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Original Fiction
Title: Lover of Death

Author: Juxian Tang

The illustration by Doll Alice (Danielle)


He woke up coughing. At first, still half-conscious, he tried to stifle the cough, hoping that it would stop and he could sleep some more. But it didn't abate, so, Tomo knew he had to wake up. The sun cast uneven squares of light on the floor closer to the far wall, and he guessed it was already past noon. He squinted against the light, habitually pulling his dark tangled hair over his eyes. The annoying cough bothered him for a minute or two more and then went down.

Yeah right; now when he was wide awake, it stopped. With a groan Tomo turned on his back. The motion was too abrupt - he really should've known better than tossing about like this. Waves of pain spread through his body from two sources - his head and his ass. Fool ... why did he have to drink so much yesterday?

In a shadowy corner, a few sake bottles crowded, and for a while Tomo tried to count them, blinking with pain, but then gave up. It didn't matter. Last thing he remembered from yesterday was being pinned to the futon as one of the men poured the drink into his mouth while others fumbled with Tomo's clothes. And by that time Tomo was already gone so far that he found it incredibly amusing.

He wiped his mouth absently, thinking about it. There was a crust of come on his face, and greasy, sticky streaks of smudged make-up. He must have been a picture; not that he cared how he looked at the moment. Pressing the heels of his palms to the coal-smeared eyes, Tomo tried to push the headache away. Well, the hangover was a price he had to pay for making yesterday's night bearable. What else could he do, when the men, four of them, paid to do a number on him - apart from drinking himself into oblivion or at least into such a state when he didn't feel a shit and could laugh at anything that happened?

Now illusions were over; his body remembered there were four of them - and most possibly every one of them used his ass more than once after he'd passed out.

He groped around, reaching for his clothes. It felt chilly in the room; it shouldn't have been, with the shining sun behind the window and all those crazy birds chirping outside. But it seemed his room was never too warm. Finally the kimono turned up - under him, crumpled into a shapeless ball and stained. There was dry red-brown on the blue silk plus to the usual white of sperm, and Tomo frowned at the stains. His own blood made him feel queasy recently although he couldn't say why - not that he rarely got to see it.

Anyway, he felt too lazy to look for something else to wear at the moment and it didn't make sense to put on clean clothes on a mucky body, so, he pulled the kimono on. This simple action seemed to drain him of energy and for a while Tomo just lay flat, looking up at the dark ceiling of his room.

The beams under the ceiling crossed right over his futon, like dark arms holding against each other. There was something morbidly fascinating in this view - so, that Tomo sometimes thought he understood the boy who'd occupied this room before him and hanged himself, casting his sash over the beam junction. Living in a room like that wasn't a good omen, was it? Yet for three years that Tomo occupied this room, he had imagined the gentle swaying of a small body right over his bed so many times that he almost got used to it. Sometimes, with his habit of fantasizing things that were long gone or never existed, Tomo even thought it felt like there was another tenant in his room.

High-pitched voice of one of the boys reached from downstairs, making Tomo wince. It really was a time to get up, unless he wanted Bakurou on his ass.

He was like a blind kitten, stumbling into every corner, until he got to a bucket of water and splashed some of it on his face and other parts of body. Sniffing a strand of his hair, Tomo scowled; he probably could do for one more day without taking a whole bath.

His face without make-up felt strangely naked at the first moment; felt vulnerable - as if it made him more disposed to be hurt. Tomo rummaged through his possessions heaped in the corner until finding a small polished bronze mirror. Well, surely there was nothing special about his face. Just the usual pale oval under strands of dark hair - and a pair of light-brown eyes that could seem amber on a good day. At the moment the eyes looked reddish and rather haunted; Tomo pushed the mirror away angrily. One day he'd probably learn to love his reflection, to find it enticing; but not yet.

No customers were likely to appear until after dark, so, he didn't bother with a kimono, just put on his yukata. It would earn him a lecture from the Master - or something worse than a lecture from Bakurou - but Tomo somehow couldn't work up enough stamina to worry about it at the moment. His headache subsided and the pain in his anus went down to a normal level but he still felt cold. He hated being cold.

He didn't know if he was hungry; a thought of food didn't seem particularly appealing but he surely needed to eat, so, he walked down to the kitchen.

Well, no wonder - with his usual luck - there were both the Master and Bakurou downstairs. The door to the Master's study was open, and Tomo wondered whether to choose to go back upstairs or try to slink past unnoticed.

"It's not like I was in a position to refuse," the Master's high voice came. There were complaining notes in it that made him sound like a resentful child. But then it was how the Master sounded almost all the time - at least when he wasn't stoned half-conscious on opium. "I'm not a fool, I don't think he'd leave me alive after what he said, if I refused. I just don't understand why me ... why me?"

There was no reason why Tomo should've been interested in what happened to the Master to send him into this near-hysterics; but he still made half a step to be able to see the man. Uh oh; it looked like Tomo wasn't the only one who had a rough morning. The Master's long hair, loose, spread on his shoulders in disorder, his unbelted kimono showing his inner robes - and his face Tomo couldn't see because of the hands that hid it.

"Maybe, because he knows your place has a reputation," Bakurou's low voice sounded as flat as always. The man stood half-turned to the door, and Tomo could have a good look of his broad rough-featured face. He looked like a badly polished statue of Buddha, with his big belly and crude face - and seeming so impassive to anything that happened around him, except for a slight glitter in his small eyes.

Bakurou's arms were crossed on his chest, with a whip in one of his hands, as usual. The sight of this whip, its handle long and carved, made Tomo swallow nervously.

"Your grandfather served the previous Shogun. And your father served the Shogun himself," Bakurou continued, and the Master moved the hands away from his face, looked up plaintively. "And now he wants you to serve him."

The Shogun? They couldn't be serious, could they?

The mere reminder of the country ruler could send chills through any sane-minded person's body. And while Tomo had to admit that Bakurou, as an immediate danger, probably frightened him more than the distant Shogun, this fear was still inside him, innate, inherited from his parents he didn't remember.

"But why ... " the Master whined again. Beautiful, soft-hearted Master ... the business he dealt with was just not for him. Well, it's not like he had any choice what to do, being the only son of a brothel owner and inheriting the place. It was just that everyone knew the place would've fallen apart within days if not for Bakurou's steel hand.

"Don't ask why, Kenji. Ask what we can do for the Shogun's bidding not to ruin our enterprise but to serve to its greater glory."

These words seemed to get to the Master. His almond-shaped moist eyes opened widely and looked at Bakurou with adoration.

"You'll take care of it, Baku-chan, won't you?"

It seemed to Tomo the triumphant glimmering in Bakurou's eyes became brighter. Then the man just lowered his head.

Catching a cough that was tearing his throat, Tomo rushed past the door to the kitchen. He didn't know if they noticed him or paid attention - he hoped they were too occupied with whatever problems they had to care about him.

The kitchen was not empty; Tomo frowned at a small form sitting near to the stove. The boy looked up at him from a book, pushed smooth strands of hair out of his face. His eyes, with a slight squint in the right one, lit up as he saw Tomo. Tomo sighed; he really was not in the mood to deal with Iku.

"You're awake, Tomo-san! You slept for so long I thought ... "

"Is there anything to eat?"

Speaking hurt; and Tomo's voice sounded like croaking. One good merchandise he would be in the evening with such a voice if he didn't manage to warm up his throat. But Iku didn't seem to notice either his hoarse voice or the unpleasantness of his tone.

"Yes, sure. I ... I've kept it for you."

The book slipped down from Iku's lap, unnoticed, as he got up quickly, shuffled through the cupboard. Tomo took the book, almost absent-mindedly, leafed the pages. He couldn't read very well; but the text looked like poetry. It suddenly incensed him - what did a whore need poetry for?

"Here," Iku smiled shyly. "Rice and vegetables. And tea, I'll pour you some tea, all right?"

Iku was always reading; should've already forgotten it how to do it, Tomo thought with irritation, after half a year in this place and being a charge of such a person as Bakurou. Tomo should've known - Bakurou had been his mentor for three years before Iku appeared. And where did he even get those books? The clients probably brought them to him.

Tomo felt an unexpected surge of malice as he looked at the smaller boy who turned away to pour him a cup of tea. Tomo's hands moved faster than he realized what he was doing - opened the stove and shoved the book inside, onto glowing embers. He almost had time to straighten before Iku looked back - almost but not quite. The boy eyed him questioningly, then looked at the half-opened stove and curled, black flakes of burnt pages floating out of it.

Tomo saw in every detail how Iku's face changed, incomprehension and then pain coming to his eyes. And he was quite ready when, with a short cry, the boy rushed to the stove.

Tomo had three years of age over Iku and, while not being anywhere near to well-built, he still was taller and heavier, so, it wasn't a problem to hold the boy, no matter how Iku struggled.

"Let me go! Let me go!"

"Too late," he said through clenched teeth. "You'll just burn your hands. Bakurou won't like it."

One moment Iku was still struggling, with a strength that Tomo nearly didn't expect in such a frail body, and then went limp, looking up at Tomo with widened, tear-filled eyes.

"Why? Why did you burn it?"

"Because." He shoved the boy away so violently Iku crashed on the floor - and didn't get up, looking at Tomo with the same uncomprehending, almost incredulous expression. "Because I wanted to."

Because I didn't do anything to deserve this fawning gaze of yours, these attempts to take care of me, he thought. He never cared for the boy, never did anything that could make Iku be attached to him. And the silly kid really should've known better, anyway, then to turn his affections on Tomo - with Bakurou hovering behind both of them.

"You can rat on me if you want," Tomo added, in a fit of suicidal gloom. Iku didn't answer him, still sitting on the floor and looking at Tomo as if he saw him for the first time. Very well; it'd serve the kid right.

The cup that had fallen from Iku's hands was still on the floor. Tomo picked it up and poured himself another portion, then took the bowl and walked out. The voice caught on him, small and distressed - and yet sounding with quiet conviction.

"Tomo-san ... "

"What?" He didn't even look back.

"You're not like that, Tomo-san. You're not like others here."

Tomo didn't look back, slammed the door shut behind himself and walked out of the house. It'd probably be good to have his breakfast in the yard; the sun was at its highest and the breeze very slight, and Tomo thought he might've got warmer if he stayed out a little. Perhaps it would melt the chill out of his bones.

Rice tasted like nothing - and he couldn't even enjoy the tea. There was a streak of soot on the back of his hand, from his opening of the stove. Tomo rubbed it absently, wiped the hand on his clothes. His long fingernails needed filing and proper painting but he thought he'd do it later in the evening.

He found himself enjoying the quietness of the backyard, finally relaxed enough for the pains of his body to step away. It was nice there, just with the echo of populated streets reaching him and an occasional voice sounding in the house. He half-covered his face with the hair to keep his skin pale and leaned against the fence, put his bare feet on the bench. He really could doze off like this, couldn't he?

A noise startled him. Too close it was, not at the main door but at the back gate - clatter of hooves, and voices, and rustle of clothes, and faint clang of weapons. For a moment, looking with wide-opened eyes, Tomo wondered whether it was just one of his vivid fantasies of legendary warriors visiting him - as nine or ten riders flooded the yard. And then, a moment later, there was the Master hurrying from the door, bowing deeply, and Bakurou was behind him, and with a bit of disappointment mixed with amazement Tomo understood the riders were real.

The Shogun's bidding ... Could it be that?

As much as Tomo knew he shouldn't have been there, he still didn't move, pressed to the fence, hoping that his grey yukata would make him invisible. And if didn't seem anyone was interested in him anyway.

A few of the men dismounted, one of them clad richer than others - a stout, impressive figure, his garment embroidered with gold. Tomo had never seen anyone dressed like this, never had anyone higher than a Captain among his clients - and this one was probably what? A General? The Master, now properly dressed and with his hair combed neatly, kept bowing, saying something in his soft, lilting voice. The man nodded imperiously, then walked after the Master inside.

So, was it the Shogun's assignment? Maybe, the Shogun wanted their house to entertain some high-rank militaries from his court? What a bright idea, Tomo thought; but what happened to all those luxurious brothels in the downtown? Tomo shook his head, marveling at the stupidity of his own fantasies. In any case, it was only the General who walked in. A few more of his people scattered around the yard, and several stayed in the saddles, seemingly clustering around a man between them.

Clustering ... or guarding him? Suddenly Tomo got a very clear picture, not knowing if it was what he really saw or if he let his fantasies free rein again. A rider among others, sitting with his head lowered ... There was something wrong with his position - and moments later Tomo realized that the man's hands were tied behind his back.

The man's hair was brown; not quite long, a palm below his ears - smooth and so soft that breeze ruffled it easily, making strands fall over the man's face, half-hiding it. His figure was disguised as well, under a long cloak, despite a warm day - so, all Tomo could say was that he didn't seem tall or broad. Was he young? Tomo found himself wondering about it suddenly, didn't know why. The man looked young, he decided finally; the tiredness of his pose was not of years but of a pain-worn body - Tomo recognized it almost unmistakably.

He must have been staring at the man; he didn't know if his gaze was intense enough to be felt - but all of a sudden the man raised his head, shook the smooth strands away from his face and looked at Tomo.

His eyes were cherry-brown - dark with sparkles of golden-red in them - big, exquisitely shaped eyes. He was young indeed - a boy rather than a man, maybe just a couple years older than Tomo was. And he was beautiful - Tomo saw it at once. His face was bruised, a stain of crimson-purple spreading over his left cheekbone - and yet it did nothing to diminish his beauty, maybe, even accentuated it in some strange way - contrasting with white porcelain of his skin. With his life as a prostitute in a male brothel, Tomo had met enough beautiful boys and men in his life, never found any of them particularly interesting unless they were his competitors. Yet this boy - there was something about him ...

He has the thickest eyelashes I've ever seen, Tomo thought; the lower ones were almost the long and curved at the upper ones - and between these eyelashes the youth's eyes shone like dark gems - black mixed with wine-red. He looked at Tomo with those mesmerizing eyes - and Tomo could swear there was something personal in this look; he always guessed it unmistakably when in a flock of boys the eyes of a prospective customer chose him. And the young man looked this way at him. Only he wasn't a customer, was he?

Another gust of wind rippled the youth's hair and it fell over his face again. But a moment before it, with the stranger's eyes still locked on Tomo's, a little smile curved his lips and he winked.

The door opened again and the General marched out, followed closely by the Master and, at some distance, Bakurou. Tomo watched the man make a sign that was obeyed wordlessly by his people, as they all dismounted and two of them yanked the tied boy down.

His movement with his hands tied behind his back was awkward - so much that he would likely fall if the soldiers didn't hold him. For a moment Tomo saw his face, a hidden strain on it, white teeth nibbling on a full lip. The boy struggled a little, trying to shake off the hands holding him - but then stilled as the General touched his upper arm. The soldiers walked him inside the house.

Their intentions puzzled Tomo; he considered himself an uncurious man - or, rather, considered it safer to never develop enough interest to anything - but at the moment he couldn't help but gape. On the porch, as the young man stumbled on the steps, the cloak suddenly slid off his shoulders - and it was when Tomo realized why it was there in the first place, despite the heat.

The boy's back was criss-crossed with angry long traces of a lash. Well, Tomo always thought he knew everything about being lashed - his mind prompted him the memory of Bakurou's whip, its swish and scalding pain that followed, and Tomo's own pathetic cries. Bakurou was a master with a whip - capable to drive a person beyond despair without leaving a permanent mark.

But those who'd worked over the boy apparently didn't feel concerned about spoiling his skin. His back and sides were bloody mess - and to make it worse someone had pulled his torn robe over the open gashes. The rags were soaked in blood now, sticking to the skin.

The soldiers never paid attention to the cloak, just kept their way. And Tomo found himself following them, as if hypnotized - clearly realizing stupidity of his position but still unable to resist the temptation. To justify himself, he picked up the cloak, felt the weight of heavy silk in his hands. In the Master's study, the General talked to the Master.

"The room is acceptable. There is no need in any improvements. He must stay inside unless it's absolutely necessary to go out. How is he going to receive clients?"

"Employees usually entertain guests in the lounge, sir." The Master's pose was so cringing, Tomo thought he'd never seen him like this before. "And then guests choose whoever they want. But I can ... send guests upstairs to him ... "

"It will do." The man's voice was so cold, metal notes in it not disappearing even at the Master's obvious attempts to placate him. "It is at your discretion to find him the guests who won't infect him with any disease. I hope you understand that even though he is here at the Shogun's order, it is a temporary arrangement. Most possibly, the Shogun will want him back."

"I understand," the Master rustled.

"Otherwise, there must be no any indulgence to him. I hope you understand it as well. What are the prices for your whores, master?"

It seemed the conversation was getting too much for the Master because he fell silent, so, it was Bakurou who answered:

"The prices vary, sir. The highest price is twenty-one coin, the middle is fifteen and the less experienced are priced at nine."

"The Shogun's words were: 'Make him serve lowest of the low.' So, shall we say six coins?"

Tomo saw the Master shudder visibly at these words.

"Yes, sir."

"Very well." The man turned away, adding as he already was in the doorway. "I'll come in the evening to check."

He walked past Tomo who tried to merge into shadows and knew he wasn't quite successful at hiding. The General's heavy-lidded eyes stopped on him, assessing him for a moment. Tomo started shivering. The man said nothing, however, just walked out, and from the backyard Tomo heard the sounds of his people mounting and leaving.

"I'm ruined," the Master said in his room.

Quietly, Tomo moved, hoping to walk away before anyone else spotted him - and was stopped on his track by a hand catching his throat, throwing him against the wall.

"Who's there, Baku-chan?" the Master whined.

"No one." Bakurou's voice was unconcerned - but his hand squeezing Tomo's throat was unfaltering. "I've just caught a little spy," he whispered at Tomo's face, leaning very close.

The man's breath was reeking. Tomo felt his nostrils flutter as he felt it, even as Bakurou's hand on his throat didn't let him take a good breath. The smell was sickening, reminding him at once of all the nights Tomo felt this smell on his face, lying under Bakurou, his body in dull ache after the clients he had to serve and his mind clenching at the thought that he had one more responsibility, an inescapable one - to entertain his mentor. It'd been half a year since Bakurou found him too old to be interesting, since Iku had taken Tomo's place - but sometimes Tomo still woke up in terror after dreaming that he felt Bakurou's body crushing him down, smelled the man's breath on his face.

And now Bakurou held him, slowly choking him. Tomo panicked; his hands flew up inefficiently, trying to loosen the grip on his throat - but the lack of oxygen made his movements so hectic Bakurou hardly paid attention to them.

"Eavesdropping, aren't you?"

Bakurou's voice was low, sounding right against Tomo's ear - indicating hated intimacy between them. But the hand on his throat was relentless, crushing his windpipe, making tears break in Tomo's eyes.

"No ... Bakurou-sama ... I just ... "

The cloak slipped out of his hands but neither Tomo nor Bakurou noticed it.

"You just? What you just? Let's hear what Kenji-sama says when he finds out you spied on him."

Bakurou wouldn't call the Master, Tomo knew it; if he wanted to, he would've already done it. But he knew as well as Tomo did that in the worst case the kind Master would order him to be lashed - and while Bakurou would enjoy it tremendously, he still liked doing with Tomo on his own better.

"You don't work well recently, kitten." The hand didn't let him go, on the contrary, pushed under his chin harder, making Tomo tiptoe excruciatingly. "Just little things, you know - a client dissatisfied, less money earned. You can end up badly - in a much worse place than our little shop."

Spirals of light swirled in front of Tomo's eyes as the carved handle of the whip slammed between his legs; his jaw dropped in a soundless cry. The pain made him sick, made him about to throw up, if not for the position Bakurou held him in. With dimming gaze he saw how the glitter in the man's eyes became contented as the wood kept pushing against Tomo's balls.

Bakurou always knew how to hurt him without leaving compromising traces; Tomo's balls would be blue and black after that but customers hardly ever cared about the state of his genitals. Memories flooded Tomo, accompanying pain, making him almost convulse - memories of the things Bakurou used to do to him: Tomo's head held under the water until he saw dark; Bakurou making him drink soapy water until Tomo was so sick he couldn't breathe; thin sticks pushed into his piss-slit that made him urinate with blood later; hot wax on his nipples and pubis.

Three years Bakurou had considered him his charge; and, maybe, there was not a day during these three years that Tomo would live through without fear and pain. It must have been Iku who bore the full impact of Bakurou's affections now. But even though it was Bakurou himself who'd thrown Tomo away at his time, the man still seemed to consider there were some unresolved issues between them.

The sharpened point of the handle kept twisting into his scrotum. Tomo felt tears stream on his face, involuntary ones, but his tears were apparently not enough for Bakurou.

"You know how the mighty fall, don't you? Look at the whore they brought us - do you know who he is?"

The question was not so difficult, after all, once Tomo applied his wits to it. He whispered in a staggering, almost soundless voice:

"The Shogun's ... lover ... "

"The Shogun's favorite." The words were accentuated with shoving Tomo against the wall; red circles floated in front of Tomo's eyes, Bakurou's voice barely reaching him - but he struggled to hear, for some reason. "One and only. Heard about him?"


He did; who didn't? In the tales about the Shogun's ruthlessness and depravity - 'He wears red clothes when he indulge in his vices, black clothes when he slaughters and white clothes when he mourns those whom he killed' - there was a place for a lover of his, a boy with a face of a glorified spirit and a soul of a snake. Sometimes Tomo even fantasized about this boy, wondered how much about his beauty and corruption was true.

But it couldn't be him, could it? Bakurou must have been laughing at him. The Shogun's favorite brought to their place with his hands tied and his back slashed with a whip? Tomo recalled suddenly the hypnotic beauty of the boy's eyes looking at him between the web of huge eyelashes, a slow smile that moved the boy's full pink lips apart.

He was beautiful enough to grace the Shogun's bed, Tomo thought miserably. His thoughts messed up and his mind was darkening as he suffocated. Bakurou's hand let him go abruptly, and he slipped on the floor, rubbing his throat convulsively. He always wondered how Bakurou knew when let him go without killing him; maybe, the man just waited for his face to turn blue.

"But why did the Shogun ... " he whispered not really expecting an answer.

"The whore must have angered him - so, the Shogun decided the little slut deserved a lesson. Someone had to teach him that there are less pleasant things in life than sleeping with the most powerful man in the country."

'Make him serve lowest of the low ... '

"I'm broken," in his room, the Master lamented. "This guy - once he's out of here - can you imagine what he'll do to me?"

Without looking at Tomo any more, Bakurou stepped away, hovered on the threshold of the room. His voice sounded pacifying, almost mild as he talked to the Master.

"There's nothing you can do - you have the orders how to treat him. Who knows if he gets back into power - but the Shogun - the Shogun will surely kill you if you disobey."

"And he's such a mess ... " Even without seeing the Master Tomo easily imagined how the man's handsome face screwed up in distaste. "Have you seen his back?"

"Ooh yes. Which reminds me ... "

Tomo didn't even have time to get on his feet as Bakurou was over him again, yanked him up sharply and pulled closer.

"You, bitch - you seem to have nothing to do. Go and prepare our new employee to the night shift. He's in Aki's former room."

Tomo knew there was no way to argue with it, unless he wanted to earn something worse than bruised balls. He just nodded, unfocusing his gaze not to see Bakurou's face so close.

"Good," Bakurou purred and shoved him. Tomo landed against the wall, biting his tongue as pain reverberated through his ribs - but he could stand this pain as long as Bakurou's hands were not on him.

Relief almost made him forget for a moment what kind of task Bakurou entrusted him with. The next Bakurou's words reminded him about it.

"He'll be your charge now, you know. Have a good time!"

* * *

He picked up the cloak and dragged himself upstairs. The lost garment of the Shogun's concubine was heavy and smooth in Tomo's hands; the cloth ran through his fingers softly, shimmering grey, dark-blue and green. There was a narrow lining of fur at the collar, amazingly soft and fluffy. Tomo buried his fingers into it. His own clothes, even the best of them, were so plain in comparison with this thing.

What a shame it was that they used it to cover the young man's back; now stains of blood wouldn't come off. What a shame it was that someone wearing such a thing could wind up so sadly - beaten and turned into a prostitute - an equal to all of them. Or even lower than equal, Tomo thought, because the price the General mentioned was so low, no boy had ever been sold so cheap in their place.

His musings came to a halt as he stopped in front of the door, hovered there hesitantly. He shouldn't have liked the task, should've found it vexing - and yet something in him fluttered with fascination, Tomo couldn't deny it. He had fantasized about this young man, after all - in his stupid habit of making up imaginary friends. These were just fantasies, of course, but still ... Now he had a chance to find out what kind of person the Shogun's concubine was.

He thought of the youth's soft lips curving in a smile - an utterly inappropriate smile, taking into account his situation. Well, for all Tomo knew he might've been half-mad or hysterical; some people laughed when hysterical - why not to smile? Tomo tried to listen whether there were any sounds behind the door and heard nothing, and prompted himself to come in - but didn't move, just pressed the fur of the cloak to his cheek.

Ah ... The cloak smelled so sweetly; with some flowery and fruity perfume, not with blood or dust. Tomo thought he could drown in this smell. He didn't want to part with this thing, wanted to keep it in his room, wrap himself in this cloak and imagine he was somewhere else, not here.

But it was impossible; if he tried to steal this thing, he would be dead. So, there was no point to think about it. Tomo reached to the door and pushed it.

At the last moment, it came to his mind that he should've knocked - but it was too late, he just made a scraping sound with his nails. The light hit in his eyes. He'd forgotten it was a western room - and the sun, setting, flooded it with such a stream of red light that for a few moments Tomo was caught blind, blinking desperately.

"I don't remember allowing you to enter," a voice said.

It was a high voice, thin like a woman's - but on the last word it dropped to a husky, breathy note. Between two extremes of it, it was impossible to say whether there was more threat or caress in the voice. Tomo felt strange chill going through his body - and recognized this chill even if he didn't often felt it. A faint arousal tingled through him, just with one this phrase he heard.

He must have been crazy, to think about this! And he shouldn't have been aroused, he should've been scared. He managed to anger the Shogun's lover with his very first action. Tomo clasped nervously on the cloak as if the thing could save him, as he turned his head from side to side trying to see anything - until a standing figure at the window became clear to him.

The boy's hands were still tied, Tomo understood; but the pose was almost casual - almost as if he'd chosen by his own will to stand like that, leaning against the wall with his less damaged shoulder. There was a smile curving the boy's lips but at this moment it was nothing like the warm, almost conspiring smile he had given Tomo in the yard.

"I ... I'm sorry ... " Tomo felt lost, stepped back, almost ready to leave if the Shogun's lover didn't want to see him. And then, all of a sudden, the haughty smirk on the boy's lips turned into the most charming smile Tomo could imagine as the brown eyes glittered with laughter.

"Come on," the young man drawled. "Don't make a face like this, I don't bite. It was just a joke."

Smiling or displeased, the youth was equally beautiful - but in front of his warmth Tomo found himself even more helpless than in front of the anger, even though he couldn't explain why. Maybe, because the boy shouldn't have been smiling? Tomo would understand tears - or hatred - but this? The boy almost looked contented; what was there to be contented with?

"I ... " Tomo started again. "Here."

He handed the cloak and realized at once that the boy couldn't take it, with his hands tied. He heard laughter, slighting - but he deserved to be slighted, didn't he?

"Thanks but no thanks," the boy moved his chin as if something pressed on his throat. "I never want to see this thing again."

For a moment Tomo just gaped at him, now knowing what to do - and the boy added, as if knowing what he thought about.

"You can take it."

He must have looked like an idiot, clenching the cloak to his chest, but Tomo couldn't help it. Of course, he'd make bloodstains come off! To own such a thing ...

"Who are you?" the boy asked imperiously.

"Tomo ... "

"And I'm Nagi."

Nagi ... It was the Shogun's lover's name, now Tomo recalled it. So, it was all true?

"So, you're going to serve me?"

For some reason, Tomo almost felt like nodding - and stopped himself from doing it with an effort. What was wrong with him that he was about to agree to everything Nagi said? Because of the cloak given to him? Or because of the beauty of these eyes?

He'd never seen eyes like that before - eyes with red sparkles in them; this red made Nagi look like he was not a human but some strange unearthly being. Or was it just the sun reflecting in his eyes? The sunlight cast a streak of scarlet on Nagi's cheek, on his incredibly white skin. Tomo thought he would gladly kill to have skin like this ... to have anything at all in his appearance that Nagi had.

The lines of Nagi's body were incredibly smooth; even with the awkward way he had to keep his hands, his pose was full of grace. He seemed to have no hard bone in his body, nothing angular or clumsy. Tomo caught himself on staring and swallowed hard.

"No," he shook his head. "Not to serve. I'm just ... here to show you the ropes ... everything."

He saw Nagi scowl and his heart felt.

"Speaking about the ropes. Will you mind?"

He watched Nagi turn to him and after a moment understood what was demanded from him. The rope was wound tightly around the boy's wrists, eating into the skin. Tomo tried to be as careful as possible, tugging on it but still must have hurt Nagi because he made a small hiss.

There was something clasped in Nagi's hand, so hard that his knuckles were turned white, Tomo noticed. He could only see a few links of a golden chain, nothing more, and didn't start to wonder what it was.

"Don't you have a knife?" Nagi asked with irritation.

Tomo nodded, ran down to the kitchen and brought a fish knife, sliced the rope fairly quickly with it. The pieces of rope fell on the floor, leaving Nagi's wrists free - and at the next moment the knife was taken from Tomo's hand.

"Sharp." Nagi's delicate finger probed the blade carefully. "What do you think if I stick it in the belly of the first fat asshole who'll come here to fuck me?"

Tomo felt going pale; if such a thing happened - he would be blamed, for he'd brought the knife here ... But how could he prevent Nagi from doing it?

"Give it back ... give it back to me ... " His voice was so weak that it disgusted him - and Tomo could right feel that it didn't have any impact. Nagi laughed. For a moment Tomo could swear there was something in this laughter that shouldn't have been there - something insane; and then the sound changed, turning into warm, almost kind.

"You're really something, Tomo. Don't take everything so seriously."

Nagi dropped the knife without any interest and now, when the danger was gone, Tomo suddenly thought that he would understand if Nagi fulfilled his threat. How would anyone bear what was in store for Nagi - and did he even know the extent of his misery? How would Nagi bear it - a person like him, coddled, cherished, admired at the court - when other men, different from the Shogun, would come to take him?

It would be agony, he thought - and a sudden wish flooded him, unexplainable, that there was something that could spare Nagi from this fate. If only he could do anything to spare Nagi ...

The thought had no logic; he, Tomo, decided a long time ago he wouldn't care for anyone in his life, just couldn't afford it. And anyway - even in his wildest fantasies he still had to stretch his imagination too far to think he could affect anyone destiny, still less the one of the Shogun's lover.

Nagi untwined the chain in his hands - a thin golden thing made of plaited threads, with a small pendant dangling on it. He held it in front of himself, as it swayed, catching the light, turning into a sparkle of red flame - and then put it around his neck. And only when it was on his chest, Tomo finally discerned what the pendant was.

He could read only kana - and not even all of them - but this kanji he recognized perfectly. Perhaps there was hardly anyone who wouldn't recognize it. 'Shi'; a sign of death, lying peacefully in the hollow between Nagi's collarbones.

"If I kept it on," Nagi said misunderstanding Tomo's stare, "they would rip it off, surely. People are so superstitious."

Tomo didn't consider himself superstitious - had to stop being superstitious, or sleeping in the dead boy's room would've driven him mad. But this thing on Nagi's neck made him feel creepy, made him feel as if a goose stepped on his grave.

"Does ... does the Shogun make you wear it?"

He didn't know why he asked it. Nagi giggled.

"The old bastard? He would have a cow if he saw this thing. No, it's my sign. It's my lucky charm."

How could death sign be lucky, Tomo wondered but found himself unable to continue the topic.

"All right," Nagi said lightly. "It's time to make myself beautiful again, don't you think so?"

Tomo didn't have time to answer as Nagi reached to the torn rags clinging to his back and pulled on them. His cry sounded in unison with Tomo's.

"What are you doing? Are you crazy?" He didn't realize he was near to Nagi, capturing the boy's wrists. "It stuck!"

The eyes with scarlet glitters in them were so close, looking at him from under those enormous eyelashes - and Tomo gasped and moved away quickly, amazed and shaken with what he saw in Nagi's eyes - or thought he saw.

"I've noticed it stuck," Nagi said mockingly.

"You need to ... you need water to make it come off."

"Very well." Nagi spoke contentedly now, the traces of pain gone from his voice. "Where can I take a bath? My hair is all sweaty, too."

Tomo winced; in fact he hoped he could just bring some water upstairs - but Nagi didn't seem willing to put up with it. So, a bath it would be.

The o-furo was placed in the basement, with cold water led right there, dripping in a thin trickle constantly. For hot water one had to heat it in the kitchen and then place buckets on an elevator platform that went from there to the basement. The thing had been built in the time of the Master's father and was considered very convenient, almost luxurious; but it didn't make Tomo like it more.

He sometimes thought he would prefer walking dirty than going down there, would put up somehow with the smell his clients left on him - and he hated bad smells, they made him sick. But his fear was stronger than anything else, stronger even than self-loathing - the fear of this place with moldy stone walls and always icy air, with the dark ceiling where the shadows cast from a candle seemed to have their own life, to rush and swirl without any regard to what the objects casting them did.

Tomo knew of course it was not the stones or the shadows he was afraid of - but rather his memories; and he remembered it hadn't always been so, that going to the basement sent him into a fit of clenching panic, making him want to curl on the floor like a small animal and pretend dead. But now as he descended in front of Nagi, the candle trembled in his hand so hard that hot wax dripped on his fingers. He felt the walls crowd on him when he was still on the upper steps of the stairs - and by the time he was down, he felt like he almost couldn't breathe. And even though he knew for sure there was Nagi behind him, could hear the boy's light steps, he still was about to believe it was heavier tread of Bakurou he heard.

"Oh wow! That's one posh place!"

Nagi's voice sounded incongruously cheerful. But it did what Tomo couldn't manage during the last moments - it broke the spell. Bakurou was not here; was not going to be here if Tomo latched the door. He did it with almost quiet hands, and then pulled the elevator platform down, picked up a bucket carefully, poured it to the o-furo. Steam raised over the water and went down as the temperature settled.

"It's ready," Tomo said softly, checking the water with his hand.

He watched Nagi shift, strangely mesmerized with how Nagi's movements combined grace and painful carefulness in them. The boy reached for his robe and then recalled he'd better leave it, just moved the flaps away to sit on the wooden steps.

The lines of his ass and thighs were so smooth and clean. The welts only went till the small of Nagi's back, leaving the rest of his body intact - and the skin was so white it almost seemed glowing. His pubic hair was not removed completely, Tomo noticed, but trimmed neatly, in a shape of some kanji, or so it seemed to Tomo, but it wasn't "shi" this time, and Tomo couldn't read it.

He caught himself on staring at Nagi's groin and at his lightly pink cock and smooth balls - and shook himself back to reality, felt ashamed with the insistence of his gaze. Nagi didn't seem to mind, though, moved fluidly sitting down.

"So, will you help me?" he asked.

Tomo nodded; he suddenly wasn't sure that his voice wouldn't tremble if he said something. With Nagi sitting on the steps, he took handfuls of water and poured it carefully on Nagi's back. The thin cloth of the shirt soaked, the bloody welts opening again. He heard Nagi groan slightly as pink water ran over his sides, and the sound, obviously of pain, still had a strange trembling note in it that could almost turn it to a moan of pleasure. Tomo frowned unconsciously thinking about it; he had imitated sounds of pleasure many times, making his clients believe he enjoyed it while it only hurt. But Nagi didn't need to do it now, did he?

"Does it hurt very much?"

"Ah?" Nagi's dark head raised, his shoulder-blades rippling slightly as he moved his shoulders. "No. Not particularly."

The line of his neck, even when his head was sagged like this, was full of grace, Tomo thought with a pang of sadness and envy. What was there about Nagi that he could wear his injuries, even so marring as those thick welts were, with such elegance? Unable to resist, he followed sloping collarbones with his gaze. His eyes stopped on the chain again, reminding Tomo what a pendant Nagi wore, making him feel uneasy.

He asked almost without thinking, just to get distracted from the thoughts of Nagi's body and his very closeness - just to reach Nagi in the young man's own distant concentration.

"Who whipped you? The Shogun?"

For a moment he felt frightened with his own audacity and waited with a bated breath - but Nagi just shook his head, making his soft hair brush against his cheeks, laughed unkindly.

"My father."


"At the Shogun's order." Nagi's eyes looked right in Tomo's now, smiling and widened with pain, red flickers in expanded pupils brighter than before - and a moment later Nagi's hand raised and touched a strand of Tomo's hair. "And he was also really pissed off because of me making him lose his face ... Like he hadn't lost it years ago."

A part of Tomo's mind felt amazed with this thought. Nagi's father ... the boy had a father! Well, of course, it shouldn't have been so surprising - it was likely normal - normal for anyone outside their little house. Tomo himself didn't remember his parents, nothing at all about them. Only in his fantasies he met them again, rejoined with them, being a strong and rich man, finding out what kind of disaster made them part ...

"It must have been terrible for him," he said quietly. "For your father ... to whip you."

A hand on his hair clenched suddenly - so hard that Tomo gasped in pain. Nagi kept looking at him - as the hand pulled, making Tomo tilt his head down, move even closer to Nagi to look in the black-with-red eyes. Tomo saw pink lips move, part in words, part in a smile.

"Yes, Tomo. Very terrible, indeed."

There was almost as much mockery in his eyes as there was compassion, and Tomo frowned seeing it, finding Nagi's expression unexplainable. The pull on his hair became unbearable for a moment - and then Nagi let him go.

"You don't love him," Tomo said unexpectedly. He was probably crazy, saying all these things. But it seemed there was nothing unexpected in his words for Nagi.

"No, I don't. I don't love anyone," he added. "Anyone except for my goddess."

Goddess? Tomo almost felt like asking more and bit his tongue. Enough; he already babbled like mad, what Nagi would think about him?

"Be ready," he said instead. "I'm going to pull it off."

He saw Nagi's hands clenched on the steps, knuckles going white - and then he peeled the bloody rags off his back. The remnants of the robe were well soaked, went off without any effort.

"Thanks," Nagi said with a sigh - and slipped to the o-furo. His face sharpened, his nostrils flared as the water stung on his welts - but otherwise he didn't make a sound more, keeping his eyes close.

"Wait ... " Tomo started, wanted to say Nagi was not clean enough yet to get to the tub - but had no time for it. The trickles of red dissolved in the water, turning it bright pink.

Tomo felt very sick suddenly, unable to look at it. All his fears that helping Nagi and conversation with him seemed to tuck away temporarily were coming back to him. The red water - it bothered him not for all the cases that Tomo's own blood colored it red, after whatever Bakurou had done to him. But for one that special time when Bakurou had dumped him into the o-furo - and there, on the bottom, Tomo found a headless body of his little striped kitten.

He'd never tried to have pets since then.

He didn't need these memories ... Tomo felt very cold, wanted out of here desperately, to be as far from the basement as it was possible, to hide and curl in his room. A splash on the water seemed distant at first, as if a sound from another world - and slowly Tomo came back to his senses. Nagi cursed softly, trying to pour water on his head and quivering in pain.

Tomo looked at the boy for a few moments, not quite understanding what Nagi did.

"Fuck, I can't even wash my head because of these welts ... "

"Let me," Tomo heard himself saying. "I'll do it."

He found himself mesmerized - with the softness of Nagi's hair, with the sweet smell rising from it, even though Nagi had complained it was dirty. He must have had some special soap and oils in the palace, Tomo thought, something that could make his hair feel like silk. Tomo's own hair, too long for his own good, was usually knotted after washing, making it a bitch to comb it in the morning, not to mention after the bath.

The water ran over Tomo's hands, pleasantly warm, and Nagi's head was warm, too, his hair like seaweed through Tomo's fingers. It felt actually nice, Tomo thought, to do it, to touch Nagi like this. Did Nagi enjoy it as well? He stopped this thought quickly because he couldn't be sure about the answer. But wouldn't it be nice to have someone wash your hair? He cast a sidelong gaze at Nagi, noticed the boy's eyes shadowed with huge eyelashes, as if in thoughtfulness.

A hand clasped on Tomo's wrist suddenly, almost making him jump - and Nagi's eyes were not closed any more but staring at his, with intent expression in them. Tomo felt somehow ashamed, as if caught on doing something improper, felt like looking away from these eyes. Then Nagi smiled.

"You're cute, Tomo." The voice was drawling, almost a purr. "I think I'll enjoy my stay here."

Enjoy?! How the hell could he enjoy it? The shock made Tomo outraged, made him glare at the boy; Nagi's smiling eyes were serene as he leaned in the o-furo lopsidedly, relaxing.

"You know what, Tomo? I feel almost clean - but I don't have any good clothes."

Tomo nodded his understanding and rushed upstairs. He wondered what happened to him that he did it so eagerly - he usually found it a nuisance to walk up to the second floor. But there was something in Nagi - something that made running errands for him a joy.

The house was quiet; the boys were apparently in their rooms, preparing themselves for the visitors, and the Master stopped wailing finally. In the corridor, already at Nagi's room, Tomo felt a gaze on himself and turned back quickly, anxious not to let Bakurou catch him unawares. It wasn't the man, though - just Iku, standing in the doorway of his own room, looking at Tomo with his huge, wetly glimmering eyes. A pang of remorse Tomo felt was almost instinctive, before he had time to think. For God's sake, what made him burn the fuckin' book? As if he didn't know what a value it must have been for the boy ...

Well, of course, he had done it exactly because he knew what it meant for Iku. Spotting things that were dear to others and ruining them ... one would wonder where Tomo could learn it, huh? He almost had an impulse to say he was sorry, even turned for it - when Iku, giving him one more impossibly sad glance, turned away and disappeared in his room.

It didn't matter, Tomo thought; he didn't want Iku to forgive him - he didn't want anything from Iku. And he had things to do.

In the middle of Nagi's room, there was a trunk - someone must have brought it while they were away - and somehow Tomo wasn't surprised with it; it was more like he expected it to be there. He knelt, pushed the heavy lid up, and saw a rainbow of materials inside.

The silks were so fine and of such bright colors he was hypnotized with their beauty for a while. There was no rich embroidery on the kimonos, so, Tomo realized the garments had to be considered simple - but they didn't look like that at all. He dipped his hands in the clothes, felt his hand brush against something hard.

A mask; porcelain, beautifully painted one, with blue lines around the eyes and golden powder on the temples. The lower part of the mask was cut off, and Tomo wondered, unable to figure out what it was for. He put the mask away for now, searching for clothes for Nagi.

The task of going through the kimonos, lacing them through his fingers, turned out almost irresistibly fascinating - and Tomo didn't realize at once how he was drawn into it. Blue, or scarlet, or green - which one? Finally he found one that must have been perfect. Lilac.

It would make Nagi's eyes seem purple, he told himself rushing back downstairs. Taking the kimono from his hands, Nagi gave Tomo an appraising look, then glanced at the cloth again.

"You have taste, little one."

These were just small words, without any deep meaning - but Tomo felt ridiculously pleased with this praise, felt blushing. He hadn't blushed for ages by now, thought he'd forgotten how to do it even.

Back in Nagi's room, he looked at the position of the sun, thinking there still was some time.

"I'll bring you something to eat."

"Only if you eat with me."

The friendliness of Nagi's gaze was almost dizzying. Tomo walked down, grabbed all the food he could find and brought it back upstairs. He wondered what Nagi would say, about this skimpy meal - but Nagi just sat down on his heels, nodding shortly.


Tomo barely knew what he was eating - couldn't help staring all the time at Nagi. Tomo couldn't explain how it happened - how he found himself fascinated with the other boy's every motion, every ripple of Nagi's muscles as he reached for something on their improvised table. Nagi's way of eating was not even particularly dainty, more like he didn't care what he chewed - but even that Tomo found enchanting.

Enchanting? He frowned at his own absurd thoughts, at his swirl of emotions. Tomo's chest heaved - and the dry cough that seemed to have left him after the morning returned now.

He turned away, shielding his face with hair, trying to suppress the cough. Nagi's gaze was attentive - Tomo could feel it on himself even without looking, as Nagi waited patiently for him to stop coughing.

"Are you sick?" There was no usual irritation in Nagi's voice that people normally showed in such cases - rather interest.

"No," he shook his head. "Just caught a cold or something."

He saw Nagi nod carelessly, push the plate away and get up on his feet in one fluid motion. When Nagi was sitting, he was fascinating to look at, Tomo thought. When in motion, Nagi was irresistible.

He bent down gracefully, picking up the mask and putting it over his face, shielding the upper part of it. The mask was beautiful - but still less than Nagi himself was, Tomo thought anxiously, watching how Nagi's thin fingers patted the porcelain. A sudden memory of this hand on his wrist was scalding, washing over him with shocking intensity.

"See, he doesn't want them to know whom they fuck," Nagi giggled.

"Who?" Tomo asked dumbly.

"Shogun Tokugawa, of course. He wants me back, after all. But he did take care to leave my mouth available."

Nagi's little finger brushed over his lips, and Tomo shivered again. It wasn't right, it couldn't be meant like that; he couldn't explain it why his heart ached so much at Nagi's words. Of course, Nagi's mouth had to be available - like every whore's in this house: every entrance of their bodies had to serve the pleasure of the customers. But Nagi was special, wasn't he?

Nagi was special; and not just because he belonged to the Shogun.

This thought was almost rebellious, and Tomo flinched slightly when realizing it. But Nagi made a few silky dancing motions in front of him - and he forgot what he thought about.

"I could've become a great actor," he said, taking off the mask. "If I wanted to. I could've become anyone I want. I have a special destiny, you know."

Strange; it was almost exactly what Tomo had thought just a minute ago - and yet now, when Nagi said it, he felt like taking it with a grain of salt. Special destiny ... this night the men who'd visit him wouldn't think so. Tomo didn't say anything, though, just waited.

"You wonder why I chose to be the Shogun's bitch then?" Was there something in Tomo's eyes that he didn't manage to hide? He trembled at this thought - and at Nagi's words that he'd used. A bitch ... Why would he call it like this? "But who said I'd stay in this position? I already mean for the Shogun more than any of his advisors. They can be replaced - and I can't."

It was true, Tomo thought all of a sudden. Of course, he didn't know for sure - but he found himself believing Nagi's words.

"I have the power over the Shogun - a spell on him. He belongs to me - always will belong to me. Anything else can change - but I'll stay the best courtesan ever born."

Nagi's words sounded so proud - but Tomo had to admit they must have been true. And yet what the boy had said about his power over the Shogun ...

It was dangerous to say that, wasn't it? Everyone knew the Shogun was paranoid, had people executed for less than such words. Nagi must have been mad, saying this to him ... Mad thoughts, mad words - mad was the word that fitted Nagi somehow, Tomo realized. Charming lunatic.

"You think what I say is crazy?" As Nagi's eyes laughed, Tomo found himself unable to answer, just stammered something incoherent - and knew the other boy still understood. "I can read everything on your face, Tomo." A touch on his cheek was brief as if a butterfly's wing touched him - and yet electrifying, making Tomo tremble. "But don't worry. Nothing can happen to me."

Something can happen to me, for listening to you, Tomo thought wryly - but it was a distant thought, a token one.

"I have a guide that leads me," Nagi continued, his eyes aglow, and Tomo felt he equally couldn't look away from the boy as he couldn't stop listening to Nagi's words. "When I was a little boy, my mother took me to a holy man. He said I would reach the highest power. He said the goddess watched over me - and that I was her chosen, her beloved. I have a sign on my forehead, see?"

Tomo saw the soft strands of Nagi's hair part on his forehead, looked at the perfectly white skin there and shook his head cautiously.

"It's all right," Nagi said, "you aren't supposed to see it. But the other sign anyone could see - this one." His hand touched "shi" on his neck, clenched on the golden pendant for a moment. "It's her I'm devoted to. She takes care of me."

"She ... " In a way it wasn't a question - Tomo already knew what Nagi meant, no matter how little he wanted to think about it.

"She," Nagi echoed easily, a smile making his face warm and sweet. "Death. She's my keeper - and I belong to her. She guides my way and gives me power - that's why I'm not afraid. The Shogun - well, who cares for the Shogun?"

* * *

A man sucked on his tongue as his hands roamed under Tomo's kimono, pinching a nipple, groping the genitals. Wiggling on the man's lap, Tomo made soft sounds of feigned pleasure - sighs and gasps. The man's hard cock rubbed against his opening through the clothes. Tomo knew the client must have understood he pretended, with Tomo's limp cock in his hand - but there were few customers who ever cared about it.

Tomo smiled as the man broke the kiss - a smile that was intended to be seductive, just as his gesture he shook his long hair with, almost brushing the man's knees with the strands, was supposed to make him enticing. Tomo knew it worked as the man breathed harder and his hands on Tomo's body worked more eagerly. Tomo just hoped his face was animated enough, showed involvement - even as his mind was pretty far away.

He thought of Nagi again, of their stupid conversation and Nagi's crazy ideas of his goddess.

"If you belong to her, why aren't you dead then?" Tomo asked. He didn't know why he wanted so much to find a flaw in Nagi's reasoning - but somehow he found it important.

"Stupid!" Nagi couldn't be more beautiful than at the moment, when his eyes laughed, narrowed. "I can't die. She keeps me. Nothing can happen to me ... at least not for a long, long time.

"You know when the Shogun found out about my affair with that ambassador," he continued with a giggle. "If it were anyone else - he just would kill him. But he can't kill me. He'll take me back, in a few days - you'll see. He can't stay without me for long. I have him wrapped around my little finger."

At the moment when Nagi said it, his soft hands raised like white wings - Tomo did believe it. But when in the lounge, he saw Nagi's name on the board - and the price - and the first customers came up to the Master, asking questions ... his belief faltered in a major way.

The Master, beautiful as ever in his flowing robes and with his eyes of a frightened deer, was just a little too pale after his suffering by day. He smiled and explained something - Tomo couldn't hear what; maybe, he said Nagi was on probation, that's why the price was so low. And as Tomo got his first customer, there already were men coming up to Nagi's room.

He felt the man's kisses on his face, heard the customer's panting breath - but the truth was Tomo was listening to something else - to the creaking of the door in Nagi's room. He'd spent enough time in the house to be able to discern the sounds.

The tips of Tomo's fingers caressed the man's temples absently. Hopefully he was not that big, Tomo thought, trying to assess the cock under him - since there was no sake this time to make him go through it easily; the man was mean or a non-drinker. A kiss became rough, painful, nearly making his lips bleed - and then the man backed away and said:

"Hirofumi-sensei sends regards to you."

The meaning of the words didn't settle immediately. There probably was no thing that Tomo would expect less at the moment - and for a little while he just stared at the client expressionlessly. He needed it to be repeated; he was dumb, wasn't he?

"What did you say, sir?"

He intended his voice to sound sweet - but suddenly found his throat dry, and all that came from him was just a rustle. An irritation mixed with arousal appeared on the man's face.

"No wonder you didn't hear - you look like you were somewhere else. I said Hirofumi-sensei recommended you to me."

And now there could be no mistake; the name resounded in Tomo's ears with painful clarity - and he suddenly wanted not to hear it, to close his ears and push out of his mind the very thought of it.

Why? Why now? It'd been two years - and he spent them almost without thinking about Hirofumi-sensei. He could've lived his life so well without thinking about him ever again!

He reeled like with a blow - and the man grabbed his arms brutally, pulled him closer. Yet the pain from the forming bruises the man's fingers were sure to leave did nothing to change the pain that flared inside Tomo. Hirofumi-sensei ... Why ...

The gentle face behind wire-rimmed glasses, wide short-sighted eyes that became so vulnerable when Tomo pulled the glasses off of him ... He'd thought he'd forgotten this face pretty well - but now his memory prompted him the picture without any difficulty, the features so recognizable, so real and close ...

Tomo moaned; the man's hand that groped over his ribs, pinching his skin, intensified its painful movements; the client probably decided Tomo enjoyed it. But physical pain seemed to hover somewhere on the brink of Tomo's consciousness. There were so many memories ... Tomo didn't want them, but he also couldn't expel them.

"I love how you smile, Tomo-chan. Smile for me."

Hirofumi-sensei's voice ... And unsure hands, soft and warm, roaming over Tomo's body carefully, exploring it slowly. Soft lips half-opened, waiting for a kiss. A tormented gasp as Tomo's mouth wraps around his cock - the fluttering sounds Hirofumi made when approaching the orgasm.

He was so beautiful, Hirofumi-sensei. A spirit, not a man of flesh and blood.

Two years ago, Tomo was still Bakurou's thing - the man still didn't start losing interest in him, still looked for every way to hurt him. And he made sure Tomo's clients were the roughest possibly accepted in the house. Hirofumi was different; Hirofumi was different from anyone.

He said Tomo was his first, said he'd always been interested in boys - but tried to struggle with it, married ... His wife died, before he managed to make her unhappy. He asked Tomo to show him what to do. And Tomo did show.

Later Hirofumi always chose Tomo; it was almost like they were more than a customer and a client, like there was more than money and sex between them. And of course, there was. They talked; they had meals together; Hirofumi brought him sweets and liked to put them to Tomo's mouth, feel Tomo's tongue sweep around his fingers. It was Hirofumi who taught Tomo to read. They went almost through all the kana, just a few more were left - but as it happened, they never finished - and later Tomo could never bring himself to returning to it.

Hirofumi brought him a toy - a carved wooden horse - the only toy Tomo ever remembered having. Surely by then Tomo was already way too old for having toys - but he still liked it so much, liked running his fingers over the polished sides of it and delicate carving of the mane. He hid it from Bakurou under his mattress for two weeks - and then, unable to bear the thought that Bakurou would eventually find it, remembering what he'd done to Tomo's kitten, he burned it himself.

He remembered the night as well, when he lay hugging the pillow, listening to the gentle pattering of the rain outside and watched Hirofumi wipe his glasses clean. Tomo was always fascinated with his glasses, tried them on, liking how the world became strangely blurry around him. He remembered how Hirofumi-sensei said:

"I'm leaving for Osaka next week. My father wants me to continue my education. He pays for everything."

Tomo remembered not quite understanding at first, just asking:

"When will you come back?"

He reached to Hirofumi's playfully - as the man shook his head.

"I don't know. Maybe, in four, five years."

Four, five years ... It couldn't be ... It was unthinkable! The feeling of well-being gone completely, Tomo sat up and stared at Hirofumi widely, couldn't say anything. It was Hirofumi who said quietly, in a heartbroken voice:

"I can't bear to leave you, Tomo-chan."

And these were the words that cracked something in Tomo, made him react. He was on the man's lap, working furiously, trying his best to make Hirofumi interested, to please him - his palms cupping Hirofumi's face, as Tomo whispered hastily:

"But you don't have to leave me, sensei!"

And as Hirofumi's body started melting under his ministrations, sadness left the man's eyes just slowly.

"You don't understand, Tomo-chan."

"You can take me with you."

It was so easy, wasn't it? Hirofumi would pay the ransom for him, he did say his father was paying. So, he could take Tomo with him to Osaka ... and then there would be no more Bakurou, no more sadistic clients, no nights that left Tomo worn out and hurting all over ... Just Hirofumi, the man's gentle hands and careful touches and pleasant smell of his hair ... It would be so good, wouldn't it?

Hirofumi didn't say anything, entering Tomo; but after he finished, he sighed and explained that he couldn't, his father wouldn't understand his affair with a boy.

"You can dress me like a girl," Tomo suggested stupidly.

He tried so hard; he begged - knelt in front of Hirofumi, kissing his hands and feet. He cried; at first Hirofumi tried to wipe his tears - and then there was so much of them that he gave up. Tomo promised he would serve the man all his life, would earn his living, promised that he didn't eat much. It seemed to him he just had to make one little push and everything would be all right.

That was when he said the words. He didn't know for sure but he heard stories - stories where these words always worked perfectly.

"I love you," he said. And as Hirofumi's eyes became defenseless, Tomo rejoiced, thinking that he won. "I love you, sensei."

Finally Hirofumi said he would think it over. There was still time till his leaving. Only after he walked away that night, Tomo didn't see him again since then.

"Where ... where is he?"

Brutal twisting of his body in the man's hands reminded him about the presence of his client, yanked him out of the memories. The man raised his head from Tomo's chest.

"Where is he supposed to be? In Osaka. I've just come from there this month."

Harsh disappointment flooded Tomo, washing away all his hopes that turned out to be raised suddenly, just in those split seconds. As if he thought Hirofumi-sensei could really be somewhere near, in the next room - waiting to make a surprise for him. Unable to look at the man, Tomo turned away unhappily, biting his lip, looking instead at their joined shadows on the wall.

"He described you like you're really something," the man said. "But so far I'm not that impressed."

It was getting risky; it the client left unsatisfied, he would complain to the Master - and then Tomo would have to deal with Bakurou ... He didn't think he could bear this thought. He smiled ingratiatingly, moving his hips, rubbing his anus against the man's cock through the thin cloth of the kimono. The man grunted.

"You're a bit skinny for my liking ... but let's see how you taste."

The client's teeth clamped on Tomo's nipple, too hard for comfort - and he couldn't suppress a gasping sound. The man smiled lopsidedly, a trace of Tomo's blood on his teeth.

"Tastes good. Turn over, bitch."

When the man couldn't look at his face any more, it became easier. Tomo recognized the routine movements as his kimono was yanked off, fortunately not too rough to tear it, as he was flung down, on his fours. He raised his ass habitually, moved his knees apart to make the room for the man and gripped on the sheet as the man slammed inside. The thrust was savage, and the pain was bad - but at the moment Tomo was glad to feel it. At least it could make him stop thinking of Hirofumi.

"Tomo-chan ... "

A sob was caught in his mouth and then a cough came, probably triggered by an inconvenient position. With an effort, Tomo tried to stifle it, pushed strands of his hair in his mouth to stop it - but dry fits still racked him.

He couldn't hope the man wouldn't notice. First the hands tweaking Tomo's nipples stopped, then the frictions came to a halt.

"Can't you stop coughing?" The voice was clearly displeased. Tomo tried even harder, choking on his own hair, until there were tears blurring in his eyes - and finally had to shake his head. "You're a waste of money," the man said.

But he finished what he started, his thrusts rough and deep and his fingers clawing in Tomo's body - and then he made Tomo clean his cock with his tongue, in compensation for a ruined fucking. It wasn't so bad, Tomo had done it before - there was barely anything that he hadn't done; and it wasn't the taste or the man's hands yanking on his hair that bothered him.

Hirofumi ...

The only one whom Tomo had ever said 'I love you' - and he was pretty sure he would never say it again.

* * *

When the man left, he still felt shell-shocked and weak. It wasn't his body aching from being taken brutally - but something inside him, and Tomo writhed blindly, seeking a remedy for this pain. If he could just be left alone for a while ... If he could just stay here and rest, hear nothing, feel nothing. He reached his hand and found the soft fur with his fingers - Nagi's cloak. He wanted to pull it to his face and bury himself in this warmth and softness.

But he knew his duties; the client had left - he had to go down for another one.

Cold water that he used to wash the man's sperm from his thighs and out of his opening made him chilly. The lounge still was lit brightly but the first current of clients went down, leaving just a few of them making out with the boys there. One man was alone - and as Tomo struggled to put on a seductive smile, making himself presentable, he suddenly recognized who it was.

The General; but he did say he would come to check on Nagi, right?

A bottle of sake in front of the man was almost empty as he turned it over - and at the moment the servant was next to him, exchanging it with another. The man made a sip; his gaze was empty, and suddenly Tomo realized it was by far not his first bottle.

He needed a company, did he? Making few gliding strolls towards the man, he suddenly met the Master's eyes, saw a brief movement of the delicate hand. The whisper against his ear was barely audible, the Master's voice reedy and confused:

"He said he didn't want anyone."

Well, maybe, it was to the better. But as Tomo settled in the corner, waiting for anyone else to come, he found his eyes drawn to the General more often than he wanted, counting the emptied bottles of sake despite his will. The man was drinking ... like he wanted to drink himself senseless. Only sake didn't affect him at all, changed nothing in the sharp features of his face, his shadowed eyes under heavy lids.

The eyes were calm; or were they? As the General seemed to watch everyone going down, following them with his stare - and as he looked from time to time at the board, with Nagi's name on it - something changed in his gaze.

He's checking, Tomo reminded himself; he's just checking.

How many clients had visited Nagi by now? He didn't know - but the General probably did. And it must have been Tomo's fantasy and his own anguish, the memories he didn't welcome, that made him feel suddenly as if he could feel for the General, could sense the man's worry, well-hidden and even more acute because of it.

Sometimes it happened to Tomo - that he imagined things so vividly they seemed to have life of their own. And now, just like this, he seemed to be able to see the anxiety and torment emanating from the General - just as he could feel everyone's torment here: the Master's, the boys', alive and dead, Nagi's, his own ... This torment ... he could feel it gather and swell hugely, filling this place - and suddenly he imagined that one moment it would just become too much, and then the walls would collapse, burying them all under the wrecks.

The General raised from his place heavily and walked up to the Master.

"Shogun Tokugawa will be quite satisfied with you following his orders."

* * *

The memories weakened Tomo worse than a hangover would. In the morning, he woke up reluctantly and turned on his side, curled tighter under the blanket, unwilling to get up. The rest of the last night was a blur, two more men he had to serve - and he didn't even remember if he thought about Hirofumi during that; he felt so numb inside - the numbness that was heavy and cold like a stone.

I won't think about him any more, Tomo thought huddling; I'm not going to wear myself out over him. But he did think, of course.

He started when hearing the door open, panicked at once at the thought that it could be Bakurou. Why couldn't the man leave him alone, just for a while - even if Tomo slept a little longer today? But there was no kick, no brutal yank on his hair - as the habit of Bakurou was - and the steps were too light, approaching his futon.

"How long are you going to sleep? Don't we take a bath today?"

Nagi. Tomo didn't want to see the older boy; the truth was he didn't want to see anyone at all. With only half-turn Tomo muttered, gathering the hair over his face:

"Go alone. You know where it is."

"No way. You have to wait on me."

"I told you I don't wait on you!" He lost his temper, started angry but finished in a whine - and hated himself for it. What did they all do in his life? Why couldn't they just leave him alone?

"Get up."

It sounded like an order but it was said softly - and the hand that touched his shoulder was impossibly gentle. As if hypnotized, Tomo turned, facing Nagi - and his eyes went wide.

He didn't know what he expected to see. Well, Nagi's night must have been like hell, with all those men who'd used him - it must have left some traces. And still his face, just paler than before, was as beautiful and glowing as ever.

"Come on." Nagi squatted at Tomo's futon, smiling. "Let's go. I can't stand this smell on me a minute more."

And I can, Tomo thought bitterly; no problem.

But he did need to take a bath today, or the clients could complain. So, he dragged himself out of bed and felt like he would gladly not to part with the blanket. Nagi beamed.

"I even put the water on the stove."

What? Tomo stopped, making Nagi stumble against him. The courtesan really meant it? Really raised the buckets with those baby-soft hands of his?

"You truly want this bath, don't you?" he grumbled finally. A giggle Nagi made had an edge in it - but everything in Nagi had an edge. And the truth was Tomo himself felt like he was about to trip over.

Anything just not to think about Hirofumi ...

"Go down," on the first floor he delayed. "I'll put the buckets to the elevator."

He moved one of them to the platform when hearing the steps behind him - and this time Tomo knew whom the steps belonged and didn't have time to do anything.

A push threw him forward, making him catch the ropes of the elevator and stare in horror at the boiling water splashing out of the bucket on the platform. Bakurou's hand pressed on his nape hard.

"What? Enjoying your assignment too much?"

Tomo didn't know what to say to these words - usually didn't know what to say to Bakurou's accusations at all; and nearly everything Bakurou said could sound like accusation, at least in regard with Tomo.

"How's the Shogun's bitch? Did you already fuck him?"

Ridiculousness of these words was obvious - and Tomo kept silent again, or rather, tried to keep silent, because Bakurou's hard fingers hurt him beyond his tolerance. With Tomo's hair wrapped around his hand, Bakurou pulled so hard Tomo felt sick. A ragged cry that flew from his lips seemed to be not what Bakurou wanted.

"Be careful, kitten. The slut won't do you any good."

And did you ever do me any good, a rebellious thought crept to Tomo's mind. Did anyone do me any good?

He paid for this thought, even not verbalized, with harsh pain that pierced his scalp as Bakurou yanked again. Tomo's hands barely brushed over the man's skin as he reached involuntarily, desperate to relieve the pressure.

"Don't you resist me." A whisper against his ear was hot but made him shiver. "And when I talk to you, kitten, you are to listen. Or ... "

A sudden shove - and Tomo was bent forward, over the bucket of water, feeling scalding steam on his face. His lungs burned as he gasped, his face wet with condensed water momentarily. He couldn't breathe, it was too hot - but the feeling of a merciless hand pushing him lower was even worse.

"D'you want to wash your pretty face?" Bakurou hissed behind him. "It'll pass for an accident, Kenji-sama won't need to know anything."

The only thing that saved Tomo so far was his fingernails clawing on the ropes as he resisted Bakurou's pushing, with all his strength. But Tomo knew he wouldn't be able to do it for long - and then ... So, that was how it all was supposed to end. He would be lucky if he would be dead after that, wouldn't have to live with his face like ...

Aki, the boy whose room Nagi occupied now - Tomo remembered him - remembered his screams: he'd overturned a bucket of scalding water on his feet. And before he was taken away, Tomo remembered flakes of red and white skin peeling from the boy's feet.

Perhaps it wasn't an accident, he thought for the first time. Perhaps Aki had done something that angered Bakurou.

"Please ... " Steam was burning his lips and his tongue. "Please, sir ... "

"Kiss your beauty good-bye," Bakurou said.

And at that moment - another sound of steps, a short gasp - and suddenly the hand was gone from his neck, yanked out of his hair. Tomo backed away from the bucket hastily, catching the air - and heard Iku's lilting voice saying quickly:

"Bakurou-sama, Bakurou-sama, the Master wants to see you ... "

God bless the boy ... With his eyes blurring, feeling dizzy, Tomo caught the air greedily. Bakurou stood with his arms crossed, panting hard. He didn't move, though, as Tomo scrambled past him out of the kitchen - and only Tomo was almost out of reach, a word caught on him, almost making him stumble.


Of course; Tomo felt his lips curve in a helpless, nearly hysterical smile. Later.

Wiping his wet face with a sleeve, he almost ran to the basement, latched the door behind him with shaking hands. Nagi was sitting on the edge of the o-furo, playing with the water filling it. He didn't move to the elevator, so, Tomo walked up and pulled the lever.

His movements were still too out of control. The motion happened to be too abrupt, and the platform swayed dangerously. Still will get that water on myself, Tomo thought - and then a hand lay on his, steadying, stopping the swaying. The hand was surprisingly strong.

"Shh." The whisper against his ear was soft and cool, and Tomo suddenly thought he could almost feel Nagi's lips touching his ear. Just like a few minutes ago Bakurou nearly touched him - but nothing else was similar between these touches. "Easy, easy."

The fingers intertwined with his, lowering the platform. Nagi stood very close behind him, Tomo could feel it - the young man's body almost pressed against his. So close ... Nagi simply helped him, didn't he? Which was certainly nice of him ... And what made Tomo's thoughts mess up like this? The softness of Nagi's skin ... soft as if Nagi was not a young man but a woman - or a little boy ...

"Did you already fuck the bitch ..."

Bakurou's voice resurfaced in his memory, sounding in dissonance - and the words were hideous, absurd. Nagi wasn't a bitch ... He, Tomo, had been Bakurou's bitch for three years - but Nagi was different ...

"What's wrong with you?" Nagi said. "You're shivering."


He turned abruptly, walked away from the contact - as if saving himself, as if running from some real threat.

"Hey!" Nagi's voice turned peevish. "I heated two buckets! There's only one."

I'm not going to go up for the other, Tomo thought defensively. He met Nagi's gaze darkly, ready to argue, if necessary. But Nagi just shrugged and said:

"Let's do with one, then."

After him being so nice, what else Tomo could do but to pour the water to the o-furo?

"It's warm."

"Good." Nagi's eyes sparkled again. "I love it warm."

The yukata fell on the floor as Nagi walked up to the o-furo. His welts looked better than yesterday, Tomo thought with relief, surprising himself. There were new traces, though, unmistakable marks of fingernails and bites, angry red on Nagi's porcelain skin. And there was the golden thread of the chain as well, the little golden sign swaying against Nagi's soft chest.

Trying to occupy his hands with something while he couldn't help but cast sidelong glances at Nagi reclining in the o-furo, Tomo picked up the yukata and folded it.

"And you?"

The question made him frown.

"What me?"

"Are you going to wash?"

Nagi's eyes from under already wet strands seemed to glimmer brighter than ever.

He had to wash; Tomo sighed. Perhaps Bakurou wouldn't be in the kitchen when he went there next time.

"Get in."

A wide gesture of Nagi's hand made drops spatter on the floor.

"There's enough place for two, really, Tomo."

It was unreasonable; Tomo didn't want to do it. Or he didn't, truly? And not just because it spared him from another visit to the kitchen. The o-furo was not that big, no matter what Nagi said. Two barely could fit in; he knew it ... Bakurou had a habit of fucking him there.

The thought of the man made him convulse inwardly; why did Bakurou have to invade his thoughts, no matter what else Tomo did? Half a year ago, with Iku's arrival, he stopped belonging to Bakurou ... Why couldn't he then ...

He pushed his hair away from his face angrily and reached for the fastenings of his yukata.

"Good boy." Nagi's lips curved in a smile, his voice a purr. "Come on."

Tomo regretted immediately his decision as he thought of revealing his own nakedness. It shouldn't have been a problem - didn't he undress for four or five men every night? But Nagi, with his beauty and soft lines of his body - what would he think when seeing Tomo - these sticking ribs and pelvic bones? And after seeing Nagi's intricately done pubic hair, Tomo's own groin seemed to him nastily bare, even if it was the rule of the house to remove body hair ...

He marched to the o-furo as fast as he could and dumped inside, pulling his legs up tightly, both to cover himself and to try to be as far from Nagi as possible. Velvety eyes kept staring at him - and it made him want to cover his face. His long hair usually suited for it nicely when Tomo didn't want to see or be seen, so, he pulled the strands over his face and felt a bit better.


Nagi's face, with eyes half-lidded, was tilted up, his voice expectant.

"So?" Tomo repeated dumbly.

"What will you tell me?"

"About ... what?"

"About your life, for example."

There was nothing to tell, actually - and Tomo didn't remember much. Just that before this place he had been in another place, a good one, where he wasn't beaten or hurt badly. And before that there had been a bad place, always cold, and men were rough and too many of them. But nothing much before then. No family, no parents ...

"Tell me about this place."

"The house?"

"The house, the basement. Why are you afraid to be here?"

Surprise made him stare. How did Nagi notice it - he hadn't done anything to reveal himself, Tomo was pretty sure in it. And anyway, he couldn't tell. What about? About that?

"Come on, little shit, give me a good tongue-bath." The man lies on a heavy bench as Tomo kneels next to him, licking Bakurou's hairy thighs and broad belly ... Tomo still could feel this taste in his mouth, still could feel the despair he felt when his mouth got dry like sand, when his jaw ached and he couldn't lick any more - and Bakurou just turned on his belly.

"Keep licking. You don't want to ride the whip, do you?"

Only it ended the same way nevertheless - the handle of the whip forced into him, along with Bakurou's dick, as the man rode him relentlessly, twisting the carved wood inside him.

The memories made him shudder and splash the water convulsively. Tomo stilled carefully, not letting himself move. He was a fool to let himself dwell on it. His hair soaked in the water as he leaned against the edge, looking at Nagi. The boy looked expectant.

"Many years ago," Tomo said, "there was a plague. And everyone was ill, no one could bury the dead - so, they put corpses here, to this basement." Almost as soon as Tomo said, he regretted saying it. He didn't actually know if this story was true - he overheard one of older boys telling it - and since then, his imagination prodded him with a picture of corpse-filled basement so often that sometimes he thought he could see it. "And when later they came here, there were so many rats they just swarmed over the bodies - and the bodies were only bare bones with pieces of flesh."

Despite his expectations, Nagi didn't laugh. There was almost a painful fascination on his face as he looked at Tomo.

"How ... how do you know that?" It was a question without disbelief in it.

"I don't know," Tomo shook his head, his hair floating in the water. "I can see it."

"What else can you see?"

He shrugged.

"Can you see my sign?"

Not that again ... Nagi was crazy for pushing it, really. Tomo glanced away, wishing he could stop looking at all, as Nagi raised his long smooth bangs from his forehead again.

There were slights swirls of steam rising from the water - and Nagi's face behind them looked a little blurry. The brightness of Nagi's coloring amazed Tomo once again - his cheeks rosy like a girl's, his eyes wetly brown, his lips bright pink, matching his soft nipples on the glowing white chest. And then ... he must have been going crazy as well, it was rubbing off Nagi or what - thin red lines went through on Nagi's forehead - and before they acquired completeness, Tomo already knew what he'd see. "Shi".

He jerked, turning away abruptly, biting his lips - and heard Nagi's softest, triumphant voice:

"You see it, I know. You're special, too, Tomo. Only few can see this sign."

Tomo didn't know why he had to feel so ridiculously pleased with Nagi's words. 'Special' in Nagi's mouth could mean anything, didn't it? Could mean - 'as crazy as me', for all Tomo knew.

A sudden touch on his inner thigh was almost what he could think seemed to him. He moved cautiously, unsure what it was. Nagi leaned back in the o-furo, his hands over the water - and why would he touch Tomo all in all? But the touch still was there, lightest against his skin - and bothering him in some strange way. Tomo's eyes opened wider as it repeated. He could check - could just put his hand in the water. But for some reason he didn't do it.

A softest touch, like the lightest fingers, moved to his groin - and then ran against his cock - and here Tomo already couldn't deny it. He flinched hugely, looking in shock at Nagi and hearing the other boy's hilarious laughter.

"What?" Nagi said at last. "It's my foot."

His foot; it was softer than Tomo's hands ... and so deft. He started shivering under the pressure against his cock, wanted to back away but there was just the wall of the o-furo behind him. He felt trapped.

What was he doing? Why was Nagi doing it? Tomo didn't want to be aroused - lived perfectly well without it - and still less it should've happened with him because of the Shogun's lover touching his cock, massaging its length. But the thing was it was too late - it already happened.

"What's wrong with you?" Nagi's voice was low like some clients talked when aroused - and husky - and yet its melodiousness made something tremble thinly inside Tomo. The soft heel rubbed against his cock, pressed insistently but without pain. "Don't you like it? Why do you shiver like that?"

His mind finally took control.

"We shouldn't ... You shouldn't ..."

"Why shouldn't I?"

The touch of Nagi's toes was even worse than his sole, nearly making Tomo arch. Tomo thought distantly about getting out but found the task insurmountable to do. Nagi ... Nagi was working art on him, with his foot - the touch feeling better than anything Tomo remembered.

"Because it's crazy ... "

"Who said I'm not crazy?" Nagi was playing with his "shi" sign, pressing it against his lips now - and Tomo was melting, was dying, was coming ... almost. "Sorry." Suddenly the foot was gone and Nagi got up, water running from his body in trickles. "I really shouldn't have."

Tomo bit his lip, almost in agony of being deprived, and could only watch Nagi step out and wipe himself carefully. Tomo's mouth half-opened, almost as if he wanted to beg Nagi to finish what he started - and meeting a sly glance of Nagi's eyes, Tomo thought it was what Nagi wanted - to hear him call. But he didn't call, didn't say a word.

He got out, covering his erection, dressed quickly without looking at Nagi, trying to stay as far away from the boy as it was possible. Tomo's balls ached - and his body ached for the pleasure he didn't manage to achieve, the pleasure that was this close.

"You aren't angry with me, are you?" Nagi asked when they ascended to the second floor. "But really, you had such a face - as if you were blessed. I couldn't help it, just needed to pull this trick on you."

Tomo shrugged weakly; it didn't matter, did it? He shouldn't have let it happen in the first place, should've known better than to poach of the Shogun's territory. Like he didn't know what the Shogun could do to him for that ...

No, he wasn't angry with Nagi. He was angry with himself, for being so stupid.

Iku met them in the corridor; the boy's eyes, too attentive, as usual, searched Tomo's face, studied him for some signs there only Iku could see there - and again Tomo felt like shielding himself from these doe-like inquiring eyes.

"Bakurou-sama looked for you," the boy said quietly. "And for Nagi-sama as well. Nagi-sama has a visitor."

"What, by day?" Tomo saw Nagi roll up his eyes.

"It's General Arisugawa," Iku said softly.

Tomo saw how Nagi flinched at these words, turned without a word and walked to his room in an indifferent, graceful walk of his - and yet there was something deliberately straight in his bearing - something that Tomo suddenly was hurt to see.

He grabbed Iku's shoulder.

"Who's there?"

"That General ... who brought him ... he was there last night, remember?" Iku's small palm lay on his hand pacifyingly. Tomo realized he probably hurt the boy, even if Iku didn't complain - but he didn't let go. Familiar hostility towards the boy flooded him again, amplified with hollowness he felt after Nagi's joke played on him, making him forget it was Iku's arrival that had saved him this morning from Bakurou.

"How the hell do you know his name?"

"I heard the Master and Bakurou-sama talk about him," Iku said softly.

Well, he shouldn't have been surprised - Iku always had this ability to know almost everything, to be too smart for a small boy like him.

"Tomo-san," a begging, gentle note in Iku's voice always maddened him so. "Aren't you going to have breakfast? I'll cook it for you."

He should've - his stomach felt painfully empty. Tomo couldn't explain himself what made him jerk his hand away from the boy, in a gesture deliberately squeamish.

"Didn't you say Bakurou was looking for me? You surely already told him where I was?"

The hurt flooding the boy's eyes made Tomo feel dark joy rise in his heart. Shame was there, too, but Tomo shushed it away.

"You always spy on me, little rat."

"Tomo-san ... "

A small hand reached to him - and the touch triggered Tomo unexpectedly. He grabbed the thin wrist, twisted Iku's arm painfully. He knew this move, Bakurou had used it on him so many times. The sight of involuntary tears springing from the boy's eyes filled him with joy - for a moment, before Tomo snapped back to reality. He pushed Iku away, made the boy flop on the floor.

The worst of all was that Iku didn't even cry out, just looked up at him with tear-filled eyes, rubbing his wrist.

"Get away from me," Tomo said.

He already wanted to leave when Iku asked, in the tiny gentle voice of his:

"Why? Why, Tomo-san?"

Why? If only he had the answer. Because Iku was Bakurou's. Because Tomo felt sick and tired. Because no one had cared for him when he had been Bakurou's ... Or, maybe, because it didn't come to his mind to care for anyone when he'd belonged to Bakurou - like Iku cared for him now.

"You ugly," he said rudely, "don't look at me with your squint eyes. I'm disgusted of seeing you."

He turned and walked away, leaving the boy behind. A part of him clenched in remorse of what he said, hoping that Iku knew it was not true, that he was really pretty. Didn't he always get the most eager customers, little and frail as he was, with that smooth hair like silk and vulnerable look in his wide eyes, the squint in them not spoiling him but strangely making him even more attractive? Tomo just wanted to hurt the boy by saying it - like it always hurt him when Bakurou told him how ugly he was, described how disgusted he was with fucking Tomo.

The small voice reached him, making him stop for a moment - until the words slammed on him with crushing pain.

"I love you," Iku said. "I love you, Tomo-san."

Afraid of what he could do to the boy for that, Tomo slammed the door behind himself and crouched on the floor, hugging himself and moaning into a strand of hair bitten between his teeth. He wanted to hit his own head, his own ears to make the words stop resounding there, Iku's little voice saying them.

He didn't want to hear these words ... he didn't want anything at all. Only ... Reaching to his faded erection, Tomo grabbed it and worked his hand on his cock, trying to resurrect the special feeling of pleasure Nagi had given him - but couldn't. He came, gasping, eventually - but when it happened, it was plain and dull as always and left Tomo empty and stupid, left him aching as before.

* * *

"Why the hell he comes here unless he's gonna take me back?" Nagi muttered pacing around in irritation. The sun painted his room scarlet, like every sunset, and Tomo blinked against the strange, sick light, trying to discern Nagi's walking figure.

"I think ... " He wondered whether he should've said it, whether it was what Nagi wanted to hear. "I think the General really cares for you."

"Huh?" As Nagi stopped, his face was in the shadow, just his voice heard - very hollow. "It would be natural if he did, right? He's my father, after all."

"Your ... " For a moment Tomo couldn't finish, just stared at Nagi. "He ... your father ... the one who beat you?"

"At the Shogun's order, as I said. What was he supposed to do, how do you think?"

"I ... I don't know ... "

He couldn't explain it; the thought startled him, for some reason. When he had thought about Nagi's father as about someone distant and unknown - it was different. But imagining the General's hard face and dark keen eyes, his hand holding the whip that would hit Nagi ... Tomo shook his head, cutting off these images.

"But he ... He could do something for you then! Could hire some men, give them money - for them to buy your time and not to touch you!" This thought came to his mind and Tomo verbalized it without thinking, realizing the implications only when it was too late.

Real good, Tomo; to cheat the Shogun - was it what he suggested?

He almost could hear Nagi's voice say it - but the words never sounded. In fact, there was silence - and Nagi's pacing stopped - and when Tomo looked up, the dark expression on Nagi's face almost shocked him still.

"Yes," Nagi said. "He could. Only he didn't. He always serves the Shogun honestly."

Tomo saw a small awkward movement Nagi made with his shoulders as if the welts suddenly reminded him about themselves. He felt so sad seeing it - his lingering bitterness for Nagi's act in the morning drained out of him irrevocably. There was something so unfair in it, wasn't there - that Nagi was so beautiful and had to suffer like that?

Nagi knelt on the floor, opened a box in front of him.

"Fathers or not fathers - but work doesn't wait," he said sententiously.

The box contained a make-up kit, with a big glass mirror and lots of small porcelain boxes, decorated with tiny drawings. Despite himself, Tomo stared in fascination. Nagi's hands moved, picking out thinnest brushes and small pots of paint; the lids clanked softly, revealing white powder and red rouge, the coal for the eyelashes. The mirror set against the windowsill glimmered in the sun.

"Say, the Master and Bakurou-san are lovers?"

Nagi's face was like lily in flame, smiling at Tomo from the mirror.

"What? Ugh ... no." It took him a few moments to be distracted from the graceful movements of Nagi's brush to answer the question. "Bakurou - he's the Master's wet-nurse's son. He just helps the Master."

Nagi's suggestion revolted Tomo somehow. The thought of those two sharing the bed, sharing anything at all, was incredible. The Master, pretty like a doll, with his slanting eyes and delicate hands - so youngish-looking that there always happened to be some customer who would mistake him for one of the boys and try to buy him. And Bakurou, crude and ugly as a tree trunk. But it seemed the Master never noticed Bakurou's appearance, just his strength. Tomo wondered suddenly if anything could be between them if Bakurou hadn't had taste for younger boys, much younger.

"The Master's afraid," Tomo said suddenly. "That you'll revenge yourself on him when the Shogun takes you back. For what happened here to you. You won't revenge, will you?"

The brush in Nagi's hand stilled for a moment; in the glittering surface of the mirror Tomo saw the pink soft lips curve in a smirk, the flickers of light in the dark eyes getting brighter.

"I probably won't revenge myself. But do you think the Shogun will let anyone of those who witnessed my disgrace live?"

Tomo felt blood rush from his face. The tiny sound he made was half-squeak half-whimper but he didn't notice it. Oh God ... of course ... How didn't he think about it before?

"Hey! Hey you!" Nagi turned to him and snapped fingers in front of his face. "Don't faze out on me."

His eyes laughed and his face was flushed slightly.

"I'm just kidding, Tomo. Don't worry, no one touches your little brothel."

Tomo bit his lip as both relief and resentment flooded him. Nagi passed a comb through his hair, smoothing the strands into an ideal frame around his face, looked at Tomo again.

"So, what do you think?"

He was still slightly miffed with Nagi's new joke, glanced with feigned disinterest at the boy - and forgot what he was thinking about. Nagi's face usually mesmerized him, in its delicacy and glowing; but make-up enhanced its beauty, turned it almost unearthly.

He looks like a princess, Tomo thought, of a fairy-tale. The longest eyelashes, the lips of irresistible gentleness, the skin that seemed emanating light. Tomo found himself swallow uneasily.

"Looks good?" Nagi grinned.

His eyes look like velvet, as if everything he looks at turns glorious and desirable ...

Tomo felt distress - and for a moment he couldn't even place it. Was it envy: that Nagi could be like that - as Tomo would never be? But how could he envy Nagi - they were just beyond comparison, that's all. And then he understood. He felt sad because he believed now - the Shogun wouldn't keep Nagi away from him for long. And so, Tomo would soon stop seeing him.

What a power could beauty have? And what a power could Nagi's fingers have, creating such beauty with easiness?

"Yes," Tomo whispered in a barely audible voice. "Yes, it looks good."

Nagi chuckled.

"But why do you do it?" Suddenly a thought came to Tomo's mind, even more upsetting than before. "You're going to wear the mask anyway, aren't you?"

"So what?" Nagi pursed his lips. "Is it a reason for me to stay ugly?"

The answer was carefree, and Tomo didn't know why he doubted its easiness. Nagi wanted to be beautiful ... for whom? For those who'd come to fuck him paying six coins, crude men, artisans lured with the low price? He shook his head, trying to expel the visions of what he could imagine so easily - this effeminate body groped and used, doubled over for fucking, cocks slamming into Nagi's openings with brutal force. No doubt it had happened last night, left traces and scratches on Nagi's shoulders. No doubt it would happen again - and the General wouldn't save his son, would probably just drink and look darkly at the men who bought Nagi's body ...

"Do you want me to make up your face as well?"

The images that flooded Tomo's mind were sad and violent - and the offer dissonated with them, unexpected. Tomo just stared for a moment. Then it settled down with him.

"Of course!" And before Nagi could change his mind. "Please!"

"All right, Tomo. Come closer to the light. Let's see what we have here ... "

He didn't talk to Tomo, he talked to himself, Tomo realized, as Nagi's soft hands touched Tomo's face, turning it from side to side. Under this scrutiny, for a few moments Tomo felt awkward, almost unable to bear it - and then some kind of peace descended on him. He sighed and let his eyelids fall down.

The tips of Nagi's fingers were like silk, warm and gentle. And then the lightest touches of the brushes came, dry with the powder and slightly wet with the paint. There was something lulling in these touches, in sliding of the brushes over his skin - something mysterious; as if Nagi was creating some magic over him. Suddenly, Tomo found himself hyperventilating. He liked it too much or what? The passing of the coal on his eyelids was slightly firmer than the touches of a brush.

"Now open your eyes and look up," Nagi said.

The coal drew thin lines on his lower eyelids; and Nagi leaned over him, his hand supporting Tomo's face firmly but gently. In this position, he couldn't see Nagi's face, just the delicate line of his neck and thin golden chain against it. Tomo wanted to touch this place with his lips; to feel warmth of the skin and hardness of the metal and breathe in all the smell, sweet and soft, coming from Nagi's body.

How crazy; he must have been really out of his mind to think it, Tomo told himself. Denying his thoughts, he tried to shake his head but was prevented from it by a hold of Nagi's hand. Nagi was the Shogun's ... even thinking this kind of thoughts was dangerous. It was dangerous in any way - and even more futile than Tomo's thoughts about Hirofumi had been. When would he learn not to let himself be hurt?

His heart still pounded and he felt blood beating in his lips, making them flush, as Nagi painted his mouth. Tomo closed his eyes again; the touches on his face were so light. Then the comb ran through his hair, untangling the knots and smoothing the strands. Deft hands arranged his hair around Tomo's face - and then Nagi let him go.

"Now look."

Tomo opened his eyes - saw himself in a mirror prompted by Nagi, saw Nagi's reflection looking from the mirror at him as well: Nagi's arm draped around Tomo's shoulder, his face nearly touching Tomo's. This closeness made him shiver - but the sight in the mirror made him forget about everything else.

The vision was ... beautiful. Two creatures that looked at Tomo were beautiful, both of them. In a different way - and yet, cheek to cheek, they seemed to compliment each other strangely. But the most mesmerizing thing was that one of these creatures was he, Tomo.

He usually found his face unattractive, even knowing with his mind that it was not so, since the customers found him desirable. But Nagi's brushes had done to him what he could never hope to achieve from his face - made him like it. Its brittle, angular features, its too pale complexion, its widened, cat-like yellow eyes. His long black hair streamed over his shoulders - mixing with Nagi's soft, chin-length brown hair.

Tomo gasped. He would love it'd be possible to leave an imprint of their faces in this mirror, he thought, so that days and months later he could look at it and remember this moment of miracle.

"You know what?" Nagi said. "If I were at the palace now, I would call for an artist to make our portrait. Utamaro-style or something. They draw female whores - why not male then?"

It amazed him that Nagi could have almost alike thoughts with him. Suddenly, Tomo felt at lost for words, could just stare at the other boy. The gratitude was so strong, it was almost choking him.

"Maybe, I'll do it when I'm back at the palace," Nagi said. " Now ... Go put on something really smart for the evening. And don't smear your make-up."

* * *

Nagi really made him look special; it was not just what Tomo fancied. He could see it in the look that the Master gave him, first casual - and then returning to him with his eyes, something akin to surprise in them. Tomo met the Master's stare bravely.

He felt so good; perhaps it was true that he'd never felt better in his life. In his best kimono, black with orange and red embroidery, Tomo felt perfect. Even his body seemed to be all right: his waist tiny, his back straight - and his movements acquired gracefulness that he couldn't put into them for many last months, feeling too tired to try. Now tiredness seemed to be gone.

It didn't surprise him to find himself chosen and treated at the very moment he descended the lounge. His customer was a new man - but must have been well-off, since he didn't seem to have a problem with Tomo's price. He probably didn't frequent brothels at all, Tomo thought - there was something in the way the man carried himself than said so. His eyes slid over Tomo's body with hunger, even as he added sake to Tomo's cup and downed his own. Tomo smiled at him over the brink of the cup. There was a warm feeling inside him, only slightly dimmed with the realization, in the peripheral part of his mind, that Nagi's serving started as well, and men were going upstairs to him again.

"Enough drinking." The man grabbed his wrist. Some sake splashed over Tomo's fingers; he smiled, freeing himself with a graceful movement, and the man's bruising hand unclasped easily.

"Let's go upstairs, sir."

The man followed on his traces, almost too close, as if he didn't want to let Tomo go. Finally in his room the man grabbed him, pulled him closer, crumpling Tomo's lips with a kiss. Briefly, Tomo regretted the loss of his lipstick - but the man's genuine passion somehow flattered him enough to make up for it. The man's hands were rough, handling Tomo's body with too much strength, pulling and squeezing him tighter as the man's pelvis ground against Tomo's.

Perhaps Nagi really knew some kind of charm, Tomo thought hazily - some charm that made a person desirable. And was it even so important how Nagi chose to call it - Death or anything else? Tomo felt dizzy with this thought, as if meeting something he normally didn't care to be close to. He recalled his duties and reached to the man's face, caressing his cheekbones and the places under his ears - and the man caught his hand, pressed it to his lips almost painfully.

"Lay down ... lovely whore ... "

He didn't wait for Tomo to obey, toppled him over on the futon, his arms in a tight circle around Tomo's body. Hungry kisses trailed over Tomo's throat, down to his chest as the man struggled with Tomo's robes. The touches were rough - but the intensity of them ... Tomo found he almost enjoyed it.

The hand groped between his legs, for his entrance, while the man's mouth returned to his face, clamping on Tomo's skin. The man's hands buried in his hair, crumpling the strands.

And then kisses stopped. For a moment Tomo didn't register it, just felt that the man's hands clasped on his hair, pulling convulsively. With a yanking movement, the man jerked his hands away. Uncomprehending, Tomo looked up - and saw terror-widened, absolutely empty eyes of the customer.

He couldn't understand what was wrong. The man looked at him as if Tomo suddenly grew horns - and then, with a wail, the man scrambled away from him, tangling in his own limbs. He gave Tomo a wild look, pressed to the wall as if afraid Tomo would jump on him - and then ran out. His howls reached from the downstairs now.

It didn't make sense, did it? Feeling suddenly cold, Tomo tightened the kimono on himself, pulling himself up into a sitting position. Everything had been so good - and then something happened to the man ... Was it something with his face? Hastily, Tomo reached for the piece of mirror. The make-up was smeared - and how wouldn't it be, with all the groping the man had done. But there was nothing scary in it anyway ...

"Him ... him ... " The door flew open and the man was back - but hiding behind the backs of Bakurou and the Master. "There ... "

The man's finger trembled as he pointed. Tomo's hand with the mirror fell down as premonition seized him - and a moment later Bakurou stepped towards him, caught his wrist, jerked him up on his feet.

"What did the bastard do?"

"He ... he ... " the man kept pointing. "I moved his hair away and there ... "

The words were messed up but Bakurou seemed to understand them. His hand clasped on Tomo's hair cruelly, pulling the strands away, turning Tomo's head. Shocked with everything that happened Tomo even forgot to struggle.

"That's it!" the man wailed and cowed.

For a few moment Bakurou seemed to be looking, his jaw set, expression of disgust in his eyes - and yet something else was there, something that, with falling heart, Tomo identified as satisfaction. He turned Tomo towards the Master, and the Master seemed to back away, just slightly.

"He wanted to jinx me, he wanted me to die ... " the man moaned. Still not understanding, Tomo started shivering. But was it true, that he didn't understand? Perhaps in some wordless way, still not wanting to believe it, he already knew what it was.

He raised the piece of mirror still in his hand and looked into it. This way, with his hair raised, he could see it clearly - a small sign of "shi" drawn in a thinnest brush under his ear.

"Enjoying your work?" Bakurou said with distaste, shoving him on the floor. The push was so hard that Tomo crumpled - and, most likely, he just didn't feel strength to stay on his feet. The piece of mirror fell from his hand, and, as he landed on the floor, a sharp edge of it entered his palm. Tomo cried out in pain - and a moment later Bakurou's foot stepped on his hand, driving the sharp corner deeper into his flesh.

"We are sincerely sorry for this incident," the Master said hastily. He seemed to take control over himself by now but there were shadows flitting in his eyes - shadows of sadness? "Of course, your money will be returned to you - and the house would like to provide you with free entertainment for six nights, a boy at your choice."

Through the haze of pain, Tomo thought the Master's voice sounded incredibly smoothly - but Tomo knew it was not what the man felt, judging on the remuneration he offered to the client.

"I hope this sad occasion won't turn you away from our services," the Master said.

"It's just a stupid prank of the boy, after all," Bakurou added. He leaned on Tomo's hand almost with all his weight now, and Tomo found himself unable to take a breath; his mouth hung open but he couldn't let a sound out. Circles of red floated in front of his eyes.

"A stupid prank," the man muttered. The thought of six nights for free apparently was enticing. "A death sign on him. I'll be lucky if nothing happens to me."

"Rest assure, he'll be punished," Bakurou said smoothly, his words accentuated with another push on Tomo's hand. "He'll pay for the inconvenience he caused."

"Shall we go downstairs to settle our accounts?" the Master said, and now distress was pretty clear in his gentle voice. Finally Bakurou moved away. Tomo slumped on the floor, cradling his wounded hand. At the door, the Master let the customer and Bakurou walk out first - and then, staying for a moment alone with Tomo, turned back to look at him.

"Why did you have to do it?" he said - and Tomo could swear there was a broken note in the Master's voice.

But it already didn't matter - it already was too late.

The door slammed shut, and Tomo crouched on the floor, shivering. The Master's question still resounded in his mind - but in a little different way. Why? Why did Nagi have to do it? He raised his hand in the cup of the other and pulled the piece of bronze out with his teeth. His hand felt huge and throbbing and blood streamed quickly from it, running on the floor and staining his kimono. He wrapped a rag around the wound, trying to stop it - but it soaked the material through. Tomo looked at the welling red fluid dumbly.

Why did Nagi do it? He almost thought he heard the other boy's bright unconcerned voice:

"I had to sign my work, didn't I?"

Quietly, Tomo moaned. "Shi" ... It was not just a misdemeanor - what happened; a thing like that could endanger the standing of the whole house, should the scandal be impossible to hush. He felt cold sweat running over his temples as he recalled dark fire in Bakurou's eyes as the man looked at him.

"He'll pay ... "

Oh yes, Bakurou would make him pay. The very thought of it was unbearable - and Tomo couldn't dwell more on it, on the things Bakurou could do to him, would have all the authority to do. No one would save him, not even the Master - the Master washed his hands off of him ...

"Oh God ... oh God ... " Small yelping sounds broke from his lips but Tomo barely noticed it and couldn't stop as he rubbed convulsively on the sign under his ear. The paint smeared on his fingers, thick and greasy, mixing with blood.

What would be with him? He hugged himself, finding no comfort in the arms wrapped around his body. His hair hung over his face now, curtaining the candle-lit room, making Tomo see almost nothing but the dark web in front of his eyes. There was no protection in his arms or in his hair ... What would be with him? He rocked as this thought kept slamming into his mind. The fear was unbearable, not fear but panic in its unreasoning strength. In the morning, when customers left, Bakurou would come for him and then ... and then ...

He couldn't stand it. Stricken with this thought, he tossed his head back, looking at the crossbeams over his bed. There was no need to wait till the morning, to live in this terror of apprehension, right? There was a way out.

He'd never thought he would end up like this; Tomo felt his lips curve in a wry, pathetic smile. But now it didn't matter what he'd thought; a few years ago another boy had already taken his own life here, so, he, Tomo, could do it as well. The pain in Tomo's hand seemed to abate as he got up on his feet, a sash in his hands. But his movements were still awkward, his hands weak and clumsy as he couldn't throw the sash over the crossbeam. And later, when he finally managed it, the end of the sash didn't want to turn into a loop.

He cried like a fool doing it; he didn't want to die. His life was in a gutter but he still didn't want to die. Yet the fear of Bakurou was stronger than the feat of death, was almost impossible to live through. Like a few years ago he couldn't deal with expectation of Bakurou destroying his only valuable possession, the toy Hirofumi had given him - and burned it himself ... this way he had to do it himself now, before Bakurou came.

Wiping his eyes with both hands, Tomo knelt, praying. The words messed up, didn't make sense at all. He sobbed some more and got up on his feet.

Now wasn't he really stupid - the loop was too low. Tomo looked around frenziedly, until his eyes stopped on a low stool. Perhaps it was what that boy had used as well, he thought.

"Very impressive, bitch."

Bakurou was there. Behind his sobbing, Tomo didn't notice how the door slid open - and now Bakurou stood, leaning against the wall, his arms crossed - inside the room. He'd come for Tomo, there would be no waiting for the morning ... The dry laughter made Tomo shudder.

"What are you going to do? To hang yourself? And to escape me?"

Panic flooded him, so huge, that Tomo dashed, not knowing what he was going to do. He almost clung to the loop, as if it was his only salvation. Bakurou's presence was so overwhelming, the man affected him on subconscious level, turned him into a stupid doll. Tomo heard a soft clattering sound - and realized his teeth chattered.

Bakurou stepped to him, and Tomo didn't cry out - not even when the man's hand clasped on the back of his neck.

"Let's go," Bakurou threw him forward.

Tomo would fall but the fingers clenched on his nape held him upright. Where? Where were they going? The house was still full of people, he could hear the voices - Bakurou wouldn't whip him in their presence ...

As they passed the first floor, he understood. The doors of the basement yawned at him. Tomo stalled and was shoved so hard that the stairs turned down under his feet and he rolled, yelping with pain in his bruising body. Bakurou followed him, lit a candle. His figure seemed dark and huge, and its shadow even more huge, as he towered over Tomo who looked up at him with desperately blinking eyes.

He watched how Bakurou shut the door and put a latch on it; it seemed Tomo couldn't be scared more than he was, curling on the floor and shivering. He was incoherent - it didn't even come to his mind to beg Bakurou to spare him; and he knew he wouldn't be spared anyway.

All the terror the place caused in him seemed to be amplified; the worst of his fears coming true: he was again in the full power of Bakurou - and something told Tomo the man was not going to stop now. The dark walls of the basement that always seemed to be crowding on Tomo looked like they were going to choke him now. With wide eyes, he watched Bakurou come up, flinched as a hand clasped on his collar.

"Are you going just to lie like this? That won't be fun."

Tomo was like an unresisting doll as the man raised him, shook him out of the kimono effortlessly and dumped on the floor again. The position let him know it was going to be sex first. Burying his face in his hands, Tomo waited, felt how Bakurou settled between his legs, pulled him more conveniently. The thrust was burning hard, Bakurou getting entrance in one sharp movement, throwing Tomo's body forward.

Pain made him scream soundlessly, his mouth open but no sound coming. He felt Bakurou's fingernails dig into his hips, pulling him back. The man's organ was like a huge log in his anus, slamming agonizingly - taking pain to new heights as Bakurou started thrusting. Waves of sickness went over Tomo, making him barely hear the man's grunts. He knew he bled, from under Bakurou's fingernails in his thighs and from his asshole - and the smell of blood in his wounded hand was thick and bitter. His knees scraped on the rough floor but it really was the least of the pains he felt.

"You stupid, stupid slut," Bakurou repeated between grunts, accentuating the words with thrusts, each of them vicious, twisting. Yes, stupid, stupid ... It was what Tomo thought. If he hurried up, if the thought of suicide came to his mind earlier, he could already be dead, out of this misery.

But maybe, he deserved what happened to him. Maybe, he was too fainthearted, found life even in such pain and humiliation preferable - that's why he couldn't hang himself? He didn't know. He bit his hands, trying to send his mind on some other track apart from tearing pain in his backside. Bakurou always managed to hurt him, no matter how many men Tomo had passed through his body; Bakurou was just too good in choosing the wrongest angle, in using his width and length in the most painful way.

The man's timing varied, depending on how much aroused he was; this time he apparently was wound up tightly not to last long. But the pain was such that Tomo thought he couldn't bear it even for those minutes Bakurou needed to come. Not that he had any choice but to bear it, though. Bakurou's thrusts became faster, as deep as possible, seeming to rip him open, to split him in two. The pain became the entire world around him as Bakurou finally froze, tearing long stripes of skin on Tomo's thighs, as his sperm spurted inside Tomo's body. The man moaned - and pushed Tomo away.

Crumpled on the floor on his side, shaking like a hurt animal, Tomo felt his anus torn open and burning, blood and come sliding out of it in warm trickles. Bakurou towered over him again.

"Just out of curiosity." His boot pushed Tomo's head up. Tomo tried to withdraw but felt too powerless to do even that. "Why did you paint this shit on yourself? I'm not superstitious but ... "

Tomo wondered if Bakurou was really interested in the answer. Nagi, he thought, what would be if he said it was Nagi? They probably wouldn't believe ... and anyway, Bakurou was punishing him not so much because Tomo was guilty - but because the man enjoyed doing it.

Tomo curled tighter, trying to shield himself from the touch. But there was no escape from Bakurou - not when the man wanted it, anyway.

"You don't want to talk, do you? Very well. I'm not so keen on talking to you as well, kitten."

The whip swished in the air and Tomo hugged himself tighter. The stripe of fire going over his body made him yelp. Oh God, if he thought whipping hurt before ... on the previous times Bakurou had tried not to mark him. For some reason, he didn't bother now.

This welt on him must have been as bad as Nagi's welts, the skin torn and swollen - and Tomo didn't have time to recover his breath as another blow landed over his body, circling around his thigh. He curled as tightly as he could, made himself as small as possible - but it didn't help - the blows were aimed too well. The whip cracked on his body, wrapping around him, scalding, tearing. He cried first and then he shrieked. Bakurou went on. At one moment, blindly, Tomo tried to crawl away from the blows - and then Bakurou caught his hair and threw him back on the floor.

The whip was merciless; it seemed to reach everywhere, to tear every hidden place, no matter how Tomo tried to shield himself - his chest, his groin, the crack of his ass. He lost coherence, just wailed thinly, the sounds inhuman because he really was turned into an animal now. He just wanted it to stop, to stop ...

He never lost consciousness but Bakurou splashed a bucket of cold water on him to make him fully lucid. Tomo shivered, shaking his head to get rid of the water in his eyes. His body felt agonizingly raw, all of it; he wondered if he'd ever been hurt like that in his life. And he also knew it wasn't the end.

A rough hand turned him on his back, making him moan in pain as the stone floor scraped on his welts; Bakurou squatted over him, holding his face. Tomo could bear to look at the man just for a moment. Then the handle of the whip pushed into his mouth, wrenching his jaw open.

Surely Bakurou could do it in some other way; but he didn't want to. Tomo's split lips stung - and then he felt a rag being forced into his mouth. It terrified him beyond possible - what Bakurou was going to do? Something that would make him scream - Bakurou didn't want him to scream, with all those people in the house. He'd never gagged him before ...

Unable to speak now, Tomo could just look at the man with desperate eyes, could just whimper through the rag. Even the pain he felt seemed dispensable in front of the fear of what was going to happen. Bakurou straightened, looking down with a satisfied smirk.

A kick under his ribs was slamming; Tomo gasped, nearly choking on a rag, convulsing on the floor. He heard Bakurou chuckle. Another blow landed on his belly - and Tomo crouched again, instinctively, protecting himself. He should've known better about protection. Next blow was in his kidney, feeling as if something exploded inside him.

He could do nothing. Bakurou paced around him, placing well-aimed, heavy kicks, every one making Tomo cry out into the gag. His genitals were not spared either, no matter how he tried to cover them - and this was the worst. A kick got his wounded hand and he trembled in pain.

Vulnerability of his body terrified him. In how many ways could he be hurt ... and when was it going to stop? Was Bakurou going to beat him to death, did the Master give him this permission? The thought of it lacked strength in Tomo's clouded mind. If he knew he was going to die, it would be easier, wouldn't it? Then he would know he just had to endure it for some finite time ... some time ...

He didn't feel when blackness covered him, and as he came round, he was on his back, and Bakurou was thrusting into him, pistoning his hips heavily. The weight of the man's body was agonizing - and Tomo's back was on fire as every thrust shoved Tomo against the floor, making his welts bleed. He cried and passed out again, not feeling how long it went and how it ended.

Next time it was pain that brought him back; not cold water but open fire - a candle brought to his foot. He jerked, gasping, tried to crawl away - but Bakurou held him by the ankle as the skin on his sole blistered and charred.

"I always really wanted to do to you more than I ever did," Bakurou said quietly. "Remember our little games? I never wanted to stop. I loved to see your blood, Tomo. It smelled good. I'll smell it tonight as much as I want."

The man's face neared to Tomo, touched his chest - and a moment later Bakurou's teeth gnawed in his skin. Tomo bit on the rag in his mouth - and then his hands, instinctively, flew up.

He'd forgotten about his long fingernails, didn't intended to use them as a weapon. But he still slashed the man's cheek - and in terror heard Bakurou's angry cry. The man let him go, unclamped his teeth, leaving a bloody mark on Tomo's skin. Bakurou's eyes were completely black, almost mindless as he looked down at Tomo - the eyes of a bull.

But his voice sounded quite sane as he talked.

"Using your claws, kitten? All right, let's see how you'll do without them."

Sobbing, Tomo looked at him, not quite understanding what it was supposed to mean. Bakurou got up, and Tomo saw him move the heavy benches that stood in the basement, turn one upside down, put it on the other. Then the man reached for him.

It was not difficult to cope with Tomo - and the truth was Tomo didn't resist at all. A small act of defiance - scratching Bakurou - drained him of his strength and courage. Bakurou picked him up, pull Tomo's legs up and apart, raised him over the upturned bench.

Tomo didn't understand what the man was going to do, even as he was raised over one of the bench's legs. Only when he felt rough wood against his anus, he understood - but it was too late by then. Bakurou shoved him down, thrusting him on the wooden pole.

Tomo must have screamed; the sound was lost into the rag all the same, and his head fell back, his eyes rolling up as crudely planed wood entered him. Bakurou pushed him down, raised him again, until the wood almost left Tomo's body - and then shoved him down once more. Tomo felt something being torn, broken inside him. He didn't know what to do. His hands reached to the center of pain in his abdomen, then scraped the wood of the bench, then fell down.

"So, you thought my cock wasn't good enough for you," the man breathed out in his ear, breath hot and hard. "See if you enjoy this thing inside you more."

Please ... please ... he would beg - but there was the gag in his mouth, so, Tomo just moaned, shaking his head. Bakurou's fingers tore his thighs as the man raised him again and shoved him down once more. This time the wood was bedded fully inside him, until Tomo's ass touched the bench. His anus felt stretched hideously, torn open - but the feeling in his belly was worse, the hard pole seeming to pierce him through.

He felt a belt wrap around his ankles, pulling them back together, taking away from him any freedom of movements, any flimsy chance to free himself.

Would he die of what was done to him, Tomo wondered - and this time the thought didn't bring relief. He was just in too much pain. Hazily, he found Bakurou's eyes, looked in them pleadingly. There was a drying scratch on Bakurou's cheek. He smiled at Tomo.

"Caught now. Like a butterfly on a pin. You won't give me any trouble like that."

It hurt even to breathe; and when Bakurou twisted his hair around his hand and pulled, Tomo whimpered in pain. The man slapped him, heavily, time after time, making his head ring.

"Don't feel like scratching me any more? Too bad the harm's already done."

Tomo felt his wrist caught, Bakurou's fingers around it like a steel ring. And then the whip appeared in the man's other hand, handle first. The peak of the handle was very sharp, going to an apex - and Tomo saw it being forced under the fingernail on his index finger a moment before he felt pain flash through him.

Bakurou forced the peak of the handle under his fingernail, tearing it off. The pain was like flame, scalding. Tomo saw blood leak from under his fingernail, coating it. And then Bakurou pulled - and the nail peeled off completely, leaving just bloodied flesh underneath.

Tomo screamed frenziedly. The sight of his mutilated hand was even worse than the pain itself. Bakurou had never been done anything disfiguring to him before ... Tomo's appearance earned money ... But not any more.

His fingernail was like a bloodied flake now, as Bakurou let it fall. Dimly, Tomo saw the candle in the man's hand, and convulsed when hot wax dripped on his finger, sealing the wound. He shivered so hard his vision blurred - but his eyes flew open when he noticed the whip handle again, felt another of his fingers singled out.

He struggled madly, tried to pull his hand away - but Bakurou was just too strong - and thrashing hurt so badly. Doomed, Tomo saw another of his fingernails torn off, felt stunning pain, exchanged with burning of hot wax. He couldn't believe Bakurou was just going to keep doing it - just like that, with all his fingernails ... It was impossible, he couldn't bear it ...

But it was exactly what Bakurou did. There were moments when mist of pain shielded Tomo's eyes - and when he almost slipped to unconsciousness - only to come round feeling Bakurou ripping out another of his nails.

"That's what one has to do with a bad kitten," the man said once.

When he let Tomo's hands drop at last, Tomo was beyond struggling. His hands were coated in blood - and the white wax where his fingernails had been was cracked and blood-smeared as well. He looked at his hands and wept - not screamed any more but just felt trickles of tears ran over his face.

"Your tears taste nice, too," Bakurou said and leaned to him, lapping his tongue against Tomo's cheek.

Even after everything, the man's closeness still made him react, try to back away instinctively. Bakurou's hand in Tomo's hair didn't let him - but the man noticed.

"Spiteful, as always," he sighed. "Let's see if I can teach you a lesson, after all."

His foot pressed Tomo's balls down against the beam of the bench. Pain exploded in Tomo's mind, so huge that he hadn't known something like that could exist. Tomo screamed and screamed; it went black in his eyes but he couldn't stop; and Bakurou didn't stop as well, twisting his foot as it kept crushing Tomo's ballsac down.

He's going to castrate me, Tomo thought dimly before something snapped in him and he passed out.

A candle again, now the flame held under his nipple. The pain finally brought him back, no matter how little he wanted it. He was afraid to look at his balls but still looked; well, they still were there, just swollen badly. But the pain was so hideous ...

"Some more?" Bakurou asked.

If he could talk, he would beg Bakurou to kill him now. But he could only pray silently to die. Tomo saw how Bakurou stepped behind him, and at the next moment the thong of the whip wrapped around his throat.

Was it the answer to his prayer? Was he going to die?

"What's wrong?" Bakurou's lips nearly touched his ear but Tomo barely felt it as the thong tightened, cutting off his breath. "You struggle? You don't want to die? Didn't you try to hang yourself when I came?"

The pain in Tomo's mutilated fingers must have been terrible - but he almost didn't feel it as he clawed at the whip, trying to pull it away. All he wanted was to breathe, just one more inhale, just a little bit of air ...

The darkness flooded him, and for a while there was just nothing - and then the pain returned. Pain of breathing; Tomo convulsed, drawing in sharp intakes of the air, his nostrils flaring.

"It's not a nice death - suffocation," Bakurou whispered. His face neared again, his teeth clamped on a side of Tomo's neck. The man lapped on his blood; then hit him. Tomo's head dangled, all his body rocked. The wooden pole inside him sent reverberating pain through his body. Bakurou's hand wrapped into his hair, making him tilt his face up. "But don't worry - I'm not done with you yet. There're so many things we can do, remember?"

Remember what? Tomo felt the man's fingers in his mouth, taking the rag out. The pull on his hair became agonizing, tugging his head back so much Tomo thought his neck would snap. The wood inside him was pushing on his inner organs. He couldn't believe he could be in so much pain - and still alive.

Bakurou's cock pressed to his lips and drove into his mouth. The position was excruciating; Tomo could feel his throat expand under the intrusion, under the force of Bakurou's thrusts. He gagged but the man didn't seem to notice - he just fucked him, fucked like a helpless doll.

Darkness was shrouding Tomo's eyes but this time he rejoiced feeling it. Maybe, he would die now ... or, maybe, he would be just out for long enough not to feel anything.

A knock on the door sounded distant, almost not real. And, maybe, it was not real - because Bakurou didn't stop, slamming his hips forward.

"Baku-chan, please open! It's morning already!"

The Master? The Master wanted to come in?

"Go to hell, Kenji," Bakurou said in a hoarse voice.


"Leave me alone!"

The Master behind the door went silent. Through the darkness, Tomo saw Bakurou look down at him, a sudden smile twisting the man's lips.

"No one will pester us, kitten."

He shoved the peak of the whip handle under Tomo's ribs - and pressed. Tomo felt a trickle of blood run over his chest - as Bakurou kept fucking his mouth. But Tomo barely could care, knew it was not for long now - not for long for him. Death was really close.

"What the fuck ... "

The light flashed in front of Tomo's eyes - and the length of the cock was yanked out of his mouth. He went limp; he thought he needed to see what happened - but already couldn't.

The last thing he heard was Bakurou's desperate curses somewhere next to him.

* * *

There was water all around him; pleasantly warm. It made his wounds sting but it was also cleaning them - so, he liked it. The water lulled him away. He thought if he was going to drown - and it was somewhat pacifying. It meant he would be beyond the reach of Bakurou then.

The water splashed around him, leaked over his face. And there was a hand washing his face; and another hand supporting his head above the water. Tomo realized it and the death didn't seem so impending any more. There were people around him.

He heard their voices - and tried to get free in panic. The hands held him - two of them soft and gentle and two small and hot - and two faces leaned over him, seeming equally concerned. Nagi and Iku. How could they be here?

"Shh," Nagi whispered, running his fingers on the side of Tomo's face. "It's all over. Don't be afraid, I'm with you."

There was no reason why Nagi's being with him should've been comforting - but Tomo thought suddenly that it was.

"He ... he jumped to the elevator shaft," Iku said. The boy's eyes were wet and his lips puffy, like he'd been crying - but now he attempted a trembling smile. "Bakurou-sama didn't open the door, even though the Master told him. Then Nagi-sama jumped down and knocked Bakurou out ... "

The sound of Bakurou's name sent Tomo to panic again. He flailed a little but they kept holding him, carefully but firmly. He gave in. Bakurou was gone; and the door to the basement was not latched any more, half-opened. And Tomo was in the o-furo full of warm water, and Nagi's soft hands poured water over his body.

Tomo shuddered as memories came back to him.

"He ... he tore off my fingernails ... "

Nagi's velvety eyes looked down at him kindly, a little smile on his lips. His hand touched Tomo's cheek.

"I know."

Iku rinsed his hair - and it felt good to know that there was no more dirt on him - at least outside.

"When Bakurou-sama didn't bring you back till the dawn," Iku said in a quiet voice, "I went to Nagi-sama and he ... he went to the Master ... "

Tomo looked at the boy incredulously. Iku did that to save him? And Nagi jumped down to the shaft when Bakurou didn't open the door? And knocked Bakurou out?

"I know some moves," Nagi said joyfully. "The fat guy didn't stand a chance against me. Well," he added slightly more seriously. "You should get out or you won't stop bleeding. The doctor will look at you."

Tomo tried to get up but couldn't, cried out in pain when touching the edges of the o-furo with his maimed hands. He would fall if Nagi didn't catch him - and then the bigger boy just raised him in his arms and carried.

Hadn't known Nagi was that strong, Tomo thought dimly; but it was true - Nagi was like that, silk on outside and steel inside. It felt good to be carried, to feel Nagi's warm strong arms around him. Tomo put his head on Nagi's shoulder and closed his eyes.

His room was lit with morning light brightly; Tomo blinked. He saw the loop right above himself when he was put on the futon - and heard Iku's gasp when the boy saw it. The small hands yanked the sash off quickly. Nagi sat down on the futon next to him and pulled Tomo's wet hair away from his face, smiling.

"How did they let you leave the room?" Tomo whispered, and Nagi shrugged, his smile getting wider.

"Do you think they can forbid me? No one can forbid anything to me. And I had to get you out."

Get him out ... Did Nagi care? It wasn't possible, was it? Tomo recalled about "shi" sign drawn on his skin - and felt like he should've resented Nagi for it. But he just was too tired to feel anything at all.

These thoughts were somehow distressing anyway, so, Tomo looked away from Nagi and stopped his gaze on Iku's serious face.

"Can you be here? Bakurou will punish you ... "

"He never punishes me," the boy said quietly.

But it was good Iku didn't have to leave; Tomo wouldn't bear parting with him now. He tensed and tried to curl away when the doctor probed on his body. But Iku was there - Tomo's head was on his lap, and Tomo clasped his hand on the boy's small one. Looking into Iku's eyes somehow made it all easier.

"Nothing is damaged badly," the doctor said as his cold withered hands worked on Tomo's body dispassionately. "Take a couple days of rest to heal. The fingernails ... well, it decreases the price significantly - but I think he'll go for nine coins."

Tomo clenched with tired anger; he'd cost fifteen before Bakurou had done it to him! Iku's light hand patted his head, fingers untangling the strands.

The boy looked tired, and Tomo thought he should've told Iku to go, have a rest after the night of work. But it felt so good to hold his hand; and Iku didn't seem to try to get free. And when Nagi reached for him, Tomo backed away instinctively towards Iku - as if the boy could save him. Iku had never hurt him, had he? While Nagi ...

"Hey, what's wrong?" A smile made Nagi's face so pretty, his eyes of strange brown-red color shining. "You're angry with me, aren't you, Tomo?"

Tomo felt Iku's arms tighten protectively around him. Nagi's fingers hovered over his face.

"It was just a joke."

Tomo wished he could feel angry; but there was something so broken in him - in his mind worse than in his body. Iku cradled him, the silk of his sleeve touching Tomo's cheek lightly. But Nagi's fingers reached to him - and it was electrifying.

"I'm sorry, Tomo."

Nagi leaned towards him. Tomo frowned; Nagi's closeness was so disconcerting. And his words ... How could he be sorry? What was Tomo for him? Nagi was the Shogun's lover, what difference did it make for him what a brothel whore thought of him?

It must have been another prank, Tomo thought. He couldn't bear another joke played at his expense - he just didn't have strength for it. Let Nagi go do it to someone else.

"Will you forgive me?"

The words reached him - and the emptiness Tomo felt inside started filling up. It hurt ... Nagi's words, Nagi's touches - fingers tracing Tomo's bruised face and split lips, Nagi's smile. In despair, Tomo looked up at Iku, as if begging to shield him. The boy's eyes looked with so much compassion. He knew somehow Iku would protect him - wouldn't be afraid of Nagi or anyone - would make Nagi go away ... if Tomo just said he wanted it.

But for some reason Tomo didn't say it. He didn't even try to move away while Nagi's fingers kept exploring his face, in a strange motion, as if Nagi was blind.

"I didn't want you to be hurt," Nagi said. Silky tips of his fingers touched under Tomo's ear, just where the sign had been drawn. Nagi didn't sound sincere - didn't even try to, Tomo thought. But there was something in his husky voice - something more powerful than sincerity. "I'll make up for your hurt," Nagi whispered, leaning forward.

The kiss on Tomo's split lips was soft and hot, hurt and shushing the hurt somehow at the same time. Nagi's tongue slipped between his lips - and Tomo felt how Nagi tasted: sweet - so sweet as if he hadn't been swallowing someone's sperm for the whole night. And his tongue was warm and wet, exploring Tomo's mouth gently, as Nagi's thumb stroked his cheek.

Tomo gasped, overwhelmed. He suddenly lacked the air, but the panic he felt inside didn't show up in any way. Nagi kissed him - and he let it happen, responding to the tongue meeting his.

"I'll kiss the hurt away," Nagi whispered.

Tomo felt Iku's hands clench on him convulsively; the boy went rigid - and Tomo knew why. But he could do nothing against Nagi's presence, against Nagi's glowing face looking down at him, the brush of Nagi's hair falling on his face.

"Tell me," Nagi whispered. "Tell me how he hurt you."

He couldn't talk about it - it was so terrible, so humiliating. The whip wrapping around his neck, the hard wood inside him ... He raised his hand feebly touching the swollen welt on his neck. Nagi leaned and licked the trace, licked Tomo's deformed fingers at the next moment.

"Kisses heal," Nagi whispered, and there was a note of laughter in his voice. "You see, it hurts less if I kiss it. I'll heal you. See? Like that."

His lips hurt, touching the welts Bakurou's whip had left. But at the same time there was warmth spreading through him - and Tomo understood he couldn't already say whether it felt good or bad.

He gasped when Nagi touched his blistered nipple - and felt Iku move.

"You're hurting him!" The boy's voice faltered. Tomo felt Nagi's hair brush over his chest as the older boy raised his head abruptly. "Leave him alone!" Iku cried out.

How desperate he sounded, Tomo thought distantly. And how brave he was, talking like that to Nagi. Didn't he know how it could end for him if the Shogun's lover held a grudge? But Nagi didn't seem to be angry. His eyes glittered feverishly.

"Leave him alone? Do you think it's what he wants? Maybe, he wants you to leave him alone."

His hand on Tomo's face was possessive and caressing, and Tomo felt he couldn't resist these touches. Nagi made him turn to look at them both.

"Say, Tomo, whom do you want to stay? Him? Or me?"

Iku could protect him; Iku cared for him - it was Iku who had called for help. He had to say only one word, Tomo thought, and he would be saved. But the word didn't want to go from his lips.

The time seemed to stop - and in silence he watched how slowly Iku's eyes acquired the look of shocked rejection. These soft eyes looked so hurt - full of pain, of betrayal. Tomo didn't need to choose; his silence told more than his words would.

"Will you mind going, child?" Nagi purred. "You're one too many here, don't you see?"

Tomo felt Iku jerk; but even as the boy got up, he was still gentle, putting Tomo's head on a pillow carefully. Tomo knew he had to stop him - was almost going to call for him - but Nagi looked at him, with these beautiful eyes on the smiling face, and Tomo couldn't say anything.

Nagi's hair fell on his face, shielding the sight of Iku, limiting Tomo's world to the touch of the burning lips on his skin.

"It feels good, doesn't it?" Nagi whispered, his breath a hot breeze against Tomo's lips. He felt so hot where Nagi touched him - and so cold everywhere else. He realized dimly Nagi pulled the blanket away from him. Nagi's lips traveled over his body, and Nagi's hands brushed over his skin.

"It hurts," Tomo said. "You're heavy."

"It's all right, isn't it? It feels good all the same. Kiss me, too," Nagi whispered in a suddenly childish, coquettish voice. "I was hurt as well, look."

He pulled his kimono away, pressing a scratch over his collarbone to Tomo's lips. And Tomo kissed the soft skin and rough inflamed trace - kissed it with abandonment, as if nothing else existed or was important.

"Good," Nagi breathed out. "Heal me. Like I heal you."

It was crazy - kisses didn't heal, Tomo knew it. But at the moment there was ultimate truth in what Nagi said. Nagi's fingers ran through his hair, pulling on the knots painfully and yet feeling good. Tomo felt something touch his chest, cold and hard, and knew what it was. The pendant; Nagi had it around his neck again.

He must have flinched, unreasonably, because Nagi noticed and understood it, took the pendant between his fingers, brushed it against Tomo's nipple. And despite everything Tomo felt excitement flood him at this touch.

"You're so beautiful," Nagi whispered. "My goddess likes you. She's satisfied."

Tomo made a choking sound, thrashed when Nagi leaned down - and his hottest lips wrapped around Tomo's shaft. It felt as if a lightning struck through his body, from Tomo's cock upwards - and nothing else existed or mattered - no pain, no fear, no Iku's betrayed eyes. Tomo whimpered and arched, pushing on Nagi's head with the heels of his palms, dimly amazed with his own courage. The Shogun's lover was giving him a blowjob - and he wanted more of it.

But then he stopped thinking at all. His body dissolved in sensations, in the warm draft of Nagi's breath on his groin, in the contracting throat around his cock. Nagi's soft tongue lapped on Tomo's cock, on the vein going along it - and that was what tripped Tomo over the edge, made him tremble and spasm as he came.

He couldn't even say that it was all pleasure; his balls felt so damaged that even coming was excruciating - but pain seemed dispensable at the moment. His body felt melted, weightless in afterglow. Nagi lapped on his softening cock lazily. Tomo reached to him, stroking Nagi's smooth hair and flinching with pain in his hand.

Finally Nagi moved up, lay along him - and Tomo sensed the other boy's gaze on himself - attentive and mocking. These sparkles of laughter - Tomo didn't understand them and pushed his hair on his face half-consciously.

"No, don't hide from me," Nagi whispered and pulled the strands away. "Tell me - did you like it?"

"I ... I don't know." Tomo recalled all of a sudden that he hadn't reciprocated, hadn't brought Nagi off. He reached for Nagi's cock but his hand was caught and moved away gently.

"I hope you liked it. Because I did certainly."

I don't understand, Tomo thought. What was to like there? Could it be another joke of Nagi?

But even if it were, the heat of Nagi's body pressed against him still felt wonderful. For once in such a long time it made Tomo feel warm in his damp room. Tomo found unable to doubt and wonder any more and just let himself slip into quietness of unconsciousness.

* * *

Two days later the General came. He walked right upstairs, without stopping for the Master's attempted niceties, just marched to Nagi's room and the door slammed shut behind him.

In his bed, lonely and bored, Tomo heard the noise dimly. He was getting better - but there still were moments when fever or weakness overwhelmed him so that reality because fuzzy. But this time he knew what he heard was real - someone yelling; someone in Nagi's room.

He got up, dragged himself up on his feet, wrapped his body in the robes. He was not good at walking yet - the room swirled around him, and he waited patiently until it stopped. His burnt foot still made it excruciating to walk but he tried not to pay attention.

The noise in Nagi's room kept going; Tomo froze in the empty corridor, leaning against the wall, listening, and as the rustle of beating of blood in his ears hushed, the words came finally.

"You slut, you never have enough, do you? Even here!"

"Let me go!" Nagi's voice was hysterical - a voice of a little boy almost. A sound of impact: fist against body - or body against the floor? - Tomo couldn't say.

"You disgrace me. A whore, like your mother ... You're a constant threat to me. How will you be punished next time? Fucked by a horse? You never learn, do you, son? Why have you done it?"

"I haven't done anything."

"Yes, sure! Why do I get this, then?"

There was a rustle of paper and a small pause, and then the General's voice came.

"It was sent to the palace today. The letter. Of your affair here."

"Affair?" Nagi's laughter was a strange high sound, stopping on a choking note. "Impossible, ne? I have *affairs* just ten or twelve times during the night. But I thought it was what I was sent here for."

"You know what I mean," the General said in a heavy voice. "Not with clients. With one of the boys here."

Blood rushed away from Tomo's face, made him feel like he was going to pass out, like his feet didn't hold him any more. How ... how could they know? A letter? Someone had ratted on them ...

"Did the Shogun see it?" All of a sudden there was no more humor in Nagi's voice. After a small pause, the General's answer came, tight.

"I had to show it. I didn't know, maybe, it was a test - I couldn't risk."

"Oh right, right. Just like you. So," sarcasm returned to Nagi's voice, "the Shogun sent you here."

"Yes." For the first moment it seemed to Tomo there was something like regret in the General's voice. "But the Shogun is really merciful to you. He decided not to pursue it. He just wants to know who was the other one."

The other one ... Oh God ... Feeling like the ceiling was crushing down on him, Tomo slumped against the wall. His fists clenched so tightly blood leaked from his torn off fingernails but he didn't notice it. Oh God ... he was stupid, wasn't he? He thought no one would know. No one would find out about him making out with the Shogun's lover ...

"Who's he?" the General said. "Tell me his name. It's all the Shogun wants from you."

"I don't remember," Nagi said with a chuckle.

A sound of blow was heavy - but Nagi didn't make a noise; just his father's breath was heard.

"Don't try my patience."

There was silence for a few moments - and the Tomo heard a soft whistling coming from Nagi. Nagi ... What was he doing, for God's sake?

"I don't want to do it, son." The General's voice turned very low - the sound that made Tomo shiver. He wondered whether Nagi heard the threat - or disregarded it, with his usual carelessness. Whistling stopped. "But I have my orders. The Shogun entrusted me to act as his proxy."

"Which way?" Nagi's voice was nasty, full of irony. "Are you going to fuck me?"

"Shut up!"

He was hitting him again; and then the door swung open and the General was on the threshold, dragging Nagi behind him. There was a white roll of paper in his other hand ... The letter?

It must have been Bakurou who'd written it, Tomo thought with a fit of such acute hatred as he'd never felt before. Bastard! He'd got to Nagi, managed to revenge himself for being defeated ...

Tomo didn't have time to hide from the General - but the man seemed to notice nothing. His face was lined harder than ever, looked tired and frozen. And on Nagi's face, there were bright streaks of blood, which the youth tried to wipe while trailing after his father. Tomo felt his heart being caught in his throat as he watched it. Why didn't Nagi still mention his name? Did he think the situation was not serious enough?

He felt sick with fear; couldn't stay where he was, followed. There was no coherent thought in Tomo's mind. He knew he would die once Nagi told his name - but he couldn't quite develop an understanding of it. There were no even real regrets; just a feeling of something inevitable, like a typhoon coming.

The day was bright - but in the inner porch where Tomo crouched it was stifling and half dark. He watched from there how the General dragged Nagi outside, forced him on his knees on the ground. A rope tightened on Nagi's hands.

"Who's he?" the General repeated.

Nagi shrugged.

"Then you'll die."

A swishing sound of the sword drawn from the sheath made Tomo flinch, made him cover his mouth to stay still. It didn't seem to impress Nagi at all, though. Even as he was now, kneeling and with his hands tied, he still was posing, still attempting to be graceful. With a movement of an actor on the stage he lowered his head, revealing his neck.

What was he doing? A part of Tomo wanted to scream, a part cringed in fear. It wasn't a joke, didn't Nagi understand it? It wasn't even a whip raised over him - but a sword. Death ...

"I'll do it," the General said. "Trust me."

"I know." But did he really know, with his voice sounding so unconcerned?

"And I won't regret it, son. I'm tired of you, of your indiscretions, of your being a whore, of endangering me ..."

"Guess who made me like that," Nagi muttered.

"Answer me!" The General's voice was terrible, and Tomo saw how Nagi winced. A thin golden chain on his neck was like a streak of flame under the sun.

How long was he going to be silent? What a fool he was! The sword in the General's hands caught sunrays on its blade, turning into an arc of light, and Tomo had to squint his eyes. But he was afraid to blink, feared that at the very moment he looked away, the sword would be brought down.

Did Nagi still think that the stupid pendant would save him? Tomo's mouth felt dry, his head pounding. Even now, even with the sword raised over his head - did Nagi think so? Tomo couldn't see Nagi's face but he searched the General's face, for any indication that it was just a false threat. No, the man would do it - Tomo could feel it. If not because of anything else, then because of his fear of the Shogun - and to secure his safety by getting rid of a compromising son ...

There was no person who wouldn't fear the Shogun, whether everything or only part of what people said about him was true. In a swift flood, memories filled Tomo, of rumors about men executed in dozens, their bloodless heads hanging on spikes later, about the Shogun's fascination with poisons as he tried different ones on his enemies and watched how they died in agony. About people slaughtered in the privacy of the palace - and tortured to death in dungeons ... The General didn't want to become one of them. Tomo didn't want to become one of them, too.

What would the Shogun do to someone who'd stolen - even once - the affections of his concubine? Tomo knew the answer too well, couldn't bear to dwell on it. Everything Bakurou had done to him would seem tame ...

But why didn't Nagi say his name ... He had to! Everything would be finished for Tomo then - but Tomo accepted it. There was nothing he could do.

"Go on." Nagi's voice came, somewhat subdued from the position he held his head in. His hands were clasped on each other, the knuckles white. "Are you going to do it or not?"

No! No ... He was supposed to say Tomo's name. Tomo saw the General's nostrils flare and knew now it was all - and suddenly knew he couldn't bear it. Everything else was bearable - but the thought of Nagi's head rolling in the dust was not. At the moment, even what the Shogun would do to him felt less frightening.

Tomo scrambled on his feet - and suddenly someone's hands hooked in his clothes, holding him. He looked back in fury and met Iku's huge, glittering dark eyes. For a moment they struggled silently, then Tomo hissed:

"Let me go!" - and Iku hissed back, intensity in his voice so unlike the boy's usual calmness:

"I won't."

"He'll kill him!"

He must have been mistaken - he couldn't really see the joy that flashed in Iku's eyes at these words. The boy was surprisingly strong, clinging to Tomo everywhere, impeding his motions - like a squid, his arms and legs wrapped around Tomo. But it only made Tomo struggle more. They flopped on the floor, both froze for a moment in fear that they would be heard - and then Iku was on him, pinning him to the floor.

If Tomo's hands were healthy, he would overpower the boy easily. But like that ... Tomo opened his mouth, wanted to call out for the General - what did it matter, he would be dead all the same. Iku's warm palm covered his lips, the boy leaning so close Tomo could see nothing but Iku's moist dark eyes.

"Don't! Don't say anything! Let him die, he's nobody to us, an outcomer, you can't care for him, how can you want to die for him ... He nearly got you killed, he's a fool, let him die ... "

The boy's whisper was hot on his face but Iku's words had no meaning. Tomo fought violently, with almost hatred, hit the boy in the chest with both his fists. Pain shoot through his hands even as Iku's lighter body was thrown away from him. Tomo curled for a moment, pressing his hands to his chest, unable to move with pain.

And it seemed to be enough. Iku was the first to get on his feet - and at the next moment he was already in the yard, screaming:

"Don't kill him! It's me!"

Tomo gaped, holding against the wall, struggling to get up. Why did Iku ... The wounded expression in Iku's eyes reappeared in his memory; but there was no time to think about it.

The General froze; the sword wavered in his hands as he looked down at the boy. Iku was so small, kneeling on the ground, his kimono pooled around him, his head lowered and his smooth hair like black silk over his shoulders.

"It's me," Iku repeated. "I seduced him."

The sword clanked, reverberating with the force the General brought it against the ground. The man breathed with open mouth, Tomo could see it. He walked out into the yard; his burnt foot seeped and started bleeding but he barely noticed it.

"He lies. It was me."

The ground hit his knees as Tomo slumped down - not so much in submission as unable to stand. He felt Iku look at him - and was shocked with anger, almost fury in the boy's eyes.

No, Tomo thought; I won't let you die for me.

"No, it was me," Iku said.

It was getting ridiculous. Tomo looked up, noticed the General's frown. Nagi's head was still lowered but Tomo could see Nagi's eyes glitter. Did Nagi still find it amusing?

"Tomo-san just says it to save me," Iku continued; his voice grew strong suddenly - and with bewilderment Tomo heard how cultured it sounded - as if the boy was a high-born. "He was always in love with me - and now he wants to save me, even though I have cheated on him with another. He thinks that if I care for the Shogun's slut so much, he'd better die than see it."

Tomo gaped, not being able to say a word. What was Iku saying? It was nonsense ... And then suddenly he knew it was not nonsense at all. Only Iku was not talking about him - he was talking about himself.

"I won't be surprised if it was him who wrote the letter," Iku continued. "He was out of his mind with jealousy, was ready to do anything to get rid of the court slut. He didn't expect it to turn up like this."

A pang of pain was so strong Tomo reeled. Was it what you'd done, Iku? He looked at the roll of the letter at the General's belt. He'd thought it was Bakurou ... but Bakurou could barely write.

His breath came out with a choking sound.

"Don't listen to Iku, sir."

The General looked at him; there was no interest in the man's eyes. Tomo was keenly aware suddenly that his appearance didn't testify for his words - huddling, with his hair loose and his face bruised - in comparison with neat and dignified Iku.

But they had to believe him!

"What? Are you both willing to die?"

"Let him go," Tomo said.

"You!" Suddenly the General's hand grabbed Nagi's chin, forced him look up. Tomo saw a strained expression on Nagi's face - his father's fingers must have hurt. But his eyes smiled; damn him, his eyes smiled. "Which of them is your lover? I swear I'll kill both of them right here if you don't say. Do you have a heart - spare at least one of them!"

Carefully, as much as the freedom his father left him, Nagi nodded. The General seemed to be a bit amazed with his son's sudden compliance. His voice was hoarse as he asked:

"Which one?"

"Him," Nagi said, pointing at Tomo.

He said it - but his voice, his eyes - everything was so full of deliberate slyness, of careful falseness - that even a fool could guess he lied. Tomo felt his heart fall. The General grabbed his son's hair, jerked his head back. A slap made Nagi's head dangle.

"You think you can fool me? I know you better than you think, you son of bitch. Take this one."

Tomo saw him point at Iku and knew something irreparable was happening. He struggled on his feet as the soldiers grabbed the boy, twisted Iku's thin arms behind his back.

"It's not true! It's not true!" Tomo screamed.

They didn't listen to him; they didn't notice him - and when he tried to apprehend them, one of them pushed him so hard he rolled on the ground, gasping with pain. Iku was yanked up, his hands tied behind his back.

"Where're you taking him?"

Tomo met the boy's eyes, so dark on a pale face - and there was no fear in Iku's gaze. Just warmth.

"I love you," Iku said as the General raised him in the saddle in front of himself. "I always did and always will."

Tomo kept hearing these words in his head, a constant sound of them, even as the procession left. Next to him, still kneeling on the ground, Nagi rubbed his wrists with raw traces of rope burns.

* * *

"You slapped me! I can't believe it."

Tomo found it unbearable to look into the widened brown eyes gazing at him. Nagi tilted his head awry, staring at Tomo with amazement. Tomo looked at his hand that still hurt from hitting Nagi; he'd never thought he would do something like this to the Shogun's lover. But he had.

"You ... " Cough choked him; it must have been his nervousness. It annoyed Tomo because it hindered him to say what he wanted. "Why did you do it?"

"Did what?" The sound of Nagi's voice was fluttering, so light. It started something dark in Tomo's heart - and yet it affected him in another way as well, made disturbing, shameful heat spread through him. He hated Nagi ... He couldn't want Nagi! Wasn't what happened a lesson for him?

"Are you angry with me for little Iku?" Nagi shook his head as if in astonishment. "But it wasn't even my fault. I didn't say it was him - I said it was you."

"Yes - in such a way that it was not possible to believe you!" Tomo pointed disdainfully.

"And you hate me because I didn't let you die." Nagi chuckled. "You aren't serious, are you?"

The shadows behind the window were thick, lilac and deep-blue. The night was coming. And for the first time on Tomo's memory the house was silent at this hour; for the first time the doors were closed. Downstairs, in his room, Bakurou was downing another bottle of sake - and sometimes his drunken voice reached up, saying dangerous, poignant words that would be his death sentence if the Shogun knew about them. The Master was with Bakurou, trying to shush him - but it didn't work.

Bakurou mourned the loss of Iku. When Iku had said once that Bakurou never punished him - it must have been true. In some strange way - Bakurou's attachment to the boy seemed to be settled in the purest, gentlest part of his soul; while the darkest part of it was turned to Tomo. Was it Tomo's own fault - who could say? But for Iku Bakurou cared - cared so much that had to drown his grief in sake now.

Was Bakurou going to get over the loss? Because if not - Tomo knew it - the house was ruined. The Master wouldn't be able to run it alone.

"What's wrong with you, Tomo?" The note of mockery in Nagi's voice became stronger. "I saved your life."

"What will be with Iku?"

"I guess we'll never see him again."

"You killed him."

"Tomo." The alternation between gentleness and scorn in Nagi's words was so confusing. "Someone ... someone had to die. It could've been me. It could've been you. What's wrong with it being the stupid kid? You didn't even like him, did you - always pushed him and snapped at him."

The truth of Nagi's words was painful - Tomo cringed in shame. And yet this shame added to his anger as well.

"Shut up!" He flung himself at Nagi, wanted to hit him again, to make him silent. "Shut up! What do you know, you worthless slut!"

Tomo's hand, raised for a slap, was caught - his wrist clenched and twisted. He struggled desperately, trying to free himself - realizing again how strong Nagi was - so strong that Tomo couldn't cope with him. Nagi held him, wringing his arm painfully, making him kneel - and then pushed Tomo away from himself.

"Beware." This time Nagi's voice was distant and alien. "Beware whom you call 'worthless slut'. I could forgive one insult from you - but no more."

Curled on the floor, Tomo choked with cough. He hated his weakness - his inability to overpower Nagi, to wrestle him down. The cough racked his body. He bit of a strand of his hair, struggling with himself. It took a minute or two for the fit to stop. Tomo's face was slick with sweat and his words lacked strength - but he said anyway:

"*I* can't forgive you. Iku didn't deserve it."

He looked up at Nagi - and for a moment it seemed to him he saw something changed in Nagi's eyes, something opened there - revealing what there was underneath.


"He didn't deserve it, did he? And do I deserve it? And you, Tomo?" Nagi's voice raised, sounding high and harsh, not melodious at all at the moment. "What have we done to pay such a price? Look at yourself! You weigh like a ten-year-old and cough day and night. What have you done for it to happen to you? How old were you when you were fucked for the first time? Three, four? I know how old I was! When my father brought me to the Shogun's bed - do you think it didn't hurt then? Do you think I didn't cry?"

Tomo never expected it; never knew Nagi's voice could sound with such torment. It terrified him - as if he witnessed something he shouldn't have. But it was too late - and Nagi didn't stop.

"Your Iku is lucky - all the Shogun will do to him is to kill him. Maybe, he's already dead - he didn't look strong. But do you know what living with the Shogun is? Can you even imagine what I have to do, what I have to watch? He wears white clothes for mourning ... Red clothes for fucking ... Black clothes for killing ... " The last words Nagi said in monotone, rocking from side to side. So, this was true, Tomo thought - at least in these things the rumors didn't lie.

"He loves my smile. He loves me dance. I'm his slut, his bitch - all you can call me. But do you think I like it?"

Unable to say a word, Tomo just looked at him - and saw Nagi's hand clench on the pendant convulsively.

"Only she cares for me ... " Nagi whispered, his eyes half-closed. "I'm her beloved ... Only for her I'm clean."

Was it all there was about Nagi's crazy belief? That he had to be clean for someone? Suddenly all Tomo could feel was burning pain and hostility to the piece of metal in Nagi's hand. He plunged forward. He didn't even know what he wanted to do - to hit Nagi, to hug him, to make him stop talking or to make him take the damn sign off. The other boy struggled against him, and then Tomo's hand caught against the chain, yanked it. It tore with a soft popping sound, the pendant flashing in the air, landing on the floor in a corner.

For a moment they both froze - Tomo terrified what he'd done - and Nagi panting and glaring at him. Then a smashing blow under his ribs, so heavy something seemed to tear inside him, sent Tomo on the floor. With dazed eyes, he saw how Nagi dropped on the floor with a candle in his hand.

"You fool, what have you done? Where is it?"

There, Tomo wanted to say; he could see a small golden fleck. But then the cough came again - and now it was not the usual dry one but something damp slurped in it - and Tomo saw how wet red drops landed from his mouth on the floor and on his hands.

He felt dizzy; it was his blood and it went from inside him. Surely Nagi's blow was not so bad to cause it ... but the bleeding didn't stop. Drops became little pools and Tomo coughed and coughed, and now the blood was not all liquid but with some thicker clots in it.

Absently, Tomo felt how Nagi stood over him, looking down. Tomo turned to him - because he wanted to look anywhere but at these hideous clots on the floor. Or because he thought Nagi could give him an answer.

And Nagi really could.

"I knew it was that." There was no more anger in Nagi's eyes, just sadness - and Tomo cringed, seeing it. "No wonder, with the way how you coughed. It's lung disease - consumption."

Tomo looked at him dumbly - and then looked back at the stained floor and blood on his hands. There was no thought in his head, not even denial. He should've said he didn't believe it, Nagi must have been wrong - but he knew Nagi was not wrong.

"Oh God," he whispered. "I'm dying."

It became clear to him at once - his morning chills, his weakness, his constant exhaustion. He was rotting inside, his lungs fell into pieces. And now he was coughing these pieces out.

"It doesn't happen so quickly." Nagi knelt on the floor with him, and Tomo, in a fit of self-disgust, tried to move away from him. Nagi reached to his face, pushed a strand of hair away. Tomo saw a glitter of the pendant in the boy's palm - so, Nagi had found it, after all. "You still have months - most likely years."

Did he lie? Tomo looked at him questioningly but his mind didn't work clearly. Why would Nagi lie? And then another thought slammed on him.

"They'll ... they'll kill me when they find out ... they'll kick me out ... I can infect the customers ... And you ... Get away from me - don't you know it's contagious!" He got very angry, glared at Nagi. What a fool the boy was - should've known better than to get anywhere near to all this blood ...

He felt Nagi's fingers suddenly, pressed to his mouth, to the wetness of blood on his lips. Tomo shivered with anger - but in this touch, there was something weakening, just like in Nagi's smile.

"I'm not afraid," Nagi said.

Stupid, stupid idiot! What was not to be afraid here? It was a disease, he could get it just as Tomo himself had got it from somewhere. Nagi's fingers stroked his wet lips, their tips so soft - and then pushed into Tomo's mouth. For a moment Tomo tried not to let it happen - but then couldn't resist. Nagi's fingers touched his tongue.

"I can't fall sick." Nagi's smile was blissful; a hideously wrong smile, taking into account the situation. But there was something catching in it, something that affected Tomo as well. He could never resist Nagi ... "Don't you know? I'm a Lover of Death, nothing can happen to me."

The fingers stroked the insides of his mouth gently - and Tomo sucked on them, not quite knowing what he was doing. Nagi's eyes glowed, looking at him with affection. Affection?

"I have a sign on my forehead," Nagi whispered. "Disease won't kill me. Nothing will kill me."

He leaned forward suddenly, taking his fingers from Tomo's mouth - and his lips replacing them at once, his tongue striving in. Tomo felt the caress of Nagi's fingers on his face, on his hair - and there was a colder touch of the piece of metal against his cheek. There was no sense to resist any more - so, Tomo kissed back. He knew Nagi tasted blood on his tongue, couldn't believe the boy could want to do it - but Nagi did.

The futon turned up as Tomo fell on his back, Nagi over him. Nagi's kisses were fervent, passionate, trailing over Tomo's throat. He felt his yukata being pulled off of him as Nagi kissed lower, kissed his chest and belly. For a short while, Nagi left him, and through lowered eyelashes Tomo saw the older boy get rid of his own clothes. Nagi's smooth body stretched against his.

A cradle of Nagi's arm under his head was so convenient, and Nagi's fingers traveled over Tomo's body, as skillful as Nagi's lips. Tomo wanted to touch him, too, feel incredible softness of the boy's skin. Nagi's hard cock pressed against Tomo's belly - and Nagi's palm lay down on Tomo's erection finally.

"I love you," Nagi said.

And his eyes said the same - so incredibly tender, reveling in Tomo. Nagi leaned towards him, kissed him again - and when he broke the kiss, there was a little of Tomo's blood smeared on his lips.

Tomo looked at this streak of red, both terrified and fascinated with it. It was an evidence of his near death - as sure as there could be.

He understood something suddenly; the realization should've been painful - but for some reason it was not, just something distant. Nagi didn't love him; Nagi didn't care for him. The love Tomo could see in his eyes was the love to his goddess, his imaginary keeper. And Tomo was just the closest link for Nagi to touch her.

He didn't want Tomo; he wanted another walk over a precipice, another risk taken - another test of his invulnerability. But who was Tomo to judge him for it; maybe, this delusion was the only thing that kept Nagi from complete insanity.

"Fuck you," Tomo said.

Nagi's soft palms cupped his face, soft lips touched Tomo's eyelids.

"Oh no, pretty one. Fuck you."

The intrusion hurt - but curiously, it didn't bother Tomo that much. There was something aching much worse, deep inside him. And then, as Nagi moved, looking for the right angle and skillfully finding it, the pain stepped away and pleasure came.

Tomo felt Nagi's hips slamming down at him, and Nagi's arms wrapped around his body, and he suddenly knew that this closeness was as much as he would ever feel in his life. All other men who'd taken his body were unimportant; *this* was different - this was what he would remember.

"I'm coming," Nagi whispered and kissed his cheek, and it was as if Tomo needed just these words to come as well.

He lay in Nagi's embrace later. Little night insects buzzed around the flame of the candle, turning into burnt clots of ash now and then. Nagi patted Tomo's face - but his thumb was bent, holding a sign of "shi" against his palm.

"You don't need to die." He traced Tomo's lips absently. "There're medicines, there must be. If not here, then in other countries. Soon people from other countries, from Europe, will be coming to Japan, I know. I'll order a doctor from Europe for you - and he'll heal you.

"We'll live together in the palace," he continued in a voice that seemed to be lulling Tomo away. "You'll be telling me your stories. It'll be fun. Don't worry, I won't leave you - I'll come back for you when they take me back to the palace. It can't take so long - you just have to wait for me till then. Promise me that you'll wait."

Blindly, Tomo reached and touched tender skin of Nagi's cheek, stroked it slightly.

"I promise," he said.

And at that moment he really meant it.

* * *

"You see, I'm going back there! You didn't believe I would!"

Nagi's voice was high-pitched, almost squeaky - very childish. And his face, flushed and bright-eyed, under tousled hair, seemed to be a face of a happy kid.

He'd never shown how difficult it was for him here, Tomo thought; always made it seem like some game. Only now, with this joy, he revealed it ...

"He can't live without me! Someone has to warm up his bed - and no one can replace me. See, not even a week passed - and the Shogun sent for me!"

There were riders again in the backyard; the horses clattered their hooves on the dry ground - and a few minutes ago the General entered Nagi's room, shoved a heap of clothes in his hands.

"Get dressed. We're taking you home."

The shining would be gone from this place with Nagi. As cruel and egoistic as the feeling was, Tomo couldn't help it - couldn't help feeling sorry that Nagi was leaving. And, maybe, it was the truth what Nagi said - deep in his heart he believed the Shogun would never want Nagi back.

He felt guilt thinking about it. Nagi didn't deserve it. Nagi deserved more - a luxurious palace, not their ratty house; the Shogun as his lover - not those crude men that used his services at night. This brothel was for those like Tomo - and even it would be too good for him soon, when they found out about his sickness.

Would he ever see Nagi again? He watched the boy move around the room, gather his clothes and let them drop absent-mindedly. Nagi knelt at the window, reached for his make-up kit - and then turned to Tomo, smiling apologetically.

"I gotta be a little nervous. Hands shaking."

"Do you want me to do your face?"

"Can you? How are your fingers?"

"I can," Tomo smiled.

The delicate heart-shaped face of Nagi lay in his cupped palms as he studied it for a moment. Of course, he couldn't do such miracles with powder, rouge and coal as Nagi could. But Nagi really needed so little to enhance his beauty.

"Are you worried?" As Nagi tried not to ruin Tomo's work with mimic, his lips barely moved, words sounding muffled. "That I'll leave and forget about you."

Nagi's eyes were closed - how could he know? And anyway, Tomo hoped there was nothing expressed on his face.

"Don't worry! I won't forget you. I promised, didn't I? I'll get you out of here."

"All right," Tomo said. His fingers still hurt - but he managed to make the brush move steadily.

"Don't you believe me?"

"I believe you."

He almost did; really.

"Here - ready."

Nagi's eyes, outlined with coal, sparkled at him - and glossy red lips smiled enticingly.

"Thank you, Tomo."

He let his robes slide on the floor, stepped out of the pool of cloth and reached for the garment heaped on the futon.

"What do they think!" Nagi's nose wrinkled slightly. "It's not my best robes! Am I supposed to appear before the Shogun like this? My father is such a fool."

For Tomo, the clothes were much more expensive than anything he'd come to touch - but Nagi probably knew better. Still grumbling, he put on the kimono anyway.

So, that was all. Tomo bit his lip so hard he could taste blood - and he didn't like this taste. He couldn't bear looking at Nagi - wanted to look at him but found it excruciating.

Then there was a rustle of clothes - and sweetest smell of Nagi's perfume surrounded him. Nagi's hands lay on his face, tilting it up, making Tomo turn. And then Nagi's lips touched his, very carefully not to smear the paint - just for a moment. Then Nagi let him go.

"I'll come back for you."

He walked out - and for a few moments Tomo could do nothing but sit, slumped bonelessly - as if his spine was broken and he couldn't move. Then he scrambled up on his feet and ran, after Nagi, to the yard where the General waited.

The sun hit in his eyes as he stopped on the porch - the rays so bright, shining on the adorned harnesses and sword handles of the riders. There were six or seven people, apart from the General - but one of them was not a warrior.

Very small and frail, with long smooth hair flooding over his shoulders, he sat in the saddle of a lithe white horse - and his little hands were clasped on the reins. He looked down with blank expression in his wide, slightly squinted eyes.

Tomo stopped as if stumbling, looked at the small rider's face, unable to believe it was really what he saw. But of course it was; it was Iku. Alive ... Relief flooded Tomo - and then he noticed the wealth of Iku's clothes, golden decorations plaited into his hair. The boy looked like a doll, so pretty, so beautifully adorned.

Iku's eyes stopped on Tomo for a moment - and Tomo flinched with what he saw there. Nothing; nothing at all. He hadn't paid attention - but he understood now that Iku's eyes were always so eloquent - so warm and gentle, even when Tomo hurt him, even when rejected him. Now his eyes were glassy and empty; just like two polished gems - black gems among other Iku's adornments.

What did the Shogun do to him, Tomo thought, how could he change him like that ... so quickly?

Nagi walked across the yard to his father, smiling, and then he saw Iku as well. Tomo watched how he stopped still, as if seeing a ghost. A movement Nagi made, reaching for a pendant on his neck, was convulsive, feverish - and even through a layer of powder Tomo had put himself he saw how Nagi paled.

His voice was high-pitched, very loud, as he screamed suddenly at his father:

"What's he doing here? It's my horse! It's my belt on him! It's my jewelry! Why did you bring him here ..."

Nagi's voice broke, making his last phrase sound like an answer, not like a question. The General turned away, his arms crossed. Slight wind tousled long strands of his graying hair.

"He can't be here ... " Nagi whispered. It was like his voice was lost, failed him. "Why do we need him - there can't be two of us! There can't be two! He can't replace me ... "

"Keep silent," the General said, turning. He winced as if with headache. "Don't disgrace yourself any more."

"He can't replace me ... How could the Shogun like him? He's not better than me ... " Nagi's voice raised and broke. "He's just a kid! I'm the best courtesan, no one can compare with me! Where're you taking me?.."

He jerked away from the General's hand - and at the very moment Nagi's father made a sign - and two soldiers stepped closer, put their hands on Nagi's shoulders. Tomo saw how Nagi struggled, heard a ripping sound of the expensive clothes. Nothing changed in Iku's frozen stare.

"Let me go, let me the fuck go, what are you doing ... "

Nagi's hands were tied, as he was dragged and thrown face down over the saddle. They didn't even let him ride, Tomo thought, freezing.

The General winced again, shifted as if he felt uncomfortable. Nagi struggled, raised his flushed face under messed up hair and screamed:

"You can't do it to me, you're my father!"

"I have a son no more," the General said looking somewhere far away. His crossed arms were clenched too tightly but otherwise his face was calm. "For all I care, I slew you two days ago on this yard, when asking the name of your lover."

His lover is Death, Tomo thought - because it was what Nagi had repeated so many times over those days. But now Nagi didn't believe in it any more - and his sign wasn't going to protect him.

The General mounted, and the procession turned, leaving the yard. A small rider in embroidered clothes lingered for a few more seconds, his eyes stopping on Tomo again - and then Iku spurred the horse as well. Standing in the porch, Tomo looked at them as they left, a glorious sight in their rich clothes, gold and silver shining in the rays of the sun - apart from one of them, thrown over the saddle, a hand of a soldier keeping his head down.

"Believe me ... I'll come back for you ... "

Blood filled Tomo's mouth, and he swallowed it, thick and salty, but there was just too much of it, choking him with a hot wave.


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