It had taken Deji a good hour to fully adjust to the flashing lights and whirring sounds of Shori-Platinum.
As someone who often spent his time studying when not on Zero Beat’s clock, social outings at vibrant places like this were far from his specialty.
Caught among the crowd that had gathered for tonight’s tournament, Deji watched in relative silence as consecutive matches were held, various opponents facing off in attempt to win a hopeless battle against the tournament favorite.
Unsurprisingly, the crowd seemed to only get riled up when Nami was playing, where she showed no restraint whatsoever as she bulldozed through her would-be challengers no matter how hard or easy the song.
Even at the very end, on a grand finals set that was best two out of three, Nami secured a clean victory against the only runner up as they were both forced to compete to a song measuring at a dizzying four hundred beats per minute.
When it was all over and the scores were showcased, Nami showed just a slight sheen of sweat for once, as the organizer announced her crushing victory and the crowd roared in approval.
As Deji had predicted, defeating tonight’s competition had proved to be a trivial matter for her.
Nami smiled as she waved at her fans with happiness.
Deji just found himself reminded of their very first encounter in the Symphon beneath EMI Music in Minato, where she had soundly embarassed and defeated him.
As the gap-toothed Japanese girl triumphantly held up her glassy, arrow-shaped trophy, Deji further wondered at his own motivations on having come here to find her tonight.
There was urgency to his visit, but on a more personal level, he had to admit to himself that there was also a need that he have closure with Nami.
It was bad enough that his burgeoning reputation in Zero Beat had been all but ruined because of her, forcing him into a training overdrive as he tossed aside previous song effects like Asterisk in favor of new options.
Having almost expected to be thrown out of Zero Beat because of his failure, it was a twist of fate that Deji would in fact be using these new song effects sooner rather than later.
Deji was eager for Nami to finally approach, but she was quickly heckled by various people requesting autographs and the like. His nose twitched impatiently now as he saw her signing the characters of her name more than a few times, even going so far as to sign a huge body pillow bearing an incredibly inaccurate likeness to her.
Finally, after another three minutes in which her leaderboard score was shown on a large plasma screen, further cementing her gigantic lead over all others, Nami was done.
She walked over to Deji with a snide grin on her face as her tone belied her immense satisfaction.
“Okay, I’m good. You want to go to Akito’s? I’m starving.”
“For food?” Deji asked. “Sure, why not. My treat, in fact. It’s the least I can do considering the situation.”
The previous jealousy began to sizzle away inside him.
He didn’t hate her. He admired her from afar, if anything.
No, it was more that he hated himself for getting so soft. Once upon a time, Deji wouldn’t have been laid low so easily.
It was good to have a reminder that skill was a measure that could be so easily broken at any time, by any one. Deji might even thanked her for such a wake up call.
But these would all prove to be unimportant matters compared to what he needed to tell her. Deji had already steeled himself for their upcoming talk.
Because Deji knew that even after her total victory, the information that he was about to relay to her would be anything but happy.
Deji looked on with somewhat surprised eyes, as he watched Nami scarf down her ramen as if she hadn’t eaten anything in weeks.
He sat with his hands on his lap, leaning back and trying to relax among the ambiance of this comfortable little shop. There was certainly an intimate quality to it, between the lighting and the restrained space.
He’d become so comfortable, in fact, that it became suddenly difficult for him to lay out the true reason of tonight’s meeting, lest he ruin Nami’s appetite in the process.
“It’s really that good?” he asked instead. She nodded with glee.
“The best!” Nami said between a loud slurp. “I’ve been coming here with Arashi for a year now. We always go after arcade nights.”
The scent of her soup wafted past Deji’s nose, and he had to admit it was certainly intoxicating to the senses.
But his hunger pangs would have to wait. It was better to get this out of the way first, brace for Nami’s reaction, and then maybe he could allow himself the reward of eating.
Deji sighed deeply as he began. “Thank you for coming here with me. What I have to tell you is quite important.”
Nami put her bowl down, resting her hands in her chin as she fluttered her eyes.
“Well, you got your date, so what is it? If it’s a confession, I’ll have you know that I don’t have time that kind of stuff right now.”
Deji was finally taken aback, showing it in his normally patient tone. “What? No! I’m not some lovestruck fan. I’m here on my own accord, because of your brother.”
“Nii-san?” Nami said, her smile disappearing. “He didn’t come tonight, and he promised he would. Where is he? What excuse did he give you? Out with it!”
Deji pursed his lips, not wanting to free his next few words.
His legs shifted uncomfortably underneath the table. Unfortunately, they had to be said.
“There’s a reason he didn’t come tonight. This came for you in the mail just a little while ago.”
Slowly, Deji pulled out from his pocket a tan-colored roll, which he laid out on the table to reveal it as a notated scroll.
Together, Nami and him eyed it for a few minutes.
But even after reading it completely, Nami was still confused.
“It’s just an address in Minato. I don’t understand.”
Deji kept going, his tone becoming more serious now.
“It seems whoever it was, they knew to send it to EMI Music. It was addressed specifically to you.” he explained.
“More importantly, I recognize the handwriting.”
Nami’s expression began to change, as her unrelenting confidence gave way to a hint of fear. “Okay…”
It only became worse once Deji started with his questioning.
“You and your brother had some issue with God Symphony in the past, correct?”
Nami’s stomach dropped. She glanced at the remains of her shio bowl, her hunger having vanished in an instant.
“Yes.” she said, voice lower as if she didn’t want to admit to the fact. “But that Fourth Beat lady said that we didn’t have to worry about our debt with them anymore.”
“You don’t.” Deji explained, as calmly as he could. “This isn’t from God Symphony.”
He swallowed his breath, forcing his next statement out despite every voice in his mind urging him not to.
“I recognize the handwriting, because I’ve seen it before. It’s from the Asakawa Clan, and I can only assume that they’re holding your brother as we speak.”
Nami put her hands on the table, as all of her previous thoughts drained away into one painful vortex of terror.
Her hand slipped, knocking aside what left of her ramen as it went plummeting off the side of the table.
There was a loud crash as the immaculate bowl shattered apart, but Nami didn’t say a word, instead staring out the nearby window.
She silently hoped that this was all a joke, and that Arashi would come skating by to greet them and apologize on how he had missed her first bi-weekly tournament.
But as she looked to Deji for reassurance, she could see his expression remained the same. Nami put her hands on her forehead, murmuring as one of the workers quietly cleaned up her mess.
“This isn’t fair.” she said, distraught as images of the worst scenario replayed in her mind.
She didn’t know what real Yakuza were actually like; only what movies and video games had shown her.
All she could think of was her brother standing in a sewer tunnel, shielding his eyes as a crazed thug riding a motorcycle prepared to hit him with a pipe and send him to an early grave.
It was a somewhat dramatic doomsday scenario, but reality wasn’t any less frightening.
“I know, Nami.” Deji agreed, trying to allay her fears. “The good news is that your brother still lives. I know how these people operate. If he was dead, we would already know.”
“This scroll is an invitation.” He explained further. “They want something from you, and they’re using your brother as leverage. As to what it is they want, I can’t say.”
Nami replayed his words in her mind. It took a minute, but soon her previous fear was replaced with clear and obvious anger.
“I’m getting Nii-san back. I don’t care who these guys are, they picked the wrong time to mess with Nagataki X.” she announced, standing up as she seemed ready and raring to go.
“You’ll need backup. I know these people all too well.” Deji replied, as he counted money from his wallet. He made sure to leave a generous two thousand extra yen to cover the broken bowl.
“Oh yeah?” Nami said, now somewhat annoyed. “And what can you do?”
Deji placed the billbook back down on the table, staring her straight in the eyes as he revealed this one last detail.
“I know these people, because once upon a time, I was one of them.”
He pulled away the collar of his school uniform, and Nami’s eyes widened at the sight adorning his bare skin.
Etched within the pores of his skin, she could see the black ink that painted a picture of an unfinished irezumi. She couldn’t see it all lest Deji strip in front of her, but Nami could see the hints of a menacing oni underneath, along with lightning bolts and thunder clouds around it.
“Is that proof enough for you?” he asked.
Nami just nodded. That was enough to shut her up, if only for the time being.
She thought of Arashi, trying not to assume the worst.
Deji had to be right.
He was still alive. She was sure of it.
Of course, without the golden truth before her, like the score of a match won, Nami could only hope.
“So tell me again; why are we wasting our sweet time with this? And for these God Symphony weirdos, on top of that?”
The speaker, a suit-wearing thug who made Sho look like a world-class citizen, stood tense as he held a baseball bat in his left hand.
He was in a dim basement with four of his fellows, each of them equipped with something different; a crowbar, a pool cue, and if it came to it, a fire axe.
In front of them, Arashi Nagataki was still, but very much alive.
The various bruises and scratches covering him only showed the amount of abuse he’d taken in the last hour. His sunglasses had already been smashed to pieces, freeing the expression in his eyes for all to see, but that was the last thing on his mind.
Instead, Arashi tasted the blood in his mouth, and wondered as to why these people just hadn’t killed him already.
He’d already cursed himself for being caught so off-guard; ambushed and taken by plain clothes soldiers on his way to see Nami at Shori-Platinum.
His mind had been so previously focused on the idea of God Symphony’s suit-wearing yakuza, that the last thing he’d expected was danger from people so young and mundane-looking.
And now here was, completely tied up by his wrists and heels to this chair, his things confiscated as the men had their fun with him.
All he could do now was listen, and wait for an opportunity when one presented itself.
They didn’t want information, certainly, because he’d have suffered far worse otherwise.
“We do the job, Hiyoshi. Their money’s good, and all we gotta do is keep an eye on the kid. A little roughing up is okay, but anymore, and we’ll all be losing a finger.”
Hiyoshi shrugged, raising his baseball bat as he complained. “Can we at least play some music or something? I get bored beating on someone so quiet.”
His fellow, an older man with hair just beginning to grey, barked back with sudden anger.
“No! No music whatsoever! Express orders from the boss! We even stashed his headphones away. He doesn’t touch them as long as we hold him.”
Hiyoshi seemed confused. “What the hell is their deal, Amane? It’s just music. What, is it going to kill me?”
The other two men laughed, but Amane, the oldest among them, remained serious.
He sounded quite impatient, in fact, as his next words were an attempt to shut Hiyoshi up. “Look, I don’t make the rules, I just follow them. There’s weird stuff going on here, but you’d do well to stay out of it. It’s bad enough we have to babysit that little freak upstairs.”
Arashi kept looking down as the men discussed, but his hearing was peerless.
God Symphony was smart enough to declaw him for these powerless Yakuza, but it appeared they had no idea why having him listen to music was so dangerous for them.
He could use that to his advantage, as soon as he figured out how to free himself from these bonds.
And then there was the question of why he was even here in the first place. He’d gotten nothing out of these men beyond a mild beating; his sunglasses having been destroyed as punishment for the one instance when he spoke.
“She’s not too bad on the eyes. How old is she again?” Hiyoshi said, smiling devilishly at his own wandering thoughts.
He was stifled in an instant by Amane. “Don’t even think about it. That’s Asakawa’s niece. You touch her, and we’re all dead. Shut up, and keep your eyes forward. We’ll be finished up here soon enough, once company arrives.”
Arashi’s eyes widened at the sound of this yakuza’s words.
Only one person entered his mind.
Who else could God Symphony want in their clutches, even if they had to hire others to do the dirty work for them?
“Nami.” he said out loud.
The four men looked at him, with Amane speaking before any of them.
“What did we just say about talking? I’ll give you one more chance, kid. I don’t want to hear another word.” he demanded.
But Arashi was never one to live in the shadow of fear. He spoke, undeterred as he tried in vain to interrogate them.
“You’re making my sister come for me.” he remarked, before smiling at such a silly notion.
“You people have no idea what she’s capable of. She’ll kill all of you once she figures out what you’ve done.”
That was somewhat of a bluff, of course, but Arashi didn’t have to share that. Anything to make them think twice and keep them distracted, he thought.
But his captors just laughed, as Amane turned to Hiyoshi.
“Ok, I’ll give you one hit. But you better keep that swing under control, you animal.” he said, Arashi remained unafraid despite the spoken approval of more physical violence.
Hiyoshi just nodded excitedly, now standing in front of Arashi as he raised the baseball bat just an inch away from the boy’s forehead.
“Go back to dreamland, kid. I’ll be enjoying your little sister in the meantime.” he mocked, before cutting loose.
Arashi gritted his teeth in anger, muscles tensing against the cords holding him. Try as he might, without Ultrasoul, he couldn’t break them.
Arashi had no time to react further, as wood cracked against his head in the next instant, sending him falling over in his chair as his vision waned.
He thought of Nami, and of the possibility of her being taken away. He deried himself for his own faliure and complacency.
As he faded away into unconsciousness, Arashi hoped that she fought smart when she arrived. Based on Amane’s words, it appeared they unknowingly had a Music Master among their ranks.
But since they’d faced Michael and Rob Prototype all that time ago, Nami had been training in earnest, and Arashi knew that it would matter now more than ever.
Blackness then came, and Arashi’s world faded away as his brain was lulled to a painful and forced sleep.