The yakuza must’ve known to take Takakura Kanba seriously. Yet they sent only one person - one kid - to complete the deal. Kanba stared at the boy waiting under the bridge. One of the boy's eyes was obscured by blue bangs, and the other eye was puffy enough to cast a shadow larger than itself. That was the face of a gamer who never followed through on their promise to turn off the console before midnight, not a yakuza. What the hell is someone your age doing in this business?, Kanba wanted to ask. At least Kanba had good reasons for resurrecting the Kiga Group. The other kid was just a lackey.
The yakuza contact named Chikai must’ve sensed Kanba’s inexperience over the phone, and thought Kanba might be more amenable to negotiating with someone his age.
“Don’t patronise me…” he hissed, as if Chikai was listening. But the metal briefcase he was carrying brushed his hip, the jolt reminding him of what he was here for, melting his bravado into the winter air along with his breath. Blood swilled inside his head, pulsing in time with his heartbeat. Every part of his body either felt sore or numb. Timely reminders that no matter his heritage, Kanba was just a playboy in a middling school; too straight-laced to be playing footsies with the yakuza.
Kanba reached into his pocket to tousle a keepsake from Himari, a cheap rubber phone strap embossed with penguins. As he stroked it, his fear fizzled, and he blinked out the spiders shivering on the edges of his vision. This was the time to focus, for Himari's sake. After the deal was done, he’d take a nap on the train back home. All this overthinking was a product of exhaustion.
Upon noticing Kanba, the lackey tilted his head in greeting. Two metal briefcases of the same brand as Kanba’s dangled from his slender fingers. Kanba observed his posture and face for weaknesses, but the other boy remained unmoving, save to shove his free hand in the pocket of his black hoodie. He looked as if he’d done this sort of thing before. Once a week perhaps, as often as after-school club activities, if the delinquent attended them at all.
“Takakura-kun?” the yakuza asked in a flat voice, disinterest bouncing off the bridge’s stone walls.
“You better have the money.”
Kanba asked: “You got a name?”
“Lay the case on the ground, Kuji-kun.”
The yakuza rolled his eye, but he followed Kanba's instructions anyway, dumping both silver cases on the ground and opening them up.
One case contained eight black handguns, the other contained dozens of cartridges and bullets. Takakura’s lip curled at the sight. He stroked Himari’s phone strap again.
“Gonna test them?” Kuji’s drawl sounded anaemic. Screw doing this once a week, maybe he did this every day. Kanba cleared his throat to cover his silence.
“No need. I’m low on time.”
He mirrored Kuji's movement, opening the case to face his dealer.
“Payment. As promised.”
Kuji plucked one of the banknotes, and held it up to the moonlight.
“There’s no problem, is there?” Kanba snapped. Kuji shot him a withering look back. “Not yet.”
There was a problem. Five hundred thousand yen on such short notice was hard to get, and being an underpaid, spendthrift middle-schooler attempting to run a three-person household, the eldest Takakura had little saved up over the years. Even after draining Shouma’s account, and getting the Kiga members to scrounge up their own life savings, he could only make half the goal. Hence, the counterfeit bills buried in the bottom half of the case.
Kuji fished out an electronic money counter from his backpack, and began filtering the notes through it. He was still on one knee as the machine swallowed the bills, ten at a time.
Kanba made a show of rolling his eyes and shrugging to accentuate his annoyance, but he allowed his hand to drift into his other pants pocket. There, he grasped the handle of a kitchen knife he’d taken from home. He’d steeled himself, preparing to kill Kuji before he raised the alarm on the fake bills. He made a mental note to throw out the knife later. Sorry, Himari, Shouma. I didn’t want to dirty our house’s cutlery.
The light atop Kuji’s machine flashed red. As it did, Takakura swung his knife arm at Kuji’s neck-
Only to be deflected by Kuji’s own knife, longer and sharper than his. The shock caused both to drop their respective blades. Kuji lashed out with his foot, and the next Kanba knew, his rear was planted on the cool tiles of the footpath. He looked back up, only to see the yakuza boy snatch his blade off the ground and hold it centimetres from Kanba’s eyeball.
On second viewing, it was just a metal ruler.
“Idiot. Think nobody else has ever tried to rip off the yakuza? I know all the tactics people try. Anyone who dares, they end up the same way. Bound, gagged, drowned in the river or the bathtub. What the hell convinced you to try something like this out, huh?” Without moving his ruler away from Kanba’s eye, Kuji grabbed the case of money and flung it to the floor, the rest of the counterfeit notes fluttering to the ground in a mound of crumpled paper.
“Shit. These aren’t even good fakes.”
Kanba couldn’t stop his voice shaking as he blurted out his justification. “That’s all the money I have. Once the Kiga Group completes its objective, it won’t matter what you do to me. I don’t plan to live for much longer. But right now, I need the guns to save my sister.”
An anguished look crossed Kuji’s features, but there was a hint of understanding in that tired eye, too.
Sensing weakness, Kanba readied a fist and struck Kuji’s thigh. The delinquent gasped as his knee buckled, allowing Kanba to pivot on his hip, and swing his legs around to sweep Kuji off his feet.
“Bastard!” Kuji screamed as he fell on top of Kanba, who wrapped his forearms around Kuji’s neck, hugging him close enough that neither of them could escape. The ruler fell to the ground with a long clatter, vibrating along the tiles.
Before Kuji could get up, Kanba wrapped his legs around Kuji’s back, using their weight to drag his adversary back down. Their faces almost smashed together in the process, allowing Kanba to get a good look at the freckles crossing the other boy’s nose and cheeks. Kuji alternately strained and writhed in Kanba’s embrace. Just as Kanba felt his forearms begin to numb, Kuji let out a final groan and slumped forward, spent.
Kanba carelessly licked the sweat off his cracked lips, his tongue almost brushing Kuji’s blue hair. As they caught their breath, Kanba panted out in between gasps:
“You already know half of the money is good. I’ll take four guns and half the bullets. Deal?”
Kuji’s similarly exhausted voice was muffled by Kanba’s shoulder.
“The yakuza’s not a charity. I’m not bringing half of the payment back to Nii-san.”
“Please, Kuji-san. I’m begging you. My sister-”
Kanba shut his mouth. What was the point of begging to Kuji, a stranger, a yakuza? Those criminals had heard every excuse that could be given to them. Better to die with dignity than begging. He stared into Kuji's pitiless eyes. Then:
“I suppose we can compromise.”
Kanba's chest fell with relief. “You can take your revenge later," he sighed. "I’ll let you do it.”
Kuji didn't respond, but Kanba allowed his arms to slacken. Kuji shakily returned to his feet, his leg brushing against Kanba’s thigh in the process. Once he was certain Kuji wasn't going to attack, Kanba likewise jumped to his feet with a groan.
Scattered as the notes were, the lack of wind allowed them to gather the notes quickly. Once he had a bundle, Kanba held out his fistful of yen to Kuji. The other boy snatched the notes with a grunt, filtering the rest of the notes through the machine. After he was done, Kuji placed the machine - along with his ruler, half the weaponry, and the real notes - into his bag. The fake ones were left on the riverside, probably to end up as kindling for Asakusa’s homeless.
“Thanks for doing business.” Kanba held out his hand. “You fought well. In the end, I only won because I’m older than you.”
Kuji's soft hand grasped his own, pressing something cold into Kanba's palm. Now it was Kanba's turn to gasp and flinch. It was the flat side of his own kitchen knife. In all the commotion, he didn't realise that Kuji had picked it up.
“Nii-san says that to me sometimes. Good luck saving your sibling, Takakura-kun. And once you do, get out of this criminal business.” Kuji's mouth twitched upwards in the phantom of a smile, twisting his freckles. Then he clamped back down on the flicker of joy, resetting his face into an exaggerated grimace as he slouched away.
Gripping the blade between the tips of his fingers, Kanba wiggled the knife. Under the light of the moon and Asakusa's buildings, the blade appeared to bend and flex, catching the rays of light and scattering them across the underside of the bridge.
"You too, Kuji-kun,” he called out to Kuji’s back. He knew Kuji could hear him, but the other boy did not turn around.