lysapadin: pen & ink painting of bamboo against a full moon (Default)
[personal profile] lysapadin
Title: Like Mr. and Mrs. Smith (But Totally Not)
Characters/Pairings: Aomine/Kuroko, Momoi, Kagami, Alex, Imayoshi, Susa, Wakamatsu, Sakurai
Summary: The one where Aomine's a hitman and Momoi's his handler and Kuroko is his target, and y'see, that's where it all gets kinda complicated...
Notes: You know that movie with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie? Kinda like that. But not. Hitman AU; adult for guns, smut, violence, and Em indulging the hell out of herself. 27,989 words.

~~~~~~~~~~


Like Mr. and Mrs. Smith (But Totally Not)

Now

"This one will be easy, you said. Practically a cakewalk, you said. No problems at all, you said. Hah!" Satsuki jammed a fresh magazine into her Beretta, took a breath, and then threw herself around the corner, firing steadily to cover her retreat.

Dai-chan moved with her, taking advantage of her fire to holler, "Look, can't we just talk about this?" in the direction of the building across the street.

The only answer was the whine of the bullet that clipped the bricks just above his head as they took cover in the alley.

"I'm guessing that was a no," Satsuki told him, running the terrain of the neighborhood through her head, searching for a way to evade both their sniper and the approaching wail of police sirens. "Honestly, Dai-chan, what have I told you about sleeping with your targets?"

At least he had the good grace to hang his head and look apologetic. "It was an accident, okay? I didn't know he was the fucking Ghost back when I slept with him!"

"Only you, Dai-chan," Satsuki sighed as the wail of the police sirens got louder and another bullet smacked into the bricks above their heads—so much for the idea that they might be able to head up the fire escapes and across the roofs. "If we get out of this alive, I'm going to kill you myself."

Dai-chan just grinned at her. "That's what you always say," he told her.

"This time I mean it," she said, coming to a reluctant conclusion—it was going to have to be through the sewers, wasn't it? "Make yourself useful and pry up that manhole cover for me."

He only wrinkled his nose in distaste before stooping to apply that brute strength of his to the task. "So, hey," he said, grunting as he levered the cover up and rolled it aside. "You think me and him could work it out, maybe?"

"You are such an idiot," Satsuki said, peering down into the darkness of the sewer, estimating the distance down to the water below. She grimaced. She really was going to take the cost of her boots out of his hide.

"I'm just saying," he said, elbowing her aside and dropping himself down into the sewer ahead of her. His voice echoed up to her. "I think him and me, we really had a connection."

"Why do I even work with you?" Satsuki sighed as she lowered herself through the opening after him, and let him catch her as she fell.

Dai-chan just laughed and lowered her the rest of the way down. "Be careful, it's slippery," he warned her as she paused to get her bearings and retrieve the flashlight from her bag. She pointed it down the narrow tunnel and set off, splashing through the water and things that she was going to pretend were water, too. "Seriously, though—do you think...?"

"That you can work things out with the Ghost, who you slept with ages ago and never called, and were just assigned to kill, and who wants you dead?" Satsuki asked as he sloshed around behind her. "Sure, Dai-chan. Why not?"

She would have sworn that she could hear his grin. "You do? Great, that's what I was thinking."

"I am going to shoot you in the kneecaps and leave you down here for the rats, I swear," Satsuki told him, but the threat only made him laugh and start telling her his plans for getting back into the Ghost's good graces.




Then

In his defense, Daiki was not in full possession of the facts when it happened, which is to say that he was in Toledo and bored (hello, Toledo motherfucking Ohio, of course he was bored) and also at loose ends because Satsuki was in Fiji and had left strict orders that he was not to disturb her vacation on pain of being shot somewhere exquisitely painful. Given how the Skopje job had just gone (Skopje job: see also Reasons For Being In Ohio and Reasons Satsuki Fucked Off To Fiji For A Vacation), Daiki had good cause to believe that this was a threat she might actually carry through on if he tested her. There was no time like the present to test out the theory that discretion actually was the better part of valor, so Daiki was doing his best to keep his head down and himself out of trouble. The problem was that staying out of trouble was tedious as hell. Or possibly that was just the intrinsic nature of Toledo itself. Daiki honestly wasn't sure which it was.

He never should have let Satsuki pick the destination when orders came down to lie low for a bit. At the very least he should have insisted on going to Fiji with her, and never mind what she'd said about it not being a vacation anymore if he did that.

Whatever that meant.

He rattled around his hotel room for as long as he could stand it and tried to take in some of the city's culture and went so far as to go the fucking zoo in a last-ditch attempt at staving off his boredom. When even the joys of baby elephants and giraffes had palled, Daiki gave it up for a bad job and decided to sample the city's other culture.

Basically it was Daiki's philosophy that it was difficult to go wrong with beer, especially when it was beer being served in a strip club. He personally had some doubts about the "premier" quality of the place, but it wasn't the shittiest strip club he'd ever been in, the beer was plentiful, and the strippers were good-looking enough in their own fake-tanned and silicon-enhanced ways. What more could a guy ask of life than that?

No sooner had Daiki asked the universe that question and settled into his seat to enjoy the gyrations of a busty blonde by the name of Bambi than the universe answered. A cluster of men in suits rose from their seats on the far side of the stage; Daiki marked their exit as a matter of habit, at least until he caught sight of the guy who'd kept his seat when they'd cleared out. He was on the small side, wearing a suit that even Daiki could tell was exquisitely tailored, and there was something about him that caught the eye—maybe the way he sat so perfectly still, or maybe the way his attitude held him aloof from his surroundings. Or maybe it was the shock of something almost like kinship Daiki felt, looking at him through the frame of Bambi's shapely legs.

After a moment, the guy caught Daiki staring and looked back, clear and direct and utterly expressionless. Something about that gaze pinged at the back of Daiki's head, tripping his instinct for the unusual.

In the next moment Bambi bent double, her hair spilling across the stage as she wound her fingers around her ankles and began sliding them up her calves; by the time she'd undulated her way to something like fully vertical again and Daiki could see past her, the guy was gone.

Huh, he thought, rather disappointed by that and by the evidence that he was so bored that eyeballing complete strangers was more fun than watching a stripper work her stuff. Damn.

He took a pull of his beer, whose sole redeeming virtues were that it was cold and wet and cheap, and did not spray it across the stage when the guy turned up at his elbow in the next moment and said, cool and precise, "I don't believe we've met."

Up close Daiki could see that he was build on slim, fine lines, with eyes the same frozen blue of a winter's morning. He wasn't exactly pretty, too stubborn around the mouth and jaw for that, but he was striking. Looking him over, Daiki found he didn't mind being struck. "Daiki," he said. What the hell? He was lying low and it wasn't like there was anything better to do. He ran his eyes over the guy one more time, enjoying the way his suit hugged his body, and offered the guy the hand not currently occupied by a bottle of beer. "Nice to meet you."

The faintest crease drew itself between the guy's eyebrows. "Really," he said. Daiki was well-versed in reading nuance (Satsuki could pack more meaning into two syllables and a pair of raised eyebrows than some people could do in entire novels). He didn't know this guy at all and still managed to unpack the Are you trying to pick another guy up in a titty bar of all places? and the You must be joking and maybe a hint of Well, you've got balls anyway out of that.

Daiki grinned and lifted his beer, wrapping his lips around the mouth of the bottle and licking the foam from them after he'd swallowed. "Yeah, I'm thinking so," he said, because whatever else the guy was thinking, his attention had focused and turned sharper just then. "Pull up a chair and stay a while, if you like."

The guy's eyes flickered towards the stage and Bambi's undulations, then back to Daiki. "I was just leaving," he said. "For someplace quieter." He tilted his head just a bit. "Would you care to join me?"

"Love to," Daiki said. He drained the rest of his beer and unfolded himself from his seat, and did not miss the way the guy's gaze slid over him and lingered over his hands and thighs. "I'm just passing through on business and don't know the area at all."

"Likewise." Standing, he had the height on the guy, but it didn't seem to bother him as he looked up at Daiki. He just inclined his head toward the exit. "Shall we see what we can uncover together?"

"Sounds great," Daiki told him, and then bumped his shoulder against the guy's as they began picking their way through the tables. "You got a name?"

He caught just the faintest hint of the guy's mouth ticking up at the corners. "You may call me Tetsuya."

"Tetsu," Daiki said, trying it out for size and deciding he liked it. "Let's go find ourselves a good time, huh?"

"Yes," Tetsu said. "Let's."




It was an article of faith with his partner that Tetsuya was too uptight for his own good and wouldn't even take a trip to the john without having two backup plans and three escape routes in mind. Kagami probably would have died of shock to see him now, Tetsuya mused, or at least would have demanded proof that he was who he claimed to be and was not brainwashed, suborned, or a pod person. Just as well that Kagami was in London, then, and not here to witness this impulsive act. That way there were no witnesses but the two of them and the utterly disinterested night clerk who checked them into a room (paid for with one of Tetsuya's burner cards—he might have had an itch to scratch, but that didn't mean he was stupid enough to bring this guy Daiki back to his suite at the Grand Plaza).

Daiki had come along with him without demur and had shown so little suspicion or instinct for self-preservation so far that Tetsuya was beginning to wonder about the flash of awareness that had made him notice the man in the first place. His instincts for potential threats had never failed him to date, had saved his life more than a few times in fact, and had given him a sickening jolt to the stomach when he'd found himself under close observation just after meeting with a set of potential clients. No one was supposed to have known he was even on the continent—when one's sobriquet was the Ghost, one did have a certain obligation to live up to it—and his instincts had screamed a warning when he'd caught Daiki watching him from the other side of the stage.

Even now he wasn't entirely convinced that he'd been wholly wrong to be alarmed, though Daiki acted exactly like what he'd claimed to be—a bored guy on a business trip looking for ways to keep himself amused. Hence the strip club and—Tetsuya smiled in spite of himself, listening to Daiki's description of the outing—a trip to the zoo. He could imagine that, Daiki in the same atrocious paisley shirt, wandering through the zoo and probably ogling every pretty face he saw. He was still doing that, even on their way to the hotel room itself; they passed a young woman going the opposite direction and Daiki turned to watch her go past. When Tetsuya raised his eyebrows at this, he just grinned and spread his hands, shameless. "What, she had nice legs."

"There is such a thing as manners." Tetsuya was somehow unsurprised by the fact that this only made Daiki laugh, open and amused.

"I get that a lot," he said as Tetsuya slid the keycard into the lock on their door. He let Tetsuya precede him into the room and didn't say anything else while Tetsuya cleared it. He just flopped himself down onto the mattress, splayed out and boneless like a cat, and watched while Tetsuya drew the curtains, checked the closet and the bathroom, and kicked the base of the bed to be sure that it was solid and not concealing any unwanted surprises

(Later, much later, Tetsuya would mark the fact that Daiki saw nothing strange about his need to be certain that the room was clear of threats even though he'd been the one to choose the hotel at random and was quite sure it was neutral—not safe, there was no such thing as safe—territory as the first moment that he should have known that there was more to Daiki than a loud polyester shirt and a naked libido.)

"Comfortable?" Tetsuya inquired as he removed his jacket and used the motion to conceal it as he slid his shoulder holster off as well. Not an easy feat, that, especially when Daiki was watching him, but that was what being the best was for. He hung them over the back of the desk chair, trying not to show that it made him twitchy to be unarmed, and stepped out of his shoes.

Daiki stretched out. "Eh, I've slept rougher." He raised himself up on his elbows and watched as Tetsuya loosened his tie and slid it free of his collar, draped that over his jacket, then unfastened his cufflinks and set them on the desk. "You don't waste much time, do you?"

"There's a great deal of virtue in efficiency," Tetsuya told him, unbuttoning his waistcoat and draping it over the back of the chair. He started in on his shirt; Daiki continued to watch him, openly interested in the process. It was just as well that he had not bothered to bring any knives to his business meeting, Tetsuya supposed. Those would have been difficult to explain—perhaps even more difficult than the gun. There were some small advantages to taking jobs in the States, after all.

"Hey, wait a second," Daiki said when Tetsuya reached for his belt. He sat up and rolled off the bed in a fluid movement that Tetsuya couldn't help admiring and crossed the few steps to the desk. "Lemme help with this part."

Tetsuya paused in the act of undoing his belt, stilling as Daiki sank to his knees, and raised his eyebrows a bit. "Really," he said as Daiki nudged his fingers out of the way and unbuckled his belt. There was something about how casual Daiki was that put a hot edge of anticipation through him as Daiki thumbed the button of his fly and drew the zipper down.

Daiki looked up at him, smirking. "Oh, yeah," he said, right before leaning forward and burrowing his face against Tetsuya, nuzzling against him, his breath hot through Tetsuya's boxers.

Tetsuya had to set his hands against Daiki's shoulders and grip them to steady himself against the sudden dizzying rush of blood to his cock. He dug his fingers into Daiki's shoulders, hissing through his teeth at the sudden rush of sensation when the man mouthed him right through the silk. "Daiki."

Daiki glanced up at him, eyes crinkling at the corners like he was smiling, and blew him just like that, mouthing him and holding his hips still for it when Tetsuya strained against his palms, trying to buck against them as orgasm seized him and dragged him down like a riptide. He braced himself against Daiki's shoulders until it had eased again, breathing hard while Daiki pulled back a bit and looked entirely too pleased with himself and the mess he'd made of Tetsuya's boxers.

Tetsuya was going to have to do something about that, just as soon as the buzzing in his head cleared.

For someone as transparent as Daiki seemed to be, he was very good at reading Tetsuya—almost as good as Kagami was, and they'd been working together for years—because he said, "Couldn't help myself." He gestured at Tetsuya. "The whole undressing thing, that was very hot."

Tetsuya wasn't the sort to be charmed by pretty compliments, but even so—there might have been a part of him that was sneakingly pleased by the directness of that. Or the afterglow was making him sentimental. It came to the same thing in the end—he prodded Daiki's shoulder until Daiki got out of his space and finished undressing, folding his slacks and shucking the boxers off while Daiki watched, eyes heavy-lidded. "You're a lot more built than you look."

"I work out," Tetsuya informed him. He nodded toward the bed. "And now I want you to fuck me."

Consternation crossed Daiki's face even as he rose to his feet. "Uh—I don't know if that's a good idea. I don't have—"

Tetsuya rolled his eyes; did the man not know how to plan ahead for encounters like this? "I have the things we'll need," he said, crisp, and bent to retrieve the condoms and lube from his jacket's breast pocket. It paid to be prepared, after all, and there were more uses for those items than the obvious.

"You are fantastic," Daiki said, sounding as though he meant every syllable. By the time Tetsuya raised his head, Daiki was already naked, and—that was a pleasant thing to look at. Yes, very pleasant. His shoulders were no less pleasingly broad out of that shirt, sleek with heavy muscle, and his body tapered to a trim waist and slim hips and a very nice cock indeed. Tetsuya looked him over, taking him time doing it, until Daiki laughed and dropped onto the mattress again. He reached down to palm his cock, slow. "You sure you don't just want a show?"

"Quite sure." Tetsuya joined him on the bed, dropping the condoms and lube within his reach as he straddled Daiki's waist and leaned over him. "Perhaps another time." A polite fiction, of course, although—he dismissed the thought before it could even begin to form and bent to kiss Daiki instead.

Daiki responded instantly, kissing back as he set his hands on Tetsuya's back and stroked them down the line of his spine. Whatever else the man did, some part of his life saw him working with his hands. They were pleasantly rough with callus, just the way Tetsuya preferred, and felt good when Daiki closed them on his ass and squeezed. He hummed against the slow, filthy stroke of Daiki's tongue against his own, and was a little surprised when Daiki didn't immediately reach for the lube to open him up, even though he could feel the wet slide of Daiki's cock against the inside of his thigh and tasted every sound Daiki made when Tetsuya shifted against him.

The man really was a little something out of the ordinary, wasn't he?

Tetsuya set the edge of his teeth against Daiki's lower lip and felt his cock twitch when he bit down. He filed that response for additional consideration and grabbed the packet of lube himself, dropping it in the middle of Daiki's chest. "Open me up."

Daiki didn't move for it, which made Tetsuya give thought to biting him again. "Bossy, aren't you?" He nodded his head. "You're not—"

Really? Tetsuya was charmed in spite of himself. "I will be."

"Neat trick," Daiki observed and picked up the lube, apparently willing to take Tetsuya at his word. There was no hesitation in it when he reached around and slid his fingers against Tetsuya, pressing into him. Tetsuya hissed and pushed back against the harsh burn of it, rocking against Daiki's fingers and kissing him again, demanding.

Daiki made a sound, muffled, and responded instantly, mouth hot against Tetsuya's as he sank his fingers deep, working them hard against Tetsuya like he already knew exactly what Tetsuya liked best. Tetsuya groaned with appreciation and bit him again, hard enough to make Daiki gasp and throw his head back, even as he twisted his fingers, and yes, that was exactly what Tetsuya needed, heavy pressure inside him and the flare of pleasure up his spine. Tetsuya groaned again, rocking his hips against Daiki's fingers, and reached for the condoms. Daiki's cock felt good against his palm, heavy and thick, slick with precome as he rolled the condom down over him and Daiki cursed. He was getting close enough himself to manage the second condom for himself, which made Daiki laugh as he crooked his fingers just so and made him groan again. "That's an amazing trick."

"I like it," Tetsuya agreed, shuddering and pushing his hand away. He rolled off Daiki and pulled one of the pillows down from the head of the bed. He'd doubled it over and jammed it under his hips before he'd realized that Daiki was staring. "What?"

Daiki grinned, sharp and hot. "You're the best thing that's happened to me all fucking month." He sat up and stroked the rest of the lube over his cock as he shifted over to kneel between Tetsuya's knees. He settled his palms against Tetsuya's thighs without having to be prompted, slid them down to catch behind his knees, and spread them wide as he pushed into Tetsuya, one smooth motion that punched the breath right out of Tetsuya's throat. He seized Daiki's shoulders as the full, hard stretch of it burned through him and Daiki leaned over him, groaning his name.

This was another of those things Kagami would never have believed of him, if they had ever had cause to talk about such things—that Tetsuya could prefer it like this, being pinned under the weight of a lover, spread wide and held that way for each deep thrust until pleasure throbbed through him like a drumbeat. Daiki seemed to understand on instinct and gave him exactly what he wanted, pounding into him until the mattress was creaking dangerously and Tetsuya was nearly mindless with the harsh pleasure of it and had to reach down to close his fist around his cock to complete the circuit. He shouted as he came, his body working relentlessly around the thickness of Daiki's cock, and shuddered as pleasure pulsed through him. Daiki groaned, throwing his head back and showing the corded lines of his throat, and breathed, "Tetsu," like a man at prayer as he came a few sharp thrusts later. He collapsed against Tetsuya then, gone limp as a puppet whose strings had been cut, and Tetsuya found that much less objectionable than he might have done, usually.

Endorphins, he thought. Endorphins from the best sex he'd had in at least a year. That's all it was. Endorphins.

It was surely those same endorphins that led him to ask, "How long will your business keep you in town?" a little while later, after they'd begun to catch their breaths and clean up.

Daiki caught his eye and smiled. "Few more days at least. You?"

His prospective clients hadn't had a timeline, so Tetsuya felt perfectly comfortable in saying, "The same." He paused, but—endorphins. "We should do this again."

"Fuck yes," Daiki agreed, clearly delighted by the idea, and reached for the pad of hotel stationery and the pen on the bedside table. "Here, what's your number? I'll call you."

Tetsuya smiled as he recited the number for his burner phone, already looking forward to it, and paused, considering it. There was no need to wait, was there? "Pizza?" he suggested. And then perhaps another round. Or two. Daiki looked like a man who had some stamina.

Daiki grinned again and reached for the menu dangling off the wall sconce. "Seriously, you really are the only good thing Toledo has going for it."

Upon reflection, Tetsuya supposed he could have said much the same thing about Daiki himself. "Pass that menu over this way," he said, and Daiki did.




So the thing of it was, Daiki had had every intention of taking the fullest possible advantage of Tetsu's phone number—he honestly had meant to use it. Tetsu fucked like a demon, a very sexy demon, and while Daiki was definitely more of the brawns than brains type, he wasn't stupid. He could recognize a good thing when it was bare-ass naked in his bed, and that was a fact.

The thing was, he didn't need the number right away. He tipped the pizza guy a hundred bucks to go fetch them a box of condoms and a bottle of lube, which Daiki felt was a pretty brilliant move on his part and put a tiny, almost imperceptible smile on Tetsu's face. By the time they'd devoured most of the pizza, the pizza guy had returned to hand off the requested supplies with a grin and a wink and Daiki was feeling ready to pick up right where they'd left off. So was Tetsu, who wasn't particularly talkative but sure did a lot of looking with clear intent. Daiki barely got the door closed and locked after the pizza guy before Tetsu tackled him back into bed, which was a damn impressive feat even if that fancy suit had been covering up a surprising amount of lean muscle.

Not that Daiki had a whole lot of time to think about that, not when Tetsu pushed his knees apart and settled between them and proceeded to suck most of Daiki's ability to think out by way of his dick. By the time Tetsu's nose was pressed against his stomach and he had three fingers working in and out of his ass, twisting just so to make the fireworks explode behind Daiki's eyelids, Daiki was past the point of meaningful thought and had been reduced to clutching the headboard and begging to be fucked. The really fantastic thing was that Tetsu obliged him—just hooked Daiki's ankles over his shoulders and sank into him, hitting just the right angle to drive the breath right out of Daiki's throat every time he rolled his hips forward. All Daiki could do was hang on for the ride, so he did, groaning until he was hoarse with it while Tetsu slid in and out of him, the rhythm of his hips as steady as the ice-blue gaze of his eyes. By the time Tetsu hitched his hips a little higher and the sensation of that twisted through him like a knife, Daiki was a sweat-slicked mess, nearly mindless even before orgasm punched through him. Tetsu fucked him through it, kept rocking into him even after he'd gone boneless and wrung-out with the way each shift of Tetsu's hips sent aftershocks skittering along his nerves. Daiki lolled beneath him, trying to catch his breath and hovering on the edge of too much, and couldn't bring himself to cry off. It would have been a crime to interrupt Tetsu, who moved against him steadily and watched him with hooded, dark eyes until he finally tensed and came again. He groaned as he closed his eyes, gleaming and taut in the glow of the lamp, and caught himself over Daiki after he relaxed again.

If Satsuki had been around, she would have insisted that he get up and make his excuses at that point (probably while shielding his eyes and complaining about having to be his social director and his conscience all the while). Since she was in Fiji, Daiki stayed right where he was, sprawled out and (temporarily) fucked-out, and silently awarded Tetsu the title best one-night stand ever when all he did was flop down next to him.

It was a solid thirty-six hours before either one of them made a gesture at stepping foot outside the hotel room. By the time that Tetsu said, clearly regretting it, "No, I really must go. I have a client to attend to," they'd received three separate calls from the front desk regarding the amount of noise they were making, Daiki had a pattern of bruises and bite marks on the insides of his thighs from where Tetsu had pinned his hips down and teased him mercilessly before swallowing him down and sucking him dry, and Tetsu had allowed him to wrap the supple leather of his belt around his wrists and let Daiki fuck a creative string of profanities out of him.

"Yeah, I guess I should get back to work, too," Daiki agreed, vague about the supposed business that had brought him to Toledo. Mercifully, Tetsu hadn't been at all interested in business talk and he hadn't been forced to elaborate on his cover. He tilted his head at Tetsu. "Call you this evening when I'm free?"

Maybe Tetsu hesitated a moment over that, but Daiki didn't see what that mattered, not when his ultimate answer was a nod. "Yes. Do that."

And the thing was, Daiki absolutely intended to do exactly that: he headed back to his real hotel room with the intention of having a long, hot bath and a meal that wasn't greasy delivery food and then a nap to rejuvenate himself before calling Tetsu up. In a just world, he would have been able to do exactly that, but he was just getting comfortable in his bed when his phone rang. It was Satsuki, so tense she didn't even bother with the preliminaries before announcing, "We have a job in Rio. I've booked your flight out of Detroit. Wheels up at three o'clock."

That was enough to grab Daiki's attention, even as he sat up and started groping for a change of clothes. "I thought I was on probation."

"Things have changed," Satsuki said. By the sound of it, they had not changed for the better.

"Gotcha," Daiki said, looking at the time and grimacing at how closely he was going to have to cut it. "Bad?"

"I'll tell you when I see you," she said, clipped, and yeah. Daiki grimaced as he hopped into his jeans. It sounded like it was gonna be really bad this time.

As it turned out, it was even worse than he'd expected—not that he was too surprised by that, not when Imayoshi had pulled him out of the quiet limbo that the Skopje job had made necessary—and it was a solid three weeks of pure clusterfuck before the dust even began to settle. Daiki didn't mind that so much—he was the best there was, no question of that, and there wasn't anything he liked better than a little bit of orchestrated chaos—but it did mean that he didn't have the time to do anything with the scrap of paper with Tetsu's number until well after the job had ended and Imayoshi had sent them to New York to cool their heels.

He called it the instant he got a free moment, but all he reached was a prerecorded message informing him that the number he'd reached was out of service. It was a damn shame, but there wasn't any helping it.

"Probably wouldn't have worked out anyway," Daiki muttered, looking at the scrap of paper and feeling disappointed nonetheless when it turned out that it had been assigned to a prepaid cellphone and could not be tracked any further than that. Maybe it was sentimental to do it, but he folded it up and returned it to his wallet anyway—what the hell, why not hold onto the only memento left of the best sex he'd ever had? After all, it was a big world, and chances were pretty damn good that he wasn't ever going to run into Tetsu again.




Taiga did not know what had happened in Toledo and did not want to know, particularly, beyond the usual details. Those he did know, and they were perfectly straightforward: Kuroko had met with a set of prospective clients there. Both parties had found the negotiations satisfactory and shortly thereafter, a particular sum of money had appeared in one of Kuroko's offshore accounts. Not long after that, one of the city's leading citizens suffered a tragic accident when the brakes of his car failed while he was doing eighty miles an hour on the interstate; he did not survive the subsequent crash into the concrete barriers demarcating a construction zone. This cleared the way for certain business negotiations, or so Taiga understood it—that part didn't really matter. The purely metaphorical check had cleared and Kuroko was out of the country almost before the body had cooled. That was nothing but business as usual, a touch grim, sure, but it paid the bills and neither of them was much given to sentiment.

Besides, Alex had been the one to put them in touch with these clients, and her taste was pretty dependably solid. Taiga would have been willing to stake real money on the leading citizen's having had it coming. Most people they encountered in their line of business did, one way or another.

The problem was not with the job. The problem was that Kuroko came back from that job in an unspeakably bad mood.

The average observer probably wouldn't have noticed. Kuroko was the quiet sort, soft-spoken and fairly unassuming aside from his taste in bespoke tailoring, and he was scrupulously polite no matter what the situation. (Taiga still remembered the time in Cairo, the thing with the cheese grater, and Kuroko saying please and if you would be so kind and, eventually, thank you, I appreciate your cooperation in this matter. That had probably been what had broken the guy in the end, not that it really mattered—they got the kid back, safe and sound except for the PTSD, and that was what mattered in the end.) No, Kuroko was as quiet and polite as ever, just as prim and proper as precisely knotted silk ties he wore and the sharp crease of his slacks. He looked just fine, at least until a body got a good look at his eyes.

When picking Kuroko up at the airport, Taiga took one look at him as he slid into the passenger seat, took in the wintry hardness of his eyes and the flat unsmiling line of his mouth, and said, startled, "Jesus fucking Christ, what happened to you?"

The very act of asking virtually guaranteed that Kuroko would never tell him; theirs was a secretive sort of business, but Kuroko was more closemouthed than anyone Taiga had ever met. He belted himself in and bit out a frosty, "Nothing."

That, Taiga knew, was all he was going to get about that. Maybe if he'd kept his mouth shut, Kuroko would have eventually let enough slip of his own volition that Taiga could have put the pieces together to figure out the picture they made, but asking directly was the surest way to get Kuroko to go silent and uncommunicative.

"If that's the way you want to play it," Taiga told him, resigned to his partner's ways, and put the car into gear.

Honestly, he didn't really mind if Kuroko wanted to keep his business private. They had a solid partnership and worked well together, and Kuroko had never once held back anything that might have impinged on their business concerns. That was part of why they worked so well together and part of why they were friends, and Taiga was smart enough to know when not to upset the status quo.

It was just that Kuroko's foul mood lingered, and lingered some more. It showed in the way Kuroko spent hours on the range in his downtime, shooting magazine after magazine and rendering paper targets down into tattered scraps, and it showed in the way Kuroko didn't bother to hold back during sparring matches. He put Taiga on the mat six rounds out of ten, using the fine violent edge of his temper to press his advantage whenever Taiga hesitated to push it that far. It showed in the crisp way he prosecuted the handful of jobs that crossed their paths that autumn, a few things from Alex and a few more coming down from other sources, and that as much as anything decided Taiga.

"Do you wanna, I dunno, talk about it, maybe?" he ventured after the Oslo job and seeing Kuroko dispatch a gang of street toughs with vicious efficiency.

Kuroko merely looked at him, expression still and blank. "Talk about what?"

"Never mind," Taiga sighed, hunching his shoulders against the chill of oncoming winter.

When Kuroko got himself wound up, there were really only a couple of things to be done about it. A person could either wait for his fit of temper to run its course, which could take a good long while, or find something to distract him from his pique. When it began to look like Kuroko was settling in for a proper ice age of it, Taiga decided it was time to look into distractions.

Alex shook her head over it when Taiga tracked her down to Barcelona and cornered her in a small coffeeshop there to ask for her assistance. "I wonder about your taste in partners, kiddo, I really do."

Taiga sipped his espresso and waited her out, long since accustomed to Alex's opinions about Kuroko's inability to comprehend the nature of proportionality. Whatever her personal opinions about Kuroko happened to be, she also liked a challenge.

Kuroko definitely tended to be challenging, and that was God's own truth.

At length Alex set her cappuccino down and flicked her hair over her shoulder. "So tell me," she said. "Does he still have that vendetta against that rival of his?"

Kuroko had him trained well; Kagami had his mouth open to say, "Calling him a rival is doing the guy a favor, Alex," before he could think better of it.

Alex laughed. "I'll take that as a yes." She tapped her finger against her cup, the slow tick-tick-ticketa-tick of her nail against ceramic thoughtful. "I suppose you've heard a little about the thing in Rio a few months back?"

"I heard," Taiga agreed, because who hadn't? Kirisaki Daiichi had made a move against Touou, and Touou had not responded at all well to having their turf invaded. They had then proceeded to make their feelings on the matter strenuously clear. "Heard that the Tomcat was involved, anyway."

Alex laughed again, bright enough that at least a few men turned to look at her. Not that they needed the excuse of laughter to do that, really. "I'm pretty sure he prefers to go by the Panther, Taiga."

He lifted his eyebrows at her. "That's not what I hear." It stretched matters just a bit, given that the Tomcat, sometimes known as the Panther, was almost as secretive and good at covering his tracks as Kuroko could be, but Taiga supposed Alex would forgive him that bit of boasting. One did have to be loyal to one's partner and his pet rivalries, after all.

She grinned. "Be that as it may." She tapped her cup again, measuring out some beat known only to her. "Do you suppose that the Ghost might be interested in a photograph?"

"How?" Taiga demanded, honestly impressed.

Alex smiled and lifted her cappuccino, sipping it demurely. "I have my ways." She arched a single eyebrow at him. "Do you think it will do?"

"If it doesn't, then nothing will," Taiga said.

"Mind you, it won't be cheap," Alex warned him, clearly as an afterthought, but Taiga wasn't inclined to haggle with her and wired the transfer to the account number she provided. Money was for spending, and restoring the tranquility of one's working relationship could not be priced.

He didn't think too much of the photograph when the courier dropped it off at their flat in Rome—it had clearly been snapped in the heat of the moment, perhaps by a cell phone camera, and was on the grainy, pixelated side. The guy in it was tall and lean, dark-skinned and showing all his teeth in what was either a laugh or a snarl, and was wearing the ugliest shirt Taiga had ever had the misfortune of setting eyes on. The photographer had clearly caught him in the middle of a fight, because he had a naked blade in one hand and a semi-automatic in the other. Insofar as Taiga could tell from a crappy picture like this one, it looked like he knew what he was doing with them.

Once he'd gotten his fill of looking it over, he stuck it back in its envelope and went in search of Kuroko, who was sitting at the kitchen table, cleaning his guns. He hesitated a moment over it, wondering whether this was the right choice, and decided when Kuroko glanced up at him, still with that flat, angry look in his eyes. "Present for you," he said and flipped the envelope across the table at Kuroko.

Kuroko didn't say anything, but he set the slide and cloth down and wiped his fingers before shaking the photograph out of its envelope. He glanced at it and went very, very still. "What is this?"

Taiga had been his partner for years and was very nearly certain that if Kuroko were ever to decide to dissolve their partnership, he'd give him a head start. Even so, the absolute flatness of Kuroko's tone put a chill down his spine. He cleared his throat. "That's a picture of the Tomcat."

Kuroko raised his eyes from the photograph at that, looking at Taiga directly. "The Tomcat," he said, enunciating every syllable clearly. "Really."

Taiga watched Kuroko carefully, alert for any sudden moves. "That's what Alex tells me. Haven't known her to be wrong yet."

"Really," Kuroko said again, his tone shifting. He glanced down at the photograph again and the corners of his mouth lifted, almost imperceptibly. "You don't say."

Watching as Kuroko's eyes began to gleam with the promise of mayhem, Taiga had to wonder whether he'd actually made things better by providing this distraction, or if, in fact, he'd actually managed to make them worse.




Imayoshi Shouichi did not consider himself to be a particularly vindictive fellow—hard, certainly, and ruthless, that too, and also merciless when the occasion called for it, but not vindictive, no. While he didn't much care to be crossed—who would?—once an apology had been tendered and restitutions made, well, that was the end of the matter. He could forgive. Forget not so much, but forgiveness was certainly well within his capabilities.

He studied the spread of photographs that his right hand had brought to him and gave vent to a vexed sigh. "Yoshinori, this is starting to get on my nerves, and I don't mind telling you." Six delicate operations gone to hell in as many months, completely ruined when key players either came down with a severe case of mortality or got spooked by the minor inconveniences of exploded transportation, alert Interpol agents where Interpol agents had no business being, or, in one particularly remarkable chain of events involving a flock of goats, a barrel of anchovies, and a befuddled Church of England vicar on holiday, simply gave up in despair and refused to have any dealings with him whatsoever.

Susa looked down at the photos, blasé even in the face of a fiendish creativity for destruction. "What would you like to do, Boss?"

Shouichi frowned at the photographs and swept them into a pile. He restored them to the folder they had arrived in and handed it off to Susa. "Get Wakamatsu and Sakurai on the job. I want to know who's doing this to me."

Susa accepted the folder and lifted his eyebrows just a bit. "And why?"

Shouichi sucked on his teeth. "No," he said. "I'm a bit beyond caring at this point, actually. But thank you for asking."

Susa inclined his head, acknowledging that. "Yes, Boss."




"Aw, fuck," Wakamatsu said, which was neither particularly unusual nor cause for alarm, but he followed it up with, "Fuckety fuck on a fucking fuckstick," which was.

Ryou lifted his head from his laptop and looked at him. "Sorry?"

His partner had gone a little bit green and was breaking down his tripod and scope with remarkable efficiency considering that there was a visible tremor in his hands. "Protocol three," he said. "We're getting out of here."

Wakamatsu was the authority in all things security-related, so Ryou immediately killed the trace he was running and logged out of his laptop as he reached for his bag and began sweeping papers and delicate electronics into it willy-nilly. Wakamatsu shoved his tripod and scope into the compartments of his case, every movement he made hasty. His urgency communicated itself all too well; Ryou felt the cold trickle of sweat breaking out down his spine despite the fact that the apartment was stuffy and outside, it was easily thirty degrees in the shade.

Wakamatsu didn't bother with anything but his rifle case; Ryou barely had the time to grab his go bag before Wakamatsu hustled him out the door and down the hall towards the garbage chute. When they hauled the door open, warm air rolled out of it, assaulting them with the odor of garbage. Ryou paused, grimacing.

Wakamatsu growled, "Protocol three," again and shoved him into the fetid darkness of the chute. Ryou would have complained but for the fact that protocol three meant that they were in imminent danger of their lives. After that, things were too busy to allow him to think about it for a while.

It wasn't until they were on a plane three countries and eight time zones away that he caught his breath enough to ask what it was that had spooked his partner badly enough to invoke protocol three.

When Wakamatsu said, "It was because I saw Kagami fucking Taiga walk out the front door of our building, that's why," Ryou ended up having to put his head between his knees while Wakamatsu shoved an air sickness bag in his face and yelled at him to breathe into it instead of having a panic attack.

He was not at all surprised later to find out that the apartment they had been using for their surveillance had suffered a freak explosion not ten minutes after they had vacated the building by way of the garbage chute.




Shouichi absorbed the report in silence, leaning back in his chair and holding his fingers steepled before his chin. "I commend your attention to detail," he said once Wakamatsu and Sakurai had concluded their report. "And your resourcefulness. I reckon I wouldn't have thought of using a Greenpeace boat to cover my retreat. Well done." He lowered his hands and drummed his fingers against the arm of his chair. "I figure you'll want to go and find the deepest hole there is and pull it in after you for a while, though." Wakamatsu grimaced and Sakurai made a quiet, sickly sort of sound, which he had to assume meant that they agreed that it was best to lay low for the time being. The Ghost and his partner got downright unfriendly when they felt like their privacy had been invaded. "Well, you boys go right ahead and do that. Keep yourselves quiet for a bit. Consider it a vacation, if you like. Seems to me that you've earned it."

Wakamatsu was getting better at self-control; he didn't so much as say boo to that. They grew up so fast these days, Shouichi reflected, gesturing them out.

Susa saw the door shut after them and returned. He pulled a chair up and sank into it with a heavy sigh. They regarded each other in silence until Susa shook his head. "The Ghost," he said. "Who did you tick off, Boss?"

"Isn't that just the burning question of our times?" There were a couple of other syndicates he could think of that had the wherewithal to hire the Ghost, but as far as he knew, Kaijou didn't have any current grievances against Touou. Kasamatsu tended to be the direct sort anyway and was unlikely to hire a freelance agent to do a job he'd prefer to carry out himself. Kirisaki Daiichi could have done it, but they were no longer a concern, and Rakuzan was frankly indifferent to the affairs of lesser syndicates... and as far as Akashi was concerned, every other syndicate was lesser. "It's a mystery all wrapped up in an enigma, and that is a fact." He clapped his hands. "Reckon we'll just have to ask them ourselves, won't we?"

Susa blinked; his voice was tentative when he said, "Boss?"

Shouichi smiled at him. "Best call in our wayward kitten," he said. "I figure we'll want to brief him on this one face to face."




Satsuki listened to Imayoshi outline the parameters of their new job, watched Dai-chan practically bouncing in his seat with ill-concealed glee, and had a horrible premonition that this was going to end in tears. "Let me make sure I'm understanding this correctly," she said at last. "You would like us to go and capture the Ghost for interrogation?"

Imayoshi smiled at her, perfectly bland except for the faintly amused glint in his eyes. "I reckon that partner of his would do just as well, should the Ghost happen to feel a bit reluctant to cooperate," he said, generous to a fault. "Either way, I need you to bring one of them in and neutralize the other one. They've annoyed me and I'd like to know who's been paying 'em to do it. I do so hate to know there are folks out there wanting to stick a knife in my back without doing me the courtesy of telling me why that may be."

Satsuki considered the man sitting across the desk from them, the head of one of the more powerful criminal syndicates in the world, and sighed. "I can't imagine who would want to do such a thing to you."

He chuckled. "It's a terrible world that we live in, it's true." He spread his hands and looked at Dai-chan, who was still grinning like it was his birthday. "Well? Do you suppose you can take care of this little problem for me?"

"Not a problem." Dai-chan cracked his knuckles, heedless of the way it made Imayoshi-san wince. "Be easy, Boss. Practically a cakewalk. Just leave it to me and Satsuki, and we'll take care of it."

And with that, Satsuki knew, it was all over but the screaming. She sighed again and nodded when Imayoshi turned an inquiring gaze her way. "We'll do it." Goodness alone knew how, but perhaps Dai-chan's boundless confidence in his own skills would see them through. The gods did have a soft spot for idiots, after all.

Imayoshi smiled at them both. "Splendid! I look forward to your reports. They're always so colorful."

"We try," Satsuki said, glancing pointedly at Dai-chan, the source of most of that color, and moved directly into a discussion of the supplies and support they were going to need in order to see this mission through.

Dai-chan was still bouncing when Imayoshi finally excused them. They were barely decently away before he turned an exuberant grin on her. "Oh man, Satsuki, this is gonna be awesome."

"It's going to be something all right." She shook her head, but that didn't even make a dent in Dai-chan's enthusiasm. "Dai-chan, this is the Ghost we're talking about."

"I know!" He beamed at her. "Finally."

And that was the key, of course. He'd been waiting for the excuse to pit himself against the Ghost for ages now, longing to settle which one of them really was the best. Still, Satsuki felt that it was incumbent upon her to bring him back down to reality, insofar as Dai-chan ever made contact with such things. "It's going to be difficult, Dai-chan. You really need to take this seriously."

He laughed and threw an arm around her. "You worry too much. This is going to be a piece of cake."

"I have a terrible feeling about this," Satsuki told him, and was completely unsurprised when later events proved her right.




"You know," Taiga said, "when I gave you that photo, I figured that you'd use it to go after the guy directly, not... whatever the hell it is we're doing instead. Kuroko, what are we doing?" He felt the question was wholly justified given the amount of time they had spent harassing Touou over the past several months, a few times at the expense of actual paying jobs. He also felt that he'd been enormously patient in not asking this question any sooner than this, but given the fact that Kuroko had just asked him to be deliberately unprofessional enough to have been seen leaving the scene of a pending hit, Taiga felt that he deserved some answers.

Kuroko continued to whet his knives without missing a stroke; the quiet, steady scrape of steel against stone put a crinkle down Taiga's spine like nails on a chalkboard. Eventually he sighted down the edge of the blade. "We're biding our time."

Taiga waited, but that was all Kuroko seemed to be willing to say without further prompting. He rubbed his hands over his face as the steady rasp of steel against stone resumed and tried to find the right question to ask next. They were going to an awful lot of trouble to annoy Touou, yet Kuroko clearly had no interest in going after the Tomcat directly. If they were biding their time, then it had to be for Imayoshi to send the Tomcat after them. That shouldn't take long now.

At length he lowered his hands and looked across the table at Kuroko, who set one knife down and picked up the next, serenely unconscious of Taiga's scrutiny. "So what did the Tomcat do to you anyway, run over your dog or something?"

As he watched, Kuroko's lips tightened and the skin over his knuckles went pale and tight. "Nothing," he said after a moment, relaxing deliberately and resuming his work.

With Kuroko, sometimes it was all about what he didn't say as much as what he did. Taiga watched him work, sitting at the kitchen table with his shirtsleeves rolled up and preparing his tools as though he expected a serious fight to come, and thought about that. "What should he have done?"

Kuroko looked up from his knives, eyes cold and flat, and said, "Never mind."

Taiga resisted the urge to check his extremities for signs of frostbite. "Wait... wait, you mean there really is something this guy owes you? Kuroko, you know the Tomcat? Seriously?" No, wait, Kuroko hadn't recognized the photo as the Tomcat, not until Taiga had identified it for him, so that meant he'd known the guy under some other alias—

Kuroko fixed a glare on him that would have seen him six feet under, if looks could have killed. "Never. Mind."

Taiga took a breath, recognizing that he was treading on thin ice, and raised his hands in surrender. "Fine, not minding. Just..." He stopped, choosing his words with care. "Look, you're my partner. I've got your back in this, even if I don't know why you're doing this. Just... I don't know what we're doing here, and I'd really rather not end up dead without knowing why first. You follow?"

Kuroko regarded him, silent, before tipping his head forward in the barest of nods. "I will bear that in mind." He returned his attention to his knives.

That was as good as he was likely to get, Taiga knew. He sighed and scrubbed a hand through his hair. "So what's the plan?"

Kuroko raised his knife and sighted down the length of it; the edge glittered as coldly as his eyes. "Imayoshi will detail the Tomcat to find and neutralize us. When he does, I am going to kill him."

Taiga sighed again. "I guess that's a start of a plan, anyway. Can we maybe get more specific than that?"




Alex called him up with the news herself. "Well, kiddo, you and that partner of yours are in for it now," she announced when he answered the call.

"Hello to you, too," Taiga told her. When Kuroko glanced up from his laptop, he mouthed Alex at him. Kuroko immediately closed the laptop and came to attention. "How have you been?"

"Never mind that," Alex said. "You should know that Imayoshi has assigned the Panther to neutralize you and bring your partner in. It seems that he's developed a burning curiosity about all the things that have gone wrong for him lately."

"Some people just have no luck at all," Taiga told her. He gave Kuroko the sign—hostile on the move—and Kuroko rose and padded into the other room to gather up his gear. "It's really a shame, huh?"

Alex went silent on the other end of the line. "Taiga," she said eventually. "Be careful. This one isn't a joke. The Panther is just as good as the two of you are, and his partner is a smart one. They're both dangerous, and if you get yourself dead over this, I am never going to forgive you."

"Believe me, I don't have any intention of letting that happen."

"I know you don't have any intentions, kiddo." Her tone was more arid than some deserts. "I also know how good you are at sticking to your plans once the bullets start flying."

Taiga grinned. "The ability to improvise is my strongest asset and you know it."

She sighed. "God help us all. Just remember to watch your back, kiddo. For my sake."

"I will," he promised. "We'll be in touch."

"Take care of yourself," Alex said and hung up on him.

Taiga regarded his phone for a moment, Alex's warning ringing in his ears—Alex generally wasn't one to fret unnecessarily, her occasional criticisms of Kuroko's penchant for the extreme notwithstanding. If she was that worried... it bore thinking about.

Kuroko emerged from his room, bearing his bug-out bag, and raised his eyebrows just a bit when he saw that Taiga was simply sitting in place. "Well?"

"Alex wants us to be careful," Taiga told him.

"I'm always careful," Kuroko said. The hell of it was that he managed to keep his face perfectly straight, as though he honestly believed that this was the truth.

Taiga laughed in utter disbelief. "Seriously? Have you forgotten Istanbul? Or Mumbai?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Kuroko said, perfectly calm but for the faint quirk of his mouth. "I'll be expecting you in Detroit. Watch your back until then."

It was very like what Alex had told him, right down to the phrasing. Taiga hesitated over that, wondering whether it might be a sign—but no, that would be ridiculous. He wasn't superstitious. "Yeah, you too. See you there."

Kuroko nodded to him and vanished out the door. Taiga took a breath and went to collect his own gear in preparation for making himself visible.




The space between Taiga's shoulder blades itched mightily, the way it always did when he felt himself to be under surveillance. He was long since practiced in pretending not to notice such things and carried on with his business, striding down the concourse at a steady pace and resisting the urge to let himself merge into the pace of the crowd. He wanted to be visible, at least for those with the eyes to see it.

As much as he hated to admit it, the Tomcat and his partner were good. The surveillance had started on the second city, a bare three days after Kuroko had departed for Detroit and Taiga had begun hopping from city to city, as if preparing for a new job. He'd first become aware of it in a bar in Hong Kong, though the place had been too crowded for him to trace it to its source. He'd lost it temporarily by slipping himself into a crowd of drunken students and weaving out into the street with them, but they'd picked him up again the next morning on his way to the airport. It hadn't taken more than a couple hours for them to find him again in Sydney, which had been the beginning of a series of hopscotching jumps around the glob as Taiga had done his apparent best to lose his pursuers. He'd tracked them back to a room in a cheap hotel in Shanghai some seven or eight cities into the game and had blown the place.

He'd timed it perfectly, too: the Tomcat had barely squeaked out ahead of the blast wave.

After that he had made his customary escape, merging himself into a group of holiday travelers on their way to the Caribbean and acting as though he were completely satisfied that his pursuers had been neutralized. This had included pretending not to notice that his luggage had been expertly tossed sometime between Port-au-Prince and Miami, or that he had picked up a follower by the time his taxi pulled away from the airport.

The problem with being one of the best, he reflected as he looked at his phone, was that once you got that good, you stopped expecting other people to be able to meet you on a level playing ground.

Ah, well. That was to his benefit, so there was no point in bemoaning it now.

He stopped over at his hotel to catch a night's sleep that was much needed after the bewildering array of time zones he'd just traveled, and took his breakfast in the hotel restaurant the next morning. Over a full meal of pancakes, eggs, and bacon, plus fresh-squeezed orange juice, he called Kuroko. "We're going to have to meet," he said when Kuroko answered. "Someone's been on my tail again."

"That sounds unfortunate," Kuroko said. "Have you dealt with it?"

"Satisfactorily," Taiga told him, according to the code they had set up. It meant that he was sure that he was still being watched, but that he hadn't let on that he was aware of it. "I'm getting pretty tired of this, though."

"Very well, come on up," Kuroko told him. "We'll confer and see what may be done." Which meant that all his preparations were in place.

"I'll be on a flight this afternoon," Taiga assured him, and ended the call there. He finished his breakfast and checked out, heading to the airport to book a seat on the next flight north.

His shoulder blades itched the entire flight thanks to his consciousness that the Tomcat was sitting five rows back from him, but Taiga had learned his poker face from the best and was certain that the Tomcat had no idea that he'd been made. That certainly didn't make it any easier to keep his back to the guy, of course, but no one had ever promised him that this would be an easy job.

Kuroko was definitely going to owe him some proper vacation time after this, he mused as they touched down at Detroit, and none of his working holiday nonsense either. Taiga was going to hold out for the real deal, a beach somewhere tropical, one with white sand and the kind of drinks that were highly alcoholic and came garnished with fruit on sticks and umbrellas, preferably served up by pretty ladies in skimpy bikinis, and Kuroko could just roll his eyes over that as much as he damn well pleased.

Taiga preoccupied himself with pleasant thoughts of umbrella drinks and waitresses in bikinis as he made his way through the airport in order to avoid looking conscious of his tail—the Tomcat wasn't bad, though he hated to admit it. If he hadn't known better, he'd have sworn the guy in the loud shirt was just another tourist enjoying himself hugely, though God alone knew who would choose Detroit as a tourist destination. It sort of fit, though—no one looking at Kuroko would ever figure him for being what he was, either. Wasn't any sign of the guy's partner, though, but that just about figured—she generally seemed to leave the legwork to her partner and kept herself out of the line of fire like a sensible human being. Taiga hadn't seen that first glimpse of her through the entirety of the cat-and-mouse game he'd been playing with the Tomcat.

That was probably going to make running her to ground a little bit tricky once they'd dealt with the Tomcat, but one thing at a time.

The flight from Miami to Detroit was just over three hours, and that hadn't included the time spent sitting on the runway waiting for clearance to take off. From Taiga's perspective, it only made sense to duck into a restroom to relieve himself before dealing with the business of renting a car and heading south. He wondered whether the Tomcat would follow him, and was moderately amused by the fact that he didn't—what was the guy doing instead, hanging out at one of the airport kiosks and waiting for him to emerge again? Too bad; it would have been smarter for him to take advantage of the pit stop before they left the airport and the festivities could get started.

Not that the Tomcat knew what sort of a trap Kuroko had set up for him, of course.

One of the airport's prerecorded announcements crackled over the speakers as he rinsed his hands, warning him to report any suspicious or unattended bags to the authorities. He splashed some water on his face to clean the grime of the plane off him and headed back out to the concourse, on the alert for the Tomcat.

He had just a moment to realize that the Tomcat was nowhere in sight before someone bumped into him—a woman wearing a DTW uniform, pushing a wheelchair that barked his shin. She apologized immediately as Taiga grunted absentmindedly, scanning the airport crowd for that obnoxiously bright-colored shirt. "I'm so sorry, sir, I didn't even see you standing there."

"Forget about it." Taiga swept his eyes around again, but it was like the Tomcat had vanished into thin air—had he just gone ahead of him, maybe to keep up appearances? He'd inspected his luggage after it had been tossed, but he hadn't found anything that looked like a GPS locator—

Something niggled at his attention—something about the airport staffer, who was still standing there apologizing for bumping into him. Taiga tore his eyes away from the crowd to look at her again—at her face and not the uniform.

"Fuck," he said as he recognized Momoi Satsuki.

He had just enough time to watch her smile before he felt something sting his throat. A wave of dizziness washed over him almost immediately, and he swayed on his feet.

"Are you all right, sir?" Momoi asked him. "Perhaps you should sit down." She didn't wait for him to react and came around the wheelchair to take his arm; she was able to push him down with embarrassing ease.

"How did you beat me here?" Taiga demanded—tried to demand, but his tongue felt thick in his mouth and refused to articulate the words properly. Worse, none of the harried travelers around them seemed to have noticed anything was wrong, too preoccupied with their own concerns to pay attention to him.

Momoi just patted his shoulder. "Don't you worry, sir. We're going to take good care of you."

"Fuck," Taiga said again as the Tomcat appeared out of nowhere—seriously, where had the bastard been hiding himself?

The bastard had the nerve to laugh, and it was just too bad that Kuroko had already called dibs on him, Taiga thought resentfully as the world went blurry and grey. Now he wanted the guy dead, too.

Then Taiga's world went black, and he didn't know anything after that.




"I think that went well, don't you?" Daiki asked Satsuki once they'd gotten the Ghost's big lug of a partner safely under wraps and secured to his chair. He was still out cold, but he managed to be impressive despite that and the fact that they'd stripped him down to his boxers and undershirt and tied him to a chair. (Satsuki was not a fan of leaving things to chance.)

Satsuki did not look up from her inspection of the gear they'd pulled off the guy. She'd already cloned his phone and had set one of Sakurai's gadgets to breaking the encryption on it in case there was anything to be learned from Kagami's messages and contacts, and now she was examining each piece of Kagami's belongings for bugs. "Could have gone worse," she said as she sat the guy's watch down and turned her attention to his belt.

"You're a real downer sometimes," Daiki told her, idly, and grinned when she sniffed and ignored him. She never was much fun while they were in the middle of a job. Had something to do with professionalism or staying alive or, as she put it, One of us needs to be a grown-up, Dai-chan, and God knows it isn't likely to be you.

Of course, he was perfectly serious, in his own fashion. He'd had to be while they were playing cat-and-mouse with Kagami—that bomb back in Shanghai hadn't been a joke—but try explaining the joy of the hunt to Satsuki. The satisfaction she took from this job was a different kind of pleasure, Daiki figured, one that was more about good workmanship done well and less about the singing of the blood in the veins as they pitted themselves against the odds and gambled that they'd be good enough, fast enough, strong enough to defeat anything the world threw at them. So far he always had been, and now he was hunting the Ghost, probably the only one in the world who might be able to match him.

"It's really creepy when you smile like that," Satsuki said, not looking up from her work. "You know that, right?"

"Live a little, Satsuki," Daiki told her, which only made her roll her eyes. "Aw, come on, isn't it good to be alive?"

"Yes, of course it is." She set aside the last of what they'd pulled off Kagami, which was a nice little ceramic knife that Daiki was eyeing covetously. "That's why I'd like to stay alive for as long as possible." She sank her fingers into her hair, raking it out of the prim knot she'd worn while they were wheeling Kagami out of the airport, and stretched. "Far as I can tell, everything here is clean."

It wasn't a perfect assurance of safety, but it was the next best thing, even if they were dealing with the Ghost, who had a record of being slick as wet ice.

Daiki raised his eyebrows in enquiry, but she shook her head—so far, no sign of what Kagami and the Ghost's plans were, or where Kagami had planned to meet his partner. The clone of his phone was still locked when Daiki checked, so that left one other option. "Time to wake up Sleeping Beauty?"

"We may as well." Satsuki reached for the case where she kept her favorite toys and opened it up, surveying the neat rows of little glass vials. They were labeled according to a private code known only to her and the person who supplied her with her various pharmaceutical compounds. She selected two of the vials and a pair of syringes and giggled when Daiki shivered and averted his eyes.

So sue him, he didn't like needles. No one was perfect.

He kept his face turned while Satsuki fussed with loading the first syringe up and then swabbing Kagami's arm with alcohol and iodine. "You know we're going kill him later, right?"

"That doesn't mean I should be sloppy," Satsuki retorted. She found Kagami's vein and Daiki looked away quickly, before he had to watch the needle going in. "This ought to make him feel pretty talkative and cooperative," she said, narrating her work. "I'll just give him a couple of minutes for it to start working before I wake him up." She set the used syringe aside and loaded the second one up; when she'd judged that enough time had passed, she made the second injection. "He shouldn't take too long to wake up now."

Daiki dragged one of the derelict office chairs over to sit on while Satsuki disposed of the needles and vials. She elected to sit out of Kagami's line of sight, while Daiki placed himself where he'd be the first thing Kagami saw when he opened his eyes.

Satsuki was as good as her word; it only took a couple of minutes before Kagami snorted and twitched himself awake. He came alert with startling promptness, shaking off the sedative that Satsuki had hit him with and raising his head to take stock of his circumstances with commendable speed. Daiki watched him realize that he was bound to a chair and test his restraints even as he swept his eyes around the room—formerly an office, Daiki presumed, probably where the managing staff had worked when this factory had still been in business—and take in Daiki's presence. "You," he said, hoarse, focusing on Daiki. His eyes blazed in spite of the faint, lingering glassiness of them.

Daiki kicked back in his chair and grinned. "Me. Have a nice nap there, buddy?"

"I'm gonna kill you so much," Kagami promised him, slurring his words a bit. "I'm gonna make Kuroko let me help."

Kuroko, Daiki noted, wondering whether that was the Ghost's proper name. "Does Kuroko not let you help?" he asked, keeping it friendly and casual. The longer Kagami went without realizing he'd been drugged, the better. Once he started fighting it, getting good intel out of him would be more challenging.

"Not when it's personal." Kagami squinted at him, frowning like there was something puzzling him. "I still don't know what he's got against you." He seemed to consider this. "Might be your taste in clothes."

Daiki frowned, catching the way Satsuki stilled and raised her head, looking grim. The Ghost had something personal against him? "There's nothing wrong with my clothes," he said. "Kuroko can't hold anything against me on account of my wardrobe."

"I dunno about that." Kagami grimaced. "What are you, colorblind?"

"Hey, now," Daiki protested, genuinely offended. "There's no call to be mean."

"Stopping you from wearing that shirt would be a public service," Kagami informed him. "Even if you weren't the Tomcat, Kuroko would agree."

Behind his back, Satsuki shook her head quickly, before Daiki could lose his temper. He throttled it down with the thought that when this was all over, Kagami would be critiquing the fashions in hell, and pushed on. "Guess Kuroko must really have it in for me and Touou."

Kagami blinked at him. "Touou?" he repeated, and if he wasn't genuinely baffled, then Hollywood was missing a star. "No, he doesn't care about Touou."

"The two of you have been giving my boss an awful lot of grief for people who don't care about Touou," Daiki said. He lounged back on his hands, doing his best to look careless and indifferent. "Guess someone must have hired you for it, then."

"No, I already told you, this one is personal." Kagami frowned then, screwing his face up in what looked like dawning outrage. "Hey. Hey, why am I telling you all this?"

"Maybe you're just naturally helpful?" Daiki suggested, but Kagami wasn't listening. He'd looked down and seen the blood in the crook of his arm. He began to thrash against his bonds, swearing in a slurred mélange of five different languages. Daiki pulled out a pack of cigarettes and lit one while Kagami struggled, waiting him out. When he subsided, panting for breath and glaring, Daiki exhaled a stream of smoke. "So who did you say hired you to harass Touou again?"

"I'm not telling you that Kuroko just decided to do it on his own," Kagami spat. Daiki wished he'd thought to keep a camera handy, because the look on the guy's face after he realized what he'd just said was pure comedy gold. "Shit. Shit, what did you give me?"

"Trade secret," Daiki told him. He leaned forward and smiled at Kagami, friendly-like. "Now why would Kuroko decide to do something like that?"

Kagami set his lips together, mulish, and glared at him without saying a word.

Daiki took another drag on his cigarette, watching him, and blew a smoke ring. "There's two ways we can do this, you know," he remarked, while Satsuki made a face. "There's the one that's easy and the one that isn't. Up to you which way you wanna go."

To give the guy full credit, he didn't even flinch. "Go ahead," he said. "I can't tell you what I don't know."

That gave Daiki a moment's pause. "You don't know?"

Kagami showed him his teeth. "Kuroko keeps himself to himself," he said. "Not that he hasn't wanted a reason to put you down for a while now, Mr. Tomcat."

Daiki held onto his temper with both hands—now was not the time, as Satsuki's gesticulations were reminding him. He took one last drag off his cigarette and ground the butt out under his heel, deliberate. "Always figured you and the Ghost were the ones responsible for that," he said, distant. "I've been meaning to settle that account for a while now."

Kagami smirked at him. "Guess you and Kuroko have something in common after all."

Daiki leaned forward again. "You think?" he asked. "Why don't you tell me all about it?"

Although Kagami clenched his jaw and didn't respond to that, eventually he told Daiki everything anyway.




Satsuki kept her eyes on the traffic and her thoughts to herself, at least until she'd merged their nondescript little rental onto the interstate and could set the cruise control at a comfortable speed. Dai-chan was slouched low in the passenger seat, equally silent, and he had his wallet out. He was looking at something he'd extracted from it, a piece of worn, nondescript paper that had a few scribbles on it. There was something about how quiet he was that worried her just a bit. Anything that could plunge Dai-chan into a fit of introspection was worth worrying about. "Whatcha looking at, Dai-chan?"

He grunted and tucked the paper away again. "Nothing," he said. He immediately contradicted himself by adding, "A souvenir from the last time I was in Toledo."

"Ah," Satsuki said, leaving it be. She loved Dai-chan like a brother, which meant that she really did not want to know anything about his love life. He'd complained all through the business in Rio and for a few weeks afterward, something about a guy he'd met in Toledo who'd made the earth move for him, or something like that. Now was really not the time to be resurrecting those memories. "Funny place for the Ghost to choose for his trap."

"You're telling me?" Daiki huffed and stared out the window at the fields of soybeans and corn they were passing. "Wouldn't be my first pick of ground, that's for damn sure."

It wouldn't have been Satsuki's choice either, but no amount of questioning had been able to budge Kagami from that point. He and the Ghost had been planning to lure the two of them to Toledo. Maybe the Ghost was a fan of the Mud Hens. "You really don't have any idea how you've offended the Ghost?"

"Not a damn clue." Dai-chan turned away from the window and grinned at her. "Shame, isn't it? I ought to at least get the satisfaction of knowing what it was I did."

"I'm just imagining how disappointed Imayoshi is going to be to find out that he's merely collateral damage to a personal vendetta," Satsuki said, keeping her eyes on the road and her mirrors.

"Eh, it'll be good for him," Dai-chan said. "Keep him humble."

"The irony of those words coming out of your mouth stings," Satsuki said, but he only laughed. A few more miles slipped by, silent but for the rumble of their wheels against the pavement, punctuated by the depressingly regular jarring of the car's frame as they traveled over the potholes. Eventually she said, "Are you sure you're ready for this?"

"I've been ready for this for ages," Dai-chan said, all confidence. "The Ghost isn't going to know what hit him. And then he'll have a real reason to want my head on a pike."

"Imayoshi wants him dead," Satsuki said, not that she thought he'd actually forgotten.

He shrugged it off. "Yeah, yeah. He will be. After I get some answers."

Satsuki couldn't help sighing. "I really hope you know what you're doing."

She didn't have to look at him to know that he was grinning again. "Trust me, Satsuki. I'm a professional."




Getting information out of Kagami about where he and the Ghost—Kuroko, though it was strange to finally have a name for the guy after so long—had been an epic struggle between Daiki's persistence and Kagami's obstinacy. It spoke well of Kagami's loyalty that he'd been so determined not to betray his partner. Daiki could respect that. Fucked if he would have given up Satsuki without a fight, if it had been him in Kagami's place, and he'd even sort of felt sorry for the horrified look on Kagami's face once he'd realized that they'd finally gotten everything they wanted from him—the Ghost's precise whereabouts. That was the way the game was played, however, and Kagami had to have known that perfectly well given how long he and the Ghost had been working together. Best a person could really hope for was that the end would be quick, whenever it came.

Daiki shook his head slightly to clear it. Taking thoughts like that into a job was a bad idea, especially when the job involved the Ghost.

"Been thinking," he told Satsuki while they sidled their way in the direction of the apartment building where the Ghost might or might not still be maintaining his base of operations for his vendetta against them. If they were lucky, he'd still be there and Kagami's absence would not have caused him to take flight. If they weren't, then they'd toss the place and keep looking for him.

"You know that it worries me whenever you tell me that," Satsuki replied. Her eyes never stopped moving as she kept a sharp lookout on the buildings, windows and roofs alike, while Daiki kept an eye on the street. Early evening like this, they were full of people coming home from work or going out for the night.

"You know how he has that nickname for me?" Daiki continued, undeterred. If he let the things Satsuki said to him get him down, he'd never open his mouth again, after all. Satsuki made a vaguely affirmative noise. "So I'm thinking. Turnabout's supposed to be fair play, right?"

Satsuki didn't answer right away, being more preoccupied with covering him while they approached the corner. She posed as the slightly confused tourist who was somewhat lost while Daiki cleared the street under the pretence of checking the street names and landmarks. When he signaled that it was all clear, she said, "I've heard that. So?"

"So I'm thinking that the Ghost needs a nickname," Daiki said, casual, as they came up on the handsome brick-faced building they were seeking.

There was really no call for Satsuki to sigh like that. "A nickname for the Ghost."

"Yeah. I'm thinking that name's really too cool for this guy," Daiki said, anticipation curling through his veins, headier than any other high. "The Spook, now. That's more his speed, don't you think?"

"The Spook?" Satsuki repeated. "Really, Dai-chan?"

There was no need for her to sound so doubtful, either. "Yeah, why not? I bet I can make it catch on."

"I'm really not so sure about that," Satsuki said as they approached the building. Her voice was very nearly perfectly casual, except for the faint edge that betrayed the strain on her nerves. "Nicknames work because there's a grain of truth to them."

Daiki absorbed this and puzzled her meaning out while he scanned the street for any hint of danger. "Wait. Wait, what's that supposed to mean? He calls me the Tomcat, for fuck's sake!"

"That's because you are a tomcat, Dai-chan," Satsuki said, her tone absent as they opened the glass doors of the target building and passed into the lobby. It looked like a nice place, the kind that cost serious money—everything was faced in what might have actually been real marble, and the carpets beneath their feet were plush. The Ghost seemed to have particular tastes.

"I'm not a tomcat!" Daiki protested, sweeping the lobby—it was empty barring a couple of decorative palms framing the elevator doors.

"No, Dai-chan, I'm sorry, but you really are."

Before Daiki could get involved in refuting this, the lights over the elevator began to change, blinking smoothly as someone began to descend from the eleventh floor. They both tensed, watching it, and Daiki eased his hand around behind his back for the grip of his gun.

Satsuki continued the dispute anyway, her voice taut. "Before you start arguing with me, let me remind you that I've known you since you still had your milk teeth, and I ought to know what I’m talking about."

"I am not a tomcat, for fuck's sake," he grumbled as the lights hit the bottom floor. "It's not my fault if it's just hard to settle down in this business—Tetsu? Holy fuck, Tetsu!"

The elevator had chimed softly as its doors slid open and the car's lone occupant stepped out, a familiar slight figure wearing a sleekly tailored suit and carrying a leather case in one hand.

Tetsu's expression was a lot colder than Daiki remembered it being, for some reason, practically remote as he stepped out into the lobby. Satsuki, meanwhile, had gone tense next to him, making an unhappy sound—yeah, this could get awkward fast. If they had to go upstairs and take out the Ghost, it wasn't good at all for there to be anyone who could identify Daiki on sight and put him on the scene just before things began to roll. On the other hand, Daiki couldn't quite bring himself to regret that, not when chance had brought him back in touch with the one guy he still hadn't managed to get out of his head.

For the moment, he forgot all about the Ghost as Tetsu strode towards them. He grinned widely enough that his cheeks ached. "Fuck, man, imagine running into you like this. I didn't figured I'd ever see you again."

"It's a smaller world than you might think, Daiki," Tetsu said, cool and far-away. "Or should I call you 'Panther'?"

While Daiki was still gaping at this, Tetsu drew a gun and opened fire.




Now

It wasn't as though Daiki was stupid—well, not as stupid as Satsuki sometimes accused him of being, at any rate. He knew perfectly well that Satsuki was only humoring him as they splashed through the darkness, trying not to pay attention to what was under their feet while traffic rumbled over their heads. It was just that shock had a funny way of operating on a guy sometimes, and Daiki was definitely feeling some shock here. If Tetsu was the Ghost—and it didn't seem like there was any other explanation for the way the guy had greeted him by name and then tried to say hello by way of a semi-automatic—then a lot of things suddenly fell into place. He just didn't like the picture they made, was all.

Satsuki's voice, clipped and cool, floated back over her shoulder in response to his latest idea. "He doesn't strike me as being a flower kind of person." She paused at a junction, shining her flashlight around as though she was getting her bearings. "I don't think that one will work."

Daiki hadn't either, really, despite the advertisements that suggested that flowers could say anything. "Yeah, maybe you're right."

"I'm always right, Dai-chan."

"Fair point."

She decided which turning to take and they splashed down the left-hand tunnel. For a little bit, the only sound between them was the splashing of their feet and the distant sound of water dripping.

"What if maybe I threw in a box of chocolates and a note saying how sorry I am...?" Though he wasn't entirely sure what he ought to be apologizing for—what could he have done to piss Tetsu—the Ghost—off so much? Had he poached a contract out from under him or something?

"No, Dai-chan."

Daiki sighed. "Yeah, probably not."

"Are you really sure you want to make it up with the guy who just tried to shoot you full of holes?" Satsuki asked after a bit. "Who, by the way, is also your target? Just out of curiosity."

"You don't understand, Satsuki." Daiki flashed back to the sight of Tetsu all naked and flushed, fitting a pillow under his own hips and spreading himself open, all but demanding that Daiki fuck him. Somehow knowing that Tetsu was also the Ghost, just about the most lethal person in the world (present company excepted), only made the memory hotter. "This guy... this guy was something else. Something special."

"You're still going to have to put a bullet through his head," Satsuki told him, brutally frank.

"I don't want to." It came out before he could stop himself, too honest by half.

Satsuki stopped moving and turned. The glow of her flashlight cast ghastly shadows over her face. "That's not how it works, Daiki. You've got orders from Imayoshi, and the Ghost doesn’t seem to have any interest in kissing and making up. If you don't kill him, he's going to kill you. Do you understand that?"

Daiki looked away, though there wasn't anything to see down here but slimy brickwork. "I do. I just don't like it." It was stupid, but what the hell—he was pretty damn dumb sometimes. Satsuki told him so all the time.

Her expression hadn't softened by the time he looked her way again. "I don't care. It's him or you, and I've invested far too much of my time in keeping you alive to let him kill you. You are going to do this job or I will follow your sorry ass to hell and make your afterlife miserable. Do I make myself clear?"

"Crystal clear." Arguing with Satsuki once she'd made up her mind like that was a waste of time and effort and only tended to make her angry besides.

She glared at him and then nodded, executing a smart about face and marching ahead. After a second, Daiki followed her.

"Thanks, by the way," he said after a while of sloshing through the dark and making two more turns. "For, you know. All the time you've put in. And for pushing me out of the way back there." Tetsu would have had him if Satsuki hadn't already been on high alert and shoved him down when Tetsu had opened fire.

"Don't mention it," she said. "I was just doing my job." But her voice had thawed a little, so that was okay.

Daiki paced along behind her, silent for a while, and then cleared his throat. "So, what if we called Imayoshi and...?" He grinned at the aggravated huff of her growl. "Maybe I could get him to call off the hit to go along with the flowers and the chocolates and the note?"

"You're forgetting the jewelry," Satsuki said after a moment. "No apology is complete without that."

"Oh, yeah, good point. He's a sharp dresser—what do you think, maybe some nice cufflinks?" Daiki asked. "You'll help me pick them out, right?"

"I think I had better," Satsuki said. "I know what your taste is like—oh, wait. You don't have any." And she laughed when Daiki protested.

She really was a good friend, Daiki reflected, even when she was being the tough one. God only knew what he would have done without her. "What about a sky-writer?" he suggested as they slogged on through the darkness, following her lead. "Or would that be too much?"

"Definitely too much," she said. "A billboard would be much more tasteful."

"Oh, well, if you say so," he conceded. "You'd know best."

"And don't you forget it," she said, but there wasn't really any chance of that.




Satsuki was thoroughly sick of wading through dank water—well, dank liquid—and certain that her entire ensemble was only fit for burning by the time she consulted the map in her head and decided that they had come far enough. Besides that, her feet had started to hurt—it felt like she'd walked most of the length of Toledo—and she was altogether too glad to stand back and let Dai-chan ascend the ladder when they came to a suitable manhole, and then climb up after him. It had gotten dark while they'd traveled underground, and though the night air was hot and muggy, it was a great deal fresher and was a welcome change.

"So where the hell are we?" Dai-chan asked, stretching out his back as Satsuki took stock of their surroundings. She'd figured it just about right; they'd come out in one of the industrial parks on the north end of town. This time of day, there wasn't much street traffic, though that didn't stop Dai-chan from immediately chivvying her in the direction of cover. Satsuki couldn't blame him. Her shoulder blades itched until they'd taken cover. They probably wouldn't stop itching until Dai-chan had gone ahead and finished things with the Ghost.

Dai-chan nudged her, still waiting for his answer, so she told him roughly where they were. "Keep an eye out for a car, will you?" Getting mobile was their first priority; getting back to their bolt hole was going to have to be the next. "I hate to say this, but Kagami was good."

"Yup," Dai-chan agreed gloomily. "Played us just like a fiddle, didn't he?"

Satsuki didn't know why he sounded so chagrined; it wasn't his job to vet information. She'd assumed they'd gotten the full story out of Kagami, too, thanks to the drugs, and hadn't realized they were being set up at all. She wondered whether Kagami had known that his partner was using him for bait or not—if not, then the Ghost was even more dangerous than she'd previously given him credit for being.

They skirted along a line of buildings that emptied out on an access road that led to some kind of manufacturing plant—the kind that ran shifts through the night, because it had a parking lot full of cars. She nudged Dai-chan. "So how do you feel about a little grand theft auto?"

He grinned at her. "Aw, you know that's my favorite game." The grin didn't quite make it to his eyes—well, he'd accepted the necessity of finishing the job, but that didn't mean he was going to enjoy it. She was sorry for it because it was Dai-chan, but even he knew how to do his duty when it came down to it.

The parking lot was her favorite kind—open and unguarded—and there was no sign of anything like a CCTV to interfere with them when they crossed the road and began to skulk through the lot, looking for just the right kind of nondescript car. Satsuki slipped a coil of wire out of her purse and straightened it out as they conducted their search and had it ready when Dai-chan nudged her shoulder to indicate a beat-up sedan whose owner probably hadn't invested in a car alarm.

Dai-chan sidled up to their chosen car and applied himself to jimmying the lock. "Just a second and we'll be on our way," he said, manipulating the wire with expert fingers.

"I'm afraid I can't let you do that." The voice came from behind them, chilly as the winter dawn, and it was accompanied by the soft click of a safety being thumbed off.

Later, Satsuki would have the luxury of time to reflect on what transpired next and to realize that Dai-chan must have reacted without thought. The wire clattered to the ground, forgotten as Dai-chan seized her arm and threw her across the hood of the sedan while he drew with his free hand, firing in the same breath. The shots went wide of the mark as Satsuki hit the ground, rolling on her shoulder and taking cover behind the car Dai-chan had just thrown her across. The Ghost returned his fire; glass shattered and a cacophony of car alarms began to wail.

Dai-chan hurled himself over the car, his mouth set in an unusually grim line considering that there were bullets in the air and that was usually one of the things he enjoyed most about his job. He fired over his shoulder and signaled to Satsuki. At his nod, she moved, crouched low to take whatever advantage of the cover the row of cars could offer. It was distressingly inadequate, as the whine of the bullets that followed them suggested.

"How the fuck did he find us?" Dai-chan hissed in between returning fire, while Satsuki pelted for the dubious shelter offered by some kind of out-building just ahead.

Satsuki would have liked to have known that herself—"He must have followed us," she said, skidding to a halt as a broad open stretch of asphalt opened up between them and the chance of cover. "Shit!"

Dai-chan dropped his hand on her shoulder and pushed her down next to the bulk of an oversized truck tire. "We'll split up," he said. He raised himself up to fire a couple of shots in the direction of the Ghost. "I'll draw his fire and you get the hell out of here."

"You mean you're going to get yourself killed," Satsuki protested. She dropped to the side and fired under the truck, just to give the Ghost something to think about. "Hell no, Dai-chan."

"Like fuck am I gonna get myself killed." He fired another shot over the hood of the car and then focused a cocky smirk on her. "Have a little faith, Satsuki. No spook is gonna get me, you know that."

Satsuki watched him empty the magazine and slam a new one home, all in the same economical movement, and recognized the set to his jaw. Dai-chan had decided what he was willing to do, and there was nothing on the face of the earth that would move him from the place he had decided to stand. Damn him.

She dug into her purse and passed a spare magazine over to him, her eyes stinging. "If you let him kill you, I will make you regret it for eternity."

"Yeah, yeah," he said. "Get the hell out of here, I'll catch up with you later. Got it?"

"Got it," Satsuki said.

Dai-chan grinned at her and paused to press a kiss to her forehead, quick and dry, then threw himself over the bed of the truck with a roaring battle cry. Satsuki fired under the truck again, giving him what cover she could until Dai-chan closed with the Ghost and continuing to fire would risk hitting Dai-chan. Then she kicked in the rear window of the next car over and reached in to unlock the driver's door, and got busy hotwiring it while the sounds of Dai-chan's running battle with the Ghost drew away from her.

So much for this job being a piece of cake, she thought, channeling her adrenaline into sarcasm, because sarcasm was the best of a bad set of options.




It was vexing that the Tomcat and his partner should have separated, but it couldn't be helped. They had and the Tomcat had made enough of a nuisance of himself in the process that Tetsuya hadn't even been able to get more than a couple of pro forma shots at her before she'd tried to run him over on her way out of the parking lot. She had missed him, of course, but it had been a creditable attempt. What was more, it had given the Tomcat plenty of time to get a head start on him. Tetsuya followed him; Momoi Satsuki, though dangerous, was not his primary objective. She would keep until after he'd settled his accounts with the Tomcat. Daiki.

The Tomcat was very nearly as good as his reputation made him out to be; the moment his partner had gotten away, he'd taken to his heels, getting himself well away from the battleground that parking lot had become even before the first police sirens had begun to whine in the distance. Prudent of him, really. Tetsuya had no interest in having his business interrupted by the authorities.

Tracking him through the shadows of the industrial park was more challenging than following him through the sewers had been—that had been no more complicated than following the sounds of the Tomcat's conversation with his partner and taking care not to make any noise in doing it. Now the Tomcat knew he was being followed and used every trick there was to shake Tetsuya off his tail, doubling back on himself and taking to the roofs whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Too bad for him that he was not quite as stealthy as he thought he was, and too bad that Tetsuya had the advantage of him there, too.

The signs on the chain link fence advertised that the property it surrounded had been foreclosed upon by its creditors, which was no doubt why the warehouses on the property were dark and the parking lot vacant. As Tetsuya paused in the shadows and listened, he heard the faint, sharp sound of a windowpane being broken by a man trying his hardest to be stealthy, and he smiled. The Tomcat had decided to go to ground.

Climbing the fence and vaulting the razor wire at the top was as simple as thought itself, and so was slipping across the derelict grounds. He came across the sprawled figure of a security guard on his circuit of the building, still breathing but sporting a lump on the head, and lingered to take the precaution of trussing his hands with the zip ties he carried in his pocket and to improvise a gag from the man's cheap tie while he was at it. The guard carried a set of keys, which Tetsuya abstracted, and seemed to be alone on duty. Good.

That dealt with, Tetsuya continued on his way. The Tomcat had chosen a side window for his entry point; it looked as though he'd broken a pane so he could reach inside to unlatch the window itself, which he had then closed up behind himself. Tetsuya passed it by and kept going until he found a door, presumably the one by which the warehouse workers had come and gone in better days. He tried the guard's keys one by one; when none of them fit the lock, he sighed and picked it instead.

The air inside the building was stale and stuffy; Tetsuya slipped away from the door on silent feet and crouched, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the lower levels of light inside. Some dim light filtered in from the grimy windows, but not very much made it to the ground level of the warehouse.

The Tomcat had chosen his ground well; the warehouse was still full of its former owner's goods, which seemed to have been something in the line of heavy machinery or engines. Or, Tetsuya corrected himself, perhaps this had been an actual machine shop of sorts, because some of the dim shapes looming in the darkness seemed better fitted to manufacturing. In either case, there were plenty of places the Tomcat might be hiding.

Tetsuya smiled, tasting the air on his teeth, and slipped through the darkness as he continued his hunt.




Daiki held himself perfectly still in the niche made by a forklift and the crate it must have just deposited on a pallet when its operator had turned the key in the ignition and walked away. The Ghost came by his name honestly; he'd heard the tiny sound of a door opening and shutting, but other than that, there hadn't been anything to indicate that he was sharing this darkness with someone else. The Ghost—Tetsu—was as silent as the grave itself. He'd have been tempted to think that Tetsu had passed the warehouse by had it not been for the chill feeling on the nape of his neck that he only got when he was in the middle of a hunt. Tetsu was definitely still looking for him.

At least he'd gotten Satsuki away. With her safely out of the Ghost's reach, he could focus entirely on the business at hand and let the rest go by the wayside. That was definitely for the best, because she didn't have any part in this business, not really. This was between him and Tetsu. Whatever this was.

Movement. Daiki breathed carefully, silently, as a dark shadow crept around the bulk of a stack of crates, slow and stealthy. There wasn't any mistaking the faint, pale gleam of Tetsu's hair and face, which showed a bit too well in this gloom, though the rest of him was one with the darkness. Daiki watched him prowl closer. Tetsu paused to investigate every little nook and cranny that he encountered, even the ones that Daiki could not have possibly used as a hiding place. Daiki awarded him points for being thorough as he moved closer.

His arm ached with the weight of his gun, heavy at the end of his arm. Daiki ignored that with the same practiced ease that let him ignore the trickles of sweat working down his temples and nape. He had a full magazine and the safety was off; all he needed now was for Tetsu to walk a little closer, to cross the open space Daiki had in his sights, and they could end this.

Fuck, but Tetsu was good. Watching him now, Daiki had to wonder how he'd ever missed how dangerous a guy he was in the first place. Or had he? There had been something about Tetsu that had been comfortable, even familiar, something that had kept the guy on Daiki's mind long after the fact—and so what if it would have made Satsuki roll her eyes in disbelief? There had been something there. A connection, and not just the physical kind either.

Tetsu slipped into his sights. Daiki exhaled and squeezed the trigger.

The shot went wide; metal rattled somewhere as the bullet ricocheted off it.

"Fuck," Daiki said out loud, even as Tetsu threw himself behind a motor as tall as he was and Daiki's muscles acted on trained instinct, propelling him up the stack of crates and across the top of the nearby shelves at a dead run. Fuck, fuck, fuck, he'd blown the shot, he'd deliberately blown the shot, he'd twisted the gun aside at the last second, oh fuck, he had lost his goddamned mind.

Satsuki had been right. He was going to get himself killed.

Daiki swung himself over another forklift and cudgeled his brain for a new plan. Killing Tetsu was off the table. Okay. Time to negotiate. (Oh fuck, he was so screwed.) "Tetsu!" he yelled. "What the hell is this about?"

He moved again immediately, certain that Tetsu was every bit as good as he'd have to be in order to track someone through a dark warehouse by the sound of his voice. He crouched low and ran through the aisles, swift and silent, and tucked himself into the shadows between a pair of barrels.

At first, he thought that Tetsu wasn't going to answer. Then his voice floated through the darkness. "You know perfectly well what this is about." It sounded like he was safely on the other side of the building, so Daiki permitted himself a moment to close his eyes and swear under his breath.

"No, I gotta say that I really don't!" he called when he was ready to move again. "Did I poach one of your targets or something?"

He took to the shelves again, climbing them and moving fast, striking out away from Tetsu's voice. Tetsu sounded annoyed when he finally answered. "Don't play stupid."

"Do I sound like I'm playing?" Daiki jumped down, rolling and coming up running, because Tetsu had sounded closer that time. He fetched up against the far wall and edged his way along it, feeling his way in the darkness.

"You said you'd call."

Tetsu sounded so pissed, his voice all icy, furious rage, that it took Daiki a second to get past that and make sense of the accusation. He'd said he'd call?

Wait. Wait. "Are you fucking kidding me?" he yelped, almost too baffled to remember to keep moving lest Tetsu find him.

"Does it sound as though I'm joking?" Tetsu demanded. "I gave you my number."

If it hadn't been for the fact that Tetsu had already made two good-faith attempts at shooting him in the head, Daiki would have laughed—but there was something about the outrage in that last statement that stopped him. Tetsu was the Ghost, and the Ghost was notoriously careful about his privacy. And yet, even so, Tetsu had given him a phone number. Okay. Okay, fuck. "My boss called me to Rio right after we split up," he yelled. "For the thing with Kirisaki Daiichi. By the time I could call, your number was out of service!"

He ran, moving off at an angle from where Tetsu's voice had come from last, which was why it came as a complete surprise when Tetsu got the drop on him from above.




He had the advantage over the Tomcat, Tetsuya knew, and that certainty filled him with the sharp joy of knowing himself to be the best. He'd suspected it since listening to the Tomcat's partner tell him that he was going to have to kill or be killed, and knew it to be true when the Tomcat had wasted his one perfect chance to take Tetsuya down without a fight. Daiki did not want to kill him, and that made all the difference in the world between them.

The Tomcat didn't want to die, either. He went down hard when Tetsuya launched himself off the shelves from which he'd been stalking the Tomcat's voice, but he struggled like a madman when Tetsuya tried to subdue him. They grappled with each other in the darkness, grunting and swearing as they struggled against each other—it was an entirely different kind of enjoyable compared to the struggle they'd shared the last time they'd met, but there was still something familiar about the straining of his body against Daiki's. Daiki had the superior height and bulk, but Tetsuya had a great deal of practice in fighting an opponent much larger than he was. They rolled across the floor, kicking at each other. Daiki swore when Tetsuya head-butted him and nearly dislocated Tetsuya's shoulder trying to pin Tetsuya's gun hand down. He growled when Tetsuya twisted himself free of his grip, but dodged the punch Tetsuya threw in favor of kneeing him in the stomach. Tetsuya grunted with the impact, and again when Daiki pitched him off and he landed hard against the concrete.

They both came up with guns in their hands, breathing hard. There was a dark shine coating the Tomcat's chin; Tetsuya had thought he'd managed to split his lip. They froze for a moment.

"Seriously." Daiki sounded completely bewildered. "That's what this is about? I didn't call?"

"You said that you would," Tetsuya said, though that was not the whole of the story. He'd wanted Daiki to call, had even allowed himself to expect it when he'd known better than to do any such thing. Relying on anything or anyone was the surest way for a hitman to get himself killed, but he'd permitted Daiki to get under his skin, where he had no business being, and being stood up by him had been a singularly unpleasant, educational experience.

"I told you—my boss called me to Rio," Daiki insisted. "Jesus, you must have heard about the thing in Rio."

As a matter of fact, Tetsuya was quite familiar with the details of the all-out war that had erupted there when Kirisaki Daiichi had made their ill-fated bid for Touou's territory. He simply failed to see their relevance to this matter. "Then you should have called me to tell me you were going to be busy," he said, right before he rushed Daiki.

It was risky, but calculatedly so, and as he'd gambled, Daiki didn't try to shoot him. Tetsuya tackled him before he'd done more than swear and knocked him to the concrete again. He jammed the muzzle of his gun under Daiki's chin. Daiki went very still, even when Tetsuya seized his wrist and hit the nerve cluster there with his thumb. His grip on his gun went slack; Tetsuya plucked it from his fingers and slid it away as Daiki swallowed hard. "I swear I tried to call you the moment things calmed down," he said, hoarse. "I really did."

Tetsuya thumbed the safety off. "I don't like people who break promises. And I don't like liars."

"'m not lying," Daiki said. "Jesus, Tetsu, I still have your number in my wallet, for fuck's sake. I had Satsuki run it for me, even, but it was just a disposable phone—" He hissed when Tetsuya dug the muzzle of his gun deeper into the flesh under his chin, but even that didn't shut him up for long. "Check my wallet and see, if you don’t believe me."

He didn't sound like he was lying, though that didn't mean much. Tetsuya had known some very accomplished liars in his time. There wasn't any point in continuing to listen to him, not when he didn't seem to be the least bit sorry—"Where do you keep your wallet?" On the other hand, one or two minutes more couldn't do too much harm. God, he was going soft, wasn't he? It was a good thing that he was going to be getting rid of Daiki in short order; no one in their line of business could afford to be soft. Witness the Tomcat's current predicament.

"Back pocket. Left side."

"Make a single move and I will blow your head off," Tetsu told him.

"Fair enough," Daiki said. He held himself perfectly still while Tetsuya lowered a hand and slid it under him, groping for the telltale lump of a wallet. Extracting it from beneath Daiki's weight required a certain amount of finagling, but Daiki took him at his word and didn't stir even a millimeter. "Front pocket," he said when Tetsuya had secured it. "Behind the ID."

"If you're lying, I hope you know that I'm going to shoot you in several painful places before I kill you."

"I'm not lying," Daiki said. "Not about this. Not to you."

Tetsuya snorted—yeah, right—and flipped the wallet open, one-handed. He felt around behind the plastic window with its ID and frowned. There was a slip of paper there after all. He tugged it free and dropped the wallet on Daiki's chest. "Don't move, or—"

"—or you'll blow my head off. Yeah, I know."

The paper had the texture that came of being handled a great deal, creased and soft beneath Tetsuya's fingers. He unfolded it and raised it close to his eyes, squinting at it through the gloom. The scrawl read Tetsu and was followed by a string of numbers that were vaguely familiar. So were the hotel logo and address printed at the top of the paper.

"I was going to call you," Daiki said after several seconds had slipped by and Tetsu had finally lowered the paper to look at him again. "I swear. You were the best thing Toledo ever had going for it. Maybe the best thing that ever happened to me, except for Satsuki."

"Big words for a one-night-stand," Tetsuya said, clenching his fingers around the scrap of paper.

"Two-night stand," Daiki said. "And I wanted to keep going."

Tetsuya felt rather depressingly certain that he'd never met a liar who could have faked that soft, throbbing note of sincerity. "Damn it," he said, vexed with Daiki and himself. "You aren't lying."

"No," Daiki said, his voice pitched soft. "I'm not." His tone changed then, turning wheedling. "You think maybe we can work this out without anyone getting his head blown off? In the bad way, I mean?"

"It's a little too late for that," Tetsuya told him, though not without a certain amount of regret. "I said I'd have blood, and besides. There's Kagami." Who was no doubt sitting on a beach in heaven, cursing up a storm and complaining to anyone who'd listen that his crazy partner's completely unnecessary vendetta had gotten him killed. It was a distressingly clear mental image, one more regret to carry.

"Wha... Kagami?" Daiki repeated, sounding confused. "What does he—oh, fuck, Kagami." He raised his hands and waved them through the air, frantic. "No, no, no, he's not dead! He's fine, or he was the last time I saw him!"

Tetsuya permitted the waving hands and frowned at Daiki. "What do you mean, he's not dead?"

"He's not dead!" Daiki insisted, talking fast. "My boss wanted answers about who hired you, and Satsuki wasn't sure I'd be able to bring you down alive. He's not even hurt! Just sedated."

"No one hired me," Tetsuya pointed out. "Kagami must have told you that." All the same, a tiny and treacherous part of him, the same part that had waited for Daiki to call—that part of him couldn’t help hoping that he hadn't gotten his partner killed for no reason after all. Couldn't help hoping that Daiki really was telling him the truth.

"Satsuki's kind of a packrat." Daiki shrugged. "She figured there might be other interesting things he could tell us, but we didn't have time for it. She was going to save him for later."

"So you haven't killed him," Tetsuya said slowly. He raised himself up, removing his gun from its position under Daiki's chin.

Daiki didn't move, despite this, and peered up at him. "Does this mean you think we can work things out?"

Tetsuya sighed. There was really only one thing he could do in response to that, so he took aim and pulled the trigger.




Taiga woke up alone, in the dark, tied to a chair, and with an awful crick in his neck. It was still a damn sight better than waking up dead, so he elected not to be too upset about any of these points.

There was no way for him to tell how long he'd been out this time, but his mouth was dry and his bladder was beginning to make its presence generally known, so it had to have been at least a few hours. That was going to play merry hell with his attempts to avoid jetlag, he mused, rolling his head on his neck gingerly to loosen the muscles up and try to ease the ache in them.

Something skittered through the darkness. Taiga grimaced. Rats. Oh, fantastic. That was the only thing that had been missing from this experience.

First things first. Taiga worked up some moisture in his mouth and started yelling. "Hey! Hey, is anybody out there? Can anyone hear me?" His voice was hoarse on the first couple of attempts, at least until he got warmed up, but by the time he'd repeated himself a few times in every language he knew, he was in excellent form and his shouts echoed off the walls.

It was a pity that this only set the rats to scurrying away, squeaking. Taiga lapsed into silence after a bit to save his energy. At least he knew one thing now: the Tomcat and his partner weren't around. If they had been, they would surely have come to investigate the racket he'd just made. Presumably they were off learning why Kuroko was the best there was, up close and personal. Assuming Kuroko hadn't already put a pair of bullets through their skulls, of course. Taiga really just hoped Kuroko would hold off on doing that until after he'd made one of them tell him what they'd done with his partner.

Taiga grimaced again, willing away thoughts of being forgotten and left to die a slow, miserable death from dehydration, and began to test the restraints that the Tomcat and his partner had used on him. It felt like he was sitting in the same kind of old-fashioned wooden office chair that he'd seen the Tomcat sitting in, the kind with a curved back that sloped down to form the arms. His hands and legs had been fastened down with those useful nylon zip ties. When he tested them, there was barely any slack in them. Taiga strained against them, but all it got him was the sharp ache where they cut into his skin.

On the other hand, the chair creaked promisingly as he exerted himself. Taiga grinned at the darkness—who needed to wait for Kuroko to figure out where he was?—and set about systematically rocking himself against his restraints, gripping the arms of the chair and bringing as much of his strength as possible to bear on them. The wood groaned as he worked, his skin went slick with sweat and probably blood, and he heard a distinctly promising crack in the wood.

It figured that this was the moment that he saw a light coming up from somewhere behind him. Taiga froze—was this someone who had heard his cries for help, was it Kuroko, or was it the Tomcat? In the next instant he set to work with redoubled effort, trying to wrench at least one of the arms of the chair off. If he could just get a hand free before he had company—

The light came closer, a narrow beam of a flashlight that moved at the steady pace of someone sure of their direction. The beam played over the room, catching on the old, broken-down desks and chairs and shining red in the eyes of the rats before they scampered for cover. The flashlight's wielder didn't speak as they came up behind Kagami, but the cool pressure of the gun they settled at the base of his skull was perfectly clear.

Taiga went still. "You couldn't have waited five more minutes?" he sighed, resigned.

"Very funny." It was Momoi who spoke, and she did not sound amused at all. She played the flashlight over Taiga's wrists—yes, he'd rubbed them raw—and clicked her tongue. "You've been busy."

"You know how it is," Taiga said, breathing out as she took the gun away from his skull. "I've just gotta have something to do with my hands while I'm waiting."

"I'm sure you do. Keep that up and I will shoot you in the kneecaps."

There was something about the deadly calm in her voice that put Taiga in mind of Kuroko in a foul mood. Prudence suggested that she meant what she said, so he remained still as she moved away. Things rattled behind him; something clicked, and in the next moment the light of a camp lantern chased the darkness away.

Momoi continued to rummage around behind him, moving things around. Taiga heard the crinkle of foil and the sound of a the seal of a bottle being cracked open, followed in short order by the gurgle of liquid and a soft sigh. After a moment, Momoi came into view, carrying an energy bar and a bottle of water in one hand and a gun in the other. She looked much worse for the wear; her face was grimed with sweat and dirt and there were wisps of hair straggling out of her braid. Her sleek dark suit was torn and dirty, and a definite odor of foul water was hanging in the air—which explained the way everything south of her knees looked. Her expression was bleak as she sat herself down in the chair that the Tomcat had used before.

She didn't look like a woman to be trifled with. This did not keep Taiga from asking, "So where's that partner of yours—still out tomcatting around?"

"Here's the thing," Momoi said, slow. "Once you get past the fact that he's a hitman and is going to be a fourteen-year-old boy forever, Dai-chan is actually a pretty good-natured guy. He even manages to be nice, when he's thinking about it." She took a bite of her energy bar and washed it down with some water. "He can get away with that because he's got me. And I am not nice."

The disturbing thing about that speech—one of the disturbing things—was the fact that she held the gun on him through it, and, like her stare, her aim never wavered. Taiga kept himself very still and did not take his eyes off her. "And your point is...?"

"You set us up," Momoi said. "You did a damn good job of it, professionally speaking, and from one professional to another, it was an impressive piece of work. Did you know that your partner was using you as bait?"

"Of course I did." Taiga lifted his chin higher, justifiably proud of his and Kuroko's plans within plans, and with himself for having managed to keep just enough of them back to have sent the Tomcat walking straight into the trap, even with whatever hell-brew it was she'd dosed him with. "I take it that it worked?" She looked as though she'd been through the wars and the Tomcat (Dai-chan? Really?) was absent, so at least part of it had to have come off as they'd planned.

"We walked right into the Ghost's arms," Momoi said, slow and distant. "Again. As one professional to another, I can admit that it was a very neat job." Her expression hardened then, all at once. "As Dai-chan's partner, let me tell you this—if the Ghost kills him, I will make the both of you regret it until the day I cut your throats."

Taiga took a breath and let it out slowly as she ate another mechanical bite of her energy bar. So the Tomcat was still alive, or had been the last time she'd seen him. He guessed that meant that he and Kuroko were in the middle of chasing each other across the greater Toledo metropolitan area. It was an incongruous mental image, but funnily enough, he had no urge to smile, not with this woman staring him down with cold eyes.

Momoi finished her energy bar and then her bottle of water, and set the trash aside. Her gaze never wavered from him, and Taiga did not like the way it made a chill creep up and down his spine. "So now what?"

"Now you are going to tell me everything you know about the Ghost," she said calmly. "If you try to hold anything back or trick me, I will start carving pieces off of you." She smiled then. "Please do feel free to test me on this."

Taiga swallowed hard. "Jesus wept," he breathed. "How come they say that the Panther is the dangerous one?"

Momoi smiled at him again, brief and sharp. "It makes Dai-chan happy," she said. "Now, let's begin."




Getting shot was a hazard of the job, but that didn't mean that Daiki ever enjoyed the experience. He howled as fire blossomed in his bicep, partly from the explosion of pain and partly from outrage. "You shot me!"

"I prefer vanilla," Tetsu said, holstering his gun and bizarrely calm about the fact that he'd just shot Daiki for no good reason and then started spouting nonsense. "I am allergic to flowers," he continued as he sank a finger into the knot of his tie and pulled it loose. He removed his pocket square and clapped it on the hole he'd just made in Daiki's arm and used the tie to bind it into place. "And I prefer to pick out my own cufflinks, thank you."

Daiki stared up at him and realized what Tetsu was driving at. "There is something profoundly wrong with your brain—ow, not so tight!"

Tetsu ignored him and yanked the makeshift bandage until it was snug. When Daiki yelped again, he frowned. "Oh, stop that, it's not like I've maimed you."

And there was something profoundly wrong with his brain, too, Daiki reflected sadly, because there was something about that cool confidence that was sexier than it had any right to be. "Is this your idea of working things out?"

Oh, he remembered that tiny smile, sly and a little wicked. "Blood does wipe out all sins," Tetsu said. "Or so they say."

"One of us is crazy," Daiki told him. "And I'm not honestly sure which one of us it is."

Tetsu cocked his head. "Does it really matter?"

Daiki thought about it. "Naw," he decided. "I guess not."

"Good," Tetsu said, fisting his hand in Daiki's shirt and using it to haul him up. Daiki went with it and sealed his mouth to Tetsu's without hesitation. It hurt—tasted like blood when Daiki's lip split open again—and still managed to be absolutely perfect.

Sanity was probably overrated anyway.

Tetsu growled against his mouth, soft and intent. That soft little sound flashed down Daiki's spine like an arc of lightning, transmuting the adrenaline of the hunt and the fight and even the pain of being shot into something else entirely. He reached up and sank his good hand into Tetsu's hair, holding him and kissing back, hard and hungry, sucking Tetsu's tongue into his mouth while his wallet went sliding to the floor. The edges of Tetsu's teeth cut against his lips and Daiki's arm ached, throbbing in time to the sudden jackhammer beat of his heart, and those things only made the knot of heat at the pit of his stomach twist tighter.

Tetsu was right there with him, though, stroking his tongue against Daiki's in filthy mimicry of sex itself. He bore Daiki back down to the dusty concrete floor, ignoring it when Daiki hissed with the pain of it as his skull met the concrete (again). He slid his hands under Daiki's shirt and raked blunt nails across his chest. Daiki arched into the fiery lines that followed their path, groaning, and reached for Tetsu's hips, dragging him down and fitting Tetsu against him. Tetsu was already just as hard as he was and groaned when Daiki rocked up against him, rubbing their hips together.

"Fuck," Daiki gasped, breathing hard as Tetsu rubbed against him. "Fuck, Tetsu, fuck—"

"Yes," Tetsu breathed, close enough that Daiki could see the feral gleam of his eyes. He seized Daiki's mouth again and dragged his nails down Daiki's stomach, and then he started undoing their flies. Daiki groaned into his mouth, rolling his hips up to meet Tetsu's until Tetsu bit his lip and hissed at him, hold still and just let me—then he was dragging Daiki's zipper down and getting his hand inside to draw his fingers up the length of Daiki's cock. The slow drag of them twined around the stinging of Daiki's lip and the burning ache in his arm and made him gasp.

Tetsu shifted over him, lining their hips up and closing his hand around their cocks, and that was even better. Daiki arched under him, the tight grip of Tetsu's hand drawing his spine into a tight bow, and groaned at the slick, hot feel of Tetsu's cock sliding against his. Tetsu bit down on his throat, holding it in his teeth and sucking hard, and moved his hand faster, as urgent as the sounds Daiki could hear himself making. Then it was too much, too fast—orgasm closed on Daiki like a vise, squeezing everything he knew down into the unbearable spasms of pleasure as his cock throbbed in Tetsu's fist, spilling over his fingers. Tetsu groaned too, the breath of it hot against the aching spot where his teeth had just been pressed against Daiki's skin, and shuddered over him, following Daiki down.

Daiki sprawled against the concrete, breathing hard, his nerves still singing with sensation. "Oh my God," he gasped. "Oh my God, Tetsu, fuck." He raised his hand and petted Tetsu's hair, clumsy.

"Later," Tetsu rasped. "Not here."

Daiki laughed, giddy and too wrung out to pretend otherwise. "Then what the hell was that?"

"Working things out," Tetsu said. He moved, gone loose and relaxed, and raised himself up to kiss Daiki again. Then he sat up and produced a handkerchief—an actual, honest-to-God handkerchief—and began to wipe his fingers clean, businesslike. "Who is looking after Kagami?"

"Satsuki will—Satsuki!" Daiki sat bolt-upright, remembering her and almost too caught up in that to appreciate how smoothly Tetsu caught himself and rolled out of the way. He fumbled for his phone and grunted as the light of the screen stabbed his eyes and killed his night vision. "Fuck, she's probably going nuts right now."

"Then you had better call her," Tetsu said calmly. "And do ask her to take care of Kagami for me."

"Right," Daiki said, already dialing.




Satsuki had just established her position and mood for Kagami—who did not, sadly, seem to be in any kind of temper to test her, more was the pity—when her phone began to sound Dai-chan's particular jangling mishmash of tinny bass beats. Kagami twitched in his chair as Satsuki dove for her phone, her heart thudding. If Dai-chan was calling, then he wasn't dead yet. Probably. She kept her gun on Kagami and answered. "Dai-chan?"

"Satsuki, hey. It's me."

She could have wept with her relief at hearing that familiar lazy drawl, perfectly casual, just as though she hadn't last seen him heading off into a head-to-head fight with the Ghost. Satsuki channeled that relief into irritation instead. "Dai-chan, where the hell are you?"

"On my way home," he said, and she very nearly did cry at that, because that was the countersign for all clear. "Don't tell me that you've been worrying about me."

Satsuki sagged in relief while Kagami stared at her, his face gone hard. "Of course I've been worried, you idiot, I thought you were going to get yourself killed!" Kagami's expression went even harder, and he gripped the arms of his chair until his knuckles went white. "Are you okay? Is it done?"

She didn't like the sudden hush on the other end of the line, or how long it took Dai-chan to answer. "Well, I'm a little banged up, but nothing permanent."

"Dai-chan," Satsuki said. "Did you finish the job?" She enunciated each syllable clearly.

"Um. Hah. Um. So. I got a funny story to tell you, actually. You're going to laugh, I promise."

If it hadn't been imperative to keep Kagami covered, Satsuki would have rolled her eyes. "Dai-chan, do I ever laugh when you have a funny story to tell me? It's a very simple questions, yes or no: is the Ghost dead?"

"Well. Uh. No." Dai-chan laughed, that uneasy little chuckle that he defaulted to when he suspected that he was in trouble. "Y'see, that's that funny story—"

"What on earth is funny about the Ghost not being dead?" Satsuki demanded. Kagami sat up straighter, and though he was disciplined, his face still showed his sudden bright hope. "He wants you dead!"

"Oh, no, he doesn't," Dai-chan assured her, breezy. "It was all a big misunderstanding, we've worked it out, it's fine now."

Satsuki choked on nothing. "It was a big misunderstanding and it's fine now?"

"Yeah, it's fine! No one wants to kill anyone, it's all settled."

Satsuki set her gun down—Kagami looked as puzzled by what he was overhearing as she felt, and not likely to take advantage of the lapse, and even if he did try, she was faster than he was—and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Don't be so sure of that," she said from between clenched teeth. "I am about to decide to kill you myself unless you explain what the hell is going on right now."

"There's no call to be like that about it—" he began, sounding injured.

"Dai-chan!"

"Okay, all right, geez, fine. You remember that guy, the one I told you about, the one I met while I was in Toledo? That was Tetsu. He was mad because he thought I'd blown him off, but it was an accident, you know? The whole fucking Rio thing. But we're okay now, he knows it wasn't deliberate, and everything's fine!"

Sometimes a person just had to step back and marvel at the sheer scope of Dai-chan's obliviousness. "I really am going to kill you myself," Satsuki told him. "Or maybe I'll let Imayoshi have you."

"Aw, come on, Satsuki...! Huh? What was that—oh, right. Kagami. Hey, how's Kagami doing?"

With a horrible, sinking premonition, Satsuki said, "Is the Ghost there with you?" Across from her, Kagami muttered something; from the movement of his lips, it was probably what the fuck? which seemed appropriate.

"Well, where else would he be?" Dai-chan even managed to ask it as though it was the most obvious thing in the world that he should be keeping company with the Ghost.

Which, if he was, and the Ghost was that guy, the one who got away, then that particular note of self-satisfaction in Dai-chan's voice could only mean one thing. "Dai-chan! What have I told you about sleeping with your targets?"

Kagami's expression was a study at this point—the bafflement that anyone who was listening in on one half of a phone conversation felt mingled with the same confusion that Satsuki regularly experienced when confronted with one of Dai-chan's messes, topped off with a healthy amount of disbelief sprinkled over everything else.

"He's not a target anymore," Dai-chan said. "So it doesn't count. Anyway, Kagami. Is he okay?"

"Kagami is fine," Satsuki said slowly, helplessly, because where could she even start? "I suppose the Ghost would like to speak with him directly to confirm that?"

"Oh, yeah, that's not a bad idea, if you don't mind—hang on, she's going to put Kagami on for you."

Satsuki sat frozen for a moment, hearing the fumble of the phone being passed from one hand to another. Then she rose and approached Kagami, who gave her a wary look as she drew closer. "The Ghost would like to talk to you," she said, woodenly, and put her phone to his ear.

It was only some consolation that he looked as flabbergasted as she felt. "...Kuroko?" he said, tone cautious. "What's going on—what are you doing?" He listened, frowning, and did not seem to be reassured by what he was hearing. "Wait, you slept with the Tomcat? That's what all this was about?" He looked appalled—yes, Satsuki was going to have to make some time to be properly appalled later herself. "Have you lost—no, I'm fine, I'm just a little tied up, it's nothing worse than that time in Kraków—yes, I'm sure, seriously—but the Tomcat? The Tomcat? You hate that guy! …Oh my God, I can't believe you just said that—Jesus—augh! Oh my God, stop, I've heard enough!" He winced away from the phone and Satsuki took it away.

She caught the last trailing huff of cool laughter before Dai-chan came back on. "—ki? You there?"

"I'm here, Dai-chan," she said, returning to her seat. The little interlude had given her the time she'd needed to regroup. All right. Fine. Dai-chan had slept with the Ghost, and seemed to think that this solved everything? Fine. "You're the one who has to explain this to Imayoshi. This is all your mess. You clean it up." God in heaven knew that she was fully justified in washing her hands of the whole situation.

"Aw, but—"

"No," she said, flat. "Your mess, not mine."

Daiki sighed. "Okay, fine. I'll think of something. Hey, did you hear? We're going to rendezvous with you tomorrow morning, okay? That restaurant we both like, you know the one. Nine a.m., okay? See you there!"

He hung up.

Satsuki lowered her phone and stared at it, all bemused. A rendezvous in the morning... oh, good grief. Dai-chan was—with the Ghost—augh. "I can't believe this."

Kagami slumped in his chair, still looking traumatized. "Do you think one of them is trying to trick the other one? Mind games, maybe?" he asked, not sounding very hopeful about it at all.

"Not Dai-chan," Satsuki sighed, too defeated by Dai-chan's latest disaster to care that she was more in sympathy with the Ghost's partner than her own. "He spent the entire time we were in Rio whining about some amazing guy he'd met in Toledo."

"Kuroko brooded for weeks after he came back from Toledo," Kagami offered, sadly. "Weeks and weeks and weeks. He just about drove me crazy with it."

They regarded each other silently, bonding over the insanity of their partners, until Kagami moved restlessly in his chair. "Does this mean we're... in-laws now?"

"Depends on how well Dai-chan can sweet-talk Imayoshi, I think." Satsuki rubbed her eyes, weary at the prospect, even though it wasn't her responsibility. "Good grief."

"...right. Well, the reason I ask is that I was wondering whether you'd mind cutting me loose?" Kagami sounded as tentative as he looked. "Kuroko says the job is off, so... I promise I won't try anything? It's just that it's been an awfully long time since I had to use the bathroom, you see." He looked sheepish. "Truce for now?"

Satsuki gave him a long look and then sighed. "Sure," she said, drawing the knife she kept strapped to the inside of her arm and getting up. "Why the hell not?" Dai-chan had already changed all the other rules as it was.

"Great," Kagami said, obviously relieved, perking up. He essayed a smile, uncertain. "So... while we're at it... can I have my pants back, too, please?"




"Of course you have a second safe house," Daiki said as Tetsuya assured himself that none of the splints had fallen out of the door and that the hair that had been caught in the hinges had not been disturbed. "I should have known."

He unlocked the door to the apartment and cast a glance back over his shoulder at Daiki. "What makes you so certain that Kagami told you the truth about our safe house?"

Daiki hesitated on the carpet outside the door, frowning. "I thought for sure that he had." He shook his head and crossed the threshold. "Man, where did that guy learn to act?"

"He's never said," Tetsuya told him, passing through the kitchen and into the living room, clearing the apartment of potential threats—but everything was just as he'd left it earlier in the day, after Kagami had called him and indicated that it was time to put their plan in action. "I've never asked," he added upon reflection as he turned from checking the bathroom and the bedroom.

Daiki had prowled up behind him as he had stalked through the apartment, and now he looked down at Tetsuya, grimy and bruised—it was just as well that Tetsuya had disabled the building's security cameras, because Daiki barely looked civilized at the moment. He tensed, frowning at Daiki's sudden invasion of his personal space until he recognized the way Daiki was smiling. "So," he said, and that was all.

Tetsuya lifted his eyebrows. "So?" he asked, calmly enough, and released the grip on his gun.

Daiki grinned, slow, and his eyes were hot. "So you said something a little while ago about later." He stepped closer and laid his fingers against Tetsuya's chest, lightly.

"Did I?" Tetsuya asked, stepping backwards.

Daiki took another step, and then another when Tetsuya continued to retreat. "You did. So I was wondering—you figure it's later yet?"

Tetsuya ran his eyes up and down Daiki's body. "I've chased you through Toledo's storm drains, I've beaten you up, and I've shot you," he observed. "Not to mention the fact that I've already gotten you off once this evening."

Daiki's grin stretched wider. "Yeah, so what's your point?"

"Aside from the fact that we're filthy, bruised, bloody, and exhausted?" Tetsuya inquired, even as Daiki walked his fingers up the placket of his shirt and popped the top button through its buttonhole.

"Mm, yeah, aside from all that." Daiki slid his fingers down to the next button.

"I suppose I didn't have one," Tetsuya said, seizing hold of Daiki's shirt and giving it a good, hearty wrench.

"Hey!" Daiki protested as buttons pinged and spun into darkness. "I liked that shirt!"

"It was already ruined." Tetsuya spread his hands against Daiki's chest and stroked them up, running them over the welts from earlier in the evening and lingering against the place where a bruise shadowed his collarbone. "It was also hideous."

Daiki hissed as Tetsuya thumbed his nipple. "No one appreciates my style," he complained, his voice dropping registers as he pushed Tetsuya's jacket off his shoulders and let it slide to the floor.

Tetsuya opened his mouth to puncture Daiki's delusions on that score, but paused when the look on Daiki's face changed, his eyes going darker and hotter. "What?" he said.

Daiki set his fingers against his shoulders—no, he was resting them on the leather straps of Tetsuya's shoulder holster. His touch was light enough that Tetsuya could barely feel the weight of his fingers as Daiki ran them down the straps, stopping with his fingers hovering just above the butt of Tetsuya's gun. He wet his lips then, his eyes moving up and meeting Tetsuya's. "Can I?"

Tetsuya stilled at that request, looking up at Daiki—Daiki, who had slid himself into the passenger seat of a stolen car without question, who had followed Tetsuya's lead with absolute confidence, willing to take it as a given that they really had settled matters between them, Daiki who was so strangely trusting for a man who had made such a name for himself as a hitman. In a way, he reminded Tetsuya of Kagami—he seemed to have developed some peculiar susceptibility for such people, one that was quite possibly a vulnerability, but even Kagami had never taken this sort of liberty with him. Not even after the job in Johannesburg, which had been a deeply unpleasant experience all around, between the double-crossing and the blood loss.

Daiki didn't move, watching Tetsuya and waiting for his decision, and the only sign that he was aware of what he was asking was the banked heat in his eyes and the stillness of his fingers resting against well-worn leather.

He took a breath and let it out slowly. "Yes."

The smile spread across Daiki's face, slow, and Tetsuya might have second-guessed himself if there had been the faintest hint of smugness to it. There wasn't, and Daiki hooked his fingers under the edges of the holster, lifting it and easing it down his arms.

It was ridiculous to feel laid bare by that when he was still dressed and wearing three knives and a hold-out gun in an ankle holster, but Tetsuya was beginning to think that there wasn't anything between him and Daiki that wasn't ridiculous. He stepped closer to Daiki and set his hands on the warm skin at his waist, sliding them around to find the holster secreted at the small of his back. Daiki made sound low in his throat as Tetsuya thumbed the strap loose and slid the gun free of it. For a moment they stood still, regarding each other in silence, until Daiki cleared his throat. "Bed?" he said, hoarse.

"Bed," Tetsuya agreed, feeling somewhat short of breath himself, and what followed then was a desperate scramble to divest each other of their clothes as quickly as possible. It was just as well that Tetsuya had already resigned himself to the loss of this suit after their trek through the storm sewers. By the time Daiki had finished wrenching the waistcoat off him, Tetsuya had heard the popping of two different seams, and Daiki did not bother with the rest of the buttons on his shirt. He pulled a knife from a sheath that Tetsuya had hitherto not suspected him of wearing and sliced through the buttons instead. Tetsuya consequently felt no remorse over what he did to Daiki's belt or his jeans before tackling him into bed, still wearing the filthy and tattered remains of his shirt. Not that Daiki seemed to notice, not when he was pulling the garrote out of Tetsuya's pocket and tossing it aside before starting in on his trousers, hampered only by the way Tetsuya couldn't keep his hands off of Daiki's skin, still as sleek as he remembered but dappled now with bruises and the marks he'd left on Daiki earlier.

He leaned down while Daiki was still wrestling with his belt and kissed Daiki again, tasting the traces of iron and copper in his mouth when he traced his tongue over the split place in Daiki's lip and sucked on it. Daiki groaned and swore and finally got his belt undone; he tore at the flies of Tetsuya's trousers and shoved them down his hips. Tetsuya kicked them off impatiently, arching when Daiki closed his hands on his ass and squeezed, and closed his eyes when Daiki leaned up and ran his mouth down his throat. The slide of it was wet and hot; Tetsuya shuddered when Daiki angled his head and bit down, teeth scraping sharply over his skin. "Daiki..."

Daiki hummed against his throat, mouthing it, and Tetsuya felt him gather himself, tensing beneath him and rolling them over. He braced himself over Tetsuya, grinning down at him. "You still carry supplies around with you, or are we gonna have to call out for pizza?"

"I have no intention of waiting that long." Tetsuya stretched an arm out to the bedside table, pulling the drawer open without looking and plucking out the box of condoms and the bottle of lube. When Daiki laughed, he frowned at him. "It pays to be prepared."

"Sure does." Daiki stooped and kissed him again, slow, sliding his tongue between Tetsuya's lips and twining it with his as he slid a knee between Tetsuya's, coaxing them apart. "So I'm thinking." He slipped a hand under Tetsuya, running it down his back and cupping his ass again. "First round, I can fuck you, and then second round we switch."

Tetsuya hooked a leg around his hip and pulled him closer. "Ambitious," He rocked up against Daiki, liking the way Daiki immediately ground down against him, hard and hot against him. "I like it." He wrapped his hand around the back of Daiki's skull and kissed him again, hard enough that his lips stung with it, and tasted Daiki's groan on his tongue as he rolled their hips together again. "I think we should get started on that right away."

Daiki groped for the bottle that Tetsuya had dropped on the blankets, Tetsuya stopped him. "No," he said, plucking one of the condoms out of the box and pressing it into Daiki's fingers. "I mean right away."

Daiki glanced from Tetsuya to the condom and back again. "Oh my God," he breathed reverently. "You are amazing."

He didn't entirely know what to say to that, so Tetsuya pulled Daiki into another kiss, biting at the swollen curve of his lips and listening to the crinkle of the condom wrapper and the way Daiki groaned, low and breathless, as he rolled it onto his cock. He reached for the lube himself and slicked his fingers over Daiki's cock, squeezing him when Daiki jerked against him, rocking against his fist with short, sharp movements of his hips. Daiki groaned again, flattening his hands against Tetsuya's hips and stroking them down his thighs, spreading them wide. "Yeah?" he asked, hoarse against Tetsuya's mouth.

"Yes," Tetsuya said, his own voice husky, and closed his hands on Daiki's shoulders, digging his fingers into the solid muscle of them as Daiki slid against him, pressing in slowly. He hissed between his teeth at the impossibly hard stretch of Daiki's cock opening him up, arching against the fierce burn of it sinking home.

Daiki's groan was ragged, deep and open, and he closed his teeth into his lower lip, biting down hard enough to drive all the color from it and to open up the split again as he drove himself into Tetsuya. He held himself taut over Tetsuya, breathing hard, a thread of crimson sliding down his chin, and shuddered when Tetsuya lifted himself up and licked it away. "Fuck, Tetsu," he breathed. "Fuck."

"That's the general idea," Tetsuya panted. He ran his hands down Daiki's back and closed them on his hips, bearing down on them and dragging him closer. "Don't keep me waiting."

Daiki smiled, wild and a little bloody, and kissed him again. "Wasn't planning on it," he said, and rocked himself deeper into Tetsuya.

He dug his fingers into Daiki's hips, gasping for breath against the raw friction of it as Daiki moved inside him. "Yes," he hissed, clawing at Daiki's hips, wanting him closer, deeper. "Yes, like that..."

Daiki groaned and surged against him, answering his demand, panting harshly against Tetsuya's mouth as he drove himself into Tetsuya, deep and hard. The pleasure that twisted its way of Tetsuya's spine as Daiki fucked him was heavy, sharp-edged with the ache in his muscles and the satisfaction of Daiki's bulk pressing him down into the mattress and the curiously weightless sensation of kinship that had drawn him to Daiki in the first place. It was like stepping out into freefall without being certain that the parachute would open when he pulled the cord, knowing himself to be recognized by a partner: utterly disorienting, yet exhilarating.

Tetsuya closed his eyes and groaned, tipping his head back for the way Daiki mouthed his throat, trailing slow, sucking kisses down the line of it, mixing them with the way he murmured Tetsuya's name against his skin. It was a kind of madness to want this, to think that he could catch himself against the lazy assurance of Daiki's grin and the awe in the way Daiki whispered his name, that they could find a way to balance themselves together on this knife edge without it turning into a debacle. This was undoubtedly going to end in disaster, and yet—

Daiki hitched his hips higher, grinding into him at a sharper angle and splintering Tetsuya's concentration with the way pleasure rippled up his spine. Tetsuya gasped, straining up against him mindlessly in hunger for more, and groaned when Daiki did it again. Daiki groaned too, rocking against him steadily as he slipped his hand between them and closed it around Tetsuya's cock. Tetsuya dug his nails into Daiki's back, bucking into the perfect rough pressure of Daiki's fingers, and let the sweep of sensation break over him, shuddering as the long waves of it swept him down, relentless as a storm. Daiki swore against his throat, his voice gone rough, and rolled his hips against Tetsuya, driving into him hard and deep before he tensed against Tetsuya, shaking as he came apart.

Tetsuya closed his eyes, breathing hard, and gasped softly as Daiki sprawled against him, pinning him against the mattress and moaning against his ear as the last shivers of his pleasure rocked them both. Daiki was heavy against him, pressing him down and making it difficult to get a good breath, keeping Tetsuya splayed beneath him. They lay like that for some time, even after they began to catch their breaths, before Daiki turned his face and pressed his mouth to the corner of Tetsuya's jaw.

It was impossible that this should work, and yet Tetsuya lifted his hand and slid it into Daiki's hair. "We must be insane."

"Probably," Daiki agreed, nuzzling against his throat. "Hasn't ever stopped me before. You?"

Tetsuya gave this some thought. "Not that I can think of, I suppose."

"Well, there you go." Daiki kissed the underside of his jaw, apparently satisfied with this, and rolled himself off Tetsuya. He sat up to deal with the condom and strip off the remains of his shirt, which he glanced at ruefully before tossing at Tetsuya, presumably for use as a rag. He inspected the makeshift bandage wound around his arm and wrinkled his nose. "Probably ought to clean this up and dress it if we don't want Satsuki to throw a fit in the morning."

And that appeared to be that, insofar as Daiki concerned himself. Tetsuya discarded the soiled remains of Daiki's shirt and curled onto his side, looking up at him. Daiki left off his inspection of his arm after a moment and glanced down at him. "What?"

What indeed. Tetsuya watched Daiki's expression shift from curiosity to puzzlement and considered what he ought to say to that. What he could say, perhaps. Kagami would doubtlessly have known the right things to say here himself, perhaps, were he not too traumatized by learning about his partner's predilections, but Kagami was not here. At length he settled on the truth. "I knew that you were something out of the ordinary when we met."

Daiki grinned at him. "Yeah? Well, same here, I guess." He leaned down, folding himself up with unconscious grace that was only slightly marred by his bruises, and pressed his mouth against Tetsuya's. The easy intimacy of it nearly stole Tetsuya's breath. "Think I must have been waiting for you my whole life."

Ah. Yes. Yes, that did fit, didn't it? Tetsuya fit his fingers against Daiki's jaw, settling the pads of them against the steady beat of his pulse and running his thumb along the bruised and swollen curve of his lips. "I believe I know exactly what you mean," he said. Beneath his thumb, Daiki's lips stretched and curved with his smile. Tetsuya permitted himself a moment to linger over it before pushing himself up. "I had better do something about your arm," he announced while Daiki ran an appreciative gaze over him. He smiled at this. "And then I think I'll fuck you stupid."

Daiki chuckled and made himself at home against the pillows. "Depending on who you ask, might be a little late for that."

Tetsuya paused on his way to the bathroom, where the first-aid kit was stored. "Oh," he said. "That's what talent is for."

The sound of Daiki's laughter followed him into the other room. It was pleasant, and Tetsuya suspected that he could probably get used to hearing it. He retrieved the first-aid kit from its place under the sink, reflecting on the general improbability of what they were proposing to do together. But then, what was the point of being the best if a man couldn't reshape the world to his own ends?

With the matter thus settled in his own mind, Tetsuya nodded his head and went to rejoin Daiki and make good on his word.




Epilogue

Shouichi regard the four hitmen seated across from him in silence, which was a tactic that generally netted him good results. Aomine responded as usual, squirming in his seat like a shame-faced toddler. It was an incongruous look for a grown man sporting a busted lip, an arm in a sling, and several visible hickeys and bite marks, but Shouichi supposed that was why the boy was called a genius. Momoi sat still, perfectly composed, and only the uneasy way she nibbled her lower lip betrayed her nerves. Kagami and... Kuroko... were unknown qualities, but Kagami looked grim and jogged his knee up and down a few times under Shouichi's eye. Kuroko showed nothing at all and might as well have been carved from ice. Well, they did say that the Ghost was the best there was.

Did sort of make the fact that he had his own share of hickeys and at least one visible bite mark peeking out from beneath his collar rather funny, though.

At length Shouichi placed the tips of his fingers together and tapped them against his chin. "You all are going to have to pardon me for going over this again, but I just wanna be sure I'm understanding this correctly. Now, if I'm following your stories right, the reason I've been having such a rough year is essentially because two of the best hitmen in the world were acting out the plot of a Top 40 pop hit themed around 'Why doesn't he like me as much as I like him?'—am I right?"

"I would say that the theme was more to the effect of 'You broke my heart and now you're going to pay,' but otherwise, yes, that is essentially correct," Kuroko said.

"Ah, yes, how silly of me, that does seem like a more accurate theme," Shouichi murmured, while Aomine squirmed some more.

Without looking, Kuroko reached over and laid his hand on top of Aomine's.

Shouichi watched Aomine turn a besotted smile on the Ghost and Kagami trying his best not to seem appalled, and he sighed. "Yoshinori, refresh my memory for me. Just how much money did we estimate that we've lost this year thanks to the Ghost's lovelorn heart?"

"Between the soured deals, lost business, lost personnel, and what you characterize as your general aggravation index, several million dollars, sir," Susa said, expressionless.

Kagami winced and Aomine hung his head. Kuroko, meanwhile, continued to meet Shouichi's eyes calmly. "I do apologize for the inconveniences I've caused you."

"And I would not want you to think that I do not appreciate that," Shouichi said, smiling back at him. "But what I'd really like to know is just how you're planning on making it all right."

Kuroko lifted his eyebrows. "Tell me what you had in mind."

"I assume that you mean besides your head on a plate," Shouichi said, more to see what sort of reaction that would get him than because that option was still on the table. There clearly wasn't any point in hoping Aomine would be able to bring himself to it, and Momoi wouldn't either, not if it would mean making Aomine unhappy.

Kuroko did not turn so much as a hair. "I'm afraid you can't afford that option," he said calmly, which was what Shouichi had already concluded for himself. Subcontracting the job to one of the other independent operators who could take the Ghost down would be expensive even before accounting for the fact that it would likely lose him Aomine and Momoi as well.

"I suppose you're right about that," Shouichi conceded. Aomine sighed with relief, not even trying to be surreptitious about it. "We'll have to work things out in some other fashion." He regarded Kuroko, thoughtful. "Way I figure it, you owe me for what you've cost me."

"Shall I write you a check?"

Shouichi sucked on his teeth. "That solution lacks a certain emotional component. A soul, if you will, and the sense that you actually regret your behavior, which, if I'm not mistaken, you don't." Kuroko smiled faintly and said nothing. "No, I think I'd rather have you work it off instead." He smiled as Kuroko's face went still and expressionless. "I'd like to keep you where I can see you anyway, just in case Aomine cocks things up again. That way I can pop the two of you into couples counseling before you decide to go and make another statement about your broken heart."

Kuroko gave him a long look and then turned toward his partner. They communicated silently in a private code of lifted eyebrows, tiny frowns, the tip of a head, and the fractional nod. Kuroko pursed his lips and then returned his gaze to Shouichi. "Six months."

"You're not going to earn back that much money in six months," Shouichi said. "Two years, now, is a much more reasonable estimate of how long it'll take. There are only so many people I want to get out of my hair."

Kuroko barely even blinked. "I could cut you a check for the difference."

"Now, what did I already tell you about checks?" Shouichi asked. "Six months won't make much of a dent in what you owe. Give me eighteen months, though, and I might be willing to settle for a check at that point."

"A year," Kuroko countered, and smiled faintly, unexpectedly enough. "With the option to renegotiate then. I may decide that I like working for you. I haven't decided."

A year was what he'd expected to settle on, but that last was more than Shouichi would have hoped for. "I reckon that would be acceptable."

"Then we have an agreement," Kuroko said, still wearing that faint smile. Aomine slumped in relief and so did Kagami. Momoi just seemed to be resigning herself to her lot. Shouichi supposed he couldn't blame her for it.

"We do," he said. "Now get out of here, there's only so much romance a man can put up with at one time."

He watched them go nonetheless—Aomine and Kuroko still holding hands and Kagami and Momoi exchanging mutual glances of long-suffering. "It's an ill wind, eh, Yoshinori?"

"So they say," his right hand murmured. "Do you suppose it will last?"

"I wasn't joking about the couples counseling," Shouichi said, and Susa laughed with him.

end

And that, she said as she dusted her hands, is that.

Thank you to Andrea for the original prompt that spawned this silliness, and thank you to everyone who has commented along the way to coax me for more. I couldn't have done it without you!

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