One of his girls came running in looking frantic and clutched at the sleeve of his suit jacket so hard that her knuckles turned white.
“What is it, Yui?” He tried not to look irritated at the interruption. Never let it be said that Klaha didn’t look after his girls, and he prided himself on being the kind of boss that was approachable.
“He— Kisaki, he—”
“Shh,” Klaha said soothingly, patting her hand and trying to peel her death grip off his arm. “Calm down. Take a deep breath… there you go.”
Yui nodded vigorously and gulped. “Kisaki asked me to tell you. There’s a man here that’s badly hurt. He said you need to see him.”
Klaha sighed. “Is that all? Tell Kisaki to throw him out. We don’t need homeless junkies scaring our customers away.”
“No, Boss! He said you need to see him. He said the man was asking for you.”
“And did he say who the man is?” he asked with more patience than he felt.
Yui shook her head.
Klaha sighed again. “All right. Tell Kisaki to bring him in.” He placed both hands lightly on her shoulders and looked at her face. “Are you all right? Do you need to take a break?”
She hesitated for a few seconds and then nodded.
“That’s fine. Take an hour to yourself. Go find Shiori, she can replace you.”
Yui hurried away and Klaha got up to close the door behind her. The dull, rhythmic thumping of music from the nightclub upstairs turned into to a muffled hum. He relaxed back into the leather suite of his office, briefly wondering how the hell these girls managed to walk in those six-inch stilettos, let alone dance in them, and resumed looking through the reports and ledgers from his other operations. He gave up on the reports when he caught himself looking at the same numbers over and over again without taking anything in, and was almost relieved when Kisaki rapped on the door lightly.
“Boss.” He had a very serious expression and was gripping onto the door frame with one hand. The man beside him was so gaunt he could barely stand, and had one arm draped over Kisaki’s shoulders for support.
The man lifted his head weakly. “Klaha…” he rasped.
Klaha’s expression was grave and he rose slowly from his seat. “Kisaki, get him over here.”
Kisaki nodded; the man was skin and bone and barely weighed a thing, and Kisaki carried him across the room with little difficulty, carefully easing him onto the leather suite. He stepped back and bowed his head politely, looking at the floor.
“I thought you were dead.” Klaha’s voice was trembling. “I sent people to Okinawa to find you… I thought you were dead… you’ve been gone for months… what happened to you?”
The man cried out when Klaha grasped his hand; Klaha looked down and was horrified to see that his fingers were bent at slightly awkward angles and some of his fingernails were missing. “Gackt, what happened to you?”
Klaha arranged to have Gackt taken back to his lavish apartments across town and examined by the best doctor on his payroll. What had happened to him was clearly torture: he was badly malnourished, coughing up blood. Several of his fingernails had been removed and his fingers had been broken and then left to heal badly. The skin on his back and chest was criss-crossed with a ragged lattice of scars, old and new, and he was half-blind from being kept in the dark for a very long time. The doctor had pulled Klaha aside and very quietly told him that there were also signs of sexual abuse.
Klaha demanded the best care that money could buy. Gackt had always been the strong one and he overcame his physical injuries, although he would suffer abdominal pains and his fingers would be stiff and aching for the rest of his life. He was constantly haunted by nightmares though, and often Klaha would wake up to his screams in the next room. When they were children, Gackt would always be there for him when he’d had a nightmare, or when he’d been picked on by the older kids in school, and even when he’d been dumped by his first girlfriend; now it was Klaha’s turn to do the same for the brother that he’d idolised all his life.
He’d repeatedly tried asking Gackt what had happened and who had done this to him but Gackt was always tight-lipped on the matter.
“Why won’t you tell me?” Klaha demanded one day.
Gackt shook his head stubbornly. “I’ll deal with it myself.”
“At least let me help—”
“No. You shouldn’t get involved.”
“I’m already involved!”
Gackt had sighed and looked at him sadly. “Why couldn’t you have just listened to me and stayed in school? You were always smarter than me; you’d be a doctor or a lawyer or a CEO making an honest living. There was no need for both of us to become… this.”
“You’re assuming doctors and lawyers and CEOs make an honest living,” Klaha had sneered. “I am what I want to be.”
Gackt just shook his head again.
“Who is Yoshiki?” Klaha asked suddenly.
Gackt’s head snapped up, startled. “What?”
“Who is Yoshiki?”
“How do you know that name?”
“You say it sometimes. When you’re having your nightmares.” Klaha gave him a level look. “Who is he?”
“Nobody,” Gackt mumbled, but he looked angry.
Klaha pressed further. “Did he do this to you?”
“STOP ASKING.” Gackt had looked so livid that for a second, Klaha thought that he might actually hit him.
That was the last time Klaha asked about what had happened, and the name Yoshiki never came up again except in Gackt’s frenzied episodes.
Gackt grudgingly allowed Klaha to pay for everything until he was able to function independently, growing his own smaller operation separately from Klaha’s nightclub and gambling dens. In time he hired three men, and not long after this, a beautiful, mute woman followed. Mana proved to be a loyal and valuable asset, skilled and efficient, and Klaha watched from a distance as she quickly rose in the ranks to become Gackt’s right hand within a year.
Klaha stubbornly rejected all of Gackt’s attempts at monetary repayments; instead, the two operations grew into a mutually beneficial arrangement. In return for Klaha’s financial support, Gackt and his team kept Klaha’s operations safe by swiftly dispatching anyone who threatened them.
A couple of years later, Gackt signed a fifth member to his team. Klaha was glad that Gackt had someone as reliable and steadfast as Mana at his side. He’d met with Gackt’s team several times, always under the guise of one of Gackt’s clients (as far as most people were concerned, Klaha was nothing more than a wealthy and well-respected client) and unlike the others, this Sugizo seemed a little standoffish. This was just a job to him. Klaha didn’t trust him at all, but Mana, Közi, Kami and Yu~ki were loyal, and as long as Sugizo stayed in line and did as he was told, Klaha would keep his mouth shut.
Everything ran smoothly for a number of years and Klaha even noticed that Gackt’s nightmares were gradually becoming less frequent and less intense.
“What’s got you looking so happy?” Klaha had asked one day when Gackt seemed particularly pleased with something.
Gackt just smiled at him. “I’m getting my revenge,” was all he would say.
Klaha took a slow puff of his cigar and leaned back in his seat. Beside him, Yui refilled his cup.
He put down his cigar and slowly sipped the shochu, savouring the complex flavours. “What is it, Hakuei?”
Hakuei bowed and looked at Yui pointedly.
Noticing the look, Klaha patted her hand and sent her away. She dutifully refilled his cup again and quickly left the room, closing the door behind her.
“What is it, then?” Klaha asked. “Is it those cops again? Get Kisaki to pay them off like last time. If they keep coming back, plant some evidence and send an anonymous tip the commissioner. You know the drill.”
“No, Boss,” Hakuei said. He looked nervous.
Klaha raised his eyebrows expectantly. “Well?”
“Boss… it’s your brother. He’s dead.”
Klaha maintained a steady gaze at Hakuei before reaching for his ashtray and rolling the spent ash off the end of his cigar. He took another drink of shochu.
Hakuei anxiously shifted his weight from foot to foot, waiting for a response. “Boss?”
Klaha refilled his cup. “Tell me more.”
“Well… Ju-ken found your brother and three of his men dead in his house,” Hakuei said. “He was shot. We don’t know who did it.”
“Which three men?”
“Yu~ki, Közi and Kami. We don’t know where Sugizo or the woman are, but Ju-ken said it looked like there were other people there. He said Közi died from a number of knife wounds.”
Klaha took another slow puff of his cigar and looked at Hakuei thoughtfully for a while. Hakuei tried to hold his gaze while he waited for Klaha to say something, but soon found it easier to just look at the floor.
“Get Kisaki and Ju-ken and some of your best men,” he said finally. “You’re going to find out what went down and who did it. Find Mana. Find Sugizo. See what they know and if they were involved. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Sugizo had something to do with it. And I want you to find who this Yoshiki person is.”
“But… there must be thousands of Yoshikis out there…” Hakuei shut up when Klaha fixed him with a frosty look.
“Yes, and all but a handful of them are going to be absolute nobodies.”
“So go find out which one it was.”
“Yes, Boss.” Hakuei bowed deeply and left.
Two maiko in their beautiful kimono, one pale blue, one a lush, light green, danced elegantly before a golden screen painted with cranes. Beside the screen sat an older geiko in her more modest garb, delicately playing the shamisen.
“Thank you once again for coming all this way to meet with us, Miya,” Yoshiki said, addressing the younger man who sat across from himself and Toshi.
Miya inclined his head politely. “The pleasure was all mine. It’s been an honour, and a wonderful night.” He nodded at the maiko. “Unless you have any more business to discuss, I think I should be heading off soon. I’ve got a fair drive ahead of me.”
The door slid open quietly and a young man came in bearing a tray with three pre-chilled glasses, each with an almost perfectly clear cube of ice, and a rare bottle of nine-year old umeshu.
“Can you stay for one more drink?” Yoshiki asked.
Miya accepted graciously, knowing that his host had deliberately chosen this particular brand of umeshu from Ishioka, Miya’s hometown.
As the young man carefully began pouring the drinks, Toshi noticed that he seemed to be having a little trouble holding the tray steady on his other arm. That was when he saw the round end of a silencer on the end of a gun, concealed beneath the tray. A quick glance at his companions said that Yoshiki and Miya had also noticed.
Yoshiki moved fast, striking the young man’s arm from below. The bottle of umeshu flew out of his hand and the tray that was hiding the gun in his other hand was knocked aside. The young man quickly regained his balance and aimed a shot at Yoshiki that narrowly missed. The geiko and maiko screamed and huddled in a corner of the room. One of the glasses on the table exploded when another shot went off just as Toshi tackled him to the floor. Miya backed away and drew his own gun, aiming quickly and firing three shots that struck the young man in the chest and abdomen.
The young man lay bleeding on the floor and weakly attempted another shot but Yoshiki knelt down beside him and grasped his gun hand firmly. He pressed the end of the gun against the young man’s head and pulled the trigger. There was a dull metallic thunk and his head fell back limply onto the floor, eyes blank, his blood seeping into the tatami.
The geiko and maiko were still standing together in the corner, whimpering and crying. Yoshiki exchanged a glance with Toshi and then their guest.
“You wouldn’t happen to know anything about this, would you, Miya?” Yoshiki asked. He wasn’t inclined to believe that Miya was involved, but it never hurt to exercise a little extra caution.
“Yoshiki, I swear, I had nothing to do with it,” Miya quickly defended himself.
Yoshiki held his gaze, noting the way that Miya looked him straight in the eye. He wasn’t lying.
Miya was relieved when Yoshiki nodded, and he put his gun away. “Any idea who might order a hit on you in a place like this?”
“A lot of people, if they knew what we do,” Yoshiki said lightly. “But not in recent memory.”
Toshi nodded. “Things have been pretty peaceful for the past few of years.”
Yoshiki picked up the shattered glass with two fingers. “I’m sorry the night had to end like this.”
Miya’s face was solemn. “I’m sorry that it was a waste of good umeshu.”
Heath had his hands in the pockets of his jeans. “Don’t look now, but we’re being followed.”
hide grinned. “Yeah. I noticed him about a block back.”
They stopped outside a jewellery shop, pretending to look at watches while they scanned the faces reflected in the shop window.
“Found him,” Heath said in a low voice. “Across the street. By the shoe store. He doesn’t look like much.”
“That one’s nice,” hide said. “Expensive, but nice.”
“Near the back.” hide pointed at the display in the window. “With the black leather cuff, square face. It’d really suit you.”
“I already have a watch,” Heath said as they moved on.
“You’ve had that one watch since you started working at The Underneath. I’ll tell Sugizo to buy that one for you.”
“I don’t want or need him to buy me anything.”
“Are you sure?” hide smirked. “I didn’t hear you complaining when he bought you that sweet bike of yours.”
“That’s entirely different!” Heath protested.
“You are so much fun to tease.” hide laughed and slapped him on the back hard enough to make him stumble. “Speaking of Sugizo, how’s the new apartment?”
“We’re almost done moving,” Heath said. “It’s much nicer having a new place together. The old apartment just wasn’t big enough for two.”
“Look at you!” hide marvelled. “New apartment, steady boyfriend… steady, hot boyfriend,” he corrected himself. “Going on three years, is it?”
Heath looked down and blushed.
hide sighed. “You are living the dream, my friend.”
The streets of Roppongi were crowded with locals and tourists alike at this time of the night but the man smirked to himself. This was too easy - one of his targets had bright pink hair and it was impossible not to notice him. They were chatting easily amongst themselves, completely oblivious.
The pink-haired man split off from his taller companion and ducked into a side alley with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. The taller man kept on walking up the street. Perfect. He kept his head down and slipped into the alley after the pink-haired man.
hide was cursing softly as he tried to light his cigarette, giving the cheap plastic lighter a good shake and trying again. Still nothing.
The man was a little startled when hide turned toward him. “Hey, buddy. Can I borrow a light?”
“Oh, sure.” The man reached into his jacket and pulled out his gun, but by then his throat had already been sliced open.
“Ugh, watch it!” hide jumped backwards. “These shoes are new.”
Heath pushed the dying man aside and looked down at hide’s shoes. “Huh. They’re nice. C’mon, let’s go get some dinner.”
In the passenger seat of Pata’s car, Taiji was leaning to one side a little and watching something in the side mirrors intently.
Pata glanced over at him. “What’s up?”
“I’ve been watching this asshole on a shitty dirt bike follow us for the last ten minutes.”
“You haven’t noticed him?”
Pata looked in the rearview mirror. “Green bike? White helmet?”
“Yeah.” Taiji relaxed back into his seat. “What do you think we should do?”
Pata answered him by turning the steering wheel hard and the car skidded around the next corner. Taiji twisted around in his seat to watch the guy on the bike follow them and the rear windscreen exploded. They both ducked down in their seats reflexively and the car swerved.
“I know that, Taiji!”
“Jesus, get rid of him!” Taiji yelled when another shot ricocheted off the car.
“Hold on!” Pata kept driving but he kept his eye on the mirror on his side. He slammed on the brakes and flung the car door open; there was a muffled yelp and a loud bang. The dirt bike hit the door but the rider kept going, flying overhead and landing on the road like a rag doll.
Taiji stared for a moment. “That’s gonna leave a mark. You think he’s still alive?”
Pata yanked the door shut again. “I’m not gonna hang around to find out.”
Sugizo joined hands with Ryuichi on one side and Inoran on the other. This never gets old, he thought to himself as they all bowed to the cheering audience. The exhilaration, the energy, the nerves, everything that came with delivering a performance that made hundreds of people smile.
“Hey, you!” the drummer Shinya said to him while they were backstage. “Why aren’t you going to come out for drinks with us?”
“Can’t. Not tonight,” he said apologetically. “We’ve just moved into a new apartment and still have a few things to take care of.”
“C’mon Shinya, let him be a loser.” J popped the top off a bottle of beer and threw the cap at Sugizo, missing by a wide margin.
Sugizo grinned and flipped him off.
There was a small crowd gathered by the rear exit, and they cheered when the band appeared at the door. The band politely autographed pamphlets and booklets and crowded together for photos. Sugizo noticed a man in perhaps his mid-thirties with a subdued expression and both hands in his jacket pockets; Sugizo kept a close eye on the man while he signed someone’s t-shirt.
Sugizo edged himself in front of the rest of the band and greeted the man with a smile; as soon as he saw the grip of a gun, he grabbed the man’s wrist and a shot went off into the air. There were screams from the crowd; some of them ducked, others fled. Sugizo twisted the man’s arm so that it locked around his own neck, wrenching the gun out of his hand and forcing him onto his knees.
Soon the street was buzzing with activity. The police car’s flashing lights attracted a new crowd eager to find out what the drama was. Sugizo was off to one side with one of the officers, giving a statement, while another officer cuffed the man with the gun and bundled him into the back of the squad car.
Once the police had left and the crowd dispersed, Inoran and Ryuichi breathed a sigh of relief, and Shinya gave Sugizo a hearty clap on the back.
“I’ll catch up with you guys,” J called after them. “I’m going to walk Sugizo to his car.”
“No, it’s okay,” Sugizo started to say, but J gave him a smile that said he wasn’t taking no for an answer.
After a few minutes J spoke. “Nice going there. You took him out real fast.”
Sugizo shrugged. “You learn a few things growing up in a rough neighbourhood.”
“Uh-huh,” J said. “That’s not true, is it?”
J gave him a wry smile. “Come on, Sugizo. The others might be blind and naïve but I’m not. You disappear for weeks at a time, you show up with bruises and broken bones, you barely talk about your personal life, and now this? What’s going on? You with some kind of underground thing?”
Sugizo was quiet for a moment. “That’s a question you shouldn’t be asking.”
“Not even between friends?”
“Especially between friends.”
J looked at him thoughtfully. “Will you be okay? Are you… are you in danger?”
“I’m still alive, aren’t I?” Sugizo said lightly. He unlocked his car and J watched him loading his guitar case and bags into the back, before getting into the driver’s seat.
“Hey…” J said hesitantly. “Your boyfriend Heath… is he also…?”
Sugizo just gave him a quick smile, closed the car door and drove away.
Heath was already in bed and half-asleep by the time Sugizo got home to their new apartment.
“Why so late?” Heath mumbled drowsily. “Is everything okay?”
“Not really,” Sugizo said. “I think someone’s ordered a hit on me.”
Heath sat up immediately. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, everyone’s fine,” he assured him. “I disarmed him and someone called the cops.”
“Anyone we might know?”
“No. Never seen him before. He just showed up outside the livehouse with a gun. He knew I’d be there.”
Heath raised an eyebrow at him. “You wouldn’t believe it, but someone was following hide and me in Roppongi tonight. We’re fine too,” he added quickly, before Sugizo could ask.
“This isn’t good, is it?” Sugizo said grimly. “If someone’s come after me, you and hide. Have you heard from the others tonight?”
Heath shook his head. “Not yet, but I’m sure we will soon.”
Chapter 3: Gin
Toshi’s heart was thumping wildly in his chest, his hands were clammy and shaky, and he felt like he wanted to throw up. The last time he remembered being this nervous was when he’d been caught fighting in school when he was nine. His mother had been called to the principal’s office and the look of disappointment on her face was bad enough, but what had made him feel really sick was waiting for his father to come home from work to yell at him.
He steeled himself and knocked on the door of Yoshiki’s office at The Underneath.
Toshi gulped and entered the room with a forced smile. “Hey. Are you busy?”
“Not really,” Yoshiki said, smiling back and pushing his laptop aside. “Just thinking about what happened last night. I called the guys this morning to ask them to come in early.”
Toshi eased himself into one of the chairs opposite Yoshiki’s desk and pressed his hands onto his knees to stop them shaking.
Yoshiki reached for the wine carafe and gave Toshi a questioning look. Toshi nodded and Yoshiki poured two glasses, occasionally glancing at Toshi with an air of thoughtfulness. “Something you want to talk about?” he asked, handing his friend a glass.
Toshi swirled the wine in its glass a couple of times and took a very slow sip. He wasn’t sure if it was to calm his nerves or if he was just stalling. Probably a bit of both. But Yoshiki was waiting for him to say something.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about last night, too,” he said after taking a deep breath. “I’m not like you or Taiji or Heath or Sugizo. I’m not that guy. I’ve never been that guy.”
Yoshiki nodded and waited for him to go on.
“So… you know that Shiori and I have gotten pretty serious in the last year or so,” Toshi said awkwardly. “I’ve been thinking about this for a while now and she’s made me realise… I don’t want to be in that situation again. I don’t want to have to worry about when I’m going to die. I don’t want to have to be looking over my shoulder all the time, wondering when or where the next hit is going to be. I don’t want to keep living a life where I feel like I can’t trust anybody.”
Yoshiki was quiet for a long time, just sipping his wine, eyes cast down and impossible to read behind his dark glasses. Toshi found the silence unbearable and he tried not to squirm in his seat.
“What are you saying?” Yoshiki asked in his soft voice.
Toshi stared down at his hands, clenching them slightly, before slipping a hand inside his jacket. In his hand was a white envelope, and he slid it across the desk to Yoshiki with a trembling hand, unable to bring himself to look his oldest friend in the eye. “I… I’ve decided to resign.”
When Yoshiki didn’t respond, Toshi felt compelled to fill the silence. “I’m sorry but I can’t stand lying to Shiori. I know it’s part and parcel of what we do. I know it’s what I signed on for when we first started this. But… things are different now. It’s not… I’m not like Sugizo and Heath… they can be together and work together and they can make it work and I’m very happy for them, but this is different, I owe it to her, I want to have a life with her Yoshiki, I want to have a life, I’m sorry, god I’m so sorry Yoshiki…” He stopped when he heard his own voice cracking and getting higher and higher, and he squeezed his eyes shut.
When he could finally bring himself to look at Yoshiki, the man had barely moved, still sitting there in his high-backed leather chair, one leg crossed over the other, wine glass in hand. For a second there, Toshi wondered if it had all happened in his head and he hadn’t actually said anything, but he could see that Yoshiki’s lips were pressed into a thin line and he was staring at the envelope as though it might be cursed.
“Please say something,” Toshi said in a small voice.
“I understand,” Yoshiki said, still not looking at him. “But I think this needs to be discussed with the rest of the team. Can it wait until then?”
Toshi took another deep breath, closed his eyes and nodded. He got up and slowly left the room, closing the door behind him.
Pata looked at hide with raised eyebrows. “You’re awfully cheerful for someone who nearly got murdered 24 hours ago.”
“I think it’s exciting,” hide grinned.
Pata stared at him. “Are you out of your mind?”
hide thought about this for a second. “Might be!” he said brightly.
Toshi was already there when they got to Yoshiki’s office, and hide and Pata claimed the last two chairs. They were soon joined by Heath and Sugizo, standing by the wall beside the door. Taiji wandered in last.
“All locked up at the front and the back?” hide asked him.
“Yep,” Taiji said, leaning against the bookshelf with his arms crossed. His black cowboy hat dangled from the cord around his neck.
“Let’s cut to the chase,” Yoshiki said smoothly. “Somebody is targeting all of us at once. Toshi and I were having a business meeting when a gunman came in. Sugizo was approached after a gig. Taiji and Pata had someone on a motorbike. hide and Heath were followed in Roppongi. These people they sent are all expendable. Any idea who’s able to source these kinds of hired guns?”
They all looked at each other blankly.
“Anyone fuck up a job?” Pata asked. This was met by a host of very dirty looks and he shrank down in his seat a little. “Just asking. Geez.”
“Pata. Please. We’re professionals,” Taiji scoffed.
“We haven’t breached anyone’s territory, have we?” hide asked.
Yoshiki shook his head. “I’d honestly be surprised if we had.”
“What if someone’s trying to breach ours?”
“Then they’d either have to be a massive idiot, or they’re some new kid trying to start a dick-measuring contest,” Taiji said.
“Except any idiot in this business wouldn’t last a day, and anyone new to the game doesn’t have the resources,” Heath said.
Taiji nodded. “Exactly.”
“Revenge seems like the most obvious reason to me,” Sugizo said.
“But who have we pissed off recently?” hide asked. “Nobody that I can think of.”
“Wasn’t there that beef with the Takarai family back in July?” Pata suggested.
“Small fry,” Taiji said. Out of habit he fished a pack of cigarettes out of his jeans but quickly put it away when Yoshiki looked at him sternly. “They just wanted to kick up a stink, so Yoshiki paid them off and told them to piss off.”
“What’s stopping them from kicking up a bigger stink for more money?” Sugizo asked.
“Yeah, I’d run away if I saw your face, too,” hide sniggered, and Taiji kicked him. hide just rubbed his shin and smiled sweetly. “Toshi, think you can dig something up on who ordered the hit on us?”
The uncomfortable look that passed between Toshi and Yoshiki was not lost on any of them.
hide’s smile disappeared as he looked between the two of them. “What? Is something wrong?”
Yoshiki cleared his throat. “I guess now’s as good a time as any.”
Toshi hesitated and once again he found it difficult to look anyone in the eye, keeping his gaze firmly on his hands in his lap. “I… I had a talk with Yoshiki earlier today. I’ve thought about this a lot. I want… to leave.”
There was a long, stunned silence.
“Leave? What do you mean, leave?” hide demanded. “Leave The Underneath? Leave us?”
Toshi nodded unhappily, his shoulders slumping from hide’s harsh tone.
“Are you fucking kidding? We’re a team! We need you!”
“hide’s right,” Taiji cut in, sounding just as angry. “What about Yoshiki? You’ve stuck with him through everything! What happened to you? Hit your head?”
“I nearly fucking died last night, Taiji!”
“So did we!” Taiji lifted the side of his tank top to show Toshi the still-healing scar from the last time he was shot just a few weeks ago. “Heath, Sugizo and I have been shot and stabbed more times than we can remember! You don’t see the rest of us whingeing about it! It wasn’t the first time any of us have been threatened or shot at!”
“That’s what I’m saying!” Toshi felt his voice begin to crack again. “It wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last, either!”
“Exactly what did you think you were in for when you joined Yoshiki?” hide retorted. “We’re contract killers, not a goddamn charity! You knew we weren’t out to save lives.”
Toshi was desperate. “hide, I want to save my life. I want to have a life. I want to settle down with Shiori—”
“There it is!” Taiji sounded triumphant. “You’re doing it for a woman.”
“And what’s wrong with that?” Toshi snapped.
“I’ll tell you what’s—”
“Taiji, just let him talk,” Yoshiki interrupted.
“I’m tired of lying to Shiori. I’m tired of sneaking around and hiding. I’m tired of having to watch my back all the time. What if someone comes after me when she’s there and I can’t keep her safe? Tell me what’s wrong with that!”
“Are you really stupid enough to think that everything’s going to just stop when you walk out that door?” hide asked savagely. “Anyone who knows you’re associated with us isn’t going to give two shits that you’ve ‘retired’ from the business.”
Toshi was close to tears. “I just want to try and enjoy what’s left of my life with someone I care about! Look at Heath and Sugizo—”
“Do not drag them into this.” Taiji’s voice took on a dangerous edge.
They all lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. Heath was looking down at the floor, toying with the rings on his right hand, turning them around and around. Pata rubbed the back of his neck restlessly, glancing at each of them in turn.
“This is fucking stupid,” Taiji said under his breath. He lit a cigarette, ignoring Yoshiki’s glare.
Sugizo lifted his head slightly. “It sounds to me like you’ve already made up your mind,” he said quietly. “I don’t know if I have any right to speak up here. I haven’t known you as long as the others have. And I believe you when you say you’ve put a lot of thought into this. But Toshi… when you’ve been doing what we do for as long as we have, you can’t go back to having a normal life. I’ve been there. I thought I could do it after everything with Gackt was over. I’ve tried and it doesn’t work.” He smiled wryly. “That’s why I’m here, remember?”
Toshi looked up at Sugizo with a pained expression. “And you did it for Heath,” he choked out. “You came back because you cared for him, didn’t you?”
Taiji bristled at this but Sugizo said nothing. Toshi wasn’t wrong: part of the reason he’d come back was because of Heath.
“Well. That’s that, then.” Taiji threw the door open and stormed out with a trail of smoke in his wake, closely followed by hide.
“Toshi…” Pata said softly, but the other man’s shoulders were hunched and he wouldn’t look at him. A big fat tear rolled down his cheek. Pata sighed and left the room as well.
Only Yoshiki, Heath and Sugizo remained. They stood there awkwardly, looking at each other.
When Toshi finally spoke, his voice was higher than usual and thick with tears. “Thank you, Yoshiki… for everything. I’m sorry I let you down.”
Without looking at any of them, Toshi left the room and The Underneath.
Happy birthday to Heath for 22 January!
Chapter 4: Absinthe
After Yoshiki and Toshi, hide was the most senior member of the team. Now that Toshi was gone, Yoshiki immediately promoted hide into the position that was now vacant, managing the bar as well as their ‘other’ clientele, and he hated it.
In the same way that Toshi was not like hide, hide was not like Toshi. He just didn’t have the knack for this kind of thing. He hated it, but he kept his mouth shut because he knew that Yoshiki needed him. They were all smarting from Toshi’s bleak departure and the best way to move on was just to move on.
But god, he hated doing Toshi’s job. The others helped out where they could, but it was hard to juggle client assignments with the bar’s stock figures and finances and the odd business meeting with Yoshiki, without cursing Toshi for this mess. hide reserved his foulest language for the times when Yoshiki wasn’t around to hear it. No need to give Yoshiki another reason to worry after his oldest friend had deserted him. They were all there for each other, even if Toshi wasn’t.
Heath gave Toshi a call the day after the bombshell was dropped. Toshi had sounded very sad with how things had ended and how Sugizo was the only one who had even tried to understand him. Heath tried to gently convince him to at least think about coming back but Toshi had just said he was very sorry and hung up. The day after, Heath tried calling him again but Toshi wouldn’t even pick up. On the third try, Shiori answered the phone and snapped, “Leave him alone! He doesn’t want to talk to you!”
After that, Heath had been even quieter than usual at work that night and when the others asked what was wrong, he just shook his head.
For a while Yoshiki seemed to be the only one taking it in his stride. He had taken one look at their glum faces and curtly told them not to let any setbacks get in the way. The illusion was shattered when they heard a loud crash late one night, and Sugizo and Taiji walked in just in time to see his wine carafe smash against the wall. Glass and wine exploded everywhere. Paper lay scattered on the floor and his laptop was crushed under the weight of the upturned desk. Normally they would have gotten hide to deal with Yoshiki’s moods, but he was out the back with Pata calming him down after he’d nearly gotten into a fistfight with at an angry customer.
They’d gotten too used to having Toshi run the bar like a well-oiled machine. Without him, busy nights at the bar were hellish so they always looked forward to quieter nights when they could all relax a little bit. On one particularly quiet night, only half a dozen or so seats were filled, mostly with solo regulars. Taiji was doing slow laps of the bar like a restless animal on the prowl and Sugizo busied himself tidying up tables while hide, Pata and Heath worked behind the bar, cleaning and attending to customers. It was on this particularly quiet night that three of the solo customers rose from their tables.
“Get down!” Taiji yelled.
The first shot struck hide’s arm and he swore loudly and yanked Heath down onto the floor with him just as another bullet whined past his head. Above them, bottles of Bacardi, Smirnoff and Johnnie Walker shattered, their contents gushing down the shelves. Taiji was onto the second gunman, kneeling on his chest and wrestling the gun out of his grip, quickly firing three shots into him. The other customers screamed and backed against the walls or ducked under their tables. On his hands and knees, Pata was feeling around underneath the counter for the emergency gun they kept there, and fired off several quick suppressive shots. Amongst the gunfire, the first gunman staggered backwards and hit the floor; Yoshiki had heard the commotion and was standing just inside the doorway leading to the back, gun in hand. The third gunman yelled and dropped his gun when Taiji shot out his shoulder.
“Leave that one alive.” Yoshiki strode purposefully out onto the floor and calmly ordered all of the customers to leave, which they were only too glad to do.
The first two men were dead; the third was on his knees in front of Taiji with his own gun pressed against the back of his head. “Is everyone okay?”
“I’m fine,” Yoshiki said.
“Me too,” said Pata, getting up from behind the bar.
“I’m hit,” hide said grimly, holding his arm. Blood oozed between his fingers. “Hurts like a b—” and then there was Heath’s low, panicked voice saying, “No no no no not again…”
Sugizo was on the floor half-slumped against a wall, breathing quickly and shallowly with blood soaking into the front of his shirt and all over his hands and looking at Heath desperately with tears in his eyes. Pata quickly grabbed a fresh tea towel and rushed to his side, pressing the towel over the gunshot wounds.
Heath crossed the room in a few long strides and shoved Taiji aside roughly. He grabbed the front of the gunman’s shirt and the rest of them watched in stunned silence when Heath hit the man so hard that his head snapped to one side, and he kept hitting the man until his face was covered in a mix of blood and saliva and he was barely able to hold himself up.
“Fuck, he’s gonna kill him,” hide said. “Taiji!”
Taiji put a firm hand on Heath’s arm and Heath promptly shook it off. “Heath, stop!”
Heath either didn’t hear him or chose not to because in one fluid movement he flicked a butterfly knife from his back pocket.
“No, Heath— fuck!” Taiji slapped his arm aside a split second too late; they all saw him recoil violently with one hand pressed against the cut along his left cheek. Yoshiki swiftly locked an arm around Heath’s neck and twisted his arm just enough to force him to drop the knife. The injured gunman crumpled into a heap on the floor, coughing and wheezing through his broken nose.
“Fuck,” Taiji said again, gingerly removing his hand from his face. There was blood, but not much.
Squatting beside Sugizo, Pata watched sadly while Heath fought against Yoshiki’s hold.
“Heath, don’t!” hide shouted, dismayed.
“Stop it, Heath!” Taiji yelled at him and gave him a hard shake. “Stop! You’ll kill him like that.”
Heath’s voice came out in a low snarl, “Damn right I’ll fucking kill—”
“We need him alive! We need one to find out who he’s working for!”
Breathing hard, Heath stared down coldly at Taiji from beneath the long hair that hung in front of his face.
“Hey hey hey, kid…” Taiji said in a soothing voice, pulling the younger man into his arms. “Listen to me. Sugizo will be fine. He’s alive. He’s alive. We’ll get him to a hospital and they’ll fix him up and he’ll be all right, he’ll have you to take care of him, okay? Heath? He’ll be fine…”
Heath said nothing but he let Taiji hold him, his posture stiff and his eyes cold.
Yoshiki turned to Pata. “I need a car, get me the GT-R and bring it out the back. I’m taking him to the hospital.”
Taiji gently guided Heath to Sugizo’s side so that Pata could move, and Heath sank to his knees, one arm around Sugizo holding him close, his other hand keeping pressure on the gunshot wounds. Sugizo weakly reached for Heath’s hand; it was slippery with blood and Heath grasped it tightly, burying his face in Sugizo’s hair and stifling a sob.
Everybody was quiet except for the sounds of both Sugizo and the gunman struggling to breathe. Taiji tugged the bandana off his neck and tied it around hide’s arm to stem the bleeding. Yoshiki retreated to his office and reemerged a while later with three burner phones. He gave hide and Heath a phone each, keeping the third phone for himself.
hide looked down at the cheap disposable phone in his hand. “Yoshiki…”
“Car’s ready,” Pata said, handing Yoshiki the keys to Sugizo’s GT-R.
Yoshiki and Taiji helped Sugizo up and half-carried, half-dragged him outside and into the passenger seat of the car. Heath’s bloodied hands clutched at the car door and he made a pained noise when Sugizo wheezed and gave a weak, wet-sounding cough, bringing up blood.
Yoshiki cast a glance at his team. “We’re not safe here any more. This is the end of The Underneath.”
They looked at each other uneasily.
“You three,” Yoshiki pointed at hide, Taiji and Pata. “Go to the safehouse and wait for me. Take the gunman with you and see what you can get out of him.”
The three of them nodded.
Yoshiki turned to Heath. “Motorbike. Now.”
Taiji went back inside to grab their hostage. On their way out, he stepped past the shiny butterfly knife on the floor and, after a second’s hesitation, picked it up and carefully folded it closed. By the time Taiji dragged the man out with him, Heath was astride his Yamaha beside Sugizo’s car, both engines purring.
Heath looked a lot calmer now—probably glad to have something to do—and Taiji pushed the injured gunman at Pata.
“You okay, kid?” he asked gently.
Heath just stared at the car dully.
“Hey,” Taiji said. “Look at me.”
The younger man’s dark eyes flickered toward him, and Taiji put a light hand on his arm.
“Taiji…” Heath said in a small voice, clutching at him tightly and pressing his face into Taiji’s shoulder. Taiji could feel Heath trembling as he struggled not to cry. “Taiji, he…”
“Listen to me,” Taiji said in a low voice. “Sugizo will be absolutely fine. Okay?”
Heath nodded numbly. “I’m sorry I hurt you, I didn’t, I didn’t mean—”
“It’s nothing, don’t worry.” Taiji gave him a firm squeeze and tucked the folded knife into his pocket. “You take good care of him, you hear? We’ll… we’ll see you around.”
“We need to go, Heath,” Yoshiki said, and the dark grey GT-R slowly pulled out onto the road.
Heath nodded again and Taiji stepped away. Heath pulled his helmet on and the Yamaha’s tail light streamed a blinding red in the darkness as he followed the car.
hide, Taiji and Pata quietly watched the car and the motorbike disappear into the distance.
“What now?” Taiji asked.
hide’s lips were pressed into a thin line. “We do exactly what Yoshiki said to do. We go to the safehouse and wait for him to contact us.”
They walked on in silence to where hide had parked his car a few blocks away. Taiji kept a hand on the gunman’s shoulder, pushing him forward, hoping nobody would notice what was wrong with his face in the dark of night. They avoided streetlights and brightly-lit store windows where they could. The last thing they needed right now was to draw attention to themselves.
While they stood at a street corner waiting for the lights to change, Pata helped Taiji light a cigarette. He took a deep drag and almost choked on it when their hostage tore out of his grip and bolted across the busy road. Car horns blared, brakes squealed, a few people screamed, and they heard a sickening thump when the man went under a bus.
“Ahhh, fuck me,” Taiji said under his breath.
A crowd was beginning to gather quickly and the bus driver stepped out looking pale and confused and terrified. “He just ran out in front of me… he just ran out in front of me!”
“Call an ambulance!” someone else yelled.
hide glanced warily at all the people around them and took Pata and Taiji each by the arm. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
What is it with Sugizo always getting shot? Sorry dude, nothing personal, I promise!
Chapter 5: Drambuie
Yoshiki eased the car to a stop at the traffic lights and reached over to place Sugizo’s hand over his own hand that rested on the gearshift. “I want you to keep your hand here for me, okay? Sugizo? Can you do that for me?”
Sugizo responded by just barely squeezing Yoshiki’s hand.
“That’s right,” Yoshiki said, accelerating smoothly when the lights turned green.
Sugizo was struggling to breathe properly but he only just managed to whisper Heath’s name.
“Shh,” Yoshiki said reassuringly. “Heath is fine. He’s right behind us. You know he would never leave you.” They could hear the distinctive rumble of the Yamaha nearby.
They’d been on the road for a while now, going over the speed limit and weaving through traffic, and Heath anxiously wondered where Yoshiki was going. There were several hospitals within ten or twenty minutes’ drive to the west or south of Ginza, but Yoshiki was heading east. Even then, they had to have passed a few hospitals in this direction. Heath had to remind himself Yoshiki never did anything for no reason. Soon they arrived into Chiba but Yoshiki kept going, heading south, following the expressway along the bay.
“We’re almost there,” Yoshiki said, partly to keep himself calm as well as Sugizo. “Not long to go now.”
When Sugizo’s hand slipped away and fell to one side limply, Yoshiki glanced over and reached down to squeeze his hand gently. He felt a stab of worry when Sugizo didn’t squeeze back, but then there was the soft wheeze of his shallow breathing; as long as he was still breathing, they’d be okay. Yoshiki kept driving, making sure to check on him every couple of minutes.
When they arrived at the hospital near Yoshiki’s hometown of Tateyama, Chiba, there was a small group of doctors and nurses already gathered outside. They moved Sugizo from the car to the waiting gurney quickly and efficiently and Heath whimpered when he saw how limp and lifeless he looked.
Yoshiki grasped his arm firmly to keep him from getting in the way. “He’s just unconscious. Let them work.”
There was a commotion of activity as they followed the doctors inside, and amongst talk about x-rays, low blood pressure, blood loss and whether a transfusion would be necessary, one of the doctors fell back and said something that Heath didn’t hear.
Yoshiki gently shook his shoulder. “Heath.”
“What?” Heath said, blinking.
“What’s Sugizo’s blood type?” Yoshiki asked him.
“Type O. I’m type B.” Not compatible, he knew.
“Is he taking any medication?” the doctor asked.
“Any pre-existing conditions, asthma, heart problems, anaemia?”
“Any allergies to food or medication?”
“I don’t think so. No.”
Heath sat in one of the uncomfortable plastic chairs against the wall, arms drawn tightly around himself. The hours that followed were a blur and when he tried thinking back on it later, he could barely remember anything except the bustle of hospital staff, and Yoshiki leaving the building frequently to talk on the phone for ages.
He looked up when someone sat down next to him.
“How are you holding up?” It was a young male doctor in blue scrubs. “Do you want to talk to someone?”
Heath shook his head.
“Okay.” The doctor nodded understandingly. “Has someone seen you about that?”
Heath looked down blankly. “Oh. It’s not my blood.”
“Good. How about I help you get that cleaned up?” He helped Heath over to a wash station and scrubbed the dried blood off his hands with soap and warm water. The doctor frowned slightly; the knuckles on Heath’s right hand were looking a little red. “That’s going to be pretty sore. Take a seat, I’ll go get you an ice pack.”
Heath nodded mutely and returned to his seat, and the doctor soon returned with an ice pack wrapped in a tea towel.
“Maybe you should try and get some sleep,” the doctor suggested.
“I’m not tired.”
“Trust me, you’ll feel better after some sleep.”
Heath shook his head again.
The doctor sighed. “Try not to worry too much about your friend. Our team are giving him the best of care. He’ll pull through.”
He gave Heath an encouraging pat on the shoulder before going back to his work.
“What are they saying?” Heath asked when Yoshiki returned.
Yoshiki hesitated, thinking about what he should and shouldn’t tell him. “The bullets punctured his right lung. They’ve x-rayed him and are operating on him to remove the bullets. He’s lost a… little bit of blood so he’s getting a blood transfusion just to help him along.”
In fact, Sugizo had lost a lot of blood and would probably not survive without a blood transfusion. Heath definitely knew how much blood a person had to lose, and how quickly, for them to lose consciousness or die. Yoshiki only hoped that he wasn’t quite lucid enough right now to pick up on the white lie.
It seemed like they’d been waiting for days but finally one of the senior doctors emerged and reported that they were satisfied with Sugizo’s condition. They had managed to remove the bullets and expel the air in his chest cavity from the collapsed lung, and the blood transfusion had gone well. He would be moved from the operating theatre to intensive care with a ventilator where he would be closely monitored overnight.
Heath tried to keep himself occupied with trashy magazines detailing the latest celebrity gossip from six months ago, but he just ended up staring off into space. Yoshiki stayed with him for support, still occasionally leaving the building to make a few calls.
They were allowed to see Sugizo in the ICU briefly but he was still unconscious, hooked up to all sorts of medical equipment with tubes and leads snaking all over the place. Heath looked so empty and ragged that Yoshiki had to drag him away and coax some food into him. They sat in the far corner of the hospital cafeteria, and the older man watched him sitting across the table, eyes downcast, brows creased, chin resting in one hand while he picked at a bowl of hot gyudon.
“Heath, eat up before it goes cold,” Yoshiki said with an encouraging smile. “It’s pretty good for hospital cafeteria food.”
“I’m not hungry,” Heath mumbled.
“You need to eat. You’re thin enough as it is.”
This was a running joke amongst them, that Heath never ate enough (even though they knew he ate plenty, and had a voracious sweet tooth) but this time the joke fell flat.
Yoshiki sighed. “If you don’t eat, you won’t have the energy to take care of Sugizo when he wakes up.”
Heath managed to eat a few bites before pushing the tray away, claiming that he felt a bit sick.
“Drink this, then.” Yoshiki slid a bowl of steaming miso soup across the table to him.
Obediently Heath picked up the plastic faux-lacquerware bowl and slowly sipped at it.
Once he was done, Yoshiki took him back to the waiting area. Heath did feel better after having eaten something, and the soup’s warmth had a soothing effect. He was so exhausted that slipped off to sleep not five minutes after he sat down. Yoshiki quietly took off his own jacket and draped it over his shoulders.
Even though the blinds were drawn, bright morning sunlight filtered through the gaps. Heath cracked an eye open. He lay there for a while, slowly growing accustomed to the light in the room and wondering where he was. He had a very vague memory of Yoshiki walking him to one of the hospital’s call rooms where doctors would snatch a few hours of sleep during night shifts. He had no memory at all of climbing into a bunk and falling asleep.
Heath started to push himself up off the bed and grimaced; his limbs weighed at least a tonne each and a bruise was beginning to form on and around his knuckles. He rubbed his face with both hands, elbows resting on his knees, heaving a deep sigh. His back felt a bit stiff; the bunk bed wasn’t the most comfortable thing in the world. Nothing like the bed that he and Sugizo shared at home.
Thinking about Sugizo almost made him choke up again, but then the door opened a crack and he looked up to see Yoshiki looking into the room.
“You looked so exhausted, I didn’t want to wake you,” he said, sitting down next to Heath.
“Has anything happened?” Heath asked tentatively.
Yoshiki shook his head. “No change. If he remains stable until tonight, they’ll move him out of intensive care into a private room.”
They paid Sugizo another visit in intensive care with a doctor rambling on about how they would take him off the ventilator and replace it with a chest tube and they could expect him to wake up within a week, give or take a couple of days. This time Heath felt more agreeable about leaving the room for some food. Sugizo was in bad shape, but he would live.
When they were finished with their meal, Yoshiki cleared away their empty trays and when he got back, he was glad to see that Heath’s head was up, watching something on the TV mounted to the wall.
“Feeling better?” he asked. Then his smile faded.
The TV was on mute, but the live news bulletin showed a reporter standing before lots of frightened-looking people huddled out on the streets. Then it cut to some unsteady, vertical footage that someone had taken on their phone, of firefighters battling a raging blaze last night. The text scrolling across the bottom of the screen read FIRE IN GINZA: HUNDREDS EVACUATED.
The news feed switched back to the live report and the TV crew’s camera panned away from the reporter. It took Yoshiki a couple of seconds to recognise the charred building as the record store and the hotel that stood above The Underneath.
Slightly shorter chapter than usual! Comments and kudos are always appreciated :)
Yoshiki and Heath stared at the silent TV intently for a little while. The news report showed the reporter speaking to one of the firefighters and a couple of the hotel staff. The news crew’s camera showed that the record store’s floor had collapsed into the bar beneath it. The hotel itself hadn’t fared too badly, but the lobby had sustained some fire damage and a lot of smoke damage.
When the reporters rehashing the night’s events and then speaking to police, they both decided they had seen enough and got up to leave.
“What are we going to do?” Heath asked quietly.
Yoshiki put his jacket on and checked his phone. “I need to go. There are a few things I need to do. I’ll need to take Sugizo’s car.”
Heath nodded and started following him toward the exit, but Yoshiki turned and stopped him. “Not you. You have to stay here.”
“No.” Yoshiki’s voice was firm. “You need to be here for Sugizo. He needs you.”
Heath tried to say something but his voice wouldn’t work, and when he blinked, he felt hot tears running down his face.
“Do you still have that burner phone I gave you?” Yoshiki asked.
Heath swallowed hard and nodded, patting the pockets of his jacket.
“Keep your real phone switched off until this all blows over. I’ll let you know. You should be safe here in the hospital, but the burner phone has the address of a safehouse nearby if you need it.” Yoshiki gave his shoulder a squeeze. “Take care of yourself and Sugizo.”
hide was finally starting to feel more like himself again for the first time in weeks. Now that they all had targets on their backs, he was a little wary about driving something as distinctive as vintage Jaguar south of Tokyo and through the outskirts of Yokosuka. Then they saw a bright orange McLaren and later, two Lamborghinis and a Bentley, and he felt much less conspicuous in the midst of nondescript Toyotas and Mazdas. hide settled in to enjoy the drive.
Inside the safehouse they found four futons neatly tucked away in the cupboard and a small television. The little kitchen was stocked with a variety of instant ramen, tinned food and a few bottles of alcohol.
Pata reached for the vodka and then rummaged around for the little first aid kit. He pointed the bottle at hide’s arm. “Let’s see that.”
hide sat on the closed toilet lid and held his arm over the sink. He grabbed the bottle out of Pata’s hand and took a few big gulps while Pata gently inspected the wound.
“Looks like it went through,” he said. “Lucky.”
“Fuckfuckfuckfuck…!” hide clenched his other fist hard when Pata poured vodka over the wound to clean it out. His eyes watered. “Jesus! This is why I prefer to kill people from—hrrg!—the inside out. You people with your stupid fucking fists and guns and knives… too messy, too many opportunities to—nngh!—get hurt.”
“Shut up, you big baby,” Pata said, bandaging it up properly.
hide scowled and snatched the bottle of vodka back.
“You might need stitches,” Pata said. “Want me to—”
Pata shrugged and switched on the TV to give them something to do. After flicking through channels for a while he settled on the news and they watched in stunned silence as The Underneath and the building above it went up in flames. None of them got much sleep that night.
On the third day, Pata was sitting down with a cup of instant ramen when hide asked, “So who do you think it was?”
Pata paused mid-slurp to think about it for a few seconds. “Honestly, the only person I can think of is Gackt.”
“Except he’s properly dead this time,” hide reminded him.
“I’m just saying, he’s the only person on our bad side who has the money, power and… what’s the word? Spite.” Pata pondered on this for a moment. “What about revenge? For Gackt, I mean.”
hide snorted. “Can you imagine anyone liking him enough to want to avenge him?”
Pata laughed at that.
The night air was pleasantly warm and Taiji sat by the balcony, smoking a cigarette with a can of beer in held loosely his other hand.
hide threw an empty iced tea bottle at him. “Oi. You’re being very quiet.”
Taiji slowly exhaled a plume of smoke and gave him a long, thoughtful look. “You ever seen Heath lose it like that before?”
“No, and it makes me glad I’m on the same side as he is,” Pata said gruffly. “Remind me never to lay a hand on Sugizo.”
Taiji lightly touched the Band-Aid on his face. “Did you hear what he said when Sugizo was shot?”
“‘No no no.’”
“He said, ‘No no no not again.’” Taiji took another drag of his cigarette. “hide, you met him back in Osaka didn’t you? Any idea what that was all about?”
hide shook his head. “The guys he got mixed up with were just bosozoku; there wasn’t much to them. He never told me much. Just that he needed help, and someone he knew was murdered by the main guy. I got the feeling he didn’t want to talk about it, so I never asked. You think the same thing happened there?”
“Mm. I think so. He just looked so… broken when he saw Sugizo like that.”
“Well you would be, too, if you loved someone that much.” Suddenly hide grinned. “You’re awfully concerned about Heath and Sugizo. Got a soft spot for our two youngest, Uncle Taiji?”
“Because I seem to recall that a few short years ago, you and Heath kind of… I dunno, hated each other?”
“I think ‘hate’ is a bit strong...”
“I believe the words you used were, ‘He’s just a pretty boy who—’”
“All right, all right,” Taiji interrupted. “I was wrong and you were right, happy? We’ve worked out our differences, and he’s really a good kid.” Taiji flicked the ash off the end of his cigarette and gazed at it for a moment. “I don’t think he’d be able to handle it if Sugizo doesn’t make it.”
Pata spoke up quietly. “Makes me wonder about Toshi. I tried calling him a week after he left. Nothing. It was disconnected. He must really not want to talk to us.” Pata looked glum. “Maybe he changed his number. I hope he’s okay and that got to have his normal life in the end.”
Toshi lay curled up on the dirty, peeling linoleum floor, sick and shaking and cold all over.
The night he had left The Underneath, he was so sure that he’d done the right thing. He’d gone to see Shiori straight away and she wrapped him up in her arms tenderly and told him it was for the best, that he’d made the right choice. Hadn’t she told him that these people were bad for him? Hadn’t she told him that he was so much better than that, better than them? They weren’t good people, you could tell just by looking at them, especially the two that were covered in tattoos. Now she and Toshi would be able to settle down and live a quiet, happy life together. And he had believed her.
He had been distraught when Heath had called, especially when Shiori picked up the phone and told him to go away. That had been another stab of guilt, hearing her speak so harshly to Heath when he cared so much. Seeing that Toshi was so upset, Shiori offered to take him to a friend of hers so that he could talk it out, and maybe Toshi would be able find a suitable job with him.
The alarm bells should have gone off when she took him to a run down apartment block. There were junkies and prostitutes loitering outside, the air in the lobby was thick with the smell of cigarettes and marijuana, and the walls were covered in layers graffiti. When two menacing-looking men approached them, Toshi instinctively put Shiori behind him and doubled over in pain when he caught a knee to the stomach. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Shiori just standing there, watching as they dragged him up several flights of stairs. He never saw or heard from her again.
He had struggled, of course, which only resulted in a few blows to the ribs and one to the head. Finally he was thrown into one of the apartments where there was a thin, stained mattress on the floor. The walls were discoloured with damp, there were speckles of black mould on the ceiling, and a tarp was carelessly taped over one of the broken windows.
Toshi felt the nausea rising again and quickly rolled over onto his hands and knees, dry heaving a couple of times, waiting for the nausea to pass.
He had been beaten and starved for three days but mercifully they started feeding him tiny meals after that. He made quick work of the plate of rice and vegetables and while it wasn’t enough to fill him up, he felt amazing afterwards. That only lasted for a couple of hours and he was back to feeling tired and depressed and hungry until his next meal.
His captors kept him to the same schedule of three small meals a day, each one leaving him feeling relaxed and euphoric for an hour or so. After that he would descend into a spiral of depression and anxiety. When the nausea, aches and itching set in, he finally realised with a deep horror what was happening to him.
They laughed at him the next time they entered the room and found him in a corner trembling like a nervous wreck, with a patch on his neck raw from scratching. They set a small bowl of steaming curry rice on the floor by the mattress.
“Wh— what have you put in it?” he demanded, but it came out in a high-pitched whine.
“I think he likes it, Ju-ken,” the first one said to his cohort.
Ju-ken chuckled a little and Toshi felt himself breaking out into a cold sweat when he produced a small plastic bag containing a very fine white powder.
Toshi had tried putting up a fight once, even knowing that he wasn’t the fighting type, but he was so weak that they overpowered him easily. He was punished with another day of starvation and when they finally came back with food, he couldn’t stop himself from devouring it in front of them.
“Who are you? Why are you keeping me here?” he had cried desperately. “Why haven’t you killed me yet?”
“Insurance,” Hakuei, the second one, said in an almost careless tone. “In case your old friends try to start shit.”
Toshi gaped at him and then laughed hysterically. “You’re wasting your time and your drugs, asshole. That bridge has been burnt.”
Toshi had no illusions about how bad his situation was as each day melted in to the next. He could either keep eating the food they gave him and continue feeding his new drug addiction, or he could stop eating altogether and slowly starve to death. Even then, he was sure that they would find a way to keep him just barely alive enough to suffer. He understood people like this only too well. There was no way they would let him die so easily.
So he kept eating and they kept drugging him.
One day Ju-ken came in with a bowl of rice and pork. Toshi dug into the food and jumped skittishly when a newspaper slapped onto the floor next to him.
“Here’s some bedtime reading for you,” Ju-ken said.
Toshi looked up at him warily before scanning the paper’s front page. August 18th. God, he’d been in here for, what… three weeks? Four weeks? He was trying to remember what date it was when he left The Underneath, when the bold headline finally caught his eye.
FIRE BREAKS OUT IN GINZA. 12 INJURED AND 4 DEAD INCLUDING SUSPECTED ARSONIST.
Toshi didn’t read the rest of the article, just stared at the photo of the burning building surrounded by fire engines and firefighters armed with hoses. Long after Ju-ken had left, Toshi finally crawled onto the dirty, smelly mattress feeling sick and crying until he couldn’t cry any more, knowing that everything was all his fault.
Thank you to everyone who is still reading this! My favourite chapter is next, I'm so excited :3
Chapter 7: Vodka
Even though the doctors insisted that Sugizo was on the road to recovery and out of danger, it still made Heath feel unsettled seeing him lying there looking so pale and lifeless. The heart rate monitor was a constant, nagging reminder of how close he had come to losing Sugizo and he never wanted to put either of them through that again.
On his first night out of the ICU, a pretty nurse came in to check on Sugizo and smiled when she caught Heath staring at her.
“Sorry,” he’d said, quickly averting his eyes and hoping she didn’t think he was being a creep. “I just feel like I know you from somewhere.”
“It was a while ago. I left soon after you started.” The hospital ID tag clipped to her uniform read ‘Tsuchiya Anna’.
“After I started…?” Heath studied her face while she worked. “Did you work for Yoshiki?”
“Now you remember.” She checked Sugizo’s blood pressure. “Yes, I did, for a few years. The pay was excellent, but I wanted to work in a hospital to help more people. Yoshiki suggested this place and gave me a glowing reference.” Her eyes flickered over to him. “He also keeps this hospital very well funded.”
Heath nodded slowly. Now he understood why Yoshiki had chosen this hospital in particular, why the doctors had been waiting for them when they arrived, and why he was allowed to stay with Sugizo when everyone else was subject to the standard hospital visiting hours.
He hesitantly asked Anna a few questions and she answered each one frankly but gently. The chest tube would let out any air in left his chest cavity, and the collapsed lung would expand again so that he’d be able to breathe properly. The lung would heal on its own with time. He’d have to stay in hospital for several weeks, but given how physically fit he was, doctors expected him to be fully recovered by the 3- to 4-month mark.
A day or so after the doctors removed the chest tube, Sugizo stirred and give a few thin, shallow coughs. He turned his head a little and slowly opened his eyes. It took a few seconds for him to adjust to the light and he looked around with glazed eyes, taking in his surroundings.
Heath reached out to touch his hand. “Hey. I’m really glad you’re okay,” he said with a tentative smile.
Sugizo tried to shift around on the bed. His body was heavy and sluggish and didn’t feel like his own.
“I feel fucking terrible,” he said in a thin, dry voice. He gently stroked Heath’s bruised knuckles with his thumb. “What happened to your hand?”
“Nothing.” Heath quickly pulled his hand away.
Sugizo immediately felt uneasy. Heath was being quieter than usual, distant, switched off. “What’s happened?”
“We split up from hide, Pata and Taiji. They went to the safehouse. Yoshiki brought you here but he left a few days ago.”
“Tell me what’s wrong.” Sugizo’s normally gentle voice became firm.
Heath gave him a long, pensive look. “Have you ever regretted joining The Underneath?”
“No…” Sugizo said warily. “Why do you ask?”
Heath was silent for a couple of minutes. “I’ve had a lot of time to think. Mostly about Toshi. And about you. About us.”
A feeling of dread crawled into Sugizo’s heart.
“I think… for your sake it would be better if you left, because you’re in too much danger while you’re with me.”
Sugizo stared at him for a long time.
“Heath…” he swallowed thickly. “Don’t do this. Think about it. We’re great together, aren’t we? I thought we were happy. We’ve had two fights in three years—”
“—we’ve just gotten a new apartment!” Sugizo’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Everything’s been fine, hasn’t it?”
Heath’s expression remained neutral but he turned away. “You’ll be better off without me.”
Sugizo felt panic rising at how cold he was being. “Don’t… don’t you feel the same way about us any more?”
Tears began welling up in Heath’s eyes. “Of course I do.”
“Then why do you want to leave me?”
“I care about you too much to see you die.”
“So… we’ll both leave, then,” Sugizo said stubbornly. “Make a new life for ourselves, away from everything.”
“I can’t do that.” Heath shook his head. “That would mean three of us will have left and Yoshiki would be left with half a team. I couldn’t do that to them.”
“But you can do this to us?” Sugizo demanded. “Forget it all, like it doesn’t mean anything?”
Heath pressed a hand over his eyes. “Please don’t make this any more difficult than it has to be.”
“You are the one making it difficult!” Sugizo exploded. “I wake up in fucking hospital after getting shot and you decide this is a good time to end it? You’re just being… selfish and irrational!”
“I thought you would underst—”
“Oh I do understand,” Sugizo snapped. “I understand completely. Your overprotectiveness is because you’re afraid of losing someone close to you again, so you’re trying to push me away. Don’t you think that I worry about you, too? But I know that you can take care of yourself, and you need to realise that about me. This is life in our underworld! I’m not Issay and I’m not Shin, I don’t need to be protected, I just…” Tears stung Sugizo’s eyes. “I can’t…”
A small sob escaped from Heath.
“All right,” Sugizo said coldly. “If you want to be like this, you should finish what you started three years ago. Kill me. Right now.”
Heath flinched like he’d been slapped.
“There is nothing out there for me. There is no driving into the sunset. Don’t you remember what we said to Toshi? If I leave, if I’m out there, whoever it is who’s been trying to kill us will still come after me. I am not afraid of dying but you will have thrown away all of this for nothing.” Sugizo gave several hard, wrenching coughs and his body hurt badly, but worst of all he felt scared, really scared, and now he was crying, too. “Heath, please stop this…”
Heath shook his head. “You’ll be safe here—”
“I won’t be safe anywhere!”
“—the doctors and nurses here will take care of you—”
“I don’t want them, I want you, Heath, please…”
“—and I’ll leave tomorrow morning to find Yoshiki and the others.”
Sugizo felt hollow inside. He stared at Heath sitting there, so cold and untouchable, even with tears in his eyes, and for a second he was a stranger, a beautiful stranger. This wasn’t his Heath. His Heath was gentle and caring and affectionate.
Sugizo clenched his jaw and looked him straight in the eye. “Kiss me and tell me you want to leave me.”
Sugizo angrily swiped at the tears running down his face. “If you’ve given up on us already, it should be a piece of fucking cake. If you can kiss me and honestly not feel a single thing, I’ll let you walk out that door.”
Heath’s tone was frosty. “You don’t have to let me do anything.”
“Then consider it a parting gift,” Sugizo said bitterly. “I think I deserve at least that much.”
Reluctantly, Heath leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek before quickly retreating.
Sugizo gave a short, harsh laugh. “What the fuck do you call that?”
Heath bit his lower lip to stop it trembling and glared at him through his tears. “Fine.”
As soon as their lips touched, Sugizo held onto him as tightly as he was able to and god it tore at his heart when Heath whimpered and tried to push him away, but Sugizo breathed don’t, Heath, please, and he allowed himself to be pulled into Sugizo’s lap, kissing desperately, one hand clenched in his auburn hair. Fresh tears flowed and Heath made a small noise of assent when Sugizo drew his arms around him, his fingers skimming beneath his shirt and caressing the small of his back, and Heath’s slim body yielded to him so easily, pressing against his own and it felt good, it felt right, this was how it should be.
“Fuck you,” Heath whispered, pressing a tear-stained cheek against Sugizo’s.
Despite himself, Sugizo burst out laughing. “Oh, I hope so.”
Heath rubbed his tears away with the back of one hand whilst clinging to Sugizo with the other, and attempted a small smile. “I’m really not in the mood right now.”
“Not right now but… maybe another time?” Sugizo whispered nervously.
“Yeah. Another time. Any time.” Heath said very softly. “If you still want me, I mean.”
He sounded shy and at that very moment it was the most endearing thing Sugizo had ever heard.
“I’ll always want…” Sugizo’s voice wavered and cracked. “Don’t ever, ever do that to me again. Okay? Just... don’t.”
“I won’t,” Heath murmured into the crook of his neck. “Promise.”
Sugizo pressed a gentle kiss to his hair and drew in a shaky breath. “Fucking idiot.”
“I love you.” Heath clutched his arms around Sugizo and buried his face into his shoulder, crying his heart out. “I love you so much.”
“I know you do,” Sugizo choked out. “God, Heath, don’t you think I know?”
And they lay in the hospital bed kissing slowly and blissfully, the sweetest I love yous whispered in between the last few salty tears, and Sugizo struggled to stay awake long after Heath had fallen asleep in his arms just to make sure that he was still there.
This is probably my favourite chapter of the entire series. What did you think? Loved it? Hated it?
Kisaki knocked on the door of Klaha’s office. “You wanted to talk to me?”
“Oh, yes.” Klaha looked up from tidying his desk and locking up the drawers. “I’m off to Okinawa tonight. The Masuda family need a little more convincing to agree to our terms. I’m taking Ju-ken and some of his boys with me, so you’re in charge until I get back.”
Kisaki nodded, but he looked a little uneasy.
Klaha raised an arched eyebrow. “Is something bothering you?”
“It’s just that… the building where we’re dealing. Hakuei and I have found out that we’re just inside someone else’s borders.”
“Yes. I know about that,” Klaha said offhandedly.
“But… why?” Kisaki said a little incredulously. “Don’t you know whose territory that is?”
“I do,” Klaha said.
Kisaki felt stupid. Of course the boss would know.
“I’m aware that the building is on Morrie’s territory,” Klaha continued. “But I want to be able to keep the goods separate for now. Build a bit of a clientele and see how we go before we start distributing at Märchen.”
“Morrie retired a long time ago,” Klaha said patiently. “He hasn’t been seen in years and his men are barely active. His territory borders are just a formality, just a sign of respect for an old hand. As long as we keep operations very low key, we’ll be fine.”
“But… what if he starts something?”
“If he does, we’ll just offer him a cut. He’d be getting a nice little percentage without having to lift a finger,” Klaha said. “Kisaki, when you’re moving up in the world, you can’t be afraid to take a couple of risks here and there. You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t push a few boundaries. We’ve got Hayashi Yoshiki and his boys on the run and that Sugizo is likely dead - you think just anyone can do that?”
Kisaki could see that Klaha was starting to get annoyed, so he decided it was better just to say nothing, and his silence was taken as a positive response.
Klaha checked his watch and took his coat off from the back of his chair. “Anything else before I go?”
“Yes, actually.” Kisaki looked a lot more confident here, and allowed himself a little smirk. “It took a lot of digging but we finally found him.”
“Yeah.” Kisaki left the room briefly and returned dragging a long-haired man by the collar, almost too weak to struggle. His face, with his large, soulful eyes, would have been very pretty if it weren’t covered in blood and contorted with pain. “Mana makes a very convincing woman.”
“What are we even doing?” Taiji said. He was lying on his futon, propped up on one elbow. Next to him, Pata was snoring softly.
On the other side of Pata, hide had his arms folded behind his head and was gazing up at the ceiling. “Nothing. That was the plan. We don’t do anything until Yoshiki contacts us.”
“I feel like I’m wasting away here.” Taiji sat up and ran both hands through his long blond hair restlessly. “It’s been more than a month. We don’t even know if Yoshiki’s still alive, or what happened to Sugizo. How much longer are we going to wait?”
“As long as it takes.” hide held the burner phone in his hand.
“You keep staring at that stupid thing all the time as if you can make it ring or something,” Taiji scoffed.
hide opened his mouth to say something when the phone lit up and buzzed loudly, and Taiji laughed when hide dropped the phone and scrambled to pick it back up again.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Pata grumbled. “Can’t a body get a bit of sleep around here?”
Ignoring his protests, Taiji climbed over Pata and crowded over hide and the phone. “What is it?”
“Message from a ‘Shiratori Hitomi,’” hide said. “Huh. It’s been a while since he used that name.”
“And? What’d he say?” Taiji said impatiently.
“Just this.” hide held the phone out for Taiji to see.
They set out quite late the next night, none of them having gotten much sleep the previous night, too preoccupied with what Yoshiki had planned and what was in Ibaraki.
It was a long drive and they had to stop around the halfway mark to get petrol and switch drivers. By the time they arrived in Mito, it was well past 1am. Pata drove with one hand and rubbed his tired eyes with the other, yawning.
“It sounds like a strip club.” Taiji was stretched out in the back seat, window open, smoking.
Pata turned his head toward him slightly. “What does?”
“Isn’t it a 5-star hotel?”
Taiji reached over and shook hide’s shoulder. “What do you think?”
“Yes. What?” hide said sleepily. He’d started to nod off in the front passenger seat.
“I think ‘Shangri-La’ sounds like a strip club. Pata thinks it’s a posh hotel. What do you think?”
“Strip club,” hide said immediately.
“See?” Taiji said to Pata, looking smug.
“God, what a pack of perverts.” Pata turned his attention back to the road and parked the car outside a convenience store. “C’mon, I need to eat.”
While they were paying for their food and some hot coffees, they all heard loud, jovial shouting and turned to see three men just outside the automatic doors.
“Take it easy, Sakura!” one of them said, laughing.
“Yeah,” said a younger man with brown hair. “Haven’t you had enough?”
Pata shook his head a little and they made their way out of the convenience store, deliberately giving the drunk man, Sakura, a wide berth. Even then, he managed to bump into Taiji as they passed. They all got a strong whiff of alcohol from the man.
Taiji glared at him and muttered, “Idiot.”
The alcohol clearly hadn’t dampened his hearing because Sakura stopped and turned to face Taiji.
“What was that, asshole?” he growled.
Ahead of him, hide shot Taiji a look and shook his head slightly. Taiji pursed his lips and turned away to follow hide and Pata, but he found himself being yanked backwards roughly by the collar of his jacket, almost throttling him.
“I’m talking to you,” Sakura said, raising his voice. “What did you say to me?”
Taiji straightened out his jacket. “Nothing,” he said with forced politeness. “I was just talking to my friends.”
“Hey, Sakura,” the first man said, tugging on his arm. “Leave him alone. We should get back to the others.”
“Pissh off, Kiyoshi.” Sakura snatched his arm away to grab the front of Taiji’s jacket in his free hand. “You think I’m stupid or something?”
“Yeah, I do, actually,” Taiji said, slapping the hand away.
“Taiji,” hide said in a warning tone, and at the same time the brown-haired man said, “Stop it Sakura, you’re fucking drunk.”
Sakura threw the first punch.
Taiji swatted it aside easily; this enraged the drunk man even more and he went in for a second blow. Taiji caught the fist in one hand and his other hand connected with Sakura’s jaw. The man reeked of alcohol and some of it even spilled out of the bottle that he still held clenched in one hand as the scuffle descended into a brawl with hide and Pata trying to pull Taiji away and the other two trying to stop Sakura, everybody shouting, fists flying. hide copped a fist to the face and Taiji heard somebody screaming “Sakura!”, a heavy thunk and the sound of glass cracking.
Taiji cracked one eye open. His head was killing him. He winced and hissed with pain, gingerly reaching up to touch the throbbing spot at the back of his head. His fingers came away clean but there was an obvious bump on his head back there that was very sensitive to the touch.
“What the fuck,” he moaned.
hide looked over at him. “How do you feel?”
“I feel real fucking good,” Taiji snapped, and then groaned again when his head pounded. “Ugh, sorry. God… what happened?”
“That guy hit you over the head with his beer bottle,” hide said. He looked grumpy and there was a bruise forming on his right cheek.
Taiji gritted his teeth and growled. “Stupid fucking asshole.”
“To be fair, his friends were pretty pissed off at him.”
“They should ask me how pissed off I am,” Taiji retorted hotly. He looked around the room. It was lavishly furnished with matching furniture in black leather and chrome, and plush, charcoal grey carpet underfoot. “How long was I out? Where are we?”
“Shangri-La,” Pata said in a low voice.
Taiji stared at him, open-mouthed. “Fuck off.”
“I’m serious,” Pata shrugged. “They—”
Almost as if on cue, they heard a number of voices talking on top of one another, one of them sounding particularly angry, and the heavy door burst open. A man with a half-spent cigarette in his hand stormed in, followed by two of the men from the convenience store and—
“Yoshiki!” hide blurted out.
“—unacceptable!” the man with the cigarette was shouting.
“I’m sorry, Miya,” the man with the brown hair mumbled.
“‘Sorry’ just doesn’t cut it, Satochi! How did that even fucking happen?!”
“He was drunk,” said the man that hide remembered being called Kiyoshi. He looked guilty. “We both tried to stop him.”
Miya eyed Satochi first and then Kiyoshi, and took a long, deep drag of his cigarette. “And who let him get that drunk in the first place and start a fight with strangers?”
hide started to say something but Yoshiki caught his eye and raised one hand slightly. Just wait.
“These are our guests!” Miya was pointing emphatically at hide, Taiji and Pata on the chrome and leather bench. He fixed his two men with a hard glare and they both went a bit meek. “Where is Sakura?”
“Um,” Satochi hesitated. “Puking.”
Miya snorted and seemed satisfied with this. He crushed what was left of his cigarette into an ashtray and turned to Yoshiki with a deep bow. “I am very, very sorry about what has happened. Please accept my deepest apologies for Sakura. I genuinely hope this hasn’t—”
Yoshiki gave him a reassuring smile. “It’s fine Miya. It was just a misunderstanding. We’ve all had our moments when we’re not at our best. No harm done.”
“Like hell it isn’t,” Taiji muttered, rubbing his head again.
While his men stood sullenly beside him, Miya apologised to hide, Pata and especially Taiji, and suggested that they all talk tomorrow once they’d had a chance to catch up with Yoshiki and rest.
After the door closed behind Miya and his men, Yoshiki sat down on an empty chair beside Pata. He explained that he and Toshi had had a business meeting with Miya the night they had all been targeted, having struck up a good relationship that had come in very handy in light of the recent events. They all knew that Yoshiki took a lot of pains to seek out and cultivate the right people in their occupation.
Yoshiki got up and poured them each a cup of hot tea. “I’m sure you would have heard about the fire at The Underneath by now.”
Pata and hide nodded, and Taiji leaned forward to ask, “What happened with Heath and Sugizo?”
“I took Sugizo to a hospital in Tateyama. Heath was fine, just upset.”
hide pursed his lips, worried. “That’s a really long drive…”
“Yes,” said Yoshiki. “Sugizo did lose a lot of blood but they’ll be safer there than being near Tokyo. When I left, he was stable and about to be moved out of the ICU. He should be all right.”
Taiji said nothing but he looked relieved.
“Did you get anything out of the gunman?” Yoshiki asked.
The three of them exchanged a look.
“No,” said hide. “He threw himself under a bus.”
Yoshiki sighed and pursed his lips. “It’s all right.”
“Have you got anything about who’s been coming after all of us?” Pata asked.
“We’ll talk about that tomorrow with Miya and his team,” Yoshiki said. “Miya and I also have a couple of contacts doing some more digging for us. I’m expecting to hear back from them at some stage. For now, we should be safe in Ibaraki. Miya has very graciously offered to accommodate us here in the rooms upstairs, so please be respectable and don’t take advantage of anything.” Here he looked pointedly at Taiji and hide. “Especially not the dancers.”
hide suddenly looked more attentive. “Dancers?”
“Yes,” Yoshiki said, helping himself to some rice crackers. “Shangri-La’s a strip club.”
hide stood by the doorway of Shangri-La, leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette, his hot pink hair almost glowing in the strong afternoon sunlight. Inside, on the otherwise empty floor of the strip club, sat Yoshiki, Pata and Taiji, making quiet conversation amongst themselves.
Presently the double doors at the back opened up and Miya came in with five of his men in tow.
“Good afternoon, all,” he said. “I hope you’re all rested. I feel that some introductions are in order, especially given our recent misunderstanding.”
In addition to Satochi, Kiyoshi and Sakura were two more: a blond, baby-faced man called Yukke and a taller man named Tatsurou. Sakura was looking a little worse for wear. Taiji caught his eye and made a rude hand gesture: Wanker.
Sakura’s jaw clenched but, with his hangover and the verbal ass-kicking he’d gotten from Miya, he wisely decided to stay quiet this time. Sakura chose a seat as far away from Taiji as he could get, and they glowered at each other across the room.
Yoshiki cleared his throat loudly. “Miya, why don’t you and your team tell us what you’ve found out?”
“It took a bit of work since we’re not as well-connected as you are in Tokyo,” Tatsurou said. “Ever heard of someone named Klaha?”
Pata shrugged. “Sure. He’s got a nightclub around the Akasaka/Roppongi area and a couple of gambling dens.”
“That’s right,” said Miya. “We’ve traced the hits back to him, and we’re almost certain that the arson was his doing as well. It was a little hard to be 100% sure, since the arsonist died as well, but the fire was hardly an accident.”
“Our sources tell us that he pays a nice sum of cash to small-time criminals to do his work. That keeps his hands relatively clean, and his targets never know who is going to come after them next.”
“But we’ve never had any dealings with him,” hide said. “We’ve never met and our territories don’t overlap.”
“Hell, we’re not even in the same business,” Taiji said. “We’re contract killers, we don’t waste our time with money laundering or pushing drugs.”
“Well,” said Miya. “I understand that there’s some bad blood between Yoshiki and Gackt that goes way back.”
“Yes…” hide glanced at Yoshiki, wondering where this was going.
“Klaha is Gackt’s brother.”
hide nearly choked on his cigarette.
“Motherfucker,” Taiji said. “Can’t Gackt just stay dead for once?”
“Did you know that he had a brother?” Pata asked Yoshiki, who shook his head.
“No, but to be fair, everyone in this business keeps family pretty well hidden away.”
“Well, given how much work has gone in to try to kill you all, I’d say they were pretty damn close,” said Satochi.
“The people he sent to kill us weren’t very good, though,” Taiji said dryly.
“Sure,” said Tatsurou. “But they don’t need to be when you have a lot of them.”
Later when they all got up to have a break, Pata followed Taiji outside for a cigarette and found Yukke, Satochi and Kiyoshi already outside; they eyed each other warily and then Satochi stubbed out his cigarette and wandered over to them.
“Hey. Sorry about the other night,” he said awkwardly, extending a hand.
Taiji took a drag of his own cigarette and, after a moment’s hesitation, nodded and grasped his hand firmly. “That’s okay.”
Satochi and Kiyoshi looked relieved.
“Look, Sakura’s not a complete tosser,” said Yukke. “I mean, obviously he’s a brute and a hothead, but he’s fine one you get to know him.”
“And he doesn’t hold his booze as well as he thinks,” Kiyoshi added.
Tatsurou and hide soon joined them, and the taller man nodded at a group of six pretty girls in their early twenties walking past on the other side of the street. “What do you think?”
hide watched them for a few seconds. “Nah. A bit on the young side. Plus you could measure geological time with all those layers of makeup.”
“That tall one has a really nice rack, though,” Satochi commented.
The six girls continued on their way, chatting and laughing amongst themselves, and they disappeared into the Joysound karaoke bar up the street.
“What about those two over there by the pachinko parlour?” Tatsurou said. “They’re pretty cute.”
Yukke eyed them appreciatively. “I like the look of the blonde. Just look at those big, beautiful eyes.”
The two girls were looking straight at them and began walking in their direction toward Shangri-La.
Kiyoshi smirked and called out to them, “This is a strip club, honey. Karaoke bar’s that way.”
The two girls glanced at each other and the blonde one pursed her lips, visibly irritated. “We’re here to see Miya and Yoshiki.”
Sakura crossed his arms across his chest and looked at the shorter, dark-haired girl up and down. “Isn’t Koga a guy’s name?”
Koga casually twirled a switchblade through her fingers and looked him straight in the eye. “Isn’t Sakura a girl’s name?”
Tatsurou and hide sniggered.
“I wasn’t expecting you so soon,” Yoshiki said. “Did you have any luck?”
Fuki tucked her long blonde tresses behind her ear. “We were too late. Mana’s dead. Whoever is after you got to Mana first.”
“Shit,” Yoshiki said under his breath. He looked crestfallen.
“Are you okay?” hide asked him.
Yoshiki shook his head. “I promised him. As soon as we were done with Gackt, I promised Mana that that would be the end of everything. He owed me a debt and that last job with Gackt repaid that debt ten times over.”
“Yoshiki, you didn’t know…”
“But that’s the point, hide. We’re supposed to know.” Yoshiki took off his dark glasses and rubbed his tired eyes.
“How about you, Miya?” Koga asked.
Miya got up to fix himself a cup of coffee. “Remember what Yoshiki told us about Gackt?”
“The guy behind all the hits and the fire is his brother, Klaha.”
“Klaha…” Fuki glanced at Koga. “Isn’t he the guy who owns that nightclub, Märchen?”
“That’s the one.”
Fuki leaned back in her chair. “Yoshiki, did you manage to get hold of anyone else?”
“Well,” Yoshiki hesitated. “Sakurai said that he and his men are available in a pinch, but they’re laying low. Things are a little tense in Gunma with all the police raids on organised crime recently.”
“What about Morrie?” Miya asked. “Didn’t you say you contacted him as well?”
“Morrie was one of the first people I called when this all started, but I don’t think we’ll be getting any help there. Ever since he retired, he really isn’t interested in getting involved in anything unless it directly threatens him. And I completely understand that.”
F Chopper Koga (Doll$boxx)
Chapter 10: Whisky
Toshi was drenched in a cold sweat, on his knees and heaving into the toilet, bringing up bile. His eyes watered and his body ached. Through the thin walls he could hear one of the junkies fucking some prostitute in the next apartment. Loud voices could be heard outside the front door of the apartment.
He often heard unfamiliar voices in the corridor beyond ‘his’ apartment. The first few times he had banged on the door and screamed for help but that only resulted in someone yelling at him to shut up, and the occasional kick at the door for good measure. After a while he came to realise that the voices were just Kisaki and his boys dealing drugs to customers and talking business with their distributors in the corridors of the apartments, and he gave up.
This time, though, the voices sounded different. Another voice could be heard over Kisaki’s; they sounded nothing like the brash, uncouth people that came to buy drugs at odd hours. This person sounded older, and he spoke with a kind of effortless authority that, judging by the tone of their voices, Kisaki and his boys clearly did not appreciate.
Toshi wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and staggered out of the little bathroom. He pressed his ear to the door.
Kisaki eyed their new visitor warily. He was very thin with cheekbones so well defined, they looked like they could cut glass. He was dressed simply in an expensive, well-fitted, dark grey suit and a crisp white shirt with the top few buttons undone. He bore a heavy gaze and carried himself with an easy confidence showed that he was used to getting his way one way or another, and it was apparent that these people were not here for a friendly visit. A few junkies and prostitutes poked their heads out of the nearby apartments along the corridor. This was exactly what Kisaki was afraid would happen, and what he had tried to warn Klaha about.
Just offer him a cut.
Kisaki bowed deeply before Morrie. “It’s an absolute honour. Is there something we can help you with?”
Morrie let the question linger for a little while and watched as Kisaki tried not to squirm. “I’ve been watching you lads for a while now. Were you aware of any territory borders when you chose this particular apartment block?”
It was a rhetorical question and Kisaki knew better than to try to play dumb. “Yes,” he said, and then quickly added, “Sir,” because it felt rude not to call him anything.
“And even knowing that, you’ve kept your operation going this whole time,” Morrie said.
Morrie fixed him with another long, almost amused look. “Huh. You’ve got balls. Or your boss does, at any rate.”
Kisaki didn’t know what to say to that. After a long and awkward silence, he spoke up. “Is there—”
“You are not running your drug operation on my land.”
“I’m… sure we can work something out that will benefit both of us...” Kisaki stammered, taken aback.
Morrie‘s fine eyebrows arched. “Did your boss teach you to say that?”
From inside his apartment, Toshi listened carefully. The older man’s voice sounded familiar and he felt his heart speed up a little bit. He didn’t want to get his hopes up, but that voice… the more he heard, the more he was convinced that he knew who it was. He banged on the cheap plywood door with as much strength as he could muster and screamed for help. His throat was raw and painful from throwing up, but he kept screaming, and his screams turned into desperate sobs.
Morrie’s head jerked toward the door of one of the apartments. Hakuei and Kisaki exchanged an uneasy glance when the man pushed past them and rattled the doorknob.
“Who is in there?” he asked them calmly.
“Nobody you need to know about,” Hakuei said through gritted teeth.
Morrie ignored him. “Unlock the door.”
Hakuei glared, but Kisaki knew that they were far outclassed and unlocked the door with a surly expression on his face.
Toshi scrambled backwards as best he could when he heard the key jiggling in the lock. His heart felt like it had climbed up into his throat, and he almost burst into tears when the door opened.
Morrie looked down at Toshi. He was too thin and his clothes, the same clothes he’d been wearing since the day he was locked in here, were a little too loose on him and filthy. His cheeks were slightly sunken, his skin pale and clammy. His hair was dull and greasy, and hung limply about his face with those desperate, frightened, bloodshot eyes.
Morrie turned his head toward Kisaki slightly. “I don’t believe this belongs to you.”
“Hey!” Hakuei said angrily when Yuji, one of Morrie’s men, stepped forward. “You can’t—!”
He shut up when Morrie shot him a look.
Yuji hauled a stunned Toshi up from the floor by his armpits and Toshi clung to him with shaking hands. When they turned to leave, it struck him that he was literally hanging onto this stranger for dear life and he almost started laughing at the absurdity of it all.
“Hey!” Kisaki shouted after them, suddenly feeling bolder.
The other man, Tadashi, leaned over to peer into a cardboard box containing several small packages of white powder, neatly wrapped in plastic.
“This stuff yours?” Tadashi asked.
“What’s it to you?” Hakuei retorted hotly.
Without another word, Tadashi pulled out his gun and fired several shots into the box, sending a huge cloud of white gold into the air and scattering over the table and floor.
Morrie paused at the top of the stairs and, through the din of junkies scrambling to salvage what they could from the piss-stained floor, said in a clear voice, “Would I be correct in saying that Klaha is back from Okinawa?”
Klaha swore under his breath when his phone rang. He shoved the stripper off his lap, waving her away. “What?” he barked into the phone.
“Jesus Christ, where have you been?” Kisaki sounded frantic. “I’ve been trying to reach you for half an hour!”
“Back to back meetings, why?”
“Fucking Morrie is on our case! He just came in and fucking took the guy and shot up our stock! Most of that shit’s gone to waste now, we can’t just fucking sweep it up off the fucking floor!”
Klaha let out a long groan. “What did he say?”
“He said we’re not to run our drug operation here any more, and that he knows you were in Okinawa.”
“How did he know I was in Okinawa?” Klaha asked testily.
“Of course he knows!” Kisaki practically shouted. “If you take a piss, he fucking knows how many times you shake it!”
Klaha decided to let that outburst slide and rubbed his temples. “Fine, fine,” he said impatiently. “I’ll deal with—” He stopped when he heard shouting, and the door burst open with Ju-ken stumbling in backwards, yelling, “You can’t come in here, you can’t—!”
Klaha rose from his seat. “What in god’s name—”
He shut up when two men burst into the room carrying something long, very heavy and wrapped in plastic and black gaffer tape. They heaved it onto the floor by Klaha’s feet before calmly returning to their boss’ side. Blank eyes stared up from beneath layers of bloodstained plastic and Klaha recognised the body as one of Kisaki’s younger subordinates.
“I’m sure one of your men has already told you that I was on my way here, and why,” Morrie said.
Klaha gritted his teeth and tore his gaze away from the body. “He was a boy.”
“A boy following your orders and going where he didn’t belong.”
“With all due respect, Morrie,” Klaha said, trying to keep a level head. “What could you possibly want with a condemned apartment block? It’s crawling with junkies and hookers and probably full of asbestos. The only reason the goddamn building is still standing is because the local council couldn’t be bothered scraping the money together to knock it down. It’ll probably cave in on itself sooner or—”
Morrie smiled patronisingly. “You know it’s not about the building. It’s what you’re doing and where you’re doing it.”
For once, Klaha was at a loss for words and he clenched his fists tightly. Nothing quite like losing face in front of your men.
“This was going to be a warning,” Morrie said, pointing at the plastic-wrapped corpse. “But then one of your men tried to buy me off, which you obviously told him to do. They have until the end of the week to clear out and take their goods with them. I am not asking.”
Klaha wanted to challenge him, take him down a few pegs—Who the fuck do you think you are?— but he knew it was pointless. The man had shown up here with only two of his enforcers and even brought a stiff with them to boot. That was a hard threat in itself. Klaha might have been happier if Morrie had brought his entire mob with him, armed to the teeth. Someone who was afraid of their opponent would try to intimidate them into backing down by showing them everything they had, like a dog baring its teeth and barking loudly.
Klaha was right. Morrie’s response to his silence was a small smirk before he turned his back and left the building with his two men and Toshi in tow.
Miya and Yoshiki were sharing a quiet drink and discussing their next move when there was a knock at the door.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Yukke said. His boyish face looked sombre.
Yoshiki exchanged look with Miya and they both followed Yukke out to the foyer.
“Morrie,” said Yoshiki cautiously. “I was specifically not expecting you.”
“Hello Yoshiki,” Morrie greeted him. “I know I said I had no intention of getting involved with your feud with Klaha, and I still don’t. But he was overstepping his boundaries and he had something that I thought you might want back.”
Morrie moved aside and Yoshiki felt like the floor had collapsed beneath him.
It was Toshi, but just barely. He was holding onto a grim-faced Yuji, looking like he might fall apart at any moment. Yoshiki stepped forward and Toshi collapsed into his arms like a dead weight, tears streaming down his face at the sight of his old friend. Yoshiki was so bewildered that the only thing he could do was kneel on the floor with Toshi and hold him, and for a while all that could be heard was Toshi sobbing and frantically repeating, “I’m sorry, Yoshiki, oh god I’m so sorry…”
Toshi felt a lot more human after the first hot bath he’d had in a very long time. Yoshiki helped him strip off and Satochi came in to take the dirty clothes away and replaced them with a bundle of fresh, clean clothes.
Toshi cringed and hissed when his foot touched the hot, soapy water but soon got used to it and sat in the tub with his arms wrapped tightly around his knees. Layers of grime sloughed off his skin into the bathwater as Yoshiki gently washed him all over, massaging shampoo into his hair, very carefully going around the bruises and raw patches that decorated his thin body, murmuring soothing words while Toshi did his best to keep himself from breaking down. He felt sick, and a horrible guilt pooled in his chest like wet cement. After all the trouble he’d caused, he expected at least Taiji and hide to have some sort of outburst and lay on the blame. Instead, they had all had accepted him back immediately and took care of him.
After his bath, Toshi sat on Yoshiki’s bed with his back to the wall and Miya and Kiyoshi came in with some food. Toshi began eating at a furious pace until he realised that they were all watching him sadly.
“S-sorry,” he mumbled. He looked down and fiddled with his fork awkwardly.
“Don’t be sorry,” Miya said. “Just remember that they did this to you. It isn’t your fault.”
“You should eat more slowly,” Kiyoshi added. “If you’ve been starved, you’ll be sick if you eat too much, too quickly.”
“Miya, once again, thank—” Yoshiki began, but the younger man stopped him.
“This is the least we can do to help,” Miya said. “Klaha’s feud with you and your team is one thing, but to do this to someone…” He shook his head. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d almost be impressed by the lengths he’s gone to, to get to you.” Miya threw another pitying glance at Toshi. “If you need anything else, just let one of us know. The four of you need to concentrate on looking after him.”
Miya and Kiyoshi quietly left the room and Taiji cleared the empty dishes away.
hide sat on the edge of the bed. “Toshi?” he said softly. “I’m glad you’re—” He stopped. He couldn’t really say that Toshi was ‘okay’ when he wasn’t.
“I’m so sorry, hide.” Toshi’s voice was thick and strained, and his bottom lip trembled. “God I’m so sorry.” He looked at them with wide, red-rimmed eyes. “Where are they?”
“Heath and Sugizo. Where are Heath and Sugizo? Oh god… please…” Toshi squeezed his eyes shut and buried his face in his arms.
“Toshi, they’re fine,” Yoshiki said.
“What?” Toshi lifted his tear-stained face. “But what happened? Why aren’t they, I have to, I need to see them—”
Yoshiki swallowed. His throat felt dry. “There was a shooting at The Underneath. Sugizo was hit badly—” Hearing this, Toshi let out an anguished moan, “—but I took him to a hospital. Heath is there looking after him.”
“Oh god,” Toshi whispered, horrified. “Oh god, oh god. It’s all my fault… I’m sorry Yoshiki! God I’m so sorry, everything that happened, The Underneath, the fire, Sugizo, everything was my fault… Shiori lied, everything was a lie, if I hadn’t fallen for her tricks, none of this would have happened, none of it, I know that’s not an excuse but… they told me you were dead! Oh god I’m so sorry!”
Yoshiki had just started dozing off on the sofa that night when he was woken up by the sound of Toshi crying and groaning into his pillow. He got up and padded across the room to him, turning on the little bedside lamp. Toshi was curled up into a ball, bathed in a cold sweat. The drug withdrawal slithered in his nerves and crawled under his skin; he had done his very best to keep himself under control, not wanting to worry Yoshiki and the others any more than he already had, but it chewed and clawed at him the whole time until he couldn’t hold it in any more.
“Toshi. Toshi,” Yoshiki said, grasping his shoulders firmly. “Tell me what you need. Is it the drugs?”
Toshi’s teeth were tightly clenched but he managed a shaky nod; then he tore away from Yoshiki, stumbling to the bathroom with one hand over his mouth.
“What’s going on?” On the other bed, hide sat up and rubbed his face; his eyes widened when he heard Toshi coughing and heaving into the toilet.
“He’s… not good,” said Yoshiki. He looked anxious.
They heard the sound of the shower running and felt a little bit relieved, thinking that Toshi was running a shower to clean himself up, but when they saw a huge plume of vapour billowing out of the bathroom door, they rushed inside. Toshi was in the shower with the hot water on full pelt, trying to burn the itching out of his skin.
hide reached past the stream of water to switch it to cold, swearing under his breath when it scalded his arm, and Yoshiki held Toshi there while he cried and thrashed.
After the shower incident, they made sure that at least one, if not two of them was with him at all times. But it was so mentally and physically draining on everyone that, on the fourth day, Yoshiki pulled hide aside. “We need to do something about this. It’s killing him inside.”
hide rubbed his eyes. “It’s killing us, too.”
“The only good thing about this is that he’s too weak to put up a fight,” Yoshiki said. “Can’t you give him something to take the edge off?”
“I don’t have anything,” hide said. “All of my stuff is back in Tokyo, or burned up in the fire. Besides, we don’t even know what the drugs are.”
“Look at him. It looks like heroin addiction, don’t you think?”
“It does… but he said they were putting it in his food.” hide tilted his head in Toshi’s direction. “You don’t get that addicted to heroin by ingesting it, and he says he didn’t snort or shoot up. At the very least, there’s no track marks.”
Yoshiki rubbed his face and sighed, frustrated. “There’s got to be something.”
hide looked over to where Toshi sat on the bed, pale and trembling, with Pata beside of him. “If it is opioid addiction, yes… but you can’t just walk into a pharmacy for it.”
Yoshiki chewed on his bottom lip. “What do you need?”
The nurse Anna looked down when her pager went off. She smiled to herself and headed down the maze of corridors to Sugizo’s room where she saw Sugizo out of bed, getting dressed. Her smile faded. “What’s going on?”
“We’re leaving,” Sugizo said to her. “Right now.”
Her brow furrowed. “That’s really not a good idea with your condition. You should stay in hospital for another few w—”
“I’m fine,” he said gruffly, pulling a t-shirt on over his head and hiding a wince from her.
“Has something happened?” she asked. “Is… is it Yoshiki?”
“Yes.” Heath hesitated. “And we need your help to get something.”
Anna nodded. “Okay… what is it?”
When Heath and Sugizo arrived in Ibaraki hours later, hide was outside Shangri-La waiting for them. He pounced on them almost immediately to drag them past the surly-looking bouncer and hauling them upstairs.
hide paused just before he opened the door. “A word of warning: he looks bad.”
‘Bad’ was an understatement; they were struck by how thin and sallow and utterly wretched he was, and Toshi latched onto them tightly, telling them over and over how sorry he was for everything that had happened, fretting over Sugizo’s injuries, while hide measured out a dose of methadone for him.
“Here you go,” hide said in a soothing voice. “Open wide. This’ll make you feel a bit better.” I hope.
The drug worked quickly and when Miya came in with some food, Toshi felt that he was able to eat properly without feeling ill, and his eyelids began to droop.
“Perhaps we should leave,” Miya quietly suggested. “If the methadone’s working, this will be the first proper sleep he’s had in a while.”
They moved toward the door but Yoshiki remained by the bed. “I’m going to stay,” he said. “Just in case.”
“Are you sure?” hide asked. “You need your rest, too.”
“He’s been alone for too long. I don’t want him to wake up thinking everyone’s abandoned him again.” Yoshiki looked up at them and smiled, and there was a little bit of sadness in that smile. “I’ll be fine. You should all go and unwind.”
Downstairs at the bar, Taiji greeted them with open arms and a cigarette hanging from one corner of his mouth. “Boys! You are a sight for sore eyes!”
“Hey Taiji,” Heath said with a small smile. “Looks like your face healed up nicely.”
“Yeah, well, I think you owe me a beer for nearly ruining my pretty face, kid.” Taiji patted his head patronisingly.
Sugizo grinned. “What’d he do, kick your ass or something?”
Heath caught Taiji’s eye and shook his head slightly but Taiji ignored him. “He nearly killed the guy who shot you. Beat the absolute shit out of him with his bare hands and would have opened up his throat, too, if Yoshiki and I hadn’t stopped him. Cut my face, right here.”
Sugizo looked at Heath as though that were the most romantic thing he'd ever heard, but Heath was embarrassed. “Taiji…”
Taiji gave a big, exaggerated shrug. “What?”
“Anybody seen Koga?” Satochi asked, looking around and trying to act casual.
“Fuki said something about going out for some food,” said Yukke. “Why?”
“Oh, umm. Nothing,” Satochi mumbled.
“Koga’s cute,” hide said. “You should ask her out.”
Satochi’s cheeks turned pink. “What? N-no!”
“C’mon, dumbass,” Tatsurou drawled. “Everyone’s seen you following her around like a lost puppy.”
“I’m serious, ask her out!” hide insisted. “I’m a pretty good matchmaker, you know.”
Tatsurou snorted loudly. “You, a matchmaker? God, I feel sorry for them. Did they crash and burn?”
“You can ask them if you want,” hide said, pointing to where Heath and Sugizo had moved off to one side. He wouldn’t have thought it possible but they looked even more in love than ever. Heath usually disliked public displays of affection but there they were in each other’s arms, so close that their foreheads touched, gazing at each other through half-lidded eyes, slow-kissing as though the rest of the world didn’t exist, until Taiji pelted them with a handful of ice and shouted at them to get a room.
“See?” hide said. “Maybe I should start a side business…”
Yukke raised his eyebrows. “A sample size of one isn’t a lot to go on.”
Tatsurou had something else on his mind. “Say you make a match and the two people get married. If it doesn’t work out and they end up hating each other, can one of them can re-hire you to kill their spouse?”
hide thought about this for a second. “I don’t see why not.”
The two lovers parted politely when Miya handed them a couple of beers. “You’re the one who used to work for Gackt, is that right?”
Sugizo’s posture stiffened. “Yes.”
“What made you defect, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“He was a shitty person to work for,” Sugizo said bluntly. “He assigned me to a job that couldn’t be done solo and then tried to blackmail me when I asked to be reassigned.”
“And that was the hit on Yoshiki?”
“Yes. I’m pretty sure he was trying to get rid of me, so he sent me on a suicide mission. There was no love lost between me and Gackt, in case you were wondering. I’m not sorry that he’s dead.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that,” Miya said quickly, seeing that Sugizo looked defensive. “I was just curious about what it was like from the inside, and what kind of person Gackt was.”
Sugizo relaxed and Heath squeezed his hand gently.
“It was meant to be my last job under Gackt,” Sugizo explained. “Long story short, I got fed up with being treated like shit and Yoshiki offered me a far better deal.”
“But not as good as what Heath had to offer,” Pata smirked.
“Thank you, Pata,” Sugizo said dryly, and even Heath raised an eyebrow.
The older man laughed. “Ahh, I’m glad you’re still alive.”
Sugizo grinned at this. “Me too, old man.”
Miya observed their interactions very carefully. He trusted Yoshiki, so he trusted Yoshiki’s team as well, but it was still important to know and understand who he was working with. Speaking with them was one thing, but seeing how they behaved with one another, as well as with his own team, told him a lot more. They were clearly a close-knit team, almost like a family, and even in this short time watching them all together, he hadn’t failed to notice the way that Taiji appeared to be very protective of Sugizo and Heath in particular.
“What are you riding?” Yukke nodded at the Yamaha keys dangling from Heath’s pocket.
“An R1M,” Heath said proudly.
“Niiiice,” said Kiyoshi, impressed.
“We got kinda lost finding this place.” Sugizo said. “We thought the Shangri-La was a hotel!”
“See?” Pata reached over and punched Taiji. “I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a hotel.”
Taiji haughtily told him to shove it up his ass.
“Has Yoshiki already filled you in on what’s been going on lately?” Miya asked.
“Yes,” said Heath. “More or less. He’s told us about the connection between Shiori and Klaha, and how Morrie intervened.”
“I thought there might be something going on with Klaha, but not… this.” Sugizo pursed his lips. “I feel shitty about what happened to Mana. We didn’t get along while we were working for Gackt but…”
Miya gave him a level look. “If you’d known that Mana was undercover while you were still contracted to kill Yoshiki, what would you have done? Confronted him? Killed him?”
“Probably,” Sugizo admitted.
They all watched, amused, when the girls returned and Satochi awkwardly offered them both a beer each and tried to strike up what he thought was a charming and funny conversation with Koga.
“Think we should help him out?” Taiji asked.
“Nah,” said Tatsurou. “I like watching him struggle.”
Heath and Sugizo were tired after their long ride from Chiba and quietly made their way upstairs, hand in hand. There was a loud scream followed by hysterical laughter when Tatsurou poured a bottle of water down Yukke’s back; Miya sighed and left as well, deciding it was best to leave them to their own stupidity.
Upstairs, Toshi slept a deep and dreamless sleep with Yoshiki by his side all night.
“No. Out of the question.”
“Sugizo, you’re eight or nine weeks into a three-month recovery,” Yoshiki said patiently. “And that’s best case scenario.”
“He’s right,” said Taiji. “Gackt and Klaha might deal in suicide missions but we don’t.”
Sugizo looked to Heath for support but he shook his head.
“I’m with Yoshiki on this,” Heath said.
“Heath…” Sugizo shot him a look.
“I’m not being overprotective,” he said gently. “You’re still favouring your right side. It’s obvious when you’re sparring with me or Taiji. We can’t put you out there while you’re still recovering; you’ll put yourself and us in danger.”
“You’re not coming, either,” Yoshiki said.
Heath stared at him. “Again?”
“Sorry. With all of us and Miya’s team gone, we need someone to stay here and look after Toshi and Sugizo.”
“I don’t need looking after,” Sugizo muttered, glaring at nobody in particular.
“Good. Then you can help Heath look after Toshi,” Yoshiki said curtly, and that was the end of that.
“So what do we do next?” hide asked, sparing a sympathetic glance at Heath and Sugizo who both looked very indignant.
“One of Morrie’s men contacted the two of us last night,” Miya said, gesturing at himself and Yoshiki. “Klaha’s men have cleared out of the apartment block in Morrie’s territory and moved into what’s left of The Underneath.”
“The fuck?” Taiji seethed. “I’m gonna fucking kill those motherfuckers…”
Miya smiled. “That’s the idea.”
Bonus: Taiji patting Heath (this is TOO CUTE)
Chapter 12: Jägermeister
Two men stood at the bottom of the burnt stairwell, smoking and gossiping between themselves about that old Morrie What's-His-Face, how he’d busted into the crappy apartment block where they’d been running the drugs and pretty much bulldozed the entire operation. These two hadn’t been there to see what had gone down that night, but apparently there was something about a dead body and Kisaki’s boss had freaked, and ordered them to pack up what was left of the drugs and relocate.
They had to admit that it was a pretty clever idea to move into the place that Kisaki’s boss had had burned down. Who would think to look for them here, right in the enemy’s castle? Even though it was sort of a deathtrap inside with part of the ceiling having caved in, the police tape that was left behind kept pretty much any nosey parkers from getting too curious. They still needed a couple of guys to stand and keep watch just in case, but by and large their new digs should go relatively unmolested. Plus there were a lot of bottles of good stuff for them to loot.
So they were more than a little surprised when they heard footsteps coming down the stairs. They exchanged a nervous glance. Had someone seen their smoke? If it was the police, they and everybody inside would have to clear out. Fast.
Instead, they heard light, feminine voices and they relaxed and grinned at each other. Two girls descended the scorched staircase, one with long blonde hair and the other with shorter, black hair, both looking astonished at what was left of the building.
“Oh my god, everything’s destroyed,” said the blonde one.
“You girls shouldn’t be here,” the first man said, pointing up at the police tape rippling in the breeze.
“We were looking for the bar,” said the blonde. “What happened to it?”
“You haven’t heard?”
The blonde shook her head. “I’ve been out of town. My friend is home from London and I wanted to take her to my favourite bar, but…”
He shook his head and took a drag of his cigarette, trying to look casual and tough. “The whole place burned down a couple of months ago, little lady.”
“You wouldn’t want to get mixed up with that crowd anyway,” the second man drawled. “They were bad news.”
“Oh my gosh. Really?” The dark-haired one opened her eyes very wide in an expression of adorable guilelessness and she turned to her friend. “You’ve been going to a gangster bar the whole time?”
“I honestly had no idea! Was it…” the blond one leaned in closer to the man on the left, lowering her voice furtively. “Was it Yakuza business?”
“Nah, I don’t think s—” His words were cut off with a thick crack when Fuki reached up and wrenched his head around savagely, breaking his neck.
The other man stared at his friend crumpled on the floor with his head at an awkward angle, stunned and mouth hanging open. “What the fuck did—”
Koga flicked her wrist twice and there was a flash of something bright and silver, and the second man was so busy staring at the blood pouring from his hand that he barely noticed that his throat had been cut open, too.
“Dibs on the one at the front. Love those intense eyes,” Shiori said when four good-looking guys walked into Märchen.
Yui gave a derisive little scoff. “He’s a bit short, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know, he’s about the same height as your ex, isn’t he, Shiori?” Himeko smirked, and Shiori rolled her eyes.
“Will you stop that? He’s not my anything, I was just doing what the boss told me to.”
Himeko kept digging. "Sure you didn't feel something in almost two years?"
“I like the one with the brown hair,” Yui said, ignoring them. “Nice arms, cute smile. Those dimples are to die for.”
Without waiting for the girls, Yui approached the little group, hips swaying, heading straight for the cute one with brown hair.
“Hey there, honey,” she gushed, getting up close and fingering the lapels of his jacket. “If you’re looking for a good time, you’ve found the right place.”
He grinned at her. “We’ve heard great things about this place. What’s your name?”
“Yui.” She flashed him a winning smile.
The shorter man that Shiori had her eye on spoke up. “Is there a Shiori that works here? A good friend of mine said to ask for her.”
Yui’s brilliant smile faltered a little. “Yes, but...”
Shiori tossed her hair and shouldered past a visibly irritated Yui, and even Himeko looked put out. “That’d be me.”
The man let his eye wander over her appreciatively. “My friend was right about you.”
“Is that so?” she said, slipping an arm into his. “And what did this 'friend' of yours say about me, exactly? I always love to hear any glowing reviews from past clients.”
“Well… that you’re a wonderful dancer, for starters.”
“Oh?” She smiled demurely. “Anything else?”
“It wouldn’t be very gentlemanly of me to say, now, would it?”
Shiori giggled and took the four of them to a vacant room, closing the door behind them. She wrapped one hand loosely around the shiny chrome pole in the middle of the room and walked around it in a slow circle without taking her eyes off them. “All right, handsome. You got a name?”
The man leaned back in his seat, crossing one leg over the other, and giving her an easy smile. “Miya.”
Sugizo softly closed the door to Toshi’s room. He had spent the last hour or so with him, talking about everything and nothing, making sure he ate properly and had his methadone. Knowing that Toshi preferred to have company when he was awake, Sugizo sat with him for a while until he was sure that Toshi was sound asleep.
He crossed the carpeted hallway to the room that he shared with Heath and opened the door very quietly. The lights were out but the room was dimly lit by the glow of the muted TV. Heath stood by the table in the corner, wine glass in hand, a towel knotted around his waist, looking at the TV but not really watching it. His still-wet hair clung to his skin and when he tilted his head back slightly and lifted the glass to his lips, a glistening drop of water trickled down his back. Sugizo felt his throat tighten to watch those lean muscles in his back flexing like that because god did he love Heath’s body.
Heath smiled when he felt a pair of hands sliding around his waist. Sugizo lifted the now empty wine glass out of his hand and placed it gently onto the table.
When they kissed, it was like falling in love all over again, barely remembering to breathe, hearts pounding and fluttering. Sugizo’s body kept Heath trapped against the table and he tasted the rich red wine on his lips and tongue. Heath slipped a hand around the back of Sugizo’s neck to deepen the kiss and sighed softly when Sugizo’s hands wandered along his skin, coming to rest at the small of his back, pressing their heated bodies closer.
“You make me want you so fucking badly,” Sugizo purred.
Heath bit down on Sugizo’s lip teasingly. “You know you can have me any way you want.”
The floor was littered with burnt debris but Ono barely noticed. What he did know was that three of his cohorts were dead, and the pretty blonde girl stalking after him was fucking crazy. She’d broken his arm at the elbow when he tried to defend himself, snapped it inward just like that, and the pain was so intense that his head swam and he nearly blacked out.
Ikeda staggered backwards and hit the floor, his mouth working soundlessly, staring down in horror at his own hot blood pumping from the huge gash in his chest. Ono just kept going, kept crawling without thinking, overwhelmed with terror.
“Just kill him already, Fuki,” the short-haired one said. Blood dripped from the knife in her hand.
Ono felt his chest explode with fear when a foot was firmly planted into his back and he heard the unmistakable metallic clack-clack of someone racking the slide on a handgun.
Ju-ken heard screaming and then a gunshot going off far behind him but he slammed the heavy back door open and kept going.
Just calm the fuck down and walk out of here like you own the place so nobody asks any questions.
He steeled himself and did his best to stroll casually down the alley, stealing the occasional glance behind him to make sure nobody was—
“Hey, watch it!” A tall man in a hooded jacket dusted off his sleeve, looking annoyed.
“Sorry. Wasn’t watching where I was going,” Ju-ken muttered.
The other man grinned at him. “You look like you’ve got a serial killer coming after you.”
Ju-ken froze for a second and then nearly burst out laughing. “Uh, no. Y-you surprised me is all.”
“Oh. Sure you don’t want to call Klaha and tell him what’s just happened?” the man asked.
It took a few seconds for these words to register and Ju-ken slowly looked up into the barrel of Tatsurou’s gun.
The towel around Heath’s waist fell away when Sugizo slid both hands down to his thighs and hoisted him up onto the table, while Heath skilfully undid the buttons on his shirt with one hand. He gave a low murmur of approval at the sight of his lover looking so goddamn sexy with that white shirt hanging off his shoulders and his toned body on display. With Sugizo between his thighs, Heath pulled him in closer and Sugizo shivered when his fingers skimmed along his skin and began to unfasten his jeans. Burning with lust, Sugizo kissed Heath aggressively, making him whimper with pleasure and need. The wine glass toppled and rolled off the table onto the carpet but neither of them noticed. Sugizo shoved his jeans down and kicked them off; knowing what was coming next, Heath locked his arms about his neck while Sugizo lifted him up just enough to lower him onto his length, causing Heath to moan and arch his back so beautifully and it was all Sugizo could do to stop his own legs from collapsing beneath him. He lightly drew his tongue along Heath’s collarbone before making his way up to kiss his neck just the way he liked it.
They fucked like that for a while with long, deep strokes until Heath was getting really close, but Sugizo wasn’t about to let it end so quickly. He renewed his grip on Heath’s thighs, picked him up and gently lay him down on the bed where they kissed for a long time before Sugizo settled back down between his legs and took his lover again.
It always gave Sugizo a special thrill to have Heath, his beautiful Heath slowly coming undone beneath him. Usually Heath liked to take the lead and Sugizo could never resist his touch, but when Sugizo was in the mood to take over, Heath was always more than willing to give himself up to him. There was nothing they enjoyed more than slow, sensuous sex but this wasn’t just about sex and pleasure, it was the deep intimacy they needed, it was about making Heath forget that he'd ever considered leaving.
The phone rang and Klaha clicked his tongue in irritation. He smiled blandly at his guests. “Would you please excuse me?”
They nodded curtly as he bowed and retreated to a quiet corner.
“This had better be good, I’m in the middle of negotiating an arrangement with the Yakuz—”
“...Boss. Boss, they know.”
Klaha froze. His mind raced. “Who?”
He heard a distant voice say something he couldn’t quite make out, and then Ju-ken spoke again. “They said they’re coming.” His voice trembled.
There was a scuffling sound and a scream that was cut short by the sound of a gunshot that made Klaha’s ears ring. Hakuei and Kisaki glanced at him uneasily when he cursed softly.
“Did you hear that?” said the strange voice.
Klaha pursed his lips. “If you mean that you’ve shot my man, yes, I heard that. Who are—”
He was interrupted by a woman’s scream. Shiori’s hair was a mess and her makeup was running. She held one hand to the side of her face, and her lip was swollen and bleeding.
“They’re looking for you!” she sobbed shrilly.
Before he could say anything, they entered the room. Shiori whimpered and cowered behind Klaha. The man who was clearly the ringleader had a faint smile and a piercing gaze.
Klaha patted Shiori’s hand gently and looked at each of them in turn, gritting his teeth. “Did you hurt her?”
“Using her to get to us was a pretty clever ploy.”
Klaha tensed at the new voice and swept his gaze over four more men who entered the room. These four, however, were not new to him.
“Hayashi Yoshiki. Here for revenge?” he said mockingly with more confidence than he felt.
Yoshiki said nothing but Taiji, hide and Pata drew their firearms and on either side of Klaha, Kisaki and Hakuei reacted in kind.
“Is this a double-cross?” one of the Yakuza demanded.
“Not in the least,” Klaha growled.
From behind his dark glasses, Yoshiki cast a quick eye over the three Yakuza men, immediately recognising their distinctive tattoos: 黒夢. Kuroyume. “You gentlemen are working under Kiyoharu, right?”
Their eyes widened slightly. They weren’t stupid; this stranger was able to identify their clan on sight and, from the familiar way he referred to their oyabun by name, was on very good terms with them.
Yoshiki allowed himself a small, satisfied smile. “Then I’d suggest you leave and forget about any business with this man. Even that drug operation he was running on Morrie’s territory has been extinguished. He’s no good to you. You can tell Kiyoharu I said that.”
The three Yakuza men exchanged a glance. The eldest of the three gave Yoshiki a firm, polite nod and they turned and left without sparing a second glance at Klaha.
Klaha watched them leave, unable to say a word and feeling helpless. There was nothing he could say. He had always thought that he held a lot of power and sway but after what Morrie had done and now Yoshiki, he was forced to realise that he really didn’t know this game very well at all. And up until the whole Morrie altercation, he’d played the game so cleverly, so beautifully. He hadn’t realised how sheltered he was in his little world, that there was a much bigger playing field beyond him.
Their breathing came in heavy, ragged gasps and Sugizo broke off the kiss, arching his back with a deep moan. Heath’s fingers dug into Sugizo’s shoulders and he loved the feel of Sugizo in his arms, loved the way they fit together, loved their feverish kissing, loved the way they knew how to please and tantalise each other.
After being shot and having his closest scrape with death yet, Sugizo hadn’t felt quite so alive as he did now; his exhausted, overstimulated body ached but this was muted by wave after wave of pleasure flooding through him because Heath felt so good when they moved together, tasted so good when their lips and tongues met in their hot kisses, and the smell of sweat and sex made it all the more arousing and Heath uttered a strangled cry when Sugizo hit that special sweet spot that drove them mad with desire and white hot pleasure ripped through them both, and at that moment everything was perfect.
Broken glass crunched underfoot, making the polished black marble floor even more slippery. All around them were shouts from opposing sides and erratic bursts of gunfire. Pata ducked into a small alcove, squeezing in beside Taiji for a quick breather.
“I hate to admit that I kind of missed this,” Pata said, breathing hard from the adrenaline.
Taiji grinned. “That’s what you get from retiring from active duty.”
Crouched beneath a table for cover, Satochi swore under his breath. He was empty and he’d already exhausted two spare magazines. He looked around; there was a dead guy maybe two, three metres away with a gun in his hand and a spare shoved into his belt. Satochi carefully moved forward, tugging the gun from the dead man’s grasp but then one of Kisaki’s men dashed in and kicked it away. Satochi swore and then yelped when he was showered in blood.
“Fuck!” He spat it out and hastily wiped the blood off his eyes with his arm.
“Sorry! Got a bit careless there.”
Satochi looked up and saw Koga standing over him with a knife almost as long as her forearm. He smiled up at her gratefully.
“Fuki, get the fuck down!” Miya shouted. “Christ, that girl is insane.”
At the far end of the nightclub, Fuki had spotted Klaha taking cover behind a booth and she was now striding confidently straight through open gunfire when a fist connected with the side of her face and she staggered forward onto her knees. She looked up just in time to see Kisaki squeeze the trigger, seized his wrist and yanked him down with her, bashing the butt of her gun against his face as he fell and sending him sprawling.
Hakuei and Kiyoshi were both exhausted and bleeding. Hakuei slammed him hard into a wall and Kiyoshi’s head exploded with pain; he wasn’t sure if he could keep going for much longer. He felt his arms being twisted behind his back and bit back a scream when he felt something crack; then Hakuei’s grasp loosened and Kiyoshi heard a strangled grunt when a bullet punched through Hakuei’s back, and Klaha almost burst out into bitter laughter because suddenly it all made sense, why Gackt had always insisted on leaving him out of it. He knew how the game was played and who the players were. He refused to involve Klaha not because he was too proud or stubborn about what he’d suffered because of Yoshiki. Gackt was trying to protect him, and now he was in over his head while everything he’d worked so hard for was being torn down.
This badass picture of badass Tatsurou is 100% what inspired me to write The Underneath 3 😘
Chapter 13: Wine
Toshi was lying in bed feeling restless. He craved something to quell that infuriating nagging in his brain. Regular, measured doses of methadone had helped him enormously, and although the addiction still gnawed at the back of his mind, he told himself he’d managed to kick a decades-old smoking habit a couple of years ago, so this couldn’t be impossible.
But very occasionally, he felt himself fraying at the edges and he wished for something to scratch that itch. They kept all cigarettes, painkillers, alcohol, and of course the methadone away from him; even goddamn chocolate might have helped, but Yoshiki was adamant about him not substituting one addiction for another.
Now he climbed out of bed and crept across the room. He tried hide’s bed first, but the drawer was empty and the rumpled sheets hid nothing. There was all sorts of random crap in his bag: empty candy wrappers, flavoured condoms, a remote control for god knows what, a pair of odd socks, tonnes of loose change, a piece of Lego. He did find a yellow plastic lighter (which he pocketed) but no smokes.
Yoshiki had been sleeping on the sofa so he went there next. Even though he’d given up years ago, Yoshiki still enjoyed the odd cigarette now and then. Toshi dug around between the sofa cushions, peeped under the sofa, and then went through Yoshiki’s bag, to no avail. In the bathroom Toshi checked the shower, the vanity, under the sink and even inside the cistern. Surely someone who smoked as heavily as hide did, had to have a spare pack lying around.
Frustrated, he sat down on the end of his bed, jiggling his leg up and down. The place was dead quiet and his ears soon picked up the sound of very faint, muffled voices from farther down the corridor; Sugizo and Heath having mind-blowing sex, he thought sourly. In the wake of his own sham of a relationship, the last thing he wanted to hear was the two lovers fucking each others’ brains out. He felt a stab of irritation at them and how goddamn perfect their relationship was, and immediately felt ashamed. Sugizo had nearly died and what they needed most right now was each other. He was happy for them, Toshi told himself firmly. It wasn’t their fault that his relationship had failed. He was just envious. Deeply and horribly envious, but happy for them.
Still, being able to hear such a private moment was uncomfortable in a lot of ways, so Toshi heaved himself off the bed and headed for the balcony. It would help to put some distance between himself and them. The fresh air felt good, but better still was the pack of cigarettes hidden behind a large pot plant.
He was too greedy with the first drag and it made him cough until his eyes watered, but he soon found relief in all the little things he used to enjoy about smoking: the sizzle of burning paper and tobacco, that faint lightheadedness, the gentle punch of smoke filling his lungs. He let his head tilt back as another puff of smoke left his lips. Looking down at the streets of Mito, it occurred to him that he didn’t feel great, but for the first time in ages, he felt like he would be okay.
Heath wrapped his arms around Sugizo, lightly trailing kisses him along his neck and jawline.
“I love you,” he murmured. “I know I don’t say it enough. I’m sorry.”
Sugizo gave a long-suffering sigh. “If you don’t stop apologising for that, I may have to fuck you again.”
Heath laughed, and it felt good to hear him laugh.
In the three years that they’d been together, Sugizo could probably count the number of times Heath had said I love you to him on both hands, but it didn’t matter because he had a thousand ways of showing it, just like he was now. hide, Taiji and Toshi had all told him that Heath tended to keep his issues to himself, and Sugizo later realised that it had been a big deal for Heath to admit that he had missed him.
Why don’t you stay with me?
I’ve missed you, too.
Those words had hit him hard. After they’d first slept together, Sugizo hadn’t been able to put him out of his mind, not even when Heath had later brushed it off as a ‘casual fuck’. Sugizo had been surprised at how much that had hurt, so he certainly hadn’t expected Heath to invite him to stay, much less kiss him the way he had, yet he’d found himself back in Heath’s apartment with Heath kissing him so tenderly that he thought he might actually cry. They had spent hours that night exploring each other and losing themselves in the pleasure of being together, undoing months of hurt and loneliness, undoing cruel words and cold looks.
When Sugizo awoke the next morning, it had taken a minute to figure out where he was, having never seen Heath’s apartment in the light of day. He stared at the wall for a while, until he felt a very tentative hand on his shoulder and he tensed up for a second.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you,” Heath whispered. “I just wanted to make sure that you…”
He trailed off, and when he didn’t continue, Sugizo turned around and gently prompted him. “That I what?”
Heath swallowed nervously. “That you hadn’t run away again.”
Sugizo touched his face, lightly stroking his cheek. “I told you. I’m done with running away. I want to stay.” His voice trembled slightly at his next words: “I want to stay with you.”
Heath attempted a small smile. He held Sugizo’s gaze for a few seconds and then looked away. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Because…” Sugizo paused. “I don’t know. You’re just… beautiful.”
‘Vulnerable’ was what he really meant, and to him that was beautiful. This was the real Heath and Sugizo was desperately in love with him, loved he way he lowered his eyes and bit his lip so adorably that Sugizo couldn’t help but kiss him. He felt Heath smiling into their kiss, breathed in the gentle scent of jasmine and musk from the fragrance that Heath wore, and he felt like he was home.
Now, in their room at Shangri-La, Heath snuggled up against Sugizo, bringing him out of his reverie, and he felt that same fierce rush of love at this simple gesture of affection and absolute trust.
Sugizo cupped the side of Heath’s face and drew his thumb slowly along his lips, and Heath lowered those pretty eyes and leaned into his touch. “Hey, I’m… I’m sorry I brought up Shin and Issay. I’ve been thinking about that a lot and… I know it’s not something you like to talk about…”
Heath shook his head. “No. It’s fine.”
“Sugizo.” Heath rested his forehead against his lover’s. “You’re the one I’m in love with.”
“You did this. YOU DID THIS!”
Yukke helped Kiyoshi to his feet. The latter cradled his arm, his face twisted into a grimace of pain. He was sure that his arm was broken but at least Hakuei was amongst the dead, as well as Shiori and Kisaki and their underlings.
Not far from them, Taiji spat out a mouthful of blood. His nose was broken and swollen. Tatsurou coughed hoarsely into the crook of his elbow. His neck was badly bruised after someone tried strangling him, and one eye was bright red from a broken blood vessel. Sakura and Miya leaned on each other, Sakura bleeding from a head wound, Miya from a shot in the shoulder. One side Fuki’s face was already beginning to bruise from a blow she’d received from Kisaki.
“You did this!” Klaha screamed. “You brought this on yourself! You were the reason he was tortured, you were the reason he died, it was all you! You and that fucking Sugizo! I did what I had to do for my family!”
Yoshiki wiped blood off his lip. “So did I.”
Klaha spat. “You left him to die!”
“He fucked up because of his arrogance. I left him to deal with his own mistakes. He was free to send Sugizo to kill me, just as I was free to send Mana to kill him.” Pain flared in Yoshiki’s neck and wrists from injuries he’d sustained in his youth. “I’m sorry if you expected better.”
Taiji leaned down and grabbed Klaha by his hair, forcing him to look up. “I think you’re forgetting that we’re all the bad guys here.” He let go of him roughly and Klaha’s head remained bowed.
Pata limped over to Yoshiki and held a gun out to him in his palm. Yoshiki’s face was contorted with pain and he held onto hide for support. He closed his eyes and turned away. “Kill him. Don’t kill him. I don’t care. He has nothing left.”
He and hide slowly made their way to where the Jag was parked. The rest of them gradually followed in ones and twos, stepping over and around the bodies. Klaha knelt on the floor, staring into the face of Shiori who had been shot several times, once in the throat.
Pata put a hand on Taiji’s shoulder. “Come on, buddy.”
They trailed after Koga who hobbled along on one good leg, bleeding from the other, supported by Satochi and Fuki on either side. As they passed Klaha, Taiji stopped.
Yoshiki reached for the car door just as the shot rang out. With Kiyoshi and Yukke in the back, they started the long drive back to Ibaraki.
Miya shifted his arm uncomfortably in its sling. It was annoying and clumsy having to do everything with his left hand. Kiyoshi could relate, with his arm stuck in a cast while the broken bones healed.
It had been a few weeks since Yoshiki and his team—his whole team—had left Ibaraki, and Miya sort of missed having them around. He slipped a cigarette between his lips and was trying to light it when Tatsurou came in looking uncommonly excited. “You need to see this.”
Miya raised an eyebrow sceptically but followed Tatsurou outside. There was a decent crowd gathered outside Shangri-La and blinding flashes went off everywhere from people taking pictures on their phones.
“Hey! Back off!” Tatsurou shouted, using his height to intimidate the onlookers. “Back the fuck off!”
Miya found himself being hauled through the crowd by his good shoulder and thrust into the middle. “Look at this.”
A valet stood beside a glossy black Aston Martin, and he bowed and opened the driver’s side door. Miya just stared until Tatsurou gave him another push and he stepped forward and slid into the smooth leather seat. He let his hand glide along the steering wheel and the dashboard, breathing in that new car smell.
There was a black envelope sitting on the passenger seat with his name written in beautiful gold calligraphy. Inside was a short letter:
Please accept this small token of our thanks for all of your help. I hope our two businesses will continue to flourish and work together for a long time to come.
We would also like to invite you all to join us at our new bar, Extasy. We’re holding a VIP opening on December 20. The address is on the back. Tell your boys to be on their best behaviour - the luckiest one might get to ride in the Aston with you.
Just as Miya was about to slip the note back into the envelope, he saw another scrap of paper inside. It was a phone number with a hastily-scrawled note underneath it:
For Satochi - Koga’s number!
Miya tucked both notes back into the envelope and quietly instructed the valet to park it in the bays beneath the building.
Tatsurou followed Miya back inside. “So?”
Miya held up the envelope and gave one of his rare smiles. “Fancy a trip to Tokyo for Christmas?”
I feel like The Body Shop's White Musk for Men would really suit Heath :)
Update 3 June 2019: Changed the name of the new bar from Chemical Parade to Extasy just because I liked it better.
Chapter 14: Epilogue
When Pata walked through the doors of their new bar in Ginza, Toshi was already on the warpath.
“Why haven’t these glasses been washed yet!”
“I’m getting to them!” hide protested. “You told me to do the garnishes first!”
Even the normally arrogant Taiji was looking a bit timid, being very quiet and keeping his head down as he wiped down each of the tabletops thoroughly. Pata followed his lead, looking at the floor and trying to sneak past, but Toshi spotted him almost immediately.
“Pata! Did you get the ice?”
“Yep.” He held up two big bags of ice.
Toshi stared at him like he was a nitwit. “Is that all you got? We’re going to need a shit tonne more than that for opening night! Why didn’t anyone bother to check that the ice maker was working until today? Honestly, I don’t know how any of you manage to get anything done without me— Yoshiki!” he screamed.
Yoshiki was in the middle of sitting down at his new piano and looked as though he’d been caught doing something wrong, only he didn’t know what.
“Did your doctor give you the all clear?”
The only thing Yoshiki could say was, “Uhmmm…”
“Where are your wrist braces?” Toshi shouted. “You’re supposed to wear them all the time until the doctor says you can stop!”
Yoshiki stared at Toshi, opened his mouth to say something and then seemed to think better of it. He closed his mouth again and disappeared out the back.
Toshi shook his head and turned around to see the other three standing there with their mouths hanging open.
“What are you all gawking at?” he barked. “Get back to work! Pata, go get me some more ice! Taiji, I want that bar counter so shiny you can see your face in it! hide, see if you can get someone in to fix the ice maker!”
“But—!” hide looked dismayed.
“God I need a smoke…” Toshi stomped away and left them to breathe a sigh of relief.
“He’s been really fucking bossy lately,” Taiji remarked.
“You know it doesn’t matter what I do, he’s going to yell at me for something else,” hide whined. “Even if I can magically get all those things done, he’s going to scream at me for not rotating the tyres on his car or pairing his socks.”
Pata grinned. “He’s just stressed about the opening. He’ll calm down once this is over.”
“The man is acting like it’s his bar,” hide said hotly.
“Yeah, but The Underneath was his baby as much as it was Yoshiki’s,” Pata reminded him. “C’mon, lemme see if I can fix the ice maker and then I’ll help you with the cleaning.”
“Where’s the skinny one and his stupid boyfriend, anyway?” Taiji demanded, scowling. “Why do we get stuck working our asses off for opening night while they run off on a date together?”
“Toshi never yells at Heath,” hide muttered.
Pata shook his head. “They’re not on a date. They’re working.”
They stood, shoulder to shoulder, on an overpass looking down on the busy roads of Shinjuku. The trees lining the streets were adorned with fairy lights, bathing them in a warm, delicate glow. All about them were people—families, couples, friends, old and young—all out for dinner or drinks or shopping for Christmas gifts.
Sugizo glanced at his new watch, a black leather cuff with a square face. “New bar opens tonight.” He had a little frown. “It just doesn’t feel the same.”
“Yeah. I know. I miss The Underneath, too.”
“It’s not just… oh never mind.”
“What is it?” Heath prompted him.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s silly.” Sugizo glanced at him sideways. “I fell in love with a beautiful and sweet bartender there.” He paused. “I say ‘sweet’ but he's tried to kill me, he shot me twice, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the stupid fucking idiot tried to dump me. He seems like kind of a dick, now that I think about it.”
“Well,” Heath responded mildly. “I’m sure he’ll find a way to make it up to you. He loves you, you know.”
Sugizo smiled warmly. “I know. And he doesn’t need to make it up to me.”
The almost-breakup was still a bit of a touchy subject but at least they were able to put it behind them. Sugizo felt a little weak at the knees when Heath kissed him, and almost didn’t hear when someone was calling his name. They looked around and saw a pretty woman with short, dark brown hair, looking at Sugizo curiously.
When they looked at her, her expression brightened. “It is you.”
“Sorry, do I know…” Sugizo blinked. “…Emi?”
“I wasn’t sure if it was you at first.” Emi smiled tentatively. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” he said. “How have you been? What brings you here?”
“I’ve been great. Still living in Kanagawa, but we’re in Tokyo visiting my husband’s parents.”
Sugizo nodded slowly. “You’re married?”
“Yes. We have two boys.” She looked quietly proud. “Kojiro is six and Takao is four.”
“That’s great. I’m really happy for you,” Sugizo said sincerely.
“And how have you been?” she asked, glancing at Heath very briefly.
“Oh! Sorry. This is Heath. Heath, Emi.”
They shook hands and Heath bowed politely before stepping aside to let the old friends continue their conversation.
“I’ve been good. Really good,” Sugizo said. “There’s not much to say, really. I moved to Tokyo not long after we… stopped seeing each other. Had a couple of jobs here and there. Now I’m working in Ginza. You know how it is.”
“Do you still play the guitar?”
“Yes, I joined a local band called Lunacy a few years ago. The guys and I are taking a break over Christmas.”
Emi regarded him carefully with an expression of mild amusement. “You know… you haven’t changed a bit.”
“What do you mean?” Sugizo tilted his head a little.
“You still talk like you’re hiding something,” she said, not unkindly.
Sugizo just laughed and shrugged.
“Anyway, I’d love to stay and chat but my husband and boys are waiting for me at the station. It was great to see you, though.” She paused. “Perhaps we could have lunch together the next time I’m in Tokyo?”
“Sure,” Sugizo said, nodding. “That’d be nice.”
They both knew that that would never happen, though. These were the polite lies exchanged between old lovers or friends who had long since turned into just a name or a familiar face.
“It really was nice to see you.” Emi glanced between Sugizo and Heath. “I’m um… I’m glad to see that you’re finally happy.”
Heath and Sugizo watched her disappear into the crowd.
“Ex-girlfriend?” Heath asked.
Sugizo sighed. “Yeah. Way back in Kanagawa, before I started working for Gackt.” He rested his elbows on the railing.
“She seems nice.”
“She is nice,” Sugizo agreed. “She was probably the longest relationship I had before you. We were together for a little over a year before I ended it. Badly.”
Heath looked at him questioningly.
“I was working for a different guy. Same stuff. Things got dicey and there was a very high chance that she’d get caught in the crossfire. I couldn’t talk to her about it, of course. Can you imagine how that conversation would go? ‘Hey honeybunch, I kill people for a living and you need to get the fuck out or you might be next.’” Sugizo lapsed into silence for a moment. “So, like a total genius, I figured it’d be easier just to break her heart.”
“Oh,” Heath said very quietly. He kept his gaze trained on the ground.
“I tried to make her hate me so that she’d leave. We were so fucking miserable because of me. I told her that I never loved her. And she still didn’t hate me after that. She’s not stupid. I think she knew that I had no choice.” Sugizo looked up at the inky black sky. “So… when you started talking like that at the hospital… I knew it was coming, because I’d said the same things before, and worse.”
Heath said nothing.
“That was the first time she and I have seen or spoken to each other since I broke up with her… ten? Eleven years ago?” Sugizo started counting on his fingers and then gave up. “It doesn’t matter. We’ve moved on. She deserved better than me, anyway. She’s got everything that I wouldn’t have been able to give her… stable family life, kids, husband with an honest job… in-laws...” The last one was punctuated with a look of distaste.
“What about you?”
Heath nodded pensively. “Do you have what you want?”
Sugizo gave him a long look and then took his hand, intertwining their fingers. “I have you, don’t I?”
After a few minutes’ silence, Sugizo spoke up again. “Can I ask you something?”
“Have you been playing the guitar when I’m not at home?”
Lately whenever he came home late after a gig or an assignment, he’d hear someone playing an acoustic guitar. At first he thought it was one of the neighbours but it always stopped as soon as he unlocked the door, and the guitar would be sitting in its stand as though it hadn’t been touched. Since he couldn’t catch him in the act, Sugizo took to standing outside the door, listening to him play for a while.
“Oh,” Heath mumbled. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
Sugizo shook his head. “I just want to know why you always stop playing when I come inside. You’re good. Why hide it?”
Heath looked embarrassed. “Because I’m not good. I had a bass guitar as a teenager but I left it in Amagasaki. I’ve pretty much forgotten everything.”
“You might be a bit rusty is all. You’ve got nimble hands. No wonder you’re so good with knives.” Sugizo hummed contemplatively. “I guess we still have a few things to learn about each other, huh?”
“That’s okay.” Heath wrapped his arms around him, resting his chin on his shoulder and giving a contented little sigh. “We have time.”
A small flurry of activity down at street level caught their attention and the pair looked down. A tall, middle-aged man in an expensive suit and greying hair emerged from the Tokyo Metropolitan Building. He had four big guys with him, all wearing earpieces. A pearl white Lexus pulled up in front of the group and when one of them moved forward to open the car door, they both caught a glimpse of the gun holster he wore underneath his cheap black suit jacket.
“There he is.” Sugizo checked the time. “Right on time, with four bodyguards.”
“Just as Kiyoharu said.” Heath sounded satisfied and very keen. He straightened up and felt the knives in his pockets shift slightly. “Time to get to work.”
Thank you to each and every one of you who has followed this story - you know who you are!
I started writing The Underneath 3 in July 2018 and finished in November 2018. I have loved every moment spent on this: drafting, writing, rewriting, editing, tweaking, weeks of writer’s block, the ‘soundtrack’ (especially the songs for chapters 7 and 12). It’s been so much fun exploring the characters that have come to life, especially in a dark horse like Big Bro Taiji. He started off as something of a garden-variety bad boy, and then at some stage he sneakily decided that he wanted to have a heart of gold. Aww.
When I started writing the first part of The Underneath way back in April 2018 (has it really only been a year?), I never would have thought that it would become such a monster project that would consume my life and I’m genuinely humbled and tickled pink by the warm reception.
I’ve come a long way from the old jrock fanfiction mailing list days of the late 90s/early 2000s (and I hadn’t written anything since then lol), but I’d still like to improve and hopefully continue to entertain!
I’m not done with The Underneath yet, and I hope that you’re as excited as I am by what’s coming up next!
Chapter 15: Beautiful Strangers (teaser)
The fridge hummed to life and Heath glanced over at it. A paper coaster with a little drawing on it caught his eye.
Call me next time there’s a cool gig, or if you wanna go drinking, or if you need help.
Heath slowly got up, picked up the phone and dialled hide’s number. It rang five times and a sleepy voice grunted, “Yeh?”
Suddenly Heath stalled. What was he meant to say? Help, my friend was murdered right in front of me?
“Hello? Is someone there?” hide asked, sounding more awake.
“I’m sorry, I… I didn’t know who else to call.”
“Hmm…? Oh! Is this Heath? From Osaka?”
“Yes.” Heath squeezed his eyes shut. “I don’t know what to do.”
There was a short pause. hide’s voice dropped. “Has something happened?”
All Heath could do was take in a trembling breath.
“Did something happen?” hide asked gently. “Do you need me to come over? I can be there in a few hours if you need me.”
“Yes,” Heath whispered. He rested his elbows on the counter and covered his face with his free hand. “Please.”