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Spirits Level

Chapter Text

 

It was true that the scaffolding guys had been talking about the new kid. Jigen hadn’t thought much of him when he’d officially “welcomed” him to a junior position, working the yard. They got temp workers all the time, out here, and a project this big in a town this small, in an economy this fucked… yeah.

 

Still. He’d had a shit morning, a shit week even, mediating between the company and a supplier who refused to accept liability for what Jigen maintained was inexcusable delay. Despite making it up the admin ladder, he was aware that emailing people wasn’t his greatest skill. Too bad about his knee, or he might even have refused his recent “promotion”. Being stuck in an office made him cranky, and the guys hadn’t really stopped poking fun at him… if a bit more discreetly now.

 

He hadn’t even had time to finish a cup of coffee in the office before a text from Obata gave him an excuse to stumble away from the computer and back on site.

 

He finished his coffee on the other side of the road, watching Ishikawa walk along the topmost point of the scaffolding, ten storeys up, nodding along to wireless headphones.

 

“Son of a bitch,” said Obata, sidling up to him. “He really thinks he’s hot shit,” Jigen let him light a cigarette for him, and noted detachedly that Obata actually sounded pretty cheerful.

 

“Take it he is, for a temp,” said Jigen. Most of the younger men who joined the crew were rugged but quiet, doing their job as efficiently as possible and taking their pay home with no trouble. Or they were intimidated by the senior crew members, whose tattoos and lingo hinted at colourful pasts. Ishikawa had started out quiet, but he was beginning to stick out.

 

Jigen had read the CV, of course. Ishikawa G. The G stood for Goemon. Well. Twenty-two years old. He’d come in from Higashiosaka, had part-timed through high school. Average grades in everything except maths and physical education. What a combination. Some retail work, some construction experience. A basic apprenticeship. One whole year missing with no explanation. Jigen had had to reread the CV after that point.

 

Apparently, Ishikawa had moved here to join a technical college in town, on some kind of sports scholarship. Was it archery? Jigen wondered. Maybe track and field. He’d signed up for full-time work over the summer vacation instead of going back home or whatever else young people without rich daddies did with their free time these days. Wise choice, really. Money was money and money was always good.

 

Kuroda climbed down from the back of the truck that was parked at the bottom, neatly stacked with tubing they needed to install before the workday ended.

 

“Afternoon, Boss,” said Kuroda, grinning. Jigen had the sudden urge to roll his eyes. “Can we get off early sometimes? Ishikawa doesn’t mind doing our work for us.”

 

“What he said,” said Obata. They watched Ishikawa from below. He walked to one end of the structure and neatly turned around, making long strides. His tobi pants were flapping in the breeze.

 

You couldn’t exactly get by in the business if you were scared of heights, but this kid took it to a whole new level. Jigen watched for another minute, then picked up a megaphone.

 

“Ishikawa, time out. Get in the office. Now.”

 

 

 

He looked bored and distant without a single word passing through his ears. He might be 22 already, but his attitude was that of an overgrown teenager. Typical. It was one of those times Jigen realised he was better off for not getting pressured into marriage and having babies, he didn’t think he had the patience it took to wrangle with punks like this.

 

At least he’d taken the headphones off.

 

They were looped through his toolbelt.

 

“No music up there,” said Jigen, angrily hitting return on his clattery old keyboard. “Definitely not with headphones. Didn’t you read the safety regs?” He was going to resolve this case before the weekend or die trying. No, that was a lie. He didn’t want to die trying, but the real boss had been shuffled off the mortal coil untimely, leaving him the only viable successor. And he couldn’t afford a demotion after getting a promotion he hadn’t even wanted. And he definitely couldn’t afford to lose the job.

 

Jigen waited for another, carefully worded, passive-aggressive reply in their email battle of wits. He was this close to ditching everything and disappearing. Like he’d done once…

 

But he would never do that again. He’d kind of promised.

 

“Will that be all?” said Ishikawa. Jigen looked at him again, scowling.

 

“And don’t do the guys’ work for them. They get paid for this, everyone has a place on the team. I wouldn’t give a shit, but we got a site inspection coming up soon, so.”

 

Ishikawa looked even more bored.

 

“And wear your fucking hat.”

 

Ishikawa ran a hand through his long, black hair. There was no sign of fatigue or irritation on his obnoxious face. Jigen noticed a swatch of dirty blond at the roots. Like he’d re-dyed his hair black.

 

It gave him a little spike of petty satisfaction.

 

Ishikawa looked at his watch. “My shift is almost over.”

 

Jigen’s inbox lit up: there was new mail. “Obata said you didn’t take any breaks all day. Don’t pull this shit. We’ve got a whole month of work left to do. Dismissed.”

 

OK, so he did like saying things like that. “Dismissed.” Just like a real boss man.

 

Ishikawa looked at him a moment longer, but clearly had no desire to say anything at all. Jigen started typing a new reply. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the younger man leave the office, probably heading for the showers.

 

 

 

The supplier dispute got settled after all, at no cost to the company. To celebrate, Jigen got blazing drunk on Saturday night at his favourite bar on the outskirts of town. He’d walked home alone Sunday morning and ordered in pizza, listening to old jazz records as he lounged around the house.

 

In other news, for all that he’d played the sullen rebel in his office, Ishikawa kept a lower profile at work after that—to the point where he almost melted into the background. Jigen took on supervisor duty for a week, because now there was too little office work and the crew was stretched enough. Ishikawa hadn’t made friends with anyone, he gathered.

 

It didn’t take much, it was just that Ishikawa seemed unwilling to do the minimum. Like get drunk with the crew. He went along with them for dinner once, Jigen knew. Nothing fancy, just a local noodle bar. And then to a maid café the next time.

 

He’d only drunk tea and sat blankly in a corner. Later that night the guys wanted him to be designated driver, but it turned out he didn’t have a driving licence.

 

“Doesn’t talk about his family at all,” said Obata, lighting a cigarette for Jigen, their unspoken ritual for workplace gossip. “You sure he goes to college?”

 

Jigen snorted. Obata definitely had an overactive imagination. “He’s got the paperwork for it. Haven’t gone up there to see if it checks out.” He narrowed his eyes at his friend. “What’s going on with you? How’s Tomoe?” Obata’s thirty-year wedding was on the rocks. Ish.

 

“Tomoe’s living the life in the big city. Says she won’t come back till her mother has no need for her. What that old bitch needs her for, I got no clue.”

 

“Women,” said Jigen, injecting all the weariness of the world into that single word. He’d never fucked one in his entire life, but nobody here needed to know all that.

 

“Yeah, man,” said Obata, shaking his head. “Women.”

 

 

 

Somehow Sunday rolled around again and he was called in for a favour. Just a little repair job at someone’s place. Jigen did work on the side, nothing too taxing and not really because he was that desperate for the extra cash. But because it got him out of the house more, sometimes.

 

In this case there was another reason. Old man Zenigata had helped him in ways no one else would have bothered. That much he knew well. He’d gone above and beyond when Jigen had his accident, and the recovery period when he’d finally understood what had happened to his plans of getting back out, once and for all. And Zenigata was one of his very few links to the wider community.

 

If there was one thing Jigen had really learned in the past three years, it was that his fantasies of complete self-dependence and cool detachment were just fantasies in the end. He was invested enough in them to keep up the image, because why the fuck not? And there was the little problem (what problem?) of his age. But he knew himself better now.

 

It was just some work on the roof of Zenigata’s dojo, not that high up. He had let himself in, as usual. Zenigata, who knew so much about his former life, trusted him completely, and his own honour dictated that he could never abuse that trust. There were just some tiles that needed replacing.

 

The weather was mild, cloudy, great for working outdoors. And he had a good view of the courtyard behind the dojo as he removed the damaged tiles, checked the battens, applied fresh cement and laid the new tiles in place.

 

He’d just about finished, already craving a smoke and a drink, when someone walked out of the building and onto the courtyard. Jigen had acute vision, so necessary in his line—lines—of work. It was the eccentric rookie from the scaffolding crew, Ishikawa.

 

And he was holding a sword.

 

Jigen, distracted, undid a button high on his shirt. It was really unseasonably warm, even if it was likely to rain in the evening. He’d seen a lot of things in his time, but this was impossible to look away from. The tall figure in the dark gi and hakama, the fast, direct movements. The flash of real steel in the dimming light.

 

As he watched, Zenigata appeared in the courtyard. Jigen had not known Zenigata still had or accepted students. Now Zenigata, too, watched Ishikawa for a moment. In a minute, Ishikawa saw him and lowered the sword. They spoke together in low voices. Then a round of formal bows.

 

He’d been perched on Zenigata’s roof and gawping at one of his own men, hammer in hand, but the last tile still had to be set. Jigen did so, working with near-inhuman speed. No sooner than he was done, the first drops started falling. Back on the ground, he saw that Zenigata’s housekeeper was in. An ancient woman whose son worked in the town post office, she offered him tea and food. But he had to run.

 

Jigen hadn’t even made it out to the main road when he saw Ishikawa again. The kid wasn’t wearing his training clothes anymore, but a hoodie and track pants. He had a gym bag slung over one shoulder. His gaze was unfocused, like he was staring into nothing.

 

Jigen took a deep breath, knuckles turning pale on the wheel. The kid was almost half his age. He wasn’t… it wasn’t creepy. Just a good deed that he’d do for anyone. Certainly for the student of the man who’d saved his life, more or less.

 

“Ishikawa,” he drawled. “Over here.”

 

Ishikawa looked up, startled. His hair was limp already from the rain.

 

It’s not gonna be good for the upholstery, thought Jigen, hysterically. Ishikawa hesitated on hearing the offer. Bit his lower lip. (Fuck, thought Jigen.)

 

Thunder crackled in the near distance. Ishikawa's eyes followed the tracery of lightning in the western sky, and it seemed to quicken the decision making process. Amazingly, the address was all the way across the town from where Jigen lived. But he didn’t have to reveal that.

 

“Yeah? I was headed that way anyway,” said Jigen. “Hop in.”

 

Ishikawa nodded… and, pulling the door open, slipped into the backseat.

 

 

 

Jigen drove in silence for about half an hour, trapped in a hell of his own making. The windows were all up. The only sounds now were of rain, drumming up into a pounding ferocity, and the steady whipping of the windshield wipers.

 

The smell of the young man in the backseat hit Jigen like a sensory bomb, all sweat and musk, with something clean and solid seeping in, some kind of woodsy cologne. The total effect was almost overpowering.

 

Jigen didn’t steal a look in the rearview. He had too much self-respect.

 

When they were almost at the right location, Jigen broke down and looked. Just for a second. Ishikawa was leaning against one fogged-over window, writing on the glass with one tapering fingertip. Jigen had no idea what he was writing. The brakes squealed as they hit a smaller road.

 

“This is it,” said Ishikawa. “Boss.”

 

Jigen gave him a brusque nod, at a loss for words. He watched Ishikawa heft his bag back onto his shoulders and run through the sheeting rain towards the desolate, shop-lined streets.

 

Then he turned his car around for the homeward trip.