Haruka's slowing spinning now, her neck slack, the tip of her ponytail dusting the floor like a paintbrush. She's gone. Natsume can see it where the rope cuts into the flesh of her upper arms, and across her back. It makes him smile, seeing her trust his ropes.
They have an audience. That's what they're here for. It's what Haruka's paid for, but Natsume's hasn't felt the burn of being watched between his shoulder blades since Aoi-san agreed Natsume might have finally learnt a thing or two about tying beautiful ropes.
He no longer looks up when he catches a flicker of silver from the corner of his eye. Once or twice, or ten times, it had been a girl, or a boy, pallor carefully cultivated with make-up and parasols. Pale and dark isn't unique or unusual, here, and everyone wears leather. Natsume wears leather here, though he still hasn't got used to the lack of pockets.
Haruka wears strings of lace, ivory paler than her skin, a different starkness under the bright red of the rope. She has bandages stuck criss-crossed over her nipples to keep it decent, her body toned like an athlete's or an actress's. Natsume touches her palm, her fingertips; they're not too cold, not yet.
"Hey, what are those? Brandings?" someone asks, chatter in the crowd. "Burns?"
"Birthmarks," comes the answer, a low, deep, voice that is more unique than silver hair or leather pants.
Bem has not changed, none of the lines Natsume seems to find more and more of in the mirror as he shaves. He looks so exactly like he did four years ago that he seems a phantom, so much so that the hair on the back of Natsume's neck shivers watching Bem mouth his name, head inclined almost imperceptibly in greeting-- and then his eyes flick away to a point beside Natsume.
Natsume closes his mouth, turning back to Haruka in the ropes. He's lucky that the scene was almost over, so that there's nothing more taxing than slowly unwinding the rope, allowing just enough for Haruka's feet to find the floor, and her knees to buckle comfortably to the mat while Natsume begins to unwind the ropes from her torso. He can't remember the last time that his hands shook while he untied someone.
He wraps Haruka in a blanket, passing her from his arms to her girlfriend's. He pulls along the rope until he finds an end, winding up the length between his bent elbow and his wrist. He puts the bound up hanks of rope into his kit bag, one eye on Haruka, one eye on ever smaller pool of rope on the mat.
The audience has dispersed, replaced by a smaller and still dwindling crowd of cameras around Haruka and her girlfriend, and Bem. Bem, who isn't watching the girls, and whose gaze makes Natsume reflectively touch the back of his head.
He wonders how Bem found him. They might have gone back to Natsume's hometown, might have spoken to Naoko, but Natsume is not certain she would have told them where he transferred. Yui might, but Yui-chan has never needed to know about her father's nightlife. But here Bem is, alone, and... Natsume has learnt a little more self-control when it comes to asking personal questions.
Haruka has her eyes closed, and Sayaka only grins impishly over her shoulder when Natsume turns to check on them. Natsume has a reputation for a lack of wandering hands when he ties up the girls here; he's certain that he'll have a new reputation in half an hour. They're two blocks from the more colourful parts of Ni-chome. Being married means something different there, and Natsume has not yet stopped wearing his wedding ring.
Natsume puts a cocktail each on Haruka and Sayaka's tabs, orders a cola for himself, and oolong tea for Bem.
"You know Aki-san?" Hina asks when she comes back with their drinks.
Bem is lucky that he seems incapable of blushing. His one word answers don't put Hina off telling the story of Natsume's first visit, how intent he was in apprehending his suspect that he didn't notice what kind of bar this was until the suspect was already down and tied on the floor.
"You know what clued Aki-san in?" Hina asks, gleefully. "The clapping."
She leaves them with a raised eyebrow that promises privacy so that she can eavesdrop better.
After that, Natsume has to tell Bem his own version of his first time here, and then he has a few more stories about the girls here, and the troubles that find them, because they're young and they dye their hair and pierce their lips. He tries to play down his assistance, because Natsume always tries to keep this life and his job apart, and because the way Bem smiles at those points in the stories makes him feel like a hero and Natsume knows he only does the best he can. Even if they look strange, they're good people here.
"It's interesting what you can do with rope," Bem says into the silence that lingers after their drinks are empty. "Not a skill Natsume-san looked like he had before."
Natsume latches onto the topic with both hands, describing the difference between learning the ropes in his torinawa classes and learning from Aoi-san. It took years of stolen Saturday nights, learning to think about weight distribution and audience line of sight, how to set aside capturing someone who wanted to escape and let his hands capture someone who wanted to be caught, but Natsume can't draw the topic out for more than ten minutes. Not even with Bem's almost unblinking gaze politely to Natsume's right shoulder.
"Ah, it's probably less interesting to hear about than to do," he says, shrugging apologetically.
Bem nods, as he has been doing as Natsume talks, only then he's also sliding off his stool and Natsume rocks forward on the balls of his feet. But Bem only turns on the spot, smoothly folding his arms behind him, and Natsume lets his outstretched hand drop. It's strange that a pose that he is accustomed to seeing from many people should seem suddenly so different with someone new.
"Is this right?" Bem asks, trying to look over his shoulder, wrists touching wrists, his shoulder blades arching beneath the silver fan of his hair.
"We should-- you should tie up your hair first," Natsume says, and Bem doesn't flinch when Natsume gathers his hair up at the nape of his neck, forming it into a once familiar ponytail. Natsume's kit has spare hair elastics; it's good to be prepared.
Natsume wraps the folded rope quicker around Bem than he did around Haruka, twice around his paired wrists and knotted locked. Hina's chatting with another two regulars at the other end of the bar. He and Bem probably have an audience, smaller because they're both men, but no one tactless enough to be leaning over their shoulders; Natsume's not doing this for them.
As he drapes rope across uneven scales on Bem's shoulder, he asks: "Is it comfortable?"
Bem stands still and straight with the sort of patient elegance Natsume associates with girls who have been being bound for years. Newcomers usually flinch when the fibre of the ropes rasps against their skin, or move their head, their torso, trying to keep Natsume in sight. Bem follows Natsume with his eyes but nothing else as Natsume walks around him, winding the rope over Bem's chest and his other shoulder, looping it once at the back before wrapping round again.
"How did you find me?" Natsume asks, and frowns at his glass, sitting innocently empty on the bar. He wonders if Hina dropped a vodka shot in it.
Bem tells him in a halting voice about finally risking so big a city as Tokyo, and having teenagers compliment their cosplay. He talks about helping a man who looks remarkably like Natsume and who works over in Kabukicho, in a bar that's a quite a bit more upscale than this.
"I look like his father," Natsume says, winding the ropes into a knot in the centre of Bem's back.
"Older brother," Bem insists, and Natsume is certain he knows who Bem means.
"Soon I'll match you." Natsume touches fingers to his hair, to the grey he knows is threading through the black.
They're dressed identically in black leather to their hips, though Natsume has a white shirt with unbuttoned collar and Bem is completely bare. He grunts as Natsume cinches the chest ropes tighter, looping under Bem's arm, but his hands stay smooth to the touch.
"He sounded like you, Natsume-san," Bem says, and his voice is lower, rougher. "Not the words he said, but his voice-- Belo said he did not smell like you, and Bela said you would never wear clothes like that, but there were three other men and they had knives. That is how I met Seiya-san."
Bem has no new lines, and no new scars, and Natsume knows that doesn't mean he hasn't been hurt.
"Ah-- just a few more times around." Natsume says, as he passes the rope between his hands in front of Bem.
It's only at this point that it becomes a little different binding someone without breasts, but Natsume's hands know the motions, know how to feel the spacing without having to think or look. They know the rope. Bem is slender, fitting easily between Natsume's raised arms. He can feel the shape of the ropes stretched across Bem's back pressing through the thin fabric of his shirt. He can feel the gentle rise and fall of Bem's chest, and his own heartbeat echoing in his throat.
Natsume steps back to cinch the lower ropes, weaving the rope under Bem's arms and back again. One arm and then the next, and then-- and then there's nothing to do next.
"Now I've got you," Natsume says, laughing a moment later, and again less uncertainly when Bem joins him, his softer laugher less a relief than the feeling of Bem's shoulder attempting to flex and then... settling into the rope. He flexes his fingers when Natsume asks, grips Natsume's fingers with his smooth, cool hands, and if this was Haruka, Natsume knows he would put his hands on her hips to steady her.
He quickly hitches the end of the rope tight, and reminds himself to let go. "Bem-san? You can turn around."
"It's comfortable," Bem says.
"I'm glad," Natsume says. "Ah, you should be able to stay like that for a short while. Longer takes practice--"
The words feel like stumbling in the dark. Natsume knows what Haruka and Sayaka can take, knows how to guess with someone he's never bound before, but Bem is different. And Bem is important.
"So tell me if it's too much, if your fingers go numb, if they tingle. Of course, you could--" Natsume stops himself mid-thought, leaning forward across the space between them to whisper in Bem's ear. "You could tear the ropes if you wanted to."
"If I wanted to," Bem agrees, his eyes finally meeting Natsume's. They're dark and deep, and warm, and Natsume can't remember why he worried.
"Bem-san-- can you stay for another drink?"
Bem's pale lips carry a shy smile, and his body carries Natsume's rope. Hina brings them another cola, and an oolong tea with an extra long wax paper straw.