When she arrived at the office she found as always Shuichi already sitting at his desk, but this time he wasn’t alone: next to him there was Yuriy, with whom he was talking while looking at papers and photographs probably related to the case of the Russian mafia. She paused at the door for a moment, taking her time before entering. She had to psychologically prepare herself to play the part of the simple colleague, as she did every day, but it was becoming more and more difficult as her relationship with Shuichi progressed. She thought back to the night before, when they'd returned home from the park: they'd had dinner with something light and fresh, then they sat on the sofa talking and allowed themselves another glass of Scotch left over from their first date. Needless to say, at the end of it all they had resumed what had been interrupted at the park. The impression of still feeling Shuichi's hands lift her top and caress her bare back, the skin igniting in contact with his fingers. She too had dared to slip a hand under his shirt and stroke his abs right above the waistband of his pants, never crossing that line. They could have followed their instincts and let nature take its course, but in the end they had stopped before the boundary that for the moment they had forced themselves not to cross. Despite this, they could not cancel those passionate kisses and those deep caresses and now she wondered how she could pretend that Shuichi was just a colleague.
- You can come in, we don’t bite-
Yuriy's voice brought her back to reality. She noticed that Shuichi was staring at her smiling and she reciprocated, being careful not to do it in a way that could arouse suspicion in the colleague present in that room with them.
- Good morning everyone- she greeted, entering and taking a seat at her desk - I didn't know you were a morning person like Shu, Yuriy-
- Actually, I don't arrive so early every morning, let's say that I like to alternate morning days and days when I allow myself a little more sleep-
She also took a seat at her desk and glanced quickly at Shuichi, who looked at her in turn, smiling at her again. He too was probably thinking back to yesterday and to those kisses and caresses hot like the sun in August. She felt the same warmth expanding on her cheeks and realized she was blushing: she quickly turned away before Yuriy could notice her and ask her questions.
- Good morning- Camel who came in greeting saved her.
She widened her eyes at the sound of his voice, realizing that it was certainly not Yuriy the one whom she had to worry about: Camel had seen them in the park and she didn’t know what impression he had of the situation. She prayed with all her heart that he wouldn’t bring up the subject, she wouldn’t know how to deal with it exactly as she hadn’t known how to do it the day before.
- Any news about the case? -
She gave a sigh of relief at that question, maybe she could trust in the fact that Camel had forgotten about that meeting or rather that he hadn’t given it too much importance. Who knows if Jonathan, who she feared more than Camel himself, had also removed what he had seen.
- Yes, I managed to get some more information- Yuriy spoke - I just talked about it with Akai, we were waiting for you to arrive too to update us all together and decide how to proceed-
They all gathered close together, to be able to observe photos and documents at the same time without turning them around. For some strange twist of fate, Yuriy, who until that moment had remained between her and Shuichi as a kind of human divider, moved to the opposite side, remaining at the side of her companion anyway. Camel instead positioned himself behind her, giving her the feeling of having a stone giant behind. Perfect, now she was next to Shuichi, with Camel on one side and Yuriy on the other, like two vultures ready to devour the remains of carcasses. This bizarre arrangement made her even more anxious than she already was.
- Our businessman who was murdered was called Russell Harrington, owner of the Harrington Wineries Inc. His company has wineries all over the world, the most important of which are in France and Italy where the best wines are produced. It didn't take him long to make a name for himself on the Upper East Side, between worldly parties and business dinners, the consumption of fine wines is the norm: this has also allowed him to open refined wine bars where you can taste his productions at modest amounts that can make your head spin. A perfect life: money, success, a beautiful wife. However, our friend had a small flaw according to the results of the autopsy carried out on his body-
- What do you mean?- asked Camel, who seemed quite attentive and interested.
- Drugs. In the inside pocket of the jacket he wore when he was murdered, they found a sachet with a white substance inside which turned out to be cocaine; in addition, traces of the same substance were also found in hair, blood and urine-
- This means that he had taken it just before he died- Camel reflected aloud.
- It’s not said - she corrected him - Depending on the consumption of the substance, cocaine can be detected in the urine up to four days after taking it. If we want to be precise, what is detected is not the cocaine itself but its by-product, norcocaine: most of it is excreted in the urine, but in regular users inactive metabolites remain in circulation and are detectable even at a distance of some weeks. As for the blood, the traces remain visible up to five days after taking it, but it is necessary to perform specific tests to detect traces of cocaine, as it’s not possible to find them with simple routine blood tests. Finally we have hair, where the traces can remain for months and therefore there are more possibilities to identify them - she concluded.
They all stared at her in amazement, as if she had just revealed a puzzling secret. They probably didn’t expect such preparation in a field like drugs or perhaps they underestimated her abilities. She felt proud of having left them speechless: she didn’t have to feel inferior to them, she too had prepared herself over the years and knew how to do her job well.
- Wow Jodie, I see that you’re informed- Yuriy complimented - Do you have a past as a drug trafficker or do you use drugs?- he teased her immediately after.
- Both things - she replied wrinkling her nose, a little resentful of not having been taken seriously.
- Harrington was killed outside one of his wine bars: this suggests that the killer was someone who knew him and frequented his bars - Shuichi brought them back to serious speeches.
- But if those of the Russian mafia killed him, how could they go to such mundane clubs for rich and apparently decent people? They would certainly have attracted attention and the customers wouldn’t have been enthusiastic about it - she reflected.
- Ever heard of back doors? - Yuriy joked - He certainly made them enter the room through a back door, so that they couldn’t be seen, and just as surely he didn’t let them enter the main room of the bar-
- You mean there are rooms that are hidden from customers? -
- Well, if I wanted to close shady deals in a safe place I own I would make sure to absolutely build a private room not accessible to the public-
- Do you think the drug Harrington bought and the Russian mafia have a correlation between them?- Camel asked.
- It is very likely, the Russian mafia deals with several things and drug dealing is the most common trafficking. As I said it’s still a small clan even if they had already made a name for themselves, so it is plausible that as emerging they started from drug trafficking. If they continue like this it won't take them long to move on to something else- Yuriy replied.
- We can sit here and hypothesize anything, but I think the only way to find out the truth is to go to that bar and ask a few questions to those who work there- Shuichi concluded.
- There are a lot of articles on the Internet celebrating his achievements, I didn't think he was that famous- she observed, while searching on her computer for some information on the victim - Here it says he has a brother, Daniel Harrington, and he’s in business with him-
- Do you think he has something to do with his death? - ventured Camel.
- It is a hypothesis not to be excluded - Shuichi replied - We will also talk to him-
After that conversation, they left the office headed for the wine bar. By a strange twist of fate, along the corridor they met Tara and Jonathan who were chatting intensely among themselves. As they passed them she noticed the glances they threw first at her and then at Shuichi, which didn’t bode anything good. She swallowed hard, feigning indifference as much as possible but looking for her partner with her eyes. Shuichi looked straight ahead, proud as a lion, as if he hadn't noticed anything. He was certainly better at masking emotions than she was, or maybe it was just suggestion that made her perceive those looks as something negative. Of one thing she could be sure though: Tara was resentful of the way Shuichi had treated her and Jonathan must have guessed something the day before by finding them together and alone in a corner of a park. Those two together could bring about their greatest threat.
Absorbed in those thoughts, she didn't even notice that they had already arrived at the parking lot. They agreed that there was no need to go to the wine bar all together, two were enough for the moment; the other two would have gone to Russel's brother instead. Shuichi made sure to stay with her and take care of the bar, hiring Yuriy to go with Camel to Daniel Harrington.
Once they were alone, driving to the wine bar, she felt the need to express her concern to him too. She needed to be told that everything would be okay.
- Listen Shu - she suddenly broke the silence - Before in the corridor there were Tara and Jonathan and... -
- I know, I've seen - he said simply, without taking his eyes off the road.
- What do we do now? Tara was just waiting for an opportunity to make you pay for what you’ve done to her-
- I don't think there is anything we can do, they will certainly spread rumors. We have to figure out which ones and then somehow deny them-
- But how do we justify the fact that we were together in a public park on a Sunday afternoon? -
she shook her head, putting a hand to her forehead.
- We each went on their own terms and then we met casually there. While we were walking, you felt unwell from the heat and so we stopped in a cool and not crowded place. You gotta learn to lie Jodie, sometimes you have to-
- I remind you that I told a lot of lies when we were undercover in Japan-
- The problem is not finding an excuse to tell, the problem is how you tell it and you don't seem credible when you lie. You have to be more confident when you say something, otherwise if you don't believe it yourself, how can you expect others to believe it? -
- Thanks for the tips, Professor "I love to deceive my friends" - she ironized, annoyed by his attitude too pedantic - You, on the other hand, remember not to make your colleagues look bad, otherwise they will seek revenge- she made a veiled allusion to Tara.
- You're worrying too much Jodie- he smiled - Don't worry, we'll find a solution-
She sighed, aware that for Shuichi things were always simpler than they seemed and that his ability to find instant solutions was much greater than hers. She had to trust him and help him play the game, whatever he came up with.
They had no way of continuing that conversation: by now they had arrived at Harrington wine bar. They parked the car and headed inside the bar.
By the time they returned to the FBI headquarters, lunch time had just passed. They had eaten out but without reuniting with Camel and Yuriy, so that they could be alone for a while away from prying eyes and exchange a few caresses and kisses. That lunch together had lifted her mood, but sadly their colleagues helped ruin it again. This time it wasn’t just Tara and Jonathan's eyes that were on them, but also those of their other colleagues. In a single morning, the red-haired viper had managed to spread gossip faster than light. Those looks weighed on her as if they were the spotlights on a stage where she had been forced to go up with Shuichi: they had become the actors of a play that neither of them wanted to play.
She tried to ignore the whispers, the looks and the silly smiles, but the annoyance grew inside her. At her side Shuichi didn’t break down one iota, always stoic and perfect. He didn't seem in the least upset, it was as if he didn't care about being the object of their colleagues' attention.
As soon as they entered the office, her partner closed the door behind them and she was finally able to let herself go, since Camel and Yuriy hadn’t yet returned.
- That little bastard!- she said through gritted teeth, throwing her jacket on the chair in a bad way.
Shuichi looked at her in surprise, probably because he wasn't used to hearing her use such big words or heavily offending a colleague. Usually her language and manner were elegant and polite, but she was too angry to bother looking like a nice little princess.
- Do you realize what she has done?!- she spread her arms, turning to him - Not to mention that idiot Jonathan, worse than the town gossip! I wish I had a big needle to deflate those useless wrestling muscles he has! Maybe I could tip a pencil and try that ... -
- Calm down- he replied, approaching her - If you get angry like this, you just play their game-
- And what should I do in your opinion?! Shake their hand and tell them "how good you have been to spread yet another gossip about my love life, please continue!" - she blurted out, waving her arms.
- Act like you don't care. Indifference is the thing people like Tara and Jonathan fear the most. If you get upset they will feel superior to you, if instead you ignore them and make them understand that you do not care about their gossip, they will feel like losers and the thing will die exactly as it was born-
- You make it too easy Shu, but I don't know if I can pretend. I don't know if I can relive this situation all over again- she lowered her head, alluding to what she had told him on the evening of the comet rain.
- You're not alone this time- he reassured her, placing a hand on her shoulder.
- What do we do now, Shu? - she asked for the umpteenth time that day.
- Let's go get a coffee, I'll offer- he smiled.
- Are you crazy?! Do you want to get out of this office and go straight into the lions mouth?! - her eyes widened.
- I just want to go get coffee. So, are you coming? - he invited her again, with his hand resting on the handle and ready to open the door.
She sighed, shaking her head: she had fallen in love with an idiot. While she was worried that she could regain her title as the queen of love dramas in the eyes of her colleagues, he even seemed amused by the situation and didn’t care at all, as if he wasn’t in the least involved. One thing, however, heartened her: the fact that he had told her "you’re not alone this time". He was there by her side, he was her man and not her ex anymore. She wasn't going to be the seduced and abandoned poor thing, but the woman he'd chosen to be with. She blushed at those thoughts, wondering once again if Shuichi really considered her his woman or if they were still stuck in that limbo where their relationship didn't have a definite label. If she had been sure of this she wouldn’t have been afraid to go to Tara and Jonathan and tell them to their faces "yes, Shuichi and I are together", but the fear that for him it wasn’t the same made it difficult for her to retaliate against meddling colleagues.
She walked over to him and together they went out into the corridor again. The scene that occurred shortly before repeated itself, as expected. She clenched her fists, her nails almost stuck in her palms, as people around them whispered words she couldn't understand but could imagine the meaning of.
- Everything ok?- he asked her, probably aware of her nervousness.
- Wonderfully- she looked at him wrongly - It's not that by chance you have one of your guns at hand, do you? –
Shuichi couldn't hold back a laugh, which disconcerted her leaving her open-mouthed as she stared at him dazed. As expected, the whispers stopped and everyone around them froze, as if a gust of icy wind had hibernated them. Shuichi Akai laughing was a more unique than rare event, but the fact that he laughed in her company after the gossip that had circulated made that situation even more amazing for all to see.
- You gone crazy or something?!- she whispered through clenched teeth, looking shocked while he still had a mocking grin on his face - You don't even laugh if they pay you to do it and you laugh like that now?! If you want to put on a show we can kiss in front of everyone, so we close in style!-
- I admit that this situation amuses me, or maybe it's your excessive concern that is hilarious- he replied.
- I'm glad my worries amuse you, your sadism level just earned ten extra points!-
Without ever removing that smile from his face, her partner stopped in front of the machine and took his wallet from the back pocket of his pants, taking some change.
- What do you want?- he asked.
- I want to go home- she replied, crossing her arms over her chest.
- I meant what drink do you want-
- Right now I just want a nice relaxing herbal tea. Or maybe it would be better to drink cyanide dissolved in water with a little sugar directly- she twisted her lips.
- I see, I’ll choose for you- he continued to smile, inserting the coins and selecting the hazelnut coffee.
When the coffee supply ended, Shuichi took the plastic cup and handed it to her. She thanked him with a sketchy smile and as she took the glass from his hands, their fingers brushed. A "look, look" came distinctly to their ears. She shook her hand around the plastic cup while Shuichi, who until then had ignored everything, turned in the direction from which that voice had come and threw one of his worst glares, which would have made even the devil tremble. The gossips behind them froze without a word, some of them were probably sweating cold. They were certainly not afraid of her and her big blue eyes, but Shuichi was definitely feared both for his unfriendly character and for that sometimes disturbing face that he found himself. Satisfied with his work, he turned his gaze back to the machine and took, as always, a well-deserved black coffee.
- Are you coming over tonight?- he asked, taking a sip from the plastic cup.
- If you want, of course- she replied, smiling as she bit her lip.
- If I didn't want it, I wouldn't ask you, would I? -
- Okay then, I'll be happy to come. Can you cook me something? -
- What do you want? I'm not so good at cooking to know how to do everything- he admitted.
- I really want sushi- she assumed that pleading expression that she liked to do when she wanted to get something.
- It can be done, but I need the ingredients. I don't keep them at home, I prefer to buy them fresh at the moment-
- We can go to the supermarket when we get out of here, then we'll go straight to you. What do you say?-
- I think it's a good idea. But now let's get back to work-
They finished their respective coffees and walked down the corridor for the third time, but this time they did not hear a pin drop and the people around them pretended not to be interested, even if they noticed that someone was looking out of the corner of their eye. Shuichi's reaction had silenced them, at least for the moment, but it certainly wasn't enough to erase that gossip that threatened to put them in a really uncomfortable position. Relationships between colleagues in their environment were not well regarded: if combined with the fact that they had already been together in the past and that he had left her to “pretend” to date another woman, certainly nothing good would have come of it.
When they returned to the office they found Camel and Yuriy already sitting at the desks, probably they were waiting for them to exchange their respective information found in the morning.
- Where were you?- Camel asked, looking strangely worried.
- We were having coffee waiting for you to come back- she replied.
- Ah, I see- replied the colleague.
She frowned, dazed by that suspicious reaction: she had the feeling that Camel was hiding something, but she couldn't figure out what. He moved his gaze first to her and then to Shuichi, his cheeks were more colorful than usual. Embarrassment. Camel was obviously embarrassed. A terrible doubt penetrated his mind like an arrow shot by a skilled archer: the gossip had even reached his ears. Just him, who the day before had caught them by surprise in a park... She turned alarmed towards Yuriy, to check if there was the same expression on his face: she found him smiling while turning a pen between his fingers. Nothing strange, if it weren’t that his smile actually looked more like one of those mocking grins that Shuichi also made. They stared at each other for a few moments and it seemed to her that the gaze wanted to dig into her mind to discover her most intimate secrets. The doubt turned into a certainty: both colleagues with whom they should have worked closely had heard the news and were now trying to disguise badly the desire to know if what they had learned was true. Shuichi approached them calmly, as if he hadn't noticed anything, sitting in his place.
- So, what did you find? Did our victim's brother provide any interesting information?- he asked them.
- Well, here... - only managed to say Camel, who again looked at her while with her head down, she too took her place at the desk.
- Enough, but perhaps not as interesting as yours - Yuriy replied, continuing to fiddle with the pen.
- What makes you think that we found more information at the club than Daniel Harrington could have given you? - Shuichi replied.
He pretended not to understand, but he had probably noticed everything too. Except, instead of worrying like she did, he was enjoying playing with whoever he came within range, sure he would win that game too. But she was tired, tired of playing and tired of hiding.
- He wasn’t referring to the case- she finally found the strength to speak, staring Yuriy straight in the eye and trying to imitate those intimidating looks that only Shuichi could - He was referring to the topic of the day that is going around the corridors, wasn’t he?-
She shifted her gaze to Camel, who was more susceptible than Yuriy and tried to convey to him all the anger she was feeling: somehow she succeeded, the confirmation came when she saw on his face the same fear that she too had felt just before. However, she didn’t have the courage to look at Shuichi, he was probably hating her for having messed up the plan to pretend indifference.
- Actually I was referring to the case: I believe that more important information can be found at the scene of the crime than that given by a brother who perhaps prefers to hide what he knows rather than reveal it - explained the Russian colleague - The topic of the day it's interesting but up to a certain point, I wouldn't waste an afternoon on it frankly speaking-
- Really? So why did you and the other one there - she pointed her finger at Camel - Have set up this pathetic theater made up of smiles, looks and "let's pretend we don't know anything, which is better"? If you don't mind then act like you did until this morning! -
She couldn't stop, the words came out sour and directed at those who had become her two scapegoats. Shuichi sat quietly a meter away from her, with his eyes closed and a frowning expression.
- Try to understand, we didn't know how to behave... - Camel justified himself, scratching the back of his neck.
- In a normal way André, you can behave in a normal way-
- I'm sorry, I bet it was Jonathan- Camel sighed - Yesterday afternoon when we left he started making insinuations; I tried to tell him it wasn't true but he was obsessed with this story-
- Sorry but I don’t understand what the problem is- Yuriy intervened - If what Jonathan says is only the fruit of his imagination, why are you so mad? - he asked, looking at her defiantly.
Yuriy was a tough guy, he didn't get scared easily. He resembled Shuichi in some ways: he was able to penetrate people without asking for permission. Maybe that was why they seemed to get along well.
- If they spread false rumors about you, would you be happy? I do not think so-
- If they were false rumors I would have no problems because I would know exactly how to deny them-
- And what makes you think that I don't know? -
- Your exaggerated reaction- he grinned - In addition to many other small details that I will not highlight because as I said, I don't care. Are you dating? Well, good for you. Do you want to get married? Even better, remember to invite me to the wedding. I believe that out of here we are free to do what we want, without going beyond the limits and ethics of course: if you love each other and want to be together, I don't see anything scandalous. Just leave your relationship problems outside the door when you step in here. For the rest you have my blessing, for what it's worth-
She stood staring at him in disbelief for a few seconds, without being able to metabolize that speech well. When she did it she realized that Yuriy was right about everything and that he had managed to make it simple when she had only complicated it more than necessary, perhaps for fear of having to relive the past. She felt small in front of that calm and mature reaction of a colleague whom until then she had never really known. On the surface he had always seemed to her like someone who liked to joke and also a bit of a womanizer, but she would never have imagined that he hid such wisdom. She looked down, embarrassed and speechless: it wasn’t possible to reply to something that in fact was already a fair and sensible speech.
- I think the same- Camel intervened - If Jonathan's suspicions were to be founded, it wouldn't change what I think of you as people and colleagues. We have been through a lot in the last year, this is certainly not a topic to worry about- he smiled.
- Exactly, your love and personal life doesn’t change who you are or the work you do. You’re two excellent agents both as friends and as lovers- concluded Yuriy.
For the first time since she started that outburst, she found the courage to turn to look at Shuichi: he was still sitting in the same position, legs crossed and arms folded, but his face was no longer as severe as before. He was smiling, despite continuing to keep his eyes closed. She considered it a good sign: perhaps the positive reaction of Camel and Yuriy had prevented her from a lecture.
- Okay, understood- she shook her hands, sighing - Let's close it here. Sorry if I reacted sharply-
- Apologies accepted, I can't be tough with a beautiful woman- joked the Russian - And basically you're right, I admit that probably my looks and smiles were made on purpose because I wanted to understand from your expression if what they had told us in the corridor was true or not- he admitted.
- But you just said you don't care-
- I don't mind wasting too much time on it, but I was still curious. Those curiosities that last as long as you drink a coffee and then die in the bud-
- Well, since we have solved this futile question, can we resume our work? - Shuichi finally spoke, as a good workaholic he couldn't wait to focus only and exclusively on the case.
- Absolutely yes- Yuriy supported him - What did you discover? -
- Probably the place where Harrington met the disreputable people he had to deal with, including those of the Russian clan- Shuichi smiled satisfied.
- But wasn't the place the wine bar itself?- Camel asked.
- I mean the room inside the bar - he specified - When we entered there were the bartender and the manager. Apparently it looked like a perfect place, but when we asked them to show us the private rooms their expression changed. In the end they showed us all but one. The door to that room, unlike the others, was locked. We asked to see that too, but the manager replied that it was actually just a closet and there was nothing interesting - he paused.
- But it wasn't like that, right? - Yuriy ventured.
- Definitely no. In the end I cornered him and opened that door-
- And what was it? - Camel asked, more and more taken by that story.
- A private room, one of those that give you the idea of a nightclub for adults, to be more precise- she intervened - Red sofas, a small stage where escorts and strippers can perform, a pool table and round tables with playing cards still on them. A room clearly not dedicated to high society customers-
- Inside there is a door that opens directly to the back of the bar, so that's where Harrington let those special customers in - Shuichi added.
- I guess from the reaction they had, both the manager and the bartender knew about these meetings- Camel intervened.
- Of course, but Russel probably paid them handsomely for their silence. Not to mention that now that he’s dead, probably killed by one of those customers, they could be accused of being accomplices in shady trades and who knows what else- she said.
- So we know with certainty that Russel Harrington was involved in shady deals that somehow also involved a Russian mafia clan, who hid a private room dedicated to perdition in his classy bar and that the staff who work for him seem to know more than they mean- Yuriy reasoned aloud - Not bad as a first round of investigations-
- Did you manage to get anything out of Russel's brother?- she asked.
- Not much unfortunately. He's a tough nut to crack as well as conceited and full of himself like any rich man in New York-
- But he must have told you something, right? -
Apparently he knew that Russel was using cocaine, but he said he didn't know who was supplying it to him. He also knew about the private room in the wine bar and about the fact that things were not exactly legal in that room, but he preferred to stay away from them and therefore he could not tell us who was attending those private meetings. There was bad blood between the two even if they were business partners, so beyond discussing business issues they didn't know much about their personal lives- Yuriy explained.
- Did you show him Viktor Krayevsky's photo?- Shuichi asked - How did he react?-
- He recognized that the tattoo on his forearm was the same as the symbol found at his brother's crime scene, but couldn’t recognize Viktor's identity. Or at least that's what he said in words, but I had the impression that his face was saying something else... I don't know, there's something that didn't convince me in Daniel Harrington- he shook his head.
- Really?- wondered Camel - I didn't seem to notice anything strange in his behavior-
- Who knows, maybe I'm too suspicious -
- No, I don't think so- Shuichi grinned - From what you said, I also have the impression that Daniel knows more than he wants us to believe. I think we should come back to visit him and convince him to spill the beans, by hook or by crook-
- But if we go back to him immediately, we risk making him nervous and therefore obtain the opposite effect - she reflected.
- In fact, we're not going there today. Let a few days go by and make him believe that we have trusted his words and are focusing on something else. Then we'll go back to him-
After that in-depth comparison on the respective information found, they dedicated the rest of the afternoon to writing down what they had anticipated verbally. Unfortunately, even the tedious compilation of paperwork and reports was part of their job and it was that part that people like Shuichi and Yuriy, eager for action, hated more than others.
No one touched on the subject of the secret relationship between her and Shuichi again, as if the conversation before had never happened. In a way she was relieved that Camel and Yuriy had learned the truth: at least with them they wouldn’t have to pretend from that moment on. She was grateful that they had taken the news well, but on the other hand Camel would never have used that information to harm either her or Shuichi, of whom he had an immense esteem, and Yuriy seemed to be very different from people like Tara. and Jonathan. What kept frightening her was that that rumor would reach James' ears. That man had been her legal guardian for years, he was an old friend of her father, he loved her like a daughter but he was first of all her boss and he knew for sure that he hated gossip at work. Add to this the fact that he knew how much she had suffered from Shuichi…maybe he wouldn't have been so happy to see them together again.
- I would say that for today it can be enough- Yuriy's voice brought her back to reality.
Their working hours were over, she was free to go home and forget about that hard day. However, she remembered the appointment with Shuichi and the sushi he would prepare for her. Who knows if he still wanted to, she wasn't sure how he felt about her after that outburst she had had a few hours earlier. She sighed, gathering the papers on her desk with her head down.
- Shall we go grocery shopping immediately?-
Shuichi's voice, so close to her, made her jump. She was so engrossed in her thoughts that she didn't even realize he had approached her.
- Are you ok?- he asked, noticing her reaction.
- Yes, sorry, I was lost in thought and your voice caught me off guard- she smiled.
- Are you thinking about what will be outside this office? -
- No, to be honest I was just wondering if you still wanted to have dinner with me after the mess I made before with Yuriy and Camel- she admitted - I thought you were angry-
- In all honesty I didn't like the way you managed the situation very much, but in the end it was fine-
- But now they know the truth about us-
- Yeah, but unlike others they won't use it as the topic of the day in front of the coffee machine. I trust them- he smiled.
- Listen Shu...do you think we should invite them to dinner too? I know we had planned an evening alone, but I feel a bit guilty about how I attacked them before...- she lowered her head.
- For me it is not a problem, but tonight I had planned to watch the shogi match that my brother will play. Is it a problem if we invite them another time?-
- No, no problem, but I didn't know about your brother. Are you sure you want me to come? If you prefer to watch the game in peace we can meet tomorrow evening-
- Sorry, I forgot to tell you. The idea was to eat something and then watch the live broadcast, but if it bores you too much we can postpone our dinner-
- I just want to spend some time with you, I don't care if we do it while walking in a park or watching your brother play a game I don't think I understand very much about- she smiled embarrassed.
Their conversation was interrupted by Yuriy who cleared his throat, not so much for necessity as to attract attention.
- Well, I'm leaving because honestly with you two looking at each other like this I feel awkward-he joked, without the slightest fear of embarrassing them.
- I'm coming with you- said Camel, who was probably the most embarrassed of all, unable as he was to handle situations of that type.
- Stop being idiots! - she resumed them, her cheeks tinged with red - Now we're going out too-
- You sure? Are you ready for the apocalypse that awaits you as soon as you walk through this door? - asked Yuriy, who seemed amused by the situation.
- I swear to you that if you don't stop the apocalypse will hit you! - She grabbed the bag and headed towards the two colleagues, followed by Shuichi.
Yuriy raised his arms as if in surrender, but that mocking smile didn’t disappear from his face. He looked into her eyes one last time, as if to ask her for confirmation if he could open that door. She gave him a nod and the silence that had been created was interrupted by the sound of the lock that clicked. They went out one after the other, finding the corridor almost empty: probably most of their colleagues had left or were still locked in their respective offices.
- You’re lucky- joked the Russian.
- Maybe they have already forgotten - tried to downplay the situation Camel, but he didn't believe it too much while he said it.
She knew it wouldn't be over so soon, but for the moment it was enough for her to be able to get out of there without hearing any more murmurs and without feeling watched as if she were a criminal.
Her moment of relief did not last long, crashing to the ground when she saw that their path to the elevator was about to cross with that of the last person she wanted to meet that day: Tara. She took a deep breath and tried in vain to relax her tense nerves. Beside her, Shuichi noticed it and surprisingly put a hand on her lower back, as if to tell her to calm down.
The closer she got to them, the more she could see the smile of victory on her face: she was satisfied with her little revenge.
When she was a meter away from them she finally deigned to speak, after staring at them all the time.
- Congratulations to the new couple! - she said simply, but putting all the acidity possible into those words.
She clenched her fists and closed her eyes, trying to keep herself from making the second outburst of that day. She would have liked so much to punch that viper in the face, but the reasons for not doing so were unfortunately stronger and more valid than those for doing so.
- Thank you very much, but we don't invite you to the wedding anyway- Yuriy intervened, surprising her - Your congratulations are more false than Monopoly money, maybe next time study the line better because you’re not credible at all-
Tara stopped in front of him, looking at him defiantly. She didn't want two strangers to fight over a matter that concerned her, but in her heart she silently hoped that Yuriy would destroy her.
- What do you want? I wasn't talking to you- she pointed out annoyed.
- Oh no? Forgive me, then I withdraw the invitation to the wedding-
-What wedding?- she asked, bored by his seemingly meaningless speeches.
- Mine of course. I thought you knew, you’re always so knowledgeable about all the useless things and the private life of your colleagues-
One to zero for Yuriy. If she had had a cheerleading uniform and a pair of pompoms she would have started cheering him on.
- Are you getting married?- she asked scornfully, as if it were absurd that he himself was getting married.
- There is hope for everyone- he smiled - Except for you, maybe-
- How funny, do your condolences to the poor girl who will have to put up with your squalid jokes-
To everyone's surprise, Yuriy turned to Camel and took his hands, squeezing them in his ones. In addition to the situation itself, the contrast between the almost bony hands of the former and the large, sturdy ones of the latter was exhilarating.
- Forgive my sleazy jokes, darling, I want you to know that whatever nonsense I say will never be greater than the love I feel for you- he said, looking seriously at his colleague in the eyes.
Tara's face took on an indescribable expression, a mixture of disbelief and bewilderment, while Camel dazedly observed his colleague who had just declared himself, sweating cold. She couldn't help herself in front of that theater and her laughter echoed down the hall. She put a hand in front of her mouth to soften, but still couldn't stop. Yuriy had turned to look at her and smiled satisfied, while Shuichi in his stoicism had still allowed himself a mocking smile, a sign that the colleague's skit had amused him. The only ones who didn’t participate in the hilarity of the group were Camel (embarrassed as he had never been in life) and Tara, who was hating Yuriy more than ever for making fun of her.
- Very funny- she twisted her mouth, interrupting the fun.
- More than the gossip that you and that other spread around - the Russian replied in a tone.
- They aren’t gossip at all, Jonathan has proof and as far as I know also André, who is now silent because it suits him- she looked at Camel, in a provocative way.
- I-I have nothing at all- he tried to disguise badly.
- Do you know what you don't have instead, unlike Jodie? - Yuriy came out, making her ears prick up when he said her name.
- Let's hear it - the redhead crossed her arms over her chest.
- A man to go home with tonight and have a lot of fun-
- Yuriy! - she retorted, blushing at that bold statement said in front of everyone.
The fundamental difference between him and Shuichi was that Yuriy talked too much and wasn’t ashamed to openly say anything that went through his head. He had no secrets and above all he had no filters: this made him a "dangerous" individual who was better to have as an ally than as an enemy. Tara inhaled loudly, a sign that Yuriy's words had hit her to the heart: evidently not having a boyfriend or a man to date was something that weighed heavily on her and for some reason he knew about it and had used it as a weapon against her.
- Well, now we can go home- he concluded satisfied, taking a few steps to get away.
Camel, who couldn't wait to get out of that situation, followed him before he changed his mind or before Tara reacted in any way. She reached them too, convinced of being followed by Shuichi, who instead remained motionless with his back to the meddling colleague, as he had done up to that moment.
-Tara?- he called her, but received no answer.
They stopped again and turned to look at the scene holding their breath. Yuriy was funny, but Shuichi instead scared the walls too, especially when he got so serious and gloomy.
The redhead looked at him but didn't say a word.
- I thought I was clear the other day on the gossip issue. You have to pay more attention, because if you pull too much the rope will eventually break. What you say and what you do could backfire on you-
The tension in the air was so perceptible that she felt it like a weight on her shoulders. She heard Camel swallow loudly, while Yuriy didn't move an inch.
- Are you perhaps threatening me? - Tara asked, not at all satisfied with that intervention.
- I'm warning you- Shuichi replied, taking the first steps to leave.
Without saying anything else, he reached them and passed them, a sign that he had no intention of staying there a second longer. She reached him and joined him, turning to look at the expression on his face and trying to understand how he was feeling: when he noticed it he turned his head and looked at her in turn, and then gave her a small smile as if to reassure her. Behind her back she heard the footsteps of Camel and Yuriy following them in silence. She thought they were a good team after all, and she felt less alone than six years ago, when the gossip she had faced with no one by her side had weighed on her like the executioner's scythe on a condemned man's head.
They all took the elevator together and once they arrived at the parking lot they said goodbye, without adding anything else.