The key hit the bottom of the mailbox with a dull metallic clunk.
Takaba slung his backpack over his shoulder, picked up his duffel bags, and headed out into the cold, windswept streets. Winter was fast approaching, but he wouldn’t be here to see the snow fall in his hometown. He wouldn’t be here to see the sakura trees bloom in spring, raining down its petals. He wouldn’t be here to ever hear the temple gongs that shook him to the marrows of his bones.
No regrets, Aki. Don’t look back. Don’t ever look back.
That’s what he told himself, but he could only feel his acid tears, burning flesh and carving a path down his cheeks as he swallowed the urge to cry, to break down and collapse to his knees. After all, it was time to leave. There was not second to spare for petty sentimentalities or goodbyes.
He had no one to say goodbye to.
The taxi he had called was dutifully waiting outside in the empty neighborhood.
“Hey, kid!” the driver peered out through the car window.
Takaba swore he could feel phantom hands clutching at him from behind, begging him not to go, but he ignored them. There was only one thing, one person, that could convince him otherwise, and he wasn’t here.
He never was.
“You coming or what?”
The handle felt icy and steely under his fingertips as he tugged the door open. He took one last look at the apartment, the unlit window where his bedroom was, or at least, what used to be his bedroom, and he ducked into the cab, sinking heavily into the old leather seat.
“Asami-sama,” the blond bodyguard looked around the empty apartment, holding his ear over the ear set. How could he possibly report to his boss that his lover had left him, deserted him.
“Where is he?”
“He’s… gone,” he paused, then added, “sir.”
“Of course he’s gone. He can’t settle down for ten minutes.”
“That’s not…” prepare yourself, “his apartment’s been emptied out, sir.”
He had expected some incredible raging, Hulk-style, to begin, but this was even worse. There was nothing worse in Asami-sama then his silence. Or rather, what silence signified, what brewed beneath the exterior.
His muscles tensed and constricted as the plane tilted upward and took off, its wheels retracting into its steel womb and plastering him into the plush seat; fingers tightly gripped the edge of the armrests. He didn’t mind flying part, the high altitude cruising. The occasional storms didn’t bother him either, but the takeoffs and landings always unnerved him a bit.
Outside the window, the runway was becoming smaller and smaller, a narrow, illuminated strip of flat concrete, and the nocturnal metropolis of Tokyo and its majestic display of lights faded into lumps of sporadic light, haphazardly prepared fireworks that refused to diffuse into the sky and die away.
Takaba fixed his eyes on them, mesmerized by the sheer beauty. He had lived and died there. Died. Perhaps not completely though, for somewhere in that human labyrinth of 13 million, he had locked away a good part of his humanity. And his capacity to love.
When the plane climbed higher and penetrated a layer of clouds and Tokyo was no more, he fixed his eyes instead on the red blinking light attached to the end of the steadfast wings, drawn by its consistency, the tacit promise that it would flash in rhythm the entire twelve hours of the flight. It was reliable and it was reliability that he sought.
Asami stood in the center of the empty living room. The improvised darkroom, the stained sofa, the cardboard box coffee table, the empty beer cans, canisters of film rolls, the ashtray, week old takeout boxes. Gone. Even the smell of fixer had faded, covered by cheap air freshener.
“Have you found him yet?”
“No, sir. They’re still checking his usual spots.”
“His cell phone?”
“Canceled two weeks ago.”
“Credit card. Bank account.”
“The same. All money withdrawn.”
“What about his employer?”
“The editor found the letter of resignation two days ago on his desk.”
“Do his friends not know where he is? Acquaintances, relatives, parents? There has to be someone that knows where he’s gone.”
“He told his parents that he’d be gone for a while.”
“He didn’t say, but out of the country.”
“What about the airline companies.”
“We’re still doing inquiries, but so far there has been no record of him purchasing any tickets out of the country. There are also companies that we do not have leverage over.”
“I don’t care. Find him.” Asami whispered, his voice deadly and frigid. The threat would do no good, however. Takaba had slipped from his grasp.
By a mere two hours.
He kept on running his mind through what he had just done. For eight months, he had pondered on this, driving himself to insanity and back in a constant internal controversy, a chaotic roundtrip. His dreams had been the battleground for his doubts and certainties. After three months without a single word from Asami, his half-serious ideas of just dropping everything and leaving Tokyo crystallized from its saturated solution, the seed crystal sown, breaking the surface tension, the lattices forming methodically around the germinating idea.
Then, he changed his mind to leave Japan altogether.
Wait another month, he told himself, wait longer. Wait forever, another part of him whispered. Then there was that embittered devil, the Diablo unknown, inside him that urged him to take the next flight out of Japan. Pick one, it whispered to him, pick any flight, it’s a Russian roulette, either way you lose…so does it matter?
But goddammit, it did matter.
It does matter.
It was terrifying sometimes, wondering if Asami had dropped him altogether, afraid that the man would lose, or perhaps already had lost, interest. His soul trembled in trepidation. That was, after all, the reason Takaba ran from him. If he played this game of hide-and-seek, then maybe, just maybe, Asami might toy with him, as a cat would with an already trapped mice.
After six months, his doubts became certainties. Sure, Asami always said that Takaba belonged to him, but how many other lovers had he whispered that to, how many others had been used and abused? Received then deceived? Discarded like empty boxes, orange peels with its tangy excitement dried and withered. With his mind set in what seemed like stone at the time, he began making preparations over the next two months.
He arranged for a passport, one that had a different name. Tanaka Sei, nothing too flashy, rather mundane and intentionally boring. He emptied his apartment beginning with furniture, and every time an article disappeared in the black trash bag, he felt as though he were carving out a piece of his heart and throwing it to the dogs, to be devoured, feasted upon by loneliness.
In the middle of the night, around two or three, he would walk out to the balcony to stare at the sky, stars overshadowed by the Tokyo night light, and watch the truck pick up what used to be his. The plan that at first seemed so certain felt fragile then as it still did now. He could have taken a hammer to the stone hard resolution and shattered it to jagged pieces, but he hadn’t. He carried on, his desperation mutating into a twisted, fragile determination.
Now, with his eyes still fixed on that blinking, unchanging light fixed on the metal wings, he wanted more than ever to feel anger, for despite how much of his heart he had carved away, he still felt the ache, the pain, the intense, unforgivable, unforgettable throbbing he felt whenever Asami wasn’t near.
Asami was 9000 meters below, probably not knowing that his lover was slipping away. For the moment, Takaba closed his eyes and noticed that there was no weight lifted from his shoulders with this cowardly escape. Instead, it grew heavier and heavier as the plane cruised from Tokyo to London, nonstop.
Two years later.
Wispy strands of smoke climbed its way to the high ceiling of the luxurious flat overlooking Tokyo, only to be smothered by cruel hands into a crystal ashtray then left in its ashy grave yard, crushed and deformed.
“And to what do I owe the pleasure of your unexpected visit, Mr. Merrett?” Asami gently twirled the crystal glass filled with golden, amber liquid. His counterpart was an Englishman, well into his late fifties with gray hair and creases around his aging face.
“There will be an event in London next week; I would appreciate you to make your presence known. It is for your very presence that I have come to request. It’s an event, with exhibitions and performances. What is most crucial, though, is the dinner the second evening, but of course it would be indiscreet for you to show your face only on that day. Also, there will be many of the contacts in London the week before for possible negotiations and agreements.”
“You realize, Mr. Merrett, that a week is an incredibly long span of time for me, do you not? Add the traveling time and I will be gone nearly two weeks from my foothold here in Tokyo.”
“Which is why I came personally, Mr. Asami. Two weeks in indeed a very long time.”
Well, he had a point. The man did take a thirteen hour plane trip all the way to Tokyo, but he would have to do the same to London if he agreed to this. Things had been relatively stable lately anyhow. Surely he could spare himself the time; it would help cement his relationship with the European contacts to have a firm English ally. “Very well. I expect the finest accommodations then.”
“Only the best, of course.”
Asami’s lips turned up at the corners. This Englishman at least knew his way around the underworld. “Of course.”
“Gyles, you can’t just expect me to add five more photos to the gallery like this! I don’t even know if I have one other decent shot worth displaying.” Takaba slammed his hands down on the mahogany desk of the gallery curator. “I’m a photographer! Not a printing machine! Do I look like I have “hp” stamped to my forehead or something? No! Besides, most of the exhibition photos are from Iraq and Sudan and… and Pakistan and only God knows where else! I don’t even remember any more. I’m not gonna take a flight there again for gaps that you didn’t consider before setting up the exhibition. I don’t have time for that. A week isn’t enough time to put something together that fast!”
Gyles folded his hands behind his head and smiled, “I’m not asking you to go back. Take some photos here. In London. It’s a wonderful place.” This man was just too goddamn laid back. Weren’t curators supposed to be professional and conservative and what not?
“I know it’s a great city and what not, spew your national pride at me. I could care less. But you have to understand, I can’t just pull things out of my ass! Two days is not enough for me to-”
“What about shots from Tokyo? Those will work, Sei.”
Takaba stood stunned, petrified.
His fury, his rampage, his verbal stampede stopped then, as if time had frozen in that instant. His eyes lost themselves at something invisible past Gyles shoulders, “I-I can’t.” His voice caught at his throat, and his words came out halted and jerky. “Tokyo… I can’t.”
Gyles eyed the sudden change, the abrupt loss of focus and energy at the mention of Tokyo.
Takaba breathed in softly, “I… I’ll bring in the photos. No size requirements, right?”
“Alright, I’ll have it in by…um… Sunday morning.” He took another deep breath, his shoulders trembling as he exhaled. “That should give you enough time to, I guess… to set it up… by the next day.”
Takaba stood there, uncertain of himself suddenly. His anger had fled. His confidence with it. Any mention of Tokyo always suctioned the life from him and left him pensive and doubtful. He could be bouncing off the walls and as soon as someone brought up his past, he retracted back into his shell, hard and brittle, and zipped his lips together.
Sei Tanaka, you are such the enigma.
Gyles Tennison eyed Takaba.
It began with the photos. He had first been attracted to the candid shots. They would show up at random exhibitions around London, one or two pieces here and there, sometimes anonymous but recognizable to Gyles’ trained eyes.
The photos were fast paced and animated, teeming with energy and power. Especially the ones taken with telephoto lens, clandestine ones, the covert one. The kind that people never know how to truly take. The kind that a journalist would use to pry into a private, secret life. The kind that takes hours of sharp, focused concentration, like a razorblade and a hawk’s eye molded into one flawless apparatus. And Gyles was mesmerized, spellbound, entranced.
That was two years ago.
He literally had had to hunt him down, asking other photographers and exhibitioners about this new photographer, who went by initials, ST. The mainstream audience didn’t know him; the faceless photographer was like an indie band, hidden underground, unappreciated but mainly because of the photographer’s own affinity toward privacy. He hid himself, working through intermediary contacts, sometimes by phone and email correspondence. His VC contained little, but his portfolio was mind blowing; it hardly mentioned that he got his degrees in Tokyo.
It took him nearly a year to finally find the discreet photographer and was shocked. He had expected more age, more experience. No one too old from the power of the photographs, but then again, the mysterious photographer turned out to be only twenty-six; a budding freelancer oddly shadowed by his own image.
And he was breathtaking then just as he looked now, his golden eyes cast down at the geometric patterns on the floor.
“Sei, come here.” Gyles’ grey eyes were fixed on Takaba.
Takaba stepped before him, a hesitant step, and Gyles didn’t give him any time to reconsider, bringing him closer by the hips, reeling him in.
“Hmm?” His hands slipped under the shirt unto smooth, ivory skin. Takaba shivered under the lightest touch as Gyles wrapped his left arm around the slim waist, the right hand dipping into the pelvic bone, just above the belt, then following the crease down the center of the abdomen, pausing around the nipples.
“Nothing…” Takaba raised one knee unto the leather recliner to keep his balance as tender hands explored him. For a second, he wished those hands might have been someone else’s, then hated himself for wishing that.
Let him go, Aki, don’t linger in the past.
Gyles was gentle and caring; he never forced his lover. He at least deserved the full reciprocation of love. Even if Takaba lived a life of deceit, lying about his name, lying about his past, lying about who he was in the dark masked core.
There were a few interesting patterns Gyles noticed from early on.
One. The young photographer refused to drink, not a single drop. No matter how much anyone pressured him, and especially when people pressured him. And two. He turned aggressive and belligerent towards force, combative and challenging when anyone attempted to domineer him.
It was almost instinctual, a defensive reflex or perhaps it had been learned, like Pavlov’s dogs. On the other hand, if he wasn’t forced, if they just asked politely and diplomatically, he proved himself to be surprisingly practical and cooperative.
And it was the same with sex. A hint of pressure and he zipped up his pants and walked out the door. Be gentle and he kissed you back, passionately, and made love, passionately.
A simple system of reward and punishment that Gyles quickly grew accustomed to.
Of course, Gyles had no intention to force his new lover into anything. It was the same reason that he reluctantly exhibited all photos anonymously at Takaba’s request, using the same initials ST; why the photographer strived so vigorously toward a low profile mystified him. The young ones were usually dying to get their name out to the public; Sei was not. He cowered from the public and rarely attended his own exhibitions. If he did, he went in just like anyone else, blending in quietly and listening to the whispered conversations. He refused any and all interviews, and though he allowed on certain occasions certain snippets of articles, photos of himself were strictly forbidden. Gyles could probably count in one hand the number of people that knew his lover personally.
Gyles smiled at his lover’s enigma. It was their one year anniversary today, and he had seriously fucked up by bringing up Tokyo. That was another touchy spot; never go near it, he reminded himself mentally yet again.
He looked up at the lovely face, its eyes half closed, moist lips parted slightly, and pushed his hand higher, urging Takaba to take off his shirt gently. Takaba complied, pulling it over his head, over the jet black hair.
Takaba had let the chestnut strands grow out; it reminded him too much of Tokyo. For the same reason, he grew his hair just a bit longer into light layers that settled well around him. It wasn’t the puffy, spiky, hairstyles that the tacky celebrities in Japan sported. God, he hated that, but just a simple style, not much different from what he had, but it was certainly not the same. Besides, Gyles liked it; he liked to run his fingers through it and stroke the silky, slick strands, and it felt nice when he did so, soothing. He felt loved, as a pet would under his owner’s strokes.
His thought drifted back to the museum office. Gyles’ hands were already pushing down Takaba’s jeans, pressing into the semi-hard erection. Takaba suppressed his moans, a habit from his times with Asami that Gyles had been trying hard to break. He suppressed and suppressed until a certain breaking point, but never from the beginning did he yield to himself.
“Don’t hold back, Sei, let them out.” He whispered, blowing hot hair past Takaba’s ear lobes, “Let me hear them… your moans.”
God, that voice turned him on, Takaba sighed, slowly undoing the restraints, the invisible shackles that would hold him down again after the sex was over, but for now, Gyles let himself enjoy it; it was hard enough to break through any of his lover’s barriers.
Takaba’s briefs followed suit with the jeans and fell into a pool of fabric at his feet. Takaba slipped out his sneakers and maneuvered the socks off with his toes. Stepping up onto the leather seat, he was completely straddling Gyles, eye to eye, groin to groin.
I could drown in you, Sei.
Gyles nipped at Takaba’s lips, licked at the flesh of the lower lip and between the parted crack of his mouth until they responded, sucking softly at his tongue, needy and desperate, but subtly held back and reserved.
Why do you hold back, Sei? Why do torment yourself so?
He wanted to know. He wanted to break that resistance because he knew, somewhere inside that shell, that his Sei was a different person. He only saw it in glimpses, the vibrant glint in his eyes during a photo shoot, the subtly changing expressions that revealed a treasury of emotions and expressions locked away inside.
Who locked your heart away, my love.
But he never asked. No use in cutting open scars. No use in bleeding what had already bled. Whether it healed or not was up to his lover; perhaps… perhaps he purposely kept the internal scars, the blood that welled around the wound.
Takaba angled his head and opened his lips to the gentles, nudges of the tongue. Every time, it took him by surprise, the compassionate tenderness he received. So different from what he was accustomed to. Even now, he expected to be cornered somehow, to be thrown down or pushed against a wall and violently taken.
Instead, Gyles hands crept up his back, his neck, and buried into the black tangle of hair, and again, gently. No rough pulling. No yanking. No ripping. No tearing. Buttons did not fly off their respective places when with Gyles.
Gyles ran his tongue under Takaba’s lips again and when his small lover finally relented, he took Takaba’s mouth into his own, claiming to taste what he only wished truly belonged to him. So far, he could still sense the faraway detachment from time to time. Those moments were diminishing, occurring less and less, but they were still there; he could feel it in the wavering touches, the forced reluctance that had to be dissolved every time they touched.
Takaba reached down to unbuckle Gyles’ belt, feeling the heat rising within him, and tugged at the pants until the hard cock broke free of its fabric restraints.
“You’re in a bit of a hurry today,” Gyles whispered, his lips running down the side of the pale neck in a trail of kisses down to the indented depression of the collarbone.
Takaba pulled back, a crease between his eyebrows, “I… shouldn’t?”
Gyles smiled and pulled him in for another round of kisses, “You don’t have to force yourself.”
“I’m not…” Takaba replied. He lifted himself slightly on his knees then licked his fingers, which disappeared down and under, “forcing myself…” he positioned himself over Gyles’ cock and closed his eyes, his long lashes casting a shadow on his cheeks.
Then he lowered himself slowly, torturously slow for Gyles, but he nonetheless waited patiently as the head popped into the hot, tight passage. A guttural moan and grunt rose from deep inside his gut. If he had his way, he would have pushed the small body down at once, but that would hurt his fragile lover and hurting him was the last thing he wanted to do.
Takaba was breathing faster now, short, muted gasps from the base of his throat, from his lungs, but he pushed himself down farther slowly until he was fully up to the hilt, impaled. His throbbing hole completely engulfed Gyles, and the dull ache and pain and the euphoric pleasure combined into something altogether different.
“Oh god…” He paused to catch his breath, shallow and quick and restless.
Gyles’ eyes was focused on the wanton expression that he rarely got to see, the flushed cheeks, half-closed eyelids, eyebrows creased in concentration.
What are you thinking about, Sei? Are you thinking about him again? The one you left behind…
There were times when Takaba stirred in his sleep, whispering, “Asami… ami…” There were nights when he would wake up in the middle of the night after sex and secretly slip a cigarette and smoke one, just one, in the balcony and spend the rest of the night just standing outside staring up at the moon and the constellations if he could, his eyes following any planes that crawled across the dark sky, blinking like a beacon, a buoy in stormy seas, and at sunrise, he slipped back into bed.
Gyles knew for a fact that the boy was not a smoker and avoided them altogether. The cigarettes on those nights weren’t because he craved the cigarette. It was a ritual. A tribute to the one he still loved.
If there were clouds, Takaba would tiptoe back onto the bed and just stare at Gyles’ face until he fell asleep; all the while Gyles pretended to be asleep for his sweet lover’s sake.
Just who was it that you left? Who holds you captive for two long years like this?
“Gyles…” Takaba moaned, slowly moving up and down, rocking the chair. “Ahh…” He had one hand clutched on Gyles’ shoulder, digging into the tight, firm muscles with the fingertips, which turned white from the pressure. The other hand rested on the armrest of the chair.
Had they been making love outside, where it was snowing, he would have seen short puffs of hot air escaping his lover’s lips; He would have seen their sweat crystallize and watched heat radiate from the both of them as cold snowflakes melted on contact, not even given a chance to linger on the hot, flushed skin.
Takaba could feel Gyles’ cock pulsing inside him, invading both his senses and body, just about to hit the edge, and he purposely made his movements ferociously fast, animalistic almost, tightening as Gyles came and he followed, his cum splattering against his bare chest and his English lover’s shirt.
Body collapsed on top of another, sinking into the comforting, reliable chest, sweat covering his entire lithe body. Gyles moved his hand up and down Takaba’s back, tracing the indention of the spine.
He reached across on the desk with a panting Takaba in his lap, still fixed on Gyles.
The box was a deep crimson color, useful for only one obvious purpose.
“It’s our anniversary today, did you know, Sei?”
Takaba giggled, his breath tickling Gyles’ chest with hot air.
“What’s so funny?”
“You remembered…” he pulled his head back. Somehow, his golden eyes were sad and forlorn, heartbroken and melancholic.
“Of course I remembered,” he frowned… what kind of lovers didn’t celebrate anniversaries? Then again, from the strange behavior that his lover sometimes exhibited, it was pretty clear to anyone with a sharp eye that his last relationship had been… to say the least… unique. “Close you eyes.”
“Huh?” he cocked his head in curiosity.
“Shhh… Relax, just close your eyes.”
“But-” his protest was smothered with gentle lips as Gyles pulled Takaba in closer by the hair, his hand threaded in the silky, black locks. With his free hand, he popped open the cubicle box and blindly plucked the ring out. It was of simple design, platinum with a brushed look and a thin line of rose gold embedded down the center. When Takaba shifted, the box rolled off the edge of the seat on the marble floor.
“You dropped something.”
“Doesn’t matter…” he breathed in Takaba’s ears and he took his lover’s small left hand and slipped the ring into place.
Takaba’s eyes flew open at the cold metallic touch.
“Happy anniversary, Sei.”
His gaze was deep and penetrating, “Are you serious?”
Gyles threaded his fingers into Takaba’s and kissed the ring, “I’m always serious when it comes to you.”
Takaba’s eyes were fixed on ring where Gyles’ lips rested, “I… I don’t know what to say.”
Say you love me, Sei. Say you love me, my love.
“You don’t have to say anything.”
Their lips were closing in when the Gyles’ cellphone ring shattered the moment, destroying the silence. Takaba raised himself slowly from Gyles’ lap, half closing his eyes as he pulled himself off.
“Gyles Tennison here, who am I speaking to?”
Takaba picked up his clothes and began dressing again as Gyles stood up and zipped up his pants, holding the cellphone with his shoulder.
“Yes, I do remember, Mr. Carthen. Tonight?” he glanced at Takaba who was now pulling his jeans halfway up his legs, “I’m afraid tonight… I have a rather special occasion that I cannot miss.”
Takaba looked up, surprised. Gyles winked at him and turned around.
“Tomorrow afternoon? That’d be fine. Three o’clock, it is. You do know the directions to the office, I presume? Perfect.” He closed the phone and faced Takaba, who was looking at him, holding his shirt in his hands with a guilty look on his face.
“You really didn’t have to…”
“What, you don’t want to spend out anniversary together?” he teased, caressing Takaba’s cheek with the back of his fingers.
“That’s not what I-”
“Shhh… I know,” he pressed his lips to Takaba’s forehead.
“What are you planning though?”
“It’s a secret.”
“Oh, come on. It can’t stay a secret for very long.”
“I want to you to anticipate.”
Gyles was unbuttoning his shirt when Takaba looked again, “Did I mess up your shirt?”
“Don’t worry about it. I keep a spare around.” And sure enough, he opened the bottom drawer under his desk and produced a white button down, neatly folded. He shook it open and slipped his strong arms into the long sleeves.
Even so, Takaba wore a guilty expression that Gyles quickly erased with an unexpected kiss, sweeping his young lover into a light embrace, Takaba leaning back over the desk.
“I should get going now.” He slipped from the embrace and walked around the desk, collecting his coat from the hook on the wall.
“Alright. Come to my place at eight.”
“I won’t be late.”
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