Under the flickering brilliance of another neon sign, the boy with time on his hands waits.
He tucks his fringe behind one ear, stirs himself, for he's learned that perfect stillness makes one stand out, though he's capable as any of it. But today, that's not his mission.
So he reaches for his console, taps buttons idly with a practised, ritualistic ease, keeps his gaze down. One eye on the gaping maw of Gaien-Higashi-dori, the other watching, he blends into the shuffling crowd, ever restless, moving, unceasing.
And there are people, so many people: people of all heights and sizes, drifters, just passing through, harried salarymen with coffee in their hands, schoolgirls and boys who've lost their way, or, perhaps, not. The streets cough up all sorts of surprises.
His palms, in spite of himself, burn like a furnace.
He can't help it.
Not here like this, caught in the press of the midday rush - the thrum in the air is deafening, and the pounding in his veins won't stop, won't stop -
He breathes, shallowly at first, then deeper as he settles back into the moment.
this is where he needs to be.)
At the dodgy-looking hardware store across the road, a tall figure with dusty hair, hands in his pockets, saunters into view and nods at the proprietor. Right behind him -
Ah, thinks the boy.
He lowers his console slowly, turns away.
Uncharacteristically, he risks another glance over his shoulder -
A glimpse of dark grey catches his eye, a telltale, noiseless tread, hair that curls slightly at the ends. A whip-tight body etched in familiar lines, straight and true. Frayed a little round the edges.
The boy feels his palms go warm again, like his cheeks.
Swiftly, he rounds the corner and fades out of sight.
There's the scent of mint in the air, faint, a delicate thread winding its way across the dusky, lamp-lit interior of the bar, and it slices through the smoke like a needle, like a smile.
Akaashi Keiji, wiping his hands off on his jeans, leans over to rest an elbow on his countertop. He gives the customer a short, professional nod as chocolate-brown eyes meet his.
"Hey. The usual?"
"Akaacchi, I haven't seen you in a week, surely you can be more friendly than that!"
"That was friendly," Akaashi says, deadpan. "But I suppose it has been a while. I hope you've been well, Oikawa-san."
Oikawa Tooru flings himself down, bumps his knee and lets out a small, strangled whine.
"You're always so mean to me," he complains, slinging an arm over the back of his barstool. He spins, an absent-minded 360 degree swivel.
Looking at him makes Akaashi dizzy, so he turns his attention back to the task at hand as Oikawa slows down to match the rest of the world again, fingers beating a restless sort of tattoo on the ash-grey granite.
clink, clink, goes the ice in the glass, and Akaashi slides a mojito across the counter to Oikawa. It stops perfectly in front of him.
"I wouldn't dare to be mean to you, Oikawa-san. That's Iwaizumi-san's job."
"Ha." Oikawa laughs, mirthless. "You're hilarious."
From up his sleeve, there's a glint of gold.
So the evening goes, and the hours, as they do, slip through their fingers. Akaashi makes cocktails, washes glasses in his meditative fashion, wipes down the countertop with an almost fastidious attention to detail, and in the background, people lounge, sidle, pass by on their way to the bathrooms and the back alley. Some, he knows. Others, well, there's a first time for everything and everyone.
At the figure in black, with startling blond hair hiding his face, Akaashi blinks -
Thinks, he's seen him somewhere before, but as soon as the thought comes into his mind, it goes, and then he's just an ordinary customer, his presence unassuming.
Akaashi looks up at the clock, wonders where the time went and how long Oikawa plans to hang about tonight.
"Another," Oikawa calls, tapping the side of his glass, and Akaashi complies.
They talk - or rather, Akaashi listens, half-listens, sometimes, and Oikawa talks -
Of the weather, and warmth, the creeping, simmering warmth of summer on his fair skin; of going to the beach last weekend and the sand in his slippers, finding jellyfish off the coast, thin and glossy, of the noble temptation to pop them like bubble wrap.
please tell me you didn't, Akaashi can't help asking; Oikawa laughs gaily, says, in a manner clearly meant to be rhetorical, do I look like an idiot?
Akaashi refrains from further comment.
When Oikawa gets up to leave, something more than money changes hands, and Akaashi slips another pocket watch into the drawer under the cash register.
They make, altogether, a picturesque scene -
From tarnished silver to gleaming gold, to brass, simple and unadorned, on chains that flake with rust, half-broken, repaired, Akaashi takes them all. He does not open them, and he does not question.
It's not his place to do so. He's learned his place.
(Not the hard way, nothing as dramatic as that - he's always been streetwise, after all, and a quick study in possibilities, and outcomes.)
People drift in and out of the Holocene, ask, sometimes, for a whisky on the rocks, number 3, and Akaashi sets down a glass with a quiet, resonant sound, and nods.
He's all discretion, and he never asks for their names, as he hands over an appropriately tagged watch along with their change.
He hasn't come this far by knowing exactly more or less than he needs to.
On the other end of the bar, Konoha's sweaty, swearing, and down on his knees.
"What on earth," he mutters, glancing up when Akaashi approaches, "possessed us to think that installing a pinball machine would be a good idea?"
"But you're so good at fixing up these electronics, Konoha-san," Akaashi points out.
Konoha scowls. "That's what you said about the wall art last week."
"What about it?"
"But you're so good at getting the frames to hang straight, Konoha-san," says Konoha, his impersonation startlingly uncanny.
Akaashi smiles to himself and adds 27. mimicry to an ever-growing list, filed away neatly in a corner of his mind: the vast and sometimes surprising arsenal of tricks that Konoha Akinori, jack-of-all-trades, keeps in his back pocket.
He raises his bottle of chilled green tea cola to his lips. The glass is misted, and cool, and it's pleasantly tingly going down his throat, the slightest tinge of bitter-green sencha lingering on his tongue.
"You are, though," he remarks.
"Shut up," Konoha mutters. "I don't see you lifting a finger."
"Wouldn't want to get in your way," says Akaashi.
He leans back against the wall, and eyes their second-hand machine, bought for a song and a handful of change, made tidily off the Oikawa arrangement. There it is, in all its glory. The scrap heap of a boyhood spent chasing a different kind of shine.
It's ten minutes past closing time. The bar, sleepy on Mondays anyway, is starting to empty out; Akaashi isn't particularly bothered with the remnant stragglers. It's more troublesome chasing people out than it is just hanging around a little longer himself.
There's only the usual crowd in here tonight, anyway: him, Konoha, and some of the Iron Wall guys in the corner, that silent giant and his chatty friend.
"I bet you'd be good at pinball," Akaashi adds.
Konoha plugs in another wire. He looks up at Akaashi, sharp and sudden.
"I think you'd be better. You've always had an eye for your aim - "
Akaashi meets his gaze. A hush falls over them, fading away into night sounds, motorcycles and footsteps and the wind, picking up outside.
"Hmm," Konoha murmurs, not quite an apology, for, they both know, there is nothing to apologise for; only truths and histories.
He flicks a switch on the wall, and straightens. "There."
Lights spark, sputter, into neon-bright life, and it's blinding, for a moment. The machine even manages to cough out a cheery, incongruous kind of jangly tune as it wakes from its hibernation.
Akaashi, thinking of aims and the empty space at his hip, stares up at the ceiling for a moment, thinks, I've got a long way to go.
One step at a time -
He raises his hand, lets it rest on the clear surface of the pinball machine. It's so badly scratched up, one could, perhaps, make a legitimate claim that it impeded visibility while playing, but then again -
If it were easy, where would the fun be?
He turns to Konoha, an old, familiar sense of challenge stirring within, and Konoha grins, takes the words from his mouth.
"Well. Let's give this thing a go, eh?"
And they do, and as the hour grows late, Akaashi cracks open another bottle of green tea cola, takes another long swig and tells himself the caffeine does nothing for him.
It doesn't, really, but neither does it help him sleep.
So they stay up, long after the Iron Wall guys have sauntered off into the night, and Konoha proves, as usual, to be comfortably above average at this, with a strictly average amount of visible effort. He also proves - in that annoying way of his - to be prescient.
Akaashi has a long memory. So, too, it seems, do his fingers.
Sure, it's a different kind of targeting, but it's the same shadows, the same game of patience, of watching, and reacting, at a moment's notice. Knowing just how hard, and when, to pull a trigger - hit a button -
It all comes down to precision.
Akaashi doesn't break a sweat.
inhale, and exhale.
The ball drops, and Akaashi, calm, flips the right-side lever just so. Overhead, he knows the numbers are spinning, racketing up, and up, and he's definitely beaten Konoha's score. He'll beat it again, twice over, by a landslide, when he's done.
And Konoha's smile is a curved knife, but blunt, even gentle around the wryness of it, the unspoken I told you that Akaashi hears, and Konoha knows he hears.
They've been at this a long time.
That night, Konoha gets to lock up the bar, and Akaashi goes home a satisfied victor.
The streets have changed. This, he knows.
The streets have changed, on the surface: new shops with new facades, each one flashier, redder, louder than the next, and then nestled in between, the secret, closed doors. There are bridges with cracked stairs, trains that go faster and quieter these days, and lanterns that dim at this hour between night and morning, a haphazard festival of neon signboards, powering down.
They've cleaned up Roppongi, or so they say.
Akaashi Keiji knows better.
That's their Roppongi, of the shiny steel skyscrapers, Mori Tower and the art museum, looming bright like a promise. In the distance, Mount Fuji.
But this is his, and with a certainty of will, he claims it:
The smell of alcohol, lingering on the corners. Beer-soaked streets, seedy alleyways that wind on, go up in smoke by the dead end of a stroll, a modern-day chase. If he listens, they're always there: the whispers and glances, transactions, by daylight and lamplight alike.
A handshake, and another, of a different kind.
A noise, like sputtering exhaust, and then -
It's just business. Sometimes, it's even fun, for some.
(For him, though, it was always just business.)
And there are fault lines running deep through the pavements, fractured, broken tiles, and then there's dirt, on the walls, beneath his nails, the soles of his shoes, and maybe it's not the kind that anyone can see, but it runs, nonetheless, seeping off the kerbside, a wide streak in his wake. In the wake of others, their black, double-breasted jackets, their cigarettes.
He knows what goes on in the shadow of Zojoji Temple, out in the east. Pillars and doors, the mausoleum, with their tombs, their dead and their dying. So many hiding places.
They have their prayers, the ones who cleaned up Roppongi; and they, the ones who never left, have theirs.
Akaashi keeps his pace steady, measured. He tries to take it slow, as he walks home. Take it easy.
Most days, he succeeds; some days, the urgency boils up again, and it's never quite left his gut, that instinct burnt into him like he's got to watch his back all the time.
Like the neighbourhood, he, too, has changed without changing; perhaps it's more accurate to say that he'd known all along. What he's good at. What he was born to do, and what he really wanted, and the mile-wide gulf in between.
And he knows himself, with his uncanny sight, the best night vision this side of Tokyo's smile-sharp underworld, and his sense for danger. For self-preservation, against all the odds, and more -
For survival, beyond a phoenix-red dawn.
Konoha decides, after several games, that he prefers the darts to the pinball machine.
"It just makes a more satisfying kind of sound when it hits the board," he tells Akaashi, running a fingertip over the pinprick point of a dart, and Akaashi sees him press it lightly into the pad of his index finger, just shy of drawing blood.
"Whatever works for you, Konoha-san," says Akaashi, dusting off the sake shelves.
Konoha narrows his eyes, flings the dart in a manner that looks, frankly, reckless to Akaashi; sticks the landing nonetheless, a square and solid thwack in the bull's eye.
Akaashi nods appreciatively. "Nice."
"I gotta beat that bastard Oikawa next time," Konoha grumbles. "He hasn't been around for a while, hmm?"
"Yeah," says Akaashi, and he wonders, and then he lets it go, for now.
In the melting of days and nights, the blur that's the passing of evenings, of a week, and then another, there comes one particular occasion where Akaashi sees three familiar faces from behind his granite countertop.
Or maybe, just two -
The first belongs to a younger man in jet-black faux leather, dark circles round his eyes and dyed hair, buzzed short at the sides. The one Oikawa, with his penchant for the dramatic, calls Mad Dog.
Akaashi, with one appraising look, thinks: he's wet behind the ears still, far too new at this. He is the very opposite of discreet, and light years away from the kind of careful, considered indiscretion that his esteemed senpai pulls off so very carelessly. Still, here he is tonight, for better or for worse.
Every bit the consummate professional, Akaashi takes the manila envelope Mad Dog thrusts out to him without batting an eyelid, glances briefly at the cash inside and nods in acknowledgement.
He tucks it behind the Blue Sapphire Gin in the underbar for Shirofuku to collect, straightens, and pours Mad Dog his sparkling happoshu. A surprisingly light brew of choice, for the likes of him.
"No whisky delivery tonight?" he remarks.
Mad Dog glowers as he pops peanuts at the bar counter.
"No," he mutters, a pent-up sort of rasp.
"Hm," says Akaashi, and reserves comment.
There are things he can't help noticing, checking off, subconsciously. Little things. Things that might mean nothing on their own, like Oikawa's terseness over text, or that Iwaizumi's the one texting him more, these days, or that their visits have grown so sparse as to be noticeably so, by now, that they've got to send a gamble, someone as volatile as Mad Dog.
Akaashi can tabulate several possible reasons why someone like Oikawa Tooru might find himself preoccupied, too busy to swing by, even for his most lucrative and illegal business, and each reason's more troublesome than the next.
And he hasn't missed the white-suited figure with soft brown hair, casually seated in one of the plush swivel chairs at a high table, off by the window. The second face.
He hasn't ordered a drink. Akaashi isn't the sort of barman who cares, or can be bothered, to walk up to him and insist he gets one if he wants to hang out here. That's not the kind of place this is, and that particular brand of brashness is more Konoha's style, in any case.
But out of the corner of his eye, Akaashi sees Konoha skulk by the back, continue rinsing glasses and ignore the customer, understandably.
It's fine. It's not like they've got a conversational relationship with Yahaba Shigeru, the one with the limpid, puppy-dog eyes, lavender-sweet cologne and a temper, they say, that flares like quicksilver, might be the last thing you see in this life. They say he's Oikawa's right hand man. His anointed successor.
Ostensibly, Akaashi supposes, he's here today to keep an eye on Mad Dog; in reality, well -
And then there's also the small matter of fact that for the first time that he can remember, Akaashi can see the scratched, lightly splintered bottom of that old drawer under the cash register. Faded paint, traces of graffiti no one ever bothered to clean, peeking out from behind chains, cool metal and brass links.
He re-arranges his supply, spaces them out evenly, but there's no denying it:
The pocket watches are trickling dry.
Well, thinks Akaashi, with a shrug, that's not really my problem.
And then, the third face:
The possibility. The question mark.
"Konoha-san," Akaashi asks, keeping his voice low as he sidesteps smoothly across to him behind the bar counter. "Who is that?"
Konoha, eyebrows arching with curiosity, follows Akaashi's gaze over to a corner of the bar.
It's not the darkest corner, Akaashi knows. It's not where one sits to get noticed either. Tucked away near the door, it's lit by moonlight and the white glow of the street lamp just outside, but at an angle - if the chair's turned, just so -
Half in shadow, dimly illuminated, the face of the person there fades easily into the cracked walls, painted over. The dust doesn't gather there. It's neat, a convenient spot; it's a neutral sort of position, in many ways, and without a doubt, the best seat in the Holocene for people-watching.
It's Akaashi's own favourite seat.
Something about that rankles in him, stirs an uncomfortable kind of heat in his gut to see a lithe blond frame perched in it, shoulders hunched ever so slightly. And that's before, even, that flickering, maddening beat in his memory -
A feeling Akaashi can't shake, like he's seen him before.
Unexpectedly, Konoha tips his head back and laughs.
"Took you long enough. I've got a bet going with Bokuto when you'd notice that one," he says, wholly unhelpful, smug, even.
Akaashi shoots him an irritable glance. "Why? You think he's my type or something?"
Konoha raises an eyebrow, sets aside his dishrag and leans forward on his elbows, a provocative, sudden glint in his grin. "No one knows who your type is, Akaashi. Is he? I wouldn't have guessed."
"Konoha-san," Akaashi repeats, tonelessly.
"Ah, boring. Well - you won me my bet, so I guess I owe you - "
Konoha pauses, gives Akaashi a meaningful look as he juts his chin at the pinball machine.
"Someone's been beating your high scores, haven't they?"
Akaashi's eyes widen, a fraction of an inch.
"Oh. I see. Have they, now?" he remarks.
"Mmhmm," Konoha hums with a pleased satisfaction. "I'm surprised you didn't notice earlier."
"I have noticed," says Akaashi.
A smirk flashes across Konoha's face.
"Wondering who it was? Wonder no further," he says, a tinge of the theatrical, the mocking, in his voice, and then he turns to another customer, all charm, and Akaashi's left pondering the subtleties of Pinball Guy on his own.
He had been wondering, but only idly. He does not like to stare. He averts his gaze with a practised politeness.
As the night goes on, winds up, rather than down, he switches tracks on the iPod to a lush, ambient electronica mix, goes about his work, practical and efficient, as he does. Topping up the edamame, giving his regulars a friendly nod when they come in. Custom dictates, and Akaashi follows, with respect, that he asks after their health, first, and their friends, second; family, that goes unspoken, understood, on all fronts.
They're tight-knit, by necessity, a different kind of clanhood, of heritage, rooted in the very marrow of their bones. The dingy, rough-woven tapestry of old Roppongi. Unpretty, in the most aesthetic of senses. Falling apart. Sticking together, stubborn and bold.
Pouring shochu, shots of vodka. Talking. Remembering.
Time just flies by, doesn't it?
Seen the Ukai boys around lately — ?
No, I hear they've got their hands full with a new crew downstreets - a real hot mess - call themselves the Crows.
say, got a light? I'm all out.
Here you go —
And through the flickering flame, the heady haze of cigarette smoke, Akaashi steals a glance.
That's his work too, anyway, to watch and listen, keep a nose and ear to the ground and his eyes open, always open. Old habits -
After the odd familiarity, it's the stillness of Pinball Guy that makes him look twice.
He hasn't budged from that spot, all night, hasn't moved to the bar for a top-up, and Akaashi's noted the open bottle of water on the table, resting next to his elbow, that tall pint glass of rapidly melting ice. Not a drinker, either.
He holds himself deliberately, his movements at a minimum, shifting, now, to lean back just a little, legs dangling off the chair, toes pointed. Long, skinny boots hugging his calves, nearly up to his knees. Slender, but there's something that stops him right at the precipice where frail would be, keeps him poised.
His blond hair's almost like a curtain, the gauzy kind, walling him off. Not quite a don't talk to me, certainly not a welcome; a signal, Akaashi's sure, like everything else. It gleams fine against the midnight black of his turtleneck, brushing his cheek as he tips his head down, fingers flying across his phone. From time to time, he looks up. Towards the door. The window. The pinball machine, and the bar.
Akaashi's careful not to meet his gaze, not yet -
(And it's startling, startling and golden, lantern-like, and Akaashi can't shake the sensation that they're searching - or, perhaps, just biding their time - )
He wonders if he's waiting for someone.
He wonders if he's caught anyone else's eye.
He wonders, and lets the embers smoulder.
"What's his name?" he asks Konoha, as they get ready to lock up for the early morning.
Konoha shrugs, nonchalant. "Don't know."
Akaashi, falling back on old habits, treads with circumspection. "No family? Crew?"
"Don't think so," says Konoha, and his smile's wry, knowing, faintly dripping with faux-regret.
Akaashi pulls on his jacket, murmurs a poker-faced hmmm in response.
"Just so you know," Konoha adds, archly, "my next betting pool's got good odds on when that little kitten's going to get eaten alive. Want in?"
"You know I don't gamble. Also, you're terrible, Konoha-san."
There's no real malice, or much of any emotion, even, in Konoha's careless gesture, the way he tilts his head and says, "Hey, it's just facts, man. Going solo? Round these parts? He's got balls, or a death wish, and either way, I wish him a long and blessed life, truly, from the bottom of my heart, but - "
He pauses and spreads his hands, helpless, expressive.
Akaashi feels something tug from within. It's an incontrovertible reminiscence, nameless and yet utterly precise in the pinprick sensation of it.
"I don't think it's like that," he says. "He's - different."
"Oh?" is all Konoha says, with an interest too mild not to be calculated.
"Hey, anyone who can beat my high score at pinball has to be something."
"Ha." Konoha laughs, short and terse. "Don't get so cocky. What kind of something?"
"I don't know yet," Akaashi says.
He does not add, I intend to find out, knows, in all likelihood, he doesn't need to spell it out. Konoha smirks.
Pushing the door open, Akaashi heads out into the familiar embrace of night, siren-soft and haunting.
In his head, it's like a gear clicking into place, the grooves sliding quietly against each other. Not perfect. Not smooth, not immediately, but it never takes him too long to wear a thought in, and the quiet germination of certainty.
Brass and steel, cold to the touch and true as a single shot.
don't get yourself killed, says Konoha as they part ways under the bridge. An old joke, from an older habit. They've grown accustomed to this, the only kind of humour that keeps them going. Their thread to sanity. Rope-burn in their voices, and their farewells.
not if i kill them first, Akaashi responds with a dry smile.
Konoha walks on, a callous wave in the twist of his raised fingers, and Akaashi turns the next corner.
He hears the sound of a car horn in the distance, loud and sudden. A warning, and another, stirring in the belly of some unnamed beast.
Making his way down one of Roppongi's main roads, he approaches, distantly, a nondescript block with peeling paint. One of many.
And that's them, too, the awareness throbbing deep in his bones. All of them, even someone like Oikawa, the Iron Wall giant, and, yes, himself; one of many, faceless in the swell of those who fend for themselves, disappear and reappear again, if they're lucky.
It was on a night just like this, he remembers - clear as yesterday - that he'd turned, said -
I don't want to do this anymore.
He could still feel the phantom smoke from the tip of his warm gun, fresh in its holster, see it curl up into the night air and form a question, an impulse that spun on the silver edge of a coin. See the burn mark, fresh in the forehead of the man he'd brought down.
What will you do, then?
He hadn't known, for once. Had no answer, and it was his helpless silence, in retrospect, that had probably struck Number Four the most, led him down this path eventually.
It's not like he's got a bad life, now. He's only fencing the most dangerous, most sought-after contraband in Roppongi, and he's helping the Owls make a tidy little profit off the arrangement. All in all, it's probably the best he can hope for.
He'd be lying, of course - wouldn't be human in his desires, his imperfections and his cracked facade, if he said he'd never felt the temptation to steal any of those pocket watches from the drawer under his cash register, and make a little more time for himself -
Who wouldn't say no to a do-over? To five extra minutes - ten, thirty - a whole week -
A year, for redemption; two seconds, for the difference between making things right, and fucking them up.
Forever, for a freedom beyond even his ability to calculate.
It could be his - so close, so real -
But Akaashi's rational, far too rational to take that kind of risk, and he's shuffled his discontent off into a neat corner, tried to smother the part of him that dares to dream of breaking away, starting anew.
The next time Pinball Guy comes to the Holocene, Konoha nudges Akaashi in the side, somewhat roughly; and when he walks up to the bar, it's Akaashi who's leaning, casual, over the countertop. Who greets him cordially, like any other customer.
"Hi. What can I get for you today?"
Pinball Guy, cloaked in brown, pushes back his hood with a soft rustle. Sun-gold eyes meet Akaashi's own dark gaze, cast light on shadows, for a moment.
He asks for a shot of Choya alcohol free umeshu, hands dropping lightly to the counter as they fold themselves over each other.
His voice is pleasant. It's low, forgettable even, perhaps. Like the autumn wind's rustle, like a cirrus cloud, drifting by. Painting the sky. The walls, and the spaces in between.
Forgettable, and yet -
there, in the way of sounds that settle, sink and leave their mark like ripples on the sand, embed themselves into memory and being with a quiet inevitability, and, in the end, make themselves heard on a different sort of wavelength.
Akaashi pours the drink with steady hands. He starts to slide it over, smooth and noiseless across the granite.
Pinball Guy reaches for it.
They're an arm's length from each other - and then, a palm's breadth, the space of a slow inhale, and exhale, a careful turn of a wrist - millimetres apart -
And Akaashi slows, mid-motion, comes to a hovering pause, deliberate and subtle, just before the glass reaches the other side of the bar.
"I've seen you around a bit," he remarks, opting for the direct approach. "What's your name?"
Pinball Guy's hesitation is nearly imperceptible. He lets out a small breath, and then he says, like a protracted sigh, "Kozume."
It doesn't ring any bells, and Akaashi's been around. Knows the people he needs to know, knows enough.
Kozume echoes in his ears like a whisper.
He'd like to say it meant something, felt resonant, in some way. In truth, it simply slips through his mind, easy as water from a sieve, and then it flows like a passing river, or the lightest of rainfalls; and maybe that's the first hint, the trigger of something at the back of Akaashi's hyper-aware consciousness, that there's far more to Kozume than appears on the surface, because Akaashi Keiji is not the sort to let things slide through his sure, steady grasp like that.
Kozume's hand shifts, edges forward. His fingers brush Akaashi's as they wrap around the glass of umeshu, and he eases it, gently, out of Akaashi's hand. There's a sudden and unexpected warmth in the brief contact.
Akaashi, lips parted, starts to form another question; but before he can ask it, Kozume's cut him off with a surprising, certain swiftness. Like he knew exactly what lay on the tip of Akaashi's tongue.
"Kenma," he says. "Kozume Kenma."
"Nice to put a name to the face… I'm Akaashi Keiji."
He tips his chin, adds, by way of a conversation starter, "I hear you've been beating my high scores."
Kozume's gaze follows his, flicking over to the pinball machine. Akaashi catches, briefly, something like the ghost of a challenge in that keen-eyed movement.
It lingers when Kozume tilts his head back, makes a noncommittal murmur in response.
"I like games," he offers, without elaboration.
His voice dips lower.
Akaashi leans forward. He closes the distance between them, and smiles.
"So do I," he says, in his most pleasant tone, plum-sweet like umeshu.
That's the first time, and in days, weeks to come, Akaashi will think back on it, let it swirl in the eddies of his mind. A strange kind of deja vu.
He's no stranger to competition, knows, well enough, the taste of it, the tang of cold metal, and it's familiar in the most aching and direct of ways when it washes down his throat. Familiar, in the same way that Kozume is.
He looks like, feels like, he should be dark honey, the velvety kind with his soft-spoken exterior and his amber-rich gaze, the heat in his hands; what he really is, Akaashi isn't entirely sure.
Kozume retreats with his drink. They do not speak further that night. But every time Akaashi glances over, he's careful. Watchful.
Akaashi, all of his senses inlaid with the finely honed instinct of both hunter and hunted, has made a habit of knowing when he's being watched.
He can't tell if he's being watched.
It's not like Kozume tries to avoid his gaze, or calls attention to himself by standing out too much, too little, is it were. He's simply there. The murmured conversations, the footsteps and all the seductive smiles, the ambient noise of the bar seem to shape itself around him, like he has effortlessly made himself the still point, the centre, of all this restless motion.
(That's the first time, and then, there's the next.)
The hours fly by that night.
And on hindsight, Akaashi will realise, with a rueful kind of wryness, that it was no accident it felt like time had stopped, reset, started all over again when their eyes first met.
But he has other things to occupy himself with, that night -
Yahaba's here again. Konoha's made him a sakura martini, and he's draped like silk against the plush red chair he likes, legs crossed primly with a hand on his knee. Fingers tapping, ceaseless, nervous, even. Mad Dog's nowhere to be seen, so he's clearly got some other agenda.
A nervous Yahaba Shigeru is, by Akaashi's calculations, 2.5 times more worrying than an unruffled one, and Konoha keeps a sharp eye out for him too as he saunters out casually, picks up a handful of darts and tosses them with a deceptive insouciance.
He racks up a decent score, but barely half his throws hit the bull's eye tonight.
Akaashi knows too, taking in the crowd with a quick, surmising once-over, that Yahaba isn't the only one from the Seijou crew there tonight; he spots laid-back Matsukawa Issei, lounging on the sofa with the Iron Walls, and where Matsukawa is, there's Hanamaki Takahiro, not too far away, a lit cigarette dangling between his fingers. He's leaning against a wall, tapping the ash into the soil of the spider plant next to him.
There haven't been this many of Oikawa's inner circle in here since their opening 'do.
And over there - there's one of their newer guys, with sleepy eyes, skin like proverbial porcelain and cheekbones that could kill with their fineness - striking up a conversation with, of all people, Kozume, who's now whiling his time away on a console.
For a fleeting moment, Akaashi flirts with the dalliance that is Konoha's betting pool, lets himself wonder how much money he'll rake in, because this guy, he knows, he hasn't been around for long, but they say he's smart - and if Kozume's caught his attention -
Akaashi, restraining himself, stays where he is. All his self-preservation instincts prick like needles, tingling cold. He takes a step back.
The first rule of the streets: stay out of it.
Taking another sip of green tea cola, he goes back to the comforting, mindless rhythm of wiping one glass after another, starts queueing new music on the iPod. It's none of his business what his patrons do. As long as they take their violence to the back door, because blood's a pain to clean from his parquet.
It's with relief, carefully repressed, and perhaps, even, some satisfaction, when he notes that Kozume seems to be handling himself perfectly fine. After a brief exchange, the Seijou guy wanders off towards the bathrooms, stopping for a whispered word with Yahaba.
Kozume turns back to his game, apparently none the worse for wear. No one bothers him for the rest of the night.
Perhaps Konoha might lose money, for once. The thought amuses Akaashi.
Then someone comes and asks for whisky, number 5, and Akaashi cracks open a new bottle of Hibiki, reaches into the drawer under the counter and pulls out -
his next-to-last pocket watch, inlaid with gold filigree, grooves and scratches cool under his fingertips.
The second hand on the wall clock ticks, ticks faster,
(and two minutes, stolen from the whisky patron at the bar, disappear into suddenly warm palms, golden eyes flicking away.)
Akaashi's face betrays nothing.
He concludes the transaction, smooth, nothing out of the ordinary. Just whisky. The finest this side of the train tracks.
It's been a slow week, thinks Akaashi.
It's been a slow few weeks.
The empty drawer echoes like a lullaby, the kind that hums, lingers in your bones.
As the customer walks away, Akaashi picks up his phone and takes a quick look through his messages, just in case he's missed some word from Oikawa or Iwaizumi. He knows he hasn't. It's not like him to miss things.
He looks anyway, for the sake of it; there's nothing, of course. For now.
Flipping his phone shut, he looks across the bar and wonders if he should speak to Yahaba. Then remembers the first rule, and thinks better of it.
Past closing time, he does get a text message, though it's not the one he'd expected.
For one, it's not from a private number, for another, it's from quite possibly the most exhausting person in his life to interact with, at least in this direct manner.
(Perhaps that's an exaggeration. He's not so bad, in his way -
and Akaashi will even admit, although never so directly, that for two scrappy mongrels who started off as reluctant crew, they've managed to patchwork themselves into something that's family. The kind you pick up from the streets and keep closer than blood.)
He sighs, taps out a quick reply and makes his way home through narrow alleyways.
At this hour, the metro is quiet, quiet enough for him to hear the rustling of leaves overhead, and summer's scent is in the air, sultry and insistent, salty like a sheen of sweat.
Kozume, against all odds, stays alive.
Long enough, at least, to come round again, and Akaashi, giving up his pretense at objectivity, arches a knowing eyebrow at Konoha.
Konoha grins, makes an expansive, indulgent gesture with his hands like hey, time will tell.
So it will. Akaashi acknowledges that truth.
It's a night like any other at the Holocene. Some of the Nohebi Snakes are ensconced in a booth, in the darkest, smokiest corner of the bar; on the other end, white moonlight and street light strewn across their table, there are a few of the Eagles in dark blazers, with their stiff-backed stances, their severe, unfriendly gazes. No one tries to join them. None of the Seijou crew are anywhere to be seen.
This time, Kozume plays pinball.
This time, Akaashi watches openly, from behind the bar; takes in the easy slouch, the dip and curve of shoulderblades outlined in black, thinks, this guy must have ten of the same black turtleneck.
Kozume's steady stance is impressive, even to Akaashi, who's no stranger to self-control. He barely moves, gives nothing away as he presses buttons, and the numbers in LED lights fly, fly upwards faster than Akaashi can blink.
Akaashi, pressing his palms to the counter, feels the indents dig in, smiles to himself.
It's been a while, honestly, since he's felt this; this, the warm thrill flaring in his gut, this, a kind of itch on his fingers, the desire to match all of his wits against someone worthy.
"Konoha-san," he says, when an appropriate lull comes round, "will you watch the bar for a while?"
"Not like I'm going anywhere," says Konoha.
Akaashi flexes his fingers, feels his knuckles give a satisfying crack as he steps out.
"Now this I gotta see," he hears Konoha mutter from behind him, and he crosses the floor with his silent marksman's tread, approaches the pinball machine.
He knows for a fact he isn't breathing loudly, or anything of the sort, shouldn't be heard -
Kozume turns anyway, as if he'd been waiting.
There's calm appraisal, in the twist and arc of his neck. Akaashi imagines tracing it with an immaculate fingernail, close, closer, catching black fibres as Kozume slips away, backs off from the machine.
Graciously, Akaashi nods his thanks and steps up to the controls.
(and reset -
So it begins, continues, and Kozume stays by his side, his hands clasped tight behind his back as he watches, lets out, from time to time, a low hum of something like appreciation. It makes Akaashi's chest flare, with sharp, warm pangs that slice right through to the naked heart of him.
When he beats Kozume's high score by a hair's breadth, and steps back, satisfied with his handiwork -
He sees the faintest smile on Kozume's lips, and he smiles back too, and there's that gritty sort of everything in what they don't say, an unspoken compact.
Kozume takes another turn, and they play till the sun comes up.
That night, Akaashi, for once in his life, sleeps the long and uninterrupted sleep of the dreamless.
From: Bokuto Koutarou
HEY HEY HEY
Akaashi, with a mouthful of foam and toothbrush still in hand, stares down at his buzzing phone and wonders if it's finally broken on him. He could swear he'd received that exact message, a mere few nights ago, responded with a polite Hello, Bokuto-san, and got exactly zilch for his efforts after that.
That particular progression of events had not surprised him, so he'd thought nothing more of it. But - here, and now, again -
Akaashi reaches for his phone on the bathroom counter, checks the date and time. Sure enough, they correspond to the present moment, and he has two of those messages in his inbox. It's not a glitched notification repeating.
Just as suddenly as his phone went off, it goes silent.
Akaashi settles into an impending sense of doom, rinses out his mouth and contemplates his options.
Typical Bokuto. Capslock, boundless enthusiasm roaring off the screen, and not a single hint as to what's actually up, which is unsettling.
With midday glinting bright in the mirror, Akaashi tips his head up. Stretches out his neck with a slow rotation, rolls his shoulders back and down, rests his hands on the edge of the sink and leans forward.
Clear-eyed and heavy-lidded, his own reflection stares back out at him. He barely takes it in. He's still mulling over the enigmatic message, contemplating his options, when he's jolted from his reverie by the sudden bzzz of a vibrating phone.
His phone is ringing. It's Bokuto.
Akaashi takes a moment to steel himself before picking it up.
Deftly, he flips the phone open with a minimum of contact, and cradles it between his ear and shoulder as he dries his hands on a towel. "Good afternoon, Bokuto-san."
"It's me, yes," says Akaashi. "What is this about?"
"Big. This is about big. I mean, this is big! Are you sitting down?"
Akaashi leans back against the wall, pressing his free hand to the tiles. It's cool on his back. "No. I'm standing in my bathroom. Please start from the beginning."
"Sit down, Akaashi!"
Sometimes, it's easier not to argue with an order from Bokuto, especially such an inconsequential one, and Akaashi's learned about Bokuto's uncanny sixth sense in the most truthful of ways, in the hard and unforgiving gutters of Roppongi; and he knows, without a doubt, that even down a phone line, even when he can't see him, Bokuto will know for sure if he's not sitting down, and will, if necessary, resort to extreme measures to hightail it over to his house right now and sit him down.
So Akaashi sits down.
Perched obediently on the edge of the tub, he tells Bokuto so.
"Okay. I'm sitting," he says.
Bokuto lets out a long, slow exhale. When he speaks again, it comes out in a rush, as though all the words tripped off his tongue and got tangled in each other. "Someone wants to hire you."
Something in his hesitation raises all of Akaashi's guards. He feels his skin pricking, his eyes narrowing, even before the feeling registers in his mind. There's no name to it. Just that feeling like the ground's shifted, subtly.
"Hire me," he repeats, keeping his voice calm. For now.
"Hire you… Number Five."
A stone drops to the pit of Akaashi's stomach, sudden and sharp as the dip in Bokuto's hushed, dramatic whisper, and for once he's glad he listened to Number Four, whose advice, at the most unexpected of times, has saved his hide; who knows him, after all the fights they've been through, after all this time.
It's best that he was sitting down for that.
A year, for redemption.
"Bokuto-san," says Akaashi, evenly, "don't call me that."
"Akaashi," Bokuto retorts, sounding a little injured, "you know I wouldn't unless there was, like, good reason!"
Akaashi runs a hand over his face. He closes his eyes, listens to his own heavy breathing and weighs his responses carefully. It doesn't take him longer than 0.24 seconds. There's not much else he can say. Wants to say.
"When I told you I didn't want to do this anymore, I didn't expect there would ever be a good reason. Bokuto-san. Isn't that why I'm doing this gig at the family bar now? You offered. I took it. We had an agreement."
If it had been anyone else - at the mere mention of his old alias -
Akaashi would have politely declined, hung up without another word, kept his seething silent in the pit of his belly till it died; but it's Bokuto.
And Bokuto doesn't know when to quit. Doesn't know how to take no for an answer. Never has.
He plows on now, an insistent edge coming into his voice, tinny down the line. He must be somewhere underground. "But listen to this, I promise it's good - "
"I gave you my Baby Glock," Akaashi interrupts.
He bites off the words between his lips. They burn like bullets. The recoil hits harder.
And there's the powder burn, too, on the tip of his tongue, that smell in the air, fresh as yesterday, so much, so much for a year and a few days, so much for it all.
It's a plaintive, almost childlike noise, coming from him, and Akaashi buries his forehead into his hand, takes a deep breath.
"I know," says Bokuto. "I still have it. You're gonna want it."
Akaashi's laugh is bitter. "Am I?"
"They're offering you a price you can't refuse, Akaashi."
"There's no price, Bokuto-san, I'm done with all that - "
But then Bokuto cuts him off, says it.
The shifting ground gives way.
Akaashi falls silent, so silent that his own breathing roars in his ears, crashes like waves on a distant shore.
And he thinks it's almost cruel, really, how gentle Bokuto sounds in that moment, feather-soft, saying the very last words Akaashi had expected to hear, in this life, the afterlife. Perhaps, if karma deigned to smile on him from the lurking shadows, he would not have dared to dream of them even in the elusive next life.
He goes to see Bokuto.
From the back of his wardrobe, he takes a jacket off its hanger, smooths out its creases and puts it on. It still fits like a second skin.
He drops his hand to his side, runs it over empty air, by his hip. Thinks of his metal gods, the red-soaked altars, generous offerings in the dead ends and cul-de-sacs where no one thought to look. Or knew better than to try.
He goes to see Bokuto, and hates himself a little bit for it.
But Akaashi Keiji hasn't lived this long on unconsidered impulse, is nothing if not practical, ruthlessly, coolly practical, and he sets aside sentiment, because - as it turns out -
He can be bought, after all; after all, for the right price, he will wrap his fingers round his trusty Baby Glock once more, and he will become a myth that he'd tried to leave behind.
Number Five, the most lethal hitman in all of Roppongi -
So Akaashi, squaring his shoulders, feeling his tattoo prick fresh, goes to see Bokuto. And all the way there, even the dust on the streets dares not stir at his purposeful footstep.
In the clear blue sky overhead, the midday sun blazes, unforgiving.
"It's from Oikawa. He asked for you. Personally," says Bokuto, without preamble.
His smile is brittle, but bright, and, impossibly, hopeful.
Leave it to Bokuto to be hopeful in the midst of all this - all this, well, death.
Akaashi, perched on the edge of a far too comfortable leather couch, the kind that one could sink right into and fall asleep to one's own peril, swallows his surprise. It goes down like - well, like whisky. Oak and vanilla and a strange kind of smoke. They're in the basement of some nameless club, on the edge of civilisation, or what passes for civilisation this side of Nana-chome.
It smells like coffee, black and earthy, and whatever new cologne Bokuto's trying these days. He'd always liked switching up his scent. Keeps them off guard, Akaashi!, he used to declaim, and Akaashi hadn't bothered to ask who them was exactly.
"Huh," Akaashi says, nonplussed.
Bokuto leans back against a grubby brick wall, arms crossed, and lets out a dramatic sigh. Even the spikes in his hair seem more pointed today. Bristling like they know something's going down.
"Y'know, lately, how things have been, like… slow?"
He waggles his eyebrows meaningfully at Akaashi as he trails off at the end of his question.
Akaashi, clasping his hands together, says, "Bokuto-san, you don't have to talk in riddles," thinks he probably knows the answer to this one anyway, if Oikawa's involved.
"Oikawa and Iwaizumi are out of time."
"I guessed," Akaashi deadpans. "I haven't told anyone, though."
"Well, wait for it, wait for it! That's not all! The reason they're out of time is…"
Bokuto pauses, like he expects a drumroll to come in; Akaashi, placid, stares up at him in silence, fingers twisting round each other in a patient dance.
"Ah, you're no fun," says Bokuto, deflating.
"Bokuto-san, does this have anything to do with anything?"
"We-ell, they're out of time because their time thief has stopped selling it to them."
Akaashi feels himself do a double take, sees Bokuto's eyes narrow slightly with satisfaction.
"Their time thief," Akaashi repeats, slowly.
"Yeah," says Bokuto, and he makes a big show of raising his index finger to his lips, mouthing an exaggerated sort of shhhh, casual, like he hasn't just let Akaashi in on the biggest, most unspeakable secret in Roppongi's criminal underworld, like the truth behind the Seijou family's sudden wealth over the past two years, stranger than fiction, hasn't just slipped through those careless teeth. They're gleaming now as they flash at Akaashi, a lightning-quick grin.
The question's done its rounds. No one's ever dared to ask it out loud, even when Oikawa's out of earshot. Words have a way of finding their way back to him.
Where do they get all their time from?
"So they have someone," says Akaashi, piecing it together, "who steals the time for them. And puts it in those pocket watches. It's a person. Their secret is - a person."
It seems incredible, and incredibly pedestrian, when he puts it into words like this. It is suddenly and so unutterably fragile, this great mystery, on whom the delicate balance of their underworld hinges, for Akaashi knows better than anyone how easily a person's life can burn out, be snuffed out - can turn, in a matter of seconds -
Accidents happen, and fate, not as capricious as anyone would believe, goes to the highest bidder.
A bullet makes no distinction.
And in Akaashi's mind, it all clicks into place with a dead-set certainty.
"The mark. It's the time thief," he says, looking up at Bokuto. It's not a question. He knows.
"Isn't it?" he asks, anyway, and Bokuto nods, spreads his hands expressively and goes on with the brief, all business.
"They don't know why he stopped. He's just gone MIA. Ceased contact."
Akaashi eyes Bokuto, wary. "Why does Oikawa need me for this? There are a hundred other men who could do the hit."
"They're, like, desperate, Akaashi. Of course they'll pay for the best! Can't have him selling time to anyone else, eh? Also, there's kind of a small complication…"
Of course there is. Akaashi frowns. "What kind of complication?"
"They don't know who he is."
"What do you mean, they don't know who he is?"
Bokuto gesticulates wildly. "They've never seen him face to face. He only talks to them through text. Never answers his phone if they call."
"And I suppose," Akaashi fills in, mind whirring into weary motion, "Oikawa and Iwaizumi pick up the pocket watches from a dead drop, and no one has any idea who this time thief is, and they want me to hunt down a phantom and eliminate it."
"Exactly!" Bokuto cries, a delighted smile spreading over his face. "You were always the smart one, Akaashi!"
Akaashi lets out a long, measured breath.
"So. I do this. And I get - my freedom."
Bitter. Bittersweet. That's how it tastes on his tongue, unused, as it is, to wrapping itself round that one particular word, how unreal it seems, even now when it lies within his grasp.
"Oikawa's buying you out. He's already paid, like, a show of good faith!, he said - "
"That manipulative bastard," Akaashi mutters, under his breath; Bokuto plows on, oblivious. Or deliberate. It's hard to tell, with him.
"Half in cash. Upfront. And get this, Oikawa says Irihata himself will answer to Yamiji," says Bokuto, clapping a hand solidly to his heart as he looks Akaashi full in the eye, and Akaashi thinks that Number Four, always the picture of painful honesty at the best and worst of times, has never looked so serious.
Bokuto's fingers curl round the lapel of his jacket, clutching the fine Italian fabric like he might tear it off. When he speaks again, it's almost pleading.
In that moment, they're a world away, the furthest thing from Number Five and Number Four, and they're not even Bokuto Koutarou and Akaashi Keiji, who've carved their way up from mere crewmen into the upper echelons of the Fukurodani family, made a name for themselves that transcended the reality of who they were.
When it all comes down to it, who they are is this:
Just two boys from the street who fought, and lived, under the same harsh moonlight, and to call Bokuto his oldest friend would not even begin to scratch the surface of that complex iceberg.
"It's a promise, Akaashi," says Bokuto, softer than Akaashi's ever heard him. "It's what you've always wanted. Just this last hit. And you'll be free."
Akaashi sits up straight, cracks his resolve against his spine, vertebra by vertebra.
Here in the basement, there are no windows, no sunlight, and they're boxed in with nothing but a fluorescent glow overhead and the luminosity of their fierce and desperate hope, and it is blinding, dazzling -
Palm upraised, wordlessly, Akaashi holds out his right hand.
Bokuto, prepared, all along - of course, of course he'd have been, there was always only one answer to this proposal -
Takes a moment, pops open the locks on the briefcase by his side.
With reverence, he removes a slim object wrapped in velvet, and the mere outline of it makes Akaashi's breath catch, lose track of the hour, the minute, the second and now, even as Bokuto's striding over, placing it into his open palm.
It hasn't changed, not an ounce, not a milligram. The heft of his Baby Glock. The weight of destruction.
one last time.
He's hunted down worse than flesh-and-blood phantoms.
"You look busy tonight."
Akaashi, preoccupied with sake, beer and the return of a deeply familiar yet portentous weight to the inside pocket of his jacket, feels his attention shift like a warm, gentle tug; looks up into a face half-veiled in gold.
Kozume, on the other side of the counter, hasn't bothered with niceties or greetings. He's made himself comfortable, sliding into one of those hard plastic barstools like they're nothing to him, and he hasn't bothered, either, to order a drink, to talk to anyone else. Akaashi gets the feeling he's the sort of person who doesn't have much use for casual conversation, with all the implications of that assumption.
In the single-minded, deadly focused light of those pale eyes, he allows himself a private moment to bask, and then it's back to reality and the smell of cedarwood and smoke.
"Kozume," he says, with a nod. "Yeah. I don't think I can play till later. If at all. It's a busy night. Can I get you a drink?"
Kozume shrugs. "Anything."
"Anything without alcohol," Kozume adds, an afterthought.
But you know that by now. He doesn't say it. Akaashi understands well enough, anyway.
"How do you feel about caffeine and obscene amounts of sugar?" he asks, reaching down to the mini-fridge he keeps for himself in the underbar.
A tiny smile crosses Kozume's face, lingers like the setting sun.
"That sounds nice."
Akaashi takes out a precious bottle of green tea cola, cracks it open and sets it on the counter in between them, meeting Kozume's curious gaze head on.
"This is the most valuable drink in all the Holocene," he says, and he's only halfway facetious; the other half of him's incredibly serious. "Green tea cola. My own stash."
"How much - " Kozume starts, but Akaashi waves a dismissive hand.
"On the house. Just don't tell anyone about it. Or, surely, these seasoned alcoholics will be climbing all over the bar counter to lay their hands on some."
Kozume laughs. It warms Akaashi to hear, as do his next words.
"Thank you. I'll keep it our secret."
He says it like he knows something about secrets.
Picking up the bottle, Kozume takes a sip, swallows; Akaashi watches the bob of his throat as he tips his head back, notes the pleased tingle in the curve of his lips, the way his tongue flicks across them, satisfied.
"Do you like it?" Akaashi asks.
Kozume nods. "Mmm. Yeah... I like sweet things."
"I thought you might. Umeshu is sweet."
"You remembered what I got. The first time," Kozume murmurs.
There's no surprise in his voice, only a quiet kind of realisation, and that pleases Akaashi.
"I do," he says.
He doesn't offer elaboration. Doesn't stick around for the scintillating conversation, much as he might long to, for it's a Friday night and the bar is packed, and there are a million and one things he has to keep an eye on. Over in their usual corner, one of the Nohebi snakes is leaning across the table, looks like he's about to rough someone up for a loan gone bad; and then someone in a pinstripe suit and dark, neatly parted hair comes up and orders a gin and tonic in the most mildly pleasant tone imaginable, which Akaashi takes note of, assumes to mean he is very dangerous indeed. He looks kind of familiar.
"I've seen him before," he mutters as the customer walks away with his drink, and Kozume startles him by speaking up.
"The Crows," he supplies.
Akaashi shuffles through his excellent memory. It doesn't take him long to cast about systematically, light upon the ragtag bunch that the Ukais have pulled together. It's not their first rodeo, some of them. The one with the lightning-bolt shock of dyed blond hair in his fringe, the blue-eyed boy with the permanent frown - they've done their time, cut their teeth on other streets beyond Tokyo's, so the rumours go, and they're hard-nosed, scrappy as all hell in a fight, the backbone of those Crows.
They'd have to be, Akaashi supposes, to even be sitting in here in numbers, unmolested.
His gaze flicks back towards Kozume, whose thumb swirls, idly, round the lip of his green tea cola bottle. The lilting, glassy hum it makes is a song only for their ears.
"You know the scene pretty well," he remarks.
Kozume doesn't move, doesn't rise to the bait. He keeps his eyes trained on the bottle in one hand, his head tilted, propped up on the other, and Akaashi marvels all again - with a professional's eye - at the beautiful economy of his movement.
"I guess I do," Kozume says, noncommittal.
"And what about you? I haven't seen you with any crew," Akaashi ventures to ask.
He's going out on a limb, he knows, driving straight home like this; it's not quite done, lacking the kind of dagger-sharp subtlety that questions are customarily steeped in, round these parts, but Akaashi, like he'd told Konoha, does not gamble.
He waits for an answer, and shores himself up against his particular brand of conviction, an intuition cool as ice.
Kozume shakes his head.
"No. I'm not with any of them," he says.
He doesn't volunteer any more information than that, punctuates his response with another sip of cola. His expression's the picture of unruffled abstraction, his brow unfurrowed. The rise and fall of his shoulders, his chest, his breathing, it's all steady, steady, and he doesn't look disturbed by the bare fact of his solitude, holds himself like the danger of it has never even crossed his mind. Or perhaps, like it has and he's simply shrugged it off somehow.
Akaashi, looking at Kozume's outward calm, weighs his options and takes a calculated risk.
"Why not?" he asks, keeping his voice neutral. Curious. Just a little.
He's careful, skirting the edge of probing; bodily, he backs off some, doesn't come too close, but his gaze stays on Kozume always, because if he takes his eyes off him for a moment, he might miss something. A shift, a glimmer - precious seconds -
"That kind of hierarchy… I don't like it," Kozume says.
There's no hesitation in the truth of his answer, only in finding the words for it, and Akaashi sees Kozume press his lips together like he's biting the inside of them, unconsciously.
"I get that," says Akaashi, with a nod. "Thank you for telling me."
"It's like - "
Kozume's face relaxes, slips into something like irritation, and Akaashi smiles to see the mask slide away, just a tiny inch.
"The senpai lording it over everyone, just because they're a bit older, being rough with the new guys, I just… I don't like it."
Akaashi picks up a glass, fills it with ice and sets it down by Kozume's half-drunk bottle, so it looks natural when he leans in and speaks softly, a conspiratorial sort of whisper.
"Between you and me, I really admire you."
Kozume's eyes widen.
But even as Akaashi draws closer, even as his breath fogs up the narrowing space between them, and dissipates, like mist, like cigarette smoke, Kozume stays his ground, does not retreat.
Their secrets sprawl like cobwebbed silk, a fine pattern in their underlying omissions, admissions; their truths something earthier, harder.
Emboldened, Akaashi speaks his mind.
"It's tough out here with a crew. Even if you're one of a family. To go it alone, and be okay, like you, well - it's pretty amazing."
His words are plain and unadorned. For someone who loves sweet things, they lack sugarcoating.
Kozume takes them anyway, flushes slightly, and the pink in his cheeks says enough.
Later - when time has flown by -
When he looks back, standing on a dark rooftop in the shadows, and he's wet, blinking raindrops from his eyes; when the merciless wind howls in his ears and a chill of another kind burns sharp in his fingertips, his chest, Akaashi will realise two things -
An uncomfortable lie and a truth, even more brutal, in quick succession.
The lie: he should have known all along.
The truth: he had known, somewhere deep within him, even from that first conversation with Bokuto; he'd denied it even from himself, and now, he'd pay the price.
"So, is there anything at all? Any intel for me to go on? I'm good, but I'm not good enough to find a time thief out of thin air..."
"No face. No name. Hey! Maybe it isn't even a man."
"Bokuto-san, this is only getting more and more ludicrous."
"Okay, okay, Oikawa has these theories about the type of person it is, but I don't know if - "
"I'm listening. Talk."
"He thinks it'll be, like… someone who's good at not being noticed. Good at mingling into crowds. But he's gotta be someone who hangs out with crowds a hell of a lot."
"Because he steals a hell of a lot of time. So it's like, he must be around a lot of people, something like that? I don't really get it."
"I see… you know, Oikawa-san is terrifying when he puts on his psychoanalyst cap."
"God, don't tell me! Gives me the creeps! I'm glad it's not like we're friends or anything!"
"Did you get his number?" Konoha asks slyly, sidling right up into Akaashi's personal space as they walk out that night.
Akaashi side-eyes his unrepentant associate, steps away politely and opts not to dignify his prying with an immediate answer.
"I've got a lot on my mind right now, Konoha-san," he says.
Konoha stuffs his hands into his pockets and looks away, but not before his gaze flashes quickly to Akaashi's jacket, all that it conceals, and all they cannot talk about here in the open, beneath the wide night sky, in the mouths of alleyways and sputtering lamplight.
"I bet you do," says Konoha. "Don't envy you."
They cross the road. In the summer night's sweltering still air, the lights seem to shimmer. The white paint on the tarmac is chipped, faded, faint streaks where the markings of a pedestrian crossing used to be; it's been lost for a while.
They cross the road here anyway, out of habit.
Akaashi thinks of knowing, of intuition and things he cannot frame in words.
When they part under the bridge and Konoha bids him farewell with his usual, don't get yourself killed -
Akaashi says, without missing a beat, not if i kill him first -
i got his number.
And he turns, walks away briskly from Konoha's gasp, a satisfied smile curling the corners of his lips.
(it's the funniest thing ever, how jokes come back to haunt, prophetic.)
Kozume texts like he speaks. Laconic. To the point.
hey, he says, i want to show you a place.
What kind of place?
you'll see when we get there.
So Akaashi folds his newspapers and sets down his coffee cup, with a rustle, with a dull, ceramic clink on the cool metal of his table. He stretches his arms overhead, rolls his stiff shoulders back and down and stands up.
The morning sun's in his eyes, and for once, he does not put on his running gear when he hits the streets, this time of day; he picks out a T-shirt in white with black and yellow accents because he, unlike Kozume, has more than one kind of top in his wardrobe, and when he spots the ubiquitous black turtleneck and blond hair leaning against a disused telephone booth just across the street from the station, he can't help but permit himself a tiny smirk.
"Morning," he says, with a nod, and Kozume looks up, lowers the console in his hands and casts a quick glance at his wristwatch.
"You're on time," he murmurs.
Akaashi raises an eyebrow. "You sound surprised."
"I mean, you're exactly on time… most people aren't, you know. They're a bit early. Or a bit late. By a minute, or two, even if they think they're exactly on time…"
"I'm a very accurate sort of person," says Akaashi, and he's precise, in the way he angles himself, heel-toes his sneakers off the kerbside and onto the pavement, snuffing out a still-smoking cigarette butt along the way.
Kozume studies him, amusement in his keen-eyed gaze, and slides his game into his pocket.
Akaashi falls into step next to him.
They do not speak, as they walk, and the first thing Akaashi notices is that Kozume's tread is as silent as his own, which is to say the kind of silence that blends into the background noise of Roppongi mornings, the screech of tyres and rubber and sparks, the low chatter and tired yawns. Not absolute silence, no, there's another common misconception - because absolute silence is its own kind of roaring, deafening noise -
"You know your way around," Akaashi remarks, and that's the second thing he notices, though he can't say he hadn't already grasped as much, made his private speculations and deductions.
Kozume, who's produced an apple from somewhere within his mysteriously capacious pockets, bites into it with a soft crunch and shoots Akaashi a blank stare.
For the next two blocks, the sound of his munching and the trains overhead are their rhythm and their soundtrack; and Akaashi, who burnt away his ash-grey youth watching these very streets, spends this time, now, instead, watching Kozume watch them.
What catches his eye is not what catches Akaashi's, but it's captivating -
Where Akaashi sees escape routes, smoke on corners, men with Dunhills and cans of Sapporo in their hands, because it's never too early to start drinking, Kozume's gaze darts and lingers on things like the crates of fresh oranges at the fruit stall, a crushed juice box by the gutter, teenagers sauntering down the street with new consoles, the shape of the clouds, a balloon, floating meditatively, through the sky.
With a pang, Akaashi wonders where their worlds meet and if he can make that space real, here in this neighbourhood of deceptions.
They're still on Gaien-Higashi-dori, but they're nearing the outskirts of the district now, where the crowds are sparse, the shops quieter. If Akaashi focused, shut out the ambient noise from his senses, he thinks, he could hear the birds sing. The tiles are cleaner, here. Bicycles line the railing.
Beneath a street lamp and a huge metal sun in faded gold, an entryway like carved rock, Kozume's footsteps come to a pause.
"Do you know this place?"
Akaashi doesn't need to look up to read what it says on the sun.
"Vortex," he murmurs. Roppongi's last arcade.
He had hung out here, like everyone else; he'd blown reasonable amounts of money on various incarnations of Tekken and Gunslinger Stratos, and he'd stayed just long enough never to draw too much attention to himself, been careful to remain in the flashy shadows that Bokuto and Konoha cast. But it had been a kind of safe haven, in its way; or, at least, as close as it came on the streets, where you lived or died by simple rules, where no one questioned teenage boys who weren't in school or juku, and who had tattoos of the numbers four, five and seven peeking out from their shoulderblades.
(Where Bokuto had gone for bold, feathered, white wings stretching from either side of his boxy kanji, Akaashi's flowed like water, fluid brushstrokes in black calligraphy.)
But Vortex had closed, a few years back, and Akaashi had been there to see the sign on the shutters, taped-up scraps of paper full of portent and farewell.
We have become a city where there are no arcades.
The summer sun had weathered it down, winter's rain frayed it, made the letters run, till it was torn and forgotten, another artefact soaked in neon-lit nostalgia, buried in the furiously beating heart of old Roppongi.
"Is this what you wanted to show me?" Akaashi asks.
Kozume gives no sign, either way.
He doesn't nod, doesn't shake his head or shrug; instead he reaches out, brushes Akaashi on the back of his hand, and it's the lightest of fluttering grazes as he turns and continues walking down the road, towards the corner of the block. Perhaps, if it'd been anyone else, Akaashi would have chalked it up to a careless touch.
Kozume isn't the careless sort.
Giving Akaashi a glance over his shoulder, he beckons with a tilt of his head, and Akaashi, all out of words, follows.
They wander round to the back alley, behind the row of shops where Vortex is.
Without warning, Kozume's arm darts out -
Pushes a door open, and it's the noiselessness of it that makes Akaashi's ears prick; there's a thin layer of dust on the handle, on the frame, but it swings open without a squeak.
In one smooth motion, Kozume crosses the threshold into the abandoned interior of the Vortex, and beyond him, Akaashi catches a glimpse of a concrete landing that's seen better days, a shell filled with ghostlike echoes, echoes of game over and a different kind of childhood, a Technicolour one.
Then he snaps back to now, and everything's greyscale and Kozume's turning to look back at him. The breeze sweeps his hair back past the fine line of his cheekbones.
come on, his eyes call. hurry up.
So Akaashi trails behind, shuts the door in the wake and follows Kozume up a dark, winding stairwell, and it smells musty, like old sweat and cigarettes, it smells like discarded beer cans and broken glass, and here in this sodden excuse for a back corner, they don't even get the saving grace of a draft of fresh air from anywhere. It's cramped. It's uncomfortable. It's not a stairwell made for the clean, glitzy side of Roppongi.
Truth be told, the dankness of it feels like home down to the very pit of Akaashi's stomach.
He feels himself relax, the tension sliding off his back, his guards down, just a little bit, and it's Kozume's quiet presence too that makes all the difference.
Here in this narrow space, Kozume's shuffling footsteps are louder as they pad steadily up the stairs. Akaashi's conscious, as well, of his own, of the harmony that their breathing makes. They ascend, higher and higher. Kozume, light on his feet, doesn't seem to break a sweat. Akaashi, not as agile, does, but he's good at hiding it, has perfected the art of controlling his inhales and exhales.
And Akaashi finds himself keeping count in his head: the flights, the number of stairs between floors, blind spots and corners for concealment, and he despises himself a little bit, the part of him that's Number Five, because he can't even switch it off for a moment, an innocent morning -
"Here we are," Kozume murmurs, and opens another door.
Akaashi's train of thought comes to a halt, shudders into stillness as the daylight hits his eyes.
He shields them with one hand, holds on to the doorframe with the other; there's a sudden gust of wind, then, hurtling down the top of the stairwell, and the hem of his jacket, weighted down from inside, flutters weakly.
Everything is dust, and then -
Everything's a horizon tinted in silver, there, on the edge of Roppongi and beyond, on the precipice of this city that's so much bigger than their narrow-minded fight for survival, and yet, smaller, more fragile than the strength of their dreams.
Kozume's walked out onto the deserted rooftop, right to the edge, and he's resting his elbows on the ledge now, staring out at the skyscrapers.
Akaashi follows him, searching for the words to fill this windy expanse. Nothing comes to mind. His subtleties fail him.
Cautiously, he lays his hands down on the grubby, peeling paint, leans forward and takes in the sight from above.
It makes him ache, makes his heart search for a different kind of staccato beat. He knows the city on street level, and below that; wears the map of it in his veins, criss-crossed and intricate beneath his skin, every shortcut, every crossing and manhole, every chip in a fractured kerbside. He breathes it in, the fumes of it; he lives it, his holy ground.
But he'd never been a fan of roofs. They're troublesome to hunt on. Difficult to make a clean getaway. Not enough hiding places.
So he'd made a habit of avoiding them, and old habits die hard, and now, here, on top of the world, the view's a shade of breathtaking that's wholly new to him.
It's not much of a world, perhaps. But it's his world. His Roppongi.
The sun seems to speed across the sky as they stand here, rooted, and Akaashi grows warm, feels the thrill settle into his bones, feels Kozume's steady gaze drift towards him.
"This is amazing. Is this where you come, in the day?"
"Sometimes," Kozume nods, tilting his head upwards. He's still slouched down, chin on his forearms, shoulders hunching. Idly, he blows a strand of blond hair out of his mouth and eyes. Akaashi thinks it's the cutest thing he's ever seen him do.
"When I have the time. When I need a break from people."
Like a circuit, sparking, something trips at the back of Akaashi's mind, but then he looks at Kozume and at that horizon, and it dissipates like ashes.
"Thank you for showing it to me," he says.
Kozume doesn't respond, not in words. His smile's genuine, reaching his eyes, and it melts, perhaps in the heat of the day, perhaps in this, that they share. It's enough. So is their silence.
When Akaashi goes back, he takes a brief nap of precisely 40 minutes, showers in cold water, changes for the night and undergoes an old, familiar ritual.
Perched on the edge of his hard metal chair, deliberately, a little uncomfortable, so that it digs into the backs of his thighs and scorches marks into his skin, Akaashi spreads old newspapers out across his table, sets out his mise-en-scène.
Then he disassembles the Baby Glock and cleans it piece by piece. Grip. Slide. Magazine.
It's been a while.
He can still do it with his eyes closed.
He takes his time. In his hands, the steel rod of the barrel's cool, the grooves more familiar than his own pulse. He picks up his bore brush, dips it into the solvent and runs it through the bore of the barrel, deftly, lightly; hears the memory of Konoha's grudging admiration in his ears like a ghostly echo.
you clean that gun like a lover, he used to say. you're so fucking gentle with it.
Not a lover, Akaashi thinks, cradling the barrel as he picks up a clean patch, wipes it down with lubricant oil.
Like a god.
For there's only one kind of god, on the streets, and it's made of metal and it's cold, and merciless, and knows no distinctions; and on the other side of all his reluctant worship, there's a kind of fear that never quite fades.
That night, a customer asks for whisky and Akaashi fences the last of the pocket watches. His chest tightens, skips a beat like a ticking time bomb.
That night, Konoha gives him a meaningful look when he catches sight of the empty drawer.
"Found him yet?" he asks. He's bumping up against Akaashi, just this side of obnoxious, his voice curious, tinged with urgency against the thumping electronic beat they've got going tonight.
Akaashi casts a quick glance over the clientele in the Holocene.
He sets a glass down on the drip rail, shakes his head slightly. "No."
"You're literally out of time, man. Are you even looking?" Konoha asks, arching an eyebrow.
"I am," says Akaashi, and it's the truth, gilded with lies.
"I can help you, I'm good at sniffing out lowlifes - "
"Everything's under control, Konoha-san. Please relax and leave it to me. I don't want you to get involved."
"Hmm. If you say so."
Akaashi doesn't miss the sceptical undertone in Konoha's voice, and deeper still than that, concern, though the latter's not something Konoha would ever admit.
For some reason, it's like a fine-edged knife to his throat, twisting lightly.
"Well," Akaashi points out, tapping the edge of the drawer, "at least we know one thing… Seijou's thief isn't selling his time to anyone else. Or we'd have got more, by now. Surely. From someone who's not Oikawa."
"Yeah, I guess. But if he's not selling it, what the hell is he doing with all that time?"
Akaashi shrugs. "Something better?"
"Must be a real character, this time thief," Konoha mutters, and as he steps away towards the back bar, Akaashi voices a private agreement to himself.
Kozume doesn't come to the bar, not that night.
Akaashi, who's long learned not to build up expectations of people, in general, is none too perturbed by this, but he does smile to see blond hair ghost round the corner of his street the next evening, to feel a footstep fall in place next to his as he heads out to his late shift.
They're long past polite greetings, by now; Akaashi inclines his head anyway, says, Kozume.
Beneath the harsh glare of the street light, Kozume keeps his head down, his hands in his pockets, and he walks a little closer, his warmth a little nearer in the chill of night.
It won't be cold for much longer, thinks Akaashi, looking up; the sky's a different shade of midnight blue today than it was yesterday, at this same time, and the sunset hour grows late.
He wonders if Kozume will still dress in black turtlenecks when summer comes.
He wonders about the collarbones beneath the fabric, and the curve of his spine.
But he does not ask, because there are feelings that transcend questions, and most of all, truths that transcend feelings, and this is his: the way Kozume's eyes light up when they're taking turns at the pinball machine, in lulls and breaks; the way he lets Akaashi take a turn on his console, and the way he laughs, when Akaashi, frustrated, declares he's just not cut out for fighting games.
I thought you played Tekken, Kozume throws back in his teeth with a rare, blade-sharp grin, and Akaashi curses himself for ever letting out that part of his history, admits, I sucked at it -
I'm better at shooting games.
It comes out of his mouth before he thinks.
He eyes Kozume watchfully, and looks away, puts down the console with the most casual of airs he can muster, a weight close to his heart inside his jacket.
Kozume sips his green tea cola, says, you do have steady hands, like nothing's out of the ordinary.
But Akaashi knows that Kozume isn't the sort of person not to notice implications, and most of all, he knows that Kozume's hands are steadier than his, because he's been watching them too.
He watches them, those careful fingers, as they dance their way across buttons and keypads; he watches him, long-limbed and slender in black against the wall, and it remains the biggest mystery in the Holocene how he sits there alone, on his erratic schedule - sometimes consecutive nights, sometimes vanishing, without word or warning, for a few days - and never gets so much as a bloodied nose. In fact, no one really seems to notice him.
Oh, yeah, they'll say, sometimes, that guy over there, I talked to him once…
And then they'll furrow their brow, like they're searching for some long-lost memory, it went by so fast, I don't - well, it wasn't anything special. He's no threat.
Even the rumours seem to tire of Kozume Kenma, and lethargic, they curl up by the back door and fall asleep with the morning sun.
And Akaashi, with those steady hands, his subtle mind, could never resist a puzzle, the summer-sweet sensation of peeling away a veneer so fine and delicate that even smoke, even milk-pale moonbeams, would pass right through with only dusty particles and the reflection of captured light trailing in their wake, and they're not caught in some spider's web, no, nothing so base as that -
It's just that every time Akaashi solves a little bit more of him, he leaves a little bit more of himself behind as well, buried somewhere in the heart of Kozume's warm palms.
Confession isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Akaashi, sitting down on the worn tile of the rooftop, knows he's getting dirt on his pants, finds a glorious release in not caring for once, letting his fastidiousness go because Kozume, already hugging his knees and tilting his head back against the pipes of a broken air-conditioning unit, obviously doesn't care if he's a mess.
"Remember when I said I was bad at Tekken?" Akaashi asks.
"You're better at shooting games," he repeats, intonation for intonation, and Akaashi smiles.
"That's because I used to be a hitman."
He says it, and in the moment the words fall from his lips, it's like raindrops, like sake, cloudy and heady and everything that he thinks should make him drunk, should blur his vision -
And then they're gone, and he can't take them back.
Kozume looks him in the eye, inscrutable. Akaashi can almost see the cogs in his head, and they're spinning, spinning, but where others' creak into motion, make sounds that whirr and grind, Kozume's thoughts are of the seamless, silent variety, like the rest of him.
"Judge me for it," says Akaashi, and his brutality's turned inward. He recognises as much; indulges anyway. "Go on."
Kozume, with a shrug, says, "Why should I? It's not like I don't know what kind of neighbourhood this is… or what kind of person you are."
"The best hitman in all of Roppongi." Akaashi's voice is flat, stripped bare. "That's what kind of person I am. I was six years old, and they put a pistol in my hand and taught me how to breathe, and I can't tell you how many people I've killed."
Kozume takes this in with an equanimity, a pause for understanding that seems to stretch on forever, like the silver skyline just beyond their reach.
"I don't really care about hierarchies," says Kozume, at last.
"You said that before," Akaashi remarks. He hasn't forgotten.
"Boss, lieutenant, older brother… Hitman. Right hand. Whatever they called you. All these titles, and positions, they don't mean anything. Only who you are under all that."
Kozume pauses. He looks at Akaashi, and holds out a hand.
"Touch my palm," he says.
Akaashi does. As always, it's warm, and ember-bright, the feeling slides up his wrist, flutters faintly in the quickening beat of his pulse, wraps around him like the balmy breeze.
Kozume takes an apple from his pocket with his other hand, bites into it and sets it down on the ground. He takes a deep breath.
Akaashi blinks, and then the warmth's a sudden torrent, gushing through his body, his chest, his lungs, running down his spine, usually so cold -
When he opens his eyes, nothing seems to have changed.
Kozume's eyeing him warily. "Feel okay?" he asks.
"Feel normal. Why?"
In answer, Kozume picks up the apple, and Akaashi gets it, with a sinking, sinking lurch, because the apple is whole, and perhaps, if he looked up at the sky, if he'd memorised the clouds and the exact colour of the dewy morning mists just then, there'd be something there for him to notice too.
"I jumped us back five seconds in time," says Kozume, quiet.
"It was your five seconds anyway… I stole them just now," Kozume murmurs, flushing as he drops his arm, lets it fall lightly back to his side. Akaashi's fingertips remain where they are for a suspended moment, hanging in midair.
Kozume looks away.
"We've both done things we're not proud of," he says. "Taking lives. Taking time. For money. Killing in different ways… yours is just faster than mine. I don't want to do it any more."
He hugs his knees tighter, closer, and Akaashi reaches out.
Gently, he brushes Kozume's fringe from his forehead, his eyes; just as gently, like a crumbling, fading dream in black and white and gold, he cups his face, traces that fine jawline with his callused thumb, and then he leans forward and kisses Kozume on the cheek.
He is the winged harbinger of certain death, and when Kozume tilts his head so their lips meet, it tastes like metal and apples.
And right there and then, in that single breath - forever and not long enough -
Kozume could have stolen his entire lifetime from him, and Akaashi would have given it up willingly.
Stepping from his shower with his towel still round his neck, Akaashi's greeted by the insistent, unmistakable sound of his phone about to vibrate right off his bed.
He makes an ungainly kind of dive for it, straightens and flips it open. "Hello?"
"Akaacchi! How are you?"
The singsong lilt of that voice, mint-fresh, makes the tattoo on Akaashi's shoulderblade tingle like there's a rivulet of ice melting down his back.
"Oikawa-san," he says levelly. "I'm well. I presume you're calling to check on the job."
"Oh no, not at all! I'm calling to congratulate you!"
Akaashi, caught off guard, feels his mouth drop open for a moment. He sits down on the edge of his mattress, and says nothing.
"You found him, didn't you? Our time thief?"
At Akaashi's continued silence, Oikawa barrels on blithely.
"Don't be so modest! You found him just like that! I knew I was paying for the best. Kunimi-chan thought it might be that one, you know, the blond kid you've been talking to…"
Akaashi, resigned, doesn't bother to ask how it is that Oikawa knows who he's been talking to; there's not much that escapes him, flighty appearances notwithstanding.
"…but I wanted to be sure, and! Well."
"Your praise is unwarranted, Oikawa-san," Akaashi says, and it's like choking words from a dam; it comes out evenly anyway, deadpan and emotionless, he's Number Five now, has to be. There's only one kind of shield he knows how to cloak himself in, and he hates it, but it's part of him he can't ever seem to run away from.
"I was just doing my job," he continues.
"Such a professional. I look forward to good news, then. For both of us."
And just as abruptly as he'd called, Oikawa hangs up, leaving Akaashi with the sound of a dying dial tone and a heart that's cold, heavy as stone.
"You're fucked," is Konoha's assessment.
"Thanks," says Akaashi, and he means it - is grateful, on some warped level - for the complete and absolute honesty, because if there's someone he can always count on for the unvarnished and ugly truth, it's Konoha Akinori.
They're alone in the bar. It's two hours past closing time, and Akaashi, who's drunk three bottles of green tea cola, is hopped up on sugar and caffeine and the tangled knot of his own situation.
Konoha leans back against the sake cupboard, and crosses his arms. "You're welcome. So. What're you gonna do?"
Akaashi's throat is dry.
For once in his life, he doesn't have Case A, B, and C to fall back on; doesn't even have Case A, is clean out of options -
No, he knows. It's not true. He has several very clear options, and none of them are in the least desirable, so he does not give them voice.
Konoha does it for him instead.
"If you have to shoot him, you might as well get it over with quickly," he offers, pragmatic.
"I don't want to shoot him, Konoha-san," says Akaashi.
"Okay, then don't shoot him. Fuck Oikawa. He's not the boss of you."
"Actually," Akaashi points out, quite reasonably, "he kind of is."
"No, you owe him nothing."
And Konoha's tone picks up, his gaze sharp; his words fly like bullet fire, now. "You know who you owe something to, though? Bokuto."
They hit Akaashi like the worst kind of backspatter, and from behind his closed lips, he tastes it; the iron tang of blood, Konoha's unrelenting gaze, burning on his like a brand.
"Yamiji could have cut your throat when you wanted to quit. Bokuto stuck his neck out for you. Convinced him to let you work the family bar. Be the fence. Have you forgotten?"
"Konoha-san - "
"No, listen, damn you. Oikawa paid Bokuto and the bosses half upfront. They have a contract, and you're the gun. You're not supposed to think, Akaashi, you're supposed to act, and it's for you, it's for your freedom."
In the crucible of Konoha's blazing truth, Akaashi feels all of his defenses come down.
He's got nowhere to hide.
Konoha doesn't smile. But he softens, and when he leans out to lay a hand on Akaashi's shoulder, the solidarity of his touch lingers.
"I'm not going to apologise," he tells Akaashi, bluntly. "I said what you had to hear."
"I know. Thank you," Akaashi says.
He reaches for his phone, because if he puts it off any longer, he doesn't know what he'll do.
To: Kozume Kenma
Hey. Can I see you?
From: Kozume Kenma
To: Kozume Kenma
Sorry. I can't really talk about it over the phone.
From: Kozume Kenma
okay… the usual place
He walks down Gaien-Higashi-dori, slower than usual.
Halfway through, it starts to rain, and Akaashi, who's never had Bokuto's sense of the dramatic, Konoha's sense of the romantic, simply thinks, this is inconvenient; wishes he'd worn the jacket with the hood, but it's his favourite and he doesn't particularly want to burn it after he's done with this job, like he intends to burn everything he's wearing now, let the ashes carry his all of his mistakes away, and the messy, twisted remains of his love.
"Oh, and one more thing - "
"What is it?"
"They'll be someone who makes you feel like time is flying, when you're with them."
"Bokuto-san, that sounds like romantic garbage."
"Not like that, Akaashi! Like, because they're stealing it from you!"
Well, joke's on Bokuto, because Akaashi was right the first time after all.
All of his senses start to tingle when he rounds the corner.
But, on first glance, there's nothing out of the ordinary; the alleyway's as dank and dark as it always is, the recycling bins in their usual place. On the back step of the 24-hour ramen stall down the road, two waiters stand under the awning, smoking.
A perfectly typical night. And yet...
Akaashi shakes himself sane, with an effort.
The rain's getting heavier. When he reaches the Vortex door, pushes it open and ducks into shelter, it's with a strange kind of relief, as if, now that he's come all this way, crossed this threshold into a private space that's theirs, all theirs -
There's no turning back.
And his pace, so unhurried before, now picks up speed; his surroundings, his maybes and possibilities, all melt away, coalesce into this one moment, and even without Kozume by his side, his own palms burn, burn hot like coals and smoke and destruction, and there are a thousand pricking needles in his shoulderblade, all over again.
With a whispering wind at his feet, chasing his ashen steps, he races up the musty stairwell.
At the top, he takes a moment to pause for breath. He drops one hand to his hip, hugs the cool, familiar shape of his Baby Glock. Loaded. Ready to go.
He pushes the door open.
"Kozume," he calls softly, as he steps out.
There's no answer.
He's not there, at least, not standing in his usual spot; belatedly, Akaashi wonders if he'd looked out the window at the gathering clouds, and decided not to show at all.
Akaashi ventures out anyway, and keeps his eyes peeled.
Even in the cold, harsh downpour, the sheets of sleeting rain dripping off his lashes and the wayward, unruly curls of his fringe, he's a professional, and he can't afford to fuck this up, sentiment be damned -
A rustle sounds, then, something a little more concrete than the wind in the leaves, the storm in their eyes, and Akaashi whirls, heart in his mouth.
In that one swift motion, he whips out his gun, flicks off the safety and cocks the pistol.
don't think, don't think, for the love of all your gods now, just pull the trigger -
He's looking straight down the barrel of a Sig Sauer, and on the grip is a hand that's seared its steady, steady touch into his skin, and it does not shake.
Kozume Kenma stands in the shadows, his golden eyes glinting.
funny, thinks Akaashi, the thoughts that pass through your mind, at times like these.
He takes in the sight of Kozume's bare clavicle, the angles of it carved in alabaster, and he thinks, he's not wearing a turtleneck tonight.
The world stops.
It shudders on its axis, and even the raindrops seem to slow, come to a halt like shimmering stars against the dust-black cloak of their cloudy sky.
He forgets how to breathe, how to react, but it doesn't matter, not in that moment because everything has frozen and they're locked, locked in a standoff that neither one can possibly win.
Then Kozume says, akaashi -
And at the sound of his own name, in that voice, realer than anything, the world starts again.
They face each other, eye to eye, barrel to barrel.
"How did you know?" Akaashi asks, evenly.
Somehow, now that it's all come down to this - in the face of his own mortality, their mortality, their lies and half-truths dragged to the surface, after all this time -
He finds that he is not afraid.
He stands his ground, and his grip does not waver.
Neither does Kozume's, as he says, "I've been here before."
He steps out into the light.
And Akaashi sees, at long last, what it is he's been hiding on his collarbone. He recognises it right away, with a paralysing chill -
The burn mark of a bullet, grazing skin.
Under the flickering brilliance of the pale moonlight, the boy with time on his hands waits.
He rests his forearms on the ledge, leans over, hugging his elbows. It's a cool night, for summer; overhead, the clouds gather, and the light's dying, growing fainter by the second. It might rain soon.
Even in the damp and chill, the wind that shakes the leaves below, whips his hair into his face, his palms burn so warm that he can barely hold it in. It's more time than he's ever contained before, but he can't let it go, not quite - not now -
He's so close, closer to that turning point in his past than he's ever been.
Then there's the creak of the doorway opening, and he turns -
To see the ex-hitman walk out onto the rooftop, raise a pistol and pull the trigger without a word.
And as the bullet hurtles through the air, it has just enough time to hit him, the cruel irony of it all; the boy with the infinite hourglass, with time on his hands, now trapped at an instant's mercy, his life not worth the breath on his lips.
He has to make a decision -
he has to make it fast -
- and in that split second, he squeezes his palms together and jumps.
His body jerks, out of the bullet's heart-true path, and he feels it graze his collarbone, and everything goes white and blinding and he can't think, can't move anymore as time -
His whole being is aflame -
and he tumbles out on the streets of Roppongi, at the gaping maw of Gaien-Higashi-dori.
"You shot me, that time," Kozume says, matter-of-fact. He's still looking straight at Akaashi. The scar he wears tells the story, as plain as his words. "So I used all the time I had stored up, to jump back… and I met you. All over again."
A distant memory stirs, in the back of Akaashi's mind, and pieces start falling, falling into place, puzzle pieces with strange edges that didn't fit before.
"No wonder it felt like I'd known you all along," says Akaashi, realisation dawning. "The first time I saw you. No one else seemed to remember. To feel anything - but I…"
"People usually don't. But… it was you."
Akaashi takes a deep breath.
He does not lower his arm. Not yet. Neither does Kozume.
But he cannot help the slight tremor that comes into his ragged, rain-soaked voice, as he says, barely daring to believe it himself:
"You chose to meet me all over again."
Kozume pauses, presses his lips together in that way Akaashi recognises. It sends an aching pang right up his gun arm.
"Why?" he asks. Pleads, nearly, as he feels the knife-blade tear the question from his throat, toss it between them like an accusation. "You could have run away. Avoided all this. Spared yourself. Spared - me."
"I met you all over again," says Kozume, "so that I could save you."
Akaashi thinks he's mishearing him at first.
"Akaashi. Will you put down your gun at the same time as me? I'll count… on three."
Against his more rational judgement, Akaashi nods. Kozume counts them down, sure and steady.
And on three, as good as his word, he lowers his pistol, bends down and puts it on the floor, kicks it away with a light nudge of his toe.
Akaashi, about to tuck the Baby Glock back into its holster, hesitates for the briefest of moments, then follows suit.
Kozume spreads his hands, and steps closer.
"I wanted to save my time to jump back to before I started selling it. To erase my own past," he says. "That was my plan, the first time round… but you killed me before I could do it."
"I didn't succeed at killing you," Akaashi points out, his throat dry, and Kozume, eyes smiling, raises one hand to his collarbone, lets his careful fingers brush across the mark there. He caresses it with an unspeakable tenderness.
"I guess you didn't. You nearly did, though."
"So what changed?" Akaashi presses, and in spite of himself, he's closing the distance between them, taking one step closer for every inch that Kozume allows.
They're at arm's length now. He wants to touch him - to hold him - he wants to pinch himself - to run away -
He doesn't know what he wants, and it's terrifying.
"You gave me something better to do with my time," says Kozume. "I never knew what to do with any of it. I was tired of stealing it. And then I met you."
The crash of thunder interrupts him, then, and lightning jags the sky, and the practical side of Akaashi wonders if he should suggest moving indoors to the stairwell where it's dry, but he's already chilled to the bone and soaked anyway.
So they remain, and the heavens continue to illuminate their confessions, raked over coals.
"What did you mean, save me?" Akaashi asks.
"I didn't save my time, this time," says Kozume, and he reaches out, palm up.
Akaashi takes his hand, squeezes it - starts to raise it to his lips, to brush his knuckles with a rough kiss, and then it hits him -
It's cool to the touch.
"You're not - " Akaashi starts.
"I'm out of time. I let it all go. I sold the whole lot."
"You sold it," Akaashi repeats, stunned.
Kozume nods. He tiptoes slightly, leans forward and murmurs into Akaashi's ear, so they're cheek to cheek, and his cheek's still warm, burns with something that pulses true.
"For enough to buy you out of your contract with Oikawa. And more. To buy you out of service with the Owls…"
Akaashi steps away. His mind is reeling.
"Who did you sell it to? It's going to be hell on earth for both of us, Kozume, if a new crew starts fencing time on Seijou's turf - "
"I didn't sell it to anyone here. I sold it to an old friend… from Nerima."
Nerima. That's way out north, on the outskirts of Greater Tokyo; nowhere near enough to Roppongi to be a threat, or a concern to anyone here.
Akaashi dares to breathe, to look Kozume in the eye and to hold both his hands in his, a little tighter. Kozume speaks again, a small frown worrying the corners of his mouth.
"I don't know what he'll do with it, but I told him to stay out of here, or else. And - um - "
Kozume hesitates, suddenly. Akaashi feels his pulse quicken, bashful, under his fingertips.
"I might have slipped some time to Bokuto under the table, free of charge. As an incentive."
And Akaashi laughs, then, and the sound of his laughter is impossible, a sound he thought he'd never hear again. It peals out clear and throaty into the stormy night, its own kind of defiant thunder.
"You're one hell of a strategist," he says, sincerely, the greatest compliment he knows how to pay, and with his first true moment of freedom, he pulls Kozume into his arms and holds him like they have forever.
Perhaps they do, now, and they don't even have to steal it.
They stay on the rooftop, all night.
The rain clears, after a while; they emerge from the shelter of the stairwell, sit down in their usual spot and lean back. They're both a mess. Akaashi knows his hair is matted to his forehead in wet clumps, and his shirt's soaked through, and Kozume doesn't look much better, but disassembled, fallen apart like this, they're more together than they ever were before.
"What about you?" asks Akaashi.
He's tracing the veins and bloodlines on the back of Kozume's hand. He hasn't let go for an hour.
Kozume glances up at him. "What about me?"
"You wanted to erase your past. You were saving your time for yourself… what about that?"
A beat passes, a moment of contemplation before Kozume answers, and his words, hesitant sometimes, resonate now with a quiet kind of confidence.
"I don't think the past is something you can erase so easily. I thought, by jumping back, maybe things would be different. Maybe we could get to know each other again, and you wouldn't have to kill me… but that didn't change. I think maybe, your past isn't something you run away from… it's something you learn to live with."
And Kozume turns to Akaashi, and smiles.
In his eyes, Akaashi sees constellations, and hope, and infinity.
"Yeah," he says, and he knows the same is true of himself.
Kozume’s head dips, rests on Akaashi’s shoulder. His eyes flutter closed.
Akaashi, looking down, sees the mark on his collarbone, the grittiest proof of love, and death. More brutal and tender, more intimate than any kiss they share.
Seized with a sudden, glass-shard fragility, he marvels at the vulnerability of him in that moment.
"There’ll be a target on your back, still, though," Akaashi points out, quietly. "If Oikawa could pay me to take you out, he can pay anyone else."
Kozume yawns. He doesn’t open his eyes.
"That’s okay," he mumbles. "Oikawa’s not such a bad guy… he’ll come round. Once he sees I’m not selling anymore."
"You haven’t even spoken to him."
"I don’t need to. I can see how people are."
From him, Akaashi knows, it’s no idle boast.
Kozume's smile softens.
"Besides," he adds, "I’ve got the best hitman in all of Roppongi on my side."
“You’re not bad with a pistol, yourself,” Akaashi counters, eyebrow arched.
Kozume falls silent, for a while. Akaashi thinks maybe he’s drifted off to sleep.
Then he murmurs, “I’m good at shooting games, too,” and Akaashi chuckles lightly, because of course he is.
The sun rises on a new day, and morning's warmth spreads its blanket of promise across a rooftop in Roppongi, rich with the scent of a storm that passed, and tomorrows, and smoke and gunpowder, because some things will always be in your bones, and in your blood.
(and it's okay, it's okay - )
They leave their guns behind as they walk out the building.
The horizon beckons, tinged with pink.