AUGUST 30, 2009
NTV SPECIAL NEWS PROGRAM ZERO x SENKYO 2009
MURAO: ...coming to you live on election night, this is NTV's Zero x Senkyo 2009. This is Murao Nobutaka, and joining me tonight are Shimada Shinsuke and Sakurai Sho. The first round of ballots from today's elections for the National Diet's House of Representatives have been counted and the preliminary results are shocking. As many predicted, the Liberal Democratic Party appears on the brink of losing control of the House for only the second time in fifty-five years - but in stark contrast to the results predicted by almost every single pre-election poll, the new victor looks not to be Hatoyama Yukio's Democratic Party of Japan but a little-known fringe party that until weeks ago boasted a mere handful of candidates. Sakurai-kun, what can you tell us about this new - excuse the pun - "surprise" party?
SAKURAI: Of course we must emphasize these results are only preliminary and may not indicate the final outcome of the election, but the Happiness Realization Party's sudden leap in popularity is boggling politicians and political scientists alike. Even the Tokyo municipal elections in early July - which as we know are generally considered a fairly reliable gauge of general election trends - failed to predict the HRP's ascendance, as they stood no candidates.
SAKURAI: Naturally, everyone's scrambling for information on what was previously considered at best a mere fringe party and at worst a group of, ah, lunatics. So far credit seems to lie with an unusually penetrating and widespread viral marketing campaign as well as increased voter turnout among residents of Tokyo's Akihabara ward and women of all ages, blocs that voted nearly unanimously for the HRP. Street interviews with individuals who self-identified as HRP voters indicate strong personal support for party leader A -
MURAO: Excuse me, Sakurai-kun, I'm receiving a message... [pause] It's official. Breaking news: Prime Minister Aso, on behalf of the Liberal Democratic Party, has conceded - for the first time in history, the Happiness Realization Party has swept the Lower House and the new Prime Minister of Japan is party leader Akanishi Jin.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Takki looked at Tsubasa. Tsubasa looked at Takki.
"No," they said in perfect unison.
"It's so heartwarming to see you finally agree on something," said their manager. "It's a shame I don't care. Come on. Out."
"Fuck," Takki said succinctly as they got out of the company van, to which Tsubasa could only agree. Not that he was going to say so. It was his own personal promise to himself never to let Takki know he was right, a so-far unsullied record he liked to mentally pull out to mull over and cherish whenever the urge to throttle his so-called partner got too strong.
"I think it's going to rain," he said instead, moodily, eyeing the steely sky.
"Aren't you a ray of sunshine today," Takki sniped, at which point they reached the door of the recording studio and their manager gave them each an elbow in the side, muttering, "Best behavior or you'll be singing your next single soprano."
They rolled their eyes simultaneously, and then glared at each other. Their manager heaved a big sight and then, plastering a smile on his face, pushed open the door.
They were greeted with a high-pitched roar. Tsubasa's eyes crossed. They were trapped in a sea - no, an ocean of preteen girls. School uniforms. Braids. Squeals. He was going to lose his hearing. Oh god.
A piercing whistle cut through the clamor and, miraculously, the squealing (mostly) ceased. Tsubasa shook his head briefly, to clear it.
"Girls, girls, quietly." Somewhere, somehow, an adult had materialized from the seething masses of schoolgirlhood, an older woman with masses of artificially black hair and heavy blue eyeshadow. She was smiling at them a little... predatorily. "How nice to meet you, gentlemen."
"Our pleasure," Takki said smoothly, gracing her with a charming smile.
Was she giving Tsubasa the eye? Surreptitiously - he hoped - he edged backward.
"Let me introduce you," their manager interjected. "Boys, may I present Miss Mori Mitsuko and the Ochanomizu Girls' Junior High School Chorus." He gestured to the sea of uniforms with a wide sweep of his arm and the squealing returned full force. "Ladies, Imai Tsubasa - " Tsubasa waved, worrying distantly that the grin plastered on his face might crack it " - and Takizawa Hideaki." Takki dropped the girls a wink, and the squealing jumped another decibel. Takki's eyes slid towards Tsubasa and the corner of his mouth curled up in a nearly undetectable smirk. Tsubasa continued to smile for all he was worth.
"Now," their manager said, all genial smiles. "Shall we begin recording?"
There was no question about it. Tsubasa was in hell.
"Well," Jin said brightly. "I think that went well."
Yamapi's head met the table with an audible thunk. "No, Jin. No, that did not go well. What did I tell you beforehand?"
"Not to refer to myself as The Boss in front of heads of state," Jin said promptly.
Yamapi opened his mouth, and then closed it again. "You're right. I did tell you that. And you haven't yet. Very good. What else did I tell you?"
"Not to open my mouth for anything other than conversation?"
Yamapi's fingers crept up to massage his temples. "Yes. That, too. Though now I'm thinking maybe it should have been the other way around. What else?"
Jin looked shifty. "Not to... play cell phone games during cabinet meetings...?"
There was an awful silence. "No," Yamapi said eventually. "No, I didn't say that, and I'll pretend you didn't say it either because I know even you wouldn't consider something like that." He took a deep breath. "No," he repeated, "what I said was not to piss off Korea!"
"Oh," said Jin. "Right."
"This is one of our key policy changes! Cultivate good relations with Korea, a valuable trading partner and heir to the same rich cultural heritage that has influenced Japan since - " Yamapi cut himself off and took a deep breath. Unconsciously reciting campaign materials was usually a sign he was getting too stressed.
"I don't like their ambassador," Jin said sullenly. "He reminds me of Ryo. We don't need more than one Ryo."
"Of course you don't," Yamapi sighed.
"Besides," Jin continued, "the Americans like me."
"They like you because you like them - you like them so much you're not pushing for closure of any of the military bases because you like going down there to chat with the soldiers about Justin Timberlake!"
"There's nothing wrong with intercultural exchange," said Jin loftily.
At that fortuitous moment, a knock sounded on the door.
Thank god. Yamapi was ready devour an entire herd of livestock. More and more frequently, snack time was all that got him through the day, a state of affairs that really didn't bear thinking about. Fortunately, in Prime Minister Akanishi's residence, snack time was early and often.
"Come in," he called, and the door opened.
After the unfortunate incident with the young woman and the aphrodisiac-spiked curry, Yamapi had been sure to screen all the residence employees personally - which was why he took in the sight of an unfamiliar young man rolling the heavily laden snack cart in with surprise and no small amount of alarm. He cleared his throat, and the cart and its handler immediately stopped. The young man looked up.
"I'm sorry," Yamapi said pleasantly, with an undertone of menace, "I don't think we've met."
The young man straightened his shoulders and executed an exceedingly correct bow. "It's a pleasure to meet you. My name's Kamenashi, I was recommended by Nishikido-san...?"
Aha. Yamapi remembered the application now; on the strength of Ryo's recommendation he'd approved it without a personal interview. "Right, of course," he said, and modulated his smile from threatening to friendly. "Sorry about that. Nice to have you with us, Kamenashi. I'm Yamashita, chief of staff, and you know who this is - " He turned to Jin.
Jin was staring.
"Sorry," Jin said with a warm and heartfelt smile, the sort of smile that wrung votes from impressionable women like tears from Korean soap opera fans, "what did you say your name was? Kamenashi?"
Kamenashi nodded with a terribly earnest expression. "It's an honor to meet you, Prime Minister." Oh no. He probably respected the political system and the office of the prime minister and read up on current events and voted in every election. There was no way this could end well.
"Kamenashi," Jin said. "Do you have a nickname?"
Kamenashi looked understandably taken aback. "Um. Some of my friends call me Kame?"
"Can I?" Jin asked. "I like to cultivate friendly relations with my staff."
"Um," Kamenashi repeated. He blinked once. "If you'd like. Sir."
"Great." Jin was still smiling. "Thank you, Kame. I look forward to talking with you again."
Kamenashi apparently took that as a dismissal and backed out of the room, a hesitant smile on his face. Yamapi waited until the door snicked shut, and then lunged.
Jin yelped and scrabbled backward but not quickly enough; Yamapi grabbed a handful of Jin's shirt collar and held on tight. "Akanishi Jin," he hissed, "if you so much as suggest - no, if you even think about suggesting - "
"I didn't do anything! I didn't - argh let me go!"
"I've known you practically longer than your own mother, and I know what you're thinking, and if after everything Ryo and I did for that campaign you get yourself thrown out of office on a sexual harassment scandal so help me God - "
"I can't breathe!"
Yamapi loosened his grip slightly and Jin took a wheezing gulp of air. "Promise me," Yamapi pressed, giving Jin a little shake.
"Fine," Jin said sulkily. "Fine. I promise."
Yamapi stared him in the eye. Jin stared back, unblinking. With a deep release of breath, Yamapi let go and returned to his seat. "Right," he said. "Let's eat."
If he'd looked at Jin's left hand, casually tucked behind the heavy wooden chair, he would have seen two fingers, crossed.
"...can you believe that quote from the press conference last week? I swear he thinks the Diet is a national weight loss initiative, we're going to wake up and find he's declared a personal dictatorship. Where's Sho? Didn't he cover..."
"...heard about Ohno's exhibition, how long's it going to..."
Jun had had just enough wine to feel a pleasant, warm buzz; he surveyed the (newly) joint Ninomiya-Ohno apartment through a haze of contentment he'd have been forced to disown in the cold light of day. Sho was talking to a well-coiffed young woman Jun didn't know, accompanying whatever the subject of their fervent conversation was - even odds it was the new administration - with a series of increasingly impassioned gestures. Ninomiya was across the room, chatting with an actor Jun vaguely recognized. Ohno had an arm around Ninomiya's waist. He probably didn't even realize it.
Jun was terribly afraid his expression was closer to disgustingly fond than actually disgusted. All the people Jun cared about most (and he would have the balls of anyone who tried to make him admit it), all in one place. Almost.
He checked his watch. Almost midnight; he could probably slip away. The buzz of conversation followed him to the entryway as he unearthed his coat (black camelhair, full length) and shoes (Zegna) from the pile
"I thought I could hear dozens of tiny animals crying for vengeance," said a voice behind him.
Jun turned. "You are sold separately," he said in mock surprise, with his special Ninomiya-reserved grin.
Nino gave him the finger. Jun cuffed Nino on the shoulder harder than was strictly necessary, to make up for the excessive feeling earlier.
"Ow," Nino complained. "I bruise easily. So what's the hurry? You always stick around 'til we kick you out."
Jun would have to play it carefully. "Oh," he said, faux-casual. "I've just got this thing - "
Nino immediately looked suspicious. "What kind of a 'thing'? More important than your oldest friends?" He narrowed his eyes, and a grin that could only be described as "shit-eating" spread across his face.
Shit. "No," Jun said quickly - god, why was he such an awful liar - "it's this thing for work - "
"You filthy liar," Nino said gleefully. "Who is he? Tell me or I'll go get Satoshi right now."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Jun said, hastily pulling on his coat, "and I have to go now anyway. Thanks for the party."
"I'll find out," Nino promised. "You know I will."
"I'll see you next week," said Jun loudly and made his way very quickly to the door.
"I'll be waiting," Nino caroled. Jun heard him turn to go back to into the apartment.
"Oi, Ninomiya," he said. Nino turned.
Jun smiled, a real smile, the kind he wasn't allowed to use for work because they showed all his teeth and everything. "Congratulations."
Nino shrugged. The corners of his mouth crept up anyway. "Thanks," he said. The door shut.
Sometime during the party it had started to drizzle. Jun tightened the purple cashmere scarf - a freebie from work - around his neck and felt absurdly cheerful. He was getting maudlin, he told himself sternly. It must be because Christmas was approaching. He loved Christmas in all its glitzy commercialized romantic saccharine glory. Maybe this year - No, he was getting ahead of himself. It was a casual thing, he reminded himself, and no one had said anything about something more than - well - that night - Oh god, he was blushing like a thirteen-year-old.
Jun made sure his knock was soft. The wrap party for Hiro's show had been earlier that night, and if he'd come home to crash now that filming was over - or if he hadn't returned yet - Jun didn't want to disturb -
The door swung open to reveal Oguri Shun.
They regarded each other in equal puzzlement.
"Jun," Shun said after a minute. "Hi."
"Shun," Jun answered, still confused. "Nice to see you. Can I...?" He gestured at the entryway.
Shun blinked. "Sure. Sorry." He stood aside and Jun stepped up into the entryway.
"Sorry," Shun said, rubbing a hand across the back of his head. "I was just surprised to see you here so late, that's all. What time is it, midnight?"
"Just after." Shun was looking at him expectantly. Jun cleared his throat. "Well, he said, fully aware his casual voice was not sounding casual one bit. "I, see, Hiro and I - that is, it's kind of - " He broke off as he realized he was perilously close to babbling.
Shun was staring at him. "You have got to be kidding me."
"No, sorry, it's nothing - really, you are? That's great. Really." Shun edged around him. "Sorry, I didn't mean to act so surprised. Hiro never said anything."
"Yeah," Jun said, feeling - damn it! - the corners of his mouth creeping upward, "it's not official or anything - I mean, it's not a thing at all, just - "
"Right," said Shun. "I totally understand. Well, I just came by to pick up this thing I borrowed from Hiro and now I've got it, so I'd better head off now, it's getting late - " He broke off at the sound of unsteady footsteps.
Jun recognized the sound of Hiro's laughter before Hiro himself tumbled into the hall. His dress shirt was half unbuttoned and there was a bright red mark on his collarbone. He didn't even seem to notice Jun. "Shun," he purred, "what's keeping you?"
Jun's bag hit the floor.
Kame found the bar and made his way to where Nakamaru and Koki were waiting in a daze. "Kame, my man!" Koki beamed. "How's it hanging?"
"The Prime Minister remembered my name," Kame said. "My nickname."
"Kame," Nakamaru said, "you're the smart one, talk some sense into this lunatic. He's been babbling about Los Angeles and ice cubes, I don't know where he got this idea - "
"Ice Cube," Koki interrupted witheringly. "You believe in me, right, Kame? I've totally got what it takes to hang on the West Coast, I know it. I mean, the Tokyo scene is so lame - "
"Wait until you hear about his tattoos. Just wait."
Koki flushed bright red. "You going to tell everyone about that? I never should have taken you to the parlor, Jesus."
"Oh, don't even start with me, you needed someone to hold your hand - and now my eyes are never going to heal - "
"Don't listen to anything he says, Kame, he's just jealous I'm headed for the sweet life. Okay, Kame? Kame?" Koki waved a hand in front of Kame's face.
Kame blinked twice and looked at them curiously. "What were you saying?"
"Attention, temporary cast members. Please proceed to room 38A for registration and assignments. Attention, temporary cast members. Please proceed to room 38A for registration and assignments.
Room 38A had been easy to find; it was the one disgorging a winding line of college students and 20-something-year-olds with headphones and dyed hair and silver jewelry. Subaru longed for his own headphones; he had been waiting patiently for almost half and hour, and the music blaring over the loudspeaker was - of course - gratingly cheerful instrumental arrangements of popular Disney tunes. He was never going to think of "Under the Sea" with the same childhood nostalgia again.
At last. The man behind the desk had to be the same age as Subaru, if not younger, but in stark contrast to the rest of the room he was possibly the most normal man Subaru had ever seen. Subaru eyed his sweater vest. The initials "Y. N." were stitched neatly over where the left breast pocket would be.
Subaru handed his ID over. Y. N. squinted at it. "Shibutani... Shibutani..." He ran his forefinger down a sheet of paper until it came to a stop halfway down. "Ah. Shibutani. Wait just a minute." He raised his voice. "Number 45, Yasuda? Yasuda Shota?"
"Here!" A hand waved from the other side of the room and suddenly a young man materialized in front of Subaru in a whirl of blond hair, colorful beads, and an outfit that Subaru had definitely never seen on Omotesando.
"Yasuda, Shibutani. Shibutani, Yasuda," said Y. N. "You'll be working together. Here's your assignment." He handed them each a colorful printed card.
Subaru looked down. A cartoon mouse looked back up at him.
"Really?" Yasuda said next to him. "Great!" Subaru glanced over. Sure enough, the mouse on Yasuda's card was wearing a red and white polka-dotted hair ribbon.
Subaru looked at Yasuda's face in disbelief.
"No questions?" Y. N. said, clearly eager to get rid of them. "Great. Wait on the other side of the room for your casting call, please, and you'll be measured for costumes and given further instructions." He gave them a brief perfunctory smile. "Welcome to Tokyo Disney."
The moment they reach the waiting area, Yasuda turned and gave him a smile that lit up his whole face. "So," he said. "We'll be working together. Hi!" He stuck out his hand, Western-style.
"Oh, uh - " Subaru shook the proffered hand awkwardly. "Nice to meet you."
"Nice to meet you, Shibutani-san," Yasuda said with every appearance of sincerity. "You're from Osaka, too?"
"Yeah," Subaru said softly, "I moved here a few months ago."
Yasuda beamed. "Me, too! Where did you - " He was interrupted by the intercom.
"Attention. Mickeys and Minnies, please proceed to room 34 for costume fittings. Mickeys and Minnies, room 34."
Subaru exchanged a glance with Yasuda. Yasuda smiled cheerfully at him with no appearance of self-consciousness whatsoever. "That's us," he said.
"You really don't mind, Yasuda-san?" Subaru said dubiously.
"I really don't," Yasuda confirmed. "And call me Yasu, everyone does."
"Then," Subaru said, gathering his courage, "please call me Subaru."
Yasuda - Yasu - winked at him. "Sure."
"But what about the pasta?" Jin asked.
His staff exchanged glances.
"All right," Yamapi said briskly. "It's been a busy morning, why don't we take a break?" He pressed a button next to the table - he could hear a faint buzz sounding through the door - and leaned back in his chair, rolling his shoulders slowly and examining the Prime Minister's personal staff.
Ryo was looking at him across the table, a certain amount of pleading evident in his expression. It was undoubtedly taking all of his willpower not to open his mouth. Yamapi shook his head, and Ryo made a face but stayed quiet. Next to Ryo, Shige was tapping furiously at his BlackBerry and across from Shige, on Yamapi's other side, Yokoyama appeared to be doing deep breathing exercises.
Their Prime Minister was flipping through a volume of Hetalia: Axis Powers.
That explained the pasta at least. Yamapi closed his eyes; there was a persistent pounding at his temples that wouldn't seem to go away. The Asia-Pacific relations summit was in ten days' time and he was no more certain Jin wouldn't open his mouth and torpedo years of diplomatic negotiations with a single well-placed sentence than he had been three months ago. There'd better be cream puffs on the snack cart today. That was possibly the only thing that would get him through the morning.
The door opened.
"Hi, Kame," Jin said with another of the smiles Shige had likened to a guided missile.
The sheer force of it seemed to pin Kamenashi in place for a moment, before he recovered himself. "Good morning," he said, glancing up with a tentative return smile as he uncovered the cart. "Er, good morning, sir. Sorry."
Jin's eyes crinkled at the corners. "Hm? Oh, you don't have to call me that. How's your day going?"
"My day?" Kamenashi paused for another fraction of a second, and resumed his duties with what appeared to Yamapi to be a modicum of uncertainty. "Fine? How - how's yours?"
"Oh, it's going great," Jin said breezily. "We're accomplishing a ton, aren't we?" The staff murmured appropriately inaudible responses. "See," he continued, "another busy day of legislating!"
Yamapi felt an iron grip on his arm. Yokoyama was staring at him with horror in his eyes.
It's fine, he mouthed, even though it very clearly wasn't.
Kamenashi's brow was furrowed. "But the Prime Minister's office doesn't propose legislation...?"
Jin laughed airily. "Right. Just a joke. We're busy with the summit right now, you know, next week's - "
" - on relations within the Asia-Pacific region, right, of course," Kamenashi said, nodding quickly. "I'm excited to see the results - this is going to provide some really ground-breaking opportunities for the new administration - anyway." He cleared his throat and backed toward the door. "Um. Do your best. Please enjoy your refreshment."
At the door, Kamenashi paused.
Jin beamed at him. "Need something else?"
"Well - you know," Kamenashi said diffidently. "If you're thinking of promoting public interest in international relations through popular literature - " he gestured at the Hetalia volume lying forgotten on the table, "you might want to consider expanding into other current issues, too. There's some great resources out there, like Kawasumi Hiroshi's work on judicial reform - " At that moment, he seemed to realize the room was staring at him, and immediately flushed a deep red. "Just a suggestion," he murmured, and looked at his shoes.
"No," Jin said, eyes bright. "I think that's great. What was that name?"
Kamenashi risked a glance up. "Um, Kawasumi Hiroshi? I could make a list," he said in a rush.
Jin was beaming. "That would be great," he said. "I'll check them all out myself. Thanks, Kame, that's awes - I mean, this could be a great help."
"Oh," Kamenashi said faintly, "it's nothing. Um. Have a good day." To Yamapi's complete and utter horror, there was the faintest tinge of pink to Kamenashi's cheeks. Or maybe he was imagining it. Please god let him be imagining it.
The moment the door closed behind the snack cart, four voices rose as one.
"What?" Jin said, wounded. And then, "Someone's going to find me this manga, right?"
Warm sun beat down on his face. The breeze wafted delicate tropical fragrances past his nose. On either side of him rose a stand of shady palms; before him, pristine white sand stretched down to a crescent of calm blue-green ocean. In the distance, breakers rolled.
Jun was not impressed.
He adjusted his sunglasses (Prada, oversize) and scowled as he sipped his guava daquiri. Everyone said Guam would be a perfect change from the miserable weather plaguing Tokyo. Nino's friend Masami lent him her private vacation estate. Nino and Ohno drove him to the airport. There were lots of smiles and manful pats on the shoulder and attempts at hugs.
Ugh. Why had everyone had to tiptoe around like he was made of glass, honestly, it wasn't like there was anything to feel sorry about, he'd had a little fling and now it was over and he hadn't even told anyone in the first place so how did they even know.
He couldn't even stay in Guam until Christmas was over and done with. Christmas was a miserable holiday.
Sunk in a black cloud, it was a minute before Jun registered the sound of approaching voices, or the purr of an approaching motor. He sat upright, sliding his sunglasses up, and squinted at the bay.
The boat was unremarkable - a little white motorboat emblazoned, incongruously, Simba - but its passengers less so. They were clearly a television crew - Jun counted two live cameras, another sitting unused atop a pile of technical gear, the two attendant cameramen, a couple of tech assistants, and a small knot of what had to be production staff. All attention seemed focused on a slim shape leaning over the side of the boat.
As Jun stood up to approach them, the motor cut out and the crew fell silent.
From the edge of the beach, Jun could make out the crew more clearly. The shape resolved into a young man about Jun's age, wearing the most intent expression Jun had ever seen and.. talking to the fish? That couldn't be. As the boat drifted closer, his voice suddenly carried clearly across the little bay.
"...not rare, but beautiful anyways," the young man was narrating in a hushed voice. "Look at the star-shaped markings on her right fin. Isn't she cute? Here, let's zoom in a little bit more - "
The young man leaned over. Jun raised an involuntary hand and found himself opening his mouth in warning -
In the blink of an eye, there was a yell, a brief flail of limbs, a loud splash - and the young man disappeared from sight. The air of concentration vanished, and a ripple of laughter ran through the crew. "Aiba-kun, not again," someone called. One of the cameramen sat back, stretching, and the other leaned over to peer into the bay. No one seemed particularly worried.
In seconds, the young man surfaced spluttering and shaking his head like a dog. "She's gone," he said, expression woebegone. "I must have scared her away."
Another wave of laughter. "Don't worry, Aiba-kun," said a woman with a clipboard and a sleek pair of sunglasses, "I'm sure we'll have another encounter soon. And we did get some excellent footage."
"I thought she liked me," the young man - Aiba? - said sadly, treading water.
"In the meantime," the woman said, raising her voice, "break for lunch, this looks like a nice little place - " She turned toward the beach, and caught sight of Jun.
Jun placed his hands on his hips and raised an eyebrow.
He was uncomfortably aware that deep purple swim trunks and feathered flip-flops did not exactly contribute to a forbidding image, but the pose appeared to have sufficient effect. The woman exchanged a speaking glance with the boat's pilot - also Japanese, Jun could see, and likely part of the production crew - and the boat nosed its way toward the beach.
"Wait for me?" came Aiba's voice from its wake.
The boat nudged up on the sandy beach. Jun waited for the pilot to jump out and steady it and the clipboard woman to disembark before saying, in his most haughty voice, "May I ask what business you have here?"
The woman's lips formed a perfect, glossy "o". A second later, they curved in an ingratiating smile. "I'm so sorry," she said. "Please excuse our intrusion. Is this your property? I represent Nippon Television's 'A to Z Around The World Natural Zoo' program - we're filming a series of episodes on location in Guam and this is really a perfect location, perhaps you might consider - "
"Oh, you're Japanese, too!" Something hurled itself up the beach. Jun caught a flash of wet hair and brown skin as several drops of water splattered him in the face. Someone was gripping his hand. Jun blinked several times.
When he refocused, he was greeted with the brightest, most dazzling smile he had ever seen.
"Nice to meet you," its owner said breathlessly. "I'm Aiba Masaki, have you seen our show?"
Aiba's fingers were calloused, and his grip was very warm. Jun took an involuntary step backward. "I'm sorry?"
"NTV, Wednesday afternoon at four. A for Aiba, that's me, Z for Zoo. You'll check it out back in Japan, right?"
Aiba's eyes pleaded earnestly. Jun found himself nodding.
"Great!" Aiba beamed. "You don't mind if we use footage from your beach, do you? It won't show anything other than the fish, promise."
"It's not mine," Jun finally managed to get out. "It belongs to a friend. She's back in Japan, and I'm not sure how she'd feel about her property - " He broke off. Aiba was staring at him imploringly.
"I could call her," Jun said finally, and Aiba's face immediately creased with delight.
"Thank you!" he exclaimed, squeezing Jun's captive hand with both his own. "Thank you so much! This is going to be great! This is going to be the best episode! Maybe the sea turtles - " Apparently struck with an idea, he released Jun's hand and dashed back toward the boat. Jun watched him go, dazed.
"He's awfully convincing, isn't he," the woman said drily.
Jun's spine stiffened. "Good luck with your filming," he said coolly and marched away with as much dignity as he could muster.
A familiar pair of shoes were lined up neatly in the entryway. Shoes that belonged to neither Shige nor Koyama. Shige stared at them and then, for just a second, leaned his forehead against the wall and wondered what he'd done to deserve his life. Then he kicked off his own shoes and went inside.
"Shige!" Koyama beamed from where he sat on the floor cradling a video game controller. "Welcome back!"
"Shige!" Tegoshi beamed from next to Koyama. "Long time no see!"
"I'm back," Shige muttered. "Hi. 'S been a while." He dropped his briefcase unceremoniously by the door and headed for the kitchen, pulling his tie loose as he did so.
"Shige?" Koyama's voice floated after him. "Are you all right?"
They did have beer. Thank god. Shige pulled a can from the refrigerator and took a long, long drink before he answered. "Yeah," he said at last. "Long day. As usual."
When he returned to the living room Koyama was watching him with concern written all over his face. "Maybe you should take a day off," he said. "Stress can make you sick."
"Can stupidity make you sick?" Shige said acidly. "Because that's what I'm dealing with all day. Every day." He took another long drink.
"Aren't you working for the new administration?" Tegoshi interjected. Shige slanted a glance at him. He looked innocently curious, which meant he was anything but.
"That's right," Shige answered against his better judgement. "An old classmate who was part of the campaign asked me to join the prime minister's staff. I couldn't really say no."
Tegoshi's gaze sharpened. "Not Yamashita Tomohisa?"
Shige sat up. "No," he said suspiciously. "Nishikido Ryo. But how do you know Yamashita?"
Tegoshi's expression dissolved, once again, into angelic sweetness. "I like to follow politics. It's part of being a good citizen."
Shige was not convinced one bit but something told him he would probably be happier not knowing. He contented himself with raising an eyebrow and settling back into the couch as Koyama praised Tegoshi's civic virtue. He was so ready for this day to be over. Maybe Tegoshi would go home early, and Koyama would take pity on him and make dinner, and then afterwards they'd find out Tegoshi had suddenly discovered a valuable internship opportunity in Africa. He lost himself in this happy fantasy for a moment.
"Shige," Koyama said in the cajoling tone he only hauled out when Shige was in an especially awful mood, usually before producing some kind of placating treat. It also, unfailingly, induced in Shige a niggling tendril of guilt.
Shige rolled his head over. Koyama's were full of earnestness. "I bet you'd feel better if you relaxed and did something fun with us..."
Shige's brain had just enough time to reverse gear and process the warning signals before Koyama went on, voice bubbling with enthusiasm. "Guess what Tegoshi brought?" He didn't wait for Shige to answer. "Karaoke!"
"Good morning, Jun-kun!"
Jun gave Aiba a little smile - no one, he'd quickly discovered, could avoid smiling at Aiba - and waved. He'd taken to wandering down to the beach first thing in the morning with a nice cold tropical smoothie in hand. It was much more pleasant before the sun got too high, after all. The afternoon was nice, too. And, Jun told the specter of Ninomiya in his head, he'd been sent here to enjoy the ocean so he was damn well going to enjoy the ocean. It had nothing to do with the company. At all.
"Good morning, Matsumoto-san," Shibata-san - clipboard woman and, Jun had found, executive producer - echoed. "Another beautiful day."
"Morning," Jun said, and strolled over to where Aiba was squinting at what appeared to be the day's shooting schedule. He peered over Aiba's shoulder and said teasingly, "What are you going to find today?"
"I think you're making fun of me, Jun-kun," Aiba said seriously. "But! Today we're going to find spinner dolphins and sea turtles."
Aiba had mentioned sea turtles before. Jun had the vague idea this wasn't nesting season - did they call them nests? - or mating season, or whenever it was that sea turtles came out of the water, but he wasn't going to say so. If he knew that, the undoubtedly so did Aiba.
"Dolphins?" he said instead. "Here?"
"We're going out to the ocean today," Aiba explained. "We'll have to leave Simba here but there's another boat all ready and we're going to meet the dolphins and maybe find something else, too."
"Oh," Jun said, and relentlessly quashed the immediate rush of disappointment. "Well. Have fun."
This was met with silence. Jun glanced over. Aiba's eyes, watching him, were slowly widening.
"What," Jun said uneasily.
"Jun-kun," Aiba said in a hushed voice. "I have an idea." He gestured for Jun to lean in.
Jun leaned in.
Aiba said, "Want to be my assistant?"
Jun's mouth fell open.
Aiba bounced upright. "You don't do anything but sit around on the beach all day, right? You could come out on the boat with us, and see the dolphins - there are manatees, too, and sometimes they see humpbacks, wait until you see them, they're huge."
"I," Jun started, and stopped in the face of Aiba's expectant expression.
"You'd be really good at it, I bet. And it would be more fun with you."
"But my agency," Jun said helplessly.
Shibata-san swooped like a hawk. Jun hadn't even realized she was within earshot. "Your agency? You're an actor?"
He was cornered. "A model," he said reluctantly. "M.A.D. Productions."
"Really," she said, eyes gleaming. "Do you happen to have their number with you?"
Jun looked at Aiba. Aiba was nodding at him encouragingly, like nothing so much as a very large puppy. Jun didn't even like puppies.
He took the offered clipboard and wrote down their number.
Shibata-san gave him a shark-like smile and strolled away, already opening her cell. Jun was left with the uncomfortable feeling he'd just been played like a violin. Aiba was practically vibrating in place. "Wow," he repeated. "This is going to be great. The dolphins will like you, I can tell."
Despite his best efforts, Jun said, "How can you tell."
"Because I like you," said Aiba with a puzzled smile, like it was the most obvious answer, ever. "Come on, we have to get you a wetsuit!" He grabbed Jun's arm and tugged.
Helpless, Jun followed.
Kame was going to be late for work. He was never late for work. Shit, shit, shit, he repeated silently to himself as he fumbled for his ID card, waving it at the security check. They waved him through and he pelted up the walk to the service entrance, already envisioning Yamashita's face at the snack cart's late arrival. He took the stairs in two bounds, slipped inside, rounded the corner to the kitchen -
The supervisor of the house staff was waiting with crossed arms. "Kamenashi," she began.
"I apologize for my lateness, excuse me, sorry, be right back - " Kame snagged the early morning snack cart and careened out of the kitchen before she could do more than watch him go, open-mouthed.
He stopped in front of the door to the Prime Minister's meeting room. Deep breath. Kame tucked back his hair, smoothed his shirt, straightened up, took another deep breath and tried a polite smile. Then, a model of decorum, he gave the door a precise rap and swung it open.
And, once inside, stopped still.
The Prime Minister was leaning back in his chair with his feet propped up on the table, crossed at the ankles, to all appearances fast asleep.
Kame froze. A corner of his traitorous mind couldn't help noting every detail of Akanishi's sleeping face, his relaxed mouth. But it lost so much of its brightness with his eyes closed -
No. No, Kame was not going there, that was whole new worlds of not going to happen.
At that moment, the Prime Minister yawned, and sat up. He blinked once, twice, and stretched -
"Excuse me, sir," Kame croaked, before he did something extraordinarily stupid.
Prime Minister Akanishi bolted straight upright and made a sound that - that almost sounded like a yelp. "I-was-studying-Pi-really-I-was-look-right-here- " He broke off and squinted at Kame. "You're not Yamapi."
"Um. No," said Kame. "I'm Kamenashi."
"I know," the Prime Minister said. "Kame. I remember. Uh. Sorry about that. I fell asleep reading..." He waved a vague hand at an uneven stack of papers on the table and looked around him with a certain air of confusion. "What time is it?"
"Just after nine," Kame said. "I'm very sorry, I know I'm late - "
Akanishi furrowed his brow. "Nine in the morning?"
"Yes, it's - have you been here all night?" Akanishi looked extraordinarily guilty. "Sir! What - I'm so sorry, someone should have - I can't imagine what - "
"It's not their fault," Akanishi said. "I told all the house staff not to disturb me because I had work to do. I don't know if they believed me, though," he said, and winked. The part of Kame that wasn't hyperventilating over impending unemployment was embarrassingly warm.
"Is that breakfast?" Akanishi added inquiringly and Kame nearly tripped over his feet in an effort to get the cart moving.
It wasn't really breakfast, it was early morning snack (as opposed to mid-morning snack, at ten-thirty), but it would have to do. Kame kept his eyes on the table as he transferred several dishes from the cart and laid out a full table setting for one.
"Wow, you've got everything in there," said a voice in his ear. "Thanks."
Kame made the mistake of looking up.
He'd never realized there was a little mark just by the corner of Akanishi's left eye -
Akanishi's eyes (up close, he could note their precise shade of brown) were wide and quizzical. They were also shadowed by dark circles. Kame gulped and looked away.
"Please excuse my impertinence," Kame said to the table, "but - but you really should be sure to sleep well. You have to take care of yourself. You're the most important person in the country now."
Akanishi laughed with genuine amusement. "I bet I could find you some people who disagree."
Kame looked up. "Sir?"
Akanishi leaned back in his chair and ran a hand through his hair. "I wasn't ever really into school - maybe you don't know, I never finished university - " of course Kame knew, it had been a key part of the campaign message " - so I've got a lot of catching up to do. Most of it I leave to my staff, you know? They're the smart ones. it would be a lot easier if they could do the talking for me. Maybe I should look into voice changers..."
Part of Kame was wondering what Yamashita and Nishikido would do if they knew this conversation was taking place; the rest of him was listening in a peculiar combination of shock and fascination.
"Anyway," Akanishi continued, "I thought I'd actually read what they told me to for once, to surprise them, but it's pretty far over my head. But everyone knows I didn't get elected for my brains, right?" He gave Kame another disarming smile.
"Um," Kame said, casting wildly about for a reply.
Akanishi's beautiful dark eyes creased at the corners. "It's all right. They tell me I'm good with people."
"You are," Kame blurted out. "I mean, I've been wanting to tell you - I - I really appreciate how well you treat your staff. I thought maybe you'd be more - I mean, not that I knew, but - anyway, you remember everyone's names and treat us like actual people and - I really appreciate that," he finished lamely. Inside, he writhed in mortification.
Prime Minister Akanishi looked honestly puzzled. "What else would I do?" he said.
"Well." Kame cleared his throat and hoped vainly that his cheeks would cool down. "Thank you all the same. Sir."
The Prime Minister ran a hand through his hair and poked his tongue in one side of his cheek. "You know," he said, looking past Kame, "Yamapi probably wouldn't want me to do this, but why don't you stop calling me 'sir'? It feels weird when we're more or less the same age, and, you know, kind of friendly..." He looked helplessly at Kame.
"What - what would you prefer?" Kame stuttered. Curse his traitorous voice. "Um. Akanishi-san?"
Akanishi tilted his head to the side. "Jin?" he offered with a guilty little smile, and Kame's mouth went dry.
"Thank goodness, this weighs a ton. I think it's Minnie's hairbow. Ahhhhh, much better. Water?"
"Ah - thank you."
"So... what're you planning for the weekend?"
"I'm, um, not very social, I was just planning to, to work on my music some..."
"Music? You play?"
"Yeah. ...Guitar, mostly. And some other things."
"You do? So do I!"
"Do you write? We have to get together sometime. Have you got a band? I know this great live house..."
"Welcome to another episode of A to Z Around The World Natural Zoo! I'm Aiba Masaki and this is my assistant Matsumoto Jun-kun! Say hi, Jun-kun!"
"Aiba-san," Jun said, pained, "you really don't need to keep using -kun. Really." 'Jun-kun.' Every time he heard it he saw himself with a big red round elementary school backpack and knee shorts.
Aiba blinked at him. "Really? You're sure?"
Jun nodded. "Really."
"Okay," Aiba said. "Then I'll call you... Matsujun!"
"I like nicknames," said Aiba. "You can call me Aiba-chan."
"I - "
"Of course, Aiba-chan!" Aiba parroted. Surely Jun would never sound like that. "'I'm so glad we're friends!'"
Jun looked at Aiba. Aiba grinned and flashed a v-sign.
Jun gave up, buried his face in his hands, and laughed.
"Ready to film again, Aiba?" one of the cameraman asked, sounding highly amused. People around Aiba were always amused, in a way that was affectionate rather than mocking.
"Okay, okay," Aiba said. "Stop laughing, Matsujun, we're professionals. Ouch! All right. We're ready."
"Standing by in three, two, one..."
"Okay, people, look alive!" Ryo barked as a small whirlwind of assistants scurried back and forth backstage. "Opening ceremony begins in T-minus five minutes!"
Yamapi was speaking quickly and quietly. "Remember, Australians aren't American, never have been American, and never will be American. India and Indonesia are two different places. No hitting on the delegates no matter how much they're hitting on you. And don't, for god's sake, say anything to the Korean ambassador about his new hairstyle - yes," he said, as Jin opened his mouth, "I know it's really, really awful. You know that, he knows that, no need to say it." Jin rolled his eyes but nodded obediently. "Last but not least - "
"Here's the final draft," Shige interrupted breathlessly, thrusting a sheaf of papers in Jin's hands. "Watch the middle," he said to Jin, and disappeared as quickly as he'd appeared.
"Last but not least," Yamapi continued grimly, plucking the papers from Jin's grasp and fixing Jin with a gimlet eye, "deviate so much as a word from this speech and there will be consequences you could not even dream of."
Jin snatched the speech back and said with obvious irritation, "I can actually read."
Yamapi gave Jin hard look. Jin's eyes were narrowed, and his lips pressed together. Yamapi decided against saying, That's not what I'm worried about and instead held up his hands grudgingly. "I know. Sorry. We're all on edge."
Jin's moods were as changeable as the clouds in the sky. In a second his face was transformed and he was flashing Yamapi a lightning grin. "Come on. If you guys wrote it, it'll go over great." He clapped Yamapi on the shoulder. "You got me elected, after all."
Yamapi's mouth fell open. Before he could gather his wits to answer, Ryo was at his elbow saying, "Time."
"Understood." Yamapi took a deep, calming breath and looked at Jin. Jin looked back at him. "Ready?"
Jin nodded. "Ready to roll."
Yamapi gave Jin a light punch on the shoulder. "Good luck."
Jin winked and turned back to the curtain. With a deep breath, he stepped out on stage and Yamapi could hear a roar of applause.
Yamapi and Ryo joined Shige and Yokoyama where they were clustered at the edge of the curtain as Jin took his place behind the miked podium. He cleared his throat; adjusted the mike; gave the audience a wide trademark Akanishi smile.
"Friends and fellow citizens of the world," Jin began. "As a representative of the sovereign nation of Japan, and on behalf of all nations gathered here today, I'd like to officially open the 2009 Tokyo Summit on Asia-Pacific Relations."
Ripples lapped at the side of the boat where it rocked gently in the moonlit bay. The motor was silent; at the bow, Moribe and Kuwata, two of the tech assistants, manipulated a pair of paddles with surprising skill.
Jun risked a glance at Aiba. He was intent on the water. Just past his shoulder, a camera was poised to roll.
"There," Aiba said suddenly, pointing. Sure enough, a small fluorescent buoy bobbed a few feet away.
"Standby," Shibata-san's voice whispered. "Three, two, one..."
The cameras rolled. Aiba's voice was hushed. "We're approaching the spot we marked earlier, where we're guessing the zebras will gather. They're very shy, so we have to approach very quietly and hope they don't notice...
The boat silently slid across the surface of the water. Jun found himself holding his breath. Just short of the buoy, one of the production assistants raised a hand, and the boat bobbed the last few inches forward.
Aiba made a gesture of silence.
Very carefully, he leaned over the side. Jun and one of the cameras followed.
There was a gasp in Jun's ear, and a damp hand gripping his.
Just under the water's surface, a swirl of glowing shapes darted back and forth. Jun watched, mesmerized, as the tiny fish wove in and out among each other and the swirl expanded, contracted, spun.
"We did it!" Aiba exclaimed in a whisper. "Look, Jun!"
Jun looked. Aiba's wet hair gleamed in the moonlight. The streak of saltwater across his cheekbone shone. He looked up at Jun and his eyes were round with excitement.
Jun cleared his throat. "Yeah," he whispered. "They're amazing."
Jin wasn't the best judge of speechwriting in the world, but everyone had seemed to like Shige's speech plenty. From the moment Jin set foot in the ballroom he barely had a moment free as delegates crowded to shake his hand. Fortunately, there were so many of them he couldn't manage more than a greeting or a word of thanks to each one, and just as fortunately, he had an excellent memory for faces. Charming crowds was what he was good at - when he wanted to be. And given Yamapi and Shige's recent moods, tonight he wanted to be.
There were limits, though, right? Limits to what the human body could take. There was only so much you could smile before your face fell off - Jin was pretty sure he'd read that somewhere. Literally fell off, leaving a gruesome writhing surface of muscles and dangly eye sockets.
Or maybe that had been his secret pre-summit horror movie marathon.
It was definitely time to take a break. At the next lull, he gave the Thai delegate his most charming smile, made an excuse in English that he was fairly sure made sense, and fled in the direction of the private bathroom.
It was much quieter behind the tall columns lining the edge of the ballroom. Quiet enough that - Jin quickly averted his eyes. That had to be another of those things he wasn't supposed to notice. As he pointedly avoided looking in the direction of the entwined tangle of limbs in the corner, a lone figure dressed in a waiter's uniform, half-hidden against one of the columns, caught his eye.
He knew that figure. Just as he opened his mouth to say Kame's name, a voice behind him spoke and Jin's stomach went icy.
"Prime Minister," Ambassador Kim said. "I'd like to congratulate you on your moving speech."
Very slowly, Jin turned. "Thank you," he said. No sign of any of his staff. Shit.
"You must tell me how you managed it," the ambassador said. "I understand reading Japanese is quite difficult and I've heard even the honorable Prime Minister finds it challenging."
This, this was the reason he couldn't stand the ambassador. Jin could always think up the right retort for Yamapi, but never when it actually mattered.
"Tell me," he was saying - help help help, Jin thought furiously - "is it true that you're considering a push to make English the second official language of Japan?"
Jin frowned. It might have come up as a joke - okay, it wouldn't have been a joke if his staff hadn't shouted him down - but he just knew that this was not the place to admit it. Though he still didn't understand why it would be so bad to have two official languages - wasn't English part of the required curriculum? Obviously everyone wanted to be bilingual -
He opened his mouth to answer and a new voice cut in.
"Ambassador Kim," Kame said. "You're interested in bilingual education, too."
The ambassador turned. "I'm sorry?"
"That's very admirable," Kame said earnestly. "Your Japanese is very good."
The ambassador was not exactly known for his keen grasp of language. "Thank you," he said suspiciously.
"Please pardon my interruption. My name is Kamenashi." Kame bowed politely. The ambassador mirrored the gesture. "You know, I understand you're an accomplished musician. I studied music in university, maybe you could tell me more about..." Kame's voice faded as he led Kim away.
As Jin stood gaping after them, Kame looked back.
Go! he mouthed over his shoulder.
With what Jin was sure was the most pathetically grateful expression ever to cross his face, he went.
Koki thrust the ticket printout in Yuichi's face before the door was even half open. "The Joker's taking off," he crowed. "December 21st, baby, I'm outta here!"
Yuichi's mouth fell open. "You aren't serious."
"I am completely serious. Completely fucking serious." Koki punched the air for emphasis. "L.A. won't know what hit it."
"Do you know what hip-hop is like in L.A.? You're going to get yourself killed!"
Koki looked at Yuichi skeptically. "Do you know what hip-hop is like in L.A.?"
"I saw 'Boyz N The Hood,'" Yuichi said defensively. "Shut up!" - as Koki burst into laughter. "I'm serious, you don't have any money, you don't know anyone, all you've got are your 'dope rhyming skillz.'" He actually did those fucking irritating air quotes. Yuichi and his air quotes and his sweater vests wouldn't last an hour in L.A. But the Joker would. The Joker was going to fucking own Los Angeles. Hell yeah.
" - hello? Koki? Did you hear anything I said?"
"I'm broke and single and that's why I should stay in Tokyo, to be broke and single forever with you," Koki said, rolling his eyes. He could recite this speech in his sleep.
Yuichi was grinding his teeth again. "Koki," he said, in a pathetically obvious last-ditch grab at the straws, "you can't speak English!"
"Yes I can," Koki said in English. "Joker's here, y'all, make some noise! Check out my flow, baby, peeeeeace."
"Oh my god," said Yuichi.
"Haters to the left," Koki told him.
The sandy beach was silver in the moonlight. Overhead, a mass of glittering stars stretched in every direction - to Jun's rum-blurred senses, infinite.
In fifteen hours, Jun would be flying back to Tokyo. The A to Z crew would move on to Indonesia the day after that.
A warm length wriggled against Jun's side. "Share?" Aiba's dreamy voice said in Jun's ear.
Jun fumbled for the bottle and dangled it in the air. Aiba, clumsy, grasped at the neck once, twice, and burst into drunken giggles; his fingers, brushing Jun's, were rough. Jun shivered.
Jun lost track of how long they lay still, silent but for the soft roar of the waves.
"Ne, Matsujun," Aiba whispered. His breath tickled Jun's neck. "Why don't you come with us?"
For some reason Jun was having trouble speaking. "I have to go back to Tokyo," he said eventually. "I have a job."
"Is it more fun than working with me?"
Jun rolled over and looked down. Aiba's face was perfectly still; his eyes were wide and serious.
"No," Jun whispered. There was something in his throat. "It's more fun with you."
"Ne, Jun," Aiba said again, softly. "Call me Masaki."
Warm, callused fingers curled around the back of Jun's neck. Aiba's huge eyes shone dark in the moonlight.
Jun leaned down.
Yamapi slipped outside to lie in wait as soon as they broke for mid-morning snack. When Kamenashi reappeared from the meeting room to the hallway, smiling back the way he'd come, Yamapi cornered him.
"A minute of your time," he said, making it clear it was not a request.
Kamenashi knew better than to protest.
Yamapi watched him silently for a minute. Kamenashi met his gaze steadily. From the set of his mouth, he didn't seem inclined to yield to anyone soon.
"Jin told me what happened after the summit," Yamapi said after a minute.
Kamenashi's eyes widened. "Oh," he said. "Oh. I apologize for my presumption - "
"No," Yamapi interrupted. "No. That's not it. You're - why are you serving us snacks, Kamenashi?"
Kamenashi said, with a certain amount of wariness, "I needed a job."
"Well," Yamapi said bluntly, "you're wasted on this one. Starting today you're on Yokoyama's advisory committee on public relations."
Kamenashi's jaw dropped. "You can't be serious."
"It's true that I have my moments," Yamapi agreed. "But right now I am."
"But - " Kamenashi said, and glanced involuntarily at the meeting room's closed door.
Yamapi raised an eyebrow. "Yes?"
Kamenashi's expression stiffened. "Nothing," he said. "This is - more of an honor than I have any right to expect."
"Look," Yamapi said, holding his gaze. "I'm not just doing this for - political reasons. You're smart, you're a good mediator, it's clear you've got an excellent grasp of the issues. You're wasted as a glorified waiter. I'm not kidding."
Kamenashi dropped his eyes. "Thank you," he said, with effort. "I'm sorry. I'm not very good with praise."
Yamapi clapped him on the shoulder. "You know we need all the help we can get. First meeting's in prep room A in half an hour. Do your best."
"I will," Kamenashi answered, and turned on his heel. Yamapi watched him until he'd reached the end of the hall. Not once did he look back.
The taxi was waiting.
"Well," Jun said, and stopped. His voice was going to crack. "I guess this is it."
Jun wasn't sure if he'd ever seen Aiba (Masaki, came the whisper) without a smile on his face. "Have a safe flight," he said. His voice was subdued.
"Tell Shibata-san and the rest of the crew I said goodbye," Jun said, even though he'd told them all in person the day before. "And that I appreciate all they did for me."
"Okay." Aiba mustered a smile, artificially bright, that was even worse. "Maybe we'll see each other again some time."
"Yeah," said Jun. "Maybe so."
They stood silent under the blazing sun, looking at each other.
Jun had to get out of there. He swallowed. "I better go." He made a show of reaching down to sling his bag over his shoulder, so he wouldn't have to meet Aiba's eyes, and added, "Thanks. For everything."
"'Bye," Aiba - Masaki - said softly.
Jun risked one last glance. It was a mistake. "Goodbye," Jun scraped out, and turned away.
The car's metal door was searing hot from the sun; that was why Jun fumbled with the handle. Safely inside, he said, "Guam International Airport, please," and was amazed at the steadiness of his voice. The car lurched forward and rumbled down the gravel driveway. Jun looked steadfastly out the window, watching palm trees blur past until they reached the main road, and then he leaned back against the seat and covered his face with his hands.
"I really believe in the power of music, you know?"
"And everyone likes different types of music, and we should respect their different tastes, because each is equally valid."
"You can't tell anyone I said this. "
"Come on. Lean in." Rustles, followed by a whisper. "If I hear Takki & Tsubasa's Christmas single one more time I'm going to lose it - snap - right here in the middle of Toontown."
Silence. Then -
"...Subaru, are you laughing?"
"Yes, you are!"
"You are, you are, you are!"
"It's just - I used to know Takizawa. Imai, too."
"What? Really? How?"
"...Promise never to repeat this?"
"I used to be a Johnny's Junior."
"Subaru. You were not."
"Cross my heart."
"But - but you're so - "
"Shibutani Subaru, don't say that! I was going to say artistic."
"It's kind of a long story."
More rustling. "We've got ten minutes of break left..."
"...well. If you really want to know. Okay, uh, back when I was in junior high Johnny's was trying something new, putting together some units from Kansai, there was a company branch down in Osaka and everything. But after I got in they lost interest, I guess, and there weren't many offers coming, so I moved to Tokyo for a while. That's when I got to know Takizawa and Imai. For a while we were pretty good friends, even... But, um, it didn't work out very well. I never got to do my own music either. So I quit and moved back to Osaka. It wasn't really... the happiest period of my life."
"Uh, sorry, what was I saying? Right. Well, I got over it, and focused on music full-time, and here I am, dressed up as Mickey Mouse. I guess it's not that far off from Johnny's after all."
Delighted laughter. "Only the best undiscovered musicians work as Mickey Mouse. I know it."
"...You know, I've never really - told anyone. About that."
"Subaru." A pause, and a soft smile. "Thank you."
For the third night in a row, the light in the meeting room was still on when Yamapi got ready to go home.
He knocked, and when there was no answer, poked his head around the door. "Hey," he said. "You're up late. You feeling okay?"
Jin was slumped in his oversize chair, apparently lost in thought. Several folders lay unopened on the table. "Hm?" he said, glancing up at Yamapi. "Oh. Yeah. I'm fine. Haven't been sleeping enough or something. Dunno."
Yamapi frowned. He could see the circles under Jin's eyes from all the way across the room. "You'd better fix that soon, then. Go ahead and crash, the folders will wait."
"Nah, I've got - " Jin waved vaguely at the otherwise empty table. "Stuff to think about."
Jin never had stuff to think about. Or at least, he never admitted it. Yamapi's brow furrowed. "Do you need a vacation?"
"What, already?" Jin dredged up a smile. "It's only December. You told me I'd get a vacation in May, if I was lucky."
"Yes, but you've been - " Yamapi paused, inexplicably hesitant to phrase his thoughts in the usual manner.
"Actually working?" Jin said, with a grin that at last had real feeling behind it. "It must be a Christmas miracle."
Yamapi snorted. "You've been talking to the Americans again, haven't you." He ran a hand through his hair. "Seriously. Go sleep." Jin nodded. "And don't even think of coming in here on Christmas," Yamapi added for good measure.
Another grin crept across Jin's face, genuine and sly. "You never thought you'd be telling me that, did you?" he said mischievously. Yamapi snorted again, and made a rude gesture. Jin's laugh was all too pleased with itself. Yamapi tossed off a salute and let the door fall closed with a gentle snick.
He stood in the hallway for a minute, thinking. Then he turned and strode down the hall, in the opposite direction of the exit.
"Can it hurry? I'm at work," Jun lied into the phone. "I've only got a few minutes."
"Make a few more," Ninomiya said brusquely on the other end of the line. "We haven't seen your stupid face since you got home."
Jun paced moodily around the kitchen. "It's the busy season. I've had lots of work. I'm lucky I could relax before the rush started." The words tasted bitter.
"You don't sound relaxed, Matsumoto."
"Then you're listening wrong," Jun snapped, and shoved an open drawer closed with unnecessary force.
Nino paused. "Anything happen that you want to talk about?"
"No," Jun said shortly. "There were beaches. It was warm. I got a sunburn. I came home."
"Sure?" Nino pressed.
"Yes," Jun bit out. "I have to get to work now. Tell Satoshi I said hi." He disconnected before he could hear Nino's reply.
In the ensuing silence, he looked around his sleek white apartment.
It was awfully quiet.
"...and now, here to perform December's number one hit single, Takki and Tsubasa! Let's have a round..."
The tinny ringtone cut through the blare of Nakamaru's rickety old television set. He wiped one hand clean of fried chicken grease and fished his phone from his pocket, uncrossing his legs under the kotatsu as he did so.
"Yuichi? That you?"
Nakamaru's jaw dropped. "Koki? What are you doing? What time is it?"
"Yuichi, man, you'll never guess where I am!"
A wave of dread washed over him. "In jail."
A burst of staticky laughter. "Backstage! Backstage with Cube!"
"We fucking freestyled together, Yuichi! Can you believe it? He wants my demo tape! Oh man, there's like champagne coming out of the faucets, it's unbelievable - what? Shit, Yuichi, I gotta go, call you later - " The line went dead.
Nakamaru stared at the phone in his hand.
It had been dark for several hours by the time Kame tapped out the last line of the report and sat back in front of his laptop with a sigh. Nine o'clock on Christmas Eve and he was alone in the office writing glorified summaries. Glamorous, Kamenashi.
But there was no way he could have turned it down; Yokoyama had asked him specially, when he'd only been on the team for a week. Besides - Kame heaved a sigh and got up to collect the printout - it wasn't like he had any special plans.
He checked his watch. When he'd mentioned his Christmas overtime to Tegoshi, the only one of his university kouhai with whom he kept in touch, Tegoshi had immediately invited him to a party, something about "fun" and "introductions" and "good for you". Kame hadn't been in the mood - he still wasn't in the mood - but there was something about the way Tegoshi asked for things that made it nearly impossibly to say no. In the end, he'd agreed.
Kame rounded the corner, deep in self-pity, and smacked directly into something warm and solid.
Papers went flying. Kame, mortified, immediately dropped to his knees and scrabbled for the fluttering pages. "Sorry, I'm so sorry, I wasn't looking - "
"Kame," said Jin.
Kame's head shot up.
Jin's mouth was half open. His dark eyes were wide.
"Oh," Kame said faintly. "Hi."
"You're still here," said Jin. He sounded confused.
Kame got to his feet slowly and brushed invisible specks from his trousers. "Overtime," he said. "What - what are you doing here?" He winced the moment the words came out of his mouth. "Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course. I mean, you can go wherever you like. Um." He floundered, and shut up.
Jin shrugged. He looked - uneasy. Kame had never seen him look uneasy. "Pi told me if I was going to mope all evening I should at least go get Yoko's latest report and pretend to do something useful so he could go have fun," he said.
"Oh," Kame said, as the sense of surreality heightened. "That's mine. I mean. I've got it. Here." He held out the report.
Jin looked from the papers to Kame and back. "You're working for Yoko?"
Kame blinked. "Yes. Yamashita-san reassigned me right after the summit. You didn't know?"
Jin shook his head.
"Oh," said Kame. "I thought maybe - " He paused. Jin's expression was nothing but curious. He said in a rush, "I thought maybe, after the thing at the summit, you wanted me out of the way."
Jin was still shaking his head again, and something that looked like a smile was creeping across his face. "I thought you must have gotten fed up and tried to quit."
Kame cleared his throat. "No," he said. "Not at all. I, um, I would have stayed. If I could."
"But you'll be good at this, I can tell," said Jin. "You're smart. You can do a lot more than bring people snacks. Though you were very good at that, too," he added.
"I liked talking with you," Kame said to his feet.
There was a long silence.
"Really?" Jin said, and either Kame's wishful thinking was affecting his hearing, or there was a hopeful note in Jin's voice.
He glanced up. Jin was looking at him with steady brown eyes. The small smile on his face wasn't like any of the ones Kame had seen before.
"Really," Kame said, and offered a shy smile in return.
"Be there," Ninomiya had said, "or I'll tell Satoshi you're depressed." He really needed some new threats. Of course, Jun thought as he opened the door to their apartment, it was possible he didn't bother with new ones because the old ones worked so well.
A burst of chatter assaulted him. In the background, that godawful single with the off-key girls' choir played over the stereo; someone was laughing, high-pitched. Jun winced.
The sooner he got inside and presented himself to his (unscrupulous, manipulative) host, the sooner he could go home and get really, really drunk. Jun sighed, and went into the apartment.
Jun hadn't realized a Tokyo apartment could physically hold that many people. People overflowed from the living room to the kitchen to the hall; there was no more than a few square inches of space in any given area. Glasses chinked. Voices buzzed. Jun could make out Sho, in danger of braining the girl behind him with the next sweep of his arm, and Nishikido Ryo gulping down wine like it was water. Nino was nowhere to be seen.
Jun closed his eyes briefly. Then he squared his shoulders and entered the fray.
The halls of the small office building were dark and empty. The Music Station special had just wrapped down the street; they had agreed to wait for their manager in his office while he fetched the car to take them to the next radio station.
"So," Takki said, breaking the silence. "Got a hot Christmas date?"
Tsubasa did not have a hot Christmas date. Tsubasa did not have any kind of Christmas date. He pretended to ignore the question.
Takki read the silence perfectly and started to laugh. "Oh man, seriously? Not even on Christmas? What kind of a pop star are you?"
"One without venereal diseases," Tsubasa shot back, vindictively pleased to see Takki's nostrils flare. Takki hated his own tell-tale habit; when they were kids their fellow juniors had teased him mercilessly for it, before he hit puberty and became Japan's number one man overnight.
"Well," Takki rallied, "don't worry about it. I understand. There are lots of expectations on Christmas, you know, and you want your first time to be special - " Here he dissolved into snickers at his own wit. Tsubasa let out an irritated huff and stalked over to the window. Some Christmas, alone in an empty office building with the one and only Takizawa Hideaki. He glared at the deserted white street as if it was to blame for his miserable life.
Then he blinked.
"Hey," he said. "It's snowing."
"Um, si - I mean Jin, I don't know if this is such a good idea," Kame said.
"Come on," Jin coaxed. "You told your friends you'd be there, right?"
"Yes, but - I only know one of them well and I'm sure no one would mind - and I'd rather - " He stopped and flushed.
Jin put on his best innocent expression and said, "Keep going."
"Anyway," Kame said firmly, "I don't think this is very safe."
Jin scoffed. "Come on, do you really think I'd be in serious danger? I don't have any political rivals, practically all of the Diet wants me to stay in office so they can seize the real power for themselves. They think. " He showed teeth. "And that's where Pi and Ryo and Shige and Yoko are waiting."
"But - " Kame stopped. He said, "Waiting?"
"Yamapi and Ryo wouldn't let them undercut us, obviously," said Jin. "What would be the point of being in office?"
"Do you mean to say," Kame said slowly, "this is all... on purpose?"
"Of course," Jin said, puzzled. "That's always been the plan. Didn't I mention this once? I'm the good looks and charm, they're the brains and muscle. It's like that saying, you know, two is better than one? Times two." He paused to calculate. "And a half."
Kame looked poleaxed.
"Soft power and hard power," Jin added, just to see Kame's eyes cross adorably. "Come on, we're going to be late for your party."
Inoue had collared Jun and interrogated him within an inch of his life about the new Yohji Yamamoto line. Eventually he had to claim ignorance - a blow his pride wouldn't have countenanced any other day - and slither away under pretext of fetching more wine.
Jun made a face. It wasn't even very good wine. But there was a reward waiting: as he edged his way away from the table, mulling darkly on the dangers of imminent suffocation, the crowd parted in front of him and there, at long last, was Ninomiya.
"Matsumoto," Nino said. "What kept you?"
Jun made an inarticulate sound of frustration. "I was looking for you. In all these people. For the last hour."
"How flattering," said Nino. "Here I am."
Words failed Jun. He took a deep breath and moved on. "So. I'm here. I'm talking. Are you happy."
Nino peered at him. "Have you been eating? Because it doesn't look like you have, and if there was a repeat of the White Day Incident - "
"There is not going to be a repeat of the White Day Incident," Jun said, glaring. "I keep telling you, I've been busy." Nino kept looking at him, like he knew exactly what was going on inside Jun's head, and suddenly, Jun didn't think he could handle being around someone who knew him so well. "Can I just - go home now?" he said quietly.
Nino's mouth twisted at the corners, like it did when he didn't want to get all emotional. "Yeah," he said. "Okay. Come say hi to Satoshi and act cheerful, and we'll call it even."
As he turned to shoulder his way through the crowd, a lull fell on the room, so that the sound of the door opening and closing was clearly audible.
Nino stopped still. Jun could practically see his nose quiver. "Just a minute," he said to Jun, and then, "Come with me." Before Jun know what was happening, Nino had grabbed his arm and was pulling him through the crowd.
Conversation sprang up anew. Jun stumbled and bumped into someone; only quick reflexes saved him from a splash of red wine on his sleeve. "Sorry - " he said, or tried to say, before Nino tugged him toward the entrance. Nino twisted like an eel; the crowd parted and Jun could see -
"There you are!" said a voice Jun would have known blindfolded. "Sorry I'm late, guess what? It's snowing! Ni - "
He stopped short. Snowflakes dusted his hair. His eyes were very wide.
"Masaki," Jun said, heart in his throat.
Aiba's smile was blinding. "Jun!"
The park was closed. Their costumes had been turned in for the last time. He'd never, luck willing, have to wear a giant stuffed mouse head again.
"Well," Subaru said, shoving his heads in his pockets.
"Well," Yasu repeated, a teasing glint in his eye. Subaru flushed.
Yasu relented, laughing quietly, and said, "I'm glad I got to work with you. It was fun."
"Yeah," Subaru said. "Me, too."
Neither of them made a move to leave.
Was Subaru the only one who felt awkward? Maybe he should say something. Would Yasu take it the wrong way if he asked for his email -
"So," Yasu said, interrupting Subaru's thoughts. "Where are you headed now?"
"Oh. Just home." Inwardly, he flinched. "There's this song I'm working on...
Yasu was grinning. "What," he teased gently, "not off on a Christmas date?"
Despite the snow, Subaru's cheeks just wouldn't cool. "No," he managed. "I don't have one."
Yasu's smile turned mischievous. Subaru's heart turned over.
"Would you like one?"
They were half-hidden in a corner behind the sofa, miraculously uncrowded.
"How did you get here?" Jun murmured in a low voice. One of his hands was resting on Masaki's hip. He felt no need to remove it.
"I flew?" Masaki said questioningly.
Jun had a niggling feeling his expression was embarrassingly fond. He didn't even want to change it. God, he had it bad. Instead, he said, "I mean here, right now - how did you...?"
"Oh," Masaki said in tones of enlightment. "Oh-chan and Nino are my friends, of course! Sho-chan introduced me - we're on the same channel, you know? - actually he was on the show once - " He was still talking but Jun had stopped listening at the word "Nino". A cold hand clutched his gut. It couldn't be. He scanned the room with narrowed eyes.
As if sensing Jun's gaze, Nino turned his head. Their eyes met.
Nino gave him the evilest grin Jun had ever seen on the face of a human being.
"Jun?" Masaki said curiously.
With a look promising dire retribution, Jun tore his gaze away. "Sorry," he said. "What was that?" He moved forward so his arm was curved around Masaki's waist. Maybe retribution wouldn't be so dire after all. It was awfully hard to feel angry about the means when the results were so enviable. "The show?"
"Right," Masaki said, beaming. "Do you like tigers? I bet you would! See, for the next episode - "
"It's not too late to turn around," Kame fretted as they got out of the cab. "Look, the snow's starting to come down hard."
"It's just a little snow," Jin said airily. "The worst that happens is the cabs stop running and we have to spend the night with your friends. I'm sure they wouldn't mind, would they?"
"I said I barely know them," Kame said, worry lines standing out on his face. He was too young for worry lines. Jin would have to fix that. "One of my kouhai from university invited me, he knew I was feeling kind of, um, down about Christmas - " Jin watched curiously as Kame's face flushed again " - and he said it would be a good way to - Jin?"
Jin had lost track of the content of Kame's words some time ago. He reached over to brush the snow off Kame's hair. Kame reddened even further. "See," Jin said. "It'll be fine. Come on, let's go inside."
They heard the noise from the apartment halfway down the hall. "3104?" Jin said, eyeing the door. "You're sure?"
"I don't understand," Kame said, frowning, as he glanced from the paper in his hand to the door and back. "I thought he said it was going to be a small gathering. Maybe we should wait - Jin?"
Jin was already opening the door.
The entryway was overflowing with coats and umbrellas. Jin slid off his shoes and gingerly picked his way toward the main entrance, careful not to step in any of the puddles of half-melted snow. A hand clutched at his sleeve. "Jin," Kame's voice said in his ear as Jin made his way inside, "wait - "
The wall-to-wall crowd brought them to a halt.
No one seemed to notice their arrival, absorbed in their own conversations; as they stood there the noise of conversation swelled and drowned out the faint sounds of the stereo playing in the background. Jin took a minute to absorb the assembly, letting his eyes wander slowly over each guest. Half the faces were familiar throughout Japan: musicians, actors, a model or two. As for the other half -
A familiar profile caught Jin's eye and he thought his heart was going to stop.
Yamapi had just begun to turn toward the door when a disbelieving voice near Jin said, "Prime Minister?"
He knew that face, too. It was one of the broadcasters, he was sure, only he couldn't quite remember - the man was gaping like a fish and suddenly Jin remembered. Sakurai. From NTV. Right.
It was at that moment Jin realized utter silence had fallen.
"Oh my god," said Sakurai.
There was a quiet panicky noise from Kame's general vicinity.
The silence stretched. Every eye was on them.
Faced with an attentive crowd, Jin did what he always did. He smiled.
"Nice to meet you," he said. "Merry Christmas!"
"Still snowing," Takki reported from the window.
Tsubasa slumped on the green room couch. "He's not coming back any time soon, huh."
"Nope." Takki paced restlessly across the room and flopped in one of the folding chairs.
"Think he got in an accident?"
They stared at each other.
"I know where he keeps the whiskey," said Takki.
They loved him. Of course they did; everyone loved Jin when he wanted them to. That was why he and Yamapi were a team. Yamapi watched Jin say something, grinning so that his eyes creased, that made the little group he was talking to burst into laughter, and was hard pressed to repress an smile.
"It must be difficult balancing such a demanding public office with private life," said a voice at Yamapi's elbow.
Yamapi watched Kamenashi station himself at an angle just off to Jin's side, chatting politely with an older actress and ever so subtly guiding the flow of approaching guests. "Jin's pretty good at that," he said. "He's been my best friend as long as I can remember. Besides, it's in our party name - if our own party leader wasn't happy, we'd have a pretty worthless message."
"I meant you, Yamashita-san."
A boy with the smile of an angel stood next to him.
"My name's Tegoshi," the boy said. "Can I get you a drink?"
It was some time before they could make their escape. The streets were empty, and the only sign of life two pairs of footprints in the fresh snow.
"All right," Jin said. "You might have been right. But," he hastened to add, "it turned out fine! I thought it was fun."
"Next time," Kame said, "next time you try to talk me out of my better instincts - " He stopped.
There was a little grin on Jin's face. A snowflake landed on one high cheekbone. "Next time?" Jin said inquiringly.
The words died in Kame's mouth. "Only you," Kame said, shaking his head. "You know that, right?"
"Thank you," Jin said, beaming.
"I'm still not letting you talk your way into everything," Kame warned.
Jin hummed to himself.
They walked another block in silence until, approaching a circle of lamplight, Jin slowed to a stop. "Kame," he said.
Fluffy white flakes dotted his dark hair, and his bangs were falling in his eyes. Kame's pulse sped up.
"Thanks," said Jin softly. "For bringing me along."
Kame's heartbeat was pounding in his ears. "Only because it's Christmas," he said, mouth dry.
Jin took another step forward. He wasn't smiling now. The moment seemed to stretch to eternity.
Before Kame was fully aware of what he was doing, his hand shot up, fisted itself in Jin's coat, and tugged Jin down until his mouth met Kame's.
"Merry Christmas," he murmured when they parted, as Jin's delighted laughter rang in his ears.
"Hey," said Takki, as they lay side-by-side on the floor passing the bottle back and forth, "remember that time when we were juniors and we got in trouble for skipping rehearsal? And they were going to make us stay late and practice, so instead we decided we were going to run away and start our own company?"
Tsubasa clapped a hand over his mouth, not quickly enough to muffle a snort of laughter. "And they didn't find us for three hours because we were hiding in the janitor's closet with all the discarded Valentine's chocolate from the mail room."
"I was sick for two days," Takki said reminiscently. He took a drink.
Some inexplicable urge - possibly the alcohol - made Tsubasa say, "Sorry you're missing your date."
"Actually," said Takki. He coughed. "I don't really. Have plans."
It was definitely the alcohol. Tsubasa made an encouraging noise.
"Girls don't really like it if you tell them you can't meet until midnight on Christmas. And we had a heavy schedule today and..." Takki paused. "Honestly? I just wanted to get some rest."
Tsubasa nodded sympathetically. "Yeah. That's, like." He looked at the ceiling. "The price of success."
"Yeah," Takki agreed, and took another drink.
They lay in companionable silence for several more minutes.
"Hey," Tsubasa heard Takki say. Takki's fist knocked against his shoulder with a soft thump. "We've done pretty good."
"Yeah," Tsubasa said.
Takki cleared his throat. "I'm, you know. Glad it was you."
Tsubasa felt a tendril of warmth uncurl in the vicinity of his stomach.
"Yeah," he said. "Me, too."
Outside, the snow continued to fall.