Even after 20 years of friendship, Koko doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to get used to the various ways Inupi knocks the wind out of him, in the best possible ways.
He had barely taken two steps into his apartment when he felt a sharp tug on the collar of his shirt. His basest of instincts have him instantly reaching for the gun holster attached to his trousers, but then he feels those hands pulling at his clothes, undoing his buttons with a much too practiced fervor, and he knew instantly that the man in front of him was the furthest thing from a threat to his life. To his composure though, he wouldn’t be able to say the same.
He soon finds himself in his bathroom with Inupi caged in his arms, and it’s just another typical Tuesday. Though maybe he should be a little worried if Inupi’s very welcome surprises will one day desensitize him to the threat of an actual home intruder.
“I want you to fuck me over this counter,” Inupi whispers. The feel of his lips barely grazing the shell of Koko’s ear has Koko’s hands curling into fists in a futile attempt to curb his sudden spike of desire. Inupi’s startlingly pale eyes hold his gaze captive in the mirror as he says, “and I want to watch.”
Sometimes he thinks they have an addiction to violence. Or maybe an addiction to the adrenaline rush that comes with constant danger. Maybe that’s why Inupi accosts him in the dark of his own apartment, and maybe that’s why the best kind of sex they have are the times when they’re able to leave their mark on each other for days—the ghost of Koko’s teeth marked on Inupi’s neck, his collarbone, his chest; the ghost of his hands on Inupi’s hips.
Inupi has his own apartment in a very similar high rise in a different part of the city, yet somehow he spends about four nights out of seven in Koko’s bed. He’s there so often, Koko’s reasoned that it’s easier to just give him the spare key. So Inupi showing up unannounced at his apartment really is just a typical Tuesday.
But it’s not every day that Inupi requests something of him, so he very willingly delivers. He bends Inupi’s lithe body over his bathroom countertop and fucks him until he no longer has the energy to lift his head off the cool marble. And true to his words, he feels Inupi’s cool gaze on them the entire time.
He feels extra hot with the weight of Inupi’s stare on him as he’s making a wreck of his body. At first he thought Inupi wanted to test out a new kink—maybe he recently discovered he had an exhibitionist streak and wanted to watch his own perpetually composed self fall apart at the seams. Koko wouldn’t blame him, it’s one of his favorite things when it comes to sex with Inupi—watching the collected, controlled, and impassive Inupi devolve into a trembling, moaning mess under his hands. But he can feel Inupi’s gaze on his face the entire time, and for the first time ever in the decade that they’ve been fooling around together, he feels a little nervous about this.
It’s different, looking in the mirror and seeing Inupi’s face in the thralls of sex. Usually he’d take Inupi from the back, his face buried into the soft pillows of the king sized bed, and the only view he'd have was of Inupi’s back and his long, blond hair fanned out on the stark white sheets. He’s shocked when, even through the debauched flush on his face, Inupi’s eyes feel cold and calculating as they scrutinize Koko in the mirror.
Was Inupi always this cold when they slept together?
He wishes he could melt that ice away and replace that look with something warm and familiar. Something that didn’t feel so distant.
“Hey,” he whispers, leaning forward so his chest is flush against Inupi’s back. He gently grabs a fistful of Inupi’s long hair and tugs softly to bring his head up so that their faces are side by side in the mirror. Inupi turns his head slightly to pull him into a deep kiss that has him groaning into Inupi’s mouth with just how gone he is. He pulls away, out of breath, and places a kiss on Inupi’s temple. He can’t help but look Inupi in the eyes again in the mirror and whisper, “You’re beautiful.”
It takes two whispered words for Inupi to fall apart.
Most nights, when they’re both spent and tired, Inupi usually shuts his eyes and sleeps immediately while Koko is especially amorous post-coital. He likes to gather Inupi in his arms, bury his nose in Inupi’s soft hair, and leave tattoo kisses down the nape of his neck.
It’s one of those nights where Koko’s feeling particularly affectionate and he has a sleepy Inupi in his arms. Inupi’s face is soft and peaceful in his sleep, nothing like the perpetual stoicism everyone else sees in his waking hours.
Admiring the gentle slope of his nose and the soft curves of his lips brings Koko back to the library they frequented as children. Back when studying was the worst of his perils, he spent so much time in the library, he practically had a designated table there every weekday afternoon. And he was never alone because he—she?— was always with him.
There’s a particular day that he remembers especially well, when, after hours of straining his eyes reading about finances and savings, he decides to give them a rest by looking out the window, only to catch sight of Inui sitting in the little alcove, sleeping. And he— he.— looked so beautiful there, the sunlight bathing his face in soft, lovely golds and the sheer curtains framing his figure by the window. Koko couldn’t help but move closer, as if Inui (Akane? No — Seishu) was some sort of magnet and he was just his opposing pole. He could remember a long-forgotten voice saying “you should only kiss the one you love,” and he didn’t know what this feeling was but he decided to act on it anyway.
It was his first kiss. He’s pretty certain it was Inupi’s, too. He remembers the sick guilt he felt when he pulled away; Inupi remained fast asleep, his face as still as the surface of a lake, completely unaware of the act of sacrilege he had committed against him. He broke down on his knees in tears and remembers mourning Akane; out of guilt of going against her principles or guilt of having the gall to potentially love another, at 13 he wouldn’t know.
Akane and Inupi had always looked alike. But if a younger Koko had paid more attention and had been a little bit wiser, he’d have realized that they were terribly different. Akane was kind and always wore a warm smile, and Inupi had always been a little cold and distant, even as a child.
He had always thought that Akane was beautiful with her long, blond hair and captivating, hooded eyes—features that Inupi shared as well. He had been drawn to Akane’s maturity and kindness, and once upon a time he thought he was in love with her.
Akane had always felt right. She was beautiful and kind, the textbook example of what a man should look for in a romantic partner. But it’s Inupi—this Inui—who always throws him off-kilter, veering him off his intended path with his in-born magnetism. He felt like fate, or some cosmic force, would always unwittingly draw him to this Inui, even without his permission.
He felt it in that house, in that fire. He’ll never forget the feeling of finally being able to take his first lungful of smoke-free air, and the sinking feeling that followed when the blanket that covered Inupi’s short, blond hair slipped off his head and fell to the ground, revealing a face that was rounder and more delicate than he was expecting. He felt it when his arms had itched to pull him into a hug, the relief almost overwhelming because Inupi was safe, but then there was the even bigger grief from the realization that Akane was not. His arms had remained limp at his side, his body rendered immobile by the very physical pain that was his heart breaking in two.
He doesn’t think he could ever forget Inupi’s soulless gaze as he stood stock-still in shock; it must have shown on his face, how torn apart he was, because he had thought it was Akane’s weight on his back the entire time. On the oddest of days, he can still recall the taste of the acrid bile of guilt that he had forced himself to swallow back down, because he should be happy that Inupi is safe, but at the same time his lovesick heart had whispered to him treacherous words: “You wish he were Akane, don’t you?”
And some twisted, traitorous part of him had agreed.
Wistful reminiscing brings forth that familiar magnetic pull once more, and Koko can’t help but bring his lips closer to Inupi’s own.
He gets a soft brush of a cheek instead as Inupi shifts his head to the side, facing away from him, and immediately he can feel Inupi turn to stone in his arms.
“You should only kiss the one you love,” Inupi says, his voice a soft whisper with a knife edge.
He feels cold all of a sudden. And a little dirty too. Just an hour ago he had Inupi’s lips on his, and now he’s giving him the cold shoulder and shrugging off his touch.
“That didn’t seem to phase you just a while ago,” Koko says, his voice purposefully inflected in what he hoped was a teasing lilt.
“Different,” Koko echoes, his voice hollow.
“Good night, Koko,” Inupi says with a tone of definity, burrowing himself into the soft comforter they shared.
Koko knows when he’s unwelcome to push further. And so he turns the other way, his back to Inupi’s back, and tries not to lose sleep to the stone weighing his heart down in his chest.
There were only a few brief moments in the two decades they’ve been friends where they had been distant with each other.
The aftermath of the fire had been hard on their friendship. The very first time he walked into Akane’s hospital room and saw her wrapped head to toe in bandages, he’d felt the regret seep back into his heart. Because of his lack of attention, the love of his life was hanging onto life by a meager thread. A meager thread and a precarious 40 million yen.
(He tries not to think about what would have been if he had been at full attention; he doesn’t think he could handle that alternate reality.)
He visited Inupi that same day. His head was wrapped in bandages and he was staring listlessly down at his hands. Inupi wouldn’t look at him, but that was fine; he couldn’t look at Inupi either. He looked too much like his sister for his liking. Looking at him hurt.
It took him a while to be able to look at Inupi again—there was a lot of guilt he had to get over before he could bear to face him. He despised himself for wishing for even a second that he had left Inupi for the dead in favor of Akane’s life. He was ashamed of the way he’d abandoned Inupi when he needed him most; his one and only sister was on her deathbed and he had iced Inupi out and instead turned to a life of crime and embezzlement, and he was so pompous to think he could raise 40 million yen on his own at 11 years old.
But when he wasn’t looking, Inupi had stepped into the world of crime himself.
He doesn’t know what exactly went down between Inupi and his parents, but after the funeral and their period of silence, Inupi had fallen in with one of the most notorious gangs in the city. A small voice in his head urged him to pull Inupi out of it; Inupi didn’t belong in these circles, it was dangerous. But he knows how hypocritical that would be. And so he did nothing as he watched Inupi fall deeper and deeper into the organization. He trained himself to feel nothing as he watched the quiet and timid boy he once knew grow into an ice-cold, ruthless delinquent.
But the one thing that kept their already fragile relationship from completely falling apart was the fact that they had wordlessly, mutually agreed to live this facade of normalcy. And Koko admits that, more than once, he’d pretend that it was Inui Akane that he was visiting the city library with. But as hard as he tried to pretend that things were as if the fire had never happened, there was no escaping the cracks and fissures that clued him into reality. Like the fact that the books he’d have on hand were textbooks about financial management. The fact that Inupi would show up in his stark-white uniform that bore the Black Dragons’ logo on the back.
But the veneer was forcefully shattered when Inupi’s affiliation with the Black Dragons landed him in reform school for a year or so, where he was once again out of reach.
He’d thought it a relief at first, that the world had once again forced them apart when he needed the space. He still doesn’t know if he’s actually ready to face him unguarded and bare after all that had happened. Part of him had thought that maybe, just maybe, it would be best to never see Inupi again. It would be easier to walk away from him and never have to be reminded of all the things that have been haunting him for what felt like ages.
But when they had finally, truly faced each other again after that long separation, he felt as if all the air had been knocked out of him with just one glance at Inupi’s face. He’s hit full force with a year’s worth of suppressed loneliness and grief, and he hadn’t realized how much he had missed him until he saw him walking out of the school gates.
His hair had grown out and he was wearing his signature heels and Koko had missed the sight of Inupi so much he could feel a lump forming in his throat. He forcefully swallowed his emotions down and remembered to collect himself before he made his presence known.
“Leaving reform school in your gang uniform?” Koko said with an incredulous laugh. “As crazy as ever, I see.”
Inupi turned to look at him, and suddenly he didn’t know how he’d thought it possible to live a life without Inupi at his side.
As they made their way down the street, looking to get as far away as possible from the wretched school that had taken Inupi from him, he’d thought a lot about the situations that they’ve gotten themselves into over the years. The illegal things they have done to land them in this very state didn’t have to haunt them for the rest of their life. They’re still children—the fact that the government could force them into “reform schools” in a last-ditch effort to mold them into good citizens of the state was proof that they could maybe turn back now before they faced more dire consequences. Maybe, just maybe, he could save Inupi. And this time it wouldn’t be followed by a lingering guilt.
“Inupi,” he started, his voice shaking a little with how nervous he was at the prospect of speaking with Inupi again after a whole year of radio silence, “what if we stopped living in the past. We could forget about the Black Dragons. They were beaten and they’ve fallen apart. It’s over.”
He should have known that Inupi was strong and stubborn enough not to be swayed by reform school teachings the minute that he had walked out of the school gates proudly wearing his gang uniform.
“That’s fine,” Inupi said, finally turning his gaze upon him, “I’ll just revive the Black Dragons on my own.”
Maybe he should have tried harder to get Inupi to listen to him, but a part of him already knew just how entranced Inupi was with the Black Dragons and talking him out of it felt like it would be fighting a losing battle.
Instead, he made it his life’s mission to never turn his back on Inupi ever again.
“Got a plan?” Koko asked.
And then Koko made one of the biggest mistakes of his life.
“There’s this guy at my school…”
Koko isn’t religious. He has never been religious. But their old boss was. He and Inupi would accompany him to the church every Christmas Eve and watch as he gave worship to his God.
It was laughable—watching Taiju, a man who unrepentantly beat his little brother and sister bloody and blue, genuflecting before the Lord’s altar, the perfect picture of humility. He wonders if God favored Taiju for his unrelenting faith despite the fact that his knuckles were indefinitely stained red with the blood of his kin. And he wonders if it was divine retribution that led to Taiju’s death at the hands of the very kin he tormented. How did the scales of judgment tip up in that prophetic Heaven above—did Taiju’s devotion outweigh his sin? Could a man who put his family through such misery still be considered to have attained salvation through his faith?
In the end, for Koko, none of that really matters because he finds it hard to believe in the existence of some god in the first place, especially when the only thing keeping him alive by the skin of his teeth is himself (and on his worst days, Inupi). And he’s been through too much to accredit his own efforts to something as uncertain as divine intervention. But ironically, even in the years after Taiju’s death, he finds himself trudging through the desolate, snow-covered streets in the early hours of Christmas to pay his respects in Heaven’s earthly sanctuary.
He doesn’t really know what he goes there for. A multitude of things, probably, even if he doesn’t believe and knows he’s far beyond salvation. There have been many events that occurred in the past 20 years that have changed the course of his life, and Taiju’s death in this very church definitely stands out to him as one of many points of no return.
Most years, the church is completely desolate past 12 A.M. All the good, devoted little lambs of Christ are tucked in their beds at this time of night, when the forsaken run the streets. But today, a figure clad in pure white with a head of pale blond is occupying one of the pews, and Koko is convinced he must be high on something because he thinks he might be seeing things.
A faint glow of ember casts a halo of light upon the figure's face, illuminating a pair of pale eyes that Koko knows quite intimately. Not an angel, Koko concludes, but an ethereal being just the same.
“You’re religious?” Koko asks—or more like says —incredulously.
He hears an answering snort at his obviously rhetorical question, and sees Inupi lean on the backrest of the pew, letting his head fall back, giving face to the heavens as he parts his lips to exhale a plume of smoke.
It’s dark in the chapel, the only light source in the room being the few candles that are arranged on the advent wreath situated atop the altar and the faint slivers of moonlight filtering through the numerous stained glass windows. He might not believe in some higher being, but the very ethereality of the church commands heavy silence, and cradles them in a cache of intimacy.
His eyes trace the line of Inupi’s neck, the pale stretch of skin unmarked and unmarred. He looks consecrated and divine. Koko wants to kiss him.
“May I?” he asks, gesturing at the cigarette hanging between Inupi’s lips. He watches the rise of Inupi’s chest as he inhales deeply, filling his lungs full of sweet poison, and sees him take the cigarette between two slender fingers and hold it out to him.
He bypasses the cigarette and takes that thin-boned wrist in his hand and slots his mouth over Inupi’s, lips hovering just millimeters away from Inupi’s own—so close, yet so far. He’s tempted to close the distance, but the memory of Inupi turning away from him and curling in on himself in his bed stops him cold. Inupi doesn’t love him; Koko knows that this is as close as he can dare to get.
He trails his free hand up to cradle Inupi’s face, and feels him freeze under his touch for a split second before melting against him, as he always does. He lets out a soft exhale, and Koko feels the residual smoke flow from Inupi’s mouth into his. He takes it all in before pressing a soft kiss at the corner of Inupi’s jaw, following it down the length of his neck, eager to mark that soft expanse of unblemished skin. He thinks maybe it’s been engraved into his very soul over these past many years of debauchery—the debased urge to take something beautiful and untouchable and twist and mangle it into something that resembles himself.
It’s sinful—the feel of Inupi’s fingertips tracing the line of his neck, the taste of Inupi on his tongue—but something about their depravity has always felt sacred to him.
He climbs over the back of the pew to situate himself on Inupi’s lap, and his hands make their way under Inupi’s clothes, greedily mapping out soft skin. His teeth find purchase on a patch of skin just below Inupi’s ear, where he knows he’s particularly sensitive. He feels a sharp exhale of breath and hears a soft moan sneak past Inupi’s lips. His hands quickly slide down to Inupi’s belt, practiced, dexterous hands moving on their own, before he feels a firm grip on both of his wrists, stopping them in their place.
“In a church,” Inupi says, pulling back to level him with a deadpan look. “Really?”
“Thought you weren’t religious,” Koko smirks back at him. He feels the corners of his mouth dip into something soft as he relishes in the short bark of laughter that elicits out of Inupi.
“I think the old boss would be turning in his grave if he could see us now, defiling his church,” Inupi laughs, shooting him a rare grin. “Good riddance to him.”
“Ugh, don’t mention him now. Way to ruin the mood,” Koko groans, scrunching his nose up in distaste and readjusting himself so that he could sit by Inupi on the pew. “And here I was about to ask you out to a shitty Christmas dinner at the local KFC.”
“How romantic,” Inupi rolls his eyes. His eyes fall upon the glow of the advent candles, two lonely, flickering flames in the dark, persevering against the biting chill of Tokyo December. In some metaphoric way, they kind of remind Koko of them—two souls walking down the dimly lit road of no salvation; and at first they might look a little lonely, maybe even pitiful, but can two souls isolated from the rest of the world truly be considered lonely as long as they have each other?
“It’s Christmas,” Inupi muses, playing with the lighter in his hand. “Should we light the third?”
“After you,” Koko says, sliding out of the pew and gesturing towards the altar.
The church walls echo the click of Inupi’s heels on the intricate tiling of the aisleway. Koko follows noiselessly behind him as he makes his way up the stairs of the altar and lights the third and only rose-pink candle with his much-too-expensive Dupont lighter. Koko had gifted it to him himself on a Christmas evening a few years back.
“Merry Christmas, Koko,” Inupi says into the dark of the church. “We’ve made it another year.”
Inupi’s been making more of these darker insinuations lately. They started off as jokes that made sense at first, given their precarious occupations, but the more frequent they became, the more he wished he could dispel the emptiness in Inupi’s eyes. He thinks he knows where that emptiness comes from; he fills that hole himself with violence and extortion and money. But while he had chosen this path for himself (even if it was in his most desperate moment), he thinks maybe Inupi was entranced into it by promises of found family and belonging at a time when he had lost everything. But over time the corruption started seeping in, and by the time he’d realized that his foot had crossed the line, it was too late.
“So, Christmas dinner?” he asks in an attempt to lift the mood. He’s been doing that a lot more often, he finds, faking smiles and faking normalcy to keep them both from falling off the deep end. Because even if Inupi were to slip, he’d be damned if he didn’t follow him down to hell, just to be with him.
He holds out a hand to Inupi who has yet to come down from the altar.
“We’re not lovers,” Inupi says, taking his hand nonetheless.
“Could’ve fooled me,” Koko shrugs with false bravado, putting on an air of what he hoped looked like indifference.
“We can get KFC tomorrow,” Inupi says, lightly tugging on Koko’s hand and leading them both to the grand double doors of the church. Koko can feel his signature shit-eating grin on his face, but this time, as he holds Inupi’s hand in his and relishes in his warmth, he finds that his smile is genuine.
They share a bucket of chicken later that day, and he pretends not to see the distant longing in Inupi’s eyes that he knows probably reflects his own. They both know it’s useless to think of what-if’s and could-have-been’s at this point in their lives where their blood families have either died or abandoned them to the mercies of an unforgiving world.
In the end, family to them is just this: Koko and Inupi; Inupi and Koko. And for Koko, that’s enough.
Tenderness and care are luxuries that they’ve both been robbed of at an early age. Koko doesn’t remember the last time anyone had really treated him tenderly. It’s been many, many years since he’s last seen his parents. They’d never been particularly attentive, and he doesn’t think they ever really noticed that he wasn’t coming home.
He doesn’t really know how to treat Inupi with care, either, but he finds he wants to try. However, part of him feels like if he tried, he’d be crossing some invisible line they drew themselves the minute this situationship started. It was an unspoken rule they both knew to abide by to keep their fragile balance from tipping over—don’t care more than you have to.
But Inupi hasn’t been sleeping much and he’s been extra distant lately, and it’s been getting harder for Koko to pretend he doesn’t notice.
Inupi misses Akane a little extra during the holiday seasons. He’ll never admit it out loud, but Koko can see it in the way he retreats into himself and shuts the world out for a couple days. He distances himself from his Toman duties and spends his days loitering in his own apartment. It’s one of the rarer times where Koko is the one inviting himself to Inupi’s apartment to make sure that he’s not neglecting his health.
Inupi’s apartment is just as nice as Koko’s—Toman money could buy them the world if they so wanted to. But while Koko decorates his apartment with expensive furniture and high-end decor, Inupi leaves his apartment barren. It’s like he barely lives there. His apartment feels so empty all the time, probably because the only furniture in it is a small couch and bed that are dwarfed by the sheer size of the apartment.
He knows that even now, Inupi still longs for the return of the golden age of the Black Dragons. He’ll make several off-hand comments about it sometimes. He’d miss their hide-out, as run-down as that old garage was. He’d miss the taste of cheap instant ramen and pilfered convenience store food.
It’s been over a decade since he told Inupi to forget about the past, yet here they are at 28, still bound by it.
He still thinks of Akane often. He finds that the pain never really goes away; 17 years have passed and he still remembers her bubbly laugh, her soft smile, and her kind eyes. He also finds that the guilt stays too; he’s 28 now and can’t seem to forget the way he had once wished he’d saved her instead, and even now he’s still too afraid to find out what ramifications that had on Inupi himself.
Koko’s a reasonable adult now, and the wisdom that comes with growing up and experiencing adulthood has gradually led him to the realization that Akane probably never loved him the way he thought he loved her.
She used to be his world back then, but now he laughs thinking about it—how distant 16 is from 11.
At 11 he was following Inui Akane around like a love struck puppy, and the extent of the problems that plagued his mind started with wondering what it would be like to hold her hand, and ended with wondering what would happen if he were bold enough to maybe even sneak a kiss on her lips—all things so laughably innocent. At 16 he was witnessing his first murder, the first of many, and he was fooling around for the first time with Inupi on the old, rundown couch of a deserted motorcycle garage. It’s a wonder, how much of a distance 5 years makes in the most formative years.
If he were Akane—an 11 year old on his tail mooning over him with bright and hopeful eyes—he thinks he’d find the intentions of such a young, impressionable child unsubstantial. Akane was always a lovely person, and she probably played along with his delusions out of the kindness of her heart, completely unaware of just how gripping and haunting this young love could be to someone as obsessively dedicated as Koko.
He laments the fact that Akane never really knew who he was, but he’s glad her memory of him would forever remain untainted; he’d be preserved in her memory as the studious and devoted Koko, and she never had to live to see what he had become. A swindler. A bitch to one of the biggest crime syndicates in Tokyo. A degenerate, he thinks as he traces the indentations of his own teeth embossed on Inupi’s shoulder.
He feels Inupi stir from his sleep and burrow himself further in his blankets.
“It’s fucking cold,” Inupi groans, his voice slurred with sleep. It’s cute, and Koko can’t help but gather him in his arms and pull him flush against himself, tangling their legs in the sheets to preserve their warmth.
Just as they had gotten comfortable again and were on the verge of falling back asleep, the shrill ringtone of Inupi’s phone has them both getting out of bed.
“Who is it?” he asks as he makes his way to the bathroom to freshen up.
“Kisaki,” Inupi answers, the distaste abundantly clear in his voice. Koko’s heart freezes and he can feel the panic settling in. “I hate talking to him but I should probably pick up before he decides to get rid of me too.”
“Don’t say that,” Koko says, “he wouldn’t dare.”
Inupi doesn’t bother to answer him and walks into the living room to take the call.
The worst part about it was that Koko knew that Kisaki would dare. In a heartbeat, even. Kisaki and Mikey both treat Koko like the brains of Toman, the one who held the knowledge that kept Toman running and rich with money, but he knows that the real brains behind Toman is Kisaki. If he thought himself twisted and vile, Kisaki was a thousand times more ruthless and calculating than he could ever be. And the fact that he was currently on the phone with Inupi has panic coursing through his veins.
He’s still half-dressed and distressed when Inupi walks into the bathroom and starts freshening up as if nothing happened.
“What did he want?” Koko asks.
“Some people are causing trouble for Toman and he wants me to get rid of them,” he replies nonchalantly.
Inupi just shrugs.
“Let me do it for you, just this once,” Koko says, following Inupi out the bathroom and into his closet as he starts to dress himself.
“And let him think that I’ve turned traitor?” Inupi scoffs. “Unlike you, Koko, I’m not indispensable.”
“What does that mean?”
“You’re useful, there’s no one in the world like you. But anyone could take my place, I’m easily replaceable,” Inupi says as he shrugs on his suit jacket and adjusts his tie. “That’s what it means.”
Koko opens his mouth to protest Inupi’s expendability, but he knows Inupi is not completely wrong. But he thinks Kisaki is smart enough to know that Koko won’t do shit for them if they were to lay a finger on Inupi.
He’s starting to think that Inupi’s recent behavior has a little less to do with Akane after all.
“Has he been asking this of you often lately?” he questions. He watches Inupi sigh as he unlocks his drawers and begins to arm himself with his knives and guns—weapons that he knows will be stained red with blood by the end of the day.
“It’s not like this is new to me. I can handle myself.”
“Who has he been calling hits on lately?” He sees Inupi’s jaw tighten and he knows something is wrong. “Inupi, you know I’m not going to snitch on you for telling me.”
“It’s none of your business Koko. It’s better if you don’t know.”
“It is my business if it has you this distressed.”
Inupi turns his gaze on him as he finishes loading his back-up gun. He returns it to its holster as he says, “They’re Toman members. The last few batches that he’s called hits on were all Toman members.”
“That’s not new,” Koko shrugs as he pulls on one of Inupi’s sweaters. “Kisaki’s known for frequently cleaning house.”
“Hm? He’s been missing for a while, hasn’t he? What about him?”
“One of the last hits he called was on Mitsuya Takashi.”
Koko’s stunned into silence. There had always been tension between the newer members of Toman, the ones that had been absorbed into Toman from the Black Dragons, and the older members of Toman, so he and Inupi had never really gotten along with Mitsuya. But Kisaki having the audacity to call a hit on one of the founding members of Toman speaks volumes of the level of power he holds.
“He’s been calling more and more hits on inner circle members,” Inupi continues, “and they may not be executives like Mitsuya but they’re still people who have been in Toman long enough to have a decent amount of loyalty to the gang. I don’t think anyone even knows why Mitsuya had to be taken out, especially if they’re upholding the lie that he’s missing.”
He’s now fully dressed and fully armed, pulling his boots on as he stands by the door.
“It makes you wonder if you’ll be next.”
Koko is at a loss for words as Inupi walks out the door, and he can only watch helplessly as it slams closed behind him.
Inupi comes home that night and his clothes are soaked with blood. There’s blood all over his fitted suit and white dress shirt and there’s even some matted in his hair, too.
“They put up a fight,” Inupi explains. He must have seen the terror in Koko’s eyes.
The sight had almost brought Koko’s heart to a standstill, because at first he thought it was Inupi’s blood. But Inupi is walking just fine and a quick scan of his body shows that there are no signs of broken bones. He fusses over Inupi and scolds him half-heartedly about bringing home evidence that could link them to the crime scene, even though he knows that any police troubles could easily be covered up with a wad of cash and they’re all experienced enough to know how to clean up after themselves so that there was no crime scene to link the most incriminating evidence to.
They’re not new to murder. They’ve been doing it for years and years, but they’re not unfeeling. It helps that they have little to no sympathy for the concept of family, and they’ve learned to block out the thoughts of loved ones left behind. But still, they’re human. And watching life diminish from the eyes of countless other people is a jarring reminder of the transience of human vitality.
He hates how empty Inupi is after these jobs; it’s like his soul is hundreds of miles away and some puppeteer is maneuvering his stiff body. And it always takes a while for him to find his way back to himself.
He’s gathering Inupi’s soiled clothes as Inupi’s getting out of the shower and he’s wondering whether he should try to salvage them or throw them out when he sees, in the corner of his eye, Inupi grabbing a large pair of scissors from one of the drawers and for a split second Koko’s world stops spinning because he assumes the worst.
“I’m cutting it,” Inupi says resolutely as his free hand tugs on his long hair. He’s holding Koko’s gaze in the mirror, the ice blue of his eyes frigid with a hint of defiance. It’s arresting, even if he feels as if Inupi’s gouging him inside out with his gaze, willing him to cough out his heart and lay it bare on the table. His heart is halfway there, in his throat, before he is able to look away and remember to swallow it back down.
“Okay,” he says flippantly, turning to make his way out of the doorway of the bathroom before he can say or do something stupid. He can feel Inupi’s gaze piercing him even though he’s no longer looking at him, and something is telling him that there’s more to this that he’s missing. But the gears in his mind have frozen over and all he can think about is the cold terror he had felt when he had seen those scissors in Inupi’s hands. It happens too often for it not to be something that haunts the forefront of his mind in moments like these. He remembers too vividly all the people—boys—he knew so many years ago, who decided they couldn’t take it anymore.
He decides to throw out Inupi’s clothes since they seemed soiled beyond repair. Money had never been much of a problem anyway; it would be easy for him to go and buy Inupi a new set.
When he returns to the bathroom just minutes later, there’s a razor in Inupi’s hands and he’s shorn the majority of his hair.
It’s a different look on Inupi. In the past many years, Inupi had rarely cut his hair short. His hair had always been quite long, and it was a shock to see him with such short hair. He had always thought that long hair was something that made people pretty. He had liked Akane’s long hair. And he’d thought that Inupi’s long hair was one primary factor that made him look so pretty, but now he sees that Inupi looks strikingly beautiful even without it.
“Koko,” Inupi says, catching his gaze once again in the mirror, “remember that time? With the mirror?”
He instantly knows exactly what Inupi’s talking about. Inupi hasn’t asked anything of the sort of him since, so he’d thought it was a one time thing. Which was a shame, really, because it’s all he can think about in his most obscene dreams—Inupi’s face in the mirror, wrecked and wanting.
He feels hot just thinking about it.
“Mhm,” he answers carefully, “what about it?”
“Did you like it?” Inupi questions.
“Yes,” he answers, a little too breathlessly.
If Inupi detects the desperation in his voice, he doesn’t comment on it.
“Wanna do it again?”
Koko wastes no time in undoing the buckle of his belt and taking the towel that’s wrapped around Inupi’s waist and discarding it carelessly. He has a hand feeling its way up Inupi’s chest and a finger working him open when he’s surprised with the rare sound of Inupi’s laughter.
He raises his head to take a peak at Inupi’s face in the mirror, and he’s so in awe that he almost completely stops what he’s doing.
Inupi has his eyes trained on him and he has the smallest of smiles on his face. He’s suddenly struck with the realization that he doesn’t think he’s seen Inupi smile when they’re doing this, ever.
He takes the chance to bring Inupi’s head closer to his, and he leans in slowly, giving Inupi the chance to back away if he wants to. But to his surprise, Inupi closes the gap and captures his lips in a sweet kiss, one that has him melting and his heart feeling so full he thinks it could burst.
When he pulls away, he looks Inupi in the eyes and says, “Inupi, I—”
He clamps his mouth shut. I love you, he wants to say, but the words have lodged themselves in his throat and suddenly he can’t breathe. The realization hits him harder than any punch that has ever been thrown at him, but he also feels a wave of self-loathing wash over him because it feels like this is something he should have known long ago. He wants Inupi to look at him like that every day, with that soft, genuine smile on his face and laughter in his eyes. He’s learned not to wish for things from the world, but if he could wish for one thing, this was all he wanted in life: Inupi, happy and carefree.
He almost says the words, but it feels disingenuous to do so in the midst of sex. And they’re friends. Friends who more than occasionally use each other for sexual gratification, but still just friends.
“You what?” Inupi whispers back.
He’s thrown back to the last time they did this and how Inupi had refused to kiss him that night, and he knows he could be ruining something sacred if he lets those words slip past his lips. If living with this secret burdening his heart meant he could have Inupi like this for even just a day more, he’ll take it to his grave.
He closes his eyes and says, “I think you’re beautiful,” before running his free hand through Inupi’s newly trimmed hair.
He hears Inupi snort and suddenly those lips are on his again, and he knows to savor this because kisses from Inupi are precious and they’re few and far in between.
He feels Inupi pull back slightly from the kiss and rest his forehead against his. They’re so close that he can feel the brush of Inupi’s lips with every word he says.
“When you’re done with me, I don’t want to remember what happened today—I don’t even want to remember my name.”
It’s a request that Koko is more than willing to deliver.
It’s unlike any sex they’ve had before. It’s just as mind blowing and just as satisfying as always, but he had kissed Inupi’s lips as he laughed at how uncoordinated they were at making it to the bed, and when they were done and sated they had kissed until their lips felt numb and they had succumbed to sleep.
But when he wakes later in the night, Inupi has his back to him and he can see his body shaking with a minute tremor as he tries and fails to muffle his crying, and he wonders where he went horribly wrong.
On his darker days, Koko likes to imagine what it would have been like if he’d actually saved Akane from the fire. Would he still be here today? Would he have ruined himself trying to scrounge up 40 million yen out of nothing, only to lose him to Death in the end?
Yeah, he probably would have.
Whenever he tried to imagine what life without Inupi would be like, his mind could only come up with this: seedy, underground clubs; rundown, desolate motels; a cold, lonely bed and an even colder and lonelier him.
In conclusion: he’d end up here, regardless.
He’s not oblivious to the way that the moral, upstanding citizens speak of delinquents. He’s heard what they’ve whispered about them on the streets. His old secondary school teachers would whisper about him and Inupi constantly—how they were poor, lost souls in need of better discipline and judgment. Because if they had just a little more of both, they’d know to leave the gang life.
But what many of the adults don’t know is the feeling of being so young and so afraid, they’d turn to the unspeakable if it meant they could regain some semblance of control over their life. And once they’ve had a taste of some fickle autonomy, it was like a drug that continuously beckoned them back, only to leave them high and dry in the end.
But Koko always knew how to play his cards right. He knew what was best to bet his cards on, and what was best to let go. And as long as the money kept coming in, nothing could go wrong in his life. The rich and stupid would claim that money isn’t happiness, but the smart ones know that there was rarely a problem money couldn’t solve.
The adults in his life had always warned him that he’d eventually regret where he'd end up. But Koko’s long discarded the very notion of regret. For every problem he comes across, he can buy a solution. For every shitty card life deals him, he’ll somehow play it to his advantage.
But Inupi has always been a wildcard in these situations—too priceless to be bought, and too precious, too volatile to manipulate.
He hasn’t seen Inupi in days. His absence has Koko antsy, especially considering the circumstances in which they parted last. When he woke up that morning, the bed was cold and Inupi had already fucked off to who knows where. If he could, he would have stayed the day in Inupi’s apartment in hopes of catching him as he was coming back from his work, but even Toman executives had to put up a front of normalcy, and his IT cover business has been in hot water lately and it wasn’t going to fix itself.
Toman has been a discombobulated mess the past week with the recent betrayal of his IT business from within the inner circle. But even through his righteous irritation, he can’t bring himself to feel any sort of vindication from the slew of deaths that followed. Hanagaki Takemichi. Matsuno Chifuyu. Hayashida Haruki. Hayashi Ryohei.
It makes you wonder if you’ll be next.
He itches to find Inupi, to make sure he’s okay, but knows that Inupi probably needs his space, especially considering what he witnessed that night. And he respects Inupi enough to leave him alone for a while, no matter how much he wants to break their silence and make sure that he’s alright—to make sure that they’re alright.
Days without Inupi are long and cumbersome. He misses the adrenaline rush of being accosted at their front door. He misses the dumb conversations and laughter over the shitty takeout they’d eat at their fancy dinner table. He wonders when he started thinking of his apartment as theirs, but it only feels right considering how empty and lonely it feels without Inupi in it.
Koko isn’t paying too much attention when he opens his front door, tired from just half a day of fixing the mess Kisaki had wreaked on Toman, and he almost completely misses the fact that his bedroom lights are on. He’s careful enough with the electricity bill to know that he always turns the lights off before he leaves.
His hand reflexively falls upon the gun he has on him at all times and he carefully peaks into the room. There’s a shuffling sound coming from the walk-in closet, and in the brief moment it takes for him to cross the room to reach the closet, he wonders what the hell he would do with a home intruder in the first place. He doesn’t want to kill them and stain his closet floor. It’d be so much easier if Inupi were here; he was always the better one out of the two of them when it came to subduing difficult people.
“You’re home early,” a voice says from within the closet.
He knows that voice very well. “You really need to stop doing that,” Koko sighs, feeling all the built-up tension melt off his bones. “I thought I was going to have to knock someone out.”
He can hear Inupi’s short bark of laughter from within the closet. Koko settles for leaning against the doorframe, watching Inupi rummage through his things.
“Wasn’t expecting you to come over today,” Koko says.
“Wasn’t expecting to bump into you today,” he replies. Then Koko notices the duffle bag.
“What are you doing?” Koko frowns, walking over to inspect the bag.
“Leaving?” Koko asks, concerned. “Leaving where?”
He knows the past few weeks have been tumultuous for Toman, and Koko’s watched the situation drive many to their wit’s end. He wouldn’t be surprised if Inupi’s finally snapped, but it would be fatal to jump ship now, when the upper echelon has shown signs of being a little too trigger-happy.
“Calm down. I’m just moving my things out of your apartment.”
“But why?” Koko asks, puzzled. “You’re just going to end up leaving things here anyway.”
He hears Inupi let out a long, drawn-out sigh. “That’s the problem.”
“If you’re worried about making a mess of the place, when have I ever given a shit about that stuff? This place is practically as much yours as it is mine,” he says. He hopes it comes off as blasé, despite the fact that his heart is beating a mile a minute in his chest. It’s scarier than anything he’s experienced before—scarier than a baseball bat to his skull, scarier than a knife to his pulse point. It’s terrifying how full of want he is, when he’s long since programmed his mind to give up on the very notion of hope. It’s a risk, he knows, but he takes a breath and makes the leap, “Maybe you should just move in.”
He watches as Inupi freezes in place, shock and disbelief plain as day on his face. He should have known better than to wish for something of the world.
“You really don’t think before you speak, do you?” Inupi’s voice comes out too even. Too placid. It makes his blood run cold.
“Me?” Koko scoffs, trying to regain his sense of balance after feeling so thoroughly winded by rejection. He feels a little like a wounded animal, spitting harsher words as a defense mechanism for his wounded heart. “Have you heard the words that come out of your mouth?”
Inupi shoves a shirt of his into his duffle with more force than necessary. He finally stands and turns around to face Koko properly for the first time in days.
“You’re stupider than you think you are, Koko.”
He can feel the sting of rejection rapidly turning into anger and frustration with every nonsensical word that comes out of Inupi’s mouth. But self-awareness has never been enough to rein his temper in the rare times it flared. Inupi has always been stupidly blunt and honest, and now he’s being so stubbornly tight-lipped, it’s driving Koko up a wall.
“I don’t understand you. At all.” His words come out clipped and biting.
“Have you ever?”
Inupi’s gaze is cold and unnervingly expectant, as if he were trying to get a rise out of him. And it’s working—the combination of hurt and confusion all coming together in one ugly amalgamation of bitter fury. Koko has always prided himself for being decent at donning different masks on different occasions, whether it be trying to coax a deal out of a potential client or trying to feign nonchalance when he can see things going sour. But Inupi has always had a talent for provocation—it’s gotten him into many brawls over the many years.
His mouth is a terror even Koko isn’t immune to.
“What does that mean?” he asks, exasperatedly. “I’d like to think I do, considering the fact that it’s been us, always, for years. Decades.”
The storm of anger that had taken over Koko’s mind settled minutely at that name. It’s been so long since he’s heard that name come out of Inupi’s mouth.
“What?” His voice comes out as little more than a weak whisper.
“You and me. And Akane.”
Koko feels all the bitter anger and frustration settle abruptly. “Is this about Akane?” he asks softly. “Do you miss her? We can visit her tomorrow if you’d like.”
To his surprise, Inupi’s face twists into a grimace and for a second he thinks he’s going to cry. “You’re cruel, Koko,” his voice is broken at the edges, and Koko’s afraid if touching him will cause him to splinter into pieces, “So cruel.”
“What is this about, Inupi? Can’t you just talk to me?” he pleads, desperate for some clarity—some way to patch this mess back together. “What the fuck did I do?”
He sees Inupi turning away from him, ready to brush him off, but he catches Inupi’s wrist in a tight grip in an attempt to keep him from walking away from this conversation.
“Is this about last week?”
Inupi wrestles his arm out of Koko’s grip and immediately puts some distance between them, as if it burned to be anywhere near him. He knows Inupi well enough to notice the constant shifting of his eyes and the tension in his figure that kept him rooted in place. He tries to ignore the very physical ache the sight of Inupi’s aversion to him inflicts on him.
Inupi doesn’t have to say anything. He knows.
Koko takes a deep breath—they’re really talking about this. “You’re mad at me—”
“I’m not,” Inupi interrupts abruptly.
“Then what, Inupi? You can at least tell me what happened.”
Inupi is silent for a bit, opting for fixing his gaze on the rows of clothes that lined the closet racks. “You kissed me,” he says, finally.
“You kissed me back,” Koko rebuts, his voice strained.
“I told you to fuck me in front of a mirror to force you to look at my face,” Inupi says, his voice steadily rising in pitch. “I cut off all of my hair so that I’d maybe look less like her and you’d realize that I’m not her. And yet you still…”
Inupi’s words still aren’t fitting into place, but Koko’s already spiraling with how sick he feels just thinking about taking something from Inupi against his will.
“I know that in those moments, in your eyes I am Akane. And you love her,” Inupi says, his words dripping with poison and regret. “It’s different, when we kiss then. ”
“That’s a bold accusation you’re making there.” The puzzle pieces are starting to fall in place, and Koko can’t help the anger that wells up in him for being so baselessly accused of using Inupi’s body for the most insincere intentions.
“Don’t fucking lie to me Koko. You can continue to lie to yourself, but not to me.” He hates how familiar the sting is, being flung words of acid.
“If you’re so righteous in upholding Akane’s words, then let me ask you this: who do you see when you’re kissing me?”
Inupi is as still and silent as stone, but Koko can see the slight tremor that has overtaken his body.
“Who do you fucking think, Koko?” His voice comes out in a harsh, pained whisper.
“I don’t fucking know, Inupi. I really don’t.”
In all their years together from Black Dragons to Toman, he has never seen Inupi speak with anything more than detachment with another. It had been them, always. Koko and Inupi; Inupi and Koko. Two halves of one whole since childhood, since the fire, since the aftermath. It’s driving him mad, thinking of Inupi in another’s bed—thinking of Inupi in his bed, seeing some other person in his place—touching him, kissing him, loving him. It’s hypocritical, he knows, but the blood in his veins boils at the thought of their moments that he held so sacred being defiled by the ghost of another.
“You,” Inupi whispers, so soft that he could barely hear.
“You close your eyes and you see my sister. And I see you. Only you. Always.”
He’s stunned speechless. The world has stopped spinning for him only, and he stands there dumbly, unseeing and unhearing, as Inupi turns away from him and continues gathering whatever he has left in his apartment.
“Don’t,” Inupi says sharply, looking away from him. “Don’t give me your pity. I don’t want it.”
He doesn’t know how long he was disengaged from the world, but when he comes back to himself, Inupi is standing a ways from him, his duffle in hand.
“I can’t stay here anymore,” he says, his white-knuckled grip tightening on the strap of his bag. “Goodbye, Koko. Thank you for everything.”
Faster than Koko can react, Inupi has pushed past his frozen figure by the closet door and is making his way out his bedroom. And when he finally recovers his reflexes, he sprints out of the room and finds Inupi halfway to opening his apartment door and walking out of his life and he grasps and scrambles for something, anything, that will convince him to stay.
He settles for the truth.
“I love you, Inupi.”
The words fall from his lips unprompted. Some instinctual part of him feels like if he doesn’t say it now, he’ll never be able to.
“Don’t—“ Inupi’s voice is broken and raw; Koko just wants to hold him tight and hope that’s enough to piece him back together. “Please don’t lie to me like this Koko. Not you, please.”
“I love you.”
“No you don’t.”
“No. No.” Inupi is shaking his head, as if hearing those words directed towards him is incomprehensible.
“You don’t speak for me Inupi. I do,” he says, as firmly and sincerely as possible. “And I’m telling you that I love you.”
“You’re lying to me,” Inupi says, turning around to face him once more. His eyes are red-rimmed and he looks more broken than Koko has ever seen him.
“When have I ever lied to you?” Koko asks, desperate to get his words through to Inupi before they end up unsalvageable. “Even in our worst times, I told it to you straight. You can’t deny me that.”
“Then what about Akane?” Inupi asks. “You loved her. You told her you wanted to marry her—that you’d spend years and years waiting for her. She said she’d wait for you too.”
“We were children back then, don’t you think I’d know better by now? Do you really think she’d actually wait for me to grow into an adult to be with me? Just saying it out loud now, as an adult, makes it sound ridiculous. And she’s dead, Inupi,” Koko says; no matter how many years have passed since, it’s something that is never painless to admit. “I haven’t spent the last 20 years stuck in the past, waiting on a ghost. Was Akane there to patch up my wounds after my first deal-gone-wrong? Was Akane the one who stayed up with me on multiple nights when the fear of retribution made it too unbearable to sleep at night? No, no she wasn’t.”
“She would have done the same if she were here.” He feels as if the danger is over when Inupi releases his hold on the doorknob and slumps against the door. “If only you had saved her and left me to die.”
“No,” Koko admits immediately, “I don’t think she would have.”
“I don’t think you’d even be in this fucked up situation if she were here,” Inupi argues. “All of this money—this obsession of yours—all of it is for her. If I were the one who died that day, you wouldn’t be here.”
“I would be. And Akane would have tried to stop me the minute I went off the deep end trying to sell my soul to bring you back. And when she’d eventually realize she can’t save me, she’d leave me. You and I both know that she wouldn’t be so happy to see us like this.”
“You can spin as many stories as you want about what you would do if things were different, but don’t take me for a fool, Koko. I know that it wasn't me you wanted to save in the first place.” It pains him to hear Inupi’s voice so full of hurt—hurt that he knows very well he inflicted himself with his stupid mistakes from so many years ago.
“I know you know,” Koko whispers. He feels like if he spoke any louder, he’d break. “I know, and it’s taken me 20 years to say this but I’m sorry. I’m sorry I hurt you for so long, letting you think I saw someone else in place of you. I wish I had never for a second wished for her in your place, because she’d never be you .
“I was stupid and foolish to think that I would want her over you. I miss her dearly now, too, as I know you do. She was the only one in this world who was gentle and kind to us, and I clung to that. But the one I love is you . You, who would be there for me at my worst. You, who went through hell and more with me, and never left no matter how bad it got. I’m grown up enough now to know delusion and fancy from love, and I liked how kind Akane was, but I love you. And I don’t think I can even imagine living a life without you. I don’t want to, so please. Don’t leave.”
There are tears streaming down his cheeks, and he can’t remember the last time he was so vulnerable in front of someone—even Inupi.
The next few seconds of silence are akin to torture. He watches with bated breath as Inupi straightens up from his position at the door, and for a split second he’s terrified that he’s just going to turn around and leave him stranded and wanting at his own foyer.
But then Inupi crosses the short distance between them and pulls Koko into an embrace, burying his face in the lapels of his coat. He can feel Inupi shaking, and he is quick to wrap his arms around him and rub small, comforting circles into Inupi’s back.
“I was scared,” Inupi admits; he somehow sounds so much more composed than Koko even though there are identical tear tracks that stain his cheeks. “Every other day I could separate how I felt about you from what we were doing with each other, but that day it felt too real. It felt too much like you really loved me. I was so, irrevocably happy, and that scared me.”
“I want to make you that happy, every day.”
He likes the sound of Inupi’s laughter through wet tears, like the sun breaking through the clouds after the most harrowing of storms, or the rainbow in the sky that signaled the end of 40 days and 40 nights of rain and flood. A reminder that though there may be times where they’ll break and fall apart—maybe for days, maybe for months, and maybe even for years and years—nothing in the world can keep them from coming back together.
In a life where they stay together through years of trudging through hell hand in hand, it takes 20 years for them to understand each other, and one night for them to fall apart. But in the end, in this lifetime and the next, there’s always the hope that they’ll eventually, inevitably find their way back to each other.