The key hit the bottom of the mailbox with a dull metallic clunk.
Takaba slung his backpack over his shoulder, picked up his duffel bags, and headed out into the cold, windswept streets. Winter was fast approaching, but he wouldn't be here to see the snow fall in his hometown. He wouldn't be here to see the sakura trees bloom in spring, raining down its petals. He wouldn't be here to ever hear the temple gongs that shook him to the marrows of his bones.
No regrets, Aki. Don't look back. Don't ever look back.
That's what he told himself, but he could only feel his acid tears, burning flesh and carving a path down his cheeks as he swallowed the urge to cry, to break down and collapse to his knees. After all, it was time to leave. There was not second to spare for petty sentimentalities or goodbyes.
He had no one to say goodbye to.
The taxi he had called was dutifully waiting outside in the empty neighborhood.
"Hey, kid!" the driver peered out through the car window.
Takaba swore he could feel phantom hands clutching at him from behind, begging him not to go, but he ignored them. There was only one thing, one person, that could convince him otherwise, and he wasn't here.
He never was.
"You coming or what?"
The handle felt icy and steely under his fingertips as he tugged the door open. He took one last look at the apartment, the unlit window where his bedroom was, or at least, what used to be his bedroom, and he ducked into the cab, sinking heavily into the old leather seat.
"Asami-sama," the blond bodyguard looked around the empty apartment, holding his ear over the ear set. How could he possibly report to his boss that his lover had left him, deserted him.
"Where is he?"
"He's… gone," he paused, then added, "sir."
"Of course he's gone. He can't settle down for ten minutes."
"That's not…" prepare yourself, "his apartment's been emptied out, sir."
He had expected some incredible raging, Hulk-style, to begin, but this was even worse. There was nothing worse in Asami-sama then his silence. Or rather, what silence signified, what brewed beneath the exterior.
His muscles tensed and constricted as the plane tilted upward and took off, its wheels retracting into its steel womb and plastering him into the plush seat; fingers tightly gripped the edge of the armrests. He didn't mind flying part, the high altitude cruising. The occasional storms didn't bother him either, but the takeoffs and landings always unnerved him a bit.
Outside the window, the runway was becoming smaller and smaller, a narrow, illuminated strip of flat concrete, and the nocturnal metropolis of Tokyo and its majestic display of lights faded into lumps of sporadic light, haphazardly prepared fireworks that refused to diffuse into the sky and die away.
Takaba fixed his eyes on them, mesmerized by the sheer beauty. He had lived and died there. Died. Perhaps not completely though, for somewhere in that human labyrinth of 13 million, he had locked away a good part of his humanity. And his capacity to love.
When the plane climbed higher and penetrated a layer of clouds and Tokyo was no more, he fixed his eyes instead on the red blinking light attached to the end of the steadfast wings, drawn by its consistency, the tacit promise that it would flash in rhythm the entire twelve hours of the flight. It was reliable and it was reliability that he sought.
Asami stood in the center of the empty living room. The improvised darkroom, the stained sofa, the cardboard box coffee table, the empty beer cans, canisters of film rolls, the ashtray, week old takeout boxes. Gone. Even the smell of fixer had faded, covered by cheap air freshener.
"Have you found him yet?"
"No, sir. They're still checking his usual spots."
"His cell phone?"
"Canceled two weeks ago."
"Credit card. Bank account."
"The same. All money withdrawn."
"What about his employer?"
"The editor found the letter of resignation two days ago on his desk."
"Do his friends not know where he is? Acquaintances, relatives, parents? There has to be someone that knows where he's gone."
"He told his parents that he'd be gone for a while."
"He didn't say, but out of the country."
"What about the airline companies."
"We're still doing inquiries, but so far there has been no record of him purchasing any tickets out of the country. There are also companies that we do not have leverage over."
"I don't care. Find him." Asami whispered, his voice deadly and frigid. The threat would do no good, however. Takaba had slipped from his grasp.
By a mere two hours.
He kept on running his mind through what he had just done. For eight months, he had pondered on this, driving himself to insanity and back in a constant internal controversy, a chaotic roundtrip. His dreams had been the battleground for his doubts and certainties. After three months without a single word from Asami, his half-serious ideas of just dropping everything and leaving Tokyo crystallized from its saturated solution, the seed crystal sown, breaking the surface tension, the lattices forming methodically around the germinating idea.
Then, he changed his mind to leave Japan altogether.
Wait another month, he told himself, wait longer. Wait forever, another part of him whispered. Then there was that embittered devil, the Diablo unknown, inside him that urged him to take the next flight out of Japan. Pick one, it whispered to him, pick any flight, it's a Russian roulette, either way you lose…so does it matter?
But goddammit, it did matter.
It does matter.
It was terrifying sometimes, wondering if Asami had dropped him altogether, afraid that the man would lose, or perhaps already had lost, interest. His soul trembled in trepidation. That was, after all, the reason Takaba ran from him. If he played this game of hide-and-seek, then maybe, just maybe, Asami might toy with him, as a cat would with an already trapped mice.
After six months, his doubts became certainties. Sure, Asami always said that Takaba belonged to him, but how many other lovers had he whispered that to, how many others had been used and abused? Received then deceived? Discarded like empty boxes, orange peels with its tangy excitement dried and withered. With his mind set in what seemed like stone at the time, he began making preparations over the next two months.
He arranged for a passport, one that had a different name. Tanaka Sei, nothing too flashy, rather mundane and intentionally boring. He emptied his apartment beginning with furniture, and every time an article disappeared in the black trash bag, he felt as though he were carving out a piece of his heart and throwing it to the dogs, to be devoured, feasted upon by loneliness.
In the middle of the night, around two or three, he would walk out to the balcony to stare at the sky, stars overshadowed by the Tokyo night light, and watch the truck pick up what used to be his. The plan that at first seemed so certain felt fragile then as it still did now. He could have taken a hammer to the stone hard resolution and shattered it to jagged pieces, but he hadn't. He carried on, his desperation mutating into a twisted, fragile determination.
Now, with his eyes still fixed on that blinking, unchanging light fixed on the metal wings, he wanted more than ever to feel anger, for despite how much of his heart he had carved away, he still felt the ache, the pain, the intense, unforgivable, unforgettable throbbing he felt whenever Asami wasn't near.
Asami was 9000 meters below, probably not knowing that his lover was slipping away. For the moment, Takaba closed his eyes and noticed that there was no weight lifted from his shoulders with this cowardly escape. Instead, it grew heavier and heavier as the plane cruised from Tokyo to London, nonstop.
Two years later.
Wispy strands of smoke climbed its way to the high ceiling of the luxurious flat overlooking Tokyo, only to be smothered by cruel hands into a crystal ashtray then left in its ashy grave yard, crushed and deformed.
"And to what do I owe the pleasure of your unexpected visit, Mr. Merrett?" Asami gently twirled the crystal glass filled with golden, amber liquid. His counterpart was an Englishman, well into his late fifties with gray hair and creases around his aging face.
"There will be an event in London next week; I would appreciate you to make your presence known. It is for your very presence that I have come to request. It's an event, with exhibitions and performances. What is most crucial, though, is the dinner the second evening, but of course it would be indiscreet for you to show your face only on that day. Also, there will be many of the contacts in London the week before for possible negotiations and agreements."
"You realize, Mr. Merrett, that a week is an incredibly long span of time for me, do you not? Add the traveling time and I will be gone nearly two weeks from my foothold here in Tokyo."
"Which is why I came personally, Mr. Asami. Two weeks in indeed a very long time."
Well, he had a point. The man did take a thirteen hour plane trip all the way to Tokyo, but he would have to do the same to London if he agreed to this. Things had been relatively stable lately anyhow. Surely he could spare himself the time; it would help cement his relationship with the European contacts to have a firm English ally. "Very well. I expect the finest accommodations then."
"Only the best, of course."
Asami's lips turned up at the corners. This Englishman at least knew his way around the underworld. "Of course."
"Gyles, you can't just expect me to add five more photos to the gallery like this! I don't even know if I have one other decent shot worth displaying." Takaba slammed his hands down on the mahogany desk of the gallery curator. "I'm a photographer! Not a printing machine! Do I look like I have "hp" stamped to my forehead or something? No! Besides, most of the exhibition photos are from Iraq and Sudan and… and Pakistan and only God knows where else! I don't even remember any more. I'm not gonna take a flight there again for gaps that you didn't consider before setting up the exhibition. I don't have time for that. A week isn't enough time to put something together that fast!"
Gyles folded his hands behind his head and smiled, "I'm not asking you to go back. Take some photos here. In London. It's a wonderful place." This man was just too goddamn laid back. Weren't curators supposed to be professional and conservative and what not?
"I know it's a great city and what not, spew your national pride at me. I could care less. But you have to understand, I can't just pull things out of my ass! Two days is not enough for me to-"
"What about shots from Tokyo? Those will work, Sei."
Takaba stood stunned, petrified.
His fury, his rampage, his verbal stampede stopped then, as if time had frozen in that instant. His eyes lost themselves at something invisible past Gyles shoulders, "I-I can't." His voice caught at his throat, and his words came out halted and jerky. "Tokyo… I can't."
Gyles eyed the sudden change, the abrupt loss of focus and energy at the mention of Tokyo.
Takaba breathed in softly, "I… I'll bring in the photos. No size requirements, right?"
"Alright, I'll have it in by…um… Sunday morning." He took another deep breath, his shoulders trembling as he exhaled. "That should give you enough time to, I guess… to set it up… by the next day."
Takaba stood there, uncertain of himself suddenly. His anger had fled. His confidence with it. Any mention of Tokyo always suctioned the life from him and left him pensive and doubtful. He could be bouncing off the walls and as soon as someone brought up his past, he retracted back into his shell, hard and brittle, and zipped his lips together.
Sei Tanaka, you are such the enigma.
Gyles Tennison eyed Takaba.
It began with the photos. He had first been attracted to the candid shots. They would show up at random exhibitions around London, one or two pieces here and there, sometimes anonymous but recognizable to Gyles' trained eyes.
The photos were fast paced and animated, teeming with energy and power. Especially the ones taken with telephoto lens, clandestine ones, the covert one. The kind that people never know how to truly take. The kind that a journalist would use to pry into a private, secret life. The kind that takes hours of sharp, focused concentration, like a razorblade and a hawk's eye molded into one flawless apparatus. And Gyles was mesmerized, spellbound, entranced.
That was two years ago.
He literally had had to hunt him down, asking other photographers and exhibitioners about this new photographer, who went by initials, ST. The mainstream audience didn't know him; the faceless photographer was like an indie band, hidden underground, unappreciated but mainly because of the photographer's own affinity toward privacy. He hid himself, working through intermediary contacts, sometimes by phone and email correspondence. His VC contained little, but his portfolio was mind blowing; it hardly mentioned that he got his degrees in Tokyo.
It took him nearly a year to finally find the discreet photographer and was shocked. He had expected more age, more experience. No one too old from the power of the photographs, but then again, the mysterious photographer turned out to be only twenty-six; a budding freelancer oddly shadowed by his own image.
And he was breathtaking then just as he looked now, his golden eyes cast down at the geometric patterns on the floor.
"Sei, come here." Gyles' grey eyes were fixed on Takaba.
Takaba stepped before him, a hesitant step, and Gyles didn't give him any time to reconsider, bringing him closer by the hips, reeling him in.
"Hmm?" His hands slipped under the shirt unto smooth, ivory skin. Takaba shivered under the lightest touch as Gyles wrapped his left arm around the slim waist, the right hand dipping into the pelvic bone, just above the belt, then following the crease down the center of the abdomen, pausing around the nipples.
"Nothing…" Takaba raised one knee unto the leather recliner to keep his balance as tender hands explored him. For a second, he wished those hands might have been someone else's, then hated himself for wishing that.
Let him go, Aki, don't linger in the past.
Gyles was gentle and caring; he never forced his lover. He at least deserved the full reciprocation of love. Even if Takaba lived a life of deceit, lying about his name, lying about his past, lying about who he was in the dark masked core.
There were a few interesting patterns Gyles noticed from early on.
One. The young photographer refused to drink, not a single drop. No matter how much anyone pressured him, and especially when people pressured him. And two. He turned aggressive and belligerent towards force, combative and challenging when anyone attempted to domineer him.
It was almost instinctual, a defensive reflex or perhaps it had been learned, like Pavlov's dogs. On the other hand, if he wasn't forced, if they just asked politely and diplomatically, he proved himself to be surprisingly practical and cooperative.
And it was the same with sex. A hint of pressure and he zipped up his pants and walked out the door. Be gentle and he kissed you back, passionately, and made love, passionately.
A simple system of reward and punishment that Gyles quickly grew accustomed to.
Of course, Gyles had no intention to force his new lover into anything. It was the same reason that he reluctantly exhibited all photos anonymously at Takaba's request, using the same initials ST; why the photographer strived so vigorously toward a low profile mystified him. The young ones were usually dying to get their name out to the public; Sei was not. He cowered from the public and rarely attended his own exhibitions. If he did, he went in just like anyone else, blending in quietly and listening to the whispered conversations. He refused any and all interviews, and though he allowed on certain occasions certain snippets of articles, photos of himself were strictly forbidden. Gyles could probably count in one hand the number of people that knew his lover personally.
Gyles smiled at his lover's enigma. It was their one year anniversary today, and he had seriously fucked up by bringing up Tokyo. That was another touchy spot; never go near it, he reminded himself mentally yet again.
He looked up at the lovely face, its eyes half closed, moist lips parted slightly, and pushed his hand higher, urging Takaba to take off his shirt gently. Takaba complied, pulling it over his head, over the jet black hair.
Takaba had let the chestnut strands grow out; it reminded him too much of Tokyo. For the same reason, he grew his hair just a bit longer into light layers that settled well around him. It wasn't the puffy, spiky, hairstyles that the tacky celebrities in Japan sported. God, he hated that, but just a simple style, not much different from what he had, but it was certainly not the same. Besides, Gyles liked it; he liked to run his fingers through it and stroke the silky, slick strands, and it felt nice when he did so, soothing. He felt loved, as a pet would under his owner's strokes.
His thought drifted back to the museum office. Gyles' hands were already pushing down Takaba's jeans, pressing into the semi-hard erection. Takaba suppressed his moans, a habit from his times with Asami that Gyles had been trying hard to break. He suppressed and suppressed until a certain breaking point, but never from the beginning did he yield to himself.
"Don't hold back, Sei, let them out." He whispered, blowing hot hair past Takaba's ear lobes, "Let me hear them… your moans."
God, that voice turned him on, Takaba sighed, slowly undoing the restraints, the invisible shackles that would hold him down again after the sex was over, but for now, Gyles let himself enjoy it; it was hard enough to break through any of his lover's barriers.
Takaba's briefs followed suit with the jeans and fell into a pool of fabric at his feet. Takaba slipped out his sneakers and maneuvered the socks off with his toes. Stepping up onto the leather seat, he was completely straddling Gyles, eye to eye, groin to groin.
I could drown in you, Sei.
Gyles nipped at Takaba's lips, licked at the flesh of the lower lip and between the parted crack of his mouth until they responded, sucking softly at his tongue, needy and desperate, but subtly held back and reserved.
Why do you hold back, Sei? Why do torment yourself so?
He wanted to know. He wanted to break that resistance because he knew, somewhere inside that shell, that his Sei was a different person. He only saw it in glimpses, the vibrant glint in his eyes during a photo shoot, the subtly changing expressions that revealed a treasury of emotions and expressions locked away inside.
Who locked your heart away, my love.
But he never asked. No use in cutting open scars. No use in bleeding what had already bled. Whether it healed or not was up to his lover; perhaps… perhaps he purposely kept the internal scars, the blood that welled around the wound.
Takaba angled his head and opened his lips to the gentles, nudges of the tongue. Every time, it took him by surprise, the compassionate tenderness he received. So different from what he was accustomed to. Even now, he expected to be cornered somehow, to be thrown down or pushed against a wall and violently taken.
Instead, Gyles hands crept up his back, his neck, and buried into the black tangle of hair, and again, gently. No rough pulling. No yanking. No ripping. No tearing. Buttons did not fly off their respective places when with Gyles.
Gyles ran his tongue under Takaba's lips again and when his small lover finally relented, he took Takaba's mouth into his own, claiming to taste what he only wished truly belonged to him. So far, he could still sense the faraway detachment from time to time. Those moments were diminishing, occurring less and less, but they were still there; he could feel it in the wavering touches, the forced reluctance that had to be dissolved every time they touched.
Takaba reached down to unbuckle Gyles' belt, feeling the heat rising within him, and tugged at the pants until the hard cock broke free of its fabric restraints.
"You're in a bit of a hurry today," Gyles whispered, his lips running down the side of the pale neck in a trail of kisses down to the indented depression of the collarbone.
Takaba pulled back, a crease between his eyebrows, "I… shouldn't?"
Gyles smiled and pulled him in for another round of kisses, "You don't have to force yourself."
"I'm not…" Takaba replied. He lifted himself slightly on his knees then licked his fingers, which disappeared down and under, "forcing myself…" he positioned himself over Gyles' cock and closed his eyes, his long lashes casting a shadow on his cheeks.
Then he lowered himself slowly, torturously slow for Gyles, but he nonetheless waited patiently as the head popped into the hot, tight passage. A guttural moan and grunt rose from deep inside his gut. If he had his way, he would have pushed the small body down at once, but that would hurt his fragile lover and hurting him was the last thing he wanted to do.
Takaba was breathing faster now, short, muted gasps from the base of his throat, from his lungs, but he pushed himself down farther slowly until he was fully up to the hilt, impaled. His throbbing hole completely engulfed Gyles, and the dull ache and pain and the euphoric pleasure combined into something altogether different.
"Oh god…" He paused to catch his breath, shallow and quick and restless.
Gyles' eyes was focused on the wanton expression that he rarely got to see, the flushed cheeks, half-closed eyelids, eyebrows creased in concentration.
What are you thinking about, Sei? Are you thinking about him again? The one you left behind…
There were times when Takaba stirred in his sleep, whispering, "Asami… ami…" There were nights when he would wake up in the middle of the night after sex and secretly slip a cigarette and smoke one, just one, in the balcony and spend the rest of the night just standing outside staring up at the moon and the constellations if he could, his eyes following any planes that crawled across the dark sky, blinking like a beacon, a buoy in stormy seas, and at sunrise, he slipped back into bed.
Gyles knew for a fact that the boy was not a smoker and avoided them altogether. The cigarettes on those nights weren't because he craved the cigarette. It was a ritual. A tribute to the one he still loved.
If there were clouds, Takaba would tiptoe back onto the bed and just stare at Gyles' face until he fell asleep; all the while Gyles pretended to be asleep for his sweet lover's sake.
Just who was it that you left? Who holds you captive for two long years like this?
"Gyles…" Takaba moaned, slowly moving up and down, rocking the chair. "Ahh…" He had one hand clutched on Gyles' shoulder, digging into the tight, firm muscles with the fingertips, which turned white from the pressure. The other hand rested on the armrest of the chair.
Had they been making love outside, where it was snowing, he would have seen short puffs of hot air escaping his lover's lips; He would have seen their sweat crystallize and watched heat radiate from the both of them as cold snowflakes melted on contact, not even given a chance to linger on the hot, flushed skin.
Takaba could feel Gyles' cock pulsing inside him, invading both his senses and body, just about to hit the edge, and he purposely made his movements ferociously fast, animalistic almost, tightening as Gyles came and he followed, his cum splattering against his bare chest and his English lover's shirt.
Body collapsed on top of another, sinking into the comforting, reliable chest, sweat covering his entire lithe body. Gyles moved his hand up and down Takaba's back, tracing the indention of the spine.
He reached across on the desk with a panting Takaba in his lap, still fixed on Gyles.
The box was a deep crimson color, useful for only one obvious purpose.
"It's our anniversary today, did you know, Sei?"
Takaba giggled, his breath tickling Gyles' chest with hot air.
"What's so funny?"
"You remembered…" he pulled his head back. Somehow, his golden eyes were sad and forlorn, heartbroken and melancholic.
"Of course I remembered," he frowned… what kind of lovers didn't celebrate anniversaries? Then again, from the strange behavior that his lover sometimes exhibited, it was pretty clear to anyone with a sharp eye that his last relationship had been… to say the least… unique. "Close you eyes."
"Huh?" he cocked his head in curiosity.
"Shhh… Relax, just close your eyes."
"But-" his protest was smothered with gentle lips as Gyles pulled Takaba in closer by the hair, his hand threaded in the silky, black locks. With his free hand, he popped open the cubicle box and blindly plucked the ring out. It was of simple design, platinum with a brushed look and a thin line of rose gold embedded down the center. When Takaba shifted, the box rolled off the edge of the seat on the marble floor.
"You dropped something."
"Doesn't matter…" he breathed in Takaba's ears and he took his lover's small left hand and slipped the ring into place.
Takaba's eyes flew open at the cold metallic touch.
"Happy anniversary, Sei."
His gaze was deep and penetrating, "Are you serious?"
Gyles threaded his fingers into Takaba's and kissed the ring, "I'm always serious when it comes to you."
Takaba's eyes were fixed on ring where Gyles' lips rested, "I… I don't know what to say."
Say you love me, Sei. Say you love me, my love.
"You don't have to say anything."
Their lips were closing in when the Gyles' cellphone ring shattered the moment, destroying the silence. Takaba raised himself slowly from Gyles' lap, half closing his eyes as he pulled himself off.
"Gyles Tennison here, who am I speaking to?"
Takaba picked up his clothes and began dressing again as Gyles stood up and zipped up his pants, holding the cellphone with his shoulder.
"Yes, I do remember, Mr. Carthen. Tonight?" he glanced at Takaba who was now pulling his jeans halfway up his legs, "I'm afraid tonight… I have a rather special occasion that I cannot miss."
Takaba looked up, surprised. Gyles winked at him and turned around.
"Tomorrow afternoon? That'd be fine. Three o'clock, it is. You do know the directions to the office, I presume? Perfect." He closed the phone and faced Takaba, who was looking at him, holding his shirt in his hands with a guilty look on his face.
"You really didn't have to…"
"What, you don't want to spend out anniversary together?" he teased, caressing Takaba's cheek with the back of his fingers.
"That's not what I-"
"Shhh… I know," he pressed his lips to Takaba's forehead.
"What are you planning though?"
"It's a secret."
"Oh, come on. It can't stay a secret for very long."
"I want to you to anticipate."
Gyles was unbuttoning his shirt when Takaba looked again, "Did I mess up your shirt?"
"Don't worry about it. I keep a spare around." And sure enough, he opened the bottom drawer under his desk and produced a white button down, neatly folded. He shook it open and slipped his strong arms into the long sleeves.
Even so, Takaba wore a guilty expression that Gyles quickly erased with an unexpected kiss, sweeping his young lover into a light embrace, Takaba leaning back over the desk.
"I should get going now." He slipped from the embrace and walked around the desk, collecting his coat from the hook on the wall.
"Alright. Come to my place at eight."
"I won't be late."
Takaba pushed the stiff door to his apartment open; the carpenters had done an awful job fitting it in, whoever they were. He hung his coat, wet and soggy from the melted snow, on the stand and slipped off his shoes and kicked them into a corner. He had about six days to get five good shots.
In Tokyo, that probably wouldn't have been a problem, but his line of work in London was entirely different. It wasn't about getting the content anymore. It was about how he captured the content, and some of that change had leaked into his personality. He headed into the bathroom to wash his face, feeling particularly gloomy despite the ring on his finger.
Maybe it was the ring that had him so pensive… He fingered the cold metal with his thumb. It had taken him by surprise. Such a concrete, tangible show of commitment.
Asami… would Asami have done that? Could that kind of man show anything more than the carnal attractions that beasts felt? He smirked at himself.
You fool, Akihito, you disillusioned fool…
Flicking on the lights, he hardly recognized himself in the mirror. The food wasn't all that bad considering what he'd heard of London food, but it wasn't what he was accustomed to by any means. Too lazy and busy to cook, he forced himself to swallow the foreign food every meal, and two years of it had taken a toll on him.
He was visibly thinner. He could tell from the way his cheeks sucked in just a bit more than it used to. His pants were looser around his waist, his belt went a couple loops smaller, and his shirts felt a tiny bit big around his torso. In physical terms, however, his hair was probably the most notable change of all. Black. The vibrant chestnut had been absorbed into a void of black. Besides, the hair dressers in London could never get the color right anyway.
But it was the internal change that shocked him the most. He still tortured himself over Asami at night and had taken to taking sleeping pills when it was especially bad; he hid the pills from Gyles. There was no tossing and turning, just a blank stare at the ceiling (which had neon stars glued to it by some kid that probably lived there before). As his mind relived his days in Tokyo, the neon green swirled above him, spiraling like a mutant Milky Way. He woke up twice, three times a night for no reason at all and cried himself back to sleep when he was alone.
He still did find himself in rather risky situations though. Gyles was vehemently against Takaba going to some of the places he did: Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, Israel, Lebanon, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Cuba. It was compensation. He couldn't let go of the rush he had grown accustomed to in Tokyo. He spent several months in Iraq, following a group of US soldiers.
Takaba fingered the scar that ran from back of his shoulder to his collarbone, a momento from an IED that had gone off when the convoy he was in tripped a branch wire. The driver, a twenty year old from Iowa, or was that Ohio, he could never remember, died almost instantly, shrapnel imbedded into his jaw and skull, snapping the artery that led up to the brain.
Pushing the bloody memory aside, Takaba opened the cabinet and dug through the bottles of shaving cream and aftershave, the mouthwash and lotions, until he found the small yellow bottle he was looking for.
The inside contents were prescription drugs for those migraines, those awful headaches, that had started two years ago.
The headaches started out slow, at first just light throbbing at the temples, and he had coped with small doses of Aspirin. Then those lost their effectiveness and the pain grew more frequent and more intense. He upped the ante to Tylenol. Then Vanquish, a combination of Aspirin and Tylenol. Those became close to useless and redundant and he began taking Aleve, which wasn't even really for headaches to begin with, hoping to make the intense agony in his skulls ebb even just a little bit. He probably had tried and thrown out every over-the-counter drug anyone could think of
Finally, he couldn't take the pain anymore and went to a doctor, who prescribed him Frionol. It had almost no effect what so ever. And now he was finally at Amerge, which only helped relieve his momentary pain, but for Takaba, it was enough. Pragmatic solutions were sufficient.
He popped open the cap and with his other hand, let the water run into the sink. It was probably unwise to use the tap water, but he swallowed the white, beret shaped pill with it.
It left a bitter, acrid aftertaste in his mouth.
Takaba splashed his face and stared at the water spiral down, gurgling as it emptied into the pipes. Drips fell from the tip of his nose and he watched the ripples be engulfed into the tiny whirlpool. Exhaling softly, he closed the cabinet, shoving the cylindrical bottle into his jean pockets.
Takaba treaded softly into a spare room that he used as a darkroom. The smell of fixer was especially concentrated here. Gyles had reprimanded him for keeping a darkroom in his own apartment, listing off the possible bodily harm these chemicals could do him, even offering him a developing studio he could use near the gallery, but this was just the way Takaba did things.
The windows were covered with a thick, black panel and near the door was a black curtain that ran from floor to ceiling. The clear bulbs were replaced with red ones that shone sinisterly as Takaba flipped the switch on. They were ruby, demon eyes that watched him watching from the ceiling.
It was out of "fashion," he knew, to still have a makeshift darkroom in his own home. Many of his colleagues, both in Tokyo and London, switched to digital or used professional, but Takaba was stubborn about the darkroom. It made his apartment feel… real. Not just a figment of his twisted imagination.
His camera was still where he had left it, and he picked it up, along with the bag with the extra films and canisters. With another six or seven hours before heading to Gyles' place, he might as well take Gyles' advice and try his luck in urban London.
He flicked off the red light, shutting the door tight so that the smell wouldn't diffuse through the entire apartment, and picked up his coat again. He planned on trying out the more run down parts of town. Everywhere else looked like pictures from a tourist guide book, certainly not the kind of photo that Takaba was in for.
When he stepped outside, snow was still floating down gently from the cloudy sky. He couldn't help but be reminded of the sakura blooms in spring when a breeze shook them from their fragile branches. The snow covered signs and trees looked oddly like frozen versions of immature sakura trees in full bloom, and he couldn't help but wonder, did Asami ever took the time to enjoy those?
Probably not, he was usually too busy riding in his BMW with a cell phone glued to his ears.
Takaba sighed as the growing layer of snow crunched beneath his feet. It was… agonizing. Everything reminded him of something else, which led to another memory and so on until his mind strayed to Asami again. Every line and shape and plane in the complex geometry of his conscience spiraled down into a single point, Asami.
And that single point was deteriorating, tearing Takaba's frail sanity to bits and piece. His mind was a cloth with frayed edges, threads pulled at and shredded. He was a skyscraper built of fragile glass and stubborn steel; and his foundation was crumbling.
Asami…What ever was I to you…
Asami drew in another lungful of smoke.
Ha. If Akihito were here, he would-
He crushed the tip of cigarette into the ashtray, extinguishing both the glowing edge and the thought.
A bitter laugh escaped his lips and seeped into the cold walls that never listened. Was he still obsessed over a boy? Two years, he thought as he looked down at the same Tokyo conglomerate that Takaba probably saw as his plane took off.
The city itself was cancer; too many neon signs, too many concrete buildings, asphalt highways, people, all growing out of control, rising from the dead and polluted soil asphyxiated with cement and landfills.
And perhaps he was cancer to Akihito. Perhaps that was why Takaba had left him. He probably couldn't stand to be invaded inside out.
For a year he had searched for Takaba, taking up any leads he could but coming up dry every time. It was like digging wells after wells in the desert. Any drop of hope that fell quickly evaporated into the dry, arid atmosphere that surrounded Asami. If anyone, Asami should have been able to find that one person in a world of 6.7 billion. With Takaba's indiscreet nature, he had expected the search to be easy, but it was as though the boy had left Earth altogether, disappeared beyond the stratosphere into the vacuum of outer space.
The apartment where Takaba used to live was eventually leased out again by a trio of college students, his job position quickly replaced with other petty photographers, none with his passion for the profession or his grace, both internal and external, and his friends gave up on the idea of his return.
What is anyone to do when a person completely detaches himself from his previous life? Takaba had even frozen all his previous emails, cut off contact absolutely and completely. He might as well have been dead to the world, at least to Asami's world. Takaba might as well have never "happened" in this world, a forgotten event, an unremarkable genocide.
Afterwards, Asami went through multiple "lovers" quickly and efficiently, but never quite found the same fire, the same heat. They were empty boxes he opened each and every time with disappointment. He quickly grew disillusioned at the failures.
The luster did not exist. The hunger and the thirst and the yearning were never quenched, never fulfilled, never relieved, and eventually, Asami cut his "love" life, if it could even be called that, into pieces, burnt it up on a funeral pyre, and resorted to quick fucks on random occasions. But these did not bring him over the edge.
They were only the short lived lust and immature infatuations unfit to last.
Asami crushed the box of cigarettes and threw them into the trash bin; he would probably buy another packet in the streets but it was ritual to him, the way he extinguished Akihito from his mind.
What have you done to me, Akihito?
Takaba glanced at his watch, seven forty-five. Shit… he had fifteen minutes to jump metros and make it to Gyles' house. That is, he had to get to a metro station first. The day of shooting had gone fairly well; perhaps taking Gyles' advice of putting London through his viewfinder had been a good idea. Although, his ears, nose, and fingers felt like they were going to break off any minute now, like icicles attached to his numb body.
Too bloody cold…
Gyles, on the other hand, was probably not going to be so delighted about the photos. Not over the quality but more over the content…rather, the location. Takaba intentionally sought out the most notorious neighborhoods he could think of, even going as far east London as possible… Oh well, as long as he got his five shots.
Takaba buried his hands in the front pocket of his coat, shivering as he made his way down the rather gloomy, winter street. Maybe he should call Gyles and tell him he might end up arriving a bit late; the man had a habit of completely psyching himself out when Takaba went "missing" as he called it. In that respect, he was somewhat like Asami. That is, in a strange, twisted way.
The two men, personality wise, couldn't be anymore different. Even angels and demons couldn't par up to these two in terms of differences.
Takaba reached into his pockets for the cellphone and… empty. Huh, that's funny. The other pocket. Nope, not there either. Just the cylindrical container with his pills. Now, just why did he have that thing in there? He frowned, probably shouldn't let Gyles see that; the man would no doubt flip out. He rummaged through his camera bag and came up empty handed. No cellphone.
Crap, did I drop it while taking photos?
Takaba began walking faster; he would just have to hurry then.
That was the plan, at least until he heard shouting ahead in an alley up ahead, mostly likely a fight of some sort. He looked around the corner and saw four men pretty much pummeling one other, who was doubled over in the snow, blood staining the pure whiteness, melting it with the victim's heat.
One of the men turned around, large and buff with short blond hair, a good head and half taller than Takaba. There was a wicked, cruel grin across his face, "You got a problem, kid?"
"You're gonna end up killing him if you keep that up," Takaba jerked his chin up at the crippled man on the ground, who was tight roping between consciousness and unconsciousness.
"This is your friend?"
"No." By now the other three men had turned their attention from their human punching bag and focused it on Takaba. Heh. Kind of reminded him of his days in Tokyo. Being a reckless idiot.
"Listen to this kid, he's pretty interesting, eh?" it seemed the blond was the leader of the pack. "Let's wipe that smirk off his face, shall we?" He lunged at Takaba, aiming a punch at the stomach, but Takaba was faster. He pivoted his right foot into the snow and turned to his left a full 360 degrees. It was the adrenaline again. God, how long had it been since he'd been in this kind of situation? The clenched fist flew past him slow motion, and the rustle of fabric amplified into imaginary speakers. He wasn't given much time to think though when the blond turned on him.
"Think that's funny?"
Well, actually, no. He didn't. "Um…Not really, no."
That seemed to piss off the man even more. Takaba winced at his own mistake. Four against one. He was probably going to end up like the man on the ground himself for sticking his head into someone else's business. And… just his luck, he'd lost his cellphone.
But, wasn't this kind of how he'd met Asami? Sniffing around where his nose where he didn't belong? Well, maybe being an idiot did have its advantages. But certainly not now.
You just never learn, do you, Aki?
The others were closing in on him, and at this point, he could probably run and outrun them, and… he glanced to his side again. Maybe not. His path to the main street was nearly blocked already. As a matter of fact, the short man to his left was already launching himself at Takaba. He responded by shifting to his right, where another caught him roughly by the neck, chocking him, and rammed his knees into Takaba's side.
"You gonna learn to keep out of other's business after this?"
Oddly enough, the pain was dull, suppressed for the duration. The blond flipped out a knife and held it at Takaba's face. The other two had let go him now, standing at a short distance. Takaba began laughing softly, his shoulders gently shaking from trying to hold back laughter.
"Is that a yes or no?"
Takaba grinned as he looked up, his lips twisted.
"You insane or something, kid?"
"Maybe I am." Takaba picked up his leg and kicked down at the blond's knee, snapping the man's joint back with a loud crack. Ouch. The knife came at him though and tore through the sleeve of his arm, ripping the fabric with and through flesh. But Takaba didn't even notice it.
He simply lunged to his left and managed to get about four steps far when a shorter man grabbed at him. He twisted his body away, an agile swift turn possible only with his lithe, nimble form, and quickly regained his balance to make it into the street.
And run he did. That was what he was best at, wasn't it? Running away with his tail between his legs. The way he ran from Japan, on a winter day just like this one. Except, there wasn't any snow that night, was there? Just the cold, biting wind that he felt now as he raced down the empty streets, three men in his pursuit. His throat stung from the cold air that coursed through it with every breath he took, stripping away at the moist mucus.
Aki, you fucking idiot.
He skidded around a corner, using a sign pole to help him change directions, the momentum carrying him through the swift turn. Random memories flew before his vision, just like the shop windows that he ran past, frame by frame like an antique film, jagged and crude swerves down his memory lane.
He spotted the stairwell down to a metro station up ahead. He understood now why the neighborhood was marked as "notorious"; there just weren't any people to help you out.
Takaba jumped onto the railed and slid his way down, flying over the last few steps. The doors to the metro were still open, just about to close. He blindly lunged at the closest door and crashed inside into an empty compartment. The doors closed with a hiss and a sigh behind him, and he looked up to see the three men arriving onto the platform, cursing.
Takaba sank down against a pole. He was still in considerably good shape considering how much his physical condition had deteriorated compared to his days in Japan. Or maybe it was just the adrenaline making him do strange thing. Chases tended to do that to him.
He looked at his camera bag; somehow, it had managed to stay with him through the ruckus. The sight of it made him smile. Maybe it had been worse it; he would see.
The floor of the compartment shook in regular rhythm like his own heart beat, which had finally settled down to a steady beat. Takaba glanced at the painful buzz in his left arm where the bleeding was just barely starting to coagulate. Nothing life threatening but…
Huh. Since when did I have a cut?
The hell with it. Time. Four past eight.
Gyles watched the long hand pass the fifteen minute mark. He couldn't help but be anxious. It wasn't that he obsessed over punctuality. Rather, it was that, despite being young, his lover was extremely exact with his time, almost never being late. In fact, he could only think of two occasions when he was late, today being the second one.
Given that, he couldn't help but be concerned when Takaba failed to show up at eight. Then five past eight. Ten past eight. He tried again and again to reach the cell phone but all it did was ring and ring but never pick up, just the same old "You've reached Sei Tanaka. Leave your name and phone number and…" over and over again. Gyles tried the apartment number but came up with more or less the same response.
He was planning on taking him out that night to a particular restaurant. The reservation was set for nine and so far, the boy hadn't shown. Gyles' best bet was that he had probably gone out to take photos around London, and now, he wished he had never given that piece of advice.
Gyles dashed to the door when he heard the soft knock.
"Where have you-" His eyes widened in shock, "My God! What happened to you?" He took the bag from Takaba and set it aside, ushering him inside.
Takaba let Gyles pull him out of his coat, slipping off the sleeves, "Some trouble…"
He pushed Takaba through the living room toward the bathroom, "Well never mind that. Let's get this taken care of first, Sei…"
In the bathroom, he turned on the hot water tap and let the water run until he had a good, warm combination. "Clean the area around it first," he said as he took out a first aid kit from on top of a metal rack.
Takaba put his arm under the running water. The heat made his cold fingers tingle in warm delight, but it was countered with the stinging as the hot water seeped into the wound.
"I didn't say wet it."
"Oh…" Takaba drew his arm back away from the wound.
Gyles flipped open the latch to the box, "What were you doing?"
"Taking photos…" he murmured like a child being castigated.
"That's not all you were doing," Gyles turned around to see Takaba just standing there with his hand under the water, "You have to wash around it, else it'll get infected if there's still grit and dirt."
"It's just a shallow cut." It was partly true; the fabric had kept the blade from penetrating very far.
"It doesn't matter if it's shallow or not. If it were any worse, I would have taken you to the hospital to get some stitches. Sei, you've got to look out for yourself more." His large, gentle hands moved over Takaba's arm, gently rubbing away at the dried blood and the dirt. When Takaba drew in a sharp breath, Gyles paused before continuing. He finally turned the faucet off and shook his hands dry.
Takaba reached for a towel, but Gyles' stopped him, carefully wiping the water away with a new, white towel.
"Does it hurt?"
"I didn't even know it was there until I got off on the metro."
"Just what were you doing?" He took a ball of cotton and wet it with hydrogen peroxide. "This is gonna sting."
"I provoked a bunch of thugs." Takaba winced at the liquid was spread around the wound. It bubbled and foamed vigorously.
"And why would you do that?" Gyles applied a pale yellow antibacterial ointment and a strip of gauze over the wound. "try to moving your fingers and wrists first."
He did as he was told and flexed his fingers and turned his wrist, "They were beating up a guy."
"I see. It should heal without any permanent damage except for a scar." That makes sense. You would never leave someone like that, would you? It's just not in you to turn a blind eye to thing. "Why didn't you call though?"
"I… lost my phone…" Takaba covered his eyes with his free hand. The headaches that had been suppressed by the rush of adrenaline were surfacing again.
"Sei..." Gyles crouched in front of Takaba, "You don't have to do this. Don't put yourself in danger for a bunch of photos. Forget the camera, forget the films. Just forget the exhibition altogether for now. They don't matter."
"But they do." The headache… the drumming was getting louder and louder. Over the next hill. Another valley closer. Firecrackers lit up behind his eyes.
"No, Sei. They don't. What matters is you, alright? Don't forget that. That you alone are the centerpiece of my life."
Gyles, don't say that…please don't say that…
"I don't need masterpieces," a jagged signals of pain dashed across the synapses between every cell, firing away. "I don't need colors or black and white. I don't need anything else. The one thing I need, the only one I ever need, Sei, is-"
Takaba was shaking his head slowly, "Gyles…"
"The only person I will ever need is you. That's why, when you do this to yourself," whips were cracking on his ear drums. "when you put yourself in danger and end up hurting yourself, I can't help but-"
"Please…" don't say that, Gyles, don't say these things to me, because I'll break your heart, Gyles. Don't love me.
"want to reach out to you."
What had Asami said a long time ago…something about value… that's right…There is no such value in you… He was right, Gyles…he was right…There is no such value in me to deserve any part of you.
"Sei, just stay with me because I will stay with you. I'd go to the ends of the earth for you."
Not me, Gyles… It's not me…
"So tell me, what can I do? What can I do to make you feel my love?"
I feel it too much. Because it's not you… It's not you, it's me…Gyles, it's all me…
"Five minutes." Takaba whispered, holding his hands together into as tight of a possible, it was trembling, subtly, just barely.
"I just need five minutes alone," Takaba managed a meek smile, "I'll be right out after that."
"Are you sure…" Gyles sighed.
"Just five minutes, Gyles. I just need to…uh… I just need to pull myself together, okay?"
He stood and planted a light kiss on Takaba's damp hair, "I'll be in the living room if you need anything."
As soon as Gyles was out and the door closed, Takaba shoved his hands into his pocket. He had been hiding his trembling hands, which were shaking uncontrollably from the pain. He stood up slowly, the slowest movement jarring, and locked the door quietly, then turned on the lukewarm water, watching it spiral down into the pipes. The cylindrical container refused to stay still in his hands as he struggled to pop the lid open. The damn child-proof cap. It popped across the room when he finally managed to open with his short nails.
Another sharp stab of pain nearly blinded him as he shook out the pills. Most spilled out, except for a few that managed to stay on his trembling palm. 1mg, the doctor said right? He had said he could take up to 2 pills at once, the doctor had said… 2 mg… two pills… right… 2 mg… 2mg… just 2mg…
He swallowed them with the tap water and reached forward; the sound of the water draining was like hearing a thunderstorm storm between the two hemispheres of his brain. He sighed when the gurgling finally stopped. Like standing mid traffic with no signs, no lights. Everything out of order. Sequence destroying itself.
Takaba's hand knocked over the cup that was at the edge of the sink and it shattered. Shattered. A kaleidoscope of high pitched shrills resonated, ricocheting off the insides of his skulls.
"Sei? Sei! What's going on in there?" The door rattled. "Sei! Open the door! Sei!"
Shut up… shut up… shut up…
"Sei!" Gyles' voice added to the tornado of noise, all these extra, redundant noise… "Open the door!" The handle seemed to blur, magnifying then shrinking, in and out of focus. Fading in and out then suddenly too bright.
The parlor of the Englishman's mansion was luxurious and extravagant, decorated with wood and leather and fine taste. Glossy surfaces were polished to a shine just as the leather seats was carefully maintained without a single dry crack. The cream colored curtains that covered the tall windows had embroidered edges that shouted money as did fine paintings, some of which were supposedly missing from private collections. Asami smirked in amusement, art aficionados were just too interesting in his opinion.
"Scotch?" Mr.Merrett held up the crystal decanter, the light from the chandelier scattering onto the intricate patterns of the posh Persian rugs.
"Just a glass."
Naturally, they were there to discuss the future of their "business" together, the main topic of their conversation being drugs, both processed and raw. That and black market arms.
The UK drug market stemmed from the suppliers in South America, Africa, Middle East and Eastern Europe, jumped to strategic storage locations in Africa or Eastern Europe, smuggled through Spain and then scattered to the rest of Europe.
Just last week, one of their smugglings boats to Spain from Morocco had been seized by the border security, and with the UK's recent rise in the cocaine import, Mr. Merrett was keen on cementing ties with Asami, who had indirect but powerful key allies in the South Americas and the Middle East.
In this market, leverage was key.
Mr.Merrett sat before Asami in another plush recliner, pushing Asami's glass toward him.
"Ireland and Scotland are, most unfortunately, starting to raise their awareness of the increased drug activity. The government there has been quite difficult to deal with of late."
"But the sales nevertheless have been rising."
"True, but I was hoping to maintain that for a while."
"If all else fails, I believe that section has been milked quite for some time. For now, it would probably be best to tone down the sales in the area for a while and start preparing for a shift toward Eastern Europe. I leave that choice up to you. Spain, though, is essential still as a portal although I really would encourage you to open up the Netherlands route more if you plan to follow through with the shift."
"Well. The main problem is the Peruvians and Colombians have not been on good terms with our contacts in Nigeria, and along with Bolivia, those three are the key suppliers into Africa. But as you said, Eastern Europe is a very viable market."
Asami sighed. Just why was it that people didn't know how to keep a handle on their own suppliers?
"Nigeria is something you will have to cope with, I'm afraid, for many years to come. But what about the heroine import-export?"
"We're still building our trade relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan although Iran has been getting rather out of hand. Their heads are getting big with the whole nuclear crisis."
"Of course their ego's grown." What were you expecting? "They've been inflating it for the past few years." Asami could hardly hide his irritation at this man's incompetence. He wondered if the man even kept up with international politics at all.
"But I assure you, Mr. Asami, that the amphetamine and ecstasy routes with Poland and Czech Republic have been on the very fluid."
"But that's only within Europe. If you don't maintain your international, cross oceanic contacts, I'm afraid there is so much leverage I have over the South American countries." It was partly true, but in the long run… it was not so.
"Of course, I had no intention of letting those go to waste."
Asami smirked over his glass of scotch; perhaps this alliance might turn out better than he imagined. Mr. Merrett seemed like a man out to please at whatever cost, and such men were always easy to maneuver. After all, they wrapped around his fingers out of their own volition. As of now, he had a hold on the routes to Europe but few in Europe itself. He had purposely come almost a week in advance to personally deal with business, put the real, tangible faces to the men he dealt with on a regular basis.
The talk lasted another two hours before Mr. Merrett finally said, "But enough of the serious talk, Mr. Asami. Perhaps you would like to know what we have in store for the events?"
"Excellent. Next Monday afternoon, a photograph exhibit will open. Do you enjoy photography?"
Asami winced but quickly hid it nonchalant nod.
"Oh, good. He's a brilliant young man, the photographer that is. Monday evening, there is a special performance of Les Miserable, the musical. Do you fancy musicals, Mr. Asami?"
Do I "fancy" musicals…never really thought about that one. "I've attended a few."
"It's truly a work of art, I assure you." This man seemed to be assuring Asami of many things uncertain, and Asami raised an eyebrow. Mr. Merrett did not seem to notice the annoyance and carried on.
"The all-important dinner party is on Tuesday evening at the Ritz hotel, where you are staying. And last but not least, the London Symphony Orchestra will hold a concert on Thursday. If you wish, I can provide you with an excellent guide during the daytime."
"I'm quite sure I'll find my way through the city well enough." Asami had brought with him four of his men just for security measure.
"I see." The Englishman nodded curtly, "Well then, I believe we have everything in order by now. If there's anything else you need, feel free to contact me."
Like I need you to tell me that.
"Seamus, the butler, will lead to out."
Sure enough, the butler was standing outside the door with two of Asami's men. Asami was rather glad to leave; it had rather aggravating talking to the overly perky individual. The man was desperate to flatter.
He was led down the hallway, which was lined with stuffed heads of deer and antlers as well as old portrait paintings. Some people just had no sense of décor. Even Akihito could have had better sense than put antlers and portraits from the 18th century together.
There he went again, letting his thoughts stray to useless things. He had been doing that lately, sometimes sitting at his desk for hours lost in contemplations, most of his thoughts centered on Akihito. If he were the planets, Mars, Jupiter, Pluto…wait no, they took that one off the list…then Akihito was still the sun, sending out flares to scald him.
The fierce, golden eyes, the ferocious temper, the absolute and resolute stubbornness in the boy he could never forget. He had come to accept that part of Takaba's leaving had been his fault: eight months was a long time, and Takaba was not blessed with the virtue of patience.
There was little he could have done at the time.
Around the time that Akihito left, Tokyo underground probably had been at its worst. Unbeknownst to the upper world, several key players had been assassinated along with their families. It had been kept low-profiling, paying off the police to keep it hidden.
For better or for worse, Asami had had to tighten the reins on his pawns for six months. Control. It was all about control. Or so he had thought.
Had he been wrong? Did the leash he kept on Akihito snap from the tension, Akihito pulling to hard to one side, he to the other?
Asami chuckled at himself as the car rolled out of the mansion driveway.
Maybe that leash had gone the other way. The collar around him, control in Akihito's hand. Maybe Akihito had simply let go.
Asami leaned back and closed his eyes; no doubt he still craved Akihito. Akihito was a drug to him and still he suffered from withdrawal. He yearned to brush his hand through that chestnut hair, to caress the ivory skin, savor the smell of fixer and soap that mingled exquisitely.
Takaba sat at the edge of Gyles' bed, the mug warm in his cold hands. He watched the tea leaves stuck to the bottom of the empty cup, frozen in their dance as vapor still rose from it and swirled then disintegrated into the air, living its short lived existence.
Gyles was turning the empty pill bottle over and over in his hand with his thumb and index. A chair was pulled up so that he could sit face to face with Takaba. The silence was heavy and thick, dripping nervously like molasses.
He finally broke the silence with a dreaded question.
"When did it start?"
Takaba couldn't bring himself to face Gyles, too ashamed. "About… two years ago…" he licked his dry and cracked lips with the tip of his wet tongue, expecting some sort of blow-out from Gyles, but it didn't come.
"When you moved, right? To here, to London."
A subtle nod.
"And… the insomnia? Have you sleeping well lately?"
How… Takaba's eyes widened in shock as he raised his head. How had he known?
"Didn't think I would notice?"
He shook his head slowly…I never thought you'd be looking…
"I can't help but look at you, watch you. Everything subtle becomes frighteningly clear when you look as look as hard and as intensely as I do," he reached out and caressed Takaba's cheek, "and when I watch you dying from the inside like this… I can't…I can't just let it go…"
Dying from the inside… am I still dying? Didn't I do that a long time ago? No, Gyles… this is decay. I've been dead for so long…
"Just get some rest for now, alright?" Gyles stood up and put the chair back to its place.
Takaba didn't move from his position, the mug still clutched in his hand. "Gyles?"
He turned abruptly to see a pair of intense, fiery intense eyes looking up at him. They were too serious, too honest, too genuine to ignore.
"Sei…" he kneeled with one knee before Takaba and held him gingerly by the arms as if they might bruise if he held on too hard, "You don't have to-"
That's not it. I need to know for myself, Gyles… that I might have even the slightest chance of forgetting him…Revive me… bring me back…
"Kiss me. I want to know…"
If that's what you wish…Gyles' hand crept up behind Takaba's neck into the black strands of hair.
"As you wish, my love."
The empty mug dropped with a dull thud onto the wooden floor, rolling away to a slow stop.
The view outside of London was such a contrast to Tokyo's. The gray clouds had sunk and settled over the city, looming ominously over the white roof tops and unused chimneys, letting down a thin layer of white puffy flakes. Looking down, he could only see the tops of people's heads, brown, black, blond, red, and an occasional man rushing down the street with a briefcase, running like the rabbit in Alice's Wonderland, undoubtedly late for some important event.
Even in this weather, the view, the juxtaposition of the new and the old structures was breathtaking. Here, concrete monsters did not compete for height; it was not a civilized rainforest, each and every steel and glassy structure striving toward the canopy for superiority and sunlight, overshadowing all else. Here, buildings were a function of both aesthetics and function.
From where he stood near the balcony, a trail of watery footsteps could be traced back to the bathroom. A large white towel was wrapped around his waist, revealing a body that was sculpted beyond perfection. Michelangelo would have risen from his grave to see this particular specimen. The deltoids of his shoulders, the triceps and the biceps of his arms, his pectorals of his chest, the obliques and even the ridges across his abdomen, they were all defined, firm, and taut, steel cables disguised under human skin.
Asami finished what was left of his conversation and hung up, wiping the cellphone, which was wet from his ears, on the towel wrapped around his waist.
Tokyo was still Tokyo; minor events could be handled with or without his presence. He trusted his men to be capable enough.
He took one last look at the view outside before tossing the phone onto the plush bed. The covers were twisted and tangled, evidence of a hectic sleeping pattern. And to think that he used to sleep so well before. Nowadays Asami forced himself to sleep, inducing it with heavy exercise during the day. He refused to resort to "unnatural" means, as he liked to call them.
The suite was decorated in the heavy Louis XVI style, antique furniture with gold leaves and embroidered yellow and peach curtains that hung lavishly, held aside with plaited cords. He wasn't particularly fond of such traditional luxuries (they cluttered the room in his opinion), leaning more toward the modern, contemporary styles, but it didn't really matter. It was the service, the staff per guest ratio, that counted. Sometimes, it was having the right men under you that mattered.
Asami walked into the closet. Some of the clothes were hanging in plastic bags on wooden hangers, unopened since its arrival from the dry-cleaners. He picked out a pair of clean, pressed black pants, no need to look fancy for the photograph exhibit in the afternoon. He pulled the leather belt through the loops, almost missing the loop behind his back but catching before he made a fool of himself. It would not do to ridicule himself with such trivial matters.
There was not a single wrinkle on the clean white shirt, the collars stiff and straight as he buttoned it downwards. Meanwhile, he went through the day's plan. First, he had a morning conference with two high ranking members of the Met; it was always useful to have allies in the police force. At noon, he had lunch with some up and coming politician who had influence over some of the back and forth movement between England and Spain. Afterwards, he would head to the photo gallery. It wasn't a hectic schedule, much more relaxed than in Tokyo. To Asami, this could very well be considered more of a vacation than a business trip.
He tucked in the shirt and fished out a pair of black socks from the drawers and picked out a pair of polished black shoes. It was really pointless if one thought about it. The snow would probably ruin them regardless of how shiny they were. He picked out a black tie and without a mirror, fixed it with his experienced, expert hands then slipped on his vest and over that, the holster. Rather safe than sorry. He unhooked the hangers with the jacket and coat and tossed them on the bed. He didn't need them for now at least.
There was a knock on his door. Morning service he guessed but checked anyway, peering through the hole. A hotel employee was waiting with a tray. Ah, that's right. His breakfast.
Asami opened the door.
"Your breakfast, sir." Like I couldn't figure that one out. "Where would you like me to leave it?"
"On the table would be fine."
The employee did as he was told and added, "The papers you requested are also on the table."
You'd better hope they are.
"Enjoy the meal, sir."
When the door had closed, Asami glanced at the tray; no grapefruit. They always forgot the grapefruit somehow. And this was supposed to be a five-star hotel. What a joke. They probably didn't realize that missing some details could get you killed. At least in his world. Either that or go bankrupt.
Asami sat down to eat. It should have tasted superb, knowing the standards of the hotel, but it tasted dry and bitter in his mouth as if he were eating paper and cardboard boxes. He was tempted to just leave it but forced himself to swallow, one could not go without his supplements.
You're no child, Ryuichi, shut up and eat.
With his freehand, he shook open the newspaper. International Herald Tribune, The Times, Wall Street Journal to name a few, Asami flew through the stack, soaking in the day's news. If one couldn't keep up with the world, one fell behind.
With the breakfast finished and papers read, at least the relevant articles, he called up his men as he slipped on the jacket and coat.
"Good morning, sir."
"And to you, Kato." He replied dryly, "Is everyone ready?"
"Yes, sir. We're waiting at the end of the hallway, sir."
He flipped the phone off and walked around the bed to where the pillow was. Reaching under, he felt for the cold plastic and metal. The pistol was loaded, the safety in place so that it wouldn't accidentally go off. Nevertheless, it took Asami a split second to draw, unlock, and fire the weapon.
It slid in easily under his arm, as if it belonged there near its master and owner. He had grown accustomed to it, the subtle bulkiness. It was reassuring. Comforting. It had been nearly twenty years now since he first began this daily tradition.
It was good to have bodyguards, but self-protection was more than just a decoration. It was essential. Besides, he garnered more respect from his own men this way.
Asami clicked the cellphone into its belt compartment and slid his arms into the coat as he made his way out of the hotel room.
Strong arms were wrapped around his naked body, curled around his chest and stomach. He could hear the deep, regular breathing, hot air blowing down his hair and neck with every exhale, followed with a tickling sensation.
He was growing too accustomed to this, waking up with another warm body in bed. And he was afraid of it, terrified that one day he might wake up and there would be nothing beside him. Carefully, he lifted Gyles' limp arm, holding the wrist with the tips of his fingers.
The exhibit was today.
Suddenly, the arms wrapped tighter around him, trapping him into the hot chest against his back.
"You…" Takaba looked back to see Gyles with a grin on his face. "I have to get ready."
"Stay in bed, Sei."
"But-" A gentle kiss melted the protest. When the kiss finally broke, Takaba pouted, "That's cheating."
Gyles' body shook with a chuckle, as his lips began moving down. Down the groove on his neck, to the nape, to the shoulders. "I never play fair."
"Stop!" Takaba grabbed a pillow and wedged it between him and Gyles, snaking out of the embrace. He stuck out his tongue as he clamored out of bed, a bit sad to leave the warm spot. "I have to take a shower and get ready."
Gyles climbed out of bed, stretching his stiff body, "Make sure you dry your hair afterwards."
"I know." Takaba answered as he closed the bathroom door. There was a full length, floor to ceiling mirror on one wall of the bathroom, and he always avoided looking at it. He was afraid to meet eyes with that identical stranger he saw, copying his moves, mocking him endlessly for his cowardice, and so, he purposely averted his eyes, staring down at the tiles that felt icy on the soles of his feet. The sight of himself, the changes he saw, sickened him at times.
Who are you…
Quickly, to distract himself, Takaba stepped let the water run, not waiting for the temperature to adjust. Inhaling sharply as the cold water washed over his body, he waited for the water to warm gradually. His skin prickled when the hot water ran over the cold skin, steam and vapor quickly filling the bathroom, fogging the dreaded mirror, erasing the foreign and unrecognizable figure that he knew was his reflection. He was glad when he no longer had to see himself in his peripheral vision.
Gyles listened to the sound of the running shower as he rummaged through the closet, going through some of his shirts. His lover had been complacent enough to come of the past few days and sleep over for the nights. He had even gone to the doctor together to get his prescription filled out again, having spilled all the pills.
The doctor didn't say much, but the pity in his eyes for the young Asian man was clear and evident. The conversation had gone something like "Mr. Tanaka… do you need a psychiatrist? Because-"
At the mere suggestion, Takaba had stormed out of the office, fuming with indignation. How dare he? That's what must have cross his mind. Gyles apologized as he rushed out to follow his rather upset lover. The ride home had been…awful, for lack of a better word. Gyles replayed with episode in his mind with a sigh, fishing out a pinstripe suit from the rows of clothing.
What am I to do with you…
Takaba glanced at his watch, the same one he had since long before his escape. It was the only article on him that spoke of distance days, a link to the past he had only half buried. He was running a last minute round through the exhibit, making sure everything was in order, the lighting, the positions. He would go home to change into a fresh set of clothes before lunch and come back by metro for the exhibit. He hadn't planned on attending, but Gyles had convinced him, saying it might be good for him.
This wasn't his first solo exhibit by any means, but for some odd reason, he was nervous as a rookie batter would be going up to the mat. He always was. His intestines felt tangled in his gut, butterflies colliding against the walls of his stomach. In the morning, Takaba had purposely skipped breakfast; there was good reason for it. His past experiences had not been so pleasant.
The five photos that he needed, he had chosen from the stacks and stacks of photos from Japan, thin negatives strips stored away in the many binders that lined the shelves of his darkroom. It had taken hours upon hours to sort through all the snapshots, trying to find adequate ones.
They brought back memories of his stakeouts, the escapes, the chases, and most of all, Asami. He thought he had thrown out all his pictures, but there was one left. Asami's face wasn't even in it, in fact.
The man's back was turned to the camera, and he was standing at a train platform while everyone else moved around him. Takaba cried when he recognized the negative, even in its distorted color and image, and realized that it was no doubt Asami and a very lonely one at that. The broad back, the slicked back hair, the confident, fearless stance. The figure was too perfect, too pristine to be anyone else. It screamed of prestige.
Takaba recognized it by instinct and intuition. Just as one beast knows when another has stepped into his territory.
And only Takaba knew the true significance of the photograph as he looked up at it, hung up against the white gallery wall, titled, "Nostalgia."
The morning conference had been an absolute disaster considering how inexperienced the two counterparts had been, despite their rank. Apparently, they seemed to think that they were the ones with leverage, not Asami, a notion that Asami quickly shattered thirty minutes into the conversation. Evidently, having the home field didn't do much to help these two blockheads. To quote their ignorance, "How much influence could you possibly have all the way from Japan?" Asami had had to remind them that it was the twenty-first century and that, although personal, geographical proximity certainly had a place in business, that pretty much the entire world was wired together now.
Honestly, these Londoners…
The lunch with the young politician had not gone much better. Rather, it was probably one of the most frustrating and aggravating experience that Asami had had in a very, very, very long time; the fellow had an inflated head with an overgrown sense of ego and unjustified confidence. It was nice to be confident, but there came a point when it simply had to stop. The fool. He may have had access to some of the routes, but with his so far young political career, he came nowhere near Asami in terms of influence, but the idiot didn't seem to recognize that crucial fact. It took the entire meal to pop the thick bubble and overall, nothing productive came out of it, and there was nothing more frustrating to Asami then unproductiveness and inefficiency. Asami left the restaurant rubbing his temples from the sheer frustration at having to talk to idiots for hours on hours. He found it more than difficult to communicate with people of such low intelligent.
He was glad to be going somewhere quiet, although he wasn't quite sure what to expect from a photography exhibit. For the past two years, he has both intentionally and subconsciously avoided anything that brought back memories of Akihito. Going to a photography exhibit, Asami almost feared that he might be reminded too much.
Takaba watched the lights go by in the dark tunnel of the metro, taking comfort in the rhythmic rocking as he sat quietly, unmoving. He had missed five stops in his daze and was having to ride back to the station where he would transit onto another line to get to the gallery.
A psychiatrist…what does he think I am, insane?
But Takaba knew that the doctor was right to an extent. He hated himself for it, that he relied on pills to ease the headaches, and that the bulge deep in his jean pockets where the yellow, translucent container was comforted him. He wasn't addicted to the medicine or anything, but without it, the headaches were unbearable.
But still… a psychiatrist…that was pushing it.
The insomnia was improving though with the help of Gyles. That was the first night, in their entire year of relationship that Takaba slept over at Gyles' house. Gyles had on special occasions stayed at Takaba's, but it was never the other way around before. Even after making love, Takaba would get up, get dressed, and go back home.
Why did I do that…
It was cruel of him to have left like that every time. Even that Monday night, he was prepared to leave, despite being both physically and mentally drained and exhausted. That is, until Gyles convinced him to sleep the night.
At first, it angered him for some reason, the fact that Gyles should ask him to stay. Then Gyles asked him, "Why not? Why won't you stay?" and Takaba wondered really, why won't I… and realized… "I don't know, Gyles. I don't know."
They argued after that. Full-fledged shouting at the top of their lungs argued.
"Why won't you stay with me for one night? Do you know what you're going to do when you get home?" Gyles threw up his hands in frustration, "Do you? Because I know. You're gonna sit up all night, staring at those bloody neon stars on the ceiling and cry yourself to sleep and wake up two hours later and do it all. Fucking. Over again!"
"So what if I do? What's it matter to you whether I stare at neon stars or not?!"
"What's it matter to me? What's it matter to me? Sei, my love, it's everything to me! You're everything to me!"
"Then let me go home! Why won't you just let me go?"
"And watch you slowly kill yourself?! You're asking me to watch you die?! How can you possibly ask that of a lover, Sei?!! How am I supposed to stand here and do nothing while you edge closer and closer to the goddamned cliff? You're poisoning yourself, Sei. Do you not realize that? You're shooting venom into your veins and you don't even realize it! You're deteriorating right before my eyes and you won't let me help you!"
"I'm already dead, Gyles! Look at me!" Takaba could still feel the heat of Gyles' cheeks in his hands when he had held Gyles' face. "Look at me! This is decay! This is calling rotting! I've been dead! And I can't remember the last time my heart was beating."
"Then let me help you! Let me revive you! I would go to the underworld and back to bring you back, Sei! "
"Why would you do that? Why would you? For someone like me!"
"Why? WHY? Sei! Look at yourself! Listen to yourself and realize how you sound, how you look! Then you might understand! THEN you might understand why."
"I saw myself today, Gyles," he had pointed to the bathroom where the mirror was, "I saw myself and I've seen myself and you know what? It's not ME anymore. My reflections aren't me anymore! What can I do when I see a ghost of myself, a phantom, a vague… silhouette! I look into a mirror every goddamn morning and what I see is a mockery of what I used to be! My reflections are mocking me! Do you understand? They might copy, they might move the way I do, but they're… they're like… caricatures or something!"
"Just…" he was exhausted then, "I'm going home…"
"Sei, you can't even walk straight…" Gyles was walking towards him.
"Stay back, don't. Oh don't, Gyles… just let me be." He had pushed Gyles away then. Fought him. Fought him until Gyles pinned him to the wall and sealed his mouth with a hot kiss. And when that kiss broke, Takaba fell to his knees sobbing, Gyles holding him close. He cried that night like he'd never cried before, until his eyes refused to weep but his mind continued, shaking his body with hiccups and sobs that didn't cease until Gyles put him to bed.
That was the night when his walls had begun to crumble, when the cracks began to form.
Since that night, he had slept at Gyle's place every night but not necessarily making love. There was such a difference between him and Asami. Takaba had expected to have sex every night, but Gyles let him be, never initiating it unless Takaba showed the very subtle signs that he wanted it; it didn't have to be anything explicit. Gyles read him like a billboard sign, and nothing escaped his senses. It was then that Takaba had realized, wait a second…it's up to me?
The metro hissed to a stop.
Perhaps it was for all the frustration that Asami found the gallery to be a refuge and break from the day-long irritation. The place was quiet and calm, with people spaced out across the wide area, whispering among themselves about the photographs. The exhibition hall was essentially designed like a simple labyrinth, thin walls protruding from the real ones to provide more surface area for the photos. The ceiling was high, and footsteps and whispers echoed like secrets whispered behind sheer curtains.
Mr. Merrett had been right about the photograph exhibit; it was brilliant.
Brilliant and… familiar...
Nostalgic, if he were to put a word to it.
He recalled seeing some of Akihito's random photographs in that cramped apartment, the ones that Akihito called "useless." And essentially, they were considering his career at that time. At first, Asami had thought that they belonged to someone else. The photographer he knew in Akihito prior to the discovery had been a nosy scoop chaser, not exactly the ideal artist.
But alas, Akihito lived up to his name of highest honor photojournalism graduate, and Asami had wondered if Akihito wasn't wasting his talent chasing old politicians that couldn't tell the difference between women, drugs, and guns.
These photos were uncannily similar, and walking through the exhibit was like stepping into what might have been Akihito's mind. He had never had the chance to do that.
Except… these photographs…were more sinister.
Tenebrous like death.
There were photographs he was sure he had seen before. Perhaps not physically, not in the tangible reality, but there was a sense of déjà vu when he stared into the black and white prints, as if he should remember the locations and the events portrayed, but he couldn't. They taunted him.
Every image was dark and passionate and spoke for the artist that had taken them. To the photographer, looking through the viewfinder was a secret way of lovemaking. Capturing the image was the climax. And the last process of developing, that was resolution, the catharsis of a Greek tragedy. The photographs were civilized and raw, contradictions in and of itself, fragile and damaged. Everything clashed.
Such fierce contradictions.
It was as though the photographer was screaming blasphemy at the world, denouncing religion, denouncing government, denouncing everything just for the sake of denouncing. The same kind of internal conflict that Akihito used to show when making love, resisting for the sake of resisting.
Making love… is that what we were doing back then? Or was it just carnal satisfaction…
The tiny cards next to the photos revealed where they were taken, and so far, Asami was rather impressed at the extent the photographer had gone to capture such images. Sudan, Iraq, the Gaza strip, Lebanon. The grit and dirt. Not many would have spared the trouble.
But Akihito, you would have, wouldn't you?
There was no mention of the photographer's name or identity anywhere.
Asami made his way through the exhibit, carefully examining the photographs, dissecting them to the last element, a full-fledged autopsy, and putting them together, piece by piece. He didn't realize it, but he was trying to see Akihito in them, to find a cell, one strand of artistic DNA, that spoke of his lost lover.
There was one particular photo of two Muslim women, leaning over merchandise in an open market, neither aware of each other while standing nearly back to back. One wore a full-fledge burka, all covered except for dark, expressive eyes. The other, on the other hand, was wearing a long cloth skirt and a sleeveless shirt. Her hair was let loose and free-flowing like her spirit, refusing to die down as dusty wind threw the dark strands about, swirling around her young face; she was glancing sideways, having noticed the photographer and there was envy in her eyes. That and subtle indignation contradicted and accompanied by pity and pride.
There was no implied violence in these image. Rather, there was a sense of quiet intensity, balance and restraint. Self applied shackles. The battlefront existed because it was clear that the photographer seemed to have no qualms about throwing himself into danger. Did he not fear death? Or was it that he just didn't care anymore?
These photos… they bled exhaustion and weariness, a sort of decay and disintegration engrained into the black and white curves and angles and lines, as if the chemicals attached to the photographs might oxidize with the air, with venomous oxygen, to fall apart and wither away, not meant to last.
The artist was undoubtedly an individual gravitated toward trouble, fast paced and impatient with a fire that was threatening to go out. One could tell that every photo had been taken with ecstasy, with drive and determination unbeknownst to the outside world.
And then, there were photographs that wept.
Takaba rushed onto the next metro. He had two more stops on this one before arriving at the station that was a good five minutes from the gallery. He didn't bother sitting down in the half-full compartment, there was really no point if he was going to get up anyway and leave. He glanced at his reflection in the window. It was blurry and faded, but it was him alright. He almost recognized himself with the new haircut, it still wasn't as short as it was while in Japan, but it was shorter than what it was until a few days ago. It was perhaps the beginning of his revival, a ritual of sort to mark the beginning of a long process of recovery. Still though, he couldn't bring himself to dye it. It had nothing to do with his healing; rather, he had grown accustomed to the black.
He watched as people filed in and out at the next stop, no one noticing the other unless their shoulders bumped. It was this way in the cities. People held eye contact one tenth of a second and seldom acknowledge another's existence. That was one thing about big cities that never changed, the lack of eye contact. To be honest, it really got under Takaba's skin. Sometimes, the most powerful element in a photo was capturing the focused pupils or lack thereof, and no one could appreciate it.
The metro came to the next stop, every mass of body leaning one way then returning to normal. That never changed either. Takaba laughed inwardly as he stepped out of the sliding doors into a mass of bustling bodies. He pulled the hood of his grey sweater over his head he climbed the stairs, two steps at a time, with his hands shoved in the front pouch. If he hurried, he could probably cut the time from seven to five or six minutes.
The cold air blasted him when he made him way out from the underground station. It was a refreshing break though from the stuffy air beneath.
Asami mouthed the title again. Indeed, it was nostalgia he felt.
The perfect description.
The train station he recognized. Along with the rusted sign posts, the concrete columns, the painted benches, the empty, hollow tracks where a train had just come and gone. The swarm of strangers around him. And… himself. He recognized himself. His hair, his broad back, his aura, his stance, his arrogance and …confidence…and most of all….
….his loneliness… his cold isolation…
The solitude and detachment that must have driven Akihito away.
There was no doubt.
He glanced at the card. "Tokyo, Japan."
…what have you done…Asami… what have you done…
The exhibit, it all made sense now.
Had he been so blind that he could not even recognize his lover's photographs? Now that he looked around, they could be no one else's but Akihito'sthe balance, the structure, the tones, the savageness held back by self imposed restraint. There was method, as they said, to the madness.
The puzzle pieces fell into place. The final block of the tetras. The key to the last door. The false sense of déjà vu.
The phantasm of recognition.
It all made sense. Was this epiphany? Was this catharsis?
…Akihito…This is you…
This was Akihito. Every single one of them was Akihito. Every emotion of every photograph. They were Akihito's.
Pride. Envy. Hate. Love. Pity. Solidarity. Anguish. Woe. Wretchedness. An unwilling misanthrope.
The decay was Akihito's sanity as was the disintegration. Akihito was falling apart like a film immersed and agitated too long in a developer solution, blackening, darkening, disappearing, laid out in light without the fixer. He was an iron nail exposed to the air in heat, quickly oxidizing, shedding away layers of rust with harsh, rough sandpaper, growing thinner and lighter until there was nothing left to react. Akihito was drowning, chained to blocks of guilt and burden with the very keys he had swallowed.
Asami could only hear the steady rush of blood to his head behind his ears, the rapidly increasing pulse as he turned toward the entrance.
Takaba saw the gallery from across the street as he turned the corner. Thirty seconds to the entrance if he ran. Takaba bolted, almost colliding with an oncoming taxi, whose driver raised a fist at him screaming and cursing, an American tourist couple in the backseat trying to calm the driver down.
He hadn't really told Gyles where he had been during the morning after leaving the gallery, and this secret, he doubted even Gyles knew.
He had a firearm license.
That might not have sounded like much, but for two years he had been familiarizing himself with the handgun. Three times a week, Takaba went to a shooting range and practiced. The people there sometimes looked at him kind of funny, wondering why someone of his profession or stature needed something like a firearm license.
One particular man told him something like "You're just a bloody wannabe, aren't you?" He didn't say anything, but no, he wasn't a wannabe. Hell, he'd probably been in more point blank situations than most of the other people in the range.
He never really enjoyed it though. He knew some people that considered it a sport and had even invited him onto their competition "league", but he politely refused every time. Even now, Takaba found it disturbing to use the human shaped targets, even if it was just a vague silhouette and a bunch of misshapen lines and dots.
He imagined shooting a person and shuddered, a chill settling over his spine and down to the tips of his limbs. Why was he doing this if he was so afraid to point the indiscriminating barrel? No one knew, not even Takaba himself.
He pushed the thought from his mind and focused his thoughts on the steps leading up to the gallery, looking downwards to keep the wind from chafing across his cold skin, holding one hand over the hood; the ring held up in the frigid air, the brushed platinum glinting softly.
Asami made his way towards the entrance, passing the photographs all over again, seeing them in a different light. It was hard to believe in some ways, that Akihito was the photographer. Had he given up the thrill, the tension, the danger?
That wasn't it. That wasn't it at all. Some of the photographs revealed war and violence, an altogether different type, but the danger remained, the rush remained. The exhibit. It was… it was mere compensation for what he had lost.
The Muslim women, the train station, the war-torn cities, everything.
Akihito…what void are you trying to fill…
The never-ceasing movements, the smell of fixer, the acidic solution, the tantalizing skin, the nape of the neck, tapered and graceful body all rushed back to Asami. His senses itched to feel the sensual body again. His fingers yearned to brush them against the sensitive skin, through the scalp into the tangled mess of hair. His lips sought out for those angry, defiant lips and the ferocious tongue that battled and resisted. His tongue could taste the salty sweat on Akihito's neck.
Two door flew open, each toward the opposite direction, as if they were born to deny and defy, defy and deny. That they should struggle, that they should resist. Clash and collide. Challenge and emulate until both stood on equal yet uneven grounds.
And the gods were cruel still.
Their footsteps were frighteningly synchronized, one stepping into the warmth, another into cold. And with that, they made a tacit, silent pact that neither will know about until they meet again.
"Sei!" Gyles came up to Takaba, "Where were you?"
"I… dazed off and missed my stop…" he looked up at Gyles, whose brows were furrowed with concern, as he pulled off the hood, "You're worrying…"
"Don't." He tiptoed, placing his hand behind Gyles' shoulder, and kissed Gyles' lips softly, lightly brushing his cold lips against Gyles' warm one.
"You're tempting me," Gyles whispered sultrily into Takaba's ear, moist, warm breath tingling across the skin, melting the numbness from the wind.
"Not now…" Takaba pecked Gyles' cheek with a kiss and backed away. "How's the exhibition?"
"Don't flatter me, Gyles."
"I don't flatter anyone unless it's true." Gyles took Takaba's hands and placed them against his cheeks "You're hands are cold."
"Your cheeks are warm."
"Come on, I have something to show you," he tugged Takaba along toward the office, "I don't know if you'll like it or not, but… I think you will."
Takaba cocked his head in curiosity, "What is it?"
"Just come." He pulled Takaba into the office and closed the door behind him. There was a man in one of the plush recliners waiting. He looked to be in his late forties with graying hair and wrinkled settled into faint lines around the eyes and mouth. There were stacks of files and papers, along with photographs, scattered on the table.
"Is this the photographer?" The man stood up, the question directed at Gyles, who nodded quietly.
"Gyles, what is this?" Takaba looked from the man to Gyles and back at the stranger.
"Let me introduce myself." He extended a hand at Takaba, who took it hesitantly, "Michael Carthen."
"Sei Tanaka…" he wasn't all that enthusiastic about giving out his name, but if Gyles approved…
"He's from TIMES, the magazine, Sei, and he has a proposition that I think you will like."
"It's completely up to you, Mr. Tanaka, whether you decide to take on this project or not," Mr. Carthen added, "Mr. Tennison, if I may have a moment alone with him?"
"I'll be alright," he smiled up at his lover, "I really will."
"If you need anything, Mr. Carthen, I'll be in the exhibit hall." Gyles slipped out quietly, leaving Takaba standing alone near the door. He strode across from the man and motioned at the chair again, "Take a seat, Mr. Carthen. It won't do to talk while standing."
"Now then," he leaned forward toward the man, locking his hands together, "What proposition do you have for me, Mr. Carthen?" Whatever the assignment might be, he couldn't let himself appear to be an easily manipulated rookie. He wasn't someone pliable. He wasn't copper to be easily drawn to wires.
"We're planning on doing a special issue on the historical sites of Europe. Unfortunately, we're having difficulties finding the suitable photographers."
"Oh?" this was a surprise. People usually jumped for a chance to work with TIMES, devoured it actually.
"It's a partner work, with a photographer and journalist, for a six month tour. It's just that the time duration is rather long, and I heard rumor that you were in Iraq for eight months under a different commission. You seemed like the kind of photographer with the zeal to take on this project."
That's six months away from Gyles…
"I was, but that was…" Takaba counted back, "more than a year ago."
"Well, but you have had experience in many different parts of the world, and I assure you, Mr. Tanaka, this is nowhere near as dangerous as what you have been doing. Would you be willing to take on another long duration project? We will provide everything necessary, of course. The equipment, transportation, lodging, everything."
It was tempting though for Takaba, but without Gyles… "How much time do I have to decide?"
"Until Saturday. The original photographer pulled out at the very last minute and the departure is on Sunday. If you want to return early, then with advanced noticed, we can replace you after the three month mark."
That's kind of short notice…
"Then what's all this?" Takaba motioned at the stack of papers.
"These are all benefits, examples, policies, the usual paperwork, so that you may look at them before coming to a decision."
Takaba leaned back, "Do you have a business card?"
"Ah yes," he whipped one out from the pocket on his shirt.
Takaba looked over at the small rectangular piece of paper. "I'll have an answer before Friday."
Mr. Carthen stood, picking up his briefcase which was tilted on a leg of the chair, "It was a pleasure, Mr. Tanaka, to finally meet you."
They shook hands, and Mr. Carthen left the room quietly.
Six months, huh…that's a long time.
The last time he left on a trip, he didn't have anyone to leave behind, but this was different.
Are you afraid, Akihito? He asked himself and couldn't help but remember the first time that he had really met Gyles.
Upon his arrival in London from Japan, Takaba spent only two weeks in the city before taking off on his eight month trip; he felt safer that way. He didn't want to be rooted yet because being rooted meant being found.
So he left for the Middle East, and after the convoy was bombed, Takaba was sent to a hospital in Germany for recovery, having damaged a good portion of the trapezius muscle. It had taken two months of physical therapy to get the muscle to function somewhat normally. Gyles had a sister-in-law who worked in the same hospital; in fact, she was one who had performed Takaba's surgery.
She came to check on him often, as she did with all her other patients (and there were a lot, mostly soldiers). Two weeks before Takaba was released and sent back to Iraq (more like, he begged to be sent back), despite her vehement disapproval, Gyles had come to visit her after hearing that his younger brother (the doctor's husband) had had some sort of car accident (it turned out to be one broken leg).
Takaba was taking a break by the indoor pool after doing mild laps for some "hydrotherapy," as they called it, when Gyles came in, getting a guided tour from his sister-in-law. At that moment, her beeper went off, meaning another batch of wounded soldiers were on their way to the helipad. She apologized and ran off, leaving one lonely and bored guy in the humid swimming pool, a bit hesitant to run off as the hospital complex was a labyrinth and it was quite easy to get lost.
He sat down on the bench next to Takaba, staring at the empty pool.
Takaba was rather timid and was determined to remain silent until he caught his breath when Gyles suddenly spoke, "You don't look very ill to me, what are you doing in a place like this?" There was no ill intent or malevolence in Gyles' question, rather a tinge of sympathy and concern.
"Uh…" Takaba pulled the top of the water bottle from his mouth. "Therapy," he answered quietly, showing Gyles the long scar that ran across the shoulder.
"Which country?" he asked.
"Huh?" the question was a bit off. Gyles had assumed that Takaba was a soldier, since he carried a wound of some sort.
"Oh." It dawned on Takaba what the stranger was asking, "I-I'm not…uh…in a military." Do I look like I'm a soldier…It was rather strange that anyone should think that, considering Takaba looked nothing like a typical G.I. Joe.
"Ah, are you a journalist then?"
"More or less."
That was their entire first conversation. Takaba never told Gyles, however, that he was a photographer or that he lived in London. He let Gyles think that he was just a commonplace journalist. After all, no need to spill a life story to a stranger he'd talk to for five minutes and never meet again. There had been no chemistry or anything. Takaba simply jumped back into the pool to finish his laps.
In fact, they didn't exchanged names.
When Gyles hunted him down for his photographs, Takaba was first under the impression that the stranger from the hospital in Germany had tracked him down from there or something, but Gyles didn't even recognize him. He was simply amazed that the photographer was so young. The fleeting first encounter hadn't quite registered for Gyles then, but they started their business relationship together regardless.
For about two month their relationship remained painfully platonic with hidden desire from Gyles, who wasn't sure if Takaba was inclined towards men or not, and reluctant attraction from Takaba, who was still and even now clinging to an internal shadow of Asami. Their business relationship started from the very beginning, Gyles earning Takaba's trust by agreeing to continue his tradition of initial, not name, signing, and printing only one copy for the auction or sales that followed every exhibition, which aggravated some of the collectors and drastically reduced his income and fame. Gyles understood, however, that Takaba's goal was not wealth or fame and acted as Takaba's intermediary between him and the outside world.
Their relationship had a rocky start, their first "night" being rather hazy and foggy for the both of them. They were drunk but Takaba much more so with his tolerance and woke up in Takaba's bed with serious hangovers. Gyles opened his eye, a bit confused as to how he had ended up having sex with Takaba and jumped out of bed, completely flipping out and hating himself for being "you bloody idiot Gyles," which was what he was whispering to himself as gathered his clothes.
He was about to sneak out and pretend that nothing had happened when Takaba, whose was lying on his stomach, rolled onto his back and whispered, "You don't have to leave, Gyles," his eyes covered with his arm.
That was the first time Takaba had called him something other than "Mr. Tennison."
That was also when Gyles spotted it, the clean scar that ran down his shoulder and gasped softly, the forgotten recognition finally registering. His clear blue eyes were fixed at the line of morphed tissue and he whispered, "Oh my god, you were the…"
"The 'journalist' at the pool… in Germany."
"You knew, then?" Gyles had an incredibly perplexed expression, "That it was me?"
"So it was you." Takaba laughed, his doubt finally cleared "I thought so."
"Why…Why didn't you say anything?" Gyles looked a bit hurt then, as if Takaba had been keeping a great secret from him.
Takaba sat up, holding his head from the hangover, "I didn't think it was…relevant."
"Sei? Earth to Sei…" Gyles was peering at him carefully.
"Huh?" he hadn't even noticed Gyles coming in. "Oh. Sorry." Takaba answered hastily; daydreaming always made Gyles rather concerned and worried for him.
"What did Mr. Carthen say about the proposition?"
"It's… a very long time, Gyles. Six months."
"I'm sure I can wait six months for you."
"But I don't know if I can."
"You don't have to go. It's entirely up to you."
Sometimes…not having a choice can be so much simpler…
"Don't brood over it, Sei. Anyways, you look a bit tired. Go home and rest, I know you spent days developing and selecting those photos from Japan." He ruffled Takaba's hair, "And be careful on your way home."
"Gyles… I'm not a kid or something…" Takaba frowned, matting his messy hair back into place.
"Maybe not. But still, you've been daydreaming a lot lately," Gyles helped Takaba up from the chair, "I don't want you getting hit by a car or something crossing the street."
"I've already done that today," Takaba chuckled, thinking of the angry taxi driver.
"What?!" Gyles reaction wasn't really all that surprising, considering what Takaba had just said.
Crap, I shouldn't have told him that…
"Almost, with a taxi, and it didn't quite hit me."
"Sei…on second though, why don't I take you home?"
"I'll be careful, I promise." Takaba patted Gyles' shoulder and made his way out.
His bodyguard didn't look back when Asami entered the plush interior of the car. From the solemn silence, he knew that something must have occurred to leave his boss wordless.
"Back to the hotel, and call Mr. Merrett, tell him I won't be at the performance tonight."
"Yes, sir." The partition slid up as the bodyguard flipped out his phone; better to leave him in complete isolation at times like these.
My Akihito…so this where've been all along…How perfectly you hid yourself…
It was strange. How hollow he felt. He should be feeling elated, not like this.
Not like this.
Was he not glad, ecstatic that he had found Akihito?
But he wasn't completely hollow. There was this… brewing… bubbling inside him. Like the womb of a volcano before its mass eruption. The tension wound within the earth plates before the cataclysmic earthquake. The green clouds that settled before tornadoes.
But it wasn't… it wasn't anger, was it? Was this because he wasn't certain yet? That the photographs were...no. There was no doubt about the photographs.
Asami mouthed the title again, feeling the word slide over his tongue in his dry mouth. Saliva had sucked itself back into the gland. But the photographs. They were anonymous, just the tiny initials ST inserted in the lower right corner. Had Akihito been doing that for two whole years, living in a near nonexistent state? Putting up walls between him and the world so that he could stay invisible? Scampering around the globe running away from absolutely nothing?
How painful that must have been, living in lies, in deception, in duplicity when his nature, the very core of his existence resisted it. He was born to shine, born to stand out before everyone. He was destined to for… truth… How wretched it must have been…how tormenting it must have been for Akihito to live that kind of life…
What have I done to you, Akihito? Have you dropped to the bottom of the well because of me?
Have I dragged you down to hell, just I promised so long ago?
The photographs had revealed such a depth of personality, a tangled mass of character whose origin wasn't just a single point. There was more to Akihito. He wasn't a boy. He wasn't simple. What had constructed that complexity? Perhaps… it had been there all along, a tapestry and he had never noticed it. Never seen it.
Before he left, could Akihito had been trying to gain some sort of recognition?
What went on in Akihito's mind wasn't a one-track railroad. It was a mosaic, a modern frescoe, a labyrinth that Asami felt he could lose himself in, and he was lost in it already. It was a code too cryptic to interpret, sophisticated and intricate like the arabesques of Moorish windows. No doubt he was lost it in. He couldn't just kidnap Akihito and drag him back to Tokyo. No.
No. That wouldn't do. Then Akihito's two years would be in vain because nothing would change. Everything has to evolve to survive. But he had evolved, hadn't he?
Over the two years he had mutated with his addictive fixation on Akihito still in mind for two years, hardening parts that weren't meant to calcified and mineralize. His obsession, his mania. His syndrome. Akihito was his one source of high and now his gut craved it. He could feel his internal organs pulsating, sending messages to a beacon somewhere.
It was still there. The intensity was still there. In fact, each shred of emotion spoke out louder than before, as if the diaphragm had been narrowed and concentrated the light into tiny points that could burn and start a fire. It wasn't just pleasure, it was ecstasy. Hate wasn't just hate, it was enmity. Not just jealousy, but envy. Anger didn't describe anger, wrath did. Desire came nowhere closer, but lust. In these two years, Akihito had honed something, polished away the roughness.
They said that, didn't they? That time and pressure would form diamonds. This time, he had been melted back into the mantles of the earth, emerged against and was shaved to a dangerous perfection. Too hard. Too brittle. The flexibility, the volatility was being cut away with internal strife. One strike with the hammer and the boy was bound to shatter into a kaleidoscope of fragmented memories. A ticking time bomb, but waiting to implode.
Is this what I have driven you to do?
Or was this new layer just another part of Akihito's deception?
The car rolled into the hotel driveway, and a hotel employee opened the door.
"Genji?" Asami had last directions before heading in.
"Yes, sir?" the window slid down.
"Find out who the head of the gallery is, contact him and tell him an anonymous collector wants to purchase the entire exhibit. I will speak to him personally for the details."
"Yes, sir." His body guard's face disappeared behind the tinted glass.
Gyles looked out from the car window, "Take care of yourself."
"I will," Takaba smiled meekly, "I'll see you tomorrow then." He turned toward the apartment only to be stopped by Gyles' voice calling out his name.
Gyles paused, admiring Takaba's slender form, then smiled back, just tell him you love him… "Goodnight."
Takaba shivered as he waited in the elevator, watching the red number count up until it hit the fourth floor, and the door slid open slowly. It was absolutely freezing outside. He could almost feel his bones and his marrow constricting and crystallizing from the still, icy air, and all he wanted was to get inside. Although… his apartment was probably just as cold since he hadn't left the heater on.
Takaba fumbled with the keys, his fingers resistant to his commands in their numb state, the tips of his flesh tingling as they touched the warm metal key, which had been hidden deep in his pocket. He finally it into the hole and turned the lock with a faint click.
The first thing he did, even before turning on the light, was rush to where he knew the temp control was and adjust it so that he wouldn't be cryogenically frozen or otherwise an ice block when he woke up (or didn't wake up) the next morning. They would probably have to get an ice pick and chisel, maybe a blow dryer, to crack and melt the layer of ice he would accumulate if he slept in the cold like this.
Then he took off his shoes and carefully arranged them near the door. Two years ago, he would have just tossed them aside, kicked them into a dusty corner. He hung the damp coat on the stand near the door and looked around into the quasi darkness, the light from the yellow street lamps filtering in through the cracks of his navy curtains, before flicking on the light.
It was a rather small place, a bit dark for his taste (the old European apartments had a knack for having little to no windows), but it suited his needs well enough: a kitchen, a living room, two bedrooms and one bathroom. It was certainly more spacious than in Tokyo. He had furnished it with what little budget he had back when he first moved, adding different items one by one with time, filling in the gaps.
The process was… fulfilling. He remembered throwing out the furniture in Tokyo, how much it had ached when he watched them driven off to the landfills. Watching the empty corners of his new apartment slowly being occupied by something tangible… By fleeing from Tokyo, he had torn apart a puzzle set, and as he filled the gaps of his new residence, he was slowly starting to see the image of the puzzle, something he had forgotten long ago, piece by piece. The furnishing of his new apartment was a sort of cure, a haphazard antidote….but not quite…
Three black leather recliners sat around a coffee table that looked more like a huge black cube sitting in the middle of the living room. It was supposed to be "contemporary." The flat screen TV and DVD player were purchased only about a year ago; Gyles and Takaba watched a DVD together for the first time the day they were delivered.
Random photographs were hung on empty white walls, mostly ones he took himself and was unwilling to exhibit but liked. Exhibitions meant he lost them forever as they were almost always auctioned or sold off. Perhaps one day he would return to the negatives and bring to life those photos again.
As for the darkroom, anyone entering it would see most of the wall occupied with shelves and dozens and dozens of albums of negatives. He had collected his photos for months and mailed them to London before his departure, boxes of them. There were several desks and sink-like apparatus where he could wash the developed pictures. In addition, there were two metal cabinets where he stored his equipments and materials. All in all, a mundane room, just like all the rest.
The kitchen had a small table with two chairs on either side along with a medium sized fridge that was usually half empty. It was probably the most unused quarter in the apartment. He bought a three person meal set with spoons and forks just in case, but he used it so little that he often had to wash the plates before hand to make sure the food wouldn't be set on dusty plates. The pantry was empty save for a box of cereals past its expiration date but hadn't even been opened yet.
His bedroom was just as scantily clad. The bed was a decent, comfortable size for two people if neither moved too much during sleep. Like his curtains, it came with a dark navy color theme to it. Navy sheets, navy comforter, navy pillowcase, etc. etc. The work desk where his laptop and external hard drives were stacked was positioned against a wall, near the window where sunlight could illuminate the surface. It had several drawers beneath it, and the bottom most drawer had a false bottom.
It was in that secret compartment that Takaba kept proof of his past existence: his real passport, his real identification card, two pictures, one with his family, another with his two best friends. His friends… I wonder if they remember me even… His parents didn't know where he was either. If he died now, woke up cold and lifeless the next morning, would he be buried in Japan or be cremated here, an unclaimed body diminished to ashes. His secret would be revealed then, wouldn't it?
And the gun.
Next to the desk, there was a bookshelf containing books on… photography. Not much surprise there. There was a night stand to one side of the bed with a lamp that was fitted with a light bulb needing to be replaced; he had bought the wrong watt two weeks ago and it was just too dim.
His closet was half empty, a reflection of his inner state. His general style and taste hadn't changed much over the course of two years. If anything, they were even more casual and geared toward comfort and movement; his travels had taught him that. He still wore his t-shirts, his vintage jeans, and his hooded sweatshirts with pouches where he hid his hands. And most of the time, his feet were clad with a pair of running shoes or something along those lines. Comfort and movement.
But with the first chance he got, he had thrown out all of his old clothes he had brought over from Japan. Dumped them into a large cardboard box, sealed it with masking tape, and out the door they went. It had nothing to do with physical capability. He could physically still wear them.
It was the smell. The scent. The aroma.
It was like incense, a drug that induced and triggered memories and images he would rather forget.They did say that olfactory memory was the strongest and most enduring of all, didn't they?
There were two sets of suits in the closet, one black and the other dark grey. He had bought them for random occasions and still considered them a waste of money. Putting on these suits, these formal attires only reminded him of him. The cuff links. The buttons. The tie.
The tie especially. Takaba could envision those strong, forceful hands, those expert hands snaking through the silky texture. Working their way past the collar. Tearing apart buttons. Brushing against his stomach. Down. Down. Past the belt, past th-
Takaba lowered himself onto the mattress, settling in motionlessly into the plush comforter. He hadn't been on his bed for almost a week, and it was just… nice to feel the same texture beneath his fingers. But on the other hand, what he had dreaded was true.
There was no heat in this bed.
And him alone.
And those… wretched… awful… neon stars on the ceiling. One of them had fallen off while he was gone, near the pillow.
Did you miss me? He picked it up and held over him.
He lay down completely, his back against the bed, an arm over his eyes. Gyles had literally forbidden him to go home alone (upon hearing that Takaba almost got hit by a taxi), giving him two choices. Either he took Takaba home or Takaba would wait to go home with him.
Takaba didn't really want to make Gyles leave the gallery and opted to stay. People didn't realize that they were whispering with the photographer right behind their back. It was a cunning little advantage, and he had been able to pick up a handful of good constructive criticism.
Though he had to admit, some of the comments he had heard had really… hurt. Words like "immature" or "ambiguous" felt like stakes going through the back of his hand, severing the ligament of his index finger that pressed down on the shutter release button. He would have to live with such criticisms however… critiquing was something that every artist had to go through, whether it was music or art or literature, and that was the life he had chosen.
And he had other things on his mind: Mr. Carthen's offer. Gyles had recognized something in Takaba; he had realized that his lover wasn't meant to be sedentary, that if his life in London wasn't fast paced enough, it would drive Akihito insane. He would end up hunting for thrills and danger like before. If Gyles was willing to make amends, to sacrifice six months for the sake of his lover's recovery, then Takaba should at least be understanding and grateful enough to accept Gyles' plans… shouldn't he? It was probably safer, as Mr. Carthen had said, to be touring Europe than war torn zones where he woke up every other day to the sound of explosions.
But he didn't want to leave.
You're growing complacent, Akihito…
Takaba buried his nose into the pillow and inhaled a lungful of Gyles' cologne.
So what if I'm content…but…
Was he losing Asami? Was that private chamber he had reserved for his previous…lover…being taken over by Gyles' overwhelming presence?
And so what if it is…
He propped up his head with his right elbow, letting the injured arm rest against his body. It had begun to heal fairly well, except for a thin puckered line of scab. Another scar to add to his collection. Gyles wasn't too happy about it though. Ironically, the man blamed himself for it.
If Takaba hadn't been so previously preoccupied, and even if he was, Gyles was still the perfect lover that anyone have could asked for. He had unlimited patience for his troubled lover.
How do you put up with me…
Even he grew of his very self sometimes. For someone else to stand beside him with such devotion…
Gentle and forgiving, passionate and compassionate, Takaba couldn't help but melt into Gyles' embrace.
…What should I do…
Gyles watched the Takaba disappear into the complex and waited, waited for the light of the living room to flicker on before finally driving away.
It was necessary.
A little less than a year ago, the boy passed out in the elevator, only to be discovered half frozen at four in the morning by a trio of girls returning from a night of clubbing. They had to call the landlord who recognized the young Asian tenant as his and called a random number from Takaba's cellphone after taking him to the hospital. That number was none other Gyles.
The doctor wasn't quite sure how to diagnose his patient and ran blood tests, CAT scans, ECG to name a few but eventually gave up and called it "exhaustion," which was probably closer to the truth than any of the modern, conventional diseases that pharmaceutical companies liked to make up to boost their profit. Gyles' sister-in-law could testify to that.
The doctor called Takaba "slightly underweight" and "malnourished," asking rather obvious questions like "has he ever been diagnosed with clinical depression prior to the incident?" or "did he experience any trauma in the past few years?" All in all, he showed little genuine concern for Takaba.
The bloody hypocrite.
Gyles was rather anxious to take him home and away from all the medical hodge-podge; anyone with a good eye in their right mind could tell the constant surveillance was doing him more harm than good. And the hospital food… He still felt rather guilty about it, but the night he brought Takaba back to the apartment (Takaba's apartment), they ended up having sex together, giving Takaba little time to recover. He didn't really seem to mind and only teased Gyles for his "healthy maleness."
Gyles grinned at himself, the car stopping at another red light. Healthy maleness…pft, what was he thinking…
Then the cellphone went off.
A bit late to be getting calls…
"Gyles Tennison. Who am I speaking to?"
"Mr. Tennison," the voice had a slightly foreign accent that he couldn't quite put his finger on… "Are you the head of the central London gallery?"
"Yes…" who is this? "I am."
"Perfect. I'm calling on behalf of an anonymous collector."
"Does this have to do with the exhibition?"
"It does in fact. The collector wants to purchase the-"
"I'm afraid that's out of the question." Better to cut them off before they got any ideas in their heads.
"The photographs were either sold to private galleries priors to the public exhibition or have been contracted with the auction house already." There was no lie in that "Except for one."
"May I ask which photograph was withdrawn from the auction?"
"'Nostalgia,' the photographer personally requested that it be withheld and only exhibited."
"Very well, it was pleasure, Mr. Tennison." The voice was replaced with the familiar busy tone.
That was quick…and a bit strange…
He frequently received calls from "anonymous buyers." His lover's enigma as a photographer seemed to attract a lot of those. Gyles personally felt a bit reprehensive toward these mystery buyers although he had yet to have any serious experience with any; most of them came out in the end.
When will you come out to the world, Sei?
After the meeting with the TIMES representative, Takaba had come out a bit shaken, if not disturbed, and Gyles was starting to have second thoughts about the proposal. Takaba was probably feeling obliged to accept since Gyles had been the one to arrange it for him in the first place. That wasn't at all what he had intended though; he wanted Takaba to have choice and to choose his own path. Gyles only wanted to be the catalyst for a change that had to occur because Takaba couldn't hide from the world forever.
His "name" was already growing in the genre of fine arts photography and photojournalism. The lot of photos that Takaba had taken in Iraq revealed a certain daredevil attitude that the political and news magazines jumped at. It was a phenomenon rather, like a hidden cult movie that garnered acclaim beneath the table. There was a clean list of private collectors that reserved many of his photographs, and auctions usually started at five hundred pounds if not more, a price that usually went to the older photographs. It could be owed it to some degree the fact that Takaba developed only one, a practice that was gaining him a kind of… infamy and perhaps a tinge of notoriety.
Gyles never told Takaba that he was frequently bombarded with calls, mails, both physical and electronic, or even personal visits, usually after exhibits or auctions, with people demanding to meet the photographer, adamant on unearthing Takaba's identity. There were articles as to who the "question mark man/woman" could be, quote a photographic journal.
If he told Takaba just to what extent he was bearing the grunt of the masquerade, Takaba would probably climb up to the top of the Eiffel tower and declare himself to the world. Well, maybe not to that extreme… but he would certainly either completely plunge himself into a market where his name would be required for publishing means (i.e. magazines, journals) or drop the initials and pick up his name, neither of which Gyles wished for his lover. There was simply too much talent and gift in Takaba to just throw him to the dogs like that.
Gyles swiped his entrance card over the scanner and waited for the gate to the underground parking lot to open. He had purchased the top floor of the flat years ago, much to his parents' dismay; they wanted him to inherit the family residence, a large estate in the countryside.
Whether or not he liked it, he was probably the family black sheep. His younger brother was a lawyer, who moved to Germany with his wife and took up a job as a contract reviewer for a company; the older sister went on to become a doctor, graduating from Cambridge and now head of research in some California facility. Gyles grew up for the most part like his siblings, educated in the "elite" way, polo, horseback riding, golf, tennis, sent to Harrow school, an experience he didn't always enjoy but his competitive nature kept him in the top percent, a part of him that most people didn't quite seem to catch. He graduated from there, rather reluctantly but still with high academic recognition and against his parents' wishes took up university in the US where he pursued a degree in law, obtained it, and somehow (this still amazed him) managed to squeeze in an economics degree.
He worked a year and a half for a firm in London and found that… he wasn't quite fond of the job, a farfetched understatement. Just in time, a colleague from Harrow had inherited a long standing art gallery from his recently deceased grandmother and was having trouble double managing it with his career as an engineer at BP, being sent to the actual sites, sometimes stranded in petroleum oil rigs in the middle of the ocean for months. He called it "stranded" despite the fact that those oil rigs were gigantic and even had supermarkets on them and practically functioned as a community.
Regardless, he asked Gyles to share the management, making him the other proprietor of the gallery. When he died in an accident at a rig site, a storm had blown over and three people from the floating rig had drowned, the friend among the victims. The friend had a half-sister, but she had a particularly bad relationship with her late half-brother and made the ultimately unwise choice of refusing to quote "touch anything that foul man ever dealt with" unquote. Once Gyles had full control over the management, he made some drastic adjustments and the profit nearly doubled. The half-sister came back one time and tried to file lawsuit for "manipulating the economic status of the gallery" or something along those lines, but the court rebuffed her ridiculously outrageous claims. Gyles was still working part time at the company as an advisor from time to time and hence reaping the benefit of the stock shares, but most of his time was devoted to the management of the gallery.
God that feels like so long ago…
The car's vibrating stopped as he turned off the engine and pulled other the key, his chain jiggling then settling quietly into his palm. He grew tired of sitting in the cramped compartment and eventually made his way out, the car honking twice behind him as he locked it from the key chain attached to his keys, the echoes of the honks resonating in the basement, maneuvering around the concrete and steel columns.
Genji stood at attention behind Asami, who was looking out into the same London scene, except darker, and in Asami's opinion, grimmer. He could still see the snow, but it looked jaundiced, bathed in the yellow glare of the street lamps. The edifices that had looked so aesthetic were now jagged blobs of rectangles and geometric shapes with eerie silhouettes.
He held a glass of scotch in his hands, his second glass. Not that it really mattered to Asami with his tolerance.
"Did you find out who the gallery owner was?"
"Gyles Tennison, a lawyer."
"You contacted him, correct?"
"Unfortunately, the photographs have either been purchased or are already scheduled for auction. All except one, sir."
Asami's muscles, which had been so carefully arranged, suddenly tensed.
"Which one?" The intensity.
"Which one's not being sold?" Voice was edged with a blade, a rough, jagged, serrated blade. Like the teeth of a saw. It was…intriguing. The edge was different. Not icy and razor like, but hot and jagged, crooked.
"Mr. Tennison called it 'Nostalgia,' sir."
Glass shattered on the marble floor, barbed and jagged shards of crystal thrown down like die, scattering light on the warped marble. It was as if the amber liquid had detonated in Asami's hands, as now it pooled and spread like a quiet stain, marking its territory with converging pools of liquor.
Genji winced, the shrill sound piercing his ears; he had been with Asami for a year and a half now, and this was probably the only time Asami had let something other than his cool, frigid exterior show. He couldn't understand why his boss was obsessing over a photography exhibit. He had seen some of them, and admittedly they were extraordinary even to the untrained eye, but they didn't seem like something that would leave Asami-sama so pressed.
"Tell him I'm willing to pay a hundred thousand pounds for the last picture on the condition that the photographer deliver the work. Leave my name out of this, is that understood?"
Asami was silent for a moment, his back still turned to Genji. "Now get out."
Genji bowed slightly as he hurried out. He was more than glad to; the atmosphere was asphyxiating him. He had heard a quiet rumor among the subordinates that Asami had lost a lover two or three years ago, someone that he became emotionally involved with. It was hard to believe, Asami letting himself be carried away like that.
So Akihito…it is you, isn't it…
He felt a bit of... hope and pride that Akihito had withheld the photograph. It meant…it meant that he still had a chance with the boy. It meant that Akihito was unwilling to let go of a memory of his past lover, that it was held too many connotations, nuances, to hold a monetary value. The photograph transcended that. Because it was Asami.
And because he was Akihito.
Have I gotten anywhere…
He glanced down at the pool of amber at his feet. It had stopped spreading.
Gyles was in the living room, catching up on a bit of news when his cellphone went off again. It wasn't Takaba.
"Gyles Tennison, who am I speaking to?"
"Mr. Tennison, I'm terribly sorry to call you at this late hour, but we talked about two hours about the exhibition."
"I've already went over this. This is non-negotiable."
"It's about the last photograph."
Nostalgia…"Which isn't for sale."
"The collector is willing to offer a hundred thousand on the condition that the photographer delivers the photograph."
What?! "Are you really referring to 'Nostalgia'?"
"Yes, of course."
Why would anyone offer so much on the first request… "I'm afraid for the safety and privacy of the photographer-"
"Mr. Tennison, the collector has assured that the safety and privacy of the photographer will be completely respected. He simply wishes to speak with the artist who took the photographs."
"I'll have to discuss this with the photographer directly regarding this matter."
"Very well, we will contact you tomorrow afternoon then."
"I'll be expecting."
It was clear that the other party wasn't willing to give out any names. Gyles closed the phone and held it in his hand. I was inexplicable that anyone should offer such a huge sum of money for one photograph. This wasn't something from the fifties or earlier; modern photography rarely exceeded four digits, five at best. Something ominous was rising, he could feel it from the base of his cut.
Takaba sat quietly in the back of the taxi. It was the only way to get to the gallery at three o'clock in the morning for him. To be honest, he was exhausted, trying to call sleep that didn't and wouldn't come, and the pills. He couldn't bring himself to take them after a week without. So for about five hours, he looked up at the stars on his ceiling doing absolutely nothing except thinking. About everything and nothing all at once. He thought about Tokyo, his past life. Then about London, his current façade. And went back. And forth. And back. And forth. Until he felt he'd rip his hair and finally got dressed again and headed out alone into the night, bumping into the same trio of girls that discovered him about a year ago, passed out in the elevator.
His apartment was a bit of a walk from the nearest metro station, which was closed for night maintenance anyway, so he had had to walk to a nearby area where there were pubs and bars open. That was about half an hour of walking in the snow, which had his hair nearly wet and his clothes damp.
"You can drop me off here." He told the taxi driver, who glanced back and pulled up in front of the gallery. The only person there was the night guard, a young fellow a few years younger than Takaba. From the outside though, the gallery looked dark and abandoned.
"Are you sure? Didn't you want to go a bit further to the-"
"No, no. This is fine." Then he added, "I'm exactly where I want to be." The driver shrugged as Takaba counted the money and handed it to him, "This is a bit too much, young man."
"Keep the change, it's late out," Takaba ducked out into the cold and closed the door. He pulled his coat tighter around him, puffs of air escaping his lips as he went around the side of the gallery through the side door, where the sentinel wouldn't spot him come in.
He had the keys of course. It was among the four keys he had: his apartment key, the mailbox key, Gyles' apartment key, and the gallery side door key. It was broad and flat with odd, rectangular shaped teeth. He slid the key in where the key pad lit up, added for security reasons with codes that even the sentinel didn't know. With his hand trembling from the cold, Takaba managed to type in the four digit number and the lock clicked, inviting him.
The back hallway leading into Gyles' office was empty and desolate, Takaba being extremely careful so that the wet, rubber soles of his shoes wouldn't make squeaky noises against the slick floor. This was the first time he had been here at night, and the mood was entirely different. Shadows were still and dead, the ventilation hummed with a different timbre. The hushed voices of people no longer echoed back and forth from the high ceiling. The lighting on the photographs was no longer lit, and every image was blurred into the darkness, lit only by the faint moonlight that crept in from the spaced out sky lights on the ceiling. When the clouds passed over the moon, then even that meager source of light was destroyed, leaving Takaba treading softly in the black labyrinth hall to where 'Nostalgia' was, and it didn't take long to find.
He knew exactly where it was.
The floor and the wall felt raw and frigid even through the layers of clothes as he sat down quietly, leaning back so that he could face the photograph. In the quasi darkness, Asami was even farther away. His back was broader and his stance more domineering, militant almost. He stood, undaunted by the world around him.
If I went back now, Asami…would you take me again…
The soft light cast on the photograph went black again, and Takaba fell asleep, holding his knees to his chest, gazing up at the photographer a lover that won't look back.
The night guard had seen Takaba come out of the taxi and walk around to the side entrance. He knew there was no malevolence in him, coming out at three in the morning to the gallery. He didn't really know who the man was, but on the few occasions that he saw him, it was with Mr. Tennison, his employer, and there was a silent acknowledgement between the two, a sense of trust that ran deep beyond the superficial. Indeed, the young Asian man was striking, his body, his face, the air about him was graceful and somehow crude at the same time.
He had had suspicions as to what kind of relationship the two had and his questions were cleared up one evening when he was checking in for his night shift. He had been wanting to ask Mr. Tennison something and was heading into the office when he heard some noise from office. Curious, he peeked through the slightly open crack to see the two lost in a kiss, their lips locked in passion, lost to the world around them. He forgot then what he wanted to asked and slipped out, never uttering a word of it to anyone.
So when he saw his employer's lover walk around to the side door, he thought better of it and stayed where he was. The man obviously had a reason for being there, and if he went through the side door instead of simply asking the guard to open it, then he probably wanted privacy in the moment.
He waited then, for the man to come out and leave, but no one did. He waited for twenty minutes, then thirty, then forty, forty-five, fifty, fifty-five, and an hour. It was probably cold inside the exhibition hall, and the night guard was going worried.
Sure enough, there he was, crouched against a wall, asleep, bathed in the little bit of sunlight.
Do I wake him up or what?
He knew Mr. Tennison's phone number though. Better call the man. Tell him his lover's sleeping in the gallery.
At four in the morning, Gyles' phone went of again, drawing him out from less than peaceful slumber. He groaned, flipping on the lamp, which temporarily blinded him, then grabbed the phone. If it was that collector again…
"What…" his voice was a dry croak, dragging on lethargically.
"Mr. Tennison, this is the night guard at the gallery and-"
Gyles bolted up, suddenly called to attention.
"Is there a problem?"
"Do you know that young Asian man who visits the gallery frequently?"
"He's here, Mr. Tennison."
"I'll be there in half an hour. How is he?" Gyles stood up, heading towards the closet in his boxers. He yanked a nearly folded pair of jeans from the shelves and shook it open.
"He's sleeping, sir."
"Don't wake him up. Just wait."
"Yes, sir." He closed the phone and slid up the jeans the rest of the way, zipping it up and buttoning the end. His car keys were also on the night stand; he shoved it into his pocket along with the cellphone and took the jacket that had been hung over the back of a chair.
Gyles rapped the glassy entrance to the gallery, shivering in the cold. He rubbed the edge of his sleeve against the glass and peered inside. The night guard rushed out, unlocking the door for him.
"Where is he?" he asked as he blew hot hair into the palm of his hands then rubbed them together.
"At the far end of the exhibit hall, Mr. Tennison."
"Thank you, I'll take it from here," Gyles made his way into the exhibition hall, into the quasi darkness, his footsteps echoing and resonating from the walls and ceilings, resounding eerily through the twists and turns of the hall.
…why do you do this to yourself…
He stopped at the last turn. Takaba was crouched against the wall, hugging his legs tight against his chest, his chin resting on his knees. Black strands of hair, slick and glossy, glistened from the moisture. Eyes were closed in exhaustion, long lashes curled up, casting distant shadows against his pallid skin. His shoulders rose and fell in rhythm, slowly, calmly. If only he could have this kind of serenity while he was awake.
Gyles knelt beside Takaba and brushed the damp strands of hair from his face to reveal a dry trail of tears that disappeared beneath the jaw, starting from the corner of his eyes, such sad, dejected eyes. When they were open, the amber iris whirl pooled into the black pupils, disappearing into nothingness, into the hollowness which sat at the throne of Takaba's heart, commanding everything else that followed.
He placed his arms beneath Takaba's knees and behind the back and lifted him from the cold floor. He turned back and-
Gyles clutched the body tighter against his own.
That man in the photograph… with his back turned to the viewfinder.
Gyles stepped closer, squinting slightly.
Even in the darkness, the black and white photograph, or rather, the man in the black and white photograph, radiated power. He was the center piece, the fortress towering over his territory, a lion watching his pride, watching and expanding his parameter, calling everyone and everything to their knees before him. With his presence, he overshadowed everything, claiming even the empty train tracks as his own. Obedience and attention.
Takaba's head leaned into Gyles' chest, taking comfort in the warmth; a soft gentle sigh escaped his lips as he snuggled closer in the strong arms. Gyles felt his heart constrict. Takaba's body felt…ethereal, intangible. It didn't feel human… too light, too weightless. Like carrying sheer silk, insubstantial, fragile, immaterial. He felt Takaba's small form could vaporize into the air, disintegrate into fine, white sand and slip through the cracks of his fingers like grains of an hourglass.
How can I hold on to you…
Is that what you feel, Sei?
The night guard held the door open for them. As Gyles was about to duck into the car, he glanced up at the guard, who was waiting at the gallery entrance, a distance away. Their eyes met and Gyles nodded wordlessly. The guard replied the same. Gratitude communicated tacitly.
The drive home was sullen and melancholy, Gyles occasionally glancing sideways at the passenger seat at the sleeping figure. Takaba stirred occasionally, mumbling incoherently now and then before plunging back into sleep again. He had probably stayed up all night before making his way to the gallery. Sleep was so fleeting for the boy, and it escaped his grasp when he needed it most.
And sleep was the last thing on Asami's mind as he paced his hotel room with a phone glued to his ear. "What do you mean the border patrol seized the shipment in Burma? Just how blind were you to not be able to bypass those imbeciles?"
A panicked voice sputtered a response only to be abruptly cut off by another barrage of shouting.
"Listen here. I did not put you in your position so you could be a complete and total idiot. I did not grant you your influence so that you could use it to find a hole to fuck on weekend nights. And I certainly did not bring you under my umbrella so that you could be as incompetent as this. It was your responsibility to manage relations with the patrol guards. Blackmail them if you have to. Better yet, bribe them. I don't care how fucking moral the bastards are, and they're not in case you're wondering, they'll slobber over cash. They'll drool on it."
The voice was a bit louder now, tone a bit coarser.
"Maybe you'd like to rephrase that. Just because I'm six thousand miles away does not mean that there will be no consequences for your impudence. Do not forget that I am the reason you are where you are, that I am the reason you have yet to be tossed into prison, and that I am the reason your neck is still intact. Have I made myself clear? Honestly I don't know how much more blunt I would have to be to get through that skull of yours."
Stuttered apologies spewed from the other side of the line.
"Don't even try to kissing my ass at this point. You screwed up, and if, by the time my plane touches down on the Narita airport runway, you have not solved this matter and I find myself having to wipe my own subordinate's ass, do not expect to be breathing by the following morning."
Inarticulate stammering followed. Asami simply sighed and closed the cellphone.
Just how incompetent can people get?
The transport carrying opium and methamphetamine from Burma, the leading opium-producer, had been caught on the border to Thailand, a lucrative market with a large number of addicts. It was actually difficult to be stopped on the border if enough black money was exchanged beneath the table.
Asami sat down at the foot of the bed, rubbing his temples in frustration. He should have known better than to think that the son of a bitch would be able to handle Southeast Asia while he was gone. Things weren't looking too bright on the other side of the planet, and it wasn't much brighter here, physically and metaphorically.
His men so far had not been able to find Akihito, the boy had hidden himself so well. It was obvious that he had taken on a pseudo name as there was no record of a "Takaba Akihito" anywhere, and even the pseudo name he had guarded with an iron gate. His only trail was the photographs and elusive initials. This wasn't the trivial cat and mouse game they played back in Tokyo.
The extensive digging his men had done revealed practically nothing about the boy himself. It did however reveal that Akihito had risen to considerable fame in the London and European photography scene with his enigmatic character, sometimes achieving sales that a modern photographer rarely secured and establishing a reputation as the photographer to go to if a project required a unique zeal. Not much surprise there.
For two years no one had yet to uncover the masked photographer, whose photographs carried a distinctive taste and texture unique only to Akihito. The only person that had direct contact with him was the gallery owner, Gyles Tennison, who was apparently his manager of sort, his intermediary to the outside world.
Another revelation was that Akihito had also acquired a bit of infamy through his one-copy only policy and his controversial war photographs. There was also a bit of "daredevil" attitude towards the enigmatic artist; he went places that most people in their right minds would steer well clear of.
Well… that was Akihito wasn't it?
Reckless, audacious, bold.
Because some things never changed.
Light was filtering in through the curtains when Takaba woke. He raised an arm up over his sensitive eyes, shielding them from the thin rays of sunlight that scattered across the room. From the way the light stopped short near the window instead of stretching long and thin across the floor, he guessed it was probably in the afternoon. How long had he slept? With one eye open, he peeked at the watch. Ten past noon.
How long have I been asleep…
He wasn't wearing his jeans or hooded sweatshirt but a shirt that was far too large for him and puddle around his lean torso and a pair of black flannel pajama pants with drawstring drawn ridiculously to make the clothes puff around the hips. Takaba blushed, blood rushing up to his ears. Gyles had probably stripped him nearly naked and dressed him last night…or rather…this morning. He must have been really passed out to not have noticed that.
Gyles' voice from the living room crept in from beneath the closed door. From the way he paused occasionally, Takaba guess he was in a phone conversation.
"Mr. Merrett, you asked for my advice and this is what I'm telling you. If you take this to court, it's almost guaranteed that you will lose. A lawsuit like this a absolute suicide." An exasperated sigh followed. "You want a percentage? This isn't science, but I'd say about ninety, ninety-five percent. But more than the money, it'll be bad publicity to take something like this before a jury and judge." Pause, with some fast pacing.
Takaba sat up and edged out of bed, his toes reaching the wooden floor then the rest of his soles. The mattress creaked when he pushed himself up; his entire body felt weak and flimsy as if it were an effort to stand. Slowly, he crept around to the bathroom and shut the door, not bothering to lock the door. He could still hear Gyles' engaged conversation, though a bit muffled.
"Mr. Merrett. Mr. Merrett, you're not listening to a single word I'm saying. You're hearing me but my words seem to be passing right through the other ear. You kept me on the board for a reason, and tell me, when have my intuitions been wrong?" pause, "No, they're not wild guesses. I don't shoot darts blindfolded. Not in my policy book."
Takaba turned on the sink to a trickle, wetting the tip of his toothbrush (he had left a spare here after last week). The toothpaste was a bit harder to squeeze with his still flimsy hands but he managed and shoved the bristles into his mouth, listening to Gyles' conversation, a bit guilty to be eavesdropping. Well, it wasn't as if he really knew what they were talking about.
"Why would it be bad publicity? Well, no, it's not the company's fault. But. To the public, it will still look as though it was the management that made the miscalculations when it fact, it wasn't. What? No! That would be absolutely absurd, Mr. Merrett."
Takaba spit out the foam of the toothpaste and filled a cup with cold water, rinsing his mouth out while gurgling was quietly he could without water rushing up his nose or swallowing the minty solution. He made it a habit to brush his teeth first thing in the morning, or in this case, the afternoon.
"Of course not, but…" Gyles paused, evidently listening to a long monologue from the other side. "I understand your point, but…"
He felt as though he had a mild hangover, a faint headache. It wasn't a migraine, not that kind. Rather, it felt a bit dull and blunt, like a faint heartbeat edging closer to a flat line. Probably something a shower could fix, freshen up a bit maybe.
"You can't expect the employees to have anything good to say about something as far fetched as that. That's outrageous, Mr. Merrett. There are ideas that work and ideas that don't, and with all due respect, that particular idea…is one that will not work."
Takaba clutched the oversized shirt and was about to raised it over his head when he caught the smell of Gyles' cologne clinging to it faintly, just barely, and he buried the hem of the shirt and breathed in deeply, taking solace from the scent.
It was entirely different from Asami's. His gaze gravitated toward the floor length mirrored wall, a sight he had been avoiding up until now.
You bloody whore, Akihito…you still remember his scent, don't you?
It was true; he did remember Asami's distinct, unforgettable scent. It was one of those things that remained ingrained into his very cells. Branded into his memory, unable to purge it from his mind. Inexpungible. Ineradicable. A permanent mark branded beneath his skin. An incessant reminder of his infidelity.
Infidelity? Have I been faithful? What do I have to be faithful for? For whom?
For Asami… For Gyles…
He stripped out of the oversized clothed, disgusted at himself. A rueful smile crept onto his lips. Who could he possibly choose? Either way, it was a lose-lose situation. Either way, he would hurt one or the other, even more so than he had already done. And either way, he would hurt himself.
I can't…how could I…
"The situation requires patience, Mr. Merrett. I would suggest that you think this over a few days."
He stepped into the stall, spreading out the translucent curtain. From the other side, one could only see a colorful silhouette moving in shadows from behind.
"A dinner at the Ritz tonight? That's a bit short notice. Why so suddenly? Ah, I see. The vice chair and his wife went on vacation? To where? Oh, Brazil. I can understand somewhat. I'm sure not if I can make time. I might be there only for the opening reception, but the dinner, I'll have to see how it works out."
Takaba turned on the showerhead, drowning out the last bit of Gyles' voice with the rush of water. He gasped at the initial contact of icy cold water and shivered even when the temperature increased, his hair still standing on their ends. The steady stream of the droplets stampeded onto and over his back, quickly drenching his hair completely.
He grabbed the shampoo bottle, squirted the viscous liquid into his hands, watching it ooze into his palm, and rubbed in into his hair, digging deep into the scalp. The headache was still there, at the base of the back of his neck. He stopped lathering the foam and let the pressure of the water wash it out. The pressure felt like a faint vibration, the kind one experience when standing too close to a temple gong or between two cymbals, a vague tremor suspended in the air.
Asami…I am being unfaithful, aren't I?
He was, wasn't he? But to be unfaithful, you had to be a lover first. A lover had the capability, the possibility to be faithful. But what was he? He was never…no…he was never Asami's lover. That was a title of prestige restricted to someone else, someone more…worthy. Someone more valuable than he was.
What was I to him…was I anything to him…anything at all…
Anything at all and would he have been satisfied with that? There was more greed in him than that. His avarice ran deeper than just anything. He couldn't live on nothing and nothing was what Asami gave him. The man could lead him to hell and back, slamming him into the mattress, and bringing out to the surface a wantonness that he didn't want to admit, but that was all he got. He could have lived without the sex probably. But when there nothing to fill that growing void in his heart, that was when he fled to London.
"Sei? Are you in there?"
Is that why I ran?
"I'm coming in."
…what a coward I am…
I'm a wretched beast. A wret-
The curtain was pulled aside abruptly, and Takaba turned his head abruptly. When had Gyles come in? He hadn't even heard the door opening.
"What?" His eyes stung not from the shampoo but from crying.
"I called you a few time, but you didn't answer. I got worried and…are you crying?"
Takaba laughed, or perhaps he was sobbing. "I don't know, I can't tell the difference…" and he couldn't. Not with all the water that diluted and washed away the tears.
Gyles stepped forward, his white collared button down plastering against his skin as the shower doused him with hot water. Takaba could see the lines of defined muscles beneath, a shade of the skin visible through the wet fabric. Gyles gently pushed him against the cold wall. A wet finger tilted Takaba's head up, and he squinted slightly into those piercing eyes.
Can I drive you away, Gyles…am I capable of being that cruel?
Hot lips fell across Takaba's.
I think one day…
A wet tongue invaded the chamber of his mouth.
I think one day, I just might…
A large hand crept below, and rested between his legs, on the tender spot on his inner thigh.
And when I do…
"Forget about him…" Gyles whispered softly into the wet lobe of Takaba's ears, his voice muffled by the steady stream of water.
Gyles…how could I…
The hand lifted Takaba's leg, leaving him open and vulnerable.
You can't expect that from me…can you?
Gyles' cock pressed against Takaba, then slowly, the pressure increased until the head slipped into the hot passage, stretching him from the very start.
"Nnnh…" a whimper escaped Takaba's lips, one arm went over Gyles' shoulder, clutching at the wet fabric of his shirt, fingers digging into his back. The other gripped the arm that held his leg up, just below the shoulders.
He slid in farther, slowly, stopping at short intervals to let Takaba adjust. Takaba could feel it pulsing inside him. He could feel the ridges of the veins pushing against the tight walls. It slid out slowly, just enough to leave the tip inside.
"Gyles…" a powerful thrust pushed him up against the shower wall, which no longer felt cold against his back, "Nng!"
Gyles watched his lover throw his head back, wet locks of hair falling loose from his face, revealing a twisted show of emotions. Love, hate, remorse, regret. That such contradicting feelings could accumulate in one person, like cancer, an infected wound.
Takaba's eyes were half closed and lips parted open, enticing Gyles as a drop of water landed on the lower lips. With his index finger, he touched where the droplet had landed.
Don't be kind to me…
Takaba felt Gyles' finger slide seductively over his lips and he released Gyles arm and seized his hand by the wrist. He licked the tip of Gyles' finger and sucked, running his tongue under and over the first digit.
Gyles slowly pulled the hand away and replaced it with his lips; Takaba kissed him with fervent desire, wrapping his arms tightly around Gyles' neck, hooking both his legs onto the strong, thrusting hips, reeling Gyles in closer, harder.
Torture me, Gyles…
The thrusts came faster, dramatic and eager.
"Nnh… " Takaba moaned with every push, "Haa…" no longer able to suppress what came naturally from the base of his throat. Gyles' voice was husky and low as he whispered quietly into Takaba's ears, and his every breath was coarse and rough.
This guilt…if you don't torture me…I can't bear it…
Hot liquid poured into Takaba as he reached the edge.
I beg of you, Gyles… to tear me to pieces…
The feeble body slumped against Gyles, his head buried into wet, brown hair.
Takaba put up the last of the washed plates on the drying rack; he had asked Gyles to drive him back to his home. When Gyles realized that Takaba was probably going to end up skipping his lunch yet again, he insisted on staying to make something for him.
The meal they ate in silence, Takaba unable to utter a word. What he had done in the shower while thinking of Asami, it was appalling and disgusting, even to him and especially to him. He wanted to scratch away his filthy skin. He was tainted, and now, he was infecting Gyles with his sick disease.
A few times Gyles had said him something, he couldn't remember what, and Takaba had been so lost in his own mind that he sometimes hadn't even noticed that Gyles was talking to him until a question came up and he looked up from his plate with a blank, confused look.
He needs to know… he kept thinking, over and over again. He deserves to know…
Gyles came up behind Takaba, wrapping his arms around the slender waist, locking his fingers together and resting his hands on the toned stomach that caved in just slightly around the naval. He jumped slightly when he felt the strength of the arms that came around him then relaxed when Gyles gently kissed his neck, just below the ear, hot lips brushing against tender skin. Wiping his hands on his jeans, he turned in Gyles' embrace, leaning back towards the sink to look up at Gyles' face. Blue, deep set eyes, shadowed by the defined contours of the face, gazed into his.
Gyles leaned forward and took Takaba's lips, which opened easily at the kiss. It began slowly, a gentle nudge from Gyles, the tip of their tongues touched and retracted then met again. This time, they twisted against each other, savoring the taste until Gyles pulled back slowly, a line of saliva lingering.
Takaba reached up and touched Gyles' cheek, stroking the skin with his thumb.
You poor thing…you don't even know the lies…
Gyles in response took the small hand into his and kissed them on top of the fingers, holding them gently as though he had a fallen bird in his palm.
But not anymore…
Takaba shook his head and looked down, pulling his hand away.
He couldn't look at Gyles in the face, let alone meet his eyes. There was a lump at his throat, muting his voice.
You should know…
"Sei…what's the matter…"
Those blue eyes, he could feel them riveted onto him, past the superficial layer of skin, digging deeper and farther and seeping into his bloodstream.
I'll make you hate me, Gyles…
I'll make you loathe me…
Because that's just the only way…
"I've been lying to you, Gyles!" He pushed Gyles away as hard as he could, stepping out of the embrace. Don't touch me, Gyles…because I can't be cruel if you're touching me…
Gyles paused. "I know that…you don't love me entirely, if at all. I know you still have someone, another lover, in your heart, but that's not…that's not lying, Sei, not that."
Takaba looked up abruptly, fiercely, heat radiating from his amber eyes. "Don't you dare talk about what you don't know! Never again! He and I, we were never lovers! Do you understand?" Then the fire dissipated as quickly as it had burst, as if cold water had doused the heat, leaving not even the glowing ambers. "We never had… that kind of… status."
That explains a lot.
"Then what could you possibly have lied about?"
"What else?" Takaba's eyes were hollow as he uttered, "Me."
"I'm not… who you think I am." His breathing wavered, like a soft tremolo held by a violin, "Do you remember, when I said I couldn't recognize myself in the mirror anymore?"
"That's because… this isn't me, Gyles. I'm not what I pretend to be. I'm just a fake! A hypocrite!"
"Sei…" he took a step, only to be stopped by Takaba.
"I can't keep up this façade anymore! It's unbearable having to lie to you every single day because you don't me. You can't know me because I haven't let you see anything true. I've been…oh Gyles… I've been misleading you so wrong."
"What are you getting at?"
Takaba grabbed Gyles' wrist and led him out of the kitchen, through the living room into his bedroom and closed the door. He swallowed and licked his dry lips.
"Do you see that bottom drawer? Under the desk." his eyes were fixed on the metal handle.
Gyles frowned, perplexed at the odd request.
"Go on, open it."
I have to do this… this is the only way Gyles will ever understand…
Gyles walked over slowly and crouched, slowly pulling the drawer open. There were a few binders of pictures.
"Take those out."
Gyles did so, placing the thick binders on the des and was about to stand when Takaba whispered, "There's more."
There wasn't, was there? Just the wooden bottom. Unless… it was a false bottom.
"Push it down."
Gyles pushed down and the other end of the false bottom popped up. He pulled out the thin wooden plank, afraid and curious both at the same time to discover what laid beneath.
There was a handgun inside along with an extra magazine. Under it were a two photographs and legal documents.
Why would Sei be keeping these hidden? And the gun, what use did he have for it? He picked up the thin stack of documents among other things and stood up, placing them on the table; a passport slipped out and fell onto the wooden floor.
Gyles knelt slowly. It was an old passport, much more aged in its passport than the one he had seen Takaba use before. He turned it over in his hand. Did he want to open this? It would probably defunct everything he knew of Takaba, leave what little he knew useless.
His finger slipped in behind the cover and opened the passport. Inside was a picture of Takaba except much younger, but no doubt that it was him, just different. In this one, he had a bright, awkward smile and short chestnut, teeming of energy just waiting to. His aura was still young, as if the fire that he from time to time saw in Takaba was burning at its brightest.
Name: Takaba, Akihito
He looked up at Takaba, who was looking away, biting his lips, dreading the inevitable. Gyles went through the other documents, each with the same foreign name printed across it. Some pictures of family and friends.
Takaba slid down against wall and buried his face into his hands. He nodded silently.
"For two years?"
Yes…for too long…
"Sweet Jesus…" The documents fell in a messy heap, scattering like leaves in autumn.
Takaba listened as the sound of Gyles' footsteps drew farther and farther away and his front door closed slammed shut.
It's better this way…
"Ah, Mr. Asami, there you are!" Mr. Merrett came rushing towards Asami, who was hidden in the corner of the reception hall, trying to be as invisible as he possible. He just…didn't feel much like putting on a fake façade. Not today. Not tonight.
"Mr. Merrett.," he acknowledged the Englishman with a slight nod.
"This is my wife, Kate." He motioned at a young woman in her twenties. In fact, far too young for the aging Mr.Merrett, "Kate, this is Mr. Asami, an honorary guest from Japan."
Asami took the woman's hand and kissed it at the fingers, "A pleasure Mrs. Merrett."
She blushed and smiled seductively, much to Mr. Merrett's chagrin.
"That's enough now, Mr. Asami and I have some people to meet," he led Asami away from the young wife and toward a group of wealthy looking gentlemen, involved in a light hearted banter when the two men approached.
"Mr. Merrett! I must say, this is marvelous," a young blond man in his early thirties came up, "And who is this dashing guest you have here?" he asked as he turned toward Asami, a bright smile stretching his cheeks a bit too wide for Asami's taste.
"Mr. Clark, so glad you could make it. This gentleman here is Mr. Asami, our honorary guest from Japan. Mr. Asami, this is Mr. Clark. He's on the executive for British Petroleum."
This…bubbly man is an executive at BP…interesting…
"What a pleasure," he shook Asami's hands a bit too enthusiastically, "the trip must have been difficult. Have you gotten over the jetlag?"
"I've been here a week already."
"Oh, I see. And are you enjoying London?"
"As always. It's a brilliant city."
"Nah, I've seen better, but yes, it's quite marvelous."
Mr. Merrett interrupted, "We really must be moving on."
"It was pleasure, Mr. Asami." He turned to Mr. Merrett one last time, "But where is Mr. Arlington?"
"Ah, I'm afraid our vice president is taking a vacation in Brazil." Mr. Merrett frowned a bit, "Shall we move on, Mr. Asami?"
Takaba shivered as he waited outside Gyles' door. It wasn't even that cold, according to the weatherman, it was supposedly a "fine winter day with some long awaited sun." To Takaba, it didn't make a difference. Winter was winter, and in winter, there were only different degrees of coldness. Besides, his eyes felt bloated and puffy from crying so long until his tear ducts went on strike and refused to lend its salty liquid.
He had been standing outside for a good five minutes not and no one was answering. He wasn't even sure whether Gyles was in or not; it wasn't as if he could just walk in to the garage and see if the car was there or not. The sentinel had only let him in because he frequented Gyles so often.
He still had Gyles' apartment key in his pocket but no intention of using it. It would be…cruel to make use of it now after what he done just this afternoon. Besides, he fully intended to give it back as a show of…apology of sorts. He wasn't really sure himself. Now, though, it looked like Gyles wasn't home and he was going to freeze to death if he just stood outside doing nothing.
The key slid into its hole easily, grinding into the metal slots and latching on as if it belonged there. It may have but not Takaba, he didn't belong. With a reluctant sigh, he pushed the door open noiselessly and peered inside. All the lights were off and so far, it looked unoccupied. Takaba gathered up more nerve and stepped inside, shutting the door behind him. He reached for the light switch, knowing full well where it was. He might not have slept over very often, but he probably knew the blueprint of the large flat as well as he knew his own apartment's, if not better.
When the lights flickered on, there was a note written on a bright yellow post-it note, stuck on the forehead of Augustus Caesar, the last of the five Good Emperors of Rome. It was rather humorous to see a piece of paper over what was meant to be a commemorative tribute to such a man of history, regardless of how long ago he had died.
It cracked a rare smile from Takaba.
He pulled the note from the marble surface and read it, slowly, twice, three times.
Dear my beloved Akihito,
Oh god… Gyles…
I write this note in hopes that it will be gone by the time I come home tonight. It may be a wish futile and desperate after my selfish reaction to your act of courage this afternoon. I hope you will forgive me, Akihito, for what I did to you, and for your resolute honesty, I am forever grateful.
This does not take away from my love for you, instead, I hope to cherish you even more and hold you closer than ever before. I love you, and I will wait for you, ten, twenty years and more, until my death and after it. And I will be content, Akihito, knowing it was you whom I waited for.
He pulled a pen from his pocket and flipped the note over.
Takaba placed the note back onto the forehead of the bust, laughing through his dry tears.
"Gyles, you tenacious bastard…"
He fingered the apartment key and placed it beside the marble bust.
And I run from you as well, Gyles…
He had no tears left to shed as the lights went out.
Gyles spotted Mr. Merrett in the reception hall. He had arrived about half an hour or so late, having taken the time to write the last minute note for Takaba. The documents, the passport, the old photos were all still vivid in his mind. He could still feel the rough texture on the aged passport in beneath his fingertips. And he could still picture Takaba's distraught form. How could he have done that? Walking out when Takaba needed him the most.
Now that he could think levelheadedly, Takaba had probably given it a lot of thought before coming to the decision of revealing himself. He probably turned himself inside out, knowing his personality. And he had left Takaba there, broken down and shattered, his head buried in his palms, the papers scattered all around them.
"Mr. Merrett!" he approached the old man with a plastered smile.
"Finally here, Mr. Tennison." Mr. Merrett pat Gyles on the shoulder a few times.
"Some things held me back."
"Of course, of course!" he looked around, "Why, you don't have a partner!"
"Well, no. Not tonight."
"What a pity. Oh, I almost forgot, I would like you to greet a guest from Japan. He's outside on the courtyard terrace, I believe." Mr. Merrett was a bit jumpy, more nervous than usual, "I've got some, uh, business to take care of."
Japan…that's where Se-…Akihito is from…isn't it?
"He's a close associate of mine."
Gyles made his way through the reception hall, shaking hands with a few more of the guests before finally making his way to the other side. Cold air blasted him when he opened the door and stepped out into the terrace. Snow crunched under his polished black shoes.
Asami drew in a lungful of smoke. It was a relief to finally get outside and take a breather in the hotel courtyard. The day had drawn to a close hours ago and night had crept in, along with the frost that came with it.
The happy faces those buffoons put on was disgusting. He couldn't stand it too be perfectly frank; at this point. All he wanted to do was pack up and go back to Japan, where he wouldn't have time to think about those petty unnecessary things people thought about when they had too much time on their hands.
His sharp senses picked up the sound of footsteps from behind and he turned.
Oh my God…that's…
It was unmistakable. The aura, the composure, the stance. The power and control he emanated. The very still demeanor made it more than obvious. The distinct trademark posture he had seen in the photograph, it was like an explicit sign declaring the man as him, as who he was. Except, he was…he loomed large in real life.
Asami turned, dropping his cigarette and digging it into the snow.
"You are the guest from Japan, correct?" Gyles extended his hand, "Gyles Tennison."
That's the…exhibit owner…he's the one that knows Akihito…
"I didn't quite expect to be defined by my nationality. Asami. A pleasure, Mr. Tennison." He took the hand, knowing it must have touched Akihito's.
"Mr. Asami, it's quite an honor to have you here with us tonight."
"It's been a rather serendipitous visit actually." There was a subtle smirk, barely detectable, across Asami's lips.
Jesus…does the man know?
"Well, there's always surprises around the corner, aren't there?" Gyles remarked off-handedly, to see how Asami would react.
"Indeed there are."
The tension was there, inevitable and present. But their privacy was cut off when one of Asami's men rushed out and whispered into his ear, the whisper hushed and urgent. Gyles caught at that moment, the change in attitude. It was such a contrast from the man he had just been exchanging innuendos with to the man he saw now with a stern expression, nodding to his subordinate.
"Mr. Asami, we need to move out of here immediately. There's some suspicion as to whether Mr. Merrett can be trusted at this point. We've already prepared for the departure and arranged an emergency flight out."
Asami turned to leave, but just as he passed Gyles, he whispered, "Keep a tight leash; he likes to run away."
Mr. Carthen jumped at the sound of his phone ringing, wide awake from his unintentional nap.
"TIMES human resources, Carthen speaking."
"Mr. Carthen. I'm the photographer, Tanaka. We spoke yesterday at the gallery."
"Ah! Mr. Tanaka, what a surprise. I wasn't expecting to hear from for another few days. Have you made a decision then?"
"Yes. I'll accept the proposal, but on one condition."
"Which would be?"
"I want my plane scheduled for tonight."
"Tonight?" he stood abruptly from the table, holding the phone with his shoulder and typing furiously at the keyboard. A flight for…tonight…
"Ah, just one moment." Takaba could here rapid clicking and typing, "There's a flight to Berlin in…just under an hour. You can pick up the ticket at the airport, will that be alright?"
"Are you sure you can make it? The luggage and everything."
Takaba zipped up the last bag. "I'm sure I can get there in time"
"Do you need a ride to the airport?"
"No, thank you. I've called a taxi."
"Well then. We're very excited to have you in the project."
"As I am." Takaba looked out his window as the taxi stopped before the apartment building, "I must really be going."
"Of course, do contact me when you arrive."
"I will be sure to. And one more thing."
"Keep my locations confidential please."
"You will regret what you have done today." Asami's hands released Mr. Merrett's throat. The man coughed as he sank down the wall, "Let's see how much of that reputation of yours is still there by tomorrow morning."
Asami left the hotel room, his men close behind him. He ignored the polite greetings of the hotel employees, as he crossed the lobby.
"Where did you set the destination?"
"I'm afraid the next flight to a country where we have immunity was Germany."
"Perfect," he ducked into the car. This was one reason why he liked being a major stock holder in certain airline companies. Enough leverage and a flight could be arranged disguised under "commercial" purposes. It did tend to tangle up the runway schedules in airports though sometimes.
Anyway. The Merrett bastard had been planning on assassinating Asami just before his Thursday departure. The man didn't know who he was messing with. "Have them contact every one of Merrett's contacts. Isolate him. Pit him against his own world. A man like that, he will fall in no time."
By tomorrow morning, all direct and indirect contacts would be pressured to break off relations with the Englishman and what protection he had from the law would soon be stripped away. The man was headed for hell. After all, he had tried to bring down Hades himself, and the god of the underworld would never lose on his own turf.
The chaos of the airport was enough to take Takaba's mind off his worries and focus them onto finding the right terminal and gate for the Berlin flight. He was glad to have the boarding pass in his hands as he loaded his materials into the x-ray scanner. His equipment bag, fortunately, was lined to provide protection against those beastly machines. Fifteen minutes left. Thankfully, the pass from the magazine provided relative ease with all the security. Pretty much, he could walk through them.
He picked up his backpack and duffel bag from the other end of the scanner. He had been here before, but the airports were something he always found a bit hectic even to his space and direction oriented mind. Terminal 2…where the heck…ah, that way…
He was literally running down, and thankfully, there weren't many departures at this hour already. Turn left, right, sliding doors. Show your boarding pass. Move on.
He spotted the gate number. The waiting area was completely empty.
"Flight A220. Last call for flight A220 for Berlin, Germany."
By the time he reached the desk, he was breathless. "Excuse me…" inhale "I'm…" another breath "on…" last breath "this flight…"
The woman smiled at him. "Take your time."
"Thank you," he smiled back sliding his boarding pass and passport across the counter.
She tore the stub from the boarding pass and handed his passport back, "Enjoy your flight, Mr. Tanaka."
Gyles saw the note still pasted on the forehead of the bust.
So he hasn't…
His eyes then found the key left beside the marble piece. He reached out and touched the metal.
So you were here…
He tore the note from the marble, on the back side was a short letter.
Please don't hate me for this.
I exposed to you my greatest deception in hopes to drive you away in disgust. I feel I can no longer keep up what we've had after my act of treachery against you. I've played out the masquerade out too long and the façade is becoming rather difficult to maintain. It took a toll on both of us, I believe. Don't wait for me, Gyles, because it will only make the both of us miserable, waiting for what will not come.
I don't know for sure, but there were moments when I think I might have loved you, if only for a fleeting moment. I will treasure those moments, but I beg of you Gyles. Forget me. I cannot ask of you to forgive me. But forget me.
So you're gone then… I hope you find him…
The medium sized cabin of the entire plane was completely empty. Not a single other passenger he could see. It was odd, that a plane this size would be so unoccupied. Had there been some terrorist threat he wasn't aware of? There were plenty of those nowadays. Stupid fanatics.
Not that Takaba really cared. It was a flight out and that was all that mattered. He tucked his backpack under the seat and put the duffel bag into the overhead cabin. He had the entire three seat row to himself and he took advantage of it by pushing up the arm rests and curled up.
The plane was taking a bit of time departing, probably waiting for the rest of the passengers that is.
He covered himself with his coat, using another bundle of clothes as a makeshift pillow and even before the plane began moving, he was fast asleep; He was simply and completely exhausted.
"Is the flight empty?" Asami glanced at his watch again as the car approached the airport; in fact, he could see the control tower in the distance.
"No, sir. I'm afraid two other people managed to book a flight in the two hour time gap."
Asami raised an eyebrow. It was rare that anyone should book a flight in such short notice, but he replied nonchalantly, "I see."
"Would you like to see the passenger list, sir?"
"No, it's fine. I doubt an extra passenger could be much of a threat." It didn't really matter that anyone else was on the flight as long as he could get out of London; if it was Merrett, the man might be foolish enough to set up last minute attempts at him to try and save his ass. Something that probably wasn't going to work anyway.
The car drove directly onto the runway trails from the outer gate so that he would bypass the tedious airport processes. It was hard not to stand out when one had four rather intimidating bodyguards trailing behind him, not to mention himself, and most times, he had no need to be any more conspicuous than he already was.
Takaba had been asleep for about twenty minutes when he woke again, and this time, to a headache throbbing from the temples down to the back his head. He had gone a week without a headache and now was certainly not the best time. The unfamiliar cabin pressure wasn't helping much either with the all too familiar buzz ringing in his ears. He pinched his nose and breathed out, hoping to equalize the pressure and ease the dull pain on his sinus and eardrums.
The plane was probably already cruising however many thousand feet off the air, it didn't matter. The superficial details never did. After all, what it came down to was the pulsing and hammering in his head, rushing up the arteries that lined his neck. He sat up and grimaced as his back popped and grinded, feeling a bit older than he really was and his head swirling from the sudden motion.
Takaba sat still for a moment, letting the black spots in his vision fade away as a sense of balance restored to his ears. The light in the cabin was dimmed and he looked around at the cabin to see another person sitting three rows behind him, with a good length, paperback novel in his hand. The man glanced up at him then went back to his reading.
What's his problem?
Takaba shrugged as he reached down to pull his backpack out from beneath the seat. The pill bottle was somewhere inside…hopefully… If it wasn't…he was going to have a very difficult two hours to Berlin. He tried the first outer pocket, then the second layer, moving on the side pockets. Frustrated and a bit panicked, he dug into the back pouches and searched around the best he could until he finally gave up.
Shit… he groaned inwardly. He could see the pale yellow bottle sitting on the kitchen table where he had left it…Akihito, you fucking IDIOT…why? Why did you have to leave it there? Why?
He reached up and pressed the call button and waited until the same stewardess came out to him, "Can I help you?" She smiled a bit too brightly for someone having to work while most people were sleeping. Airplane employees were strange like that… then again, it wasn't as if his sleep pattern was anything within the range of normal.
"Err…do you have any…um…anything for a headache?"
She smiled at him with a concerned look over her make-up covered face, dry power bunching around her dimples, "We have Tylenol, aspirin, and ibuprofen."
I'd like your entire inventory, please.
"Um…the Tylenol. 500mg. Extra strength or PM if you have them." If there was anything Takaba knew other than his cameras, it was medicine. Headache and pain relievers, to be specific.
As she turned to walk away, he added, "And water please. Lots of water."
"I'll be sure to remember that." She disappeared down the aisle behind a curtain. Takaba could hear the metal cabinet open and close and the dull clicks of her heels against the cabin carpet approach. She left a small package with two capsules of 500mg Tylenol and a bottle of water on the pull down tray. "Anything else, sir?" At least it wasn't one of those flimsy airplane cups.
"No, this is fine. Thank you." He managed the best smile without jarring his facial muscles. He glanced down at the wrapped package again. PM. Yes…he might be able to get some sleep if he could just tone down the pain enough to put him to sleep.
He waited until she was gone to rip open the package and shake out two white pills, desperate like a drug addict on the verge of withdrawal. He paused for a moment, realizing how pathetic he must have looked. What the hell…The doctor had said something about not dosing himself too much, but two pills was the standard. Something about liver problems and such, but the details were rather fuzzy. Not like he cared anyway.
He snorted at himself, overdose…I'd have to be an infant or something.
Nothing to worry about. Besides, overdose was the very last thing on his mind. Not with a thousand imaginary pellets ricocheting off the inside of his skull while an imaginary drill grinded holes into the side of his head. It felt like he'd stuck his head inside a bell on a church steeple and some Notre-dame fucker was ringing them incessantly. Stupid Disney movies.
Shut. The. Fuck. Up. He couldn't even listen to himself think.
As the liquid washed down the bitter pills and wet his dry throat, he sighed softly. Just a matter of time. Just a matter of time, he told himself as tiny pebbles of sweat gathered around his forehead, climbing down the side of his face and cheeks when they gathered into large enough drops. His nose was moist from the sweat pooling out slowly from miniscule pores. Slowly, he stood up, holding on to the edge of the seats for what little balance they could offer.
God that headache was killing him, at least, it felt like it was, sending jagged waves of pain to his nerve receptors, fire burning across the synapses of his cells like lightning, white spontaneous flashes blinking at the back of his eye. He could imagine himself as a blind man caught in traffic who had just opened his eyes for the first time to see headlights and blinkers flashing at him as they zoomed past, leaving him in a cloud of dust and smoke. Chaos and confusion. That's what it came down to.
The bathrooms were all the way down the aisle towards the back and it was tempting to go forward and use the bathrooms reserved for the first and business class, on account that they were about fifteen rows closer to him.
Hell, there probably weren't many first class passengers anyway. Right?
With slow steps, he made his way forward; occasionally, the other passenger glanced up at him with a rather irritated look, but what did he know? Let him feel the pain. Takaba eased forward until he reached the curtain that separated the economy and first class. Slowly he opened it noiselessly and slipped in. He spotted four or five other passengers in their larger, more comfortable seats before slipping inside the cramped quarters of the bathroom.
Asami looked back at the sound of the bathroom doors closing. None of his men had gotten up to go relieve themselves. It didn't really matter whether they used the bathroom or not. Asami wasn't petty enough to fuss over such trivial details. Not worth the effort. Not worth the time. Period.
His mind was on Merrett. That son-of-a-bitch. Perhaps it was partly Asami's fault for underestimating the Englishman; he should have taken more precautions before his trip to London. He couldn't have the man killed despite what he tried to do to Asami, which was just that, killing, but he could certainly bring down rather easily.
Start with his contacts and "friendships," or rather, business partnerships. All under the table, of course. Shake enough hands, deliver enough bribes and the man would be isolated in no time. Afghanistan, Columbia, Peru, Nigeria, South Africa. Cut off his routes, and his personal friends in London, the ones that covered for him. Once Merrett started losing his chips, they would soon fold their cards and leave the table. No point in playing when they had nothing to gain.
Personal loyalty? What a joke. This was the twenty-first century, not the feudal ages. There were no predetermined lords. The only thing a man lived up to was what he built up with his own hands. And very little had Merrett built.
Another matter he needed to attend to. Something a bit more difficult. A bit more tricky, sensitive. It was a matter that required more than his financial wit. A fragile glass piece waiting to be tipped over and shattered.
Tennison, the gallery owner, seemed to know more than he had let on. It was obvious from his tone, the way he took a stance, not defensive, not aggressive, but there was an intriguing vagueness there. He had tensed when Asami whispered those words to him.
Asami flexed his fingers. Calm down, Asami. There was good bet that Tennison and Akihito were lovers. Now that he thought about it, there was very little doubt to this inconvenient little truth. Why else would Tennison have flinched at his touch? The man knew about him and he knew about the man. There had been a tacit acknowledgement of the opposite's identity and status.
If there was anything Merrett deserved to die for. It was this. London was no longer a safe harbor for Asami, at least not for another three or four months, after which all the investigative frenzy would settle down. That's what happened when people kicked up dust. It very often left movements constricted, eyes blinded. That made it difficult for Asami. And rather….aggravated him.
This was what he hated most, a carrot dangled before him, just barely out of reach, taunting him, mocking him, daring him to come and get it.
Mark my words, Akihito…I'll have you, ALL of you.
After relieving himself, Akihito washed his hand in the tiny bathroom sink, holding the stingy faucet down with his elbow to keep the thin trickle of water flowing. Thing number two he didn't like about airplanes: The bathrooms and everything in the bathrooms were miniaturized when clearly every passenger was usually a full grown adult. Leave it to the engineers to get it right.
He smirked despite the headache, which was only getting worse by the second. Humoring yourself, Akihito?
He glanced up at the mirror, leaning forward over the sink, his fingers wet and slippery.
Jesus Christ, I look awful…but at least…a thin smile crept up painfully…I can somewhat see myself now…
Even so, the contrast between his jet black hair, so black it killed the light, against his face, pale and white, was appalling. He looked like he was an anorexic teenage girl or something, not that he was anywhere near that skinny, but…
Lost weight again, eh?
Not really surprising considering his weight history. For two years he fluctuated between lean and underweight, swinging back and forth like a pendulum between healthy and sickly; it was as if he was on chemotherapy or something along those lines. But it wasn't radiation that was killing him now. It was his corrupt self, carving away inside out like parasites clinging to the insides of his intestines, draining him while he didn't even notice.
The plane jolted suddenly knocking him off his feet. His knees tangled over the toilet and his head slammed into a small notch on the wall.
"Fuck." He grimaced. His head was really hurting now. Powerful jabs coursed through the cracks of his brain, spreading poison that seeped into the cells.
Jesus fucking Christ.
Leave it God to kick up a migraine.
"This is the captain of the flight. We're encountering some minor disturbances in the atmosphere. If you would please return to your seats at this moment for your safety. Thank you."
And leave it to the pilot to fuck up his privacy.
Takaba felt something hot and sticky and wet trickle down the side of his forehead, a warm liquid licking down on his skin. Without thinking he reached up and touched it and looked at the red, stained fingers. Blood. His pulse thumped against the inner walls of his cranium, hammering closely with its some constant and unrelenting reverberations, just nailing at him.
"Sir? Are you alright, sir?" the female voice reached him through the door, muffled but too high-pitched for his sensitive ears.
"I'll be out soon, thank you." He croaked back as best he could.
"Sir, could you open the door. Sir-"
"I'm fine." Leave. Me. The. Fuck. Alone.
Asami felt the plane shake, a mild whiplash following. One reason why he didn't like small to medium sized plane. They can't handle the turbulence. His cup tilted to its side and fell, spilling the amber liquid over the right leg of his suit. The cup rolled off onto the carpet floor.
He clicked his tongue. The suit could be replaced easily, but it was just plain annoying to have to clean off the liquid. He pulled up the tray and stood. One of his men made to stand, but he raised his hand subtly. The captain made his usual return-to-your-seat comment, which was just another way of the airline company saying sit-down-so-we-don't-get-sued.
There was a stewardess before a door, knocking and speaking with a bit of panic in her voice.
"Could you open the door, sir. It's not safe to be-" the person on the other side of the door kicked it hard, with a crash, as if to say leave-me-the-fuck-alone. Asami raised his eyebrows at the woman. She looked back at him with a concerned expression, her brows creased and furrowed between her eyes.
"He's been inside for more than ten minutes."
Oh? Asami knocked on the door quietly. Sometimes diplomacy worked. And it must have because this time, a soft, pained voice replied.
It didn't matter what language it was, but the voice was still the same, unchanged after two years. He could have been deaf and that voice, he still would have heard. Asami froze, his senses momentarily paralyzed as if phantoms had locked onto his limbs, holding them tight and immovable.
How could it…how could Akihito have ended up on this flight? The chances that he was one of the other passengers that he had overlooked before was so minute, so microscopic. Asami whispered quietly to the stewardess, dropping his voice to barely more than silent mouthing, "Who's inside?"
"He's photographer from TIMES. He asked for some headache pills about fifteen minutes ago, and I'm afraid he's not exactly well…"
"What's his name?"
"Um…." The stewardess thought, "Mr. Takana? Oh, Mr. Sei…Tanaka."
So that's it, huh?
"I'll take care of this."
"I know him."
The stewardess nodded and rushed off to the back, the curtain rustling behind her.
Asami drew a deep breath and placed his palm on the door. If Akihito knew it was him, he would probably never open the door, even if it meant suffocating or starving himself in the cramped bathroom. Knowing him, he would hold on until the last drop of energy had been spent, and even then, some miracle would keep him going. Energizer bunny couldn't par with this boy.
Takaba heard hushed whispered beyond the door. He couldn't make out the voices but then he heard the stewardess walk away and relaxed…finally…some peace…
And his half-second tranquility shattered.
"Akihito, listen to me."
Asami… the voice was heavenly in his ears, divine and celestial. Oh god…what have I done…
"Are you listening?" silence "Please do."
"Remember that time when you almost got hit by my car?"
Of course. It was such a surprise.
A soft chuckle followed, "When I bumped into you, it was the highlight of my day."
Akihito couldn't help but let out a short breath. I could never tell.
"I didn't act much like it, did I?"
Well, no…not really…
"With the phone plastered to my ears, pretending to ignore you…"
You were pretending?
"I know, pretty childish of me, wasn't it?"
I can kind of understand…
"Those little things…they must have hurt, didn't they?"
Akihito looked up at the door. What are you saying… the lock beckoned at him.
"Not knowing where we stood."
There was a long silence between them, the door still shut tight.
"I love you, Akihito."
I love you, Asami…
"Is it too late now? To apologize?"
Don't apologize… for anything… Takaba's hand reached for the lock and turned it.
The red light switched to green, ironically reading "VACANT" because it was so much more than that.
Their hand touched the door from both sides and pushed it open, the barrier between then broken apart, pushed aside, torn down.
Asami's hands fell around Akihito's small body. It felt smaller than it had more than two years ago. Almost three now. But it belonged. It fit. More than a lock and key, more than puzzles, it just… fit. He buried his nose into the black hair and breathed Akihito, his arms tight around his lover. His lover. His lover.
Akihito clutched at Asami's chest, grasping the shirt. The same smell…
God, how he'd missed this scent. And everything else about him. The possessive arms he felt around him, the firm chest he could lay his head on. Those hands, that held him close, held him tight. It felt so right. It felt so…
He saw through the crack in the curtain.
With everything he had, Akihito shifted his weight, turning them around so that his back was to the curtain. He looked up at Asami, not knowing if he'd ever see that face again.
"I love you." And no regrets, Asami…
Akihito's body jerked twice simultaneously with the two gunshots. The passenger that had been seated three rows behind Akihito's seat stood with a stupefied look. He had missed. Shot the wrong man. Shot the right man's lover. The assassin pointed the barrel of his gun to the side of his head and the trigger clicked back, a spray of blood rushing out from the other side.
(bullet holes do NOT threaten an airplane!!)
"Asami…" Akihito reached up and touched his lover's face, his hands gentle against the cheek. "I'll be fine... Really, I will." He cracked a crude smile. Funny how migraines just vanish when there's two bullets lodged somewhere in your body. He coughed and winced at the pain, one bullet embedded just below the shoulder, the other deeper, closer towards the heart.
"I know you will." Asami kneeled, setting Akihito down, his back lifted up against his arm, "Be strong for me, alright?"
A coarse laugh escaped Akihito's lips, "I am strong. You know that…" he coughed, a trickle of blood filling his mouth, "You know that…better than me…" he spoke haltingly, each painful phrase strained with each exhale. With each breath, blood was slowly filling the space in his left lung, drowning half of him. He held Asami's hand as hard as he could, taking comfort in the warmth, "I'm so sorry…for leaving…"
"Shh…don't talk, not now…" His hands were drenched with Akihito's blood as he held the frail body in his arms.
"I'm sorry…for hurting you…" A tear fell from his amber eyes, "I'm sorry…Asami…"
"Don't apologize…" he squeezed Akihito's hand, firmly grasping the slender fingers in his. "Don't talk. You'll be fine. Do you understand? You'll fine."
"know… because...I'm with you…" his eyes began to lose their sharp focus.
"That's right." His hand wrapped tighter around Akihito's, "You're with me now Stay with me, Akihito. I beg you. Stay with me!"
"I will…I always will…I promise…"
The surgeon pulled off his gloves, the rubber coming off with a snap, and threw them into the biohazard bin, running his hands under the sink.
The boy had one hell of a guardian angel standing behind him.
Takaba lay asleep, the sheets covering his lower half, leaving the rest of his body exposed to the chilled night air. His pale skin was covered in a faint sheen of sweat, just barely coating his lithe, sensual body. The moonlight filtered in through the sheer curtains that danced with the wind, casting an array of faint moving shadows over the gentle figure, as if he were bathed in northern lights.
Asami leaned forward against the railing in the balcony, sixty floors above the ground, as the high wind whipped his dark hair. The air felt cold against his arms and legs, dressed only in a pair of loose boxers, as the frigid current of air coursed around him.
He stood eye to eye with some of the tallest skyscrapers in Tokyo, the majestic city beneath him, fully awake somehow, as if it were forever on espressos and cigarettes, drenched in caffeine and nicotine. The moonlight skidded across the glassy surfaces, illuminating the sides of those high rise buildings so prevalent in Tokyo.
Six months had passed since the airplane incident, and his fingers still itched for the familiar cigarette, the feel of the rough paper rolled between his digits, the way smoke burned down his throat with a rough velvety sensation, but his iron will clenched tight on straying temptations. It had been hard enough to stay off the sweet rancid habit.
The new commitment had been something of a necessity while Takaba was hospitalized for three months in first Amsterdam, where the plane had made its emergency landing, then Berlin. Smoking meant he had to go all the way outside, past the hospital garden, and to the parking lot. The nurses plucked the cigarettes from his lips even before he could light them if he was anywhere within or near the smoke-free perimeter. Hence, he took it upon himself to stamp down the life-long habit, and he discovered, it really was an addiction. Had he been any less of a self-disciplining man, he wasn't sure if he could have quit.
One month after the airplane incident, he had tried to bring Akihito home to Japan, but the doctors refused, fearing that any post-surgery complications that might arise during the trip. They did, however, allow a transfer to a larger hospital in Berlin, one where Asami had connections. The caution and reluctance was understandable, considering Takaba had almost bled to death internally into the chest cavity, the left lung filling with blood between the crevices and nearly wet-drowning him with his own blood. It had caused some major problems for the first month of recovery, especially with the ribs that had been shattered by the bullet entry.
He could still remember Akihito throwing up from the Oxycontin, barely able to sip lukewarm water. The opiate based pain killers absolutely killed what little remained of his lover's appetite. After two weeks though, Akihito's eating habits were improving although only Asami was able to coax him into swallowing even a measly bite of food; try as they might, nurses made no headway with Akihito.
Most days, Akihito and Asami talked quietly, softly in their own world, in their own words. Through these conversations, Asami saw the changes his lover had gone through during the two long years they were apart. Sometimes it frightened Asami, wondering whether the Akihito he knew had morphed into something altogether different, but that worry soon dissipated after Akihito's first outburst two months into his hospitalization. The doctor had recommended a psychiatrist for the proud lover, and he erupted, spewing a river of profanities and flooding the poor doctor with his indignation.
Apparently he went on for twenty minutes screaming things along the lines of "You fuckass! Don't you ever suggest that kind of fucked up shit to me!"
The nurses were concerned that he might hurt himself (or the doctor) and called Asami out of a conference he had on the other side of Berlin. When he arrived, Akihito was still fuming until he saw Asami walk in and his face immediately turned upside down into a divine smile. Seeing that bright smile, he just had to let the boy slide.
No doubt, though, that the two hard years had taken a toll on Akihito and his lover had matured significantly. This newfound maturity showed itself when a week or so before they left Berlin, Akihito came out about the lover he had left behind in London. The candid confession took Asami by surprise; he had never expected Akihito to go into that topic out of his own volition, and for Akihito's sake, he had purposely left the fragile topic alone.
The rest of the hospital had pretty much gone to bed. Not that it mattered, Asami had ensured a private room for the both of them. Akihito was sitting up in the white bed, a pillow behind him to cushion his back. "Asami?" he folded his book quietly.
Asami was typing away into his laptop at a small table across the room, managing Tokyo from six thousand miles away. "Hm?" he looked up from the screen, caught in the middle of the sentence.
Takaba looked at Asami with straightforward eyes, unblinking, "I had a lover in London."
Asami raised him eyebrows as he folded down the laptop and stood up. They sustained eye contact as Asami approached the bed quietly, only the gentle hum of the ventilation audible in the nearly silent room. With his hand on the edge of the mattress, he leaned forward and kissed Akihito, taking the soft, pink lips into a gentle caress, and before he could pull away, Akihito gripped his tie and pulled him in closer, encouraging Asami to delve deeper into his mouth. Tongues battled each other, stroking, sliding in fierce movements and friction.
Asami's hand slid over Takaba's, the one that was clutching his tie, and helped him drag the knot down, slowly loosening it until it slipped from Asami's neck and fell loosely on the bed. Takaba's other hand was slowly moving down Asami's shirt, unbuttoning it one by one.
"I know," Asami whispered as his hands slipped under the loose shirt and he licked the junction of Akihito's shoulder, smiling when the body beneath him shuddered at the seductive touch.
"You don't mind?" Akihito pushed the sleeves past Asami's shoulders and down his shoulders, trying to get the man to strip.
"Hm…" his large hands helped pull Akihito's shirt up and over his head, "I never said that."
"Then-" Akihito's words were muffled by a hot tongue breaking through his lips as Asami pulled on the drawstrings of Akihito's trousers and pushed them down. "Why-" he tried to ask as he kicked the trousers off.
"Because I have you now." Asami unbuckled his belt as he climbed into the bed, the mattress creaking softly under both their weight.
Akihito leaned forward to whisper back "You have me now." His hand cradled a tangle of Asami's dark locks of hair, the other reaching down to the belt, undoing the clasp and slipping beneath the boxers. His fingers brushed teasingly again the pulsing, hot erection and grinned mischievously when he heard Asami exhale softly. The cock slipped from its restraints and stood out in the open.
Akihito pushed himself off the pillow and urged Asami backwards until it was he who was sitting atop Asami on the firm, hard stomach, straddling the waist with his legs. Akihito slipped two fingers into his mouth and sucked it, licked it slowly, knowing fully well Asami was watching his every move. The unwavering intense gaze from those pair of hawk eyes aroused him even more.
Soon, the fingers disappeared behind him as he leaned back, still straddling Asami on his knees. From this angle, Asami could see Akihito slip two fingers into his own tight passage as well as the aroused expression slipping across the delicate face. The slick fingers slipped out, and he watched his small lover lower himself slowly onto his cock and throw his head back when the head slipped past the opening, a whimper slipping from those swollen lips.
He waited until Akihito was completely engulfing him, and when Akihito started moving again, rising and falling in rhythm, his moans growing in volume and length, he reached up and slipped his hand across the back of Akihito's neck and pulled Akihito down for another fierce kiss.
When the kiss broke and Akihito pushed himself up again, Asami could see Akihito's taut stomach muscles flexing, tense then relax in rhythm as he pumped up and down. The pace soon quickened until both could feel the climax approaching; Akihito came first, then Asami, filling his lover with hot, thick liquid, and the small body collapsed on top of his, resting on his chest.
Akihito didn't move; instead, he let Asami caress and stroke his hair and back. The three-year long fast from each other had been broken. Slowly, Akihito lifted himself off Asami then fell back into the strong, possessive arms, taking comfort in them as he fell asleep, once again where he belonged.
Asami closed the sliding leading out to the balcony, cold air no longer rushing into the elegant apartment. Leaning back on the icy glass, his eyes traveled sideways across the sleeping body, from the silhouette of the legs to the spine and it stopped just short of the shoulders. There were two puckered scars on Akihito's back.
What was it that Akihito had said… something like "It's not as if it's anything uncommon."
The nonchalance took Asami by surprise.
They bothered Asami though, the two raised welts of white, stretched skin. And at the same time, they made him fiercely proud. It was unacceptable, he knew, the fact that he had been unable to protect Akihito, that Akihito had had to be wounded to protect Asami. It was supposed to be the other way around. Even so, it was more than proof of Akihito's fiery devotion and love.
Akihito stirred in the bed and looked back at Asami, his voice hushed and soft, a bit run together with sleepiness, "Mm…what are you doing…"
"Pft," he smiled at Asami, rolling over completely so that he could face him, "and what good is that? Come on, get in bed. It's cold. You have a conference in the morning, don't you?"
Another thing that had changed; Akihito somehow knew Asami's general day to day schedule, at least the more important things. He was probably coaxing one of his men to provide him with the daily itineraries. Or perhaps cajoling it out of the other employees, maybe the secretary; Asami frequently overheard them gossiping about Akihito while giggling.
It wasn't surprising, considering he lived with Asami now, and neither of them made their status much of a secret while neither broadcasted it either. At Sion, heads turned when Akihito came in barging through the door, dressed in jeans and t-shirts with a backpack slung over his shoulders as he bypassed all the employees straight towards Asami's office.
"Are you inviting me?"
Takaba gave him an exasperated look, "Just shut up and get in bed. You're going to be tired tomorrow." It wasn't a request for lovemaking, but the simple act of lying down on the same sheets, under the same covers in each other's arms. They were in no hurry to make love. Sex could wait; as important, and enjoyable, as it was to the both of them, it had been bumped down the list of priorities a few places.
Asami slid under the covers with Akihito, the younger lover quickly falling back into sleep with his arms around the broad chest, his hair buried in Asami's neck.
"Have a nice weekend, Mr. Tennison," the secretary handed him the portfolio as she walked out of the office. After Mr. Merrett's suicide one year ago, Gyles had been chosen by the board of executives and advisors as the new CEO and president of the firm, not something he exactly liked but agreed to. He heard the elevator at the far end of the hallway open and close then hum its way down to the ground floor, the machinery grinding against its other.
Once again, he was working past the hours; it kept him occupied in a way the gallery could not, and he relished the distraction it provided. It was the only way to keep his mind off Akihito. The gallery only made him think of him more, but partly for that reason, he still found time to manage the place.
The truth was, he had never really found out what became of his ex-lover. Apparently, he had backed out from the TIMES offer at the very last minute for reasons unspecified. A few months after he left, some men came to his apartment and packed everything, emptying the rooms into cardboard boxes.
Gyles went back to typing the last email of the day. The first few months of work had been chaotic, difficult at best. Mr. Merrett had left behind a lot of company mess that took some time to be sorted out. When he took Merrett's position, he knew immediately that the "suicide" hadn't been a suicide.
It took three months to uncover most of the shady dealings the man was involved in while he was living. Drugs. Black market arms. The entire board was in on it. And they expected him to carry on the torch. Gyles knew full well what that meant. That the fire would burn him one day.
With reluctance, he took it.
Gyles sent the last email, which would arrive in minutes to a faceless man carrying out "cargo transportation" on the Canary Islands off the African shore. He shut down the computer and gathered his files into his briefcase. From the hanger, Gyles unhooked the coat as well as the gray scarf, which he wrapped around his neck. He door the door to the office, which locked on its own, then headed down toward the elevator. Around him, all the lights in the cubicles and rooms were turned off, the entire workspace empty and desolate. When he reached the elevator, he changed his mind and opted for the stairs, walking five floors down to the ground floor.
The entrance lobby was deserted; even the receptionist desk was unoccupied. The security guard looked up from a novel and stood up abruptly.
"Mr. Tennison!" he called out as he fumbled around in the cubicle.
"Glad I spotted you," the man held out an envelope and small box, "A young man came by just now and asked me to give you this."
Gyles recognized the handwriting with his name across the back of the envelope.
"When was this?"
"Just now, not even a minute ago."
Gyles ran cross the deserted lobby, the automatic sliding door opening and closing with a hiss behind him. Frantically he looked around.
Where are you?
At the far end of the street, a figure was turning the corner, hands deep in his pocket.
Gyles ran through the crowd, excusing himself every time he bumped into another pedestrian, breaking through the human barricade.
"Akihito!" the figure didn't turn at his voice. "Akihito!" he rushed forward and placed a hand on the stranger's shoulder and whipped him around.
"What your bloody problem?" a young man threw off Gyles' hand.
"Sorry, I-I took you someone else," he stammered an apology but the stranger was already walking away.
Akihito stopped in the middle of the street and looked over his shoulder. He could have sworn he heard someone call his name. His real name. But there were only strangers around him, blurred unfamiliar faces rushing past him, heading home or otherwise after work.
He turned around.
From a distance, Gyles saw guilt and pain and remorse sweep over Akihito's face. A fatigued smile crept in, and Akihito turned his back to Gyles, once again disappearing into the crowd.
I cannot ask of you to forgive me. But forget me.