The collar of Vermouth's shirt is itchy, and not for the first time today she wishes this weren't such a rush job and she'd actually had the time to buy something of a better quality, but she's a professional, damn it, and she won't let an itchy collar ruin her disguise. She tugs on the lapels of her suit jacket and checks her watch, which is, exceptionally, on her right wrist today. It can only be a matter of a few minutes until –
Kudou Yukiko's voice rings through the hallway, clear like a bell. The smile on Vermouth's face comes easily.
“Hello, darling,” she says in the deep tones of Yukiko's husband. Yukiko looks her over, then grins and pulls her into a kiss. This, too, comes easily.
“Looking good today,” Yukiko says. “Thanks so much for coming to pick me up. I have something to show you!”
Without further ado, Yukiko grabs Vermouth's wrist – the one that doesn't have the watch – and drags her off into the theatre building that Kuroba-sensei has rented for their lessons. They pass a few doors with numbers on gold plates and ancient-looking doorknobs until they reach what Vermouth recognises as the costume storage room. Yukiko fumbles with the keys for a second, pushes her inside and locks the door behind them.
The grin on her face turns very smug.
“Are you going to take the mask off yourself? It might hurt if I do it.”
Vermouth raises an eyebrow, then sighs in defeat, already peeling off the mask. “And here I thought I was perfect this time.” She smiles to herself; very few things manage to escape the scrutiny of Kudou Yukiko. “What gave me away, then?”
“The watch. It's true that Yu-chan likes to wear his watches on the right wrist – ”
“Never going to understand that.”
“ – except for this particular one, because it's a really old model and has to be re-adjusted at least once a day, so he needs good access to that little button on the right side. I told him to just stop wearing it if it bothers him so much, but it was a gift from his beloved uncle, so.” Yukiko looks immensely satisfied with herself. “Also, you kiss differently.”
That makes Vermouth laugh. “Can't argue with that.”
“At least you got the after-shave right this time.” Yukiko toes off her high heels and hoists herself onto a big wooden chest that's filled to the brim with costumes from one of last year's productions. Her yellow dress bunches around her halfway up her thighs. “Now, for what I wanted to show you – ”
While she rummages through her bag, Vermouth manages to find a plastic chair spray-painted in gold and drags it over so she can sit across from her friend.
“Ta-da!” Yukiko exclaims triumphantly, producing a very expensive-looking bottle of champagne and two wine glasses.
“Where'd you get that?”
“Snuck it out of sensei's back room. Sadly, there were only wine glasses, but hey, it's still better than plastic cups.”
Vermouth eyes the bottle with amusement. “You must be very talented to steal from the greatest thief of them all.”
Yukiko rolls her eyes. “He's not a thief, he's a magician. Everything that disappears comes back eventually. Also, you know how talented I am. But!” she adds, opening the bottle carefully. “This is not about me. We have something else to celebrate!”
“Whatever are you talking about?”
She smiles. “Oh, Sharon, please don't play dumb. It doesn't suit you at all. I know you missed the lesson today because you had an audition for Ryuga Hideki's next movie.”
Vermouth leans back in her chair. “You don't even know if I got the part.”
Yukiko just scoffs, waving her hand dismissively. “They asked specifically for you. The audition was just a formality. Of course you got the part.”
“Of course I did,” Vermouth agrees. She watches Yukiko pour the champagne with practiced ease. The noise that their glasses make when they tip them together tickles her ears.
“Here's to a good movie, then,” Yukiko declares.
Vermouth takes a sip. It's sweet, just like she imagined Kuroba-sensei would like it. “Don't get ahead of yourself. The script is brilliant, but it does have Ryuga Hideki in it.”
Yukiko stifles a laugh with her hand. “God, I hate that guy.”
“Did you know we have a kiss scene? I'll admit, I kind of wanted the part just for that. I swear I'm going to make it the worst experience of his career.”
“To be fair,” Yukiko chuckles, leaving a pink lipstick mark on her wine glass, “that is the only reasonable way to handle a kiss scene with Ryuga Hideki.”
Vermouth nods absently. “I was a little bit surprised, honestly. Playing the lead's romantic interest, at my old age.”
Predictably, Yukiko kicks her in the shin with her bare foot; she's wearing blue nail polish today. “Thirty-six is not old, you silly girl.”
Vermouth raises an eyebrow. “And let me guess, twenty-four is not young?”
“Of course it is. I'll stay young forever, just wait and see.”
She's pretty sure Yukiko doesn't mean what she's saying, isn't trying to imply anything at all; it still sends a cold chill down her spine. “Be careful with that,” she says, more solemn than she intended. “Film industry isn't going to agree with me on this, but ageing is actually a good thing most of the time.”
Yukiko huffs. “Yeah, when we're talking cheese, or whiskey, maybe.”
“It allows you to grow from your mistakes.”
“I don't make mistakes, honey.”
“Oh, like cheating on your husband?” Vermouth feels bad for saying it as soon as it's out, but Yukiko doesn't seem perturbed.
“It's not cheating if he knows it and doesn't mind. Our relationship has always been rather...” Her tongue darts out to lick the corner of her lips. “Open.”
With a sigh, Vermouth gives in and finishes the champagne in her glass in one long sip. “I keep wondering why you two got married.”
“I told you a hundred times already.” Yukiko ticks off her fingers one by one. “I was pregnant, our families got along well, we were in love. Oh, and the sex was great, too,” she adds, a twinkle in her eyes.
Vermouth wonders if this is her cue; there isn't much of a script when it comes to Yukiko. Still, she runs a hand up her friend's leg, very lightly, and slides it just under the hem of her dress.
“Was it, now,” she murmurs, trying for playful.
Yukiko smirks, but lifts the hand off her leg and squeezes it instead. “Sorry, not really in the mood today.”
It doesn't hurt; Vermouth knows it's nothing personal. She leans back, genuinely amused now. “Why else would you lock us in a costume storage room with nobody else around?”
“Gee, Sharon, you always think so little of yourself.” Yukiko bends forward to kiss her on the nose, which is so obnoxiously sweet that Vermouth struggles to keep her face neutral. “Hasn't it occurred to you that I might simply like spending time with my friend on her big day?”
“It's not a big day,” Vermouth protests faintly, because she doesn't know what else to say.
And that's the entire problem, isn't it? If it were just about sex, if they were both in it for a little bit of fun and kept it professional and politely distant apart from that, Vermouth wouldn't care so much – but she does care, because Yukiko is her friend and because she is Yukiko's, because they like each other, and because nobody else has made her feel this way in a long time – like she's someone likeable. Someone who matters, not because of her wealth or her looks or her talent or her intelligence, just because.
And, if she's completely honest with herself, which she is only slowly learning to be, she's terrified of it, terrified of thinking about the ten, maybe fifteen years she has left before she can't simulate or justify the changes her body should go through but doesn't anymore – before she needs to stage her own death, again, and start all over, again, and break a heart in the process, again, and her own too, for the first time. It had seemed like a small price to pay, back then when she made the choice, even like an advantage, a new chance every twenty-five years. She's not so certain about that anymore.
She's not so certain about many things, these days.
Something has to be showing on her face in that moment, because Yukiko has reached out and is stroking her thumb along Vermouth's cheek.
“You do look old,” she says softly. “It's in your eyes. Are you okay, Sharon?”
“I feel like a vampire.” It's as much of an admission as she can make without also putting Yukiko's life on the line. “Sucking the youth out of you.”
“Your heart is warm, though. And everything else about you.” Yukiko leans forward and presses their lips together, briefly, chastely. “See? Human. Nothing to worry about.”
In this moment, Vermouth is absolutely helpless and she hates it. “Who are you to decide that? An angel?”
Yukiko does look angelic, with her brown curls and bright eyes and lovely voice and glorious face pulled into a frown. “Don't say that. I'm not perfect.”
Despite herself, Vermouth smiles. “Oh, angels are far from perfect. When they first descended onto earth, they brought along chaos and destruction for ages to come. Satan himself is an angel – a fallen one, but an angel nonetheless.” She forces herself to breathe slowly. “I think it suits you.”
Yukiko smiles back and squeezes her hand once more. “Well, in that case, I'll gladly be your angel.”
Vermouth huffs, finally managing to avert her eyes. They share a moment of silence until Yukiko speaks up again. Her voice is casual, but Vermouth can tell it's forced.
“We could always just leave, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
Yukiko's fingers are playing with the sleeve of Vermouth's cheap, itchy shirt. “We could go to the states together. Have a proper affair. Maybe, maybe I could divorce Yusaku; I'm not even sure he'd mind at this point. Shin-chan and Chris would get along fine, and I'd love to finally meet your daughter. We could rent a house, or a really weird flat. We could...” Yukiko trails off, pointedly not looking at her.
Vermouth swallows, hard. “No, we couldn't. You don't know what you're saying.” She doesn't need to say, it makes for bad publicity. She doesn't need to say, your family would hate you. She doesn't need to say, as if you'd ever really want to leave Yusaku.
She's thought about it, once. About what would happen if she just killed the man. She's certain she could do it without leaving any evidence, even if it'd take a bit of planning, and nobody would suspect her – except for Yukiko, of course. No, that's wrong, Yukiko wouldn't suspect her either – she'd just know. And here's the thing: Vermouth can live with the burden of having killed one more person, but she cannot live with the burden of making Kudou Yukiko unhappy.
Sharon Vineyard's death will make her unhappy, of course, but that's a bridge Vermouth will cross and burn when she gets there.
“Right. Silly me.” Yukiko chuckles in that self-deprecating way she has sometimes. “I'm a terrible mother, aren't I?”
And I'm not a mother at all. “It sounds like a nice thing to dream about,” Vermouth offers apologetically, slipping her smile back in place.
They end up talking and kissing in the storage room for a good hour, and when Vermouth gets home that evening, the first thing she does is send an e-mail to Kuroba-sensei to cancel her next lessons. Then she looks up plane tickets to the states.
When she's done booking her flight and checking in with the American branch of the Organisation, she leans back in her desk chair with the distinct feeling that once again, it may be time for her to leave.