His Mercenary

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 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 could 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, 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.” 

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

“Thomas, come to me or I will get on a plane and 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 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. 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 reach over to idly messy Mom’s hair on the way upstairs to change. It’s an old habit left over from childhood. 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 home declaring I dropped 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 three months when I was scouted by Mantis Corp. 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 a whole year, my dad was here wasting away from complications caused by a gunshot wound to the pancreas.

She didn’t call me back home until it was 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 aunt Janine can’t stand to be in the same room with her.” 

It didn’t end there.

There was also, “don’t tell Mom about our gift. Don’t tell anyone.” 

Don’t tell. Don’t tell. Don’t tell.

I became so adept at keeping secrets. Who knew that would ultimately serve me so well? 

My mom 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. She feeds me some stupid line. Says it’s her 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. I 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 so because 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 must. It’s a requirement for keeping my job at the company, even though I’m just tech support and a gopher—an obscenely well-paid gopher.

I don’t even want to think about the brutal group training camp that I must attend every six months. I scowl, remembering that there’s another one coming up too soon for my liking.

I grab my jacket and my keys and amble down the back stairway.

“Ma! I’m going out.”  

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

I step outside into the sultry Florida night, slipping into the shadow of the trees near the driveway. I close my eyes and draw in a long deep breath, picturing the street where Usui’s studio sits on a cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Milan.

In my mind, I picture Usui’s living room. The fluffy sofa. The decades-old Siberian rug. The aged baby grand piano is near the window.

I inhale and reach out to grab a willow branch, to steady myself, to will heaven and earth to move around me. The ground tilts beneath my feet. I exhale. The mad tilting stops. I’m standing inside Usui’s empty living room.

Vertigo turns my knees to jelly. I lurch sideways, collapsing onto the sofa. I breathe in. I breathe out. I try my damnedest to will that mad spinning inside my head away.

Usui’s house used to be a warehouse of some sort. Inside, a huge metal door separates his living space from his art studio.

Feeling steadier, I venture into his studio. Besides the noise from his machinery, he works in silence. He’s wearing an oversized jeans jumper with a tank top underneath. He works with a blowtorch, flames spewing everywhere as he welds. 

“Hey,” 

I’m not sure he’ll hear me, but the torch is extinguished, and he raises the safety mask.

“One sec,” he flips the mask down, and the blowtorch leaps to life.

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

“Dunno yet.” 

I don’t 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 onto the couch. Black spots pepper his upper chest, burn marks from the sparks. Sometimes, he gets carried away and becomes careless.

He pops the top on his beer. 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 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 USB flash drive. “The job parameters changed a bit. This time you’ll be retrieving a certain item from a vault with some pretty tight security.” 

“Meaning?” I balk just a little, not entirely liking where this was going.

“No satellite imagery.” 

“You know I can’t–” 

Usui holds up a staying hand. “We’ll need to infiltrate the compound. Once we get in, all you need is to access the security cameras, right?”

“We?” My brain fizzles a bit. 

I don’t know what Usui’s exact job description is. His security clearance level is way above mine. I do know one thing for sure. What Usui does for the company is probably… dangerous.

My next words are a strangled, incoherent rush ending with a single lame word. “You and me? Together?”

“With your gift and brains, I think you have what it takes to advance already. Why not partner up with me?” He eases back into the sofa. “Only if you want to, though.”

Who in the world wouldn’t leap at the rare chance to advance several pay grades ahead? I think of my mom. There’s that private treatment facility in Switzerland, I’ve been researching. I gape at him some more.

Usui thinks I have potential. 

I feel honored, elated, and terrified all at once.

He springs to his feel. “Oh, yeah. There is one thing. Be right back.”

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

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

I shake my, eying it with distaste. “Nope.” 

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 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, nor does he complain when I hastily change the subject. 

He just blindsides me hours later when we’re in bed. 

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–” 

His hand pumps the slick, throbbing length of me in slowly deliberate, torturous motions. In the next breath, I’m burying my head in his shoulder and I whimper helplessly 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,” he whispers against my ear and my heart immediately melts. Damn him. “There’s nothing to it, nothing at all,” he murmurs. “You just need to put your finger on the trigger and squeeze.”

“Thomas,” he insists softly. “I need you to promise that if your life depends on it, you’ll use that gun. If you don’t, I can’t have you as my partner. Tell me now. Do you want to do this or not?” 

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

“All right,” I promised.

My heart quails a little bit but the way he’s looking at me, I feel like I can do it. 

Two weeks later, Usui and I are in the belly of a military 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 “heck no.” 

His finger flicks my chin.

“You’ll do fine,” he declares firmly with a confident nod. 

He smiled slowly. Deliberately. I wonder just what the hell he’s thinking about at a time like this. His finger brushes behind my ear. 

“Check.” 

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

“Time?” 

“0608.” 

He adjusts his watch and nods. 

I mimic his motions and then finally reach behind his ear.

“Check.” 

“Clear.” he smiles. “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.

Breathless, I release the tether and close my eyes. I fall backward, somersaulting out of the plane. Usui follows.

The breaking dawn is blinding as earth, wind, and cloud ribbons rush upward to swallow us whole.

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