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A couple of days following Atsushi’s visit, Issay was given the green light to head home. The moment Issay got the news, he left a message for Atsushi, and as promised, Atsushi was at home, waiting for Issay when he arrived back. However, after a quick meal of convenience store food, Atsushi had to leave.

“There’s work waiting for me,” Atsushi explained, gulping down the last of his canned beer.

“Work? But it’s night,” Issay protested, obviously disappointed.

“Unfortunately, it’s only the middle of the day on the other side of the world,” Atsushi said. He wasn’t really making deals with the western hemisphere but the middle of the night was the equivalent to midday for the city’s nocturnal dwellers, right?

“Why did I pick a busy businessman like you to be with?” Issay lamented, laying his head on the dining table as he watched Atsushi pack his food containers up.

Atsushi scoffed. “I don’t know if you can call me that,” he said, picking up his plastic bag of trash.

“Call you ‘busy’? Or a ‘businessman’?”

“I’m only busy thanks to you,” Atsushi said in a sing-song voice. With a smile in his eyes, Atsushi gave Issay a peck on his cheek as he strode past him and into the kitchen.

“Oh, so now it’s my fault?” Issay grumbled.

Atsushi laughed and winked at Issay before turning back to sort out his trash.

Issay made a dramatic show of nonsensical moaning and griping noises. Getting no reaction from Atsushi, he eventually stopped and propped his chin up in his palm. Watching Atsushi, Issay muttered, “And here I was, hoping that I’d have you all to myself for the night.”

Coming back to Issay, Atsushi said “My, deepest, apologies.” punctuating each word with a kiss.

“Why don’t you show me how truly sorry you are,” Issay challenged, pressing his forehead against Atsushi’s with a twinkle of mischief in his eyes.

“Mmh, I really can’t right now,” Atsushi said remorsefully. “But I’ll try and see if I can come back later,” he said. “I can’t promise anything though, so don’t wait up for me.” Stepping away, Atsushi headed for the entryway of the apartment.

Issay sighed, somewhat bummed that his baiting failed. “My first day back home and you snub me,” he mumbled sadly, leaning against the wall and watching Atsushi put his shoes back on.

Stomping his feet on the ground once with each foot, Atsushi made sure his shoes were on comfortably before giving Issay another peck on the cheek. “I’ll try my best to come back before you have to leave for work,” Atsushi repeated.

“I’ll leave your yukata out in the living room then, if you want it,” Issay said.

“My yukata?”

“You wear it more than I ever did anyway.”

Atsushi smiled, his eyes crinkling at the edges, and chuckled as he muttered, “Whatever you say.” Standing in the entryway, he smiled and quietly regarded Issay for a moment. Finally, taking a deep breath, Atsushi turned to leave. “I’ll see you.”

“Later, I hope,” Issay replied. He, too, had a soft smile on his face as he watched Atsushi unlock the door and disappear.

Once the younger man was gone though, Issay’s smile quickly faded. Stony faced, Issay sniffed and wrinkled his nose as he turned around and cast a quick glance over his apartment. It would’ve been nice to have Atsushi keep him company but it was not like Issay had nothing to do. He still needed to clean up a week’s worth of dust that has settled while he was gone.

While things weren’t as clean as they could be, Atsushi did mention that he tried cleaning up a little before Issay got back, and Issay was thankful for that. Along with the fact that Atsushi had the sense to dispose of last week’s trash before anything rotted in the house. Rolling up his sleeves, Issay mentally prepared himself for the task ahead of him and got to work, busying himself in his alone time.

--

“You don’t look too happy to be here,” Imai commented. He was seated in a waiting area with Atsushi, who had a dour expression on his face.

“Since when have I ever been happy to be in places like these?” Atsushi retorted.

“Fine, let me rephrase,” said Imai. “You look particularly unhappy to be here. Getting in the way of some romantic rendezvous?”

Atsushi slowly shifted his eyes to stare at Imai in a sideways glare. “You think?”

Imai huffed and loosely folded his arms across his chest. Crossing his legs, Imai shifted and looked away from Atsushi’s general direction. Things haven’t exactly been the same for awhile now. In fact, it got even worse after what he said last week. Imai had no idea if his relationship with Atsushi will ever go back to normal, or if his sharp words have torn it beyond repair.

“At least… you’re here,” Imai muttered, reluctantly breaking the icy silence.

“I’m not that irresponsible,” Atsushi replied bluntly.

Imai closed his eyes and sighed. He had to try saying something after all.

An impeccably dressed attendant entered the room. “Mr. Sakurai, Mr. Imai, oyabun is ready to see you,” he said, bowing deeply and extending an arm in the direction they should go.

Standing, both men bowed back to the attendant and exited the waiting room. As they walked, Atsushi asked, “Did Moriuchi say what he wanted?”

“No,” Imai replied. “But certain sources have reported that the Moriuchi’s have been similarly harassed in recent weeks.”

“Similarly?”

“Like we were. Earlier this year?”

Atsushi paused, taking a moment to run through his memories. “Huh, right. Didn’t feel like it was just a couple of months back.”

“Yeah… This year’s been far too eventful for my liking,” Imai muttered as they stopped in front of the intricately-carved wooden double doors that they have just seen a few months ago.

Exchanging his gloom for steel, Atsushi straightened up and adjusted the lapels of his jacket. “Well, let’s get this over and done with.”

“Hm,” Imai nodded subtly, fidgeting at his half unbuttoned shirt under his open jacket.

The doors swung open, revealing the elder Moriuchi kneeling on a cushion before a short-legged table laden with tea ceremony tools. Next to him was his son looking like his complete opposite. While the elder was dressed neatly in his usual kimono and an elaborate black haori draped over his shoulders, his son dressed like a flashy street hoodlum, albeit in expensive threads.

When Imai and Atsushi walked in, Moriuchi Senior’s disdainful glare at his son, who lay on his side with his head propped up on an arm, was not missed. Junior made no effort to change his chosen position of rest even as Imai and Atsushi went through the formal bows and tea ceremony rituals with his father.

When they finally put their tea bowls down, Junior yawned loudly, noisily, as he stretched and switched to lying on his back.

“How did I raise such a disgrace,” muttered Senior, his annoyance starting to break through his cool facade.

“I may not have children, but there is something my father used to tell my mother,” Imai ventured. “Pushing against rebellious children doesn’t work. Reverse psychology works best instead.”

Junior slid a glare at Imai.

“Another thing he used to say as well,” Imai continued. “If you wish to be treated like a man, stop acting like a child.”

Junior scoffed and turned away.

Senior chuckled. “I’d say your father was a wise man.”

Imai dipped his head slightly, accepting the compliment with a smile.

“Anyway, I did not invite you here to discuss my son’s indiscretions again,” Senior said, changing the topic. “I heard that you had a… pest control problem in recent months?” he asked. He sounded curious but it felt like he already knew the answer.

“I’d call it a rodent infestation,” Atsushi said, his voice low. “I’d like to think we’re rid of it but as it is with pests, one can never be too sure.”

Senior hummed thoughtfully. “You know, the Kubo family from up north, they were in dire straits weren’t they?”

“We are aware of that, yes,” said Imai, levelling a steady gaze at Senior. “Have you been in contact with them recently?”

“Oh yes, they’re rebuilding, slowly but surely, with some help from us,” Senior said optimistically. “They offered us a helpful piece of advice as well, which, I will now share with you,” he added, his tone turning serious. “Watch out for rodent infestations, they said. Exterminators often come with them.”

“Interesting,” Atsushi commented.

“Thank you for the valuable advice,” Imai said with a nod. “Though, I’m inclined to believe that you’re looking for an exchange of sorts…?”

Moriuchi Senior smirked and chuckled. “Of course, it is only natural to assume so, isn’t it?”

Atsushi remained impassive while Imai’s lips twitched into a brief smile. “What is it you’re interested in?” Imai asked.

“I like that. Straight to the point,” Senior said, pointing a callused finger at Imai with his characteristic smile. Leaning forward, he asked, “How did you deal with your rodent infestation? A tip or two might come in handy for us.”

Imai chuckled. “Unfortunately, how it worked for us may not necessarily be applicable for you, unless very specific circumstances occur.”

“Oh? Pray do tell.”

“The rodents decided to… spirit away one of the exterminators,” Atsushi said vaguely.

Confusion appeared on Moriuchi Senior’s face. “That sounds… fruitless to say the least,” he said as his face scrunched up in severe disapproval.  Imai understood his reaction. Like the Moriuchi’s, they operated in grey areas and no one in their right mind would do something so blatantly criminal. “Why on earth would they do that?” Moriuchi Senior spat.

“You know how people like us have acquaintances here and there. I’m sure you have your own as well,” Imai began.

“Long story short, they wanted to… forcibly motivate us to cooperate with them by pressuring us with uninvolved parties who are perceived to be of close relations,” said Atsushi, choosing his words as he closed off the explanation for Imai.

“So you were fucking with that ‘exterminator’?” Moriuchi Junior suddenly blurted, miming gestures with his hands.

Atsushi leaned towards Junior with an intimidating, yet seductive mannerism. “Why don’t you ask your father if he fucks his acquaintances?” he asked, making his voice sound smooth as velvet.

Junior jerked backwards. Whether in fright or startlement, Atsushi neither knew nor cared. He just enjoyed spooking the boy. Deliberately rolling his eyes as he turned away, Atsushi exhibited his disinterest and turned his attention back to Moriuchi Senior.

Moriuchi Senior tutted at his son. “That’s what you get for asking irrelevant questions.”

Imai did notice though, that Senior was eying Atsushi up and down. Atsushi inevitably felt the stare and merely gave Senior a thin smile upon making eye contact. Moriuchi Senior, however, returned a knowing smile to him. Imai’s eyes shifted between the two men as he assessed the situation and eventually caught Junior’s eyes, sharing a look with the visibly bewildered youth.

Imai coughed and cleared his throat. That seemed to work in bringing Moriuchi Senior’s attention back to the situation at hand.

Blinking, Senior coughed as well and said, “Well, those do indeed sound like very unique circumstances.”

Atsushi simply nodded, the look on his face inscrutable.

“Although, there is another thing to note,” Senior said. “The Kubo family also mentioned that the rodents appeared to be working hand in hand with certain exterminators. Which is why your story sounds… unusual to say the least.”

This time, it was Imai’s turn to hum thoughtfully. “There was talk of a personnel transfer earlier this year…” he muttered, rubbing his chin. “Weren’t the exterminators the ones who were causing the Kubo family problems though?”

“And so the plot thickens,” Senior smiled. “That is indeed what I heard as well but other factors may have been at play,” he shrugged.

Imai regarded him with suspicion. “I suppose there’s something else you’re looking for…?”

Moriuchi Senior laughed heartily. “Oh, no no,” he denied. “Consider the additional information as returning the favor for keeping my son out of trouble.”

Junior clicked his tongue and glared at his father upon his mention.

“Although I do hope that we’ll have your assistance with pest control, if the occasion ever calls for it,” hinted Senior. “Of course, it’s only natural that we, too, offer our assistance if you have any need of it,” he added, giving them his usual charismatic smile.

A corner of Imai’s lips twitched upwards into a smirk. “We appreciate the offer, but like you, we hope that things don’t ever come to require such drastic measures.”

“We wouldn’t want that to happen, would we?” Senior agreed, holding his smile in place.

“Are we done?” Junior blurted. “Are we done playing mind games here?”

Senior glared at his son. “One day, you’ll understand the importance of diplomacy,” he growled.

Imai chuckled while Atsushi remained silent. “We shall take our leave then,” Imai said. As he stood up from the cushion, Imai felt his knees protest and he instinctively masked his winces. Like him, Atsushi too showed no sign of discomfort as he got up.

Moriuchi Senior remained on his cushion while his son stayed sprawled out on the floor with blatant disregard. “I hope we meet in better circumstances next time,” Senior said in a parting statement.

Imai and Atsushi politely inclined their heads to him and left the room. Doors closing behind them, they briskly walked themselves out of the private estate and into the car where their driver waited.

The moment the car door closed, Imai rubbed his knees and muttered, “‘Next time’, he says. I’d rather there be no next time. My knees are killing me…”

“You could always kneel with your legs off to one side,” Atsushi suggested offhandedly, staring out of the window.

“Looking feminine is your thing,” Imai emphasised. “And what’s with that look that Moriuchi gave you?”

“What look?”

“Oh please, don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about,” Imai hissed. “I know what I saw.”

“Ugh.”

“You didn’t sleep with him, did you?”

“What!?” Atsushi exclaimed hotly. Turning away from the window, he stared daggers at Imai. “No! No. What the hell do you think I am? Ass for sale!?” he fumed, gesticulating angrily.

“Then how was that supposed to be interpreted?” Imai retorted.

“He asked, I declined. End of story,” Atsushi said firmly.

“Riiiight,” said Imai, unconvinced. Atsushi kicked Imai’s knee from his side of the backseat. “Ow!? What’s that for?”

“Some days I really can’t stand you,” Atsushi fumed.

“Only some days?” Imai quipped. Atsushi raised his knee, aiming to strike again. “Hey hey hey! Stop it!” Imai jerked his legs away from Atsushi. “Do you have any idea how hard your soles are?”

“Yes,” Atsushi replied with a cold clipped tone.

Imai clicked his tongue. The car rode over a speed bump too quickly and Imai hit his knee against the partition that separated the driver from them. “Oh, for fuck’s sake!” he cursed.

Atsushi snickered. “Hah! Karma,” he taunted. The car then jerked to a stop and Atsushi, unprepared for it, surged forward as well, smacking his forehead on the partition this time.

“Karma my foot,” Imai dug back at Atsushi, still rubbing his knee. Atsushi huffed and glared at him indignantly, a palm on one side of his forehead. Imai initially held eye contact and stared back, not wanting to give in, but eventually, he turned his back to Atsushi and looked out his window instead.

A taut silence hung between them as the ride went on, with each paying a particular lot of attention on the dark scenery passing them outside. As the car left the highway, descending back down into the city and slowing down, Imai snuck a glance over at Atsushi, who kept his eyes on the empty streets outside, his face obscured by his long hair.

Shifting his gaze back to the scenery, Imai took a deep breath and sighed. What was he supposed to do? It seemed like every conversation they have ends in some form of bitterness, with the exception of work-related topics. Imai could feel Atsushi slipping further and further away from him and it felt like there was nothing he could do to stop it. The thought of it caused discomfort in Imai’s chest that made his throat grow tight. Imai shifted, subtly stretching his neck to ease the tension. Maybe he should just…

“Atsushi?” Imai called him softly.

“What?” came the curt reply.

Imai swallowed, as if physically pushing his pride down. “Um…”

“What?” Atsushi repeated, more annoyed than before.

“I’m sorry,” Imai muttered, barely inaudible.

“Huh?”

“I said I’m sorry,” Imai snapped, turning sharply towards Atsushi, who watched Imai with a hard look in his eyes. Imai looked away. Continuing, he said, “I’m sorry for… … whatever, you know.”  He waved a hand vaguely and went back to staring blankly at the scenery. Imai wanted to see what kind of expression Atsushi had, if any, but at the same time, he daren’t.

Atsushi’s lack of response did, however, worry Imai. “You know what, that’s all you’re getting from me. Take it or leave it,” Imai eventually said. If putting his pride aside didn’t work, Imai didn’t know what else he could do. He might as well just give up.

Finally, Atsushi decided to say something. “Fine,” he answered begrudgingly. Imai didn’t realise that he had been holding his breath for Atsushi’s reply. He couldn’t help but feel relieved that Atsushi seemed to accept his apology.

Before Imai could think of anything to say, Atsushi asked, “Why are we here?” Imai turned and saw Atsushi wide-eyed with surprise. “Where are we going?”

“You’re heading to Issay’s place, aren’t you?” Imai asked, keeping his tone deadpanned and his face blank, as usual.

“You…”

“I asked the driver to drop you off first. Anyway, it’s on the way back,” Imai said, playing down the gesture. He still didn’t want to look at Atsushi in the eye.

Atsushi quickly slid the partition window open and told the driver, “Just drop me off at the next corner.” He then proceeded to put a hand on Imai’s knee, giving him a light squeeze.

Imai turned and regarded Atsushi with a straight face. Holding back his surprise at Atsushi’s approach, Imai’s voice was soft as he asked, “What?”

“I… I’m not done with being angry at you,” Atsushi said, looking at Imai in the eye with a slight crease between his brows. “But… thank you,” he continued, “for doing this.”

“Uh, yeah, you’re welcome,” Imai mumbled. Unsure of how to handle Atsushi’s gratitude, he turned back to the window.

The car rolled to a stop. Imai felt Atsushi’s hand leave his knee. He heard the door on the other side open and close, and felt the car move off. Turning to look out the back window, Imai expected Atsushi to have already disappeared from sight but he stood on the pavement of the street corner, watching the car leave.

Imai couldn’t fight the smile that came to his face. Good… Yes, this was good. It wasn’t much, and Atsushi said he was still upset but this was good. Infinitely better than drunk, angry sex at least. Imai chuckled to himself. Now he can rest a little easier.