by Marmalade Cat (マーマレード猫)
In Tokyo the rain is falling in endless waves across the backs of the people below. It streaks the polished walls of the high towers of chrome and reinforced glass, making the streets reflect the emblazoned neon of billboards like straight-backed techno-serpents of fire and light. It extends its touch indiscriminately, hammering against the force-screen umbrellas of the ladies of the high society strolling down the main street, resplendent in their clothes of silver wire and shimmering optical illusions. It traces the cheeks of the libertines and the whores in the Forgotten Sector and slants across the unblinking gaze of the warrior-miko who glides down the darkest back alley, gathering in glistening crystals at the tips of her steel war fans.
It pounds too against the stained glass window of the main hall of the White Lily Opera House in the Fourth Sector and to Arakaki Takeo, bored and half-dreaming, it sounds like the echoing applause of a long-dead audience. The first son of Arakaki Goro has never much appreciated the finer points of classical music. To him the music lacks the fearsome beat of his favoured mix of techno and trance, and he has no patience for the mournful warbling of people dreaming of a lost age where heroes fill the streets and men have the virtue to overcome any villain. In point of fact, Arakaki Takeo doesn’t care much for heroes and men of virtue at all. After all, he is the son and heir to the Yakuza boss Arakaki Goro, and when his father meets his black end, Takeo is unshakably confidant that he, as first son, will be right there to shed a single mournful tear and step smoothly into his father’s place. Men of virtue such as those he believes to be found in the ancient operas, would never last in the cut-throat world of gangs and crime lords in which he has been raised.
Flicking the bangs of his spiked hair back out of his eyes in a movement calculated to convey the appropriate mix of boredom and barely constrained malice, he lets his gaze slide around to the man currently bowing low to his father. This man is the owner of the White Lily, and to his great misfortune he currently owes Takeo’s gang a significant amount of money. Takeo watches the man squirm and fawn over his father and make promises that he and his paltry, rundown opera house in the back-alleys of the underprivileged Sector Four, can never keep. It’s pitiful and amusing in a sick, vaguely repulsive sort of way and Takeo allows a sneer to creep onto his lips.
“Arakaki-sama,” the man is saying, “Please, find it in your generous, noble heart to extend our loan for but another three months and I promise to you upon the honour of my ancestors, that your money shall be repaid.”
Arakaki Goro’s voice is flat and cold as he makes a dismissive cutting motion with one hand. “Your ancestors are unable to pay me, Bokoto-san. Only you are able to do that, and you have fallen behind in that task for two months now. How am I to keep my son and his people at their duties of defending your streets if I am unable to offer them reward for their services? Would you see them starving and without bread for their families? Would you make a dishonest man out of me and have me work my people for nothing?”
Bokoto trembles in his chair and bows again to the gang lord, the tension in his face outlined by the streaks of sweat that creep along his hairline. Takeo watches the man shiver and quake in disgust. Were the decision his, the man would already be dead for the gall he has shown in not meeting his payments quickly and punctually. But then, Takeo is still young and he has much to learn.
“Please, Arakaki-sama! Show mercy! The payments will be made, I promise you.” Bokoto’s voice has risen with fear and the growing awareness that the powerful Arakaki clan is losing patience with him. “There is a new boy, a new singer I have found, and he will bring prosperity back to this house. Prosperity which my lord will of course benefit from! Please, please allow me to introduce him to you, and you will see just how beautiful he is. Show us mercy, my lord, and he will reward you a hundred times over.”
Wonderful, Takeo thinks to himself dryly. Another street rat whore hoping to catch my father’s eye and elevate himself to riches and power through father’s influence. Just what I need. And then he shrugs mentally to himself. At least if it’s a boy, he thinks, it can’t get pregnant and birth brats to challenge my claim to the Clan.
“Please, master,” Bokoto’s voice is cajoling and Takeo rolls his eyes. After a long moment’s pause, Goro nods and the man leaps to his feet bowing, and scurries away to disappear into a side room. Takeo refuses to catch his father’s eye, instead taking a sip of tea from the delicate cup that has been set before him. Behind him two of his favoured men shift and one of them pulls out his heavy pistol and begins to polish it absently. Takeo notices the movement of the cloth cease abruptly as the sound of a door opening reaches him and he looks up to find out what has caught the man’s attention. Takeo takes a long moment to let his eyes travel over the form of the young man accompanying Bokoto before he raises the cup to his lips and takes a thoughtful sip.
It is undeniable that the boy is beautiful. He is tallish, maybe almost as tall as Takeo himself, but he is willowy and slender, his movements graceful and practised as though he is a dancer as well as a singer. His face is youthful and pale, girlish almost, an effect that is enhanced by the fact that he lets his hair grow long, gathering it back in a simple ponytail that reaches to the middle of shoulders in a trail of black untouched by any dye or accessory.
Beautiful, but awkward and Takeo has seen, has had, better. He watches the boy approach with a deliberately intimating gaze and smiles inwardly as the youth’s eyes flicker over him and immediately drop to the floor.
“Arakaki-sama, everyone, please allow me to introduce Hara Kiyoshi.”
The boy bows low, so low that the trail of his hair slides forward over his shoulder. Takeo takes another indifferent sip of tea and Goro sighs impatiently. “Sing,” he orders simply. With a hesitant glance towards Bokoto, who makes shooing motions towards the stage, the boy Kiyoshi makes his way down the central aisle and up to the raised platform.
The White Lily is a tiny opera house in one of the more run-down areas of Tokyo. It stands sandwiched between two six story warehouses, narrow and almost forgotten, its placards fading and defaced by age and graffiti. It was built four centuries ago in the style of the then powerful Western nations and it has long since passed its days of glory. But still though, the red velvet seats and double-tiered balconies overlooking the stage have the echo of past grandeur in their once-rich colours and faded decoration.
The gathered men are a tiny, insignificant group in the soaring reaches of the auditorium and they watch unforgiving as the boy ascends the stage. There is a pause for adjustment, and then the boy opens his mouth and sings. At the back of the auditorium, Arakaki Goro stiffens in his chair, the two heavies straighten up and Takeo stops breathing, the teacup hanging forgotten halfway to his lips.
It is long seconds after the boy has finished his song before anyone speaks and when finally they do, it is Takeo’s breathless voice that asks the question. “What did you say his name was?”
“Kiyoshi,” Bokoto replies gleefully. “Hara Kiyoshi.”
It begins softly, just the barest ripple of acknowledgement spreading throughout the lower ranks of the populace, through the youths who work the streets and the patrons who pick them up, passed along in whispers and half-told stories that no-one can trace. Eventually, a painted boy whispers the rumour he has heard to his noble patron and the lord hesitates, then curious, presses for more detail. After that, the gentle trickle of rumour turns into a landslide rush of people desperate to hear the hymns of the angel who sings with voice of Kami-sama. They come to hear him and some are seeking beauty and some are seeking hope and some are seeking Heaven. What they find raises the gentle, awkward boy to stardom almost overnight. But before the auditorium of the White Lily is filled shoulder-to-shoulder to the very doors each evening, Arakaki Takeo seeks to make his claim.
Hara Kiyoshi is pacing before the stage, several sheets of age-darkened paper clutched in his hands as he practises the rhythms of the leading piece he will sing for his first public performance. The notes would be difficult but faced with the boy’s natural talent they are tamed; the one problem Kiyoshi has is that he has never before sung in front of anyone but his own family, and that is an experience he doesn’t wish to repeat. Shuffling the papers nervously between his fingers his eyes trace over the neatly printed notes and he squints to make out the faded annotations that the papers’ previous owners have added.
“Won’t you sing a little for me? Just so I can hear that lovely voice again?”
Kiyoshi looks up with a jump and his fingers tighten reflexively around the edges of the sheet music, crumpling the ancient paper in his fright. He finds himself staring into the dark, mocking eyes of a tall young man who has somehow made his way unnoticed to the front row to lean nonchalantly against the side of the outermost chair. He is tall and his stylishly cut white frock coat and trousers clearly define the leanly muscled form they cover.
“Careful there, you’ll tear your music.”
Kiyoshi draws in a sharp breath and hastily smoothes out the creases he has made in the ancient sheets, dragging his eyes away from the mane of spiked yellow hair that the handsome youth sports. He recognises him of course, even if he did not recall him from the meeting earlier the unnatural yellow hair dyed crimson at the tips and the curl of ochre dragons across the other youth’s coat mark him out as a member of the Arakaki Clan. Yakuza, Kiyoshi knows, and doubly dangerous for it.
“My first concert is tomorrow evening, my lord,” he says softly. “Of course I am certain that seats will have been reserved for the honourable members of the Arakaki Clan.”
There is a pause during which Kiyoshi stares modestly at the floor, unwilling to antagonise the son of his patron, and then sharp footsteps approach and cold fingers grasp his chin, tilting his face up roughly.
“I didn’t ask to hear you sing tomorrow, I asked to hear you sing now.”
The voice is velvet-lined steel and Kiyoshi finds himself looking up into sharp blue eyes narrowed with cruelty. Contact lenses, he thinks to himself remotely. No Japanese man has eyes that colour naturally, and the Yakuza forbid cosmetic organ donation. He is startled enough to take a step backwards when the other youth’s finger’s tighten, and when the Yakuza boy doesn’t reach out to steady him Kiyoshi almost falls. His hand goes to his chin reflexively and he glares at the other man.
“My performance begins at seven pm tomorrow,” he replies levelly and watches as the other youth’s features slide slowly from slight surprise to an amused, considering look. Kiyoshi stands firm and glares, the heartbeat hammering in his head almost deafening him. And then the youth laughs, running a hand through the wild mane of his hair.
“Whatever, kid. You keep your secrets ‘til tomorrow night then. But just you look up for me and sing your best because I’ll be listening.”
And with a mocking bow, the young man turns and strolls away, a hand thrown up in a careless gesture of farewell. Kiyoshi watches him leap lightly up the steps to the main doors to vanish out into the reception hall. The young singer waits for several long minutes until he is sure he alone before he lets himself consider just how stupid it was to provoke the dangerous young Yakuza. He spends the rest of the evening shuffling and reshuffling his sheet music until the notes all blur into one and all he can see is the startling hue of eyes so blue they look like stained glass.
The first public performance of Hara Kiyoshi is attended by a paltry audience of around thirty. It’s more people gathered in one place to hear him sing than ever before though and to Kiyoshi, draped in the exquisite costume of the opera house, it seems like an entire nation. Nonetheless, when he begins his song he gives himself over to his music, to the veil of steel he can draw around himself so that it is simply him and the music and the ancient princess to which his character sings. In that moment the woman portraying his lost love is the entire focus of his world and the dark kohl that rims her eyes is entirely natural, the creases at the corner of her eyes indicative of a laughing spirit rather than the overbearing touch of age.
He holds the high note to swell and bolster her lighter voice as they finish and the last echoes of their song are drowned amidst the roar of applause and the catcalls from the stalls. He turns, her hand in his, both of them a little taken aback, and leads her in a bow to their audience. No encores, Bokoto had instructed him. Make them come back tomorrow if they want to hear more. And so he simply gives their audience the barest of smiles, even though the blood is hammering in his veins and he wants to sing and dance forever, and leads his companion away across the stage.
One last glance out into the darkness of the auditorium draws his eyes up to the boxes above and there he sees the outlines of Arakaki Goro and his bodyguards in the seats of honour. Standing behind his father’s chair is the tall form of his son, and Kiyoshi swears, even though it is impossible in the darkness, that he sees the flash of blue to mark the man’s eyes above the burning red dot of his cigarette. And then he is back in the wings and his new personal assistant is pulling him away and back to his dressing room.
It doesn’t take much for Takeo to gain entrance to backstage. He leaves his father talking to the ever subservient Bokoto-san, and slips unnoticed down a dark corridor. He’s not particularly familiar with the backstage layouts and hidey-holes of opera houses, so he stops one of the chorus girls and flatters an answer out of her with charm and reputation. After that he makes his way easily to the room he seeks, and then , without bothering to knock, opens the faded door and slips inside.
Hara Kiyoshi is sat at his dressing table pulling a brush through his long silky black hair, his eyes distant and thoughtful. Those eyes widen with surprise as he catches sight of Takeo behind him in the mirror and he turns sharply on his chair to glare in astonishment at his visitor.
“Good evening,” Takeo says smoothly, determined to get the first word in before the other youth tries to ruin his entrance. “I brought you these.”
Kiyoshi’s eyes flicker briefly to the bouquet in the other youth’s hands and then he stands up sharply. “What are you doing in here?” he demands.
“They’re to celebrate your introduction to high society and your successful debut performance. I’m told the blue ones have significance for such occasions.”
Kiyoshi breathes out a sharp breath of annoyance. “I don’t like flowers,” he snaps and then his face smoothes as he remembers who he is speaking to. “But they’re very beautiful,” he adds quickly.
Takeo shrugs. “Brat,” he says softly and watches Kiyoshi’s dark eyes burn with barely concealed anger. Casting around he tosses the flowers onto a table and leans back against the door casually. “Give them to one of the stage girls then. They were simply a thought.”
“Forgive me,” Kiyoshi says quietly, trying to salvage the situation. “You surprised me is all, my lord. The flowers are beautiful and I shall treasure them.”
Takeo watches him openly, seemingly oblivious to the other youth’s discomfort. “No,” he replies blithely, “You won’t.”
After a somewhat awkward pause, Kiyoshi tries again.
“Would you not tell me the reason for your visit, my lord?”
Takeo watches the other youth closely. “You owe Bokoto money, don’t you?” he asks and at Kiyoshi’s minute nod, he continues. “My father is buying you. You will no longer owe Bokoto money, you will owe my clan money. You will belong to the Arakaki clan until you have paid off your debts. We are not barbaric however, and once you have paid, you will be free again.”
Kiyoshi had been expecting something like this and he asks the only pertinent question. “How much?”
The answer staggers him and he puts a hand on the back of the chair to steady himself.
“How can I possibly pay that much money off?” he asks aghast.
Takeo’s expression softens a little. “Do not underestimate your own skills. You are very talented. And besides…” and here he takes a step closer. “There are…other…ways of paying off debts.”
Kiyoshi gasps as the young Yakuza reaches up a hand to cup his cheek lightly, the pad of his thumb trailing down the youth’s soft skin. He looks into half-lidded eyes a dark azure and feels the other youth’s breath on his skin as he leans in. “Stop it!” Kiyoshi cries sharply. “I’m not like that!”
Takeo’s expression goes blank and distant and he takes a step back. He bows slightly, exquisitely formal, and his eyes are cold. “My apologies, Hara-san. I misjudged the situation. Good evening.”
The Yakuza turns on his heel and Kiyoshi sees the whirl of his white coattails as he steps into the corridor and closes the door softly and firmly behind him. Letting out an unsteady breath, the young singer lets his head hang down and his fingers dig into the back of the chair as he considers the awful and inescapable situation he appears to have sung his way into.
The next day a small box arrives bearing Kiyoshi’s name and wrapped with gorgeous attention to detail. He makes his way surreptitiously up to the most secret place he knows in all the opera house, away from the prying eyes of his compatriots, and settles himself to examine the delicate box in privacy.
The attic room is at the very top of the opera house, a dusty, forgotten room more broom closet than anything, but graced with a pair of beautiful stained glass double doors that open out onto a small balcony overlooking the streets behind the establishment. It’s Kiyoshi’s private den complete with old-style metal key, won in a rare (and for him, daring) fit of pique soon after he arrived at the White Lily. He pushes the creaking glass doors open and settles himself cross-legged on the small balcony outside, turning the little box over in his hands.
Finally, curiosity wins out and he slides the delicate wrapping open to reveal a small wooden box and a folded card. Tilting the card to catch the warm mid-morning sunlight, he reads the message scrawled on its surface.
As I mentioned, there are many ways to pay off a debt. Forgive the assumptions of a man used to the cruel world of High Society and let me offer you instead a gift as both apology and gratitude for your patience.
Let us discover together the many ways a debt can be made a trifling thing of no consequence, and together let us place it firmly from our minds in the spirit of friendship. I pray you accept my gift as an indication that we may begin such a relationship.
Lifting the lid of the little wooden box, Kiyoshi peers inside. Lying on a bed of blue velvet, a small, crystalline dog figurine winks in the sunlight. He gasps as it catches the light and sparkles, and reaching reverently inside, a nagging suspicion in his mind, lifts it carefully out and turns it over. It is as he suspected, it bears the mark of a Taraka Hideo carving, exquisite and expensive in equal measure.
Sitting back on his heels, the beautiful figurine cupped in his hand, Kiyoshi wonders where all this is leading.
It appears that Arakaki Takeo, although young, is a man of his word. The next few weeks see a fiercely demanding schedule of rehearsals and performances for Kiyoshi, so many that the boy is certain he barely has the time to breathe freely before he must once more stand upon the White Lily’s stage. And during all those weeks, at each and every performance, there in the uppermost box lingers the tall shadow of a youth, watching always, but never applauding and always gone before the curtains have fallen fully closed.
And after each performance, Kiyoshi makes his way back to his dressing room, removes the outer layers of his costume and the heaviest of the stage jewellery, before letting down his long black hair. He is just setting a brush to those fine strands when his dressing room door quietly opens and his special visitor invites himself in.
As noted, Takeo appears to be a young man of his word, and although his tone is often light and cajoling, mischievous and defined by arrogance, he never once attempts to lay a finger upon the other youth. Instead their conversations begin with the evening’s performance and wander through all manner of topics until Kiyoshi finishes brushing his hair and pours wine first for his guest and then for himself.
Each time they talk until late into the night, Kiyoshi listening somewhat horrified and most certainly thrilled by Takeo’s tales of Yakuza life, and then blushing a furious crimson when the other youth’s tone turns ribald and he begins once more to tease and cajole with words what he cannot do with touches. Always however, Kiyoshi modestly turns down any suggestions that his debt could be more quickly paid off if he were to spend the night in Takeo’s bed, and for his part the young Arakaki seems more intrigued than offended by the continued rebuttals.
Whatever the outcome of their shared evenings, without fail, the morning after a performance, a small delicately wrapped box arrives bearing Kiyoshi’s name and containing another superb figurine. Each one he places up in his locked attic room on a table next to the stained glass doors so that they can catch the multi-hued sunlight and sparkle like rainbows on newly fallen snow.
“What is this infatuation with this opera boy, Takeo?” Arakaki Goro asks his son one evening just as the youth is about to make his way down to the Fourth Sector. Straightening the collar of his pale shirt and adjusting the cuffs of his white leather coat, Takeo grins easily.
“It’s nothing, father,” he replies. “Just a little pleasant distraction to wile away the time of an evening.”
Arakaki Goro is no fool and his response is a curt, disbelieving bark of laughter. Takeo puts on his best smirk and kisses his father’s cheeks before he leaves. “I consider it practice, father, for the day I take your place.”
He is gone before Goro can set his guards upon him.
Takeo does not pay for his private box, after all, his clan is patron to the newly re-established White Lily and the reputation of his house in this Sector demands respect and subservience. He sits for the third time this month high up in the darkness and sips on iced green tea, his elbows leant against the rim of the box as he considers the singers below. In truth, like most of the other patrons here tonight, he has no interest in the minor performers. He is waiting for the star of this show to arrive, his beautiful Hara Kiyoshi, the boy who sings with the voice of Kami-sama.
Takeo has forgotten the time when he first laid eyes upon Kiyoshi and dismissed him as nothing above the ordinary. Slim, pale and pretty, but not really of the type Takeo takes an interest in. The young Yakuza lordling prefers his boys short and sassy with dyes in their hair and paint on their faces. Gun-toting viper-tongued little boys with an attitude begging for him to tame. Kiyoshi’s calm acceptance of his lot in life, and that air of archaic dignity he wears fascinates the young man. It has become Takeo’s aim in life to find a crack and devote himself to widening it in order that he can tickle the underbelly of wounded pride beneath.
And that voice. Coupled with the pleasant face and intriguing demeanour, Kiyoshi is like some mythical, elusive being always just out of reach and understanding. It is possible, Takeo reflects as he settles back to listen to the boy’s voice soar, that he, Arakaki Takeo, may just be in love.
Or lust. He’s not sure. Either way, he wants this boy, and what Arakaki Takeo wants, he gets.
“What then, made you come to the city?”
It’s a question that Takeo has asked time and time again, and one which as ever, it appears Kiyoshi will try to evade.
“I knew Tokyo was the best place to start my singing career,” the boy replies dutifully.
“How old are you?” Takeo asks suddenly.
Kiyoshi’s expression does not alter, but he begins to shuffle their glasses ready for more wine, reaching for Takeo’s just as the other youth lifts it up out of his reach. “How old are you?”
Kiyoshi frowns a little. “Sixteen,” he replies.
“Hnn,” Takeo muses and rewards the answer by handing over his glass. “That’s very young to turn up in Capital City with no parents or siblings at your side and from what you’ve indicated previously, no where to live or any idea at all of what you were going to do once you did get here. Tell me again why you left home and came to Tokyo rather than starting out in your home town?”
Kiyoshi is silent as he pours the wine, his face a mask of intense concentration. He sets their glasses out side by side, bows and then lifts his to his lips, sipping slowly. After a minute or two it becomes apparent that he is not going to reply. Takeo sighs and tosses his head in frustration.
“You’re damnably reticent about these matters,” he says. “Perhaps I need to tease you more about your virtue. Would you rather we discuss your disappointing lack of interest in the carnal pleasures? Or would you prefer to explain to me why you find me so repulsive that a single night in my embrace is just too much to consider bearing?”
Kiyoshi frowns sharply, his lips thinning and glares down at his feet. “It’s not that,” he says and there is an undercurrent of anger in his voice. “I left because I wanted to find my freedom and that is all I wish to say.”
Takeo regards him in silence for long moments, somewhat surprised by the outburst.
“Freedom, hmm?” he says after a while. “What a remarkable concept. A pity then you ended up more bound here than I warrant you ever were at home.”
The dark-eyed glare he earns for his comment makes him wish his tongue hadn’t been quite so sharp. The emotion he reads in the other youth’s eyes is something closer to pain than anger and Takeo realises that he may just have found the weakest spot in his companion’s defences. Following that, something keeps him from pressing for more details, though if asked he would have claimed disinterest rather than genuine concern. After all, Arakaki Takeo is interested only in the here and the now.
It is close to ten pm on a quiet Thursday evening and Kiyoshi is alone in the auditorium practicing his pieces for the show on Saturday night. He hears footsteps approaching and ignores them thinking they belong to Bokoto or one of the other singers. When the crack of the lighter being lit cuts into a pause in his song, he turns thinking to himself that Takeo must be paying him an unexpected visit. The man he sees sitting in the front row is not Takeo. His clothes are dark and on one lapel of his coat there is embroidered a flaming crimson tiger.
Things happen quickly after that. The man has with him two bodyguards, huge shaven-headed men who loom even as he looks down at them from the stage and they leer as their leader sets out his terms. Kiyoshi is to go with them, quietly and without fuss. He is not to think of it as a kidnapping, more like…a relocation.
The three men grin at him and Kiyoshi makes a break for it, heading back across the stage and into the wings. The man with the crimson tiger is on him in an instant, so fast that he must have cyber-enhancements, and his weight bears Kiyoshi down onto the stage boards with a crash. Kiyoshi struggles but his assailant is powerful and he barely manages to twist in time to see the man draw his hand back to punch him. The youth closes his eyes reflexively and jumps as a shot rings out, painfully sharp in the silence of the auditorium. Two more shots crack out and then the weight of the tiger man falls across him, heavy and unmoving. Kiyoshi thrashes, panicking as he hears the sound of footsteps leaping lightly onto the stage and towards him. He can feel a hot slick of liquid coating his fingers and he struggles in horror and disgust.
Suddenly the man’s weight is hauled off of him and he is staring up into Takeo’s face as the Yakuza youth kneels over him, holstering his gun in his belt before reaching down to pull Kiyoshi into a sitting position. Takeo is somewhat surprised when the other youth clenches the lapels of Takeo’s shirt in his fingers and shaking leans his head against the Yakuza’s chest. Surprised but not exactly averse to the reaction. Takeo lets him stay there as he punches a number into his mobile phone and makes a call, running his palms soothingly across the boy’s shaking shoulders.
After that, Kiyoshi gets a personal guard assigned to him, and if that guard in the evenings more often than not turns out to be Takeo, no-one, least of all the two of them, is brave enough to make mention of it.
Kiyoshi is sitting in his attic retreat, the light of the moon through the stained glass doors playing over his collection of tiny crystal figurines in crimsons and blues and emeralds. He has twelve now, one for each of his performances and hidden between the facets of each delicate curving form there is a small fortune.
He runs the tip of his fingernail over the arching back of a grimacing dragon and his thoughts are far away. He came to the city to escape, to find freedom, and in the end he bound himself with ties of legality rather than ties of blood and fear. Though he thinks to himself that sometimes, just below the surface, not much has changed at all.
The crystal figures wink at him in the moonlight and a slight, sad smile touches his face as he makes up his mind.
Takeo is sipping tea over breakfast when the letter is handed to him. He slips it open without preamble, frowning in curiosity at the fine red ribbon that binds the letter closed. He reads it twice before he lets his hand fall back onto the table, a smile of genuine bafflement just parting his lips. Then, setting his teacup down, he takes a last bite of his toast before grabbing his keys and heading into town.
The White Lily is quiet when Takeo arrives that evening, parking his bike outside on the curb and leaping light-footed up the main steps. He makes his way inside and heads immediately for the auditorium as Kiyoshi’s letter requested. Slipping inside the main doors he looks down over the slope of chairs, pausing when he catches sight of the young man standing centre stage, his back to the hall. Letting his eyes run over the fine, dove-grey kimono the boy is dressed in, he notes the loose cascade of black hair and the pale white and silver trim that decorate the heavy sleeves. Slowly and softly he pushes the doors closed behind him and slips the bolts home, just as the letter requested. Then, carefully, his eyes ever on Kiyoshi’s back, he paces down the central aisle to take a seat some rows back from the stage.
As soon as he is settled, Kiyoshi turns in a graceful twist of silk and dancer’s elegance, and begins his song.
Truly, Takeo thinks, there is no other alive in the world today with a voice to match this boy’s. The vocal range and sheer natural skill are unparalleled by even the most famous of the country’s singers. Listening to him sing raises the hairs on the back of the young man’s neck and when he makes the leaps between ranges and lets his voice lift across the minor shifts it makes him shiver. One could almost believe in hope listening to that boy sing and Takeo lets himself be lost to the boy’s siren lure.
He is somewhere between dreaming and hypnosis when he realises that finally, Kiyoshi has ceased to sing. The boy descends the stage stairs gracefully, padding silently up the aisle and Takeo watches him come, wondering to himself just how much time could have passed. When he is but a few feet away, Kiyoshi bows low.
“My lord Takeo,” he says, his voice soft. “My friend. The performance is over, but I bid you accompany me to my rooms that we might continue the evening in comfort.”
Half-dreaming it seems, Takeo reaches out and accepts the boy’s humbly offered hand, allowing himself to be led towards and onto the stage, and from there into the shadows of the wings. Kiyoshi leads his companion through the back corridors of the opera house, up twisting sets of stairs that become ever dustier the higher they climb, until they reach a tiny landing with a single door. The young singer unlocks this door and leads his companion inside. Takeo, a little more awake from the climb, looks around curiously, his eyes passing quickly over the soft pallet set against the wall to be drawn to the open double doors that lead out it seems to open sky. He watches as Kiyoshi kneels to pour wine at a low table looking suspiciously like an old crate, and his eyes catch the reflected twinkle of certain familiar crystal figurines.
The room is lit only by a pair of standing candlelamps that have been set in the two back corners and in the soft light amongst the glinting crystals, Kiyoshi takes on a beauty almost ethereal. Settling himself on the blankets of the pallet, Takeo accepts the wineglass offered to him and watches as Kiyoshi takes a sip of his own.
They pause to look at one another and it seems to the young Yakuza lordling, that the other youth is hesitating uncertainly. Fascinated by the play of light across the boy’s features, Takeo does not speak. Instead, he watches as Kiyoshi wets his lips and sets down his glass before speaking.
“My lord…Takeo, if I may…” Kiyoshi hesitates and Takeo nods once in encouragement. “I value your friendship above all things, and your patience too. You have been more than kind to me and I…believe that once, not long after we first met, I was rude to you. The words I spoke then were spoken in fear and ignorance and since then, you have shown me nothing but kindness and your true honourable nature.”
Takeo lets his head tilt to the side, wondering yet certain of where this is leading. Kiyoshi continues softly.
“I wish…I want…I… I sing for you. When I am on stage, I sing for you. Because I…”
He hesitates, stumbles, and Takeo leans into the awkward pause to kiss him.
Kiyoshi stiffens in surprise, then, as Takeo sets down his wineglass without breaking the kiss and pulls him forward into his lap, Kiyoshi lets his arms slip up and around the young gangster’s neck. Their kiss deepens and Takeo pulls him close, his arms tightening their grip as he feels the other youth respond with unexpected passion to his kiss. If Takeo had predicted anything, it had not been this enthusiastic response to such an advance.
Kiyoshi shifts in his lap, settling himself so that his thighs straddle Takeo’s waist and the Yakuza make a soft noise of surprise and appreciation in his throat at the intimate press of the other boy’s body against his own. Running his palms up the thin planes of Kiyoshi’s back, he tangles his fingers in the sweep of black hair, pulling the boy’s head back so that he can run his lips gently over his throat. The boy shudders beneath his lips, his hands twisting in the collar of Takeo’s coat and pulling gently at the tufted spikes of his hair.
Pulling the other youth around, Takeo leans him back onto the blankets and follows him down, lying across his body and slipping his hands beneath the folds of the dove-grey kimono. Kiyoshi lies back, his eyes closing and shivers with the thrill of Takeo’s hands playing across his chest and down his flanks. He had been nervous earlier, and he remains so, but there is a sweet fire whispering in his veins and a tightness between his thighs that make him want to squirm and pant and press against the heavy body that covers him.
Takeo parts the folds of Kiyoshi’s robes and his palms find hot, smooth skin beneath. He runs his hands over the boy’s chest, his fingertips playing lightly over the ridges of his ribs making the younger boy squirm and writhe. Grinning roguishly, Takeo places a series of gentle kisses down the boy’s sternum, shifting himself back so that he can kiss lower. The flustered almost-panic in the boy’s eyes as his lips reach Kiyoshi’s lower belly makes him laugh aloud.
“I will not spoil this by asking if this is your first time,” Takeo whispers against the sensitive flesh. The sudden flush across Kiyoshi’s nose and cheeks tells him yes, but there is something dark and hidden in the boy’s eyes that tell him maybe no, and maybe he better not ask. Strangely angered by the implications of that seeming dark secret, Takeo resolves to shatter whatever hold Kiyoshi’s memories have on him and drown any fears amidst a pleasure that will not be idly forgotten. Pulling apart the ties on the boy’s loose trousers, he pulls them quickly down revealing the youth’s erection. Kiyoshi tries to push his hands away and pull him back up into a kiss.
“I, please, I should do that for you…” Kiyoshi gasps and Takeo halts him with a brief kiss.
“There will be time enough for that later,” he replies. Then, before the boy can protest further, he leans down and takes the length of him in his mouth. Takeo, for all his own youth, is an experienced lover, and despite his overbearing and openly arrogant nature, he prides himself in being able to make his sweet lovers writhe beneath him in genuine abandon. Kiyoshi stiffens beneath his mouth, and a startled cry escapes his lips as he feels Takeo’s mouth close hot and soft around his length. Takeo lets the boy grip at his shoulders, his fingertips digging with almost painful pressure into his muscles. He torments the youth with gentle, gliding touches of his lips, letting him feel the caress of his tongue up and down the length of his shaft.
Kiyoshi trembles and shivers beneath him, the barest of whimpers escaping his throat as the older boy torments him. Finally, lifting his head from between the boy’s thighs, Takeo shifts his weight and kisses his way back up Kiyoshi’s chest until he reaches his lips. Then pausing, his own breath somewhat short and his hips pressing lightly against the hardness between the other boy’s thighs, he leans in close.
“Do you have anything ready for this?” he whispers. Kiyoshi looks at him blankly and Takeo almost sighs. Then suddenly the boy seems to remember and comprehend and twisting, he fumbles up beneath the pillow. “Here,” he says softly. “I bought it from a shop in town. They said it was the right thing.”
Takeo glances briefly at the label on the lubricant, vaguely impressed despite himself by the boy’s foresight. Or planning, he thinks. “Turn over,” he whispers and lifts himself so that Kiyoshi can shift beneath him. The boy turns and Takeo pulls aside the folds of the kimono, pulling the loose trousers lower. Then, applying a generous amount of lube to his fingers, he traces lightly between the boy’s buttocks before carefully slipping a finger inside. Kiyoshi is tight and hot and Takeo places a gentle kiss at the base of his spine in encouragement. Then, wary of the boy’s possible inexperience, he begins to prepare him.
Kiyoshi tries and fails not to struggle beneath the knowing touches of his partner, but Takeo places an arm across his back to prevent him from pushing back into his touches, forcing patience out of him. Finally, judging the writhing, panting boy to be ready, Takeo slips the fly on his trousers down and lubes himself quickly before covering the boy’s body with his own. With a hand on Kiyoshi’s hip to steady him, Takeo presses softly inwards.
Kiyoshi gives a muffled yelp at the intrusion and Takeo pauses, giving him time to adjust. Quickly, he reaches round beneath the boy and strokes his arousal back to its full hardness, slipping himself further inside the youth’s body. This sweet heat is almost unbearable and the boy’s body is tight enough to drive Takeo to distraction. It is barely possible for him to remain gentle and perhaps with a more experienced lover he may not have bothered. But Kiyoshi is new and young and the last thing Takeo wants is for this to turn into something the boy will regret.
Slowly he begins to thrust, building the boy up with careful timing and a subtle angling of his movements until he finds just the right tilt and the sudden startled cry of pleasure tells him that he’s found the sweet spot. Grinning against the boy’s shoulders he maintains the angle of his thrusting and with each movement a soft, almost disbelieving cry escapes Kiyoshi’s lips. Placing his forehead in the slick space between the boy’s shoulder blades, Takeo increases his tempo until the boy’s whimpers become outright moans and the fire in his own loins almost overwhelms him. Suddenly, Kiyoshi stiffens and his sharp cry tells Takeo that he is peaking. Feeling the boy lose himself beneath him, Takeo lets his thrusts deepen until the friction becomes unbearable and with a low growl he spills himself in the boy’s body.
Without breaking the embrace too much, Takeo pulls Kiyoshi back against his chest and curls himself around the sleepy younger boy, pulling his robes closed to keep out the chill from outside. They lie together, content and sated, and the roar of traffic from the city lulls them into sleep.
Later that night, out on the balcony with Kiyoshi sitting between his thighs, his head leant back against Takeo’s chest, the young yakuza broaches the subject of the next performance.
“You must make it your best,” he says softly, flicking ash from his cigarette out into the night. “We are holding negotiations with the Bakufa clan and father has invited them to the performance as a precursor to business negotiations.”
Kiyoshi goes still suddenly. “But they were the ones who attacked me.”
“Yes,” Takeo replies simply.
“Are you…selling me to them?”
Takeo tuts. “Of course not,” he replies dismissively. “It’s just business.”
Kiyoshi considers. “Then, of course I shall do my best,” he replies eventually.
“That’s all I expect,” Takeo replies.
The evening before the performance, Kiyoshi spends the night bent over a toilet bowl, one of the stage girls grimacing and holding his hair for him as he throws up. He is up all night running a fever that makes the room spin and the shadows shift strangely.
The next day he has not recovered, and panicking, Bokoto calls in a physician. The woman can do nothing however except prescribe antibiotics and bed rest. Furious at the world and at himself, Kiyoshi refuses the bed rest, downs the pills and forces himself out on to the stage to rehearse. The rest of the cast take in his deathly pale features and trembling hands with worried, sidelong looks, but Bokoto waves off their concern and orders the rehearsals to continue.
The day is hellish for Kiyoshi who maintains his feet through a sheer act of will. Finally, one of the older men orders an end to the rehearsing and sends him to catch some final hours of rest before the performance. Kiyoshi, worn out, obliges gladly and leaves Bokoto to shuffle the schedule and hastily reduce the amount of times he is to appear on stage.
An hour before the appointed start, he is roused by a stagehand who helps him climb painfully into his costume and sits him down to apply a thick layer of makeup to hide the sickly pallor of his skin and conceal the shadows beneath his eyes.
Bokoto whispers to him that his appearances have been cut down to a single song at the very end of the show and blearily Kiyoshi does not even protest. Eventually the time for his performance comes around and Kiyoshi makes his entrance onto a stage filled with dancers and chorus singers, the lights overhead painfully bright and blinding. His legs shake beneath him and when he reaches the heartbroken crescendo of his song, he falls to his knees not merely in simulated grief but because his legs will simply no longer support him.
Nonetheless, as the last echoes of the song die away the crowd packing the hall erupts into thunderous applause and cheering and he raises his head to a place on high that he is sure is supposed to be significant. Confused and befuddled however, he cannot think to whom he is looking and he barely feels the hands of his companions discreetly helping him to his feet, relying on the excuse of an elaborate costume to hide his lapse.
They lead him carefully up to his official suite on the second floor and steady him when the sudden crack of thunder from outside makes him jump and stumble. They place him on his bed, covering him with his blankets and quietly slip away leaving him to sleep.
Kiyoshi is not sure what has startled him awake, but he sits bolt upright, his fingers clenched painfully tight in the blankets. He can hear the pounding of rain against the window and the sudden flicker of lightning illuminates the room casting it sharply into monochrome.
From somewhere below he can hear the rise and fall of voices and out in the corridor the pounding of footsteps. Throwing aside the covers he drags on the heavy overcoat of his discarded costume and stumbles across to the door, pulling it open and peering out. Grabbing the first person to pass he demands to know what is going on.
“Kiyoshi-sama!” the boy cries. “It’s awful! There’s been a terrible fight. The Bakufa and the Arakaki are shooting at each other. They were doing business downstairs in the meeting rooms and then they started shooting. They went out into the streets and went back into the city, but now some of the Bakufa men have turned up saying they own the place now, and, Kiyoshi! Kiyoshi-sama!”
But Kiyoshi is already gone.
The streets are hazy and roaring with the pounding of rain, and Kiyoshi, slipping out of the backdoor, runs at full tilt down the street, the hems of his costume dragging in the puddles and weighing him down. Staggering and sick, he does not get far before he is spotted. With a yell the Bakufa heavies are on his trail and they catch up to him quickly, grabbing at his arms to halt him. He lashes out at them furiously, his voice almost lost amidst the roar of rain and traffic and thunder.
“Where’s Takeo?” he screams into the face of one of the men. “Where is he?”
Taken aback by the fury of this beautiful little demon boy, the man holds him at arm’s length and answers quietly and clearly, possibly moved to rare sympathy by the sodden, desperate figure the boy cuts.
“He’s dead. Tanaki-sama shot him.”
Kiyoshi stumbles backwards out of the man’s grasp and a low, pained moan escapes his lips as he falters and then falls. He lands hard on his knees on the rain-slick pavement, the storm still raging down, his fingers scraping across the tarmac as he weeps.
Uncomfortable and awed, the Bakufa men hover uncertainly around him until Bokoto rushes up out of the darkness with his stagehands and wrapping a blanket around Kiyoshi’s shoulders carries him bodily out of the storm and back into the silence of the opera house.
It seems to Kiyoshi that the beauty of the world has faded. Each Wednesday and each Saturday he performs for the joy and delight of the crowd, and if anyone notices a difference in his performances they are merely moved to comment on the heartbroken beauty of his singing and there are few, if any, who look beneath.
He keeps to his schedule of rehearsals and performances and the regularity of it all is like a mantra he can use to keep his heart beating. The Bakufa clan have fully destroyed the house of Arakaki, driving its men and women into distant, fragmented groups and executing those who do not relinquish their name to join the Tiger house.
The White Lily now bears the crimson tiger on its billboards and Hara Kiyoshi is the pale jewel in the Tiger’s jaws. He is a ghost and as such he is chained to his fate; his freedom, forever sought, now a fully banished imagining. For to Kiyoshi’s dismay, he has discovered that the fees of the Tiger far outweigh the fees of the Dragon.
Drifting, he loses himself in his music.
Two months pass before Kiyoshi dares to return to his secret attic room. When he sees the crystal figurines arrayed along the shelf he weeps anew and to his darkened mind it seems the crystals no longer shine. He packs them all away into their separate boxes and hides them in crate he once used as a table before pulling the blanket around his shoulders and huddling himself in the corner. He sleeps and when he dreams he sees the azure flash of dragon’s eyes and smells the smoke of the dragon’s breath as though it were happier times.
A week passes before he next visits the attic room, and the only reason he goes up there is to gather the crystal statues in order to pack them properly. Tomorrow he will take them into town and pawn them. That way perhaps he will be able to pay off at least some of the extravagant debt he now owes to the Tiger.
When he enters the room, the first thing he notices is that he has left the double doors to the balcony open. The night air whispers in, lifting his hair and the corner of his shirt with its touch. Frowning, he pushes the door closed behind him and crosses to close the double doors too. Suddenly, his eye is caught by a flicker of reflected light and he frowns. Something is hanging from the balcony railings and it sways with the passing of the wind.
Stepping out cautiously, he kneels and examines the object. It is a small box, delicately wrapped and suspended by a red ribbon from the railings. Lifting it, he pulls the apart the paper to reveal a small, wooden box. Something clutches at his chest, cold and forbidding and it makes his head spin. With trembling fingers he slips the lid open and looks inside. The beautifully carved form of a crystal phoenix glimmers back at him and the light it reflects blurs as tears fill his eyes.
“I hope you like it. Never got the chance to give it to you after the last performance.”
Kiyoshi staggers to his feet and whirls around, the box clutched tightly in his hands. He stares around wildly, searching for the source of the familiar voice, but is unable to see anything but the empty room behind him.
Kiyoshi’s eyes flick upwards and suddenly he notices the dark shadow huddled on the sloped roof above his head. Breathless, he clutches the box to his chest and simply stares. There is a low chuckle, and then, like a great cat uncurling itself, the figure moves, leaping forwards to drop down on the balcony in front of him. Straightening slowly, the newcomer smiles down at him, his blue eyes amused.
“You know, I think a kiss is an appropriate way of greeting a lover after an absence.”
Kiyoshi makes a choking sound in his throat and then, suddenly, hurls himself at Takeo’s chest. The yakuza youth grabs him, staggering slightly under the impact and laughs breathlessly.
“I thought you were dead!” Kiyoshi gasps.
“Not likely,” Takeo replies, his arms holding tightly to Kiyoshi’s shoulders. “But be careful how hard you squeeze, some bits are still sore.”
Kiyoshi laughs, tears spilling from his eyes and hugs him hard, but Takeo, stroking his hair and wincing slightly, nonetheless returns the embrace just as fiercely. They stand there like that, simply savouring each other’s company for long minutes.
Finally, Takeo, his fingers gently stroking the back of Kiyoshi’s head, looks up into the darkness. “You remember once, Kiyoshi, how you said you wanted to be free?”
The youth nods against his chest.
“Hnn,” Takeo says. “You still want that?”
“Of course…” Kiyoshi whispers.
Takeo nods once. “Good,” he says. “Then let’s go.”
And kissing him fiercely, Takeo takes him by the hand and leads him up onto the roof, stealing him away into the night and towards the promise of the future.