SHIGURE MATSUNAGA stood in front of the large mirror. He felt like an imposter, a street thug posing for a respectable picture in a borrowed tuxedo. Yet the tuxedo fit his broad frame too well to be anything but tailor-made, and the party he was getting ready for was so respectable that even a few police hierarchs would be there to hobnob with successful businessmen, actors, and politicians.
Shigure sighed. He couldn’t avoid the oyabun’s daughter’s wedding party, no matter how hard it’d be to pretend he felt at ease among all those classy people. His friend Oyone had taught him basic table manners a long time ago, but so far, she hadn’t managed to instill in him the penchant for chitchat that seemed to keep these parties going.
“Matsunaga-sama,” his assistant, Atsushi, called from the door in his usual formal manner. “The car is ready.”
He nodded and moved away from the mirror without another look. No point in contemplating the obvious. He was exactly what the rough planes of his face said he was, and the expensive clothes wouldn’t fool anyone. There was no need to hide it, anyway, because he had the suspicion his boss wanted him there to remind all those fancy ladder climbers who was behind the money that financed their careers, just in case they forgot for even a second.
Before he reached the genkan, the lobby where his dress shoes would be waiting for him, he took a peek into the room where his latest acquisition hung. As always, the simple beauty of the watercolor soothed his nerves, the lonely seascape doing more for his self-confidence than any word could have. It was a mystery, how in spite of his upbringing, he was able to appreciate the subtle nuances of a masterwork. But he could, and that—as Oyone was so fond of repeating—distanced him from the underworld he so rarely left behind. And she should know, since her establishment catered for the rich and powerful, those who had been swimming in money and beauty all their lives and yet had to trust their art dealers to choose the pieces in their collections, just as they trusted the appearance of their own houses to the tastes of renowned interior decorators.
Shigure shook his head. Nobody dictated how his house was to look, what clothes he had to wear, or which paintings he hung on his walls. The oyabun’s guests could look down their noses at him all they liked. He knew where he stood, and it wasn’t a bad place to be for someone born in the gutter.
KENNETH HARRIS wandered over to the buffet table. He shouldn’t have come. His friend, Ryu, had insisted that he wanted Ken here, that he enjoyed showing off his personal gaijin. But, as Ken had expected, Ryu’s personal foreigner was all but invisible in this group of powerful Japanese. Only a few artsy types had tried to appear polite, and just because being able to keep up a conversation in English gave them an aura of fashionable cosmopolitanism. The rest, though, didn’t even feel the need to pretend they cared.
Ken sighed. He was used to it. Growing up in Japan hadn’t been easy, not with his blond hair, round eyes, and big nose. He’d always been the ugly gaijin kid, the perfect target for bullies. Ironically enough, when his family returned home, he found himself on the outside of things anyway, at odds with a new set of rules no one bothered to spell out for him, his weird eyes still making him different where his looks should have been average. In time, he would discover he was weird in other, less acceptable areas of his private life, those that, if he’d remained in Japan, wouldn’t even have been frowned upon. Just his luck to be in the wrong country no matter what he did.
And here he was now, back in Japan, once again standing alone in the middle of a crowded room, a very expensive and yet very ugly room. He couldn’t for the life of him understand why the Japanese were so fond of shucking off the traditional beauty of their simple decoration to favor any kind of plastic eyesore. They must think modernity is in the materials, that you can just sprinkle metal and cement about and produce Western art.
He studied the flower arrangements for a while. They were fine in a too-rigid sense of harmony that he bet was very far from the original free spirit of ikebana. He could almost see the textbook diagrams they’d come from, but, hey, he was a gaijin, he sure didn’t get the convolutions of Japanese culture.
What Ken really wanted to do right now was look at all those beautiful faces around him, the only natural things the Japanese couldn’t alter so easily in spite of that dreadful fad of plastic surgery spreading among the young. Yet he knew here, more than anywhere else, watching people was considered rude, and he contented himself with furtive glances every now and then.
Even as discreet as Ken thought he was being, the last time his eyes had met another man’s, he’d received a frown. He guessed he’d been staring, but he couldn’t help it; the guy really stood out. Every man at the reception wore an expensive tuxedo, but the stranger who’d caught Ken’s eye had the perfect body to fill the suit in all the right places, his broad shoulders and powerful legs giving him a solid physical presence that most of the other guests lacked.
Ken had watched the man move about with a grace that belied his burly constitution, and he’d been sure it was the practice of some martial art that gave the stranger’s movements that kind of elegant self-containment. He looked dangerous, too, his face an incongruous war mask in a wedding reception, his eyes sending a clearly hostile message, almost a challenge to anyone foolhardy enough to meet them. Not that Ken was foolhardy, but he had a keen eye for improbable beauty, and he couldn’t help getting lost in its contemplation wherever he found it; it was what Ryu called his “artistic trances.” Not everybody was as patient with his eccentricities as his childhood friend, though, and the frown that had creased the stranger’s forehead was testimony to it.
As soon as Ken realized he’d been staring, he turned quickly away, fixing his gaze on the first innocuous thing he could find, his heart galloping as he pretended to study the already melting ice sculpture on a nearby table.
Christ. How could he be so stupid? It was no secret that the party’s host was the leader of a powerful yakuza gumi, one of the local gangs of mobsters, and looking a yakuza in the eye was a definite no-no, however stunning the man was. Ken should know, too, for many of Ryu’s family business associates came from the shadier sides of Japanese economy.
But even then, anxious as he was about the possible consequences of his breach of etiquette, he couldn’t help really watching the ice sculpture in all its melting ugliness, his mind already finding ways to include its nightmarish quality in a visual composition that he might use later in one of his illustrations. He was a lost case.
SHIGURE looked around, trying to hide his boredom behind a severe look. It worked in its own way, most people steering clear of him, save those who dealt with him on a regular basis, like that kid Nishimura Ryu, who was so bold anyway, Shigure had the impression he’d talk an axe murderer into borrowing his weapon of choice. Now that Ryu had moved away, though, Shigure was left on his own to study the crowd.
There were all kinds of people milling about, with even a few gaijin thrown in the lot, their mostly blond heads sticking out over the sea of black-haired short humanity. Yet Shigure’s eye had been following a particular blond head that didn’t stand out, its owner as short and light-framed as the Japanese around him. Or maybe he was Japanese, one of those trendy youths who bleached their hair to death. Shigure couldn’t tell, since the man was facing away from him.
The youngster seemed to be alone, and Shigure was amused to see that he was watching the crowd just as Shigure was, one hand curled around a tumbler he wasn’t really drinking from. Something in the way those fingers held the glass spoke of an inner strength that caught Shigure’s attention. He was used to judging an opponent by his grip on the bokken, the wooden sword that had taken the place of the lethal katana in trainings, and the foreigner’s long fingers seemed to exert just the right amount of pressure to hold the weight and yet be loose enough for the hand to move with ease. If the tumbler had been a sword, the blond man would have wielded it like a master.
The foreigner was now studying one of the lifeless flower arrangements that decorated the place. As his profile came into view, Shigure could tell he was indeed a foreigner, his nose betraying his Western origin. Not that it was an ugly nose, for it was rather delicate by gaijin standards, and Shigure always took his time observing things before dismissing them as ugly. That was an advantage when it came to judging art. Because he didn’t know the names of the famous artists, he could simply focus on the painting in front of him and decide whether he liked it or not on his own terms.
When the foreigner turned to look around, Shigure decided he definitely liked the face that came into full view. In fact, he liked it so much that he felt the tingle of anticipation that always came to him when he discovered a piece he wanted to own, or rather, needed to own, since beautiful things seemed to wake a hunger in him that left him restless till the object was in his possession.
He drank in the alien features of the young man, the tall forehead framed by soft curls, the straight lines of his brows, the big eyes, the full, sensual lips. Then those eyes met his, and Shigure frowned, catching something slightly disquieting about them. Could they be of two different colors? Was that even possible? Maybe he’d wanted to create a shocking effect by wearing contacts of contrasting shades, but he didn’t give off that kind of vibe. He looked to be more on the shy side, the way he quickly looked down and turned around when he saw Shigure watching him.
The yakuza debated what to do. He wanted to get closer and take a good look at those eyes, but it was a gaijin he was thinking about. Even if he approached him, what was he going to say? Shigure couldn’t speak a word of English, and in his experience, most foreigners didn’t go further than “hai” and “arigato” in their knowledge of Japanese.
The gaijin stood in front of the ice sculpture of something that might have resembled a swan some hours before, but now it just looked like a pudgy ball of melting slime with wings. Shigure’s frown deepened. It wasn’t like him to step down from a challenge. He knew it was more than the other man being a foreigner. If he was here, he had to be one of those rich kids with a high position in the local branch of a foreign company, granted by a degree from a prestigious university and powerful family connections. If it were so, he’d be way out of Shigure’s league.
He almost groaned aloud. He wouldn’t be in the ballroom of one of the most expensive hotels in Japan if he’d kept up that attitude. Since he was a kid, he’d always known what he wanted, and fought for it with all his might, no matter how out of reach his goals had appeared at the time. What did he have to lose now? The gaijin would probably take one look at Shigure’s face and run for his life, anyway.
His mind made up, Shigure nodded to himself. He didn’t even notice the way people opened a path for him as if they sensed a predator moving among them. He was just focused on the slim figure in front of him, his eyes undressing the slender body as he got closer. When they stood side by side, he saw that the foreigner was slightly shorter than him, his hair a fine halo of bright curls, and he almost hummed in appreciation.
As the seconds ticked by, Shigure raked his brain for something to say, his eyes fixed on the melting ice bird as if waiting for inspiration. But just then the foreigner spoke, his voice low enough that only Shigure could hear him.
“Niwatori mitai, aitsu.”
Shigure blinked at the young man’s perfect Japanese, and then his words sank in—Looks like a hen, that guy—and Shigure laughed in surprise. He turned to find the foreigner looking at him with a shy smile on those kissable lips.
Shigure bowed and introduced himself in Japanese. “My name is Matsunaga Shigure.”
To his delight, the gaijin bowed back to the same exact degree and answered with the proper formula, even adding the extra U to his family name to pronounce it the Japanese way. “I am Harrisu Ken. Pleased to meet you, Matsunaga-san.”
“Your Japanese is very good, Harrisu-san.”
“You’re too kind. I grew up in Japan, so I manage a little. But please call me Ken.”
“Ken as in Kenji?” Shigure asked.
“It’s Kenneth, actually, but my friends call me Kenshin.”
Shigure noticed that Ken avoided starting his sentences with a negative, in a very Japanese way. He nodded his approval before asking, “After Uesugi Kenshin?”
Ken hesitated, and Shigure could see a slight blush darkening his cheeks at the mention of the great leader of ancient times.
“After Himura Kenshin,” the gaijin finally said. Shigure schooled his face into a blank expression that prompted Ken to explain. “You know, red hair, ugly scar on his cheek—”
Shigure had to stifle a chuckle. “You mean the manga character.” He didn’t make it a question. He could understand why they’d given Ken the name of the fiery assassin with a noble heart: where Kenshin had his red hair to speak of his demonic ability with a sword, Kenneth had big, mismatched eyes that gave him a similarly alien look.
They were truly different, those eyes, one brown and the other green, but Shigure found that odd trait made Ken’s beauty exceptional, unique. Perfect symmetry only dulled aesthetic pleasure; contrasts enhanced any feature dramatically, allowing the eye to explore every rich nuance, and Ken’s face was an irregular landscape Shigure’d never tire of contemplating.
The yakuza knew he wasn’t going to stop until that beauty belonged to him, no matter what it took. And as always, the decision made all his previous anxiety slip away. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he would fight for it. It was that simple.