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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!





Chapter Text

It Always Comes as a Surprise
By earthinmywindow

—Part Two—
Reckless Love

 

Waking up to a spotlessly clean towel spread over his pillow was a double miracle in Gentaro’s eyes; not only had he managed to get several hours of sleep, he’d done so without bleeding profusely from his nose. He’d been injecting the new extra-strength alpha-inducing medication into his body daily for three months now and had thought he was done discovering new side effects, until last Sunday night when he’d experienced a pillowcase-ruining nosebleed, which he might have dismissed as unrelated to the drug if it hadn’t repeated every night since.

But after a bloodless night, he had reason to hope that it was just a temporary side effect and would soon go away, unlike the insomnia and lack of appetite that had started early and stubbornly persisted.

Today was a Dice day, so Gentaro was especially grateful for the rejuvenating sleep. He was tired of using the lie that he was up all night writing because an idea just wouldn’t leave him alone in order to explain away the dark circles under his eyes (even if his editors absolutely loved to hear it). After brushing his teeth, he evaluated his overall appearance in the bathroom mirror and could see the difference a night’s rest made on his complexion.

The hollow cheeks were another matter. Despite his efforts to eat normally, since starting the new drug, Gentaro frequently found himself skipping meals, not just because his body wasn’t bothering to tell his brain he was hungry, but also because foods he’d once enjoyed had become unpalatable. When he ate more than a few bites, the food sat heavily in his stomach for hours afterwards. The situation was so bad that he had to keep a stash of those bland CalorieMate bars always on hand and program his phone to periodically remind him to ingest some nutrition so he wouldn’t faint. But he was still losing mass at an alarming rate. And while bony shoulders, a concave belly, and protruding ribs could be hidden under clothes, he couldn’t avoid showing his face in public.

The two people he spent the most time with had already noticed the changes. Ramuda hadn’t said anything directly, but he’d started pushing snacks on Gentaro more frequently and with pointed insistence: “Eat some potato chips! Or melon pan! Your brain needs carbohydrates to write!” And while his cheery tone masked what Gentaro intuited was serious concern, Ramuda never pried or interrogated.

Dice, on the other hand, had come right out and said exactly what he was thinking: “You’re looking bony lately, dude, are you feeling okay?” Gentaro had dismissed his concern with an easy, on-hand lie—“My weight always dips when I’m writing against a looming deadline, but it will bounce back”—and that had been the end of the conversation. Dice hadn’t brought it up again, but if he did (or if Ramuda started asking questions) Gentaro would think of another explanation that was simple, plausible, and untrue. 

Yes, if there was one thing Gentaro had come to rely on over the years it was knowing that whatever life threw at him, there was always a lie to fall back on. But unlike the other fictions he blithely wove each day, lying to Ramuda and Dice about his health left a poisonous taste on the back of Gentaro’s tongue. His teammates knew that he fibbed as easily as breathing, but they trusted that he would tell them the truth when it came to the important stuff, like his physical well-being. The guilt Gentaro felt for betraying that trust every time he lied was a self-inflicted gut punch that was almost as unpleasant as the drug’s side effects.

Then there were his editors and publishers. Gentaro’s visible deterioration posed an altogether different problem for his professional life. It didn’t matter how well he got on with his industry colleagues, their concern for Gentaro the man would always be secondary to their concern for Yumeno-sensei the revenue stream. But he couldn’t fault them for that—it was only natural that publishing houses would be reluctant to bestow hefty advances upon an author who looked like he would die before finishing his manuscript. Gentaro wasn’t to that point, yet, but if he didn’t get this situation under control soon, his career— their career—would be in serious jeopardy.

And then the years of drugs and deception and all of these unintended consequences would all have been for nothing.

I can’t let that happen , he thought as he leaned closer to the mirror to examine the unsettling sharpness of his cheekbones . I need to find a way to get back to a healthy weight and appearance so that Yumeno Gentaro can continue putting out books. To keep the dream alive until the dreamer awakens.

Gentaro was resolute. Unfortunately he had no idea how to halt and reverse the adverse effects of his black market meds aside from quitting them altogether, which wasn’t an option. He rejected the idea of contacting Zero about it, partially because their last in-person meeting had made Gentaro extremely uncomfortable, but also because he couldn’t stomach the thought of describing his weight loss and nosebleeds to the drug dealer, like a confession of his own pathetic weakness.

This was something he was going to have to figure out on his own. But not today. The thought of seeing Dice broke through Gentaro’s anxiety and gloom like the sun chasing away storm clouds. It was downright audacious how much power that gambler wielded without even knowing it.

His cheeks suddenly hot, Gentaro splashed his face with cold water from the sink. He’d wasted enough time worrying—now it was time to get ready for another cherished not-a-date with Dice. Later, when he got home, he would focus all of his energy and attention on figuring out how to restore his body without quitting the meds.

To wear, he chose khaki Bermuda shorts and a short-sleeved button-up shirt; Tokyo was now plunged in the hottest part of summer, so hiding his wasting physique under layers of clothing would be more conspicuous than revealing it. Fortunately, his arms and legs had always been thin so they didn’t look as sickly as the rest of him. This was as skinny as he was going to let himself get and it really wasn’t that bad. With that reassuring thought, he set out.

 

————

 

“Yo! Gentaro!” Dice was already waiting at the statue of Hachiko, waving to Gentaro as he approached. Clad in a black tank top, Dice’s tan, corded arms were on full display—it was a sumptuous feast for Gentaro’s eyes but it made him even more self-conscious about his own pale and scrawny limbs. 

“Well well,” Gentaro clucked. “Now this is unexpected, Arisugawa Dice arriving at a meeting spot early.”

Dice grinned an adorable grin that showed his pointy canines. “Wild, right?”

Gentaro sniffed, feigning immunity to that charming smile. “I suppose even a broken watch is correct twice a day. Of course this is only one time, so you still owe me one more.” 

“Hey!” Dice objected, in a tone that suggested he wasn’t seriously mad. “So where are we heading today? Please say someplace cool. It’s hot as fuck out today!”

“Yes, Fuck is indeed a sweltering locale,” said Gentaro, nodding, hand on his chin as if he were actually thinking about the climate in the nonexistent Kingdom of Fuck. “Fortunately, I had a different place in mind. What do you say to a bit of shopping at the New Mall? It’s air conditioned.”

“You just said the two magic words!” Dice beamed, but only momentarily before scrunching his nose and pursing his lips. “But can we make a no-more-than-one-hour-in-the-bookstore rule? Not that I don’t like books—just there’s other stores in the mall, you know?”

“Two hours,” Gentaro negotiated. “And I’ll treat you to lunch.”

The bright expression returned to Dice’s face. “You got a deal, my friend.” 

And so, beneath the blazing sun, the two of them picked their way towards the latest addition to Shibuya’s overflowing list of must visit shopping destinations. With nearly three hundred stores, over one hundred restaurants, two cinemas and an indoor aquarium, this mall was the place to be. The current most popular feature, though, was probably the state-of-the-art Polar Vortex AC system, which kept the whole complex deliciously cool all summer long.

“Ahh! I wish I could live here,” said Dice, arms spread, face lifted to bathe in the blast of arctic air that greeted them as they entered through the automatic sliding doors.

“Mmm, yes,” Gentaro agreed. “It’s quite refreshing. Now then, to the bookstore.”

This was only Gentaro’s second time visiting this bookstore; the first time had been in the spring, just after the mall’s grand opening, and the throng of customers had been too dense for optimal browsing, not just because of the jostling and elbowing, but also because of the fans who recognized him as writer and/or rapper and wanted an autograph and/or photo. Today the mall was certainly crowded—with shoppers as well as refugees from the hellish heat—but it wasn’t quite so bad as it had been that first time. Having Dice at his side multiplied Gentaro’s chances of being recognized, because despite Fling Posse losing to Matenro in the DRB semifinals, they were still considered celebrities, especially here in Shibuya. But Gentaro preferred being recognized to splitting up.

With so many people moving through this shopping mall, some of them must be unmated omegas. It was an unsavory thought, but one that Gentaro was going to have to get used to: sooner or later, Dice would find a mate. He’ll be bound to an omega who isn’t me. Okay, unsavory didn’t even begin to describe it—the thought was downright excruciating. And no matter how hard Gentaro tried to mentally beat back his own selfishness— Dice is the best person I’ve ever met and I should want him to be happy! —he couldn’t reconcile himself to the idea of letting someone else have his beloved alpha.

Which is why I need to treasure this fleeting time we have together.

“Yo, Gentaro! Lend me some money, will ya? Pretty please?” They’d been in the bookstore less than five minutes and hadn’t made it past the new releases and periodicals but Dice had already gathered a stack of magazines.

Gentaro examined Dice’s selections with an air of scholarly coolth. “Let’s see, you’ve got Shonen Jump, Shonen Sunday, Gamblers’ Life, Rap World , aaaand— Japan Literary Times ?” He raised an eyebrow, irrepressibly curious over the last title. “Your interests are expanding.”

Dice looked askance, avoiding Gentaro’s imploring gaze. “It’s not a regular read or whatever—just saw something on the cover that looked kinda neat is all. So can I borrow some yen or what? You know I’m good for it.”

As Dice was speaking, a metaphorical lightbulb switched on inside Gentaro’s brain—the interview he’d given for JLT was supposed to run in the August issue, on newsstands now. Gentaro knew better than to dismiss the possibility that something else had caught Dice’s eye, but he wanted to believe that it was the interview, self-indulgent though it was. 

“Alright, Dice, I’ll buy your magazines for you. Since they don’t have enough resale value for you to convert them into gambling losses.”

“Sweet!” Dice replied, grinning. “So is five the limit or can I get more? How many can I get? Or does it depend on the price? If I can only get five, can I put one back and get something else? Wait! Lemme think about this!”

Gentaro sighed. “Let’s take our time and make the rounds of the store before finalizing any purchase decisions, shall we? We have two hours after all.” 

“Right, right.” Dice’s eyes roamed, searching for something. “Gonna need a basket.” 

“Here.” Gentaro had picked one up at the entrance and held it out for Dice to deposit his magazines into.

“Thanks,” said Dice. “Okay, let the two hours begin. When we hit the halfway point, though, I’m gonna start thinking about lunch. You said my choice, right?”

“Sure did,” said Gentaro, even though he hadn’t. 

Though it lacked the cozy atmosphere and idiosyncratic layout of the used book shops Gentaro usually haunted, this store was Shibuya’s most spectacular in terms of size and selection. Every genre and sub-genre of literature could be found on one of the store’s five levels. There was even a dedicated special interest section for non-beta folks, featuring such titles as The Alpha’s Guide to Dating and Mating and What to Expect When You’re a Male Omega and Expecting

Gentaro chose to stick close to Dice while browsing, which turned out to be a surprisingly effective strategy for covering every area, since Dice was more interested in exploring the sheer volume and variety of books available than in looking for anything in particular. 

They were on the second floor, grazing a rich field of cute animal photo books, when they were recognized—or, more accurately, when Dice was recognized—by a bevy of female fans. The quartet of young women, who looked the right age to be college students, surrounded Dice on all four sides as Gentaro watched surreptitiously from several meters away, half hidden by a bookshelf. Whether the women hadn’t noticed him or simply hadn’t cared because they were strictly Dead or Alive fans, Gentaro didn’t know but his nose reassured him that they were all betas. Although he couldn’t hear what they or Dice were saying, it appeared to be a typical interaction between an idol and his devotees; Dice could sometimes be a bit surly with his fans, if his luck was running cold or he’d been too long without food, but today he smiled and laughed and even posed for photos with these strangers.

He really is a gentle soul , thought Gentaro, who continued his covert observation even after the fangirls had dispersed and Dice went back to flipping through glossy pages of internet-famous cats.

“You’re staring,” a voice in Gentaro’s imagination teased. It was a voice he knew well enough to recreate perfectly in his mind, even though he hadn’t heard it in years, a voice so much like his own and yet different in ways that only the two of them knew.

I am not! Gentaro thought the words just as defensively as he would’ve said them aloud when he was twelve years old. But despite denying the imaginary charge, his cheeks flushed hotly as he averted his gaze from Dice to the nearest shelf of books. The only person who could tease Gentaro into blushing was apparently so good he could do it without even being present. I wish you were present , Gentaro thought, wistfully. I wish I could talk to you.

But Gentaro could only fantasize about what that person would say to him now

 

“Well the first thing I’d say is that I’m worried about you, of course.”

You mean because of the side effects from the medicine?

“Obviously. And don’t call it medicine, as if you actually need it. That’s poison you are injecting into your body and it’s killing you.”

This is the only way I can protect you. 

“I never asked you to protect me.”

No. You never had the chance to. But you’ve protected me more times than I can count. Now it’s my turn. I’m just doing what you would do if our positions were reversed. And besides, it’s only temporary. Until you come back.

“It’s already been nearly four years. You’ve done enough for me. Don’t you think it’s time for you to get back to your own life? Or are you afraid?”

Hey, I have my own life, even if I am living it under a false name. And what do you mean afraid? Afraid of what?

“Afraid of having to emerge from your chrysalis of lies. Afraid of being vulnerable. Afraid to love somebody with all your heart and let them love you in return. You know, the whole terrifying ordeal of being known thing.”

Don’t I love you with all my heart? And don’t you love me in return?

“You know that’s not what I’m talking about.”

I know. But it’s enough for me. 

“What about Dice?”

What about him?

“Oh come on! It’s obvious that you’re crazy about him. So why don’t you act on it? He could be The One—the mate you’ve been waiting for all your life.”

Okay, I understand what you’re trying to tell me. But as long as I’m an alpha—

“You’re not an alpha! It’s a lie! Sorry, sorry. I didn’t mean to shout. I just don’t know how to get through to you. For someone so smart you can be infuriatingly thick sometimes. Think about everything you might be giving up by carrying on with this charade. Not just the love of a lifetime, but a bond unlike any other in the world—even the one between you and me—and the chance to start a family of your own. No matter how badly you want to protect me, if it comes at the expense of your health and your joy, I’d rather have the truth come out and be done with it.”

Yeah, but the scandal—

“Will ignite and burn out the way all scandals eventually do. We can survive the truth. How much longer can you survive the lie?”

Honestly—I don’t know. Up until a few months ago, I believed that I could play this role indefinitely. But after that first drug failed and now all these side effects from the new one—I’m scared and I don’t know what to do.

“Bullshit! You know exactly what to do! Quit the drugs, come clean about who and what you are, and tell Arisugawa Dice that you are head-over-heels in love with him!”

You make it sound so easy. But what if…

“What if what?”

What if Dice doesn’t want me the way I want him?

“Don’t be ridiculous! How could he possibly not want you? You, the cutest omega in the whole damn world!”

In the whole damn world? I’m flattered, but I must say that smacks of bias coming from someone with the exact same face as me. 

“Well, I won’t deny that I’m biased, but your alpha would have to be a moron or a masochist or both to not want you. And if that’s the case, you’re better off without him.”

Maybe. But my feelings for him won’t magically disappear if he rejects me. And I can’t blame him if he does, especially after he learns that I’ve been living a lie the entire time we’ve known each other. But I don’t know if I could bear it. To lose Dice. When I’ve already lost you. It would be too much. I’m not—I’m not as strong as you think I am. And I—I—

“Aww, no. Don’t cry. Please don’t cry. I can’t handle seeing you heartbroken. It’s like looking at myself being heartbroken for you and feeling powerless to help. You don’t deserve this kind of pain. You deserve happiness. And love. All I want is for you to be happy. My brilliant, sensitive, adorable omega little brother.”

And all I want is for you to wake up and come home. I need you. Now more than ever before. So wake up already, big brother. Wake up. Everything will be okay if you just wake up.

“I’m sorry. I can’t do that.”

Why not?

“Because I’m just an imaginary voice inside your head. One half of a conversation you’re having with yourself. Your real brother is—”

Gentaro’s mental dialogue—monologue, in truth—ended abruptly with an eruption of buzzing against his right buttock. It was the alarm he’d programmed into his phone, letting him know it was time for a CalorieMate. Covertly, he unpocketed his snack and crammed it into his mouth, chewing slowly because it was dry and he didn’t want to choke.

“Oi! There you are!” Dice had materialized at Gentaro’s side as if he’d teleported. “Thought you might’ve gone off to look at brainier stuff than puppies and kittens but you were just round the corner, huh? So, you ready for the next level or what?”

Another two seconds of mastication were needed before Gentaro could swallow safely and answer. “I’m ready. But just for the record, no mind is too erudite to appreciate the ineluctable charms of puppies and kittens.”

Dice’s face twisted in incomprehension. “Ero-dite? Inner-luctable? You know, sometimes I think you make words up just to annoy me.”

“Your allegations wound me, Dice,” said Gentaro, pressing a hand to his chest melodramatically. “Do you really think me so duplicitous?

But Dice didn’t answer; his eyes were narrowed on Gentaro’s face. “Have you been crying?”

“Crying?” Gentaro’s hand went to his cheek and found it wet. This was embarrassing. Ordinarily he would conjure up a quick, slick lie, but this time the truth was strange enough to pass for a lie. “Well what do you know, it seems I really was crying. It’s nothing to be concerned about, though. I was struck by inspiration for a story I’m working on and started writing it in my head. The scene is an emotional conversation between twin brothers who haven’t spoken in years and I couldn’t help but be moved to tears by it. Alas, this is the curse of having such a powerful imagination.”

“If you say so,” said Dice. His voice and facial expression conveyed skepticism.

Interesting , thought Gentaro. He can see through a lie quickly when it’s actually the truth . Well, mostly the truth . Out loud Gentaro said, “I hope you’ll read it if I write it into a book. Perhaps you’ll be brought to tears as well. Now then, onwards and upwards. Lead the way, bookstore tour guide.”

There were still five minutes left of the allotted two hours when the tour came to its natural conclusion. While Dice left the store to check the mall map and finalize his restaurant choice, Gentaro queued at the checkout to buy Dice’s magazines as well as a poetry collection for himself. It was only when the cashier was scanning his purchases that Gentaro actually saw the cover of Japan Literary Times —there was his face, smiling serenely as he sat at a cafe, carefully posed with a book in his hand. He knew his interview was in this issue but hadn’t realized it was the cover story.

“What a handsome photo of Yumeno-sensei,” said the cashier, a fresh-faced young woman, as she set it aside to scan the other items. “I might buy a copy of that magazine just for that cover. And the interview, of course.”

“I take it you’re a fan of Yumeno-sensei?” Gentaro asked, not out of vanity, but just because it felt like the natural thing to say.

“Who isn’t?” the cashier replied. “His books are as dreamy as he is.” She paused then and seemed to be examining Gentaro’s face for a second before she spoke again. “You know, you look a little bit like him. Your face is thinner, more angular, but there’s a resemblance in the eyes.”

Gentaro hadn’t bothered with his glasses today or made any attempt to disguise his identity; his transformation over the last two months had rendered him virtually unrecognizable to casual observers. “I don’t really see it myself,” he told the cashier. “But I am sincerely flattered by the comparison. Thank you, kind store clerk, for making my day.” She blushed as she handed him his change and Gentaro was satisfied that he hadn’t lost his alpha charm. 

“Yo! Gentaro!” Dice was sitting on a bench outside the bookstore entrance but stood when he saw Gentaro. 

At least the most important person still recognizes me , thought Gentaro. “So, have you chosen our lunch destination?”

“You bet,” said Dice, excitedly. “Can you believe there’s a joint in this mall that serves nothing but omurice? With, like, dozens of sauces and fillings. That sound cool or what? I think it sounds cool.”

“Hmm…” Gentaro furrowed his brow, pretending to think hard about the suggestion. “Yes, that does sound rather good. I haven’t had omurice in quite some time. Good choice, Dice.”

“I know, right?” Dice smiled proudly, validated. “It’s up on the eighteenth floor, though, so we’ll have to take the elevator. Oh, but, uh, before we go up I need to make a pit stop. I dunno what it is about bookstores that always makes me hafta take a dump.”

Gentaro could only sigh at Dice’s crassness. “Would you like to take one of your magazines with you?”

“Ooh, yes! Jump, please! No, Sunday! Thanks!”

While Dice headed off to the restroom, magazine in tow, Gentaro settled on the vacated bench to wait. He took out his new poetry book and had just opened to a random page when a single voice spoke up clearly from the mall crowd white noise.

“Why, if it isn’t my good friend, Yumeno-san. What a delight running into you here.”

A shudder of displeasure seized up Gentaro’s spine; he knew the voice and didn’t want to look up and face it’s owner, but ignoring the man wouldn’t make him go away. “Oh, it’s you,” said Gentaro, not frowning at Zero but not smiling either. “You look well.”

“As do you,” said Zero insincerely—Gentaro plainly looked like shit and he had to know his product was the reason. His pants were snakeskin today and his silk shirt was peacock blue, but his overall look, as well as his sunglasses and gold chains, were essentially the same as the last time Gentaro had seen him. “So what brings you to the mall this fine day? Could it be you’re here on a date?”

“I’m here with a friend,” Gentaro answered curtly. “And he’ll be back any minute so you should probably be on your way.”

Zero didn’t budge but just stood there, his perfidious smile spreading wider. “Judging by the magazine in his hand, I’d say I have some time. He’s a cute one, your alpha friend.”

Protective fury bubbled in Gentaro’s bones. His face flushed hot. Zero the drug dealer was not allowed to talk about Dice. “My personal life is none of your business.”

“I know it’s not,” said Zero, feigning innocence. “You’re one of my favorite customers, though, so I can’t help but care about your happiness.” Coming from Zero, the sentiment had the opposite impact as when Gentaro imagined his brother speaking it. 

“Can you please cut to the chase?” Gentaro asked. “You already got my money, so what is it you want?”

“Want?” Zero acted wounded, like he’d been wrongfully accused of a crime. It reminded Gentaro unsettlingly of some of his own behavior. “I want nothing from you, my friend. I do have a nugget of wisdom to bestow upon you, though, free of charge.”

“And what wisdom would that be?”

“The wisdom to get exactly what you want, naturally. You see, I, too, am a man of strong desires. I saw the way you watched that shaggy haired alpha as he walked away and I can tell that you want him.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” It should’ve been an easy lie to deliver, but the mix of irritation and impatience Gentaro felt was making his face red and his voice tight, sabotaging the effort.

“Oh, I think you do,” said Zero. “But I won’t make you say it if you don’t want to. If you did desire that friend of yours, however, I would advise you to make him yours as quickly as possible and not let him get away. You know what I mean.”

Gentaro’s jaw clenched. “I already told you I don’t.” He really didn’t know exactly where Zero was going with this, but he suspected it would cross one ethical line or another. How could he judge, though, when he bought illegal drugs from this man?

Zero’s voice was as dark and smooth as aged whiskey. “Do you remember what I told you the last time we spoke? I said that you could have any unmated alpha you wanted. And I meant it. All you have to do is utilize your natural gifts as an omega.” Bending at the waist, he inclined his upper body towards Gentaro and tilted his sunglasses down so they were looking each other in the eyes. To Gentaro’s astonishment, Zero had one green eye and one gray eye (the latter having somehow survived an injury that had carved a dramatic scar from forehead above to cheek below). “In case I haven’t been perfectly clear,” said Zero, voice lower and more intimate. “I’m suggesting that you quit the injections, let your body do what it was made to do, and invite your alpha over when it happens. One whiff of those heat pheromones and he won’t be able to resist. Once he sinks his teeth into you, he’ll never desire anyone else. He’ll be all yours. Just make sure there are no other alphas close by. Wouldn’t want to catch the wrong one.”

Gentaro grimaced, disgusted but not surprised. “You know there’s a word for putting someone in a situation where they are incapable of declining sex.”

Zero stood up straight. “Incapable? He won’t want to decline. Trust me, he’ll want you as badly as you want him. Would you really consider that rape?” He said it as if Gentaro’s was the unorthodox position. “When a wolf mounts a bitch in heat, has she raped him? Or how about when a peahen is entranced into copulating by the majesty of a peacock’s tail?”

“I really don’t think those are comparable situations,” Gentaro objected.

“Ah, but they are. We humans may have achieved a higher level of intelligence, which makes us feel superior, but we are still just animals at our cores, beasts who follow our instincts. Why would the scent of an omega in heat be irresistible to an alpha if acting on that attraction were against his interests?”

“I don’t know,” Gentaro said through his teeth. “Nor do I care. The scenario you described is entrapment as far as I’m concerned, and I would never, ever subject somebody—especially somebody I care about—to such treatment. Maybe I am just a jumped-up primate with a tendency towards overthinking, but if I’m going to bind a person to me for the rest of our lives, I need to know beforehand that it is what both of us want.”

“That’s sweet.” Zero’s tone was unmistakably patronizing. “Of course I would never try to pressure you into violating your personal values. It was merely a suggestion, offered because you strike me as a lonely soul who could use a mate. As with any advice you are free to take it or leave it.”

Well past ready to end this encounter, Gentaro kept his response short and to the point. “I’ll leave it, thank you very much.” In his head he added: Now if you would leave me, please.

“Suit yourself,” Zero said, and to Gentaro’s immense relief he turned away, poised to exit the scene. But after just one step he paused and spun back around. “Oh, I forgot to ask, how’s the new product working out for you, Yumeno-san? No bad side effects, I hope.”

Gentaro forced a smile onto his face. “Doing great so far, and the side effects are very mild.” An obvious lie from a consummate liar.

Zero nodded. “Good, good. Glad to hear it. Alright then, if there’s nothing you need from me, I’ll be on my way. Give me a call when it’s time to replenish your supply.” For a second time, he turned to leave, but before he walked away he delivered one last parting comment over his shoulder. “Even though you rejected my idea, I do hope you’ll keep an open mind about following your instincts. Sometimes our bodies already know what our brains take too long to figure out.”

Then he slipped into the flow of human traffic and was gone. 

The encounter had been brief, five minutes perhaps, but it left Gentaro with a disoriented what-in-the-hell-just-happened feeling. Zero, the shadiest character from the undisclosed parts of Gentaro’s life, suddenly appearing in the day-to-day realm was surreal on its own, but the things Zero said (and didn’t say) pushed it to the edge of believability. Not mentioning how sickly Gentaro looked or expressing concern for his health was probably a matter of liability protection. But the unsolicited intrusion into Gentaro’s love life was beyond outrageous. How could Zero possibly think that he would welcome the suggestion to weaponize his pheromones in order to force Dice into a mating bond?

What kind of person does he think I am?

Gentaro already knew the answer, but thinking about it made his stomach lurch queasily. Zero was the only person who knew just how rotten he really was. He was an identity thief who bought illegal drugs from a near stranger he met on the internet to fake being an alpha. Why wouldn’t he be open to sexual manipulation?

“Yo, Gentaro!” The sound of Dice’s voice arrived just in time to pull Gentaro back from falling into a pit of self-loathing.

“What happened to Shonen Sunday ?” Gentaro asked as Dice approached empty handed.

A look of embarrassment came to Dice’s face. “Fell in the toilet. After I flushed! But, yeah, it still got ruined.”

Gentaro stood up and smiled gently at him. “I’m terribly sorry for your loss, my friend.”

“You paid for it,” said Dice. “Ah, doesn’t matter, though. So, you ready to go get food?”

“Indeed,” said Gentaro. “Let’s go. Did you remember to wash your hands?”

“Course I did. I’m not an animal.”

Dice grinned and Gentaro felt that melting sweetness in his belly it always brought. If Zero represented the darkest parts of his soul, Dice was the light, his saving grace. And no amount of desperation would ever compel Gentaro to seduce this man he loved so much.

I could win every literary prize Japan has to offer and I still would not deserve him.

 

 


 

 

The text message shook Dice’s phone at the worst possible moment. He’d just pulled up his pants and was securing his belt, Shonen Sunday tucked safely under his arm, when a sudden buzz against his left ass cheek startled him so badly he dropped the magazine right into the toilet. Luckily for Dice it had just started refilling after a flush so there wasn’t enough water to splash onto him, but he still shouted a few choice expletives. After tossing Sunday —though he hadn’t even read all the series he’d wanted to—and washing his hands—as Gentaro always reminded him to do—Dice retrieved his phone to see what the message was.

It was from Ramuda, studded with exclamation marks and emoji.

 

Hi Dice! You’re hanging out with Gentaro today, right? This would be a perfect day to tell him how you feel, don’t you think? So stop wasting time and just do it already!! I’m cheering you on!!! DO IT! DO IT! DO IT! 

“I’m trying!” Dice grumbled at his phone screen, as if Ramuda could hear him. “Just waiting for the right moment so stop riding my ass!” A man entering the restroom shot Dice an odd look and Dice shot one back. Move it along, mister, nothing to see here.

This was one of Ramuda’s nicer encouragement texts—he’d refrained from using the chicken emoji this time—but it was still obnoxious. Ever since their heart-to-heart talk, Ramuda had appointed himself secret champion of Dice’s romantic aspiration, which was sweet in theory, but in practice was more like a pressure campaign. And he was getting more aggressive about it, blatantly frustrated by Dice’s inaction.

Dice was frustrated with himself, too. Having never made a love confession before—due to the fact that he’d never been in love before—Dice hadn’t realized how difficult it would be. Why did manga and anime make it look so easy? 

The fact that he and Gentaro were both alphas wasn’t even the biggest obstacle Dice had to overcome. One of Ramuda’s more practical suggestions had been that Dice should imagine both himself and Gentaro as betas when making his confession. “Don’t even think about the double alpha thing,” Ramuda had said, and to Dice’s pleasant surprise, not thinking about it wasn’t too hard. But while it did simplify the setup, in the end, whether alpha or beta, Dice was still Dice and Gentaro was still Gentaro. Neither was the type to spill his heart out in earnest. Dice knew that any sweet talk from Gentaro was just teasing and lies. Likewise, Gentaro was conditioned to assume sweet talk from Dice was a prelude to asking for money. 

How do I say “I love you” to a guy who annoys the crap out of me just for shits and giggles? And how do I say it in a way that won’t sound like I’m buttering him up for a loan?

Now three months—a whole quarter of a year—had slipped by since Dice told Ramuda about the situation and Ramuda had warned him not to wait too long to make his move. Yet no move had been made. It wasn’t as if there was a clear time limit for love confessions. But today Dice was served up a reminder of what he was racing against when those four fangirls surrounded him in the bookstore and accosted him with a barrage of questions about Yumeno Gentaro. 

“You’re Yumeno-sensei’s best friend, right? What is he like in real life?”

“Does he have a lover? Does he like girls?”

“I know he’s an alpha but does he ever date betas?”

“Is he here with you at the mall today?”

Since Gentaro had vanished when the fans appeared, Dice assumed it was okay to tell them he was alone. Their other questions he answered vaguely, which he could tell did not satisfy their fawning curiosities, but it wasn’t his place to share someone else’s personal information, and he told them as much. To make up for it, he agreed to pose for a photo with the group, and one of the fans promised to post it on Instagram and tag him.

“Will you show it to Yumeno-sensei, please? Ask him if he thinks any of us are cute.”

“Uh, sure,” Dice had replied, but he still hadn’t decided if he would actually do it.

All four of those women were betas, but they still represented a threat. Gentaro was entirely too popular, with women and men alike, and some of his admirers must be omegas. Dice’s competition was out there, just waiting for a chance to get closer to the dazzling and elusive alpha novelist, Yumeno Gentaro.

Dice hadn’t been doing nothing these past two months; he’d tried to drop hints where he could as a buildup to his eventual confession. Buying the issue of Japan Literary Times with Gentaro on the cover—or, well, having Gentaro buy it for him—was Dice’s latest attempt. He’d even mentioned that he wanted it specifically for what was on the cover. But whether or not Gentaro picked up that dropped hint (or any of the others) Dice couldn’t tell. Subtlety had never been one of his strengths. 

Further complicating matters was a new worry that had taken up residence in Dice’s brain. Lately Gentaro had not been looking well—still beautiful, as always, but sickly. Every time Dice saw him, he seemed a little less substantial, not just thinner but paler, too, as if the saturation bar in his color settings was being slowly dragged down. When Dice asked him about it earlier in the summer, Gentaro had brushed it off as no big deal and blamed the hot weather for killing his appetite. But as weeks passed and he continued to deteriorate, that explanation was becoming increasingly hard to believe. Another one of Gentaro’s lies, more likely.

Now Dice found himself entertaining the terrifying possibility that the person he’d finally realized he was in love with might be seriously ill. And from there it was just a hop, skip and a jump into the rabbit hole of catastrophizing and conspiracy theories. Was Gentaro dying? Did Ramuda know all about it? Was that why Ramuda was pushing so hard for Dice to confess before it was too late? So far, Dice had been able to claw his way back to reality whenever his thoughts started heading in this direction. Yes, Gentaro was a liar, but he wouldn’t keep a secret as big and serious as a terminal illness from his best friend, right? So he probably wasn’t dying. Something was definitely not right, though, and Dice wasn’t sure how much longer he could go on pretending not to notice. 

One thing at a time , he told himself. I can tell him I’m worried about him after I tell him how precious to me he is . His hope was that Gentaro might be more receptive to concern about his health if it came from someone who loved him. Which was one more reason for him to expedite this confession.

As he exited the restroom to rejoin Gentaro, Dice gave himself a little pep talk inside his head.

Alright, time to stop ducking and dodging. Just look for an opening and go in for the kill. Doesn’t have to be here at the mall. I can offer to walk him home afterwards. It doesn’t even have to be today. But I gotta take action. Soon. No more excuses. Stop thinking about what could go wrong and start thinking about what could go right. 

The omurice restaurant Dice had chosen for lunch was on the eighteenth floor of the mall so he and Gentaro made their way to the elevator bay. Theoretically, a long elevator ride could be the setting for a love confession, but only under very specific circumstances—say, a direct ride to the top of Tokyo Tower with zero stops. Here the risk of being interrupted by passengers entering and exiting was too high to even consider it. So Dice used the ascent time to describe the ongoing plots of those Shonen Sunday manga he’d managed to read before dropping the magazine in the toilet, his eyes subtly studying Gentaro’s gaunt, lovely face as it nodded and tilted curiously in response.

As it happened, no other passengers joined them on the ride to the eighteenth floor. But even if Dice had known in advance that they would be alone, it wouldn’t have been enough time to say everything he wanted to say. So it couldn’t have been the right moment. 

They had to queue to get a table, since it was lunchtime rush hour and the mall was packed, but the wait lasted only ten minutes. When their turn arrived, a waitress in a mint-green apron greeted them with a bright smile and led the way to a cozy window-side table for two. 

“Impressive variety for a restaurant specializing in one particular dish,” said Gentaro as he studied his opened menu. “I wonder how many permutations of fillings, sauces, and sides one could make. I imagine you could eat here every day for a year and not have the same meal twice, though I’m not a mathematician so I can’t say for sure. And it all sounds quite tasty.”

Dice was relieved to hear him express an interest in the food. “I know, right? Bet there’s even something that will bring your dead appetite back to life. Do I know how to pick ‘em or what?”

A look of confusion appeared on Gentaro’s face for a fraction of second before a mild smile took its place. “I believe you might actually win that bet, Dice. And you do indeed have impeccable taste in dining venues. With the exception of a certain campfire in Yokohama.”

It was a perfectly ordinary response, but Dice’s Three-card Monte trained eyes hadn’t missed the perplexed expression that so quickly came and went before Gentaro delivered it. Apparently Gentaro had momentarily forgotten about his summer affliction, which as good as confirmed Dice’s theory that it had been a lie. And while Dice understood and respected the fact that Gentaro wasn’t obligated to share even one scrap of personal information with anyone, he longed for Gentaro to see him as somebody to rely on. Dice didn’t just want to know about what was going on in Gentaro’s life, he wanted Gentaro to want to tell him about it, especially if Gentaro was going through some rough shit.

Why not do it now?

The thought came into Dice’s mind so swiftly and clearly that his theory about Ramuda’s psychic powers experienced a very brief revival before he recognized his own internal monologue. Upon further contemplation, it was actually a pretty good idea. The setting wasn’t absolutely private, but nobody was paying attention to them. It was intimate, but comfortable.

It’s not like I have to go all out and drop the L-bomb as my opening move. Just tell him how much I care about him. If Gentaro knew that I cherished him more than anyone else in the world, maybe he would trust me enough to be honest about what’s happening to him.

“Oi, Gentaro, I’ve got something I need to tell you.”

The words were out before Dice had finalized the decision to confess—his heedless mouth two steps ahead of his hapless brain—and there was no way to cram them back in now. 

“Oh?” Gentaro set down his menu and gave Dice full attention. His green eyes were as luminous as ever, like sunlit leaves, untouched by whatever was depleting the rest of him, and the expression he wore was entirely too guileless for someone Dice knew was anything but. “What is it, Dice?”

“I… uh…”

Think! Think! I can do this. I know what I want to say, just gotta think how to say it. “Gentaro, for a long long time I’ve wanted to tell you that I really hate the pressure put on us alphas to find omegas to mate with and to be honest I’m not even interested in meeting an omega because I don’t want a mate and would rather spend my time with you because you are the most precious person in the world to me despite being a fellow alpha.” Yes! That’s perfect!

His mental rehearsal had played at triple speed, so the pause it created was awkward but not egregious. Then he opened his mouth and spoke. “Gentaro, for a long time I’ve wanted to tell you that I really, really hate omegas.”

He fucked it up. Of course.

Gentaro blinked and tilted his head, understandably confused. Then he did what he was so infuriatingly good at and rolled with it. “I see, so that’s why we never hang out with Kannonzaka Doppo. And here I thought you were still holding onto a grudge from our loss to Shinjuku in the first Division Rap Battle.”

Dice swallowed a growl of frustration—at his own stupid mistake, not Gentaro’s flippant response to it. “That came out wrong. Really wrong. What I’m trying to tell you is…” He filled his lungs with oxygen, preparing to take the plunge.

“Speak slowly,” Gentaro said in that split-second break. “Think about each word before you say it.”

Dammit, Gentaro! I’m trying to confess here and you’re throwing me off my game! I love you but you are so damn annoying!

Even as he was having this thought, Dice felt the heady, fizzy rush of challenge and desire that he experienced whenever Gentaro riled him up and it only made him more determined to do this now and get it right. He briefly considered reaching across the table and grasping Gentaro’s hand just to send a clear message that this was something serious, but decided that was too much, opting to simply lean forward and hold Gentaro’s gaze instead.

“I don’t actually hate omegas. What I hate is the whole setup. You know, like how alphas like you and me are just expected to…” 

Despite Dice’s determination, his speech quickly hit a snag when his eyes picked up an anomaly on Gentaro’s attentive face—the inside of one nostril appeared darker than the other, nearly black. Dice blinked to test if his vision was to blame. The darkness bulged, then bubbled, then slid down and over the crest of Gentaro’s lip. Not black, but deep red.

“Oi, your nose is bleeding!” Dice realized what he was seeing and spoke up just as the first droplet landed on the table.

Both of Gentaro’s hands immediately flew to his face and came back smeared with blood, which he stared at in mute horror as more dribbled down his chin and dripped onto the table. Trying not to panic, Dice tore open one of the plastic-wrapped napkins using his teeth and held it out to Gentaro, who snatched it up.

“There’s a wet wipe in here, too, if you want it,” Dice said, though it was obvious from the rapidly reddening napkin under Gentaro’s nose that a moist towelette wasn’t going to make much of a difference. 

Gentaro either hadn’t heard the offer or simply chose to ignore it as he lurched up out of his seat, muttering to himself in a small, tense voice that he probably didn’t realize Dice could hear. “Not here! Not now!”

“Seriously, are you okay?” Dice asked. He was growing more frightened by the second.

Gentaro was scanning the restaurant, looking for something. “I’ll be fine. I just—I need to use the restroom and clean myself up.”

“Do you want me to come with you?” It was a silly question, the sort of thing a mother would ask her child, but Dice didn’t know what else to say.

“No,” said Gentaro. The napkin had reached its limit and was leaking like a sponge in his hand now; a crimson thread oozed down his wrist. “You stay here, Dice. If the waitress comes back while I’m gone, just order me anything. Okay?” He pivoted away from the table while he was speaking and was on the move before the last word left his mouth.

Worried and helpless, Dice watched Gentaro’s urgent flight to the restroom until he turned a corner and there was nothing more to see. The situation had evolved so rapidly that he needed a moment just to process it. In the preceding months of fretting over how to tell Gentaro how he feels, Dice thought he’d imagined every possible thing that could potentially go wrong. A devastatingly timed nosebleed, however, had never crossed his mind.

As a frequenter of gambling dens, back alleys, and other disreputable hangouts, Dice had witnessed (and personally experienced) plenty of nosebleeds, but they’d always followed directly from blunt trauma like getting slugged in the face or slamming onto a concrete floor. This was the first spontaneous nosebleed he’d ever seen so he had no idea whether the amount of blood that gushed from Gentaro’s nose was normal. To Dice it looked like an alarming amount of blood.

Dice’s gaze slid across the table and spotted some rust-colored streaks left behind after Gentaro had hastily attempted to mop up the gory puddle he’d made. Here was a job for that complimentary wet wipe. Cleaning was just a distraction, though, and it was finished too quickly. 

He needed something else to do so he opened the menu back up for another inspection. The food didn’t look quite so appetizing as it had ten minutes ago, but he pored over each and every item description as if what to have for lunch was the most important decision he’d ever have to make. He just had to keep his eyes and hands busy so they wouldn’t do anything stupid, like obsessively checking the clock to see how long Gentaro had been gone or taking out his phone and plugging “diseases that cause nosebleeds” into a search app.

Gentaro was still absent when the waitress floated over, though she didn’t notice right away. “Good afternoon! Are you gentlemen ready to order or do you need a few more—Oh! There’s only one of you here right now. Would you like to wait for your friend to return and then I can come back?”

“He just stepped outside to take a phone call,” Dice lied. “But he told me what he wants so I can go ahead and order for both of us now.” 

Dice wished that Gentaro actually had told him what he wanted, or at least given some parameters—‘something with white sauce’ or ‘no mushrooms’—to narrow down the options. But he hadn’t done that, so Dice played it safe and ordered two meals that were traditional and identical: classic omurice with demi-glace sauce. Gentarou couldn’t reject that, right?

Now there really was nothing else for Dice to do but wait. He considered retrieving his remaining magazines from the shopping bag under the table but decided it would be rude to read them in a restaurant. Or that was his justification. By now the urge to doomsearch had grown so strong that no substitute activity could effectively combat it. So, after a brief but heroic effort to resist, Dice gave up the fight and whipped out his smartphone.

A quick search for nosebleed causes brought up a bulleted list from a medical website. The conditions were mostly non-life threatening—colds, dry air, allergies, deviated septum—and a few were just highly unlikely—cocaine use, inhaling chemical fumes. Then he saw it, at the very bottom of the list, a word with such a sinister aura it might as well have been written in bold red font: cancer. Dice’s blood suddenly felt like ice water in his veins. He was anticipating something bad, but not cancer bad. It was the worst diagnosis imaginable and it aligned frighteningly well with Gentaro’s recent rapid weight loss. 

I should stop right now. I should put away the phone and just wait for Gentaro to come back and ask him what’s going on.

Dice gave himself sound advice and then soundly ignored it, choosing instead to click from link to link in pursuit of worst case cancer scenarios. Unrestrained, he let himself get so absorbed in the horrors on his screen that when a human shadow fell over the table he fumbled his phone in alarm without even closing the app. 

It was just the waitress with their food. “Your friend is still gone?” she said innocently. “Must’ve been an important phone call.”

“His mother,” Dice said. “You know how moms can be.” He chuckled nervously.

The waitress returned his laugh and replied genially as she transferred two steaming hot plates from her tray to the table. “Oh yes, I know.” 

And to Dice’s relief she left it at that and didn’t attempt a whole conversation. After she left, he picked up his phone and was about to resume his self-guided research when he caught sight of Gentaro, drifting over in the waitress’s wake like a ghost, and put the phone back down. 

“I see the food is already here,” said Gentaro. “Such quick service.” He looked even paler than before and there was a large wet spot on the front of his shirt, drying at the edges, which Dice suspected was from rinsing out blood.

“I guess it was pretty quick,” said Dice, watching Gentaro sink back into his seat as casually as if he’d come back from using the toilet for the usual reason. “Hey, are you sure you’re okay? I mean, that nosebleed looked pretty bad.”

Gentaro closed his eyes and pressed a hand to his forehead as if in embarrassment and sighed. “I’m so sorry you had to witness that, Dice. It doesn’t happen to me often. Just sometimes, when I go somewhere with very powerful air conditioning. Something about the cool, dry air just makes my nose start to bleed a bit. It’s nothing you need to worry about. I just hope seeing it didn’t put you off your lunch.”

Lies! Lies! Lies!

Frustration and hurt bordering on anger bubbled up in the cauldron of Dice’s chest but there was no way for him to release such feelings. He couldn’t call out Gentaro’s bullshit this time. How would he even go about it? Grab Gentaro by the shoulders and shake him? Shout in his face? “You liar! Admit that you have cancer! Admit that you’re dying!”

If Gentaro was lying to conceal a terminal diagnosis, his intention was to spare his loved ones the distress and sadness that the truth would cause. This was not conjecture on Dice’s part, but something he felt certain of down to his core—he knew that much about Gentaro, knew the deep well of sensitivity and kindness behind all the teasing. But Gentaro had to know that his teammates could see he wasn’t okay, he was so obviously sick. And he had to know that they would want to help him however they could—Dice did and was sure Ramuda felt the same. So why push them away? Why not reach out and let his friends support him emotionally? 

It didn’t make any sense to Dice, but it left him feeling powerless and miserable. He had to act normal, though, so he put on an optimistic expression.

“It takes a lot more than the sight of blood to make me lose my appetite. You should eat up, too, Gentaro. It’ll help your body make new cells to make up for ones you lost. Or something.”

“Well, I don’t know enough about medical science to contradict you,” Gentaro said in his usually breezy tone. “It looks delicious, though. You chose well, Dice.”

“Hope you don’t mind, I got us both the same thing,” said Dice. “But if we like it we can always come back again and try out more of the menu, right? Get a different meal each time, like you said.”

“Yes, I’d like that.” Gentaro’s voice was soft now but it sounded sincere—and a little bit sad, which made Dice wonder if he was thinking about a future he might not be around for.

Dice didn’t want to think about something so utterly unbearable, so he dropped his eyes to his plate, and, with a mumbled “Itadakimasu,” commenced eating.

The omurice was exceptionally tasty, in spite of his lousy mood; the rice filling was moist and flavorful, the omelet tender and fluffy, and the demi-glace rich and meaty. Dice tried to consume the meal slowly and savor each bite, but it was a hard battle against his street-honed instinct to shovel down whatever food he could get as quickly as possible. 

After devouring every morsel down to the last grain of rice, Dice lifted the plate to face and lapped up the lingering traces of sauce. Deliciousness always triumphed over table manners. He licked his plate until a chuckle from across the table made him pause and peer over. The way Gentaro was smiling at him could have been mistaken for adoring if Dice didn’t know better. 

“What’s so funny?” Dice asked. “Do I have sauce on my nose?”

“I’m sorry for laughing,” said Gentaro. “It’s just that most of the time you remind of an overgrown alley cat but when food is involved you’re pure canine. It’s very amusing.”

Dice pouted. “You sayin’ I eat like a dog?”

Gentaro touched his chin as he considered the question. “I think most dogs show more restraint, actually. If their humans haven’t neglected their training, at least. You’re more like a wolf, really.”

“A wolf?” Dice raised an eyebrow. He liked wolves and had always thought they were one of the more badass members of the animal kingdom. Lately, however, he associated them with Matenro and was dubious about where Gentaro was going with this.

“It’s not an insult,” Gentaro said. “I promise. You’re just a little bit wild is all.”

If that really was all there was to it, Dice honestly liked the comparison. But he wasn’t going to tell Gentaro that. Instead he retaliated in a childish tone, “Yeah, well you eat like a…” He looked to Gentaro’s plate for inspiration and was dismayed to see only a small, neatly cut bite missing from the otherwise intact omurice. “Why aren’t you eating? Do you not like it?” He asked the questions seriously and braced himself for more lies.

Gentaro acted abashed. “What? No, no. It’s not that. I tasted it and I like it very much. You picked an excellent meal for me, Dice. I’m not lying. The thing is…”

“What?” Dice urged Gentaro to continue, to give an answer—lie or not—instead of just letting his voice trail off.

“Well I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it,” said Gentaro, “but when my nose started bleeding earlier I panicked and tilted my head back rather than forward and as a result I wound up swallowing more blood than is generally recommended. It’s left me feeling a tad queasy, I’m afraid.” 

“Damn, that sucks,” Dice responded, as if he believed the explanation. Gentaro may have swallowed some blood, but there had been so much coming out the front that there couldn’t have been that heavy a back-flow or he’d have passed out. Or maybe not. The more Dice thought about it, the less sure he felt. And did it even matter? Whatever had caused Gentaro to lose his appetite, the result was the same. He would continue to fade away.

“You can have the rest if you’d like.” Gentaro pushed his plate towards Dice’s side of the table. “Eat it now if you’re still hungry, or you can get a box to take it home and have a meal for tomorrow.”

Dice used both his hands to shove the plate back to Gentaro. “No,” he said, perhaps a touch too forcefully, judging from Gentaro’s stunned blinks. But this was something Dice felt strongly about. More gently he said, “I want you to eat it, Gentaro. Once your stomach has settled. You can’t get the full experience from just one little bite and this is an experience I want us both to have. So please, take it.”

“Okay.” Gentaro’s expression remained mildly baffled as he pulled the plate close again. 

Sensing that a more typical comment might help to counteract his emotional plea and steer the conversation back to everything-is-just-fine territory, Dice added, “And besides, the place where I’m staying right now doesn’t have a fridge.” 

“Are you still living in that apartment you won in a hand of poker?” Gentaro asked.

“Mine ‘til the end of the month,” Dice answered, with a touch of pride since it was one of his more impressive (and useful) gambling acquisitions. “And, just for the record, it was blackjack, not poker.”

Gentaro nodded thoughtfully. “A crucial distinction. And it’s reassuring to hear you aren’t sleeping on a park bench.”

Dice sighed. “Gonna suck to have to give it up. The place has a toilet and electricity and everything. It’s small. No bath, of course. And no air conditioning, but I bought a bunch of plug-in fans from Donki on the cheap.”

“Sounds lovely.” There was a sad, dreamy quality to Gentaro’s smile as he said this, though it might have been exhaustion or anemia or both.

For what must have been the millionth time by now, Dice felt like his heart was melting inside the blast furnace of his rib cage just from looking directly at this man. No amount of fear or frustration Gentaro caused him would alter Dice’s feelings; he was hopelessly, irrevocably in love. “I would’ve invited you over,” he said, returning Gentaro’s tender expression. “But there really isn’t much to see. Well, other than the fans.”

“Would you like to shop for housewares while we’re here at the mall?” Gentaro asked. 

“Naw,” said Dice. “I’d just have to find a place to stash it when my time in the apartment is up. Plus I’m broke. And you’ve got leftovers that will need to be refrigerated soon.” The reasons he listed were all valid, but none of them—and not even all of them combined—would’ve been enough to make him decline spending more time with Gentaro if the dark cloud of illness weren’t looming overhead. 

“Do you want to call it a day, then?” Gentaro’s voice was utterly neutral, betraying no hint of eagerness or reluctance to part ways.

“I guess so.” Dice tried to answer just as coolly, but he couldn’t disguise his aversion, even though it was his idea. His protective alpha instinct was fired up but deeply confused, torn between conflicting desires to keep Gentaro close and within sight, and to send Gentaro home to rest. The correct action was obvious, but Dice had to remind himself why.

Gentaro doesn’t need another alpha hovering around him—that’s just my deviancy talking—what he needs is to get well. 

Once the uneaten omurice was boxed up and bagged up, Gentaro paid the bill (as promised) and the two of them headed out. 

The elevator ride back down from the eighteenth floor passed in near silence, the only sound being the brief, quiet crackle of Gentaro removing his book from the shopping bag before wordlessly handing it to Dice. Their time together was almost over, and as the seconds ticked by with neither of them speaking, Dice felt the mounting unease of an opportunity slipping away. Even if the love confession was off the table now, he couldn’t help thinking that there was something he should say. He just had no idea what that something was.

“Back into the jungle,” Gentaro said as they left the cool refuge of the mall for the sultry heat of a Shibuya summer afternoon. “It was a nice escape, though, while it lasted.”

“You got that right.” Dice was already questioning his decision to cut the outing short before the humidity engulfed them but now he had a solid excuse to backpedal. He opened his mouth and was about to ask if Gentaro wanted to go back inside for just a little longer when Gentaro spoke.

“I really should try to get some writing done today. Fortunately, I have plenty of chilled tea in my refrigerator.”

It wasn’t exactly an answer to Dice’s unasked question, but it reaffirmed his original decision. If Gentaro had things to do at home, Dice wouldn’t press him to stay out. “Just don’t work so hard you wear yourself down to nothing.” He said it lightly but meant it seriously. “And don’t forget to eat that omurice. It really is so good. I don’t want you to miss out on it.”

“I promise I will,” said Gentaro.

It was just a casual expression, but Dice seized on it, locking eyes with Gentaro and asking: “Do you seriously promise?”

Gentaro blinked in mute bewilderment for a moment before answering. “I seriously promise.”

Dice nodded firmly. “Good. Okay then, I guess I’ll see you later. Thanks for the magazines and lunch.”

“Think nothing of it,” Gentaro said with his customary flippancy. “At least until I decide how you can make it up to me. Farewell, Dice. Give my regards to the fans.”

By the time Dice figured out that he’d meant electric fans and not human fans, Gentaro was gone. 

Now Dice was on his own, with nothing to do, no money, and a head full of thoughts that he wasn’t ready to think about yet. He needed to check out from reality for a while and let the day’s events—and their muddled but terrifying implications—ferment and soften in his subconscious. The most obvious way to temporarily disengage was sleep, but it was too early for that. Fortunately, he knew an alternative method. First he had to find somebody willing to lend him some yen.

As he picked his way to the nearest pachinko parlor, Dice felt the telltale buzz of an incoming text message and stopped to check his phone. The next was from Ramuda.

 

So?!?! Did you tell him?!?! How did it go?!?! Details please!!!!

Dice sighed and slid the phone back into pocket without replying. He couldn’t deal with Ramuda right now.

Due to his reputation on the streets of Shibuya, Dice’s borrowing options tonight were limited. Today’s funds came from a massive, bulldog-faced man who promised “broken bones for outstanding loans,” which might have intimidated Dice if his need wasn’t so dire. Once his pockets were loaded up, he entered the garish, smoke-filled parlor and looked around for an available pachinko machine. Then he settled into his chosen seat and plugged his mind into the game, eager to let the flashing lights and the clatter of steel balls chase away all conscious thoughts of Gentaro’s bleeding face.

The sky was full dark when Dice emerged from the pachinko parlor, hungry and stiff-jointed, his brain as numb as his ass. After exchanging his tokens for cash and paying back the bulldog-faced man, he was surprised to have a sizable wad of bills leftover. He’d done unusually well for himself tonight, which should’ve made him feel a lot more excited than he did. Still, it was always better to have money than not to. A loud gurgle from his stomach determined what his first purchase would be.

Under ordinary circumstances, a windfall like this would call for a special meal in a sit-down restaurant—ramen being the top choice—but since Dice wasn’t in a celebratory mood, he decided to just pop into the first convenience store he encountered on the walk to his apartment, be it Family Mart, Lawson’s, or something else. It turned out to be a Seven Eleven.

From the fluorescent-lit shelves, Dice grabbed two tuna-mayo onigiri, two cans of Yebisu, and a bag of shrimp chips and got in the queue to pay. Waiting for his turn, he eyed the magazine rack without much interest—since he’d already scooped up the best publications at the bookstore—until the cover of a health and medicine monthly caught his attention.

The Next Cancer Breakthroughs was written in big, bold, blue font across a photo of a pair of researchers—one man and one woman—in spotless white lab coats.

“Next customer,” the cashier said, and before stepping up to the counter Dice grabbed the magazine on impulse to add to his purchase.

The apartment Dice came home to was small and spare but at least it was secure. It had kept him safe all summer long and dry through the rainy season. He was going to miss it when the lease he’d won expired at the end of the month. There wasn’t a table or a desk, but Dice was content to eat his dinner sitting cross-legged on the tatami mat floor. He devoured his onigiri in three bites each and washed them down with gulps of beer as he luxuriated in the artificial breeze of five electric fans

There were a few chores he needed to take care of before he was ready to release the seal on his worries. First he would clean himself up. After stripping off his clothing, he filled a plastic basin (bought at the hundred-yen store) with warm water from the sink and stirred in a generous amount of liquid body soap. Then, using a washcloth (also bought at the hundred-yen store) he gave his whole body a thorough scrubbing. Tomorrow or the next day he would visit a nice public bath and enjoy a long hot soak, but for hygiene purposes, this was adequate. His sample-sized tube of toothpaste was already flattened, but he rolled it up from the bottom and managed to get a few more daubs out. Cleansed, he tugged on fresh boxers—the last pair from a bargain bin five-pack, time to buy more—and an undershirt without any visible stains or smellable odors. Lastly, he spread a threadbare blanket over his secondhand futon and fluffed up his lumpy, drool-splotched pillow.

Seated on his makeshift bed, Dice pulled out his stack of magazines from the bookstore shopping bag, and as his eyes drank in the beautiful, healthy Yumeno Gentaro on the cover of Japan Literary Times , the dam burst. All the fear and sadness he’d been straining to hold back washed over him like a tidal wave. The person Dice was in love with was sick. Very sick. Possibly even dying. And there was nothing Dice could do about it.

The rims of his eyelids stung with encroaching tears that he saw no reason to resist. What sort of pain had Gentaro— his Gentaro—been going through while Dice was preoccupied with how to make a relationship between two alphas work. As if that was the greatest obstacle he’d ever have to overcome. The double-alpha conundrum seemed downright quaint now. 

Thinking back to that months-ago conversation with Ramuda, Dice couldn’t shake the feeling of cosmic retribution it inspired. He’d lamented the fact that he and Gentaro were alphas and wished they could both be ordinary betas. So the universe had decided to visit a catastrophe upon his beloved that had nothing to do with being an alpha. Cancer—or whatever illness Gentaro was suffering from—didn’t discriminate between alphas, betas, and omegas. Or at least Dice didn’t think that it did. Even if the two of them were ordinary humans, this same tragedy could’ve struck.

Tears slid down the length of Dice’s nose and dripped onto the pages of the open magazine as he read the interview. Gentaro answered questions about his hopes and dreams for the future with optimistic aplomb. More than anything, he said, he wanted to keep writing stories that touched people’s hearts. Dice had to wonder if the interview was conducted before Gentaro’s symptoms began, or if he already knew he was sick. 

In the accompanying photographs, Gentaro appeared flushed and radiant. If Dice didn’t know him, he would find it hard to believe that this thriving man and the pale wraith he’d lunched with today were one and the same. When he pictured Gentaro’s current condition, Dice’s body moved instinctually into a protective curl around his pillow. He wanted to wrap Gentaro up safely in his own flesh, hold those delicate bones against the bulwark of his chest and drive away anything that would cause his beloved pain with the sheer force of his will. 

And he was done with caring about whether or not these feelings should be reserved for an omega. So what if he was a deviant alpha? Who was his love for Gentaro hurting besides himself? 

Anger flared in his belly as the questions piled up in his mind.

Who determined what was normal mating behavior for alphas and omegas anyway? How could anyone make any claims on that matter when the mere existence of alphas and omegas was completely and utterly abnormal? Unnatural. A very, very tiny percentage of humans suddenly develops characteristics of kind-of-sort-of-werewolves-but-not-really? And the rarest of that rare lot are some kind of enchanting hermaphrodites? It sounded more like science fiction with a BL twist than anything evolution might naturally produce. Seriously, Dice wouldn’t feel one molecule of surprise if it was discovered that alphas and omegas were the result of some idiotic science experiment that spilled out of a lab and infected the general population.

“Fucking waste of time…” Dice muttered through his teeth, even though there was nobody to hear him. 

He wasn’t just referring to the scientists who may or may not have created alphas and omegas in a lab—for reasons Dice couldn’t even begin to fathom—but also to those who were dedicated to figuring out the why and how of these new breeds. Jinguji Jakurai might be a brilliant physician with years of experience, but the area of research he chose to focus on was a fucking disgrace. Who was he helping by studying this alpha-omega bullshit? He could be finding a cure for cancer instead!!

As Dice’s meandering thoughts looped back around to cancer, he remembered the health magazine he’d bought at the 7-11 and retrieved it. At least some people were still trying to cure cancer. Maybe reading the article would instill some hope in him about Gentaro’s prognosis and help him sleep more easily. Or maybe it would be written in such complicated scientific jargon that he wouldn’t understand it and pass out from boredom. Either way, he couldn’t lose.

The article was a bit technical, with more than a few words Dice had only a vague understanding of, but he was able to comprehend the basic concepts described. It was all about genes and altering them using something called CRISPR, which could allegedly change people’s DNA—though Dice had absolutely no clue how it worked. He was starting to feel optimistic as he made his way through paragraph after paragraph extolling this new technology as a veritable miracle, and then he got to the part about implementation and when this kind of therapy might be available for cancer patients and his heart sank. According to the eminent researcher who was interviewed for the article, it would be at least five more years before DNA-editing cancer treatment was refined enough for practical use. Gentaro didn’t look like he could wait five years.

Disappointed and drifting towards despondency once again, Dice was about to toss the magazine in the trash when a box of text crammed into the leftover space next to the article he’d just read caught his eye. The headline of the positioned-to-be-ignored piece read: “Hormone Unique to Alpha Type Humans is Mysteriously Similar to Poison.” But Dice was more interested in the byline: Jinguji Jakurai. Here was the fruit of the good doctor’s pointless labor, a few paragraphs of small print that nobody would bother to read.

Not nobody. Dice, cynically, decided to read it, if only to reaffirm his position that studying alphas and omegas was useless. Okay, so apparently there was a hormone—or maybe it was a pheromone since Dice always got those two mixed up—that alphas produced and it had something to do with forming mate bonds—though Dr. Jinguji didn’t or couldn’t explain what exactly—and its molecular structure was very similar to several known toxins. 

So what? thought Dice. Seriously, who gives a shit?

But he kept reading as the article went on to describe the symptoms induced by the hormone’s deadly cousins. Insomnia, anorexia, weight loss, listlessness—Dice’s breathing grew shallow as his brain digested the list—organ failure, internal bleeding, hemorrhage from the mouth and nose.

It was just a coincidence. It had to be a coincidence. 

Dice felt a hard lump in his throat, like he’d swallowed a rock and it had gotten stuck. He needed to calm down and think about this rationally. The alpha hormone wasn’t toxic or else alphas would poison themselves, and it couldn’t be transmitted to others through the desire to mate or else alphas would poison omegas. Therefore, it was ludicrous for Dice to even consider that his mating hormone (or possibly pheromone) could have caused Gentaro’s symptoms. 

Then again, a lot of things that were harmless—or even essential—to humans in small amounts became lethal at higher doses. Dice couldn’t remember exactly where he’d learned that, but it had a ring of truth to it. Wasn’t it possible to die from drinking too much water? Maybe the addition of Dice’s pheromones to Gentaro’s homegrown supply had pushed it over the limit. Gentaro’s health had started to decline shortly after that day in the park when Dice had been entranced by his scent and Gentaro had run. That could’ve been a survival instinct, fleeing from the poisonous desire of a fellow alpha. But Gentaro didn’t stay away because he didn’t understand the danger he was in being close to Dice. 

The more Dice thought about it, the more sense this theory made, which was the opposite of what he’d been trying to achieve. It had the feeling of a revelation, like the moment in a mystery story where the final clue is uncovered and everything suddenly becomes crystal clear. 

But a feeling was just a feeling. It wasn’t proof. It wasn’t even reliable evidence. He needed more information than the skimpy article had to offer and there was only one source he could think of to get it. Setting aside the fact that he’d been mentally disparaging the guy was a disgrace to the medical profession mere minutes ago, Dice scrambled around the little apartment on hands and knees, searching for Jinguji Jakurai’s phone number, written by Ramuda on a scrap of paper.

He found what he was looking for at the bottom of a plastic bag he’d been using for trash, buried beneath crumbled up receipts and food wrappers. It was now past one o’clock AM, too late to call, though Dice wanted to. Tomorrow he would, and he saved Jakurai’s number in his phone so he wouldn’t lose it again. 

Now it was time to sleep, or try to at least. Dice was so tired, in his bones and in his soul, but his heart was in such pain that he wondered if any relief was possible. He pulled the cord that turned off the overhead light and settled back into a protective shrimp curl on his futon. His desire to hold Gentaro and keep him safe from all danger was as strong as it had ever been, only now he faced the terrifying possibility that he was the greatest danger of all to Gentaro. If that was the case, the only way for Dice to keep Gentaro safe was to stay far away from him.

“Or get over your feelings for him,” is what he imagined a rational person would say.

But that was not going to happen. Dice was too far gone, too deeply in love to just get over it. He desperately hoped his theory was wrong, but as a gambler it was hard for him to not trust his gut.

At some point, the white noise from the fans finally lulled him to sleep, but by then his pillow was already soaked with tears.

 


 

After saying goodbye to Dice, Gentaro went directly from the mall to his house, but he only stayed there long enough to stash his omurice in the refrigerator and change into a different shirt (just in case there was any as yet unnoticed blood on the one he’d been wearing). Then he was out the door again, a man on a mission. 

It was only thanks to years of impersonation and lying that Gentaro was able to feign indifference at ending his non-date with Dice early. His heart always ached when he said goodbye to Dice, but the way he’d left things today felt like he’d ripped it right out of his chest with his own hand. He had brought expressions of apprehension and terror to his favorite face in the whole world, and after bleeding out in front of him like an extra in a horror film, Gentaro had brushed off Dice’s sincere concerns with the flimsiest of lies. Dice might be a fool, but he wasn’t stupid and he deserved better.

Gentaro’s public bloodshed was a private watershed. He had thought he would have more time to avert a crisis, but now the pivotal moment was upon him and he needed to decide a course of action before he saw Dice again. Quit the drugs or keep taking them? Each option came with a unique set of potentially devastating repercussions. Either could ruin his life. One could end it. The choice should’ve been easy, but for Gentaro, whose whole identity was entangled in this ball of lies, nothing could be more difficult.

About one thing he was certain: he had to tell Dice the truth. But how to tell Dice the truth was a challenge unlike any Gentaro had faced before. The worst imaginable outcome—that the person he loved more than his own life would feel betrayed and hurt and possibly come to hate him for his deception—was a real possibility.

Gentaro felt the weight of these decisions bearing down on him like the ocean, threatening to crush him and drown him, but in his present condition he could barely keep his head above water. He needed to stabilize his mental and physical health, even if it was only a temporary fix, before he could make any big picture plans. That was the purpose of his current mission.

The waiting room at the walk-in clinic was not crowded, but there were more occupants than Gentaro expected to see on a summer afternoon. There were stories to be made about the humans gathered here—the man in the business suit sitting rigidly in his chair, as if everyone else could sense the embarrassing condition that had brought him here; the middle-aged woman who kept peering into her purse to check on something hidden from all other eyes—but Gentaro chose to distract himself with his new book of poetry, which he’d had the good sense to bring along.

When it was his turn to see the doctor, Gentaro already had his story all worked out and ready to tell. Situational stress at work and at home— oh, his poor, sick mother! —had caused him to lose sleep and weight, which had left him anemic and malnourished. He just needed something to help him get some rest and get through this rough patch. An emotional impromptu speech about how the people in his life thought being an alpha made him invincible and how he didn’t want to let them down by being all-too-human is what really sold the story.

Gentaro left the clinic with multivitamins, iron supplements, and most importantly, a temporary supply of powerful sedatives. Just a few nights of deep, restorative, high-quality sleep would do so much good for his body and mind. 

Back at home, he swallowed a handful of tablets and capsules with a glass of chilled oolong—his earlier claim of being well-stocked was not a lie—and the experience reminded him of his old routine, when all he had to do to pass as an alpha was swallow a pill each day. It was such a trite cliche to think about the past as simpler times, the sort of thing he would avoid having a character in one of his books do, and yet here he was doing exactly that.

After pouring himself another glass of tea, which he intended to enjoy more slowly, Gentaro put the bottle back in the fridge and took out the box containing his nearly untouched omurice. He didn’t feel even remotely hungry—the thought of food actually made his stomach clench uncomfortably—but he had promised Dice he would eat it and he wasn’t going to go back on his word. And his body needed more than just vitamins.

From the very first bite, his tongue and his cheeks recognized the flavor and texture of that comforting dish his brother used to make for him. Omurice was a food he’d always loved and his brain identified this as a particularly fine example, but the daily injections had rendered his body unable to enjoy it; the lump of rice and egg felt like a foreign object in his mouth and sliding down his throat. Undeterred, after swallowing the first bite, he took another, and then another, hellbent on fulfilling his promise to Dice by partaking in what should have been a delightfully shared experience.

Halfway through, Gentaro noticed the tears dripping off his face and onto the table. It was the second time today that he’d started to cry without realizing it and both times had been triggered by complex interwoven emotions around his twin and Dice. Alone now, he had no reason to hold back or wipe away his tears so he let them flow as he forced himself to finish his meal.

He spent the rest of the afternoon and into the evening curled in a fetal position on his futon, rubbing his hand in gentle circles over his stomach, which felt heavy and bloated. This was another thing his brother had done for him, back when he was a shy, timid child, prone to anxiety attacks that made his tummy hurt for hours on end. The pain should have been another strong argument on the side of quitting the medication, but Gentaro couldn’t help thinking of it as punishment that he deserved.

As he lay there, enduring the abdominal agony that came in waves and trying his best not to shift position, Gentaro inevitably found himself thinking about the choices that had gotten him to this point. In the conversation Gentaro had imagined today, his brother pointed out that he’d never asked him to take over the public role of Yumeno Gentaro, alpha novelist. But that brother was a projection of Gentaro’s own psyche, so this must’ve been a thought he’d been holding onto for some time. It was true that his brother never asked for Gentaro to act as his substitute, but for years the idea that he was doing this for his brother’s sake had been what sustained Gentaro’s commitment to the deception. It might have started out as a means to keep his twin’s comatose state private and not cause a media frenzy, but now he finally had to reckon with the question of why he clung to the fake alpha identity even when it was killing him.

So who was he really doing this for?

He knew in his heart that he was doing it for himself.

But why? Why was he so afraid to be his true omega self?

Despite the trauma of his early heat cycles, Gentaro didn’t see being an omega as something a person should be ashamed of—so long as that person was anyone but himself. It wasn’t being an omega that he hated about himself, it was his cowardice in the face of being an omega. Not only had going into heat terrified him, the idea of finding a mate and forming a mating bond with them terrified him. How could he even imagine a connection with someone that was closer and stronger than what he had with his twin. The idea of somebody wanting him as badly as an alpha was said to want an omega in heat terrified him, too.

He wanted Dice to want him, but not if it was just because of pheromones.

What would Dice think when Gentaro told him the truth?

At the restaurant, when Dice had been trying to tell Gentaro something and blurted out that he hated omegas, it was obviously just a mistake and not something to take seriously. Gentaro surmised that what Dice had been attempting to say (before a nosebleed interrupted and ruined everything) was that the two of them would always be friends, even if one or both of them found an omega. But Dice would never have considered the possibility that the omega to come between them might be Gentaro himself.

Would Dice feel betrayed? Manipulated? Disgusted? Would he avoid Gentaro for fear of the sort of entrapment Zero had suggested?

However Dice felt about it, he would undoubtedly see Gentaro differently after learning the truth and Gentaro had to prepare himself for that.

When his stomach had settled enough that he was confident he could move freely without throwing up, Gentaro took a shower and got ready for bed. He took two doses of sedative, and anticipating he would need it, took a third. Then he sluggishly crawled back under his summer blanket to wait for the pills to take effect. He left the prescription bottle and a glass of water next to his futon just in case.

Maybe tomorrow he would swallow his pride and call Zero to talk about his side effects, even though he was as sure as ever that the drug dealer cared more about liability than customer wellbeing. Right now he just needed to sleep. With that in mind, he took one more dose of sedative and turned out the light.