Akira knows he’s fucked up when Akechi gives Morgana a very deliberate once-over and says, “That’s a funny-looking dog.”
“Come again?” he tries anyway.
“I said, your dog,” continues Akechi. “Pardon my French, but it looks gravely misshapen. What breed is it?”
Akira’s spirit falters.
Akechi wasn’t wrong, per se, what with Morgana being unusually small and whiskered and clearly of the feline persuasion. Still, the cold delivery of the line had been wholly undeserving considering the amount of effort Akira had poured into his master plan of acquiring Goro Akechi’s phone number.
He supposes his friends would be begging for a dramatic narration of Akira’s irrefutable downfall later that evening. He closes his eyes and recounts the build-up leading up to the present moment.
It had been three months since Futaba’s father Sojiro had formally requested his help in manning the most desolate café in Tokyo city-prefecture. Eight, if Akira included the previous six months of slumming it behind the counter crafting 4-pumps-of-hazelnut-16-pumps-of-vanilla brews for Futaba. Those hadn’t earned him any pay, but they had earned him Sojiro’s attention, if only because his daughter was notoriously friendless and Akira was notoriously good at making friends.
Privately, Akira reckoned Sojiro felt sorry for him. Maybe he’d caught on to Akira dragging his feet each night before closing time, owing to the fact that Akira didn’t have a home to return to. Not one that could hold a candle to Leblanc, anyway, warm and safe and inhabited by the faces he held dear. Akira couldn’t remember the last time his parents had travelled down from the countryside to visit him in his unloved-and-unlived-in studio apartment.
So he’d snagged himself another part-time job, one in a line-up of several. On Mondays he worked at the flower shop. On Sundays he accompanied shit-faced patrons from Crossroads’ front doorstep to the apprehensive taxi drivers finishing up their graveyard shift. And Wednesdays Akira dedicated to memorizing the names, origins and flavour profiles of every single coffee bean Leblanc had to offer.
“Whoa, isn’t that Goro Akechi? From TV?” Futaba piped up one cold afternoon, roughly a month into Akira’s new barista stint.
She pointed at a good-looking boy holed up in the corner of the café. Sojiro barely spared the object of Futaba’s interest a glance. All that gave him away was a twitch of his furry eyebrows.
“Could be,” said Akira. He was too poor to invest in cable television.
A quick Google search under the bar counter told Akira that Goro Akechi was no ordinary teenage heartthrob; he had been deemed the teenage heartthrob by the majority of Tokyo’s under-18 population. Sojiro’s lack of concern did a 180. “You serve him,” he instructed Akira gruffly, distracting Futaba with another heaping plate of curry. “Keep him away from my daughter.”
Akira couldn’t imagine someone like Akechi would think twice about someone like Futaba. But he knew better than to tell Sojiro that.
Thus, a pattern established itself. Akechi came in once a week, usually towards the end of the afternoon and with his snow-white poodle in tow. Akira would say what can I get you?, and Akechi would say surprise me, with a lopsided curve of his mouth that suggested just how much he enjoyed Akira’s surprises. Akira would take a good long look at how Akechi’s tailor-made expression frayed at the edges. He thought about the effort it’d cost to maintain a smile whilst being coddled, cooed over and dismissed on live television, and felt gut-wrenchingly sad for the husk of a person trapped inside the Detective Prince’s shiny plastic exterior.
Luckily for Akechi, the café was no studio, and Akira was no pushy talk show host. If anything, he appreciated Akechi’s palpable misery. Thus Akira would prepare a cup of something, and with a nod and an earnest thank you, Akechi would carry his mystery blend over to one of the corner booths. The poodle always followed suit, its nails tapping dully against the linoleum.
Once seated, he’d open a book. Usually some sort of trashy thriller novel. Sometimes it’d be a whodunit-type of plot, the cover decorated with several men standing over a dead body. These details didn’t matter too much; Akechi never read past the first page.
After all, he was too busy staring at Akira for the entire duration of his visit.
The staring did not bother Akira. What he did mind was the radio silence that ensued whenever Akira tried to reciprocate: heart-shaped latte art in his coffee (Akechi sipped without looking), flirtatious small talk (which worked on everyone but the detective), flat whites on the house (Akechi paid regardless). No matter what Akira threw at him, Akechi would stubbornly stick to the script: come in, pine wordlessly from across the room, finish his drink, and be on his merry way. More often than not he’d make a sharp left after he closed the door behind him. Headed for the local park, judging by how fast his poodle’s tail started wagging as they left the building.
The sight of Akechi’s dog rekindled some kind of fierce, crazed determination hibernating deep within Akira’s chest. He acquired an ancient VHS copy of 101 Dalmatians from the old man selling scrap down the road and pushed it hurriedly into the video slot of his TV that same evening. Alone in his matchbox apartment and desperate to tie up the game of cat-and-mouse he’d gotten himself stuck in, Akira drew his knees up to his chin and watched Pongo the cartoon dalmatian wind his leash around Roger and Anita’s legs, pulling them within a hair’s breadth of each other.
Of course. Akira had a Pongo of his own, too.
The plan was set into motion the following Monday. Akira purchased a cat harness and wrangled a yowling Morgana into it. Then he travelled all the way to Yongenjaya and strolled up to Akechi perched on the most secluded bench in the dog park, where the boy was feeding his poodle artisanal sausages under the shade of an oak tree.
“You’re Goro Akechi from TV,” he’d said. Eloquently.
Akechi had frowned at him.
“It would appear so,” came the response. Reluctant, as if he was already plotting his escape from the conversation.
Akira put on his best disarming smile and deposited Morgana onto the ground. His brain scrambled for another opener.
“I’m Akira Kurusu from, uh. Leblanc. I make you coffee sometimes?” Fuck! “You’re walking your dog.”
“How observant of you to notice.”
“I’m walking mine too. Can I join you?”
“Feel free,” said Akechi, with all the resentment of someone who hardly ever got the chance to feel freely. Maybe taking the edge off after a busy afternoon of showbiz was precisely this to Akechi: ogling a teenage boy for weeks from the other side of an empty coffee shop, then pretending you wanted nothing to do with him once he approached you. Rejecting his mutual interest in the middle of a suburban dog park.
Akira was having none of it. Which led to their current predicament: Akira sitting silently next to Goro Akechi From TV on a bench in the middle of nowhere, western Tokyo. Fiddling with Morgana’s harness handle. Getting made fun of for his piss-poor attempt at establishing contact.
‘A gravely misshapen, funny-looking dog.’ Well. Akira couldn’t exactly argue.
He shifts his focus back to their present situation, in which Akechi is examining Morgana with some apprehension. His cat stalks tight circles around Akira’s legs, glowering up at the pair of them.
“Mona’s a rare toy breed,” Akira manages, after what feels like a century.
Akechi looks up. Akira takes the opportunity to detangle Morgana’s leash from around his knees.
“I see,” says Akechi flatly.
Akira points at the dog guarding Akechi’s feet. He’s seen it dozing off under the table at Leblanc plenty of times, but its appearance and demeanour still amaze Akira. He doesn’t think he’s ever come across an animal quite so stuck-up before.
“What’s its name?”
Akechi offers him a thin smile. He reaches down to scratch the poodle between its ears. Its tail thumps a steady, politely muted rhythm against the dirt, happy to bask in the attention.
“This is Robin Hood.”
“You named it Robin Hood?” Akira asks, aghast. “Robin for short, right?”
“No, just Robin Hood,” Akechi says. He’s stopped smiling. “She is a respectable dog, named after a respectable character. Calling her by a nickname would defeat the point.”
‘Respectable dog’ strikes Akira as an oxymoron. He doesn’t like dogs much. All the ways in which people bent over backwards for them, doted on them endlessly, played ball with them, cuddled up with them on the couch after a long day… Ryuji Sakamoto from school checked all those boxes for Akira. What was the point of dogs, really? They smelled bad, barked incessantly, and required potty training. He could think of better things to do with his time.
Akira imagines Robin Hood to pose an exception to the rule. The dog looks as smart as her owner. She sits up tall and self-assured; by her poise and grooming, he guesses her to be pedigree. Her fur has been sheared into various peaks and curves, different from a poodle’s natural silhouette. It makes her resemble a Greco-Roman-whatever hero, triumphant and sleek and carved out of marble. Akira means to tell Akechi this.
What he says instead is, “She looks like dango on a stick.”
“It’s called a Scandinavian trim,” Akechi replies, rather tersely. Akira is chipping away at his saintly reservoir of patience. “Do you take an interest in poodle cuts?”
“Funny you should mention that. I have a number of side hustles,” Akira says. He makes a scissor cutting motion with his index and middle finger. “I work at a dog groomer’s on Thursdays. Drop her off at our boutique sometime, I’ll fix her up for you.”
“No thank you,” says Akechi. Robin Hood, possibly sensing her owner’s newfound hatred for him, raises her head and shoots Akira a well-earned glare. “She’s in no need of fixing.”
“Positive. Robin Hood is a great deal more attractive than your ‘dog’.”
Akechi’s fingers stutter in mid-air. Air quotation marks. The nerve.
“Okay, suit yourself. Does she participate in any competitions?”
“Breed shows, mostly. Obedience trials on occasion.”
“That’s cool. What kind of tricks can she do? Mona might not be a looker,” Akira ignores the nipping sensation at his heel, “but he’s extremely intelligent. He yowls at seven on the dot every morning. I haven’t missed a day of school so far.”
Akechi stares at him, nonplussed. “She’s trained to do all the basic commands and then some.”
“Does she fetch?”
“If you ask nicely.”
“Why in God’s name would I teach her that?”
Akira picks at his fingernails. “Just wondering if she takes after her owner, since I’m the only one making any effort to keep this conversation alive and kicking.”
“You—” says Akechi hotly, the dam of his composure crumbling. He straightens his spine as if he’s about to rise from the bench and take off into the air. Then he settles down again, barely. His left hand balls up into a fist in Robin Hood’s coat, but she doesn’t seem to mind. Maybe she was his therapy dog. “You approached me!”
“Akechi, every single time you come into Leblanc, you stare at me long enough for your coffee to go cold,” Akira parries. “Sorry for pestering you about your dog. I was just hoping to get some answers.”
“Well, leave Robin Hood out of it. And I don’t stare.” Akechi’s face reddens. Evidently he wasn’t expecting the curveball of owning up to his favourite café pastime. “Besides, I was looking at the other barista. Not you.”
“You go for older men? I’ll be sure to tell Sojiro.”
“No! I… I was thinking about picking up a figure-drawing class. I was studying his proportions.”
Akira has been serving Akechi long enough to know he was most definitely lying, considering how Akechi’s eyes glazed over at the sight of anyone who wasn’t Akira. Didn’t matter what they said or who they were. He looked just as put-off by each and every bright-eyed fan begging Akechi to sign their iPhone and/or body part of choice.
But not around Akira. Never around Akira. All Akechi did was smile at him fleetingly, shyly, and leave him increasingly larger tips under the receipt on the table.
Akira found this very flattering indeed.
Akechi is shuffling away from him. A small bundle of keys falls from his back pocket. Akira helpfully points at it; Akechi refuses to look at him.
“You can study my proportions if you want,” suggests Akira, all benevolent generosity. “Or I can babysit your dog for you when you’re due for another transpacific Jimmy Kimmel interview. Let me give you my business card.”
Akechi appears very panicked, suddenly. This time he actually does stand up. Akira and Robin Hood follow suit simultaneously. The poodle places her bulky frame in between them, acting every bit the bouncer Akechi probably should’ve hired to get rid of thugs like Akira.
Morgana’s tail whips up dust at the perceived disrespect. Robin Hood turns up her wet button nose at him.
“That’s enough. You cannot come over to my house,” Akechi says slowly, spelling it out for Akira, “and you cannot babysit my dogs. I’ve got to go. Please don’t ever talk to me again.”
Akira chuckles nervously. Akechi’s hand hovers over his coat pocket as though he’s about to summon fifteen sleeper agents to tackle and sedate Akira. He really hopes this isn’t the case. “Relax, I never mentioned visiting your house. You could bring her over to mine? But, uh, I realize how that must’ve come across—know you have your reasons for privacy and all, being the most famous teenager in Japan, and—”
By the time he blinks away his train of thought, Akechi has vanished. Akira catches the last of Robin Hood’s voluptuous Scandinavian trim-tail disappearing behind a bush, and then he is left alone with nothing but Morgana and the ramifications of his own actions to keep him company.
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cw mention of animal/child abuse, implied self-harm (very brief; still g-rated methinks! mehopes)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Akechi doesn't return for his usual coffee the following Wednesday. Or the Wednesday after that, or the Wednesday after that.
“I mean, what did you think was gonna happen?” Futaba says, having abandoned Akira in favour of playing some capture-the-flag game with a bunch of strangers. Akira sluggishly lifts his head from her pillow and stares at the knife-edge elbows jutting out from the back of her gamer chair. Her voice is barely audible over the clacking of her keyboard. “Leblanc was his fortress of solitude. He wasn’t expecting his barista to chat him up over his—suck my fat monkey dick, Hanzo!—hammy TV interviews.”
“Futaba, we’ve been over this. It’s not the interviews that do it for me.” Akira rolls across her Naruto fleece blanket, folding his hands over his stomach. “It’s his charming personality, and his big, soulful eyes, and how he looked like he was going to put a bullet in me when I compared his poodle to a food item.”
“Mm-hm. You know his agency probably forbids him from dating, right?”
“He’s a public figure, not a j-pop idol.”
“Whatever, same difference. Take it from me—Akechi meant for you to be off-limits. Someone unattainable, y’know?”
She punctuates her statement by killing off an opposing team member. Her computer emits a strangled dying noise, reflecting Akira’s feelings on the matter.
“Someone unattainable?” he croaks.
Futaba swivels around. A skinny purple woman flits across the screen and aims a rifle at her ape character. Akira feels it'd be wise not to point it out.
“Look,” she says, exasperated. “Let’s go over the facts. You’re close in age. Skilled at your job. Conventionally attractive.” She counts characteristics on her fingers. Akira is starting to feel like the subject of a lost kitten poster. “Male, ‘cause god knows there’s one thing those cringy fan forums aren’t lying about.”
“He doesn’t go for girls?”
“Are you kidding? Anyway, he clearly targeted you for a reason, except you just had to go and ruin any pretence of professionalism by opening your mouth. So now he hates you.”
“Sojiro says my social nature is a good thing. Says it saves him from having to make small talk.”
Futaba grunts and bucks her head as though she’s a boar about to charge him. “Who cares about Sojiro, dumbdumb! It’s Akechi you were trying to seduce—put yourself in his shoes!”
Akira fights back a smile; she took on the same tone as her father when she got short with him. Futaba continues: “You were supposed to be confined to coffee-grinding duties, but instead, you… you…”
Her hand flutters, then spasms to a halt. Akira spasms back, uncomprehending.
“You talked,” Futaba finishes, shrinking back into her chair as she does. “You thought misery loved company, but what misery really wanted was a caffeine fix and a pretty face that’d keep his mouth shut.”
Akira frowns at her phrasing. Turns the statement over in his head.
Clears his throat.
A rare display of vulnerability has settled strange on his tongue. Under any other circumstances he would swallow it and changed the subject, but for some reason it feels too important to let go. He understands Futaba’s appraisal of Akechi is grounded in her uncanny ability to see and know all—and yet—
“I just wanted to get to know him.”
Futaba gawks. Akira glances at glow-in-the-dark stars on her curtains and silently begs them to release him from Futaba's scrutiny.
“You're actually invested in the guy,” she whispers.
Her clairvoyance has turned on Akira. The back of his neck prickles uncomfortably.
“I wouldn’t say invested.”
“He’s all you’ve been talking about for the past three weeks. It’s getting annoying.”
“I think he’s interesting.”
“You don’t think about anything. Your brain is a black hole,” she retorts. “Luckily for you, I joined one of the aforementioned fan forums in my search for dirt on him. Being your trusty intel source and all.”
Akira catapults upright. Futaba's expression remains carefully neutral. “Turns out he might live somewhere near Omotesando. Just in case you wanted to offer your deepest condolences for pestering our favourite Leblanc customer. And have some tact this time, Akira—you shouldn’t have to hear this from me of all people!”
Sojiro would never commit to having a favourite customer. They both know this. Still, Akira isn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“You’re the best sister ever.”
“We’re not related,” Futaba reminds him.
“My familial love for you transcends blood relations,” he tells her. And dips out of the bedroom window he crawled in through.
Omotesando is empty enough by the time Akira surfaces onto Aoyama-dori, the last dregs of late-night shoppers dribbling past him down the metro station stairs. He trawls the main avenue for a while, peering into storefront windows and wondering what exactly he’s doing with his life, before taking a left down one of the side streets. There is Cat Street, with its many eateries and boutiques. He veers off to his right down an alleyway perpendicular and marvels at the architecture, the homes of the rich.
The suburbs are tranquil for all of two minutes. A piercing howl cuts through the quiet at his entering of a cul-de-sac, shocking Akira out of his trance. He looks around wildly trying to locate the source of it; it’d sounded like a police siren, but there were no cars in sight.
There comes the noise again, bone-chillingly loud. Something wet drips onto his shoulder, and Akira glances up, thinking it must be incoming thunder and rain.
The wetness is viscous. Saliva. Before Akira can process the nastiness of what just happened, another string of drool hails forth from the heavens, oozing out from between iron bars—and there, leering at him from someone’s fourth-floor balcony, stands the writhing black mass that has targeted him.
“Stupid horse,” he whispers, a little petulantly. His hand comes up to wipe the drool off his shirt.
It’s big enough to be a horse, at least, its stilt-like legs prowling the length of the balcony as it radiates all its snarling towards Akira. Horses had the same evil energy, and its janky movements were too unnerving to belong to anything that wasn’t at least slightly hell-sent. Its shape blurs against the relative dark of the autumn evening, rage-fuelled and frantic.
Equine rabies, thinks Akira.
A distinct voice floats down from a crack between sliding door-window and wall, causing a lull in all the noise: “Alright, alright… yes, Loki, I’m aware there’s a person outside…” A light from within the apartment flickers to life, cutting out the creature’s shadowy outline like the world’s ugliest pumpkin carving.
The boy sidling in front of the window is none other than Goro Akechi, dressed in comfortable-looking slacks and with hands clasped behind his back. He gazes out at the Tokyo skyline peeking out from behind the buildings opposite and smiles placidly at the horse-demon-nightmare making a mess of his potted kumquat trees. Then his gaze wanders down where Akira is standing.
Their eyes meet. Akechi’s eyebrows furrow, and the curtain is yanked shut abruptly.
Akira dashes towards the apartment complex entrance. The front door requires a key card, but all it takes to persuade the doorman is the promise that he is Goro Akechi’s long-lost childhood friend. The man’s previously hesitant face breaks into a huge grin, allowing him access inside. Akira takes the stairs up to the fourth floor two at a time.
When Akechi squints through a security chain-enforced crack in the door after Akira rings the bell twice, his expression is decidedly more hostile.
“Barista!” he hisses.
“Akira,” Akira corrects warmly. “My sincerest apologies for intruding—the Leblanc co-owner sent me to pass on her regards. She’s offering you 15% off our entire menu for being our dearest, most loyal patron.” Pause. “Also, you dropped your bike keys last time we talked.”
Akechi’s gaze strays from his face to his hands, and his eyes widen. He reaches forward and snatches the keys from Akira’s fingers, though curiously, he seems more moved by being reunited with the keychain attached. Akira watches as Akechi pries them apart and clips the charm to an exponentially larger bundle of keys hanging off a hook on the wall. Its red paint is chipped, well-worn.
Didn’t take the Detective Prince to be a Featherman fan, Futaba had crowed.
“Never mind your apologies,” says Akechi. His tone is impolite; it thrills Akira. “How the hell did you find me? How did you get past the doorman?”
“I told him we went to pre-school together.”
Akechi’s eyes darken. He mutters something along the lines of Maruki. “I could get him fired.”
“You have no idea what I’m capable of.”
“Honestly, I’m not surprised you lack visitors given the anthropomorphic foghorn on your balcony.” Akira cranes his neck, trying to peer past Akechi into the void beyond. The curtains are drawn shut again. “I’ll be on my way now, but you should probably get it checked out. It sounds broken.”
There’s a pause. Akira is sure he’s overstepped again. To his complete and utter shock, however, Akechi defies all expectations by opening the door moments later and half-heartedly gesturing at Akira to enter.
“Get in before I change my mind,” he says.
Akira, remembering the multitude of dogs Akechi supposedly owns, tests the waters by shuffling three steps into Akechi's property.
Nobody jumps up to lick his face. Not even Akechi. Akira hides his disappointment.
No matter. Akechi has invited him into his apartment. This in itself was a massive victory. Akira removes his coat, drapes it over the back of the couch, and watches with some amusement as Akechi huffs and picks up the coat to store it away properly. It’s endearing how bothered he gets, but not everyone seems to think so: Akira spots Robin Hood affixing him with a scornful glare, curled up in her crate with her paws folded. Her fur blends in with the walls, making her look like part of the decor.
The decor—or lack thereof. The apartment is an Arctic hellscape, all whites and greys and cool neutrals. There is an overwhelming sense of IKEA showroom to its design, as if Akechi had waltzed in there one day and demanded they pack up and move everything 29 kilometres out east for him to eat and sleep in. Lounge melts into kitchen, kitchen into dining area—which goes largely unused, judging by the amount of newspapers and books that swamp the birchwood table. None of the furniture betrays any sort of lineage, all fresh from the generic furniture factory, and the clock on the wall lies through its teeth about the time.
It’s boring. Soulless. A haunted house for a ghastly lifestyle. All that points to Akechi’s inhabitation is a framed photograph of a woman in a sun hat on the dresser. She looks young and pretty and untroubled, balancing a baby on her knee (and was that baby really Akechi, given the palpable delight its chubby little face radiated? It was certainly hard to imagine).
“Isn't she polite?” remarks Akechi. “Robin Hood.”
“Oh, uh, mmm,” utters Akira sagely, not having heard anything Akechi just said.
Akechi squints at him, instantly suspicious. Akira, feigning innocence to the best of his ability, seeks out her peanut shell-shaped figure beside the ugly Bauhaus armchair. Akechi’s compliment has the poodle’s tail thumping against the sides of her crate. She re-examines the now strangely nervous houseguest, reflects on how he has cast her in a positive light, and offers Akira an open-mouthed grin. Her tongue lolls out puppy-like.
“Aptly put, Kurusu,” says Akechi, halfway between snide and flat-out amused. “A good girl, unlike her brother. Perhaps you would know what to do with him, given your background.”
Akira can recognise an opportunity to prove himself when he hears one. He turns his back on the photograph and faces Akechi, focus razor-sharp.
There’s a beat before Akechi answers, as if he regrets having brought it up at all. After a few moments, he grits out “He’s adopted,” and reaches over to draw back the curtain.
The beast on the balcony whirls around. Its teeth are a stark white against the black night sky. The wind wails as if to formally present its grotesque appearance.
It's Akechi’s other dog.
A black borzoi, by the looks of it. Akira takes in its slim build, its long limbs. What he cannot fathom is why the creature hasn’t been brought inside yet—until it catches sight of Akira, rears itself up on its hind legs (all 6 foot something of it, a stringy Eldritch abomination), and slams its full weight against the sliding door.
Akira jumps back. The action only seems to invigorate Loki. It takes another flying leap. The glass shudders.
“Down, Loki,” Akechi says, sounding strained. “You're embarrassing us.”
Loki does not obey.
“Borzois aren’t meant to be aggressive,” says Akira. He crosses the room and peters to a halt in front of the dog in question. There's a trail of spit tracing spirals across the glass window, as if Loki has outlined the exact trajectory of Akechi pottering around his apartment. “What's wrong with it?”
“Nothing’s wrong with him,” objects Akechi, on the defensive. “It's just pent-up energy, that’s all. We do plenty of indoor play, but I’m not always able to take him out in the evenings, so we like to relieve a little stress by…” He waves a hand in Loki's direction. “People watching.”
“You're busy with celebrity stuff, I get that. But why not hire a walker? He's only going to get worse if you don't socialise him properly.”
“You think I haven't tried? You think he can function around other dogs as he is now? No one will give him a chance.” Outside Loki snarls for the umpteenth time, as if to prove Akechi's point. “One of the most experienced trainers in Tokyo took one look at him and told me to have him put down.”
“He doesn’t need a trainer. He needs an exorcist.”
Akechi fumes. “Be cordial or get out of my apartment.”
“Oh, where are my manners,” purrs Akira.
He turns his attention back to the dog behind the window. Up close, Akira can inspect Loki more thoroughly. A handsome dog, save for the crazed glint in his eyes and flecks of foam dotting his mouth. Barely a year old, too, judging by the cleanliness of his teeth. He could take or leave the behavioural problems, but they’re not the worst he’s ever seen.
What worries Akira most is how filthy Loki's coat is. He hadn't previously noticed at long distance, but with the little room to spare between him and the dog trying to gnaw his face off, there’s no mistaking the signs of poor doggy hygiene: the dullness of his fur, the lack of feathering on his hindquarters. A tail that seems as though it'd been tracked through the mud at some stage.
“You were right to invite me in,” announces Akira, reaching for the sliding door handle. “He’s in dire need of a bath. I’ll take care of it.”
“What? No!” yelps Akechi.
He darts forward to shut the door, crossing the living room in three desperate strides. Akira goes wide-eyed and hurriedly jumps backwards, sliding the window shut and enclosing himself in Loki's 2-by-3-square-metre private prison.
The lock clicks. Loki's teeth immediately close around Akira's arm.
Akechi bangs his fist on the glass. He looks deranged—no, distraught. “What are you doing? Get away from him!”
“He’s just saying hello.”
“He’s—what’s wrong with you?! I am not liable for any injuries that may occur if you stay outside!” Akechi yells, sounding like fine print on a contract. “Loki hates being touched!”
Akira looks down.
He can feel the pinch of Loki's canines through the threadbare fabric of his shirt. And the dog is visibly agitated, that much rings true—ears pinned back against his frilled neck, low-buzz growl slipping out of the corners of his gums. A mouth full of bees and a temper to match. But his tail tells a different story, wagging a slow, lazy arc, and Akira soon recognises the sudden pressure against his side as Loki as well.
He runs a hand down Loki’s spine. The wagging intensifies.
Everything about Loki's body language screams conflicted. Akira has seen this in dogs time upon time, especially the abused ones. They all cheered up after a good bout of playtime, some TLC, and therapy.
Akira wishes the human psyche were equally straightforward.
There’s a sharp rapping sound from the other side of the glass, snapping him out of it. Akira slides open the balcony door. He hauls in the dog. Then he faces repressed celebrity extraordinaire Goro Akechi with the devil incarnate still tethered to his arm and says, with as much heartfelt sympathy as he can manage: “Quit projecting onto your dog.”
Akechi makes a face like he’s just been tasered. “I’m not projecting.”
Loki emits a guttural hocking noise, reminiscent of Morgana’s pre-vomit warning groan. Akechi spears his pet with the dirtiest look possible.
The three of them head for the bathroom.
Akechi's bath is a luxurious thing, more jacuzzi than a typical Japanese tub. The one in his own danchi apartment is blocky and cramped, the shape of it squatting low to the ground; Akira finds it difficult to cram his limbs into. The bathtub that sits before them, in comparison, looks like it could accommodate all his friends and then some.
Akira strips down to his boxers and coaxes Loki in with him, running the water lukewarm. Akechi walks in moments later and startles.
“Why are you…”
“I'm going to get wet either way,” reasons Akira. Loki snaps at the jet of water blasting out the tap, spraying Akira's chest with the droplets that bounce off his teeth. “Hop on in?”
“No,” says Akechi tartly. He hands Akira a bottle of fancy dog shampoo that costs more than his weekly pay at Crossroads.
Bathing Loki is a hectic affair. Even with a solid year of dog grooming experience under his belt the borzoi gives Akira trouble, jumping from hyperactivity to fear to curiosity at the drop of a hat. He also feels the need to taste everything, including Akechi’s impressive stockpile of expensive conditioners. Loki, drop it, Akechi begs in vain; Loki has already left tooth marks in most if not all of the bottles, and homes in on Akechi’s rolled-up sleeves when he pulls up a stool beside the tub.
Akira laughs at him. Akechi looks disgruntled, then turns the hose on Akira—blasting him with icy water—and cackles twice as loud.
The conversation that follows is surprisingly comfortable. They talk a lot about everything and nothing at all: school, extracurricular activities, their social lives (“I don’t have the time for one,” Akechi says dismissively). After about twenty minutes Loki calms down as well, sensing a change in atmosphere. Tellingly, he showers his owner with affection as soon as he settles enough to stop biting: rubbing his oversized pipe-cleaner snout all over Akechi’s face, defiling Akechi’s turtleneck sweater with soap suds. Akechi sighs and complains and shoves at his dog lightly, but none of the pushing ever has any real force behind it.
It’s all for show, Akira thinks. His stand-offish behaviour, Loki’s barking, and all the rest of it—the apartment, the TV appearances, and possibly Akechi’s love of bouldering too. Akira got his first glimpse of the genuine Akechi when he picked up the dirtied Featherman keychain, and now he was being treated to a second one.
He smiles, moving his hands in small circles across Loki’s shoulders and rubbing the shampoo into the undercoat of his fur. The dog is almost fully clean save for his rear end, which hovers stubbornly over the surface of the murky bath water. Akira thinks nothing of it until his soap-covered hand swipes over Loki’s back on his way to retrieve another palmful of shampoo.
There’s a twitch, followed by a barely audible whine. Befuddled, Akira leans in closer and realizes he’s accidentally brushed up against a raised welt spanning across the curvature of his hip. There are multiple of them, all criss-crossed on top of one another.
Strange, he thinks, and brushes a gentle finger over an especially puckered scar.
Loki’s squeal reverberates off the bathroom tile, and Akira realizes belatedly it’s not a scar at all. His response lags behind—he can see in slow motion how the dog contorts towards him with his teeth bared. “I told you he hates being touched,” hisses Akechi. He slaps Akira’s hand aside.
Loki’s fangs burrow into the meat of Akechi’s forearm.
The water stains red. Akechi’s body shakes with the effort of staying still. Akira swallows and forces himself to push his shock aside.
“Hey, Akechi.” It’s a struggle for him to keep his voice steady, his mind straight. “Care to explain to me why your dog’s covered in open wounds?”
“Because they haven't healed yet, obviously," Akechi replies, deliberately obtuse.
“And how did they get there in the first place?”
Akira gives Akechi a sidelong glance. From what Akira had seen of him, he came across as a stony-faced, perpetually frustrated individual, held back from normal teenage life by the shackles of stardom and responsibility. The kind of person who’d reject therapy in favour of taking out all his issues on himself late at night. The kind of person who’d lash out at others, maybe, if backed into a corner and provoked.
And yet, from what Akira has seen, he also cared about his dogs’ well-being; possibly more than his own. This couldn’t have been his doing.
“Akechi,” he says slowly, “you have to tell me who did this.”
No dice. Panic sets Akira’s heart aflame.
“Please,” he says, willing it not to be true.
“My father is running in the upcoming election,” Akechi says, out of nowhere. “Shido Masayoshi. You might have heard of him. He is not a good man.”
So what?, screams Akira internally, stunned. Was Akechi threatening him with the mention of a higher power? Was this an excuse, a ‘hurt people hurt others’ type of mentality?
“I don’t care about politics.”
“You should. The amount of damage Shido could unleash upon the nation would be catastrophic.”
“How does this relate to anything?”
“His narcissism leads to a number of nasty habits behind closed doors as well. He likes to keep company he feels he has control over.” Loki’s mouth has gone slack in the meantime. Akechi carefully removes his arm. The bite was vicious enough to break skin. “Whether that be by coercion, or corporal punishment.”
Akechi’s eyes have gone distant. Akira’s tongue sits heavy in his mouth. The clues slot into place.
“Loki was his dog,” he says.
“Yes.” There’s a significant pause. “As was I.”
Akira chokes back a noise of dismay.
Akechi’s jaw shifts. He inspects the state of his forearm, bloodied and trembling, and Akira notices for the first time a number of faded scars mottling the underside of it.
“Shido collects sighthounds, you see,” Akechi says. “He parades them around as trophies. Unfortunately, Loki did not meet his standards. I returned to the family home not long ago to pick up the last of my belongings when I found him bleeding out on the carpet.”
He pulls away from Loki. There’s a tiny keening sound as the borzoi chases him, lapping attentively at the blood dripping from Akechi’s thumb. His waterlogged fur drenches the tile floor. Akechi’s socks are not spared from the downpour.
“I knew him to be a manky, disobedient dog. Impossible to train. His unruly behaviour only exacerbated my father’s abuse. But he was about to die, so what else was I to do? I took him with me.”
“You stole him,” Akira substitutes.
“I did.” Akechi turns to face Akira, eyes ablaze. His defiance is breathtaking. “Are you going to report me, Kurusu? Are you going to tell me to confess, to turn myself in? Or, God forbid—to give him away, because I’m obviously in no state to take care of him myself?”
Akira’s gaze is trained forward, on the frantic rise and fall of Akechi’s chest. His body language is as hurt as Loki’s was, just before the bite.
“No,” he stammers. “No. Of course not.”
Never mind that there’s still some mud trailing off the back of Loki’s rump. Never mind that it’s Akechi who could do with a bath now, blood-ridden as he is. They’ve all outgrown the room they’re in, the oppressive atmosphere that bears down upon them like an unimaginable weight.
Akechi reaches over and pulls the plug.
Loki leaves Akechi to tend to his wounds, a sopping black cloud that bolts out of the tub as soon as Akira opens the door. Akira throws a glance over his shoulder at Akechi, who sits on the stool wetting a washcloth under the tap. The boy winces at the pressure applied to his bite, then looks up sharply at Akira once he realizes he’s being watched. His mouth is a thin line.
There’s a high-pitched yip from the lounge.
“You’d better go and check on them,” Akechi tells him. He bows his head towards the wound, expression unreadable. “And put a fucking shirt on.”
Akira grins, scoops up his clothes, and veers out into the living room.
What he sees is a predicament common to any family household: the classic sibling rivalry. Loki pulling Robin Hood out of her crate by tugging at the fleece she sits on, his tail wagging a mile a minute. Robin Hood’s gums pulled back into a sneer as she swats at Loki’s nose.
Akira coughs. Robin takes note of his presence and rolls over, playing the victim. In response, Loki shakes the excess droplets off his fur, dousing Robin’s pristine white coat in bloody water.
She lunges at him.
“You two are a pain,” says Akira. “It’s no wonder your dad has issues.”
Eventually he manages to get Loki to leave her alone in favour of dog treats that he ransacks from Akechi’s kitchen cupboard, forming a Hansel and Gretel-esque crumb trail all the way from Robin Hood’s crate to the couch. Loki appears joyous at the turn of events—his Wednesday has been full of pleasant surprises, from barking at new people to baths to being rewarded for heckling his sister. He vacuums up the bits of kibble with vigour, snuffling right into Akira’s trap: a fluffy red towel.
Loki howls at the betrayal. Akira stuffs beef jerky into his mouth and gets started on drying him off.
Akira’s Wednesday has been full of pleasant surprises, too. He wouldn’t mind doing the same thing again sometime soon.
“Hey, Akechi?” he calls out. “I know you rejected my proposal before, but mind if I leave my business card on the coffee table?”
“You’ll do as you please regardless of my answer,” Akechi says, as Akira does exactly that. He has exited the bathroom, pacing so softly that Akira hadn’t heard him come out. With his arms folded and his lips pursed, he leans against the wall beside the balcony and scrutinizes Akira from a safe distance. There is a bandage wrapped around his wrist. “Why?”
Akira thinks of the best approach. Then disregards it.
“Loki needs socializing.” You need socializing. “Robin Hood is obviously lonely.” You’re obviously lonely. “I think dogsitting would be a benefit to them both. You wouldn’t have to leave the apartment either—feel free to go about your business reading fan mail or filing taxes or whatever it is that you do.”
Akechi’s expression is cautious. Akira adds, “I’ll throw in a friends discount.”
“We’re not friends.”
“You’d let a complete stranger barge into your apartment?”
Akechi is quiet for a moment. His gaze leaves Akira and traverses the living room. It snags on the framed photo of his mother on the bookshelf and lingers there.
“Any interest?” Akira says, softer now.
“I could just give you my phone number instead,” Akechi mutters.
The towel rubbing into Loki’s fur decelerates. Loki slobbers insistently all over Akira’s jeans, climbing into Akira’s lap and pushing his soggy rear into Akira’s chest. Akira pays him no mind. His stomach is doing happy somersaults.
It sinks to the floor as soon as he realizes how exaggeratedly Akechi is moping.
“That’s what you’re after, isn’t it?” the other boy says. He gives Akira a critical look. “My number. You came on to me rather strongly at the café. The complimentary flat whites made that apparent enough.”
His footsteps plod faintly against the stone floor. Robin Hood stirs and trails behind, abandoning her crate to lie down beside him on the rug. Her muzzle guides Akechi’s hand towards her fur. Akechi obediently takes a hold of it, as he had done in the park when Akira had teased him.
Even with the comforting presence of Robin Hood, Akechi looks small. As though the shame of being pursued is about to engulf him.
It’s sad. Everything about the situation is sad. Akechi continues, in an equally sad, resigned kind of tone, “This isn’t the first time it’s happened. Fans often have ulterior motives. I just hoped you’d be a little more tactful about yours. Loki has really taken to you—I thought… I don’t know.”
“I’m not your fan.”
Akechi lifts his head.
“I’m not your fan,” Akira repeats. He can’t place his primary emotion. Indignance, maybe. “And I don’t want anything from you.”
“Don’t be stupid. Everyone wants something from me.”
“Okay. I want you to come back to Leblanc.”
“I’d love to. Unfortunately, my barista turned out to have a less-than-savoury agenda of his own,” Akechi snaps. He’s swapped out self-pity for the usual irritation. It suits him much better. “Plus, he reeks of dog shampoo.”
“Dog shampoo smells great,” Akira counters. “It’s also lighter on the wallet.”
“I see now why you resort to begging me for cash.”
“I don’t need the money for your fancy ten-step hair treatment. ‘Friends discount’ is code for free, by the way.”
Akechi has unfurled himself to full height, towering over Akira, who remains sitting cross-legged on Akechi’s floor with Akechi’s pets sandwiching him on either site. Robin appears taken aback by the sudden outburst. She daintily places a paw on Akira’s toes in an attempt to pacify her owner (look, I think he’s decent); Loki, on the other hand, seems much less interested in defending Akira’s honour and much more excited by the prospect of violence.
“Let me ask you again,” Akechi sneers, arms folded tightly over his chest, “what’s the real reason you’re doing this?”
Akira scrambles for a stronghold.
“Oh, spare me. It can’t be the dogs. It’s never about the dogs. Is it connections you’re after, is that it? Will you leave me alone if I give you a backstage tour of the TV studio? Forward your name on to my superiors? Tag you on social media and pretend we give a damn about each other?”
His voice has gone shrill by the time he finishes raving. Akira regards him coolly. He guesses Akechi does have a point: Akira was doing his own bit of deflection, what with assuring Akechi it was Robin and Loki he was coming around for. It was time to come clean.
“For a detective,” Akira says, “you’re not very good at detecting genuine interest.”
“I’ll admit. It was just about getting your number at first.” Akechi opens his mouth in a bid to speak. Akira cuts him off. “But I had a great time talking to you at the park, and… I got the feeling you enjoyed arguing with me. It was intriguing.”
“Intriguing,” parrots Akechi. His walls are up. “I see. I’m glad to hear you got something out of our senseless bickering.”
“So did you,” Akira insists. “You could’ve left me to walk home tonight, but you didn’t. I know my resting bitch face isn’t conveying any of this very well, but I really am grateful, Akechi. I never would’ve got to experience this if you’d slammed the door on me.”
He gestures meaningfully at Akechi and his balled-up fists, the balcony, the apartment. Robin Hood on the carpet. Loki drooling a kiddie pool’s worth of saliva into the dip between Akira’s legs.
“Tonight has been the most fun I’ve had in months,” he says in earnest. “I hope that’s enough of a reason for you. And I’d love to come round again sometime in the near or distant future, if you’ll have me.”
Akechi has gone mute. He opens his mouth and closes it again.
His façade falls apart.
“You’re lying,” he whispers, finally.
“No, actually, I’m not,” says Akira. “I think you’re interesting. I want to get to know you.”
They’re the same words he used to explain his motivations to Futaba. For the life of him Akira could not come up with a more flowery, roundabout proposal. But he doesn’t need to for it to work. Akechi is blinking at him, and gaping, and reaching around blindly for his emotional support animal.
Rather than Robin, it is Loki who rises to the occasion. He nips at Akechi’s fingers.
It’s funny how Akechi’s dogs mirrored the detective’s wildly opposing personalities. If Robin Hood served as a reflection of Akechi’s public image (well-dressed, well-bred and on the verge of pompous), Akira is sure he could find parallels between the Detective Prince and Loki as well. They were both underfed, for one. Feisty. Their behaviour a farce for what lay beneath: a longing for mutual affection.
After patiently enduring a full minute of Loki’s teething, Akechi draws back and glares at the borzoi. With a lack of fingers to suckle on, Loki settles for Akechi’s pants leg.
“I… suppose I could excuse myself from Friday drinks,” he ventures.
Akira is enthralled.
“Perfect. Coincidentally, Friday happens to be when I offer my evening masseuse services.”
“The dogsitting will suffice.”
“You don’t know what you’re passing up. I learnt from the best—you know the elite housekeeping service? Becky the maid? She’s published a book on her quick and easy floor sweeping techniques.”
“Surely there aren’t enough techniques to write a book on the matter,” Akechi says.
His mouth isn’t quite smiling, but it’s close. He walks over to his genkan wardrobe and rummages around for Akira’s coat.
“You’d be surprised. Anyway, I apprenticed under her. I’ve been relieving tension in overworked, underpaid salarymen and women for over a year now.” Akira rolls his shoulders, as if to show just how floppy and boneless he could render Akechi given the chance. “I bet you have a lot of muscle knots.”
“People stress me out. Some more than others.”
A significant glance. Akira thinks Akechi might be flirting.
“Sounds rough. Let me help you with that.”
“You’ll make it worse.”
“I’ll make it better.”
“You’ll cut off my circulation. You’ll hit a wrong nerve and paralyze me.”
“O ye of little faith. I have a certificate.” Akira turns. “Have some trust in my credentials, Goro.”
They’ve made their way to the entrance in the meantime.
“Akechi,” Akira amends. “Goro’s fine,” Akechi—Goro—says.
He quietly hands Akira his coat. Akira shrugs it on. They are left to stare at each other, wondering how to end their rollercoaster evening.
Possibly to buy them some time, Goro opens the front door. Akira obligingly shuffles out into the hallway at a snail’s pace. The glow of the overhead LED lighting is sickly and unpleasant. He would much rather be back in Goro’s apartment, where the two dogs bayed and fought over their undivided attention, and the cubist portraits on the wall stared at Akira in disgust.
He wants to help Goro decorate the place, Akira realizes, and clears his throat to cover up the inadvertent noise that escapes him. He really was invested. Futaba’s predictions never missed their mark.
It’s Goro who speaks first, in the end. He doesn’t appear to have noticed Akira’s dilemma, glaring down at the obnoxiously cheery HOME IS WHERE THE ♥ IS welcome mat instead. “You can come by this Friday. No friends discount nonsense, I’ll compensate you for your efforts.”
“I’ll bring my oils,” says Akira.
Goro rolls his eyes. “My muscle knots look forward to it.”
“Good.” Akira beams. And blurts, before he can stop himself, “One final question. Is it true your agency won’t let you go on dates?”
This seems to pique Goro’s interest. He takes a step forward. Akira takes one back.
“Who told you that?” he asks.
“Oh, um, no one. Intel source.”
Goro leans in.
“Well, you let your intel source know that they’re full of shit. Akira.” His voice is very low, conspiratorial. “Of course I can go on dates. I’m not some j-pop idol.”
That’s what I told Futaba too, Akira could say, or ohokaycooljustwondering! But neither reply seems appropriate in the face of Goro’s abrupt forwardness.
“What’s with the sudden interest, anyway?” continues Goro, clearly revelling in the absence of a response. Robin Hood, ever in his shadow, shoves her nose in between the back of his legs and whines. Loki snuffles wetly at their shoes. He ignores them both; he is on a mission to make Akira as uncomfortable as possible, bored dogs be damned. “Don’t tell me you’ve added ‘rental boyfriend’ to your roster of jobs now. I’m not that desperate.”
His near-smile has blossomed into a full-on smirk. It’s insufferable.
Insufferably hot, too.
It dawns on Akira then: the bravado of Goro resting his arm on the doorframe despite the flesh wound, lording the extra inch or two of height he has over Akira. The cat-and-mouse game they’d initiated in Leblanc had never claimed its true winner. And Goro’s smug aura did have a decidedly feline quality to it.
This wasn’t a bad thing. Akira has come to tolerate dogs, after all, but he has always deemed himself more of a cat person.
“You wouldn’t have to rent me,” he tells Goro, and leaves him to flounder on the doorstep.
- apologies to the marvel cinematic universe for stealing the “loki is adopted” gag. Please don’t sue me mickey mouse
- don’t wash your hair with dog shampoo, it’s bad for your scalp :(
- don’t encourage your baby sister to hack celebrity fan sites so you can invade their apartments and wash their rabies-infested dogs either. akira download tinder like a normal person challenge
anyway THANKS FOR READING!!! and thank you to di and lily for enduring my Dog Yells. love you both