3. A Debt Long Overdue
“Oyabun, we can’t hold the line for much longer. What are your orders?” The grizzled gangster was too well seasoned to let his voice tremble as he reported to Tetsuya, but his fear and discomfort were all too apparent. With good reason, too - after the initial charge, their men had been routed by the Syndicate’s reserves, and they’d been forced to give ground, inch by bloody inch. By this point, they stood barely forty strong, though his men had managed to establish a perimeter of sorts, keeping the vampires at bay with suppressive fire whilst they regrouped. Tetsuya kicked himself mentally - it was dangerous to think of them as his men, even if he had assumed the role of their oyabun. He wasn’t fit to be a leader. Hadn’t been for years. All he could do was lead men to their deaths, which fortuitously happened to dovetail with his purpose here tonight.
He raised his head and took a deep breath. The ballroom stank of gunsmoke, blood, and the odor of profound rot - while his side had sustained heavy losses, he’d made the Syndicate pay dearly for every death. The silver had caught the vampires entirely off-guard, thinning their ranks and crushing their morale in one fell swoop. Where was their immortality now? What claim did they have to supremacy when a single piece of metal was all it took to pop them like the swollen leeches they were?
Tetsuya fought back a wild grin. All was as planned. “Secure the exits. We’re done here.”
His lieutenant maintained his deferential manner, but couldn’t completely hide his surprise and reluctance. “But sir, Masato’s still…”
Tetsuya took a half-step to the side. “Oh, don’t worry about him. He’ll be along shortly.”
The other man opened his mouth, as if to interject, but all he could manage was a strangled gasp. As he slumped to the ground, blood streaming from the hole in his back, Masato let his hand fall, dropping several fragments of spine to the ground.
“And here you are.” Tetsuya raised an eyebrow appraisingly, noting the rips in his suit where bullets had grazed - and in one instance, hit - him. Nothing too serious, considering that silver wouldn’t damage Masato as severely as it would a true vampire. Those wounds would simply hurt like hell and refuse to heal until the vampire blood passed out of his system, providing a source of ceaseless agony.
“Oyabun.” For all that, Masato’s voice was remarkably level, though there was a dangerous edge to it. “What is the meaning of this? Why are you betraying your word?”
“I am collecting a debt long overdue, Ikeda.” Tetsuya knew it was Junichi’s face that Masato saw, and Junichi’s voice that he heard, but these words came from him and him alone. The damage dealt to the Syndicate tonight - wrought by their supposedly loyal retainers, no less - constituted the success of the mission Ryou had charged him with. From here on out, it was his show… and to be fair, Ryou wasn’t the only one who let his personal agenda influence his professional conduct. Tetsuya gestured to the dead, the dying, the ballroom that he’d converted into an abattoir. “All this, everything that happens tonight... it’s on you.”
Masato recoiled as though slapped, his cold composure breaking into confusion and hurt. Interesting, how the implication that he was responsible in any way for the suffering around him could hit him harder than the wounds he’d taken on the way here. “When have I ever shown anything less than absolute dedication, oyabun? When have I ever shirked my duty? For the sake of the clan, I gave myself up as a sacrifice - and now I find that you’ve played me for a fool.”
So silent and so swift was Masato’s approach that the men around him hadn’t yet realised that he was in their midst, let alone that he’d just felled one of their number. There was vampire blood to thank for that, Tetsuya thought to himself - the deadly speed and grace it imparted made killing absolutely effortless. To an unprepared target, Masato would be nothing more than a blur up until the moment he closed in for the kill - which, in point of fact, happened to be now. But Tetsuya was prepared. With a moment's mental exertion, the world ground to a halt around him, his synapses surging at superhuman speed. Time was not his domain, and thus true chronomanipulation lay beyond his grasp, but this hack was a reasonable approximation of it. Cognition and perception were functions of the mind, and with each of them pushed past the point of absurdity, every detail around him came into clear, crisp focus - though he’d had to tweak with his hearing to avoid being deafened by the clamor of gunfire. Masato’s lunging form became visible again, a figure moving in slow motion amidst a field of statues, his features frozen in a bitter snarl.
So this day has come, Tetsuya mused internally. He’d sworn to exact revenge upon Masato a long time ago, a resolution that hadn’t wavered despite the intervening years and the distractions they’d brought. Never mind that Masato had no idea who Tetsuya was. Never mind that he remained ignorant of the depth of his own wrongdoing. Tonight, Tetsuya broke the man.
He ran imaginary fingers over the fabric of his own mind, unravelling it, seizing the threads as they came free and carefully knotting them around the men around him. It was a dangerous line he walked here - splintering himself like this effectively created a hive mind, allowing him to directly control their actions, but the process steadily eroded his sense of self, eating away at his sanity. That was why he hadn’t assumed direct control from the start - it was easier and safer to instil the right emotions within the men and let them act for themselves. Now, however, he needed precision and unison. These men were experienced gangsters, more than capable of handling themselves in a fight, but against even a thrall like Masato - a human who’d ingested vampire blood - they’d drop like chaff.
If only it were as easy as reaching into Masato’s head and crushing his mind, leaving him a brain-dead husk. Tetsuya had done it before, and would likely do it again someday - just not today. It wasn’t the horror and revulsion for himself that accompanied the act that stayed his hand - he had his ways of coping with the aftermath, and he’d simply accepted that that was the price he had to pay. No, the reason was simpler - he just couldn’t. A thrall received some degree of mental protection in addition to physical enhancement, a warding against psychic interference. Tetsuya suspected it had to do with the vampire’s claim over the thrall, guarding them against all influences besides their own, but speculation on the exact nature of this protection was academic at this point. There was no choice but to do things the hard way, and it looked like Masato was going to make it very hard indeed.
In that moment, Tetsuya was ten dozen hands, drawing steel, loading silver, orchestrating a storm of gunfire with Masato at its centre. This wasn’t Tetsuya’s first encounter with a thrall - he knew dodging a bullet was well within Masato’s capabilities, with the kinetic vision and lightning reflexes that vampire blood granted. The challenge was to ensure that he had nowhere to dodge - every angle had to be covered, each possible avenue of escape cut off before he had the chance to take it.
In his state of heightened awareness, Tetsuya mapped Masato’s trajectory, carefully watching how he set his feet as he ducked and wove between slugs. The bastard was as slippery as he was tenacious, often shifting out of the line of fire by a matter of millimeters, but perfectly willing to take a grazing hit if it gave him the chance to take down a gunman. Tetsuya was careful not to lose any men to friendly fire, but even so Masato was tearing his ranks to shreds. He felt his bones break, his viscera rip, a thousand flavors of agony washing over him as his men fell, each of them an extension of his will, each death burning a hole in his head. Biting back the screams that threatened to spill from his throat, he forced himself to step back, making space between himself and Masato.
“Do you enjoy this, Ikeda? Changing one leash for another, ready to go fetch whenever your master bids you?” Tetsuya called, his voice sounding thick and distorted to himself from within his trance of accelerated cognition.
Masato paused almost imperceptibly before continuing his pursuit, lashing out with a brutal backhand that sent a man’s jaw flying. The movement was pointedly casual, like swatting an insect from the air, as he replied coolly. “Oyabun. I served your house, as my father did, and his father before him. Without question, without hesitation - such is the pride of the Ikeda name. When the blade you’ve forged and sharpened comes seeking your throat, who do you have to blame but yourself?”
Tetsuya tasted bile. “You sicken me. So self-righteous, so wrapped up in being your master’s blade that you neglect to consider who you’re cutting, who you’re hurting. So eager to serve that you abdicate all responsibility and blind yourself to the truth of your actions. You’re proud of what your father’s done? Fuck you.”
“No.” Masato eyed him intensely, his expression growing disturbed. “You’re not the oyabun. He would never let his men die for him like this, and he’d certainly never say anything like that. What have you done, impostor!?”
The game was up. As realization dawned in Masato’s eyes, Tetsuya was already firing, fanning the hammer of his revolver - no time to sight, no point taking aim at this range. He was rewarded with a roar of pain as one shot hit true, taking Masato high in the chest - two grazed his arm and neck, whilst the last three went wide. He really wasn’t much of a shooter - he could practically feel Ryou radiating disapproval all the way from here. Nonetheless, a chest wound like that from the custom .44 Special rounds he was firing would have taken a regular person out of the fight - these were hollowpoints with a perforated silver ball in the tip, designed to fragment upon impact and create multiple wound channels in the target, not to mention the stopping power of the expanding slug itself. Against a vampire or even a thrall, however, only the silver really mattered, and Tetsuya could tell that he hadn’t hit close enough to centre mass. The silver fragments had overpenetrated instead of lodging in Masato as he’d hoped they would - he stumbled backwards but stayed on his feet, though his face was a rictus of pain. Damn. A cleaner shot would have finished him - as it was, Masato could shrug off the impact of the slug and keep on coming.
Before Masato could recover, Tetsuya dropped to one knee and yanked on the leg of a nearby table, the bracers around his left arm thrumming with energy, giving him enough power to yank the heavy wooden table on its side so that it shielded him. He sent a mental command to the men to cover him - without him concentrating on them, they lacked enough autonomy to act on their own, so for the past few seconds they’d just been standing around. Stupid - he should have capitalized on Masato’s distraction while he’d had the chance. Too late to regret it now. While part of his mind focused on keeping Masato suppressed, his hands worked automatically, spilling spent shells out of the cylinders, reloading from his own gunbelt.
“Who are you!? What have you done with the oyabun!?” The hoarse rasp of Masato’s voice rang out over the gunfire, his demands punctuated with gristly snaps and cracks as he cut his way towards Tetsuya.
The oyabun was fine, just knocked out in the private suite of an Azabu nightclub, along with several call girls who’d claim he’d arrived at around four a.m. Tetsuya had planted the right memories in all of them, and any confusion could be attributed to the bottles they’d remember Junichi generously opening that night. He’d even procured the proper empties as befitting a man of Junichi’s stature - a Yamazaki and a Hakushu.
As to Masato’s other question…