Alex Gabriel

Writer. Reader. Romancer.

Excerpt from “Learning How to Lose, in Six Easy Steps”

Step One: Tetris

 

My Stars 01 2012: Dating Q&A

If you were a girl, who would you pick to marry out of ONYX?

Shiwasuda Ryuu: Probably Matsuo. He may not be the most exciting overall, but he seems really dependable, and chances are he’ll have a good, solid job in twenty years. When considering marriage, that kind of thing is most important, isn’t it?

If you were a girl, who would you date in 7Heaven?

Shiwasuda Ryuu: Yo, because he’s cool and manly, and very popular. Besides, Yo has very good taste in girls, so he would be sure to like me best.

 

Idol Times 01 2012: Idol Love

If you were a girl, who would you pick to marry out of 7Heaven?

Takahashi Hiroshi: Yo. He’s responsible and capable, but funny and not boring — he knows how to have a good time. And he has a strong presence. I think I would feel protected with him.

If you were a girl, who would you date in ONYX?

Takahashi Hiroshi: Takahashi. (laughs) Out of all the ONYX guys, dating me would be easiest. It would be relaxed and not stressful, just a fun time. Oh, I couldn’t date me? No, then it’d be too much trouble. I’d just stay single.

 

Chapter 1

 

It’s been a long couple of days, a late night and an early morning, and Ryuu is so not in the mood. So when ONYX’s Takahashi bounces up with his annoying grin and Ryuu just knows that the first thing out of his mouth will be some incredibly lame joke, Ryuu can’t stop himself — doesn’t try, because why should he have to suffer because Takahashi’s a moron who thinks he’s funny, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary?

He fixes Takahashi with a dark glare. „If you make one stupid play on words, I will hit you.“

There’s not even a flicker of apprehension, nothing. No appreciable reaction at all. Ryuu only knows Takahashi heard him when he giggles — giggles — and says, „I’ll have a real solid punchline then, huh, Ryuu-chan?“

For a moment, Ryuu almost considers it, even though management will kill him if he marks Takahashi’s face. And Takahashi’s looking straight at him, and he’s smiling like always, and yet something in his steady gaze is giving Ryuu the distinct impression that he wouldn’t be fazed if Ryuu really did punch him.

It’s creepy, that’s what it is.

„You’re a scary person, Takahashi,“ Ryuu mutters. And then some of the other guests arrive, and Takahashi goes running off to pester someone else.

 

~~~~~

 

In the Talent Stage talk segment, Ryuu offers up some amusing anecdotes connected with the making of the new 7Heaven music vid, listens to Takahashi clown around, and watches Yushin and Naoki from the brand-new group H2O try to act like professionals. The group members get younger all the time… or maybe it’s just that Ryuu’s getting older. He’s pretty sure he was never that green, though, not even as a raw agency recruit.

Afterwards, everyone gets their turn to sing, with Ryuu starting out. The show’s producer asked them to perform a song of their choice, and Ryuu is quite happy with his rendition of ‘Dialog’ — he likes the song, and he feels that he really nails it today.

Then there’s some downtime, because they’re all supposed to come back onstage for the closing medley. Takahashi is up next, and Yushin and Naoki make carefully polite conversation with Ryuu for a minute before equally politely finding a different corner of the backstage waiting area.

It wasn’t like they were scintillating conversationalists anyway… but Ryuu should have brought his ipod.

The stage manager comes to get the first kid in another minute, the other one trailing along to watch from the wings. And then Takahashi comes bounding back, larger than life and twice as eye-searing in his multi-layered pseudo-samurai outfit, complete with sword and topped off by curved metallic horns.

Seriously? „You have got to be kidding me. You got to choose a song, and you chose ‘Bushido Kiss Foray’?“ They all get stuck with horrible solos sometimes, but what kind of twisted nutjob would actually perform this travesty voluntarily?

„Yep!“ For no discernible reason, Takahashi does a little jig, enthusiastically dancing in place and raising his arms as though expecting to be showered with flowers (or rotten eggs). „It’s a lot of fun, and it’s very cheerful. Always makes for a good atmosphere!“

That’s one way of putting it. „And you get to wear — that. Whatever that is.“

Takahashi beams. „It’s a horny samurai. Can’t you tell?“

Ryuu supposes he walked into that one.

It’s especially rankling that Takahashi had more foresight than Ryuu did. He settles happily at the table, carefully tucking back the sheath of the sword, and produces a game boy from a bag slung over the back of his chair.

Ryuu holds out for five minutes before breaking. „What are you playing?“

„Tetris.“ Takahashi doesn’t look up from the small screen, thumbs flashing. For once, he isn’t grinning.

„Tetris?“ Ryuu snorts. Why doesn’t it surprise him that Takahashi’s playing a kid’s game?

Takahashi does look up then, shooting him a split-second glance before returning his concentration to the game. „Want to try?“

„Hell, why not.“ Not like he has anything better to do.

It’s another couple of minutes before Takahashi’s game finishes, and he shows Ryuu the score before resetting. „9680. Think you can beat that?“

Ryuu shrugs. It’s been ages since he’s played Tetris, but it’s not like it’s a complicated game.

The moves come back to him quickly. Ryuu only rotates one piece the wrong way before he has the hang of it again, and from then on it’s easy. It does require concentration, though, and for the first moments — until he gets into the game enough that he forgets all about it — he’s irritated by Takahashi hanging over his shoulder and breathing.

The kids come back mid-game and settle down at the other side of the room. Ryuu hardly notices, because the blocks are now falling so fast that he can hardly move them into position in time, and before he knows it uncompleted lines are piling halfway up the screen —

„I win!“ Takahashi whoops directly into his ear. „Pretty good though, Ryuu-chan. For a beginner.“

His final score flashes on the screen — 3780.

What the fuck! Less than half of Takahashi’s score?

„Uh, senpai,“ Naoki (or possibly Yushin) ventures from over by the door. „The medley?“

Ryuu tosses the game boy onto the table and scowls at Takahashi. „This isn’t over.“

Takahashi smiles.

 

~~~~~

 

Ryuu’s never even liked Tetris much — he prefers real games, games with cars to race or monsters to defeat or princesses to save, preferably all of the above.

Even so, the first thing he does when he gets home is to dig out his old game boy. It takes him almost an hour to find it; turns out it’s stuffed in an old shoe box in the back of his closet along with a handful of game cartridges and some random manga, the entire thing buried underneath an avalanche of sneakers. There’s even a link cable for connecting it to Takahashi’s game boy, though it takes Ryuu another half hour to find the charger.

He’s meeting Corazon, Kenta and Nomura for a drink in the evening, but leaves them to it after an hour or so. By now the game boy should be charged again.

Ryuu hasn’t even finished a single game of Tetris when the battery cuts out on him. He spends the rest of the evening playing while hooked up to the charger, which means that he has to move the sofa halfway across the room to get comfortable enough to concentrate properly.

He buys a new battery in the train station the next morning, and wins handily when he challenges Takahashi to a rematch before the first rehearsal for Sakamoto Reiko’s birthday concert.

„Hah!“ He’s the one grinning now, and there may even be some not entirely dignified jumping-up-punching-the-air action. „Yes! Who’s the beginner now, kiss foray boy!“

Takahashi accepts Ryuu’s superiority with more grace than Ryuu expected. „Good game, Ryuu-chan. Looks like you’re this winter’s winner!“

Ouch — the puns get worse all the time. But never mind; Ryuu’s known it all along. Clearly yesterday was just a fluke, or the unfamiliar game boy, or something.

The glow of victory carries him through the first run-through of the short solos for the intro section. But by the time the producers have shuffled the order of the songs and the choreographers have had their say about how they should all move about the stage, something starts niggling at Ryuu. He thinks about it all the way through the rearranged 7Heaven solos, with the result that he almost misses the cue for his brand-new solo song (‘Cherry Heart’, which the songwriters call a power ballad and Ryuu thinks of as a snoozefest).

Ryuu won four of the seven matches the multiplayer version of Tetris calls for — and he won them all with scores that weren’t nearly as high as Takahashi’s score yesterday. Sure, nobody can be in top form every day. But even so, this extreme drop in Takahashi’s performance is a little odd.

Now that he thinks of it… this is actually not ‘a little odd’. This is ‘glaringly suspicious’.

He’s going to kill Takahashi.

As soon as the second run-through of the intro is over, he finds Takahashi (gesticulating wildly and burbling away at a choreographer) and grabs him by the arm, hauling him off into the wings where he finds a relatively secluded nook. „You let me win, you bastard!“

Takahashi opens his eyes wide and looks surprised, clueless and innocent. Ryuu has never seen such an obvious admission of guilt in his life. „But Ryuu-chan, why would you think —”

„What kind of wimp are you? You are not letting me win! I’m going to win without any help from you!“

„Well, if you’re sure,“ Takahashi says, and — of course — smiles. Ryuu is getting really tired of that smile. „I need to talk with Minami-san now, but I’ll be all yours in the next break.“

And when the next break comes, Ryuu loses to Takahashi in four matches, scoring a humiliatingly small fraction of Takahashi’s points in each.

Turns out Takahashi wasn’t even trying yesterday, the cheating wimp.

 

~~~~~

 

When Ryuu was 13, his mother suggested that he should let his little sister win at Sugoroku every once in a while. He thought she was joking until she gave him her patented meaningful glance-and-nod combination the next time Yuki got out the board.

It was a notion that Ryuu just couldn’t wrap his head around. What’s the point of playing at all if you’re not going to try your level best to win?

He decided to pretend his mother had never suggested such an absurd thing. But she kept it up with the meaningful glancing and nodding, and there was only so much maternal adjuration Ryuu could take. So eventually, he caved and did let Yuki win.

Yuki ordered him to never even think about doing that again, slammed the door of her room twice (for emphasis), and sulked for half an hour or so until she forgot all about it.

At the time, Ryuu thought it was because he couldn’t both let her win and actually be gracious and subtle about it, too. Now, he considers that maybe Yuki’s like Ryuu. Maybe she wanted to win, not be handed a mock victory like a condescending pat on the head.

The night after Takahashi lets him win at Tetris, Ryuu skips practicing the guitar and stays up far too late playing a stupid antiquated video game. He manages to improve his score by a pretty hefty margin… at least until he’s too tired to see straight anymore. He does it again the next evening, and the evening after that, and then he feels confident enough in his skills to corner Takahashi at the last rehearsal for the birthday concert.

Well. Let’s just say he’d expected that to go better.

He guesses he should have known that three practice sessions weren’t enough to catch up to someone who’s been playing this stupid game for who knows how many years. It’s still frustrating, though.

Clearly, this is going to take a little more time and effort than he had originally anticipated. It’ll be worth it, though — he can’t wait to wipe that smile from Takahashi’s face with a real victory.

Sakamoto Reiko’s birthday is that Monday, and Ryuu declines Takahashi’s good-natured offer of a rematch with a glare. He collects the man’s cell phone number and email address instead. That way, he can schedule the rematch when he’s ready.

 

~~~~~

 

Ryuu’s just following Yo out of the small ramen place in Shibuya that Corazon recommended when he sees someone tall, skinny and familiar vanishing into the department store across the street.

It’s fate. Clearly. He’s been practicing, he’s ready — and this time, he’s sure. He even has his game boy in his pocket. Yep, it’s time to settle the score once and for all.

The traffic light has just turned green, and Ryuu bolts across the street before Takahashi has the chance to disappear in the mass of shoppers. When he reaches the other side of the street, he turns around to wave at Yo briefly in a mixture of apology and goodbye.

Yo responds by making an exaggerated ‘what the fuck?’ gesture before shrugging and sticking out his tongue at Ryuu. Sometimes Yo’s twelve. That Ryuu sticks his own tongue out right back — that’s different. It’s the only possible response, after all.

Ryuu’s wearing his ‘out in public’ disguise, and he pulls his baseball cap a little more deeply into his face when he pushes through the revolving door into the warm air of the store. For a moment he thinks he wasn’t fast enough, but then he catches sight of Takahashi on the escalator, going up.

After a slight detour to avoid a clutch of schoolgirls, Ryuu catches up with him in the men’s clothing section. Takahashi’s found a relatively secluded corner and is holding something up in front of a mirror.

„Hey, Takahashi!“

The surprise on Takahashi’s face turns into a huge, joyful smile as soon as he catches sight of Ryuu. „Ryuu-chan! This is great! You like shopping here too?“

He seems to mean it — he’s all but bouncing with happiness, the weirdo. You’d think he’d found his long-lost brother or something, rather than being about to have the pants beaten off him at Tetris.

Ryuu smiles a slow, dangerous smile that by rights should make Takahashi’s own smile fall right off his face. It doesn’t, though; Takahashi doesn’t seem to have the sense god gave little green tomatoes. „Uh-huh. Tell me again how great this is after I — what the fuck is that?“

„What, this?“ Takahashi blinks at Ryuu and then turns to the mirror again, holding up the horrendous pink and green monstrosity that’s threatening to eat his hands. „I need some more warm clothes for the winter. This sweater’s really soft and warm — don’t you think it suits me?“

„That thing wouldn’t suit a tengu! Forget it.“ Ryuu grabs the eyesore out of Takahashi’s hands and tosses it back on a shelf full of similar horrors, where the man evidently got it from. It is really soft, as Ryuu can’t help but notice, but that doesn’t excuse the lapse of taste of ever having picked it up in the first place. „God, Takahashi. You need help.“

But Takahashi has already wandered off and is contemplating a checkered flannel shirt that wouldn’t even be half bad, if it weren’t for the fact that it was clearly made for someone not so freakishly tall. Takahashi insists that he can roll up the sleeves and wear a long-sleeved t-shirt underneath, but that’s just stupid.

„Don’t buy anything that doesn’t fit you, no matter how much you like it. Just keep looking until you find something you like that does fit.“ It’s what Ryuu’s mother always says, and Ryuu’s mother is a smart woman.

„Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’ll just have to hope the vest is still to come!“

Oh boy.

The flannel shirt fits Ryuu pretty well, though, because he’s normal-sized. And it doesn’t look bad at all. Ryuu can also do with some more warm clothes to get him through the winter… his old stuff is kind of, well. Old.

„It looks great on you, Ryuu-chan. Way better than on me.“

Why not. It isn’t that expensive.

There’s a shelf full of hats over by the scarves. Most of them are pretty horrible, but there’s one that goes with the shirt. Ryuu looks through the rest of the selection to make sure he isn’t missing out on something really cool, and by the time he pays attention again, Takahashi is over by the register, trying to buy something while Ryuu’s back is turned.

He barely gets there in time to prevent the worst.

„What do you think you’re doing? Sorry, Miss, but he doesn’t want that. We’re very sorry, but no, he definitely isn’t going to buy that. At all. No way.“

The way the saleswoman smiles at them as Ryuu drags Takahashi away makes Ryuu think she has kids their age. It’s embarrassing to be smiled at in that fondly indulgent way by a woman who isn’t his actual mother, and so the glare Ryuu hits Takahashi with has extra force. Not that Takahashi is impressed; he doesn’t even seem to notice, just grins and bounds back over to the sweaters, leaving the awful tent-like black thing that he almost bought (which is again warm and soft, but appalling in every other way) for Ryuu to sort out.

Clearly, they aren’t going to get out of here and get on with things before Takahashi finds something to buy.

Ryuu looks around for a bit and discovers a far nicer selection of sweaters in a different corner. It takes a while to find one that will fit Takahashi’s freakishly long limbs, though, and when they do, Takahashi doesn’t like it for some stupid reason or other and turns unexpectedly mulish.

In the end, Ryuu buys his shirt and hat and they go to a different store, which doesn’t have any suitable sweaters either. But Takahashi finds two decent shirts and a nice jacket, and Ryuu adds a scarf to his own purchases because it goes well with his new hat.

They hit the jackpot at store number four: two soft, warm and nice sweaters for Takahashi that are big enough to cover his wrists and yet not shapeless enough to make him look like an orangutan. There’s also a pair of jeans that aren’t especially winter-y, but that are long enough for him (which — as Takahashi explains enthusiastically and at great length — is a rare and wonderful thing). Plus he gets a scarf with a matching hat, both white and blue with a snowflake pattern that should look really twee, but somehow doesn’t.

Ryuu needs new running shoes, so they go to a shoe store after. And then Takahashi insists on dropping by the bookstore next door and picks up a bunch of manga about samurai and a weird-ass novel about endlessly reborn magical guardians. (Takahashi tries to explain, but Ryuu doesn’t get it — either the confusing plot or the reason why Takahashi wants to read this weird crap. Except that he’s Freaky Bushido Kiss Foray Man, of course.) And after that they have so many bags that they drop them all off at a takkyuubin service center for an express same-day delivery.

Even though it’s pretty damn cold outside, they stop to buy ice cream and eat it out in the open. Ryuu gets black sesame and green tea. Takahashi gets vanilla, walnut and bubble gum.

By the time they’ve finished, Ryuu’s hands are numb with cold and Takahashi’s cheeks are flushed bright pink, despite the new hat and scarf he’s wrapped himself up in like a mummy. So then they find a nice café and drink tea, warm up, and play Tetris.

Ryuu loses. But it’s still kind of a nice way to spend an afternoon.

 

~~~~~

 

Ryuu picks up Takahashi at the studio where he’s recording an episode of his band’s show ONYX is Forever with the rest of his group. He’s early, so he asks a production assistant to let him in and finds a seat in the very back. This episode’s guest is Takeshi Kaga, which is pretty cool — if Ryuu had known that, he might have come earlier still to see the whole thing.

Takahashi clowns around a bit, like always, but doesn’t say much — this is clearly other people’s show. He mainly seems to be there to provide random background noise and be picked on by the others, most markedly Kobayashi, who appears glad for the chance to bully someone. Maybe he thinks it makes him look tougher.

They finish filming the episode and take another quarter of an hour to film a dart-throwing contest, which Matsuo seems very set on winning and eventually does win.

Ryuu can’t help but notice that Takahashi makes a big deal of aiming and never hits properly — except for the last time, when he is so far back that he couldn’t catch up with Matsuo no matter what. Then, he aims briefly but with true concentration and hits a bull’s eye, which means he ends up mid-field rather than last.

Is Ryuu really the first one who ever noticed this?

Not for the first time, Ryuu is glad he isn’t in ONYX. He would have murdered Takahashi long ago, and he really prefers the life of an idol to prison.

Takahashi comes out to meet him in the lobby and they head out to grab a bite to eat, because Takahashi claims he can’t concentrate on an empty stomach. Turns out there’s a pretty nice grilled meat place near the studio, and Takahashi evidently drops in often enough that he has a regular table.

„So, Takahashi,“ Ryuu tells him once they’ve ordered. „Since you make a habit of this losing on purpose thing, I feel I should tell you once and for all that if you ever try that on me again, I will make you regret it.“

Ryuu knows that he can be intimidating — he’s been told so often enough — and he’s actually trying, this time, even going so far as to lean across the table and lower his voice meaningfully.

But Takahashi just grins sunnily, all cheer and good vibes. „Never fear! I’ll just let you lose naturally from now on. I wouldn’t want to make you lose it, after all.“

Oh for fuck’s sake. „Any chance that I can make you stop using god-awful puns?“

„None whatsoever,“ Takahashi announces cheerfully. „Sorry, Ryuu-chan. A pun is its own reword.“

Yes, well. It’s not like Ryuu was truly holding out hope there. „And I’m not going to lose naturally,“ he grumbles. „I’m going to win naturally.“

„Sure you are,“ Takahashi says, and this grin is both cheerful and insolent. Ryuu gets the impression that he only narrowly escapes having his hair ruffled.

His glare bounces off Takahashi’s cheer like an arrow off plate armor. „Why do you do this anyway? Don’t you want to win?“ Doesn’t everyone, if they can?

Takahashi blinks at him, seeming startled for a moment, and then shrugs. „That’s not really what this kind of thing is about. I mean, these contests in the show, they’re just a gag. It’s not like it means anything.“

„It means you lose!“

But Takahashi just shrugs again, and the way he’s looking at Ryuu is starting to make Ryuu uncomfortable, so he lets it drop. It’s not like he really cares about the weirdness lurking in Takahashi’s dorky depths, anyway.

Their food arrives soon afterwards, and Takahashi asks him a couple of things about 7Heaven and a couple of things about their upcoming concerts and then accepts that Ryuu isn’t in a talkative mood and just holds the rest of the conversation by himself, with occasional pauses and looks at Ryuu that invite him to join in. Ryuu fails to accept these invitations, but it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.

Takahashi isn’t half bad at the solo entertainer thing. The things he talks about are banal, but he has an entertaining way of presenting them, and Ryuu even catches himself snorting in amusement once or twice. Each time he does, Takahashi straightens a little in his chair and brightens, ever-present smile shining with a new intensity of cheer.

Ryuu’s had worse evenings. Even though — later on — he loses to Takahashi. Again.

He is definitely going to win in the end. He’s just going to have to practice harder, that’s all. It’s not the first time he’s had to work hard for something he wants.

 

~~~~~

 

They get into a kind of routine eventually — every couple of days they meet up and play Tetris, and soon they also play other video games because Ryuu can’t stand losing all the time. Besides, if you play nothing but Tetris, sooner or later your brain will turn into a cluster of geometrical shapes.

Ryuu does better with the other games, which is a definite plus. It’s really been gnawing at him that he just can’t seem to get Takahashi on the Tetris front. Not that it’s exactly easy to get him on the Dynasty Invasion or Bladestorm front, but at least it’s possible. And Takahashi honestly and genuinely sucks at Bayonetta and Call of Battle, to the point where it’s not even fun to beat him at it. After the first five times or so. Much.

They usually play in the evening, and grab a bite to eat while they’re at it.

Once, when they both happen to have the day off, Takahashi claims he has to go shopping for new clothes again because he has a couple of photoshoots coming up. This is obviously an attempt to stall because he senses that Ryuu is about to beat him. So Ryuu tells him he isn’t getting off that lightly and meets him at his apartment, where Takahashi greets him cheerfully and gives him a bicycle.

The neighbor whose bicycle (as it turns out) Takahashi borrowed for Ryuu pops out onto the street when they get ready to leave. He’s a stern-looking, grey-haired grandfather-type, and Ryuu fears that Takahashi has somehow incited his wrath by listening to music too loudly or slamming the doors. But instead of scolding, the old guy presses home-made cookies on them (he really doesn’t have to press very hard — Takahashi evidently has a lot of experience with mooching cookies from the poor man). He also admonishes them to wrap their scarves tightly so they don’t catch cold, and then stands in the street and waves as they set out.

Takahashi must be contagious. It’s the only way to explain this abundance of friendliness.

It’s kind of a long ride, but the weather’s good and they race each other a couple of times on the way, with inconclusive results because of inconvenient traffic lights.

There are some seriously cool stores around Takahashi’s place. Ryuu buys several t-shirts, a vest and a jacket with little glittery badges all over, and considers a neat hat with polka dots. Takahashi giggles when Ryuu tries it on, though, and makes a stupid pun about Ryuu not being dotty enough to wear something like that. So Ryuu doesn’t buy it in the end.

In his turn, Takahashi tries to buy a sweater that looks like the lovechild of a woolly mammoth and a peacock, if mammoths and peacocks came in orange. What is it with Takahashi and tasteless sweaters? Honestly, it’s like a chronic illness. Ryuu considers it his civic duty to protect the eyes of innocent fans everywhere by preventing the purchase. There’s bound to be a far better selection of sweaters at the next store.

 

~~~~~

 

There’s an outdoor ice-skating rink in Roppongi that Ryuu’s been wanting to go to for a while. His Saturday is almost entirely free, and the weather has been really great these last couple of days; it will be a nice change of pace. Maybe he’ll ask Yo to come along. Ren might have time, too; ONYX doesn’t have any concerts at the moment, so it’s worth checking with him. That would be cool, the three of them getting to hang out again. Or if neither of them can go, then maybe…

„Which brings us to the last point on today’s agenda! Shiwasuda-san, please note this down on your schedule. H2O are having the first concert of their tour at the Tokyo Dome this Saturday, and you will be making a guest appearance. Please be sure to arrive half an hour early, and don’t forget to mention the 7Heaven concerts next month!“

What?

Ryuu blinks and looks around at the others to make sure he hasn’t misheard. But no, Yo and Suzu and Corazon and the others are looking at him with various levels of sympathy and amusement, so evidently he isn’t imagining things.

„Uh,“ he says, and then stops for a moment to search for words that fail to present themselves. „I. What?“

Kinjo-san smiles at him politely. It’s a nice smile, but there’s steel behind it. „Please remember to listen to their debut album so you can remark positively on their songs and performance.“

She pushes a CD across the table at him. Ryuu stares at it for a moment before picking it up; five boys pout up at him from the cover, all of them too young to pull off the sexy look they’re trying for.

Ryuu doesn’t really know how to phrase „But I don’t want to!“ in a suitably convincing way, so he gives 7Heaven’s manager a pleading look. Kinjo-san meets it with kind firmness and doesn’t give an inch. She looks like a kindly grandmother, which usually means Ryuu gives in to her immediately because it’s pretty much impossible to talk back to someone like that. But in this case…

Not on his first free Saturday in ages! Not when the weather is so good, and the ice-skating rink is calling, and Ryuu just doesn’t want to be all supportive senpai for a bunch of teenagers he doesn’t know the first thing about!

„But I don’t want… can’t someone else go?“ It’s not a whine, it’s a reasonable question. Everyone knows Ryuu hates doing this kind of thing, so it’d make more sense for someone to do it who doesn’t mind so much, or even enjoys it. There are people like that, after all, as incomprehensible as it is. Like Suzu, or Shimo —

„Please do your best, Shiwasuda-san.“ Kinjo-san nods at him and begins to gather up her papers, and thus, the subject is closed and Ryuu’s doom is sealed.

Evidently he’s the only senpai signed up for this so far, too, which is very bad news, because it means that if he’s unlucky, he’ll be hauled on stage and forced to talk a lot about how much he likes those squirts and how they should all go out together for dinner some time. If he’s really unlucky, they might even take him up on it.

No way. Ryuu definitely isn’t going to be doing this alone. He refuses, and that’s that.

Except that it turns out Suzu’s doing some promotion thing for his new drama that weekend, and nobody else wants to accompany Ryuu to the concert either. Ren’s mother is visiting, which is at least a good excuse, and Yo simply hangs up on Ryuu (which, in Yo-speech, means „thank you for thinking of me, but I don’t much feel like it“). Ryuu even phones up Shimo, but gets his voicemail and — later — a text message apologizing that he can’t make it for some stupid reason or other.

„Hey, dork. What are you doing this Saturday?“

„Oh, hey, Ryuu-chan! Hm, I’m not entirely sure yet. I have the entire day off, isn’t that great? So of course I’ll sleep in, and then maybe meet up with some friends to play basketball or —”

„Great, so nothing important, huh. In that case, you’re coming to the H2O premiere at the Dome with me. I’ll pick you up at four, so you’d better be ready.“

He hangs up too quickly for Takahashi to protest, but after everyone else’s reactions, he expects him to call or message Ryuu pretty much right away, saying he just remembered that he has to wash his hair or practice his backflips or whatever.

He doesn’t, though. Not right away and not that entire day, or the day after, and when Ryuu arrives in front of Takahashi’s apartment building on Saturday, Takahashi’s folding himself into Ryuu’s car within minutes of Ryuu calling him down.

Since it’s the Tokyo Dome, they get to sit in the VIP section (thank the god of concert halls for small favors), so at least they’re safe from the fans. Ryuu’s wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses even so, but Takahashi’s completely undisguised, the freak; he even waves at a couple of fans, and goes over to talk to a girl who comes up to the barrier in front of VIP seating and squeals his name.

Ryuu sinks down further in his seat and pulls the cap more deeply into his face.

Fortunately, the security guards are keeping an eye on things and shoo Takahashi and his admirer back to their seats before too long, and then the lights go down and the fans focus on other things.

„They’re pretty good, aren’t they!“ Takahashi shouts at Ryuu after the first song, leaning close to make himself heard.

Ryuu makes a non-committal noise, but reconsiders after the next couple of songs, which are a little faster and snappier. „They’re okay. I like the small one.“

The solos are a mixed bag, as usual, but Takahashi seems to like them all; he’s been bopping along to the beat and doing sitting-down shimmies ever since the beginning of the concert. It’s more entertaining to watch him than the boys up on stage, and when Takahashi grins at him conspiratorially and bumps him with a shoulder, Ryuu does a shimmy or two alongside Takahashi and can’t help but laugh.

The concert flies by way more quickly than Ryuu’d feared. Before he knows it, they’re at the talk segment. The kids clown around a little and mention a TV series that that Sugawara person — who’s being promoted all over lately — will be acting in, and then it’s show time.

„We’d like to thank our senpai who are visiting us today — Shiwasuda Ryuu!“

Ryuu stands up and smiles and waves, and because Takahashi jostles him pointedly when he’s about to sit down again, he turns to the other side of the auditorium and smiles and waves some more.

„And Takahashi Hiroshi!“

Takahashi springs up and waves his arms, mugging like a madman. Faced by so much enthusiasm, Ryuu is a little ashamed of his own half-hearted effort and gives another little wave in the direction of the guys on stage.

„Please, senpai, would the two of you do us the honor of joining us on stage?“

Great.

Takahashi doesn’t have to be asked twice, of course. Ryuu trails along in his wake and tries not to let on that he’d much rather be ice-skating right now.

Sugawara hands Ryuu a microphone and looks at him expectantly, so Ryuu says a couple of words on how much he enjoyed the concert so far and how good those squirts are, and that they should keep practicing and trying hard. Then he runs out of properly nice and bland things to say and hands the micro over to Takahashi, who says the same things again, except using a lot more words and what definitely seems like more sincerity.

The squirts act overwhelmed with joy at the praise, which Ryuu guesses is down to either their concert high or the fact they’re so new to holding concerts of their very own that they honestly feel flattered (though it’s possible Takahashi actually means it). Considering they’re practically babies and have just been promoted from recruits to fully-fledged idols, Ryuu guesses a little giddiness is understandable.

Even so, the Sugawara kid goes completely overboard, what with the way he hugs Takahashi, and clings, and more or less cuddles up to him. It’s kinda weird; at 18, the kid isn’t actually that small a kid anymore, and most other senpai probably wouldn’t appreciate the presumption. (Takahashi, of course, just hugs and cuddles back.)

And then one of the smaller kids asks Takahashi to do some acrobatics, and Ryuu has to hold the microphone while Takahashi shows off with a spine-twisting maneuver that starts out as a series of front flips and turns into a series of backflips somewhere in the middle.

A short impromptu backflip coaching session later — that Ryuu declines to take part in firmly enough that nobody tries to insist, not even Takahashi — Sugawara thanks them for supporting him and the others, and that’s that.

Of course, then Takahashi opens his big mouth and trumpets: „I’d really like it if we could all have dinner together some time soon!“ But that turns out okay, too, because they don’t think they’ll feel up to it after the concert — which is the second one of the day, after all — and so take a rain check. Whatever, Ryuu can get out of that easily enough, and it isn’t like he’s the one who suggested it, anyway. He was just incidentally standing around in the vicinity and doesn’t have to consider himself part of the offer at all.

They stay backstage for the rest of the concert because the kids’ manager wants them to come out again for the encore. That works out well; they spend the rest of the concert playing Chrono Trigger II, and afterwards they have dinner at an all-night sushi place near Takahashi’s house, completely unbothered by teenagers high on adrenaline and post-concert exhaustion.

„That concert was a resounding success, don’t you think?“ Takahashi says, and grins at Ryuu. „Those kids are pretty good. They’re already so much better now than when they were just a recruit unit. It’s amazing how much of a difference a debut makes.“

„Hm.“ Ryuu can’t say he remembers much of anything about them when they were just a recruit unit, so he changes the subject by stealing Takahashi’s abalone sushi.

„Don’t you think it’s kinda extreme how much of the spotlight Sugawara gets?“ he says later, when they’re both finished and Takahashi’s eyeing Ryuu’s leftover ginger. „I mean… the little one. You know, with the hair. He’s got a good voice, but the only time you get a chance to notice at all is in his solo.“

Takahashi snags Ryuu’s ginger and pops it into his mouth, and looks so smug about it that Ryuu scowls at him even though he hadn’t wanted the stuff himself, anyway.

„It’s still a chance for them all, though,“ Takahashi says then. „I’m sure it’s really frustrating at times, and it isn’t a great situation for Sugawara either, but… would it have been any better if they’d stayed recruits?“

Well, no, of course not, but still. Roku is really weird sometimes. Why did he shove four other guys into a group with the Sugawara kid if they’re then going to be treated like backdancers for a solo artist?

„They’ll probably get to be in some temporary units later on. It’d make sense to have them perform as two duos plus Sugawara, considering their age differences. Remember Naoki-kun and Yushin-kun were in Talent Stage together that time?“ Takahashi’s smiling again, but it’s a different smile from any Ryuu’s seen before. „Don’t worry, Ryuu-chan. This will give them a chance to show what they can do.“

He wasn’t worrying. He was just saying.

„I don’t really like going to concerts like that,“ Ryuu says later still, when Takahashi’s already halfway out of the car. „You know. It’s kind of. Especially alone. So.“

Takahashi leans down to look inside the car, and this smile is sudden and bright. „You’re welcome.“

And he’s gone.

 

~~~~~

 

„Ryuu-chan!“ Takahashi’s smile is so radiant Ryuu feels vaguely dazzled, as though he’ll see an afterimage if he blinks. „You’ll never guess what just happened! I’m — oh, I’m so sorry, sir.“

The balding salaryman Takahashi bumped into looks up sharply, already drawing in a quick breath to deliver some kind of stinging reply, and then just stares and says nothing, apparently too stunned by the smile to respond.

Ryuu blinks. There is no afterimage. What there is is Takahashi, right in front of him, practically vibrating with happy energy. For a moment, Ryuu thinks he’s going to be picked up and whirled through the air in a circle, or at least taken by the shoulders and shaken excitedly.

He retreats half a step before he can stop himself. „Takahashi, what the hell? You’re kind of scaring me here.“

„The agency called me when I was on the subway!“ Takahashi crows. „I’ll be on a talkshow with DIESEL in three hours! Isn’t that great?“

Ryuu blinks again. Still no afterimage. Still Takahashi right in front of him, all wide-eyed eagerness, waiting for Ryuu to respond to his apparently sensational announcement.

„Oh,“ Ryuu says, because nothing else occurs to him. „Yeah, that’s pretty cool. So you like DIESEL, huh?“

Takahashi does, and doesn’t hesitate to tell him all about it. They find a table at a café in the station so he won’t be entertaining the entire pre-rush hour crowd; there’s little point in them heading for Ryuu’s place like they planned. Not when Takahashi will have to leave again in half an hour anyway to make it to the TV studio on time.

So, no Tetris today. Looks like Ryuu will have to wait some longer to finally get his own back. And no Ronin Blade Hunter — which is lucky for Takahashi, of course, because Ryuu would have kicked his ass to Kyushu and back.

No stupid puns, irrepressible cheer or general Takahashi weirdness, either. Which is, well. It’s not that Ryuu — just, he’s not really that much of a fan of sudden changes in plans.

„There’s evidently a stomach flu going around and half of the planned guests had to cancel,“ Takahashi is burbling happily. „So they’re asking around if anyone is available on short notice, and I don’t know why they asked me but maybe Shibata-senpai thought of me because I was on that one episode of his show with him, way back when. It was such enormous fun working with him, he’s so cool and funny and smart, and —”

Ryuu makes vague paying-attention noises and tries not to let on he’s feeling a little grumpy about this whole thing. It’s bad manners, that’s what, ditching Ryuu at the last minute. What’s he supposed to do with his evening now? Twiddle his thumbs?

It’d take a meaner man than Ryuu to want to dim Takahashi’s good mood, though. He’s all alight with the joy of anticipation, almost wiggling in his seat, like a big kid. Ryuu’s seen a lot of Takahashi in a good mood, of course — when is he ever not? — but this is still different.

Take the smile. It’s not nearly as broad and toothy as the typical, trademarked Takahashi grin. It’s not particularly broad at all, really, particularly not right this second, when Hiro’s craning his neck to catch a glimpse of the clock on the wall. But somehow, it’s so concentrated and intense that it has the power to stop enraged salarymen in their tracks.

„I’d better go! I’m really sorry about running out on you like this, Ryuu-chan. I’ll treat you to dinner at a good yakiniku place to make up for it, how about that?“

„I’m holding you to that promise, dork.“ And he is; it’s the least Takahashi can do. But Ryuu gets that Takahashi can’t pass on a chance to chum around with his favorite senpai, so he jostles his shoulder companionably when they’re both standing up. „Don’t sweat it. I’ve been wanting to get in an evening with my guitars anyway. Maybe I can even catch up on some sleep.“

They’re putting on their jackets when Takahashi’s phone trumpets a brassy flourish from his pocket. Ryuu recognizes the song when the beat kicks in, launching it into hectic speed, just as Takahashi’s dug out his phone and is flipping it open.

‘Bushido Kiss Foray’.

Unbelievable. Seriously. That dork is beyond belief.

„Oh, Hiraga-san!“ Takahashi turns to make some kind of excited gesture at Ryuu, signaling who knows what. „Yes, that’s right. I’m getting ready to go now, so I’ll be at the studio in about an hour.“

Except that suddenly, all of the excited energy and bouncy anticipation freezes on Takahashi’s face, in his entire body. He stands stock-still for a moment and then slumps a little, shoulders sagging almost imperceptively. „Ah, I see,“ is what he says. „No, of course not. It’s no trouble at all — I wasn’t on the way yet. Yes, I’m glad that everything worked out. Thank you for checking back! Have a nice evening.“

He closes the phone slowly, looking off into space. And then he takes a deep breath; his shoulders go back and his head goes up, and it’s like — it’s weird, is what, there’s a really weird moment when Ryuu can actually see Takahashi’s good mood returning, flowing into him in the form of energy, and cheer, and his usual easy, lanky grace of movement.

It’s like he gathers himself into it. And that makes no sense at all, even in Ryuu’s head. It’s just weird, okay?

Takahashi tucks away the phone and shakes his head, and when he looks over at Ryuu again, there’s wry amusement tugging at the corners of his mouth. „They found someone else for the talkshow, Ryuu-chan. Looks like I have some free time on my hands tonight… So what do you say, yakiniku or video games? Or both?“

This smile isn’t the blindingly radiant, salaryman-stopping force from ten minutes ago, but it’s real all the same. Ryuu can tell the difference; he knows when someone’s just putting up a front, and by now he also knows Takahashi, a little. And this isn’t just Takahashi pretending. Ryuu’s sure of it.

It’s the weirdest thing. Seriously. Takahashi is the weirdest thing.

„Video games,“ he says, because Takahashi’s looking at him expectantly. Ryuu’s already stocked up on beer and other essentials — no need to let it go to waste. He can dine on Takahashi’s dime another day.

So Tetris at Ryuu’s place it is, after all. And then Ronin Blade Hunter. And through it all, Takahashi shows no sign of brooding — there are no dark looks, no gloomy moments, nothing that looks remotely like the mood of a guy who’s been denied something he wanted pretty damn bad. He’s just his normal cheerful self.

Ryuu doesn’t even know why he notices. It’s none of his business, and if Takahashi’s managed to put it from his mind, then good for him, right? But it’s odd, another one in the growing list of Takahashi’s oddnesses, and Ryuu can’t help but wonder how they all add up. If they do.

It takes a beer or two to loosen up his tongue enough for the question to slip out, but eventually it does.

„Doesn’t it matter to you?“ Ryuu sounds brusque because he hadn’t meant to ask at all, and he knows he shouldn’t. „You were so excited about that show. How can you not — how can you just shrug it off like that? Why don’t you care more?“

He doesn’t mean it quite the way it comes out; he knows it’s not that Takahashi doesn’t care. Ryuu saw the disappointment and dejection, clear as day. They were there, and then they weren’t, and that — apparently — was that.

Takahashi gives him a look that suggests he’s only barely escaping an eye-rolling. „Of course it matters to me. It is what it is, though — I don’t have to let it spoil my evening, do I? I’d rather have a good time with you than moan and wail and curse Hiraga-san and the TV network and whoever got to go instead of me.“

„Yeah, but it — I mean, sure, there’s no help for it and all, but…“ Ryuu searches for the right words for a moment before he gives up and snorts, swatting Takahashi with the Playstation controller. „Weirdo.“

Several nightly courtyards later — stalked through by Ryuu’s samurai guards on the search for Takahashi’s ninjas — the words finally come, and Ryuu pauses the game just as a dark blurry shape drops onto his captain from above.

„The fuck! Where did you come from? I searched that roof twice!“

„No, no — Ryuu-chan, no fair! This is cheating too!“ Takahashi tries to restart the game, but Ryuu knocks his hands away from the controls and shoves him and finally tries to sit on him when he just won’t stop trying to restart his damn ninja attack.

It’s only when Takahashi starts to giggle helplessly and stops fighting that Ryuu finally remembers he was going to say something.

„Hey, that thing, what you said earlier. You know, that you’d rather have a good time than be upset over something you can’t change. That’s — I mean, yeah, of course you’d rather. But it’s not like you can just choose not to be upset.“

Takahashi stares up at him, all mussed and red-faced, and it shouldn’t even be possible for someone more than half buried in couch cushion, but somehow he still manages to be all uh, hello dumbo. „Why not?“

Ryuu just gapes at him for a moment. What is he supposed to say to something like that? It’s like one of those Zen koans, something that’s so obviously nonsensical it will start making sense again if you just manage to twist your brain all out of shape and look at it sideways through a mirror, from three hundred light years away, over in the next universe.

That’s Takahashi for you, Ryuu guesses. It’s Ryuu’s own fault for not realizing a guy who loves ‘Bushido Kiss Foray’ this much has got to be fucked in the head.

„Weirdo,“ he mutters again, and gives up.

He’s got more important things to do than mull over Takahashi’s many weirdnesses, anyway. Like get the man’s damned ninjas away from his stupid samurai.

 

~~~~~

 

At some point, Takahashi starts texting Ryuu randomly — not to schedule a game so he can finally get his ass kicked, but just to babble about whatever pops into his head. Ryuu wonders about it a bit the first several times, but not that much, really. It’s just another Takahashi thing.

Really tasty rolled omelet at ‘Idol Times’ photoshoot today, Hiro texts one day, for example. Couldn’t get to the rice balls before all but the natto-filled ones were gone. You should make sure to get some with salmon in time. Cool light effects with the lasers! But don’t wear a hat with the reflectors. Yuuma did, and now that we’ve seen the previews he won’t stop moaning about it. It’s not as bad as you’d think to listen to him, but he does look a teensy tiny bit like a lampshade.

Ryuu loves omelet, and the advance warning allows him to secure a double helping at his own photoshoot. He also grabs a salmon rice ball, but ends up giving it to Yo because he actually likes the seaweed ones better.

He wears his hat for the first round of the pictures with the reflectors, but takes it off for the second. And when they see the previews after the shooting, Ryuu has to admit that the pictures with the hat make him look rather more like the reflector he’s holding over his head than he’s entirely comfortable with. So, lucky escape there.

What’s your favorite flower? Takahashi texts another time. They just asked me that for an interview, and I couldn’t decide. Because it depends on the season, really. Right now I’m looking forward to spring, so I said plum blossoms. Which aren’t actually flowers because strictly speaking they’re the blossoms of a tree, but everyone always calls them flowers anyway, so. I also love irises. But I really kind of love all flowers, especially the ones that smell good. Really, flowers that don’t smell are just non-scents! Though they’re still way better than those that smell like rotting meat. I don’t remember what they’re called, but those are yucky, and also ugly. Although that’s not really fair, because they do look striking, in their way — definitely impressive. And they’re targeting a different kind of insect than the other flowers. Which is actually a damned good strategy when you think about it. So, more power to the stinky flowers. ;-D

If Ryuu hadn’t known already, that message would certainly have been confirmation of the fact that Takahashi’s mind is a weird and scary place.

Hope to rack up some wins at the in-house billiards championship in my usual parlor, Hiro texts another time. Kobayashi Sachiko is competing, too. Isn’t that cool? Maybe we’ll get to play each other. She’s really good!

Or: This time, I’m promoting some hair ornaments, necklaces and bracelets for the magazines! This particular message is so filled with blinking, sparkling and color-changing emoticons that Ryuu has trouble finding the kanji to read in between all the bling. It’s not really my style, although I do like pink. I wonder what you’ll be promoting. An epilator, maybe? An eyelash curler?

It’s probably exactly your style. Those guys know what they’re doing, Ryuu writes back, and adds a couple of random emoticons, just because. Also, what exactly are you implying? Are you trying to say I’m too hairy? Or that my eyelashes aren’t perfectly formed by nature?

Yeah, Ryuu texts Takahashi too, once or twice. It’s self-defence.

(Ryuu gets to promote several handbags and a rhinestone-encrusted thingie that — so the attending cross-marketing assistant tells him — is used to attach handbags to tables so they don’t take up chair space, or pick up grime on dirty floors. Which is actually kind of neat, and totally useful, right? So Ryuu wins that one.)

At some point, Takahashi also starts inviting him places that have nothing to do with Tetris, or any of the other games they’ve been playing. Looking back later, Ryuu isn’t sure whether this starts before or after the messaging.

Have my solo commercial shoot for Docomo today — if things ad up it should be over in the early afternoon, he writes. Want to check out the new designer boutique in Ginza?

No, Ryuu texts back. He has about minus two hours of spare time that day, and will be lucky to find the time to breathe.

Or: I’m staying in tonight with a mountain of sushi and mochi. Want to drop by?

Ryuu doesn’t reply to this particular message, but he doesn’t have anything on that evening, and happens to be in the vicinity. So why not, right? Takahashi’s home, as promised, and fairly lights up at the sight of Ryuu. He bounds around markedly less than usual, though, which (as it turns out after quite a bit of sushi and mochi, and a glass or two of sake) is because he’s wrenched his knee and is under doctor’s orders to stay home and not do anything stupid for a couple of days. Clearly, the doctor hasn’t actually met Takahashi.

Takahashi suggests Ryuu drop by again the next day to play some video games, with the loser paying for the sushi or pizza or whatever they order in. Ryuu doesn’t have the time, though. So when he gets home that night, he rounds up some DVDs and mangas he has lying around and throws them in a box, together with a bag of chocolate cookies and a new fantasy adventure for Playstation that he only just bought.

He drops the package off at a courier service on his way to the commercial shoot. Takahashi didn’t let on, but Ryuu knows how intensely sucky it is to be forced to stay at home and do nothing, while everybody else rushes around too busy to remember you exist.

Or: Going out for a movie with Nomura and Suzu — we haven’t decided which one yet, but unless I can find someone with taste to back me up, it’s going to be something reelly awful. (Heee, pun!) You know Suzu has no taste in movies, right? And Kosuke just doesn’t have any convincing power. So, want to come along?

Ryuu catches the guys in the lobby. Takahashi grins at him like an insane person while Suzu exclaims over the coincidence — of all the movie theaters in Tokyo, blabla. Despite Ryuu’s good taste, they end up watching a horrible movie anyway. Suzu wants to see some new American end-of-the-world thing that Takahashi can’t protest against successfully after Suzu starts talking faster and more loudly and trying to tickle him into submission, and Nomura and Ryuu just look at each other and don’t even start.

They all have to go get drunk afterwards to erase the memory of the plot, the hero’s painful attempts at acting, and the love interest’s scary, chemically frozen face.

Got anything on tonight? Ryuu texts once, after a long day. It’s already fairly late, and he’s tired, and he should really just go home and get some sleep. But he doesn’t want to; it hasn’t just been a long day but also a long week, and it’s been too long since he’s been home in Osaka with his family, and he doesn’t want to be alone right now.

Nah, Hiro replies. Any ideas?

 

 

My Stars 02 2012: Spotlight on ONYX

How long has ONYX been together?

Doi Saburo: It’s been almost twelve years now. But we didn’t get to debut as a band right away — we performed as a recruit unit for several years. Originally we weren’t meant to be permanent, you know. Roku put us together as a support unit for an Inner Circle concert tour.

Maekawa Ren: I think he picked us mostly because we all just happened to be at the agency that day. (laughs) But it worked out well in the end! We got really popular, so Roku decided to keep ONYX together.

Roku is Sakamoto Rokusaburo, the CEO of the Talent Forge entertainment agency?

Maekawa Ren: Everyone calls him Roku. When someone calls him Sakamoto-san, he doesn’t even turn around. And his wife — she’s really involved in the agency too, and she’s just Reiko. They’re cool like that.

Were things different after you debuted?

Doi Saburo: They really were. Now we have our own concert tours and albums, and every one of us has an online ForgeBlog. It’s a really meaningful thing, being able to speak directly to fans like that.

Matsuo Kyoichi: Also, as a recruit, you never know if you truly have a future in entertainment. Once you’re an idol, you can feel more secure in committing to this path. The kind of attention and promotion you get from the agency are completely different, too.

What was it like suddenly being in a band together?

Hayashida Hotaka: It was a little rough at first. It was our first tour — there’s a lot of stress and expectations, not to mention that it’s plain exhausting physically. Plus, we were teenagers. (laughs) So we kinda fought a lot in the beginning. But in the end we found a good balance.

Did you know each other before Roku created ONYX?

Kobayashi Yuuma: Not really. I’d seen some of the others around, but the only one I’d actually talked to was Matsuo. We were at the same audition, and we’ve been friends ever since.

Hayashida Hotaka: Sabu, Ren and I were at the same audition too, but we didn’t even realize until much later! There are thousands of boys at those auditions. You only really make connections later on, when you’re together for magazine photoshoots, or doing background dancing on Talent Stage, that kind of thing.

What are the Talent Forge auditions like?

Doi Saburo: Crowded! It’s a huge room full of boys from — around age 8 to maybe 14. Roku’s agents go around and put everyone into groups, get everyone organized…

Matsuo Kyoichi: Hundreds of the kids there will be able to sing or dance or play an instrument. In the end, it comes down to catching Roku and Reiko’s eye, making them think you have the right stuff to be an idol.

Takahashi Hiroshi: When I auditioned, there was this old guy who asked me if I played volleyball. I never had before, but I said yes, and he had me play volleyball with some other kids for a while. (laughs) Of course, the old guy turned out to be Roku…

What do you do when you aren’t on stage with ONYX?

Matsuo Kyoichi: I’m studying at university — I’m getting a degree in business administration. And Yuuma and I are working together on a comedy act.

Kobayashi Yuuma: Yeah, plus I’ve been doing more rap music again. I might be able to give some solo concerts soon, maybe bring out a record.

Doi Saburo: I really enjoy acting. I’ve been in many TV series, and viewers seem to like me. So now I’d like to try acting in a movie.

Maekawa Ren: Me too.

Hayashida Hotaka: I’ve recently started competing in sailing races.

Takahashi Hiroshi: Oh, I like so many things. It’s really cool being an idol.

 

Chapter 2

 

„…and the other day when we were recording a commercial, you seemed a little down. I wanted to ask you what was wrong, but I didn’t know how. I didn’t want to embarrass you, but I think we should talk about such things, too, don’t you? Because that’s what friends do.“

Stupid shows. Ryuu doesn’t know why the letter-writing thing is so popular — it’s almost always intensely embarrassing. Today was okay, though. Ryuu was lucky; he was the one of the first who got to choose which of the other members in their bands they wanted to write to, so he could still pick Yo, which made it easy. He thinks he didn’t write anything too dumb, either.

As always, the audience seems riveted by the spectacle of people standing on stage reading out letters to each other.

Matsuo surrenders center stage to Kobayashi, who’s bleached his hair again. This time he’s achieved a virulent-looking shade of orange.

„My letter is to Takahashi,“ Kobayashi announces, and then pauses to look up at the audience with a grimace. „Everyone else was already taken.“ He laughs a little at what passes for his wit.

The real joke here is that Kobayashi actually believes he’s funny — believes it so much that he’s evidently still trying to get that comedy act with Matsuo off the ground. Some people are born stupid and never learn.

„Takahashi-kun, looks like I’m stuck with you again. No, no, just kidding, of course!“

Ha, ha. Ryuu can hardly contain his hilarity.

„Well, what can I say to Takahashi. If you have a special talent, then it has to be annoying people. I know you don’t have a feel for the atmosphere, but it still seems like you should at least try a little harder!“

Ryuu turns to find Hiro at the other end of the stage,where he’s standing with the rest of ONYX. He’s grinning and laughing, of course. What else?

Kobayashi goes on in the same vein for a bit longer, periodically stopping to let the full force of his supposed wit settle over the audience. Occasionally he throws in „just kidding“ comments.

Why on earth does this guy think he’s being funny? His only joke seems to consist of picking on Hiro. It really isn’t working, and Kobayashi just doesn’t get it. Who’s the one who doesn’t have a feel for the atmosphere here?

It’s not like they don’t tease each other in Ryuu’s group. The pranks they play on each other in 7Heaven have to be seen to be believed, and the guys can be pretty much the most aggravating force in the universe. Ryuu’s been annoyed with them more times than he can count; they really don’t know when to stop.

But that’s different. They tease, but they don’t pick on him, or anyone. Plus they’re Ryuu’s friends, not just some guys who happen to be in a band with him.

„How can you let them do that all the time?“ Ryuu accuses Hiro after the show. „Doesn’t it bother you? You should make them stop.“

Hiro shrugs. „It doesn’t mean anything.“ Ryuu stares at him in disbelief until he shrugs again, and then grins a sudden broad grin. „It’s jest a joke! It was kind of funny, don’t you think?“

No. No, Ryuu does not think.

„How can you be so cheerful all the time?“ He doesn’t mean to ask, really he doesn’t, but the question’s been building for a while and just bursts out. Before he started hanging out with Hiro, Ryuu’d hardly ever seen him when he wasn’t either bouncing around like a demented rubber ball or mugging at someone with a huge, dorky grin plastered all over his face.

„I just am — the same way you’re so moody all the time.“

Ryuu isn’t moody all the time, or even most of the time, but as always, Hiro’s completely unfazed by Ryuu’s glower. That’s kind of annoying, too. Not nearly as annoying as Kobayashi, though.

„Come on, Ryuu-chan. Give me a little smile. Just a little one.“

Oh, good grief.

He leaves before Hiro can try to pull up the corners of his mouth with his fingers. Nothing can be put past Hiro on a roll, and Ryuu is so not in the mood.

 

~~~~~

 

Ryuu doesn’t plan it — it just happens. They’re all at the agency for the obligatory monthly get-together, and when Ryuu turns around, there’s Kobayashi, right in his face.

Kobayashi smiles and nods and starts to walk by, and Ryuu steps in his path. „Something’s growing on your chin, Kobayashi. I’d have that checked — looks nasty. Must be a fungus of some kind.“

The smile vanishes from Kobayashi’s face, to be replaced by a stunned look that reminds Ryuu of nothing so much as a cow. An orange-haired, fungus-chinned, ridiculous-looking cow.

Someone close by laughs nervously. Ryuu ignores them. „I hear real, freestyle rapping is all about clever improvisation and being spontaneous. No wonder you’re in a boyband, huh?“

On second thought, maybe not so much a cow and more a fish, what with the open-mouthed gaping. Ryuu waits for several more moments, but when Kobayashi just stands there, he finally shrugs and walks off.

What a joke. Kobayashi’s all facade and hot air, nothing behind the ridiculous pretense at gangsta toughness but a gaping fish-mouthed nothing. Why the hell does Hiro let someone like that bully him?

„You’re a wimp,“ Ryuu informs Hiro accordingly, when he finally tracks him down half an hour or so later.

Hiro doesn’t smile and/or laugh as expected, does nothing but look at Ryuu.

It’s weird and unfamiliar and it makes Ryuu uncomfortable, so he punches Hiro gently in the arm. „Dynasty Invasion after this?“

„You’re a bully,“ Hiro says, and still doesn’t smile.

Ryuu blinks. For a moment he thinks he just didn’t understand what Hiro was really saying — but Hiro persists in not smiling, and his gaze on Ryuu’s is steady and clear and hard with an emotion that Ryuu’s never seen there before.

Hiro doesn’t say things like that. Hiro is never anything but cheerful and peaceable and accepting; he always chooses the path of least resistance, to the point where he will let people win, let them walk all over him.

Ryuu opens his mouth, but can’t think of a single thing to say.

After a moment, Hiro walks off.

 

~~~~~

 

He tries to call Hiro, but Hiro doesn’t answer his phone. He doesn’t reply to Ryuu’s text message, either.

Ryuu guesses this means that Dynasty Invasion is off.

Yo comes over while Ryuu’s still wondering just what the hell happened. He waves at Ryuu when he walks in the door and immediately vanishes into the kitchen, where he checks the fridge for leftovers (and evidently finds something, if the pinging of the microwave several minutes later is any indication).

„Yo,“ says Yo and throws himself onto the couch, steaming bowl of rice and curry in hand. „You’ve been kind of a rare sight lately.“

It’s not a question, so it doesn’t require an answer, and Ryuu doesn’t give one. Yo seems more interested in his curry than in Ryuu’s response, anyway.

„Do you think I’m a bully?“

That gets Yo’s attention despite the lure of the curry; he inspects Ryuu for a moment with pointed consideration. Then, he shrugs. „Nah. You’re a prickly little hedgehog, but you’re a pushover. Except when you get weird. Or when you’re being a moody bastard.“

„Wow, thanks.“ How reassuring. Not. Plus, what is up with everyone calling Ryuu moody? He isn’t! Being moody and not always being the radiant soul of angelic cheer aren’t the same thing at all.

„Come on.“ Yo’s finished eating and pushes to his feet, leaving the empty bowl on the sofa table. „We’re going out. All of this staying at home is making you cranky.“

Why not. It’s not like Ryuu has anything better to do.

 

~~~~~

 

I’m not the bad guy here, Ryuu texts Hiro. And I’m not going to apologize to fungus-face.

Well, he’s not, because he damn sure isn’t sorry. If Hiro’s going to be weird about it, it’s only right that he know it’s not going to change anything.

After a while Ryuu checks the message again to see whether he sent it to the right recipient, and discovers that he was typing too fast and picked the kanji for ‘mollusc’ instead of ‘fungus’.

Ryuu wasn’t going to bother texting again if Hiro didn’t answer; it’s not like he cares if the man’s going to be an idiot. But seriously, Hiro missed such a golden opportunity for making a dumb joke? That’s almost like things falling upwards or Suzu getting a new step right on the first try.

Wimp. If it’ll let you sleep at night I won’t say anything like that to Kobayashi again. Okay?

Evidently so, because Hiro stops sulking and texts back. Yuuma’s a nice guy. You should get to know him better.

Ryuu tactfully ignores that suggestion.

They go out for okonomiyaki (even though nobody in Tokyo knows how to make it properly) and Hiro doesn’t bring the matter up until they’re well into the meal, just when Ryuu has started to hope that maybe they won’t have to talk about this again at all.

„Seriously, Ryuu-chan. Yuuma’s really nice. You shouldn’t have made him clam up like that.“ Hiro pauses briefly to beam at the brilliance of his own lame joke (yeah, so Ryuu sometimes doesn’t pay enough attention when he types, big deal!) before forging on in his misguided quest to make fungus-face Ryuu’s new bestest buddy. „That thing with the letter was only —”

„Yeah, right, he was only teasing. What a nice guy. We should exchange friendship bracelets and get together to braid ribbons in each other’s hair.“ Ryuu snorts. „Just stand up to him once and it’ll be done with. That kind of guy isn’t —”

„It really isn’t like that. I like him.“

„So?“ Ryuu gives him an appropriately disgusted look and grabs the mayonnaise. There nearly isn’t enough left. „Doesn’t mean he isn’t an ass. You like everyone. And also, you used way too much mayonnaise! You’re gonna get fat, pimply and ugly. Uglier.“

Hiro stares at him for a moment before laughing. „Of course I don’t like everyone. That’d just… not be human.“

„Yeah you do. You’re always all smiley and friendly, to everyone, even the asses.“

„That’s different.“ Hiro turns in his seat, leaving Ryuu to stare at the back of his head. Ryuu’s just wondering whether to be insulted — they’re having a conversation here! — when he turns back and plops down the mayonnaise he snagged from the unoccupied table behind them in front of Ryuu.

It’s the least he could do, of course, after using it all up in the first place.

Hiro nods an acknowledgment of Ryuu’s grunt of thanks and polishes off another bite before going on. „What you feel about people is a private thing, you know? I don’t think there’s any point in letting it out. It just makes things more difficult. And anyway, it’s not like they’re being someone you don’t like on purpose. It’s just the way they are. The same way you are who you are, too. Right?“

It’s not that Ryuu doesn’t agree that it’s best to keep your private opinions private. It’s just that usually, Ryuu can still tell the difference between actual friendliness and public friendliness, at least with people he knows. And that last thing Hiro said — that people aren’t asses on purpose, so you can’t blame them for it? Who thinks like that?

Several bites of liberally mayonnaise-laced okonomiyaki later, Ryuu has another weird thought. If Ryuu’s ever seen Hiro with someone he didn’t like, he hasn’t noticed. He obviously can’t tell the difference. So how can he be sure Hiro likes him?

Which is stupid; even Hiro wouldn’t voluntarily hang out with a guy he didn’t like. But it still takes Ryuu a couple of moments to shake the notion, because it’s surprisingly jarring.

The dork kind of grows on you. Like fungus or something.

„You’re a real weirdo,“ Ryuu grumbles, to set the record straight. He’s finished his own portion and eyes Hiro’s plate, but Hiro’s eaten all of the sausage bits already. „Subject closed. We going to play Dynasty Invasion or what?“

 

~~~~~

 

„Ryuu-chan, I’m meeting up with some friends to play basketball this Saturday. Why don’t you give it a shot! It’ll be fun. We usually go to this really great little family restaurant afterwards, the granny there makes the most amazing curry you’ve ever had.“

„No,“ Ryuu says, and hangs up.

He kind of sucks at basketball.

Okay, fine, he plain sucks at basketball, period, no ‘kind of’ about it. It has nothing to do with his height, or his lack thereof in younger years; it’s just that the only times he’s held a basketball in his hands before was during various sports challenges for Talent Forge events and TV shows. You never actually learn stuff during those — that takes practice, not having some pro player lecture you for an hour or two.

So, yeah, Ryuu’s sucked like a huge sucking thing each time he’s tried basketball. Shouts of „control the ball, control the ball“ echo humiliatingly in his head when he thinks back on it, not to mention that one talk where the national team’s star player gave Ryuu advice on how to ‘compensate’ (he’s not even that short anymore, what the fuck, he’s average). There’s no way he’s going to voluntarily make a fool of himself in front of Hiro, not to mention Hiro’s friends, who Ryuu doesn’t even know.

Ryuu hasn’t managed to put the phone away yet when it rings again. Hiro’s persistent, you have to give him that. Ryuu doesn’t wait for him to start speaking; he just flips the phone open, barks „No!“, and snaps it shut again.

Two minutes later Hiro sends him a text message. Ryuu ignores it for almost half an hour, but then he has a weak moment and can’t stop himself from checking any longer.

You don’t have to, of course, if you don’t want to. But I really think you’d enjoy it, Hiro writes, with a little emoticon face morphing from smiley to sad and back again. It’d be even more fun with you there than usual. We’d have a ball! My friends are great. I’ve known some of them since high school and they won’t make you jump through hoops. You’d like them, Rc. I know it for sure.

Ryuu can see the look that accompanies that message plain as day — it’s the look with the slight ducking of the head and the weirdly shy little smile, eyes all wide and hopeful, a puppy refusing to believe that the world would be so cruel that it won’t be petted.

Slower to translate than the look is the meaning of the ‘Rc’ in Western letters Hiro threw in near the end of the message. When the penny finally drops, Ryuu rolls his eyes at the phone’s screen so hard he almost strains something.

The phone is unimpressed. So is Hiro’s dauntingly cheerful message.

Honestly, that guy…

I suck at basketball, okay?

And so of course Hiro calls again. He’s like a stalker. A really optimistic and hopeful, puppyish stalker who is annoyingly determined to think the best of everything, and get everyone to have fun together.

„Let’s just do it like this, then,“ Hiro burbles before Ryuu can get a word in edgewise. „I’ll give you a call when we’re done with basketball and you can come and join us, so you’ll get to meet the guys and have the best curry ever.“

Oh, god.

„I’ll treat you! And I’ll buy you a beer too.“ Hiro’s voice is coaxing but confident, like he knows he’s already won.

And that, several hours too late, is the moment in which Ryuu finally realizes he could have stopped all of this — nipped it right in the bud — simply by saying that he already has plans on Saturday. It’s not true, and somehow it never occurred to him, but it would have been a sure-fire way of making certain this entire discussion would never have happened.

Too late now, though. Ryuu’s cornered like a rat; he might as well just give up and capitulate. „Fine, whatever.“

„And I’ll show you how to play basketball sometime. Just the two of us. You’ll get the hang of it in no time. It’s really fun!“

The sport that Hiro doesn’t think is really fun has yet to be invented, so Ryuu snorts and hangs up in wordless disgust.

He has the weirdest feeling that he’s still overlooking something here, the same way he overlooked that he could just have said he doesn’t have the time. He has no idea what it could be, though.

Anyway. Since he really doesn’t have plans for Saturday yet, he might as well go eat some decent curry. If the company’s too bad, he’ll just leave.

So when Saturday rolls around and Hiro calls him in the late afternoon — all hyper and a little out of breath, as enthusiastic as ever — Ryuu grabs his jacket and drives out to meet Hiro and his basketball buddies at a tiny little hole-in-the-wall restaurant.

He has no idea what to expect. Truth be told, he’s a little nervous. The only one there he knows is Hiro, and Ryuu doesn’t generally do that well with strangers. In his experience, the getting-everyone-together-thing has a pretty high potential awkwardness factor.

But it turns out he needn’t have worried. Hiro’s friends accept Ryuu’s presence without question or exaggerated interest, just absorb him into their circle with easy camaraderie, and don’t push when he takes a while to relax into their company. They all squeeze around a table that’d be barely large enough for half their number; Hiro sits next to Ryuu and orders for both of them before Ryuu can make up his mind.

Ryuu waits until the food arrives to decide whether or not to object to this, and then (with beef, curry, onions and carrots melting on his tongue in explosions of delicious flavors) decides that he can let it go. Just this once.

Nobody seems to mind that Ryuu doesn’t talk much. Hiro occasionally jostles him with his shoulder and smiles at him, but otherwise everyone leaves him to his food and his beer, and doesn’t try to drag him into the conversation. The obaa-chan who runs the restaurant knows most of the basketball guys by name, and cuffs one of them in an affectionate grandmotherly way when he tries to get up and help her carry some dishes to the kitchen. At some point, her grandson comes rushing in with a math test he shows to her — the grade is not particularly impressive in absolute terms, but judging by the way the obaa-chan ooohs in impressed awe, it’s a huge improvement for the kid.

It’s a nice place; Ryuu likes the family atmosphere. And the food is just as great as promised. And it’s the first time Ryuu’s seen Hiro in a totally non-idol context. Unless you count shopping or playing video games or whatever with Ryuu, at least — but in a way, Ryuu is part of the idol context. Or he could be, depending on your point of view.

But these guys, they’re as non-show-business as you can get: two university students and three salarymen, a graphic designer, a dental technician and one guy — it takes Ryuu the entire evening to find this out — who works at a convenience store to make ends meet, but is trying to get his business as a freelance 3D game programmer off the ground. (Ryuu isn’t entirely sure he got that last part right, but he is sure that it has something to do with computers, and video games. Probably.)

They’re like Ryuu’s friends, back home in Osaka. They don’t care that Hiro’s an idol, don’t treat him any differently because they go to work in an office and he stands on a stage in front of cameras and screaming girls. And in their company, Hiro is cheerful and good-natured and sparking with energy and bad jokes; not all that terribly different from his stage self, no, but yeah. More relaxed. Not as quiet, but also not as loud. Just as dorky, but in slightly different ways, somehow.

Even just in Ryuu’s own head, it’s hard to put into words. One thing is clear, though: Hiro with his basketball friends is the same as Hiro playing Tetris with Ryuu, or going to the movies with him, having okonomiyaki, whatever.

Ryuu can’t decide whether this is a surprise or not. But he does know that it pleases him.

 

~~~~~

 

Who thinks up this stuff? What are the qualifications for getting that kind of job — the kind of job where you sit around coming up with ideas like „oh, why don’t we make them all dress up like monkeys and climb palm trees for coconuts“ or „let’s dump a bunch of bills over their heads and have them try to catch them with chopsticks“?

Maybe there’s some kind of course for this. ‘Torturing Idols 101’, or ‘Sadistic Event Manager Training Seminar’.

This current thing is far from being the worst Ryuu’s had to endure — not even close — but it does have some absurd highlights. Like: How come they call it ‘Idol vs. Idol — Super-Group Battle’ and then don’t have two opposing bands, but rather a bunch of random Talent Forge guys split up into random teams? That makes no sense at all.

But whatever. Ryuu just has to get through a couple of hours more of this, and then he can go home. He’s exhausted; he hasn’t been feeling so great, and he has the sinking feeling he’s getting another cold, just in time for his first day off in… god, he doesn’t even know how long.

Next to Ryuu, Hiro cracks a joke about puzzles and mystery. Nomura giggles, even though he’s on the opposing team. Nomura is like that.

„Please pick your teams for the next challenge!“ Jenny chirps with undaunted cheerfulness. She’s playing host for this spectacle, and even though she doesn’t seem sadistic so far, she is evidently one of those people who always manage to have fun, no matter how ridiculous the situation.

One example of this: She’s dressed up like a playboy bunny, but it doesn’t seem to bother her. Quite the contrary — she reaches up and folds down one of her bunny ears to wave it coyly at the camera. Ryuu wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the costume was her idea. „Oonishi-kun, time to choose! Which two sharp and crafty idols will be your champions for the Mystery House?“

Yo deliberates briefly and then picks Ishida and Ueno, promptly dubbed ‘Team Devil’s Gate’ by Jenny. They’ve just filmed a horror series together, Yo says, so they’re used to working together and being mysterious, and this should be a piece of cake for them.

Really, playing a bloodthirsty demon and the cop trying to stop him qualifies as working together? Plus, sharp and crafty, those two knuckleheads? Yo can be weird sometimes.

Then it’s Ren’s turn. „Hm. Okay, Ryuu-chan and — hm…“

Yeah, Ren can be weird too.

But hey, why not. They’re all going to have to do something, and it could be worse than the Mystery House. At least Ryuu isn’t going to have to do it alone.

He tries to catch Ren’s gaze and steps a little closer to Hiro as a hint.

Ren doesn’t get it, the loser. „Ryuu and Sabu.“

What the hell! „No, Takahashi,“ Ryuu says. He is not going to do this alone, no way.

Ren looks startled, but Ryuu gives him a meaningful look and he shrugs. „Right. Ryuu-chan and Takahashi.“

Hiro smiles at him as Ryuu steps a little closer still. Ryuu can hear someone muttering off to the side, the words too quiet to understand but tinged with unmistakable curiosity. Suzu, probably.

Jenny just laughs. „Very wise, Maekawa-kun! Don’t break the champions’ concentration before the battle. Okay, everyone ready? The average time for a run through the Mystery House is 17 minutes, and the record is 3.6 minutes — so do your best, everyone! Team Willful, you’re up first.“

Team Willful? Is it so hard to understand that he wants to at least do this in the company of someone he feels comfortable with?

„We’re full of will and will do well willfully, right, Ryuu-chan?“

Definitely one of Hiro’s weaker jokes, but Ryuu can’t help smiling anyway, just a little. What a hopeless dork.

Hiro returns the smile with interest as they head over towards the entrance of the Mystery House.

The production crew that will be coming with them runs a quick technical check on the hand-held camera and sound equipment, and Jenny produces a stopwatch and a starting gun. Hiro does some stretches and hunkers down with his hands on the ground, like this is the beginning of some kind of Olympic sprint event.

Maybe not a bad idea. It can’t be wrong to show some enthusiasm, right? So Ryuu hunkers down too, and is rewarded by a quick, bright sideways grin. „Ready, Ryuu-chan?“

„As I’ll ever be.“

The grin grows slightly, coming dangerously close to smirk territory before Hiro concentrates on the stretch of road ahead and the wooden gate that leads into the Mystery House.

„Team Willful! On your marks, get set… go!“

They go. To be exact: Hiro shoots off like a hare or an Olympic sprinter or something else really fast, while Ryuu — slightly less quick off the mark by sheer lack of Hiro-level enthusiasm — almost collides with the cameraman and the guy carrying the sound equipment when the three of them scramble to catch up.

By the time they’ve sorted themselves out, they’re already inside the courtyard of the mysterious Mystery House, and out of sight of the others. Also out of sight of Hiro, because the first ‘mystery’ is a labyrinth made of high, wooden walls.

Ryuu puts on a burst of speed until he catches up. It doesn’t take long; Hiro’s managed to find the first dead end of what Ryuu has no doubt will be many more.

„What’s the mystery part of the house supposed to be, anyway?“ Hiro wonders as they wander into the next blind alley. „So far it seems like a pretty straightforward maze. Or are there trapdoors or something?“

There’d better not be. But Ryuu pushes at some of the wooden panels the next time they run into a dead end, just in case there’s some kind of hidden revolving door.

There is, as it turns out.

„Mystery doors!“ Hiro announces gleefully. „Wow, amazing, right on the first try! Great work, Ryuu-chan!“

The cameraman crowds Ryuu a little then, but it doesn’t take away from the warm glow of accomplishment.

When the four of them have squeezed through the mystery doorway, camera and boom and all, they discover they’ve found a shortcut straight to the entrance of the actual House part of the Mystery.

It’s dark inside, kind of murky. And then something moves right next to Ryuu, and his heart jumps into his throat, and — god!

A mirror. Just a mirror… a room full of them.

„Creepy,“ says Hiro. Yeah, no kidding. Ryuu’s actually a little shaky from the adrenaline rush.

They feel around the mirrored walls until they find another revolving panel, which lets them through into a long corridor with better lighting and no mirrors — but with a really weird floor.

Ryuu grabs Hiro just in time to prevent him from blithely wandering out onto whatever the hell that is. „Hey! Look! Down. Look down.“

„Oooh, a mystery floor!“

It’s some kind of fabric, looks like. Canvas, maybe. But before Ryuu’s even started wondering what the hell that means, Hiro’s already stepping right onto it.

He squeals like a stuck pig. Ryuu can’t tell what the fuck is wrong so he just grabs at him again, and almost catches an elbow to the face as Hiro staggers to the side. The floor isn’t solid, it’s giving unsteadily beneath Hiro’s feet — heaving, kind of — but after another instant of drunken staggering, flapping of arms and Ryuu pulling on Hiro’s arm, Hiro finally manages to rejoin Ryuu on the short stretch of solid ground right behind the door.

„Don’t jump on mystery stuff!“ If this keeps up, Ryuu’s going to be a total wreck by the time they get out of here.

The floor — or whatever — ripples with gentle waves, all the way down the entire length of the corridor. Which suddenly seems pretty damn long.

„It’s a waterfloor! How cool!“ And in half a heartbeat, Hiro’s down on all fours and right out in the middle of the non-floor again. „Come on, let’s make some waves!“ He bounces a little, throws himself over onto his back and wriggles, and then bounces some more, giggling up at Ryuu like a playful two-year-old.

It’s silly but it’s actually kind of cute. Ryuu snorts and grins back, but he himself refuses to get down on his hands and knees. He has more dignity than that. Instead, he waits until Hiro picks himself up, crosses the unsteady stretch of ground and stops making waves. Then Ryuu feels a careful and dignified way along the wall.

There’s a short maze section again, this time with glass dividing walls, which makes it a lot trickier than you’d think because you forget where you were before and can’t see where you’re going. And then there’s a pole that Hiro climbs in order to operate a catch that releases another revolving section of the wall. And a padded door labelled ‘short cut’ that you’re supposed to hit or kick or something in order to make it open; they break it open by rushing at it just like cops in a TV drama.

Maybe it really is a short cut, because the exit comes into sight just after that — or at least a door marked with a huge ‘exit’ sign, separated from them only by a short hallway.

A hallway that drops away from underneath them when they are mere meters away from the finish line.

Hiro’s a step or two ahead of Ryuu. At first Ryuu thinks he stumbled, and tries to grab him again. But the floor underneath his own feet is tilting, and then Ryuu’s the one who’s stumbling — falling forward against Hiro’s back. Something hard and pointed slams into his stomach and drives the breath from his lungs, and he trips and can’t stop his forward momentum; the ground is tilting, and he loses what was left of his balance as well as all track of what’s going on.

Several endless, confused moments later, Ryuu finds himself half sprawled on top of Hiro, half crushed up against some kind of giant cushion.

„What the fuck!“

„Ow,“ says Hiro, rather weakly. „Ryuu-chan. Ryuu-chan, your knee —”

Ryuu hastily removes the offending knee and scoots back. „God, I’m sorry, I didn’t — are you okay?“

„Yeah. Yeah, no real harm done. Just a little close for comfort.“

Once they’ve picked themselves up, they find that a long section of corridor has tilted up at a steep angle, tumbling them into a ditch at least four meters deep. The raised floor behind them almost reaches the ceiling.

„Wow, this seems pretty dangerous, doesn’t it? People could really get hurt falling down this thing, pillow or no pillow.“

Ryuu has to agree. The sides of the ditch are thickly cushioned in an attempt to keep the poor victims rolling down the incline from breaking their necks, but that won’t help much if people fall on each other at a worse angle than Ryuu and Hiro did, or are just otherwise unlucky.

There are depressions set into both sides of the laminated incline in front of them. Ryuu hadn’t noticed them before. „Handholds in the floor!“

„Oh, hey, yeah.“ Hiro inspects them for a while and then tentatively fits a foot into one of the lower notches, pushes up and climbs up the wall of displaced corridor. He’s gone up several more notches before the ground begins to move again, lifting Ryuu up. Just a little, maybe a hand’s width or so, but —

„It’s moving!“

„Neat. It’s like a see-saw!“ Hiro keeps going, and after just another notch or two, the cameraman has come into view again, standing calmly on the last bit of solid ground and committing their misadventures to film. They probably warned the staff ahead of time — wouldn’t do to have expensive equipment damaged in the fall.

It isn’t long before Ryuu’s lifted up high enough that he can easily reach the level ground in front of the exit. Hiro’s about three-quarters of the way to the top of the see-sawing patch of ground — maybe a bit less. „I can climb up now.“

„Wait until I’m all the way at the other end. I think that’s safer.“

So Ryuu waits, and then just walks over to the exit. The ground doesn’t move. At least not until Hiro cautiously crawls a little way in Ryuu’s direction — then, it starts swinging down again.

„Damn… excuse me, Mr Cameraman, would you step over here for a moment?“

But the cameraman doesn’t even look up from his screen, just shakes his head with a vague apologetic smile. The sound technician quickly retreats half a step to prevent the question from being directed his way.

Ryuu steps back out onto his end of the see-saw cautiously. It stays stable. He crosses over to Hiro without so much as a quiver. It’s only when they both try to walk back over to the exit at the same time that it threatens to tip again.

„There has to be some kind of — I mean, I could try jumping from the middle or something, that might work, but —”

„Yeah.“ Most people couldn’t get past this obstacle by jumping; Ryuu sure wouldn’t want to try. So that can’t be the intended solution. There has to be some kind of…

He crosses back over to the exit and looks around. And sure enough — there’s an alcove set into the right-hand wall with a lever in it that looks just like a handbrake, down to the small button on the tip. It’s even labelled: ‘Pull up to lock floor.’

Ryuu pulls up the lever, and Hiro crosses over the see-saw with no problems whatsoever.

„We totally rock,“ Hiro declares, and holds up his hand. Ryuu high-fives him, snorting at Hiro’s delighted bouncing.

They make it through the Mystery House in 26.3 minutes. Not bad, if Ryuu does say so himself.

„So how was it?“ Jenny asks, once Team Devil’s Gate has left.

„Cool! Although Mystery House isn’t really the right name for it. It’s more of a secret passages and booby-trap kind of thing. A Ninja House!“ Hiro smiles and bounces some more, glowing with excitement. Ryuu bets he isn’t going to come down for hours. „There are these amazing labyrinths with revolving panels. And all kinds of obstacles. Like a floor that’s like a waterbed, and a pole you have to climb to get the door open, and a maze with glass walls. But the coolest bit is the see-saw floor right at the end. That was very tricky!“

„Sounds like you had fun!“ Jenny holds the microphone in Ryuu’s direction, and he nods and smiles. Yeah, this actually turned out to be one of the nicer tasks Ryuu’s had to carry out for the agency’s sadistic event managers.

„You liked the padded door, right?“ Hiro beams at him.

Breaking down a door like that, just like a cop on TV — yeah. That had been pretty cool.

„That was like in a police drama. We rushed it together, and got it open on the first try, like we’d practiced. I really liked the waterbed floor, that was great. And hey, you know what else was super-cool? The way Ryuu-chan found the first hidden door. He just reached out and pushed it open. It was adorable.“

Huh? Oh, right. Pun.

And, well. It had seemed… it’s only that Ryuu’s been in labyrinths before, that’s all. Without the weird stuff and the booby traps, but the principle is the same, right? So.

„Dragonbreath! Are you blushing?“ That’s Suzu, of course. Ryuu doesn’t even bother glaring at him; it never helps.

Of course he isn’t blushing. That’s just absurd.

Team Devil’s Gate takes 31.9 minutes. Hah.

 

Read the rest of Ryuu and Hiro’s story in “Learning How to Lose, in Six Easy Steps”!

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