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The Best Friend

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"Well, if it isn't lingerie guy," was the way Misaki's best friend greeted him when she opened the door at his knock.

Hei blinked, momentarily thrown not just by the greeting, but by the marked contrast between Misaki and the woman in front of him. Misaki had told him that her friend was more outgoing than she was, so he'd expected someone friendly - that much he remembered about her from their brief interaction at the mall last year. He hadn't expected a low-cut pink blouse that was not at all concealed by an off-the-shoulder cardigan, skintight jeans, and fuzzy leopard print house slippers.

"Um, hi," he managed. "Good to see you again."

Ishizaki Kanami raised one eyebrow beneath her curling brown hair; not quite smiling, but not unwelcoming either. "You too. Come on in."

She led the way into her small apartment, pulling up the shoulder of her white cardigan with a total lack of self-consciousness.

Hei slipped his shoes off into the pile by the door - most were high-heeled and brightly colored, though one pair was more practical, and he spotted two pairs of men's loafers. Misaki's low-heeled shoes were conspicuously absent. Damn; he'd hoped to arrive after she did.

"Li, you made it!" a familiar voice called. Hei glanced over; a round folding table had been placed in the center of the room. Seated around it were Kouno, who was raising a can of beer in friendly greeting, and Ootsuka, who, as usual, was smiling shyly and not meeting his eyes. There was a second man there as well, someone Hei didn't recognize.

His invitation to Kanami's monthly poker game had ostensibly come from Kouno; what the detective didn't know was that Kanami had suggested the idea to him on Misaki's behalf. Hei and Misaki had been officially (and secretly) dating for three weeks, during which time Kanami had been on a UN-sponsored tour of the various European astronomics agencies. Misaki was anxious for the two of them to meet; the poker game had seemed like the perfect excuse.

For his part, Hei was more than anxious - he was downright terrified. This was Misaki's closet friend: the person who knew her best, whose good opinion Misaki relied on. What if she didn't like him? What if she couldn't see beyond his star?

Because she already knew who he was.

"She got the whole story out of me not long after you left," Misaki had told him apologetically. "And I honestly didn't think I'd ever see you again, so it seemed safe to tell her."

Hei couldn't blame Misaki for wanting to share something so personal with her friend, even if he couldn't relate to the desire at all. Before Misaki, he'd never had anyone to share things with. And in a way it was a relief - one less person to hide himself from. But aside from Misaki, Kanami was now the first person he was meeting in this new life who already knew the worst of him. He had no idea what to expect.

Steeling himself for the night ahead, Hei gave his co-workers a small wave, before turning back to the hostess. "I brought pork dumplings," he said, and Kanami's face lit up in a real smile.

"Thanks! I'll take them. Go have a seat with the others - want a beer?"

He didn't particularly want to drink, but he did want to look like he was fitting in. "Sure."

As Kanami and the dumplings disappeared through a bead-covered doorway into what must be the kitchen, Hei took a seat next to Kouno and gazed around the room. Like Kanami herself, her apartment couldn't have been more different from Misaki's. Where Misaki's sense of style tended towards comfortable simplicity, Kanami's was…busy. Brightly-colored, mismatched throw pillows littered an overstuffed baby blue couch. A pink throw rug was beneath his feet and two bookcases crammed with textbooks, novels, and tchotchkes. It seemed as if every last inch of wall was covered with some sort of photograph, poster, or piece of eclectic artwork - one of which, he recognized in surprise, was a porcelain Chinese opera mask with a black cross butterfly pattern.

"I got that on a trip to Chinatown with Misaki in high school," Kanami said, appearing suddenly at his elbow. She passed him a cold can of beer and took the seat between him and Ootsuka. "Misaki bought one too - it's blue, and not as cheerful."

"Yeah," Hei said. Misaki's opera mask was hanging in her bathroom. Then he realized his slip. "I mean, she seems to like blue a lot…"

Kouno laughed at that, but Kanami cast Hei a knowing look.

"So, these two you already know," she said, gesturing casually at Ootsuka and Kouno. "This is Dr. Markov Maslow, an astrophysicist with the observatory in Ussuriysk, Russia. Did I get that right?"

Markov laughed genially, a full-bellied laugh for such a slim man. "Not even close. Is okay - good for trying." Hei had first taken the man to be Japanese, with perhaps one foreign parent; but his heavy accent named him a Russian national.

"I'm going to get it eventually!" Kanami declared, brushing her hair over her shoulder. "Anyway; Markov is taking a sabbatical to study with us - I don't think he's left the lab in the whole month that he's been in the country. This is his weekly night of forced socialization. Markov, this is Li Hei. He works with Kouno and Ootsuka in Section Four."

"Ah, chasing contractors?"

Hei nodded, not really sure what to make of the man sitting across from him. Russian officials hadn't ever been part of the Syndicate; in fact, Hei had often found himself up against their operatives in the FSB. The country was on good terms with Japan, however; it wasn't likely that Markov was a spy. Not impossible, of course. Just not likely. "Your Japanese is very good," Hei told him, reaching into his endless supply of innocuous small talk.

Markov shrugged. "My mother is Japanese; I learn some."

Hm. Hei himself had posed as half Chinese, half Russian when he'd worked in Moscow. But that was just because it was a plausible cover story; he was being paranoid.

"Everyone here?" Kouno asked, taking a swig from his can. "Let's get this game started!"

"Not yet." Kanami checked her watch. "Misaki said she was running late, but she should be here any minute."

Kouno choked on the beer. "The Chief? She's coming?"

"I invite her every month, you know that," Kanami told the detective with a raised eyebrow.

"Yeah, but she never shows!"

"Afraid of losing to your boss, hm?"

"No! It's just - it's weird, you know?" He glanced at the can in his hand as if seeing it for the first time. "Shit, take this!" he said, pushing it at Kanami.

"Kouno, relax!" Ootsuka said with a laugh. "The Chief doesn't care if you drink when you're off duty; I'm sure she'll have one herself. Look, I have a beer too. So does Li."

Hei had already taken a couple of pretend sips from his can; to help prove Ootsuka's point, he took another. Kanami, however, took Kouno's beer and slammed it back. "There," she said. "Now go get another one and stop freaking out."

"Fine," Kouno conceded, throwing up his hands. "But if I get drunk and make an ass out of myself in front of my boss, it's your fault."

"You don't need my help to make an ass out of yourself, honey," Kanami called after him as he stalked into the kitchen.

It was the same sort of friendly, trusting bickering that Kouno and Saitou engaged in at the office; the sort of joking that Hei hadn't yet quite managed to make himself a part of. It was so alien to him. It felt like the best he'd ever be able to do would be to watch from the outside, like listening in on a conversation in a language that he didn't speak.

"They used to date," Ootsuka said in a stage whisper for Hei and Markov's benefit.

Kanami waved a negligent hand. "It was less dating, and more an experiment that didn't really work out. We had fun though. Oh, that must be Misaki," she said as a firm knock sounded from the apartment door. She rose to go answer it, when Kouno wandered back into the room, stuffing the last of a dumpling into his mouth.

"Hey, these are pretty good," his said, his words barely intelligible around a mouthful of dumpling. "Where'd you get them?"

Kanami sighed, calling back over her shoulder as she opened the door. "Kouno, Li brought those, and they're for later! Misaki, hi!"

"Oh, sorry, man," Kouno told him as he resumed his seat, but Hei was focused on the door. Kanami had wrapped Misaki in a brief hug, which Misaki returned just as affectionately. Between her smile and her casual clothes, she looked far more comfortable and at home, like she did when they were alone together compared to her office demeanor. For some reason that surprised him. Then he realized that he'd never really seen her anywhere that wasn't either work or home.

"Sorry I'm late," Misaki said, slightly breathless. She slipped off her shoes and headed to the table. When she made a move to sit in the empty seat next to Hei, however, Kanami shook her head.

"You're over there, by Markov." At Misaki's annoyed glance, she added, "Rules of the house. I need to get to know your new team member; we'll be working together at some point, I'm sure. Anyway, my beer's already here." She smiled innocently.

Misaki merely snorted, and took the seat between Markov and Kouno. Hei tried not to let his disappointment show; having her sit next to him would be too distracting in any case. As if she could sense it anyway - or maybe she shared the feeling - Misaki cast him a quick, secret smile across the table.

Kouno cleared his throat. "Uh, Chief…want a beer?" He held out one of the two cans that he'd brought from the kitchen.

"No thanks," Misaki said, oblivious to Kouno's exasperated expression and Ootsuka's amused shrug. "Alright, is it time to start?"

"Yup, let's go!" Kanami pulled a deck of cards from the center of the table, which was crowded with stacks of poker chips and a couple bowls of nuts, and began shuffling. "Two thousand yen buy-in. Texas Hold'em, aces high. Good?"

Everyone nodded; then Ootsuka said suddenly, "Li, you know how to play poker, right?"

"Um, yes?" Hei answered, surprised. Kanami smiled at him, as if he'd passed some sort of test; though he had no idea what it could be.

Ootsuka blushed slightly. "Sorry, it's just - you don't really seem like the type."

"Neither do you," he said before he could stop himself. "Sorry, I mean…"

"That's okay," she said, waving her hand as if it didn't matter, though her face was growing redder, "I guess I don't look like the gambling type, do I?"

Not for the first time, Hei wondered whether or not the diffident woman had regained any of her memories from the night he'd saved her from that contractor…and then nearly killed her after she'd started stalking him. He still had no idea how on earth she'd tracked him down, or why she'd kept coming to his apartment complex alone and completely conspicuous rather than taking her information to the rest of her team; he should have taken the time to figure that out, rather than listen to Mao and simply head out to take care of her.

Take care of her - he still thought of it in those terms. What it really was, was killing her. Ootsuka had no idea that the man sitting next to her, playing cards with her, had almost killed her a year ago. He'd almost killed Saitou too, and - he could hardly bring himself to think it - Misaki.

He hadn't intended to. It was before he'd decided to trust her with his information on the Syndicate, but he'd already developed a…liking…for her. Seeing her there, protecting a target he needed to eliminate, had torn at his heart in a way he hadn't felt in a long time. He'd thrown the knife, hoping to scare her off (fat chance); and to his amazement, not only had she stood her ground, but she'd shot it out of the air. Shaking off his shock and admiration, he'd gone after Saitou next. Having caught the detective in a garrote, Hei stood poised to kill him - and hesitated. He didn't want to kill this man, either. And in that moment's hesitation, Misaki had aimed a perfect shot, severing the cable that tied him to Saitou and destroying his mask in the process.

How the hell is that woman even human? had been his first shocked thought. At the sight of her horrified, dawning comprehension, however, his only coherent thought from then on had been What the hell happens now?

Thank god for Mao and his allergy medicine.

Occasionally he considered asking Misaki about her memories from that night, but he didn't dare. There was no way he could explain to her that he had almost killed one of her subordinates in cold blood; the shame would kill him.

"Li, what's your bet?"

Hei glanced over at Kouno. "What? Oh - hang on." He picked up the two cards that Kanami had dealt him: two nines. Not bad, he thought, absently tapping his fingers against the cards.

"Are you sure you know how to play?" Misaki asked, suspicion in her voice.

"Yes, I know how to play." He shrugged. "I'm in," he added, tossing some chips into the pile.

The Syndicate had taught him poker as part of his espionage training. It wasn't the game itself that was important to master; but rather, the act of bluffing and detecting when others were bluffing. Everyone has a tell, he'd learned - inside the game, and outside in the real world. Hei had worked hard to master his own tells, and he'd become an expert at detecting the lies that others told him.

He'd never played a game of poker simply for fun though - this would be interesting. He pulled his mind back from contemplating the past and focused instead on the people around the table.

Ootsuka wore a slight frown; she folded. The other four, faces impassive, tossed in their bets.

Kanami laid down three cards face up. A queen, a seven, and a five. The seven and five were both spades, the same as one of Hei's nines. He bet again, along with Kanami, Kouno, and Misaki. Markov chuckled good-naturedly and folded.

The next card that Kanami laid down was another queen. Misaki's expression didn't change one iota, but Hei saw her pulse pick up; he would have bet his entire stack of chips that she had a queen. That would give her three of a kind a higher rank than his; but he bet on the next round again anyway.

One last card: a jack of diamonds.

"Pair of jacks," Kanami announced, showing her hand.

Kouno groaned. "I got nothing. You were all supposed to fold!"

"Three nines," Hei said offhandedly, his eyes on Misaki.

As expected, she pounced on the opportunity. "Three queens - ha!" She tossed down her cards and pulled the pile of chips into her own.

"Now I remember why I never force you to come to these things," Kanami said, rubbing her temple. "You're the worst winner I've ever met."

"It's only one hand," Misaki said, but the smug tone in her voice was clear.

The deal passed to Hei next. He picked up the deck; it had been a long time since he'd held a pack of cards. One of his trainers in the Syndicate had taught him to palm cards and stack decks; he hadn't practice it in forever though, and would probably just look like an idiot if he tried it here. Still, he could probably manage one or two flourishes. Running the cards through his fingers, he began shuffling.

"Damn," Kouno said with a low whistle, "it's like Casino Royale in here."

"Casino what?"

The entire table, Markov included, stared at him. He paused in his shuffling. "What?"

"You've never seen Casino Royale?" Kanami said in a flat voice.

"Is it…a movie?" That seemed like the best guess.

"James Bond?" Kouno said, gesturing widely and almost knocking over Hei's beer. "Monte Carlo! High stakes poker!"

Hei latched onto the only words that he could relate to. "Monte Carlo? I was there for a few days once."

Kouno gaped. "Please tell me you played cards in one of the casinos?"

"Um, no?" I did kill a contractor in one, though. Across the table, Misaki had her hand over her mouth, her eyes bright with silent laughter.

"It's okay people, this can be remedied," Kanami said. "You and me. Movie night. My place. Misaki, you have my copy of the DVD, don't you? You can bring it over and watch with us."

Misaki blushed - she actually blushed. It was so endearing Hei couldn't look away from her face. Apparently choosing to pretend that she hadn't heard her friend's not-so-subtle matchmaking, she said, "So long as you don't make the popcorn - it does not need a stick of butter melted on top."

"At least I don't set my building on fire whenever I microwave it."

"One time! Okay, twice - but there wasn't a fire! Just…some smoke. A lot of smoke."

Hei watched the exchange, his smile growing in spite of himself.

"You can deal those cards any time, Li," Ootsuka told him quietly.

Hei glanced over to see her watching him, smiling as if she knew something he didn't. When he frowned, she flicked her eyes to Misaki and back to him, eyebrows raised. Hei cleared his throat and sat up straighter. He dealt the cards.

Over the next few rounds, Hei quickly picked up on his fellow players' strengths and weaknesses. Kouno believed himself to be a far better bluffer than he was, and often went all in on a terrible hand, convinced that the others would fold in fear. When he truly did have good cards, he would nervously tap his fingers on his beer can. He didn't do it every time; but it was often enough that Hei had no problems reading him. Ootsuka couldn't bluff to save her life; if she stayed in, it was because her cards were decent.

Kanami was a little harder to figure out. Hei didn't know her as well as the other two, and sitting next to her made observation challenging. In the end, though, that was what gave her away: she would let out a tiny little huff of breath whenever the cards in the middle of the table didn't play well off of the ones in her hand.

Markov was an open book. He hid it better than Ootsuka, but he had zero skill in completely erasing his tells. That unnerved Hei more than if the man had been an expert. It was too…obvious. Like hanging a sign on his chest that said I'm not a spy. It was a trick that Hei had relied on for almost all of his cover identities. Which was a sure indication that he had something to hide.

Or maybe Hei was just being paranoid. This isn't the Syndicate, he reminded himself yet again.

After another two hands, however, he saw something that made him doubt his conclusion: a flash of blue in the ceiling light above the table. He didn't move to look at it; poker was one thing, but reacting to an unexpected specter was death to a covert operative in the presence of other contractors. It had to be an Astronomics specter - he'd never heard of any doll that wasn't directly plugged in to a network that could use electricity as their medium. But he was pretty sure that those specters were prevented from entering buildings without direct orders. It didn't make any sense.

It didn't flit away after a few moments as the Astronomics specters typically did; like the type of recon doll he'd typically worked with in the past, it stayed. Almost as if it was…watching. But watching who?

His first thought was that it must be working with Markov - that he was a contractor after all - but there was no reason why Markov would need an extra set of eyes in such a small room. And the Russian gave no indication that he could see the specter. Either he was just as good as Hei was at bluffing, or he really couldn't see it.

Hei continued to keep an eye on it as the evening progressed. At first the distraction cost him several thousand yen in bets he shouldn't have made; he was out of practice splitting his attention, and poker called for a high degree of focus if one wanted play well. But as the specter continued to hover harmlessly in the light above them, he decided that tuning it out to focus on his fellow players was more worth his while.

Misaki turned out to be the true challenge. As well as Hei knew her by now, she was very, very good at keeping her emotions tightly controlled when she wanted to. And she knew how to read him in return, much better than he'd ever realized. After six hands, most of the winnings were split between the two of them. The game was starting to get boring.

Hei decided to try something new.

Ootsuka dealt. Hei checked his two cards: kings both. Absently he tapped his pinkie finger against them a couple times.

After the bets were in, Ootsuka laid the first three cards out face up on the table. A three of hearts, two of clubs, and jack of clubs. Nothing that he could use there, but two kings were still promising; he placed his bet. Misaki, who was studiously looking away from him, threw in her own chips. He wasn't sure what was in her mind.

The next two cards were both kings - clubs and hearts. Hei very deliberately did not tap his fingers on either deal as he placed his bets and watched Misaki from the corner of his eye. She had that indefinable self-satisfied air that meant that she knew she was about to win. Markov folded, joining Kouno and Kanami on the sidelines; Ootsuka hesitantly pushed in her chips.

"Let's see 'em," Kouno insisted.

Ootsuka laid down her cards. "Flush," she said, pointing to the clubs in the corners of her cards.

Hei sighed, and lowered his hand slightly. Misaki, naturally, took that as a sign of defeat. "Ha!" she said, tossing down her hand. "Full house!" She reached for the pile of chips, but Hei reached across the table and caught her wrist. She looked up at him sharply; Kanami was watching with raised eyebrows, while Kouno practically goggled.

Hei released her hand and laid down his cards. "Four of a kind, king high."

The look that Misaki gave him was far deadlier than any of his knives; Kanami, however, laughed out loud. "I think this is a good time for a break; Li, come show me how to heat up the dumplings," she said, giving him a significant look.

Hei nodded, wondering what she wanted to talk about, and stood; at that moment the specter vanished from the overhead light and Markov gave a small grunt.

Pulse spiking, Hei kept his expression neutral. Had Markov seen the specter leave? He hadn't been paying attention to the Russian at all, hadn't noticed if he'd angled his gaze towards the ceiling in even the slightest amount. Damn it, he was getting sloppy.

"You've got some serious guts," Kanami told him with a grin as soon as they were beyond the beaded entry and in the narrow galley kitchen. "I like it."

"Guts?" Hei repeated absently. The specter had followed them and was now hanging out in an outlet just above the countertop. Was it watching him, then? His gut twisted slightly at the thought; he'd been so sure that he was done with other organizations head-hunting him. But it hadn't been that long ago that he'd been in Moscow - maybe Markov had been sent to track him down for the chaso he'd sown in the FSB. Hei was sure he'd never seen the man before; Ussuriysk was a long ways from the Kremlin. Though just because Markov said he was from Ussuriysk didn't mean that he actually was. Li was from a lot of places he'd never set foot in, after all.

"Misaki's always been too competitive for her own good," Kanami was saying as she arranged the dumplings on a Christmas themed platter. Hei briefly considered pointing out that it was only September; then realized that she probably didn't care. "She was president of our high school chess club; senior year she declared that everyone who joined had to be able to beat her at least twice, or they couldn't compete in the tournament at the end of the year. It pissed a whole bunch of students off, but by the time the tournament came around, not one person had quit - and we won the trophy."

Hei smiled, momentarily distracted from Markov and the specter. He loved this kind of story about Misaki, because it confirmed what he already knew and loved about her.

"Who won what?" Misaki strode into the kitchen, her brow knitted in annoyance. "It doesn't take two people to put dumplings on a tray."

Kanami just laughed. "Relax, I'm not giving him the third degree - you didn't need to come save him."

"I needed a glass of water," Misaki said, opening a cupboard. Though Hei noticed that she'd only opened it after Kanami had questioned her motives.

"Mm-hm. So, what do you guys think?" Kanami leaned forward, hand on her hip. "Ootsuka and Markov."

"What about them?" Misaki asked. She pulled a glass from the cupboard and filled it from the tap.

"You know - do you think they're hitting it off?"

"No," Misaki and Hei said in unison.

Kanami pursed her lips. "Really? I thought they'd make such a cute couple. Well, Ootsuka's always so shy around strangers, and Markov doesn't pick up on social hints easily - I think it's the cultural barrier. Maybe if I just keep nudging them along…"

Misaki snorted. "Just make sure you push in the right direction. He's accidentally rubbed my foot with his twice already."

"What?" Hei hadn't meant to sound so sharp, but a quiet rage had just been kindled in his gut. He would kill the man, contractor or not. He would -

Misaki squeezed his arm, smiling grimly. "The first time I gave him the benefit of the doubt. The second time, not so much. My heel accidentally came down hard on his instep. That should take care of any future infractions."

Kanami put her hand to her mouth. "Oh my god, Misaki, I'm sorry! Shit - I put him next to Ootsuka on purpose, but I didn't think he'd try anything like that, especially not on you. I'll ask him to move -"

But Misaki waved her hand. "I'm pretty sure I've already dealt with it."

"Well, I'll read him the riot act on Monday, don't worry."

"Wait, was this after the last hand?" Hei interrupted.

Misaki frowned. "Yeah. Why?"

Maybe he'd been wrong after all. "I'll tell you later." After he tried one more trick.

"Yo, what's the hold up with the food?" Kouno called suddenly from the other room.

"You'd think he was dying of starvation," Kanami muttered, but she was smiling. Scooping up the platter, she headed out of the kitchen. Misaki started to follow, but Hei caught her arm.

"What is it?" she asked in concern.

From the corner of his eye, he saw the specter disappear from the outlet. It must have followed Kanami into the front room. So it wasn't watching him. "Never mind," he said, releasing her. But instead of walking out, Misaki turned on him.

"Oh by the way," she said with narrowed eyes, jabbing her finger into his chest, "I know you were screwing with me in that last hand. You're going down!"

"Am I?" Hei said, a smile creeping across his face. There was another fire kindling in his gut, but this one had an entirely different color flame.

Misaki took a sharp breath and blinked; then she turned on her heel and left the kitchen. Hei watched her disappear through the beads; then coming back to himself, he followed.

The others were well into the dumplings when he returned to his seat at the table.

"It was very shocking, first time I saw the mediums," Markov was saying. "In Ussuriysk, our labs are not so, so…what is word? Priyatnyy, udobnyy"

Hei suddenly saw a way to draw Markov out, to reassure himself that his initial suspicion of the man was wrong. "Comfortable," he provided.

"Exactly!" Markov said, then blinked. "Wait - you speak Russian?"

Everyone around the table was staring at him. Hei shrugged. "Nekotoryye. Ah, ya ne ochen…mnogo pomnyu. I spent about six months in Moscow a couple years ago."

"What were you doing in Moscow?" Kouno asked.

Infiltrating the FSB. "You know. Working."

Covert operatives were actually much more talkative than the average layperson probably believed. Their goal was to gather information, after all. Subtly influencing people to give up details was a skill; doing it without giving anything away yourself was an art. If Markov truly was a spy on Hei's trail, he would test Hei, look for holes in his story all the while sharing nothing personal that could be cross-checked.

Markov, however, talked. About everything. Names, places, details, favorite restaurants in Moscow. He grilled Hei on all the places that he'd been in order to give his own opinion on them. This guy is either the worst or best spy I've ever met, Hei thought to himself while Markov waxed poetic about visiting the dairy farm that his grandfather had owned outside of Kolomna. He spoke mostly in Japanese, but frequently supplemented the conversation with Russian when he didn't know the right words. Hei was enjoying it; his Russian really was rusty, and it was nice to get some practice.

The card game resumed while Markov talked, and Hei found himself finally slipping into a familiar state of mind, one in which he could balance casual conversation with a sense of situational awareness. Now that he wasn't paying such close attention to Markov, he could focus on tormenting Misaki. He changed up his tell every other hand, purposefully went all in and lost on terrible cards, and made a point of winning each hand that she didn't fold on, if he could. Her eyes had narrowed to the point where he started to wonder if she wasn't going cross-eyed.

"It's always hard to take, the first time you see the mediums," Kouno said. The conversation had finally left Russia and circled back around to the original topic. "I think we all have stories like that."

"Hm, Li hasn't been to Astronomics yet," Kanami observed, lips pursed as she considered her cards. "I'll have to arrange a visit. I'm in."

"No, but Li has met a doll before."

Hei's hand paused in the act of tossing down his chips. "What?" Why on earth would Misaki bring this up? She knew he couldn't talk about Yin, couldn't talk about his life as a contractor.

Misaki raised an innocent eyebrow. "Last year, that time Kanami and I ran into you in the mall. In the lingerie department, when you were buying that underwear and wig."

Kouno choked on a dumpling while Ootsuka's eyes widened. Markov's brow furrowed at the unfamiliar word, which Hei was definitely not going to translate for him.

"He said he was buying a gift," Kanami said. "Even though I still haven't ruled out cross-dressing. What does that have to do with dolls?"

"Li, it's your bet," Misaki reminded him.

"You were buying women's lingerie and a wig?" Kouno asked between coughs. Or maybe they were laughs, Hei couldn't tell.

His face heated. He knew what Misaki was doing - she was trying to distract him from the game. And it was working, damn it. "They were for a doll," he protested, dropping his chips into the pot. But after that, he had no choice but to tell the story. He carefully elided the parts that involved specters and the Syndicate's surveillance of the restaurant. Kanami peppered questions throughout, which were a struggle to answer honestly without giving too much away, to his intense frustration. All the while, the stack of chips in front of Misaki gradually grew while his dwindled.

"And you're sure the doll - oh, hang on," Kanami broke off when her phone rang. She pulled it from her back pocket. "Ishizaki. Again? Yeah - reroute her manually." She ended the call. "Sorry about that - we had unexpected visitor."

"A surveillance specter?" In the light above them, the blue glow winked out.

Kanami cast him a wary look. "Yeah. Agnes. She was hanging out in here during last month's game too; they're not supposed to be able to enter private residences without authorization. So either something's funky with our code, or -" she shrugged, smiling, "they're growing up. Anyway: final hand. Show 'em."

"Three of a kind, ace high," Misaki said smugly.

Hei sighed, defeated. "Pair. Twos."

The others trickled out of the apartment, Markov bidding Hei a cheerful goodnight in Russain, Kouno snagging the last two dumplings from the tray. Kanami managed to keep Hei longer on the pretense that she wanted to keep asking him about the doll - at least, he'd assumed it was a pretense, but it was another half hour before she finished questioning him. Misaki sat across the table, smiling affectionately as he filled in the gaps he'd left out earlier.

"A doll sending out a specter on her own…" Kanami mused. "It shouldn't be possible, but I believe it." She cast him a warm smile. "I'm really glad you were there to help her out - I'm sorry I gave you such a hard time about the underwear thing. But," she threw her arm around his neck and jabbed her finger into his chest, "we have to address this 'never seen a Bond movie' problem!"

"Um, right," Hei said, completely at a loss.

They said their goodnights - Hei received a hug along with Misaki - and the two of them left together.

"So," he said as they took the stairs down to the garage level where Misaki had parked, "did I pass?"

He'd thought that the night had gone well, but still he sighed a breath of relief when Misaki laughed. "Yes," she said, slipping her hand into his and squeezing. "She definitely likes you. I knew she would, even without the doll story."

"Doll story? I thought you just brought that up to distract me from the game."

"Two birds, one stone. Kanami likes you even more, and you couldn't hold your focus long enough to win."

"Is that what happened?" Hei asked mildly as they reached her car.

Misaki frowned, pausing in the act of unlocking her door. "What do you mean?"

He shrugged. "It gave me a good excuse to let you win."

It took all his self control not to laugh at the outrage on her face. "You did not - you didn't!" She pointed at him across the roof of the car. "I'm sure I have a deck of cards at home - we're having a rematch, and you're going to do your best to win!" Irritated, she hit the unlock button and Hei opened his door.

"How are you going to ensure that?" he asked innocently as he slid into his seat. "Winning makes you so happy, and I like seeing you happy. I'll probably just keep letting you win."

Misaki paused in the act of buckling her seatbelt. Then her face split into a sly smile. "Strip poker."

Hei couldn't prevent himself from smiling in return. "You're on."