Una Música Brutal
For Wen, who beta'd, and all the others who offered suggestions and enthusiasm
"Ban," Ginji says, "I was wondering. If you could maybe teach me—"
"Teach you what?" Ginji gestures toward the window behind Ban, embarrassed, and Ban's jaw drops. "What? No. Are you insane?"
"You said you would."
"No, I didn't."
"Well, then I was insane. For fuck's sake."
Ban tugs on the cord, and the venetians clatter a few inches upward. Signs from across the alley diffuse neon colours over the opposing wall.
"It's hot," he says. "I can't believe how hot it is."
In the morning Ginji dreamt of the lower levels of Mugenjou. In reality it was and had always been a dangerous, crowded warren of humanity, even when it was his domain, but in this recurrent dreamscape he alone existed. He wandered through condemned highrises and the entropic remnants of fountain plazas; alleyways and tenements, multi-tiered concrete caverns that had once been underground parking structures. The intricate silhouette of fire escapes intersected his upturned gaze like the bars on a prison window. All of it was unbearably familiar, down to the individual vacuum between two electrons' orbits, a minute space in which he worked and discarded miracles.
The sun rose and fell, pinwheeling overhead, and a new dawn faded gradually to night.
The sky above Babylon never changed: it was the colour of television static.
Ginji didn't linger over the dream, or even remember it most of the time upon waking. Its repetitive imagery held little significance for him, like the traversal of an empty room while searching for something – someone – else.
"Hey, wake up," Ban said. He was sitting on the floor beside their single borrowed futon, dressed and smoking a cigarette. "We've got to get down to the Honky Tonk, or we're going to miss Natsumi's coffee." He took it upon himself to keep track of the time. Rena had the mid-day shift because she wasn't going to school, and Ban felt sorry for the poor bastards who wandered in for an early afternoon caffeine fix.
"There you are," Ginji said, opening his eyes. Ban smiled despite himself.
"Where else would I be?"
"I was dreaming," Ginji said vaguely. He stretched out on the futon luxuriously, fingertips to pointed toes, then shook himself and sat up, sleepiness falling away like a discarded blanket. "Hey, the music's stopped."
"Well, you'd bloody well think. It went on until 2AM." Ban put up the blinds and threw open the window, leaning out over the ledge so he could gaze down the street. A breeze played through the room, conveying the scent of car exhaust and early morning. "There's no hot water, guy says they're going to get an electrician in sometime this week. Should've taken care of it before he rented it out, the asshole."
"It's okay," Ginji said. "It's going to be a hot day anyway."
When they reached street-level they realised that the building backing onto theirs housed a salsa hall and Latin dance school. "MAMBO NIGHT WEDNESDAYS — TANGO NIGHT THURSDAYS!" the posters plastered over the front windows thundered. Ginji appeared more cheered than anything else by the prospect of free nightly music – "Just like that time with Clayman-san," he said. Ban cursed, but purely for form's sake. No amount of incomplete disclosure by the landlord was going to spoil his day.
Even the discovery of another ticket tucked under the Ladybug's wipers didn't do more than dent his sense of accomplishment.
The down payment was always going to be the hard part, what with the fees and the paperwork and the rent in advance. Afterward one had leverage. One could owe a month of back rent, maybe two; even eviction notices took time. So Ban was optimistic. Clearing the all-important first hurdle, however, meant that they had no food money that week, not so much as a 10-yen coin. Unless they found work.
They behave differently when they're alone together, with neither work nor the frantic hustle of finding work to occupy them. Except for the hypnotic one-two, one-two of the music that wafts through the window – punctuated by an occasional gurgle from their superannuated refrigerator – Paul or HEVN would be surprised by how quiet the room is. Perhaps they would find it claustrophobic.
They're not here, though. That's the point.
Apart from a washbasin, a pair of red plastic bath-stools and the foam futon hauled out of the Honky Tonk's broom closet, they have no furnishings at all. The apartment came with a naked overhead bulb, but the night is oppressively sultry, and even the thought of incandescent illumination is unbearable. So Ban sits in the dark, his back against the wall, in order to smoke his cigarette. When Ginji turns his head he can see the cherry-red glow of the tip, flaring and dying with Ban's breath.
If it were any less hot, or the air less preternaturally still, he'd crawl over and pillow his head on Ban's lap. Close his eyes and listen to the music that way, until the exotic rhythm fuses with the syncopated rush of blood through his heart. Instead he says, "Ban-chan—"
And Ban says, "No. And stop asking."
Ban didn't like Shido, and the sentiment was returned with interest. Nevertheless, they were usually able to limit it to snarking, with a few exceptions. Once when Ban had been ragging on Shido especially hard for his "kept man" status, Shido had turned around on his barstool and said, "Yeah well, you know what, at least Madoka has a place to live."
Ban had lit into him. They'd been in the Honky Tonk, their neutral territory, so the results had been spectacular. The broken flatware had gone onto the Get Backers' tab, and Ban'd been in the doghouse with Paul for a week afterward. Natsumi had looked at him thoughtfully, though, and sneaked a shot of Irish cream into his next coffee.
"Lady," Ban said, "this isn't funny. We stopped a train for you."
"You stopped a train?" Belief was not particularly evident in the obasan's voice. "Listen, young man, do you know how long I've been down in Tokyo?"
"On the Yamanote Line, lady. With our bare hands."
"Twenty-five years. Twenty-five years I've been down in Tokyo. I came for the boom, I saw the bust. You know what my hometown looks like now?"
"Nothing. Nothing because it's gone. All the young ones, moved to find better work somewhere else. My parents and family, gone. So tell me what this land deed here is worth to me, eh? A hundred thousand yen? A million? Ten million? If you were in my position, how much money would you have said was in this purse? I haven't been living in Tokyo for twenty-five years for nothing. You think two strapping youngsters like you would stop a purse-snatcher out of the goodness of their hearts, you learn to think again. Isn't that right?"
"Look," Ban said with a fraying note of patience in his voice, "we're not good Samaritans, we're professionals. We do this for an honest living. We have standards to uphold, and we've incurred expenses." Ginji nodded, discreetly mopping sweat from his brow with the collar of his shirt. He'd scraped his elbow shorting out the rail.
The obasan's eyebrows lifted at 'honest living'. "No ready cash is no ready cash," she said. "You think I can give you money when I can't round out the end of this month for myself?"
"Times are hard for everyone. If you're honest, you'll take payment in something else. You know the Buona Notte gelateria near Yoyogi Station?" They nodded. "Go around the back and ask for Hyun Kee. I'll call her once I get home, she'll give you your reward."
"Ban-chan," Ginji says, "the gelato's melting."
"Yeah? No shit." Ban wanders over to the open window for the fifth or sixth time. He can't sit still; the elation of that morning has been replaced by nagging restlessness. "Hell, no wonder this place was going cheap. No air conditioning, no furniture, fridge on the fritz, and the noise."
"I like the music," Ginji says. The heat isn't so bad either. He took a cold shower, and didn't bother to do more than pull on his shorts afterward. There's much to be said for having a roof over one's head.
"Yeah," says Ban. "Yeah, I know you do." Gardel now, after the cortina, and thus Gardel for the next half hour. He sighs. "Okay, let's finish it off then. How are we for spoons?"
It was a posh restaurant. So posh that the first thing Ban said when he got to the table was, "I'm not paying for this."
"I wasn't planning to make you," said Clayman. Ban threw himself into a chair. Ginji sat down more slowly, gazing around in wonder. Everything sparkled, it seemed: the chandeliers, the wineglasses, the mother-of-pearl inlay of the ashtrays.
"Ban, look, there's real musicians—"
"Yeah, I know," Ban said. They were playing "Jalousie", of all possible tunes, complete with bandoneon and piano. And couples on the dancefloor. He fished his pack out of his pocket and shook out a cigarette. "So why here, then?"
"Humour me." Clayman gestured to Ban's left. "I just wanted you to see that."
Ban turned. "Goya," he said after a moment. Ginji glanced up from the dessert menu he was perusing.
"Is it one of yours, Clayman-san?"
"You could say that, yes. It is posthumous. The position of Maja's arms differs from the accepted version in the Prado." Ginji turned back to the painting, exhaling through his teeth in wonder. Ban shrugged.
"Kind of... all-purpose Hispanic, isn't it? What do they serve, fajitas?"
"Well, this is Tokyo."
"Bloody over-priced rip-off." Ban stuck the cigarette between his teeth and lit it. "But no, I appreciate it. About the painting."
Clayman smiled. "I know," she said.
"So how about we talk business then?"
They talked business. Clayman waved off the question of money. "Dollmaking is an art," she said. "I won't charge you any more or less than it's worth." Ban's spidey-sense shrilled a warning, but the offer was too inherently useful to refuse, and anyhow he figured she'd have to pay him before she could get any of it back. They made an appointment for the next day, so Clayman could "run him through the scan" and take a few necessary photos.
The main question settled, he leant back in his chair, sipped at the coffee he'd ordered and let Ginji chatter away. Watched the couples stumble and weave over the polished square of parquet: managerial retirees putting dance lessons to use in their no-doubt plentiful spare time... The band struck up a Piazzolla number, and Ban's eyes narrowed in inadvertent disdain. The violinist was no Paz. Hell, he wasn't even in perfect tune. Not that any of the dancers were liable to care, by the look of it.
When he turned back he found Clayman observing him, eyebrows arched.
"Care to dance?" she said. Ginji almost snorted lemon sorbet up his nose.
"Come on, Clayman-san," he said. "Ban can't dance to something like this. He doesn't even like nightclubs, the last time we ended up in one he picked a fight with the—"
"Shut up," Ban said automatically, cuffing him. Clayman kept a straight face, but her eyes were twinkling.
"Well, he'll humour me again," she said. "Or is Ginji right and you can't?"
Warring sentiments skirmished over Ban's face, none of which Ginji could identify. He blinked, rubbing the side of his head. "Ban-chan?"
Ban snorted, expression resolving itself into a glare. "This is a waste of time," he said, and stood up abruptly enough that his chair scraped loudly over the floor. He stepped around the table and extended his hand to Clayman. "Well? Come on."
Clayman tilted her head gravely. "I'd be delighted," she said, placed one hand in Ban's, and rose to her feet.
Ginji stuck a spoonful of sorbet into his mouth, sucking on it thoughtfully as he watched them make their way over to the dance floor. No one protested, but Ginji noticed a few funny looks in their general direction. He wondered if maybe his friends weren't dressed right, though he wasn't good about noticing things like that. They didn't look like any other couple there: Ban in his untucked oversized shirt and canvas trousers that had seen too many washings, Clayman cutting an almost masculine figure in her dark business suit. She was wearing the same shoes as the rest of the women, though – all straps and pointed heels, so that Ginji didn't understand how she could walk in them, let alone dance. With the several inches they added she just about came up to Ban's eyes.
The song came to a close. After a momentary pause the band leader tapped with his baton, and there was a flurry of sheet music being turned.
Ginji sat up straighter, feeling an unreasonable heat creep up his face.
Ban had placed his hand on Clayman's waist – not side, but the small of her back – and pulled her indecorously close. She leant into it unfazed, tilting her head up so that their eyes met. Her left arm rose and wrapped deliberately around his shoulder. The position made it appear almost as if Ban were carrying her entire weight, but to Ginji's eyes it spoke more of challenge than acquiescence.
She said something then, and Ban's lips twitched. Ginji could hear neither the question or the answer.
Clayman's foot tapped the ground, an impatient, strangely elegant motion.
The baton came down. The bandoneon chimed an arpeggio.
And in perfect tandem, they flowed.
Ginji watched with mouth hanging open, all thoughts of dessert forgotten. There must be names for those steps, he knew, just like there were names for katas, but as with katas the staccato bursts of movement ran into one another like raindrops. Step, step, pivot, sway and arch of back, step. Step – and there was a hidden complexity to the music, a sinuous interplay between melody and beat he'd barely noticed until he saw it now, given tangible shape through time-space – paths crossing and feet flashing, seemingly unsustainable, the resolution miraculous. The other dancers made way for them, Ginji thought; then realised that wasn't the case. They were seeking out opportunity for movement, gliding through the crowd as easily as a steel blade slices through water. Step, step, twist, chassé, kick. A sudden turn – a sensual pause, long line of leg extended and tense, a half-moon sketched with one foot as if to complete some esoteric pattern – and then it began again.
In the Infinite Castle, Kazuki would occasionally say of one of their adjutants, "He fights as if he were dancing." It was a compliment. Ginji thought he understood better what Kazuki meant by it, now.
Grace was not necessary in power. But there was a power that lay quiescent, coiled and serpentine, and made itself known in grace.
At the end of the piece the nearest diners erupted in applause. Ban escorted Clayman back to the table, took one look at Ginji's face and knew he was in trouble.
"What?" he snapped. The note of warning flew right over Ginji's head.
"Ban-chan! You're amazing! I didn't know you could tangelo—"
"Tango," Ban said, "it's tango. Tangelo is a fruit." Clayman smiled again, taking a sip of water.
"It suits you," she said. "To be good at something like that."
"He plays the violin too," Ginji interjected. Ban whapped him upside the head.
It transpires that there is only one (1) plastic spoon. They float the container of gelato in a basinful of the coldest water they're able to coax out of the faucet, and take turns until it becomes unwieldy. Ban ends up feeding them both. Spoonful for you, spoonful for me.
Gardel sings on, langourous and brutal by turns.
"There's going to be a thunderstorm," Ginji says. He's sprawled out on the floor, swaying a little in time with the music. It's hard not to. The rhythm changes the quality of the air, making it somehow denser, more humid. Ban resists it, but it's like standing neck-deep in a river.
"There'd better be," he says. The spoon scrapes bottom. He holds it out to Ginji, who takes the last bit of ice cream in his mouth. He watches Ban through lowered lids, expression thoughtful. There is a sheen of sweat on his bare upper arms, his throat.
"Ne, Ban-chan," he says. "Teach me."
"Why?" No answer. Ginji asked about the violin but never insisted, and the same went for – a dozen other things. Ban acquires more lessons from Ginji than vice-versa, really, but often they are of the intangible variety, and Ginji has no idea. "What's so special about it?"
"Because... I wanna try," Ginji says. He grins suddenly. "And I want to see you like that again."
Ban gapes at him. "What?" And then, because Ginji has the light in his eyes that always makes him tumble from his fortified position, "...It's way too hot."
"No it isn't," Ginji says. He gets up, and somehow in the same motion manages to pull Ban to his feet. "It's going to rain. Promise."
Clayman had said that time, "Argentine style, no less. Where did you learn this?"
"From an old lady," he'd answered.
Maria had a battered analog music player that dated from the mid-twentieth-century, and a collection of large black vinyl discs she insisted on referring to as long-playing records. When she was in a good mood – which was almost every day – she'd pour herself a glass of something vilely green and alcoholic, put on a stack of said records in succession and dance to the scratchy bass-weak blare that issued out of the antique speakers. That was flamenco, a wild whirl of flouncing skirts and uplifted arms. Ban yelled at her and called her a noisy old hag, and sometimes she slapped him upside the head and pulled his ears, but mostly she just laughed.
He heard that particular stack too often to want to play them himself, but there were others. Classical works, gypsy violins, and a panoply of exoticisms neither Japanese nor German: milonga, fado, calypso, samba, habanera, women smiling with smoke-dark eyes from yellowing cardboard sleeves, Technicolor roses tucked into their hair. Once he'd figured out it was a needle doing all the work, Ban would annoy Maria and amuse himself by blasting her records at the wrong RPM, or producing whacka-whacka noises by spinning them the wrong way. He listened to some of the music too, inevitably.
"Why don't you dance to that, for a change," he said once, and knew it was a mistake as soon as he saw the smirk on Maria's face.
"Like that, do you?"
Ban scowled. "No."
Maria carried on as if she hadn't heard. "Well, that's no surprise to me. It's a strong music, eh? Violent, apasionado. Una música brutal, just like you." She held the amulet she was making up to the lamp: cat's-eye beads, a sprig of sweetgrass, a thread stained rust-red, a lock of hair. "Santa Maria... Now this reminds me of when I was living in Bueños Aires. It was such a beautiful city then. White houses lining the avenidas, all the way down to the sea... so much light everywhere. There were riots in the barrios, but every night we'd go out in our fine dresses and dance the tango on the street corners where men fought during the day." She sighed. "Still beautiful now, I suppose. But the people are not the same."
"Nobody wants to hear your stories, Kusobaba," Ban said, but it was half-hearted. Maria sniffed amiably.
"Mind I don't come over there and teach you a lesson," she said. "Such a little boy, and so ill-tempered already. What will you be like when you're old enough to appreciate a real hot-blooded woman?"
Ban fiddled with the crumbling paper insert, and waited.
"But I cannot dance this for you." Maria wagged a finger at him, amusement dancing in her eyes. "It takes two to love, and it takes two to fight, and as the tango is both, so it takes two to tango. As they always say. So you must dance with me, you understand?"
They stand face to face, bodies at the slightest of angles, bare feet close together. Abrazo: arm around waist, hand on shoulder, palms pressed together, weight forward. Motionless, but the ebbing strains of melody tug at them like a current running through the room.
When one exhales the other feels it brush, elusive, against his skin.
Ban breaks away first, abruptly. "This isn't going to work," he says. "If I teach you you're going to pick up the, um." He prods at his tinted glasses, annoyed. "The girl's steps. You see what I mean?"
Ginji blinks. "Why would I?" he asks, and Ban chokes.
"You – ah, fuck it." Before Ginji can react he steps up close again, rearranging their bodies somewhat: Ginji's arm around his waist, his hand on Ginji's shoulder. Palms together.
"If you breathe one word of this to anyone," he says, "you're a dead man."
Kazuki had said once to Ban, during one of the infrequent and mostly coincidental moments when they found themselves alone: "You don't know and you don't care, but Mugenjou is nothing without Raitei. It's a husk of itself. None of us had any idea to begin with, because when he was in that place his presence filled it. Try standing at the bottom of the ocean and looking for water. But the first time each of us met him, we understood that there was the nexus of the power that resonated through the Infinite Castle, and we'd been living in the palm of his hand all along. We belonged to Raitei; his will encompassed what we were. After you left with him that sense of purpose drained away like the plug had been pulled."
Ban had shrugged. What he'd wanted to say was, what makes you think it was any different for me?
It isn't difficult. Or at least it doesn't seem so at first. Ban tells him the steps, of course, and how to execute them: when to follow through (always), where to place his weight (ball of the foot first, then heel). How to elongate his stride but keep the spring, in emulation of a jungle cat pacing through the undergrowth. Eventually the patterns themselves gain in complexity, and Ban's instructions become a sursurration of foreign words in Ginji's ear, a counterpoint accompaniment overlying the melody. Salida, cunita, caminata, keep going – now turn – caza, caza, cruzado, turn, good, back to caminata now, step-step-step-and-resolve... Ginji lets it fade into noise after a while, finding it easier to keep time to the subtle hints given by Ban's body. He always has some sense of Ban, when they're in proximity, and pressed close like this it's as natural as breathing. He slides his hand over Ban's back, feeling skin and muscle play under the damp fabric of his shirt.
"No," Ban says. "You're following me. Don't do that." Ginji stumbles to a stop.
"That's just the way it is. Even if she's better at it, nineteen times out of twenty the girl's going to be shorter. She won't be able to see where she's going as well, so you have to lead."
"But you're not a girl," Ginji points out. Ban smirks.
"No," he says. "I'm not. But that's why you have to work twice as hard with me. Get it?"
Ginji nods slowly. He adjusts the position of his hold; good form is usually the last thing on his mind when he throws his arms around Ban, but the deliberate intent of it is starting to seem less unfamiliar. Like katas, he tells himself.
"Okay," he says, and guides them into the opening steps. Realises as he does so that that Ban has relaxed deliberately, giving him no clues at all.
They traverse the room counter-clockwise, then lengthwise and back. It's not a wide space, and every second step seems to incorporate a quarter-turn. Once or twice he counts wrong, makes a mistake and has to recover. The second time it happens he feels Ban tense, trying to steer them in a conflicting direction. He hesitates, missing a beat.
"No, keep going, my bad," Ban says. So Ginji keeps going, and Ban closes his eyes and lowers his head against Ginji's shoulder. On purpose, so he can't see where they're heading.
Somehow, just the fact that Ginji knows this makes it easier.
Stroll, stroll, sidestep-and-turn. The phrasing of the music is the only point of reference he has now; Ginji keeps the pattern as close as he can to its rise-and-fall cadence. The piece fades out, and he doesn't bother to close the dance, just stays in cradle-step with Ban until the next tune begins to play. It turns out to be faster, more boisterous. Irregular as well, the strong beats less decisively marked. Ginji has to stop and mark time in place before it sinks in. Once he catches the hang of it, though, he finds it easier than the last.
Less time to think. So. Just trust to your feet.
No need to think at all...
On whim Ginji opens up the hold, taking them into a rapid zigzagging walk. Right-foot-outside, swivels and—
"Ocho abierto," Ban says, meeting his eyes above those violet-tinted shades. Before Ginji, bewildered, can ask, "What?" – which would throw them off anyhow – Ban lifts his foot and runs the instep up Ginji's shin. Then he steps right over him, kick-and-swivel-the-other-way, kick, turn back to face Ginji with a grin. Who just about remembers to follow through, on pure instinct.
"You," he says, presses his hand firmly against the small of Ban's back—
And dips him.
It doesn't work too well.
The thump of two sturdy bodies hitting the floor resounds above the tango beat.
"Ow," Ban says pensively, after a few seconds. "Ow. That... really fucking hurt, actually."
"Sorry," Ginji says, chagrined, and at that moment there is a bright flash that casts Ban's features into surprised relief. His eyes are very blue.
"Did you do that?" he asks, and then, "No. That was—" A long drumroll of thunder cuts him off.
"Rain," Ginji says. "It's going to rain."
"Well, halle-fucking-lujah," says Ban. He shifts position on the floor, sprawling out with his arms stretched above his head, and closes his eyes. "About time."
Lightning flashes again, magnesium-bright, and a short second later the growl of thunder overlaps the tenacious music. Ginji props himself up on his elbows, gazing down at Ban's face.
"There you are," he says softly. He doesn't know why, but he feels as if he's been walking for a long time: longer than they've been dancing. Empty room after empty room stretch out behind him, but this one has Ban in it.
"You moron," Ban says. He reaches up, hesitates, and ends up giving a knuckle-tap to the side of Ginji's head. "Dips and all such ornamentation are Lesson Three. You're jumping the gun."
Ginji's grin could light the room on its own.
Outside the rain begins to fall, warm drops that hiss as they touch the asphalt.
The music plays on, unnoticed.
Descubrimos vos y yo
En el triste carnaval
Una música brutal
Melodías de dolor
Despertamos vos y yo
Y en el lento divagar
Una música brutal
Encendió nuestra pasión
— Gotan Project, "Una música brutal"
— Montreal, August 8 – August 19, 2003
1. I left the inevitable Kultur Notes to the last, because the thought of having to annotate half-decently for Astor Piazzolla, Fernando Suarez Paz and Carlos Gardel gave me shivers. So, as you see, I'm not doing so. - Also, Gotan Project, whose album La Revancha del Tango was on continuous loop over the course of the week during which I read the Kami no Kijutsu Arc, and thus should probably shoulder the blame for my eccentric inspiration.
2. Francisco De Goya, idem. If I'm not mistaken one of the Majas is actually shown briefly in the manga as part of Clayman's collection, but I can't remember if it was the clothed or nude version.
3. As for the tango step patterns, you'll have to find your own reading material. g I did my best to make the sequences plausible, but I'm an awful dancer myself, so take it with a grain of salt.