A/N at unkeptsecret(dot)insanejournal(dot)com /5329. All my A/Ns go up on the blog to avoid clogging the margins of the story.
Disclaimer: The major characters and city aren't mine. I'm just playing in Rei's sandbox.
Bai Ji-Shin Chang looked down at the mass of blonde hair ungraciously slung across his side of the double bed and sighed. This was a problem. He couldn't be expected to share a bed with Balalaika and her ungodly amounts of hair.
Lucky for him, this was one problem had an easy solution. Chang would have one of his men suggest to Mrs. Sabai that she should purchase new mattresses for her home. She would take the hint well enough. After all, the aging widow stood to profit the most from the arrangement that made her immaculate Thai bungalow, which was ideally located on the edge of the gangster's paradise city of Roanapur and thus favored by Chang and Balalaika as a neutral meeting spot during the rainy season, available at moment's notice. Any one of Chang's Blue Lanterns could slip her an envelope with cash enough to cover a dozen king-sized, memory foam beds and the Egyptian cotton sheets to go on them. Chang himself would pull a few strings to expedite the shipping. The unspoken expiration date on a few minor favors was about to go, so the timing was ideal...
The woman beside him shifted in her sleep, and even that smallest of motions was enough to break apart his smoke ring of delusions. Chang closed his eyes, inhaled, and remembered the unforgiving truth. There was no need for new mattresses. This was the last (and first) time that he would have the chance to sleep next to the fearless and breath-taking Balalaika, beloved tsaritsa of the Hotel Moscow Russian crime syndicate and the only woman that Chang had desired in five long years.
She had never fallen asleep on him in the past, not that they had accumulated a long history of fucking (on beds or otherwise). Last night, they had met for the negotiations, as usual. When that fell apart, which was, sadly, as Chang had expected, he and Balalaika chit-chatted about the usual topics until one of them (usually her) grew impatient with flirtations. After they made love with the accustomed shameless abandon, she had unusually dropped off. One moment, she was mouthing off yet another insult about his gangster ways, the sting of which was lessened considerably by the languid stroke of her fingertips against his chest, and then she was lost to exhaustion.
Chang liked the usual. Even though watching her sleep was like looking down into a smoky volcano from the tip of its molten crater- absolutely spectacular, but it was a bad sign. An exhausted Balalaika was a Balalaika who was working too hard and too long on things that couldn't be good for the Triads.
Chang watched with detached interest as her restless hand troubled the sheets before settling up next to her face. The scars on her wrist blended into the scars on her cheek. Chang thought better of leaning down to kiss that minute patch of perfect skin over her eye that had somehow escaped the inferno's blast. He wondered if anyone else knew of its existence. Did any of those men who followed her like enchanted children after a pied piper ever watch her sleep? Or was this yet another secret that he shared with her alone?
She slept on her least scarred side. Chang guessed that she had acquired the habit during the long months it must have taken her body to recover from those mysterious, innumerable wounds. In his imagination, Balalaika had passed through the very maw of hell and that the jealous flames had consumed a full third of her perfect skin out of spite. The burns should have been the end of her beauty. The thickened, puckered scar tissue chewed up the right side of her face and the better part of her torso as well. Hell, it had even gnawed one nipple into a shapeless mound of angry, red flesh. What sort of pervert would find that attractive on a woman?
Oh, right. Him. Over and over again, him.
Chang reached for his cigarettes.
Balalaika stirred at the metallic whisper of his lighter strike. She blinked twice before pushing herself up on her hands.
"I shouldn't have fallen asleep," she chided herself with a raspy, morning voice.
Chang shrugged and lied. "I don't mind. Sleep all you want. I would have joined you, but your hair takes up half the damn bed."
Balalaika froze him with a nasty look from her icy blue eyes. "It's a wonder that you didn't try to strangle me with it. There's a poem to that effect, no? Or is there a sub clause in the gangster code that forbids life imitating art?"
"Hey, now!" Chang said, throwing his hands up in mock surrender. "Don't confuse me with Browning. What kind of guy would pass up the chance to spend a night next to a dangerously beautiful woman?"
Balalaika snorted. Flattery absolutely failed to charm her. Chang loved that.
"Only a fool would pass up an opportunity to eliminate an enemy," she pointed out.
"I'm not your enemy yet, Balalaika. You know that. Besides, we both know that I'd need a blade if I was going to take a stab at you," Chang said with a half-smile. They never took any weapons into their meetings. It was a given. They went through a damned metal detector. Their men did separate sweeps of their meeting locations, and her loyal dog, Boris, was probably closer than shouting distance. Chang couldn't hurt her even if he had the desire.
His bad pun almost worked. The anger evaporated from her expression, and she nearly smiled back but then elected to drop her gaze instead. Chang didn't savor how much he wanted to grab her by her pretty chin and make her look at him. He was getting soft in his old age. The end of something, anything really, had a cutting edge. He knew that. He shouldn't let fare-thee-wells darken his spirits.
Balalaika swung her impossibly long legs over the edge of the bed and bent down to collect her wrist watch from the pile of discarded clothes on the floor. She swore in Russian as she checked the time. Chang sympathized. It was far too close to morning. He would need to compensate his men waiting out back in a darkened Benz accordingly, but that could wait.
"How about breakfast?" he asked as he luxuriated across the newly vacated bed. It was no wonder that Balalaika had conked out. The damn thing felt like a dream. He was rethinking the memory foam idea.
"That's adorable. Let's," cooed Balalaika with obvious disdain.
"Suit yourself, but I'm in the mood for Ba mii muu daeng."
"You're in a good humor," Balalaika observed wryly. "Funny, I would have thought that news that the negotiations were dead in the water might have had some negative effect on your perpetually sunny disposition."
Chang stared up at the smoke from his cigarette as it scattered in the slow revolution of the ceiling fan. He let all teasing fall out of his voice when he answered. "I'm not pleased at all with the final word from Hong Kong, if that's what you want to hear. But I suppose it hardly matters when St. Petersburg has the same line. I wanted a lasting peace for this dirty city. Not all of us look forward to war. Some of us rather like the view of the bay without the soundtrack of gunfire."
"Well, you can blame those damn spics for ruining your tropical sunsets," Balalaika returned.
It was true, mostly. After that disaster with fox hunting, the Colombian Cartel had all but disappeared from Roanapur, which suited Hotel Moscow and Chang's 14K just fine. Those thoughtless guappos were far too much trouble. They had brought that drugged-up hell hound down on the damn city twice, for crying out loud. No one mourned their ignoble departure from the cityscape. Chang had hoped to work with Balalaika to fill the void, but then the Italians had to wedge their shiny, pointy-toed shoe into the mix. Those mafiso goons weren't much better than the Colombians. They had invited in those insane vampire brats to eat up the city, after all. Verrocchio sucked down a lead sandwich for that stunt, but his replacement had as much needless machismo and only a tad more common sense. At least the new Dago was sharp enough to see that the Russians and the Triads weren't keen on working with him. Combined, Balalaika and Chang wielded enough power to shove out the Black Hand out of Roanapur entirely, so new Dago wised up. According to good sources, he was cooperating with the Cartel to bring the Colombians back into Roanapur in exchange for a larger take of the cocaine trade and an ally in the coming mob war.
The balance of power was shifting. Hotel Moscow and the 14K agreed that the situation required action, but if they united to push out the troublesome factions, what then? Only two giants would remain standing in the city, and Roanapur was too precious of a jewel. She made men greedy. Would either side favor trust and truce when there was so much profit begging to be taken?
Yep, there was the rub. Too few people appreciated the beauty of the status quo like Chang did. They always wanted more, more, more. Sure, Balalaika had her faults, but at least greed wasn't one of them. Perhaps that was why they got along so well. Chang had his theories about why she had assumed the mantle of a crime baroness, and none of them involved cash.
Just thinking about Balalaika's warped sense of priorities made Chang's head hurt, so he stopped thinking and watched her make her way across the room, a terrifying goddess of destruction bereft of her customary business suit and stockings, and sighed.
The naked Balalaika cocked an eyebrow at the sound. "If you can't stomach it, don't look. Although I hardly see why you should get squeamish now, of all times."
Chang bolted upright. "Are you kidding? No. For fuck's sake, woman, walk slower. When do you think am I going to get to see this again?"
He did a piss-poor job of hiding the bitterness in his voice, and Balalaika was no fool. She halted on her way to the small washroom and turned to face him directly. She held his gaze as she stalked back to the bed. When she was within arm's reach, Chang abandoned the devil-may-care attitude. He hooked his thumbs around her tiny waist and dropped his forehead into the dip below her sternum.
"I wasn't kidding about breakfast," he confessed against her stomach.
"How sentimental. When did you turn into such a sap?" she said coolly, but her long fingers crept into his hair. Lacquered nails electrified his whole being as they spread along his scalp.
He leaned back to find her eyes again. "Don't get all self-conscious with me again. It's insulting. You always kill me in those slutty suits. I'm going to miss seeing you without them."
"Poor baby. I'm so sorry," she teased before leaning down to kiss him full on the mouth to silence the latest refrain in his "Don't Call Me Baby" campaign.
Chang savored the kiss. It tasted like the last sip of a Thai iced tea: tangy and sweet and warm.
While his mouth worked against hers, Chang's thumb swept downward and circled the pock marking of a bullet hole on her abdomen. He put it there, and his body sported four similar puncture scars thanks to her. When Hotel Moscow made its move into the city in 1993, the Triads responded with war, and the Ivans answered in kind. The first time he really saw Balalaika was when she was aiming for his head. Punching a few ragged holes in one another hardly engenders romance, but it did plant the seeds of respect. No common enemy could fight the Heavenly King to a standstill. After their legendary shoot-out, even Hong Kong agreed that it was more profitable to endure Hotel Moscow's presence in Roanapur than cope with the expense of eliminating Balalaika's Special Forces. The uneasy truce was born.
Their shared respect grew into friendship. Despite her blustering in those awful meetings of the heads, Balalaika was the first to call for private meetings with Chang. Later, she offered the Triads fair warning about Verrocchio's treachery. They understood each other, and their goals aligned more often than not. Together, they formed an unofficial alliance without the blessing of their superiors, but Chang hadn't realized just how much he needed Balalaika to hold his city together until Hotel Moscow all but vanished to Japan for damn near two months. The Triads did what they could to stem the free-for-all, but it wasn't until Balalaika set foot back on the docks in the harbor that Chang could sleep again at night.
Looking back, between the lines of business and the power plays, their mutual attraction had been there from the start. In the beginning, Chang couldn't figure out how any man could fail to be distracted by Balalaika in business suits that looked frightfully like the kind of thing Rowan would put on his girls for those infamous "CEO's and Office Ho's" theme nights. Low-cut, short, tight, and red. God. It took a half dozen encounters to figure out why she didn't drive other men out of their minds. No one else saw Balalaika as a woman. Even her comrades, who loved her more than a junkie loves his next fix, neglected to see the princess in the tower. To them, Balalaika was the goddamn, unassailable tower.
To Chang, she was all wicked wit and fierce curves, a bossa nova when she moved and an empress when she spoke. He didn't always understand her point of view, but he always liked the view of her. And she flirted. That had almost been the death of him. Not even those cheeky 16-year-old whores, all strung out on yaba, had the gall to tease Chang, and he was fucking paying them.
Of course, no one suspected his attraction but her. Chang took care to cover his tracks. He called her Fry Face until the name stuck. He kept his sunglasses on and his hands in his overcoat pockets. He was worse than a schoolboy with a crush, and Balalaika knew. When everyone else sees you as a giant, it takes another giant to look you in the eye. She did, and she was amused. She took up summoning him to totally unnecessary meetings just to see if he would complain. She would stand too close and call him "Baby". She teased him about their "dates" during the negotiations. By the time the talks to solidify their position against the threat of the Cartel and the Italians were in full swing, Chang was just about out of ideas to keep his inflamed libido in check, and then she moved their rendezvous points indoors to dodge the rains of July. She introduced the concept of a closed room, complete with a table, chairs, and a whole bed at Mrs. Sabai's modest but well-appointed bungalow. And to top it off, Chang had to endure the agonizingly fantastic distraction of Balalaika re-crossing her legs.
She loved his discomfort, but in the end, she was the one who goaded him into action. She had leaned over the table to flick the spent ash of her cigar into the tray, spilling her cleavage all over the place like a common whore, and Chang just broke.
"Look, you can fuck me," he found himself saying. "I won't lie. I'd really like to see you without that cheap suit. But don't fuck with me, Balalaika. That's just crude."
She smiled like a sphinx, snagged his tie, and dragged him halfway over the table to kiss him.
That was their first kiss, and Chang strongly suspected that he was tasting their last. It was only fitting that she, who started it all, should be the first one to pull back.
"Blinis," she said softly as she turned away.
"What?" Chang asked after her.
"Russian pancakes. They are very good with honey. For breakfast. Maybe someday..." she trailed off.
Chang stood and stretched. His sunglasses were waiting on the nightstand, and he shoved them on his face. Someday would never come. It was sweet of her to lie for him. Christ, if she kept this up this nice stuff, he would end up helplessly in love with her.
They dressed quickly and separately in the heavy silence that only comes when there is nothing left that can be said. Somewhere, a rooster proudly announced morning. Balalaika laughed to herself, no doubt amused by something so wantonly brash, and Chang couldn't bear it. He crossed the room in four steps with his hand stretched out to touch her marred cheek. She closed her eyes when his fingers sank back in the impossible tangle of her hair, and he pressed a final kiss on that perfect patch of unmarked skin over her eye.
"It's been fun, Fry Face," he said roughly.
Balalaika didn't grin. She reached back and removed his hand from her hair and brought it to her mouth. Her teeth closed around the first joint of his thumb and bit down hard before releasing him.
"See you, Baby," she said.
The swish of overcoats whispered their good-byes.
Chang paused on the porch to light another cigarette. To his left, a foreign car door slammed. The vehicle dropped into gear and rolled through the foliage towards the main road. To his right, another car crept forward and paused at the bottom of the stairs. The driver's side window rolled down.
"Any problems, Boss?" his driver asked. The poor guy looked a fright after a long night in a car. Chang made a note to feel bad about leaving his subordinate to fester in a parked car on a sweltering night so he could bang the woman who would orchestrate the death of them all.
"Yeah, we got problems. The talks are off," Chang said on a long exhale of smoke. "I need to phone in the news to Hong Kong on the way back to the house."
"You want me to swing by the docks and pick up Two Hands?" the driver asked.
Chang shoved his hands into his pockets and dropped down the steps to the waiting car. "That won't be necessary just yet. But could you send Mrs. Sabai something nice? I don't imagine that we'll need to use her place again for some time."
The door closed behind him.
From between the trees, the light from the newly risen sun broke through.