Nakajima Atsushi has been seeing the strings around him ever since he could remember.
There are the strings that surround him, strings that connect those around him, and most importantly, the strings on his own hand.
The world looks like a big spider’s web, colorful and bright and full of light.
He thinks this may have been why he was thrown out by his parents, maybe because he is weird and he’s a freak and nobody wants him and he’s worthless, the labels that surround him, the words that make who he is.
He sees the black one from his thumb connecting to the headmaster of the orphanage and tries to cut them, but he can’t, so he’s learned over time to how to ignore the strings and how he connects to no one else in the orphanage, when how even some of them has strings that connect to one other. Besides, nobody wants him anyway.
But he’s grown curious to know what it is, why he has so many on his own hands, one bright and the others pale—yellows and blues and pinks and blacks and green and, most importantly, red.
Strings of fate, one of the books in the library of the orphanage read. He’s painstakingly learnt how to read just for the sake of reading the book with the string connecting two pinkies in the cover.
But unfortunately, the book only has information about the red of string of fate: his connection to his soulmate.
He looks at his own pinky tied with a red string, following out of the orphanage out to the world he hasn’t seen yet. But what’s confusing that he sees another black one on his pinky finger, atop the red one.
He wonders where his soulmate is outside of this hell, with the new bruises littering around his legs and feet as a punishment for trying to climb a tree that has caught another child’s kite. He gave the kite to the child back, but he hasn’t even received a word of thanks.
Atsushi hopes his soulmate is faring better than him.
He knows that a person can have multiple strings like him, and they vary in color.
One time, some adult visited the orphanage to claim her son, who she claims was missing for four years.
When he, with the other children from the orphanage, eavesdrop from the office, Atsushi peeks from a hole in the wooden aged door, and sees a blue string connecting son and mother.
How lucky, he thinks, eyeing the string that bonds them so brightly, because once the two persons are close to each other, the string they share is clearer. The blue string that he’s seen from Tomoji, fellow orphan (not anymore), is brighter than he’s seen from him.
He blinks when he sees the child’s other blue string that fades out after a few inches, invisible.
“I’m sorry, your dad died in an accident,” the mother sobs, holding Tomoji tightly. The headmaster watched them with an unreadable expression.
Now that he overhears it, Atsushi sees that the mother’s red string is also faded out.
He looks at his own hands and splays them, turning them over and over again, and not for the first time, thinks of the kinds of persons who these strings belongs to. The two blue strings that are on his left hand’s index finger are not faded out.
“Compared to what your parents did to you in your infancy,” he’d heard, looking up at the hateful face of the headmaster and new bruises on his chest and ribs snapped broken, “this doesn’t even count as violence.”
Atsushi curls his fingers.
He hopes that he won’t meet his parents again.
When he was kicked out of the orphanage, he mostly follows the strings that he has on his hands, the yellows and the pinks and green and the black and the red, away from the other black and blues, and it leads him to Yokohama.
Atsushi is lost and exhausted and hungry, but it’s a definite improvement from weird and freak and worthless, so he counts it as a win. But he wouldn’t unless he can fill the gaping hole in his stomach that sends stabbing pains that he could barely move.
So, as a last resort, he would steal, even though he is still shying from the idea because it’s wrong and immoral, but he wouldn’t give the headmaster satisfaction of Nakajima Atsushi dying.
He barely sees the green string grow brighter in his middle finger as he makes the decision to rob someone, but he does when he saves the ungrateful man who was drowning by the river.
He stares doubtfully at the string that binds them together—a green one, connecting to the man’s own middle finger that has two green strings.
“Something the matter?” Dazai Osamu asks, bandages on his neck and on his arms and smile on his face, looking rather happy despite the fact that he has just attempted suicide by drowning on the river, and definitely the strangest man that Atsushi has ever met. He’s evidently seen him staring at his hand.
This man has more strings than him, and all sorts of colors too, but what caught his eye most is his pinky on his right hand—it also has a black string atop the red one. He looks like a puppeteer, ten fingers with strings that hold lives of people that he controls.
Atsushi shakes his head. “Nothing,” he says, despite the curiosity that’s burning in his mind.
“There you are, blockhead!” someone yells, and they turn to see a blond with glasses on the other side of the river.
Strangely enough, a yellow string ties Atsushi and the man together, and he could see an orange string coming from the man that leads to Dazai.
Atsushi wonders what kind of relationship the two have, but he doesn’t need to wonder for long when Dazai reveals that they are partners and they are from the well-known organization called the Armed Detective Agency and they’re hunting the man-eating tiger down.
That night, he also finally knows why the man-eating has been following him ever since, and he also sees the other three yellow strings grow brighter than before under the silver light coming from the full moon.
Though he doesn’t really notice it because of this right arm has turned into a freaking tiger’s front leg.
He is officially confused as to why he sees another yellow string connecting him and the bomber who threatens to blow up the Agency, him and the kidnapped girl that is squirming desperately on the floor, and being the most significant one that the bomber has a blue string that connects him to the kidnapped girl.
Blue means family, he remembers, mother and son reuniting in the orphanage, the image seen from the small hole on the wooden door.
“Tanizaki-san—it’s Tanizaki, right?” he says urgently, placating right hand on air and the left still holding the newspapers that Dazai thrust on him. Kunikida frowns at him, what are you doing, brat? heavy on the eyes behind his glasses. He’s shaking so badly that his he just blurted out his sob story on some complete stranger that is holding a freaking bomb. He has never been so afraid for his life, but the lives on this building’s third floor matter more than his and the urge to save them is more overwhelming than saving his own life. “Y-you wouldn’t w-want to k-kill your sister. H-he’s your s-sister, r-right?”
“What,” he hears Kunikida croak, but the girl’s stopped struggling and the bomber’s staring at him with wide eyes, unmistakably surprised.
Atsushi blinks, thoughts thrown into a jumbles mess because what? “Maybe y-you don’t know?”
While the bomber is confused, Dazai shouts a command to his partner, Kunikida takes him down with the impressive set of skill that he once used against Atsushi and using his Ability too.
That day, he gets a new apartment to himself (what a luxury!) and a new job and new friends, which was more than he could ask for when he thought he would be stuck forever in the hellhole called the orphanage.
His life couldn’t get any better, and he couldn’t be any happier.
“But how would you know we’re siblings, Atsushi-kun?” Tanizaki asks, later on the café below the Agency after Naomi stopped, ah, harassing him indecently in front of Atsushi. He really wouldn’t want to know, like Kunikida-san said. “I mean, we don’t look like the part, right?”
He sheepishly smiles, scratching the back of his neck. “I—just bluffing?” Sweat runs down the side of his neck, and he hopes they wouldn’t ask why he had known.
The first time he’s come into the cities and the whispers of Ability-users has caught his ears, he’s expected that his Ability must be seeing the strings of fate. But after meeting Dazai-san and Kunkida-san and the others from the Agency, he discovers it’s the tiger within him. He really doesn’t still know about how he sees them, and why he sees them.
“You’re a bad liar, Atsushi-kun~!” Dazai immediately butts in, breaking his lovey-dovey stare with the woman working at the café. “You sound so sure then, you know, and then you were confused because why would Tanizaki-kun kidnap his sister, right?”
He flinches. “Okay,” he mumbles. “Maybe I am.” He traces the wooden lines on the table. “I know, well… just because. It’s my intuition?” He internally cringes about how bad that excuse was, but fortunately, they take his answer as it is and don’t pursue it any further.
He doesn’t obtain the seven million yen because he doesn’t correctly guess what Dazai was before the Agency, but it must be something unimaginable for him because the hands that Dazai has have four black strings including the one on his pinky finger, curiously, and another orange string that is faded out.
The red string is faded out a lot, and Atsushi thinks that his soulmate must be overseas.
He muses where his own soulmate is.
“It is a pleasure to meet you. I am Akutagawa.”
He doesn’t need to wonder longer because he meets his soulmate together with the sharp smell of blood and deathly gunpowder fresh in the air, a woman from the Port Mafia with a gun that she used to kill Naomi, and a man just having possibly killed Tanizaki.
No, not killed—he’s pretty sure that the strings of a person fade when they die, and both siblings still have theirs—flickering, but still there. He thinks it’s the only time that the ability to see the strings have been useful.
Atsushi, kneeling on the ground and looking up at the man—Akutagawa Ryuunosuke—wants to cut both the red and the black strings on his pinky finger, symbolizing both his soulmate and his greatest enemy. He should’ve known from the start.
They connect to a murderer.
Today you have joined the ranks of our Armed Detective Agency.
But he’s never going to be taken down here, he will not be killed here, and he won’t let the Tanizaki siblings die even though he just brings calamity to those around him, and he will never be killed by his own soulmate by string.
Do not be a burden to anyone, nor shame the Agency’s good name.
Soulmate by string.
He doesn’t want this, he didn’t ask for this, why is he blessed with the power to see the lives of the people connected to each other, why him why him why him?
As his leg is cut off by Rashoumon, as Akutagawa is still coughing as if he’s genuinely sick and unbothered by the blood pooling around Atsushi, amidst the memory of burning words spit to him by the orphanage, amidst the screams that makes his throat sore and hoarse and he still can think about the words a child abandoned by his parents have no license to cry!—
Amidst his cries that he has never had to privilege to do so, he musters the strength to laugh.
Ah, that’s what it was: having a soulmate that is also your greatest enemy, out to hunt you down, out to kill you without mercy.
He doesn’t care about the woman’s mutter of “Is he deranged!?” and doesn’t think about anything anymore, because between this moment and the next, the tiger within him awakens.
He’s running towards the Agency, wishing he has enough control over his power to have the tiger’s legs to run swifter, move faster faster faster—
Atsushi’s running towards the strings of those that connect to his lives. He hasn’t told anyone yet in the Agency about them, the relief of Kunikida-san’s words of the Tanizakis being alive, seeing two of the strings as vivid as life and the next words—
—He’ll come for sure—This is your karma, jinko—
He’s called the agent of Port Mafia specifically to call a ceasefire for the Agency, to make sure that lives wouldn’t be harmed yet again because of him like Naomi’s back pierced with bullets and Tanizaki with a bloody back from Rashoumon—
—You caused this—You will cause ill for everyone around you, just by being alive—
He’d drawn away the attention from the Agency, the place where he won’t belong, he’d thought that leaving would draw attention from them, and he’ll be hunted down like the beast he is, but why is this happening, he’s given his all, ran away from the place he won’t belong, but now they’re getting hurt again because of him—
—The worst-case scenario may come to pass… Think about what you can do—
He’s done everything he could.
Maybe he should’ve given himself up directly to the Port Mafia, even though it means getting killed, even though it means that he’s giving what the headmaster wants, even though it means that he’s severing his strings, his ties to everyone he’s connected to even though he still hasn’t met them all, even though he still hasn’t understood why his greatest enemy is also his soulmate—
And in the end, he’s underestimated them.
They’re still alive. Alive and unharmed, the Port Mafia’s Black Lizard in pieces and on the Agency’s floor.
Think about what you can do.
They aren’t the words of kicking someone out. They aren’t the words of tossing him away. He realizes it now, staring as Kenji is throwing the mafiosos out of the window of the third floor cheerfully, Yosano-sensei beside him, he realizes it as Ranpo-san drinks from a suspicious-looking blue bottle atop a table, realizes as Kunikida jots down angrily on his ideal with his fountain pen—
—that he’s found the place where he belongs to.
It’s a bit unnerving to see someone without strings, as that someone is already dead, Atsushi and Ranpo-san peering down at the body laid at the riverside.
Sure enough, Minoura’s green thread is faded out a few centimeters from his left index finger, seeing as the deceased lady is under his command, a subordinate. The officer beside him, peculiarly also has a faded string: a red one.
He wonders if he already knows that his supposedly love-of-his-life is dead.
The shout catches their attention; a machine is pulling something out of the river, two thick cords stringing something upwards.
“The nets caught something!”
Someone, Atsushi corrects inside his mind. There’s also a string there—the person who must’ve been caught is still alive, to his relief, but the others still doesn’t know it yet. They rush over, and it’s only then that he realizes that he’s connected to the person they found on the river.
Atsushi already has an inkling who that person is, and he sighs in exasperation as they near him.
Of course. It’s Dazai-san. Three days since he’s known the man and he’s already tired of his antics.
And holding down the man when Dazai pushed him, really, and he’s staring again at the officer’s hands, the red string fluttering as he pins him down with his full weight. Ranpo’s starts explaining, voice steady and sure and confident, and every word breaks him down and his feeble defenses.
“Let’s hear the rest back at the office,” Minoura says, the same time as Atsushi blurts out, “Were you going out with her?”
All heads turn to him, varied expressions of surprise at their faces. He flushes at the attention and his brain-to-mouth filter that is practically non-existent today, overwhelmed with inquisitiveness.
Sugimoto’s face widens further in fear and alarm. “H-how,” he says, voice cracking.
He could feel the burning stares at him and laughs nervously, fumbling for an excuse. “Detective Agency, remember?”
Nakajima Atsushi has been seeing the strings around him ever since he could remember.
There are the strings that surround him, strings that connect those around him, and most importantly, the strings on his own hand.
The first time he tells someone about it, they’re on the train and Dazai has excused himself to go to the bathroom but halfway became distracted by my, what a pretty lady, would you like to have a double suicide with me? We could jump off the train holding hands, it would be so romantic! and Ranpo-san staring at him with his startling green eyes.
He’s staring at the scenery outside the moving train, desperately trying to ignore the unnerving stare directed at him. At least he hasn’t put on his nondescript glasses he used earlier. He presses his hands together, fabric between his palms. They’re warm.
Oh. Ranpo-san is the one who gave him the gloves.
“Atsushi-kun,” starts Ranpo, and he jumps up in his seat and turns to look at him with apprehension.
The detective is looking at him with eyes open, not slitted; his emerald gaze is contemplative, not self-assured and confident like he was earlier. He’s leaning in his hand, elbow propped on his knee.
“Y-yes?” he stutters, mentally bracing himself for the deductions and questions now directed at him.
“You’re seeing something we don’t, right?” At the statement, he wiggles his fingers up in the air, and the threads on his hand flutter with the movement. “Secrets are not that big of an issue in the Agency, but I’m intrigued, since I can’t identify what it is.” His hands fall on his side. “I sense that no one else knows about it, hm?”
Atsushi fiddles with his fingers. He and Ranpo-san is connected with a yellow string like most of the others within the Agency. He examines them, cleaner but no less scarred, fingernails tidy underneath compared to when he was at the orphanage.
He supposes there’s no avoiding it now, since it’s Ranpo-san and since the Agency is very considerate of him ever since they had taken him in. And it’s not like he’ll be a freak and a weirdo once he tells one of them.
Atsushi raises a hand, eyes tracing the strings that follow its movement. “I read about it in a book. It’s about the string of fate. There’s a red string of fate, right?”
Ranpo hums, a sound that encourages him to continue. He still looks interested, never claiming that the red string of fate just a belief, just a myth, and no one’s ever logically proved them even with scientific means, as Edogawa is. “You see them?” he inquires.
“Not just the red string,” Atsushi clarifies. “I see—other strings, and, and they vary in color. I think—I think they’re supposed to signify your connections to other people, whether they’re your family, your friend, you teacher and… your enemy.”
Ranpo blinks, looking decidedly fascinated. “So when you, say, met us first already…”
“I knew there will be some kind of companionship,” Atsushi finishes, a smile twitching in the corner of his lips. He curls his hand into a loose fist, the colors of the thread more visible against the black fabric of the open-fingered gloves. “Feels kind of cheating, isn’t it? Since when I was kicked out of the orphanage, I mostly followed the strings and came to Yokohama.”
“That does seem a bit like cheating,” Ranpo whines. “And I heard about you knew that Tanizaki-kun and Naomi-chan are siblings, then about the officer earlier.” He thrusts his hands to Atsushi’s face and wiggles his fingers, making him jerk back in alarm. “So what about mine? What can you say about mine?”
Atsushi laughs. “You’re the first one to ask,” he says cautiously, taking the hands gingerly and examining them. It’s the first time he’s also seen hands that aren’t his own, strings, some threads that aren’t connected to him at all up close.
“Well, I’m the first one you confide in, ne?” Ranpo shakes his fingers. “So?”
Ranpo-san is a child sometimes, he thinks, like someone has kept him isolated from this society and thrust him into new civilization and he still hasn’t quite adapted yet, apparent from how he doesn’t know basic transportation.
“We share a yellow string,” he says, smiling. “I think… it’s friends?” His voice is high on the end, a question, because he’s still familiarizing himself to the feeling of having friends. He traces an index finger from his left ring finger and traces the yellow thread to Ranpo’s own. “Here. Like most in the Agency.”
He hesitates. “Your mother and father are both dead.”
Ranpo only nods.
“And… and you and the President… I’ve only seen it very briefly, but you share a deep green one. I don’t think I know what it means... but if it’s any consolation, I also have one with Dazai-san.”
Ranpo smiles and leans back in his chair. “And what about the red one?”
“They’re dim,” he says. “That means your… soulmate is far away, maybe even in another country.”
The great detective blinks, not looking a bit bothered by that. “Huh.”
Before he could ask any further, Dazai sweeps down from somewhere and flops back down on the chair he occupied minutes ago. “We’re close.”
Carrying Yosano-sensei’s boxes, man, she sure could go on a shopping trip, Atsushi almost trips and scatters them as a strange girl wearing a kimono passes by him.
He can’t see his strings, but he notices that the girl’s ring finger has a pink string, that it’s bright, and it’s short because the string leads to Atsushi.
She stares at him. Her cerulean blue eyes are blank.
Distracted, he does trip and scatter the box because he bumps to someone a moment later.
He meets the girl again, on a moving train which a car has exploded, the Port Mafia following him and wreaking havoc despite the other passengers and blood on his torn clothes and Demon Snow above the Mafia girl, and his arm using the tiger’s strength.
Would it mean that it’s okay for me to live?
He stops the nails short of the girl’s neck.
The girl doesn’t flinch.
(Atsushi wonders, dimly in the corner of his brain that doesn’t scream at him to save them, save these people, if it means that the threads that bind him so tightly with the others do not show up in the tiger’s deadly paws because it negates his humanity.)
“My name is Kyouka,” the girl drones, like a broken robot, like a faulty recorder, like a brainwashed human. She has a nice voice, he thinks, if it would just say nice things.
“I’ve killed thirty-five people.”
“Where’s the bomb?” he demands, a little softly, a little carefully.
She gives him the detonator a while later with Yosano-sensei having won the fight against the bomber, and he presses down the button, making the bomb’s light go orange. Her eyes widen along his, pure terror in them, and Atsushi realizes it’s the first time they have ever shown emotion.
There’s a voice crackling in the speakers of the phone, it’s familiar, but then Kyouka’s saying, “There is no time!” with her voice trembling, and she pushes him (they’re the hands of a murderer) and she stands by the edge of the train’s door, the sky behind her and the river beneath her.
Too little, too late.
“My name is Kyouka.”
The wind is whipping her hair, making it hard to see her eyes.
“I’ve killed thirty-five people.”
Her right is still clutching the phone.
Her head lifts, and her eyes—they’re the eyes of a human, dripping tears and too much emotion that was bottled up in the past.
“I don’t want to kill anymore!”
A foot pushes her upwards and out into her freedom.
It’s a freedom that will get her killed.
Atsushi doesn’t think, doesn’t calculate, he’s already using his Ability, he’s already acting and ripping the bomb off Kyouka who is watching him with wide-eyed confusion, and the bomb goes off in the air.
It’s still saving someone, he thinks as he wraps his arms around the girl and they crash into the river.
It’s only between their trips around Yokohama with Kunikida’s words hanging heavily in the forefront of his mind and his wallet suffering from the girl’s demands that he realizes what the pink thread that he’s observing closely as he watches Kyouka walk around in marvel means.
The pink string that connects him to Kyouka means that he’s saved her.
And nothing should stop him from helping her redeem herself, I’ve killed thirty five people, even as she walks towards the station to certain death, even as—
Rashoumon tears into him.
Ranpo rolls the strawberry-flavored candy in his tongue.
He looks around at the mess that the Agency has come into since they have received word that Nakajima Atsushi is captured.
Port Mafia, he immediately surmises. The strawberry coating his mouth sours slightly, though candy is still candy and he refuses to spit it out, because what a waste. He hopes that the kid is still alive; he’s interesting enough.
He coughs up blood, and Rashoumon exits his chest.
Akutagawa’s eyes are black and horrendous and seething with so much hatred that he could feel it even though his back is turned, even though his head is spinning with pain. He’s pushed into the walls or boxes beside Kyouka, and he slides down.
“Your ability is but newly learned, a crude addition…”
The black and red threads on his pinky fingers are the same color of Akutagawa’s eyes and Rashoumon’s aura.
“It’s full of flaws and you use it with poor planning!”
Rashoumon lifts up to reveal its user.
Akutagawa lifts his head, eyes burning with loathing and derision.
“Why is it you?”
There it is.
Akutagawa’s strings are few, as though he has spared himself the life of social interaction and just devoted himself to killing and murdering and making others’ lives miserable.
There’s not much color too.
“I won’t let him say that.”
There’s a blue one that is on his right hand. A family member.
“I won’t let him say such things ever again!”
If this is his soulmate, a terrible, despicable man that negates the being of others, that brings someone back to the pit of helplessness that he created, then he would rather not see him again, even though his red string of fate still connects to him.
After he punched Akutagawa straight to the deep waters of the sea and Kyouka has brought him unconcious to a yellow thread, revealing Kunikida, the thread that ties them together does not fade.
“I think I know where to find Kenji,” he suggests a tad nervously to the Tanizakis as stand before an intersection. “Just… uhm, follow me?”
Their eyes light up in relief. “Right, anything would be helpful if we could get over it,” Tanizaki says, Naomi hanging by his arm.
His brother’s unsuccessful attempts of letting her go back to the Agency are quickly deflected by her sister. They walk as the pedestrian light goes green, Atsushi focusing on the yellow thread that connects him to Kenji. He’s seen where it is when they went to solve a difficult case by the boy’s… unconventional means. Atsushi will not ever use it, and he’s kept an eye on when Kenji usually takes his meals everyday. By now, he’s got a rough schedule of it.
He registers dimly that an annoying someone is calling out for a name repeatedly, but loses interest since the other pink thread’s hue is stronger than ever, like whoever has it has come to Japan…
Atsushi halts as the yellow thread stops mid-air, and for a heart-stopping moment he thinks that maybe Kenji died here—
“Naomi?!” Tanizaki says, voice mounting with alarm.
Hair rising, he turns around to see Naomi missing from where she was just talking a second ago.
“I didn’t sense anything off,” says Tanizaki angrily and runs off.
“B-be careful, Tanizaki-san!”
Tanizaki stops at the middle of intersection teeming with people and other people’s lives. “Give Naomi back!” he shouts particularly no one, his mouth twisting with uncharacteristic expression of anger that he just shows when something happens to his sister.
His head whips around to look at someone. “Found you,” he said, voice full of satisfaction. He runs towards the girl—red long hair, a dolled-up dress, standing stock-still as people pass by her—every sense of the word suspicious. He reaches out a hand. “Wait!”
The next moment he knows, black and white tiles are beneath his feet, party streamers above his head, strange structures around and a pink hue in the atmosphere. The other people around them also stop to look around in confusion.
The girl is connected to him—connected to him with a pink string.
He—doesn’t quite save her, to his utmost frustration, remembering the extremely terrified green eyes, I… I can’t afford to fail! ringing true in his ears even as the cars blare their horns at them. She’s down on her knees on the sidewalk, shoulders shaking.
Atsushi begins to doubt what the color pink truly means when he approaches her and tries to help her, when Lucy glares at him with tears in her eyes and she runs away. He considers following her when an ear-shattering shout distracts him with an “Oh, Elise-chan! Are you okay?! Where’ve you been? I was so worried! You just up and vanished…”
Really. It’s the bizarre man who stubbornly stayed in Anne’s room and significantly helped him and fundamentally saved the day. He has half a mind to thank him, but he looks busy being reunited with the child with golden curls and startlingly red dress. She looks like an angel, honestly, like he had described her.
“I thought Rintarou would worry if I suddenly disappeared,” she says innocently with a smile in her angelic face. “I wanted to make Rintarou cry.”
“That’s so mean, Elise-chan!” the man whines, waving his hands around. “But I forgive you because you’re so cute!”
Someone barrels him from behind, hugging his waist, he says, “Kyouka-chan?” and he turns around to face her properly. “You came to get me?”
Kyouka nods shyly. “I was worried,” she says in a small voice.
His heart squeezes gently. Pink string, he absently notes. He crouches down at her eye-level to smile. “Thank you,” he says warmly.
“We’ll be taking our leave now,” someone says, and they turn to see the man with the little girl in tow.
“Thank you for your advice earlier,” Atsushi says with genuine gratitude. Remebering the man’s words earlier, hesitantly, he asks, “So, you’re a doctor?”
“Ex-doctor,” the man corrects, shoulders shifting. “Right now, I’m just a middle-aged man keeping a small group of people in line. Boy,” he starts with the same unruffled tone he used earlier, ribbon on his hand wrapped on Atsushi, and he immediately straightens in attention. “A logical, optimal solution exists in any wartime situation, no matter how difficult the challenge.”
Ice trickles down his back, following down the curve of his spine. The man’s strings are mostly black, now that he properly observes him.
“You must not forget that,” he continues, “especially in times of confusion when you might feel inclined to recklessness.”
It’s another great advice, one that’s precise, rational and fitting for their predicament right now. He nods, smiles and replies, “Okay.”
“Goodbye!” the man says with a cheerful smile, using the hand that’s not holding Elise’s to wave at them as they walk away.
Kyouka shakes beside her.
Atsushi’s heart pounds, eyes wide, because why hadn’t he seen that earlier? The little girl with her charming smile and bothering words has no strings at all.
“She is not going back to Port Mafia,” he growls, arms shaking as he tries to lift himself up from the ground, his head spinning with you have to protect her and she has to redeem herself and what will happen to the pink string and he has to save her. “Her strengths are for her to use in Agency jobs.”
As they walk away, Kyouka between the folds of the Mafia agent’s kimono as she engulfs her with her arms as a mother would to a daughter, the green light (same as Atsushi to Dazai-san, same as Ranpo-san to the President) briefly glows. It’s the first time he’s seen a string glow.
Of course, that’s when it all goes to hell, as Kyouka tries to stab Kouyou, as she calls Demon Snow with her own cunning and craftiness, as Kouyou battles her with her own demon, as she tears the girl apart with words—
“After all, your demon… killed your parents.”
The two faded blue strings on Kyouka’s hand faintly stir as her body becomes rigid with fear.
—as Kyouka finally submits, as a dozen men aims their gun on him, as Kunikida-san and Kenji-kun arrive at the scene and the Guild destroy everything and everyone.
The light he has shown her has blinded her.
(He’s tried once to follow the pink string, and it led him deeper and deeper in the slums, led him to alleys and to the people who are living in poverty, filthy stench filling his lungs, as the crowded narrow roads give way to children and adults that stare at him with mistrust, him that is clean, and no matter how hard he chases, Kyouka still eludes him.
“Boy,” a gentle voice tells him, “please take care of Kyouka.”)
“I’m not going to make it!” Dazai yells in panic, running and holding his hands between his legs.
“So there’s someone following us,” Atsushi muses, staring as his mentor runs towards some sources of strings—two of them, in fact. In another day, he might’ve followed, but the urge to see Naomi-san and Haruno-san safe is stronger than confronting possible enemies. Besides, it’s Dazai-san, so it should be fine.
It isn’t, he decides later, wincing as Haruno with her eyes red and her blood dripping from blank eyes goes down, and Naomi turns at him, head tilted maddeningly. It isn’t, the two girls are hallucinating, and he can’t see the strings anymore, he can’t see anything besides the two, he’s hurting them, he’s harming them and Dazai yells at him a minute later, he’s only trying to protect them and the crackling sinister laughing in his head subsides as Dazai finds the cursed doll, only to be taken over by those words spat at him, his soulmate’s voice in his head, “Now do you understand who you are?” and he spirals further down in insanity and familiar self-loathing and that burn in his chest making it harder to breathe—
Dazai’s slap brings him back to reality.
Atsushi turns wide eyes to his mentor, the hand raised in the air connecting a black one to the departing train.
Dazai’s eyes are—dark, bottomless and like staring at the abyss, like staring into someone who was once a Port Mafia executive, staring into someone who is a puppet master with strings in his hands of the lives he controls.
“Pity yourself and life becomes an endless nightmare.”
“I know your fear and loneliness well.”
Atsushi will never pass an opportunity like this again, high in the skies, Lucy Maud Montgomery talking about the hideous scars and her hideous memories that reflect well with Atsushi’s.
“But loneliness wasn’t a king lording over us forever.”
He was wrong when he assumed that a pink string meant that it is someone he saves.
“Loneliness is just a soft, fluffy cloud forming and vanishing on a whim. Many people on the ground carry wounds the way we do.”
It’s not them saving him either, Kyouka facing off the leader of the Guild and silently pleading for Lucy to save Yokohama even though it is not her city.
“Abandon them, and you’re abandoning your part self.”
It’s the quiet kindred that forms over time, Kyouka smiling appreciatively as he hands her another crepe, as he shows Lucy his own scars, as he narrates from his heart, words he’s memorized—
“I’ve never regretted anything that I’ve done. I’ve only regretted the things I didn’t do.
—and as Lucy smiles, slowly and sweetly and finally.
“And save me from this place someday.”
There’s a new light in her eyes, one that he’s seen from Dazai-san, one that he’s seen from Kyouka.
“I’ll be waiting.”
It’s alright now, he thinks as he leaves Lucy behind. It’s alright now as his vision blurs when he reaches a hand towards the doll. The green thread on his index finger glows; he could feel relief sagging in his bones, deep-weary, as steps approach him.
It’s alright now as Dazai says, “You win, Atsushi-kun,” with a triumphant, quiet proud smile, and bats the concerns that he voice away and the streets flood with clouds of glitter pink, strangely sweet smell permeating the air.
“I don’t understand you,” he growls, Akutagawa above him and standing imperiously, staring at him down, Atsushi has to save Yokohama.
“I don’t remember ever asking for your understanding,” Akutagawa returns, eyes narrowed.
The black string connecting them pulls taut as Akutagawa kicks him in the stomach again and again and again, as Akutagawa laughs, “I understand,” and Rashoumon makes a circle for the both of them to escape, as Rashoumon tears into him for the nth time, drags him back to its owner, Akutagawa seeing his soul, seeing his heart—
And the red string, the dreaded red string connecting them as finally, finally Atsushi understands the drive within Akutagawa to make him suffer, to torment him, to kill him.
It’s—it’s always Dazai-san, of course.
Francis still stubbornly gets up after receiving the punches from Akutagawa and Atsushi (they could be stronger than ever if they are together, the back of his mind whispers, soulmates), eyes yellow with power, steps determined and aura menacing and filled with a purpose.
It was lost in the storm, but Atsushi remembers from when they had fought inside the ship.
“Your child died,” he says, bones rattling in tiredness after the tiger has lent him his strength. “And you wanted to bring him or her back, even if it means sacrificing everything.”
The faded blue thread on his finger rises in tune with his will, and a yellow storm blows them both away.
The time—the time when the two strings finally become one was when the words were said to each other starts like this:
“The words of your past are fundamentally unrelated to who you are now.”
And like this:
“I think Dazai-san already approved of you a long time ago.”
And as Rashoumon creates a pathway for him as he flies off the ship and twines itself around his hand, around his arm, around the tiger’s arm which he borrowed, defeating Francis.
“Forget about me.”
“No!” he shouts, struggling and fighting as Akutagawa drags him away. “Let go of me! Akutagawa!”
The pink thread is a straight line that leads him to the drone that is crashing into Moby Dick.
“Kyouka-chan, please listen to me!”
They made it into the land, Atsushi coughing up water.
Akutagawa’s coughs do not seem to be from the water. “Kyouka,” he says, voice neutral. “What a fool.”
Atsushi only laughs, relief loosening his chest and making his arms weak. It’s these times that he’s grateful that he’s able to see the strings, glad that he grew up a weirdo and a freak because against all odds, the pink string tells him that Kyouka is alive.
Akutagawa’s eyes narrow down on him. “Are you insane? Laughing when a comrade of yours is dead?”
“She’s not dead,” he rasps with absolute certainty. He follows the thread—it’s still there, it’s still bright, it’s not faded out—and finds her, high up in the air.
“What a surprise,” someone says, and they turn to see Dazai and the President a few feet away, watching. “How did you know she survived the impact, Atsushi-kun? The most logical conclusion you could glean from what happened is that Kyouka-chan’s dead, isn’t it, as merciless as it is?”
They watch as Demon Snow settles Kyouka down with a small vortex of air, chains clacking on the ground.
Amidst the explanations that Dazai-san and the President gives, in the middle of the clarity that gives him why: All Men Are Created Equal, the tiger’s strength, Demon Snow’s submission, and as Akutagawa receives what he wants at last—“You’ve grown stronger.”—Atsushi finds his peace with the city he’s saved.
It’s only later that he notices the gentle light green string between the President and Kyouka.
The peace shatters not a week after, and it’s the first time he’s woken up to find a faded black string on his hand, one that he instantly recognizes as the headmaster, and Ranpo-san gives him the case, pay attention to the flower shop, one disastrous truth after another crashing him down—
“What kind of expression I should make?” he desperately asks Dazai, eyes burning and an identifiable feeling on his chest that squeezes his heart like the organ is being strangled with ruthless invisible strings.
Dazai stares down at him.
“I can only say one general thing,” his mentor says as he turns away to give him some privacy that he needs. “When someone’s father passes away, they will cry.”
In the bench of the park, with families with their own lives in front of him, Atsushi cries, and wonders if he has been blind all the time.
It was never black, the string that connects him to the headmaster. It was violet, a violet so dark that he has mistaken it for black.
It’s also the color he’s seen once, connecting Dazai to Akutagawa.
(You don't erase years and years of abuse. You can't. You have to accept that what they did is wrong, despite best intentions, despite having ulterior motives, because those days and nights and the headmaster and the other children who cut his hair and that built him to who he is today. He has the scars to prove that, stories upon stories of dark room and cage bars and needles and harsh point system and even nails and dull light coming through.
It should be messed up, it shouldn't be enough reason for why the headmaster had to do it, but for Atsushi, it's enough for now.)
He hands over the bag of candies that Ranpo told him to buy, and finds this the perfect moment. Ranpo accepts them happily and immediately sticks his hand inside the bag.
“You know, I found your soulmate.” He pauses, Ranpo looking at him curiously, a lollipop in his mouth. “Just recently.”
“Oh, you did?” asks Ranpo, pleased. He hands him a candy, a strawberry-flavored one. “Who’s it?”
Atsushi beams as he accepts it. “But you already have your suspicions, right, Ranpo-san?”
Ranpo pouts. “But I wanna hear it from you.”
“It’s Poe-san,” he says, and Ranpo’s green eyes light up with delight, his lips curling to a grin.
The door to the Agency opens, and a head with a raccoon on the top of it peeks from behind. “Ranpo-kun? I have another mystery novel for you…” Poe says in his timid voice.
“Go get him,” Atsushi says, laughter in his voice, and Ranpo levels a flat look at him that speaks of really, Atsushi.
“Good luck on your own soulmate, then,” says Ranpo-san, eyebrows lifting. “It… could be a long haul.”
Atsushi’s eyes crinkle at the corner when he smiles.
Atsushi stares up at the ceiling that is not his, the smell of tea strong in the air. His whole body hurts as if Kenji has struck him with a car, a bus and a train all at once. Not that he will ever do that, and not that he could ever do that simultaneously. But there’s a burning pain in his stomach, and he remembers the mission he an Akutagawa were sent to, when suddenly they’re everyone’s favorite pair; he remembers thinking that as the enemy bores down on his reluctant partner, he would be able to survive the attack because of the tiger’s regenerative power.
He’s shielded Akutagawa then, the pain blossoming from his stomach and the fire spreading, more painful than Rashoumon’s attacks, more painful than he’s ever experienced, more than he could ever bear.
His mind is a mess.
The last thing he remembers before his vision blacks out is Akutagawa’s wide-eyed confusion and rage.
He blinks and turns his head to his side slowly, the entire room different to him.
Akutagawa is clutching a tea in his hands with white knuckles, the grip on them too tight. He has dark circles in his eyes like he has stayed up all night, and the line of his shoulders speaks visible exhaustion from the fight last night. He’s staring down at Atsushi with dark, unreadable eyes.
And Atsushi is just lying in the bed like a spoiled brat, robbing Akutagawa of his comfort. He tries to sit up, but the burn in his muscles prevents him so, and he flops down at the futon with a gasp.
“Do not try to move, jinko,” Akutagawa snaps, spilling some of the tea on the floor. He scowls and takes a sip, despite it being so hot that Atsushi could see some steam rising from the cup in his position.
He blinks slowly. “W-what happened?” he asks through the cotton in his mouth that makes his tongue heavy.
“It was poisoned, the enemy’s attack that was directed at me,” he says tartly, giving up on his tea. Atsushi wonders how many cups of tea he’s had for the night, because as he says, tea calms him like nothing else. Rashoumon stirs behind him like he wants to strangle Atsushi but couldn’t since he’s bedridden. “Why did you save me?”
His head is still confused, the battle flashing through his mind to what must be a side-effect of the poison. Why the tiger’s regenerative power hasn’t healed him, he doesn’t know, and thinking makes his thoughts hazy so he closes his eyes again.
He hums and settles himself to the futon again with minimal movements. “I could make it,” he replies as short as he can. “You won’t.”
Akutagawa makes a confused noise. “But—you—” He pauses. “We hate each other,” he states, as simple as a fact.
“Maybe,” he murmurs through the haze of pain. “Maybe not.” He already wants to sleep, but he doubts that Akutagawa shares his sentiment. “Hey, Akutagawa, why didn’t you get me to Yosano-sensei?”
The Mafioso growls and says, “She was… unavailable at the moment. She and your president went for a trip.”
“Did they now,” he says faintly, and he opens his eyes to slits in order to observe his hand. Sure enough, two of the strings that connect him to certain people are faint. “Oh. They are.”
“They are?” Akutagawa repeats, settling beside Atsushi with a sigh. “I am going to kill them when they get back. And how are you so sure, jinko?”
He sighs. “I’m a freak,” he says at length.
“You are,” Akutagawa immediately agrees, though he falls silent one more.
Nakajima Atsushi has been seeing the strings around him ever since he could remember.
There are the strings that surround him, strings that connect those around him, and most importantly, the strings on his own hand.
The third time he tells someone about it is through murmurs and slurs and pain lancing through his body if he ever so much as moves in his position.
“We share the red string.”
Akutagawa snorts. “Disgusting,” he replies like a reflex. “You must be joking.”
“I wanted to cut it first,” he insists. “Because we met at an alley and my soulmate just tried to kill me and he’s a murderer and he’s out for my blood, you know. And we also share a black string at that time, which means we’re, like, mortal enemies.”
“Let me cut it.”
“I’ll kill you instead. I refuse to accept the fact that you are my… soulmate.”
“Shut up.” He yawns, jaw creaking. “Now let me go back to sleep.”
“Not a chance, jinko, you’ve made me stay up all night to tend to your wounds.” His words are laced with distaste, though Atsushi still hears the underlying concern. He’s gotten good in identifying Akutagawa’s growls, and that should be mildly worrying, but. Well. It’s not their fault they are paired up in so many missions this time around.
“Who said that you should?”
“Chuuya-san,” he says, though it’s a testament of his unease that he obeys Chuuya’s supposed command. Usually he’d just brush silly suggestions off, though Chuuya doesn’t always mind it. “And Chuuya-san means Dazai-san, and Dazai-san means the Agency, and I wouldn’t want the wrath of the Agency.”
He snorts a huff of air because he couldn’t manage anything else.
“You should call me by my name, try it sometime, A-tsu-shi,” he says at last, sleep pulling down his eyelids. “I can’t be jinko to you all the time. Besides, the black string is gone.”
In the space of the moment within the Akutagawas’ apartment, silence descends over the two peacefully.
“Like Chuuya-san and Dazai-san.”
Akutagawa releases air that he is holding in for the last few seconds.
“Fine,” he says slowly. “Nakajima.”
“So that means that Dazai-san and Chuuya-san are together now?”
Atsushi cracks an eye open to confusedly stare at Akutagawa. “…Yes.”
A smirk tugs at his lips. “I should get my winnings from Gin and Tachihara.”
A groan slips past Atsushi’s lips. “A betting pool on Chuuya-san and Dazai-san’s relationship?”
Akutagawa just hums an affirmative. “Do not ever try to leave that bed again,” he warns, and pinches the bridge of his nose. “If you do, there’s… chazuke in the microwave. That was…” He clears his throat awkwardly. “That was for yesterday.”
“Thanks.” He pauses. “And sorry for worrying you.”
“If you just want to die, Nakajima,” Akutagawa mutters, “tell me and I’ll kill you instead.” Then he vanishes.
“Really, Akutagawa,” he mumbles to an empty room, exhaustion pulling him under again. “Your death threats are practically non-threatening now. They’re getting old.”
He thinks he hears a “Shut up, jinko,” but he can’t be sure because sleep claims him.