“Ahh… Yes!” Niko bellows out as he slams his remaining cards down on the chabudai table, “You guys are losers! I’m the best, and you all can suck it! Ha, ha-” His victory speech is immediately cut short by Kagome, who slaps the back of his head with a fierce annoyance. A slap powerful enough to make the headband that sits atop his forehead fall onto his eyes. “Would you be quiet?” Kagome hisses at the younger boy, “We still have to finish, idiot!” Yuuto matches the prior amount of cards with two sevens as Niko fixes his headband.
“Looks like that makes me the millionaire,” Jiro announces proudly as he places his last remaining eights down onto the table. He leans back on his right hand as the left reflexively finnicks with the faded blue baseball cap situated on the black mop he calls hair. The remaining players sitting at the table share a collective groan as they are forced to continue the game.
Niko reaches over Yuuto to share a high five with Jiro, who ignores the attempt. Yuuto pushes Niko back in his seat as Ren plays his cards. “Let’s make a bet,” Kagome interjects, as she finishes her turn after Ren. This catches the attention of the boys surrounding her, and Kagome smirks at their interest.
“Whoever is the Destitute at the end of the game has to water all of Junko’s plants, and help Niko with his homework,” Kagome offers the group as she looks between each of them. Niko’s eyes widen at the challenge as he awaits Yuuto and Ren’s answers. Jiro sits deadpan at Kagome, and has already picked up on her little scheme. Yuuto side-eyes Ren in an attempt to gauge his thoughts on the bet.
From outside the door, Junko makes her way up the aged staircase. Thoughts about the Aoki assignment run through her mind as she plays with the keys in her right hand. Junko picks out the correct key to insert into the bulky looking lock on the even bulkier looking door. With an exhausted sigh, she turns the key and uses her right shoulder to heave open the heavy door. The coldness of the surface runs through her leather jacket and touches her skin.
“But, those are just your chores to do around here,” Junko overhears part of the conversation being held at the table. “So?” Kagome rebuttals. Ren draws his eyebrows together in a confused manner, “So… if you win, you’re just pushing your work onto us. And if you lose, it’s not like you’ll have extra work to do-” Ren attempts at working out their situation before he is interrupted by Yuuto.
“Junko’s back!” Yuuto cheered as he stands from his seated position on the floor to go and greet Junko. “Yay!” A collective and jovial cheer resounds from the group after Yuuto’s exclamation. Jiro joins Yuuto from his spot next to him. Niko and Kagome’s backs were to the door, and Ren was seated at the head of the table. The three’s heads turn to the doorway and throw a smile at their friend who has finally returned.
“How was the trip?” Jiro asks as he approaches Junko and takes the helmet from her hipside. Groaning out of tiredness, Junko walks past Jiro and throws herself onto the couch behind him. “It’s past my bedtime,” Junko mumbles lowly into the pillow under her face. Kagome smiles at her friend’s display. Standing from the floor, she makes her way to the back of the couch.
“Come on, grandma,” Kagome nags jokingly at Junko. With no response, Kagome rolls her eyes. Placing her hands on the backrest of the couch, Kagome swings her legs over and lands on top of her tired friend - earning another groan out of Junko. “That’s the second time I’ve been called grandma today. What’s up with that?” Junko asks with her face still smushed into the cushions of the couch.
Kagome giggles as she stays seated on top of Junko. “Take that as a sign, you old hag,” Niko adds his input as he approaches the scene in the living room, which is not far from the kitchen - taking the small size of the apartment into consideration.
Junko manages to flip onto her back in order to breathe, and to offer a retort to her brother: “Excuse you! If anyone is an old hag around here, it’s Yuuto. He’s the oldest!” Junko points to the innocent Yuuto standing next to Jiro. He, in turn, raises his hands in defense after the accusation. “You’re right,” Kagome agrees from above Junko, “He’s even got that old, rotten, senile stench lingering on him all the time.”
Yuuto’s mouth opens in a shocked smile at Kagome’s playful jab. Closing his mouth to express a mischievous smirk, Yuuto runs at Kagome and throws his body on top of her and Junko. Kagome laughs as Junko groans in contempt. “You fat-asses are going to break the couch!” Jiro scolds from his standing position. He angrily staggers over to the couch and tries to peel Yuuto off of the two girls.
Ren makes his presence known as he takes position next to Jiro, “You guys are crushing Junko! Get up!” Ren demands. Being the brawniest and tallest of the bunch, he easily lifts Yuuto’s smaller and lighter frame off of Kagome. “Besides, she has to tell us how the assignment briefing went,” Jiro adds. Kagome sighs a breath of defeat as she slides over for Junko to be able to sit up on the couch next to her. Jiro treks over to where Yuuto sits on the floor and drops next to him, while Ren squats between Junko and Kagome on the couch. Niko, on the other hand, quietly listens in from the area by the front door.
Taking one last breath, Junko leans forward onto her elbows as she collects the attention of the room. “Katsuro Yoshida, a restauranteur right here in Tokyo, caught Daisuke Aoki red handed in what was the beginning of an underground drug ring,” Junko began, informing her team of the intel passed onto her from her father and Yoshida. The previously jocular atmosphere quickly vanishes into thin air at the words of the lieutenant. The team’s faces grow stoic, and it feels as if all of the attention in the world is placed upon Junko.
“Aoki is stashing his drugs in the basement of his restaurant that has yet to open. The restaurant, Essence, is holding a big opening event this time three weeks from now. We rightfully assume that this event is just a coverup for a bigger, secretive, drug-influenced undertaking led by Aoki. Our assignment is to eliminate Aoki before this event, and have corresponding authorities handle the drugs beneath Essence in due time.”
A moment passes after Junko has finished her briefing, and she watches the faces of the people around her. They all display stolid expressions, leading Junko to assume they are consuming the information in one piece at a time. “Daisuke Aoki,” Yuuto repeats under his breath as he stands from his rooted spot on the floor. He makes his way to the back left corner of the room, where a few computer monitors are set up on top of a desk. Wires surround the area and fill the space underneath the desk. Pulling out the black rolling chair, Yuuto wheels himself into a hunched position in front of the screens.
This was Yuuto’s job: being the technologically intelligent member of the Special Operations Squadron. He was the reason excess information from Junko’s father was unnecessary, for Yuuto could find any needed piece of information about any individual on the face of this planet. Though he is not very physically strong, his mental ability and capacity far exceeds the need for a surplus of external strength.
The blue light from the monitors enlightens his complexion, and the repetitive tapping noise from the keyboard fills the air around the room. Niko pulls his body off of the doorframe and stalks over to Yuuto’s position. Laying one hand on the back of his chair and the other on the desk, Niko watches Yuuto’s actions intently. “You know I hate when you stand over me while I work, right?” Yuuto condemns Niko without taking his eyes off the screen.
The remaining members positioned in the living room stay quiet, and they await information from Yuuto they need in order to devise a plan for Aoki’s termination. “I’m not standing over you, I’m standing next to you,” Niko bickers back to Yuuto from the corner of the room. From the floor, Jiro’s eyes lay on Yuuto - but he drags his gaze over to Junko.
She sits hunched over, leaning her elbows on her thighs and cracking her knuckles in her grasp. Junko’s stare traces the scratch-filled wooden floorboards, and her eyebrows stick together in thought. “Either way, I feel your hot, stinky breath down my neck,” Jiro hears Yuuto retort from afar.
“Best case scenario,” Junko speaks up after being lost in thought - bringing the attention of the room back to her once more, “We won’t need Kagome for this assignment. We can take him out via sniper while he’s home, or some other private place. Worst case scenario, Kagome will have to further investigate Aoki, and drug him at a bar or club.” The sound of typing stops for an unnoticeable split second before it continues again. “I’ll do my best to find out everything I can so that doesn’t have to happen.” Yuuto announces in a deep, determined voice from his desk.
Kagome rolls her eyes and stands up from the couch with a sigh. Placing her hands on her hips, she addresses the room, “Either way is fine with me. That’s my job, you know. You don’t have to plan the assignment around keeping me safe. I’m just as critical a member as the rest of you.” Kagome struts over to the kitchen area with her arms still at her hips, and pulls out a stepping stool from against the wall behind the chabudai table. Dragging it over to a set of kitchen cabinets, she ascends the stool and opens the cabinet door.
Pulling out a chemistry flask - filled with a clear substance and saran wrap fitted on top - Kagome turns her gaze to the onlookers and smirks. “In case that ‘worst case scenario’ comes,” Kagome mockingly says as she steps down from the stool - carefully, not to spill the unknown liquid, “I’ve just finished this bad boy up not too long ago, and I’ve been dying to test it out!” Pushing the step stool back into its original space with her foot, Kagome swirls the transparent fluid around the glass flask.
Junko hears a low gulp from Ren to her right: “W-What is it, exactly?” He questions with nerves lacing his words. Kagome approaches the living room and smiles down at the seated Ren, “You wanna find out?” Ren’s eyes shoot open, and he throws his hands up in a defensive position, “I...I…”
“Daisuke Aoki,” Yuuto reports loudly, interrupting the conversation from behind him. A mechanical noise emits from the printer atop the desk, and a stack of paper gradually emerges from the machine. Taking these papers into his grip, Yuuto makes his way over to the rest of the group situated in the living room. “Forty-seven years old. Divorced five years ago by Sachio Aoki, who took custody of their two children: Daku and Akira. Daisuke Aoki now lives in an upscale apartment in Minato City - apartment 41F. Born on February eleventh, nineteen sixty-nine, with a blood type of AB.” Yuuto adds as he reads off information on the papers in his clutch.
Handing out individual packets of unstapled paper to each member, as well as Niko, they all look over the statistics presented in front of them. “Thanks, Yuuto. Pulling through - as per usual,” Junko kindly praises her friend, who nods in return. The sound of papers colliding with each other and their sharp edges sliding against skin pervades the room. Nobody speaks as they analyze the information.
‘We know where he lives, which is great - Kagome won’t have to get that out of him’, Junko thinks to herself, ‘But at what time is he home? Does he bring anyone home with him? From what vantage points can we observe his apartment?’ Subconsciously, Junko brings her left thumb to her teeth and softly nibbles on her nail in deep thought. She would truly prefer not throwing Kagome into the mix, but how else would they find more critical information needed to get Aoki?
“Junko… Junko! Hey, Junko!” A voice throws Junko out of her deep stream of consciousness, and she looks around to see who called for her. Seeing Kagome slowly wave her hand back and forth, Junko realizes she got lost in thought for quite a bit of time. “I know what you’re thinking, Junko,” Kagome starts once she gathers Junko’s attention at last, “You need more information. This isn’t enough. I got this! You need to trust me, okay?” Junko eyes her friend standing across the way from her seated position, and mulls over the idea.
Shaking her head, Junko throws herself back into the cushions of the couch, “Kagome, listen,” She expressed begrudgingly, “It’s not that I don’t trust you. It’s that I don’t trust these psychos you’re going up against. Me, Ren and Jiro all have experience prior to joining the team. That’s why we are entrusted with field work. Can’t you see why I’m wary of sending you out there unprepared?” Kagome rolls her head on her shoulders at her captain’s words.
“I know, I know…” Kagome admits, “But it’s not like I’m using a gun or anything that needs practice! I’m just gonna talk to the guy to get some information out of him, then slip some special sake into his drink,” She adds mischievously, swinging the flask’s liquid around again.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Yuuto interjects, “Your words will be your weapon. Say one wrong thing, and you’re dead.” His words silence Kagome as she finally realizes the severity of the situation. Bowing her head slightly, she takes in her friends’ words. Junko continues to nibble on the skin of her thumb, pulling her eyebrows inward. Then, as if a lightbulb went off above her head, an idea instantly flew into Junko’s head.
“We don’t need words, and we don’t need weapons to find out what we need either,” Junko speaks up after a sullen minute of silence. The questioning glances thrown her way prompts her to explain herself, “Monday, Wednesday, Friday: Jiro, Ren and I will rotate positions on these days surveiling Aoki at different locations throughout his trip home from work.”
Junko grabs a pen from the low table in front of her and flips the back page of the notes around. The individuals around her scoot closer to observe her thinking. Clicking the pen, Junko begins to draw a road. “I’ll wait near Essence at nightfall for Aoki to start his commute home. After reaching the destination, Jiro will be waiting in the lobby of Aoki’s apartment building and take the elevator up with him. Ren will be watching from a nearby rooftop to survey the interior of the apartment - making sure no one had entered before Aoki.”
“And we’ll rotate positions to ensure Aoki doesn’t encounter any suspicion if he notices us following him each consecutive day,” Ren voices Junko’s thoughts aloud. Junko smiles softly and firmly nods her head. “We’ll start tomorrow, then repeat the process next week. Based on the information we gather, we’ll choose the best day for Jiro and I to head up to the same rooftop we’ll be surveilling the interior from, and eliminate Daisuke Aoki.” The teammates look between each other with determined faces and share soft nods - silently agreeing to the plan.
Kagome turns on her foot and heads back to the kitchen dramatically. “Whatever,” She sighs haughtily, “It’s not like I wanted to help you anyways.” She repeats her process from before and places the glass back into the cupboard. In the living room, Ren collects his papers and places them in his lap while Jiro stands up from his spot on the floor. “So, we thinking sniper, Junk?” Jiro asks Junko, imitating a sniper in his arms. Shooting off a pretend shot, he looks to Ren seated next to Junko and asks, “What kind you think will be best here, Ren?”
Standing up from the couch, Ren raises his eyebrows at the question, “Well, it’ll depend on the distance,” He answers vaguely, “I’ll survey first so I can gage what type of weapon you’ll need and have it in time for Aoki.” Looking down to Junko still on the couch, Ren sees her intent gaze on the paper in front of her. He reaches out a hand to help her up and drag her out of her own mind. “Come on, Junko,” He pokes at his friend, “You need some sleep. You have class tomorrow, don’t you?”
Junko looked up to Ren towering over her. Softly smiling, she takes his hand and hoists herself up. Grabbing her own papers, Junko nods at Ren’s question, “Yeah, I’ve got an eight a.m. class tomorrow…” Junko draws out her answer with a loud yawn. Stretching her arms over her head, she walks around the couch to find Niko. She spots him conversing with Yuuto and Kagome by the kitchen table. Thrusting her hands in her pockets, she sleepily approaches the group.
“I know you stole it, why can’t you just admit it!?” Niko asks pointedly towards Yuuto, who grimaces in an irritated fashion at the accusation, “I didn’t steal your stupid girly keychain, idiot! What would I do with it?!” He shoves his words back at Niko in a defensive tone. “I don’t know, so you could use it to make fun of me or something! Just give it-”
Junko giggles to herself as she hip bumps her brother out of his train of thought. “Come on, sis. Time to go home,” She voices to Niko, nodding her head towards the door. Niko draws his eyebrows in and shuts his previously parted mouth shut - bringing his attention back to the supposed thief, “I’m not kidding, Yuuto. If I find out you took my keychain, you’re as good as dead.” Yuuto responds by flicking his friend’s forehead - making Niko softly cry in pain and grab his injured head. Pulling him by the ear, Junko makes her way towards the exit.
“Oh, Jiro!” Junko calls for her friend as something pops into her mind. Jiro turns his head towards Junko from his position in the living room. “Can you make sure Kagome waters my Azaleas? They’re going to bloom soon, and I know she didn’t water them last night.” Smiling tenderly, he nods his head in promise. Turning his body to the table below him, he picks up Junko’s helmet he placed there earlier.
Looking to her, he slowly jogs over to Junko and Niko. Tearing Niko’s hands off his face, he sees the small red spot forming in the middle of his forehead. Jiro grabs the helmet in both hands and slams it down on Niko’s head. “Try not to fall off the bike, okay dingus?” Jiro contends with Niko as he pats the top of the surface. Niko - after using his hands to wiggle the helmet on correctly - salutes Jiro sarcastically, then punches him in the gut with his other hand. Stepping back at the sudden force, Jiro throws a hand over his ribcage.
Junko rolls her eyes at the antics displayed in front of her, then continues her trek to the door. Jiro watches her exit as he stands back up straight, stretching out his abdomen. “Bye, everyone!” Junko shouts over her shoulder as she swings the heavy door open. The others collectively say their goodbyes as the hulking entryway swings back to a close. The metal prevents the sounds of their departing footsteps down the rickety wooden staircase from entering the small shared apartment.
Sighing at the sight of the closed door and at the siblings’ leave, Jiro lets his face fall as he turns to face Kagome and Yuuto standing in the kitchen - laughing over a small, pink object in Yuuto’s hands. “Kagome!” He shouts to the girl, taking her by surprise and making her jump in shock. Slowly turning to look at Jiro, she spots him standing with his hands on his hips and an aggravated expression on his features. Her nerves heighten once more as he begins to approach the two by foot.
“Did you not water Junko’s flowers last night?!” Jiro asks sharply, irritated by the girl’s laziness and poor work ethic. Kagome offers a sheepish smile as she scratches the back of her head, “Ha, ha! It’s funny you mention it, Jiro. You see-” Jiro cuts off the pathetic rant by marching away in an anger-fueled fit. “Forget it, I’ll do it myself.” He mutters to himself as he heads over to the sliding door that leads to the balcony.
Feeling the cold wind hit his face as the door opens, Jiro hurries to slide on his slippers placed conveniently by the door. Stepping onto the balcony, Jiro grabs the rusty metal watering can next to the door and sighs a soft annoyed breath. The can still has water that Junko poured in to make Kagome’s job less troublesome for her. Jiro shakes his head at Kagome’s indolence and steps further onto the balcony. Since Spring has not yet approached, and the cold winter air still roams Tokyo, many of the plants are still hiding away in their buds.
Jiro tips the can over the pots labelled “Azalea” in Ren’s handwriting. As he waters the plants, Jiro drags his eyes over the surrounding vegetation. The amount of care and labor Junko pours into this tiny garden is impressive - considering her already tiresome workload outside of this little haven. It’s no wonder she asks for her friends’ help watering every now and then.
Junko has always loved flowers and nature since she was a child, and that passion carries through even to her college years today. She was majoring in Botany at a local junior college - after taking a few gap years following her high school graduation. Realizing he was lost in thought, Jiro pulls the can up to stop the flow of water and moves on to the next pot. His mind recalls a past memory of Junko and him with their families at the Shibazakura Festival when they were kids. A bittersweet smile lays on Jiro’s face as he allows his mind to replay the moment that had been tucked away in his thoughts for so long.
“Come on, you guys!” A six yeared, fully white-haired Junko cheered out from ahead after she raced in front of the group. A similarly aged Jiro smiled at her running figure, and chased after her. “Oi, Jiro!” The boy heard the familiar voice from behind him.
Turning to face the voice, he saw his father grinning down at him. Jiro’s eyes quickly glanced at the couple next to him. Junko’s parents - who were pushing an infantile Niko in a stroller - were also smiling kindly down at Jiro. “Don’t go too far, okay?” His father insisted in a tender voice.
Shooting his gaze back to his father, Jiro beamed an innocent grin as he nodded determinedly. Jiro returned his body forward, and he continued to run after his friend. Junko was already several meters ahead, forcing Jiro to speed up and meet her position. He kept his eyes on the girl that was hypnotized by the sea of purple in front of her.
In the distance, Mt. Fuji watched over the people collectively basking in the serene landscape portraying Earth’s beauty. Millions upon millions of radiant purple shibazakura flowers had finally bloomed over the surface of the Earth.
Finally reaching Junko, he took his stance right by her side. His black hair was a bit shorter, but he still sported his infamous blue cap - though it was not as faded as it is in present time, and it was rather big on his six year-old head.
“Look at all this life,” Junko softly said under her breath - so softly, he almost didn’t catch it. She held out her arms, as if wanting to hug all of the flowers planted in front of her. “My mom says that every flower is like a soul from someone who died.” Junko said as she let her arms fall back to her sides.
Jiro tore his gaze away from the pink and purple fields in front of them and placed it on Junko’s face, “How does your mom know that?” Junko giggled and looked up to meet Jiro’s eyes.
The paleness of her blue irises was highlighted by her white, pigmentless eyelashes. Under the glare of the sun, hints of red shined through the blue of her eyes and glistened against the light. A small blush painted Jiro’s ears as he realized he was shortly captivated by the girl in front of him.
“We don’t know if it’s real, stupid,” Junko joked as she chopped Jiro’s head with her left hand. “But it’s nice to think about. That’s why we should take care of flowers and plants, just in case it is true.”
Nearly falling through the door in an exhausted manner, Junko drops to the floor near the door to take her leather boots off. Niko, trailing her by a couple of meters, enters the apartment with the helmet still latched onto his head. He kicks off his beat-up sneakers and drags his feet throughout the apartment - presumably heading towards his room. Watching his fading silhouette, Junko slides back and rests her head on the wall.
Closing her eyes for a brief moment, she takes in the sturdy surface of the wall on her back and the firmness of the floor beneath her. If she could, she would find a way to melt into the floorboards and sleep right there. But, due to her impending morning class, Junko knows that she needs a good night’s rest to make it through the day meeting her in just a few hours.
Junko sighs a quiet breath and finally rises to her tingling feet. Stretching out her back and limbs, she follows Niko's path and heads for her bedroom. Her socks glide against the wood floor beneath her, and the slick, fluid sensation makes Junko even sleepier. Passing Niko’s closed door, she realizes her brother still has her bike helmet. Junko stops in her tracks and knocks on his door repeatedly with her right fist.
After a minute of consistent banging, Niko slowly swings open the door to reveal his head still strapped into her bike helmet. “What could you possibly need?” He lowly asks his sister rather rudely. Blinking at Niko, Junko steps forward and tugs the headgear off of her brother in one swift motion. “Goodnight, Niko,” Junko says with a slow wave as she exits the doorframe.
“I have class in the morning, so I’ll be back in the afternoon.” Niko does nothing but grunt in response. Shutting his door, Junko heads to her own bedroom. She falls onto her mattress, and soon thereafter, she falls asleep.