Chapter 1: Number City
Counting stitches and counting exits always got old fast. There were never more than five exits to a hospital room if he was lucky(two in this tiny room, the door and a vent he could maybe pray he'd fit through) and his stitches this time were mercifully not as plentiful as he had worried. One, two, he counted three, five, ten drops in his I.V. before he'd had enough numbers altogether and almost bites his lip when a soft knock makes him reach for his (empty, holsterless, positively naked) back.
He thinks about what got him here. A wreck. It’s all so damn fuzzy to him but he does remember knives. One, two, three, four, he counts in his mind’s poor replay of the event, four ballistic knives launched at his tires. Swerving and then… His head hurts too much for this. Every time someone gets the better of them with a stupid knife attached to stupid firecrackers he swears he sees red.
The nurse pops her head in. Jigen tries to pretend he didn't just make an awful startled noise. "Mr. Sakamoto?"
With a good deal of self control and for the fourth time this week, he doesn't ask some variation of "Who?" Oh. That's him. Right. Paul Sakamoto, visiting the island city Bylon all the way from Hawaii when the car accident happened... "Yeah? You don't have to whisper I'm awake."
Cheerfully, sweetly and nearly patronizing(but not nasty or saccharine, she was a good kid) she tells him "Your visitor is back! She asked to stay a bit longer this time but you just let me know--"
"Yeah, I'll kick her out if I have to." Jigen keeps his tone amiable. "I'm not easy to wear out and I'm bored as hell."
It's been the third day in a row the same hunched-over old lady has visited him in his hospital room to chat; she talks a lot and she talks like she knows him. She says he's her nephew, apparently, so Jigen plays along and folds himself into that story with ease; not out of pity but because playing along with any story that falls into his lap is a necessity, second nature and even comfortable, maybe. If the world hands him a mask he puts it on, and for a second he really is this lady's nephew, spouting good natured banter to stave off boredom and its hideous pal anxiety.
And, because it's such a comfortable, easy story to fall into? He knows there's more to how she asks him about his photography and how she commends his “good shots” on the last roll of film she developed before he got in the accident--it doesn't take him long to figure out what's going on, and that there's no time or room for questions or prying. It was only a matter of time someone figured out the IDs provided when he got admitted for doctoring were a little bit doctored themselves, after all.
There was also the matter of the spots in the room... not hard for someone like him to see the peppering of cameras across the ceiling. He'd counted those too, and silently flicked toothpicks, silverware and chips of plaster from the crumbling wall next to the bed to take out more than a few. Even the old lady had(somewhat reluctantly) obliged smacking a few "flies" into oblivion with her cane when he'd asked, and threatened dramatically to rail against the infestation he was forced to deal with.
Seven days total in the hospital, two unconscious and five of paranoia and sitting still in plain sight. Three of those spent with auntie small talk; welcome company but grating, simple chatter. None of those days with any kind of smoke. All this put boredom and anxiety on some kind of ugly steroids; they called up their cousin irritation-- he stopped himself before playing out a whole metaphor for the fifth time.
One, two, three drips. He counts those, too, but it’s the last straw. He’s done counting. He wants to sock boredom itself right in its ugly teeth.
Jigen shifts around in his sheets a little with a noise that sounds more irritated than he intends, reaching for cigarettes that aren't there and tugging on his I.V. stand. "The next couple of days are gonna be rough. Pardon me for saying Auntie but if I can't get some damn nicotine we're all gonna be in trouble."
A knowing smile splits her old face and it's a smile that doesn't quite fit her aged, leathery skin. "Maybe you just need some fresh air! I don't think I've seen anyone get you outside or open a window so how about a little joyride?"
What Jigen wanted to do was grin, but it felt like one of the lingering scrapes on his lip would split right open if he did, so he settled for a small smirk. "Sounds perfect."
He had expected escape, even tried to calculate for it between speaking the numbers he’d assigned the ceiling tiles over the course of his recovery. It was the natural progression of this sort of thing for his sort of people and so he was bracing himself for some bumps even though “Auntie” only pushed his bed out with little, careful old lady steps. She seemed wary about something, distracted from her usual constant stream of chatter Jigen had grown so used to after three days. That pause makes him notice for the first time she appears to have a hearing aid, or it could be--
Before long he could hear what has her distracted: shouted orders in a terribly familiar voice from a few halls away and the clatter of booted feet. A lot of booted feet. More than he could calculate. If he was hearing right? Riot gear. Interpol.
"We're looking for a woman, mid seventies, should be in the room with the John Doe taken from that car wreck last week, I'm sure It's got something to do with Lupin--" Interpol means Zenigata, and Zenigata means an actual challenge, and a move up in any kind of plans.
"Auntie" seems to answer the challenge by taking a strange stance... and also manages to startle the absolute crap out of Jigen by standing immediately to the height of a full grown man with a too-loud rip, tearing what had appeared to be a torso in two, face flopping weirdly off that old smile--
And the whole facade shreds away. Kind of like he pictured it would.
The weird "brilliant thief emerges from old woman like a butterfly from a cocoon" vision is a little more unsettling than Lupin's usual reveals or what his own painkiller-addled mind had entertained him with, and Jigen applauds himself for being able to keep a straight face as the other man tries pulling his legs out of the costume while stumbling and yanking at the stockings to try to get a running start.
"Ah. there you are." Jigen says simply. "I was starting to wonder how you fit in there are you ok?"
“Yeah. My knees hurt though.” The disguise directly under that was simple scrubs and a fake name tag, and some glasses make their way from his pocket to his face too, after a few fumbles between steering the bed. Then, finally, he waves at Jigen.
"Surprise! Not as good as jumping out of a cake I know, but--" Lupin pauses to concentrate, to lean down and pick up speed. "Time to take you back home!" The increased rattling of the metal bed frame careening over the linoleum and calls of help and 'Stop!' from doctors and nurses almost made Jigen miss Lupin's order. "R-R-R--Lean right! Right right!!"
He looks away from Lupin to see exactly what-- oh. There was absolutely a wall, a bulletin board and drinking fountain rushing at them, and they needed some serious drift or he would be in more hurt than he got dropped off at the hospital with in the first place.
"RIGHT," Jigen grips the bed rails and pulls as much as his recovering body allows, lifting half the wheels off the floor and somehow managing to burn rubber with a squeak as Lupin digs one heel into the floor to nail the turn and prevent the collision. "You really, really meant joy ride didn't you?"
"Would I settle for less? I meant it when I said fresh air too, so be ready for that." Lupin stands on the bed frame to ride out some of their momentum down a skyway between buildings and smiles and waves to the people in another skyway a whole building away (with his ever present impish flair). "Jigen. Jigen, wave, looks like Pops missed us by a few minutes!"
Despite his best efforts he finally caught Lupin's infectious smile. Out of gratefulness, a sense of fun, and sheer nic-fitting madness? Probably. His mouth hurt but he couldn't help but comply to the request to wave at the terribly familiar blur of moving uniforms in that distant, windowed hallway.
Lupin swerved to take a ramp rather than some stairs to keep speed, and hollered at an oncoming elevator. "I have an emergency please out of the way, everyone move!" he sounded convincingly stern and distraught and several people, patients and family most likely, scrambled out to let him and the speeding bed in.
Rather than slow down to get into the elevator, the thief threw himself into a gymnastic move akin to a kickflip to use his long legs as some kind of shock absorber up against the wall of the elevator. "Door. Get the door. Door door door--"
"Calm down, showoff." Jigen thumbs the 'close doors' button casually, then looks to Lupin for instructions. "What floor?" He knows better than to question why Lupin remains crammed nearly upside down against the wall, even as he slides down it.
"Hmmmmm.... seven sounds lucky."
"Isn't that two floors up? Whatever."
"Trust me. The exit will be blocked by now and they're still flooding the halls. But! They can only cross the whole hospital and climb stairs so fast. And the slum-side of Bylon is just outside this charity hospital... pretty lawless." He winks. “Even if they get helicopters, that area’s packed tight like Kowloon used to be.” As soon as the doors open, Lupin yells out into the hall at the top of his lungs for everyone to move again, and uses his legs against the back wall to spring into a kick off as hard as he can, propelling them forward.
As they roll towards the end of the hall, Lupin rummages in his scrubs to find something, which he presses into Jigen's hands. His gun. His gun with some unapproved additions. "You put a silencer on it?"
"We're in a hospital, Jigen, I'm not rude."
"Mhm. Right." He braces back against Lupin to keep the kickback from hurting what had healed so far, and the both of them duck into the glittering burst of glass and sun and sky.
There's a moment where everything sounds as if it's underwater. Painkillers kicked in? Nicotine withdrawals and detox finally come to take him out personally? Maybe. The distant sirens, the bark of breaking glass and accompanying glockenspiel-like tinkle of it tumbling down the side of the building, Lupin whooping as they flew(boy-like and wild), the spectators and the world seven storeys below echoing up the sides of a canyon-like backalley-- all drenched in the sharp-edged clarity of adrenaline even as the sound was dulled. Then...
Then he remembers they're falling as he watches Lupin use another damn ballistic knife like it’s a grappling hook to get them a safety line and every stitch in his body aches in all-consuming preemptive regret.
“I’m so damn tired of rocket knives.”
Chapter 2: Gears
As with any fiasco, there's a lot of moving parts. But if you only found two gears and a spring, you can't always discern the construction of the clock.
Goemon is full of weightless force---to him, feats considered impossible to most other people are nearly effortless movements, and he thinks it’s possible because he lets gravity beat his face in every day.
By proxy, anyway. Time under a waterfall is worth a laugh or a snide jab to everyone else, but it’s easy for him to ignore worthless ridicule when he sees what he is able to do as a reward for his rituals, proof of his achievements. The relentless pressure of falling water is Goemon’s hammer, the unbending calm of proper meditation is his anvil, and even this far from the sea he can hear the weight of a roaring river pounding in his pulse.
All of this power, and most days it only amounts to seeing an extremely convenient series of shortcuts. Urban areas are always so full of stumbling blocks and obstacles but not if your spine and legs are a coiled spring that can send you an easy six feet forward or up, not if you can scale brick like a mantis or cross powerlines like a rat, not if you can practically fly with only a single steel feather to your name.
He looks out into the tightly-packed ravine of residential neighborhoods, recognizes the sign for a hospital looming above, and prepares for his descent into what might as well have been a hive for how dense all of the tiny homes were. Finding his way from the streets wouldn’t have been impossible but the sound of sirens, muted bullets and breaking glass tell Goemon that the good Inspector had probably decided to pay his friends a visit. The samurai has never been more grateful his family tradition included the profession of crawling over rooftops to avoid trouble, people, and people who bring trouble.
Even though he has to remove his sandals to do so, Goemon’s skill and control allow him to walk like a spider over the webs of clothes lines. Laundry hung out to dry in the fleeting sun between the tightly-packed apartment slums of Bylon become tightropes, ziplines and handholds for the samurai as he makes his way to the place he was told to meet Lupin. It was easy, to walk out over the lines, easy to follow the path of destruction straight down, easy to spot the place where a safety line had been tossed but not secured in the crumbling brick, all to easy to see the glint of the frame of a hospital bed bouncing on a line before it snaps and falls the rest of the way down.
It was however not easy to keep a straight face when he sees Jigen and Lupin tangled in the clotheslines just below. In fact, Goemon keeps quiet awhile, just to watch the two thieves struggle in drying laundry and bouncing cords rather than actually lend a hand.
“One of these pairs of pants better damn well fit Lupin, you know how hospital gowns work and I don’t need any more ‘airing out’ than I already got on the way down.” Jigen grunts and struggles around. “I hope nobody looks up, hell.”
“I see some over there that might fit you! Hey. HEY, take it easy buddy, don’t pop a stitch, I’ll get them!” Lupin sounds a little sheepish when he speaks, and does not stop making unflattering creature-y noises the entire time he’s swinging to the next clothesline to grab the pair of jeans he spotted.
When he swings back over, Lupin reaches into his scrubs and also produces Jigen’s hat. It’s crushed and crumpled, but no less beloved. With wild swings of his lanky, monkey-like arms for balance, Lupin nearly falls just as soon as the clothes leave his hand and an undignified squawk like a disturbed crow gurgles out of his throat. Meanwhile, Jigen is practically forced to do a backflip trying to get the pilfered jeans on under his gown because of the position he was hanging from.
Goemon claps a hand over his mouth at this clownish scene, nearly crying on the fire escape at the sight of them and choking down his laughter just to stay hidden. He takes a little extra time to compose himself before walking (casually, perfectly) down one of the clotheslines, foot in front of bare foot in a way that looks like it would be painful for anything but a bird or rodent. The others go quiet at the samurai’s approach and he kneels on the line to pull it down, to get to eye level with Jigen and Lupin. Goemon’s face is the picture of juxtaposed sternness and (false, oh it’s so false, oh it’s so obnoxiously haughty) boyish concern.
“Didn’t your grandfather teach you to land on your feet Lupin? Are you okay Lupin? Are you going to break our friend in half before we can even welcome him home Lupin?”
“Hey! Knock it off! Why don’t you give us a hand since we’re in so much trouble, huh Goemon?”
The click of Zantetsuken unsheathing is a very special, very specific threat. So is the little smirk that goes with it. “I will cut you down then.”
The reply from Jigen and Lupin is almost instant and in complete unison, a cacophony of repeated no’s and don’t’s and hey's, with Jigen comically swinging his head to make sure the clothesline hasn’t already been cut somehow. Satisfied with his work, Goemon drops like a cat from the line to the alleyway below. Lupin and Jigen look down after him, and then at each other.
“He didn’t...did he?” Jigen asks, gingerly poking at one of the lines holding him up. The individual strands making up the rope fray immediately under his fingertip.
All of the laundry and all eight of their flailing limbs come crashing down as they hit the next level of lines, which also snap after absorbing some of the fall. And the next level. And repeat, down five storeys. The impact of a straight fall was broken, but they were still going to hit the asphalt hard, and Jigen swears it’s going to undo all of the hard work he’d done healing and whenever he gets done healing all over again he’s gonna shoot that damn smug little---
But the crunch of the asphalt never comes. Waiting on the ground floor, the swordsman had kicked a large cart half-full of crumpled sheets (presumably there for the purpose of catching and returning fallen laundry from above) directly under Jigen and Lupin. They land with a pillowy thud, and after Goemon lets the rest of the clothes from above settle over them, simply starts pushing the cart towards the nearby hideout he and Lupin had carved out while Jigen had been recovering.
It doesn’t take long for them to get to their new home, but the pathway is pretty involved and Jigen knows, he just knows he’s going to get lost. Coming or going, either way; hell he’s sure he could go down a set of stairs to the one apartment that seems to be converted into some kind of cigarettes and seafood bodega and he’d still get lost even if it was only a floor down.
Nevermind that he had already memorized the first place to supply his vices.
The new place is not one but two tiny apartments with a hole punched in the thin wall separating them. Jigen asks if the hole is Goemon’s fault and Lupin assures him the place actually came that way, and he got a deal on the lease because of it. The valuable-looking tsumi-e scroll (recently acquired back by the gang for the fifth time over the past two or three years) hanging over the hole, though? That was Goemon’s fault.
When they get back Goemon rushes in, picks up something casual to hide in from his kit and immediately leaves, saying only the word “lunch” as he all but scuttles out past the other thieves.
Jigen tilts up his hat and squints after him as the samurai rounds the chipped concrete corner out of sight. “He got a date or did he just find a soba joint?”
“Actually you joke but he did say he made contact with an assassin friend hiding here in Bylon and wanted to catch up. So, probably both.” Lupin’s speech is surprisingly open despite being outside of their new apartment, and that alone is enough to make Jigen relax his posture some. He looks less like an imposing shadow now and more like a bow waiting to be re-strung in the curved line of his body and the geometry of his demeanor. Lupin smiles and gestures for him to go in first, and Jigen returns the grin, (wipes a smudge of blood from smiling and yelling too damn much away with his thumb) and tips his hat back down and saunters in.
For him, it’s not hard to see past the excited, over-dramatic, obnoxious movements Lupin throws around in a flurry. There’s earnest excitement in having his partner back from the brink of death, and Jigen soaks it in, but there’s as much threat display as love in any peacock’s spread.
He feels bad for the person who picked a fight with that knife-like smile.
Only a little bad though. Prick probably deserves it, he thinks, as he feels a twinge of soreness spills down his back and pools around up his stitched up scars.
It doesn’t take long for the gunman to locate and sink into the already broken-in couch, to practically set roots. Lupin picks up one half of the plywood-on-cinder-blocks coffee table to tilt it and slide an ashtray and an (opened) pack of Marlboros from one end straight into Jigen’s waiting hand. Lupin then climbs up and perches on the collapsed arm of the couch at Jigen’s feet like a macaque, like a magpie, wasting no time lightning his own cigarette. All movements come with familiarity, comfort, all angles and edges taken out of the algebra of their stances. Home was never so much the places the duo had holed up in, but rather the company they kept.
Jigen doesn’t look directly at him but it’s not hard to smell what he’s got right now... Lupin’s been going through the Marlboros himself. The gunman manages to crack another smile.
Breathing. Some quiet. Smoke settles in the poorly lit, flickering apartment air like familiar foggy weather. Then, the focus comes: it’s Business Time. Jigen rolls up a sleeve and picks at some stitches that are done serving their purpose just to give his hands something to do.
“I thought we’d be spending our time here planning for something a little more fun but it looks like we’ve got something else to do here in Bylon, huh?” Lupin shifts to a more comfortable position, one knee up against his chest to prop his chin on, the other hanging off the arm of the couch and swinging, again, boyish.
Boyish and always moving. Jigen used to be pretty sure if Lupin ever stopped moving for too long he’d die, like a shark or something. Of course, nothing had changed now except Lupin had confirmed himself that this was more or less the truth.
“You look antsy, Lupin.” It’s meant as a tease, and there's a warmth to Jigen’s voice; but the master thief doesn’t return the joke right away, proof he isn’t quite over what had happened. Oh right...this really wasn’t the usual work accident, Jigen admits internally. This was something much bigger, a game that involved players about on par with themselves this time. Without words about it directly, Jigen acknowledges Lupin’s rare seriousness and does them both the favor of shifting the conversation to the task at hand.
“So I’m guessing you at least had a better view of the whole scenario...you wanna run that mess by me again.”
The sharpshooter sounds bone-weary as he pulls out the last of the stitches with a grunt like a bothered old dog. Lupin bounds across the room and back in almost painfully cheerful contrast, returning with a fistful of rolled papers in hand. “Oh I got an eyeful alright---better than at least a good third of drive-ins I’ve seen!”
“I’m amazed you’ve managed to even see a drive-in movie, considering how distractable a date you are,” the sharpshooter grumbles, leaving Lupin tittering like a gremlin while he looks over the paperwork. Jigen actually lifts up his hat and pushes his bangs back to get a better look at what he thought he saw, and a sliver of distasteful recognition worms across his expression. “...hey I know this chicken-scratch.”
“I thought you might!” Lupin rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet, a twinge of a much darker emotion behind his goofy smile. He knew about the elite members of the espionage world, in particular a group known as the Aristocrats. Lupin knew Jigen had worked alongside a couple of them, sometimes unknowingly and sometimes intimately over the years and years of his career as a mafia hitman, as a mercenary sniper and as a thief. “Wonder who put them up to it? I can’t imagine they’d jump into our business without some kind of… incentive? They’ve left us alone for years, I like to think it’s because I make their jobs easier for them.”
“This is us, that group could get paid by any country to try to get us to stop, y’know... Doing our job. Doing your job. Doing your hobby of screwin’ up awful rich people. Why now? Uhf...anyway enough speculating, lay it on me. What’d it all look like, y’know, not screamin’ behind the wheel?”
“You know there was a plane right.”
“Yeah, Couldn’t miss it.”
“And you had rocket knives thrown at you.”
“Tried to miss those.” At this point he pulls his hat down over his face for visualization and he’s just so, so sick of every other enemy deciding pointy things propelled by firecrackers are the best invention ever.
“Well, the plane landed on top of you while you swerved away from those ballistic knives and just. Helped you swerve more. Off the bridge! There was a girl driving the plane, and your uh… your friend--”
“--Don’t.” He doesn’t let on just how much he’s remembering from his side of the crash, but a one-eyed face and eternally amused, sleazy grin were now peering down at him from that plane as the event played over and over in his head..
Lupin grins (sharp, mean, angry even, like a king of diamonds shuffled out of the deck, a wild card, and Jigen gets the feeling Lupin knows what’s on repeat in his mind--) and continues. “He had the door wide open and he sure thought he was gonna finish you off if you crawled out of the wreckage but I took a couple of shots at him, he threw a couple of knives at me and I didn’t hit him exactly but the whole standoff gave Goemon enough time to take off one of their wings and I wanna say three or four propellers AND one of their pontoons.” He looks proud. “They would have crashed and burned, but unfortunately I’m pretty sure they bailed safely and we were more concerned with helping you.”
That smile drops, just a second, before he can direct Jigen’s vision to the papers. “I fished these out of the wreck, i think they figured they’d just be destroyed in the water but they didn’t count on just how good at document restoration I am.”
“Oooh, that’s sloppy,” Jigen adds, finally (at least mildly) amused. “But to be fair, they’ve dealt with me before. Lupin the Third? Not so much.”
“Yet.” He offers his partner a wild grin before returning his gaze to the papers. “Yeah this looks like some kinda hiring contract, and that’s for sure Kaku’s handwriting. Goin’ off what you said with a chick piloting...if it’s not Fujiko jerkin’ you around again, I’m bettin’ that’s Kyoko.”
“Kyoko?” Lupin brightens and practically floats closer to Jigen at the mention of the girl’s name.
“I’ve been keepin’ up a little with the rumors. Their newest addition--put those damn eyes away Lupin--and from what I understand, a spy who can hold her own just fine and dandy with the old boys.” Jigen exhales a cloud of smoke, glad to be back at his old habits again without a nurse breathing down the back of his neck about it. “And speaking of the ‘boys’ I’m just gonna save myself the trouble and take a wild guess that the whole ‘court’ of Aristocrats is involved. Rather be safe than sorry. Just ‘cause we only caught sight of two of ‘em doesn’t mean the rest of the gang isn’t crawling around in the shadows.”
“I mean, there were cameras in your room.”
“Yeah I know, I hated it. How many were yours?”
Jigen hisses through his teeth.
“I think Ami had a couple in there because she was worried. But she said the others were very, very hard to trace.”
“Can’t a guy be screwed up and hospitalized in peace…” Jigen squints at Lupin like he’d rather believe his partner is playing him, but sighs and shakes his head, continuing. “Anyway, that about confirms it. Shit.”
“Hey! Hey.” Lupin’s voice is light again, cutting through the murk that was settling all too swiftly over Jigen’s mood. Bless the bastard for that, really. “So how about that lunch, huh? Goemon has the right idea... don’t ya want something nicer than hospital cafeteria food?”
“Oh hell yes,” Jigen says quickly, actually rising from the couch at mention of literally anything other than another round of mysterious jello and casserole. “Don’t have to tell me twice---can’t fight back on an empty stomach. You know any places around here?”
“I’ve had time! I know all the best ones.” He vaults over the couch, over Jigen and towards his room to get out of the goofy looking doctor’s scrubs. “All your suits are in that closet over there, you look weird in jeans.”
Jigen hauls himself up from the couch towards the door Lupin had indicated and sure enough, there were his clothes; finely pressed and perfectly tailored shadows that smelled fresh and clean, a ghost of a clue that Lupin had prepared them just today, ready for Jigen’s return.
His lip cracks again when he smiles, and he thumbs at the blood again. Dammit Lupin.
This one's heavily cowritten with my dear collaborator Ms. M, who writes with me but has no AO3 account of her own. She lends a very, very good flavor to Jigen's voice and can move a plot like no one's business, and fixes all my confusing, garbled mess.
Chapter 3: Video Kid
Hello, Underworld. Keep digging, little hedgehog.
Sound pours across hard stone, drips over ceremonial carvings and tech equipment alike.
Speakers placed around the cavernous room play the tinny sounds for her, sounds of many, many different security feeds filled with the unknowing, distant lives of people going by. They blend together in such a way that the air feels bright when she closes her eyes, burning with the constant hum of machines and people she'd grown accustomed to. She does this not to spy but to relax, surrounding herself with white noise against the quiet of Dolma’s royal palace-- sounds of a distant playground, the ocean, the roar of a superhighway, the hum of all the machines and crickets in a convenience store... the breath of the world at her fingertips, the human heartbeat of entire cities easing the rise and fall of her own chest. Nothing invasive, all public noises---Ami Enan swore to herself it would all be things she could go outside and hear if she so chose.
None of it helps her sleep. She gave it her best effort, though.
If I can’t sleep I may as well relax, she thinks to herself and opens up her browser on her phone, already loaded with several tabs of work and several tabs of her own personal research.
A busy mind is a "chilled out" mind, for Ami.
“Bylon. A sovereign nation, a city state on the sea, the first of its kind. Mostly self sufficient, running on state of the art proprietary technology that allows a whole city to thrive in international waters. Because of its size, it has been barred from directly coming to port in many places, doing much more damage than even luxury cruises to some historic areas…” She murmurs the articles out loud to herself, partly to record them if she needed to listen to notes on the fly. “Because it sails, and because it has declared sovereignty, it is able to host a multitude of gambling facilities and provides housing for employees and those who wish to become citizens of the young nation.”
Maps swarm her vision. Websites cease to have names and become strings of numbers as she pushes through to the deeper strains of data, like fishing for sharks in sewage. What Ami needs is the truth about Bylon, the truth that never hides itself but lurks in a dark corner, just waiting to be noticed.
“Current leader, unknown. Largely thought to be more of a ceremonial position than one of actual power. A small circle of elected representatives serve as the faces and executors of the law, while ambassadors speak in their place in times of international conference. Many rumors and conspiracy theories have circulated over the years as to exactly when and how Bylon was founded, and no concrete proof has ever surfaced regarding these subjects.”
A nation that is not a nation, free of the laws of the mainland. A jolly pirate carnival for jolly pirates of the modern age. If someone knows the underbelly of the world, they have been through Bylon. By all records, the city-state had likely fabricated propaganda to ward the global eye away from its sudden appearance, all reports and travel documentaries lauding it as one of the planet’s best kept secret tourism destinations, somehow “on the other side of the world” no matter where anyone lived. It was just another surprise on the planet, an amazing resort-turned-country and a playground for those who could pay… Shiny and new and untouched, for the most part.
A perfect place for thieves to vacation, and a perfect place to make unwanted guests and enemies disappear.
Ami takes a sip of something, some sort of syrupy, caffeinated mess in a colorful can that helps in no way with her inability to sleep. But the newfound energy and subsequent powerful need to push deeper into her findings is in no way unwelcome. The feeling that the hacker had only just scratched the surface of Bylon was enough to spur her on for more, digging even deeper into the recesses of the internet. She wanted to know more about the floating city-state; the wonderland-apparent that seemed to be a breeding ground for the shadows of the Underworld.
She had named herself after the darker side of the net she’d grown up and flourished in. After falling out with her father she supposed, in a way, Ami was getting to meet her real parent with open eyes for the first time. It wasn’t her genius father, but hands in the dark that let in the light that fed her talent to blooming, voices in the dark that encouraged her not only to be extraordinary but to hone her other skills and to enjoy the freedom that shines like neon stars through the gloom of the darker world.
In the Underworld she went from a statistic abduction to an amazing woman, and it was through that rebirth in darkness that she’d been able to become a girl at all.
All that ego and imagination from Lupin and his friends had finally rubbed off on her. Ami snorts, smiles a little and flicks through more tabs. The recent car crash on the island, a kidnapping from a hospital, a report she’d siphoned off ICPO’s channels that Zenigata was sure Lupin was involved, again… sure, she had access to those records from public channels, especially since her new job put her on a direct line to ICPO, but old habits are so, so hard to break.
The speakers all still play urban sounds around her, a muffled reverberation from the stone, wood and tapestry around her ushering in midnight and beyond. Yet no matter how far she digs, how many firewalls and password protected files she slips past, she can’t find anything about a plane, nothing about the “Aristocrats” Lupin had warned her about, and no leads on the channel she had copied down from the enemy cameras she had monitored in Jigen’s hospital room.
That is until 3 AM, when one of the speakers (one playing the sounds of deep night, early morning crickets and quiet) picks up whistling.
At first she thinks nothing of it, but the tune gets familiar. An anomaly, something French from a server in Taiwan, something she recalls that Lupin knows. Last she knew, though, Lupin was in Bylon, and Bylon was nowhere near any Chinese coasts right now… But the man could show up anywhere. Ami was excited to hear from him, so turns the volume up and quiets all other sounds.
It crosses her mind Lupin has no way of knowing she was using the audio feed, but it’s a brief thought she can push aside for the most part. There’s no way to communicate back, so maybe it’s just a message, maybe it’s information, maybe it’s--
“Hello, Underworld.” The voice starts out Lupin’s but shifts into something different, even-toned, androgynous and impossible to place. Ami rushes to record it even as her blood runs cold. “I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of meeting you yet. I realize you can’t answer but we needed to get a message to you, from Uncle Kuma.”
There’s an emotion there. The classification of some of the wilder ones still escapes Ami but she tastes adrenaline at the back of her mouth.
“Uncle Kuma” was a name she had not heard since she was at least fourteen. As Ami coded and pawed her way through the dark as a young teen, she hazily remembered designing the implants she needed to become Underworld but lacked the surgical skill and steady hands to actually place them. Following hints and leads on the black market she had found a willing… party. Not a true doctor in the PHD sense---just a big, slow, soft-spoken man with a lot of inventions and a nursing degree and a half, but it was a risk she could (and did) take. When the man saw what she was capable of he praised her skill, and Ami used that opportunity to negotiate a few prescriptions for herself as well.
Uncle Kuma had helped her change her shape indefinitely, putting the first keys of transhumanism into her tiny, shaking palms. He and his associates had been the “hands in the dark” that pulled her out of the more terrifying places and had not asked questions or made light of her past, or the one thing she wanted out of her future.
There had been a reason she had turned them down, Ami recalled.
“After we have all seen you on the global stage,” the androgynous-voiced stranger continues. “Doing better and doing more than we could have ever hoped or imagined, we would like to contact you again and catch up. You will not be looking for ‘Uncle Kuma’, exactly, it will be much easier to find him under the name Keima. We have inducted several new members including myself over the past two years and would like to extend the offer to you once again.”
Right. The whole ‘pawn of nations’ thing she started to figure out. Ami’s distaste for the thought of such a role had grown over the past year or so, especially with having to witness Dolma’s struggles in becoming Queen of Padar, and the corrupt meddling of those who wanted to use her and naive, well-meaning citizens for their own greed. No thanks.
Even though she knows better than to try, Ami still runs the voice through a search filter for matches. Almost immediately the program’s processing chugs to a halt, so she assumes whoever is on the other end of the feed is running a vocal manipulator with something malicious embedded in it. Go figure. She quarantines then trashes the instance, continuing to listen and record.
“We are aware it may seem like your current work and alliances might make that difficult. But you have our word we will not interfere, especially in Padar as your station there is already important and doesn't need compromise. We will find you when we need-- hff.” A pause. Some muffled stuttering.
“What? N-no she needs the information right? You can wait a little-- DON'T--”
The volume has to go up for her you make out the sounds further from the camera. It almost sounds like an argument but it's not the same voice. On a second analysis she can just make out other, different voices in the background, and one seems close enough to be her mysterious contact. She gives up on playing along with this long-winded monologuing invitation, and assumes full control of the security camera to check the visuals. When no one appears onscreen she begins to move the camera, however slow it might be, and despite the fact they might notice. By the time it’s changed position she only m as manages to catch a blur tumbling downward, the sound of several things hitting a bush out of video range, and fuzzy shapes of what look like large clumps of leaves scattering and exiting the area. When she goes to focus on some shadows the night vision can’t quite pierce, the feed scrambles and goes completely dead.
The camera had been positioned several meters off the ground… it’s easy for Ami to deduce after that ungraceful exit there hadn’t been a rope or even a ladder that the mysterious speaker had been using, but was rather standing on the shoulders of at least two other people to get the message to her.
Great. So they're more like her recent friends than she ever would have thought, which could be a good thing. They could all use some more allies in the face of a group as powerful and mysterious as the Aristocrats, and allies with enough tricks up their sleeves to find an open, one-way audio channel to her sounded like a solid fit.
Her tablet drops to her bedsheets and Ami clamors for her much more powerful rig. It was time to dive for any pearls she could find in the muck of the underworld.
Chapter 4: Cherry Waves
The blood that crashes through their hearts like a sea carries the fury and wonder of the wolves they are descended from.
Having a fresh suit in place and nicotine back in his system made Jigen feel miles better. The only other thing he wanted was maybe a glass of scotch to sip on but he figured he could let himself recover a bit more and learn his surroundings before he got ahold of that. For the first time since “moving in,” (never mind that it was thirty minutes ago maximum) he steps out of the front door to just get a good actual look at their surroundings.
The corridors are all more or less outside, though the height of the cramped buildings and the myriad of makeshift awnings and banners stretched from building to building makes for fine shelter from sun and sea storms. Whoever owns the buildings apparently provides no repairs or aid but they don’t penalize creativity or renovations either. Half the apartments are lived in, and half look like impromptu businesses with chalk easels and neon signs right outside, or the whole door and front wall removed in place of roll-down security cages like tiny mall stores. Jigen suspects a lot of the people here live right beside their own business, and he briefly envies the short commute between work and bed.
He thinks he likes it here. It’s like this place was made for the gang’s kind of people. Thief people.
Best of all in the outdoor air, wafting up through floors and floors of crowded anarchy, Jigen can smell food. Fried food, hot fresh cooking… damn, probably close to a hundred different recipes from so, so many countries all try to punch him in the nose at once.
Weeks of little more than jello and what was surely certified the Most Bland Potato Salad on the planet had left Jigen craving some real live people food. The doner and sandwich food trucks of New York, the crepe places he’d been to in Tokyo--hell don’t get him started on the pizza Rome had to offer--all of it seemed to dance across the forefront of Jigen’s mind like some sort of sugar-plum fairy delirium as he was joined by Lupin outside and they made their way downstairs to yet another apartment converted into a personal business.
“I think you’ll like this place. Promise it’s good! In fact-- Oh. Sh. Look.”
They hang back a ways away from the entrance, spotting a familiar face.
“So, s’ this where Goemon went to meet his friend too? Oh whup,” Jigen asks, then, realizing they’ve been noticed by Goemon he raises a hand in greeting and heads in.
“Goemoooon where’s your friend do we get to meet your friend? Was it a date? It was a date wasn--”
Lupin gets the air knocked out of him and folds in half over a barstool kicked out into his direct path by Goemon, then tips over and lands face-first on the bad linoleum, much to the delight of the waiters and cooks in the joint. Jigen steps over the prone thief as if he expected him to block the floor like that with his hands carelessly shoved into his pockets as he does. He deposits himself on another stool right beside Goemon and makes an effort not to bust his lip open laughing for the fifth time today.
The swordsman opens one eye again to look down at Lupin and then to Jigen.
“Tell him not to make undue accusations of my alliances, or I will come through the scroll in our wall and split all his furniture in two.”
“He does almost everything worth doing on the floor right now, but ok. Hey Lupin, he says--”
“CRAM IT, I heard him!”
Lupin hadn’t bothered getting up from the floor, pouting with his arms crossed and glaring up at the other two with a displeased squint in one eye. Goemon closes his own eye and shuts off his own judgemental gaze, leaning back against the counter with a touch of the same smug energy he'd exuded before dropping the others into the alleyway. “My contact left for now. They live nearby and if we need help, they offered to do some odd jobs for us.”
It’s a casual enough phrase, not too suspicious… sounds just like anyone else who lives in the area trying to run businesses, though by the very nature of Bylon all of those are automatically suspect anyway. Jigen has to internally praise Goemon’s restraint with his phrasing, since he usually busts out most of their secrets without even thinking.
Lupin finally scrambles up from the floor onto the stool on the other side of Jigen, placing the gunman between himself and Goemon like a buffer; none of the pout is there anymore, his demeanor completely flipped, and all slapstick attempts on his life forgiven. He immediately grabs the menu and holds it up to gesture in Goemon’s direction. “Sounds great. We also need your expert advice.”
“Really?” the younger man blinks leaning around Jigen to peek wide-eyed at Lupin. “Advice?”
Jigen nods sagely, taking the menu from Lupin’s hand and tucking it into Goemon’s yukata front with a flourish. “Yeah we do, hell, tell us what to order already man. You’re the local authority on great noodle dishes.”
At least they were recognizing his expertise on cuisine. Finally.
Through the clamor of the ensuing meal, the back and forth teasing between Lupin and Goemon comes to an unsteady truce as they have to unite against a common enemy: Jigen and his thieving hands, ever poised to cram the tastiest bits of the food that doesn’t belong to him into his smug face. Were he not recovering and in need of more food Goemon would have nailed Jigen’s sleeve to the ugly counter top with a fork, and it hurts his pride not to. He settles for picking up his bowl and hugging it to his chest as he shovels soba into his face with a glare like a raptor leveled at Jigen.
The swordsman notes that Lupin lets Jigen steal from his plate (despite his constant complaints and promises for revenge and pleas for him to “stooooop”) but it isn’t that unusual for Lupin to let the contents of his plate make it to someone else’s, and he seems happiest when sharing meals meant for more than one any chance he gets. There are opportunities for him to notice or stop them, and if his reflexes are enough to save him from certain death they should be enough to keep his meat in his bow; but Lupin’s dropped guard is… Friendly. Inviting even. It's how he wants things to play out; it's how he wants to play.
Finally, Jigen stands up, plucks the last piece of shrimp tempura from Lupin’s bowl with his chopsticks, tosses it in the air and catches it in his teeth like a cigarette. Lupin makes a dive for it but Jigen just moves it out of the way in the same fashion he shifts his cigarettes around. He holds Lupin back by his face with one hand and chomps the shrimp down with a derisive chuckle.
“Gonna step out a second. Fucked up my lip again. At least the tempura’s nice and crispy, right?” He grins at the return of Lupin’s furious pout and pats around for his cigarettes while he ambles away.
Goemon follows Jigen’s movements as the gunman steps out... nothing is out of place but a slight limp, so he’s satisfied with the hospital’s work even though he’s sure he’ll be redoing a few of those stitches and offering his remedies for bruises and pain later. Without moving his head he looks across to Lupin, who is smiling, grinning, it seems dopey and simple but the swatches of color under the thief’s eyes paint a different picture. Pink from the warmth and spice of food and the effort of keeping it on his plate and out of Jigen’s teeth, purple and yellow from lack of sleep brought on by two days and nights of preparation and planning, a sheen of relief and a spark of something else when he notices Jigen’s limp as well.
And his gaze swings back around to meet Goemon’s, silently, without turning either, then both of them look to the junky storefront and out at the third member of the gang enjoying his cigarette and wiping at his wounded lip between puffs.
Aside from the necessary soundless communication learned over years and years in their trade, there’s a recognition between the two of them which acts as a comfort when things gets to this state. The dangerous times and the lulls between drag out the need for acknowledgement in silences-- even in the synching of steps and movements, which Goemon had seen more between Jigen and Lupin but had found himself falling into more and more. For them more than Jigen, legacy was a heavy yoke around their necks like something made of the very wood of their family trees and the iron in their blood and with every step splinters burrowed deep in their bodies to make a home.
Nurture and nature paint themselves over so many of their actions… Lupin and Goemon were in no way exact copies but similarities in the techniques of their rendering were undeniable.
For instance, Goemon knows just like the roar of water in his ears that never quite goes away, like the sensitivity of his taste and hearing that Lupin is taunted by phantoms as well. Not spiritually (not that the thief would talk about anything like that much, not when it freaks Jigen out so badly) but on a physical level. He’d caught Lupin staring dark-eyed at things and smiling, or shivering, looking off into empty space and smirking or nodding. He’d caught him eyeing Zantetsuken and had written it off as greed for a powerful weapon at first but he noticed Lupin aiming that same gaze at the weapons of others, at the edge of cliffs and once or twice in the middle of traffic.
One night he had even confronted Lupin about it, on the roof of one of their many safehouses.
“I know why it is I turn to my blade and my harshest training to make up for mistakes and repent; it is ritual. Compulsion. It looks like self destruction but it is my way of building myself up. You stand on a knife’s edge, sometimes no thicker than Zantetsuken’s own honed sharpness and you throw yourself into your own coffin with no hesitation, never mind that you always come back from it. I want to understand why.”
“L’appel du Vide.” He answered around his teeth and his filter, muffled through his hands as he shielded a cigarette from the nighttime breeze. He let loose a long stream of smoke like a pale, visible sigh, translucent white ink against the dark. “Really, though lemme put it this way: I don’t have a reason. Not even when it seems like I should. That stuff comes out of nowhere like a sneeze... it’s a real pain in the ass, you know?”
There was a creak to his voice, a quality that betrayed a lack of control where his carefully crafted accent (and by proxy, his mask) should have been that lets Goemon hear all the years of nicotine and a truly nationless way of speaking. Not tired, not defeated, not putting on one of his shows of boyish or impish theatrics because he’s pissed off... just honest. Of course, the swordsman appreciated the gesture, and especially appreciated being levelled with and straightened his back and kept his keen eyes on Lupin to communicate his complete attentiveness.
“I’m sure you get it... in a different way maybe, but,” Lupin shrugged and laid back on the roof tiles still warmed by the sun even though it was hours ago that it set. “I’m always too excited about life to ever let the knives rattling around in my brain get a good stab in, you know? But they’re still there.”
Another time, Lupin spoke on it more casually as Goemon angrily stitched up a wound for him and reminded him--no, scolded him, he was better than this and he knew it-- that injury in this case should have been easy to avoid altogether. In a childish rage he writes some overwrought variation of “dumbass” in kanji in Lupin’s own blood on the back of his shoulder where he can’t see it.
“Hey, look, sometimes if I feed that damn dog some danger,” he had said while tapping his temple, “it stops barking for a while, and then that’s it, I’m fine. Sometimes if I get hit, things stop being so hazy and I can think again.”
It was a slow, long path to opening up since they were both prone to needling at each other like brats, but Goemon did understand. This particular effect of the blood was another kind of legacy from their families, an amazing asset and a dreadful weak point all at once, a something best left undiscussed in most situations. Yet here they were, occasionally finding comfort in speaking openly about their mental states; small conversations in the secluded corners of safe houses and crowded pubs and restaurants about Goemon’s rituals, about why he was so picky about his food, a few exchanged words about the often unwanted thoughts, wants and visions that sometimes hit Lupin like a truck.
The general agreement between them was that there was something hungry and strange inside of them both, and that this force was very likely to have steered their families to the uniquely, globally volatile careers of thieves, assassins and spies. Impulse, disinhibition, specialized intelligence and a difference in how they saw the world were among the symptoms that ate away swiftly at any ability to follow the rules of everyday society, but each of those things allowed them to paint their own path across the map of the underworld.
“Joan of Arc was like this, too, you know! She heard angels and because of that she set out to upset the whole order of things in France. We’ve done what she did so many hundreds of times over and we’re still not ashes. Yet.” Lupin added with a morbid wink. Goemon thumped him with his sheath in reply, expression turning incredibly dour before Lupin continued. “Guys like you and me have a lot more in common with her than we do other men, right?”
An odd addition, but after a pause Goemon nods, a small and genuine smile crossing his features.
That particular conversation was the start of actual trust between them, a double meaning coming-out discussion where neither of them gave anything away but both of them knew the hands they were dealt were more similar than they could ever have imagined.
Now, in the present on Bylon, they walk side by side out of the restaurant with quick steps to join Jigen as they exchange glances and a few signals out of his line of sight. The snappy movements have anger and glee in them as they make bets in their own personal thieves’ cant on who will be the first to feed the wolves in their skulls revenge for their friend.
A bit longer than our other chapters, but for me and Ms. M this one was an important one. When we started watching Lupin together we saw these questionable but beloved heroes doing things that we do, symptoms that matched ours showing up onscreen or in the pages of the manga. Schizophrenia and its spectrum are so often poorly rendered, used for trauma porn and tasteless drama but here were these underdog heroes acting like we did in a positive and sometimes hilarious light... Not on purpose, maybe, but it was incredible to see and we wanted to see characters work with it and support each other rather than try to "fix" it, and from our experiences it can make for an amazing sensory and narrative backdrop.
Chapter 5: No One Wants to Play
You need rudders for choppy waters, partners to tango, and a maestro for the orchestra. No One Wants to Play (but everyone has a part anyway).
Out of all the things Lupin could be tasting in the morning, anything would be more pleasant than the flavor of vegetable cellulose capsules lingering in his throat and on the back of his tongue. He’d wound up swallowing a handful of his usual supplements dry to punctuate a sentence and was now forced to commit to his hubris and maintain a straight face and a grin to keep up the cool image. In reality? His mouth tastes like he’d just licked a few antique kids meal toys for kicks. Just as soon as Jigen looks away, Lupin chugs coffee directly from the french press with a certain brand of desperation reserved solely for swiftly repairing bad choices and saving face.
Fatefully, Jigen glances over and grins like a wolf before popping the backside of the pitcher with his palm, splashing the lukewarm brew all over Lupin’s face. He relishes in the gurgling cry of dismay he causes before sitting down beside the choking thief.
“Maybe you should slow down and stop puffing up about these guys. I know I had to tell myself that,” Jigen drawls, eyes wandering as his partner hastily cleans up their mess.
“Nah, not my style. These super-spies aren’t about to slow down either right, so why should we?” Lupin flashes his signature sly grin while wiping coffee from his lips. “But if they think I’m going to directly take their bait--” He holds up the copied contract, giving it a thump for emphasis. “--then they’ve got another thing coming.”
“So you think what they did was bait? Those documents there?”
“More or less. It’s too perfect otherwise! And I hate to say it, but we’re gonna need more info.”
“Not chargin’ in, eh?”
“No, not this time. You’re my right hand man and you are still recovering,” Lupin says with a shrug, scooting on his butt across the lumpy, poorly-tiled floor toward their ugly little excuse for a coffee table. “Time to call in Ms. Wikipedia herself,” he says, snatching his phone up with a flourish and sending out a text. “I’m gonna see if Ami can get us anything else on these guys. In the meantime, we can focus on what really matters!”
He pulls a box out from under the couch, full of all kinds of clippings and research papers, most of them clearly printed out at a library--all folklore, sightings, and conspiracy rumors about the legend of the Flying Dutchman. The gunman raises his eyebrows right up into his bangs and smiles.
“I was worried we were gonna have to cancel all your weird, beautiful plans on that one. Still think that thing is real?”
“Of course I do. Now that you’ve seen Bylon and how it moves you should believe a little more in it too.” He jabs at his partner with the corner of a book, which prompts Jigen to dodge with a deft jump up to the back of the couch--
--Only to slip right off of it.
“Jigennnn, you okay, man?”
“Yeah. Can’t be any worse off.” Jigen’s hand pokes around the couch, sporting a thumbs up before he sullenly drags himself over to Lupin’s spot on the floor like a cat embarrassed that it had been witnessed running into something. Lupin hands him a poorly-stapled stack of printed off geocities-era bullshit with a cheeky little smile and they both get right to work poring over arcane texts and tabloid-worthy shrines alike. At some point drinking coffee gives way to the two of them drinking beer, beer giving way to comfortably haziness to arms around shoulders; there’s a warm closeness and familiar rhythm as they pick apart the stories. Which ones were true? Which were probably a crock of shit? Most importantly, they sought out which pieces were lines on the roadmap that would lead them to what they wanted.
Chasing details to chase away the gloom of chasing the past was a method the two of them had used often, compartmentalizing what haunted each other, what fucked with their heads. It almost works this time but the past is determined to chase Jigen down first, in the maze-running cracks through the towering Bylon slums.
While mirror-like knife blades give you the power to peek around corners, the bending of gun-barrels cannot guarantee the same effect; one of ‘em will show whole pictures and the other nothing more than a stretched-out mess of color and movement. Makeshift periscopes can only do so much in this high-stakes game of hide and seek, and when you and your opponent are both notoriously light on your feet, a mere two-dimensional safety check falls woefully short of the necessary precautions. It’s a dangerous game that should end in minimal harm; just like how jaguars and lions play predator and prey to learn how to hunt, so too must the children of the world of assassins.
A presence drops in behind Jigen and he puts his hands up. It's not like the unseen enemy’s knife at the nape of his neck has broken skin yet, but the mere start of this dance shoots the gunman full of adrenaline like an epipen anyway, springing away only to be pinned to a wall by his suit with more knives. Somehow, he's excited more than pissed off or terrified.
Jigen smiles with recognition and speaks a foggy name unburdened of the bitterness of betrayal from a throat not yet torn by smoke and scotch. The knife returns to his neck briefly as an impish threat, only to be replaced by hands on his back that push him into the wall he's pinned to playfully. He breathes in and catches the smells of this long past world: sour alleyway garbage, sweet clove cigarettes, the cologne he hasn’t worn for years now, someone else's cologne he hasn't caught scent of for years either...
It’s some time before Jigen Daisuke wakes up from the (not entirely) unwelcome dream to find Lupin sleeping leaned completely against his back like a limpet--again, not entirely unwelcome… but most certainly odd in the wake of a dream with that particular theming. Half a journal freshly filled with some choice stick figures in addition to actual notes alongside a slew of bottles and mugs and blueprints and schematics carpet the flooring around them, evidence of last night’s personal casing work. Jigen cracks his back with an affected grunt and stands straight up, letting Lupin fall over and hit the floor with a dull thud. He takes his rightful place on the couch, ignoring the resulting confused, sleepy whining from his partner. The two of them could keep planning tomorrow.
There are very few loose ends to tie up before Ami announces her trip to Bylon to Dolma; a few things to automate, completing the routine checks for the month, leaving instructions for tech support on how to run some of her more personal software and setting up a portable window in on the cybersecurity of Padar on her tablet were mundane, usual chores for Ami and didn’t take more than three days to accomplish. Even then that amount of time was only because of compiling times and the actual chore of talking to people. Having a team under her was an insurmountable obstacle cramping her style and though she had learned to be more social and has enjoyed company more and more ever since her series of disasters with Lupin and his gang in France, working with everyday people was another matter entirely, let alone being in charge of those people.
The upside was she didn’t have to sweat small details all on her own anymore. The downside? Just about everything else, if she was being honest.
Between these small jobs she found herself scouring more and more deep places for information on Keima, turning up next to nothing except a report on how digitized archives had found at least a few dozen missing research files on a project by the same name had disappeared almost as soon as they were scanned in from the physical records. Within thirty minutes to half an hour those reports were gone, and the edits were visible but even on a wayback machine proxy the actual files were nowhere to be seen. It didn’t take long to realize she needed to dig into her own past with "Uncle Kuma" first.
She pulled the original files for the schematics she’d drawn up on her implants out of storage, taking a moment to feel nostalgic about the blueprints, both carefully and crudely rendered in ascii characters and thrown into flash to demonstrate interactivity and coding she planned for. The full picture was only truly viewable when zoomed out as far as she could go, and she has to laugh at how backwards and clunky her earlier coding was. Her eyes flicker over the black and white shading, searching her memories and the thousands of dots and slashes for some kind of clue.
“Did you make that?”
The heart attack Ami nearly has makes her break out in a cold, gross sweat, which is about half as embarrassing as the hiccup she makes trying to shut her screen off. “Dolma! You’re so quiet without your jewelry on.”
“I don’t hunt birds by making a ruckus.” the young leader tilts her head at the blackened screen. “I know you did and do lots of secret things, but would you trust me to look? I want to know more about you. Things about me are always in the open to see for almost everyone. It would be nice to share more personal things, more of our secrets, if you are alright with it.”
Dolma’s French was always so formal but she conveys her sentiment well enough and that sentiment does something to Ami. A smile spreads itself across Ami’s face, small and warm and a little bit goofy which was no real surprise when you knew who she learned to smile from. “Yes, I am. I’m alright I mean... It’s something I coded when i was a… when I was little. Dolma… this file is a secret because it’s the original plans for the machines that let me do what only I can do, and what I do for Padar now. I think you should take a look. As the princess.”
“As your friend. As a partner.”
“As… Yes as my friend.” She puts the tablet squarely in Dolma’s hands and takes care that the whole screen blocks eye contact so she doesn’t have to deal with how red her face is getting, and so she doesn’t have to deal with thinking about how it sounded to her like a princess(a friend! A friend! Stop bringing political class into this, she screams at herself) had just essentially asked her out. She was probably reading too much into it, she tells herself, even as she boots up the file with a few voice commands and her cold little nerd hands over Dolma’s warm, rough ones; the file name she reads off is nondescript lists of numbers, long but perfectly memorized despite her voice shaking a little. “It was done in flash, so I’m running it on compatibility it’s so… old and embarrassing. The hardware has also been upgraded since, but this is the origin of Underworld.”
“I couldn’t have done this five years ago, or even two. I’m impressed even if you see the flaws in it.” Ami lets Dolma navigate through the interactive panels that describe the mechanisms of her unique cybernetics.
“The cute little bear that appears when you click the corner.”
“I don’t remember that, let me see.”
Even though she speaks evenly, Ami feels the same kind of freeze she felt when the voice spoke to her through the hacked security microphone. Dolma had found exactly what Ami had been hoping to find. With shaking hands she takes the tablet.
The coding is simple, the bear (an ugly little scribble, definitely 2000s era paint program clip-art that required no effort on Keima’s part) appears with a mouse-over in the far corner. Clicking on it pops up a dialogue box that only allows the option to press “Yes” or “Later”:
[Looking for me again Ami-chan?]
She taps yes… and much to her chagrin the screen fills with seemingly random letters… but she knows exactly what it is and groans.
“My Uncle hid a puzzle in this.” she copies the code and sets it aside in its own file. “He’s lucky I don’t take it to a puzzle subforum and let someone else solve it for me.”
“Uncle? You mean Lupin?”
“I wish it were Lupin. No, someone from before, someone I left behind because I thought I was going to get used. Like you were used against your own country.” The other woman puts an arm around Ami’s shoulder and looks some strange mixture of determined and sympathetic all at once.
“Is this something to do with your trip to Bylon? Honestly that was why I came here tonight. To ask about your trip.” She’s got something else to add, Ami knows, but the pause leaves room for Dolma to listen. She’s always been an ambassador, even when they were younger (maybe even before that, Ami’s sure of it) and that in itself has given Ami room to grow into herself outside of code and commands. The bit of insight Dolma has and the expression of interest in her feelings and how she’s been holding up is… nice. Ami always thought that would feel invasive, since her last experience with it was Fujiko being more perceptive than she had liked, but coming from Dolma it was an open door, something warm and homey in the desert night.
She takes a deep breath. “I’ve known Lupin was in Bylon for some time, and his partner Jigen was injured badly in a conflict with a dangerous group. It has to be bad because Lupin’s calling me for help again.”
“He trusts you very much.” Dolma nods, and allows Ami to continue.
“The way things are going, the way all of this is timed I just...” She gestures to the bear in the corner of her blueprints. “Associates of the man who put this here contacted me, telling me what a good job I’ve done and they even invited me to join them again. I already have so much pulling me in every direction Dolma but what really gets me is before any of this, before I hid in the towers, Uncle Kuma and his group were almost my family. They tried to be.” She takes a deep breath, putting everything together for the first time. “But… I have reason to believe they are the ones attacking Lupin.”
Dolma’s eyes search her face for a moment, probably looking for finality or maybe even exhaustion. Then she takes a deep breath, and turns on her Queen voice.
“Amlita Enan. I’ve decided that Bylon, being a nation of similar technological advancement to Padar and clearly being a nation in the shadows… You will accompany me there. I can’t ignore my country was saved by Underworld… and its namesake. So I will seek diplomacy with the shadows in broad daylight unlike others who attempt to hide it.”
She goes from serious to a sunny smile, her voice returning to a more friendly tone. “Now that I’ve ordered it, you have an official excuse to do whatever you need, to see Lupin and your friends, and I can do business. We will work together this time. I owe you and your real ‘family’ a debt of gratitude.”
In that moment, Ami wants to kiss Dolma she’s so grateful...not so much for the help as for her company.
Arrival and regrouping is short work, casual work; a couple of them were already on the island. One would pose as a pilot, two as passengers (plus one from outside their group as an alibi) and they’d all meet Kaku and Tokin at their new safehouse HQ. The plan rolls past her in waves, just like the clouds she descends through as she goes through the motions of landing procedures for the small, semi-private jet she was currently in charge of.
As far as jobs go, getting all of them together was easy, but as far as Kyoko thought what was supposed to be a swift execution of three to four thieves--even elite thieves--shouldn’t be such a production that they needed to break out some of their top tricks to get the group close. Still, she’d seen firsthand what just two of Lupin’s gang could do, and Kaku had the nerve to laugh at her when she asked him what the fuck had happened to the plane.
Since then? She’d done her homework. Kyoko had honestly thought that the reports of Goemon’s sword were an urban legend at the very most… But, she says that while working among four other urban legends and quickly realizes the irony. Adjusting to the reality and lifestyle of one of the “nobility” of the world of espionage sure was something else. A lot less James Bond than she would have liked and a lot more Twilight Zone than she ever could have imagined.
The landing--despite being on a floating city, different from landing on anything else, even an aircraft carrier-- was as smooth as it could be; weather was good, allowing the passengers to disembark didn’t take long, everything absolutely as perfect as practice. There’s not really anything of note at all until one of the attendants squeals and shoves past Kyoko and through the cramped walkway to… Ah, shit.
Hisha’s current alibi girlfriend, by the looks of things, is someone famous. Again. Sometimes the lowest profile was high profile, but that didn’t mean she had to like dealing with the collateral. Hisha himself, wearing his usual terrible-looking blue shirt with his blazer draped over one arm and smoothing back his chair-screwed red hair with the free hand, gets up past the excited attendant and makes his way down the lane.
“Great flight as always--” his eyes flick down to her name tag, and he winks. “--Captain!” She remains polite but she’s got something chilly in her eyes that makes the damn goofball back up. He acts like he balks at her but she knows exactly what variety of death he’s capable of and is very glad that he’s both on her side and likes her enough to let her boss him around from time to time.
“I’m a top pilot and no sea winds will bother my passengers, sir. When was your performance again? The modern ballet?”
Hisha pats around in his jacket. “Right, right give me a sec. Here.” He produces three tickets and a fourth paper Kyoko only barely catches is folded between the other two. “It’s in two days, you can pick which showing you want with those tickets. Invite some friends if you have time miss, alright?”
At this point, Hisha’s date bounces up the lane, extremely excited about something. Kyoko takes a good look at her, though she doesn’t think a woman with a trendy ombre blue dye job would be any obstacle to memorize, let alone one who constantly appears on television. “Takeshi, Takeshi! I just remembered some friends are in town I need to go invite them to our ballet, too!” She takes him by the arm and squeezes him, almost throwing him into the tiny plane bathroom out of enthusiasm.
“Whoa, whoa, Rebecca, I wanna stretch my legs too but slow down!” He manages to pick her up and a few of the other passengers getting up let out a small shower of applause.
“Oh that’s great! I didn’t know we had a celebrity couple on-board. Rebecca Rossallini, right?”
“Sure am!” She chirps, deliberately re-messing up Hisha’s---no,Takeshi’s, remember, remember that--hair all over again and mashing her cheek against his face. He looks thrilled…while Kyoko tries not to look disgusted. She’d hoped she would have adjusted to this sort of thing by now...but really “Takeshi’s” playboy mastery was of such epic proportions that Kyoko was hard pressed not to eyeroll at at least a solid half of it.
At the very least, with the unwitting help of Rossallini, phase one of their plan was coming to a neat little close. Takeshi and Rebecca’s pas de deux was bound to be one hell of a show.
Annnnnd we're back on schedule, with the Spy Aristocrats finally making more of an appearance.