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It Always Comes as a Surprise

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It Always Comes as a Surprise
By earthinmywindow 

—Part One—

I Want the One I Can’t Have



The sky was still dark when Gentaro boarded the Nozomi Shinkansen in Tokyo, bound for Osaka. He’d have left last night if trains had still been running when he bought his ticket, but he’d missed that chance and had to settle for the earliest available departure in the morning. At least the wait had given him time to get his symptoms under control with several icy showers and a quadruple dose of the drug that was no longer effective when used as directed. He probably couldn’t pass as an alpha in his current condition, but he’d be a convincing enough beta. For now at least. Not that he was likely to have many close encounters with people who could detect such things; alphas made up less than a hundredth of a percent of the general population (even if they were over-represented in the DRB Divisions) and omegas were even rarer. That left roughly ninety-nine-point-nine percent of all humanity who were betas, ordinary people who were mostly oblivious to the complicated world of pheromones and scents and cycles. But Gentaro still felt exposed and vulnerable being out in the world in this tenuous in-between state, which added an extra layer of nauseating urgency to this quest.

Hoping to avoid identification by sight just as much as by scent, he’d dressed inconspicuously, donning skinny jeans and a loose-fitting gray sweater instead of his favored Taisho-style ensemble. A knit cap, glasses, and a surgical mask completed the camouflage. Today he was just an unremarkable, non-famous train passenger who was perhaps coming down with a cold—definitely not one of the most prominent alpha authors of the contemporary Japanese literary scene.

After an hour that felt like four, the sun was up but obscured by a thick veil of clouds. Gentaro had abandoned the brand new book he’d brought with him after rereading the first page three times without absorbing a word of it. Now he was watching the bland, drizzled landscape of Japan scroll past outside as his fingertips tattooed a nervous rhythm on the window ledge. Locked in a state of coiled anxiety, he nearly jumped up from his seat when his phone buzzed with an incoming text message. It was from Dice.

 

 

 

 

 r u mad at me?

 

Gentaro’s stomach clenched and fluttered as he swallowed back an upwelling of emotion too complex for a single label, though guilt was a predominant flavor. Hastily, he thumbed out a response:

 

 

 

 

If anything, I should be asking you if you are mad at me. After all, I was the one who ended our pleasant stroll in the park so abruptly. Forgetting about a deadline was insufficient excuse for me to treat you so discourteously. You deserve better, my friend, and I can only hope that you will forgive me.

 

Just as hastily, he deleted the whole thing and composed a new reply that was much more succinct and pressed send.

 

 

 

 

Should I be?

 

Now was not the time for uncharacteristic honesty. If Gentaro wanted to give the impression that everything was absolutely peachy-keen, his typical coyness was the way to go. Gentaro’s phone indicated Dice was typing for several minutes before his next text message arrived.

 

 

 

 

No?

 

It was suspiciously short for having taken so long to write; Gentaro wondered if Dice had done a bit of deleting as well. And yet the monosyllabic reply was so charmingly Dice-like in its emotional honesty. The uncertainty expressed in that question mark was Dice’s way of asking if he’d done something awful without even knowing it. It stung Gentaro in the heart to know he’d made Dice think such a thing. He wanted to send a reassuring exoneration but decided, again, to keep his response simple and in character.

 

 

 

 

Well then, you needn’t worry.

 

Then he sent a follow up:

 

 

 

 

Please try to stay out of trouble until we meet again. TTYL

 

The acronym was uncommon for a Gentaro text message, but not so strange as to be conspicuous. And he did intend to talk to Dice later, once he’d successfully completed this mission. Hopefully, in the time between now and then, he would think up just the right words to explain away what happened yesterday and finesse it clear out of Dice’s memory. Even if Gentaro couldn’t forget.

Gentaro had mentally replayed the fiasco so many times since it happened. Each time his addled brain put it back on the shelf and moved on to other worries he thought the memory was exhausted, at least for a while. But all it took was a brief text exchange with Dice to bring it bubbling back to the forefront of his mind in all its vivid, heady awkwardness.

 

————

 

It had been just the two of them, Gentaro and Dice, not on a date but doing the same things couples do on dates. Oftentimes Ramuda would accompany them on these types of outings—Fling Posse-tivity activities, he liked to call them—but today he’d declined the invitation in favor of working on his new summer line. And as much as Gentaro adored their rambunctious, attention-grabbing leader, he cherished the times when he got to have Dice all to himself.

Their not-a-date started with a movie, Gentaro’s choice, which meant a complicated psychological plot and a large cast of characters (though he’d taken pity on his companion and picked one without subtitles). Throughout the screening, Dice leaned over to whisper question after question: “Which brother is that?” “Wait, is that the lady who got killed in the beginning?” “Isn’t the mom supposed to be a villain?” Every time Dice’s warm sweet breath filled the shell of his ear, Gentaro felt a shudder of pleasure course through his body and tingle across his skin. Just thinking about it now made the hairs on his arms stand up.

He should have recognized the symptoms for what they were. He should have known what was already starting to happen to his body’s chemistry and made an excuse to part ways as soon as they left the movie theater. Or maybe, on some level, he did know—because how could he possibly miss it?—but was in denial, lying to himself just to spend another hour with his favorite person. It was pointless to debate with himself now whether or not he knew the danger he was getting into then, when he agreed to get soft serve after the movie and eat it in the park with Dice. 

The weather in Tokyo had just hit that April sweet spot, cool enough to wear a jacket but warm enough to enjoy ice cream outside with neither action appearing out of place. Sakura season had come and gone, but other flowers were in bloom, accenting the green landscape with daubs of pinks and reds and perfuming the air with their sweetness. Side by side they strolled through Yoyogi Park at a leisurely pace, Dice asking follow-up questions about the movie’s plot between endearingly sloppy licks of his chocolate-vanilla swirl and Gentaro answering him (more or less honestly) while enjoying his own strawberry in a daintier fashion.

“How were you able to keep track of all the characters?” Dice asked incredulously after Gentaro had done his best to untangle the plot for him. “Was the movie based on a book you’d already read or something?”

Gentaro tilted his head to the side and smiled demurely. “Actually, it was based on a book that I wrote,” he said.

The claim had the intended effect, causing Dice to stop in his tracks and gape at Gentaro. “Hold up! You wrote that? Why didn’t you say anything? They shoulda given us our tickets for free! Or at least yours!”

“Well, that was a lie,” said Gentaro, chuckling. He couldn’t help himself; Dice’s overreactions never got old and were always so cute.

Dice tried to play it off coolly, releasing a derisive little snort that was even more adorable than the naïve look of wonder that preceded it. “I was gonna say, I don’t remember any book of yours being so confusing. Your stuff is way better than that movie, like the one you wrote from the sea otter’s point of view. That one would make a cool movie. Especially if they made it into an anime!”

This time it was Gentaro who stopped walking. “You’ve read one of my books?” he asked.

Dice smirked like he’d just won a bet. “You surprised, Gentaro?”

“A little,” Gentaro admitted.

The smirk on Dice’s face blossomed into an ear-to-ear grin. “I’ve read more than one of your books, actually. Not all of them, of course, since you’ve written like a thousand books. But the ones I read were pretty good, I think. I dunno a whole lot about literature, though.”

“I must say, I am both honored and impressed,” said Gentaro. The words were utterly sincere, but he made sure to say them in a teasing tone so Dice wouldn’t think he was waxing sentimental. “But to verify your claim, perhaps I should subject you to a pop quiz. What do you say?” He turned his gaze towards Dice, expecting a cheeky retort, and found himself looking right into a pair of dark violet eyes.

“Hey, what flavor did you get again?” Dice asked, much too close to Gentaro’s face. “That Strawberry? It smells amazing!” And without waiting for Gentaro to grant permission he swooped in for a mouthful of ice cream.

“You may have a taste, by the way,” Gentaro said after the fact. He was doing his best to sound calm even as his heartbeat quickened. It didn’t help matters that Dice hadn’t pulled back and was still lingering in Gentaro’s personal space, licking his perfectly bowed lips.

“Mmm,” Dice hummed and quickly added, “Thanks!” But he didn’t move away, in fact he leaned in even closer to Gentaro, as if drawn by an unseen force, and breathed in deeply through his nose. “Huh? I don’t think it’s the ice cream that smells good. I think it’s you!”

Gentaro jerked back and stammered. “What?” 

“I dunno what it is, you just smell... different today,” said Dice. “You get a new shampoo or something?” He was now unabashedly sniffing Gentaro in a way that was not at all subtle; his nose was practically touching Gentaro’s neck, right near his scent gland.

“Knock it off,” Gentaro said, shoving Dice away with his free hand. Staying calm was rapidly becoming a desperate struggle. He wasn’t using a new shampoo or a different soap or an exotic laundry detergent or anything like that. There was absolutely nothing about his personal fragrance that should interest a fellow alpha this much.

Unless…

Fire bloomed beneath Gentaro’s skin, engulfing his face and then spreading downwards. The nape of his neck, site of the mysterious organ called the mating gland that was found only in omegas, prickled strangely, familiarly. This was bad. This was very, very bad.

“Shit!” Gentaro mumbled as he thrust his half-eaten ice cream cone into Dice’s hand. “Take this! I have to go!” Then he spun around, praying to whatever god was listening that Dice hadn’t noticed the sweat bubbling up on his forehead. 

“Wait!” called Dice as Gentaro began to walk away at a brisk clip. “Whataya mean you have to go? Go where?”

“Home,” Gentaro replied, speeding up his steps. “I just remembered I have a deadline tomorrow and my manuscript isn’t finished.” It wasn’t his best on-the-spot lie, but Dice had been fooled by flimsier deceptions.

Dice’s footsteps followed, as did his voice. “So you’re just gonna leave me here in the park holding two ice cream cones?”

By now Gentaro had increased speed to the point that if he moved any faster he would be sprinting. “I’m sorry, Dice!” he shouted. “I’ll make it up to you, I promise!” He wasn’t worried about Dice catching up to him; Gentaro knew he was faster over short distances, even when Dice didn’t have his hands full. 

Even after he’d turned several corners and was confident that Dice had stopped following him, Gentaro didn’t slow down— couldn’t slow down. Never before had he been so appreciative of his hakama: voluminous enough to hide his burgeoning erection and loose enough that the wetness spreading between his thighs wouldn’t touch them.

The moment he made it through the door to his house and shut it behind him, Gentaro was shedding articles of clothing: hakama, coat, kimono, shirt. Stripped to just his underwear, he collapsed onto his futon and pushed his damp boxer briefs down to his knees. His cock bounced free, fully erect and aching to be touched and generously leaking pre-ejaculate. But that wasn’t the only part of him that was wet and it wasn’t the reason his underwear was soaked. The drugs had failed—they’d fucking failed!—and now his body was cruelly betraying his most deeply held secret. The slick between his legs was the telltale sign of his true nature as an omega. It was a biological lubrication meant to ease penetration and impregnation by an alpha’s outsized cock. His mating gland throbbed like a second heartbeat.

These uncontrollable bodily reactions and intense sensations were not new to Gentaro but he hadn’t experienced them in years, not since the time before he’d abandoned his name and identity and started his “treatment” regimen. The memories were burned indelibly into his psyche, though, and thus he knew that what he was going through now was merely an opening act, the stage called “pre-heat.” If Gentaro didn’t get the situation under control, and quickly, he would soon find himself bearing the exquisite torture of an omega in full-blown heat.

He wouldn’t— couldn’t —let that happen.

But first he had to take care of the immediate situation at hand. Not wanting any encumbrances, Gentaro tugged his boxer briefs the rest of the way down his legs and kicked them off, then he fisted his painfully hard cock with a soft moan. With his other hand he reached down and behind to finger his dripping, unfulfilled hole. He’d never had sex while in heat or pre-heat, but he knew instinctually that his own hands couldn’t compare to the touch of an alpha. A true alpha, that is, not an imposter such as himself.

A true alpha like Dice , a voice whispered from somewhere inside of Gentaro’s fogging consciousness. Just thinking the name was enough to make Gentaro’s belly quiver. When he pictured Dice’s face, the way it had looked leaning in for a taste of soft serve—jewel-bright eyes shining beneath a fringe of dark hair, long lashes casting shadows on golden brown cheeks, lips glazed with pink cream—the name burst from Gentaro’s mouth unbidden.

“Dice! Dice! Ah, Dice !”

Over and over Gentaro cried out Dice’s name as he pumped three fingers in and out of himself in an increasingly frantic rhythm while simultaneously stroking his cock. It was the memory of Dice’s hot breath in his ear that finally unraveled him. He came hard, legs flexing as his whole body arced up off the futon and a wave of ecstasy and shame crested over him. Hot seed filled his fist and, one last time, his best friend’s name fell from his lips.

And then he was coming down, his head already starting to clear even while his ass still pulsed in aftershocks around his fingers and semen dribbled down his knuckles. But Gentaro knew that orgasm only offered a temporary respite from symptoms; they’d come back even stronger in about ninety minutes if he didn’t do something. This was time he couldn’t afford to waste. 

His sheets and blanket would need a thorough washing anyway so he didn’t feel bad wiping his hands on them before heading to the bathroom for a proper shower. He used hot water to get clean but finished with a long, punishing blast of cold. Then, still naked, he went to his medicine cabinet and retrieved an unlabeled bottle. With shaking hands, Gentaro dumped out four days worth of the dubious drug, capsules larger than any multivitamins, and swallowed them down with handfuls of water from the tap. Hopefully that would keep him from going into heat and wouldn’t kill him—since he’d obtained the product from an unauthorized source instead of a doctor, the usage and risks were undocumented. And hopefully that unauthorized source would come through for him again.

He waited a full three hours before making the necessary phone call and buying his train ticket, long enough that he felt more or less confident that he’d successfully halted his body’s rebellion. 

———

And that was how Gentaro wound up on the earliest Shinkansen to Osaka, where his drug dealer was based.

The man, whom Gentaro knew only as Zero and had never met face-to-face, objected to the appellation. “Please, drug dealer makes me sound so disreputable,” he’d said over the phone in a lothario's velvet drawl. “I prefer to think of myself as a supplier of quality medical products at a competitive price without any of the red tape.”

That hadn’t been enough to soothe Gentaro’s conscience. He hated that he’d lied to Dice. Of course he lied to Dice all the time about other things, little things like past lives that didn’t matter and caused no harm, but for some reason it bothered him to lie to Dice about how he was spending his time today. Perhaps it was because this lie was told to protect the Grand Lie at the center of his life and the stress of keeping something so significant a secret from the people he cared about was starting to break him down psychologically. Maybe his brain was trying to reject the deception just like his body apparently was. Can’t give up now , he thought. I’ve come too far to reverse course on this .

To be fair, Gentaro hadn’t expected his adoption of an alpha identity to last this long. Nor had he anticipated Arisugawa Dice. 

Dice was a complication Gentaro never saw coming. 

The attraction was immediate, though Gentaro initially tried to frame it as an author finding his perfect muse. Dice was just so beautifully expressive, so blithely unaffected, so irresistibly guileless that Gentaro’s imagination couldn’t help transplanting him into every conceivable setting.

But the more time they’d spent together, the more Gentaro found himself looking at Dice without any story in mind. Maybe it was because the various adventures they’d been dragged into since joining Fling Posse were stranger than fiction, but at some point Dice the living, breathing person became more interesting to Gentaro than Dice the literary protagonist.

And yet, if Gentaro had been in his natural state when he met Dice, his feelings might never have grown the way they did, slowly and deeply, like a tree putting down roots.

A genuine alpha, Dice was the sort of partner Gentaro was originally programmed to seek. But meeting him as a fellow alpha, albeit an artificial one, was what allowed Gentaro to know Dice as a person, without the looming feeling that they were assessing each other as potential mates. And because mating was never a consideration between the two of them, it caught Gentaro off guard when he found himself growing hopelessly attached to a brash gambler four years his junior. 

Sifting through his memories, Gentaro couldn’t find a clear turning point when he’d started thinking of Dice as something more than a teammate and friend and source of endless amusement. It was a gradual shift, like how the sky changes color as day gives way to night, and it had been happening silently in the background of every moment he’d spent with Dice.

It was happening that night in the Central Ward, when that rude host had pushed Gentaro to the brink of an anxiety attack and Dice had jumped in to defend him and never even pried into why Gentaro was so upset. It was happening during their official rap battle against Matenro, when they’d stood shoulder to shoulder beneath the blazing stadium lights, launching joint attacks because they’d discovered how much stronger they were together. It was happening that evening they went to the matsuri together, when they played every game and tasted every food stall snack and Gentaro had been captivated by the way the fireworks glittered in Dice’s upraised eyes.

For Gentaro, falling in love with Dice had been as effortless and inexorable as the passage of time.

But it wasn’t just love. It was desire.

Yesterday, when Gentaro was in the throes of pre-heat, it was Dice he fantasized about. And if he was being honest with himself, this wasn’t the first time he’d masturbated to fantasies about his best friend, just the first time it happened in a state of procreant delirium. How many times had he tried to blur the face of his imaginary lover while he touched himself, even though he knew damn well whose hands he was picturing on his body? The voice he imagined husking “Come for me, Gentaro,” in his ear did not belong to a stranger. It was Dice, every time, for over half a year now.

Now Gentaro wondered if his feelings for Dice could be the reason the drugs were failing. Gentaro didn’t know how the drugs worked so of course he had no idea what might make them not work. It was more of a hunch than scientific reasoning—having found an alpha he wanted as a mate, his omega nature was trying to reassert itself. It sounded sensible enough, he just didn’t have any data to back it up.

He prayed he was wrong, though, that it wouldn’t come down to a binary choice between maintaining his alpha facade and being close to Dice. Gentaro couldn’t bear the thought of having to distance himself from Dice, but for the foreseeable future he needed to continue masquerading as an alpha. And even if he didn’t have a false identity to maintain, Gentaro wasn’t exactly eager to return to his life as an omega.

Perhaps if he’d learned what he was through a blood test, the way most omegas do, his outlook about it would have developed in a more positive direction, but for Gentaro, being an omega had started with trauma that was seared into his memory like a hot brand. 

He was sixteen years old the first time he went into heat. Isolated and uninformed, the experience was profoundly terrifying for a small-town boy who never imagined he was anything other than a beta.

In the remote village where Gentaro grew up, accessing WiFi required an eight kilometer hike down a mountainside to the nearest hotspot and the existence of alphas and omegas was treated almost like an urban legend. Celebrities who claimed to be alphas occasionally appeared in magazines and on talk shows, but nobody actually knew a verifiable alpha in real life, and omegas were so unheard of that most folks suspected they didn’t exist at all. But in a tiny town with little else to talk about, the attributes of these human cryptids were the subjects of copious rumors and gossip. While the stories about alphas were glowing and envious—“I heard that nine of the ten top earning CEOs in Japan are alphas!”—the things that were whispered about omegas were as obscene as they were vicious. Omegas were sex-crazed sluts who couldn’t control themselves and begged strangers to fuck them silly and get them pregnant. Those prurient tales, told to titillate bored neighbors, did nothing to prepare Gentaro for his ordeal.

He was hypersensitive and agonizingly aroused, wet and insatiable, but to call his state of mind “sex-crazed” would be a gross mischaracterization. It wasn’t simply an intense need to be fucked that consumed him, it was an intense need for one specific person to find him and touch him and claim him. The nape of his neck had burned as if a hot coal were embedded under his skin. He still remembered exactly how painful it felt, as if every cell in his body was crying out for a mate who wasn’t there.

Come to me! Come to me! Come to me!

That first heat was forty-eight hours of pure hell, and because Gentaro was living alone at the time there hadn’t been anyone there to reassure him that what was happening to his body and his mind was normal and that he wasn’t dying or possessed by a demon.

It did get easier, thanks to drug therapy and self-education, but Gentaro’s brutal initiation into being an omega had damaged him. He was forced to relive it in nightmares from which he would awaken drenched in sweat, his face streaked with tears, and the only way he knew he wasn’t going into heat for real was that his mating gland wasn’t pulsing. That was back when the only meds he took were the perfectly legal sort, suppressants that alleviated the physical symptoms of heat and kept pheromones in check but couldn't completely eliminate all traces of being an omega. He still felt that ache of longing for his mate. Even after the night terrors finally subsided and became a rare occurrence, that emptiness remained. Gentaro figured it was a spiritual defect he would just have to learn to live with.

And then a series of unfathomable plot twists upended his world, lifted him up out of his self-isolation like a gale force wind and plopped him down feet-first on an unknown path. It was the path that would lead him into a teeming world of black market pharmaceuticals, which was how he met the man he was on his way to see now. It was the path that would lead him to Shibuya, to meeting Ramuda and joining Fling Posse. It was the path that would lead him to Arisugawa Dice.

Whether it was artificially becoming an alpha (for reasons that were, in a word, complicated) or meeting Dice that finally banished his loneliness, Gentaro couldn’t say; for him, the two life changes were inextricably entangled.

And that was why it was absolutely essential that Gentaro get something that worked. Whatever the cost, whatever the side effects, he could bear anything if it meant preserving the life he had now. Even if it was all based on a lie. Zero might be a huckster but right now he was Gentaro’s only hope.

————

Osaka was gray and warm and fuggy when Gentaro arrived. No rain was presently falling, but an abundance of grimy puddles attested to earlier precipitation and the air was so heavy with moisture that walking the city streets felt like trekking through an equatorial jungle. Needless to say Gentaro was grateful that the meetup spot he and Zero had agreed upon was just a few blocks from the train station so he wouldn’t arrive looking like he'd swum his way there. 

The specified address was ostensibly a restaurant, but with its darkened windows and lack of signage it looked like an abandoned storefront. Gentaro checked his handwritten directions and two different map apps on his phone before concluding this really was the right place and going inside. The door was unlocked. On the inside it looked more like a restaurant, but not an operational one; the chairs were stacked on top of the tables and most of the lights were off. There was also a distinct absence of people. 

“Hello?” Gentaro called out, feeling just a tad foolish.

“Hello,” a low voice answered from behind, so close that it made Gentaro spin. “Glad you were able to make the trip, Yumeno-san.”

It still unnerved Gentaro that Zero knew his real name and identity. He thought he’d taken every precaution when he initiated contact—pseudonym, dummy email account, burner phone—but a note included with his first supply drop-off made it clear that he was not an anonymous customer. While Zero’s methods of obtaining it remained unknown, he insisted he would never wield a client’s personal information as leverage. But he used Gentaro’s real name as a reminder that he could.

This was Gentaro’s first time seeing Zero. He was older than Gentaro expected, mid-forties at least, with well oiled black hair and a handsome but weathered face half-hidden by dark sunglasses. The rest of his attire might charitably be described as flamboyant—fur coat over a half-buttoned silk shirt and ostrich leather pants, accented by several thick gold chains—but the overall effect reminded Gentaro of nothing so much as pimp. If the man was concerned about seeming disreputable, he might start by toning down his wardrobe.

“Yes, I made it,” said Gentaro. “But I’d like to make this quick, if possible.” Ideally he would make it back to Tokyo in time to treat Dice to an apology dinner, assuming, of course, that the new drugs started working right away.

Zero waved one hand in the air in a lackadaisical circle. “Of course, of course. We are both busy men, after all. Come, let’s talk business.” Then he locked the door Gentaro had entered through and led the way to a booth in the deepest corner of the restaurant.

Gentaro perched uneasily on the edge of his seat, feeling a lot less certain than he had when he arranged this meeting. “I do appreciate you agreeing to see me like this on such short notice,” he said politely. “As I said on the phone, the drugs I’ve been taking stopped working very suddenly and now I find myself in immediate need of something stronger.”

“Fortunately, that is something I can provide,” said Zero, smiling at his customer the way a predator might smile at its prey. Then, without any warning, he leaned across the table and stroked the corner of Gentaro’s jaw with a thick, rough finger. The move was so quick and unexpected that it left Gentaro dumbstruck and paralyzed, so Zero just kept talking. And touching. “It’s a shame, really, to see such a beautiful creature fight so hard against nature. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still more than happy to sell you my wares. I am a businessman, after all. But I do believe you’re wasting a precious gift.”

Recovered from his initial shock, Gentaro shoved Zero’s hand away. “Sorry, but I don’t consider it a gift to be an omega.”

“Ah, but it is,” Zero said, undeterred. “A pretty thing like you could have any unmated alpha down on his knees, begging to give you the knot and put a pup in your belly as he—or she—claimed you. And you know, many of the world’s most powerful people are alphas. The prime minister herself is an alpha. Just think of how much influence you could have.”

“I prefer to influence people through my writing, thank you very much,” Gentaro said, a bit too sharply. The unsolicited physical contact had made him even more apprehensive than he’d been before.

“Hey, I can respect that,” said Zero, raising his hands in a bid for peace, as if he’d been attacked. “I am compelled to ask, though, why go so far as to fake being alpha? It would require far less intervention to simply suppress your heat cycles and disguise yourself as a beta. And with a far lower rate of side effects.”

Gentaro sucked in his lower lip. He wasn’t going to discuss his motives, especially not with this shady character. “It’s complicated,” he said in a tone meant to convey that the matter was not up for discussion.

“Ah yes,” said Zero, leaning back in his seat with a canny smile on his face. “I assume it has something to do with the fact that your government issued photo ID lists you as an alpha.” With a flick of his wrist, Zero produced Gentaro’s ID card, held between two fingers like a magician performing a trick.

“Hey! Give that back!” Gentaro snapped, practically lunging across the table. He grasped at the card but his fingers closed on empty air as Zero moved it just out of reach. “That’s mine! You took it from me!” 

Zero ignored him and continued, still holding the ID card hostage beyond Gentaro’s range. “It doesn’t appear to be a fake, either, and I am something of an expert on fake IDs. But the genuine article wouldn’t include such a glaring mistake, now would it? Which can only mean one thing. This card isn’t really yours, and you aren’t really Yumeno Gentaro.” He paused and shot Gentaro a provocative grin. “Have I hit the mark?”

Gentaro was livid, unable to speak as Zero slid the card back across the table to him, certain that his silence would be taken as confirmation. How and when had Zero managed to pick his pocket?

“It’s a funny thing, isn’t it?” said Zero. “How otherwise identical twins can differ in just that one significant attribute. And it’s more common than you’d think. Scientists haven’t yet discovered a reason for it.”

“Can we just get back to talking business?” Gentaro said tightly, fighting to hold onto his composure. He felt like he’d been sucker punched. All he wanted now was to get his medicine and go home, but he wasn’t even sure if Zero intended to sell to him at this point. Maybe this was all a setup to expose his fraud, or even to arrest him for it. Was impersonating an alpha a crime? Or maybe it was a power play with no purpose except to demonstrate which one of them had the upper hand here. As if Gentaro needed to be reminded that he was at Zero’s mercy.

“Of course,” Zero said, his tone once again genial. From somewhere under the table he retrieved a wooden box the size of a briefcase and set it in front of Gentaro. “This is the most potent drug currently available for inducing the scent and characteristics of an alpha. It’s not exactly legal, though, so you’d be wise not to advertise that you’re using it.”

While Zero was talking, Gentaro unhooked the brass latches on the box and lifted the lid to reveal several neat rows of tiny glass vials and a supply of individually wrapped sterile hypodermic needles. “So it’s an injection,” he said.

“Indeed,” said Zero. “I hope that’s not an issue.”

Gentaro shook his head and said, “It’s not.” He wasn’t fond of needles, but he could endure it. “I’ll take it. Oh, and how long until it starts working?”

The deal all but sealed, Zero grinned. “Since you were already taking a similar drug, this one should take effect within a few hours of your first dose, so you can be smelling like a genuine alpha before you even reach Tokyo. Good, yes? That’s a six-month’s supply right there, which is the most I can sell at a time to any client. The price for this product is not cheap, mind you, but I can promise you that you won’t get it for less from anyone else. And, tell you what, because I like that angelic face of yours, I’ll give you an extra discount.”

“I don’t care about the price, I’ll take it,” said Gentaro, all too eager to wrap things up. “And I trust that this entire exchange will remain confidential, even if you aren’t bound by any oaths?”

“But of course,” said Zero. “Now, I am obligated to inform you that you may experience some side effects while using this product, insomnia, loss of appetite, that sort of thing. But I’m sure it’s nothing you can’t handle.”

Side effects were far from Gentaro’s mind at this point; he’d take things as they came. Zero named his price and it was a staggering sum but Gentaro paid it in cash without objection. Then, with his box of illegal pharmaceuticals safely stowed inside an inconspicuous messenger bag, Gentaro stood up to leave. When he went to shake Zero’s hand, however, he noticed something about the man’s scent that he’d somehow missed before and had to pause for a moment to process it.

Zero was an alpha—that much was apparent to Gentaro at first whiff—and he had a mate, but there was something slightly off about his mating bond. The presence of a mating bond in an alpha or omega was typically detected as a yes or no matter. If one was very familiar with the subjects’ individual scent signatures, they might be able to determine if an alpha and omega belonged to each other. But generally there wasn’t a lot of specific information to be found in the mating bond scent. Zero’s mating bond, however, seemed to be both a yes and a no, there and not there. It was as if the red string of fate tied to him on one end was tethered to a black hole on the other.

“She’s dead.” Zero’s voice was softer and gentler than Gentaro had ever heard it. “My mate.”

Looking up, Gentaro saw an expression on Zero’s face so tender it almost made up for the whole ID card stunt. Almost. “I’m so sorry,” he said, because what else could he say?

Zero sighed and put a hand on Gentaro’s shoulder. “Nothing for you to be sorry for, kid. But I will say this, she was the kindest, most beautiful omega this world could ever produce, and she never once tried to hide what she was. Now, I’m sure you’re eager to get back to Tokyo so I won’t hold you up any longer. Goodbye, Yumeno-san, and good luck.”

“Ah, yes, goodbye. And thank you.” The dismissal was abrupt, but it spared Gentaro from having to further engage in a conversation he wasn’t comfortable having. For that he was grateful.

————

Gentaro had felt like a junkie injecting the first dose of treatment into the meat of his thigh in a train station bathroom stall, but he consoled himself that it was worth it to be able to see Dice tonight. Just seeing that bright smile would be all the reward Gentaro needed to keep up this increasingly high-stakes farce. By the time he boarded the Shinkansen back to Tokyo, his outlook was cautiously optimistic, buoyed by the hope that he could smooth things over between them, and maybe some day soon they could both look back on the incident in the park and laugh.

It wasn’t about hiding what he was, it was about protecting what he had. 

Once he was settled in his seat, he thumbed a text message Dice.

 

 

 

 

It’s looking like I will probably finish my manuscript in time for dinner. Will you let me treat you to make up for yesterday? (Not a lie)

 

The reply was almost immediate:

 

 

 

 

Hell yes!

 


 

“Ramuda, your new couch is too small,” Dice whined. He’d flopped himself down on the tiny sofa immediately upon entering Ramuda’s studio and had spent the fifteen minutes since then alternately trying to get comfortable on it and complaining about how he couldn’t. Although vaguely aware that he was annoying his host, he was feeling agitated and didn’t know how to self-soothe his way out of it. Ramuda, for his part, hadn’t actually expressed any irritation at Dice, but was instead ignoring him in favor of work, which only made the agitation worse.

“It’s a loveseat,” Ramuda chimed without looking up from the drawing in progress on his desk. “I got it to deter freeloaders from napping here, but it sadly hasn’t worked.”

The insult made Dice sit up on the couch—loveseat, whatever—the way it was intended to be used. “I wasn’t napping, I was…” He paused to scan his mental list of big words he’d had to look up to understand Gentaro. “…languaging. And anyway you invited me over.”

“I think you mean languishing ,” said Ramuda. “And you invited yourself over. You called me this morning to ask what I was doing today. I told you I was working and you said, ‘Ah cool! I’ll come keep you company!’” 

When quoting Dice, Ramuda had adopted a fake voice so ridiculous that it could only have been meant as an insult, but Dice decided to let it slide. “Well you didn’t tell me not to,” he said. “So I took that as an invitation.”

Ramuda set down his two pencils and finally gave Dice his full attention. “Alright then,” he said, resting his hands on top of his crossed legs. “Keep me company! Entertain me! How about a story?”

Facing those wide, expectant blue eyes was more pressure than Dice could handle outside of gambling and rap battles. “Eh, stories aren’t really my thing,” he said, looking away. “That’s more, well, you know.” He couldn’t bring himself to say Gentaro’s name; it felt too risky, as if just saying the name would somehow expose how much he’d been thinking about the man it belonged to.

“You’re no fun,” Ramuda said, pouting in that manipulative, military-grade weaponized cuteness way of his. “Well then, should we play a game? Since that most certainly is your thing.”

Dice flopped back onto his side and without thinking about it said, “I’m not in the mood.” After a protracted silence, he noticed that Ramuda was staring at him, brow furrowed in concern. “What? Did I say something weird?”

“Arisugawa Dice isn’t in the mood for a game?” Ramuda said it with a level of incredulity typically reserved for questions like ‘You stole a giraffe from the zoo?’ 

“Hey, even monkeys fall out of trees sometimes,” Dice said defensively. He was about seventy-five percent sure that was an appropriate adage for this situation.

Ramuda’s patronizing smile attested to that twenty-five percent doubt. “Wow Dice, you really miss Gentaro when he’s working against a deadline, doncha?”

In an instant, Dice was upright again. “Nuh-uh,” he said stubbornly, though he could feel his ears growing hot. “I just don’t feel like doing anything today.”

“Okay,” said Ramuda in a singsong, I-don’t-believe-you-for-a-minute voice. “Well, you can mope here if you want and I won’t kick you out, but try not get into any trouble or mess up my stuff, mmkay?”

Dice supposed he could do that much. Under different circumstances, he would be super eager to play a game with Ramuda—he’d been trying for some time to collect evidence that Ramuda cheated, though he’d been unsuccessful so far—but today his thoughts were too jumbled and messy to give any game his all. He rejected the accusation that he was moping, though. He was thinking, just in a circular, self-defeating sort of way.

Ramuda hadn’t been wrong about Dice missing Gentaro when the latter had to work. Annoying as the guy was, Dice couldn’t deny that life was more interesting when he was around. This time, however, the situation was a bit more complicated. For one thing, Dice wasn’t totally convinced that Gentaro actually was working this time; his gambler’s intuition told him that Gentaro was purposefully avoiding him because of what had happened the day before.

Earlier that morning, Dice had sent Gentaro a text message:

 

 

 

 

r u mad at me?

 

There was more he’d wanted to say, but he couldn’t even think of the words, let alone condense them into a clear, textable form.

Gentaro’s response was just as terse:

 

 

 

 

Should I be?

 

It was the sort of thing Dice could imagine him saying in real life with one eyebrow coyly raised. But, just like Gentaro’s real life statements, it was about as transparent as mud. It could mean: No, I’m not mad (but I’m teasing you). Or it could mean: Yes, I am mad (and you should know why). And because this was Gentaro, there were probably a dozen other potential meanings that Dice hadn’t thought of. 

But if Gentaro was asking Dice to confess what he’d done wrong, Dice wasn’t sure how to answer because he wasn’t sure exactly what he had done wrong. All he was sure of was that he’d fucked things up swiftly and badly when they were in the park yesterday.

With that uncertainty, Dice had begun to type out an answer to the question, paying far more attention to spelling and grammar than he ever had before for a text message.

 

 

 

 

I think maybe I did something wrong but I’m not sure what it was. I got the feeling I made you really uncomfy in the park yesterday when I tasted your ice cream without asking. Maybe it was because I got in your face or maybe you just didn’t want my germs on your ice cream. I didn’t mean to make things weird. I know I can be dumb and unsensitive sometimes but

 

That was as far as he got before he deleted the whole thing and sent a much shorter and less revealing reply instead.

 

 

 

 

No?

 

The question mark was Dice’s way of inviting Gentaro to tell him what he’d done wrong. Because why should he have to figure it out for himself? He wasn’t sure if Gentaro would take the hint, though.

Gentaro sent two more text messages in quick succession, both frustratingly unhelpful. 

 

 

 

 

Well then, you needn’t worry.

 

 

 

 

Please try to stay out of trouble until we meet again. TTYL

 

That had been the end of the conversation and it had been hours ago, yet Dice still found himself thinking about the exchange. Should he have sent that long answer after all? Was Gentaro really not mad at him?

The first question was pointless to think about so Dice tried his best not to, but getting it out of his brain was like trying to shoo a fly from a room with just one tiny window to escape through. As for the second question, well, it was pretty hard to believe that Gentaro wasn’t upset after the way he’d run away yesterday. 

Dice had replayed the events in his head so many times already that he was starting to wonder if memories broke down and degraded with repeat use, like those old cassette tape things that were once used for music. Now, folded uncomfortably on Ramuda’s silly little couch, he inevitably found himself back at it, trying to analyze what went wrong.

But determining precisely which action of his had caused Gentaro to flee continued to vex Dice. Was it sampling Gentaro’s strawberry ice cream? Or failing to ask before he did? Was it getting too deep into Gentaro’s personal space? Or was it failing to get out when he should have? The problem was that none of these minor transgressions had bothered Gentaro any of the many times Dice had committed them in the past. In fact, Dice was far more often the one having his personal space invaded by Gentaro.

There was also the sniffing to consider. Sniffing your best friend like that was strange by almost any standard of human behavior. But strangeness had never been enough to offend Gentaro. Yumeno Gentaro was, among many other things, a man who revelled in strangeness. And yet the sniffing was the only thing that stood out as unusual about that interaction. So maybe it really was what had driven Gentaro away.

Maybe this was one of those alpha things that Dice was supposed to know instinctively but didn’t.

Gentaro was an alpha, too—Dice had known this since the day they first met—but while Gentaro did possess all the charisma and effortless charm that alphas are known for, something about his scent had always seemed gentler than other alphas Dice encountered. To be fair, most other alphas Dice encountered were members of rival rap battle divisions so their pheromones conveyed a lot more antagonism than those of an ally alpha who shared Dice’s territory. But that couldn’t explain why Gentaro had smelled so exceptionally good yesterday. Like an idiot, Dice had just assumed it was the ice cream without even questioning why it didn’t smell like strawberry, and it wasn’t until he swooped in for a taste that he realized that what he was sensing wasn’t the sort of scent that regular beta humans could detect and deduced that it could only be coming from Gentaro.

Recalling the scent sent an electric shudder of delight sparkling up Dice’s spine. To say Gentaro merely smelled “good” would be the biggest bluff of Dice’s life—Gentaro had smelled downright mouthwatering. But, somehow, he’d still smelled like himself. It was as if that mellowsweet undercurrent that set Gentaro’s scent signature apart from other alphas had been turned up to eleven. In that moment, Dice had wanted him, and not in an ambiguous way—the situation wasn’t even sexual yet his pants had gotten damn tight.

And now they were suddenly tight again. Just from the memory.

Shit!

In a flailing burst of movement, he adjusted his position and flung the sides of his coat over his lap. His eyes flew over to where Ramuda was working and saw that the designer’s attention was still squarely on whatever he was designing. Dice let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Then, sighing, he settled into a more comfortable slouch that still managed to hide his semi-erection (just in case Ramuda happened to glance over before it went down). Here he was, a grown-ass adult unable to control his boners. It could be worse, though—at least he wasn’t an omega.

As far as Dice was concerned, the existence of alphas and omegas was an extra layer of absurdity in a world that was already overly complicated. Why a tiny percentage of humanity began manifesting strange, vaguely wolffish physiological anomalies several decades ago was still not fully understood, though it was the subject of extensive ongoing scientific investigation. Just as strange as the biological differences in this new subset of humans, though, were the largely unwritten social rules and expectations that came with them. 

“Just trust your instincts,” Dice’s mother had told him when he was twelve years old and had just presented as an alpha like her.

But Dice now knew for certain what he’d suspected all along: when it came to being an alpha, his instincts could not be trusted. Alphas sought omegas—that was the most fundamental tenet of this strange new order and he couldn’t even do that right. Oh, it would be convenient to just blame it on a sudden change in scent, but deep in his heart, Dice knew his attraction to Gentaro wasn’t just a momentary lapse. This had been building for a long time.

Right from the start, Gentaro got under Dice’s skin, as if he’d been designed by the universe for that specific purpose. The casual lies, the silly voices, the teasing whispers—all of it should’ve made Gentaro the most irritating person Dice had ever met. And, yeah, the guy was damn annoying, but to Dice’s bewilderment, he found that he didn’t dislike having Gentaro around. Quite the opposite, in fact. Though he would never admit it out loud, the way Gentaro targeted him made Dice feel important and seen and vibrantly alive.

Gentaro was a shameless liar, but unlike other shameless liars Dice had met—and being a gambler he’d met a lot—Gentaro told falsehoods simply for his own amusement, never for material gains or to harm others. Gentaro’s imagination was simply always on, whether he was writing or not. It made him unpredictable and indecipherable, and Dice couldn’t help being drawn to the challenge of trying to figure out what went on in his head all day. 

Now, more than a year since they’d first met, Dice still hadn’t solved the mystery that was Yumeno Gentaro. Even as Dice got to know Gentaro’s likes and dislikes and what was important to him—his writing, his privacy, and his friends above everything else—there was a part of him that he kept fiercely guarded behind a shield of affectation.

The one time Dice had gotten a glimpse of Gentaro’s tender core had been when Gentaro was on the brink of meltdown, during that altercation in Chuouku with the two guys from Matenro. It was just a minor event, really, but it had a significant effect on Dice. The sight of Gentaro in distress had made him want to tear strips off of that shitty host, even though the guy hadn’t actually done anything violent. Dice had never felt so protective of another person before in his life. It brought him to the realization that no matter how badly he wanted to know Gentaro’s vulnerable side, if exposing it required his teammate to be broken open like an egg, the price was too high. And it really didn’t matter if Gentaro remained partially unfathomable because to Dice he was already precious.

Gentaro also happened to be achingly beautiful. Literally. When he looked at Gentaro, Dice felt a tightening at the center of his chest, like a lasso had looped around his heart and was being tugged by a team of horses. It was an exhilarating kind of hurt and he couldn’t get enough of it. He even wondered if his overarching mission to determine what went on inside Gentaro’s head was, at least in part, just an excuse to scrutinize that gorgeous face and suffer that glorious pain.

The longer Dice thought about it, the more obvious it became that what was really bothering him wasn’t the episode in Yoyogi Park so much as the uncomfortable truth it was forcing him to face. There was a word for when you were physically attracted to somebody but also wanted to hang out with them all the time, wanted to protect them from pain and sadness, and missed the hell out of them whenever they were away. It wasn’t a word that Dice would ever use lightly, but when he tried out other words in his head to describe how he felt about Gentaro—affection, fondness, camaraderie, devotion—none of them fit. None of them even came close. That word was the only one that felt right. So he just had to accept this for what it was: love. Dice was in love with Gentaro, simple as that.

Only it wasn’t as simple as that. Dice (an alpha) was in love with Gentaro (also an alpha).

Was it taboo for an alpha to love another alpha? It had to be, Dice figured, otherwise there would be stories about alpha-alpha relationships. But there were none. 

Maybe Gentaro had sensed Dice’s deviant attraction and that was why he’d run away as if pursued by a swarm of angry hornets yesterday. Or maybe not. Maybe Gentaro absconded for a reason that had nothing to do with Dice, like a sudden bout of diarrhea. There was even the slim possibility that Gentaro had been telling the truth about a forgotten deadline.

While Dice prayed that the incident—whether or not it really was an incident—would be quickly gone and forgotten, his feelings for Gentaro were here to stay. And even if such feelings weren’t considered taboo, they would still be hopeless. 

With his legs draped uncomfortably over one arm of the loveseat and his neck draped uncomfortably over the other, Dice stared up at the ceiling, marinating in a zesty blend of self-doubt, self-pity, and good old-fashioned shame. If only he had someone he could talk to about this.

Talking to Ramuda about it was an option. Ramuda wasn’t an alpha or an omega, and yet he seemed to know more about them than any ordinary beta should—he knew which rappers from the other divisions were alphas (plus the one who was an omega) before Dice had figured it out. The risk of talking to Ramuda was that he wouldn’t take the problem seriously and Dice would have to endure the humiliation of having his sincerely felt worries dismissed or laughed at. It wasn’t deliberate cruelty on Ramuda’s part, he just had his own ideas about what was or was not a real problem. But with nobody else to consult and on the verge of driving himself crazy, Dice decided to take the chance.

“Ramuda, is there something wrong with me?” he asked, still gazing upward.

“What do you mean?” Ramuda replied in a too-chipper-to-be-taking-this-seriously tone. “Something wrong like a gambling addiction? Or something wrong like a personal hygiene problem?”

“I don’t have a personal hygiene problem,” Dice objected, though he did a quick sniff test on himself anyways.

“So you don’t deny that you have a gambling addiction then?” Ramuda had at least put down his pencils and swiveled his desk chair to address Dice directly, but his smile was just as flippant as ever.

“No,” Dice said haughtily, “I just don’t consider it a problem.” 

“Maybe it’s not a problem yet ,” Ramuda teased as his nimble fingers peeled the cellophane wrapper off of a lollipop.

Dice sighed. This was getting him nowhere. He’d have to try a different tack. If he wanted to get any insight from Ramuda, he was just going to have to come right out and ask for it. “I have another question for you,” he said.

Ramuda cocked his head. “Oh?”

Dice had wanted to be casual about it but he felt the flare of warmth in his cheeks and his eyes slid away from Ramuda’s self-consciously. “Is it really weird for an alpha to not be interested in finding an omega? I mean, what if an alpha wanted another alpha? Wanted as in, you know, for a mate. Would that be, I dunno, considered deviant or something?”

A devilish glint sparked in Ramuda’s eyes as he grinned around the stick of his lollipop. “I see,” he purred. “This is about you and Gentaro, isn’t it?”

“It’s not!” Dice snapped defensively. “It’s a hypothetical question! Strictly hypothetical!”

“Calm down,” Ramuda said smugly. “No need to be so dramatic about it. I mean, it’s not exactly a secret.”

Dice was mortified. “You know about it? How? I’m just figuring it out myself!”

Ramuda gave a little snort and shifted his candy from one cheek to the other. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out, so even you were bound to get there eventually. So what are you gonna do?”

Dice frowned. Wasn’t he the one who was asking the questions? “What do you mean what am I gonna do?”

“About Gentaro, silly,” Ramuda said, with the most innocent of smiles on his face. “Now that you know he’s in love with you, what are you going to do about it?”

It took a second for Dice’s brain to process the words, but when it did, his mouth fell open. “What?! No! You’ve got it backwards, dumbass! Gentaro isn’t in love with me, I’m in love with him! That’s why I asked if there was something wrong with me ! And you act like I’m the slow one.”

The look that blossomed on Ramuda’s face was triumphant. “Ah ha!” he exclaimed. “You just admitted it! You love him! I can’t believe that actually worked!”

“Why you little—!” Dice growled. His face burned with embarrassment, for the confession itself and for having been so easily duped. “Candy-colored hellspawn! That’s what you are! I swear!”

Ramuda puffed out his lower lip in an exaggerated sulk. “That’s not a very nice thing to call the guy who’s trying to help you out,” he said.

“How are you helping?” Dice barked.

“I was about to,” Ramuda huffed. “If you’d let me. But I needed to understand the situation first. Now I know aaaaaall about it.”

Dice sighed. “Yeah, okay, so now you know. Yes, I like Gentaro.”

“You said love ,” Ramuda corrected.

The hot flush that had finally started to retreat from Dice’s face flowed back in like a tidal surge and his words came out in a splutter. “If you heard me say it the first time there’s no need for me to say it again!”

Ramuda rolled his eyes. “Fine, fine. I won’t make you say it again if you find it that embarrassing.” 

“Thank you,” said Dice.

“Sooooo?” Ramuda asked through the wide grin that had unfurled on his face.

“Soooooo?” Dice echoed, wishing now that he’d never started this conversation.

“When are you going to tell him?” Ramuda asked excitedly.

Dice gaped. “Tell him? Never. Obviously.”

“Well that strategy is guaranteed to get you nowhere,” said Ramuda.

“I’m already doomed to get nowhere,” Dice lamented, his body sagging heavily against the back of the loveseat. “Alphas don’t fall in love with other alphas.”

Ramuda cocked his head to the side curiously. “Is that a rule from the Alpha Code?” This was his version of sarcasm, saying something facetious while feigning naïveté. It was sometimes hard to distinguish from his default cutesy act, but Dice was getting better at reading his subtle variations.

“If there was such a thing as an Alpha Code, I’d probably be the last alpha in Japan to know about it,” Dice said bitterly. Even though I’m the son of the most powerful alpha in the whole damn country , he continued in his head.

Except for her hollow urging for him to “trust his instincts,” Dice’s mother had provided him with no guidance on the matter being an alpha. Or any other matter truthfully. Tohoten Otome had more important business to attend to than child rearing, so she left the care and upbringing of her only son to professionals: nannies and maids and tutors—all of them beta women. His mother wasn’t cruel or abusive, though, and Dice couldn’t accuse her of neglect since he was thoroughly doted upon by the people she had hired to do just that. Her attitude towards Dice could best be described as disinterest with occasional flashes of disappointment, not at anything he had done, but merely at his existence and the fact that he was male.

“You were supposed to be a girl, you know,” was something she’d said to him on multiple occasions, always in a tone that suggested that there was a deeper meaning he was supposed to infer from this information. Dice never figured out what that deeper meaning was, but he did wonder sometimes if his mother would’ve been any more affectionate with a daughter than she was with her son.

Upon discovering that he, too, was an alpha, Dice had very briefly entertained the hope that it might bring him and his mother closer emotionally, or at the very least earn him a modicum of approval. But that hope was swiftly dashed as she instead grew even colder towards him. There were unanswered greetings and icy glares from across large rooms and thinly veiled accusations that he was trying to seduce members of the household staff, even while he was still just a child. The meaning of these gestures was not difficult to discern: there wasn’t enough room in this family for two alphas. Which was perfectly fine with Dice; he felt caged and coddled by his living conditions and was hungry for a taste of freedom. Once he turned sixteen he left and didn’t look back.

Arisugawa Dice entered the down and dirty real world woefully ignorant when it came to alphas and omegas. The things he should’ve learned from his mother, or at least from his tutors, were instead acquired in gambling dens and bars and sleazy hotels. Some lessons were learned through firsthand experience, like the fact that even though betas (meaning most people) couldn’t consciously detect alpha pheromones they were very susceptible to alpha charisma. This was useful knowledge for Dice, who was chronically in need of extra cash or a free meal or a place to crash for a night.

Other knowledge—in particular, everything about omegas and mating—came to him through the unregulated information networks of society’s underbelly. Dice wasn’t such a sheltered fool that he’d swallow every sordid tale that the drunks and gamblers and hustlers fed him, but when multiple sources he deemed reliable offered corroborating stories, he was inclined to believe that there probably was an element of truth in the mix. Over the course of the last four years he’d managed to stitch together a serviceable patchwork understanding of the strange sexual otherworld he belonged to, but he still felt clueless and adrift much of the time.

“Well you don’t need an Alpha Code to know that if you limit your pool of potential lovers to less than a hundredth of a hundredth of a percent of the population, you’re setting yourself up for a lonely life.” Ramuda’s reasoning was refreshingly straightforward and Dice wondered if perhaps he really was serious about helping.

“Okay,” said Dice. “But tell me, Ramuda, have you ever known two alphas who were a couple? Who got together and stayed together?”

Ramuda’s face scrunched up in concentration. Hard candy clicked against teeth as his tongue pushed the lollipop around in his mouth. “No,” he finally answered. “I can’t say that I have. But my social circle really isn’t as big as you think it is, Dice. And most of my friends are girls. Male alphas are much more common.” He paused, drew and released a deep breath, and offered Dice one of his genuinely tender smiles, the sort rarely seen by anyone besides his Fling Posse teammates. “Just because you and I can’t think of any examples that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t or shouldn’t happen. Call me a hopeless romantic if you want, but I think if you manage to find someone you truly love, you shouldn’t let anything stand in your way.”

Hopeless romantic was definitely not a label Dice would ever have slapped on Ramuda. “I think you’re oversimplifying the situation,” he said.

“And I think you’re overcomplicating the situation,” Ramuda retorted. “I think you’re getting hung up on this alpha-omega stuff because you’re scared to just tell Gentaro how you feel. I think all this angst is just cover for a classic case of fear of rejection.”

The comment hit Dice like a well-aimed arrow. The way Gentaro had recoiled and retreated yesterday had felt distressingly like a preview of how he might respond if Dice confessed feelings that weren’t reciprocated. Maybe his brain was trying to frame the situation as hopeless from before the start to prevent him from betting his heart and the closest friendship he’d ever known on what he feared deep-down was a losing hand. Groaning softly, he buried his face in his hands. “Maybe. I don’t know.”

Ramuda laughed, to Dice’s annoyance, and said, “That’s so cute. You really shouldn’t be afraid, though. I think Gentaro likes you, too. A lot.”

Dice was still covering his face with his hands, but he peered at Ramuda from between his splayed fingers. “You do?”

“I do,” Ramuda replied brightly. “Think about it. He chooses to spend more time with you than with any other person. He lets you stay at his house pretty much whenever you ask. He comes to your rescue when you’re in trouble. And he’s always teasing you, like the way a middle schooler teases his crush.”

Dice’s hands had settled back down to his lap as he listened to Ramuda’s evidence. It was stuff Dice had always thought of as reasons he liked Gentaro, not signs that Gentaro liked him. But Ramuda made it sound like a compelling argument. “Okay, but even if Gentaro did return my feelings—and I’m still not convinced he does—what happens when an omega enters the picture?”

“I don’t know,” said Ramuda. “What are you afraid will happen?” 

If he hadn’t already shared so much of his emotional baggage with Ramuda, Dice might have declined the invitation, but this deep into the conversation he saw no point in holding back. “Well, let’s say I meet some random omega and am drawn to them by pheromones against my will? I’ve heard the pheromones of an omega in heat are so potent that any unmated alpha who gets so much as a whiff will find it damn near impossible to resist the urge to breed. And to form a mating bond—which is a level of connection two alphas can’t ever have with each other. So even if I never want to pair up with an omega and just want to be with Gentaro, I might have absolutely no say in the matter. Yeah, I guess you’re right that I’m hung up on the alpha-omega stuff, but it’s only because the alpha-omega stuff is so fucked up .”

The words flowed out of his mouth like water from a burst pipe. This fear had been incubating in a back pocket of his brain for months but this was the first time he’d ever described it.

Ramuda listened calmly to the end, nodding thoughtfully, fingers tented. “I see. You’re afraid an alpha-alpha romance is doomed to end when one of you finds an omega mate.”

Dice’s attention snagged on one particular phrase. One of you . Ramuda had said one of you . Meaning Dice or Gentaro . Up to this point, Dice had been very deliberate in his effort to only imagine a scenario where he was the one seduced into an undesired mating bond with some shameless omega hussy. But of course it could just as easily happen to Gentaro, who was also an alpha. And Gentaro might not be as repelled by the idea as Dice was. The image of Gentaro wrapped around a beautiful stranger invaded Dice’s head like strong poison and his body responded with a violent twinge of physical pain, like icy claws sinking into his chest and raking down to his stomach. He didn’t want to think about this, now or ever, but the image refused to dissolve. Gentaro leaned down to kiss his omega’s lips as his arms encircled them protectively. The claws twisted cruelly in Dice’s guts.

“I fucking hate it!” Dice’s voice came out as a hoarse growl. “All of it! The whole alpha-omega… thing! People talk about alphas and omegas being soulmates, made for each other, destined lovers! The mating bond is like a psychic connection, they say! It’s so fucking special! So fucking romantic! But if I...” His voice broke as the last drops of his anger were used up and all he had left to work with was despair. “If I can’t have it with the person I love, then what’s the point?” 

This was more emotion than Dice had expected to release when he decided not to hold back, more emotion than he even realized he was carrying around inside him. Spewing it all out had been cathartic, like puking after eating too much at a buffet. Now he felt silly. He’d just had a mini meltdown and it was all just complaining about things that couldn’t be changed. The situation was definitely embarrassing if he was worried about being judged childish by Ramuda of all people.

But if Ramuda judged, he didn’t show it. When he spoke, his voice was empathetic, a quality he had been exhibiting more often since he’d cut ties with Central Ward. “I’m sorry, Dice. It really isn’t fair. Gentaro should’ve been an omega.”

While Dice appreciated Ramuda’s intent, he had to disagree. “No. I don’t think he’d want that and I sure as hell wouldn’t want that for him. Gentaro and I should’ve both been betas. Then it really would be as simple as fear of rejection and whether to take a chance. Alphas and omegas shouldn’t exist. I mean, until twenty or thirty years ago they didn’t exist and relationships were just… normal. Why did alphas and omegas start appearing in the first place? What purpose do they serve?”

Ramuda plucked the lollipop stick, now stripped of candy, from his mouth and discarded it into a colorful glass ashtray on his coffee table. “I wish I could answer those questions for you, Dice, but sadly I am just a humble clone and my knowledge is limited. There is somebody else I think you should talk to, though.”

Dice sighed. “Yeah, I know, you think I should talk to Gentaro about all this stuff and tell him how I feel, but I’m still not sure.” 

“Huh?” Ramuda blinked in confusion. “I do think you should talk to Gentaro about your feelings, but I was actually referring to Jakurai.”

“Jakurai?” Dice asked, raising an eyebrow. “From Matenro?”

Ramuda nodded vigorously. “Jakurai is a beta, but he knows more about alphas and omegas than just about anyone in Japan. He’s been doing research in his free time for years. It’s his passion project.”

“Odd choice of passion for a beta,” said Dice, though not in a disparaging way. “So is he the reason you know so much about this stuff? I mean, did he teach you? Since you two are friends or frenemies or ex-lovers or whatever.”

“Something like that.” Ramuda’s smile was cryptic. “Jakurai knows way more than I do, though. And I’m sure he’d be happy to meet with you sometime.”

Dice scratched the back of his neck, uncertain. “Not sure I want to talk about these kinds of things with someone I barely know, even if he is a doctor. Having told you is embarrassing enough.”

Without getting out of his desk chair, Ramuda used his dangling feet to scoot close enough to Dice that he could clasp both of Dice’s hands between his own. “Listen to me, Dice. There’s nothing embarrassing about what you told me today. And I’m so happy that you did. Sharing secrets brings us closer together as a team.”

Alarm bells sounded inside Dice’s head. “You can’t tell Gentaro,” he warned, freeing his hands from Ramuda’s clutches. “You have to promise me you won’t tell him about anything I said today. Do you promise?”

Ramuda wore a wounded expression. “Of course I promise, Dice. You and Gentaro are the two most important people in the world to me. I want both of you to be furiously, riotously happy and I will do anything I can to make that happen. But I won’t betray your trust or his, and I won’t interfere with whatever it is that’s going on between you two.” A pause. “Unless you ask me to, of course.”

“Please don’t, Ramuda,” Dice said gently, a soft smile on his face. Dice believed Ramuda really did care about the other members of his Posse just as much as he professed to, but that was exactly why Dice worried about the lengths Ramuda would go to in order to support them. Ramuda’s heart was unquestionably human, but his brain was just a little bit twisted. “I think this is something me and Gentaro are gonna have to work out for ourselves. Talking to you did help me get some of my thoughts sorted out and less—tangled. So thanks for that.”

“Any time,” said Ramuda, returning the smile. “Now, unless you have more you’d like to talk about, do you mind if I get back to my work?”

“Oh, right. Of course not. I’m good. Go. Work.” Dice dismissed Ramuda with a shooing motion. He had an odd feeling of coming down, like when the gamblers' high started to fade after a nail-bitingly tense bet concluded (regardless of whether he’d won or lost). His conversation with Ramuda had felt important, consequential. But now it was finished and the world was still the same as it had been before. Assuming yesterday’s awkwardness was just a one-time anomaly, his relationship with Gentaro hadn’t changed. Not yet. They were still friends, still close. Dice had a better understanding of his feelings now, but he still hadn’t decided whether or not to act on them. He had time.

For now I just want to spend as much time with Gentaro as I can and try not to worry about the future. For now that should be enough. For now. 

“If I might offer one more bit of advice,” said Ramuda. He was at his desk, his back to Dice, but his voice was perfectly clear. “If you’re worried about Gentaro getting snatched away by an omega, don’t drag your feet on telling him how you feel. I know you need some time to think, just don’t wait too long. As they say, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

The impeccable timing of this final statement had to be a coincidence, but to Dice it felt eerily like Ramuda had been listening in on his thoughts. It was true, though. He had time, but there was no way of knowing how much time. He was going to need a plan. And courage.

Right now, though, he had an itch to scratch.

While Ramuda returned to dual-wielding pencils in service of his Fall fashion line, Dice took out his phone, finally in the mood for a game. As soon as he opened his current favorite this-game-features-real-currency-transactions app, he got a text from Gentaro.

 

 

 

 

It’s looking like I will probably finish my manuscript in time for dinner. Will you let me treat you to make up for yesterday? (Not a lie)

 

Pleasant warmth pooled in Dice’s belly as he read Gentaro’s offer. Gentaro really wasn’t mad at him. And they were going to see each other tonight. Grinning irrepressibly, Dice thumbed his response.

 

 

 

 

Hell yes!