Atsushi is five when he transforms for the first time.
Akutagawa knows better than to let anyone see the tiger cub, envelopes the both of them with Rashomon as he tries his best to calm the animal. He’s not familiar with this new Atsushi; it’s no longer the unassuming boy he’s grown up with but an unpredictable creature, wild and frenzied. Except in some essential, indistinct way, the tiger is Atsushi and Atsushi is the tiger. So even when the cub claws at his arm, Akutagawa makes sure he’s hidden; that he’s safe.
It’s for the best he tells himself, when Atsushi asks him about the claw marks across his arm the next morning and Akutagawa blames it on the stray cat loitering outside the orphanage.
Rashomon had first manifested a year ago, colour the bleak gray of the orphanage’s rags. It happened when one of the caretakers moved to strike him during breakfast and the beast lashed out, almost as if by instinct. But it disappeared in the next instant and with nothing left to defend him; Akutagawa had been thrown into confinement. He doesn’t know how long he had been left there but having nothing to occupy himself with, Akutagawa was convinced the gray beast had been nothing more than an illusion.
Still, when they let Akutagawa out, there’s a new distance between him and the other childrens. They had never been especially friendly, every one must fend for their own, but this aloofness is foreign. Akutagawa is no stranger to fear, he’s lived in its shadow ever since he had been thrown into this orphanage; but this fear, directed towards him, he doesn’t know what to do with and he returns every look with an icy one of his own.
And then there was Atsushi and it may just have been his age, or that he was not yet accustomed to the way of life at the orphanage, but there had been no unease in his voice when he demands Akutagawa show him the “gray monster”.
It was unlike him; it was unlike him and yet, there he was, behind the sheds with a four year old trying to invoke Rashomon again.
It’s no longer possible to keep the white tiger hidden with just Rashomon; but he’s learnt to keep it in line over the years and on nights the moon shines especially bright, Akutagawa leads the animal out to the woods behind the orphanage. Atsushi doesn’t hurt him anymore, apart from the occasional injuries he gets when the tiger playfully pounces on him.
The tiger is fascinated, almost as much as Atsushi is, by Rashomon; the way the fabric shifts to form different beings. They’re the same Akutagawa must remind himself, the tiger and Atsushi, Atsushi and the tiger. The control he has over Rashomon now, born from the days he would spend trying to impress Atsushi, almost makes him feel guilty for keeping Atsushi’s ability a secret. But then, he remembers the ways he’s punished, stripped naked in an attempt to kill the beast, and he decides this is better.
Atsushi is ten, and Akutagawa, only two years older, is still struck by this need to protect the younger boy. (It’s uncommon, in their orphanage, but it’s not unheard of.) Rashomon flares up, sometimes, when it looks like Atsushi is being terrorised; and even though there are bruises littering his torso that still hurt when he shifts the wrong way, it doesn’t stop Akutagawa.
“Ryuu, you don’t have to.” Atsushi mumbles one day, holding an ice pack he’d nicked over particularly bad bruising on Akutagawa’s shoulder.
“I don’t know what you mean.” Akutagawa responds, stubborn as ever. The younger boy pouts, just a little, but he drops the subject.
It would have been pointless, anyway, if he had continued to argue.
“You sneak out to the woods sometimes, don’t you? I heard there’s a wild animal roaming the area...”
“...Is that so?”
“Don’t worry about me. Go brush your teeth.”
Akutagawa is sixteen when he finally snaps.
They had made a mistake, overlooking the thin fabric around his wrist. For good luck, Ryuu Atsushi had beamed at him when he’d tied it that morning, right before Rashomon materialises to ward off a boy trying to filch the bread off his bowl. He had made no move to remove it, despite rolling his eyes at Atsushi and it’s enough to slit the headmaster’s throat when he picks up the belt.
Akutagawa allows himself to admit that’s he fantasised about this very moment multiple times; in his mind, it happens instantly. But the man in front of him struggles to draw in his last breath, and the rasp of his struggle won’t be easily forgotten. Blood and spit dribble down his chin as Akutagawa watches; watches until he’s sure the headmaster is dead.
There’s a black coat hanging near the door, and with the new moon cloaking him in darkness, he escapes the room he had been confined in. It's Atsushi that he's looking for and he finds him, huddled in a corner of the main hall rubbing his hands together for warmth. No one pays him any mind as he weaves his way through the other children to reach the boy.
“Ryuu? Hey, what’s with the coat?”
“We need to go.” Akutagawa says. Atsushi must have heard the urgency in his whisper because he doesn’t ask why; but then again, Atsushi has always trusted Akutagawa, perhaps more than he ought to.
No one sees them leaving; there’s no one to stop them and there’s no one coming after them. But Akutagawa doesn’t let go of Atsushi’s hand; gripping it so tight in his that he can’t even deceive himself he’s only protecting the younger. And maybe Atsushi senses this because he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t pull away.
They’ve been on the run for hours, dawn is creeping in, but there’s adrenaline pumping through their veins and it keeps them up, pushes them forward. To be free of those four walls, it’s everything he’s wanted and yet, Akutagawa is afraid. The headmaster twitching on the concrete, blood dripping, he hasn’t told Atsushi yet and Atsushi will want to leave. Murderer the word echoes; he ignores it; there are worse things to be.
It’s noon when they finally stop, throats parched and feet hurting as they take shelter under a bridge.
“Here.” Atsushi is holding a water bottle out to him; it’s the one thing they had thought important enough to load themselves with but they were already close to running out.
“I killed the headmaster.” Akutagawa exhales. There’s no change in Atsushi’s expression, nothing to indicate he had understood the weight of what Akutagawa has just admitted to.
“Okay” is all Atsushi says. Neither of them have any love for the orphanage or its occupants but Akutagawa, for some reason, realises he had been expecting more of a reaction.
“Is it?” Akutagawa asks.
“I don’t care if he’s dead or alive.”
“You don’t want to leave me?”
“I’m staying.” Atsushi insists; there’s ferocity in his voice that startles Akutagawa. But he’s fond of this boy, so very fond, and he doesn’t stop himself from dropping a kiss to the side of Atsushi’s head.
“Atsushi, I don’t know what to do when we reach the next town.” Akutagawa admits later on.
“We’ll figure it out.” Atsushi says; it sounds like a promise.
They move from town to town; squatting in abandoned property, doing odd jobs in between for the old people living nearby. It’s not a steady source of income, but they get by; have been getting by for nearly a year now; and when they move on to the next town, they make sure there’s nothing tying them down.
“The old lady I cut grass for said there’s been a tiger or panther or something around the area lately.” Atsushi informs him, huddled so close to Akutagawa that if he tries, he thinks he can count the light freckles on Atsushi’s skin. It’s winter; there’s no heating in the empty house they’ve taken up in and they only have one blanket to share.
“Which one? Tiger or panther?”
“Does it matter?”
“It doesn’t.... We’re leaving soon, anyway.” Akutagawa says. Atsushi doesn’t drop the issue.
“But, there’s always a wild animal wherever we go.”
“Do you really think there’s a carnivore following us around?” Akutagawa scoffs, but there's some guilt tinged in those words.
He still hasn’t told Atsushi about him being a weretiger, unsure of how to bring it up after all these years. There are no longer any open spaces available to hide the tiger in so Akutagawa harbours the animal indoors. It’s easy enough to stop it from clawing at the surfaces with Rashomon, colour now the black of the coat he stole, but Akutagawa can’t silence its roars.
“I mean, if you put it like that, it sounds stupid.” Atsushi complains, but shifts closer to Akutagawa anyway.
“It’s what you meant.” Atsushi is warm (or maybe Akutagawa has always been cold) so he doesn’t push the boy away even if the proximity makes his head spin. Atsushi, in his tiger form, snuggles into Akutagawa sometimes, fur as soft as his hair is but it’s not like this; not when Akutagawa can feel the line of his body pressed against his.
“Hypothetically,” Akutagawa starts, “say you have an ability: what would you want?”
Atsushi hums under his breath, a crease forming between his eyebrows as he thinks. Akutagawa reaches out to smoothen it; is rewarded with a grin from the younger boy. “Nothing, in particular. But if I did have one, I hope it’s something that lets you forget the orphanage.”
He’s sure his breath catches, hopes Atsushi doesn’t notice and turns away, schooling his expression into something more passive.
“I don’t think about it anymore.”
“Sometimes you do,” Atsushi says. Akutagawa is about to argue, to insist that he’s no longer haunted by it when Atsushi continues: “But so do I.”
Akutagawa stays silent instead; he's not shocked by this admission but his hands find Atsushi’s under the blanket anyway, holds onto him as tight as he dares to. “Thank you.”
“Are you blushing, Ryuu?” Atsushi laughs then, the sombre mood shattering at once.
But Atsushi doesn’t go, and Akutagawa doesn’t want him to.
Akutagawa is nineteen when he kisses Atsushi for the first time. They’re near the back on a bus to Yokohama, stowing away as they usually do and Atsushi’s laughing at something Akutagawa had said.
(It’s the middle of the day, but Atsushi might be the brightest thing he’s ever seen.)
It might have been the way Atsushi’s voice broke, or just the fact that the only other passengers on the bus were paying no attention to them, but Akutagawa tilts his head to press his lips against Atsushi’s. Their teeth clack together when the bus hits a bump on the road, and Akutagawa is pulling back, horrified. But Atsushi drags him back in, hands fisted in the front of his shirt and he can taste the sugar on his lips and it’s so very sweet, he wants more of this.
“God, finally.” Atsushi mutters, his lips moving against Akutagawa’s. There’s a knot in his chest, unraveling, and there are so many things he wants to say to Atsushi but his mouth is dry, they wouldn't come out the way he wants them to. His lips curl into a rare smile that he buries in the crook of Atsushi’s neck, presses another kiss there and Atsushi lets out a low whimper that starts a fire in him.