"This is feeling like a bad dream"


"A snuff film?" Ken whines for about the fifteenth time. "What loser bothers with that nowadays? It's so been done. Like, decades ago. People still watch those? Come on. I can't believe we were interrupted for this. I mean, at least when someone's transmogrifying people into monsters, they're being a creative psycho-supervillian…."

I don't even have to glare at him. His eyes go a little wide as he catches his own faux-pas.

"Shit! I'm sorry! I forgot that one was your—"

I cut off his apology with a wave of my hand. "It's okay. I'm over it," I lie. "Just don't talk about it."

Ken doesn't buy that. He opens his mouth, I'm sure to spew an endless stream of nervous apologies. So I do glare at him. Just a little. I don't actually want to. I don't want to do this mission any more than he does. I'm certainly not any happier to get dragged away from the beach. I just want to hurry up and get it over with, and complaining or babbling apologies won't help that happen.

Maybe if we make quick neat work of it, we'll have time to go back to the beach. Or anywhere. Some sort of secondary reprieve to go back to pretending that we're a normal couple getting to know each other in normal ways like normal people.

I go back to drawing spider webs around the corners of Ken's eyes with purple eyeliner.

Yeah, totally normal.

"What the fuck is up with this outfit anyway?" Ken's back to complaining. "Is Manx on crack? Who said we have to dress like this? I hate it. I mean, hate it. You know, I think it was actually preferable when I had to wear that airline stewardess outfit. You hear that? I'd rather put on a skirt and pink bowtie than this stupid thing. I don't think it even qualifies as an 'outfit.' The word 'outfit' implies some sort of coordination. I feel ridiculous."

"Since when do you care about coordinated outfits?" I point out. "You're supposed to be the silent brooding type. You need to get in character."

Ken snorts. "Like you're happy about this either."

"Obviously not," I sigh. "But we have to do it. The target picks up his victims by offering acting roles to teenagers. He goes after the ones that look like they want attention. You have to look…flamboyant…if you want him to notice you."

"Flamboyant," Ken echoes my sigh. "That's one word I never wanted associated with me. This sucks. Where the hell are Aya and Yohji when you need them? Yohji's 'flamboyant.' He should get stuck with this one."

"Yohji's too old," I remind him. "The guy only picks up teenagers. You would have had to do this one even if they'd been here."

"Aya's better at brooding than I am," he persists.

"Aya looks too old too."

"He's only like half a year older than me! That's so not fair." Ken's face is totally exasperated.

"It doesn't matter how old he actually is. He still looks older. Which he is. Even if it is just by a few months. You look more approachable, anyway."


I feel pretty exasperated. "Well I look the youngest, so I would be doing this one no matter what," I snap. "If you'd rather I go alone…."

"No." Ken's face has gone entirely white. Or maybe it's just all the foundation I made him wear. It's hard to tell.

"No," he repeats. For a second he genuinely looks like he might cry or something. He recovers pretty quickly. More or less. "It's just— I'm not— I wasn't ready to have to do a mission so soon after— You know."

I do know. Boy do I ever know.

He leans forward so that his bangs are in his eyes and runs his fingers through his hair. It smudges his eyeliner spider webs. I'm going to have to wipe them off and do them over.

"I don't usually care what happens to me on missions, you know? I'm usually able to focus. But now I'm not just thinking about me, you know? I'm not used to being scared about what could happen if we fuck it up."

"I know." I sit down and lean against him.

"It's easier to focus on the stupid little things that don't actually matter than what might happen on the mission," he mumbles.

"It's okay," I say. "It's not like I'm thrilled about any of it either. These turquoise plaid pants aren't exactly my style."

"Nah," he turns and smiles at me. "You look great. If anyone can pull off turquoise plaid, it's definitely you."

"Shut up," I say, feeling myself blush a little.

"No seriously," he says, "you look good in anything. I mean it."

The blushing has been upgraded from 'a little' to 'beet red.'

"You're just saying that to make up for all the complaining you did about having to wear make-up," I say.

"You can think what you like, it won't make it less true," he says, smiling faintly. His face then goes serious. "Omi? You're not allowed to die, okay? I'm serious."

My throat goes tight hearing him finally voice what both of us have been thinking. "I'd rather it be me, than you," I say. Stupidly. I knew better than to actually say that. Even though its how I feel.

"Yeah, well, if someone had to die, I'd rather it be me," Ken retorts, "so I guess we have a problem."

"No one's allowed to die," I say firmly.

"Agreed," says Ken. "No dying."

We look at each other apprehensively for a moment.

"We've done dozens of missions without any problems," Ken adds reassuringly. "We're professionals. It'll be fine."

"Right," I agree. "This guy isn't even very creative, right?"

Ken starts to nod, and then stops to think about it. "Actually…some of the death scenes in his films sounded rather…elaborate." He says quietly.

"Yeah," I can't help morosely confirming that. "The mission outline wasn't…very fun to read, was it?"

Ken just shakes his head. He looks a little green, and this time I know it isn't the make-up.

So I'm standing on the corner of Takeshita St, wearing an orange top hat and holding a guitar. I've never played a guitar in my life. If the target asks me to play it for him, I'm totally screwed.

Maybe it will come in handy for bashing someone on the head. It never hurts to improvise on missions.

I see a few kids around that I recognize from school. I hope to god that the target picks me up before any of them.

My mind strays back to accidently finding Ouka in that skeezy club when I was cruising for another target. I don't want to go through that again. Nothing's worse than knowing the potential victims.

One of them walks by and literally does a double-take.

"Omi?" She says, completely wide-eyed.

Oh hell.

"Hi…Natsuo," I acknowledge her reluctantly.

"I didn't know you were into this stuff!" She all but gushes. I can see the gears turning in her head as she speaks. My name is getting added to party invitations, she'll be after me to join some club….

"I'm…not," my mind races to come up with a convincing excuse. "My friend has a band. I'm just helping him canvas."

"Oh," she says disappointedly. "So…you're not into cosplay or fashion then?"

"No," I say, begging her to decide that makes me boring again and move on. The target could be here already! I scan to try and pick out Ken. He's harder to see than me, his outfit was mostly black.

"What's the name of your band?" She asks, still intensely focused on me. I think she's come into the shop a few times. Stupendous.

"Um…" a million things run through my mind, none of them very appropriate for band names. I finally see Ken leaning against a lamp post down the street. "Siberian Death Watch," I announce desperately.

I wish I hadn't said that.

"That's…kind of morose," she says frowning.

"It's a metal band," I try to explain.

Her eyes drop to the instrument in my hand. "You play metal on an acoustic guitar?"

Oh good grief. "It's all I can afford," I explain quickly. "We're saving up for better equipment."

"Oh," she says, now probably feeling just as awkward as I do. "Well good luck with that. Maybe I'll come see you some time."

Or Maybe you won't. I nod, grateful that she seems like she's finally about to leave. "Yeah, that'd be cool."

She gives me a kind of strange smile and waves as she turns to walk away. I wave back and then practically slump with relief when she's finally gone.

Siberian Death Watch? What the hell was I thinking? I know better than to toss about our code names so flippantly.

It's not like Natsuo would ever have a clue in the significance of anything I said. Someone could have been listening though….

I can't help it; all I can think about is Ken.

This is all happening so fast. Everything. Aya and Yohji's disappearance. Our interrupted trip to the beach. Ken's confession that seemed to come out of nowhere…and now a mission that neither one of us was ready to have to deal with. I haven't had time to get my thoughts in order. I hadn't even gotten a chance to get my thoughts in order about Ken yet, and now I already have to worry about losing him. Ken was right about one thing. This really isn't fair.

I should be trying harder to scope out the target. My eyes keep straying back to Ken by the street light.

When Ken told me he liked me I wasn't really sure how I felt. It was totally unexpected. I was surprised how happy it made me. I just reacted on instinct, without letting myself think about it too much. I didn't know if I'd regret that later.

I still wasn't sure exactly how I felt at the beach. But I wasn't exactly regretting it either. I can't remember being as happy as I was yesterday. It was pretty close to perfect until my cell phone rang.

I think I've worked out my feelings now. It still feels too fast, but I know I wouldn't be feeling quite this rattled if there wasn't something real between me and Ken.

I'm really worried. The way we have to dress for this mission doesn't really allow for Ken's bugnuks. I have them stashed in the guitar case. I lent him a few darts and he has a knife hidden in one of his boots. But those aren't what he's used to fighting with. I know he's good at handling himself, but still…. He's handicapped. And we don't have secondary back-up….

I wish Ken's regular weapon was something more concealable, like Yohji's wire. God, I'm worried.

I catch Ken looking back at me and avert my eyes. The surest way for something to go wrong on this mission is if we pay more attention to each other than to the target. We need to focus.

Come on. Focus, focus, focus.

"Trying to get noticed?" I almost jump at the sound of an unfamiliar voice interrupting my thoughts.

I do my best to look like a teenager who's trying to look cool. What the hell, I am a teenager. I don't really feel like a teenager though. I haven't felt like one since…well, never. I kinda skipped right from feeling like a kid to feeling like an adult. And I don't really remember the kid part all that well.

I just quirk an eyebrow like I'm too hip for words. I feel kind of stupid.

"I'm a talent scout," continues the man. He's wearing a slick designer pinstripe suit with a retro tie. The overall effect is just a hint snazzier than our usual suited targets. The ones that look like respectable businessmen.

Why do almost all of our targets look like respectable businessmen? It's so depressing. Japan is full of respectable businessmen. It really makes you wonder….

I try to channel Yohji as I slide a pair of narrow pink sunglasses down my nose and give him an inquisitive look. "I'm listening," I say.

"I'm recruiting extras for a movie," he says predictably. "It's a great way to break into an acting career."

"That…sounds like fun," I say in the most languid voice I can muster. "When do I start?"

"Right now," he replies, with a grin that seems so…genuine…it kind of frightens me. "Let's go get you some paperwork, shall we? Follow me."

I try not to get sick as I stumble across one of the previous victims. Actually, I'm not sure if what I'm looking at is only one victim. It could be more. It's all too mangled to distinguish. And spread out.

I can't let it bother me. It's too late to help whoever this mess used to be. Somewhere in this squirrely apartment complex is a henchman knocking people off. I'm on camera right now. They left this atrocity here to freak me out. Slow me down. Make me easier to pick off. They have no idea I'm trying to do the same thing to them.

I feel something crunch under my foot. Stepping away reveals a blood smeared Hello Kitty barrette.

It makes me think of Shouta for some reason. His parents more specifically.

His panicked, but lucky parents, who got their kid back.

…Unlike many of his classmate's.

I can add another scratch mark to my 'kids Bombay failed to protect' mental tally.

So much for not getting sick.

When I pull myself together again I step back into the hallway and try another door. It's locked. The next one is too. The third one has no power when I try flipping the light switch and it gives me a really bad feeling (as if I didn't already have one.) I always carry a concealable flashlight on missions. Its dim beam makes out a blurry smudge on the wall, higher than a regular person ought to be able to reach. The rest of the room is empty.

I don't want to know.

I shut the door and continue moving down the hall.

The next room I go in seems completely ordinary. It smells like fresh paint. I check the closets and don't find a thing.

I hear footsteps out in the hall.

I plaster myself to the wall and peek past the door frame.


I step out with a dart in each hand and whip my head around, checking every direction as quickly as possible.


Where the hell are these guys?

Ken and I both have tracking devices on. Every few minutes I've been checking his location to keep tabs on where he is. He hasn't been covering quite as much ground as I have. When I check this time I notice that he hasn't moved at all since the last time I looked.

That cannot be good.

I don't let myself think about what else it could be, aside from 'not good.'

He's two floors below me. I resist trying to take the elevator to get to him. I know from the mission details that it's probably an empty shaft.

There are no lights in the stairwell. Against my better judgment I run down the stairs anyway.

…right into someone.

With no lights I can't tell if it's a target or one of the victims.

The sensation of something metallic pressing against my clavicle clears that up rather nicely.

Luckily the clumsiness of attacking me in the dark slows my opponent down enough that I'm able to pull a dart on them before they can do much damage. The cut feels shallow, although I don't get a chance to actually look at it.

I don't even bother to look when I have light again. I just run in the direction of Ken.

I only stop when I get to the door that I think is concealing him.

I want to barge through it, but I know better than to be that reckless. There could be an ambush on the other side. It's very likely this is some sort of trap. This whole building is allegedly full of traps.

Or maybe there's nothing on the other side except for Ken.

The target might have just moved on after he….

My knees feel sort of weak all of the sudden.

I'm scared to open the door.

I have to open it. Now. Every second that I stall might be the one that finishes him off.

It swings open easily. It might not have even been fully closed to start with. Someone wanted it opened.

The very first thing that I see is Ken. He's slumped over a table. Not moving. I can't tell if he's unconscious or dead.

Oh please God, don't let him be dead.

No, he's not dead.

If he were, there'd be no reason for a henchman to be standing over him with an electric drill. There's no blood.


I feel sort of lightheaded as I force myself to pull my eyes off of Ken. Before I do anything I need to check and see if there's anyone else in the room.

And of course there is.

Like I thought for a moment that there wouldn't be.

The target is to my left. Much closer than I expected to find him, predatorily hovering with a second-rate camcorder. I don't pick up a trace of professional filming equipment. Just a weasily looking man with a camera that was probably fished out of some Akihabara discount bin.

"I was waiting for you," the target says, smiling. His voice is still just as disturbingly friendly as when I met him in Harajuku. If I wasn't witnessing with my own eyes that this guy is just as sick as Kritiker reported, it would be hard to believe he was actually the target. He sounds like someone you'd bump into at the library. Or maybe the dad of one of Ken's students. He gestures vaguely at the silent sentinel overshadowing Ken's recumbent form. "It's always more interesting with an audience, you know?" He lets out a snort as if that were some terribly clever joke.

I am not answering that.

"So tell me about yourself, hmm?" He glibly waves at me with the camera. "You two are friends, yeah?"

There's a hint of smugness in the way he pronounces the word 'friends.' Like he knows more than he's letting on.

He doesn't turn off the camera before speaking. I wonder how good he is at editing, or if he just doesn't care if he catches incriminating traces himself on film. He's probably got important friends somewhere bolstering his cockiness. It seems to be a trend with these guys. If they weren't untouchable, the police would be doing my job for me.

"I could tell when I cast you. I have an instinct for casting interesting subjects. It's what makes my films such a hit. You two just exuded interest."

I have a dart in my right hand, hidden beneath the cuff of my exaggerated sleeve. I'm gripping it so tightly it's going to leave a mark on my palm.

Does the target have a weapon, or just the camera? Do I hit him first? Or the man threatening Ken?

Am I about to kill Ken with a wrong decision?

He lifts a finger and quirks it. His gesticulation is met with the shrill whine of the drill switching on.

The man holding it doesn't flinch. There isn't a hint of movement beyond hitting the on switch. He's more of a piece of equipment than an actor in what this freak is trying to pass for a movie.

You know…there's this old man that sometimes brings in bonsai for us to sell in the flower shop. He grows them himself. One time a few months ago he set up a demonstration for customers who wanted to learn his techniques.

He used a drill exactly like that when he shaped the dead wood into gnarly features on the tanuki trees.

Weird where your mind will drift in panicky situations.

The 'film director' puts his other hand up in a stopping motion. "Wait," he announces, smirking. "Wake him up. There's no artistic merit in doing this without catching his reaction. That's the whole point."

My heart is frozen somewhere between relief that Ken apparently can be woken up, and utter horror at the direction his seems to be going in.

The dart is shaking. It takes me a moment to register that it's actually my fingers shaking, not the dart.

Without bothering to switch off his power tool, the henchman produces a small syringe and deftly stabs Ken with it before I really get a chance to react.

I'm dizzy with panic. The air quality in the room seems to be getting progressively thicker and more caustic, although the other occupants don't appear affected. I guess it's just me.

I've never panicked on a mission before.

Ken's eyes slowly slide open, although they don't look entirely focused. His body remains inert.

Why isn't he moving?

It's not like Ken not to struggle. He hasn't made eye contact with me. I don't think he knows I'm here.

The silent one holds the drill up to Ken's head and grins. He then moves it, ghosting it across Ken's body, as if he can't make up his mind which appendage is in most urgent need of acquiring a hole.

"Where first?" The cameraman asks, over the surprisingly quiet hum of the drill.

Ken's eyes go wide and he suddenly seems to be more alert. He remains completely stationary though. I guess whatever drug they gave him only revived his consciousness. He's still physically incapacitated.

"I'll cut you a deal, you know," the target adds, somewhat gleefully. "If you tell him where to drill, I'll make your death far less painful. If you drill your friend here yourself, I'll let you walk out of this alive."

Is he fucking kidding me?

"No?" he laughs when I don't answer him. "Well, that just means I get to make this more interesting. We'll start somewhere conveniently expendable." He makes another signal to the henchman, which I find indecipherable. "Work our way to the more vital from there. It'll give you time to reconsider the offer while you enjoy the show and wait for your turn."

He's walking towards Ken as he talks, maneuvering the lens to get a close-up of Ken's horrified face. He must not see me as any kind of threat at all. I suppose he thinks that if I react it won't amount to much more than spontaneous footage.

The drill stops to rest about an inch above Ken's hand. The wielder doesn't get a chance to lower it before one of my darts sinks into his throat. Quickly followed by a second one silencing the cameraman.

Well. I might have stilled the hand holding the drill. But unfortunately, gravity takes care of the lowering bit.

I know better, but I can't stop myself from screaming out Ken's name.