“It’ll be fun,” Janis coaxed, hugging his arm between her breasts and flashing him the biggest eyes she could manage. “C’mon, Daaaai, you haven’t been by for ages.” She pouted, red lower lip pushing out.
“She’s right,” Vivian agreed, tugging at Daisuke’s collar — though whether to straighten it or pull it aside, he still wasn’t sure. “You keep promising you’ll come play, and then you never do.” She leaned forward, allowing a good look down her low-cut shirt, and fluttered her lashes at him. “Dai, don’t you love us any more?”
He shrugged, pulling his sunglasses from his pocket. “It’s just been busy,” he said. “I don’t just come here for fun, you know. Man’s gotta work.”
“Oh, poo.” Cynthia stuck her tongue out. “Too much work isn’t healthy for anyone. Surely even your bosses let you have a vacation now and then?” She traced a red-painted nail down his arm, biting her lip. “Come on, Daiii, even the boss misses you. Says he’ll forgive you for trashing the place last time you came.”
“Hey,” he said mildly. “I was trying to prevent a drug transaction that was set to happen in your back room. It’s not my fault the guy didn’t want to come quietly like a good law-abiding citizen.” He spread his hands. “Or the time that the guy took a shot at me because I’d gotten one of his buddies busted a few weeks back. Or when J tracked that one rogue machine into the back alley behind your shop and–”
“That’s all in the past now,” Janis said brightly. She leaned in until her cheek was pressed to his, and fluttered her lashes. “Come onnn, Daiiiii, you know you want to. It’ll be fun! Say you will, pleeeeeease?”
“Please,” Vivian said, bright-eyed, echoed a moment later by Cynthia; it was the most insistent they’d been in a long time. When he leaned back, they followed, all sparkling eyes and hopeful smiles.
Daisuke sighed, getting to his feet and extracting his arm from Vivian’s grasp. “Fine,” he said. “Fine, I’ll go. Tonight, you say?”
The girls cheered as he put his sunglasses on. “You promise, right?” Cynthia asked, peering into his face. “That’s definitely a promise, so you’d better make it!”
“Right, right,” he sighed, tossing a wave over his shoulder without looking back. “I’ll be there.”
“A man must always keep the promises he makes,” J said.
Daisuke peered at him suspicously. “The last time you went in for maintenance,” he said, “did Dr. Bellucchi install a sarcasm chip in you?”
J’s eyes focused on him. The machine’s expression never changed, but he said, “Such a thing is not necessary. You have made a promise, Daisuke. You should be willing to see it through.”
He groaned, scrubbing a finger through his hair. “Man, I was afraid you’d say that …”
The club was dark except for the moving, brightly-colored lights on the stage. Daisuke paused in the doorway, peering into the dimness. There were girls dancing on the stage, moving and gyrating together and apart; there were girls in the audience draped over their patron of choice. It was almost a literal wall of moving flesh and he hesitated, scanning the crowds — if he was lucky, he might be able to skip out and just say he’d been by —
“Daiiiii!” Cynthia’s voice shrilled over the crowd; a moment later he was flanked by all three girls, dressed in clothes that were noticably flashier and skimpier than during the day. “You came after all!”
He leaned back a little, laughing a bit nervously. “Well,” he said. “Looks like they turned me loose earlier than I thought, and I thought I’d come. I’ve made it, so I’ll just–”
“Ehhh, noo, you need to come inside!” Vivian seized hold of his arm, pulling. “Have a drink on us, Dai, come on, you can’t run away from us just yet!”
“Give me a break,” he sighed, but let himself be pulled into the club fully; it was easier to let them guide his footsteps through the crowded dark area. “I’ve still got work tomorrow, you know–”
“Oh, don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it at all!” Cynthia said brightly. “Just let us take care of you, Dai, we’ll make sure that you’re taken care of.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.” He looked around as he was pressed into a seat. “Besides, aren’t you three all working right now?”
“We’re on break,” Janis said. She perched on the arm of his chair, and Vivian hitched herself on the other, fighting for space with Cynthia. “So come on, Dai, let’s have fun, okay? We’ll get you some drinks, and we could play cards — you’re a lucky man, you know that?” She prodded his shoulder and leaned down, so that the weight of her breasts rested against it. “We’re suuuper-popular, you know.”
“Uh-huh,” he muttered, eyeing the drink that Cynthia pushed into his hand; it was electric pink and had a small paper umbrella sticking out of it. “Popular enough that you can spend most of the day hanging out at Kabuki Road and harass hardworking citizens?”
Vivian smacked his shoulder gently. “Be nice,” she scolded. “Here we are, paying attention to you! Three pretty girls when there’s only one of you, how are you losing?”
“Right,” he said. He took a cautious sip of his drink and managed to keep from gagging; it was sweet enough to make his teeth ache with a vaguely fruity aftertaste. “I’m … really doing well here, aren’t I.”
“Of course!” Cynthia said proudly. She drew herself up, putting a hand over her heart. “We’re the flowers of this shop — men fight over who gets to spend time with one of us by ourselves, let alone all three!”
“She’s right,” Vivian piped up, twirling pale blonde hair around one finger. “We work hard, we’re a big draw for this place.”
From the bar, there was a bellow, over the tinny piped-in music and the voices of the crowd; all three girls flinched. Daisuke swirled his cup, eyeing the liquid before taking another hesitant sip. It still tasted overly sweet. “Sounds to me like you’re not drawing enough,” he said, over the effort to not simply cough at the sugar burn down his throat. “Shouldn’t you go see what your boss wants?”
Janis threw a pouting look over her shoulder. “Poo,” she said. “And we were having fun, too …”
“Hey.” Daisuke waved a hand. “Business comes before pleasure, okay? I don’t want to wear out my welcome here again, if I’ve just gotten reinvited.” He leaned back in his chair as the call came again, not quite lounging as the three girls reluctantly peeled themselves away from him, heading back towards the bar. He wiggled his fingers at them and waited until the crowd swallowed them up before putting his drink down and gingerly pushing it as far away as possible. He watched it for a few moments, lips pursed, and then, when satisfied that it wouldn’t really eat through the material of the glass, he switched his attention to the girls onstage.
Prostitution had been legalized in Judoh around the same time machines had been outlawed; some nervous senator or other, upset at losing one outlet, had apparently pushed for allowing the other. Most girls worked out of clubs like this one, complete with their own regulations and health laws, and a man could easily be blacklisted for mistreating one, or refusing medical tests or protection. It also meant that most of the girls in the shop were a valuable information resource; there had been once or twice in his memory when they’d heard of things even before Shougun. Daisuke made it a habit to stay friendly, whenever and wherever he could.
He didn’t look away from the stage when the chair next to his was pulled out, though he watched the other guy from the corner of one eye. He was thin and clean-shaven, hunching his shoulders in like a man trying to disguise his height, with long hands that he folded together on the tabletop. His hair was cut in a shaggy fringe over his eyes, dark brown in color; he turned his head towards Daisuke for a moment, then snapped his gaze away again, as though embarrassed to be caught. Though he looked to be around the same age, he looked so young and new that he’d squeak if he turned too fast. Daisuke grinned in spite of himself, leaning forward a little.
“Nice show, huh?” he said.
The man jumped, large hands fumbling in air for a moment. “Um,” he said; even in the dim light, it was obvious he was blushing. “I’m just — I’m here with some friends, they insisted, and. Uh. Well, they’ve got company and I’m not … ahahaha, that’s not to say I’m, you know — but I just — um.” He ducked his head for a moment, then lifted it again with apparent effort, meeting Daisuke’s eyes. “I’m Ryuu.”
“Daisuke,” he said with a grin, offering a hand. “I got dragged here by friends too.”
“Did you?” Ryuu’s eyes lit up, perhaps a little too brightly and desperately. “I, um. I’m glad.” He took Daisuke’s hand in a warm, slightly damp grip and shook it. “Oh, good. I mean — not good that you’re here if you don’t want to be, but good that you’re–” He cut himself off and gave a brief, nervous laugh. “Uh. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Likewise,” Daisuke said, and smiled.
“Is this all right?” Ryuu muttered. His hands were large and a little sweaty, but they were warm and mostly steady, one cupping the back of Daisuke’s head with his fingers sunk into Daisuke’s hair and the other resting on his hip beneath shirt and pants. He kissed open-mouthed and sloppy, his mouth tasting more of alcohol than anything else, panting a little against the curve of Daisuke’s ear. “You don’t — if you don’t want to, we shouldn’t–”
Daisuke laughed softly. “I’ve got nowhere else I need to be,” he said. He skimmed both hands up and down Ryuu’s sides, feeling out each ticklish flinch and line of muscle. It felt good — Ryuu was of height with him but more heavily built, and he wasn’t that afraid to lean his weight into Daisuke, pressing him into the alley wall. “You?”
“No,” Ryuu said. He smiled; it made him look both earnest and young. His mouth was swollen and wet. “I don’t. I just wanted to make sure–”
“I’m fine,” Daisuke repeated, hooking his fingers into the belt loops of Ryuu’s pants and hitching him closer. “So let’s just–”
Ryuu made a small keening noise in his throat, pushing closer. “Daisuke,” he said, like it was some sort of prayer. “Daisuke, Daisuke–”
At the mouth of the alley, headlights flashed, bright enough to make them both flinch. Daisuke turned his head, squinting into the glare; it took a moment of adjusting to see the slim figure standing there, backlit by the hard glow.
“Oh, my,” said a voice. “Isn’t this embarrassing? Daisuke Aurora, hanging out in back alley like some sort of nameless slut?”
Daisuke’s mouth twisted as he raised an eyebrow. “Considering you know my name,” he said, “doesn’t that defeat the purpose of that insult?”
The newcomer giggled, a high rattling sound that Daisuke recognized: it wasn’t the sort of laugh one forgot. “This is my city,” he said. “I make it my business to know everyone’s name.” He laughed again. “You know how it works, don’t you, Daisuke?”
“It’s you, then,” Daisuke said. He shook his head. “Convinient, how you always show up at such opportune moments.”
The lights from the car dimmed. Clair Leonelli tipped his head to one side and smiled, wide-eyed and toothy. “I just happened to be passing by,” he said. “But look, look what I’ve caught you doing. Wouldn’t your big brother be so disappointed?”
“Heh.” Daisuke smirked. “My bro’s given up on trying to control that part of my life.” He spread his hands with a shrug. “Took him a long time, but he’s gotten over it.”
Ryuu looked from Daisuke to Clair and back again, obvious panic growing on his face. “That’s,” he began, and swallowed hard. “He’s. And you’re–”
“Daisuke,” Clair said; his tone was almost repoachful. “Didn’t you tell him anything?”
“I told him what he needed to know,” Daisuke said. He leaned back against the wall, and when Ryuu pulled back, he let his fingers slip free of their hold on his clothes. “Honestly, doesn’t Company Vita’s Vampire have anything better to do with his time?”
“Vuh,” Ryuu said. He continued backing up, wild-eyed. “Vuh, vuh–”
Clair glanced at him, then looked away, clearly dismissive. “I thought you had better taste,” he said. “Picking up people from a–” His gaze flicked up, then down again. “A gentleman’s club?”
Daisuke shrugged. He stuck his hands into his pockets and grinned. “Seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said. When Ryuu finally broke and ran for it, neither of them watched him go. “So what do I owe the pleasure of your company, Clair Leonelli?”
“I happened to be in the area,” Clair said. His eyes were bright and his grin stretched across his entire face, distorting the softness of it. He strode forward, his gait loose and easy. “After all, Kabuki Road is mine. I make it a point of knowing what’s going on at all times.” He stopped in front of Daisuke, leaning to the side until he actually had to look up into Daisuke’s face to smirk. “And look at what I’ve found.”
“Heh.” Daisuke shook his head. “Looks like to me that you’re just spying,” he drawled. “That’s hardly good behavior, isn’t it?”
Clair’s lip curled. “Good boys don’t have to prove anything. They get to play and not worry at all …” He giggled, teeth catching his lip near the cold metal glint of the ring, tongue flicking out and leaving a brief shining-wet trail. He tilted his head, and for a brief moment only one pale eye was visible through his bangs, glittering poison-bright. “But you’re out here in the cold, fucking in an alley.” Teeth flashed in his sudden smile. “You’re judging me again.”
Daisuke shrugged. “Him?” he said. “He bought me a drink. It could’ve been worse.”
“Is that your price, then?” Clair straightened, one eyebrow rising in an eloquent question. “A single drink for Daisuke Aurora?”
“I like meaningful conversations and long walks by the riverfront, too,” Daisuke said, letting the words pull out into a drawl. “I do have some standards.”
Clair rocked back on his heels as though physically pushed by the words. A moment later he began to laugh again, the sound starting in his throat and rising to a full-fledged cackle until he was doubled over from the force of it. Daisuke watched him narrowly, still leaning against the wall but tensed — the Leonelli car is still there even if its headlights are dimmed, and he doesn’t doubt that the driver’s got a gun trained on him just in case — for the fight that’s beginning to look inevitable.
Instead, Clair was suddenly in his face — they were almost the same height, and that their foreheads almost touched when Clair leaned in. A fraction of movement on either part would have them touching, but all Daisuke felt was quick fast breath against his cheek, and the heat that poured from Clair’s thin body like a furnace.
“Let’s go inside,” Clair said. He glanced towards the car, and though he made no obvious gesture, it began to back up, then pulled out of the alley and drove away. He looked back to Daisuke, biting a grin on his lower lip. His hand brushed phantom-light on Daisuke’s wrist, still not quite touching. “What sort of place is this, hm?”
“Right,” Daisuke said. He pulled back, lifting an eyebrow. “Because I’ll go anywhere with you.”
“Oh,” Clair said, and broke up snickering. “I think you will. See …” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out enough of a grenade to show it off, his thumb hooking into the tab. “I’ve been thinking of redecorating a bit. I’d be happy to have your input, Daisuke Aurora.” He glanced up at the sign over the door. “Places like this are an eyesore, aren’t they? All those panting animals who call themselves men, like they’re any better than beasts.”
Daisuke’s answering smile was more of a grimace than anything else, tight with barely reigned-in irritation. “Well,” he said. “Why don’t we discuss this over a few drinks, then?”
Clair swept back, just enough for Daisuke to slide out from between him and the wall. He let the grenade drop back out of sight in his pocket, stepping up till he was almost shoulder-to-shoulder with Daisuke. “Lead the way, then,” he purred.
Thankfully no one immediately spotted them when they slipped back into the club; a new set of girls had rotated onto the stage, wrapped in bits of silk and lace that left very little to the imagination. Judging from the noises of the crowd, they were certainly appreciative. Clair glanced briefly at them before looking away, dimissing them with a curl of his lip. Daisuke followed close behind, keeping a close eye on the younger man as he made a beeline for the back of the club. He paused by one table, swiping his finger across the top and then staring at the fingertip; there was almost no way he could see anything in the dimness, but his nose curled in disgust anyway.
“Filthy,” he said. He flicked his wrist and moved on, repeating the process three times before settling on a table in a dark corner. The last one he didn’t bother testing, hooked one of the chairs out of the way and hitched himself up onto the table top, leaning back on his hands and kicking his legs idly. He looked up at Daisuke from under lowered lashes, teeth flashing white and pressing to his lipring again. “I’m thirsty. Get me something.”
Daisuke raised an eyebrow. “Flat broke,” he said. “You’ll just have to get your own.”
“Hmmmmm.” Clair tipped his head. Colored lights cut in sharp angles across his face. “Boring.”
He shrugged. “You were the one who wanted to come inside,” he said. “Not my fault if it’s not to your tastes.”
Clair leaned in the other direction. For a moment it looked like he might say something, and then he surged to his feet, striding forward. Daisuke automatically moved back before they could actually collide, his hands in his pockets; Clair matched him step for step, eyes glittering.
“I don’t like how you look at me,” he murmured, his voice still clear even through the bass beat of the music. “You’re always looking down on me, aren’t you? Always …” He raised a hand, finger pointing but never quite touching Daisuke’s chest. “Like you at the Safety Management Agency are so much higher than me, like you’ve got the right to look down on me …” He looked up through his lashes, baring his teeth, not even pretending to be a smile. “It makes me sick.”
Daisuke turned into a looping half-circle, through some miracle avoiding the tables and chairs in the way. Clair followed. “Just part of the job,” he said easily. “Wouldn’t be very good at preventing crimes if we didn’t keep an eye on you Leonellis.”
“There,” Clair hissed. His eyes flared open wider for a moment, and he giggled, the sound spilling out like he couldn’t quite stop it. “That’s the sort of attitude I hate.” He cocked his head to one side, the movement flowing. Daisuke sidestepped his next advance, the two of them pacing around a table for a few rounds before Clair abruptly switched directions, moving forward and driving him back again. “You piss me off, Daisuke Aurora.” His eyes opened wide; his arm flashed, and a moment later he had the muzzle of his gun pressed flat to Daisuke’s chest. “I wonder what sort of mark you’d make.”
“A mess, at least,” Daisuke said blandly. He never looked away from the gleam in Clair’s eyes. “It’d be a pain to clean up.”
“Ah.” Clair laughed again. His head dropped forward. “Ahhhhh, is that so? Is that so.” He jabbed at Daisuke again with the gun, pushing him back a few more steps until his shoulders hit the wall. “But your eyes would stay the same, wouldn’t they? Like you’re any better.” He glanced up through his bangs, and the smile had been wiped away from his face. A heartbeat later, his open palm slammed into the wall hard beside Daisuke’s head — a hairsbreadth from touching, but without actual contact. Daisuke didn’t flinch. “What gives you the right, hm?”
Daisuke shrugged, a lazy smile flickering across his face. “Nothing,” he said. “I just don’t like you.”
The corner of Clair’s mouth twitched. His arm flashed up. Daisuke twisted away from the wall and caught the blow with his arm. A moment later he pivoted to dodge an elbow to the ribs, ducking into a sweeping kick.
They broke apart, circling again. Daisuke tucked his hands back into his pockets. Clair reholstered his gun.
“It’s pathetic, don’t you think?” Clair hissed. “You run around, playing cops and robbers with your little machine, like you’re something actually important. Half the time, you can’t even do it right. You’re supposed to prevent crimes, right?” He leaned in suddenly, so close their faces were almost touching. “And yet, here you are, unable to do a damn thing.” He lifted a single finger, trailing it up the side of Daisuke’s neck and the side of his face, close enough to be a ticklish presence. “What good are you, Daisuke Aurora?”
“A man is someone who does things his own way,” said Daisuke. He leaned his head away from Clair’s touch, smirking. “And doesn’t need to explain himself to anyone.”
“–Huh?” Daisuke stopped, lifting an eyebrow. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
Clair giggled and surged forward. And Daisuke tensed, though nothing in Clair’s movement telegraphed any sort of hostility, just–
A long-fingered hand fisted into his hair and dragged him down an abrupt distance that ended with Clair Leonelli’s teeth sinking hard into his lower lip.
He tasted blood and the colder metal of the lipring, his startled noise swallowed before it was more than gasp in his throat. Instinctively he jerked back, and his hip collided hard into an empty chair; a moment later another hand settled at the small of his back and hauled him back forward. His fingers closed around a thin wrist and clenched.
Clair’s tongue swiped the cut on his lip in a fleeting bright spark of pain. He could feel the outline of that too-wide smile pressed to his mouth. It’d be easy enough to break his hold — either of them — but somewhere in the decision, he found himself manuvered until his back hit the wall again.
“Here’s a secret,” Clair whispered, lips moving against his own. His laugh rattled dryly in his throat. “I love dancing. I’m good at it. Very, very–” His fingers tightened in Daisuke’s hair, jerking it back; in the dim light, his blood on Clair’s mouth was a damp dark smear. Pale eyes opened wide and glittering. “–Very good. You see.”
Daisuke licked his own cut lip. “You really do have crappy habits,” he said. He grasped Clair’s wrist again and pulled, twisting at the same time until he’d pulled Clair’s one arm up, their legs shifted into a parody of a dancer’s pose. Clair’s eyes opened wider as Daisuke dipped him over backwards, lips peeling back from his teeth in a sudden fierce grimace. “If we dance, we do it on my terms.”
“Is what part of being a ‘man’?” Clair hissed; it trailed into a rising giggle. “Getting to call the shots?”
“It’s part of being practical,” Daisuke said, and let go a moment before Clair’s knee came up, aimed for his groin. “I like going home with all pieces intact.” He circled again, keeping pace with Clair’s loose easy movements, weaving through the empty chairs and abandoned tables with careful grace. They stopped on opposite sides of a table, staring at each other unblinking. “Besides, a place like this isn’t my ideal. We’ll just have to dance another night.”
“Hmmm,” Clair said. His eyes narrowed, but he sighed and turned his head. “How boring.”
“Sorry for being boring, then,” Daisuke said, with absolute insincerity. “I like living the way I do.” He started to turn away, then paused at the jab of a gun in the small of his back; he hadn’t even heard Clair move, despite the chairs that should have been in his way.
“I don’t like boring people,” Clair said, eyes wide. He nibbled his lower lip. “They make me angry.”
“The way I see it,” Daisuke said, “lots of things make you angry.”
The gun jabbed hard into his back again, then was gone; a moment later, Clair was crowded close behind him — again, only just a hairsbreadth from touching. He was very warm. When he leaned up, his breath was hot and damp on Daisuke’s ear.
“Better make it up to me then,” he whispered. “Careful, my patience only lasts so long.”
Teeth nipped sharply at Daisuke’s earlobe — almost certainly hard enough to draw blood — and then Clair pulled away, the warmth of him retreating; Daisuke waited for a full minute before he turned. The narrow row of chairs and tables behind him was empty, and the back door hung open. He touched his tongue to the cut on his lip, this time wincing at the sting, and rubbed the back of his neck. Warmth lingered at his hip, where Clair’s hand had rested.
“Sheesh,” he sighed. “Too rich for my blood.”
He glanced back at the stage. A new set of girls were gyrating on the stage, one leaning down so far that her breasts were pressed into an ecstatic customer’s face. With another sigh, he shook his head and headed out the back door. Outside, the night was damp and full of the familiar scent of exhaust and ozone; there was no sign of person or car down either end of the alley. Daisuke tucked his hands into his pockets and slouched his way to the alley mouth and looked up. The Company Vita building was half-obscured by others, a solid looming shape rising on the Judoh skyline.
If he wanted, he thought, he could follow the road past the casino, straight into the Vita building; the guards certainly wouldn’t stop him. He flexed his fingers and remembered how easily Clair had bent backwards, as though his spine had the same fluid flexibility of a cat. He rolled his tongue against the cut in his lip one more time.
No, he thought. Not tonight, not yet; a dance with Clair Leonelli would be a lot more complicated than he had the time to navigate, and too compromising for his current interests. He shifted, feeling the subtle weight of the silver bullet around his neck — light enough that he could sometimes forget it was even there, but never gone, always hovering there just at the corner of thought and memory.
Shrugging to himself, he turned away and started walking.
“Have fun?” Giovanni asked. His eyes were hidden behind his glasses, but one eyebrow angled up, and his tone was wry.
Clair shrugged, crossing his arms behind his head and his legs at the knees, kicking idly at the back of the driver’s seat with one foot. “I danced,” he said.
Clair made an eloquent noise of disgust, turning his face to the window. “He had no manners at all,” he said.
“But not boring?” asked Mitchell, grinning into the rearview mirror.
“Hmm.” Clair’s nose wrinkled. “… It was annoying,” he said at last, then turned deliberately to the window, cutting off the rest of the conversation. Mitchell met Giovanni’s eyes in the mirror and shrugged.
They drove the rest of the way in silence.