F I V E
His heart was broken; it was too depressing that it couldn't be possibly true! He pushed the dark brown frames up the bridge of his nose, letting out a deep sigh as he studied the pitiful sight. It was so pitiful that he couldn't bear to stare at it any longer.
There, in front of him, was a small leather duffel bag. Although it sat on the beige carpet by itself - minding its own business - he couldn't shake off the feeling that it was intentionally put there to ridicule him, like its sole purpose in life was to mock every particle of him. That is, if the duffel bag was a living thing to begin with, of course.
He gave an inward frustrated cry. The other members had also been allowed to take one bag with them, but Toppo couldn't help but feel that it wasn't fair. It was utterly evil. Why did they have to limit fashion, for fashion wasn't something to be ever restricted in the first place. Fashion was – fashion was...not in the darn ugly bag!
Nevertheless, not all Toppo's clothes had been taken to the hotel. In actuality, a quarter of his clothes had remained in the van, while the rest had been left in club8. Having only a selected amount of clothes was a struggle for someone, like Toppo, to deal with. And mulling over what to wear for the past half hour wasn't going to get him anywhere...
There was a gargle of laughter.
Spinning on his heels, Toppo turned to see little Kohana looking up at him and giggling. Even Kohana was mocking him!
"This isn't funny, Kohana-chan. You'll understand my excruciating painful dilemma when you grow up. Just you wait!"
Toppo must have been acting like an idiot glaring at the duffel bag as he stalked back and forth in the hotel room with only a towel wrapped around his waist. To think that he had almost forgotten that Kohana had been there that whole time observing him lose his sanity. She had been propped in the middle of the queen size bed with pillows surrounding her, watching Toppo make a fool out of himself.
As Toppo reached out to pick her up, the doorbell rang.
Cradling Kohana in his arms, Toppo ambled towards the door and squinted through the peep-hole, immediately seeing a person's familiar stubble that irritated him when it wasn't shaven. Toppo turned the handle and allowed the man in. "About time you came. It's your turn to sit for Kohana."
Jacky reluctantly took Kohana from Toppo's hold. "But you do such a good job at it, why don't you keep her?"
"I've got things to do," Toppo said, carefully passing Kohana to Jacky. "I need my break and you're the only person available right now."
Toppo was telling the truth. Arsenal and Mac were too busy chattering about what they were going to do next, Ace had strangely disappeared while Gum was keeping an eye out on Johnny. They would have had made Johnny look after his daughter, but they all agreed that they'd allow him or Ace to supervise Kohana once they believed that he was mentally stable.
With Ai gone, Toppo felt overworked and tired. Toppo felt like as if he were Ai's replacement. Most chores that Ai had done were now shared between the members, but Toppo had been the one who had changed Kohana's nappy the most. No one really had offered to care for Kohana mainly because Toppo had a hunch that the baby reminded them of Ai-chan. The resemblance was uncanny. Toppo adored Kohana to bits, but even he needed a break. Everything was both physically and emotionally straining.
Before Jacky had second thoughts, Toppo snatched a satchel filled with baby supplies and put its strap diagonally across Jacky's body. It was a good thing that Toppo took advantage of Jacky while Jacky had been holding Kohana. As Jacky was about to protest for the second time, Toppo had already kicked him out of the room. And by kicking, it had meant literal kicking.
In seconds, Toppo found himself back at square one – the duffel bag.
Caving in, Toppo squatted and rummaged through the folded clothes. He pulled out his briefs, a pale green shirt, a red woollen scarf, his thick black parka and a pair of grey baggy denim jeans. The outfit screamed boring, but what could Toppo do when he had a limited range? Although Toppo liked wearing clothing that made him stand out, that night he opted to wear something that didn't make him as distinguishable. At the place he was going to, he didn't want to be recognised. He undid the towel, letting it drop to the floor, and changed into his clothes.
With one more glance at the room, Toppo was satisfied. He grabbed the hotel card, emergency spray and wallet, striding out of his room.
He almost jumped when he saw a ginger feline purring at him, bright blue eyes lingering at his face. The cat turned its head and brushed past him, one side of its body stroking against his leg as it scrambled away from him.
He remembered the argument that Gum had had with Mac that morning - something about how Gum wanted to take the abandoned cat with them when they left the caravan. Mac had disagreed, but from the looks of things Gum had somehow managed to sneak the cat along with them without anybody knowing. Sooner or later, Mac would find out and the thought of another dispute occurring between Gum and Mac made Toppo flinch.
Toppo remembered seeing Gum's sad face when Jacky had announced that they wouldn't be staying at the caravan any longer. Toppo had sided with Gum about staying there. Ace and Arsenal didn't seem to care, while Jacky, Mac and Johnny strongly opposed of staying at the caravan. Mac had complained that the place smelled of cats, while Jacky had argued that there was nowhere to take a shower. So, inevitably, the group had went back to the city and had arrived at the hotel late in the afternoon. Majority's vote, after all.
Though Toppo had sided with Gum, Toppo was glad that they had come back to the city. He had things that he need to do and places that he needed to be at.
He waited for the elevator for around five minutes. When the doors opened, he spotted a girl, possibly his age or younger, stride out. As Toppo was about to get inside, the girl latched onto his wrist and yanked him out of the elevator, her long hot-pink acrylic nails piercing into his skin in the process. Toppo frowned as he watched the elevator doors shut and gazed at the girl, waiting for an explanation.
The girl had light brown hair, pink pouting lips, long curled lashes and a bit too much make up on for Toppo's liking. She wore a cream dress that stopped shortly mid-thigh and high silver stilettos that made Toppo feel more insecure about his height. Nevertheless, the girl was a pretty one, but Toppo definitely knew that she had something up her sleeve. Toppo wasn't that blind. He did wear glasses, but the lenses were fake – one of the things he did for fashion.
"Sorry," she said. It wasn't an apology. "I was wondering if you could swipe me into the hallway? My friend let me go up first and he said that he'd be up any minute."
The hotel that they were staying at was different from any other hotel that Toppo had been to. The hotel card was a hassle, for it had to be swiped a total of three times; the first to get into the elevator, the second to get swiped into the hallway and the last was to get inside the hotel room.
"Since you've dragged me here, I guess that I have no choice." Toppo smiled weakly, gesturing for her to follow his lead. Another day he wouldn't have done the favour, but Toppo wasn't in the mood to disrupt the start of his night with a squabble with a girl. The girl wasn't an intruder because she had a friend who she was supposedly going to meet with and that supposed friend must have swiped their card for her to get on the elevator.
"It's this room. Here," she said. She bowed her head. "Thank you. Thanks for escorting me."
"No problem." Toppo shrugged. "I'll wait for your friend with you."
"Why? You seem to have a lot of time on your hands."
"Not really. I just don't want to leave you here on your own," Toppo admitted.
"You really are nice," she stepped back, slightly stunned. "If you have somewhere to go, you can leave me here. I'll wait for him to come and-"
"You're a real gentleman," she remarked. "By the way, my name's Kaori." She dished out a card from her small silver-sequenced clutch. "Call me any time."
Toppo wasn't surprised when he saw the card and the girl's occupation right under her name. Toppo felt sorry for the girl. He felt more pity towards her than his duffel bag. He had seen it coming because someone he knew would do it often in front of him. "Thanks, but I don't think I'll be calling."
The girl looked disappointed at the rejection. Toppo could see that she was offended. "Am I not pretty enough for you-"
"No, you're gorgeous. Don't ever think that way."
"Then why won't you allow me to be with you for a night?" Kaori batted her lashes.
Toppo shook his head. He sighed. He knew her story all too well. "Because it's not right. You're worth more and you know it. It's not that I don't respect what you do, I actually admire you because I don't think I could ever do it. It's just, for me, I'd want to be with someone I love."
"Is that all?" An eyebrow quirked upwards.
"-And the fact that I don't root for the opposite sex."
Kaori threw her head back and laughed. "Good one."
She stopped laughing when Toppo took hold of her wrist, like how she had held on to him before he could get into the elevator. But in Toppo's case, instead of dragging her towards him, he flipped her wrist around and piled a bundle of notes into her hand. "Go treat yourself to something you like later."
Kaori stared at Toppo with clear uncertainty. She was unable to string a sentence of words together. Saying 'thanks' felt like a cheap word too. Before she could think of what to say, Toppo saw that her client had arrived.
Slim stature of a light feather weight, disheveled black hair, tanned skin and a smoldering distinct infamous glare - now that wasn't who Toppo had expected.
"Ace," Kaori cooed his name. She wrapped an arm around his waist and kept close to Ace's thin frame.
They exchanged glances. Ace was usually the type to stare directly at Toppo's eyes, but when Toppo met his gaze right there and then, Ace hesitated. Ace looked uncomfortable and childishly guilty, somewhat embarrassed like the time when Toppo had caught Ace playing Mario on Mac's prized Gameboy without asking permission.
Toppo wasn't sure what to make of it. Ace's erratic behaviour had seemed to escalate. Everybody had noticed how distant and more angry he seemed. Even how he had went off with Arsenal to shoot those men in a gun-hoe and violent manner – and now Ace had resorted to women? Toppo didn't know what to think any more. Toppo shifted on his feet. He didn't want to make it any more awkward. He gave a curt nod at them, making his way towards the elevators. Everybody had their own way to cope. Ace had lost his sister. Toppo just hoped that Ace's way of coping didn't drag out too long.
. . . . . . . . .
The chimes sounded when Toppo closed the door. The owner was the first person he saw in the red dimly lit place. Toppo had been there too many times to not be familiar with the man. The balding head, the beer belly and the sneer permanent smirk. Every fortnight Toppo would come visit, and every fortnight that man would be there. The man irked him. Not many things irritated Toppo, but being there and seeing him always had.
The owner took a deep puff from his cigar, exhaling rings of smoke into the air. He hadn't looked up to see Toppo standing there, so the man acted like he usually would with any customer that would walk in. "Tell me who you want to select after you look through – Oh, it's you."
Toppo coughed. "Which room is she in?"
"Boy, you shouldn't bother with someone like her. Why don't you enjoy yourself for a change? See another woman. I'll even put in a discount for you-"
"Ah, ah, ah! I've had it with you boy!" the owner exclaimed. "You, you're always like this. You lose us more clients because you're always marching in for free and doing the hell you want!"
Toppo stepped closer and shoved a small spray bottle in front of the man's face. Toppo didn't like using aggression or any form of violence but when it was needed, he would. "If you don't shut up, I'll spray this on your face just like last time. Do you want me to do that?"
The owner violently shook his head.
"No? That's good news," Toppo said. He dropped the bottle into his pocket. "Then where is she?"
Toppo gave a nod, walking forward. The place was like a second home to him so Toppo easily made his way around and after passing a few rooms down a narrow hallway, he let himself into one of them.
The person he had been looking for was there, alright - a middle-aged woman. Her naked leg dangled on top of the other as she lounged back on a couple of pillows, taking in the news from the television screen. Bleached blond hair, red lips and dressed in nothing but leopard printed lingerie. The sight was all but common for Toppo. Ever since he was little that was how Toppo had seen her.
"Shota!" the woman exclaimed. Toppo's mother's face lit up when she saw him standing in front of her. Her excitement was that of a teenage girl who had been asked on a date by her current crush. She immediately jumped off from the bed and ran towards him, giving him a tight embrace. "Come sit next to me! Let's watch the-"
Toppo didn't return the embrace. In fact, he pushed his mother away and handed her an envelope. "Won't you stop this, Okasan?"
"By the money I've given you by now, you'd have enough to stop this. You have enough money for your living expenses for years now. You don't have to do this-"
"Honey, it's my job." Toppo's mother wouldn't listen to him. She took the envelope from him, tossing it onto the bed. She pulled Toppo back, resting her forehead onto his. "I like doing it. It's not about the money."
"They're just using you."
"At least I'm being useful then." She cracked a smile, avoiding Toppo's frown. "How many times do I have to tell you, Shota? This place is my home. I owe them for it. They've treated me good and supported me to have you, instead of making me have an abortion. Shouldn't you be grateful?"
"Take the money anyway," Toppo said. "I'll be back in a fortnight." He walked out of the room, not making the effort to turn around and say a good bye to his mother, departing from the building. No matter how much he'd try to convince his mother, she would never listen.
. . . . . . . . .
He had always liked slides. Everybody knew that was where Toppo was bound to be found whenever they'd venture to the playground. Grinning crazily, feeling the rush of wind and sliding down in tremendous speed. Only this time, he had stayed stuck on the bottom of the slide. Toppo hadn't stood up and rushed back up the ladder to slide down again. He sat there, feet sinking into the bark as he stared in front of him, not focusing on anything in particular.
That was when she noticed.
"What are you thinking about?"
Toppo jerked his head towards the girl that suddenly kneeled besides him. Toppo was sure that when they went home, they'd discover many holes in her purple stockings. She wore Gum's second hand old orange shirt that appeared more like a dress on her, for it fell just above her knees. It was difficult for Toppo to believe that Ai-chan was already in her late teens, and yet she still acted like a child. Then again, if Ai-chan were to wear a business blazer and a grey skirt with heels, Toppo would still see her as a child. To him, she was Ai-chan and that was all there was to it.
Ai's hands rested on her chin as she leaned onto the side of the slide as she gazed him. "Are you going to tell me?"
"No," Toppo said. "Because there's nothing to tell."
Out of nowhere, Toppo felt himself being serenaded with bark, one handful after the other. Toppo waved his hands in front him to deflect any more of the bark to go onto his face, but Ai-chan kept throwing handfuls by the second -. yet it was another reason why Toppo would never see Ai as an adult.
"Oi!" Toppo said, angrily as he shook the bark off from his denim jacket. "What was that for?"
"I don't like it!" she said, stomping her feet. "I hate it when you lie. Always pretending to be happy. Why can't you ever tell me what's wrong when you are sad?"
"What's wrong with being happy?"
"If you're faking it, isn't it wrong?"
"But I'm genuinely happy." Toppo asked while brushing the bark off his clothes.
"Liar. You're upset that Takeshi doesn't have enough money for you to go university."
Toppo looked up at her. That had been a secret. Toppo had made sure that no one had found out that he had asked Takeshi for money, but since the club wasn't doing well financially – it was impossible. Every year one or a few orphans would walk in, and that meant they'd have to use extra expenses to accommodate for the children.
The guilty look confirmed Toppo's thoughts. "Yeah, I did."
It still shocked Toppo how Ai had found out about the private talk that he had had with Takeshi. Ai-chan must have been eavesdropping when he had went into the club's office. Toppo was slightly offended, but it was Ai's nature to want to know what was happening to everyone. She knew all their dirty secrets but never once used it as blackmail. She cared.
"Toppo, if you really want something, you should go for it and not think about others. I've seen you reading all those biology textbooks at night. It's science, isn't it? Science is what you want to study?" She rested a hand on his knee.
"Money doesn't grow on trees."
"You could have asked from all of us. We'd be happy to chip in."
"Jacky wouldn't. You know him."
"That's why we'll conspire to steal from his piggy bank."
Toppo laughed. He hadn't laughed all day, so the irony in Ai's joke cheered him up, even if it was for the slightest moment. They all knew that even in his mid twenties, Jacky still kept a piggy bank – the same one had since he was ten. Mac had said that was probably the reason why it had driven Jacky to become obsessed whenever it came to money.
"That, I won't participate in," Toppo replied. The idea sounded good, but it was the thought of getting caught by Jacky. He didn't want his head to meet Jacky's hand. Toppo had too many agonising experiences with Jacky's hits. Then again, Ai hadn't been serious about stealing from Jacky's piggy bank in the first place. Toppo continued with the joke. "Besides, I'd feel bad to steal from his future family's fortune with Ran-chan."
"Sometimes you're way too nice."
"Is being nice a bad thing?"
"No-I. Just Toppo, why can't you just say your opinion for once? What you really think and feel? Be straightforward. Get your message across."
He smiled. "Sure. "
"Because then no one will listen! People will just walk all over you." Ai continued to lecture. "You should say what you think."
"Sometimes there's a line, Ai-chan."
"And sometimes you're too stubborn."
Toppo watched Ai leave. He chuckled. She was vexed, but by dinner time Toppo knew she would calm down. She would get short tempered like Ace, but she didn't hold grudges. Perhaps Ai was right about stating his opinion and doing what he wanted to do, but there were more important things than that in life. Protecting and looking after the club and his family would always come first.
. . . . . . . . .
"What are you doing up?"
Toppo had been lying on his back on the pathway in front of the hotel. His eyes had been looking up at the sky for who knows how long. His mind easily drifted elsewhere without him knowing. He had arrived back at the hotel, but had been tangled up in a memory. He hadn't remembered how long he had been laying down either.
Although it was night time, Toppo recognised the head that appeared in his vision. Looking down at him, Arsenal took a drag of his cigarette and blew downwards, causing Toppo to immediately sit up. "Argh!"
"Why are you here, Toppo?"
"Stargazing," he lied.
Toppo knew Arsenal would see through it in an instant since it was nearly impossible to see stars in a city of lights.
"I see." Arsenal squatted next to him. Toppo glimpsed the skull tattoo on the back of his hand as Arsenal dug out a box of cigarettes and pulled one out. Arsenal offered it to Toppo, but he shook his head. "Hey, you asked for one at the funeral."
"That was different."
Toppo was strongly against smoking, but the funeral required the cigarette.
"Are you going to ask what I was thinking about?"
"Well, I'm going to tell you anyway."
Arsenal gave a low chuckle. "Figures."
"I was just thinking - it's bothering me...if Ai hadn't spoken her mind, or whatever she had thought on that night – do you reckon she'd be alive?" Toppo sighed. "I mean, that has to be the only reason why she got killed, yeah? Whatever she heard or witnessed and how she reacted...it must be connected, right?"
"Wrong. Well, maybe right." Arsenal spoke, "The thing is, if Ai hadn't reacted the way she did, she wouldn't have been Ai-chan to begin with."
"So are you saying it's a good thing she died?" Toppo was getting defensive.
"No. What I'm saying is that nothing can be changed. What's happened has happened and we can't do anything to fix that."
Toppo nodded. He leaned back and stared back up at the sky. There would be no stars, just a dark blank vast sky, but he knew that somewhere up there was Ai-chan. She was lonely. Ai never liked being by herself. He felt a shuffle next to him. Arsenal had also laid down. Toppo scented a whiff of gunpowder. "So Arsenal, I didn't ask..."
"Exactly why are you up?" Toppo teased, but at the same time was serious. "Did you go to any shady places?"
There was a pause. "I scouted information on that Yoshida man. We'll make a move tomorrow after I discuss it with Mac."
"Oh," was all Toppo could reply.
The two laid down there in silence, watching the starless sky. There would be moments when they'd talk a lot, and moments when they wouldn't. Either way, Toppo always felt comfortable around Arsenal. Only that night, Toppo didn't feel relaxed, for the strong smell of Arsenal's gunpowder made him think about the people he might have killed to retrieve the information.
Was the information even worth it? If Ai were alive, Toppo knew that she wouldn't have wanted them to scheme so methodically based purely on revenge. Her opinion would have made an impact, would have mattered and might have stopped them from digging into deeper trenches.
Toppo sighed. But Ai was no longer alive.
Hope you all celebrated for a great NY and indulged with sushi during the JE Countdown ;) Not sure when the next update will be because I'll be starting my grad program the end of this month. Thanks to all of you who have been reading this fanfic despite me taking ages to update. Going to stop here because I'm sick again and it's already passed midnight.
Take care! :)
P.S. The next chapter will be Ace/Ryo focused
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