Three a.m. and the grand ballroom bustled with celebration, the revellers full of energy despite the ungodly hour. The night was theirs, after all, and tonight of all nights, they had reason to celebrate. Excitement swept over Tetsuya as he led another toast, but as loud as the response was, it wasn't enough to drown out the undercurrent of apprehension that he sensed beneath the veneer of good cheer. Tension, anxiety, even outright fear - darker emotions lurked beneath the surface: shadows in the deep water of his men's minds. Not that these were his men, per se; they simply came with the territory. For this event, he'd appropriated the identity of one Hosaka Junichi, head of the Tachibana Group, one of the first enforcer gangs the Syndicate had taken into its fold. He'd chosen them primarily for their reputation for loyalty, which was said to be unparalleled. For an organization such as the Syndicate, a zaibatsu whose main revenue stream consisted of crime, they were valued servants, indispensable to their operations in Tokyo. Tonight, however, loyalty ended.
He made his way around the darkened ballroom, searching for Junichi's lieutenants and advisors, names and faces he'd extracted from the man's mind. Would they notice that their oyabun was uncharacteristically outgoing tonight, too expansive, too amiable? He rather doubted it. His illusory mask was flawless, and he'd memorised the man's every mannerism, from the way he winced slightly after sitting, to his penchant for terribly lame jokes that his men had no choice but to laugh along with.
Besides, this lot were dead drunk; there wasn't much challenge in deceiving them. Liquor flowed freely at their tables, the sort of drinking you only saw when someone was getting married or buried. He smiled grimly. Maybe both, tonight. Walking a wide circuit around the ballroom, he joined conversations, led toasts, all the while reaching out with his mind, insinuating himself into the heads of the men he passed.
As Guild Gramarye's only telepath, it was his prerogative to carry out assignments such as this one, and of late he found himself treasuring the privileged position that it afforded him within the Guild. There were few others who could have persuaded Sensei Ryou to change his mind once it was made up, and fewer yet whom Ryou would have trusted to act in his stead. A thin blade of pain slipped between Tetsuya's temples as he forced his mind outwards, expanding his influence to encompass the bulk of the men seated around him, but he pushed past the pain. He couldn't afford to fail tonight. Not after he'd given his personal guarantee to Ryou.
Tonight, these men promised one of their brothers to the bloodsuckers, throwing him upon their mercy. Where was their concern, their outrage? He sifted through through the surface emotions that flowed from them, digging deeper until he uncovered the inchoate unease, the formless fear and unspoken doubt that he'd been hoping for. Inwardly, he allowed himself to indulge in a certain measure of satisfaction… but not too much. After all, complacency was the deadliest sin, to be avoided on pain of death. He'd chafed at Ryou's strictures when he was younger, but as he left childhood behind him he thought he could appreciate their wisdom. Times were changing, however.
There had been a time when Ryou wouldn't have condoned the audacity of what Tetsuya was planning tonight, much less personally endorsed it, but he hadn't been the same ever since losing his arm. Then again, neither had Tetsuya. It was as though their roles had been reversed, with the student counseling caution while the teacher champed at the bit, raring to strike out against their adversaries. Ryou had originally intended to put in a personal appearance at the ceremony, just so he could look his erstwhile tormentors in the eyes as they burned and blackened at his feet. It would mean war, yes, but Tetsuya suspected that that was the only way Ryou would ever find peace. Personally, he wasn't terribly enthused about the prospect of open conflict between their factions - he liked the status quo, and he'd worked hard to maintain it as best he could. They'd compromised, culminating in his mission tonight - to shatter the Syndicate, to wreak havoc and sow discord, to turn the rank and file against their vampire masters.
War between the magi and the vampires - not so appealing. War between the vampires and the Yakuza, however… that was perfect for their purposes.
Masato had to admit, he hadn't seen himself getting married at twenty-one. Nor had he ever envisioned himself at the head of a table as grand as this, with toasts being raised in his and Sakuya's names all about the massive ballroom. He hadn't touched a drop himself, suspecting that he'd need his wits about him for the night ahead. Stealing a glance at his new bride, he was slightly reassured to see that she looked as anxious as he felt, though judging from the rosy blush that suffused her cheeks, anxiety wasn't the only emotion ruling her at the moment. Come to think of it, how did vampires even blush? His understanding of their physiologies was lamentably thin, though there would be ample opportunity for him to learn from now on. That was his - their - role in all this, after all; to act as the bridge between their people, their union a symbol to the rest of the Syndicate. In the end, they were both just pawns in a greater game. He wasn't bitter about that, not really - he'd accepted certain responsibilities, years ago, and he'd come to terms with the fact that his life wasn't completely his own any longer.
His father would have been proud to see him today, if he weren't so ripe with cancer that the doctors couldn't even pretend to ease his pain. He should be here, thought Masato, hurt and resentment welling up in him out of nowhere. He deserves to see his son grow up. Ah, but there was the rub, wasn't it? He hadn't grown up until his father's illness had put him out of commission, hadn't become the man his family needed him to be until he had no other choice. For the most part, these were old scars, past regrets that he'd made his peace with. Sometimes, however, they had a way of leaping out at him when he least expected it.
Delicate, cool fingers entwined themselves around his own, and he turned, meeting Sakuya's eyes. Perhaps she'd noted his heart rate rising; she was quite sensitive to these things for someone who was, by vampire standards, merely a child. Their courtship, if you could call it that, had begun only a year ago, after she'd recovered from the trauma of being turned. Her people spoke of the vampirism process in exalted terms, but he knew better. Turning - becoming something inhuman, or post-human, if you preferred, wasn't easy or painless. It wasn't uncommon for neophytes to go feral, becoming little more than mindless feeding machines until their sires could re-establish control over them. Not that any of this was official knowledge, of course… but one heard whispers. Particularly when those whispers concerned one's betrothed.
Looking at her fair, unlined face, he couldn't imagine it contorted into a mask of bestial ferocity, couldn't imagine her sweet lips stained red as she drank deeply from a fresh kill… but then for a moment he could, and all too well. He banished the image from his mind, squeezing her hand gently and forcing a smile. It felt more natural on his face as she squeezed back, holding his gaze with her pure, guileless eyes. A man could fall in love, just like that.
"Is everything alright, Masato?"
"Yes, fine. I was just thinking about my family." He could have made some excuse, passing it off as nerves or some such. He didn't. She knew about his background, anyway - he'd been open with her throughout their relationship, holding nothing back from her. Once, early on, she'd asked about his parents, and without thinking about it he'd coldly but politely deflected the question, as was his custom. The unspoken puzzlement and disappointment he'd sensed from her had left him with a bad taste in his mouth, though it was less so her reaction than her pained efforts to hide it from him. Her candor and innocence was childlike, but Sakuya herself was by no means childish - she could tell that the subject hurt him, and she badly wanted to understand why. To understand him. In the face of her earnest affection, all his prevarication and evasion felt disingenuous; hurtful, even. So he'd told the truth, his sob story coming out in dribs and drabs over the course of their courtship. He was glad for her listening ear, her unassuming acceptance, her wordless comfort. Who would have thought it? The first shred of humanity he'd seen in years, and it came from a vampire.
"Am I not your family now?" she asked, her eyebrows raised ever so slightly. Concern, but with a mild teasing edge to it.
"You are, blood of my heart," he said, moving closer to speak in her ear.
It was the highest term of endearment the vampires had, traditionally spoken only between sires and their progeny. Her blush grew deeper at his forwardness, bashful pleasure stripping away some of the careful poise she'd put on for the night, and he was privately gratified to see it. It made her charmingly defenceless, closer to the gentle, genuine girl he'd grown to love rather than the sublimely beautiful - but somehow plastic - facade she'd drawn about herself during their marriage rites.
Perhaps it was because she reminded him of another girl he'd once known, his bygone first love… but that was behind him, now. With Sakuya, he could think only of what lay ahead.
"We're in this together. Forever," he said.
"Till death do us part," she murmured, smiling wryly. For other couples, it was an inevitability. For them, it was a joke. As they drew closer together for a kiss, moving with the unconscious synchronicity of lovers, Masato closed his eyes and dreamed of eternity in her arms.
Eternity ended as the explosions began.
A cascade of explosions filled the ballroom with a chaotic melange of sound and light, intermittently illuminating the tumultuous tableau that was Tetsuya's design. Gunsmoke and bloodscent filled the air as battle was joined, a contingent of Yakuza - Junichi's men - opening fire on the vampires between them and their sworn brother. Tables were kicked on their sides to provide cover, turning the ballroom into a battlefield. Even with the element of surprise, Tetsuya wasn't optimistic about their chances. One vampire could kill ten men ten different ways in ten seconds, and according to his projections, there had to be close to eighty vampires of varying seniority in attendance tonight, comprising the majority of the Syndicate's higher leadership. Even with more than two hundred armed men on his side, the odds were still laughably slim - but a quick, bloody rout was not acceptable. He needed survivors to spread the word about this night. He needed the vampires to be shaken and outraged by the betrayal, and that meant hitting them where it hurt.
Even thinking the word was a dangerous mistake. His head throbbed with the effort he'd expended in pushing the men over the edge. Forging the welter of discordant emotions in the ballroom into a jagged edge of resolve had been instrumental in slicing through the discipline and restraint that kept these men in line, but the blade cut both ways. For a moment, he'd feared it had been a fool's errand, that his magic and his will simply weren't enough to tip the balance - but the first gunshot had been music to his ears, a single deafening note that he'd exulted in. Now, however, he paid the price. He hastily slipped his earplugs in, knowing that noise would only worsen the pain.
Gritting his teeth against the headache, he reached under his jacket and undid the bandoliers cinched tight around his body, distributing the gunbelts to his men. This was another reason he'd needed to impersonate Junichi - only someone of his rank would be exempt from the vampires' security checks. There was all manner of contraband stashed about his person - most of it easy enough to hide under his clothing, but there was no taking chances around vampires. They were perfectly fine with guns being toted around - after all, what did they have to fear from lead or steel? Such base metals were of no consequence to the children of the night. Fortunately, he had the silver bullet he needed. Literally. Lots of them. There were precious few ways to kill, or even hurt, vampires, and he'd been carrying a few hundred of them around his body the whole night. Not to mention the grenades he'd tossed down as the gunfire began. These were of Ryou's design; a combination concussion grenade and thunderflash designed to overwhelm the vampires' heightened senses whilst releasing copious amounts of silver powder into the air. At the moment, they were the only thing holding the vampires back on their side of the ballroom, preventing them from turning the fight into a massacre. The dust wouldn't hold them back forever, however - it was a delaying tactic, and he had to capitalize on the time he'd bought.
"To me, men! Load silver! Cut them down!" he roared, his voice magically amplified to cut through the din. It was a battle call, yes. But it was also a slap in the face of the Syndicate's leadership, who had spent the last five years attempting to monopolize the supply of silver in Japan so as to cut off all access to one of their weaknesses. After this, they would whisper bitterly amongst themselves: had the Tachibana Group been using their position to stockpile silver in preparation for this betrayal the whole time? Who else might have access to it? Who else had they told about silver's true value?
Inhuman screams of pain began to ring out over the gunfire. Tetsuya breathed in the odor of putrefaction that signified the dissolution of a vampire and smiled, relishing in the twisted satisfaction that it brought. They could be killed. He knew it was possible in the abstract, but seeing it for himself for the first time was unspeakably cathartic. Ryou had upset the balance of power when he'd singlehandedly annihilated the elders of House Scarlet, and the repercussions of his vengeance were still felt keenly even now. Certainly, it had escalated the hostilities between the magi and the vampires. However, the precedent he'd set had been earthshaking. No longer could the vampires pretend to be untouchable, immortal, above the squabbling of petty mortals. One man could reduce thousands of years of experience to so much dust in the wind. One man could stand up to the deathless rulers of the underworld and live to tell the tale.
Tonight he was that man.
The clock was ticking. He had to bring the fight to the vampires before they could rally and mount a proper defense. He had to strike the deathblow to this attempted alliance. Marshalling his men around him in a tight wedge, he pulled one of his lieutenants in close. "On my mark, we charge. Break through their lines and get to the head table, understood? We're getting him out of there."
"Yes, sir." The man, a veteran in Junichi's retinue, nodded fiercely. As his orders were relayed, Tetsuya called to mind the image of Ryou raising a fist of metal high above his head, his hand still glowing white-hot from his work that night. The guildhall had been awestruck and ashamed in equal measure. Awe at their sensei's courage and skill. Shame at ever having doubted that he would return to them. Even as his metallic prosthesis smoked and cooled, Ryou's eyes had burned ever hotter, the intensity of his presence leaving no room for doubt or fear in their hearts. Pulling the moment into his consciousness, Tetsuya focused on the surge of triumph that he'd felt in that moment, letting it emanate from him in a wave of uplifting emotion.
Immediately, his men stood straighter, their stances growing taut and ready as the dust began to clear. He enflamed their emotions further, strengthening their resolve, honing their will. Standing in the centre of the formation, Tetsuya pushed hard one last time, bringing them past the point of reason, making them nearly crazy with confidence as he gave the command.