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27 February 2011 @ 08:01 pm
Chester's cool school band  
The first time is always the easiest. There's someone there to guide you through the process; to correct your grip on the gun; to warn you not to step too close to the blood or else you'll have to throw those new boots away; to remind you that it's just a job, kid, and you've got to learn to harden up because you can't heave up into a toilet bowl for the rest of your life. The second time is also easy: your mentor smiles when you flick off the safety lock like a pro (because perfect practice makes perfect) and shoot unhesitatingly; you get a pat on the back for asking after the post-op report forms without needing to be reminded; you wake up the next day, hungry from having skipped dinner, but your arms and stomach don't ache from fear-borne tension anymore.

It's probably around the sixth or seventh time, when you're left on your own for the first time, and there's no-one standing behind you blocking the exit with a gun trained on the target (in case you fail, but you would never fail anyway; they've invested too much time and effort for you to be allowed to fail) that the need to retch starts creeping up again. The target always appears to be bigger, more prepared, stronger-willed than all the previous ones and suddenly your gun looks tiny in comparison. Your gloved hands are cold and the mobile phone in your pocket feels heavy with expectation.

You fuck up, inevitably. Everyone does, they say. You accidentally leave behind an incriminating piece of evidence, you have to shoot three times before the poor bastard stops groaning, and you're already halfway out the building before remembering to fetch the hard-drive you had been sent to recover. And on your way back to the scene of the crime, your mentor's mentor has his gun trained on you, laughing, and saying, "You're fucking dead, idiot. Go back to kindergarten."

***

Comparatively speaking, learning dance-moves and smiling in television interviews, or laughing with Nakamaru on the radio show and learning the lyrics to a new single, is agonising torture. If ever he was caught on a mission and ended up with hard-faced men drilling gaping holes into his kneecaps so that he might ooze information more readily than blood (not the worst case scenario, said his mentor, but very painful indeed) he could comfort himself with the thought that having to lie to his friends and family and bandmates, who were like a hybrid of the two but more exasperating, was the most difficult thing he'd ever had to do.

Known as the most technologically inept out the band, Ueda Tatsuya often frowned at his mobile phone the way people looked at absurdly complex recipes, and would cautiously hover his fingers an inch above the touch screen as though afraid that it might leap up and nip at him. The other band members had long become accustomed to his raging indecision over j-webs messages and meticulously composed emails that often took days to complete. Getting an instantaneous response from him was unheard of, even during the time in which he was confined to bed, staring at the ceiling aimlessly. They let him be, much like they overlooked the whims of blond hair and gothic rock, sequins and butterflies, layer upon layer of masks.

"With his head in the clouds," they'd laugh when he looked into space, face blank and calm, or when he lost track of time at the boxing gym and turned up almost an hour late. He would race in with hair still wet and dripping from the shower, wipe his sweaty hands on unwashed trousers, and then mentally triple-lock the itenerary for his next mission and chain up the garage door of rendezvous points and mission objectives. Dancing was effortless and a sensible way to clear his head. It allowed him to focus on something other than the seedy conveyor belt of names, faces, jobs and prices.

This rehearsal had him sprawled on the floor, heart thumping hard in time with the beat and calves aching from each repeated motion. The new promotional video was being shot sometime over the weekend; intelligence was already at work trying to discover the exact time and location. Being a part of Johnny's Entertainment allowed him a deeper level of access behind-the-scenes of many other institutions but the agency itself was a fortress of bureaucracy, top-secret memos and backroom meetings between the executives.

He was unlikely to receive instructions until the morning of the shoot anyway, and instead busied himself with learning a new way to leap off the ground using only his hands and arms. Beside him, the rest of the band struggled with the technique and groaned when Ueda executed the move with minimal struggle. But they didn't have the benefit of constant physical training at an underground base.

"Boxing practice, right?" asked Koki in the showers after rehearsal, his head a swirl of black hair floating in the ever-rising steam.

"Yeah," said Ueda, rinsing out the last of his shampoo and not bothering with conditioner. He'd have to take another shower in an hour anyway. "You going home?"

"Yeah." Koki quickly finished up and made his way to the changing rooms. His voice was difficult to hear over the splatter of water pelting the tiles. "We should all go out for dinner one day. Tomorrow, maybe."

Ueda paused in his movements but his mind was racing ahead. The mission briefing started at six o'clock sharp tomorrow evening and he'd be away until four in the morning the following day. "What?" he asked, buying time.

"Dinner together," shouted Koki, just as Taguchi climbed out of the bath and sent a wave of scalding hot water over the floor. "Tomorrow. We should do it."

"I can't make Koki, sorry," said Kamenashi, scrubbed clean, dressed and hovering in the doorway, ready to leave. "Some other day, maybe? I'll see you guys tomorrow." He disappeared around the corner and Nakamaru followed him, also dribbling out his excuses.

Ueda switched off the shower with a whine of old pipes and tried not to catch Koki's expression as he entered the changing room. "Let's arrange it in advance," he said in a light voice, like a parent placating a disappointed child. "So we can be sure that everyone's free and is able to turn up."

"It would be nice to have a big dinner together," said Taguchi wistfully as he started pulling on his clothes. "I don't think we've ever done that before, have we? Let's go to a steakhouse."

"Sure," said Koki, standing up quickly and stuffing the sweat-ridden clothes into his gym bag. "We'll organise it tomorrow. See you."

After Koki left, there was a peacefulness that settled neatly in the changing room as Ueda leisurely dressed and Taguchi fastidiously packed his own gym bag. He had half an hour before his presence was required at the headquarters for the pre-mission rehearsal and Taguchi never asked questions but was happy to answer them.

"It would be a good idea," said Taguchi, finally, as he stooped to tie his shoelaces. "All of us together, I mean."

Ueda continued to towel-dry his hair while looking at Taguchi in the mirror. "I don't think he's that upset. He must be used to this kind of reaction by now, anyway." He began to pull on his clothes, almost identical from the ones he'd been wearing at rehearsal. "You know how sensitive he is."

Taguchi hummed in agreement. "He's been pushing this for a long time though. Maybe it's time we started acting like those other groups and really get to know each other. I haven't even told you guys about my fencing lessons yet."

"You do fencing?"

Rolling his eyes, Taguchi brimmed with excitement. "You see, you didn't even know about that and I've been going to classes for over two months now! Ask me again tomorrow and I'll tell you all about it. Bye!"

Ueda waited until he was sure that Taguchi had left the building and was well on his way home, before methodically shoving the rest of his belongings into his bag and driving to his boxing gym. The place was lit-up and full, with a steady stream of people hulking in until the walls seemed almost about the burst with the effort of each punch. The after-work crowd was arriving at the same time as him so he waved languidly to a few regulars and then slipped undetected to the basement and entered the double swinging Staff Only doors. Being a celebrity had its perks, including access to unlikely private areas without being stopped by security. Most of it was holding his shoulders back, chin up and acting as though he belonged, anyway. Amazing what a little whiff of confidence could help achieve.

From there it was a quick jog down the stairs, a casual swipe of his customised gym membership card, an electronic body scan followed by a manual patting-down by the real security, and he was granted entry into the great underground cavity. The room had low ceilings and was lit plainly like an office; one could easily mistake the dull whirring of ceiling fans and ventilation, and hum of computers for an ordinary financial institutions. Cables spurted out from computers and disappeared into long black tubes that ran along the walls, a blackboard on the wall seemed almost childish with someone's messy shorthand reminding someone else to turn off the lights before leaving for the night. It was a dull sort of place with people hunched in front of monitors, their faces made garish by the assortment of colours that reflected from it; pens were clicked on, pencils were scratched across paper, and the constant clacking of the keyboard maintained a soothing rhythm of order and control. The air smelt like coffee and new carpet.

Ueda didn't pay them any attention and went instead to the back rooms. The milling security men no longer checked his identification every ten minutes; completing thirteen highly regarded missions was apparently enough credentials. When he entered the conference room (for everything at the headquarters was given a tediously dull name), he saw only two familiar faces and the other three were completely unknown to him but this was not so unusual. The less he knew about the fellow officers the better -- it meant less responsibility and less information that he could leak.

The talk was brief, as usual. The head of operations was notorious for despising human contact and public speaking was, for him, akin to swimming in treacle away from sharks -- tiresome, but thankfully as tedious for him as it was for his audience to listen. They were to scope out the target area, remain unseen, and return with a report on the best sites for infiltration and appropriate plans for action to be utilised by the team doing the actual mission. The building itself would be lightly guarded with only a handful of jaded security men in too-large trousers and sweat patches under their arms from the effort of walking stairs. Ueda sat with the other officers and took in information that he already knew -- indeed, he had been in the backrooms with the committee which drafted operational guidelines -- occasionally asking for clarification but each question was like a bucket of cold water to the face for the poor head of operations so, feeling some ounce of pity throbbing in the base of his belly, Ueda for the most part stayed quiet but attentive.