Responses

PenguinOtaku-Thank you so much for your comment! I've definitely put in a lot of effort into the character progression. I'm so happy you noticed =D

HOLAA913-Hii! I'm back yet again! Yeah, Dazai is definitely trying to work through a lot, so he's kind of all over the place.

Land of Insanity-Lol! Don't we all though! I used to have a mug with cherry blossoms on it that turned from white to pink when I put hot water in it. That was my inspiration for the chameleon mug.

jilnachtaugen-I'm so glad you've been enjoying this story! Both Atsushi and Dazai are making progress, and it's been really fun to write. I really hope you like this chapter!

Dratias- Thank you so much for your comment! =D I definitely would want to squeeze Chuuya in again at some point, but I guess we'll see if that happens. I do actually have another Port Mafia Atsushi fic in the works (several if we count all the Port Mafia Atsushi stories that I want to write someday) Demon Prodigy's Apprentice. Chuuya will be a big part of that story. Akutagawa will be discussed in this chapter. Atsushi and Dazai are definitely working their way to a better place. I really hope you enjoy this chapter. Thanks again for your awesome comment!

Bungoufan-Hi! Thanks! Everything is well, kinda crazy, but well. Here's chapter 19! Hope you enjoy it!

Hiiii! Oh my gosh, I haven't added anything to this story in so long! I swear, I've been working on this for so long. I didn't think it would take me this long, but here we are several months later. Ultrasound school has been insane, and I have less time to write these days, and I need the determination of a shonen protagonist to get through my classes. But I will definitely write when I get the chance.

It happened gradually. So much so that Atsushi didn't even notice until the day Dazai asked him to run to the store and buy some more coffee. He'd made it to the grocery store before realizing that he had-for the first time in what felt like years-gone out alone. The realization made his stomach twist sharply for a moment, but he had made it there, so he just bought the coffee and left as quickly as he could.

When he made it back to the apartment, Dazai's face was impossibly smug. A small part of Atsushi wanted to throw the container of coffee at that smirk. Instead, he dropped the grocery bag into Dazai's lap.

"I got your coffee," he said flatly. Then, "Something bad could have happened, you know."

"But nothing did," Dazai pointed out.

Atsushi sighed heavily, crossing his arms. "Something could have," he mumbled under his breath before going to his room and shutting the door with more force than needed. His heartbeat pulsed in his skull, and the urge to punch a hole in the wall had never been stronger. He was in no mood to listen to Dazai tell him he was being overdramatic.

He wasn't being overdramatic.

He was being careful.

Could Dazai not understand that other people weren't as smart or confident or daring as he was?

Atsushi had been lucky this time. He'd been lucky that the tiger hadn't decided to take over. He'd been lucky, and that was all.

He ran a hand through his hair, trying to push the irritation from his head. Annoyance was never a pleasant emotion, and he didn't want it to let something ugly take root. So, he sat down and grabbed a book from the growing pile beside his bed.

His blood cooled down a bit as he skimmed the pages. After turning to the last page and closing the book, he took a deep breath in and exhaled slowly. He was still less than pleased with Dazai sending him off to the grocery store, and he was even less pleased with himself for running the errand without realizing what he was doing until it was too late.

But he could get past that.

His stomach growled and he remembered that he hadn't eaten since early in the morning. The sun was almost out of sight now.

"You're not still upset with me, are you?" Dazai said when Atsushi opened the door and came into the kitchen.

Atsushi shrugged. "A little." He padded past Dazai to rummage through the fridge.

Dazai clicked his tongue. "It's not as though I deceived you, Atsushi-kun. I asked you to run an errand, and you did it."

"What would you have done if I'd lost control?"

"You weren't going to lose control. I know you might find this hard to believe, but your control over your ability has improved immensely in the time we've known each other." He paused, pointing to the open refrigerator, "Can you hand me the leftovers?"

Atsushi complied.

"Thank you," Dazai said as he took the container from Atsushi's hand. Then, "You haven't shifted since we moved in, and you only shifted once when we were staying in motels. Several full moons, and no white tiger."

Atsushi opened his mouth to argue.

"Unless your life is in danger, I doubt you'll transform," Dazai remarked before Atsushi could say anything.

"But-"

"And how do you expect to function independently if you refuse to go out alone? I can't be there all the time; it's not practical."

This conversation made Atsushi's head hurt. He knew all of that already. He knew he couldn't cling to Dazai forever or expect to stay within his reach all the time. But that knowledge didn't change the ice he felt in his veins when he thought about losing control again.

"I know," he muttered after a moment of silence.

Dazai sighed. "Fear is debilitating, I understand that, but this is still something we'll have to work on."

"Okay," Atsushi said, shutting the refrigerator door, his appetite gone.

Dazai seemed to study him for a moment. "Well done today though."

Atsushi paused. "Thanks," he said after struggling with what to say for a minute.

/-/-/

Atsushi's room-as well as the rest of the apartment- grew cluttered over time. He still tried to stay close to Dazai when going out in public, though less so now than a few months ago.

It all built up after a while, all the little trinkets he decided to buy, things he liked the feel or look of. A color changing key chain, a potted aloe plant, a candle that smelled like cinnamon, a lighter for the candle, a bookmark with a chameleon printed on it. Small things like that.

And, of course, books.

He brought home a sizable stack of books every time he went to a bookstore, which was often.

The books varied from novels to short stories to textbooks.

"Why did you get a biology textbook?" Dazai had asked when he glanced over Atsushi's purchase. Then, "And a literature textbook? And a health textbook?"

Atsushi had shrugged. "I was curious about it."

In truth, he'd decided to get the textbooks because he had overheard some kids his age preparing for an exam in a nearby cafe and had been somewhat dismayed to realize that he had absolutely no idea what they were talking about.

It had made him wonder if he was behind in his education. It wasn't unlikely, he supposed. He'd been thrown from the orphanage when he was fourteen. He'd still had schooling to complete, and it wasn't as though the orphanage had given him a quality education to begin with.

He supposed, while not ideal, he could try to teach himself. Asking Dazai was an option, but he wasn't sure he really wanted that. It was somewhat unreasonable since they were in a massively different situation now, but the last time Dazai had taught him hadn't been pleasant.

So, he bought a few notebooks and practice test books, resolved to study the material.

It took some time, but he managed to work out a study schedule that didn't overwhelm him, but was productive. After a few weeks, he decided that he liked it. Admittedly, biology wasn't his favorite topic, but it felt normal.

It was normal, right?

Normal teenagers had a few classes they didn't like.

Of course, his situation wasn't normal. He knew that, but somehow he couldn't help sinking into the illusion. He liked living in his imagined reality, pretending he wasn't hiding from the Port Mafia, telling himself he wasn't something abnormal. It was a temporary, shallow-as-skin comfort.

/-/-/

Atsushi laid sprawled across the floor, scribbling terms and definitions on index cards. It was a slow process, but it was calming.

"I'm back," Dazai's voice called from the front door. "Can you help me with some of these groceries?"

Atsushi exhaled and abandoned his cards to help carry some groceries. When he got a glimpse outside, he was surprised to see how dark it was. He must have lost track of time.

Dazai struggled to hold the several bags he was carrying, which made Atsushi wonder how he'd managed to carry everything over from the store.

"I would have come with you if you'd asked," he muttered, taking one of Dazai's handfuls of plastic bags. "What did you buy?" he asked as he hefted his load; it was heavier than usual.

Dazai didn't answer any of his questions, instead, he just flexed the fingers of his free hand and said, "Ah, so glad for the help. That bag was cutting off circulation to my fingers."

He let the matter drop in favor of carrying the strangely heavy bags to the kitchen.

It was weird that Dazai didn't bring him along to the store. Typically, Dazai never missed an opportunity to try to reintegrate Atsushi into normal society. Most of the time, Dazai half dragged him along on any errand, even if he could do it himself.

"Why did you go without me?" he asked again when they started to put away the food.

"I didn't want to interrupt your studying."

Then, he pulled out a bottle of liquor.

Atsushi raised his eyebrows.

"What?"

Atsushi shifted his weight from one foot to another. "Uhh-I don't remember you bringing back alcohol before now." He toyed with the hem of his shirt, not knowing what else to say.

"Right, well," Dazai began, pushing a hand through his hair. "Today is a bit of an exception to the norm."

Dazai's mouth turned downward, and his eyes looked far away.

"It's been a year," he said quietly.

"A year since wha-" Atsushi began, stopping himself when all the pieces clicked together. "Oh," he murmured before swallowing the knot that had formed in his throat.

"Yeah, since Odasaku died."

They stood in silence for a few seconds.

"So," Dazai said, his voice returning to his normal tone and volume. It was forced. "I thought we could have a drink tonight since he and I used to drink together."

"Umm…" Atsushi laced and unlaced his fingers. "I-I'm underage," he murmured.

Dazai nodded. "I know. You don't have to drink if you don't want to." He shrugged. "You can do whatever you want," he remarked, his tone neutral.

He grabbed one of the few glasses they had, opened the bottle, and filled the glass a quarter full. Atsushi assumed he would just drink it, but he didn't. Dazai then rummaged through the grocery bags before finding a small cluster of flowers that he must have picked on the way back, and when Atsushi looked closer, he noticed that Dazai had bits of burrs and thorns sticking to his bandages. One by one, he carefully set the flowers in the glass so they leaned delicately on the rim. He gave Atsushi a dry smile before gathering up the makeshift flower vase, the bottle, and his own glass and leaving the room.

The kitchen was silent, and Atsushi glanced around, not knowing what to do. Dazai wasn't pressuring him to drink, and he couldn't say he actually wanted to drink. And yet, the idea of Dazai drinking alone and mourning his friend alone didn't sit well with him.

He sighed to himself before grabbing his chameleon mug and following Dazai.

Dazai's eyes widened a fraction when Atsushi sat down across from him, and a shadow of a smile played across his face.

He slid his mug toward Dazai to fill, the back of his hand barely brushing the glass with the flowers in the middle of the table. "Don't give me enough to get me drunk," he said.

Dazai chuckled, pouring what seemed like barely a drop into the mug. "Alright," Dazai said, sliding the mug back to Atsushi.

Then, he filled his own glass more than halfway full with whiskey, and clinked it against the glass that sat between them. "To the stray dogs," he whispered.

/-/-/

Atsushi learned pretty quickly that he didn't like whiskey. He almost choked when he drank for the first time. Just the smell of it made his eyes water, and he involuntarily made a face every time he swallowed-something Dazai seemed to find funny.

"I told you you didn't have to drink with me if you didn't want to," he said when Atsushi choked down another sip.

Atsushi shrugged. I didn't want to let you drink and mourn alone. He thought. He didn't say it though, he was fairly sure Dazai would laugh or get annoyed at him for thinking Dazai might need him. He didn't want either.

It was stupid of him to think Dazai needed his help at all. Maybe he just wanted to feel like he was helping, and whether or not he was actually helpful was irrelevant. It was selfish of him, he knew, but still… Something in Dazai's eyes had brought him back to that cramped motel room the night they had left the Port Mafia- the night he had seen Dazai cry.

He glanced down at his mug, the inside had been stained dark from all the coffee and tea he drank. A fair amount of liquor still sat in the mug. He steeled himself and sipped it down.

"Hard to believe it's been a year," Dazai said, filling his glass again before downing it in one gulp. He poured himself another glass once again. "I wanted to do something a little more elaborate in his memory, but that's not really an option right now. Next year, we'll visit his grave."

"Okay," Atsushi murmured. He said nothing for a moment, looking down at his mug. "How were you friends with him? You were- uh..." he cut himself off.

"I was cruel and cold, and he was the best person either of us had ever known; how could we be friends? Is that what you were going to say?" Dazai asked without a trace of annoyance or anger.

"Well," Atsushi began, struggling to find a better way to phrase it. He couldn't think of any other way. "Yeah, actually…"

Dazai chuckled. "It's fine. I'm well aware of the kind of person I am." He shrugged. "I thought he was interesting. He put up with me. That's how it started at least." Dazai furrowed his brow. "I don't know. I cared about him; he cared about me. That's more than I can say for most of my relationships."

Dazai had a pensive look on his face, and with a shock, Atsushi realized that Dazai didn't actually know why or how he and Oda had been friends. He was silent, like he had to think about it. Then, he took another sip of his liquor.

They drank in silence, Atsushi taking little sips of his drink, Dazai downing glass after glass.

His eyes started losing some focus before too long, and Atsushi wasn't entirely sure if it was because of the liquor or if Dazai was mentally far away.

It took a while, but Atsushi began to feel strangely heavy and tired. Admittedly, it wasn't a bad feeling, but he wasn't sure he liked it. It was a little too similar to the feeling of the drugs that had been used on him when his organs were harvested, a little too similar for his comfort.

He put his mug down, keeping his hands wrapped around it.

"You know what he told me before he died?"

The question took Atsushi by surprise; they'd been almost silent for over fifteen minutes.

"He told me-He told me that the void I've always felt won't disappear. That no matter what I do, nothing beyond what I expect will appear. And my reason for living-Well, I'll never find it. That was the whole reason I joined the Port Mafia-because maybe among all the bloodshed and battles, I might find a reason to live."

Atsushi stiffened, his grip around his mug tightening slightly. He swallowed. What exactly was he supposed to say to that? It didn't sound like something Oda would have said, but with a dull ache in his chest, Atsushi realized that he hadn't really known Oda well enough to be the judge of that.

"Deep down," Dazai continued after Atsushi said nothing. "I think I've always known that, but I tried to pretend it wasn't true." He took a drink again. "Then, he said to be on the side that saves people. So, that's what we're doing."

"Yeah," Atsushi said quietly.

Dazai leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table and settling his forehead on his fists. "And then he died," he murmured, his words slurring slightly. "I did try, you know. I did try to convince him to walk away, find a new purpose, and go where that leads." His voice was starting to crack. "He still went anyway…"

His voice was small, and it didn't sound like the Dazai Atsushi had grown so used to. Even after they'd left, even after Dazai had changed, he'd never sounded like that before now. Gone was the composed and calm tone that practically defined the man.

"I should have known I would lose him…"

Atsushi looked up at him.

"Everything I care about," Dazai paused to take another drink. "Slips through my fingers as soon as I have it." He sighed. Then he looked at Atsushi as though suddenly remembering that he was still there.

And he smiled faintly. His hand slowly extended out toward Atsushi. "At least I still have you," he said. His hand landed on Atsushi's head, the movement drunken, clumsy, and heavy. It was nothing like Dazai's awkward, stiff attempts at comfort from the alley and hotel room.

Atsushi was too surprised to try to pull away, and after the shock subsided, he realized that he didn't want to pull away. As awkward and heavy as Dazai's hand in his hair was, it felt real and wasn't at all the reserved, wooden touches that he'd come to associate with Dazai. Despite the heaviness of the situation, Atsushi smiled.

After a few seconds, Dazai's hand slid off of Atsushi's head like keeping it there was too much effort. Once the pressure was gone, Atsushi couldn't help but miss it.

Dazai barely managed to avoid knocking a glass over as he pulled his hand back; the bandages at his wrists were beginning to come loose.

"Your bandages-" Atsushi began.

Dazai looked down at his wrist. "Yeah," he said boredly. "They do that." Then, he started tugging at the loose end. "It's warm in here anyway," he mumbled.

"Uhh...Maybe you should-"

He shrugged as he further unraveled his bandages.

Atsushi shifted, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. He'd never seen Dazai without his bandages, and of course he'd wondered why Dazai always wore bandages, but not enough to ask about it. Despite the tense atmosphere, Atsushi found himself leaning forward, focusing in on the unwinding bandages.

"You certainly seem interested," Dazai remarked, glancing Atsushi's way, an action that immediately made Atsushi feel guilty, like he'd been intruding on something too personal. It must have shown on his face because Dazai shrugged again. "I don't really care if you see."

Is that because you're drunk? Atsushi asked silently.

He didn't know what he'd been expecting to see.

Maybe some scars, maybe open wounds, maybe even two completely unblemished arms.

He definitely did not expect the absolute myriad of scars and burns and involuntarily made a choked sound in the back of his throat.

Dazai stopped pulling off his bandages at the elbow. He turned over his arm, giving Atsushi a full view of the damage, letting him see all the slashes of thickened tissue, the discolored patches, and-most jarring of all- the scars left by hot metal.

"Yeah," Dazai hummed when he looked at Atsushi's gaping face. "It's definitely not pretty."

"Wha-" Atsushi swallowed hard. "What happened to you?" Then after that first question, the dam broke and words spilled out his mouth before he could stop them. "Why are you so bruised? When did you get them? Why-" He cut himself off again, trying to swallow with a dry mouth. "Why do you have scars...like mine?"

Dazai looked lost for a minute, like his mind was somewhere else. "Like yours?" Then, his eyes lit up with a grim realization. "Oh, like your…" He trailed off, gesturing to his abdomen with his still bandaged hand.

Like my scars from the red hot poker.

Atsushi nodded, feeling the blood drain from his face as the memory surfaced.

The dark room, the ember-like glow of the metal, the searing pain as it was pressed into his skin.

He shuddered.

"Well, to answer your questions," Dazai began, pouring himself another drink. "I mostly did it to myself." He drank slowly this time, like he was savoring every drop of the whiskey. "Didn't want to live anymore, tried to bleed out, got interrupted." His words were sluggish and slurred. "You get the gist."

He turned over his arm again, so his palm laid flat against the table. And he prodded a particularly nasty looking bruise with his fingertips. Atsushi winced empathetically. Dazai didn't so much as blink.

"It doesn't hurt," he said, pressing it again. "Apparently, there's some nerve damage. My motor function is fine." He wiggled his fingers to prove it. "But, I lost some sensation in my arms. Can't feel a thing."

Atsushi wrung his hands, feeling a squirming sensation in his stomach as Dazai spoke.

"As for the burns," Dazai continued, sighing. "I got them a few months before I found you. It was a mission, I let myself get captured to gather intel on an enemy. They had the bright idea to try and torture information out of me. What they got was a bunch of dead ends and useless, outdated Port Mafia data. But, you know, I had to make it convincing for them to think they were actually getting anything useful out of me."

He prodded a burn scar, and even though Atsushi knew Dazai couldn't feel a thing, he felt phantom fingers digging into his scars and that burning, biting agony.

"Joke's on them," Dazai said, chuckling like the whole horrible explanation was some secret inside joke between just the two of them. "It didn't hurt in the slightest. Chuuya freaked when he saw them though." He shook his finger in front of Atsushi's face in an exaggerated gesture. "Don't let the gravity control and yelling fool you, he's the most squeamish people I know."

Atsushi raised an eyebrow, and leaned back in his chair, putting a little more distance between himself and Dazai, some concern rising in his chest. It wasn't as though he had known Chuuya that well, but Atsushi doubted that he'd freaked out on account of being queasy around injuries and torture.

Dazai's grammar error went uncorrected.

Then, his eyes twinkled with something dark and mischievous. "Watch this," he said in a lowered voice. He grabbed Atsushi's lighter, flicked it on, and held the flame under his bare forearm.

Atsushi's hand moved before his mind did. He slapped the lighter out of Dazai's hand, sending it flying, the flame sputtering out immediately. He grabbed Dazai's wrist in a white-knuckled grip.

"What's wrong with you?!" he half yelled.

The second the words left his mouth, he regretted them. His fingers were still wrapped around Dazai's wrist and he was acutely aware of the feeling of the scars under his palm and that he was probably leaving his mentor with yet another bruise. The look of shock on Dazai's face didn't make him feel any better.

He released Dazai's wrist.

"Dazai-san, I'm sor-"

Dazai laughed.

He laughed so loud and so long, as though Atsushi had just told him the funniest joke he'd ever heard. Atsushi took a step back. There was something unhinged in his laugh.

"Ahhh," he began when he'd calmed down a bit, "So many things, Atsushi-kun."

Atsushi's breathing returned when Dazai finally stopped laughing and sank to put his forehead on the table. He cushined his head on his arms.

"So many things," he murmured again, the words muffled by his forearms.

Atsushi stood there awkwardly for a minute, trying to figure out what to say. He settled on, "A-Are you okay?"

It was an awkward way to ask, but he could think of nothing better to say.

His mentor was silent for a minute before he propped his head up on one hand to look up at Atsushi. "Not really, but that's normal." With an uncoordinated, shaky hand, Dazai reached for the bottle to pour himself yet another drink.

The defeat and exhaustion in Dazai's voice seemed to echo through the room, and the sudden realization of how terrifyingly unguarded Dazai was made Atsushi uneasy. In the past year, Dazai had become considerably more open with Atsushi, but there was always some sort of wall up, always some sort of reservation in his tone and actions. Maybe people who hadn't known him for very long would miss it completely, but Atsushi had seen him let his defenses down once, and that was enough to make it clear.

What am I supposed to do now? Atsushi thought. Most of the alcohol had cleared from his system, or so he assumed. He just knew that his head felt less fuzzy than it had before and the buzzing sensation had left him. And Atsushi had been fairly restrained in how much whiskey he'd had. Dazai had not been.

He watched the man try to grab the bottle again, but miss, before trying again and accidentally knocking it over. It landed on its side with the sharp ding of glass falling against a solid surface, the spirit that remained in it rushed out, spilling over the table and onto the floor.

Well, he supposed that would have to settle it.

"Dazai-san," he said, approaching slowly. "Dazai-san," he repeated in a firmer tone.

"Huh?"

"You should probably stop drinking now."

Dazai looked at him, squinting like Atsushi was too far away.

Atsushi shifted uncomfortably under Dazai's gaze.

Then, Dazai folded his arms on the table and laid his head down. "I'll be here," he murmured.

Atsushi sighed, unsure of how to handle this. He supposed he could leave Dazai there; the bottle was empty and it wasn't like Dazai could drink more. But, he didn't really want to do that. The image of Dazai sitting there, half lying across the table with loose and partially unraveled bandages overnight just felt wrong. He didn't quite know why it felt so wrong, but it did, and that was enough for him to make up his mind.

He finally got his feet to move forward. The smell of alcohol clung to Dazai, and Atsushi wrinkled his nose as he got closer.

"Come on," he muttered, slowly taking Dazai's hand, and pulling his arm around his shoulders.

"What are you…" Dazai slurred before trailing off.

"Helping you get to your room," Atsushi said a little more sharply than intended.

He wasn't angry, but he was tired and stretched thin. Seeing Dazai so broken down and unhinged had shaken him. Seeing Dazai hold a flame to his arm had scared him. And seeing those burns… seeing those burns had brought him back to the day he'd been tortured with the glowing poker, the day that imprint had been burned into his skin-a permanent mark that would weigh on him until the day he died.

Dazai was lighter than he'd originally thought, still plenty difficult and awkward to move, but Atsushi felt some degree of relief since it meant that dragging Dazai to his bed wasn't impossible.

"You're a good kid, Atsushi-kun," Dazai said. The smell of alcohol got stronger when Dazai opened his mouth. He raised his free hand in a possible attempt to pat Atsushi on the shoulder or head. Then, "I'm proud of you."

Atsushi almost tripped over his own feet, nearly falling on his face and bringing his intoxicated mentor with him. He caught himself, and Dazai, in the nick of time.

"Really?" he responded when he regained solid footing.

Praise from Dazai had always been rare, and it was a surprise to say the least.

"Do you think I'm capable of lying right now?" he slurred, his head lolling forward.

Atsushi adjusted his grip on Dazai to keep him steady.

"Not sure," Atsushi said. "You're pretty good at lying."

It came off more aggressively than he meant it to. He didn't want to turn away praise. He craved it, but the chances felt too high that Dazai might be lying, that he would take the words back when he was sober. Or that in the morning, he would revert back to the man Atsushi had first met. And that would hurt more than never getting praise at all.

"Not wrong," Dazai moaned. His feet were half dragging on the floor. "Not lyin' this time though." He leaned a little more heavily on Atsushi, which threw Atsushi off balance for a few seconds.

The trip to Dazai's room felt longer than it should have been. It was a small apartment, and the walk should have been taken maybe a minute at most. But Dazai was taller than Atsushi, and his impaired coordination had slowed them down considerably.

It took a long time, but eventually, Atsushi managed to pull Dazai past the threshold, and they collapsed onto the bed. Dazai fell flat on his back and rolled on his side, curling up slightly.

Atsushi sat up, running a hand through his hair.

It was late. He wanted to go to bed, but…

He sighed.

"Dazai-san, where do you keep the bandages?"

Dazai mumbled something incomprehensible, so Atsushi rummaged through his drawers. It felt slightly invasive, and he tried to avoid looking through Dazai's things, though that wasn't completely relevant since it seemed like Dazai hardly owned anything other than clothes and books.

Maybe he was going further than he needed to, but he couldn't imagine feeling comfortable waking up with his scars exposed.

"Dazai-san, give me your arm."

Dazai extended his bandaged hand.

"Other one," Atsushi clarified.

Dazai sighed heavily but complied.

Atsushi settled himself down beside Dazai's bed, Dazai's arm laid over his shoulder. He started securing the bandage around Dazai's elbow. He didn't have much experience with bandages, so his work would probably be sloppy, but it would work well enough. He paused when he came to the spot where Dazai had burned himself with his lighter. It hadn't left much of a burn, but it would have still hurt if Dazai had any feeling in his arms.

"Don't move for a minute, okay," he said.

"Fiiiiine," Dazai replied, the word muffled by his pillow.

Atsushi made a quick trip to his room where he kept his aloe plant, and snapped off a leaf. When he returned to Dazai's room, Dazai was lying face down on the bed, his arm still extended for Atsushi to bandage, and neither said anything as Atsushi took Dazai's wrist and started working again.

He tore the leaf open and spread the gel and slimy side of the leaf on Dazai's burn before binding that part of Dazai's arm. He didn't have an extensive knowledge of burn treatments, but he had read that aloe helps with burns, and that was good enough for him.

"I really hope he was right," Dazai murmured. "About choosing the side that saves people," he added after a moment. "Good and evil don't mean very much to me. But he said that saving people would make the world a little more beautiful."

Atsushi wasn't sure how to respond to that, but he hadn't been sure how to respond to most of the things Dazai had said tonight.

"I don't have a reason to live, and I don't think I'll ever find one."

Atsuhi paused his work to look at Dazai. "I'm sure you'll find a reason," he said, trying to sound encouraging, though that was hardly a role he was used to filling.

"I won't," Dazai said, his voice dropping down to a whisper. "At the very least, I think Odasaku was right 'bout that."

The statement made Atsushi's chest hurt. Personally, he didn't see much of a reason for why he was alive, but he still believed that there was some reason. He had to. There had to be some overarching reason for why he was alive.

"I don't think anyone has a reason to live. Life is a void, and we're all just here." He moved his arm in a large sweeping motion to emphasise his point. Atsushi narrowly dodged getting smacked in the face.

He grabbed Dazai's arm again, trying to rework the bandages that had come loose with Dazai's dramatic gesture. "Hold still," he ordered weakly when Dazai shifted again, and Dazai stared at him with a shocked expression on his face like he'd forgotten he was there.

"In the long run, everything we do and everything we are doesn't matter. We all return to dust one day, and the world carries on like we were never here at all."

The longer this night wore on, the bleaker Dazai seemed to get.

Atsushi didn't respond, he only held Dazai's arm a little tighter in case he decided to gesture widely and dramatically again. He was almost done with bandaging Dazai's arm, and while the binding wasn't great, it mostly stayed in place, which was the best he could hope for with his limited experience.

"But maybe… maybe we can make our own reasons." His eyes narrowed as he spoke, his face growing perplexed like he was trying to work through an increasingly complicated puzzle. Then, he sighed heavily. "I don't know…"

Dazai left his arm hanging in front of Atsushi, his cheek pressed against the pillow. He started at Atsushi with glassy eyes. He waved a hand in front of Dazai's face, Dazai blinked, but otherwise hardly reacted. Atsushi leaned against the bed, drained, his arms ached from trying to wrap up Dazai's arm.

He didn't move for several minutes, running over the conversation in his head. Dazai had never been so...open? He wasn't sure if that was the correct word for it. Dazai was intoxicated, after all, and everything he said was a result of his impaired judgment. The transparency Dazai displayed wasn't so much his decision.

A thought occurred after a stretch of silence.

Dazai was talking… He was talking like any filter had been removed. He didn't seem to be holding anything back.

And Atsushi still sometimes wondered why Dazai's previous apprentice had died.

It was definitely more dishonest than he was used to, and the idea of finding out this way made him squirm. But, Atsushi rationalized to himself, What are the chances I'll have an opportunity to learn what happened later? For the moment, this looked like his only chance.

"Dazai-san," he began, building up his nerve little by little. "W-What happened to your previous apprentice?"

Dazai shifted under the covers, pulling back his freshly bandaged arm and propping himself up on his elbow. His eyes looked blank and far away. His hand tangled in his hair.

Then, he chuckled. It was so unlike the unrestrained laugh from earlier that night. This laughter was composed and quiet. "That's a little underhanded for you, Atsushi-kun. You know, a year ago, I would have applauded you for that attempt," he said, his words slurring a bit. "I'm definitely drunk, but I know what you're trying to do." He chuckled again before laughing loudly and bringing his hand down on Atsushi's head.

Atsushi finched, shame flooding him in a rush, and Dazai's words rang in his head.

"A year ago, I would have applauded you for that attempt."

If they'd been back in the Mafia, Dazai would have praised him for trying to glean information off of an intoxicated man. He would have praised him for this. Atsushi tried to swallow the lump in his throat.

"I'm sorry," he said in a small voice.

He'd tried to dig into Dazai's past, into the places Dazai didn't want him to go. Dazai had already told him about his past, and had exposed his vulnerabilities and scars to Atsushi. What right did Atsushi have to ask for anything more?

As awful as Dazai had been to him in the Mafia, he'd never forced Atsushi to go into detail about the orphanage. Or he'd kept it to a minimum at least.

Dazai's eyes were still on him, and he could feel the weight of his gaze.

"I'm sorry," he said again.

Breathing suddenly got harder when he realized how much Dazai might hate him for trying to pry. Things had been good between them lately, or at the very least okay. Now, he could too easily imagine Dazai once again being cold towards him or just turning him loose and leaving him behind.

"It's fine," Dazai said, tiredly, breaking through Atsushi's panicked train of thought. He squinted as though he couldn't see Atsushi clearly even though he was physically touching him. His fingers curled into Atsushi's hair slightly-an all too familiar feeling that made Atsushi tense up- but he didn't roughly press Atsushi's head to the floor or yank on his hair. He pulled him forward a little. He studied Atsushi's face for a few moments.

Dazai's eyes met Atsushi's, and Atsushi felt like crying.

"Don't cry," he murmured, which somehow made the tears rise more.

Right. Atsushi thought, his muscles somehow getting even more taut. He'd heard that order a thousand times before. Don't cry. Of course he would hear it again.

"Don't cry. Children who have been abandoned by their parents don't have the right to cry."

Yes, he'd heard it a thousand times before and hearing Dazai drunkenly repeat it made him stop breathing, and he harshly swallowed all the rising tears. They burned his throat ten times more than the liquor had.

Then, Dazai sighed dramatically and let his head flop onto the pillow as Atsushi tried to force his tears down. "I never know what to do when you cry." His words were a barely coherent mumble.

Yet another statement that made Atsushi freeze, another thing that caught him completely off guard.

Dazai hardly reacted to Atsushi's gawking. His eyes went unfocused again, and his grip on Atsushi's hair loosened.

And for a horrifying moment, Atsushi was scared Dazai had died right there. But the smell of alcohol washed over him with Dazai's exhalation.

He rolled onto his back with a slurred, "Go to bed."

Atsushi released a breath, and put a hand to his head. It must have been well past three in morning. Between drinking, talking to an intoxicated Dazai, dragging Dazai to bed, and winding bandages around Dazai's arm, he was exhausted.

And still, he wasn't done for that night.

It'd been something mentioned in his health textbook, one of the dangers of drinking too much, if he remembered correctly. Drinking too much alcohol at once could cause vomiting… Not only that, but there was a chance that someone could choke to death on their puke.

He shuddered thinking about it. It was such a gruesome way to die.

"Dazai-san," he said tiredly, approaching the bed again. "I'm going to turn you over, okay?" He didn't wait for any kind of agreement, he grabbed Dazai's arm furthest away from him and rolled him onto his side.

Dazai moaned in response, which Atsushi took a good sign. The man hadn't drank himself into a coma at the very least.

He was about to leave the room, but then another thought occurred.

What if Dazai rolled onto his back in his sleep and asphyxiated on his own vomit? Atsushi supposed it could happen.

He hesitated for a minute before shrugging and going to his room to grab his pillow.

It wasn't like this was very different from any other night. The only difference was that Dazai was heavily intoxicated and possibly needed to be monitored.

Atsushi settled himself on the floor, positioning himself so Dazai was in his field of vision.

He didn't sleep as easily as he thought. What if something happened? What if something happened and he slept through it? And then he'd wake up to something bad?

But slowly, bit by bit, exhaustion wore away at his alert mind, and the steady pattern of Dazai's breathing lured him to sleep.

/-/-/

Dazai's mouth felt like sandpaper when he woke up.

He didn't move for a few minutes, waiting for the headache to ease a little. When it didn't, he crossed his arms over his eyes, making a face when he felt something slimy through his bandages.

It'd been a while since he'd gone that hard. Even a year ago, he'd kept from getting himself that intoxicated.

The light that crept through his curtains made pain roll through his head. It must have been around two in the afternoon at the very earliest.

He rolled onto his side after a few minutes of squinting and shadowing his eyes against the sunlight. And he stayed like that for about an hour, staring at the wall, replaying what he remembered from the previous night in his head.

The memories were hazy at best, nonexistent at worst.

Crap.

He forced his legs over the side of the bed, fighting down a wave of nausea and resurgence of the headache. Dazai groaned and prodded the slippery lump under his bandages before hooking his fingers under a loose loop of bandage. As awareness slowly percolated back into him, Dazai realized-with a squirming feeling in his stomach- that these bindings were not his handiwork.

An aloe leaf…

The sliver of leaf slipped from its place as he relaxed his arm. And he couldn't find it in himself to be surprised when he found a small, fresh burn. Dazai blinked, and then rewrapped his arm, leaving the leaf on the floor.

"Ugh," Dazai groaned again, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes, and taking a few deep breaths to push down the urge to vomit.

He contemplated staying in bed for the day and sleeping off the hangover. Or staying in bed for a week and slipping into a coma. But, he had Atsushi to worry about.

Last night must have been Atsushi's first time drinking. He probably hadn't been too badly affected, it took a disturbing amount of drugs to have any effect on him, alcohol likely wouldn't be an exception. Still though, in the case that alcohol was, in fact, an exception, checking up on him would be the best decision.

Dazai planted his feet on the floor and pushed himself up. The second he was upright, gravity seemed to press down on him harder than normal. His shoulders ached as though they were supporting a tremendous weight.

"Atsushi-kun," he called, walking into the kitchen, assuming his apprentice was still in his room. He stopped short when Atsushi stepped in front of him. "Oh, you're up," he said flatly, not managing much inflection with the roaring in his brain.

"Y-yeah," Atsushi said. He was bouncing on his heels slightly, muscles tensed. "I slept in a little, but… yeah, I've been up for a few hours."

Dazai looked him over, though he didn't know what he was expecting. He looked fine. Atsushi for sure hadn't drank as much as him, and even if he had, the alcohol probably wouldn't have hit him as hard as it had hit Dazai.

"Well," Dazai muttered. "Looks like you're okay. Good. I am very hungover, so I'll just grab some ibuprofen and go back to bed." He turned on his heel, but immediately felt sicker than he'd been a second ago. He pressed his fist against his mouth and inhaled deeply, swallowing sour tasting saliva.

He was intensely, painfully aware of Atsushi's eyes on him. He didn't appreciate the feeling of his apprentice watching him like this, the feeling of his eyes boring into him in a moment of weakness.

"Are you-"

"Yeah, I'm fine. I just need something for the headache."

Atsushi shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "Uhh…" He trailed off awkwardly.

"What is it?"

"Just… You should probably eat something before you take ibuprofen." He fiddled with the hem of his shirt.

He was probably right. Taking an analgesic on an empty stomach could lead to stomach upset. For the moment, he didn't want to eat; his nausea made the very idea of food unappealing.

"And I saved a bowl of chazuke for you," Atsushi added softly.

Dazai paused.

It wasn't rare for Atsushi to make chazuke. He practically ate it daily. It was weird that he would make any for Dazai since Dazai more or less took care of all his own meals, and a good many of Atsushi's.

Atsushi twisted a hand in his shirt, glancing to the side like making eye contact with Dazai for too long was uncomfortable. He hadn't looked so uncomfortable around Dazai in a while.

It took longer than Dazai would like to admit to put it together. The hangover was still at work. Atsushi was hiding something.

Dazai sighed. "Fine, I'll eat it." He sat down at the table, resigned to eat despite the churning in his empty stomach. He rested an elbow on the table and set his chin on his fist, waiting for Atsushi to reheat the long cold chazuke.

He picked at it after Atsushi set it in front of him.

"Atsushi-kun," he began, looking across the table at Atsushi. "What happened last night?"

"What? You don't remember?"

Dazai leaned back and ran a hand through his hair. "I remember bits and pieces. Most of it is hazy though. I feel like I've lost some time."

"Uhh..." Atsushi rubbed the back of his neck. "You… Well, you drank a lot, we talked about Oda-san a little, you- you took off some of your bandages and burned your arm a little, then you got kind of… existential-"

"Huh, that's weird," Dazai interrupted. "I normally veer into absurdism when I drink."

Atsushi blinked.

"I'll explain it later." Dazai stretched in his seat. "Anything else?"

"I tried to treat the burn with aloe, but I didn't entirely know how to treat burns, so it might not have helped." His voice trailed off a little, like he was scared he'd get yelled at for trying to help.

"And I assume you dragged me to bed?"

Atsushi nodded.

"Thanks for that," Dazai said. "I would have been incredibly sore if you'd just left me there."

Atsushi's face brightened a bit with the thanks.

"Anything else?"

And just as quickly as his expression had lit up, they darkened, but only for an instant. "Nope," Atsushi said, eyes darting to the left. "That was it."

What's he leaving out?

"Really?" Dazai pressed, keeping his tone level. "That's it?"

Atsushi must have known he was stuck in a corner. Even with a bad hangover, Dazai could tell a lie from a mile away.

"Yep," he said quickly. "That's all." Then, he stood abruptly. "I'm actually still really tired from last night. I was up past four in the morning. I should probably go take a nap." He turned to walk to his bedroom.

"Atsushi-kun," Dazai said in a warning tone that he hadn't used in a long time.

Atsushi froze, his hand inches from the door. Slowly, he turned around to face Dazai.

Dazai crossed his arms across his chest and gestured to the seat across from him with his fingers. "Sit."

Atsushi hesitated for a moment before giving a resigned sigh, and obeying the command. Miserably, he dropped into the chair.

For a second, Dazai considered letting this matter drop completely. Atsushi clearly didn't want to talk, and Dazai wasn't sure how much this actually mattered. So what if Atsushi didn't tell him something? There were plenty of things Dazai didn't tell Atsushi.

However, Dazai didn't like being lied to, especially when he had no means of figuring out the truth for himself. Additionally, he knew that he told Atsushi far more than he'd wanted to tell anyone the night before.

"I'm sorry," Atsushi murmured, lowering his head and hunching his shoulders as though to make himself a smaller target.

"What aren't you telling me?" Dazai asked. It came out a little more accusatory than he'd meant, but he didn't try to change his tone.

Atsushi didn't say anything. He just shifted uncomfortably and stared down at his hands.

Dazai sighed, and Atsushi flinched hard at the sound.

"Listen to me," he said, softening his tone a bit. "As long as you're honest with me, I won't get mad."

Atsushi looked up at him and bit his lip. "You won't be angry?"

Dazai shrugged. "I mean, even if I am, I won't act on it. I'll just press down the feeling and ignore it until eventually I forget about it entirely."

"That-that doesn't sound healthy," Atsushi replied, raising his head a bit.

"I think we've established how unhealthy my mental state is." He looked Atsushi in the eyes. "Spill."

It took Atsushi a moment to speak, and Dazai allowed it. This was how it normally was anyway, Atsushi typically took a little time to consider his words.

"I…" He mumbled something incoherent.

"So I can hear you, Atsushi-kun."

Atsushi made a face like he was in real, physical pain. "I asked about your former apprentice while you were intoxicated."

The words spilled out in an incomprehensible stream after that. Dazai didn't listen after the first confession. Atsushi did this sometimes, said something, panicked, and babbled on and on until he was out of breath. Dazai thought it best to allow it, and just let him get it out of his system.

"I'm sorry I did it. I shouldn't have tried to get you to tell me personal things while you were drunk." He swallowed hard and took a deep breath, trying to calm down. "Please don't hate me," he said softly. He wasn't crying, but he looked just on the verge of bawling his eyes out.

Dazai pinched the bridge of his nose, his headache returned thanks to Atsushi's frantic babbling. He really hoped Atsushi wouldn't start crying, he always felt at a loss for what to do when Atsushi cried.

"Calm down," he began slowly. "I'm not angry with you."

Atsushi took a few deep breaths in and out. "Like actually not angry or you're burying the feeling?"

Dazai let out a short laugh. "Like actually not angry." He sighed, "I'm not thrilled that that's how you asked me, but I suppose you feel adequately guilty about it."

Atsushi nodded. "I'm sorry," he said again. "I won't ask again, I swear."

"Why have you always been so curious about him?"

Atsushi looked pensive for a moment and then shrugged. "I don't know. I always heard about him and whenever I asked, you always evaded the topic." He paused. "It made it hard not to be curious. And when I found out you killed him..."Atsushi trailed off, biting his lip.

I was scared you would kill me. Atsushi's averted eyes seemed to say.

"I know," Dazai said. "Believe me, I was quite irritated with Mori-san when he revealed that." Atsushi's eyes stared at him questioningly. "I knew you would never like me, but at the very least, I didn't want you to flat out hate me. It made training you so much harder." Atsushi squirmed with the reference to his time in the Port Mafia. "After that, I just avoided talking about him because I thought that reminding you about who I was might cause you to run away or shut down again."

Atsushi didn't say anything, but the look on his face suggested that he agreed with Dazai to some degree.

"Do you still want to know?" Dazai asked.

Atsushi stiffened and stammered. "Not really," he managed when he finally composed himself. "I don't think I should know after what happened last night."

Dazai shrugged. "It's not a huge deal if you knew now. A lot of the reasons why I hid it from you don't exist anymore. I don't mind if you know now. It's just a conversation that I would rather have sober."

Atsushi hesitated, obviously still torn between his curiosity and his shame of asking about Akutagawa while Dazai's judgement was compromised.

"Sometimes things are worse when left to the imagination."

That didn't ease the conflict on Atsushi's face.

So, Dazai kept talking.

"He was from the slums. I took him and his sister in when he was about your age."

Atsushi froze, as though just realizing that he would actually get to hear about Akutagawa.

"I treated him like how I treated you," Dazai continued. "He had an ability that allowed him to change his clothes into a weapon." He stared hard at Atsushi for a moment, trying to ignore the rolling headache in his skull. "In a way, he was the exact opposite of you. Where you try to avoid conflict, Akutagawa-kun seemed to love running headlong into it. He was violent and fought with almost no restraint."

Atsushi bit his lip, appearing more and more uncomfortable as the minutes wore on.

"He had a fifty-fifty chance. Part of his ability was able to work as a defense, and he'd managed to deflect bullets before. So, in training, I'd believed that he would be able to do it again." Dazai sighed, the sound of the gunshots coming to the forefront of his memory. "Maybe I caught him at a bad time, maybe his lung condition was acting up and he couldn't breathe. I don't know, but he didn't put up a shield that time and he died."

Atsushi didn't speak as though expecting Dazai to say more.

"That's all," Dazai concluded.

"That's all?" Atsushi asked. "But it always sounded like you killed him because he screwed up on a mission or- or like you got didn't want to teach him anymore."

"What? Were you expecting something more dramatic? That's it. I can't say that killing him was an accident since I knew shooting at him point blank would only end one of two ways… But overall, that's all there really was to it."

Atsushi slouched in his seat, drumming his fingers against his leg, processing the information he'd been given.

"What happened to his sister?"

Dazai sighed. "She was an assassin for the Port Mafia. She kept doing her job for a little while, a few months later, she came after me, and she got pretty close to killing me, but she failed and got shot down by a subordinate."

"Oh," Atsushi whispered.

"Chuuya was upset about that. He'd been fairly close with her."

Atsushi looked down at his hands like everything he'd just learned was weighing him down.

"So," Dazai said. "Now you know, and you won't have to lay awake at night wondering about it."

Atsushi nodded.

Dazai pursed his lips. "Atsushi-kun, are you okay?"

"Yeah," Atsushi murmured. "It just feels like a lot to digest, I don't know why… It's not like I ever knew either of them, but… something inside me hurts." He put a hand on his chest and made a fist, bunching up his shirt in the process.

"You're an empathetic person, Atsushi-kun. I think that's one of the reasons why Odasaku liked you so much. It's one of the reasons training you used to frustrate me to no end." He reached across the table to put a hand on Atsushi's shoulder and pull him a little closer. "I'm glad I was never able to ruin that quality in you."

Atsushi stared back at Dazai, surprised. His mouth opening and closing as he looked for words.

Before he had a chance to get his thoughts together, Dazai ruffled his hair and pulled away. "Thanks for the food. I'm going back to bed."

Then, he did exactly that, grabbing two liquid gel capsules on his way back and swallowing it dry as he slipped back under the covers.

He thought through their conversation for a few minutes, and then he promised himself that that would be the last lie he told to Atsushi.

The part about Akutagawa had been absolutely true. The part about the boy's sister Gin, however, had been partially true.

The truth of it: Gin was dead- had been for a little more than a year, she had tried to kill Dazai, Chuuya had been upset about her death, and one of his subordinates had shot her down.

That was all absolutely true.

The rest of the truth: That subordinate had been Atsushi.

He was almost certain that Atsushi remembered her, but didn't know that he remembered her.

If Dazai was correct, she had been the fourth person Atsushi had executed. It was before Atsushi actually hated him, before Atsushi had met Mori. Atsushi was still at the point of crying after he killed someone, but had learned to keep himself composed until he had some privacy to mourn the traitors.

Dazai had broken her jaw since Atsushi still was too squeamish to do it himself without vomiting-a detail they had discovered during his third execution- and Dazai had said something along the lines of, "It's a shame to ruin such a pretty face."

Dazai remembered Atsushi, in his naivety, wondering aloud about the girl he'd killed, wondering how someone so young and delicate looking could be a murderer and such a danger to an organization like the Port Mafia. Dazai had almost laughed at the irony of that statement and told Atsushi to look in a mirror.

He remembered then wondering about how Atsushi still wondered about things like that. Atsushi had been fourteen, old enough to know about wolves in sheeps' clothing and how first impressions were rarely genuine. At the time, Dazai had concluded that Atsushi just hadn't had much exposure to those types of people. Growing up in the orphanage, he probably hadn't seen many people who looked kind and were actually monsters. Maybe, Atsushi had just seen monsters in his life and they had turned out to be just that.

He was sure Atsushi remembered that night.

He was sure Atsushi remembered every one of his fifteen kills despite never knowing the names or anything beyond the basics of why they were being executed.

Atsushi had never wanted to know such personal details. When Dazai had tried to tell him the name of a traitor, Atsushi had covered his ears, eventually saying that he could barely carry out executions with no information, and he would definitely break if he shot someone while knowing anything personal about them.

Looking back, Dazai probably should have nipped that in the bud. But he hadn't. There had been a slight fascination with how innocent Atsushi had been, with how he still cried when he saw death and how he let all his emotions show on his face. In addition to that, he hadn't wanted to rush Atsushi too much. He'd rushed Akutagawa, and as a result, he'd died.

And now, Dazai gazed blankly at the ceiling, recalling all the little details that he'd left out. How Chuuya being upset was a massive understatement, how he could have decided against Gin dying, how Chuuya had actually pleaded with him not to kill her, and how Gin had looked pityingly at Atsushi in her last moments.

Atsushi could never know that part of the truth. He was barely recovering from his time in the Port Mafia as it was. How many more nightmares would he have if he knew that he'd killed Gin?

Dazai was working to become an honest man, and not telling Atsushi the whole truth was fairly dishonest. First and foremost, however, Odasaku had explicitly said to protect the orphans. And by keeping Atsushi in the dark, Dazai was protecting him.

By lying, Dazai had protected Atsushi from the truth.

So, there it is! For anyone asking what happened to Akutagawa and Gin... Now you know. My gosh, while this chapter was really fun to write, it was definitely a challenge. It came out to about 19 pages. I actually had to look up a lot about alcohol consumption and review philosophy. Speaking of philosophy, absurdism is the belief that the universe is a void and human beings are meaningless. Existentialism is the belief that the universe is a void, but human beings need to create their own reasons to live. I just had a day where it seemed fun to toss in some of my humanities lectures in a fic.

So! Posting this chapter gave me a wave of dopamine, and now I should probably get back to studying.

Feel free to comment. I love getting the feedback!

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Thank you for all the love this story gets! I wouldn't have made it this far without all the support.

Until next time!