“I hope this doesn’t make me a terrible friend,” Kanami said, “but Misaki getting strep throat was the best thing to happen to our team.”
Hei snorted, idly glancing at the storefronts as they walked down the mall’s main corridor. “I’m pretty sure that does make you a terrible friend.”
Kanami elbowed him in the ribs. “Is it so awful to want to win a game or two for once?”
“Misaki’s not that bad.”
“Your defense of your girlfriend is sweet, but either you’re lying to my face or you’re outright delusional.”
Hei smiled. “I’m sure she’d be better if she had more time to practice.”
“Uh huh. Says the guy who’d never played table tennis in his life and picked it up after just one hour, whereas Misaki has been playing since junior high. I’m so glad I thought of you as a ringer - we might actually have a chance at the championship!” She threw an arm around his shoulder. “You are an assassin of many talents, my friend.”
“Good hand-eye coordination has a lot of applications, I guess,” Hei said mildly. He still found it strange to be able to talk openly about such things with other people without them cringing away in horror. “But I think Misaki is relieved too; she hates losing, and she didn’t like that she was dragging you down.” That was an understatement; the pure joy on Misaki’s face when he’d told her that they’d won the game she’d missed due to being in bed on a steady diet of soup and antibiotics was an expression he hadn’t seen from her very often. She’d been the one to suggest that he take her place permanently, especially after he’d mentioned that he’d actually enjoyed playing.
“Really? I thought she just didn’t like my t-shirt design idea.”
“Well, that too,” Hei said, suppressing a grimace and turning his gaze toward a window display that had caught his eye. He was glad that Kanami had given up on her We’ve got balls slogan once he’d officially joined as her partner (”You’re a dude, it’s not funny when you obviously have balls,” she’d decided); but her second choice hadn’t been much better. They were wearing the matching shirts now, on their way to the parking garage after the game. Hei wasn’t thrilled to have his chest proclaiming I’m a player to the world - they were getting no end of strange looks from the other shoppers - but Misaki and Kanami both found it amusing; so he wore the shirt without complaint.
“Uh oh,” Kanami said abruptly.
“What?” Hei tensed and scanned the vicinity for signs of threats; but the crowded mall seemed to be perfectly safe. He turned to Kanami to find her gazing at him with one eyebrow raised.
“I saw that look,” she said, folding her arms.
Hei blinked. “What look?”
Kanami angled her chin toward the window he’d been glancing towards. It was a jewelery store; a large poster featuring the silhouettes of a presumably happy couple announced a special on engagement rings.
“Um,” Hei said, feeling a blush rise in his cheeks and able to do nothing to stop it. “I wasn’t looking. The display just caught my eye, that’s all. It’s, uh, sparkly.”
He tried to pick up the pace, but Kanami had stopped walking altogether, and he was forced to pause and wait.
“That’s not what your face said,” Kanami pointed out. “You and Misaki have been going out for a year now, right? Have you talked about anything long term yet?”
“Eight months,” Hei corrected distractedly. “No, we haven’t. It’s…I don’t know. Is eight months a long time?” He had no frame of reference for how a normal relationship was supposed to progress. All he knew was that he couldn’t imagine spending a single day without Misaki by his side.
Kanami shrugged. “It’s not a short time. Definitely longer than any of Misaki’s other boyfriends have lasted. And she’s completely hooked on you.”
“She told you that?”
“Not in so many words. But I can tell.” She fixed him with a penetrating gaze. “So you’re saying that you haven’t thought about it at all?”
“Well…” If he was being honest with himself - something that he’d been working hard on the past few months - he had been thinking about it. Every time he saw an older couple walking down the street holding hands, he pictured himself with Misaki, old and gray and still in love. He thought about all the places he wanted to take her, the future he wanted to build together with her.
He thought about how much his mother would have loved meeting her.
“I guess I have,” he admitted. “A lot, actually. I just don’t know if it’s something that Misaki wants.”
Misaki was the sort of person who favored practicality over tradition or romance. He’d quickly learned that she preferred a nice dinner over flowers (even if she appreciated the gesture), and her rant against the concept of ‘date night’ had lasted nearly an hour (”Why can’t I just spend time with someone I love without making it an event?” had been her concluding - and recurring - argument). He dreaded putting her into a position where she would either say no and feel guilty for disappointing him, or say yes when it wasn’t something she particularly wanted, just to make him happy.
“Hm,” Kanami said, “I guess you won’t know until you talk about it with her.”
“I’m not sure how to bring it up...has she said anything to you?”
Kanami snorted. “Getting Misaki to talk about anything even slightly romantic in nature is like pulling teeth.”
That answered that question. Hei sighed.
“But I’m sure she’ll talk to you about it - all you have to do is ask. What’s the worst that can happen?”
“She says no.”
“Is that a deal-breaker for you?”
Hei frowned. “Of course not. If she’s willing to stay with me whether we’re married or not, that’s all I care about. Anyway, it wouldn’t technically be legal,” he added. “Since I’m officially dead and this is a fake identity.”
“Contractor problems,” Kanami nodded sagely. “So why do you want to propose?”
“I guess…” he stuffed his hands in his pockets and thought. “I want her to know that I’m committed to her. I want the whole world to know. It’s - it’s normal, isn’t it?”
“Sure. Like I said, you’ll never know how she feels unless you ask. It’s not like it’s a life or death situation; I say go for it.”
“Yeah,” Hei said as they resumed their walk to the garage, feeling as if he’d rather be facing down the world’s deadliest contractor than broach such a conversation with his girlfriend. “I guess.”
"Well, if KS-114 isn't going to make an appearance, I guess we can head to dinner," Misaki said as she threaded her Porsche through the busy evening traffic. She punched the steering wheel. "I was so sure he was going surface tonight."
"Me too," Hei said, feeling a fresh surge of frustration to match hers.
The unaffiliated contractor had been on a destructive thieving spree for the past week, breaking into banks, retail stores, and markets - any place that kept a lot of cash on hand. Anyone who happened to be in his way was indiscriminately mowed down. Last night's victim had been a ten-year-old boy watching over the family grocery store while his father was helping an elderly customer carry her bags up to her building. The boy had tried to call the police; but he'd been between the door and the cash register, and lost an arm and most of his shoulder for it. He was in critical condition in the ICU. Hei had called the hospital that afternoon; they still weren't sure whether the boy would pull through.
Hei wanted to catch this contractor just as much as Misaki did. He wanted to rip his knife across the man's throat and watch his life drain away with the blood.
Taking a deep breath, he pushed the thought from his mind. It was after nine now; KS-114 hadn't once been active later than eight in the evening - something to do with his price, Hei suspected. Regardless, it looked like they weren't going to get a shot at him tonight. "Where do you want to eat?" he asked Misaki.
"How about that ramen place by the office?"
A new thought flitted into Hei's mind. The ramen place. That was where their first official date had been - even if it had only been a date after the fact. It was where they'd decided to start seeing each other, in any case. It would be nostalgic, but not too sappy or overly romantic. Should he ask her tonight?
He'd left the ring at home. The ring that he'd gone back to the mall to buy immediately after Kanami had gotten on her train following their talk; the ring that he still didn't know if Misaki actually wanted.
That had been a month ago now. He still hadn't figured out a way to bring up the subject casually, and every time he considered asking her straight out, the moment just didn't feel right. Valentine's Day had passed - far too sappy for something like a proposal anyway. Misaki would refuse him purely on principle. He'd simply made her a nice dinner, she'd bought him a box of Belgium chocolates, and they'd had a quiet night in. The cherry blossom festival was coming up; it was a little cliche, but it was Misaki's favorite time of the year. He was leaning towards asking her then; although, it was still several weeks away. The longer he waited, the harder it was to find his resolve.
Tonight, though. The ramen stand was small and intimate. He could steer the conversation in that direction, and if it sounded like marriage was something she would consider, he could ask. Once they got back home he could give her the ring. And if it became clear that she was against the idea, he could drop the subject and return the ring to the store. She would never have to know.
The strategy was just beginning to solidify in his mind when Misaki said, "Send a quick text to Saitou and Kouno - let them know the patrol is off and see if they want to join us."
His heart sank; but only briefly. Misaki had made a lot of progress in reducing her self-imposed social isolation from her team in the past few months, and he was proud of her. But he definitely didn't want an audience for this conversation.
So tonight wouldn't be the night. That was fine. He reached into his back pocket to pull out his phone - it wasn't there.
"Have you seen -"
"You put it in the glove box when we started the patrol," Misaki told him with a smile.
"Oh, right." He opened the little compartment; sure enough, his cell was sitting on top of the car's owner's manual, next to Misaki's emergency flashlight. At least he hadn't left it at his desk this time.
Normally, he would have been on patrol with Matsumoto; but the older man was still on limited field duty after his injury. Misaki had asked him to stay behind at headquarters and taken his place herself tonight. If she hadn't decided on her own to assign Hei as her backup, he would have insisted. He knew she could handle herself, but with such a dangerous contractor out there, he wanted to be as close to her as possible. Just to be sure.
He glanced over at her as he typed out the text. She was leaning her head on her hand, the street lights flashing across the lenses of her glasses as she drove. Her face was drawn and almost pale. "Are you feeling alright?" he asked in concern. "Is your sore throat coming back?"
"It's - it's nothing. I'm fine." She sighed. "I just can't help feeling like I've failed. I really thought we'd catch KS-114 tonight."
"It's not your fault; you're doing the best you possibly can." He hesitated. After he'd shared his identity with the rest of the team, Misaki had relented and allowed him to carry his old familiar knives and utility belt again, citing the need to maximize his strengths in the field. He was pretty sure she'd really just given up hope that he would ever be of any use with a gun. Knives aside though, she was still insisting that he follow police procedure to the letter. Maybe tonight would be an exception. "If I went out on my own," he began, but she cut him off.
"Absolutely not. You're not an assassin anymore. I don't care how good you are, you don't do anything without backup. That's procedure."
And none of Section Four had the training that his backup ideally needed. "Alright," he said. "If you're sure."
"I am. I don't want any of my people out there alone; this guy is dangerous."
So am I, he thought darkly; but he stayed quiet.
They drove in comfortable silence for several minutes. Then Misaki said abruptly, "Hei, can I ask you something?" There was a worrying note in her voice.
"It's kind of a big question. About…your plans. Um…"
Shit, had she found the ring? He'd hidden it in a place he was sure she'd never look. He ought to have known not to underestimate her. "What is it?" he asked, full of dread and apprehension.
Misaki chewed on her lip for a moment, her eyes on the road and the traffic around them. Then she said, "I think we need a new sofa - I've had this one since I graduated college and it's just not comfortable anymore. Will you go with me on Saturday to pick one out?"
"Oh," Hei said in surprise, exhaling slowly in disbelief. "Of course."
"You and Kanami would have to take a bye for your next game - I'm sorry, but it's the only day I can do it, and I hate making decisions like this on my own. I end up over-analyzing my options, then when I can't find exactly what I want I get so frustrated. It would be really helpful to have a second opinion, and I thought it would be nice to do together -"
He smiled. "Misaki, it's okay - I don't mind. I'd like to go with you. I've never bought anything like furniture before."
"Okay." She grinned in relief. "Thanks."
Hei leaned back in his seat. Shopping for a sofa. It sounded so refreshingly normal. He wondered idly how many types of sofas there were, and how one went about choosing one. "Do you have something in mind already?"
"Yes. But I want to know what you -"
"Chief!" Ootsuka's urgent call came over the radio. "Astronomics report coming in: KS-114 is active in Shinjuku!"
Hei sat up straighter in his seat, suddenly alert. "Now?" So much for his payment theory.
"Where?" Misaki demanded.
"Specters are following him along Route 414."
"Chief, reports coming in from the street." It was Matsumoto this time. "An armored truck was reported stolen ten minutes ago, fleeing south down Route 414. Sounds like our guy."
"An armored truck? Shit," Misaki swore, and whipped her across four lanes of traffic into a wide u-turn towards the street in question.
Hei flipped on her siren to give the other drivers some kind of warning, his pulse quickening in the usual anticipation of a fight. Misaki barked instructions to Saitou to try and cut off the truck; he and Kouno would be coming up from the opposite direction.
Hei took in the onslaught of information without paying strict attention, relying on his instinct and subconscious to pull together a strategy. His real focus was on the street ahead, scanning for the truck. Half a dozen specters were racing along the powerlines alongside them, leap-frogging from pole to pole. They must be close already.
"There!" he said, spotting a minor three-car collision at the intersection. The truck wasn't in sight, but there was a good chance that they were not far behind him.
"Shit," Misaki muttered, glancing quickly at the accident as they flew past. "We need to get him off the road or people are going to get hurt."
They passed another collision, a dazed and bloodied driving climbing awkwardly out of a smoking car that had plowed into the guardrail. Misaki was right; there was too much traffic to allow the contractor to lead them in a high-speed chase through the middle of Shinjuku. And they were approaching a heavy foot traffic area; already there were pedestrians gawking at the side of the road.
"There's no time to clear the streets." Misaki pounded her steering wheel with another curse and swerved around a van that had just spun out in the armored car's wake. "Saitou, what's your position?"
"Intercept in ten minutes," came the response.
That was too long. Hei could see the silver and black truck now, barreling down the road fifty yards ahead of them. "Get right on his bumper," he said.
"What? Hei, I can't pit block him in this car, he outweighs me at least ten times! I'm pretty sure my Porsche will lose that battle." She grimaced. "We'll need some unis and -"
"I can stop him if you get me close enough."
Without waiting for a response, Hei unbuckled his seatbelt and stripped off his windbreaker - it would only create drag and throw him off balance. He reached into the back seat and grabbed his weapons harness.
"Hei - no!" Misaki said in alarm. "We'll wait for backup and -"
The armored vehicle swerved suddenly around a delivery truck, popping briefly up onto the curb while panicked shoppers hurled themselves out of the way.
"There's no time," Hei said, his voice in that flat, even calm that he got when his adrenaline was surging under tight control through his veins, euphoria and nausea balanced in a perfect focus. "Did you hire me to follow protocol, or to keep people safe?"
Misaki gripped the wheel until her knuckles turned white, her gaze fixed on the road. "Be careful," she said at last, and pressed down on the accelerator.
The Porsche leapt forward, weaving through the chaos that the truck left in its wake. It may have them impossibly outweighed, but the little sports car was far faster and more agile; and Misaki's skills rivaled that of any precision driver. Soon she was twenty feet behind him, shifting on the fly to match his speed.
Not pausing to warn her, Hei reached over and untied the belt of her navy trenchcoat. Misaki inhaled sharply in surprise, but she didn't protest. As soon as he pulled the wide belt out from around her waist, he turned and pressed the automatic window button. A cold wind whipped into the cabin. There wasn't a grab handle in this car, unfortunately, but the arm rest on the door had a similar handle that should serve. Hei tied the belt in a tight loop around it and climbed up to perch on the seat, gripping the other end of the belt in one hand.
"As soon as I'm up, get as close as you can."
Her focus didn't waver as she answered, but the tension in her voice was palpable. "Copy."
At her acknowledgment, Hei poised to pull himself out of the cabin, but he paused and turned back to look at her one last time. "I love you," he said.
Misaki flashed him a brief, fierce smile before returning her gaze to the road. "I love you too."
Hei climbed easily onto the roof of the Porsche. He lay as flat as possible, the February wind tearing at his clothes and stinging his face, one hand still gripping the end of the belt to help hold him in place on the slippery metal. Another tether on the other side of the car would have been ideal, but this was better than nothing.
Misaki started to surge forward when the armored truck veered suddenly to the left. She matched the move perfectly; Hei held tight to the tether and though he slipped a little to the side, he was able to brace himself with his cotton-soled shoes and stay in position. Metal crunched and squealed behind them as they left yet another accident in their wake.
The Porsche inched forward now, slowly but steadily closing the gap. Hei readied his carabiner with his free hand, watching for his moment of opportunity.
There were mirrors all around the truck's cab, giving the driver a nearly three hundred sixty degree view of his vehicle's surroundings; there was even one perched on the upper right corner of the back cargo area where there would otherwise be a blind spot in front of the bay doors. If the contractor was keeping an eye on any of them, he would see what Hei was up to. At this close range, one tap of his brakes…
Hei pushed the thought from his mind. He trusted in Misaki's instincts and reaction time.
The two vehicles were three feet apart now; he might not get a better shot. With the unerring skill that he'd honed in South America, he threw the carabiner around the back mirror. The cable whipped around the metal support and without waiting to see if it would hold, Hei sprang from the roof of the Porsche and at the back of the truck.
He caught the mirror with both hands. There was no tailgate or bumper to place his feet; the thin metal bracket was taking all of his weight.
Hei gave a quick tug on the cable; it was secure enough. Trusting in the belt at his waist to hold him, he let go of the mirror, gripped the edge of the truck's roof, braced his feet against the bay doors, and levered himself up.
Misaki dropped back and to the right, still pacing the truck.
At that move, the contractor seemed to finally notice her. The truck swerved hard right in a clear attempt to run her off the road. Hei was nearly pitched from the roof; his carabiner was still attached though, and he only slipped halfway down the side. He looked back frantically as he hauled himself back up - the blue Porsche was several yards behind, undamaged and still tailing them. Misaki must have hit her brakes in time. Sirens were sounding in the distance, joining the chase. He had to end this quickly.
Hei unclipped his cable and crept forward across the flat, boxy roof. The wind was worse up here, whipping through his black button-down shirt. He lay low and spread his arms for better purchase. The whole truck was covered in plated steel - perfect for conducting electricity. But he didn't know how insulated the cab was, and the last thing he wanted to do was cause the contractor to lose control of the vehicle and injure more people. He needed to take out the engine; a direct jolt through the hood was his best bet.
The truck swerved again. Hei pressed himself down, barely managing to keep in place. He raised his head; there was no other car nearby, no obstacle to avoid. The contractor must have glimpsed him when he slid off, and was now trying to dislodge him. Another abrupt lurch to the left confirmed his guess. He couldn't move forward if he had to keep holding on like this.
His mind racing, trying to find a new option, Hei didn't notice that Misaki had drawn even with them again until a shot rang out. The bullet bounced harmlessly off the side of the vehicle. She had to know that shooting at an armored car was pointless - then Hei realized what she was doing. She was distracting the contractor so that he could get into position.
She fired again; the truck veered sharply to the right, nearly clipping her front bumper. But Misaki slammed on her brakes and swerved left, zooming ahead to harry his other flank.
This time Hei was ready. As the truck swerved left in another attempt to catch Misaki, Hei rolled right and dropped off the roof. He caught the large, rectangular wing mirror next to the driver's door and clung to it, feet finding purchase on the running board. If he stretched out, he thought he could reach the hood and the engine beneath.
He drew on his power - and caught another blue glow out of the corner of his eye. He dropped straight down, arms fully extended and feet barely an inch above the rushing pavement just in time. With a deafening boom, the bullet-resistant glass window above him - and most of the steel door frame - exploded outward as a ball of energy whooshed over his head. The metal supports of the wing mirror groaned under his weight. Shit, he was almost out of time.
The purr of a familiar engine approached behind him. He glanced over his shoulder to see Misaki drawing even, her expression grim. "Get in!" she called through her open window. It was the driver's side, though - he was on the wrong side of the truck to have a chance of climbing back into her car. "Saitou!" she said, jerking her thumb over her shoulder. Saitou was right on her tail in his silver Toyota. The windows in the rear were down. That might work.
Hei opened his mouth to tell her he agreed - and then the truck swerved again, straight at Misaki.
She hadn't been expecting it. Misaki yanked the wheel hard to the right, sending the Porsche in an uncontrolled spin across two lanes towards oncoming traffic.
Hei didn't have time to be horrified. The contractor immediately jack-knifed to the left, tires screeching, and he almost lost his grip on the weakened mirror as the truck sped straight towards a parking structure.
Acting purely on instinct, Hei used the momentum of the truck's turn to flip himself up onto the front wheelwell, grasping the mounting bracket of the forward rear-facing mirror. Another blast of energy blew past overhead, this time exploding out of the windshield and singeing the hairs on the top of his head.
The contractor was aiming to sideswipe the wall of the parking garage entrance and rid himself of his unwanted passenger. Hei had only seconds before he was a smear on the concrete.
His heart in his throat, he pushed himself up onto the hood of the truck, activating his power as he did so. The contractor released another energy blast through the destroyed windshield, but Hei was already rolling across the hood. He sent a bolt of electricity directly into the engine block, bursting the battery.
Metal squealed as the truck scraped against the garage wall; Hei landed hard on his hip on the other side. The engine was dead, but the truck's momentum sent it crashing into a wide square concrete support post five yards ahead of the entrance.
As Hei levered himself up off the ground, the driver's side door swung open and a tall, broad-shouldered Japanese man half-stepped half-fell out of the cab. The contractor shot a glare at Hei before bolting off in the other direction, further into the garage.
Hei hesitated, glancing behind him out into the street. He couldn't see Misaki's car. Was she okay? Then someone in the garage screamed, the sound echoing off the concrete walls. Hei snapped his attention back to the fleeing man. He knew exactly what Misaki would say to him if he let innocent people get hurt because he was more concerned about her.
Ignoring his terror for Misaki's safety, he dashed after the contractor.
Hei sprinted across the garage after the contractor. For as late as it was, at least half the parking spaces were still occupied, and he had to dodge parked vehicles in an uneven path, hoping that he was still behind the fleeing man. Then looking ahead, he saw a set of automatic double doors that had been blasted off their tracks. Definitely the right direction
A pair of women were on the ground by the doors, clutching shopping bags and shaking. They both looked up, wide eyed, as Hei ran past. He didn’t slow down, ignoring the feeling of guilt that rose up in his stomach. If they’d been hurt by the contractor, there would have been blood, and nothing that he could have done for them anyway. The priority was catching up with KS-114.
He thought of Misaki again, and this time couldn’t push away the fear and the guilt. If she was hurt, it was because of him. He should have stayed in the car with her; he should have told her months ago exactly how much she meant to him. Life was too short to be anything but completely honest with the ones he loved. He of all people ought to know that.
“They went this way!” The shout echoed in the parking garage; Hei recognized Kouno’s voice, and a small wave of relief washed over him. He would have some backup, at least. With that reassuring thought, he sprinted through the hole in the broken doors.
On the other side was Keio Mall, Hei realized with a start when he entered the familiar, low-ceilinged corridor lined with shops. Some of them had closed already, their storefronts covered by steel pull-down grills; others still held some last-minute shoppers and employees tidying up. Several people lined the walls, staring down the corridor at the running contractor. No one was hurt, but that could change at any moment.
Hei had eyes on the contractor now - he was thirty yards away. Hei was slowly closing the distance; not fast enough. The entrance to the train station was just off this corridor. If KS-114 charged in there with his energy-burst power and lack of restraint, it would be disastrous.
Several more people screamed as Hei ran past them. He’d probably attract a lot less attention if he’d had a jacket on over his weapons harness, he realized; but that couldn’t be helped now.
At the sound of the screams, the contractor turned and glanced over his shoulder. His gaze landed on Hei. Without hesitating, he gathered his power - more screams from bystanders filled the corridor - and shot a blast of energy directly at Hei.
He could see the ripple in the air, a slight shimmer of heat. He threw himself to the ground with a silent curse, praying that there was no one behind him.
“Police!” Saitou shouted from somewhere near the doors. “Everyone stay along the walls, and get down!”
“Li, slow him down!” Kouno called.
Hei was already up and running again, gritting his teeth. He had to stop this guy, now.
The range was long, but the corridor offered a straight shot. Hei pulled one of his knives. Taking only a moment to judge the trajectory, he paused in his stride and threw. The knife spun through the air; Hei watched with bated breath.
It struck blade-first, into the back of the man’s leg just above the knee. The man pitched forward with a shout, a crimson stain spreading in the khaki material of the his pants.
Hei bit back another curse; he’d been aiming for a painful, debilitating kidney hit, but it had landed too low, and too lateral to hamstring the man or knick the femoral artery. Already the contractor had yanked the knife out of his thigh and gotten to his feet, albeit with a limp.
Instead of running, the contractor turned to face Hei, knife in hand. He was in front of the jewelry store, Hei realized with a jolt. Rings and bracelets shone in their lighted display cased behind the window; the large poster now proclaimed a special on post-Valentine’s day engagement rings.
“Freeze! Police!” Saitou shouted.
The detective must have had his weapon trained on the contractor, but KS-114 merely shot a blast down the corridor towards Saitou without once taking his eyes off Hei. Saitou swore and fired - it went wide, pinging off the tiled wall.
Hei could only hope that Saitou hadn’t been hit. He knew instinctively that surrender was not going to be an option with this contractor, not unless he had the clear upper hand. And until the contractor was forced to stop and make a payment - whatever and whenever that was - there was no way to gain the upper hand.
He drew his remaining knife and charged, hoping to get inside the contractor’s range before he had a chance to summon his power.
Even injured, the contractor was fast. He sent a bolt of energy directly at Hei’s chest; Hei had already dropped to the ground in a slide, kicking out to break the man’s base. The contractor dove to the side and sprang awkwardly to his feet. He hadn’t gathered his power again yet, but he still held Hei’s knife.
Hei shifted his weight and focused on keeping his breathing even and measured. The jewelry store window was to his back now. Every fighting instinct he possessed was screaming at him to move, to get to a less vulnerable position - but with his back to the wall, there was no one behind him that the contractor could hit. He hoped that the woman who had helped him pick out Misaki’s ring wasn’t working tonight, or at least had taken cover. A pang went through his heart at the thought of Misaki; he didn’t know what he would do if she’d been hurt in the car chase.
“Li, get out of the way!” Kouno shouted from behind KS-114. “I can’t get a clean shot!”
Kouno could get a shot off - if he was willing to risk hitting Hei too. Hei almost wished that he would; he was just about to call to Kouno to do exactly that when the contractor charged, knife first.
From then on it was a blur of movement, a desperate hand-to-hand struggle. KS-114 was good with a blade, almost as good as Hei, and he fought with a combination of knife strikes and shots of energy from his other hand every time Hei came close enough to use his own power. Hei tried to keep his back to the window to reduce the chances of collateral damage, but KS-114 forced him away more than once. Kouno hovered in the periphery, clearly looking for an opening to shoot the contractor without hitting his colleague. Hei tried to provide him with that opening, but the contractor was dancing around him too fast.
At last Hei managed to land a kick on the man’s injured leg; his knee buckling, the contractor went down - but not before he sent off another blast, directly at Hei.
There was no time to dodge. All Hei could do was throw himself backwards as the burning, scalding air shot past his ear. There was a sound of shattering glass, and then he had tripped over the low sill of the window and was falling sideways through it. He had enough sense to drop his knife so that he couldn’t accidentally impale himself just before he landed hard on the glass-strewn floor, the side of his head cracking against a display case.
Blinding pain ripped through his skull and a curtain of red sheeted down over his left eye. What he could see out of his right eye was fuzzy, coming in and out of focus.
Concussion, came his bleary thought, but the part of his mind that was still focused on the life-or-death fight already had him gripping the edge of the case full of glittering rings and pulling himself to his feet.
The contractor had already regained his own feet and was aiming another blast. Even if there had been time to dodge, Hei knew that his body wouldn’t respond fast enough. He tensed his muscles to lunge forward and within striking range. If this was the end, at least he could try and take KS-114 out with him.
His only coherent thought as he reached for his power was regret that he wouldn’t ever see Misaki again.
A shot rang out, echoing painfully in his already ringing ears as the bullet whipped by within a foot of his head. A burst of blood erupted from the side of the contractor’s neck; his blue glow abruptly winked out and he dropped heavily at Hei’s feet.
Hei released his own power in dull disbelief. Misaki was standing directly behind where the contractor had been, framed in the jagged glass of the broken window, weapon still raised. Her forehead was beaded with sweat, her hair windswept and her eyes fierce and bright. Her mouth moved as she said something, concerned gaze latched onto his; Hei didn’t catch it. He couldn’t take his eyes off of her.
Misaki hastily tucked her gun into its holster beneath her trenchcoat; Kouno and Saitou had come up behind her, looking worried but uninjured. They were all three staring at Hei.
“Are you alright?” Misaki said; though he had trouble hearing her over the ringing of his ears, her voice was the most wonderful thing he’d ever heard. “Hei!”
“I need to marry you,” he told her as gray fog closed around his view of her shocked expression, and he felt himself pitching forward into nothingness.
The first thing the Hei became aware of was the splitting ache in his head. It was hardly the first time he’d awoken injured, and long-standing instinct told him to keep his eyes closed and play dead - or at least unconscious - until he was able assess the situation.
Information bleeding in from his subconscious betrayed the telltale signs of a hospital: fluorescent light filtering in through dry eyelids, the beeping and hissing of various machines in the background, an antiseptic scent to the air, and the slight itch of fresh bandages.
His pulse quickened. In his experience, hospitals offered a host of dangers absent from the outside world. A large staff coming and going at all hours, access to dangerous chemicals and equipment; it was an assassin’s playground. Hei ought to know; he’d long ago lost count of the number of times he’d sneaked into a hospital to eliminate a target.
Being there himself meant that he was vulnerable to such attacks, and as his awareness latched onto the situation, his heart started pounding.
Then he noticed something else. There was a slight pressure around his hand, and a familiar, comforting weight on his chest. Again his subconscious registered the feeling before his waking mind did, and by the time he realized what it meant, he’d already begun to relax.
Hei cracked his eyes open slowly. The lights in the room were dimmed, but they still sent stabs of pain directly into his brain. It took a long moment to adjust; then he took in his surroundings.
He was in a hospital bed, the back propped up so that he wasn’t lying flat. That was good; he thought a horizontal position at this point might actually burst his head open. Sitting in the chair next to his bed, her head resting on his chest and a hand wrapped around his, was Misaki.
She was asleep. Her glasses had been pushed slightly askew, and a soft snore escaped her mouth on each exhalation. Her cell phone was grasped loosely in her other hand.
Hei smiled as he watched her. Despite the pounding in his head, he felt as if he could lie like this all day.
Carefully so as not to wake her, he tried to wrap his arm around her shoulders. He managed to lift it a couple of inches off the bed before the movement sent another stab of pain through his skull. He squeezed his eyes shut with a sharp intake of breath.
“Mm?” The weight on his chest lifted. “Hei?” Misaki asked, her voice thankfully soft.
“I’m awake,” he replied before attempting to open his eyes again. When he did, she was sitting up and gazing at him, concern etched in every line on her face.
“How are you feeling?” She gave his hand a light squeeze.
He was tempted to say Fine, but knew she wouldn’t believe him for a second. “Head hurts,” he admitted. “Concussion?”
Misaki’s brow furrowed. “Of course. Dr. Sonoda should be by with the results of the scan soon.” She sighed, and brushed his hair off his forehead. “I’m so sorry I had to put you through that - but you sound better now.”
“Through what?” He wished she hadn’t stopped running her hand through his hair; that had felt nice.
She frowned. “Sedation. For the CT scan. You don’t remember?”
Hei started to shake his head, but immediately thought better of it. Instead, he said, “No. The last thing I remember…” he trailed off, thinking back through the mental fog. “We were driving to the ramen stand, and got a call about KS-114. Are you alright?” he asked in sudden alarm, scanning her face. She looked fine, but -
“Me?” Misaki blinked in confusion. “Of course I’m alright.”
“There wasn’t a car accident?” He clearly remembered being panicked about her wellbeing, that she’d been in some kind of accident. Had he been in the crash too?
“No, I managed to avoid hitting anything when I spun out; don’t worry.”
“That’s right,” he said, the vague, fearful memory of seeing her car disappear from his line of sight making its way through the fog in his brain. “I think I jumped out of the car first?” Was that how he’d hit his head? It didn’t seem likely; he was pretty good at jumping out of cars.
A note of annoyance mixed with the worry in Misaki’s voice. “Yes, you did jump out, and onto the armored truck; then you took off running after KS-114 on your own. That’s all you remember? The doctor did say you might experience some memory loss surrounding the injury, but that seems like a lot.”
Hei shrugged. “It doesn’t sound that excessive; I usually lose an hour or two.”
“Usually? Hei, how many concussions have you had?” she asked, aghast.
“A couple? I don’t know.”
“Hei, that’s not good!”
“I don’t get them on purpose,” he said mildly. This was the first time he’d woken up after a head injury with someone he cared about there by his side, concerned about him. He felt like he’d suffer a hundred concussions for that. “So I didn’t hit my head jumping out of the car,” he said, trying to steer her away from her worries about past injuries that he could do nothing about. “What did happen?”
Misaki sighed heavily, the weariness clear in her eyes. “You ran into the mall after KS-114. Saitou and Kouno had stopped to check on me, but I was fine; just a little shaken up after having to dodge oncoming traffic. I sent them after you for back up. You engaged the contractor in close combat - Kouno said you were trying to control the situation to reduce the chances of civilian casualties, but it meant that no one had a clear shot at the contractor while he fought you. I got there just in time to see you fall through a broken store window and hit your head hard on a glass display case. You stood up and your whole face was covered in blood. It looked so awful - I thought…”
Hei gave her hand a squeeze, then flinched at an unexpected pain. Misaki smiled at him and bent down to kiss the backs of his fingers - three of which, he saw for the first time, had bandages over them.
“Anyway. You were standing, but only barely - you were so unsteady. I forced you to sit down, but you kept telling us that you had a concussion and needed to go to the hospital. You…really don’t remember this?” She was gazing at him intently, an odd look on her face.
“No,” Hei said. He was trying to recall, but his mind was a complete blank. “So you took me to the hospital?”
“I drove you, yeah. At first you were completely adamant about walking yourself; you refused to let me call the EMTs,” she said, clearly annoyed now. “Saitou finally managed to convince you that it would be alright to drive, and you agreed on the condition that it was me who drove you.”
“Thank you,” he told her, grateful that she had come herself rather than delegate the task while she cleaned up the scene. He wasn’t at all surprised that he hadn’t wanted to get into an ambulance. You never knew when an assassin could be disguised as an EMT. It had happened to him twice; hell, he’d done it on one job.
“You weren’t acting like yourself at all,” Misaki continued. “I was getting seriously worried.”
“So they did a brain scan?”
Misaki bit her lip. “After your cuts were taken care of. You…well…”
“Well what?” His brow furrowed, pulling his skin unusually tight. He reached up carefully and felt a wide bandage taped over his left temple. Misaki pulled his hand back down gently.
“They had to stitch you up first. But you, um, didn’t want them to. For all your insistence that you needed to go to the hospital, once we got here you sort of…freaked out.”
“Freaked out?” Hei repeated. Then his eyes widened. “I didn’t -”
“No,” Misaki assured him hurriedly. “You weren’t violent or threatening or anything like that. You just absolutely refused to let anyone touch you. Blood was dripping down your face and your poor hands were so cut up from falling on the glass… I was finally able to talk you into letting the nurse treat you - I stayed right next to you and held your hand the whole time.”
He noticed then that the white cuffs of her blouse were stained red; the bile rose up in his throat.
“The doctor said it looked like the early stages of a panic attack,” Misaki continued.
“Probably,” Hei said absently, still staring at her bloodied clothes, the guilt of having had put her through that roiling in his stomach. “I never feel safe in hospitals, even when I’m not injured. With the concussion…I probably didn’t really understand what was going on, and had too much adrenaline from the fight, and then being in a dangerous environment…”
Misaki nodded. “Dr. Sonoda asked if that was a normal reaction for you - otherwise it could be a sign of a complication to the concussion. I wasn’t sure.”
“It happens,” Hei said simply. He had to actively will himself to shove aside the visions of the carnage that he had left in his wake in an Argentinian field hospital shortly after Heaven’s Gate had vanished.
“Okay.” Misaki held his hand in both of hers, turning it over so that she could lightly stroke the bandage across his palm. She wasn’t meeting his eyes.
“What else?” he prompted.
“Well, the doctor wanted to do a CT scan, because you were so confused and your behavior wasn’t - we weren’t sure if it was normal or not. To look for swelling or bleeding in the brain. You - you really did not want to do it.”
“I get claustrophobic in those things.”
“That makes sense. You couldn’t tell us why at the time; just flat out refused. Repeatedly. I finally - well, I talked you into letting them sedate you for it. I’m sorry - I promised to be in the room with you the whole time, and I was.”
“I believe you,” Hei said quietly. Just how upset had he been, that she was this worried about him? He wished that he could pull her into the hospital bed with him and just hold her. But even turning his head to the side was too much; he settled for simply gripping her hand.
“Do you…really not remember anything else about the fight, or right after?”
“No.” Hei wondered what she was getting at. She was biting her lip again. “Is there something -”
“No! No; it’ll just be harder to fill out the reports, that’s all. I’ll have to rely on Kouno’s writing skills.”
She smiled wryly, but Hei glimpsed the disappointment in her expression. He was about to press her on it when the door to the room swung open and a thin, middle-aged man in a white coat entered the room. Hei tensed at the stranger’s presence, but Misaki sat up expectantly.
The man smiled at them. “Good to see you awake, Mr. Li. How’s your head feeling?” He walked up to Hei’s bedside - and stopped an arm’s length away, Hei couldn’t help noticing with no small amount of shame.
“It hurts a little,” Hei said simply.
“He doesn’t remember the accident,” Misaki spoke up. She still hadn’t let go of his hand. “Or coming to the hospital at all.”
The doctor nodded. “It’s not unusual. Mr. Li, I take it you don’t remember meeting me?”
Hei couldn’t shake his head, so he didn’t answer.
“Well, I’m Dr. Sonoda. I’ve been treating you since your fiancee brought you in about three hours ago.”
Hei’s eyes widened in surprise. Had he misheard? Glancing over at Misaki, he saw a faint blush rise in her cheeks as she studiously gazed at their clasped hands.
“You had a laceration on your left temple that required suturing,” the doctor continued on blithely. “And another on your right leg, just above the knee. Your hands had several cuts as well, but those should heal nicely as long as you keep them protected with a bandage. We did a CT scan on your head to check for any brain damage.”
Misaki glanced up at the doctor, the grip on his hand tightening. “Do you have the scan results?”
The doctor nodded, and addressed both her and Hei. “There is some minor swelling. It’s not unexpected, and nothing to be concerned about at this point; that’s probably what’s causing the pain in your head. But I want to keep you here overnight for observation, and do a follow-up scan in the morning to make sure that the swelling is going down.”
Hei’s heart sank. All he wanted right now was to go home with Misaki, and spend the night in their own bed. The hospital was the last place he wanted to be.
“Your memory may be spotty for the next day or so,” Dr. Sonoda said, “and you probably won’t ever fully remember your accident. It’s nothing to be worried about, unless the problems worsen. In which case, you need to return to the hospital right away.”
The doctor continued to run through a list of concerns and admonitions, but Hei didn’t really listen. In addition to steeling himself for a night alone in the hospital, he was trying to puzzle through the doctor’s mistaken impression that he and Misaki were engaged. He’d liked hearing her referred to as his fiancee; it felt right, somehow. And more encouraging, Misaki hadn’t hastened to correct him.
“Did Ms. Kirihara tell you about the panic attack you had in the ER?” the doctor asked, and Hei forced himself to return to the conversation.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s happened before. It’s fine.”
“We have resources here, people you can talk to about -”
“I have a therapist,” Hei muttered. “It’s on the list.” At this point, his therapist would be more shocked if he didn’t suffer from any sort of anxiety syndrome. Misaki squeezed his hand again.
“Sorry about that,” she said once the doctor had taken his leave.
“Sorry about what?”
“The, um, fiancee thing. They weren’t going to let me into the procedure area with you, so I told them that.”
“Oh,” he said. “It’s fine.” He studied her face, looking for clues that she might not mind a future in which it was true.
“Are you - are you sure you don’t remember anything? From after the fight?”
“I’m sure,” Hei said, bemused. “Why - is there something I should remember?”
“It’s nothing,” Misaki said with a sigh. “I just - hang on,” she broke off as her phone buzzed. She picked it up from where it had fallen next to his side. “It’s Saitou - the others probably want to know how you’re doing. I told them I’d call as soon as I knew anything.”
“They do?” Hei asked.
Misaki gave him an exasperated sigh as she answered the phone, but she was smiling.
He lay back and closed his eyes, letting the sound of her voice wash over him. It was a new feeling, being in such a vulnerable place yet knowing that he was safe.
“Are you going to be okay tonight?”
“Hm?” He blinked. Had he dozed off?
“With staying in the hospital,” Misaki said gently.
“Sure,” he lied. “I’d rather be home with you; but I’ll be alright here.”
She gave him a worried look.
“It was just the concussion that made me panic,” Hei assured her. “I can handle it now that I know what’s going on, and that it’s safe. Even without you here to hold my hand.” He’d meant that last comment as an attempt at levity, but it came it out more pleading than not.
Misaki smiled tightly. “I’m not leaving. I’ll be right here with you, all night.”
Hei wanted to tell her to go home and get some rest, but he couldn’t seem to find the words. Instead he squeezed her hand and closed his eyes, too tired and grateful to argue.
“Oh,” he said, suddenly remembering something. “What about KS-114?”
Misaki’s voice turned grim. “He’s dead. I shot him in the neck.”
As sleep tugged him down, an image of Misaki standing firm, weapon raised, fiercer than any guardian angel, floated through his mind.
Hei awoke with a start, acutely aware that he was alone in the room before he'd even opened his eyes.
He blinked blearily and stole a glance at his surroundings. Bright morning light was streaming in through a gap in the curtains; the other bed in the room was still empty. So was the chair next to his own bed.
Before he had a chance to feel much disappointment, the sound of voices came from outside the door. That must have been what had woken him, he realized. A moment later, the door opened. It wasn't Misaki who entered, however, but Dr. Sonoda.
The doctor gave him a cheerful smile as he walked in. "Well, Mr. Li, the CT scan results look good," he said, stopping at Hei's bedside and resting his hands in his coat pockets. "The swelling has gone down quite a bit."
Relief washed over Hei even as he eyed the doctor warily. He was struggling to put to put the words into context. Hadn't they gotten the results of the scan last night? Misaki had been here, and - no, he'd been sedated for that; they'd done another one with this morning. He must have fallen asleep afterward. Not much surprise there - the pain had woken him frequently all night, and he was still tired.
"How's the head feel this morning?" the doctor continued.
Hei didn't like the way the man was addressing him, as if they were friends. He didn't like being alone in a room with a stranger, not when he was feeling so out of sorts. There was still a low level of painful pressure in his skull, even if it was nowhere near as bad as it had been last night.
It didn't look as if the doctor was going to leave without an answer, so Hei said, "Better.
Dr. Sonoda nodded. "Good. Well, I think we can safely send you home this morning - did your fiancee need to leave? I didn't see her out in the waiting room."
"I guess so," Hei said. She must have left after he'd fallen asleep. He wouldn't have expected that of her - and a part of him was slightly wounded by it - but he couldn't blame her. Waiting around a hospital ward when there was work to be done must be tedious.
Fiancee. It had been a practical decision on her part to tell the hospital staff that they were engaged, but she hadn't flinched from it as she would have if she'd felt it to be a lie. He'd spent so long agonizing over the decision of whether or not to ask her, or to even bring up the subject at all; for some reason now though, everything was so clear. He would ask her, and he would make it perfect. That thought buoyed his spirits.
"I don't normally like to see head wounds leave without a family member or friend to help them at home," the doctor began; Hei hurried to cut him off.
"I'm sure I'll be fine," he said, pushing himself into a full upright sitting position to demonstrate just how fine he was. A wave of dizziness accompanied the move, but he was an expert at masking vulnerabilities and didn't flinch. "I was on my own the last time I was concussed and was alright." Certainly he'd dragged himself to safe houses in much worse condition than he was in now.
The doctor still looked hesitant, so he added, "I'll call Misaki and ask her to meet me at home." What time Misaki would be able to come home was a different issue, one which Hei refrained from mentioning. He would call her to let her know that he was leaving; he'd be fine at home alone. He'd be fine anywhere except for here.
At last, Dr. Sonoda nodded. "I'll ask one of the nurses to call you a cab then."
Getting into a stranger's car when he was still so tired and dizzy? "That's alright, I'll walk. It's not far."
"Oh?" The doctor raised an eyebrow, clearly not pleased with the idea. "Where do you live - and what route will you take to get there?"
Hei had already answered basic questions like this, both last night and this morning, so the doctor could assess his neurological condition. He repeated his address once again - then hesitated. "Uh, what hospital am I in? I don't think anyone ever told me." At least, he hoped that he hadn't been told, and hadn't then forgotten. They might not let him leave in that case. Then he recalled seeing a poster in the hallway on his way to the imaging department that morning. They hadn't let him walk on his own; Misaki had insisted on pushing the wheelchair herself. "Wait - JR Tokyo General?"
At Dr. Sonoda's cheerful nod, Hei created a mental map of the area and described the quickest route from there to his and Misaki's apartment. He wouldn't take that route, of course, just in case someone from the hospital tried to tail him. But it should assuage the doctor that he was fully recovered and in his right mind. It took four repetitions, with a promise to call the hospital immediately if he became lost or confused, before he received approval that he could check himself out.
The doctor finally left to authorize the discharge, and Hei allowed himself one more sigh of relief. He wished that Misaki was there, even going so far as to contemplate calling her on the room's phone. But it could be bugged; he'd use his cell.
A few minutes later, a nurse brought in his belongings and left to let him dress. Hei gingerly levered himself out of bed. Far more than just his head hurt - his hip in particular was quite bruised. Rifling in the bag, he pulled out the clothes that he'd been wearing last night.
His weapons harness wasn't among them. Panic briefly stabbed at his heart before he realized that Misaki had probably removed it before they arrived at the hospital. Practical. They might have confiscated it otherwise.
He changed out of the hospital gown and into his own clothes, his bandaged fingers having some difficultly with his shirt buttons. He'd have to have Saitou or Kouno give him the details on what exactly he'd done during the chase and subsequent fight. Misaki hadn't wanted to talk about it this morning. After feeling the blood that had soaked into his shirt and dried, he wasn't surprised. While Misaki was eminently practical when it came to dealing with injuries in the field, the memories of her people getting hurt were always painful to her. He didn't want to push her to talk about something she didn't want to.
Though, hadn't there been something else that she'd avoided talking about, last night? He wasn't sure whether he was remembering that accurately or not.
"Did you call your fiancee and ask her to meet you at home?" the lady at the desk asked when he signed his release papers. "Dr. Sonoda left a note to ensure that you did."
"Uh." Shit, no, he hadn't. He felt his back pocket for his cell phone - not there. It hadn't been in the bag either. Where had he left it? Eying the nurse's desk phone mistrustfully, he lied, "Yeah. She's on her way right now."
The lady smiled. "Good to hear. I'm sure she'll take good care of you."
"She will." That, at least, wasn't a lie. Hei gave the desk lady a friendly smile, and headed outside.
The cold wind nipped through his shirt, and he entertained the brief thought that maybe he should have waited for Misaki at the hospital; she could have brought him a clean change of clothes and a jacket. At least the black fabric hid the bloodstains; the shoulder of his shirt was stiff with dried blood. He'd have to throw it out.
The relief at being out of that place at last, however, was more than enough for him to turn his steps down the street that would take him home. Along a different route than the one which he'd given the doctor.
He managed to find their building without getting lost once - he'd always been good at navigation, even while injured. It wasn't until he reached into his pockets to unlock the door, however, that he realized he didn't have his keys.
He always had simple lock picking tools on him though, something that Misaki griped about every time it was her turn to do the laundry and she had to remove bits of bent metal from the washing machine because he'd forgotten to pull them out of his shirt hems. (After the third time she locked her keys in the car, she stopped giving him a hard time about carrying them at all.)
However, picking a lock with four bandaged fingers and a sliced up palm was easier said than done. Glass, he thought he remembered Misaki telling him. He'd fallen through a window. Fumbling with the small tools, it took him twice as long as it normally would have to open the door. For some reason an image of the jewelry store where he'd bought Misaki's ring floated through his mind as he worked.
A door down the hall opened. He glanced over sharply; a woman emerged from the apartment with a little girl in tow. The woman's eyes widened at the sight of him dressed all in black, kneeling on the ground and fiddling with the lock.
"It's okay," he assured her, hoping that she couldn't see the blood. "I'm with the police." He paused. "Also, I live here."
The woman gripped the girl's hand tightly and hurried her past Hei's door to the elevator, jabbing the down button far more times than was necessary. He hoped she didn't try to call the police; he didn't want to have to explain that to Misaki.
The door opened at last, and Hei entered with a sigh of relief - but it was short lived. Misaki wasn't home.
He didn't know why he'd expected her to be; today was a work day, after all, and mornings were especially busy. But the apartment always felt so empty without her, and right now he really missed her company.
Again it occurred to him that he ought to call her and let her know he'd left the hospital; they didn't have a landline, however, and a quick search of all his usual hiding places failed to yield his cell phone. (The ring was still secure in its place, he noted.) He'd just have to go tell her in person. In any case, it was better than sitting around at home.
A quick shower - careful not to get the sutures on his leg or forehead wet - and a change of clothes later, he was out the door again and on his way to the office.
As he walked, he mulled over various scenarios in his mind. The cherry blossom festival was too far away, he decided, even if it would be fittingly romantic. In any case, Section Four usually went to the flower viewing together; Hei didn't want to have an audience. He considered asking Kanami for ideas - she knew that he wanted to propose, after all. But she didn't know that he'd actually bought a ring and made the decision, and he disliked the thought of anyone knowing his plans before Misaki did. This was between the two of them, after all. It should be private.
A nice dinner, he decided at last as he climbed - somewhat unsteadily - the wide steps in front of headquarters. This weekend, after he was more fully recovered. He would cook her favorite roasted duck dish, open a bottle of wine, and give her the ring as they sat side by side on the sofa. That would be perfect.
Filled with a cheerful optimism, he pushed open the doors to Section Four's offices. The door to Misaki's personal office was open, a sure sign that she wasn't there. The rest of the team was clustered around Matsumoto's computer monitor; no one noticed him enter.
"You said she wasn't wearing one this morning," Saitou was saying. He stood behind Matsumoto's chair with his arms crossed. "Though I don't know how you would've seen it anyway."
"She's a total creeper, that's how," Kouno muttered over a cup of coffee.
Ootsuka, who had rolled her chair next to Matsumoto's, cast Kouno a glare; but it was Saitou she responded to. "Well, obviously he couldn't have had it with him at the hospital. But they must have discussed it. After something like that -"
Hei paused by the doors; he had the sinking feeling that they were talking about him, even if he hadn't a clue what they were actually talking about.
"It's none of our business either way," Matsumoto said matter-of-factly, and Hei felt a wave of appreciation for the older man. He left his spot by the doors to the elevator lobby and approached their bank of desks.
"How is it none of our business?" Kouno said. "Saitou and I were right there, we heard the whole thing. He shouldn't've said it if he didn't want us to hear."
"True, but that's obviously a private matter. Head injuries can make people say strange things. I remember when my old partner -"
Kouno didn't let him finish. "Actually, you have a point. I bet they didn't talk about it."
"Why do you say that?" Saitou asked.
"Because the Chief didn't look like she was about to murder someone this morning."
The other detective nodded thoughtfully. "And we didn't get any calls about any dead bodies at the hospital."
"Well, it's a hospital - people die there all the time."
"Don't be ridiculous." Ootsuka sighed in exasperation. "Why would the Chief want to murder him?"
"Come on, making an announcement like that? In front of all of us? She probably murdered him last night."
"Murdered who?" Hei said. He'd reached his desk. Gingerly he stripped off his jacket, mindful of his bruises and pointedly ignoring their shocked expressions at his appearance.
Ootsuka recovered first. "Li! You're alright!" Leaping from her chair, she threw her arms around his neck.
"Mostly alright," he said, wincing at the force of her hug.
"We were so worried about you!" She stepped back, but Kouno and Saitou were already there to give him a congenial pat on the back.
"You had us worried for a while, pal," Kouno said. "The way you ran headfirst into that counter -"
"I thought you were a goner when you jumped out of the Chief's car," Saitou put in, his expression concerned. "If you'd slipped -"
Kouno waved a hand. "Nah, leaping onto moving vehicles? Classic Black Reaper move. But you should have waited for backup before charging into a fist fight with a contractor who could blow your head off. Shit, man, he almost killed you!"
"Calm down, boys, give the man some air," Matsumoto said as Ootsuka gave a discreet cough behind him. Kouno rolled his eyes and fished some loose change out of his pocket. He passed it silently to the Astronomics liaison, who dropped it into a jar in her desk drawer. As always, she tried to hide the motion from Hei.
All the chatter had started Hei's head pounding again. He lowered himself into his own chair. "Um, thanks. But why would Mis - the Chief want to murder me? You were talking about me, right?"
The other four exchanged guilty looks.
"Well," Kouno said, "we weren't talking about you, not really."
"We were just, um, wondering," Ootsuka stammered. "If you and the Chief would have anything to announce this morning. Or, whenever."
Hei looked at her blankly. "Announce what? She said she updated you on my condition last night." It was the only thing he could think of that Misaki might have wanted to tell the team.
Matsumoto cleared his throat. "None of our business," he said pointedly.
"Come on!" Kouno slammed his coffee cup down on the desk. "Whether he meant to ask her in front of us or not, he did - we have a right to ask about it!"
Despite his growing cloud of confusion, Hei suddenly felt as if he'd stumbled onto that topic that Misaki had so wanted to avoid, despite her bringing it up several times.
"Um," he said slowly, "I'm not sure what you're talking about. I don't actually remember much about what happened last night." When they all stared, he patted the bandage on his temple. "Concussion."
Ootsuka let out a shrill gasp and pointed at something on Matsumoto's monitor. "Amnesia! Li, do you remember who we are? You know your name, right?"
"Don't be stupid, he made it to the office on his own, didn't he?" Kouno snorted. "The Chief would have told us if he'd lost his memory."
"Just the couple hours around the accident," Hei said. At Ootsuka's horrified look, he shrugged and added, "It's normal."
"But…you don't remember…"
An edge of panic was starting to creep in. "Remember what?"
Kouno leaned one hand on his desk. "Well, buddy, it's like this. You hit your head, and the Chief shot KS-114 right in front of you. Then you sort of…asked her to marry you."
The blood drained from Hei's face. He - what? He couldn't have. But Misaki's questions last night, her disappointment when he couldn't remember what happened after the fight…
Dimly he was aware of Saitou saying, "Technically, you didn't ask her anything. You said I need to marry you."
"It's the same thing," Kouno argued.
Hei's head sank into his hands. "Fuck," he said, and suddenly the whole room went quiet. He glanced up wearily to find them all staring at him. "Oh, right." He reached into his jacket pocket and found some change, which he handed up to Ootsuka. "For your swear jar," he said.
"That's not…um, okay."
"So…" Kouno began, "You hadn't planned on asking her like that."
Ootsuka swatted him. "Of course he wasn't, I've been telling you -"
"I had a concussion," Hei muttered into his hands. Then he lifted his head. "Is Misaki here?" He gestured at her open office door. "She wasn't at the hospital or at home."
"She -" Saitou began, when the doors from the lobby swung open and Misaki stalked through.
She had her laptop bag slung over one shoulder, a stack of files cradled in her arms, and her phone in her hand. "I'll send you all an update on the meeting later," she said as she blew past them and into her office without once looking up from her phone. "I'm headed back to the hospital now, then I'll be working remotely the rest of the day." Reappearing with a new stack of files, her purse, and her jacket now stuffed into the laptop bag, she said, "Saitou, I need -"
She stopped short at the sight of Hei sitting in the center of the cluster of people. Then her eyes narrowed. "You," she said, pointing at him with her phone, "are supposed to be in bed. At the hospital."
"Um," he said, captivated as always by her fierce glare, "they said I was okay to leave. So I, uh, left."
"You promised to wait for me there! You insisted that I go to the superintendent's emergency meeting, so I agreed, on the condition that you would wait. At the hospital."
Hei blinked. "I did?"
"Amnesia," Ootsuka said in an amazed stage whisper.
"How did you even get here?" Misaki demanded.
Her eyes widened in disbelief. "I can't believe they let you out in this condition. We're going home. Now."
"Right." Hei stood slowly and put his jacket back on, relieved.
Kouno clapped him on the back. "Thanks for dropping by to let us know you're alright," he told Hei. Then he turned to the others and drew a line across his throat, mouthing the word murder.
But as Hei followed Misaki out to the elevators, he knew that she wasn't angry. She'd been afraid.
The elevator doors closed in front of them, and he took the stack of files from her, then slipped an arm around her waist. She leaned into him wearily. "The new scan looked good," he told her. "The doctor said I'll be fine. Though, I guess the memory problems are still there. Sorry."
"What have we talked about, about you apologizing for things that aren't your fault." She sighed. "Why did you come here instead of waiting for me?"
"I just wanted to be where you were," he told her quietly, but she shook her head.
"I knew I shouldn't have left you alone. I'm sorry."
He gave her waist a squeeze. "Let's just go home." He had a feeling that they were going to have a lot to talk about this morning.
When Hei climbed into the Porsche, a sturdy cloth belt caught in the door. He opened the door again to pull it out; it was tied to the arm rest, like a tether.
“I climbed onto the roof?” he asked as Misaki backed out of the parking space. “I thought I just jumped out.”
She snorted. “KS-114 was driving an armored truck. You climbed onto the roof, jumped onto the back of the truck, and crawled across the top to zap the engine. I could hardly breathe, watching you.”
Hei untied the tether and rolled it up. It looked like the belt to Misaki’s trenchcoat. “I guess that was the first time you’ve seen me work from a car,” he realized.
“Please don’t tell me you make a habit of this!”
“Maybe we should add it to our training segments. You’re such a good driver, we probably made a great team.”
The horrified look she gave him made him smile, despite his best efforts not to. “I’m kidding,” he assured her.
“I know. The whole time,” she said quietly, pulling out of the garage and onto the busy street, “all I could think of was how I was going to kill you if you got yourself hurt doing something so idiotic. And then you did get hurt.”
“Not by jumping out of the car.”
“No, not by jumping out of the car,” she admitted with a half smile. “And we did make a pretty good team. Kouno wouldn’t shut up about it last night. Oh, your knives are in the back. I got them both, but I haven’t had a chance to clean them - I’m sorry.”
She gestured with her thumb to the backseat; when she replaced her hand on the steering wheel Hei noticed the bloodstains on the white cuffs of her shirtsleeves.
“Don’t worry about it,” he told her. “Haven’t you been able to go home and change yet?”
“When would I? I was at the hospital all night, then the superintendent called me in right after you finished your CT scan this morning. Are you sure about the knives? You were so worried about them last night.”
Hei exhaled slowly, wondering how he could possibly thank her for being there for him. “I’m sure I was. It’s…” He grasped for the right words. “All my experience getting injured in the past - I’ve either been completely alone, or surrounded by enemies. Or people I wasn’t sure I could trust, which may as well be the same thing. Concussions always make me confused; my mind probably just reverted back to all that training and instinct. Keep weapons with me to defend myself, and be suspicious of everyone. This is the first time I’ve ever had someone I trust to take care of me.”
Misaki reached over and laid her hand on his, intertwining their fingers. She didn’t seem to mind the bandages. “I guess that explains why you left the hospital on your own this morning?”
He nodded, marveling at the softness of her skin. “All I could think about was getting out of there and back to you. I really don’t remember talking about waiting; I’m sorry.”
“Hei, don’t worry about it; really.”
“I was going to call you, but I couldn’t find my phone.”
“That’s probably because you put it in the glove box before exiting a moving vehicle in the most dangerous way possible.”
“Oh. That makes sense.” Hei opened the compartment in front of him; sure enough, his cell was sitting inside. Pulling it out, he was surprised to see several unread messages waiting.
Hey man dont die ok - Kouno
Do you need us to take care of anything while you ’re in the hospital? - Saitou
Damn, no, you ’re in the hospital - Saitou
Don ’t worry about work, we’ll take care of it! - Saitou
Li, Kouno told me what happened! Don ’t die okay!! The Chief will take good care of you don’t worry!!! - Ootsuka
Let us know what room you ’re in when you feel up for a visit - Matsumoto
Why am I hearing about this only now, and from Ootsuka of all people?? Damnit, you ’d better be alright! - Kanami
Make sure you drink lots of fluids - Kanami
And do what the doc says, even if you don ’t want to - Kanami
Concussions are serious. Get plenty of rest and don ’t push yourself - Kanami
And don ’t go wandering off on your own; concussions always seem to do that I don’t know why - Kanami
Dude ur gonna have to taech us to jump out of,cars now u kno that right - Kouno
Answer my texts so I know you ’re alive god damn it - Kanami
Hei read through them all, some unnamed emotion welling up in his chest.
“Hei? Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” he said, finding his voice at last. “There’s just…a lot of people were worried.”
Misaki smiled. “Well, don’t sound so surprised.”
“Yeah.” After a moment in which his mind seemed to lose all grasp of written Japanese, he typed out a quick reply to Kanami: Fine; headed home now.
Misaki surely must have at least given her the status on his dead versus alive state of being, but Kanami responded immediately with a cryptic string of emojis. It was something she enjoyed doing, coding her messages and forcing him to interpret the nonsense. Misaki had no patience for that sort of thing, but Hei found it entertaining. Today, though, he just couldn’t muster up the mental energy.
Concussion, he responded.
Right, shit, sorry - feel better!! - Kanami
PS did you actually say that to Misaki omg - Kanami
He suppressed a grimace. How was it possible for him to be the last person to know that he’d proposed to his own girlfriend? He wondered briefly whether Kanami had heard about it from Ootsuka or Misaki herself, then decided it didn’t really matter. Even if she’d mentioned their talk to Misaki, she still didn’t know that he’d made the decision and bought a ring. Closing the phone, he slipped it into his pocket.
They drove in silence for a few minutes. Misaki turned left, into the sun; the sudden glare pierced right through Hei’s eyeballs and into the pressured space behind them. He squeezed his eyes shut.
“We’re almost home,” Misaki promised, a note of worry in her voice.
In fact it felt like only a moment later that she was squeezing his hand and saying, “Hei, we’re here.”
He opened his eyes in the dark parking garage. “I fell asleep?” he asked, hoping that that was the reason for the sudden gap in his memory.
“Yeah, for a minute - come on, let’s head upstairs.”
They collected their things; Misaki wrapped his weapons harness in her trenchcoat, even though it was only a short elevator ride up to their floor. Hei was about to comment on her unnecessary circumspection when the doors opened: the woman and little girl that he’d seen in the hallway earlier were inside.
The woman stared at Hei, wide-eyed; he gave her a friendly nod and followed Misaki inside. No one said anything as the elevator rose, but as soon as the doors opened on their floor the woman practically bolted out with her daughter.
“What’s her problem?” Misaki muttered, gazing down the hall before inserting her key into the door.
“I’ll, um, tell you later.”
Misaki arched an eyebrow, but she didn’t press him on it. They went inside, kicking off their shoes. Misaki dumped her laptop bag on the sofa while Hei set her stack of files on the coffee table.
“What about these?” she asked, indicating the lumpy jacket tucked under her arm.
Hei knew that he ought to get the blades cleaned and dried right away - there must be blood on them, if he’d been worried about that last night - but it didn’t feel that important now. “Just leave them in the bathroom,” he told her. “I’ll take care of them later.”
He went into the bedroom and changed into a pair of sweatpants and an old shirt. An old shirt, he mused as he pulled it carefully over his head. He’d never had the luxury of holding onto little-used clothing before. Everything that he owned had had to fit into a single duffel bag. If it hadn’t had a function, it got tossed. He’d only ever had one shirt for sleeping in; now he had three. He wondered how that had happened.
“Get into bed,” Misaki said, entering the room behind him. She pulled back the covers and fluffed up his pillow. “I’ll make you some fried rice; you must be starving.”
“You can’t use the kitchen,” Hei blurted out before he could stop himself.
She gave him a wry smile. “I won’t set anything on fire, I promise.”
“At least take a shower first; I’m not all that hungry,” he said honestly.
“You’re not?” Misaki pressed a warm hand against his forehead. “I guess the concussion screwed with your appetite as well as your memory. Well, you should probably eat anyway. But if you don’t mind waiting, I could really use a shower right now.”
“I don’t mind.” He kissed her gently on the lips, then climbed into bed. Misaki fussed over him, making sure that he had an extra pillow so he wouldn’t have to lie flat, and adding blankets until he thought he might bake. At last she kissed his forehead and disappeared into the bathroom.
Hei waited until he heard the water running; then guiltily pushing aside the sheets that she had so meticulously tucked in around him, he climbed out of bed and padded into the kitchen. He eased open the drawer that held his cooking utensils and carefully pushed aside the array of metal spoons, spatulas, and chopsticks. Nestled in the very back of the drawer was a small, black velvet-covered box. With a glance down the hall that led to the bathroom, he removed the box and slipped it into his pocket.
The shower was still running as he snuck back into the bedroom. He placed the box in the drawer of his bedside table, then climbed back under the covers.
It felt good to finally be at home and in his own bed; it was as if he’d been away for weeks. The familiar feel of the sheets, the lingering scent of Misaki’s cucumber shampoo on the pillow next to his; he was safe here. Warm and content, he drifted off to sleep.
When he woke, bright late morning light was still leaking through the cracks in the curtain. The mattress shifted as Misaki climbed in beside him. She was in her pajamas, he noticed with no little confusion.
“Sorry to wake you,” she whispered. “Will it bother you if I’m here? I’m so exhausted I can hardly keep my eyes open.”
“Of course not.” He lifted his arm so that she could scoot close and lay her head on his chest. Her hair was still slightly damp; he must not have been asleep for very long. Wrapping her in his arms, he closed his eyes.
He was only just beginning to drift back into sleep when a soft snuffling sound caught his attention. “Misaki?”
Her face was pressed into his shoulder, her fingers gripping his shirt. Tears were dampening her cheeks - and his shirt.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, brushing her cheek with his hand.
“I’m fine,” she sniffed. “All the emotion from last night just caught up with me, I guess. I’m too tired to fight it.”
“It’s alright. I’m alright.”
Her grip on his shirt tightened. “But you almost weren’t - if I hadn’t gotten there in time -”
“But you did get there in time. Don’t worry about it.”
“I’ve never been so afraid in my entire life,” she said, the tears flowing freely now.
He stroked her hair. “It’s okay. I was afraid too.”
“How do you know; you can’t remember anything.”
“I’m always afraid during a fight,” he told her softly. “I’ve always had so much to lose - first my sister, now my life with you - it terrifies me to think that it could all end so quickly. So I’m sure I was afraid last night. Just like I’m sure the only thing I was thinking about was you.”
Misaki laid a kiss on his jaw. “I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you. I can’t - I can’t lose you.”
“You won’t,” he promised, even though he knew that ultimately he was powerless to keep that promise. But there was one thing he could do to show her that he would try his hardest.
He started to sit up, but a stab of pain in his head forced him back down to the mattress with a groan.
“Hei, what is it?” Misaki asked in alarm. “What do you need?”
He sighed in frustration. “In the drawer.”
“You want a book?” Misaki leaned over him and opened the drawer in the nightstand. “Are you sure you should - oh.”
The last word came out as more of a sigh than a word, a whispered exhalation. She pulled the black velvet box out carefully, holding it in her fingertips as if it might burst into flame at any moment. Wordlessly she passed the box to him, but he wrapped her fingers around it, cupping her hand in his.
“I know this might not be exactly what you want,” he told her, faltering for the words, “and it’s okay if it isn’t. I just want you and the whole world to know how much I love you. I’ve spent weeks trying to find the perfect moment to ask; then this morning I realized that every moment I’m with you is perfect. So - will you…”
Misaki was already nodding, fresh tears streaming down her cheeks. “Yes. Yes, of course!”
Before he could even register his elation, she leaned in and kissed him with that passionate intensity that he so loved about her. He kissed her back, bandaged fingers threading through her long, soft hair and running down her back.
“Mm,” she murmured, separating her lips from his at last. “I haven’t even looked at it yet.”
Hei’s head was spinning; he wasn’t sure if it was from the concussion or the kiss. “Here.” He took the case from her grasp and opened it to reveal a simple silver band with a small, brilliant diamond flanked by little sapphires.
“It’s beautiful,” she breathed as he slipped the ring onto her finger. She snuggled back against his chest and held up her hand admiringly. “But how could you think I wouldn’t say yes?”
He didn’t think he’d ever seen her so happy; he’d certainly never felt happier, he realized as he gazed into her eyes. “I wasn’t sure if it was too traditional for you.”
“Hm; I guess marriage has never really been a priority for me, like it is for some women. But then I met you.” She tilted her head up and kissed his chin. “Have you really had this ring for weeks? I swear I opened that drawer when I was tidying up the other day, and there was nothing in there except your books.”
“I bought it a month ago,” he said. “But it wasn’t there; I hid it in the kitchen, and only moved it this morning, when you were in the shower.”
“The kitchen?” She laughed. “That’s why you didn’t want me trying to cook anything.”
“Well, that, and I’m in no condition to fight any fires right now.”
She elbowed his ribs playfully, then settled back into his arms. “Oh. Um, I should probably tell you. Last night…”
Hei winced. “I’ve already been informed of what I said. I’m sorry - it was the concussion.”
Misaki laughed again. “I know. I don’t think I’ve ever felt both mortified and thrilled at the exact same time. I just wasn’t sure if I should take you seriously or not. I hoped that you meant it, but then you couldn’t remember…”
“I told you that you were the only thing on my mind.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“Hm?” he murmured sleepily, resting his cheek on the top of her head.
“If you forget about this too, I’m going to murder you.”
He smiled into her hair and held her close. “I won’t. I promise.”