It was cold. The last hints of the late winter snow were melting on top of Shinjuku's buildings. Yesterday was one of the snowiest days on record, resulting in most of the entire city shutting down. The highways were empty. The trains shut down. The city looked almost dystopian from all the sweeping shots on the nightly news. The very next day, it was almost like it had never happened. Cleaning crews had cleaned the roads and everyone was right back to work the next day. Now, the only evidence of such a crazy storm were the lingering bits as they melted from rooftops and dripped from awnings.
Ren Amamiya stood under one such awning, breaking from his night job to have a quick meal of yakitori and melon soda with his friend, the local fortune teller, Chihaya Mifune.
Ren and Chihaya had been friends for quite a while. Their meeting was sort of unusual, with Chihaya scamming Ren out of some hard-earned money by convincing him to buy some stupid charm, which only broke when he took it home. Fortunately, when he confronted her about it, she'd been upfront and apologetic. She hadn't offered him his money back or anything, but what Ren had expected to be an unpleasant argument had turned into an actual friendly conversation. It turned out, Chihaya was a lot like him. Neither of them was really where they wanted to be, but they both knew it could've been a whole hell of a lot worse, so they'd formed something of a strange camaraderie based around that fact.
A camaraderie which occasionally felt strained when Chihaya went around and did things like reading Ren's fortune behind his back. As they stood, eating their yakitori and talking about whatever came to mind, Chihaya put a little crack in their pleasant rapport by warning Ren.
"No, I'm serious, Ren. It was real creepy!" Chihaya warned him, pushing some of her strawberry blond hair behind her ear. "Most of the time when I read your fortune, it's nothin' to worry about. Stuff I already know. This time, I was pretty freaked."
Sighing and rolling his eyes, Ren shrugged his shoulders and took a drink. "You're always freaked, Chihaya."
Frustration took the place of Chihaya's usual friendliness when Ren dismissed her warning. "I'm not," she countered. "It was the tower, Ren. Upright. That means danger!"
Ren finished the last of his food and leaned back against the wall. "If this is another scam to try and get me to buy another charm—"
"It ain't!" Chihaya snapped.
It definitely got Ren's attention, both because she snapped and she didn't usually snap like that, and because she slipped into her heavy accent, which was something she didn't like to do in public very often. "I'm serious, Ren! I don't care about the dumb charms. I got the upright tower, the upright lovers, and the two of cups."
To be honest, Ren didn't really know what the rest of it meant, and the only reason he really knew what the upright tower meant was because she'd been screaming it in his face all night. He'd been friends with Chihaya for four years, and every single time she went into this rigmarole about tarot cards and what they meant, he usually tuned it out. Mostly because it had to do with her clients, and Ren was reasonably sure none of what Chihaya's clients did was any of his business. Ren sighed and turned to look at her, a little bit surprised by the concern on her face. It was in her voice, so he wasn't totally surprised, but it was still a little bit alarming, how forceful she was being.
"Alright, I'll bite. What does the upright lovers mean?" Ren asked, trying to keep the exasperation out of his tone.
Sighing, Chihaya looked at Ren like she was fully aware exactly how he'd take her reply. Then, she muttered, "Romance. So does the two of cups. Unified love, reciprocated, passionate, all that stuff."
That took Ren off guard, and he arched his eyebrow at her. "Romance and danger. That's... a really weird combination, Chihaya," he mused dismissively. He'd seen her give similar schpiels to her customers all the time to try and get them to buy charms. In fact, it was a pretty similar schpiel to what she'd given him when she first convinced him to buy the charm.
"I know that look, and I know what it means, Ren. But I ain't kiddin', okay? I don't care if you buy a charm or not. I don't even want you to buy a damn charm!" Her voice was increasingly impassioned; desperate to get Ren to listen to her.
It was her concern, more than anything, which convinced Ren to listen to her. "Alright, Chihaya. I can see that you're real concerned," he reassured her. "But I don't see myself getting into any trouble. I'm always really careful at work, and if I find myself in a situation where I think I'm in trouble, you know I get out of there. So, I don't think I'm in any danger," he reassured her.
Chihaya frowned. "But—"
"And as for the other one," Ren chuckled softly, "I don't think we have to worry about that happening either. I've never been in love before, and I don't think I'm gonna start anytime soon."
A frown turned Chihaya's lips down, and she glanced down at the slushy, salty ground beneath her feet. She turned and looked forlornly back at Ren. "Listen, I know I've been up your tree about safety and stuff for years," she murmured. "I just... worry about ya. Your job ain't really known for its safety, Ren. So, when I saw that fortune—"
"I know how to take care of myself, Chihaya," Ren tried to reassure her. He'd been taking care of himself since he was sixteen years old. He had never needed anyone to worry about him before, and he wasn't going to start needing it now.
Sighing, Chihaya looked up at him, probably feeling a little bit spurned by how Ren had shut her concern down. She always felt spurned. Still, Ren hated how lately, their conversations always seemed to turn back to her being concerned about him for one reason or another. It wasn't like Ren was stupid. He had rules in place to keep himself safe. He had discrete connections, a friend who was a doctor and would always tell him if there was a change in his health. He wasn't stupid and he was always careful, so her worry would've been better used on herself. Her job wasn't exactly great, either. Ren was always scaring off customers who were angry about her charms.
It looked like she was still upset, so Ren placed a hand on her shoulder. "Really, Chihaya. I can take care of myself. You know that."
She nodded. "Yeah, I know. Just 'cause you can take care of yourself doesn't mean no one can surprise you, though," she insisted, her concerned eyes cutting into Ren like a dagger.
Ren decided to try and lighten the mood a little, grinning and poking her in the shoulder. "I've never known someone so scared of romance before, Chihaya," he teased.
"What? No, that ain't what I—" When Ren grinned at her, she huffed in annoyance. "Fine. Be that way."
With a soft sigh, Ren shook his head. "Listen, Chihaya. You've talked about being worried about me for all four years we've been friends, and nothing's ever come of it. I'm fine, alright? I'm healthy, I'm safe, I'm happy." Maybe a bit of an overstatement, but he really didn't want to bring that up and give Chihaya more fuel for her worry. Besides, he was pretty sure she already had some sort of inkling. It was probably why she always encouraged him to stay home more often.
The frown was still heavily etched onto Chihaya's face, but she shrugged and nodded. "Just... keep what I said in mind, alright? Please? I know you think you're fine, but... those guys who pick you up, they're not—some of 'em aren't, I mean..."
Ren cut her off by pulling her into a hug. "I know. Believe me, alright? I know."
Men like that were an occupational hazard, though. Ren knew they weren't nice guys, and they didn't treat him well, but they were paying him so he let them do what they wanted and took the money. So long as they never broke his rules, he really had no reason to say no. If the only thing that really came from it was having to comfort a worried Chihaya once in a while, Ren could probably be doing a whole hell of a lot worse. He released his friend from their hug and looked at her with a confident smile. As frustrating as it was, it was nice of her to worry about him like she did. It meant she cared.
"I really am fine, though, Chihaya. You know I'm fine."
Slowly, Chihaya's tension melted away. Her posture slumped in defeat, but she nodded all the same. "I know. You're made of tougher stuff than me, Ren. I dunno if I could handle the job you do," she muttered.
All Ren could do was laugh. It wasn't something he'd wish on someone like Chihaya. She was tough, sure. She handled angry customers who felt jilted by her shady charms. Her angry customers and Ren's angry customers were a night and day comparison, though. He'd take a dozen of her angry clients before one of his own.
After assuring Chihaya that he was fine, that he'd continue to be fine, the pair of them split and went back to their respective jobs. Chihaya's booth was out in the open. She had nothing to hide. Fortune telling was legal, unlike Ren's job. Even after she slid into her chair, she turned toward Ren and saw him off, almost like a concerned older sister, and it made Ren laugh to himself. When he was a kid, he'd always wanted an older sister. Sure, Futaba was like his little sister, but most of the time it was Ren who ended up looking out for her. As much as he complained about it, he really appreciated Chihaya having his back.
Waving a final goodbye to her, Ren rounded a corner into a Shinjuku back alley. Most of the people here were usuals. Some of them were friendly to Ren; sometimes they shared referrals to customers who fit their preferred clientele more. A couple of men nearby preferred only being hired by women. Some women only preferred being hired by women, too. His friendlier colleagues spared him waves and nods, which Ren quickly reciprocated. Much more common than friendly faces, though, were the faces of fierce competitors. There were several people on this street who would start fights over clients, some who had done hard time because of those fights and taken other whores down with them.
Ren was always careful to avoid those people.
The street Ren worked on most commonly was a block away, anyway. Ren turned the corner, watching as one of his work acquaintances got into a car which looked like it was going to fall apart at any second. The man behind the wheel was the type who Ren would typically turn away. He glowered at the woman like she was nothing but a piece of meat, and Ren found himself worrying.
He laughed to himself. Who was he, Chihaya?
Shaking his concern off, Ren turned onto his street. It wasn't exactly the cleanest street in Shinjuku, but he'd worked his way here from the dirtiest of the dirty. Back when he'd started, it wasn't uncommon for him to see drug deals and gang fights breaking out at least once a night. He was sure it still happened back where he started out, but he hadn't been back there for almost two years, and he was glad to have moved up a little. Sure, he still saw some questionable stuff here. He still saw drug deals and gang fights, but it was a lot less frequent than it was back then.
Ren's usual spot was in front of an old, rundown municipal building. He tugged his jacket up and over his shoulders, leaning back against a pillar and making sure anyone driving down the street could see him. It was cold, and Ren hadn't exactly prepared properly. His coat was sort of thin, but it was too late to go home now. He was halfway through with paying off those damned school loans. He had 300,000 yen left on them. Maybe, when he was done with that, he could stop this for good. Snorting a laugh, he shook his head. There was really no need to be unrealistic about it. He'd probably be here until he died, or got caught. Whichever happened first.
Maybe even both, he thought with a bitter laugh.
Again, he forced himself out of his own mind and put on his best cocky grin, mussing his hair the way clients always seemed to like, and tying his shirt in the back so anyone driving by got just a glimpse of his four black hip studs.
Just as he'd expected, it wasn't long before a black limo pulled up in front of him. The cocky grin became a little more genuine then. Limousines always meant rich people, after all. Rich people were always way more likely to pay more for discretion, which meant Ren could look forward to knocking out a decent chunk of his loan debt just tonight. The window rolled down, revealing a wrinkled old man with a ponytail behind a horrible receding hairline and malicious looking eyes.
The man's age alone had Ren fighting a cringe, but he managed to internalize it. Old men paid even better than rich men, but that didn't change the fact that going down on an old man was never not gross. It almost wasn't worth the extra pay, but mixing rich guy pay with old man pay made up for it. Shaking the thought off, Ren stepped toward the limo and felt a slight swell of pride at how everyone else on the street glared at him.
"What do you charge?" the man asked. There was something familiar about this old man's face, but Ren couldn't put his finger on it... nor did he really care at the moment.
Raising his chin and dropping his voice to its usual low rumble, Ren answered, "30,000 yen an hour. No bareback, no kissing."
The man had the driver unlock the limo, and Ren put his hand on the handle. Before he opened it, the old man reached over and pressed the lock right over his hand. "Hold on a moment," he snapped. "I will pay you triple that rate, not to ask questions and to come along and do as you're told."
Ren's eyes widened. 90,000 yen an hour? He stared incredulously at the man for a moment, before going silent to consider his offer. Most of the time, if something sounded too good to be true, it usually was, right? Ren's mind flashed back to Chihaya's warning earlier. Danger. For the briefest instant, it had him considering saying no, but the thought of all that money—90,000 yen an hour was a lot of money, and a large dent in those student loans, too! Maybe even a down payment on his own apartment so he could get out of Leblanc's attic—was a stronger voice than Chihaya's. Even if he only put half of that down on his loans, he could rely on Sojiro's kindness less, and live comfortably for a little while...
"Yes or no?" the man asked impatiently. "I see someone twice as attractive who will likely take half the cash, just down the way."
As much as Ren hated being rushed, he reminded himself that it was for 90,000 yen an hour, and put his smirk back in place. "No questions," he promised.
The man unlocked the door, and once Ren slid into the car, he sneered. "Don't touch anything," he demanded. "And you aren't to speak to me unless spoken to."
Ren decided he didn't really want to speak to this guy, anyway. The smirk wilted a little, but he shook off any unpleasantness quickly and forced it back into place. He reminded himself that, whatever this old man wanted with him, it would be worth it in the end. Almost 100,000 yen an hour was better than some of the whores who worked in upscale parts of Tokyo. A part of Ren wondered exactly why this old guy hadn't gone there, but he wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth. He turned to glance at the man, who held some kind of lavish pate on a cracker in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other, and wondered exactly what he was trying to do.
"Keep your filthy eyes off me. You're not for me."
That took Ren by surprise. Not for him? A part of Ren was a little curious as to why he wasn't already being manhandled, but whatever answer he expected, being told he wasn't 'for' the old man wasn't one of them. Quietly, he turned to look out the window, and he found himself wondering who he was 'for,' if not this old man. Was there someone waiting somewhere else? Maybe, hopefully, someone more visually appealing? Someone younger? Neither of those things was a real deterrent, but since this whole job was already like something out of a dream, Ren allowed himself to hope a little bit more.
Maybe it was greedy of him, but for once, he didn't care. He caught a glimpse of Chihaya as they passed her stall. She was doing a reading, so she didn't notice Ren, but Ren figured that was probably for the best. If she saw him in a limousine with a strange man, being driven onto the highway from Shinjuku, she would just worry more.
Admittedly, as they drove on the crowded highway, Ren found himself curious to exactly where this old man was taking him. He cast a glance toward the man, before remembering the demand to keep his eyes to himself.
With his eyes facing out the window, he told the old man, "This counts against the hour."
"Ah yes, a greedy whore. I suppose I should've expected as much," the man seethed. "Don't worry. I took down the exact moment I picked you up, so you won't be shortchanged by even a penny. Now stop talking. I believe I recall telling you not to speak unless you're spoken to."
Nodding once, Ren crossed his arms and watched the Tokyo streets pass him by through the limousine's window. Maybe it should have concerned him, not knowing where he was going, and on some level it did. The rest of him, though, couldn't help but be curious. It couldn't have been far, he was sure. Old rich men may have been more willing to throw their money around, but even that had its limits. With wide-eyed wonder, Ren pointedly ignored the old man's presence and watched the brightly lit city pass him by, hoping this particular client would take him somewhere interesting, to someone interesting.
Ren had absolutely no idea how right his hope was...