I smile back and shake my head. “Glad you’re finally taking your safety seriously.” Then I sober. “I don’t suppose you’ve thought more about leaving Tokyo?”
Hideo sips his coffee. “Second rounds start this week. If I’m not there, people will start to ask questions.”
I sigh. “Just . . . think about it. Please?”
A bodyguard calls to him. Hideo turns his head slightly. “Mr. Tanaka,” reads my translation. “Reporters are ready for your interview.”
Hideo gives his bodyguard a subtle nod of his head. “In a moment,” he says. He walks toward me until we’re separated by inches, and then leans down toward me. If he were standing in my room right now, I could probably feel his breath stir against my neck. “I promise I’ll think about it,” he murmurs. “But you have to understand how hard it is when you are still here in the city.”
My toes curl, and I shiver with pleasure. Through our Link, I can tell that my emotions are reaching him in ripples. You’re hopeless, I think to him.
Only in the morning.
I remember you being pretty hopeless that night, too.
He turns his eyes down, and his lashes catch the light. A smile lingers on his lips. I’d like to kiss you right now.
What if I didn’t let you? I tease.
You wound me, Emika.
I laugh. Maybe I want to kiss someone else.
Jealousy flashes across his face, and his eyes darken to cinder. Even through the physical distance between us, I can sense his emotions through our Link, that deliciously warm desire. Come over. Tonight.
My stomach flutters. But, my teammates . . .
I’ll make it worth your time.
The flutters turn into somersaults. “To your home?” I whisper, unable to hide my own smile.
He hesitates. The uncertainty returns to his face, and for a moment, I think he’s going to shake his head and change his mind again. After a pause, though, he surprises me with a nod. Come with me tonight. I’ll show you my old home.
My heartbeat quickens. This is another secret from his past; I can hear it in his voice, feel it through our Link. I find myself nodding. Okay, I reply.
We both log out of our Link, and I exhale, then get up and head out of my room.
By the time I make my way downstairs, it’s raining hard outside. Hammie and Asher are on the living room couches, engrossed in a quiet debate about how best to mess up the Cloud Knights’ defense. Asher’s arm is draped over the back of the couch, his hand idly touching Hammie’s shoulder, and she doesn’t move away. Roshan is playing a game and streaming himself live on his social channels. Ren is nowhere to be seen. The dorms are quiet, save for the pounding of rain against our atrium’s glass ceiling.
I nearly jump out of my skin at Ren’s voice. My fist goes up instinctively, and I whirl around to see him standing behind me in the hallway, turned as if headed to his room. Then I let out my breath and lower my fist. I should have sensed him there—I’m supposed to be so good at reading a room. “You scared the crap out of me,” I blurt out.
He just raises an eyebrow at my reaction, then replies in French. Transparent white text appears in my view as it translates. “Are you always ready to punch people that surprise you?”
All of my suspicions about Ren after tracking him over the past couple of weeks must have made me jumpy when I’m around him. “Just the ones that lurk in dark hallways.”
“Do you have a minute?” he says, nodding me over. “I want to ask you something.”
Ren stares quietly at me. “About Hideo.”
I blink, momentarily stumped for an answer, and my eyes dart quickly to Ren’s. He’s watching me carefully. What had he noticed in my expression? Had he purposely tried to catch me off guard to see what my reaction would be? Quickly, I compose myself and give him a confused laugh instead. “Why—have I finally shown up on some tabloid?” I say, exaggerating my teasing voice.
Ren grins in return. “Something like that,” he replies. His words send a shiver down my spine. “Come on. We can chat in my room.”
If I don’t go with him, it’ll look suspicious. So I find myself following him down the hall that leads to his quarters. It’s nothing, I tell myself. Besides, it might give me an opportunity to do some hunting that I don’t normally get to do: talk directly to one of my potential targets.
I’ve never been down here before, but it’s impossible to mistake which room is his—from the hallway, I can hear the muffled, deep, steady sound of a beat, just barely loud enough to be heard. The door slides open as Ren stands in front of it and reveals a large suite lit with a dim neon-blue glow. He steps inside. I hesitate for a moment before I join him.
Ren’s room looks completely different from mine, like he had it customized to his satisfaction. Padded foam squares line the walls, while the center of his room has a table shaped like an arc above which hovers a system of floating screens, some displaying what look like sound meters, others displaying metrics and bars that I can’t begin to decipher. A musical keyboard and a panel of sliding buttons are also attached to the arced table. Ren’s pair of gold winged headphones are lying on the desk. The room pulses with a deep, rhythmic beat that makes the ground vibrate and my heart beat in time. My eyes wander around his room in awe, even as I hunt for clues. I quietly bring up Ren’s hacked profile, and his information lights up in transparent text around him.
“You wanted to talk about Hideo?” I ask.
He nods, then sits down and spins around once in his chair. He loops his gold headphones around his neck. “Yeah. When we first met, you mentioned that you’ve listened to my music before, right?”
I nod. “I was a fan of your music when you first came on the scene in France.”
“Wow.” He gives me a smile that I can’t quite tell is genuine, and then plays with a few of the bars on his board. “I didn’t know you knew about me that early on.”
I didn’t know you knew about me that early on. Immediately, a warning bell goes off in my head. “You kept yourself pretty niche,” I answer, carefully now. “Like you didn’t want to be discovered yet.”
Ren leans back in his chair and props his feet up on the desk. “All of my early work was in French. I didn’t know you spoke my language.”
I watch him as he pulls his headphones on, my heart beginning to beat faster. I didn’t know you spoke my language. Is he talking about French, or is he talking about the language of hacking? “What does this have to do with Hideo?” I ask, trying to bring it back to his original topic. “Is he a fan of yours, too?”
“I’ve been composing a track for him as a gift, after everything’s over,” Ren goes on, his voice lighthearted. “To thank him for entering me in the Wardraft. I wanted to get some feedback on it from someone who knows Hideo well and also knows my music. You know, to see if it’s something he’d like.” And at that, he looks expectantly at me. “You seem pretty friendly with him.”
He knows. Does he know? I force my smile to stay intact as I give him a shrug. “Do I?” I say, just as lighthearted.
“At least, that’s what the tabloids are all whispering about.”
“Well,” I reply, keeping my eyes level with his. “We all have friends in high places, don’t we?”
Ren returns the look for a moment, unrelenting, and then finally glances away. “Here. Have a listen. I could use the help.”
Ren had once said in an interview that he doesn’t appreciate outside input on his work. Now here he is, offering me his headphones, and I don’t know what to make of it. When he gives me an encouraging smile, I reach out and accept the headphones, then slip them on.
It’s a deep bass, all alone with a smooth, beautiful violin above it and something that sounds like chimes. A female vocal starts on the track. “Let’s tear through Tokyo from zero to sixty / yeah, like we’re running out of time in this city,” she croons. As I listen, I glance at Ren. A track about Tokyo.
Then, I hear a line that sends a jolt through me. “Let’s go out with a bang / yeah, it’s time to go out with a bang.”
It’s the same track that had played for a second in the Pirate’s Den.
He’s setting me up. I look quickly at Ren and notice him watching my face with a thoughtful expression. He composed the track that had played during the Darkcross game—and now he’s making me listen to it to see if I find it familiar. Judging from the way he’s looking at me right now, he can tell that I’ve heard this song before. And that means he knows I must have been there at the Pirate’s Den at the same time he was.
He knows I’m following him. He knows I’m watching Zero.
Ren takes his headphones back. His eyes never leave me. “Do you think Hideo will like it?”
His words are ominous to me now, and I fight to look unaffected. “It’s good. Maybe he’ll even add it to the tournaments next year.”