News of Kaoru’s death spread quickly. Within days it seemed like everybody in Japan’s underworld knew that Hayashi Yoshiki had shown up in Ibaraki to deal with the young oyabun directly. Nobody knew who was really behind it; there were rumours that Miya from Shangri-La had ordered the hit on Kaoru, but most people believed that Yoshiki himself had taken it upon himself to walk straight into Karigari’s head office and murder the up and coming oyabun for his many misdeeds. Neither Miya nor Yoshiki bothered to address these whispers.
A week later, the clan fell into further unrest when a stiff showed up at the front door. Reita had been the first unlucky soul to see the body. At first he’d thought some drunk, homeless guy had passed out face-down on the ground looking like a drowned rat, but when they didn’t respond when he shouted at him and nudged him with his foot, he crouched down to turn the body over and instantly gagged at the strong stench clinging to it. He hunched over on all fours like a wild animal, heaving and coughing, eyes watering, and he had retreated a short distance away until other people began to arrive. Beneath his waterlogged clothes, Kyo was bloated, his skin clammy and so pale it was blueish and almost translucent. Eventually Masaru arrived and after he’d gotten a good look at this unwelcome gift, he ordered three other senior members to help him wrap up the body in a plastic sheet and dispose of it.
Even an evening of hard drinking couldn’t erase the image that was now burned into Reita’s mind. Kyo’s wide, glassy eyes stared up at nothing and his mouth was frozen in an expression of mild surprise. Some of the softest parts of his skin and flesh had been partially eaten away by fish or sea birds: his eyelids, his lips, the webbing between his fingers, the edges of four gunshot wounds in his body, ragged and dark red surrounded by white, swollen skin. Reita fumbled for his keys in his pockets and stopped outside his apartment, all thoughts of Kyo’s corpse fleeing his mind.
There was a knife in his door. Somebody had wedged a fucking knife into his front door.
He stood there for several minutes in a daze, just staring at the knife sticking out of the plywood door until the keys that dangled loosely from his fingers clattered to the ground. He swallowed hard and stooped to pick them up. He looked this way and that; it was late and there was nobody around. He pulled at the knife but it was stuck fast so he grasped the grip with both hands and braced his hip against the door, slowly rocking the knife up and down until he could finally ease it out. It looked like the kind of weapon that people took out to the wilderness to kill and skin game. Not knowing what to do with it, he took it inside, locked the door and lay in bed, wide awake.
* * *
“You work too hard.” Tatsurou had stretched his considerable height over the length of the two-seater sofa, reading manga while Miya pored over staff rosters and counted money.
“Why do you say that?” Miya asked without looking up. “Are you offering to help or something?”
“No. It’s just an observation.”
“Thanks,” Miya said dryly. There was a knock at the door and he sighed. Now he’d lost count and would have to start all over again. “Can you at least get that?”
Heaving an even bigger sigh, Tatsurou put down his book, got up and opened the door, where he was met with the most ordinary-looking person he had ever seen: a man in a plain charcoal-grey suit with a plain white shirt and a plain striped tie, his grey, thinning hair carefully combed over his bald spot.
The plain man bowed and pushed his plain, black-framed glasses back up his nose. “I’m here representing Sakurai Ao’s estate. Are you Yaguchi Miya?”
“Uh, no. That would be him.” Tatsurou pointed at Miya who slowly rose from his desk.
“Can I help you?” Miya extended a hand.
The plain man shook his hand and produced an envelope from his plain brown briefcase. “In the wake of all that’s happened, we the company lawyers have been asked to come together to execute Sakurai Ao’s will. This is for you.”
Miya looked down at the proffered envelope and glanced at Tatsurou before breaking the seal and unfolding the letter inside, and Tatsurou watched the tiny changes in his expression while he read. It was a short letter and when he finished reading, Miya carefully lay it flat on his desk and smoothed out the creases.
Tatsurou moved closer. “What is it?”
Miya looked first at the lawyer and then at Tatsurou. “Sakurai… he’s named me as his successor.”
The lawyer bowed at this, and Tatsurou stared at Miya with his mouth open. “That’s… that’s amazing! That’s a good thing, right?”
“I don’t know,” Miya said doubtfully.
“What do you mean? His empire will be all yours!”
But Miya only shook his head and sank back into his chair. “It’s his empire. I’m not his family, I’m not even Yakuza. Kaoru was right about one thing: I’m an outsider. I have no claim to the title and after what Kaoru did, they need someone within the clan that they all know and trust to be their leader.”
“But he treated you like family,” Tatsurou reminded him. “Sakurai trusted you and they’ll respect you because of that.”
“Is that enough, though?”
“Miya, think about what this could mean!”
Miya gave him a wane smile. “We have our lives here. I don’t want to climb the ladder just for the sake of it.”
“Is that your final decision, sir?” the lawyer asked.
“Do I have a choice?”
“You do. Should you refuse, your presence is requested at a committee to elect a new oyabun.”
Miya folded his hands in his lap and gazed at the letter on his desk. “Then I respectfully decline.”
* * *
A little startled, Ryuichi looked up. “Oh, hey.”
Sugizo sat down next to him and offered him a towel, which he accepted gratefully, mopping the sweat from his face and neck. When he was done, he draped the towel around his neck and chugged a bottle of cold water, wiping his lips with one corner of the towel. Suddenly aware that Sugizo was watching him, he stopped, capping the bottle of water and setting it down, feeling awkward. “What’s up?”
“Not much. But I’ve noticed that you’re looking a bit better these days.”
“Yeah. You’re happier. You’re more like yourself instead of how you’ve been…” Sugizo hummed, looking for the right word, “...‘acting’ yourself since the breakup. Are you seeing someone?”
“Oh.” Ryuichi looked down and shrugged self-consciously. “No. Not really.”
“No, or not really?”
“Well.” Ryuichi smiled to himself. “The other week I was having coffee and bumped into an old friend from school. She and I used to be really good friends until she moved to Osaka for university and I moved to Tokyo to join a band. Anyway, we got talking and talking and it was really nice.”
Sugizo smiled. “That does sound nice. Will you be seeing her again?”
“Maybe.” Ryuichi looked down at the water bottle in his hands. “Maybe we’re having lunch tomorrow.”
“That’s great! I’m really happy for you.”
“You don’t think it’s too soon?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think. What matters is what you think. If you have a connection and you both enjoy spending time together, why not?”
“Is that how you and Heath got together?”
Now it was Sugizo’s turn to smile bashfully and he fidgeted with his hands. “In a manner of speaking.”
“Where is he, anyway?” Ryuichi looked around.
“Oh, he had plans tonight. A friend of ours has just moved here and Heath is helping him get settled and find a job.”
* * *
“Heath! Over here!”
It took Heath a couple of seconds to spot Hizumi and he threaded his way through the evening crowds in Shibuya.
Hizumi had spent the last two or three months living very comfortably in Yoshiki’s penthouse. His nurses kept Hizumi to a strict schedule of rehabilitation and physical therapy prescribed by his treating specialists at the hospital to gradually build the strength back into his battered body. He had hated that: it was excruciatingly slow and frustrating work and for the longest time it felt like he was making no progress at all. Still, it wasn’t like he had anything better to do so he persevered with the encouragement of his friends who visited every few days, and little by little he saw improvement until he was able to walk unaided for short periods of time.
What he had disliked most, though, was taking advantage of someone else’s generosity, so as soon as he was feeling more confident in himself, he approached Yoshiki with two requests. The first was for help looking for an apartment of his own in Tokyo so that he could finally move out of Yoshiki’s home. That was the easy part, and soon he had moved into a comfortable ground-floor apartment where he wouldn’t need to climb up and down stairs.
The second request was for a job.
“I’ll be honest, I don’t really know what it’s like to have a proper job,” Hizumi had admitted. “I mean, I’ve had a few part-time jobs here and there. But I’ve been racing and doing up cars for so long that it’s become the only world I can understand. I’m not afraid of hard work, though, and I’d be honoured if I could learn what you do at Extasy.”
This made Yoshiki smile. “If you’re looking for an honest job, then I’m afraid you’re asking the wrong person.”
Hizumi chuckled at this.
“In all seriousness, though, I can’t hire you to work at Extasy. For one, it’s too dangerous—”
“I’m not sc—”
“—but most of all, we have more than enough staff for our little establishment.”
“Oh.” Hizumi looked deflated.
“I’m sure we can find something for you, though,” Yoshiki had said sympathetically. “I’ll have the boys ask around for you.”
“It’s funny how some things make you see life from a different perspective,” Hizumi mused.
Heath glanced at him, holding his arm for support even though Hizumi insisted he didn’t need it. “How’s that?”
“Well, at first I used to be frustrated about how slow I have to walk these days. I’m getting stronger. Very slowly,” Hizumi added, “But once I got used to it, it made me think that maybe we spend too much time rushing about, and maybe everybody should walk a little more slowly.” He shrugged and laughed. “Or maybe I’m just getting old, I dunno.”
“I don’t think that’s unreasonable,” Heath said. “There’s nothing wrong with slowing down. Life isn’t a race, it’s there to be enjoyed.”
Hizumi pointed an emphatic finger at him. “Exactly!”
“So, Taiji heard a rumour that your team is splitting up.”
“Yeah.” Hizumi nodded, looking sombre. “Obviously we don’t have the old cash gig with Karigari anymore and now that I’m out too, well, we thought three’s not much of a racing team.”
“You could be their manager and recruit more drivers.”
“Nah. The boys have got it all worked out. Kirito’s been asking Karyu to join his team for a while, and there’s a new team called TMH4NS we think is right up Tsukasa and Zero’s alley.” Hizumi smiled up at Heath. “They’ll be fine without me.”
They made their way through the busy streets together. Normally Heath’s longer stride carried him quite quickly but he was enjoying their leisurely evening stroll and took the time to look at their surroundings, while the people around them kept their eyes down, hurrying this way and that.
Hizumi looked up as Heath took him through the door of a bar called Revolver. “Is this it?”
Heath just smiled and took him to the bar counter, where they were greeted by two of the bartenders.
“Heath!” Masato smiled broadly. “So is this the guy?”
Hizumi extended a hand and shook each of their hands in turn. “I’m Hizumi.”
“Are you ready for a major crash course in alcohol?” Ryo waved his arm at the wall adorned with all sorts of bottles.
“Sure am,” Hizumi said, nodding. “I’ll do my best. Thank you so much for having me.”
“You’ve come at the perfect time,” Masato assures him. “Heath has probably already told you, but there were five of us for a while. Then about a month ago Tal moved onto bigger and better things and with only four of us on, seven nights a week, we’re being run off our feet. You being here is going to be a huge difference!”
“I’m looking forward to it, but you’ll have to be patient with me,” Hizumi said humbly. “I hope I won’t be more work than help.”
Masato and Ryo reassured him that that would absolutely not be the case. Masato and Heath sat side by side at the bar and watched Ryo take their new hire off to show him around.
“So how do you know Heath?” Hizumi was asking.
“Oh, we go way back…”
Masato nudged Heath with his shoulder. “You been good lately?”
The old friends chatted easily, although Heath knew that Masato was consciously avoiding asking him about anything that was directly work-related, and he appreciated his friend’s discretion.
“Seriously, we really appreciate you finding another person for us,” Masato said, getting up to fetch a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses. “Ryo’s been working his ass off. I had to kick him out after he worked every night for two weeks straight.”
“He loves it,” Heath smirked. “If he could give up sleeping and just work, he would.”
“He sure would,” Masato agreed, handing Heath a glass of wine. “And how’s Sugizo? Is he still treating you right?” Masato eyed Heath carefully over the rim of his own wine glass.
“He was meant to meet me here, I—” Heath stopped when a light hand rested on his shoulder, and Sugizo leaned down and kissed him on the cheek.
“Hey, handsome. Sorry I’m late.”
Heath’s cheeks coloured. Sugizo did enjoy embarrassing him in front of his friends every now and then. “You haven’t missed much. We were just gossiping about you.”
“I love it when people talk about me. Where’s Hizumi?” Sugizo reached for Heath’s wine glass and took a sip. “Mm. Nice.”
“Do you mind?” Heath chided, pretending to scowl.
“Not really,” Sugizo said carelessly, squeezing Heath’s shoulder and grinning. “Should I?”
“Ryo’s giving Hizumi the tour.” Masato smiled and offered Heath his own glass of wine. “Here. You can have mine. I should get back anyway.”
“Thanks again, Masato.”
Masato gave him a thumbs up and disappeared behind the bar and busied himself attending to customers, with Ryo and Hizumi joining them.
Sugizo finished off his glass of wine. “I think Hizumi will settle in well here, don’t you?”
“Yes, I think so.”
The pair watched Hizumi shadowing his new colleagues, watching and learning, his brow furrowed in keen concentration, eager to absorb as much information as he could. The others introduced him to some of their regular customers. At one point Taka came over to say hi and also thanked them for finding an extra pair of hands to make up for Tal’s departure.
At the end of the night, they finished their drinks and beneath the table, Heath slipped his hands into Sugizo’s.
“I think we should get you home,” he said.
Sugizo glanced at his watch. “Already?”
“Yeah.” Heath smiled. “I have a promise to keep.”