THE NANJING DECADE

I have truly massive amounts of papers I should be writing for school, but it was like Writing Demons seized control of me and wouldn't let me do anything else—I was writing almost twenty-four hours straight!—so here you go. It's pure Id—hokum and painfully sappy in parts. I hope you like it anyway.

A note on the history: I've been reading a little about Republican Shanghai for the purposes of my senior thesis, so I got to throw in some of my historical know-how, which was quite fun. I've played a little fast and loose with dates and dictators, since Sky Captain is itself a bit of an alternate history. As for the names of people and places, I went with the Wade-Giles system for an older feel.

The Hatchet Man is Dai Li, and you can read all about him in Frederic Wakeman's book Spymaster: Dai Li and the Chinese secret service.

Disclaimer: Saying we own Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow is like saying sharks walk on two feet and hail from the planet Neptune.

Rated PG-13 for several snogs up against walls and doors and entirely too many em-dashes. 6.1K.


It's midnight on a Thursday in 1931, and Joe Sullivan is twenty-three years old and pressed against a wall with the embroidered front of a black silk dress and the slim soft body of Squadron Leader Francesca Cook pressed against him.

She stumbled, he remembers dully—at least, he thought she stumbled, was losing her footing and about to run the entire length of her beautiful black dress into the Shanghai mud—so he threw out his arm—which is of course when she grabbed him by the shoulders and manhandled him into the wall.

He chokes as she aligns herself flush against him and looks intently into his face. Her eyes are very—well, he can't really see the color of them—it's so dark.

"Good lord," he manages. "Francesca—er—Francesca. I."

"Good heavens," Franky returns archly, "don't tell me you've never done this before, Joseph?" She grabs his hand with her own—cool, soft skin—God—and places it on her left breast. "Go on, man. We haven't got much time. And—" a clinical dry press of her mouth to his "—seeing that we've progressed to this level already, do call me Franky."

This level—which would be—the level of necking against walls—? In July—in Shanghai?

"You never call me Joe," Joe points out. He feels like he's strangling, and thinks he probably is, considering the grip Squadron Leader Cook—Francesca Cook—Franky, damn it—has on his collar—

"Franky—Jesus Christ!"

"Hasn't got quite the same ring to it, 'Joe,' " she says, and squeezes his arse again. She leans in for another kiss—

He twists his head away. "Dear Franky, with all due respect, what the hell are you doing?"

"Saving both our necks, I suspect," Franky says, cool and crisp. "Now, will you kiss me like you mean it, or do I have to do all the work—?"


Shanghai, 1929.

"Good morning, Lieutenant Sullivan," Francesca Clarisse Henry Rowena Cook says, offering a hand matter-of-factly. "You've read my dossier already, I expect."

The accent is crisp Oxbridge: Left-tenant Sullivan. Joe shakes the extended hand. "I have," he says. "A pleasure to meet you in the flesh, Squadron Leader—"

" 'Francesca' will do," she says. "Francesca, Franky, or simply 'Cook' if you've only the time for one syllable, Joseph. May I call you Joseph?"

"My friends call me Joe," Joe says.

A smile—sharp white teeth. "Certainly. But we're hardly friends just yet, Lieutenant Sullivan."


May, 1931.

Joe's never been one for being on the ground; out of an aeroplane he feels intolerably young and unsteady. He's never been one for parties, either, and he feels especially stupid tonight, standing by the punch table at one of Albert Morrow's bimonthly galas, stuffed into an expensive tuxedo HQ foisted on him at the last possible moment, nursing a flute of champagne and listening to Jasper Green mouthing off about certain members of the Kuomintang party.

"—thrown out on my tail. Goddam KMT, some republic, they don't know the meaning of transparency—all I wanted was a goddam interview—kidnap my source instead—"

"Uh-huh," Joe says. "Outrageous."

"Yowza!" Jasper says suddenly, stopping mid-tirade. "Joe—over—up there, who's that?"

Joe looks. There's a woman at the far end of the first floor, talking to someone Joe can't see. Her back is to them—her bare back. Dark hair, dark dress, and a rock the size of an egg on one finger.

"Hell if I know," Joe lies. He's never seen Francesca Cook in a dress before. She looks about a million dollars.

"I've never seen her here before—you think she's new in town? Some White Russian dame, maybe? Jeeesus," Jasper says, in an awed hush, "just look at her. Joe, baby, I think I'm in love."

Joe shrugs. He tilts the champagne flute back for one last inelegant swallow and stops as the crowd shifts and he gets an eyeful of the man Francesca's with. Dark, slicked-back hair, dark, well-cut suit, red bow tie, and real cute, as Jasper might say; he looks every bit as uncomfortable as Joe feels, and even from this distance, Joe can see he's got a beautiful mouth.

Joe realizes with a start that Francesca is looking directly at him—she meets his eyes and flashes him a wicked smile.

Jasper notices. "You do know her!" he accuses.

"Never seen her before in my life," Joe says, watching the boy, who's watching the people around him like a nervous rabbit unexpectedly surrounded by a pack of dogs, eyes darting from one person to the next, tensed to spring. "She must be looking at you, Green."

"You think?" Jasper says, hopeful.

"Positive. Be right back," Joe says, and finishes off the champagne—for luck. "Going to see a man about a horse." He takes the stairs two at a time, but by the time he reaches the bottom, Francesca and the real cute boy have gone.


Joe drinks three Bloody Marys in rapid succession and is on the verge of ordering a fourth when Francesca appears in the hotel restaurant in white linen—looking cool and refreshed and not at all like she spent part of last night bludgeoning two men into unconsciousness with a suitcase, a bottle of champagne, and a bathrobe tie. He doesn't regret it until he stands to greet her and the restaurant floor is tilts under him just the slightest bit.

"Steady on," Francesca murmurs. Joe eases back into his chair, and she slips into the chair opposite him, folds the napkin careful over her lap. "Sleep all right, Joseph darling?"

"Just marvelous." He hasn't slept a wink. He's not thinking about the third man—the one whose head he broke a chair over, poor bastard. Or helping Francesca tie all three up and gagging them and tucking them into bed—his bed—like Mother and Dad saying goodnight to their little lambs all in a row.

"Our mutual friend is concerned for your safety," Francesca says. "Full English," she tells the waiter.

"No—nothing else for me, thanks," Joe says. He's about to be very, very drunk, and he welcomes it, quite frankly. "If by 'our mutual friend' you mean Colonel Butler, he must be happy I've come round to his view of things at last," he says, once the waiter has gone. "I'm concerned for my safety, too. I always am when you're around. And about what the maids will think when they—I mean, when they—there are men in my bed. Three men—three men tied up and covered in blood—in my bed!" he finishes in a hiss, as another waiter comes round with a vacuum flask and fills their teacups to the brim. "And an entire chair in splinters on the floor. Christ."

"A pity, I agree, and I'm sorry to have called on you so late at night," Francesca says, pouring milk into both their cups and stirring counterclockwise. "But you needn't worry about your reputation, dear Joseph—someone will be over to tidy up very shortly. As for the rest of it, what you do in the privacy of your own room—"

"Francesca."

"—with whatever number of consenting—"

"Francesca."

She sips and smiles at him over the edge of her cup. "Your secrets are safe with me, Joseph."

Time to change the subject. "What brings you to these parts, anyway?" he says, a little balefully—Christ, the room's gone all wobbly. He focuses on his tea and the little foamy circle swirling at the center of the cup. "I thought you were adrift in the Atlantic. Or was it India. Yes—India."

"Nepal, actually," Francesca says. "Over the Sutlej. Gorgeous skies there. Ever been?"

"No. Someday," Joe says. "But—"

"But I haven't answered your question."

"No," Joe says to his teacup, "you haven't."

"Well, Joseph," Francesca says. "I just popped over the Himalayas to say hello, that's all. It's been years, darling."

"It stinks," Joe snaps. "It stinks of intrigue and sneaking around and general stinking sneakiness. You were at Albert Morrow's party—just last week!" he remembers. He scowls at her. "You could have popped up the stairs to say hello then. And even after, you had an entire seven days. I know for damn sure you knew where I was staying—given—I mean, last night—I mean, when I'm—"

"His name's Dexter," Francesca murmurs. "You're drunk, Joseph."

"—drifting off to peaceful slumber, the last thing I ever expect is Francesca bloody C. H. R. bloody Cook bursting into my hotel room being chased by—I'm not drunk—Dexter?"

"Yes," Francesca says, smile widening. "My eligible young bachelor at Mister Morrow's, of course."

"Dexter."

"Dexter. I'm sure you're eager to—shake his hand. And he's eager to meet you too," Francesca says. "Hates parties as much as you do, but a mention of the magic words 'Mister Joe Sullivan' and he was diving for a bow tie—" She checks Joe's wristwatch. "I'm meeting him at the edge of the French settlement later today—don't suppose you want to tag along? Of course you do. Oh, lovely," she coos at the waiter, who grins and sets the separate elements of her Full English down with more flare than is strictly necessary. Beans slosh and one unfortunate mushroom is catapulted over the edge of the table and lost forever.

Francesca bites into her toast. "You'd better sober up, Joseph; we wouldn't want to disillusion him about famous Joe Sullivan—"


The sun is blazing down on him. Joe adjusts his hat, mops at his face with an already dripping handkerchief, and is bitterly aware that he stinks: of sweat and alcohol and too much cologne, applied hastily and liberally over the sweat and alcohol. But maybe the ripe smell rising off the Huang-p'u will disguise the smell rising off famous Joe Sullivan.

"There he is," Francesca says.

There he is—the boy Dexter, jogging down the avenue toward them, the outlines of him wavering in the summer heat.

"Franky!" He reaches them red-faced and gasping for breath. "Sorry I'm late—mess in the lab, small—chemical spill—fire—nothing serious—oh!"

He breaks off and goes even redder, until the color is blazing down his neck and ears, and Joe knows what it's like to be stared at like he's the answer to someone's prayers.

"Hullo," he says, swallowing. "Dexter—right?"

Dexter gapes at him and is silent.

"Joseph," Francesca says, coming to the rescue with a look of fond exasperation on her face, "this is Dexter Dearborn. He's USAF R. and D., China division; we're borrowing him for a bit. Well, Dex, here, as promised, is one Joseph Sullivan, in exchange for the pleasure of your company at one formal event—"

"Pleasure," Joe says. He holds out his hand and, after what seems to be a moment of paralyzed indecision, Dexter seizes it and begins pumping it up and down.

Calloused hands, Joe notices, and about as slick and sweaty as his own, for which he thanks God.

"Dex!" Dexter bursts out. "Uh—my—that is—you can call me Dex!"

"Dex," Joe says, trying it on for size. "Pleasure to meet you, Dex."

"Same here—same here!" Dex exclaims. He's still shaking Joe's hand like a piston. "It's great to meet you, Mister Sullivan. I mean, in person and everything! You're a legend back the base—at my old base—back in the States, I mean. In Hawai'i. I mean, hell, even the boys in the lab have heard of you and that's saying something. Everyone's still talking about the maneuver over O'ahu, and how you saved the balloon boy—and that time you landed on one engine in the Bay of Biscay to drop off supplies and got out before Franco even realized you were there—"

"Good lord," Francesca says dryly. "He knows you better than you know yourself."

Joe ignores her. "Thank you, Dex," he says, lowering his voice and looking deep into the boy's eyes. Somewhere to his left, Francesca snorts with derision; he ignores that too. "But all this 'Mister' stuff gets old real fast—I'd love it if you would call me Joe."

"Joe," Dex says, reverently, gazing back.

"When you're quite finished," Francesca says.


There's a gun on Dex's coffee table, but it's a gun unlike any other that Joe has ever seen, easily the length of his forearm, bulbous and gleaming. He bends toward it—

"No—don't touch that!"

"I'm not, I'm not!" Joe holds up his hands: don't shoot! "I was just looking. What is it?"

Dex grins at him. "Ray gun. Or it will be—this one's just a prototype. I finished it this week. But it's very unstable. Colleague of Tom's—one fourth of my et al., Tom—lost his fingers yesterday when he tried to pick it up. He's fine—we sewed 'em back on in five hours, full mobility expected to return in six months to a year, and he's on paid leave in the meantime—but you can't be too careful. I'd put it away but I'm a little afraid to touch it myself right now."

"I see." Joe backs away from the table.

Francesca clears her throat. "If you would be so kind, Dex—"

"Oh, right—sorry," Dex says. "Just a sec. Um—have something to drink while you're waiting, why don't you? The water's been boiled and I think Tom's got some pop stashed under his bed. Oh—and don't go near my cabinet—'s not very stable now either." He disappears into the adjoining room.

"Well, what is it?" Joe asks. "What is it he's made for you—a ray gun? A beam sword?"

"Hardly," Francesca says. "You must think I've come here to kill someone. It's a bug—of sorts. Two, actually."

"Let me guess—one of them's for me."

"Very good, Joseph. Consider it an early birthday present."

"You'll forgive me if I don't thank you yet," Joe says. "Especially if it blows off one of my arms."

"No danger of that," Dex says, reappearing. "Well, an ear, maybe—

"These," he says, offering his left hand and the two crystalline beads rolling in the center of his palm, "are the bugs. Put 'em in your ears—they should fit. Let me know if anything's uncomfortable.

"And these," Dex goes on, raising his right hand and showing them a pair of wedding rings, "are your speakers. We tried to get them to work on necklaces and tiepins, but they don't really pick up unless you're speaking right into them, so—as per your request, Franky—here they are in matching rings. Go on, try them on. And then we'll do a test run."

Francesca pushes the bug into her ear, nods, shakes her head, and then bends forward, backward, and sideways. "Fits just right," she says finally. "Joseph, will you—"

"Oh, all right," Joe says. He takes her offered hand and slides the smaller ring onto her finger. "You're ridiculous."

"Indulge me, darling." Francesca seizes his hand and returns the favor. An exact fit—of course it is. "There. Splendid work, Dex."

"Thanks," Dex says, looking uncertainly between them. "Er—okay—one of you needs to exit this room and walk to the other side of the compound. Just keep talking into the rings until the signal peters out. You wanted a forty yards at best, and we've given you a hundred—in theory. Let's see how far theory goes."

"Indulge me, darling," Joe says.

He's never met anyone able to roll their eyes as expressively as Francesca Cook. "Oh, very well," she says, making an outrageous face at him over Dex's shoulder. "Hope to hear from you soon, boys."


"Oooops," Joe drawls, after the sound of her footsteps fades to nothing. "Sorry, Dex—having a little trouble with this bug of yours—keeps falling out." He plucks the bug from his ear and holds it out for Dex to examine.

"Huh, that's funny. Maybe the fit's wrong—let me see—"

Dex presses the cold bug back into Joe's ear and prods at it, his eyes trained so intently on Joe's face that Joe can almost feel the heat of his stare.

"Hm," Dex mumbles, leaning close, with one hand still curled absentmindedly around the shell of Joe's ear and the other cradling his jaw, "seems all right to me. How's it feel?"

His fingers are warm on Joe's earlobe and he smells of sun and sweat—

Joe swallows. "Dex—"

"Joseph! Stop flirting and answer me." Francesca seems to be speaking directly into his brain. "Can you hear me? Joseph Sullivan! For God's sake—!"

"Oh—is she talking? Can you hear her?" Dex says, seeing the look on Joe's face. "Here—raise the ring, press the—yes—say something."

"This is Joseph Sullivan," Joe says, into his knuckles. "Receiving you loud and clear. What's your position? Over."

"I'm at seventy yards—there's no need for radio jargon, Joseph—scratch your nose and speak normally. Seventy-five yards."

"Well—all right then." Obediently, he scratches his nose. "Um—hullo, Francesca. It sounds like you're taking inside my head, you know—absolutely terrifying."

"Just what I like to hear, Joseph. Eighty. Drink a glass of water."

He gestures at the pitcher; Dex brings him a glass.

"How far has she gone?" Dex asks. "How's the signal?"

"Eighty yards," Joe says. "Signal's great." He raises the glass to his lips. "I've got the water now, Francesca. Can you hear me?"

"Perfectly. Listen, Joseph, I know you hadn't planned on it, but I need you to get yourself invited to Yang Liu-t'ung's birthday party," Francesca says. "Shouldn't be too difficult; she's one of your many admirers. I'll be your plus one. Tell them I speak very little English—"

" 'Some White Russian dame'—?"

"Or French, I haven't decided. As to why you've got me on your arm, I'm a close family friend—or madly in love with you—or using you for your American connections—or your family fortune—whatever you like. Ninety-five yards."

"You're absolutely after my money. Ninety-five," Joe relays to Dex. Dex makes an exaggerated show of crossing his fingers and smiles at him.

"Still there?" Joe says, a trifle breathlessly.

"Yes. One hundred. One hundred one."

"One hundred," Joe says, and Dex punches the air in delight. Joe makes up his mind. "Say, Francesca—I just remembered—I think I'm going to have to abandon you for the rest of the evening."

"Joseph Sullivan—take him to dinner first, at the very least, before you tumble him into bed. One hundred five. One hundred six—" the first crackle "—one hundred seven."

"You're walking very fast."

"Oh yes. I have to—I have an innocent American scientist to rescue from your clutches. One hundred eleven. One hundred twelve. One hundred—chrr pkt!—een—crrh—dred—"

"Francesca?"

Static.

"Out of range?" Dex says, deflating. "Darn. I was hoping she'd make one-thirty."

"One hundred thirteen yards," Joe says. "That's nothing to sneeze at—it really was like she was standing beside me, speaking right into my ear. Good work, Dex." He removes the bug and ring and holds them out.

Dex doesn't take them. "Uh—Joe. I wanted to ask—if you don't mind—do you, would you—if you would—"

"Yes?" Joe says, smiling at him, 'Yes, dinner would be lovely, Dex,' ready on his lips.

Dex seems to be squaring his shoulders. He takes a deep breath. "Can I have your autograph?"


"My autograph," Joe repeats. There is a strangled silence; Dex looks like he wants to sink into the floor. "No, of course, Dex—it's been a while since anyone's asked, that's all. I'd be happy to—"

Dex is already thrusting a pen at him, a pen and a notebook and—dear God, it's a newspaper clipping printed with a picture of a young grinning face and a USAF plane behind it—Pilot rescues balloon boy

"Good Lord—this must be four years old!" Joe exclaims.

Dex's face is fiery red. "I—I'm a huge fan, Mister Su—uh, Joe. Could you make this one out to Samuel Lee? That's my best pal from grade school, we were at the base in O'ahu together when it happened—"

Francesca's probably turned around by now. He has five minutes, maybe six.

"So how long have you been in town, Dex?" Joe asks, scrawling To Samuel Lee, Aim High, Joe Sullivan.

"Oh, six months, give or take. Since Christmas, so." Dex is watching the progress of the pen. "Can you—can you sign the front cover?"

"Sure thing, Dex." To Dex Dearborn—

To Dex Dearborn—

Keep up the good work.

Joe Sullivan

Shanghai 1931

"—there." He folds the pen and clipping into the notebook and holds it out in one hand, bug in the other.

"Thanks—Sammy's gonna be so happy about this—"

Joe closes his hands around Dex's for a fraction of a second. "Like it here?"

"Uh—" Dex blinks down at his fingers. "Yeah. Hotter than I'm used to, but the food's great, people are mostly friendly—" he wanders into the next room, shouting over his shoulder "—and I get to be in charge of my own team here—do my own projects on the side! All in all, it's a swell deal!"

Joe waits until he reemerges. "Are you doing anything tonight, Dex?"

Dex meets his eyes, quick and uncertain. The rabbit again. "Uh—some of the guys were going to hit the town, get a little action, I don't know." He's still blushing. His eyes are on Joe's lips.

"Oh—too bad." Joe licks the corner of his mouth for good measure. "I was going to ask you if you wanted to—well, never mind. It's all right."

"No—" Dex exclaims. "Uh. What I mean is—I was gonna tell 'em no, anyway—seen enough of 'em for a week—" He gives a nervous little laugh and Joe feels his heart squeeze in his chest and give in.

Sorry, Francesca!

"Really?" Joe says. "That's fantastic—"


Thursday, eight o'clock.

Madame Yang is delighted to see him. She exclaims over the rings and Francesca, who is gorgeous in black and clinging to his arm like a limpet. Joe conveys their best wishes and a small wrapped parcel, and bundles his erstwhile fiancée toward the ballroom.

"What a delightful little bird of a woman," Francesca sings, in throaty Russian-inflected English. "And so charming! Darling, you have such lovely friends." Whispered, now: "What did you get her, anyway?"

"Er—I don't remember, exactly," Joe says, steering her toward a closed door. "Gloves? A shawl?"

Another powerful roll of the eyes is sent his way. "Joseph Sullivan. Don't tell me you had Dex—"

"What!" he protests. "You were busy—what do you give a woman who's got everything, anyway! Dex said he had just the thing—"

"Oh, God," Francesca says, looking genuinely alarmed, which is alarming in and of itself. "He's gone and wrapped one of his own gadgets, hasn't he—I hope to high heaven it isn't explosive."

"Not everything Dex makes is explo—oh never mind—" Joe clears his throat. "No one's looking, you'd better go now. Through this door, up the stairs, third room on your left. Remember—they're cutting the cake at midnight. Good luck, Francesca."

"Cheers." Francesca kisses the side of his mouth and turns the Russian on full force. "Do not worry your little head, darling. I will not be two seconds."

He shuts the door behind her and walks toward the music, his stomach turning over and over.


Last Friday.

The new picture being shown at the Grand Cinema is hokey science fiction—robots and slimy creatures coming out of the sea and something about Atlantis. A reluctant hero this time, the kind who looks to have had his nose broken four times and is always scowling into the dark, tormented by his memories. Whatever those memories are, Joe will never know: he dozes off and misses an entire forty minutes of the film, including whatever it was the beautiful blonde love interest said to galvanize the hero to action—it doesn't matter, anyway, because his arm is finally around Dex's shoulders, and Dex is leaning silent but boneless into him.

Dex has taken off his uniform jacket. Joe slides his hand down until Dex's T-shirt sleeve ends—on screen, the hero confers with a team of scientists.

Dex mutters something.

"What's that?" Joe whispers.

"That's not going to work," Dex whispers back. "They just told him to cut the red wire. People always think it's the red wire. Red wire, red buttons—"

"Dex," Joe murmurs, "we are watching a movie about underwater robots—it could very well be the red wire."

"It's not," Dex whispers. "Trust me. He cuts the red wire in the comic book too, but all that does is—"

They're enveloped in a cloud of slogans and student protestors the moment they exit the theater. It's a little harrowing but provides Joe with an excellent excuse to grab Dex's hand to lead him away.

"Sorry," he says, when they've made it back to Dex's room. "That was probably a lot more action than you were looking for."

"Nah," Dex says. He seems to realize he's staring into Joe's eyes and abruptly looks away. "Uh—Tom's here."

Bloody Tom. "Those students," Joe says. "What were they shouting?"

"Huh?" Dex lets go of the doorknob. "Oh—I have no idea. I don't speak or understand Shanghainese." He grimaces. " 'S not very convenient. When I put in that I was interested in our China division, I was hoping they'd post me to Kwangchow."

"Well, I'm glad they didn't," Joe says.

Dex ducks his head, shy again. "Yeah. Anyway—"

"Probably 'down with government corruption,' " Joe muses. "Or something really rude about Chiang Kai Shek."

Dex giggles. "Probably."

"Don't let the Hatchet Man hear you laughing," Joe says, grinning at him. "Thanks for coming out with me tonight, Dex. I had fun."

"Me too. Joe—"

"Dinner again sometime?"

"Huh?" Dex says. He looks up, lips parting. An inch of space between them, now. "Oh—sure. Joe—"

"Dex." He closes the gap.


Thursday, 11:21 p.m.

"Joseph—" Francesca sounds somewhat out of breath. "Hullo there, Joseph. I've just run into a spot of trouble, I wonder if you could spare a moment to help your wife-to-be tuck someone else into bed—"

He very nearly drops his champagne flute. He takes a sip instead. "What's happened?"

"Rotten bad luck. I couldn't drop him before he radioed for back-up," she says, in a rush."Don't know how many are coming, don't have the papers yet. I need you to bloody hurry up and get over here, Joseph."

"Christ," he mutters. "Okay. I'm coming now. Be careful, Francesca."

He pauses to drain the flute. Fifteen minutes later, they've left five bodyguards unconscious on the study floor and are crawling unceremoniously down a trellis into Madame Yang's gardens—with a sixth man crawling after them and a seventh standing at the study window, shouting into his radio.

"Did you—" Joe swallows and tries to regain control over his breathing. His knuckles are bloody and the communicator on his ring finger is, he suspects, busted up beyond repair. There's a lump the size of an egg on his head where a member of Doctor Yang's private army belted him with a nightstick.

"Did you get—what you—were after?"

"Not now, Joseph—oh, hell! Bloody undercover work!" Her dress catches on a rosebush; she frees it with a hard tug.

Joe gives her a leg-up onto the garden wall. She hangs there on her belly, reaches down to help him clamber up and over—he lands more heavily than his knees would like—and then they're pelting down the deserted lane.

Ten minutes later, Francesca is kissing him into a wall, hands in his hair, doing all kinds of magic things with her tongue, the stolen dossier pressed between their bodies while their pursuers vanish around the corner.

She kisses him again, a half hour later, when they've made it back to the British quarter, walking slowly and arm in arm—this time on the cheek.

"Until we meet again," she says. "Thanks ever so, Joseph. Give my love to Dex—protect the rabbits."

He laughs. "I will. Good-bye, Franky," he says. "Take care."

In retrospect, Joe supposes he could have walked up the stairs and knocked like any other reasonable person. But it's one in the morning and he's almost giddy with the excitement of the previous hour, blood thrumming in his veins—and anyway, he wants to see what Franky finds so fun about coming in through the window.

It complicates things somewhat when Dex's roommate sees him first and screams bloody murder. Dex doesn't come running. Either Dex's roommate screaming bloody murder is a regular occurrence, or Dex is out on the town and Joe is probably going to get in a lot of trouble, if Dex's roommate doesn't brain him with a monkey wrench first.

"I know what this must look like," Joe says. "I can explain." The roommate's eyes flicker toward the ray gun and back to Joe. Joe swallows. "Thomas," he says. "Thomas, right?"

"Tom, everything okay?"

Regular occurrence, then—Thank God.

"Bleeding hell—get out here, Dex!" Thomas shouts. An English roommate. "It's a burglar, or something—is the ray gun safe? Can I blast him?"

"NO—whatever you do, don't touch that thing!" Dex shouts back. "What's going on? Why'd you—" He stops dead between rooms. "Joe!"

"You know this lunatic?" Thomas says. "Dex—he came in through the window!"

"We should really lock that," Dex muses. "That's impressive, Joe—this being the third floor and all."

"Hi, Dex," Joe says, hands in his trouser pockets. He feels himself beginning to smile, smiling irresistibly, quite unable to stop.

"The window," Thomas insists.

"Tom—go for a walk, will ya?" Dex says.

"What? It's one o'clock in the morning, I was about to go to bed!"

"Go for a walk," Dex snaps, eyes fixed on Joe's face. "I have to talk to him—it's classified. I said it's classified. Get the hell out of here, will ya? Get you when I'm done. Sorry."

"Coldhearted bas—" The door shuts with a quiet snick. There's another snick as Dex locks it.

"How'd it go?" Dex asks.

"Swimmingly," Joe says, grinning at him. "Only shot at once. Sorry about the whole—" he gestures vaguely at the window behind him "—slightly unorthodox, I realize—" he's crossing the room before he knows what he's doing "—I wanted to see you."

Dex turns pink. "Where's Franky now?" he asks. He leans against the door.

"Don't know. Don't care. We said good-bye at the river. She sends her love." He traps Dex with one arm on either side of his head. "Your bugs were great."

"Glad I could help," Dex whispers, and Joe bends to kiss the smile on his lips—

—and jolts back. "Hang on—that thing you picked out—for Madame Yang," he says urgently. "It wasn't—it's not going to blow up, is it?"

Dex's head snaps up. "What? Of course not!"

"Just checking. Good boy, Dex," Joe murmurs.

Dex frowns. "Not everything I make is explo—mmh—"


Tomorrow

Sometime between 1931 and the next time he sees her—September, 1933, Nanjing, dropping in unexpected for a nightcap—dropping in through the window—Joe's met Polly and Dex has stopped answering his letters—Franky's managed to lose an eye.

"You should have seen the other guy," she says, in a piss-poor imitation of an American accent, and, coming to sit on the bed beside him: "Don't fret, Joseph. I'm promise I'm as good a shot with one eye as I was with two."

"I don't doubt it," Joe says.

He's quiet a moment, thinking of Franky in Doctor Yang's study, in the frozen moment before reinforcements arrived and all hell broke loose, crystals dangling in glittering strings from her ears, her eyes—both eyes, then—artfully lined in black.

"No more undercover work for Franky Cook," he murmurs, tracing the lower edge of the eye patch with his thumb.

"About which Franky Cook is damned pleased," Franky replies. "It's back to the skies for me."

Sirens and shouts outside. KMT rounding up students again—or maybe something to do with why Franky's come in via window again and is sitting on his bed at two in the morning. Joe gets up to draw the blinds and turn off the lights. He goes to his little cabinet and fumbles for the brandy.

"Heard from Dex," Franky says behind him, and Joe's heart sinks. "Just recently. Had a letter. He's doing quite well—experiments progressing, results encouraging, superiors pleased. Not a single mention of you, though, Joseph."

"Cheers," he says, filling a glass and holding it out to her.

Franky doesn't take it. "What happened?"

"Recalled to his old base in—oh, last October, I think," Joe says. "Americans wanted him back. I was up north when the orders arrived. Came back to a telegram and a note—I wrote him once or twice, but you know how these things—really, Franky, wipe that look off your face. We—we only had a couple of months, it was just some fun—I've met someone else now."

"Of the female variety."

"Yes, of the female variety—her name is Perkins." He sets her glass on his nightstand and drinks. "Polly Perkins. Reporter—friend of a friend. Very pretty."

" 'Just some fun,' too?"

"Uh huh. Nothing serious. You know me. Drink up, will you?"

"So she won't mind if I spend the night."

"Dear Franky," Joe says, "I think you'd spend the night whether she minded or not. Anyway, she's in Soochow for the weekend—something about tracking down a warlord on holiday—so do as you please. I'm quite happy to shelter you from the Hatchet Man and his secret police, or whoever it is in the Russian quarter whose evening you just ruined."

She falls asleep beside him, curled under his arm on her side, and is gone in the morning. He doesn't hear from her again until November of 1937. A USAF man runs the telegram to him as they're helping him limp off the runway in Kowloon—

JUST GOT THE NEWS STOP V DELIGHTED STOP GOOD SHOW STOP WAS ABOUT TO COME IN AFTER YOU STOP CONGRATULATIONS ON THE PROMOTION STOP MONTANA FULL STOP


December, 1937.

It's snowing in sheets in Montana. Joe's bundled himself into an enormous white parka, so that against the swirling whiteness no one can see where the snow ends and Joe Sullivan begins. He rather resembles a yeti, or an enormous snowball; he's not sure his own mother would recognize him at this point, let alone—

He's fairly certain Dex is living by himself this time, but he stays clear of the window all the same. There's a doorbell. He presses it.

After what seems an eternity, the door creaks open, and there's Dex, with a mug of steaming cocoa in hand, wearing the most wretchedly ugly Christmas jumper Joe has ever seen.

"Oh my God," Dex says. His mouth drops open. He must be reacting to the parka. "I—Captain Sullivan."

Captain—Franky's been in touch.

"Happy Solstice, Dex," Joe says. "Can I come in?"

It's warm and bright inside. Joe wrestles off his sodden boots and peels off the yeti skin and follows Dex to his kitchen. He sits at the table and Dex pours him a cup of cocoa, all the while staring at him like he's grown a second head.

"Awfully cozy for a mad scientist's lair," Joe says finally.

"Lair?" Dex says. "This is my house, Cap." He smiles: hints of the old Dex. "The lair's under the basement. Not so cozy down there."

"Ah. I see."

Joe sips his cocoa in silence while the uncertainty rises higher and higher—Shanghai was long ago and far away—and manifests in the form of shaking hands and a lump in his throat.

He feels Dex's eyes on his face. He can't look up.

"You're probably wondering why I'm here," he says to the cocoa.

"A little," Dex says. His voice is strange—thinner than Joe remembers, and a little watery. "Franky—Franky told me you'd escaped. Telegram ten days ago. I thought—I figured you'd be in England by now. Or—or Chungking, with Polly and the boys—"

"What, the Air Force?" Joe says. He drinks. "I resigned." England, now there's a thought—why didn't he think of it before—his sisters must be worried sick.

"You—you what?"

"I'm tired of being sent from this end of the earth to another on someone else's orders. I was thinking—I had a lot of time to think, in Manchuria—anyway, there was an airfield on sale in New York, and I bought it. I want to start my own private squadron. I—I came here to offer you a job. If you'll have it." He swallows hard. "If you'll have me."

Dex's knuckles are turning white around his mug, Joe notices.

"All the equipment you need," he says. "You can have it. Your own lab. Any assistants you want. I'll hire them. You can build all the ray guns you want."

Dex laughs, shaky and wet. "Ray guns," he mumbles.

"I thought of you every day," Joe says. "I thought about you when the plane was going down, you and that ridiculous ray gun—please, Dex, say you will."

"I can't believe you're actually sitting here," Dex says. "In my kitchen. In Montana. In a—there's a blizzard outside. Has anyone ever told you your coat looks like a yeti?"

Anything to stop shivering. "Dex."

"I built a super digger," Dex says. "I quit my job to build it. It's in—in the room under the basement. Was gonna airlift it to Harbin—meet Franky—dig you out of there. I—"

He can't breathe. "Dex, please."

"Yes," Dex says, "yes, I will," and he's pushing his mug away and reaching for Joe over the table, grabbing his hands and holding on to them for dear life. He's smiling so hard there are tears leaking out his eyes. "Yes. Yes. Yes—yes—I will. I can start tomorrow. I can start today. Yes."