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Prologue

in which protagonist #1 meets protagonist #2, and someone gets bludgeoned with a baseball bat.

Somehow, Michael knew that he would eventually meet his end at the hands of a Japanese street gang. Perhaps this was knowledge that came with living alone in the streets of Tokyo. Still, he’d thought that if he was to be raped and murdered in the alley behind the Suzuki Sushi Bar, the gang leader should at least have the consideration to be attractive. Apparently, the gods figured that doing the exact opposite would be rather entertaining.

“You’ve been hanging around here a lot, gaijin.” The ringleader, one Suzuki Takashi (incidentally, eldest son of the man who ran the sushi bar that Michael was about to die behind), leaned forward. Greasy strands of hair dyed a most unnatural hue of red fell out of the ridiculous pompadour that had gone out of style when cell phones were still the size of bricks. Takashi’s face twisted into a grisly facsimile of a grin, showing crooked yellow teeth. At least, Michael thought to himself, they draw attention away from the pockmarks. Christ, what a stereotypical Yakuza wannabe.

The smog was thick in the air that night. There were no stars. Michael missed stars.

“I don’t know, boss.” A generic backup thug, wide of chest and thin of brain, glanced around. “Maybe we should leave him alone. If those guys hear about this one, too—”

“They won’t give a fuck.” Closer, Michael could smell ginger and salmon on his breath now. “No one will give a fuck about what I do to you, will they, pretty little gaijin?” Takashi reached out and ran a finger down Michael’s jaw. Self-preservation kicked in, blue eyes darted everywhere. Thugs all around him, cold brick at his back, nowhere to go.

“I’d give a fuck.” He sounded bold and clever. He looked terrified. How could old man Suzuki have such a kid? He’d miss the free sushi. He’d never gotten to learn Korean.

It took a spray of blood across his face before Michael realized that his captor was being beaten with a baseball bat. The ring of toughs had dissolved, now frightened youths pressed against the unforgiving walls of the alleyway, eyes glued in the same direction. How many minutes had passed while Michael contemplated his then-to-be-imminent death? Takashi clutched his face as he lay curled on the ground, sobbing at the feet of his attacker.

Michael stood still, blinking, sure that he’d missed quite something important.

“I’m sorry, Kiyoshi-sama, I’m so sorry, please forgive—”

“Who gave you permission to use my given name, Suzuki?” The bat came down again and Michael winced when he heard the sickening crunch of ribs breaking. Takashi howled in pain.

“Tenshi-sama, please forgive me!” Takashi struggled to his knees. “I didn’t think you’d mind! It was only the area around the store, I thought—”

A foot came down, pushing Takashi back to the ground and grinding into the already broken ribs. Michael clapped his hands over his ears to block out the screams.

“Didn’t think I’d mind?” Another twist of the heel. “Didn’t think I’d mind you starting up your own gang in my territory? Didn’t think I’d mind you wilfully raping and killing people under my protection? Who the fuck do you think I am?”

Michael could smell blood and urine.

“Please, Tenshi-sama, I didn’t know the were under your—”

“Everyone in the district is under my protection. Even you, until about three fucking weeks ago.”

“Oh god, please, not the sword, I’ve learned my lesson!”

Ah,

Michael thought as the katakana was levelled at Takashi’s throat,

a crazy person who thinks he’s a ronin has escaped from the mental institution and is going on a crusade for justice. The world makes sense now.

“Hey, boss,” one of the men piped up, edging closer to the figure holding the sword, “he’s a rapist, remember?”

“You’re absolutely right.” The katakana wandered southwards. Takashi whimpered.

“Looks like he wet himself, boss.”

“So it seems. Get up,” to Takashi, “I don’t want to look at your pathetic face anymore.”

Takashi shook as he rose slowly to his feet, hand gingerly grasping his beaten side. “Yes, Tenshi-sama.”

“You’re no gang leader.”

“No, Tenshi-sama.”

“Don’t try to be one, then.”

“I won’t, Tenshi-sama.”

The bat appeared out of nowhere again. This time one of the ribs punctured a lung. Takashi wheezed and staggered into one of his former gang members, but he smiled. “Thank you for your mercy, Tenshi-sama.”

It was over. Takashi was leaving. Michael was alive. Confused as hell, yes, but alive and staring into the kneecaps of his saviour. Funny, he didn’t remember sitting down, but that would explain why he’d had such a good view of Takashi’s violent beating. The knees bent and the face came into view. Dark eyes, dark hair cut short and in a hopeless mess, bone structure that hinted at some Caucasian ancestry in a nearby branch of the family tree. He had a labret and two piercing in the cartilage of his left ear. Michael had always liked labrets.

“Are you okay?”

Several responses sprang to mind, none of which seemed appropriate to say to the man who just saved your life by beating someone senseless with a Louisville Slugger. “You sound surprisingly pleasant when you’re not kicking the crap out of someone,” was what ended up slipping out, which just goes to show how utterly inept Michael’s sense of judgement was at that point. It was probably a good thing, then, that the gang at large and the man kneeling in front of him in particular found the statement rather funny.

“He got you pegged, boss,” chuckled the youth who had spoke up earlier. Michael would later learn his name to be Katsuro, but at that point he was just ‘the-one-who-keeps-talking’.

“You shouldn’t be out here,” the man said, pointedly ignoring the-one-who-keeps-talking, “a few start-up gangs have sprung up in this area and we haven’t had time to root them all out yet.” He took in the long brown hair, the big eyes, the slender and frail-looking body. “You’re practically screaming ‘rape me and leave my body for carrion’, wandering around here at this time of night.”

“Where do you propose I go, then? The alley behind Yamada’s Grocery? Is that safer?” Okay, perhaps that was a little snarky, but Michael was getting very irritated and cranky at this point in the evening. He gestured mockingly towards the large backpack beside him. “There aren’t many places that’ll let you stay for free around here.”

The-one-who-keeps-talking (oh, for goodness sake, Katsuro) leaned down for a closer look. “You’re awfully pretty for a homeless kid, aren’t you?”

“Kid?! I must be at least as old as you are!”

“Now, now,” the ringleader sat back on his haunches, making soothing gestures, “he’s right. You must not have been out here very long, right?”

“Seven months,” Michael shot back, raising his chin. He’d done pretty well for himself in that time, damnit, and he didn’t need this random street gang to belittle him.

Kyoshi (That’s right, Michael remembered, he did have a name, didn’t he?) smiled, obviously placating. “Right, right, my mistake then.”

“Damn right, your mistake.” Either Michael didn’t care that he was being placated, or he didn’t notice. He wasn’t even sure which one it was at that point. “So, thanks for the help and all, but I’ve got things to do, trash bins to rummage through, boxes to sleep in, that sort of thing.”

“Don’t most boxes get recycled or incinerated?”

Michael rolled his eyes. “It’s a figure of speech, the-one-who-keeps-talking. Obviously I find something in the non-burnable trash to sleep in.”

“Katsuro.”

“Huh?”

“My name.”

“What about it?”

“It’s Katsuro.”

“You say that like I care.”

Kiyoshi held out his arm just in time to clothesline Katsuro as he lunged forward. “Cool it, he’s had a rough half hour or so.”

“Damn right I have.” He realized he was saying ‘damn right’ a lot, but it just sounded so cool in Japanese. “Every sense I have has been brutally violated tonight. Especially my eyes. Did you whack that guy with a fucking ugly stick before you found the bat?”

“No, but maybe I knocked a few of those crooked-ass teeth of his out, huh?” Kiyoshi was really smiling now. “Could be an improvement.”

Michael snorted. “You couldn’t have possibly made him look any worse.”

“Boss?”

“Right.” Kiyoshi stood up. “Someone take his bag.”

Michael made a noise of pure and utter confusion (it sounded something like ‘Buh?’, but more pathetic) as the completely random token black gang member materialized beside him and grabbed the battered backpack that held Michael’s entire travelling world. The man’s name was Kenji, his father was an African-American businessman who left Japan soon after knocking up Kenji’s mother, and he liked three cheese pizza. However, this has nothing to do with anything, and since he dies of a brain aneurism nine months after this particular incident we shall try not to get too attached to him. Back to Michael.

“What are you doing?! Is your gang doing so badly that you need to steal from the homeless?” The angry young foreigner tugged at his backpack, not really trying to get it away as Kenji scared the crap out of him. “Who do you think you are, asshole?”

“I think,” Kiyoshi replied, almost haughty, “that I’m the guy who’s going to give you a place to stay tonight.”

Michael paused. “Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“Well,” Michael shuffled his feet, “alright then.”

And that is how Michael Stokes, destitute gaijin on the streets of Tokyo, met Tenshi Kiyoshi, leader of the Street Phantoms and youngest son of the notorious Tenshi clan, most ruthless of the yakuza families.

Had any of the Street Phantoms possessed any knowledge of high fashion, one might have wondered why a down-and-out was wearing Gucci shoes.

Chapter One

in which Michael gets naked and does math, but not at the same time because that would be silly.

“We’ve been busy the last couple months,” Kiyoshi explained afterwards. “Usually we would have put an end to this kind of shit before it even got started.”

Michael rummaged around in his backpack for a toothbrush, which he would explain to anyone who asked was an absolute necessity no matter how poor you were. “And just what were you doing that was so much more important than protecting your turf from assholes like Takashi, hm?”

“Running narcotics for the yakuza.”

“Oh. Well. Alright then.” Deja vu. Michael withdrew his toothbrush with an internal gloat of triumph.

Kiyoshi attempted to raise an eyebrow, but he’d never quite gotten the hang of it and ended up raising both anyways. “What the hell is that?”

“Toothbrush, last time I checked.”

“I thought you were homeless.”

“No reason to have rotten teeth.” Michael looked around the apartment, of which he’d only seen the living room and entranceway thus far. “Mind if I use your bathroom?”

“Go ahead. You could probably use a bath.”

“You say that like I don’t sneak into public bath houses on a regular basis, but thanks.”

“Second door on the right. Where are you from?”

Michael raised an eyebrow (successfully, due to years of practice in front of his bedroom mirror). “That was random.”

“I like to know the nationalities of people who use my bathroom.”

“What about names?”

“Oh.” Kiyoshi rested his chin in his hand a la ‘the Thinker’. “I guess I never did get that, did I?”

Michael shook his head. “Michael,” he said, “an American. You might have heard of us. We like to blow shit up.”

“Oh, that America.”

Our #1 protagonist was starting to get uncomfortable. Friendly banter? Flirting? He never could tell in this country. “I’m going now,” he said, a little loudly and for no particular reason as he was already halfway to the bathroom. Kiyoshi shrugged and picked up a book that had been lying on the table, Hellsing by Kohta Hirano, which is actually less of a book and more of a comic but a good read nonetheless.

Michael decided to stop thinking about sexy vampires and just have a fucking bath already.

The bathroom, like the rest of the apartment, was spacious, functional, beautiful, and completely devoid of personality. Apparently being the leader of an infamous street gang left Tenshi Kiyoshi-san little time for gathering useless knickknacks and collecting cute aquatic bathroom accessories. “What a waste,” Michael muttered aloud, not too worried about anyone thinking he was crazy for talking to himself as there was no one to hear him speak, tree in the forest and all that, “a froggie soap dispenser would really pull the room together.” It wouldn’t really, but one can never have too many froggie soap dispensers and duckie-print towels at that age. The bathroom looked like it belonged to a successful salaryman in his late thirties instead of a gangster who hadn’t even hit twenty-five yet. Surely that said something about this strange man’s character; Michael just didn’t know what, exactly.

“Maybe I could scrape some money together and get him some bathroom accessories to thank him,” Michael mused, far too tired to keep up with his subconscious’ running commentary and so choosing to ignore it completely, “it should only be a few bucks. Oh! I think there were some Hello Kitty ones on sale this week, I wonder if he likes Hello Kitty?” Soap dispensers would be good, soap dispensers would be much better than the other option, because the alternative would really defeat most of the purpose of being rescued from Takashi’s perverted clutches. Pity he didn’t have any money.

“Well,” Michael sat in the heated bath with a splash, “shit.” Then, “Mmmmm, warm.”

***

Kiyoshi stared.

“Er.”

“Well?”

“Do you need… something? Clothes, maybe?”

Had Michael not already known better, he would have thought the charismatic gang boss was hiding a blush behind that comic book. The American strode forward, confident, and straddled Kiyoshi’s hips. “Let’s get this over with.” His towel was falling off, not that it had left much to the imagination anyways. “You want me to ‘thank’ you, right? That’s why you brought me here.”

Kiyoshi looked adorably baffled and Michael gleefully thought If I had to fuck a guy tonight, at least this is probably the best of my options.

Our second protagonist, apparently, was not thinking along the same lines. He pushed Michael off, who let out an indignant squawk as he toppled off the couch. He looked up to see Kiyoshi standing over him, looking insulted.

“I brought you here because it was due to my neglect of the area that you were and still are in danger on the streets,” Tokyo’s youngest Angel said coldly, showing shades of the man who Michael had almost forgotten beat a man bloody without remorse. “I had no intention of forcing you to sleep with me.”

“Well, what was I supposed to think?” Michael became defensive in his fear, “Not many people will randomly take in a stranger for the night without expecting some favour in return! I’ve got no money, no connections, no possessions besides some toiletries, a pair of reading glasses, and a couple of books. What else was I going to repay you with, my sparkling personality?”

“I didn’t want any payment,” Kiyoshi shot back, “I just didn’t want you dead! A thank you would have been more than enough!”

“Well then, thank you!”

“You’re welcome!”

“Goodnight!”

“Put some clothes on!”

“I will!”

“Good!”

Kiyoshi slammed the door to his room and Michael collapsed onto the couch with a huff, and thought simultaneously That didn’t go at all how I planned.

***

A quick survey of the apartment the next morning (including a peek into the master bedroom, which was as aesthetically pleasing and mind-numbingly adult as everything else) told Michael that his very temporary roommate had gone out. He briefly wondered if he shouldn’t shoulder his bag and get the hell out of there before Kiyoshi got back, but the note he found taped to his forehead (Don’t go anywhere, I’ll be back this evening and if you’re not there I’ll fucking kill you before your stupidity has a chance to) ruled out that idea. He opted instead for a shower, as he rather liked the brand of shampoo Kiyoshi stocked his bathroom with and God knows when he’d have the chance to use it again after this.

I wonder if I could wash my clothes, he mused, it’s fucking pointless to keep showering when they stink anyways.

A note taped to the bathroom mirror informed him that there were clothes for him beside the sink, which he could plainly see but thanks anyways, Mr. Note, for pointing out the obvious. Michael inspected the outfit thoroughly after his shower, deemed it coordinated enough to wear and promptly changed. The pants fit perfectly but the shirt was a little snug; a strip of skin showed at his waist and the muscles in his chest stretched the anarchy symbol slightly out of shape. He wondered where the clothing had come from, as Kiyoshi was both taller and slightly broader than him.

“Weird.”

Someone knocked.

Michael made it all the way to the entranceway before skidding to a halt. What was he doing? This wasn’t his place! But what if it was important gang stuff, or Kiyoshi bleeding to death in the hallway after a violent rumble a la The Outsiders, arguably the best book anyone was ever forced to read in school? Maybe he should just look out the peephole to be safe.

If it’s Katsuro, answer the door. He’s dropping off papers.

“What is with this guy and the notes?! Freak.” Michael peeked out and then opened the door. “Ah, the-one-who-keeps-talking.”

“Katsuro, Katsuro, how many times will I have to tell you?!”

“I know your name.” Michael leaned on the doorframe. “He said you have some papers?”

The thug ran his fingers through bleached blonde hair. “Can I come in?”

“He didn’t say anything about you coming in, just give me the papers.”

“What if I don’t trust you with them?”

Michael snorted. “What am I going to do, eat them? I may be homeless, but I’m not that hungry.”

Katsuro shook his head and pushed past the gaijin, heading for a room that Michael’s earlier search of the (gigantic) apartment had revealed to be an office of some sort, consisting of a desk, a computer, and several boxes in varying states of disarray. Katsuro dumped his sheaf of papers on the desk and then knelt by a box, the one made of a most attractive shade of chartreuse cardboard, and began rummaging around the bottom.

Michael stepped around to the other side of the box and leaned down. “What in the world are you doing looking for? The note didn’t say anything about you taking something.”

“I’m not,” Katsuro grumbled, irritated by both the chatty American and the apparently Houdini-like object he was searching for, “I just need to put a few things in—ah!” he grinned and held up a battered notebook, muttering the infamous Final Fantasy victory music under his breath, “the accounting book!”

“Accounting?”

“Of course accounting,” Katsuro replied brusquely, clearing a spot on the desk and fishing the office chair from under a stack of manila folders, “do you think we’d spend all our time ganging it up without any profit involved?”

“…ganging it up?”

“It’s gang lingo. For ganging.”

“Okay.” Michael peeked at the book. “What the crap is this?”

“Accounting.”

“It’s numbers scrawled arbitrarily across the page! You don’t even label half of them!” Michael seized the little red notebook and flipped through the pages. “How in the hell does a business, even this crude, managed to function with paperwork like this? What’s the point?”

“We add up the black numbers and subtract the red numbers,” Katsuro said defensively, “and that’s how much profit we make. What else do we need to know?”

“Accounting is not meant to tell you how much money you have at the end of the day, a bank statement could do that. Accounting tells you how much you’re spending on what, and where you could shift expenditures in order to increase your net profit.” Michael delivered a light cuff to Katsuro’s head, apparently forgetting that he was chiding a man who could kill him ten times before he hit the ground. “Everyone knows that.”

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