When Laurent was with his second foster family, he discovered Hollywood films. This foster father was a bit of a film aficionado, and Laurent was delighted to discover a stash of movies from countries all around the world—Germany, France, Hong Kong, Sweden, Japan. Laurent devoured them all, even the ones in languages he couldn’t understand yet.
But some of the best were the American ones. He liked to stand in front of a mirror and practice the accents, the gestures, all of which he found incredibly cool. “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate,” he said in Cool Hand Luke’s drawl, mimicked his smile, and then collapsed to the floor, pretending to have been shot.
His favorite film was The Wizard of Oz. When the tornado came and swept Dorothy away from Kansas, he felt an indescribable thrill, an electric buzzing down to his fingertips. When Dorothy opened the door and stepped into technicolor Munchkinland, his heart pounded with excitement and awe. When the Wicked Witch of the West cackled, he felt chills run down his spine. And when Dorothy said, “There’s no place like home,” and then the music kicked up and the end credits rolled, he cried.
After Laurent got passed to his third foster home, he convinced his new guardians to buy him tickets to the movies every weekend. In exchange, he promised not to tell the church about his new foster mother’s alcohol problem. It was a good deal. Adults, he was learning, were easy to manipulate.
For a few months, Laurent was content. He smiled, got good grades, and watched a movie every weekend. He made sure to be a sweet, self-sufficient, and clever child, the type everyone supposedly loved. His foster parents called him charmant, mijn schatje, zo tragisch. His case manager pinched his cheek and said he was going to be very happy here, she was sure of it.
He got passed to his fourth foster home before the school year was over.
Since, evidently, being loveable wasn’t enough to make people want to keep him, Laurent decided that it wasn’t worth the effort. He started ditching school in favor of much more exciting things, like practicing his language skills with friendly tourists, and learning how to pick pockets, and sneaking into cool places using stolen IDs. Although he was really much too young to have any business being there, one of the club owners took a shine to him. In exchange for the tourists’ stolen wallets, the club owner—whose name was Itri—taught Laurent how to play cards, pick up boys and girls, and curse in Tachelhit, as well as many other useful skills. It was delightful.
After Laurent had learned everything he could, he stole Itri’s fancy sports car and immediately crashed it. Itri beat him up and then threw him out of the club.
Laurent ran away from home around that time, and began his wandering life. He met a lot of interesting people over the years. He was still a bit on the young side for some of the things they got up to together, but if he was having fun, then did it really matter? And making new friends was always fun to Laurent. As long as they didn’t expect unrealistic things from him, like empathy and honesty and stop acting like a fucking crazy person, Laurent, everything would be just fine.
Dorothy—the real Dorothy—plucked Laurent out of the streets and dropped him into the world of grifters and con artists. It was the first time he had been surrounded by people who were smarter than him, who were like him. He learned the ropes as fast as he could, hungry for more. He had never played a game that was this much fun before, this fast-paced and topsy-turvy, with such high stakes. Each con felt like amphetamine injected straight into his veins. Reality felt super-saturated, everything in technicolor.
And Dorothy—Dorothy herself was a drug more beautifully addictive than anything money could buy.
“You’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, right?” she asked him when they were in bed together, stroking his hair.
“Mm-hmm,” he replied. He was busy kissing her neck, luxuriating in the feel of her. She moved so fast all the time, he rarely got a chance to just hold her like this.
“It’s my favorite movie. I named myself after it. But if I got swept away by a tornado and landed in Munchkinland, I would never leave! The place looks like so much more fun than boring old Kansas. I would make myself Queen of Oz and set all the munchkins free, and learn how to do magic, and train all the flying monkeys to be nice. Mm, do that again.”
Laurent grazed her nipple with his thumbnail. “You are clearly the rightful ruler, Your Majesty,” he purred in a posh British accent, and gently bit her collarbone.
She giggled. “You won’t believe this, but Oz has never seen the movie! I mean my Oz, our Oz. I keep telling him he’s got to watch it with his family, but he just says his kid’s too old for it.”
“Blasphemy. Nobody’s too old for The Wizard of Oz.”
“Exactly! So he still doesn’t get the joke when I call him Oz the Great and Powerful. It’s hilarious, he’s missing out. He strikes fear in the hearts of all, but the whole time he’s just this old man fiddling on a computer! What a brilliant con. I tried to get Shi-won to go by Glinda but that didn’t stick. She’s like my fairy godmother, did I tell you about how she taught me how to grift? Obviously, she’s no Good Witch, but just between you and me, I’m pretty sure Glinda was actually the best con artist in the whole movie. She was definitely plotting to take over the Land of Oz the whole time. I mean, it was like The Godfather, she picked off every other major power in one fell swoop! Shi-won is definitely Glinda.”
Laurent kissed her on the lips, just long enough so he could get a word in edgewise.
“Sounds like you’ve picked a role for everyone else,” he said playfully. “Which character am I?”
As he asked the question, he was surprised by a flicker of anxiety in his throat. He didn’t know what she saw when she looked at him. He didn’t know what he wanted her to see.
Dorothy’s eyes twinkled mischievously as she laughed. She yanked on his hair, and his dick instantly sprang to attention. Jesus.
“Cute little puppy. You’re whoever I want you to be,” she said.
It was exactly what he needed to hear. The tiny flicker of anxiety vanished into the ether.
Laurent decided that they must be soulmates.
“Take one!” the director shouts. The clapperboard snaps shut, and the scene starts.
Johnny McDonald Chapman, former pimp, star of the Die Hot films, and now American presidential hopeful, jumps off the roof of the arena and rides a zip line over a Texas rodeo. He waves two American flags in his fists as he goes, shouting “I am a patriot! God bless America!” Below him, paid actors cheer and wave signs with VOTE PATRIOT on them.
Laurent lounges in the shade of the arena. His role in this con is the Hollywood film producer. It’s hilarious. He gets to go around in a French beret, a pink chiffon scarf, and a gold monocle, and shout at people with a megaphone, and everyone obeys him without question. The funniest part is that he is, legitimately, a Hollywood film producer. The Die Hot films are only still alive thanks to Laurent’s investments, after Eddie Cassano took an early retirement and moved to Florida. Laurent basically owns the whole franchise.
All the way back during the Cassano con, Laurent had put a mark on Johnny Chapman. In a few years, the man had graduated from yellowface to winning votes on a campaign of racial slurs and corporate tax breaks. And then it was perfectly natural for Laurent—the established producer of Johnny’s beloved films—to offer his services in running Johnny’s TV ad campaign. He gets paid millions of dollars to produce the ads, and in the meantime, he gets front row access to the details of Johnny’s illegal bribes.
It’s because Laurent is a real American patriot, you see.
“Your coffee, Mr. Thierry,” says an intern. (Her name is actually Acacia, and she’s one of Laurent’s newest recruits.)
“Thank you,” Laurent says politely, accepting the coffee. “Could you check if they need any help with the animals?”
“Yes, Mr. Thierry.” The intern hurries off.
Laurent takes a sip of his coffee. Internally, he shudders. Starbucks. He would rather eat cardboard. He sets the coffee down precariously on a nearby chair.
When Johnny Chapman is about halfway down the zip line, sixty feet in the air, Laurent sends a text.
Johnny’s progress suddenly halts. He kicks his feet and looks around, still waving his flags. After a minute of dangling there, he shouts at the director: “What’s the big idea!?”
“Just a minor technical issue!” replies the director, whose name is actually Enofe and who’s been working with Laurent for two years. “We’re getting it fixed as fast as we can! Please hold!”
“Shit. This take’s a bust, then.” Johnny shakes his flags at the cameramen. “Hey, are you filming this!? Stop filming!”
Laurent gives him another five minutes, just hanging out there to dry. Johnny’s hands start to sweat. At the five-minute mark, he drops one of the flags, and it lands in the dirt with a sad thump. “Fuck,” Johnny says. The actors and film crew giggle at him.
With one hand, Laurent nudges his coffee over the edge of the chair. With his other hand, he sends the second text.
A flock of pigeons launches into the air. They swoop over the arena and then descend en masse onto the zip line and Johnny’s hair, all thirty of them trained to target Johnny with military precision. Johnny screeches, trying to defend himself by batting at the birds with the American flag. But the flag is no match for the magnificent splattering power of birdshit. The bombs land on his suit, his hair, his face. The camera rolls.
By tomorrow, Johnny McDonald Chapman will go viral as the presidential hopeful who got pooped on by birds while stuck on a zip line.
“Oops,” Laurent says, and smiles. He points at the spilled coffee on the ground. “Could someone come clean up this mess, please?”
Stage one of the con is a success.
If everything goes according to plan, the Chapman con will take another three months and net Laurent $200 million, minus the cost of investments. It’ll be more than enough to recoup his losses from the Suzaku/Longhu con, which admittedly put him a bit in the red. And things will almost definitely go according to plan. Johnny is such a perfect mark that he practically cons himself.
But for some reason, the con feels unsatisfying. Everyone has been so predictable. He’s been modifying the script to push things further, add more excitement, but it doesn’t seem to help.
Laurent is bored.
Maybe the problem is that he needs to get used to his new team. Many of them have never met Laurent before, and aren’t very good at improvising with him. He misses working with Cynthia and Abby, who always performed far beyond expectations and never needed any hand-holding. Shi-won and Kudo are still active, but they won’t play a role in the con until stage three.
Alone in his hotel room, Laurent takes out the little gacha toy of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and sets it on the windowsill.
“What do you think, Hide-kun?” he asks. “What am I missing?”
Hideyoshi gazes up at him in stern silence.
Maybe Laurent is just lonely.
He calls up Enofe, who is a very good friend and agrees to spend the night. In the morning, Laurent wakes up late, with a fun ring of love bites on his hip, alone in his bed. That creeping sense of ennui is still there. He rests his hands over his stomach and stares thoughtfully at the light fixtures on the ceiling. It occurs to him, out of the blue, that he’s been to so many places that all the hotels are starting to look the same.
He flips onto his stomach and pouts at Hideyoshi.
“Is this burnout that I’m feeling?” he asks. “Am I working too hard, is that it?”
Today, Laurent is scheduled to deliver a bribe of $500,000 to Johnny. It’ll kick off stage two of the con, giving Laurent blackmail material and the leverage he needs to drag Johnny through a series of increasingly terrible campaign decisions. He counts out the dollar bills and puts them in a suitcase around noon, and sets the suitcase down in front of Johnny at two o’clock.
“Wonderful!” says Johnny, shaking Laurent’s hand. “This is going to get me back on my feet after that damned pigeon video!”
“Of course, my pleasure,” Laurent says with a smile.
Johnny opens the suitcase, and finds it packed full of scrap paper.
They both stand there for a second. Laurent blinks in astonishment. What happened to the money? Did he make a mistake? But, no—he definitely put $500,000 in that suitcase.
And yet here it is. A suitcase full of worthless paper.
Laurent’s heartrate picks up. His fingers tingle with warmth.
“Laurent,” Johnny says. “What the fuck is this?”
Johnny’s campaign manager suddenly bursts into the room. “Johnny, come quick!” she says. “It’s an emergency!”
“What!? Damn it, I’m coming.” He jabs a finger at Laurent. “We’re not finished,” he says, and then charges out of the room.
Laurent stays behind. He pulls the suitcase closer and runs his fingers over the metal buckles.
Someone must have switched the suitcases without Laurent noticing. There’s a very short list of people Laurent knows who could pull that off.
In his pocket, his phone rings.
For a brief, confusing moment, hope breaks through his chest in a vivid flash. He breathes in, a gasp of surprise.
He pulls out the phone and sees that it’s Cynthia.
So it was her. Laurent feels, oddly enough, like a balloon that just got punctured. He clears his throat, and answers the phone.
“Cynthia, hello,” he says smoothly. “What a pleasant surprise.”
“Good evening, Laurent,” she says, sounding unreasonably cheerful. “Well, afternoon, for you. Did you like my present?”
Laurent snaps the suitcase closed. “It’s charming, thank you. How many members of my crew did you pay off?”
“A lady doesn’t kiss and tell,” she chides him. “My dear, what are you doing still down in Texas? Aren’t you supposed to be going somewhere?”
Laurent is caught off guard, for the third time in a row. Today is really not his day. “Going somewhere?”
“If you don’t go to Japan soon, you’ll miss the grand opening.”
Laurent knows what this is about.
In his head, he pulls out his mental folder marked TINMAN. It contains everything he knows about Cynthia Moore. Her place and date of birth. Her upbringing. Her personal and professional history. Her two children, adopted from the Suzaku con—first Kawin, and then, once she learned that he wanted a little brother, Binh. Her hopes and dreams. Her darkest secrets.
Cynthia has officially retired from the conning business. She still keeps in touch with the team and might be convinced to play a small role or two, if it’s safe. But her primary goal now is to focus on being a parent. Her alleged reason is that she felt her motherly instincts kick in when she met Kawin for the first time. The real, unspoken reason is that she wants a vessel she can pour her love into, who will depend on her, who won’t have any choice but to accept her. She is kind, but selfish. She loves her children, but doesn’t really know them.
She also despises Laurent. She liked his jokes, until Coleman happened and the joke was on her. She has quietly nursed a grudge against him ever since.
Laurent flips through the folder and adds a new entry. Too much free time in retirement, new hobby is meddling in other people’s drama for fun. Exhibit A.
“I have to admit, I never predicted this from you,” he says. “Are you taking revenge on me? Is that why you stole my five hundred grand?”
She laughs. “I didn’t just steal your money. A friend of mine is very interested in making a deal with that future American president of yours.”
Laurent feels his smile widen. It’s an emergency, the campaign manager had said. “Don’t tell me. Did you just steal my con?”
“Your Johnny boy is such a lovely mark,” she coos. “Wherever did you find such a sweetheart?”
“Hey, I worked very hard to soften him up. Poaching my mark is hardly good sportsmanship.”
On the other end of the phone, Cynthia cackles.
Laurent leans his hip against the table. She is having entirely too much fun with this. “Are you going to give my con back any time soon?”
“No, definitely no. Not until you go to Japan.”
So she’s holding his con hostage. Laurent is impressed.
“I have no reason to be going to Japan,” he says slowly.
She tuts at him. “You’re not fooling anyone. I don’t know why you even try. Here, now I’ve cleared your schedule for you. So go on!”
“Cynthia…” He hesitates, trying to work out the best way to say this. “If I go, I have a feeling that things won’t end well for me.”
“Well, maybe this isn’t about you, Laurent.” Her voice shifts, becoming warmer, gentler. “Listen, he’d never admit it, but I think he wants you to be there. So you should be there.”
Laurent blinks. “He wants me to be there?”
“No more hints,” she says, going back to her usual tone. “If you want to know more, you’ll have to find out yourself.”
Laurent reaches into his pocket and touches the Hideyoshi figure.
Well. He was getting bored in America, anyways.
Laurent takes an overnight flight to Japan. When he lands, he buys a nice cat-shaped hair clip and a bottle of top-shelf sake. In the Kyoto train station, he gets ambushed by Shi-won.
“Is that for me?” she asks with a laugh, making grabby hands at the sake. “I’ll take that as payment for my services!”
“Hold on, what services?” Laurent says, hiding the bottle behind his back and grinning. “Noona, I haven’t seen you in months, and this is how I’m treated!”
“And I haven’t missed your sorry mug at all!” With some complicated footwork and a sleight of hand, Shi-won gets ahold of the sake. “Ah-hah! There we go. To answer your question, I’m here to make sure you actually get to the grand opening.”
Laurent raises his eyebrows. “You’ve been speaking to Cynthia. This is a conspiracy. I’m being conspired against.”
“It’s your fault for moping around like a fool. It makes me depressed just looking at you.”
“I do not mope,” Laurent says, offended.
“Sure,” Shi-won says, dripping with sarcasm. “Anyways, Cynthia had the right idea. We’re doing this as a favor to the kid. After all the shit you put him through, he deserves something nice on his special day.”
“And I’m something nice?” he asks in disbelief.
Shi-won slaps him on the ass. “There’s no accounting for taste! So you’d better make sure to behave.”
Laurent pouts. “You’re asking too much from me.”
In the taxi, Laurent keeps one hand on the Hideyoshi figure and watches the landscape go by. His mind wants to race ahead, throwing an endless stream of contingency plans and scenarios at him, the way it does when he’s at the final stage of a con. But this way of thinking will get him into trouble in no time. He forces himself to slow down.
It’s important to remember that there’s no con, here. There’s only Edamura Makoto.
Laurent carefully retrieves his mental folder marked EDAMAME. It’s a hopelessly disorganized mess. The pages have a tendency to scatter all over the place, leaving bits of random Edamame-related thoughts in unexpected corners. He’s there in the glint of a gold watch, the smell of engine grease, a specific shade of dark maroon. It’s difficult for Laurent to get a handle on him.
Edamame has been doing well, or so he hears. Laurent hasn’t spoken to him since they parted ways after the Suzaku con, almost a year ago. But he’s been keeping tabs on him since then. He knows about Edamame’s research on Japan’s coffee culture; how he picked his coffee beans and wrestled his menu into shape; his hunt for a perfect location, before settling on this little corner in Kyoto that’s more kiosk stand than café. And he also knows that Edamame specifically hired another ex-con to be his assistant. The reason isn’t hard to figure out, if you know how much Edamame struggled to find a good job because of his conviction record. And Laurent, of course, knows that too.
Today is opening day for Edamame’s little coffee shop. This day is deeply important to Edamame—for the first time, it’ll be something he well and truly owns. He wants to carve out a safe haven for people like himself, people who are looking for a fresh start, a second chance. It would mean a lot for him if his friends came to support him.
Laurent knows this and more. It’s how he also knows that Edamame has washed his hands of the whole conning business. He’s done with Laurent.
The taxi pulls up at the curb, and Laurent feels his fingertips tingle, ready for locks to pick, wallets to steal. A few blocks away, he spots a feudal-era castle in pristine condition. Tourist attraction, he notes. Decent foot traffic. Near the trendy downtown area, but sequestered somewhere quiet.
He pays the taxi driver and gets out of the car. There’s a small crowd gathered around what looks like a remodeled shed. A simple sign over the top reads COFFEE in black letters. Green ivy hangs out of one of the windows. Somebody’s bike—Edamame’s?—rests in the back against a wall. A chalk sign set up on the sidewalk says, in both Japanese and English, Grand Opening! Special Promotion All Coffee ¥100.
“Quaint,” Laurent comments.
“Damn, we’re late,” Shi-won says. “There’s already a line.”
And then he hears Edamame laugh.
Something fizzles and pops in Laurent’s stomach. He never was a patient man. He cups his hands around his mouth and yells, in Japanese with his thickest French accent, “Is that my friend I see!?”
The crowd turns to look at him, startled. He beams, radiating friendly-but-clueless tourist energy, and begins to wade forward. “Hello, hello!” he shouts, waving his arms in the air. The crowd parts around him, too stunned to resist.
Edamame pops his head out of the door at the commotion.
His hair’s gotten long enough to pull back in a ponytail. A thick strand has escaped the hairband and is curled on top of his head, perched like a curious bird. He stares at Laurent with wide brown eyes.
“Oh, shit,” he says in English. “It’s you.”
He makes an irritated face, and then ducks back into the shop.
Jesus. Laurent missed him.
“Edamame, save us a seat!” Shi-won shouts in English, laughing. “I brought you a present and everything!”
She smacks Laurent on the back and shoves him through the door.
The first thing that hits Laurent is a waft of fresh coffee ground fragrance. The shop is pleasantly warm inside. Quiet jazz plays in the background. The countertops are wooden, and the walls are a soft brown. Kettles and coffee servers hang from a rack behind the bar and seem to glow in the yellow light. There’s enough room for a maximum of eight people to sit at the bar or by the windows, while the rest of the customers wait for their to-go orders standing. And there is a steady stream of customers, cooing praises and snapping photos on their phones. Edamame’s assistant, who Laurent already knows is named Kohei, 46 years old, released from prison on parole four months ago, is studiously taking people’s orders.
Edamame mutters something in Japanese to Kohei. Kohei nods, and then Edamame walks up to Laurent.
“You’re here,” he says, and stops. They stare at each other for a second. Laurent takes in his cute ponytail, his apron. Edamame’s face looks like it can’t quite settle on an expression.
“It’s a lovely place,” Laurent says. “You’ve done well for yourself.”
Edamame’s face breaks out into a proud, beaming smile. “Haven’t I?”
There you are, Laurent thinks. He smiles back.
Edamame turns away. “Shi-won! I’m so glad you could make it! Did I hear you brought me a present?” His darling accent is still the same.
Shi-won brandishes Laurent’s stolen bottle of sake. “Here you go, kid! You really went and became a small-business owner, good for you!”
He laughs, taking the sake. “Thank you! Come on, let me show you to the back. You’re going to crowd out my customers.”
In the back is the kitchen where Edamame cooks the sandwiches and snacks on his menu. He grabs two plastic chairs and installs Laurent and Shi-won in the corner furthest from the stove, next to the bags of coffee beans. Upstairs, Laurent knows, is where Edamame lives.
“Cynthia wanted to come, but she’s got to watch the kids,” Shi-won explains. “She wanted me to tell you congratulations.”
“Oh, no, I understand. Tell her I appreciate the thought.”
“And those other two scoundrels, Abby and Kudo? Where are they?”
“Abby came by earlier in the morning, she couldn’t stay for long. I think Kudo’s on his way. I’ve got to go back to work, but are you guys hungry?”
Shi-won claps her hands together excitedly. “I could eat a horse!”
“Horse is not on the menu,” he says drily, but he’s smiling. “And you, Laurent?”
Laurent smiles up at him. “I’ll take the chef’s special.”
Edamame snorts. “I literally only make like, three things. Okay, give me a second.”
He steps out the door to the shop front. Laurent hears him greeting customers and giving instructions to Kohei. He laughs more often than he ever did in a con.
A bit of showmanship flair, a bit of customer-service charm, and that deep current of earnestness that’s all Edamame—it’s no wonder that the coffee shop, small though it is, instantly achieved popularity. The location and atmosphere are ideal. If the coffee and food are good, too, then Laurent knows he’ll have no trouble maintaining his success.
Edamame swoops back into the kitchen and presses two steaming cups of coffee into their hands. Laurent is so surprised that he doesn’t even try to flirt about their fingers brushing.
“Here. Give me five more minutes,” he says. Then he goes to the stove and starts to cook.
Laurent blows on the coffee and takes a sip. Delicate flavors bloom on his tongue. Berries, chocolate, and notes of lemon. Freshly ground Yirgacheffe beans via pour over. It’s a mellow, calming coffee.
“Mm,” he says, fluttering his eyes closed. “Perfect.”
“Shit, this is actually really good,” Shi-won says. She takes a deep drink and sighs contentedly.
Edamame laughs. “Why are you so surprised?”
“I’m more of an Irish coffee kind of gal. But this is nice too.”
Laurent opens his eyes and watches Edamame slice a fresh loaf of bread. His hands move quickly and gracefully. Laurent never bothered to learn how to cook. Maybe he should—home cooking is a popular seduction technique. He can see the appeal now, watching this man work. Laurent drinks his coffee, his eyes tracking Edamame around the kitchen.
Edamame makes them ham and cheese sandwiches, cut into wedges. It’s simple, but it tastes good in a homey sort of way. It pairs nicely with the coffee. Yes, this shop is going to do very well.
Laurent and Shi-won hang out in Edamame’s kitchen for a few hours. Kudo arrives soon after they do, and gushes praise about every little detail about the shop. Laurent pulls out his mental folder marked SCARECROW, and notes that Kudo feels proud of Edamame for accomplishing what he never could do: start an honest business. Kudo does, however, feel a bit miffed that Edamame never went to him for business advice. It would have been a terrible idea, of course; Kudo almost certainly would have turned Edamame into an accidental tax evader. That doesn’t stop Kudo from feeling left behind.
Laurent cross-references this note to his folder marked CHAPMAN, DC, and decides to beef up Kudo’s role in that con a little. Just to keep him occupied.
Around 3pm, the stream of customers starts to slow, and Edamame has more time to spend in the back with them. He introduces Kohei, after first warning them that he’s trying to keep his shady past under wraps. They avoid mentioning anything illegal. Instead, they catch up by talking about the coffee shop, where everyone has been, interesting encounters. Laurent shows Edamame the pigeon poop video. It makes Edamame look distressed, which Laurent thinks is hilarious.
“I feel bad for Johnny,” Edamame says, entirely honest.
Behave, Laurent reminds himself.
He puts his phone away. “My apologies. I forgot you tend to do that.”
Edamame shoots him an unimpressed look. “To have basic human decency?”
“It slips my mind sometimes.”
At this point, Edamame should have accused him of callousness, or rolled his eyes, or done something else to shut Laurent down. But instead, he gets a thoughtful look.
“Well, it was pretty funny,” he admits.
The shop closes at 4pm, and Edamame cleans up and lets Kohei go home. The four former members of Team Confidence move out to the coffee bar and break out the sake. It’s almost like old times. They celebrate Edamame’s successful grand opening, and Edamame is moved almost to tears. They enjoy themselves without a care in the world. Just for fun, Laurent sets up some fake accounts on his phone and leaves glowing reviews for the coffee shop on a handful of international forums.
Edamame looks exhausted, though. He must have been nervous about today. Laurent knows that the coffee shop opens at 6am, which means Edamame woke up at 4am to start preparing the baked goods and coffee grounds. He starts yawning into his drink, and the others take that as their cue to leave.
Shi-won, in an out-of-character moment of sentimentality, wraps Edamame in a bear hug. Kudo congratulates him one last time, looking misty-eyed.
It’s incredible, the way Edamame brings people to care for him.
Before she leaves, Shi-won elbows Laurent in the ribs. “Don’t blow it,” she hisses, squinting up at him.
“Such little faith,” Laurent says lightly. “I’ll be on my best behavior, noona.”
He lingers at the bar while the others leave. The door swings shut. As Edamame walks back toward him, Laurent pulls the hair clip out of his bag and sets it on the bar top.
Edamame steps behind the bar, rubbing his eyes tiredly. “What’s that?”
“Something to remember me by,” he says, and winks.
Edamame stares at him. He approaches the hair clip cautiously, like it might be a wild animal, liable to bite.
“…How do you do that?” he asks.
Edamame touches his fingers on the little porcelain black cat and frowns down at it. “You always seem to know the things that I want.”
“Maybe it’s because I’m always thinking of you,” Laurent jokes. Well. It’s mostly a joke.
Edamame doesn’t try to brush it off. He raises his head and just…looks at him. His eyes are bright, and his cheeks are flushed from the alcohol.
“Thanks,” he says. He looks down and fiddles with the metal edge. “It was—good to see you again, Laurent.”
He should end it here. Today has gone smoothly, as perfectly as he could have hoped. He should say goodbye now and leave Edamame to his coffee shop, and his honest life, and his quiet joy. This will be a nice memory for them both.
But Laurent has been so bored lately. And he’s never figured out how to stop pushing for more.
“Edamame, did you miss me?” he asks.
Edamame tenses. He looks up at him with narrowed eyes. Laurent can see him thinking, considering and discarding different responses. He licks his lips and opens his mouth.
“Maybe I have,” Edamame says.
Laurent’s smile widens.
“You’re not denying it?”
“Yeah, well.” Edamame looks away and busies himself with cleaning up their sake glasses. “Maybe I’m sick of lying to myself.”
Laurent laughs. Giddily, he sweeps his eyes up and down this man. Dear Edamame has changed quite a bit since the last time they’d spoken, on that boat in the East China Sea. In what other ways has he changed?
“So it’s true, then. You thought of me. You wanted to see me.”
“Don’t let it get to your head,” Edamame snaps, shooting a glare at him. “I still think you’re a pain in the ass.”
“Aw, I missed you too, ma moitié,” he croons.
Edamame’s flush darkens. He jabs a finger at him. “You have no right to talk like that. You haven’t bothered to show your face for a whole year. I didn’t even get a single text!”
Laurent takes the opportunity to pluck Edamame’s hand out of the air and wrap his own hands around it, a beseeching motion. “Forgive me, mon cœur. I was afraid you would find my presence unwelcome. I didn’t want to disturb you. You’ve been working so hard to put the past behind you.”
“Like I’d believe that,” Edamame accuses. “You probably just got caught up in a new con and forgot all about me.”
Laurent drops his head and presses a chaste kiss to the back of Edamame’s hand. “Nonsense. I could never forget you.”
He looks up—and suddenly Edamame is right there, he’s leaning across the bar, and he’s kissing him.
Edamura Makoto is kissing him.
Laurent’s whole body lights up like a firework. He grips Edamame’s hand and pulls him closer, shutting his eyes. The edge of the bar is digging into his hips in a kind of uncomfortable way, but that doesn’t matter, nothing at all matters except how soft Edamame’s lips are, how fumbling and eager. Laurent parts his mouth and licks at those lips. Teasing, hopeful. His mind is a chorus singing yes, yes, yes—ow!
Pain shoots from his bottom lip. Laurent’s eyes fly open, and he jerks back.
Edamame’s eyes burn into Laurent. His whole face is red. He reaches out and shoves Laurent in the chest.
“That’s for being such a fucking bastard,” he growls.
Laurent gapes at him. Edamame just bit him. On the mouth. As a power play. This is both incredibly hot and rather alarming. His dick is hopelessly confused right now.
“I thought you were supposed to be the nice one,” he manages to say.
Edamame just smiles sharply at him, a quick flash of teeth. Ah, alright. Laurent’s dick is no longer confused.
“You missed me, huh?” Edamame says. It’s a challenge, a dare. He’s calling his bluff.
Laurent swallows, and folds like a stack of cards. “Very much.”
Edamame leans forward and rests his elbows on the bar top. “Do you want to know me, Laurent?”
Do you want to know me.
Laurent knows so much about Edamame already. He’s been collecting little truths about him since before they’d even met. The things that he loves and cherishes. The things that keep him up at night. The parts of himself that he used to hate. Exactly how far to push before he snaps. And yet Laurent still wants to know more, to dig deeper, to push further. He’s not sure why. Laurent loves knowing people in general. But with Edamame, the temptation extends beyond that, to something almost like an obsession. He’s always greedy for more news about him, always trying to piece together what’s going on in his mind. He wants to break him open like a vault and touch all the beautiful cracks in his heart.
So yes. Laurent wants to know him.
Edamame’s eyes are dark and unwavering. Laurent feels uncomfortably seen.
The problem with getting to know someone, sadly, is that they tend to get to know you back.
“I do,” Laurent sighs, defeated.
Edamame nods to himself. He takes a fortifying breath.
“Okay. You can get to know me, Laurent,” he says. “But properly. No more cheating.”
Laurent blinks owlishly at him. “How do you mean?”
“I mean you’re not allowed to make other people spy on me for you anymore. Come to the shop again next Saturday. And then we’ll...talk. Like normal people do.”
Laurent feels hope begin to spread through his chest, like the slow break of dawn. “Edamame. Are you asking me on a date?”
Edamame frowns. His eyes skitter away, and the tips of his ears go pink. “I don’t know. Maybe?”
He is so incredibly cute. How can one man contain such multitudes? Laurent, despite the throbbing of his lip, cannot seem to stop smiling. “Then it’s a date. It’s definitely a date. I can hardly believe this. After all these years, you’ve finally succumbed to my advances.”
“I did not—succumb.” Edamame rubs his face. “Ugh. I can’t tell if I regret this or not.” He waves vaguely at the door of the coffee shop. “We’re done for today, Laurent. Get out of my shop. I need to process.”
Laurent laughs. “Ah, no, mon doudou, so soon? I feel like I’ve only just started talking to you. Let me stay a little longer.”
“Nope, sorry.” Edamame glares up at him. “I’m setting a boundary. This is called a boundary, okay? If I ask you to leave my shop, I need you to leave my shop. Or we can’t do this.”
Boundaries. Laurent feels a flicker of anxiety in his throat. He can do this, he can do one simple boundary. “Alright. I’ll go. I’m going. But I just have one more question before I leave, please.”
“What is it?”
“Was I your first kiss?”
Edamame blushes furiously. “You were not,” he hisses, and kicks Laurent out of his shop.
Laurent still can’t stop smiling on his way back to the airport. He owes Cynthia a huge payout from the Chapman con. And Shi-won, too. He keeps touching his lips compulsively, running his tongue over the little bruise. His head replays their conversation on loop.
He’s going on a date. With Edamura Makoto.
At the airport gate, Laurent pulls out his phone and calls Ozaki Seiji.
Oz picks up on the first ring.
“What did you do now, Laurent?” he asks in a tired voice.
Laurent can’t hold it in anymore. He laughs. And keeps laughing. He doubles over in the airport chair and covers his face with one hand, his elbow propped on his knee, laughing and laughing.
“I’m fucked,” he wheezes.
It takes five minutes for the laughter to work through his system, until it peters out into weak giggles. Oz waits patiently.
“So,” Oz finally says, his voice toneless. “I see that you talked to Makoto again.”
Laurent sits back in the chair and smiles, closing his eyes. “That’s right, old man. He told me I’m not allowed to spy on him anymore. So instead we’re going on a date. You know, I think your son likes me.”
Oz sighs with infinite weariness.
Laurent snickers. He pulls out his mental folder labeled OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL, and scribbles in, Expected retirement to be more restful.
“Are you actually going to stop paying your informants?” Oz asks.
“Hmm. Probably. I’ll try it for a week, at least. Could be fun, to learn about someone just by talking to them.”
“Well, let me know how long that lasts.”
Laurent opens his eyes and contemplates the airport ceiling. “I couldn’t help but notice that you weren’t around today, old man.”
Oz is quiet for a second. “It was for the best.”
“Are you sure? I thought it would have been best if I stayed in America, myself, but he actually seemed happy to see me.”
“You say that now,” Oz says. “But you know this is a bad idea. That’s why you called, isn’t it? You only call me when a plan of yours goes wrong.”
Laurent hums. “Can’t I just want to hear your fatherly voice?”
But it’s true, he knows. This whole trip was a terrible idea. Laurent was fucked the moment he met Edamame’s eyes again.
“If you want my fatherly advice so much,” Oz says, “I think you should probably call him and explain that you can’t make it to your date. It’ll hurt for a bit. But you’ll both be able to move on quickly, when it’s early stages like this. Better than dragging things on until you cause some real damage.”
“You’re such a pessimist.”
“I’m a realist.”
“Where’s your romantic soul, Oz?”
“This isn’t going to end well for at least one of you,” he says. It lands with a thud, the dull ring of a prophecy.
Laurent wraps his palm around the Hideyoshi figure and presses his knuckles up against his mouth. His lip stings. His heart feels like it’s expanding and breaking at the same time. He looks out the window at the night’s darkness, smiling into the pain.
“I know,” he says. “But I think I’ll risk it anyways.”