Leather and Lace

By Maidens of Konan

Disclaimer: Leather and Lace is a not-for-profit fan work. The Fushigi Yuugi story and its characters belong to Yuu Watase and her various media distributors throughout the world. Characterizations, plot, prose, dialogue and everything else not created by Watase-sama are the intellectual property of Maidens of Konan. Said property should not be copied, borrowed or used in another story without written permission; failure to do so will result in offender being squashed flat as a pancake by Namame, the Stone Seishi of Genbu.

Author's note: A warm, heartfelt thank you to everyone who has read and reviewed this fic during its long hiatus. I really hope you will enjoy this newest chapter. Hugs, KittyLynne

Chapter Fourteen

It took Dante under ten minutes to drive home from the supermarket, helped in part by the fact that at this late hour there was virtually no side street traffic to trip the thoroughfare's stop lights from green to red.

"Damn." He muttered, after turning the corner onto his street and noticing his elderly neighbor's living room light was still burning. Most 'sundowners' went to bed early and got up before dawn, but not Berta, the poster granny for night owls and early birds combined.

Dimming his headlights, he let up on the accelerator and crept down the street at a snail's pace to his driveway, making sure not to gun the SUV's engine as he pulled up the slope and pressed the switch to open the garage door. As soon as he had entered the structure, he quickly pressed it again; while the door rolled shut behind him, he switched off the ignition, disconnected his seat belt and stayed put, hoping that he'd been quiet enough to escape detection and that this was the rare night that she'd fallen asleep in front of the TV.

If she hadn't and got wind of his return home, he'd soon know-she'd become adept at pinpointing the time it would take him to get out of the car and inside before she'd call him and ask for help on some sham pretext. If she were really spooked, not answering the phone wouldn't work; she'd simply march over in housedress and slippers to bang on his door. Somehow, despite his resolution to say no, he'd get roped into coming over for a glass of Ovaltine served with a plate of home made snickerdoodles while being plied with gossip about their neighbors, the listing of the dubious virtues of her thrice-divorced granddaughter and dropped less than subtle hints about him needing a woman in his life.

It had been a lot easier to keep the old lady at bay when she thought Sandy was in the picture. But time had worked against him, and when Sandy's extended absence finally made it obvious that the relationship was history, Berta had been right back at it.

It would have been easier to tell her to leave him alone and mind her own beeswax, but he'd opted to avoid the subject and keep her guessing about his private life rather than cut her off. He didn't mind listening to her or talking about other subjects. Her observations could be downright entertaining, and those cookies were damn good.

But there was no way he would let himself get suckered in tonight. He'd changed her front porch light to a motion detecting security one, had fixed the loose board in her fence, had made sure she had dead bolts that were properly installed. Now that he thought of it, he really should tell her to loosen her purse strings and spring for a cell phone. It was a safety issue, and most older folks of his acquaintence that lived alone had one, or some other kind of emergency summoning device with them at all times as a precaution.

Even Taiitsukun had one, although he had to say he really couldn't picture her texting the Chinese version of an SOS, or pushing a call button and yelling, 'Help! I've fallen and I can't get up!'

Something that sounded close to a giggle left his throat and gave him pause. L/aughing like that meant it was definitely time to call it a night. With the roller coaster he'd been on this evening, it would be safer to wait until he was back on an even keel before trying to think things through.

He could hear the phone in his kitchen ringing. Most likely Berta, checking to see if he were playing possum. That meant he needed to stay put for at least five minutes longer. And as long as he was just sitting here...

It was certain Taiitsukun had valuable insights and understanding to give about a part of Miaka's life in which Sukinami had been the focal point. But what interested him even more is that part of her life had also included Tasuki. This might be his only chance to gain a reasonably objective perspective on the man that had made such a deep impression with Miaka. If obtaining it meant spending more time with an eccentric old lady whose whims and behavior bordered on stalker-like creepiness, fine, it would be worth the aggravation.

Maybe.

Or maybe not.

Dante sank back against his seat with a sigh.

Neither of them had much else to say after the old lady had all but confirmed that Tasuki had gone to meet his maker. They'd gone through the check out in silence, save for polite replies to the cashier's cheerful small talk. They'd chatted for a bit while they'd waited for the taxi she had called for on her odd-looking cell phone, but the conversation was stilted and uninteresting.

When the cab arrived, he had lingered to help load her bags into the car, using courtesy as a pretext to catch her address when she gave it to the driver. After this latest encounter he badly wanted to find out where she was staying, and something told him that it wouldn't do him any good to ask her directly. He should have known that the wily old hag would thwart his plan by climbing into the cab's back seat without a word of instruction to the driver.

He had hovered, pinning his hopes on the cabbie asking for the address while within earshot, but the man had simply shut her door and went to climb behind the wheel. Inexplicably stung by what seemed to be a rejection, he'd turned back to the cart that held his groceries with the intention of high tailing it out of there.

There was the electric whine of a lowering cab window and the clearing of a throat. "Young man, would you hold on for a moment?"

The underlying note of contrition in her crackly voice hadn't moved him. In a burst of pique, he had grabbed hold of the cart's handle and shoved it forward, only to find that the wheel had somehow gotten wedged in a pothole.

"Please, I have something of importance to say!"

He ignored the summons. One mighty wrench had freed the cart and he'd started to walk away at a good clip, hoping that the loud rattling of wheels on the pock marked asphalt would drown out any further conversation.

"DANTE PROMETHEUS TAGER! I HAVE ASKED YOU TO WAIT!"

The command had thundered through the night, hitting him with the impact of a gale force wind. But it was the use of his cringe-worthy middle name - the pretentious, weird-ass moniker that had gotten him into fights when he was young and that he'd kept a secret since graduating high school - that had stopped him dead in his tracks.

Very reluctantly, he'd turned himself and his cart around and walked back to the taxi, glaring at the old woman who had made him do it the entire way.

Taiitsukun's beady eyes had fixed upon him with disconcerting intensity as he approached. He had maintained eye contact, undeterred by her critical stare.

"I regret having to shout, because it could have been avoided. Why didn't you stop the first time I called for you?"

The imperiousness in her tone had set his teeth on edge. He had wanted to give her what-for, could feel the words burning on his tongue, but after hearing that voice coming out of such a small body, he hadn't been keen to cross her again. Discretion was the better part of valor at times, or so he'd been told.

"Because I've got perishable groceries to deal with." He said, doing his best to keep his resentment in check. "And I have to get up early for work."

"Then I won't keep you any longer than it takes to thank you for your help." Taiitsukun had said, surprising him yet again. "You've been very kind to an old woman, and have given invaluable assistance to a stranger in your country. It speaks highly of you as a person."

Though he'd still been miffed, he could admit the old lady's praise had a positive impact on him. He was absolutely sure it was something she didn't dish out very often, which meant it was worth more when earned. As for the yelling and bossiness, well, she was definitely old school, and he supposed he could cut her some slack. Miaka had forgiven him for his display of cultural insensitivity, so he could find it in his heart to forgive her old mentor for her display of arrogance.

Remembering his apology to Miaka had given him an idea, and he had bowed respectfully to Taiitsukun while wishing her good health, good fortune and a safe trip back to her homeland.

She'd looked pleased, and surprisingly, this had made him feel better. As badly as the woman got on his nerves, seeing that warped but clearly approving smile of hers really had made him glad he hadn't left her with a bad impression. After all, she was about to drive off into the night, never to be seen or heard by him again, right?

"I appreciate your courtesy, but this isn't goodbye!" His tormentor had declared, giving a dried-peas-rattling-in-a-can chortle at what had had to be his very stunned expression. "Did you think I could be dismissed as easily as that? You should know that our business is far from finished, Fang Boy!"

There were several cop-style comebacks he could have used, and even more questions that he should have been asking- starting with where the hell she'd gotten all of her information on him- but his temper had gotten in the way of his wits. "Listen Granny, you don't know me well enough for nicknames!"

At that, Taiitsukun had put on a stern expression, but there had been a glint in her eyes that made him suspect she was secretly still laughing at him. "Of course, you're quite right. I will be sure to refer to you by a proper name from now on."

"Thanks." He had said, not entirely mollified. "I'd appreciate that."

The basset hound lines around her mouth had deepened with her smile. "You are very welcome, Kou Shun'u. I will, as you Americans say, 'catch you later'!"

He'd had no idea what she was talking about. What did Kou whatsis have to do with his given name? Was it even a name? Or the Chinese translation of Dante? He had every intention of asking.

Instead, he had found himself gaping like a fool as the old lady's infuriating smirk disappeared behind tinted window glass.

While the taxi had pulled away he had to check the wild impulse to chase after it. He was fast enough for a residential speed chase, but he had perishables that needed attention, and getting them into his fridge took precedence over chasing down Old Lady Crackpot in a cab in the middle of the night...


The security light on the garage door opener going out jolted Dante back to the present. A wry smile curved his mouth as he contemplated the absence of light.

He'd been feeling totally in the dark about a lot of things lately.

But not for long, he quickly assured himself. He had every intention of getting to the heart of the old lady's reasons for being here, why she kept turning up to pester him about Miaka,and why, after all of that, she hadn't yet contacted the woman herself.

Miaka should be able to figure out what her deal is. And even if she can't, I'm sure she'd want to know her old teacher is in town for a visit.

With that settled, it was time for him to get a move on. He clambered out of the SUV, taking care to click the door shut rather than let it slam, then collected his groceries by trunk light. Closing it gently, he felt his way along the wall and through the darkness to the door that opened into his mudroom. He walked straight through into the kitchen, his path now illuminated by a couple of plug-in night-lights.

Once in the kitchen, he dumped the contents of the bags on the counter, opened the fridge, and began putting the foodstuffs away by the glow of the small lights. When the groceries had been taken care of, he allowed himself a peek through the window to the house next door. Ther lights were out, now, which meant Berta was definitely down for the night. Since the coast was clear, maybe he'd stay up for a little while longer, have a glass of wine and listen to music. State-of-the-art surround sound and the smooth buzz of fine alcohol would help dispell the disquieting notions Taiits-kun had put in his brain.

Turning to the fridge, he snagged the half empty bottle of pinot noir that he had opened for the meal Miaka had prepared, then shut the door with a bump of his hip. The dishwasher produced a clean but slightly spotty wine glass from the top rack. He filled it, set it down, and then drained the swallow that was left in the bottle. The recycling bin was a few steps away in the mudroom, but he couldn't bring himself to throw away what he'd shared with Miaka. With a small smile, he set the bottle in the sink. Later, he'd rinse it out and find a special candle for it.

He was on his way to the living room with his glass when a glance at his answering machine stopped him once more. The red light was blinking like an aircraft beacon in the semi-darkened room, indicating three messages had been left. For a moment he was tempted to ignore them, his desire for respite battling with a strong sense of responsibility. As was usually the case, responsibility won. He meandered over to the machine and pressed the play button.

The first message was from his mother, who told him in a cheerful voice that she was calling to say hello to her favorite son, and that he should call her back when it was convenient.

I'm your only son, Ma! Dante thought, smiling at the joke they'd shared ever since he could remember. She always made light of her reason for calling, but he was fully prepared for a gentle grilling when he returned the call. The woman had a sixth sense when something major was happening in his life, a talent that had been damned inconvenient when he'd been a teenager, but which he now accepted and even valued.

The second message was from Craig; after offering a list of bawdy guesses as to why Dante wouldn't be answering his home phone at ten thirty on a work night and then a good natured burn about Dante not giving the lowdown about the previous night with Miaka, his best friend had wished him a pleasant evening of debauchery and hung up.

"Moron." Dante snorted in amusement. "Gotta get your own woman if ya want details."

The time and date of the last message indicated that it had been left when he was sitting out in the garage. Sipping his wine, he waited for Berta's strident tones, then came close to choking a moment later when a sweet, young voice addressed the silence.

"Hello Dante, this is Miaka calling!"

He was back on the roller coaster. Incredibly psyched that she'd call so soon. Incredibly bummed he hadn't thought to give her his cell number.

Wait a minute. Why would she call? Was there trouble?

" Um...I hope that this doesn't wake you. And please don't be concerned, Mizu and I are fine! Um… a-actually, I was calling to listen to your voice on your answering message. I thought it would help me feel closer to you. Which is silly, I know..."

Not any sillier than knowing that this was a message he wouldn't ever be deleting, even if hearing her voice only increased the ache of not having her near.

"...but I was feeling sad and it helped. I'm missing you so much. I confess that I really, really wish that tonight hadn't ended with you having to go home."

Dante compressed his lips, feeling his body tighten with emotion. Me too, sweetheart. Me too.

"I shouldn't be saying things like that to you after everything we discussed tonight about keeping control of ourselves. But even if it's too fast and too soon, the more I'm around you, the more I'm certain of how I feel about you, Dante-kun. I realized it when you left, but I think I knew all along." She drew in a breath. "I know that...that I..."

Her hesitancy stretched his patience to its limit.

"That you what?" He barked, not caring that he was half-shouting at a recording. "Just say it, dammit!"

As if Miaka was listening to him, she continued. "Gomen nasai, I'm sorry! I'm not comfortable leaving these kinds of feelings in a message that can be overheard. And I'm not good at it...the tone says I'm running out of time for this call."

She made a noise that was something between a laugh, a sigh and a sob, and then finished in a torrent of words that sent his heart rate into overdrive.

"You told me that you can't claim the package until you're sure it doesn't belong to someone else. I want you to know that I've made up my mind that just as soon as I can talk to Taka, the package is yours."

And with that, the recording came to an end with a loud, jarring beep.

Dante spat out a curse and bolted for the machine, hitting the save button before the message was automatically erased.

Rewinding it, he listened to it again…and again…and again, convincing himself that he'd heard everything right the very first time.

After the fourth replay, he pushed stop and stood staring down at his motionless hand.

Conventional wisdom said that love at first sight was a myth. Though not quite cynical enough to denounce it outright, he had been one of those guys who scoffed and laughed and dismissed the notion as an impossible fantasy fueled by old stories, Disney concoctions, and authors that loved to cater to romance obsessed readers.

Well, the joke was on him. This was no fucking fairy tale, it was his life. The feelings he had, what had happened between Miaka and himself, defied skepticism, logic and any academic analysis. He was absolutely sure of how he felt, and just because it had happened freakishly fast didn't mean it- or he- was mistaken about what it was.

It was a fact that he'd fallen in love the moment Miaka rolled down that window and smiled at him. The process of getting to know her was merely a confirmation that his initial gut reaction to her was true and unwavering. He wanted everything she was, and everything that came along with being with her. And now that he knew she was feeling the same, he wanted to pick up the phone and spill his guts, or better yet, jump back in his vehicle and go see her in person.

But a glance at the clock on his microwave told him it was close to one thirty in the morning. Though his impulsive side was shouting at him to go get her, the saner part of him knew it wasn't a good idea to do this in the middle of the night, to go running to her without some kind of a plan for what he was going to say. He had a tendency to crack really bad jokes when he was at a loss for words, and sometimes that awkwardness worked to his advantage, but more often it didn't.

Blurting out the first thing that came to mind wasn't an option for making what could end up being the most important declaration of his life.

And there were still some issues to be dealt with before they could embark on a full fledged relationship. He hadn't told her about being a detective, or about meeting her Chinese mentor. What was he going to do with the information Taiits-kun had given him about Tasuki? How the hell was he supposed to impart the sad news of his lookalike's demise to Miaka, or explain how and why he'd been pumping the old lady for information about the guy in the first place?

And then there was another matter- Taka Sukinami. The man was going to be a factor in how things went. The investigation loomed like a cloud over a horizon of clear sailing, as did the possibility that Sukinami would decide to fight to get her back.

That fight would be a challenge, Dante thought, and probably not a fair one, given the circumstances. Having the man under investigation presented a clear advantage for him...which made it all the more ironic that he was now thinking of his rival as an unwitting victim of circumstances. It would be easier to remain biased, but his sense of fairness acknowledged the truth of what Taiitsukun had said about not jumping to conclusions. In the interest of justice, he needed to keep an open mind for himself and for for Miaka, who would be devastated to learn that someone she loved was suspected of being involved in the kind of machinations designed to bilk a community out of earnings, savings and pensions.

He'd do whatever he could for the guy to spare Miaka hurt and disappointment. If he did get back on the case, it would be with a renewed purpose of enlisting Sukinami's assistance in proving his innocence. Knowing the man had cared about Miaka enough to have potentially sacrificed his own life to save hers was a fact well worth considering in assessment of his character.

If Taka Sukinami had loved Miaka enough to risk everything he held most dear, he would love her enough to help put away the bad guys and to allow Miaka to pursue a future she deserved.

Laughter.

Happiness.

All out, no holds barred love.

He was the man to give Miaka that. He would tell her as soon as he could do it in a coherent manner in a place that was right for the occasion.

Okay. Now that he had a plan, it was time to get some sleep.

Yeah, right.

Dante downed the rest of his wine and set the glass in the sink. Then he headed straight for the living room, grabbing a throw pillow, a blanket and the TV remote before flinging himself down on the sofa.

There was no way in hell he was going to get a decent night's sleep, so some mindless wee hour channel flipping was the next best thing.


Day had just begun to break beyond the window in his den before Taka finally pushed himself away from his desk. He rubbed his burning eyes, and then massaged his aching neck with a hand.

He'd quickly saved the information on Miaka to the jump drive he'd been issued as an aid to working at home, but the rest of the entries proved resistant to being accessed, which made them impossible to copy or transfer. At that point, he'd decided to stay a little longer to try a couple of tricks he'd learned from one of his fraternity brothers, a computer science whiz who gone into anti virus programming. With what he'd remembered, he'd managed to open three more files. The names they'd contained kept him going at the others straight through the night, but his subsequent efforts had been stymied.

Reaching for a notepad, he jotted them down and then stared at them until the characters blurred before his tired eyes.

Aogiri, Suzumi

Hongo, Yui

Mikage, Aya

Seno, Alice

Yuuki, Miaka

All were female and Japanese. Two names were familiar to him from news stories about the scandal at Mikage International, a former technology and genetic research giant in the Japanese business world. One was an unknown. The other two were inextricable parts of his life.

Thornton had said it was a simple file transference error, that the data should have been purged as being under the category clients who were no longer clients or deceased. The man knew must have had been misinformed about the files' content. He knew Miaka, and the rest were very much alive far as he knew. After doing a search of his own, he'd determined that none of them had ever been clients-the only one with any sort of a tie to Thornton was Miaka, and that was second hand.

It could be that the files had been routed to him because they were potential clients. But that wouldn't explain Miaka's dossier. She hadn't made enough money at the Phoenix Grill to be able to make worthwhile investments, and he doubted she ever would.

Not that it mattered. By the time they got married, he'd have enough put away in securities, bonds and retirement portfolios to cover any sort of catastrophe or emergency that might result in loss of an income. When it was time to retire, they'd be assured of living comfortably on generated interest and dividends.

Insuring the future was a financially secure one was his goal and his mission. Knowing he'd succeeded gave him peace of mind. But was that future going to be shared with Miaka? Would they be reaping the harvest of his labors as they grew old together? He wasn't as sure of that as he had been twenty-four hours ago.

Everything in him said that he shouldn't have left Miaka last night without a specific plan to sit down and talk about the problems she'd alluded to. He'd left her to help someone else, thinking that she'd wait for him to returnl. Was he wrong? Even his boss had questioned that decision, albeit jokingly.

Since he'd been hired at Thornton, he'd never called in sick, gone on vacation or even taken a personal day. He'd schedule medical and dental appointments on his lunch breaks to keep from getting backlogged, making the time up on Saturdays if the appointments went over an hour. Sure, having that single-minded devotion to his job had upped his salary and his status with Thornton, but how much would it end up costing him in the end?

Time was money, but it was at its most valuable when used for making good and happy memories with loved ones.

He'd totally lost sight of that in the last few months. No wonder Miaka had rejected him last night. He hadn't made any efforts to make time just to be with her,and yet he had expected her to be there for him. He'd made plans and cancelled them, ignored her phone calls when they weren't convenient to take, relegated her to sitting at home while he traveled. She deserved far better... and she'd get it, just as soon as he got back from his business trip as a proxy for Thornton.

Turning in his chair, Taka glanced up at the crystal and brass clock hanging on the wall beside him. In a little under two hours, the building would be unlocked and employees would start to arrive. Soon after that, some high level programmer would log onto his laptop and expunge all traces of the unwanted files from his database, as per Thornton's directive.

Once they were gone, pretending ignorance of their contents would provide a convenient and easy solution to his present dilemma. But even if no one else knew, it wouldn't be business as usual for him from now on. Not when one of those folders had contained personal information about Miaka, and he had no idea why it was there. That wasn't something that was going to go away, and he didn't intend to shove it aside. Protecting Miaka came before everything else, and always would.

Hoping to gain inspiration, he scanned the room. None was forthcoming until his gaze finally alighted on the frame sitting on his desk, which held a picture of himself and Miaka standing arm in arm in front of his townhouse.

It was the perfect compromise. He'd phone in that he was using one of his work-from-home days that the company allotted to its account executives every year, but one of the perks he hadn't taken advantage of as of yet. He'd bring the laptop with him and work on accessing the rest of the folders without question.

In the worst case scenario that he couldn't get them opened himself, he'd call in a personal favor from his computer geek contact back in Japan, whose discretion could be relied upon in yielding some answers.


After stops in the locker room to change into his uniform and at the central desk to check for messages and pick up a newly minted nameplate, Dante made his way upstairs to the open office space that had been designated to the Investigations unit.

Dropping into the banged up chair that went with the equally battered but substantial steel desk to which he'd been assigned, he reached for a pencil and began filling in the log sheets and maintenance reports that had been issued to him. It was tedious work, and it wasn't long before he found his thoughts straying to smiling green eyes, silky auburn hair and the feel of a soft breast pressing into the palm of his hand…

His pencil snapping in two brought him back to reality. With a muttered oath, he threw it away and reached for a pen.

"Here, Tager. You look like you could use some starter fluid."

Dante glanced up to see a large Styrofoam cup being held in front of his face. Rising steam carried the aroma of strongly brewed java to his flaring nostrils as he accepted the offering. "Thanks man. You're a lifesaver."

Cody LaConte took a seat at the desk directly opposite him. "Sure. Can't have any of those street punks getting the drop on you."

Dante laughed. "What punks would those be? All I've come across are a few moving violations, some bump and go fender benders, and a group of elderly pedestrians who needed help to get across Academy."

"Best not to get complacent." LaConte advised mildly. "You'd be surprised at what can cross your path on what started out as a routine day."

In an instant, Dante grew somber. He was aware that LaConte had been a street cop in Chicago, and had come close to losing his life in a lone shoot out with a bad guy that was very reminscent to what had happened to his own father. So much so, that he had avoided the subject whenever he was talking to the man.

"Sure." He said. "A boring day is a good day, right?"

"Roger that. And if it looks like things are going to be getting more exciting, you make sure to call for back up."

Dante kept his expressive impassive. Cody was being diplomatic, but was definitely calling him out on his attitude. And dammit, the man was right. A uniform was a beacon for crazies. Keeping your body intact was a lot easier if you were proactive and prepared for the worst. "Right. Backup. I got it."

"Good."

There was a silence before LaConte asked,

"So when do you get to come back to investigations?"

"Whenever the powers that be decide there's enough evidence to justify removing their lips from Thornton's corporate ass." Dante's smirk was sarcastic. "Probably not for a while."

LaConte chuckled. "You know I'm working on your case, right?"

"Not exactly mine anymore, but yeah." Dante said, feeling a sharp twinge of guilt. He'd hadn't given a thought to helping his replacement, he'd been too caught up in what he was feeling for Miaka and working out how he was going to explain his very personal interest in her to the rest of the team. "Was glad to hear they assigned to it to you. Knew you'll do a hell of a job."

"Thanks. If you have a couple of minutes, I'd like to pick your brain."

Dante took a swig of coffee before answering. "If it's about the case, I can't help you. The Captain made it clear that I'm banned in every capacity."

"With the amount of information you have, you could be considered a witness. Would asking a witness a couple of quick observational questions be considered out of bounds?"

In spite of his discomfort with the subject, Dante found himself smiling. "Gotta say that I like the way you think. And my answer is, it wouldn't be if it was Connery. But since it's his boss who's callin' the shots on this, that approach is not gonna pass inspection."

He tried to infuse the statement with discouraging finality, but LaConte wasn't deterred. "I'll be honest, Tager, I don't care if it does. It's a tough enough time keeping this one afloat with all the stonewalling going on, but I'll be damned if I'm going to let big business honchos dictate the terms of an investigation!"

Dante surveyed his co-worker with empathy and increased respect. He'd pretty much pegged Cody LaConte as sticking to the usual methods and the rules type of investigator, but apparently that impression wasn't accurate. "Okay. You got five minutes."

"Great!" The other man was looking more cheerful. "First question. I noticed in going through your reports that you were dealing with liasons and intermediaries at the company. Just to be clear, you never met or talked with Sukinami directly?"

"That's right. My attempts at communication all got deferred. Hope you're having better luck."

"Not really. That's been my experience so far. I'm a patient guy, but it's already getting old."

Dante grimaced. "Yeah, well, try having weeks of canceled appointments, unanswered calls and emails with excuses from people who specialize in givin' the run around. I got so damn fed up I went to the office building he works in, waved my badge around and point blank asked to see the guy. Instead, they trotted out some slick haired legal type to talk with me. Once they established I didn't have a warrant or a summons, I never made it past the lobby."

"You'd think they wouldn't have had a problem with you talking to him with counsel present."

"You'd think, but nope. And that stunt was what got me reassigned, so I wouldn't recommend it unless you get a warrant."

"Understood." LaConte said. "So, moving on. From what I've deduced in researching Sukinami's life, he's been an open book. There's not a whisper of trouble or scandal to be found since he got here, or from when he was living in Japan. His friends and fiercest competitors all describe him as smart, honest, classy, and a genuinely nice guy. If he's not acting as an intermediary for bid or interest rigging or any kind of misappropriation of funds, then why would they bother keep him hidden? If anything, he'd be the shining example that the company uses for P.R. to show it can be trusted, right?"

"Right." Dante said slowly. "You'd think that would be the case, but instead they're making him look shifty." The more he heard, the more he was reassessing the case and the man. Setting feelings of rivalry aside, he could say that Miaka had a good reason to hold him in high esteem, and if what LaConte was saying was also true, then Sukinami deserved to be given more benefit of the doubt. "You think it's possible he doesn't know anything about our wanting to talk to him?"

"That's what I've been thinking." LaConte said promptly. "He was promoted into corporate stripes at a young age, and it's my guess he's grateful and excited about the opportunies he's being given. By all accounts, he's well liked by his clients, anxious to impress and driven to succeed. If you look at the non compensated overtime he puts in, he's definitely willing to go the extra mile without being asked. He's worked hard for it, so he wouldn't think there's any ulterior motive in his rapid rise other than the fact that it's a reward for having proven he has what it takes to bring profit to the company. Those qualities don't make him a suspect, but they do make him the perfect blame magnet for the corporate big boys if think they're about to get caught."

"They're fattening him up for the kill while not takin' any chances that integrity and honesty would lead him to being a whistleblower."

"Right. I thought if I contact him while he's away from the keepers, I'd get a better indication if it's him avoiding us or if he's completely in the dark."

"Sounds like a win win. Even if he's got work buddies, he's kind of isolated in his personal life, isn't he? A casual and friendly approach on neutral territory could give the break ya need."

"Exactly my thought." LaConte said. "But he's not totally isolated. You probably know his girlfriend came over from Japan a few months after he got here."

Dante took a swallow of coffee. He'd known the subject would inevitably come up, but it was a struggle to keep his cool when his protective instincts were kicking in big time.

"A hometown honey." He observed, avoiding a direct answer. "Nice she was willin' to pull up roots for him." And pretty damn lucky for me.

"Yes. Couldn't have been easy for her. It probably helps that she's fluent in english."

"I'm sure it does. Good on her for bein' prepared."

"Yes, and good for us too. She might be able to help."

Not good. Dante thought. Gotta get that out of his head. "Really? You thinkin' she knows something?"

To his relief, LaConte shook his head. "I'm sure she doesn't. From what I can tell, other than going to the company social functions, she's got zero knowledge regarding his day to day operations. But as his long time girlfriend, she's got influence, right? So approaching her to get him to talk to me could be worth a try, don't you think?"

Dante frowned. The idea had a lot of merit, he'd thought of it himself. But now... he was damned if he'd let anyone question Miaka but him. "I see your point, but don't do it until we know whether or not he's gotten his hands dirty. Do anything before, an' you're walkin' a fine line between legal questioning and harrassment."

"Good point." LaConte said, then looked wry. "And you know, it's just as well. The commotion over who'd be debriefing her would be enough to tip the scales to the wrong side of that line."

Dante eyes narrowed. "Whaddaya mean, commotion?"

The other man shrugged. "The singles in the ranks have seen recent surveillance stills of her. The overwhelming consensus was that she's a looker."

If only he'd seen those photos before he'd met her, Dante thought grimly. If he had, that would explain the feeling that he knew her. But he hadn't, so he'd have to be careful as to what he said now. Careful, because he wasn't about to pass up the opportunity to recruit reinforcement in getting the message out to the crew who'd been ogling Miaka. "Oh yeah. I did hear something about that."

LaConte looked surprised. "You did?"

"Yeah. Word gets around."

"That was quick!" LaConte's brow furrowed. " Just found out myself, yesterday. I'm going to have a word with the instigator. Surveillance for personal enjoyment isn't acceptable."

"No need." Dante stated. "I already had a serious talk with Murray about his egregious error in judgement."

LaConte blinked, then nodded approvingly. "So what was the result?"

"Had him turn in the pics. Told him no more feedin' the horn dogs if he wanted to keep it out of his file. He apologized, and said he wouldn't make that mistake again."

The set of Dante's jaw and the look in his eyes had his colleague offering up silent thanks that he hadn't been on the receiving end of the fanged one's ire. "I'd say it's a safe bet that he won't be."

Dante gave him a small grin, then glanced at his watch. " Sorry, we gotta wrap it up. My shift's startin' in five and I still have to sign off on these babies."

LaConte immediately stood up and stuck out his hand. "Thanks for taking the time, I appreciate your input."

"No problem." Dante shook the offered hand, glad that he'd allowed the time, and with the resolve to talk to the man more than he had in the past. They had some things in common now, and his gut was telling him LaConte was the kind of guy he could trust to have his back. That feeling made him unbend enough to say, "If there's anything more I can do to help ya out, let me know."

Four minutes later, Dante had his forms printed out, signed, and sitting in his out basket. With a sigh of relief, he stood and tossed his empty coffee cup in the wastebasket. The caffeine had done its job; he felt rejuvenated and actually eager to get out on patrol. Being out on the road would make the time go by faster, and would give him a chance to think through what he was going to say to Miaka without having to worry about who was watching him think.

Cody LaConte looked up from his computer. "Be careful out there. Have a good one."

Dante give him a salute. "I intend to. Later, C.L.."


"Ready to go, Mia dear?"

As Hannah DeBerg pushed through the swinging doors to the kitchen, Miaka took the opportunity to peer into the dining room. The number of occupied tables had dwindled to less than ten, which was a solid indication that the lunch rush was over. Her station was clean and the garnishes were replenished. That meant she could go to lunch with Hannah, something that she'd been looking forward to all morning.

She smiled at the hostess, who beamed right back at her. "Almost. I just have to grab my bag."

Alan Thompson poked his head around the corner as she went back into the storage area that served as a coatroom. "Is this a private party, or may I join you ladies?"

Miaka hesitated. She wasn't sure if she was completely ready to trust the man who'd once seen her as a direct threat when it came to matters of the heart.

But was that fair? Once they'd gotten past the Kevin thing, Alan and she had had some really fun times together. Along with Hannah, he'd been there to keep her from getting lonely when Taka was away or too busy to see her, and to aid her in her efforts to become more fluent in her English. There was also no question that he had helped her out with McMasters today and yesterday, diverting the blond chef's attention and generally running interference so that she was left in peace with her thoughts and daydreams.

In considering that, saying no seemed very ungracious, yet she wanted to be sure. "I have something personal I want to discuss that I don't want everyone here to find out. Can you keep a secret?"

Alan's expression was solemn as he made an 'X' motion across his heart. "They won't hear anything from me. You can trust me, honey, I've got more secrets than anyone."

"Then you're welcome to join us." She said warmly.

After loading out take out containers from the salad bar and grabbing some drinks, they headed out the back door to the small enclosure built for employees' breaks. The fenced in area wasn't large, but it boasted a tree, a few flower filled barrels, and a couple of resin patio sets with red and white umbrellas.

Miaka was the first to seat herself and open up her container, only to find herself staring at it. Why had she taken so much food when she really wasn't hungry? Figuring out she was in love with Dante was one thing, but why had she made that idiotic phone call? Every time she thought of it, her stomach started to do flip-flops.

"All right, that does it. I think I can guess what you want to talk about." Alan said, as he sat down. "Dark circles under the eyes, a dreamy yet tormented expression, the astounding lack of an appetite-if I didn't know you still had Taka in tow, I'd say you've got it bad for that hunky police officer."

Hannah plunked down next to him. "Shut up, Alan. She'll tell us when she's ready."

"It's okay, Han-chan." Miaka sighed. "Taka came over last night after work to spend some time with me, but I turned his offer of a date down to go out to eat with Dante, who also showed up at my door."

Her two friends exchanged open mouthed, wide eyed glances, then turned back to her.

"Wow." Hannah said. "Not good."

"Oh, to have been a tiny fly on the wall!" Alan lamented.

"Nothing like that happened. They didn't meet." Miaka said.

"Pity." Alan observed. "The thought of having all that machismo in one place just blows me away."

"Dante knows about Taka?" Hannah asked, after swatting Alan.

"Yes, I told him I had a boyfriend when we met."

"And he still asked you out?" Hannah frowned. "I know I have no room to talk, but I'm kind of disappointed he disregarded your relationship-"

"He didn't!" Miaka leapt to his defense."He asked me straight out about how serious things were with Taka, and I said that we weren't engaged and things weren't really going well. He said that if I would be interested in getting to know him, he was willing to take a chance that I'd choose him. But if I had said I was totally committed to Taka, I'm sure he wouldn't have taken it any further."

Hannah brightened. "Oh, I'm glad. He is a true- "

Alan interrupted. "Yes, yes, parameters were set, he's an officer and a gentleman. Can we get back to the almost confrontation? Nothing happened, you said?"

Miaka nodded. "Dante came to the door while Taka was taking a shower. We were standing there, saying hello, and he asked if I had plans. Before I could say anything, Taka yelled for some towels, and Dante heard him. And given it was obvious I'd just gotten done taking a shower myself ..."

Hannah winced. "Oh Lordy."

"It looked bad." Miaka acknowledged ruefully. "I was so upset. I explained that I hadn't known Taka was going to show up, but I wouldn't blame Dante if he'd think I was playing with them both and dumped me. But he believed me. He comforted me, and said that he knew things were going to be awkward until I decided, and was fine with it. And he apologized for not calling first."

"What a guy." Hannah marveled, as Alan nodded.

"He said he was going to ask me out to dinner, but we could go out another time. I told him that no, I was going to go back inside and tell Taka I had other plans for the evening. It sounds so underhanded, but I asked him to wait in his car. I thought it was best to tell Taka about him on my own, and I was all set to do it. But then Taka got an emergency call from his boss and had to leave right away, so I didn't get a chance to tell him after all."

Though her expression was solemn, Hannah's brown eyes sparkled. "But you still went out with Dante?"

"Hai! I mean, yes! We went to the Sonic, because I told Dante I'd never been to an American drive-in."

"Am I hearing this right?" Alan gasped. "The man actually took you someplace that you said you'd enjoy?"

Miaka made a face at her friend's pointed comment. "He did. And after we ate, we went to the park so we could walk and talk and watch the sun set over the mountains."

"Nice, very nice." Hannah leaned forward. "Did you have fun?"

Green eyes shone with remembered pleasure. "Yes. So much."

"And there wasn't any shop talk, text messages or phone calls?"

"None. I don't think he even had a cel phone with him."

"You were his focus for the entire date?"

"Yes. Completely."

The hostess' smile was broad. "And how about the kissing?"

"Hannah...please..."

"Too late to be shy about it, missy! Pretty good, is he?"

Miaka looked at her salad, rearranging it with her plastic fork as an excuse to hide her blushing face. "Much better than good." She admitted, unaware of the soft smile that accompanied the words. "Tender... passionate...and totally amazing."

Hannah sucked in a breath. "Oh sweetie."

Alan's smile was genuine even if his tone held envy. "Lucky you. Finding a lover that's both hot and considerate is like finding gold."

Miaka looked up quickly at hearing the word 'lover'. "Oh! Don't misunderstand! We didn't...I mean, things haven't gone beyond a little making out." She clenched her fist. "It easily could have, but Dante said he wouldn't go any further unless he's sure he's the only one I'm going to be with. "

"An ultimatum. Interesting." Hannah murmured. "Was he angry?"

"No, not at all. He...he said he wanted to, but only when it was right. And it can't be right when Taka and I haven't talked about how I feel. "

"Assurance that he's a man of integrity and restraint." Alan observed with a nod of approval. "I'm impressed."

"I am too." Hannah agreed. "That's a good man you have there."

Miaka didn't think her face could get any hotter. "I know. He didn't pressure me, he gave me as much time as I need to think about it."

"So then what happened?" Alan asked.

"It was getting really cold out, so we decided to go back to my place for coffee. "

Alan pointed at her. "Ah-ha, now there's the real litmus test! How did Claws of Fury react to your date?"

Miaka laughed. "Dante thinks Mizu is awesome, and talks to him. Mizu allows Dante to pet him. And Dante wants to bring him on our next date."

"He has tamed the devil cat." Alan breathed, after a stunned silence. "He's definitely something special."

"So what happened after that?" Hannah prompted.

"I prepared a snack, we talked and listened to music for awhile, and then he kissed me good night and went home."

"So let me see if I've got everything straight." Alan said. "You meet this totally hot cop with six pack abs who makes you want to jump him and scream out his name the minute you lay eyes on him. In the two days since you've met, the guy procedes to prove himself to be a chivalrous, supremely caring, honorable individual who's made you happier than I've ever seen you since you got here. He's fun and considerate of your feelings and an amazing kisser. He doesn't want to take advantage of you. He's willing to wait while you make up your mind. And on top of all that your man-hating, skin shredding cat likes him." He shook his head. "Help me out here, Yuuki, because I'm failing to understand what's holding you back."

Hannah gave him her best 'don't be an idiot' look. "She and Taka have been a couple since they were teenagers. You don't just throw that away on a whim, or because things are getting stale." She turned to look at Miaka. "But it's not a whim or boredom, is it? You've been thinking about ending things with Taka even before you met Dante."

"Yes...but..." Miaka hesitated. "I can't imagine my life without Taka. He'll always be important to me. We've hung on through times that were as bad as you can imagine. To walk away from him now, after everything..." She hung her head. "I don't want to hurt him. He's made great sacrifices, and I owe him so much -"

"You've made sacrifices as well, like leaving your career and the people you loved in Japan to be with him!" Hannah broke in."Feeling that you owe it to someone to marry them isn't a good foundation for a marriage. Fulfilling an obligation won't bring the happiness you deserve." Leaning over, she put her right hand over her friend's, stilling its aimless movements. "If I thought it was just a physical attraction, I'd be the first to tell you to end things with Dante. But that's not what I'm hearing or seeing. There's a connection between you that goes as deep as anything I've seen with you and Taka."

Miaka gazed at her. "Maybe I should have stayed home. Do you think it was a mistake for me to come here?"

"Absolutely not!" Hannah stated. "I think it was essential that you did! You needed a fresh perspective, one that could open your eyes and then empower you to enact a change that you might not otherwise have made."

"But how do I know it's the right change?"

Hannah smiled. "There aren't any guarantees. But I'm a firm believer in what my mother always used to tell me- 'above all else, listen to what your heart says. It never lies.'"

"Amen to that." Alan said.

"I listened! And I blew it!" Miaka blurted, looking miserable. "I called Dante and left a message on his machine right after he left my apartment. I told myself I just wanted to hear his voice, but I ended up confessing my feelings for him! Then I laid awake, worrying and waiting for a return call that never came! I think it was too much, too soon! I think I chased him away!"

"Was it pretty late at night when he left you?"

"Close to midnight, yes. Yet I hoped when he got home and listened to the message he'd call me-"

"I think you're worrying for nothing. Dante is a considerate person, especially when it comes to your feelings." Hannah interrupted. "Think about it, Mia! He knew you had to work today, and he didn't want to wake you up if you were asleep. He's a cop, he could even have been called into work. Or maybe..." she winked, "he wanted to respond to you in person when he could give you physical proof of his feelings along with the words."

"I…I suppose…"

"I'll say it again, Miaka Yuuki- that man is all yours! The only question is if you're willing to take a risk and do what needs to be done so that the two of you can be happy together!"

Miaka stared at her friend while silently acknowledging the truth. The first risk had already been taken with a late night confession-there was nothing to be lost by making another. Her heart ached for what that meant for Taka, and yet also soared with the joyful certainty of saying what she truly wanted.

"I'll do whatever I have to do to be with Dante."

The older woman's smile stretched from ear to ear. "Now that we've got that settled, what's next?"

"I need to talk to Taka, but he's going to be out of town on a really important business trip until next week. And before you suggest it," Miaka added as her friends opened their mouths, "I'm not going to do it over the phone or in an email or text message. He deserves a personal explanation."

"You're a lot kinder than I would be," Alan remarked, "considering he's barely had time for you since you moved to this country."

"So what are you going to do in the meantime?" Hannah asked, after sending Alan a quelling glance. "What about Dante?"

"He knew Taka and I had previous plans for the weekend. But then Taka called and cancelled them while Dante was still at my place last night."

Hannah's eyes went wide. "Ooh. Again, that must have been awkward."

"Just a little." Miaka said wryly. "It helped that I could speak in Japanese. Anyway, I was mostly relieved...and yet disappointed because I really wanted to see more of the area. Dante got that much out of me. Then he invited Mizu and me to stay at his house for the weekend so he could take me to see the attractions I haven't seen yet-"

She stopped and sighed in exasperation as Alan and Hannah exchanged knowing looks. "You two are such perverts! Nothing like that will be happening! He has a guest room...and we have an agreement, remember? Dante says we can handle it like mature adults, and I think so too. Controlling ourselves is a small price to pay for getting the chance to spend major time together."

"A noble ambition." Alan remarked.

The hostess snorted. "And a total crock! From the vibes I was getting from that man yesterday, getting you anywhere near to his bedroom will be the definition of spontaneous combustion!"

Though she was thoroughly embarrassed, Miaka couldn't help giggling.

"Dante, eh?" Alan said, looking thoughtful. "An interesting name. And very apt, from what I've seen and heard of him so far." Golden eyes took on a mischievous glint. "Passion begets inspiration! I'll create a fiery new illusion in honor of you two for my act."

This was news to Hannah. "And what kind of act would that be?"

"Alan is a professional magician!" Miaka happily informed her before Alan could answer. "He doesn't make a big deal about it, but he's got a permanent weekend job at Phantasma Dance Club and Cabaret! He's done several shows, and every one tops the next!"

"How exciting!" Hannah exclaimed. "I didn't know, but I honestly can't say I'm surprised, Alan. I've always thought you had a flair for showmanship- your dining room exhibitions are terrific, even better than McMasters!'"

"Thank you." Alan said modestly, after swallowing his last bite of salad. "I'm not in it for the money or anything- I just like to entertain people and I enjoy mastering new techniques."

"You have to tell us when you perform so Miaka and I can come see you!" Hannah enthused.

Alan smiled. "I'll do better. I'll get you complimentary tickets." He turned to Miaka. "I'll get a ticket for Dante too, if you'd think he'd be interested in seeing a show."

"I'd say that's a safe bet if Mia's involved." Hannah put in slyly.

"Hannah-chan!"

"Ah, but of course!" Alan exclaimed, twirling an imaginary mustache as he leered at the two giggling women. "Yes...yes...I can picture it now! Miaka as my hapless- er, esteemed assistant in my latest concotion of magical fantasy! A damsel in distress, an innocent, yet ravishing temptress starring in a scene so fraught with peril that our highly principled Dante won't be able to resist coming to her rescue!"

"Sounds like the perfect scheme to me!" Miaka said, feeling her spirits being lifted to giddier heights.

Admitting that she'd fallen in love with Dante Tager was kind of terrifying, but allowing herself to feel it was glorious.


It was close to two o' clock before Dante headed for Brew You for a late lunch break.

The morning had flown by. Traffic violations, fender benders and a couple of emergency calls had kept him plenty busy. He'd managed to grab some time to call Miaka, but it was after nine and she hadn't answered, probably because she had gone to work. To add to his frustration, his beeper had gone off just when he'd started to leave a message, and he'd ended up saying far less than what he'd wanted to say. Still, if nothing else she'd know he was thinking of her when she heard it, and he'd make sure to do much better when he saw her in person.

Whistling a nameless tune, he pulled into a parking space right up next to the coffeehouse. This time of day was what Craig referred to as 'down time'; after the lunch crowd, and before people got off of work. Indeed, the only sign of activity that Dante could see was that of the jeans and t-shirt clad, blue haired young woman who was occupied with washing the glass paneled front door.

With that shade of hair, she's gotta be in a band. He thought, before spotting the UCCS logo on the back of her shirt. And she's a co-ed. Craig must have hired a part timer to help out.

He climbed out of the car and locked it up, after first making sure he had his keys in his hand. Pocketing them, he then approached the window washer, who was swabbing the glass with an impressive amount of energy. He paused, intending to wait, but she startled him by quickly stopping and turning to him, squeegee still in hand.

She was very short; the top of her head didn't even reach his shoulder. If it weren't for her punk-styled blue hair and womanly curves, he'd have thought her a child.

Lavender irises set in a surprisingly innocent looking face sparkled as they regarded him.

Dante stared. Pretty unusual hair and eye colors. And they look real. As soon as the thought struck him, he shrugged it off. After all, natural looking hair dyes came in all colors these days, and exotic colored contacts were readily available.

"Good afternoon, and welcome to Brew You!" The young woman trilled, sending droplets of moisture flying as she gestured wildly. "Please go right in!"

Dante's lips twitched at the young woman's sprightly enthusiasm. Whoo boy, Craig's got himself a live one here! "Afternoon, miss… an' thanks." He added, as she stepped aside and opened the door with a flourish.

"You're very, very welcome!" She chirped, beaming at him. "Please enjoy yourself!"

Touching a finger to his hat in response, Dante entered the coffeehouse. It wasn't a surprise to him to find that no one was behind the counter; considering the lack of customers, Craig was most likely out back doing inventory or taking a break in the john.

He walked up to the register, intending to ring the bell put there for service. Before he could, a familiar face with a crown of blue hair suddenly popped up from beneath the counter. Lavender eyes smiled at him as he gave a violent start.

Dante gaped at the cheerful young woman as she stood up, tugged on the bottom of her UCCS t-shirt and said in a girlish voice,

"Good afternoon, Officer! Welcome to Brew You! I'll be very glad to take your order if you're ready!"

"Wait a sec! Weren't you just outside washin' the windows?" He asked, perplexed.

The girl started to answer, but a gruff male voice interrupted her.

"Yo Dante! About time ya showed up!"

A relaxed-looking Craig Bennett emerged from the kitchen. Dante performed their ritual handshake with less than his usual flair until an epiphany struck him.

"Twins!" He exclaimed. "They're twins, right?"

"Yep!" Craig laughed. "They just started today. Great references, so I hired 'em on the spot." He eyed his friend's slicked back hair. "Nice comb back, by the way."

"Thanks." Dante said, then addressed the smiling girl. "Sorry about the mix up, Miss. It won't happen again, now I know you've got a sister. "

"That's perfectly okay!" She piped. "I'm Ami with an 'i', and my sister is Sue! It would be my honor to take your order, sir, considering all you do to keep our city safe!"

With anyone else he would have suspected sarcasm, but this girl really meant it, Dante could tell. Abundant enthusiasm must run in the family, he thought in bemusement, as he thanked her and placed an order for a depth charge and a raspberry scone.

"Is that all you're havin'?" Craig asked critically, as Ami busied herself with the order. "This is your lunch break, ain't it?"

Dante shrugged. "I'm not very hungry."

Craig's eyes glinted with a knowing light as he surveyed his friend. "I bet I can guess the reason why."

Dante reddened. "Mind your own beeswax!"

"Said but not meant." Craig asserted breezily. "Mind if I join ya?"

"That's fine, as long as ya lay off hasslin' me about my not eating!"

"Or not sleepin'," Craig added, after another shrewd glance at the dark circles under his friend's eyes.

"That too."


Twenty minutes later, Dante had finished his scone, all the while giving Craig an overview on his new assignment and how things were progressing in his love life. By an unspoken understanding, he didn't give out specifics; though he trusted his best friend with many confidences and vice versa, they were in a public place, and able to be overheard.

"I'd say she's ready to dump the suit for good!" Craig proclaimed, when Dante had finished. "It's a good thing too, bein' you're totally gaga over her!" While Dante glowered at him, he added, "I know you too well, Tager, so don't even think about givin' me any of that 'I'm done with women' bullshit! If you weren't thinkin' that way about Miaka, then why bother bringin' her here to meet me? Why take a chance on her with that other guy in the picture? Why refuse ta sleep with her unless she says she's all yours? You wouldn't have done none of those things if she weren't the one, isn't that right?"

Dante averted his gaze to the cup he held, then gave an affirmative jerk of his head.

"Glad you're bein' honest with yourself this time!" Craig stated as his friend took a large swig of coffee. "You know as well as I do that when ya put feelings before your libido, it makes it official. Which also means you're gonna tell her the truth about yer real job, right?"

"Yeah, to a point."

"Whaddaya mean?"

"I'll tell her I'm a detective that was reassigned, but not what or who it was in regards to."

Craig nodded. "It's got to do with that case you can't talk about."

"Yep."

"Answer me this, then- is she worth gettin' into trouble on her behalf?"

Dante's jaw tightened. "Yes."

"Would ya put up a fight for her if it comes down to that?"

"Damn straight!"

"Even if it means breakin' ties with the force?"

Amber eyes narrowed. "I'll do...whatever's necessary."

Looking satisfied, Craig picked up his mug. "So are ya gonna tell her you love her?" He asked over the rim, grinning as his friend's face flooded with red.

"Yeah." Dante admitted. "That's all I could think about all fuckin' night. How an' when an'..."

"Sheesh! It's a big fucking deal, but it's not that hard, is it?"

Dante shrugged. "Maybe to you, but I've never said it to any woman I've gone with."

Craig choked on a swallow of coffee. "S-Sandy?" He managed to get out, as he coughed and grabbed for a napkin.

"Never said it, and neither did she."

"An' you were thinkin' of marryin' the woman? Oh man, that's really sa-"

"It ain't sad!" Dante interrupted hotly. "Sandy didn't let me make that mistake, an' I'm grateful. Not sayin' those words to her allowed me to meet the one woman in this world that I was meant to say those words to!"

"Miaka." Craig supplied, as his friend paused for a breath.

"Yeah."

"So go an' tell her as soon as your shift is up!"

"She'll still be at work." Dante grumbled. "Wish I 'd gone home instead of stopping at Kings, I coulda called her back last night!"

Craig smiled. "If ya really need an excuse to go see her before she gets home, why don't you an' me check out the Phoenix? I've been wantin' to try some Mongolian cuisine."

"Don't ya have to stick it out here?"

"Not tonight! Joe's back from vacation an' he and Abby are gonna be here from three until closing."

"Okay, let's do it!" Dante gave a decisive nod.

"Sixish? I'll pick ya up."

"Yeah, sounds good. But I'll drive-"

Craig reached across the table and grabbed his friend's hat and smacked Dante smartly upside the head with it.

"What the-"

"Why don'tcha try usin' both yer heads for once?" Craig asked, as he tossed it back. "If Miaka's workin', won't she have a car there? And if I found some reason to hafta leave without ya, wouldn't that mean she could give you a ride home?"

Dante set the abused hat down on the table and smoothed a hand over his rumpled hair. "I guess she could." He admitted. "Good plan, bro."

"It's a damn good thing ya got me around to think of these things!"

The redhead grinned. "And for makin' a great cup 'o java!"

"Yer too kind, Tager, yer too kind. Need a refill?"

"Yeah, but better make it to go. My breaktime is just about up."

After bringing his most loyal customer a second depth charge in a styrofoam cup with a cover, Craig left to take a phone call. There was a generous amount of espresso in the drink, but Dante found he didn't need the stimulant it provided. Just the thought of the evening to come and having Miaka's petal soft warmth beneath him was enough to send his heart rate into overdrive…

The last five minutes of his break passed before he realized that he'd been staring off into space with a grin that could only be describe as wolfish.

Dante stood up, slapped on his hat, and picked up his drink.

"Yo, Tager! Check this out."

The owner of Brew was standing in front of the service counter. A blue-haired twin to either side of him, backs pressed against his hanging arms as they faced outward in poses that were perfectly symmentrical, their arms and fingers curved in a pose rather reminiscent of Oriental dragons. "The twins do impressions! Ask me what they are."

"Do I wanna know?"

"Ya do if ya want your free refill."

"All right! What are they?"

"Human bookends!"

Dante groaned as the two young women turned identical, laughing faces in his direction. "You're a sad man, Bennett! I'll see ya tonight!"

To be continued…

Reviewers of this chapter will receive illusionary bling and a magical squeegee!