virdant (virdant) wrote,
virdant
virdant

fic - Johnny's & Associates - Road Not Taken AU - Bypass (2/2)


Back to Parts One., Two., and Three.

Four.



“Isn’t that your bandmate?” Juri asked, sitting on the couch flipping through channels.

Koki looked over at the TV. Taguchi’s face gazed out into the room, his face contorted in a rictus of agony. “That’s Taguchi, yeah.” He stared at the face for a little longer, before the scene flickered to Ayase Haruka’s face, despondent.

Juri stared back at the screen. On screen, Taguchi ran through the streets of Yokohama, shouting in his tenor drawl. On screen, Taguchi looked every inch the charming princely type that Koki’s female classmates had fawned over. After Taguchi had unsuccessfully scoured the streets of Yokohama, Juri turned to him and asked, “When are you getting a drama?”

Koki rolled his eyes, leaning back on the couch to stare at the ceiling. “That’s a good question.”

Juri tucked his legs into his chest. “Don’t you have tons of auditions?”

“Sure.”

The truth was, Koki wasn’t sure what place he was supposed to fulfill anymore. He had thought that with Akanishi leaving, there would be chances for him to act. If they couldn’t get Akanishi Jin, Tanaka Koki couldn’t be that bad. He got good reviews in every drama he acted in, even if he wasn’t sweeping the fan votes.

He put in good work and got good work out, but that didn’t seem to be enough anymore.

*


“Tanaka-kun, can you record earlier? Taguchi-kun said he would be late; he’s been asked to audition for another drama.”

“Tanaka-kun, we’re going to move your rehearsal later. Taguchi-kun needs extra time to practice his solo part.”

“Tanaka-kun, thank you for coming to this audition. Just wait while we finish up with Taguchi-kun.”

*


“Been busy, haven’t you?”

Taguchi looked up from his phone, his long legs stretched out on the couch. “I suppose?”

Koki stared at him. “You look terrible,” he blurted out.

He snorted. It was an ugly, inelegant sound. “Thanks, Tanaka-kun.”

“I didn’t mean it like that.” He slid into the room, slinging his bag onto the floor by the couch that Taguchi was sitting at. He obligingly swung his feet to the ground, making room for Koki to sit on the other side of the tiny couch. Up close, Taguchi looked even more exhausted. His eyes drooped, and Koki suspected that if Taguchi hadn’t been staring into blue light, he would have passed out.

Taguchi snorted again, before grinning, lopsidedly, at him. “I’ve been giving 200%.”

“Yeah,” Koki said. “I can tell. Have you slept recently?”

Taguchi laughed. “I sleep.” He raised a hand to self-consciously touch the bags under his eyes. “They didn’t look that bad this morning.”

“You could brew tea with those eye-bags,” he said.

He threw his head back and cackled. “That’s pretty good.”

“Yeah, well, you’re still responsible for those terrible puns when we’re on camera.”

Taguchi grinned at him, open and honest. “I can’t let you take my charm-point.”

Koki snorted, stifling a laugh. “If you could even call your jokes a charm-point.”

“Rude.” Taguchi nudged his thigh with a sock-clad toe. “I’m very charming. The producers agree.”

Koki rolled his eyes. “Are cold jokes the latest trend?”

“Summer is coming; we have to keep cool somehow!”

From the doorway, somebody snorted. Koki glanced over to see Ueda pushing open the door with a shoulder, his hands full of bottles of water. “That’s terrible,” Ueda said. “Is that how you’re selling your puns now?”

Taguchi tiled his head back and beamed. “Uepi,” he said, fondly.

Something inside Koki twisted.

“Taguchi,” Ueda responded, curtly. “You’re early.”

“So are you!” Taguchi’s mouth stretched wider. “Kame isn’t here yet.”

Koki stared down at his hands. It had been a while since he had gotten them done up, and the ends were ragged and worn down. He rubbed a finger over the ragged edge of his thumbnail, doing his best to ignore Taguchi’s jittery excitement on the couch.

“Wonder of wonders,” Ueda said. “Kame late to his own meeting.”

“He’s been busy,” Taguchi said diplomatically. “We all have been, of course, but Kame most of all.”

Ueda snorted, “You’ve got a drama and that dance choreography stuff and you’re still early.”

“We can’t all be as charming as iriguchi- deguchi- Taguchi!”

Koki couldn’t help the kick to Taguchi’s feet. Away from the cameras, Taguchi didn’t hide the reflexive flinch away, a whole body twitch that pressed him closer to the arm of the couch.

Ueda said, “Your knee bothering you?”

Taguchi stared back and didn’t say anything.

*


“Thank you for your hard work. Taguchi-kun, stay behind for your solo rehearsal.”

“Thank you for your hard work, Taguchi-kun. I know you have an audition to rush to, so please leave early. The others will continue in your absence.”

“Thank you for your hard work, Taguchi-kun. Tanaka-kun, you could learn from him.”

*


Koki hurled his bag against the wall as he let himself into his apartment. He fumbled his phone out of his pocket, flipping through his messages: Yucchi, Yucchi, Juri, Yucchi, Yucchi, Yucchi, Juri, Kame. Nothing from his manager.

What on earth could Nakamaru had found so important to send him five messages?

He flipped to the oldest message, from Kame, and opened it.

Rehearsal delayed tomorrow. Taguchi has filming. Gather at the regular time for a meeting! Don’t tell Taguchi.

Juri: Will you be at the building tomorrow? Let’s get lunch!

Nakamaru: Why aren’t we telling Taguchi?

Nakamaru: Shouldn’t Taguchi know?

Nakamaru: We can’t afford to lose another member so soon!

Juri: Mom wants to know if you’re going to come by for dinner this weekend. Her mail isn’t working, so call her.

Nakamaru: Never mind, I talked to Kame. Forget I sent those messages.

Nakamaru: Don’t be late to the meeting tomorrow, Koki.

*


It felt wrong, sneaking into the meeting room that Kame had booked for them. Koki had prepared for this meeting by finding his most tattered tank-top and his baggiest jeans, painting four coats of black nail polish, letting each coat dry completely before uncapping the bottle to paint a new coat.

“I think we need to talk about Taguchi,” Kame said, pacing in tight circles in the front of the room.

Ueda’s eye roll was practically audible.

Nakamaru glanced at Ueda, before focusing on Koki. “Kame has a point,” he said quietly.

Kame straightened his back. “Taguchi hasn’t been committing to KAT-TUN.”

Again, Ueda rolled his eyes. Nakamaru frowned at him. Koki said, “What about Taguchi? Shouldn’t you talk to our manager if he can’t make the meetings?”

Ueda said, “You’ve missed meetings because of rehearsals too, Kamenashi Kazuya.”

“Are we using full names now?” Koki glanced at Kame, his back straight, his face carefully arranged into distress. “Should I call you Ueda Tatsuya?”

“We shouldn’t pretend that we’re friends if we aren’t. Not if you’re going to start the conversation by excluding one of KAT-TUN’s members.” Ueda lounged in the ratty couch. When NEWS and Arashi debuted, they got meeting rooms with sleek couches and hardwood tables. KAT-TUN had always ended up with chipped paint on the walls and rickety chairs.

Nakamaru squirmed in his seat. The uneven legs thumped audibly against the linoleum.

Kame’s face twisted into fury, before carefully, muscle by muscle, starting from the crown of the head and working down to the chin, returned to its facsimile of distress. “I think all of you as my friends.”

But not Taguchi, Koki thought, suddenly.

“We’re doing this together.” Kame spread his hands out. “We’re working together for KAT-TUN. Taguchi isn’t committed to KAT-TUN anymore. He’s off on his independent projects. His dramas. His—”

Nakamaru interrupted, “We’re just worried he’s going to leave KAT-TUN.”

Ueda snorted. “Sure. Tell me when he starts planning on going to LA to study English.” He stood up. “Is this seriously what you called the meeting for? To tell us that we should cut Taguchi out before he decides to be like Akanishi?”

“I’m doing this for KAT-TUN!”

“You’re the one who wanted Akanishi out so badly,” Ueda retorted. “Taguchi wanted to keep him; he wanted to keep the band together. Don’t get mad that Taguchi’s getting more airtime now that Akanishi’s gone.”

Nakamaru said, hurriedly, “None of us are upset that Taguchi is doing well.”

“I’m not upset that Taguchi’s doing well. We just need to be cautious. Isn’t this how Akanishi Jin left? The extra airtime, and then the ego—”

Ueda snorted again. “Sure. Let’s keep an eye out for any signs of egomania.” He rolled his shoulders. “Anything else, Kamenashi-sama?”

Nakamaru grimaced. “We’re all concerned.”

Kame stared at Ueda. “I thought you would understand.”

Ueda sighed. His entire body seemed to sag into it. “I do, Kame. Kazuya.” He ran a hand through his dry hair. “Akanishi leaving was hard. And you’re tired and stressed. But it’ll work out. It’s working out, alright?”

He stared back, his face open and vulnerable. Sometimes, it was hard to remember that Kame was the youngest out of all of them. “Right,” Kame said.

“I’m going to get some food before the official meeting.” Ueda jerked his head towards the door. “You want anything from the cafeteria?”

He shook his head. When Ueda glanced at Nakamaru and then Koki, they shook their heads mutely, and Ueda walked out.

Once the door had shut behind Ueda, Kame sagged into a chair. “I just want KAT-TUN to do well,” he said.

“I know,” Nakamaru reassured. “You’re doing your best.”

Kame glanced at Koki. “I know you’re chummy with Taguchi, but you can’t tell him about this meeting okay?”

Koki stared at Kame, slumped in a rickety plywood chair; Nakamaru, perched delicately in another chair. What would it be like, to have meeting rooms with real hardwood tables, to have chairs properly balanced? Maybe if KAT-TUN had been functional from the beginning, instead of all of them vying for a larger share of the pie, they would have debuted earlier, meeting in a room with proper chairs, with tables that didn’t wobble, with clean windows and smooth paint. Maybe, if KAT-TUN was functional now—

“Sure.”

*


Nakamaru cornered him in the cafeteria the next day, sitting down with a plate of gyoza, placing it deliberately between them. “I’m thinking of cutting back my classes at Waseda.”

“Good for you,” Koki said, snagging a piece and chewing it slowly. It was less rubbery than usual, and Koki swallowed it pleasantly. “What brought this on?”

Nakamaru sighed. “Kame’s been so tired.” He poked a piece of gyoza, before saying, “I don’t know what to do to help him.”

“We’re all trying.” Koki thought of how he’d been early to every single meeting and recording session since Akanishi had left. Ueda had actually put in effort to performing the choreography correctly during their rehearsals, shattering any misconceptions any of them might have had about Ueda’s ability to memorize choreography—he had been half-assing it for years, and Koki had started to wonder if Ueda genuinely had trouble memorizing choreography. It was nice to be reminded that Ueda Tatsuya was simply an asshole who didn’t want to blend in with the rest of the group.

Nakamaru said, “Taguchi.”

“What about him?” Koki asked. Just last night, Taguchi had messaged him with a picture of his drama set, smiling among his co-stars, along with a cheerful emoticon and a: ganbatte. Koki had tried to muster joy that he was lying in bed, warm and comfortable while Taguchi was out running the streets of Tokyo in a thin suit, but had only managed to drudge up indifference to cover the lingering jealousy.

Nakamaru ate a piece of gyoza. “I hope he stops being late.”

*


Taguchi was late to rehearsal later that week.

It had been a terrible day already. His dog was antsy the entire night, and Koki slept poorly as a result. He stumbled into the building bleary eyed, having only gotten himself a cup of burnt coffee that scalded his tongue. When he made it to the studio, it was to a pursed-lip manager informing him that Taguchi Junnosuke-kun was filming a drama and would be late. Fetch the teacher when Taguchi-kun arrived, the manager instructed, and until then just sit in the studio and stretch.

Every minute they waited, stretching out their legs and rolling their heads around their necks, Kame grew more and more wound up. Nakamaru offered to help him stretch, but Kame’s shoulders grew tauter and tauter until finally Taguchi rapped once and then opened the door to the tiny studio.

“You’re late!” Kame exclaimed, leaping to his feet. “What took you so long?”

Taguchi blinked at them: Ueda, Nakamaru and Koki sitting on the floor in various stages of stretching, while Kame stood, hands on his hips, head thrown back. “I had filming?”

“You have to put KAT-TUN first,” Kame said, striding forward to herd Taguchi into the center of the room. “We don’t have a lot of time to learn this choreography. You can’t keep being late.”

“It’s my first time?” Taguchi said, bewildered. “Sorry for being late.”

“Let’s get started,” Nakamaru said, hurriedly. “Taguchi, do you need to stretch?”

Taguchi stared at them, slowly saying, “Yes, but it shouldn’t take long. Are we learning new choreography today?”

“I’ll go get the teacher,” Ueda said, standing up. “Why don’t you stretch while I fetch him.”

“Sure,” Taguchi said. Their eyes met, for a brief second, and Koki took in the confusion before he jerked his head away, refusing to meet Taguchi’s eyes. Instead, he stared at his own toes; in his peripheral vision, Taguchi dropped his bag and stretched out his leg, rotating his toes and loosening each muscle.

Koki focused on his own feet, pretending he couldn’t feel Taguchi’s gaze lingering on him. Instead he focused on the sound of Kame’s voice rising and falling, detailing all of the things they needed to work on, are you listening, Taguchi? You’ve been late, so pay attention, this is important.

Taguchi said, “Okay.”

Kame’s voice: this isn’t a joking matter, Taguchi.

Taguchi’s voice, humming in agreement, a smile in his voice, because Taguchi always smiled when he was with the group.

Kame said, “This is important. KAT-TUN is important, and we can’t have you dragging us down by being late!”

Koki looked up; Taguchi was stretching, occasionally glancing up at Kame and nodding, agreeably. Kame was pacing in tight zig-zags back and forth in the front of the room in a facsimile of Doumoto Koichi at his most irate; his face set in Kimura Takuya’s distressed expression.

Nakamaru looked at Kame, and then frowned at Taguchi.

Taguchi said, “I’ll call ahead, next time filming runs long.”

“You shouldn’t be late in the first place!” Kame shouted.

Koki jerked up. “Hey. Relax, Kame.”

Kame whirled on him, and Koki stared into Kimura Takuya’s face. “What do you mean by that, Koki?”

“Why are we shouting?” Ueda interrupted, walking into the studio with the teacher behind him. “I didn’t realize that we were fighting again. Should I call the tabloids so they get the inside scoop?”

“Sensei,” Taguchi said, rising to his feet. “I apologize for being late. Filming ran long. I asked my manager to let everybody know, but I’ll call personally, next time.”

“You’re fine, Taguchi-kun,” the teacher said, glancing at them. “Your manager let me know already, and you learn the choreography fastest anyways.”

Kame’s face contorted, Kimura’s expression slipping away to reveal a flash of frustration that was entirely Kame’s.

Taguchi bowed.

*


Right after rehearsal, Kame grabbed his bag and stormed off, muttering “Thank you for your hard work,” to Nakamaru and deliberately turning his back on Koki.

Ueda glanced at Kame’s retreating back before turning to Koki with a raised eyebrow. Nakamaru, slowly gathering his belongings, gave him a pointed look.

Koki ignored Taguchi’s questioning gaze in favor of shoving his water bottle back into his bag. He shouted a hasty “Thank you for your hard work” to the room in general—his manager would kill him if he didn’t at least pretend that he was rehabilitating his image—and then hurried after Kame.

“Hey. Kame.”

Kame sped up; one hand slipped into his pocket and fished out an earbud to jam into his ear.

“Kame, I know you can hear me.”

He could see taut fury in Kame’s shoulders as he turned around. For a fleeting second, Koki wished that the directors of all of those dramas that Kame acted in could catch this. Then, Kame snapped, “What?” his voice shrill with anger, and Koki couldn’t help the involuntary step back. Kame truly angry was not as photogenic as he liked to pretend he was.

“Look, I didn’t mean to act like I don’t care about what you’re doing.” Koki scowled before schooling his face into a contrite apology. “You’re working hard, I know you are. And it’s rough, but we’re here for you. All of us.”

Kame looked away. “You sure have a funny way of showing it.”

He heaved a sigh. “Come on, I had a rough night.”

If it had been Taguchi, or even Ueda, they would have taken the moment to leer at him and ask what he would have been doing to keep him up all night. Kame just frowned. “I’m giving 200%.”

“I know.” He raised his hands. “I know. You’re working harder than any of us. But we’re here for you. We’re helping you. All of us. Nakamaru told me he’s cutting back on his classes next semester, and Ueda’s even been learning the choreography properly instead of just half-assing it.” He thought of Taguchi, leaning into him, soft waves of hair curling into Koki’s eyes, and the careful way Taguchi stretched out his knee before and after every practice. “And Taguchi—”

Kame grimaced.

Koki hurriedly continued, “They’ve been giving him a lot, but he’s really working hard, and he’s—”

“He’s doing it on purpose,” Kame interrupted. “He’s doing it on purpose.”

“Taguchi?”

“He’s asking for more and more lines, more and more roles. He’s trying to take over my spot. He’s mad that Akanishi’s gone, and now he wants me out.”

Koki stared at Kame. He thought of the messages Taguchi sent to the group each night, pictures of Taguchi on drama sets, reminders that Taguchi had another audition lined up, another project. Was Taguchi trying to drive Kame out?

“He’s trying to kick me out of the band.” Kame’s fists clenched around the strap of his bag; Koki couldn’t help but stare at the way the strap wrinkled under Kame’s grasp. “KAT-TUN is all I have, Koki, and Taguchi wants to take it away from me.” Kame’s eyes were wide, and lost. “He’s doing it on purpose. You won’t let him hurt me, will you, Koki?”

He stared at Kame and thought of Taguchi, asking why Koki didn’t call him Junno.

“We’re friends, right, Koki? You won’t let him hurt me, right, Koki?”

I think you prefer Tanaka-kun.

“Course not, Kame,” Koki said. Kame’s hand crept into his. Koki squeezed, gently, trying to convey stolid friendship.

“I knew I could count on you,” Kame murmured, his lips curving up.

“Of course.” Koki took a deep breath. “Of course, Kame.”

*


That night, Koki took five highlighters and the lyrics to the songs of their next album. He highlighted Kame’s lines in yellow, Taguchi’s lines in green, his lines in blue, Nakamaru’s lines in purple and Ueda’s lines in pink. Then he balled up the print-ups and hurled them into a corner, where his dogs scampered after the wads of paper and yipped excitedly at them until he picked them up and threw them, again, and again.

No matter how often he threw them, it didn’t change the pervading envy as he saw fluorescent green ink spreading across each page.

The next day, Koki didn’t say anything when Kame took one of Taguchi’s bottles of Pocari Sweat.

Taguchi didn’t say anything, not even when Kame twisted off the cap and drained it over the course of the entire rehearsal.

*


Koki arrived early, as he had been doing, to find Taguchi talking to a producer, his long lean form bowed over so they could put their heads together and murmur quietly.

“Tanaka-kun,” The producer said, noticing him.

Taguchi beamed at him. “Tanaka Koki,” he greeted.

“Hey,” he said shortly. When did Taguchi get so chummy with the producers? Was this why he had drama after drama lined up, line after line of songs unflinchingly passed to him for his voice to perform?

Taguchi said, “We’re talking about adding a solo dance break to our new single. They’re very popular in Korean groups.”

“We’re Korean now?” Koki said, going for curious and instead sounding brusque.

The producer frowned at him. “Taguchi-kun is a very talented dancer. With Akanishi gone, KAT-TUN needs to reinvent itself.” He nodded at Taguchi. “You would do well to be more like Taguchi-kun.”

He remembered Kame, just days ago, accusing Taguchi of trying to take KAT-TUN away from him—from all of them. “KAT-TUN doesn’t need to change.”

“Change is inevitable.” The producer jerked his chin towards Taguchi. “Taguchi-kun is wise enough to recognize that. You couldn’t have thought that you could continue to muddle through without Akanishi.”

Koki thought about retorting, and then kept his mouth shut. The producer patted Taguchi on the back affectionately, said: “I’ll talk to the choreographers about your dance solo, Taguchi-kun. You keep working hard,” and left.

Koki stared at Taguchi. “Taguchi,” he said, finally.

Taguchi stared back, his eyes wide before the edge of his mouth softened into the barest smile. “I’m doing this for KAT-TUN.”

He said, “Maybe I don’t like what this new KAT-TUN is,” and turned away.

*


He called his manager that night. “Sorry, Tanaka-kun. I don’t have any auditions lined up for you.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be managing me? Isn’t my success your success, and all that?”

There was a long pause, and his manager said, “I don’t know where you heard that.”

Koki scowled at his phone. “I want to sing more lines.”

There was a long pause, and then his manager said, “Where do you think these lines are going to come from?”

“Since Akanishi left—”

“Who do you think took over Akanishi’s lines, Tanaka-kun?” There was a pause, and papers shuffled, and he said, “You waited a little too long to ask for work.”

“Taguchi,” Koki said, and the name tasted like ash on his tongue.

His manager said, “I had such high hopes for you.”

*


“You don’t call him Junno in private, did you know that?”

Koki looked up as Kame slid next to him, sitting close enough that their thighs were touching. Koki could feel Kame’s body heat through their sweatpants.

Kame leaned in, grinning. “You never have. That’s how I knew.”

When I call you Junno without anybody to see us, it won’t be because of some manager telling us what to do.

“Knew what?” Koki asked.

“That you’d be on my side.”



Five.



Koki tried to get lunch with Juri at least once a week. This week it was a Wednesday, and the two of them were sitting in the company cafeteria. The rice was cold and clammy, and he could feel his throat clamping down with each bite. At least he didn’t have a recording or practice today.

“Nii-san,” Juri said, slowly. “What do you think of Taguchi-kun.”

Koki choked on his rice.

“Everybody’s talking about him.” He stared at the uneaten bowl of rice. “They say—”

“Hey hey hey,” Koki said, hastily. “He’s your senpai, and you should show respect.” He could see other juniors glancing over at them, their faces wide open and curious. “I know that you’re close to KAT-TUN because of me, but this is Johnny’s, and well, you gotta show respect.”

“So what do you think of Taguchi-senpai.” He looked up. “Tsukada-senpai said that Taguchi-senpai’s kind, much kinder than Kamenashi-senpai.”

Koki closed his eyes and didn’t think of Kame taking drinks from Taguchi’s bag, of Kame whispering: he’s doing it on purpose, of Kame’s angry accusations every time Taguchi wasn’t early to a meeting or a rehearsal or a filming.

Koki said, “You shouldn’t gossip about your elders,” and made a hasty show of checking his watch and bidding Juri goodbye.

*


“Aren’t you upset?”

Rehearsal had ended. Kame had stalked out, Taguchi following with a wide smile. Ueda had glanced at Nakamaru and Koki lingering over their bags before following Taguchi. It was just Nakamaru and Koki in an empty room, pretending they were tying their shoelaces.

Koki said, “What’s there to be upset about?” Rehearsal hadn’t been terrible. Taguchi had been late, but he had called ahead hours earlier so Koki had spent the thirty minutes working on some raps. The new choreography was hard, but it wasn’t too hard, and they had picked it up quickly. Ueda hadn’t even bothered to pretend that he only had left feet today.

Nakamaru looked at him, before staring at his shoes. “I thought you’d be upset about not being in the front.”

He pasted a grin and said, “Pretty ridiculous that Taguchi stands in front when he’s tallest, isn’t it?”

Nakamaru steadily unthreaded his laces and then bent his head over them again, hands moving slowly and steadily. “I know you’re upset, Koki. I am too.” He looked up, his mouth drawn. “When Akanishi left, I thought it meant more than just Taguchi taking his place.”

Koki stared at his shoelaces. “What did you expect?”

They sat in silence.

“It’s been years,” Nakamaru said, finally. “Every year at Countdown, I think that it’ll change, and this year we’ll have more to show, but every year it’s Taguchi getting more and more parts. But sales have never been better.”

And their managers would never change anything as long as their Oricon rating stayed at the top and the money rolled in.

“Juri says,” Koki muttered, “that the juniors like Taguchi.”

“He’s got that friendly vibe going for him. He tells puns to the kids, the really little ones.”

“The new ones?”

“Yeah.” Nakamaru gave up on pretending to tie his shoelaces, leaning back on his forearms to stare at the ceiling. “They asked him to teach a bunch of Juniors some dance moves, and he agreed.”

He snorted. “Isn’t he too busy to come to our rehearsals on time?”

“Not too busy to go meet his adoring fans,” Nakamaru said a little bitterly. Nakamaru Yuichi wasn’t prone to bitterness, but after a few years, Taguchi was capable of bringing out the worst in all of them. “The kids love him. They think Taguchi-sempai is so cool.”

He could have been like that, Koki thought. Just had to smile more and grit his teeth and play happy families with the rest of KAT-TUN. Just had to bow his head and swallow his pride. Just had to admit that he was wrong.

Well, Koki thought bitterly, he was wrong. But it was too late for anything to change. Taguchi had stepped forward and slid his foot in the door that Akanishi Jin had slammed shut, and pried it open. It only cost him a knee that still didn’t work properly.

“Hey,” Koki said. They had at least thirty minutes before some other group came by to use the room and kick them out. “You remember that fight? With the whipped cream and tatami?”

“The one that the interviewers won’t shut up about?” Nakamaru sighed. “Sorry. I have a segment of it on Shounen Club again. Something about fighting within groups.”

Koki grimaced. “Yeah. Anyways, do you remember where Akanishi kicked Taguchi?”

“Shoulder, wasn’t it?” Nakamaru sighed again. “He was clutching it for a week afterwards.”

“Then,” Koki murmured. “How did he hurt his knee?”

*


In the next weeks, Ueda was irritable and snappy to everybody except Taguchi.

“I asked Ueda if he would want to go solo,” Nakamaru confessed, when the two of them were lingering over their shoelaces again. They had a concert tour coming up, and they were changing some of the choreography so it would fit on the stage. Taguchi picked it up quickly, of course; Ueda had committed to being as terrible a dancer as possible, so nobody bothered to make him work; and Kamenashi Kazuya could do whatever he wanted and nobody would care. Tanaka Koki and Nakamaru Yuichi, on the other hand, were ordinary folk who had to do their choreography properly, so they had been forced to stay behind and practice.

“Yeah? What did he say?”

“He got snappy and said that Kame isn’t the center of the world.”

“Well, he isn’t,” Koki groused.

“Do you want to go solo?” Nakamaru asked. “Akanishi’s left, you know. The rest of us can leave too.”

“Leave KAT-TUN?” He shook his head. “Why would any of us do that?”

“I think that Ueda might want to,” Nakamaru confided. “He’s never said anything, but…”

Koki stared listlessly at the ceiling. “KAT-TUN will survive as a four-member group,” he said. His manager had made it clear, but he didn’t think his manager had thought that it would be Ueda leaving the group.

“Maybe not though,” Nakamaru finally said.

“He’s chummy with Taguchi, isn’t he?” Koki ignored the little voice that said that he used to be chummy with Taguchi. “He takes Taguchi’s side in all of the fights.”

“Kane’s been high-strung lately,” Nakamaru muttered, “but Taguchi’s been late to every single rehearsal this month.”

Koki grunted. Taguchi with his stage-plays and his dramas and his special choreography sessions. Kame was busy, but he had the decency to show up to rehearsals on time.

Nakamaru sighed. “I don’t know what to do,” he finally said. “Kame’s so angry, and now Ueda’s getting involved…”

*


Kame messaged him that night.

Koki stared at his phone, surrounded by his sleeping pets. He was tempted to ignore Kame’s message—just delete it, and say it got lost, but he opened it instead. Kame had written an entire essay denouncing Ueda’s flaws.

“Okay,” Koki muttered, scrolling through. Kame had managed to both use emoticons every few words and compose a blistering rant about Ueda’s unwillingness to keep KAT-TUN together.

“I’m doing this for KAT-TUN,” Kame had typed, punctuating each word with a different emoticon. “Meanwhile, Ueda just goes around fighting with Yucchi in public!”

Nakamaru thought that Ueda wanted to go solo. His manager thought that KAT-TUN could survive as a four-member group. Still, his manager thought KAT-TUN could function without Tanaka Koki. Would the same apply for Ueda Tatsuya?

All of them were disposable except for Kame and Taguchi. Taguchi had once spoken up in defense of him—would Taguchi do the same for Ueda now that he was on Taguchi’s side?

And if Ueda’s position was safe, then was his?

He didn’t want to leave KAT-TUN. He hated it. Each day he woke up choked with resentment, and the feeling never went away, even as he went about his day. He had hated playing second fiddle to Akanishi and Kame, and he hated playing second fiddle to Taguchi even more. But he didn’t want to leave.

Don’t think that KAT-TUN can’t be a four-member group.

If somebody was going to be kicked out, it wasn’t going to be him.

“I’ll talk to Ueda,” he finally said, to reassure Kame. “I’ll tell him that we need to keep KAT-TUN together.”

Kame sent back a smiley face. That night, when Koki went to bed, it was to the familiar flicker of pride.

The pride was gone when he woke up. His dogs licked at his fingers as he ate breakfast, listlessly. He fed them, a feeling similar to dread curling in his gut. When had he become Kame’s lapdog?

Koki checked the group schedule; Ueda had a meeting with the producers for his solo in the early afternoon, and rehearsal today was cancelled. He guessed it was because Taguchi had filming. Still, it was convenient. He tracked down the conference room the producers had booked and flung open the door without knocking. “Fighting with Yucchi now?” Koki demanded.

Ueda sneered back. “The rumor mill runs fast, doesn’t it?”

Koki grimaced a little. He hadn’t thought this far.

“What are you doing here?”

“I heard you fought with Yucchi,” he said, but his voice sounded thin and listless.

Ueda snorted. “Did Nakamaru tell you that?”

“Kame,” Koki said. He had his pride. He wasn’t Nakamaru’s lapdog. Besides, Ueda hardly had any right to complain. He had thrown his lot thoroughly behind Taguchi.

“Kame?” he demanded. “How did Kame get into this?”

Koki muttered, “Everything is about Kame.”

Ueda glared.

“Look, just. Stop fighting with Yucchi.” He sagged against the doorjamb. Trust Ueda to take the wind out of his sails. “Kame gets upset when you fight with him.”

Ueda’s voice rose in incredulity. “Are you delivering a message from Kame?”

Koki laughed a little. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess I am.”

*


The next week was tense; Ueda wasn’t fighting with Nakamaru in public anymore, but Taguchi was even more frosty than usual, offering lozenges every time Kame so much as made a snide remark under his breath.

Koki kept his head down, focusing on his plans for his solo. He had thought about doing something a little different, but the producers and his manager had greeted him with demands to know what rap he wanted to perform, so he had chickened out and offered the two ideas he had been nursing for a few weeks.

“I’m doing a ballad,” Nakamaru said as they lingered in the dance studio. “And Kame’s doing a song with a whole story and plot, again. I guess Taguchi’s going to do a dance track and Ueda’s going to do something rock.”

“Kame’s solo’s probably going to be thirty minutes long when he finishes planning it.”

“I wonder how long Taguchi’s dance break will be, then.”

Koki chuckled perfunctorily. Taguchi’s dance breaks had been getting longer and longer, especially in his solo performances. Koki hadn’t believed Taguchi was capable of such passive aggressive competition with Kame, but every year he was proven wrong as Taguchi unveiled a new dance solo that was just as long, or longer, than Kame’s rigmarole of a solo performance.

Koki thought that would be it, until Juri texted him the next day telling him that Nakamaru and Ueda had been seen fighting in the company cafeteria over Taguchi.

“What the hell,” Koki snapped at Nakamaru. “Haven’t we learned to not fight in public?”

“He’s writing Taguchi’s solo,” Nakamaru said, and Koki felt something cold twist in his gut.

He didn’t say anything to Ueda or Taguchi for the next week, unable to open his mouth without something cutting threatening to come out. He could feel his manager’s eyes on him, expecting him to be polite, to be good, so instead of saying anything, he focused on learning the choreography and his raps.

Then, he showed up to a meeting early and Ueda was the only person in the room. He opened his mouth to say something polite—something like please treat me well today, and instead said, “So, you and Taguchi.”

Ueda didn’t look up. “You and Kame.”

Well, he probably deserved that. Koki sat and pretended that the words didn’t sting. He stared at his chipped nail polish and then checked his mail for twenty minutes before he gave up. “Where’s Taguchi?”

Ueda ignored him.

“Hey,” he snapped, standing to pull at one of his earbuds. “Don’t you have anywhere to be?”

Ueda scowled, snatching the earbud out of Koki’s grasp. “Don’t you?”

“I’m not Taguchi,” Koki snarled. “I don’t have a thousand drama positions lined up for me.”

“Are you jealous?”

Koki scoffed. “I’m not jealous of that idiot.”

“So what are you doing here?” Ueda smirked.

Koki sat down. “Well, I’ve got nothing better to do.” As he said it, he realized it was true. He hadn’t had anything other than his group activities in KAT-TUN to speak for.

Ueda snorted and slid the ear bud back in. “Me too.”

They sat in silence, but Koki felt something cold settle inside of him. “Hey.” He tapped the table in front of Ueda, and when Ueda didn’t respond, pulled the earbud out with a raised eyebrow. “Do you remember the fight?”

“Whipped cream on tatami?” Ueda asked sardonically. “Who doesn’t remember the fight?”

“Where did Akanishi kick Taguchi?”

“Knee,” he said curtly. “Is that it?”

“No.” Koki ignored Nakamaru’s voice telling him it was Taguchi’s shoulder. “Are you going to go solo?” he asked to shut it up.

Ueda snorted. “What’s with everybody asking me that? No.”

“But you’re writing songs,” Koki pointed out. Ueda was writing Taguchi’s solo, and he bet that Ueda was writing his own as well.

Ueda said, “You’ve been writing raps since before we’ve debuted. It doesn’t mean you’re going solo.”

He had thought about it though. He had contemplated leaving KAT-TUN more than once, and ever since Taguchi had filled up the space left behind when Akanishi left, he had been contemplating it more and more. He woke up every morning resenting the fact that he had been shoved aside, and he nursed dreams of solo fame every night.

“You can tell Kame that his precious group is safe from me,” Ueda snarled. “I’m not going to leave.”

He shoved the earbud in, and Koki sat in silence until the others arrived.

*


Juri came over that night. They sat on the couch watching TV, Koki nursing that tiny bud of bitter resentment until he could no longer stand it. “Hey. Juri. Want to paint your nails?”

Juri looked up. “Can I get them painted black like you?”

“Sure.” He fished out his black nail polish. “Mine’s been chipping anyways.”

His younger brother looked at him, his gaze unerringly old. “Ichiro says his older sister says that it’s bad if you don’t let your nails rest a bit between coats.”

“Is that so?” Koki unscrewed the cap, balancing the tiny bottle carefully between his knees. “Who’s Ichiro?”

“One of my classmates. His sister really likes Taguchi—Taguchi-senpai—you know. She says that he’s got a real prince look. Hey, Nii-san?”

“Yeah?” Koki grabbed one of Juri’s hands and started painting, starting with the thumb.

He muttered, “All the girls seem to like the princely type.”

Koki laughed, but it came out ragged. All the managers liked the princely type too. It was how Kame had managed to leverage himself to popularity, and how Taguchi had climbed up to the top ranks. “Yeah, well, some girls like bad boys.”

KAT-TUN had debuted with a bad-boy image, after all. Topped the charts too, for a while. Then Akanishi left, and Taguchi stepped up. Taguchi was a prince-type, through and through, and the rest of them had twisted themselves up to match him.

At least Kame was still fighting the good fight.

“I don’t know if I want to be a bad boy,” Juri muttered. “I want to debut, you know? I want to debut and I don’t know if they want bad boy rappers.”

Koki ground his teeth and painted Juri’s nails perfectly, two layers of black lacquer, and a matte topcoat. “You should be whoever you want to be,” he said, finally. “As long as you’re happy with yourself, you won’t regret anything.”

*


Taguchi was always busy, and he didn’t ever seek Koki out, but they still worked for the same agency, in the same group, and it was inevitable that they ran into each other.

“Taguchi,” Koki said, as he almost crashed into him in the hallway.

“Hi, Tanaka-kun!” He grinned, his damp hair plastered against his skull. “You’re here early.”

“So are you,” he said. Their meeting wasn’t until later that afternoon.

He laughed a little. “I’m working with some juniors. They asked me to choreograph a dance routine for Shounen Club.”

“And you didn’t tell them you were too busy?”

Taguchi’s smile faded a little. “I would have been overjoyed if one of SMAP-san had choreographed a dance for us,” he said, quietly. “Or Higashiyama-san.”

Koki would have been too. It would have meant that KAT-TUN was going somewhere. Still. “What about your knee?”

Taguchi’s eyes widened. “What about my knee?”

“Is it fine for you to go around choreograph dances for juniors?”

“It’s fine,” he said. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

“You used to be more careful about it,” Koki said. Recently, Taguchi had been coming to dance practices late, rushing from an audition or filming or drama rehearsal. His stretches were perfunctory now. “Does it hurt?”

Taguchi stared at him, an expression something like bafflement wrinkling the space between his eyebrows. “No,” he said, finally. “Why are you so worried about my knee? The accident was years ago?”

And you used to flinch when anybody aimed at your feet, Koki thought. When had that changed?

When Akanishi Jin left, a small voice whispered in his head. When Taguchi realized he didn’t have to be scared anymore.

“Just checking,” he muttered. “Don’t want an accident to happen when we’re on tour or anything like that.”

Taguchi smiled. “You don’t have to worry, Tanaka-kun. I’m giving KAT-TUN 200%.”

Koki smiled wanly back.

He said, “I’ve got a meeting,” and waved vaguely in the direction of the elevator. “I’ll see you—”

“Wait,” Koki said, before he could stop himself.

Taguchi waited.

“Are you happy?”

Taguchi smiled and said, “Of course!”

“No,” Koki said, before Taguchi could turn away. “I mean. Are you happy with yourself?”

Taguchi stared at him, and this time his smile was sweet. Koki remembered the brief moment between Akanishi Jin’s departure and Taguchi’s meteoritic rise. The quiet mornings and afternoons in the green room, the two of them sitting on a ratty couch—there had been something incandescent about those brief moments.

“Yes,” Taguchi said, at last, in a vague distant voice. “Yes, I am.”

*


Their concert tour was a success.

Koki didn’t remember much of it. Each morning, he woke up dull and hazy, trepidation rolling around in his stomach. It eased as he sat for hair and make-up, and then came back when he saw Taguchi’s grinning face in the mirror. The time under the lights flashed by in a blur, and he promoted their concert goods and their new album and Taguchi’s new stage play and Kame’s new drama as if his mouth was disconnected to the rest of his brain.

By the time he went to bed, his mind was reeling from the day, and he dreamed of the lights as if they were behind thick panes of glass. His clenched fist beat on it, but the glass never broke, and Koki woke with desperate yearning.

After their tour, KAT-TUN had a two week break. Taguchi and Kame went back to filming, and Nakamaru went back to taking classes. Koki watched a lot of television when he wasn’t drinking in clubs.

He had always liked club music.

His manager sent him a few chastising messages—mostly to stop getting caught by tabloids—and Koki obligingly put on a hat for the next day before it took too much effort. Nakamaru sent occasional updates about his classes and the auditions that his manager had booked for him. Kame sent long emoticon-filled messages about his days filming.

Ueda sent him one message halfway through the break, just a comment on the latest tabloid article.

Taguchi didn’t message him at all.

When the break was over, Koki took a shower and painted his nails. Black, as usual. Halfway through his left hand, he capped the bottle and pulled out the clear varnish. He painted the rest of his nails with the unassuming transparent polish, and then eyed his hand thoughtfully before going into the office.

*


His manager didn’t have any auditions lined up for him.

“I’m very versatile,” Koki repeated.

“You’re a few years too late, Tanaka-kun,” and this time, his manager’s voice sounded regretful.

*


Their producers were pleased with how their concert tour had turned out. Their managers gloated over their respective idols in polite, vaguely competitive voices. Kame and Taguchi would be making some appearances on Shounen Club to promote their new solo activities. Ueda had gotten a minor role in a Kimura Takuya drama. Nakamaru’s grades were excellent.

Koki had gotten really good at holding his absinthe, but his manager didn’t find that a worthwhile enough accomplishment to brag about.

“I wrote some raps,” he muttered, finally. “I was thinking I could maybe help write raps for the juniors.”

His manager managed a wan smile.

Kame beamed. “That’s such a good idea, Koki,” he declared to the producers. “I told you that you could do it.”

Ueda snorted a little, but was ignored.

Taguchi smiled tentatively at him as well.

Nakamaru, who was fully aware that Koki had spent the entire two-week break watching television and drinking, didn’t say anything either. He frowned a little, and wasn’t it funny how Nakamaru was considered a successful idol when he showed concern so easily?

Taguchi’s mouth was still curved into that soft smile when he said, “Maybe we can do a hip hop song for one of our next singles. Koki can write a rap for all of us.” He glanced at Ueda. “And Uepi can compose the chorus.”

*


“Are you going to just let him do that?” Kame demanded when the managers had left, Taguchi and Ueda walking out with their heads bent together. “Are you going to let Taguchi run the meetings and walk all over you?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Nakamaru offered, as if Koki was concerned that Taguchi had suddenly taken an interest in his career advancement.

“What do you want, Kame?” Koki muttered, well aware that he was probably Taguchi Junnosuke’s newest charity project. He had gotten Ueda into their producers’ good graces, and now surly, unappreciated Tanaka Koki was next. He sighed, leaning back against his chair. “It’s a perfectly good idea. It’s not my fault that Taguchi thought of it before you.”

Kame scowled. “I’m giving 200% to KAT-TUN,” he snapped.

“Yeah,” Koki said, “And so’s Taguchi.” He said, “And Ueda, probably. And Nakamaru too.”

Nakamaru said, “Koki?”

“And me,” Koki added, listlessly. “Me too.”

Kame slumped in his chair a little. “I just want what’s best for KAT-TUN.” His face rearranged into Kimura Takuya’s most doleful expression, and Koki eyed it through a distant haze. He had gotten so used to seeing Kimura Takuya’s expressions on Kame’s face that he was starting to forget what Kame’s emotions looked like.

“Yeah,” Koki said, suddenly yearning for the simple days when they were juniors. When he was young and stood out in the right way, with a nice smile and a can-do attitude. When Kame was thin and mousy and his smiles and enthusiasm was entirely his own. When Taguchi said things because he didn’t know how to read the atmosphere instead of pretending he was oblivious to the tension in the room.

“Yeah,” Koki said, with simple want, “I know, Kame.”

*


Koki didn’t say anything when Kame took Taguchi’s water out of his bag and drank it.

Koki didn’t say anything when Taguchi began casually talking over Kame during meetings.

Koki didn’t say anything when Ueda and Nakamaru began fighting—short passive aggressive comments during meetings, or seemingly absent-minded criticisms during practices.

He called his manager about drama auditions. He talked about taking on more of a singing role. He talked about a hip-hop piece that would let him showcase his rapping talent.

His manager was kind about it. “I know you’re aware of this,” he said. “But KAT-TUN isn’t a five-member group. It’s Kamenashi-kun and Taguchi-kun’s group.”

“Yeah,” Koki said over the tight misery in his chest. “But Taguchi suggested the hip-hop song.”

His manager said, “I will talk to the producers for you,” but Koki was familiar with dismissals by now.

He went clubbing again that night, and lost himself in the press of warm bodies against his. He went to bed late, but he fell asleep to the sound of music thrumming in his bones for the first time in years.

*


Koki overslept and almost missed the next meeting.

Meeting was a generous term. “Who died and made you king?” Kame was shrieking as Koki slipped in. He had been able to hear Kame’s voice from the hallway.

He glanced at Ueda, who was steadily ignoring Kame in favor of fiddling with his phone. Nakamaru was glaring at Taguchi. Neither Kame nor Taguchi were looking at him.

Taguchi’s back was straight, his hands loose against his sides. He smiled, but it wasn’t the wide grin of years ago or the soft smile that he had been giving Koki recently. The indulgence in Taguchi’s smile sent shivers up Koki’s spine.

When had Taguchi become so confident? When had Koki lost his purpose? When had KAT-TUN fractured itself into Kame’s faction and Taguchi’s faction?

Where did Koki belong, in this new KAT-TUN?

They had never been a close band. Arashi and NEWS aggressively promoted their affection for each other, but KAT-TUN had always scorned the concept. Koki couldn’t help but wonder if maybe they should have been a little less scornful.

He wondered if maybe he should have listened to his manager.

In the silence, Ueda looked to Taguchi, content to follow his lead. Nakamaru turned away from glaring at Taguchi, glancing at Kame and reading the fury in his expression with practiced ease.

As long as you’re happy with yourself, you won’t regret anything.

“Akanishi Jin,” Taguchi finally said, and his voice was no longer lost.

Don’t think that KAT-TUN can’t be a four-member group.

Koki called his manager that evening.

*


“KAT-TUN will continue as a four-member group,” Taguchi said, his expression somber but pleasant. “Please keep supporting us.” He bowed, and the others bowed with him in a ragged line.

Koki turned off the television and stared at his hands. Then, in one steady move, he reached for the acetone and began cleaning his nails.


End.


Post-writing commentary
Masterlist of all Road Not Taken AU stories
Chemorphesis
Masterlist of J&A fanfiction here
Masterlist of fandoms here
Tags: fandom: johnny's & associates, genre: angst, genre: au, genre: general, multi-part: the road not taken, organizational: fic

Posts from This Journal “multi-part: the road not taken” Tag

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