Toya looked at himself in the mirror. He most definitely felt ready to go – especially given that this was the biggest event of the year. If you were in the porn industry, the Japan Adult Video Association Male Awards were your Christmas.
Their stylist team had made sure that the Diamond Mine crew was looking their best. In Toya's case, that meant a gray suit jacket with jewelry, black pants, and a hairstyle that consisted of soft tendrils curling on either side of his face, with the rest of it pulled back. Obvious extensions? Sure. But a GOOD use of obvious extensions.
Jun walked up to him and leaned over his shoulder. “Are you all set to be a winner?” he said.
“I was trying not to think too hard about the fact that I'm nominated,” Toya replied.
“Why? You earned it, remember?” Jun moved back from him far enough to twirl around. “How do I look?” he said.
“Gorgeous, as always,” Toya said. And he did look gorgeous. He was wearing a Victorian-style blouse with an indigo velvet jacket over it and a small hat pinned to his pink and purple hair. Jun always slayed on the red carpet – it was one reason he'd been a star almost from the moment he made his debut.
“And so are you.” Jun wrapped his arms around Toya. “And that's why I fell for you the moment I laid eyes on you.”
“That's usually MY line,” Toya said, leaning his head against his lover's. “And I DID fall for you the moment I laid eyes on you.”
“Well, it's true for both of us, so there,” Jun said. He was going to kiss Toya – when both of them felt hands on their shoulders.
“Hey, are we going to share the wealth here?” Jui said. “I feel a little left out!”
“You know we don't leave you out, love,” Jun said, reaching an arm around Jui's back. “At least not intentionally. But you WERE over there texting or tweeting or whatever the hell you were doing.”
“I was talking to Ruiza,” Jui said. “He's going to make a big announcement on the red carpet. HUGE. And he told me to keep it under my hat . . . but you two count as part of my hat.”
“He told you and not me?” Jun gave an over-exaggerated pout. “I'm insulted.”
“Well, he knew you were getting dressed,” Jui said. “He knows how long that takes.”
Jun's phone went off at that moment. “He takes longer to get dressed than me!” he said. “Car's here, let's go downstairs.”
In the elevator, Toya said, “So what's Ruiza's big secret, anyway?”
“He's finally left Hard Candy,” Jui said. “FINALLY. And instead of going with any one studio, he's going to freelance.”
“Freelance?” Jun said. “That's crazy! We were going to freelance, if you remember, and we decided it would be career suicide.”
“Yes, but things have changed a bit since we left Hard Candy,” Jui said. The elevator arrived on the ground floor, and they headed out toward the waiting car. “There's a lot more indie companies springing up, and the line between indie and major is blurring more. And everyone wants a superstar to drive attention to their company.”
“You're forgetting that every company has their own superstars,” Jun said. “Hell, at PSC alone, they have Aoi, Ruki, Byou, Subaru, Yo-ka, Yuuki . . .”
“He's already got a four-production deal,” Jui said. “And that's the REAL big surprise.”
“He does?” Jun replied. “With who?”
* * *
Uruha looked at his phone as he sat in his car to the ceremony. He felt like he should be hiding what was on the screen – even though the only other person in this car was his significant other, and Uruha would trust Kai with the deepest secrets of the Illuminati – if he had them.
“So it's really a done deal, then?” Kai said.
“He's going to announce it on the red carpet,” Uruha said. “And I'm going to let him do it, much as I'd like to rub it in Heavy Hitter's faces.”
“You did enough of that last year, love,” Kai said. “Remember, the Kiryu Video announcement – complete with mike drop?”
“Oh, yes,” Uruha said. “That's something you don't forget.”
“It was a smart decision, too,” Kai said. “That deal is paying off. You had five of the top ten best selling videos of the year – and Mahiro was in three of them.”
Uruha nodded. It was a huge milestone. Swashbucklers, which did feature Mahiro, was the industry's top mover of the year. Kabuki Disco, also with Mahiro, was not far behind. Boy in the Bottle was number five, Tomorrow Never Dies was at seven, and the Codomo Dragon collective's debut, Sodom, came in at an astonishing tenth place – no doubt driven by the star power of Mahiro and Subaru.
“That's last year, though. Once we're done with these JAVAs, we're starting with a clean slate. We need to stay competitive with everyone else – and Ruiza is going to help us do it. Plus, we have Jui and Jun onboard with us now, not to mention Toya – we struck gold by putting him with Subaru.”
“And you have big plans for that, too, don't you?” Kai said. “Including Project X?”
“You know me too well, love,” Uruha said. “And, by the way, after tonight? It's not Project X. I'm announcing it, as soon as Ruiza makes his move official.”
“You are?” Kai said.
“I said I'd let Ruiza make his own announcement,” Uruha said. “I didn't say I wasn't going to make any big announcements of my own. Hey, I have to have SOMETHING to wave in Heavy Hitter's faces, right?” The car pulled up in front of the hotel, the same one that had hosted the event the previous year. “We're here.”
* * *
The car bearing the co-founders of The Diamond Mine pulled up right before Uruha's. The three of them alighted on the red carpet – and no sooner had they when a black and silver tornado streaked toward them, throwing itself at Toya in a flying tackleglomp. The tornado solidified into the form of Subaru, wearing an elegant black shirt with silver accents, over which was a long, black jacket. A matching black and silver choker was around his neck.
“TOYA!” he cried. “I am so, so glad to see you! You have to meet the rest of my friends! You met Yuuki and Yo-ka in Hokkaido, but you have to meet MiA and Koichi and Hayato and . . .” He took a step backward and quickly bowed to the other two. “Oh, hi, Jui-san, Jun-san,” he said. “I'm glad to see you again.”
“But not as glad as you are to see Toya, obviously,” Jun said.
A voice behind Subaru said, “So HERE'S where you went. We thought you'd run away from us.”
“I'm not going to run away from you, Junji,” Subaru said, turning around. Sure enough, there stood Junji, Mahiro and Tomoya, all wearing black-based outfits, the first two, of course, in their usual traditional-styled fashions.
“What's with all the black?” Junji said. “You guys look like you're in mourning.”
“Uruha's idea,” Subaru said. “He thinks black will make us look more mature and sophisticated, and since I'm . . .” He took a deep breath. “Presenting . . .”
Jun leaned over and put a hand on his shoulder. “Subaru, remember what you and Hiro talked about the other night. You'll be fine.” He looked around. “Where is Hiro, anyway?”
“He said he's coming with HAL as his date,” Toya said.
“He is?” said Junji. “Damn!”
“Oh, I'm not surprised” Jun said. “I saw it in Hiro's eyes every time he looked at the guy. He just thought he was keeping it hidden.”
“Speaking of people not showing up,” Subaru said, “where's MiA?”
“On his way,” Tomoya said. “It took Koichi longer than normal to get into his outfit.”
“What the hell is he wearing, anyway?” Mahiro said.
At that moment, another tornado blew into view, this one far more colorful than the crowd in black – and waving a selfie stick. “SUBARU!” the tornado whooped. “SUBARU SUBARU SUBARU! I've gotten SO MANY SELFIES! This is amazing! EVERYONE is here! EVERYONE EVERYONE EVERYONE EVER! Oh, my GOD! People I never thought I'd see in the flesh, and I got selfies with them! Just one right after the other! LOOK!”
The tornado barely slowed down enough to look human. It pulled the phone off the selfie stick and began to flip through pictures. “Look, here's me with Kamijo! WITH KAMIJO! And here I am with Asagi, and with Aiji, and with . . .”
“He hasn't found Hakuei yet,” said another voice behind the tornado.
“I will!” said the tornado. “I WILL! That is my goal for the night! I WILL get a selfie with Hakuei, and it will be the BEST MOMENT OF MY LIFE!”
“Um, guys, this is my friend Hayato, and his boyfriend, Kana,” Subaru said. “They're with the Codomo Dragon group. Hayato and Kana, this is Toya, Jui and Jun . . .”
“OH, MY GOD, YOU'RE JUN!” Hayato said. “Please, please, can I get a selfie with you, too?”
“You have to excuse Hayato,” Subaru said, blushing slightly. “He's kind of a fanboy.”
“Kind of?” Mahiro murmured.
“Sure, I'll get in a selfie,” Jun said, with a poise that indicated he did this kind of thing all the time.
“Some of those people told us they really liked our video, too,” Kana said.
“Well, so did we,” Jun said after Hayato snapped the picture. “You guys have real talent.”
“Hayato really is a good director,” Subaru said. “He worked with Mahiro and I on Sodom, and . . .”
“And you guys were AWESOME,” Hayato said. “The video came out as well as it did because of you!”
At that moment, the group was approached by a member of the industry media. “Oh, Jun-san and Jui-san,” the man said. “Always a pleasure. Can you tell me about what The Diamond Mine is going to be doing now that you're with PSC Productions?”
They always talk to Jui and Jun, Toya thought. He was used to being neglected by the industry media by now – even though he'd gotten a bit more attention since The Burning Snow came out.
But no sooner had he turned away when another reporter approached him. “Toya-san!” he said. “Congratulations on a fabulous year! Two hit videos, two award nominations . . . so what do you credit your new success to?”
Another reporter approached him from the other side. “Toya-san!” he said! “So tell me, what's the secret to the incredible chemistry you had with Subaru in The Burning Snow?”
And before he could answer, a third reporter approached. “There you are, Toya-san!” he said. “Is there any truth to the rumor that Uruha is developing another project for you and Subaru to co-star in?”
Toya's head swiveled from one side to the other. This, he wasn't used to! Is this the effect that being affiliated with PSC had on someone's career?
He took a deep breath and willed himself to stay calm. He could do this.
“My success is due to being able to work with both the people I've been successful with in the past and experiencing new co-stars,” he said. Well, that was answer #1 down. “Subaru is both a real pro and a fun guy to hang around with. We work well together because we genuinely like each other.” And that was the second one. “As for future projects . . .”
Oh, crap, how did he answer that? Uruha did hint he was making a big project announcement at the awards, and Toya would be involved in it . . . but was he allowed to say anything?
“You'll have to ask Uruha,” he said. Well, damn, that was the world's biggest cop-out, wasn't it? He wished he had Jun's ability to “give good interview.” He could come up with the right answer no matter what the occasion.
Meanwhile, while Toya was dealing with the press, Subaru spotted someone he wanted to see across the red carpet. “MiA!” he shouted, running over to his friend – who was wearing a black dress with silver accents, long black gloves, and on his head . . . “Oh, no, Koichi made you wear another tiara?”
“This isn't a tiara.” MiA touched the silver circlet with a centerpiece of a blue stone atop his head. “It's a headpiece. There's a difference. It doesn't have the . . . crown-y thing going on. I was adamant about that.”
“Where is Koichi, anyway?” Subaru said.
“He's . . . coming,” MiA said. “He's moving a bit slowly, because his outfit is a bit . . . heavy.”
“What do you mean, heavy?” Subaru said.
“Koichi managed to outdo himself?” Junji said as he and the other three caught up with MiA. “Whoa, you look hot tonight!”
“Thanks,” MiA said. “And before you ask, this isn't a tiara. And I'll say that all night if I have to.”
“So what about Koichi's outfit?” Tomoya said. “He's not wearing full body armor, is he?”
“No – even he draws the line at that,” MiA said. “Well, see, he thought he'd make the theme of his outfit a reconciliation with Mahiro.”
Mahiro looked baffled. “Reconciliation with me? When did I ever fight with him?”
“Koichi used to consider you his fashion rival, remember?” MiA said. “He used to call you Geisha Boy. He always thought you were timing your entrances to upstage him on the red carpet. Well, he feels sorry about all that now, and he wanted to make his outfit a tribute to you. Or, rather, a tribute to you and your video.”
“Which video?” Mahiro said.
There was a ripple in the crowd behind them – which seemed to be parting like the Red Sea to let someone through. There were murmured voices, and the flashes of multiple flashbulbs.
And in the midst of it all was a figure wearing what could only be described as a colorful kimino. Make that VERY colorful. It seemed to be made of leftover pieces of kimono fabric stiched together – brightly patterned greed on top, a red pattern below that, a purple one further down. At the center of the chest was a purple rosette, the kind of thing that would be given as a prize at a fair. A prop katana hung at his side, and underneath, one could see that he was wearing black leather platform boots, completely covered with spikes.
But it was what was on his head that attracted the most attention. Above the pink hair – rather conservatively styled, but then again, wild curls would just get lost in this outfit – and the pirate eyepatch was . . . a disco ball.
That would have been astounding enough on its own, of course. Except he'd also festooned said disco ball with little hearts on sticks – the kind that were stuck in floral arrangements – and several pairs of heart-shaped, brightly-colored sunglasses frames, with the glass knocked out. There was also a pair of red wax lips on a stick in there somewhere.
The foursome just stared. Subaru's jaw was hanging open. Mahiro had his face screwed up with an odd expression, somewhere between displeasure and disbelief. Junji just looked amused, and Tomoya kept shaking his head, as if he was trying to convince himself he wasn't hallucinating.
Koichi stopped in front of them, spread his arms out to show off the kimono fully, and said, dramatically, “I am the very embodiment of Kabuki Disco!”
“Oh. My. God.” Mahiro said, and he joined Subaru in staring with an open jaw.
“See?” Koichi said. “I wanted the outfit to be a tribute to you guys and your sense of fashion. Except I did it MY way, of course. Everything I wear on the red carpet has to be fully mine.”
“You're actually going to wear that all night?” Junji said.
“Of course I am!” Koichi said. “Fashion can be challenging sometimes, but I'm up to the challenge!”
“Well, it's . . .” Subaru said. “Unique.”
“It's definitely you, Koichi,” Tomoya said. “I don't know anyone else on the planet who could pull that off.” Or would want to try, he thought.
At that moment, Toya finally managed to extract himself from the press, and went over to Subaru's group – where he beheld the color-splashed, sparkly spectacle that was Koichi. “What . . . the . . .”
“Toya,” Subaru said, “this is Koichi. And this is his boyfriend, my dear friend MiA.”
“Hi!” Koichi said. “I'd bow, but . . . I can't right now.”
“I'll bow for both of us,” MiA said, quickly. “I heard a lot about you, Toya.”
Toya had most definitely seen Koichi before – he was unavoidable, a red carpet fixture at the JAVAs. But he'd never seen him looking quite like . . . this. “Your outfit is . . . amazing,” he said. Well, that was an understatement.
Meanwhile, Junji and Tomoya were whispering among themselves. “I'll bet you a beer that he loses at least the disco ball by the time we go inside,” Junji said.
“I think he'll keep it on for most of the ceremony,” Tomoya replied. “But it's definitely gone by the Best Video award.”
“You're on,” Junji said, thinking, there's no way he'll wear that thing that long. No way. He'll be buying me a beer for sure.
* * *
Uruha was getting antsy about his announcement.
He and Kai were trailing after Ruiza – trying not to make it too obvious they were trailing after him. They didn't want to be seen as stalkers, after all. But they had to know when their new star was dropping his truth bomb – and so far, he seemed in no hurry to drop it.
The two watched as Ruiza talked to the press, posed, greeted a group of old friends, was interviewed by a typically clueless member of the mainstream media . . .
But so far, nothing. He was mum on the major news.
“What is he waiting for?” Uruha hissed. “NHK to show up?”
“He'll get to it, love,” Kai said. “Be patient.”
“Sakai's right over there,” Uruha said, nodding his head in the direction of his rival from Heavy Hitter. “I wanted to be able to give MY announcement within his earshot, dammit! And I can't say anything until Ruiza does his!”
“Remember, love, you don't have to show Sakai up every single JAVAs,” Kai said.
“Oh, wait a second, he's talking to a whole bunch of bloggers over there!” Uruha nonchalantly sauntered in the direction of the blond actor – who was looking stunning in a black Lolita dress trimmed with purple. Between him and my own guys, Uruha thought, there's black all over the red carpet this year. I can just see the headlines now - “Black is the new black!”
“Ruiza-san!” one reporter said. “What do you think the odds are of you being named Performer of the Year?”
“Well, it's a level playing field, isn't it?” Ruiza said. “It could be anyone, right? And there's a lot of guys who did great work this year.”
Come on, Uruha thought. Say it! Just say it!
“What do you have to say about the rumors about you and Asagi not working together again?” a second reporter said.
“Asagi is a longtime friend and a great co-star,” Ruiza said. “I'm not ruling anything out.”
Go on! Uruha thought. That's a great opening! Just say it! But Ruiza was still mum. Someone else asked a question about, of all things, his outfit, and he gave praise to the store in Harajuku where he found it.
Sakai suddenly started heading right in their direction. Shit, Uruha thought. Say something, Ruiza! Please! It's a perfect opportunity for me!
But Ruiza was continuing to talk to the press about guys he'd worked with in the past, and Sakai was right behind them, and opportunity was slipping away . . .
And then, Sakai kept walking – right into the middle of the group of reporters. “Good evening, gentlemen and ladies,” he said. “I have some important news for you. Heavy Hitter has made an important signing. . .”
“HEY!” Uruha said, charging into the group himself. “They were talking to Ruiza, you know!”
“Yes, but my news can't wait,” Sakai said.
“Neither can his!” Uruha shouted – and then thought, whoops. I wasn't supposed to do that. He gave Ruiza a sheepish “Sorry!” look.
“I can't imagine his is bigger than mine,” Sakai said.
“Given that you overcompensate all the time?” Uruha said. “I'd say there's a very good chance that his is bigger than yours!”
“Oh, very funny,” Sakai said. “I'm sure these professonals will appreciate that lapse into high school humor.”
“Will you just let Ruiza announce his news?” Uruha said.
“You seem to know a LOT about this man's announcement,” Sakai said. “Just why is that?'
“Something he hinted at,” Uruha said, quickly. He was most definitely not going to blow this for Ruiza.
“I'm still sure his news isn't as interesting as mine,” Sakai said. He turned to the members of the press and said, “It is my pleasure to announce that Heavy Hitter has signed Rod Stroker to an exclusive deal for Japanese appearances!”
The press murmured in appreciation, and some of them applauded. Uruha gritted his teeth. Rod Stroker was a superstar of American gay porn – in the waning years of his career, to be sure, but still enough of a name that he'd mean guaranteed sales.
“When will he be making his first video with you, Sakai-san?” one reporter said.
“He's flying to Japan in two weeks,” Sakai said. “We'll begin working then. My staff is thrilled – the actors are competing with each other to work with him.”
I'll bet, Uruha thought. They'd definitely want the attention appearing with Rod Stroker would bring.
“So do you have anyone special in mind?” said another reporter. “Anyone in particular you're casting opposite him?”
“You'll see,” Sakai said. “I can tell you one thing, though – I'm going to promise you the hottest, nastiest, most mind-blowing videos ever!” He then turned to Ruiza, bowing. “I leave the floor to you, Ruiza-san.”
Crap, Uruha thought. He just ruined Ruiza's moment. His announcement is going to seem anticlimactic after that. I'm going to have to bring out the really big guns after he's done.
“All right,” Ruiza said. “I was saving this news – but I guess I'm going to tell you now.” He paused. “I'm leaving Hard Candy and going freelance.”
The press looked at each other. “We knew your contract was up soon,” one of them said. “You leaving Hard Candy isn't a surprise.”
Damn, Uruha thought. I was right. He's been upstaged.
“But going freelance?” another reporter said. “Do you actually have any videos lined up?”
“Do you actually think you're going to be successful?” another said. “Nobody has done that before. Nobody that was associated with a major studio, anyway.”
“Yes, he's going to be successful,” Uruha said, stepping forward. “Because he's going to be working with me.”
Now the reporters seemed more interested. They leaned forward, holding their phones out to record what Uruha was saying. “Do tell,” one reporter said.
“He's going to be involved in our biggest project of next year,” Uruha said. “A miniseries.”
Now, they all gasped. “Did you say MINISERIES?” a reporter said.
“Yes,” said Uruha. “It will debut on our streaming service, one installment a week. There will be eight installments. When all eight air, it will be released as two four-episode DVD sets. The theme will be a prince having a sort of competition to find true love. Ruiza will play one of the candidates for the prince's heart – AND his character is getting a followup movie.”
The press was now clamoring and moving closer to the two. Uruha leaned over and whispered to his new star, “Is it okay if I tell them the rest?”
“Go ahead,” Ruiza whispered back.
“Is this true, Ruiza-san?” one reporter shouted.
“Yes,” Ruiza said. “And I'm very glad to be working with Uruha-san. But . . . that miniseries isn't all that we're doing.”
“No,” Uruha said. “Ruiza will be doing at least four projects overall with us, and at least one will be . . .”
At that moment, Hayato dashed across the red carpet like a soccer player streaking toward the goal, waving his selfie stick like a banner of freedom. He saw Ruiza – and made a beeline for him.
“RUIZA-SAN!” he said. “I am a fan! I am a HUGE fan! Please, can I get a selfie with you?”
Ruiza froze. The press members froze. Uruha froze – although part of him wanted to break free of the freeze and thwap Hayato with his own selfie stick.
“Well, sure,” Ruiza said, cautiously. “You look familiar.”
“I'm Hayato, from the Codomo Dragon group,” he said. “Um, we did Sodom?”
“Sodom?” Ruiza said. “I LOVED that video!”
“You DID?” Hayato looked like he was going to explode. Literally, he was quivering. Uruha was bracing for him to become a burst of fireworks.
“Yes,” Ruiza said. “It was original, and creative, and, well, everything I'd love to do now that I'm a freelancer. In fact, if you're coming up with new projects, I would love to work with you guys!”
Uruha's jaw nearly hit the floor. He braced himself for the firery explosion from Hayato's direction.
“OH, MY GOD!” Hayato said. “That is fantastic! You mean it? You really mean it?”
“Yes, of course!” Ruiza said. “If you guys have a video with a part for me, count me in!”
“YES!” Hayato leaped in the air, punching his fist toward the sky, then turned toward the press. “We're going to work with Ruiza! Us! Codomo Dragon!”
Uruha just stared at the whole thing, dumbfounded. He'd intended to upstage Sakai – but now, he, himself, had been upstaged by Hayato. The press was taking pictures of him holding Ruiza's hand up in the air like he was the winner of a prizefight. He knew the big headline tomorrow would be “UP-AND-COMERS CODOMO DRAGON TO WORK WITH SUPERSTAR” - and the news of the miniseries would be further down the story lineup.
I was going to announce that he was going to be in Datenshi Blue 3, he thought. And then, I was going to follow that up by announcing Swashbucklers 2 – and half the cast for it.
But looking across the red carpet, he could see Sakai glaring at him – and he realized that his rival thought he'd probably planned and staged the whole thing, that he'd told Hayato to come storming out there in order to make a big deal out of the Ruiza announcement.
Let him think that, he thought. The more he believes I burned him, the better.
* * *
MiA had to admit that he was a bit worried about his lover.
He was talking to the bloggers, fending off rumors about Swashbucklers 2 – he knew Uruha was going to make an announcement, but he didn't know if he'd done it yet – but he was watching Koichi out of the corner of his eye.
The fashionista was in his element, of course. He was posing on the red carpet, turning this way and that, with more photographers circling him than ever before. After he'd been upstaged by his own creations for Codomo Dragon at the Viewer's Choice Awards, finally, he had a moment in the spotlight all his own.
But is this going to come at a price? MiA thought. That headpiece is awfully big. Those boots are awfully high. And even the kimono is made of so much fabric that it weighs a ton. He wanted to ask Koichi if he was doing okay . . . but there was no way in hell he was going to tear him away from those photographers. Not when they were circling him like bees around a particularly shiny and colorful flower.
A voice next to him said, “How are you doing? You look worried.”
MiA turned. “Oh, hi, Yuuki. It's . . . I think Koichi has bit off more than he can chew this time. That outfit . . .”
“It's unbelievable,” Yuuki said. “He's outdone himself, I'll say that.”
“But he's going to literally hurt himself wearing that all night. I mean, just those boots alone . . .”
“Trust me, I know about uncooperative boots at the JAVAs,” Yuuki said. “Koichi knows what he can handle. At least, I hope he does.”
“That's just it,” MiA said. “He WOULD put himself through hell for the sake of the biggest picture on the blogs and a full page in the print publications. And it's, well . . .” He said, quietly, “I know there's much more to him than his designs. Sometimes, I wonder if HE knows that.”
“Well, then, you have to make him realize that your love and his safety mean more than how many times a photo is retweeted, don't you?” Yuuki said, patting MiA's shoulder. “I'll see you later.”
MiA looked over at Koichi again. I WOULD tell him, he thought, if I could get anywhere near him . . .
* * *
Toya just wasn't used to this much attention from the press.
Here he was thinking he'd be neglected when they went after Jui and Jun, as usual – and he was being whirled from one blogger and reporter to the other. He was running out of things to say. He wasn't much of a talker, anyway – at least, not in public – and he was getting one microphone and camera and recording device after another shoved into his face. It was a bit overwhelming.
All this for two nominations, he thought. If I had more, I'd probably be beating them off with a stick.
Fortunately, his pursuers got a distraction – in the form of a vlogger running over, camera held over his head. “Hey!” he said. “There's something HUGE breaking over there!”
“What is it?” said the reporter who'd been interviewing Toya.
“Ruiza left Hard Candy to work with Codomo Dragon!”
“WHAT?” Toya said. That wasn't the announcement Jui had talked about! Could it be that Jui had gotten it wrong?
“Holy SHIT!” the reporter said – and he took off with a flock of others. Well, at least they left me alone, Toya thought.
Meanwhile, across the red carpet, Codomo Dragon were posing for pictures with Ruiza – although most of them looked a bit confused. “When did this come about, anyway?” meN-meN whispered to Chamu.
“I have no idea,” Chamu replied. “One minute, we can't find Hayato because he's running around taking selfies. Next minute, we're writing and directing a video for Ruiza.”
Equally confused were Jui and Jun, who stood off to the side, watching. “But . . . this isn't what he said,” Jui whispered. “He said NOTHING about Codomo Dragon. In fact, he specifically said he wanted to work with Uruha.”
Toya wandered over to his lovers, looking dazed. “I never want to see another reporter again,” he said.
“Well, then, don't look over there,” Jun said, “because there they all are. It seems that all of a sudden . . .”
“Ruiza and Codomo Dragon,” Toya said. “I know.”
Meanwhile, the foursome, who were also on the fringes of the crowd, came over to the triad. “What the hell is this?” Mahiro said.
“He was being interviewed,” Junji said, pointing to Mahiro, “and the guy ran away mid-sentence.”
Subaru looked at the center of the crowd. “Hayato?” he said. “Since when is he working with . . .” He looked at the other three. “Did he say anything to you guys?”
“No,” Tomoya said. “Not a word. Just about the followup to Sodom.”
“Ruiza didn't say anything to us, either,” Jui said. “In fact, he said something completely different.”
“You're friends with Ruiza?” Subaru said.
“We go way back,” Jun said. “We started out at Hard Candy, remember?”
“Plus, there's the small matter of them both being in the Kisaki Exes Club,” Jui said.
“I don't want to talk about that bastard!” Jun said. “And YOU are in that club too, you know.”
“Who's Kisaki?” Tomoya whispered to Toya. “The name sounds familiar.”
“Longtime actor-producer-director at Hard Candy,” Toya replied. “Has a reputation for running a casting couch. He's dated and dumped about three-quarters of the guys at that company.”
“He didn't come close to Kiryu Video, thank God,” Mahiro said. “We were a subcompany, we weren't good enough for him.”
At that moment, one of the JAVA officials started making his way down the red carpet with a bullhorn, calling out, “If you would please start making your way inside, we're going to begin the show in a few minutes . . .”
Subaru took a deep breath. “This is it,” he said. “I'm going to be presenting.”
Tomoya hugged him. “You'll be fine, baby,” he said. “It's a piece of cake.”
As the crowd moved toward the doors, Jui and Jun caught up with Ruiza. “What the hell is with Codomo Dragon?” Jui said. “Wasn't this supposed to be your big announcement about Uruha?”
“It was,” Ruiza said. “And I did tell them about that. Except this just sort of . . . happened.”
“Out of nowhere?” Jun said.
“That guy who was in Sodom wanted to take a selfie with me, and I was telling him how much I liked the film, and suddenly . . . we were working together.” Ruiza shrugged. “I'm not sure how it happened, either. But, you know what? The press was about to give me hell for going freelance, and that shut them up. So, I'll take it.”
As Kai and Uruha headed in, Kai said, “You didn't get to announce Project X.”
“Actually, I did,” Uruha said. “And they liked the idea. But, well . . . Hayato stole my thunder. I didn't get to announce the Datenshi Blue and Swashbucklers sequels, though. That'll have to come afterward.” He glanced across the red carpet. “Sakai was steaming at the Codomo Dragon thing, though, because it upstaged his big announcement about the American guy – so I got SOMETHING out of it.”
As MiA walked next to Koichi – who was moving more slowly than usual – he said, “Baby, are you SURE you're okay in that thing?”
“Of course I am,” Koichi said.
“The red carpet is over,” MiA said. “There's no harm in losing the headpiece, and maybe the boots. There's got to be coin lockers somewhere in there . . .”
“Coin lockers?” Koichi said. “This is a CLASSY place. They have coat check!”
“We'll check them, then,” MiA said.
“But there's going to be cameras on the audience during the show,” Koichi said. “And what about if Swashbucklers wins Best Video at the end of the night? We'll all have to go up there! I'm not going up there with hat hair and bare feet!”
MiA sighed. There was no convincing him. He just hoped Koichi would still be holding up when the show was over.
And closer to the door, the unlikely stars of the red carpet were discussing how the hell they got there in the first place.
“I still can't believe we're somehow making a video for Ruiza,” meN-meN said. “How the FUCK did that happen?”
“I just ran up to him, and he was there, and I was so excited about seeing him that I didn't notice all the press, and he asked me who I was, and I told him about Sodom, and he flipped out and said he loved it, and then suddenly he was saying he wanted to work with us, and the next thing I knew, we were doing a video!” Hayato said.
“You realize we have to come up with a script for him now?” meN-meN said. “I don't have the first idea what it would be!”
“We'll talk to Uruha,” Kana said. “He can point us in the right direction.” He put an arm around Hayato's waist and hugged him. “I'm so proud of you. You got us the biggest video of our careers.”
“Just because he wanted to take a selfie with him?” Yume said.
“Selfie!” Hayato said. “OH, MY GOD, I NEVER GOT A SELFIE WITH HAKUEI! That was my goal! Where is he?” He dashed away from the group.
MeN-meN facepalmed. “It's never a dull moment with him, is it?” he said.
And so, the group continued to herd into the hotel ballroom, the first part of the evening behind them. But the main event was still to come. After all, the main reason they were here was awards. Sort of.
* * *
Subaru had hoped that he'd be able to have Toya at his table, but as usual, seating arrangements were by company. The Diamond Mine had their own table – which was at least next door to the BP Video table. That consisted of the Kiryu Video crew, the Codomo Dragon collective, Subaru and Tomoya. Most of the Codomo Dragon group still looked confused and even a little shell-shocked at their unexpected success.
“I'm still trying to figure out how this happened,” meN-meN said. “Kana, can you enlighten me?”
Kana shook his head. “I was there, and even I can't figure it out.”
Meanwhile, Subaru was looking at the stage, trying to imagine himself on it, presenting. And his mind still wasn't quite registering it. I can't screw up, he thought. I need to stay focused . . .
Across the table, Mitsuki was saying, “They had better not have the same asshole who usually hosts this thing.”
“How come?” Tomoya said.
“Think about what year this is,” Mitsuki said.
Hiyori, who was sitting next to him, look confused. “Um . . 2017?”
“Not the Western calendar year. The Chinese year.”
But before anyone could reply, the lights went down and there was a fanfare of music. “Welcome to the Japan Adult Video Association Male Awards for 2017!” a voice boomed over the loudspeakers. “Or, as we like to call it . . .”
“THE YEAR OF THE COCK!” the usual host yelled as he ran onstage, holding a gold-painted effigy of a chicken over his head.
Mitsuki facepalmed. “This is exactly what I was afraid was going to happen,” he said.
“Yes, welcome to the JAVAs for the Year of the Cock!” the host said. “I'll bet you're excited! Well, how can you NOT be excited, it involves COCK, right? And that's what we're giving away awards for tonight! Who's best at handling COCK?”
Subaru glanced around him. Most people were just watching this guy stone-faced. A few were actively facepalming. Yuuki flat-out had his face buried in his arms, which were folded on the table.
“Oh, so you think my jokes SUCK, don't you?” the host said. “Well, damn, you'd think you people would be used to that – especially those of you who are nominated for Best Oral!”
A chorus of groans went up. Subaru noticed a few people were now flipping the stage the finger. (He also noticed HAL leaning on Hiro's shoulder, the two of them looking very cozy. Damn, it seemed they were a couple, all right.)
“Well, you people aren't here to hear me, are you?” the host said. “You're here for AWARDS! And here's the presenters for the first one of the evening, Best Wall-to-Wall . . .”
“That's not going to involve us at all,” Mahiro whispered. Wall-to-wall, of course, was the term for all sex, no plot, and it was a Heavy Hitter specialty. They could definitely relax for this one.
Indeed, the first couple of awards passed without incident. Best Wall-to-Wall went to Heavy Hitter, of course. Following that, Jun got on the stage to present Best Star Vehicle – and he was utterly poised, calm, and collected.
Am I going to be like that? Subaru thought.
Meanwhile, Junji and Tomoya were observing what was going on at one of the adjacent tables –
“He's still wearing it,” Tomoya whispered. “I won.”
“You don't win unless he keeps it on till the end of the show!” Junji whispered back. “If he takes it off before then, it's a draw.”
MiA, meanwhile, was eying Koichi nervously. “Are you really okay?” he said.
“Of course I'm okay,” Koichi replied.
“You keep bending your head downward . . .”
“I'm just stretching a little, that's all,” Koichi replied. “Oh, look, they're going to present Best Oral.”
All eyes automatically turned toward Ruki, who was sitting at Uruha's table looking huffy. “I'm not expecting anything,” he said.
“Come on,” Aoi said. “You want to win and you know it.”
“I want to win, but I'm accepting reality,” Ruki said. “The JAVAs fucking hate me.”
He looked at the stage and listened, with a cool demeanor, as the presenter – a longtime Adonis actor –read off the names. Two from Heavy Hitter. One from Adonis. One from Hard Candy, and finally, Ruki's own name was read. The audience burst into loud applause.
“And the award goes to . . .” the presenter said. He opened the envelope – and then said, “Holy shit, a TIE!”
The audience gasped. Ties at the JAVAS were rare. In fact, the last time one had happened, the industry had barely transitioned from VHS to DVD.
“Saraba, from Heavy Hitter, for Anything That Moves 3, and Ruki, from PSC Productions, for Tomorrow Never Dies!”
“The FUCK?” Ruki said, bolting to his feet. Fuck. Fuck, he FINALLY won this award, and he had to SHARE it with an asshole from Heavy Hitter, of all things!
“You heard the man!” Aoi said. “Get up there!”
Ruki just about stormed toward the stage. Fuck, he thought again. This wasn't a real win. If he had to share it with a guy from Heavy Hitter, it might as well be another loss. Am I EVER going to win this award by myself? he thought.
The Heavy Hitter lunk was already up there by the time Ruki reached the stage and halfway through his speech. He finished, holding his trophy over his head in triumph, and Ruki took his place.
“Damn,” he said. “I wasn't expecting this.” The audience laughed. “No, I really wasn't! I've gotten used to not winning this! I need to thank Yuuki, who was my partner in that scene, and Uruha, who's the best director this industry ever had. I want to thank Shou for patience and love, and our writers for a great script, and . . .”
Fuck. Aoi was sitting there with a shit-eating grin, as if he was demanding to be acknowledged as well. The asshole.
Ruki let out a deep sigh, and said. “And I'd like to thank Aoi, who's been an awesome co-star over the years. Don't say I didn't acknowledge you.” The audience laughed. They had no idea Ruki was serious.
“Thanks again,” he said, holding up his award – a fucking duplicate, dammit – and went back to his seat.
“Nice job,” Uruha whispered. “I knew you could do it.”
Yeah, Ruki thought, but until it's just MY award? It won't feel like I've really won.
Meanwhile, over at the next table, Subaru was mentally going over how many more awards until he had to present. It seemed like it was an eternity away. He just wanted to get up there and get it over with.
But the more awards were presented, the further away his own seemed. There was Best Orgy, which went to Heavy Hitter (no surprise), and then the Best Porn Parody video went to Hard Candy . . .
“Subaru!” Tomoya whispered. “They're presenting one of your categories now! Best Two-Person Sex Scene!”
Oh, yeah - the one he was nominated for two times over. He was so nervous about presenting, he didn't even think about winning.
Over at the Diamond Mine table, Jun leaned over and grasped Toya's hand. “Here we go,” he whispered. “Your first ever time hearing your name called as a nominee. How do you feel?”
“Scared that they're going to announce the nomination was a mistake,” Toya whispered back.
The presenter was calling off the nominees – in addition to Subaru's double nomination, there were pairings from Heavy Hitter, Adonis and one of the larger indies. “And the award goes to . . .”
Toya knew his name wasn't going to be called. That didn't stop him from gripping Jun's hand like a vise, though.
“Subaru and . . .” The presenter paused, and then, suddenly, said, “Toya.”
Toya nearly fell face-first on the table. Did he hear that right? Were his ears malfunctioning? They DID say Mahiro, didn't they? But Subaru was holding his hand out to him, and said, “Come on, let's go up there.”
I don't believe it, Toya thought. I won? I actually won an award? He made his way past his table, high-fiving Hiro and Kazi as he went, and went up to the stage at Subaru's side. Unreal. He was actually looking out at the crowd from the stage.
“You've got to forgive me,” Toya said. “I've never won before! I've never even been nominated! I don't know who to thank first . . .”
The presenter leaned over and said, “How about the guy you're sharing the award with?” The audience laughed.
“Oh, yeah,” Toya said. “I want to thank Subaru for requesting I be his co-star in this video. I want to thank Jui and Jun who have believed in me from the beginning, and I want to thank Uruha for casting me, and I want to thank the crew, and . . . and . . . oh, hell, I'd like to thank EVERYONE! I'd like to thank the fans for watching us!” The crowd applauded.
Well, Toya thought, I got through that.
“I don't know what else I want to add,” Subaru said. “Toya covered it pretty well. I have to thank Uruha, and all the people in Hokkaido who made us feel at home, and, of course, Toya. The reason the scene came out so well is because we genuinely liked being together – and we still do.” He leaned over to kiss Toya – since this award was traditionally followed by making out on stage.
Toya was stunned at first – and then, he remembered, that's right, the best two person scene couple has to make out on stage, right? But I don't know if I want to do this, I'd rather save it for the after-after party . . .
He found himself kissing back anyway, and the audience whooped as he pulled Subaru closer, then their mouths opened, and suddenly, it felt like there was nobody there at all, just the two of them. Reality hit when Subaru eased away from him – and there were spotlights in his eyes.
Oh, yes, he thought. I just won an award. Me. ME.
He floated down from the stage as if in a trance, the award held gingerly in both hands as if it were the most precious treasure in the world, thinking this had to be a dream, he was going to wake up any moment . . .
And then, his reverie was broken by a voice behind him bellowing, “So, have you all had enough COCK yet? It IS the year of the COCK, after all!”
The obnoxious host was back. What a way to be hurled back to earth.
Toya wasn't even listening to the babbling blowhard as he made his way back to the table, where Jui and Jun were standing up to pull him into an embrace, and his other Diamond Mine colleagues were standing up, whistling and cheering. It was one of the greatest moments of his life.
* * *
The hot streak continued as Swashbucklers won the award for Best Epic, The Burning Snow was named Best Romance and Kabuki Disco took Best Comedy. That was followed by the long and boring roll call of awards that had been presented off-screen – but at least they got to hear Junji's name called as the winner of Best Scene Design. (It was no surprise – Junji had already been informed of his win and told his award was in the mail).
Best Drama was next – and Rainfall ended up losing to a video from Hard Candy. Toya was a bit disappointed, but Jui leaned over and whispered, “That was Ruiza's swan song with the company. It was going to win just for that.”
“Which means he's probably going to win Best Actor,” Jun whispered.
“Don't count on it,” Jui replied. “Hakuei made a video this year. Whenever that happens, that's a guaranteed Best Actor.”
Finally, they announced that Best Three-Way was coming up. “And after that,” said the obnoxious host, “we'll present the screenplay award, and we'll be on to the BIG ONES! Comeback of the Year, Performer of the Year, Newcomer of the Year, Best Actor and Supporting Actor, Best Director and Best Video!”
“Meaning we'll be here for another hour and a half, at least,” Mahiro whispered.
Subaru grasped his hand. “Don't you want to know if you won Best Actor, love?”
“I'm not counting on it,” Mahiro said. “Hakuei's up, remember?”
All talk came to an end, though, when the Best Three-Way envelope was ripped open and the presenter called, “Jui, Jun and Toya, for Rainfall!”
Toya's head snapped up. I won again? he thought. I won AGAIN? He felt the other two tugging on his hands, and he followed them.
This really IS a dream, he thought. I'm going to wake up in Hokkaido. No, that's probably part of the dream, too. I'm going to wake up back home, and this will have been such a long fucking dream that nothing from the night we met Subaru really happened.
As they approached the stage, Jui tugged Toya's sleeve and nudged his head toward the audience. Toya looked in the direction Jui was indicating. There sat Sakai, arms crossed, looking like he was fuming. He looked like he was having regrets about cutting them free. Huge ones.
The trio was going to make sure they rubbed it in, too. When they got to their award, Jui thanked their crew and director, pointed to Jun and said, “And thanks to THIS guy for such a great screenplay. Plus, we'd like to thank Uruha for helping us out when we needed it – and he knows why.”
A roar went up from the audience. They were well familiar with the whole Sakai fiasco.
“I think the biggest thanks has to go to these two,” Jun said. “They're my partners onscreen and off. My life wouldn't be complete without them.” The audience roared at that, too – their three-way relationship was not officially known, but much gossiped about.
“I'm just happy to be up here again!” Toya said, and the audience cheered.
Before they left the stage, Jun added a loud, “DIAMOND MINE FOREVER!” It was another message to Sakai – you thought you could keep us down, you bastard. You were wrong.
It was the sweetest revenge imaginable.
* * *
By the time they reached the acting awards, Uruha was feeling very pleased with his decisions to pick up The Diamond Mine and Kiryu Video.
The trio of Takemasa, Mitsuki and Tomoya won the screenplay award for Kabuki Disco. Tomoya, especially, looked gobsmacked when they were called. He'd only been a writer for about a year – and here he was, going up to get an award!
Mitsuki started the speech by thanking the writers of Disco Cowboy, the American gay porno that was the basis for their screenplay. “If it wasn't for their original story, we wouldn't have been able to do this – so this award is shared with them.”
“And we're grateful for Kobe for doing such a great job with the script – and for our leading men, Kouki and Mahiro,” Takemasa said. “Plus, Mitsuki and I are grateful for THIS guy” – he put his hand on Tomoya's shoulder –“who rounded out our writing team. This script wouldn't exist without him.”
“I just want to thank Uruha for giving me a shot, Subaru for bringing me into the business, and Jin for making this whole writing thing possible – and he knows why,” Tomoya said. He remembered, all too well, the fateful flash drive that had been left at his desk in the karaoke place and led to him becoming a screenwriter.
When they sat down, the Comeback Performer of the Year award was announced – no nominees, just a winner called. “This guy started out with a bang, coming into the industry in a unique way,” the presenter said. “Then, he kind of faded away, and everyone wondered if he was all hype. No fear of that – he came roaring back with two of this year's biggest videos. So, Kouki, come get your award!”
Kouki just about ran up to the stage. “I ran so fast my kimono nearly fell off!” he said. (Indeed, he had come in traditional dress in honor of the video).
“Too bad it didn't!” a voice from the audience called back.
“Well, I COULD put on a burlesque show later,” Kouki said, and the crowd roared. “Seriously – I have to thank Uruha and Kobe, who believed in me all along, and all the people I worked with on Swashbucklers and Kabuki Disco, and the FANS! Because if it wasn't for the fans, I wouldn't be here! So, thank you, and I don't plan to go away again!”
Kouki's award was no surprise, really, given he'd won the same thing at the Viewers' Choice Awards. The Newcomer of the Year award, however, WAS a surprise.
“For the first time,” the presenter said, “this isn't going to a single person. No, it's going to a GROUP of people. Like our Comeback Performer of the Year, they started out by winning a PSC Productions contest – and then proved they weren't just a fluke by putting out one of the year's most stunning videos. Best of all, these guys do it all. Writers, producers, directors, actors, even cameramen.”
At first, the Codomo Dragon side of the table was still as the presenter started to talk. Then, realization slowly dawned. They looked around at each other, as if to say, are they talking about us?
By the time the presenter said, “And so, it's an honor to name Codomo Dragon our Newcomers of the Year,” they were already out of their seats and stampeding for the stage. When they got up there, they nearly fell all over themselves trying to grab for their awards.
“HOLY SHIT,” meN-meN shouted, and the audience roared and applauded. “Seriously, we weren't expecting this.”
“We want to thank our film professors,” Kana said, “and Aoi, for giving us our shot in the industry. Oh, and Subaru and Mahiro! They helped, too, and they were AWESOME to work with in Sodom!”
“And Ruiza!” Chamu added. “For loving our video and wanting to work with us!”
Hayato, meanwhile, just looked at his award in a daze – and then, he approached the microphone. “We're making a video with Ruiza, we got this award, and I GOT A SELFIE WITH HAKUEI! THIS IS THE BEST FUCKING DAY OF MY LIFE!”
The audience leapt to their feet in a standing ovation. Whether it was in praise of their work or they just liked what Hayato said, it didn't matter.
* * *
Everyone in the room was expecting to see Hakuei named Best Actor tonight. Therefore, it was quite the surprise when his name was called as Performer of the Year instead.
“You know what that means?” Junji whispered. “It means if they gave him Performer of the Year, they won't give him Best Actor! You two are back in the race!”
“They could give him both, you know,” Mahiro whispered back.
“They wouldn't,” Junji replied. “It would be too much.”
“I can't present an award to myself!” Subaru whispered, looking slightly panicked.
“Relax, babe,” Mahiro whispered.
Subaru watched MiA calmly leave the room to go present Best Supporting Actor. Why is he so calm? he thought. Well, that's because he's in no danger of presenting an award to himself. What am I going to do if my own name is on that envelope?
The host was announcing, “And now, to present Best Supporting Actor, last year's winner, the lovely, the luscious, the one-and-only MiA!”
MiA walked onstage, waving to the audience. He looked at the teleprompters facing the stage. “Some of the most popular actors in the industry nowadays have been recent winners of Best Supporting Actor,” he read, “including Mahiro, Yuuki and, well, me. Tonight, someone else is going to join that group.”
The copy seems generic enough, Subaru thought. No different than reading lines, right?
He listened as MiA read off the names, and then ripped open the envelope. Well, unfortunately, Jun didn't get this award – it ended up going to a guy from Adonis.
“At least it's not going to Heavy Hitter,” Mahiro whispered.
“They didn't even have a nominee,” Junji whispered back. “Having a nominee in this category involves being able to ACT.”
At The Diamond Mine table, Jun looked mildly disappointed. Toya put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you okay, love?”
“Of course I'm okay,” Jun whispered. “I got one of these things already tonight, didn't I? I don't want to be greedy.”
“You were way better than him,” Jui whispered.
“Thanks for the flattery, babe,” Jun whispered back.
As MiA came back, Subaru stood up, slowly. Okay, he thought. Here goes nothing. He walked toward the steps leading to the backstage area, showed the pass he'd been given by the producers to the guards, and was led to the wings. The host was back on the stage.
“And now, one of the most thrilling moments of the year – well, where everyone is wearing their clothes, that is – the presentation of Best Actor! To do the honors, the industry's favorite seal boy genie pirate, last year's winner of the award, porn's very own cinnamon roll, SUBARU!”
Cinnamon roll? The words hit Subaru's brain and rolled around like a pinball. He willed himself to walk out on that stage, smiling and waving. The audience was cheering. Now what?
He positioned himself behind the lectern. Just read, he thought. No different than doing lines in front of the camera.
“Good evening,” he said. “You know what I'm here for – to present the award for best cinnamon roll.” Oh, CRAP. “Um, that is, Best Actor.” The audience roared. Great, Subaru thought. One sentence in, and I've already screwed up. Better cover for myself.
“If any of you have baked any cinnamon rolls and want them reviewed, I'd be glad to do it,” he said. The audience laughed and applauded. Okay, he thought, I got through that one. “So anyway . . . back to the award.”
He looked at the teleprompter again. “This is considered the highest honor for an actor in our industry. It's been presented to luminaries like Aoi, Hakuei and Kamijo, and tonight, someone else will be able to add his name to the list. The nominees are . . .”
The list of names appeared in front of him. “Hakuei, for In The Dark. Mahiro, for Kabuki Disco. Ruiza, for Desired.” He paused. Oh, God, here was his own name. He swallowed hard. “Um, me, Subaru, for Swashbucklers. And Toshiro, for Fantasy Factory 2. And the award goes to . . .”
His heart was in his throat as he ripped open the envelope. He pulled out the card, and . . . oh, no. He turned it over. He turned it over again. “It's blank,” he said. He held it up. “No, really, it's blank!”
Oh, God. A screwup. And it had to happen when he was presenting. He turned it over and over, as if the writing would magically appear. Nothing did. “Well, I guess that means nobody won, doesn't it? Um, does that mean I get to keep the title?” Everyone laughed. And did that sound egotistical? Subaru thought. Did I just make this even WORSE?
He was aware of running feet behind him. He could hear someone screaming at someone else backstage. Time seemed to telescope, to become infinitely long, and he just stood there with a smile plastered on his face.
“You know, we could all just order Starbucks while they figure this out,” he said. The audience laughed again. A stagehand came running up to the dais, holding the award itself, and pointing to its engraved base. At first, Subaru didn't know what to do . . . and then, it hit him. That's it, he thought. I'm supposed to read the winner's name off the award.
“Ruiza,” he said. Then, realizing the audience wouldn't know what he meant, he said, “Ruiza, you're the winner! Ruiza for . . . for . . .” He looked at the award again. “Desired, that's it!”
He wanted to sink into the floor. At least I didn't win, he thought. That would make this moment even worse.
Ruiza walked up to the stage, and Subaru handed over the award. He bowed and just about ran into the wings.
Instantly, he was swamped by the JAVA representatives. “Subaru-san, we are SO SORRY,” one said, bowing so low his forehead almost touched the floor. “We have NO idea how that happened.”
“It's never happened before!” the other one said, bowing even lower – Subaru figured the man's forehead was embedded in the floorboards. “And we will make sure it never happens again!”
“It's okay,” Subaru said. “Really, it is!” He was just glad it was over at this point.
“We'll ask you back to present next year,” Floorboards said. “We'll even let you present Best Video if you want!”
“No, no, that's okay,” Subaru said. “You don't have to.” And I don't want to, he thought. I'm not going through that again!
“We insist!” said Almost All The Way To The Floor. “We need to make this up to you!”
“I'm okay! Really!” Subaru said, as he slowly backed toward the door back to the audience. He could faintly hear Ruiza's words of thanks – and the roar from the audience as he thanked Codomo Dragon, “the future of my career.”
At least Hayato's having a good night, Subaru thought.
When he backed all the way to the door, he opened it and rushed back into the audience – where he was met by all three of his lovers, who smothered him with hugs.
“You were great,” Junji said.
“It was awful!” Subaru whispered.
“You handled it like a total pro,” Tomoya whispered.
“I was babbling,” Subaru replied. “When I saw that blank paper . . .”
“But you did the right thing,” Mahiro said. “You stalled for time while they got it resolved.”
The group made their way back to their table. The Codomo Dragon crew stuck their hands up for high-fives. Toya stood up and came over to Subaru, hugging him. Hiro leaned over and whispered, “I told you that you would be fine!”
“I wasn't fine!” Subaru whispered. “I thought I was going to die when I saw that blank paper!”
“Twitter thinks you did a good job.” Hiro handed him his phone.
Subaru scrolled through it as he sat down. Sure enough, there were a bunch of posts with the hashtag #javas saying things like, “I couldn't have handled it like he did” and “Props to Subaru for handling JAVA's fail with class!”
“Whoa,” he whispered. They liked it? He thought. They liked the results of that? Well, he thought, at least they'd forgotten the “cinnamon roll” screwup.
On stage, the nominees for Best Director were being called out. When the presenter opened the envelope, he paused, a look of mock shock on his face, and then said, “Joking, people! Did you think there would be TWO blanks in a row?” He held the paper up. “This clearly says Kobe for Kabuki Disco.”
The Kiryu Video crew were instantly on their feet, punching their fists in the air and whooping. Junji started a chant of “Ko-BE, Ko-BE, Ko-BE!” which was quickly picked up by the whole audience. By the time the director got to the stage, the chanting was so loud he couldn't speak at first. He finally held up his hands and said, “Wow. Any speech I'd have would be redundant after that.”
The audience finally quieted down. Kobe took a deep breath and said, “I've been in this industry for a long time, I've seen a lot of things and I've faced a lot of challenges, some more challenging than others. But I will say this – there is no other place where I'd ever be, because this industry has the greatest people in the world.” This was met with more loud cheering.
He added, “I have to thank Kiryu Video for entrusting me with such a major project. Disco Cowboy was one of the all-time great American videos, and to be selected to remake it for Japanese audiences is a high honor.” He went on to thank everyone involved with the production of the film, and the actors, and then paused.
“And Mahiro,” he said, “it has especially been my pleasure to work with you. We've been on a journey together in many ways, ever since we worked on A Mirror for the Modern Man. I'm looking forward to continuing that journey in the future.”
Mahiro looked down when Kobe said that – he knew very well what Kobe meant. Every time he went to the JAVAs, he remembered the night when the director literally saved his life.
The host came back on stage and said, “Well, folks, it's time for the CLIMAX, and you ALL know damn well what that means! And believe me, we're not shooting BLANKS!”
“Great,” Mahiro whispered. “This jerk has turned it into his personal meme now.”
“It's Best Video!” the host said. “And to present the award, the one, the only, KAMIJO!”
As the golden-haired superstar came onto the stage, the audience rose to their feet, applauding – although MiA noticed Koichi wasn't standing up. He instantly became alarmed. Koichi would normally be the first person to stand up for Kamijo – and stomp and whistle while he was at it. He was a big fan.
“Baby?” he said. “Are you all right?”
Koichi did get up then – but he was leaning heavily on the table, pushing himself upward. “Yeah,” he said. “I am.”
“But you look . . .”
“Just a little tired, that's all,” Koichi said. “It's been a long night.”
On the stage, Kamijo was saying, “Before I read the nominees, I have to say what a pleasure it is to see Kobe-san get that award. He's a legend in the industry, and it's been a long time coming.” The audience cheered.
“So, here's what we all came for,” Kamijo said. “The individual category winners, from which Best Video has been chosen. Best Porn Parody, Buttman Meets Suckerman, Hard Candy Productions. Best Wall-to-Wall, Anything That Moves 3, Heavy Hitter Productions. Best Romance, The Burning Snow, PSC Productions and Eros Films. Best Star Vehicle, All About Aki, Adonis Films. Best Comedy, Kabuki Disco, Kiryu Video. Best Epic, Swashbucklers, PSC Productions and Eros Films. And Best Drama, Desired, Hard Candy Productions.” He paused. “Personally, I think they should give a Best Title award for Buttman Meets Suckerman.”
The audience just let out a nervous titter. They were on-edge now. They wanted the name of the winner.
“And the award goes to . . .” Kamijo opened the envelope and paused. “No, it's not blank.” Another pause. “KABUKI DISCO! Kiryu Video!”
The Kiryu Video crew began to storm toward the stage, nearly tripping over their kimonos. Kouki ran up after them, holding his own formal wear up with both hands like a lady with a long skirt, yelling, “WAIT FOR ME!”
Subaru nudged Tomoya. “Get up there with them!” he whispered. “You co-wrote it!” Tomoya ran toward the stage and nearly ran into Uruha, who was going up as co-producer of the video along with Kobe.
“I'm going to let Uruha-san speak first,” Kobe said. “Remaking Disco Cowboy was his idea to start with.”
“First of all, I have to thank the makers of Disco Cowboy,” Uruha said. “Producer and director B.B. Sparxxx, writer Colby Stark, stars JoJo Bullet and Randy Hardwick . . . all legends, and we wouldn't be up here without what they did first. I have to thank the three guys who turned in such a wonderful screenplay that stands on its own merits, and Kobe for realizing their ideas so beautifully, and the guys who brought it to life . . . Kouki, you've gone past anything and everything I dreamed for you when I picked you for the reality show, and Mahiro, you are a legend in the making. I am honored to have you in our films.”
Mahiro just bowed to his producer. I can't believe it, he thought. We actually made a Best Video. Take THAT, Hard Candy.
In the audience, Subaru was on his feet and applauding more than anyone. He had an award in front of him, sure, and he'd survived the blank envelope fiasco. But the three men he loved more than anything in the world were currently up on that stage, celebrating being part of the success story of the year, and that meant more to him than anything.
* * *
As the crowd was filing out into the lobby, staffers were directing the winners into the secondary ballroom where the traditional press conference was going to be held.
“Does that include us?” Toya said. “Or just the winners of the bigger awards?”
“It includes EVERYONE who went up on that stage,” Jun said. “And it should include you, anyway, since you won two of them!”
“Oh, look who's over there,” Jui said. “It's Sakai. Why don't we go over and say hi?”
“I wouldn't say hi to that son of a bitch if he was saving me from drowning,” Jun said.
“No, I mean say hi to him – with THESE.” Jui hoisted his award. “We not only won them, but we beat out his meathead lunks to do it.”
Toya smiled. “Yes. Let's do it!” He rushed ahead of the other two.
“I didn't think he had a vindictive bone in his body,” Jun said, trying to keep up. “I guess I was wrong.”
The trio confronted Sakai together, awards held prominently in front of them. “Sakai-san,” Jui said, “we just want to see how you're doing.”
Sakai glared at his former stars. “What's it to you?” he barked.
“We're just so GRATEFUL for the OPPORTUNITY you gave us,” Jun said. “If you hadn't let us go, we wouldn't have gotten the distribution deal we did and Rainfall wouldn't be such a big hit. It really means a lot!”
“And we wouldn't have these, either,” Toya said, an award in each hand.
Sakai looked like he wanted to grab all four awards and smash them. “Look, sometimes I make bad decisions, okay?” he nearly growled.
“I think you made a very good one,” Jui said. “Good for US, anyway.” He bowed. “Good evening, sir!”
The three of them walked away, laughing. “We burned him so badly he's going to need an ocean of aloe,” Jun said.
“It's his own fault for cutting us loose,” Jui said.
Toya, meanwhile, was thinking that they were super lucky on a couple of fronts. They not only got rescued by people who gave them a fighting chance, but, in his case, he met Subaru. And that might have been the best part of all.
* * *
MiA was extremely worried. They were making their way out to the lobby – most of their friends were going into the winners' press conference, so they had decided to wait until they were done before heading to the afterparty.
Except, by this point, Koichi was barely moving. Hell, he was barely standing upright.
“Baby?” MiA said. “Are you all right?”
“Of course I am,” Koichi said. “It's just, well, a little challenging wearing this.”
“That's beyond challenging,” MiA said. “Let's get you home and . . .”
“I'm not ready to go home!” Koichi said. “I'm going to the afterparty!”
“Nobody said we weren't,” MiA said. “I just want to get a cab home so yo can change into something more comfortable, and then we'll come back.”
“No,” Koichi said. “I don't want to change. I want to . . .”
And then, his knees literally buckled. MiA had to catch him before he fell to the floor.
“Come over here,” MiA said, leading Koichi to a couch. He had to practically carry his lover at this point. When he let go of him, Koichi fell to the seat like a ton of lead.
MiA sat next to him. “Koichi,” he said, “you've had the outfit photographed. Everyone's seen it. You can take it off now. Really.”
“But there's people who HAVEN'T seen it,” Koichi said. “I have to go to the party wearing this!”
“They'll see it on the blogs tomorrow,” MiA said. “You need to be comfortable. You've done your time in that outfit already.”
“Comfortable means ordinary!” Koichi said. “I'm not walking into an industry party wearing something ORDINARY!”
“Nobody will mind,” MiA said. “This party is for relaxing and having fun. It's not a see and be seen thing like the red carpet.”
“They WILL mind!” Koichi said. “I can't just walk into a room looking like I'm going to the grocery store. They expect me to look like, well, me! These kind of looks are what I do! Look, I'm not multi-talented like Hayato or cute like Subaru or glamorous like you. My fashion sense is who and what I am in this industry! If I'm not looking like this, I'm not, well, ME.”
MiA took his hand and said, softly, “Yes, you are, Koichi. You're always you – no matter what you're wearing.”
“To you. And to our friends. But to the industry?”
“You didn't get where you are just on your fashion sense, Koichi,” MiA said. “You got there with your personality and talent. In most of our videos, you're not wearing your own designs, are you? Hell, there's a lot of scenes where you're wearing nothing at all. And people still love you. You get mobbed at the Expo.”
“Not as much as you.”
“JUST as much as me,” MiA said. “Maybe even more. You know there's a hashtag out there called #castkoichimore? People want you to be in videos more often.”
Koichi was quiet for a moment. Then, he said, “I'll never win one of those awards. Getting all the attention from my outfits – that's my award.”
“You don't know that,” MiA said. “Subaru said Toya thought he'd never even be nominated. He won two tonight. Your ideal role will come along someday, and you'll have a shot, too. You ARE talented, Koichi – and at more than clothes.”
He reached up and stroked his lover's forehead, noticing it was damp with sweat and his skin still felt too warm. “I know you're proud of this outfit, love. I know you worked hard on it. But it isn't worth hurting yourself for, and by this time? You're in pain. I can tell. Let's go home, get you into something comfortable, and then we'll come back and you can wow them with your personality.”
Koichi paused. “Okay. Okay, I'm hurting. I'll admit that.”
“And do you WANT to keep on hurting?”
Koichi closed his eyes. “No.”
“You won't have fun at that party if you're in pain, you know,” MiA said. “And the point IS to have fun.”
Koichi sighed. “You know, I could put on my blue onesie thing. The jumpsuit. And I'll wear hot pink high-tops with it. It's comfortable, and it'll make a statement.”
“That's better!” MiA said. “Now, let's get you into a cab.” He helped his lover up, and Koichi leaned heavily on him as they made their way outside.
“This is just giving me ideas for next year,” Koichi said.
“What do you mean?”
“I have to come up with something comfortable AND outrageous,” Koichi said. “Fortunately, I have a year to work on it.”
They got in the cab and rode off into the night.
* * *
The best night of Hayato's night just kept getting even better.
First, he got to participate in his first-ever winners' press conference. He couldn't believe it. Here he was, sitting at the same table as Hakuei and Ruiza, being asked the same kinds of questions as them. In fact, one of the questions was about what they might have in mind for the Ruiza video.
“We're still developing ideas,” meN-meN said. “We want to make sure we come up with something truly worthy of a superstar like Ruiza.”
“But we promise that it's going to be outrageous!” Hayato said. “It's going to be a Ruiza video like you've never seen before!”
“Of course, we ARE going to continue with our own projects,” Kana said. “We do have a couple of other videos in development.”
“Will you be working with Subaru and Mahiro again?” another questioner asked.
“That's secret!” Hayato said. “But we promise you, whoever we get, the video is going to blow your face off! We're going to pour everything we've got into it!”
Subaru waved his hand. “Um, I'd like to work with you guys again,” he said. “But I'll defer to Ruiza-san.”
“Maybe I want to work with you,” Ruiza said to Subaru. The audience whooped and cheered – and Subaru looked like a deer in the headlights. Everyone knew that in this business, “work with” amounted to “I want to fuck you senseless.”
Hayato just kept talking, the implications going over his head. “Fabulous!” he said. “Hey, maybe we'll get both of them in the same video! Would everyone like that?” The audience cheered.
When the press conference was over, Subaru made a beeline for the closest safe harbor he could find – which was the Toya/Jui/Jun trio. He hugged Toya. “Did you hear what . . .”
“We heard,” Jun said. “I don't think he really meant it. Ruiza's an old friend – he doesn't go around hitting on guys he doesn't know. He was probably kidding.”
“Hey, some people would consider it an honor to have Ruiza hit on them,” Jui said.
Jun thwapped him. “You're not helping!” he said.
Hayato came up to him – just about pushed by meN-meN. “Oh, my God, I'm sorry!” Hayato said. “I didn't mean to get you into that kind of a situation! It was just that I got carried away! They were asking about the video, and I kept answering, and then he got into it, too, and before you knew it . . .”
“It's okay, Hayato,” Subaru said. “It's not your fault.”
Tomoya caught up to him – he'd been way on the other end of the table, with Takemasa and Mitsuki. “Baby, are you okay?” he said, hugging Subaru. “You look like you'd seen a ghost.”
“I'm . . . I'm just not used to having guys I don't know hit on me in the middle of press conferences,” Subaru said as he and Tomoya headed for he lobby, where Mahiro and Junji were waiting for them. “How'd it go?” Junji said.
“Great, until Ruiza hit on Subaru,” Tomoya said.
“He did?” Mahiro said. “What did he say?”
“That he wanted to work with me,” Subaru said.
Mahiro frowned. “Did he mean it innocently, or . . .”
“Come on, Mahiro,” Junji said. “There IS no 'innocently' in this business.”
“I think we need to talk to him,” Tomoya said.
Yuuki and Yo-ka walked up to the group. Yuuki saw the look on Subaru's face and reacted instantly. “Oh, shit,” he said. “What happened?”
The group looked at each other. Did they dare tell him? They knew how overprotective he was.
“Let me phrase that differently,” Yuuki said. “Who do I need to kill?”
Hayato suddenly burst in from the side of the crowd. “It wasn't my fault!” he said. “All I did was talk about doing the video with Ruiza! Really! And the next thing I know it, Ruiza is saying that he wants to work with Subaru, and . . .”
“Oh,” Yuuki said, in terse tones. “I see.”
Yo-ka put a hand on his shoulder. “Baby,” he said, “calm down.”
“I am NOT going to calm down,” Yuuki said. “Anyone who makes Subaru uncomfortable . . .”
Jui and Jun rushed back over to the group, with someone behind them. “Wait!” Jun said. “Don't do anything!”
“You don't understand,” Yuuki said. “I've looked out for Subaru since he started in this business. I've made it my personal mission to protect him from guys who are going to hit on him without his permission, and . . .”
“I'm the one you want to talk to.” Ruiza stepped out from behind Jui and Jun. “Subaru-san, I'm sorry.” He bowed. “Jun told me you took what I said the wrong way.”
“How other way is there to take it?” Yuuki said. “You said you wanted to work with him!”
“And I meant just that,” Ruiza said.
“Then you DID hit on him!” Yuuki said, holding up his whip. Yo-ka grabbed at the whip hand.
“No, I didn't,” Ruiza said. “I meant work with him in the acting sense. As in, speaking lines and the like. You'd think having been in this business as long as I have, I'd remember how people take that, right? But I forgot until it was too late.”
“You're damn right you should have remembered!” Yuuki said, pulling his hand back further. Yo-ka gripped it tighter.
“You have to forgive him,” Yo-ka said, not loosening his grasp. “He's a tad bit protective of this boy.”
“A TAD?” Mahiro whispered.
“I don't blame him,” Ruiza said. “There's predators all over the place. Except, I'm not one of them.”
“I told you he was a good guy,” Jun said. “You can trust him. Really.”
“Yuuki's a good guy, too,” Yo-ka said. “Really.”
“You can let go of my hand now, you know,” Yuuki told his lover. “I'm not going to hurt him.”
“Promise?” Yo-ka said.
“Promise,” Yuuki sighed, as they drifted toward the bar where the afterparty was being held. “But YOU have to promise not to hold me back if someone really DOES intend to harm Subaru.”
“You have my word,” Yo-ka said. “I want what's best for him too, you know.” I'm just not as violent about it, he thought.
As Subaru walked with the others, he thought that the crisis was averted – but he still felt like there needed to be more understanding. He was going to talk to Ruiza during the party.
* * *
It took awhile for Subaru to talk to the superstar, though.
He kept getting buttonholed by people who either wanted to congratulate him on his handling of the blank envelope incident, or show him the tweets the fans had been posting with the hashtag #blankgate, or congratulate him on his actual award – which he'd almost forgotten he'd won in all the fuss over the error.
And during the few moments that he was free, Ruiza was occupied, surrounded by people talking to him about his gutsiness in leaving Hard Candy, or his daring in wanting to work with up-and-comers like Codomo Dragon.
When Subaru finally was able to approach him, it was almost by accident. He went up to the bar to get a beer – and saw that Ruiza was right next to him. “Oh,” he said. “Hi.”
“Hi,” Ruiza said. “I'm sorry, again. I didn't mean to upset you or your friends. What I said during the press conference – well, it just sort of popped out. I only realized afterward how you would probably take it.”
“Did . . . did you mean it?” Subaru said.
“I meant that I want to act opposite you,” Ruiza said. “Not necessarily in a sex scene. I guess people in the industry kind of forget that kind of thing exists, right? Being in a video with someone and not necessarily sleeping with them, I mean.”
“It does exist,” Subaru said. “Kouki and I co-starred in Swashbucklers and never touched each other. Well, we were playing brothers, but still . . .”
“That doesn't stop some directors,” Ruiza said. “Incest plotlines are in-demand with some people. I've seen just about everything, believe me.” He took his drink from the bartender. “I was actually getting ready to quit the industry, not just go independent.”
“Quit?” Subaru said. “Why?”
“For the same reason Jui and Jun left Hard Candy,” Ruiza said. “You can only look the other way from the bullshit at that company for so long. They've produced some amazing writers and directors and actors, but at the same time . . . there's just so much corruption, and so much favoritism. And it took me years to admit that. When Jui and Jun left, I told them they were making a mistake. Now I know it was my mistake to stay.”
“My boyfriend used to be affiliated with Hard Candy,” Subaru said. “Well, one of my boyfriends. He . . .” He stopped himself. Mahiro might not want him to reveal the story about him being attacked by his boss. “He had a bad run-in with a producer.”
“Mahiro, right?” Ruiza said. “I heard about that. Unfortunately, that kind of thing is all too typical.”
So much for keeping it secret. “So why did you decide to stay in the industry?” Subaru said.
“Seeing what people in other companies are doing,” he said. “The Codomo Dragon thing tonight just kind of happened, but they really did make a big impression on me – both with their short film and their feature. Between that, and the stuff you were doing like Swashbucklers, and what Jui and Jun have been doing with The Diamond Mine . . . it's incredible. People are making videos that are real films, not just sex scenes with flimsy stuff connecting them. I want to get in on that before I retire.”
“You liked Swashbucklers?” Subaru said. “Really?”
“Oh, yes,” Ruiza said. “And you know what impressed me the most about that video? You all looked like you were enjoying yourselves, from beginning to end. It wasn't just a job, it was fun. And, well, I haven't felt that way in a long time.”
Subaru smiled at the other man. “Stick with us,” he said, “and you'll learn how to have fun with your career again. I promise.”
Ruiza took a drink of his beer. “You know what?” he said. “I've always heard people talk about how you're unspoiled, and how you've managed to stay pure-hearted despite being in this business. I didn't think it was possible. But . . . they're right. How the hell did you manage to do that?”
“It's the people around me,” Subaru said. “I've been fortunate to be surrounded by great friends – who also happen to be great writers, directors and co-stars.”
“I think I need a dose of those people,” Ruiza said, quietly.
Subaru smiled. He was a little more understanding of where Ruiza was coming from now – and he was looking forward to restoring his faith in the industry. He's landed in the right place, he thought.
* * *
Meanwhile, across the room, Ruiza's new directors were sitting around a table dealing with the fact that they were now going to have to come up with a video for him.
“I was expecting us to direct for other people,” meN-meN said. “I just wasn't expecting it so SOON.”
“Or with someone as big as Ruiza,” Kana said.
“We're gonna be able to handle it, don't worry!” Hayato said. “You guys come up with the best ideas ever!”
“We've never come up with anything on demand before, remember,” meN-meN said. “Our ideas just kind of HAPPEN. And now that we have this award? People are going to expect more from us.”
“We'll be okay!” Hayato said. “Really! We will!” He was starting to feel panicky. Oh, God, had his fanboy enthusiasm thrown his friends into the lion's den? What if they couldn't deliver? What if they couldn't come up with anything? What if . . . He frantically looked around the room, as if looking for a sign from heaven.
As if the answer to his prayer, Uruha approached the table. “Hi, guys,” he said. “I'm really proud of you. Scoring the Ruiza deal – that impressed me. A lot.”
Hayato suddenly stood up. “I'm sorry!” he suddenly said, bowing.
Uruha looked baffled. “Um, what? I just complimented you guys. Very highly.”
“I'm sorry if we can't deliver!” Hayato said. “We've never done ideas on demand before! We've never written for anyone else – well, we had Subaru and Mahiro in Sodom, but that was still our video! We . . .”
“Hayato, it's okay,” Uruha said. “Really. You'll have a perfect plotline for him.”
“No, we won't!” Hayato said. “We can't come up with anything!”
Uruha leaned over toward him and said, quietly, “Keep this under your hat. We've scored another big remake. I'm giving it to you guys for Ruiza. It's perfect for him, and it's the kind of thing you can put your own spin on. But remember . . . top secret.”
The others looked at each other. Tell Hayato to keep his mouth shut? Impossible. The fastest way to broadcast something to the entire planet was to give the info to Hayato and tell him it was a secret.
“Oh, don't worry!” Hayato said, suddenly pulling Uruha down in a hug. “It's safe with me! Totally safe! One hundred percent secret! I'm not going to tell anyone! Really!”
The others reached for Hayato, gently prying him away from Uruha before he could choke their benefactor. “We'll make sure he's quiet,” meN-meN said. To Hayato, he said, “You're not allowed to have anything else to drink for the rest of the evening.”
“Nothing?” Hayato said.
“Nothing. You know you babble when you're drunk.”
“But . . . but . . . the After-After Party . . .” Hayato said.
Chamu looked around. “Is there any duct tape anywhere? Maybe we can tape his mouth shut.”
“Oh, and one more thing,” Uruha said. “Hayato, I'm giving you and Kana this for the evening.” He pulled a card in a paper sheath out of his pocket and handed it over to him.
Kana leaned over to see what his boyfriend was holding. “What is it?” he said. “A gift card?”
“A hotel key,” Hayato said. “It's to one of the rooms upstairs.”
“JAVA usually arranges for a certain number of crash spaces upstairs for people who don't feel like moving on to the After-After Party,” Uruha said. “I was given one of those keys earlier tonight. I thought I'd pass it on to you, since you scored us such an amazing deal tonight. There's a bottle of champagne up there, and you have access to the mini-bar.”
Hayato's eyes opened wide. “Really?” he said.
“Really,” Uruha said. “You guys can go to the After-After Party, or you can go straight upstairs, the choice is yours. But I have to say, the two of you would have a very romantic evening up there.”
“Hmm . . .” Hayato looked at the key, as if contemplating the fate of the world. Go to the After-After party and continue to have a wild evening? Or go upstairs with his significant other and have a romantic evening in swanky surroundings?
He looked over at his boyfriend. “Kana, I'm going to leave it up to you.”
Kana looked around at his partners. He knew what answer they were looking for. And, quite frankly? It was the one he truly wanted to give. He had no interest in going to a party where everyone fooled around with everyone else. The only person he wanted off-camera was sitting right next to him.
“Let's skip the After-After and go upstairs,” Kana said.
“Well, that's it!” Hayato said. “My baby has spoken!”
As Uruha walked away from the table, meN-meN caught up to him. “Thank you,” he said. “If he had gone to the After-After Party, he would have . . .”
“I know my people very well,” Uruha said. “I figured that was the only way to keep him from spreading the news everywhere. And I was considering giving him the key anyway.”
“That's why you're the boss,” meN-meN said.
Uruha smiled to himself. When they WERE ready to tell everyone the news about the remake he'd landed, it would set the industry on its ear. He just wanted to make sure it didn't get out until the right time.
* * *
Mahiro was sitting at a corner table with Junji. “I suppose we're going to the After-After Party?” he said.
“You don't sound very enthusiastic about it,” Junji said.
“I'd rather not,” Mahiro said. “But . . . I know someone who's definitely going.” He jerked his head in the direction of Tomoya, who was at the bar with Kazi, their heads close together.
“Damn,” Junji said. “I'm beginning to wonder if I should be jealous.”
“You? Jealous?” Mahiro said.
“Jealous of the fact that he's got a permanent hookup!” Junji said. “My hookup from the Diamond Mine's party is, well . . .” He pointed to another corner table, where HAL and Hiro were sitting, looking very cuddly.
“They haven't been apart all evening, have they?” Mahiro said.
“Nope. I think they even went to the men's room at the same time,” Junji said. “And if they're in the honeymoon stage? Neither one will be with anyone else off-camera for awhile.” He put an arm around Mahiro. “Remember what that was like?”
“How can I forget?” Mahiro said. “Everyone was asking us if we ever intended to leave our apartment.”
Jun and Jui approached them. “How are you guys doing?” Jun said.
“Well, it's been an awesome evening, I can't complain,” Junji said. “Except now we're trying to decide whether the evening is over or not.”
“Oh, the After-After,” Jui said. “Well, we were just talking about that ourselves.”
“We're thinking of having an alternative After-After at our place,” Jun said. “Just for us, and the Diamond Mine people, and Ruiza. And you guys, if you want to come.”
“I love the idea,” Mahiro said, quickly.
“If he's in, I'm in,” Junji said. “And we know we're not going to be able to pry Tomoya away from Kazi. If one is going, they're both going.”
“Subaru's a given, too,” Jun said. “We know that wherever Toya is, Subaru is.”
“Let's go, then!” Junji said, standing up. “I've just about had it with seeing and being seen, anyway.”
Subaru and Toya rushed over. “Hey, Toya just told me that there's going to be an alternative After-After at . . .”
“We know,” Junji said. “And we're going.” He playfully tickled Subaru under the chin. “This is the second year in a row you're missing the After-After Party, you know.”
“That doesn't really bother me,” Subaru said.
“Me, neither,” Toya said. “I don't want to be in a room of strangers hitting on each other tonight.”
“Nope, why do that when you can be in a room of friends hitting on each other, right?” Jui said. “Okay, we're off!”
“Um, love?” Jun said. “Shouldn't we take our awards?” He pointed to the table where they'd left them.
“Oh, yeah,” Jui said. “We waved them under that bastard Sakai's nose earlier, by the way. It was awesome.” He rushed off to get the statuette.
* * *
When Subaru walked into Jui, Jun and Toya's apartment, more casually dressed and sans award (they'd made a pitstop at the apartment first), the first thing he saw was HAL and Hiro huddled together in a corner, looking at Hiro's phone.
“Hey!” Hiro said. “You need to go on Twitter, Subaru. There's postings about Blankgate all over the place. It's all anyone is talking about.”
Subaru sat next to them. “Still? People kept showing me those tweets at the party.”
“Well, some people have been saying how happy they are about Ruiza and Kobe finally winning,” HAL said. “But yes, it's still mostly Blankgate. There's even a meme going around.”
Subaru looked worried. “What kind of meme?”
“Take a look,” Hiro said, handing over his phone. There was an image of Subaru, holding the blank paper over his head – and someone had photoshopped the words “BEST VIDEO, THE BURNING SNOW” onto it. The caption read, “Just let me live in my little world, dammit!” Another one had the paper saying, “BEST PORN PARODY, YAOI ON ICE, STARRING MAHIRO AND KOUKI,” with the caption, “Calling 2018 right now!”
“That's not going to happen,” Subaru said. “Uruha hates porn parodies.” He lowered the phone. “I can't believe I'm a meme!”
“Hey, think of it this way, it's attention and a lot of it!” HAL said. “And you really did handle that well. I don't think I would have been so calm.”
Subaru sighed. “I just feel bad for Ruiza. It kind of ruined his moment.”
“You don't have to,” Toya said as he sat down beside Subaru, putting a hand on his shoulder. “He's laughing it off right now.” He indicated where Ruiza and Jun were standing in the doorway of the kitchen, each with a glass of a blue drink in their hands.
“Is it just us here, then?” Hiro said. “The four of us, Mahiro, Kazi, Tomoya, those two over there and Jui?”
“I think so,” said HAL. “I'll and Gaku both said they'd had enough and were going home.”
“So did MiA and Koichi,” Subaru said. “Koichi got changed for the afterparty, but he was still exhausted from wearing that huge outfit. And Hayato just texted me. Uruha gave him a room for him and Kana, but his friends all came up to see it and now it's a room party.”
“So none of us went to the After-After, it seems,” Toya said. “I can't say it's something I'm going to miss. Every time I've gone I've left early.”
“Yo-ka and Yuuki are going, I think,” Subaru said.
“Hey, I've got no need to hook up with strangers,” Hiro said, wrapping an arm around HAL. “I've got all the hookup I need right here.”
“So it's true, then?” said a voice above them. They all looked up to see Kazi with a pitcher of his latest creation. “This WAS your official debut as a couple?”
“Hey, we weren't going to announce it publicly yet!” Hiro said.
“You're officially a couple?” Subaru's eyes lit up. “Congratulations! You're adorable together!”
“Thanks,” HAL said. “I think he's adorable, too.”
“So, yeah, neither of us is hooking up with anyone else tonight,” Hiro said. “Sorry, guys – it was fun before, but . . .”
“That's okay,” Toya said. “We're just happy for you.”
Hiro looked at what Kazi had in the pitcher. “What the hell IS that stuff? It looks like cleaning fluid!”
“Gee, thanks, nice to know my creations look appetizing,” Kazi said. “It's a Blue Hawaii! Curacao, vodka, rum, pineapple juice and sweet and sour mix.”
“Sounds good!” HAL said. “I'm game!”
Subaru looked wary. “I'll try it,” he said. “And I'll drink it slowly.”
“Good,” Toya whispered. “We don't want you passing out, do we?”
Subaru shuddered at the memory of the booze-bomb Poison Apple, which had him flat-out on the floor the day he and Toya met. He looked around the room to see what his boyfriends were doing. Tomoya was sitting with Junji on the couch, the former looking like he was patiently waiting for Kazi to finish his bartending duties. Mahiro was in the corner with Jui, the two of them looking like they were picking up where they left off from the last party here.
Meanwhile, Jun and Ruiza were still in the doorway, polishing off their first Blue Hawaiis and looking eager for seconds. Kazi came over to them with the pitcher. “Looks like I'll be making more of these!” he said.
Subaru took a small sip of the drink. It was very, very good – and intense. His decision to drink it slowly was looking like a wise one.
And after a few sips, he felt Toya's hand rubbing his shoulder. He turned to the other man and smiled. Both of them knew how the evening was ending for them. They might not be at the official After-After Party, but that didn't mean people weren't expecting hookups, even at a small party like this.
Of course, everyone here wouldn't just be unsurprised at Subaru hooking up with Toya, they were flat-out expecting it.
By the time he reached the three-quarter mark of the glass, Subaru was glancing around at the various hookup spots. The bathroom was still open. So was the big hall closet. Apparently, people hadn't started pairing off yet. (Or tripling off. He imagined Junji wasn't exactly going to end up left out in the cold tonight).
Subaru squeezed his companion's hand. “Toya . . . do you think that we could . . .”
“Use the bedroom?” Toya said. “Of course. It's my bedroom, right? The three of us share it.”
“And it's first come, first served, right?” Hiro said. “Of course, in this case, it's more likely to be first served, first come.” He laughed.
Toya and Subaru nodded to each other, got up quietly, and quickly headed for the room in question. The door closed behind them swiftly, and they barely had time to put their drinks down before they were in each other's arms, kissing hotly.
“I've been waiting for this all night,” Toya murmured before his mouth descended on the blond's again, and their tongues eagerly rubbed against one another as their hands moved over each other's clothing. They unfastened zippers, buttons, belts, whatever was in the way, until they could push every bit of clothing to the floor, where it belonged.
“Look at how gorgeous you are,” Toya said, breathlessly. “No wonder you're so popular.”
“You're gorgeous yourself,” Subaru said, wrapping his arms around the other man. “Incredibly gorgeous.”
Toya leaned his head against Subaru's, slowly running his hands over his body. “We just won an award for the best on-screen sex of the year, you know that?”
“Maybe we could try to top it,” Subaru replied.
They kissed again, tumbling to the bed, rolling over so that Toya was on top of Subaru, kissing and licking up and down his neck. Subaru tipped back, encouraging Toya to nibble, to drive him wild.
“Yes,” he said, breathlessly. “Yes, keep going . . .”
Toya was quick to oblige. His tongue slid down Subaru's collarbone, headed lower, as one hand reached down, the fingers sliding over a stomach that was trembling with anticipation, heading lower . . .
And that's when the door opened. Subaru jerked upward, clutching hold of Toya, both of their heads swiveling toward the sound.
“Well, damn,” Junji said. “That's occupied, too.”
“The door was shut,” Subaru said.
“Um, not really,” Tomoya said, coming in after his lover. “You left it ajar.”
“Oh.” Subaru blushed. They were in such a rush, they didn't realize they hadn't closed it all the way.
Kazi came in after the two of them. “This, too?” he said. “Damn. First Mahiro and Jui ocupied the washroom, then Jun and Ruiza took the closet . . .”
“Jun and Ruiza?” Toya said. “Really?”
“Oh, hell, yes,” Junji said. “They left half their clothes on the living room floor.”
Toya side-eyed Kazi. “What DID you put in those drinks?” he said.
“I told you!” Kazi said. “No secrets. And then Hiro and HAL are already halfway to full-blown sex on the couch. So, yeah, no room left. Damn.”
Subaru lifted his head. “If it's okay with Toya . . . you can use this room.”
Tomoya looked surprised. “Subaru . . . really?”
“It's okay with me,” Toya said. “Just let Subaru and I have this part of the bed, all right?”
“Whoa!” Kazi said. “You mean it?”
“Of course I do,” Subaru said. “You two are my lovers, right? And Kazi, you're a friend. There's no reason we can't share the room.”
“All right!” Junji said. “Well, in that case . . . where were we?”
Subaru turned his attention back to Toya. “Now, then . . .” Subaru said.
“I think we left off with this,” Toya said. He lowered his head to Subaru's nipple and started to suck, hard. Subaru let out a loud gasp, grasping the back of his head as a hot, wet tongue licked at him, stroking back and forth over the hard nub.
As Toya reached down, his fingers lightly sliding over Subaru's cock, he could hear the sounds from the other side of the room, kissing and soft moans, the sounds of clothes hitting the floor . . .
He could just imagine what was going on over there as Toya kissed lower, moving down over his stomach. He knew what it felt like to touch and be touched by Junji and Tomoya, what they both were like in the heat of passion, what it felt like to have each of them inside him . . .
Toya ran his tongue slowly up and down the erection before him, just as Subaru heard a soft moan and an “Oh, yes.” He felt weight at the other side of the bed, heard the sounds of sucking . . .
He lifted his head. Most of his vision was filled with the sight of Toya bent over him, but on the other end of the bed, there was Tomoya lying on his back, with Junji and Kazi each sucking one of his nipples.
Subaru looked at Tomoya's eyes half-closed in passion, the way he was clutching at the other two men's heads and lifting his hips, and he suddenly felt an intense arousal – because, in a strange way, there was nothing more erotic than watching your lover being pleasured by someone else.
As Toya started to suck him, gently, he watched Tomoya reach down and grasp the other two men's erections, stroking them rapidly up and down. They moaned together, just as Subaru moaned, looking at the naked bodies entwined in front of him – and feeling their eyes on him as well.
Toya lifted his head, and the two of them shifted, changing positions so Toya was lying on his back and Subaru kneeling next to him. Subaru bent over, kissing and licking a nipple as he heard the moans across the bed get louder and more intense. He heard Junji gasp, “Suck it, please . . .” followed by a long, low sound.
Now that he couldn't see, his imagination was running wild, creating pictures of the three men touching and licking and sucking, trying to figure out just who was doing what to who over there . . .
Which made him run his tongue over Toya's stomach rapidly, reveling in the taste and feel of the other man's skin, made all the more intense by his super-heightened senses. He heard a drawer open – Toya had reached over and pulled out their hiding place for condoms and lube and dental dams, making sure everyone had access to the tools of fun.
Subaru bent over further, wrapping his lips around Toya's erection, sucking quickly, moving his head up and down, trying to take him in nice and deep. He wanted to give Toya as much pleasure as the men on the other side of the bed were sharing, from the sounds of the moans and panting and sucking . . .
And then, he felt the hands on his ass. It was a touch he knew well – Tomoya's. The fingers slid over the rounded flesh, a tender, sensual caress – which just made Subaru suck Toya harder and faster, his head bobbing up and down, the cock starting to brush the back of his throat.
The hands on his ass parted the cheeks gently, and there was the feel of lube being poured in the cleft, and plastic spread across it – and the next thing Subaru knew, there was a tongue moving around the edge of his entrance, teasing him.
Oh, God. Tomoya was tonguing him at the same time he was sucking Toya. The idea of it nearly made him come immediately.
He felt the hot, wet thing push into him, filling him, wriggling around inside him, then pulling out, then pushing in again – and he heard Tomoya moan as well. Someone was pleasuring Tomoya, as Tomoya pleasured him,as he pleasured Toya. It was an endless chain of lust and desire.
Subaru continued to suck, savoring the feel of cock filling his mouth as a tongue filled his ass, hearing both Toya and Tomoya react to the pleasure they were receiving. He didn't know where he ended and the others began, and vice versa, and he wouldn't have it any other way.
The tongue slid out, and was replaced with a lube-covered finger, and then another. Subaru lifted his head, and moved back against the digits, letting out a moan. He knew just what he wanted to do now. He just needed to be open enough . . .
He heard Tomoya let out a sound of pleasure as the fingers moved deeper, spreading out a little. Subaru glanced over his shoulder to see Junji preparing Tomoya for sex as Tomoya was preparing Subaru, his fingers in Tomoya's hot ass, while Kazi leaned over Junji, fingers wrapped around his cock, stroking him gently.
It had become an unbroken chain of heat, and Subaru was determined to keep it going.
When Tomoya pulled his fingers out of him, Subaru straddled Toya, positioning himself so he was in a “reverse cowboy,” back to his lover, lowering himself on the cock. He felt it slip into him, and his eyes fluttered closed as he let out a loud moan.
He heard Tomoya moan as well, and opened his eyes to see his lover bent over in front of him. Surprisingly, it was Kazi who knelt behind Tomoya, penetrating him slowly. Subaru had only to wonder where Junji was for a split second . . .
Because suddenly, Junji was kneeling next to both Subaru and Tomoya, taking both cocks in his hands and stroking them as both men were being fucked.
Oh, God. Subaru couldn't believe this. Toya was inside him, Kazi was inside Tomoya. Subaru was timing the movement of his hips with Kazi's, making sure both couples thrust together, experienced the same kind of pleasure at the same time. He watched Tomoya's face, felt Toya move within him, and then there were Junji's fingers, moving up and down his cock, caressing sensitive places lightly.
Both Subaru and Tomoya reached for Junji's erection at the same time, fingers running up and down the shaft, giving him back the same pleasure he was giving them, making sure he moaned as loud as they were moaning.
Toya began to buck his hips upward, moving in time with Subaru's thrusts, and Subaru moved down on the cock hard and fast, watching Tomoya thrust his own hips backward, fucking himself on Kazi as Subaru fucked himself on Toya. The four moved faster, Junji picking up the pace as well, his hands moving up and down both cocks faster, and they stroked him faster as well, feeling slick drops of his precome start to run down their hands.
Their breathing was all harsh and ragged, the air filled with heat and the scent of sweat and musk, the sound of flesh on flesh as the thrusts began fast and ragged, more erratic as all of them barreled toward climax . . .
Tomoya was the first to let go, throwing his head back as he cried out, his hot come pouring over Junji's fingers. Toya was next, thrusting up hard into Subaru as he let out a loud cry, and that set off Subaru, pushing himself on Toya one last time as he shuddered with intense, deep shivers of ecstasy.
Kazi was not long after Subaru, pulling out of Tomoya just in time to land a perfect comeshot on his ass, and finally, Junji let go, arching toward both men as he came all over their hands in long waves.
They all fell to the bed in a tangled heap of arms and legs, and laughed as they all kissed each other, whoever was in reach at the moment. Subaru found himself wrapped up between Tomoya and Toya at the end,when they all arranged themselves into a manageable pile, and he had to admit that was a great place to be.
“I'm glad they ran out of room out there,” Junji said, breathlessly.
“Me, too,” Tomoya said.
“Mmmm,” Subaru purred, snuggling next to the two men he was sandwiched between.
“Hey, if you ever want to all do that again . . .” Toya said.
“I wouldn't object,” Kazi said, yawning. “Remind me to make Blue Hawaiis more often.”
“And this beat the hell out of the After-After Party, too,” Junji murmured.
Subaru just lay there, feeling warm and content. Another JAVAs had come to and end – and, just like last year, it had ended with a delicious bout of group sex. Somehow, it seemed very fitting.
He began to doze off, thinking that a moment like this was better than all the awards and social media attention in the world.
* * *
Uruha sat at his desk the day after the awards. He wondered how many of his counterparts were doing the same thing – not many, he thought. He'd managed to avoid a killer hangover by pacing his drinking throughout the night and avoiding the After-After Party.
He wanted to make sure he saw all the writeups on the night. It was unpredictable, to be sure. From the sudden partnership of Hayato and Ruiza to Blankgate, nobody could say that any of it was boring.
But overall, he was more than pleased with the results. Every one of their divisions – the core PSC Productions, Eros Films, Kiryu Video and The Diamond Mine – had won at least one award. The only top-line prize not taken by a current or future actor of theirs was Performer of the Year. And Heavy Hitter got to see the company they unfairly cut loose steal the Best Three-Way award from under their noses.
He hadn't gotten to make all the announcements he'd wanted, but that was okay. He'd gotten the word out about the series, and that was the biggest thing. The industry would learn about Swashbucklers 2 and Datenshi Blue 3 soon enough. He knew just who he was going to cast in each, and it might not be who people were expecting.
He was going to give his crew a day or so to recover – and then, he was going to have his annual kickoff meeting for the new year. Time to get started on their next cycle of projects.
Every ending of a professional year was also a new beginning.