Lessons in Living: Chapter 2 Never Talk to StrangersSeries:
Tenzou & Sai and other men in my Monoshizukanohi 'verseWord Count:
THIS chapter: Language, adult situations, angst, references to BDSM imagery. Spoilers:
A year ago, Tenzou lost the only man he ever loved, and the only man he believes he ever will love. So when an artistic prodigy many years Tenzou's junior enters his life with determined demands for love, play, and safe harbor, Tenzou is forced to face his past, remember his promises, and challenge his presumption that forever after is final. (Two Nights Ago…)
Tenzou crossed 32nd Street with a small crowd of people in wool coats, hats, and heels. Exhaust plumed from idling taxis and Towncars, and the air was cold enough to make Tenzou wonder if spring was merely a myth. Excited chatter swirled around him, and Tenzou clutched the heavy-stock, purple and black invitation in his pocket with one gloved hand.
Going to the art show had not been Tenzou's idea, exactly; it'd been an effort to show example of normalcy. Last Saturday, Tenzou had gotten up at his usual six a.m., done his ten mile run, and was in the middle of protein and breakfast when Kakashi had called.
"Hatake," Tenzou said, cutting a bite of omelet.
"Asashi," Kakashi replied, cheerful as always. "How are you?"
"The same as I was last week when you did your mother hen impersonation."
"So good of you to recognize a pattern."
"Recognize, yes. Figure out a way to break it? No."
"I'll quit when I stop worrying about you."
Tenzou sighed. "Oh, good. So, that'll be the day I die, hm?"
"Nah," Kakashi replied. "I'll still be worrying if you managed to get to heaven and find virgins or some such."
"I'd settle for a man who's been around every block of heaven more than once, thanks."
"Liar," Kakashi laughed. "You like the innocent types, you old corrupter."
"Coming from you, sensei, I'll take that as a compliment."
"So you are
feeling like yourself today, hm?"
Tenzou felt the prickles of nerves alight the back of his neck. He had to be careful, here, as Kakashi was way too damned intuitive for Tenzou's good. "I always feel like myself."
"Done any early spring cleaning?"
"Not yet," Tenzou answered, quieter and closing his eyes when his chest ached at the mental image of a solid, wooden door, cracked and filtering dim light. The hiss of oxygen, the incessant tones of machines, the silent rubber soles of shoes."Not long, now. We've made him comfortable."
"You want me to come over? Maybe give you a hand?"
"No," Tenzou said, firm and rubbing at his sternum, appetite lost.
"Plans for the week, then?" Kakashi asked, artificially chipper, trying to change the subject, attempting to be a friend who didn't want to see Tenzou wallow for the rest of his life. Tenzou still didn't know how to tell Kakashi that he didn't have any desire to do anything else but sink into the oblivion of routine and solitude. Kakashi wouldn't like such admissions because Kakashi had overcome injury and self-pity, found love again, and still had the optimism of a fucking ten-year-old girl when it came to soulmates and happiness. On some days, it drove Tenzou crazy. On others, like today, it made him smile at his reflection in the glass windows surrounding the breakfast nook and be thankful that at least someone cared enough to notice if Tenzou lived or withered.
"Sure," Tenzou said. "Plans."
Dammit, the man would want specifics. Tenzou floundered for half a second, spotted the pile of mail on the table, and snatched up a flyer. "There's an… art show." Tenzou scanned the brightly colored text. "In Blackwood Square."
"Oh yeah!" Kakashi said, excitedly. "It's Sai's new show at Ink -- that new gallery that opened last month."
"Sai?" Tenzou asked, but cleared his throat. "Right. Sai."
Kakashi chuckled, catching Tenzou's slip but not calling him on it. "I'll send you an invitation, then."
"Uh huh," Kakashi said, kindly. "It's guest list only, Tenzou."
"Oh. Of course it is."
"Misplace the one the Firm sent you?" Kakashi offered, referring to Tenzou's architectural business that he inherited from his father. "That pretty secretary of yours mention you might like to go see one of the country's most famous artists?"
"That must be it," Tenzou answered, grateful for the excuses Kakashi so readily gave him. "I'm sure I can find the invite again."
"No worries. I'll send you another, just in case. Make sure your name's on the list. Iruka and I are going, so we'll see you there."
"Oh." Tenzou swallowed, anxiety stirring and aggravating.
"See you Thursday, then, and call if you need anything."
True to his word, Kakashi sent a courier to Tenzou's house with an oversized envelope containing a rather aesthetically pleasing overture to attend Ink's premier showing of Sai's latest collection. Tenzou knew the artist's name, and knew some about him, as when the Asashi Firm and assorted contracted construction crews were working on Bliss, the dance club built ground-level above Break, Sai's people had gotten in touch with Neji about doing a mural for the entrance. Neji had agreed, and everyone had been thrilled until a list of working demands that would rival any rock band's had arrived.
Sai didn't like witnesses and required that no one be at the clubs while he was on site. Sai had eccentric hours of operation, namely the middle of the night, so at least that didn't interfere with the ongoing construction. Sai listed all the things he would need, all the things he would provide himself, and all interaction was to be conducted through his assistant. Tenzou never had the honor of meeting with said assistant, but Neji had made more than a few comments about literal, unexpressive, fish. And if a personality was bland enough to bother the Hyuuga…
The mural, however, had only taken Sai a week to complete. It was gorgeous, a depiction of pleasure and pain, night and day… opposites. The work came with a description of the meaning, and Neji had the notes transcribed onto steel and mounted on the wall behind the security check. Good of the kid, really. Neji always did have more heart and a mind for the contentious gesture than the brat would ever admit.
Turning up his coat collar, Tenzou followed a stone path into Blackwood Square, a renovated section of the Artesian District, which was adjacent to Monoshizukanohi's Fashion Quarter. High end shops, eclectic boutiques, overpriced loft housing, and carefully manicured gardens spread for two blocks, broken by repaved streets trafficked by horse-drawn carriages and the random, irked, cab. On the other side of the district was a new city park, still in its infancy. The Asashi Firm had donated generously to the making of the park, the process of tearing down condemned buildings from the early 1900s extensive. There was nothing to salvage for the Historical Society, unfortunately, the brick eroded to rebar and the interiors decayed by the homeless, the violent, and the weather.
Ink was also still new in the City's timeline. It'd be old news in another week, but for now it gleamed in the misty, light snow falling from the low ceiling of clouds. Shiny silver steel beams, reinforced, glare-resistant glass, and three stories tall, Ink fit right in with the rest of the pretentious square. The lines of the building pleased Tenzou on a basic level, however, and he liked the interesting touch of twin, narrow waterfalls over black stone flanking the main entrance. The stone was side-lit, and it made the gentle springs look like flowing ink. Calligraphy was carved into the metal encasing the wide doors: Latin, Tenzou saw as he nodded to the gentleman greeting the shivering gatherers to the altar of art.
Inside were more industrial angles combined with manmade nature, a small stream weaving through the flooring and traversed by fake stone archways. Plants in silver urns stood at opportunistic points, and the bed of the shallow river was made of the same dark stone as the exterior falls. The gallery walls were high, at least twenty feet, and the ones not supporting the weight of the building were mobile, meaning the gallery staff could rearrange works for a show at will.
Tenzou handed over his coat, gloves, and invitation, took his ticket, and picked up a flute of champagne on his way into the maze. Canned lights in pale pink and yellow lit up the white tile floors, elevator music getting piped in through invisible speakers was barely louder than the constant trickle of water, and Tenzou smelled six types of perfume worn by women in sleek dresses and tedious high heels. He had a small moment of panic when he entered the large main room flanked by spiraling glass staircases, the positive sea of humanity giving him pause. He spotted emergency exits, restrooms, and the steel doors of elevators. Waiters and staff floated among the guests like hawks, trying to spy the hungry or the interested. Tenzou felt underdressed in his slacks, shirt, and jacket, and too hot beneath the simple clothing. A man holding his attractive male partner's hand brushed by Tenzou, French spilling from full lips like silk.
Exposed and momentarily vulnerable, Tenzou grabbed the rail of one of the bridges, stopping the swaying. He couldn't tell if it was the room or himself doing the rocking, but he breathed, calmed down, and wondered if he should just leave. Screw Kakashi and the man's irritating schedule for Tenzou's mental healing. Let Kakashi be stronger, Tenzou couldn't win this battle and didn't care about the war. Being out like this was too goddamned hard. Especially since Jack would have loved--
"Tenzou?" A gentle voice asked, and the faint touch to his upper arm was equally comforting and aggravating. Iruka's calm presence filled Tenzou's senses in the next instant, however, and the professor swept around and stayed close. "It's so good to see you." Iruka's warm dark eyes were filled with some measure of sympathy, concern, and genuine pleasure, and Tenzou managed a smile.
"Iruka," Tenzou said in recognition. The professor wore a black suit without frills, though it was tailored to fit his trim form in pleasant ways.
"I saw you arrive," Iruka said, hand still on Tenzou's arm and squeezing. "Kakashi wasn't sure if you would make it."
"Ah, well, couldn't disappoint everyone, I suppose."
"We're delighted you're with us," Iruka said, firmly, and he tipped his head to the right. "Kakashi's found a group to entertain with stories and bad jokes, and I believe I saw 'Hyuuga and Nara' on the guest list when we checked in." He smiled. "So if you want to avoid the spotlight, I suggest getting an early start going to the next room."
Tenzou chuckled and clasped Iruka's hand in a brief shake when it fell from Tenzou's arm. "Create a diversion, will you?"
"I'll attempt to panic and interest him by threatening to buy one of the pieces," Iruka said solemnly.
"And if the Hyuuga gets wind of you having something he doesn't--" Tenzou began.
"--then surely our favorite demi-god must correct the oversight of taste by competitive acquisition," Iruka finished.
Tenzou shook his head, liking the professor more and more every time they spoke. "You'll give Kakashi my best?"
"I will, and I'll tell him you wanted to be alone with Sai's more controversial pieces." Iruka grinned.
Tenzou's eyebrows went up. "Sounds like this calls for more champagne."
"It does, and also, speed." Iruka nudged Tenzou toward the other side of the bridge. Tenzou saw an opening between two panels, people milling from the main showing to the smaller one beyond. "Even when distracted by social peril and Neji's hair, Kashi's nose is attuned to avoidance."
"So true," Tenzou said, patting Iruka's shoulder. "Thank you."
"No problem. Take care."
Tenzou made short work of the bridge, and fell into step with the direction of human traffic. Sai seemed to prefer large canvases and installations. The paintings in the room were abstracts that tricked the eye into seeing shapes. People loved finding patterns when there weren't any to be found, and Tenzou saw the genius of the oils splattered and spilled with particular abandon. Everyone saw something slightly different and argued about it, sometimes even quite loudly. Nearby, a woman was making the case that Daydream Six
was sexual in nature while a man in a shiny purple tux and horn-rimmed glasses shook his head and scoffed. Most of the works were marked, 'Sold', and Tenzou admired the artistic influence over popular, affluent culture just as he passed between the two panels and into a dim hallway.
Smaller pieces lit by spotlight gels lined the space, each one accompanied by a placard explaining, or so Tenzou suspected, the inspiration behind the art. These were portraits of single individuals, all sitting, all nude, and all somber. Again, the style leaned toward abstract, sort of Picasso-esque to Tenzou's entirely uneducated eye, but the emotion of the paintings was palatable. Hushed silence filled the air, groups huddled around the displays and whispered to one another, and Tenzou kept going. He had no desire to view falsified sadness when he was such an expert on the real thing these days.
Another opening made by movable walls, and the first thing Tenzou saw in the small chamber was the security interspersed among the attendees. They observed with dull professional gazes, and Tenzou counted armed bodies: six in total in an area probably no larger than five hundred square feet. Whatever was in here was valuable and, as Iruka suggested, likely to inspire conflict or strong enough reaction to warrant the watching. There would be no lively debates in here, and either people knew that or simply hadn't made it past the first displays, yet. Only a handful of souls joined Tenzou in tentative exploration.
A tree grew in the middle of the circular, tomblike room, and it was surrounded by a ring of optical illusion: the basin of water always appeared brimming and endless. The leaves and branches were woven with LED lights, and they seemed too bright in this alcove made of shadow and silence. The ceiling was glass, and it was covered by a film of ice. The walls were tall, the frames around each of the modestly sized paintings gothic, and it took Tenzou two seconds longer than it should have to understand why Iruka had warned Tenzou with the jest about alone time.
The subjects of the mini murals were in various poses of extreme bondage, some in pain, some in bliss, some in a combination that left Tenzou unsure which was winning. Leather, chain, vinyl; hooks, needles, bamboo; blood, tears, semen… none of the paintings could earn anything less than a Mature rating. Tenzou stepped to an image of a single person, male or female, Tenzou didn't know, kneeling solo before a black background full of vague shapes suggesting racks of torture. The figure was covered in cloth, most of it torn to reveal broken skin, and a pair of clear, startling green eyes floated above a face covered in a half-hood. The pure, undiluted need in the gaze made Tenzou profoundly uncomfortable but oddly unable to look away. He'd seen that expression more than once; cultivated it, longed for it, asked and commanded and done whatever was necessary to get it. He'd trained it into a response so that every time a chin lifted with a careful, guiding touch, Tenzou saw his destiny in the craving of another.
Shivering and draining his second flute of complimentary alcohol, Tenzou moved on to the next portrait. This was a couple, though the relationship impossible to determine. A woman knelt, nude save for a tall collar enclosing her throat. Her knees were spread, her arousal obvious, and her hair was a halo of golden curls spilling over her shoulders. Her arms were held wide, palms up, and her expression, though frowning, was one of blissful acceptance.
The man behind the kneeling woman, however, was anything but beatific. Nude as well except for leather gloves that came up to his elbows and boots that reached his thighs, the dominant held a heavy flogger woven with wire among the many leather tails. His erection was intimidating, the beading of moisture at the head detailed well enough to make Tenzou recall texture and flavor. He was on the pale side, wasn't overly built, had a bit of a belly, actually, though his arms were defined with solid muscles. His scalp was shaven, eyes fixated on the woman before him, lips in a snarl that evoked the recollection of every asshole stereotypical top Tenzou'd ever met.
Tenzou huffed softly under his breath, still glaring at the painting that pissed him off for sane and silly reasons alike, and, with his sidelong step, he ran into someone who had been standing at his elbow without Tenzou's notice. The fact that the proximity had escaped Tenzou's considerable attention was shocking enough to make him nearly leap out of his skin, and he stumbled backward, catching the champagne glass when it tried to slip from his grasp.
The guy -- man, boy, kid? -- didn't say a word. Thick, black hair stood up from the top of his head, artistically arranged to look unplanned and bed-mussed. His face was long, slender, the cheekbones highlighted by dusky shadows, and his eyes were slanted with Asian heritage that Tenzou suspected was Japanese. He wore a snug, shiny top with capped sleeves, high collar, and intricate velvet lacings down the front instead of buttons. The pants were loose, the shoes shiny and black to match the ensemble, and his skin was roughly a shade darker than pure ivory. Even with the inch heel, he probably didn't come to Tenzou's chin, and he stood with his arms crossed behind him, a pleasantly inquisitive expression molding his dainty features. His eyes, however, were the deepest color of midnight, and Tenzou worried for a fall into their fathomless focus.
"Excuse me," Tenzou muttered, mindful of the security attention the small ruckus had attracted.
"Who are you?" the stranger asked, voice surprisingly deep and musical.
"Pardon?" Tenzou replied, confused and curious when the kid predicted and matched Tenzou's avoidance maneuver.
"Your name. Do you have one?"
The question was without sarcastic inflection, but Tenzou still bristled. He didn't like this… this... how old
could this child be? Obviously north of eighteen to be in this room and in Ink, itself, but not by many months or years. "Yes, I do," Tenzou replied, quietly and trying for polite though the conversation was making that difficult.
"Will you give it to me?"
"No," Tenzou answered before he could think better of it.
The boy, however, didn't seem to take offense. Instead, he nodded, turned, and stood facing the painting Tenzou was trying to get away from. "That's Aorta's Bliss
Sensing the inability for a clean break, Tenzou mimicked the boy's stance. "I see. Do you suppose that's her name or a clever play on 'heart'?"
"Yes," the boy said, smiling with the lower half of his face. The upper half didn't seem to notice.
"You're a… fan?" Tenzou tried, more for the sake of appearances than actual interest. The guy was gorgeous, yes, but Tenzou was absolutely, without a doubt, completely uninterested. He was starting to sweat under his shirt, and he combatted the rise of panic at an influx of patrons into the room by thinking of wooden molding; the snick
of sandpaper, the whine of a reciprocating blade.
When an answer didn't come for too many seconds too long, Tenzou glanced at his unfortunate companion. The boy was staring at him, with something so close to intimate understanding that Tenzou shifted away from the guy. "Are you not?" the boy asked. "A fan?"
"I'm not terribly familiar with the work," Tenzou hedged.
"This piece," the boy said, nodding so slightly that Tenzou would have missed it were he not watching.
"What about it?"
"Are you a fan of it?" The boy's stare was too direct, too clear, too… everything.
Tenzou searched his lexicon for kind phrasing, but the impact of the boy's patience was too heady and made him rush headlong into honesty. "No."
The answer seemed to surprise the guy. "No?" he repeated, and Tenzou shrugged. "What about it do you find reprehensible?" the stranger asked.
"Well, that's a bit of a strong--"
"You're reaction was one of extreme disgust," the kid said plainly.
Normally Tenzou liked someone who could cut to the chase, but this was disconcerting on every level imaginable and a few he'd not thought of, yet. "It evoked emotion, yes."
"I know," the boy agreed, almost impatient. "What kind and to what, specifically?"
"I'm really not the person to ask."
"You're the only person I want
to ask," the kid said.
And with that inexplicable bit of veiled, ulterior-motive-laden praise, Tenzou gave up. "It's the man's expression."
Tenzou could actually tell it was a conscious effort on the guy's part to make that a question and not an eager demand. Tenzou appreciated the nod to manners. Direct commands from children didn't sit well with his ego, his past, or his patience. "I don't much like it, is all."
The boy mulled that over for a moment; just long enough for Tenzou to think he could make a run for it and then the boy inched closer. A sleeve brushed Tenzou's, and it was distracting in ways that nothing had been for more than a year. "You feel sympathy for the woman?"
"Empathy," Tenzou corrected.
Deep, deep wells fixed Tenzou in a crossfire from which there was no escape. "Have you been her?"
Tenzou was nodding before his brain caught up with his response. As it was too late to recant, he merely sighed, not particularly liking how he felt obligated to explain. He blamed it on his love to educate. "It was a long time ago, but I've bent knee to understand why my partner wanted to kneel for me." The kid seemed fascinated, and it encouraged Tenzou to keep going when better sense screamed for him to shut the hell up. "I figured it out, and I went home to… to him." Tenzou swallowed, the gulp flavored with bile. "And then I… spent years helping others figure themselves out, too." Tenzou tore away from the kid's face and stared at the painted dom. "So when I see that guy, it reminds me of the trust put in me. And I guess…" Tenzou licked his lips. They were dry, cracking. "I guess I know that if the man who trained me ever looked at me like that, I never would have really understood anything. Never got that it's love
that drives it all. Love that I felt and still feel for..." Tenzou snorted, hated himself, couldn't finish. He sighed. "I just hope like hell that I never, ever appeared that way to anyone who had the guts to bow before me." The babbled speech stunned Tenzou, and he fisted one hand, terrified but filled with his familiar long-lost friend, conviction.
"Oh," said the boy, more a sigh than a real word, and for a nanosecond, Tenzou was sure the kid tipped like he was going to lean, to fall, to, oh God help Tenzou, spill to the floor and curl about Tenzou's feet.
But the guy didn't do anything of the sort. Instead, they stood there for a tense moment through which Tenzou counted heartbeats and fought the urge to offer comfort when it seemed so out of place, so uncalled for, yet so very fucking necessary.
"I know the artist," the boy whispered to Tenzou's upper arm, lips hovering above the fabric of Tenzou's jacket.
"Oh?" Tenzou said, choking on a lump in his throat, and withdrawing from the almost-contact. The exchange had exhausted his reserves. Fatigue bore down on his shoulders, tugged at his limbs, and he attempted to recreate the exact scent of sawdust.
"You should meet."
"Perhaps one day we will," Tenzou said tiredly.
"Ah ha!" Cried Kakashi in triumph -- Tenzou would know that voice and tone anywhere -- from behind him. The call clattered across the floor and against the walls, disturbing the strange atmosphere that hung around the weird boy like a pall.
"Nice meeting you," Tenzou said in a hurry, pivoting and catching Kakashi's keen gaze. Kakashi's smile faded ever so slightly, and he noted Tenzou, the kid, the painting, the room and the people within it with furious quick flicks of mismatched eyes. He started for Tenzou immediately, Iruka right behind him.
A hand tugged at Tenzou's sleeve. "Please," said the mysterious kid in his rich baritone. The word was without real plea, however, and a crazy thought occurred to Tenzou's intuition: this person didn't understand how a 'Please' was used, only knew it garnered attention.
"What?" Tenzou asked, too harshly and already kicking himself for not managing his tone. But it'd been nearly impossible to keep a handle on niceties since…
"Wait," the man-child said, simply and, again, without apparent offense. "I want to talk more with you."
"I have to--" Tenzou started.
An elderly man in a matte black tuxedo with an entourage in tow beckoned, and the boy got pulled in the direction of the raspy barked name like a pissed-off marionette. His sublime features faded and withdrew, right before Tenzou's eyes; like a moon flower at dawn. Kakashi's arm slid around Tenzou's shoulders, the boy marched away, guilty victim to guillotine, and something buried, ancient, and rusty stirred in Tenzou's guts -- a feeling so unused as to be forgotten, and so painful that Tenzou immediately drowned it in an avalanche of anger and regret.
"Getting a little insight into the kinky artwork, eh?" Kakashi asked, but even he was softer spoken.
"Hm?" Tenzou grunted, noting in his peripheral vision that Iruka flanked him.
Kakashi pointed at Danzou's escaping back. "That's Sai's personal assistant. Or so they say."
"You're not convinced of his real identity?" Tenzou asked, aiming for deadpan joke and landing in real curiosity instead.
Kakashi shrugged, hugged Tenzou sideways, and let him go with a megawatt smile. "You know my motto: pictures or it didn't happen."
Iruka made a disgusted noise. "Can we return to the land of innocuous shapes? This stuff leaves me…"
"Angry," Tenzou whispered, and both men looked at him.
"Something like that," Iruka replied. "I think I was going to say 'sad'."
"I should get going, anyway," Tenzou said, setting his empty glass on a passing waiter's tray.
"But we just found you!" Kakashi complained, but his look was of real concern.
"Not feeling well." Tenzou tried a smile. "Full hour in public. I think I'm done for the month."
Kakashi's eyes softened at the joking admission. "Walk you out?"
Tenzou glanced at the exit. "Neji's not out there, is he?"
"No," Kakashi said, grin overtaking his face. "But Naruto and Sasuke are."
Kakashi laughed and slapped Tenzou on the back. "Make a run for it. I'll cover for you."
"Thanks," Tenzou said, starting for the door, the hallway, the bridges over manmade waters, and, ultimately, home to his shop where he could distract himself until Valium and bed called.
"And Tenzou?" Kakashi yelled after him.
"I'll be in touch."
Tenzou mustered enough energy to groan at the veiled threat of friendly concern, and fled.~*~