Natara Williams fumes silently as she gathers up case file papers on her desk. Who the hell does Anders think he is? she thinks furiously. He’d ordered her to leave for the night; “Go home and sleep before you do something stupid and get yourself killed,” he’d snapped at her. Granted, it’s quite late and most of the other officers have already left, replaced by the night shift.
There is still so much to be done, though. How could she possibly waste time lying around on her ass with so much work to do? It’s been over a week and she is no closer to finding Mal. And she knows all too well that with a missing person, time is of the essence—especially after hearing Oscar’s theory that the cartels might be responsible… She squeezes her eyes shut, fists balling up as she smacks her hands down on the stacks of papers. Teeth clenched, she leans there against the desk, quivering, fighting the stab of pain in her chest as she forces back the terrifying mental images that dart around her mind.
She feels the pitying glances of the night shift officers resting upon her, but ignores them. After a painful minute or so, the tension drains from her muscles. A crest of exhaustion sweeps over her in its place; she hangs her head for a moment longer, then draws herself slowly upright and continues gathering up her case files. She may have been sent home, but there’s no reason she has to let that stop her from doing what needs to be done. She shoves the papers roughly into her bag and hauls it onto her shoulder, turning on her heel and striding away.
As she makes her way across the bullpen, a splash of aggressively bright color catches her eye. Turning her head, she sees Kai Kalaba meandering slowly towards the front of the precinct. He doesn’t see her; in fact, he doesn’t seem to see much of anything aside from the device in his hands. His eyes are locked on the screen of his smartphone, his mouth in a deep frown. There is an uncharacteristic slump to his shoulders, an odd heaviness in his step. Officer Anna Willis hurries past and he bumps right into her, and he jerks his head up and leaps backwards, hands flying up as if he were under arrest.
“Sorry, sorry!” he yelps.
“You might wanna try paying attention when you’re walking, Kalaba,” Anna says sharply. She shakes her head and rushes off.
“Sorry,” Kai mumbles again, head drooping. He gives the phone one last forlorn glance before pushing it into his pocket and walking on. Natara’s eyebrows knit together, the corners of her mouth tugging downward. She picks up the pace and catches up to Kai. He looks over at her as she falls into step alongside him. “Oh, uh… Hey, Natara,” he says distractedly.
“What, just ‘Natara’?” she asks, forcing a thin smile. “No ‘Agent Hotness’ today?”
“Nah… Not really in a nickname-y mood,” he sighs. Now I know something’s wrong, Natara thinks. She studies her normally irrepressible friend for a couple seconds. In the harsh fluorescent lights of the bullpen, she can make out faint, dark circles forming under his eyes, just visible through his glasses.
“I suppose I’m not the only one who’s having a bad day,” she remarks gently.
“Wha--? Oh, it’s just… Phone call… No biggie,” Kai insists, eyes darting left and right as though he’s afraid someone might be watching him. Natara wonders what sort of phone call could leave the enthusiastic lab tech so shaken up.
They walk together out of the precinct and into the cool, nighttime air. Natara heads towards the parking lot across the street, but Kai turns and starts up the sidewalk instead.
“Kai? Where are you going?” Natara asks, puzzled.
“I’m off for a totally amazing adventure in public transit!” he announces, scowling. “My car quit on me this morning. You know, just to make this perfect day even more super-awesome,” he adds in a low grumble. He waves glumly to her and turns to leave. Quickly weighing an idea and taking a glance up at the dark clouds hanging low in the sky, Natara pulls her keys out of her bag and jingles them.
“Come on, Kai. I’ll give you a ride home,” she calls after him. He whirls around, surprised.
“Huh? Really?” he asks.
“Sure. Why not?” Natara says, shrugging.
He smiles gratefully. “Thanks, Natara!” he exclaims. He jogs back to her, skittering alongside her as they cross the street to the precinct’s parking lot.
“No problem,” she says. She just hopes she won’t end up regretting this. Then she remembers a conversation with Mal and adds, “Just… Don’t touch my radio settings, all right?”
“Yeah, okay,” Kai says sheepishly. She opens the passenger side door for him and then hurries around to the other side, tugging the door open and sliding into her seat. As she pulls out of the parking lot and heads down the street, she can sense Kai looking sideways at her. He tells her his address and then sits in silence for a few minutes.
Suddenly, a flash of lightning splits the black sky and the roar of thunder crashes over them a few seconds later. Kai whistles, impressed, and cranes his head to look out through the window as rain starts to pour down around them.
A minute later, he speaks up. “So, uh… How’re you, y’know… Doing?” he asks awkwardly. “With the whole… thing…”
“It’s…” Natara lets out a slow shaky breath. “I just want him back,” she says quietly, doing her best to keep her voice level. “It’s hard, when someone you—“ She catches herself, shooting a quick glance at Kai. She still hasn’t told anyone what really happened that night. “It’s hard when someone important to you is missing. Not knowing where they are, or what’s happening to them—Not knowing if they’re all right, or if they’re hurt… It wears on you. And the worst part: not knowing if… If you’ll ever see them again…” Her voice breaks off and she chokes back the lump in her throat.
To her shock, Kai scoffs quietly and slumps down sullenly in his seat. “Welcome to the tribe, sister,” he grumbles.
She glances sideways sharply, mouth opening to chide him, but then a realization hits her. “…This is about Amy, isn’t it?” she asks softly. “The phone call that you mentioned earlier—that was her, wasn’t it?”
Kai sits bolt upright in his seat, eyes wide in alarm. “I—No—What?! That’s ridiculous, Natara! I have not been in communication with the hacker fugitive known as Amy Chen!” he splutters, his whole body going rigid.
“Relax, Kai, I’m not going to tell anyone,” Natara says, startled. “It was her, though, wasn’t it?”
“Sorry. Need to know basis, Agent Williams. Need to know basis,” he says cryptically.
Natara rolls her eyes, more out of habit than anything else. Then she gently adds, “I miss her too, Kai. It must’ve been difficult, seeing her leave again after the wed—after the… incident with Professor Gable.” She still can’t quite bring herself to say the word ‘wedding’ when talking about that night.
“Yeah,” Kai sighs. “If ‘difficult’ means ‘hardest frikkin’ thing I’ve ever had to do, like, ever’, then yes. And—I am neither confirming nor denying that I’ve had contact with a known hacker! But… how about we just say, hypothetically, that I might have maybe, possibly, talked to her a few times… well, see, the problem is that she wasn’t on that phone call before.”
“What do you mean?” Natara asks, frowning.
“Kai, you can drop the secrecy act,” she tells him, scowling.
“Okay, okay, fine. I called her the morning after your, uh, not-wedding. And, like, I know she can’t tell me where she’s going, or where she is, or where she’s been. And I’m totally cool with that! Uh… mostly. Sometimes.” He pauses, clearing his throat uneasily. “The point is, I just wanted to make sure she got to wherever safely, you know? And, see, the problem is… she hasn’t called me back,” he says, voice filled with anxiety.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean anything bad,” Natara points out.
‘No, that’s the thing, she always calls me back by the next day or the day after!” Kai insists. “And, like, she’s off in who-knows-where, and God only knows what she’s up to, and—What if she gets busted and thrown in jail? What—what if she makes an enemy of the wrong person? Hackers have lots of enemies, Natara! They piss off a whole bunch of really powerful people!”
“I know, Kai,” she assures him calmingly, “But if anyone’s smart enough to handle the life of a hacker, it’s Amy.”
“Uh, duh!” Kai retorts. “Amy’s like the smartest person in the whole S.F.P.D.!” He cringes and adds, “Um, no offense, present company excluded, et cetera.”
“No offense taken,” Natara says, bemused.
Kai groans and rakes his fingers through his hair. “I’m not worried about her. I mean, I am worried about her, but it’s everyone else I’m giving the side-eye at! What if those hackers aren’t doing a good enough job of watching her back? What if they let her down?”
“If Amy didn’t think they were competent, I’m sure she wouldn’t have chosen to join them,” Natara points out.
“Oh, I’m totally sure they’re mega-awesome hackers—I’m just afraid they’re gonna be terrible friends to her,” Kai mumbles miserably. “It’s just… she’s my best friend, Natara. She’s the best friend I’ve ever had. Like, for real, I don’t even know what I’d do if I lost her. If I never saw her again… I can’t let that happen. I cannot lose her.”
Her eyebrows arch in surprise at the genuineness in his tone. She’s never heard the forensic tech speak so sincerely about anything before. And it’s an emotion she’s all too familiar with.
“It’s an awful feeling, isn’t it?” she murmurs softly.
“Yeah, no kidding,” Kai agrees. “I mean, your best friend is missing too! Oh man, it’s gotta be even worse for you. It’s not like Mal chose to leave… like Amy did,” he adds mournfully.
“Right,” Natara agrees, a bit uncomfortably. “My best friend…” Her secret weighs heavily on her mind. It was bad enough that Mal had been ripped away from her just as their love was finally blossoming, but to have to carry that knowledge around inside of her, hidden from her friends… It made it feel even worse, somehow.
She’s silent for a bit, considering the risk, then decides to chance it. “Kai,” she says, her voice slow and measured. “If I tell you something, you have to swear that you won’t say a word to anyone.”
“Uh… sure?” he says, uneasy.
“I mean it, Kai,” she tells him sternly. “If even one word of this gets back to Lieutenant Anders, he’ll take me off of Mal’s case… and I can’t let that happen.”
He twists sideways in his seat to face her. “Agent Williams, I solemnly vow that your secret will be safe with me,” he intones. “I pinky swear!” He emphatically thrusts his right hand across his body towards her, pinky extended.
She eyes the proffered finger and says, “Um, that’s all right. I’ll take your word.” She takes a slow, deep breath, then hesitantly begins, “The night that Mal was abducted… the night after the Professor Gable incident… I was there, when it happened.”
“Um, I know?” Kai hazards to say, confused. “I’m pretty sure everyone knows that, Natara.”
“Oh, um, right. Well, there’s a part of it that everyone doesn’t know. Right before it happened… We kissed.”
“’We’?!” Kai exclaims, jolting back in his seat, panicked. “Whoa, whoa, whoa—“
“Mal and I,” Natara growls, glaring sideways at him.
“Oh.” Kai sags back against the seat in relief. Then he sits bolt upright again, beaming from ear to ear. “Whoa, hold up… you kissed Mal?!”
“Ohmigod!” Kai squeals. “No freakin’ way! High five, Agent Williams!” He enthusiastically holds up his right hand, palm facing her. She glances at his hand from the corner of her eye, considers it, then carefully takes one hand off the steering wheel and lightly smacks her palm against his. A huge grin splits his face and he triumphantly crows, “Yes! Finally!” He pumps his fists in the air—and jabs them with a sharp crack into the car roof. “Ow!” He yanks his fists back and cradles them against his chest, wincing. “Owie… Haha, you have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for someone in this precinct to give me a high five!”
“Glad to help,” Natara says wryly.
“OMG, I can’t believe my ship finally sailed!” Kai says happily, leaning back in his seat again.
“Your… ship?” Natara echoes, puzzled.
“Um, never mind.” But then the smile vanishes from his face. “Wait, oh man, that means… you guys had one kiss and that’s when Mal got… Aww, damn! That’s the worst!”
“Yes,” Natara agrees heavily. She does feel a certain weight lifted from her shoulders, though, having finally shared the secret—that wonderful, terrible secret. “We spent such a long time avoiding our feelings for each other. And there were certainly reasons for that… There was always some reason not to say anything, to keep the truth locked away. And when we finally did open up to each other, he was taken away. When I think now that we might not get another chance… That we may never be able to make up for all that lost time…” A lump in her throat cuts her off, choking the words back.
Kai glances quickly out the passenger side window, but not before she catches sight of the deep, wistful frown twisting his mouth. He slowly slides his phone out of his pocket again and carefully peeks at it, angling the phone away from her sight. There’s no hiding the glow from its display, however.
“It’s easy to think you’ll always have another chance to say the things that matter the most,” she says gently. “It’s easy to put it off, to tell yourself you’ll do it later—that it’s not the right time. If that night taught me anything, though, it’s this—you’re never guaranteed another chance.”
“Y-yeah,” Kai says, his voice slightly hoarse. He coughs, then straightens his back and says, “Welp, here we are.”
Natara’s car glides to a halt at the curb outside of Kai’s apartment building. He heaves a sigh and peers through the window, looking up through the gathering fog at the edifice.
“Back to the ol’ homestead, I guess,” he mumbles. “Thanks for the ride, Natara.”
“It was no problem, Kai,” she assures him. And it really wasn’t. She’s had plenty of conversations with the lab tech that had ended in what could only be called disaster, but this time, he had surprised her. She made a mental note to have a bit more faith in her younger friend in the future. “Is there anywhere else you need to go before I head home?”
“Nah, I’m good,” he sighs. Then he adds despondently, “I could really use a hug, though.”
Natara smiles and extends her arms to her friend. He wraps her in a tight hug; she can hear him sniffling faintly. When she lets go of him, his eyes are gleaming wetly in the colorful neon lights from a Laundromat outside.
“Thanks,” he mumbles, wiping his eyes with his sleeve.
“We’ll be all right, Kai,” she assures him. “Both of us.”
“I hope so,” he says, subdued. He gathers his backpack and jacket and slides out of the car, shutting the door and waving to her before heading inside.
“I hope so, too,” Natara murmurs. She puts the car in drive again and drives off into the night—back to an empty apartment where she’ll get no sleep as she works, waits, and hopes.