Chapter Eight: The Final Conflagration


Such an interesting paradox. NG, the temple of music, the cathedral of song -- worshipping beauty and youth and life. NG, the shrine of vigilante justice, the altar of righteousness -- worshipping blood and pain and death. All those pop stars in all those photographs, with their sexy smiles and their sexier pouts, are far more frightening to me than a gun pointed at my head. No one can destroy like charming, sweet-voiced, devils disguised as saints.

At least, that's what I'm counting on.

Right now, if all is going as I planned, Shuichi is making his way to the interior record-room of NG, and setting up for a blaze that'll make all the heads in Tokyo spin. Right now, Sakuma and K are searching NG for any employees that might need to be ushered out of the building, and dispatching hidden Lampyridae agents as they go. Right now, I'm crawling through the air ducts, heading for Seguchi's office.

I'd have taken the elevator, but I'd prefer the element of surprise, just in case.

It's absolutely cramped in here. I feel like an ungreased dildo being shoved up someone's nose. My shirt keeps getting caught on sharp corners. My face is sweating, but cold air is blowing on my ass. This has the most unpleasant form of travel, ever. I always see this in movies, but I doubt anyone ever really goes through air ducts to get somewhere. Not unless they are completely, absolutely, unequivocally, batshit insane.

"Nooo, Kumagoro. You lost it... I can't reach..."

Don't tell me.

I pull myself forward several more feet, and look down a perpendicular metal shaft.

Well, fuck me with raw oysters and call me an appetizer.

Sakuma is squirming around in the other shaft. He has his arm down a hole, and it looks like he's trying to shove his shoulder in there, as well. Part of his ninja face-covering has fallen off from the struggle, and the stupid plush toy has been discarded off to the side of the vent.

This is not a person I want to deal with, at the moment. "What the fuck are you doing?"

Sakuma's head shoots up and bangs against the metal corridor so hard that I can feel the vibrations. A loud "thunkakunkakunk" echoes through the air shaft.

"Fuuuuuuuuuuuughhh. Ow ow OW!"

"Louder, idiot. I don't think they heard you in Hokkaido."

Sakuma frowns and rubs his head until his hair looks like it's been styled by Cyclones-R-Us. He hisses for a few more seconds, and then gets a rather accusatory look on his face. "Your fault."

"What are you doing in here?" Goddamnit, I hate having to repeat myself.

Sakuma narrows his eyes so slightly that if I didn't know him, I would have completely missed it. "A ninja must sneak, duh. Sneaky-sneaky-ninja." He then thrusts his arm back into the hole. "But, while we were crawling, Kumagoro dropped my phone. I can't quite..." Sakuma makes a grunt that I'm sure would cause Tatsuha to excuse himself to find the nearest restroom. "...reach it."

"Yeah, yeah. Give me your flashlight and scoot back."

Sakuma hesitates, but then holds it out for me to take and wiggles backwards. I squirm forward and peer into the hole.

"Why are you here, Michael?"

"Shut up." I definitely don't want to admit that I'm here for the same reason he is -- the element of surprise. "This happened because you're always carrying too much useless crap. That damned toy rabbit, candy, whatever the hell else you've got tucked away. Of course something is going to fall out."

"I..." Sakuma's voice becomes low and quiet. There's an eerie pause before he continues speaking. "I just don't want to... Die alone... Far from familiar things."

I don't have any response to that. Well, none besides cringing mildly. Maybe it is possible that there's someone decent and reasonable inside that stupid shinobi getup. After all, who would want to die far from the things that make them feel human? Who would want to be parted from their fantasies during those final moments, and die as a murderous monster, rather than as a simple but flawed man?

I pretend like I didn't hear what he said.

And, in the next moment, I pull out the cellphone. My arms are slightly longer than his, I suppose. I stare at the phone for a moment (a garish pink monstrosity with little white cartoon rabbits all over it). It looks like it was made in the late-1990s, from the size of the thing. How ridiculous. "You should get a smaller one."

"That one is special to Kumagoro!"

I shrug and hand his phone over, then start squirming away. It's not like I'm going to stick around to chat with that nutjob. That's K's job. Anyway, Sakuma can take care of himself, as well I know. I've got more important things to think about than some long-dead grudge held by a man whose shuriken-throwing skills are outstripped only by his ice-cream eating skills.

"Good luck, Michael." The voice comes from right behind me, but when I look over my shoulder, Sakuma is nowhere to be found.

Stupid ninjas and their voice-throwing tricks.


I end up in Seguchi's fastidiously clean private restroom. Hm. Last time I was here, I was getting my hand bandaged. It still stings a little, actually. But, right now, it is number fifty-two on my list of worries and annoyances.

Number fifty-one is whether or not Shuichi is eating enough vegetables these days.

Number fifty-three is the nagging feeling that I recently missed a doctor's appointment. Fuck prostate exams. Fuck them directly in the ass.

Now, how to approach this. If I am correct, Uriel should be in the next room with Tohma. I could be wrong. I could open this door to find Uriel has already escaped, and Tohma is lying in a pool of his own blood.

Carefully, I put my ear to the door, and listen. Nothing. Just...nothing. The seconds tick away as I inch my hand toward the doorknob. Oh. Nice doorknob. Is that pewter?

A voice comes from the other side of the door. "Stop for a piss in there, Michael?"

Fuck. He doesn't miss anything. Well, there goes the element of surprise. I pat down my jacket, just to make sure I have knives hidden in all the correct places, and then grab the doorknob.

"Slowly, now. Any sudden movements, and someone could get very, very hurt. Perhaps even killed." I can hear it now, the change in his voice, the way he sounds like himself...but different. The sound is tighter, sharper than his voice used to be.

And when I open the door, I can see what he's done to his face. Why didn't I see it before? Those dark circles under his eyes are gone, and his cheeks are fuller, brighter, more defined. He's had the shape of his lips and his nose altered, but there's still something sinister about his eyes. Those doe-like brown eyes are still far too innocent for a man who murders almost indiscriminately.

For some reason, people naturally trust those lying eyes.

Sakano, as he calls himself now, motions at me with a gun. "Go sit on the couch with Seguchi. But, not too close."

Tohma, for his part, looks well enough. Though, if the bruise forming on his left jaw is any indication, there's been a struggle. My brother-in-law gives me a look, one I can easily interpret as, "You really shouldn't have come here, but it's nice to know you care."

As I sit, I note the strange smell in the room. Acrid. Pungent. Chemical. And I don't think it's from one of Seguchi's notorious cleaning-sprees. Uriel must have rigged something already. I guess he thinks blowing up NG is a good idea, too.

Just to make him nervous, I take out my pack of cigarettes. Seguchi frowns, and gives me a pointed look. Sakano, on the other hand, just chuckles.

"You did a fairly good job infiltrating NG. Unfortunately, one of your compatriots was spotted on a video camera... It's rather laughable how careless you've become without me to keep you in line, Yuki Eiri."

He says my name with such caustic venom that I can almost feel it eating away at my identity. I narrow my eyes, only slightly, and slide a cigarette between my lips. There's something wrong with him, something corrupt and mangled at the core of his being. I can hear it in the serrated edge of his voice, see it on the cruel smirk of his lips. I can smell it. The horrible odor that always preceded so many deaths...

I take out a lighter.

"Eiri-san, don't..." Seguchi whispers.

"You really should listen to him, Eiri." Pleased with himself, Sakano leans back against Tohma's desk. "Seguchi is in a highly flammable state, at the moment. You shouldn't want a crispy brother-in-law. Though, I suppose you wouldn't have to pay for cremation."

I palm the lighter, and pretend to stick it in my pocket. I see. He's doused Tohma with something. Well, that explains the smell, though I wonder what Sakano has on his mind. Is it for my benefit, or did he plan to jerk off while watching Seguchi burn? Knowing that pyromaniac, I doubt the latter idea is too far from the truth. "You're a sick bastard," I say.

"You're an expert in the field of sick bastards, so I suppose it must be true." He chuckles again, pulls off those ridiculous fake glasses he's been wearing, and tosses them aside. "But, it's true. Seguchi here doesn't seem to want to recognize all I have done for him, for Exile, for our ideals of justice and world-purification. He chooses everyone over me. His fuck-up brother-in-law. NG. His ugly wife."

Mika isn't that ugly. Well, unless you catch her before she puts her makeup on in the morning. Then it's a horror show that'll give you nightmares.

"But, he'll have to recognize my skills as I kill him. Isn't that right, Seguchi? In the end, I suppose I'm old-fashioned. I adhere to that eternal adage: If I can't have what I want, nobody can."

I glance at Tohma again. He seems to be holding up fairly well. He's sweating more than I've ever seen Tohma sweat, but his posture is relaxed. "I should have had you killed when I had the chance," Tohma mutters under his breath. "You've really been such a disruption to my business."

Business? Is that what he's thinking about, at this moment?

I wonder, briefly, what the hell Tohma is going to do to me after Shuichi's explosives render NG to rubble. The words "inhuman", "torture", and "lard" come to mind. You can do some seriously fucked up things to a person with a tub of lard. Believe me. I work with experts.

Sakano either doesn't hear Tohma, or ignores him. "But, I'm a bit surprised, Michael. You weren't supposed to show up, so I haven't planned anything particularly poetic for you. I suppose I'll just have to play it by ear."

Sakano reaches onto the desk behind him and grabs something small and rubbery. It gets tossed at me, but being less than aerodynamic, lands a few inches in front of my left foot. After bending down to pick it up, I stare at what I now have in my hand. Curved. Pale. Bloody. Flesh.

It's an ear.

And if the tiny blood-smeared diamond earring still piercing the lobe is any indication...

It's Shuichi's ear.

Calm, now. Calm. Give him nothing. Reveal nothing. Do not look surprised. Do not look worried. A man can survive for quite a while without an ear. I grab some tissue from the nearby end-table and start wrapping up the severed flesh. Shuichi is going to need that later. Do not flinch. Do not pale. Do not give Sakano the reaction he wants.

Do not betray a single weakness.

At this point in the story, Tangerine would tuck the tissue-wrapped ear into her cleavage, and calmly ask if the antagonist had any liquor. She'd slam the drink in one gulp and then tell her traitorous lover, who is now holding a gun at her head, that it was fun while it lasted, or some other pithy comment. Then...


I can't believe I'm asking myself, "What would Tangerine do?"

"You always had a good poker face, Yuki Eiri. Unfortunately, I know all your tells. That little crease on the bridge of your nose. The shallow breathing. The way your lips tighten. It affects you, seeing that boy hurt. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. You always had a soft spot for whores with sob stories, mothers who've lost their children, and innocent-looking boys with tight asses."

Shuichi? Innocent looking? He -must- be joking. "And, you always did annoy me by talking more than necessary," I reply. But, I'm not really paying attention to his grand-standing. I've got three pressing problems. First, I need to get rid of Uriel. Then, I've got to get Seguchi out of here. And last...

Shuichi. I need to find Shuichi.

"I tell you what, I'll make you a deal." Uriel runs his fingers through his dark bangs, despite the fact that they all just flop back into place.
"I may be a traitor, but you know I don't lie. You do one little thing for me, and I'll let both Seguchi and little Shindou go free."

I'd best play along, for now. "Oh, what's that?"

Uriel, Sakano, whomever he is, switches the gun's aim to Seguchi. The leer on his lips deepens in perversity. "Fuck Seguchi." With the same hand that tossed me the ear, he turns a small boxlike device on Tohma's desk toward me. It's some sort of web camera. Seguchi keeps it around to make little videos of potentially signable bands. "Fuck Seguchi while Shindou watches. Ruin your own life by acting contrary to your water-thin ethics, by embracing the monster within yourself. Ruin Seguchi's precious monogamous marriage. Make him scream for you the way I wanted him to scream for me. But, most of all, ruin Shindou. Ruin him by showing him how little his love means to you."

"No." I can almost feel Tohma recoil. Sure, Tohma and I... But, it was never sexual, and even if it was... It wasn't Tohma that I was adoring. It was absolution...for my crimes, for sensei. Absolution and redemption. It was something I needed in order to calm myself. But, not... Not that. Not something cheap like that.

Sakano's voice becomes low, almost hypnotic, as he slinks across the office, smiling that cruel smile, the one that never matched his eyes. "Yes. Because that's what you're holding onto, isn't it? The hope... That hope..." Sakano stops in front of Tohma. "I had a hope like that once. I had something I wanted. I had a fantasy, a dream of being something besides a murderer." The gun gets pressed against Tohma's temple. My brother-in-law looks a bit pale, but at least he's not sweating. And the small smile on Tohma's face is a nice touch. "I bet you'd moan for Eiri, wouldn't you? I've seen the way you look at him. I know the secret little games you two play, sick games, needful games. I was always watching. Always. Do you know how difficult it is to jerk off while inside an air duct?"

Air duct?


I was just in there!

That's just not right.

Uriel grinds the gun's muzzle into Tohma's forehead. "Every man has dark fantasies, whether he utters them or not. Even Seguchi Tohma. Why don't we share with Eiri some of the things you told me all those years ago?"

Tohma's smile grows all the more sublime as he watches Sakano. Slowly, and with great deliberation, Tohma raises his hand, and runs a single fingernail along the barrel of the gun, producing an eerie scraping noise. "How hard. How unyieldingly hard. Too bad for you that it's the last thing you'll press into my flesh." Tohma taps his fingernails on the gun barrel, and says, "Do it, Eiri-san."

I don't even think. I just trust that Seguchi knows what he's doing. Does it cross my mind, for a single moment, that he's trying to sacrifice himself for my sake? Yes. Nonetheless, I flick my hand out, lighting the previously-palmed lighter in one fluid motion, and send it flying towards Tohma.

Now, usually, if you throw a lit lighter, it'll go out immediately, especially if it is one of the cheap plastic kinds. However, this is a refillable metal lighter, the kind that doesn't go out until you flip the lid over the flame. If thrown correctly, the flame can last until the lighter reaches its target.

How do I know all this?

I used to be partnered with a pyromaniac.

Sakano's eyes widen as the lighter arcs through the air. He's far too close to Tohma. If Seguchi catches fire, Sakano will too.

I'm not too surprised when Sakano chooses life over dying in a ball of flames with Seguchi. He spins, and blocks the lighter's path with the gun. With a "k-tinka-shrrrshrrrshrr", the lighter bounces off the gun barrel and goes whizzing across the tile floor, where it becomes lodged in (and sets fire to) the fringes of Seguchi's favorite Persian rug.

I take Sakano's moment of distraction to produce a knife and lunge forward. He shoots wildly, trying to stop me. Thankfully, however, Uriel was never any good with a gun. Gunpowder, maybe, but not firearms. I punch forward on my left leg, in the last moment before we collide, and increase my speed just enough to catch him, despite his attempt to dodge.

My knife pierces Sakano in the side, directly beneath his ribs. It's a terrible place to stab a man, and I can't recall having done it many times in the past. Obscenely painful, and yet not immediately deadly. Mere millimeters of angle determine which organs you'll puncture. The next few minutes of my ex-partner's life will not be pretty, and unless he heads directly for a hospital, he will soon expire.

I hear him grunt as I lean against him and twist the knife. The gun goes off again, and something behind me makes a loud crashing noise. I figure he probably hit some piece of expensive pottery decorating Seguchi's office. In a subsequent moment of quiet, Sakano hisses into my ear, "He'll be like me, that Shindou. Someday, he'll betray you. That's the day we'll meet again -- at the gates of hell."

"Hn. You wish."

I shove Sakano with one hand, and pull my knife out with the other. He goes stumbling backwards and trips over a rolling office chair. As he collapses on the floor, I turn back to Seguchi. We have absolutely no time to waste. We've got to get out of here -now-.

But, Seguchi is on the floor, rather than on the couch where I left him. He has his hand about a foot from his face, and he's staring at it with more horror than I've seen on his face since... Well, since I killed sensei. Tohma turns his hand around for me to see.


Shit. I guess that last gunshot didn't hit a piece of pottery.

"My leg," Tohma murmurs. I notice it then, the sticky slick of blood on his trousers. The bullet got him in the thigh. Despite his pain, horror, and (I assume) fear, Tohma calmly takes a handkerchief out of his jacket pocket and wipes at his blood-smudged hand. "You should go."

Always the martyr, sacrificing himself for my well-being.

Not this time.

I grab Tohma under his arm and hoist him up. This is going to be bad. I can't carry both Tohma and Shuichi. "Walk. Or else." Or else, what? I'll kill him? Not a very effective threat to someone who was ready to sit here and die. Nonetheless, it seems to work.

The heat in the room grows ever more terrible as Seguchi's desk catches fire, kindled by the burning rug. I notice Sakano leaving a wide swath of smeared blood on the floor as he tries to crawl away from the flames. But, there's no time to watch that bastard die. I all but drag Seguchi to the door.

"Have fun, old friend," I say to Sakano as we leave. "I know how much you like fires."


We find Shuichi in the next room, duct-taped to Tohma's secretary's chair, and guarded by one of Lampyridae's lesser agents. The guard reaches for his gun, but never draws it. He's suddenly too preoccupied with the knife I lodged in his eye.

As for Shuichi, it seems as if his entire right side is caked in blood. The way he looks without his right ear -- well, even Seguchi utters some words of concern. I lean Tohma against the nearby desk and set about freeing Shuichi.

Though he's pale from the blood loss, and his eyes are closed, Shuichi flinches when I touch him, proving he's still conscious. I hold his arm down to keep him from mistakenly swinging at me. "It's me. It's just me."

"Yuki..." Shuichi's eyes fly open, and he stares up at me with an amount of awe and love I definitely don't deserve. "Yuki, I... I'm okay. Don't look at me like that. I'm going to be okay." He reaches up to touch my cheek. His fingers are...chilly. "Calm down. It's alright. It's okay."

"It's not. You..." Lost a fucking ear. How could I be so stupid as to let Shuichi go on his own? That's not right. That's just fucking lunacy.

"Shot a guy, though." Strangely, Shuichi doesn't seem too torn up about that. "In the arm. I'm not too good with aiming..."

What was I thinking? What was I -thinking-? He could have been killed. I rip the rest of the duct tape off of Shuichi and help him to his feet. He's momentarily unsteady, but after getting his bearings is able to stand. I think he'll probably be able to walk better than Seguchi.

"But, I did set one of the charges before they caught me, and..."

As if on cue, the building rumbles and quakes. The overhead lights sway and flicker, and several dusty chunks of ceiling fall nearby. I hold onto Shuichi and Seguchi holds onto the desk. In that moment, I realize all is lost, and a strange calm overtakes me.

At least I am with Shuichi...

At least I will not have to die far from something familiar. Shuichi will be with me, and I with him. I will die a loved man. I will die while loving someone -- an ability I didn't even know I possessed.

Later, much later, I'll realize what absolute drippy nonsense that sentiment is. And I'll include it in one of my novels.

The building does -not- collapse beneath us, nor are we soon encased in the billowing fire of an explosion. I give Shuichi a questioning look.

"Yeah, I thought that...would happen," Shuichi says. "I only set one of the charges. Not enough to collapse the building. The rest of the explosives are in my bag, which I dropped while being chased."

Tohma and I -both- raise an eyebrow.

"That section of the building will burn... And, when the fire reaches my bag..."

Boom. I get it. I get it. "Let's get out of here." I grab Seguchi's arm and drape it around my shoulder as I pull him up.

Shuichi staggers toward the door. "But, where? The second floor is burning. We're on the fourth."

Seguchi finally speaks up. "The roof. The parking garage is close. We may be able to jump to it."

I decide not to mention that Seguchi couldn't jump over a crack in the floor at the moment, and Shuichi isn't doing much better.

Nonetheless, we head toward the stairs.


There's no fucking way. Just no fucking way.

"We can't jump that." The gulf between the two buildings has to be at least thirty feet.

Shuichi winces as a breeze catches his wound. He lifts an arm to block the wind, and slowly leans forward to peer over the stone railing of NG's roof. "You know, Hiro, Fujisaki, and I jumped off a building for one of our videos, once. But, we had wires and stuff, so..."

"Could you be any -less- helpful, Shindou-san?" Tohma calls this out, in a surprisingly cheery manner, from against the base of NG's large television satellite, which is where I dumped him moments earlier.

"Hey! I'm just thinking aloud, okay? All you gotta do is sit over there and quietly bleed, alright?"

"Perhaps you should do the same."

"...Surprised you even have blood, being heartless and all..."

"You should jump first, Shindou-san. Women and children, as they say..."

"What the fuck is that supposed to...?"

Is this really the best time for them to pick to have an argument? Nevermind. Nevermind. I'm the uninjured one. I'm the one who needs to find a way off this goddamn roof. I rush to the opposite railing. Nothing. Just a concrete alleyway four floors down. Shit.

And what is that strange buzzing noise?

As I stare down into the alleyway, I see Sakuma burst out of the building, followed by K. They're pursued by several Lampyridae agents. K shoots the first one, and then dives behind a trash bin as two more emerge. They head directly for K's location.

The battle which ensues takes only seconds, but I'm sure that to Sakuma and K, it seemed like hours. In the end, the Lampyridae agents recline in pools of their own blood. Sakuma turns to K, and bounces around excitedly, obviously chattering about their victory, though at this height I can't hear a word of it.

Mostly because of that strange buzzing, and the sudden wind.

And that's when one of the Lampyridae agents Sakuma and K just felled lifts his arm, takes aim...

And shoots Sakuma.

I see Sakuma fall, and K drop his gun to run and catch him.

"Fuck. Fuck fuck." It comes out of my mouth as I turn back toward Shuichi and Seguchi. It's... Not that I'm upset about Sakuma getting shot. It's just that...

I always thought I'd be the one doing the shooting. Yeah, that's all. That's why I am clenching my teeth, and...

Why are Shuichi and Seguchi both staring at the sky?

I look up, and find the source of the buzzing noise. It's...a helicopter. A maroon helicopter with something painted on the side. I squint to make it out. "Sunoko Publishing".

Sunoko Publishing? But, why would they...? I mean, that's not even my publishing company. I'm with Looseleaf Japan...

Well, fuck me with a rock and call me an obelisk.

As the helicopter descends to the roof of NG, the door slides open to reveal my writing nemesis, Akasugi Naoko. He's holding a feather-bedecked hat to his head, so the chaotic wind created by the helicopter doesn't blow it away. His other hand flutters at me in such a faggoty fashion that I have to wonder if this bastard's balls have crawled back into his body and died. Akasugi pulls out a megaphone, flips it on, and calls out, "Yooo-hooo! Yuki Eiri-san, yoo-hoo! I do believe your building is on fire. Perhaps you should let Naoko-chan rescue you, hm?"

That gap between NG and the parking garage was, what... Thirty feet? Surely, that's not as far as it seems.

But, both Seguchi and Shuichi, having (thankfully) absolutely no idea who this person is, look relieved.

There's no other choice, I guess.

As Shuichi stumbles toward the helicopter, and is pulled inside by one of Akasugi's people, I help Seguchi to his feet. With every step, his limping becomes more pronounced. I want to say something to him, something encouraging, maybe. Something that'll give him strength. But, all I can think about is getting off this damn roof before the building explodes.

When we get to the helicopter, I make them get Seguchi inside first. Once he's in the helicopter, I step forward to follow him, and see Shuichi kneeling there. He's holding out his hand to help pull me up.

I reach out to grab his hand...

Suddenly, a look of utter terror grips Shuichi's face.

"Yuki! Nooooo!"

Pain erupts in my body. Volcanic. Searing. Gratingly sharp. A half-dozen hands all grab me simultaneously to pull me into the helicopter. Akasugi and Seguchi are both screaming at the pilot to take off. Shuichi keeps yelling my name, even though he's pressed against me, holding onto me as if I were in danger of suddenly becoming incorporeal.

As the helicopter lifts off the roof, Shuichi and I fall to the side, and I'm able to see out the still-open door.

Leaking a spotty trail of blood, Sakano lurches across the roof, gun still in hand. He takes aim at the helicopter.

Was I...shot? Just now, was I...?

"Don't die, Yuki. Don't die, don't die, please don't die. Please don't die. Please, please..."

I watch as NG erupts into fire and smoke...

And with it, my ex-partner.

"Rule number eleven for writers and assassins," I croak amidst the din of shouting, "The good guys win. The bad guys die in a prosaically befitting manner."

No one hears a word I say.

Shuichi clings to me. Is he trembling, or am I? Or is it just the damn helicopter? Suddenly, everything becomes quiet, and I can no longer hear the helicopter, or the shouting, or the sound of a building collapsing. I can only hear Shuichi's rhythmic plea, and it, too, is getting quieter and quieter.

"Don't die Yuki, don't die, please don't..."

Sorry, Shuichi. I guess this means...

I'm not one of the good guys.


Blue. That's what kind of nightmare this heaven is. Blue and blue and blue. Blue skies that canopy the entire world. Sparkling blue water that goes on and on and on, like it's fucking taunting you with relief from the sun. I fucking hate being outdoors. Why am I outdoors? I should be typing. I should be finishing my novel because the fucking deadline is in two weeks. Laying around on the beach is ridiculous waste of...


I remember now.

Half-naked. Wet. Shuichi.

He's still dripping wet when he walks up to stand beside me, casting a Shuichi-shaped shadow across my deck-chair. "Hey, uh... Yuki? You really shouldn't sleep out here. You're going to get sunburned and stuff."

"I'm not asleep."

"Oh." Shuichi laughs, picks my beer up off the nearby table, and takes a sip. "Y'know, it's hard to tell when you wear those sunglasses, and all."

"It's too bright."

"Hm? Or is it that you don't like me knowing when you're watching me?"

"Nevermind. I -am- asleep."

Shuichi laughs a little more, and then hands me the beer. He crawls on top of me, still dripping fucking wet, and straddles my hips with his knees. He has that look in his eyes, that one where he knows I can't resist him, because who would? When he exhibits this kind of confidence, I'm his goddamn pawn. "Want me to wake you up, Yuki?"

"You're shameless." My throat is suddenly dry, but I remember that I'm holding a beer, so I chug it, and drop the bottle into the sand beside the deck chair. "And...wet." And I can't stop myself from resting my hand on his moist thigh. "But, you're good at blocking the sun."

"You should come swimming with me, Yuki. The water is so incredibly perfect. And really clear, so you can see fish and..."

"I don't swim."

Shuichi smiles and tilts his head to the side, exposing his ear. "Don't or can't? I bet you can't. Though, really, I wouldn't be too surprised if you could, just because you're cool like that, and... Yuki? What are you doing? Hey, don't do that! Stop it!"

I frown, and try to hold him in place. I swear, it's like trying to clip an animal's nails. They're so squirmy and fight you every step of the way, even though it is for their own goddamn good. "Stay still." I keep brushing his hair out of the way, and push myself into a sitting position so I can have a better look at his ear. I really need more arms for this task.

"Don't look at it, Yuki. I don't want you to. It's...ugly..."

Shuichi thinks they sewed his ear on crooked. Nowadays, he wears his hair in a way that'll cover that side. But, really, it's not so bad. The ear is straight. There are still some scars, but Seguchi's hand-picked plastic surgeon says that they'll have Shuichi looking as good as new by the end of the year. "It looks fine. But, pay attention to it while swimming. If your ear falls off in the ocean, I'm not going to help you look for it."

Shuichi giggles and puts his hand over his ear protectively. "Do you think it would?"


Shuichi pouts, but only for a second. Then he throws his arms around my neck and plants kisses in the hollow beneath my ear. "Would you donate an ear to me, if I lost mine, Yuki?"

"Hell no." But, I'd probably kill someone Shuichi-sized and take one of theirs.

Shuichi squirms meaningfully in my lap. I think it may be time to quit the beach for our hotel room. On the other hand, the natives of this fair island seem to not particularly care what two lovers do on the beach, regardless of their genders.

I slide my hands around his waist, tanned from weeks of outdoor play, and still slippery with sea water. His hair smells of ocean, of salt and kelp, and just a little bit of fish.



Shuichi, that fucking tease, does something completely arousing with his tongue and my ear... Where does he learn this stuff? Really. It's unnatural.

"Would you still love me if I only had one ear?"

I pull Shuichi closer and kiss him. His lips are warm, sun-kissed. But, his tongue radiates a deeper heat. Maybe I should have always known that about Shuichi, about how he is, indeed, like a fire. Maybe I should have realized that those precious walls I built up around myself so long ago were made of ice. The chemistry is simple. I never stood a chance.

"Don't be stupid."

Of course I would, Shuichi.


It turns out that I was right about Sakano. His aim is extremely bad. It was later discovered that the bullet ricocheted off of part of the helicopter, which is why I ended up bleeding from the front, instead of the back. Akasugi, who was using the company helicopter to get to a book signing in Osaka, cancelled his appointment (how nice), and transported us all to the hospital while NG burned to the ground.

It took them hardly any time to get Shuichi's ear fixed. Seguchi immediately shoved him in front of television cameras to play PR lackey.
Officially, NG was attacked by international terrorists who were planning on using it as a base of operations for their attack on the government building across the street.

International terrorists. Heh.

It was such a ridiculous load of hogwash that -everyone- believed it without question.

Of course, we were all media darlings for sacrificing ourselves and the NG building in order to protect Japan. Wild stories of our heroic exploits circulated in the tabloids. Apparently, Seguchi is secretly a fifth generation kenjutsu master. Shuichi knows how to make a taser out of an electric pencil sharpener and several old 8-track cassette tapes. And I've devised sixty-seven ways to incapacitate a man using an antique letter-opener.

Alright, so that last one...is fairly close to being true.

Seguchi's leg didn't fare quite as well as Shuichi's ear. They took the bullet out, but Seguchi still walks with a mild limp. Still, better a limp than the alternative. Plus, it gives him plenty of opportunities to buy walking-canes that look gaudier than most Fabrige eggs. It really completes the whole 1980s "pimp look" he seems to be cultivating.

Sakuma, also, managed a fairly short hospital stay, and then he proceeded to attempt to annoy me for the rest of mine. I swear I couldn't go three hours without overhearing him tell someone -else- about how he had been shot "directly in the bunny-phone". Yes. The archaic phone stopped the bullet. Sakuma is the entire reason they coined the phrase "dumb luck.
However, Sakuma did receive a few minor wounds from phone-shrapnel, which he delighted in showing to any passing cameraman or journalist.

As for Akasugi... Well, about the fourth time he came to my hospital room to attempt to seduce me, Shuichi got fed up. From what Seguchi told me, the two had a showdown in the hospital parking garage which culminated in Shuichi lighting Akasugi's hair on fire with a makeshift hairspray blowtorch. Since then, I haven't seen Akasugi, or even heard word one about him publishing a new novel.

Still, I think there's more to that story. Yes, something about the way Tohma smiles while telling it...which makes me think there is -definitely- more to that story.

Seguchi wouldn't kill a guy just for annoying me, would he?


Anyway, I also haven't seen Tungesh again. Some old Japanese man with a bad cough and bifocals took over the newsstand. He doesn't know the first thing about books. But, it is funny to watch Shuichi flip out every time the old guy refers to him as "nee-chan".

During my hospital stay, however, a gift basket of books by my favorite authors showed up one morning. The card said only to enjoy, and that he'll keep an eye out for my name on the bestseller lists.


In addition, after Mizuki apologized profusely for her conspiratory luncheon with Akasugi, we were on speaking terms again. Apparently, he'd contacted her in an attempt to seduce her to quit Looseleaf and come to work for Sunako. She turned him down.

And as for "Tangerine"?

It did spectacularly.

They're making it into a video game -and- a movie.

Everyone in Japan seems to have read it.

Well, everyone except Shuichi.


"Well fuck me raw and call me Kiki."

"I already did. So, hand me a cigarette, Kiki."

Shuichi grunts and rolls to the side to grab my cigarettes.

The cool breeze coming off the ocean causes the curtains of our hotel room to billow repeatedly, as if undulating ghosts keep blowing in from the beach. We're twisted up in the fine Egyptian cotton sheets of our island bungalow bed, listening to the waves, the tropical birds, and the tinny sound of a half-tuned radio in the corner which is alternately playing native music and international static.

As far as I know, there is no brand of alcohol which matches the intoxicating power of the smell of sex mixed with ocean air. My muscles have become putty, and try as I might to conjure my list of worries and annoyances, I can't seem to remember a single one.

Shuichi sticks a cigarette between my lips, and lights it for me.

We have Seguchi to thank for this extended vacation. It seems that NG had insurance, a suspicious amount of insurance, covering acts of terrorism as well as fire. Seguchi prepares for everything, I guess. He had plenty of money to rebuild NG twice over. So, quite magnanimously, he sent Shuichi and I on a six-month "mental health" vacation.

Okay, maybe I -did- mention that I needed to get the fuck away from the press, and Tokyo in general. I saved the man's life. It's the least he could do, right?

The phone rings while Shuichi is tonguing one of my nipples. The effort needed to lift my arm is excruciating. I almost knock the damn thing off the nightstand before picking it up. "Yeah?"

"Señor Shoe-chi? Are you finished the carnal pleasuring of Señor Yookey?"

I hand the phone to Shuichi.

We weren't that loud, were we?

I listen to Shuichi stumble over his English as he talks to Lopez, the proprietor of a local bar. Shuichi sings there some nights. Not that anyone knows who he is, or even understands a word of Japanese. They just like varied acts, it seems. Lopez also employs a woman who sings off-key Italian arias and a one-armed bongo drummer.

Shuichi hands back the phone after a minute, and I attempt, with some Difficulty, to put it back into place. "Singing tonight?"

"No. Lopez is closing the bar to go see his sister's new baby. It's just me and you tonight." Shuichi shrugs. "Wanna build a campfire on the beach?"

"Is that an excuse for you to play with fire?"

Shuichi laughs, and I find myself smiling a little, too. He holds up his hands in mock innocence and exclaims, "No. I'm retired, I promise. No more assassin stuff for me."

I grab his wrists, and kiss the palms of his hands. It's time to live the fantasy. Time to be the person that Shuichi believes I can be. Even though I am a novelist, I know that nobody ever lives "happily ever after". But, right now, I think I will be happier than most. Because I've found my absolution, my redemption, my long lost humanity. Or rather, he found me.

"Yeah, retired," I murmur, as I drag Shuichi back down into bed with me. "Me too."




Author's Note: Well, this one is finished, and I'm so glad. I was thinking about an unhappy ending, obviously, but I think the characters just went through too much not to end it on an up note.

For me, the whole point of writing this story was to mesh all sorts of askew plot points in a confusing, ever more paranoid tale. One where you don't know who to trust, and who not to trust. Even some of the things said by the person telling the story are suspect. At the same time, I wanted to inject humor into the story, so that it never got –too- dark.

There is also a simple idea running through the story, which it something I truly believe. That all humans are capable of being monsters, and all humans are capable of being saints. And sometimes they are both at the same time. I think that is the central theme of a great many religions, and it is obviously something that is very provocative to the human race.

There's also the idea that we are who we display to the world, and we are also the person behind the mask. When this is mixed with the previous idea, I think people begin to have so many identities within themselves that they lose track – not so much of who they –are-, but who they want to be.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I started off with a lot of different things in mind for this fanfic, but I don't really think I actually achieved any of them. A lot of that is because of how early I lost interest in the project, but I think also that my design was too elaborate and would have been better without some of the red-herrings. But, I hope the story was a nonetheless enjoyable read on a more superficial level, something that is fun and mildly sensational, even if it is altogether pointless on other levels. I did enjoy writing it, mostly, and I think I learned a lot from the experiment (I hope)!

I also have to apologize profusely to Sakano fans. I really hated to pervert Sakano, but in the end, -someone- had to be the secret nefarious evil pulling all the strings. Plus, how often does Sakano get to be the uber-bad-guy? Again, again, my apologies.

Well, thanks to everyone who read this strange story and kept me going with your words of encouragement. I really appreciate it, and I am glad you stuck with me despite how long it took me to finish the story. Thanks again.