Actions

Work Header

Cat's cradle

Chapter Text

It was like getting punched in the gut by a Gordian knot. Junpei took a step back, halfway out of the room, and tugged at the mic of the radio earpiece clipped on his shirt collar. He heard that spies liked having their mics on their wrists, but he prefered having the option to talk and move his hands at the same time. Besides, he wasn’t a spy.

‘Seven,’ he said.

‘I’m here.’ Seven’s reply was a perfunctory grunt. He’d been online since Junpei left their offices an hour ago to meet with their client in Roppongi; this mostly meant he’d been listening to Junpei breathing and muttering to himself the whole time but Seven was used to that and had probably just been watching a Korean drama on TV with his partner while waiting for Junpei’s signal.

‘Is something wrong?’ the client asked, stepping closer to Junpei. There was something about him; something that formed one of the threads in the tangled knot of emotions permeating room 310 that made Junpei want to throw up--no matter that only one of his feet was touching the wooden floor of that cursed room and he only just got there. It felt wrong and sickly yellow in colour and the thought of the man touching him made Junpei want to run away from the place and never return. Except rent was due and he needed the money. Also Seven would probably kill him.

As if sensing his discomfort, the client stopped a few feet away from Junpei.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t want to interrupt, but you looked a bit ill for a moment.’

‘It’s fine,’ said Junpei. ‘I just didn’t expect something like this. You don’t feel anything?’

The client shook his head. ‘Our patrons have been complaining, however. They can’t seem to put their finger on it, but something about the room makes them uneasy. Unheimlich, it would seem like.’

‘What’s that?’

‘Uncanny. The opposite feeling of being at home,’ said the client. He turned away from Junpei when he said that. He was hiding something, Junpei thought, but he also didn’t care if Junpei knew he was hiding something.

‘Are you married, Mr Nijisaki?’ said Junpei. It was a stab in the dark, but it’s not like he had much to go on.

A flick of the eyelashes. The client was surprised by this question but he recovered well; the smile he gave Junpei looked like something from a brochure.

‘Unfortunately, I’m too busy with work to go out on dates,’ he said.

‘Rather sad for someone who owns a love hotel, eh?’ said Seven, to Junpei’s ear.

Junpei let out a huff of breath that adequately disguised a snort. ‘You’re not seeing someone, then?’

‘Does this have anything to do with the business at hand?’ said the client, revealing impatience for the first time.

‘Maybe.’ Junpei shrugged. ‘I feel like you’re a part of it, but I don’t know how. Could just be because you own the place. You’d hardly bring someone to your own love hotel, would you?’

‘I’m not sure this is a good way to talk to your client.’

‘Is that a threat, Mr Nijisaki?’

The client shook his head again. ‘An observation, that’s all.’

It looked like the client has had enough of questions. Junpei took a deep breath.

‘Well then,’ he said, stepping inside the room.

*

Kubota Teruaki was a small man. The first thing a passing observer might notice about him was his shock of messy hair. Someone else could probably pull this off as a fashion statement, but on him it just looked like tired neglect. Actually, that was a good way of describing him. The man looked like he could use a good, long vacation. Or barring that, a whole night’s sleep. The circles around his eyes--

His eyes showed too much white; like he was in a permanent state of shock.

Junpei collapsed to his knees, the pain keeping him grounded; physical pain as a counterpoint to the rush of feelings and thoughts that didn’t belong to himself but were now filling his mind.

[Fear]

That was one emotion. Images of another man flashed across his mind’s eye. A person Junpei didn’t know and someone Kubota was trying to protect. The fear was coming from there, but something else was blocking Junpei, the thread in this tangled mess that felt like the client: Nijisaki with his brochure smiles and strong pale hands.

[Guilt]

‘Kubota,’ said Junpei, wrenching himself away from the hot mess of emotional imprint this Kubota character seemed to have left in room 310. Most espers prefered to work with no interruptions, but the client wasn’t paying Junpei for being an esper; he was also there to investigate and that usually meant asking questions. ‘Who is he?’

There was a pause and then the client’s calm voice from outside the room, ‘A friend. You could say he used to be a business partner.’

‘And this room is where he vanished?’ said Junpei.

‘This is the room he had paid for on the night he was last seen,’ said the client. Figures. Love hotels were valued for their discretion; patrons step inside, choose their rooms from an automated system, and never have to meet a soul. This one probably had security cameras installed in the hallways for the purposes of safety but Junpei couldn’t see the client admitting to anything that could possibly harm the reputation of his establishment. The fact that the client approached Seven’s agency and not the authorities even though a man’s life might be in danger was proof enough of that. Even so, records probably existed somewhere. Junpei mentally added that to Seven’s shopping list.

‘Does he regularly rent rooms here?’ Kubota’s emotions were tugging Junpei back; he hasn’t let go of his connection completely and it felt like touching an electrical outlet with wet hands. In other circumstances he could have handled the client’s verbal fencing better but it wasn’t easy keeping track of a conversation while channelling someone else’s feelings.

‘Yes,’ said the client. Junpei waited, but the client seemed to think he had said enough about Kubota’s habits. No matter that Kubota looked nothing like a man who regularly scored or even bothered to pay for sex; he looked more like an Akiba type who got his kicks from computer parts. As a friend, the client probably knew more about Kubota’s affairs than he was letting on but that also meant more reasons for him to be discreet.

What a fucking mess.

[Anger]

But that one’s a no-brainer. With that much fear and guilt, Kubota was bound to lash out at someone. A lot of the anger was tied with fear, but part of it seemed to be directed towards the client. And something else, some other emotion--

‘Fuck!’

Junpei pulled back, landing on his ass. That was one of the first tricks an esper in his line of work learned on the job; physical actions always helped anchor a person down. Usually Junpei didn’t need these physical cues; he’d pop in and out without the theatrics his clients were probably expecting. No damage done. The guy who taught him this trick actually broke things inside the room he was investigating. Vases were his favourite, but lamps would do in a pinch. Drunk, he once admitted to Junpei it was because he wasn’t that powerful an esper and it was easy for him to lose himself in other people’s emotions. Junpei had always thought this was bullshit; the guy was good at his job but he was a drama queen.

Now Junpei had to admit there might be something in it. Sadly there were no vases or lamps around. He didn’t think throwing a vibrator on the ground would have quite the same impact. Plus it might piss the client off.

‘Something wrong?’ said Seven. He didn’t sound worried; Junpei had never been stingy about his expletives.

‘It was disgusting,’ said Junpei. ‘Well, no, not really disgusting. It was like touching velvet except electrically charged. And also wet. Fucking disgusting.’

‘What is it?’

‘No idea,’ said Junpei, rubbing the palms of his hands against his trousers. He hadn’t actually touched anything, but that made it worse somehow. ‘I think I need to sleep on it.’

This was their code for ‘I need you to look into things for me before I make a call’ and Seven grunted again.

‘I’ll have Lotus handle it.’

‘Thanks.’ Junpei stood up and headed for the door. It wasn’t the first time he’d examined a room and came up with nothing, but this experience was particularly frustrating because he would have covered more ground if the client wasn’t being so tight-lipped about the smallest things.

‘Is it done?’ said the client, as soon as Junpei exited the room.

‘Not even close,’ said Junpei. ‘I need to know what I’m here for. Any other esper can do what I can, and sometimes better. You do know that, right?’

‘Your agency was recommended to us.’ The client was frowning, but also trying to maintain his calm exterior. Junpei would make a closet pervert joke, except making one about the owner of a love hotel was just too depressingly uninspired.

It wasn’t a thing in his line of business to ask where the client has heard about his agency, so Junpei didn’t. Instead, he just shrugged.

‘It’s easy enough to dispel the emotions inside the room,’ he said. That was a lie; it would take a while to identify everything and have it make enough sense so he could give it a name. That was usually how these exorcisms worked: some people who believed in ghosts thought they were restless spirits with a message they needed to tell the living. To most espers these were emotional imprints left behind by people--living or otherwise--and the best way to dispel them was to know why they were there in the first place. Receiving the message, as it were.

‘But?’ said the client.

‘You hired me because we offer extra services,’ said Junpei. ‘And I have to know what you want me to prioritise.’

The client nodded. He seemed to be more interested in inspecting his reflection on his extremely well-polished shoes than talking to Junpei, but at last he said, ‘Please look for him.’

‘Okay,’ said Junpei. That was a start. ‘I’ll come back tomorrow.’

He was halfway down the hallway when the client called him back, ‘Is he still alive?’

That was probably the most human he appeared since Junpei got there. Junpei tilted his head to one side. The client was worried about Kubota, that much was real.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Junpei. ‘I don’t know yet.’

*

It was around ten when Junpei got back to the office. He’d have gone straight home any other day, case or no case. But this one had a pretty extensive shopping list and he reckoned he might as well start early.

Seven’s agency was a small space on top of a shop that sold what appeared to be school uniforms, although Junpei made a point never to look too closely. Their office didn’t have any signs on the front, nothing to suggest what sort of services they offered; their clients were usually referred to them and appointments were made ahead of time.

Seven probably didn’t live there--Junpei was sure the guy lived somewhere--but for all the hours he spent in the office he might as well have set up a bed in some corner not taken up by Lotus’s equipment. To an outsider the offices might look like the proverbial hacker’s den as seen in popular media, and they wouldn’t be far off the mark: that’s exactly what Lotus was, although no one ever called her that to her hearing.

‘What have you got?’ said Junpei, as soon as he had closed the door behind him.

Lotus looked up from her computer, pushed her chair away from her desk, and started stretching. Junpei looked around the room for Seven, carefully averting his gaze from Lotus’s curves. She was wearing one of her usual outfits; fashionable and tight and revealing her ample cleavage. She was also old enough to be his mother, but that was part of what made her attractive and she knew it.

‘Did you know Nijisaki contacted Crash Keys first?’ said Seven, barging back into the room with a tray of coffee mugs. Their offices comprised the main room where Lotus had set up shop, a bathroom, and the small kitchen where Seven had prepared the coffee. Seven looked like a thug you wouldn’t want to meet in the streets at night, especially with the scars on his face (Junpei never asked), but he was also the sort that made sure everyone ate their meals on time. And his coffee was always spot on.

‘Really,’ said Junpei, his voice flat. This wasn’t a surprise; the client had some pretty good connections to powerful people, that much Lotus had told him before he met up with the guy. It made sense for him to have approached Crash Keys first. Crash Keys were, after all, the most well-connected group in the field. Their main business was actually shipping (it doesn’t usually matter what or who) but some of their members were good espers and made this their sideline.

‘They didn’t want the job,’ said Lotus, helpfully. She reached out for one of the mugs and took a deep breath before sipping her coffee. It must have been boiling hot.

‘I’m not surprised,’ said Seven, offering another mug to Junpei before pulling up a chair for himself. ‘This Nijisaki is tied up with some bad shit. The kind that even Crash Keys wouldn’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole.’

‘Are you kidding me?’ said Junpei, sitting down the coffee table. Lotus glared at him for this, but he didn’t really fancy looking around the crowded dump for a proper chair. ‘Why did we accept the fucking job, then?’

‘This love hotel is clean, so far as we know,’ said Lotus. ‘And we could use the money.’

‘It’s the property of one Hongou Gentarou,’ said Seven. ‘Although Nijisaki runs the whole thing for him. Nijisaki himself is mostly clean. It’s that Hongou we have to look out for.’

‘Do I need to know the specifics?’

‘Just your usual enterprising businessman,’ said Lotus. ‘I can see why Crash Keys don’t want to be involved, though. They’re pretty enterprising themselves.’

‘They’re not that bad,’ said Junpei, sipping his coffee. A thought struck him. ‘What does this Hongou look like?’

‘Hang on,’ said Lotus, wheeling her chair back to her desk and clicking at tabs. ‘There you go.’

Junpei craned his neck to look at the monitor. As expected, the man on the screen matched the face Kubota’s memories had kept throwing at him earlier. Hongou was pretty old; Junpei reckoned he had several years on Seven. Definitely older than Kubota and the client. He had a striking face; melancholy and rather handsome.

‘Well, fuck a duck,’ said Junpei.

‘Familiar?’ said Seven.

‘Our missing guy knows him.’ Junpei shrugged. ‘Not surprising, to be honest. This Kubota is friends with Nijisaki, he must have known something.’

‘I’ll go check that out, then,’ said Lotus.

‘Please.’ Junpei stood up, mug still in hand. ‘We also need footage of Kubota entering the love hotel. And anything you can dig up on Kubota and Nijisaki.’

‘Is that all, young master?’ said Seven, grinning. He was pretty lax about rank and seniority, allowing Junpei to lead the investigations as needed, but any chance to tease Junpei was something Seven can resist no more than a housewife can ignore supermarket sales.

‘For now,’ said Junpei, finishing off his coffee. It burned his tongue but he felt marginally more awake now. ‘I need to go make some calls.’

‘Junpei,’ said Seven. He sounded serious. Not that he was a barrel of laughs to begin with, but he was usually the chill guy of the operation. Junpei raised his eyebrow. ‘Are you okay with this? This isn’t the kind of case we usually accept.’

‘The fuck do you think you’re talking to?’ said Junpei. When Seven said nothing, he shrugged. ‘It’s fine. We’ve handled cases for the yakuza [ 1 ]. How’s this any different?’

‘The yakuza follow a set of rules,’ Seven pointed out. ‘They’re predictable.’

‘That doesn’t make them any less dangerous.’

‘That’s true.’ Seven sighed. ‘I guess it just doesn’t sit well with me, knowing Crash Keys didn’t want the job.’

‘Who knows what Crash Keys is thinking,’ said Junpei. A pause and then, ‘We could use the money, though.’

‘That’s what I said,’ said Lotus.

Seven scratched the back of his head. ‘I just have a bad feeling about this. Isn’t that your forte?’

‘I usually turn it off,’ Junpei admitted, ‘when it comes to myself.’

‘Smart,’ said Lotus. ‘No use worrying now. We accepted the job and it won’t do our reputation any good if we back out. We’ll just cross that bridge when we come to it.’

If we come to it,’ said Junpei.

*

Junpei’s luck being what it was, he reached the bridge the next day.

He had arranged to go back to the client’s love hotel in the afternoon, giving him some time to drop by the office and see if Lotus had any new info.

‘I pulled up some footage of Kubota entering the love hotel, up to him going inside room 310,’ Lotus reported. ‘Timestamped two days ago, which was when he was last seen.’

‘How was it?’ said Junpei, looking over her shoulder at the screen. It showed what he took to be the door to room 310--although the hallway, with its series of identical doors, had this understated and generic appearance that was supposed to be discreet and anonymous.

‘He’s a real scrawny thing isn’t he?’ said Lotus. ‘And what is up with his hair?’

Junpei grinned. ‘You’re one to talk.’

‘It’s a matter of whether you wanted it to look that way or not,’ said Lotus, punching him in the arm. ‘Like with that friend of yours.’

‘I wouldn’t call him a friend,’ said Junpei, rubbing his arm.

The door to the office opened, revealing Seven and a large bag of groceries.

‘Where have you been?’ said Junpei.

‘Leg work,’ said Seven, heading straight for the kitchen. ‘Are you gonna have lunch here? I’m making karaage[ 2 ].’

‘He’s having lunch with his friend,’ said Lotus. Junpei turned to face her, eyebrows raised. She just grinned. ‘Or not-friend? What would you call him then?’

‘A colleague,’ said Junpei. ‘Stop listening in on my phone calls--you didn’t know who I was having lunch with, did you?’

‘Lucky guess.’

‘And that’s why you’re never gonna score,’ said Seven. ‘Lunch with a colleague.’

Junpei couldn’t see him, of course, but he would bet his whole Gundam figure collection on Seven shaking his head as he said ‘colleague’.

The colleague in question had in fact said he wasn’t free for lunch but would meet Junpei in an izakaya[ 3 ] later in the evening. Junpei had hoped they could meet up before he had to go back to the love hotel, but he’d just have to make do with what information Seven and Lotus had come up with.

‘Anyone else enter the room after he did?’ Junpei leaned over Lotus’s desk so he could have a better view of the video displayed on her monitor.

Lotus scrubbed through the clip for him, letting it play normally whenever a figure entered the frame. Aside from a young couple and a salaryman with his escort, the footage might as well have been a still-life painting of an empty hallway. None of the people so much as stopped near room 310, except for a staff member who delivered a tray of food through a flap on the door. This person left as soon as the delivery was made.

‘He eats a lot for a scrawny guy,’ said Lotus. ‘Which would’ve made more sense if there was someone else in there with him.’ She waggled her eyebrows at Junpei, who tried not to blush. ‘Keeping one’s energy up and all.’

‘I wouldn’t know about that,’ said Junpei, frowning at the monitor. Lotus was right: the amount of food on that tray would have been enough for three people. Four if they ate like birds.

‘You wouldn’t,’ said Seven, wandering out of the kitchen with his hands covered in flour. ‘If you keep to these ridiculous work hours and meeting unsavoury people.’

‘Can you pull up videos from before Kubota vanished?’ said Junpei, wondering if Seven had just called his colleague ‘unsavoury’. Not that Seven was wrong. ‘Maybe he doesn’t always come in alone.’

‘These places usually delete footages after a week or so, unless something fishy happened. And even then they’d probably just burn the files onto a DVD,’ said Lotus, biting her lower lip. ‘Fortunately for us, they’re using a magnetic hard drive, which means I could probably retrieve at least a month’s worth of data.’

‘That sounds good?’ said Junpei, his tone making it a question.

‘Scrubbing through those is going to take ages,’ Lotus pointed out.

‘I’ll owe you.’

‘That’s what I like to hear.’

‘Any leads on Kubota and Nijisaki?’

‘That’s what I went out to ask around for,’ said Seven. ‘A quick search on the internet would tell you Kubota’s a researcher for Hongou’s pharmaceutical company, Cradle. Pretty smart, that guy. Was conducting some study for the Psychology Department before he got headhunted by Nijisaki, who was working for Cradle directly at the time.’

‘Were they close?’ The client’s concern for Kubota seemed genuine enough, and considering Kubota chose the client’s establishment for his amusement it looked like the men had at least a good working relationship.

‘From what it sounded like,’ said Seven, ‘not much different from you and that colleague of yours. They didn’t seem close, at least not according to the Cradle employees I talked to. Didn’t sound like they’d have lunch together, at any rate.’

Junpei sighed. ‘Which means?’

‘Not enough to go on,’ said Seven, at the same time Lotus said, ‘You need to start making friends.’

‘You’d think a man can do his job without getting criticised about his private life,’ Junpei huffed. ‘I thought you guys were my friends.’

Seven had been about to return to his karaage, but paused in front of the kitchen door. ‘And these friends want to know if you’ll have lunch with them.’

‘Sounds good to me.’

*

Buoyed by Seven’s excellent fried chicken and some miso soup, Junpei’s good spirits started flagging faced with the impressive nautical-themed facade of his destination. It wasn’t quite as flashy as the Queen Elizabeth[ 4 ], which was shaped like a ship from outside. The client had told Junpei their building was designed to look like the decks of a cruise ship, but Junpei couldn’t really see it himself. Unsurprising, since he’s never seen a cruise ship except from photos. The place did feature more windows than was usual for love hotels, but most of them were actually boarded up inside.

It was Junpei’s second time in a love hotel and he had no one but his fishy client for company both times. Maybe Seven and Lotus were right; he should probably get out more. But first he had to take care of this job.

Sometimes Junpei approached cases with no prior knowledge of what he was supposed to investigate. He did this to keep an open mind and to take note of details without forcing them to tie in with what he already knew. It also wasn’t unusual for the clients themselves to give him as little information as possible in order to ‘test’ his abilities. Seven hated this; said it didn’t follow any kind of procedure that he knew of. Junpei suspected Seven had been in the police force or something related before starting his agency, but as with Seven’t facial scars Junpei didn’t pry. The man allowed him his little idiosyncrasies, the least he could do was respect Seven’s privacy.

His session inside room 310 yesterday had not been the most fruitful, but coupled with the facts that Seven and Lotus have gathered for him, Junpei was getting a better idea about how Kubota had been feeling before he disappeared.

[Cornered]

He was tied up with some scheme of Hongou’s, that much was obvious. And the client was holding something of his, something that ensured his cooperation. But there was still that wet electric velvet emotion that was obscuring the details of this picture from Junpei. He had no idea what it could be; it was probably something he hadn’t experienced himself yet. This had been a fairly normal occurrence when he was new to the job, but he thought he’d been filling in the gap as he got older.

There was nothing he could do but ignore it for the moment. Alexander the Great might have solved the Gordian knot by slashing it in half, but this was a problem that needed more patience and coaxing. Digging deeper, Junpei felt something wet again, something warm. He tried not to flinch as the smell hit him. It depended on the esper but Junpei usually felt emotional imprints in textures, sometimes in colours. Smell and taste, however--

He gagged. Last summer his fridge had finally given up and stopped running; it had already been old when he’d bought it his first year at uni so he hadn't been surprised, but he'd been handling another case back then and spending most of his time in the office so it had taken him a while to notice.

This smell was worse than that. It was the scent of clotted blood and the taste of rotting meat, the kind that lingered at the back of his throat.

[Death]

Someone had died in this room. Not Kubota; he was reacting to it and Junpei could feel no physical pain coming from him. It didn’t mean Kubota wasn’t dead himself though, just that he was alive when this death happened.

The body was lying face down on the floor, blood soaking the cream-coloured carpet. Looking at the corpse, Teruaki found it hard to believe he had been so afraid. Musashidou was nothing more than meat now; in his death his wine-soaked corpulence made him look more like the pig that he was.

Someone was calling his name; the soft sounds of footsteps getting closer. Everything sounded muffled in these damned hotel rooms; even the girls’ screams sounded flat. Nagisa was standing in front of him, saying his name again, touching his hands. They were covered in blood, he noticed; Musashidou’s blood was warm and sticky on his hands.

‘I need to clean up,’ said Teruaki. ‘Will it ever come off?’

‘What do you mean?’ Nagisa’s voice was calm but his hands were shaking.

Teruaki looked at him. For what seemed like ages they stared at each other; Nagisa’s hands tightening around Teruaki’s, and Musashidou’s blood--

‘I killed him,’ said Teruaki, finally. And then, his tone rising at the end, ‘I killed him?’

‘You,’ said Nagisa--

[Panic].

Junpei started to scream.

*

He didn’t remember passing out but he must have had because he woke up on the bed later. It was obscenely comfortable; the kind advertised on TV that guaranteed true sleep. He tried to dig his phone out of his pocket to check the time, but moving his arm felt like too much trouble so he just said, ‘What time is it?’ and hoped the batteries on his radio haven’t died yet.

‘A few minutes before six,’ said Seven. His voice was like the calm before the storm and Junpei braced himself for the shouting that was probably coming. ‘Junpei--’

‘I see you’re awake,’ said the client.

Junpei hadn’t noticed him in the room earlier. Junpei sat up, turning his radio off. Seven was going to tear him a new one when he gets back to the office later, but he’ll just have to deal.

‘I’m sorry,’ said the client, spreading his hands. He was standing near the door; always a careful distance from Junpei. At first Junpei had assumed the client knew he’d been avoiding physical contact, but now he wondered if the feeling was mutual. ‘I heard screaming so I went inside the room and found you lying on the floor. I had to ask one of the staff members to help me carry you onto the bed.’

Lying on the floor, thought Junpei; just like Musashidou.

‘You killed him,’ said Junpei. The client’s hands had been bloody from when he had held Kubota’s. Of course he tried to avoid touching Junpei.

The client’s head snapped up, eyes narrowing. ‘Excuse me?’

‘Kubota,’ said Junpei, sliding out of the bed. If the client got violent he’d rather not end up unawares on a memory foam. ‘You killed him.’

The energy in the room was still, like held breath. Junpei touched it gingerly, drawing back quickly when he felt the client’s emotions.

‘Fuck you,’ said the client, quietly.

Red-hot anger. Interesting.

‘If your agency would like to send us the bill for your services,’ the client added.

‘Wait--’

‘Please leave the premises when you are able,’ said the client, turning to leave the room. ‘That will be all, Mr Tenmyouji.’

The door closed behind the client with a smart click. Junpei stared at it for a moment. Seven was really going to tear him a new one. In fact, Junpei might end up being a human version of Swiss cheese before the night was over.

Fuck.

*

It was early enough that the salarymen in the izakaya were just on their way to getting drunk. Junpei liked this particular place because it had private rooms and he can talk with friends without having to shout. Aoi hasn’t arrived yet when the server brought Junpei his beer and kinpira [ 5 ]; he might end up getting chewed out when he gets back to the office but he can enjoy himself in the meantime.

He had downed half of his beer when a guy with silver hair slid inside the room to sit in front of him.

‘Rough time at work I heard.’ Aoi was grinning, but he was also paying for everything and Junpei thought it was just fair to let him have his fun.

‘Is the grapevine really that good, or am I just an open book?’ said Junpei.

‘Bit of both,’ said Aoi, helping himself to the kinpira. ‘Sorry I couldn’t make it earlier.’

Junpei shrugged. ‘I’d have fucked it up either way.’ At Aoi’s raised eyebrow, he started talking about what happened in the love hotel earlier. He didn’t need to ask Aoi to be discreet; most people in their business were.

‘Guess it’s too late to give you this.’ Aoi placed a small envelope on the table. ‘I reckoned you could use it to help anchor you down, but there are other jobs I guess.’

‘What’s this?’ Junpei picked the envelope up. There was a silver ring inside. ‘Dude,’ he said, fluttering his hands and looking shocked. ‘This is too sudden. I--I don’t know what to say!’

Aoi kicked Junpei’s leg from under the table. It was a good thing they were in a private room and not the bar; Aoi favoured bigass boots that can cause serious damage with careful application, but inside the izakaya he was wearing only his socks.

‘As if,’ said Aoi. ‘I’m not gonna marry a guy who’d been to a fucking love hotel with another man.’

‘Don’t remind me,’ said Junpei. The ring looked like it could only fit on his pinky; Aoi had ridiculously skinny fingers. He slid it on and held his hand up in front of his face. It had what looked like a beaked face etched on the head. ‘How’s this supposed to help? And what the hell is this design?’

A server had entered their room with several dishes and more beer, and Aoi paused to thank him before turning back to Junpei.

‘A plague doctor’s mask,’ he said. ‘Back when plagues were a big problem in the West during the Middle Ages, these dudes went around towns tending to the sick. They wore masks like that stuffed with herbs and the like to protect them from catching the plague.’

‘Did it work?’

‘Dude, they were basically air fresheners, what d’you think?’ Aoi laughed. ‘Fortunately, we’re not here for symbolism--’

‘Good.’

‘The underside of that beak there is sharp enough to draw blood.’ Aoi grabbed Junpei’s finger and started pointing. ‘I could have just given you a fucking safety pin you can poke yourself with if you find yourself lost in someone else’s emotions, but that’s not very impressive is it?’

No, that didn’t suit Aoi’s style at all. Junpei pressed a finger lightly against the beak as Aoi had shown earlier. It was sharp, but not too sharp that the cut would be too fine for pain. It was actually pretty cool.

‘Thanks,’ he said, reaching out for his beer. He was already two glasses in, but Aoi would likely catch up in no time at all. ‘Not that I’d be needing it any time soon.’

‘Tough luck,’ Aoi agreed. There were many things Aoi did that seemed to be calculated to annoy people whenever possible, but he was pretty good at commiserating. ‘Hongou’s crowd had never been easy clients; I was surprised when you guys took Nijisaki’s case on.’

‘Rent was due.’ Junpei shrugged. ‘That guy’s dead, man.’

‘Musashidou?’ said Aoi, with a short bark-like laugh. ‘Not a big loss to society. He was probably torturing women in that place, fucking sick bastard.’

Junpei drank his beer, watching Aoi alternate between the karaage and his own drink. Aoi knew these people; Crash Keys had likely worked for them before in the shipping capacity. This was why Junpei had wanted to meet up with Aoi for lunch, but now there was no need to keep looking into the case; Nijisaki had fired him after all. Still, someone had died in that room and since Junpei had heard nothing in the news about murder in a love hotel, it looked like someone had covered it up and had done it well. No wonder Nijisaki hadn’t gone to inform the police; it was just the kind of publicity he wouldn’t want for his establishment.

‘You think Kubota’s still alive?’

Aoi drank what was left of his beer and scratched the back of his ear thoughtfully. ‘If he is, he won’t be for long. Hongou wouldn’t be thrilled if he finds out Kubota killed Musashidou.’

‘Why’s that? Musashidou’s that important?’

‘Back before Hongou made it big, Musashidou’s the one who was giving him the money,’ said Aoi, pressing the bell on their table to call the server back. ‘They’re business partners now. You gonna stick with beer or are we getting sake?’

‘I already had two glasses,’ said Junpei. ‘Might as well stick to it.’

Aoi shrugged. ‘So what’re you gonna do about it?’

‘About what?’ Junpei knew Aoi wasn’t talking about drinks, but he needed time to think his answer through.

Aoi understood this, shifting his attention to the server who promptly returned with more drinks and a bowl of edamame[ 6 ].

After a while, Junpei said, ‘There’s nothing I can do, is there? I need to go look for another gig to tide me over.’

‘Murasaki’s offer still stands,’ said Aoi. Murasaki was the leader of Crash Keys; an enigma whom people knew by name but never to talk to. Aoi was the only person Junpei knew who seemed to have Murasaki’s ear; at least if Junpei accepted his word as truth. Which Junpei did because Murasaki was the reason Aoi had approached him in the first place. That was when Junpei was still new to the job and Aoi had asked him if he wanted to join Crash Keys.

He gave Aoi the same answer as he did back then, ‘I can’t leave Seven’s agency. They’ve done so much for me already.’

Aoi sighed. ‘You don’t have to leave them. Murasaki’s willing to let you work as a separate unit.’

That was new. Junpei looked at the ring Aoi had given him, rubbing at the mask’s beak with his finger. Murasaki was getting desperate, but why?

‘You think Nijisaki would just let you walk? Knowing what you do?’ said Aoi, softly.

Aoi was right, of course. Junpei had been trying not to think about it, and while he was fairly sure Seven and Lotus had enough pull to be able to keep him safe for a while he wouldn’t be able to keep on hiding forever. With Crash Keys’ considerable weight behind him though, even Nijisaki might hesitate. And still.

‘I’ll think about it,’ he said.

‘Murasaki’s giving you carte blanche, dude,’ said Aoi. ‘Crash Keys don’t do that for just anyone.’

‘You’re doing fine enough.’

Aoi grinned. ‘I’m not just anyone. But I’m not gonna force you to make your decision now; the night’s still young. There’s beer to be drunk.’

‘I don’t do deals drunk,’ said Junpei, grinning back.

‘Such a poet.’

‘I try.’

*

It was almost midnight when Junpei got back to the office; he hadn’t planned on getting as drunk as he did but having started it had been hard to refuse Aoi’s offer of sake after a couple more rounds of beer. He’d also missed the last train and had to be poured into a cab he couldn’t afford by Aoi, who'd slid a couple of bills into his pocket.

This last made Junpei feel somewhat uncomfortable, as if he’d done something dirty. At the very least, Aoi was only slightly more coherent than he was and kept muttering about how Shiba Inu looked so fucking soft.

He’d also given Junpei more than enough money for the fare and he made mental note to pay the next time they go out for drinks.

If he managed to live that long. Nijisaki was a serious enough threat, but he’d have to queue after Seven. Junpei had sent an email to prove he was alive and would fill Seven in later, but it was never a fun time facing your boss after a particularly bad fuck up. The fact he prolonged going back until midnight was also not going to help.

‘I’m back,’ said Junpei, trying not to sound as drunk as he was. Which wasn’t easy considering he’d been trying to fit his key backwards into the lock for five minutes before trying other options.

Seven and Lotus were sitting on the sofa--Junpei didn’t even know there was a sofa, it must have been buried under Lotus’s piles of printouts and magazines. Junpei thought they’d never looked more like disapproving parents.

‘Junpei,’ Seven began. He sounded confused and worried, not as angry as Junpei had expected him to be. ‘What did you do?’

‘I’m sorry,’ said Junpei, wondering if the time for saikeirei[ 7 ] had passed and his series of bad decisions had launched him straight into dogeza[ 8 ] territory. It wasn’t something he thought ever he’d ever do for Seven, who’s the sort that preferred people to spend their time getting things right than any sort of bowing apologies. Junpei’s record had also been good so far; his mistakes were few and far between and he wasn’t bad at his job, but he guessed he was due for a really big one at some point. ‘I thought I had Nijisaki pinned down, but I didn’t think it through--’

‘Which Crash Keys dick did you suck,’ said Lotus. She was angry, which was almost comforting against Seven’s reaction. ‘To get the job back?’

Junpei had been thinking about the angle of his bow; not an easy feat since moving his head made him want to throw up and his vision swim, but this made him straighten up.

‘What?’

‘Don’t act coy,’ said Lotus, leaning over to rest her arms on her crossed legs. ‘They didn’t stick their necks out for you out of the goodness of their hearts. What did you promise them? Unrestricted access to your ass--’

‘That’s enough,’ said Seven, placing his hand on Lotus’s shoulder. ‘But I would also like to know what you promised them. Lotus is right; Crash Keys don’t do anything for free.’

‘It was just drinks,’ said Junpei. He felt like he had entered that peculiar state of watching French films shown only in art houses, but without subtitles. ‘And he did pay for everything, but we usually take turns?’

‘What’re you talking about?’ said Seven. He took a deep breath. ‘Start from the top.’

‘Well,’ said Junpei, trying to focus his thoughts even though his head felt stuffed with porcelain bells and he was dead on his feet. ‘I managed to offend the client by saying he murdered the guy he was asking me to look for--’

‘Not a bad hypothesis,’ said Seven. He didn’t really look like the guy who uses big words but he was pretty smart. No one less would have been able to keep up with Lotus. ‘It’s not unknown for the perp to act like the concerned party and hire a detective to investigate a crime they actually committed.’

‘Thanks,’ said Junpei. ‘Except in retrospect I might have jumped the gun on that one. I’m not discounting it yet, but something felt off. Anyway, he fired me and I spent the rest of the night drowning my sorrows with Aoi.’

‘A member of Crash Keys,’ Lotus pointed out.

‘Who gave me more info about Hongou’s lot,’ Junpei countered. ‘He also tried to get me to join Crash Keys, yes. I told him I’ll think about it and he never mentioned it again. Unless Shiba Inu is a code for something.’

‘What?’ said Lotus, at the same time Seven said, ‘Why didn’t you say yes?’

‘I never fancied myself as a dockworker.’ That was pretty funny. Junpei found himself giggling a bit.

‘But you realise that Nijisaki might be coming after you?’ said Seven. ‘You saw Kubota killing that guy didn’t you?’

‘How d’you know that?’

‘Well you see,’ said Lotus. ‘After a certain someone went offline without even giving us warning, we received two very puzzling calls. One of them was from Nijisaki himself, telling us that you’re to come back as usual tomorrow. We didn’t even know you were fired, hmm?’

Junpei mumbled his apologies again, managing the saikeirei this time.

‘And the next call is from Crash Keys,’ said Seven. He raised his hand when Junpei opened his mouth, ‘Not your friend but someone else. A young woman; she didn’t give her name. She told us that Crash Keys have accepted Nijisaki’s job offer, but on the condition that he hires you back.’

‘But that means--’

‘Yes,’ said Lotus. ‘Nijisaki would hardly be happy paying two agencies, don’t you think? It looks like Crash Keys are waiving their fee and they’re doing so in order to tell everyone in no uncertain terms that you are under their protection.’ Lotus pressed two fingers against her lips. ‘Now. Which Crash Keys dick did you suck and what deal did you strike with them?’

Instead of answering, Junpei hurried towards the bathroom to throw up.

*

Chapter Text

Seven decided Junpei was probably better off sleeping in the office than going back home. He pulled out a sleeping bag from the depths of Lotus’s mess and offered it to Junpei.

‘I’ll take the sofa,’ said Seven, grinning.

‘What about Lotus?’

Lotus was already pulling her coat on. ‘I’m going home. My girls won’t mind if I stay out, but I’ll feel safer being back there with them.’

‘Dude,’ said Junpei, pulling Seven back. ‘Shouldn’t you stay with her tonight? Nijisaki would probably leave us alone for a while, but better safe right?’

‘And you?’ said Lotus, who’d been listening in. It really was a bad habit of hers. ‘You’ll be left alone here.’

‘Oh come on, don’t make a man choose between spending the night in a house with three pretty girls or in the office with a drunk esper,’ said Junpei. He was aware that his voice was too loud, but he didn’t really care. ‘I’ll be fine. At the very least it would serve Murasaki right if I get killed here tonight.’

Seven thought about it. ‘It wouldn’t do for Crash Keys if Hongou’s lot get to him first,’ he agreed.

‘I don’t like it,’ said Lotus.

‘No one does, Hazuki,’ said Seven. It was unusual of him to call Lotus by her given name and she raised her eyebrow at him.

‘Why not both of you stay over? He could sleep on the floor,’ she said.

‘I’d rather be alone tonight.’ Sober, Junpei would probably not have been so curt; whatever part of his brain that wasn’t too drunk tried to backpedal so hard it likely sprained its ankle. ‘Sorry, that’s not what I--I just need time to think things over. It’s been a pretty long day.’

Seven grinned and patted him on the back. His shovel hands made the possibility of projectile vomiting very real; Junpei had to swallow it back and felt a bit dead inside.

‘I doubt an unattached young man would want two cute girls listening to him throw up the whole night long,’ said Seven.

That was certainly part of it. Junpei wished Seven wasn’t so astute; the life of working with smart people was a path fraught with danger.

Lotus sighed. She was clearly still not happy about leaving Junpei alone but it was also getting late. Junpei tried to point this out as best as he could without sounding like he was pushing them out of the door.

‘Okay, fine.’ Lotus threw up her hands. ‘The fire extinguisher is under my desk. Keep everything locked. Open the door for nobody.’

‘Yes, mum,’ said Junpei. This earned him a clip on the back of his head, but at least Lotus didn’t look so worried any more. Even if the blow made Junpei feel even more dizzy. ‘Say hi to Nona and Ennea for me.’

‘You’re barking up the wrong tree there, mister,’ said Lotus.

‘I didn’t think I was barking at all,’ said Junpei. With the way things were going, Junpei’s barking days might be over even before they began.

‘Buckle up,’ said Seven, opening the door for Lotus. ‘You’re too young to give up now.’

Junpei grinned. ‘Thanks, dad.’

*

It didn’t take him long to get ready for bed. Staying the night was a fairly normal occurrence when the agency was busy and they each had their own toothbrushes and various toiletries in the bathroom. Junpei examined his reflection in the mirror of the medicine cabinet; he looked tired but that was to be expected. The faint shadow of facial hair didn’t help either, but he reckoned that could wait for a few more days. He could go for a week without shaving and end up with no more than a stubble, but he didn’t really mind. He didn’t always have time to shave.

Settling himself on the sofa with Seven’s sleeping bag for a blanket, Junpei began to dream.

*

A true dream. Junpei’s abilities leaned more towards retrocognition and his dreams followed suit. Most of the time they were fragments of his past; memories he had forgotten or misremembered. Less frequently they were someone else’s memories: a person who has left an impression on Junpei, or another esper.

He assumed this dream was the former; it was something that happened to him after all. His first case and the first time he’d worked with Seven and Lotus. Seven had been practising as a private detective back then, out looking for a little girl who was last seen in a park near her home. Junpei was still a university student in his final year and trying to look forward to the office job he was supposed to get at the end of it.

It was by chance he’d gotten tangled up with Seven’s investigation; the park where the girl had disappeared was also close to the building where Junpei rented a small one-room flat. That day he’d been walking home from the convenience store, plastic bag with rice balls and Oolong tea in one hand, when he'd heard someone sobbing from a clump of bushes behind a bench.

It had been a warm day; he remembered the humidity had made his shirt stick to his skin with sweat, beads of it forming on his forehead which he’d wiped away with his sleeve. The sobs were faint, as if he was hearing only the echo of it. Stumped when he didn’t find the child he’d been expecting to see huddled in the bushes, he kept his half-bent position for a moment, looking as if he was bowing to the plants in his bemusement.

That had been when he realised he’d been hearing the sobs only in his mind. This wasn’t unusual for Junpei but he’d learned to tune it out over the years. The trick was knowing how to distinguish between what was physically observable and what wasn’t.

Maybe it had been the heat. He hadn’t made a mistake like that since he was a kid. People usually assumed he was lying or looking for attention, and he’d learned early to keep quiet and act like everything was fine.

Seven had been sitting on another bench, calmly eating his box lunch of tempura and rice. He'd also been watching Junpei surreptitiously; quick glances that Junpei, who had been staring at the bushes, hadn't noticed at all.

By then the kid’s disappearance had already made the newspapers: a brief mention in a corner of the page and a photo of a nine-year old in a frilly shirt. They’d also mentioned that the girl was last seen in the park. With nothing else to go on Seven had started to keep the park under surveillance in the off-chance that something--or someone--would turn up. It wasn’t unknown for criminals to come back to the scene of the crime after all.

None of this helped make Junpei look less suspicious; he certainly couldn’t blame Seven for initially thinking he was connected to the case. Or at the very least, peg him as the sort who looked through his neighbour’s rubbish looking for gossip; standing there with his plastic bag and peering at bushes--

A chill ran down Junpei’s spine when realised he was looking at himself. Not his memory then. Not Seven’s either, since he could also see Seven sitting on his bench.

Who had been watching them?

*

Junpei’s sorry state the next morning surprised no one. Some painkillers and countless glasses of water didn’t do much, but at least he could stand up.

‘Are you sure you’re okay? Have some toast, at least,’ said Seven, handing Junpei a plate of warm bread.

‘I’ll probably just throw it up,’ said Junpei. ‘I’ll eat something when I feel more alive later.’

‘Good luck with that,’ said Lotus, handing him a thermos. ‘Seven made some soup earlier and I saved you some.’

‘Thanks.’

‘At least you won’t be going back there alone,’ said Seven. ‘I feel better knowing Crash Keys is sending someone in with you.’

‘Fuck no,’ said Junpei, rubbing his temples. He hadn’t exactly forgotten, but had conveniently shoved it to the back of his mind. His headache suddenly felt worse. ‘The last time I worked with Aoi he tried to set fire to my clothes.’

‘Was that the down vest?’ said Lotus. ‘I wish he had.’

‘I was wearing it,’ Junpei huffed, glaring at Seven who had started cackling.

‘If anyone tries burning your clothes, just remember to unclip your radio off,’ said Seven. ‘No more going offline during critical moments.’

‘Got it.’ Feeling rather sheepish, Junpei left the office.

*

The train wasn’t quite as packed late in the morning, which suited Junpei’s current constitution just fine. He arrived at the love hotel without keeling over: another success. He was just thinking he would get really pissed off if Aoi didn’t look and feel as bad as he did when Nijisaki led him back into room 310 and there was a girl waiting for them inside.

She had been looking at the condoms and vibrators arranged on top of the dresser as if they were museum artifacts--very interesting but not to be touched--and she looked up when Nijisaki opened the door for Junpei, giving them both a cheery smile.

‘Good afternoon,’ she said.

‘You’re not Aoi,’ said Junpei, proving his keen observation skills to his client.

‘No, I’m Akane,’ she said. ‘Is he more your type?’

‘What?’ said Junpei. And then when his hungover brain caught up with her words, ‘Oh. What?’

‘I’m sure something can be arranged,’ said Akane, helpfully. She was still smiling, although there was a playful quality to it that wasn’t there when she greeted them.

‘Erm, no thanks,’ said Junpei. ‘Crash Keys sent you here?’

‘Aoi didn’t want the job.’ She touched her cheek and tilted her head to one side, as if supporting her head with her hand. ‘Didn’t he tell you?’

He did. Junpei had been wondering about that: someone from Crash Keys had decided not only to accept a job they’d initially refused but also to work for free just so Junpei would get paid. It wasn’t something Aoi would do: he didn’t owe Junpei anything and he wasn’t the sort to hoard favours. They might at a stretch be called friends, but money was money, especially with Aoi. This left the only other Crash Keys member that Junpei knew, at least by name: Murasaki.

But that didn’t explain Akane’s appearance. Aoi had never mentioned her, but then again he knew Junpei wasn’t really interested in the members or the workings of his group. Akane looked pretty harmless at first glance; the kind of sweet girl usually cast to play a supporting role in TV or movies but was surprisingly rare in real life. On the other hand, she was a Crash Keys member; they wouldn’t send just anyone to handle a case like this one, which meant she was probably tougher than she looked.

‘Thank you,’ said Akane.

Junpei narrowed his eyes at her. Espers can’t really read thoughts, what they did was read emotions and make assumptions. Aoi was good at this; it’s what made him an ideal drinking partner. But he usually made general assumptions when it came to his personal interactions, scaling wide off the mark either out of respect or disinterest. Akane, on the other hand, seemed to aim for bullseye.

‘Shall we get started?’ said Junpei.

Akane nodded. ‘Aoi told me about what happened to you here. I hope that’s all right.’

‘No worries,’ said Junpei, glad that he wouldn’t have to talk in front of Nijisaki. ‘I’ve managed to untangle some emotions from the knot, but there are a couple that still stump me.’

Akane raised her hand, turning to look at Nijisaki who had stayed outside the door.

‘I hope you don’t mind,’ she said, ‘but working close to other people lessens my accuracy by quite a margin. It seems my group has required Jumpy’s cooperation, so he would have to stay in the room with me, but--’ she let her voice trail off. To the untrained ear she was nothing but polite. Except Junpei had been swimming long enough in the murky waters of thugs and yakuza and he recognised the type who used politeness as a well-honed weapon in that soft voice.

Nijisaki probably did as well; for a moment he looked like he was going to protest, but he finally gave in with an elegant shrug.

‘As you wish,’ he said, gesturing at the phone on the dresser. Junpei hadn’t noticed the thing until that moment, but then again, it was surrounded by sex paraphernalia. ‘Please give us a call if you need anything.’

‘Thank you,’ said Akane, with another smile. She seemed to have a full artillery of them, with varying nuances. This one told Nijisaki that she was aware he would try to keep track of her movements in any way he can, and that she didn’t care.

Junpei was beginning to see why Crash Keys sent her.

*

It was a few minutes after Nijisaki left that Junpei remembered.

‘Jumpy?’ he said.

‘I think it suits you,’ she said, sounding very happy about it for some reason and Junpei had to believe she wasn’t taking the piss. ‘Like a puppy.’

That didn’t make things better, but Junpei could live with it.

‘So erm, how do we go about this?’ he said, scratching the back of his head.

‘You’ve worked with Aoi before, haven’t you?’ said Akane, sitting at the foot of the bed. ‘This bed is so comfortable, have you ever tried sleeping on something like this?’

‘I have,’ said Junpei. ‘On both counts. When I collapsed they carried me to that bed.’

‘Lucky.’ Akane ran her hand across the sheets as if checking for something. Then nodding as if satisfied, she lay down the bed with a soft sigh. Her stockinged feet were still set primly on the floor, but there was something intimate about it anyway; perhaps because Junpei was standing over her and would have to look down if he wanted to see her face. ‘How did you keep your connection with Aoi, when you were working together?’

It took Junpei a moment to process what she said, staring as he was at one corner of the ceiling as if it was his job to make sure it passed some ceiling test.

‘We held hands,’ he said. Physical contact was good for resonating with another esper, especially since he hadn’t really known Aoi that well back then and could barely pick out his psychic stamp amidst the rest of the emotions they’d been tasked to investigate.

‘How did that come about?’ At Junpei’s confused ‘Hm?’, Akane elaborated, ‘Working with him. It’s unusual, isn’t it? Especially for Aoi; he’s known to the other members as something of a lone wolf.’

‘Nothing special, really,’ said Junpei, shrugging. ‘It was a suicide.’

‘Those are the toughest,’ Akane agreed, her voice held a trace of sadness and Junpei wondered if he’d sounded too blase earlier. It wasn’t as if those cases didn’t affect him, just that it was something he’d rather not talk about with other people. No matter how easy they were to talk to. ‘He asked you to anchor for him?’

‘Yeah,’ said Junpei. He’d been a newbie then and trying to get as much experience as he could. ‘Their psychological profiles matched at about 55%.’

That wasn’t too bad, as far as psychological profiles went; Junpei had unravelled emotional imprints left behind by people who matched his profile for higher than that. But as Akane had said, suicides were the toughest cases to handle and it was easy for espers to lose themselves in another person’s emotions that might trigger extreme reactions. 55% was actually in the margins of acceptable. Any higher and Junpei would have taken the case on himself, newbie or not.

‘He never told me about this,’ said Akane. Something in her voice made Junpei finally look down to see if she was pouting. She was. ‘But then again, I would have advised against it.’

Junpei had to wonder if Crash Keys members really kept track of each other like this, or if it was a special case between Akane and Aoi. It could be that she was in a higher position than he was, but her manner suggested a more personal connection than just someone who was worried about a subordinate.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Akane. ‘We’re not dating. He’s my older brother.’

‘But you call him by name,’ said Junpei.

‘Very few people know we’re siblings,’ said Akane. ‘We find it’s much safer that way.’

‘As long as you won’t have to kill me now that I know.’ That was probably extreme even for Crash Keys members, but Junpei would like to be sure anyway.

Akane giggled, hiding her mouth behind one hand. It was hard to see that she was in any way related to Aoi, who was as rude as a person can be and still be Japanese, but there was a faint resemblance there if one knew to look out for it.

‘You’ll find out anyway,’ she said. ‘When you start resonating with me. But it should be easier for you now, since you’ve already done it with Aoi. Shall we get started, Jumpy?’

Junpei stared. She was patting the space on the bed beside her with her right hand, as if inviting him to sit next to her. On the bed. Beside her.

‘Jumpy?’

It was just a job of course; there was nothing weird about it at all. Physical contact was important when resonating with another esper: that’s why he had to hold Aoi’s hand before. But that was different and Akane was nothing like Aoi, no matter if they’re related. For one, she hasn’t tried to burn Junpei’s clothes yet.

Junpei sat down, trying to keep a reasonable distance between himself and Akane without sliding off the bed entirely. She seemed to be very relaxed about it all. Even if they were in a love hotel and sitting on the bed next to each other, a foot away from a small vending machine that sold condoms and sexy underwear. Junpei felt his face turning red.

‘Well then,’ said Akane, reaching out for Junpei’s hand.

Her hand was small, more boney than soft, and her grip was sure and tight. She was probably projecting some sort of emotion at him because having his hand held like that made Junpei forget the awkwardness of the situation. This was his job, even if Nijisaki was an asshole and Kubota a murderer: Junpei was getting paid to do this. The dildos and the lube, and the fact that Hongou’s group would likely try to go after him once the job was done were things he could worry about later.

Everything was going to be all right.

*

Akane calmly and methodically went about unravelling Kubota’s emotions like a cat with a knit jumper. When Junpei had worked with Aoi he had to push against Aoi’s psychic stamp, defining the margins of Aoi’s personality with his own. This time, Akane was using Junpei’s abilities in order to magnify hers; using Junpei’s understanding of Kubota’s emotions and refining on them. They were about the same age, Junpei thought, but she was clearly more experienced at this.

He noticed that she’d also steered clear from the emotions he couldn’t pick up the day before, choosing instead to work around them. He felt her hand tighten around his, the focusing of her concentration, and then Akane was reaching out tentatively for the wet velvet mess of feelings Kubota had left behind.

She recoiled. The whole time she’d been half-lying on the bed, but that skin-crawling feeling made her sit up, tilting her head to one side again as if she was listening for something.

‘It’s just like you said.’ She bit her lip, looking more annoyed than worried. ‘I thought the two of us would manage to make some sense of it, but I still have only the vaguest idea of what these emotions are.’

‘We have the other threads loosened at least,’ Junpei pointed out.

‘Hm,’ said Akane. She hadn’t let go of Junpei’s hand and he didn’t want to pull away in case she decided to continue with the investigation. ‘Have you had lunch, Jumpy?’

It was just past two in the afternoon, which was not a bad time for lunch. Junpei couldn’t see what that had to do with anything, but he shook his head anyway.

‘Come on then,’ said Akane, giving his hand a squeeze before letting go. ‘Let’s get something to eat.’

Junpei still felt a bit queasy but he reckoned he could handle something light, if Akane was the sort of person who liked eating with other people. He reached out for the menu on the bedside table. From what he’d heard, love hotel menus also included costumes--and sometimes escorts--that one can rent for a reasonable price: it’s probably best not to look through it together.

‘What’re you gonna get?’

Akane had stood up and taken her mobile phone out of her pocket. ‘Oh we’re not eating here, Jumpy.’

‘Huh?’

‘There’s a Denny’s nearby, why don’t we go there?’ she said, before turning her back to him and talking to someone on her mobile. The conversation seemed to go well because she was beaming again when she faced him. ‘Shall we? It’s like a date isn’t it? Have you ever taken a girl out for lunch before?’

Junpei shrugged, trying to ignore the whistling and excited congratulations coming from his radio. ‘I can’t say I have.’

Actually he had never taken a girl out anywhere, unless he counted group dates he’d been dragged to by various friends from uni. He was pretty sure those didn’t count; he’d never managed to pull anyone for a drink after, let alone a second date. But he also didn’t think Akane needed to know that.

‘A first time for both of us then.’

It was a very pleasant experience, walking down the streets of Roppongi with Akane. There were more pedestrians that afternoon, but not as crowded as it would likely get later in the night when the office ladies and salary men drop by for drinks after work.

Akane walked at a quick pace, having no trouble keeping up with him even though he was easily a head taller than she was. Actually, she was quite petite and probably didn’t stand much taller than five feet. Even her brother, who was a good inch shorter than Junpei without his shoes and with his hair down, would look tall next to her.

‘Should we have gone out without telling Nijisaki?’ said Junpei.

‘It’s all right,’ said Akane. ‘Consider this a business meeting. And no one’s allowed inside Room 310 aside from us anyway.’

‘A business meeting?’ he said. She didn’t reply to this, just nodding absently at him before talking about what they were going to have for lunch and Junpei decided it’s not really worth making a fuss over.

Denny’s was a half-hour’s walk from the love hotel; Junpei was quite familiar with the area so he didn’t have to ask her to take the lead. Instead they walked side by side, making small talk when they see something interesting in the streets but otherwise keeping a companionable silence. Akane was still something of an enigma for Junpei; she was like a lenticular image, changing from cheerful and sweet to cold and calculating depending on the angle she was viewed from. Junpei had met similar people in the past, but those were delicate balancing acts. A thin veil pulled over what was the true self and ripped apart when the situation called for it. With Akane they simply existed, both true at the same time.

And even so, he felt quite relaxed walking next to her.

A foreign car--a navy blue BMW with dark tinted windows--was pulling in at the front of the building when they arrived at Denny’s. Junpei remembered what Akane had said earlier.

‘A business meeting, huh,’ he said. Then one of the reasons Denny’s had been chosen was probably because it had its own parking lot and not because Akane was craving the family dining experience.

Akane nodded at him before waving at Aoi, who had just gotten out of the car. ‘He always said you were sharp.’

‘Aoi?’

She laughed. ‘He probably wouldn’t want me to tell you that.’

‘Yo,’ said Aoi. He was paler than usual and his eyes were bloodshot, but otherwise he didn’t look like he spent most of the previous night drinking himself into incoherence. Carefully styled hair and an impeccable wardrobe did indeed work wonders. As if to prove Junpei’s point, Aoi put on a pair of dark sunglasses as he walked towards them, and now he only looked like a man who owned a BMW. ‘Found anything new?’

‘No,’ said Akane. ‘It’s just like Jumpy told you.’ She sounded really annoyed now, as if Kubota’s mysterious emotions were a personal affront. ‘I hope your morning was more productive.’

‘Hmm,’ said Aoi. ‘Let’s go get something to eat first. Not that I’ve got fuck to report.’

‘As expected of that man’s group,’ Akane agreed. Her tone suggested this wasn’t a compliment.

‘Hey,’ said Aoi, laughing. ‘It’s just day one. And we’ve got your puppy with us.’

It took Junpei a moment to realise Aoi was talking about him. From his radio earpiece, he heard Lotus’s muffled snort.

‘Aoi!’ said Akane, her cheeks turning red. She stole a glance at Junpei and for a brief moment, their eyes met.

Junpei couldn’t help blushing.

*

Aoi chose the seat diagonal from Akane’s when they sat down the table. Junpei, who had been prepared to sit across the both of them, looked at this unexpected arrangement with some bemusement. Because the vacant chair next to Akane was closer to where he was standing, that’s where he sat, feeling all the while that he’d been played somehow.

Akane was sitting next to him and he was facing Aoi: the diner was a pretty big place and there were empty tables all around, but Junpei felt cornered anyway.

‘Well then,’ said Aoi, as soon as the waitress had taken their orders and left the table. ‘Like I said earlier, I’ve got nothing much to report. We’re talking about that guy’s group, so it’s safe to assume they have their own cleaners. I’ve pulled some strings looking for Musashidou’s body, but so far the word on the street only has him as missing.’

‘Do you guys think Hongou knows?’ said Junpei.

Akane chewed at her lower lip. ‘It would probably be safer to assume he does, don’t you think?’

‘Letting someone get knifed to death in your own sleaze-house isn’t exactly good business practise,’ said Aoi, ‘But Nijisaki’s one of that asshole’s men. Musashidou’s no small fry; Nijisaki has no choice but to tell Hongou.’

‘Yeah,’ Junpei agreed. ‘But that still leaves the question of why we’re here in the first place. Especially you guys.’

‘Ah.’ Akane had been leaning towards Junpei, her elbows on the table, but she sat back at that. ‘Fair enough.’

Aoi pulled off his shades so he could give Junpei and Akane the full force of his pale-eyed glare. ‘What’re you talking about?’

Junpei realised their sitting arrangement wasn’t so much about the siblings hemming him in--although he was sure it was partly that--as defining who stood on what side. Aoi was not sitting across Junpei, but sitting across Junpei and Akane. This should have been worrying, since their attitude suggested that his joining their ranks was a done deal, but for now Junpei appreciated the feeling of having someone like Akane on his side. Especially considering the kind of man they were working for.

‘I made the mistake to assume that Nijisaki got rid of Kubota because of what he’d done to Musashidou. Seven himself told me it’s not unusual for a perp to report a crime in order to hide the fact that he did it himself,’ said Junpei. ‘But something doesn’t add up. Nijisaki could’ve done just about anything to find Musashidou’s missing murderer--’

‘That sounds like an Edogawa Ranpo[ 1 ] novel,’ said Aoi.

‘But what he did was call in an esper to investigate, why would he do that?’

‘To keep things quiet? He couldn’t very well call the fucking police--’ Aoi stopped talking and made a chopping motion with his hand. ‘No, if he really wanted quiet, he didn’t need anyone to investigate at all. He’d just report to his boss and let the asshole handle it.’

‘You’re saying he might be working independently,’ said Akane, tapping absently at her lip. ‘But to what ends? What does he want?’

Junpei remembered asking Nijisaki the very same thing. He didn’t think Nijisaki had been lying.

‘To find Kubota,’ said Junpei. ‘Before Hongou does. Someone who could get there faster than any of Hongou’s men--’

‘But an esper with any kind of reputation would be able to know at once what Mr Kubota had done,’ Akane pointed out. Her voice was soft, as if she was talking to herself. ‘Adding a third party in this scenario would make the possibility of information leak higher. Unless that’s what Mr Nijisaki wants?’

‘Are you telling me,’ said Aoi, narrowing his eyes, ‘that Nijisaki’s using espers--meaning us--as some kinda insurance against whatever his fucking boss is planning on doing?’

‘You said it yourself,’ said Junpei. The thing was he could see himself working with these two. He felt comfortable with them, as he did working with Seven and Lotus. But he didn’t know if that was good enough reason to get himself tied down with an organisation as unyielding and homogenous as Crash Keys. For now, he decided he would accept whatever help offered by the group and think about what he owed them later. ‘Word on the street is Musashidou’s missing. Nijisaki can’t do anything about that; Musashidou’s no hikkikomori[ 2 ]. People are bound to notice he’s disappeared. And even then, no one--not even you, who know exactly what you’re looking for--has found anything. I assume you’ve exhausted all possible sources?’

Aoi shrugged; he wasn’t going to admit to having done anything close to illegal.

‘He’s probably also checked organ trafficking organisations,’ said Seven. ‘Easiest way to get rid of a body anonymously.’

‘Knowing Crash Keys, they’d just need to make a courtesy call,’ Lotus piped in. She sounded almost jealous; trust her to prefer the option with less hassle. ‘No hacking required.’

Junpei nodded, although he was perfectly aware they wouldn’t see him do so. It wouldn’t do to seemingly start talking to himself in the middle of a conversation with other people. Most people don’t even notice Junpei has a radio clipped on, but he’d mentioned it to Aoi before, which meant Akane probably knew as well. Still, he’d rather not call attention to the fact.

‘If Hongou has a hand in any of this though, those guys would be singing a different tune. They’d know Musashidou’s dead and where Nijisaki had taken the corpse. But most importantly, they’d know that the killer would be taken care of.’

‘He can’t allow any signs of dissent within his group,’ Aoi agreed. ‘Not if he wants to make sure it won’t happen again.’

There was a pause as all three of them pursued this line of logic in their own mind. It was Akane who spoke first.

‘It seems like Mr Nijisaki had put himself in a very precarious position,’ she said.

‘Which is why we’re here.’ Junpei nodded. ‘Hongou might not be thrilled about Nijisaki acting on his own, especially not when his piggy bank--’ (Aoi giggled at this, which Junpei appreciated) ‘just got killed in Nijisaki’s love hotel. Hongou might decide to get rid of Nijisaki before taking care of the rest. None of that matters though, because we already know what happened. We’re insurance, like you said.’

‘It makes sense,’ said Akane, her face looked way brighter now that they seemed to be getting somewhere. ‘Especially since Mr Nijisaki called Crash Keys first. He tried to hire an esper backed by a group that can protect them. That’s why he went to you when we declined the job, Jumpy. Even if Mr Seven’s agency is a small one, it’s well known for being quite a powerhouse.’

‘I wouldn’t quite say powerhouse,’ said Seven, sounding rather pleased. Junpei snorted, but he had to admit that Akane was right: that’s exactly what he had been thinking last night.

‘Fair enough,’ Aoi said, nodding to himself as if satisfied. He put his shades back on. ‘But the question is: what the fuck does Nijisaki want from Kubota? They’re not even that close. Is Kubota that good a fuck?’

Junpei spread his hands, palms upwards, on top of the table. ‘Dude,’ he said. ‘I’ve no idea.’

*

The waitress arrived with their food several minutes later. All the walking and talking had at least helped make Junpei feel less dead and in the mood for the fried oyster set. Aoi had chosen the hamburger curry doria[ 3 ], while Akane--

‘That’s lunch?’ said Junpei, eyeing the large sundae glass[ 4 ] their waitress had placed in front of Akane. It was overflowing with chocolate ice cream, chocolate drops, and topped with slices of chocolate brownies. To be fair, it was a pretty large serving for a small girl like her. But Junpei thought they were supposed to have lunch.

Aoi laughed. ‘Believe me,’ he said. ‘I’ve tried.’

Akane was pouting at them, but in a half-hearted way. She was obviously too happy about her sundae to care.

‘I can always share your food if I want a change of pace,’ she said.

Which was exactly what she did. Junpei never knew when and how she did it, but he could swear he was one less oyster halfway through their meal.

She did make him finish the rest of her sundae so it probably balanced out.

‘Nijisaki’s pretty much committing suicide with this ridiculously shit plan of his, don’t you think?’ said Aoi, picking up on where they left off as Junpei slurped Akane’s half-melted ice cream. ‘If he thinks Hongou will let him get away with it--’ he let his voice trail off.

Indeed, Nijisaki’s chances of getting out of this alive rivaled that of a shatei[ 5 ] caught stealing from his family.

‘Hm,’ said Akane. ‘It depends on what Mr Nijisaki wants from Mr Kubota, don’t you think?’

‘Fuckers usually want the same things don’t they?’ said Aoi. ‘Money. Power. Sometimes love. Sex.’ He grinned at the last. ‘But you two wouldn’t know about that, would you?’

Now it was Junpei’s turn to glare at him. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Just saying,’ said Aoi, with a shrug.

‘I’ve never killed a man either,’ said Junpei. ‘Does that mean I won’t be able to understand how a murderer feels?’

‘Are we really having this talk?’ said Aoi. When Junpei said nothing, he sighed. ‘At the purest level: no, I’d say not. But killing people aside, there’s still that emotion neither of you can untangle, yeah? Kubota vanished in a love hotel; you told me he ordered more food than one person can eat. Is it a stretch to think he was fucking someone there?’

Akane made a shushing sound at her brother, but Junpei thought she was reacting more to the tone of his voice than what he was saying; she had the look of someone in deep thought.

‘Speaking of which,’ she said. ‘How did Mr Musashidou get inside the room without being picked up by the security camera?’

‘That’s assuming he got killed the night Kubota vanished,’ Aoi pointed out. ‘You’ve only checked the footage for that particular day, right?’

This last was addressed to Junpei, who pulled at the mic of his radio. ‘Lotus?’

‘I’ve retrieved a month’s worth of footage from their database,’ said Lotus. ‘And I’ve gone through a couple of them so far. You’re going to need a whole team if you need faster results.’

‘Have you seen Musashidou in any one of them?’ said Junpei.

‘Nope,’ said Lotus, without hesitation. ‘He’s not easy to miss but no, so far I haven’t seen him in any of the footage at all.’

‘We’ll look through the clips together,’ Seven cut in. ‘But I doubt he’ll turn up.’

‘Detective’s intuition?’ said Junpei, grinning.

‘You think otherwise?’

‘Fuck me,’ said Junpei, ‘but I don’t. I’ll leave it to you, then.’

‘They don’t think he’ll turn up,’ said Aoi.

Junpei nodded. Musashidou's presence made an already tedious case a complicated one, but it did prove one thing: there was a hidden passage that allowed him to enter room 310 without getting caught by surveillance. That was probably the same door Kubota used for his exit. How had Junpei missed this?

‘It’s okay, Jumpy,’ said Akane. ‘I haven’t thought of it myself until now.’

Aoi reached out for the check the staff had left on their table. ‘No worries,’ he said, when Junpei tried to hand him money for his share. ‘Business meeting, right? Crash Keys can pay for it.’

‘Thanks for the help,’ said Akane.

‘Thank me when I actually find something useful,’ said Aoi, reaching out to tug at her hair. This was a side of Aoi Junpei hasn’t seen before. It was kind of cute, he thought, watching Akane mock pouting at her brother.

‘Well, gotta split. I’d offer you two a ride back but you can’t pay me to get anywhere close to that fucking dump.’ Aoi stood up and headed towards the register to pay for their food.

‘And yet you’re sending me there,’ said Akane. ‘With a boy I barely know, even!’

Junpei hoped she was only teasing. It helped that Aoi just laughed. ‘Take good care of the puppy.’

*

‘He never wondered where Kubota is,’ said Junpei. ‘Isn’t that weird?’

He and Akane were taking their time walking back to the love hotel. The streets were definitely more crowded now; various izakaya and bars starting to get ready for business and some touts for girly clubs were already hanging out with signs and fliers at hand. If he was going to be perfectly honest, Junpei would say he’d rather just sit in a cafe with Akane than go back to Nijisaki’s place but he’d also rather sit through a load of art house foreign movies than go back: he wasn’t picky.

Akane stepped closer to him and tilted her head up. ‘Did you say something, Jumpy?’

Junpei considered shrugging and saying he was just talking to himself, but decided there was no harm in it. He leaned down a bit so he could talk to her without shouting.

‘After all that theorising about Nijisaki’s motives and what Hongou might do once he finds out, isn’t it weird we never talked about Kubota at all?’

She nodded at this and looked thoughtful for a moment. ‘We would have a better chance at guessing his whereabouts when we have a better grasp of what happened when he disappeared, don’t you think?’

‘That’s true,’ said Junpei. He didn’t say it felt like he was the only one genuinely worried about Kubota--that was, barring Nijisaki; it suggested a sentimentality he didn’t really feel for the missing man.

‘Have you thought about why Mr Kubota did what he did?’ said Akane. There were walking past a group of tourists having some kind of discussion in front of a bar and Akane had to all but stand on tiptoes and shout at Junpei’s ear to make herself heard over the din.

‘It was the girls wasn’t it?’ said Junpei. ‘Musashidou was doing something to them. Made them scream.’

‘And have you thought about what you could do for them? Musashidou’s victims?’ Her voice was so low Junpei had to read her lips to get the jist of what she was saying.

‘He’s dead now, isn’t he?’ said Junpei. He knew this wasn’t what Akane was really asking, though, so he went on, ‘There’s only so much I can do. I’m an esper; I get paid to investigate disappearances and dispel bad atmosphere. I’m looking for Kubota now: whatever else he has done is none of my business.’

‘Not taking sides isn’t very attractive, Jumpy,’ said Akane. She sounded as playful as ever, but he knew he had disappointed her.

So be it. She was Crash Keys and there was a game she and Aoi were playing. It didn’t matter how comfortable he felt working with them or how cute they were; he couldn’t afford getting tangled up with their schemes, not when he might bring Seven and Lotus down with him.

‘That’s just how it is,’ he said. The words meant nothing, just a string of nonsense spoken for the sake of speaking.

‘And what if one day that choice is taken from you?’ she said. ‘If one day you’re left with no options but to act?’

‘If so--’ Junpei took a deep breath. ‘I never half-ass things.’

He should have known what he had gotten himself into, looking at her smile.

Chapter Text

‘So, Jumpy,’ said Akane. ‘Let’s sleep with each other.’

Junpei considered this. There existed a possibility that he had actually been run over by a bus on the way back and was now lying dead in the street while his soul got catapulted into a different reality where people found him sexually attractive.

The chances of that happening being pretty slim, he assumed she was taking the piss.

‘All right,’ he said, throwing his hands up. On his radio he heard Lotus gasp. ‘Point taken.’

Akane frowned. ‘Point?’

‘Like from our conversation earlier, right?’ said Junpei. ‘I won’t choose to act and help those women Musashidou had tortured, but I’d jump at the chance to have sex with them. That point.’

Akane laughed. ‘Would you?’

‘I dunno,’ said Junpei. ‘Sex isn’t exactly the top priority right now.’

‘You want to find Mr Kubota, don’t you?’ said Akane. ‘Aoi is right. Maybe there are some things we need to experience firsthand in order to fully grasp what they mean.’

Put that way it certainly made some logical sense.

Except it really didn’t.

‘Watch your mouth before you speak,’ said Lotus.

Junpei had been about to say ‘But is this the only way?’ but realising how that would sound like, shut his mouth accordingly.

‘I realise it’s a rather unexpected proposition,’ said Akane, sitting back on the bed. This time at least she stayed upright, watching Junpei in a calm and businesslike manner. ‘Is there someone you love, Jumpy? That you are saving yourself for?’

‘It’s not that,’ said Junpei. There was no one. The thing about attraction, at least for him, was that the necessary elements rarely reached a state of congruence. The way people looked was, of course, a factor, but there was a big divide between thinking someone was attractive and actually taking that step towards getting laid. Add to that the variables of mutual attraction and the equation wasn’t looking too hot.

‘Then you don’t find me suitable?’

Junpei ran a hand through his hair. ‘Are you kidding me? I should be the one asking that.’

‘I find you perfectly suitable,’ said Akane. There were still traces of a frown on her face; she was trying to figure out what the hell Junpei’s problem was. He watched as the expression on her face smoothed out; her eyelashes half-mast and her lips tightening into a mask of neutrality. ‘You know who I am, don’t you?’

Junpei nodded. ‘I think so.’

‘Does that make you uneasy?’ She was closed off to him now, distancing herself so that he could see only one side of her, the part of her that handled Nijisaki as if he was no more than a Crash Keys thug. With any other person, Junpei would think he’d crossed a line somewhere and offended her past forgiveness. But knowing what he did, he could guess that she was actually bracing herself against rejection.

It might not be a trap after all.

‘Can I ask you something?’ said Junpei, taking a step towards the bed. At Akane’s nod, he went on, ‘Was that you in my dream? Last night?’

She was silent for a long time, finally breaking eye contact with Junpei and looking instead at her hands, which were folded on her lap.

‘Yes.’

Junpei knelt down in front of her so he could look at her face. ‘How long have you been watching?’

‘Long enough to know what I want,’ she said. There was something defiant in the way she said it, even though her voice was as soft as before. ‘Does that make you uneasy?’

Normally, yes, Junpei thought. But he was slowly learning that ‘normal’ wasn’t quite a concept that existed in the world of Akane.

‘Not at all,’ he said, just as softly. ‘The opposite, actually.’

He felt a sharp twist in his gut when she smiled. This was different from her usual; just a touch of cold calculation tampering the hunger in her eyes. He was glad he was kneeling down because there was no way his knees could withstand that look. Junpei wasn’t a total ogre; he’d been on the receiving end of appreciative looks before, but nothing in his (admittedly limited) experience had prepared him for this.

There was an English poem Seven liked teasing Lotus with; she was very interested in folklore and mythology and had built up quite a collection of books and data on the subject. This particular poem was about the Sphinx and Medusa[ 1 ]; Junpei didn’t really understand what it meant and he doubted Seven did either, but it was the final lines that Lotus was concerned with, the ones that she’d tried to explain to them:

A rigorous Medusa, turns
On the lost world the stress of her regard.

Seven had made jokes about how Lotus always measured things and found them wanting, that her calculating look induced stress in the receiver. But now Junpei had a better idea what those lines might mean.

Regard: attention, consideration, esteem.

Strong enough it would swallow him up if he allowed it.

Overwhelmed.

[Overpowered]

‘I’m going offline now,’ said Junpei. Akane looked puzzled for a moment until he unclipped the radio from his collar.

‘Make sure she enjoys herself,’ said Lotus, before the connection got cut.

‘I wouldn’t worry about that at all,’ said Akane, leaning down to give Junpei a kiss.

*

He’d kissed other people before, of course, but each one of those instances were different and didn’t bear comparison with each other. This kiss was the one happening right this moment. Akane’s lips were soft against his; a light, brief kiss and she sighed as she moved back, breaking contact so that Junpei had to tilt his head up in order to kiss her again.

‘Akane,’ he said, just as their lips met again, and this time he let his tongue touch her lower lip. He could taste the artificial sweetness of her lipgloss, a mild coconut taste; she’d probably reapplied it after lunch, some of it rubbing off onto his own lips and he didn’t really mind because he was feeling rather dry and chappy himself.

‘Oh,’ she said, her mouth opening as she breathed out in surprise. A good time as any to deepen the kiss, which was what Junpei did. There was no urgency in it; she was setting the rhythm for the kiss and she was taking her time, as if trying to memorise every sensation.

‘Akane,’ he said again, when they both paused for breath.

She giggled. ‘Your breath tickles.’

‘So does yours,’ he pointed out, pursing his lips and blowing wind against her face as if to prove a point.

She giggled again and pulled at the collar of his shirt. ‘Get in bed, Jumpy.’

He didn’t need to be told twice, hauling himself onto the bed beside her. Sitting next to her, he was wondering what to do next when she grabbed his shoulders and pushed him down on the bed.

‘Too fast?’ she said, when he let out a yelp of surprise.

‘No,’ he said. ‘You’re pretty strong.’

‘I don’t look it, do I?’ She settled on the bed next to him, half-lying on top of him, and Junpei’s brains finally caught up with what’s happening: he’d just agreed to sleep with a girl he’d just met, someone from Crash Keys even. And they were gonna do it right there on the bed where Kubota might have been fucking captive girls, for all he knew.

He was probably less vanilla than he first thought because that didn’t make him feel any less inclined to fuck. But she was very soft and warm next to him, her breasts pressed against his arm, and she smelled so good; a light, fresh scent like soap. He’d been trying not to think about it, but he was hard. It was starting to get uncomfortable and his jeans weren’t even skinny fit.

‘Jumpy,’ she said, letting her lips brush against his ear. ‘Don’t just lie there, I’m starting to feel lonely.’

He laughed; it sounded like someone was strangling him. ‘Is it alright if I touch you?’

He could feel her laughing: the rush of breath against his neck and the movement of her chest.

‘Of course.’ She poked him in the ribs. ‘I thought that was the point of this endeavour.’

Well, that was settled then. He reached out to run his hands through her hair, absently pulling the pins off that held part of her hair in a small bun. They were kissing again; she was pressing against him, rubbing her thigh against his crotch. He grabbed her leg to hold her still, not knowing how long he’d last if she kept rubbing against him like that. He wondered if it mattered: they didn’t have to go all the way, and there were all these toys--

‘Not right now,’ said Akane. ‘I want you inside me.’

Did she know how he would react to her words? No matter how innocent she looked, how innocent she was, she was also an esper. A very good one, at that.

Fuck.

‘I want to see you,’ said Junpei. Her dress had ridden up her thighs and he was trying to push it up, fingers brushing against the fabric of her tights. He wanted to feel her bare skin against his. Wanted.

‘Jumpy.’ She moved slightly so he could lift up her dress more easily. And then she was helping him, taking her clothes off and letting them fall wherever so that she was wearing only her underclothes. Her nipples sharp points behind the lacy whiteness of her bra and her panties only just visible against her sheer black tights.

His hands were trembling as he cupped her breasts, a thumb flicking against her nipple and making her jump.

‘Can I--?’

She nodded, breath held as she waited for his next move. He leaned down, lips brushing against her chin and down her neck, kissing and sometimes licking, down and down until he was kissing the ruffled edges of her bra, tongue tracing a line where the lace ended, her pale skin turning a slight pink as she shivered and grabbed fistfuls of his hair.

‘Please, Jumpy.’

He kissed her left nipple, licking it through her bra before sucking, soaking the lace with his spit, the fabric turning the colour of Akebono spring blossoms[ 2 ] where it stuck to her nipples. He could hear her sighs and soft moans, urging him on. He reached behind her back for the clasps of her bra. He actually kind of wanted to leave it on; it was cute and suited her. On the other hand, they did cover her breasts so off they had to go. Her boobs were small, barely a handful, and she made a moue as he looked at them.

‘I know they’re not much but I’m doing my best,’ she said.

‘They’re cute,’ said Junpei. Truth was, he wasn’t much of a boobs guy, and her nipples were nice and pink and perfect for nibbling which he definitely appreciated. He moved so that he was on top of her, resting most of his weight on his elbows so he wouldn’t crush her, and set about making sure she knew how much he appreciated her soft pink-tipped breasts.

‘Oh,’ she said. She was squirming under him, hips rocking against his body, and he looked up as she let out a muffled moan. He was making her moan. It felt as if all the luck he’s never had in all 21 years of his life had stacked up and now he’s withdrawing with interest.

She was so beautiful; her face turning pink and her lashes fluttering shut as she moaned his name. And oh, oh she was trembling; Junpei’s mind strained to understand what’s going on. Was she coming? Did she come? Holy fuck.

She was grinning when she opened her eyes again. ‘Now it’s your turn.’

*

Akane made short work of Junpei’s clothes, although Junpei had the feeling he’d lost some of the buttons on his shirt forever. He also had a brief moment of panic as he tried to remember if he’d put on clean underpants earlier. He had; he’d stayed over the office for the night and Lotus had a pack of fresh underpants stashed in the bathroom exactly for such occasions. He usually favoured boxer briefs over Y-fronts, but Akane didn’t seem to mind. He made a mental note to buy Lotus a bottle of good sake as soon as possible in thanks for her foresight.

‘You don’t have to,’ said Junpei, when Akane placed herself between his legs. ‘Erm, I mean. Not that you’re gonna--’

‘Hush, Jumpy,’ said Akane, rubbing him through the cotton of his Y-fronts before pulling them off. ‘I want to see you too.’

The aesthetics of a male body were debatable, but Akane went about examining Junpei’s cock with interest that bordered on scientific; touching and licking and watching his reactions with a satisfied smile on her face.

Junpei bit his lip and closed his eyes and did his best not to come too soon. It would probably be over if he came now, which was all right; no one said their first time needed to include the whole package right? It was really just for figuring out Kubota’s emotions, after all. But she did say she wanted to feel him inside her; the thought was almost enough to drive him right over the edge and he sat up to stop Akane’s explorations.

‘I,’ he said, his voice sounded weird even to himself; too low and breathless. It made him blush. ‘I’m er, close.’

Akane nodded, letting go of him and looking, for once, unsure of what to do next. ‘Shall we?’

The words sounded too formal, considering what they were doing. Junpei laughed, and after a moment’s hesitation, Akane did as well.

‘We need more practise at this,’ she said.

Did she mean--?

But he didn’t have time to think about the future--or worry about making a fool of himself--because she was pulling her tights off; she was wearing just her panties now, plain white cotton with a ribbon on the top and he could catch glimpses of a dark spot in the crotch area from where she’d come earlier.

Her face was pink and she wouldn’t meet his eyes.

You’re so cute, he wanted to say, but he can’t seem to actually get the words out so he thought them instead. You’re beautiful.

He thought of those words as he helped her take off her panties, his hands now brushing against the softness of her inner thighs, now cupping her beautifully rounded ass. She said his hair tickled when he leaned down to kiss her, her pubic hair soft against his lips. He thought she smelled like sex, although he couldn’t really point out the addends that made up the sum of a ‘sex smell’. It was a warm wet scent, not unpleasant but something that might bother him on another person. On her it was just right; it was perfect, and he could taste it as he licked at the folds of her cunt, tongue tip flicking at the strange bud of flesh there and she was mewling now and pulling at his hair.

He wasn’t completely clueless, despite being a virgin. Sex sells, as people said; it was hard to avoid some depiction of sex in popular media and even ads relied on sex appeal. Fucking was shown in movies and described in books--and not only in pornography. It was merely a question of actually knowing what it was like, of experiencing it first-hand; the knowledge argument[ 3 ] if you will.

It was nothing he was prepared for, but he wasn’t completely unprepared either. Quite an interesting paradox; a topic Akane might appreciate except it was hardly the time for a good philosophical chat. They can do that later, he thought, reaching out for one of the condoms on the bedside table. And, in afterthought, the small bottle of lube.

She helped him slide the condom on, her hand giving his cock a nice rub before guiding him towards her opening. But she was still tense and so was he; he didn’t think he could just ram it in and not hurt her.

‘Maybe if you sit on me?’ he said.

She considered this; it might be a bit awkward but she would be able to control the angle and the speed of his thrust. Oh, she was sweet and she wanted him, but she also needed to be in control. He’d guessed as much, seeing her talking to Nijisaki and discussing the details of their case at the diner earlier. But having gone this far with kissing and touching her, he wasn’t exactly guessing any more.

Needless to say, it worked. She was still very tight, so tight it almost hurt, but he was sliding inside her, enveloped by her, and it was so good he had to think of something else--anything else--to keep from coming.

‘Jumpy,’ said Akane, ‘It feels so full.’

‘Does it hurt?’ He wasn’t big by any kind of reckoning; he was about average, but then again it was her first time. If he thought of it from his own perspective, even if it was a mere three inches he’d have a hard time taking it up the ass no matter if that’s where he got his kicks. ‘Maybe some more lube?’

‘You’re such a worrier.’ She giggled, rocking her hips as if to prove a point. ‘It still hurts a bit, but it’s not unpleasant.’

‘Not unpleasant’ wasn’t exactly the most flattering thing to say in this situation, but judging from her soft sighs and moans she seemed at least to be enjoying herself. She also liked to change the rhythm of her movements, grinning whenever she made him moan.

Fuck, she was so sexy, riding his cock like that, pulling his hands to her breasts so he would fondle them. Junpei couldn’t keep himself from thrusting back, sharp jerky movements that he really needed to work on, and he pulled her down on top of him so he could kiss her again, squeezing her bottom and going through the fibonacci numbers in his head to keep it nice and occupied and not thinking of coming.

He had reached 514,229 when he felt her tightening around him, clutching at his arms and biting his shoulder.

‘Fuck,’ he said, voice breaking like it hadn’t done in years. ‘Akane.’

And as he came he thought he heard her say something.

*

‘You’re mine now.’

He was drifting off to sleep when Nagisa said that, whispering against his ear and holding him closer.

Something felt wrong, something about what Nagisa said that didn’t sit well with him. But he was so tired. They’d spent most of the day in that hotel room, which now reeked of sweat and come. His whole body--more used to sitting around all day hunched over specimens and reports--felt sore and tender. He didn’t think he could sit down comfortably for a while.

He hadn’t gone through such physical exertion in decades; even with that vague feeling of doubt niggling at the back of his mind, it didn’t take long for him to fall asleep. There were still so many things to think about, but for now he felt truly content.

It was Nagisa who had asked him to join the Cradle group. He’d refused initially; his work on neurotransmitters did have an overlap with some of the studies being conducted by Hongou’s men, but Cradle’s goals of battling neurodegenerative disorders didn’t really interest him.

In the end it was a matter of being promised top-of-the-line equipment and leave to do as he wanted that had made him say yes. It wasn’t, as Nagisa insisted in that teasing way of his, because he’d been seduced by Hongou’s right hand man.

Technically, he had. But that wasn’t why he’d decided to join Cradle. That was just a coincidence.

He hadn’t known what he had signed up for. It was bordering on pseudoscience, this ‘study’ Hongou was so keen on. He would have dismissed it as plain bullshit except he was perfectly aware there were espers who make a living out of their ‘skills’. Some of them were faking it, of course, but he’d seen enough reliable data on the subject to admit there was something in it; however imprecise and incomplete the data was.

As if that hadn’t been enough, there were also the test subjects to deal with. He’d been tasked to handpick them from hundreds of files Nagisa had given him--he’d never asked where they’d come from and how Cradle had gotten hold of them; he doubted it was through legal means. And he had to remain in the room to observe as Musashidou did his level best to break them and force them out of their latent states.

He was in too deep. And now.

‘You’re mine now,’ Nagisa had said.

*

Lovers, Junpei thought. They were fucking lovers.

The Gordian knot of Kubota’s emotions unravelled before him into a linear narrative; Kubota’s feelings wrapping around Junpei like the esper equivalent of hojoujutsu[ 4 ].

[Lust]

[Guilt]

[Helplessness]

[Love]

‘Stop.’

He hadn’t realised he was actually yelling until he felt Akane’s hand on his back, heard her saying ‘It’s okay, Jumpy. I’m here’ like a mantra.

It took a while for the barrage of emotions to settle down. Akane kept on rubbing his back, her other hand seeking his and grasping tightly. He knew she was siphoning off some of Kubota’s emotions so Junpei wouldn’t be completely overwhelmed, just like her words were meant not only for reassurance but also to ground him; her soft voice calling his name over and over.

‘They’re trying to make espers,’ said Junpei, after he had calmed down a bit.

‘It seems so,’ said Akane. He looked up at her face when he heard her voice and what he saw there made him glad he wasn’t Hongou. Remembering that this was the same person who’d been riding his cock just a few minutes ago, Junpei blushed.

‘We should get dressed,’ said Akane, smiling at him.

‘Shower first?’ he suggested, crawling around the bed to look for his clothes. He should probably get some new undies from the vending machine to replace the ones they’d been wearing.

‘Good idea,’ said Akane, hopping off the bed. Junpei stopped what he was doing so he could watch her stretch before heading towards the bathroom. She had the figure of someone who’s never worked out in their life; quite trim but soft, even her slender arms looked soft and her tummy was slightly rounded. He really wanted to nibble on her shoulders right now.

‘Why don’t we shower together?’ she said. ‘It will save some time.’

There’s no arguing with that logic, Junpei thought, hurrying after Akane into the bathroom.

*

‘Are there any developments?’ said Nijisaki. He was waiting for them at the lobby, which was highly unusual in establishments like his; couples didn’t want to see a morose guy in a suit looking over their shoulders as they chose a room to fuck in. But he did have a lot at stake in this investigation so Junpei could hardly blame him.

Kubota hadn’t known his lover would try to protect him from Hongou; that’s why he’d left without telling Nijisaki. It accounted for the wet electric velvet feeling that Junpei had hated so much; the disgust Kubota had felt about his attraction for a man whom he thought had slept with him only to make sure he’d stay with Cradle. But he did have feelings for the guy; that much Junpei knew. If Kubota had known Nijisaki would fuck himself up just to keep Hongou from turning Kubota into an example against betrayal, what would he have done?

‘Quite,’ said Akane. ‘We can now dispel the emotional imprints Mr Kubota had left in room 310, at the very least.’

‘And Kubota?’

It was amazing in hindsight how Nijisaki’s attitude pretty much screamed a personal connection with the missing man. Junpei could have kicked himself except he’d been in the field long enough to know the more obvious and simple solutions tended to be easily overlooked.

Akane was giving him curious looks though so Junpei thought it was probably best to snap out of his contemplation and start paying attention to what Nijisaki was saying.

‘He’s fine,’ said Junpei.

He heard Akane make a surprised sound, but he was focusing on Nijisaki so he didn’t know what expression she had on her face. For his part, Nijisaki looked like a man who had finally exhaled after days of holding his breath.

‘Can you find him?’ he said.

‘I’ll need to make a call first,’ said Junpei. ‘I’m making no promises, but he should be fine.’

‘Detective’s intuition?’ said Seven. Junpei had gone back online as soon as he’d put his clothes on.

‘At this point it’s more of a bluff,’ Junpei muttered. ‘But there’s no way we’ll find him otherwise. If my hunch is right, at least.’ To Nijisaki, he said, ‘We’ll call you as soon as we hear anything.’

‘Please,’ said Nijisaki, giving Junpei and Akane a bow. He really must be sweet on Kubota; Junpei couldn’t see the attraction himself, but there were all types of people in the world.

‘Mr Nijisaki?’ said Junpei. Nijisaki straightened from his bow and nodded for Junpei to continue. ‘Was it Kubota who told you about my agency?’

Nijisaki shrugged; his affair with Kubota might have made him appear more human to Junpei, but of course an asshole was still an asshole, except this one was in love.

‘Getting access to information is my job,’ he said. ‘But no. It was Crash Keys who told me about your agency.’

‘And who told you about Crash Keys?’

‘I already knew about them in their official capacity,’ said Nijisaki. ‘Kubota told me they also had espers in their ranks.’

‘I hear he’s doing some research on parapsychology?’

Junpei thought Nijisaki wasn’t going to answer, but after a moment he said, ‘Yes. I believe that was how he found out about them.’

‘Thank you.’

Giving them another bow, which was more like a nod this time, Nijisaki left.

‘Jumpy, what do you mean?’ said Akane. ‘We still don’t know where Mr Kubota is.’ She pouted at him. ‘Are you keeping information from me?’

He grinned at her. ‘Aren’t you?’

This made her pause, her eyes narrowing although she was still wearing her pout. At that moment he could really see her resemblance to her brother. They both had that calculating look hidden behind a mask of frivolity.

And speaking of, Junpei took out his mobile and dialled Aoi’s number. Aoi picked up after six rings; he was usually more prompt about answering but then again, he knew it was Junpei calling. Compounded with the time of the night, what Aoi knew of Junpei’s investigations, and what Crash Keys knew of the case, Aoi had probably been expecting this call. And wasn’t particularly looking forward to it.

‘What,’ he said, his irritation giving no room for question marks. Junpei wondered if his hunch was wrong; Aoi might have been busy with some job and didn’t look kindly at this interruption. But of course, he would have ignored the call if that had been the case. Unless he was worried about Akane. But no, they were espers; surely Aoi would have known if Akane was in trouble?

Junpei was painfully aware of the tightrope he was walking here: Nijisaki might have had the guts to stand up against Cradle, but he probably felt he had nothing to lose with Kubota gone. Junpei, on the other hand, didn’t know if he could risk getting on the bad side of Crash Keys. No matter if Murasaki wanted him. There were limits to everyone’s patience and he already knew how Murasaki could be when angered. Junpei was already in Cradle’s strike territory; having two powerful organisations out for his blood was something he’d rather avoid.

‘Junpei?’ Aoi must have done some regrouping because he sounded more like his usual self now, albeit confused by Junpei’s silence.

‘We’re wrapping up here,’ said Junpei, finally. ‘And I’m tired as fuck. Come pick us up in your shiny BMW.’

‘What’s this,’ said Aoi, understandably bemused by this show of audacity. But he didn’t sound angry, which might be a good sign. Maybe Junpei could cute his way out if his hunch was wrong. ‘You think I’m some fucking chauffeur? I’m not going anywhere near that place.’

‘There’s a Coco Ichiban[ 5 ] down the block,’ said Junpei. ‘Let’s meet up there.’

He heard Aoi sigh. And then, ‘You’re paying for dinner.’

‘Sure,’ said Junpei. He noticed that Akane was also on her mobile when he hang up, frowning slightly as she tapped on the keypad.

‘Are we having dinner?’ she said, when she noticed that Junpei was done with his call.

‘Yup,’ said Junpei. ‘Let’s go.’

As they left the love hotel Junpei thought he could still feel Kubota’s emotions: the warm, wet velvet against his skin. Seductive and disgusting, making it hard for him to breathe.

*

They had to wait a while for Aoi to arrive and he’d told Akane to order for him. He’d eaten curry earlier for lunch, but he certainly didn’t seem to mind a repeat performance (Junpei had been expecting that, it’s why he’d suggested this place after all). Akane for her part had settled for a more conventional meal for dinner, opting for a half-order of cream croquette curry and an inevitable pudding. Junpei usually ordered the beef cutlet and cheese curry whenever he went to Coco Ichiban, so that’s what he got.

‘They have the best curry here, don’t they?’ said Akane, cheerfully. She hadn’t asked Junpei why he had called Aoi over, but he was fairly certain she knew and was just waiting for him to bring it up before reacting. ‘Although nothing beats Aoi’s cooking, after all.’

‘Aoi cooks?’ Junpei asked. Actually, that shouldn’t have been surprising; it fitted Aoi somehow.

‘I never had the knack for it,’ said Akane. ‘But I can bake cakes and biscuits. I should bring you some later.’

Of course: baking was more precise and logical. It made sense that Akane would prefer it to cooking, where measurements ran to ‘a pinch of salt’ and ‘adjust to taste’.

‘I look forward to it,’ said Junpei.

‘As interesting as this conversation is,’ said Seven, his voice only betraying the faintest sarcasm, ‘I don’t see what it’s got to do with Kubota’s whereabouts. What have you got up your sleeve, boy?’

Junpei thought for a moment and then excused himself to go to the restroom.

‘Well?’ said Seven.

Junpei looked at his face in the mirror of the restroom. He’d been judging Nijisaki for falling for such a scrawny and forgettable guy, but it wasn’t like Junpei himself was a looker to begin with. He did the best with what he had, but a night of drinking and restless sleep didn’t help his case any. One had to wonder what it was that Akane saw there, but actually he had a pretty good idea.

‘Just like Kubota, huh,’ he said to himself.

‘What?’ said Seven. ‘What’re you talking about?’

Junpei took a deep breath. ‘Nijisaki’s a pretty smart guy; we don’t know for sure what his motives were but if we’re right on the mark, I think he did a pretty good job of protecting himself by hiring an esper. Don’t you agree?’

‘No objections here.’

‘And the first group he contacted? Crash Keys,’ Junpei continued. ‘Which suits his purposes perfectly because Crash Keys is probably one of the few organisations in Japan that can take on Cradle.’

‘Come now,’ said Lotus. ‘We knew all that already.’

Junpei smiled at his reflection. ‘Nijisaki knew about Crash Keys from Kubota. Now think about it. If you’re on the run from a very powerful organisation, where would you go?’

‘The same group Nijisaki did,’ said Lotus. ‘But he couldn’t have.’

‘Why not?’

‘What, the fact that Crash Keys are looking for Kubota too not good enough?’

‘But are they?’ Junpei thought he should probably go back to their table soon. Even if he’d been taking a dump, that shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. Better keep this short then, although he did like getting under Lotus’s skin like this. ‘They were more interested in Nijisaki’s motives than looking for Kubota. They declined Nijisaki’s offer at first, too. That doesn’t sound like they care very much, does it?’

‘Then why are they helping you out now?’ said Seven. Junpei thought Seven probably had a good idea, but wanted to see if they were on the same page. ‘What the fuck does Crash Keys want?’

‘Me,’ said Junpei.

*

Aoi had arrived and was sitting at the table next to Akane when Junpei got back. The balance has shifted, it looked like. Now, Junpei was facing Crash Keys.

‘Hey,’ he said, sitting across Akane. Having talked to Seven and Lotus had calmed him down a bit, and he was starting to convince himself everything was going to be fine.

Or as fine as it could get even though he had landed himself right into the palms of Crash Keys.

‘What did you want to talk about?’ said Aoi.

It looked like Aoi decided to cut to the chase before their food arrived, but that was fine by Junpei. ‘When he found out what Nijisaki had done, did Kubota ask you to help him?’

Aoi looked at Akane, who kept her eyes on Junpei.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘He did.’

‘My job is to find Kubota.’

‘And you’ve found him,’ said Aoi, with a smirk. ‘Congrats.’

Fuck, it was like pulling teeth. Junpei sighed; it was gonna be a long night.

‘When did he ask you to help Nijisaki out?’

‘After you accepted the job,’ said Akane. She and Aoi were both calm; they’d been expecting Junpei to figure it out. ‘But you already know that.’

‘Is that why you accepted the job after I got sacked?’

‘Oh come on ,’ said Aoi. ‘Are we really gonna go through with this interrogating? You know we give zero fucks about Nijisaki.’

‘But you took Kubota in,’ Junpei pointed out. ‘That’s pretty much giving Cradle the finger.’

‘We were planning on going against Cradle anyway,’ said Akane, quietly. ‘After what Mr Kubota has told us of the experiments they’d been conducting.’

‘Then it doesn’t change anything if you extended that protection to Nijisaki, does it?’

‘I don’t like freebies,’ said Aoi. He leaned over the table and brought his face close enough to Junpei’s he could count Aoi’s eyelashes if he wanted to. ‘What’s in it for me?’

‘Why did you take Kubota in?’ But this was a weak argument and Junpei knew it. Kubota had already provided Crash Keys information; they certainly didn’t need two people who knew the same things.

Neither sibling graced that with a reply, but that was to be expected.

‘Why are you doing this?’ said Aoi, after a moment of holding Junpei’s gaze. He sighed and leaned back against his chair. ‘Never pegged you for a fucking romantic.’

‘I don’t think I am,’ said Junpei. ‘But I don’t really have a lot of choices left here, do I?’

‘No,’ said Akane. She didn’t add ‘because that’s how we planned this’ but she might as well have.

‘You didn’t,’ said Junpei, hesitating a moment before deciding it didn’t matter what he said at this point. ‘You didn’t plan out Kubota’s actions, did you?’

‘That he would kill Mr Musashidou?’ asked Akane. At Junpei’s nod she shook her head. ‘No, but we thought it was a good opportunity, is all.’

Good opportunities and honey traps. Just fucking great.

Their food arrived before anyone can say anything else and for a moment they all ate in silence. Aoi seemed to be unconcerned and happily dug into his cheese and sausages without a care in the world. Akane kept glancing at Junpei as she ate, although it was hard to judge from her expression what it was she was thinking.

Which was all right; Junpei was also pretty good at that game.

It seemed like they wanted him to bring it up, allowing him the illusion of having set the terms and being more in control than he actually was.

‘Seven?’ he said, soft enough that Akane and Aoi wouldn’t have heard if they weren’t waiting for him to open his mouth.

He heard Seven’s sigh. Lotus was saying something, but she was probably standing away from the mic because Junpei couldn’t pick out the words, just her level voice punctuated by Seven’s grunts of assent.

‘I don’t like it,’ said Seven, finally. ‘But you’re not gonna do it for Nijisaki. You’re doing it to fuck Cradle up.’

‘But--’

‘Mr Nijisaki is lucky, that’s all,’ said Akane. Aoi snorted at that, but didn’t say anything. That probably had more to do with how his mouth was full of curry than his opinion of Nijisaki, but that was beside the point.

‘You said you don’t half-ass anything,’ Akane reminded Junpei. ‘If left with no choice.’

Fuck you, Junpei wanted to say. Because he couldn’t quite glare at Akane, he turned his attention to Aoi, who just smiled.

‘I don’t want this to happen to Nona or Ennea,’ said Lotus.

‘We can only protect you so far, boy,’ said Seven. He sighed again. Junpei was glad Seven wasn’t doing an ‘I told you so’ but that also made this decision even harder. ‘Fuck Nijisaki. Who knows what Hongou will do to you if he catches up.’

‘Fine.’ Junpei threw up his hands. ‘Fine. We’re in. Are you happy, Murasaki?’

Akane nodded, putting her cheerful smile back on. ‘When did you figure it out?’

‘The names were kinda a giveaway[ 6 ], weren’t they? Akane and Aoi,’ said Junpei. ‘At this rate, I’m guessing it’s at around the 70/30 mark. You’re 70% of Murasaki.’

‘Close enough,’ said Aoi.

‘I feel betrayed, dude,’ said Junpei.

‘After all the perks you’ve got?’ He grinned. Junpei realised that Aoi knew about what happened in the love hotel earlier. Fuck. ‘We don’t lie, man. We just have ulterior motives, is all.’

‘Now,’ said Akane. ‘Eat up before your curry gets cold.’

*

So it was decided that Crash Keys would extend their protection of Kubota to Nijisaki, who was also made to vanish like his lover had done. Junpei never asked about the particulars; the couple could be enjoying a vacation in Hawaii for all he knew. He hoped they were enjoying the fuck out of themselves or he’d feel cheated otherwise.

In exchange, Seven’s agency was to be taken over by Crash Keys; although as Aoi had promised, they were allowed to do as they wished so long as they made their schedules free whenever Murasaki needed them. Junpei knew Lotus had made some pretty steep demands and set up a non-negotiable set of rules with Akane and Aoi, but he never asked about what they were.

He only cared about going on his own business as usual, which he did. Albeit with regular breaks from exorcisms and looking for lost cats in order to take care of some Crash Keys business. He didn’t mind those; they were never a walk in the park but they also weren’t unfulfilling. Junpei suspected Seven was actually enjoying himself; he was definitely more trained for this than the exorcisms.

Aside from that, there were also a few changes in their lifestyles but Junpei could live with those; like Aoi becoming a semi-permanent fixture in the office. He and Lotus had hit it off and for some reason got the idea that trying to drag Junpei into okama[ 7 ] bars was a good way to spend their nights. So far Junpei had managed to dodge the bullet, but he was running out of excuses. Never mind that he hated drinking with complete strangers sitting on the table with him.

Such dangers were to be expected when one hung out with the likes of Lotus and Aoi.

And of course, there was Akane.

She’d been around. Being 70% of the driving force behind Crash Keys meant she didn’t have the same kind of leisure her brother did, not counting the fact that she usually kept to the shadows and let her numerous employees handle the legwork. Junpei doubted her own men knew who she was, making him one of the few who did. It would have been flattering except that kind of information surely shouldn’t have been shared with a two-bit esper like him.

But she’d been watching him for a long time. What the fuck did she want?

Junpei went home early that night; one of the slow days at work where everyone in the office had nothing much to do but drink Oolong tea and get on each others’ nerves. Aoi had gone off to Kyoto on some business and so missed all the joys of listening to the struggling aircon and watching Lotus’s Korean dramas. But that also meant there was no one to go out for drinks with, so Junpei decided to go straight home so he could enjoy a few cans of beer.

‘I’m home,’ he said, toeing his shoes off at the entrance of his one-room flat.

‘Welcome back!’

That should have surprised the fuck out of him except he had noticed her boots carefully placed next to the shoe rack.

‘Ah, you’re not surprised at all,’ said Akane, pouting at him.

‘Hide your shoes next time,’ said Junpei, grinning. ‘How the hell did you get in here?’

‘We really should do something about the security in your flat, Jumpy.’ She helped him with his jacket and gestured at the box on top of the kotatsu table. It was summer so he’d folded the blanket away in a closet and the heater was off. ‘I made some cheesecake earlier, but I forgot Aoi’s trip was today and it’s no fun to eat alone.’

‘Thanks,’ said Junpei. ‘Lemme get some snacks too and we could have drinks.’

‘No worries,’ said Akane, pushing him towards the table and forcing him to sit down. ‘I made some kinpira while I was waiting for you to get back. And there’s also some tamagoyaki Aoi made before leaving. He said you like them.’

Junpei tried to think of something to say, came up with nothing, and just nodded in what he hoped was a wise manner.

‘Oh by the way, Jumpy.’ Akane was setting a bowl of kinpira on the table, fetching the tamagoyaki and some cans of beer from the fridge, and rummaging around the cupboards for chopsticks as if she owned the place. ‘I meant to ask, but I never got the chance. The past couple weeks have been quite busy, haven’t they?’

‘What is it?’

‘How did you know where Mr Kubota was?’

‘I had my suspicions when we were at the diner,’ said Junpei. The kinpira tasted like nothing, but the tamagoyaki was light and sweet. It looked like Akane hadn’t been lying about the division of labour in their household. ‘But I wasn’t sure until you showed me.’

Akane took a sip from her can of beer and licked her lips before nodding. ‘You saw him when we were having sex?’

‘That sounds wrong, but yeah.’

‘Hmm,’ said Akane. ‘I’m pretty good at masking my thoughts, but I guess that doesn’t work on you.’

Junpei considered that for a moment. ‘Or,’ he said, ‘you just need more practise in masking while in the middle of a distracting activity.’

She grinned. ‘Maybe you could help me with that.’

‘Maybe.’

*