Authors: Marie Lu
Tags: #YA, #Carly
I end up gasping.
You were definitely too subtle.
His secret smile returns. “I’ll make up for it,” he murmurs against my ear, and then he kisses me again. My teeth tug once, teasingly, on his lower lip. Hideo growls in surprise, and he pulls away from my mouth to kiss the line of my jaw. His lips work their way along my neck, sending shivers up and down my back. His warm hand has found its way inside my sweater, running up along my bare back, tracing the valley of my spine. I can feel the calluses at the base of his fingers, rough against my skin. A million thoughts flash through my mind. I arch toward him. Vaguely, I realize that I’ve slid down along the length of the couch, my head now on the armrest, and Hideo’s body is heavy against mine, pushing me down. His lips go from my neck to my collarbone, kissing along the line of my tattoo, to my bare shoulder.
Then, abruptly, a needle of a foreign emotion slices through our raging tempest, a thread of worry from him. To my disappointment, Hideo leaves one last kiss against my skin. He sighs, murmuring a faint swear against my ear, and pulls away. I’m
left feeling suddenly cold, still reeling from what just happened. Slowly, I prop myself up on my elbows and stare at him. He helps me up, then lets his hands linger on mine for a moment. The Link between us settles into place, quivering, until it is calm and quiet again.
“I’m getting you into more than you bargained for,” he finally says.
I frown at him, my own breath still short. “Well, I’m not complaining.” I lean closer to him. “I
find Zero. I’m going to finish the job you hired me for.”
He looks at me for another moment, then shakes his head and smiles. The careful shield he always keeps around him has fallen away, leaving an inner layer of him exposed.
There’s something he wants to tell me.
I can see the war on his face. “I won’t keep you any longer tonight,” he says. His heart retreats behind the shield again. “Your teammates probably want to celebrate with you.” And with that, he reaches up and disconnects our Link. The sudden absence of his subtle undercurrent of emotions and the echo of his voice in my mind makes me feel emptier. A tiny button lingers in the corner of my vision, something I can tap to reconnect us.
I try to nod along so that he can’t see the disappointment on my face. “Right,” I mutter. “Celebrate. I’d better head back.”
He kisses my cheek. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” he says. But even as he pulls away, I know that the space between us has changed permanently.
I nod, as if in a dream, as if I can’t stop taking this drug. “Yes.”
In the following
days, the other official teams have their first round of games. The Andromedans defeat the Bloodhounds in record time, their world set in a maze of fiery catacombs. The Winter Dragons beat the Titans in a trap-filled jungle. The Stormchasers beat the Royal Bastards in the neon streets of a futuristic spaceport. The Gyrfalcons advance against the Phantoms, the Castle Raiders beat the Windwalkers, the Cloud Knights destroy the Sorcerers, and, much to everyone’s surprise, the Zombie Vikings defeat the Sharpshooters.
I watch and analyze each of the games along with my teammates. I train with them as the second round of games begins. We beat the Stormchasers in a blitz of a second round, where Asher and the Stormchasers’ captain, Malakai, faced off one-on-one at the top of an isolated tower while the rest of us fought our way up the tower’s sides.
Every day, I pore through a bunch of data on the other players.
I look for more signs from Ren as he moves around the dorms. He doesn’t make eye contact with me. I wonder if he knows.
At night, I dream I’m in Hideo’s bed, tangled in his sheets, my hands running along his bare back, his hands gripping my hips. I dream that someone breaks into his home as we sleep, that I stir beside him to see a faceless figure in dark armor standing over his bed. I picture the news the next morning, broadcasting Hideo’s death. I jerk awake, gasping.
Good morning, beautiful.
I wake up to a dark, stormy day outside and Hideo’s message on my phone. The light in my room is blue-gray, and my heart is pounding from another night of restless dreams. I read his message several more times before I’m sure that he’s alive and well, and then I flop my head back against my pillow and sigh, weak with relief. A small smile lingers at the corners of my lips at his words.
Then I sit up, pull on my shirt, and head to the bathroom to put in my lenses. When I return, a request is blinking in my view, asking if I want to Link with Hideo. I agree, and a moment later, a virtual Hideo is in my room, still bare-chested and in the middle of pulling on his own shirt. I grin, tempted to tell him to just leave it off. He pours himself a cup of coffee while his dog waddles around his legs in a happy circle. It’s pleasantly strange to see Hideo in a way no one else does—boyish, relaxed, wholly vulnerable, hair rumpled and wet from a shower, his sweatpants
hanging low on his hips. The pale light coming in through his windows highlights the edges of his hair and face.
He smiles when he sees me. “Before you ask,” he says, nodding off to the side where I can’t see, “my bodyguard is standing right by the door.”
I smile back and shake my head. “Glad you’re finally taking your safety seriously.” Then I sober. “I don’t suppose you’ve thought more about leaving Tokyo?”
Hideo sips his coffee. “Second rounds start this week. If I’m not there, people will start to ask questions.”
I sigh. “Just . . . think about it. Please?”
A bodyguard calls to him. Hideo turns his head slightly. “Mr. Tanaka,” reads my translation. “Reporters are ready for your interview.”
Hideo gives his bodyguard a subtle nod of his head. “In a moment,” he says. He walks toward me until we’re separated by inches, and then leans down toward me. If he were standing in my room right now, I could probably feel his breath stir against my neck. “I promise I’ll think about it,” he murmurs. “But you have to understand how hard it is when you are still here in the city.”
My toes curl, and I shiver with pleasure. Through our Link, I can tell that my emotions are reaching him in ripples.
I think to him.
Only in the morning.
I remember you being pretty hopeless that night, too.
He turns his eyes down, and his lashes catch the light. A smile lingers on his lips.
I’d like to kiss you right now.
What if I didn’t let you?
You wound me, Emika.
Maybe I want to kiss someone else.
Jealousy flashes across his face, and his eyes darken to cinder. Even through the physical distance between us, I can sense his emotions through our Link, that deliciously warm desire.
Come over. Tonight.
My stomach flutters.
But, my teammates . . .
I’ll make it worth your time.
The flutters turn into somersaults. “To your home?” I whisper, unable to hide my own smile.
He hesitates. The uncertainty returns to his face, and for a moment, I think he’s going to shake his head and change his mind again. After a pause, though, he surprises me with a nod.
Come with me tonight. I’ll show you my old home.
My heartbeat quickens. This is another secret from his past; I can hear it in his voice, feel it through our Link. I find myself nodding.
We both log out of our Link, and I exhale, then get up and head out of my room.
By the time I make my way downstairs, it’s raining hard outside. Hammie and Asher are on the living room couches, engrossed in a quiet debate about how best to mess up the Cloud Knights’ defense. Asher’s arm is draped over the back of the couch, his hand idly touching Hammie’s shoulder, and she doesn’t move away. Roshan is playing a game and streaming himself live on his social channels. Ren is nowhere to be seen. The dorms are quiet, save for the pounding of rain against our atrium’s glass ceiling.
I nearly jump out of my skin at Ren’s voice. My fist goes up instinctively, and I whirl around to see him standing behind me in the hallway, turned as if headed to his room. Then I let out my
breath and lower my fist. I should have sensed him there—I’m supposed to be so good at reading a room. “You scared the crap out of me,” I blurt out.
He just raises an eyebrow at my reaction, then replies in French. Transparent white text appears in my view as it translates. “Are you always ready to punch people that surprise you?”
All of my suspicions about Ren after tracking him over the past couple of weeks must have made me jumpy when I’m around him. “Just the ones that lurk in dark hallways.”
“Do you have a minute?” he says, nodding me over. “I want to ask you something.”
Ren stares quietly at me. “About Hideo.”
I blink, momentarily stumped for an answer, and my eyes dart quickly to Ren’s. He’s watching me carefully. What had he noticed in my expression? Had he purposely tried to catch me off guard to see what my reaction would be? Quickly, I compose myself and give him a confused laugh instead. “Why—have I finally shown up on some tabloid?” I say, exaggerating my teasing voice.
Ren grins in return. “Something like that,” he replies. His words send a shiver down my spine. “Come on. We can chat in my room.”
If I don’t go with him, it’ll look suspicious. So I find myself following him down the hall that leads to his quarters.
I tell myself. Besides, it might give me an opportunity to do some hunting that I don’t normally get to do:
directly to one of my potential targets.
I’ve never been down here before, but it’s impossible to mistake which room is his—from the hallway, I can hear the muffled, deep, steady sound of a beat, just barely loud enough to be heard.
The door slides open as Ren stands in front of it and reveals a large suite lit with a dim neon-blue glow. He steps inside. I hesitate for a moment before I join him.
Ren’s room looks completely different from mine, like he had it customized to his satisfaction. Padded foam squares line the walls, while the center of his room has a table shaped like an arc above which hovers a system of floating screens, some displaying what look like sound meters, others displaying metrics and bars that I can’t begin to decipher. A musical keyboard and a panel of sliding buttons are also attached to the arced table. Ren’s pair of gold winged headphones are lying on the desk. The room pulses with a deep, rhythmic beat that makes the ground vibrate and my heart beat in time. My eyes wander around his room in awe, even as I hunt for clues. I quietly bring up Ren’s hacked profile, and his information lights up in transparent text around him.
“You wanted to talk about Hideo?” I ask.
He nods, then sits down and spins around once in his chair. He loops his gold headphones around his neck. “Yeah. When we first met, you mentioned that you’ve listened to my music before, right?”
I nod. “I was a fan of your music when you first came on the scene in France.”
“Wow.” He gives me a smile that I can’t quite tell is genuine, and then plays with a few of the bars on his board. “I didn’t know you knew about me that early on.”
I didn’t know you knew about me that early on.
Immediately, a warning bell goes off in my head. “You kept yourself pretty niche,” I answer, carefully now. “Like you didn’t want to be discovered yet.”
Ren leans back in his chair and props his feet up on the desk.
“All of my early work was in French. I didn’t know you spoke my language.”
I watch him as he pulls his headphones on, my heart beginning to beat faster.
I didn’t know you spoke my language.
Is he talking about French, or is he talking about the language of hacking? “What does this have to do with Hideo?” I ask, trying to bring it back to his original topic. “Is he a fan of yours, too?”
“I’ve been composing a track for him as a gift, after everything’s over,” Ren goes on, his voice lighthearted. “To thank him for entering me in the Wardraft. I wanted to get some feedback on it from someone who knows Hideo well and also knows my music. You know, to see if it’s something he’d like.” And at that, he looks expectantly at me. “You seem pretty friendly with him.”
I force my smile to stay intact as I give him a shrug. “Do I?” I say, just as lighthearted.
“At least, that’s what the tabloids are all whispering about.”
“Well,” I reply, keeping my eyes level with his. “We all have friends in high places, don’t we?”
Ren returns the look for a moment, unrelenting, and then finally glances away. “Here. Have a listen. I could use the help.”
Ren had once said in an interview that he doesn’t appreciate outside input on his work. Now here he is, offering me his headphones, and I don’t know what to make of it. When he gives me an encouraging smile, I reach out and accept the headphones, then slip them on.
It’s a deep bass, all alone with a smooth, beautiful violin above it and something that sounds like chimes. A female vocal starts on the track. “
Let’s tear through Tokyo from zero to sixty / yeah, like we’re running out of time in this city,
” she croons. As I listen, I glance at Ren. A track about Tokyo.
Then, I hear a line that sends a jolt through me. “
Let’s go out with a bang / yeah, it’s time to go out with a bang.
It’s the same track that had played for a second in the Pirate’s Den.
He’s setting me up.
I look quickly at Ren and notice him watching my face with a thoughtful expression. He composed the track that had played during the Darkcross game—and now he’s making me listen to it to see if I find it familiar. Judging from the way he’s looking at me right now, he can tell that I’ve heard this song before. And that means he knows I must have been there at the Pirate’s Den at the same time he was.
He knows I’m following him. He knows I’m watching Zero.
Ren takes his headphones back. His eyes never leave me. “Do you think Hideo will like it?”
His words are ominous to me now, and I fight to look unaffected. “It’s good. Maybe he’ll even add it to the tournaments next year.”
“Maybe he’ll even add it to the final tournament
year,” Ren says, giving me a smile. He leans forward, rests his elbows on his knees, and traps me with an unblinking stare. “We have to go out with a bang, right?”
I smile and nod along with his statement, but it sounds like a thinly veiled threat. My heart beats faster.
Let’s go out with a bang.
Now Ren has repeated the same line from the Pirate’s Den—and even though it could
mean nothing at all, my mind jumps to a different conclusion. Whatever it is that Zero’s group is trying to do—involving so many international cities, involving Hideo’s life—it’s going to happen on the day of the final tournament.
And now he knows I’m involved.