[Hide & Seek]
_Umm... would you like a hand?
The bluenette said without making eye contact, keeping her gaze trained on a spot over her guest' shoulders as the blond man leaned against the wall, carefully picking the grass out of his white lab coat – perhaps a little too focused in the task, she thought to herself as she quickly stole a glance at him.
Being the hostess and the leading researcher, she had opted to break the silence out of courtesy, for neither of them had said a word after the initial shock wore off, embarrassed over the strange circumstance under which they became acquainted – and even more so, at the abrupt parting they shared just last night.
I don't know what possessed me to... Ami thought to herself, working hard to suppress the blush that was threatening to creep up her cheeks as she recalled her inexplicable physical contact with the blond man.
_I'm fine; thank you though – the usually talkative Zois spoke quickly as he patted down his suit for the last time and fixed the name tag, then turned toward the main entrance, gesturing by way of invitation:
_The reception starts in two minutes; shall we?
_Ah yes, of course – Ami quickly turned on her heels, prepared to lead the way when she suddenly recalled something far more worrisome.
_Excuse me... uh, doctor?
_Yes? – the blond man stopped in his track, but did not turn around.
_The person you just scared away... umm... I mean, the person who left as you arrived... he's my research assistant.
Uncomfortable silence ensued.
Finally, Zois slowly turned to face her, the blows he dealt Urawa yesterday evening at Motoki's bar still fresh on his mind.
_You mean... he will be part of the project?
Gulping slightly, Ami nodded.
Plopping down on the nearest lab chair, the bluenette tiredly rubbed her forehead, unsure as for how to proceed with the collaboration when two key members almost came to trading insults as soon as the other came into sight.
She couldn't just take Urawa off the project, she knew at least that much. It took nearly a year for the grant application to be completed, and to remove a participant out of the blue, in addition to the ridiculous amount of paperwork involved, would also spell trouble to the supervisory committee that was to evaluate the end result of the research. Feeler inspection trips would ensue, distractions would commence, and the funding only ran for a limited time frame.
There was also the problem that Urawa had actual potentials – he was a diamond in the rough waiting to be polished, to shine. She laughed a little bitterly, she of all people should know, for she never dated anyone with whom she couldn't have an intelligent conversation with.
Not that she had been in the dating pool much anyway, which made the betrayal – expected shattering of trust when she finally decided to open up – even worse to bear.
She shook her head lightly, clearing her mind of personal thoughts. This was her lab, here was the project she had dreamed of working on her entire life, and she wouldn't let her personal affairs interfered.
How ironic, that it was a personal motive that drove her to embarking on this journey.
_Mom, where's dad?
Struggling with her small form to climb onto the hospital bed, the little girl shook her mother's hand slightly, voicing the question not above a whisper.
_Mom? Didn't dad hear you're hospitalized? If I were him I'd end his business trip right away and fly to your side... I mean, a year is too long to be away from home, don't you think?
The woman weakly brushed her daughter's hair, hesitating:
She knew she wasn't well, nor was she ever going to get well – the official diagnosis had returned – and she was torn. Part of her wanted to protect her daughter from the brutal reality that she had been hiding from her for over a year, protect her forever, until her last breath; and the other part of her knew, even as she held her daughter close, that better late than never. She herself didn't have much time left. Could she really bear to have another deliver the terrible news to her own flesh and blood?
_Ami... – she gently lifted the little one's chin so blue eyes were on the same level as her own brown orbs, and felt herself a terrible person for the story she was going to tell.
As the words left her, as slowly as her health permitted, she watched as the twinkle of innocence and trust left her daughter's eyes, and a veil of despair, disbelief, and denial took over.
Together, they cried, tears reflecting off what little sunlight remained at the end of the day.
It was the last time her mother held Ami as she cried, genuinely and quietly, like she did when she was a child and scraped her knee. The cancerous tumor did not even spare Doctor Mizuno, Tokyo's leading surgeon, enough time for her estranged husband to return from England, wrought with guilt over walking out on her a mere year before she collapsed and was hospitalized.
Despite their long-held promise of lifelong commitment, their marriage had vanished slowly, like rocks being eroded under a constant stream, when they found each other more and more of a stranger as they became immersed in their personal pursuits. Before they had time to look away from their own busy lives to notice, their commonalities had evaporated like water under the desert sun. Suddenly, they didn't know where the person they had traded vows with had disappeared to.
_Honey, do you mind lending me a hand here? Ami tripped on the steps today, she's okay, but her uniform's dirtied. Throw it in the wash for me, please?
_Just a moment, I'm in the middle of drawing, hon.
_Please – the voice rang from the kitchen like silver bells – it will take just a minute.
_If it's already dirty, it can wait.
_Mommy, - the little girl tugged on her mother's sleeve – I'm sorry, I need that uniform for school this afternoon...
_It's okay, sweetie – the woman leaned down to give her a reassuring kiss on the cheek, but over daughter's shoulders, she couldn't help casting a resentful look at the painting room her husband was in.
The bluenette absent-mindedly ruffled her own hair as she became lost in reminiscence.
_You were never there, father – her eyes turned ice cold as she looked at the man nervously standing in front of her, blocking her view of her mother's grave.
_Yes... sweetie, I'm sorry. I tried, believe me Ami, I tried. It's just... it just turned out that we, me and your mother, we weren't such a good fit...
_Not another word, father - she narrowed her eyes, and Mr Taylor was startled as he recognized just how much Ami resembled her late mother, whose surname she had adopted after he returned to his homeland without them, without notice, without even a goodbye.
_If you knew it wasn't going to last, why did you bother starting it? If you wanted a housewife, why did you marry her at all?
She was looking at him with those accusing eyes, boring into his soul, searching for something, anything amid the guilt that was overcrowding his mind, anything that could answer her question, the only question she had.
Why he left them.
_Ami – he extended his arms, unsure of how to proceed. In that moment, he recognized just how much he hadn't known her, his daughter, his very own flesh and blood. Even though his wife was covered to her neck with medical case after case, late-night shift after late-night shift, she still found time to understand her daughter – their daughter – at least well enough to reassure her at any time, under any circumstance. He, on the other hand, was too immersed in the imaginary world that was his paintings. If his wife already did such a good job of raising Ami, he didn't know why he should get involved and potentially messing things up in the process.
He didn't knew then what he now knew as his daughter stood motionless, gaze levelled at him but not seeing him – he didn't knew then what he now knew, that parenthood, especially for first-time parents like him, involved a great deal of messing up; and it was the navigating of such messes together, as parent and child, that nurtured the bond.
He hadn't tried to learn... he thought being there was just enough, but now he knew, that physical presence meant nothing if his mind wasn't there, in the present, holding his daughter's hand and bumbling toward fatherhood.
_Ami, - he started again, reaching for her hands, but the blue-haired woman shook her head as she turned away and broke into a run, running from him and out of his life... possibly, very likely... forever.
He had always wanted to be left alone, left to his own device, to solitude, where no one could disturb him, no one could enter unless under his permission; he had always lived with a push and pull dynamic, in which he only gave attention if he wanted to, living without compromises, as he always sought to do, even after getting married.
And as his only daughter tore around the corner and disappeared, he stood watching, frozen, realizing he had mistaken detachment for personal space.
The blond man sighed to himself as he looked into the mirror, trying to make up his mind on whether or not he should talk to Ami.
Instinctively, he knew that there was little chance for him to progress beyond a business partnership at that point. The bluenette didn't seem the type that would jump into a rebounding romance just to forget the previous disaster, no matter how the parting kiss last night could have led him to believe. Judging solely by her startled and hasty departure from the car he borrowed from Motoki, that brief moment of physical contact was more likely a primal, unconscious desire for revenge against the sorry excuse for a man she had been dating.
However, Zois couldn't simply ignore the familiar tug as he saw the cheating ex force himself on her. That pull was familiar, and not simply because it fitted his chivalrous spirit. No, that pull was familiar, for if he hadn't known better, he would have sworn he had come to her aid in such a situation before.
But that was impossible – they only just met yesterday.
Ami leaned back on the lab chair, lightly twirling around as the caster wheels obediently turned, making little squeaky noises on the marble ground. It was only a month until the fifth anniversary of her mother's passing, and the molecular research she had started in remembrance already encountered an obstacle in the form of the noticeable animosity between Urawa and the newly arrived Zois.
Doctor, she mentally amended, seeking to reinforce the business partnership aspect of their acquaintanceship. She wasn't so forgetful as to what transpired between them yesterday, but she wasn't willing to let it interfere with the project she had waited all her youth to start.
She made a mental note to ask Rei's advice on treading that particular boundary, for the raven-haired woman had to navigate similarly grey areas at her daytime job, what with all the rumours surrounding Usagi's breakup and Rei's decision to stay at her transfer position, working as personal assistant to Jadeite Jefferson, former business partner to Usagi's fiancé.
The bluenette smiled to herself as she recalled how she met the fiery teammate.
She kept on running, paying no mind to whether or not someone was in pursuit. All she wanted was to get away... away from the person that was legally and biologically her father, but emotionally a stranger, a deserter, someone who not only wasn't there when those who mattered the most needed him the most, but was never even really there to begin with.
Preoccupied as she was, she barely had enough time to stop before running straight into another figure walking quickly in the opposite direction; but still startled the other person enough for her – it was a woman, she realized within seconds – to stumble backwards, and to Ami's suprise, she noticed the lady was trembling.
_I'm sorry, - she said hastily, sticking out a hand in a courteous movement – I didn't mean to...
_I DON'T NEED YOUR GODDAMN CHARITY!
The bluenette stood frozen in shock – she had no idea a near miss had offended the woman so much, but surprise and slight comprehension quickly took over as she noticed the woman ripping a small device – a Bluetooth piece, she recognized – from her ear, throwing it on the ground and viciously crushed it under her heels.
It was then that the woman noticed Ami's extended hand, and taking in her confused expression, she was quick to clarify:
_I'm sorry, that wasn't meant for you, miss. I really should watch where I was going, but...
Without warning, the raven-haired woman slid down to the ground, and threw her arms around her own knees, evidently in an attempt to calm herself.
Hesitantly, Ami sat down next to the stranger, and found to her surprise that she rather enjoyed the silence that ensued between them. There they were, two strangers sitting together as if they were the oldest of friends, and neither of them found it awkward.
It felt... almost natural.
_I wish my mother was here, - they both spoke at the same time, inadvertently, in unison.
They turned to look at each other, surprise evident on their faces.
The raven-haired woman looked down, shaking her head.
_But she wouldn't be. She's very far away from me now.
_Mine is close by... – Ami found herself speaking – she's... her plot is on the other side.
She felt the raven-haired woman staring at her as she herself looked up at the sky, long after she had finished her sentence, and she was startled as her unlikely companion finally spoke:
_Would you like to see my mother? She... hers is just around the corner.
Blue looked into black, and the bluenette took up her new acquaintance's strange offer.
_I'm Ami, by the way – she stood up, speaking to the raven-haired woman's turned back.
_Call me Rei – came the answer.
A knock on the door broke Ami's reverie.
Glancing up briefly, she recognized the blonde hair peeking over the door's glass window, and taking a deep breath, she called out to her visitor:
_Please come in.
Zois poked his head in first, then cautiously cracked the door open enough to slide through.
_... Er – he stole a quick glance at her – hi.
_How can I help you, doctor?
Ami kept her voice neutral, choosing to look at him as she would a new patient.
He fidgeted nervously.
_Do you mind talking to me a little?
_We are conversing, doctor.
He didn't miss the sarcastic undertone.
_You're much more fun when you aren't sarcastic, - he pouted, and Ami couldn't suppress a giggle.
_Ah – Zois noted with noticeable relief – now you're laughing.
_It's called giggling, doctor – she shrugged – and by the way, your pout complements your feminine hairdo quite well.
_I am NOT feminine! – he protested, stomping his feet, and this time the bluenette laughed out loud at the renowned science prodigy's comical expression.
_And can you just call me Zois? – seizing the opportunity, he spoke up to a relaxed her, and immediately regretted it as all traces of humour disappeared from her face like a glass of water poured out on desert sand.
Just like before, he thought to himself, despite the surges, she has remarkable control over her emotions, be it tears or laughter.
_I'm afraid not, doctor – she shook her head, avoiding his gaze – we have a professional code of conduct that...
Zois waved his hand emphatically, cutting her off mid-sentence:
_Please, do me that favour. Doctor... really, I always get caught off-guard whenever I hear someone refer to me by that. I'm really uncomfortable with the use of titles, and then there was that thing yesterday, when I drove you back and you ditched the car midway, and then that encounter earlier, and then that guy whatshisname almost taking a swing at me as soon as he saw me, and after that you introduce the research team and I almost fall over when I realize I have to work with him too of all people...
_Okay, okay – Ami put her hands up in the air, returning the courtesy by cutting him off mid-sentence – I can just call you ZZ, doctor. I'm not comfortable with the first-name basis just yet, you understand.
_Ah, I was just going to talk to you about that...
Again, the blond man fidgeted nervously, and before she could speak up, he blurted out:
_Whatever happened yesterday stays there, but can I just call you Ami anyway?
The bluenette stared at him for what seemed to be an impossibly long time before a small smile broke out on her face.
_So – he hesitantly took a few steps toward her, sticking out his hand – friends?
Ami laughed, shaking his hand.
Inwardly, unconsciously, even as they didn't realize it, they both found a twinge of something familiar, yet faraway and almost nostalgic, as their hands touched and the word "friends" sounded in the air.
At the apartment complex.
_I'm heading over to Haruka's.
Unceremoniously dumping the empty plates into the sink, the brunette announced from inside the kitchen, and Usagi only nodded a brief approval before heading outside the door to her day job.
_Why? – Mina piped up from the couch, switching from channel to channel under the pretense of staving off boredom. In truth, she was rather enjoying the boredom aspect of it, for it was a much-welcomed break from the current case.
And the shipment is in less than two days, she thought to herself and turned back to the TV, determined to banish any memories about Ace to the farthest corner of her mind.
_She hasn't responded to my call yesterday asking about our little tail.
_Tail... oh – the blonde nodded, turning back to her program with a wave over the couch.
_You can get groceries too, Mako-chan, - she added after a moment – all we have left now is snack.
_And whose fault is that? – the brunette called over her shoulder, and got a soft "boo" for her rhetorical question.
Mina was about to reach for a new packet of chips when her phone rang from inside her room.
_Coming, coming, - she leaped off the couch, grumbling a little along the way as she made her way into her bedroom and started searching for the device, which by that point had stopped making any sound.
_Ha! – she triumphantly emerged from the floor, dropping her clothes back into the mess she hadn't bothered to clean up after last night, and narrowly missed hitting her head on the knob of the night stand nearby.
Plopping back on the couch, she unlocked her phone with curiosity. Very few had this number, and if her teammates needed anything, they wouldn't have bothered with a text.
Her eyes widened slightly as she took in the displayed name and message.
"Hi. Just thought I'd say good morning."
_I didn't know Kale was a texter, - she remarked to herself as she quickly typed in a reply.
_There, that wasn't so difficult, - the auburn-haired man shrugged, tossing the phone back to the silver-haired man nearby, who glanced over the sent text and sighed, obviously with discomfort.
_Yeah... that sounds kind of like me. Kind of.
_Don't take it too personal, Kunzite – the black-haired man shook his head before throwing on his suit jacket – You just need to get to know her, not fall in love with her or anything your stereotypical 007 would do in that case.
_Can't you just call me by name, chief – the silver-haired man shook his head, a little irritated – I'm off duty, after all.
_Sure, if you call me by mine.
With that, the black-haired man waved his parting and left through a side door. Ten minutes later, the auburn-haired man followed, mumbling something about hating first days at new workplaces.
The phone buzzed her response.
"Good morning K".
"I was too lazy to type out your name".
"I thought you forgot mine".
"I just might. But my phone won't. Well, unless you dunk it in water and put the SIM card in a blender, I guess."
"Where did that come from?"
In the penthouse's living room, Mina smiled to herself as she imagined the silver-haired cab driver smiling indulgently at her outrageous ideas.
"From me, duh."
Unconsciously, Kunzite tightened his grip on the phone as he awaited her response. He knew that sooner or later, the conversation would turn into pointless chatter, as it did last night when there were only them in his car.
_Thanks, V – the silver-haired man smiled, and after a moment, gestured toward the unopened coffee can.
_Care to help me with that?
_You mean – the blonde took hold of the can – you never learned to open a can while driving?
_I prefer to stay alive or at least keep my license – he commented with a straight face, his eyes trained on the road, but couldn't help a small smile as she burst out laughing.
He decided then that he rather liked her smiles.
As soon as the thought passed his mind, agent Kunzite smacked himself mentally.
"Do you have work today?" came the next text before he could reply to the previous one.
"I'm off today, V."
A few minutes later.
"Why do you ask?"
"Can't I ask a question?"
"Right back at you."
Mina grinned at her phone, realizing she was enjoying the pointless banter.
As soon as the emotion was acknowledged, Venus smacked herself mentally.
She still hadn't looked up the taxi driver in the numerous databases Mercury made accessible to the team, nor had she been able to place the feeling of familiarity that seemed to spark whenever she made eye contact with the silver-haired man who called himself "Kale" while living and earning a living in a country in East Asia.
"You know what would be fun to do on your day off?"
"What would that be?"
"Go watch a movie! I bet you don't have that much time watching movies, do you?"
She couldn't be...
"Oh, did your friends complain about the beer?"
"Ah, no, they just tell me to thank whoever that was that reminded me."
":) so, I know this great movie, quite possibly the best movies ever made, and I know just the way to see it too"
Kunzite waited with baited breath. He had managed to avoid going into details about his conversation with their subject during debriefing yesterday – it was all pointless chit chat anyway, he reassured himself, willfully ignoring the fact that he was never once for pointless chit chat, with a stranger he had only known through case files no less – but the silver-haired man didn't think a date with the subject would have gone over well with his team.
"Easy! But do you have Internet access? It's on this great website my friends told me about :)"
Kunzite sighed with relief, keying back a "yes, just a minute" as he reached for his laptop on the opposite chair. The light had turned green, so that battery should last enough for a movie.
He froze again in mid-reach.
V, or Mina Voxley as she was known in his case files, wasn't with him. He could easily pretend to be watching whatever she was suggesting while actually working on the case.
_Right, get to know her, become somewhat friends, - he thought to himself, ignoring the protests from his rational side.
After all, a serial killer's former lover and partner, no matter how endearing, like a leopard, couldn't change its spots.
Or... can she?
The blonde smiled a secretive sort of smile as she directed Ken to the website and instructed him on how to complete the search.
_Clueless about computers, eh? – she stretched on the couch – Well, that's the first clue on you, which can either be right or wrong, depending on your performance, right Kale-kun?
Copper-chan's head snapped up as she heard the unmistakable sound of a key being turned in the lock.
Here we go, she thought to herself, slightly surprised at her own nonchalance.
She had lost track of time, the only thing she had left, and she could feel her sanity fading as the light dimmed and brightened a patch of the ground, glinting from high above.
And she knew there was no escape.
She closed her eyes, ready to accept whatever – or whoever – that was coming.
The footsteps were coming closer, and a little heavy, a little mismatched, she noticed, as if the person had trouble walking on his or her own legs.
She opened her eyes a crack, and recognized the familiar hair colour of silver, she blanched.
Something was off, though.
Noises were coming outside, approaching, the noisiest Copper-chan had heard in that hellhole in the middle of nowhere. There was shouting, and moments later, as she felt strands of hair tickling her arm, on her right, around the handcuffs, and before she could make out anything but silver hair, she was shoved violently from the front, and the sensation disappeared.
Copper-chan tried to make sense of what was happening, but all she could make out in the darkness was someone with silver hair past the shoulders being led away.
Past the shoulders...
Copper-chan realized with a start.
Past the shoulders... but her kidnapper back then had short silver hair.
Knowing it was futile, but preferring to hold on to the fragile rather than a free fall into hopeless darkness, the copper-haired girl kept her tired eyes trained on the now-closed door, waiting again for what she was sure was a rescue attempt.
A/N: Here we go, more interlude to all the fighting. It's a little sad for this chapter, I admit. If you're here just for the fighting... well, too bad. I want the characters to be fully fleshed out, rather than just fighting for a good cause. And I'm a slow updater, so there's that too.
We're getting a quick update this time 'cause I just got my mid-year marks and I'm happy with them. Next chapter will have fighting... I think. Clear it with my plot bunnies first.
My thanks to EbonyMitsu, my loyal beta-reader and reviewer (I'm glad there's no mistake too, Eb :) and hey, we survived the predicted apocalypse! Cheers?), Pinka, Whitewolf513, luckyduck8801, MennaHennah, Djbriel, KaiPhoenix, RaigingSpring, Oky Verlo, wingsofseyfert12, Essie123, Sirona, Raiging Spring, , luckyduck8801, Vchanny, Fortune Maiden, Shadowfey913, mistressinwaiting, princessKatAngela, WhiteInfinity21, Ice Phoenix Angel and an anonymous reviewer for their patience and time in following my stories. To everyone else, thanks for reading as well.
Until my next chapter,