The world terrifies me. I’m not talking about the big, bad urban jungle or the relentless sprawl of suburbia. It’s the wild, primeval planet that bares its teeth when you step outside on a quiet summer night. Flowers that fear the sun explode into brilliance, spewing their thick, mysterious fragrance everywhere. Cicadas become bold and they surround you. The warm earth throbs beneath your feet. The stars, they hum in tune with that huge and overwhelming Something that’s always out there watching and waiting. The naked night strips you down to the marrow and there’s no secret you can possibly hide from it.

Usui terrifies me.

When I’m with him, it feels the same. When he’s inside me, his eyes are hot, merciless and almost calculating. They peel away my armor and…

“Thomas?” The voice streaming out of the phone cradled to my ear is low and curious.

“Sorry,” I mutter, shifting back to the present moment, both hating and loving the way my body warms at the mere hint of his breath in my ear.

There’s a low chuckle. “Come see me tonight.”

There’s a jolt. My shaking hands fumble with the stack of papers I’d been sifting through. “I really can’t. Um, I still have to–”

“Thomas, come to me or I will come to you. Those are the options.” He pronounces my name with a hard “T” dropping the “h.” I gave up on correcting him a long time ago. Besides, at some point I’d begun to love the way he says my name.

My eyes slant toward the living room where my mom is watching the TV with the volume so low, it might as well be mute. Earlier, I’d asked if she could even hear it.

She’d waved me away, taking a sip of her herbal tea. “My hearing’s just fine kid.”

I don’t think she’s realized that I’ve switched out her teabags with an Essiac blend.

My face is burning. I can’t imagine making love with Usui in this house. Her sharp ears would pick up every sound! I know he knows this but I heard the stubborn impatience in his voice. He’s difficult when he gets like this. I can’t put it past him to show up and refuse to leave. I sigh heavily, playing the I’ll-go-since-you’re-basically-forcing-me card.

“It’s okay, I’ll come to you.”

“See you then,” he says cheerfully. I’m sure he gets it but it seems, he doesn’t particularly care.

I reach over to idly messy Mom’s hair on the way upstairs to change. It’s an old habit leftover from childhood, when I used to do it just to drive her insane. I guess it’s my way of trying to reassure her. Ever since I came home, she’s been giving me these sad, searching looks. I’d come back saying that I was dropping out of college. She’s worried and thinks something awful must have happened to me there. I can’t tell her the truth. I’d barely been in college two months when I was scouted by the Mantis company. Been done with school ever since.

It’s all right like this, I think. We’d long ago become a family in the habit of keeping secrets to protect each other. Mom and Dad didn’t tell me that while I was supposedly away at college for three years, my dad – the ex-cop was here wasting away from complications caused by a gunshot wound to the pancreas. She didn’t call me back home until it was nearing time to say goodbye. Said they didn’t want me to miss out on life and some other exasperating, parental bull.

When I was a kid, Dad would always tell me. “Don’t tell Mom the reason we’re not going to the family reunion is your aunts Janine and Cleo can’t stand to be in the same room with her.” It didn’t end there. There was also, “don’t tell Mom, no one on my side of the family really wants her around.” Like it was her fault my first Mom had died; like it was some big sin to fall in love with a man that was dark, if you happened to be blonde and have big, blue eyes. Don’t tell. Don’t tell. Don’t tell. I became so adept at keeping secrets. Who knew that it would ultimately serve me so well?

My mom, she doesn’t think I know about the cancer slowly eating away at her insides. She’s lost so much weight; she looks barely more than skin and bones. Her skin is so pale and translucent, I can see her veins. My dark hand is such a startling contrast against hers, like the difference between night and day. She feeds me some stupid line that it’s her own fault for overworking but her illness is the reason I moved back home, so there.

Black cargo pants, black polo shirt – I consider myself good and dressed and eye my reflection in the mirror critically. I sigh because there are shadows under my eyes. The single diamond stud in my left ear is a gift from Usui. I smile, grudgingly. He’d been so arrogant, declaring that he’d known that it would suit me. As if that was a rational explanation for having pierced my earlobe while I slept, without even asking me about it first.

I don’t mind that I’m smaller in stature than Usui. I’m not exactly skinny. I work out every morning because I have to. It’s a requirement for keeping my job at the company, even though I’m really just tech support and basically a gopher–an obscenely well paid gopher. I don’t even want to think about the brutal group training camp that I have to attend every six months. It occurs to me that there’s another one coming up to soon for my liking.

I grab my jacket and my keys and amble down the back stairway. “Mom! I’m going out.”

“Okay, hon.” She answers, still from the living room.

Once in my car, I hit the speed dial on my phone. A sleepy female voice answers.

“Martine, I’m going out. Can you watch my mom?”

She’s an old childhood friend and an artist. Or deal is we pretend I don’t know about my mom’s cancer and I pay Marty to come over and stay with her when I’m away. Marty’s happy with the arrangement. I pay her well and without a full-time job, she gets to paint to her heart’s content. A big plus, she loves my mom. I hear a rustle of sheets and she’s murmuring something to Ray, her live-in boyfriend.

“Did you leave already?” She asked in the same breath. It takes me a few moments to realize that she’s talking to me and not Ray.

“Huh? Yeah, just now.”

“All right, I’ll be over there in five.”

Twenty minutes later, I’m veering off the interstate and on the exit road leading to Usui’s house.

I met Usui six months ago. It was a routine package drop but odd because I never usually got assignments so close to my home but it was to pass files off to a Mantis colleague at a local gallery, so no sweat there. To my surprise, he also turned out to be the artist whose work was on exhibit that day. I swear my heart stopped for at least five seconds when we first met. His long dark hair was gathered into what I now know to be his ubiquitous ponytail, with a rubber band. He has a pretty mouth, eloquent, golden eyes. His refined features are at odds with his rough hands and careless lankiness. He has lovely, tanned skin – like melted caramel. Sometimes, I wonder where he was born but he’d probably never tell me. His voice has traces of East End London and the West Indies, alternatively. That could be just an affectation for the job though, so I can’t really tell.

Digging into his past by normal means would probably get me nowhere fast. I suspect that anything I find would be disinformation fabricated by the company anyway. To find the truth, I’d probably need to hack Mantis’ database. Being the low man on the totem pole, I’d probably wind up with bullet in my head for looking for the wrong things in the wrong places though. When you work for an international conglomerate of mercenaries-for-hire, you know better than to mess around with stuff like that.

Usui stands at least a head taller than me. At the time we met, he was wearing dark slacks and a fashionable shirt, the kind you see in glossy magazines. The air of urbanity suited him but there was something untamed underneath. I remember thinking…

Say you’re in the city walking down a deserted street in the small, dark hours. You see a shape in the dark. You think oh, it’s just a stray house cat but the closer it gets, the bigger and scarier it gets. Then you hear that low, predatory growl. That’s not a cat, you think. That’s not a cat at all! By the time you realize your mistake, your bones are already breaking.

I don’t know why I was thinking that. It was with dismay that I suddenly realized that I’d been standing there staring at him all wide-eyed, like a total idiot. Mortified, I handed over the package and turned to leave but he grabbed my hand and asked me to stay a while. Have a drink with him afterward. I hesitated. On principle, I should have refused. My work there was done but something inside me wanted to say yes. God, yes.

He flashed a dazzling smile and said, “don’t worry. It’s not like you’re breaking protocol or anything.”
My legs went all rubbery and I remember nodding wordlessly, then I watched him walk off to talk to some patrons while I waited.

Usui’s house is a squat building with peeling adobe paint on the outside. It used to be a warehouse of some sort. At huge metal wall with a door separates his living space from his art studio on the inside. I use the keys that he’d given me a week ago to enter his studio. Besides the noise from his machinery, he works in silence. He’s wearing an over-sized jeans jumper with a tank top underneath. He works with a blowtorch, sparks spewing everywhere as he welds.

“Hey.”

I’m not sure he’ll hear me but the torch is extinguished and he raised the safety mask and has a smile for me.

“One sec,” he flips the mask down and the blowtorch leaps to life for a few more minutes.

“What are you making?” I eyed the hulk of jumbled metal dubiously.

“Dunno yet.”

I don’t really get his art but when I look at Usui’s sculptures, something twists inside me. That wild, ancient fear bubbles up in my throat.

A few minutes later, I’m following him into the kitchen and watching as he washes up. He gets something from the fridge.

“Want anything?”

I shake my head. “Not right now.”

He wanders out into the living area and sinks down into the couch. Black spots pepper the bare part of his chest, burn marks from the sparks. Sometimes, he gets carried away and becomes careless. He pops the top on his… beer? I frown in puzzlement. Since when does Usui drink beer?

“So,” he says at length. “This next job…”

“Hmmm.” I nod, not saying anything else since I don’t really know how much he knows.

Helpless attraction is one thing. Professional matters are another entirely. We rarely talk shop, so my thoughts are a scrambled mess of questions already.

He regards me quietly with those cat-like eyes. A hint of a smile flashes across his face. He reaches into the pocket of his jumper and hands me a small round disc. “New orders. The job parameters have changed quite a bit. It’s a level six job now.”

Level one straight to level six? What the hell?

“Ordinarily,” he continues. “It would have been reassigned to the next qualified team on the roster but Taki-kun owed me a favor. You’ll stay on assignment as my second.”

My brain fizzles a bit. He’s on a first name basis with the head of personnel for the entire western division? I don’t know what exactly Usui does. His level is way above mine. I crunch numbers and coax electronic circuitry into doing impossible things. What Usui does for the company is probably… dangerous.

I blink suddenly. My next words are a stammered, incoherent rush ending with a single lame word.

“Together?”

He nodded and eases back. “I really think you have a lot of potential. Only if you want to though.”

My mouth drops open at the casual way he just tossed that out here, like it’s no big deal he called in a massive favor like that on my behalf, without knowing if I’d agree. Then again, who wouldn’t leap at the rare chance to advance several pay grades ahead? I think of my Mom. There was a private and extremely exclusive treatment facility in Switzerland that I’d been… I gape at him some more. Usui thinks I have potential! He’d said those words. I’m honored, elated and terrified all at once. Sitting across from him, I nod jerkily.

He springs to his feet suddenly. “Oh, yeah. There is one thing… be right back.”

He wanders into the next room and returns, idly twirling a Baretta Jetfire semi-automatic pistol between his fingers. He sits back down and sets it down on the coffee table, giving it a little push towards me.

“Carrying one of these,” he says. “Is no longer optional.”

I shake my vehemently, eying it with distaste. “Nu-huh.”

It’s not like I’m unfamiliar with guns. I was also trained to handle and maintain firearms. It’s the thought of having to actually use one on somebody that petrifies me. I swallow nervously, wondering how I’m going to explain this to him. He doesn’t ask for an explanation though. He doesn’t say anything else about it and I think that’s the end of it until later when I’m naked, trembling and straddling him.

His cock is firmly buried in me. His fist tightens around mine. A violent shudder runs through my entire body.

He says out of the blue, “About the gun. You’re going to have to–”

His words die on a ragged moan as I begin to move mindlessly against him. “I can’t! I really, really can’t–” Oh… god. His hand is pumping of the slick, throbbing length of me in slowly deliberate, torturous motions. “Oh f–ck… stop screwing with me!” I growl.

In the next breath, I’m burying my head in his shoulder and I whimper mournfully when he lets go and places both hands on my hips, immobilizing me instead.

“Thomas. Thomas, look at me.”

My petulant “No” is muffled against his skin.

“Thomas,” His voice is a strained, hoarse plea. “Listen Baby,” he whispers against my ear and my heart immediately melts– damn him! “There’s nothing to it, nothing at all, ” he croons softly. “You just put your finger on the trigger and squeeze.”

I feel his muscles tighten and bunch, his hands urging me upward. His hips surge up as he pulls me down forcefully. A sort of fevered wail falls from my lips.

“Again!” I heard myself pleading. Again. Again. Again.

His mouth covers mine when I begin to quake uncontrollably against him. “Thomas… Thomas…”

He chants my name like a mantra and I can feel it building up inside him, the way his body shudders when he erupts inside me. My trembling hands brush the damp mess of his hair back behind his ears. I kiss his sweaty shoulder and taste salt and flecks of burnt metal on my tongue.

Drained, I tumble sideways. I don’t have the strength to move but Usui hooks his arm around my waist and draws me close.

“Thomas.” His magnetic eyes pull me in. He is serious and earnest. “You have to promise. Swear on my life that if it comes down to it, you’ll do what it takes to not die.”

“Usui…”

“If you don’t, I can’t have you as my partner. Tell me now. Do you want to do this or not?”

And I think about him and how much he believes in me. I think about my mom and the treatments I’d be able to get my hands on, thanks to the extra money and company connections.

“All right, I promise.” My heart quails a little bit but the way he’s looking at me, I feel like I can do it. If I have to.

I settle into his arms, glancing reluctantly at the clock. It’s 3:32 am. “I really should get going.”

“Stay with me?”

He always asks me this and I always have to say no. My teeth worry at my lower lip. I want to. I really, really want to but I say, “My mom needs me. I don’t like to think she’ll be all alone when she wakes up in the morning.”

“I already asked Martine and she said she’d spend the night.” His grin is triumphant and sunny.

I say “okay” and wonder how such a simple thing could make him so obnoxiously happy. And when exactly did my lover and my childhood friend begin plotting against me? My stomach does this weird little flip and my heart aches so terribly. It feels like a knife wound that has pierced so deeply that I think I’m going to die, but it’s a good kind of agony.

In the morning, my growling stomach wakes me up. Something smells great and Usui is no longer beside me. A few minutes later, I’m watching him from the kitchen entryway.

“You can cook too?” I can’t quite keep the outrage out of my voice.

“Hmmm?” He looks back at me with an untroubled smile. “How high do culinary skills rank on your list of deadly sins?”

“Eight,” I say, without hesitation and he crows, setting a plated omelet on the table before me. Then he brings me a glass of orange juice and a handful of… multi-vitamins. Seriously?

“This isn’t going to work.” I grumble, taking a seat. “You’re way too perfect for someone like me.”

It’s been two weeks since that magical morning. During the past fortnight, I got a painful crash course on why level fives and over don’t have to attend the mandatory six month training camps. Usui and I are in the belly of a military-type transport plane, somewhere over Belarus. His fingers linger here and there as he checks my gear.

“Nervous?”

My mouth twists in what I hope is a disdainful “hell no.”

His finger flicks my chin. “You’ll do fine,” he declares firmly with a confident nod.

There’s a slow, deliberate smile and I wonder just what the hell he’s thinking about at a time like this. His fingers brush behind my ear. “Check.”

My breath hitches but I nod. “Loud and clear.”

“Time?”

“0508.”

He adjusts his watch and nods.

I mimic his motions and then finally reach behind his ear. “Check.”

“Clear.” he smiles. “All right. We’re all set.”

He gives me a hard, toe-curling kiss that sets my hair on end. The air begins to roar as the maw of the plane opens up.

“Good hunting!” He yells.

“See you soon!” I yell back.

I’m breathless as I release my rappel line and close my eyes, letting my body fall backwards and somersaulting out of the plane. Usui follows. The breaking dawn is blinding. I’m smiling as earth and wind rush upward to swallow us whole.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tonya R. Moore is a fan of all things spec-fic and a closet otaku with a wicked sweet tooth. She shares an apartment with a scary spider

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