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The Same Deep Water As You

by Solo & Jo

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Chapter 41

 

Monday 16 February

Kame does post-production voice-recording for a few scenes of the samurai movie after the radio on Saturday; some horse's fault. He and his quiet opponent, to whom he never warmed up on set, have a lot of fun threatening each other grandly over frothy Starbucks coffee. On Sunday he gets his hair trimmed and shoots for the movie posters and calendar, and then he has dinner with Midori at his parents' house.

They sleep together that night, and everything is relaxed and normal. Midori bemoans her career change when she has to leave the house on Monday morning while he's still in his pyjamas reading cookery books, but when he offers her his commentator gig in the afternoon while he takes her job, she laughs and says he'd only distract the office girls.

When he thinks about Jin it's so nobody knows; when he's safe driving, or getting dressed, or playing with Ran-chan in his parents' dusky garden. When he worries how Jin went back to work on the weekend, whether he'd say no now, whether he was fine sleeping in the dark alone, Kame keeps it off his face and out of the lives of people who don't know him.

When he is done with his guest commentary at a music competition and has finished a fashion shoot, and is looking at three hours before he can pick up Midori at the office, he thinks he's been very reasonable and careful, and there's no one to say he can't have a drink somewhere on the way home like normal husbands; drop in on somebody like normal people do.

He's in his car and driving when he realizes it might be polite to call first. Then he's nervous enough about the answer that he doesn't stop again.

The garage is pretty empty. He still has the nicely done hair from the photo shoot and a decent suit, so that moment he spends messing with his fringe in front of the rearview mirror is probably silly.

Okay then. Just coffee. It won't be at all like that night, and maybe Jin will be glad to know that Kame doesn't expect this closeness all the time now; that Kame understands about bad nights and special circumstances.

The club is as underpopulated as the garage. A few bland-looking guys here and there, and there's an old guest with lots of young men around him. Kame doesn't want to stand here and look like he's inviting company if Jin isn't here, if Jin is…

Jin is rising from the large group, a wide smile on his face.

Kame waves, not as noticeably as last time. Funny how glad he is.

"Hey," Jin says when he gets there. "You're sooner than I expected…."

"I'm just stopping by for a drink. I've got a few free hours before I have to be home and I was in the mood for coffee with friendly company." It sounded good in the car; it sounded better than it sounds here, where friendly has certain overtones and he's not sure what Jin makes of it.

But Jin smiles very convincingly, and just ducks his head. He leads Kame to a small, light pastel seating group by the wall with the newspaper rack. Not the tables in front of the TV screen.

"Coffee, huh?" he asks; and there's more than one question here. "Not really your usual time. Do you want a menu for that?" But he's still smiling, and suddenly Kame doesn't want to evade.

"Yes, just coffee. I have to go home to my wife tonight. I don't want to have a date when I do that." He wishes he could stop himself blushing.

Jin tilts his head, and then there's a slow nod. "Yeah, I get that."

"I hope it's okay I came anyway," Kame adds. "I had some time and wanted to see how you were and I felt like… you know. Stopping by. Talking to you."

Jin's nodding more vigorously. "Yes. Yes, that's great."

"But I don't want to interfere with your night. Just because I had a funny idea."

Jin casts a long look across the room. "Nope," he says. "Nothing I'm missing out on." He leans back and studies the menu at demonstrative leisure before he flags down a waiter for them.

It's really not very busy.

They order a latte for Kame, and Jin asks for an espresso, which is ridiculous, so Kame gets him a double of the most expensive brandy to go with it. Jin gives the potted plant next to him a pitying look.

"Just leave it to sit," Kame says once the waiter has left. "Spare the poor plant."

Jin smiles. "Okay." He's tapping some rhythm with his feet and peering at Kame from under his fringe like coffee was Kame's best idea this week.

Well, it's been a short week so far. Kame stupidly blushes again.

"Hey," Jin says. It sounds different and not at all demonstrative. "About last time. Thank you." He's at ease and not at all like that night… and that's great, that is such a relief.

"Are you okay?" Kame asks. "I mean, were you okay, later?"

Jin nods, and doesn't evade either. "Yeah, I was fine. Nothing… nothing really bad happened. Some guy just got unpleasant and it could have… but I had security, it was okay, it's really fine. And you really helped, so…"

Then he starts looking for the waiter like that's the last he wants to hear of it, not even protestations that it was nothing, the least Kame could do; that he was scared too.

But Kame can go with that. "So now that I'm here," he says, "I can ask you about the weekend."

"I'm free," Jin says instantly, and Kame is glad there are no stupid complications. Because he is a little nervous.

"I was wondering if you'd like to come to a party with me at Tanaka's house." He's thought it over enough that he can say it cool like that and not have it resonate with unspoken Midori questions, or the hour he went back and forth on it before asking Tanaka.

Jin doesn't react much; maybe he heard the doubts anyway even though Kame was sure… "Sure," he says, slowly, eventually. It sounds not sure at all. There's a tiny frown. "Is it… that kind of party?" He looks around as if he expects Tanaka somewhere with— oh.

"No! Not a club party. It's a music party. A party with music. With people who make music."

"I… see."

Kame sighs. "Tanaka is throwing this thing for a band he produces, and there'll be lots of other people there, and I think it could be fun. Since you like music and all that."

"So it's not a date there." Jin sounds like he wants to be sure, which is perfectly understandable.

"No," Kame says. "Not at the party anyway. I'd like… I'd like to take you home after."

"That sounds workable," Jin says, and the way he says it it sounds more than workable.

"I wasn't going to go just by myself," Kame muddles on, "but then I thought… well. There's music. And you'd be going as my friend." He doesn't say he can only ask because Midori didn't want to go; he'd like Jin there, and he likes the thought of Jin enjoying himself. And all the other people there will just mean that Jin won't have to act like an escort around him.

Jin's face goes warm with a slow smile. "I like being your friend."

He's still like that when the waiter comes with their drinks, grinning more deeply when Kame insists on handling his own sugar dosage because he is just on an afternoon break and can tie his own shoes.

"You could have just called and asked, you know," Jin remarks. "About the party."

"But I didn't come about that. I came for coffee in nice company." Kame taps off his spoon quite pointedly.

Jin nods and stirs an entirely sugarfree espresso. "So it's good, your latte?"

"Very good."

"Just the right mix?" Now Jin is trying to look serious over his tiny cup.

"Yes," Kame says decisively. "Very healthy cows."

Jin snorts, and slumps further into the sofa. "Moo."

They swap the little chocolates that came with their drinks because Jin wants the milk one and Kame is happy with the dark. Jin tells him he's excited about going to see an apartment; Yamashita recommended him for it and Kame is relieved for Jin that all is good between them. Kame tells Jin of the rebellious horses that drowned out the actors in half their scenes. It's good coffee, relaxed conversation. Kame almost forgets to watch the time.

Almost. He's got responsibilities, and it won't do Jin any good either if he's only got two coffees and a brandy to bill. In the end it's been a little less than an hour when he says he has to get a move on.

Jin gets up with him, and they both smile sheepishly because this is weird, they don't really know how to say goodbye down here. They decide by silent agreement that Jin will see him to where he gets his coat.

"Thank you for this," he says as Kame wraps up. "It's… that was new."

Kame doesn't really need to wear the coat for the short way to his car, but it gives his hands something to do.

"I told you," he says. "Purely selfish."

Jin sticks his hands in his pockets. "Well," he says. "It was a nice surprise."

We're always glad to see you here.

Jin is mulling over thoughts and they're nothing like that, nothing about a sell. His suit looks kind of rumpled like this and his smile is secret, reluctant almost. It's crushing how much Kame wants to kiss him.

"I'm glad you were free," he says instead.

"You could do that again," Jin suggests. "Have more breaks. Spend them here."

Kame laughs and says everyone wants him to turn into a slacker, and Jin protests Kame should keep working hard for the sake of cooks and samurai everywhere, he should just come back and try the iced caramel lattes over some more chat.

Kame nods calmly, and then he has to leave.

But he just might do that.

Tuesday 17 February

"You'll see, he'll ask us who's happy to earn loads of cash by giving the creep what he wants," Jin says while they lace up their shoes. "There's money to be made there, why would he let that go?"

"Because what that perv did is illegal?" Danny insists.

"So is prostitution," says Jaejoong. "The police will not favour us."

"And because morale will bottom out if he gets away with it," Danny says. "These guys are managers, they better know how to manage." He closes the door behind them with a soft click.

"Yeah," Jin says, "right, because sucking boss dick once a month so keeps the workforce happy."

"Sshh!" Just a few meters from Ootomo's office now, and Jaejoong is getting nervous.

"I just think of that as an administrative fee," Danny says. "I bet you, it'll be fine."

And they knock on Ootomo's door.

Of them all, only Jin encountered more than Inaba's mirror. And he suspects he still got too lucky for management to really do something about the guy. If they hadn't let him go…

Ootomo's office is cold.

"Welcome, gentlemen." Ootomo motions them to sit, offers tea, which they decline, and starts fiddling with his pen as usual. "I've called you in about the Inaba affair."

Yeah, no kidding. Nobody says anything.

"I am pleased to tell you that Inaba is off the books," Ootomo starts.

Danny's elbow digs into Jin's ribs, and Danny doesn't even try to hide the smug glance under his curls.

"Additionally, our reputation is such that he took seriously our threat to involve the police, and accepted a fine with regard to all three incidents; you'll get your usual cut, the equivalent of relaxations for the two of you and a comfort for Jin."

They show themselves properly thankful, and Ootomo beams at them like an altruistic benefactor. Jin isn't even sure he wants the money. Of course he'll take it anyway.

"He offered more," Ootomo says, "if we were willing to keep him on. I hope you don't feel that I've done you out of a good deal."

"No," Jin says, before he's even aware that he's spoken. But by the time he can get self-conscious, Danny and Jaejoong are backing him up, so that's fine.

"Your tests came back okay this morning, too," Ootomo adds, "so all's well that ends well, eh?"

Right. It was the best outcome he could get, and Jin's not sure why it doesn't make him happier. He just doesn't want it to have happened at all… doesn't want to think of the chilly fear or the endless inquisition after, or what a fucking mess he was and if he'd been with anyone but Kame…

Kame was so great about it. Maybe Jin should use the money to get something nice for them. Maybe some awfully boring greatest hits of baseball DVD for Kame to explain to him.

There's a tug on his arm, Jaejoong, pulling him up and towards the door. Danny's already there. Jin bows a quick apology at Ootomo, and then they're out, and Danny is grinning a 'see-I-told-you' at him.

Jin grins back faintly. No point moping, and Ootomo is right, they got the best result realistically possible. Jin's should-have-beens are neither here nor there. He'll just have a quick cigarette, to lock it all away again before he meets Yamatani downstairs. It's enough that this crap spoiled his date with Kame; he doesn't want Yamatani to have to deal with his drama, too.

*~*~*

When Jin gets into the lounge again two hours later, it's noisy.

Jaejoong is hidden away in a corner with Miwa, and far opposite Jin sees Jun and Sakurai getting up and heading for the concierge. But the center of the lounge is taken up by a couple of tables pushed together, with a lively crowd gathered around a four-layer Champagne tower. Yokoyama is pouring the contents of a bottle into it with a flourish, to general applause. Close by stands Nakamaru, blue-in-blue argyle sweater vest peeking out under his dark blazer, waiting his turn with another bottle. Standing right beside them is Junno in a dark grey suit and a long purple scarf, grinning widely, bowing over and over, then grinning some more.

Jin's pretty sure he would have heard if anybody was getting married.

He's been spotted by people on the fringes: Yuuya waves him over with a little bounce, and Koyama, Kato and Tadayoshi shuffle around a little to make room for him in their group. So it's an open party, then.

Getting closer, Jin notices Kato is holding an empty bottle, too. "What is everybody celebrating?" he asks after the formal bow.

"Junnosuke passed his accountancy exam," Kato says. "He told Yokoyama-san and…" His glance at the exuberant stockbroker is a little glassy, and the pause lasts as though he's contemplating a long story he isn't quite able to account for. "Well," he concludes with a smile. "Here we are."

The Champagne glasses are full, and Yokoyama takes the top one and hands it ceremonially to Junno, who is beaming like disco lights. The rest of the glasses are handed around, and Jin gets one too, and finally everybody sits down.

He should have paid better attention, Jin thinks when he finds himself between Nakamaru and Tatsuya, not a distressing location but not a promising one, either. "Thank you for the Champagne," he says, because that's straightforward and straightforward works best between them, they've figured out that much on the rare occasions they've talked after the first, and last, mutually awkward date.

"Oh, no," Nakamaru waves it off. "Most of it came from Yokoyama-san." He smiles vaguely in Junno's direction. "Junnosuke could probably tell us all about percentages. I may turn out to be responsible for the bubbles."

Jin remembers the soap foam experiments and bows his head quickly, politely, until he's sure he's not going to laugh. He doesn't want to offend, but he seems to laugh at Nakamaru's jokes the wrong way or something. He's figured that out, too.

But Nakamaru has caught Junno's gaze across the small table, and they end up toasting each other with wide smiles. "So we'll lose you soon?" Nakamaru says jovially.

"Not that soon," Junno protests. "Got a couple more exams to go, and besides…" He contemplates the glass, and gazes delightedly around the people who have gathered for him. "I think I might miss this too much. I'll stick around for a little longer."

Yokoyama asks him something Jin doesn't quite understand regarding whatever the exam was about, and whatever his next course might entail, and things like nominal and effective compound interest, and it's funny, how all those guys can get excited by financial topics.

Or, well, Jin guesses it's understandable. There are a few things he'd like to know, too, if he even knew how to start asking. Still, he wonders how people can just talk about this stuff, here. Doesn't Junno mind them knowing? Don't the clients mind knowing that he's trying to get away from them eventually? Everybody just seems in party mood.

Too far away from him, Yuuya and Koyama are clinking glasses and giggling at each other. Well, he shouldn't interrupt there, anyway. Kato and Tadayoshi look happily settled for the evening, but still Kato leans forward across the table between them and nods at him agreeably. "It's been a while," he says. "I hope you are well?"

Jin confirms quickly, yes, he's well, and still grateful, and definitely well. "Do you have any interesting cases at present?" he asks then.

Kato glances around briefly, and produces a wry smile. "None that are fit for discussion in a crowd, I'm afraid."

Jin blinks. He doesn't think that means anything, but it's the kind of thing where…

"Maybe we can find some privacy some time," he replies, and it's easy to put some hope and some sincerity into it, because Kato was pleasant, and Jin likes him.

"Sometime not tonight, I should be pleased," Kato says, and now Tadayoshi is waggling his eyebrows at Jin where Kato can't see and… well, okay. Okay!

"I'd like that, too," Jin says, more emphatically this time, but then he butts out and leaves the two to enjoy their evening together because whenever sometime will be, it's not now. This sort of thing happens and it's not always a blunder.

Nearer Jin, Tsukada is suggesting that Nakamaru might hire Junnosuke as a much-needed aide for his colleague the finance minister. Nakamaru thanks him for the advice with a short bow, and turns away from him towards Jin and Tatsuya on his other side, to enquire whether Junno is helping out the escorts with his expertise.

"I think that's an excellent idea," Tatsuya says, and manages to look like he can't imagine anything better than holding his finances up for Junno's inspection. "But it's hard to get a slice of his time; our esteemed guests are powerful competition."

Jin nods along with that. He couldn't have said it better. Or at all. Tatsuya gives him a sneaky little nudge with his knee.

"You're just too much fun," Junno is saying to Nakamaru, who blushes a little and coughs quietly.

"I am… I am very pleased to hear it, but I'm afraid you may flatter me too much."

"You totally are," Yuuya chimes in from beyond Koyama. They both seem to mean it, and, well, there's just got to be something Jin is missing.

Nakamaru seems to return Junno's feelings. "If you wanted to… Um. With some more private… unless you already…"

He trails off when Junno shows him a regretful, but not too regretful, smile.

"I'm afraid that tonight, I'm already accounted for." Junno leans loose-limbed against Yokoyama, who smiles at Nakamaru in apology, before his expression changes to a more speculative one.

"Well," he says. "I've never tried a threesome. I think that could be fun?" He glances hopefully from Junno to Nakamaru and back.

Jin's breath stops, weirdly; it's nothing to do with him, no-one wants him for anything here, or Yuuya, or… what is he even thinking?

And Nakamaru is blinking too and has flushed red, and he's waving an urgent hand in front of his face. "I, uh, indeed, I don't think I…"

It should be funny but it's not, only Jin seems to be the only one noticing it. Junno is leaning across the table again, hitting the minister with his most charming smile. "It could be so much fun. I'm great at—" The rest is a whisper into Nakamaru's ear, and now the poor man is just staring into his lap and shaking his head.

Jin tugs unobtrusively at Junno's sleeve. "Hey."

Junno grins sideways at him. "You a candidate, too? We could have an orgy. There's this other thing I can do, where— "

Jin rolls his eyes. "Some of us aren't into moresomes." He puts enough of a hint into it that Junno gets it.

"So boring," he pouts, but it's good-natured. He settles back beside Yokoyama, while Nakamaru flashes Jin the wry grimace of the sexually unadventurous. Jin dares a little grimace back.

"Will lonely little me do for now?" Junno says to Yokoyama, getting more elastic with every sip of Champagne he takes. "I can whisper sweet nothings about nominal ledger accounts to you, before, during, or after."

Jin doesn't hear the answer because someone taps him on the shoulder, and he turns round.

It's Tanaka, passing by in a faint clinking of chains, flashing him a peace sign and then making finger guns at him. "Saturday." He grins and saunters on, towards a smaller table by the wash paintings where Shota is rising, smiling.

Saturday. Jin's nervous, and looking forward to it at the same time. It'll be weird, meeting lots of new people and lying to them, but Kame said they were mostly musicians, and he doesn't have to lie about his interest in music.

Tatsuya rises and excuses himself politely from all clients present. When Jin glances at the door he sees the tall, silver-haired man who is his monthly regular, and with whom Jin has never exchanged a single word. Some sort of ambassador, that's all he knows.

The Champagne is almost drunk, and the group is starting to break up into smaller circles, into pairs. Tsukada is trying to talk to Nakamaru again, and the minister seems to be getting rather impatient and agitated about something to do with quotas, and Jin's just about to see if he can get lucky somewhere far away from bitchfighting politicians when Nakamaru turns to him and says, "So, um. If you don't have to, as one might say, be somewhere else, I wonder if you might like another drink, as it were?"

*~*~*

Jin's certain that it was far more about getting Tsukada off his back than about some sudden irrepressible desire for Jin's body. But the drink turned out all right, and Nakamaru's look turned more speculative as time went on and the minister consumed more wine, and then all the other escorts were gone and Jin still hadn't said or done anything stupid, and now here they are, sitting on a couch in a room, with drinks from the bar and three hours to see if they can get this to work.

It's already difficult; Nakamaru doesn't give the impression that he'd like it if Jin simply started to undress him, but he also looks like he needs some sort of excuse to undress himself, or touch Jin.

Jin remembers this, vividly. He didn't have a clue what to do with it then, and isn't much more certain now.

He can guess that Takahisa just bounces over and manages to rip all Nakamaru's clothes off anyway and make him happy about it, but Jin can't do bouncy; if he tries that he'll just embarrass both of them.

So they sit there, and eventually Jin asks if it's okay if he gets comfortable.

"Of course," Nakamaru says, almost gratefully, "of course, yes. I'll get comfortable too."

When Jin undoes his tie, Nakamaru loosens his own, and when Jin starts to unbutton his shirt, Nakamaru fiddles with his own top button, and maybe they have something going there, maybe Jin just needs to persevere…

…but Nakamaru stops after two buttons, and then just watches as Jin carries on until his shirt is fully open.

Now what?

"Do you still bring your special conditioner in?" he asks Nakamaru, because at least that's something he knows Nakamaru likes to talk about, and it's not like politics, not way above Jin's head.

Turns out Jin never knew about the hair-protecting properties of eggs. Beer and coconut oil and tea seem beneficial too, and important if you don't want your hair to fall out too early. He just about manages not to look at Nakamaru's hairline.

He nods a lot. "Any kind of beer?" he asks, and gets a tragic shrug in reply.

"Unfortunately, they don't specify. I suspect organic beer would be best, not just for the hair but obviously also for the environment."

They pause in thoughtful agreement.

"Do you do anything for your hair?" Nakamaru asks. "I notice you don't bleach it, which is good, very good, bleaching causes considerable damage."

"No," Jin admits, "I don't." He's almost sorry. Then he has a thought. "But I use a particular body lotion." It doesn't seem like giving away too much, right then, and they can do with all the common ground they can find.

Nakamaru is very interested, and Jin grimaces when he has to confess that he doesn't know if there is any honey or jojoba in it. "It's quite expensive," he says, "but I found a special deal recently, three for two, so I stocked up."

"That's excellent," Nakamaru says, and he looks truly pleased for Jin. "It just shows you how high the mark-up on some products is, because the shops are probably still making a profit even so."

"Yeah. I've tried lots of other stuff, actually, because I don't like paying so much. But it's really the best."

"The best is worth paying for," Nakamaru agrees, and that's them out of conversation again, except…

"Would you like to feel how it works?" Jin tries, and pushes his shirt aside a little more.

Not subtle, but not crippling like their fumbling last time; they smile at each other. And hey, it works.

Nakamaru's face is flushed but his hand isn't nervous on Jin's stomach, and after a few appreciative noises – strictly about the efficacy of Jin's lotion choices, of course – he moves it to Jin's chest.

Jin fiddles his own trousers open, and Nakamaru raises his eyebrows. "Do you really use it all over?"

Jin invites him to try and find out, and from then on, it's easy.

Thursday 19 February

It's the Odaiba studio, which is okay. Less convenient from his apartment than Chiyoda, more convenient than Yokohama. And anyway, Kame knows the route well. He goes over the two scenes again in his head as he drives, heater on high and the sun-visor flipped outward against the grey glare in the high clouds. A cute shopping scene for aspiring female leads, a confrontation for potential nemeses to show their stuff. The producer called in three men and three women from their stack of submissions, that's all Kame's heard, but he's not known for being difficult over whom he works with.

Traffic flows easily but he makes sure not to get too distracted by his excitement, anyway. He always enjoys the start of a new filming season, finding new colleagues, working with new roles and new dynamics. Finding a team, if he's lucky. And this time, a new sort of character for himself, something he's wanted for years.

He rolls the window down just a little to feel the breeze in his face.

He's going to be meeting the love interest in a supermarket, selecting eggplants. Fitting for the story of a cook, though Kame doesn't have the big picture yet, how the cute scenes will fit in with the later intensity.

It's always a gamble, staking chemistry on those audition scenes from early in the drama when the crucial stuff is likely to hit them several episodes down the line. You just do what you can and take your best guess. And of course in the end it's up to the directors and producers, anyway.

The building always looks a little forbidding in this weather, but Kame knows that inside, airy rooms with comfortable chairs are waiting, and he knows where to find the one coffee machine that never sells out of sugared cappuccino. It's been a couple of years since he last shot here but it still feels comfortably familiar, like so many studios around town.

Haga is a tall, balding man who made it clear at their first meeting two weeks ago that he regards Kame as a star who will bring him high ratings with minimum dramatics. Kame likes being known as reliable.

He hadn't heard much about the director at all before, but just as in their introduction meeting he's greeting Kame like a long-lost friend. Kame smiles back as is fitting, taking in today's fashion statement of green puffy sleeves over a tight black t-shirt. Clearly Funabashi is the creative type.

He's also the talky one who repeats the schedule for Kame, before they lead him to the room where the three female candidates are waiting to be introduced.

Of course they knew to expect him. There was publicity as soon as he got the part and the business grapevine probably still got there first.

Kame recognizes all three. Hideki Mayumi co-stars in at least one drama a year, and has been in the business almost as long as Kame; they once auditioned together, a year or so before his earthquake movie, but Kame didn't get the part. Matsura stands close to her – they must have been talking, but stopped as soon as the door opened. She gives Kame a charming smile and a flirty little wave of her fingers.

The third is Watanabe Ruri, standing aside a little. Kame knows her; they worked together a long time ago, when Kame was on the last of the embarrassing school dramas he asked Jin not to watch. She fell in love with the ghostly schoolboy, then, though target audience and specter logistics meant theirs was a very theoretical love affair. They smile at each other.

Haga makes the introductions, and then Kame is whisked off to the room where the auditions will be held, where he gets another few minutes to get his head in the game and think about eggplants.

*~*~*

"I think it worked quite well with Hideki-san and Watanabe-san," Haga says. "Would you agree?"

They are sitting around the table which, for the last hour, served as an imaginary vegetable display. The assistant has brought them coffee in brown plastic cups and a small tray of sandwiches. Funabashi is well on his way to demolishing the sweetcorn and mayonnaise ones all by himself and is currently only able to nod.

"Yes." Kame thinks about how to put it, whether he even needs to. He could act opposite Matsura, he's enough of a professional for that. But it feels excessive to mention her name out of mere fairness. Hideki's performance was far superior, and he feels more comfortable with Watanabe. "I think I could be very happy with either of them on the team."

"The third girl…" Funabashi wipes his fingers on the paper napkin, as he has done between each piece so far. "I got the feeling that she was very enthusiastic, but perhaps slightly off-message."

"Rather aggressive," Haga says, and though Kame stops himself from nodding, he knows that for a supposed first meeting, she didn't have to lean quite so close when he explained about how firm an eggplant should be.

"She's quite focused on getting a part, I think, " he says, as though that's an excuse. It's the best he can do. She was always more herself than her character.

The other two nod noncommittally. "It is a pity," Funabashi says. "Good parts are difficult to come by. I wish her luck."

And that, Kame thinks, is that.

In the end the part goes to Hideki, and though he feels a little sorry for Watanabe, Kame is excited. There's something fresh and energizing about working with a new, talented colleague, and he's already looking forward to it.

They take a half-hour break for some fresh air, and for Kame to get ready for the second round. He's got more to keep in mind for this scene; it's a few episodes in and there's backstory.

The nemesis has a restaurant. Never mind that his now-dead dad was some head-yakuza-loan-shark who drove Chef Inao's parents into suicide, he's decided he wants to get out of the family business and make his own path, fulfill his own dream, the usual. By this episode, Inao's already managed to hire on as chef.

The scene picked for the audition gets tense because dead dad's old yakuza pals aren't out of the picture, having provided a start-up loan for the restaurant, and of course they get treated to Inao's now-famous food. Inao will keep his cool around them, which Kame appreciates; he wouldn't like his first darker, revenge-driven character to be a self-sabotaging idiot. But he'll confront the nemesis afterwards, with a tirade full of ringing observations about dishonoured dreams and worthless methods. The usual, again. But now with drama.

Kame smiles to himself. He can put enough force into that to weed out the too-timid contenders, and find the one who'll give as good as he gets.

And they're ready to go.

*~*~*

The three men waiting are laughing when the door opens, and one of them, who reminds Kame eerily of Masaki from the club, quickly slips a gadget of some sort into his pocket. With him are Komine Anzai, whom Kame knows, and… Morioka. Morioka, his greeting not unfriendly, but restrained.

"Hello," Kame says. "Looks like we're destined to run into each other once a month."

"My agent submitted the application before consulting me," Morioka says. "Then I got an invitation." It's matter-of-fact, but Kame can read the defensiveness.

"Almost like a little reunion," he says. It's a lame joke but he doesn't know how else to make this normal.

"I saw," Morioka says pleasantly. "I ran into her while I was waiting. Energetic as ever."

"I thought so." Kame can't say more; it wouldn't be professional. "But I am glad your agency is keeping you busy," he tries instead, with a smile. What he's thinking is that this is one nemesis who'd definitely be able to hold his own.

Then he thinks of the scenes that will follow, the growing claustrophobia of their relationship, their connection being at the heart of the whole drama. Thinks of joint photo shoots and appearances and…

Ultimately, the selection is up to director and producer. For now he'll think of that.

*~*~*

First up is the Masaki look-alike, whose real name is Suzuki, and he's good. When Kame gets right in his face about criminals and feeble excuses, he doesn't give a millimeter; not when Kame dials it up and gets as loud and hostile as he can be; not when it's his turn to defend himself, to shout about being trapped and the cost of dreams. The height helps, Kame thinks. It's a convincing performance.

He returns the man's bow when Funabashi and Haga dismiss him, and next, after Kame's had a few sips of water, is Morioka.

They square up, Kame at the table which is a kitchen counter now, Morioka three steps away where the door is meant to be. Kame can tell he is uncertain… and that's stupid, he's got no reason to be.

"Let's do this," he says under his breath, and Morioka gives him a quick, surprised look. "We both know how."

They do it. It feels different at once; same words, different vibe, building intensity with every traded barb, and Kame makes his move, snarling into his face, and Morioka stands his ground and— it turns quiet.

"You understand nothing," his nemesis says; slow, implacable. Kame takes breath to shout some more, there's a line left.

He lets it go. He's looking at his boss and the boss is looking back at him, down at him; the guy who could sack him and ruin all his plans. "I'll thank you to get out of my face," his boss says, and waits.

Kame backs down.

And Morioka lets himself fall heavily against the table, and his explanations and justifications are simply spoken, and tired, but it works, it works well, and they wrap up the scene just like it should be with both of them staring at the floor uncomfortably, and then it's silent.

Neither of them looks up at the production team, but they sneak each other a look. Kame thinks Morioka's says 'whoops', and his own says it right back.

"Thank you," Funabashi says at last. "Thank you, that was…"

"Unexpected," Haga supplies.

The director nods hastily. "Unexpected, yes. Interesting, though."

"Yes, interesting," Haga says.

"It was good," Kame says to Morioka as he is dismissed. He feels that tingly high he still gets from the job, though this isn't even a real set. "It was very good."

But ultimately, the selection is up to the director and producer.

*~*~*

Komine is little older than the other two, Kame's own age. They were in another school drama together. Kame sometimes thinks you could make a big chart with all the actors from one generation, and they'd all be connected through some school drama or other.

Komine's performance is solid: powerful and sure through his justification monologue after Kame's said his piece, not a moment of giving ground, and a nice touch when he clutches a pen from the table like an imaginary kitchen knife, and then the final shouting match before they come to a sheepish halt.

"Thank you," Funabashi says heartily, and Haga echoes him. Kame nods and adds his own thanks. Komine could certainly be a candidate, and he likes colleagues who know how to improvise, trust him to pick it up again.

Morioka does that, too. They can both just let it run sometimes, and know the other will keep pace.

And there's nothing to say that Suzuki would be bad at it, only it didn't occur to Suzuki to play the scene anything but straight.

"Would you agree?" Haga is saying, and Kame shakes himself out of his deliberations and gives the producer a little apologetic bow.

"I'm sorry, I was mentally reviewing the performances," he says quickly, as they sit around the table again. "Would you mind repeating?"

"Suzuki-san," Haga says. "Did what it says on the tin. He acted it well, and made a very reliable impression."

"He acted it well," Kame agrees.

"I liked Komine-san's little extra touch, though," the director considers. "It wasn't risky, not like Morioka-san's little departure, but it added something all the same."

"In what sense would you call Morioka-san's initiative 'risky'?" Kame can't help asking. Risky means that it could have gone wrong, but it didn't, and it wouldn't have. "I thought we got it to work rather well."

"It was certainly different," Haga says. "He had you intimidated for a while there, didn't he?"

Funabashi winces almost imperceptibly.

"He made my character rethink the wisdom of his actions, yes," Kame says, maybe a little more coolly than he should. "Under the circumstances, perhaps not such a bad thing?"

"I understand what you mean," Funabashi says. "I agree with you that this was the most powerful version of the scene. But you could handle the sudden shift. You're a professional with long experience behind you. If he does it to other people, people less confident or competent or yes, simply experienced, it could lead to problems and re-takes."

"He won't," Kame says. "If you read his resume, you'll know that I've worked with him before. He acted opposite all sorts of people then, and he didn't do it to them."

"We know," Haga says placatingly, "that you acted together. I've watched that movie, and I liked what I saw. It's one of the reasons we selected him for audition despite his relative inexperience."

"We ad-libbed a lot of that," Kame points out. He remembers the exhilaration, before it all went sour. He wouldn't have sworn they could still do it, despite what he said to Morioka. But they can. "The director had no complaints."

"Not about that, anyway," Funabashi says jovially, and Kame stiffens. What's that supposed to mean?

But he keeps it cool, gets past the stab of fear, makes the politely questioning face that goes with his more staid roles.

"Well," Funabashi continues, "it's clear that you feel strongly about the people you like to work with. And that young woman you championed certainly did an admirable job."

Oh. Kame feels his heart slowing again. That.

"It was a great pleasure to work with Toyoda-san," he says, and manages a harmless smile. "I would certainly recommend her to any director." Not that that has anything to do with this.

"And now you are recommending this young… Morioka Akihito." Funabashi nods at the resume he's fished out of his briefcase again to remind himself of the details. "What do you say, Haga-san? If Kamenashi-san is certain that nothing will go wrong…"

Hang on. How did this turn out to be about him vouching for Morioka? He only clarified some facts about how they worked.

"We have to consider the inherent risks, though," Haga says, and sure, he's the producer, he's got to think in those terms.

"But Kamenashi has pointed out that there is no risk." Funabashi gives Kame a satisfied look. "Right?"

Kame gets it. Funabashi liked the performance. He liked Morioka. He just doesn't like responsibility.

"Right," he says.

Haga looks between them for a moment, then he shrugs. "I'm only the producer. I'll leave the artistic and personal judgements to the director and those who have to work with each other."

*~*~*

Kame stops at Starbucks for better coffee before heading back north for the spring fashion photo shoot scheduled late afternoon. He's not sure how he should feel about what just happened there.

He's not nervous, not really. Once he's got a few sips of hazelnut latte inside himself, leaning against his car in the brisk February air and with the warm cup in his hands, he feels it with more certainty. It was the rational choice, based on the best performance, and no personalities or paranoia interfering.

Midori will be pleased if he tells her how it went. Proud, too; she'll tell him it's sensible not to let a good thing slip away because of fanservice pictures and a newspaper article. She's right, even if she doesn't know how wrong she is.

Anyway, the director would have picked Morioka too, if he'd dared. Kame merely helped things along using his professional opinion. He nods to himself and takes another sweet sip. He still feels the buzz under his skin, looking back on that scene. Three months of that intensity, that sense of satisfaction… yeah.

He's looking forward to this drama.

Saturday 21 February

"This is kind of freaky," Jin finally says in the chips and snacks aisle.

Between the huge shelves and oversized cartons, he feels like someone shrunk him and put him in an anime where everything's twice the normal size. He'll never look at the little coffee chocolates the same way again.

Tomo, who's swapped the red-and-white delivery gear for his black denim jacket, is pushing the deep cart with the bar stuff and Jin's new three-month supply of ramen, emergency candy and cheap tea. He grins at Jin. "I took Yoshi here one day. He looked a bit like you now in the sweets section. Spent all his money on a giant tub of gummi snakes."

In theory it makes sense that the little things shops offer in complimentary quantities must come from somewhere, but Jin's never seen the evidence live and up close. He's fascinated by the big box of fortune cookies and the packet sizes pretzel sticks come in.

Before them at the meat counter a guy is buying what amounts to half a cow and her offspring.

Tomo buys some meat to freeze at home, too. "I haven't cooked for us in a while," he says, sounding pretty guilty for a guy working three jobs. They've worked down their lists quickly, Jin sticking close by so he wouldn't get lost and waste Tomo's time.

Tomo throws some energy drinks in the cart for himself, and a good-value pack of European chocolate bars that Yoshi can take to school. Jin adds flour and eggs after making sure Tomo won't get in trouble if he buys things in single-household quantities. In the cleaning and hygiene aisles he gets cheap kitchen roll and laundry detergent, and lots of very low-priced toilet paper. Shame they don't have his body lotion.

While they pay Jin checks his cell; Tomo was late getting off work and they're an hour behind their original plan, but good, Kame got his message. Not like they were supposed to be at Tanaka's before eight anyway.

After sorting out Jin's share of the check, they throw the stuff in the back of Tomo's van. Jin doesn't remember the last time he went shopping with someone. He's certainly never come home with enough food to outlast a zombie siege. He asks if he can buy Tomo a coffee for the ride home as compensation, and is glad when Tomo accepts.

When he comes back with the cups, Tomo is just getting off the phone. "Yoshi," he explains.

"Something wrong?" Jin asks as he hands over the hot steaming goods.

Tomo shakes his head. "No. Just letting him know we're going to yours now."

"I thought you called him earlier."

"Yeah, but. He gets weird sometimes. Worries. This is just easier. Anyway." He opens the car door for Jin and draws a slow flourish in the air with his coffee cup.

Yeah, anyway. "That was freaky," Jin repeats when they've settled and fiddled on their seatbelts one-handed. "Freaky but awesome."

Tomo just grins again. "It was fun." He has a sip, then tries to squeeze the cup into the little compartment at the side of the door. "Glad you found your stuff."

"I can hold that for you," Jin offers with a nod at Tomo's cup, but Tomo gives him sceptical eyebrows. Jin waves his hand with all five functional fingers.

"Okay, thanks," Tomo says, and hands the thing over before he starts the car.

Things have been just like that ever since he told Tomo the truth: a little funny and a lot easy. Now Jin holds two coffees and feels pretty normal with them. It's a good feeling.

"So, did you look at that apartment?" Tomo asks when they're out on the expressway. "Or was that tomorrow?"

"This morning," Jin says. He blushes a bit.

"How was it?"

"Nice," he says vaguely. "Cheap." The kitchen could have been all right with a bit of scrubbing, and he doesn't need that much sunlight anyway.

"Usually that's a contradiction," Tomo grins and holds his hand out for his coffee.

"Yeah, okay," Jin admits. He has to raise his voice because the car is rattling like a tin can with a loose lid. Tomo doesn't even notice. "It was a bit dark and the bathroom was kinda… well, it was just a bit old. It would have taken some cleaning. But the size was okay and it had a fridge and everything."

"Did it smell okay?" Tomo asks. "I'm, um, flexible with dirt but trust me, you don't want a mouldy sort of place. It's gross and it'll ruin all your stuff."

Oh. Not that he has much stuff but… maybe that's a good point. "Not sure," he says. "Mostly it smelled of food."

Tomo rolls his eyes.

"But I won't get it anyway. I think I messed up when the lady asked about money." He still wants to kick himself when he thinks of it.

"Oh? How come?"

"I didn't really know what to say. Totally stupid. I said something about savings but, well." He looks down at his very respectable Kame shirt. "I could see her not buying it. Interview was pretty much over then. I guess I don't look like the savings type."

Tomo glances over quickly because they're in traffic now. "I think that looks pretty respectable. Who do they expect, bankers?"

Jin shrugs. "Guess they don't expect whores either."

"Language," Tomo says, sounding like he's talking to Yoshi.

"Sorry." Jin sips his coffee.

"You're probably a much better bet as a tenant than a lot of people I know," Tomo says with quite a bit of indignation. They both know that's not the point, that Little Miss Real Estate Agent can't know Jin's mysterious savings come from regular and health-controlled fucking of respectable members of society, and not extortion or drugs. "I can see how she'd have got the wrong idea if you'd showed up in a slinky dress and fishnets, but…"

"No way," Jin mutters. "Dressing up costs extra."

And suddenly there it is again, a little flash of panic that he said too much, that no matter how cool it is, it can't be this easy.

"So you've got some?" Tomo says, looking very intrigued.

"No. Not my scene." He doesn't know what else to add; about the guys whose scene it is, or about other things that aren't his scene, or… what. He's not used to talking about this with anyone normal, like it's just a job, like it's just part of life and they're friends anyway.

Tomo has his eyes on the road. There's a thoughtful pause stretching into a silence. "I wouldn't freak out if you did, you know. Just by the way."

Jin blinks out the window and takes the intersection as an excuse to wait, because Tomo has to concentrate. "Yes. I know," he says at last. Tomo demands his coffee again and everything's still cool and there's a hundred packs of ramen in the back of Tomo's car. "It's a little hard to believe sometimes."

"You need a better imagination," Tomo decides. "And a better story for your money, that much we know now. Could you have inherited it?"

"I think it's more what I do now that's the problem," Jin thinks aloud. "But, okay. If my dad died…" It sounds creepy. "…and I had some money and was thinking about universities?" If he inherited money, that probably doesn't work well with waiting tables and saving up money to be a mechanic. "The waiter story really isn't that useful, I guess."

Tomo concedes that with a nod. "But it sounds like that place was a rathole, so you shouldn't have taken it anyway. I'll keep looking, and you'll have better luck next time."

"Thank you. Still…" He'd have preferred it to be his call.

"Test run," Tomo says, mostly unimpressed. "And at least you're doing stuff. Getting a move on." The dark conviction in his voice reminds Jin of something.

"The Slayer guy said last night that you might take over more stuff at the bar…?"

Tomo frowns, but Jin can tell by now it's not at him. "No, that's nothing. Nothing important. The manager wants me to do the books because I know the place best, but I don't really have a clue."

"Would you like to do that? I mean, if at some point they wanted to pay you for it…" Sometimes he gets really fed up with Tomo's bosses. "At some magical hypothetical future point, anyway."

Tomo knows what he means. This time he just sighs gloomily. "I'd like to know how, you know?"

"Did something happen?"

"He offered to send me to some evening classes for the bookkeeping. Nothing special, probably crappy anyway."

"You're not going?"

"Can't." Tomo shrugs. It's a kind of shrug Jin knows well. "Same nights as the parking job. We need that for rent."

Shit. "That sucks."

"It would probably be boring and I'd flunk all the tests, I haven't had anything to do with school in nearly a decade." Tomo shrugs again; it says 'whatever', but it's lying.

They're turning off the expressway, and the car stops making quite such a racket. Jin wants to say Tomo's boss is a jerk, because he is. Only this time it's not all his fault, it's just life.

"Hey. I was wondering," Tomo says suddenly. He gives Jin a quick look but by now he's got to watch out for retired people and other unpredictable risk factors. "What should I call your job?" He's blushing a little but he's still cool, just like before, just like about all the rest, and Jin thinks with a hitch that it's not about his sucky imagination, it's about Tomo, and Tomo is awesome.

"It must have a name. I don't want to keep going 'you know what' like some idiot, and I'm not going to call it… what you say, so. Instruct me."

"Officially we're escorts." Jin wants to giggle, which is kind of crazy. "It's a stupid name, most of the clients are so deep in the closet, we don't escort them anywhere, ever. Except maybe very rarely to some dead secret party on a deserted island or so."

Tomo laughs. "Yeah, okay. It's still less stupid than the other name so if it's all right, I'll use that?"

It's totally all right.

Belatedly he thinks it was a bit unfair, to be saying this half an hour before Kame's coming to pick him up for a not-so-secret party at Tanaka's. A music party. Kame, of all people.

He smiles out the window, catching the Seiyu shopping center. He'll have to hurry to get changed, but at least he won't have to look like a perfect escort, he can just be some guy involved with music.

"What?" Tomo pulls him out of it. "What's funny?"

Jin shakes his head quickly. "Nothing. I swear."

"Right. So, once you're through all that food, we should do this again? Or before, if you can think of anything?"

"Yes," Jin nods. "I'd really like that."

"Cool."

They pull into Jin's street, overtaking some lady with a dog who often says hello to Jin when he goes to work in the afternoon. Tomo is already scouting for parking spots.

Jin sees the car first, because it's the biggest car around and the most impressive one, and then there's Kame, behind it on the sidewalk, with his phone. Jin thinks his heart isn't beating at all while Tomo slows down and signals for the curb with Kame's car just a few meters ahead, Kame's car and Kame, and it's when Kame sees him in the front of the van that all the blood comes back with a thump.

Tomo edges the van back and forth twice, and then he kills the engine. Kame is still there, not moving. Not moving at all.

Tomo looks at the house. At the street and then at Jin. He smiles. "Well?" he says. "Let's unpack those boxes, shall we?"

Jin can't smile and he can't think, and before he can come up with a brilliant idea, or any sort of idea, anything at all, Tomo's stepped out of the car, the door shutting behind him with a little metallic squeak.

~

Chapter 42

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