”

 

Odasaku sucked in a breath sharply and the anger surged once more, no only on Atsushi’s behalf— but now, also Ryuunosuke’s.

 

“You didn’t leave me much of a choice, Dazai,” he ground out.

 

A hazel eye shot open and a sneer curled on Dazai’s mouth. “Asking me to my face would’ve been better than going behind my back

 

“I asked you dozens of times to let them meet!” Odasaku said, interjecting sharply. “And each, and every single I’m I’ve tried to get you to let them meet, you kept saying that Akutagawa wasn’t ready, that it wasn’t time—“

 

“It wasn’t,” Dazai said, voice raising with stubbornness and petulance. “He wasn’t and Akutagawa-kun still isn’t ready yet—“

 

“And he never will be with how you thrash him Dazai,” hissed Odasaku.

 

Dazai stiffened. A subtle tension of his shoulders.

 

He averted his eyes from Odasaku, and that was all the confirmation Odasaku needed.

 

“How I train my subordinates is none of your business, Odasaku,” he said cooly.

 

“That’s not training, Dazai, and you know it. I’ve seen how many bruises he gets, I can still smell the blood on his clothes sometimes and last week, I saw him limping, like he had a sprained foot or leg. You’re not training him, Dazai! You’re trying to destroy him!”

 

“He’s not your little orphan, Odasaku,” Dazai said, tone turning snide and angry. “Do try to keep from sticking your nose into business that isn’t yours.

 

“He’s a child, Dazai!” Oda shouted, fists clenched so tight at his sides his knuckles were white. “He’s a child who’s been through enough from living on the streets and you’re trying to kill him through your ‘training sessions’! It’s a damned miracle he hasn’t dropped dead yet already!”

 

The sheer heat in Odasaku’s voice overwhelmed him, surprising him at its intensity (he’d never seen Odasaku act like this before and he didn’t know how to handle it) and Dazai couldn’t help the anger that bubbled to the surface.

 

The table jostled and shook when his knee hit the it as Dazai stood, his face feeling hot and his chest tight.

 

“He’ll drop dead anyway when he doesn’t last two minutes on the field if I don’t, Odasaku!” Dazai’s eyes widened, the anger churning with a desperate plea for Odasaku to understand. It made his face look as young as he truly was.

 

And perhaps to convince himself that while what he was doing wasn’t the ideal, it would teach Akutagawa how to survive— he bore through it, if Akutagawa couldn’t, then what right did Akutagawa have to try to live this life?

 

Even as he thought it, it tasted like a lie.

 

“If he’s going to be a dog for the Port Mafia, he can’t be soft,” Dazai exhaled, unfurling his hands and forcing himself to calm down and regain his composure. It was proving more difficult than normal. “I can’t treat him softly, either; the Port Mafia won’t allow any softness. I’m sure Gin-chan knows that, too. And you know as well as I do that this place would tear him to shreds if I was too soft on him.”

 

“There’s a difference between being soft and preparing someone for how brutal the world is,” Odasaku said, eyebrows drawing together in a dark glare. “And there’s even bigger difference between beating a teenage boy black and blue because you know you hold more power over him than he does over you, and training somebody properly. You know that what you’re doing is wrong, Dazai. You’re smarter than that.”

 

Dazai’s jaw set tightly and his lip curled

 

“Don’t tell me that you’re trying to take another orphan under your wing, Odasaku,” Dazai sneered, “You’ve already got one too many.”

 

Odasaku ground his teeth in frustration. “You know, Dazai,” he bit out, “I’m starting to think that you’ve been trying to keep them separated on purpose—”

 

Dazai scoffed. “When was that not obvious?”

 

“—Because you don’t like Nakajima.”

 

The younger boy froze.

 

Blinking rapidly, Dazai stared, wide-eyed at the older boy.

 

A beat, and then a raucous howl of laughter.

 

“Oh, please, Odasaku, I’m not a child—“ Dazai laughed, clutching at his stomach.

 

Yes, you are.

 

“I have my reasons for wanting to keep them separate,” Dazai continued, and he was remarkably quick to sober up once more, a serious frown returning to his face as he scowled. “And you know why, Odasaku— you’ve had the injuries to prove it.”

 

Odasaku exhaled slowly to calm his temper and lowered his voice, “..Dazai, we’ve been over this. He didn’t hurt me—-“

 

“He left marks on you—“

 

“I am not dead, Dazai,” Odasaku griped, “For fuck’s sake, I’m fine, and it wasn’t the last time that he transformed either, and guess what? I am perfectly fine.”

 

The cups on the table clanged loudly under the weight of Dazai’s knee hitting the bottom surface of the table. “What do you mean by it not being the last time he transformed, Odasaku.”

 

Taken aback by the wild look on Dazai’s face, wide eyed and ashen, but also sharp and calculated, Odasaku steadied himself and cleared his throat. There was so much tension in the room it was difficult to stay calm, even more so to keep his voice from raising too high.

 

“He’s not in complete control of the tiger,” said Odasaku lowly, careful to keep his voice quiet. “You know that as well as I do, but he’s not hostile. He’s only hostile when he feels threatened. The last time he transformed, all he did was sleep. If the tiger feels safe here, then there’s nothing for me to worry about.”

 

“You speak as if Nakajima is some tame house cat and not a tiger that can bite down with the force of over a thousand pounds per square inch,” Dazai hissed between his teeth.

 

“If he wanted to attack me, he would’ve already.”

 

“You don’t know that, Odasaku!”

 

“Nor do you, Dazai! And unless you’ve forgotten, it was also your idea to keep it from him. How long do you think that’s going to last? Or—“

 

Fists clenching, Odasaku’s eyes narrowed.

 

“Were you planning to tell him right before I walked in? Were you going to tell an eleven year old kid that has no fucking clue he has powers at all, a kid that you threw into a cell and whose best friend you’re putting through the most hellish training I’ve ever seen, that he can turn into a tiger without his knowledge after putting him the worst mental hoops you can think of?”

 

A complicated emotion flickered on Dazai’s face as he drank in Odasaku’s furious tone, his body language (so protective as he stood in front of the door to his bedroom where the boy in question was hiding), and his chest twisted uncomfortably. To have that face twisted in such an expression, showing far more emotion than Dazai had ever seen from him before, a flicker of the ghost Odasaku used to be, the one Dazai didn’t quite know or understand—

 

It was fascinating, how human he was.

 

It was fascinating, and to have that anger be aimed at him because of Dazai’s own actions—

 

Under any other circumstances, Dazai would’ve reveled in the chance to see so many new expressions on Odasaku. Now, he felt an indescribable desire to curl his legs in closer to his body, to make himself feel smaller; to hide away.

 

If Dazai Osamu were any other person, they would’ve described the feeling as shame.

 

That strange, foreign feeling— it invigorated him and fanned the sparks of his own growing anger and agitation, that twisting feeling in his chest growing all the more tight and venomous. Dazai couldn’t help it, couldn’t help the anger he felt at Odasaku throwing so much of himself away for that little brat—

 

“Would you prefer that he find out through me, or by him finding your corpse on the floor, or whatever’s left of your body, torn to pieces because of his own claws?”

 

Behind the door, young, thin fingers dug into the wood door, shaking and trembling as a short breath sucked in sharply. The nails scraped against the wood like talons.

 

Chapter Text

Atsushi’s first vivid memory was of a burning pain in his neck and back. It burned so badly it made him scream, eyes wet and hot with pained tears, his throat sore from his wailing, and then the harsh slap of a palm on his face to shut him up.

 

His memory in his early years had never been the best. Atsushi never really knew how he wound up at the orphanage; the headmaster told him that his parents threw him in the trash as a baby, that he’d been found in a garbage bin. Given that there was no one else who knew him as a baby, that the only home he knew as a child and infant was the orphanage, Atsushi had no choice but to believe him. Whatever else happened during those early years, Atsushi didn’t want to remember.

 

There were so many moments of pain in that orphanage that they tended to blur together. But when sitting down and forcing himself to recall whatever he could dredge up, Atsushi remembered them in vivid detail. He remembered each burn on his skin, the scars they left, how each piercing of the syringe needle was like a white hot poker to his arm when the Headmaster pushed the tip through the first layer of skin.

 

Atsushi remembered how his eyes fluttered to a close whenever what mysterious liquid was in those syringes set in, how his raging heart and mind came to a steady rhythm, and he slept without dreaming.

 

The Headmaster dragged him into that basement and gave him syringes until he was seven. When he was eight, he was given pills: they had the same affect on him as the syringes. He’d fight at first, spitting the pills back at the Headmaster’s face when he tried to force feed them down Atsushi’s throat, and one time in a great act of defiance, throwing the bottle at him and letting them fall all over the floor. But no matter how much he’d fight, and some nights he’d be much too tired to fight back and swallowed the pills robotically, resigned to its effect.

 

His head would spin and his skin would burn, he’d part his mouth in a silent scream and his entire body would tremble, as if a bolt of electricity were running through him. Then, Atsushi felt nothing. He felt nothing and his vision would go dark.

 

Pill or syringe, Atsushi would be forced to fall asleep and he’d dream of nothing.

 

When he woke up, he’d still be in the basement and his body would be aching. His limbs would be stiff and pins and needles would rush through his feet and legs when he tried to force himself to stand up. The beds of his nails would be caked black and brown— dirt from the basement floor, he surmised. The Headmaster would silently open the basement door, unlock the latch of the iron collar around his neck, and Atsushi would drag himself out of the basement, alone, in a daze.

 

Atsushi didn’t remember anything from those nights. He’d always assumed that he’d just passed out from the pills and syringes, going unconscious all throughout the night. He’d barely taken notice of the marks in the walls of the basement, of the blood stains on the walls, floors and the chains that kept him fastened to the wall.

 

One cold winter night, Atsushi was desperate to escape the basement for just one night and he crawled out of the second story window the dormitory and out into the surrounding gardens of the orphanage. He didn’t even care how the ground was chilly against his feet, how his breath could be seen as steam in the night air— Atsushi drank in this little burst of freedom as the snow fell around him, a rare sight in that part of Japan, and danced in the flakes without a care.

 

It was one of the few rare bursts of freedom and joy he’d ever felt at the orphanage.

 

There were dozens of feral cats that lived in the surrounding area, most of them living just outside the boundaries of the orphanage and its adjacent chicken coop and gardens. The staff of the orphanage put up deterrent sprays to keep them away from hunting the chickens, so they usually stayed away from the direct grounds of the garden. But they all seemed to be drawn to Atsushi, crawling up to his window in the dormitory that he rarely slept in and joining him in the library as he read, hiding away from the School Mistress and the Headmaster when he could. They always ran away at the sound of their footsteps, but tonight they joined Atsushi as he danced in the snowflakes, meowing, chattering and purring at him, rubbing against his legs, as he drank in the cool night air.

 

His last memory of that night was laying on his back on the ground, staring up at the snowflakes falling from the dark sky. He woke up the next morning curled up on the ground, surrounded by so many cats curled up against his body, pressing their warm fur against him and keeping him safe with their body heat, that he didn’t even feel the cold.

 

Atsushi had no memory of the triumphant roars and growls of freedom that the tiger cub felt, galloping about the snow with the little cats as if they were litter mates.

 

He had no memory of that short hour the tiger roamed free.

 

They were such little moments that Atsushi never realized the gaps in his memory— the little blank spots that Atsushi couldn’t recall where he’d been. Some short as just a few minutes, some that stretched as long as an hour, if not more. There was no pattern to it. The School Mistress constantly told him that he had an inability to pay attention, that he was scatterbrained and his academic memory was horrid. The School Mistress called him a slow, stupid child and cared not at all for how well read he was, how when given the chance, he could answer questions as eloquently as the older children, sometimes more so. But he knew better than to fire back: it always earned him a harsh whack of her pointer stick on the back of his hand. It stung for hours afterwards.

 

Even when he ran from the orphanage and into Yokohama’s slums, there were little gaps in his memory where he’d wake up and not remember how he got where he did.  At one moment, he’d go to sleep on a bench and wake up underneath a bus stop. But Atsushi was so stressed at the time and desperate to get away from the orphanage while nursing a bruised left foot (still healing from the nail the Headmaster hammered into it), he didn’t think on it for very long at all.

 

In the slums, there were blurs. Smears of time that Atsushi couldn’t quite recollect. Food he didn’t remember bringing back to that little shack, food he’d just assumed that Gin or Ryuu brought back while he was sleeping. Cats that followed him around the slums of Cone Streets were ignored and sometimes fed whatever scraps Atsushi had on him. They never tried to steal their food, wandering around the vicinity of the shack as if it were a shrine and they were the devotees.

 

Gin and Ryuu loved the cats, Ryuu especially. Atsushi didn’t mind them being there at all when he saw the older boy gently scratch behind the ears of a black kitten that’d been kneading at his ankle. Had they been able to, they would’ve liked to keep them (especially Ryuu), but the best they could do was leave out scraps for them.

 

There were so many oddities over the years. So many gaps and smears in his memory and in hindsight, Atsushi should’ve been able to notice them all. How he’d wake up in places he didn’t remember going to, his shoes being missing or dirt beneath his nails. He ought to have been able to notice them all, the flickers of white and streaks of black in the corner of his eyes— he never saw any of it.

 

If he did, the tiger covered his eyes and mind like a blindfold, constricting him from the truth.

 

He’d heard whispers of the White Beast of Cone Street. The White Cat or White Dog of the Slums. Some specter that superstitious parents and children murmured about, a wild, feral animal that stole food and wrecked buildings of those that somehow managed to anger it it. Not so small it could be as innocuous as a feral cat, not so large that any meager authority could easily catch it. It always managed to disappear before anyone managed to get a good picture of or look at it.

 

Atsushi never saw the White Beast. He’d chalked it up as nothing more than a local legend, an urban myth. Another allegorical story to keep children off of the streets at night, lest the monsters eat them.

 

How could he have known that the White Beast never existed in Cone Street until he arrived?

 

That there was nothing more than stray cats and feral dogs wandering the slums until he arrived with his strange silver hair and even odder eyes— eyes that seemed to glow a feline gold in the darkness.

 

How could he have known?

 

How could Atsushi have known?

 

How did Odasaku know?

 

How did Odasaku and Dazai and Ryuu know and not him?

 

A dull ringing clanged in his ears as Atsushi slumped against the door of Odasaku’s room, his knees having given out on him. Minutely, he lifted his hands and stared at them. Dull, thin nails sharpening into claws that could tear skin as easily as ripping wet paper, he imagined them in his mind’s eye. They were still arguing, but Atsushi couldn’t discern their words— they were as muffled as if he were listening to them speak underwater. Vague vowels and consonants, but no connection of words into sentences. Mindless sounds with no meaning.

 

If Odasaku knew, if Dazai knew, a man he’d only just met…. Ryuu had to know.

 

And if he knew, who else?

 

And if Ryuu knew—

 

Why did he never say anything?

 

How long had he known and left Atsushi completely in the dark and oh god what if he’d hurt him—

 

A choked noise violently hurtled out of Atsushi’s mouth and he crawled towards the window, pushing it up to suck in air before he passed out or threw up, his head spinning. The autumn air was cold and beautifully harsh against his face and he sucked it in greedily. His nails dug into the window pane as he breathed harshly, unaware of how the skin on the back of his neck bristled as if it were fur and his nails extended half a centimeter, sharpening and digging into wood and metal.

 

Clutching at the wooden panel of the window, Atsushi tried to steady his breathing and keep himself from throwing up. He felt the bile rise in the back of his throat and he swallowed it down painfully. His heart rammed against his chest and he sucked in a heavy breath through his nose. Unable to listen to anymore of the arguing behind the other door, he crawled back towards he closest and hid underneath the tails of coats and shirts. The light hurt too much to look at. Familiar in its cloister but different in how he wasn’t chained to the wall, Atsushi curled up and put his head between his knees, trying to breathe.

 

His nails dug into his ankles as he tried to calm his wild heartbeat.

 

Steadily, a familiar but untapped emotion began to rise within Atsushi, an emotion he’d felt often towards the man who brought him so much pain, but one that he’d rarely if never at all felt towards Ryuunosuke and Gin, who gave him something as close to a home as he’d ever felt before, and Odasaku, who’d given him a place to stay and reunited him with his family—

 

Anger.

 

Anger, for lying to him. For keeping such important information away from him.

 

For willfully putting themselves into such danger and never telling him.

 

How many times had he put Ryuu and Gin in danger? If that was true— How much did he risk their lives just by living with them?

 

How many times had he put Odasaku in danger?

 

He remembered the bandages on Odasaku’s arm all those months ago. He remembered not being able to recall where he’d gotten them, how he’d gotten as injured, and the sore sensation in the neck that he’d chalked up to sleeping badly—

 

I did that.

 

I did that. I hurt him.

 

I hurt him I hurt him oh god what if I hurt Ryuu too what else have I done who else have I hurt WHAT HAVE I DONE—

 

Nails digging into his scalp, palms pressed against his ears to drown out the sound of muffled voices, Atsushi muffled his own distressed breaths in between his knees and curled up in the darkness, wish it had the same warmth as Rashomon did. In a sudden thrust of emotion, he missed Ryuu, Gin, and their little shack horribly.

 

In that same burst, the thought of the familiar darkness and cold of the orphanage basement and wondered, not for the first time— maybe he truly did belong there.

 

Maybe he really was the beast the Headmaster always told him he was.

 

Maybe he always was a beast.

 

Maybe he didn’t deserve this new freedom at all. Maybe it was better for him to have been caged up in that cold, damp cell after all—just like the basement.


 

 

The last time Odasaku felt at such a loss, he was fourteen and reading alone on a rainy day, cloistered in a small, quiet cafe. He was lost, numb to the world, and listless until a beautiful story and the low, gentle voice of a man with eyes that knew so much Odasaku barely knew how to respond intelligently. It was the last time Odasaku had ever felt so unaware of where to go next. This was the first time he’d ever felt like that in years, staring down the wild hazel eyes of the boy he spent quiet nights drinking cheap bear and expensive whiskey with, alcohol they were both much too young to legally consume. But nothing about either of them was normal for the ages they were.

 

Now they were in a situation that Odasaku wasn’t sure he knew how to handle anymore: with Atsushi hiding away on the other side of the door, Akutagawa oblivious from the going ons and a frustrated and wild Dazai in front of him, Odasaku was stuck.

 

What else could he say to Dazai to prove that Atsushi wasn’t going to hurt him?

 

“..If Nakajima wanted to hurt me,” he said slowly, taking pains to lower his voice, curling his fingers against his sides and drawing closer to the other boy so as to hopefully get him to calm down, “He would’ve already, when he was still more emotionally unstable and scared of me. He had so many opportunities to before and he still hasn’t. He’s not like a caged lion or some animal in a zoo, about to act out at a moment’s notice, Dazai— he won’t act out unless he feels threatened in some way.”

 

His eyes narrowed, harsh and sharp.

 

“And unless you keep your voice down, Dazai, and stop trying to scare him into transforming, he will feel threatened and your nullification might not even be enough to keep him from running out into the streets right now.”

 

Dazai’s jaw twitched and for one brief moment, Odasaku thought he saw a shift in his expression that could’ve been one of relenting— had his cold mask not returned.

 

“He must’ve transformed quite a lot for you to know that.”

 

“No, he hasn’t,” snapped Odasaku swiftly, cutting in before Dazai could bolster this already messy situation to unbelievable proportions. “He’s only transformed in front of me twice and the second time he has, he didn’t do anything. He just… sat there.”

 

A harsh snort. “Oh? Like a lazy house cat, then? Just sleeping on your floor?”

 

“Yes,” he said. “That’s all he did: sleep. He didn’t try to run, he didn’t try to wreck anything, and he didn’t try to hurt anyone. He just… slept.”

 

He felt Dazai’s sharp hazel eyes on him, boring into his expression and suss out any hint that he was lying or hiding the truth from him. Odasaku was steadfast and stared back at him, unblinking.

 

“..You best not be lying to me, Odasaku.”

 

“I’m not.”

 

“Somehow I find that hard to believe after you’ve been lying to me about arranging Akutagawa-kun’s meetings with Nakajima-kun.”

 

He said it lightly as if it wasn’t as big of a deal, but the brittle smile on his lips told Odasaku that it hit much harder than Dazai was initially letting on. Dazai was a master of manipulation and concealing his emotions, but his face was still so young that he could only hide so much— and Odasaku was perceptive at reading emotions and the mood in the air. Seeing that smile on the younger boy’s face made his stomach twist uncomfortably and he swallowed.

 

“..If I didn’t let them meet, I think Nakajima would transform more,” he said slowly. “And he’d be even more uncontrollable than he was to begin with.”

 

The tension didn’t lessen and the silence from the other mafioso was suffocatingly uncomfortable. But there was a single twitch in Dazai’s eye that indicated he was listening; if he wasn’t, as he was wont to do when his subordinates told him information he already knew, his eyes have a dull glaze to their hazel sheen that proved he wasn’t paying attention to what they were saying. His stare was sharp and his mouth was tight with a displeased frown, but Dazai was listening.

 

Those eyes narrowed half a centimeter, urging him to go on.

 

Odasaku kept the recap brief: Dazai didn’t care about the extraneous details, about how he managed to catch Atsushi before he took off too far into the city, and how after a couple hours of being sedated, he returned to his human form and his tiger form hadn’t returned for nearly a month after Akutagawa and Nakajima were reunited. Odasaku made it clear in the plainest terms, as calmly as he could, that the separation from the Akutagawa siblings and the lack of information that Odasaku was able to provide Atsushi was the main factor in adding to his stress, causing so much emotional turmoil that it forced him to transform to let those emotions out when Atsushi didn’t allow himself to in a healthy way.

 

He was at a loss at how to help Atsushi learn how to let out those stressful emotions when he’d never seen such an ability before (nor, apparently, had Dazai), but Odasaku was determined to help him through it the best he could. He’d only seen the tiger three times, but that was more than enough for Odasaku to determine that not only did Atsushi transform out of his control, that the tiger came out to relief whatever stress or extreme negative emotions the boy was feeling, but that Atsushi had no memory of the tiger. He had no idea that he had the ability at all.

 

Until he’d found some kind of way to help Atsushi control his ability, Odasaku had been hoping to keep it that way so as to keep Atsushi from falling apart at the seams due to shock. He’d wanted to introduce it to Atsushi slowly, likely with the help of Akutagawa (who’d asked him once if he’d transformed at all, quiet and hushed, which told Odasaku that this was a recent revelation for the other boy), to help Atsushi ease into this self-discovery.

 

Now, Dazai had likely blown this completely out of the water. He’d been ready to throw Atsushi into a baptism by fire and god Odasaku hoped that Atsushi hadn’t connected the puzzle pieces together already: the boy was smart, and although his mind seemed to block out the tiger’s awakening and transformations, it was only a matter of time before he did. And Odasaku could only pray, something he never did, that this wouldn’t be how he did.

 

It was hard to keep his calm and not be so outwardly angry with Dazai right now as he explained what little he knew. It was tempting to tell him to get out, tell him how much damage he’d just done, how much progress that Odasaku had made with a boy who used to be so wary of him, suspicious and reclusive, and how much Dazai might’ve ruined that— Odasaku wanted to be so angry with him, and he was—

 

But Dazai kept going back to one thing:

 

Has he hurt you?

 

Those words settled in his chest and twisted something there that Odasaku couldn’t put a name to.

 

God, I want some fucking whiskey. And a smoke.

 

Rubbing his temples with a heavy exhale, Odasaku sat himself down on the couch opposite Dazai, who was leaning against the bookshelf with his arms crossed against his chest. His eyes were closed, but the tension in his shoulders had lessened: he wasn’t relaxed, but Dazai didn’t have that angry tightness in his back that he had the moment Odasaku walked in the door. It was a glimmer of just how tired he as.

 

“So Akutagawa-kun keeps the tiger tame…” murmured Dazai, a wry twist to his lips. He exhaled, a pale imitation of a laugh. “Well, that certainly does explain his sudden uphill in improvement. And he’s far better at keeping secrets than I thought possible of him; for all of his anger and hatred, Akutagawa-kun is far more honest than he’d like to believe.”

 

Odasaku raised his head, surprised; it was the first time that Dazai had ever offered any praise of his apprentice without any prompting, but he didn’t linger on that line of topic before Odasaku got a chance to inquire further.

 

“This isn’t a solution, Odasaku.”

 

The angry, vindictive heat wasn’t entirely gone— he could still feel the fury Dazai had, but it’d been curbed by something unmistakable as reluctant acceptance, disappointment.. and hurt. It made the clenched sensation in Odasaku’s chest churn uncomfortably.

 

“I know,” he murmured.

 

A beat, and then an exhale.

 

“There could be a chance of figuring out how to make sure the tiger doesn’t get out of control, if you consider allowing Nakajima-kun to start training as a mafioso—“

 

“No.”

 

Dazai paused, staring at him after his heated interruption, an unreadable expression on the younger boy's face. Odasaku glared back at him, mouth in a stern line. Irritation flashed on Dazai’s face before he sighed, rubbing the back of his neck.

 

“…Well, in that case, since you don’t want Nakajima-kun to have anything to do with the mafia, this is going to be.. much more difficult. I hope you know that.”

 

“I do,” said Odasaku, not missing a beat.

 

Dazai stared at him, expression unreadable. “And you’re prepared for that.”

 

“I am,” he said.

 

The younger boy didn’t reply for a pregnant pause: the suggestion he’d been about to make was one that Odasaku definitely would not have liked. The only solution that Dazai thought adequate to control the tiger was to put a collar on Atsushi, so that the pain would keep him in check before he went out of control. Through shock or sharp points on it, it’d keep the tiger at bay. Atsushi working for the Port Mafia officially would also give the tiger a much needed outlet, getting the violence it craved out in a way that would at least be beneficial.

 

Much as Dazai disliked the boy, his ability was unusual and powerful. He’d make an incredibly attractive asset, should the tiger be controlled, even when Dazai wasn’t in the vicinity to turn it off. If he could keep a lid on Chuuya’s ability, one that even Dazai still didn’t quite understand after the incident with Rimbaud and the Sheep, then he could easily keep tabs on Atsushi’s.

 

He even entertained the thought of how well Akutagawa’s Rashomon would work with the tiger— if only it could be controlled.

 

But with this attachment that Odasaku had developed for Atsushi, sparking a stubborn protectiveness that Dazai had never seen before in the older teenager…

 

Odasaku was already furious with him and whatever strange bond they’d developed together was teetering on the edge of a knife, unsteady ever since Odasaku carried Atsushi in his arms out of the Port Mafia holding cells, going against his strict orders. Furious as that made Dazai, seething with an ugly twist in his chest and enough to make him pierce his own skin with his nails—

 

He didn’t want to risk angering Odasaku further. Whatever it was that was still left between them—

 

Dazai’s stomach dropped at the mere thought of Odasaku being so angry with him that he’d never join him at Lupin’s again. And Dazai’s dislike of Atsushi wasn’t enough to overcome that.

 

Those hours spent together was the one thing that hadn’t been tainted. Dazai wasn’t going to let that be stained, not yet.

 

He’d cling onto this for as long as he could.

 

Exhaling, he hung his head down, feeling far more tired than he could last recall. “I’m not going to apologize for coming here, Odasaku— but I’m not going to try to drag Nakajima-kun back to the holding cells.” He gave the other boy a severe look. “He might not be volatile right now, but there’s no saying that the tiger won’t go out of control at some point later on. And he needs to find some way to control or contain it— it’s fortunate that he’s yet to kill or eat someone without his knowing.”

 

Odasaku exhaled, his hands closing and opening in frustrated fists. “I know, Dazai. And I’ll figure it out, somehow. He’s been… good, so far. I trust him not to transform on me and attack like that.”

 

Dazai hummed, skeptical, but wisely kept from saying something nasty in rebuke. “Well… since Nakajima-kun seems to not have known about his ability at all, the sooner he learns of it, the quicker we might be able to find a way to allow him to have some modicum of control.”

 

Odasaku paused and raised his head towards Dazai.

 

“..We?”

 

Dazai turned his head, looking out the window at the foggy evening skyline.

 

“I’ve seen for myself just what the tiger is capable of, Odasaku. I know just how dangerous Nakajima-kun can be if left unchecked. He’s already put you in danger once, and though he’s not done so since… I suppose I cannot let you find a way to get him to control his tiger all on your own. Besides—“

 

He shot Odasaku a sneering look, smug and condescending. “You wouldn’t even know where to start, would you?”

 

Odasaku hadn’t come close to forgiving Dazai for what he’d just done with Atsushi— wouldn’t for who knew how long. He was still angry at the other boy, even as his chest twisted oddly at how desperately Dazai looked at him, as if pleading him to understand something in a language Odasaku didn’t understand. He was listening calmly, for now, but he would give the other boy a piece of his mind later.

 

However—

 

Sighing, Odasaku pinched the bridge of his nose, exhaustion filling him. “..Any help you can give me about how to make sure he doesn’t hurt himself… would be really appreciated, Dazai.”

 

The other boy hummed, satisfied, and the tension in Dazai’s shoulders loosened. They went rigid again when Odasaku stood, eyes narrowed sharply and mouth taut.

 

“But don’t think I’d just forget about what you just did to Nakajima, Dazai. I don’t want to see you ever talk to him like that again. If you wanted him to learn about his own ability that was not the way to go about it.”

 

There was a subtle widening of Dazai’s eyes, a slight tremor of his lips, before his expression hardened.

 

“Better he learns now before he kills someone.”

 

Odasaku clenched his jaw. “I’m not arguing with you about this again, Dazai— I appreciate your… concern, and all, but this was not the way to do it. Don’t you ever talk to him like that again. He’s not one of your subordinates that you can slap around.”

 

The jab came out unbidden, recalling all of the bruises and injuries Akutagawa had on him the many times he saw the young boy, and Dazai noticed, lips twitching into a an angry curl.

 

“I’d watch it, Odasaku,” he said smoothly, “Or else Akutagawa-kun just might get into an accident that could incapacitate him for more than a month or more and Nakajima-kun won’t be able to use him as a cap on the tiger. For all you know, he could be sent on a mission just next week that he might not come back to.”

 

And there’s nothing you can do about that.

 

Dazai’s lips twisted in a brittle upturn curve. “And what will Nakajima-kun and yourself do then?”

 

Breath catching sharply, anger flooded through Odasaku like a hot bolt of electricity in his bones, and his mouth parted, unable to keep his voice from raising once again—

 

A loud, dull noise came from inside his bedroom, like the sound of a window opening. Then, the sound of what might’ve been the paper blinds on his windows flapping against the walls from the draft that came in.

 

Body going slack, Odasaku didn’t hear the muffed call of Dazai’s name as he threw his bedroom door open.

 

“Nakajima—!”

 

His palm dug into the frame of the doorway, only to find his closet door open, the paper blinds flapping from the breeze outside, and an open window showing the dark, late evening skyline.

 

Atsushi was nowhere to be found.

 

Fuck.”

 


 

Gin didn’t like living in such a high rise building, but since the Port Mafia gave her and her brother this apartment and the last place they lived in was a shack made of rotten wood and on the verge of sinking in on itself, she was loathe to bring up the idea of moving somewhere where they could have an apartment closer to the ground. She did what she could to make herself comfortable in such a cold, sterile apartment, unused to the amount of space offered to them: she should’ve been thrilled. She was left feeling cold and lost when she found herself alone in the apartment. It only felt more like a home when Ryuunosuke was there; they still huddled together in one of their rooms when they went to bed.

 

But it wasn’t the same without their third member. They were able to see each other, now, but it still wasn’t the same as living together. She could see the chasm it left in both her brother and in Atsushi, only filled when they were all together. When they were all together, it felt as if they truly could all be together again.

 

The one place they’d yet to spend together was the Akutagawa apartment and while they’d discussed when they could bring Atsushi over to their apartment (maybe asking Oda if he could stay or even, in the future, move in with them permanently), there weren’t any concrete plans in place.

 

It was a rare night that both Ryuunosuke and herself were home and as the sun set, they fell into something as close to relaxation as they could. Until Ryuunosuke got the call from Atsushi.

 

Gin didn’t know what was said between them and didn’t think much on it at first, since Atsushi and Ryuunosuke talked on the phone fairly often now that the former had a phone, and she herself enjoyed occasional phone calls with him— but something about this was different.

 

She could tell simply by the look on her brother’s face.

 

“He didn’t sound right,” Ryuunosuke muttered, the phone laying docile by his hip once the call was over. “He didn’t say what was wrong, but—I could just tell. There’s something wrong.”

 

Gin pursed her lips, brow furrowed. She glanced towards the door where their shoes were.

 

But neither of them had much time to deliberate on whether or not to rush to Oda’s apartment complex, because there was an incessant paging of their room and floor bell.

 

Gin felt her brother stiffen, eyes widened like a stray animal pushed into a corner: only a select people knew of their address, those few being Dazai, the Port Mafia boss, and Atsushi. Dazai sometimes pulled Ryuunosuke out of bed in the middle of the night for training, calling it practice for when he’d be called on duty for a mission because he could be assigned at any day, at any hour, no matter what other plans he had. But Dazai rarely used the doorbell: he came and went as he pleased, as if locks and codes meant nothing to him (they didn’t). The Port Mafia Boss, Mori Ougai, had yet to call upon them since they were still training and not ready to be out in the field.

 

Rashomon trembled on the hems of Ryuunosuke’s sweater sleeves while Gin rushed to the front door to press the button to allow Atsushi in. She waited by the door, listening through for any approaching footsteps.

 

She only had to hear a few to know who it was. She had her hand on the door ready by the time they stopped and she pulled the door open before a knock could even be heard. She met golden rimmed eyes that were wide, bright, and saw that Atsushi’s feet were bare—yet somehow, unhurt by the streets. There was a faint sheen on his skin; he’d had to have run the entire way to their apartment. His cheeks were flushed and his breathing was quick, but he didn’t seem tired at all.

 

Atsushi’s expression was one of pure panic.

 

He barely said a word as he was brought inside, barely taking a moment to look over their apartment that he’d not seen before, and taken over to the couch where he sat down, mute. Gin rushed to the bathroom to wet a towel and Ryuunosuke prepared tea (their collection had steadily grown since their first proper trip to a grocery store, where Ryuunosuke stood in the tea and coffee aisle for a solid ten minutes, simply looking over all of the choices). He barely even spoke over a mumble of thanks when Ryuunosuek gave him the tea, sipping at his cup quietly.

 

The siblings waited for his breathing to calm down and for Atsushi to take a few more sips of his tea before Ryuunosuke leaned forward and frowned, eyes narrowed sharply.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

Gin stood from behind the couch, watching over her brother’s head. She was too restless and worried to sit down. She’d seen Atsushi’s.. episodes, before, when they still lived together; only Ryuunosuke was truly capable of calming him down and bringing Atsushi back to earth. Gin would still be there as support and she was loathe to leave them.

 

But there was something else— something else that her brother had to have noticed by now: Atsushi could barely seem to look at either of them.

 

He barely looked at them as he exhaled and he squeezed his legs in to his chest, like a cat curling up defensively, instead of trying to reach out for her brother. When Atsushi finally spoke, he was quiet, his voice distant.

 

“..You once got into a fight with a stray dog over food when you were six, right, Ryuu? It bit you really badly on the arm and it took weeks to heal.” He mumbled, staring down into his tea. “That’s why you hate them, right.”

 

Back straightening, Ryuunosuke blinked. He worked his jaw and the lines of his forehead.

 

“..Yes, but that was years ago,” he said slowly. “What does that have to do with anything?”

 

Atsushi sipped from his cup, holding it close to his face. He still wouldn’t look up at them.

 

“You don’t like dogs, but you love cats. I liked them, too,” he smiled faintly, but twisted uncomfortably. “You’d feed whatever scraps you could to them, and when I still lived back at the orphanage, I’d give them what little chicken I had left over. There were lots of feral and stray cats around the orphanage. So many of them. I’d see litters of kittens around the chicken coop every spring. I used to feed them what I could.”

 

Atsushi’s smile widened and he laughed softly.

 

“They’d follow me around, too. I don’t know how they got in, but sometimes they would get inside the library and I’d read to them like they were little kids. Whenever I had to do chores outside, they’d hover around. It felt like they were my only friends there.”

 

A pause.

 

His voice lowered into a murmur.

 

“When I talked to them, it seemed like they would listen. Like, they could— understand what I was saying. I talked to the cats all the time because I couldn’t talk to anyone else. And sometimes… I thought they could talk back.”

 

A sharp inhale came from her brother as Gin’s shoulders tightened. She glanced at him and swallowed, watching it slowly dawn on Ryuunosuke’s face.

 

He knows.

 

Oh god, he knows .

 

Struck silent, the siblings said nothing and Atsushi continued, his smile turning more grim.

 

“I tried to keep it a secret for as long as I could. Tried to hide the kittens that kept following me around. But the other children there started to notice. Saw me talking to them. Saw me giving my scraps to them when they were hungry. They told Headmaster that I was stealing food from the kitchen.”

 

His hands clenched tight around the mug.

 

“I got punished for it, naturally,” he said flatly. “And I don’t know what or how they did it, but the staff did something to keep the cats away. I didn’t see them hang around the grounds anymore. I didn’t see anymore cats until I started living with the both of you.”

 

Atsushi kept his eyes on his tea, the liquid growing lukewarm in his touch, and his grip on the cup loosened. He was silent.

 

Ryuunosuke clenched and unclenched his jaw, curling his fingers anxiously. His lips parted and closed, desperately trying to think of what to say in response to such an enigmatic story, a story that made his chest clench with anger at just how poorly Atsushi had been treated by that man and that place, but also distress at where this was going— and how long it was taking to get there.

 

“..Atsushi—“ He started, his voice soft.

 

But Atsushi didn’t let him continue.

 

“You remember what they used to say? Back in Cone Street? About the White Beast?” Atsushi smiled, but it was grim. “I always thought it was just some stupid rumor, like a stray dog or a really big cat— I didn’t think it was real.”

 

His fingers began to shake against his cup.

 

Ryuunosuke swallowed hard. Gin’s fingers dug into the top of the couch.

 

“Were you ever going to tell me?” Atsushi whispered. “Were you going to tell me at all or were you going to wait until I killed or ate someone? Or would you not tell me at all until I woke up to see one of you dead or torn up?!

 

Atsushi was gripping the cup so hard it started to creak under the pressure and he was looking at them now, the gold in his eyes bright with anger and fear that left both of the siblings speechless.

 

Ryuunosuke’s eyes were wide with alarm and Gin stepped in, knowing that her brother was too much at a loss for words, reaching around the couch to grab Atsushi’s cup before he could break it.

 

“You wouldn’t hurt us, Atsushi-kun,” she said, lowering the cup to the coffee table. “I know you wouldn’t—“

 

“I don’t even know when it— when it comes out!” he interrupted, eyes wild, his voice continuing to raise. “I don’t remember ever turning into a tiger! I don’t remember! I don’t know how or why it happens! I— I always just thought I didn’t have an ability and Ryuu I always thought you were so amazing because you did have one and you have such good control of Rashomon and all this time, I—“

 

Atsushi started to shake, clutching himself and curling into a ball. Sweat started to show on the skin of his forehead and he breathed heavily.

 

I could’ve hurt you,” he croaked.

 

His eyes were shut tight and his lip was trembling. He bit hard on the bottom one to keep himself to wrenching out the wails that wanted to come out, fighting back the stinging in his eyes. Ryuunosuke had seen that look on his face more than enough times after Atsushi’s nightmares of that man and that place— never about himself. Never about himself and Gin.

 

“All this time, I could’ve hurt you,” Atsushi said, his voice breaking into cracks as he rubbed at his eyes with the heel of his palms. “I could’ve hurt you both so many times and I would’ve never been able to forgive myself I hurt Oda-san already I can’t hurt you too— Ryuu— Gin-chan— I can’t— I can’t hurt either of y—“

 

A sudden weight flew at Atsushi that cut him off with a gasp, wide eyes burning and blinking at the dark halls of the apartment as Ryuunosuke wrapped his arms around him. Flying forward from the opposite couch, Ryuunosuke buried his face in Atsushi’s shoulder and wrapped his arms tight around his middle. The warm pulse of Rashomon coiled around his waist, his arms, and his wrists. Atsushi faintly felt the stutter of Rashomon’s faux breath and heartbeat, practically purring in his ear to comfort him with its gentle but firm hold.

 

Sink into me, breathe into me: I will keep you safe.

 

I’m sorry,” breathed into his ear in a rasp, making Atsushi shiver at the sheer emotion that overflowed from the other boy, wrapped completely in his embrace. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t know until that day, I didn’t, I would’ve never kept something like that from you I’m sorry, Atsushi—“

 

Atsushi felt his lip tremble when he felt another pair of arms wrap around him, a gentle delicate but strong pair of hands pressing against his hair. He felt Gin tremble and breathe, wrapping herself around her brothers.

 

He heard her breathy stutter as she inhaled and the tears let themselves loose.

 

“We didn’t know, Atsushi-kun,” she whispered into his hair, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

 

Trembling hands rose from his knees, and after a held beat, letting their I’m sorry I’m sorry We didn’t know We Didn’t sink into his bones, Atsushi rose his arms to embrace the two most important people in his life back.

 

And in their safe hold, a hold that felt more like home than any roof over his head would ever feel like, Atsushi wept like a child.

 

He wept for his fear, he wept for his relief, and he wept for his gratitude of having these two people in his life.

 

Together, their arms wrapped around each other in the dark, a boy wept and his loved ones listened, and it was peace.

 


 

 

It felt wrong to walk into Lupin’s for a much needed drink after leaving Odasaku’s apartment, and so Dazai instead wandered aimlessly towards another bar that he frequented when he otherwise couldn’t make it to his usual favorite. One that was more commonly frequented by Port Mafia members. Lupin’s was more out of the way and smaller, quieter, than the usual haunts of Port Mafia members. As a result, it was far more upscale and chic, where only the absurdly rich could afford to get in. The owners had their pockets in the Port Mafia for protection and illegal liqueurs they couldn’t otherwise get in Japan or through proper imports. Mafia meetings often took place at this bar and it was a favorite of most members, to the point that many came even during their hours off of work.

 

Dazai hated it.

 

He would never go to this bar unless it was strictly for work. Even just walking through the doors made him sneer and want to throw their bottle of Yamazaki whiskey at the wall and watch the dark brown liquid slither down the wall. He wanted to smash all of their glasses and then step on the pieces; maybe hearing the crunch of glass beneath his shoes would bring him some peace and maybe the shards would pierce through the leather, cutting into the soles of his feet. He hated this fucking place.

 

And yet, he still sat down at the bar and ordered the strongest sake they had. They never charged him; they knew who he was. The sake burned beautifully in his throat as he downed it in one gulp. He almost broke the little cup on the counter when he slammed it down, his grip so tight it strained the bandages coating his knuckles.

 

“Again,” he croaked, holding out the cup to the bartender. The bartender silently poured more for him and Dazai drank, almost choking when he drank it too fast. But it wouldn’t be enough to kill him.

 

It never was.

 

If he could, he’d drink himself into unconsciousness and curl up under the barstools to sleep the rest of the night away, or lounge on one of the many couches that adorned the establishment. The staff would dare to try to kick him out: they’d seen what Dazai was capable of more than enough times. He hated this bar, but he’d more willing to sleep here than have to lug himself back to the high rise mansion. At least, here he wouldn’t be reminded of Odasaku’s face when he realized that the Nakajima brat was gone and whatever hope of dealing with this issue in the way of their companionship quickly and painlessly was taken with the weretiger.

 

Hitting his forehead on the countertop with a thud, Dazai groaned loudly. The pain didn’t bother him. The patrons and the bar staff ignored him. He was glad for it. Lifting his head, he glared at the class of sake and lazily ran his finger along the edges, very much missing the more dulcet tones from Lupin’s choice of music and the sound of Odasaku’s deep voice talking about nothing and everything.

 

His head was a mess and his throat and chest hurt and Dazai felt restless and tired all at the same time. He didn’t know what the meant: he just wanted it all to shut up and be over.

 

Why couldn’t Oda understand?

 

But before Dazai could either torture himself into a blackout or inhale so much sake that he’d vomit all over his lap and the countertop, the door to the bar was forced open with a quick, forceful, but restrained kick.

 

Finally, shitface.”

 

Gritting his teeth, Dazai didn’t bother to hide how he slumped in his seat as his mouth curled with disgust.

“Why does it have to be youuuuuuu,” he groaned.

 

“Fuck off, asshole,” Chuuya snapped, the bar stool squeaking as he pushed it to allow himself a seat on top of it. “I can hear you just as well as I can see your ugly ass face—“

 

You’re ugly, you orange haired monkey.”

 

“—But too fuckin’ bad ‘cuz the boss stuck us together for this next mission that you should’ve met me and him with a week ago to talk about but you were too fuckin’ busy sulkin’ like a brat— which I know ain’t hard for you.”

 

“Get to the point, slug,” Dazai snapped, all too tempted to toss his glass in Chuuya’s face just to shut him up for good. “And I was not sulking, you imbecile—“

 

“Whatever, shitface,” he snarled, and then turned his attention to the bartender (who lit up at the sight of Chuuya; he always tipped well and he was vastly more polite and amiable to deal with than Dazai, if on the violent side on occasion). “Got anything new to offer me tonight?”

 

The man smiled and his barback, a young lady whose brother was a direct subordinate under Chuuya, grinned widely and winked at the younger boy; Dazai resisted the urge to gag. Disgusting.

 

“A Chateau Margaux, perhaps, Nakahara-san?”

 

Chuuya grinned wolfishly.

 

“I’ll take it.”

 

The bartender nodded and immediately went into the reserves at the back of the house, where they kept the best wines and liquors for their Port Mafia patrons. The young lady and Chuuya greeted each other and Dazai ignored them, too grossed out by how stupidly nice Chuuya was being to the girl: a sentimental reminder of the stupid girl he once ran with on the streets, certainly. How stupid. She was so insipid that Dazai had already forgotten her name.

 

Snorting into his sake, Dazai rolled his eyes when Chuuya tipped his even stupider hat to the bartender when he received his glass, cheering the man for serving him, and taking a drink that was even more obnoxious than Chuuya already was just by breathing.

 

“What does Mori-san want, now?”

 

All good cheer on Chuuya’s face withered into pure dislike when he turned his attention back to Dazai: while they’d grudgingly agreed to work together, Chuuya had no forgotten the incidents that brought him into the Port Mafia, and the sheer clash of personality between himself and Dazai didn’t help any. That Chuuya needed Dazai to keep his ability from going haywire didn’t help the red-haired boy’s mood any. Fortunately, he was strong enough just on his own that he climbed the ranks quickly to the point that he was a squad leader now.

 

For the lower echelons of the Port Mafia, it was a race to see who would be promoted to executive first.

 

Dazai spitefully wondered if he still thought about Rimbaud once in a while and saw the man in Mori. Chuuya was dumb enough to.

 

Chuuya took another lingering sip of his wine just to spite Dazai, successfully annoying the other boy, and a pleased flush was already growing on his cheeks. “There’s word of a sister organization in Sapporo wanting to start a mutiny, so, Boss wants us to take care of it.”

 

“Ah,” said Dazai dully, running his finger over his glass in pure boredom. “So, complete annihilation.”

 

He yawned obnoxiously, causing Chuuya to roll his eyes with another swig of his drink. He finished it and pushed his drink forward on the counter: the bartender immediately poured him another glass.

 

“We’re leaving tonight,” Chuuya said, with more adult like authority than his youth would belie, acting like the older execs in how he carried himself with confidence and drinking his wine as if he’d been suckled on it. “So, pack your shit up and get going. The car’s going to be waiting at eleven.”

 

Dazai hummed. After a thoughtful pause, he took another swig of his drink.

 

“Nope,” he chirped.

 

A deadly silence fell between them.

 

Red seemed to crackle around Chuuya as sky blue fixed on him, broiling like a hot sea. Arahabaki stirred beneath his flesh, delighting in its host’s anger: it thrived on that spite and bloodlust.

 

“Hah?” It was spoken quietly. Dangerously.

 

“I said,” Dazai said slowly, enunciating each and every word as if he were speaking to an especially stupid toddler, “That I’m not going. Why not just handle it by yourself? You’re more than capable, aren’t you? I’m sure you don’t need me to tag along.”

He grinned and Chuuya grit his teeth, his fingers curling tightly around the glass.

 

They both knew how much of a lie that was. Dazai didn’t care.

 

Let Chuuya be destroyed by Arahabaki from the inside out for all he cared— Dazai had none of the energy nor the motivation to go out of town and do Mori’s dirty work for him. The thought of being able to annoy Chuuya wasn’t even tempting to him. He just wanted to lay in his bathtub in his apartment, surrounded by bottles of sake, vodka, and some arsenic if he could steal it from Mori’s medical cabinet. If he could bathe and drink himself into a lovely early grave, all the better.

 

He was not leaving this city.

 

Chuuya’s grip on his class was so tight that if he had any less control over his own strength, it would’ve shattered into pieces.

 

“What I want doesn’t fucking matter when it’s the Boss giving us a job,” he hissed, blue eyes flashing (light, bright with fury— intense, but not in that contemplative way Odasaku’s eyes were, so heavy and lost in something Dazai couldn’t reach). “It’s not a fuckin’ choice, you bastard. Pick your shit up or just wear whatever you’ve got on you— our flight is in four hours. Whether you show up or not ain’t my fuckin’ problem, you can take that up with the boss if you’re gonna be such a bratty bitch about going.”

 

Dazai rolled his eyes and barely gave Chuuya any acknowledgement of his warning as he continued to drink, earning a growl that vibrated in Chuuya’s throat. Red electricity crackled around Chuuya’s fingertips, clenched into fists. Dazai offered him a cool, unsmiling glance.

 

He wasn’t afraid of this little lab rat.

 

He heard Chuuya breathing harshly through his teeth in a hiss before he collected himself enough to leave the bartender and his daughter a generous tip. He gave them a much more amiable goodbye and a grin, but Dazai felt his glare pierce through the back of Dazai’s coat. Dazai ignored him and stared into his cup of sake, lukewarm and unfinished.

 

Dazai sat in the same spot in the bar that he hated long after closing time came by. The bartender and his daughter were gone for the night and the flight he was supposed to be on was leaving in an hour. Dazai slouched against the counter and stared through the glass.

 

The door opened with a soft hiss of air. The sound of footsteps, shoes polished and clean, joined soon after.

 

Dazai dug his nails against the counter.

 

There was a slick smile in his voice— “Evening, Dazai-kun. We must be going now.”

Picking up the glass gently in his grasp, Dazai threw it against the wall. It shattered into pieces against the metal lining the bar wall. Some pieces fell onto the counter, grazing his hands and face.

 

Mori’s smile never wavered.

 

Dazai was on the plane not thirty minutes later, watching as Yokohama’s skyline disappeared into smeared colors and blurred lines.

 


 

 

The first person Odasaku called was Ryuunosuke.

 

Logically, in the minds of anyone else that didn’t know Atsushi as well as Odasaku was starting to know, he should’ve called Mishima first to see if Atsushi had gone there. He should’ve called the police after to report a missing child or a runaway. Calling the police was out of the question, though, (corrupt cops weren’t out of the norm, of course, but the government was slowly closing in on them through their special ability users task force), being that Odasaku was still a mafioso. Plus, he knew that Atsushi wouldn’t go to Mishima first.

 

He’d go to the Akutagawas. He’d go to Ryuunosuke.

 

In his heart, Odasaku knew that Atsushi trusted the Akutagawa siblings more than he did anyone else. More than he’d ever trust anyone else. Odasaku had been hoping to have build more of a trust with Atsushi over time and then steadily reveal the truth about his ability, so that this exact thing wouldn’t happen. Ideally, he would’ve had the Akutagawa siblings present.

 

But that was all out of their hands now.

 

Odasaku nearly threw his phone at the wall in sheer panic when Ryuunosuke didn’t answer his phone at first, worried that maybe Dazai had gone so low as to tamper with the lines (he ignored the smidgen of guilt he felt at just thinking that: he was still too angry with Dazai and far too scared about the possibility of the tiger emerging again and running the streets of Yokohama). He audibly exhaled a breath of relief when, after the third attempt, someone picked up.

 

It wasn’t Ryuunosuke. It was Gin. That was plenty enough.

 

“He’s here,” she said before Odasaku could even ask.

 

Odasaku sagged against the wall of his apartment complex and slid down to the ground. Between his knees, he breathed, and felt so much younger than he should’ve.

 

“Oda-san?” Gin sounded worried and her tone reminded Odasaku that, right, he was still on the phone with her.

 

Sucking in a breath between his teeth to calm himself, he asked, “How is he..?”

 

A hesitant beat. “He’s… asleep, right now,” she said: her voice was low, quiet, as if she were trying not to wake someone. “He was exhausted— he was.. so upset, when he got here..”

 

Guilt twisted in his chest like a disease.

 

“..He knows, doesn’t he,” said Odasaku in a murmur.

 

Another beat of silence.

 

“Yes,” she said, “He does.”

 

Gin sounded exhausted, even more exhausted than Odasaku felt, and the guilt flooded through him to have brought his burden upon Gin, her brother, and Atsushi. Atsushi never should’ve found out this way. Never. Odasaku would never forgive himself for this. And he wasn’t sure he could forgive Dazai right now, either— but the impetus was on him to tell Atsushi, and yet…

 

Odasaku swallowed hard, and then breathed out.

 

“I’ll be there in a few hours,” he said, “Let… let him sleep. It’s been a long day for him.”

 

Gin hummed in agreement, mumbled all right, goodnight Oda-san, and hung up. Odasaku stared at the blackened screen of his phone and felt a sudden urge to throw it at the wall. Instead, he stuffed it in his pocket and held his head in his hands, exhaling shakily.

 

It was five AM when Odasaku managed to bring himself over the high rise complex the Akutagawa siblings lived in, more than a few train stops away from where Odasaku lived with Atsushi. Atsushi had left his shoes at the apartment. He had to have run the entire way, barefoot and without a train pass. It pained Odasaku to even think about, making the guilt fester even more in his stomach: he hoped Atsushi’s feet hadn’t been ripped apart by whatever was on the streets and sidewalks.

 

And how had he gotten there so fast? Had he turned into the tiger while on the run..?

 

Odasaku didn’t want to dwell on it, lest the feeling of guilt overwhelm him completely.

 

Gin was awake to let him inside the building and Odasaku felt almost dirty to be in a place as pristine as the inside of this expensive apartment complex. It felt wrong for him to be here: he wondered how it made the Akutagawas to be here, given where they’d grown up for most of their lives. He quickly made his way to a common space area on the floor the siblings lived in, waiting.

 

He sat down on a couch that was stiff and uncomfortable, yet sank underneath his weight, and fidgeted with his fingers. He waited for another hour, until the sun rising over the skyline was a faint lavender and peach color.

 

Oda heard the soft footsteps. He closed his eyes as they grew louder and louder, until they came to a stop right in front of him. Slowly, he raised his head and opened his eyes.

 

Sunset colored eyes stared back at him.

 

Atsushi’s hands were clenched into fists at his sides and his feet were bare. He was still wearing the clothes he’d worn the night before. There were slight bags under his eyes. Oda, thankfully, didn’t see any injuries on his feet.

 

The boy trained his jaw and he glared at Odasaku, but it was tempered by the slight tremble of his bottom lip and the wetness of his eyes.

 

“Did you know?” croaked Atsushi.

 

Odasaku pursed his lips.

 

Did you know?

 

Odasaku took a deep breath, briefly closed his eyes, and folded his hands tightly together. Shame didn’t allow him to look at the boy proper, but he forced himself to: remorse and guilt was apparent in his expression, the most honest he’d ever felt in front of Atsushi.

 

“I did. I’ve known from the beginning.”