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The Long Con

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1)

When Laurent was with his second foster family, he discovered Hollywood films. This foster father was a bit of a film aficionado, and Laurent was delighted to discover a stash of movies from countries all around the world—Germany, France, Hong Kong, Sweden, Japan. Laurent devoured them all, even the ones in languages he couldn’t understand yet.

But some of the best were the American ones. He liked to stand in front of a mirror and practice the accents, the gestures, all of which he found incredibly cool. “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate,” he said in Cool Hand Luke’s drawl, mimicked his smile, and then collapsed to the floor, pretending to have been shot.

His favorite film was The Wizard of Oz. When the tornado came and swept Dorothy away from Kansas, he felt an indescribable thrill, an electric buzzing down to his fingertips. When Dorothy opened the door and stepped into technicolor Munchkinland, his heart pounded with excitement and awe. When the Wicked Witch of the West cackled, he felt chills run down his spine. And when Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home,” and then the music kicked up and the end credits rolled, he cried.

After Laurent got passed to his third foster home, he convinced his new guardians to buy him tickets to the movies every weekend. In exchange, he promised not to tell the church about his new foster mother’s alcohol problem. It was a good deal. Adults, he was learning, were easy to manipulate.

For a few months, Laurent was content. He smiled, got good grades, and watched a movie every weekend. He made sure to be a sweet, self-sufficient, and clever child, the type everyone supposedly loved. His foster parents called him charmant, mijn schatje, zo tragisch. His case manager pinched his cheek and said he was going to be very happy here, she was sure of it.

He got passed to his fourth foster home before the school year was over.

Since, evidently, being loveable wasn’t enough to make people want to keep him, Laurent decided that it wasn’t worth the effort. He started ditching school in favor of much more exciting things, like practicing his language skills with friendly tourists, and learning how to pick pockets, and sneaking into cool places using stolen IDs. Although he was really much too young to have any business being there, one of the club owners took a shine to him. In exchange for the tourists’ stolen wallets, the club owner—whose name was Itri—taught Laurent how to play cards, pick up boys and girls, and curse in Tachelhit, as well as many other useful skills. It was delightful.

After Laurent had learned everything he could, he stole Itri’s fancy sports car and immediately crashed it. Itri beat him up and then threw him out of the club.

Laurent ran away from home around that time, and began his wandering life. He met a lot of interesting people over the years. He was still a bit on the young side for some of the things they got up to together, but if he was having fun, then did it really matter? And making new friends was always fun to Laurent. As long as they didn’t expect unrealistic things from him, like empathy and honesty and stop acting like a fucking crazy person, Laurent, everything would be just fine.

Dorothy—the real Dorothy—plucked Laurent out of the streets and dropped him into the world of grifters and con artists. It was the first time he had been surrounded by people who were smarter than him, who were like him. He learned the ropes as fast as he could, hungry for more. He had never played a game that was this much fun before, this fast-paced and topsy-turvy, with such high stakes. Each con felt like amphetamine injected straight into his veins. Reality felt super-saturated, everything in technicolor.

And Dorothy—Dorothy herself was a drug more beautifully addictive than anything money could buy.

“You’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, right?” she asked him when they were in bed together, stroking his hair.

“Mm-hmm,” he replied. He was busy kissing her neck, luxuriating in the feel of her. She moved so fast all the time, he rarely got a chance to just hold her like this.

“It’s my favorite movie. I named myself after it. But if I got swept away by a tornado and landed in Munchkinland, I would never leave! The place looks like so much more fun than boring old Kansas. I would make myself Queen of Oz and set all the munchkins free, and learn how to do magic, and train all the flying monkeys to be nice. Mm, do that again.”

Laurent grazed her nipple with his thumbnail. “You are clearly the rightful ruler, Your Majesty,” he purred in a posh British accent, and gently bit her collarbone.

She giggled. “You won’t believe this, but Oz has never seen the movie! I mean my Oz, our Oz. I keep telling him he’s got to watch it with his family, but he just says his kid’s too old for it.”

“Blasphemy. Nobody’s too old for The Wizard of Oz.”

“Exactly! So he still doesn’t get the joke when I call him Oz the Great and Powerful. It’s hilarious, he’s missing out. He strikes fear in the hearts of all, but the whole time he’s just this old man fiddling on a computer! What a brilliant con. I tried to get Shi-won to go by Glinda but that didn’t stick. She’s like my fairy godmother, did I tell you about how she taught me how to grift? Obviously, she’s no Good Witch, but just between you and me, I’m pretty sure Glinda was actually the best con artist in the whole movie. She was definitely plotting to take over the Land of Oz the whole time. I mean, it was like The Godfather, she picked off every other major power in one fell swoop! Shi-won is definitely Glinda.”

Laurent kissed her on the lips, just long enough so he could get a word in edgewise.

“Sounds like you’ve picked a role for everyone else,” he said playfully. “Which character am I?”

As he asked the question, he was surprised by a flicker of anxiety in his throat. He didn’t know what she saw when she looked at him. He didn’t know what he wanted her to see.

Dorothy’s eyes twinkled mischievously as she laughed. She yanked on his hair, and his dick instantly sprang to attention. Jesus.

“Cute little puppy. You’re whoever I want you to be,” she said.

It was exactly what he needed to hear. The tiny flicker of anxiety vanished into the ether.

Laurent decided that they must be soulmates.

 

 

 

2)

“Take one!” the director shouts. The clapperboard snaps shut, and the scene starts.

Johnny McDonald Chapman, former pimp, star of the Die Hot films, and now American presidential hopeful, jumps off the roof of the arena and rides a zip line over a Texas rodeo. He waves two American flags in his fists as he goes, shouting “I am a patriot! God bless America!” Below him, paid actors cheer and wave signs with VOTE PATRIOT on them.

Laurent lounges in the shade of the arena. His role in this con is the Hollywood film producer. It’s hilarious. He gets to go around in a French beret, a pink chiffon scarf, and a gold monocle, and shout at people with a megaphone, and everyone obeys him without question. The funniest part is that he is, legitimately, a Hollywood film producer. The Die Hot films are only still alive thanks to Laurent’s investments, after Eddie Cassano took an early retirement and moved to Florida. Laurent basically owns the whole franchise.

All the way back during the Cassano con, Laurent had put a mark on Johnny Chapman. In a few years, the man had graduated from yellowface to winning votes on a campaign of racial slurs and corporate tax breaks. And then it was perfectly natural for Laurent—the established producer of Johnny’s beloved films—to offer his services in running Johnny’s TV ad campaign. He gets paid millions of dollars to produce the ads, and in the meantime, he gets front row access to the details of Johnny’s illegal bribes.

It’s because Laurent is a real American patriot, you see.

“Your coffee, Mr. Thierry,” says an intern. (Her name is actually Acacia, and she’s one of Laurent’s newest recruits.)

“Thank you,” Laurent says politely, accepting the coffee. “Could you check if they need any help with the animals?”

“Yes, Mr. Thierry.” The intern hurries off.

Laurent takes a sip of his coffee. Internally, he shudders. Starbucks. He would rather eat cardboard. He sets the coffee down precariously on a nearby chair.

When Johnny Chapman is about halfway down the zip line, sixty feet in the air, Laurent sends a text.

Johnny’s progress suddenly halts. He kicks his feet and looks around, still waving his flags. After a minute of dangling there, he shouts at the director: “What’s the big idea!?”

“Just a minor technical issue!” replies the director, whose name is actually Enofe and who’s been working with Laurent for two years. “We’re getting it fixed as fast as we can! Please hold!”

“Shit. This take’s a bust, then.” Johnny shakes his flags at the cameramen. “Hey, are you filming this!? Stop filming!”

Laurent gives him another five minutes, just hanging out there to dry. Johnny’s hands start to sweat. At the five-minute mark, he drops one of the flags, and it lands in the dirt with a sad thump. “Fuck,” Johnny says. The actors and film crew giggle at him.

With one hand, Laurent nudges his coffee over the edge of the chair. With his other hand, he sends the second text.

A flock of pigeons launches into the air. They swoop over the arena and then descend en masse onto the zip line and Johnny’s hair, all thirty of them trained to target Johnny with military precision. Johnny screeches, trying to defend himself by batting at the birds with the American flag. But the flag is no match for the magnificent splattering power of birdshit. The bombs land on his suit, his hair, his face. The camera rolls.

By tomorrow, Johnny McDonald Chapman will go viral as the presidential hopeful who got pooped on by birds while stuck on a zip line.

“Oops,” Laurent says, and smiles. He points at the spilled coffee on the ground. “Could someone come clean up this mess, please?”

Stage one of the con is a success.

If everything goes according to plan, the Chapman con will take another three months and net Laurent $200 million, minus the cost of investments. It’ll be more than enough to recoup his losses from the Suzaku/Longhu con, which admittedly put him a bit in the red. And things will almost definitely go according to plan. Johnny is such a perfect mark that he practically cons himself.

But for some reason, the con feels unsatisfying. Everyone has been so predictable. He’s been modifying the script to push things further, add more excitement, but it doesn’t seem to help.

Laurent is bored.

Maybe the problem is that he needs to get used to his new team. Many of them have never met Laurent before, and aren’t very good at improvising with him. He misses working with Cynthia and Abby, who always performed far beyond expectations and never needed any hand-holding. Shi-won and Kudo are still active, but they won’t play a role in the con until stage three.

Alone in his hotel room, Laurent takes out the little gacha toy of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and sets it on the windowsill.

“What do you think, Hide-kun?” he asks. “What am I missing?”

Hideyoshi gazes up at him in stern silence.

Maybe Laurent is just lonely.

He calls up Enofe, who is a very good friend and agrees to spend the night. In the morning, Laurent wakes up late, with a fun ring of love bites on his hip, alone in his bed. That creeping sense of ennui is still there. He rests his hands over his stomach and stares thoughtfully at the light fixtures on the ceiling. It occurs to him, out of the blue, that he’s been to so many places that all the hotels are starting to look the same.

He flips onto his stomach and pouts at Hideyoshi.

“Is this burnout that I’m feeling?” he asks. “Am I working too hard, is that it?”

Today, Laurent is scheduled to deliver a bribe of $500,000 to Johnny. It’ll kick off stage two of the con, giving Laurent blackmail material and the leverage he needs to drag Johnny through a series of increasingly terrible campaign decisions. He counts out the dollar bills and puts them in a suitcase around noon, and sets the suitcase down in front of Johnny at two o’clock.

“Wonderful!” says Johnny, shaking Laurent’s hand. “This is going to get me back on my feet after that damned pigeon video!”

“Of course, my pleasure,” Laurent says with a smile.

Johnny opens the suitcase, and finds it packed full of scrap paper.

They both stand there for a second. Laurent blinks in astonishment. What happened to the money? Did he make a mistake? But, no—he definitely put $500,000 in that suitcase.

And yet here it is. A suitcase full of worthless paper.

Laurent’s heartrate picks up. His fingers tingle with warmth.

“Laurent,” Johnny says. “What the fuck is this?”

Johnny’s campaign manager suddenly bursts into the room. “Johnny, come quick!” she says. “It’s an emergency!”

“What!? Damn it, I’m coming.” He jabs a finger at Laurent. “We’re not finished,” he says, and then charges out of the room.

Laurent stays behind. He pulls the suitcase closer and runs his fingers over the metal buckles.

Someone must have switched the suitcases without Laurent noticing. There’s a very short list of people Laurent knows who could pull that off.

In his pocket, his phone rings.

For a brief, confusing moment, hope breaks through his chest in a vivid flash. He breathes in, a gasp of surprise.

He pulls out the phone and sees that it’s Cynthia.

So it was her. Laurent feels, oddly enough, like a balloon that just got punctured. He clears his throat, and answers the phone.

“Cynthia, hello,” he says smoothly. “What a pleasant surprise.”

“Good evening, Laurent,” she says, sounding unreasonably cheerful. “Well, afternoon, for you. Did you like my present?”

Laurent snaps the suitcase closed. “It’s charming, thank you. How many members of my crew did you pay off?”

“A lady doesn’t kiss and tell,” she chides him. “My dear, what are you doing still down in Texas? Aren’t you supposed to be going somewhere?”

Laurent is caught off guard, for the third time in a row. Today is really not his day. “Going somewhere?”

“If you don’t go to Japan soon, you’ll miss the grand opening.”

Ah.

Laurent knows what this is about.

In his head, he pulls out his mental folder marked TINMAN. It contains everything he knows about Cynthia Moore. Her place and date of birth. Her upbringing. Her personal and professional history. Her two children, adopted from the Suzaku con—first Kawin, and then, once she learned that he wanted a little brother, Binh. Her hopes and dreams. Her darkest secrets.

Cynthia has officially retired from the conning business. She still keeps in touch with the team and might be convinced to play a small role or two, if it’s safe. But her primary goal now is to focus on being a parent. Her alleged reason is that she felt her motherly instincts kick in when she met Kawin for the first time. The real, unspoken reason is that she wants a vessel she can pour her love into, who will depend on her, who won’t have any choice but to accept her. She is kind, but selfish. She loves her children, but doesn’t really know them.

She also despises Laurent. She liked his jokes, until Coleman happened and the joke was on her. She has quietly nursed a grudge against him ever since.

Laurent flips through the folder and adds a new entry. Too much free time in retirement, new hobby is meddling in other people’s drama for fun. Exhibit A.

“I have to admit, I never predicted this from you,” he says. “Are you taking revenge on me? Is that why you stole my five hundred grand?”

She laughs. “I didn’t just steal your money. A friend of mine is very interested in making a deal with that future American president of yours.”

Laurent feels his smile widen. It’s an emergency, the campaign manager had said. “Don’t tell me. Did you just steal my con?”

“Your Johnny boy is such a lovely mark,” she coos. “Wherever did you find such a sweetheart?”

“Hey, I worked very hard to soften him up. Poaching my mark is hardly good sportsmanship.”

On the other end of the phone, Cynthia cackles.

Laurent leans his hip against the table. She is having entirely too much fun with this. “Are you going to give my con back any time soon?”

“No, definitely no. Not until you go to Japan.”

So she’s holding his con hostage. Laurent is impressed.

“I have no reason to be going to Japan,” he says slowly.

She tuts at him. “You’re not fooling anyone. I don’t know why you even try. Here, now I’ve cleared your schedule for you. So go on!”

“Cynthia…” He hesitates, trying to work out the best way to say this. “If I go, I have a feeling that things won’t end well for me.”

“Well, maybe this isn’t about you, Laurent.” Her voice shifts, becoming warmer, gentler. “Listen, he’d never admit it, but I think he wants you to be there. So you should be there.”

Laurent blinks. “He wants me to be there?”

“No more hints,” she says, going back to her usual tone. “If you want to know more, you’ll have to find out yourself.”

Laurent reaches into his pocket and touches the Hideyoshi figure.

Well. He was getting bored in America, anyways.

Laurent takes an overnight flight to Japan. When he lands, he buys a nice cat-shaped hair clip and a bottle of top-shelf sake. In the Kyoto train station, he gets ambushed by Shi-won.

“Is that for me?” she asks with a laugh, making grabby hands at the sake. “I’ll take that as payment for my services!”

“Hold on, what services?” Laurent says, hiding the bottle behind his back and grinning. “Noona, I haven’t seen you in months, and this is how I’m treated!”

“And I haven’t missed your sorry mug at all!” With some complicated footwork and a sleight of hand, Shi-won gets ahold of the sake. “Ah-hah! There we go. To answer your question, I’m here to make sure you actually get to the grand opening.”

Laurent raises his eyebrows. “You’ve been speaking to Cynthia. This is a conspiracy. I’m being conspired against.”

“It’s your fault for moping around like a fool. It makes me depressed just looking at you.”

“I do not mope,” Laurent says, offended.

“Sure,” Shi-won says, dripping with sarcasm. “Anyways, Cynthia had the right idea. We’re doing this as a favor to the kid. After all the shit you put him through, he deserves something nice on his special day.”

“And I’m something nice?” he asks in disbelief.

Shi-won slaps him on the ass. “There’s no accounting for taste! So you’d better make sure to behave.”

Laurent pouts. “You’re asking too much from me.”

In the taxi, Laurent keeps one hand on the Hideyoshi figure and watches the landscape go by. His mind wants to race ahead, throwing an endless stream of contingency plans and scenarios at him, the way it does when he’s at the final stage of a con. But this way of thinking will get him into trouble in no time. He forces himself to slow down.

It’s important to remember that there’s no con, here. There’s only Edamura Makoto.

Laurent carefully retrieves his mental folder marked EDAMAME. It’s a hopelessly disorganized mess. The pages have a tendency to scatter all over the place, leaving bits of random Edamame-related thoughts in unexpected corners. He’s there in the glint of a gold watch, the smell of engine grease, a specific shade of dark maroon. It’s difficult for Laurent to get a handle on him.

Edamame has been doing well, or so he hears. Laurent hasn’t spoken to him since they parted ways after the Suzaku con, almost a year ago. But he’s been keeping tabs on him since then. He knows about Edamame’s research on Japan’s coffee culture; how he picked his coffee beans and wrestled his menu into shape; his hunt for a perfect location, before settling on this little corner in Kyoto that’s more kiosk stand than café. And he also knows that Edamame specifically hired another ex-con to be his assistant. The reason isn’t hard to figure out, if you know how much Edamame struggled to find a good job because of his conviction record. And Laurent, of course, knows that too.

Today is opening day for Edamame’s little coffee shop. This day is deeply important to Edamame—for the first time, it’ll be something he well and truly owns. He wants to carve out a safe haven for people like himself, people who are looking for a fresh start, a second chance. It would mean a lot for him if his friends came to support him.

Laurent knows this and more. It’s how he also knows that Edamame has washed his hands of the whole conning business. He’s done with Laurent.

The taxi pulls up at the curb, and Laurent feels his fingertips tingle, ready for locks to pick, wallets to steal. A few blocks away, he spots a feudal-era castle in pristine condition. Tourist attraction, he notes. Decent foot traffic. Near the trendy downtown area, but sequestered somewhere quiet.

He pays the taxi driver and gets out of the car. There’s a small crowd gathered around what looks like a remodeled shed. A simple sign over the top reads COFFEE in black letters. Green ivy hangs out of one of the windows. Somebody’s bike—Edamame’s?—rests in the back against a wall. A chalk sign set up on the sidewalk says, in both Japanese and English, Grand Opening! Special Promotion All Coffee ¥100.

“Quaint,” Laurent comments.

“Damn, we’re late,” Shi-won says. “There’s already a line.”

And then he hears Edamame laugh.

Something fizzles and pops in Laurent’s stomach. He never was a patient man. He cups his hands around his mouth and yells, in Japanese with his thickest French accent, “Is that my friend I see!?”

The crowd turns to look at him, startled. He beams, radiating friendly-but-clueless tourist energy, and begins to wade forward. “Hello, hello!” he shouts, waving his arms in the air. The crowd parts around him, too stunned to resist.

Edamame pops his head out of the door at the commotion.

His hair’s gotten long enough to pull back in a ponytail. A thick strand has escaped the hairband and is curled on top of his head, perched like a curious bird. He stares at Laurent with wide brown eyes.

“Oh, shit,” he says in English. “It’s you.”

He makes an irritated face, and then ducks back into the shop.

Jesus. Laurent missed him.

“Edamame, save us a seat!” Shi-won shouts in English, laughing. “I brought you a present and everything!”

She smacks Laurent on the back and shoves him through the door.

The first thing that hits Laurent is a waft of fresh coffee ground fragrance. The shop is pleasantly warm inside. Quiet jazz plays in the background. The countertops are wooden, and the walls are a soft brown. Kettles and coffee servers hang from a rack behind the bar and seem to glow in the yellow light. There’s enough room for a maximum of eight people to sit at the bar or by the windows, while the rest of the customers wait for their to-go orders standing. And there is a steady stream of customers, cooing praises and snapping photos on their phones. Edamame’s assistant, who Laurent already knows is named Kohei, 46 years old, released from prison on parole four months ago, is studiously taking people’s orders.

Edamame mutters something in Japanese to Kohei. Kohei nods, and then Edamame walks up to Laurent.

“You’re here,” he says, and stops. They stare at each other for a second. Laurent takes in his cute ponytail, his apron. Edamame’s face looks like it can’t quite settle on an expression.

“It’s a lovely place,” Laurent says. “You’ve done well for yourself.”

Edamame’s face breaks out into a proud, beaming smile. “Haven’t I?”

There you are, Laurent thinks. He smiles back.

Edamame turns away. “Shi-won! I’m so glad you could make it! Did I hear you brought me a present?” His darling accent is still the same.

Shi-won brandishes Laurent’s stolen bottle of sake. “Here you go, kid! You really went and became a small-business owner, good for you!”

He laughs, taking the sake. “Thank you! Come on, let me show you to the back. You’re going to crowd out my customers.”

In the back is the kitchen where Edamame cooks the sandwiches and snacks on his menu. He grabs two plastic chairs and installs Laurent and Shi-won in the corner furthest from the stove, next to the bags of coffee beans. Upstairs, Laurent knows, is where Edamame lives.

“Cynthia wanted to come, but she’s got to watch the kids,” Shi-won explains. “She wanted me to tell you congratulations.”

“Oh, no, I understand. Tell her I appreciate the thought.”

“And those other two scoundrels, Abby and Kudo? Where are they?”

“Abby came by earlier in the morning, she couldn’t stay for long. I think Kudo’s on his way. I’ve got to go back to work, but are you guys hungry?”

Shi-won claps her hands together excitedly. “I could eat a horse!”

“Horse is not on the menu,” he says drily, but he’s smiling. “And you, Laurent?”

Laurent smiles up at him. “I’ll take the chef’s special.”

Edamame snorts. “I literally only make like, three things. Okay, give me a second.”

He steps out the door to the shop front. Laurent hears him greeting customers and giving instructions to Kohei. He laughs more often than he ever did in a con.

A bit of showmanship flair, a bit of customer-service charm, and that deep current of earnestness that’s all Edamame—it’s no wonder that the coffee shop, small though it is, instantly achieved popularity. The location and atmosphere are ideal. If the coffee and food are good, too, then Laurent knows he’ll have no trouble maintaining his success.

Edamame swoops back into the kitchen and presses two steaming cups of coffee into their hands. Laurent is so surprised that he doesn’t even try to flirt about their fingers brushing.

“Here. Give me five more minutes,” he says. Then he goes to the stove and starts to cook.

Laurent blows on the coffee and takes a sip. Delicate flavors bloom on his tongue. Berries, chocolate, and notes of lemon. Freshly ground Yirgacheffe beans via pour over. It’s a mellow, calming coffee.

“Mm,” he says, fluttering his eyes closed. “Perfect.”

“Shit, this is actually really good,” Shi-won says. She takes a deep drink and sighs contentedly.

Edamame laughs. “Why are you so surprised?”

“I’m more of an Irish coffee kind of gal. But this is nice too.”

Laurent opens his eyes and watches Edamame slice a fresh loaf of bread. His hands move quickly and gracefully. Laurent never bothered to learn how to cook. Maybe he should—home cooking is a popular seduction technique. He can see the appeal now, watching this man work. Laurent drinks his coffee, his eyes tracking Edamame around the kitchen.

Edamame makes them ham and cheese sandwiches, cut into wedges. It’s simple, but it tastes good in a homey sort of way. It pairs nicely with the coffee. Yes, this shop is going to do very well.

Laurent and Shi-won hang out in Edamame’s kitchen for a few hours. Kudo arrives soon after they do, and gushes praise about every little detail about the shop. Laurent pulls out his mental folder marked SCARECROW, and notes that Kudo feels proud of Edamame for accomplishing what he never could do: start an honest business. Kudo does, however, feel a bit miffed that Edamame never went to him for business advice. It would have been a terrible idea, of course; Kudo almost certainly would have turned Edamame into an accidental tax evader. That doesn’t stop Kudo from feeling left behind.

Laurent cross-references this note to his folder marked CHAPMAN, DC, and decides to beef up Kudo’s role in that con a little. Just to keep him occupied.

Around 3pm, the stream of customers starts to slow, and Edamame has more time to spend in the back with them. He introduces Kohei, after first warning them that he’s trying to keep his shady past under wraps. They avoid mentioning anything illegal. Instead, they catch up by talking about the coffee shop, where everyone has been, interesting encounters. Laurent shows Edamame the pigeon poop video. It makes Edamame look distressed, which Laurent thinks is hilarious.

“I feel bad for Johnny,” Edamame says, entirely honest.

Behave, Laurent reminds himself.

He puts his phone away. “My apologies. I forgot you tend to do that.”

Edamame shoots him an unimpressed look. “To have basic human decency?”

“It slips my mind sometimes.”

At this point, Edamame should have accused him of callousness, or rolled his eyes, or done something else to shut Laurent down. But instead, he gets a thoughtful look.

“Well, it was pretty funny,” he admits.

Laurent blinks.

The shop closes at 4pm, and Edamame cleans up and lets Kohei go home. The four former members of Team Confidence move out to the coffee bar and break out the sake. It’s almost like old times. They celebrate Edamame’s successful grand opening, and Edamame is moved almost to tears. They enjoy themselves without a care in the world. Just for fun, Laurent sets up some fake accounts on his phone and leaves glowing reviews for the coffee shop on a handful of international forums.

Edamame looks exhausted, though. He must have been nervous about today. Laurent knows that the coffee shop opens at 6am, which means Edamame woke up at 4am to start preparing the baked goods and coffee grounds. He starts yawning into his drink, and the others take that as their cue to leave.

Shi-won, in an out-of-character moment of sentimentality, wraps Edamame in a bear hug. Kudo congratulates him one last time, looking misty-eyed.

It’s incredible, the way Edamame brings people to care for him.

Before she leaves, Shi-won elbows Laurent in the ribs. “Don’t blow it,” she hisses, squinting up at him.

“Such little faith,” Laurent says lightly. “I’ll be on my best behavior, noona.”

He lingers at the bar while the others leave. The door swings shut. As Edamame walks back toward him, Laurent pulls the hair clip out of his bag and sets it on the bar top.

Edamame steps behind the bar, rubbing his eyes tiredly. “What’s that?”

“Something to remember me by,” he says, and winks.

Edamame stares at him. He approaches the hair clip cautiously, like it might be a wild animal, liable to bite.

“…How do you do that?” he asks.

“Do what?”

Edamame touches his fingers on the little porcelain black cat and frowns down at it. “You always seem to know the things that I want.”

“Maybe it’s because I’m always thinking of you,” Laurent jokes. Well. It’s mostly a joke.

Edamame doesn’t try to brush it off. He raises his head and just…looks at him. His eyes are bright, and his cheeks are flushed from the alcohol.

“Thanks,” he says. He looks down and fiddles with the metal edge. “It was—good to see you again, Laurent.”

Laurent smiles.

He should end it here. Today has gone smoothly, as perfectly as he could have hoped. He should say goodbye now and leave Edamame to his coffee shop, and his honest life, and his quiet joy. This will be a nice memory for them both.

But Laurent has been so bored lately. And he’s never figured out how to stop pushing for more.

“Edamame, did you miss me?” he asks.

Edamame tenses. He looks up at him with narrowed eyes. Laurent can see him thinking, considering and discarding different responses. He licks his lips and opens his mouth.

“Maybe I have,” Edamame says.

Laurent’s smile widens.

“You’re not denying it?”

“Yeah, well.” Edamame looks away and busies himself with cleaning up their sake glasses. “Maybe I’m sick of lying to myself.”

Laurent laughs. Giddily, he sweeps his eyes up and down this man. Dear Edamame has changed quite a bit since the last time they’d spoken, on that boat in the East China Sea. In what other ways has he changed?

“So it’s true, then. You thought of me. You wanted to see me.”

“Don’t let it get to your head,” Edamame snaps, shooting a glare at him. “I still think you’re a pain in the ass.”

“Aw, I missed you too, ma moitié,” he croons.

Edamame’s flush darkens. He jabs a finger at him. “You have no right to talk like that. You haven’t bothered to show your face for a whole year. I didn’t even get a single text!”

Laurent takes the opportunity to pluck Edamame’s hand out of the air and wrap his own hands around it, a beseeching motion. “Forgive me, mon cœur. I was afraid you would find my presence unwelcome. I didn’t want to disturb you. You’ve been working so hard to put the past behind you.”

“Like I’d believe that,” Edamame accuses. “You probably just got caught up in a new con and forgot all about me.”

Laurent drops his head and presses a chaste kiss to the back of Edamame’s hand. “Nonsense. I could never forget you.”

He looks up—and suddenly Edamame is right there, he’s leaning across the bar, and he’s kissing him.

Edamura Makoto is kissing him.

Laurent’s whole body lights up like a firework. He grips Edamame’s hand and pulls him closer, shutting his eyes. The edge of the bar is digging into his hips in a kind of uncomfortable way, but that doesn’t matter, nothing at all matters except how soft Edamame’s lips are, how fumbling and eager. Laurent parts his mouth and licks at those lips. Teasing, hopeful. His mind is a chorus singing yes, yes, yes—ow!

Pain shoots from his bottom lip. Laurent’s eyes fly open, and he jerks back.

Edamame’s eyes burn into Laurent. His whole face is red. He reaches out and shoves Laurent in the chest.

That’s for being such a fucking bastard,” he growls.

Laurent gapes at him. Edamame just bit him. On the mouth. As a power play. This is both incredibly hot and rather alarming. His dick is hopelessly confused right now.

“I thought you were supposed to be the nice one,” he manages to say.

Edamame just smiles sharply at him, a quick flash of teeth. Ah, alright. Laurent’s dick is no longer confused.

“You missed me, huh?” Edamame says. It’s a challenge, a dare. He’s calling his bluff.

Laurent swallows, and folds like a stack of cards. “Very much.”

Edamame leans forward and rests his elbows on the bar top. “Do you want to know me, Laurent?”

Do you want to know me.

Laurent knows so much about Edamame already. He’s been collecting little truths about him since before they’d even met. The things that he loves and cherishes. The things that keep him up at night. The parts of himself that he used to hate. Exactly how far to push before he snaps. And yet Laurent still wants to know more, to dig deeper, to push further. He’s not sure why. Laurent loves knowing people in general. But with Edamame, the temptation extends beyond that, to something almost like an obsession. He’s always greedy for more news about him, always trying to piece together what’s going on in his mind. He wants to break him open like a vault and touch all the beautiful cracks in his heart. 

So yes. Laurent wants to know him.

Edamame’s eyes are dark and unwavering. Laurent feels uncomfortably seen.

The problem with getting to know someone, sadly, is that they tend to get to know you back.

“I do,” Laurent sighs, defeated.

Edamame nods to himself. He takes a fortifying breath.

“Okay. You can get to know me, Laurent,” he says. “But properly. No more cheating.”

Laurent blinks owlishly at him. “How do you mean?”

“I mean you’re not allowed to make other people spy on me for you anymore. Come to the shop again next Saturday. And then we’ll...talk. Like normal people do.”

Laurent feels hope begin to spread through his chest, like the slow break of dawn. “Edamame. Are you asking me on a date?”

Edamame frowns. His eyes skitter away, and the tips of his ears go pink. “I don’t know. Maybe?”

He is so incredibly cute. How can one man contain such multitudes? Laurent, despite the throbbing of his lip, cannot seem to stop smiling. “Then it’s a date. It’s definitely a date. I can hardly believe this. After all these years, you’ve finally succumbed to my advances.”

“I did not—succumb.” Edamame rubs his face. “Ugh. I can’t tell if I regret this or not.” He waves vaguely at the door of the coffee shop. “We’re done for today, Laurent. Get out of my shop. I need to process.”

Laurent laughs. “Ah, no, mon doudou, so soon? I feel like I’ve only just started talking to you. Let me stay a little longer.”

“Nope, sorry.” Edamame glares up at him. “I’m setting a boundary. This is called a boundary, okay? If I ask you to leave my shop, I need you to leave my shop. Or we can’t do this.”

Boundaries. Laurent feels a flicker of anxiety in his throat. He can do this, he can do one simple boundary. “Alright. I’ll go. I’m going. But I just have one more question before I leave, please.”

“What is it?”

“Was I your first kiss?”

Edamame blushes furiously. “You were not,” he hisses, and kicks Laurent out of his shop.

Laurent still can’t stop smiling on his way back to the airport. He owes Cynthia a huge payout from the Chapman con. And Shi-won, too. He keeps touching his lips compulsively, running his tongue over the little bruise. His head replays their conversation on loop.

He’s going on a date. With Edamura Makoto.

At the airport gate, Laurent pulls out his phone and calls Ozaki Seiji.

Oz picks up on the first ring.

“What did you do now, Laurent?” he asks in a tired voice.

Laurent can’t hold it in anymore. He laughs. And keeps laughing. He doubles over in the airport chair and covers his face with one hand, his elbow propped on his knee, laughing and laughing.

“I’m fucked,” he wheezes.

It takes five minutes for the laughter to work through his system, until it peters out into weak giggles. Oz waits patiently.

“So,” Oz finally says, his voice toneless. “I see that you talked to Makoto again.”

Laurent sits back in the chair and smiles, closing his eyes. “That’s right, old man. He told me I’m not allowed to spy on him anymore. So instead we’re going on a date. You know, I think your son likes me.”

Oz sighs with infinite weariness.

Laurent snickers. He pulls out his mental folder labeled OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, and scribbles in, Expected retirement to be more restful.

“Are you actually going to stop paying your informants?” Oz asks.

“Hmm. Probably. I’ll try it for a week, at least. Could be fun, to learn about someone just by talking to them.”

“Well, let me know how long that lasts.”

Laurent opens his eyes and contemplates the airport ceiling. “I couldn’t help but notice that you weren’t around today, old man.”

Oz is quiet for a second. “It was for the best.”

“Are you sure? I thought it would have been best if I stayed in America, myself, but he actually seemed happy to see me.”

“You say that now,” Oz says. “But you know this is a bad idea. That’s why you called, isn’t it? You only call me when a plan of yours goes wrong.”

Laurent hums. “Can’t I just want to hear your fatherly voice?”

But it’s true, he knows. This whole trip was a terrible idea. Laurent was fucked the moment he met Edamame’s eyes again.

“If you want my fatherly advice so much,” Oz says, “I think you should probably call him and explain that you can’t make it to your date. It’ll hurt for a bit. But you’ll both be able to move on quickly, when it’s early stages like this. Better than dragging things on until you cause some real damage.”

“You’re such a pessimist.”

“I’m a realist.”

“Where’s your romantic soul, Oz?”

“This isn’t going to end well for at least one of you,” he says. It lands with a thud, the dull ring of a prophecy.

Laurent wraps his palm around the Hideyoshi figure and presses his knuckles up against his mouth. His lip stings. His heart feels like it’s expanding and breaking at the same time. He looks out the window at the night’s darkness, smiling into the pain.

“I know,” he says. “But I think I’ll risk it anyways.”

Chapter Text

 

3)

At a posh red brick house in Birmingham, UK, Laurent rings the doorbell. After Cynthia answers the door, he reveals a bouquet of flowers from behind his back with a dramatic flourish.

“You look beautiful, ma petite fleur,” he says. “I have come to apologize.”

Cynthia’s eyes dance with secret laughter. She’s wearing a simple sweater and jeans and has her hair in a messy bun. She also isn’t wearing any makeup—a first for Laurent. The laughter lines around her eyes are visible now, but she is, of course, still effortlessly beautiful. She reaches out and flicks the lapels of his vest teasingly.

“Groveling for forgiveness, ma puce? Whatever will the neighbors think?”

The neighbors, he knows, have been speculating wildly about the mysterious wealthy woman who moved in last year with two adopted children and immediately began to take over local politics. The two dominant theories are that she’s either secretly a noble returned from living abroad, or a part-time member of the MI6.

He smiles. “I thought you would appreciate an opportunity to stir up a bit of scandal.”

“Hm. Apology accepted.”

Cynthia takes the bouquet and lets him into her house. As she goes to find a vase for the flowers, Kawin comes down the stairs.

“Who is it, Cynthia?” Kawin asks.

“It’s Laurent, one of my old friends. You remember him?”

Kawin hit his growth spurt a few months ago, and he’s been burning through clothes and shoes almost as fast as Cynthia buys them. His lanky limbs used to have a hungry look about them, but they’re filling out now. His face is perennially calm.

He looks at Laurent, and then at the bouquet of flowers. He comes up to Cynthia and helps her put them in a vase.

“What are these called?” he asks.

“It’s a bouquet I got for your mother,” Laurent says, subtly swapping out his French accent for his British one. Wouldn’t do for Kawin to learn the wrong pronunciations. “The pink ones are called pincushions. The purple are lavender. The yellow are garden roses. And the red are poppy. It’s well advised for a man to know his way around giving flowers to a woman, you know.”

“Careful around this one,” Cynthia shoots back, “he’s a bad influence.”

Kawin touches a poppy. It has deep red petals, with four black marks at the base, like thumbprints.

“The red are poppy,” he repeats quietly. His expression is grave.

At the top of the stairs, Laurent spots Binh poking his head out to spy on Laurent, clutching a stuffed fox in his hands. His eyes are huge. When Laurent smiles and waves, Binh giggles, and then ducks out of sight.

“Well, I suppose we should talk business then,” Cynthia says. “Kawin, thank you for your help. Could you be a dear and finish reading the story for Binh? Dinner at 6.”

Kawin nods, and silently leaves the room. Laurent watches him go.

“The kids seem to be doing well,” he notes.

“It’s been an adjustment, but I think we’re making it work. I’m certainly glad to have them.”

“You’re a good mother.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere.” But she looks pleased. “So, what can I do for you, Laurent?”

He gives her his most charming smile. “Are you really going to make me say it?”

She crosses her arms and raises her eyebrows. He sighs.

“Will you give my con back, Cynthia?”

She smiles, tapping her finger on her cheek. “Hmm, I don’t know. What’s my cut?”

“Two percent.”

“Make that five.”

“That’s highway robbery! I’ll offer three percent. And you can keep the five hundred thousand, for your troubles.”

“Tempting.” She cocks her head. “But I’m missing the magic word.”

Motherhood has made Cynthia a tyrant. Laurent pouts at her. “Pretty please, mademoiselle?”

She hems and haws over it for a while, before finally nodding. “That’ll do. Alright, you can have your con back.” She pulls out her phone and starts to text.

Internally, Laurent breathes a sigh of relief. Chapman was a boring con, but he still misses it. He has so many plans for Johnny.

“So, how was seeing Edamame again?” Cynthia asks as she texts. “Was it as bad as all that?”

“Oh, it’s much worse. We’re going on a date this weekend.”

Cynthia barks with sudden laughter. She lowers the phone to grin at Laurent. “A date? Really! Whose idea was that?”

“It was his, actually. I’m innocent.”

She laughs again. “Of course it was him! He always did have more guts than you.” She turns back to her phone, chuckling to herself. “If you break his heart, I’m going to bury you. But I wish you both good luck.”

She means it. In his TINMAN folder, Laurent overlays this information with his older notes. Cynthia has given up on finding romantic love for herself, and has decided to be happy with her kids, for now. But that won’t stop her from meddling with her friends’ love lives. And she is grateful to Edamame, still, for how he helped her in London. This wasn’t about revenge on Laurent at all.

If she can’t have her happy ending, then Edamura Makoto damn well will.

“You set us up,” Laurent accuses. “You knew he was going to ask me out.”

“Well, I didn’t know that. Our dear little soybean is full of surprises. But I knew you wouldn’t be able to just walk away from him.”

“Hey now. Am I getting that predictable?”

She shoots him an amused glance over her phone. “You’re not as hard to figure out as you’d like, Laurent.”

Well. That’s a disturbing thought.

“I think you could be cute together,” she goes on cheerfully. “You’re both peculiar enough to be able to deal with each other’s peculiarities, it’s adorable. Just don’t cock it up, Laurent, alright, my dear?”

“Yes, yes, or you’ll bury me,” Laurent sighs, without much hope. He is so fucked. “You should go see him sometime. He missed you on opening day.”

Cynthia’s eyes dart briefly upstairs, to where Kawin and Binh had gone. “Yes—someday soon, I hope. But not yet.” She puts her phone down, and her eyes go distant, gazing at nothing. “I’d rather not leave them right now. And I don’t think they’re ready to meet him yet. I think—soon, someday soon, but not…”

Laurent hums. “I understand.”

None of them want to talk about the last time any of the kids had seen Edamame’s face.

Laurent has a plane to catch, so he doesn’t stay for dinner. He talks with Cynthia a little longer, then wishes her well. He kisses her on the cheek goodbye and steps outside.

Kawin is just down the street, waiting for him.

Laurent smiles. All teenagers should have the ability to sneak in and out of their parent’s house, in his opinion.

“Hello, Kawin,” he says, walking up to him. “Did you want to talk to me?”

“Yes,” Kawin says. “Your name is Laurent?”

“That’s right.”

“Are you really friends with Cynthia?”

“I like to think so, yes. We’ve known each other for years now.”

Kawin watches him with calm eyes. “Cynthia is lying to us, isn’t she?” he says. “She said you guys were spies, and you were trying to break us free, so it was all pretend. But you’re not really spies. And you didn’t really do it for us. Who are you?”

Only fourteen, and already so smart.

“If I told you the truth, your mother will get mad at me,” Laurent says.

Kawin curls his hands into fists. He has a spine of steel, this kid. Laurent is liking him more and more.

“Why is she lying to us?” he asks.

“Because she loves you.”

“How do you know that? Who even are you?”

Laurent switches to Central Thai, and says: “I know everything, my friend.”

Kawin’s eyes widen.

Smiling, Laurent switches back to British English. “Trust me. Everything your mother does, she does out of love. And she loves you and your brother more than anything. Someday, when she’s ready, she might even tell you the truth.”

Kawin watches him cautiously, not responding. Laurent walks past him and waves goodbye over his shoulder.

“Take care, Kawin. You’re free now. You can become whoever you want to be.”

 

 

 

4)

From the latest campaign stop, in Iowa, Laurent takes his private jet to Japan. He times it so he arrives at the coffee shop at 1pm exactly. The first-day crowd is gone, but there’s still a healthy flow of customers. The chalk sign on the sidewalk now reads, Summer Special! Iced Boba. Someone has drawn a cartoon of a boba tea with a smiley face.

Laurent enters the shop, soaking in all the little differences. There’s a new plant at the window. The chairs and utensils have been rearranged to better accommodate foot traffic. Kohei is behind the counter, and he seems to be alone.

Laurent feels acutely the week’s lack of information. He had managed to distract himself by keeping busy with his other cons, but his patience is wearing thin. He goes up to Kohei, breezily ignoring the line.

“Hello, Kohei,” he says, in his tourist-style, barely-adequate Japanese. “May I speak to the owner, please?”

“Oh, you’re the boss’s friend,” Kohei says. “Laurent, right?”

Laurent brightens. “Has he mentioned me?”

“He warned me about you, yeah,” Kohei says, grinning. He gestures behind him. “The boss is out back, taking a break.”

Laurent follows Kohei’s directions and goes behind the shop. He finds Edamame leaning against a wall, facing a small empty park, leisurely smoking a cigarette. His hair is in a ponytail again, and he’s attempted to wrangle it into order with the cat-shaped hair clip and red bobby pins, but strands are still stubbornly escaping. He’s taken his apron off and rolled his sleeves to the elbow, revealing the prominent bones of his wrists.

Laurent pauses to admire the view. Something settles in his chest, warm and satisfied.

After a second, Edamame notices him. His lips pull up in a little smirk.

“Was beginning to think you’d chickened out,” he says, and then takes another drag of the cigarette.

“Never. I just didn’t want to seem too eager.” Laurent sidles closer, staring at the cigarette in his fingers, in his lips, staring at his lips. “Did you want me to come sooner?”

Edamame snorts. “Bastard.”

It’s not a denial. Laurent smiles at him. “I didn’t know you still smoked.”

“I don’t. Didn’t. This is the first time since I quit. I just suddenly craved a cigarette, for some reason.” He blows a stream of smoke into Laurent’s face, vindictively. “I’ll bet this is your fault somehow, you jerk.”

“Ah, of course. I apologize.” Laurent plucks the cigarette from Edamame’s fingers, and Edamame lets him. “The nature of cravings is that they tend to be linked. It’s human psychology. Thinking of one will sharpen your hunger for the other.”

He takes a drag from the cigarette. He sighs out a breath of smoke, smiling at Edamame through it.

“Were you craving me, perhaps?”

Edamame’s eyes narrow.

He lunges forward, and suddenly Laurent has been spun around and shoved against the wall, and Edamame is attacking his mouth. Underneath the cigarette smoke, he tastes like coffee and hazelnuts. As delightful as this development is, it’s too awkward to really be good. Laurent puts a hand on the back of Edamame’s neck and gentles the kiss, guiding him into something a little more graceful. Edamame makes a soft, surprised noise, and falls into the rhythm, and suddenly it’s extremely good.

Laurent closes his eyes. He feels like he’s melting, like an ice cream cone left in the sun. He leans heavily against the wall and drifts away for a while, nothing in his head but kissing Edamura Makoto.

He comes back to a sharp burning sensation in his fingers. He breaks away from the kiss with a yelp, and drops the cigarette. It’s burned down to the filter.

Is this some sort of karma? It would be nice, he thinks sourly at the universe, to get to kiss this man for five minutes without suffering for it. He crushes the cigarette butt under his heel.

Edamame giggles. He looks up, and Edamame is laughing at him, his cheeks flushed and his eyes shining. He looks unbelievably cute. Laurent likes him so much. He puts a hand on Edamame’s waist and squeezes.

“If I knew it was this easy to shut you up, I would’ve done that a long time ago,” Edamame says.

“You should make up for lost time, then,” Laurent says, hopefully.

He giggles again, and knocks his fist against Laurent’s chest. “Nice try. My smoke break is over. Come on, let’s go back inside—I’ll make you lunch.”

There are few enough customers today for Laurent to sit at the coffee bar in the shop proper. While Edamame is busy with work, Laurent settles in, making small talk in Japanese with Kohei. Edamame refuses to accept his money for the coffee and food, which Laurent thinks is hilarious. He literally can’t remember the last time he went on a date with someone where the other party paid.

In between customers, Laurent asks Edamame questions in English. Easy, softball questions. Now that he’s here, Laurent finds that he wants to take his time, drawing out the conversation like warm caramel. They mostly talk about the coffee shop—why the iced boba, if he has any regular customers yet. And some more personal things, the sorts of things Laurent would normally have learned through informants—any bad habits besides the smoking, what he does in his free time.

“I just manage my shop’s social media, I guess,” Edamame says. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t go out? Make more friends outside your little coffee circle here?”

“Like I have time for that.”

Sounds boring, Laurent thinks.

Laurent stays after closing again, slowly sipping his fourth cup of coffee as everyone else trickles away. Kohei helps clean up the shop, and then leaves, shooting Laurent a curious glance as he closes the door.

“What did you tell him, anyways?” Laurent asks. “He said you warned him about me.”

Edamame hangs up his apron. “I told him you’re a liar and a thief, and also you’re in love with me.”

Laurent chokes out a laugh and sets his coffee cup down. “Did you really?”

“Why would I lie?”

Laurent can’t tell if he’s just messing with him or not. His usual ability to read people has gone absolutely haywire when it comes to Edamame, ever since the last con.

“How frightening,” he jokes. It’s mostly a joke. “Are none of my secrets safe with you?”

“Good! Be a little frightened.”

Edamame reaches up and takes off his ponytail, shakes out his rumpled hair, and then ties it back up. Laurent tracks his quick fingers, the back of his neck.

He finally turns to look at Laurent, smirking. “Alright, you’ve had all day to ask me questions. Now it’s my turn.”

Laurent raises his eyebrows. “Hold on, that’s not fair. This was supposed to be about me getting to know you, not the other way around.”

Edamame rolls his eyes. “This is literally the definition of fair, Laurent. Suck it up.”

He swings around the counter and hops onto the seat next to Laurent. Their knees bump.

“First question. What the hell is up with your accent?”

Laurent blinks. “My accent?”

“Yeah. You don’t need to use one. You’re not even French.”

“I’m Walloon, technically,” Laurent explains, “so I am French-speaking. It comes naturally to me.” How funny. Nobody else has ever asked this question. Either they hadn’t seen through the lie, or they already knew the truth without needing to ask. Laurent props his elbow on the counter and leans his chin in his hand, batting his eyelashes. “The accent suits the image, don’t you think?”

Edamame snorts. “If you mean that it makes you sound like an annoying asshole, then yeah, it does.”

Laurent pouts. “You’re so mean. I can talk like this instead, if you prefer?” he says, switching to Edamame’s distinctive lilting accent.

Edamame startles. “Oh my god.”

“You know, I think I could really make this work. Nobody will be able to tell where I’m from, and your vowels when you say the word artist really—”

“Stop!” he screeches, flailing at him. His hand slaps Laurent’s shoulder hard. Ow. “Oh my god, stop it!” He buries his face in his hands and groans. “I hate how accurate that was. You’re like a—one of those birds, you know.”

Chuckling, Laurent switches back to his ordinary French accent. “You mean a parrot?”

“Yeah, whatever. Those damned copy birds. Can you do that to everyone?”

“I can copy any accent I’ve heard,” he says, which is stretching the truth a bit, but it’s fun to show off. “The more I talk to someone, the better I can copy their accent.”

“Huh.” Edamame looks reluctantly impressed. Laurent preens.

“Do I get to ask another question now?” Laurent asks.

“Ugh. Fine.” Edamame steals Laurent’s cup of coffee and takes a sip. “Go for it.”

“If I wasn’t your first kiss, who was?”

“Of course you would ask that.” He slurps the coffee noisily, covering his embarrassment. “It was just some girl from school, it’s not that interesting.”

“Au contraire, sounds fascinating. Tell me more.”

With some coaxing, Edamame tells him his first kiss story, which ends up also being his coming out story. They take turns asking each other questions. Laurent tells him his own first kiss story (a boy who lived down the street), as well as how many languages he speaks, his childhood fascination with them, with different countries and cultures. Edamame tells him about his middle school life, how he used to be a track and field star, his childhood collection of baseball cards. They tell each other about their mothers, when they were still alive to love them. It’s like trading secrets, like poker cards passed under the table. It’s a refreshing change.

Edamame looks up at the clock on the wall, and blinks. “Shit. It’s already six.”

“We can keep talking over dinner,” Laurent offers. “There’s a place in Higashiomi that I know you’d like.”

Edamame frowns at him. “I probably would, huh?” he says. He bites his lip, and his eyes wander off to the side.

He’s going to turn him down. Laurent knows it, like he knows everything that a mark will do before they do it.

“Maybe next time,” Edamame says.

Well, Laurent will take what he can get. “So there’s going to be a next time?”

“Yeah,” Edamame says, without any hesitation. “Come again next Saturday.” He looks at Laurent thoughtfully. “You know, this wasn’t so bad.”

Laurent smiles. “I could make it better, if you’d let me,” he says, and winks.

“And now you’ve ruined it.” He knocks his foot against Laurent’s shin, but not hard enough to hurt.

Laurent slides a few inches forward. Their knees slot together. “One more question, mon coeur. What can I do to convince you to say yes?”

Edamame doesn’t move away. He watches Laurent with searching eyes. He turns the question over in his mind, and then he says: “I don’t trust you.”

“That’s wise,” Laurent concedes.

“I want to trust you, though.” He says it firmly, with no room for doubt. “It’s the one thing I can’t let go of. I’m sick of trying to put you out of my mind, it never works. So—give me a reason to trust you.”

Ah. Laurent had been waiting for him to say something like that. “Do you think you can make an honest man out of me, Edamame?”

“No,” he says. “I just need you to be real with me.”

Laurent attempts to parse this sentence, and then gives up. “Is there a difference?”

Edamame leans forward, his gaze intensely focused. He looks like he does when he’s coming up with a con, plotting how to make his pitch, stripping away the mark’s defenses. Laurent feels his pulse kick up a notch, and he can’t quite tell if it’s from excitement or nerves.

“When we first met, I couldn’t believe you were even real,” Edamame says. “I thought I was having some kind of fever dream. I mean, there I was, this miserable nobody, and then—there you were. And for some reason, you looked at me like you thought I was special.”

Laurent remembers their first meeting vividly. He knew he was going to meet Oz’s son, and after reading his file, he thought he already knew everything he needed to about Edamura Makoto. But still, when their eyes met for the first time, Laurent felt—surprised. There was something about his eyes, a sort of indescribable warmth, that snuck its way into Laurent’s confidence before he even realized it. With eyes like that, Laurent knew, this man had boundless potential. He could convince even the most hardened criminal to cut their heart open for him.

The things you and I could do together, Laurent had thought. The things you and I could become.

“It was like you’d been set on this earth just to make me lose my mind,” Edamame goes on. “I couldn’t figure you out.” The corner of his mouth twitches in half a smile. “All I knew was that I was stupidly jealous of you.”

“Well, that’s only natural,” Laurent assures him. “Was it my good looks? My suave sophistication?”

“Nothing like that. I just got in that car with you and thought, God. This is a man who knows who he is. I didn’t know shit about myself back then, and I wanted what you had. I wanted that confidence so badly.”

He licks his lips and pins Laurent with those dark brown eyes of his. It burns somewhere low in Laurent’s belly.

“I should’ve known it was all an act. You’re not cool at all, you bastard. You’ve only been pretending like you know what you’re doing, this whole damned time.”

Laurent laughs, a little breathlessly. “Ah, no, I’ve been caught out!”

“Yeah. You have.”

In a smooth motion, he slides forward into Laurent’s lap.

All of Laurent’s blood immediately rushes south. He grabs onto the edge of his seat with one hand and Edamame’s hip with the other, trying to keep his balance. Edamame leans his weight up against his body and rests his hands on Laurent’s shoulders, peering down at him with half-lidded eyes.

“I’m the one with all the cards now,” he says in a low voice. “So you can drop the act with me, Laurent.”

This was a trap, Laurent thinks.

Edamame’s face is slightly flushed, and when he licks his lips again, they glisten pink. His body is lithe and hot in his lap. He reaches up and combs his hands through Laurent’s hair. Laurent feels his skin heat and prickle under his touch, like he’s being held over a live fire. His fingertips buzz. He creeps his hand up to the hem of Edamame’s pants, brushing the skin under his shirt.

“One more question,” Edamame says softly. “Are you happy?”

Laurent’s mind goes blank. He feels, suddenly, very confused. This question is a test, Edamura Makoto is looking for a specific answer, and Laurent has absolutely no idea what he wants to hear.

He smiles automatically. “Why would I not be?”

Edamame swipes a thumb over the delicate skin under Laurent’s eyes. It makes something in Laurent’s chest twinge. Edamame rubs at his thumb, dusted with pale powder from Laurent’s makeup.

“You’ve got bags under your eyes,” he says flatly.

“I’m not as young as I used to be,” Laurent downplays.

Edamame cups his face in his palms and stares into his eyes. His hands are rough from his many years of honest and dishonest work.

“I can’t stop thinking about it,” he says. “The con last year—it felt like some big, world-changing event. You’d been planning it for, what, ten years? Fifteen? Everything you did was for the sake of your revenge. And now you’ve done it, it’s over. We’re all free now. Abby and Cynthia quit the team and started doing what they really wanted to do, and so did I.

“The only one who hasn’t changed is you. You’re the same. You’re still out there, running the same circles, doing the same tricks. But this time you’re alone. Are you really satisfied with that?”

Laurent swallows. He had hoped this relationship would be an easy sell: some light conversation, dinner and sex, a bit of adventure to drag Edamame out of the walls he tends to build for himself. They weren’t supposed to talk about anything difficult. He wasn’t supposed to go digging around in Laurent’s soul, like he actually cared about what he might find.

“Do you want me to quit?” Laurent whispers.

Edamame sighs. The tension in the air releases. “No,” he says. “I don’t want you to be someone you’re not.”

What a strange thing to say.

He hesitates for a second, his lashes fluttering over his eyes. Then leans down and kisses Laurent gently on the lips. Laurent’s brain sort of—misfires.

And then he slides out of Laurent’s lap. Laurent’s hand attempts to cling to his hip without conscious thought.

“You should probably leave now,” Edamame says.

Laurent blinks at him. Is he getting kicked out? “Did I say something wrong?”

“No.” He leans against the counter and crosses his arms, frowning at his feet. “It’s just…getting late. And we’ve both got work to do. I’m asking you to leave my shop now, okay? You promised, remember?”

Boundaries, Laurent reminds himself. As slow as humanly possible, he gets to his feet. “If that’s what you want. We’re still on for next Saturday?”

“Yeah. See you next Saturday.” He looks up, and his eyes soften. “Get some sleep, Laurent.”

Laurent smiles at him. He leaves a present for Edamame on his seat—a seashell barrette he’d bought from a studio in Brooklyn—and exits the shop.

Later, alone in his hotel room, Laurent pulls out the Hideyoshi figure and sets it on his bedside table.

“Are you happy?” he asks.

Hideyoshi gives him an unimpressed look.

“Yes, I know, it’s rather out of the blue, isn’t it?” He sits on the bed and takes off his shoes carefully, tucking his socks into them. “How can one know that they’re happy? What does it feel like? What does happy even mean? There are whole industries built around the elusive promise of happiness—self-help books, religious cults, Disneyland. Now there’s an idea for a con.”

He flops down on the bed and folds his hands over his belly. In his mind, he hunts through his mental filing cabinet, dusting off ancient folders and digging all the way down to the bottom of the pile.

He can’t find a folder with his own name on it.

Well, that makes sense, he supposes. He’s never needed to make one before.

He sits up and opens the bedside table drawer, pulling out the notepad and pen from where they always are, in all the hotels. Below the generic hotel stationary watermark, he writes, Laurent Thierry.

He stops.

Dorothy had introduced him to a forger down in Accra, Ghana, a long time ago. The forger, Morowa, had taught Laurent the art of copying signatures, the loops and whirls that made each hand one’s own. Morowa had also taught him what you could supposedly learn about someone’s personality, just from their handwriting. Laurent had found it to be exactly the kind of hilarious bullshit that he loved, and started writing absolutely everything in his best impression of an upper-class real estate agent too lazy to dot his i’s or cross his t’s.

The con in Accra ended. The handwriting stuck around.

He can’t remember what his original handwriting looked like.

“Huh,” he says, out loud. He looks up at Hideyoshi. “Is this what having an existential crisis feels like?”

He examines the paper with his name on it. After a moment, he writes in the front, Who is, and then adds a question mark. He tears the page out and folds it neatly into a paper airplane.

Happily, the hotel is the type that has openable windows. Laurent leans out of the window. He casts the paper airplane out into the city, and watches it soars gracefully through the air, until the night’s lights and shadows swallow it up.

The folder appears in his mind’s eye, crisp and clear. It’s labeled: WHO IS LAURENT THIERRY?

It’s still empty. He cross-lists it to EDAMAME, with a sticky note that says, Caution!!! What does he want from me?

He closes the folder. He checks the hotel’s digital clock and sees that it’s past 10pm.

Laurent has several business contacts still in Tokyo that he’s been meaning to check up on. They could come in handy, two or three years down the line. Nothing too urgent, but it would be nice to finish laying the groundwork now, since he happens to be in the area. Laurent pulls his bag toward him and starts to spread out on the bed his props, his change of clothes, his fake ID.

“Time to get to work,” he tells Hideyoshi, and tucks him safely away.

 

 

 

5)

Laurent shows up at 1pm again next Saturday. Edamame is in the shop, and he’s wearing the seashell barrette, haphazardly pinning his hair back from his forehead. He smells faintly of cigarette smoke. He sets a cup of coffee heavily in front of Laurent.

Laurent smiles at him. “Did you miss me?”

“Asshole,” Edamame grumbles.

They don’t talk about work. Instead, Laurent asks him about inconsequential, everyday things. Favorite TV show. First celebrity crush. Laurent waits until after the shop closes, and then brings out a Mason Pearson hairbrush from his bag with a flourish.

Edamame blinks owlishly at him. “Uh. What?”

“Today,” Laurent says with relish, “I am going to show you how to take care of your hair.”

Edamame stares at him. “You—my hair is fine,” he sputters.

“Mon doudou, I thought you said you were done lying to yourself.” He reaches over and tweaks a particularly rebellious strand of hair. Edamame smacks his hand away. “Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m loving the hipster barista look, but it’s obvious you don’t know the first thing about styling long hair. Even Abby did it better than you. I can hear your split ends crying for help from all the way across the room.”

Edamame blushes. He reaches up and touches his hair, a subconscious movement. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

“My point exactly.”

“What is up with you and my hair, anyways? Seriously! Is this, like, a thing now?”

“You’ve been wearing my presents,” Laurent points out. “A man can’t help but make assumptions.”

Edamame blushes harder. “That’s just—I don’t need them, that’s, I can just use normal hair pins, this is stupid,” he stammers.

Laurent grins. “Save the cheap things for picking locks, Edamame.” He circles around him and guides him into a chair. He presses his hands down on his thin shoulders and murmurs into his ear, “Relax. It’s just a little thing. Take some time to indulge yourself.” He kisses the back of his neck. “I won’t tell anyone.”

Edamame buries his face in his hands and lets out a muffled scream.

Laurent spends a very pleasant afternoon explaining hair care to Edamame, which is mostly a cover for Laurent to touch him all the time. This is what he’d envisioned dating Edamame would be like, before he got tripped up last week. Edamame likes cute things, and likes collecting things. He really likes the novelty hair clips Laurent keeps bringing him. He’s a lot more comfortable being himself now than he was when they first met. But he still needs an excuse to let go, sometimes. Laurent is an expert at being people’s excuses.

When Laurent has finished giving his hands-on demonstration on how to make his hair look deliberately messy instead of just messy, he tucks the hairbrush into Edamame’s back pocket and pecks him on the cheek.

“Let me take you out to dinner?” he asks.

Edamame slaps him on the shoulder, his face completely red. “I knew you were gearing up to something.”

Laurent grins. “Is that a yes?”

Edamame squints at him, thinking it over. Then he grabs Laurent’s collar and yanks him forward into a kiss.

“No,” Edamame says when they separate. “Ask me again next week.”

Laurent blinks. “Wow,” he says, his brain still in the process of rebooting. “I didn’t expect you’d be into edge play.”

“Oh my god. Never talk again.”

They fall into something of a pattern. Over the next few months, Laurent visits Edamame’s shop every Saturday, bringing a present from his travels. They talk about the things normal people talk about. He asks Edamame to dinner, and Edamame says no. Laurent still can’t figure out what his game is.

Laurent’s libido starts to act like he’s 20 years old again, roaring into life every time Edamame so much as looks at him. Sadly, Laurent is also having the least sex he’s had in years. After the Chapman con ends, Laurent sleeps with a Canadian woman who’s co-conspiring with him in a con against her husband, and the experience is so disappointingly boring that Laurent actually worries that he might be sick. Of course, as it turns out, his physical health is perfectly fine. He’s just in love.

One Saturday, Laurent walks into the coffee shop and finds a cream-colored cat sitting in his customary seat, licking its paws.

“What’s this?” he asks.

“Her name is Lola,” Kohei tells him excitedly. “She’s our new shop pet! But if you have allergies, please let us know, we’ll let her outside.”

“It’s fine. I like cats,” Laurent says. He reaches out, hoping to pick her up and set her down somewhere else. Her sweet face suddenly morphs into a monstrous hiss. Laurent backs off.

“Is she yours?” he asks Kohei.

Edamame appears, holding one dish of cat food and one dish of water. “No. I think she’s abandoned,” he says.

“What’s she doing here then?” Laurent asks, sticking to Japanese to include Kohei.

“I don’t know. She just walked in one day, and keeps coming back for some reason.” Edamame shoots him a look. “Kind of like somebody.”

Laurent grins.

“You should have seen her when she first came in,” Kohei says. “So dirty! But the boss took care of her, and look, she’s already doing so much better. We had a vet check on her, and she doesn’t cause any trouble. She’s welcome here.”

Edamame puts the dishes in front of Lola and scratches her head, smiling gently. Lola purrs into his touch.

Laurent resigns himself to the fact that he is now jealous of a cat.

Lola proves popular with the customers. Pretty and charismatic, she inspires both tourists and regulars to coo at her and pick her up and take selfies with her. When Laurent is around, she tolerates him coldly. Laurent makes several plans to unseat her from her throne, but abandons them all as a bad job. Lola is clearly an old hand—she would certainly outmaneuver him.

Edamame’s coffee shop gets featured in a popular foodie blog, and Lola stars in the cover photo. The shop’s popularity explodes. Edamame sets up outdoor seating and hires a second employee, a young mixed-race woman on parole named Ichika. He gets featured in the local news, and gives a heartfelt interview about his own reentry experience and how important it is for everyone to keep an open mind about people with criminal records.

 And then there is this one customer, during the Saturday rush hour. He’s an American, which the whole shop knows because of how loudly he’s talking in his phone about option stocks and investments. He doesn’t thank Edamame after being served, and keeps talking on the phone while gulping down the coffee like it’s something cheap and mass-produced. All of this Laurent finds unforgivably rude. And then Lola strolls past, weaving through his legs on her way through the coffee shop.

The man startles, makes a disgusted face, and then shoves her out of the way with his foot.

Lola yowls, and darts around the coffee bar to hide in the kitchen.

“Sorry,” the man says into the phone, “just a stray cat. Japan, right? As I was saying…”

Edamame snaps his fingers in front of Laurent’s face. He blinks, turning to him.

“No,” Edamame says.

Laurent smiles beatifically up at him. “No? Not even a little?”

Edamame looks furious. “No. None of my customers. You keep that shit away from my shop.”

Kohei’s eyes dart between them. They’re using English, but he understands enough to be concerned. Ichika comes out of the kitchen, asking what happened to Lola.

Laurent switches to French. “I love how beautiful your eyes are when you’re angry.”

Edamame doesn’t even twitch. “None of my customers,” he repeats. “Or we can’t do this.”

Ah. So he’s figured out that this is one of the few threats that might actually work on Laurent. He quietly shelves his ideas for conning the American.

Edamame turns away. “Kohei, can you take over people’s orders for a second?” he asks. Kohei nods. Edamame walks around the counter and goes up to the American. They exchange a few words—the American suddenly laughs. He hangs up the phone, and Edamame escorts him out of the shop.

They’re both gone for more than half an hour.

That’s more than enough time, Laurent muses, to stab a man and then dump the body. He sips his cold coffee. Ichika coaxes Lola back out of the kitchen and talks to her in a soothing voice, giving her a little bit of milk as a treat.

Finally, Edamame returns, looking satisfied. The American trails behind him. Laurent raises his eyebrows.

The man looks like he’s just been to a funeral. As the rest of the shop stares at him, he walks up to Lola at the coffee bar, and then bows deeply. “I am sorry for my rudeness!” he says, in Japanese.

Lola raises her head at him imperiously. The other customers murmur. A few of the regulars spontaneously applaud.

Edamame leads the man to his seat. He collapses into it, shamefaced and exhausted.

“Enjoy your coffee, Dave,” Edamame says in English.

“Thank you,” Dave mumbles.

“No problem. Come back anytime.”

Edamame returns to his position at the coffee bar. Laurent stares at him, smiling uncontrollably.

“What did you say to him?” he asks.

“I just asked him nicely to apologize,” Edamame says primly. He starts picking out the beans for a fresh brew of coffee.

Ichika laughs. “That’s the boss for you,” she says. Kohei nods in an understanding way.

Laurent rests his cheek in his hand and beams at him. In French, he says, “I want to fuck you so badly right now I might explode.”

“Uh-huh.” Edamame starts to grind the coffee beans.

Laurent switches back to English. “You’re really going to let him come back?”

Edamame glances up at him. “Everyone deserves a second chance.”

“Do they?” Laurent asks, skeptically.

Edamame doesn’t answer.

Laurent thinks that, maybe, this is what happiness feels like. His cons keep him busy, and he has coffee with Edamura Makoto to look forward to every week. It’s surprisingly fun to just be there, talking about nothing, watching him change ever so slightly each time and the coffee shop grow.

 He’s not quite sure enough about his happiness to bet on it, though. He can see it easily enough in other people, but it’s harder to relate that to his own feelings. He’s an analyst, not an empath. The folder labeled WHO IS LAURENT THIERRY? remains stubbornly blank.

In downtown Guadalajara, Laurent gets into a spot of trouble with the local roughs and takes a crowbar to the face. Shi-won bails him out. Sprawled in the backseat of her car as she zooms away from their pursuers, holding a balled-up shirt over the ugly gash in his forehead, he decides he’s concussed enough to try tackling the question again.

“Hey, noona,” he slurs. “Are you happy?”

“Son of a bitch,” Shi-won says. “Are you dying?”

Laurent snickers, and then stops snickering when the car swerves. “I’m gonna throw up.”

“You throw up in my car, you clean it up yourself.” She slams on the horn and shouts an insult at another driver. “Why the fuck do you want to know if I’m happy?”

He rolls his head to look at her. “I’m having an…existential crisis.”

“Oh, is that all.” She apparently deems them a safe distance from their pursuers, and slows the car down. “This is about the kid, isn’t it?”

Laurent hums. His mouth has a metallic taste from where he bit the inside of his cheek earlier. He swallows blood.

“Sure, I’m happy,” Shi-won says. “Would be happier if our con didn’t just go tits up because you got too greedy, but yeah, I’d say I’m living my best life.”

“The con isn’t tits up.” He flaps a hand in the air limply. “This is just—part of the slack I built in. Room to improvise.”

“Tell that to your fucking headwound.” She sighs. “I’m taking you to a doctor I know. Keep pressing down, blood is a bitch to clean out of upholstery.”

She digs a cigarette out of her shirt pocket and lights it. She rolls the window down and puffs smoke out of the car, tapping the fingers of one hand on the wheel. Laurent watches her, the nighttime city lights smearing in his peripheral vision.

“Bum a cigarette?” he asks.

She tosses her pack and the lighter over her shoulder. They smack onto his stomach. Carefully, he gets his fingers working enough to light one cigarette.

“Since when do you smoke?” she asks.

“Guess I just had a craving,” he says. He giggles. The movement makes his brain feel like it’s squeezing out of his ears. He takes a deep drag from the cigarette and then relaxes, closing his eyes.

He flips open his mental folder marked GLINDA. The professional history section is massive. Shi-won has been in the business longer than Laurent has been alive, and she’s only been imprisoned twice and stabbed once. She can’t fully rotate her arm anymore from the shoulder wound. Shi-won could easily retire now and spend money nonstop for another thirty years, and still die with a fortune to spare. She cons because she wants to, because she’s never had another love as true as this.

She’s seen so many people crash and burn around her. She knows what sets apart the people who succeed, who really make it. If anyone knows the secret to happiness, it’s her.

“But how do you know?” he asks plaintively.

She glances at him over her shoulder. “You’re 40 years old, and you’ve never thought about this?”

He pouts at her. “Noona,” he whines. “Fairy godmother. Good Witch of the South. Share your wisdom.”

“Stop your bitching, you overgrown baby.” She puffs on the cigarette. “The best I can tell you is, you know it when you feel it. Kind of like falling in love. It just feels right. Sometimes people change, though, and the things that make them happy change right along with them.”

Laurent files this information in the GLINDA folder, and cross-references it to his own folder.

“Speaking of the kid,” she says, after a while of smoking together in silence. “I heard that you’ve stopped sending informants after him.”

Laurent hums. “Don’t need them anymore. He’d just figure out that I’m cheating, anyways.”

“You’re really committed to this.” She almost sounds proud.

“Don’t get your hopes up. There’s still time for me to break his heart.”

“Who says his heart’s the one that’ll break?”

Laurent smiles around the cigarette. “Good point.” He’d almost forgotten how totally fucked he was, for a while there.

She finishes her cigarette and stubs it out in the car’s ashtray. “Listen, I’ve known you for half your ridiculous life now. Kids as crazy as you either die young, or live forever. I’m the live forever type, you see? I always took you to be the die young type. But lately, I’m not so sure.”

“Yeah? What changed?”

She shrugs. “You’ve found someone who’ll wait for you.”

When Laurent arrives in the coffee shop that Saturday, Edamame’s face launches into a whole journey of emotions, before finally landing on really pissed off.

“Kohei,” he says, “sorry, could you take over the shop for a bit?”

Without waiting for an answer, he drags Laurent by the collar of his shirt to the bathroom. Laurent is struggling not to laugh the whole time. His good mood is only a little bit because of the multiple painkillers he’d popped in the airplane.

“Whatever will your customers think?” he asks, as Edamame locks the door behind them. “What if someone needs to use the toilet?”

“They can fucking deal,” Edamame says.

He spins and shoves Laurent, forcing him backwards until he sits up on the ledge next to the sink. A spot of soapy water gets onto Laurent’s chinos; he makes a face.

“This isn’t funny, Laurent. What happened?”

“How do you know something happened?”

Edamame reaches out and pushes Laurent’s hair back from his forehead, revealing the butterfly stitches and the slowly healing crowbar injury. Aw, and Laurent had thought he’d perfectly covered it up.

“Headwound,” Laurent says lightly. “They always look worse than they really are.”

“Or they can be worse than they look,” Edamame says, outrage in his voice. “Did you get this checked in the hospital?”

“Relax. I saw a doctor, he said I’ll be fine.” He grins. “Kiss it better?”

“Fuck you.” Edamame breaks away and starts to pace. “God, I want to punch you so badly right now.”

“Well, that sounds counterproductive.”

“Not helping!”

He paces for a few minutes, taking deep, calming breaths. Laurent watches in amusement. It looks like Abby has been teaching him strategies for controlling his emotions.

“Okay,” Edamame says, stopping in front of him. “Laurent, you know this is really upsetting to me, right?”

Laurent gestures at him. “It is rather obvious, yes.”

“Do you know why?”

“I can think of some possibilities.” He adjusts his hair to cover up the injury better. “You’re just really grossed out?”

“No.”

“You’re surprisingly possessive over me?”

“No.”

“It’s an unpleasant reminder of what I do for a living?”

“No.”

Laurent smiles at him. “You care about me.”

Edamame groans angrily. He starts to back away, and then reverses directions and steps forward, dropping his forehead onto Laurent’s shoulder with a soft thunk. Laurent can feel his breath tickling against his arm.

A minute passes, and it becomes clear that Edamame isn’t planning to move anytime soon. Laurent reaches up around his body and starts to play with his soft black hair. He’s wearing an orange crocodile hair clip in a man bun today. It’s still a mess. Laurent takes the clip out and shakes his hair down gently.

“I hate this,” Edamame says.

“I’m sorry,” Laurent replies.

“No you’re not.”

It’s true. He’s not. Laurent starts to rearrange Edamame’s hair into a loose braid.

“Every time you walk out of here,” Edamame says, “I have no idea if that’ll be the last time I ever see you. You could die in a ditch somewhere, or just decide you’re sick of me, and I won’t even know that this was the last time until I get a damned phone call from someone.”

“How dramatic.” He drops a kiss onto Edamame’s head. “Don’t worry. I’m here now.”

“Is that seriously the best you’ve got?”

“Mon amour, if you expected emotional availability from me, I’m afraid you have gravely misunderstood my nature.”

Edamame sighs heavily. “You’re so full of bullshit.”

His hands close tightly around the hem of Laurent’s shirt.

After another long moment, he lifts his head up and kisses Laurent. It’s disappointingly short. Instead, he starts to rove over Laurent’s face, pecking kisses onto his cheek and nose and eyelids. His dark eyes are focused on his task. He works his way up to the ugly purpling scab on Laurent’s forehead.

Laurent feels the slightest brush of his lips, just a tiny flinch of pain on open skin.

Edamame backs off and looks at Laurent. His eyes are wet.

Laurent doesn’t move. He feels—sort of—strange. Like his skin is no longer strong enough to hold his blood in his body. It makes him feel tender and transparent. If Edamame touches him again, he’s afraid something important will break.

“See?” Laurent says, and tries to smile like he normally smiles. He’s not sure if he succeeds. “I feel better already.”

Edamame presses himself flush against his body and kisses him.

Something flies loose in Laurent’s chest. He sighs, sliding his hand up the back of Edamame’s shirt and presses against the warm skin of his lower back, urging him closer. He spreads his legs to make room for him and grinds forward.

Edamame makes the most amazing, overwhelmed sound and stutters to meet him. His hands roam over Laurent’s body, touching his chest, his arms, his neck. Laurent teases his lips open and slips his tongue into his mouth. Edamame makes another punched-out sound, and suddenly grabs a fistful of Laurent’s hair.

Pain radiates from Laurent’s skull. Laurent gasps, and bucks up. He feels him grow hard against him, and the knowledge that Edamame wants him back fills Laurent’s head with a fog of lust. He wants, he needs, he needs to feel him, he needs him to wreck him, he needs to. He starts to unbutton Edamame’s pants, and tries to push him backward so Laurent can get on his knees.

“Wait, no,” Edamame says, and breaks away before Laurent can move. His front floods with cold, empty air.

A wheezing sound escapes from Laurent’s lungs. It is possibly the least sexy noise he’s made in his life.

Mako-tan,” he moans, “you’re killing me here.”

“You’re injured!” Edamame says in a shrill voice. His face is flushed, his lips spit-wet.

“I’ve given head with worse,” Laurent assures him hastily. “I’m really good at this.”

“Oh my god!” Edamame starts flailing his arms and spinning in anxious circles. “Oh my god. This is a public restroom. I’m at work.”

“Nobody will notice.”

“I don’t want my first time to be in a bathroom!”

“My first time was in a bathroom, we could match.” Laurent is this close to begging. Actually, no, he’s already begging. “Mako-tan, please?”

“I said no!”

Boundaries, Laurent reminds himself. He subsides, slumping against the sink. He stares unblinking into the bathroom lights and tries to will his racing blood to calm down. His head throbs painfully.

“I apologize if I overstepped,” he says.

Edamame covers his face and mumbles something vaguely insulting, but the words It’s okay are buried somewhere in there.

Laurent huffs out a laugh. He can’t remember ever wanting someone like this before. It’s a little disturbing. He slides off the ledge of the sink and turns on the faucet, splashing cold water on his face.

“Oh, shit,” says Edamame. “Does it look like we’ve just been making out?”

He glances over his shoulder. Edamame still looks incredibly flustered, but he’s gotten his clothes back in order and his hair is still neatly braided. Laurent’s eyes linger on his cherry-pink lips.

He passes his hand under the running faucet and flicks his fingers at Edamame’s face.

Edamame yelps, squinting like a disgruntled cat when the water lands on his face. “What was that for!?”

“Relax.” Laurent runs his wet hand over his hair, slicking it back from his forehead. The first thing a stranger will see, looking at them, will be the nasty injury on Laurent’s head. “You were just making sure I was alright. That’s all that happened. You’re fine.”

Edamame rubs at his cheeks, glaring at the floor. Laurent turns the faucet off and wipes his face on a paper towel. Some of his makeup runs off, but he decides that it suits the have pity, I’m wounded look.

“Where did you get ‘Mako-tan’ anyways?” Edamame demands.

Laurent shoots a grin at him. “Did you like it?”

He pulls the most hilariously disgusted face. “I don’t understand why you can’t just call me Makoto.”

Laurent blinks. “Do you want me to call you Makoto?”

“For the love of god. If you ever call me Mako-tan again I might actually strangle you.”

“That could be fun,” Laurent says automatically, but his brain is sparking with a new kind of joy. Makoto, he repeats to himself compulsively. Makoto.

“Why are you like this,” Makoto groans.

Laurent throws out the paper towels. He unlocks the bathroom door and puts one hand on the knob. He tilts his head at Makoto, smiling.

“Are you ready?”

Makoto looks at him, and then his eyes flick up to the injury on his forehead. His expression is deeply vexed. He turns away and frowns at himself in the bathroom mirror for a long several seconds.

And then he turns to Laurent again, his eyes determined.

“Fuck it,” he says. “Everyone knows we’re dating anyway.”

He reaches out and grabs Laurent’s hand.

“Okay, I’m ready,” he says.

Some people stare, of course. It must be a lot to take in: the adorable coffee shop owner holding hands with the dashing foreigner with a grievous head injury, walking out of the bathroom together. Laurent is trying really hard to hold in his laughter. They reach the coffee bar.

Ichika is beaming at them, half-hiding her smile behind one of the boilers. Kohei doesn’t give their hand-holding a second look.

“Is your boyfriend alright?” he asks Makoto.

“Yeah. Thanks for asking,” Makoto replies.

The rest of the afternoon, Makoto makes Laurent drink decaf only and report how his head feels every hour. When the shop closes, he immediately sits down next to Laurent and squints into his eyes.

“Is one of your pupils bigger than the other? Is it just me?”

“I’m fine, mon chatounet.” He reaches out and takes Makoto’s hand. “Now that we’re alone, do you want to pick up where we left off?” he asks hopefully.

Makoto rolls his eyes. “No.”

“Or I could woo you properly? Let me take you to dinner?”

Makoto sighs. “No.”

They look at each other. Laurent has a rare moment where he doesn’t know what to say. He starts and stops several possible conversation openers.

“Do you forgive me?” he finally asks. He’s not sure which of the many things he’s asking forgiveness for.

Makoto’s lips twitch into a sharp, ironic smile. “Are you sorry?”

Laurent has long come to terms with the fact that he has never been, and never will be, sorry for anything.

“I could pretend to be,” he offers gently.

But Makoto shakes his head. “If you know me, Laurent, you’ll know that that’s the last thing I would ever want.”

Yes. Laurent knows.

 

 

 

6)

Laurent is scouting new talent in a remote fishing village in China’s Guangdong province. It’s not a place Laurent would ever have traveled to on his own—but Oz had tipped him off on a potential lead here. The last time Oz had sent him a tip, Laurent had met Edamura Makoto. So Laurent has high hopes now.

It’s a mystery how Oz found this place himself; he still tells everyone he’s retired, when they ask. Laurent is about 80% sure he’s living in Macau now, playing high-stakes roulette with the city’s head honchos. But who knows, with Oz.

Laurent had stopped by the village earlier, but nothing of interest was happening. So he decided to explore the village’s quiet little beach. He walks barefoot along the coast, his shoes dangling from his hand, enjoying the way the ocean sparkles. He still feels a sense of comfort from being by the sea. He likes to imagine that Dorothy has remained beside him, all this time, eyes twinkling from within that wide expanse of aquamarine.

“Hey, handsome,” says a voice in the regional coastal dialect. “Could you help a girl out?”

He turns, and sees the face of a woman he once knew.

He stops walking.

“You speak guoyu, handsome?” she asks, switching to Mainland Chinese. She steps lightly down the beach toward him, smiling sweetly, her hair fluttering in the breeze. She is strikingly beautiful.

He doesn’t say anything.

“Do you speak English? No? Hmm. Et le français? Oh, Nederlands! Je ziet eruit alsof je een Nederlander zou kunnen zijn.”

Laurent licks his lips. His throat suddenly feels very dry.

“You look familiar,” he says.

“I get that a lot,” she says, picking up instantly. And then she starts to spin a con, a pretty low-level tourist trap. Laurent doesn’t hear a word. His eyes catch the glint of the emerald ring on her finger, and that’s all he can focus on.

“Gold brick scam,” Laurent interrupts. “Come on. Don’t you have something a little more exciting for me?”

The woman stops. Her sweet smile widens into something clever and mischievous. “Nobody told me I’d get to meet a fellow conman today. I knew I liked that look in your eye.”

Laurent takes a step back. His head is spinning. He can’t tell—is he dreaming? Is this real?

“Do I know you?” he asks.

She laughs. “I think you’re mistaking me for someone else! My name is Xiang Xiang.” She holds out a hand. “You look like you’ve got some tricks up your sleeve, Mister Mysterious Conman. Care to teach any of them to me?”

Laurent takes her hand automatically. His fingers are numb from shock.

“My name is Laurent,” he says.

“Ah, Laurent! So you are French!” She grins at him. “Laurent, I think you and I are going to have a very fun time together.”

Chapter Text

7)

She needs money. That’s how it always starts: need, and money.

“I’ve been thinking about an online tourist scam,” she says, slurping a bowl of fish soup. “Sell some fake ancient Chinese pottery, maybe.”

She needs money because the government is going to flatten her village. They want to develop the property, replace all their homes with gray apartment complexes and a factory that will spit pollutants into the river and the sea. If she raises enough money, she can bribe the government officials to leave the village alone.

“You can do better than that,” Laurent says.

Xiang Xiang finishes the soup. She leans forward playfully, licking her lips. “Go on then. Tell me what I can do.”

The government officials answer to a man known as Lao Qian. He’s the primary investor for the factory project and the one pulling the strings behind the scenes. Lao Qian has many vices, but the most interesting one is his obsession with pigeon racing. He spends hundreds of millions of renminbi each year betting on races, and recently started breeding his own loft.

“Pigeons! So cute!” Xiang Xiang giggles. “But the only ones we see around here are the boring city pigeons.”

“I know a trainer,” Laurent assures her.

The next day, Laurent’s friend Fareed shows up at the village dock on Laurent’s private yacht, carrying two crates full of expertly trained pigeons.

“It’s been too long, Laurent,” he says cheerfully, walking down the ramp to meet him at the dock. “What’s the plan this time?”

Laurent smiles at him. “We’re going to stage a fake pigeon race.”

The con this time is built around the myth of the pigeon named Houdini. It’s a famous story among Asian pigeon fanciers. Houdini was a racing homer that was bought in a Belgian auction for €700,000, and stayed undefeated in races across China for years. But in one long-distance race, Houdini suddenly disappeared. He never showed up at the finish line. Most likely, he flew into a cellphone tower and died. But some people are convinced that Houdini was stolen—captured by black market poachers who’d been lying in wait for him. If this is true, and Houdini survived, then his descendants would be worth millions.

Lao Qian is a greedy, possessive man. If he thinks this village is a hub for black market pigeon poachers, he won’t let the government come in and develop the property. He’ll want it all to himself.

Xiang Xiang runs up to introduce herself to Fareed. She looks up at the yacht and laughs. “What a cute boat! I want it!”

She leaps over the rails, easy as anything, and starts to explore the yacht. Fareed stares after her, dumbstruck.

“کتنا خوبصورت” he breathes. “I think I just fell a little bit in love.”

Yes. Laurent knows the feeling.

They set the stage and start spinning the story, laying their trap. You’ll be rich, they whisper into Lao Qian’s ear. You’ll be able to have the great Houdini himself. With a few well-placed rumors, they lure Lao Qian to the village.

The night before their mark arrives—the night before the con kicks into high gear—Xiang Xiang and Laurent walk along the coast and talk for a long time. The stars wheel overhead, piercingly bright, far from any city lights or smog. Neither of them sleeps.

Xiang Xiang tells him fondly of her adoptive parents, how they found her half-dead in a fishing net. She doesn’t remember how she ended up there, or where she learned all these languages. But she isn’t sad about it. She has nice dreams sometimes, where she has different names, different faces. She thinks she might be a nine-tailed fox spirit, a shapeshifter of many lives. She loves all her past lives.

“I think I knew you in some of them,” Laurent says.

Xiang Xiang glances at him sidelong. And then she laughs, like he’s just made the funniest joke. “No, no. There’s no way.”

He smiles at her. “What makes you say that?”

“I’d remember you if you did,” she says confidently. “But I don’t, so you didn’t. The two of us are strangers.”

“Possibly,” Laurent agrees.

He’d spoken to the villagers earlier, in a rare moment when Xiang Xiang wasn’t with him. They gave him wildly conflicting accounts of how Xiang Xiang arrived in the village. As a stowaway on a ship, hiding from old debts. As a baby somebody had abandoned in the mountains, and she’s lived here all her life. As a tourist travelling around the world, and she’s only been here for a few days.

Possibly Dorothy is running a con on him. She liked to do that sometimes, when she wanted to keep him on his toes.

Possibly he has finally gone insane.

Possibly it doesn’t matter. Reality never meant much to him, anyways. It’s just something to be shaped, manipulated—a flimsy, ridiculous thing. If it means he gets Dorothy back, does it matter how?

“Isn’t it better this way?” she asks. She throws out her arms and spins in a circle, kicking up sand with her bare feet. The air fills with her laughter. “We could be anyone! We can do anything! Nothing in the past matters, and the future has no power over us.” She runs up to him. “Come on, it’s such a lovely night. Enjoy it with me!”

She takes his hands and spins him in a circle. He laughs, and threads his fingers with hers. They dance in the moonlight like they’re only children again, a pair of orphans reigning king and queen over their corner of the universe. The freezing ocean soaks through the hem of his pants. He tastes sea-salt in the air. Everything is so beautiful in this woman’s eyes—like the whole world is just a beautiful, beautiful joke.

He had loved her so much. He would have done anything for her.

She leans up to kiss him.

He pulls away before she can. Their footsteps stutter to a stop.

Xiang Xiang blinks at him. “What’s wrong?” she asks.

The coastal wind stings against his cheeks. The waves break across the beach with a sigh.

Laurent shakes his head. “Let’s wait. Until after the con is over.”

She watches him, her eyes piercingly bright. “Alright,” she agrees, with a small, sweet smile. “Let’s wait.”

They don’t need to say it out loud; they both understand the meaning behind those words. For people like them, the con will never be over. They let go of each other and walk a few steps down the beach.

Xiang Xiang suddenly laughs. “It’s just—so funny. I could have sworn you were in love with me.”

He hums. “Are you disappointed?”

“No, not really. Like I said, I don’t even know you. I’m just surprised I read you so wrong. Is it because you’re in love with someone else?”

He just smiles at her.

“Hmm. I never would have pegged you as the loyal type. But no, it makes sense. You’re secretly a sweetheart, aren’t you? I hope whoever it is makes you very, very happy.”

She stretches her arms over her head, closing her eyes and breathing deep. The wind tangles in her hair.

“Can I ask you something?” Laurent says.

She turns to look at him. Her laughing eyes are like stars, like emeralds.

“Do you really want to know the answer?” she asks.

No. He doesn’t.

But he thinks—actually, he hasn’t stopped thinking about it, ever since he saw her body slam into the water and stain the ocean red. He wants to ask her, Did you do this on purpose? Did you let them shoot you on purpose? Did you ever intend to keep your promise to me?

Did you leave me because you didn’t love me enough?

“Are you sure you’re ready for the con tomorrow?” Laurent asks, instead.

Xiang Xiang smirks at him. “Laurie, I was born ready,” she says.

The fake pigeon race goes well. Xiang Xiang acts as the owner of the loft, the proud tsar of the local black market. Lao Qian eats up her story about the remote, unpolluted environment being perfect for training the illegal birds, and he’s impressed by the (fabricated) speed of the pigeons. After several rounds of intense haggling with Xiang Xiang, he buys “Houdini”—an old gray pigeon who’s an even more experienced con artist than Fareed—for 5 million RMB.

At this point, they could just end the con. Lao Qian won’t let anyone develop this property now. The village is safe, and plus they’re 5 million RMB richer.

But Laurent has never figured out how to stop pushing for more.

He walks up to Lao Qian, pretending to be a Belgian buyer with terrible Chinese.

“Do you own this pigeon loft?” he asks Lao Qian. Before the man can respond, he adds, “I’d like to buy this whole brood for 5 billion RMB.”

Lao Qian lies. Yes, he says, he is definitely the owner of this loft. He takes Laurent out for lunch. They eat fish and drink baijiu, until Lao Qian is well and truly drunk.

“Are you serious about buying these pigeons?” Lao Qian asks, and hiccups. He’s a dark-skinned old man with a square face and bushy eyebrows, and speaks with a thick Guangdong accent.

“Yes,” Laurent replies. With horrible grammar, he says, “Your pigeons—like art! I want bring them to Brussels and sell at auction.”

“Do you have the money to buy them?”

“Of course!”

Lao Qian squints at him suspiciously. “I don’t believe you. I know your type—you talk big, but when it comes time to show your wallet, you’re the first to cut and run. How’re you going to prove that you’re serious?”

“You don’t believe me? No problem. That pigeon I saw with you, Houdini. I buy him for 10 million RMB, right now.”

Lao Qian stares at Laurent, a hungry gleam in his eye. He smacks his lips.

“Make that 50 million,” he says. “Then we’ll talk.”

Laurent grins. “Done.”

Lao Qian’s eyes widen.

Laurent makes the transaction. Lao Qian watches the numbers on his phone shoot up, his eyes bugging out.

“You really just paid me 50 million for a pigeon?” he asks.

“Small change,” Laurent says flippantly. “Compared to the rest of the brood.”

Now, Lao Qian is supposed to start haggling with Laurent. He’ll agree to sell the pigeon loft to Laurent for 8 billion. Then Lao Qian will go back to Xiang Xiang and buy the pigeon loft from her for 900 million. He’ll think that he’s about to make a huge profit—but when he tries to find Laurent again, the conmen will all have skipped town, along with Fareed’s pigeons. Lao Qian will have paid 900 million for nothing.

But instead, Lao Qian says, “Damn. Xiang Xiang was right.”

Laurent blinks at him. “Right about what?”

“About you,” says the man. “See, I’m Xiang Xiang’s adoptive uncle.”

Slowly, Laurent sets his chopsticks down. His mind races, rapidly flipping through everything Xiang Xiang and the rest of the villagers had told him. The old man keeps talking, his tongue loosened by the alcohol.

“She kept saying she wanted to thank us for taking her in,” he explains. “All we had to do was play along, and she’d make this village rich. I thought she was joking, but she really is a genius conman, huh? She’s off to seek greater fortunes now. I’m going to miss her.”

Laurent nods to himself, with resignation. “So you’re one of hers,” he says.

“And you’re the mark.” The man leans forward and pats him heavily on the shoulder, his expression full of drunken sympathy. “She said you wouldn’t miss the money, though.”

Laurent feels remarkably foolish. “No,” he agrees, “I won’t. You can keep it.”

Since he’s here anyways, he starts to drink for real. The two of them finish off the bottle of cheap baijiu. Then Laurent walks out and goes to the temporary pigeon loft Fareed had set up. It’s empty, of course. They’ve packed up all the birds.

Feeling quite tipsy, and more foolish by the minute, Laurent meanders to the dock where his private yacht was. The only boats at the dock are the village fishing boats. Laurent scans the horizon, but he knows it’s hopeless. They must have stolen his yacht and skipped town as soon as Laurent started talking to Xiang Xiang’s uncle.

He hears a flapping sound. He turns around.

The old pigeon acting as Houdini flies toward him. He lands on Laurent’s shoulder with a triumphant coo, and then sticks his leg out.

There’s a little note tied to his leg.

Laurent unrolls the note. Puppy, it says in French, come play! There’s an address for a location in Brussels.

Laurent smiles. And then he laughs. He keeps laughing until his sides ache and tears spring to his eyes. Houdini flutters on his shoulder impatiently. He looks at the bird, and then laughs some more.

Jesus. He’s wasted so much time. Dorothy lived so intensely in the moment. Of course she wouldn’t have regrets, wouldn’t bother with revenge. For fourteen years, he’d carried her ghost around his neck like an albatross, when the truth was that she couldn’t have cared less about Laurent’s plans. She wasn’t the type of person who held grudges. That was always Laurent’s thing.

He just missed her, for a long, long time. He’d needed her with him.

He doesn’t need her anymore.

Laurent folds the note neatly in half, rolls it up, and ties it back around Houdini’s leg.

“Tell her thanks for me, will you?” he says to the pigeon. “We had fun together. I’m glad that she invited me here. But people change, and their hearts change with them. Do you know what I mean? People change.”

He holds his arm out.

“Fly home, little guy. I won’t be joining you.”

Houdini coos lowly at him, as if he’s rolling his little bird eyes. Then he launches into the air with a loud flap of his wings, and flies away.

 

 

 

8)

Laurent makes it all the way to Makoto’s coffee shop, before he realizes: it’s Sunday.

The sign on the door is flipped to Closed. The shop is empty, and the lights upstairs are dark.

Of course. His trip to Guangdong took six days. Of course, it’s Sunday.

Laurent had lost track of time.

He feels an uncomfortable gnawing sensation in his gut when he realizes this. He checks his phone, but there are no missed messages from anyone. He looks up again, and stares at the dark, shuttered windows of the empty coffee shop. The building seems to radiate silent disapproval.

“I’m fucked, aren’t I?” he says out loud.

Makoto isn’t hard to find. The streets of downtown Kyoto are bustling with tourists in the last golden hours of the day. So Laurent heads in the opposite direction, toward the quiet, residential area of the city.

Makoto is in a small grassy park, playing soccer with a handful of neighborhood children. Laurent pauses at the edge of the park to watch. Makoto has his hair up in a regular ponytail, but isn’t wearing any clips today. His bangs stick wildly up in the air or against his forehead. Every minute or so, he raises a hand to push his hair out of his eyes.

He’s also not very good at soccer. Two of the ten-year-olds gang up on him, and he gets so bewildered that he trips over his own feet. While the ten-year-olds are laughing, another kid steals the ball and passes it to one of the younger girls. With a heroic effort, she punts the ball three feet, into the goal.

Everybody screams. It’s impossible to tell who’s on which team, they’re all equally excited. Makoto leaps to his feet and picks up the little girl, spinning her in the air. Both of them shriek with laughter, glowing with happiness.

As he spins, he catches sight of Laurent. Their eyes meet.

The warmth of his brown eyes hits Laurent like a bolt of lightning. I love you, he thinks. I truly, completely adore you.

Deliberately, Makoto turns away and ignores Laurent’s existence.

Ah.

Alright then.

Laurent picks a bench and sits down, settling in for the long haul. He catches up on his emails while he waits. After the sun sets, the children begin to head home. One of their mothers comes to pick her kid up, and she clearly recognizes Makoto. They have a friendly, animated conversation which lasts for nearly half an hour. Finally, Makoto says goodbye, and starts to make his way back to the shop.

Laurent gets up and follows.

“Miss me, Edamame?” he asks cheekily.

Makoto’s face is carefully neutral. He keeps his eyes in front of him.

Laurent adjust his stride so they’re walking shoulder-to-shoulder. “You’re good with kids,” he observes. “Would you ever want one of your own?”

Frigid silence. Laurent counts the streetlights as they walk past—one, two, three, four.

Sweat dries on the back of Makoto’s neck. Now that the sun has set, the October temperature is cooling fast. Laurent can see goosebumps rising on his skin. He feels a powerful urge to give Makoto the blazer he’s wearing, even though it would clash horribly with his capris.

“I apologize, mon amour. I didn’t mean to be late. I don’t have a present for you, either, I’m really quite disappointed in myself. It was an eventful week.”

Makoto’s eye twitches, but he stays resolute. They stop at a traffic light.

“I missed you,” Laurent says softly.

Makoto’s whole face crumples. He whirls on Laurent, his hair whipping against his cheek.

“Shut up!” he hisses. “Go away! I don’t want to talk to you.”

The light turns green. He stalks across the road.

After a second, Laurent follows.

“You seem upset,” he says awkwardly.

This is, to put it lightly, an understatement. Makoto is simmering with barely contained rage. He does have his moods, of course. Laurent is sadly familiar with those. (Entries in his EDAMAME folder include: feeding him fake drugs, lying to him about his mechanic skills, conning him into a child trafficking ring…) This time feels different, though. Perhaps because there’s more about their relationship to lose. Laurent braces himself.

“Was it something I did? I was only a little late. A day late. Only 29 hours. Or is this another one of those boundaries of yours? Are Sundays a bad time? I can leave and come back next Saturday, if you prefer.”

“God, shut up!” Makoto glares furiously at the sidewalk. “What are you even doing here, Laurent?”

“I wanted to see you.”

“Fuck off!” Makoto looks like he’s about to smack Laurent. But instead, he tucks his hands under his armpits and makes himself smaller, his body tensing and curling into itself, like he feels cold. He speeds up his footsteps. “You never mean what you say. You just say what you think people want to hear. That’s what you do. But you don’t actually care. All you care about are your lies and your cons and—whatever it was you were up to yesterday.”

“Hey, that’s not true,” Laurent protests. “I care a great deal, about a great many things. I care about you.”

“Yeah right. What’s your excuse for being late, then? What were you doing all week that was so important you couldn’t even text?”

Laurent winces. “That’s…a long story.” Not to mention humiliating.

Makoto scoffs. “I’m such an idiot. What was I thinking? This whole idea of seeing each other again was stupid from the start.”

Well, he’s not wrong. Dating Laurent was always a terrible idea. But Laurent certainly isn’t going to be the one to tell him that.

“Come now,” he says, “I thought it was going quite well. We were having fun, weren’t we?”

“Of course you’d say that.” He rubs his face with his hands and groans. “You fly to Japan every week. Even when you’ve got a fucking concussion. Anywhere in the world, in the middle of a con, you fly here. Every week. Just for a cup of coffee. If I think about it too much, I think I’ll go crazy.”

“It’s not that crazy. People do crazier things for love all the time.”

“It can’t last, though!” Makoto stops walking in the middle of the empty street. He pushes his hair back from his forehead and raises his gleaming eyes to meet Laurent’s. “You can’t keep doing this forever! You’re going to get bored, or decide it’s not worth it, and one day you’re going to stop coming back.”

Something aches in Laurent’s chest. “I find that difficult to imagine.”

“Well I can see it happening crystal clear,” Makoto snaps. “You have no idea what it’s been like for me all these months. You show up, and you make me feel like—like I could do anything, like I’m actually special, like I’m losing my fucking mind. And then you’re gone. And I know that one of these days it’ll be the last time, and you won’t even say goodbye, but every time you’re here I can’t stop myself from thinking maybe—maybe we could—”

He cuts himself off, biting his lip. He turns his face away from Laurent, but not before Laurent catches sight of the unshed tears in his eyes.

Laurent feels his heart clench like a fist.

He thought that Makoto had banished all his insecurities when he took control of the Suzaku con and pointed a sword at his father’s heart. But doubt is the type of thing that lingers, like the smell of cigarette smoke in the carpet. He doubts Laurent’s affection. He doubts his own worth, his own perceptions. He doubts himself.

And Laurent hasn’t given him any reason not to.

A week ago, Laurent might have simply ignored the problem, and come up with some kind of distraction to sweep all of this under the rug. It wouldn’t be that hard. He’s done it before, plenty of times. (Think of the children, Edamame. Think of the con. Think of me. Don’t stop to think about what you’re doing.)

But now…he doesn’t want to ignore the problem. The very idea of Makoto being upset is somehow deeply intolerable. He wants to banish that lingering doubt in Makoto’s mind. He wants to drag Makoto out of those walls he’s hiding behind and make him see that he can do anything, that he is special. He wants to make sure that Makoto never looks this unhappy again.

It’s disturbing. Laurent has never cared this much about someone else’s feelings before, with the possible exception of his mother. Caring for people is not something Laurent does.

Except, apparently, when it comes to Edamura Makoto.

Since when did this man become so important to him? Since when did he tie his own happiness to his? Was it when he turned down Dorothy’s invitation in Guangdong? Was it when Makoto kissed him in the bathroom, like Laurent actually mattered? Was it when they said goodbye after the Suzaku con, and Makoto had smiled at him, just a flash, like he couldn’t help himself, before walking away?

Oblivious to Laurent’s inner turmoil, Makoto scrubs at his eyes angrily.

“I never learn,” he says in a tight voice. “I actually believed you. I thought I had you this time, but I was just fooling myself, again, like I always do.” He takes a shaky breath. “This isn’t going anywhere, Laurent. I think—I think we should stop.”

Laurent watches him stand there, trembling slightly, his hair in his eyes. He’s staring at his shoes because if he looks at Laurent, he’s going to cry. Laurent circles around to stand in front of him. Then he reaches out, carefully, and puts a hand on his shoulder.

“You’re right,” he says. “This was a terrible idea.”

Makoto makes an angry, broken noise.

“So let’s stop.” He rubs his thumb in a gentle circle above his collarbone. “Let me move in with you.”

It takes a second for the words to hit.

When they do, Makoto stops breathing. Slowly, he lifts his head to stare at Laurent.

What?” he bursts out.

“I want to live with you,” Laurent says, in a calm, reasonable tone. “You’re upset because I keep leaving every week. So I won’t leave. That solves the problem, doesn’t it?”

“What? Wait. Hold on. What!?”

“Your place is a little small, but I’m sure I’ll manage.” He smiles serenely, imagining lazy mornings together, eating breakfast in bed. “I can get to know some of your weekday regulars. Do you let Lola upstairs? That, I admit, could be a problem, but just a minor one. We’ll find a workaround.”

Makoto is acting like Laurent just bludgeoned him in the head. He blinks rapidly at Laurent, swaying a little. “You want to—live with me? Now? Just like that?”

“Why not?”

“Hold on, that’s—too fast, you’re moving way too fast! We can’t just do that!”

“In my opinion, you’ve been moving entirely too slowly. We should have done this ages ago, really.”

“What are you talking about!? I’m not ready! I’ve never done this—and you, don’t you, don’t you have a house somewhere, like a mansion or something?”

“Relax. That’s just a real estate investment. I’ve got nowhere else I’d rather be.”

Laurent takes off his blazer and drapes it around Makoto’s shoulders. Makoto grabs it automatically, still stunned. Laurent feels a bubbly, giddy feeling bloom inside his chest, accompanied by a low pulse of desire.

“Edamame, do you remember when you asked me if I was happy?” he asks.

Makoto gapes at him. “That was ages ago. You remember that?”

“Of course I do. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It took me a while, but I realized it eventually. The cons don’t make me happy. I haven’t been truly satisfied with this life for a long time.” He reaches up and brushes Makoto’s hair out of his eyes.

“You make me happy. You.”

It’s so simple, when he says it out loud. But it’s true.

Makoto’s eyes dart around Laurent’s face anxiously. He licks his lips. “This is too much. I don’t trust you, Laurent, I can’t just…”

Laurent hums. “I know. Understandable, after everything I’ve done. You aren’t ready to believe that I’m already yours.” Teasingly, he puts his fingers under Makoto’s chin and tilts his face up. “So why don’t you do something about it?”

Makoto stares into his eyes, baffled and overwhelmed. “Do what?”

“My dear little soybean. You’ve been living too long as an honest man. Have you forgotten what you are?” He leans forward, brushing past Makoto’s cheek, until his lips are hovering next to his ear. When he speaks, Makoto shivers at the sensation of his breath. “When someone like you wants something, you don’t wait for the world to give it to you. You reach your hands out and take.”

He pulls away. Makoto blinks up at him. His eyes sharpen, focus. The hurt and anger in his face are transforming into a familiar fire.

Laurent’s smile widens. His fingertips tingle with anticipation.

“Are you going to take me home, Makoto?”

 

 

 

9)

Makoto slams him up against the wall and shoves his tongue into his mouth. Laurent feels firecrackers go off inside his blood. He hasn’t even had time to take a proper look around Makoto’s home, but really, right now, he couldn’t care less. He kisses back, moaning with abandon.

“This is a bad idea,” Makoto gasps into his mouth. His hands fumble with Laurent’s shirt. “Terrible idea. Even worse than the first one.”

Laurent snickers. He grabs two handfuls of Makoto’s pert little ass—finally! He’s been wanting to do that for forever—and nibbles at his lower lip. “Baby, you don’t want me because I’m a good idea,” he purrs.

“Fuck you. I hate how you—you keep pushing me. Every time you’re around I always end up doing crazy shit.”

“Only because you love doing crazy shit.”

“Shut the fuck up and take your clothes off,” he snarls, while also attempting to climb Laurent like a tree.

Laurent has to laugh at that. He wraps his arms around Makoto’s waist and swings him into the air. Makoto squeaks.

“What—put me down! Laurent!”

“In a second.” He carries a squirming Makoto to the tiny bed in the corner and deposits him on top of the sheets.

Makoto squeaks again when he lands. “God, you asshole!”

He kicks Laurent in the shin, painfully hard. But he’s panting for breath, in the good kind of way. When Laurent prowls onto the bed, he can see the outline of Makoto’s dick straining against his pants.

“Wait—turn on the light,” Makoto rushes to say. “I want to see you.”

With an impressive display of willpower, Laurent turns away from him long enough to find the bedside lamp and switch it on. When he turns back, Makoto is delightfully shirtless, and kicking off his pants like they’ve personally insulted him. He has three café au lait spots high on his inner thigh.

Lust cuts into Laurent, deep and devastating like a knife wound. He wraps a hand under one of Makoto’s exposed knees and kisses it still.

“Hey, let’s take it slow,” he says with a smile, dropping his voice low and liquid. “It’s your first time, after all. I want us both to savor it.”

Makoto just snorts. “Oh, now you want to go slow?” He sits up suddenly, a whip-like motion, grabs Laurent’s hair, and yanks.

Jesus. Fuck. Laurent sucks in a sharp breath, his head snapping back. His hands scrabble over the sheets. Makoto knows exactly what he’s doing to him, le petit coquin.

“Cut the bullshit,” Makoto says fiercely. “I’m going to make you mine. I’m going to mess you up so fucking bad you’ll never be able to leave. So don’t hold back, Laurent.”

Laurent swallows. “Alright,” he rasps.

There’s something transcendent about Edamura Makoto taking what he wants. So often he pretends to be satisfied with the bare minimum, what he calls simple, clean living—but all that really means is removing himself from temptation. The truth is that he’s a man of avarice. It was his hunger that really hooked Laurent in Los Angeles, the challenge in his eyes. When he finally allows himself to want something, he takes it all—everything—no room for a middle ground.

Laurent preps him carefully, moves smooth and steady, murmurs sweet nothings in his ear. Internally, he’s being driven absolutely frantic. Makoto curses impatiently at him, hissing more, come on, faster, I want more. He leaves red scratch marks over Laurent’s back. His body is deceptively strong, and the way he moves—he arches and writhes, pressing the language of want into Laurent’s skin. It takes all of Laurent’s self-control not to finish too soon and eternally embarrass himself.

When Laurent finally sinks into him, hot and tight and perfect, the blissed-out look on Makoto’s face is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. And a little bit later, when Laurent wraps his hand around his length and Makoto comes with a hoarse, startled yell, like he didn’t even know he could experience such pleasure, Laurent thinks he understands what the poets meant when they called it la petit mort. He comes so hard he legitimately thinks Makoto just shaved a year off his life.

Afterwards, Laurent just wants to lie there, nuzzling Makoto’s hair. Beneath the sweat, he smells so good: nutty, and a little bit like oranges. Makoto is dazed enough to allow a few minutes of cuddling.

Then he pushes Laurent’s head away.

“Shit, I forgot about dinner,” he says.

Laurent groans, and flops face-down into a pillow. The only pillow. This bed was clearly meant for only one person. “Can’t it wait?”

“I’m hungry,” Makoto says. “So, no.”

Laurent is out of practice with what comes next. Typically, this would be his cue to leave. He’s not exactly the type of partner people keep around after the deed is done and the requisite niceties are exchanged. He isn’t sure…well, he was improvising everything already, but he has even less of a blueprint to work with now. He feels a bit awkward.

Thankfully, Makoto has enough confidence for the both of them. Laurent had been worried he would be embarrassed in the aftermath, or worse, ashamed, but it turns out that the opposite is true. He’s buzzing with energy, humming cheerfully to himself. After he cleans everything up, he bullies Laurent out of bed and drags him downstairs to the shop kitchen.

“Come on, help me chop the vegetables. You can do that, right?”

He smiles at Laurent, his eyes warm and bright. He looks, just, so incredibly happy.

“Of course,” the lie slips out.

Makoto positions him in front of a cutting board and hands him carrots, celery, a vegetable knife, and a peeler. Then he goes to the stove and starts doing mysterious things with the rice cooker.

Laurent turns a carrot over in his hands.

Well. It can’t be that difficult. He can fake being a CIA agent doing karate while holding a loaded gun, he should be able to fake chopping vegetables.

He manages the carrots alright, but it’s as he’s chopping the celery that his mind wanders. He can still feel the scratch marks on his back. Did Makoto like it? Well, obviously, this is sex with Laurent after all. But did he like it enough to sell him on letting Laurent stay? Can he still feel Laurent on his skin when he moves, the way Laurent can feel him? Is he as hopelessly lost and confused?

“Are you done yet?” Makoto asks, turning to him. And then he yelps.

Laurent blinks back to the present. He looks down, and realizes that his knife just landed on top of his thumb.

“Oops,” he says.

It landed mostly on his thumbnail, so the injury is minor. There’s no pain, for the moment. As Laurent watches, a bead of blood rises from a small cut next to his thumbnail.

Makoto frowns at him and grabs his hand. “How were you holding that knife?”

Laurent bats his lashes with a coy smile. “I got distracted, thinking of you.”

Makoto rolls his eyes. “You’re bullshitting me. Do you actually know how to cook? You don’t, do you?”

Laurent opens his mouth, then closes it.

Makoto sighs. “I should’ve guessed.”

He gives Laurent a Hello Kitty band-aid. And then he teaches Laurent how to chop vegetables. As it turns out, there’s a way to curl your fingers on top of the vegetables to minimize the risk of injury. He nudges Laurent’s hands into the proper position, and watches Laurent successfully chop one of the celery sticks.

“Like that. Keep going.”

Then Makoto wraps his arms around Laurent from behind, presses close, and blows on his ear. Laurent’s knees instantly go weak. He can feel each individual scratch mark on his back light up like a brand.

“Distracting enough for you?” Makoto asks, laughter in his voice.

Laurent clears his throat. “Thoroughly. This is quite unfair, you know. How are you so unaffected?”

“Unaffected by what?” he asks, innocently.

Is he messing with Laurent? He’s definitely messing with Laurent. This is so embarrassing. Which of them was only recently still a virgin, again?

“Oh look,” Makoto says, “you finished chopping the vegetables! Good job!”

Laurent looks down at the cutting board, and blinks. So he has.

“There. And now you won’t hurt yourself again.”

He sounds enormously proud, like Laurent had achieved some amazing feat instead of chopping a celery.

“Thank you,” Laurent says, lamely. He doesn’t know what else to say.

“You’re welcome.” Makoto settles against Laurent’s back, his arms wrapped comfortably around Laurent’s waist. “I’ve always wanted to do this,” he says dreamily. “Cook with someone in my home. Kaa-san taught me how to cook before she died, and I was always grateful for that. It’s like I kept a little part of her. But I haven’t been able to share it with anyone else until now.”

Laurent breathes out, carefully. His heart is suddenly pounding, but not…not in a good way. Something about this feels dangerous. He sets down the knife and rests the heels of his hands gingerly on the counter. His thumb is finally starting to sting.

“I was always a lazy brat, I’m afraid,” he says lightly. “My mother was a fantastic cook. But I never bothered to learn how she did it.”

Makoto presses his mouth to the back of his neck, warm and wet. “You were young,” he says kindly. “It’s okay.” He squeezes him in a hug. “I told you, you don’t need to pretend with me. It’s not your lies that I want.”

So what does he want, then?

Makoto makes fried rice with eggs, and they eat it hot from the stove, standing across from each other in the kitchen. His dark eyes rove over Laurent, like he’s soaking him in. Laurent looks back.

This was a terrible idea.

When Makoto wants, he wants everything. He won’t just steal the race, he’ll save the pilot, too. He sees value in paintings that Laurent dismisses as counterfeits, he preserves an old woman’s loyalty without asking for permission. He’s a greedy, greedy man.

Laurent doesn’t know if he has enough in him to give.

“You’re quiet,” Makoto says.

“Just thinking about you,” Laurent replies.

Makoto snorts. “God, now the flirting is worse. I didn’t think that was even possible.”

Laurent smiles at him. “Starting to have regrets?”

“No.” He blinks at Laurent, and then ducks his eyes down. “You?”

“Not at all,” Laurent replies, which is only a little bit of a lie.

Makoto nods to himself. “You don’t, uh.” He blushes, and stares down at the now empty bowl in his hands. “I was kind of—selfish? Earlier. I didn’t stop to think about…if you were really okay with any of this.”

“I like you selfish,” Laurent assures him. “I love,” and then he has to scramble not to say I love you, “how wild you get. In fact, when can we do it again? My schedule is open all night.”

Makoto blushes harder, but the corner of his mouth twitches into a grin. He looks delighted, but trying not to show it, and it’s completely adorable. He meets Laurent’s eyes.

“I’m serious, Laurent. I know I said some…stuff, but if you really want to leave, I’m not going to force you to stay.”

Laurent raises his eyebrows. “Oh, ‘stuff,’ is that all it was to you? You mean you aren’t going to make me yours, and mess me up so fucking bad that I’ll—"

“Oh my god! No! Not in the kitchen!” He flails, scandalized. The chopsticks on his bowl go flying, and he has to leap to grab them before they roll under the refrigerator and disappear into the void.

A laugh rips out of Laurent. He has to set his bowl down before he drops it, and then he leans against the counter, shaking with laughter.

Makoto groans, but he’s smiling, too. “Yeah, yeah, laugh it up.”

Laurent is just so stupidly gone for this man. Still chuckling, he takes Makoto’s bowl out of his hands and sets it in the sink. Then he crowds him against the refrigerator and kisses him, deeply and passionately.

“What did I just say about not doing this in the kitchen?” Makoto pants, when they separate. He doesn’t look too upset about it, though.

Laurent presses his lips to his temple. “I don’t want to leave,” he breathes into his skin. “I never want to leave. Makoto, please. Let me stay here.”

And Makoto smiles at him, his arms wrapped around his waist, brilliant and happy and whole. “Okay,” he agrees. “You can stay.”

 

 

 

10)

The next morning, cramped in the tiny one-person bed, Laurent wakes up to Makoto cursing under his breath.

“Mmphr?” he grunts, still half asleep.

An elbow lands on his nose.

“Oh, shit! Sorry!” Makoto hisses.

Laurent is fully awake now.

He sits up, blinking in the darkness, as Makoto disentangles their limbs and scrambles off the bed. “What are you doing?” he asks.

“I’m late,” Makoto says, hopping on one foot to get his pants on. “I’m late to work!”

Laurent rubs his nose (ow) and fumbles blindly for his phone on the dresser. He squints at the screen.

It’s 6:19.

On Monday, the coffee shop opens at 6:00.

“Ah,” Laurent says.

He feels…bad. There are bad chemicals pumping into his blood. Adrenaline, and anxiety, and—something else. Dread?

“Sorry. Go back to sleep. Shit.” Makoto dashes around the room in a mad rush.

Laurent swings his legs off the bed. “Can I help?” he asks delicately.

“No,” Makoto snaps.

The bad feeling grows.

It’s bitter, and cloying, and cold. It sets off alarm bells in every part of his brain. Has he felt this before? He can’t remember. What is this?

“Come down when you’re ready,” Makoto says over his shoulder, his words clipped and distracted. “I’ll see you.”

And then he’s gone, and Laurent is alone.

He’s alone. In the dark. In a house he doesn’t know.

And, quite suddenly, Laurent cannot breathe.

Or—no. He is breathing. He can hear it, he can feel it. He’s gasping for breath.

No, no he isn’t. He’s hyperventilating. This is not breathing. This is—

Laurent opens his phone. With trembling fingers, he calls Oz, and puts him on speaker just before his fingers lose all sensation and the phone slips out of his grasp. It drops quietly onto the bed.

“Yes?” Oz’s voice asks, muffled in the sheets.

Laurent sinks to the floor, so he’s sitting with his forehead to his knees, his back pressed against the bed. He can’t breathe. He can’t stop breathing. He can’t—control himself.

“Laurent?” Oz asks.

Help, he tries to say, but all that comes out is the sound of him gasping for breath.

Oz hears. Thank Jesus Christ, Oz hears.

“Oh,” he says. And then his voice shifts to a calm and steady tone, like he’s speaking to a frightened child. “You’re having a panic attack.”

A panic attack? Is that what this is? It doesn’t feel like panic, though. It feels like his body and his brain are screaming at each other in an echo chamber. It feels like his lungs are trying to tear themselves to shreds. It feels like dying, and it hurts.

“It might feel scary,” Oz continues, “but you’re safe. It’s going to be alright. You’ll get through this, Laurent.”

He starts to coach Laurent to breathe slower, and counts patiently to ten. And then he starts from one and counts again. And again. He repeats the process for what feels like an eternity.

Finally, the all-encompassing terror passes, and Laurent has control of his breathing again. He just sits there for a while, calming himself down. He’s still shaking a bit. His fingers are numb.

Oz falls quiet, and waits.

There’s enough light in the room to see now, as the sky inches slowly closer to dawn. Makoto has a pitcher of water on the coffee table. Laurent shuffles over on his knees and pours himself a glass. He shuffles back to sit on the bed, the water cradled in his hands.

What the fuck was that?

“I don’t have panic attacks,” Laurent tells Oz.

Oz just makes a noncommittal noise.

This explains so much about Abby and why she hates Laurent. He had no idea panic attacks were this awful. Well, he did have some idea, he just didn’t care about it until now. He sips at the water.

“Why did that happen?” he asks.

“You moved in with Makoto,” Oz says. “It probably triggered your abandonment trauma.”

“My what?”

“Your—look, do you actually want me to psychoanalyze you?”

He really, really does not. He sips his water sulkily.

He doesn’t have abandonment trauma, whatever that means. He wasn’t abandoned.

Except…he was, wasn’t he?

It’s like opening Pandora’s box. Thinking of one memory brings all the others crowding into the front of his mind. Friends, romantic partners, mentor figures, foster parents. All of them got sick of him eventually. Laurent is incredibly bad at making people want to keep him. He lies, and he cheats, and he manipulates people for his own ends—when they find out what he’s really like, any self-respecting person would run for the hills. The longest relationship he ever had was with Dorothy, and then she left him. Or she died, or she pretended to die. Same difference.

His mother was the first offender. She was alive. And then she was dead. He had watched the process, and to this day, he still couldn’t understand it. She was standing, and then she was a corpse on the floor. She was here, and in the next instant, she had left him forever.

Nothing really made sense, after that. Nothing felt real. How could it? Families are unbreakable, until they break. Love is sacred, until it’s not. He knew it when foster mother number one lost her job at the factory and broke his arm in a rage. He knew it when too-old-for-him boyfriend number one dragged him to the bathroom when he was too drunk to say no. Adults will tell children the most beautiful lies, but only suckers believe in fairy tales.

There’s no way to compartmentalize all these memories. He can’t file them neatly into a folder and shove them to the back of a mental cabinet. His thoughts are howling all around him, like the wind, like a storm. Like a tornado came and uprooted his house when his mother died, carrying him away into the sky. Like a part of him has stayed up there ever since, trapped, alone, spinning and spinning and spinning.

Laurent realizes with a start that he’s crying.

“Great, now my eyes are leaking,” he complains to Oz. He needs a distraction, he needs to make it into a joke, he needs it to stop hurting so much. “Is this part of the panic attack too? I hate this. Make it stop.”

“Laurent,” Oz says—and he’s back to his usual exhausted, long-suffering self. “If you want me to be your therapist, you’re going to have to start paying me.”

“Pay you to psychoanalyze me? The horror.” He sets down the water, grabs a tissue, and blows his nose.

He can practically hear Oz roll his eyes. “You’re going to have to deal with this at some point, if you’re serious about Makoto.”

Laurent makes a face. “I don’t need your fatherly stamp of approval, and Makoto definitely doesn’t. Is this why you sent me to Guangdong? To ‘deal’ with it?”

“In my defense,” Oz says calmly, “she called me first, about a month ago. Made me think my phone had somehow connected to the spirit realm, for a good ten minutes. That was an interesting conversation, let me tell you that.”

“She stole 50 million RMB from me.”

“I know,” he says. He sounds unimpressed.

“Oh, like you could’ve done better?”

“Do you doubt me, Laurie?”

“Fuck off, old man.”

He flops backwards onto the bed and covers his face with a hand. He feels somewhat calmer, more stable. But he is now forced to admit—yet again—what a terrible idea it was to start dating Makoto. He can’t deal with this. He’s not going to.

Oz always gives excellent advice that you hate to hear.

“Oz,” he starts.

Oz waits.

He doesn’t want to ask him. It would be showing too much of his own hand, to ask him. As much as they trust each other, as long as they’ve worked together, they aren’t friends. Oz does not have his best interests at heart. His priorities are himself, the con, and occasionally, Makoto. He would not hesitate to throw Laurent to the wolves to protect his own son.

But Laurent desperately, desperately needs to know.

“What does he want?” Laurent whispers, into the dim darkness.

What does Makoto want? How can I give it to him? How can I make him keep me?

Oz is silent for a long time.

“If I were you,” he finally answers, his voice calm and without affect. “I would have lied. But it’s too late for the two of you, now, isn’t it?”

Laurent starts to cry again. He lets out a choked laugh, pressing his hands against his eyes until he sees spots.

He can’t do this. He can’t do this. He can’t do this.

“Hey old man,” he rasps. “What’s it like, to live your whole bastard life without ever letting a single person know you?”

Oz just sighs. He sounds wistful, melancholy, like he’s remembering a pleasant dream that ended too soon. “If I told you, Laurie, that would ruin the fun.”

Chapter Text

11)

At nine o’clock sharp, Laurent heads downstairs to the coffee shop, his clothes impeccable, his hair and makeup on point. The Monday morning rush hour has passed, but there’s still a small number of customers ordering drinks.

Kohei sees him first. He just stares at him for a second. Yes, Laurent did just walk downstairs from Makoto’s rooms, thank you very much. Kohei nods at Laurent, very seriously. And then he nudges Makoto with an elbow.

Makoto looks away from the coffee grounds he’s measuring. His hair is a disaster, his shirt is on backwards, and yet he is still somehow the most gorgeous thing Laurent has ever seen. When their eyes meet, Makoto’s face transforms, like magic. His lips quirk into a pleased smile, and his warm eyes become impossibly warmer. His lovely mouth starts to form the shape of Laurent’s name.

Laurent breezes past before he can hear his voice. At the door to the coffee shop, he pauses just long enough to glance over his shoulder.

Makoto is frozen in his place at the counter, the warmth in his expression rapidly draining away. Ah, such a shame. Nothing good can ever last.

Laurent blows him a kiss.

And then he leaves.

Today, Laurent decides that he deserves a little vacation. In downtown Kyoto, he plays the tourist for a while. He eats brunch in Nishiki Market, visits the ochaya teahouses, flirts with cute people he sees. He buys a yukata to wear and struts around the streets of Gion, flaunting his most cringeworthy Japanese.

It’s been fourteen years since the last time he properly explored Kyoto. In that time, successive police crackdowns and harsher laws have strangled Japan’s red light districts. But there is still plenty of fun to be had, if you know where to look.

In the late afternoon, around when the local schools let out, he finally spots something interesting: a man chatting up a girl in one of the less reputable restaurants. Laurent catalogues their profiles in the blink of an eye. She’s wearing makeup and has changed out of her school uniform to make herself look like an adult, but Laurent can still tell that she’s barely sixteen. He’s dressed in a fancy suit, with dyed-orange hair and a pointy chin, and looks old enough to be her uncle.

He is definitely not her uncle.

Laurent pulls up a chair, which screeches loudly against the floor. The happy couple startles. Laurent plops down at their table and crosses his knees casually.

“What the hell are you doing, foreigner?” the man asks. He takes in Laurent’s cheap yukata, his blonde hair and blue eyes. In quite good English, he says, “No selfies, motherfucker.”

“I’m not after a photo,” Laurent assures him, in Japanese with a light American accent. “I’ve been speaking with the higher ups. I have a business proposal for you.”

“What?” says the man.

“What?” says the girl. She grips her chopsticks in her fist. “What’s going on, Hatsu?”

“Hatsu!” Laurent crows, delighted. “Is that what you call yourself when you’re working? Hatsu?”

“Go away,” Hatsu hisses. His eyes dart between Laurent and the girl. “I’m in the middle of something, here.”

“Yes, I can see that.” Laurent turns to the girl and smiles. “We’re with the yakuza. You are aware that your boyfriend is part of the yakuza, are you not?”

It’s like dropping a hand grenade onto a dinner plate. There’s panic, yelling, denials, curses. Laurent steals bites of Hatsu’s food and calmly watches the chaos unfold. Eventually, the girl storms out of the restaurant, her face blotchy red with tears.

Hatsu turns on Laurent, his expression murderous.

“You want to die?” he asks.

“Who knows? I don’t have a therapist,” Laurent replies. He sips Hatsu’s tea. “Relax. She’ll be back. You’ll still meet the quota your boss set for you.”

Hatsu slams his fist on the table. “Who the hell sent you? I should kill you for this shit!”

“Oh, I do apologize. I’m new to this whole traditional yakuza culture.” He drops a couple high-ranked names. Laurent has intimate knowledge of all the families from his time preparing for the Suzaku con, and he’s stayed up to date since then. Fooling a low-level grunt like Hatsu into believing that Laurent is part of the yakuza is child’s play.

After a long second, Hatsu sits back down.

Laurent smiles approvingly. “They tell me you’ve got talent,” he says. “But you’re being wasted in the trafficking industry. Think about it. All that work, weeks and weeks of buttering your targets up, and all you get in the end is, what, ¥3,000,000 each? And the girls, how many of them burn out too fast, or can’t earn enough income, or run away? Human beings are tricky, you know.” He shakes his head. “This business is a thing of the past.”

Hatsu glowers dangerously. “This business earns us billions each year.”

“And it used to be trillions. All the families are shrinking, dying. Didn’t you hear what happened to the Suzakus?”

Hatsu’s eyes widen. He makes a frantic shushing noise. “We don’t talk about that here,” he hisses, glancing nervously around the restaurant.

Laurent chuckles. It sure is an ego boost to know that he’s become the bogeyman of Japan’s criminal underground.

“The money isn’t in trafficking anymore. I’ll tell you where it is.” He leans in dramatically. “Real estate. Real estate and property. That’s the business opportunity I want to offer you. Help me bring in foreign investors, and get the politicians and the police to look the other way.”

Within another five minutes, Laurent has Hatsu entirely in his pocket.

See, there are certain patterns to the way the world works. Take that teenage girl, Hatsu’s target. What could drive a perfectly normal girl to willingly walk into this criminal’s arms? A bad home life, perhaps. Or stressful school problems. Or maybe she’s just lonely. Regardless, she wants something (safety, excitement, compassion, love), but nobody in her ordinary life can give it to her. So she turns to a counterfeit, an escape, the next best thing, and eventually deludes herself into thinking it’s real. Laurent isn’t lying when he says she’ll be back. The miserable ones always come back.

There will always be miserable people like her, and there will always be hyenas who feed on that misery.

And then there are people like Laurent, who prey on the hyenas.

He thinks he was always like this, even before Dorothy. When he was still just a homeless, queer kid in Brussels, he had met his first human trafficker. He hadn’t been afraid, even though he should have been. No—instead it was like watching an actor on the TV screen. Laurent had observed the way the man modulated his voice, offered comfort and kindness, said he would give Laurent a job and a safe place to sleep. Laurent had admired the skill it took to craft those lies.

And he had thought: I can do that better than you.

“I feel like I’ve known you forever,” Hatsu slurs, a few hours later, drunk on alcohol and self-importance. Now that it’s dark, it’s like the city has finally woken up. Salarymen pack the restaurants and bars, and young people crowd the clubs. The two of them walk down a narrow, bustling street. Laurent allows Hatsu to lean heavily against his shoulder; his breath smells pungently of squid. “Like I’ve been waiting for someone like you. This is my lucky break! You’re going to make me rich!”

“Mm-hm.” As they walk past a convenience store, Laurent pauses. “I’ve got to make a phone call, excuse me. Do you mind getting me a pack of cigarettes?”

Hatsu grins at him amiably. “Sure.”

While Hatsu is in the convenience store, Laurent sends a couple emails and texts, with various documents attached. And then he makes a phone call.

A few minutes later, Hatsu walks back outside with the cigarettes in one hand. With the other hand, he pats at his pockets clumsily. “Hey, you seen my phone?” he asks. “I think I left it back at the club.”

Laurent smiles at him. He hangs up, and then dangles the phone in his fingers. “You mean this?”

Hatsu makes a double-take. His face becomes magnificently, hilariously confused. “The hell’re you doing with my phone?”

“I told you, I was making a phone call. Trade you?”

He plucks the cigarette pack from Hatsu’s hand and drops the phone into his open palm.

It’s a truly fantastic deal, in Laurent’s opinion. His services are usually a lot more expensive than this.

“Huh?” says Hatsu. He squints at the phone. “What?”

“You should probably go home,” Laurent tells him, kindly. “If you hurry, you might be able to say goodbye to your kids before the police come for you.”

Still confused, Hatsu opens up the phone. And then he sees what Laurent has just sent. And who he’s just called.

Hatsu comes to a halt. His entire life is suddenly crashing down around him. According to the paper trail, he just confessed to the police about all his crimes, sold out the yakuza, and admitted to his wife what those late nights at work were really about. There’s no way out for poor little Hatsu. Even if he somehow evades the police, the yakuza will shoot him on sight; and even if the yakuza don’t get him, his wife will definitely hunt him down and make him pay.

“What the fuck?” he says, his voice trembling. “Who—who are you, some kind of fucking CIA or—?”

He looks up.

But Laurent is already long gone, strolling leisurely through the streets of Kyoto. He lights a cigarette and smokes it as he walks. The night air is cold and crisp, and the solitary moon gazes out from between the clouds.

He feels…significantly better now than he did that morning. He fills his lungs with the bitter smoke, and then breathes out, slowly, meditatively. It’s good to know that he hasn’t lost his touch. If all else fails, he can at least depend on that. He could have easily gotten 10 million yen out of Hatsu before sending him to jail.

He was craving a cigarette, though.

He finishes the cigarette and lights a second one. The city unfurls around him in all its splendor, accepting him as one of its own. He grew up in a place just like this, surrounded by people pretending to love each other while they backstabbed and exploited. He’s not a domesticated animal. These are his familiar haunts, his comfort food. This is where he belongs.

But Laurent Thierry never learned how to settle. He’s always wanted more—more than he’s allowed, more than his fair share, more than people tell him he deserves. He wants a place to call home. He wants warm hands around his waist in the kitchen. He wants to chase away the old loneliness in his heart.

His footsteps slow. He starts on a third cigarette.

But what if this is a trap? What if he’s deluding himself, digging his own grave, like he’s seen so many greedy fools do? Laurent should be smarter than this. He can’t risk another person abandoning him. He should do what Oz had said from the start and cut his losses while he still can. If he leaves first, at least that would be something he can control.

But he wants, he wants…

His footsteps keep slowing, until finally they slow to a stop. With a sense of inevitability, he raises his head and finds himself looking at Makoto’s coffee shop.

The lights upstairs are dark. Laurent checks his phone. Ah, of course. It’s almost one in the morning. Makoto must have already gone to sleep.

The cigarette burns down steadily between his fingers. Laurent stares at the door.

He wants to go inside, of course he does. He’s wanted to go back since the moment he left. But that would be one of the stupidest decisions he has ever made, right up there with asking Dorothy to marry him. Damn it, when will he ever learn? It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Their relationship should have crashed and burned ages ago, things weren’t supposed to go this far.

Loving Makoto wasn’t supposed to feel like—like the only worthwhile thing he’s ever done.

A smudge of white moves in the corner of his eye. It’s Lola, slinking down the road in the moonlight. She doesn’t stop to acknowledge Laurent. He watches her pad softly between the car tires, weaving in and out of sight, before disappearing around the corner.

He chuckles ruefully at his own foolishness. He takes one last drag of the cigarette and stubs it out.

From his pocket, he fishes out his duplicate keys to the coffee shop, which he’d secretly made months ago. He lets himself into the shop. Upstairs, Makoto is curled up under a mass of blankets in his tiny bed, dead to the world. Laurent feels a spark of fondness in his chest at the sight. He slinks past to the bathroom as quietly as he can and shuts the door.

He’d left his overnight bag here before rushing out that morning. Best to travel light when you’re on the run—but there’s no point in trying to run anymore, is there? He digs out his toiletries and a change of clothes, and steals one of Makoto’s towels. He brushes his teeth, wipes off his makeup. He folds up his yukata and stores it neatly in his bag. Then he steps into the bathtub for a quick shower.

It’s as he’s rinsing the shampoo out of his hair that he hears the door to the bathroom swing open, and then shut. He smiles to himself, just a little.

“Here to join me, Edamame?” he jokes. “That’s a surprise.”

He tilts his head up and lets the water pelt onto his face.

The shower curtain gets shoved aside. He blinks his eyes open, actually surprised this time, and turns to see Makoto step into the bathtub behind him.

He’s wearing an old gray T-shirt and cute little black boxers. He looks half asleep, and also incredibly annoyed. The water immediately starts to soak his pajamas, which only makes him look more ticked off. He glares at Laurent, like it’s all his fault his clothes are wet now.

Laurent feels happiness shoot through his bloodstream like a drug. He starts to smile uncontrollably. Y por besar tus muslos castos, ¿qué daría yo? It was only a day, and he already missed him like hell.

“Laurent,” Makoto says, in a sleep-rough voice. He squints his eyes into two angry slits. “Do you know what fucking time it is?”

Of course Makoto would get into the shower fully dressed just to yell at Laurent. Jesus, he’s perfect.

“I’m sure it’s five o’clock somewhere,” Laurent replies.

Makoto doesn’t seem to find this funny. “What the hell were you doing all day?”

“Charity work.”

Makoto snarls something insulting under his breath. He obviously doesn’t believe him, which is a shame, because for once it’s practically true.

“You piss me off, Laurent,” he grumbles. “You say all those things, you say, Oh, Makoto, let me stay here, in that voice of yours, and then you just leave. I mean, who does that? What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Well, I came back,” Laurent points out. “So I didn’t actually leave.”

“That’s not the point!” Frustrated, Makoto runs his fingers through his hair, which poofs up wildly around his head. His skin looks warm and soft in the orange bathroom light, like sweet cream. Laurent desperately wants to touch him. He is also increasingly aware that he’s standing here in nothing but his birthday suit.

“Mon cœur, if I’ve upset you, I apologize,” Laurent says, politely keeping his eyes on Makoto’s face. “How about you grab us some towels and we can keep talking about this somewhere dry?” He winks. “If we stay here any longer, I’m going to start getting ideas.”

Makoto responds with a deadpan stare. “Am I making you uncomfortable?”

“Well. That’s not exactly the problem,” Laurent says delicately. Does he not fully appreciate the effect he has on Laurent? “It’s more like I might get too comfortable—”

Makoto drops his eyes, and then drags them slowly up Laurent’s body, lingering on his soft pink dick and the mostly-faded scratch marks on his back. His expression is disdainful, aloof. Laurent feels his gaze prickle over his skin like a physical weight.

Makoto licks his lips, and takes a very deliberate step forward. “How about now?” he asks.

“Ah,” Laurent says. He has to pause to clear his throat. Apparently, Makoto isn’t that angry with him, that’s good. Or maybe he’s so angry that the emotion circled back around to lust? Well, that’s a thrilling development. “Are we doing this? We’re doing this. Alright,” he babbles. “Consider me the opposite of uncomfortable, then. I am—very, very comfortable with the situation. For the record, when I said ‘join me,’ I really was not expecting—”

Makoto takes another step forward, pinning Laurent against the shower wall. He lifts his hand and traces a fingernail down the length of Laurent’s dick. They both watch as it twitches upwards.

“Laurent,” says Makoto, in a disinterested tone of voice. He looks up at Laurent. His doe-like eyelashes stick together, damp with shower water. In the shadows, his eyes look pitch black. “Shut the fuck up.”

Laurent laughs breathlessly. It’s like he was only sleepwalking all day when he was wandering through Kyoto, like the world outside was nothing but a colorless dream. This is what matters. This is Laurent finally coming to life. “Make me,” he says, eager to see what Makoto will do.

What Makoto does is push Laurent down to his knees and fuck into his mouth. He keeps a hand firmly on the back of his neck, his other hand tugging him as he likes by his hair. Down here, the shower water pounds down heavier, sometimes running into his face and cutting off his breathing.

As if from far away, he can hear Makoto saying things to him in a hushed tone, like he’s confessing secrets: “God, you’re beautiful. You’re so beautiful like this.”

And: “I’ve been thinking about this for so long, I thought I was going to go crazy. I wanted to fuck you since I found out you stole my wallet. You wanted this too, right? You kept teasing and teasing me, you were trying to make me snap and finally fuck you like you wanted, weren’t you?”

And: “Thank fuck we didn’t do this in my shop.”

Laurent would laugh at that, if he had the breath for it. He tries to show off at first, since he does have a reputation, but his concentration quickly falls apart. He gets sloppy, desperate. He ends up clinging to Makoto’s hip and letting him control the pacing. He can’t quite get enough air. His whole body is on fire, like he’s being burned alive from the inside out. His head starts to spin. He closes his eyes and tries to last a bit longer, take Makoto a bit deeper—

Makoto’s climax takes both of them by surprise. Laurent swallows it on instinct, just barely. He rips away, and then has to rest his forehead against Makoto’s thigh for a moment, heaving for breath.

Makoto kneels down in front of him. “Laurent,” he says urgently. His hands are gentle now, pushing his wet hair back from his feverish face. “Shit. You okay?”

Laurent laughs weakly. “Never been better,” he says—and wow, his throat is wrecked. He swallows again, pushing his face into Makoto’s hand. His head is still whirling, his pulse rushing in his ears. “Could you,” he pants, “Makoto, could you—please—”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve got you,” Makoto says, and then he kisses him. Something sharp passes through Laurent’s chest. For a brief, fragile second, Laurent has the inexplicable urge to cry.

Then Makoto reaches over and pulls him off, with a few clumsy strokes. Laurent’s mind goes blessedly blank. He slumps forward with his head on Makoto’s shoulder, catching his breath.

After a few seconds, Makoto reaches around him and turns the shower off.

The bathroom falls quiet. There are just the sounds of their breath, gradually slowing down, and the water dripping out of their hair. A chill starts to rise on Laurent’s skin as the water cools. Laurent wraps his arms around Makoto and closes his eyes. He just wants to stay here for a little longer.

Makoto rubs him on the back, and sighs.

“Okay, come on, before we both catch a cold,” he says.

Reluctantly, Laurent allows himself to get dragged out of the shower and for Makoto to wrap him up in a towel. With a smaller towel, he scrubs at Laurent’s hair.

“You good?” he asks.

Laurent hums, bowing his head so Makoto can reach. “You’re a natural,” he says. And then he giggles. “You were lusting after me this whole time. I knew it.”

Makoto snorts. “You were also a complete bastard, okay, so it cancelled out.”

As Laurent puts on his clothes, Makoto starts to dig through Laurent’s overnight bag. He raises his eyebrows at the kimono. And then he makes a satisfied sound, and pulls out a floral-printed T-shirt.

“Do you need this?” he asks.

Laurent blinks at him. It takes him a second to unstick his tongue and say, “No.”

Makoto strips out of his wet pajamas and puts on Laurent’s shirt. It comes down to his thighs. “Mine now,” he says, with an arrogant little grin.

This man is going to be the death of him.

Makoto has an automatic coffee maker in his room, to Laurent’s amusement. He brews them a pot of coffee while Laurent blow-dries his hair. When they’re both ready, he pours two mugs and sits down cross-legged at the coffee table.

Laurent joins him. Makoto passes him a mug, and Laurent drinks it eagerly. Warmth seeps through his body, all the way to his fingertips.

“Right,” Makoto says. He takes a deep breath, squares his shoulders, and looks Laurent directly in the eye. “We gonna talk about last morning?”

Ah, pity. Laurent had hoped he’d be able to get away with it tonight. “What is there to talk about?” he tries.

Makoto just looks at him.

Laurent folds first. He seems to be doing that a lot these days.

“I’m not used to keeping regular hours,” he says. “I’m not used to—any of this.”

He frowns down at his coffee. That sounded far too honest for his liking.

“That’s not an excuse,” Makoto says bitterly. “You can’t just waltz in and out of my house whenever you want, Laurent, you’re not a cat. We’ve got to communicate.”

Laurent snorts. “Communicate? You’ve been talking too much to Abby.”

“Abby’s smarter than us.”

“In some ways,” Laurent allows, “but not in this. Trust me. The day we start to honestly communicate is the day this relationship ends.”

Makoto’s eyebrows fly up. “You can’t actually believe that.”

“Want to bet?” Laurent chuckles at him. “You can’t bet against me, love. You’ll lose.”

Makoto blinks at him. His mouth parts, like he wants to object, and then closes into a thin, unhappy line.

“How about this,” Laurent offers, trying to appease him. “I’ll leave a note before I go next time. And I’ll try to be back by midnight.”

Makoto frowns at him. “Are you serious? No. That’s not enough.”

“Alright then, how about 10pm?”

“Holy shit. That’s not the point, Laurent.” He groans, and rubs his temples like he has a headache. “God, you piss me off. Have I mentioned that? You really, really piss me off.”

Laurent props his chin in his hand and smiles at him. “Starting to have regrets?” he asks gently.

Makoto pins him with a glare. “Look, I know you’re scared of something,” he says. Laurent feels his heart skip a beat. “You think I can’t tell? You ran out of here last morning like—I don’t know, like something was chasing you. I’ve never seen you that scared before. What kills me is that you still don’t trust me enough to tell me.”

Laurent clutches at his coffee mug. Trust. Trust was never supposed to be part of the equation. The issue has always been people failing to trust Laurent—and for good reason. Laurent’s trust in other people is perfectly adequate. He offers people the things that they want, and he trusts that they’ll be predictably selfish. That’s all he’s ever needed. Isn’t it?

That cold, horrible feeling is dripping down his spine again, setting off fresh alarm bells in his head. He feels like he’s looking out from the edge of a precipice, a half-step away from an endless fall. He needs to back off.

“Makoto,” he says, putting as much earnestness into his voice as he can. “Please. Not tonight.”

Makoto stares into his eyes for another beat. “You will tell me, though?”

“I will,” he lies. “I’ll tell you. But later. Not tonight.”

After a long, excruciating second, Makoto nods. “Okay,” he says.

He doesn’t believe him, Laurent can tell. Fair enough. Laurent wouldn’t believe himself, either.

Laurent elects to take the couch tonight. He’s not exactly eager for another elbow to his face, he explains. Makoto sets him up with extra blankets, and then he crawls back into bed. Laurent listens to him toss and turn for about an hour, before his breathing finally evens out into sleep.

Laurent rests his hands over his stomach and watches the moonlight filter in through the blinds, crossing slowly from one end of the ceiling to the other. The ceiling has a sharp, dizzying slant, due to the building’s previous life as a shed. It’s quiet, so quiet in this little corner of the universe. And Laurent’s thoughts are very loud.

After another hour, he decides that sleep just isn’t in the cards tonight.

He slips out of the couch and starts padding around the room softly, snooping around. He finds Makoto’s enormous pile of gacha toys packed neatly into a plastic box and stored in the back of the closet, collecting dust. There’s a small painting above his desk of a snowy London street, gifted to him by Thomas. The two figures in the painting look wretchedly cold. In a drawer he finds Makoto’s growing collection of hair adornments, organized by color. Most of them are from Laurent, but he doesn’t recognize a few of them. Maybe Makoto bought them himself.

When he’s gone around the room enough to memorize all its nooks and crannies, he puts on his shoes, picks up the leftover pot of coffee, and sneaks downstairs. He reheats the coffee in the kitchen.

After a while, a meow floats up from the direction of his legs.

He looks down.

Lola looks up.

She meows again, expectantly. Her tail curls in the air.

He quirks a smile at her. In Japanese, he says, “Finally warming up to me, are you?”

He crinkles two balls of tin foil and rolls them around the kitchen floor. Lola pounces at them immediately. He plays with her for a while, drinking coffee and waiting for the dawn to come.

“You have no idea how lucky you are,” he says quietly. He scratches the top of her head. “It’s easy to love a cat. Your hearts are pure.”

She lets him pet her for a couple seconds, before suddenly hissing and batting his hand away. Laurent chuckles. What a fickle lady. She drinks water from the bowl Makoto had left for her, and then she jumps up to the kitchen’s open window and ducks out of the building. He watches her stalk off into the street.

The quality of the light changes, going from gray to a steely blue. Laurent checks his phone. 5:15.

He finds the notebook and pen Makoto sometimes uses to take orders, and writes on the page, Will be back before you know it. He tears out the page and folds it into an origami crane, which he leaves on the kitchen counter.

He lets himself out of the shop, locking the door behind him. He walks until he reaches Nene-no-Michi. By then, the sun is peeking out from between the old wooden buildings. The only other people out here at this hour of the morning are the local breakfast stalls, and the old folks who’ve lived here all their lives. They give him curious looks as he passes.

Laurent finds a bench and sits down. He pulls out the Hideyoshi figure and sets it on the bench next to him.

“Nene-no-Michi was named after your wife, you know,” he tells Hideyoshi. “You scamp. I doubt you treated her particularly well. And yet she still prayed for you on your deathbed.”

Nene became a nun after her husband’s death and built the temple here, called Kodai-ji. Laurent assumes that this was a politically motivated decision, rather than a romantic one. But it’s an impressive display of loyalty, nevertheless.

He lets his head fall back against the bench and stares into the pale blue sky. He is…so fucking tired.

“What do you think, Hide-kun?” he mutters. He closes his eyes. “How long do you think this con will last?”

Four years, he thinks, if he keeps his cards as close to his chest as possible. Realistically? It won’t last another month. He’s not like Oz. He can’t transform himself into a completely different person, not even for someone he loves. His strategy has always been to make himself indispensable as he is. To be needed, even when he’s not trusted. That’s how he gains people’s confidence.

But Makoto doesn’t need him. Hasn’t needed him, ever since Singapore.

Laurent was doomed from the start. Because the worst thing that could happen to a conman is if he needs his mark more than the mark needs him.

When this ends, Makoto will bounce back soon enough, Laurent knows. He’s a resilient and resourceful guy. He’ll find another person to love, maybe someone honest this time, a little less selfish. They’ll have a happy, healthy, fulfilling relationship.

Laurent laughs to himself. He passes his hand over his face, and glances at Hideyoshi from the corner of his eye.

“Do you think I’ll survive being alone, this time?” he asks.

Hideyoshi just shakes his little green head in a pitying way.

“Yeah,” he sighs. “Me neither.”