Misaki sipped her coffee without really tasting it; then she set the paper cup down on the park bench beside her and picked up her book. Opening to a page at random, she pretended to read. It was some sort of murder mystery, but fiction had never really interested her. This was simply the book that she'd been told to bring.
She tried to look relaxed - one leg crossed over the other, leaning back against the bench - but her nerves were stretched tight and she was sure that it was obvious to anyone who might be watching. The coffee probably wasn’t helping.
Her gaze flicked over the top of the book to scan the park; so far she hadn't seen anyone who looked out of place. A couple of joggers were on the footpath, but no one was meandering suspiciously. There was a playground behind her, faced by a bench that was back-to-back with hers. There hadn't been any children playing on the equipment when she'd arrived - fifteen minutes early, hoping and failing to get a glimpse of her mysterious contact without him or her realizing it - and there didn't sound like there were any there now. Well, it was right before lunch; children were probably all in school.
In any case, it was a hot day; most people were probably sheltering indoors, or else headed to the cooler mountains for the weekend. Misaki would have been inside herself, working on her massive backlog of cases, except that her orders were to be here.
The Director had called her into his office that morning to tell her that he had an unconventional assignment for her.
“How are things coming on the Fujiwara case?” he’d said by way of a preface.
Misaki suppressed a frown. “Still stalled, sir,” she said. “The man we arrested has no idea how the shipments are scheduled and tracked, just that it’s a very complex network.”
“I see. Last night I received some intelligence concerning that case.”
This time she did frown. “You did, sir?” She knew that Hourai had his own sources, cultivated over the decade of his service with police; but it always bothered her when information didn’t flow through the official channels.
“It seems that an external organization, who shall remain anonymous, is also having trouble with the Fujiwara family; they came to me with a proposal that will be both in their interest as well as the police’s. I agreed.”
“What sort of proposal?”
Hourai regarded her steadily. “A cooperative effort, between their group and Section Four. Because of the delicate nature of this collaboration, it will remain strictly unofficial. I am assigning you, and only you. The operation will be designated top secret, and you are not to involve anyone else on your team. Do you understand, Chief Kirihara?”
Misaki hesitated before answering. She hated the idea of keeping anything from her team, but at the same time she would leap at the chance - any chance - to take down Fujiwara and his black market doll trade. But why run an unofficial operation? And… “By external organization , do you mean that this is a criminal group, sir?” she asked. “There has to be a way of using their information without cooperating -”
“You’ll understand when you hear the details,” Hourai interrupted. He gave her the address of the park, the location of a specific bench on which she was to sit at a predetermined time, and a copy of a thin paperback book that was to be the signal by which a member of this group would recognize her. “Fujiwara’s trade is a serious threat to public security,” Hourai finished. “I know I can trust you to take care of this.”
“Yes, sir,” Misaki said, wondering just what in the hell she was agreeing to.
So now here she was, two hours later, sweating through her suit jacket and waiting for some criminal with whom she was supposed to work. Unofficially. Without backup from her own team, people who she could trust.
This was a bad idea.
Misaki was just about to look down at her book again to fake-read a little longer when movement off to the left caught her eye: a man was walking in her general direction - tall, dark-haired, white shirt and jeans. Hands in pockets - she tensed at that, and turning her head as subtly as possible, she glanced over to get a better look. With a start, she recognized Li.
Damn it, she always ran into him at the weirdest times and places. Hoping that he hadn't seen her, Misaki raised her book a little higher to hide her face. But to her dismay, not only did he continue in his path towards her, but he paused directly in front of her bench.
Misaki lowered the book and offered a smile. “Li, hi.” Please go away . Normally she wouldn’t have minded chatting with Li for a bit - would have enjoyed it, even - but right now was the worst possible time.
He smiled back, though it seemed to be slightly strained, as if he wasn’t exactly happy to run into her either. Yet he’d been the one to approach her in the first place, so that didn’t make much sense to Misaki. “I don’t think I’ve seen you in this park before,” he said.
“I’m on my lunch break; it’s hard to find a quiet place in the office to read.” She gestured with the book.
Li didn’t take the hint, however. “It’s kind of a warm day to be outside.”
“Yes, it is. Kind of warm to be out for a stroll, as well.”
He shrugged and seated himself on the bench beside her, his hands still in his pockets. “Yeah.”
Damn it . Misaki sighed. “I’m sorry, Li, I don’t mean to be rude - but this really isn’t a good time. I’m supposed to be meeting someone here. Police business.”
“Ah,” Li said, his tone curiously flat. “Me too.”
“Li, I have to insist. You can meet your friend somewhere else; I’m expecting a confidential contact who -”
“Good, you’re both here.”
Misaki started at the new voice, which came from the bench directly behind her. She began to turn and see who the newcomer was, but he - it was definitely a man - said, “Keep facing straight ahead. You’re talking to each other, not to me. And I’m just some crazy old man, talking to himself.”
She straightened, heart pounding, and glanced at Li. His pleasant expression had vanished and he was staring at the patch of grass between his feet. Shit, how was she supposed to explain to the contact that Li wasn’t involved in whatever this was - that he was just here by mistake? She had no idea who she was dealing with - how forceful could she be without pissing the man off and getting them both into trouble?
“Excuse me, but -” she began, but the contact cut her off gruffly.
“You’re here to listen, sweetheart, and listenin’ don’t involve talkin’.”
Misaki bridled at his tone, and opened her mouth to reply, but he didn’t give her the chance.
“We’re here ‘cause we got a common pain in the ass - Fujiwara. This guy’s got ears in the police, and he’s got ears with my outfit; so from here on out, whenever you’re discussing this operation, you use code names. I’m Huang. Miss Police, you’re Lan. Li, you’ll be Fui. Fujiwara is Lu.”
Misaki’s jaw tightened. So Li wasn’t here by accident? How in the world had he gotten himself mixed up with this? She glanced over at him again; his eyes were narrowed slightly, as if he disapproved of the code names. She didn’t blame him for that; she hated using codes herself. It was too easy to get confused, especially if you were already accustomed to calling someone by their real name.
“The job’s simple,” the man continued. “Lu’s got a whole network of black market distributors and dealers that he keeps in a secure database at the family’s headquarters in Yokohama. You break in, copy the files that we need, and get out - without them getting wind of it.”
“ Break in ,” Misaki couldn’t help but interrupt. “I’m not here to -”
“You’re here to get us into that database,” Huang said. “From what we’re told, the system is the same one that your department uses. Too complicated and unwieldy for anyone who isn’t already familiar with it to be able to access the information within our time frame.”
“Which is what,” Li said in a low voice; the first time that he’d spoken since the arrival of the stranger.
“No idea. Could be a couple hours, could be ten minutes. That’s up to you to figure out.”
Li nodded slightly, as if to himself. “Support?”
“Negative; they’ll be watching for it. You’re on your own.”
“Wait,” Misaki said, feeling like she was caught up in a rushing current. She could see the shore, but couldn’t escape the flow of events. “Assuming we can even get to whatever computer this database is on - I’m not a hacker. I’d have to have a password to access it.”
Something went plunk onto the wooden bench beside her; she caught a glimpse of what looked like a small black thumb drive wrapped in a piece of paper before it slipped between the slats and fell onto the grass below, next to her foot. Misaki didn’t dare try and touch it.
“Password’s on that paper,” Huang told them. “Along with the location of the computer and the address for a hotel nearby. You’ll spend the weekend in Yokohama, posing as a couple. That’ll get you close enough to stake out the place and plan your move. Details are all there.”
Misaki felt the blush rising in her cheeks at just the thought. Posing as a couple? She was terrible at acting; and she didn’t have high hopes for Li’s ability either. Judging from the thin line of his mouth, he wasn’t any more enthusiastic than her.
Huang continued, “You’ll use that drive to copy the files. Meet me back here, Sunday at noon, to deliver the goods. Got it?”
“What about the police’s information?” Misaki asked. “According to my superior, we’re supposed to get the details of Fuji - I mean, Lu’s doll operation.” She was hating everything about this assignment more and more, but she was going to make damn sure that that Section Four at least got something significant out of it.
“You’ll get it after we’ve pulled what we need.”
“That’s the deal your boss made - we get first cut, then you get your dolls.”
The idea of this unknown organization (criminal for sure, and probably Chinese, what with those code names) getting access to all of Fujiwara’s operations and then deciding what to share with the police grated on her conscience. But if that was indeed the agreement that Hourai had made, then there wasn’t much she could do about it. Then again, there might be a way around it; she’d have to think.
“Alright,” she said grudgingly.
Li spoke up suddenly. “Huang, I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“First of all, you’re not paid to think, so shut up. Two, I don’t think it’s a good idea, but I’m not paid to think either. You going to have a problem, Fui ?”
Li glanced over at Misaki, his expression unreadable. “No,” he said at last.
“Good. So shut up and do your damn job. I’ll leave you two to work out the logistics; you have forty-eight hours.” The bench slats creaked as the man stood. Misaki had to resist a strong temptation to turn and watch him leave, just to get a glimpse for future reference, but she couldn’t be sure that no one else was observing her and Li.
She turned to Li. He was still sitting with his hands stuffed into his pockets, staring fixedly at the ground in front of him with a stony expression.
“Think we can look yet?” she said in a half-hearted attempt to lighten the mood.
He glanced up at her, as if he’d forgotten that she was even there. “What?”
“Never mind.” Leaning down, she scooped up the thumb drive and removed the piece of paper that had been rubber-banded around it. Just as Huang had said, there was a string of characters that looked like it could be a computer password and two addresses. The first address had some additional text. “ Second floor southeast corner office ,” Misaki read. “That must be the location of the computer.”
She sighed, and passed the paper to Li. He studied it for a long moment. “Did you memorize it?” he asked her after a full minute’s silence.
Misaki blinked. “Memorize? I -”
He passed the paper back. “Memorize everything on here, then tear it up.”
That seemed a little excessive to Misaki - who would even know what anything on the paper meant if they happened to find it? - but Li seemed to think it was important. It was the type of thing you saw in spy movies; maybe referencing something familiar like that was helping with his nerves. She’d never seen him looking so distant and disengaged before - it must be frightening, being thrown into such a situation. Again, she wondered how on earth he’d ended up here, and what these people expected him to be able to do.
Whatever happened in the next forty-eight hours, Misaki resolved, she would do her best to make sure that Li stayed safe.
“Alright. I’ll work on it,” she said, stuffing it into her pocket along with the thumb drive. “Well, I guess we have some planning to do. But first, how does lunch sound?”
Hei blinked, momentarily nonplussed. “Lunch?”
Kirihara nodded. “There’s a lot we need to talk about, and I always think better after I’ve eaten. There’s a McDoness around the corner - my treat.”
“Um, alright.” Hei gave himself a mental shake as he stood to follow the police chief out of the park.
Mao had told him that he’d be partnering with someone from the police for this assignment, but he hadn’t expected it to be anyone from Section Four. He definitely hadn’t expected it to be her . His first thought upon seeing her sitting on the designated bench had only been how to get her to leave and think that it was her own idea. Then he’d seen the book that she was holding…he grimaced to himself. This job was going to be a disaster.
They didn’t speak until they had both collected their burgers. If Hei had been Li that afternoon, he would have chatted amiably about inconsequential subjects, like the weather, or maybe her book. But he had no baseline for interacting with Chief Kirihara as Fui. He just…didn’t know what to say. She apparently didn’t either.
Hei led the way to a booth in the far corner of the restaurant, where there was less chance of being overheard. Out of habit, he took the seat facing the door. Kirihara had also stepped towards that seat; she frowned slightly when he beat her to it, but she sat down opposite him without complaint.
“Well,” Kirihara said at last, “I surprised to see you there in the park.”
Hei swirled a couple fries through some ketchup. He was starving, but at the same time had no appetite. And he really did not want to have this conversation. Li would have made up a story about taking a walk during a study break, or being approached by a random stranger and asked to sit there for some nebulous reason. But Fui had gone there purposefully, to receive instructions for a job. “Do you think you’ll have any problems accessing the files?” he said without looking up.
It was her turn to be caught off guard. “What? I don’t know - I mean, if the system really is the same as the one we use, then no. He - that Huang - was right about it being complicated if you’ve never used it; but once you get the hang of it it’s actually pretty easy. So I guess it makes sense that they’d need me there - but what I don’t understand is why you’re involved in this. Li, if -”
“Use the code names, remember?”
She frowned. “Li, this isn’t a game. Some stupid code name isn’t going to make you a criminal, or change who you are.”
“That’s -” he began, then paused to try and collect his thoughts. “That’s backwards.”
“Backwards? What do you mean?”
“It’s the name that tells you who you are.”
Kirihara took a bite of her cheeseburger and chewed thoughtfully; Hei quickly looked back down at his fries so that he wouldn’t have to see the cute way her lips twisted to the side. It was fine to indulge those little spontaneous thoughts as Li, but Fui couldn’t afford it. Hei definitely couldn’t.
“Who you are is - is who you are,” she said after swallowing. “Whether I call myself Misaki or Lan doesn’t matter. I’m still me. And you’re still you, whether you go by Li, or - what was it? Fui. What kind of names are those, anyway?”
“ Lan is blue in Mandarin,” he told her.
“Blue? Hm, I actually kind of like that.”
He could tell that her smile was meant to make him feel more comfortable, but it was having the opposite effect. He’d worked with police before, on other jobs in other cities, and they’d all gone smoothly. The officers in question had come into the operation knowing him for a criminal, knowing him only by whatever code name he’d been assigned at the time. The reality had met their expectations.
Kirihara, on the other hand, already knew him as Li - a fake personality that ought to have nothing to do with breaking and entering and stealing data files from yakuza. He could call himself Fui all he wanted, and she would still see Li. How was he supposed to deal with that ? He’d told Huang this was a bad idea.
“What does your name mean?” she asked when he didn’t respond.
“It’s not the literal translation that matters,” he said at last. “Lan isn’t Kirihara Misaki, chief of Section Four. Lan is someone with particular knowledge of a computer database system, who can access the files we need quickly and efficiently. If you go into this job thinking like a cop, things are going to wrong. Badly wrong. For this to work, you need to be her.”
She was scrutinizing him with that piercing look that he swore could see right through his mask and into his very soul - assuming he still had one left. “That makes a sort of sense, I suppose. So, who is Fui?”
Hei considered, avoiding her eyes again. “Fui is…someone who can get in and out of tight places, silently and without being seen.” Being assigned that particular code name was a message from the Syndicate: Today you are not a contractor. You are not a killer. You are someone who lives in the gray spaces between law and evil . “My job is to get you access to the computer, and watch your back while you work.”
Unfortunately, that explanation did not appear to ease Kirihara’s mind, for her frown deepened. “I really don’t like the idea of you being in that position. I don’t mean any offense,” she added hurriedly. “I’m sure they offered you a lot of money for this, and I’m sure it sounded important and exciting; but we have no idea how dangerous the situation is going to end up being. There could con- um, conmen. People who won’t hesitate to kill intruders.”
Hei remembered that night in the gangster’s hotel - she’d been more concerned with getting him off the rooftop and out of harm’s way than she had been with her own safety. Kirihara was right; using a code name was not going change who she was for this job. She knew what she was doing, but in all the wrong ways. Wrong for this situation, anyway. “You don’t have to worry about me,” he tried.
But she kept pressing. “How did you get in contact with these people, anyway? If you needed help, even something like money, you know you can always come to me. You don’t have to -”
“It’s nothing like that,” he interrupted.
“Then what is it like? Did they tell it was important for your country? Students living abroad tend to be popular targets for criminal organizations; just because they’re Chinese too doesn’t mean that they have your best interest in mind.”
Hei rubbed the back of his head in frustration. He needed her to be focused on the job, not on keeping him safe. He didn’t want to say too much, but Kirihara wasn’t the type to accept vague answers when she wanted to know something. He had to strike the right balance.
“I’m in Tokyo in the first place because of them,” he said.
Her brow furrowed. “You mean, they’re paying for your tuition?”
“Yeah.” He’d always hated having to lie to her as Li, and he hated having to lie to a partner even more. But there wasn’t any other choice.
The easiest lies to remember were the ones that were closest to the truth. Hei inhaled slowly. “I was pretty young when my parents died. My sister and I were on our own, for almost a year. It was…it wasn’t easy. So when the organization offered to take us in, we couldn’t say no. They made sure we had what we needed, and in return, we…helped out where we could. I wanted to go to school in Tokyo; they help me with the tuition, and occasionally they ask me to do small favors.”
“Like break into offices?” Kirihara said quietly. She sighed, compassion and pity mingling in her expression. “That sort of arrangement is pretty common among the yakuza here too. What about your sister?”
That was one subject that he couldn’t discuss, even in lies. He shouldn’t have mentioned Bai at all, except that she was so integral to his past life that he couldn’t even imagine excising her existence from his own story. So he shrugged, hoping that his feelings didn’t show on his face. “She’s not here.”
Kirihara apparently picked up on his unwillingness to stay on that topic, because she said, “So, you’ve done this sort of thing before?”
Hei shrugged again. “A couple of times.” But the skepticism remained in the way her lips pressed together. “We’re partners on this, right?” he asked.
She nodded, smiling half-heartedly.
“Then we have to trust each other. I’m trusting that you can do what you say you can, and get those files. You have to trust that I can do what I was hired to do. Which is watch your back.”
He could tell, again, that she was not at all happy with that response; but she didn’t try and argue.
“Well, we should head down to Yokohama this evening,” she said. “Stake out the place tonight, then decide on our strategy.”
Hei nodded. “We’ll probably have to go in under the cover of darkness, so make sure you have dark clothing to wear.”
Kirihara pursed her lips. “I’ve been doing stakeouts for years - it’s a regular part of my job. Normal clothes have always worked just fine.” Then she smiled that reassuring smile again. “But if you think it will help. Alright.”
Despite her patronizing tone - which he really couldn’t blame her for - he was relieved at her agreement; getting her out of her usual uniform might help shift her mindset. And even if it didn’t, then at least she would be harder to spot in the dark.
They finished eating in awkward silence. Hei kept his eyes on his food. He would have rather spent another three years in South America than have to do this job. It had been a very, very long time since he’d respected anyone as much as he did Chief Kirihara, and, well, it wasn’t her fault that his insides twisted every time she smiled at him. He would be lucky to get through this without her discovering who he really was. Once she knew that, those smiles would be gone. And he’d be in jail - or worse.
At last, Kirihara crumpled her burger wrapper onto her tray. “So,” she said, the word dropping heavily despite her light tone, “we have to pose as a couple?”
His face grew inexplicably warmer. “Um, yeah.”
“We should probably get our story straight then.”
He blinked at her unexpected cooperation. For some reason, he’d been expecting her to try and find a workaround to that particular aspect. “Okay.”
She drummed her fingers on the table, staring down at the empty wrapper. “First, how long have we been dating? Not too long - that way it won’t look weird if we’re, you know, awkward or anything around each other.”
“Um,” Hei said. “Yeah. Two months?”
Kirihara blanched. “A weekend trip after only two months? I don’t usually -”
“You might not, but what about Lan?”
“Lan isn’t - well, okay,” she sighed. “I see your point. Aright, two months then. This is our first real trip as a couple; we chose Yokohama because it’s close but still sort of feels like we’re getting out of the city. How did we meet?”
“In a bathroom stall at a dinner party, where you were hiding from a friend.”
To his confused relief, she laughed out loud at that, before quickly covering her mouth. “That’s ridiculous - who would believe it?”
“The stranger it is, the more likely people will be to think it’s true,” Hei said, ignoring the pleasant flush in his skin at the sight of her smile. “Besides, it is true; truths make the best lies.”
Her amused smile turned suddenly shrewd. “I suppose that makes sense. What else do we need? We should probably figure out occupations, family life -”
Hei interrupted with a shake of his head. “Simpler is better - less to remember. If any of that comes up, just make it up or dodge the question. People probably won’t ask that sort of thing if we focus on the relationship anyway.”
“Right…the relationship. Do we - I mean, aside from the story…” She exhaled sharply. “I’ve never had to fake a relationship before - what are supposed to do ?”
He had had to fake relationships before, and he’d never enjoyed it; but he didn’t really want to admit either fact to Kirihara. “I guess we just…act like we’re together while we’re in public. Only enough to be convincing to casual observers.” She raised an eyebrow, and he continued, “I mean, just holding hands, or that sort of thing. You can decide what you’re comfortable with.”
She was avoiding his gaze now. “What about you? What are you comfortable with?”
“It doesn’t matter to me.”
She sounded almost insulted; he certainly hadn’t meant it like that. He might have tried to take her hand then, just to show her what he meant, but she had both her hands resting in her lap. Instead he said, “How about, we just do what feels natural? If I do, um, or say, anything you don’t like, just tell me.”
He was rewarded for his circumspection with another piercing look. “Alright,” she said at last. “Well, we should get going soon. I’d offer to drive, but my car doesn’t blend in well, and I definitely don’t want anyone making a connection between it and me - the real me, I mean. We’ll take the train. Meet me at Shinjuku station in two hours?”
Hei nodded, an odd feeling of dread settling in his stomach. He would be Hei, pretending to be Fui, pretending to be the boyfriend of Lan, who was really Chief Kirihara - it was exhausting just thinking about it. “Alright.”
Packing for the trip to Yokohama turned out to be more difficult than Misaki would have anticipated. Her natural instinct was to fold a couple of her usual suits into her small gym bag. She would be working this weekend, and in her world, that meant wearing a suit. Casual clothes were for relaxing. But even if this was technically work, it wasn’t supposed to look like work. A romantic weekend with a fake boyfriend…how was she supposed to pack for that?
Sighing in annoyance, she remembered what Li had said - that Lan was more than just a code name. He had a point, naive though it sounded. This assignment was going to be challenging on more than just a technical level, but maybe that small distance from herself would help. How would Lan, computer systems expert and burglar on a date, dress?
She chose a pair of nice jeans and, after some deliberation, a couple of blouses that she rarely wore because they showed a bit too much skin for the office. And she rarely went anyplace that wasn't the office.
Would Li think - she shook her head abruptly. It didn’t matter what Li thought about her outfits; this wasn’t a real date, it was an assignment.
And anyway, she had no interest in dating Li. He was sweet, of course, and certainly cute, but aside from that there was nothing about him that attracted her. She tended to be drawn towards men that were confident, and could stand up to her directness; Li was nothing like that.
Of course, confident men usually turned out to be arrogant, and more often than not what she initially thought was backbone would simply be aggression in disguise. It had been a long time since she’d gotten past the first date; maybe she ought to try someone a little different.
But not Li; he was too different. Easygoing to the point of malleability, she doubted that he had ever stood up to anyone in his life. He was still letting this damn Chinese mafia organization control him, after all.
It had been strange, though - during lunch she’d noticed a marked change in his demeanor, a sort of gain in confidence as they’d discussed the details of the assignment that had surprised her. He did say that he had a bit of experience with breaking and entering, which lent an air of expertise to his words; but even so, he hadn’t sounded quite like himself. Had he been he slipping into his Fui cover identity already? She wouldn’t have expected something like that to come so easily to him, and in any case, he’d appeared to be unconscious of it. Maybe that was just how he normally acted among the mafia members that he knew.
Speaking of Chinese mafia… Misaki paused in her rifling through her workout clothes to think. She’d first met Li at Qing Long Tang’s hotel - was that the organization that he belonged to? It seemed likely. With the murder of the boss and all his lieutenants, the family had been thrown into chaos; stealing Fujiwara’s data could be the first step in a power grab by an underling, trying to put his organization back on the map.
It could also be the perfect time for Li to defect. Qing Long Tang was dead, and couldn’t protect him - or control him - any longer. Misaki resolved to broach the subject to Li as soon as this assignment was over.
In the meantime, she resumed packing. To ease Li’s mind, she pulled out her navy blue department-issued sweatpants that she wore during team judo training sessions. After some digging, she managed to find the long-sleeved black tee that she used as underarmor in intramural softball games. The combination looked a bit burglar-y, she supposed.
Burglary. She sighed, and with great reluctance, she left her badge, police ID, and credit cards on her dresser, leaving nothing but cash in her wallet. With even greater reluctance, she added her phone to the pile. The Director had told her that he would ensure that her responsibilities were covered over the weekend - to think of it like a vacation. The problem was, Misaki hadn’t taken a vacation in years; and the last time that she had, she’d kept her phone with her at all times. Just in case. But, if - god forbid - she and Li were caught, a phone full of police contacts was the last thing she wanted to be found on her.
Her gun, however, she packed, along with an extra magazine. The idea was to get in and out without attracting any attention, but she would be damned if she let Li and herself walk into an unknown situation without some kind of protection. Whatever his early experience with the mafia had been, she seriously doubted that he knew how to handle firearms. And in any case, guns were illegal in Japan for anyone except police.
Next, Misaki threw together a small bag of toiletries; then she hesitated.
Normally she slept in an old, worn t-shirt in the summer; in the winter, she added a pair a flannel bottoms. Lately it had been so warm that she’d eschewed even the shirt for nothing but underwear and a soft sleeping bra. That was definitely not going to work for this weekend. It was true that she didn’t know Li all that well, really - his involvement with this assignment just proved that even further - but she did trust him to behave like a gentleman. It was just…it’d been a long time since she’d had an actual boyfriend, of the sleep-over kind, and now here she was preparing to spend the weekend with a man who was basically a stranger. That he was attractive in a naive, sweet sort of way just made it worse.
In the end, she opted for her sleeping bra, t-shirt, and a pair of gym shorts. She would probably die of heat stroke, but at least she would be able to keep her modesty intact. And Li’s, too. He was always so polite and circumspect - just talking about holding hands at lunch had set him blushing - and she didn’t want to accidentally make him uncomfortable.
Ensuring that everything she might need was in her gym bag, Misaki zipped it up, then regarded herself in the dresser mirror. Her suit jacket was too formal, not to mention hot. She shrugged it off. After a long moment's consideration, she pulled her hair out of its customary ponytail and twisted it into a loose bun at the nape of her neck. It would drive her crazy, but at least she didn't look quite like herself anymore. An old necklace, and a smidge more eyeshadow than she normally wore, and she was practically a different person. Lan, is it? she thought to herself. Well, good luck .
The platform at Shinjuku station was packed with weekend commuters when Misaki arrived. She was a little late - her indecision about her wardrobe had cost some time - but as she gazed around at the jostling crowd, she couldn’t see Li anywhere. Had he gone to the wrong platform? Gotten lost? If he couldn’t manage something simple like being in the right place at the right time, they were in trouble. She held her bag with both hands, tapping it impatiently against her knees, and craned her neck to see around a clump of students.
Then she heard a familiar voice call out, “Lan, there you are!” And turning, she saw Li wading through the sea of people, smiling and looking…different, somehow. Older. He was, as usual, wearing jeans and a button-down shirt, but the clothing was newer and of better quality than that which he’d had on just two hours ago. His posture was subtly changed too, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on how.
“Hi,” she managed to say as he reached her. The Li that she knew would have stopped at a friendly but respectful distance; this Li slipped an arm around her waist for a brief squeeze and pecked her on the cheek. His lips were warm, and her heart skipped a beat at the feel of his hair brushing her forehead.
“Did you have any trouble getting here? Here, let me take that.” With a kind smile, he reached down and took the gym bag from her unresisting hands, pairing it with the black one that he was already carrying. “Everything alright?”
There was a slight strain beneath his easy smile. Misaki blinked, then mentally pushed away her surprise. That had been way too much public affection than she’d ever allowed from previous boyfriends; but, the point was to look like a couple. She could deal with it. “Yes, sorry - it was just a long day.”
“Well, you can spend the weekend relaxing, and forget about work for a while.” He slung both bags over his shoulder in an almost graceful movement that exposed the edge of a well-defined triceps.
Misaki abruptly realized that she was staring “Yeah,” she said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Focus, Misaki , she scolded herself. You’re here to complete an assignment - taking down Fujiwara and getting Li out of this mafia business are all that matter .
The platform was too noisy and busy for casual conversation, so they waited for their train in companionable silence. Every now and again Misaki would sneak a peek at Li, trying to understand how he could be so changed and yet exactly the same in just a space of two hours. At one point he caught her looking; she averted her eyes quickly.
Then just as quickly she realized that as Lan, she was allowed to stare. She turned back; he was gazing at the wall across the tracks, a faint blush on his cheeks. There was the Li that she knew. The sight made her relax a little; if this was hard for her, then it was certainly difficult for him.
She remembered what he’d suggested during lunch. Taking a deep breath, she reached out and took his hand. He offered her a relieved smile, and interlaced his fingers in hers. They were in this together, after all.
When the train arrived at last, Li ushered them on board and secured a couple of seats near the back. Once they had sat, he let go of her hand. Misaki felt a confusing mix of relief and disappointment at that; the wait had been long enough it had started to feel natural.
The train was so crowded that they had to sit closely together. She considered shifting a little, to make it clear that the contact wasn’t intentional on her part, but, well, they were going to have to spend the whole weekend pretending that this sort of thing was normal for them. Might as well get used to it. They would go their separate ways on Sunday; it didn’t mean anything.
Though she couldn’t deny that his leg pressing up against hers felt nice. It was strange, being allowed to indulge herself like that.
Misaki tucked her bag beneath her seat and settled in. As the train pulled away from the station, she couldn’t suppress an annoyed sigh.
“Hm?” She glanced up into Li’s worried face. “No, nothing’s wrong; I just hate having to ride the train on trips like this.”
“Ah. You mean, not being able to drive yourself and control your route?”
She blinked at the unexpected insight. “Well, yes. And at least when I’m driving, I have something to concentrate on. This trip is only forty-five minutes - it’s not enough time to get any real work done, but it’s too long to just stare out the window.”
“I like staring out the window.”
She smiled. “That doesn’t surprise me.” Already impatient with the slow progress, Misaki leaned down and retrieved the paperback book from her gym bag. It was the one that Hourai had given her to bring to the meeting in the park. She didn’t have any particular interest in actually reading it, but had tossed it into the bag in case she or Li needed some kind of cover during the stakeout. Might as well read it now; it was better than nothing.
As she opened the book, a slip of paper fell into her lap. “Oh shit, I forgot about this.”
Li frowned. “I thought you were going to throw it away.”
“I haven’t had a chance to memorize it yet. And you only saw it for a minute, you could probably use another look as well.”
He shook his head. “I had enough time.”
She eyed him. “You did? Then what’s the password?”
He leaned in, until his lips were nearly brushing her ear, and whispered the computer password perfectly.
Misaki ignored the tingle that was running down her spine. “How did you do that?”
He shrugged. “Lots of practice. I know a couple good tricks.”
“You should teach me sometime.”
For some reason, he blushed at that. “Sure,” he said, then turned his gaze to look out the window.
Misaki raised an eyebrow, then turned her attention to studying the paper. If Li could memorize all of this in a minute, she could do it in thirty, right?
By the time the train pulled into the station, she had the addresses down; the password, being a nonsensical string of characters and numbers, had been a bit trickier, but she’d managed. As they exited the train - Li’s hand on the small of her back to help prevent them from being separated in the push - Misaki tore the paper up into tiny pieces and dropped them in the first trash can that they passed.
“Have you been to Yokohama before?” she asked as they made their way to the street.
“A couple of times.”
“I’ve had a few assignments here, so I know my way around pretty well. The hotel should be this way,” she pointed down the street. “Somewhere in Chinatown, I think.”
Li hefted the bags over his shoulder once more and reached for her hand. Misaki startled at the touch, and he immediately let go. “Sorry…” he began, but she shook her head.
“No, I’m sorry - I’m just not used to…that sort of thing. You were right, it’ll look better if we hold hands.” She held hers out, and he took it with a relieved smile. “Shall we?”
The sun was setting as they headed down the crowded street. Neon lights flickered into glowing life and the street vendors were in full flow, taking advantage of the warm weather. Misaki’s hand was sweating in Li’s, she realized with a twinge of embarrassment. If he noticed, he didn’t make any sign of it.
“This way,” Misaki said, pointing at a street sign. The street was more of an alley than anything, and they had to walk close together to avoid running into tourists and the press of shoppers. They were a couple of blocks into Chinatown now, and occasionally a vendor or shop owner would call out to Li in Chinese; he’d respond with a friendly wave and a word or two, but never stopped to chat.
“What did she say?” Misaki asked as they passed an elderly woman at a flower stall who kept up a rapid stream of friendly-sounding words until they were out of earshot and she focused in on another couple of passersby.
“She, uh, was asking if I wanted to buy flowers for my pretty wife,” Li said, the embarrassment clear in his voice. “She said it would bring, um, years of luck?”
Misaki felt her cheeks heat, but something told that Li had left a bit out. “Is that it?”
His grip on her hand tightened. “Well, no. I mean, it was basically all the same sort of thing. A long, lucky life, and, uh, lots of children.”
Misaki laughed to cover the awkwardness. “Well, that’s a blessing I could do without right now; good thing you didn’t buy any flowers.”
“Uh, yeah. Me too.”
“I’m sure you’ll have kids someday, though,” she said, inwardly berating herself for continuing on this horrible subject yet unable to figure out how to end it.
Li actually flinched a little. “No,” he said. “I don’t think so.”
His words were very noncommittal, but delivered with such firmness of tone that Misaki couldn’t help asking, “Really? Why not?”
“It’s…well, I just don’t see a reason to.”
“Exactly!” Several heads turned curiously in their direction; Misaki grimaced and lowered her voice again. “That’s what I tell people all the time, and everyone thinks that I’m crazy, or that I’m lying to myself, or that I’ll change my mind someday. I mean, maybe I will, but that’s not the point. The point is that having kids just because you think you should, and not because you really want to, is stupid.”
She glanced over at Li, suddenly aware that she’d definitely carried the conversation too far - but he looked more amused than anything.
“Is that what we’ll tell people if they ask when we plan on starting a family?” he asked.
Misaki shrugged. “We’re not ourselves this weekend - let’s tell them we want five.”
Li gave a short laugh, which he covered up with a cough. “Um, I think the hotel is over here.”
“Yeah.” Misaki glanced up at the five-story building that squatted on an awkward corner between a three-way intersection. She checked the two addresses in her memory against the road signs. “And across the street…”
Her partner squeezed her hand and nodded, a dark cast to his expression now; it would have looked out of place on Li, but somehow appeared natural. Fui shining through, perhaps.
“If their headquarters is right next door,” she said quietly, “there’s a good chance that this hotel is owned by Fuj - Lu, I mean.”
Li nodded again, his gaze sweeping the street. “Let’s go get checked in.”
Despite its rather drab exterior, the hotel turned out to be pleasantly cozy, with rich crimson and gold decor that was welcoming and not too overstated. The employees - who, Misaki noticed, appeared to be mostly Japanese rather than Chinese - wore crisp black suits with red ties.
“Wow,” she said. “This is a lot nicer than I was expecting.”
“What were you expecting?” Li asked as they approached the front desk. “A pay-by-the-hour place?”
“A little,” she admitted. From long experience, she associated stakeouts and yakuza with, well, the seedier sort of locales and the type of hotel where you didn’t want to touch anything without putting on gloves first. She hadn’t been expecting this assignment to be quite that bad, but a shabby or mediocre place wouldn’t have surprised her.
She automatically stepped ahead of Li as they reached the desk, and was about to ask for a room, but an almost painful pressure on her hand stopped her.
“We have a reservation,” Li said smoothly to the desk attendant, as if he wasn’t crushing her fingers out of sight below the counter. “It should be under Fui .”
The attendant nodded, and Li mercifully relaxed his grip. Misaki tried not to frown at the blood rushed back into her fingertips.
“Yes sir, I have it here. I see you requested a sunset view; we have a room available on the fourth floor, but,” he glanced significantly at Misaki, “our romance suite is also available. It faces east, but is the best of all our rooms. I can upgrade you for a small fee.”
A room was already reserved - facing west? That meant it was facing Fujiwara’s headquarters. Misaki reached up and squeezed Li’s upper arm before he could answer. He tensed beneath her hand, but outwardly showed no sign of discomfort. “That sounds lovely, sweetie,” she said with her best fake smile, “but you did promise me a beautiful sunset every night.” She had never called a boyfriend sweetie in her life; she wanted to throw up.
Li smiled - not the sheepish smile that Misaki was used to, but a more grown-up, embarrassed-but-able-to-handle-it kind of smile. “I did.” He reached around and stroked her hand, the one that was still resting on his arm. His surprisingly solid and muscled arm. Misaki found herself completely trapped in his gaze for a long moment, until he turned back to the attendant. “I think we’ll keep the sunset room. Thank you.”
As the attendant went through the process of checking them in, Misaki gazed around the lobby, trying to look like a tired girlfriend who was ready to get some rest after traveling all day. She left her hand on Li’s arm, and leaned into him a bit as she swept the room. This hotel didn’t appear to cater particularly to businessmen, but there were quite a few men - mostly on the young side - in sharp suits standing around chatting with each other. The bellboy - young and naive-looking - was purposefully avoiding them, she noticed.
This morning, Li could have been that bellboy and Misaki wouldn’t have blinked an eye. Now, the thought of him as such a guileless civilian was beginning to strain her credulity. He was falling into the role of Fui much more easily than she would have ever expected; not to mention he seemed to have realized the importance of the pre-selected room without her interruption. She’d come prepared to spend half her energy more or less babysitting an inexperienced rookie, but that was turning out to be far from the case. She was starting to think that he had severely underrepresented his expertise. The thought was both comforting and concerning at the same time.
“Ready?” Li’s voice broke through her focus.
“Hm? Oh, yes; let’s head up.”
Li thanked the attendant, then picked up their bags once more. Misaki tucked her arm through his, and he led the way to the elevators.
“Is your hand alright?” he said quietly as the doors dinged shut. “I’m sorry - you looked like you were going to say something to the clerk and I acted without thinking.”
She kept her hand tucked under his arm - there was probably a camera in the elevator - and gazed at their reflection in the burnished gold surface of the doors. “How did you know there would be a reservation? Huang didn’t mention anything about it during the meeting.”
“Oh. Since he gave a specific address, and it happened to be across from Lu’s headquarters, I assumed there would be one. It’s, uh, more or less standard procedure. Sorry, I should have warned you. It’s just…everything about this assignment is…weird. It’s hard to keep track of things.”
“I know the feeling,” Misaki said, more to herself than to him.
Their room was the last one at the end of a long hallway, directly across from a flight of stairs. Hei noted that fact automatically; it might come in handy at some point. As he inserted the keycard in the electronic lock, Kirihara’s hand tensed slightly on his arm. A quick glance at her showed nothing obviously amiss - out of sight of the hotel’s employees her expression had returned to its customary guarded wariness. He tried not to feel disappointed at that; she’d only been playing a role for the desk clerk. But it had still been surprisingly nice to see that side of her.
Giving himself a mental shake, he opened the door.
It was a typical hotel room: clean and tidy, but bland. The bathroom was immediately to the left; Hei glanced in as they passed, searching out of habit for any sign of an assassin lying in wait. All clear. They both slipped out of their shoes, but while Kirihara proceeded into the room proper, Hei took a moment to open the wardrobe. All clear there as well.
Kirihara had stopped in front of the bed; she looked like she was about to speak, but Hei shook his head slightly. He dropped their bags onto the mattress then continued his sweep of the room. He didn’t dare say a word until he was sure it was safe. She watched with folded arms and an uncomfortably shrewd expression as he checked behind the bed frame, the drab wall art, beneath the lamps, and in the mouthpiece of the phone.
“I think we’re clear,” he said at last, returning to her side.
“Was all of that necessary, or were you just being paranoid?”
“Probably a little of both,” he admitted. “These yakuza types like to keep tabs on their clientele, but only in specific rooms that they keep set up. Looks like they aren’t suspicious of us. Or I would have found a bug.”
“If you had found one?”
He stuffed his hands into his pockets and shrugged, feeling suddenly like he was under interrogation. “I would have had to leave it, or they would have known something was up. And then we’d be stuck playing our parts even in here.” That would have made the job a hell of a lot more difficult; he was glad that they’d been placed in an unmonitored room.
“Hm. About that…” she trailed off, avoiding his gaze to stare down at the bed.
“About what?” Hei asked blankly.
Kirihara didn’t turn to him, but gestured vaguely at the mattress in front of them. “There’s, um, only one.”
“Oh. Right. I’ll sleep on the floor, don’t worry,” he said hurriedly. “And we’re not going to do much sleeping anyway.”
Her eyebrows raised at that.
“Because of the stakeout. I mean, we’ll be spending most of the night watching across the street. Not in bed. Sleeping.” Hei forced himself to stop talking; it wasn’t like him to babble like this. He didn’t need to explain any of it - he was sure that Kirihara knew it all just as well as he did - but for some reason being alone in a hotel room with her was making him nervous.
Some reason? Hei chided himself. One wrong word and she would arrest him for being a wanted contractor; of course he was nervous. He just had to focus on being Fui, not Hei.
“Right. Well, we need to start gathering intel. It looks like we’ve got a good view here - “ she gestured towards the window, where wide-open curtains gave a clear view of Fujiwara’s headquarters in the slanting early evening light - “but anyone looking out at the hotel will be able to see us watching. So it would be best to wait until dark for any kind of direct observation. It’s about dinner time - I was thinking that we could go down the street, find a place to eat, and walk by the office once or twice, see what we can see. It’s better than sitting still, anyway.”
Hei was impressed in spite of himself. Police procedure tended to be fairly rigid and straightforward - exactly like Kirihara herself - but her suggestion wasn’t too far off from what he had been thinking. A couple of those differences were important, though.
“I agree about the window,” he said, addressing the easier issue first, “but it would be strange to wander too far from the hotel right after checking in.”
Kirihara frowned, a tiny furrow forming in the center of her brow. “It would?”
“I mean, the staff at the front desk know that we’re here for um, a romantic weekend, so they’ll be expecting us to be, you know, staying close by. In the room.” He was the one with no actual, real-life dating experience; he shouldn’t have to explain this.
Her eyes widened, and she blushed faintly. Or maybe that was just the ever-reddening light from the setting sun. “Oh. Right.” Sitting down on the edge of the bed with a sigh, she added, “I guess I need to go on more romantic getaways.”
A half-smile crept onto Hei’s face unbidden. “And besides, you wanted to watch the sunset, didn’t you?”
To his relief, she laughed at that. “I guess I did. God, I can’t even remember the last time I actually sat down and watched the sun, setting or rising. But I don’t want to just sit here for two hours until it’s dark enough to start recon.”
Hei didn’t either. Once a job was all laid out, he could spend hours, days even, in an indefinite period of inactivity, mentally preparing himself and saving up his energy for the execution of the plan. But until the plan was in place, he had to be doing something, anything. This job was no different. Well, there was one difference, but before he could bring it up, Kirihara did - though she didn’t realize it.
“We should outline our recon strategy,” she said, tapping her foot impatiently on the floor. “Lay out what we need to know in order to break in - “ she grimaced a bit at that - “and how we’ll go about gathering the data.”
She was used to taking charge, and she was used to doing things by the book. This was one of the biggest reasons why Hei had warned Huang about this mission being a bad idea.
“I’ll take care of those details,” he said firmly. “That’s my job.”
As he expected, Kirihara frowned. Although she was sitting and he standing, Hei still felt as if he was being cross-examined. “You don’t need to do it all alone,” she said.
“That’s how I usually work.” And if she wasn’t watching over his shoulder every minute, he wouldn’t have to worry about accidentally giving himself away. “You’re here to access the computer - after we get inside.”
“I have to get inside too,” she pointed out. “There’s no reason for me not to be part of the planning process, especially since it affects me directly. And with all of my experience - not breaking and entering exactly, but still - my contributions should be helpful.”
She wasn’t wrong; but Hei still didn’t like the idea. He just had no counterargument. Stepping over to the window, he gazed out as if taking in the view. Fujiwara’s headquarters was in an older office building, with actual brick and mortar rather than a smooth glass and polished surface, as the newer architecture tended to be.
Second floor, southeast corner office . It was more or less directly across from their hotel room; just one floor down. No security lights or decorative spotlights; lots of ledges and potential handholds. If he was alone…but he wasn’t. He needed a strategy that would get both of them in.
Behind him, Kirihara added, “I thought we were partners in this.”
Hei turned back to face her. There was no reassuring smile such that she would have given to Li; he wasn’t sure whether to be worried by that or not. The intensity of her gaze was starting to unnerve him.
He rubbed the back of his head in defeat. “Alright,” he said at last. “First we need to get a better idea of the office building’s layout - that, and the security details, will tell us the best way to get in.”
Kirihara nodded. “We know that the room where the computer is located is on the second floor, southeast corner.” She rose from the edge of the bed and took a seat at the small desk in the corner. After switching on the lamp, she drew the complimentary notepad and pen towards her. Hei wandered over and stood next to her chair as she wrote second floor SE corner at the top of the pad. Beneath it, she began a list: Access? Floor plan? Security - guards, electronic, both? Cameras?
Details were important, but Hei couldn’t think in lists. “Access is going to depend on the layout of the building.” He plucked the pen from her fingers and pulled the pad towards himself. Leaning down, he sketched out two perpendicular lines. “We saw the front of the building from the street; double-door entrance. The east wall makes a corner here. It’s probably more or less rectangular,” he added two more lines, “and there’s likely a stairwell here, in the northeast corner.”
Kirihara frowned slightly. “What makes you say that?”
“No windows. They’re evenly spaced on these two walls, but here in the corner, where another could fit, it’s blank, on every floor.”
“Hm. It’s possible. It could also be custodial closets, elevators, or even bathrooms. You said you’ve done jobs like this before?”
Was there a trap lying in wait in that question? He couldn’t tell. “Yeah.”
“So what’s your initial impression - what should we focus on as the most likely way in?”
Either zipline with a grappling hook across from this room onto the window ledge, or free-climb up from the street, and use a glass cutter to open the window . “Find a rear delivery entrance and take the stairs up. A building this size will have a second stairwell - probably on the opposite corner to this one.” He added it to his sketch. “I would bet that the door is near there. The tricky part is going to be security.”
“What kind of security?” She leaned a little closer, frowning at the drawing; Hei caught the fainest whiff of cucumbers. He wondered it that was her shampoo, or some kind of lotion or body wash, and found himself leaning ever so slightly towards her before catching himself.
“That’s what we have to find out.”
“How -” she began, looking up to face him; but he hadn’t moved back quite far enough and they nearly bumped foreheads.
They stared at each other in surprise for a long moment; then his stomach gave an embarrassingly loud rumble and Kirihara laughed.
“We should probably eat before we start thinking too hard,” she said as he straightened up awkwardly. “If you don’t think we should go out - room service?”
The sound of her laugh echoed in his mind, as it always did when he heard it. “Yeah, that would be best.”
She reached forward and passed him the cloth-bound restaurant menu that was sitting next to the lamp. “Here. Order a couple things.”
“What would you like?”
“Anything. No; see if they have duck.”
Hei took the menu and sat down on the bed; the phone was on the bedside table, so it was easier to reach sitting down. He wasn’t unsteady at all; or if he was, it was just because he hadn’t eaten for a couple of hours. No other reason.
As he placed the order (duck for Kirihara, a burger and a large noodle bowl for himself), he watched her working on her list, her back straight and foot tapping thoughtfully against the leg of the desk. He’d never planned out a job with a partner like this before. Even on his own team, Mao and Huang typically left the details to him, if the Syndicate didn’t have specific instructions. True, Kirihara was taking the lead, but he’d expected that.
What he hadn’t expected was her to be so open to listening to his advice. Was she just indulging him? Or was she finally accepting that Li had more experience than she wanted to believe? He wasn’t entirely sure that that was a good thing. In fact, he was pretty sure that it wasn’t, in the long run anyway. But it was the only way that they would be able to pull this job off.
“How long did they say it would be?”
“What?” Hei realized abruptly that he was still watching her. “Um, about half an hour.”
“Okay. We can get a lot done in that amount of time.”
She turned back to him, frowning. “What is it?”
“When the waiter shows up - well, some of the staff might be on the watch for any suspicious activity.”
“Suspicious?” Then her puzzled frown gave way to a smile. “Don’t worry, I’ll put the pad in a drawer; no one will see our notes.”
“Not that.” Hei felt his face heat. Why was this so hard? He’d been in this exact - well, almost exact - scenario several times, and never once had to explain to his partner what they needed to do. Then again, those partners had always been hired to play one specific role, and they knew it. He took a deep breath. “Particular guests have indicated that they’re here for a romantic weekend, stay in rather than explore the city, and order room service, then when that room service arrives, they look more like they’re in the middle of a business trip - that’s suspicious.”
Kirihara opened her mouth, then shut it. “Oh,” she said at last. “You’re right. I mean, that’s exactly the sort of thing that I would look for during an investigation; I didn’t think to turn it around like that.”
The sun was out of sight behind the office building now; Hei turned on the bedside lamp and rose to shut the curtains.
“So,” Kirihara said apprehensively, her expression darkening in the shadows as the curtains blocked out the last of the outside light. “How do we…I mean, what do we do to make it look like…”
Hei forced his mind to focus. This was still a job; it didn’t matter who he was working with. Looking over hear appearance as dispassionately as he could manage, he said, “You could take down your hair; maybe untuck your blouse. And you should be sitting on the bed - relaxing.”
She frowned, as if he’d just asked her to do the impossible. “What about you?”
“I’ll do something similar; don’t worry.”
Her expression eased, but only slightly. “Well, let’s work some objectives for tonight’s stakeout.”
“The most important things that we need to find out. If we don’t learn them tonight, then we’ll have to focus on it tomorrow. I don’t want to walk into this half-blind. No surprises.”
That was highly unlikely, Hei knew; he had a feeling that Kirihara knew it, too, but working it all out on paper was her way of managing the anxiety. He returned to her side and listened while she talked through her lists, adding an occasional comment or two. After a few minutes she realized that she was sitting in the only chair; despite his protest that he was fine standing, she insisted on relocating to the bed, where she sat cross-legged against the pillows and he camped out on the end.
She was deeply engrossed in a rumination on how to deal with possible security cameras - Hei couldn’t just knock them out, as that would alert any guards or yakuza in the building that something was wrong - when he looked at his watch. “Room service will be here soon; we should get ready.”
Kirihara glanced up from her notes, face frozen. “Right,” she said. “Um…right.” She leaned over and set the pad of paper inside the nightstand drawer. Then, avoiding his gaze, began undoing the bun at the back of her neck.
Hei turned away to give her some privacy. He picked up his duffel bag and opened it. Most of what he’d packed was gear for the job, but he did have one change of clothes. Pulling out a shirt, he draped it casually over the back of the chair.
“What are you doing?”
He glanced over; she was combing her fingers through her long hair and casting him a puzzled expression. “Making it look like we’re settled in. Do you have any makeup or anything like that that you can spread out on the bathroom counter?
“Yeah, I guess.” She shook her hair out and let it drape down her back; Hei tried not to stare. He’d never seen her looking so…unguarded before. Casual. It was more than a little fascinating.
As Kirihara took her bag into the bathroom to do as he’d suggested - leaving a faint trail of cucumber scent behind her - Hei unbuttoned his shirt.
“Do we - oh, I’m sorry.”
Kirihara had poked her head out of the bathroom and was staring at him, her face quickly reddening. Hei quickly closed his shirt. “I’m just…adjusting.”
“Right. I was just thinking, maybe I should run the shower for a minute, make it look like, um, like you said. Like we’re settled in.”
Hei nodded, quickly doing up his buttons. “That’s a good idea.”
When she was finished in the bathroom, he went in himself. She obviously hadn’t packed many toiletries, but had done a good job of scattering them on the counter; she’d even added some makeup smudges to one of the hand towels. Hei glanced over it all approvingly, then splashed some water on his face and hair. He did a sloppy job of drying off with a towel, then took it out with him and dropped it on the bed.
Kirihara had returned to the pillows at the head of the bed, and was sitting with her legs folded to the side, her feet tucked up. She was playing absently with a lock of hair; it looked quite unconscious, and, watching her, Hei felt a sudden twinge of regret for the reality of his life. He pushed the feeling aside roughly; this was his life, and wishing that things were different, normal even, was pointless.
A knock on the door startled him back into clear and sudden focus. Kirihara sat up straighter; Hei held out his hand in a gesture of relax and let me handle it . Taking a deep breath, he called out, “Just a minute!” but didn’t move towards the door.
“Aren’t you going to answer it?” Kirihara whispered at him. Then she blinked. “L - Fui, your shirt is buttoned unevenly.”
“Yeah, I know.” He waited another twenty seconds to let the waiter think that they had some panicked scrambling to do, then went to the door and looked out the peephole. There was a short man on the other side in the hotel’s uniform, holding a covered silver tray and a small bucket tucked under one arm. The edges of a colorful tattoo were just visible above his collar. Nothing looked amiss; Hei had a knife hidden at the small of his back and the server would have to drop one of his items before attacking. Confident that he could control the situation, Hei opened the door.
“Sorry,” he said, putting a flustered expression on his face. “Come in. You can set it on the desk.”
The waiter bowed and did as Hei had asked; his gaze darted here and there, lingering briefly on Kirihara, who pulled her feet in even closer beneath her, one hand wrapped protectively around her ankles. She was gaze demurely down, but Hei could tell by the way her lips were pursed that she was doing her best at acting.
“Your order, sir,” the man said, lifting the cover from the dish. Hei nodded in approval. “And the champagne, on ice.”
“Champagne?” Kirihara spoke up suddenly. “Fui, I didn’t hear you order that?”
She’d been deep in thought while he’d made the call; it wasn’t surprising. “I thought we could use a little something to celebrate,” he replied smoothly.
“Oh,” she said, and tucked the lock of hair behind her ear with a shy smile. “That was a sweet thought. Thank you.”
Hei didn’t like the way the waiter’s eyes kept darting to Kirihara. “Thank you,” he said to the man, slipping him the bill that he’d been holding ready. “That’ll be all.”
The waiter bowed again, then left the room with one last look at Hei’s pretend girlfriend. Hei made sure to lock the door behind him.
When he’d slid the chain into place, Kirihara rose from the bed and padded over to the food. “This smells amazing,” she said as she tied back her hair. “Did you see his tattoo? Lifelong Fujiwara family member, I’d bet.”
“Yeah. Sorry about the champagne; I thought it would help our cover.”
She settled back onto the bed with her plate of food. “No, it’s fine. It just surprised me. Shame we won’t be able to drink it.”
Hei shrugged, sitting at the desk with his own plate. “I don’t really care for champagne anyway.”
“Hm. I saw you, you know.”
He heart skipped a beat. “What?”
“Slipping a tip to the waiter. Is it weird, spending so much of your time in service yourself, then being waited on like this?”
“Li is the waiter,” Hei said, staring down into his noodles. “Not me.”
Misaki had never been alone in a hotel room with a strange man before; she’d certainly never spent an entire night alone with a stranger. And yet, here she was.
That morning she would have denied that Li was a stranger to her. She didn’t know him well, of course, but she still knew him. Now…she had no idea who the man next to her at the window was. It both fascinated and frightened her at the same time.
They were sitting in the dark. Misaki was in the desk chair in the corner, positioned so that she could see the headquarters office window through the crack between the curtain and their own window. Li - she was still calling him that in her head for lack of a better name - had dragged the desk over and was stretched out on top of it, on his stomach, a pair of field binoculars pointed through the curtain gap on the opposite side. He hadn’t moved an inch in at least half an hour; he reminded Misaki of a large hunting cat waiting for his clueless prey to stumble into his reach. It was slightly unnerving.
In the last few hours, it had become quite clear to her that not only did he have more experience with criminal activities than she had supposed, but he was close to the level of a professional, if not already there. She hadn’t thought to check for bugs in a yakuza-run hotel; she hadn’t anticipated the need to put on a show for the waiter.
It was irritating.
But it was also a bit of a relief to know that she’d been partnered with someone who could handle himself. The question now was: could she trust him?
She had no idea how much of the story that he had told her earlier was true. He’d said that he and his sister had been raised by Chinese mafia; given his skill and confidence in getting them into the hotel and setting up for the stakeout, that seemed likely. Which meant that his line about only doing this sort of thing once or twice was probably a lie. But she was a police officer - why wouldn’t he lie about something like that to her?
Who was he, really? Fui? Maybe.
It’s the name that tells you who you are , he’d said. Li was the name of a naive and well-meaning college student - an act, no doubt, to cover his criminal activities here in the city. College students weren’t pros at taking on a cover identity and staking out yakuza offices, mafia or not.
Once again she thought back to when she’d first met him, in the rooftop garden of Qing Long Tang’s hotel. What had he actually been doing up there; and had he really needed her help to escape? And later, BK-201…
BK-201 was rumored to have originated in China; could they be working for the same organization? If that was the case, then it couldn’t be Tang’s outfit. Or could -
“Number three; headed your way.”
Misaki startled at his quiet voice; that was the first thing he’d said in probably an hour. She sat up a little straighter in her chair and focused her own field glasses at the corner office window. Luckily for them, none of the windows had blinds and they had a clear view of every room that had its lights on. A man in a black suit entered the office.
“I have him,” she told her partner quietly. Number three was Li’s name for the third man that they’d seen in the building that night, identifiable by his poor attempt at a beard. They were up to five now, and Misaki was starting to find it hard to keep track. Any more people and she would have to start writing it down. “Two is at the computer still; Three just walked up and is talking with him.”
Li didn’t answer, and Misaki lapsed into silence, observing the office. This was the quietest stakeout that she had ever been on. When Kouno and Saitou were with her, they would spend hours at a time arguing about some inconsequential point or other while she listened in half-annoyed amusement; if she was alone, she would turn on some music. Anything to help pass the time and keep her awake. So once they’d gotten set up, out of habit she had started talking. Nothing important; just general comments and observations, or stories about previous stakeouts that she’d been on.
But he’d given no more than one or two word answers, if even that, and at last she’d gotten the message. So she’d shut up, only to have him say, “You can keep talking; it doesn’t bother me.”
“It feels silly to have a conversation with myself,” she’d answered. “Anyway, it seems like you’d rather I’d stay quiet.”
In the dim light filtering through the crack in the curtains she’d seen him give a half-shrug. “I’m just not used to it, that’s all.”
But she’d run out of causal topics, and in any case, it gave her time to think. So she’d kept quiet, except for necessary comments on the goings on in the office.
“Three’s moving,” she said now. “He’s heading over to the far corner again. That’s the fourth time tonight - I wonder if there’s a safe there, and he’s depositing collections?”
In a movement so slow that she wasn’t entirely sure that he was moving, Li slid his binoculars along a horizontal plane, probably tracking across the second floor windows. “Possibly. He could be meeting them in the front entrance when he leaves the second floor.” He exhaled softly. “I wish we had Yin.”
“Yin? Who is that?”
He didn’t answer right away; Misaki suspected that he hadn’t intended to speak aloud. “A reconnaissance doll I work with sometimes,” he said at last, almost hesitantly.
“Is that what you were asking Huang about in the park?” She’d glossed over it at the time, but maybe by support he’d meant dolls . They weren’t that common in the smaller criminal organizations. “I’ve never worked with one; I’ve heard they can be hard to direct, and the info can be hit or miss.”
“Yin’s good; she’s saved my life a couple of times.”
“Then I wish we had her too,” Misaki said with a grim smile. What answer had Huang given Li? She thought back - They’ll be watching for it . Sudden fear stabbed her heart. “Shit, I didn’t even think of that - what if they have a doll watching? How will we get past that?”
Again, Li didn’t answer right away. Then he said, “Fujiwara traffics dolls; I don’t think he’d keep one for security when he could sell it for profit.”
“That makes sense,” Misaki said, turning the question over in her mind. “In which case it’s more likely that he would have a contractor on the payroll; someone who could see when the police or a rival organization are using dolls to spy on the family.” She was damn glad that she had brought her weapon along. But Li…
“Probably,” was all that he said. There wasn’t even a hint of nerves in his voice. My job is to get you access to the computer, and watch your back while you work , he’d told her. Could she trust his ability to do that, if a contractor was involved?
She thought back to the brief, accidental glimpse of solid abs she’d gotten while he’d been redoing the buttons on his shirt earlier, and had a strong impression that he didn’t keep himself in such good shape for purely aesthetic purposes.
Good shape? Excellent shape. Misaki found herself wishing that she’d gotten more than just a glimpse. Who would have thought that Li - or even Fui, with all of his awkwardness in dealing with the fake dating situation when they were alone together - was so…well… hot .
She glanced over at him in the dark; the dim orange and yellow lights from the streets outside outlined a curve of biceps supporting his weight where he was propped up on his elbows, his well-defined forearms and strong hands holding the binoculars steady…
“Newcomer,” he said suddenly, and Misaki snapped her focus back to the task at hand.
“Six?” she asked in a somewhat unsteady voice.
“Heading towards the office,” Li confirmed.
Misaki trained her binoculars on the office window, where Two was still seated at the computer, having been joined again by Three. She couldn’t see the door, but she did see both men turn away from the window; after a moment, the newcomer came into view and seemed to strike up a conversation.
“Hang on,” she said. “It’s him - the waiter.”
“Are you sure?” He wasn’t doubting her; he was simply asking for confirmation.
“Yeah. I can see his tattoo, and that gross look on his face is the same.”
Li coughed, a sound that Misaki suspected was meant to cover up his laugh. “What is he doing?”
The waiter had his arms folded, but she couldn’t tell if he was angry, impatient, or just liked to stand that way. “He’s just talking. Wait; now he’s going over to the safe - if it is a safe, I mean. He has a black bag…yes, he’s definitely filling the bag with something. Now the other two are getting up.”
She watched as Two switched off the computer monitor - a tiny blue glow from under the desk told her that the computer itself was still on - and together the three men left the room. One of them hit the lights on their way out.
“They’re gone,” she said, and looked at her watch. “Finally. It’s almost two in the morning.”
“There’s still a couple of lights on in the building,” Li said, still not moving. “We should give it another hour or two.”
Misaki stifled a yawn. “Right.” She did admire a good work ethic, but… “I don’t know how you’re doing this without coffee.” She’d already finished all four of the hotel-provided instant cups.
“Coffee makes me jittery.”
She gazed at him again, stretched out on the table, long and lean and utterly still. I’d like to see you jittery.
Shit, she hadn’t meant to speak out loud; she definitely needed more coffee. “Nothing. Two more hours, then.”
By three-thirty, nobody had returned to the office. There was little activity in the building at all; though three rooms remained lit, neither Li nor Misaki saw anyone moving around in them. Li thought that he had identified a security patrol (One and Five), but it was too unpredictable to be sure. That worried Misaki a little; she would have preferred a confirmed patrol if they knew its schedule.
Li, however, didn’t seem too concerned about it. “We’ll just have to move fast,” he said as he pulled the desk back into its usual place. “And keep an eye out.”
Misaki yawned widely, unable to stop herself. “I guess all we need now is the way in.” Thus far tonight she’d avoided thinking about that aspect of the assignment. In meant breaking in , and that meant breaking the law. Even if it was the mafia, and at her supervisor’s behest.
“We’ll scope out the exterior tomorrow afternoon,” Li said. “We’ll need to be up all night again. I’ll put the do not disturb sign on the door so we can get some extra sleep.”
“Right. And I guess that will look good for our cover.” A strange shiver ran down her back; the only time she had ever hung that sign on a hotel room door was when she’d been at a national police conference in Kyoto and had needed to spend all morning going over notes, undisturbed by the chambermaid. But it was no different now. This was still a work trip, even if the hotel staff believed otherwise.
She made sure that the curtains were tightly shut, then switched on the bedside light. They both blinked in the sudden brightness; Misaki caught Li’s eye and another shiver, even more intense, ran down her spine before he hurriedly glanced away. “I’ll…go put on my pajamas then,” she said unsteadily. Without waiting for a reply, she scooped up her gym bag and padded into the bathroom.
Misaki was sleepy, but not so sleepy that she could keep from feeling nervous about tonight - well, this morning. He was just as tired as she was, she reminded herself. And anyway, some part of him - the cute awkwardness that crept into his expression every time either of them alluded to their cover story - was still Li. She trusted Li not to try anything, whoever else he was. Even Fui, confident and smooth, seemed polite and gentlemanly, someone who wouldn’t overstep his bounds.
Too bad .
A cold splash of water to the face helped cool her blood. That was Lan talking, not herself. They were here for a job. That was all.
When she exited the bathroom, feeling comfortable yet conspicuous in her pajamas, it was to find that Li had already changed into a pair of black sweats and a loose black tank top. He looked good in black, she couldn’t help noticing. She also couldn’t help noticing how good his arms and shoulders looked, without sleeves to cover them up.
“Are you finished?”
She blinked. “What?”
“In the bathroom.”
“Oh - yes. It’s all yours.”
He headed into the bathroom without so much as a glance in her direction. As Misaki dropped her gym bag on the floor and climbed under the covers, she heard the tap running, and the sound of teeth being brushed. After a moment’s hesitation - he’d already seen her with her hair down, after all - she pulled her ponytail loose and combed her fingers through her long locks a few times. Then she set her glasses on the bedside table and settled onto the pillow.
A pillow had never felt so good. She was exhausted from the almost-all-nighter on top of the stress of such an unorthodox assignment; and spending so many hours in that chair had put a major crick in her back.
Debating for far longer than was necessary, she decided on facing the window, away from the bathroom. It wasn’t like she could see anything without her glasses on, anyway. She closed her eyes, hoping that sleep wouldn’t be too hard to find tonight; nerves and exhaustion were never a good mix.
You’re not Misaki this weekend, she reminded herself. You’re Lan. Someone who has no problem with breaking and entering, or sharing rooms with strangers .
A few minutes later, she heard the water shut off; but it wasn’t until the light beside her abruptly switched off that she realized he’d left the bathroom, he’d moved so quietly. Either that, or she’d dozed off without realizing it.
“I’m just taking the pillow,” he said softly.
A faint trace of air brushed against her cheek as he removed the second pillow from the bed. This time she heard his footsteps, soft but audible, as he retreated to the end of the bed and dropped the pillow on the floor.
She lay with her eyes open, staring blindly into the dark for a long moment.
“Li, don’t be silly.” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them.
“What?” he asked from the floor, his confusion evident.
“Your back must be hurting as much as mine after spending all night on that desk; it’s silly for you to sleep on the floor when there’s plenty of room here.”
He didn’t answer for so long that Misaki started to think that maybe she hadn’t actually spoken the words aloud; she was so tired that it had all happened in her head. But then he said, “Are you sure?”
Her breath caught in her throat. “Of course; I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t mean it. But,” she couldn’t help adding, “if you try anything, I’ll punch you in the face.”
He huffed a laugh. “That’s fair.”
Another light brush of air tickled her cheek; then the mattress sagged behind her as he climbed under the covers. Something fluttered in her stomach; she forced herself to breathe through it.
Beside her came the sound of soft, even breathing; it was surprisingly soothing. Sleep tugged at her eyelids; she had nearly drifted off when Li said quietly, “Are you going to be alright tomorrow?”
“With the job.”
She forced her eyes open, staring into the dark. “I’ll do my part; don’t worry.”
“I know you will. I just mean…this can’t be easy for you. This type of work.”
“Oh. It’s…no, it’s not easy. But it’s important.”
“Because your boss asked you to do it?”
“Because those dolls aren’t safe in Fujiwara’s possession, and it’s my job to protect them.” He made no answer to that; after a long, silent moment, Misaki asked, “What about you? Is this type of work easy?”
Something, her intuition maybe, told her that he was lying.
They didn’t speak after that. A few minutes later she drifted off with the comforting knowledge that she wasn’t alone.
Kirihara would murder him if she knew that he was seeing her like this. Hei had no doubt of that in his mind; and yet, he couldn’t look away.
She had kicked off the covers at some point in the night. That it had been her and not him wasn’t in question - he barely moved an inch while he slept, and had awoken twice to a kick in the shins.
The curtains were blocking out much of the late morning light, but what was filtering through shone softly on the pale skin of her arms, and the even paler skin where the hem of her shirt had ridden up to expose a narrow waist and smooth stomach. Soft snores were muffled against the pillow where her hair was spread in a tangled mess. Mouth open, drooling slightly, she slept deeply.
Hei sat up slowly, careful not to disturb her. She was beautiful - he’d always thought so, but somehow seeing her in this state of…mundane normalcy…it almost took his breath away. It had been next to impossible to fall asleep with her lying beside him as if they really were a couple instead of this mockery of a relationship. Only years of training to catch sleep in suboptimal environments had allowed him to get any rest at all.
Maybe if he really had been Fui…occasional breaking and entering wasn’t so bad. She might look the other way once or twice, then devote herself to reforming him; he would swear to leave the mafia’s control and live an honest life. With her.
The temptation to reach over and brush her cheek was so strong it was almost painful. But Hei would never push her boundaries like that - even this much was starting to cross the line. He wasn’t Fui, even if she believed that he was. He was Hei, and Hei had no interest in impossible possibilities.
And he really didn’t want to get punched in the face.
Instead, he lifted himself out of the bed as lightly as possible and, scooping up some clean clothes, headed into the bathroom for a shower. A cold shower.
He debated briefly whether to make it a long shower and give her time to wake up on her own, thereby avoiding the realization that he might have seen her asleep; but they had a lot of work to do this afternoon to prep for the job. So after a quick five minutes he shut off the water and toweled himself dry. It wasn’t until he’d pulled on his jeans that he realized that he’d neglected to grab a shirt - and the tank top that he’d slept in was balled up in a puddle on the floor.
It had only been five minutes; no doubt she was still asleep. He opened the bathroom door quietly and padded out into the room towards the credenza where his duffel sat - and saw with a jolt of surprise that Kirihara was awake. She was sitting up, hugging her knees against her chest and watching him through her wire-rimmed glasses.
He looked away quickly, focusing on digging out his shirt and pretending nonchalance, as if walking around the room half-naked was something that he always did with near-strangers present.
“Good morning,” she said matter-of-factly.
He didn’t look up. “Morning. Did you, uh, sleep alright?”
“Fine,” Hei lied. His stomach swooped in relief as he found his shirt at last and pulled it on, buttoning it up with his back still to her.
“Is that a bullet wound?”
He froze momentarily, before forcing himself to relax and finish the last button. She must be talking about the scar on his shoulder. Damn - he’d been worried about his words or behavior tipping her off about his identity, but hadn’t given thought to what story his skin might tell. “Yes.”
“I got shot.”
“You don’t say.”
He couldn’t tell if she was annoyed with his answer or amused.
“I’ve heard those hurt.”
He shrugged, and ran a hand through his still-damp hair. “Yeah. It didn’t feel very good. You can have the shower; I’m finished.”
He didn’t wait for her reply, but instead walked over towards the window. The sheets rustled behind him as he opened the curtains and let the bright daylight stream in. It wasn’t until he heard the bathroom door click shut that he allowed himself to relax.
What the hell was wrong with him? This was a job. He needed to stay focused so that they could both complete the mission, alive. And then after that, go their separate ways.
By the time Kirihara was dressed and ready to go, Hei had managed to seal off those intrusive emotional thoughts. He was able to cast a dispassionate eye over Kirihara’s appearance and conclude that she certainly looked the part of a woman in a new relationship about to head out into the city with her boyfriend, without feeling that unwelcome twinge of regret.
“Ready?” she asked. Then without waiting for his answer, continued, “We should head in the opposite direction of the office building first, then eventually circle around. Just in case anyone is keeping an eye on things.”
“Right,” Hei said. She was adjusting to covert work much more quickly than he had expected; maybe she really would be alright tonight.
As they left the room, Kirihara turned towards the elevators; but Hei caught her hand. “Let’s take the stairs,” he said. “No need to be lazy.”
She arched an eyebrow, but didn’t argue. Twining her fingers in his, she followed.
All Hei wanted to know was whether there were any cameras in the hotel’s stairwell. They would have to get out without being seen tonight; the night shift attendant would definitely notice if two people walked out the front entrance dressed all in black. To his relief, there wasn’t any security at all; even better, there was a small window on each landing. No fire escapes, but they would be able to slip through the ground floor window without taking the hall that led from the stairwell back out into the lobby.
“Looks like a nice day out,” Kirihara commented, pointing her chin towards the window. Hei nodded, both in agreement and approval at her quick understanding. He reached over and flipped the latch as they passed; it opened easily. This would be their exit tonight.
No one in the lobby seemed to think it strange when two guests emerged from the stairwell instead of the elevator; the young men in suits - different men from the ones who had been there last night, but exactly the same sort - ignored them completely. The desk clerk called out a polite good afternoon, which Hei returned in a friendly manner. Even Kirihara smiled, though the way her hand wrapped around his arm made it clear that she had little interest in anyone except her boyfriend today.
They set off down the street. Kirihara tried to set a brisk pace, but Hei squeezed her hand and slowed them to a casual stroll. “There’s no rush,” he told her. “It’s a nice day; we should enjoy it.”
She shook her head with a smile. “You’re right. God, when was the last time I just went out for a walk like this…”
They turned down one of the busier streets. Like last night, it was packed with vendors, shoppers, and tourists. The crowds meant that they had to press closely together, something that Hei did not object to in the least.
“Oh my god, something smells amazing,” Kirihara said abruptly.
Hei could smell it too; his stomach gave a hungry rumble. He glanced around, then gestured to a cart a few paces ahead. “Baozi.”
“What is that?”
“Hot buns - pork, usually. Here, let’s get some.” He led the way over to the cart, where a smiling older woman was setting out freshly cooked buns and ordered a bagful.
“I have some cash,” Kirihara started to say when Hei handed over the money, but he waved her off.
“Don’t worry about it; I got a bonus at work this week.”
Her eyes widened slightly in sudden understanding. He wasn’t paying for this little trip, of course - the Syndicate was. She took the bag almost apprehensively, and for a moment Hei thought that she would refuse to eat on principle. But with a hungry-sounding sigh, she removed one of the buns and bit into it.
“Mm,” she said, closing her eyes in an expression that made his stomach do a little flipflop. “This is good. Did you have these when you were growing up?”
“Sure,” Hei said, taking a couple for himself. “They’re pretty common.”
“Where did you grow up - Beijing?”
That was the hometown of Li Shengshun. But instead of going with the easy lie, Hei found himself saying, “No; Xi’an.”
“That’s the city where the terracotta army is, right? I’ve always wanted to visit there - have you seen them?”
They chatted amicably as they strolled through the streets, her hand pressing warmly in his. She seemed to be legitimately enjoying herself; and to Hei’s surprise, so was he. He hadn’t bothered to make up any sort of background for Fui’s identity, but instead of coming up with the false details as needed, the things that he told her were basically true. He wasn’t really sure why, but something told him that even if she did discover that he was a contractor, even if she did loathe and hate him for it - she would still keep private anything that he happened to tell her. It was alien, this feeling of trust. He wasn’t sure if he liked it or not.
“Oh, these are pretty,” Kirihara said, stopping at a display of traditional Chinese dresses.
“It reminds me of when we first met,” Hei said, struggling to separate himself from who he was supposed to be right now. “You looked amazing.”
She blushed a little at that, and smiled. “You’re just saying that.”
“No.” He gave her hand a squeeze. “I mean it.”
The crimson flush in her cheeks deepened, and she look away - then her face split into a wide smile. “Oh look, what a gorgeous dog!”
Off to the side of the booth was an old man sitting in a chair, holding the leash of a fluffy white Samoyed. The dog sat primly, its tongue lolling out in the heat.
“Can I pet him?” Kirihara asked the dog’s owner.
The old man didn’t appear to understand Japanese, but Kirihara’s question was easy to interpret; he gestured towards his dog’s head. She smiled; slipping her hand out of Hei’s she stepped forward and crouched down to scratch behind the canine’s ears. The dog leaned into her hand appreciatively.
“When I was a kid our neighbors had a standard poodle,” she said, though Hei wasn’t sure if she was talking to him, the owner, or to the dog. “I wasn’t allowed to have pets, but they let me take him for walks a couple times a week.”
“I wouldn’t have guessed that you like dogs,” Hei said honestly.
She flashed him a smile over her shoulder. “I don’t really want one - they’re too messy, and I just don’t have the time to take care of one. But I still like them.” Then she blinked, apparently noticing for the first time that he hadn’t come over to her side. “Do you want to pet him?”
Hei stuffed his hands in his pockets and stayed where he was. “That’s okay.”
“Are you sure? He’s really sweet - oh, ew, no licking.” She gently pushed the dog’s head away and wiped her hand on her jeans.
“Yeah, he looks sweet,” Hei agreed, still maintaining his distance.
Kirihara gave the Samoyed one last pat, then walked back to Hei and took his hand once again. “Are you - are you afraid of dogs?” she asked as they rejoined the flow of the crowd.
“No,” Hei said quickly; too quickly, he realized. “I mean, I like dogs too. I just…don’t really like being near them.”
“Bad experience at work?” Kirihara asked shrewdly.
“Um, no.” Security dogs were easy enough to deal with - slip them some tranquilizers ahead of time, or else just run like hell. “When I was a kid my neighbors had a dog too. It liked to chase me down the street; one time it caught the hem of my pants and ripped out a huge hole.”
She squeezed his hand. “Oh my god, that must have been terrifying! No one wonder you’re afraid; what type of dog was it?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know exactly.”
“Um, you know, dog-sized I guess.” The day was getting hotter, Hei thought. Or maybe it was just the large crowd.
“Fui, how big was the dog?” Kirihara asked, her tone all too shrewd again.
“Its teeth were sharp - that’s what really matters,” Hei protested, and she laughed out loud. The sound sent a pleasant tingle down his spine, and without thinking he let go of her hand and wrapped his arm around her waist. She stiffened briefly in surprise, but then relaxed against his side.
He’d begun this job wanting nothing more than for it to be over as soon as possible, Hei thought to himself as they slowly wound their way back towards Fujiwara’s headquarters. Now, though, he hoped that it would never end.
That was going to be a problem.
“There’s the door,” Kirihara said, jolting Hei out of an idiot daydream in which he had never joined the Syndicate. He gave himself a mental shake and gazed across the road; they had already reached Fujiwara’s building - sure enough, there was a delivery entrance near the southwest corner, at the back of the building.
“There’s also a camera,” he said. Just one; it was perched at an angle to give a view of anyone who might be at the door - but not much else.
“Shit,” Kirihara said. “Does that mean that they have a security guard watching the feed, or is it just there for deterrent or recording purposes?”
Hei shrugged. “One way to find out. Come on; act like you’re enjoying yourself, but just make sure to keep your face turned away.”
“What -” she began, but he was already jogging them across the narrow street.
When they reached the building, Hei spun her around and gently pushed her against the wall right next to the door. Her wide-eyed surprise sent a stab of longing through him, but he ignored it. Keeping his back to the camera - and his body well between the camera and her - he placed his hands on her waist and explained, “If someone is monitoring the feed, they won’t want us loitering here; they’ll send someone out to move us along.”
“That makes sense,” she said in a breathy voice, and reached up to twine her arms around his neck. “Should we…I mean…”
He knew what she was asking; and he desperately wanted to say yes. But… “It’s not necessary,” he forced himself to say. “It just has to look like we plan on staying here…talking…for a while.”
“Okay.” Was that disappointment in her voice, or just wishful thinking on his part? She shifted her weight, arching her back slightly in a movement that brought her hips an inch or two closer to his. “Will we be in trouble if someone does come out?”
“Trouble?” His hands gripped her waist compulsively for a moment before he remembered himself. “Um. No. It’s just an issue of security.”
“Hm,” was all she said.
She was gazing at a point somewhere near his left ear rather than looking into his eyes, for which he was grateful. His pulse was pounding hard enough as it was. This close, he could just catch the scent of cucumbers again, like a fresh, cool misting of water in the heat of the day.
“Hm?” was all he could manage; her fingers were sliding absently through his hair.
“Do you -”
“Hey, this is a public street!”
They both straightened at the sharp call; Kirihara dropped her hands to Hei’s shoulder as he turned to face the heckler - one of the besuited men from the lobby, walking up from the direction of the hotel with one of his buddies.
“Keep moving,” the man continued, jerking a thumb over his shoulder.
Hei dipped his head in apology, grabbed Kirihara’s hand, and pulled her away from the door.
Kirihara’s face was beet red; she looked away as she asked, “Was that long enough?”
“I, uh,” Hei stammered; just how long had they been standing there? “Yeah. I think so. There’s probably not a live feed.” He took a steadying breath. “Let’s go back and sketch out our plan.”
It was hard to believe that she’d ever thought him a naive amateur, Misaki thought as she surreptitiously watched her partner unroll a length of black cloth on the bed and examine the shiny, delicate instruments on display.
“Lock picking tools?” she asked softly. It was almost two in the morning; the only light came from the desk lamp in front of her where she’d been cleaning her Glock. Despite the impossibility of observation, Misaki couldn’t bring herself to use a normal voice.
Li nodded once, then rolled the cloth up again and placed it inside a small gear bag alongside a length of rope, some zip ties, and a few other pieces of equipment that Misaki hadn’t seen clearly.
“I’ve always wanted to learn how to do that.”
He looked up sharply, as if unsure whether or not she was being serious.
She shrugged, and slid the loaded magazine back into place, the scent of gun-cleaning oil heady as usual. “It’s a useful skill to have; especially if you lock your keys in your car as often as I do.”
Li snorted a laugh, and she smiled. He’d been withdrawn ever since they’d returned from their scouting excursion, and it had been starting to make her a little uncomfortable. She didn’t think it was nerves; if anything, he appeared far more steady and confident than he had all weekend. It was almost if he’d taken the cover of Fui even further, slipping into a…darker…personality.
It was a marked change from earlier. Walking down the street, hand in hand, it had actually begun to feel like they were a real couple; and as the afternoon had worn on, Li had become more…genuine, was the best word that she could put to it. In the space of a day she’d gone from having little interest in him beyond a casual acquaintance, to - well, to wishing that this wasn’t just an act as part of their assignment.
As she had to keep reminding herself, it was an act. The way his affected charm had turned genuine was just a matter of them growing comfortable with one another; nothing more.
And now that they were back in the hotel, all pretense at charm was gone; he’d become so focused on the upcoming job that she hardly recognized him. Again. The strange thing was, this apparent change felt genuine too.
It wasn’t that that bothered her though, really; it was the reminder that she was severely out of her depth and was going to have to rely heavily on someone else’s abilities for this mission.
“Do you have the flash drive?” he asked. His voice was just as quiet as hers had been, but she startled anyway.
“Yes.” She patted her chest. At his bemused look, she added, “I don’t have pockets in these pants, so it’s in my sports bra.”
There was that adorable blush again; she’d missed it. “Your - uh, that has pockets?” he said.
She bit back a smile. “Of course not.”
He coughed and turned away abruptly. “Did you bring gloves?”
She shook her head. “I don’t have any, and didn’t think to pick any up.”
After rooting around in his duffel bag for a moment, Li tossed her a pair of black leather gloves along with a floppy piece of black fabric. Misaki turned it over curiously. “A ski mask?”
“You don’t want your face showing up on any security recordings.”
“Shit, no - thanks.” She set it and the gloves down on the desk, then stood to strap on her shoulder holster. Li watched her with a slight frown on his face. “What is it?” she asked. Standing there, dressed head to toe in form-fitting, well-tailored black, he did not look like the sort of person who would disapprove of firearms. In fact, he looked like the sort of person who would own several.
“Nothing.” He hesitated, then added, “I just don’t typically like using guns. That’s all.”
“You won’t be using it; I will. And only if absolutely necessary,” she pointed out.
“I know. But…”
Misaki took her hair down from its ponytail and began gathering it into a bun on top of her head. “But what?”
His gaze was focused on her hands as they worked through her hair. “It’s not good to have the temptation there. In my experience, people with guns have a tendency to stay in situations where they would be better served to run, because they feel like they have enough protection. And they’re usually wrong.”
“I suppose I can understand that; but at the same time, these are dangerous people - some of them might even be contractors. I’m not letting either of us walk into a situation like that without any protection.” She secured the bun with an elastic and then picked up the ski mask, wondering how exactly to put it on.
“ I’m your protection.”
Misaki turned to Li. His gaze was so intense it sent shivers down her spine. “I know,” she said quietly, wondering when that had become true. “And I trust you. But I’m a cop.” She gave him a small smile. “Protecting people is my job too.”
He folded his arms, the contours of his biceps sharply clear beneath his black shirt. His expression was decidedly unhappy; but he nodded. “Alright. If it makes you feel better.”
“It does. But what about you - how are you supposed to protect us without any sort of weapon?”
“By getting us in and out without being detected,” he said dryly. “And I have this.” He pulled a small, sheathed knife out of his bag and strapped it to his thigh.
It was Misaki’s turn to frown. “That?”
“You’d be surprised how much damage even a small knife can do.”
“I know. I mean, of course knives are dangerous. But an attacker would have to be right on top of you for it to be of any use.” Her words had zero affect on him; he merely shrugged lightly. “But in any case, no one’s getting hurt tonight,” Misaki continued, more to reassure herself than anything.
“Not unless it’s necessary.”
His words sent a chill down her spine. Despite his obvious competence, despite the scars on his back that looked like the result of violence, she had trouble imagining him actually hurting anyone; but she’d been wrong about nearly everything else about him so far. “Do we need to come to an agreement on the definition of ‘necessary’?”
He looked away. “Of course not.”
He is who he is, Misaki reminded herself, at little wistfully. Whoever that is. Maybe he’s interested in you - or maybe he’s just shy around women and good at faking charm. But he doesn’t need you to save him. He was obviously a professional, which meant that he’d chosen his own path rather than accidentally getting in over his head like she’d initially thought. After this job was over, they would go their separate ways. It would be disappointing, but necessary.
She turned the mask over in her hands until she found the two holes in the front; then she pulled it over the top of her head. Her glasses were in the way; once she removed them, she was able to pull the mask all the way down. Li was watching as she adjusted it to line up the eye holes, but his expression was a blur. She tried to put her glasses back on, and ended up poking herself in the eye. “Damn it,” she muttered - or tried to. The mask clung tightly to her skin, making her jaw hurt.
Li rose from his seat on the bed and stepped in front of her. “Hold still,” he said. Removing his knife from the sheath on his leg, he pinched the fabric just in front of her ear. She tried not to flinch as he cut it, and held her breath when he did the same on the other side. He then took the glasses from her hand and placed them on her nose, feeding the ends through the new holes.
Misaki blinked in the sudden clarity, aware even without her glasses of just how close he was standing to her, how solid and real he was. She wanted to run her hands down his chest, down his stomach, to feel his hands cupping her face…
“I feel like an idiot,” she blurted out.
His mouth quirked up in a half-smile. “Black doesn’t suit you.”
“It suits you.”
“Yeah; it probably does. Are you ready, Lan?”
She took off her glasses to roll the mask up off her face, wearing it like a beanie, and took a deep breath. “Yes. Let’s go.”
AN 3.06.17: While writing this chapter I realized that I’d left a detail out of chapter 7. It’s not vital, but I added a brief scene at the end of that chapter, so it wouldn’t be a complete waste of time to go back and reread…
Getting out of the hotel was easy. At two in the morning, no one was roaming the corridors, so it was a simple matter of slipping out of their room and into the empty stairwell.
When they reached the ground floor, Misaki expected that they would open the window and climb out; instead, as soon as they stepped off the stairs Li raised a black-gloved fist in a signal to stop. Misaki halted obediently and watched as he leaned forward and twisted the light bulb out of the sconce on the wall. The narrow stairway went black and she understood: there were no blinds on the windows here; anyone looking in from the street - or Fujiwara’s headquarters across the way - would be able to clearly see two figures dressed in black climbing out of a brightly-lit window.
“Good thinking,” she whispered, and started to move forward again; but once again Li stopped her.
“Give it a minute.” His voice was so low that she barely heard him. “Just in case anyone comes to investigate a burned-out bulb.”
Misaki nodded and pressed herself up against the wall, next to him and out of sight of the street. Her heart was thudding in her chest so hard that she would have been surprised if Li couldn’t hear it.
Several silent minutes elapsed before he said, “Masks on.”
She pulled the ski mask down over her face and found the slots for her glasses. Beside her, Li had practically disappeared into the shadows. He was a deeper darkness outlined in the window as he flipped the latch and slid it slowly upwards, barely two feet high, then slipped out. She suppressed a shiver and followed after him.
It wasn’t the most graceful exit she’d ever made. She tried to follow Li’s lead - sitting sideways on the sill, she folded up her right leg and swung it down on the other side, then bent over and squeezed her torso through. But as her left leg followed, her knee banged into the sill and she lost her balance, pitching forward for a heart-stopping moment - until Li caught her around the hips and held her steady while she extricated her leg.
“Thanks,” she breathed. He didn’t answer; as soon as she had both feet on the ground he looked up and down the street, then darted across with a hand signal to follow.
It was only a couple feet , Misaki chided herself as she jogged after him. Not a three-story drop; if this is the least dangerous thing that happens tonight you’ll be lucky .
She glanced up at the east-facing windows as they reached the shadow of the building; all were dark except for the one that was in the corridor where Li assumed the stairwell was. Just like last night - that was good.
Her partner had already reached the rear corner, his impatience clear in his posture as he waited for her. Misaki jogged on and they slipped into the narrow street behind the headquarters building.
Li slid along the wall towards the delivery entrance; Misaki would have never seen him if she hadn’t known he was there. She mimicked his movement as best she could, until they reached the door.
“I hope you’re right about the camera,” she whispered with a glance up at the tiny red light on the side of the security camera. Well, even if he’d been wrong, their earlier test had been worth it, she thought, the memory of his hands on her waist almost palpable.
He didn’t answer. Instead, he squatted down and pulled the small (black) gear bag that he wore across his back around to his chest and fished inside for a moment before retrieving what she assumed to be his lock picking kit. Misaki couldn’t see anything in the darkness; he must be doing it all by feel. Either that, or his vision was better than a cat’s.
In the time that it took her to glance up and down the street once, Li had the door unlocked. Misaki heard the faint click as he pushed it open and turned back to see a strip of light spill out into the street. They both hovered just at the edge of the light, Misaki keeping an ear out for the sound of a guard coming to investigate - and an eye on her partner’s masked face. He barely seemed aware of her presence, he was so intensely focused on the corridor beyond the door.
She wondered if he did everything as intensely - then she sucked in a deep breath. Now was really not the time to let herself get distracted.
Li made a gesture with his hand; Misaki checked that her gun was secure in its holster, then darted into the corridor. There was a door immediately to her right, but according to their guesswork of the floor plan, the stairs would be ahead, where the hall took a hard left. Stepping softly, she pushed on until she reached the corner; then she paused, Li on her heels.
She pointed to her eyes, then up at the corner. Li nodded once; he’d seen the camera too. They stood out like a sore thumb in the brightly-lit corridor; those cameras had better not be live.
From here Li took the lead. He turned the corner ahead of her; when she followed she spotted an elevator - and next to it, a stairwell. Relief tempered the anxiety in her stomach, but only briefly. It was her turn to be on point. Cautiously, she pushed open the door to the stairs and checked inside before giving Li the all clear.
They made their way up to the second floor and down the corridor to the southeast corner office in the same way, leap frogging each other at every corner and junction, one person checking ahead while the other kept an eye on their rear. Misaki didn’t see a single person or hear any sign of life on either the first or second floor; she hoped that meant that the building was indeed empty for the night.
The door to the office was closed. Misaki reached out and tried the handle - locked. Li was there a moment later, crouching down in front of the lock with his tools in hand. It was a little nerve-wracking, not being able to see his face as he worked; but she supposed she must appear the same to him.
He opened this door just as easily as he had the one on the street. With a huge, silent sigh of relief, Misaki stepped out of the bright hallway and into the dark room.
Li shut the door behind them, and Misaki’s eyes snapped to a tiny blue glow coming from the center of the office.
She reached for her gun just as a hand closed on her shoulder.
“Computer,” Li said in her ear.
The air left her lungs in one long breath as her muscles relaxed. Of course; the computer was sitting on top of the desk, and the desk was in the center of the room. The blue light was just the light from the power switch indicating that the CPU was still on.
“Right,” she said, inwardly cursing herself for being so jumpy, and rushed over to the desk. It was positioned so that anyone sitting at the computer would be facing the door, with their back to the window. Misaki dropped into the cushioned office chair and fumbled in the dark for a painfully-long ten seconds to find the button to turn on the monitor; when the screen finally flickered into life, a dialog box asking for a password popped up.
And her mind went blank.
Shit, what was the password? She struggled with her memory for a long moment, before an image of the scrap of paper finally materialized in her mind, the string of random characters written clear. She typed it out; the borrowed gloves were too large, her fingers clumsy, and it took her two tries to get it right. But then she was in.
The intel from Huang had been correct: this system was exactly the same as the one that Section Four used for their records. She started clicking through the menu; yes, this was what she was used to.
Li was edging around the room. She heard him flip the latch on the window behind her and raise up a few inches before closing it again. Was he looking for an alternative exit? They were two stories up; no way could they leave by the window.
The distinct sound of a door closing out in the hall froze her fingers on the keys. She held her breath, listening.
A black shadow appeared at her side. “How long?” Li whispered sharply.
“I - a few minutes.”
“Hurry.” Without another word he returned to the office door and cracked it open the tiniest sliver.
Misaki forced herself to ignore what he was doing and focus. Like he had reminded her more than once - her job was to get the files; his job was to watch her back. She returned to the menu, clicking through a convoluted path until - there. The database backup. Reaching under her shirt, she retrieved the flash drive from her already-sweaty bra and plugged it into the CPU’s USB port.
The click of the door shutting was as loud as gunshot in her ears - she snapped her gaze up from the screen to see an empty room. He’s just gone to investigate the noise, she told herself, her heart in her throat. No sense letting ourselves get ambushed . She entered the command to convert and export the database to her flash drive. He won’t get caught; he knows what he’s doing .
She hoped he did, anyway. He certainly acted like he was competent enough for this mission; but still, he’d only been armed with a small knife. What if there was a contractor out there? He shouldn’t have gone alone - at least Misaki had a firearm.
A progress bar popped up on the screen - it was showing a five-minute transfer time. Shit, that’s too long . Misaki had to resist the urge to drum her fingers impatiently on the desk, and settled for tapping her foot on the carpet instead. Five minutes - anything could happen. Li could get caught; someone could walk in and find her here.
You’re armed , she reminded herself. You’ll be fine .
Would she, though? Yakuza aside, she was the one who was trespassing. They may be criminals and racketeers and human traffickers, but this was their property and she didn’t have a warrant to be on it. Could she actually shoot a human being in this position?
Yes. She could. She would , to protect herself, and to protect her partner. She just prayed that she wouldn’t have to make that choice.
She checked the progress bar again - three minutes and. How -
Light flooded the room as the door swung open. Misaki jumped up from the desk, her gun halfway out of its holster - when she recognized Li, briefly silhouetted before he pushed the door quickly but gently shut again.
“Two men,” he whispered harshly. “Coming this way - is it done?”
“Shit - no,” she whispered back. “Three more minutes.”
“That’s too long - we have to leave.”
“Leave? We can’t leave - we’re so close!”
“If they find us we’re dead. Let’s go.” He grabbed her wrist, but she jerked her arm away.
“No! This might be my only chance at saving those dolls!”
Heavy footfalls in the hallway prevented Li from answering. They both froze in place; then Misaki heard a voice right outside the door say, “Do you have the key?”
Before she could do anything - before her mind had even processed the words - Li jabbed the off switch on the monitor, plunging the room into blackness save for the pulsing blue glow of the power indicator. Then he grabbed her wrist again; this time she didn’t resist and he pulled her to the floor behind the desk.
“Hang on - some idiot left it unlocked.”
Li’s grip slid from her wrist to her hand, and squeezed. She wasn’t sure if he was trying to send a specific message, or if it was merely a gesture of giving - or seeking - comfort. She could feel the even rise and fall of his chest as he breathed, they were pressed so closely together. He was handling the situation much better than her - her pulse was racing so fast her heart was having trouble keeping up.
“Who was the last one in here?” a second voice said in obvious annoyance.
Misaki stared as a strip of light spilled into the room, two shadows outlined on the wall across from her in the widening rectangle. She hardly dared to breathe. As soon as someone hit the light switch, they would be seen; the desk couldn’t hide them completely.
Slowly, she reached up with her free hand and gripped her gun. Beside her, she felt Li shifting - reaching for his knife, probably. Their hands remained clasped; it was stupid from a tactical standpoint, but she couldn’t bring herself to let go.
“Tanaka, probably,” the first man snorted. “We -”
A loud pop echoed in the hall; Misaki barely managed to stifle a gasp of surprise.
“What was that?” the first man exclaimed.
“It sounded like it came from the stairs - come on.” The silhouettes disappeared from the wall as footsteps receded in the distance.
Li jumped to his feet, pulling Misaki up with him, and yanked the flash drive out of the computer. “We’re going. Now.”
“How?” Misaki demanded. “Those men went towards the stairs, and the elevator is right there too, they’ll see us.”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he took two strides to the window and opened it.
Misaki backed up a step and bumped into the desk. “No way,” she said.
“I put a remote-detonated popcap in the stairwell - they’ll be back here as soon as they figure it out. There’s no time to argue.”
“Let yourself hang from the sill and drop. I’ll go first and catch you.” Without waiting for her response, he jumped up to crouch on the window sill and looked over his shoulder, his masked face illuminated in the light from the doorway. “Come on, Lan.” Then he disappeared from sight.
Misaki froze stock still, that all-too-familiar image burning in her brain. She was supposed to trust - him ? He had the flash drive and no reason to risk getting himself caught to help her. Maybe she would be better off risking the stairs.
Her heart pounding, she slowly approached the window and looked down. Li was waiting impatiently below; but still…
“Come on - just let go, I’ll catch you!” he called quietly with an anxious look up and down the deserted street.
You can do this , she told herself as she stared down. It’s just two floors; Li - or whoever - will catch you. He’s kept all his promises so far this weekend.
Her palms were sweating as she clambered up onto the window sill and looked down again. Oh god, she couldn’t do this. It was too high up, she’d break her neck and -
“Misaki, trust me!”
She took a deep breath and nodded, then turned around on the sill - just in time to see two men burst into the office. “Hey!” one shouted upon spotting her - but the other was already raising the gun in his hand. Misaki didn’t have time to think. She gripped the edge of the sill and kicked her feet back into open air, letting go at the same time the gun cracked.
White-hot pain ripped through her shoulder but she was already falling. For one heart-stopping moment she fell; then strong arms caught her around the waist and together they rolled to the ground with her momentum. Li was under her, and she was staring up at the office window. A head appeared in the window - the waiter from the hotel. He raised his gun again, but Li had already reached across her chest and whipped her gun out of its holster. He fired twice, and the waiter’s head jerked back; Misaki couldn’t tell if he’d been hit or not.
“Come on.” Li hauled her to her feet. Her shoulder was in agony, but she bit back her cry of pain and together they dashed down the street.
“What is this place?” Kirihara asked as Hei shut and bolted the door behind them.
“Safe house,” he said shortly. She hadn’t questioned him when he’d led them away from the hotel; she understood perfectly well why they couldn’t go back there - yet, anyway. Instead, he’d taken them a few blocks to a tiny flat above a Chinese food restaurant, the only Syndicate-owned place that he knew of in Yokohama.
He flicked on the lights - it was a single, clean but empty room with a small kitchenette in the corner, even smaller than his apartment. A futon was folded up in the corner; there were no windows.
Kirihara let go of his arm - she’d been holding on for support when they climbed the stairs, her injured arm held tightly to her stomach - and lowered herself gingerly onto it while he did a quick check of the bathroom. He found what he was looking for underneath the sink: a first aid kit. He didn’t know how bad the wound was; when he’d asked as they ran from Fujiwara’s building, she’d just gritted her teeth and said, “I’ll live.”
When he returned to her side, she was carefully peeling back a torn strip of cloth from the side of her left arm, just below her shoulder.
“Is it still bleeding?” he asked.
She nodded. Her ski mask had been lost at some point on their run to the safe house, and her hair was a sweaty mass on the top of her head. When she brushed aside a stray tendril, she left a streak of blood across her temple.
Hei settled onto the hard wood floor next to her. He removed her pistol from the small of his back, where he had shoved it once they’d started running, and set it off to the side. Then he opened the tackle box that held the Syndicate’s standard stock of medical supplies and pulled out a thick gauze pad. “Put pressure on it,” he said, handing her the pad.
“I think it’s just a graze; but it’s bleeding a lot.” Her voice was calm and even, and her gaze was fixed on the gun.
He hoped that that was the case; adrenaline had a tendency to mask even severe pain. They would know as soon as he got a look at the wound. However, when he pulled his knife from its sheath on his leg she flinched back, and he froze. “I need to cut away your shirt - unless you want to lift your arms and pull it off.”
She grimaced. “Sorry. I just - go ahead.”
Carefully, he took the torn edge of her sleeve and cut around it until he could peel the whole thing away at her shoulder, baring her arm. With the gauze pad, he soaked up the welling blood. The overhead light was bright enough that once the wound was exposed, he could see it clearly. The bullet had struck at an angle, tearing through a small area of skin on her upper arm. Small, but deep; a bandage might not be enough to close it. “Just a graze,” he told her, even though she was watching closely and could see for herself. “But it looks like it needs to be sutured.”
Her expression turned alarmed at that. “I don’t have my ID on me - and how can I explain a gunshot wound? The Director said this assignment was unofficial…”
“We should have everything here to take care of it. Here, keep the pressure on it.”
He headed to the sink to wash his hands, wondering at her sudden change in attitude from before the job. Over the course of the past two days, she’d warmed up to him considerably - but as soon as the mission had gone south it was as if her trust had completely been eroded. His fault, he was sure - his job had been to keep her safe, and he’d failed.
“What do you mean, take care of it here? You said it needs stitches.”
“Just a couple,” he said, glancing over his shoulder while he finished scrubbing his hands. “I have basic training in field medicine; I can do it.”
She gave him a hard look, one hand pressing the gauze tightly to her wound. “Have you done this before?”
“And the patient lived?” Her tone was dry, but he heard the anxiety underlying it.
Hei hesitated. Then he turned to face her and lifted the hem of his shirt to reveal a jagged scar just beneath his left ribs. “So far.”
Her expression was unreadable as she stared at the scar for a long moment. Then she nodded once. “Okay.”
He exhaled softly in relief, then returned to her side. He sat cross-legged, at a ninety degree angle to her so that he could be as close to the site of injury as possible without his knees touching her. Picking up a bottle of saline from the kit, he started irrigating the gash. She was silent as he worked, which unnerved him almost more than if she’d been crying in pain. He’d gotten used to the small talk, he realized; he missed it. Or at least, he missed listening to her talk to him.
After another minute, the bleeding slowed to a trickle as the blood began to clot. “Here,” he said, his voice sounding abnormally loud in the silence as he handed her another gauze pad. “Put pressure on it again.”
Kirihara avoided his eyes, but took the pad and did as he told her. He turned and began searching through the tackle box again, pulling out the supplies that he would need as he found them. Was she furious with him, or just disappointed? She wasn’t giving anything away; but regardless, he owed her an apology.
He opened his mouth to give it - but she beat him to it.
“I’m sorry, Li.”
Hei blinked in confusion. “For what?”
She still wasn’t looking up at him. “I should have listened to you. You said we needed to go, and I insisted that we stay. That cost us time, and almost got us caught - or killed.” Her mouth quirked up in a wry smile. “I guess you were right about guns making you stupid.”
His brow furrowed. “Was that why you wanted to stay - you thought you could protect yourself?”
“I…I don’t know. It was more that I went through all of this to accomplish something that I felt was important, and I didn’t want to throw that chance away.”
“Then maybe you made the right decision,” Hei said as he finally found what he was looking for - a tiny vial of lidocaine. When he looked up, it was to find Kirihara giving him a sharp stare through her smudged lenses.
“Do you actually mean that?” she demanded.
“Yes.” He uncapped a small syringe and filled it with the anesthetic.
Hei shrugged uncomfortably, then gestured for her to remove the pad so that he could inject the lidocaine around the wound. She must have had sutures before, because she didn’t ask what he was about to do with the syringe. “I guess…I envy your work, a little. You do it because you believe in it; I just do what I’m told, no matter what it is. My only thought tonight was getting out without getting caught, not about the dolls that needed help - but I was too concerned about you to do a proper job of controlling the corridor. We only got the data because of you. So, I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t think I’d be able to do the job?”
“I knew you could do the job,” he said quietly. He just had been so worried about her safety that he hadn’t been willing to leave her side. Which made him an idiot; but knowing that didn’t change anything.
“Then I guess we both screwed up, a little. Maybe we’ll do better next time?” Her half-smile turned into a grimace as he made the first injection; at his concerned glance, she just bit her lip and shook her head, so he continued.
Next time. There was no way they could get through another weekend like this without her realizing who he really was.
There was no way he could get through another weekend like this. When he’d heard the shot and seen her drop from the window…he’d thought that he was just dealing with a crush. Some stupid, hormonal holdover of humanity that he hadn’t felt, not seriously, since he was human. But in that moment, that brief horror at the thought that she’d been hit…every minute that he spent with her was a minute too long. As soon as they dropped the flash drive off with Huang tomorrow, he would take extra care to never run into her as Li - or Fui - again. He would miss her, but it was necessary.
He finished collecting his tools while he waited for the anesthetic to set in; the only thing that he was missing was the sterile suture pack. As he rummaged in the bottom tray, he found it at last - a plastic-wrapped packet on top of a stack of condoms. Hurriedly he grabbed the sutures and shut the tackle box; when he turned back to Kirihara, her head was turned away, a pink blush creeping up the back of her neck.
He coughed uncomfortably. “I’m going to throw the sutures now; try not to move.”
She nodded, turning back to watch him. He had to admire that; he felt queasy whenever any sort of medical work was being done on himself. When he’d had to suture his own abdomen, he’d had to pause between each stitch lest he pass out from the nausea. Though the pain might have played a part in that as well.
“So,” she said as he clamped the needle in a pair of forceps and tugged it through one side of her split skin, “when you’re not being Li or Fui, who are you, really?”
Her soft breath tickled the hairs on the back of his hand as she spoke; he kept his eyes fixed on his task. “Hei.”
“And who is Hei?”
A shiver ran down his spine when she said his name. “Not someone you want to know.”
“Don’t tell me what I do or don’t want.”
His eyes flicked up to meet her fierce gaze, and his heart lurched in his chest. “Alright,” he said evenly. “I won’t.”
Kirihara watched him silently for several long minutes while he finished the sutures. He wasn’t sure if she was waiting for an answer; he wasn’t going to give her one. It wasn’t until he’d clipped the thread and started dressing the wound that she spoke again.
“Can I ask you something?”
Hei nodded slightly in acquiescence.
“When you jumped out the window - you had the flash drive and clean exit. Why did you wait for me? It could have gotten you killed.”
His brow furrowed again. Had she actually expected him to just take off? He secured the bandage around her upper arm, then gazed into her searching brown eyes. “I don’t leave my partners behind,” he said simply.
Her hand had drifted to his knee, he realized with a pang. The tips of her fingers were just barely brushing the black fabric of his pants, but he felt it with every nerve in his body.
Abruptly he stood and stalked over to the sink to wash her blood from his hands. “There should be some acetaminophen in the medical kit,” he said over the sound of the rushing water. “You should take a couple before you go to sleep. And you can have the futon; I’ll sleep on the floor.”
“Do you want to sleep on the floor?”
He almost jumped at the voice coming from directly behind him; how had she gotten so close without him hearing? Stalling, he shut off the tap and dried his hands on a dish towel more thoroughly than necessary, then turned to her. She had her arms folded loosely, her black-clad right arm supporting her pale, injured left. A light blush brushed her cheeks, but she met his eyes without flinching.
“I…no,” he admitted at last, unable to lie to that constant gaze.
“I think…I might like some company,” she said softly, in a voice that shook only a little.
He hardly dared to breathe, lest he say the wrong thing. Reaching up with the towel, he wiped the smudge of blood from her forehead. It was mostly dry already; he cupped her cheek with his other hand to steady her head while he scrubbed away the last of it.
She pressed her cheek into his palm, closing her eyes wearily. Unable to help himself, he traced the thin line of her lower lip with his thumb, marveling at the soft contours. As her fingers trailed down his chest, down his stomach, lightly, tortuously, he dropped the towel and brought his other hand up to frame her face. Their noses were nearly touching, their lips not even an inch apart.
“This is a bad idea,” he breathed, desperately trying and failing to convince himself to take a step back, into rationality.
She opened her eyes, but they were hooded and dark. “Do you want to stop?”
“No,” he said, his voice raw, and leaned forward and took her lips in his.
Misaki awoke to the heavenly scent of frying bacon. She lay with her eyes closed for a long minute, listening to the sizzle, while her sleepy brain tried to make sense of the unusual, albeit welcome, smell and the hard floor beneath her back. A fan hummed steadily in the background.
Gradually, last night - all of last night - came back to her, and a confused panic rushed through her mind, along with the echo of a gunshot. She forced herself to take a deep, steadying breath. They were in the safe house. Nothing had changed between last night and this morning; and in a few hours, they could hand over the flash drive and the job would be over. Life would go back to normal.
As normal as possible, anyway.
Opening her eyes, she focused on the items on the floor right next to the futon: her glasses were folded neatly beside her head, next to a glass of water and a bottle of acetaminophen.
A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. Such consideration was unexpected - yet not at all surprising. Then a draft from the fan brushed across her stomach and she realized that the top sheet of the futon was tangled around her legs, leaving her sprawled form completely uncovered.
She jerked herself upright and grabbed at the sheet, only to drop it in a sudden groan of pain. Her entire body was stiff, and now that she was awake she could feel the throbbing ache of her shoulder. The bandage was still wrapped tight around the wound, with no sign of bleeding, she saw with relief.
“Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes,” Hei said. He was a vague form standing over the single-burner stove, his back to her; he didn’t turn as he spoke. “You should take the painkillers as soon as possible.”
“I will; thanks.” Misaki put on her glasses and, more slowly this time, tugged the sheet up to cover her chest. But there was no need; he was focused completely on cooking. Or rather, she saw as she cleared the sleep from her eyes, he was focused on staring at the frying pan while the bacon cooked on its own. Why didn’t he want to look at her? Last night had been - well, she’d thought it’d been good, and that he’d felt the same. Did she look that awful?
Her gaze traveled over the tense line of his shoulders beneath his wrinkled white shirt, the stiff way in which he held his upper body, and smiled in relieved understanding. He was just as much out of his comfort zone this morning as she was. That was all.
Then she frowned to herself. He was wearing a shirt and jeans, not his all-black uniform of last night - but they’d had to leave their clothing in the hotel room. Her own clothes were in her gym bag, which was…sitting at the foot of the futon. Folded neatly on top of the bag were her navy sweatpants, sports bra, and, she saw with a blush, her underwear.
She opened her mouth to ask when he’d gone back to get their bags and why he hadn’t at least woken her first - but then she shut it again. Questions could wait until after breakfast.
Instead, she popped the lid on the acetaminophen bottle and took a strong dose, washing it down with the tepid tap water. “Is there a shower in this place?” she asked.
“Yes; in the bathroom.”
Misaki levered herself up off the futon with only minor difficulty - she didn’t want to put any weight on her injured arm - and grabbed her bag. She dropped the sheet; he wasn’t looking in her direction anyway, and in any case he’d had plenty of time to observe her wretched state before she’d woken up. “Thanks. I’ll just be a minute.”
“Don’t get the dressing wet,” he said. He started to turn towards her, then froze as if remembering himself, and returned his attention to the pan.
“I won’t; don’t worry.” For a brief moment she considered asking him to join her, warm memories of the night before fresh in her mind - it might help to relieve the awkwardness. But he was obviously trying to put some distance between them. Which was smart, considering who he was. Who they both were.
Who he was. Misaki sighed to herself as she shut the door to the tiny bathroom behind her. The shower was just a handheld nozzle in the corner of the tiled room. There were puddles on the floor; Hei must have showered earlier.
She had a guess. It was a good guess, but she had zero evidence to support it, and asking too many questions could be dangerous. At least, her logical mind knew that - but her emotional mind, the mind that had watched through her eyes, seen the way he’d treated her, and listened to not just what he’d said but the way that he’d said it, had a very different opinion.
A long, hot bath was what she really needed right now - and time. Time to consider every angle. She had neither, however - just a two-minute rinse with her left arm braced awkwardly on the wall to keep her dressing out of the path of the spray, though the cool water felt good in the already-stifling heat of the morning. The only towel in the room was still a little damp; normally she disliked sharing towels with other people, but they’d been living so closely all weekend that it really didn’t feel strange to use it.
Maybe that was what had led her to act the way she had last night, she mused as she toweled off. Not that she regretted it, at all. She’d never done anything so spontaneous before - but she’d never felt so comfortable with anyone so quickly before, either. So that, combined with the adrenaline from the job and the pain and fear of getting shot…he’d been exactly what she’d needed. And his quiet, almost desperate passion had told her that she’d been what he needed, too.
It didn’t make any sense; but that didn’t shake her conviction that her theory was correct. The only question was, how to approach him about it - or should she at all?
She dressed in jeans and the comfiest of the blouses that she’d brought, leaving her wet hair to fan out down her back and air dry. The whole process had only taken a few minutes, and when she stepped back out into the living area, the beautiful smell of freshly-brewed coffee now intermingled with the bacon.
Misaki dropped her gym bag on the floor by the futon and headed straight for the coffee pot; Hei was already standing next to it and pouring out a single cup, which he handed to her. “Black?” he asked, finally meeting her eyes. His expression was unreadable, but there was a lightness to it that relaxed her even more than the promise of caffeine.
She nodded, taking it gratefully. “You are a life saver,” she said after taking a long, welcome sip.
His gaze flicked away at her words, and that tiny reaction solidified her decision.
Misaki laid a casual hand on his arm in an attempt to make things less awkward between them - she had no idea how to handle morning-after etiquette, and he clearly didn’t either. He tensed slightly at her touch before relaxing again almost immediately.
“Do you need a hand with the food?” she asked.
He shook his head. “It’s done.”
It wasn’t just bacon, she saw: he’d made a scrambled egg-and-rice dish and cut up two oranges as well. It was far more than Misaki was used to eating for breakfast - if she ate at all - and certainly beyond her own ability to prepare.
“You made all this from scratch?” she asked as they settled on the futon to eat, comfortably close without actually touching. She hadn’t felt hungry until she took her first bite of bacon; after that it was all she could do to not inhale it. She brushed her curtain of hair over her shoulder to keep it out of her way while she ate.
Hei shrugged lightly. “It’s less than I usually make for breakfast; there was only one store open when I ran out to get the food.”
“I don’t usually have anything besides coffee,” Misaki said, draining the last of her cup already. “I might have to change that, though - this is a perfect way to wake up. Do you cook for yourself every day? That must be a lot of work.”
“It’s cheaper than eating out; but I like cooking anyway.” He picked up his glass - water, Misaki noticed. He really didn’t like coffee, then.
“Hm,” she said. “Did you enjoy it before you became a contractor? I’ve heard that people’s likes and dislikes can shift a lot after their change.”
He didn’t seem to hear her comment over his choking cough. She reached up and patted him on the back until he’d swallowed the water and could breathe again.
“…when?” he managed at last, eyes wide. He’d tensed again, but Misaki wasn’t worried; he was more like a rabbit preparing to bolt than anything else. She really hadn’t known what reaction to expect - denial, anger, or protestations would be logical. This honest acknowledgment, though, was completely in keeping with the man that she’d come to know over the course of the job.
She shrugged. “Things finally clicked right before we ran from Fujiwara’s. You, on the window sill…it was the same way you left Qing Long Tang’s hotel that night.”
“So…” he began, still looking wary and flustered. “You asked me why I didn’t run - why didn’t you ?”
“To be honest,” Misaki said, “if I’d known what you are two days ago, I would have never agreed to the mission, no matter what my superior told me. But now, after working with you…I don’t think that Li and Fui are really that different. And neither is Hei. You can change your name all you want, but you’re still the same person underneath it all. And that person had my back last night. Just like you promised.”
Hei didn’t answer; instead, he stared down at his own plate, as if the scrambled eggs held some sort of answer to whatever question was running through his mind. “Then you knew. Last night? Before we…”
When she nodded, the relief that crossed his face warmed her heart.
“Why?” He still seemed genuinely confused by her acceptance of the truth. For her part, she wasn’t entirely sure that even she understood.
“I told you,” she said softly, staring into her empty coffee mug. “I wanted your company.”
“Oh. I’m glad. I mean, I wanted your company, too.”
Misaki smiled, fighting the blush that was creeping into her cheeks. “You still haven’t answered my question. About cooking,” she added at his blank look.
“Oh. Yeah. I’ve always liked it.” The tension in his shoulders eased, and he picked up a strip of bacon.
“Can you fry bacon using your power?”
She probably should have waited until after he’d finished chewing to ask that.
The train ride back home was uneventful. Misaki estimated that she’d only gotten about four hours of sleep the night before, and so didn’t fight it when her eyelids started to droop before the train had even left the station. It wasn’t until the hissing of the brakes announced that they were arriving in Shinjuku that she opened her eyes again - and realized that she’d fallen asleep with her head resting on Hei’s shoulder.
Before she could apologize, she noticed a comfortable weight on the crown of her head, and soft, even breath tickling her ear. His hand was on her thigh; her hand was on top of his. She squeezed his palm, and he woke with a start, sitting up abruptly. The motion pulled them apart; Misaki tried not to feel disappointed at the loss of his warmth. “We’re here,” she said softly.
He nodded once in acknowledgment, blinking the sleep from his eyes.
They headed straight for the rendezvous in the park. Misaki’s car was parked at the station, so she offered to drive them both. Neither spoke on the short trip. The awareness of his presence in the seat next to her filled her conscious mind, and she had to resist the urge to reach out and take his hand every time she finished shifting gears - there was no need for role playing any longer. They were themselves again.
The park was empty in the oppressive heat of the noonday sun. Misaki and Hei took their seats on the appointed bench, Hei slouching casually as if passing on data stolen from a powerful yakuza family was something he did every day. Which come to think of it…it probably was.
They had only been waiting for a couple of minutes before a creaking of the seat behind them signaled the arrival of Huang. “Any problems?” the man asked gruffly.
Hei was the one who answered. “No.”
“I heard one of Fujiwara’s men was shot last night. Shattered a bone in his face.”
Misaki winced. She may not have pulled the trigger, but that had been her fault, no matter what Hei had told her.
“Our window of opportunity was shorter than we anticipated,” Hei replied blandly.
“Were your faces seen?”
“He’s still alive, isn’t he?”
Interesting, Misaki thought. Hei had taken an un-aimed shot at a dark silhouette in a dark window; he would have been lucky to have hit the man even if he’d wanted to, no matter how good of a marksman he was. But verbal smoke and mirrors from a man who wore a mask for a living wasn’t too surprising.
Huang merely grunted. “You have the goods?”
That was Misaki’s cue. She pulled the flash drive from her jeans pocket and poked it through the slats behind her. It clunked loudly onto the other bench.
There was another grunt as Huang retrieved it in evident approval. “The police will get what was promised once we’ve extracted what we need. Any questions?”
It sounded as if he expected Misaki to argue, as she had when they’d received their instructions. However, she remained silent.
“Good,” Huang said after a long pause. “Job’s over. Go home.”
The bench creaked again; Misaki listened to his footsteps shuffling in the grass as he walked away. She and Hei sat in silence for far longer than it would have taken Huang to leave the park. Eventually Hei said, “What happens next?”
Misaki shrugged, feeling tired. “You heard him. We go home.”
“I mean…what are you going to do?”
She didn’t need to ask about what. “What can I do. I have a hunch that you might be connected to a person of interest in several of my cases. I have no evidence to support such a connection, and no evidence that explicitly ties this person to any crimes.” She hesitated. “If I told my superior about my hunch - what would happen?”
“I’d leave the city. My identity - Li’s, I mean - would be scrubbed.”
She sighed. “I can’t investigate someone who isn’t here. And if you leave…I wouldn’t bump into you anymore. I’d miss that.”
“I’d miss it too.”
A well of conflicting feelings rose up in her chest. Hei’s hand was resting on the seat of the bench, right next to hers. Misaki shifted her own over an inch and hooked her pinky finger around his. “It wouldn’t be strange if we ran into each other tonight, would it? Around dinner time?”
“There’s a ramen place I go to sometimes. Home Run House.”
“I know that place. They have good noodle bowls.”
“Yeah. I think maybe I’ll go there tonight.”
She smiled. “Can I give you a lift home?”
He squeezed her hand, then let go. “I need to walk for a while. Thanks for the offer, Lan.”
“I’m not Lan anymore,” she pointed out.
“No; you were always Misaki.”
“That’s probably true.” She rose from the bench, shouldering her bag. “Well, see you around, Fui.”
His small smile burned warmly in her mind as she left the park.
Chapter 12: Bonus
Bonus chapter! The missing scene between chapters 10 and 11; rated MA for explicit content...
His lips were every bit as soft and warm as she had imagined during their long stakeout the night before; the light stubble on his jaw tickled her cheek pleasantly. Misaki slid her uninjured arm around his back, reaching up to grip the fabric of his shirt while her other hand rested lightly on his hip. It felt good to rest in someone else’s arms like this, to let him hold her as the fear and exhaustion of their escape finally caught up with her. Feeling her relax, he pulled her even closer. A shiver of desire ran down her spine, along with beads of sweat from the warmth of the room and the heat from his body.
“Mm,” she murmured softly as he trailed kisses along her jaw and towards her ear. “Hei…can I call you that?” If they were going to do this - and she desperately wanted to do this - she wanted it to be with him . Not Li; not Fui.
He inhaled sharply, then nodded once before nipping at her earlobe. “It’s strange; hearing that name from you. But…I think I like it.”
That made her smile even more than the delicate trail of his tongue along the shell of her ear. She let go of the back of his shirt and gripped the hem instead, pulling it up as high as she could manage with just one hand; the anesthetic was still dulling the pain in her wounded arm, but she didn’t want to risk tearing her new sutures by raising it too high. Hei - somehow, that name seemed to fit him more than the other two - let go of her waist long enough to help her, and pulled it over his head himself to reveal his sweat-slicked torso.
Misaki ran her hand down the hard planes of his chest to rest on the long scar just below his lowest rib, aware that he was watching her face as she did so. “What happened?” she whispered.
The scar shifted beneath her fingers as he breathed in. “I got caught off guard; it was a knife.”
“You had to take care of it yourself?”
“I was alone; I didn’t have a choice.” He said it matter-of-factly, but there was an echo of fear and pain in his voice.
Misaki gazed into his dark eyes. “I’m glad I wasn’t alone tonight.”
“I am too.”
Before she could do more than register the sweet rawness of his words, his mouth had closed around hers again and he was kissing her with a desperateness that she met with equal passion. His hands moved to her hips, and for a brief moment she worried that he was going to strip off her sweatpants - even with her pent-up desire it was way too soon for her to be ready for that. But instead he gripped her rear, and without warning scooped her up and set her on the counter behind them. There wasn’t much space in the little kitchenette - she was squeezed between the small fridge and single-burner stove - but it meant that she could wrap her legs around his waist. The new position pressed the hardening bulge of his cock between her thighs, and her breath hitched.
“Are you okay?” Hei asked, concern flooding his expression.
“I’m fine. It’s just…been a long time since I’ve slept with anyone,” Misaki admitted. “I guess I’m a little nervous.”
He pressed his forehead against hers; the movement knocked her glasses slightly askew, so he lifted them gently from her temples and set them on the stove beside her. “It’s been a while for me too,” he said softly. “Not since…I was a different person, the last time. We can take it slow, if - if you still want this.”
She wondered if he meant that he’d been using another alias, or if it was a bigger change that he was referencing. That didn’t matter either way to her, right now. “I do want this,” she told him, relieved, and pressed a kiss to the heated skin of his shoulder. The way his back muscles tensed beneath her hands at the touch of her tongue stoked her desire, and she turned her kiss into a gentle bite.
He inhaled deeply at that, his nose buried in the mass of hair piled on top of her head, and brought his hands up to the shoulder harness that she was still wearing. Deftly he undid the buckles and let the harness and empty holster drop onto the stove with her glasses. Then he slipped his fingers to the hem of her form-fitting shirt. He’d raised it as high as her ribs before he paused and leaned back, a slight frown on his face.
Misaki looked up at him in confusion; when he trailed his fingers lightly along the edge of her new dressing, she understood. “Just cut the rest,” she breathed, flushed and impatient despite her nerves. “It’s not like I can keep it now anyway.”
His eyes never leaving hers, he reached down and pulled the small knife from the sheath on his thigh. “Don’t move,” he warned.
Carefully, more delicately than she would have thought possible with a dagger, he cut along the shoulder seam from her missing sleeve to her collar. Her heart pounded as he sliced the seam just beneath her pulse, but she never felt so much as even the breath of the blade on her skin. The freed bit of cloth folded down to reveal her shoulder and bra strap; but the side seam was still intact.
He took her elbow then, gentle fingers barely gripping, and raised her arm slightly so as not to disturb her stitches; she held it in that position while he hooked the edge of the knife at the hem just beneath her armpit and in one long, smooth stroke, parted the cloth all the way to the bottom. Misaki’s breath hissed out in time with the blade as she felt the draft on her bare skin.
Hei replaced the dagger in its sheath, then took the freed sides of her shirt and peeled them back across her torso and down her other arm. Dropping the shirt unceremoniously on the floor, he gazed at her for a long moment, his eyes dark with desire.
“No one’s ever undressed me quite like that before,” Misaki whispered, her nerves tingling with anticipation. “The bra has hooks though,” she added hurriedly. “You don’t have to cut it.” It was one of her nicer sports bras; she didn’t want to ruin it if she didn’t have to.
The corner of his mouth quirked up in a small smile. “There’s not much room for a flash drive there.”
Misaki normally didn’t get much out of showing herself off for her partners, but with the hungry look in his eyes, she couldn’t help trailing her hand down her throat to rest at the top of her modest cleavage. “It was here,” she said, sliding two fingers into the left cup. An inadvertent gasp escaped her lips when her fingertips touched her sensitized nipple, which was already pointed and hard. Hei flexed his hips towards her slightly at the sound, and she tightened her thighs around him. “Where is it now?” she tried not to pant.
He took her hand - her left, the one that wasn’t massaging her own breast in needy desperation - and guided it to just below his right hip crease. Her fingers brushed the cold metal of a zippered pocket. After slowly undoing the zipper, tooth by tooth, she slipped her hand inside. The pocket was wide enough for her to flatten her palm and stroke all five fingers down the outside of his thigh, feeling his firm muscle through the thin fabric until she brushed against the familiar shape of the flash drive.
She left the drive where it was; eyes still on his, she shifted her hand inward, towards his groin. She didn’t have to go very far before she reached the hard ridge of his cock. It was lying towards his other leg, but the root was still within her grasp, and the first brush of her fingers was rewarded with a twitch towards her hand and sharp intake of breath.
Hei wasted no time in reaching behind her to undo the clasp of her bra and slide the straps down her arms. Misaki pulled out of it, a bead of perspiration running down between her breasts. Hei caught the droplet on his fingertip, and brought it almost reverentially to his lips.
A small groan escaped Misaki’s own lips, and she returned her hand to his groin, this time slipping in behind the waistbands of both his pants and what she guessed must be boxer-briefs. As she began stroking and squeezing along his length, he bent his head to her nipple, teasing her lightly. Misaki arched her spine and leaned back against the wall. Her free hand tangled in his hair and held him against her breast.
He moaned low in his throat as she stroked him, the sound vibrating on her skin. Misaki tugged his pants and boxers down just far enough to pull his erection free. Pre-cum leaked into her hand as she rolled his foreskin up and back, adding a little twist with her thumbs on each stroke of his shaft.
Hei released her nipple with a small gasp. “I’m not going to last much longer if you keep that up,” he said hoarsely. “I’ve wanted you too long for this to end so soon.”
Misaki froze, momentarily speechless at the admission; she could almost forget her desperation to have his mouth on her breast again. “You have?”
He looked a bit embarrassed; she got the impression that he hadn’t meant to say that aloud. “Since the night we met,” he admitted.
“Oh,” she said, blushing a little. That night; she hadn’t spared much thought for him, then. Too much else had been going on for her to really pay attention to the kind, naive young waiter who had helped her out; and the subsequent run-in with the Black Reaper had overshadowed that brief conversation in the bathroom stall. She had been such a distracted mess at the time, so… “Why?” she asked before she could stop herself.
He hesitated, then said, “Your life was on the line, but you still went out of your way to help a complete stranger. I hadn’t met anyone like you before.”
Misaki relinquished her grip on him to trace the scar under his ribs again, following the jagged line with a single fingernail as his abs tensed. “I’m beginning to realize that you probably didn’t need my help at all.” Especially not if he really was who she thought he was.
“No. But you saved me anyway.”
“Like you,” she said quietly. “You didn’t need to save me tonight. But you did anyway.”
He ran his hand down her left side, tracing some invisible line with both his fingers and his eyes. Misaki glanced down, and saw with a start a splotch of dried blood on the side of her breast that had trailed down to her hip, all the way to the waistband of her sweats. “It must have soaked through the shirt,” she said dumbly.
“We should clean it up,” Hei murmured, and the subtle promise in his tone sent a flood of desire straight to her already-sopping pussy. He took a step back from the counter, catching her ass to help keep her from falling to the floor. A gentle squeeze of her cheeks indicated that he wanted her to stand on her own; reluctantly she unhooked her feet from behind his waist and lowered them to the bare wood.
“Can you lay out the futon?” he asked with a somber glance at her bandage.
She had no idea he had in mind - besides the obvious, which didn’t seem to have anything to do with cleaning up dried blood. “I’m sure I can manage.”
Despite his instructions, though, his hands lingered on her waist for another long moment, as if he was afraid to break their skin-to-skin contact. The pure desire in his eyes had surprised her the first time she’d glimpsed it, in the hotel room; and it still did now. Her hair was a sweaty mass on top of her head, blood stained her skin, and her breasts never looked good without a bra to support them - but he was gazing at her as if he wanted to devour every single inch of her body.
She shuddered, suddenly more than ready to have him; then with a quiet exhale he tore his gaze away and turned, letting his hands drop.
Misaki walked unsteadily to the corner of the room where the bedding was folded next to a small floor fan. As she stretched out the futon one-handed, she kept an eye on Hei. He was rummaging around in the medical kit; she saw him withdraw what she hoped was a condom. Another shiver ran down her spine, and her pussy clenched in hungry anticipation.
Then he turned towards the refrigerator, opening the freezer. She couldn’t see what he was doing, but heard the rattle of ice cubes. Ice water - that was a good idea. It was unbearably hot in the little room, and she was still in her sweatpants. Feeling bold, she undid the drawstring and let the pants drop to the floor before kicking them to the side.
Misaki left the top sheet folded neatly at the bottom of the futon, and switched on the fan. It didn’t do much beyond stir the warm air, but it was better than nothing.
She was kneeling in the center of the futon, distractedly flattening out a few little creases when Hei returned to her side. Black really did suit him, she thought as her gaze roamed up his slim-fitting pants and took in his lean and well-toned torso. He wasn’t much taller than her, but from this position he seemed to tower. Misaki was used to arguing with her partners over who would take the lead in the bedroom, but something about his stance spoke directly to her hindbrain, and she instinctively relaxed back on one arm, waiting for him to make the first move.
“I know I said all black,” Hei said, crouching down smoothly to place a glass of ice and two condom packets on the floor, “but I didn’t mean every thing.”
Misaki felt her cheeks heat. She ran a finger along the lace edge of her panties, the only black pair that she owned. “It seemed appropriate.”
He stood again, his dark eyes fixed on hers, and unbuckled the knife on his thigh. Knife and sheath dropped to the floor with a clatter. Misaki lay back against the futon, feet flat on the mattress. One hand tucked under her head while the other kept playing with the lace on her underwear, as he stalked slowly to the foot of the futon until he was standing directly in front of her. Her heart was pounding, her blood singing with desire.
When he undid the ties on his pants and stepped out of them, the prominent bulge in his shorts made her instinctively draw her knees up a little higher, open them a little wider. She ached to have him in her hands again, or better, between her lips.
But before she could sit up to do just that, Hei sank down to the futon between her legs and positioned himself over her. Her heart skipped a beat as he took her wrist and pressed it down beside her hip in a clear signal that she should leave it there. She yearned to tangle her fingers in his hair, to grip the firm skin of his back - and she could, she knew - but he didn’t want her to, and there was something deliciously exciting about following his tacit orders.
His chest brushed lightly against the hardened peaks of her breasts as he reached beside them. Misaki, unable to tear her gaze away from his, heard the soft tinkle of ice in the glass before he shifted back, an ice cube between his fingers. He pressed it gently to her mouth; her lips parted, and he traced the line of her lower lip. She shivered, but not from the cold.
Hei slowly trailed the ice down her chin and under her jaw to press it against her carotid artery. Misaki gasped at the almost-painful sensation; water trickled down her heated skin to drip on the futon. He continued dragging the ice, along the edge of her clavicle, between her collar bones, then down to the tip of her left breast, where he circled her hardened nipple.
The sensation was maddening, the close proximity of his mouth even more so. Misaki reached up to tug his head down - and Hei immediately removed the ice from her breast. A whimper escaped her mouth, but he merely watched her impassively until she replaced her hand at her side in frustration. Only then did he press the half-melted cube to her skin again.
She gasped at the renewed contact and her fingers gripped the mattress compulsively as he spiraled the ice down to the base of her breast, then back up to the pebbled tip, which he circled until there was only a nub of ice left between his fingers. He dropped it to the floor, and as he reached into the glass for a new piece, bent his head to her breast and sucked her nipple between his teeth.
Misaki moaned at the contrast of her chilled skin and the hot wetness of his mouth. She kept her hands where they were, but she was unable to stop her hips from bucking up into his and trapping his erection against her stomach. He flinched away from her with a groan and a shudder, releasing her nipple.
“Too soon,” he said, breathing heavily.
“It’s not,” she protested. She was already at the edge, and neither of them had even removed their underthings yet.
The hesitant, almost shy smile that touched his lips sent a wave of longing through her, and her hips twitched again. Hei sucked in his breath at her movement; then he sat up on his knees and carefully repositioned himself, pushing her legs closed so that he was straddling her. Misaki squeezed her thighs together with a whimper; there just wasn’t enough friction for her to find her own release this way.
He was watching her face with a loving fascination. Taking a new piece of ice, he gently rubbed it against the splotch of dried blood on the side of her breast until red rivulets were running down her skin. He followed the trail of the blood down her waist, making her squirm. Watery red stains seeped into the white futon; but as Hei didn’t seem to care, Misaki didn’t either.
The blood track ended at the top of her hip bone; presumably her sweatpants had soaked up any droplets that had made it that far. Hei, however, continued running the ice cube along the waistband of her panties. Her abs contracted, sucking in as if to escape the cold. Hei swirled the cube around her navel, where the ice melt mingled with her perspiration to bead and pool. He lowered his head, sucking it from her skin. Misaki bit her lip to keep from crying out, her grip on the futon so strong that she was surprised she hadn’t ripped the fabric yet.
With a sudden groan Hei sat up. He hooked his thumbs into her panties and pulled them down. Misaki hurriedly brought her knees up, almost hitting him in the jaw in her haste, so that he could slide the lacy garment off her ankles.
“You too,” she managed to gasp. Pushing herself upright - and ignoring the distant pain in her injured arm - she gripped the top of his boxer-briefs and peeled them off his hips. His erection curled tightly against his stomach; Misaki’s lips had just barely brushed against the weeping tip before he was pushing her back down to the futon with trembling hands.
She watched those hands run down her body to grip her hips, hands that could easily kill her in an instant. Logically, she knew she should be afraid; but how could she fear such a gentle, loving touch?
Hei slid down her body, hooking her legs over his shoulders. Misaki felt a sudden twinge of embarrassment - she hadn’t shaved in over twenty-fours hours, and between the heat of the night and the adrenaline of the job she’d probably sweated out half her bodyweight. But before she could protest the position, Hei had taken another ice cube and stroked it between her labia to the hard bud of her clit.
Misaki writhed on the futon, biting her lip so hard that she could taste blood. Hei laid a forearm across her hips, pinning them, and that feeling of helplessness just ratcheted her ecstasy higher. He plunged his tongue into her cunt, stroking in and out while he continued to circle the ice around her sensitized flesh. Misaki squeezed her thighs around his head and fisted her hands in his hair at the seemingly unending stimulation, until the wave broke over her at last.
“Oh god,” she panted as she started to wind down, back to reality. “Oh god…Hei…”
His fingers dug painfully into her hips and with the tip of his tongue he flicked her clitoris relentlessly. Her second orgasm, so close on the heels of her first, caught her completely off guard and she cried aloud, dimly hoping that there were no neighbors to hear.
Misaki collapsed into the futon, muscles slack and exhausted. Hei hovered over her, his lips slick with her juices, or sweat, or both; his expression worried. How he could be so concerned when he’d just given her the most mind-blowing release she’d ever had was beyond her.
Her fingers brushed the glass of ice, dripping with condensation, beside the mattress. She wished that she had the energy to do for him what he’d just done for her, but she was completely spent. And judging from the heaviness of his breathing, he was already close to the edge himself. Instead, she closed her hand around one of the condoms and wordlessly opened it.
Hei held unnaturally still while she rolled the condom down his length, his cock twitching with each touch of her fingers. When it was on, she leaned back, propping herself on her elbows and drawing her knees apart in open invitation. Hei positioned himself at her entrance, and slowly pressed the tip in.
Despite how wet she was, despite how much she wanted him, it had been a long time - over a year - since she last had sex with anyone, and she was tight. She forced herself to breathe evenly and relax as he sank further into her, spreading her impossibly. With a groan he pressed forward until he was completely inside her; Misaki whimpered at the fullness, and his breath hitched. She whimpered again at the emptiness when he drew back and curled one arm around his neck. Her other, injured arm was starting to feel sore, so she gripped his hip instead.
Hei pressed his face into her neck as he thrust forward again, still slowly. Getting used to the feeling, Misaki started to move her hips in time with his, and he gradually picked up speed until he was setting an almost desperate pace.
He pushed her down to the futon, and her heart pounded at the sight of him above her as he continued to drive into her. A droplet of perspiration dripped from a lock of his hair to bead on her breast before rolling off. Her gaze locked onto his, Misaki stroked down his hard abs, reveling in the expression of pleasure that crossed his face.
“Misaki…” he gasped out, barely coherent. She trailed her hand further until she reached his cock pumping in and out of her, and was rewarded with a moan as her fingers brushed against it.
His mouth closed around hers; his hips stilled abruptly, then jerked as he came. With ragged breath, he kissed her jaw before easing himself out.
Misaki couldn’t stop the sigh that escaped her lungs at the loss. She’d come unexpectedly close to another edge; seemingly of its own accord, her hand slipped down her stomach to her cunt, and she gasped when her fingers encountered her swollen bud.
“Still not done?” Hei whispered hoarsely, and suddenly his hand was between her legs, two fingers sliding in and out of her wet channel while his thumb swirled around her clit.
Misaki pressed her face into the futon, trying desperately to stifle her moans as he sucked at her neck and continued to stroke her pussy.
“Alright?” he asked, worry slipping into his voice.
“I’m fine,” she managed. “I’m trying to stay quiet.”
“Don’t,” he murmured into her ear before nipping at her earlobe. “I want to hear you scream.”
With a swipe of his thumb, a full-body shudder overtook her, and she screamed.
When she opened her eyes at last, she was lying in Hei’s arms, her skin pebbled with goosebumps where the fan blew over her beads of perspiration. Hei kissed her cheek gently, and she tucked her head against his neck with a relaxed sigh.
The knowledge that whatever false name he used, whatever lie he told her, that this, this was him , filled her with warmth that she couldn’t even begin to describe.