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Exhibition

Chapter Text

Akihito flips through the stack of photographs again. He places it on his desk, massages his temples, and sighs. Planning for an exhibit is very different from both criminal photography and advertising photoshoots. The paper can only fit one – or maybe a few – photographs per story, and he only has a handful of shots to choose from, each a little different. It’s usually easy to pick out the best one to draw the readers’ attention and help tell the story: the one that shows the politician’s hand receiving the stack of money from the bribing businessman, for example.

Advertising pictures are a little more difficult. He might take dozens of similar photographs at a photoshoot, but at least the director has a vision of what he’s looking for, and if he articulates that to Akihito, Akihito can narrow down the choices to present to the director. The director ultimately selects the final photographs, and Akihito makes any modifications requested.

This exhibit, though, is an entirely new format for Akihito. He took most of the photographs of the cats without anything in mind other than “The kittens are cute; I want to remember this time I have with them.” Therefore, the pictures don’t tell a story or fit a particular theme other than “kittens.” And that makes selecting the photographs for the exhibit difficult.

Asami knocks on his workroom door.

“Come in,” Akihito calls out.

Asami enters and hands Akihito a steaming mug of coffee.

“Thanks.” Akihito takes a big sip, sets the cup down, stands, and stretches.

“Working on the exhibit again?” Asami asks.

“Yeah. I need to pick the final photos soon so I can start making the prints and decide how I want to display them. I have a meeting with my mentor tomorrow to get his feedback, but I feel like I should have a general idea of what I want to do before the meeting.” Akihito gestures towards his computer screen. “Kou made me a basic 3D mock-up of the cat café, but if anything, I find it a bit overwhelming. Saitō-san, the owner, says most artists display anywhere from 20 to 40 pieces. I have about fifty that I think are good quality, but I don’t know how to narrow it down from there.”

“You want to tell a story, right?” Asami asks. He gestures at the pile. “May I?”

“Go ahead.” Akihito starts pacing back and forth. “Sure, I want to tell a story. The theme ‘cats’ is obvious, but I want something a little more than that. I thought of mother-and-child, but I only have about eight good ones of Momoe and the kittens that don’t include Toshi.”

It was easy to persuade Nakamura, Momoe’s owner, to sign a release granting Akihito exclusive rights to the photos he took of Momoe. Since Akihito and Asami own Amaya and Shiro, he doesn’t need a release to use their images, but Hitoshi, their brother, belongs to the owner of the stud used to breed Momoe.

“You need Hitoshi’s owner’s permission to use Hitoshi’s image? Even though he didn’t technically own Hitoshi yet when the pictures were taken?” Asami raises his eyebrows.

“Technically, he owned Toshi as soon as Toshi was born,” Akihito explains. “Nakamura-san said she couldn’t sign a release for him, and when I contacted Toshi’s owner, he said he’d only sign a release if he could receive 50% of the gross sales from anything using Toshi’s image – plus a minimum 10,000-yen fee for each event at which I display any image of Toshi, scaling up depending on the size of the event.”

“That’s extortion,” Asami says. “You should send him a bill for Hitoshi’s care.”

Akihito shrugs. “I don’t want to make trouble for Nakamura-san. The easy solution is to just not use any of the pictures with Hitoshi. He gets no money, and I don’t have to worry about him suing me.”

“Are there other themes you’re considering?” Asami asks.

“Sure. Human-and-cat bonds. I’ve got about twenty decent pictures of that, but since the ones with you show as little of you as possible, and the ones with me also rarely show my face since I prefer candid shots and have to do those from behind the camera…” Akihito shrugs. “A few of those shots would be okay, but it’d be weird for the whole show to be just that. And then there’s sibling rivalry, but the best of those had Hitoshi and Shiro. Shiro doesn’t really pick on Amaya, probably because she just comes crying to me and lets him win, so it’s no fun for Shiro. And last, there’s playtime. But most of those are technically problematic because the cats move so fast, it’s hard to catch them in focus. Some of the issues can be fixed with cropping, but I still only have about a dozen.”

Asami frowns. “What about the last ten pictures?”

Akihito has seen it enough not to be shocked anymore by Asami’s ability to do arithmetic in his head with seemingly no effort while apparently concentrating on other things. “They’re random, cute pictures. Bath time. Eating. Things like that.”

“Hmm,” Asami says. “Your themes all have one thing in common.”

“What’s that?” Akihito asks.

“Relationships,” Asami says, handing the stack back to Akihito. “That’s a theme, right?”

Akihito gapes at him.

“Why do you look so surprised?” Asami asks. “I’ve been to a number of exhibits. I’m not totally clueless about art.”

“That’s not it. I’m just shocked I didn’t think of it myself. I guess I should go see more exhibits myself. I haven’t been to one since Kawase-shishō dragged me to one. I think the last time he did was three years ago. I embarrassed him by wearing jeans.”

Asami eyes him suspiciously. “What are you planning to wear to your exhibit?”

“My suit. I’ve grown up a little since then, you know. Though in my defense, I was planning to wear my suit, but I got stuck late at work and had to go straight to the exhibit. I thought it’d be ruder to be late than to show up in jeans.”

Asami continues to eye him skeptically. “The gray suit you wore to Club Sion?”

“Yeah… I plan to get it altered, though! I know it doesn’t fit me that well…”

“Alterations won’t really fix the problems with that suit,” Asami says. “The shoulders are too broad, which can’t be fixed with simple alterations. And the lines don’t really suit your figure. Something with a more modern cut would show off your sexy physique better.”

Akihito rolls his eyes. “Well, it’s all I’ve got. I don’t have room in my budget for a new suit right now. I’ve got to pay for the exhibit. The framing alone is going to tear a hole in my savings account.”

Asami clears his throat.

Akihito continues speaking before Asami can make an offer that will embarrass him. “I have plenty of money to cover it. I’ve got a budget, and I’ll make it work. But I’d rather make sure my work is presented in the best light possible than compromise there to buy new clothes I’m rarely going to wear. The suit is good enough.”

“Why not do both?” Asami presses. “I still owe you a White Day present…”

“No, you don’t. We already went over that. You got me a Valentine’s present, too.”

“Mine didn’t cost any money.”

“Sure it did. The candles, the paper, the photos, the ingredients for the gyoza and the rest of dinner, the champagne…”

“But you made me chocolates. And you bought all that spa stuff,” Asami points out.

Akihito rolls his eyes. “That’s why I said we’re even. No White Day. Please. Or I’ll just have to get you something, too.”

Asami frowns. “That would defeat the purpose.”

“Exactly.”

“What about as a present for your first exhibit? Surely it’s traditional to give congratulatory gifts at a time like that,” Asami says.

Akihito eyes him skeptically. “I’ve never heard of such a tradition.”

“It’s your first exhibit. How would you know?” Asami says.

Akihito shakes his head. “Maybe something like flowers or chocolates, maybe champagne. Something small. Not a designer suit.”

“Then… Ochugen? It’s nearly June.”

“We don’t work together. And anyway, a designer suit would be too expensive for Ochugen.”

“Do I really need an occasion? Can’t I just get it for you because I want to?” Asami asks.

Akihito picks up his coffee and takes a long sip. “Why are you being so stubborn about this?” he asks.

“Why are you?” Asami retorts.

“Because… Because it’s a slippery slope. I’m already living here with you rent-free.”

“You do all the chores and cook delicious meals for me.”

“That isn’t worth half the rent.”

“Sure it is. Once you factor in the money you spend on groceries.”

Akihito’s eyebrows shoot up. “You must have paid your housekeeper really well then. Especially once you add in the maintenance fees, utilities, and parking fees.”

“You’re not using half the space,” Asami counters. “Anyway, I was already paying the entire rent by myself. The extra utilities are more than offset by the food expenses you’re covering. The savings for the housekeeper would more than cover the rent for a single room here.”

Akihito rolls his eyes. “And the cost of building the darkroom? With all the fancy ventilation and the plumbing?” He turns and starts pacing again.

“If you’re going to have a chemical laboratory in our home, you’ve got to be safe about it,” Asami points out. “You’re lucky you didn’t poison yourself the way you jerry-rigged it at your old place. Anyway, that was my choice, so of course I should have covered the additional expenses.”

“It’s still a slippery slope. I don’t want you to think that I’m with you because of what you can buy me.”

Asami laughs. “I would never think that. You’re the most unmaterialistic person I’ve ever met.”

“But if I start to accept such lavish gifts, I might reach a point where I come to expect them. I never want to do that to you,” Akihito protests.

Asami sighs. “So what’s ‘lavish’ to you?”

“I don’t know.” Akihito pauses to gaze out the window. “Something I couldn’t buy for myself. Something more than what a normal person would give.”

“I’m normal,” Asami says.

Akihito giggles at that. “Normal? You?! Sorry, you’re a lot of things, but normal is definitely not one of them.”

“I think a normal person would give a nice outfit for someone to wear to their first exhibit, though,” Asami protests.

Akihito rolls his eyes. “Sure, maybe a nice dress for a woman. But they wouldn’t spend more than ten thousand yen, probably.”

“For a really big occasion, wouldn’t twenty to thirty thousand yen be more appropriate?” Asami asks.

“Maybe for a parent…” Akihito concedes.

“What about a koibito?” Asami asks, wrapping his arms around Akihito.

Akihito’s face flushes. “That’s still different. Ten thousand yen is the limit. And that’s only for a special occasion.”

Akihito can feel Asami’s sigh ruffling his hair.

“Fine. So if I don’t spend more than ten-thousand yen, you’ll accept it?”

Akihito groans. “I suppose I’d have to after saying all that.”

“You’re one tough negotiator, Takaba Akihito. Though you’re the only person I’ve ever had to talk into accepting more than was initially asked of me.”

“I didn’t ask for anything!” Akihito protests.

“I know.” Asami kisses Akihito’s cheek. “I should add ‘You’re frugal’ to the jar” (referring to a jar which Asami filled with notes and photographs of the things he loves about Akihito for Valentine’s Day).

“You really don’t need to keep adding to it,” Akihito grumbles. “Besides, I’m not sure that’s a compliment coming from you.”

“Sure it is,” Asami says. “Anyway, I’m hungry. Ready for some breakfast?” His smirk indicates that he has something other than food on his mind.

“If you bring out that apron one more time…” Akihito threatens.

“You can’t fool me. If you really hated it, you’d have used your safe word by now,” Asami whispers in his ear.

Akihito gives him a sharp jab to the stomach with his elbow.

“You’re going to pay for that one,” Asami growls.

He picks Akihito up and throws him over his shoulder. As he opens the door, Akihito starts thrashing, trying to escape, and Asami gives him a resounding smack on his bottom. Akihito squeals.

“Ow,” Asami says. Before Akihito can ask what happened, Asami is squatting down.

“What are you doing?” Akihito cries.

Asami doesn’t answer. As Asami stands back up, Akihito suddenly feels several sharp little pricks on his bottom.

“Is that Amaya?” he guesses.

“She bit my ankle. I think she thought I was hurting you because you squealed like a pig.” Asami continues to make his way to the bedroom.

“I didn’t sound like a pig! Can you hold her still? She’s using her claws to hold on, and my jeans aren’t that thick.”

“If she won’t bite me again,” Asami says. He places his hand firmly on Amaya’s back. After a few steps, he says, “She’s purring. She must be an M, too.”

“She’s probably stressed out. Cats purr when they’re stressed, not just when they’re happy.” Akihito fidgets a bit more, but it only causes Amaya to dig her nails in deeper, so he gives up – for now.

“So you finally admit you’re an M?” Asami teases as he opens the bedroom door. He quickly shuts the door behind him, locking Shiro out.

“What? I didn’t say anything like that!”

“Then what’s that poking into my shoulder?” Asami asks.

He grabs Amaya by the scruff of her neck and lets Akihito fall onto the bed. As Asami heads to the door to put Amaya out, she meows plaintively while kicking her legs, trying to break free.

“Aw, at least let her know I’m alright first,” Akihito protests.

Asami sighs and hands the cat to Akihito.

“I’m alright, girl. We were just playing. Sorry we scared you.” As soon as she’s in Akihito’s arms, she calms down. He holds her out towards Asami, and she lets out a low growl. “Hey, now! Asami’s our friend, Amaya!” Akihito pets Asami’s arm, then holds Amaya closer to him again. “Hold out your hand.”

Asami complies, and after sniffing it, Amaya licks it, looking up at him with a reproachful look. “I’m sorry, girl,” he croons, petting her head.

After a few seconds, she starts purring, and Akihito walks her to the door. “See ya!” he cries, holding her low and dropping her as he runs off down the hall. Amaya turns tail and runs in the opposite direction, but when Asami comes barreling out of the bedroom, she heads towards the genkan and kitchen.

Dropping Amaya cost him valuable time, and Akihito is slowed down further by the sharp turn to the living room. Why did I run right instead of left? he wonders.

Asami catches him and throws him on the couch. “You’re definitely going to pay for that,” he growls. This time, when he goes to the bedroom, he ignores Amaya and Shiro (who has decided he wants in on the excitement), deftly blocking them from entering the room with one foot as he balances on the other and closes the door. When he clicks the button to open the door to the secret room, Akihito gulps.

 

After brunch, Akihito heads back to his workroom to work on the exhibit again. Thirty minutes later, he’s fidgeting on his chair, making no progress, when Asami knocks on the door.

“Change into something a little nicer and get your shoes on,” Asami says.

“I’m working right now,” Akihito grumbles.

“I know. This will help,” Asami promises.

“What will?” Akihito grouses, but Asami will give him no additional information as Akihito quickly changes into an Asami-approved outfit (khakis and a button-down shirt).

Yoneda drives them to Sendagaya. When he pulls up to the curb, Akihito grumbles, “We could have walked here, you know. It’s only two kilometers from ho–” He stops abruptly as he recognizes the building. “We’re at the Taka Ishii Gallery.”

“You’ve been here before?” Asami asks.

“Of course. My mentor brought me to a few different exhibits here. Aren’t they closed on Mondays?”

Asami shrugs. “They’re open to their patrons.”

When the curator opens the door for them and bows, greeting them with a “Thank you for your continued support, Asami-sama,” Akihito understands.

“Would you like a tour of the new exhibit, or would you prefer to look at it yourselves?” the curator asks.

“I think we would prefer to observe it for ourselves first,” Asami says, looking at Akihito, who nods in agreement. “But afterwards, my friend here might have some questions for you, if it isn’t too much trouble. He’s preparing for his first exhibit.”

The curator’s eyebrows shoot up. “Where will you be showing?”

Akihito blushes. “It’s a small show at the Neko Bijou Café.” He’s a bit embarrassed to even be talking to the curator of the most famous photography gallery in Tokyo, much less about his exhibit at a cat café.

But the curator simply nods. “So your focus is cats – or do you have a more general interest in all animals?”

Akihito blushes harder. “Actually, I’m a crime photographer for Weekly Headlines. Well, I also do some advertising work, as well.”

The curator’s eyebrows shoot up again. “Has Saitō-san changed her policy regarding subject matter?”

Akihito scratches his head. “No, I don’t think so. The focus of my exhibit will be on cats. It’s not my usual focus, but I helped foster a mother cat and her kittens recently, and I took a lot of photos of them.”

“I see.” As the curator leads the way to the exhibit room, he continues to converse with Akihito. “So you realized that you had enough photos along a single theme to finally have an exhibit?”

Akihito shakes his head. “Actually, I never really thought of having an exhibit. But my friend knows Saitō-san, and she showed her one of the photos I had taken, and Saitō-san said she was interested in hosting an exhibit of my work.”

The curator’s eyebrows continue their workout. “Saitō-san wanted to host you after seeing a single photograph?”

Akihito shrugs. “I thought it was a little strange, too, but after talking to her a bit, she really seems to know what she’s doing, and it’s a good space, so I figured I’d give it a try.”

“I’d love to see that photograph,” the curator muses.

“You can see it at the exhibit,” Asami tells him. “I’ll make sure you receive one of the promotional flyers as soon as they’re printed.”

“You said that you’re a criminal photographer, correct? Do you perhaps know Kawase-sensei?”

“Yes, he’s my mentor.”

“Ah. You must be Takaba Akihito. I’ve heard a lot about you from Kawase-sensei.”

“Really?” Akihito asks. He wonders whether it was good or bad. He’s never met this curator before, so hopefully he didn’t hear about Akihito’s wardrobe faux pas when he last came to an exhibit here.

“You’re the one who got away, the student who ran off to be a journalist instead of continuing your art. He said you have a knack for capturing the secrets people want to keep hidden. You’re technically very proficient, but you’ve never really found anything that can keep your interest long enough for you to develop a distinctive style.”

Akihito blushes again. Kawase has never said anything good about Akihito’s work to Akihito himself. The best he’s ever heard is “Hmm. Not bad.”

“Kawase-shishō is an excellent teacher, but I still have a lot to learn. I figured this exhibit would be part of the learning process.”

“Well, I look forward to seeing your photographs. Look around for as long as you like, and then I’ll answer any questions you have about hosting your own exhibit.”

“Thank you.”

Asami stands back, allowing Akihito to set the pace. Akihito leads the way around the room, pausing to study each photograph in turn. He spends much less time on the mixed media pieces. After he’s finished a first tour of the room, he goes through the exhibit again, focusing less on each individual piece and more on how the pieces work with their neighbors.

“What’s up with the stools?” he mutters. “How is this art? And why is it called ‘twelve’?”

Asami clears his throat.

“I didn’t say that too loud, did I?” Akihito asks, looking around for the curator. “But seriously, I don’t get how you can call this art.” He yelps and grabs his buttocks. “What the heck? It vibrates?” He glares at Asami. “I still can’t believe you made me wear this thing in public. Do that again, and I’m removing it. What if someone noticed?”

“What if someone heard you insulting an eminent artist showcasing their works here?” Asami retorts. But he slips the remote control back in his pocket.

“Sorry,” Akihito mutters. He pulls out his phone and starts typing.

“What are you doing now?” Asami asks.

“Since I don’t get it, I’m looking it up,” Akihito explains. “It says she explores time and space, especially as it pertains to memory, incorporating the space where the art is installed. These stools were found.” He walks around the stools, observing how their display complements the other pieces, frowning. “I still don’t get it. I mean, I can see it all works together, I guess, but I could never come up with something like that.”

“No one is asking you to,” Asami says.

Akihito examines the photographs one more time. “I was wrong before. I only have about ten good photos. I need to take more.”

“Are you ready to ask some questions?” Asami asks.

“I guess,” Akihito says. “I wish I’d known where we were going so I could prepare the questions in advance. I don’t want to ask anything stupid, or something I should have already known.”

“If you thought about it too long, you probably would end up asking things you could have found out online. Just keep it general, like ‘What are the most common mistakes you see first-time exhibitors making?’” Asami suggests.

Akihito nods.

 

After a brief conversation with the curator, they climb back into the car.

“How are you feeling now?” Asami asks.

“I don’t know. I think I’ve got a better grasp of all the things I need to do for the exhibit, but it didn’t really help with the immediate issue of selecting which photos to show, much less where to place them. The gallery is so different from the cat café. There, my photos will be competing with living, breathing cats for attention. I don’t really want them to compete, though. If I could find a way for them to work together…”

“I think the next place we’re going will help you with that issue,” Asami says mysteriously.

“Where is that?” Akihito asks, but Asami distracts him by pulling out his remote again.

 

Chapter Text

The car pulls up to a large skyscraper in Roppongi.

“Ah,” Akihito says, looking out the window.

“You know where we are?” Asami asks.

“Of course. Who hasn’t heard of the Mori Art Museum?”

“Have you been here before?”

“Of course not. I already told you, I don’t get furniture as art. Or polka-dot mazes. Or ‘breathing’ buildings. Or whatever else they’re showing.”

“The ‘breathing’ building installation was in Nagoya,” Asami points out.

“What, seriously? I was making that one up!” Akihito rolls his eyes. “Art is so weird.”

Asami pulls the remote out of his pocket. “I will use it again if I have to,” he says.

Akihito yelps. “You’d better not. I’ve had enough of that.” He rubs his bottom.

Asami slides the remote back into his pocket and presses a button on the console. “We’re ready, Yoneda.”

Yoneda exits the driver’s seat and opens the rear door for them. A few curious onlookers turn to see who’s getting out of the Mercedes, and Akihito blushes. He’ll never get used to Asami’s ostentatious display of his wealth.

A few minutes later, the curator bows low, saying, “Welcome, Asami-sama. The artists are still finishing their installations, but they’re mostly complete at this point since the exhibitions open Saturday and we have a few private viewings and photograph sessions before then. I understand you wish to see the research exhibit first?”

Akihito follows mutely behind Asami and the curator as the two chat. Just how many strings did Asami pull to take him to these exhibits today? And he must have planned it after their conversation this morning about Akihito’s struggles with his own exhibit… Akihito shakes his head.

Is Asami a major art patron? They’ve never really talked about art before, but Asami seems to actually respect modern art, defending it whenever Akihito makes fun of it. Akihito feels thrown off balance somehow, discovering this side of Asami. Given Asami’s indifference to how his own home is decorated and his practical nature, Akihito always assumed the man had no use for things that served a merely aesthetic purpose.

Photography is not just about aesthetics. Its primary purpose is to convey the artist’s way of seeing the world, revealing a deeper truth about life. Kawase-shishō’s words echo in Akihito’s mind. Asami has said maybe he wouldn’t mind being seen through my viewfinder, so obviously he knows the power of the captured image.

Not that Asami has actually let Akihito take his picture yet. Even the photo hanging in Sion’s executive marketing conference room was taken on the sly. It was late at night during one of summer’s rolling blackouts, and they’d opened the terrace doors to let in a breeze, but it was still too warm, so they went outside to cool off. Akihito went back inside to prepare some refreshments, and he secretly set up his tripod and snapped the photograph through the open door while Asami was smoking a cigarette.

When he saw the picture, Asami was a little miffed that Akihito had captured him on film, but after taking Akihito to the secret room, he nonchalantly asked for a large print of the photo as ‘compensation,’ while warning Akihito to never show it to anyone else. Akihito never knew what became of the print until Kou told him about the photographs hanging in the conference room.

Akihito is stirred from his ruminations by Asami’s hand on his elbow. “Come on, let’s explore Indonesia,” Asami says.

They walk quietly through the display, taking care not to disturb the workers who are still arranging the pieces and hanging descriptions. The multimedia display has numerous contemporaneous articles about the 1970s art movement, and Akihito reads each thoroughly. After they’ve walked around the room twice, Akihito leads the way to an alcove where they can quietly discuss what they’ve seen.

“What did you think?” Asami asks.

“I don’t know. I kind of get what they were trying to do from the articles, but I don’t think I would have gotten that from the art itself. I feel like you shouldn’t really have to explain your art; it should speak for itself.”

“Like your photos in the paper? You never use captions, right?” Asami teases.

“That’s different! That’s not art. That’s me trying to shine light on the truth. Besides, you don’t really need the captions, not unless you don’t know who’s in the picture. And the articles can say more in less space than a photoessay could.”

“Have you ever written a photoessay?” Asami asks curiously.

“No. The editor would never go for something like that,” Akihito says a bit wistfully. “Anyway, I’ve never found a story that would be appropriate for one.”

“Has seeing these exhibits been helpful at all?” Asami asks.

“Sure. It was especially fascinating to see how different photographers captured the same art pieces – and how those photographs matched the tone of the particular article they accompanied.”

“Which has nothing to do with your exhibit,” Asami points out.

“I thought you said this exhibit would help me figure out a way for my photos to work with the cats and the décor of the cat café.”

“The next one will,” Asami says, leading the way into the Stereotyped Thailand collection.

Akihito tours the exhibit five times, peering at the various art pieces juxtaposed with the school desks. By his last time around, a grin is playing at the corners of his mouth.

“Are you finally getting some ideas?” Asami asks.

“Yeah. I don’t think Kawase-shishō is going to like them, though.” The thought of aggravating his mentor makes Akihito’s grin grow broader.

Asami activates the remote in his pocket, and Akihito yelps. One of the people working on the exhibit looks up, frowning.

“Sorry,” Akihito says, blushing as he bows and leads the way quickly out of the room. “Turn it off. Now,” he mutters to Asami.

Asami simply raises his eyebrows at him innocently.

“Onion,” Akihito mutters.

Asami sighs and hits the button on the remote.

 

On the drive back to the penthouse, Asami tries to get Akihito to discuss his ideas.

“I’m not going to say. I have to try them out and see if they’ll work first,” Akihito says.

After several minutes, Asami gives up and tries to entertain himself physically, but Akihito doesn’t want to help relieve his boredom.

“I’m concentrating here,” Akihito protests. “Haven’t you already had enough today?”

“No,” Asami says.

Akihito rolls his eyes. “In your whole life, have you ever had enough?”

Asami thinks about it. “Probably. But it’s like hunger. It comes back after a few hours.”

“You’re not normal,” Akihito says.

“We’ve already established that, Akihito. Who wants to be normal?”

“Being normal’s not so bad,” Akihito mutters.

Asami gently lifts Akihito’s chin and looks him in the eye. “I never said it was. But you’re not so normal either, you know.”

“What do you mean? I’m not a pervert like you!”

“Oh, really?” Asami smirks, holding up the remote in his hand.

“That wasn’t my idea. And I didn’t particularly enjoy it,” Akihito says.

“And yet you waited an awfully long time to use your safe word,” Asami points out.

“That was – I was – I’m just trying to be sensitive to your love language!” Akihito splutters, his face reddening.

Asami chuckles. “Nice excuse. But you still enjoyed it, too.”

“No, I didn’t!” Akihito can feel his face growing even redder.

“Your mouth says one thing, but the rest of you says something else.” Asami grins, leaning closer to Akihito.

Akihito starts to squirm. “I think you need a new lesson in reading body language.”

“Do I?” Asami asks. He closes the gap between them, and Akihito has already forgotten why he was resisting.

They’re still riding in circles around Shinjuku forty-five minutes later when Akihito’s phone buzzes, pulling them back to reality.

“It’s my editor,” Akihito gasps.

Asami sighs.

Akihito answers the call. “Kodama Kento? Is he related to the Kodama-gumi?”

Asami’s ears perk up.

“His son? I see… Who else is on it? Mitarai?” Akihito sighs. “No, we’ll work together.” Akihito hangs up and glances over at Asami, who’s busy texting someone. “Kirishima?” he asks.

“You’re not going to tell me what’s going on with Kodama’s son, are you?” Asami retorts.

“You’re the one who thinks we should keep our jobs separate,” Akihito points out.

“Your job is to make information public, though.”

“I will. In tomorrow’s paper, after I get the scoop.”

“So you’re working tonight?”

“Yeah. Sorry, I know we coordinated our days off, but it’s such a big story, I can’t wriggle out of it.”

Asami gets a text back. He reads it and shows it to Akihito. “That makes two of us.”

Akihito reads the text.

I was just about to call you. There’s some paperwork you need to address tonight.

Akihito snorts. “‘Paperwork,’ eh? Is that what they’re calling it these days? Just tell me, is this one of those scoops where I’ll end up having to pull back in the end? I don’t want to go chasing around Tokyo all night only to end up outside Demon City, knowing I can’t print any pictures taken there.”

Asami shrugs. “Since I don’t know what’s going on, that’s not really something I can answer, is it? You tell me. Is this the kind of story that would have Kodama going to a club to drown his sorrow? Or would he be keeping vigil at the hospital? Or maybe at home?”

Akihito’s mouth drops open, but he closes it as soon as he realizes it and grins. “Nice try. You’re not getting anything out of me, though. You’ll have to go through your usual channels. I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough.”

Asami chuckles. “It was worth a shot. You know I’m not a patient man.” He presses the button on the console. “Home, please, Yoneda. The fastest route.”

Akihito glances out the window. They’re only a block away from the penthouse. He quickly gathers his clothes and puts them on.

“You forgot something,” Asami points out.

Akihito glances down where Asami is pointing and blushes. “No way. I’m not putting that back in. Especially since it’s on the floor. Gross!”

“So you’re just going to leave it for one of your guards to find?” Asami asks.

“It’s yours. You take care of it,” Akihito challenges.

“It’s yours, actually,” Asami counters. “I bought it for you. But if you want me to carry it in for you, I can. I don’t have anything to put it in, though, so I can’t really control who will see it.”

“Bastard,” Akihito mutters. “Don’t you at least have a bag?”

Asami pats his pockets. “I’m afraid I don’t carry something like that with me.”

Akihito rummages through his camera bag. He pulls out a small triangle and unfolds it, revealing a plastic grocery sack. He picks the item off the car floor using the bag and ties the handles together, then drops it into the main compartment of the camera bag. “It’d better not ruin my camera.”

Asami grins. “Don’t forget to take it out before your stakeout.”

“Like I would,” Akihito says. “I’m tossing it in the trash as soon as we get inside.”

“They’re washable, you know,” Asami points out.

Akihito ignores him because Yoneda is already opening the door for them. Once inside, Akihito removes the plastic bag from his camera bag. He holds it over the trashcan but wavers. “Is this combustible?” he worries.

Asami snickers. “You’re not worried about the janitor seeing that when he takes it to the curb?”

“Why would he go through the bags? And how would he know whose it was?” Akihito retorts. “You’re just trying to make me paranoid so you can use it again.”

“But you enjoyed it, too. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Besides, they’re not exactly cheap.”

“They’re not?” Akihito asks. He’s never thought about how much Asami’s toy collection might cost. It’s not like Akihito’s ever asked Asami to spend any money on them; he would prefer not to use them at all. Though they do sometimes make things exciting. Akihito shakes his head. I didn’t just think that. Nope. It’s all Asami.

“That one cost thirty thousand yen,” Asami says.

Akihito drops the bag.

He reaches in and fishes it out of the trash. Good thing it was a new, empty trash bag.

“Seriously?” Akihito gapes at Asami. “Do you know how many groceries I could buy with that?”

“It’s high-quality silicone, waterproof, with rechargeable batteries and a remote control. Plus it had to be discreetly imported.”

“You mean it’s black market,” Akihito says.

Asami shrugs. “If you’d rather have one shaped like an animal or with a face on it…”

Akihito wrinkles his nose.

“That’s precisely how I feel about it. So yes, it is ‘black market.’ It’s a silly law; one I have absolutely no moral qualms about flouting.”

“Do you have any qualms about flouting any law?” Akihito asks.

Asami shrugs. “Do you really want me to answer that?”

Akihito eyes him. “Yeah. I guess I do.”

Asami shrugs again. “The ones I choose to flout? No. The ones I don’t flout, I agree with.”

“Like what?” Akihito asks curiously.

“Like traffic laws, in general. They help control traffic and get everyone to their destinations more quickly and safely. But sometimes flouting them is necessary for more important purposes.”

Akihito grunts. He should have known he’d get a boring answer, and he doesn’t miss the subtle dig at the fact that he flouts as many traffic laws as he can get away with. “So how do you clean this thing?” he asks. “I’ve got to get ready for my stakeout.”

Asami sighs. “I’ll do it this time. But next time, I’m teaching you how to clean it.”

Akihito giggles as he heads to his workroom. “This might be the only thing in the world you know how to clean and I don’t.”

“You already know how to clean it,” Asami calls after him. “The box said it’s dishwasher-safe.”

Akihito turns back and stares at Asami. “Don’t you dare,” he admonishes.

Asami laughs. “I wouldn’t. Though if you want to sterilize it, it’s one of the best ways…”

Akihito gives him one more glare before stalking off to his workroom without another word.

Asami chuckles to himself. He’s viewing it as his dishwasher now. It’s good to see him claiming ownership to this place. Asami surveys the kitchen, noting all the personal touches Akihito has added over the last few months. He’s really mine now, isn’t he? It’s nice to know Akihito is no longer running from him. Asami knows they had both secretly worried that a large part of the thrill was the chase, but they’re both happier than ever now that they’ve cemented their relationship. Now if only Asami could get Akihito to stop running from his own desires…

Asami is stirred from his ruminations by a message from Kirishima with a preliminary report on the Kodama situation.

 

“Look, you go your way; I’ll go my way,” Akihito bursts out.

“If you find anything, I get 75%!” Mitarai says.

“Bull. You’re just sitting on your butt in your car. You’re never going to get a picture of him this way.”

“The compound is guarded and it has a tall wall around it,” Mitarai points out.

“And there are trees all around that are taller than the wall.”

“But it’s raining,” Mitarai whines.

“And? It just adds atmosphere to the shot.”

“I don’t want to ruin my camera.”

Akihito rolls his eyes. “You’ve never heard of a waterproof case? What kind of journalist are you?”

“A better one than you,” Mitarai sneers.

“A greedier, lazier one than me, that’s for sure,” Akihito mutters. “I’ll give you 10% for confirming the kumicho’s location, though even that’s a stretch, since I figured he was probably holed up at his house.”

“Fine, 10%,” Mitarai agrees, looking like the cat that swallowed the canary.

As soon as Akihito closes the door behind himself, Mitarai peels away.

“Asshole! You were supposed to be my ride home!” Akihito calls after the car. If Mitarai heard him, he doesn’t show any sign of it.

Akihito sighs in frustration and dials the editor.

“Mitarai just ditched me outside Kodama-gumi’s headquarters. I’m not splitting this scoop with him.”

“Just get me some good pictures, Takaba. No one else has been able to get any.”

“I will,” Akihito promises. “But I’m not letting Mitarai claim any of the credit. It’s pouring down rain, you know?”

“I know. Just don’t let it ruin your shot.”

Akihito hangs up. Mitarai’s going to be pissed tomorrow, but Akihito is sick of him claiming credit for Akihito’s hard work when Mitarai isn’t ever willing to go the extra mile for the shot himself.

“He might as well be an article writer for all the photos he actually takes,” Akihito mutters.

“Except he can’t write for shit, right?”

Akihito turns at the voice. He’d nearly forgotten about Yoneda, but of course the guard was following the car on his bike. He’s never been so glad to see Yoneda in his life.

“You’ve got eyes on you,” Yoneda adds in an undertone, his eyes flicking quickly to his left to indicate the location of the guard.

Akihito has been around the block enough times not to glance over where Yoneda indicated. Instead, he says loudly, “You here to take pictures of a wall, too?”

Yoneda shakes his head. “I’m just a writer. I heard they’re not giving interviews, so I was planning to split. Need a lift?”

“Maybe,” Akihito says. He knows the guard will get suspicious if he gives up too easily, so he walks up to the front gate. He pulls out his back-up camera and snaps a few shots of the house through the trees, but there’s really nothing to be seen, so the guards let him get his pictures.

He sighs and heads back to Yoneda’s bike.

“I’m done. I guess even the kumicho has to wait until morning to see his son, so I’ll call it a night so I can be back here before he leaves. Mind giving me a lift?”

“I can drop you off at the nearest train station,” Yoneda offers.

Akihito climbs onto the back of Yoneda’s bike. As he does so, he whispers, “Turn when I tell you to. I’ll tap your shoulder to indicate the direction.”

Yoneda rides six blocks east before Akihito signals him to turn onto a side street. Akihito leads Yoneda through a warren of back alleys. The last turn is into a small courtyard of an abandoned apartment building. Akihito signals Yoneda to turn behind a large bush, and Yoneda cuts the engine once his bike is hidden.

“The rest on foot?” he asks.

“Yep,” Akihito says.

“We can’t enter the compound,” Yoneda warns.

“I know that. There’s a small grove of chestnuts in the rear neighbor’s yard. Their Twitter account says they’re out of town. As long as we don’t get too close to the wall and don’t use any lights, Kodama-gumi won’t detect us. If they do, we’ll just run back the way we came. They can’t reach us easily by vehicle, and we’ll have a massive head start.”

“Unless they’re outside the wall,” Yoneda worries. He doesn’t bother asking how Akihito figured out the intelligence on the neighbors; he knows enough by now to know that if Akihito says it, he’s confirmed it. There’s a reason Akihito’s known as the guy who can take pictures anywhere. But the guard is still worried. “They’ll be armed,” he warns.

“I figure. But the police are watching the house. They won’t dare to cause too much of a scene. The most they’ll do is scare us away, as long as they don’t think we’re attacking them.”

Yoneda grunts in acknowledgment. He noticed the police presence, too – it wasn’t difficult, since the police were being rather obvious about it, hoping to prevent the onset of a full-on yakuza war. He hesitates a moment; they didn’t bring the Kevlar vests and helmets tonight.

“You ready?” Akihito asks.

“Yeah, I guess you don’t need a vest or helmet since the odds of them shooting are pretty low with the police here. Just don’t get too close, and run when I tell you. The signal will be the call of the night heron.”

“What’s that?” Akihito asks.

Yoneda whistles, and Akihito nods. Akihito leads the way down the alley, through three more alleys, and across five backyards. Yoneda turns around several times, trying to memorize the way back to his bike. He’s always thought he had an impeccable sense of direction, but after seeing Akihito’s in action, he knows his own is just above average.

“You have the key, right?” Yoneda asks.

“What key?” Akihito whispers back.

“The one to my bike.”

“Yeah. But I won’t ditch you.”

“Do it if I tell you to. Or if we get separated and I don’t make it back to the bike within thirty seconds.”

Akihito rolls his eyes. “Yeah, whatever.”

“Takaba-sama…” Yoneda growls in warning.

Akihito sighs. “Fine. I will. Now hush; the people in this next house are home.”

They finally make it to the small stand of chestnut trees. Akihito darts from tree to tree, finally arriving at the one closest to the back wall. There are ten-foot tall bushes between the tree and the wall, which provide great protection while they’re on the ground but won’t obstruct Akihito’s view when he’s trying to take a picture. Yoneda marvels again at Akihito’s skill. He couldn’t possibly have seen this from the road just now. How often does he scout out the homes of known underworld leaders?

Akihito scurries up the tree. He settles in the nook of a large, flat branch just before it curves upward at practically a right angle. The sharp angle means that the foliage from the branch doesn’t block his view of the Kodama-gumi headquarters. Akihito unclips his bungee-cord belt and wraps it around the tree branch. It’s not a very secure hold, and he can release it with one hand, but it provides him with a bit more stability so he can use both hands on the camera without worrying about falling.

Yoneda positions himself near the trunk of a neighboring tree, where he can scan the area in front of them for any movement. Now that Takaba’s started cooperating with the guards, they’ve lightened his security detail for most assignments. Yoneda wonders why Asami-sama didn’t add at least one more guard for tonight, though. He’d certainly feel safer with another pair of eyes watching their backs.

Akihito peers with his binoculars into the rooms in the back of the house. They apparently don’t have any curtains, or they chose not to draw them, because he can see clearly inside the rooms that are lit. The center room is lit, but no one is inside it. In the back corner room, there’s a woman in a kimono sitting by the window, staring out into the rain. Akihito grabs his camera and sets it up on the tripod. He snaps a long exposure of the woman’s face, which appears stoic except for the single tear running down her cheek.

Maybe I should let Mitarai take credit for this. I wonder how the kumicho will feel about a picture of his mistress alone in her bedroom.

Movement in the center room draws Akihito’s attention. Men are entering the room in a steady stream. He knows he can’t take pictures while they’re moving; the exposure will be too long, and all their faces will be blurred. Instead, he focuses on memorizing each face as it passes through the door. He recognizes half of them: the Tsuzaki and Toudou kumichos and wakagashiras, some of the higher-ups in the Kodama-gumi and its branch families, and… Asami.

Akihito curses under his breath. What the hell is he doing here? Doesn’t he know the police are right outside, watching everyone entering and leaving? When did he even get here? Actually, when did any of them get here? The other media outlets (and the police) out front must have gotten shots of the cars pulling up, and maybe even the men exiting the cars. But it seems rather unlikely that they would have put on that kind of show…

Akihito remembers the side patio that leads right up to the wall of the complex; he’d always thought it was odd, but he could never get close enough to that section of wall to inspect it. Even though it abutted a secluded alley, it was always closely guarded. It must be a secret driveway.

As the men bow to the Kodama kumicho in turn and take their seats, Akihito pulls his jacket over his face to make a light-blocking tent. He pulls out his phone and texts Asami.

Twelve o’clock out the back window, grove of chestnuts past the fence. 100-degree view.

He watches as Asami surreptitiously slips his phone from his pocket and reads the text. Asami nods slightly, and Akihito breathes a sigh of relief when Asami moves to the far side out of Akihito’s line of sight after bowing in his turn.

Once the men are seated, they pass a sake cup around. Akihito captures picture after picture. He doesn’t register the first birdcall, but the second one is louder and more urgent. He glances down at Yoneda, who has pulled back into the shadows.

Akihito quickly covers his lens and lies as still as possible. He hears footsteps underneath him and glances down. He recognizes a journalist from a tabloid. He jerks his head towards the man, and after a few seconds, Yoneda understands.

He steps from the trees confidently, stopping just behind the man. “Freeze if you want to live.”

The man screams and runs back the way he came.

Akihito rolls his eyes. He quickly stashes his camera, unclips from the tree, and drops down. He leads the way back to the bike via a different route, heading directly away from the Kodama-gumi headquarters, crossing yards and jumping walls. They pause and listen, and sure enough, they hear footsteps pounding the warren of alleys they came through to get to the house.

“I’d kind of like to see what they do to him,” Akihito says.

Yoneda shakes his head in warning.

Akihito sighs, but he takes a moment to write down the names of the men he recognized, as well as brief descriptions of the ones he didn’t so he can try to identify them later.

Fifteen minutes later, he leads the way to the front of the apartment building where they parked. “We’ll exit via this drive,” he says, leading the way around the building to the courtyard.

Yoneda drives them back to the penthouse without further incident.

As he rides the elevator up, Akihito glances at the digital versions of the photographs he took. There’s one particularly great one that shows the leaders of the three biggest yakuza groups in clear focus. He only hopes the film version came out as great, because it will be much better resolution. But even this digital one would be print-worthy. Akihito grins. The editor will be pleased, and he should get a nice bonus from all the resales of the photo to other media outlets. He can hear the editor now: “Takaba, you’re a handful, but you’ve got style.”

The words of the Taka Ishii Gallery curator relaying Kawase’s opinion of Akihito’s work come floating back to him. You’ve never really found anything that can keep your interest long enough for you to develop a distinctive style.

I do have a style, Akihito thinks. This is my style. Even that photograph he took of Asami that’s hanging in the Sion conference room was a night shot. He hasn’t taken any night shots of the cats, though. It’ll be tough, because the cats don’t like to stay still for very long, but Akihito will find a way.

As he exits the elevator, there’s a rumble of thunder so loud he can feel it in his belly and his  teeth, and the power goes out at the same instant.

The elevator doors stop halfway open. Thank goodness I didn’t get stuck, Akihito thinks as he tiptoes his way to the front door. He eases his camera out of its bag and adjusts the settings. Amaya always waits for him in the genkan, and he figures he might as well work on night shots of the cats now. But when he opens the door, Amaya isn’t there.

 

Chapter Text

“This might be the only thing in the world you know how to clean and I don’t.”

That’s not true. Do you know how to clean a gun? What about bloodstains? Asami bites his tongue. It’s better Akihito doesn’t think of these things. Asami decides to distract Akihito by teasing him further about the toy.

 While Akihito is getting ready, Asami reads Kirishima’s preliminary report about the Kodama-gumi. He sighs. So much for his day off. And this week was already going to be busy with the usual end-of-quarter bustle. As he’s finishing the report, he gets a text from Kirishima.

Suoh will be there in ten minutes.

Asami sets the report down to get ready and sees the bag with the toy in it. I’d better clean that before I go. Just as he’s about to pick it up, Akihito bursts out of his workroom.

“I’m leaving,” he says, scooping up Amaya, giving her one last cuddle, and thrusting her into Asami’s arms as he gives him a quick kiss.

“Be careful,” Asami says, holding onto Amaya so she won’t try to leave with Akihito.

“You, too.” Akihito notices the bag and turns beet red. “Don’t you dare put that in the dishwasher,” he admonishes Asami as he heads for the door.

Asami chuckles. He washes the toy in the bathroom. After it’s clean, he finds a disposable planter that one of Akihito’s herbs came in. He sticks the toy in the planter and places it on the top rack of the dishwasher.

He quickly removes the cat hair from his clothes and fixes his hair. He’s ready with one minute to spare, so he starts searching through the storage closets in his bedroom for a certain box. I’m sure I wouldn’t have thrown it away, even though I haven’t used it since college.

Suoh knocks on the door, and Asami lets him in. “I’m sorry; I’m searching for something. I’ll be ready as soon as I find it.”

“Can I help you look for it?” Suoh asks.

“I’m not sure you’d know what it looks like, but sure,” Asami says. “It’s a black case about 400 millimeters by 200 millimeters by 300 millimeters.”

Asami searches the pantry while Suoh searches the storage closet near the living room. A minute later, Suoh calls, “Is this it?”

Asami looks at the worn case in Suoh’s hand and smiles. “Yes. Thank you. Where did you find it?”

Suoh shows him the empty space on the shelf, and Asami picks up another case next to it. Suoh knows it’s not his place to ask, and Asami doesn’t offer any explanation.

 

When they step off the elevator onto Sion’s executive floor, Kirishima eyes the case in Suoh’s hand and says, “I haven’t seen that since high school.” Like Suoh, though, he knows better than to ask about it.

“I need to make an appointment with Hiroshi,” Asami tells Kirishima.

“I’ll schedule it for this weekend,” Kirishima says. Once again, he doesn’t ask why Asami wants to meet with his cousin.

“Tomorrow, if possible,” Asami corrects.

“That might be difficult given the Kodama situation,” Kirishima says.

“Wednesday at the latest,” Asami capitulates.

“Yes, Asami-sama. Tsuzaki-san and Toudou-san are waiting for you in the VIP room.”

 “Is Kodama at the hospital?”

“No. Apparently the police are not disclosing which hospital Kodama Kento was taken to, even to the family. They might be allowed to visit tomorrow.”

Asami’s eyebrows shoot up. “Are the police trying to start a yakuza war? If Kodama isn’t with his son, he’ll have nothing to distract him from seeking revenge.”

“Kodama’s wakagashira has reached out seeking assistance. As of right now, they’re not certain who is responsible. After the Kurosaki incident, Kodama has learned to exercise caution.”

Asami grunts. Teaming up with Kurosaki to hold the Tsuzaki and Toudou leaders hostage in exchange for Akihito had certainly cost Kodama significantly, and his organization is still trying to recover from the damage. Quickly accepting responsibility and cooperating fully once he realized he’d been duped by Kurosaki went a long way in mitigating the consequences for Kodama, however, and Asami is grateful to see that Kodama is continuing to exhibit restraint and self-discipline. “Maybe this won’t blow up, after all.”

“I hope not,” Suoh mutters.

Before heading downstairs to meet with the other yakuza kumichos, Asami calls Kodama. He speaks very carefully, knowing the police are surely listening in on all of the yakuza’s phone calls right now.

“Kodama-san, I just heard about your son. I’m so sorry to hear that he’s been injured. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Asami-san, thank you. I don’t even know exactly what happened. The police refuse to tell me where he is so I can see him or at least talk to the doctors and find out what’s wrong with him.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Asami says. “Are they giving you any information at all?”

“Only that he was stabbed, that he made it through surgery, and that he’s stable but still unconscious. His mother is distraught.”

“Understandably so. I’ve got a few friends on the police force; I can ask them to see whether arrangements can be made to at least allow her to see him.”

“Thank you, Asami-san. I tried that, but the police are claiming that they’re worried someone will try to injure Kento further if they let anyone know where he is.”

“They can’t protect a man lying in a bed in a public hospital?” Asami tsks.

“Like I would injure my own son,” Kodama says, his voice suddenly brittle. “He was supposed to be protected from my world. Very few people even knew of his existence, because his mother and I decided to give him her family name. It was only two days ago that he asked to be added to my family register instead.”

“Unfortunately, Japan doesn’t seem to be as safe as the police like to pretend. There seems to be a lot of random violence these days. Did they catch the people who did this?”

“No, and they say they currently have no leads. I wish I knew who did this; I would –”

Asami cuts across him. “Kodama-san, I understand your pain and frustration. If I hear anything at all about this – even any rumors – I’ll be sure to notify the police immediately. In the meantime, I’ll contact my friends on the force and see if they can help you see him. It isn’t right to keep a parent and child separated at a time like this.”

“Thank you, Asami-san. I’m going a bit stir-crazy at home, I must confess. I feel like I should be doing something, even though there’s nothing I can do. I hate having to just wait by the phone.”

“You need to be there with his mother,” Asami says gently. “I’m sure some of your friends will stop by to keep vigil with you once they hear of it.”

“Thank you, Asami-san. A few have stopped by already. You’re right. I should be at home.”

After Asami hangs up, Kirishima asks with a faint note of surprise, “Are we going to Kodama-gumi headquarters?”

“We can’t afford to have the meeting here with such close scrutiny by the police and media. Kodama has that excellent side driveway the police haven’t discovered yet, and they won’t even be watching the streets leading up to it given the maze that Setagaya is.”

“Yes, Asami-sama.” After a brief pause, Kirishima adds, “The media?”

“Takaba is covering the story. His editor contacted him before you even contacted me.”

“I’m sorry, Asami-sama.” Kirishima bows.

Asami chuckles. “I think the editor has spies in all the hospitals. It was just before, Kei.”

“Should I put additional guards on duty tonight?”

“Takaba’s teaming up with Mitarai tonight, so he should stay out of trouble. I think the real danger will start tomorrow, depending on how unstable things become. Let’s wait to see what Tsuzaki and Toudou have to say before calling in back-up.”

“Yes, Asami-sama.”

 

Asami and Kirishima enter the small VIP conference room from a secret panel in the employee-only hallway. Tsuzaki is waiting for them on the sofa. He stands when he sees them, but Asami gestures for him to sit down. Tsuzaki’s wakagashira bows from his position behind the sofa. A few minutes later, Toudou and his wakagashira enter via the secret entrance in the VIP bathroom.

After the preliminary greetings, the leaders settle down to business, the wakagashiras and Kirishima standing by, taking notes in the background. Kirishima keeps the drinks poured, but the men sip their scotches slowly, focused on the task at hand.

“I didn’t even know Kodama had a son,” Toudou says bluntly.

Tsuzaki stares at him incredulously. “You’re getting sloppy, Toudou-kun.”

Toudou scowls at the honorific but ignores it; after forty years, he has little expectation that anything he says will convince Tsuzaki to use something more respectful. “It’s not like Kodama-gumi is a patriarchy.”

“No, but you have to know who’s under protection,” Tsuzaki retorts.

“It’s up to Kodama to make that clear.”

“That’s why you’re often having unnecessary problems.”

Asami decides it’s time to interrupt their bickering before Toudou gets too angry. “Kodama mentioned that his son asked to be entered in the Kodama family registry just two days ago.”

Toudou casts Tsuzaki a look that says, “See? Why should I have known?” but Tsuzaki focuses on Asami.

“You think he got in over his head and suddenly needed the Kodama name for protection?”

“It’s a possibility.” Asami nods to Kirishima, who pulls up a report on his tablet.

“Kodama Kento was stabbed at 3:47 pm today in an alley next to Chromosome Bar –”

Toudou interrupts. “Was the bar open?”

Kirishima continues his report. “A recently closed gay bar in Shinjuku’s Ni-Chōme.”

“Ni-Chōme? Isn’t that your district, Asami-san?” Toudou interrupts again, smirking at Asami.

Asami gives him a long look before nodding at Kirishima to continue.

“Eyewitnesses report hearing someone shouting, ‘No, I won’t give you any more. When my father –’ The male shouting was cut off mid-sentence by his own scream of pain. The eyewitnesses claim to have called down the alley, saying they’d called for the police. When a single voice replied with ‘help,’ they went down the alley and found Kodama, stabbed in the left abdomen, bleeding profusely. They claim not to have seen anyone else, and Kodama lost consciousness soon after.”

“While I do have a few establishments in Ni-Chōme, none of them are near Chromosome. I thought you offered protection to a number of businesses in Ni-Chōme, though, Toudou-san,” Asami says.

Toudou frowns. “Where is this Chromosome?” He turns to look at his wakagashira.

After a moment, the Toudou wakagashira says, “It’s a block east of our border, kumicho.”

“It’s in Kodama’s own territory,” Tsuzaki’s wakagashira says.

“I’ve heard rumors that there’s been unrest in Kodama’s group ever since the Kurosaki incident,” Tsuzaki says.

“So this could be an inside job? But Kodama-gumi is a meritocracy,” Toudou says.

“Kodama-san has requested a meeting with you to discuss how to proceed. Whether it was an inside job or an outside group, this could easily erupt into something bigger, and with the continuing police crackdown…” Asami trails off.

“Yes, we need to stand united,” Tsuzaki says. “We must cooperate and help each other as much as we can if we want to survive.”

“If Kodama can’t keep his men in line, it’s better for all of us if he disbands sooner than later,” Toudou disagrees. “But I’m willing to attend a meeting.”

 

Asami rides in a separate car from the yakuza, arriving at Kodama-gumi headquarters thirty minutes before them (despite changing cars twice). His car pulls into the garage before letting him out, so that even if the police are watching the secret entrance, they won’t be able to detect his presence.

After the preliminary greetings and condolences, Asami and Kodama get down to business.

Asami has Kirishima give the same eyewitness report and remains silent afterwards, allowing Kodama to draw his own conclusions from it.

“He was being blackmailed? Whose territory did it happen in?”

“Yours.”

Kodama closes his eyes. “Why didn’t he come to me for help?”

Asami shrugs. “You would know the answer to that better than anyone else.”

“I pushed him so hard. I thought he understood that this life has no future. I’ve considered retiring myself several times, but I have an obligation to my family, and I wouldn’t be able to fulfill it if I did. Kento knew all of that.” Asami understands that Kodama is referring to his yakuza members when he mentions his ‘family.’

“You said he recently asked to enter your family registry,” Asami gently guides Kodama to the inevitable conclusion.

“He wanted to use my name as protection?” Kodama’s mouth narrows into a firm line. “At first I thought he wanted to join up, and I was angry, but he begged me to let him, saying that he wanted my name so he could feel closer to me. He said that he doesn’t even feel like he can visit Tomoko now that she lives here, because I’ve been too distant as a father!”

Asami tries to remember who Tomoko is. Kirishima leans over and whispers in his ear, “Tomoko is Kodama’s lifelong mistress and Kento’s mother. She moved in three months after Kodama’s wife died.” Asami gives a subtle nod of appreciation as his brain does some mental calculations. So she’s lived here three months.

“How old is Kento-kun again?” he asks.

“Twenty-one. No, twenty-two. He’s graduating from university soon,” Kodama says. “Tomoko got pregnant right as the last kumicho was arranging my marriage to Kazue. Kazue accepted me acknowledging the child as long as Tomoko raised the child herself. I came to love Kazue as much as Tomoko, but I could never let either of them go. I ended up hurting them both. And Kento, too.”

Asami and Kodama drink in silence until Asami’s phone buzzes. When he reads the message from Yoneda, he says, “How is Tomoko-san doing?”

“She’s in her room. She hasn’t eaten anything since we got the news – not that I could, either. She’s sitting in the dark, staring out the window.”

“One of the most effective ways to pressure the police into letting her see Kento would be to get the public on your side.”

“What are you getting at, Asami-san?” Kodama drains his sake cup.

Asami gently suggests, “Perhaps we should change to oolong tea for now.”

Kodama glowers at him but nods to his wakagashira.

“A grieving mother pulls at the public’s heartstrings. A tasteful picture in the morning paper could grant her access before lunch tomorrow,” Asami explains.

“I’m not letting the media in here.”

“You don’t have to. They can see in.”

“How? We have a high garden wall and trees and shrubs.” Kodama frowns at Asami.

“Trees can be climbed,” Asami points out.

Kodama glowers. “I don’t like my privacy being invaded. If the media venture onto my property, I’ll press charges for trespassing.”

“They wouldn’t dare trespass; they can see in from outside your wall,” Asami points out. “It’s to your own advantage as well as theirs. Besides, you owe a debt to this particular journalist.”

Kodama furrows his eyebrows. After a moment, his expression clears. “It’s your Takaba, isn’t it?” He snorts. “I really should have paid more attention; Kurosaki never should have been able to trick me. You’ve fallen hard, haven’t you?”

Asami doesn’t answer, and his expression doesn’t change.

“Taciturn as always.” Kodama sighs. “Fine. It’d better be a nice article.”

“It’d be more effective with an interview,” Asami suggests.

“You’re really shameless, Asami-san.”

“It’s up to you and Tomoko-san.” Asami shrugs as if it makes no difference to him. “My police friends say that the top brass are digging their heels in to make an example out of you. They think they’ll have the public’s support given the current sentiment regarding the yakuza. Proving them wrong is probably the quickest way to seeing Kento-kun.”

Kodama closes his eyes and sighs. “Fine. I’ll ask Tomoko. No photography will be allowed inside the house, however.”

“It’s your home,” Asami says, making a deferential face as if he would never suggest otherwise.

 

When Kodama leads the way to the meeting room in the back of the house, Asami doesn’t say anything more about the journalist waiting outside. He already warned Kodama, and if Kodama hasn’t realized the value of curtains, that’s Kodama’s problem.

When his phone buzzes again, Asami quickly checks it to make sure that Akihito and Yoneda haven’t run into any trouble. He’s surprised to see the message is from Akihito, warning Asami of his presence. He’s slipping; he didn’t call me ‘bastard.’ He must be really focused on this scoop.

Asami nods subtly and takes the seat he had already planned to on the periphery of the room. Unlike Kodama, Asami is always aware of windows and their vulnerabilities for not just photographic shoots, but other kinds of shooting as well.

He waits patiently in the background while the yakuza go through the formalities of passing the sake cup to reinforce their bonds and express their sympathies to Kodama. Finally, Kodama gets down to business.

“The attack happened within my own territory. I can’t rule out that this was an internal conflict, but it seems unlikely given that Kento was completely unaffiliated with Kodama-gumi, and many within the organization did not even know of his existence. The ‘eyewitness’ accounts are not very helpful, given that they claim not to have seen anything. We’re reviewing our own security cameras in the vicinity, but it appears that the attackers arrived and left via an alley that led a block west out of our territory.” Kodama looks at Toudou expectantly but doesn’t voice his request aloud.

Toudou looks around, but everyone else is waiting to see what he does. After a prolonged throat-clearing by Tsuzaki, Toudou says, “I’ll have my men inspect our security cameras in the area.”

“Thank you,” Kodama says. “It sounds like Kento knew his assailants, based on the eyewitness testimony, so we might not need the information once he wakes up. And the police allow me to talk to him. If he can remember…” Kodama trails off, looking into the depths of his sake cup.

“My organization knew to leave Kento-kun alone,” Tsuzaki says, “but if it turned out to be someone in my group, I’ll hand him over to you to do with as you will.”

“Same here,” Toudou agrees, deftly sidestepping the fact that he didn’t know to give the command that Kento was off limits.

“There’s a good possibility it was internal,” Kodama repeats. “Not just because it happened in my territory, but because there has been considerable unrest in the organization for the last three months. I’m frankly not certain I can avoid a schism much longer.”

Toudou’s eyebrows shoot up, but Tsuzaki looks unsurprised. “Because of the Kurosaki situation?”

“Not just that. Mostly because there’s a faction that disagrees with the direction I’m trying to lead the group in light of the recent government situation. There are some who want to cling to the old ways. They’re worried about the number of employees we have in some of our newer businesses who have no loyalty to the group.”

“It’s hard to get recruits nowadays. Even many who’ve drunk the cup with me are cutting ties. In my day, you never dreamed of leaving the family,” Tsuzaki commiserates.

“Keeping a family together requires firm leadership,” Toudou says.

“Your numbers have been dropping, too, Toudou-kun,” Tsuzaki points out. “We’re all in the same boat, and it has nothing to do with our leadership. The world has changed, and we need to change with it.”

“I know that,” Toudou retorts. “That’s why I’m here. None of us would survive the old-style turf battles.”

“We’ve always provided services that people can’t get elsewhere. But people today have different needs. We need to create new services to meet the new needs in a technologically driven world. That’s what I’ve been trying to do,” Kodama says.

“Information is the new currency,” Toudou says. “We’ve always been good at that, but it’s hard to keep up with the new technologies.”

Tsuzaki chimes in. “And our overseas networks are no longer extensive enough in a global marketplace.”

The yakuza leaders fall into silence as they contemplate their troubles. Asami signals to Kodama, who turns to his wakagashira and says, “Thank you. I think we’ve had enough sake now.”

The wakagashira offers the other subordinates from the three groups refreshments in another room, and they follow him out of the room.

Once they’re alone, Asami finally speaks up. “Your compatriots in the Americas, Europe, and Russia are facing the same struggles, but there are some new players in West Africa and India that focus in the technological sector.”

“It’d be nice to talk to them,” Tsuzaki says, “but with the current monitoring situation, even on disposable cell phones, the government would be recording it, and we’d have to use an elaborate code for the conversation not to be flagged and reviewed.”

“Yes, it’s growing increasingly difficult to conduct conversations over the phone,” Asami agrees. “That’s why a symposium has been proposed. It’s to be held in Nigeria in May. Each group may only bring two representatives, and travel must be taken separately through at least two intermediary countries in each direction to avoid detection.”

“Who else will be there?” Toudou asks.

Asami passes over a sheet of paper. The other three examine it in turn before handing it back to Asami, who sets it ablaze with his lighter and places it in one of the braziers in the corner. After the flames have gone out, he breaks up the ashes with a poker.

Kodama stares down at the floor. “I’m not sure I can attend. The situation is too unstable right now for me to leave the country – and that’s not even considering what has happened to Kento.”

“It’s possible to operate within the corporate world and still foster unshakeable loyalty,” Asami says.

“I’m not you, Asami-san!” Kodama snaps. After a moment, he adds, “I’m sorry. You just make it look so easy.”

Asami waves his hand. “No need to apologize. You’re under considerable stress right now. But it’s not easy for me, either. I’m contemplating changes in my own organization, too.”

“Are you attending the meeting?” Tsuzaki asks.

Asami tilts his head slightly in concentration before responding. “I’m not sure yet. I’m not quite sure of the direction I want to take Sion, but the symposium is a bit larger scale than I like to operate.”

“You do like to stick to the back rooms,” Toudou says. “They’re safer.”

“I don’t like to be in the limelight,” Asami says languidly. “I prefer a quiet life.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” Tsuzaki says.

“I will of course help you make arrangements to attend the symposium. Kirishima will continue to coordinate with your wakagashiras. In the meantime, let’s figure out what we can do to stabilize the Kodama situation.”

 

Asami arrives home at three o’clock in the morning. He’s tired but pleased by the progress made in both the meeting at Kodama’s and at Sion afterwards.

Asami smiles when he sees that Amaya is not waiting by the door. He’s home. But as Asami surveys the shoes, he frowns. He opens the shoe cabinet, and Akihito’s favorite sneakers are not to be found. Maybe he’s washing them.

But when Asami tiptoes down the hall to the bedroom, he sees Amaya sleeping under the blankets, half on Akihito’s empty pillow. A rumble of thunder sets her crying, and Asami sighs as he picks her up.

“It’s okay, girl. He’ll be back soon,” he croons as he glances at the note on his own pillow.

Finishing my articles at the office. Be back as soon as I can.

Asami sighs again. He quickly sheds his clothes, making sure to leave the damp ones in the laundry room so that Akihito won’t wake him up fussing, and then crawls under the covers. Amaya curls up on his chest on the place where Akihito usually rests his head. Asami chuckles softly to himself, and her purrs, so much like Akihito’s soft snores, lull him to a restless sleep.

Akihito arrives home two hours later, wet and bedraggled.

“You could use an umbrella,” Asami says, helping him pull the wet layers off.

“It would just slow me down,” Akihito says. Even his boxer-briefs are damp.

“Didn’t you change? I saw your note, so I know you came home.”

“No time. I had a front-page scoop that needed to be finished. Two, actually.” He grins broadly.

“Two?” Asami asks, seemingly more interested in warming Akihito’s flesh than in what he’s saying.

“You’ll have to read them tomorrow,” Akihito teases. “Now let go; I’m hopping in the shower to warm up.”

“I’ll make you some tea,” Asami offers.

“Not going to join me?” Akihito asks. A look of disappointment flashes across his face, but he quickly grins and says, “That’s a first. Not that I’m not glad for a rest; I’m beat.”

“I was trying to be considerate, but if you insist.” Asami’s own fatigue has suddenly dissipated, and he grins back in a way that lets Akihito know he’s in for a long session.

 “Insatiable beast.”

“Yes, you are, my cute Akihito.”

Chapter Text

Akihito quickly kicks his shoes off, his camera nearly forgotten in his hands. He remembers the time Amaya nearly choked on some string when Shiro figured out how to open doors. Are they in Asami’s office again?

But when Akihito checks the door to Asami’s office, it’s securely closed with childproof handle still in place. As he pads through the apartment in his damp socks, he can hear the rain drumming a wild tattoo on the roof. I’m glad I came in when I did. I hope it stops before I have to head to the office to hand in the photos.

 The kittens aren’t in the kitchen, dining room, or living room. As he nears the bedroom, it sounds like the rain is coming through the ceiling and into the room. He breathes a sigh of relief. Of course. Amaya must be terrified. He raises his camera to his eye as he rounds the corner.

Just as Akihito sees the two shapes on the bed and presses the button to take a picture, there’s a brilliant flash of lightning and a near-instantaneous rumble of thunder that rattles his teeth. He couldn’t have timed the shot better if he’d planned it, but he worries briefly that it will be overexposed from the brightness of the lightning.

He stands in the doorway and blinks several times, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness again. Amaya is cowering half under his pillow, and Shiro is between her and the window, shielding her from the lightning as much as he can. They haven’t noticed Akihito yet, and he cautiously approaches the bed, continuing to take pictures.

When Amaya notices him, she takes a wild glance around, then runs as quickly as she can in a half-crouch across the bed towards him. Akihito quickly activates burst mode and holds the camera with one hand as best he can while she leaps off the bed and into his arms. He catches her with his left hand, and she scrabbles up him so that her front paws are resting one on each shoulder. She buries her head under his chin.

“Shh, it’s okay girl. It’s just a storm. Nothing to be afraid of,” Akihito croons.

Amaya starts purring, but it’s interspersed with her rainlike crying, and Akihito knows she’s still stressed out. But Shiro, relieved of his comforting big brother duty, hops off the bed in the opposite direction, jumping onto the little shelf by the window to watch the storm.

Akihito sets up his tripod one-handed, and he’s soon snapping pictures of Shiro and the storm while Amaya keeps trying to get his attention by batting his cheek. Each time she does, he gives her a soothing pat, then goes back to taking pictures.

Soon, he’s finished the roll of film he’d just started before the tabloid journalist showed up and ruined his stakeout of Kodama-gumi headquarters. He sighs and reluctantly stops taking pictures; it’s time to get back to work. He heads to the darkroom with his rolls of film to discover what kind of shots he got. He’ll do the prints at work, but he likes to examine his film in his own darkroom first, to discover if it’s even worth heading to the office – and so he doesn’t have to deal with Mitarai breathing down his neck as he works.

Akihito is soon bounding back out of the darkroom (carefully making sure the kittens don’t slip in while he’s leaving). He quickly dials the editor.

“Takaba, I hope you’ve got some good news for me. With this weather, everyone else is coming up empty tonight. I’ve got nothing for the front page.”

“How would you like two different pictures?” Akihito asks. “Two different perspectives on the Kodama Kento stabbing.”

“Did you figure out which hospital he’s at?” the editor asks.

“Not yet. I thought Mitarai was working on that.”

“He’s been unsuccessful so far.”

“Hm. Well, I’ve got a nice picture of his mother grieving at home. I know the family refused interviews before, but maybe the picture will convince them that Yagami-san will give them a fair shake.”

“Sounds intriguing.”

“I’m sending you the digital version now. The film version is even better.”

“Of course it is. This is perfect, a nice human interest angle. What else have you got?”

“A meeting between the kumichos of the three biggest yakuza groups, with numerous other minor players in attendance. I have a nice shot of the three kumichos passing the sake cup together.”

“Takaba, I could kiss you right now,” the editor croons.

“Just give me a nice bonus. And make sure you don’t give a cut to Mitarai. Remember, he ditched me and left me in the rain. I’m heading in now to help with the articles and print the pictures.”

“Good. We’ll need a list of everyone you saw at that meeting, even if we can’t print it all without evidence.”

“Right. Slander. You know, I would never make things up.”

“I know. But we can’t afford a lawsuit. Without proof, we’re vulnerable.”

Akihito tries not to roll his eyes. He knows the paper receives bribes from numerous criminals – Asami included – whenever it receives pictures of their crimes. It’s always interesting to see which stories will run and which won’t. The more evidence and the juicier the story, the more likely the paper is to run it anyway – especially if the evidence is enough to make criminal conviction likely. Of course, if the bribe is big enough, even a huge story will be squelched. When Akihito first started working, he tried shopping some of those rejected stories around to other papers, but if Weekly Headlines wouldn’t touch it, no one else would.

He scrawls a quick note to Asami, puts on his rain jacket, and heads to the garage. When he gets there, Sakuragi is waiting.

“Is Yoneda’s shift over?” Akihito calls to him.

“Yeah, it ended an hour ago. We going on another stakeout?”

“Nah, you’re in luck. I’m just going to the office. You probably won’t have to get out of your car.”

“Let’s hope,” Sakuragi says. “You sure you don’t want to ride over in the car? It’s really raining cats and dogs out there.”

“I like cats,” Akihito says, grinning. “But seriously, that’s just what I’d need: Mitarai seeing me get out of that fancy car. I’d rather ride my bike than deal with hearing about that for forever.”

“Suit yourself.” Sakuragi climbs into his car while Akihito mounts his bike.

 

Four hours later, Akihito feels something cold on his neck. He sits up straight, and his neck cracks. He turns his head to see Mitarai standing behind him, peering over his shoulder at the computer screen full of members of the Kodama-gumi.

“I heard you got something,” Mitarai says, opening his can of iced coffee and taking a big swig.

“How can you drink that stuff when it’s so cold in here?” Akihito asks, shivering.

Mitarai shrugs. “It’s not that cold. Maybe you shouldn’t sit around looking like a drowned rat. The editor said it’s a big one. Remember, I get 10%.”

Akihito’s eyes flash. “That was before you ditched me in the rain.”

“Don’t try to weasel out of it. I have it on tape.”

“I don’t care. The editor already knows, and he agrees with me.”

Mitarai glowers. “You wouldn’t have even gotten to Kodama-gumi headquarters if it weren’t for me.”

Akihito rolls his eyes. “I’d have gotten there just fine on my bike, and it’d have been easier getting back home afterwards, too, since I wouldn’t have ditched myself.”

“Like you know where it is,” Mitarai says scornfully.

Akihito snorts. “Of course I know where it is! I know that area a lot better than you, apparently, since I knew how to get past Kodama’s guards and get the shots.”

He realizes his voice has risen a little, and he looks around sheepishly. A few people glance away hurriedly, but Yagami winks at him and gives him a quick thumbs-up.

Akihito stands and stretches. “I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve got a lot of work left to do for my two cover stories.” He heads over to Yagami’s desk. “How was the interview?”

“The obaasans are going to eat it up. I’ve got a complicated love triangle, the scandal of a child born out of wedlock, a late-in-life rekindling of a childhood romance, and the tragedy of a worried mother separated from her injured child.” Yagami grins but quickly sobers his face. “Though it’s really awful that the police won’t let her see her son.”

“Well, your story could change that.” Akihito claps Yagami on the shoulder.

“You finished figuring out who all those yakuza at the meeting were?”

Mitarai’s ears perk up. “Yakuza meeting?”

“You’ll have to read about it after the paper goes to bed,” Akihito says gruffly. “I’ve figured out all but three of them.”

“Your memory for faces really astounds me at times,” Yagami says. “I could pass someone I interviewed for two hours today on the streets tomorrow and not even recognize them.”

“I’m used to looking at things carefully. If you developed your photographer’s eye, you could do it, too,” Akihito says. “Besides, I took notes.” He waves his notepad.

Mitarai snatches it from him. “Wide forehead, Mitarai eyes, Sakazaki mouth, Suoh nose, chin scar. What is this?”

“One of the guys I didn’t recognize. Turns out it’s the Tsuzaki fifth-in-command.”

“How do Gaucho and I have the same eyes?” Mitarai demands.

“Gaucho?” Akihito asks.

“How do you not know the nicknames of the leaders of the biggest yakuza group in the country?” Mitarai sneers.

“Um, maybe because it’s the biggest yakuza group in the country?” Akihito retorts. “Anyway, you both have those eyebrows that kind of swoop down in the middle, with the sharp lines in between as if you frown a lot, and your eyes are both kind of wide set and small.”

“I don’t frown a lot,” Mitarai says.

Akihito ignores him. “Yagami-san, there are two people I haven’t identified yet. I was wondering if you could read my article and maybe guess who they might be. If I have a name, I can look them up and see if they match the mental image I have of the attendees. And I’d love some advice on the article, if you have time. It reads a bit choppy to me.”

“No problem, Takaba-san,” Yagami says cheerfully. “Let me just send this to the editor first. I’ll be there in about five minutes.”

“Thanks,” Akihito says. He heads back to his desk with Mitarai trailing behind him.

“Do I really frown a lot?” Mitarai asks worriedly.

“You’re doing it right now.”

“I am?”

“Yes.”

“What about now?”

“Yes.”

“How about now?”

“Go make faces at yourself in a mirror, Mitarai. I’ve got work to do.”

 

As Akihito rides home, he can see some breaks in the clouds to the east, where the sky is just beginning to lighten a little, though sunrise is still nearly an hour away. He sighs as he stops at a red light. This particular light takes four minutes to change, even in the early morning when few cars are on the road.

As he’s waiting, the skies overhead open up again, drenching his still-damp clothing. He sighs again. When the light changes, he’s tempted to head into the alleys so he doesn’t have to stop for any more lights, but then he remembers that Sakuragi is tailing him in a car. Right. If I pull a stunt like that, it’ll be back to Yoneda riding my ass all the time. While his relationship with his guards has steadily improved, they still have their disagreements about acceptable levels of risk.

He finally pulls into the parking garage fifteen minutes later, thoroughly soaked.

Sakuragi climbs out of his car, dry as can be. “You look like a drowned rat,” he says, handing Akihito a towel from the trunk.

“Thanks.”

“I thought you were going to move into the alleys for a moment there. It’d have been dryer.”

“I was going to until I remembered your car couldn’t fit,” Akihito confesses.

“I should probably get my motorcycle license. Is it hard to ride?”

“Nah. But it’d take some practice to get good enough to keep up with me.”

Sakuragi’s face falls. “That’s true. But I won’t ever get good enough if I don’t start. Maybe Yoneda will teach me. You should have more guards on bikes. If you need to escape, alleys can be handy, and we should be able to follow you into them.”

“I guess,” Akihito says. “Thanks for the towel. I’ll wash it and give it back to you... whenever I see you again.”

“Just give it to the next guard on duty. It’s a company car,” Sakuragi explains.

“I’m heading to bed. I won’t be going out again until at least noon,” Akihito tells the guard. Sakuragi won’t be able to leave, but he can wait in the apartment one floor below the penthouse, ready to assist in case of an emergency.

As he rides up the elevator, Akihito wonders whether Asami is home. He could ask Sakuragi, who would easily be able to find out, but once Asami found out that Akihito asked about him, his already huge ego would become insufferable.

Akihito opens the door and immediately feels something warm hit his chest. “Amaya, you’re getting too big for that,” he chides, even though she really isn’t. He wonders idly where she jumps from, but she’s always already airborne by the time he finishes opening the door.

As he takes off his shoes, he spots a pair of Asami’s loafers drying in the genkan. Asami usually puts his shoes away immediately unless they’re wet, for fear the kittens will destroy them.

Akihito takes his own shoes off. There’s water sloshing inside them, so he takes his socks off, too, and tiptoes to the laundry room. He smiles when he sees Asami’s wet clothes hanging neatly. He probably didn’t want to hear me fussing again. Akihito tries to do a load of laundry every day, but it’s inevitably a day when he doesn’t have time that Asami leaves something wet in the hamper, and Akihito has to work extra hard to get the moldy smell out of Asami’s delicate fabrics.

He contemplates taking off his own wet clothes right in the laundry room, but he’s too cold, so he tiptoes to the bedroom instead. He gets to the door and sees a pair of glowing eyes staring at him. He shakes his head at Shiro, but the cat rushes to greet him by running across Asami, who opens his own eyes.

 

"The problem with having such a big bathtub is that it takes too long to fill up,” Akihito grumbles.

“So let’s warm up in the shower first,” Asami suggests a little too enthusiastically for Akihito’s liking.

Akihito groans. What was I thinking, pointing out that Asami wasn’t trying to come in here with me for once? To him, that’s as good as a dare. I’m too tired for this, and it looks like he’s gotten a decent amount of sleep already.

In the shower, Asami washes Akihito’s body until he stops shivering. “You need to pay more attention to your body,” Asami chides. “You shouldn’t let yourself get so cold.”

“They’ve already turned the heat off in the office. They’re not going to turn it on again, no matter how cold it gets at night. I’d have been fine if I hadn’t gotten so soaked.”

“You should keep a change of clothes with you.”

“I do. I’m wearing them. I guess I should have put the wet ones back on, but it was hard enough getting the jeans off.”

“I know,” Asami says, having just experienced it a few minutes before when he undressed Akihito. “You know, there are fabrics easier to remove than denim.”

“Denim helps protect me on the bike. And when I’m climbing trees and jumping fences.”

“You could have ridden in the car tonight,” Asami points out.

“I needed to be mobile. Besides, it’d be weird to show up in a fancy car.”

“Your guards could take one of the older models on nights like this.”

“It’d still be weird. Everyone knows I only have my motorcycle license, and who would drive someone around all night?”

“You care about the oddest things when it comes to appearance.”

“I don’t know. I think I’ve got pretty good taste,” Akihito says, turning to eye Asami’s impressive physique.

“I, on the other hand…” Asami teases, giving Akihito the same examination. But his gaze communicates just how nice he thinks Akihito’s appearance is, and Akihito blushes.

“Stop that.”

“Stop what?”

“Devouring me with your eyes.”

“You want me to devour you with something else?”

“You haven’t come up with any better lines yet?”

“You haven’t exactly given me a stellar example to follow, Akihito,” Asami whispers in his ear.

Akihito shivers. “I don’t need to! You don’t need to be good at something you have no desire to ever do.”

“Then you shouldn’t criticize others who are trying to do it. You don’t know how hard it is until you try.”

“I’m sorry. I guess you’re right,” Akihito says.

Asami chuckles. “I was just teasing you. It’s fine. I know my lines are cheesy. But I’m okay with that, because I know a secret.” He turns Akihito so he’s facing the wall then presses against his back so he can whisper in his ear again. “I can’t wait to be inside you.”

Akihito’s face feels like it’s on fire. He presses his cheek against the cool tile of the shower.

Asami’s voice tickles his ear again. “You want to know the secret? You like it when I talk dirty.”

“No, I don’t!” Akihito protests.

“Sure you do. Whatever your mouth might say, your body betrays how you really feel.”

Akihito can’t help the shudder that ripples through his body. He suddenly feels naked, which is ridiculous because he’s been naked for quite a while now.

“See?”

Akihito doesn’t have to see Asami’s face to know he’s wearing his trademark “You know I’m right” smirk. “The bathtub’s going to overflow,” Akihito says, wildly searching for a distraction.

Asami laughs his deep, throaty laugh; it travels through Akihito’s back and settles in his stomach. “Don’t worry; I set it to a trickle.”

Sure enough, by the time they’re done with their shower round, the bathtub is only half full.

“We could do another round in the shower, but what time do you have to meet your mentor?” Asami asks.

He remembered. Akihito smiles softly. “I have to leave at two. We can get in and let it finish filling while we’re already in it. It shouldn’t take too long considering how much water we’ll displace.”

“See? You can talk dirty if you try,” Asami deadpans.

Akihito stares at him.

“I love it when you talk science to me,” Asami adds.

Once Akihito starts laughing, he can’t stop for several minutes.

“It wasn’t that funny,” Asami says, a smile playing at his lips.

“Yes, it was.”

“No – chuckle – it wasn’t.” Despite his best efforts, a chuckle escapes from Asami, and soon he’s laughing nearly as hard as Akihito.

Asami slides into the tub first, and Akihito slides in after him. Asami opens his arms, and Akihito leans back against his chest awkwardly.

“Relax,” Asami says. He starts massaging the hard muscles in Akihito’s shoulders. “You’re so tense.”

“I think it’s because I was trying to keep warm for so long.”

“Well, you’re warm enough now, aren’t you? Or do you want me to warm you up some more with another round?”

The warm bath and massage have relaxed Akihito so much, his exhaustion returns. “That feels good, but I’m tired.”

“Okay,” Asami says.

Akihito turns and looks at him, shocked. “Okay?”

Asami shrugs. “Considering what we did this morning… or should I say yesterday morning at this point? And in the car in the afternoon… And then you worked all night… Okay.”

Akihito kisses him.

“It’s going to be harder to be so understanding if you stir me up again,” Asami warns, but he returns the kiss anyway.

Akihito pulls his lips back a hair to respond. “It’s your fault,” He tugs gently on Asami’s lower lip with his teeth. “Haven’t you told me to get addicted to you?” As Akihito tries to deepen the kiss, he can feel a smile playing at Asami’s lips.

“Are you?”

Akihito blushes and breaks the kiss, turning his face away. “I don’t know. I’m tired. I’m talking in my sleep.”

“You’re so cute, Akihito.”

Asami tries to turn Akihito’s face back towards him, but Akihito sinks lower into the water and buries his head on Asami’s chest. He tries to stifle a yawn.

“You can fall asleep if you want. I won’t let you fall in.”

“I shouldn’ –” Akihito tries to protest, but he’s already too far gone.

Asami waits until the water starts to cool before shifting to get out of the tub. Akihito stirs just enough to stand up by himself.

“Come here. I’ll dry you off,” Asami says.

Akihito wobbles on his feet while Asami dries him. As Asami dries his hair, he falls into Asami’s chest, and Asami catches him.

“Thanks, ’Sami. Love you.”

Asami freezes for a moment, not sure he heard right. “Me, too,” he murmurs. He hugs Akihito, and Akihito instinctively hugs him back. “Hold on,” Asami says. He picks Akihito up.

“I can walk,” Akihito protests sleepily.

“Shh, it’s fine. You don’t have to.”

Asami carries Akihito to the bedroom and lays him on the bed, and Akihito drifts off to sleep.

 

He doesn’t know how much later it is when he’s awakened by a cold draft, but he’s still exhausted. His eyes feel heavy as he fights to open them, but he can feel Asami touching his leg. “What are you doin’?” he mumbles.

“Shh, go back to sleep,” Asami encourages, pulling the blankets over Akihito.

By now, though, Akihito has finally managed to awaken, and he sits up. “What did you mean, ‘me too’?”

“What are you talking about?” Asami asks.

“I don’t know. Didn’t you say ‘me too’ earlier? You too what?”

Asami looks at him for several seconds in confusion until his face suddenly clears. “You little minx…” he says.

“What?” Akihito asks curiously.

Asami writes something down in a notebook, closes it, and puts it in his nightstand. “You don’t even remember? You said you love me.”

Akihito blushes. “You must have heard wrong.”

“Are you saying you don’t?” Asami’s eyebrows shoot up.

“Of course not! But I’ve already said it once; I don’t need to say it again.”

“You don’t lose anything by saying it, you know,” Asami says.

“Sure you do. It’s a very powerful spell. It uses up a lot of MP.”

Asami snorts. “So it’s magic to you?”

“Yeah. And you need to recharge your magic before you can say it again.”

“I guess your magic was recharged already then, because you definitely said it,” Asami says.

“I was asleep! It doesn’t count.”

“So you didn’t use any MP to say it? Good. Then you can say it again sooner.”

“I thought you didn’t care about words. That’s not one of your love languages.”

“But it is one of yours. And it’s still nice to hear.”

Akihito suddenly narrows his eyes suspiciously. “What were you doing, anyway? You woke me up. Then you wrote something in your notebook, and now you’re trying to distract me by talking about embarrassing things.”

“You’re the one who brought the topic up, Akihito. And you’re the one who continued it by denying what you said and then turning it into a video game.”

Akihito frowns. “That’s true… but you’re still not answering the question.”

“You know I like to write down any ideas I get in the middle of the night.”

“But why were you touching my leg with the blankets off?”

“You weren’t asleep for that long. I was just trying to get you under the covers instead of on top of them.”

“Oh.” Akihito wonders if that’s the truth, but now that the blankets have warmed him, he’s feeling sleepy again, and he lets himself drift off to sleep. If it’s important, I’ll find out eventually. Maybe I’ll wake up before Asami and peek in that notebook and find out.

 

Akihito doesn’t wake up before Asami. He awakens to the smell of coffee, eggs, and toast. Nothing smells burnt this time. He grins, remembering the first time Asami surprised him with breakfast. Those cooking lessons paid off.

Amaya’s not curled up on his chest, so Asami must have fed the cats, too. Probably because Shiro was pestering him. Akihito goes over to the dresser and pulls out some underwear and a tank top.

When he gets to the kitchen, Asami is plating breakfast.

“I was just about to wake you up. Did you get enough sleep?”

“Yeah. What time is it?” Akihito glances at the clock himself. It’s 11:27. “Oh, good, I have time to develop some of the pictures I took last night – assuming any are worth developing.”

“You took more pictures of the cats last night?” Asami asks, surprised.

“Only a few. I needed to finish a roll of film. Besides, I realized I do have my own style, and I haven’t taken very many pictures of the cats in it.”

Asami looks at him. “Nightshots?”

“Yeah.” They bring the breakfast into the dining room. “Thanks for cooking.”

Asami picks up his stack of newspapers and searches through it, pulling out Weekly Headlines. It always embarrasses Akihito when he does that, because Asami doesn’t actually read Weekly Headlines, except for Akihito’s own articles. Akihito hurriedly starts eating, trying not to watch Asami’s expression as he reads, but failing.

As Asami skims the article describing the yakuza meeting, his face looks more and more amused.

“What’s so funny?” Akihito asks.

“You described them so well, you can tell exactly who everyone is, even the ones who weren’t explicitly named.”

“The editor would only let me use the names of people I got a clear picture of, for liability reasons. Yagami-san helped me work on the descriptions of the others so we could get around that stupid rule.”

“I notice you left the description of one attendee out entirely.” A smile is threatening to break out on Asami’s face.

“Bastard. Did you want me to describe you?”

“I’m just interested in the words you’d have used to do so.” Asami’s smile has morphed into a full smirk.

Akihito snorts. “Nice try. Ask me when I’m asleep, maybe. Apparently it doesn’t use any MP then.”

“I’m surprised you remember our conversation from last night. You were practically asleep.”

“I remember everything.” He wonders when he can sneak a peek at Asami’s notebook, but he doesn’t want Asami to figure out what he’s thinking, so he quickly changes the subject. “This breakfast is delicious. You’ve gotten good at cooking very quickly.”

“I had a good teacher,” Asami says absentmindedly. He’s already absorbed in the business section of his favorite paper.

 

When Akihito goes to the bedroom to get dressed, he pretends that Shiro is nosing into something he shouldn’t be, to create a pretense to close the door. He slides Asami’s nightstand drawer open and pulls out the notebook. When he flips through it, though, he notices that more than half the pages are already missing, and what’s left are blank. He tries shining a flashlight on the top page to read the indentations left from writing on the page before it, but all he can make out is a series of numbers. What do these even mean? Akihito can’t puzzle it out, so he decides to forget about it. At least for now.

Chapter Text

Kawase shuffles through the small stack of photographs. “What else do you have?” he finally asks.

Akihito gulps. Kawase is already holding what Akihito thought were his best shots.

Kawase raises his eyebrows.

Akihito pulls out the rest of the stack he originally showed Asami.

Kawase flips through the new stack more quickly, grunting and hmm-ing occasionally.

“Well?” Akihito finally asks.

Kawase taps the bigger stack. “These are all technically well executed. Good light balance, strong lines, well-framed. But there’s something missing.”

Akihito nods. “I don’t know what it is, though.”

“There’s no sense of vulnerability. There’s no story there. They don’t say anything about you.”

“How could any of them? I’m not in most of them.”

Kawase taps the smaller stack. “Some of these have minor technical problems. Some of them can be resolved; others actually contribute to the overall impression of the image. And yet you showed them to me first. Why?”

“I– I’m not sure,” Akihito says. “They just…felt right. They feel alive.”

Kawase nods. “You’re beginning to develop your eye. If you could only pick two, which would you pick?”

Akihito leafs through the shorter stack a few times. Why does this feel like a test? Eventually, he selects one. “I call this one ‘Hawk-Eyed.’ The mother Momoe –”

Kawase interrupts him. “I don’t want to know the story. Sure, you can put a description next to the picture, but if the picture doesn’t draw you in, then you might as well have just the story alone. You’re a news photographer. You already know that.”

“Yes, shishō-san,” Akihito says, feeling like a scolded schoolboy.

“Though this picture does draw me in. But if I know the story, I’ll stop viewing it objectively as a photograph. And your other selection?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Akihito selects one of the photographs from last night. “I only developed the film today, but I think if I could tidy this one up a bit more…”

Kawase just looks at him. Akihito lets the silence grow, afraid that anything he might say will be wrong. Finally, Kawase says, “Interesting selections. That tells me something about the story you want to tell. I would have selected these two, personally.”

He flips through the smaller stack and pulls out a black-and-white photograph of Shiro and Asami that Akihito took after a late-night stakeout only a few weeks after the kittens had come to live with them. The photo was taken from the foot of the bed, from about a foot above it, and a patch of moonlight plays across the bed and over Asami’s torso, highlighting his muscular frame. Shiro is curled up in the pool of light, one paw outstretched and touching Asami’s thigh. Due to the angle and the focus, Asami’s face isn’t visible.

Kawase flips through the larger stack of photos and selects a picture from when they gave the kittens a bath, one which Akihito hadn’t even meant to include in the stack at all. The photograph shows Asami handing a drenched, shivering Amaya to Akihito. Amaya’s paws are scrabbling at the air, trying to reach Akihito. Akihito had set up the camera to take time-lapsed shots of him drying Amaya off, and this picture was one of the ones taken after he’d set up the camera but before he got in position. Both men’s bodies are only half in the frame, and Amaya is off-center.

Kawase takes two L-shaped rulers and places them over the photograph to create a smaller rectangle, in which only the men’s hands and forearms are included, with Amaya now towards the center. Akihito’s eyes widen. After looking between both photographs for a moment, he lifts his gaze to look at Kawase.

Kawase finally speaks. “Have you ever heard of Fujishima Kou?”

“Of course.”

“What do you know about him?”

“He works for National Geographic, taking pictures of nature scenes around the world, including his famous pictures of ‘The Garden of the Gods’ that blooms in the desert for a single day.”

“Is that it?” Kawase asks, sounding faintly disappointed.

“He’s published a few books. He’s become particularly famous for his collection of pictures of parent animals with their children.”

“What about his photographs of people?”

Akihito wrinkles his forehead, concentrating. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of those. Does he do that?”

“Not anymore. Not for a long time. He’s a nature photographer, and he’s excellent at it. That’s why his exhibit at the Neko Bijou Café created quite a stir – especially since he hasn’t exhibited before.”

Akihito’s jaw drops. “That’s why the curator at the Taka Ishii Gallery has heard of the café.”

Kawase’s eyebrows shoot up. “You went to the gallery? I’m glad to see you’re finally showing a more serious attitude towards photography.”

“I’ve always been serious,” Akihito mumbles. “I just didn’t realize the importance of some of the stuff you had me do before. I’m sorry.”

Kawase raps him on the head with his knuckles. “You’ve got a thick skull, but I’m glad something finally penetrated it. Why do you think Fujishima-sensei exhibited at a cat café instead of a more traditional gallery?”

“Because his focus is animal subjects?” Akihito guesses.

“What’s your focus in your day-to-day photography?”

“Crime.”

“What are your subjects?”

“People…”

“So why are you suddenly trying to host an exhibit of animal photographs? Your picture of Kodama’s mistress from this morning’s paper might have been exhibit-worthy, though of course the resolution of the paper makes it a bit difficult to tell.”

Akihito looks down, embarrassed, as he tries to explain. “The kittens were cute, and I got really attached to them, but I was just helping to foster them, so I wanted to remember the short time I had with them. And then my friend saw the photos and liked them, and then she showed one to her friend, who happens to own the café... And the next thing I knew, I was asked to exhibit.”

“What do the two pictures you picked out show?”

“The mother-child relationship and the sibling relationship of the cats.”

“And what about mine?”

Akihito looks at the two pictures Kawase selected again. “The human-cat relationship.”

“Wrong.”

Akihito looks at Kawase, startled.

Kawase taps the night shot of Asami and Shiro. “This photo shows that the human-cat relationship cannot compare to the human-human bond.”

“It does?” Akihito asks.

“Compare where the cat is reaching to where the human is reaching. It’s subconscious; they’re both clearly asleep.”

Akihito looks at the picture closely and notices that in the deep background, cloaked in shadow, Asami’s left arm is visible stretching across the empty half of the bed. Akihito blushes. “What about this one?” he asks, trying to divert Kawase’s attention.

“It’s the same. The cat is desperately reaching for you, but the two humans are more focused on one another. Even in the cropped version, it’s clear that the man handing the cat to you is turning him away from you to make sure he doesn’t accidentally scratch you in his desperation to reach you. Despite the cat’s deep distress, the human bond takes precedence.”

Akihito can feel the heat blooming across his face. He’d thought he was careful to avoid anything in the background of the photographs that might reveal he and Asami are living together, and yet Kawase seems to be implying that he knows.

The next words out of Kawase’s mouth make Akihito’s heart sink.

“Are you planning to use this exhibit to come out of the closet?”

Akihito tries to bluff. “I don’t know what you mean. I helped my friend foster the kittens because he has a crazy work schedule. Just because we’re –” He stops abruptly at the look Kawase is giving him.

“Your photographs don’t lie. What you choose to capture in your viewfinder tells as much about how you feel as what your subjects are doing in your photographs reveals about what they feel.”

Akihito gulps. He can’t argue with that. He’s said much the same to Asami on more than one occasion. “So I won’t use these photographs in the exhibit,” he says, tapping the ones Kawase selected.

“It would be a pity,” Kawase says. “They’re some of your best work. But I want you to realize the potential ramifications of showing them before you decide to do so. Your parents will be attending the exhibit, right?”

Akihito’s mouth drops. “I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about that. I mean, I haven’t even set a date for it yet, so I don’t know if they’ll be able to come.”

“Whatever date you choose, I’m sure your parents will be able to make the trip from Yokohama to see it. Even if it’s not on opening night, the exhibit will be up for at least a few weeks, right?”

“Yes…” Akihito says. “But maybe you’re reading too much into the photographs. I mean, an average person wouldn’t necessarily come to the same conclusions that you did.”

Kawase levels his gaze at Akihito. “Takaba-kun, your father may not be a professional photographer, but do not underestimate his skill.”

“Yes, shishō-san. Well, thanks for your help. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Do you think the two I picked out are exhibit-worthy?”

“No one can decide what’s exhibit-worthy besides you. You’re the one who needs to figure out what you want to communicate. Do you know why Fujishima-sensei focuses so much on parent-child bonds?”

Akihito shakes his head.

“His work keeps him separated from his own child. Even his landscape photographs are taken with his son in mind. He told me when he’s shooting, he always asks himself how he can best capture the feel of a place so that Takara-kun might feel like he was there with him. It was at his son’s request that Fujishima had the exhibit at Neko Bijou.”

Akihito nods.

“The picture you have of the cat seeming to attack the camera is amazing. For many photographers, that would make an excellent exhibit piece. But you’ve told me more than once that you want your pictures to reveal truths the person wants to keep hidden. These photos do that.”  Kawase taps the two he selected.

Akihito bites his lip. He never thought about his photographs revealing his own secrets. And they’re not just his – they’re Asami’s, too.

Kawase continues, “Some photographers use exhibits to show off the breadth of their work. They get decent enough reviews, but their photos are forgotten after the event. They have no lasting impact. An exhibit is a chance to tell a truth greater than any one picture could hold. It’s a truth that lives inside of you, that sneaks into your photos subconsciously. You can have more than one truth inside you, and they’ll all come out in your work, but you need to select the photographs that communicate a single truth for an exhibit. That’s how you’ll be remembered. That’s when you know you’ve found your own voice. You can tell one of your other truths at another exhibit later.”

Akihito nods again. “Thank you, shishō-san. You really have given me a lot to think about.”

“I hope it helps you. If you need any additional advice, you know my door is always open. I’ll want to see your final selections. And the rough drafts of your promotional materials. And the preliminary prints to make sure you didn’t dodge and burn too much.”

“I know, I know. You don’t want me to screw up and sully your reputation. Don’t worry; I know when I’m over my head and I know when to ask for help.”

“That’s a new one. Have you grown up in the past two years?”

“Pretty much,” Akihito grins. “Thanks again.”

He bows and heads for the door. As he’s turning the handle, Kawase calls after him, “Make sure you get some decent clothes, too! You can’t wear jeans to your own exhibit!”

“I know. I’ll wear my suit,” Akihito promises.

“Please tell me it’s not the one you’ve worn to other exhibits.”

“I don’t have any other,” Akihito calls, letting the door close behind him. He can see Kawase inside shaking his head. Man, him and Asami both. What’s the big deal? My suit’s not that bad.

 

When Akihito gets home, he finds a note from Asami.

Went to Ginza for a meeting. Will be back in time for a quick dinner before heading to the office, if you’re up for it. Text me if you want to order something.

Akihito smiles. He picks up his phone to text Asami but then hesitates. What should he say about his meeting with Kawase? Akihito has no idea what to do about his exhibit now. If he decides to use any photos with Asami in them… Akihito shudders. I’m not ready to make my relationship with Asami some big artistic or political statement. But how can I show my life with the kittens and pretend like Asami doesn’t even exist in that life?

And now that Kawase knows about Asami, the circle feels like it’s getting too wide. What if his parents do find out – and what if someone else tells them before Akihito does? That would be a double betrayal to them. And Mom loves kids. How can I tell her she’ll never have grandchildren? Though that’s not going to change whether I tell her or not…

What if someone from work were to attend the exhibit and figure it out? It was bad enough when that cop talked him into sneaking into Sion… If Mitarai were to start snooping, he wouldn’t rest until he figured out who Akihito’s partner was. At least Mitarai thinks he’s a diplomat…

Akihito’s thoughts are whirling so fast, it feels like he can’t catch any of them. Back and forth, pros and cons, what-ifs after what-ifs… And suddenly he’s tired. Just exhausted. Why does this have to be so complicated? If Asami were a woman, Kawase-shishō wouldn’t have cared that we were in a relationship.

He closes his eyes.

But Asami’s not a woman. He’s a man.

He wishes he could just talk to someone about this, someone who would understand what it’s like, before he talks to Asami. He thinks of Kurebayashi, the psychiatrist who helped him with his PTSD, but he doesn’t want the kind of conversation where someone asks him a bunch of questions to guide him to his own conclusion. He’s basically already doing that on his own. And Kou and Takato wouldn’t really get it – it’s just not the same if you haven’t experienced it yourself.

Akihito’s ruminations are interrupted by his phone ringing in his hand. He nearly drops it, but he manages to hang on to it. It’s Asami’s ringtone, so he answers.

“Hi!" Akihito says brightly.

“Are you done with your meeting?”

“Yeah, I just got home and saw your note. How about you?” Akihito tries to deflect the conversation. Asami can always tell when something is up with him, and Akihito is too confused to talk about it with Asami right now. Once they’re face to face, it won’t be so easy, but maybe he’ll be less confused by then.

“I’ve got another hour. I should be home by 7:30. Do you want sushi tonight?”

“What? Yeah!”

“Is something wrong?”

Shoot. “No. Kawase-shishō just gave me a lot to think about.” That’s the understatement of the year…

“I see. I look forward to hearing about it when I get home. I’ll pick up some sushi on my way. See you soon.”

 

After he hangs up, Akihito heads to his workroom. He lets Maya come in with him, leaving the door cracked for Shiro. If Shiro is completely locked out, he’ll whine at the door and continually try to open it, but as soon as you let him in, he’s either wreaking havoc to punish you for locking him out in the first place or begging at the door to be allowed back out again. With the door cracked, Shiro is less likely to drive Akihito crazy.

Akihito sits at his computer, Amaya in his lap, and pulls up the digital versions of the four pictures he and Kawase picked out. He crops the bathtime hand-off, wondering how he could have overlooked it earlier. Even with just their hands showing, it’s clear that the wet and bedraggled Amaya is trying desperately to get to Akihito. The shift in position of Asami’s hand is subtle, but it’s clear that he’s holding Amaya’s back half slightly twisted so that Akihito will have time to support her without getting scratched by her back claws. How did Kawase-shishō even notice that? Would anyone else?

Asami had said that Akihito’s theme was “relationships,” and Kawase said nearly the same thing, though he focused on the supremacy of the human-human relationship over the cat-human relationship. Akihito slowly goes through his stack of photos again, examining each closely to see if it hints at that same theme, no matter how subtly. He’s startled to find more than a dozen that do. He then goes through his stack to see if the opposite theme is there, showing the supremacy of the cat-cat relationship over the cat-human one. There are a few of those, too. He finally picks out the best that show cat-cat or cat-human bonds without the complications of the other type of relationship. He notices that with the exception of the one he calls Hawk-Eyed, these aren’t as interesting as the other two types.

Akihito’s phone buzzes. He glances at it, thinking it’s a text from Asami, but it’s Kou.

Just saw your domination of the front page. Congrats!

Thanks. No one else was willing to get wet.

Does that mean you have tonight off? Want to hang?

Akihito grins. Kou knows his schedule well.

Asami’s coming home for dinner, but I’m free after that. Is Mari-san approaching a deadline again?

Hey! (#`Д´)Don’t imply that I only hang out with you when I’m bored because Mari is busy. I’m not the one brushing somebody off to have dinner with someone I see every single day.

Dude, Asami’s bringing me sushi. I’d brush my own mother off for sushi. You know that.

Sushi? m( ❛ڡ ๑) m

You’re shameless.

I know. I was just joking; I wouldn’t want to be a third wheel.

Actually… having you over for dinner might not be a bad idea. I’ll ask Asami.

Wait. What are you trying to avoid?

What are you talking about? Like you said, Asami and I eat together every day. I can invite a friend to dinner once in a while.

Akihito, I’ve known you too long for that to work.

What?

Stop playing dumb. Why do you want to avoid being alone with Asami-san? Do I need to come over there and kick his ass?

Of course not!

Akihito…

Kou…

Seriously. You’re really making me worry now.

Akihito sighs. He knows Kou is remembering certain scenes of Asami’s aggression and controlling nature he witnessed. But that was five months ago, before the couple had counseling.

It’s got nothing to do with Asami.

Then why are you avoiding him?

I just need some time to think through some things.

Things you can’t tell Asami-san?

No, that’s not it. I just need to understand my own thoughts first. I’m confused.

Okay… Anything I can do to help?

Not really… You wouldn’t understand.

I could try.

You’re not –

I’m not what?

Like me.

There are a lot of ways that I’m not, and a lot of ways that I am. Can you be more specific?

Akihito doesn’t know why he’s having such a hard time saying it; Kou’s already known for months.

?

Gay.

Dude. Call Hiro-nii.

Akihito feels like slapping his forehead. How could he forget that Kou’s older brother is also gay? The last time he talked to Hiro, Hiro told him that he had just gotten engaged and was planning to come out to his parents before the fast-approaching Obon. Hiro would understand exactly what Akihito’s going through. The only problem is that Hiro lives in New York.

I can’t. Isn’t it like 4 o’clock in the morning where he is?

A bit after 5, actually. They change their clocks in the summer.

Either way, that’s ridiculously early.

He gets up early to run before work. He’s already up.

He might not be today.

He does it every day. This is also when he talks to his family and friends back in Japan.

But I don’t really talk to him. I don’t want to just suddenly call him just to ask for advice.

Dude. Stop being a wuss.

I’m not being a wuss! I’m being polite.

Anyway, do you want to come for sushi or not? I’ve got to let Asami know to get more.

Don’t give me the silent treatment, Kou.

The sushi train is leaving the station in 5…

4…

3…

I’ll pass on the sushi. It won’t taste good with Asami-san glaring at me the whole time.

He won’t glare at you.

I’m not crashing date night. When does Asami-san leave for work?

I think he has a meeting at 9.

So I’ll come over at nine.

Sounds good.

By the way, Hiro-nii is expecting you on Skype two minutes from now.

Kou! What did you do?

One minute, thirty seconds…

Thanks, butthead.

You’re welcome, doofus.

Chapter Text

Akihito closes his slideshow and logs into Skype on his computer. He checks behind him to see what will appear on his video feed. The only thing really visible will be the wall of his darkroom. He checks the various notes and photographs from ongoing cases pinned to his bulletin board along the wall, but there’s nothing that Hiro can’t see.

“Moshi moshi, Aki,” Hiro is sitting in a chair with a bowl of cereal on the table in front of him. Behind him is a set of shelves covered with dishes and various food boxes. Akihito barely recognizes Hiro; he’s got a beard and his cheeks have filled out since the last time Aki saw him. He’s obviously put on a bit of weight in America.

“Moshi moshi, Hiro-nii. Sorry for bothering you while you’re eating breakfast.”

“It’s fine,” Hiro says. “I’ve got about half an hour to talk before I have to get ready. What’s up?”

“How’ve you been?” Akihito asks. “How are the wedding plans going?”

“Everything is still up in the air. We can’t really plan anything until we know how my parents are going to take things. In the meantime, Andrew and I are just focusing on getting in shape.” Hiro lifts a spoonful of his cereal, showing it to Akihito. It looks like dry cat food. “Fiber cereal. It tastes even worse than it looks. That’s what I get for being so lazy and eating like an American once I got here.”

Akihito laughs. “Looks delicious. Is that why you’re running now, too?”

“Yeah. You know I used to hate exercise, but I’m actually kind of getting into it now. I live close to Central Park, and Andrew and I run around the park every morning. It’s nice to see some nature.”

“You said you were going to tell your parents by Obon. Is that still the plan?” Akihito asks.

“Yep. Andrew and I are flying over for Obon, so you should make sure you go home this year, too.”

“I will. I didn’t make it back for New Year’s.”

“Aki! You only live an hour away. You’re as bad as Kou.”

“My job doesn’t really get a break for the holidays.”

“That’s what Kou said, too.”

“It’s not like the paper stops printing on the holidays.”

“That’s true. But it’s a day trip. Surely you could make it on a day off.”

“You sound like my mother,” Akihito grumbles. “I’m usually catching up on housework or working on my upcoming exhibit on my days off.”

Hiro laughs. “Sorry. I guess since I haven’t gotten to go home in a couple of years, I’m jealous of the fact that you’re so close. You’ve got your own exhibit? Kou didn’t tell me about that. Congratulations!”

“It’s just at a cat café,” Akihito plays it down. “So you’re going to have your parents meet Andrew and then come out to them?”

“Yeah. Somehow…” Hiro’s face suddenly looks worried. “Kou’s going to bring Mari-san home, too.”

“How do you think your parents are going to take it?”

“I don’t know. You know them pretty well. What do you think?”

“I have no idea,” Akihito admits. “I mean, I’d like to say I don’t think they’d disown you or anything, but it’s not something I’ve ever talked about with them, you know?”

“I know.” Hiro closes his eyes. “I just don’t want them to be rude to Andrew.  I’m not sure how he would take it. I’ve warned him they might need some time. He doesn’t speak Japanese, so that’s going to make it harder.”

“I think they’ll come around eventually,” Akihito says. “At least you’re not an only child.”

“That’s what Kou keeps saying. I’m not sure that matters so much.”

Akihito shrugs. “At least they can still have grandchildren. My parents can’t.”

Hiro peers at Akihito. “Are you thinking of coming out to them?”

Akihito shrugs again. In a rush, he explains what happened with Kawase.

“Do the pictures really make it that obvious?” Hiro asks.

“I don’t think the bathtime one does,” Akihito says. “But I could see how the one on the bed kind of does, now that Kawase-shishō pointed it out.”

“Can I see it?” Hiro asks.

Akihito shares his screen with Hiro and pulls up the picture.

Hiro whistles. “Man, you caught yourself a hottie!”

Akihito blushes.

“Kou said he was some rich CEO, but he didn’t mention his looks,” Hiro continues.

“What?!” Akihito splutters. “You guys have been talking about me?”

“I just asked what your partner was like. Sorry, I was just curious.”

Akihito’s face is aflame.

“Yeah, the way he’s lying, it’s pretty obvious someone else belongs on the other half of the bed. And the fact that you felt okay taking a picture of him when he’s sleeping in just his underwear… Yep. You might as well title this photo ‘This man is my lover.’”

“Hiro-nii!” Akihito hesitates a moment. “So it’s really that obvious?”

“Yeah, Aki. If you’re going to use that photo, you’re basically coming out of the closet. But hey, it’s Japan, right? People will be too polite to actually say anything about it.”

“Except my parents.”

“Oh, yeah. I guess there’s no avoiding them coming to the exhibit. And it’d be too much to hope you could steer them away from that photo.”

“Exactly.”

“But you still really want to use the photo, don’t you?”

“If I have an exhibit about the kittens but completely cut out any trace of Asami, it would feel like a lie. And my photography is supposed to be about revealing the truth.”

“So there’s your answer.”

“But it’s complicated. It’s not just about me.”

“You can’t see Asami-san’s face in the photographs, right?”

Akihito sighs. This is complicated. I can’t tell Hiro-nii why Asami is so adamant about hiding our relationship. “Right. Asami doesn’t really want me to take pictures of him at all, but he’s gotten a bit lenient when the kittens are the focus, as long as I don’t show his face. But there are already rumors about us.”

“There are?” Hiro’s eyes bug out. “You mean in the corporate world?”

“Yeah…” Akihito says. The underworld, but close enough. They overlap so much, anyway… “But they think I’m just Asami’s pet.” He makes a face; he hates even voicing those rumors aloud.

Hiro closes his eyes in concentration. “So they’re okay with it as long as they think you’re just some fling?”

“Yeah. Asami will sometimes…” Akihito trails off. What exactly does Asami do with those beautiful women Akihito has occasionally seen him with? Asami has said he’s not having sex with them, and Akihito believes him. But are they a beard for Asami? Is Asami just playing the good host? Akihito has never seen more than a glimpse of them entering or leaving one of Asami’s clubs, so he’s not sure.

“Aki?” Hiro interrupts his thoughts.

“Sorry. Asami’s company owns a number of clubs. He sometimes escorts female guests into the clubs.”

“Is he using them to pretend that he’s straight?” Hiro asks. “How far is he taking it? Is he sleeping with them?”

“No, he’s not. But I don’t know if he’s just playing a good host for VIPs, or whether he takes it farther and pretends to have an interest in them.”

“Aki, a lot of Japanese gay men still end up marrying women, especially in the business world. Have you and Asami-san talked about your future?”

Akihito wracks his brain. What exactly have we said? He remembers the checklist. “We’ve both said we can’t imagine our relationship ending.” He breathes a sigh of relief.

Hiro looks at him sadly. “Aki, my first boyfriend married a woman when he was afraid he’d been outed. He thought we could continue things on the side.”

Akihito gapes at him. “That’s awful.”

“So not wanting a relationship to end isn’t necessarily the same thing as really being committed to each other,” Hiro continues.

“Is that why you went to America?” Akihito asks.

“It’s a large part of it. The opportunity came, and he was constantly calling me or showing up on campus. He couldn’t understand why I wanted to break up. But once I got here, I found dating to be a lot easier. And if I hadn’t come here, I never would have met Andrew.”

“I don’t think Asami’s going to marry a woman and keep me on the side like that, though. He doesn’t really care what other people think of him.” But Akihito’s heart is filled with uncertainty. Asami wouldn’t marry someone else for his own sake, but he’s already said he’ll do whatever it takes to keep Akihito safe from Asami’s enemies. And that includes things that could hurt Akihito.

“You could be right, Aki. I don’t know him. I hope you’re right. But this is really something you’re going to have to talk out with him. You won’t know how he feels about your exhibit until you ask.”

“Thanks, Hiro-nii.”

“Good luck, Aki. Oh, hey, just a second.” Hiro stands up, giving Akihito a glimpse of his ample belly. Wow, he’s got to be at least fifteen kilograms heavier. Hiro walks off camera, but Akihito can still hear him. He’s speaking in English. “Good morning, babe. Want to meet one of my Japanese friends? He can speak English pretty well. He’s the one who called on Thanksgiving, Kou’s friend.

“The gay one?”

Akihito blushes.

Hiro returns a few seconds later. “I’m going to introduce you to Andrew. He wants to brush his hair first.”

Akihito laughs.

“After that, I’m going to have to go so we can get our run in before work.”

A tall blond man walks behind Hiro and squats down, leaning on the back of Hiro’s chair. He’s also a bit overweight, though not as heavy as Hiro. “Hello.”

“Hi. I’m Akihito. Nice to meet you.”

“Hi. I’m Andrew. Nice to meet you, Akeeto.”

“You can call him Aki,” Hiro offers.

Akihito tries not to bristle. He doesn’t really like to be called Aki, but he’s given up on his childhood friends calling him that. The trouble is, when they call him Aki too often, others start to pick up on it. Still, he supposes “Aki” is better than “Akeeto.” “Hiro tells me you’re come to Japan in July. Will it be your first time here?”

“Yeah. You speak English really well. Have you been to America?”

“No, but I have some relatives who live there, and they would come and stayed with us in the summers.”

“I see. Do a lot of people speak English there?”

“Everyone studies it in school, but most people don’t really speak it. More do in the big cities, and a lot of signs are in English. Many restaurants even have English menus for foreigners. Have you learned any Japanese?”

“Not at all,” Andrew admits. “I guess I should. Hiro says that his parents don’t speak any English.”

“Are you nervous about meeting his family?”

“Of course. Is Japan really as homophobic as Hiro says?”

“Andrew,” Hiro says in a warning tone.

“Homobofic? What’s that?”

“Does everyone there really hate gay people?”

“Hate? I don’t think anyone does. It’s just not something anyone really talks about.”

“Why not? We exist there, right? I mean, you’re gay.”

Akihito doesn’t know what to say. He wouldn’t even know what the word ‘gay’ means if Kou hadn’t taught it to him when telling him about Hiro.

Andrew, I’ve already told you what it’s like. Don’t put Aki on the spot. Sorry, Aki.”

“What’s the big deal? I’m just trying to understand.”

“Andrew!”

“It’s okay, Hiro-nii. I’m just trying to figure out what to say. I only know a little about what it’s like in America from what my cousins have said.”

“Do any of them know about you?”Andrew asks.

Akihito shakes his head. “I didn’t even know it myself until a few months ago. It’s just not talked about. But there’s a lot of social pressure to conform here: go to a good school, get good grades, become a salaryman, get married, have kids, support your parents in their old age… Being with a man don’t really fit into that picture.”

“But not everyone does, right? I mean, you guys have a really low birth rate, right? So most people aren’t getting married. Or if they are, they’re not having kids.”

Akihito shrugs. “I don’t know. I know some of my relatives given my parents a hard time when I didn’t went to college. They thought being a photographer instead of a salaryman was a shame to our family. But my parents supported my decision, as long as I could supported myself.

“What about your sexuality? Do your parents know you’re gay?”

Akihito shakes his head. “That’s what Hiro-nii was giving me advice about. It’s not just my parents, either – I have to think about what might happens if my job finds out. Or what might happens to my –” Akihito doesn’t know the English word he should use to describe his relationship with Asami. “Asami,” he finally says, shrugging and looking at Hiro for help.

His partner,” Hiro explains.

“Don’t you have legal protections? I mean, for your job at least?” Andrew asks.

Akihito looks at him, puzzled. “What do you mean?”

Hiro answers. “They don’t. You can be fired for anything that might make the company look bad.”

“That’s so backwards. I’m glad you’re here.”

Hiro explains to Akihito, “Here, you can’t be fired for being gay. The company could get in trouble for doing so – assuming you can prove it in a court of law.”

Akihito stares at them for a moment, then shrugs. “Well, as long as it’s not causing trouble for the company here, they probably wouldn’t fire you.” He thinks about his editor. As long as none of the readers complain about Akihito, the editor probably wouldn’t care. And it’s unlikely the readers would find out in order to complain. Unless the paper runs an article on Akihito’s exhibit and mentions it… But who would do that to him? Besides Mitarai… But would the editor go along with it? Maybe, if he thought it would sell more papers… But would it?

Aki, we’ve got to get going on our run soon.” Hiro switches back to Japanese for Akihito.Just talk to Asami-san, okay? Once you know how he feels, it’ll be easier to make a decision about your exhibit.”

“Thanks, Hiro-nii. Let me know when you’ll be back in Japan, okay? I look forward to meet you in person, Andrew-san.

 

When he’s done chatting with Hiro and Andrew, Akihito tries to go back to his photos, but his mind is racing too much. He decides to clean something instead. Being active often helps him process his thoughts, but he doesn’t have time to go for a run before Asami will be home. He heads into the kitchen to make sure it’s clean after Asami’s cooking escapade this morning.

He sees that the dishwasher is locked, so he opens it to empty it. He stops and stares at the toy on the top rack. He wouldn’t dare!

Akihito looks closer and notices that the toy is inside a plastic pot one of his herbs came in. He breathes a sigh of relief. He’s put one of those in the dishwasher before, and it was warped out of shape when the cycle finished.

He was just teasing me.

Akihito takes the toy out of the planter and sticks it under Asami’s pillow. He puts the planter in the recycling container, washes his hands, and gets back to unloading the dishwasher.

The front door opens, and Asami calls out, “I’m home.”

“Welcome home,” Akihito calls back. He pulls out a couple of Sion Gold Label beers from the fridge; he knows Asami won’t want to drink anything stronger before work.

Asami enters the kitchen carrying a giant bag of food.

“How was your meeting?” Akihito asks.

Asami puts the food on the counter and gives him a kiss before answering. “It went as well as could be expected,” he says vaguely. “The other party was as much of a pain in the ass as expected, but in the end, I managed to get what I wanted.”

Akihito’s eyebrows shoot up. He’s never heard Asami call anyone a “pain in the ass” besides Akihito himself. He decides not to press the issue, though; they have an unspoken rule not to talk too much about Asami’s job.

“Do you want to eat in the dining room or living room? Or maybe outside?” Asami asks.

“Let’s eat in the living room,” Akihito says.

But once they have the sushi trays arranged on the coffee table, he regrets that decision. Shiro and Amaya are both trying to get at the delicious-smelling fish. Asami is doing his best to guard the sushi, but Akihito grabs his camera to start taking pictures.

“I can’t save it all myself,” Asami warns.

“It’s more fun to watch you try.” Akihito grins and sticks out his tongue.

But once he’s looking through his viewfinder, Kawase’s words keep playing in the back of his mind. Instead of taking pictures, he keeps worrying about what each shot might say about himself – and by the time he figures it out, the scene has moved on.

“What’s wrong?” Asami asks, raising two of the platters over his head and looking at Akihito.

“Nothing,” Akihito says. “I’m suddenly not hungry.” He drops his camera, and the tug on his neck and thud on his chest when the strap catches it seem to say “Stupid failure.”

He heads past Asami towards the door of his workroom.

“Hold on,” Asami says, trying to figure out where he can set the trays where the cats can’t reach them.

But Akihito doesn’t hold on. He goes into his workroom and closes the door behind him.

Asami knocks on the door a minute later. “I put the sushi in the fridge. Well, what’s left of it, anyway. Shiro and Amaya got most of the tuna rolls.”

Akihito doesn’t answer. Asami can hear the opening strains of Akihito’s favorite Melt Banana album. Asami knocks again, and when Akihito doesn’t answer, Asami opens the door.

He doesn’t enter; he stands in the doorway looking at Akihito. After a few moments, Akihito finally looks up.

Asami raises his eyebrows and crosses his arms. When he doesn’t say anything, Akihito directs his attention back to his monitor, which shows a fierce battle between pirate ships.

“Would you like to talk?” Asami finally asks, trying not to shout while making sure he can be heard.

“Not really,” Akihito says, his attention focused on steering his ship to victory.

“Well, I would. If that’s alright with you,” Asami says.

Akihito purses his lips. “I’d rather not. At least not tonight. You’ve got to go to work soon, anyway.”

“Do you have something to talk about that’s going to take a long time?” Asami asks, his eyebrows creeping almost into his hairline.

“Nah,” Akihito says. “Well, maybe.”

“Shall I schedule an appointment for us with Kurebayashi-sensei for tomorrow then?”

“What?” Akihito turns and stares at Asami. “No! Of course not.” His attention is drawn back to the screen by the sound of an explosion. He curses then drops his controller in disgust.

“May I come in then?” Asami asks.

“Sure, whatever.” Akihito leans down to pick up the controller. When he sits back up, Asami swings one leg over Akihito’s lap and straddles him, effectively blocking Akihito’s view of the monitor.

“Did something happen with your mentor?” Asami asks.

“What do you mean? I showed him my pictures. He liked some of them; he gave me some advice; now I’m thinking about it. That’s what was supposed to happen.”

“And thinking about it got in the way of you taking pictures just now?”

Akihito’s mouth drops open slightly, but he nods.

“That’s normal. A lot of artists get a mental block when experiencing growth.”

“Oh, great. Tomorrow when I’m on my next stakeout and I miss the shot and the scoop, it will be so comforting to know that other people go through the same thing.”

“When you’re shooting, you just shoot, right? You set your camera, take the best shots you can from the best angle you can get, and then you figure out what the best picture was after the fact, right? It’s not like painting, where you’re trying to create something from scratch.”

“I know…”

“So what specifically made you hesitate?”

“Kawase-shishō said that my photos reveal truths in my subconscious; that they say as much about my feelings towards the subject as they do about the subjects’ feelings. I kept wondering what truth I was trying to capture by setting up the shot the way I was, but of course the kittens kept moving, so the shot was gone before I could figure it out.”

“Do all your photos reveal a subconscious truth?”

Akihito blinks at Asami.

“You showed me a giant stack of photographs. And I know that you took many more that you didn’t even bother to develop. Do you know what subconscious truth was in every single one of them?”

Akihito shook his head slowly. “I don’t think so. It was only while trying to pick out photos for the exhibit that Kawase-shishō pointed out one specific truth, and then when I went searching through my stack of photos, I found a dozen more that showed the same truth.”

“He said ‘subconscious,’ right? That means you’re not aware of it in the moment. It’s the thing that inspires you to grab the camera. You capture the scene as best you can, and later, when you’re developing it, your subconscious helps you pick out the pictures that best portray whatever that feeling was that made you pick up the camera in the first place. Sometimes, you don’t get any shots at all that are good, right?”

Akihito nods. “But I can’t help wondering what my subconscious is trying to say now!”

“You can worry about that when you’re developing. If you’re trying to artificially manipulate a scene to show one of your truths, it won’t capture the feeling, anyway.”

“That’s what I was worrying about!”

Asami sighs. “But you weren’t manipulating that scene, right? You weren’t telling the kittens or me how to act. Just take pictures how you always do. Take lots of pictures. That will increase the chance of you capturing one that speaks to you later. Maybe none of them will, but as you keep taking pictures, it will come back to you. The most important thing is to just take the picture.”

Akihito slowly nods.

Asami checks his watch. “I’ve got to leave in forty-five minutes. You ready for some sushi now?”

Akihito grins. “Yeah. Sorry for wasting our time together with my artistic crisis.” He reaches up and pulls Asami towards him for a kiss.

Asami breaks the kiss after just a couple of minutes. “As lovely as kissing you is, this angle is really awkward,” he says, standing back up and massaging his neck.

“Sorry!” Akihito says. He stands and pulls on Asami’s hand, leading him to the dining room.

“You don’t want to try to capture the kittens attacking the sushi?” Asami asks.

“That would be ‘manipulating the scene’ at this point, wouldn’t it?” Akihito says. “Besides, they’ve had enough. I can’t believe they stole the tuna rolls! I hope there are a few left.”

“There are, but those are mine. The kittens ate your share, since you didn’t help save them.” Asami smirks.

“Hey, that’s not fair! Let’s split what’s left fifty-fifty!” Akihito protests.

“Of course it’s fair; it’s your fault any got lost. Actually, since more than half were lost, you owe me compensation.” Asami’s grin grows wider.

“What, you want more than half the eel now, too?” Akihito grumbles.

“I’ll let you have the rest of the tuna and all of the eel if you pay me in other ways,” Asami rumbles seductively.

Akihito rolls his eyes. “Fine. Whatever. You know you don’t have to make bargains like that, though. We always end up doing what you want, anyway.”

Asami’s eyebrows shoot up. “Oh, really? So you’re willing to wear what you wore yesterday to work tomorrow?”

“What?!” Akihito splutters. “No. You can have all the tuna and eel.”

As they take sushi, Akihito notices that Asami doesn’t touch the tuna or eel. It’s fine. I won’t take them, either.

But as the rest of the sushi dwindles, eventually Akihito reaches out for a bite without paying attention. When he pops it into his mouth, he recognizes the taste of eel. Maybe Asami didn’t notice.

Akihito glances over. Asami looks like the cat that ate the canary.

“It was just one! There’s more than one tuna roll left, so there’s still enough eel to make up for it!”

“There were a lot more tuna rolls than eel rolls to begin with,” Asami says, his smirk growing wider.

“Then you should have eaten them faster. You must not actually want them since you’re not even eating them,” Akihito says.

“I was saving the best for last.” Asami’s smile is positively wicked now.

“I didn’t realize what it was!” Akihito protests.

Asami’s face tells Akihito that there’s no way for him to win this argument.

“Just don’t turn it on. I could get fired if anyone figured it out,” Akihito finally mumbles. He scowls at the look of triumph on Asami’s face. “Bastard.” Then Akihito remembers that he moved the toy. “You’ll have to find it if you want me to wear it!” He crows triumphantly.

The sound of Shiro vomiting up the tuna rolls interrupts Akihito’s gloating.

Chapter Text

Kou knocks on the penthouse door at 8:55. He nods to Suoh, who’s standing at attention just outside the door. Are they on high alert because of Aki’s yakuza story? Or is he just waiting for Asami-san?

No one comes to the door, so Kou knocks again. He glances sidelong at Suoh. “Aki told me to come over at nine,” he explains. “He said Asami-san had a meeting.”

“Right now, I believe the two of them are conducting a meeting over the proper disposal of the feline products of emesis.”

Kou blinks at Suoh, but Suoh continues to stare at the elevator. Akihito’s voice comes through the door. “He’s your cat, and you’re the one who let him get into the rolls that had mayo! I’m not cleaning it up!”

“Shiro ate some of the sushi and threw up?” Kou guesses.

Suoh gives a subtle shrug but remains stoic.

Kou chuckles. “You’re actually a pretty funny guy, aren’t you?” He knocks louder, and he can hear the sound of quick footsteps.

“Hey, Kou,” Akihito says breathlessly as he flings the door open. Shiro slips from behind him and bolts into the hallway. Akihito rolls his eyes and sighs. “That cat… And Asami said Aki-chan would be too much work!”

Thankfully, the hallway’s not very big, and the elevator and stairway door are closed. Kou helps Akihito corner Shiro, but Shiro dodges past them both and tries to slip past Suoh towards the other corner. Suoh reaches down and grabs Shiro’s scruff, hauling him up and holding him out for Akihito.

“Thanks,” Akihito says.

“Wow, you’ve got amazing reflexes, too,” Kou says, nodding at Suoh as he follows Akihito inside.

“What was that?” Akihito asks, but he’s distracted by the sight of Asami putting on his shoes in the genkan. “Did you clean up Shiro’s mess?”

“I have to go to my meeting,” Asami says, not answering the question.

“Bastard.”

“Aki!” Kou says.

“It’s fine; he knows that’s what he is,” Akihito says.

Asami pulls Akihito in for a hug and whispers in his ear, “Brat.”

Akihito blushes.

Kou buries his face in his hands, then kicks off his shoes and heads towards the kitchen. “Nice to see you Asami-san,” he calls over his shoulder. He freezes when he feels a cold, mushy wetness under his sock.

He looks down, and sure enough, he’s stepped in the feline products of emesis.

Kou steps into the kitchen on his other foot, keeping an eye out for any more cat puke, and holds onto the counter while he peels the fouled sock off his foot. He sees a few other piles around the kitchen – one of which Amaya is licking.

“Don’t do that,” he chides, picking her up. Her shoulders start heaving, so Kou holds her over the trash can (It’s combustible, right?) while she does her business.

Akihito comes into the kitchen. “Amaya, too?” he asks, taking her from Kou once she’s finished.

“She was eating Shiro’s. You really should clean it up right away,” Kou chides. He grabs a paper towel and starts picking up the cat vomit.

“You don’t have to – Did you step in it?” Akihito asks, noticing Kou’s sockless foot. “I’m sorry!”

“It’s fine. It’s just cat puke. Lend me a pair of socks, though?”

“Of course.” Akihito helps clean up the remaining piles of cat puke. He locks both kittens on the closed balcony near the kitchen in case they need to throw up again, and then leads the way towards the bedroom. He stops by the laundry room to put the soiled pair of socks in the washing machine. “I’ll give them to you whenever we hang out again.”

“Whenever’s fine. Or we could just trade,” Kou replies, shrugging. “Mine aren’t special.”

“That’s fine,” Akihito says. He opens the bedroom door and heads towards the dresser.

Kou waits in the doorway, looking around the room curiously. He’s only been in here once before, and that was when Akihito first found the kittens, so Kou’s attention was focused on them. Besides, that was when Akihito still had his own bedroom (or at least the pretense of one).

Kou notices the bottle of lube on Asami’s nightstand and looks away quickly, blushing. Akihito has already grabbed a pair of socks and he turns to see what embarrassed Kou.

“What?” Akihito turns red. Instead of heading to the nightstand, though, Akihito reaches under Asami’s pillow. He looks at Kou in confusion. “It’s not here. What were you –?”

Kou shrugs. “Thanks for the socks,” he says, holding out a hand.

Akihito hands them to Kou and follows him out of the room. “Just a second, okay?” Akihito says, turning back into the room and closing the door behind him.

Kou can hear the sounds of rumpling pillows and blankets as Akihito searches the bed for something. I don’t want to know, Kou decides, heading towards the living room to set up the Wii.

 

Kou waits until they’re engrossed in a Mario Kart race before asking, “Did you talk to him? Or did you waste all your time arguing about cat puke?”

“It was only like ten minutes,” Akihito grumbles.

“Seriously?” Kou rolls his eyes. “That’s ten times longer than it would have taken for you to clean it up.”

“Whatever. It’s the principle of the thing,” Akihito says.

“Don’t you do all the housework, anyway?” Kou asks.

Akihito shrugs. “That’s because I don’t mind it. I mind cat puke.”

“But if you’re going to have a pet, that’s part of the responsibility.”

“It wasn’t my cat hurling all over the floor. Shiro couldn’t keep it in one place; he had to move around making sure he covered as much area as possible.”

“At least it wasn’t the carpet. Or your bed.”

Akihito’s eyes bug out as he shudders.

“So all those times you catsat for us and said the cat had just puked or you didn’t notice it, you were just pretending,” Kou states, sounding completely unsurprised.

Akihito shifts his gaze. “Only once or twice… Most of the time it really had just happened!”

“Uh-huh. You avoided my question, by the way.”

“What question?”

“You didn’t talk to Asami-san.”

“You didn’t give me a chance to answer before you started talking about cat barf!” Akihito protests.

“Uh-huh. Still not answering, eh? You definitely didn’t talk to him.”

“I did too!”

Kou pauses the game and raises his eyebrows at him. “Seriously?”

Akihito looks away. “About one thing, anyway…”

“That’s what I thought. Did talking to Hiro-nii help?”

“Yeah. I guess. It doesn’t make it easier, though.”

“What?”

“What what?”

“What’s not any easier?”

“Oh.” Akihito fidgets, looking down at his lap. “Kawase-shishō thinks some of my best pictures give away my relationship with Asami. And he pointed out that my parents are probably coming to the exhibit.”

“Oh. Oh! Ohhhh,” Kou says.

Akihito snorts. “Is that all you can say?”

“So you and Hiro-nii are going through the same thing.”

“Yeah. Which do you think is worse, marrying a foreign man and basically declaring you’re never coming back to Japan, or living with a – whatever Asami is?” Akihito abruptly changes course mid-sentence. Kou knows – or at least strongly suspects – Asami’s connection to the underworld, but since Kou first mentioned it, they haven’t really discussed it.

“You think Hiro-nii is never coming home?” Kou asks.

“I met Andrew-san on Skype. He doesn’t speak Japanese and he seems to have no interest in learning it. And he… didn’t seem to have a very good opinion of Japan.”

Kou sighs. “Yeah, I noticed that, too. I guess you’re right; I just never really realized what it meant.”

“It’s not like Hiro-nii will never come home again,” Akihito points out. “He’s coming for Obon, remember?”

“Yeah, but this is his first time home in three years.”

“Well, he sounds like he wants to come home more often. It’ll be easier once your parents know. Or you could go visit him in New York.”

Kou snorts. “No way. I don’t speak English well enough.”

“You wouldn’t have to. Hiro-nii would be with you. Anyway, you could take a refresher course.”

“New York, huh?” Kou lets the silence grow for a bit before shaking his head. “Sorry. We were talking about you, and I turned it into a discussion of my family. You’re not going to tell your parents what Asami-san does, right?”

“You mean the fact that he’s the CEO of Sion Corporation?” Akihito asks, raising his eyebrows.

Kou rolls his eyes.

“I don’t see how I could avoid it.”

Kou rolls his eyes again. Yeah, if I were dating a crook, I probably wouldn’t tell my family, either. Then again, I’d never date a crook. “That’s true,” he says, letting the issue slide. “Well, I don’t think you really have anything to worry about if you do tell them. Assuming you tell them before they show up at the exhibit, of course.”

“What do you mean? They’re going to be shocked.”

Kou ponders that for a moment and shakes his head. “I’m not sure they will be. At least your mom, anyway. She’s been preparing you to be a housewife for ages.”

“Kou! She just wanted me to be self-sufficient.”

“But why did she want you to be self-sufficient?”

“Because she was worried no woman would want me.”

“I know that’s what she said, but come on, Aki. You’re nice, relatively smart; you have a good job… You’re decent-looking – I mean, for a guy…”

“Not in high school. I was awkward, totally wild, and always getting into trouble.”

Kou rolls his eyes. “Everyone has an awkward phase. She knew you’d grow out of it. And yeah, you were a little bit crazy and had some close calls, but you knew when to toe the line. The only time you were really in trouble was when you were falsely accused, and after that you calmed down.”

“You really think she knows?” Akihito asks, dumbfounded. “How could she?”

“The fact that you’ve never shown even the remotest interest in girls?” Kou gapes at him. “Oh, right, I nearly forgot you had no clue. No one is as oblivious as you, Aki. You’re pretty obvious. Takato and Kana figured it out years ago.”

“Really? Then why did Takato act so shocked when I told him?”

Kou shrugs. “I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Maybe it was how you said it?”

“When were you guys talking about me?”

“You told Takato to ask me what I thought of Asami-san.” Kou stands and stretches. “Do you have any snacks?”

Akihito leads the way to the kitchen. He starts pulling down bags of snack food from the cupboard. “When did I tell Takato that?”

“I think when you told him about you being gay. He said he asked you what I thought of the person you were with – because of the checklist, remember? And you told him to ask me because Asami-san and I get along too well.” He hands a bag back to Akihito. “I’m not in the mood for kakipea tonight, unless you are.”

Akihito puts the bag of kakipea back. “So you guys decided to talk about me instead of Asami?”

Kou tosses a bag of chips at him. “We were talking about your relationship, and it just came up, okay? Takato asked how long I’d known you were gay. I told him since high school, and he’d seemed a little hurt that I’d known for so long, so I had to explain that you’d just figured it out yourself. He was surprised by that considering he’d figured it out shortly after college.”

“Oh. So you really think my mom knows?” Akihito asks. “Why hasn’t she said anything?”

“For the same reason Takato and I didn’t. It’s your news to share, not ours. Anyway, I nearly forgot, but what did you mean that Asami-san and I get along too well? We get along alright, I guess, but it’s not like we’re best buddies. Not even close.”

“You both like to tease me too much.”

“Oh.” Kou laughs. “That’s ’cause you’re easily ruffled. Like these chips.”

They head back to the living room.

“You’re not really worried about your parents, though, right?” Kou asks as he unpauses the game.

Akihito repauses it. “What do you mean?”

“You’re freaking out about talking to Asami-san. You’re worried he won’t want you to use the pictures, right?”

Akihito shrugs. “I’m not sure I should. It’s not just Asami. An exhibit is public. It could be covered by the media.”

“Your job,” Kou says softly, suddenly understanding. “Asami-san’s business.”

“His face isn’t shown, but apparently there are already rumors going around about us.” Akihito doesn’t spell out the potential security ramifications of their relationship being public, and Kou is still naïve enough that his mind doesn’t make that leap.

“What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know. I don’t want to lose my job. But I want to put on the best exhibit I can.”

“Are the pictures with Asami-san really that good?”

Akihito shows Kou the pictures on his computer.

When Kou sees the one of Asami and Shiro on the bed, he lets out a low whistle. “No wonder you’re so conflicted. That’s a great picture. What else do you have?”

Akihito shows Kou the bathtime scene, Hawk-Eyed, and the photo of the kittens in the storm.

“Wow, Aki. You’ve gotten really good.”

Akihito shrugs, trying to wave the compliment off, but inside he can’t help feeling a little proud. As a graphic designer, Kou has honed his aesthetic eye, and his compliments are hard-earned.

“You’ve got more than just these four though, right?” Kou asks.

Akihito gulps. He shows Kou some of the others he selected along the same theme, and Kou nods in encouragement. “But I’ve also got ones like these,” Akihito finally says, showing the picture of Shiro seeming to attack the camera. “They’re not necessarily ‘my style,’ whatever that means, but I still want to somehow show them off to help integrate the exhibit with the space a little better.”

“What do you mean?” Kou asks.

Akihito explains what he means, and Kou starts playing around in his mock-up of the space, placing the fun photographs in various locations.

“This is great, Aki!” Kou crows. “I’ve never seen an exhibit like this before!”

“You don’t think it will detract from the more serious photos?” Akihito worries.

“No. They’ll be framed and presented properly, demonstrating the depth of your skill, but these will showcase your versatility. They’re fun, and they show you don’t take yourself too seriously.”

“I don’t think Kawase-shishō would like that too much.” Akihito frowns. But as he studies the mock-up some more, he suddenly grins. “But it’s really brilliant, isn’t it? You came up with some really awesome ideas for placement.”

“Wow, you’re really going to have an exhibit, aren’t you?” Kou says. “This looks pretty good already, even though I know you want a few more serious photos.”

 

As Kou is leaving a few hours later, he says, “Talk to Asami-san. You won’t be able to decide anything until you do because this decision affects both of you. Just show him the pictures you’ve chosen, and the conversation will flow from there.”

“Alright,” Akihito grumbles.

“You have until tomorrow night,” Kou warns.

“Asami’s really busy right now!” Akihito protests. “He probably won’t even be home before I have to leave for Saitama in the morning.”

“Saitama? You following up on that onion story?”

Akihito groans. “Don’t remind me. This ninja corruption scandal will never end. It’s actually really boring, but just because they’re ‘real-live ninjas,’ people just eat it up.” He rolls his eyes.

“You’d actually like it if you didn’t come back smelling like an onion field every time you went up there,” Kou teases.

“Yeah, yeah,” Akihito grumbles. “Anyway, I’ll talk to Asami by this weekend.”

“Nope. I’ll give you until Friday morning.”

“That’s this weekend.”

“You would stretch the weekend to last until Monday morning if we didn’t specify,” Kou points out. He heads to the closed balcony to say goodbye to the kittens. “No more barf,” he calls over his shoulder to Akihito.

Akihito’s sigh of relief is audible.

 

The next morning, Akihito is heading towards Saitama at five o’clock, hoping to arrive there in time to take some photographs of the site of the proposed development project at dawn to capture the light playing off the water of the pond. Yes, that’s why I had to leave so early. It has nothing to do with the deal Asami and I made about the sushi. I’ve completely forgotten about that.

He waits at a red light. As soon as it turns green, he crosses the intersection, but a police car turns on its lights and pulls out from the cross street. Akihito and Yoneda shift to the left lane, but the police car falls in behind them, so they pull over and stop.

The officer approaches Akihito’s bike. Akihito raises his visor and asks, “What seems to be the problem, officer?”

“License and registration,” the officer demands.

Akihito hands his over. The officer completely ignores Yoneda, heading back to his patrol car. A few minutes later, he returns.

“Takaba Akihito, step this way. I’d like to have a word with you.”

“What seems to be the problem?” Akihito asks again.

“This way, please.” The officer gestures towards an alley.

Akihito reluctantly swings off his bike. Yoneda dismounts, too, but the officer holds up his hand.

“I need to speak to Takaba-san alone.”

Akihito can see Yoneda doing some quick mental calculations. He knows that for today’s road trip, Sakuragi and Saijo are trailing in a car. He sees the car turn down the block parallel to the alley. “Can’t my friend come, too?” Akihito asks, stalling for time.

The officer shakes his head.

“Am I under arrest?” Akihito asks.

“No. Please come this way.”

“Why?”

“I need to ask you a few questions. Please come this way.”

Akihito sighs. “Fine.” He follows as slowly as he can. The officer heads deep into the alley, but Akihito stops fifteen feet in. “My friend can’t hear us from here, but he can see us. I don’t feel safe going any farther.”

Suddenly the alley is illuminated by a glaring bright light. The officer shields his eyes. He pulls out his radio, and a few seconds later, the light is dimmed, though it remains focused on them. Akihito suddenly realizes it’s Yoneda’s headlight. He tries not to snicker.

“You wrote this article for yesterday’s Weekly Headlines, correct?” the officer asks with no preamble.

“Yes,” Akihito says.

“You were certainly able to describe the meeting in considerable detail. You can tell exactly who was in attendance even without a photograph of the whole crowd.”

“Well, I was pretty far away, so I couldn’t take a photograph until they sat down because of the exposure required,” Akihito explains nervously. Where is this going? Does this have anything to do with Asami?

“And yet you were able to make such detailed descriptions. Do you use a voice recorder?”

“No, but that’s not a bad idea,” Akihito says.

“Then how do you remember who was in attendance?”

“Some of them I recognized. Those I didn’t, I tried to memorize their features, especially anything that might be identifying, such as a scar. I jotted down notes.”

“And you were later able to identify all the attendees.”

Akihito shrugs. “I guess so. At least I think so. That’s why we didn’t use names.”

“I see. And yet you left one attendee completely out of the article.”

Akihito’s blood freezes, but he tries to remain nonchalant.

The officer continues. “I have it on good authority that one Asami Ryuichi was in attendance at the meeting in the Kodama residence. And yet none of your descriptions match him.”

Akihito shrugs. “There were an awful lot of people there. I’m sure I didn’t manage to remember everyone.”

The officer’s eyebrows shoot up. “Not even someone you were with mere hours before?” He hands Akihito a photograph of Asami and Akihito getting out of the Mercedes at the Mori Art Museum.

Akihito can’t think of anything to say, so he doesn’t say anything. He swallows, and his throat is suddenly so dry, it’s painful.

“Not only was Asami Ryuichi at the Kodama residence Monday evening, he was seen at a known yakuza affiliate in Ginza yesterday afternoon. He was carrying some sort of case there, which he left behind.” The officer shows Akihito another photograph.

“So?” Akihito bursts out. “What does that have to do with me?”

The officer’s eyebrows reach for his hairline again. “You’re a criminal photographer, are you not? I thought you welcomed tips from all kinds of sources.”

“So you’re offering me a tip? Isn’t that a normal business?” Akihito squints at the photograph.

“As I said, it’s a known yakuza affiliate. The timing of the two visits is very suspicious.”

“Did he get the case from Kodama-gumi headquarters?” Akihito asks, his mind casting wildly about. How cool should I play this?

“We were unable to determine that.”

“Well, thanks for the tip,” Akihito says.

“You have no idea what Asami is doing?” The officer questions.

“No, I don’t. Why would I?” Akihito snarks. Be cool, Akihito. You’re a criminal photographer; it’s your job to figure these things out. He decides to switch the topic. “I was too busy focusing on what the Kodama kumicho was doing with Toudou and Tsuzaki. And why the police were keeping a mother separated from her injured child.”

“If you want to know the answer to your first question, you should keep a closer eye on Asami,” the officer suggests. “Although the police are doing a good job of it on our own,” he adds cryptically.

“Well, thanks for the tip,” Akihito says, trying to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

As they head back towards the bikes, Yoneda calls out, “Everything alright?”

“It’s fine,” Akihito calls back, trying to keep his voice from wavering. “Just a little business chat.”

As he climbs back onto his bike, he can tell that Yoneda is watching him closely. Akihito waits until they’re well out of Tokyo before pulling off the road into an empty field to tell the guards what the officer said.

“Did you tell anyone you saw Asami-sama there?” Yoneda asks.

“Of course not!” Akihito thinks back. “The only person I mentioned it to was Asami, when I texted him to warn him to stay out of my shot.”

“You texted Asami-sama? What exactly did you say?” Yoneda asks.

Akihito pulls out his phone and shows him.

“Hmm. It doesn’t really say where you are or anything.”

“I know. We’re always careful on the phone.”

“So there was probably a mole at the Kodama meeting. But the security detail didn’t detect anyone following Asami-sama yesterday afternoon.”

“Maybe they were watching that business he entered and just happened to see him?” Akihito suggests.

“Maybe…” Yoneda muses. “I need to inform Suoh-senmu-san immediately, but I need to do it over secure channels. Do you mind waiting a few minutes while I use the satellite in the car?”

“No problem,” Akihito says, chewing on his bottom lip. He remembers the time when he glibly followed the detective into Club Sion to spy on Asami. Now he can’t even imagine working with the police against Asami.

I still don’t even really know what Asami does. He said he wanted to control the ‘downstream consequences’ of his actions, but we haven’t talked about that in a while. Even if we did talk about it, I don’t really know what that means. What would I do if Asami were arrested?

Yoneda signals that he’s ready, and Akihito climbs back on his bike. As he puts on his helmet, he wonders whether the decision to come out about his relationship with Asami might be taken out of his hands. A shiver runs down his spine. Asami’s always so confident; he acts like he’s Teflon. But if you burn enough eggs, even Teflon will start to stick.

Chapter Text

Asami slips his key back into his pocket as the penthouse door opens. He frowns when he sees Amaya sitting where Akihito’s shoes should be.  When she meows pitifully at him, he sighs and scoops her up. “You’re too spoiled,” he chides.

He slips his shoes off and heads to the bedroom, dodging Shiro’s sneak attack from the top of the bar in the living room. “You have to get up earlier to trick me.” Asami chuckles.

Shiro pretends that he meant to miss and walks past Asami, turning into the kitchen. But by the time Asami reaches the bedroom door, Shiro is already waiting patiently outside it.

“What did you do, run?” Asami laughs.

There’s a note on his pillow:

Chasing ninjas then covering the courthouse. Hopefully back by dinner. Text me if you’ll be eating here.

Asami furrows his brow; Akihito wasn’t supposed to go to Saitama until seven. “So you thought you’d get out of our bargain, did you?” Asami mutters. He opens the hidden compartment behind his pillow. He pulls out the toy and hits the button for the secret room. What should the punishment be for weaseling out of our deal?

He ponders his collection for several minutes before grinning. That will do quite nicely.

He makes his selections and lays them out on Akihito’s side of the bed along with a note before climbing under the covers on his side. Shiro curls up at his feet, but Amaya hops off the bed and meows at the door. “He’s going to be gone for a while,” Asami tells her. “You might as well sleep while you wait.”

But she persists, and he sighs and lets her out of the room. I should stop closing the door; I have central heat and air. But between trying to contain the kittens’ disasters and Akihito’s insistence on energy conservation, he’s gotten in the habit of closing doors.

Asami turns to climb back into bed only to see Shiro stretching out over his entire half of the bed, trying to take up as much room as felinely possible. Asami snaps his fingers and points at the door. Shiro yawns and stretches further. Asami reaches down to grab Shiro’s scruff, but a split second before Asami reaches the cat, Shiro bolts over the items arranged on Akihito’s side of the bed, leaps onto the floor, and burrows under the bed.

Asami sighs but ignores the cat; he only wanted his bed back, and he’s got it. He knows Shiro is curled up in the exact center, and peering under the bed trying to reach him would just give the cat satisfaction that he managed to escape.

 

Six hours later, Asami’s phone buzzes. He snatches it up. “Hiroshi. Thanks for getting back to me so quickly.”

“Your order will be ready for pick-up tomorrow afternoon.”

“Excellent. I’ll send Kirishima to come get it.”

“You haven’t stopped by personally in years; don’t you think it would be better to come in person so we can discuss the additional business we have?”

“I’m very busy, Hiroshi, and I trust Kirishima’s judgment. You know that his skills are top-notch.”

“You should learn to be more humble and conciliatory when you’re asking for a favor, Ryuichi.”

Asami sighs. “You’re right. I apologize. I’ll try to stop by next week once things have settled down in the club.”

“You’re having trouble in the club? Perhaps you should have –”

Asami interrupts before Hiroshi can build up steam. “Yes, there are many things I could have done differently, but right now I’m just dealing with the usual end-of-quarter busyness that affects every business. I’m sure you understand as a businessman yourself.”

“Yes, of course. But Ryuichi, I heard that you’ve been dabbling in some rather unusual ‘business’ lately. You really should have been more forthright about the nature of our business before asking me for a favor.”

Asami holds his breath and counts to ten, a technique he learned from his sessions with Kurebayashi. “Hiroshi, I feel that I’ve been as forthright as I need to be regarding our business. Perhaps you can voice your concerns to Kirishima when he stops by tomorrow, and we can discuss it when I visit next week. In the meantime, I’m afraid I have to get back to work.”

Asami hangs up before Hiroshi can say anything, and mercifully, Hiroshi doesn’t call back. Asami pinches the bridge of his nose; he can feel a headache coming on. He reaches for his pack of cigarettes but grabs the acetaminophen bottle next to it instead. He shakes out two tablets and swallows them dry. As he’s putting the bottle back on the nightstand, he sees the bottle of lube and smirks. He’s going to need that. Asami tosses the lube onto the other items arranged on Akihito’s side of the bed.

Asami heads to the kitchen, not bothering to pull anything on over his underwear. Now that spring is here, the days are starting to get warm. On the fridge is a note with instructions for breakfast. A faint smile plays at Asami’s lips. He got up so early to avoid me, and yet he still made me breakfast.

He feeds the cats while his food is reheating then joins them on the closed balcony off the dining room to eat. With the area rug, patio chairs, table, little pots of (barely) growing things, and built-in cat-climbing structure, the long-neglected space has become one of Asami’s favorite rooms. I always thought I liked the minimalist look, he muses, but this feels so much cozier. It feels like him.

Asami shakes his head. These sentimental thoughts have been coming unbidden more and more lately. I’m going soft.

As he stares down at Tokyo, idly observing the sakura trees just beginning to blossom, he remembers something his grandfather often told him: “They say ‘The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.’ I say, ‘So what? The nail that doesn’t stick out gets stepped on. I’d rather be the nail that sticks out. But if you’re going to be, you’ve got be harder than the hammer.’”

But do I want to be the tough nail that sticks out? Asami shakes his head. Of course I do. I always thought being normal would be the worst thing in the world… But sometimes Akihito makes it sound almost nice.

“There are many things you are, but normal is not one of them.”

Asami chuckles at the memory of Akihito’s words. He’s not normal, either, Asami reminds himself grimly. If he were, he’d never have given me a second glance. Asami chuckles again. If Akihito were normal, he’d have pissed himself on the roof of Sion the first time they met, not jumped over the rail. Or even if he had jumped, he’d have pissed himself when their gaze met instead of glaring at Asami with that fiery defiance that even now causes a stirring in Asami’s pants at the memory.

Asami shakes his head again. Enough of that. Get to work, Ryuichi. He pulls out his phone to check messages. In the middle of several from Kirishima (Does Kei ever sleep?) is one from Suoh sent at 5:30am and flagged as urgent.

Asami frowns as he clicks on it. If it was urgent, he should have called me. His frown deepens as he reads the brief coded message. He downloads the encrypted file through the secure channel as he heads back to the bedroom for a cigarette. As he reads the file, he understands why Suoh didn’t call him. Asami can feel the anger roiling behind his veneer of self-control. They’re trying to use Akihito again.

But who are ‘they’? As Asami reads and rereads Suoh’s initial report, soaking in all the details, his mind races. He lets his brain puzzle through the likely scenarios before reading any of Suoh’s follow-up notes. This is his only opportunity to look at the situation without any undue influence or bias from anyone else’s analyses (though of course since this is fourth-hand information, there are already biases present that he’ll have to be cognizant of).

How did the police know I was at Kodama-gumi headquarters?

  • They were observing the secret entrance and connected the car to me. This possibility is unlikely considering that the registration is linked to a different organization, the windows are deeply tinted, and Asami exited the car inside the garage.
  • They followed me there. Also unlikely considering the number of times Asami changed cars.
  • One of the people in attendance is a police mole. Far more likely. Tsuzaki and Toudou both brought small contingencies of their most senior members, but a few of Kodama’s lower ranks saw the visitors as they served the sake.
  • The police observed the meeting from the window. Asami was only visible briefly as he entered the room, but if the police were videoing the meeting, they could have captured his image and identified him. It’s a possibility. Akihito’s photographs are proof that Kodama wasn’t guarding the perimeter well.
  • The police are tapping Kodama’s phone. But Kodama’s invitation and Asami’s acceptance were so coded, it seems unlikely they could assert it to Akihito so vehemently based just on that.
  • The police are tapping my phone. Unlikely because Asami has deep influence in the police force and legal system and should have been warned, and also unlikely because of how coded the invitation was. Unless it was the text from Akihito… At the time, it wasn’t particularly clear, but after Akihito’s photograph ran in the paper, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out the meaning of the text.
  • The police are tapping Akihito’s phone. It wouldn’t be the first time the police illegally snooped on a reporter, using his work to solve crimes. It would be difficult for them to link the phone number Akihito texted to Asami – unless they actually tapped into the workings of Akihito’s phone and saw his contact list. Given modern technology, also a possibility.

Asami runs through the possibilities again in his head. The most likely scenario is probably that Kodama has a police mole, though he can’t rule out the possibility of Akihito’s phone being tapped or the police observing from the window. Kodama really needs to learn to invest in some curtains.

How did the police capture the photo of Akihito and me at the art museum?

  • They were taking pictures of everyone entering that building. It seems unlikely, but the police occasionally do such things when there’s a certain level of chatter in the terrorist surveillance network.
  • They were following me. Unlikely, again because of Asami’s contacts in the police and legal system. Unless the person following didn’t actually have a warrant. His home address isn’t exactly secret, and since it was a normal, legal activity, they didn’t change cars or try to shake any tails. Still, Yoneda should have noticed they were being followed.
  • They were following Akihito. If this were the case, the police have too much time on their hands. It’s one thing to follow him on a stakeout so they can use his skills to capture criminals red-handed (but if they ever do that, they’d better not put him at even the slightest additional risk of danger)… But Akihito was clearly not working. Unless they thought he was working undercover spying on me. Asami snorts. Even when Akihito was pretending that’s why he was spending time with Asami, Asami knew it was all a pretense. Akihito is too good at his job for his bumbling incompetence around Asami to be remotely believable – although Asami played along until Akihito was finally able to admit his feelings. Again, though, Yoneda should have noticed they were being followed.
  • They just happened to be passing by and recognized us both. Too much of a coincidence

Option 1 seems the most likely, but Asami wonders whether that’s just wishful thinking. Yoneda’s good, but he’s still young. If the tail was discreet, and Yoneda was too relaxed because it was a casual outing, he might not have noticed.

How did the police know I was in Ginza? They take pictures of everyone who enters Hiroshi’s business. Which is true enough, but Hiroshi’s business is a legitimate one, and many who enter have no idea what other sorts of clients he has. How were they able to link this picture to Kodama and Akihito?

  • A special taskforce on the Kodama situation is observing known yakuza affiliates very closely, comparing visitors there with people associated with Kodama. A possibility. One Asami should have considered before waltzing right into Hiroshi’s business the day after meeting with Kodama. The police should have dug a little deeper, though, he muses, a sardonic grin flitting across his face.
  • I really am being followed. Less likely; Suoh would have realized it on their way to Ginza. Unless the police have some new tracking device they were somehow able to install on the car without Asami’s guards observing it or detecting it on the scan they do before each trip. Maybe they can tap into the car’s computer system remotely? Suoh has always worried that it’s a vulnerability, but he keeps on top of technological advances, and he hasn’t brought it up as a real possibility yet.

Why did the cop confront Akihito with this evidence?

  • He thinks Akihito is investigating me undercover and gave Akihito a lead so that Akihito can do his work for him. That’s a ridiculously long undercover assignment, but maybe the cop doesn’t know how long they’ve been together. He must think Akihito has something really big on Asami for the Kodama-gumi meeting to not be enough.
  • He wanted to give me a warning through Akihito. It’s a possibility, depending on who the officer in question is, but it’s too ham-fisted to be one of Asami’s regular informants.
  • He thinks Akihito is beginning to work for me and wanted to scare him straight again. But this would only make sense if Akihito knew the officer, which doesn’t seem to be the case.

Asami decides that the first scenario is the most likely. It makes him breathe a little easier, because it indicates that this might just be an overly ambitious cop trying to cut corners to crack a big case on his own. Still, he can’t rule out the possibility that the anti-yakuza task force has linked his visit to Kodama-gumi headquarters with his visit to Hiroshi’s business. It was a really big blunder on my part.

Asami sighs and reads the rest of Suoh’s report. Unsurprisingly, Suoh reaches the same conclusions as Asami (with some additional evidence supporting his likely scenarios, especially about the ambitions of the officer – Yoneda was able to find out quite a lot talking to his partner). Suoh’s report is less thorough than Asami would have liked, but Suoh wisely chose not to reach out to any of their police contacts; because of the uncertainties, they don’t want to compromise them.

Suoh’s last note finally gives Asami a small reason to smile. Somehow, he’s been able to make contact with Kuroda, who will be paying Asami a visit at 3pm at the penthouse. Asami marvels at Kuroda’s ability to deliver messages and find ways of stopping by without anyone in the government or police detecting it.

Asami reads Kirishima’s messages next. Sure enough, the last one says that Kirishima will be picking him up at one o’clock. Asami hurriedly gets dressed.

They leave the penthouse the same way as usual, neither too casually slow nor too nervous, giving no indication that they’re aware of any police investigation into them. They follow Asami’s usual routine, heading to the barber then the gym. Inside the gym, Asami follows his usual routine. Once in the locker room, though, he takes the secret exit into a separate parking garage (passing his double who slips into the locker room to accompany Kirishima to Sion).

Asami is wearing a t-shirt, stretch jeans, sneakers, and sunglasses. His hair is unstyled and messy. He slides into the passenger seat of a gray 2007 Honda Civic. The undercover agent driving does a slight double-take before smiling at him flirtatiously. They take a slightly long route back to the penthouse, stopping briefly for some fast food. Asami pretends to be too interested in the agent to be able to focus on the food since he can’t stomach the stuff, especially since he’s still full from Akihito’s delicious breakfast.

When they arrive back at the penthouse building, the two embrace as soon as they get out of the car. While waiting for the elevator, Asami pushes the agent against the wall and pretends to suck on his neck in various places. The agent does a good job of feigning interest without getting too handsy with Asami. Once the elevator arrives, they stagger sideways into it, continuing to pretend until they arrive at the floor five below Asami’s.

Once the elevator closes behind them, Asami and the agent head towards the stairs. Asami climbs the stairs to his own apartment while the agent stops off at the apartment one floor below (which is owned by Asami and used by his guards when they’re on-call). The police might have been able to put cameras in the parking garage, lobby, and elevator, but they probably wouldn’t bother putting any in the rarely-used stairwell, and a warrant probably wouldn’t allow for cameras on any floor but Asami’s – and since Asami’s floor is limited access, it would be impossible for them to put any on his floor without his knowledge.

Once inside, Asami changes into sweatpants. He’ll have to leave the apartment in the same attire he entered it in, but those stretch jeans are way too uncomfortable.

 

At precisely three o’clock, there’s a knock at the door. Kuroda is standing there, looking as cool and unruffled as ever in his designer suit, despite the fact that he just climbed seventeen flights of stairs.

“How’s the judge doing?” Asami asks, referring to his convalescing downstairs neighbor (Kuroda’s pretense for visiting Asami’s building).

“Don’t give me that, Ryuichi,” Kuroda says crossly. “You’re making another mess for me to clean up.”

“I’m sorry. The two things were completely unrelated in my mind, so it didn’t even occur to me how it might look from the police’s perspective. Though I must say, I was quite vigilant at Kodama’s.”

Kuroda snorts. “Kodama should be more vigilant at Kodama’s. Rats always flee a sinking ship first.”

Asami nods as he leads the way into the tatami room. He offers Kuroda some scotch, but Kuroda declines (as Asami knew he would).

“I’ll just have some tea, but I’ve only got five minutes today,” Kuroda warns.

“Of course,” Asami says, pouring tea from the tea service he has waiting on a small table.

“I’d be able to help you better if I knew what your business was in Ginza.”

Asami sighs and tells Kuroda the truth.

Kuroda’s mouth drops open. “Seriously?”

“I wouldn’t joke in a situation like this.”

“Of course. The police would never believe that,” Kuroda says with a trace of a smile on his face.

“I know. Nevertheless, it’s true.” Asami can’t find it in himself to see the humor in the situation just yet.

“I know it’s true, but then again, I’ve known you since high school. Well, you’ll just have to keep your nose clean until this Kodama mess blows over. Once nothing materializes from Ginza, eventually the police will drop it.”

Asami sighs. “That’s what I figured. You’ll be able to notify us if the police start obtaining warrants?”

“Yes, but I may not have much notice. The warrant process has been expedited lately.”

“Kirishima is heading back to Ginza tomorrow to pick up what we dropped off,” Asami says. “I was invited to attend to the business personally.”

“I think that might be a good idea,” Kuroda says. “It wouldn’t hurt to allow yourself to be followed and eavesdropped on, either, but that’s not going to make this go away.”

“Because the tail will assume he’s been compromised,” Asami says, a smirk briefly flitting across his face. Maybe he can see the humor in the situation, after all.

Kuroda chuckles. “Probably. If you could find a plausible way for him to search the case, maybe he’d eventually realize the truth, but that’s probably expecting a bit too much. You never thought doing such a good job of hiding your background would come back to haunt you, did you?”

“No, it never occurred to me.”

Kuroda stands up. “I really must be going. Have you considered sitting this Kodama business out?”

Asami sighs. “I wish I could, but it’s too dangerous to stand back and hope that Kodama can figure it out on his own.”

Kuroda snorts. “If the police were smarter, they’d realize that and stop trying to infiltrate Kodama-gumi. They’re too optimistic, thinking the whole organization will disintegrate. They can’t seem to learn from history that a faction war and intense turf battle is far more likely.”

Asami nods as he stands to walk Kuroda to the door. “What about Takaba?” Asami asks as nonchalantly as possible, almost as if it were an afterthought.

Kuroda looks at him curiously. “You’ll have to figure that part out on your own. There’s only so much I can do without drawing suspicion.”

Asami sighs. “You’re right. Thanks.”

As they reach the hallway, Akihito’s voice calls out, “I’m home.”

“Welcome home,” Asami responds automatically.

He and Kuroda walk towards the front door. Somehow, in the ten seconds it takes to reach the genkan, Akihito has managed to strip down nearly to his boxers. When he registers Kuroda’s presence, he freezes in action, balanced on one leg with his hands in the middle of removing his jeans from the other leg. His face turns instantly red, and once he can move again, he pulls his jeans back up.

“Sorry, I didn’t realize you have company,” he mutters. He bows to Kuroda. “My clothes reek of onions,” he explains feebly.

Kuroda raises his eyebrows but says nothing. He slips his shoes on quickly, bows to Asami and Akihito, and says, “Until next time, Ryuichi.”

“Thanks again, Shinji,” Asami says.

Once the door is closed behind Kuroda, Akihito bursts out, “Why didn’t you tell me he was coming over?”

“It was a last-minute decision. Didn’t you notice his shoes in the genkan?”

Akihito sighs.

“I have a clean outfit laid out for you on the bed,” Asami says. “You can put it on after you shower.”

Akihito’s face pales slightly as he suddenly remembers that he shirked their bargain this morning, but he doesn’t dignify Asami’s suggestion with a response. Akihito finishes stripping, taking everything he was wearing in a heap to the laundry room, followed by a frantic Amaya who doesn’t understand why he won’t pick her up.

Asami works in his office while Akihito showers. He knows Akihito has finally seen the items laid out on the bed when he hears the screech of “Asaaamiiiii!”

When the door to his office bursts open, Asami ducks, avoiding getting hit in the eye by the pink thong Akihito slingshots at him. Asami’s face erupts into a wide grin. He’s already a few hours behind on work thanks to the police investigation, but work will have to wait a while longer yet.

Chapter Text

Akihito opens the little tin of coffee beans he left in the bathroom before departing for Saitama this morning. He inhales deeply, cleansing the pungent odor of onion from his nasal passages. He towels off as he walks to the bedroom, his heart starting to race in anticipation of the ‘outfit’ Asami picked out for him.

I wonder if he wants to do naked apron again.

Akihito stops in the doorway and stares at the bed.

He’s got to be kidding.

Akihito supposes he should have seen this coming. But he thought Asami only put the thong in his duffel bag as a way to prevent Akihito from stripping in front of anyone else. After all, Asami got pretty pissed when he found out Kou accidentally saw Akihito in it.

“I’m not into that.”

And Akihito’s not. He’s never wanted to dress in feminine undergarments (though these are designed for a man). Just like he didn’t want to wear that thing this morning – or to the art galleries Monday. He just wants to be normal.

But Asami has seen through Akihito’s façade since their first encounter. And he’s been trying to make Akihito let go of it ever since – and his efforts have only intensified since the Talk.

Like that stupid safe word. Now that it exists, Asami smirks whenever Akihito doesn’t use it. And Akihito finds it hard to bring himself to use it. Saying ‘no’ when that secret part of him wants to say ‘yes’ is easy because it’s what he’s supposed to do. But ‘onion’ doesn’t roll off the tongue the same way, and just having a safe word isn’t normal.

Akihito cautiously approaches the bed. When he sees the toy, the lube, and the rest of the outfit, his groin tightens.

No.

He snatches up the thong, throws his towel around his waist, and barrels towards Asami’s office, suddenly angry.

You’re angry because you know that Asami knows you want this.

“I do not!”

You’re angry at yourself because you do.

Akihito ignores the quiet voice in the back of his mind and bursts through the door. Asami ducks before he even gets the door open all the way, anticipating his movements. And sure enough, Asami has that infuriating smirk on his face.

“I’m not wearing this,” Akihito spits out.

“We had an agreement. One which you broke.”

“So? I couldn’t wear that all the way to Saitama.”

“You knew the consequences when you made the bargain.”

“I never actually agreed to it,” Akihito says, looking down at his toe scuffling along the edge of the carpet.

“Akihito.” Asami’s voice is firm, and Akihito can’t help raising his eyes to meet his. Asami’s are burning with a combination of authority and desire that makes Akihito’s groin tighten again.

Akihito tries to tear his gaze away, but he can’t. He takes one involuntary step towards Asami, then another. No. I don’t want to. He takes a third step.

“If you really don’t want to, you know what to do,” Asami says. “Now take this back to the bedroom and put it on along with everything else. When you’re done, come back here. If you come back here again before it’s all on, there will be a punishment. You have five minutes.”

Akihito gulps. His hand reaches out and takes the thong back. The next thing he knows, he’s walking backwards towards the door, stopping when he bumps it with his back. He reaches behind him for the doorknob. His mouth opens, but no sound comes out.

Asami redirects his attention back to his computer, and Akihito finds himself stumbling back towards the bedroom, his pace quickening as his shame grows.

I’m not a man.

The tenting of the towel at his waist begs to differ, but seeing that just makes Akihito angrier. Amaya meows up at him curiously.

“No, stay out here, girl,” Akihito tells her. He won’t be able to put that outfit on with her trying to distract him, and he doesn’t want anyone to see him in that outfit – not even a cat.

Except Asami, that persistent voice whispers.

Once the bedroom door is safely closed behind him, Akihito picks up the toy gingerly. Asami said he was going to teach me to clean it. But shifting that responsibility implies that this is Akihito’s, not Asami’s. And it’s not. These are Asami’s kinks. Akihito merely indulges him.

Who wears it?

“Only because Asami makes me,” he mutters.

Then why are you so turned on?

“I don’t even know how to put this on,” Akihito says, rolling his eyes at the ceiling. He picks up the other item on the bed, also pink. From the door, he thought it was women’s lingerie, but on closer inspection, it’s masculine despite its color. Is this a maid top?

It would go well with the apron.

“Shut up,” Akihito mutters. He considers his options. He can sit here shivering in his wet towel until Asami grows tired of waiting. He can take the towel off and sit here naked until Asami grows tired of waiting. Either way, he’ll receive the promised punishment, which will surely include wearing the outfit anyway.

Asami will see through you no matter what. Just put it on. You know you want to.

“Do I?” Akihito ponders it seriously. He eyes the outfit objectively. He’s never looked at such things; even when he’s accidentally come across them, they’ve never drawn his interest. Even when he discovered he was wearing the thong (thanks to Asami putting it on him while he was sleeping), it didn’t make him feel anything other than embarrassment.

Then why are you like that?

Akihito looks down at the tenting towel and removes it from his waist. “Why am I? It’s all Asami’s fault.”

You’re half-right. It is because of Asami.

Akihito sighs. “So I’m like this because I know it’ll make Asami happy?” For some reason that realization is enough to make the shame ebb. He picks up the toy again. How does Asami do it?

He tries lying on his back, but he has difficulty reaching his own backside from that position. He rolls over onto his right side, curling up into a fetal position. He presses the toy to his backside, but it feels rough and painful. Right, the lube.

Akihito squirts some onto the toy. He closes his eyes, and his other senses are heightened. He can smell Asami in the sheets, and he recalls Asami’s voice. “Relax. Breathe nice and slow. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly. That’s it. Nice and relaxed.”

But Akihito can’t find the right angle. He opens his eyes and raises his left leg to give himself a better view. He closes his eyes again and remembers Asami’s voice.

“That’s it. Relax.”

Akihito’s eyes fly open, locking instantly with amber pools of molten desire. The flash of embarrassment he feels melts away instantly at the heat of that gaze, but he can’t help but snipe, “What do you want?”

“I thought you might need some help. This is your first time, right?” Asami asks in a gentle tone. He approaches the bed and climbs next to Akihito, facing him so that their eyes are locked on each other. Akihito starts to pull the toy away to hand it to Asami, but Asami’s hand stops his as Asami says, “Leave it. You can do it. Just relax.”

Asami gently guides Akihito’s hand back to the proper angle. They keep their eyes locked on each other, and Asami soothingly talks Akihito through it.

Akihito’s nearly succeeded when Asami pulls his hand away from Akihito’s, finding his face and gently rubbing Akihito’s cheek with his thumb. “What’s wrong?” Asami asks, concern suddenly blooming on his face.

Akihito is confused, but his mouth won’t form any words. He slowly becomes aware that his cheeks are wet. Am I crying? He still can’t talk, so he smiles reassuringly at Asami.

Asami closes the gap between them and kisses him gently. Asami pulls his mouth away to say, “Good job, Akihito.”

Akihito’s tears intensify. Why am I crying? The thought flits through his mind but drifts away before he can really grasp it to contemplate it. His mind is flooded with an array of emotions too overwhelming to name, but he’s never felt this good. His field of vision narrows so that all he can see is Asami’s face.

“Alright, now the thong,” Asami says.

As Asami talks him through putting on the outfit, Akihito obeys without any protest.

“How do you feel?” Asami asks.

Once again, Akihito finds himself unable to speak. His mind isn’t really capable of processing things; he can’t hold onto any thoughts of his own. The only things that come through clearly are Asami’s orders, which Akihito’s body obeys almost on its own. But for some reason, this doesn’t bother Akihito. He knows Asami will never hurt him.

 

After an hour-long session in the secret room, Asami carries Akihito to the bathroom. Asami quickly washes them both down then helps Akihito into the tub, sliding in behind him. Akihito’s mind slowly comes back to him, and he starts crying again.

“Shh, it’s okay,” Asami soothes.

“I- I- Do you hate me now?”

“No, of course not. I love you. Thank you, Akihito.” Asami presses a kiss to Akihito’s temple.

“But- but- but- I’m worthless.”

“No. You’re the most precious person in the world.” Another kiss.

“I’m a freak.”

“No, you’re not. You just know what you like.”

“You’re a freak, too.”

Asami chuckles. He purrs in Akihito’s ear, “I just know what I like, too.” The kisses he bestows on Akihito’s neck indicate he’s not talking about BDSM.

Asami continues to whisper soothing words, and Akihito lets them wash over his mind like the water washes over his body. He can feel his mind trying to slip away again, so he focuses on the sensations of his body: the temperature of the water, Asami’s solidness on his back…

“What the hell was that?” he finally asks.

“You entered subspace,” Asami explains simply.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a state of consciousness you enter when you’re feeling particularly bonded with your dom.”

Akihito glares suspiciously at Asami from the corner of his eye. “You’re my ‘dom’? Since when?”

Asami chuckles and kisses him on the temple. “It’s not a bad thing. And it’s only when we’re ‘playing.’ The rest of the time, we’re equal. Remember that.” He kisses Akihito’s temple again.

“But I –” Akihito trails off. After what just happened, it seems ridiculous to pretend that he doesn’t like this kind of activity.

Asami can read his troubled face. “Did you know that 85% of the population engages in some kind of BDSM?”

Akihito turns further around to look Asami directly in the eye. “Eighty-five percent?!” He’s shocked. That means most people he knows do… that sort of thing?

“To some extent or another, according to a recent study.” Asami chuckles. “There are books about it – and internet forums where you can talk to others who like the same things as you.”

“Are you on any?” Akihito asks. He can’t imagine Asami seeking advice from anyone about anything.

“Yes. I joined one in December.” Asami doesn’t clarify further, but Akihito understands – that was just after the Talk, soon after Asami started seeing Kurebayashi for individual and couples counseling.

“Did you…” Akihito starts hesitantly but trails off.

“You can ask me anything,” Asami assures him, kissing the back of Akihito’s neck.

“Did you talk to Kurebayashi-sensei about this kind of stuff?” Akihito asks, blushing.

“A little,” Asami admits. “It was important that she understand the full nature of our relationship. I asked her not to bring it up in our joint sessions because I knew you weren’t ready to talk about it yet. And your individual sessions were to focus on your PTSD.”

Akihito can feel his face heating up further. He buries his face in his wet hands, mortified. Just what was Kurebayashi-sensei thinking about me?

Asami gently pulls Akihito back against him. “Don’t worry. I didn’t tell her any details. And she’s heard it all. Nothing could shock her. She’s the one who recommended the forum to me.”

 

After a few more minutes, Asami helps Akihito out of the bathtub. Akihito is still trembling, and he feels shaky on his feet, but it’s nothing to how his mind still feels.

“You should lie down and take a nap,” Asami suggests. “It’ll help you feel better.”

Akihito nods. He can feel his mind wanting to slip away again.

“Stay with me,” Asami says. “Focus on all your senses.”

Akihito notices the cool air on his wet skin, the softness of the towel, the smell of soap, the kittens meowing at the door. “I should feed the cats.”

“I’ll do it. You rest.” Asami washes the toy and hands it to Akihito.

Akihito stares at him.

“You’re supposed to wear it all day, remember? And the rest of the outfit, too – at least while you’re home.”

“But it’s dirty,” Akihito says.

“You barely had it on for five minutes,” Asami retorts.

Which is true enough, Akihito has to acknowledge. Asami pulled it off him soon after he finished getting the thing on.

“I’ll help you this time,” Asami says gently. As he puts the outfit back on Akihito, Asami continues to talk to him, making sure Akihito doesn’t drift back to subspace. When Akihito is dressed, Asami picks him up.

“I can walk,” Akihito protests feebly.

“Let me carry you.”

Asami places Akihito on the bed and covers him with the blankets. Asami starts to get off the bed, and Akihito’s hand shoots out, grabbing a fistful of Asami’s robe. Asami looks down at him. “I’ll just be in my office. I’ll leave the door open so I can hear you if you need anything.”

“Don’t go.” It slips out before Akihito can help it. He immediately lets go of Asami’s robe and turns his face away in embarrassment.

Asami lies down next to him and pulls Akihito into his arms. “I’ll stay until you fall asleep.”

As the exhaustion washes over him, Akihito fights sleep long enough to mumble, “I need to talk to you later. About… exhibit.”

 

When Akihito awakens, the room is dark. At first, he can’t remember what time (or day) it is, but as the memories of what transpired come flooding back, he can feel his face heating up. How can I ever face Asami again?

The rumble of a purr makes him realize that Amaya is on his chest. She stretches her neck and licks him on the chin. Asami must have let her in. He rubs her favorite spot behind her ears and slowly relaxes again.

The bedroom door swings open. A dim light, probably from the bathroom, reveals Asami’s form in the doorway. “Are you awake?” Asami whispers hesitantly.

“Yeah,” Akihito murmurs, his face reddening again.

“How are you feeling?” Asami asks.

“Okay. Still really tired. What time is it?”

“A little before seven.”

Akihito sits up. I was asleep for nearly three hours? Amaya scrabbles onto his shoulder and pats his face with a paw. He strokes her absentmindedly. “Don’t you have to go to work today?”

“Yes, I’ve done just about everything I can from home,” Asami admits. “I’ve moved a few meetings, but I need to be at the club by eight.”

“You should have woken me up,” Akihito says, tossing the covers aside. “I’ll see what I can throw together for dinner.”

“It’s fine,” Asami says. “I already ordered yakiniku and seaweed salad.”

“You can order yakiniku?” Akihito asks, puzzled.

“Of course,” Asami says. “I heated up the grill, so it’s ready whenever you are.”

Akihito tosses the blanket aside and sees what he’s wearing. His face turns red again.

As if reading his mind, Asami says, “You look sexy. But if you’re chilly, you can put this on.” He holds up Akihito’s pink frilly apron.

I thought I got rid of that. Again.

But Akihito snatches the apron from Asami and ties it around his waist. Asami pauses in the doorway, letting Akihito lead the way down the hallway. Akihito blushes even redder; the apron only helps cover the front, and his backside is left completely exposed to Asami’s rapacious eyes in the thong.

When they get to the kitchen, Shiro has nearly removed the coffee machine and electric kettle from the edges of the towel covering the plastic container Asami used to protect the meat. Asami wordlessly picks Shiro up by the scruff and takes him outside to the closed balcony. “Amaya, too,” he tells Akihito.

Akihito sighs but deposits her outside. “Sorry, girl. It’s not safe with the grill. I’ll bring you guys some meat, okay?”

“I already fed them,” Asami says.

“They can have a little meat. They’re still growing.”

 

Once they’re sitting at the table, Asami asks Akihito how he is again.

“I’m fine. You don’t have to keep asking,” Akihito says.

“Do you want to talk about it some more?” Asami asks.

“No.” Akihito snatches a piece of meat off the grill and pops it into his mouth. “Hot!” He takes a sip of green tea to cool his tongue.

“I feel bad leaving you alone, but I really have to go in,” Asami says, a note of worry in his voice.

Akihito rolls his eyes. “I’m fine. Seriously.”

“Maybe you should invite Kou over again.”

Akihito looks down at his outfit and back at Asami pointedly. “Did you seriously just suggest that?”

“It would fit underneath regular clothes.”

“No way! Besides, Kou has to help Mari-san with her manga tonight. She’s only got another week before her deadline.”

“What about Takato or Kana?”

Akihito grabs another piece of meat and thrusts it into Asami’s mouth. Asami coughs and grabs for his tea.

“Sorry!” Akihito says. He takes a few more pieces off the grill and places them on Asami’s plate. “Maybe you should let them cool off a bit first.”

“You said you wanted to talk about your exhibit,” Asami reminds him.

Akihito slides a few just-barely-seared pieces of meat onto a third plate for the cats. “I do, but I don’t think we have enough time to go into it right now. Do you have time tomorrow?”

Asami pulls out his tablet, examining his new schedule adjusted for the trip to Ginza. He frowns as he looks at the list. “The only time I have is in the car while I’m going to Ginza tomorrow afternoon.”

Akihito tries not to let his disappointment show on his face. Asami’s swamped with work right now. He just stayed home an extra three hours so you wouldn’t be alone while you napped. “I’d rather talk face to face if possible.”

“You could ride with me to Ginza.”

Akihito stares at Asami. “I have to work tomorrow. I don’t have time to go traipsing off to Ginza in the middle of the day.”

“You’ve got to work on your undercover assignment,” Asami says.

It takes a moment, but it suddenly clicks. “Are you talking about that ‘tip’ the cop gave me this morning? You want me to spy on you?”

Asami shrugs. “I’m giving you an anonymous tip that one Asami Ryuichi, whom you’ve been investigating for some time, will be returning to the yakuza-affiliated shop in Ginza tomorrow that he was seen dropping off a package at earlier this week. Would you rather I phone it into your editor?”

Akihito rolls his eyes. “The editor won’t want me to pursue it; he never publishes anything about you, anyway.”

“Besides, there’s someone I want you to meet there.”

Akihito stares at Asami. He’s never said that before. Until four months ago, I thought I was his dirty little not-so-secret. Akihito slowly nods. “It’d better be worth missing the Yayoi press conference tomorrow,” he says with a cheeky grin.

 

The next afternoon, Akihito finds himself in the back of Asami’s Mercedes wondering what the hell he’s doing there. Asami is carrying on a lengthy phone conversation in what Akihito assumes is Russian, though it could be Polish or Lithuanian or Croatian for all he knows.

Asami keeps shooting him apologetic looks. Finally, after a long spiel that sounds angry (though everything Asami has said in this language has sounded angry), he hangs up.

“Sorry about that.”

“It’s fine.” Akihito says.

“Just a moment.”

Akihito is irritated by the additional wait, but Asami merely turns off his phone and hits the intercom to let Kirishima know he’s done so.

“Alright. You wanted to talk to me about your exhibit,” Asami says.

“Yes. Kawase-shishō identified a theme that was similar to the one you did, but a little more specific: relationships, but specifically the supremacy of the human-human relationship to the human-feline relationship.” Akihito opens up his photo-viewing software on his laptop.

Asami’s eyebrows shoot up. “By human-human, you mean…”

“Yes. Us.” Akihito pulls up the two pictures Kawase-shishō identified as his strongest.

“I didn’t notice this one when you showed me your pictures before,” Asami says, tapping the photo of him lying on the bed.

“You can’t see your face,” Akihito says defensively.

“I’m aware of that. But your mentor figured out our relationship.”

“Yes.” Akihito blushes. Now that he’s seen it from an outsider’s perspective, he wonders how he could have missed how glaringly obvious it is that it’s a photo of his lover. “Kawase-shishō said that using this photograph would be a very public – and private – coming out, but that it would be a shame not to use it.”

“Public and private?” Asami questions.

 “My parents and other family members would probably come see the exhibit at some point. They don’t live very far away.”

“I see.”

“Anyway, since you’re sort of affected by this, too, I thought I’d better discuss it with you before I make a decision.”

“Am I?” Asami asks.

Akihito’s a bit taken aback. “Aren’t you? I mean, I thought you would be. At least a little. Even though your face isn’t shown, there seem to be a lot of people who know about us. Like Sakazaki and Sudou. And that cop from yesterday. If someone knows about us and sees that picture, it won’t be hard for them to put two and two together.”

“But those who already know about us don’t need to put two and two together. They can already count to four.”

“Well, yeah, but there’s a difference between knowing I’m living with you and knowing… whatever this photo implies…” Akihito gestures vaguely.

“That you love me?” Asami smirks.

“And that you…” Akihito trails off, blushing.

Asami raises his eyebrows.

Akihito shrugs.

“That I…” Asami prods.

Akihito shrugs. “You know.”

“I know. But do you know?”

Akihito shrugs again. “That you missed me that night? And that we have a pet together?”

“That I love you,” Asami gently corrects. “I never did anything to make people think otherwise. I just never did anything to discourage them from thinking otherwise, either.”

“What about…” Akihito trails off.

Asami looks closely at his face and realizes what Akihito is remembering. Shit. I could have caused a flashback with my carelessness. “Fei Long? I was desperate to keep you safe – not that he was fooled. The Kurosaki situation? I only said that to buy time and bluff with an unknown hostage taker. Kodama knows how important you are to me.”

Kodama was the one working with Kurosaki? The same Kodama whose son is in the hospital?!”

Asami acts nonchalant, but inside he’s berating himself for the slip. Although Akihito and Kou played a vital role in helping Sion’s security forces discover and infiltrate Kurosaki’s secretary’s hideout back in November, Asami had made sure that Akihito was kept in the dark about Kurosaki’s unwilling collaborators/blackmail victims. Until now, anyway.

“He was being blackmailed. Along with half of Tokyo,” Asami explains without really explaining.

But Akihito’s mind has already connected seemingly disparate snippets of conversations from months ago in that uncanny way that makes him so good at his job. “The Senkaku Islands?” he guesses.

Asami laughs. “No, that was someone else. But nice try. Anyway, back to the topic at hand, those who know about our relationship and might see that picture will either see what they already know or continue to turn a blind eye to what’s right in front of them as they have been doing.”

Akihito gapes at him. How can he be so calm about this? I mean, I guess he’s already pretty much out already, and his name won’t be associated with the exhibit, but still… He swallows and says, “The other thing… My parents… If I tell them about… us…” He trails off.

Asami raises his eyebrows.

Akihito tries to swallow, but his mouth is suddenly dry.

Asami asks, “Will they disown you?”

Akihito shakes his head. “Some others in the family might, but not my parents. I don’t think. I don’t know how they’d react, to be honest. Kou thinks my mom might already know. Not about you, of course, but about me… But my parents are a lot older than Kou’s. But if I tell them, they’ll probably be curious… About you.”

“Do you want me to meet them?” Asami asks, a trace of a smile playing at his lips.

“I… don’t know. I don’t not want you to meet them; I just haven’t thought about it,” Akihito says. “Do you think this is funny?”

“No,” Asami reassures him. “I never thought about meeting your parents. I don’t have anyone left to introduce you to.”

Akihito isn’t sure what to say to that. “You’ve told me a bit about your grandfather. Did he raise you?”

“Yes, along with my mother. She passed away while I was in college.”

“What about your father?”

“I never had one.”

“Oh.” Akihito still doesn’t know what to say.

“Or to be more exact, I’ve met several men who’ve claimed to be my father, but my mother took his identity to the grave. She never even told my grandfather, which was quite a feat.”

“Oh.”

“I don’t think he was actually any of the men who’ve approached me.” Asami shrugs. “They just wanted to recruit me to their groups. Whoever it was, I guess my mother thought I was better off not knowing.”

“Do you wish you knew?”

The intercom beeps. “Asami-sama, we’ll be there in about five minutes.”

“Thanks, Kirishima. Sometimes, but maybe she was right. What if it turned out to be… someone like Kodama? I’d rather not know.”

“So your last name is from your mother’s family?”

“No. My mother got married, and we entered my stepfather’s family registry. Unfortunately, he died the day after that, so I never really knew him.”

“That’s terrible!” Akihito’s eyes fill with tears at the amount of tragedy Asami faced as a child.

Asami shrugs. “So you want to use these photos in your exhibit?” He brings the conversation back to Akihito.

“Yeah, I think so. But I’d have to tell my parents about you. If it’s okay with you…”

“I’m not sure. Let me think about it.”

Akihito feels like he’s been slapped. The whole conversation up to now sounded like Asami was fine with him using the photos. “Which part are you unsure about? Me using the photos? Or me telling my parents?”

“Both.”

Akihito takes a shaky breath. “I understand. I’ve had to think about this a lot, too, and I’m still not one hundred percent sure.”

Asami kisses him. “I just want to think through all the potential ramifications.”

Akihito nods.

“Now, there’s one more thing I need to talk to you about,” Asami says.

“Okay.”

“At the shop, I’m going to receive a case. It’s the one the police officer was so interested in yesterday morning. He should be watching us. I need for him to see what’s inside the case, but you can’t look inside it.”

“What?!”

Asami shrugs. “The fastest way to get him off my tail is to satisfy his curiosity.”

“How am I supposed to do that?”

“I don’t know. Kirishima and I will be trying to give him an opportunity, too, but we can’t make it easy for him or he won’t buy it.”

“So you want me to go out and talk to him?”

Asami shrugs. “Whatever you would normally do in an undercover investigation.” He kisses Akihito.

Akihito pulls away. “What the heck? So you actually really do want me to investigate you?”

“Just today. But don’t look in the case.”

Akihito folds his arms. “It would help if I knew why we were really here.”

Asami shakes his head. “Would you know that if you were really undercover?”

“No… Still, you should have given me some warning! I could have made a plan.”

“A plan would smell fake. Besides, you do better when you think on your feet.” Asami kisses him again.

“Stop trying to butter me up. This is the weirdest stakeout I’ve ever been on. And who’s paying me for it again?” Akihito asks rhetorically.

“I can pay you any way you want,” Asami says, giving him a deeper kiss.

“Pervert.”

They’re still kissing when Kirishima opens the door for them to get out. Akihito sees the police officer watching them and blushes.

“Who are you introducing me to, anyway?” he asks, grasping at any topic he can think of to distract him from his embarrassment.

“My cousin.”

Chapter Text

“Your cousin? But I thought you just said…” Akihito trails off. A cousin isn’t the same as a parent or a grandparent. Asami gets out of the car, and Akihito silently follows him into the store through the door being held open by a bowing clerk in a suit.

Once inside, Akihito looks around. The store’s décor reminds him of Club Sion: wingback chairs, chandeliers, ornate rugs, walnut molding and paneling… the overpowering masculinity of leather and burnished wood. It’s not obvious at first what the store is selling, but when Akihito sees the single suit hanging from a wooden hook on the wall, he remembers what Asami said about his family. “My grandfather made custom-fitted suits… My cousin inherited my grandfather’s business.”

Akihito doesn’t have much time to think about it before a man comes out of a back room. The man is shorter than Akihito. His receding, graying hair parted on the side and combed neatly into place contrasts with his seemingly youthful face. A smart-looking suit complements his thin figure, though his rounded shoulders imply long hours spent hunched over a sewing table.

“Ryuichi,” the man says in a sycophantic tone, rushing forward to shake Asami’s hand. He eyes Akihito and sneers, “And this must be –”

Asami interrupts him. “Hiroshi, this is Takaba Akihito, photojournalist for Weekly Headlines. Takaba, this is my cousin Hiroshi.”

“Nice to meet you –” Akihito offers his hand, inwardly cursing Asami for not giving him Hiroshi’s last name (which should be different than Asami’s, since he’s his maternal cousin).

Hiroshi grasps Akihito’s fingers as if he wants to touch as little of him as possible, letting go after the briefest of handshakes. Hiroshi directs his attention back to Asami. “Is this the –”

Asami cuts him off again. “Hiroshi, before we get down to our business, Takaba here would like to try on some suits.”

“You know we don’t do off-the-rack, Ryuichi,” Hiroshi chides.

“I know you have samples in a variety of sizes. I just want Takaba to see what he’d look like in a properly tailored suit.”

Akihito frowns. I already told Asami I didn’t want to waste any of my exhibition budget on a new suit. And I definitely told him I didn’t want him buying one for me.

“I wonder what Grandfather would say to you bringing that into his shop,” Hiroshi mutters as he stands up.

Asami’s arm shoots out, wheeling Hiroshi around to face him again. “I wonder what Grandfather would say to what you’ve done to his shop.” His face is hard.

“Asami…” Akihito says, unsure of what’s going on. What’s ‘that’? Is he talking about me? Or maybe the case Asami brought the other day?

Hiroshi raises his eyebrows. Two burly men emerge from opposite side rooms.

Asami releases Hiroshi’s arm.

Hiroshi shakes the wrinkles out of his suit sleeve and stalks to the back, but before he exits, he offers a parting shot. “I wonder what Grandfather would say to what you’ve done to his –”

“Hiroshi!” Asami interrupts him a third time. “We’ll talk about that later. In private.”

“Asami?” Akihito asks tentatively. Why did you bring me here? Is it really that important for the cops to see what’s in the case?

Asami squeezes his hand reassuringly.

The young, stylish man who opened the door to the shop for them bustles into the room with a tea tray. “Tea or coffee?” he asks, setting a plate of daifuku on the coffee table.

“Tea, please,” Asami says.

“I’ll have the same. Thank you.”

After the man retreats into the back room, Akihito reaches forward and picks up one of the daifuku. He’s just taken a big bite when Hiroshi comes bustling back in with an armload of suits, followed by his assistant wheeling a clothes rack.

“Try these on,” Hiroshi huffs.

Akihito hurriedly stuffs the rest of the daifuku in his mouth and takes a gulp of tea to wash it down. The tea is scalding hot, and Akihito’s eyes water, but he swallows and does his best to remain expressionless. There’s no napkin, so he brushes his hands on his jeans so he won’t get the suits dirty.

He looks up to see Hiroshi wrinkling his nose. Hiroshi hangs the suits on the rack then pulls out a shirt. “Try this on,” he commands.

Akihito glances around, trying to discern which side door leads to a fitting room. “Where should I change?” he finally asks.

Hiroshi looks at him like he has six heads.

“Here is fine,” Asami says.

Akihito shoots him a desperate look. Maybe Asami’s already forgotten about what they did yesterday, but he’s not the one covered in kissmarks… and other marks. But Asami doesn’t seem to understand Akihito’s signal, so Akihito sighs and reaches for the shirt.

Hiroshi holds onto it.

“Just take your shirt off, Akihito,” Asami suggests gently.

Akihito glowers at him once more before complying. He hasn’t finished removing the t-shirt from over his head before he hears two audible gasps. His face reddens, but by the time he finishes taking the t-shirt off, Asami is holding the dress shirt, blocking Hiroshi’s and his assistant’s view of Akihito. Akihito places one arm and then the other into the shirt quickly. He pulls the front closed and starts buttoning it from the top, skipping the top two buttons.

“You have to button it all the way,” Hiroshi chides, coming over to button the top two buttons.

“It’s too small,” Akihito says.

The assistant wheels over a wooden-framed, oval-shaped full-length mirror.

“It fits perfectly,” Hiroshi counters. “Actually, the sleeves are a hair too short, but otherwise, it fits perfectly.”

Akihito tugs on the collar. “It feels like it’s choking me.”

“You have plenty of room. You just need to get used to it.”

Akihito swings his arms back and forth. “It feels a little too tight in the shoulders, like I’m going to rip it if I move the wrong way.”

Hiroshi points to the shoulder seam. “This line should fall right at your shoulder, not two inches below it as your t-shirt did. Dress shirts aren’t designed for calisthenics.”

Akihito stops moving his arms and looks at his reflection. He has to admit he doesn’t look like a kid dressed up for Shichi-Go-San for once. But why does it have to be so constricting? He tugs at the collar again.

“Please try these pants on next,” Hiroshi says. He makes a face as if he’d rather not be using such polite language with Akihito, but it’s too ingrained and he can’t help it. He holds up the pants for Akihito to step inside them. Akihito casts Asami another desperate look.

“I’ll do that,” Asami says, taking the pants from Hiroshi. He levels a gaze at Hiroshi and the assistant that sends them scurrying into the back room.

Akihito removes his jeans slowly, hoping that the shirttails will hide his underwear from Asami’s sight. But Asami catches a flash of pink and lifts the front shirttail. He doesn’t say anything; he just smirks at Akihito and waits for an explanation.

“I was in a hurry this morning. The editor called while I was folding the clean laundry, so I just put on the first thing I grabbed.” His cheeks turn red, and he can’t bring himself to look Asami in the eye.

“Akihito…” Asami says in a warning tone. “You know you’re a terrible liar, right?”

Akihito forces himself to look Asami in the eye. “I thought it’d be a nice surprise for you,” he says, growing even redder. He looks away again.

“It is,” Asami murmurs, “but that’s not really why you wore them, is it?”

“After I got used to them yesterday, I realized they’re really comfortable,” Akihito confesses, looking intently at the pattern on the carpet. “I just wish they weren’t pink.”

“They come in other colors, you know,” Asami says. He pulls out his phone and opens a website, showing Akihito a rainbow of thongs. “Which colors would you like?” Asami starts clicking on all the colors, adding them to the shopping cart.

“They’re five thousand yen a pair? Are you insane?” Akihito squawks. “It’s underwear.”

“The most comfortable underwear you’ve ever worn, right?” Asami asks. “You get what you pay for.”

“Never mind. I’m fine with my boxer-briefs. They’re comfortable enough.” Akihito is tempted to slide out of the thong right now; he can’t believe he’s wearing underwear that cost more than most of his pairs of jeans.

“I don’t think Hiroshi would like you trying on his pants commando,” Asami says, reading his mind. “If you don’t want them to see, you’d better hurry up.”

Akihito steps into the pair of pants Asami is holding out for him. As they pull them up together, Asami’s hands wander to Akihito’s naked buttocks.

“Bastard, what are you doing?” Akihito hisses. “I think your cousin dislikes me enough already.”

Asami frowns. “Hiroshi has always been a stick in the mud.”

“Then why did you want me to meet him?”

Asami gives a half shrug.

“You just said that so I’d help with your little situation outside, didn’t you?” Akihito whispers. “I can’t believe you manipulated me like that! You could have just told me the truth.”

“That’s not it,” Asami says. The mask starts to slip over his face.

“Then what is it?” Akihito asks.

It’s Asami’s turn to look away.

Hiroshi coughs loudly from the doorway.

“They’re on,” Asami says, zipping up the pants and fastening the button as Hiroshi reenters the room.

“They’re too long,” Akihito says.

“We always leave the pants long. We can hem them, but we can’t add fabric,” Hiroshi explains. He kneels at Akihito’s feet and quickly pins the pants. “Did you bring shoes?” he asks.

“Just my sneakers. I didn’t know I’d be trying anything on,” Akihito explains.

Hiroshi tsks. “What’s your shoe size?” he asks, glancing at Akihito’s feet. “Twenty-seven centimeters?” Akihito nods, and Hiroshi shoots a look over his shoulder at his assistant, who disappears into the back room again.

The assistant comes back a moment later with a pair of black loafers. He inserts a shoehorn, and Akihito steps into the shoes. Hiroshi wraps a tie around his neck and ties it in a double Windsor, making Akihito feel even more like he’s being choked.

“See? You look so much better, though you really should do something about that hair,” Hiroshi says as he holds out a jacket for Akihito to slip on.

As Akihito views himself in the mirror, he has to admit that he does look a lot better than he does in his off-the-rack suit. “But I don’t feel like I look like me,” he says doubtfully.

Asami murmurs something to the assistant, who pulls a different shirt and jacket off the rack. Asami helps Akihito into the new shirt, which has a slender collar with a narrower opening. “Imagine the shirt as lavender,” Asami says.

“Lavender?” Akihito asks, wrinkling his nose.

“Or camo green. You’ve got cool skin tones, so lavender would look good on you and make your hazel eyes stand out. Try moving your arms now.”

Akihito finds his arms can move more freely. The skinnier collar doesn’t feel quite as constrictive, either.

Asami helps Akihito into the new jacket, which has a deep ‘v’ cut leading to a single button closure. The lapels are straight and narrow, rather than notched like the prior jacket. Like the new shirt, the new jacket has higher armholes and is darted, highlighting Akihito’s lean, athletic figure.

“You’d wear a skinnier tie with this jacket,” Asami says, holding out his hand.

The assistant hands him a long, thin, lavender tie.

Asami really can make anyone do whatever he wants, can’t he?

Asami quickly ties the tie for Akihito into a thin, simple knot. “For a more casual affair, you could also go without a tie,” Asami says.

Akihito tugs the skinny end of the tie out of the knot, causing both Hiroshi and his assistant to gasp.

“You should always untie a tie in reverse,” Asami chides.

Akihito shakes out the tie. “This is faster. Hey! Why didn’t it untie?”

“I tied a Kent knot. It doesn’t self-release,” Asami explains.

Akihito doesn’t understand what that means, but he hides his confusion by focusing on untying the knot.

Asami reaches over and unbuttons Akihito’s top button. “Is this more ‘you’?”

Akihito looks at their reflection in the mirror. The stylish jacket gives him a more laidback look – and yet for the first time, he thinks maybe he doesn’t create a ridiculous contrast to Asami’s more refined, elegant style. “It’s not bad,” he says grudgingly.

“No, it’s not bad, but if it fit properly and were in more flattering colors, it’d be excellent,” Asami says.

“What do you mean, if it fit properly? This one fits a lot better than mine.”

Asami pulls the jacket where the lapels meet, revealing a three inch gap. “It’s too big. It needs to be taken in at the waist by at least an inch. And the sleeves on the jacket are also a bit too short. You have long legs, so the length of the jacket overall is too long as well.” He guides Akihito’s hips so that he’s rotated forty-five degrees to the mirror. Asami lifts up the jacket slightly. “It should fall here.”

Akihito notices that the adjusted length shows off his legs and posterior. He blushes as he catches Hiroshi glowering at them again.

“That’s quite enough of that, Ryuichi,” Hiroshi says. “If you wanted to design suits, you should have taken the position in the family business when I offered it to you. For a first suit, the more sensible choice is the more versatile two-button suit with notch lapels.”

“That’s certainly true for a salaryman,” Asami agrees, “but perhaps not for an artist who rarely needs a suit.”

“My journalist clients all dress professionally for their jobs,” Hiroshi retorts.

“I’m a photographer, and I cover action news, so I need to dress in clothes I can move around in most of the time,” Akihito explains.

“Takaba is hosting his first photo exhibition soon. He needs a suit for that,” Asami adds.

Akihito bristles. Why is Asami trying to make me sound like I’m some hotshot artist? Akihito takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. It’s silly; he used to complain that Asami belittled his job, and now that Asami is talking about it respectfully, Akihito’s still not satisfied. What’s wrong with me? He frowns. There’s still a nagging doubt in the back of his mind that something’s off, but he can’t put his finger on it.

“I’m not going to wear the suit often enough to justify the expense either way,” Akihito says. “I mean, I sometimes need to wear a suit when I’m undercover, but my current suit works just fine for that. Actually, it’s a little big, so I can more easily hide my camera. I don’t know where I would hide my camera in this thing.”

“Your mini-cam would fit,” Asami says. True to his word, he gave it back to Akihito back in early December (as soon as Suoh could find it in Sion’s security storage rooms), but Akihito hasn’t needed to use it for a story since then.

Akihito rolls his eyes. “My mini-cam would fit in anything. That’s the point. But what it makes up for in size, it lacks in resolution.”

“If you’re not interested in buying, perhaps you would be so kind as to remove my clothes and stop wasting the shop’s time,” Hiroshi says icily, glaring at Asami.

Akihito gulps. He has no response to that, and he can only hope Asami isn’t going to offer once again to buy him a suit. We’ve already had that discussion, and he’s gotten better at listening. He wouldn’t…

“I apologize, Hiroshi. While Takaba may not be buying a suit today, now that he understands the value in a custom-tailored suit, I’m sure he’ll buy one eventually.”

Akihito releases the breath he didn’t realize he was holding. “Yes, of course – in a few years, once I save the money, I’d like to get another suit.”

“In a few years…” Hiroshi repeats, sniffing, “I look forward to seeing you again then.”

“If you wouldn’t mind…” Asami says.

Hiroshi huffs but leads his assistant into the back room so that Asami and Akihito can have privacy while Akihito changes back into his t-shirt and jeans.

“Did you think I was going to magically change my mind about buying a suit?” Akihito whispers. “I still don’t have room in my budget even for another off-the-rack one, much less a custom-made one.”

“I know. But perhaps you’ve changed your mind about accepting one as a gift.”

“You know that’s not going to happen. Even if you got some kind of family discount, the real value is still too high, and I wouldn’t want you asking a favor on my behalf from someone who obviously doesn’t like me.”

A line forms between Asami’s eyebrows. “I wouldn’t ask Hiroshi for a discount. I make a hundred times his salary. What kind of man do you take me for?”

Akihito gapes at him. A shop like this has to be making well into eight figures – so that means Asami makes several billion yen a year? “I d-didn’t –” Akihito stutters.

Asami’s expression softens as he continues, “While I pay full price for labor, Hiroshi insists on giving me a discount on the fabric, selling it at cost. I refer many clients to him, and it’s his way of thanking me. But I didn’t really bring you here to try on clothes; I just figured you may as well while you’re here.”

“So why did you bring me here?” Akihito asks again.

The mask slips over Asami’s face again. “You should be able to figure that out.”

“Is it just for the cop situation? Then why did you say you wanted me to meet someone?”

Asami doesn’t answer.

“Bastard, I won’t know if you don’t tell me.”

“Akihito, I have to talk to Hiroshi about a private matter now. Why don’t you wait outside?”

Akihito crosses his arms. “What the heck? Why are you suddenly turning back into pompous asshole boss-everyone-around-because-I’m-too-important-to-bother-explaining Asami version one point oh?”

Asami’s eyebrows shoot up, but his face remains impassive. “Just don’t forget your undercover assignment,” he says with an air of finality.

“I’m leaving my bag here,” Akihito snaps. He reaches into the camera bag and pulls out his cell phone, sliding it into his back pocket.

There’s no talking to Asami when he’s like this. Undercover shmundercover. Why should I even bother helping him?

 

The cop is still watching the shop through his binoculars in a plain white delivery van. Akihito pretends he doesn’t notice, heading in the opposite direction from it and darting into the narrow alley that runs adjacent to the shop. There are no windows to the shop on the ground floor, and the solitary solid wooden door is closed and locked.

Akihito heads to the small backyard of the shop but retreats as soon as he sees the security camera. He glances up and sees there are windows on the second floor. Most of them have dark curtains, but one appears to be curtainless. He braces himself between the two buildings and hops up, peeking into the curtainless window. He sees Asami and Hiroshi sitting in a small, cozy drawing room. Asami notices Akihito and frowns, shaking his head slightly.

Akihito ducks his head down, grabbing onto the windowsill before heading back to the ground. He starts hopping back up the wall closer to the front of the building, away from the room where Asami is. When he gets to the roof, he pulls himself onto it and runs across it. He leaps across to the next building, rolling to absorb the impact from landing a story lower. From there, he jumps onto the roof of the cop’s van, crouching down and looking upside-down through the front windshield at the cop. The cop screams and rips his newspaper in half.

Akihito rolls off the hood of the van and knocks on the passenger door window. The cop sighs and opens the door for him.

“Get in quickly before you give me away,” he grumbles.

“They already know you’re here,” Akihito retorts. “You’re kind of obvious.”

“How’d you get him to bring you here?” the cop asks.

“I told him this was the only time I had to meet with him today. He wanted to show off his money, tried to buy me a designer suit.” Akihito uses a nonchalant tone. The lie is close enough to the truth to easily roll off his tongue.

The cop wrinkles his nose slightly as if he smells a fart. “How can you face yourself in the mirror after going to such lengths for a story?”

Akihito shrugs. “Who said it’s just for a story?”

The cop shakes his head. “I thought you journalists were all about your journalistic integrity. Don’t you think you’re getting a little too close to your subject?”

“Don’t you think you’re getting a little too close to your steering wheel?” Akihito retorts.

The officer sucks in his gut. “Don’t you think he’s just playing you? Feeding you false information, leading you on a wild goose chase?”

Akihito shrugs. “Maybe. I don’t think he thinks I’m a threat, though. I’ve submitted several stories on him in the past, but the editor said they weren’t big enough. He has right of first refusal, but no one else wanted them, either. So I’m just biding my time.” Akihito pulls out his cell phone and enters a password.

The cop snorts and rolls his eyes. “See? Wild goose chase. Meanwhile, you’re getting used to this fancy lifestyle. That’s how a lot of cops go bad. Rationalize it by saying they’re going undercover, then get addicted to the money, start cutting corners.”

“I’m not a cop,” Akihito points out. He puts his phone on speaker and a low buzzing noise is heard. He frowns. “They must have an interference screen. Let me try the other one.”

“Did you bug Asami?” the cop asks. “You need a warrant first!”

“I just told you, I’m not a cop. I left a couple of bluetooth microphones inside. One is in my bag.” Akihito types on his phone, and the buzzing is replaced by a crackling noise. “Dang. I knew it was a long shot.” He turns the volume all the way up, but they can’t hear anything over the noise – until a truck blasts its horn as it drives past, and the sound comes through the phone’s speaker at the same time, but distorted.

“Aren’t you afraid Asami will find it?” The cop stares at Akihito with new respect.

“I just told you, it’s in my bag. Even if he finds it, I have plausible deniability; it could have just turned itself on. And there’s no way he can find this app on my phone, so I doubt he’d realize what was going on.”

“Where’s the second microphone?”

“On the window ledge outside the second story room where Asami is meeting with the shop owner. I thought maybe I could hear something if I turned the volume loud enough, but all it’s picking up is the wind and the street noises.” Akihito mutes the volume on his phone and closes the app.

The officer rolls his eyes. “Are you really trying?”

“Hey! Asami saw me through the window, so I had to skedaddle.” Akihito folds his arms across his chest. “I don’t see you even trying to plant a bug in the shop.”

“I already told you, I don’t have a warrant.”

“But you had one for Kodama-gumi?” Akihito asks, trying not to look too eager.

“Well…” The cop looks out the window uncomfortably.

Akihito opens his note-taking app. “Oho! Public approval of the police has already fallen after you guys came down so hard on a grief-stricken mother. I wonder what the public would think of the police infiltrating a private home without a warrant? Care to make a statement?”

“We did no such thing!” The officer says hotly.

“You still haven’t told me your name, by the way,” Akihito points out. “And do you want this interview to be on the record or off the record?”

“I’m not agreeing to any interview.”

Akihito pushes a button on the app. “A police officer on the case refused to give any details regarding the illegal search of Kodama Kento’s home while the college senior lay alone – denied the comfort of his grieving mother – and unconscious in the hospital, a victim of a seemingly random attack in Shinjuku Monday afternoon.”

“There was no illegal search,” the officer repeats. “Fine. Off the record. You can call me Yamazaki.”

Akihito barely manages not to gasp. Keep your cool, Akihito. There are a lot of people named Yamazaki. He’s probably not related to Yama-san. To distract himself, he asks, “Where are you stationed?”

“At … -ban,” Yamazaki says, looking down and mumbling into his lap so that Akihito can’t hear most of it.

Akihito’s eyebrows shoot up. “You’re not Third Division?” he asks, referring to the section of the Criminal Investigation Bureau of the National Police Agency responsible for investigating organized crime.

“I’m Tokyo Metropolitan Police,” Yamazaki says defensively.

Akihito thinks back to what the officer mumbled, trying to make sense of it. “You work at a kōban?!” he asks incredulously. “I thought only officers in the community safety section worked there.”

Yamazaki blushes. “I’m up for promotion soon. I want to switch to organized crime control.”

Akihito whistles. “You’re in way over your head. Cops have been known to go missing, you know?”

“Like my uncle, Detective Yamazaki of the Third Division, did two and a half years ago?”

Chapter Text

Akihito pales. He’s tried not to think of Yama-san since the detective tried to shoot Akihito and Asami killed Yama-san instead. “I – I thought Yama-san’s body was discovered. I went to his funeral,” Akihito stutters.

“I know. I saw you there.”

Yamazaki doesn’t answer Akihito’s indirect question, and Akihito can’t ask more directly without being ruder than even he can handle being.

“He really helped me out a lot, especially when I was just getting started in crime photography.”

“I know.”

“Is he why you became a cop?” Akihito asks, trying to deflect the conversation away from himself and Asami.

“Yeah.”

Akihito tries to recall all the good times he had with Yama-san instead of the end. “He was a good guy. I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thanks.” Yamazaki hesitates for a moment before saying. “Look, I actually want to talk to you more about my uncle sometime, but I’ve got to focus on the current situation right now. Is that okay with you?”

“Sure,” Akihito says. It’s not like I have a choice. Especially since Yama-san’s death is still considered unsolved, and I don’t know how much this guy knows about my involvement in the case.

The cop offers Akihito his personal business card, and Akihito automatically reads it.

“It’s fine. You can put it away. It doesn’t have my occupation on it.”

Akihito stashes the card in the front left pocket of his jeans. He looks up at the officer expectantly. “Do you really think they’re talking about the case Asami brought here last time?”

“Who told you about the case?”

“Um, you did. Remember? You said, ‘He was seen at a known yakuza affiliate in Ginza yesterday afternoon. He was carrying some sort of case there, which he left behind.’” Akihito reads from his phone.

“Oh. Right. I overheard something about a repair, so I would presume that Asami is picking up the item after it’s been repaired.”

“And you have no idea what’s in the case?”

“No.”

“How big is it?”

“About fifty centimeters across, half as wide, and maybe two-thirds as tall?”

“Are you asking me or telling me? I haven’t seen it,” Akihito gripes.

“It’s black.” Yamazaki shrugs. “Your guess as to what’s in it is as good as mine, but I suspect it’s some kind of weapon.”

“You know this is a tailor shop, right?” Akihito asks.

Yamazaki shakes his head. “There’s no way that case is holding clothes. It’s too small. Besides, it looked heavy.”

“How heavy? Can I run with it?” Akihito asks.

Yamazaki shrugs. “Probably?”

“Can I or can’t I? I’ll probably only get one shot to grab it.”

“How fast can you run carrying something? Asami’s bodyguard was carrying it with one hand, so it could only be so heavy.”

Akihito nods. “Right. So when they bring it to the car, I’ll act irritated that I’ve been kept waiting outside, giving them a tough time. Once I’ve distracted them and they relax, I’ll grab the case and take off through the alleys.”

Yamazaki stares at him. “That’s your plan? You think they’ll just let you take the case?”

“I have the element of surprise. They have no reason to suspect I’ll take it.”

“You’re not worried about blowing your cover?”

Akihito snorts. “I told you, I’ll act pissed off that they made me wait outside; they’ll think it’s just one of my childish tantrums.”

Yamazaki’s eyebrows shoot up.

“How do you think I’ve managed to stay undercover for so long? Asami thinks I’m totally rubbish at my job; he doesn’t read Weekly Headlines, so he has no idea. And he likes the chase, so me running away all the time keeps him interested.”

Yamazaki rolls his eyes. “If you say so.”

Akihito continues explaining his plan. “Anyway, Asami only has one guard with him: Megane-san. He’s slow, so I can easily outrun him. If the case is really as important as you imply, they might have another car nearby guarding things, but probably not. That’s not how they do things. The shop has a couple of heavies inside, but they look pretty slow, too, and I’ll have an even bigger head start on them. The only downside is they probably know the area well. What do you know about it?”

Yamazaki shrugs. “Not much. I’m way outside my territory.”

Akihito stares at him. “I thought kōban police always stuck to their neighborhood and asked for outside help if the case went beyond it.”

“Technically I’m off-duty right now.” Yamazaki gestures at his street clothes.

“Unbelievable,” Akihito mutters, shaking his head. “Outside your territory is the understatement of the year.” He pulls up a map of the area on his phone, using street view and satellite view where he can. “Dang. It’s pretty much a grid. Not a lot of alleys, but there are enough.”

He continues scanning through the street views of the area, his frown growing deeper.

“What are you looking for?” Yamazaki asks, growing impatient.

“Somewhere I can stash the case for you. They’ll keep chasing me, so I should hand it off to you.”

“I don’t have a warrant!” Yamazaki protests.

“Do you have a warrant for this?” Akihito asks, gesturing around at the van.

“I don’t need one. I’m parked legally, observing a public space in my free time,” Yamazaki says, a mulish look slipping over his face.

Akihito snorts. “Well, the case will be in a public space, too, with no owner in sight. As an officer of the law, isn’t it your duty to check abandoned property and return it to its lawful owner?”

Yamazaki looks doubtful. “That wouldn’t hold up in a court of law. It’d be better if you –”

Akihito cuts him off. “No can do. Megane-san would never let you get close enough to snatch the case.  He may be slow, but he’s not so slow I can afford to dilly-dally and get caught before I get a good look-see.  This way, I can buy you five minutes alone with the case, give you time to inspect it for any hidden compartments or anything.  You’ve got a good camera phone, right?”

Yamazaki nods. “I have an iPhone.”

“Good. Take good, clear, focused pictures of what’s inside. I’ll use them for my story. And once it’s published, you’ll be able to get a warrant, right?”

Yamazaki looks skeptical.

“Oh, fine. You know it probably won’t be published. But I could still take the pictures to the police, right? And then they could get a warrant. So I’ll take it to your little kōban, and you can be the big hero who breaks the case.”

A ghost of a grin flickers across Yamazaki's face. “What do we have to do?”

Akihito taps on his screen. “See this parking garage here? It’s got two different entrances on opposite streets – and one’s a floor higher than the other, I think. There should be a safe place to stash the case there.”

Yamazaki grins then suddenly frowns. “Won’t they notice you’re not carrying it anymore?”

“At some point, but I’ll carry it under my arm, inside my button-down. They won’t notice until I give up the game – and then I can drag my feet as I take them back to it.”

“So you think I’ll have five minutes?” Yamazaki asks. It’s obvious he’s having second thoughts of going actively against Asami and his men.

“At least. But I can only guarantee five. If this were Setagaya, I could give you fifteen, but the streets are too predictable here. It’ll be easy for them to corner me.”

“What if they manage to after only a minute?”

“Then I take to the skies.” Akihito points up to the roof of the building. “That’s the advantage of the narrow streets. It’s nice that there are a lot of balconies around here, too.”

Yamazaki shrugs. “Okay. Let’s do it like you suggested. How will I know where to find the case in the garage?”

“Let’s meet there now and pick a spot. You can hide close by to make sure the case stays safe. Once you hear us coming back, you’d better split quickly, even if you’re not done.”

“Will you use a signal?”

“No need. You’ll know it’s me, and you’ll hear me from far enough way.” Akihito grins widely. He opens the door of the van before calling over his shoulder, “See you in five minutes.” He quickly scales the building (with the help of a window ledge), heading back the way he came.

Once he’s back in the alley next to Hiroshi’s shop, he heads into the backyard. He’s just peering into the first window when a deep voice growls in his ear, “Can I help you?”

“Just wondering what’s taking Asami so long,” Akihito grumbles, pulling back from the window to see one of Hiroshi’s guards at his side.

“Why don’t you wait out front?” The guard suggests, leading him by his elbow back down the alley.

“Fine. I’m going! Tell him I went for a walk.” Akihito tugs his arm free and stalks off down the street.

 

Inside the shop, Kirishima knocks on the door to the room where Asami and Hiroshi are still talking privately. “Asami-sama, I just received a message from Takaba-kun.”

“Why did he message you instead of me?” Asami grouses.

“I’m not sure. Shall I ask him?” Kirishima asks, his face totally serious.

“That’s not funny, Kei. What did he say?”

“He said, ‘The caboose is on the loose. Don’t forget your train.’”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m not sure. I thought you would know, sir.”

Asami sighs and thinks for a moment before sighing again and shaking his head. “You can go ahead and put the case in the car now. I don’t want to forget it, and we’re already done with it.”

“Yes, Asami-sama.” Kirishima bows and starts putting the items back into the case with practiced hands.

He walks to the door, checking the street carefully before heading outside. Akihito is sitting on the trunk of the Mercedes, kicking the taillights with his sneakers.

“Get off, brat,” Kirishima admonishes.

Akihito kicks harder. “You guys done yet? I can’t believe Asami dragged me here and then kicked me outside for forever.”

“It’s only been a few minutes. Asami-sama’s time is valuable. Besides, it’s not like you have anything better to do.”

Akihito scowls at Kirishima.

“Now please get off the car. You’re scuffing the wax, and I’ve got to put this in the trunk.” Kirishima holds up a black case.

“What is it?” Akihito asks as he reluctantly slides off.

“None of your business,” Kirishima snaps. He opens the trunk and sets the case inside it while Akihito stoops down as if to tie his shoe. The next thing Kirishima knows, he’s being knocked sideways.

By the time he regains his balance, Akihito has the case and is already two paces away. “Try to catch me, old man!” he taunts as he races down the street.

“Asami-sama, we have a problem!” Kirishima pops open the door of the shop to call inside before setting off after Akihito.

Hiroshi’s goons stampede past Kirishima. They’re faster than they look, Kirishima thinks, sprinting along behind them. How do I always get roped into these assignments, anyway? Suoh always seems to get out of it, even though he’s in better shape than me.

When Akihito starts scaling buildings, Kirishima thinks, I definitely need to have a talk with Suoh. That headache this morning was way too convenient.

He’s impressed by Akihito’s ability to swing and climb his way to the top of the building with the case wedged awkwardly under one arm (or briefly clenched between his thighs at one point). I bet he didn’t think it was so heavy. Kirishima smirks. Akihito might be strong for his frame, but ten kilograms has to start feeling heavy when you only weigh sixty.

Kirishima doesn’t much feel like smirking ten minutes later when he’s still being led around by the nose by Akihito. What’s even more irritating is that Hiroshi’s guards are showing him up, following Akihito up onto the roofs and back down again with nearly as much ease as Akihito can manage with the case.

Kirishima sighs and starts to circle the block where Akihito has taken to the roofs again when he spies a parking garage and decides to cut through it on a hunch that it might have another entrance on the opposite side considering how narrow the streets are. He’s halfway across the parking garage when he hears feet rapidly running towards him. As he turns the corner, Akihito skids to a stop, looking like a deer caught in the headlights.

Kirishima notes his empty hands and sprints forward, shouting, “Stop! Bring that case back, Takaba Akihito! Asami-sama will not tolerate even you messing with it!”

Akihito switches directions, dodging into a stairwell. Kirishima and Hiroshi’s goons converge on the stairwell. Kirishima barrels into it first, hearing a door close above him. “Up!” he shouts.

When the three of them emerge on the top floor of the parking deck, they see Akihito perched on the edge of the railing, contemplating his options, one arm tucked in at his side.

Takaba!” Kirishima shouts.

Akihito waits until they’re halfway across the parking deck before glancing over his shoulder, hopping down off the railing, and sprinting to the nearby stairwell.

The guards race after him down the stairs and out of the parking garage. He leads them in a zigzag pattern back towards Hiroshi’s shop. Asami is waiting next to the car, casually smoking a cigarette. Akihito sees him, skids to a stop, and glances around wildly for an escape route. He’s eying the balcony of the nearest building as Kirishima and Hiroshi’s guards try to close the circle around him when Asami finally speaks, using his deadliest tone.

“Takaba, where is the case?”

Kirishima gulps.

Akihito sticks out his tongue. “Guess you’ll have to find it!” he taunts.

In a flash, Asami has Akihito’s wrist clasped tightly in his hand. “You will lead me to it at once.”

“I don’t remember where I put it. This place is confusing, and those guys were too fast,” Akihito confesses.

“It’s a grid. You’ve got a good sense of direction. I’m sure you’ll remember if I jog your memory,” Asami says.

“I really don’t remember!” Akihito cries. “Because it was a grid, everything looked the same.”

Asami picks him up and tosses him over his shoulder, giving his bottom a series of resounding smacks.

“Wait! Ow! Maybe I could – ow! – retrace my – ow! – steps!” Akihito cries.

After two more smacks, Asami sets him down. Akihito rubs his bottom and glares at him.

“Well?” Asami asks with raised eyebrows.

“Fine. Follow me. You didn’t have to hit me so hard,” Akihito grouches, rubbing his bottom.

Akihito leads the way back through the streets and roofs of Ginza. A few times, he pauses, confused, and Hiroshi’s guards helpfully suggest the way to go based off their own memories of the chase. Twice, they call him back, saying, “That’s not the way we came.”

When they get to the parking garage, Kirishima says, “Hurry up. This is taking too long. If someone else finds that case before we do –”

“Don’t worry!” Akihito says loudly. “I just remembered I left it somewhere in here!”

“Which floor?” Asami asks.

“I can’t remember. I kind of went through all of them. Twice,” Akihito says sheepishly.

“You’d better remember quickly,” Asami growls.

“Hey! It’s not my fault! You try running around an unknown area lugging that heavy thing while being chased by three goons! I bet you wouldn’t remember everywhere you went and everything you did, either!”

“You chose to take what wasn’t yours. Of course you were going to be chased,” Asami retorts, still using his quiet, most dangerous tone.

“It’s your fault! You’re the one who left me waiting outside for so long!”

“Don’t blame me for your impatience, brat.”

“Don’t call me a brat! I was just trying to burn off a little energy. If they hadn’t chased me so hard, I would have brought that case back eventually! Megane-san was so rude, I just wanted to teach him a lesson in manners!”

“Then why did you put it down?”

“I wasn’t expecting to have to climb buildings with the thing, you know? Megane-san is pretty slow, so I thought I’d just give him a leisurely jogging tour of Ginza. But then that shop’s goons started chasing me, too!”

“Where is the case, Takaba?” Asami’s tone is more insistent.

“Oh, I just remembered. I got rid of it right before I almost ran into Megane-san. What floor was that again?”

“The second,” Kirishima says, leading the way to the stairwell.

“Oh, right. See? I told you I’d remember if I retraced my steps!” Akihito crows excitedly. He starts jogging across the parking deck, calling behind him, “Come on guys! It’s right over here! Hurry up!”

When he arrives at the spot, he gasps. “It’s not here!” he calls behind him.

“What do you mean, it’s not here? This isn’t funny, Takaba Akihito!” Kirishima rebukes him sharply.

“I know it’s not! I really left it under the third car in the northwest corner. But it was a red car.” Akihito frowns.

“We’re in the northeast corner,” one of Hiroshi’s guards points out.

“Oh. Right!” Akihito races off along the right wall of the corner.

“Northwest is this way!” the guard calls after him.

“Oh, right. Sorry about that!” Akihito calls back sheepishly. “This way!” He walks over to the northwest corner, and there’s the case, sitting under the red Honda Fit. “See? Told you. I wouldn’t have had to stash it at all if these guys hadn’t chased me.”

Asami pinches the bridge of his nose. “Takaba, do you ever accept responsibility for your own actions?”

“It’s your fault, bastard! You’re the one who dragged me to that stuffy shop and then made me wait outside. I was bored,” Akihito whines.

Asami hands the case to Kirishima and throws Akihito over his shoulder again.

As they leave the parking garage and walk back through the crowded streets of Ginza, a number of passersby watch curiously as Akihito pounds fruitlessly at Asami’s back, crying, “Put me down, you bastard! This is embarrassing! People are staring at us!”

 

Back at the shop, Asami waits for Kirishima to open the car door for him. He throws Akihito inside. “Watch him. Make sure he doesn’t pull another stunt. I’ve got to check the case again and make sure nothing is missing.”

“Of course, Asami-sama.” Kirishima bows. He activates the child lock on Asami’s side of the car, then circles around to do the same on Akihito’s side. With the privacy screen already up, Akihito has no hope of escaping, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to kick out the bulletproof glass.

Asami heads into the store without a second glance.

“Do you need any further assistance?” One of Hiroshi’s guards asks with a smirk.

“No, thank you. I appreciate your assistance earlier,” Kirishima says through gritted teeth.

 

A few minutes later, Asami emerges from the shop again carrying the case. He stows it safely in the trunk before opening the back door for Akihito. “Walk with me,” he commands.

Akihito sulkily gets out of the car, following along behind Asami. Asami leads him through the back alley and along a path to a small, walled garden. Inside the garden is a family gravestone marked with the name “Kuroba” (黒. “black” + 羽 “wing”).

“Your family?” Akihito asks.

“My grandfather and my mother,” Asami confirms, fingering the names “Isamu” and “Akemi.” “This is who I really wanted you to meet.”

“Do you –” Akihito trails off. Asami has never struck him as someone who would believe in an afterlife, but he doesn’t want to question Asami’s beliefs. Not now.

“Hm?” Asami asks, lost in thought.

Akihito slips his hand into Asami’s. “Your mother wasn’t buried with her husband?”

“His family wanted him buried in their plot. When my mother died, she didn’t have a will. It was left to me to decide. Maybe I was selfish, but I wanted her here with the rest of the family – especially since his plot is in Hokkaido.”

“Hokkaido?! I’m sure she understands. Unless she really loved the snow…” Akihito jokes feebly.

A smile tugs at the corners of Asami’s lips for an instant. “Hated it, actually. She was always talking about moving to Okinawa after I finished college.”

“Then I’m sure she’s happier here.”

Asami shrugs.

“Was it… sudden?” Akihito asks, gently squeezing Asami’s hand.

“Pretty much. She got caught in the crossfire when rival yakuza groups decided to fight over the local shopping district. It happened right down the street.” Asami gestures vaguely. “But it wasn’t instantaneous. She lingered for three weeks before she finally died.”

“I’m sorry,” Akihito says, tears streaming down his face. He releases Asami’s hand so he can wrap an arm around his waist.

Asami shrugs again. “I was still selfishly hoping for a miracle, even though she was in so much pain. She couldn’t talk because of the respirator helping her breathe, and the bullet shattered a vertebra, so she couldn’t even move a finger. She had to communicate by blinking. I could tell there was so much she wanted to say to me, but I couldn’t understand. I could only guess and play twenty questions.”

“That must have been hard for both of you.” Akihito snakes his other arm around Asami and hugs him.

Asami lays an arm across Akihito’s shoulders and leans his head on Akihito’s. “I’ve never told anyone about this before.”

“Thank you for telling me. And thank you for bringing me here to meet them.”

“She made me promise I wouldn’t join a yakuza group,” Asami remembers. “It took two hours for me to figure out what she was after. I kept hoping she was going to tell me who my father was, but she was adamantly against that.”

Akihito chuckles. “She sounds as stubborn as you. What would she say if she saw you now?”

“Hey, I kept that promise! Not that she needed to waste so much effort getting me to make it; I was never interested in working for someone else. And I would never rely on a bond founded on something as flimsy as drinking from the same cup.”

“That’s an interesting way to look at it,” Akihito observes. “Isn’t that what they pride themselves on, having a strong bond like family?”

“Look where it gets them. Like –” Asami cuts himself off abruptly. When did I get so incautious? If I’m not more careful, I could put Akihito in even more danger.

“Kodama-gumi?” Akihito finishes the sentence for him, rolling his eyes. “Give me some credit. Who hasn’t heard about their internal conflict?”

“Let’s not talk about that now,” Asami says.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb your mother’s peace,” Akihito says sincerely.

“That’s not why.”

Asami doesn’t elaborate, and Akihito decides to let the subject drop. “What about your grandfather?”

“He had a bad cold that turned into pneumonia. My mother called the doctor over several times, but Grandfather locked himself in his room each time and refused to see him. By the time he finally allowed the doctor to see him, it was already too late. He refused to go to the hospital, and he died the next day before the medicine had time to work, the stubborn fool.”

“I’m sorry,” Akihito says.

“He made me promise to take care of my mother. I guess I didn’t keep that one.”

“What could you have done?” Akihito asks, hugging Asami tighter.

“Those groups don’t exist anymore. It was the closest I could come to fulfilling it.”

Akihito doesn’t ask for clarification. He knows Asami’s killed people before; he’s seen it himself. But he’s also seen Asami aim to disarm instead of injure, and he knows that Asami prefers to use less violent – though still ruthless – means when possible. Asami might have killed a few of them – the ones directly responsible for his mother’s death – but he probably dissolved the gangs and seized their assets. If it were me, I’d wish them all dead, but I wouldn’t be able to follow through with it. Akihito remembers what it felt like to pull the trigger, and a shiver ripples through him.

“Are you disappointed in me?” Asami asks, pulling back a little to look at Akihito’s face.

“No. Just… remembering.”

“I’m sorry,” Asami says. “I didn’t meant to –”

“It’s probably not what you’re thinking,” Akihito assures him, though now he is remembering the sight of Asami covered in blood, and then Fei Long dragging him away... The long hours in the fetid shipping container, not knowing if Asami was still alive…

“Hey, come back to me. Akihito!” Asami pats his face.

“Sorry,” Akihito says.

Asami brushes his tears away. “A flashback?” he asks, concern written all over his face.

“A little. First Yama-san, and then I just inadvertently started remembering Hong Kong.”

Asami hugs him. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

Akihito hugs him back fiercely. “It wasn’t your fault. Thank you for telling me about your family. Besides, you brought me back. I’m fine now.”

“You should make an appointment with Kurebayashi-sensei.”

“I’m fine!”

“Akihito…” Asami’s tone grows a little exasperated.

Akihito glares at him defiantly.

“Please. Just think about it. I’m worried about you.”

“Fine. I’ll think about it. I’m not making any promises, though.”

“Who’s Yama-san?”

Akihito glances around. “No one,” he says evasively, suddenly remembering that Yamazaki might be eavesdropping on them. “We should probably head back.”

Asami eyes him for several long moments before comprehension dawns and he nods. “Just a moment.” He goes over to a faucet where there’s a bucket hanging. Akihito waits while Asami washes the grave and pours water over the top. “I forgot the incense and flowers.”

“I’m sure they’re just happy you came. Do you want to come back for Obon?”

“I haven’t in years,” Asami confesses.

“That’s okay,” Akihito says. “You can start now.”

“My grandfather would have liked you,” Asami says. “He used to say that the nail that stays down gets stepped on, but if you’re going to be a nail that sticks out, you’d better be tough. No matter how many times you get hammered down by life, you just keep bouncing back.” I don’t think Grandfather would mind that I paraphrased it. Akihito is tough, but he’s not hard. Maybe I don’t need to be hard, either.

Akihito sticks his tongue out at him. “I’d rather not be hammered down at all, thanks.”

Asami laughs. “Then stop standing out!”

“It’s not my fault,” Akihito says, folding his arms across his chest.

“You’re adorable,” Asami says, leaning in to kiss him.

Akihito turns his face slightly so the kiss lands on his cheek. “Sorry. Not in front of the grave, okay? What about your mother?”

Asami sighs and considers it. “I have no idea. I never could tell how she would feel about things. I was hoping I could understand her better as I got older, but…” He shrugs.

“I’m sorry,” Akihito says. I wish I could come up with something better to say, something that might give him some comfort.

Asami shrugs again. “She always said she had no right to say anything about what I did with my love life, considering her choices had left me without a father, but she wanted me to find someone who would stand by me through thick and thin. So I guess she’d be happy I found you.”

“Did she know?” Akihito asks. “About you and… men?”

Asami shrugs a third time. “I wasn’t exactly hiding it, but I wasn’t parading it in front of her, either. I was only ever home on school breaks in high school, and she died the first summer break of college. Like I said, she was pretty hands-off. She used to leave the discipline up to Grandfather, and she only tried a time or two after he died. She just didn’t have the heart for it.”

Akihito presses his palms together and bows to the grave. Asami copies the movement but freezes momentarily at the bottom of his bow when Akihito says, “Thank you for raising Ryuichi.”

Asami smirks the whole way back across the yard.

“What? I couldn’t call you Asami to them, could I? That would be weird! Besides, would your grandfather even know who that is, bastard?”

“I didn’t say anything,” Asami points out.

“You didn’t have to. Can we go already?” Akihito puts on his pissed-at-the-world façade again.

It takes a second for Asami to pick up on it before he snarks back, “Don’t cop that attitude with me, brat. We’d already be halfway back to Shinjuku if not for your little escapade. Don’t think I’m going to forget that anytime soon, either.”

“Why not? You got that stupid case back. What’s in it, anyway?”

“None of your business. Now hurry up and get in the car.”

“Whatever, bastard!” Akihito scoots to the far window and crosses his arms, his head resolutely turned away from Asami.

Akihito only turns back when he hears the car door close, but before he can even get his head around, Asami is already enveloping him in his arms. “You were brilliant,” Asami says. “I’d nearly forgotten how obnoxious you are when you want to be.”

“And how much it turns you on?” Akihito asks, climbing onto Asami’s lap and rubbing a knee against the proof of his assertion.

“I hope you’re prepared,” Asami says, his voice deep with promise and desire.

“Just remember I have a stakeout tonight,” Akihito reminds him, knowing that they’re both already too far gone to consider that. It won’t be my first stakeout done thoroughly sore.

Asami’s mouth crushes against Akihito’s, precluding any further protest. A few minutes later, when they pause for air, Asami says, “I owe you an apology.”

“You do?” Akihito asks, surprised.

“I called you a brat in front of the others earlier. I promised not to do that. I’m sorry.”

Akihito laughs. “I was being a brat. Kirishima-san did it, too. Speaking of which…” He presses the button to activate the in-car speaker. “Kirishima-san, how’s your knee? I hope I didn’t hurt you.”

“I’m fine, Takaba-san. Thank you for your concern, though.”

Akihito’s eyebrows shoot up. When did he start calling me ‘san’ instead of ‘kun’? He can’t remember whether Kirishima’s ever done that before.

“So you weren’t injured, Kei? Then why did Hiroshi’s men show you up?” Asami asks.

“That was – you know I don’t climb roofs!” Kirishima protests.

“I think it’s time you lay off the weights and hit the treadmill again,” Asami suggests.

“Yes, Asami-sama.”

Asami turns off the speaker. “Kei hates cardio. Kazumi and I have to constantly nudge him or he won’t do it at all,” he explains. “I guess I’ve been letting him slack off too much lately. I should have realized sooner; he’s been looking a bit puffy lately.”

“I heard that, Ryuichi,” Kirishima says.

Asami’s expression doesn’t change as he hits the button again, turning off the speaker for real, while Akihito silently busts up.

Chapter Text

The conversation with Kirishima killed the mood enough that Asami decides to sate his curiosity before sating his appetite. “Who’s Yama-san?”

Akihito slides off Asami’s lap and settles onto the seat beside him. “The first person I saw you kill.”

Asami eyes Akihito for several moments before finally saying, “The detective.”

“Do you kill that many people that you had to think about it that hard?” Akihito asks.

Asami raises his eyebrows at Akihito. “What do you think?”

“You never shot to kill Fei Long. Except that one time when he shot at me, you didn’t even shoot to hit him. And you shoot to disarm most of the time, which means you’re a confident shot. You didn’t even kill that Russian guy who shot me.”

“I meant to. My hands weren’t very steady at that moment,” Asami says.

“So why did it take you so long to remember?”

Asami shrugs. “It’s not something I ever really think about. He was about to kill you. I didn’t want that to happen, so I stopped him.” He gives another half-shrug of a shoulder.

“I still think about the time I picked up that gun. I shot that Russian guy, and for a second I thought I’d killed him.” Akihito shudders.

“It would have been justified.”

“He’s still a human being. I don’t even think I could shoot an animal.” Another shiver ripples through Akihito.

“That’s why you have bodyguards, so you won’t have to.”

“I don’t want anyone else shooting someone for me, either!” Akihito bursts out.

“Sometimes we don’t have the luxury of being so idealistic,” Asami retorts. “Sometimes the other party takes the decision out of your hands. When it’s your life or theirs, you only have a fraction of a second to choose. The slightest hesitation will make the decision for you. And if you’re going to choose to shoot, you’d better incapacitate them on the first shot.”

Akihito leans against Asami and sighs. “I know. I’m sorry. If I’m honest, I’m glad you shot Yama-san. I’m sad that he died because he really helped me out a lot, both when I was a juvenile delinquent and later when I started freelancing. He was the only cop who would listen when I brought in the evidence of my innocence – remember I told you there was a time I was falsely accused of injuring an old lady when I was actually helping her?”

“I remember,” Asami says. “I’m sorry your detective friend turned out to be corrupt.”

“He did it to save his kid, right? But he should have trusted me! I really wouldn’t have told anyone. I knew he didn’t have a choice.”

“When someone has a gun and fear takes over, they reach for it automatically,” Asami says. “When I realized it was shoot or be shot…” He leaves the rest unsaid.

“But you shoot in self-defense. Or in defense of others,” Akihito says, lacing his fingers through Asami’s.

Asami looks at Akihito with an unusually grave expression. “Usually. But not always.”

Is he testing me? Akihito wonders. He’s letting me see his darkness. Akihito tightens his grip on Asami’s hand and meets his eyes.

“In Macau,” Asami starts, watching Akihito for any signs of stress, “when the Russians contacted me to tell me they had taken you, and they let me talk to you on the phone…” He trails off.

“I remember. I had no idea what they were going to do with me. When I heard your voice, I knew you were okay – and that maybe I still had a chance of going home.”

“You sounded so broken,” Asami says.

“I wasn’t broken, but I’d been through a lot. And you were safe, so when I heard your voice…” It’s Akihito’s turn to trail off.

“You needed an outlet for all that fear and anger and sadness,” Asami says, “because you’d been putting on a brave face for so long.”

“How do you know?” Akihito asks.

Asami gives a small smile. “Because I know you. You wouldn’t let them see your weakness. You fought in whatever way you could. How many times did you spit in Fei Long’s tea?”

Akihito laughs. “Only a couple. He didn’t seem to notice, but Tao caught me once, and I felt bad.”

Asami’s face grows serious again. “When I heard how broken you were – or sounded – I lost it. Even though he was just a messenger, I knew the man in front of me had worked for Fei Long and betrayed him to Arbatov. He was part of the reason you still weren’t safe, and part of both organizations that had made you sound like that.”

Akihito can figure out where this story is going. He gives Asami’s hand another squeeze.

“I was filled with a rage I’ve only know a handful of times – the other two being during the Kurosaki incident. I unloaded my gun into him. Even after my gun was empty, I kept shooting until Suoh brought me back to my senses.” Asami gazes down into his lap.

Akihito reaches up with his free hand and gently turns Asami’s face towards him. Asami hesitates just a moment before lifting his eyes to meet Akihito’s gaze. “I did the same thing,” Akihito says. “After that Russian guy shot Kirishima-san, I got so angry, I took his gun and chased after him. Kirishima-san had said you would come as soon as the exchange was over, but with him being shot, how would you know to come? So I decided to come get you myself. But I – that Russian guy was right in front of me, and remembering what he’d done to me – and I thought he’d killed Kirishima-san, and I – I – I sh-shot –”

“Shh, it’s okay,” Asami says.

Akihito takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. He squeezes Asami’s hand again, reminding himself where he is in reality. “I’m okay,” he says. “We were both pushed to the brink in Macau. I may not like what I did, but…” He trails off.

“Have you talked to Kurebayashi-sensei about it?” Asami asks.

“No. It’s not really relevant to my PTSD.”

“Akihito…” Asami says. “She can help you put it in perspective.”

“What’s to put in perspective? It happened. Nothing she can say can erase what I did.”

“She can help you accept it.”

“I don’t want to accept it!”Akihito takes a deep breath. “Or rather, I’ve already accepted that it happened, but I’m not ever going to like having done it.”

“You don’t have to like it, but you don’t have to keep beating yourself up over it.”

Akihito scowls.

“Why are you giving me a free pass and being so hard on yourself?” Asami asks.

Akihito’s mouth drops slightly open. After a moment, he closes it. “That’s different,” he says.

“Is it?” Asami asks. “In the past, you’ve told me that you don’t want to be something like me, and you won’t believe in necessary evils.”

Akihito’s face flushes. “But you let that cop go… You were actually planning to all along, weren’t you? You said when you killed Yama-san that the police won’t stop if one of them just disappears… And… you said Onoda couldn’t do anything to you, so you were okay with me handing him over to the police. But someone else got him out of jail; you wouldn’t have done that. The organization he got the gun from…” Akihito’s eyes widen as he puts two and two together. “Why did you let me think you got rid of him because he was a threat to me?”

Asami shrugs. “I was considering it. You may have pulled the trigger in Macau, but you didn’t kill anyone. I did. And I don’t really regret it.”

“We live by different codes,” Akihito says hesitantly. “I may not like what you did…”

Asami looks him in the eye.

“But I still like you.” Akihito flushes.

“Thank you for your honesty,” Asami says. “That man’s life was forfeit, anyway. Arbatov knew it was a matter of time before Baishe got him, and it’s not like Arbatov could trust him after the way he betrayed Fei Long. He was only useful for dangerous operations, like sending him to me as a messenger. That man knew it, too, as soon as he chose to betray Fei Long.”

“That still doesn’t make it right,” Akihito says. “But…” He shrugs. “We can’t change it. It was Macau.”

“I’m setting up an appointment with Kurebayashi-sensei for you this week. What’s a good day for you?” Asami asks.

“Asami!” Akihito says. “I already told you, I don’t want to.”

“She’s not going to brainwash you and change your moral code. You know her. What are you really afraid of?” Asami challenges.

“I don’t really want to think about it,” Akihito mumbles.

“I know. But you do anyway, don’t you?”

Akihito’s eyes widen. “Yeah… But I’m not sure I can talk about it.”

“We’re talking about it right now. Would it help if I told Kurebayashi-sensei the general circumstances?”

Akihito sighs. “I guess.”

“What made you think of Yama-san today, anyway?” Asami asks. “Was it that cop?”

“Yeah. He’s Yama-san’s nephew. He said he wants to talk to me about Yama-san.”

Asami’s eyebrows shoot up. “Just to remember him? Or something more specific?”

“He didn’t say, but I have to assume it’s the latter, don’t I? He knows Yama-san was giving me scoops. He’s probably wondering if I know anything about his death. The case is still unsolved.”

Asami ponders the news in silence for a moment.

“I’m not going to tell him what really happened.”

“I know. But you probably want to stick as close to the truth as you can.”

“He probably already suspects you had something to do with it,” Akihito says, squeezing Asami’s hand gently.

“I know.”

“He works at a kōban,” Akihito says.

“He’s in way over his head.”

“That’s what I told him.”

Asami suddenly starts laughing.

Akihito laughs a little, too, as he asks, “What’s so funny?”

“I wish I could have seen his face when he looked in the case!” Asami says.

Akihito pulls his hand free so he can fold both arms across his chest. “You’re still not going to tell me what’s in there?”

“Not yet,” Asami says. “But I will. Eventually.”

“When’s eventually?” Akihito asks, pouting.

Asami does a quick mental calculation. “May, probably.”

“That’s over a month away.”

“That it is.”

“You know I could just look it up online and figure it out for myself.”

“You certainly could try,” Asami agrees.

“You’re in way too good a mood all of a sudden,” Akihito grumps.

“I guess I am,” Asami says. “It’s rare that I get to see Warugakihito in action these days.”

Akihito scowls at him. “Don’t turn my name into a weird portmanteau. Or else maybe I’ll have to start acting a bit more spoiled.”

“I wouldn’t mind if you did.” Asami smirks at him.

Akihito flushes. Before Asami can activate octopus-mode, however, Kirishima has turned on the intercom. “We’re nearly there, Asami-sama.”

 

Just before dawn, Akihito parks his bike in the parking garage. He’s so cold, he leaves his helmet on as he rides up the elevator, but he lifts the visor as the elevator slows down. “Sorry, Yoneda-san. Do you want some coffee?”

“I’ll get some downstairs. You’re not planning on going out again anytime soon, are you?”

Akihito shakes his head. “When does your shift end?”

“Eight.”

“Then I’ll see you later. Have a safe trip home.”

Yoneda watches Akihito enter the penthouse and listens for the lock turning before he runs down the stairs to the apartment below, where he’ll observe things from the monitor.

 

Akihito starts the coffeepot before heading straight to the bathroom for a hot shower. He’s standing face upturned to the warm spray with eyes closed when he feels a cool draft sneaking around his ankles. His eyes snap open as Asami eases into the shower stall.

“Did you just get home?” Akihito asks, noting Asami’s suit lying on the floor next to his jeans and hoodie.

“Yes.” Asami wraps his arms around Akihito with a contented sigh. “We can finally pick up where we left off in the car.”

Akihito groans. “I’m exhausted and sore.”

“I’ve been left hanging for over twelve hours, Akihito,” Asami whispers in his ear.

“This part of you’s not tired,” Asami points out as his hands wander lower.

Akihito curses his body and Asami’s intimate knowledge of how it will respond.

“It is,” Akihito mumbles as he relaxes against Asami and his eyes droop closed.

“What? Why?” Asami asks, his body suddenly tensing.

Akihito’s eyes fly open. “What?”

“Why is this part of you tired?” Asami asks, giving a gentle squeeze to emphasize which part he’s referring to.

“Every inch of me is tired. There’s no special meaning,” Akihito says.

“Oh.” Asami relaxes.

Akihito turns to look at him. “Did you really think I would do that?”

“No. Of course not. I’m tired, too,” Asami says.

Akihito traces a finger along the dark circles under Asami’s eyes. He notices for the first time the tiny creases in the corners. “You really are.”

“Gee, thanks,” Asami says. “Do I look that bad?”

“Kind of,” Akihito teases with a cheeky grin as he stands on his tiptoes to kiss Asami on the nose.

“So do you,” Asami teases back, tracing Akihito’s own dark circles.

“Hey!” Akihito cries.

Asami reaches for the shampoo bottle. “Lean back and I’ll wash your hair.”

Akihito complies, and a comfortable silence falls over them.

As he’s rinsing Akihito’s hair, Asami breaks the silence. “The police let Kodama visit his son this evening.”

Akihito’s eyes fly open.

“Careful!” Asami warns as he sprays some bubbles away from Akihito’s eyes.

Akihito closes his eyes again. “They let the mother see him yesterday, right? Has Kento-kun woken up yet?”

“Not yet,” Asami says, “but the doctors are hopeful he will soon.”

Asami finishes washing Akihito, and Akihito turns around to start washing Asami.

“Is it alright if I tell Yagami-san?” Akihito asks.

Asami shrugs.

“He’s worried about how this story will affect Kento-kun’s graduation and job prospects. His mother said that he was recently hired by a company.”

“He didn’t have to –” Asami starts but abruptly breaks off. Kento’s recent name change hasn’t made it into the papers yet.

“He didn’t what?” Akihito asks curiously.

“Never mind.”

“Does Kodama know who targeted him yet?” Akihito asks casually.

“Akihito…” Asami warns. “I know where your stakeout was tonight.”

Akihito sighs. “I know. But if I find out on my own, I’m going to run the story.”

“Of course you are.”

“Tonight was my first time in Ni-chōme,” Akihito says. “I mean, since...”

Asami furrows his eyebrows. “Since when?”

“Since I… figured things out. About myself. In November.”

“Since you realized you’re gay.”

Akihito blushes slightly. “Yeah.”

“What did you think?” Asami asks as they step out of the shower and start drying off.

Akihito shrugs. “I was mostly focused on my story. But while we were walking, I noticed…” he trails off, blushing slightly.

“That you found someone attractive?” Asami guesses, trying to calm the jealous beast inside him.

“Of course not! I wasn’t looking at anyone like that!” Akihito protests. Sure, there was a guy or two I noticed, but the way you would a model or an interesting sculpture… He wisely keeps that thought to himself as he kisses Asami in reassurance. “But I noticed that… others were kind of looking at me.” He turns tomato-red. “Sorry, I know that sounds conceited, but some of them were really obvious.”

A feral growl escapes Asami’s throat before he can hold it in.

“They were only looking,” Akihito chides. Though a couple of them might have tried chatting me up if Yoneda hadn’t glared at them so hard.

Asami sighs. “Did you really have to tell me?”

“Sorry. I was just surprised.”

Asami takes a deep breath and counts to ten. Suddenly the exhaustion crashes over him again like a wave. “Shall we go to bed?”

“Sure,” Akihito says.

They head down the hall together, Akihito scooping up Amaya outside the bathroom door. As they slide under the covers, he ventures to ask, “Maybe we could go there sometime? Together?”

“Where? Ni-chōme?”

“Yeah.”

Asami frowns. “So I can see all the guys who want to chat you up?”

“Of course not! Anyway, you’d be way more popular than me… It’s just…” Akihito trails off.

After a long silence, Asami asks, “Did you fall asleep?”

“No.”

“I won’t understand if you don’t tell me.”

“I mean… We can’t go out together to normal places. It’d be weird.”

“Why?”

“Two guys on a date?” Akihito mumbles.

“Oh. You want to go on a date?”

Akihito can feel his face heating up. He’s glad the lights are already out. “Kind of. I mean, if you want to.”

“I’ll think about it,” Asami says.

It stings to hear Asami react to a date the same way he did to Akihito’s dilemma about the exhibit.

“What’s to think about? If you don’t want to go, just say so,” Akihito bursts out.

“I didn’t say that,” Asami says. “I’m just thinking about the logistics. A normal place might actually be safer, but that might not give you the ambience you’re after. Then again, if the ambience you’re after is being ogled by other men…”

“Wouldn’t we be stared at more at a normal place?” Akihito asks, surprised.

“Not if there’s no one around to stare.”

“Why wouldn’t there be anyone around?” Akihito props himself up on an elbow to look at Asami.

“There are restaurants with private rooms. And any place can be made private for a certain amount of time.”

“That sounds crazy expensive. Never mind, then.” Akihito slumps back against his pillow.

“The cost would be for my own satisfaction, not yours, so you shouldn’t worry about it,” Asami retorts.

“Act of service,” Akihito mutters.

“What was that?” Asami asks.

“I’m trying to remind myself that your control issues are your way of showing… stuff, and not really about me.”

“Control issues?” Asami huffs.

“Yep.” Akihito suddenly sits up. “Hey, I called you by your first name today! That means we get to have another session, right?”

“That was a one-time deal,” Asami says.

“But it doesn’t seem like we solved all your control issues the first time.”

“Akihito… I’m tired,” Asami says. “Besides, it’s not a control issue. Someone’s got to watch out for your safety since you don’t.”

Akihito snorts. “Sure I do. Besides, you’re the same as me.”

“What are you talking about? I’m thinking about your safety all the time. That’s why I hired a team of bodyguards for you.”

“I was talking about you watching out for your own safety.” Akihito leans over and kisses the scar on Asami’s shoulder. “Even your head of security agrees with me.”

Asami’s eyebrows shoot up. “When did Suoh say I don’t think about safety?”

“At the dam, when I was trying to convince him to let me help find the bombs. I told him you had to learn it goes both ways, and he said you don’t even let the people you hired to protect you actually protect you.”

“Kazumi talks too much,” Asami mutters. “Besides, I can look after myself.”

“So can I,” Akihito retorts.

Asami snorts.

Akihito lays his head on Asami’s chest and looks up at him. “Did you ever talk to Kurebayashi-sensei about your control issues?”

A mulish look slips over Asami’s face, but he says, “We did together, remember?”

“I meant in your individual sessions with her, so you could figure out why…” Akihito trails off.

Asami doesn’t answer.

After a moment, Akihito says hesitantly, “Did you ever tell her about your mother?”

Asami stiffens. “That was a long time ago. It’s in the past.”

“It sounded to me like you blame yourself for it.”

“It wasn’t my fault.”

“I know. But do you really know that? You couldn’t protect her from everything.”

“I know that,” Asami snaps. “It’s not that simple. I’ve always wanted to be in control. Doesn’t everybody? Besides, I wasn’t trying to control anything; I was merely thinking of the best way to keep you safe.”

“It’s a date. It’s not like we’re going on a stakeout together.”

“I live in a dangerous world. There’s no escaping it even for a moment. We both bear the scars to prove it.” Asami traces the scar on Akihito’s shoulder.

Akihito takes Asami’s hand and kisses it. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that… your mother’s death made you…” He trails off. “It just sounded like maybe you hadn’t really worked through what happened to her; instead, you just walled it off.”

Asami grunts. “What else are you supposed to do? Things happen that you can’t change. The only thing you can do is move on.”

“I’ll talk to Kurebayashi-sensei about me picking up that gun in Macau if you talk to her about your mother,” Akihito says.

Asami doesn’t say anything.

“Will you at least think about it?” Akihito asks.

“Fine,” Asami says.

Soon, Akihito’s soft snores fall into rhythm with Amaya’s purring.

He’s getting too close, Asami thinks. The closer he gets, the more likely he’ll be targeted. If something were to happen to him… Asami can’t finish the thought as a feeling as repressive as a black, ominous stormcloud takes over. He hugs Akihito a little tighter, gives him a kiss on the forehead, and reassures himself with the rhythm of Akihito’s heartbeat drumming on his chest.

 

When Akihito awakens, light is streaming into the bedroom. He gets up and pulls the curtains closed for the still-sleeping Asami. Akihito makes his way down the hall, hampered by the two cats weaving around his ankles. “I’d be able to feed you faster if you weren’t trying to trip me,” he grumbles.

He sees the cold coffee he put on before his shower and sighs. He decides to turn it into iced coffee. As he sips the coffee and munches on a piece of toast, he checks his messages. He texts Yagami suggesting he ask for a follow-up interview with Kodama.

He has a feeling he should have gotten a message about something he was working on. He racks his brain, going through his ongoing investigations, but nothing’s ringing a bell. He goes through his activities over the last several days and finally remembers.

Yamazaki didn’t send me any pictures. I know Asami didn’t want me to know what’s in the case, but I don’t need to actually look at the pictures…

He shoots off a quick text.

Hi! I didn’t get the pictures. Can you please send them to me as soon as possible? I’d like to write the article in time for tomorrow’s paper (assuming you were right about what was inside the case).

He doesn’t get a response back right away, so he heads to his workroom. He’s working on the exhibit arrangements when his phone finally buzzes.

You and Asami set me up.

You didn’t get any pictures? I gave you plenty of time with the case! That thing was heavy, you know. My arm’s still sore.

Stop playing dumb. You know what was in the case.

No. I really don’t. What was it?

You really don’t know?

Of course not. Asami doesn’t tell me anything.

What do you know about Asami’s relationship to that shop?

Akihito hesitates. How much should he tell this cop? Asami told him that he should follow his own instinct. He doesn’t know what Asami’s private business with Hiroshi was; he assumes it had something to do with the case, but they could be unrelated. But Asami wanted the cop to inspect the case – and he wanted him to believe that whatever he found in the case is the same thing that was in it when he brought it to Hiroshi’s in the first place (regardless of whether it really is the same or not). But why is Yamazaki asking about Asami’s relationship to Hiroshi? Does it have to do with the case? Akihito’s instinct is that this is a test.

I think he gets his clothes there. And…

And what?

He introduced the shop owner as his cousin.

Cousin? Really?

That’s what he said. So maybe the case had something to do with the family? I don’t know. All I know is it wasn’t a suit – it was way too heavy to be one.

They have different last names.

Oh. That would explain why his cousin kept giving me a weird look every time I called him ‘Asami.’ Asami only introduced him as Hiroshi, but I couldn’t call him that.

Maybe they’re maternal cousins.

Could be. Like I said, Asami doesn’t tell me much. I was surprised to meet anyone in his family – not that he introduced me as anything.

Fine. Sorry for thinking you were setting me up. Could we meet to talk about my uncle sometime?

Wait, where are the pictures?

I didn’t take any pictures.

Why not? I told my editor I’d finally have proof that Asami has illegal goods.

Sorry. There was nothing worth publishing in the case. I’ve got to get back to work soon. Can you meet?

Fine. I’ll just have to trust there was no story there, but since you tried, I’ll meet with you. I’m busy through the weekend, though. Can you meet sometime next week?

I have a late shift Tuesday. Can you meet for coffee sometime during the day?

How about 1 o’clock?

 

After they work out the logistics of their meeting, Akihito tosses his phone on the spare futon that has become a cat bed. He buries his head in his hands.

I can’t shake the feeling that meeting him is a terrible idea, but I can’t see a way out of it. Maybe I should talk to Kurebayashi-sensei, after all.

Chapter Text

Saturday morning, Akihito is awakened by a text from Kou.

Aki, you awake? Help!

What’s wrong, Kou? It’s really early.

I just had to hang up on my mom, and it’s all your fault.

What did you do now?

I called her, and your mom was over there having coffee with her. Only I didn’t know that…

What did you do, Kou?

My mom asked if I was settled into my new place yet, and your mom got confused because last you told her, you were staying with me.

Oh. Sorry. What did you tell her?

Nothing! I didn’t want to lie, and I wasn’t sure what you wanted to say, so I pretended my client was calling, but I told her I’d call her back as soon as we hung up.

Akihito’s phone rings. It’s his mom.

Shit. My mom’s calling me now. Just tell your mom the truth – that I moved out a while ago. Sorry.

Akihito lets the call from his mom go to voicemail. He needs time to think before he talks to her.

“Is something wrong?” Asami asks, sitting up in the bed.

Akihito looks over guiltily. They both worked late last night, as usual.

“Sorry. I should have turned off my ringer.” He left it on last night in case the editor called with changes for his story, but he should have turned it off when he decided not to answer his mother’s call.

“It’s alright. What’s wrong?”

“My mom just figured out I’m not living with Kou, I think.”

“Why did she think you were?”

“Because I stayed with him after you took all my stuff, remember?”

“And she thought you’ve continued to stay with him in that tiny little apartment all this time?” Asami’s eyebrows shoot up.

Akihito shrugs. “I guess. I mean, I couldn’t exactly tell her about Hong Kong. Or you taking my stuff. Or Ai’s stalker case.”

“How much does your mother know about your life?”

“As little as I can tell her. She worries too much.”

“With good reason,” Asami says. “How did she figure out you’re not staying with Kou?”

“Kou’s mom asked how he’s liking the new place, and my mom was visiting her at the time, apparently.”

“I see… And Kou thinks your mother knows that you’re gay?”

Akihito’s jaw drops open. “I hadn’t thought about that. She wouldn’t think that Kou and I were…” He trails off, uncertain. “I mean, Kou’s practically a brother to me.” Akihito shudders. “Gross!”

Asami chuckles. “So how are you going to clear up that misunderstanding?”

Akihito shrugs. “I’ll tell her I’m not living with Kou anymore. But she’ll want my new address.”

“So give it to her.”

“You don’t mind?” Akihito looks at Asami.

Asami pulls him closer. “Why would I mind? This is your address, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, technically… Though I still get my important mail – like my tax information and bike registration – delivered to my parents’ house in Yokohama.” Akihito turns to study Asami’s face again. “I thought you didn’t want too many people knowing I live with you.”

“Isn’t that different than giving out your address?”

“Yeah… but my mom will want to see my apartment when she comes for the exhibit – especially if I give her an address in Shinjuku.”

Asami stiffens but quickly relaxes.

Akihito looks at him. “Sorry, I know you said you needed time to think about what we should tell my parents… but it looks like I have to make the decision soon. Today, even.” He starts looking for cheap apartments in Shinjuku on his phone. “Look, there’s a one-room apartment for rent for only fifty-eight thousand yen per month. It’s nearly twenty square meters. Looks like a good neighborhood.”

“You want to move out?” Asami asks.

“Of course not! I was just trying to see whether it’s plausible I could be living in Shinjuku by myself. This place does short-term leases. I could rent it while the exhibit will be up…”

“So you are talking about moving out.”

“I could just move my stuff there if my parents wanted to see my place.”

“That’s stupid. The addresses wouldn’t match.”

“That’s true…”

“And you’d be back to the same situation once you gave your parents the correct address. Wouldn’t they want to see your new place?”

“Yeah… They worry about me.”

“With good reason.”

“Hey!” Akihito glares at Asami, but after a moment, his face softens. “Anyway, if they see this place, they’re really going to worry.”

“It’s in a good neighborhood,” Asami says.

Too good! They know I’d never be able to afford my fair share of rent, even for the storage closet.”

“I’m not willing to move somewhere you can afford to pay half the rent,” Asami says. “It won’t be safe enough.”

Akihito sighs. “I know. I wouldn’t expect you to.”

“So that leaves you with either continuing to deceive your parents or…” Asami starts, leaving the rest unfinished.

“Or telling them about us?” Akihito asks. “But you needed time to think about it…”

“You could tell them about us without making a decision about the exhibition, right?” Asami asks.

Akihito studies him. “You were more worried about that, huh? Yeah, I guess they’re separate issues… though I do need to make a decision about the exhibition soon, too.”

“But not today, right?”

“No, not today.” Akihito sighs. “I really don’t want to tell them about us today, either. I don’t have time to really talk to them, and I kind of wanted to ease them into it.”

“So just give them the address and promise to talk to them soon.”

“I guess that works… but it’d better be really soon, or my mom is liable to take a day trip and surprise us.”

“Your day off is Tuesday, right?”

“Yeah, but I promised Yamazaki-san I’d meet with him in the middle of the day.”

“So reschedule it. You don’t owe him anything, right?”

Akihito elbows Asami. “I kind of do, don’t you think? But maybe I will… Or I could go to Yokohama afterwards… I should probably tell them together, and Dad’s working Tuesday. You sure you don’t mind?”

“What exactly are you going to tell them?”

“That I’m… gay.” Akihito blushes slightly. Will I ever get used to saying that aloud? “And depending on how that goes, hopefully that I’m in a relationship. With you.”

“Well, I certainly hope you wouldn’t say you’re in a relationship with someone else,” Asami teases.

Akihito sighs and rolls his eyes.

Before he can gather steam for a retort, Asami says, “I don’t mind.”

“And if they want to meet you?”

“I won’t have time Tuesday.”

“I know that. I can explain how busy you are. But maybe… when they come for the exhibition?”

“Will they want to stay here?” Asami asks.

Akihito frowns. “I don’t know. It depends. They might try to take a late train back; that’s what they usually do. Then again, they don’t really like traveling late – it’s just that my old place wasn’t exactly comfortable for guests.”

“Just give me reasonable notice.”

“What’s reasonable?” Akihito asks.

“At least a few days. A week, if possible, so Kirishima can clear my schedule, especially if they’re staying overnight.”

Akihito gulps. “I’m really going to do this.”

“You should call your mother. Haven’t you left her worrying long enough?” Asami asks.

When Akihito steps out to the living room to make the call, Asami leans back against the pillows and lights a cigarette. Meeting the parents, huh? I never dreamed of doing such a thing. Then again, it will be interesting to meet the people who raised such an unusual creature.

 

That afternoon, Akihito looks through the pictures he took at the T. University vigil for Kodama Kento Thursday. Then he looks through the pictures he took in Ni-chōme the last few nights. There are no matches. I wish I knew which hospital Kento-kun is at. He’s tried a few of the ones nearest to Ni-chōme, but they all have similar levels of security, even in their intensive care wards (which Akihito was able to infiltrate after careful surveillance and planning). Seeing Mitarai’s face when Akihito left the ward at one of the hospitals provided only a momentary feeling of satisfaction, despite successfully tricking Mitarai into believing that it was the correct hospital.

Akihito dresses in his favorite pair of skinny jeans and his t-shirt that matches his hazel eyes (according to Asami). He takes extra care to fix his hair. He slides his minicam in his pocket before taking out his phone and pulling up the photograph Yagami took of a candid Kento’s mother shared during her interview.

Why else would Kento-kun have been in Ni-chōme unless he were cruising or meeting someone there? Surely someone must have seen him at least once.

Akihito knocks on Asami’s office door. “I’m leaving,” he says.

“Going to Ni-chōme again?” Asami asks, trying to mask his annoyance.

“Sorry. It’s my only lead right now,” Akihito says. “It’s really frustrating that no one remembers him there.”

“Maybe he didn’t hang out there,” Asami says.

“Then why was he meeting his blackmailer there?”

Asami shrugs. “Maybe the blackmailer picked the location.”

“Maybe… But I don’t know what he looks like!”

“But if you ask him about Kento, he’ll know what you look like.”

Akihito’s jaw drops. “I hadn’t thought about that.”

“That’s why you’re always getting into trouble. Sakuragi and Saji will be providing Yoneda back-up tonight. Don’t ditch your guard.”

Akihito sighs. “I won’t. I’m not a child, you know.”

He leans in for a goodbye kiss, but Asami pulls him onto his lap.

“I’ve got to go,” Akihito protests as Asami kneads his bottom.

“You started it,” Asami says.

“Can’t you ever stop at just a kiss?” Akihito asks, even though his own arms are twining around Asami’s shoulders.

“Not when you’re wearing those jeans,” Asami says. “If you’re going to show off that ass to other men, I need to make sure they know you’re taken.” He sucks on Akihito’s neck, but Akihito pulls away.

“It might not be gone by Tuesday,” he explains. “It’ll be hard enough on my parents without me sporting a giant kissmark.”

“Well, that certainly killed the mood,” Asami says. “I’ll just have to mark you another way.”

Akihito looks at him, confused. Surely he’s not going to give me some jewelry or something… But upon seeing the smirk on Asami’s face, Akihito realizes his mistake. Not that stupid toy again. “No. Not during work.”

“You’ll fit in better in Ni-Chōme,” Asami says.

“Somehow I doubt that. Besides, what if I need to run away from someone and I can’t run as fast?” Akihito asks, confident that he’ll win the argument for once.

Sure enough, Asami relents. “Fine. But I’m going to mark you here, then.” He points to Akihito’s collarbone.

Akihito rolls his eyes but allows Asami to make a kissmark. At least it will be hidden by my t-shirt.

 

There are fewer people wandering Ni-Chōme during a Saturday afternoon than will be there after dark, and most of them look like salarymen or housewives just passing by on their errands.

Akihito heads into an alley that he knows leads to the one where Kento was attacked. As he nears the point where the two alleys meet, he hears a slight scuffing sound on the ground. Probably a rat. But he signals to Yoneda, who quietly confirms via radio that Sakuragi and Saji are in position on the opposite end of the alley.

Akihito eases along the wall until he can peer around the corner. A young man is on his hands and knees peering under a dumpster.

Akihito walks slowly into the alley. “What are you looking for?” he asks quietly.

The man jumps, banging his head on the side of the dumpster. He quickly stands up, holding his hands above his head. “Don’t stab me!”

“I’m not going to stab you,” Akihito reassures him, gesturing behind his back for Yoneda to stay out of sight. Akihito finally gets a good look at the man’s face and says, “You’re one of Kento-kun’s friends, aren’t you? You were at the vigil at the university.”

The man’s eyes narrow in suspicion. “How do you know that? And what are you doing here?”

“I’m a photojournalist for Weekly Headlines. I’m trying to figure out what happened to Kento-kun so the police can catch the person who hurt him.”

Weekly Headlines? Isn’t that the paper that did the interviews with Kento’s parents?”

Akihito notes the lack of honorific. They must be close. “Yes, that was my colleague, Yagami-san, but I took the photograph of Kento-kun’s mother.”

The young man relaxes slightly. “Oh. I’m here for sort of the same thing.”

“Were you looking for clues?”

“Yeah.”

“How did you know where to look?” Akihito’s instinct is telling him that the young man is being honest, but he has to make sure he’s not actually the attacker searching for something he dropped.

“I asked around the neighborhood, and someone said it was down this alley by one of the dumpsters. But there are six dumpsters, so I’m looking around each one.” The young man gestures in Akihito’s direction. “I’ve got two left after this one.”

Akihito knows that Kento was found near the farthest dumpster. So he probably is just an innocent bystander. “Have you found anything?”

The young man shrugs. “I don’t know. I found a gum wrapper, a beer bottle, three condom wrappers, and one used condom, but who knows how long they’ve been here.”

Akihito nods. “You must really care about Kento-kun to go through so much trouble. Be careful of broken glass.”

The man frowns. “Kento’s not like that. I know he was attacked here, but he’s definitely straight.”

“I never said he wasn’t,” Akihito says.

“Oh.”

“What about you?”

The man stiffens. “That’s none of your business.”

Akihito shrugs. “I guess not. I’m not.”

“Not what?”

“Not straight.”

The young man’s jaw drops. “Why are you telling me?”

Akihito shrugs again. “I’m not sure. Maybe because we’re here... and you seem to think it matters.”

“I don’t care if you’re gay,” the man spits out.

Akihito shrugs a third time. “I don’t care if you are, either – or if you’re not,” he adds. He walks closer to the young man, who continues to stare at him. But Akihito ignores him and starts looking behind the dumpster, shining a flashlight into the crack to see better.

“What are you doing?”

“Helping you search. The dumpsters were emptied Thursday, by the way. I hope you weren’t searching inside them.”

“Nah, they looked too empty, so I figured.”

The young man continues to search around the dumpster. Akihito assists him, refraining from saying anything more. Yama-san told him once that if you let silence grow, most people will try to fill it. It wasn’t strictly advice (Yama-san was grumbling that Akihito wasn’t most people during an interrogation back in Akihito’s high school hijinks days), but Akihito had filed it away, and he’s found it useful in his journalism career.

Sure enough, the young man soon begins to open up to him. “Kento offered to take me here.”

“To this alley?” Akihito asks nonchalantly, continuing to search.

“No. To Chromosome.”

“How long ago? Chromosome is closed.”

“I know. We found out when we got here. It was two – no, three weeks ago from today.”

“That must have been disappointing,” Akihito says. “Did you go somewhere else?”

“Yeah. Kento ran into someone he knew. The guy looked kind of scary, but Kento said he was a friend of his dad’s, and Kento asked the guy where we could go –” Kento’s friend abruptly stops talking and blushes.

Akihito grins at him. “What? You can tell me,” he says encouragingly.

The young man looks around furtively, then whispers, “It’s kind of embarrassing, but Kento – see, I had finally told Kento that I’m –” he swallows before continuing, “gay… And Kento offered to take me to Ni-Chōme to find a man.” His blush deepens, but he continues. “Kento said that his dad’s company owns a few clubs around here, and he’d been here a few times when his dad had to check on things. Anyway, Kento asked this guy he knew where we could find a bar that ‘welcomes cute little twinks like’ me.” Kento’s friend blushes and hangs his head.

“Kento-kun sounds like a good friend,” Akihito says. “Do you remember where you ended up going?” If Kento’s not gay, why was he meeting his blackmailer here? Something must have ended up happening the night they came out here together. Unless maybe Kento really is gay? But why would he lie to his friend?

The friend frowns. “Not really. We were led through so many narrow little streets, and it was dark. I tried to find it again, but I couldn’t, and I didn’t want to tell Kento that I’d forgotten.”

Akihito gives him a mischievous grin. “Did you have a good time there, then? Meet a hunk?”

The young man smiles for the first time, and his dimples and snaggletooth emerge.

Dang. I bet he’s popular around here. He’d better be careful he’s not eaten.

“I met someone, yeah. Kento left as soon as he saw I was hitting it off. I asked him if he’d be alright, and he flicked me in the forehead, told me to enjoy myself. Anyway, the guy gave me his number, but he wrote it on my hand, and I guess my palms were sweaty, because it smudged, and I haven’t been able to figure out what the number is. I’ve been trying since then!” He groans and buries his face in his hands.

“When was the next time you talked to Kento-kun?” Akihito asks, trying to keep it casual as they check around the next dumpster.

“I didn’t see him until Tuesday. He didn’t come to campus that Monday, which was really unusual for him. When I asked him what was up, he said he’d been sick.”

Akihito makes sounds to show he’s listening, but he decides to let Kento’s friend reveal whatever he feels might be relevant.

“I got the feeling over the next couple of weeks that Kento was avoiding me. At the time, I thought maybe he’d changed his mind about being okay about me being gay… maybe seeing me like that in Ni-Chōme was too much for him, you know?”

Akihito nods.

The area around that dumpster is much tidier than the first one, so they move on to the last dumpster in the alley – the one Akihito knows is the scene of the crime.

As they start searching near the last dumpster, Kento’s friend continues, “Now I can’t help wondering if maybe Kento got into some trouble that night after he left me. He didn’t want me to know, and so that’s why he was keeping his distance.”

“What kind of trouble do you think he could have gotten into?” Akihito asks.

“I don’t know. Some of the clubs around here are supposed to be owned by the yakuza, right? And don’t they do that bait-and-switch trick where they offer you a cheap deal and then raise the prices to an exorbitant amount? Maybe it was more than Kento could cover. He lives by himself in an apartment, but he grew up with just his mom, so I don’t think he’d ask her for help.”

“And he wouldn’t come to you?” Akihito asks.

But Kento’s friend doesn’t hear him. “Is this –” he breaks off, looking at the faint rust-colored stain on the pavement next to the dumpster. He reaches down and touches it with a shaking finger. “Is this Kento’s blood?” He looks up at Akihito with shocked eyes.

Akihito tries not to imagine how Kou or Takato would feel if he were the one who was stabbed and lying unconscious in a hospital. He tries not to remember all the worry he put his friends through during the Fei Long situation. “The doctors are hopeful he’ll wake up any minute now,” he tells Kento’s friend gently.

The young man closes his eyes, kneeling in the grime of the alley. “Why didn’t he come to me if he was in trouble?” he asks, clenching his fists angrily. “I could have – I would have –”

“Maybe what happened had nothing to do with you,” Akihito suggests.

“Then why was he here?” Kento’s friend spits. “He’s not gay.”

“Maybe you can help Kento-kun now,” Akihito says softly.

“How?” Silent tears of frustration are sliding down the young man’s cheeks.

“You can help make the person who did this to Kento-kun pay,” Akihito says. “Can you tell me everything you remember about the man who gave you and Kento-kun directions? Any scars? Tattoos? What about an insignia pin?”

“You think it was him?”

Akihito shrugs. “I don’t know. But he met you around here, right? Maybe he saw something. Or maybe he knows someone who saw something. He at least knows Kento-kun, so he’d be more likely to remember seeing him around recently.”

“That’s true…”

Akihito finally conducts a proper interview, asking questions designed to spur the young man’s memory without inadvertently leading him and creating a false memory.

“What about the guy you met at the bar?” Akihito asks.

“I remember what he looks like,” the young man says, blushing.

When he describes a mole on the man’s collarbone, Akihito’s eyebrows shoot up. “Just how far did you get with your new friend?” he teases.

“We didn’t – just kissing!” the young man splutters.

Akihito chuckles. “It’s fine. It’s okay to do more than kissing, you know.”

The young man pulls out his phone. “I don’t know why it would be relevant, but here’s his phone number – at least what’s left of it.” He shows Akihito a picture of his palm, a smudgy number scrawled on it.

“You can’t even make out half the digits!” Akihito exclaims.

“I know. That’s why I’m having so much trouble. I thought there was an 8 in it, so I’ve been trying every number I think it might possibly be in order.”

“He must be really cute.”

The young man blushes again. “He is. Anyway, I’ve tried to find that shop again, but I didn’t feel like I could ask Kento, and now after what’s happened to Kento, it just doesn’t seem important anymore.” He looks at Akihito. “But if you think maybe it is important to helping figure out what happened to Kento…” He trails off uncertainly.

“I don’t know,” Akihito says. “But it might be. Would you be willing to help me find that bar again once we’re done searching here?”

“Sure. But how will we find it?”

 

After their search, Akihito leads the young man back out to the sidewalk in front of Chromosome. It’s still early, and most of the bars aren’t open yet.

“Can I treat you to dinner?” Akihito asks. “Just to kill some time – I’m not hitting on you or anything,” he adds hurriedly.

The young man laughs. “I didn’t think you were, don’t worry. I’m not your type?” he teases.

“I’m in a relationship,” Akihito mumbles, coloring.

 

They end up in Uoya-itchō, a large izakaya in the basement of one of the buildings.

“Do you come to Ni-chōme often?” The young man asks as they sit down.

“Not really,” Akihito says. “I kind of did things backwards.”

“Backwards?”

“I ended up in a relationship with a man before I figured out I was gay.”

The man laughs. “How did you manage to do that?”

Akihito shrugs. “I don’t know. My friends realized it, apparently, but they didn’t realize I hadn’t figured it out myself.”

“You’re out to your friends?”

“My two closest ones,” Akihito clarifies.

Sakuragi and Saji are sitting unobtrusively at a nearby table, but Yoneda walks up to theirs. “Aki-san? It’s you!”

“Yō-san,” Akihito replies, nodding at Yoneda while trying to give him a subtle “What the hell?” look. He should have known the guard would have to give in to his desire to assess the threat level posed by the young man sooner or later. At least he had the sense to not call me Takaba-sama…

“Mind if I join you?” Yoneda asks, pulling up a chair before receiving a response. “We haven’t seen each other in ages.”

“Well, Ryu-san and I rarely come to Ni-chōme,” Akihito says, keeping up the naming custom Yoneda started. The look on Yoneda’s face (though he quickly manages to recover) erases Akihito’s irritation at the guard, and Akihito has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.

“Who’s this?” Yoneda asks bluntly.

Akihito shakes his head very slightly in warning but focuses on the young man, who suddenly looks very nervous again. “It’s okay, you don’t have to give us your real name,” Akihito reassures him. “While it’s less common now, many people in Ni-chōme use aliases.”

“You can call me… Shingo,” the young man decides.

“Okay, Shingo-san. Just remember that’s who you are then, okay?”

Shingo nods.

“I’m sorry for the late introduction myself. I’m Takaba Akihito,” Akihito says. He pulls out a business card from his pocket and offers it to Shingo. “In case you ever want to call me,” he says, winking as he casually hands it over with one hand.

Shingo receives the card with both hands and a slight bow, reading the information on it.

Akihito laughs. “You don’t have to do that. You’re not job-hunting right now.”

Shingo blushes and puts the card in his pocket.

“Aki-san, don’t make me feel that I need to call Ryu-san about you,” Yoneda says, proving his mettle as a guard by smoothly calling Asami by Akihito’s chosen nickname. Akihito studies Yoneda’s face, wondering whether he really thinks Akihito is flirting with Shingo, and realizes that the guard is just trying to help cover for his earlier blunder.

Akihito waves him off. “I’m just helping a kouhai. I already told Shingo-san about Ryu-san.”

“He did,” Shingo says, nodding.

During the meal, Akihito can’t ask more about Shingo’s relationship with Kento, but he’s able to find out a decent amount of information about the young man himself with Yoneda’s help.

 

Once they’re done, Akihito approaches one of the men sitting nearby. “It’s my friend’s first time in Ni-Chōme. Do you know a place that welcomes cute little twinks like him?” he asks, gesturing at Shingo.

Yoneda tags along as they follow the directions Akihito received.

“Does this look right?” Akihito asks as they turn down a third narrow alley.

“Definitely not,” Shingo says.

“Maybe it’s a shortcut?” Akihito wonders. “Let’s at least find the place.”

But the directions end in the darkest, narrowest alley yet.

“Definitely not,” Shingo says, shuddering a little.

“Let’s try asking near Chromosome,” Akihito says.

“You’re looking for a specific place?” Yoneda asks.

Shingo shoots Akihito a desperate look; he doesn’t want to talk about Kento’s attack.

Akihito explains. “He came here a few weeks ago with a friend, and he met a guy at the place his friend took him to, but he lost the guy’s number, and he wants to try to find the bar again, hoping the guy will be there so he can explain.”

Shingo nods, shooting Akihito a grateful look.

“And you thought you could find the place just by asking… what was it you even asked again? ‘A place that welcomes people like him’?” Yoneda asks incredulously.

Akihito shrugs. “It worked for his friend. A lot of the places around here cater to specific types.” He frowns as he considers his options. “There’s probably more than one place that likes twinks – young cute guys.” he explains to Yoneda. “Maybe we should walk back to Chromosome and ask there.”

Yoneda decides that he should be the one to ask, and Akihito lets him. This time when they follow the directions, Shingo grows excited. “I remember this café! I think we’re going the right way!” He starts leading them, but as he rounds a corner, he suddenly ducks back.

“What’s wrong?” Akihito asks.

“It’s one of my classmates,” Shingo whispers.

“Shouldn’t it be okay?” Akihito asks. “I mean, he’s in Ni-Chōme, too, right?”

Shingo shakes his head. “He’s wearing an apron; he’s working.”

“So? He’s got to be okay with gay people if he’s willing to work here, right?”

Shingo shakes his head even more vehemently. “You don’t understand. The guy’s a total asshole. He’s always trying to stir up trouble for people. And he talks shit about the clients where he works, but he says the pay is much better than anywhere else, so he puts up with all the… fags.” Shingo whispers the last word as he wrinkles his nose.

Akihito takes a blue baseball cap out of his pocket and pops it on Shingo’s head.

“The BayStars?” Shingo asks.

“I’m from Yokohama,” Akihito explains. “Anyway, it’ll be an even better disguise if you don’t like the team, right? Stay here for a bit.”

He pulls out his cell phone and heads off down the street, snapping pictures of the worker he guesses is most likely to be Shingo’s classmate, but making sure to take pictures of the other workers he sees, too.

He heads back around the corner and shows Shingo the pictures. “Is this him?”

“Yeah,” Shingo says. “Man, you’re really good – you took these down by your side, right? He didn’t notice you taking his picture, did he?”

“Nah, no one noticed,” Akihito says. He shows the picture to Yoneda. “Can you run interference for us?”

“No problem,” Yoneda says.

Akihito pulls out his long-sleeved shirt and hands it to Shingo. “So he won’t recognize your t-shirt,” he explains.

Shingo wrinkles his nose at the shirt. “It’s plaid.”

“It’s a disguise. Sorry I have such bad taste in clothes, but it will hide you better,” Akihito says, exasperated.

“Sorry,” Shingo says, shrugging the shirt on. “Thanks for your help.”

“Don’t button it!” Akihito hisses. “We’ve got to go.” He throws an arm around Shingo’s shoulder, weaving just a little so that he appears tipsy.

Yoneda is arguing with Shingo’s classmate, and Akihito further shelters Shingo from his view. They make it past without the classmate noticing them. Shingo breathes a sigh of relief as they make the final turn and head to the bar.

They wait just outside for Yoneda to catch up with them.

“This is the place,” Shingo says, grinning happily.

“Maybe your man is here.” Akihito grins back at him.

“Maybe,” Shingo says, his face falling. “He’s probably forgotten about me by now, though. It’s been three weeks.”

“Only one way to find out,” Akihito says. “You ready?”

Shingo nods, and they head inside.

Chapter Text

As soon as they enter the bar, all conversation stops as a dozen heads turn and take the three of them in. Akihito blushes as he feels multiple pairs of eyes raking him up and down. Yoneda takes a half step in front of him, and Akihito glances over at Shingo, who’s scanning the faces in the bar, oblivious to the ogling he’s receiving himself.

Shingo’s face breaks into a smile as he starts walking towards a man in the corner. “Shuu-san!” he calls out.

The thirty-something-year-old man in a black suit nods coolly at Shingo. “Tsubasa-kun. Nice to see you again.”

Shingo – or Tsubasa, apparently – glances over at Akihito and Yoneda, shrugging as he blushes a little. But his attention returns quickly to Shuu. “I’m sorry I didn’t call you,” he says. “By the time I got home, your number was all blurry. I tried calling, but I kept getting the wrong number.”

“It’s alright,” Shuu says. “You were under no obligation to call.” He turns back to the salt-and-pepper-haired man sitting next to him.

“I’m telling the truth,” Tsubasa says. “See?” He pulls out his phone and shows the picture of his smudged hand.

Shuu raises one eyebrow but doesn’t say anything.

“Aw, you should give him a chance, Shuu,” his companion says. “He’s cute, and it sounds like he tried really hard.”

“I did,” Tsubasa confirms. I called so many numbers. One of them was also named Shuu, but he was a sixteen-year-old kid in Saitama. I think I shocked him by talking about Ni-chōme.”

Shuu finally relents and chuckles, but he looks over Tsubasa’s shoulder at Akihito and Yoneda. “I see you’ve made some new friends in Ni-chōme.”

“They helped me find this bar again, that’s all,” Tsubasa explains. “I tried last weekend but couldn’t remember how to get here. Anyway, this is Takaba –”

“Nice to meet you,” Yoneda interrupts, extending his hand. “I’m Yō.” The two men shake his hand, but they’re exchanging nervous looks.

“And I’m Aki,” Akihito says, following Yoneda’s lead.

Tsubasa’s eyes flicker with momentary confusion before comprehension dawns. “Right. And this is Shuu-san. Thanks for helping me find him.”

Shuu relaxes and finally smiles at Tsubasa. “I’m glad you finally found me. I’d given up hoping you’d contact me again.”

“Let me buy you all a drink to celebrate your reunion,” Akihito offers. He orders a pitcher of Asahi Super Dry and an oolong tea for Yoneda.

After half an hour, Akihito’s learned as much as he thinks he can about Shuu and his companion. “We’ve got to go,” he tells Tsubasa. “Do you want a ride? You said you have a group study session at ten, right? You’re going to be late.”

Tsubasa gapes at him a second, and Akihito kicks him under the table. Tsubasa closes his mouth. “I nearly forgot. Thanks, Aki-san. And thanks for helping me find Shuu-san.” He turns to Shuu. “Sorry. I’ve got to go. But can I have your number again?” He pulls out his phone. “No ink this time.”

“We’ll wait at the corner,” Akihito tells him. As he and Yoneda head to the door, they hear Shuu asking for Tsubasa’s number, too.

Five minutes later, Tsubasa finally joins them, his lips swollen and hair tousled. “I think I’m in love,” he swoons.

Akihito scuffs his toe along the pavement while Yoneda checks for Tsubasa’s classmate.

Yoneda hurries back. “Let’s leave a different way,” he says, his phone to his ear. He leads them down an alley to a side street, where Sakuragi and Saji are waiting in a car.

“What’s up?” Akihito asks.

Yoneda shakes his head almost imperceptibly followed by a subtle nod at Tsubasa, who’s looking more subdued as they climb into the car.

“I’m a terrible friend,” Tsubasa moans. “I was supposed to be figuring out what happened to Kento, but I got caught up in the moment. But Shuu-san is nice, right?” He looks at Akihito plaintively. “You don’t think he had anything to do with Kento getting hurt, do you?”

“I don’t know,” Akihito says. “It seems unlikely, but… I don’t think Shuu-san is as nice as you think he is.”

“What do you mean?” Tsubasa asks.

Akihito exchanges a look with Yoneda, who nods at him. Akihito doesn’t know how to break the news gently, so he just states it plainly. “He’s yakuza.”

“What makes you say that? He doesn’t have a tattoo,” Tsubasa says.

Akihito pulls out his phone. “Did you see that pin he was wearing? That’s the Toudou daimon.”

“Toudou? As in Toudou-gumi?” Tsubasa asks, wide-eyed. Akihito shows him an article about the daimon, and Tsubasa shudders. “I can’t believe I had my first kiss with a yakuza.”

Akihito looks at him. “I didn’t know how to stop you in front of him, but you gave him your phone number, right?”

Tsubasa nods.

“What else did you tell him about yourself?”

Tsubasa shrugs. “Not much. Just the usual… that I was a student getting ready to graduate, still job-hunting…”

“Did you tell him the name of your university? Where you live? Your last name?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Good. You should probably change your phone number just in case.”

“Is that really necessary?” Tsubasa asks.

Akihito shrugs. “I don’t know. It depends on what kind of guy he is. You standing him up once was one thing, but after deliberately seeking him out again, and in front of his friend like that… If you make him lose face, he might retaliate.”

Tsubasa frowns. “I really don’t like Ni-chōme.”

“Most guys here aren’t yakuza,” Akihito says sympathetically, giving Tsubasa’s shoulder a squeeze. Akihito casts a quick glance over at Yoneda, who’s tensely looking out the window, occasionally murmuring instructions to Sakuragi. What the hell’s going on? Akihito wonders, but he can’t ask in front of Tsubasa.

“Do you think maybe Shuu-san does have something to do with Kento’s injury, after all?” Tsubasa wonders. “I mean, since Kento’s stepfather is apparently yakuza…”

“His stepfather?” Akihito asks blankly.

“Yeah. I thought you were a journalist. Don’t you know that Kento’s stepfather is the kumicho of Kodama-gumi?”

Akihito swallows. What am I supposed to tell him? “What makes you think Kodama is his stepfather?” he asks.

“I told you Kento was raised by his single mom, right? I think his parents got divorced when he was little. Anyway, the paper had his last name as Kodama instead of Shibanuma – the name he and his mom had while he was growing up. I remember when Kodama’s first wife died a few months ago, it was a big deal – so Kento’s mom must have married Kodama really recently. Obviously Kento didn’t want to tell people his mom married a yakuza head, so he didn’t tell his friends when his last name changed. I mean, he would have had to tell us eventually, but I don’t blame him for not mentioning it.”

Akihito swallows. “Did you read the article in Weekly Headlines?”

“No,” Tsubasa admits. “I saw the headline and didn’t think much of it until I saw the picture of Kento’s mom. Obviously I recognized her, and even though the last name was wrong, the first name was right, and I mean – it was Kento’s mom, right? So I called her and found out from her what had happened. Why would I have needed to read the article?”

Akihito decides to delicately sidestep the issue. He shrugs. “I’m not sure. Kento’s last name is definitely Kodama right now. Do you have any idea when it changed?”

Tsubasa shrugs. “Not really, except he got his license over winter break and showed it to me, so it was sometime after that.”

Akihito’s attention is drawn by something moving quickly out of the corner of his eye. “Left!” he shouts as the approaching car runs the red light.

Sakuragi slams on the brakes and jerks the wheel to the left, screeching into a turn that just misses the approaching car. Akihito is slammed into the door with Tsubasa slamming into him.

“Put on your seatbelts!” Yoneda barks.

As Sakuragi maneuvers through traffic, Yoneda radios for back-up. The car that narrowly missed them doesn’t turn around and pursue them, and after a few minutes everyone’s breathing a little easier.

“Maybe it was a random drunk driver,” Akihito suggests.

“What’s going on?” Tsubasa asks. “Who are those guys in the front seat?”

“Security team for the paper,” Akihito lies smoothly.

Tsubasa wrinkles his brow disbelievingly.

“They’re on standby for any story dealing with the yakuza.”

Before Tsubasa can ask any more questions, Akihito’s phone rings. It’s Yagami, so he answers it. “Hi, Yagami-san. Any news of Kento-kun?”

“I just talked to Kento-kun’s mother. The scans show there’s nothing wrong with his brain. He’s stable and should have woken up by now, but the doctors are beginning to think maybe there’s a psychological reason he’s not waking up.”

“Psychological?” Akihito asks.

“Maybe associated with the assault. Or the reason he was in Ni-chōme in the first place.”

Akihito glances over at Tsubasa. “I’m here with Kento-kun’s friend,” he says, not elaborating on where he met Tsubasa. “Maybe he could try talking to Kento-kun?”

“Does his friend know something about the attack?” Yagami asks.

“No,” Akihito admits. “But he knows why Kento-kun was in Ni-chōme.”

“That’s a start,” Yagami says.

“Are you still with Kento-kun’s mother?”

“I just left. She was heading back to the hospital.”

“Well, ask her if I can bring Tsubasa-kun there.”

When Akihito hangs up, Tsubasa asks, “Did Kento wake up?”

“No,” Akihito says.

Tsubasa’s face falls. “Then how could I talk to him?” he grumbles.

Akihito explains the situation. “I know it’s a long shot, but since his parents aren’t able to get him to wake up, I thought maybe his friend…” Akihito trails off, suddenly wondering why he ever thought it would work.

Tsubasa looks at him. “If it might help Kento, I’d be willing to try anything. And I’d like to see him.”

“We need a destination. We’re still not sure where that car came from, and it’s not safe to be driving around aimlessly right now,” Yoneda interrupts.

“The paper really takes security seriously,” Tsubasa observes. “Is that really necessary?”

“No,” Akihito says at the same time Yoneda says “Yes.”

Tsubasa looks back and forth between them, slightly bemused, until Yoneda says, “Remember the Kurosaki situation?”

Akihito rolls his eyes. “Kurosaki was a madman. If I have to –”

“That was you?!” Tsubasa asks incredulously.

Before Akihito can answer, his phone rings again. “Hello, Yagami-san.”

“Takaba-san. Shibanuma-san has given me permission to tell you the hospital, but Kodama-san is vehemently opposed. He wanted me to warn you that if other media show up – or you or I ‘overstep our bounds’ in any way, he’ll hold us personally responsible.”

“Understood,” Akihito says, not particularly concerned by the yakuza leader’s threats. “Just make sure Mitarai doesn’t find out.”

“I know,” Yagami mutters. “Kento-kun is at Kyorin University Hospital.”

“That’s in Mitaka, isn’t it?” Akihito asks.

“Yes. It’s a little far from Shinjuku, but it does have an excellent trauma center.”

“So does Tokyo University Hospital, and it’s closer.”

“Anyway, visitor hours are nearly over, so get here as soon as you can.”

“Alright. Thanks, Yagami-san.”

 

As they approach the hospital, on Yoneda’s suggestion, Akihito takes the precaution of putting on his hat and button-down shirt, just in case the car that nearly collided with them was someone targeting them (though there were no further incidents en route).

Inside the hospital, they’re escorted to a private waiting room in the intensive care unit, where Kodama, Shibanuma, and Yagami are waiting.

“Tsubasa-kun,” Shibanuma says, tearing up a little at the sight of Kento’s friend.

“Shibanuma-san, how’s Kento? How are you?” he asks.

Shibanuma shrugs. “The doctors are hopeful, but they don’t know why Kento hasn’t woken up yet.”

“I’m sorry,” Tsubasa says.

“Would you be willing to talk to him?” Shibanuma says. “He won’t listen to his father or me, but maybe he’ll listen to you.”

Kodama gives a small disbelieving grunt.

Shibanuma turns to him. “At his age, you wouldn’t listen to your father, either,” Shibanuma retorts, “but you certainly listened to your friends.”

“I’ll try,” Tsubasa offers. The whole time he’s been in the room, he hasn’t looked even once at Kodama, and Akihito notices Tsubasa’s hands are shaking slightly as Shibanuma leads him out of the room.

Poor kid. He must be terrified being in the same room as Kodama.

“This one gave you my message, right?” Kodama asks Akihito, gesturing to Yagami as soon as the door closes. “If you so much as think about taking a picture of Kento…”

“I don’t exploit victims,” Akihito says hotly.

Kodama snorts. “You do nothing but exploit people. You’re nothing but a siren-chaser.”

“That’s not true!” Akihito protests. “I’m a criminal investigative journalist.”

“Is that what you call waiting outside someone’s home, snapping pictures of their family? You’re tabloid paparazzi, the lowest common denominator, not worthy of the title journalist.”

“I was there to take pictures of your little meeting with the other ‘families,’” Akihito retorts. “I just happened to take a picture of Shibanuma-san, too, but we asked for her permission to publish it. And we ran it with an article explaining the unfairness of the police.”

“That’s just because that was the angle that could sell the most papers,” Kodama sneers. “And you ran it side by side with the other pictures taken at my home. You didn’t ask my permission to run that article.”

“We didn’t need it,” Akihito snaps. “A meeting of the top henchmen in the three biggest yakuza groups is public interest.”

“Takaba-san,” Yagami warns.

Akihito glances over at him. Yagami has worked hard to build a certain level of trust with Shibanuma and Kodama, and Akihito doesn’t want to blow it for him or the paper. Akihito takes a deep breath. “Look, I’m sorry if you feel like I was exploiting Kento-kun’s injury. That was never my intention. But given the unrest in your organization –” at this, Kodama pales slightly but quickly recovers – “there was a possibility that something criminal could happen. I was simply there to document that for the public. We’ll continue to provide an outlet for Shibanuma-san and Kento-kun to get their side of the story out in public – however much of it they want made public. Unless –”

Yagami coughs, and Akihito looks over at him. Yagami shakes his head slightly, and Akihito stops talking. He was about to say that if Kento was involved in something criminal, then Akihito would pursue the story regardless of Kodama’s wishes.

Kodama’s lip curls. “You’re a lot more mealy-mouthed than I expected. I guess you’re proof that even someone like Asami-san goes through a midlife crisis.”

Akihito flushes, but he retorts angrily, “Shut up about Asami. Don’t lump him in with oyajis like you.”

Yagami gasps. “Takaba-san!”

But Kodama simply chuckles. “I take it back. I can see why you would appeal to someone like Asami-san. It’s still surprising –” He abruptly stops as Shibanuma comes back into the room. “Aren’t you going to stay with Kento?”

“The boys can’t talk freely if I’m there,” she answers.

Kodama stands up. “We shouldn’t leave Kento alone with just anyone. This Tsubaki –”

Shibanuma interrupts him. “Tsubasa-kun. He’s been Kento’s best friend since middle school.”

“Then why haven’t I heard of him?”

“Maybe you weren’t listening.”

“I listened! I heard so many stories of stupid ‘adventures’ from back then. I was just waiting for a phone call from Kento’s school – or the police. Was this Tsubaki part of those shenanigans?”

“Tsubasa-kun. They called him ‘Tsuba-chin’ back then.”

“We definitely shouldn’t leave Kento alone with him,” Kodama says, reaching for the door.

Shibanuma puts an arm on his shoulder. “Leave them. Please. Maybe Tsubasa-kun can get Kento to wake up. He was always the one who would bring him home to me when Kento was too scared of the trouble he’d be in after one of their ‘adventures.’”

Kodama snorts but sits back down. “I’ll give him five minutes.”

“That’s all the nurse would allow,” Shibanuma says complacently. She looks around and notices Akihito for the first time.

Yagami steps forward to make the introductions.

“So you’re the person who put me on the front page of the paper,” Shibanuma says. “Thank you for catching my good side.”

“It’d be hard not to,” Akihito says.

“You flatter me. I’m an old woman now,” Shibanuma says, blushing faintly.

“You still look as young as the day I met you,” Kodama says, taking hold of her elbow.

“I should hope not! If I did, you’d be a lolicon,” Shibanuma teases.

“You kind of remind me of my parents,” Akihito says before he can help himself.

Yagami facepalms, but Shibanuma laughs. “I guess we would. You’re hardly older than Kento, right?”

Before Akihito can worm his way out of that awkwardness, Kodama says, “You should go get a coffee, Tomoko.”

Shibanuma and Kodama have a silent conversation for a moment before she sighs and says, “Fine. Does anyone else want one?” As she leaves again, she says over her shoulder, “Don’t let him bully you too much, Yagami-san, Takaba-san.”

“Why were you with Tsubaki?” Kodama asks Akihito.

“Tsubasa-kun,” Akihito corrects automatically. “I met him while I was investigating Kento-kun’s attack,” he says cagily.

“In Ni-chōme.” It’s a statement, not a question.

“It happened in your territory,” Akihito points out. “When did Kento-kun change his last name?”

A vein pulses in Kodama’s temple. He’s not used to someone else wrestling for control of the conversation. “Kento’s job-hunting. If companies find out what happened to him, he may not get a job offer.”

Akihito shoots Yagami a plaintive look. The reporter steps in and smoothly answers, “We know. I’ve been worried about that myself. Even though Kento-kun is the victim, some people will still blame him for what happened.”

“Especially since he’s my son,” Kodama says, stating plainly what Yagami tactfully omitted. “I was honestly glad that Kento had a different name than me. He was never supposed to be a part of my world. All that work to give him a normal life…”

Neither Kodama’s voice nor his face betray the emotion behind his words, but Akihito has gotten so used to reading Asami through his business mask that Akihito finds himself sympathizing with the yakuza leader despite himself. “Tsubasa-kun said that Kento-kun hadn’t told anyone about his name change. His license is under his old name, and even the university hasn’t been informed yet.”

Kodama slowly nods. “It would be better for him to change his name back. Hopefully he’ll listen to reason once he wakes up. But after I marry Tomoko, he’ll be back in the same boat.”

“Who said I’ll have you?” Shibanuma asks from the doorway, arching an eyebrow to show she’s teasing him. She hands them all cans of coffee.

“I’d be willing to take your name,” Kodama says, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

Shibanuma snorts. “You’d better. It’s not like you’re really a Kodama.”

Yagami’s eyebrows shoot up, and Akihito explains in a whisper, “Kodama married the daughter of the last leader of Kodama-gumi and took her last name.”

“Have you figured out who attacked Kento yet?” Shibanuma asks Akihito.

Akihito raises his eyebrows.

“I know who you are. I simply ask…” she hesitates for a moment before pressing on. “Whatever Kento was being blackmailed for…”

“It depends on what it is,” Akihito says. “I can’t promise anything.”

Shibanuma gives a jerky nod.

“There are other ways to keep it from being published,” Kodama reassures her.

Akihito rolls his eyes. “I wish the publisher would give commissions for all the scoops I nab that aren’t published.”

“Why would they?” Yagami asks. “If they’re not published, the paper doesn’t make any money off them.”

Akihito pats Yagami on the shoulder. “You’re a rare animal, you know that? I think you’re the only non-cynical journalist in all of Japan.”

Yagami side-eyes him. “I’m not sure that was a compliment.”

Akihito turns to Shibanuma. “When did Kento-kun change his family registry?” he asks her.

“Two days before…” she answers before Kodama can stop her.

Kodama glares at Akihito. “What were Tsubasa and Kento doing in Ni-chōme?”

Akihito ponders his options. If he doesn’t give some explanation, he knows that Kodama will get it out of Tsubasa, and Akihito doesn’t want the student to go through that. Then again, he doesn’t want to betray Tsubasa’s trust, either. “Tsubasa-kun wasn’t with Kento-kun when he was attacked.”

“I know that.” Kodama waves his hand dismissively. “But they went to Ni-chōme together, right?”

“They ran into someone Kento-kun knew there,” Akihito says, feigning nonchalance. “Someone Kento-kun said was your friend.”

Kodama’s expression doesn’t change, but Shibanuma asks, “Kentaro?”

“Apparently Kento-kun was familiar with the area because you’d taken him there a few times to check on your clubs,” Akihito adds, hoping he’ll be able to change the subject without betraying Tsubasa’s confidence.

“Kentaro, you did what?!” Shibanuma asks sharply, glaring at Kodama with her hands on her hips.

“It was just a few times,” Kodama defends himself, “and it was always during the day.”

The distraction works even better than Akihito could have imagined as the two start arguing, completely forgetting that he and Yagami are there. The argument only ends when a nurse bursts into the room. “Kento-kun has finally woken up,” she announces.

As Shibanuma and Kodama hurry out of the room, Kodama calls over his shoulder, “You two had better not leave this room.”

 

Thirty minutes later, the pair returns. “He’s asleep again,” Kodama grumbles. “Didn’t he sleep enough already?”

“Hush. He needs to rest and recover,” Shibanuma says. “We’ll get to talk to him more in the morning.” A smile plays at her lips, and with some of the worry removed from her face, she suddenly looks ten years younger.

Kodama looks over at the journalists. “It’s time for you to go.”

“But what did Kento-kun say?” Akihito bursts out. “Did he say who –” He stops when Yagami stomps on his foot.

“Shibanuma-san, we’re so happy for you. Is there anything we can do for you before we leave?” Yagami asks.

She shakes her head. “No, thank you. You’ve been such a help through all of this, Yagami-san. Thank you.”

“What time should I return tomorrow?” he asks.

 

“Takaba, you’d better watch your back,” Kodama can’t help calling out as they leave.

Akihito can’t just let the yakuza leader have the last word. “If you want to succeed, you’d better find a better partner than Kurosaki this time.”

Yagami gapes at Akihito as he tugs on Akihito’s sleeve. “Did you just say what I think you just said?” Akihito has never told his colleagues the details of how Kurosaki tried to target him. As the elevator doors close behind them, Yagami says, “Never mind about that now. Your kouhai was in the other waiting room.”

“Was he?” Akihito asks, feigning ignorance.

“Did he follow you here?” Yagami asks sharply. “We should report him to security.”

“He gave Tsubasa-kun and me a ride here,” Akihito says.

“Wasn’t that a bad idea?”

Akihito shrugs. “I couldn’t give Tsubasa-kun a ride on my bike; I didn’t have a spare helmet. When Yoneda-s-kun offered us a ride, I accepted.”

“You met him in Ni-chōme?” Yagami asks.

“Yeah,” Akihito says, not knowing how else to explain it.

“And you said I was naïve,” Yagami mutters.

“What do you mean?” Akihito asks.

“You wouldn’t be the first journalist scooped by a kouhai,” Yagami explains.

Akihito waves a hand. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that. Yoneda-kun decided not to pursue journalism.”

“Naïve,” Yagami says again, shaking his head. “Then why was he in Ni-chōme? And why did he hang around here?”

“He was worried about me when he found out who was in the waiting room,” Akihito explains.

Yagami is still staring at Akihito like he’s crazy.

“Do I really need to spell it out for you?” Akihito asks. “Why do people usually go to Ni-chōme?” Sorry, Yoneda-san.

“Oh. Oh! Sorry. Does he…” Yagami trails off, blushing.

Akihito shrugs. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think he just helped me tonight because he wanted to return the favor of me letting him shadow me at work.”

When they get to the parking garage, Yagami asks, “Need a lift?”

“No, thanks.”

“How are you going to get home?” Yagami asks suspiciously.

“I’ll take the first train.”

“No.” Yagami’s tone is firm.

“Why not?” Akihito asks.

“Kodama-san is already suspicious of your motives. I had to work really hard to convince him to allow me to continue interviewing Shibanuma-san. They asked us to leave.”

“What if Kento-kun told Kodama who attacked him?” Akihito demands.

“Then he’ll send someone else, won’t he?” Yagami counters.

Akihito sighs, conceding the point. He drops a hand behind his back and gestures at his invisible guard to come forward.

“Senpai, are you ready to leave?” Yoneda calls out as he walks towards them. Akihito is grateful that Yoneda is so quick on the uptake.

“Yeah,” Akihito says. “Thanks again for bringing me here.”

“No problem. Want a ride home?”

As Yagami heads to his own car, he calls over his shoulder. “I want to hear about your Asami-chan tomorrow, Takaba-san. I didn’t know you were dating an older lady. But how does she know Kodama-san?”

Akihito freezes for a moment, glad his back is to Yagami. He raises a hand to wave goodbye, unable to find any words.

“Asami-chan?” Yoneda whispers.

“It was Kodama. I guess Yagami assumed it was a first name,” Akihito explains.

Once they’re in the car, Akihito says, “Let’s hurry back to Ni-chōme.”

“Takaba-sama,” Yoneda says in his stubborn tone that means Akihito is in for a fight. “To the penthouse,” he tells Sakuragi.

“No, to Ni-chōme!” Akihito protests.

“Haven’t you done enough tonight?” Yoneda asks.

Akihito rolls his eyes. “I finally have a lead – three of them in fact – and Kento woke up. I’ve got to follow the leads to see what they do when they find out he’s awake.”

“Must I remind you we were nearly killed leaving Ni-chōme a few hours ago?” Yoneda asks.

Akihito folds his arms across his chest. “And that was just a random person, right?”

“It was a member of Toudou-gumi.”

Akihito rolls his eyes. “Toudou’s got no beef with me. So unless he’s willing to piss off Asami…” he trails off, leaving the rest of his argument unsaid.

“Sometimes things happen that are unapproved by the boss,” Yoneda counters. “And maybe someone in Toudou-gumi thinks you’re getting too close on this case.”

Akihito closes his eyes and thinks it through before shaking his head. “Nah.”

“You’ve been sniffing around Ni-chōme for nearly a week. And then you were attacked there.”

“Some asshole ran a red light. That’s hardly an attack,” Akihito counters. “Besides, how would they know I was in a car? Wouldn’t it have been easier to attack me on my bike?”

Yoneda pinches the bridge of his nose.

Akihito sighs. “Fine. How about I ask Mitarai to follow one of the suspects?”

“And the other two?” Yoneda asks.

“I don’t know who one of them is yet,” Akihito admits. “I’ll be really discreet following the last one, okay?”

After a few more minutes of discussion, Yoneda finally agrees that Akihito’s plan sounds like a reasonable compromise. “But I can’t approve it,” Yoneda flatly states. “You’ll have to convince Asami-sama.”

Akihito sets his jaw as he dials Asami, too frustrated to smile at the picture of Asami sleeping next to the weird mascot head.

“Akihito, what did you say to Kodama?” Asami asks by way of greeting.

“Which part?” Akihito asks wearily.

Asami sighs loudly. “Let’s start with goading him about his collaboration with Kurosaki.”

Chapter Text

Akihito gulps. “I don’t really have time to talk about that right now. Anyway, he started it.”

“Akihito…” Asami says in his warning tone.

“Asami…” Akihito mimics. He sighs. “Look, I’m in the middle of breaking this case open. Kento-kun woke up, and I’ve got a couple of suspects.” He quickly explains the situation and the compromise he and Yoneda reached.

“Just try not to piss off anyone else. Neither Toudou nor Kodama are to be trifled with.”

“I know that. Sheesh. Anyway, I’m not planning on interacting with anyone else tonight, just tailing them.”

“Good. Because if you try to change your mind, Yoneda will drag your ass home.”

“Asami! What the hell! You’re acting like asshole boss-everyone-around Asami version one point oh again.”

“And you’re acting like Warugakihito again,” Asami counters.

Akihito notes the slight edge to Asami’s voice and realizes he’s seriously pissed off. Akihito sighs. “Look, we’ll talk more about Kodama when I get home, okay? Sorry if I went too far and messed up your business relationship or something.”

“You realize if Sakuragi weren’t such a good driver, you could have been seriously injured,” Asami says quietly. “Be careful.”

I’m always careful. Akihito bites back the retort and instead says, “I will be. You too. I’ll see you soon, okay?”

 

Akihito heads into the Ni-chōme establishment five minutes after Yoneda. Akihito breathes a sigh of relief when he spots the guard in the corner nearest the kitchen. He couldn’t have picked a better location himself. Ignoring Sakuragi sitting at a nearby table, Akihito raises a hand in greeting and calls “Yō-san,” breaking into a warm smile as he hurries to the corner to meet Yoneda.

Yoneda smiles nervously in return, standing up and pulling out the second chair at the small table for Akihito.

“Nice touch,” Akihito whispers, winking. “But you should try to look less nervous, or people will assume it’s your Ni-chōme debut.”

Akihito signals to the waiter and orders a coffee for each of them.

After the waiter departs, he explains to Yoneda, “It’s probably going to be a long night.”

“Hopefully your plan will make it shorter,” Yoneda says.

Akihito knows that Yoneda is anxious to leave yakuza territory sooner than later.  Otherwise, Yoneda would never have allowed the guards to play such an active role in Akihito’s plan.  Akihito’s not sure how he feels about asking for the guards’ help, either.  It’s a slippery slope, using the men Asami employs to help him get his stories.  But Kou and Takato have helped him before, and all they ever asked in return was for Akihito to treat them.

Akihito gave Saji and Sakuragi two thousand yen apiece in the car. Saji had started to protest, mentioning something about an expense report, but Yoneda told him to “Just take it.” Yoneda, at least, seems to understand that Akihito has his professional pride, and that by paying for the guards’ beverages inside the establishment, Akihito won’t feel quite as weird about the situation.

As the waiter brings Yoneda and Akihito their coffees, Saji enters and scans the bar. He walks overly casually through the bar, pulling out a chair next to Sakuragi as he murmurs “Mind if I sit here?” without making eye contact with anyone.

Yoneda and Akihito sip their coffees, Akihito occasionally saying something banal. He keeps his face directed at Yoneda, smiling often, but he observes the scene behind Yoneda. When the suspect nears the other guards’ table, Akihito nods and chuckles, his finger hovered over the button on his minicam.

At Akihito’s signal, Saji leans slightly towards Sakuragi without looking at him, muttering out of the side of his mouth, “I heard from my associate in Kodama-gumi that Kodama Kento has woken up.”

The suspect’s reaction is immediate and nearly cartoonish. His face pales and he drops the glass of beer he’s holding. The bartender shouts from behind the bar, and several workers come over to start cleaning up.

“I feel sick,” the suspect mutters, excusing himself as he rushes to the bathroom. Before Akihito can hop out of his seat to follow him, Yoneda kicks him hard under the table before standing himself.

Akihito watches in frustration as Yoneda follows the suspect to the bathroom. If he manages to escape… Akihito rubs his left eye, a signal for the other two guards to cover the alley and the back door, but only Sakuragi leaves.

Akihito wants to groan in frustration, but he keeps his face under control as he scans the other nearby patrons. He hadn’t actually heard what Saji said himself, and unless the other patrons are excellent actors, they didn’t hear it, either. Saji used the perfect volume so that he was only heard by the suspect, and Akihito breathes a slight sigh of relief. Kodama wouldn’t appreciate Kento’s condition being shared around the underworld, and he’d immediately assume (correctly) that Akihito was the source.

Akihito focuses on the bathroom door, letting the impatience show on his face as he waits for the suspect to emerge.  A minute later, the suspect opens the door, wiping his mouth with a shaky hand.  As the suspect makes his excuses and prepares to leave, Akihito signals to his waiter and settles his and Yoneda’s bill.

Yoneda comes out of the bathroom a moment later, and Akihito strides over to him, taking his hand to lead him out of the establishment.

“Asami-sama would not like this,” Yoneda mutters.

Akihito scowls at the guard as he drops his hand, leading him around the corner of a small alleyway where they can see the front door but won’t be overheard.

“He threw up,” Yoneda says. “I managed to put a bug on him.”

Akihito’s eyes widen. “What if he finds it?” he asks.

“It’s on his jacket. I doubt he’ll notice for a while.” Yoneda holds up a spare earpiece.

Akihito takes the earpiece.

Sakuragi’s voice crackles over the radio. “Subject leaving via back door. Heading south.”

Akihito leans up against the wall. Yoneda puts his arms on the wall while Akihito rests his on Yoneda’s shoulder, steadying the mini-cam so he can take a long exposure in the dim alley light. He looks like he saw a ghost. Did he really stab Kento-kun?

The suspect stumbles past Akihito and Yoneda, who fall into step a half block behind him. Yoneda occasionally radios Sakuragi and Saji their location. “We should split up,” Akihito says, worried the suspect will recognize them more easily if he turns around and they’re together.

“He’s not paying any attention to what’s going on around him,” Yoneda says. “He’s too spooked.”

“He’s probably the one who did it,” Akihito says, already trying to decide when he should call the police.

“Yeah. He’s dangerous. Don’t get too close. Who knows what he’ll do,” Yoneda says.

“I wish we could swing by the bikes to grab my camera bag,” Akihito grouses.

Yoneda gives him a calculating look. “I’ll have Sakuragi do it if you promise not to do anything stupid until they get back.”

“Of course,” Akihito says.

“If I say forget about him and take to the roofs?” Yoneda presses.

“Fine,” Akihito grumbles. It’s only a couple of blocks away. How likely is something to happen in the next two minutes? This dude’s a zombie right now.

The man’s pace has slowed even more. He waits at a corner to cross the street, but when the light changes, he takes two steps, then turns back and waits for the light to cross in the opposite direction instead. Akihito and Yoneda continue to walk towards the man, keeping pace with a crowd of young people in front of them.

“Maybe he saw the kōban,” Yoneda whispers as they draw closer to the man. The light changes, and Akihito and Yoneda speed up a little, crossing just as the signal flashes the warning to finish crossing.

Their target turns left at the next block, continuing in the same direction he would have been going on the first road. But his pace slows even more. Yoneda and Akihito have to wait for a truck to cross the narrow lane. When the truck is gone, Yoneda blinks. “Where did he go?”

“The river’s this way,” Akihito explains. “There’s a hill leading down to it.”

They hurry across the intersection and see their man at the bottom of a flight of stairs. The target suddenly looks nervously over his shoulder. Akihito and Yoneda slink further into the shadows, but the target doesn’t seem to notice them. He turns around and resumes his steady plod.

A low whistle sounds behind them, and Saji jogs up to them and hands Akihito his camera bag. When Akihito turns around, the suspect has slowed even more as he heads across a short bridge. He stops halfway across the bridge, staring down at the water far below.

“The bridge…” Akihito breathes. “Do you think he’s going to –?”

“It’s not that high,” Yoneda says doubtfully. “I think he’d be fine.”

“But the water’s not very deep, is it? It’d be bad,” Akihito says as they quicken their pace and Yoneda radios Sakuragi. “Tell them to get the police,” Akihito whispers. “Just tell them it’s a possible jumper for now.” Akihito can tell the police about his suspicions about the man’s involvement in Kento’s attack once he’s safe.

Akihito starts to walk closer to the man, but Yoneda claps a hand on his shoulder. “He’s obviously not stable.”

“But –”

“Besides, you’ve got to take pictures, right?” Yoneda presses. “Just make sure you don’t get my face.”

Akihito nods and quickly pulls out his camera, adjusting it for the current lighting. He edges his way down the sidewalk that runs along the top of the riverwall, stopping just on the other side of a bush that will help conceal him. He rests his tripod on the concrete railing that prevents people from falling into the river. When he zooms in on his target’s face, tears are streaming down it, and the man appears to be breathing rather heavily. Is he hyperventilating?

Akihito snaps a few close-ups of the man. The paper probably won’t run them – at least not tomorrow – but he doesn’t take pictures worrying about whether they’ll be printed.

Akihito’s earpiece crackles. He thought he heard a little traffic noise from it earlier, but it was hard to tell over the traffic noise around Akihito himself.  Now, he hears his target muttering. “What can I do? Toudou’s bad enough, but now Kodama, too? And the guys at Toudou-gumi said that Kodama will actually sell my organs – removing them while I’m still awake. Not just me, but my family, too. What am I going to do?” The man moans. “Maybe Shibanuma won’t remember what happened… But he’ll remember I was blackmailing him, right?” He whimpers and lays his head on the railing. “My life is over.”

Akihito raises his arm to signal to Yoneda, and Yoneda rushes in as the man starts to step onto the railing. Akihito quickly takes his camera off the tripod and adjusts the settings, turning on the flash.

“Don’t do that!” Yoneda calls. “It’s dangerous!”

The man ignores Yoneda and continues climbing. Yoneda leaps forward, grabbing the man around the waist and pulling him backwards to safety. Akihito snaps picture after picture. Soon, running footsteps are heard. Akihito walks towards the action as Saji leads a pair of police officers to the scene.

By the time the police get there, Yoneda is helping the suspect up. “He was going to jump,” Yoneda explains. “I stopped him.”

The man glares at Yoneda through his tears. “I’m dead anyway,” he says.

“We’ll need to talk to both of you,” one of the cops tells Yoneda and the man. He turns to Akihito, who’s still taking pictures. “And we’ll need your film. You can’t take pictures of mental health patients.”

Akihito jerks his head towards his target. “But he’s the guy that stabbed Kodama Kento.”

In the pandemonium that ensues, Yoneda and Saji slip into Sakuragi’s car. Akihito’s target tries to run away, but one of the cops tackles him. Akihito continues to snap pictures of the scene while the other cop tries to block his view.

“What makes you think that?” the cop demands.

“He was blackmailing Kodama Kento after seeing him in Ni-chōme. I heard him talking to himself about it before he jumped,” Akihito explains. “He said something about the Toudou-gumi, too. I’m sure the other guy who was here heard him, too.”

“The other guy?” The cop turns around, realizing for the first time that both Saji and Yoneda are gone. “Hey, where’d that other guy go?” he calls to his partner.

“A little help here?” his partner calls, as the suspect’s struggles intensify.

The target shouts, “That’s not true! Toudou-gumi forced me to work in their café! I want nothing to do with them! I thought Shibanuma would help me finish paying them off! I had no idea his dad was the head of Kodama-gumi!”

As the cop assists his partner, Akihito continues to take pictures.

“Stop that!” the second cop snaps at Akihito.

Akihito suddenly hears Yoneda’s voice in his ear. He jumps as Yoneda says, “Go north to the next street, turn east, and get in the car.” He realizes Yoneda must have removed the bug he planted on the young man.

Akihito looks back at the cops, who are finally fastening the second handcuff on Kento’s classmate’s wrist. I’d better skedaddle if I don’t want my film confiscated. Akihito races in the direction Yoneda indicated.

“Stop!” the second cop orders.

Akihito can hear footsteps start after him, but the first cop calls, “He’s trying to get away again!” and the footsteps stop and reverse directions.

Akihito breathes a sigh of relief as he slips into the car.

“You were right,” Yoneda tells him.

“I didn’t realize he owed money to Toudou-gumi, but based on Tsubasa-kun’s explanation of his personality, he seemed the most likely suspect to blackmail Kento-kun,” Akihito explains.

Saji whistles. “He owed money to Toudou? No wonder he was so desperate.”

“He nearly killed Kento-kun,” Akihito reminds them. “And Kento-kun hadn’t done anything to him.”

“Why did he?” Sakuragi asks.

Akihito shrugs. “I think he got scared when Kento-kun threatened to tell his father about his blackmailing. I’m guessing he was trying to pay off Toudou-gumi with the blackmail money, since I’m sure he only made enough working for them to pay off the exorbitant interest.”

The guards nod; they’re familiar with the yakuza group’s extortionist practices.

Akihito continues. “I bet Toudou-gumi didn’t like losing the free labor, so they warned him about how dangerous Kodama is. He said something about Kodama selling his family’s organs, and I know Kodama-gumi doesn’t do that.”

Akihito notices Saji and Sakuragi exchanging nervous glances in the front seat.

“What’s that look for? Do you know something I don’t?” Akihito asks.

“Takaba-sama, I don’t know how you have so much information about Kodama-gumi, but it worries us,” Yoneda explains.

Akihito shrugs. “I’m good at my job. Anyway, when Kento-kun threatened to tell his father, his classmate must have freaked out, remembering the organ-selling thing he’d heard.”

“But he brought the knife with him,” Sakuragi says doubtfully. “Doesn’t that mean he was planning the attack?”

Akihito shrugs. “Maybe he just carried it with him whenever he went to Shinjuku. If I owed money to the yakuza, I might start carrying a knife, too. I didn’t exactly get a chance to interview him, but as long as Kento-kun continued to give him money, why would he stab him?”

“Are we done for tonight?” Yoneda asks, abruptly changing the subject.

“Yeah. I’ve got to develop the pictures at home; I don’t know how many accidentally got your face,” Akihito says. His phone rings, and he sighs when he sees the caller is Mitarai. “Yeah?”

“Takaba, I can’t believe you sent me on a wild goose chase – after a yakuza, no less! You could have at least warned me.”

“I thought you’d see his daimon,” Akihito explains, trying not to laugh.

“What daimon?” Mitarai asks, oblivious as ever. “All I know is I barely escaped. You owe me a new pair of pants!”

“Why? Did you shit in them?” Akihito asks before he can bite it back. The guards laugh, and Akihito elbows Yoneda.

“Of course not! I fell while I was trying to escape and tore them. Where are you?” Mitarai asks suspiciously.

“Following a lead,” Akihito says vaguely.

“I want fifty percent.”

“Of what?” Akihito asks demurely.

“You kept the good lead for yourself and sent me on a shitty one so I wouldn’t take better pictures than you!” Mitarai accuses.

“So you did shit your pants,” Akihito says.

Mitarai starts to protest, but Akihito cuts him off.

“Take it up with the editor. You can have whatever percentage he says you deserve. You’re the one who made it more dangerous for yourself. You should have just flirted with Shuu-san; then he wouldn’t have chased you.” Akihito hangs up and tosses his phone on the empty seat beside him. “We’ve got to get our bikes,” he reminds Yoneda.

 

Akihito breathes a sigh of relief when only Amaya and darkness greet him at the door. Asami sounded angry enough earlier that Akihito’s not sure the man would have waited to talk until after Akihito finished working. But Asami must be too busy to rush home and confront Akihito.

Akihito pushes aside the slight nagging worry that always tugs at him when Asami is busy with his dangerous work. He calls the editor as he heads towards the darkroom.

“Takaba-san, what have you got?” the editor asks by way of greeting.

“Kento-kun’s attacker, trying to jump off a bridge and getting arrested,” Akihito says.

“Don’t joke,” the editor says crossly. “Yagami-san told me Kento-kun woke up, but the family won’t let us run the story yet.”

“I never joke,” Akihito says. At least not about work.

“How?!” the editor splutters. “There was no chatter on the police radio about it.”

“I’m that good. The police wanted to confiscate my film, but I managed to get away.”

“I don’t know how much we can run,” the editor suddenly worries.

“I know,” Akihito sighs. “Hopefully something.”

“Well, give me what you’ve got,” the editor says. “By the way, Mitarai’s whining that you sent him on a wild goose chase to sabotage him.”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

The editor sighs. “You both realize you’re working for the same paper, right? Why can’t you two get along?”

“I had two suspects for Kento-kun’s attack. I asked Mitarai to cover one. He could have been the one to end up with the scoop tonight.”

The editor sighs again. “Get me those pictures as soon as you can.”

“Will do.” Akihito hangs up and heads into the darkroom, blocking Amaya from sneaking in. As he develops his film, he slowly relaxes. About half the shots of Kento’s classmate have too much of Yoneda in them, but there’s one that captures the moment when Yoneda pulled him off the bridge railing. All you can see of Yoneda are his arms wrapped around the young man’s waist, pulling him back to safety. The young man’s tearstained face looks haunted.

I bet we can’t print that, Akihito thinks ruefully.

He selects a few more photographs to show to the editor, most of which don’t show the face of the young man or the police officers. Identifying pictures will have to wait until the court case is further along, but the editor needs photos he can run in tomorrow’s paper.

Akihito gathers the negatives of the photos he selected, looking through them twice to make absolutely sure his guards aren’t identifiable in the background of any of them. He puts his shoes back on and steps into the hallway, ignoring Amaya’s protests.

“I think you should ride in the car,” Yoneda says by way of greeting as they step onto the elevator.

“I can escape better on my bike,” Akihito argues. Not that there’s anything to escape from.

“It was the car that was targeted earlier,” Saji points out.

Yoneda stares at him.

“What?” Saji says.  “Bikes can outmaneuver cars easily.”

“You also get a lot more hurt if you don’t outmaneuver it,” Yoneda counters.

The elevator door opens, and Akihito stalks across the parking garage and swings a leg over his Vespa’s seat.

“Takaba-sama,” Yoneda says, obviously exasperated.

“We’re going to the newspaper office. Toudou isn’t going to target me there,” Akihito says stubbornly. “Not that I think he targeted me at all.”

“He didn’t. It was that Shuu guy,” Yoneda says, finally deciding to tell Akihito what happened earlier.

Akihito’s eyes widen. “Tsubasa-kun’s guy?”

Yoneda nods. “Apparently, it was only supposed to be a warning.”

Akihito buries his face in his hands.  “Seriously?  Did Asami tell you to drive me crazy or something?”

“What do you mean?” Yoneda asks so innocently that Akihito believes him.

“Can we just go already?” Akihito starts his bike without waiting for a response.  He shifts into a low gear and rides slowly towards the exit, leaving the guards to scramble for their own vehicles.

 

Three hours later, Akihito is stumbling back into the apartment, exhausted. There’s a faint light coming from the hallway. Asami must be in his office.

Akihito sighs. He’s too exhausted to have an argument now, but trying to convince Asami of that will be an argument in and of itself.

“I’m home,” he calls as he kicks off his sneakers and scoops Amaya up.

Asami appears at the end of the hallway. He leans against the wall, crossing his arms across his chest as he says “Welcome home” in a rather unwelcoming tone.

He hasn’t cooled off even a little. Akihito gulps. “I’m exhausted,” he tries. “Can we talk in the morning?”

“Won’t you be rather busy with your big scoop tomorrow?” Asami asks. “I wouldn’t want you to have to tell your editor to give it to Mitarai because you’re too busy talking to me.”

“If that happens, we can talk afterwards. I’m not trying to avoid it. I just really am exhausted. Aren’t you?” Akihito asks, plodding down the hall towards Asami.

“You won’t be going anywhere near Kodama again until we talk,” Asami says, his voice hard as ice. He reaches out and grabs Akihito’s arm, pulling him towards him. “So let’s make some coffee, wake you up, and talk.”

Akihito stares into Asami’s eyes. He hasn’t seen the man this angry at him since… since Akihito betrayed Asami’s location to Fei Long. “What the hell did Kodama say about me? Don’t you trust me?” Akihito demands, his eyes filling with tears of frustration – which only frustrates him further, amplifying the tears. He pulls his arm free and wipes his eyes angrily with the back of his hand. Don’t look weak. He glares up at Asami.

Asami looks momentarily taken aback. “Of course I trust you.” His face hardens again. “Anyway, you already as much as admitted you goaded Kodama about Kurosaki. What the hell were you thinking?”

Akihito falters. That’s seriously what he’s so mad about? “You were the one who told me about that,” he points out.

“I know. It was a mistake.” Asami’s voice has fallen dangerously quiet, and Akihito notices a tight clenching in Asami’s jaw.

“Wait. You’re mad at yourself for telling me, so you’re taking it out on me?!”

“No, I’m mad at myself for telling you, and I’m mad at you for throwing it in Kodama’s face. Your job already puts me in a difficult spot trying to provide you with protection.”

“I don’t need you to protect me!” Akihito bursts out, exasperated.

Asami punches the wall beside Akihito’s head. “Yes, you do! How long are you going to keep living in denial?!”

Akihito doesn’t flinch. He stares up at Asami. “I already told you, I can protect myself. My job is dangerous, too. I didn’t survive –”

“It’s not at the same level!” Asami bursts out. “There are established rules for not targeting one another’s families in the underworld, but there are always those willing to break those rules. And those rules only apply as long as the family members behave. If they start playing around in the underworld, they’re up for grabs.”

Akihito sets his chin defiantly. “I don’t play in the underworld. I merely expose it.”

Asami sighs. “That’s exactly what I meant by playing. You told me once that either your story makes the paper, and the criminals have bigger problems to worry about, or it gets pulled, and they forget about you since you’re not a concern. But there are people who will look for any excuse to hurt me. The cowards won’t dare go after me directly.”

“Like who?” Akihito challenges. “Kodama seemed happy merely to try to bully me.”

“I’m not going to name names,” Asami says.

“If they’re going to target me anyway, what does it matter what I do?” Akihito retorts.

“You don’t need to go giving them excuses to target you,” Asami counters.

Akihito furrows his brow. “You’re not making sense.”

“How many ways do I have to spell it out for you?” Asami grits out. “Come here.” He grabs Akihito’s arm and pulls him towards his office. Asami’s fingers dig into Akihito’s flesh painfully.

“You don’t have to grab so hard,” Akihito says, trying to tug his arm free.

“Watch,” Asami spits out, releasing Akihito’s arm. Asami clicks play on the video already open on his computer. The video is from a dashboard camera. It shows the car make a sharp left turn, missing a collision with a speeding car by millimeters.

Akihito gulps. “Was that from tonight? Yoneda-san said it was a member of Toudou-gumi who picked up Kento-kun’s friend when they were in Ni-chōme together.”

“Whom you interrogated tonight.”

“No, I didn’t!” Akihito protests. “Sure, I met him with Tsubasa-kun – Kento-kun’s friend – but I didn’t ask him anything about Kento-kun!”

“You gave your name.”

“Tsubasa-kun did, but Yoneda-san and I tried to cover it up.”

“He knew what you were investigating, and he accurately presumed that your companion’s friend was Kodama’s son. Even knowing you had a protection order, he still decided to give you a warning. He was more scared of Toudou finding out he’d been involved with Kodama’s son than he was of me.”

Akihito shrugs. “It was just a warning. I’ve had worse.”

Asami picks up the glass from his desk and throws it at the wall. The shards scatter across the floor. Amaya tries to jump out of Akihito’s arms at the sound, but he holds her tightly.

Akihito rolls his eyes. “Are you done with your temper tantrum? There’s no broom in here, you know, and neither of us is wearing shoes.”

Asami looks away. “Sorry,” he mutters.

“So you’re angry that some low-level nobody in Toudou-gumi got scared over my story and gave me a warning, and that I accidentally mentioned something you didn’t mean to tell me to Kodama?” Akihito summarizes.

“I’m angry that you continue to show no regard for your personal safety,” Asami counters.

“That’s not fair!” Akihito bursts out, growing increasingly frustrated himself.

Asami closes his eyes. “You’re right; it’s a slight exaggeration. I’m just wondering what it’s going to take for you to take your personal safety seriously. All the guards in the world can’t keep you safe if you continue to mouth off to yakuza.”

Akihito sighs. “It’s my job. If I don’t ruffle Kodama’s feathers, I’ll never get a decent quote out of him.”

“Your colleague Yagami doesn’t seem to need to ruffle feathers,” Asami points out.

“I’m not Yagami-san! We have totally different styles. Anyway, Kodama would know I was bullshitting him. He got pissed when I apologized for Yagami-san’s sake during our talk today.” Akihito gives Asami his best “come on, forgive me” half-smile as he places his arms on Asami’s shoulders.

Asami’s face finally softens a little. “You can’t throw Kurosaki in Kodama’s face again. He knows I told you. I broke the code.”

“You could tell him I figured it out. If you hadn’t asked me not to try, I probably would have,” Akihito points out.

“I did. I don’t think he believed me.”

A faint line appears between Asami’s eyebrows. Akihito smooths it with a finger. “You’ll get wrinkles,” he teases.

“If I do, it’s your fault,” Asami counters.

Akihito rolls his eyes.

Asami clears his throat. “So you’ll be more careful from now on?”

Akihito tries not to roll his eyes again. “Yes. I’ll try not to goad Kodama too much, and I won’t mention Kurosaki to him again.”

“I’m sorry I… lost my temper a bit,” Asami says, looking over Akihito’s shoulder at the remnants of the glass. “I’ll clean it up before I go to bed.”

“I’ll help,” Akihito offers.

“Before that, there’s one other thing I want to talk about,” Asami says, “unless you’d rather it wait until morning.”

“What is it?” Akihito asks curiously.

“I’ve made a decision about your exhibit theme.”

Chapter Text

Akihito is suddenly wide awake. Just this morning, Asami said he needed more time to think about the exhibit. He’s made a decision already? “Yeah? What did you decide?”

“Your photographs are excellent, but I don’t think your chosen theme is a good idea.”

Akihito feels as if he’s just been knocked over by a wave of icy water. “May I ask why?” he asks woodenly.

“For the same reason you were hesitant to use the theme yourself.”

“Because of my parents? But we already agreed –”

“Because of the other reason you were hesitant.”

Akihito stares at Asami. “Because of… my job? Your job?”

Asami nods.

“Which is it?” Akihito asks. “I won’t understand if you don’t tell me.”

Asami’s face becomes unreadable. “Both. But mostly… your job.”

“I don’t really think it will affect my job, though,” Akihito says. “I mean, I bet the paper will cover it, but they’ll focus on the photos, not my personal life.”

Weekly Headlines? Really?” Asami asks.

“Sure. I’ll ask Yagami-san to cover it, and he’ll be respectful. He’s a good guy.”

“What about all the other papers?”

“Again, the focus will be on the exhibit itself. The only people who care about that stuff are art critics, and they’re more open-minded than the general public. Besides, it’s 2016.”

“I’m not sure you’ve thought through all the potential ramifications.”

“Sure I have. The editor took me back after Hong Kong, when he thought I’d disappeared to play a video game. No one else can get the shots I can. I might lose a few of my supplemental gigs, but with the extra business from the cat café, I would have had to cut back on those, anyway.”

“I lied. It’s my job,” Asami says, changing tack.

Akihito narrows his eyes, studying Asami’s face, which is still carefully blank. “You’re keeping something from me. If you don’t tell me the real reason, I won’t take your opinion into consideration.”

Asami’s face, but for a slight tightening around his mouth, remains impassive. “You can’t use my photos unless I sign a release.”

Akihito’s eyes flash. “You already gave me permission, and anyway the photos don’t show your face, so I don’t need a release.”

“The photos were taken in my home,” Asami says.

“What the hell? Asami, when I first mentioned the theme, you seemed surprised that I thought it would impact you. And now you’re trying to stop me from using the theme at all?!” Akihito bursts out.

“I realized you were right,” Asami answers. “It does impact me – and you – in more ways than you’ve really thought about.”

“Like hell. I’ve given this a lot of thought,” Akihito says, running his hands through his hair in frustration.

“I’m sure you have,” Asami concedes, “but you can’t know the potential ramifications of my job.”

“I would if you’d tell me,” Akihito retorts.

“We’ve gone over why I can’t do that.”

Asami’s face is smoothed into its business mask. Akihito hasn’t seen it in months – at least not directed at him – and it pisses him off.

“‘Won’t’, not ‘can’t’,” he corrects.

“What?”

“Just tell me the nature of the potential ramifications,” Akihito says.

“The nature?” Asami echoes.

“Like, will it cost you money? Affect certain key business relationships?”

“Perhaps,” Asami says.

“But you don’t really care about that shit, right? You already have more money than you can spend in a lifetime, and you’re too powerful for people to stop kissing your ass – especially since the number who will figure out it’s you in the pictures is relatively small, right?”

Asami doesn’t answer.

Akihito plows on. “So what’s the real reason? Is it potential security ramifications?” His voice is dripping with derision, and Asami’s mask slips just a little.

Asami quickly regains his composure. “Are you done?” he asks icily.

“If your job’s so dangerous, why don’t you just quit?” Akihito spits.

Asami’s eyebrows shoot up, and he uses his quietest, deadliest tone to say, “You knew what I did before we started dating. Are you asking me to stop?”

Akihito gulps, but he’s too mad to stop. “You knew what I did before, too. And I’m not going to stop. But if every little ‘warning’ is going to spook you and make you get all Mr. Macho on me, I…” he trails off.

“You’ll what?” Asami asks, suddenly very still.

“I don’t know,” Akihito finishes lamely. “But it’s not going to work. I can’t live like that.”

“What are you saying, Akihito?” Asami asks.

“Nothing. I’m exhausted, and I’m not thinking straight. But I’m tired of having the same argument over and over. You’ve got to trust me more.”

“I do trust you,” Asami says. “But given my job… and yours… I don’t trust them.”

“It goes both ways, remember?” Akihito asks softly. “But you don’t see me trying to interfere in your job.”

“You’re the one who asked my opinion,” Asami reminds him. “And you’re the one who’s making our jobs collide.”

Akihito sighs. “That’s true. I’ll think about what you said. I’m going to stay at Kou’s tonight.”

“What?” Asami asks. The last remnants of the business mask fall away as his mouth hangs slightly open.

“I just need some space to think, okay? Anyway, it’s closer to the newspaper office.”

“You’re exhausted. Just go to bed,” Asami says. “We can talk more tomorrow.”

“I’m fine. It’s a short ride,” Akihito says. He leans in and kisses Asami. “I’ll be back tomorrow, okay?”

Asami squeezes Akihito for a long moment before reluctantly letting him go. “You’d better.”

 

Akihito realizes he should call Kou when he gets into the hallway. What if he says I can’t come over? Kou has always welcomed Akihito at any time of the day or night, but now that Kou has gotten serious with Mari…

“Aki, do you know what time it is?” Kou mumbles after the third ring.

“I know it’s late. I’m sorry. Can I crash at your place tonight?”

“What’s wrong?” Kou asks, suddenly sounding alert.

“Nothing. Go back to sleep. I’ll let myself in, okay?” Akihito steps into the elevator.

“Aki…”

The elevator slows down as it approaches the next floor. Asami must have told Yoneda I was leaving. “I just need to… clear my head, okay? Nothing’s wrong. I promise.”

Kou sighs. “Fine. Wake me up when you get here and we can talk then.”

“Thanks, Kou.”

The elevator doors open, and Yoneda, Sakuragi, and Saji step on.

“I thought you said you were done for the night,” Saji mutters.

“Saji!” Yoneda says sharply.

“I’m sorry, Takaba-sama,” Saji says, bowing in apology.

“It’s fine. Sorry for dragging you guys out again. I’m just heading over to Kou’s. You could stay here…” Akihito offers, knowing the guards won’t agree.

“You know we can’t do that, Takaba-sama,” Yoneda says.

“I know. I’m sorry,” Akihito mumbles.

“It’s fine, Takaba-sama. Is… is everything alright?” Sakuragi asks hesitantly.

“It’s fine,” Akihito echoes. He’s thankful when they reach the ground floor.

 

Akihito opens Kou’s apartment door with his cell phone. Keyless entry is so cool. I wonder why Asami still uses a regular lock.

Akihito tiptoes inside. Suddenly, the living room is flooded with light, and Akihito blinks. “You didn’t have to get up,” he says apologetically.

“What’s up?” Kou asks.

“I told you, nothing,” Akihito says. “I just need some time to clear my head.”

“Did you and Asami-san have a fight?”

Akihito shrugs. “I guess. More like two?”

“Want to talk about it?” Kou offers.

Akihito shrugs again. He takes off his jacket as he says, “Not really.”

“What’s that?” Kou asks.

“What’s what?”

Kou grabs Akihito’s arm and pulls up his sleeve. “These are finger marks. What did that bastard do?”

Akihito looks down at his wrist. Four long bruises are blooming where Asami grabbed when he dragged Akihito to his office. “Shit. Do you have any hemorrhoid cream?” he asks Kou.

Kou gapes at him. “What else did Asami-san do to you? Do you need me to call the police?”

“Of course not,” Akihito says. “It’s just a little bruise. Asami was worried about me.”

Kou rolls his eyes. “So he hurt you? That doesn’t sound like worry to me.”

“It was,” Akihito says. “I’m sure he didn’t mean to hurt me. He stopped as soon as I told him it did.”

“You don’t bruise easily. He must have been squeezing pretty damn hard,” Kou retorts. “There’s no reason for that.”

Akihito shrugs. “Well, he apologized.”

“That doesn’t make it right, Aki. I thought things were better now.” Kou leads the way to the freezer where he pulls out a bag of frozen vegetables.

Akihito takes the bag and places it on the bruised wrist. “They are better. Loads better. Really.”

“He’s still hurting you.”

“This is the first time since November,” Akihito says.

“It shouldn’t happen at all,” Kou snaps.

“I know,” Akihito says quietly. “And he knows. He’s really trying.” Akihito looks around the room and notices Mari’s art table set up in the corner, manga pages and pens messily arranged on it as if she’ll soon be back. “I guess I shouldn’t have come over.”

“Akihito,” Kou says. He waits until Akihito looks up at him. “You absolutely should have come over. Anytime, day or night, remember? And I’ll kick his ass for you whenever you want. Just give the word.”

Akihito smiles. “You don’t need to do that. If it needs doing, I’ll do it myself.”

Kou snorts. “That’ll be the day.” He blushes slightly as he says, “Do you really need that… cream? I could run to the convenience store and get some for you.”

“Why are you blushing?” Akihito asks.

Kou turns redder.

“What the hell are you thinking?” Akihito picks up one of the pillows from the couch with his free arm and flings it at Kou. “Gross! It’s for my wrist, you doofus!”

“How am I supposed to know?” Kou asks defensively. “Usually, you’d use it for… what it’s made for, right? Besides, how will it help your wrist?”

“It’ll make the bruises go away faster. I don’t want my mom to see them,” Akihito explains.

Kou’s face grows concerned again. “How do you know how to make bruises go away fast? How often do you do this?”

Akihito rolls his eyes. “I learned it from the models. They use it on the dark circles under their eyes. Or on kiss marks.” It’s Akihito’s turn to blush slightly as he remembers all the times he’s needed to use the cream for the latter purpose.

Kou rolls his eyes. “I see.” Then his brain registers what Akihito said. “Your mom? Is she coming to visit?”

Akihito shakes his head. “Nah. I’m going home Tuesday. To… tell them. Or I was.”

“Is that what your fight with Asami-san was about?” Kou asks.

“No. He said it’s fine.”

“Oh.”

Akihito can tell that Kou is desperately struggling not to ask any more questions, even though he’s obviously curious. Akihito sighs. I suppose I do owe him an explanation if I’m going to show up in the middle of the night. “Asami doesn’t want me to use the relationship theme in my exhibit.”

“Oh.” Kou blinks for a second. “So he grabbed your arm when you… said you wanted to use it anyway?”

“No!” Akihito says. “That happened earlier. I was the one who got pissed and said some stuff I probably shouldn’t have. That’s why I needed to leave and clear my head.”

“Why doesn’t he want you to use it?” Kou asks. He leads the way to the bedroom, where he pulls the guest futon out of the closet.

Akihito wrinkles his nose. “He wouldn’t say, exactly. He just said it would impact his job.”

“That sounds like… a reasonable concern,” Kou says hesitantly.

“It would be if it were true,” Akihito concedes.

“What makes you think it’s not?”

“Because he was so vague about it. First he said it was my job, and when I said I’d thought it through and was ready to accept the consequences, he switched and said it was his job. But he wouldn’t say exactly how it would affect his job. Since he’s not identifiable in any of the photos, the only people who would realize it’s him are those who already know about us.”

“So why doesn’t he want you to use the photos?”

“He’s worried it’ll make things more dangerous for me,” Akihito explains cagily.

“That… also sounds like a valid concern. But how would your exhibit do that?”

Akihito shrugs. “It wouldn’t. Those who already know about us and want to use me to get to Asami could already do that.”

“Has anyone tried?” Kou asks, wide-eyed.

“No! Of course not!” Akihito cries. I mean, I guess that was why Fei Long took such an interest in me, but Fei Long is Fei Long… It’s not like Asami has a ton of jilted underworld-boss lovers, right?

“It worries me when you get quiet like that,” Kou says. “What are you thinking?”

Akihito tries to remember what he told Kou about Fei Long. I’m pretty sure I only told him Fei Long targeted me because of the data disk. Akihito decides it’s best to skirt the issue. “Nothing. I’m just wondering why Asami is so paranoid about something that never happens. I mean, I’m constantly getting targeted because of my job…”

“Maybe something happened in the past?” Kou suggests.

Akihito hadn’t thought about that. Asami said I was the first person he ever said “I love you” to, but that doesn’t mean I was the first person he actually loved. “Maybe.”

“You could ask him about it.”

“I couldn’t do that!” Akihito cries, blushing.

Kou shrugs. “Suit yourself. But if he doesn’t want you to use the photos of him, I don’t think there’s much you can do about it but choose another theme.”

A mulish look slips over Akihito’s face.

“Aki…” Kou says.

“Kou…” Akihito mimics.

Kou sighs. “Weren’t you the one who thought Asami-san deserved a say about using his photos in the first place?”

“Well, yeah…” Akihito says. “But only based on how it impacts him, not me. I’m the one who gets to decide whether the impact on me is worth it.”

“You don’t think it would impact Asami-san if you were targeted because of him?” Kou counters.

Akihito scowls. “Just like it would impact me if he were targeted at his job, but I don’t get a say in his work.”

“That’s a separate issue,” Kou points out. “Anyway, how would you feel if Asami-san were targeted because of your job?”

Akihito gives an involuntary shudder. It didn’t fully hit him until a week after the Kurosaki incident because so much happened in those few days, but when Akihito thought about what might have happened had Saijo not sabotaged the men who raided Asami’s club… if Asami had been with his guests when the VIP room was raided…

“What’s wrong?” Kou asks.

“Kurosaki…” Akihito whispers. He licks his lips and clears his throat before continuing. “He raided Asami’s club and held some of his VIPs hostage in exchange for me.”

Kou’s mouth drops open. He’d known about the danger Akihito was in from Kurosaki, but Asami and Akihito had left out that part of the story when they explained the situation to him. “I’m sorry, Akihito. I didn’t mean to bring that up. But… that means you should understand where Asami-san is coming from.”

Akihito sighs. “I do, but I still don’t think my exhibition would make things more dangerous for me.”

“And Asami-san won’t tell you why he thinks it will?” Kou asks, apparently rhetorically, because he continues without waiting for a response. “Aki, I know you and Asami-san really care about each other…” Kou takes a deep breath before plunging on, “but have you thought about the potential ramifications his career would have on yours if the police finally got enough evidence on him? Your relationship would be front-page headlines.”

Akihito squares his shoulders. He’s been waiting for Kou to bring this up since November; he’s actually surprised it’s taken this long. He was focused more on the checklist than Asami’s career at the time, but I figured once he stopped fixating on that, Kou would bring up Asami’s job. “I –” Akihito starts.

He stops and takes a deep breath. Four months wasn’t long enough to prepare for this conversation, especially since he tries not to think about it.

“Are you really okay with what Asami-san does for a living?” Kou asks.

“Of course not!” Akihito is surprised by the vehemence in his own voice. “But… he said he doesn’t like some of the downstream consequences of his job, and he’s working to minimize them.”

“Is he really?” Kou presses.

“Of course he is!” Akihito exclaims, even though he’s not actually sure.

“How?” Kou challenges.

“I don’t know exactly how, but he told me that he is.”

“And you believe him?”

“Yeah, I do. He’s the one who brought it up. He said I make him want to be a better person.” Akihito blushes faintly as he recalls the conversation during one of their joint counseling sessions.

“What about you?” Kou asks.

“What do you mean?”

“How do you think you’ve changed since meeting Asami-san?”

Akihito bristles. “What do you mean? Have I changed?”

Kou takes a moment to consider the question. “You met Asami-san… two years ago, was it? Or was it closer to three now?”

“About two and a half. It’ll be three in September,” Akihito says. “What are you getting at, Kou?”

“So right around when Yama-san died?” Kou asks.

Akihito’s mouth drops open. Yama-san again? Kou was also one of “Yama’s Yankees” (juvenile delinquents the detective helped turn around), so it’s actually not that surprising, but Akihito still feels blindsided. He licks his lips. “Yeah,” he says as nonchalantly as possible. “Right around then.”

“Before or after?” Kou asks, immediately tuned into Akihito’s discomfort.

“Before,” Akihito admits grudgingly, knowing that Kou will be able to see through him if he tries to lie.

Kou’s eyes widen. “Then did Asami-san –” He stops abruptly. “No, never mind. That’s stupid. You wouldn’t be with Asami-san if he had anything to do with Yama-san’s death. But the way you reacted just now… do you know what happened to Yama-san?”

Akihito forgets to breathe when Kou starts to ask about Asami. He lets out a shaky breath when he realizes he won’t have to respond to that particular question. His reaction just makes Kou look at him even more expectantly, so Akihito takes a calming breath and starts to answer, not sure exactly what he’s going to say, but hoping he can come up with something that will satisfy Kou without having to reveal the whole truth.

“Yama-san was working both sides,” Akihito explains. When he sees the shock and hurt in Kou’s eyes, Akihito tries to soften the blow. “His kid got sick and needed surgery. Because the surgery was still considered experimental, insurance wouldn’t cover it. He made a deal to look the other way just once in order to pay for the surgery, but after that, the group blackmailed him. Yama-san didn’t know how to get out of the situation, so he kept giving me scoops hoping I’d help to bring them down.”

“That sounds really dangerous for both of you.”

“It was. I didn’t know Yama-san’s predicament at the time. Asami actually tried to keep me away when the deal was going down, but I’d left my camera bag stashed nearby and went back to get it. Yama-san died trying to protect me.” Akihito shifts his gaze away, unable to look Kou in the eye.

“Why didn’t you go to the police?” Kou asks, squeezing Akihito’s shoulder sympathetically.

He must think my PTSD is being triggered. “If I was there, it would complicate things. Yama-san was supposedly on an undercover assignment at the time. You don’t leak those to the media.”

“You didn’t want his family or his Yankees to know about the corruption,” Kou says softly.

“Would they still have gotten his pension?” Akihito asks. “Yama-san was a good man who made one bad choice that led him down a path he couldn’t figure out how to leave. But he was only trying to help his family.”

Kou nods. “I’m sorry, Aki. I knew you were shaken by Yama-san’s death, but I had no idea you were holding onto such a big secret this whole time. It must have been hard.”

Akihito feels tears pricking at his eyes. You have no idea. He gives a jerky nod of his head, and Kou squeezes his shoulder again.

Akihito releases another breath. He somehow feels like he’s just locked the cage of his own lie, but it’s a lie he’s willing to live with. Yama-san was a good man, and Akihito still wishes he hadn’t seen the detective’s last five minutes that tainted his legacy and memory. There’s no point spoiling anyone else’s memories. Yama-san is dead. I still don’t think he’d have shot me.

After a few moments, Kou speaks softly, almost as if to himself, “You said Asami-san…” Kou trails off.

Akihito looks up at him.

“He was trying to protect you? It wasn’t his group that blackmailed Yama-san…” Kou trails off, shaking his head. “Never mind. Sorry.”

“Of course not,” Akihito says. He studies Kou. Why did I even mention Asami? I guess it’s because I just realized that way back then, Asami was already trying to protect me - in his own sick, perverted way. Akihito sighs. The more he tells Kou, the more Kou will want to know – and the more Kou knows, the more dangerous it will be for both of them.

Kou doesn’t ask anything more, but he still looks troubled.

Akihito sighs and says, “It was one of his clients. That’s how I met Asami; I had a scoop in his club, and he tried to give me a warning to stay away from Sion.”

Kou gapes at him. “What kind of warning?”

“I’m not quite sure exactly how it was going to end, but I didn’t stick around for anything beyond a verbal warning… I got away and ran to the roof.” Akihito chuckles at the memory.

“And jumped off?” Kou guesses, a grin trying to lift one corner of his mouth.

“Of course,” Akihito says.

“And that’s when you flirted with Asami-san by calling him names?”

“What? Who told you that?”

“Asami-san did, during our triple date, remember?”

Akihito huffs. Asami’s big mouth. “I told him I’d capture him in my finder, and then he’d be dog food.” Is that when I said that? I can’t remember.

Kou rolls his eyes. “So that’s how your relationship started? By you trying to get a scoop on him out of revenge for him giving you a warning?”

“I told you we had a weird start,” Akihito says defensively.

Kou snorts. “That’s the understatement of the year. You should stick to Asami-san’s version.”

Akihito frowns. “I hadn’t thought of what I should tell my parents.”

“Right! You said you were going to on Tuesday? Is it because of this morning? Er… yesterday morning, at this point…” Kou corrects as he glances at the clock.

“Yeah. But it’s time, don’t you think?” Akihito asks. “Anyway, stop changing the subject. You said I’ve changed since meeting Asami?”

“I didn’t say that. I only asked if you thought you’d changed,” Kou says, looking away.

“Kou…” Akihito drawls. “Tell me what you think.”

Kou frowns. “I don’t know. At the time, I assumed it was because of Yama-san’s death. And that was right when your criminal journalism career was finally kicking off, so of course you had more secrets from us because of that. So I don’t know how much of your secretiveness and stress was because of Asami-san.”

Akihito makes a noncommittal noise in his throat, encouraging Kou to continue.

“But I guess I can say that you’ve gotten a lot more open and mature about things since November,” Kou decides. “And I guess that’s partly due to Asami-san’s influence,” he adds grudgingly.

“Are you saying I was immature before?” Akihito glowers at Kou.

Kou gestures between them. “You wouldn’t have even stuck around for this talk before November, right? You’d have run out the door as soon as I asked the first question when you showed up.”

Akihito purses his lips and wiggles them back and forth. He can’t bring himself to admit that Kou’s right, but the lie that he’s wrong won’t slip past Akihito’s lips, either.

“You’re a lot more confident now,” Kou says. “I just don’t want you to lose sight of who you are.”

“I would never do that,” Akihito objects.

“What if you had another scoop that led to Club Sion?” Kou presses.

Akihito scowls. “I’ve had plenty of scoops… that involved clients of Asami,” he says, changing course in mid-tack. Don’t reveal too much, Akihito. Not even to Kou. “Asami doesn’t care.” At least as long as I don’t implicate the club.

“Alright, Aki,” Kou says. “I won’t press anymore. I just worry about you. The less you say, the more I worry – but it turns out the more you say, the more I worry, too.”

“What do you mean?” Akihito turns and looks at Kou. Did I say too much?

“Just how many of Asami-san’s clients are involved in the underworld that you’ve had so many scoops involving them?”

“It wasn’t that many!” Akihito protests. “It was, like… two.”

“You don’t have to tell me any more, Aki. Sorry for putting you on the spot. You know you’re a bad liar, right?”

Akihito gets up and tosses the bag of frozen edamame in the fridge. “I wasn’t lying,” he grumbles, turning the light off as he reenters the bedroom. “You know I like to exaggerate.”

“Okay. I believe you. I’m just glad you’re happy.” Kou already sounds half-asleep.

He’s soon completely out, but sleep comes to Akihito more slowly.

Kou didn’t ask about the other fight I had with Asami, Akihito thinks gratefully. What was it about again? Oh, right: Asami’s over-protectiveness. I can’t believe we had two fights back-to-back over the same damn thing. We really can’t keep doing that.

 

Chapter Text

Asami is still sitting at his desk when there’s a knock at the front door. He doesn’t move, knowing Kirishima will let himself in.

Sure enough, a moment later Asami hears his first assistant’s quiet voice calling, “Asami-sama?”

Asami still can’t stir himself to answer, but Kirishima follows the light to Asami’s office.

“What happened in here?” Kirishima asks, eying the broken glass still scattered across the floor. Without waiting for an answer, he picks up the dustpan and broom from where Akihito left them in the corner.

“Leave it,” Asami says woodenly.

Kirishima redirects his attention to the liquor cabinet in the corner, where he retrieves a fresh glass and fills it from the bottle still sitting on Asami’s desk.

Asami ignores the glass.

Kirishima finally looks at his boss.

“I might lose him, Kei.” The words slip out before Asami realizes they were even hovering on his tongue.

Kirishima doesn’t have to ask whom Asami is referring to. Kirishima also doesn’t need to ask how the glass got broken. He inwardly sighs, but his professionalism keeps him from outwardly showing his exasperation. So much for getting any more work done tonight. Never mind that Asami called him half an hour ago insisting on an immediate update on the Toudou-gumi situation.

“Is this about Toudou-gumi? Takaba-san’s got the best security team Kazumi can put together, and he’s working better than ever with them.” Kirishima sets his stack of reports on the corner of the desk.

“That didn’t stop them all from coming a hair’s breadth away from being killed tonight,” Asami retorts.

Kirishima adjusts his glasses and looks his friend in the eye. “No one is bulletproof, Ryuichi. Not even you. We live in a dangerous world. I’m not going to give you false comfort by making an empty promise that nothing will ever happen to him.”

“I’m not asking you to, Kei. This isn’t really about that, anyway.” Asami leans against the back of his chair without elaborating.

Kirishima settles into the seat adjacent to the desk. His mind flits through the possibilities: Asami’s violent temper, Asami’s need for control, Akihito’s fiery temper, Akihito’s love of freedom, the conflict between their jobs...

Kirishima’s not dumb enough to venture a guess as to which is the cause of Asami’s current worries. After several long moments, Asami picks up the glass on the desk and takes a small sip instead of his usual gulp. He sets the glass back down on the desk.

So it was Ryuichi’s temper, Kirishima concludes, though he still says nothing.

Finally, Asami speaks. “No matter how I puzzle through it, I can’t seem to solve it. If I try to protect him, he gets mad. If I don’t protect him…” Asami stops talking, but Kirishima notices the almost imperceptible frisson that ripples through Asami.

“Sometimes you have to allow your king to get checked to win the game,” Kirishima says, employing Asami’s favorite chess metaphor.

“It’s too dangerous!” Asami snaps. “He moves on his own, and he doesn’t have a clue about the dangers. He could easily turn it into mate.”

Kirishima pinches the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses. The chess metaphor was a mistake. “Maybe you should tell him the dangers.” It’s a risk, but Takaba-san already knows too much, anyway. Besides, he climbed on a bomb to protect Asami-sama.

Asami’s eyes flash briefly with amusement. “I never thought I’d hear the cautious Kirishima recommend disclosing Sion’s secrets. You fussed when I brought him into my home.”

Kirishima flushes slightly. “I think we’re long past that, Asami-sama.”

Asami shakes his head. “It would put him in more danger. Given his job…”

“What if he changed his job?” Kirishima suggests. He removes one of the reports from the stack. “The photo exhibition could be an avenue to more traditional…” Kirishima stops talking when he glances up and notices the look Asami is giving him. “You already suggested that to him, I presume. I was thinking more of creating opportunities too good for him to refuse…”

“He loves the excitement of the investigation. Besides, if he ever figured out I had a role in him landing a job…”

Kirishima nods. Takaba-san would certainly be apoplectic. But that’s not why Asami-sama is refusing to even consider it. Ever since Asami-sama asked me to get that folded piece of paper from the safe house during the Kurosaki incident in November, things have been different.

“What are you grinning about?” Asami demands.

The question makes the small smile that has been tugging at Kirishima’s lips grow wider. “It’s good to see you happy.”

“What are you talking about? I’m utterly confused and worried.” Asami frowns as he takes another sip of his drink.

“Precisely. I’ve never seen you like this before.” Kirishima tries to settle his face, but the grin won’t go away.

“I didn’t realize you had sadistic tendencies, Kei,” Asami says. “Schadenfreude doesn’t suit you.”

“Do I really have to spell it out for you, Ryuichi? You’ve never had someone who made you worried and confused before.”

Asami sighs. “And I may not have one for long. You’re terrible at giving advice.”

“I can’t give you advice if you won’t tell me what’s wrong. Besides, I’m not sure I’m the best person to advise you in this situation,” Kirishima says, clearing his throat. Plenty of women (and men) have tried to seduce him, but he’s always been too focused on his job to pursue any of them – especially since he’s never been able to ascertain whether they were more interested in him or his access to his boss.

“I can’t ask Kazumi. Not after what he went through.”

“That was a long time ago. And if anyone could understand your worry, it would be him,” Kirishima says.

Asami doesn’t say anything.

After a moment, Kirishima offers another suggestion. “What about Kurebayashi-sensei?” He braces himself for the inevitable storm of anger, but to his surprise, it doesn’t come.

“Akihito suggested that, too. About… my past,” Asami says evasively.

“Your mother?” Kirishima guesses. If Ryuichi told Takaba-san about that, he’s fallen even deeper than I realized.

Asami grunts in affirmation. Kirishima doesn’t press the issue. He was the only friend who showed up at the funeral, and he knows that if Asami hasn’t discussed his mother’s death with Kirishima – and he hasn’t – then Asami hasn’t discussed it with anyone.

Until now.

 “Is this why you’re thinking of skipping the Nigeria Symposium?” Kirishima asks.

“That’s unrelated,” Asami says, his attention focused on the liquid swirling in his glass.

Kirishima removes his glasses, wipes them with his handkerchief, and puts them back on before looking intently at Asami. “Unrelated to your concerns about Takaba-san’s safety? Or unrelated to Takaba-san at all?”

Asami looks up at Kirishima in surprise. “Takaba simply made me aware that I can control some of the downstream effects of my actions.”

Kirishima snorts before he can help himself.

“What?” Asami growls.

Kirishima gulps, but Asami’s look tells him he’d better explain sooner than later. “You’re a consummate chess player. You do nothing but think of the downstream effects of your actions. Isn’t that what your current disagreement with Takaba-san is all about?”

Asami chuckles darkly. “I hadn’t thought of it like that, but I suppose you’re right. I’ve simply been turning a blind eye to what some of my customers do.”

Kirishima nods curtly. “You know I could do my job better if you’d tell me the reasons behind what you ask me to do sometimes.”

Asami inclines his head towards him. “You’re right. I’m sorry, Kei. I guess I assumed too much.”

Kirishima shrugs. “Usually I can figure it out. I apologize for not doing so this time – and for not asking for clarification.”

Asami stares at him. “Are you… blushing, Kei?”

“You apologized, Ryuichi. It’s weird.”

Asami laughs. “I suppose it is. Another way Takaba has been rubbing off on me, perhaps.”

“That’s not a bad thing,” Kirishima says. “As long as you don’t become as reckless as him.”

“If only I could rub off on him in that regard,” Asami says, sighing. He drains the rest of his glass and pulls the stack of reports towards him. “Thanks, Kei. Sorry for the diversion.”

 

Thirty minutes later, Asami strides into the Sion VIP meeting room via the employee entrance, Kirishima a step behind him. Toudou and his wakagashira are sitting on the couch. As soon as they hear the door, they stand and bow, holding the bow until Asami stands across from them. He does not bow back.

“Asami-san, I sincerely apologize. I will personally see to it that my subordinates are punished for disregarding the protection or –” Toudou begins, his eyes still downcast, stopping when Asami interrupts him.

“And how will that keep them from violating it again?”

“I’ll make sure the punishment is suitably severe,” Toudou stammers, unaccustomed to being interrupted.

“You rule by fear, Toudou. When your subordinates are loyal only out of fear –”

Toudou’s eyes flash as he finally meets Asami’s gaze. “We’re a family. Our bonds are stronger –”

 Asami continues as if he hadn’t been interrupted. “They will continue to disobey your orders if there’s a chance they can avoid punishment by doing so. Punishing them further will only exacerbate the cycle.”

Toudou looks up at Asami, confusion evident on his face. “Are you saying you don’t want my men to be punished?”

“Of course not,” Asami says in the deadly calm required to keep his rage in check.

The tone sends a shiver down the spine of Toudou’s wakagashira. Toudou, on the other hand, straightens to his maximum height. “Now see here, Asami-san. We have a code that you’ve always respected. In cases like this where no one was harmed, punishment is left to the family, though of course suitable compensation will be offered.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Asami sees Kirishima pushing his glasses up his nose – their signal that Asami needs to maintain his restraint. Asami counts to ten in his head, but the usually calming act reminds him of Akihito and how much their relationship has changed since November.

Even when he’d just taken the checklist and his PTSD was triggered, he didn’t “need some space.”

With the cause of Asami’s argument with Akihito right in front of him, Asami feels his temper rising again despite his best efforts to master it.

Sensing the danger, Kirishima smoothly takes over. “Perhaps we should sit down. Can I offer you something to drink?” Kirishima pours Asami’s glass first before serving Toudou and his wakagashira.

Asami ignores the glass. He gestures to Kirishima to hand over his tablet. Asami plays the dash-cam video from earlier. “The only reason no one was harmed is because my men are so skilled. The question is: are your men so grossly incompetent they didn’t realize the effect such a collision could have on the occupants of the vehicle, or were they flagrantly violating the protection order under the assumption that feigned incompetence would be tolerated?”

Toudou’s whiskey goes down the wrong way, and he coughs despite his best efforts. “Play it again,” he requests.

After watching the video several times at varying speeds, Toudou leans back in his chair and sighs.

“Shuu told me he expressly ordered the protection order to be fully respected even as the warning was administered.”

Asami looks from Toudou to the tablet screen, letting the video speak for him.

“Shuu’s one of my best men. He’s been on the fast track for leadership; I was actually considering him for another promotion. He’s never shown any sign of cowardice before.”

Kirishima takes the tablet back from Asami. As Kirishima sets it on his lap, he deftly types a name into it so that only Asami can see it.

“Was it cowardice?” Asami asks. “Or was he trying to cover for you?”

Toudou blinks at him. “I’m not sure what you’re getting at, Asami-san.”

“You didn’t know that Kodama’s son had a protection order. He was injured in your territory, by someone working for your organization.”

Toudou’s eyes widen and his mouth moves wordlessly as various questions compete to come out first. He finally manages a single word: “Who?”

“One of your sarakin customers, who took a job in one of your Ni-chōme establishments to help pay back his loan. Apparently when he started blackmailing Kodama’s son to repay the loan faster, one of your members warned him that Kodama-gumi would harvest his and his family’s organs.”

Toudou pales but for once holds his tongue.

“Regardless of his motivations, this Shuu chose a warning method that did not honor the protection order,” Asami points out, bringing them back to the topic at hand. “For rather short-sighted reasons, too – both you and Kodama were bound to find out the truth once Kodama’s son wakes up.”

“Has he – ?” Toudou asks, growing even paler.

“Kumicho, can we have a moment?” Toudou’s wakagashira finally speaks up for the first time.

Asami stands up. “I’ve got to check on my other VIP guests. I’ll return in five minutes.”

 

Kirishima follows Asami out of the room into the employee hallway. “Ryuichi,” Kirishima starts but doesn’t continue.

Asami eyes him for a moment. “I know. I said too much.”

“Perhaps you should take the rest of the night off,” Kirishima suggests.

Asami’s look hardens. “I can’t. But I’ll be more careful. Make an appointment with Kurebayashi-sensei for the morning, as soon as she arrives.”

 

Fifteen minutes later, Shuu shudders as Asami and Kirishima leave the VIP meeting room without a backwards glance. Toudou’s wakagashira claps him on the shoulder.

“Do I really have to meet Kodama-san next? I don’t think I’m cut out for this.” Shuu can’t repress another shudder.

“Are you kidding? Kodama is a walk in the park compared to Asami-sama,” the wakagashira says. “And don’t you forget it. You would have been better off stabbing Kodama’s son yourself than crossing Asami-sama. You’re just lucky Takaba wasn’t actually hurt.”

“I ordered my guys to make sure not to harm him when they delivered the warning,” Shuu defends himself.

The wakagashira flicks Shuu in the forehead. “Your orders don’t mean shit. What matters is what actually happened. You’ve got to know everything your little brothers are doing. Don’t let the situation get out of control. When you’re in over your head, ask for help. And teach your brothers to do the same. As soon as Kodama-gumi was mentioned, you should have come to me. Now the kumicho has lost face with Kodama and Asami-sama.”

“Do you want my little finger as payment?” Shuu offers.

“What the hell? You think Kodama or Asami-sama want your finger? Your finger’s not going to do shit to help this situation. Your mistake has cost the boss a lot of money. You’ve got to make it up to him.”

“Of course,” Shuu says, swallowing hard.

“Little finger,” the wakagashira mutters as he leads the way out of Club Sion. “You kids have watched too many yakuza movies…”

 

Asami snags a few minutes of much-needed sleep on the drive over to Kyorin University Hospital. Kirishima wakes Asami up as the Mercedes pulls into a space in the parking garage. “Kurebayashi-sensei will be in the office at seven o’clock. Are you sure you don’t want me to reschedule the appointment for later in the day, though?”

“Seven is fine,” Asami grunts as he rakes a hand through his hair. “And have Kurebayashi keep her schedule flexible; Takaba may want to make an appointment later.”

Asami lights a cigarette, and Kirishima waits in the front seat to give Asami time to let the nicotine kick in.  After a minute, Asami squares his shoulders and says, “I’m ready, Kei.”

Kirishima opens the car door for Asami, and the pair stride quickly into the hospital.

 

“Thank goodness you’re here, Asami-sama,” Kodama says, leading Asami into Kento’s room, ignoring the weak protest by the nursing staff. Kirishima stays behind with Shibanuma in the waiting room.

“He woke up?” Asami asks, nodding at the sleeping figure on the bed.

“Yes. The first time was only for about ten minutes, but not long after he’d gone back to sleep, he bolted upright and asked to talk to me privately. He got so worked up, the doctors nearly gave him a sedative, but eventually we were able to talk.” Kodama keeps his tone low.

Asami nods, waiting for Kodama to get to the reason for their urgent bedside meeting.

“Is the other guy really in police custody?” Kodama asks, searching Asami’s face for the truth.

Asami nods. “He nearly jumped off a bridge. One of my guys stopped him from doing so.”

Kodama purses his lips. “I wish you’d turned him directly over to me.”

“That wasn’t my decision,” Asami says delicately.

Kodama rolls his eyes. “Yeah, your katagi Takaba. That debt has been more than repaid now.”

Asami’s eyes flash. “That debt will never be fully repaid, Kodama. You –”

Kodama cuts him off. “Turning that man over to the police could cost Kento his future – the future of my whole family.”

Asami pushes his anger into a corner of his mind where it can seethe quietly as understanding strikes that Kodama’s organization is in acute crisis. “You called me here to ask for my help.”

Kodama walks closer to the bed, reaching down and clasping Kento’s hand. He gestures to a chair beside the bed, and Asami sits. Both their backs are to the door. In a low tone, Kodama explains. “Kento is the one who –” Kodama coughs while making a gesture as if pulling a knife from a sheath. “Sorry, Kento is the one who is lying in bed, the same bed I’ve seen too many of my little brothers lie in.” Kodama makes the knife gesture again, and Asami gives an almost imperceptible nod to show he understands.

“But the doctors expect him to make a full recovery?” Asami asks. “There’ll be no trace left of his injury?”

Kodama gives a subtle shake of his head, indicating that the knife has no registration number or other identifying marks, as he says, “Well, he’ll have a sizeable scar, but other than that, they’re hopeful. They’ll do a fuller assessment tomorrow to make sure there was no tendon or nerve damage.”

“How many stitches did it take?” Asami asks, copying Kodama’s subtle gesture to indicate he wants to know how long the knife was.

 “Ten,” Kodama says, scowling down at his son.

Longer than it’s legal to carry. It’s going to be difficult to prevent Kento from being prosecuted for that, unless they can convince the cops it was the other guy’s knife.  “You said tendon or nerve damage – were Kento-kun’s hands involved?” Asami asks.

Kodama gives a subtle nod to indicate that Kento wasn’t wearing gloves, so his fingerprints were on the weapon. “Not his hand, but his forearm and side. He tried to pull the knife out, but apparently he was unsuccessful – thankfully, or he might have bled to death at the scene. The doctors don’t know if his lack of success was from Kento losing consciousness or from his hand not working properly.”

“Hopefully it was the former,” Asami murmurs.

A silence settles over the two of them for a long moment before Kodama breaks it. “Apparently Kento accidentally stabbed himself.”

“He what?” Asami asks, caught in a rare moment of surprise.

“That’s what he says.” Kodama waves his hand dismissively.

“Do you believe him?”

“He says that he surprised the other guy and managed to get the knife away from him” – while Kodama says this, he subtly mimes pulling something out of his pocket – “but when the other guy started panicking, Kento started waving it around and shouting louder, trying to scare the other guy and draw attention from anyone passing by. The other guy was caught against the wall next to the dumpster, and when he tried to get past Kento, Kento teased him a little more by slicing the air next to the guy’s face. When the guy dodged, Kento tripped and landed on the knife.” Kodama buries his face in his hands. “What the hell did I even teach this idiot?”

“I’m sorry, Dad,” Kento whispers from the bed, his eyes still closed.

“Sh. Go back to sleep.” Kodama takes Kento’s hand again and gently squeezes it.

“You look tired, too,” Asami says. “You must have dozens of people traipsing through your house right now, offering sympathy.” With his hands still on his lap, Asami circles the thumb and forefinger of one hand around two knuckles of his other hand, a symbol he made up to indicate the police.

“Yes. They mean well, but it can be a bit much,” Kodama says. “Thankfully my wakagashira is skilled at receiving the visitors while I’m here, as long as the visitors don’t get too pushy…” Kodama shrugs, and Asami gives a slight nod to show he understands that Kodama’s weapons cache should be difficult for the police to find using normal search methods.

“They’re going to be pushy unless they hear from Kento-kun himself,” Asami says, “unless…”

“Unless what?” Kodama sits up straighter and stares at Asami, hardly daring to breathe.

“Unless Kento-kun’s friend steps in for him,” Asami says simply.

Kodama narrows his eyes, trying to figure out what Asami is hinting at. “How would that help?” he finally asks.

“Didn’t Kento-kun’s friend visit him earlier?” Asami asks. “His friend’s word would carry more weight with regard to Kento-kun’s current well-being.” Asami subtly makes the knife gesture.

Kodama narrows his eyes as understanding dawns that Asami wants Kento to admit that he brought the knife – but lie about where he got it. “Kento wouldn’t like his friend to get involved in our family life. He doesn’t like to bring friends home.”

Asami shrugs. “Well, I don’t see another way if you’d like to cut down on the visitors. People are always looking for an excuse to see the inside of your historic home.”

Kodama shakes his head. “Kento is supposed to be outside my world. He has normal friends, a normal student life. He’ll be getting a normal job when he graduates. If his friends came to our house, it would ruin all that…”

“That depends on how good Kento-kun’s friend is. Does Kento-kun have any friends like that? Perhaps ones you don’t know about, but maybe Shibanuma-san does?”

Kodama thinks for several minutes before slowly nodding. “Kento’s friend Tsubaki stopped by earlier. He nearly pissed himself when he met me, but Tomoko says they’ve been friends for a long time. It’d be asking a lot of him. He’d need a lot of preparation.” Kodama’s hands flop back and forth on his lap. “And I’d have to ask Kento first, of course.”

“Of course.”

After a few more minutes of conversation, Asami turns to leave. “It’s terribly rude of me to bring it up, but Kirishima reminded me you’re six months behind on your tab. It’s ten million yen. Whenever you have a spare moment, you can settle your account with him.”

Kodama gulps. “I’ll have my wakagashira take care of it as soon as possible. Just give me a little time.”

“Of course.”

 

On the ride back to Sion, Asami briefs Kirishima. “Kodama’s son stole the knife used in the attack from one of Kodama’s men. Kento’s prints are the only ones on the knife.”

Kirishima gives a low whistle. “What’s Kodama going to do?”

“I recommended Kento confess that he bought the knife on his own, from someone the police can’t trace back to Kodama. Kodama is contemplating whether he wants to go that route. If he does, he’ll need to purchase a sufficient cache for Kento’s ‘supplier’ in order for Kento to be able to plea for amnesty.”

“We can’t use Kuroda for this one.”

“I’m aware. Who else do we have?”

“I’ll have to check our files back at Sion. How much time do we have?”

“Will Kuroda at least be able to stall?”

“He might be able to get us an extra hour or two, but that’s it.”

Asami grunts. “It depends on how quickly the police are able to get the story out of Kento’s classmate. He was pretty distraught, right?”

Kirishima radios his assistant to start the preparations. Asami is just nodding off when Kirishima addresses him. “Asami-sama? Where should we prepare the cache?”

“Do we have anything near Shizuoka? Kento-kun visited his mother’s brother there last weekend.”

“The Tanihara shipment is being stored in a warehouse there. I’ll rearrange things with him.”

Asami is nearly back asleep when his phone rings. He smiles when he sees it’s Akihito, but before Asami even has the phone to his ear, Akihito is already going off.

“What the hell, Asami? My story’s been pulled. Why the hell did you tell Kodama about the arrest?”

Chapter Text

Asami gulps. Shit. Technically I didn’t tell Kodama; Toudou did. I wonder who actually paid off the paper. None of that matters, though – it would only make Akihito more pissed off.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that would happen,” Asami says honestly.

Akihito snorts. “Sure you didn’t. You know, you wouldn’t have even known about the arrest if I hadn’t had to run my plan by you in order for Yoneda to back off and let me do my damn job.”

Asami takes a deep breath and counts to ten. Technically, I didn’t know until after Yoneda submitted his report for the evening… but again, that’s irrelevant and would just piss Akihito off more.

“I really am sorry,” Asami says, not knowing what else to say.

“It’s not fair!” Akihito bursts out. “It’s fine for you to interfere with my job whenever you please, but if there’s the slightest hint that my job might affect yours, you expect me to back down without even an explanation. And you won’t tell me anything that might even indirectly affect my job, and yet you know everything about my job and use it to help your clients.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” Asami protests. “Do you really think I would?” It’s not that long ago that I probably would have, Asami admits to himself without feeling the need to acknowledge that truth to Akihito.

Akihito sighs. “I don’t know what to think. Why did you have to tell Kodama? I was going to tell him tomorrow when Yagami-san and I went back to interview him again.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Asami admits. “I was goaded and let my temper get the best of me.”

Akihito snorts. “And that’s supposed to make it all okay? You got angry enough at me for mouthing off to Kodama, and then you go do the exact same thing?”

It’s Asami’s turn to sigh. “You’re right. I’ve already apologized. Would you like to hear it again?”

There’s a pause before Akihito quietly says, “No. I suppose not. What did Kodama goad you about? You telling me about Kurosaki again?”

“I’d better not say,” Asami says. He cuts off Akihito’s protest. “Look, you’re right. I messed up. I knew too much about your investigation, but I can’t tell you what’s going on with Kodama. Since we’re working on this situation from different angles, neither of us should tell the other what’s going on from our end from now on.”

“I never told you anything,” Akihito points out.

“You told me you were checking guys out in Ni-Chōme,” Asami teases. “But I’ll make sure Yoneda’s reports are less detailed from now on, okay?”

Akihito sighs. “Okay.”

“I’ve got an appointment with Kurebayashi-sensei in a few hours,” Asami says.

“About your mother?” Akihito asks.

“About what happened tonight. I shouldn’t have lost it like that. I’m sorry.”

“Oh.”

“She’s cleared her schedule for the day, so if you want to meet with her, just let her know when.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Akihito exclaims.

“You can talk to her about whatever you want.”

“I don’t really want to,” Akihito says quietly.

“You can talk to her alone,” Asami brusquely assures him.

Akihito can perceive the hurt Asami is trying to mask with his tone. “It’s not that. I feel like I’ve been thinking too much lately. I just need a mental break.”

“Didn’t you go over to Kou’s to think?” Asami asks.

Akihito laughs softly. “I did. And I guess I thought too much.”

“Let me know when you want to come home, and I’ll make sure I’m not there.”

“What?! Why?!” Akihito bursts out.

“I want you to feel comfortable at home,” Asami says.

“What the hell? I feel comfortable when you’re there, dummy.”

“Even after tonight?” Asami asks.

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?” Akihito asks, remembering the answer as the question falls from his lips.

“Akihito…” Asami says, suddenly sounding exhausted.

Akihito’s mind races. As comprehension dawns regarding the worries that must have plagued Asami the last few hours, Akihito grimaces. “Hey, you know that’s not why I left, right? That was fine. I mean, I guess it wasn’t really fine, but you apologized for it, and I know you didn’t really mean to lose control like that. I mean, you wouldn’t call it ‘losing control’ if you could control it, right?”

Asami cuts him off. “Akihito, you’re babbling.”

“Yeah, I guess I am. Sorry. I left because I was worried I’d keep saying things that would make you worry if I stayed with my mind all jumbled up like that. But I guess leaving made you worry even more. I’m sorry. We’re okay… right?” Akihito can’t help but hold his breath while waiting for Asami’s response.

Asami releases his own breath. “Right. I still think we should talk to Kurebayashi-sensei about tonight. And everything we discussed the other day.”

Akihito sighs. “That’s probably a good idea. For what it’s worth, Kou thinks your concerns about the exhibit might be reasonable.”

Akihito grits his teeth as he waits for Asami to seize the opportunity to gloat. Why did I tell him that? My stupid big mouth. Still, Akihito feels bad for having worried Asami, and he knows that Kou’s opinion might help assuage some of that residual worry.

To Asami’s credit, he tries to keep his tone neutral as he says, “Well, we’ll see what Kurebayashi-sensei thinks. Do you know what time you want to meet with her? I’ll make it work for me.”

Akihito rakes his hand through his hair. “I don’t think I can today. I barely got any sleep, and the editor’s really riding Yagami-san and me hard on this Kodama story. Besides, you’re swamped, too, and you’ve got that big meeting tomorrow. I don’t think we can do it until Wednesday.”

“If you’re still worrying about what to say to your parents – or to that cop – Kurebayashi-sensei could help you role-play various scenarios tomorrow.”

“I hadn’t thought of that. That might actually be helpful,” Akihito muses. He smiles a little to himself, gratified that Asami remembered Akihito’s Tuesday meetings despite everything else that has happened and Asami’s own busy schedule.

“Good. Let Kirishima know as soon as you decide a time. Preferably before seven, so I don’t have to take too much grief from Kurebayashi.”

“You have an interesting relationship with her,” Akihito says, the observation slipping from his mouth after months of thinking it. “It’s almost like she’s your surrogate… aunt.” Akihito changes course at the last moment, not wanting to bring up Asami’s sad memories of his mother.

Asami chuckles. “I think it’s more like an older sister. She took over from Kazumi when he… had some difficulties. He sort of adopted me when I was in college, after my mom died.”

So much for not making him think of his mom. Akihito decides to gently steer the conversation away from the sensitive topic. “You said you met him in the local chess club, right? While he was in the SDF?”

“That’s right. He was stationed nearby until my third year.”

“How did you meet Kurebayashi-sensei? Was she in the chess club, too?”

“She came occasionally, but she wasn’t an active member. I met her through Kazumi. She’s his sister-in-law.”

“I didn’t know that guy was married!” Akihito exclaims before he can help himself. “You shouldn’t work him so hard.”

“I don’t, and he’s not. Not anymore,” Asami says.

“Oh, wait, didn’t he name that Seven Potters mission after his daughter’s favorite book? So he’s divorced, huh?”

“No.”

It takes a moment before the truth dawns on Akihito. He gasps. “Oh! I’m sorry! Being a single parent must be really hard on him.”

“His daughter lives with his wife’s family,” Asami explains.

Akihito can’t think of anything to say but “Oh.”

There’s a short pause that grows increasingly uncomfortable on Akihito’s end.

“Just a second,” Asami says. He comes back on the line to say, “I have to go.”

“Okay. Be careful, okay?”

 

Akihito tiptoes back to Kou’s room, glancing at the clock. It’s already 4:30, and Akihito is meeting Yagami at the hospital at eight. Akihito sighs.

“Is everything okay?” Kou mumbles from his bed.

“Yeah, sorry for waking you.”

Kou is already asleep before Akihito finishes his apology. Akihito slides into his futon, hoping he can fall asleep again quickly. But his mind is swirling too much.

I really worried Asami by coming over to Kou’s. I should have stayed home. Even if I needed time to think, I could have stayed on the futon in my workroom. Or just taken a moment before speaking.

Akihito is filled with the desire to see Asami, to touch him and confirm their feelings for one another through that solid, physical contact. Whether Akihito’s desire stems from wanting to assuage the concerns of Asami or Akihito himself, Akihito can’t ascertain. It doesn’t really matter; it’s the same thing.

Akihito picks up his phone again.

Can I stop by and see you on my way to work?

Sure. What time?

6:45.

Come to my office at Sion. Take the express elevator.

Akihito places his phone on the floor next to his futon and tries once again to fall asleep, but his phone buzzes with one last message.

Check the inside pocket of your overnight bag.

Akihito reaches into the bag and feels around for the pocket. It’s lumpy. He fumbles for the zipper. His fingers first find a small bottle. Mystified, he reaches in to see if there’s anything else in the pocket.

When his fingers brush against a long, firm object, Akihito gasps and pulls his hand away. Surely he couldn’t have… He seemed shocked I wanted to leave, and he never left his office when I went to pack my bag.

Akihito doesn’t want to think anymore about the hurt look on Asami’s face when Akihito announced he was staying at Kou’s. Akihito’s mind is drawn back to wondering what exactly is in the pocket and when Asami put it there.

When Akihito’s curiosity has finally gotten the better of him (which doesn’t take long), he takes a quick glance at Kou’s bed before reaching in and feeling the object properly. The flared base, cylindrical middle, and rounded end leave no more doubt in Akihito’s mind regarding the object’s identity. He blushes and drops it back into the pocket. He still wonders when Asami hid it in his bag, but Akihito slides back down under the covers and tries once again to sleep.

His mind keeps drifting to the item in his bag and his recent activities with Asami. As Akihito remembers Asami teaching him how to use the toy, Akihito can feel his lower body stirring. Shit. I just want to sleep. Why did Asami send me that text?

But instead of calming down, Akihito’s body continues to heat up. I guess I’d better take care of this in the bathroom.

Akihito pulls out the items from his bag and tucks them into the waistband of his boxers. I’m not going to use them; I just want to see what they are.

He pulls his t-shirt over his head before climbing out of bed. He sets the toy and bottle on the bathroom shelf. They’re exactly what he thought they were – except that the toy is a different one than they’ve used recently. I should have known; it doesn’t have the taper before the base. But it doesn’t matter; I’m not going to use them.

Akihito gets down to the business of helping his body release its pent-up tension as quietly as possible. Nothing he tries works. He starts to worry that Kou will wake up and find out what he’s doing.

Worrying brings him closer to release, but it leaves Akihito with mixed feelings: on the one hand, getting it over with faster makes it less likely he’ll be discovered, but on the other hand, what does it say about him that worrying Kou might catch Akihito is making him more excited?

Thinking about that makes release seem even further away, so Akihito refocuses his mind on Asami. As frustrating as the bastard’s need for control can be, Akihito can no longer imagine his life without Asami. Hell, despite being a healthy mid-twenties man, he can’t even bring his body satisfaction without thinking about Asami. When was the last time I even did this?

Akihito racks his brain until he remembers: Fei Long’s gambling ship. He quickly thrusts that memory out of his mind as quickly as possible.

How did I even do this? He remembers the first time he pleasured himself thinking of Asami, in his darkroom. Akihito’s hand wanders up to his own nipple, pinching it the way Asami likes to. But something is still missing.

Akihito groans in frustration as his eye settles on the items on the bathroom shelf. I’m not using that toy. But in desperation, his hand reaches for the bottle.

Two minutes later, Akihito’s phone rings, echoing in the narrow space. Akihito automatically reaches over and swipes to answer it, cutting it off in the middle of the first ring. He hopes the noise didn’t awaken Kou as Akihito hits the speakerphone button.

“Moshi moshi.” he answers as nonchalantly as possible.

“What are you up to?” Asami asks, his tone giving Akihito a clear mental picture of the trademark smirk he knows Asami must be wearing.

“Trying to sleep,” Akihito tries to bluff.

“Is that what they’re calling it now?”

“Bastard,” Akihito mutters. “It’s what I was doing until I got that text. You knew what that would do to me.”

“Oh? Did you find something interesting in your bag? Are you using it now?”

Akihito knows that Asami is giving one of his rare grins that Akihito has only seen a handful of times. He would almost be wishing he could see it now if it weren’t at his own expense.

“I thought you had to work,” Akihito grumbles.

“So you are using it,” Asami concludes.

“Of course I’m not!” Akihito squeaks, barely remembering to keep his voice down.

“Then you won’t mind Facetiming with me,” Asami says.

“Seriously, aren’t you working?” Akihito asks. Asami wouldn’t ask if anyone else could possibly see, right?

“Kei banished me to my office and told me I wasn’t to talk to any more clients tonight,” Asami grouses.

“Really?” Akihito almost asks why but catches himself in time. We’ve had enough arguments tonight; there’s no sense in needling him. Instead, Akihito changes the subject. “When did you put that stuff in my bag, anyway?”

“Just before Christmas,” Asami says.

“Christmas?! Seriously? You mean all those times I’ve stayed at Kou’s, I’ve had them in my bag without knowing? What if I’d told him to grab something from my bag and he’d found them?!” Akihito demands.

“I thought you would find them when you were packing the bag. Anyway, I meant to tell you Christmas Eve, but things happened.”

Akihito remembers how they’d both had extra busy work schedules and had barely had a chance to say hello to each other on the phone over Christmas. “Whatever,” he mumbles. “I’m not going to use it.”

“So let’s Facetime,” Asami says.

“Why?” Akihito asks. “I really would like to sleep. I have a big day tomorrow, remember? And we’ve already talked. We’re good now, right?”

“Words of affirmation isn’t one of my love languages,” Asami says so quietly Akihito isn’t sure he’s heard correctly at first.

There’s a brief silence as Akihito processes what Asami’s just said. Akihito feels tears prick his eyes as he realizes this is the closest Asami has ever come to asking for something to fill an emotional need.

“I’m sorry,” Akihito says softly.

“For what?” Asami blusters.

“Sure. Of course we can Facetime. Give me a second,” Akihito says, knowing that if he acknowledges Asami’s vulnerability, Asami will close himself off again. Akihito quickly rinses his hands and sets up the mini-tripod built into his phone case. He double-checks that only his shoulders and face are visible before opening the app and calling Asami.

“Where are you?” Asami asks.

“In the bathroom. I don’t want to wake up Kou,” Akihito says defensively.

“Let me see more of you,” Asami orders.

“Why?” Akihito asks, trying not to fidget.

“If I can’t touch you with my hands, I can at least touch you with my eyes,” Asami drawls.

“Pervert. Are you some kind of voyeur now?” Akihito teases, even as he adjusts the camera.

“Lower,” Asami encourages. “I already know what you were doing. Besides, it’s silly to act embarrassed in front of me now.”

“It’s not fair if I’m the only one.” Akihito can feel his face reddening as his current state is revealed to Asami.

The look of raw desire on Asami’s face immediately brings Akihito back to the state he was in before the phone call.

“Asami…” Akihito whines. “Let me see you, too.”

Asami gulps once and adjusts his camera. He’s sitting at his desk, using his computer’s webcam. Asami rolls his chair back slightly. Akihito gasps when he sees how much Asami is already straining against his pants.

“Take off your shirt,” Akihito says.

Asami removes his tie and quickly unbuttons his shirt before loosening his buckle and undoing the zipper on his pants.

“Take them off,” Akihito whines, his own hand reaching down to stroke himself.

“Don’t touch yourself yet,” Asami commands.

Akihito immediately freezes. He can barely see Asami on his small phone screen, so he takes a step closer to the camera.

“I can’t see all of you anymore,” Asami says.

Akihito sighs but takes a step back. “My screen’s too small,” he grumbles.

“I can move closer. What do you want to see?” Asami offers.

Akihito blushes but says, “Your face.”

Asami laughs softly. He finishes stepping out of his pants and sits back down, rolling closer to the camera. “What was the point of undressing me then?”

“Shut up,” Akihito grouses. “Can I touch myself yet?”

“Get the toy,” Asami says.

“Asamiiii… What will I do with it when I’m done?”

“Put it back in your bag?” Asami says, sounding confused by the question.

“But how will I clean it?”

“With soap and water.”

“Oh.” Akihito reluctantly takes the toy off the shelf.

“What are you afraid of?” Asami asks.

Akihito shrugs. “I couldn’t… earlier…” His face is burning, and he can’t continue.

“You couldn’t come by yourself?” Asami asks. “Good.” He smirks with satisfaction.

“What do you mean, ‘good’? That’s bad! I’m a young, healthy male,” Akihito says.

“So? You have me. It’s normal not to do it by yourself if you’ve got something better available.”

“But…” Akihito trails off. There’s no way he can say it.

He doesn’t need to.

“You couldn’t come the normal way?” Asami guesses.

Akihito doesn’t say anything at first, but Asami’s eyes bore into his until Akihito finally says, “Yeah. What have you turned me into?”

Asami chuckles. “You don’t need to worry about that. You don’t always need the back too now, do you?”

Akihito glowers at Asami. “What are you talking about? It’s not like you’ve ever let us switch roles.”

“You said you don’t want to. But that’s not the only stuff we do together. You can come when I blow you, right?”

Akihito covers his face in embarrassment.

“Don’t do that,” Asami chides. “Let me see you.”

Akihito glares at Asami over the top of his hands.

“Now pick up the toy again,” Asami orders.

Akihito continues to glower but complies.

 

Thirty minutes later, Akihito leans against the wall, gasping for breath. He looks up at his phone and sees that Asami is gasping, too. He didn’t hold back. Akihito smiles softly to himself.

“Was it that good?” Asami asks.

Akihito blushes and glares. “Shut up. It was weird.”

“Weird?” Asami asks.

“It felt weird. Like…” Akihito blushes harder.

Asami stiffens.

“Not bad-weird,” Akihito hastily clarifies. “Weird-weird.”

“Weird-weird,” Asami repeats, eyebrows raised.

“Yeah. We’ve never used that particular toy before, right? But it felt…” Akihito blushes even redder.

“Familiar?” Asami guesses, his smirk returning.

Akihito glares but doesn’t deny it.

“Look at the base.”

Akihito looks at the base and notices that there are two kanji embossed on it. “Why does this have your name on it?” he asks, looking back up. “Is this a new business venture?”

Asami almost snorts as he says, “No, but good idea. There are companies that will let you customize things to your liking.”

“Customize?” Akihito asks. He can’t actually mean what I think he means, right?

“They send you the materials to make a mold, and then you get an exact replica back.”

“Replica? And you actually did that?! You just gave some company an impression of – of – of that?” Akihito splutters.

“Jealous?” Asami asks.

“Of course not!”

“Don’t worry, they’re very professional. They destroyed the mold after making it, upon my request.”

Akihito rolls his eyes.

“You know, they make toys for other parts, too,” Asami says.

Akihito furrows his eyebrows. “I don’t need any toys, thanks.”

“It wouldn’t be for you,” Asami corrects.

It takes a moment for Akihito to understand. No, that’s not possible, right? He looks back up at the phone, where Asami’s face confirms that his understanding is correct. “No way in hell!”

“Cheapskate.”

Akihito heads over to the sink to start washing the toy.

“I can’t see you,” Asami complains.

Akihito reaches up and adjusts the phone. “There’s no point in even sleeping now,” he grumbles as he notices the time.

“So come over here early. Just now was fun, but it’s not the same as really touching you after all.”

Akihito sighs in feigned exasperation, but honestly, he feels the same way. “I’ll be there in half an hour. Just give me a chance to clean up first.”

 

Twenty-five minutes later, Akihito finds himself riding inside the narrow elevator that takes him straight from the secret underground parking area directly to the top floor of Sion Headquarters. As the bookcase swings open to grant Akihito access to Asami’s office, Akihito sees Asami closing the clasps on the black case from Ginza.

One look at Asami’s face strengthens Akihito’s determination not to give Asami the satisfaction of asking. But I’m going to figure out what’s in there, Akihito resolves once again to himself.