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along the path grow thorns

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“Hey, come over here and feel this.”

“Ah, is it really okay to go into a girl’s bathroom?”

She rolls her eyes. “Just come here, please.”

Sara pushes the tile again to ensure that it wasn’t simply her imagination. Sure enough, there’s some give. She had been so caught up in garnering Clear Chips that she hadn’t even considered the possibility of probing for clues, and it hadn’t been until Q-taro and Kanna directed her attention toward those dark passages that she thought to investigate. There was no better place than to start with the seemingly innocuous rooms that they were assigned.

Keiji stalks into the bathroom, the low ceilings forcing him to hunch over.

“Look at this. It’s loose.” She pushes against it once more for emphasis.

“Huh. You’re right.” He tilts his head to the side and shoves it.

Near the floor beneath them, the facade of a set of tiles swings upward, revealing a narrow passageway.

“Nice!” she chirps with a satisfied grin. “You go first.”

“Huh? I thought you’d wanna.”

“I don’t think it matters.”

“Is it ‘cause of your skirt? Mr. Policeman won’t look up your skirt, you know. I’m better than that.”

“You’re feeling straightforward today,” she notes dryly.

He chuckles. “I can’t keep up with your mood changes.”

They crawl in — shockingly, it’s not terribly cramped — traverse the passageway until they reach an ostensible dead end. Keiji pushes against the wall and, with a satisfied smirk, reveals an opening. They reemerge in a white chamber identical to the one to which Kanna had guided her.

“This is…”

“A room where the first trial took place,” she supplies, already looking underneath the gurneys for another device, as lacerating as the messages on the last one were. Sure enough, there’s another one in the same spot. “It’s another cell phone.”

She doesn’t have to turn back toward him to know that he’s raising his eyebrows. “Another?”

“I’ll tell you later,” she says, getting onto her knees and leaning over the phone.

When Sara curls her fingers around the phone, there’s no give. Furrowing her brows in frustration, she presses the home button. Instead of unlocking the screen, however, the linoleum tile rises up toward her, revealing a hollow space containing a small, lidded cardboard box.

“This is getting weird,” Keiji intones, scratching the back of his neck.

“I thought they said no more tricks.”

“Are you surprised that they would lie? Besides, we don’t know if it’s a trick yet.”

“Well, no,” she admits with a pout.

Sara extends a cautious hand toward the box. This could be a clue, a sign — a trap. She gingerly takes the box out from the hidden crevice and holds her breath as she removes the lid. She’s greeted with the sight of three items: a coiled pile of rope, a stock whip, and a folded piece of paper.

She frowns. There’s something different about this than the other puzzles she’s had to solve. No, it’s as if the box itself drips with malice. She ignores the other items and reaches for the piece of paper.

Unlike other notes they’ve found up to this point, this one is typed in neat print on computer paper.

Congratulations! You have been selected to receive a vital clue.

To leave the room with your clue, you and your partner(s) must complete an activity together. Remove the box and the lock holding the cell phone will be released. Removing the box will send a wireless signal to your collars.

Clear conditions:

- perverted talk (both)
- kinbaku
- whipping
- finish inside

Prohibited:

- kissing

Exits are unlocked and accessible. However, participants’ collars will be activated upon exiting the room if conditions are not met.

She reads the paper three times, her eyes tracing and memorizing each word, not quite believing what she’s seeing. Her fingers graze her collar.

“C-Come on,” she says. The piece of paper trembles between her fingertips. “What even is this?”

“You’re white as a ghost, kid.” He plucks the paper from her and peruses it, his tired eyes growing wider with each line. “The hell?”

“I know.” Her eyes flicker back to the box containing the rope and whip. “Maybe it’s a joke.”

“I don’t think we can afford jokes given our situation,” he mumbles.

“What if it had been Gin or Kanna?” she murmurs. “These guys are disgusting.”

He rubs his chin, pensive.

“What are you thinking?” she asks.

“Hm? Nothing.”

“You’re pretty good at dodging questions, but you’re a horrible liar.”

He raises his hands in mock defeat. “You got me.”

“Then what’s on your mind?”

He scratches his neck. “They probably knew that you and I were gonna come here, specifically. Think about it. We got here from your bathroom. And they wrote instructions that you could only fulfill if someone else were here. Another guy, that is.”

The realization washes over her like a bucket of ice water. She stares intently at the clinical white linoleum beneath their feet.

“Why would they do this? This isn’t like anything they’ve done before. This is just — ”

“Cruel.”

The word falls from his lips and lands like an anvil on her chest.

“It doesn’t make sense,” she says frantically. Panic crests in her chest.

“Not everything they’ve done is in the service of trying to kill us. They want to whittle us down mentally. And there’s no more surefire way to break someone than through this,” he says.

“You sound pretty sure about that,” she replies softly.

He scowls. “You’re sharp, but there are some things you hopefully don’t understand yet.”

She isn’t ignorant about prurient things. No, she’s browsed lurid sites with videos of women — their faces twisted in pleasure and protest — bent over, sideways, on their backs, on their stomachs, on their knees. She’s slipped her hand down past the curve of her stomach and into her panties, rubbing herself at the sight of those girls and the men that accompanied them. She’s watched women with women, men with men. She’s not as innocent as he may think she is.

But that was then and this is now. She was a just healthy teenager getting acquainted with herself — the act of sex seemed like such an abstraction that she had barely paid thought to it.

When everything around them reeks of death, it morphs from an abstraction into a threat.

He folds his arms across his chest as he appraises the contents of the box. “You could do it to me, you know. It doesn’t say who has to do what.”

“We’re really going to do this.” It’s a statement. She wishes it was a question.

“We could try leavin’, but I don’t really wanna risk it. They don’t go back on their word here.” He quirks an eyebrow. “So, how about it?”

Somehow, wielding a gun seemed worlds easier than this.

“You’re the policeman, aren’t you? You know how to use this stuff better than I do. And I’m, well...inexperienced, if you know what I’m trying to say.”

His shoulders tense and she scratches her cheek. Did he really not expect her to ask him?

“...Shit. This is real, huh?” He runs a hand through his hair, and it’s only now that she notices the fine sheen of sweat coating his forehead. “I don’t want you to hate me.”

“Would you hate me if I were the one doing it?”

“‘Course not, but that’s different.”

“Why?”

“It just is, Sara,” he says impatiently.

She squashes the instinct to shrink back at his retort. She presses her lips into a thin line; he’s upset. More upset than she’s ever seen up to this point.

The tension in his body dissipates when he catches sight of her expression. She isn’t sure how she must look right now, but it invokes his sympathies.

“All right, you can trust me. You should probably take off your clothes. Your friendly policeman won’t look, promise.”

She raises an eyebrow. “You’re going to see the end result anyway.”

“I’m tryin’ to be a gentleman here,” he protests weakly.

Keiji turns his back to her and rummages through the box, clearly not knowing what to do with himself. Or maybe he’s steeling himself for what’s to come, the same way she is.

She takes her shoes off. Sheds her jacket. Loosens her tie. Undoes the top button of her shirt. She catches sight of the growing pile of attire on the floor and freezes.

This is really happening. With him. He’s going to fuck her. He’s going to hurt her. Make her bleed.

No, she’s been through worse. She swiftly unbuttons the rest of her shirt and throws it into the pile. She unclasps her bra, slides down her skirt. Removes her panties, her kneesocks. The fabric of every article feels abruptly abrasive against her skin.

“...All right,” she says, unwilling to elaborate further.

He stays still for a beat before he turns around, making every visible effort to keep his expression measured.

“Man, I feel like I should’ve at least bought you dinner first before I got to see this.”

“Is now really the time?”

“Sorry, sorry. Anyway, this’ll be easier if you sit down on the floor.”

Reluctantly, she gets onto her knees. He extracts the rope from the box and sits behind her on the floor.

“Just hang tight. This is the easy part,” he reassures as he gently loops the rope around her decolletage. There’s an eerie tenderness to his words, the feeling of his fingers deftly working their way around her body. Every brush against her skin, no matter how gentle, burns her with its foreboding. Her eyes dart over to the box containing the stock whip. The calm before the storm.

His hands come to a brief stop when they reach her torso, just underneath the subtle swell of her breasts. She can hear him inhale deeply through his nose.

“Sorry.” He wraps the rope taut under her chest. “You’re probably gonna get sick of hearing me say that.”

“I already am,” she deadpans.

That earns a dry laugh from him as he ties a knot around her back. He moves onto her arms and wrists, uniting them behind her back like the bonds around her breasts. Her heart skips a beat when she realizes that she’s bound, powerless, completely at his mercy. She suddenly regrets passing up on his offer for her to be the one in charge.

He moves onto her stomach, framing it in a diamond shape with the rope. Where did he learn how to do this?

He moves onto her hips and finishes with her thighs. He binds them to her calves, removing her ability to do anything but shuffle along on her knees.

“Well, that part’s done.”

Any last traces of anxious amusement fade from his features.

She can’t use her hands. She can’t use her legs. She can’t punch, stab, wave, walk, run, or kick. She’s been rendered useless.

“Hey, you’re all flushed. You okay? Need a break?”

Sara shakes her head. “The longer we stay away, the more suspicious the others will get.”

“Not a bad line of reasoning.”

He’s quiet. She’s quiet. The weight of what’s about to occur sits on her chest, rendering the mere act of breathing difficult.

“I don’t want to hurt you, Sara,” he begins, loosening the last button on his shirt before shrugging it off. “But if I have to hurt you to help you…”

He’s every bit as muscular and imposing as his clothed physique would suggest — an observation that prompts her to squeeze her thighs together and gnaw the inside of her lip until she tastes blood. Images flash behind her eyes of what she just asked him to do with that strength.

“By the way. I’m no good at dirty talk or any of that stuff, if you couldn’t already guess. Don’t laugh at me when I try, okay?”

“Do I look like I’m going to laugh?” she grumbles.

“No. So I won’t laugh when you try, either.”

He’s trying to lighten the mood and all it’s doing is making her more miserable. He joins her on the floor and lies on his side, appearing shy for an evanescent moment. His typical inscrutable expression supplants that shyness, however, and he slides an arm around her shoulders. He caresses her outer thigh, stroking the soft skin there and sending a shudder skittering across her nerves.

“Cold?” he teases.

“Not really.”

“The best way I know how to get a girl going is to kiss her, but I guess I’ll have to be creative, huh?” He furrows his brows in uncharacteristic austerity as his voice drops to a whisper. “It’ll hurt if you’re not turned on. Especially if you haven’t done this before.”

“I know.” There’s only one other time she felt this small, and that was when —

clickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclick

She writhes against her restraints as a sob escapes her throat.

Whoever’s responsible for this knows that she’s the driving force among them. They’re trying to crush her like she’s some persistent insect. When she’s broken, the rest will follow. First it was that damn clicker, now it’s — this.

Alarmed, he sits up and gathers her in his arms. She goes slack against his chest, breathing in his faintly masculine scent, natural and earthy. Heat pools in her cheeks and the coil in her stomach tightens, conflicting with the pangs of mental anguish assailing her and tearing her spirit to tatters.

“I know you’re hurting.”

“...I am,” she chokes out.

“Mr. Policeman can help with that once we get out of here,” he coos. “If you’ll let him.”

She can’t think that far ahead. The rope chafes her wrists, the burn subtle yet salient.

“Listen,” he continues. “I’m not me, and you’re not you. That’s the only way we’re gonna get out of this with our minds intact.”

She somehow understands. “Right. Let’s just get it done.”

He plants his hands on her hips and turns her around in his lap so that she’s facing the door. It’s not locked. They’re free to walk through that door. What if these people are bluffing? What if there’s something they missed that would absolve them, like the sign in the pink room?

But it’s already happening. She’s already tied up, his hands are already roaming her body, and she’s already questioning how she feels.

“You keep doubting me when I say it, but you really are cute,” he purrs as he pinches a nipple, eliciting a strained moan of pleasure from her. “And you’re smart, too. I’m kinda jealous of guys your age.”

You shouldn’t be, she thinks. He kneads her breasts, his hands rough and calloused, the thumbs occasionally sweeping across her stiff nipples. It’s clumsy, uncoordinated, and shouldn’t be making her squirm in his lap the way she is.

“Having you in my arms like this and I can’t even kiss you? It’s really no fair.” His lips brush against the shell of her ear, voice deep and heady with lust. He slid into this role with a disconcerting amount of ease.

The conditions dictate that she reciprocate this somehow. She closes her eyes and thinks back to the videos she’s watched before. What would those girls say?

No, stop it! Don’t put it in me.

Hey, cut it out!

Don’t stop...it feels so good…

(Sara makes a note to cultivate better taste when she gets out of here.)

She needs to pick a character, so she selects the one that comes most naturally to her.

“What makes you think I want to kiss you?”

“You know how to hit a guy where it hurts.” He releases his hold on her breasts to trace the column of her neck with one hand and squeeze her thigh with the other. “It’s not a big deal. I don’t need to be all sweet to a high school slut who thinks so highly of herself.”

“...Creepy old man.” She tries to ignore the feeling of something stiff against the tight crevice of her bound inner thighs. She tries to ignore the telltale taut sensation in the pit of her stomach. “You probably only go after high school girls.”

“What would you rather hear? That you’re the exception or the rule?” He sinks his nails into the flesh of her thigh, leaving angry red marks in his wake. “Maybe you’re special.”

“You’re enjoying this too much.”

“Maybe you’re not enjoying it enough.”

Sara squeezes her eyes shut. It’s just an act. That’s all it is. It’s just an act. If she keeps telling herself that, she’ll be fine. He’s not himself, she’s not herself. They’re two strangers right now.

Then why did that sound so genuine?

He moves his hand from her neck and slides it down her body, grazing her stomach, her hips, her thighs, before resting just above her pussy. She groans and leans back against his chest — it’s as much as she can do with her limited mobility.

“I don’t think you should be so mean when you can’t do a damn thing right now.”

He rubs slow, leisurely circles around her clit, each cycle sending sparks of pleasure darting along her nerves. The coil of pleasure resting just beneath there grows thinner, tighter.

“That feels good, doesn’t it?”

His fingers travel further downward, near her entrance, and he plunges a finger inside her. She purses her lips, holding down the moans that threaten to escape her.

“I can give you something better, but only if you beg for it.”

“I want it,” she says breathlessly, her presence of mind quickly receding in favor of a more primal version of her.

He curls his finger inside her and presses upward. “That’s not good enough, Sara. How am I supposed to know what ‘it’ is?”

“I want — ” (she inhales shakily — I’m not me, he’s not him) “ — your cock.”

“Good girl.” He extracts his hand and sucks the finger covered in her wetness. “Bend over.”

The dark lust swirling in his words causes the coil to tighten, a pleasant heat pooling just below her stomach. He gently pushes her away from his lap before he stands up. She leans forward until her cheek rests against the frigid white linoleum and her back slopes downward at a sharp angle.

The sound of metal clashing against metal makes her swallow. Behind her, he discards his belt and pants, socks and shoes. He takes a few steps toward her and the heat of his cock throbbing against her lets her know that he’s kneeled down to be level with her.

He drops the act (is it really an act?) and taps her shoulder. She turns her head to look up at him, trying to bury her humiliation so that he can’t see the shame written all over her face.

“Do you need a break?” He swallows, then adds, “It’s your first time. There’s no going back.”

“No. I want to get it over with.”

He sighs. Something tells her that there’s an internal conflict raging within him. “You’re the boss.”

His cock prods at her entrance, sliding along her wetness as he grips either side of her ass. She sighs in pleasure despite herself. It’s easier when she thinks of herself as one of those adult video girls, even if that’s the furthest thing from who she is. When she’s just an AV girl, she can enjoy this without a trace of guilt. When she’s just an AV girl, he’s not Keiji. He’s not her friend, her partner, the one who dressed her mental wounds and vouched for her at every turn, the one who incites something in her chest that she hasn’t quite felt before. No, he’s just an older man who wants her like she wants him. Two people donning masks and playing their parts.

“Well, if you wanna get it over with…”

He spares no more time and slams into her, filling every inch of her with his cock and ejecting the air from her lungs. She didn’t know — she had no idea that it would be this painful, that it would feel like getting torn in half —

He pauses and reaches over to stroke her hair. “You all right?”

She whimpers in response and nods her head, incapable of anything else.

“I don’t know how much they want, but...we have to keep going, Sara.”

“I know that!” she snaps.

A pregnant silence suspends itself between them for seconds that seem to stretch and distort into hours.

“I’m sorry.”

She waits for some kind of elaboration, an ‘I don’t want to do this,’ or ‘I hate that I have to do this,’ but it never comes.

“You’re a virgin? What…what a joke.” His voice strains as he pulls out and thrusts slowly back in, stretching her out. “H-How many guys have you spread your legs for? Your whole year at school, I bet.”

She’s supposed to respond in kind. How can they expect her to do that? She swallows down her distress. She’s gotten rather good at that, after all.

“But you still want me,” she says, curling her hands into fists, “even though I’m used? I-I guess you have to settle for seconds — mmm — when you’re an old pervert.”

That’s right. This is how those girls talk. It’s wrong, but it’s okay — she’s not Sara right now. Not-Sara licks her lips, feeling bold.

His pace stalls, his thrusts slow and intermittent. She hears him reach for something.

Sara’s heart pounds against her sternum. She’s lightheaded. She’s nauseous. She’s excited. She’s frightened. She feels stupid for feeling sick. This won’t kill her. One thing that this ordeal has made clear is that he likes her. He won’t hurt her any more than necessary.

“I’m an old pervert, huh? That’s no way to talk to your elders,” he taunts.

The whip cracks against her back, searing and stinging her flesh and forcing a strangled cry out of her lungs.

“Well? Does it hurt?”

She can’t even catch her breath.

“Y...Ye — ”

“Then scream louder.”

The whip kisses her back with all the tenderness of snake fangs sinking into her spine. It blisters, it burns, it bleeds. It coaxes a tortured yelp out of her, a high-pitched sound that she didn’t even think possible within herself.

Louder.

It hisses against her skin, lightning fast and just as hot, and she screams. She screams as loud as her lungs will let her as she splays her fingers on the floor. A thin string of saliva drips from her lips, pooling beneath her mouth.

“Thank me. Thank me for fucking you.”

“Th-Thank you, Keiji.” Her voice falters in a way that no longer sounds like her. But that’s okay, isn’t it? Because it isn’t her. It’s someone else. It’s someone else who’s savoring the sweet heat on her back, in her stomach, in her pussy.

“For what?”

Crack.

“For — ngh — f-fucking me.”

Having apparently discarded the whip, he quickens his pace, his cock sliding in and out of her slick cunt with unrelenting force, hitting her deeper and deeper. The hot coil of pleasure in the pit of her stomach threatens to unfurl; the sound of skin slapping rhythmically against skin resounds throughout the hollow room. Saliva continues to stream from her mouth as the adrenaline ebbs and flows, clarifying and pacifying the pain of her wounds in tandem.

He reaches between her thighs, careful to avoid her lesions, and rubs her clit with two fingers, hasty, compensating for his lack of technique with sheer pressure and speed.

“Keiji,” she gasps. Her thighs quake, her body convulses — the coil doesn’t unfurl, it snaps. Her walls contract around his cock like a vise as she digs her nails into the palms of her hands, savoring the sting as she rides out the apex of her orgasm.

He removes his hand and wipes it against her lower back. His breathing grows labored, erratic, his composure deteriorating, and she can only imagine how he looks — pupils dilated, broad chest glistening with sweat —

Sara,” he groans. His fingertips dig into her hips, hard enough to leave plum-colored bruises, as his cock throbs inside of her. He almost completely slides out of her before slamming back in and burying himself to the hilt in her pussy, deep enough to hurt. Cum, hot and viscous, drips from her, coursing down her thigh and leaving a sticky trail in its wake.

Panting, he pulls out. She stays perfectly still, statuesque. Blood beads and trickles down her back, dripping onto the floor and staining her hair. Cum seeps out of her and coats the insides of her thighs. The ambient noise of hands untying rope is all that she can hear. The bonds around her chest, arms, and wrists come loose; those around her hips and legs follow soon after.

Her back is alight, burning, throbbing with each heartbeat. The entire lower half of her body, sore and tender to the touch, aches with every movement. The cool air rubs salt into the fresh, exposed welts. She hisses between clenched teeth and blinks away her tears.

The Keiji that would stay and ask her if she’s okay, reassure her, lift her limp form with his own hands — he’s gone, supplanted by a stranger. The susurrus of clothes informs her that he’s redressing.

“Um. We should — I’ll go get something for the wounds from Safalin.”

She watches him out of the corner of her eyes. He’s waxen, moribund, trembling as he rises to his feet and absconds from the scene through the front entrance.

He enjoyed that. He relished it. He didn’t want it to end. This is the easiest time she’s ever had getting a read on him.

(She scrutinizes the raised bumps on her arm and thinks: he might not be the only one.)