Chapter 1: Creating a Mood
Creating a Mood
Yuki Eiri scowled at his phone, then sighed and picked it up. He stabbed in the number on the business card that he'd taped to his monitor and hit “send.”
“Viewfinder Photography Studio,” answered a cheerful woman's voice. “How can we be of service?”
“Hello. This is Yuki Eiri, the author. I was told to make an appointment by my editor, Onodera Ritsu of Marukawa Publishing.”
“One moment, please...Oh yes, of course, Yuki-sensei. You are on our priority list. Could you hold one moment? Takaba will want to speak with you.” Yuki's mind flashed up an image of a very pretty-faced guy about his own age. Oh right, the author party, and that day on the film set. So he's the owner, huh?
“Yes, fine.” Yuki was squirming in his desk chair. He did not like publicity, most especially formal interviews or photo sessions. Grr, I should have told Onodera to stuff it, or dug out some awful middle school picture of myself-
“Yuki-sensei? Sorry to keep you waiting. This is Takaba Akihito, proprietor of Viewfinder.”
“Hey. So I have to get a new author photo, and Onodera said to get it done by this week. I'll tell you right now, I hate this sort of thing.”
Takaba laughed. “Many authors do, I've found. Still, if it has to be done, let's get it over with, okay? What day and time would be best for your schedule?”
“Doesn't matter. I set my own schedule.”
“Can I ask what your new book is about? No details – just a general idea. And where do you feel most comfortable? At home or outdoors somewhere?”
“It's a murder mystery with some dark humor. And I'm a fucking hermit, so at home. Why? Don't I have to sit in some damn studio?”
“No studio. Those end up looking stiff and awful. I'd like to try and capture a tone that matches your book. How about this evening? And if Shindo is around, that would be good.”
“What? You want the little shit in the picture, too?”
“Nope. Just you. But if he's there, you'll be more relaxed.”
“I'll be demented, and you'll be sorry. But fine – we'll try it your way. 8:00 pm. I'll send you my address.”
“Great! See you then.” They hung up.
Yuki sighed and glanced around his office. It was a mess, with reference books scattered around, crumpled paper everywhere but in the trash can he'd aimed for, ashtray filled with cigarette butts, three – no, four – half-empty mugs of coffee. “Slob” was probably not the image he should go with. Better clean up, then I'll take a nap.
This should be interesting, Takaba thought as he pressed the doorbell. The man must be capable of smiling, even if it's just a smirk. He'd searched for images of Yuki online, and every one showed the author scowling, frowning, or stone-faced as a statue. If his new book had humor in it, Takaba wanted to reflect that in the photo.
The door was flung open and Takaba blinked. Shindo grabbed his hand and tugged him into the entryway, making the “shh” signal. Takaba toed off his shoes while Shindo whispered, “Can you get your camera ready right now?”
“Well, I can, but I have to adjust for the lighting and...” He sat his bag of gear down.
“Just wing it! It's kind of dark in the room, but the balcony light is pretty good. Anyway, this one is just for me, okay? Full length, please?” Shindo made the most pathetically adorable puppy dog eyes Takaba had ever seen. There's no resisting that! Takaba got out his camera, fiddled with the settings then nodded to Shindo.
“The balcony is off to the right. Don't come around the corner until I make him laugh.” Shindo grinned and Takaba could only smile back at him. With his pink hair tied up in a tuft at the top of his head, Shindo looked like a rugrat in need of a spanking. This is either going to get me an epic picture, or tossed out on my ass.
“One sec. This won't make any noise.” Takaba stuck his hand with the camera out and clicked one picture in the general direction. Then he glanced at the tiny screen. It was blurred and dark, Yuki just a blob, but now he knew what he was aiming for. He changed a few settings. “Okay, go for it.”
Shindo moved out and Takaba hovered at the end of the entryway, listening for his cue.
“Where's Takaba?” Yuki asked.
“He had to go back down for the rest of his stuff. He'll be right back.”
“What did you say to him, brat? I'm sure you have some crazy plan.” Yuki's tone was amused and gentle. So, he can be sweet...to Shindo anyway.
“Me?” The phony innocence in Shindo's voice was so over-the-top Takaba wanted to smack his own face for going along with this.
But...Yuki laughed. Takaba zipped around the corner and slid to his knees just to the side of Shindo, snapping several photos. As long as the settings were fine, he should end up with a gorgeous picture. Yuki was leaning back against the balcony railing, wineglass in hand. Casually barefoot in jeans and a white dress shirt, the light glinted off his golden hair and the city night sparkled behind him. The smile was more of a smirk, but those bird-of-prey eyes were soft.
Well. They had been soft. Now, they were pinning Takaba with an accusatory glare. Takaba just shrugged as he stood up. “Sorry, I couldn't resist the puppy dog eyes.”
Yuki opened his mouth to rant...then closed it again and sighed. “That look of his should be classified as a weapon. That will not be my official picture!”
“No. I wanted one just for me. Don't be mad,” Shindo wheedled.
“I'm not mad, little shit. Takaba, you want a drink?”
“Sure, whatever.” Whew! That was close! Takaba kept his laugh to himself. He took a glass of wine and joined Yuki on the balcony. “I have an idea, if you'll humor me,” he said to Yuki.
“Didn't I already? What is it? Sitting at the desk? I cleaned it.”
“No, the desk setting is tired. I was thinking of you sitting somewhere – the couch or even your bed? A simple background. And there's a bunch of weapons spread out and you're trying to choose one. Maybe a laptop nearby. Beyond cliché into the absurd.”
“Ha! That would fit the book, for certain. I like the way you think, Takaba. I don't have a bunch of weapons though, aside from kitchen knives.”
“I brought some props.”
“Shuichi,” Yuki called. “Go make the bed. And make sure there's nothing weird sitting out near it.”
“You got it, boss!” Shindo giggled and skipped off.
Chapter 2: Hearts and Minds
Hearts and Minds
Two days later, Asami came up the stairs into Takaba's loft and found his lover once again bent over some picture frames at his desk. He pressed a kiss to the back of Takaba's neck and asked, “Who is it this time?”
Takaba glanced at his monitor screen, but the screensaver was cycling through a collection of his past photos. He tapped his mouse, and his author portrait for Yuki Eiri appeared. Asami studied it. “I'm impressed. How the hell did you take that?”
Takaba grinned up at him. “We shoved a cabinet over next to the bed and I climbed up on it.” The shot was looking down at Yuki, laying on his back on the bed. In a halo around his head and shoulders were spread out a selection of murder weapons, from the kitchen knife to a noose. Yuki was holding up a syringe with a wicked long needle, an expression of satisfaction on his face. And he was wearing the glasses Shindo had insisted on.
“Is that your gun?” Asami's voice came out a little harsh.
“Uh...yeah. I couldn't find a good prop one on short notice. I left the entire magazine at home, so it wasn't usable. And I've already cleaned it and loaded it and returned it to the safe. I was very careful.”
Asami had to keep himself from over-reacting. He knew Takaba wasn't going to be careless with his gun. “I was just surprised. I don't suppose most people who see the picture will think anything of it.” But it would be better if no one could associate you with a gun at all, Akihito.
“They should think it's Yuki's, if anything.”
“Right. What are the pictures you're framing? Presents like last time?”
“Yeah. See?” Takaba propped all three up against the wall. One gorgeous shot of Yuki lounging on his balcony. One of Shindo leaning against the wall daydreaming (or writing lyrics in his head). And the large one – a couple's portrait of Yuki lying on his side, head propped up on one fist while Shindo slid the glasses onto his face. The preservation of a private, touching exchange between two people again, just like the one of Misaki and Usami.
“You have a gift.” Takaba stared at him, surprised by the quiet tone. “You catch intimate moments, reveal inner secrets, see sides of them no one usually sees. They let down their guard around you. Even if you can't show these off, the subjects will certainly recommend you when they have a chance. Anyone can take a photo of a scandal as it happens – that only needs time and place. This is your true talent.”
Blushing from the praise, Takaba clicked around his screen and a new picture popped open. The moment Misaki accepted Usami's proposal. “This one I'm going to do next. I ordered a special frame that should get here this week.” Takaba touched Misaki's beaming face. “I like seeing love through my lens. All my scoop photos were of ugly, desperate, lying faces.”
“Good thing you never managed a picture of me then.”
Takaba snorted. “You – I almost caught you once on film. But even if I had, you always wore your poker face. Once in a while, a little smirk. Even when your eyes turned dangerous, your face stayed the same. Unbelievably gorgeous, damn you.”
Asami's rich laughter filled the loft. Takaba hesitated, then asked, “Will you let me take your picture? One like these,” he pointed at the frames, “just for myself.”
“Yes, lover. You can take pictures of me when I'm here if you must – but not while I'm sleeping. That I absolutely forbid. As a matter of fact, I'm going to hire you for a shoot next week.” Asami walked over to the kitchen to pour himself a drink.
“What? Of you?” Takaba hopped out of his chair and followed him. He got himself a beer from the fridge.
“Yes, of me. And Haruhiko. We've hired a designer to create a website for the new company and he asked for a variety of photos – separate portraits, one of us together, and some of the office. Same guy who did your website – you like it, don't you?”
“Yeah, it's great. Who is he?”
“A college student named Kaidou Aki. He did yours for a minimal fee since he's building a portfolio. But I'm paying him well this time – he earned that by impressing me. I'm going to give you his number, so you can ask him exactly what sort of pictures he wants.”
“Another of your discoveries.”
Asami raised an eyebrow. “An investment perhaps. And another connection for you if he does well. Arrange to meet him – I'd like to know what your eyes see when you look at him through that mental lens of yours.”
“You think I'll see more than you? I doubt it. You're the shrewdest judge of character I've ever met.” Takaba was pleased to be asked though.
“I see abilities, you see emotions. We make a good team, Akihito.” He deliberately dropped his voice when he said Takaba's name.
And his lover responded by setting aside his beer and twining his arms around Asami's neck. “Ryuichi. Any more business to discuss tonight?”
“No, kitten. Pleasure now.” Their lips met in a deep, long kiss. Asami pulled back to ask, “Bath or bed?”
Takaba nibbled on his earlobe before whispering in his ear, “Roof. It's a warm night, and I thought we might take advantage before the weather turns. It's all set up.”
“Mmm,” Asami hummed. “I like the way you think. Lead the way.”
“You just want to watch my ass as I climb the ladder.”
“Guilty as charged!”
“Don't bite it. I nearly fell off last time you did that!”
Asami chuckled. “I make no promises. And you know I'll always catch you if you fall.”
Takaba turned around at that, just one rung up. He leaned over and kissed Asami. “Because you love me.”
“Because I love you. Now scoot!” Takaba scooted.
Chapter 3: Networking
Takaba paused in the doorway of White Fang, his eyebrows raised. With a name like that, he'd been expecting something a little more...rugged. But the café was filled with women and the décor was feminine. Not overtly, but in the details - the lines of the furniture, the materials and colors, the lighting.
Standing there, he'd attracted attention. The women were whispering and sneaking glances at him. Takaba couldn't hide a little smile – it never hurt his pride to be found good-looking. He could do without being called “pretty” though. Only Asami could get away with calling him that.
Someone trying to leave coughed delicately, and he realized he was blocking the door. He stepped in and approached the counter, “Excuse me?” The waiter turned around, revealing a cute and cheerful boy-next-door type.
“Hi! Welcome to White Fang? Seat for one?”
“I'm here to meet with Kaidou Aki. I'm Takaba Akihito.”
“Oh?” The guy gave him a more appraising look. What's up with that? Like I'm here for a date or something. Is this Aki guy gay?
The waiter next looked around the room, assessing the crowd, then made up his mind. “Just a moment.” He stepped to the door behind him and spoke to someone.
The man that came out of the back...Takaba's mouth dropped open and then snapped closed. If Asami made people think of dark, dangerous, forbidden pleasures, this guy made them want to touch him to see if he was real. And then touch him some more. And the lady customers obviously agreed as they burst into giggles and whispers when he appeared. Now I understand why this place is decorated for women and why there are so many here on a weekday afternoon.
“Hi, I'm Kaidou Haru, manager of the café. You're meeting my brother? Why?”
He was polite but gave off an air of suspicion. Brother complex? “Takaba Akihito, owner of Viewfinder Photography Studio.” Takaba produced one of his business cards. “I'm working with your brother on a job, so we arranged to meet and discuss some details.”
Haru studied the card, then smiled with more warmth, forcing Takaba to swallow against a dry throat. “One of his graphic design things? He usually doesn't bring that stuff here. Iku, why did you call me out to meet him? It's Aki's business.” He pulled out his phone and sent a quick text.
“I thought the customers would like a Haru-sighting.” Haru rolled his eyes.
“Don't be ridiculous. Go take table four's order.” His phone chimed and he read the message. “Aki's running a little late, Takaba. You want something to eat while you wait or a drink?”
“Coffee would be great. Um...I have to ask – have you done any model work?” He took a seat at the counter.
“No,” Haru answered as he made the coffee. “I was a host, but only long enough to save up the money to open this place. Is that the kind of photography you do?”
Takaba answered, “I mostly do portraits and publicity, private events, sometimes news or just lifestyle or landscapes. I mean, I'll shoot anything I'm hired for, but...” I'm babbling! Stop that! “We're working on a website for a company. Aki designed my own website – he's very good.”
Haru sat down his cup. “Portraits? I'd like one of the four of us. Maybe I'll hire you some time. And it might be good to get some pictures of the store...” He looked up and his face became even more blindingly handsome. How is that even possible? “Ren!”
As Haru stepped out from behind the counter, Takaba turned to see who had inspired that response. A kid? No, he's older than he looks at first, but that's a school uniform. And he's scowling at me. Haru gave the younger guy a hug that lasted just a little longer than necessary. The women tittered and made cooing noises.
“RenRen!” Iku called, “How was school? Third-year nearly killed me.”
“It's fine. Modern Japanese is the only class I have to work for. Who's that?” he asked Haru, meaning Takaba. Third-year, so he's at least seventeen.
Hostile dark eyes glared at Takaba. He's very clearly warning me off. God, do I look like that when people get too close to Asami? I hope not.
“He's here to meet Aki for some work. Takaba Akihito, this is Kaidou Ren, a member of my family.” Ren's eyes flew up to Haru's face at that introduction, while Takaba struggled not to let anything show on his. Are they related? They don't look anything alike. And why was Ren surprised? Uh oh, Asami would say I was scenting a story.
“Do you have homework? We need some more coffee beans roasted, but it can wait until tomorrow.”
“I can do it now. I'll just go change.” Ren's face had lost that angry look, but as he went through the shop to a different door his shoulders hunched when one of the customers made a loud comment.
“Haru! Your little brother is so cute! And you two are so close! It's very sweet.”
“Ren is adorable, isn't he?” Haru said, “But don't call him little – he's up to my chin now and likely still growing. Hey, Takaba, here comes Aki finally. Aki – you've kept him waiting!” Takaba could only admire how coolly Haru played off his affection towards his...brother? These women are all clueless if they don't see those two are a couple. There is no way they are brothers.
Aki, being scolded by Haru, looked supremely unconcerned. “Takaba? Hi, I'm Aki. Let's go to the house. Too many people in here today.”
Takaba stood up and followed Aki through the same door Ren had used, carrying his coffee. It opened on to a corridor and they passed the office and a storeroom before going outside to a gate connecting the shop to the house next door. The house was very nice and spacious. The café must make a lot of money if they can afford a big house like this. Maybe the family has money? What about the parents? I'm definitely getting too curious!
They settled at the dining room table. “Did my brother give you a hard time? He's a pain because he's so overprotective of us. Sorry to make you wait, but my professor kept me after class.”
“It was fine. He was a little suspicious at first, but nothing much. Um, who is Ren? I mean, are you all brothers?”
Aki gave him a look. “Hard to figure out from looking at us, yeah? Haru's mother is half-Japanese and he looks just like her. We share a father – Haru, me, and my twin brother Shima. Ren is adopted and not blood-related. Our parents died, and Haru's been looking after the three of us for a long time.”
“Ah, that's why Haru called him 'family' and not 'brother,'” Takaba muttered.
“Did he? That's new. Probably because...never mind. So, how's your website? Want me to make any changes to it? And what's your connection to this new company, Hakue?”
Did Asami hire him for me anonymously? “The site is great. I might want to add some more images to my portfolio soon. Um, who contacted you about Hakue?”
“Some guy named Asami. One of the partners. And is the other one really Usami Haruhiko? I've heard of him, on the news just recently.” So he has no clue about Asami's background. That's good.
“Yeah, Usami is splitting off from his father's company and creating his own, but I'm not really sure of the details. Asami is an investor who's partnering with him. He's a partner in my business also, helped me get started. He's very good with money, so if he makes you an offer, you should consider it.”
“To help you start your own business. He was impressed by the website you built for me, and you designed the logo didn't you?”
Aki was stunned. “Start my own...are you serious? I haven't even graduated yet. I'm just a flunky at the design company where I'm working now. I did your website on my own. I thought this new company must be some little start-up tossing around Usami's name to sound impressive.”
Uh oh, he's intimidated. “Asami chose you for this job, and he knows talent when he sees it. Don't worry, we'll show him what you can do with this project, okay? Let's get started. What kind of pictures did you want and how many?”
Once Aki shook off his fears about handling such an important website, he focused in on his ideas and plans. Takaba's first impression had been of a slightly spoiled, flippant college student, but when it came to discussing work he was sharp and decisive. Aki had a well-developed taste and style, one that would suit Hakue perfectly. Professional, fresh, and creative without being too showy or radical – Takaba liked him.
When they were wrapping up, Takaba asked him, “Why don't you come to the photoshoot this Sunday? And bring your brothers – we'll need some people to pose in the background and already invited a few friends. Just dress up like office workers. You should meet Asami and Usami.”
“Are you sure? I don't want to be pushy.”
“It's fine, and it'll be fun.” Takaba glanced at his phone and saw the time. “I'd better get going.”
Aki showed him out the front door. Takaba looked over at White Fang as he left. Yeah, I want to know more.
Chapter 4: Make an Impression
Make an Impression
Sunday morning, Takaba headed for the Hakue offices early. He needed to do a walk-through of the offices and plan his shots. Asami had arranged the delivery of a small spread of food and drinks, so he helped himself to a pastry and some coffee.
He liked these offices very much. Light, bright, and warm, he felt instantly at ease. Takaba sensed Naruse's hand in the interior design since Usami was still fairly conservative and Asami usually went for ultra-modern and intimidating.
Takaba went into Asami's office, flopped into his desk chair sideways and kicked his feet, giggling to himself. “Just what are you thinking about, Akihito?” Oops, caught!
Takaba turned his head and grinned at Asami. “Christening your new office, of course.” Damn, he looks good! I was joking, but seeing him here...we'll certainly have to lock the door and have some fun in here soon.
“You are a very bad kitten – I approve. Now get your ass out of my chair and greet me properly. Usami and Naru are here also, by the way. And Asahi with Masato.”
Takaba walked over to Asami and gave him a warm welcome. Asami asked, “Mmm, strawberry tart for breakfast?”
Takaba laughed. “Let's go out. I want to talk to you and Usami-sama.”
They joined the others at the reception area. Takaba looked over the main three. Usami was wearing a nice suit, Asami was wearing one of his usual three-piece power suits, and Asahi was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt. At least he shaved, Takaba thought, already familiar with Asahi's habits.
Catching everyone's attention, Takaba asked, “What image are you guys going for with this company? We have to decide right now.”
“What do you mean?” Usami asked. “We're a business. Professional.”
“Well, there are different ways of doing business. The feeling of this office, just as an outsider walking in, is comfortable, friendly, and welcoming. And you can keep it that way without losing the 'professional' part of your...battle plan. But the impression can come from your dedication to the work and your results, not from appearances. You can be taken seriously without being traditional and strait-laced. Somewhere between Asami's look and Asahi's is where I think you should position yourselves. If you want to match the office's overall tone, that is.”
Asami shrugged, “I trust your judgment, Akihito, but 'friendly, comfortable' – those are not words generally associated with me. You're going to have to coach me.” Just the corner of his lips turned upward.
Usami looked to his boyfriend to see Naru was nodding in agreement with Takaba. Masato said, “Don't worry, Takaba. I brought Asahi's suit - he refused to put it on until he has to.”
“I think Asahi's casual outfit is mostly fine, for a consultant. It's you two,” he looked from Usami to Asami, “we need to work on. Did you bring any other clothes?”
“Haruhiko did. I insisted,” Naru said. “A really nice blue sweater, a gold turtleneck, and a dress shirt with a pattern that doesn't need a tie.”
Asami crossed his arms. “I didn't. I have some clothes here already, but they're all more of this.” He waved at his current outfit.
“Okay. The sweater for Usami-sama. And maybe...the patterned shirt for Asahi? Asami, you lose the vest and jacket, roll up your sleeves and loosen the tie.” Usami and Asahi left to change, Naru going with them. Asami slowly removed the mentioned pieces, staring directly into Takaba's eyes. Takaba felt his face flush and his fingers twitch with the desire to tear off more.
“You guys!” Masato sighed. “Save that for later.” Asami chuckled.
The others came back and Takaba was pleased with the results. “Okay, let's get started. Naru, could you stay here and greet the others? I'll get the partners done first.”
Naru agreed and Takaba led the way into Usami's office. “Usami-sama, sit at your desk. Asami, sit on this side – right on the desk. Asahi, you stand here...”
Takaba was efficient and knew what he wanted. Within half an hour he had his single portraits, shots of the two partners, and “candid” pictures of the three of them pretending to work on a project.
The rest of the participants had arrived and been shifted to the break room, where they were mingling. Takaba entered and stood next to Naru. Glancing around the room, he muttered, “He's here.”
Naru raised an eyebrow. “I assume you're referring to that piece of manly perfection that nearly reduced me to a drooling, stammering mess? You should have warned me!”
Takaba sputtered with laughter. “That's the one. Kaidou Haru. I wasn't sure if he'd show up.”
“He's more than just protective of the youngest brother, if you know what I mean.”
“Yes, I know. The youngest is adopted. They got my curiosity going when I met them this week. Aki is the website designer.”
“Oh, that's him? Well, they're certainly an attractive group. The one with the glasses reminds me of a young Haruhiko. Hiroto met them a little while ago when he filled in as bartender. He's here, though I almost didn't recognize him – he dyed his hair pitch black for a change.”
Takaba scanned the crowd more carefully. “Oh good, some women. I didn't think about it, but we only invited guys.”
“Ichimaru brought his neighbors, Kiyoka came with the Kaidou brothers, and I asked a Marukawa editor who brought her intern, so yes, five women - all pretty, though Kiyo is wearing too much makeup. That should be enough. Oh, I want to see them all react to Asami – it's so much fun! They already made a fuss over that Haru.”
Takaba shook his head, “Asami enjoys making an impression as much as you like seeing it.”
“Akihito, we're here. What's next?” Asami was suddenly beside him wearing the gold turtleneck, and Usami had his dress shirt back on but without a tie or jacket, top two buttons open. Asahi was back in his t-shirt, being done with his shots.
The room fell silent as first one, then the rest caught sight of Asami. “Oh my god,” one of the women said.
Naru chuckled. “Even when he doesn't make an entrance, he makes an entrance.”
“I think my ovaries just exploded,” said another. Hiroto burst out laughing as her face turned bright red, realizing she'd spoken out loud. A few of the other men snickered, but a couple were equally entranced.
Takaba cleared his throat. “Hello, everyone. Thanks for coming by today to help us out. This is Usami Haruhiko-sama, president of Hakue.” He gestured to Usami. “And this is his partner, Asami Ryuichi-sama.” Asami inclined his head a fraction, smirk in place. “I'm going to borrow a few of you first, then I'll be back for everyone else, okay? Kaidou – all four, and you...I'm afraid I don't know your name.” He chose the one woman who didn't look ready to climb Asami or Haru like a tree.
“Nice to meet you, Hazuki. I'm Takaba Akihito. If you would come with us?” Takaba pushed Asami out the door, and the others followed them back to the lobby. He put Aki's twin, Shima, behind the desk as the receptionist, and gave Hazuki some papers to hold, instructing her to act like she was just walking past. Asami and Haru were to stand to the side of the desk, shaking hands as though Haru was being greeted.
“Aki, what do you think of the composition?” They stood back and judged the scene. Aki suggested a few slight changes and everyone shifted positions.
“What about me?” Ren asked.
“Oh, sorry Ren. You're a bit young-looking to be an office worker, but I thought you'd want to watch your family. I can use you in the background when we get to the other office shots, though.”
Ren sighed heavily and flopped into one of the couches. Takaba went over to him and whispered, “Haru mentioned wanting a group picture of the four of you and I'm going to try and sneak one. As soon as we finish this, okay? You keep them from paying attention to what I'm doing.” Ren nodded.
Takaba took several shots until he got one both he and Aki were satisfied with. He told Hazuki she could rejoin the rest. Asami spoke briefly to Aki who was standing next to Shima. Haru had perched on the side of the desk, listening, so Takaba waved Ren over to join them. When Asami excused himself and came over, Takaba pretended to be fiddling with his camera while the four brothers chatted.
He sidled sideways, trying to find the right angle and expressions. Finally, Takaba clicked rapidly and was pretty sure he'd caught something good. “One of your side projects?” Asami asked quietly.
“Yeah. They're an interesting mix of personalities.”
“The youngest bears watching. I think he'll be important one day. And Aki, should I offer to get him started as I did with you?”
Turning to face him, Takaba answered, “I think so. When it comes to the job, he's intense, loyal, good with people. I'd work with him again.”
“We agree then, for different reasons. I saw ambition and drive. Are you done with me?”
Takaba smiled. “For now.”
“I liked being in your viewfinder and watching you work. Let's take some pictures when you get home.”
Forgetting all about their audience, Takaba kissed Asami goodbye. Passionately. Then he blushed fiercely as Asami let him go and called to the Kaidou brothers, “Nice meeting you all. And thank you for helping out today. Kaidou Aki, I'll be in touch.” Asami left, and Takaba took a few deep breaths before turning around to face the four brothers, each staring at him with a different expression.
“So that's how you know him, huh?” Aki said dryly.
“Err, let's go get everyone else and finish this shoot.”
Chapter 5: The Signals We Send
The Signals We Send
Aki leaned forward in his chair, gaping at Kashiwagi Mikiko. The lawyer finished going over the contract he'd received from Asami, then dropped the bomb of Asami's background.
She waited patiently for the information to sink in. “Yakuza kingpin? Are you kidding me? He was pretty intimidating, but...”
“Not anymore. As far as I can tell, he's given up that type of business. And partnering with Usami Haruhiko means he's serious about staying clean. But that doesn't mean the criminal elements are finished with him,” she shrugged. “The terms of this contract are excellent, Hakue will have a lot of clout, and between the two of them, the contacts they have could rocket you to the top of the heap. It's up to you to decide if you're ready for that sort of thing. And whether you want to risk the association.”
“Haru will freak out.”
“Haru tends to do that,” Mikiko chuckled. “But this is your future, not his. Six months from now you're graduating. You can continue working your way up in the company you're with now. It's a solid company, and within five years you might be one of their top employees. Or you can strike out on your own. Starting your own business at twenty-two – if it fails, you'll recover quickly.”
Aki scrubbed at his face. “What's your opinion? Objectively.”
“Asami's investments always pay out – the legal ones I could find. He has the best track record I've ever seen in that way. Viewfinder is a fine example, with Takaba leaping from a small-time photojournalist to a major name working with star authors, a film, and getting that now-famous interview with Usami-sama. You can see how Asami's contacts have pushed him into elite circles – but also that's he's holding his own there. Asami doesn't invest if he doesn't believe the person can deliver.”
“Takaba might be a special case,” Aki muttered, recalling the two of them making out at the photoshoot.
“That his business was a parting gift from a lover? Doesn't matter – Takaba earned it, and not in bed.”
“Not a parting gift.”
“Oh? That's even better if they're still together. Asami's clever, pretending to be finished with Takaba when he was cleaning up his reputation. That had to be a careful operation, and he managed it without any bloodshed. Frankly, the man impresses me.”
Aki stared at the contract's letterhead.
Renovation Innovation Motivation
He liked that mission statement. “Where do I sign?”
That evening, the four brothers gathered for dinner. “What's that?” Ren asked, pointing at a large package propped against the wall.
“I don't know,” Haru answered. “It was delivered this afternoon. It's addressed to all of us, so I thought we could open it together after we eat. Kind of a fun surprise.”
I have a surprise too, but I don't know if it will be fun. When to tell them? While we eat? Before or after the package? Aki sighed. He knew Haru only wanted to protect his brothers, but he always went overboard with it. Mikiko's right – this is my choice to make, and I'm sure Haru will support me once he calms down. Do I mention the yakuza thing? No. That's the past.
Haru was just setting down their dessert when Aki decided to speak up. “I have an announcement.” Three pairs of eyes focused on him. “I signed a contract today. As soon as I graduate, I'll be opening my own graphic design studio.”
“What? Signed a contract with who? What kind of contract? How could you make such a big decision without us?” Haru responded as expected.
“Asami-sama. Or their company, Hakue. But he's in charge of their investments. I had Mikiko go over the whole thing, Haru. It's too good of an opportunity to turn down. An office, equipment – everything I'll need to get started, he'll provide upfront. I'll pay him back out of the profits, and then he'll get a small percentage. And the connections the company can send my way – those are priceless.”
“But...I would have helped you with all that.”
“I know, Haru. You've done so much for us already. I need to do this on my own.” And pay you back for all the years of sacrifice, stupid Bro.
“I have an announcement too,” Shima said out of nowhere. “I'm not going to grad school after all. Usami Haruhiko offered me a job at Hakue. Executive Administrator – basically, I'm going to run the office. You know I was going to get my Master's degree in Business Management. This is better than any degree. I'll be trained by them personally, and they're going to be big, Haru. I couldn't say no. Starting next week, I'll be working there part-time until I graduate.”
Haru put his head down on the table. “They stole my brothers. What about you, Ren? You going to go be a model for Takaba?”
Ren punched him. “No, idiot. I'm going to study agriculture, then we'll start our own farm. Rice and coffee. A big house with no one around. And lots of dogs.”
“Ren! That sounds...amazingly ideal! I love you!” He threw himself on Ren. Aki and Shima shared an eye roll and smiles. Leave it to Ren, to come up with that plan and then drop it at just the right time.
“Aki and Shima will be rich by then, so they can help pay for it.” Ren gave them both a look. The twins nodded, that was fair. “Stop being a pain and congratulate them. They aren't leaving, anyway. Just getting jobs like everyone does.”
“I know. Aki, Shima – I'm proud of you both!” Haru jumped up to hug his brothers and leak tears all over them. “Mom and Dad would be proud, too.”
“We couldn't have done any of this without you, Brother,” Shima said. “No matter what happens, we're family.”
Aki, fighting back tears of his own, said loudly, “Let's open that package.” I think I know what it might be, coming from Viewfinder.
They all stood up and moved over to the living room where it was waiting. “You unwrap it, Ren.”
Grabbing the scissors, Ren cut the twine, then carefully pulled away the plain brown paper. Beneath that was bubble wrap. And beneath that...the back of a picture frame. “Close your eyes,” Ren told them and waited until all three sets of eyes were tightly shut. He knows too?
“Okay, you can look now.” He'd moved over to stand with his brothers. They all stared.
On one side, Haru and Ren. There was no mistaking them as a couple in love, Haru smiling widely and Ren's face serious but a glow of happiness in his eyes. Even without looking directly at each other, their body language said it. Haru's arm on Ren's shoulders, Ren's arm around Haru's waist. They'd leaned their heads together as they listened to Aki explaining something. Shima had his Mona Lisa smile on, while Aki was gesturing, his face animated and his dark eyes sparkling.
“...?” Haru was speechless. Even Aki, expecting some sort of picture, could only stare. It was them, exactly. Not just a picture - it captured a perfect moment. Whatever their physical characteristics, these four men were a family.
“Mikiko was right. Takaba earned his business. He's...” Aki said quietly.
“An artist.” Shima finished the sentence.
“He just sent us this for nothing? How can I ever repay him?” Haru wondered.
“There's a note,” Ren held it up. He opened it and read, “'Sorry to have done this without your permission. It's a little hobby of mine, taking pictures when people are unaware, showing them what the camera can capture when you look closely through its Viewfinder. You guys are special - treasure that closeness. And feel free to send any business my way! Takaba.' That's it. I don't think he expects money for it.”
“Still...it's too much. I'll have to make him something.” Haru said.
“Let's hang it up! Where, Haru?” Aki asked.
“Huh? Oh, right here on the wall where we can see it from the kitchen, table, and sofa. Or should we put it in the café?”
“Not there. Not unless you want all the customers to know Ren is more than your little brother. That picture screams that you're lovers.” Shima's voice was exasperated.
“What?” Haru's face turned red. “You think Takaba suspects?”
Aki shook his head. Haru is such an airhead! “Bro. Everyone who isn't a woman blinded by a crush on you sees it. And Takaba said you introduced Ren as family and not your brother. He knew it right off the bat, then he carefully caught it for you in that photo. Until you're ready to run off and live on that farm together, we'd better keep this private.”
“Here then. Right here.” Shima went off to get the tools.
“How can people tell?” Ren asked, studying the picture.
Aki thought about how to explain it. “When people are really connected, their body language changes when they're near each other. People can see it, if they know what to look for, if they're paying attention. And even when they don't see it, they can subconsciously sense it. It's always been there between you two, and now...it's even stronger. Takaba and Asami have it. Usami-sama and that Naru guy. And Hiroto with his two... They have it, though they're pretty good at hiding it.”
Ren considered. “Like wolves with their mates. I get it. I just don't know the human signals yet.”
Haru laughed. “You and wolves! I can read your signals well enough, so they can't be too different.”
“Yes. So tone that down. Or Aki will hit me.”
Ren grinned at him.
Chapter 6: Behind the Scenes
Behind the Scenes
Takaba was wandering around the movie set, searching for interesting views to shoot. Today they were supposed to be shooting the “first kiss” scene, but at the moment nothing was happening. He got himself a cup of coffee and made his way to the dressing rooms. Maybe Azumaya was goofing around with Saijou.
They were a fun couple to watch. Saijou did everything by the rules with careful consideration and Azumaya relied on instinct and impulse – no one would expect them to get along. But Azumaya drew genuine emotion out of Saijou, whose acting style was calculated and planned, while Saijou could explain a scene to Azumaya so that he tapped into his inner-self in a more controlled manner.
And to top it all off, they were both playing against type in this movie. Saijou was the easy-going character, and Azumaya the tsundere. It was fascinating to Takaba, seeing them switch back and forth. Their scenes together crackled and sparked with energy, off-screen they were quietly content with each other. Except when Azumaya got into one of his antic moods – then Saijou raged at him. But it was clear they enjoyed that sort of interaction as well.
Takaba had already captured a moment for them. One day he'd barged into a room where the couple was relaxing together between scenes. Saijou sat on Azumaya's lap, head pressed to Azumaya's chest as if listening to his heartbeat. Azumaya had turned to look at Takaba, his expression fiercely protective of the man cradled in his arms. Takaba had gotten one shot, then backed away. But one shot was all he'd needed. They would get that picture once filming was done.
Takaba was really hoping to catch Katou and Iwaki. Iwaki hadn't been around often - his part was a small one - and today was his final day to shoot. He tended to stay out of the way, preferring to watch Katou working from afar. Takaba could see the pride on his face, and Katou's eyes often searched for him and connected for an intimate exchange of glances. But Takaba was getting frustrated by the distance they maintained. I'm sure it's better for the set if they aren't getting lovey-dovey and hanging all over each other, but how am I supposed to get a picture?
He finally caught it that afternoon. Iwaki did his scene, scolding his love-troubled employees without realizing the cause of their dispute, then stalking off. But as he turned his back on them, his expression gave away that he was completely aware of their problem, and amused by it.
Takaba went on alert when Katou came out from behind the monitors. He spoke first to Azumaya and Saijou, then walked over to Iwaki who had returned to his beginning mark. Katou said something and Iwaki burst into laughter. Katou focused on Iwaki's mouth, hungry desire in his eyes. Snap! Whew, I got it. And...now they're kissing. He snapped a few more frames, but that wasn't what Takaba cared about. The usually serious Iwaki laughing and light-hearted, easy-going Katou suddenly intense – that was the magic moment.
Someone hooted and cat-called at them, ending the kiss in good-natured teasing from the crew.
“It's his last day on the set, guys! Cut me a little slack!” Katou joked.
“Finish the shot first, Director!”
“Fine! Fine! I never get to have any fun!” Katou pouted as he returned to his place behind the monitors. “Quiet on the set!” he roared, no megaphone necessary. Smothering their laughter, everyone settled down and the scene played out to Katou's satisfaction.
“That's it! Let's have a round of applause for my husband, please. Thank you, Iwaki. Good work!”
Everyone went gathered around Iwaki to thank him and gush over him. Katou stood back and let them, then he gave orders for the next scene to be set up. As they all scattered, Iwaki shot a look at Katou – a challenge. Then he turned and ran for it. Katou whooped and chased after him, to a chorus of cheers and giggles and mock-complaints. And, across the room...
“Oh no, Chunta! No!” Saijou was backing up.
“Takato...” Azumaya's voice was wheedling, his eyes held that devilish gleam.
“Don't you dare, you perverted angel! Stop right th-mph!” His fists thumped against Azumaya's chest as he was thoroughly kissed.
Takaba took a picture of the kissing couple just for fun. Then he turned around to leave and ran smack into Usaka.
“Oof! Oh shit! I'm so sorry, Usaka-sama!” He said it loud enough to alert everyone. Kissing, laughing, and general goofing-off halted abruptly.
“This is a movie set, isn't it? Not a kissing booth at a summer fair?” Usaka was amused, not angry. “Azumaya, get your hands off Saijou. Save that for home, or at least your dressing room. Takaba, I want a copy of those pictures. Somebody go after Katou and drag him back here. Make a lot of noise though – don't want to see anything you shouldn't.” A grip scurried off to catch the wayward director.
Usaka sat down in Katou's chair and waved the director's assistant over. “Well? What's going on here today? Is my money being wasted on nonsense?”
“Not at all, Usaka-sama! We're ahead of schedule actually. Katou is really efficient and everything's going smoothly.”
“Takaba, next week I'd like you to drop by the music studio with your camera. Arisu will be recording with Bad Luck, starting on the soundtrack. Might as well get some pictures of that as well.”
“Will you be there, Usaka-sama?”
“Me? Who cares about photos of me?”
“I'd appreciate it if you were there. Arisu is a bit...overwhelming.”
“That's saying something, coming from you. I wouldn't think anyone who regularly associates with...him...could be overwhelmed.”
“I'm used to him. Arisu, I'm not.”
Usaka consulted the filming schedule. “No big scenes planned for Tuesday. I'll give you an hour, Tuesday afternoon.”
“Perfect! Thank you.”
Katou returned, looking rumpled and unrepentant. “Usaka-sama, that's my chair.”
“Then why wasn't your butt in it?” Katou just grinned at him, and Takaba left them to their conversation, mind filling with ways to maneuver Usaka and Arisu into a revealing situation. Next, I want Usami and Naru...He stopped abruptly. I'm becoming obsessed with this hobby of mine. Then he shrugged it off. I could do worse than become focused on love. As long as I don't turn into some swoony maiden and start reading shoujo manga...
Little did Takaba know that there was a book waiting for him at home. Akikawa Yayoi's latest release, fresh off the presses. The BL action-romance, In His Crosshairs, dedicated to T & A, with a personal message from the author scrawled inside. One of the few novels Takaba would ever manage to read all the way through, before Asami snatched it and laughed and laughed.
Pure fluff, this installment in the Toyko Yaoiverse. Hope you didn't mind me taking a little break from the sexy times, but be not afraid! Skinship will return. And it's almost Halloween! Who's “up” for some cosplay?