Chapter 02

Fuji frowned as he snapped the phone shut. He’d been expecting Sora to call in the debt he owed earlier than this. That she’d waited so long didn’t bode well.

Ryoma slid a hand onto his knee, offering silent support. The closer they got, the easier it had become for Ryoma to read the nuances of his expression, even when he was sporting the masking smile.

“Kawamura, a round of wasabi sushi for everyone,” Oishi said.

It was so out of the blue that Fuji’s smile slipped a little. Ryoma’s hand tightened on his thigh. The freshman associated wasabi sushi with punishment, but he couldn’t very well tell that to the rest of the team.

“Wasabi sushi might be too much,” Fuji said.

Oishi smiled grimly. “Rikkaidai is strong. We’ll each eat a piece of wasabi sushi so that we don’t get discouraged.”

Oh well. He’d tried. Fuji rested his hand on top of Ryoma’s, rubbing gentle circles with his thumb. It was the closest he’d get to an apology.

Ryoma trembled beside him as the wasabi sushi was put down. He hid it well, pulling his hat down low so no one could see the distress on his face as he took a piece of sushi along with the rest of the team.

Fuji world have to reward him for his stoicism later. That he hadn’t complained in spite of his tendency towards battiness was impressive. He dug his nails into the back of Ryoma’s hand; a promise of the pain to come.

The celebratory atmosphere had turned to an uneasy one, despite the sushi, and people began to leave. Oishi and Eiji left together, followed by a bickering Momo and Kaidoh. Kawamura disappeared upstairs. Inui pushed his glasses up his nose, muttering something about data collection, and left Fuji and Ryoma alone in the restaurant.

“Who was that text from?” Ryoma asked.

“Not here,” Fuji said, voice tight. He didn’t want to risk Kawamura coming back downstairs. “Let’s go.”

“Che.” Ryoma didn’t protest as they walked out of the restaurant.

Once they were well out of sight of any potential teammates, Fuji took a sharp turn into an alley, pulling Ryoma along with him.

“What the hell-

Fuji silenced him with a look, his eyes burning with an intensity Ryoma hadn’t seen since the day Fuji had suspected someone had bugged their clothing. “It was Sora,” he said.

Ryoma stared at him, not daring to break the order to be silent. What? he mouthed.

“The text message,” Fuji said. “It was from Sora.” He didn’t miss the way Ryoma opened his mouth to open a question and then snapped it shut. Smart. “She’s calling in my debt.”

Ryoma stopped, folded his arms, and stared at Fuji, daring him to continue down the alley without further explanation.

Fuji didn’t hesitate; where they were going, any subordination from his lover could get them both killed. He took hold of Ryoma’s shoulders with a grip so painful it made the freshman’s eyes widen, off-footing him before he’d even had a real chance to protest, and slammed the younger man against the brick wall behind him.

He leaned in close, dropping his voice to a whisper. “If you want to continue living, you need to act like I’m the only reason you’re alive at all. This is the absolute worst part of town for you to defy me. Understand?”

Ryoma’s eyes widened as understanding sunk in. If not for Fuji’s weight pinning him against the wall, he would’ve fallen. Hai, Fuji-sama, he mouthed.

Closing his eyes against the fear that threatened to overwhelm him, Fuji straightened and let Ryoma compose himself. Once he was satisfied that Ryoma understood how powerless they were in this part of town, he led the way.

The alleys of the city were a system in their own right, full of the ruffians society didn’t want to deal with. Though tempted to clamp his hand onto Ryoma’s arm, that type of closeness would invite the wrong sorts of people. Ryoma could get away with walking so close on Fuji’s heels only because Fuji had terrified him to the point he believed that Fuji was his only way out of here alive.

And, Fuji thought grimly, that’s too close to truth for comfort. He hadn’t entered these alleys since he’d been dating Ryoma, though they’d been a frequent stop for him before. He was an information broker; alleys were the best place to gather information. And that’s where they were heading now.

Sora was calling in the favor he owed her. That meant he had to find his way to her. Failing to do so would be indicative of his desire to refuse to repay her. And that wasn’t something he was willing to do. If it was only his own life he had to risk, it would be one thing. But there were people close to him, people that could be exploited to make sure he cooperated. He wouldn’t let it come to that.

Fuji stopped outside a slate building. The person he needed to talk to would be inside. “Stay close,” he said, the order an unnecessary one. He squared his shoulders and walked to the door. Three long knocks, five short, two long. The door opened.

A lanky man with black hair, glasses, squinty eyes, and a rock t-shirt three times his size answered the door. “What’ya want?” he asked.

“Tayumi. He in?”

“Whose asking?” The lanky man, who had seemed relaxed and dull before, became alert and aggressive at the mention of Tayumi.

“A colleague,” Fuji answered. “If he’s in, tell him Syuusuke needs a word.” He turned the full power of his eyes on the man.

As expected, it only made the door lackey blink. People in this part of town were used to dangerous men. “Aight,” the man said. “Two minutes.” And then he slammed the door in his face.

Fuji’s fists clenched at his sides. Being in a situation like this, where he wasn’t the one with the most power, was difficult for him. He forced himself to take five deep breaths. He needed to stay calm if he wanted to get any information from Tayumi.

Three minutes passed before the door was opened again. “Aight,” the door lackey said. “C’min. Tayumi’ll be out in a min.”

Fuji stepped past him, Ryoma close on his heels. Despite being on the ground floor, Tayumi’s place hadn’t changed-it was the picture of a bachelor’s loft. His entertainment center filled up half the room, blood red couches lining the back wall.

“G’head and sit down,” the lackey said. “Make yourselves comfy.”

Fuji gestured to Ryoma to take the lackey up on the offer and then sat down himself. He’d noticed in movies how people always said something trite, like No thanks, I prefer to stand, but those were lines that would get you killed. The more at ease you made yourself appear, the better off you were.

True to the door lackey’s prediction, Tayumi came out of the bathroom a minute or so after they’d taken their seats. His hair was wet and the towel he’d used to dry himself off was draped over one of his massive shoulders. At six foot three and 320 lbs, Tayumi was the toughest information broker in the market.

“Yo, Syu,” Tayumi said. “What brings you to my part of town?”

Fuji raised an eyebrow. “Business, of course,” he said, letting his aristocratic drawl shine through. He had come from money and money was the only thing respected in the underground.

“Of course,” Tayumi said. “Who’s the kid?”

“My current pet. You know that.” Fuji winced. He hoped Ryoma wouldn’t be too angry with him later for saying something like that.

“Huh. Well trained?”

Fuji gave him a hard stare.

Tayumi laughed. “Of course,” he said. But then his expression hardened. “But you know you can’t bring your pets with you unless you can prove they’re housebroken.”

Fuji didn’t blink; he knew that. But he saw the way Ryoma’s shoulders tensed. Sorry, Ryu-chan, he thought. But you’re the one who keeps insisting I be honest with you. “I’m aware of our rules, Umi.”

The door lackey tensed, waiting for Tayumi’s reaction. The big man just laughed. “It’s been a long time since someone’s had the audacity to call me Umi to my face, Syu.”

“And a long time since someone has called me Syu to mine,” Fuji said, though it wasn’t strictly true. The only people who could get away with that nickname were his lovers.

“Fair enough. This pet of yours, what is he trained for?”

“To endure pain,” Fuji said. There was no other feasible answer he could give. While the situation they might end up in might not be pleasant, it was better than answering the question in any other way. “You know I have needs.”

“Of course,” Tayumi said. “And he’s obedient?”

“To the letter.”

“I’d like to see a demonstration.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“Hmm. That’s a tough call. I’d love to see something truly damaging, of course, but I doubt you want your pet ruined beyond repair.”

Fuji gritted his teeth as he forced a smile. “Of course not,” he said. “It has taken me far too long to train him to this point. Losing him now would be a major setback. Besides, I’m looking for Sora. I figured you’d know where she was.”

Tayumi raised an eyebrow. “I heard you owed her a favor. She’s staying at Purple Marz.”

“The brothel?”

“Yeah. I heard she had some business there with a former associate.”

“Another assassin?”

“Mm-hmm. So, give me a demonstration of your pet’s obedience and pain endurance. Then you can be about your business.”

“Hai, hai,” Fuji said. He slid his belt free and turned to Ryoma. “Take off your shirt and brace yourself against the wall.” He leaned in close. “This is the only way I can let you into this part of my life,” he whispered. “I’m sorry.”

Fuji straightened up before Tayumi could get suspicious, watching as Ryoma did as he’d been instructed without comment. In fact, Ryoma was acting the part of the perfect submissive, the way he did only when he believed Fuji to be serious.

“This demonstration is for your benefit, Tayumi,” Fuji said. “How many lashes would you like to see?”

“How long does it take to make him scream?”

Fuji raised an eyebrow. “I’ve only ever gone to thirty. It seemed adequate.”

“So double that.”

Fuji swallowed. He was playing with fire. “Thirty-five,” he said. “I need him to be able to walk.”

“Fifty-five,” Tayumi said.

“Thirty-five,” Fuji insisted again.

Tayumi’s eyes narrowed and his tone grew hard. “Forty-five.”

Fuji knew when he was beaten. Trying to lower it any further would cost one of them their lives. “Forty-five it is,” he said. He unfurled the belt and snapped it through the air a few times, testing it.

“And if he moves his hands off the wall,” Tayumi said, “I will view him as a risk to my safety.”

“Hai, Tayumi-san. He won’t move.” Fuji knew that for a fact. Ryoma wouldn’t ever disappoint him like that. That knowledge firmly in hand, Fuji laid into his lover with his full strength. He couldn’t risk Tayumi thinking he’d been cheated out of a show.

And Ryoma screamed at thirty-five. Fuji knew that was where his limit lay, but he couldn’t stop. Not if he didn’t want Ryoma to die. So he ignored the guilt he felt at hurting his lover and let his darker side take over for the last ten strikes. The choice had been taken out of his hands.

Once it was over, Fuji refastened his belt. “Get dressed,” he said, not watching to see if Ryoma was obeying him. After that forced demonstration, Ryoma wouldn’t be disobedient for a good while.

“Good show,” Tayumi said. “You always did have good taste.”

Fuji dipped his head in acknowledgment. “The Purple Marz, right?” he asked.

“Mm hmm,” Tayumi said. “You sure know how to pick your debts, though, Syu. Sora isn’t going to let you off easy.”

“Tell me something, Umi.”

“More than what I have already?”

Fuji smiled indulgently. “Why is everyone so afraid of Sora? I’m not.”

“You haven’t heard, have you?” Tayumi asked, face growing ashen. “She took out a twenty man raid a month ago.”

“Ah,” Fuji said. “That’s not any more than usual. So what’s to fear?”

“Your lack of fear regarding one of the deadliest assassins in our world is what makes you so terrifying, Syu.”

“Yet you’re not scared of me, Umi,” Fuji said.

“I am when you’re not within crushing distance,” Tayumi said. “Your reputation precedes you.”

“Hmm. And you’ve given me no reason for retaliation. Smart man.”

“I am an information broker, Syu. Just like you, I know where the lines lay that I can’t cross.”

Fuji and Tayumi shared a genuine smile. “Aa,” Fuji said. “Thanks for the tip. I’ll be sure to tell Sora how helpful you were.”

“Appreciate it,” Tayumi said. “Being useful is the only way us brokers stay alive.”

Fuji acknowledge the truth of that without speaking. He could have chosen the more powerful path; he could’ve become an interrogator. But the monster inside would consume him if he went that route. And with demonstrations like the one he’d put on today, even being an information broker didn’t protect him from his own mind.

Fuji and Ryoma left Tayumi’s with the information they needed. Fuji retraced their steps until they were at the mouth of the first alley they’d entered. “I’m sorry, Ryu-chan,” he said. “I didn’t want to drag you into that, but I knew you’d follow me if I insisted you go home.”

“Che,” Ryoma said. “All you did was use a belt. Besides, you didn’t go past my limits.”

Fuji startled. “But you screamed.”

“Aa,” Ryoma said. “Because that man wouldn’t have been satisfied with less. It was fake.”

Fuji laughed. “You faked it well,” he said. “I thought I was really hurting you.” His face crumpled. “I thought I was…”

Ryoma snaked an arm around his waist. “It’s okay, Syuusuke. I love you. I don’t understand the craziness of this part of your life yet, but I want to. And I can take it, even if it means taking whippings like that every day of the week.”

Fuji smiled, blinking back tears. “Thanks, Ryu-chan. Let’s go home.” And then, he thought grimly, I’ll need to find a way to talk to Sora without dragging Ryoma along. Tayumi may have let them off with a simple whipping, but Sora? She was a different matter entirely. If he brought someone along to her place, she’d demand he pay for it in blood.

Chapter 1     Chapter Index     Chapter 3

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