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The Idle King

September, 2010

 

***

“Phillipa!”

There was no answer and Dom tried again. “Honey, we have to go!”

“I can’t find my barrettes, Daddy!”

She was still in her room and he sighed. “Use those other ones. The ones we just bought at Target.”

“No, I want to wear the ones Grandma gave me.”

“Phillipa—”

“Dad!” she cried out and then nothing.

He dropped her backpack on the stairs, then said to James, “I’m going to get your sister. Don’t turn the TV back on.”

“Today is pizza Tuesday, Daddy.”

“I know it is, James,” Dom said, not able to hide the frustrated snap in his voice. “We’re not going to be that late.”

James plopped down next to the backpack and said gravely, “Okay.”

Dom sighed again as he strode to the back of the house. He’d apologize when they were in the car and he probably should have anticipated being late because it was becoming business as usual.

Phillipa’s door was closed tight. In the center of the door, in red and pink crayon, was the sign she’d posted two weeks ago: Girl’s Only.

He’d grinned at it, the first time he’d seen it, the door shut to the rest of the house, to him, but now…

He knocked, then opened the door when she didn’t answer.

She was on the bed, turned away and he didn’t have to see her face to know she was crying. She’d been braiding her hair, but only half was done and her long blond hair lay in messy strands on her shoulder and back.

“Honey?”

She shrugged, a painful, touch-me-not gesture. Something else that was new.

He sat down on the bed, his weight making the mattress sink, tipping her towards him. He wanted to say he knew why she was so upset over such a small thing. That she was so good most of the time but she was just a kid who lost her mom and she was going to be angry and scared about that for a long time to come.

But they were going to be late for school for the fourth time in two weeks, so he just said, “Where did you last see them? The barrettes, I mean.”

She shrugged, but answered in a small voice, “I was showing them to Emmy last week.”

“Okay.” He picked up the comb. “I want you to try something Grandpa taught me how to do. Close your eyes and picture Emmy. Then picture showing her the barrettes.” He began to comb her hair, from the bottom, as Mal had shown him all those years ago. “Are you closing your eyes?”

“Dad…”

“Sweetheart, just try it.” He came to a knot, thick and tangled, and he gently picked at it with the comb.

“That hurts,” she said, then on the same breath, “Okay, I’ll try.” She breathed deep, her body stilling with that certain immobility that said her mind was engaged elsewhere.

He managed to untangle the knot and he ran the comb down the length of her hair, from scalp to tip. When she’d been born, after her newborn fuzz had fallen out and it became clear that she was going to be blond, he’d confessed to Mal that he’d hoped their beautiful girl would have dark hair. ‘Like yours,’ he’d said as he’d cupped Phillipa’s tiny skull, fascinated with the two of them, wife and daughter, thinking that it wasn’t possible to love anyone more.

Mal had laughed, her eyes crinkling up in that way that told him that he’d just delighted her and said that his genes were too strong. Then she’d tilted her head up, Phillipa cradled between them, and kissed him.

The memory, almost seven years old, ached sharply at first, then faded away.

Phillipa jerked and straightened up out of his reach. “Daddy! It worked. I remember.” She was gone, out the door, before he could stop her, her hair flying behind her like a flag.

He didn’t have to get up. She was back just as quickly as she’d left, pounding along the hall, making so much noise for someone so slight.

“Here they are,” she said as she held them up, already turning around.

Without a word, he began to braid her hair, fingers fumbling a bit. Mal had shown him how, that first year they’d been together, but she’d cut her hair when James had been born and he no longer had the knack.

But he managed and when he got to the last bit, he asked, “Rubber band?”

She held it up and he finished, then turned her around and looked closely. He’d been right—she’d been crying—not a lot, but enough to redden the whites of her eyes. “Do you want me to put them in?”

“No, I can do it.”

She stood in front of her mirror and he watched her deftly fasten one barrette, then the other, and he wondered when she learned how. Probably at school, like so many other things, or from his mother-in-law.

“Honey?”

“Yes?” she answered absently as she smoothed her hair.

“Is everything all right?”

“Yes.”

“No, I mean, is everything all right at school?”

“Like what, Daddy?”

“Just…” He shrugged and shook his head. “If there is something wrong, you’ll tell me, right?”

She turned to look at him. There was a blankness in her gaze that was also too familiar. “Like what happened to Mrs. Franks?”

“No, not what happened to Mrs. Franks.” An affair with the very married principal of a nearby school was what happened to Mrs. Franks. The school was still in an uproar about it, something Dom felt a little ridiculous—it wasn’t like she’d slept with a student. “If anything is upsetting you or you’re unhappy, you know you can tell me. Right?”

She nodded, as gravely as James had a few minutes ago, then picked up her sweater. “I’m ready now.”

He stood and gently guided her towards the door. “You got your homework?”

“It’s in my backpack.”

“Good.”

James was, thankfully, waiting on the steps, head in hands, the picture of bored patience.

“C’mon, you two,” Dom said. ‘Let’s see if I can make a twenty minute drive in ten.’

***

Thanks to traffic, they were only a few minutes later after all. He got out with them just in case Franks tried to make a fuss.

The last time they’d been late, just five days ago, she’d tried to count it as an absence, saying that missing fifteen minutes was as good as missing the entire hour. Dom had just looked at her, silently reminding her that they were talking about a six-year old who was going through a difficult time, not the president of the United States, late for a cabinet meeting.

He’d won that contest of wills.

“Daddy?” Phillipa said.

“Hmm?”

“I can go in by myself.”

He stopped and looked down at her. Since he’d been back she’d grown at least an inch—her head was almost to his elbow. “Okay, go on in.” He watched as she walked away. When she got closer to the door, though, she began to skip, her newfound gravity making way for the girl he used to know.

He turned to James. “What about you, buddy? You want to go in on your own?”

“Sure.”

But he crouched and reached for James’ shoulders. “Hey?”

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry I snapped at you back there.”

“It’s okay, Daddy.”

“If there’s anything that’s bothering you, you can tell me, right?”

“I know.”

And that was the difference—James had been too young when he’d left to have as many worries. Or, more likely, they were just offset by his presence. But Phillipa—

“I’ll see you at eleven-thirty.”

“Okay, Daddy.”

James threw himself into Dom’s arms for a quick hug, then darted away, hopping up the steps to the door.

Dom watched him go, waving to his teacher as she rounded the stragglers up and ushered them inside.

He stood there, hands in pockets, until he realized he was staring at nothing then turned back to the car.

***

When he got home, he followed what had become his usual pattern: take a quick look at the headlines online, then get a cup of coffee and take it to the workroom.

He sat down at his desk and sipped his coffee while he looked at the printouts with satisfaction. Miles had approved the final revisions, done last week, and they’d be starting in the spring.

If someone had asked seven months ago if he’d ever want to work on another building, he’d have told them that they were crazy, that he’d never touch another plan again, much less take so much joy in it.

But things had changed and he’d loved every minute of it—the back and forth with Miles. The consulting with the clients and then drawing out his first ideas. It was almost like his first year at the Université, when he’d realized that the structures in his head could actually be put onto paper and then into being.

He was still sitting there, mind on the last puzzle of what do with the garden-level door, when his cell rang. He pushed ‘talk’ absentmindedly, still bent over the drawings. “Cobb.”

“Dom?”

He sat up. “Hey, Mick.”

“This a bad time?”

He glanced over his shoulder at the kids’ playroom. The supposed playroom. Even at this angle, he could see the lumber, the piles of furniture, waiting to be installed. “Just doing a little work. I take it the panels haven’t come in yet.”

Mick’s hesitation told him everything and he said, “What does the manufacturer say?”

“Just that they’re still waiting on materials.”

He sighed silently. “I’ve heard that one before.”

“Yeah,” Mick agreed. “Well this time I’ve got an actual date from those yahoos. The materials are set to arrive to the plant next Friday and then they’re gonna put on a weekend crew so the panels will ship on Tuesday. And before you ask, no, you won’t be paying for the overtime. I convinced Harry that your job will be a watershed project for them and they’ll recoup their money when they offer the idea to other contractors.”

Mick’s voice was laced with apology and Dom sighed, out loud this time. “Okay. Well, there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“I’m really sorry.”

“No, it’s okay. The kids aren’t missing it. Now, if it had been the computer and the art table—”

He made his voice light and Mick laughed in return. “Yeah, I would’ve come over and built those myself if they’d been late.”

“As long as everything is done before Christmas, I’m fine.”

“You guys all set?”

“Yeah. We’re flying out on the twenty-first. What about you and Jeannie?”

“Her mom’s not doing well, so we cancelled our trip.”

“That’s too bad. Aspen’s gonna miss you guys.”

“Eh. Emmy’s upset, but I don’t care so much. I hate skiing. I was only doing it for them.”

Dom grinned. Mick was about six-four and fifty pounds overweight, but mostly, he just hated the cold.

“How’s Phillipa?”

“The same.”

“What the school shrink say?”

“The school counselor said that she’s still adjusting from Mal’s death and my reappearance.”

“And?”

“And, that it’s gonna take more than a few months.” ‘You have to give her time, Mr. Cobb. These things hit kids hard, but some are too adept at hiding their fears because they want to please the remaining parent. And hiding those fears, in turn, makes everything worse. So keep close to her and help her find little successes to give her back some of the control she feels she’s lost.’

“What about those grief lessons?”

“Sessions, not lessons.”

“What about them?”

“I think they’re actually doing some good.”

“Good,” Mick said, then his voice changed, “Hey, Dom?”

“Yeah?”

“I promised Jeannie I’d ask you, so don’t get mad.”

He sighed again. He liked Mick. He was unlike the other friends that he’d made in the last few years. In other words, Mick was fairly normal. They’d bonded over their kids’ mutual friendship, architecture and music—something that still made Dom grin because he hadn’t met many contractors who were that into opera. But Mick’s wife, Jeannie, had been trying to set him up with woman after woman for the past month and it was getting annoying. “Mick—”

“I know, man, I know. It’s just that she’s got this friend—”

“No.”

It was Mick’s turn to sigh. “Yeah, okay. I told her you’d say no.  She’s just worried about you and we’ve got tickets to the opera in a couple weeks. I know you’re a fan.”

“I am.” And then, because he had to ask, “What’s playing?”

“Aida.”

Damn—Verdi had been one of Mal’s favorite composers and they’d never missed a performance. But still, it wouldn’t be worth it. “I’m not there yet.”

“Yeah, I get it.”

“Maybe in a couple months or so.”

“Yeah, no worries. Sorry I had to ask. We cool?”

“Yeah, we’re cool.”

“Good.” Mick’s voice was light with relief as he changed the subject. “So unless things go like they’ve been going, I’ll be there next week, bugging the hell out of you.”

“Good. Let me know if anything comes up.”

“Will do.”

“See you.”

“You got it.”

Dom hung up and sat the phone down. And stared at it, thinking. Jeannie Clarke was a nice woman. About forty with a laugh that made you want to laugh with her. But she wouldn’t let it alone, that Dom was okay being on his own. And she didn’t get it, that the idea of dating or even going out to dinner with another woman made his chest hurt. She thought he was too isolated, too focused on his kids and work, too sad.

She also thought he was gay.

He’d overheard them the week before at their weekly barbecue. He’d been out with the kids, helping them build a series of tunnels in the sandbox. He was trying to show them the value of shoring up a structure and went inside to see if Jeannie had a paper towel tube he could use. As he’d opened the screen door, he heard her, sotto voce, “…well, how else do you explain it?”

“I don’t need to explain it. It’s none of our business.”

“But you told me that—”

“Jesus, Jeannie. Dom is not gay. He was married. He has kids. And even if he is, so what? It’s none of our—”

“Business. Yes, I heard you. Over and over.”

“And you don’t listen. Over and over.”

“It’s just that he’s so lonely. When I brought Samantha to dinner last month, he showed no interest in her. Do you think his wife would have wanted this for him? To be so alone?”

Dom hadn’t stayed for more. He’d slipped back out, smiling. By the time he’d returned to the sandbox, his amusement had changed to bemusement and then a kind of irritated anger. It was none of anyone’s business if he dated, who he screwed.

Besides, if he were gay, how did she explain Mal and why was she throwing all her friends at him?

It was absurd and he’d had to school his features to neutral after Phillipa, still too sensitive to his moods, stopped shoveling and asked what was wrong. He’d scooped her up and twirled around and around until she was laughing again.

Even now, days later, he was still angry, unsure if it was directed at Jeannie or himself. In the recent past, if someone pissed him off, he’d solve the problem by moving onto the next job, the next country. But he no longer had those options, bound in more ways than one.

Because, like a pendulum, his life as sole parent had started off good, great even, and had settled into not so good. Even with the maid, the gardeners, there was still so much to do. And the worries—are they eating enough, are they eating right? Are they getting enough exercise, are they getting too much?

On and on and on.

A few months after he’d been back, Miles had asked if he was okay, now that the first heady rush of being home was over. Dom had brushed him off, unconcerned by his concern, saying that everything was fine.

But the question had sparked a small worry and he’d realized that things weren’t fine, that maybe he’d answered too quickly. That it would be nice to have someone around to bounce ideas and questions off, other than Dr. Archer and the school counselor.

And that as much as he hated to admit it, Jeannie had been right—he was lonely.

But it was a little more complicated than that, and he told himself repeatedly that he was happy. That he’d never been a danger junkie and he wouldn’t go back to his old life, even if he could.

As to being gay…

He frowned and put his phone in his pocket, then stood up. It was almost lunchtime. He should eat something or go work in the garden—something that would take his mind off, well, his mind.

But he didn’t go to the kitchen and he didn’t go outside. He went to the cabinets that lined the east side of the room and opened the far door. At the top, out of reach of the kids, lay a flat aluminum case. He took it down and carried it to his worktable.

Feeling a certain sense of ceremony even though he hadn’t looked at it after the initial appraisal to make sure it had arrived in good condition, he sat the case down, flipped the latches and opened it up.

He’d known the kids would never open it, would never think to open it because he’d taken delivery during the day and they didn’t even know it was there. Still, he breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that the drawing was wrapped in its archival plastic, still resting inside its foam nest.

He’d bought it on a whim. While he was in L.A. three weeks ago, visiting a friend of Miles who was repairing the stained glass in the entryway. He’d finished his business and decided to make a quick trip to the A+D. He hadn’t been in years—the last time had been with Mal. She’d been pregnant with Phillipa and had insisted on going. ‘Before our lives are changed forever,’ she’d said.

A thought that had darkened his mood and when he’d parked and hurried up Wilshire, he’d been thinking of nothing more than fate and turns of chance, neither of which he believed in.

He didn’t know what made him stop in front of the gallery just to the south of the A+D. Maybe the proclamation of, ‘Louise: A Fifty Year Retrospective,’ or the fact that it was a gallery he’d been meaning to visit. Or maybe it was just that it was warm outside and he was sweating and wanted someplace to cool down.

Why ever, he opened the door and went in. It was worth it—a retrospective of Louise Nevelson; not featuring her most important works of course as most them were in museums. But there was a detailed timeline and a few pieces he hadn’t seen. In a separate room was another small show, titled, ‘British Works.’

He wandered in, surprised by how nice the pieces were—a smattering of minor works from the thirties. Except for the piece on the inside wall and he’d leaned in close and studied it. Post-war British wasn’t his absolute favorite but he liked this one—a nine by twelve charcoal of geometric shapes floating in space on a yellowing sheet of drawing paper.

It was for sale and the asking price, forty-five thousand, bordered on outrageous. But when the sales clerk discreetly asked if she could help him, he murmured, ‘I’ll take it.’

And so he’d bought it and had it delivered and that had been the extent of it. Put immediately on the top shelf of a cupboard he rarely used, ostensibly to keep it out of reach of the children, but really to keep it from his own mind.

It was insane, the purchase. What had he been thinking?

He frowned again, this time at the tightness in his chest, in his throat.

He closed the lid. And placed the case back up on the shelf and then returned to his desk. Without giving himself a reason, he picked up the phone and punched redial and waited.

And when Mick answered with a friendly, “Did you forget something?” Dom found himself saying, “I’ve changed my mind. What day and what time?”

______________

Saito sighed. And turned the page dutifully as Kaneda moved onto the next subject, that of first-phase construction. He’d read the report a month ago—hell, he’d written most of it, and the information was complicated, requiring an entire afternoon to review because the smallest misstep could be costly.

Unfortunately, it was also very, very boring and he laced his fingers together and tried not to yawn.

He wasn’t entirely successful and Robert glanced over, then down to his own copy again, a small smile bending his lips.

Saito hid his answering smile. His presence was a mere formality. Robert knew this. Kaneda knew this. The whole group knew this. But he needed to be here, if only to play referee once Kaneda’s presentation was over and the real meeting began.

In the mean time, he sat quietly and pretended interest in forecasts and fluxes and ergs. In actuality, he watched as the sun moved in sharp geometrics across the table in increments too slow to follow, watched as the steel-colored stone turned to a silvery blue.

He loved this room. Designed by himself to hold as many as forty guests and all the necessary communications equipment, the twenty-meter floor-to-ceiling windows faced east to catch the morning sun.

When he’d seen the first plans, he’d told his architect to try again, that even though they didn’t want to make a show of wasting energy, the room had to be able to let in as much light as possible. Finally, frustrated by the man’s lack of understanding, his insistence of following traditional, small-window design, Saito had taken a pen and drawn his idea on a napkin.

When the expensive German-built eco-glass was installed, when the floor was laid and the room was empty of everything but a few chairs, he’d sent everyone out. He’d dragged a chair to the middle of the room and sat there, legs crossed, hands folded in his lap, as the sun arced high above.

He’d thought of nothing, or so he’d told himself, but later on that afternoon, he’d instructed Ito to wrap up Dominic Cobb’s suit and send it back to America. Something he should have done immediately, but hadn’t.

He frowned at the table and made some noise that drew everyone’s attention. Kaneda’s fractured English halted and he said, “Sir?”

He schooled his features to neutral and gestured for Kaneda to continue.

He’d done the same thing the week before. He’d been out on the balcony watching the sunset, wondering about the possibility of a quick jaunt to Shimodo or maybe a beach somewhere where the surf rolled milky white, when Ito had startled him, coming too early to drive him to dinner. Saito had spoken sharply, berating him for the interruption, too harsh for such a minor issue. When they were in the car, winding through the streets that never not seemed busy, he’d apologized roughly. Ito, of course, said nothing because it wasn’t his place to do so, but Saito regretted his atypical outburst.

Atypical but not necessarily unexpected.

Because he wasn’t happy, even with the new business direction, his new mistress and the new flat. Happiness, of course, was an overrated commodity. It was enough for a man to make his mark, build an empire if he could, and then live out the rest of his years in honor.

Of course, just two months ago, he hadn’t felt that way. He hadn’t felt much of anything but then, two months ago, he was lost. So lost that he’d boarded his plane to California as if sleepwalking, off to find the one man who could wake him up.

A sharp noise, that of Kaneda trying to cajole the new projection screen into descending, drew his attention and he sat up straight, telling himself that daydreaming was as unproductive as sleeping and that the meeting would be over soon, anyway.

***

They finished at ten minutes after four. There was the usual milling about and shaking of hands, of promises to meet for cocktails and dinner, and then he and Robert were alone.

“Well,” Robert said as he tapped his folders into a neat pile. “How bored were you?”

Saito grinned and stretched. “Very.”

“I think Mr. Mueller felt the same. He fell asleep about halfway through. Did you notice?”

“I did. I was going to suggest a trip to my office where the sofa is very comfortable, but thought it would have been rude.”

Robert grinned. “As rude as Mr. Weston and his insistence on shouting all his comments?”

Saito pursed his lips. “I’d call it loud, more than shout. And every nationality does that. Visit Monaco at the height of the season and watch the Germans yell at the French, the Americans yell at the Germans, the French at both. Each sure that the other can understand better if one simply shouts.”

Robert snorted as he put his documents away in his attaché. “I suppose we should be grateful that he uses English. His Japanese is awful.”

“At least he tries.”

Robert smiled up at him, a sideways glance that wasn’t hard to interpret. “I try.”

He raised an eyebrow and just smiled.

Their friendship, born of lies that had become truths, was comfortable after the first month. Saito had told himself that it was simple necessity. If Robert and he were to become working partners, it was best that they didn’t hate each other. A half-truth because he knew that one of the reasons that he’d made an effort was that Robert was a living reminder of the adventure undertook in the spring.

That Robert had misunderstood his friendliness was something Saito regretted and was delicately trying to correct. Or at the very least, ignore. It wasn’t going well, and he knew there would be a time, and probably sooner rather than later, when he’d have to state his intentions in the clearest of terms. But until then…

He picked up his own attaché and said, “Will you be going to the dinner tonight?”

“I don’t want to.”

“Which means, yes.”

Robert smiled again and held the door open for Saito. “Which means, yes.”

***

The lift doors opened with a muted hiss. Saito entered, then keyed in the security code.

The flat was dark, except for the lamp by the sofa. Miko was already in bed, no doubt tired of waiting up for him. He couldn’t blame her. One in the morning was late for him as well, and he was very tired.

Still, after he’d loosened his tie, he wandered across the big room to the balcony and slid the double doors open. The air, with its underlying scent of exhaust, was warm and he removed his jacket and laid it over the chair.

As he loved his new conference room, he loved this view. Not really much to see, compared to the views from his houses in Shimodo and France, but it faced west and caught the evening sun if there was sun to see.

Sunlight in the morning for work, sunlight in the evening for home.

He hadn’t been aware of that particular theme when he’d designed the conference room or when he’d picked out the flat, but hindsight, so they said, was twenty-twenty, and this new obsession with the sun was because of the dreams.

The dark one, that of pacing the silent halls of an opulent estate, waiting for someone he could no longer remember, was an unusual visitation these days, thankfully. And the light one, equally unfortunate, but not because of its frequency, but because it was just as detailed, just as clear and if he’d any artistic skills, he’d be able to draw…

Cobb, on his knees in the yielding sand, looking up with eyes so blue that just the memory made Saito’s chest ache. He closed his eyes and touched the place over his heart. As if that would do any good.

He wasn’t one to fool himself, wasn’t one to indulge in hopeless passions or longings. He’d learnt his lesson long ago about control and responsibilities.

Still…

It wouldn’t leave him, this need to see Cobb again, to talk to him of mundane things such as his children and the projects he might be working on. If he was bored, now that he was a suburban father and not a world-class thief. If he had any desire to return to his criminal life or if he was content as he was, where he was.

So, he wasn’t one to indulge in hopeless longings, but that hadn’t stopped him from hiring a firm in the States to watch Cobb. To make sure he was happy with his family, his life.

The reports should have, in turn, pleased him, but they hadn’t. Images of Cobb out with his family for dinner, on the way to the children’s school, at the store. And the last ones—taken at the beach as Cobb laughed and played in the water with the children, wearing swim trunks and nothing else—had only sharpened Saito’s need.

It was those photos, delivered three weeks ago, that had spurred him to make a decision on Miko. He’d called her that night and suggested she share his flat as she spent so much time there already.

It was a foolish mistake. He’d seen it a few days after, but she was a pleasant companion, if a little vapid—it wasn’t her fault that the only place she occasionally challenged him was in bed. She was too young.

He made a little moué and picked up his jacket. Then closed the balcony door and turned off the lamp. On his way to the bedroom, movement from his library drew his eye. He hesitated, then took a detour. Into the room to stand before his side table where the box still waited. Full of shredded paper that waved gently to and fro, making a nest for the doll he’d bought the week before.

He’d taken Miko out to the Autumn Festival, due mostly to her comment that they hadn’t seen much of each other. They’d walked about, taking in the sights.

He was thinking much of nothing when they happened by a stall, nicer than most, filled with dolls dressed in a myriad of fashion, some traditional, some not. He’d stopped, drawn to a doll dressed in a red and gold kimono with a gold obi. He fingered the doll’s costume, thinking of Phillipa Cobb and her blond hair that was so like her father’s.

He’d purchased it, telling Miko it was for his sister’s daughter. Miko had made a face and said the doll was too expensive for such a small girl. She didn’t like Kimi, whom she’d never met, saying more than a few times that she’d betrayed her family by marrying a Frenchman.

He’d held his tongue, not wanting to argue in front of the clerk. By the time they returned to the flat, he’d put away his frustration and anger, and told her that he needed to work. He put the doll on the table, but hadn’t gotten around to mailing it.

He turned the light on and picked up the doll. She was a pretty thing, with her finely painted face and glossy black hair. But maybe Phillipa was too old for dolls? His knowledge of American girls and their likes and dislikes was limited, to say the least.

No matter. He’d send it anyway.

He leaned across the desk and tapped the intercom.

Ito answered immediately. “Sir?”

“That package on my desk? Please come up and get it and send it out tomorrow for earliest possible delivery.”

“The same address?”

“Yes. Addressed to Miss Phillipa Marie Cobb.”

“Very good.”

Saito hesitated, then sat down at the desk. He couldn’t send the gift without a note. That would be rude. So he got a blank card and a pen and wrote quickly, ‘Phillipa, I thought of you when I saw this. I hope you and your friend Lu-Lu are doing well.’ That was all it was to be, but then he thought, children can be jealous of one another, so he wrote, ‘Please tell James his present is to follow. MS.’

He put pen away, then tucked the card in the folds of the doll’s obi. When Ito came in, already wearing his night robe, Saito handed the box to him without a word.

He waited until he heard the lift move again, then got up. His back was stiff from the long afternoon meeting and an hour’s worth of yoga would help, but it was too late to do anything about it. He went to bed.

He washed his face and teeth and changed into his pajamas, then got into bed. Miko made some noise, but he was already on his side, turned away from her and she left him alone.

He tucked his hands under the pillow and stared out the wide windows, wondering what type of gift a three-year old American boy would like.

_______________

Dom stopped short, almost running into the two women in front of him. They were walking slowly, the one on the right talking so fast, she didn’t see him and when he got too close, she looked over her shoulder with a frosty, ‘who the hell do you think you are?’ glare.

He nodded and steered Carrie around them, fingertips lightly on her arm.

They’d lost Mick and Jeannie as they made their way out of the theater and there was no use trying to find them now—the crowd would simply push them along. He touched his tie and glanced from side to side.

“Are you okay?” Carrie asked.

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, I’m fine.”

“Jeannie said you were out of the country for three years?”

“Two. I was gone for a little over two.”

“Oh,” she said in a small voice.

He pressed his lips together and made himself smile when he added, “It’s not something I like to talk about yet. I’m just glad to be home.”

Carrie smiled up at him. “I’m sure you are. If I had children, I’d hate to be parted from them. Are you planning on staying? I know you have relatives in France.”

He pressed his lips together again—was there anything Jeannie hadn’t told her? It almost felt like he was back on the job, only he was the subject and Carrie the extractor. But that wasn’t fair—it was what any couple did when they were getting to know each other. He was just out of practice and besides, he and Carrie weren’t a couple. “I do. We might spend the summer in Paris, but I’m not sure. It might be best for the kids to stay in town.” They were almost to the entrance and he could feel the cool night air blow through the open doors. He made himself walk calmly.

“That must be nice.”

“Having relatives?”

“No, having a place to stay in Paris. I love Paris.”

“Me too.” Which was true—no matter how many bad memories it held, it was the place where he’d learned to refine his skills. Where he’d first met Mal.

“Do you speak French?”

He laughed out loud. “Very badly, according to my mother-in-law.”

“Do I want to know?”

They’d reached the doors and he stood back to let her through first. “I wouldn’t.”

Carrie grinned in response and he found himself grinning back. He liked her. She was pretty and smart and even though he thought her job as a mortgage counselor had to be the most boring thing in the world, it had been interesting hearing her explain the ins and outs of the job. It was just…

…he felt as if he’d been walking on eggs the whole night, waiting for her to ask about the murder charges, trying to make conversation while avoiding the big-ticket items like his sketchy background. Like, why his mother-in-law refused to talk to him. As the night had drawn on he’d relaxed a little, but not enough. The only comfortable time of the evening had been during intermission when he and Mick had stood in the logia, waiting for the women to come back from the bathroom. They hadn’t talked about much, just the building and its possible structural problems, but it had been nice and relaxing.

Too relaxing, he realized with a jolt as he passed from the lighted logia out into the night. It must mean something, that he’d been uncomfortable with Carrie, but not with Mick. Maybe Jeannie had been right about him, after all.

“What’s so funny?” Carrie asked.

“Oh,” Dom stalled, “nothing. Just thinking of something Mick said.”

“Oh.”

He was trying to find something to say because he knew she thought they’d been talking about her, but before he could, she pointed and said, “There they are.”

He followed her gesture. Mick and Jeannie were waiting by the fountain and he waved, telling himself that he shouldn’t be so relieved.

***

He used the kids as an excuse to beg off an after-performance drink. Jeannie tried to wheedle him into it, but Mick just rolled his eyes and said something about an early morning anyway. They said their goodbyes at the cars and Dom helped Carrie into the SUV. Her dress was beautiful, but limiting—she could barely take a stride longer than a twelve or fourteen inches and she had to slide into the seat.

The ride to her house was quiet. Now that he was out of the crush and cacophony of the Pavilion, he felt as if he could breath again and he loosened up enough to become chatty when she asked what his favorite building was.

Too chatty, because when they got to her house, a rather tacky example of mid-nineties excess, Carrie touched his arm and said, “Would you like to come inside for coffee?”

He literally didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t a monk—he knew what she was really asking. But he hadn’t thought beyond a night out, getting to know someone who wasn’t a thief, forger, or business mogul.

He hesitated too long and she drew away, hurt. Later on, he berated himself for his next move, but at the time, he felt as if it were the only choice he had, so he said, “Sure.”

***

‘Coffee’ turned out to be a quick tour of Carrie’s home—and she did have a couple nice sculptures—and then a quicker tour of her kitchen. He’d taken one sip of his Kir and she was leading him back through the dining room and up the stairs.

He could have protested and stopped—he was tired and no-strings sex—the only kind he’d had during his lost two years—wasn’t something that interested him anymore. But he let Carrie kiss him as she murmured something about birth control before taking off his jacket and tie, let himself undress her when they were in bed. Quickly and efficiently, stripping her of her tight dress, her underwear until she was naked, pressed up against him.

He made it the best he could, wordlessly sinking onto to the bed with its too-many pillows that was probably meant to be romantic but was really just annoying, waiting until she was ready, kissing her gently as if she would break if he were too rough.

He came too soon, but he made that okay, too, helping her along until she was gasping and crying. Then, when her cries died down, he held her, wondering what the hell was wrong with him? He couldn’t stay—he needed to be home by midnight.

He rubbed his face against one of the pillows, hoping she’d take it for simple exhaustion and not irritation, and she did.

“You need to go. I know,” she said quietly.

“I do. I promised them I’d be home by midnight.”

“I understand.”

She didn’t—he could see that—but she just kissed him on the cheek and he got out bed.

He wasn’t sure if she watched him get dressed or not. He was too busy running scenarios, the most likely being that she’d wait for his call and when he didn’t, she’d call him, using the excuse of his kids or Jeannie to ask him out on a second date.

The idea seemed suddenly abhorrent, his actions childish. As if he were a teenager all over again.

So when he was finished getting mostly dressed, he stuffed his bow tie in his pocket and turned. She was sitting up, arms around her knees. She’d pulled the covers up around her in a protective shield and he reminded himself that she’d wanted it as much as he, maybe more. “Carrie…”

She shook her head sharply. “Don’t. You don’t need to say it. I know you’ve had a hard time and you’re not over your wife.” ‘You’re mysteriously dead wife,’ her suddenly hard glance seemed to suggest. “It’s okay.”

“You’re sweet to say that, but we both know that’s not true.”

She shrugged and that only made him feel more ashamed. “Well, if it turns out that you need another date to the opera or just to talk, you’ve got my number.”

He nodded, and thought about giving her a goodnight kiss, but there was the slight chance that she’d hit him, so he left, patting his pocket for his totem, grabbing his dinner jacket on the way out.

This time when he got outside, he felt truly free and he breathed a long sigh, then looked up at the stars. He couldn’t see much—there was too much pollution for that, but he knew the stars were there and that was enough.

He drove home in that same state of numb calm.

When he got to the house, he found Lita in the family room in front of the dark television, half asleep with her cell in one hand, the remote in the other. “Lita?”

“Oh.” She scrambled to her feet, dropping her cell and accidentally turning on the TV. “Hey, Mr. Cobb. Sorry about that.”

“That’s okay,” he said, not sure if she was apologizing for falling asleep or turning on the TV. He took the remote and hit the power button. “How’d it go?”

“Okay. James didn’t want to eat his peas and Phillipa didn’t finish her homework. She said she needed you to help her with it.”

“That’s okay. We’ve got all day tomorrow to work on it.” It was a ridiculous assignment for a six-year old, but the school was all about accelerating skills and talents. Miles thought it was a mistake, all that pressure, and Dom was starting to agree with him. “Anything else happen?” He got out his wallet.

“Nothing. Oh!” Lita was pulling on her hoodie and she stopped in mid-motion. “You got a delivery from FedEx. The guy left it on the front porch, but I brought it in.”

Dom nodded without looking up—he’d been receiving regular deliveries from Miles for months now. It was probably the final art on the addition. He pulled out two fifties and handed them to Lita. “Are you okay to drive home?”

“Sure, it’s just down the road.” She looked down at the money and her face brightened. “Wow! Thanks Mr. Cobb!”

“No problem.”

“Let me know if you need any more babysitting. Mom says you have to travel sometimes. I can watch the kids over at our house, if you want. Or, on the weekdays. It doesn’t matter.”

He smiled and led her to the door. “That’s good to know. I might take you up on that.”

“Okay.”

“You’re sure you’re not sleepy?”

Lita rolled her eyes. “Mr. Cobb. I’m fine.”

He grinned. “Just don’t want you to get hurt.”

She shook her head and waved goodbye. He watched her as she coaxed her beat-up Toyota to life, as she backed up, a little jerky because she was still learning to drive a stick and hills were giving her a problem. He thought he’d have to rescue her at the turn, but she managed not to stall out.

He sighed, closed the door and locked up. The FedEx package was on the hall bench, but he left it there. He was too tired to look at it tonight.

He did his circuit, inspecting the windows and locks. Lita had cleaned the kitchen like he’d asked; she’d even washed the kettle. He smiled and turned out the kitchen light, then headed down the hallway.

James was fast asleep, on his stomach with his hand splayed out on the pillow. Dom watched him for a long moment, then pulled the sheet higher and touched his hair. Phillipa was asleep as well, on her side, her hands neatly tucked under her cheek. She was frowning though, as if dreaming something bad and he sat on the side of the bed.

Her eyes fluttered open and she sighed. “Hi, Daddy.”

He stroked her temple, her hair. “Hi, honey. Did you have a good night.”

“Hm-mm,” she nodded. “Lita made me do my homework.”

“I told her to do that. I don’t want you working on it on Sunday night like last week.”

She turned on her back. Even with her new height, she was so small. “Will she be watching us again?”

“I’m not sure. What do you think?”

“It’s okay.”

But it wasn’t and he brushed a stray lock of hair off her forehead. “I was thinking that I missed you guys too much, so next time I go out at night, maybe you can come with me.”

She closed her eyes and turned back towards him, curling around his side. “James would whine if it’s something boring.”

“Phillipa.”

“Well, he would.”

“Then we’ll have to do something you two would like. How about that?”

She nodded, already half asleep again.

He stroked her head, over and over. “Phillipa?”

“Hmm?”

“Were you dreaming just now?”

“Yes.”

“What about?”

“I dreamed you and me and Mommy was at the park.”

He swallowed, then made himself say softly, “I bet that was a good dream.”

Phillipa nodded. “She was pushing me on the swing.”

“Like she used to. I’m glad you remember her.”

“I won’t forget her, Daddy. I promise.”

“It’s okay if you do forget a little. She wouldn’t want you to be sad for too long.”

She frowned, as if she was trying to understand, but it was late and she soon fell asleep, her hand uncurling, her breath evening out.

He pushed to his feet and went to his bedroom. He was so damn tired, but he couldn’t get into bed after having sex with a woman that wasn’t Mal. So he tossed his jacket on the bed, then took off his shirt, trousers and shorts.

The hot water felt insanely good and he stood there, face against the spray, thinking of nothing. Not the opera, not the Clarkes, not Carrie…

He’d save all that for tomorrow when he wasn’t so tired.

He washed mechanically and dried off just the same. The shower had woken him up and he was tempted to see if there was an old movie on TV, but he had to get up early to take the kids out for their ritual Sunday breakfast, so, no old movie.

He got ready for bed and was trying to decide whether or not his dinner jacket really needed to be dry-cleaned when something made him toss the jacket back on the bed and turn to the closet again.

It was new, expanded from its original design when he and Mal had renovated the house. And it was big; too big now that he was on his own—he had enough room for his own clothes and then some.

He touched his shirts, jackets and finally his trousers as passed by them until he reached the end of the rack where the Hugo Boss suit hung. He took it down and examined it. It had arrived two weeks ago via courier,  sent in a big box, carefully pressed and carefully wrapped. There’d been a note placed in the breast pocket that said in strong slanted script, ‘Thank you.’

That was all and like the Heron drawing, he’d put the suit away, as far back in the closet as he could. Out of sight, not out of mind. And if he expected Saito to follow up with a phone call or another visit, he was disappointed. He’d never kept in contact with his marks or his clients. Why he thought this would be different, he didn’t know.

He hung the suit back up, a little too forcefully and had to catch the jacket before it slid off the hanger.

He went to bed soon after and fell asleep, not dreaming of anything.

***

The kids woke him at seven, laughing loudly at something. He rubbed his face because seven on a Sunday was too early and then he remembered that he had a good reason to get up early on Sundays.

He smiled and sprang out of bed, pulled on a pair of sweats, and went to the dining room. The kids were still in their pajamas. Phillipa was upside down, trying to do a headstand against the storage chests that lined the wall and James was bent over, hands on knees, encouraging her with shouts and laughter.

“What’s going on here,” Dom asked with a mock growl.

“Daddy!” James said, without straightening. “Phillipa is trying to stand on her head. Help her!”

“No, Dad,” Phillipa called out. “I want to do it on my own. Lu-Lu was showing me how.”

Still, he spotted her as she slowly raised her legs. She swayed, not entirely straight, for a few seconds before she arched, losing her balance. He caught her and helped her down gently. She rolled to her feet, her hair everywhere, and took a wobbly bow.

James clapped and Dom picked her up and hugged her. He sat down on the wadded up blanket that lay over the bench and held his arm out for James who scrambled onto his lap. “That was great, honey. Have you been doing gymnastics at school?”

She shook her head. “Just baby stuff like tumbling and balancing.”

“That’s not baby stuff. What does Grandpa always say?”

‘You’ve got to walk before you run,’” she and James intoned gravely.

He smiled and hugged them tight, hearing Miles’ light baritone in  their impression. “Now, who’s ready for breakfast?’

They both raised their hands with shouts of, “Me, me!” like he knew they would. “Then go get dressed. We’ll leave in ten minutes.”

They’d already jumped out of his arms and he watched them run down the hall before picking up the blanket. They’d been up early again and he pictured them, cuddling together as Phillipa read to James. It had worried him at first, the fact that they were so self-sufficient, and like his worry of Phillipa’s fugitive anger, it was another thing he’d brought up with the school counselor. She’d brushed it off, saying that without their parents, the children had to form an alliance and there was nothing to worry about.

“Daddy, you’re not ready.” Phillipa said from the hallway.

Dom turned. She’d already changed and braided her hair. It had made him laugh when he’d seen how quickly it took her on the weekend, how slow on a weekday. “I’m just cleaning up, honey. I’ve still got a few minutes.”

“Who was the package from?”

He tucked the blanket in the chest. “What package?”

“The one Lita put by the door.”

He picked up the book, then another he found behind the cushions. “Oh, that’s just from your Grandpa.”

“No, it’s not. Lita said it was from Japan.”

Dom froze for a brief second, then straightened slowly. “Let’s go see.”

She skipped ahead of him as he made his way to the front door. The package was still there and he picked it up. It was big and yes, the return address wasn’t Paris, France, but Tokyo, Japan. And it wasn’t addressed to him, but Phillipa.

Feeling an uncomfortable sense of expectation, he murmured, “This is for you, honey.”

“It is?” She bounced on her toes, trying to see. “It is? Who’s it from? Let me see, Daddy.”

He tilted the package so she could see it, then pulled it away when she tried to take it. “It’s too big. Let’s open it—”

But she was already gone, tearing down the hall, yelling, “James! The package is for me, not Daddy!”

They met him in the dining room, climbing on chairs to see as he ripped the tape off and opened the flaps. Inside was another box lying in packing. He lifted it out, and sat it on the table. This was taped more thoroughly, so he ripped it carefully as the kids watched breathlessly.

When the flaps were opened, he pushed the box to Phillipa and she dove in with a squeal of delight. And squealed again when she pulled the object out and held it up.

It was a doll. One of those that were everywhere in Japan, but not, he thought as he bent closer, as nice as this. The fabric on the dress was stiff with gold thread, hopefully not genuine because that would be too much, and the hair looked to be real and not fake. There was a note tucked into the doll’s obi and he pulled it out and gave it to Phillipa. “Here, sweetheart. What does it say?”

She clasped the doll to her chest, already in love, and read slowly, ‘Phillipa. I thought of you when I saw this. I hope you and your friend  Lu-Lu are doing well. Please tell James his present is to follow. MS.’

She frowned. “Who’s, ‘MS?” just as James whooped, “I get a present too! When, Daddy?”

He read over her shoulder, saying absently, “Give me a second, James. ‘MS,’ stands for Masahiro Saito. And I don’t know when your present will come, James.” Saito’s handwriting was the same as before—heavy black characters, straight baseline, as if he’d used a ruler.

“Let’s call Saito and find out.”

“James. That’s, ‘Mister’ Saito and no, you can’t ask someone when they’re going to give you a gift. It’s rude.”

“Why?”

“Because it is,” Phillipa said. She was trying to take the obi off. “Dad, can you help me?”

“We should leave for after breakfast.”

She made a face. “Can I take her to breakfast?”

“What do you think?”

“No,” she grumbled, but it was weak—she knew what he was going to say. She brightened. “Can I call Lu-Lu?”

“It’s too early. You can call when we get back.” He kissed the top of her head. “I’ll get dressed.”

“Hurry, Daddy. I’m hungry!” James said.

“Me, too,” Phillipa chimed in, absently because she was trying to take off the doll’s slippers.

It wasn’t until he was in the bedroom with the door shut that he realized his mouth was dry. He sat on the bed and stared at the card he’d grabbed at the last minute. It was a little idiotic, the feeling that was racing through his body. All told, he’d known Saito a bare month. The meeting in Kyoto, the three weeks training, then the visit a few months ago.

Not enough to mean anything, really. But…

…that wasn’t true, was it? They hadn’t shared much—only the thrill of a job, fear, and finally, death.

He didn’t let himself think about it too often, that day, the last day in limbo when he’d finally made it to where Saito had hidden himself.

He’d been exhausted; bruised from the rocks and the surf, burned by the sun. And so hungry because it had taken him weeks to find the stronghold…

Dragged into that room of dark light, still in a daze, only aware of the scent of food, of his need to eat. Until the old man, the one at the end of the table, mumbled, ‘Are you here to kill me?’

‘Are you here to kill me?’

The words had triggered thought, thought had triggered memory, and he’d struggled to make the connection between himself and the old man, struggling as if waking from a long, drawn-out nightmare.

But it hadn’t been relief at memory’s return that had made him urge, made him beg, made him weep…

‘Come back. So we can be younger men together. Come back with me.’

The words hadn’t been planned nor were they said from the surface of his mind. They’d come from a place so deep, so natural, it was only after they’d left his lips that he’d realized how much he meant them.

And then, waking up on the plane, so disoriented, unsure if it was a dream or reality. Until he saw Arthur’s, ‘We fucking did it,’ smile and Ariadne’s, ‘Are you okay? Is she gone?’ gaze.

And finally, Saito. The long look they’d shared, his own insistent, challenging, ‘Don’t disappoint me. Please,’ and Saito’s confused wonder. The way he’d turned and picked up the phone, hesitantly, as if he wasn’t sure what it was or how to use—

“Dad!”

He jumped, startled out of his memories. “I’ll be there in a minute!” He’d crumpled the card in his fist and he tried to smooth it out. Phillipa would want it, if only to show Lu-Lu. He sat it on the nightstand and stripped off his sweats, shouting again, “I’m coming!”

________________

“I mean to say,” Mueller muttered as he poked at his fish as if it were poison, “it seems fine in theory, but so much could still go wrong.”

“It’s all been tested,” Robert said patiently with a little glance towards Saito. “The only risk is to not go forward. Yes, we could put off phase one, but then we’d run into increased material’s cost in a few years time, and the greater need would put a tremendous strain on our systems. Not to mention any hesitation at this point will seem…”

“Weak,” Saito interjected smoothly with a small smile. “And we don’t want that. Not with the amount invested in the project.”

“I suppose not.” Mueller nodded, still fussing with his meal. “I just wish the numbers looked better on paper.”

Saito shrugged. “Let us wait and see how they look after the third quarter. If they are not to your liking, I will buy you out.”

Mueller finally looked up. “You will?”

“I will.”

Mueller nodded after a moment, then took a drink of water and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “I better go. It’s late and I need to get up early.”

“What time is your flight?” Robert asked.

“Eight.”

“Then…” Saito stood up and held out his hand. He didn’t like Pietr Mueller, but they were associates and that meant the niceties must be observed.

When Mueller left, taking his grumbling with him, Saito sat down with a sigh he didn’t bother to conceal.

Robert laughed. “He’s not that bad. I’ve known men far worse, far more bad-tempered.” He drank the last of his wine, adding softly, “My father was one of them.”

“Yes, but your father had many pressures to contend with.” He reached for the wine and held it up, questioning. When Robert nodded his yes, he poured. “Whereas our friend, Mueller, has a mid-level position that requires little more than his signature. He’s a puppet.”

Robert sipped his wine. “A puppet we need. At least in the short term.” He tipped his glass from side to side, making the wine spin like a miniature whirlpool. “Do you think he’ll take you up on your offer? To buy his shares, I mean?”

Saito shook his head, mesmerized by the way the spinning liquid reflected the light. “No,” he said softly. “When it comes time, he’ll complain, but secretly, he’ll be pleased at the results.”

“How do you know?”

“I know men. And I know a bluff when I see it.”

“Saito?”

“Yes?” And then, when there was no answer, he looked up. Robert was staring at him in way that had become familiar. He didn’t draw away, but he picked up his glass and drank the last of his wine as if the minor gesture would somehow miraculously stop Robert’s words. It didn’t, of course.

“This morning I got a call from my uncle. They need me back home in a few days. I won’t stay long, possibly a week.”

Home meant… “Los Angeles?”

“Just for a few days. And I was wondering…” He glanced around. The restaurant was almost empty. Only a few couples lingered over their meals. “I was wondering, since we’re done with negotiations, if you’d like to come with me. I’m leaving the day after tomorrow.” He didn’t look at Saito as he spoke.

“Robert,” he began, his instinctive ‘no,’ on the tip of his tongue. He liked Robert Fischer, even thought him attractive enough to bed. But they were business associates and one of his hard and fast rules, one he’d never broken, was that he never slept with business associates.

He ignored the obvious—that if it were Cobb doing the asking, the answer would be completely different.

“Hiro,” Robert said quietly. “I know what you’re thinking, and yes, if you asked, if you consented, I would love…” He broke off, a furious blush staining his cheeks and neck. “That’s not what this is. It would make me happy to show you my new home. That’s all.”

Saito didn’t say that he’d been to Los Angeles more than a dozen times. That Proclus Global used to have a permanent flat for him in the city. Instead he just nodded and said softly, “I’d love to,” hoping Robert read his intentions correctly.

Robert smiled, too brilliantly. “Good. Don’t expect much—the house isn’t even built yet.” He finished his wine. “I believe I’ll follow Mr. Mueller’s example.” He laid his napkin by his plate and stood up. “I’ll see you at the ten o’clock meeting?”

He stood as well. “You will.”

“Then…” Robert nodded and touched his arm, then hurried away.

He watched Robert go before returning to his chair. It would most likely be a mistake, the trip, and not just because of Robert Fischer. In the past two months, he’d arranged—then cancelled—four trips to California. Telling himself that he was too busy, that whatever he would say to Cobb could easily be said via the phone or email. That his life was on a different path and seeing Cobb again would disrupt that.

But it seemed fate—and his own will—had other plans for him.

When the waiter came by and asked if he wanted anything else, he shook his head and poured the last inch of wine into his glass and drank it down quickly.

***

Robert called Saito’s secretary the next day to give the flight schedule. A two p.m. flight leaving on Monday, to arrive by one-thirty at the latest, then returning Friday morning.

It took a short while to wrap up his business—a few yes’s, a few no’s, an hour spent signing documents, and he was done. But his other task, one he thought would be a quick thirty minutes, took much longer…

“Sir, why don’t I take care of this?” Ito suggested for the third time as they walked the halls of Omotesando Hills.

“No,” Saito murmured. “This is something that needs to be done personally.”

“But…”

“Ito,” Saito said with a sigh, “why don’t you take the car for a wash. Meet me at the entrance in an hour.”

Ito wanted to protest, but he didn’t dare. He gave a short nod and turned and marched away.

After that it was easier to navigate the crowds and he finally found himself in a shop that sold clothing for children as well as adults. The choices were a little overwhelming but he was able to reject some out of hand. He doubted Cobb would appreciate his son receiving a twenty thousand yen leather jacket or a toy airplane that had a working engine.

He finally found something he thought would suit—a Mickey Mouse wristwatch with a cheerful blue and silver band that not only told the time in the traditional manner, but also announced the hours and minutes. It wasn’t too expensive, around ten thousand yen, a price Cobb would hopefully not object to if he insisted on knowing.

He signaled to the clerk.

“Yes, sir?”

She was a pretty girl, white, maybe German or Swiss, with a charming accent. “I’m buying a gift for an American. Can the watch be programmed to English?”

“Yes, sir, of course. I can do it for you, if you like.”

“Please.”

“Would you like it wrapped?”

“Yes.”

She nodded and took the watch back to the register. While she was reprogramming it, he wandered over the display of men’s watches, immediately drawn to the Tag Heuer section. He bent over the case, admiring the sleek lines, the perfect craftsmanship.

He knew Cobb had a good watch—he’d seen him use it more than a few times. But it wasn’t a Tag Heuer and it would look good on him, the weight and design matching his height, his presence. He called the clerk over again. “I’ll take this as well.”

“Would you like it wrapped?”

She was a pretty girl, white, maybe German or Swiss, with a charming accent. “Yes, please.”

“Very good.”

After that he strolled around the mall on his way to the street entrance, watching the people hurry here and there. It had been a while since he’d been on his own, with no set agenda in mind. It reminded him of something his father had told him right before he’d died of a stroke—that business was all well and good, but it was the moments between the deals and meetings that mattered.

Of course, that had been hindsight. His father had been obsessed with business—Saito had barely known him as a child. Even after his mother died, his father left most of his care to his older sister. Until the year he turned sixteen—after that he saw his father often enough, but their discussions and interactions revolved solely around business.

Much like Robert and his father, he thought with a start. How odd—he’d never thought about it before. They even both had mothers that had died at a fairly young age. And if Robert had experienced his sea change the hands of Dominic Cobb, was it kismet or chance happening that Saito had experienced the same?

And if it were either, did it mean anything?

The question—and the possible answer—made his chest tight and he pushed the thought away, concentrating on the mundane such as what he was going to say to Miko about the trip. She wasn’t going to come, that much was certain. For all her condemnation of Western culture—the French in particular—she would love nothing more than a trip to America.

It was becoming tiresome, her attitude. Well, attitudes, rather. It all came from the mother, of course. The woman was a high-ranking official in the Bureau of Statistics and liked to believe she was beyond the pale.

What she would say if she learned that her youngest daughter had lived with a man to whom she hadn’t been married? As far as he knew, Miko had never told either of her parents of her living arrangements, although they must have known.

He was almost to the entrance when he realized he’d been thinking of their relationship in the past tense. As if Miko were an ex-lover, already long forgotten.

***

In the end it was a simple matter of telling her that he was going out of town for business. He didn’t tell her that he was traveling to California or that he was going to make some new arrangements once he returned.

She didn’t protest and he wondered if she’d already taken another lover or if she’d wait until he was out of the country. In the past, he would have threatened or, at the very least, cut the association by asking her to move out. But he didn’t much care one way or the other, except for the possibility of catching something he did not want to catch.

So he calmly packed a week’s worth of clothing and a few books, and when she approached him later on that night with the intention of love-making, he gently put her away, saying he needed to work.

***

Ito dropped him off at the small airfield outside the main terminal at half past one—he was still upset that Saito had insisted on a solo trip, with no bodyguards, no protection, and gave his responses in single syllable words. Saito didn’t mind. Ito had been with him longer than his ex-wife and he made allowances.

As he crossed the tarmac to the plane, he glanced up. It was going to be a beautiful day for flying—the sky was a bright blue with only a few clouds on the horizon. His heart quickened at the thought of the take off and when he got to ramp, he was smiling. He gave the security guard his ID, while the attendant took his bags.

When he boarded, he found Robert already seated, reading a magazine.  “Robert.”

“Saito. Is Miko not coming?”

Saito raised his eyebrow. “I hadn’t thought of asking her. Since it’s a business trip.” Which was one reason, if not the whole.

Robert nodded. “Of course. I just thought—” He didn’t finish, and Saito realized that he was relieved and trying to hide it.

He didn’t smile as he took off his jacket. “Did you sleep well?”

Robert laid his magazine down on the long desk that lay at the back of the plane. “Very well. And you?”

Saito made a face. “I rarely sleep well before a trip.”

“Oh.”

Robert looked as if he didn’t know what to make of his candor but then, up until a few days ago, their conversations had leaned towards the safe waters of business. “I’ll catch up on my sleep on the trip.”

“You’ll have enough time. We need to refuel in Hawaii.”

“Hmm.”

“Did you read Kaneda’s report yet? The results of the tests he ran yesterday?” Before Saito could respond, Robert leaned over and opened his attaché case. “I think you’ll be pleased.”

He handed the report over and Saito quickly scanned the numbers. They were good; better than he could have hoped. “This should ease Herr Mueller’s mind,” he murmured. He gave the report back to Robert and happened to glance at the cover of the magazine. His own face stared back.

He drew a quick breath and leaned over to pick the magazine up. It was an old photo, taken almost three years ago when he’d just heard of Fischer Morrow’s plans to merge. He remembered the day clearly—the shoot had taken place in the conference room at Proclus Global. The art director had wanted him to stand at a traditional three-quarter stance, his arms folded in adamant strength. Saito had instead leaned against the table, in a casual, ‘fuck-you’ pose and said, ‘Shoot.’ He’d even smirked.

“I was going to ask you about that. I take it you didn’t know?”

“I knew they were writing it, but I told them to consult with you. And that you and I would decide when—and if—to run the story.”

“I thought that’s what it was.”

Robert’s voice was too quiet and he looked up. “Robert, I had no idea they would publish this without your permission,” he said sincerely. “And I meant it when I said I am not interested in a global takeover of any kind. If our project is to succeed, it is imperative we work together or we’ll face a massive global energy crisis in the near future. And no company is worth that.”

It was a thought that had been eating at him long before he’d boarded the plane in Sydney, almost seven months ago now. Well before he’d heard about the man who could creep into a person’s mind and unlock his most private of secrets.

Robert sighed and smiled. “I trusted you, but…”

“But in this industry, what is a man’s word worth?”

“Nothing. And everything.”

They shared a long look and Saito sat back with a grin. “Well, at the very least, we won’t have to worry about internal operating costs in the coming year. This magazine…” He held it up. “Just paid for that. A lawsuit will bring a quarter of a million dollars.”

Robert smiled again and crossed his legs. “I’m glad you’re on my side.”

Saito raised an eyebrow, then grinned as the attendant announced they’d be taking off shortly. He opened the magazine and began to read.

***

The first leg of the trip was without incident or conversation. Saito finished the article, a piece of tripe that his lawyers would rip apart, and then tossed the magazine aside.

He dozed off soon after, still aware of his surroundings as he dropped into the dream, seeing Cobb, but vaguely, as if watching him through a fine linen curtain.

He roused when they began the descent to Oahu then fell into another light sleep as they took off again.

When he woke the second time, he felt groggy and tired, as if he hadn’t any sleep at all. He glanced at Robert—he was out, legs crossed, arms crossed; neat and tidy, even in sleep.

He looked out the window. On the near horizon lay the coast of California—a wide swathe of tan and white. He hadn’t been to L.A. in a few years—no doubt he’d find it much changed. So much in America changed so quickly—it was one of the things he’d noticed when he’d first visited.

He rose and got his kit, then went to the restroom. His hair was sticking up in the back and he combed it flat, then rubbed his chin, examining he neatly shaved jaw. He went back to his seat just as Robert was stirring.

“What time is it?” Robert asked through a smothered yawn.

He had to think a minute—the time difference between Japan and the States always confused him. “Nine— No, eight in the morning.”

Robert sighed and ran his hands over his face. “I was thinking we could have breakfast at the hotel before I have to meet Uncle Peter. But that won’t be until eleven.” He looked up. “Will that be too late?”

Saito shook his head. “Not at all. I’ll just count it as an early lunch.”

“I hope they can do better than that. I booked us in the Wilshire—you can have an early dinner, if you want. You’ll have your own suite, of course.”

“Thank you.”

Robert smiled and shrugged, an awkward, charming gesture, then got up to use the restroom. Saito sat, then restless, got a magazine from the pocket on the seat and flipped through it.

Its feature story was on Warren Beatty, an actor Saito new little about and cared even less. The next story was about the L.A. Opera season. Apparently, they’d scaled back productions, but was still having trouble filling the seats. They’d just finished the production of Aida and were premiering Il Postino next.

He made a face and dropped the magazine onto his lap. If he had his choice, he’d pick New York over L.A. any day. New York was more cosmopolitan as well as more formal. Plus it had the Met and the MoMA, two of his most favorite venues in the world.

Of course, New York didn’t have Dom Cobb, so there was that.

“What’s so funny?”

Saito jerked his head up and brought his thoughts back to where they belonged, shrugging with nonchalance he didn’t feel. “Nothing.”

Robert leaned over his shoulder. “The opera?”

“Yes. The new season includes Aida, which we unfortunately missed.”

“I can’t stand the opera.” Robert sat down with a frown. “My father loved it. One of the reasons he opened the office in Sydney was to be near the opera house.”

“It’s a very beautiful stage. Wonderful acoustics.”

Robert nodded absently—he was looking at the floor, his thoughts clearly elsewhere, and was running his fingers along the crease of his pants, over and over. “You’d never know it. My father was so passionless, so business-oriented.”

Saito nodded, unsure whether to encourage or discourage. He’d done his best to divorce his past from Robert’s, afraid that Robert’s subconscious would make a dangerous connection between the then and now.

“Did you ever meet my father?” Robert asked, his eyes still unfocused. “I mean, I never asked you, did I, but you must have.”

At least he could answer this honestly. “No, I never had the pleasure. He was a giant in the field.”

Robert smiled bitterly. “A giant. Well…” He took a breath and visibly returned from his memories, smiling over at Saito. “You weren’t missing much, but he would have loved to talk to you about opera.”

Saito, casting about for a suitable response, was thankfully interrupted by the attendant.

“Mr. Fischer? We’re beginning our descent. Please fasten your seatbelts and prepare for landing.”

***

The landing and the ride to the Wilshire were a blur. The sleep Saito hadn’t got the night before dragged on him, trying to pull him down. When they got to the hotel and completed the tedious task of checking in, all desire for a late breakfast or early lunch fled. He told Robert that he wanted to rest before any meal and they parted company.

The bellhop showed him up to his room, a full suite on the twelfth floor. He gave the boy a tip, then locked the door. He didn’t inspect the room or the view—he just took off his jacket and shoes, curled up on the bed, and fell asleep.

***

He slept for almost four hours, this time hard, as if falling down a well. When he woke up, he stared at the clock, confused by the sunshine streaming through the big windows, by the fact that it wasn’t yet one.

He got up, grabbed his bag and went to the bathroom, stripping off his clothes as he walked.

He took a shower, a brief in and out, then shaved. That done, feeling more like himself, he wrapped a towel around his hips and went to check on messages. There were two, the first from Robert, and the second, from Ito. He listened to Robert’s first.

‘Saito. I wanted to tell you that my plans have changed. I’m leaving to meet with Uncle Peter in a half hour and won’t return until after seven. If you feel like it, please meet me for dinner at restaurant at eight-thirty. If not, I’ll see you in the morning.’

He sat on the bed and thought about his options. He could work, sightsee, or just lounge by the pool and read. He could even do all of those things—he had enough time.

But who was he fooling? He’d do none of those things.

He reached for the phone and pushed ‘0.’

“Yes, Mr. Saito?”

“I need to hire a car for the afternoon.”

“Yes, sir. Do you need a driver as well?”

“Yes.”

“Where is your destination and do you have an automobile preference?”

“To Pasadena, and, no.”

“Very good. We’ll have a car ready for you at one-thirty.”

Which gave him a half an hour to get ready. “Thank you.” He hung up and dressed, choosing slacks and a wool knit polo, instead of his usual suit. It would be warm and besides, Californians were an informal lot.

He left a short message for Robert, saying he’d be back by late afternoon, then made sure he had his wallet, sunglasses and keycard. At the last minute, he hurried back for the presents that were still tucked away in his overnight bag. Even if Cobb wasn’t at home, he could leave them on the stoop.

He was in the lift, idly watching the numbers light up as he dropped, floor by floor, when he realized his pulse was pounding. He touched his throat, surprised.

Yes, beating too hard, too fast.

All because of a man—a thief—he’d known just a few weeks, all told.

Well, he thought with a frown as the doors opened to the beautiful lobby, he’d formed relationships based on a less and he was hardly one to point fingers, considering.

So by the time he’d nodded to the pretty receptionist and said a soft, “Thank you” to the doorman, he was smiling again, his heart still beating too hard.

***

The drive to Pasadena was mercifully quick, the driver mercifully silent. The last time, in a cab with nothing to do but listen to the cabbie and stare out the window, the traffic had been a nightmare—it had taken an hour to get to Cobb’s and the cabbie had talked the entire time.

He’d been to Pasadena only the once and his memories of that trip were muted and dull. If someone had asked him to relate one feature, he wouldn’t have been able. All except for descriptions of Cobb and his house, of course. Those, he thought, he could relate in the sharpest detail.

And yes, it was just as he remembered—the solid, uniquely American house sitting on a hill with the long drive leading up. Even the construction crew was still there. Cobb had mentioned something about work being done—perhaps they’d run into some difficulties.

The driver parked on the side of the drive behind the black SUV. He looked in the mirror. “Will you be needing me to wait, sir?”

Saito peered up. “I’ll be back in a few minutes if I’m not staying.”

“Yes, sir.”

He got out and, bags in hand, strode up the drive. He was almost to the door when someone called out.

“Hey! Are you looking for Cobb?”

He turned. A man in a yellow hardhat and an armful of electrical cord came up strolling up. “I am.”

“He’s in the back, but you should probably just go through the house. I’ve got my guys working on some paneling—you won’t be able to make it through without tripping. I remember you from before,” he added on the same breath. “When we were first starting the demo?” He took off his glove and held out his hand. “Mick Clarke.”

They shook and Saito murmured, “Masahiro Saito,” because Americans usually misunderstood the ins and outs of Japanese naming conventions.

“Oh, yeah, you’re the guy that gave Phillipa the doll. She brought it over to the house yesterday. She’s nuts about that doll and she’s nuts about you. She told Melissa that they’re going to visit you in Kyoto.”

That was news to Saito—it was probably a child’s over enthusiasm. “I’m happy she liked it.”

“Yeah. Hey.” Clarke nodded to the door. “Go on through. The door’s unlocked.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. Nice to have met you.” He waved, already striding back to the side of the house.

Saito climbed the few steps to the house and opened the door. Even if he hadn’t known Cobb was in the back, he would have guessed the house to be empty—it was silent with that stillness that said no one was around. He walked into the foyer as memory after memory crashed in, like a suddenly violent series of waves. He knew if he turned right, he’d find the study, if he went left, he’d find the kitchen and then, at the end of the long hall with its clerestory windows and photographs, he’d find the bedrooms.

He took a quick breath, then closed the door and went into the kitchen.

He heard them before he saw them. Childish laughter, a squeal of excitement, then a shouted, “Do it again, Daddy!”

He walked slowly to the porch and stood there, hand on the doorknob, watching.

Cobb and James were on the grass, playing. Cobb was on all fours next to his son, and while Saito watched, in one smooth move, he rolled forward to do a less-than-perfect but enthusiastic headstand. He was wearing the same shorts as in the photo from weeks ago and as he tipped upside down, his t-shirt fell, exposing his chest and belly.

Saito’s heart jerked. And with no hesitation, he stepped across the threshold.

________________

 

“Do it again, Daddy!” James cried out, giggling so hard, Dom could barely understand the words.

“Only one more time, James. I’m getting dizzy.”

“Yay!”

He rolled to his hands and knees and pushed forward, thrusting his legs up to balance, swaying back and forth. He lasted all of three seconds this time before falling on his back and, winded, he lay there, trying to catch his breath. James jumped on him, still giggling.

“That was fun,” James said into his chest.

“It was. So now you can tell your sister that you can do a headstand.”

“I’ll show her at school.”

“No, you’ll show her when she gets home. That way I can see it too.” ‘And be able catch you when you fall.’ Because for all of James’ natural abilities, balance didn’t seem to be one of them. “How’s your breathing?”

“Good.”

“Let me hear.”

James stilled and took a long, slow breath. No wheezing, no labored breath. “Good.”

James gave him a thumb’s up and Dom hugged him tight. He’d taken him in for testing and the early diagnosis had been good, but the doctor wanted to retest in a month to make sure they hadn’t missed anything.

“Daddy?”

“Yes?”

“Can we get a— Hey. Who’s that?”

“Hmm?” Dom looked up, arching his head and neck to follow James’ glance. And he stayed that way, frozen, staring upside down. At Saito, who for some reason was on his porch steps, staring back.

But James had recognized their visitor and he climbed off Dom’s chest and ran up to the porch only to slide to a stop. He looked back, as if in reassurance.

Dom took his time, rolling over and pushing to his feet. He had grass all over him, even in his hair. He ran his fingers over his head and bits of green and brown fell to the ground. “Saito,” he said finally, feeling like an idiot. “What—”

He gestured weakly and James, maybe sensing that something was off came running back to wrap his arms around Dom’s legs. Dom  picked him up automatically.

“I’m sorry to have startled you,” Saito said stiffly. “I can—”

He waved to the house and Dom, already hurrying forward, said, “No, of course not. I was just—” He held his hand out and Saito took it. He thought it shouldn’t mean so much, a simple handshake. But it did and he made himself let go. Made himself step back. He didn’t know what to say.

Luckily, he had a three-year old son who didn’t care about awkward pauses. With a tug, James leaned over to look at what Saito was carrying. “Is that for me? Is that my present?”

“James,” Dom said with an embarrassed laugh in Saito’s direction, relieved when he got a smile in return.

“It’s fine,” Saito said, “And, yes,” he added to James. “It is. Would you like to see?”

James, squirming to get down, looked at Dom—he nodded and said, “Let’s go in the house.”

With James still in his arms, he ushered Saito back in the house. He was closing the porch door when he noticed that Mick had come around and was staring at him with an odd look on his face. If he and Jeannie thought he was gay, they’d freak out at this, even though there wasn’t anything to see or to freak out over.

He nodded and closed the door.

Saito had taken a seat at the table and Dom finally let James down. He shot over to pull a chair out and climb up.

Dom leaned back against the island and watched as Saito, with great ceremony, took out a small package from the bag and gave it to James. “I’m sure your father can help you with this, if you need it.”

But James wasn’t listening. He’d already ripped off the gold ribbon and was working on shredding the paper.

“James—” Dom started to warn but Saito shook his head and pointed to a flap in the paper and said to James, “I think if you start here, it will open quite easily.”

And it did, with a tug and a crow of triumph, James got the wrapping off, then the lid off. They both bent over the box, giving Dom time to study him.

He didn’t look much changed from the first time they’d met—elegant and well groomed. His dark hair was neatly trimmed and his jaw was freshly shaved. But he was wearing a casual wool shirt that was open at the throat and it changed him, made him somehow younger and less commanding.

And he chose that moment to look up over James’s head. Their eyes met.

Dom cleared his throat and crossed his arms over his chest and was saved once again by James who jumped out of his chair and ran to him, holding the gift up.

“Daddy! Look! It’s like yours!”

Dom picked him up and took the gift. It was a Mickey Mouse watch, not heavy, but obviously well made. He sat down, James in his lap, and they looked at it.

“If you do this…” Saito reached over and pushed a button on the side. “It will talk to you.”

Sure enough, a digital voice announced in English, ‘The time is five-seventeen.’

“Cool!” James said. “Dad, put it on me, here—” He thrust the watch at Dom who managed to loop the velcro through the hook while James turned his arm to and fro, trying to see what he was doing.

Finally, it was on and James pushed the button again and grinned when the voice said, ‘The time is five-eighteen.’ Dom peered at it, trying to see how to change the time.

“There are instructions are in the box,” Saito murmured.

“Dad?”

Dom reached for the box and answered absently, “Yes, James?”

“I want to show it to Mr. Clarke.”

“We have to leave soon, remember?”

“Please?”

“He’s busy, sweetie.”

James didn’t wheedle or protest beyond the first ‘please.’ He just stared at Dom. Dom finally sighed and rose. “I’ll be right back,” he said to Saito.

“I won’t go anywhere.”

Dom stopped. They were the same words he’d given Saito months ago and he remembered how he’d felt, how worried he’d been. “Better not,” he called out without looking back. Better not.

Mick wasn’t around, so they had to wind their way through the men and the materials. They were almost done with the panels and were supposed to start on the glide tracks the next day. Which meant another four days at the most and all the furniture could go where it belonged. Finally.

He found Mick in the front, down by his truck. He called out, “Hey!” then pointed to James. Mick looked around, then nodded, holding his hand out. James ran down the drive and jumped into his arms.

“Five minutes?” he shouted. Mick gave a thumb’s up. So did James.

He was turning back to the house when he noticed a sleek black limo parked on the edge of the drive. That could only belong to one person and he wondered how long Saito was planning on staying. Not very long, it seemed.

His mood suddenly dark, he went back inside and closed the door. Saito wasn’t in the kitchen and he wasn’t on the porch. Knowing where he’d be, he turned to the hallway and went to the guest bedroom, a knot in his throat.

Saito was on the window seat, staring out the window. His legs were crossed and he was leaning on the sill—he looked like a picture from a magazine.

He said without turning, “You told me, ‘You’ll be safe here.’ Do you remember?”

“Yes. I remember.”

“And I was. I slept so well that day. Better than any day before. Or since.”

Dom crossed his arms, unsure what to say. The mood was different from the time before, but—

“But I was still lost.”

He gripped his elbows and held tight.

Saito turned to look at him. The light was behind him, and Dom couldn’t quite make out his features. “Did you know I’m working with Robert Fischer these days?”

He took a sharp breath. “No.”

“We are. He made an offer I couldn’t refuse. That’s why I’m here today.”

“Because he made you an offer you couldn’t refuse?”

Saito waved that away. “No, I’m here because he was needed to come out on business and I wanted to visit again.”

“I thought the point of the mission was to break up the conglomerate, not make it bigger.”

Saito made a face. “You misunderstand me. I did dissolve my company, but realized soon after that it was a mistake. People need what I can provide.”

“And that is?”

“Inexpensive energy. Robert has some good ideas on how to facilitate a cheaper, more community-based approach. But he needed my help.”

“And what’s a ‘community-based approach?” Dom asked, surprised at the bitterness in his own voice. It made sense, of course, that two energy tycoons would want to work together after meeting under such circumstances even though one of them didn’t know they’d met. Even with the cultural differences, they were from the same background and class—it shouldn’t come as such a surprise.

“A way of nations sharing the profit and burden as opposed to one company owning all.”

“It’s very… Altruistic of you.”

Saito raised his eyebrow. “I’m being well compensated, I assure you. But after… Well, after what I went through, I’ve found that there are more important things than money and possessions.”

‘Like what,’ Dom wanted to ask, but he settled for, “Why are you here, Saito? And why are telling me this?

“No reason, I suppose. I was here and wanted you to know about the group. So there will be no secrets between us.”

“Well,” he muttered, forcing his arms down, forcing a relaxation he didn’t feel. “Now I know.” He turned, then paused. “Are you thirsty? Or hungry? I need to make a snack for James—we have to leave at three to pick up Phillipa.”

Saito was watching him, head cocked, as he’d done during those first few weeks on the job—carefully, thoroughly, as if he were a riddle with no answer. “No, thank you.”

He nodded and was almost out the door when Saito said softly, “I have something for you. A present.”

He paused, then turned back. “I don’t need anything from you. You helped me get back to my children. That was more than enough.”

Saito shrugged. “That was a business deal, and you helped me in an equally important way. I’d call us even.” He leaned down and raised the bag he’d brought with him, holding it out, like a carrot to a horse. “Here. Please.”

Dom hesitated, then walked slowly across the tiny room. He had to kneel on the bed to take the bag and then he sat down, the mattress giving way comfortably.

Inside the bag was another box, like James’, but bigger. He slipped the gold band off, then the paper. He thought he knew what it was, but still, when he opened the box and saw the watch resting in its sleeve, he was surprised. He knew good watches as he knew good clothes… “This is too much.”

“No, it’s not.”

“It’s—”

“Please,” Saito’s voice dropped to a whisper, “It would make me happy if you accepted it.”

Wondering if that was the voice Saito used when he was giving his mistresses a gift, Dom said, “I lost my watch last month. Did you know?”

“No.”

“At least it’s not an airline.” He glanced at Saito out of the corner of his eye.

Saito paused, then smiled. “Do you want one?”

“No.” Just the thought—

“Because I’ll buy you one if you want.”

“No,” he said with a small laugh not sure if Saito was joking or not. He took the watch out of its box. “Please don’t.” The watch was the old-fashioned type with the pullout stem and he adjusted the dial to— “What time is it?”

Saito got up and moved to the bed, sitting in a mirror image. He raised his arm so Dom could see.

“Two seventeen,” he murmured, trying to stop from thinking that Saito smelled of aftershave and soap. That his fingers were as long and graceful as the rest of him. “There.” He sat back and snapped the band closed. “There,” he said again, this time softer as he held his arm up.

“It looks good on you,” Saito murmured. And reached forward, taking Dom’s wrist and turning his arm gently on the pretense of getting a better angle.

He  nodded. His throat was tight, his heart racing. He knew what they were doing, what he wanted to do in turn. But this was Mal’s room, Mal’s bed…

He pulled away and stood up. “I’ve got something for you as well.”

Saito sat back, surprised. “You do?”

He nodded. He hadn’t meant to say that, hadn’t meant to do anything with the gift but let it gather dust in a cabinet that was safe from dust. “C’mon.”

He led the way back, pausing at the front door to make sure James was okay, then kept going, on to the new workroom.

Saito stopped in the middle of the room and turned in a circle. “Is this what you’ve been building? A new wing?”

“Yes.”

“It’s a good fit to the house.”

“Thank you.”

“I like the way the clerestory windows open up.”

He opened the cupboard. “Those were Ariadne’s idea.”

“You are working with her?”

He nodded without turning around. “Just on this one project.”

“How is she?”

Dom could hear the smile in Saito’s voice. “She’s fine.”

“I take it everyone else is, as well?”

“I haven’t heard anything from Yusuf or Eames, but yes, the others are fine. Arthur keeps trying to get me interested in other jobs.”

“And you’re not? Interested, I mean?”

“No.” He got the case down, trying for time. It was too extravagant. Still, he carried the case to his table and flipped the clasps open.

Saito had walked up close, just behind his shoulder and the false pressure made him want to lean forward and lean back. “I bought this a couple weeks ago. It made me think of you.” The same words that Saito had written to Phillipa—they sounded trite when said out loud, or maybe it was just him.

He moved to the side so Saito could open it himself. And watched as he unwrapped the drawing, as he drew a quick breath and leaned forward.

“Patrick Heron,” he murmured in surprise, inspecting the drawing with a delicate touch.

“Yes.”

“This is from his early period. And hard to find. Where did you?”

“Here. In L.A.”

“Beautiful. Dom…” Saito looked up, still leaning over the drawing. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

Saito straightened, his expression more unguarded than Dom had ever seen. “I—”

He touched Dom’s arm and started to say more when James’ footsteps came pounding down the hall. Dom stepped away quickly and made a show of closing the case, flushed for no reason, just as James rushed into the room.

“Dad! Mr. Clarke fixed the time for me. See!” He ran up to Dom, pushed the watch’s button and out came, ‘The time is two thirty-one.’ “See?”

“I see. And two thirty-one means we need to leave to pick up your sister.”

“Dad,” James said, making the word last three syllables. “Can I stay? Mr. Saito can watch me.”

Dom laughed at James’ audacity. If he were older, it would be rude, but now…

“Unfortunately, James,” Saito said, bending low, “I need to be leaving soon, as well. But I’d love to take you, your sister, and your father out to dinner. Tomorrow?” he said, looking at Dom.

“What do you think, buddy?” he asked.

“Can we go to Barn Burner?”

“No,” he said with another little laugh, then explained to Saito, “The kids love Barn Burner. But it’s barbecue and therefore,” he tugged on James’ hair, “very messy.”

“Would you like to come to downtown, James?” Saito asked. “I am sure I can find someplace that you’ll enjoy. I’ll even send a car for you.” He quickly glanced up at Dom, as if asking approval.

“Will Daddy be there?”

“Of course.”

“And we’ll get to go in fancy car?”

“James—” Dom sighed.

“Yes,” Saito interrupted gently, with another swift look up. “A fancy car would be no problem.”

James nodded eagerly.

“I guess that’s a yes,” Dom said as he cradled James’ head. “But now, we have to go.” He picked up the case and guided James gently towards the door hoping he wouldn’t ask what was in the suitcase.

“Can I wear my watch?”

“Of course.”

“I’m going to show Phillipa how to make it talk.”

“That’s a good idea.”

“I won’t let her wear it.”

“It’s yours, James, but I think it will be okay if you let her wear it once, don’t you?”

“No. It’s mine.”

Dom sighed. Next to him, Saito treaded quietly and Dom wondered what he thought of the exchange, if he thought he spoiled James or the opposite, was too strict. He held the front door open for them both and said, “We’ll talk about it later, okay?”

“Okay.”

He locked the door, waved to Mick and hit the remote. His SUV beeped at him and he opened the back door and said, “I’m going to walk Mr. Saito to his car. I want you to get in…” He helped James scramble up to his car seat. “And buckle up.”

“Okay.”

He closed the door. He and Saito walked side by side down the drive. The driver had gotten out and was sitting under a palm, reading a book. He jumped up when he saw them and got in the car.

“Well,” Dom said, when they got to the car. He shifted the case from hand to hand, then remembered and gave it to Saito.

Saito cocked his head and raised the case briefly. “You’re sure?”

He shrugged. “It’s not a airline.”

“A piece of art is worth twenty airlines. And you don’t have to fit it with a crew.”

“There is that,” he said dryly. “So we’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Yes. I’ll call tomorrow to let you know the arrangements.”

“You know, you don’t have to do this. I mean,” he ran his hand over his hair, just to prevent himself from shrugging again. “James and Phillipa will understand if you’re too busy.”

“Dom?” Saito said, leaning in too close, reaching out to pick something from Dom’s hair.

He didn’t let himself step back. “Yeah?”

But he didn’t answer. He just held up his hand. In his fingers was a long blade of dark green grass.

And at Dom’s surprised look, he grinned and got in the car.

Dom, surprise changing to chagrin, leaned down and tapped on the glass with his knuckle. “Hey.”

Saito rolled the window down. “Yes?”

“Where are you staying?”

“At the Wilshire, in Beverly Hills.”

Naturally, Dom thought as he nodded, then watched the driver back up.

Naturally.

***

The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur. Phillipa was properly impressed with the watch and James unbent enough to let her wear it for a few minutes. It was a thoughtful gift and would help him learn how to tell time, but Dom hoped the voice chip would wear out soon—it was a little annoying.

They ate dinner as usual, a simple meal of soup and sandwiches and after, he helped James with a Lego house he was building and then sat down with Phillipa to help her with her homework.

He loved it all, the things most parents probably found mundane, maybe even boring—making dinner, cleaning, homework. A reaction that had been a surprise because the life he’d led for two years was completely opposite of the one he led now.

But tonight he was distracted and when Phillipa caught a mistake on a basic addition he’d had her make, he gave it up and let her do the rest, saying he needed to finish cleaning the kitchen.

He did the dishes without really seeing them and when he was done, he made a cup of tea and turned on the TV for the kids, then went out to the porch. He sat down and watched the night come on.

The month after James had been born, Mal had suggested adding on to the north side of the house and converting the porch to a deck. It had taken months to get approval from the city. When they finally got the okay, they’d started the initial sketches. First, the addition, their ideas sometimes too grand or silly because Mal’d always had a silly side. The deck had been much easier—she just wanted a partially covered space where she could sit and hold the children, safe from rain and sun.

That had been right before he’d suggested taking another five-minute dream-trip. Before he got the bright idea of seeing how far down they could travel.

He gulped his tea, using the heat to dissolve the ache in his chest, making way for the thoughts he’d been pushing away all evening.

What did it mean, Saito showing up as he did? His answer of a casual visit made only to reassure Dom that he wasn’t getting back into the mogul business was clearly a lie. And he could have easily mailed the packages as he’d done before.

And then he remembered Saito, sitting on Mal’s bed, too close and still too far away…

He drank the rest of the tea, then got out his cell.

This was probably a bad idea.

***

By the time he’d called Lita and got her mother’s permission, it was almost eight. He explained to the kids that he needed to run out for a few minutes, but Lita would stay with them until he got back at nine-thirty. James just nodded, but Phillipa gave him a quiet, ‘Okay, Daddy.’

Which gave him pause until Lita showed up a minute later and Phillipa ran to the door, dragging her off to her room to show off the new doll.

Dom changed, picking clothes he hadn’t worn in months—black pants, grey shirt, leather jacket. He told himself that the clothes were comfortable, that he wasn’t doing a job no matter how much it felt like it.

He gave Lita the second set of house keys, checked all the locks, and kissed James on the head with a soft, “See you in a bit.”

The drive to L.A. should have taken him fifteen or twenty minutes. But tonight, he zipped in and out of traffic, hoping his luck held and there wasn’t a cop waiting with a quota to fill. It did and he pulled in front of the Beverly Wilshire ten minutes later.

He’d been to the hotel a few times before, never to stay. Back then, before he’d started taking contract work from the military, his salaries hadn’t been skimpy, but neither were they lavish. He and Mal hadn’t had the luxury for overly expensive dinners, their one extravagance being the annual trip to New York for their anniversary.

He got out of the SUV and gave his spare key to the valet, saying, “I’m late for a dinner engagement. I might only be a few minutes.”

“That’s fine, sir.”

He hurried in, telling himself again, ‘This is a bad idea,’ even as he nodded to the doorman, even as he asked the concierge where Mr. Masahiro Saito was dining, hoping to hell the ruse would work and he wasn’t in his room already. And when he was told that Mr. Saito was in the Boulevard restaurant, he thought it again, ‘This is a bad idea.’

He finally listened to himself when he saw them, on the far side, by the windows. They weren’t doing anything much, just talking. Fischer was resting his cheek on one fist, turning his wine glass around. Saito was cutting something on his plate, a piece of fish or chicken by the looks of it and Dom remembered that second dream on the train, watching him eat, his gestures precise and natural, as if he’d been trained in etiquette while still in the womb.

Then Fischer leaned forward and spoke, reaching out and laying his hand close to Saito’s plate. Saito paused, then smiled and something sharp twisted in Dom’s stomach.

“Sir?” the maître’d’ politely inquired at his elbow.

“Never mind,” he muttered, backing away before Saito or Fischer looked over. “I didn’t realize—” He broke off, apologized with a smile and went back the way he’d come.

This had been a bad idea.

_________________

He grunted, then slipped from a dream of…

…he licks the seawater off Dom’s neck and then the hollow at the base of his throat as they sprawl in the surf. Dom laughs or maybe just speaks and the sound reverberates like a gong, on and on, and…

He grunted again, this time because the dream truly fled, even as he grasped it. Damn.

It had been weeks since he’d had the dream in its entirety and he lay there in the pale dark, wondering if it was a portent, chance, or merely a cognitive link his mind was trying to make between the then and now.

But it didn’t matter. He was going to have something better than dreams in just twelve or so hours and he ran his hand from his belly to his chest, enjoying the feel and pressure.

Of course, Cobb could cancel again, giving another very legitimate reason for needing to stay at home. The first had been a project that Phillipa needed to complete for school. The next, he’d been told James wasn’t feeling well and had come home from school early. Cobb’s voice had been strained when he gave his apologies and Saito hadn’t the heart or desire to question him.

They’d finally settled on Thursday evening, and he hoped there were no more emergencies, no more sick children

But, speaking of…

He looked at the clock. It was half past three in Osaka, which meant Sanjay was still at work. He picked up his cell and dialed quickly.

“Hello?”

“Sanjay?”

“Hiro! I saw the I.D. and thought, no, it couldn’t be my old friend, calling out of the blue.”

Just hearing Sanjay’s voice always made him smile. “How are you?”

“Well enough. I’m attempting to grade the latest batch of exams.”

“Do I want to know?”

“Do you have all day?”

He sat up. “Unfortunately, no.”

“It’s just as well. No sense in spoiling your day, as well as mine. And now, to what do I owe this honor?”

“You’re still with WHO, correct?”

“Until the day I die.”

“Good. I was wondering if you had any connections or colleagues in Los Angeles.”

“California? Hmm, I think Peterson is at Stanford these days.”

“Does he specialize in the same subject as you?”

“Yes, she does.”

Saito smiled at Sanjay’s pointed correction. “Is she any good?”

“She’s better, but I’m nicer.” Even across the distance, Saito could hear his smile. “But don’t tell her I told you so. Now, Hiro, what’s this about?”

“I’ve a friend with a boy who might have asthma.”

“And you want Peterson to advise him?”

“Not yet. I just wanted to be able to give him a name if he has any questions.”

“His primary doctor will be first in line. That’s how it works.”

“Yes, but I want him to have options. If he needs them.”

“Well, give him her name. At the very least, she can ease his worries.”

“Thank you, Sanjay.”

“So, that’s where you are? Los Angeles, California?”

“Yes. For a few days.”

Sanjay didn’t tease or say, ‘It must be nice to be so wealthy,’ as he’d done so many times during their years in college. He just sighed and asked, “Is it sunny?”

“Very.”

“And are there beautiful women everywhere?”

Saito smiled, not thinking of beautiful women. “Everywhere.”

“Don’t tell me anymore. I don’t want to know.”

“You could take a holiday, you know. And come see for yourself.”

“I could.”

Said almost wistfully, but Saito knew he’d never leave, not for any length of time. Not while there were so many children dying around the world. “Then I’ll have to come see you.”

“You say that all the time. Osaka isn’t the moon—I’m two hours away.”

“Yes,” he agreed slowly because Sanjay was right. He’d let too many things slide in the past. He nodded once, the decision already made. “When I am done here, I’ll come visit.”

“Just let me know.”

Sanjay didn’t believe him, but that was all right—he’d be all the more surprised when Saito did visit. “How is Shaila?”

“Well. She’s after me to accept a job in Paris.”

“Which you won’t take.”

“It would be so dull. At least here, I’m of some use.”

Saito smiled at the idea of Paris, one of his favorite cities on earth, being dull. “I was planning on visiting the house in Shimodo in the next month. How would you two like to join me?”

“I’d only be able to make it a long weekend, but I’m sure Shaila would love it.”

“I’ll email you some possible dates and you two can pick out the most likely.”

He expected Sanjay to make a joke about Shaila being the one that made decisions in the family, but he just cleared his throat and said quietly, “Hiro?”

“Yes?”

“How are you?”

Saito didn’t pretend to misunderstand. “Do you mean, how am I, after turning my life upside down?”

“Yes. I know you said you were fine, but I wanted to make sure…”

There weren’t many people Saito confided in, but Sanjay was one of the few. “I am well. I’ve got a new project underway. I think you’ll like it.”

“Will I?”

Sanjay’s voice had brightened, but then, hed always chided him for wasting his skills and talents on business. “Hm-mm.”

“Then I definitely will visit you in Shimodo.”

“Good.”

“And now I have to run. There’s a small flock of students gathered outside my door, no doubt panicking over the fact that I haven’t posted the grades yet.”

“Heaven forbid.”

“Exactly. Have a safe trip back, Hiro. Let me know if your friend’s child gets worse.”

“I will, and thank you.”

“Hiro?”

Saito, in the middle of hanging up, brought the phone back to his ear. “Can’t stand to let me go?”

“Ha-ha. No, I just wanted to say, about the boy, don’t worry. Childhood asthma is a scary thing, but there are many good therapies out there.”

“I’m not worried.”

“Okay.”

Saito tightened his lips at Sanjay’s clear disbelief. “Goodbye, Sanjay.”

“’Bye, Hiro.”

He hung up and tossed the phone on the covers.

Sanjay was one of his oldest friends, a relationship forged at the Université de Paris upon the murky waters of homesickness and the knowledge that they were unknown elements in regardes to the other students and their professors.

What would Sanjay say of his current situation? Of Cobb? Would he make some comment about how Saito’s eclectic tastes had gotten him into trouble in the past? No, he’d say nothing—he was circumspect that way.

But the foolish idea that he was worried about James…

It was ridiculous. He’d asked a simple question, not ranted or raved. Besides, he didn’t know the boy—if there were any emotional attachments to either of the children, they were minor.

He got out of bed, and put on his robe and—as he’d done so many times already—he went out to the living area and sat down in front of the coffee table where the case lay. When he’d arrived back at the hotel, that day after seeing Cobb, he’d given it to the hotel manager with instructions to keep it in the safe. But when Cobb had canceled the second time, he’d gone downstairs and retrieved it, needing to see the drawing once more.

Just as now and he lifted the lid and then the frame. It was, as he’d told Cobb, so beautiful. A simple composition that was not simple at all. What had Heron been thinking as he’d worked? Had he been thinking at all or simply let his natural inclinations have their way?

He was holding the drawing up, examining it closely, when the hotel phone began to ring.

He placed the drawing back in the case and picked up the phone, answering automatically, “Saito.”

“Mr. Saito, this is Theresa again. I’m sorry for calling so early. Is this a good time to talk?”

He leaned back and crossed his legs. “Yes.”

“I just wanted to confirm that we’re still on for tonight.”

“Yes, we are.” At least, he assumed they were—the last two times, Cobb had called to cancel the night before, and since he hadn’t—

“Good. I’m leaving at ten to pick up the food and the toys. The drivers will start picking the children up at four to have them here by four-thirty. We’ll have everything ready by five.”

“Perfect.”

“I contacted the hotel and emailed them a map of the parking area. They said they’d pass on the information to the drivers, but just in case, the east of the building is being kept free for you and your guests.”

“Very good.”

“Now, I know you have our wine selection, but is there anything special you want me to pick up? A personal favorite?”

He had no idea if Cobb preferred anything out of the ordinary—that hadn’t come up in the extensive background investigation he’d done the year before. “I’ll leave that to your discretion.”

“Good. I think that’s it. If you think of anything else, please don’t hesitate to call. I’ll have my cell with me all day.”

“You’ve been very thorough. I can’t imagine I’ll be needing anything else.”

“Then I’ll see you at four-thirty?”

“Yes.”

He hung up. It had taken some doing, setting up the evening as he’d wanted. Money helped in situations like these, but so did civility and sheer will—something he discovered long ago when he was building his first company.

Now all he had to do was tell Robert he couldn’t make it for dinner.

***

When he arrived at the end of the pier at four-thirty, he found Theresa waiting, clipboard in one hand, her cell in the other. She was talking on her headset, and when she saw him, she smiled and waved.

He smiled back, wondering if he was going to have a problem after the party. She was very attractive and forward in that charming way that American women had. She’d been curious about his background and had asked a few leading questions he’d fended off with bland non-answers, but her interest was unmistakeable.

“Mr. Saito.” She hurried towards him, her heels thumping on the wooden planks. “I thought I’d give you a quick tour of the restaurant?”

“Please.”

She led him through the front entry, then the kitchens and finally, to the dock. He’d rented on advice only and was pleased. There was more than enough room for his small group, and the open patio with its fire pit was perfect. He nodded, dismissing her without words, then went to stand by the railing.

The day had been beautiful, and the early evening was as well, the sun already near the horizon. He leaned his elbows on the rail and watched the birds flit by, listened to the tinny music from the amusement park. He’d toyed with the idea of renting the entire pier for the evening, then decided not. It would be hard keeping track of the children in that maze, and besides, Cobb would no doubt find it excessive.

He was smiling, remembering Cobb’s reaction to, ‘I bought the airline. It seemed simpler,’ as he stared out at the orange sun when he heard children’s voices and then, “Mr. Saito!”

He turned just as Phillipa came running up. Like James, she stopped halfway and turned to her father who was just coming from the restaurant with James in his arms. Behind them stood Theresa, clipboard still in hand.

Saito held out his hand. “Miss Phillipa.”

She smiled and, ignoring his hand, jumped forward to give him an unexpected hug, then jumped back just as quick. “Did you do all this for us? Are we really eating here, just us?” She was as he remembered, her sweet face, her eyes the same color as her father’s.

“Well, no,” he said as he straightened, speaking to her, but eyeing Cobb. “I invited a few of your friends, as well. So you won’t be lonely.”

She jumped up and down, clapping her hands, asking the same time as James, “Who?”

Luckily, he was saved from giving names he couldn’t remember as the rest of his party arrived. A crowd of children poured from the restaurant. Phillipa ran to greet them and James squirmed out of Cobb’s arms to follow.

Saito nodded to Theresa and she and her assistants took charge, rounding up the children and explaining the areas that they could play in, the areas that were off limits.

Cobb hadn’t said anything. He stood there, hands in pockets, looking around with bemusement.

Saito leaned against the railing and watched him.

He’d suggested casual dress, worried that the children would get cold if they wore indoor clothing. Cobb was wearing a blue silk shirt, black trousers and a black leather jacket. The clothes reminded Saito of the Cobb he’d had followed and finally met…

“So,” Cobb finally said, turning around. “This is why you wanted Mick’s number.”

“You mean to say that my little subterfuge of needing the number of your friend, the local contractor fooled you?”

Cobb shrugged. “Not really, but I wasn’t sure. I read that Fischer is building a house in Santa Monica. I figured it had something to do with that.”

Saito raised his eyebrow. Cobb’s tone was cool and a knot, small but hard, formed under his breast. “I wanted it to be a surprise.”

“Oh, it is,” Cobb waved his hand to include the patio, the ocean. “It is. I think you managed to invite every friend my kids have. I’m—” He stuffed his hands in his pockets and shook his head.

He was embarrassed, Saito realized. And surprised, something he obviously didn’t handle well, but that had to be because surprises, in his old line of work, had probably meant trouble. “Come,” he finally said, nodding towards the chairs by the unlit fire. He led the way and sat down, making sure Cobb had the seat facing the play area. “Would you like something to drink?”

“Sure.”

He looked around and raised his hand. A waiter came over.

“Yes, sir?”

“Gin and tonic,” Cobb said.

Saito held up two fingers. “Make that two.”

The waiter hurried off and Saito turned back around. Cobb was running his hand over his head, smoothing his hair back as he did when he was nervous or exasperated. He wondered if Cobb knew he had a tell, then decided he probably did—he wouldn’t be able to do what he’d done without perfecting every mannerism and gesture, without knowing of every mannerism and gesture.

“So I take it that when I had to cancel the first night, you had something like this planned?”

“More or less.”

Cobb nodded, as if hearing Saito’s real answer of, ‘yes.’  “‘More or less.’ And the second time? Last night?”

“Hm-mm.”

Cobb took off his jacket and laid it over the chair behind him. He crossed his legs, then ran his hand over his knee several times before muttering, “I’m sorry.”

“What?” He cocked his head. “No, it was no trouble. The cost outlay was minor.”

“Still…”

He waved Cobb’s discomfort away. “It doesn’t matter. It was just—” He spied the waiter heading their way and sat back.

“It was just?” Cobb repeated when they were alone again.

Saito shrugged and picked up his drink. “I’m leaving tomorrow and I wanted to see you again.”

The words echoed, even in this place of no walls or ceiling. Cobb sipped his drink, then shifted in his chair, as if he were uncomfortable.

“Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” Cobb said with a laugh that held little humor. He was looking everywhere but at Saito.

“Cobb?”

“Yes?”

“I know you and your children are still getting used to each other, I know it hasn’t been easy, coming back to your family. I wanted to do something nice for you. It really was no trouble.”

“If you’re sure?”

“I’m sure.” He sipped his drink. It had too much ice, but it was smooth and it warmed his belly. “Besides, I could have shut down the entire pier for the evening and I didn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because it would have been too much. And I’d thought, that later on if it’s not too late, we could take Phillipa and James over to the amusement park and that would only be fun if there were more children about. Besides the ones invited, of course.”

Cobb finally smiled. “It’s very generous of you. Thank you.”

They nodded at each other and the knot, still lying heavy somewhere south of his heart, began to ease. “So how was your day?”

“Good. I finished a project I’ve been working on.”

“And what is that?”

“Miles—that’s my father in law—had asked me to help with a job he’d contracted for in London.”

“He lives in Paris, yes?”

Cobb nodded. “Teaching at the Université.”

“What was the project?”

“Figuring out a way to retrofit a section of London’s University College while still keeping the integrity of the structure.”

“Not an easy task, I would think.”

“You’d be right. See…”

Saito watched with amusement as Cobb lost what was left of his reserve and leaned forward, picking up his napkin as he got out his pen.

“The problem was the ground level windows.” He bent his head and began to draw with swift, sure strokes. “The entire structure had settled in the course of a hundred and eighty years and much of what needed to be altered was half underground. In the past, they’d either build on, thereby leaving the problem for future generations, or they’d simple build a new structure. With my idea, we raise the structure by lowering the ground, which also provided an opportunity of solving the issue of drainage.”

The failing light had turned Cobb’s hair to a heavy gold, his eyes a silvery blue that grew brighter as he described his ideas and solutions. Saito, thinking that competence in a man was always erotic, had to find his place in the conversation again. “Did you have any problems with archeological anomalies?”

Not his best, but Cobb nodded, still looking down at the drawing. “We did radar tests and except for a location on the north side, everything is clear. We begin work in the spring.”

“You miss it.”

Cobb glanced up, startled. They shared a long look and he nodded again. “Yeah. I didn’t think I would, after…” He sat back and shrugged. “But, yeah, I didn’t realize how much until I was halfway through.”

“Will you go back to it. Long term, I mean?”

“I don’t know. The kids take up a lot of time.”

“But isn’t it something you can do from home? The best possible of worlds, surely.”

“It is. I need to work and unfortunately, being an architect doesn’t pay quite as well as my old career.”

The words and tone were odd, wrong, and he reached out. “Cobb—”

“Dom,” Cobb said softly. “Before, you called me Dom.”

He touched Cobb’s arm. “Then, ‘Dom,’ if it’s just a matter of work I could easily—”

“What? No.” Cobb withdrew out of reach. “It’s not just that. I—” He shook his head again, looking off to the ocean as if it would provide an answer.

He wanted to say that Cobb didn’t need to worry, that he’d gladly give him enough work to keep him busy for the rest of his life, if that’s what he wanted. That he wouldn’t be offering anything he wouldn’t use in return.

But a man’s pride was a delicate thing and he couldn’t say any of that. So he sat back, asking neutrally, “Are you hungry?”

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, we should probably eat soon. The kids will be hungry.”

“Then…” He rose and signaled for Theresa who was standing just inside the covered area, waiting for them. He paused to let Cobb by, not touching his elbow or back.

***

Dinner was controlled chaos as the children ran here and there, eating between sprints. Saito, unused to such bedlam, watched with amusement mixed with concern until Cobb leaned over and said, sotto voce, “Don’t worry. They won’t die from missing one meal.”

Saito smiled and returned to his dinner. It was really quite good, but he ate as if on automatic and later on, when he took out the night and examined it, all he remembered were bits and pieces. He was, he’d realized later, too focused on Cobb.

When they’d finished eating, he wiped his mouth and nodded to the dock, silently suggesting they take a stroll.

Cobb got up. He followed.

Out to the edge where the noise from the children faded away and the cool breeze turned cold. He stopped a distance from Cobb. If they were alone, if they’d already made the broad leap of becoming lovers, he’d step close and kiss the vulnerable nape of his neck.

“Saito?” Cobb asked without turning around.

“Yes?”

“Did you know I came to see you the other night? At your hotel?”

The words sliced through his fantasy, not making sense at first. Then… “You did? Why didn’t you tell me?”

Cobb turned his back to the ocean and leaned against the rail. This far from the restaurant, they were out of reach of the lights as well as sound and it was hard to make out his expression. “Because you were having dinner with Fischer and besides the fact that it would be disastrous if he knew you and I were…” He shrugged and added, “Whatever, I didn’t want to intrude.”

Saito opened his mouth to say, ‘And?’ then understood.

Dinner that night had been a quick affair—he hadn’t been hungry, but had needed to eat. Robert had joined him at the last minute, saying he wanted to go over the latest figures if he had the inclination. That had been all, but Robert was infatuated with him, and even a casual observer would notice that.

He put his hands in his pockets and strolled over to stand near Cobb, murmuring, “You think Robert is interested in me and you are right. But…” he turned and leaned his elbow on the rail. He could feel the heat from Cobb’s body. “I don’t sleep with my business partners. It never ends well.”

Cobb smirked more than smiled. “And you’ve had so much experience?”

He made a face, shrugging, because, yes, he had, but that was neither here nor there.

Cobb wasn’t buying it, though. He’d crossed his arms tight about his chest and shifted from foot to foot as if all it would take was the wrong word or look and he’d be gone in a flash.

“Dom?”

“Yes?”

“It is my turn to play, ‘Did you know.’

“What does that mean?

“That after I’d been shot, in that first dream when I was lying there on that long table—did you know I heard everything you and Ariadne said?”

Cobb stopped his restless movements and shook his head. “No.” Then, harshly, “What did you hear?”

“That your wife committed suicide before your very eyes. That she set you up so you would be forced to do as she wanted. And, when you didn’t, after she’d commited suicide, you had no choice but to leave your children and run.”

Cobb shrugged.

“And that your guilt over her death had kept her as a kind of ghost, living in your own head.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I want you to know that I’m aware of your past. That I know you’ve been hurt terribly. And that I’m not here to add to that pain.”

Cobb shook his head in sharp rebuttal. “It wasn’t Mal’s fault. You say you know me. Did you know that it was me that planted the seed of doubt in her mind? That it was me that caused her to question all this…” He gestured sharply to include the water, the land. “I knew inception worked because she was my guinea pig. Did you know?”

Saito took a breath, but said steadily, “No, I did not.”

“Well, it was and I—” He broke off and twisted about, gripping the railing as if he would wrench it from its moorings.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of fault,” Saito said carefully, treading the razor-thin edge of Cobb’s guilt. “I think we’ve all done things that shame and dishonor us. But I think it’s also a matter of degrees.”

“What do you mean?” Cobb said again, this time almost pleading.

“That you might have given your wife the idea, but she acted on it.”

“She had no choice.”

“We always have choices, Dom. Sometimes they are not good choices, but they are choices nonetheless.” When Cobb didn’t respond, he added, “In the end, it comes down to perspective and personal responsibility. We each of us have the power to hurt or not hurt. That is all.”

“That’s a rationalization.”

“Maybe.”

Cobb said nothing, but Saito could see he didn’t agree. He just took a deep breath and changed the subject. “And Fischer?”

“Simply a friend. Nothing more.”

Cobb nodded, his grip finally relaxing.

“After all,” Saito said lightly, hoping to bring the conversation back from the dark place of pain and regret, “I didn’t rent a very expensive restaurant for Robert Fischer.”

Cobb gave him a sideways glance. “I thought you said it wasn’t expensive.”

“I lied.”

Cobb laughed, a little weakly. Then straightened up and laughed again, this time naturally. “C’mon,” he said as he touched Saito’s arm. “Let’s see what the kids are doing.

***

The children were running around the play area, playing pig in the middle. Or maybe it was horseleap. Saito couldn’t tell which.

When Phillipa saw them, she ran up. Her face was flushed, her smile so bright he could only smile in return. Cobb picked her up and gave her a quick hug, before letting her back down, his hand lingering on her head as she ran back to her friends.

“She’s happy,” he said quietly.

“She’s been through a lot.” Cobb hesitated, then said blandly, “Being without a mom can be hard on a kid.”

There was no mistaking his meaning. “You know about my childhood.”

“I know a lot about you, Saito-san,” Cobb murmured with a sly smile.

“Ah, yes.” He quoted, “‘In order for this to work, you need to completely let me in.’” He didn’t get the voice right, but thought he did a good job with the hand gestures.

Cobb thought so too. “Very good,” he said, his smile changing to a grin.

Saito bowed. “Thank you.” He turned, this time leading Cobb to the fire pit, picking up a bottle of wine and two glasses on the way. He signaled to one of the waiters to light the fire, then gestured for Cobb to sit. “So,” he said as he sat down and pulled the cork. “What do you know about me?” He poured, then gave the glass to Cobb.

Cobb opened his mouth, then paused and said, “I was going to say, just what’s a matter of public record, but that wouldn’t be true.”

He finished pouring his own glass and leaned back. “You wouldn’t have been so successful if you weren’t a good investigator.”

“Yes.” Cobb sipped his wine, then asked, “Are you sure you want to know?”

“Please.”

“Remember, you asked,” Cobb said slowly, absently. “What did we find about you? That your family is very old, going back almost three hundred years. They were landowners who traded land for business in the twenties—not literally, of course. Your mother died when you were six and you were raised by your sister, ten years your senior. You studied in Tokyo, Paris, and Stockholm, the latter being where you discovered a gift for engineering. You didn’t go into the family business right after college. You took a couple years off to travel the world. You speak passable French and English, and a smattering of Spanish and German. You know how to ski and play polo, but you don’t like to exert yourself if you don’t have to.”

Cobb’s voice lowered and his recitation slowed, “You began working for your father when you turned twenty-nine. A year later, you were accused of murdering a rival in a corporate takeover, something your father vehemently denied. Rumor says it eventually led to a split in your relationship. He died on your forty-second birthday and is buried in a mausoleum in Tokyo along with your mother. You gained control of Proclus Global soon after.”

He took a breath and cocked his head, a sharp smile in his eyes. “Should I continue?”

Saito bowed his head and repeated,  “Please.”

“You married the daughter of a low-level government official, probably to further your career. You have no children—whether by intent or accident, we weren’t able to find out. You’re ruthless and competitive and generally get what you want, when you want it. By contrast, your personal relationships with your people are different. You’re loyal and reward your employees generously when they’ve proved themselves. You love your sister deeply, judging by the gifts and the quantity of letters and email you send to her house in Lyon. A house, which by the way, you purchased for her and her husband five years ago when she had her first child.”

He took a deep breath, then finished his wine in one gulp and looked over at Saito, his gaze strangely challenging.

And Saito, quietly stunned, couldn’t speak. To hear his life put so simply— Not only had Cobb found out things he’d thought well hidden, he’d also interpreted the missing details correctly.

“Are you angry?” Cobb asked quietly.

“That you managed to discover all that? No.”

“Like you said, I was good at what I did. And I couldn’t afford mistakes—our lives depended on our ability to find out what our subjects didn’t want us to know.”

Saito nodded slowly. “Yes.”

Cobb leaned over, elbows on knees, and looked down at his empty glass. “You are angry.”

“No,” Saito said again. He reached for the wine. “No, I’m not. I am just impressed. I knew you were good—” He poured the wine into Cobb’s glass. “Do you miss it?”

Cobb looked up, startled. “What?”

“The job. You said Arthur was trying to get you to come back to it. This…” He nodded to the children. “Must be a very different life.”

Cobb nodded, thinking about it. “Sometimes, yeah, I miss it. For about five seconds. And then I see one of my kids and I realize I’m happy where I’m at.”

“And what about the dreams? Are you ever tempted to use the device again so you can dream?”

Cobb stilled. “No. Never.”

Saito raised an eyebrow. “Really? I would—”

“No,” Cobb interrupted harshly, sitting up straight. “I’ll never willingly use it again.”

Saito nodded. There was something dark and unpleasant moving behind Cobb’s gaze and he touched his hand with the side of his glass. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“I’m not upset, Saito. I’m just…” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I’m so glad to be home, in a reality that’s not a lie. I don’t want anything else.”

“I understand.”

“Do you?”

Saito shrugged. “When you can have the whole world at any time of your choosing, the only sane thing is to settle for the simplicity of a normal life.”

Cobb drew a quick breath, his eyes squinting as if he were looking at the sun. “Yes,” he finally said. “That’s it exactly. I want to have a normal life with my normal kids.”

“And another wife? Will you have that as well?” The question was out before he realized he was even going to ask, but still, he wouldn’t take it back.

“Are you asking because you really want to know or because you want to have sex with me?”

Saito crossed his legs and let his hand drop from the arm’s chair, letting his fingertips brush across Cobb’s knuckles. They burned and he did again. “The latter.”

“I thought you didn’t sleep with your business partners?”

Cobb’s tone was surprisingly challenging and more than a little provocative. Saito raised his glass to his lips, murmuring, “For you, Mr. Cobb, I would gladly make an exception.”

Cobb shifted in his seat again and crossed his legs, his foot hitting Saito’s ankle.

“Besides,” he added quietly, “you are not my business partner, are you?” He wanted nothing more than to reach over and slide his hand between Cobb’s thighs, but it was impossible.

“No, I am not,” Cobb answered, just as quietly.

The moment was explosive and he was almost grateful when James came running over, a pinwheel in one hand, to find out what his father was doing.

***

It was half past eight when Theresa finally rounded up the last of the children and got them in the last of limos. James had long since fallen asleep on Cobb’s lap and their conversation, by necessity, had moved to nothings like the weather and Saito’s new business.

He had to leave for a moment to instruct Theresa on what to do with the remainder of the food, and when he returned to the fire, Cobb was standing with Phillipa at his side, hanging onto his pant’s leg as if it were the only thing keeping her awake.

Cobb shifted James to his other arm. “We should get going, too. Thank you for the wonderful evening. Phillipa?”

“Thanks, Mr. Saito,” Phillipa murmured, mostly into fabric. “That was so much fun.”

“You’re quite welcome, Phillipa. I am sorry to have missed your friend, Lu-Lu.”

“She’s gonna be so mad that she’s sick.” She straightened and looked up at Cobb. “Dad? Can Lu-Lu come spend the night? I saved her a piece of this hula skirt and I want to give it to her.” She held up a stream of green and yellow plastic that Saito had thought was a bit of trash.

Cobb stroked her hair from her face. “Not tonight, honey. But, sure, she can spend the night. We have to ask her mommy first. C’mon.” He held out his hand.

She shook her head. “Can you carry me?”

“I’ve got James. It’s not that far.”

He began to walk towards the restaurant, but Phillipa tugged on his leg. “Daddy?” her voice rising as if she’d start crying.

Saito didn’t dislike children—he loved his sister’s two daughters. But when his wife had told him that she was unable to conceive, his first reaction had been one of dissatisfaction—his empire had needed an heir. Later, he’d gotten used the idea and when they’d divorced, he was actually glad there had been no child to complicate things.

Still, it surprised even him when he leaned over and said gravely, “If you don’t mind, Phillipa, I will carry you.”

Cobb stopped and looked back. They stared at each other for a long moment, and then he said to Phillipa, “Sweetheart?”

She answered by lifting her arms. Saito picked her up.

She was light. Lighter than he would have thought, and so fragile, as if her bones were hollow like a bird’s. He shifted his grip to make sure she was comfortable, to make sure she wouldn’t slip from his arms.

They walked out, across the patio and through the restaurant, side by side. By the time they got outside and the limo was in sight, Phillipa had dropped her head on his shoulder. She smelled of cotton and candy and he tightened his grip.

“When are you leaving?” Cobb asked.

“Tomorrow. At ten.”

“Will you come back? To L.A., I mean?”

“Of course.”

“Good.”

He held Phillipa while Cobb carefully laid James in his car seat and fastened him in.

There was another moment, this one innocent, but intimate, when Cobb stepped close and took Phillipa from him. But it passed—like the other, it was the wrong place, the wrong time. He watched calmly, his arms feeling strangely empty, as Cobb went around the other side of the limo to get Phillipa settled.

When that was done, Cobb straightened. Then waved briefly and got in.  A few seconds later, the limo pulled away.

Telling himself he wasn’t disappointed, that the evening couldn’t have gone any other way, Saito watched as the tail lights disappeared, then went to find Theresa to sign for the final payment.

__________________

 

He was on the phone before they reached the freeway. “Mick? It’s Dom. Did I wake you?”

“Hey, man. No, we weren’t asleep yet. It’s not even nine. Emmy just got home—she had a great time. What’s up?”

“I know this is really late notice, but I was wondering if the kids could spend the night at your place?”

“Sure, no problem. Hold on.”

Mick muffled the phone, but Dom could hear, “Hey, honey?” and “I don’t know, I’ll ask.” Then he came back on. “Sure, bring them over. Em’s already jumping up and down.”

“Still? I can’t believe she still has the energy, after tonight.”

“Welcome to my world.”

“No, thanks.” He looked at his watch. “We’ll be there by nine-thirty. I’ll pick them up in the morning for breakfast. Emmy can come with us, if she wants.”

“Oh, she’ll want. Can I come too?”

Dom grinned. An excitement that bordered on euphoria was trying to make its way past his throat and he choked it back down. “Sure.”

“No, just kidding.” Mick lowered his voice. “Jeannie’s got us on that diet. I’d never hear the last of it.”

“Then come on over this weekend and make up for it by having a beer.”

“Sounds good. Hey?” Mick’s voice dropped even lower.

“Yeah?”

“I’m hoping there’s a reason you want to be on your own tonight.”

“There is.”

“Anyone I know?”

He glanced down at Phillipa—she was still asleep. “I don’t think so. She’s the event planner from the party.” The lie slipped easily from his lips—somewhere between the first touch of Saito’s hand and the second, he’d made his decision and he felt no guilt over it. Just a firm sense of out-of-control-fate having its way.

“Oh-ho,” Mick hooted softly.

He might as well have said, ‘finally,’ or, ‘you dog’ and Dom grimaced. “So, I’ll run by the house and pick up the kids’ things, then come on over.”

“I’ll try to calm Em down.”

“See you.” He hung up and peered out the window. Earlier, when he’d arrived at the pier, he’d been tired, almost irritable. Now…

He sighed and crossed his legs. Next to him, Phillipa sighed as well, half waking up, and he leaned over. “Honey?”

She opened her eyes a crack. “Yeah?”

“How’d you like to spend the night at Emmy’s?”

She frowned, then opened her eyes. “Tonight?”

“Uh-uh.”

“Just me?”

“No, you and James.”

“It’s a school night.”

“I know, but you’ve been really good about the tardies and I thought it might be nice.”

“Will you stay home by yourself?”

He hesitated—it was one thing to lie to Mick, another to lie to his daughter. “I might go out and see a friend, but yeah, then I’ll stay home by myself.”

“I’d be scared.”

He smiled, a little sadly. “You might be now, sweetie, but when you get older, you won’t be so scared.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. It’s just one of those things that happens when you grow up. One minute you’re afraid of something, the next, you’re not.”

“Okay.”

She sounded perfectly trusting, as if all it took was his word, and she was okay. He kissed her forehead. “When we get home, I need you to get your nightgown and something for tomorrow, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Good.”

***

They pulled up to the house ten minutes later. He gave the driver a tip and asked him to transfer the car seats to the SUV while he carried James in and laid him on the sofa. Then he hurried to James’ room and grabbed pajamas, underwear and backpack. “Dad?”

Phillipa was in the doorway, a bundle of clothes in her hands. “Yeah?”

“I can’t decide what to bring for school tomorrow.”

“Just bring one outfit and if you don’t want to wear that, call me in the morning and I’ll bring something else. And hurry, sweetie. I told Mr. Clarke we’d be there in ten minutes.”

“Okay.”

He stuffed clothes in the backpack, then grabbed James’ favorite teddybear. When he went back to the sofa, James was awake, yawning and rubbing his eyes.

“Hey, buddy. You’re gonna stay with Mr. and Mrs. Clarke tonight.”

James sat up, instantly alert. “And Zero?”

“Yes, and Zero.”

“Yay!” He even threw his arms up in the air.

Dom sighed. James was in love with Mick’s dog and had been begging for a puppy for months now. Dom had explained that dogs weren’t good for kids that might have asthma, but of course, a four-year old didn’t care about things like that and each time he saw Zero, he only begged more.

He sighed again, then turned and called out, “C’mon, sweetheart!”

She came running down the hall, backpack already on and they went back out into the night.

When they pulled up in front of Mick and Jeannie’s bungalow, he wasn’t surprised to see Emmy already standing on the gate, swinging back and forth. She waved when they got out and ran to give Phillipa a big hug as if she hadn’t seen her in years.

Mick was waiting at the door and he stood back as the kids hurried by. “Hey.”

Dom handed him the backpack and the toy, saying, “So that’s James’ stuff. I’ll be by at seven to pick them up.”

Mick stood aside to let him in. “I’ll be gone, but Jeannie’ll be here.”

“Sounds good,” he said, trying to sound normal as an internal clock ticked away in his head, telling him to go, go, go.

But not yet—there was one more thing he had to do.

He found the kids in the living room with Jeannie, already playing with Zero. “Hey guys, come give me a hug, okay?” They ran to him and he held them in turn, then said to Jeannie, “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

“Oh, no problem.”

Her smile was broad and he groaned inwardly—Mick had told her what was going on. He smiled blandly and followed Mick to the door.

Who, thankfully, didn’t walk him to the car. He just muttered, “Have fun.” Then winked and closed the door.

When Dom got back in the SUV, he put the key in the ignition, then stopped and took deep breath.

This wasn’t a big deal. He’d had sex just a few weeks ago. He was hard up, but not that hard up. And even though his relationship with Saito was more complex than his brief connection with Carrie, that didn’t mean anything. He wouldn’t let it mean anything.

And then he held his hand up. He was shaking, just slightly, making a lie of it all. With a frown that bordered on a scowl, he turned the key and pulled away.

***

Unlike the time before, he didn’t rush. He wasn’t drunk, but didn’t want to chance getting pulled over, not tonight and it was almost ten-thirty by the time he’d parked and given the valet his keys.

The foyer was empty of guests and his steps echoed as he crossed to the elevator bank. It wasn’t until he was in front of the doors, hand reaching for the button, that he realized he didn’t know Saito’s room number. He swore softly. He couldn’t ask the concierge—discretion, in this case, was the better part of desire.

No, there was only one thing for it…

He got out his phone and scrolled to his ‘received calls’ list. He tabbed until he got the number and hit ‘talk.’ The phone began to ring the same time he heard the sound of laughter. He turned.

A couple, an older man and women were walking across the foyer, leaning into each other, holding hands. He flashed on Mal, the way they used to stroll through their empty city, and for the first time that night, he wondered what the hell he was doing, wondered if Saito would appreciate being stalked like this.

“Hello?”

His heart jerked at the sound of Saito’s voice. “Hi,” he said stupidly, then smiled as the couple passed by too close and retreated to the foyer to find a more private spot.

“Cobb?”

“Yeah, it’s me.”

“Where are you?”

“Downstairs.”

There was a long pause, long enough for Dom to hear his words again. His heart tripped, then began to thud.

“The Bedford Suite,” Saito murmured after a moment. “The twelfth floor. The code is four, six, star, zero.”

“Four, six, star, zero,” Dom repeated softly.

Saito hung up without another word.

Well.

That was clear enough.

The couple was gone when he got back to the elevators and he breathed a sigh of relief as he pushed the button. He was in no mood to make small talk, no mood for much of anything except…

The elevator arrived  and he stepped in, then ran his hands over his hair. He was sweating, just a bit, and he wished he’d thought to bring a handkerchief.

When the car got to the twelfth floor, it stopped and he quickly punched in four, six, star, zero. The doors slid open and he walked through.

The suite was beautiful, decorated in tans and reds with glossy black furniture. The view, seen through a row of windows, was equally beautiful.

He took it all in swiftly because none of that mattered. The only thing that did was standing before him, fingers resting on the back of the sofa, wearing a black silk robe and black pajama bottoms.

Dom had a moment to regret a bottle of champagne or wine, if only to break the ice that had frozen him in place. It was just a black silk robe. He had one like it at home.

But there was something dangerously sexual about Saito, out of his customary clothing, unconfined, uncontained, and he felt as if he’d stumbled upon a tiger in the midst of a highbrow dinner party and he still couldn’t move.

But then Saito stepped forward, the robe swaying open, revealing his chest and smooth stomach and Dom’s paralysis shattered.

He strode across the room, and grabbed Saito by the arms, kissing first his cheek, his chin and finally, his mouth. But too hard and he felt nothing, so he tried again, this time holding back, making his lips soft and that was—

fuck, so much better. Saito had just brushed his teeth and he tasted of mint and kissed him again.

“Dom?” Saito murmured.

He ignored the soft question and pressed closer, letting go of the robe, letting his hands wander; first just his fingertips, then more when Saito groaned and stepped into his touch.

“Dom?”

He shook his head. “No. I know what you’re gonna say but I don’t want to think this through. I don’t—” He ground to a halt, rubbing his cheek against Saito’s, unable to say the words that were choking his throat, ‘For just a few hours, I don’t want to be father, widower, or thief.’ He wanted a re-invention, wanted to be someone who had no responsiblities, no past, no future—just him, Dominic Cobb.

For just a few hours.

Saito hesitated and suddenly Dom was turned, flipped around before he knew it, bent back over the sofa. “Then,” Saito said, hands making short work of his jacket, “we won’t think.”

Saito undressed him against the sofa, using his weight to keep him place until he was naked, until he was shaking so hard he thought the air should be shaking with him. He tried to fall back to the cushions because anywhere would do and he didn’t need a bed to get fucked, but Saito stroked his hips, his ass and murmured, “No,” and pulled him up and took him by the hand.

They didn’t quite make it to the bed. Three steps into the bedroom, were three steps too many. He jerked to a stop and slipped behind Saito the same time he slipped his hands under the robe, dragging it off as he dropped to his knees.

Saito hissed, grabbing his hands as he was about to tug his pajama bottoms down.

As if that were enough to stop him. As if he could be stopped and he watched in fascination at the contrast of their hands against the black silk, the way Saito’s grip changed from wrenching to clasping.

“Dom?”

He leaned forward and licked the back of Saito’s hand, from knuckle to wrist.

“Cobb, wait. Please.”

And that stopped him. He sat on his heels and looked up. Saito had twisted and was staring down at him. “What is it?”

Saito’s throat worked as whatever he wanted or not wanted to say struggled to escape.

He wrapped his hand around Saito’s thigh and kissed the curve of his ass. “Hiro?” he said for the first time, the name sounding clumsy on his lips. “What is it?”

“I’ve dreamt of this,” Saito finally said, speaking so softly that it was hard to understand.

“Of what? Having sex with me?” He almost laughed. “Me too, but—”

“No. Not that. I’ve dreamt of you. At my feet, looking up at me, only—”

“A dream,” Dom interrupted as reality connected with memory and the dream leaped forward, invading sight and sound. He looked down, not seeing bare feet in plush wool, but wet sand; not hearing the thrum of the air conditioner, but the heavy grumble of the surf. “A dream.”

Saito nodded. “Of you and I, on a beach. Ever since I came back from limbo.”

He rested his forehead on Saito’s thigh, whispering, “I’m kneeling in the surf and you’re standing next to me. You grab my hair and—”

“And I pull your head up to look at me,” Saito interrupted, surprised. He carded his fingers through Dom’s hair and gently tugged. “Yes.”

Dom gazed up, squinting into a sun that wasn’t there. “And I say, ‘…we will be young men together.’

There was a long pause that couldn’t be as long as it seemed, and then Saito said, “I thought you don’t dream any more.”

“I thought I couldn’t.”

“What does it mean? That you and I are dreaming this dream? This same dream?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never heard of shared dreaming—outside in the real world.”

And when Saito said nothing, only stared down at him with fierce eyes, Dom asked, “What do you want it to mean?”

Saito didn’t answer. Or rather, Dom thought later, he answered perfectly well because he tightened his fingers and pulled.

Dom rose willingly and when they kissed again, it wasn’t harsh or rushed. It was soft and unexpectedly tender and he stepped close, pushed close, moaning deep in his throat when his chest met Saito’s. And when Saito took his hand again and led him forward, he let himself be arranged on the bed, let himself be covered.

He managed to get Saito’s pajama bottoms off, managed to not hold too tight when Saito slid between his thighs and stroked him from chest to groin, murmuring, as if to himself, “Beautiful.”

Saito was thinner than his clothing had suggested, his muscles long and smooth, his skin almost thick, and Dom couldn’t help it—he raised up to bite his neck and when he gasped and arched, he moved down to his chest and ribcage, then—pulling Saito up and over—his belly and thighs, gentling his mouth and tongue when he got to his cock.

Saito gave him a moment of this, his arms trembling, before he drew back and sank to Dom’s side, reaching out.

It wasn’t anything he hadn’t done before; the simplicity of rubbing two cocks together was something he’d learned a long time ago, but—

It couldn’t have been more different, and even as his mind rejected the idea, his body rejoiced and there was a moment towards the end, biting his lip to keep from crying out, eyes shut tight, when he had the impression of being no longer in a bed, but back in the ocean, rolling with the tide.

***

He didn’t sleep. Treading the edge of it, completely worn out, he rested, back to Saito and thought of nothing until the clock on the nightstand chimed softly. He craned his head to look. Midnight already. He had to go.

In all the years spent everywhere but home, he’d never stayed the night with a one night stand. He’d told himself that he’d never relax enough to sleep with a stranger, that it would be beyond stupid to trust them with his life. But the real reason was Mal—she’d left his waking life alone, but there was always a chance—

But that, he reminded himself, was no longer an issue and he rubbed his chest, then hip, feeling a small pain that was faint but growing. He pushed to one elbow and looked down. There was a bite mark on his hip where the bone jutted up sharply. He touched it, trying to remember when it had happened and couldn’t.

He fell back and closed his eyes, lightly stroking the mark, thinking, unsure if he were happy or sad. It had been a very long time since he’d let himself go so thoroughly, since he’d let himself be used so thoroughly. It was, he finally decided, horrible and wonderful, both in equal measures.

It was that thought that made him sit up and swing his feet to the floor.

He was wondering if he should shower or just go home when movement caught his eye. He turned. Saito was on his back, still asleep. But he’d reached out, as if trying to keep Dom from leaving. Or trying to push him away, and as he watched, Saito’s fingers twitched, clawing at the sheets only to relax again.

Dom frowned. He couldn’t stay. He hadn’t planned on it, for all he hadn’t planned much of anything that had occurred in the last few hours.

But just then Saito muttered something in Japanese, a blur of soft consonants and syllables that ended with a moan and Dom remembered something he should have remembered before: ‘I slept so well that day. Better than any day before or since.’

Had Saito been having nightmares this whole time? Or worse, had he even been sleeping? Dom hadn’t noticed any signs of insomnia, but he hadn’t been really looking so without thinking, he leaned over and whispered, “Hey.” And when he got no response, he touched Saito’s arm. “Saito? Hey.”

Saito frowned, then opened his eyes. “Dom.”

“Yes.”

There was a long pause as Saito visibly gathered his thoughts, then, “Are you leaving?”

“No,” he lied. “I was just getting up to pee.”

“You should leave.”

“Why? Because of your reputation?”

“No. Because of yours.”

Dom hesitated—one of Saito’s hallmarks had been his obsession on maintaining his privacy. “I don’t care.” Even though he was confused by Saito’s lack of concern, even though he did care.

And after a moment, Saito nodded.

So there was nothing for it except to get up, go to the bathroom and pretend to pee.

He was washing his hands, thinking that he should be feeling irritated and not relieved at having to stay when he noticed another red mark, this time on his neck. He looked closer and touched it. Dammit. He’d have to hide it from Jeannie. Mick and the kids might not notice, but she definitely would.

He went back to bed, taking a side trip to grab his clothing. Saito was still on his back, but his eyes were open, watching calmly as Dom set the alarm for five-thirty. He crawled into bed and lay down, feeling an unusual awkwardness because Saito looked as unsure as he felt. “Turn over,” he ordered softly.

With a hesitation he pretended not to see, Saito rolled to his side and he pressed close, bringing the covers up around them. He slipped his foot between Saito’s ankles, wrapped his arm around his waist, and closed his eyes, hoping this wasn’t a mistake.

***

He woke several times during the night, swimming up from a light doze, only to dive down again. The second time, around three, he woke to find the sheets around his ankles and Saito’s mouth around his cock. He came with a helpless whimper, then roused enough to sleepily reciprocate.

The next time, the final time, he woke from the alarm. He reached blindly, found the clock after a few attempts and turned it off.

“Good morning.”

He turned his head. Saito was facing him, hands curled under the pillow. The windows framed a pale black sky, turning everything a muddy grey with slightly darker shadows.

“Morning,” he mumbled.

“Did you sleep well?” Saito asked, no sign of tiredness in his voice.

Dom almost groaned. “Don’t tell me.”

“Don’t tell you what?”

“That you’re a morning person.”

“I take it you are not?”

“Hell, no. If I had my way, I’d sleep ‘til noon.” It used to drive Mal crazy, his ability to be lazy.

Saito didn’t smile. He had a long scratch at the base of his throat that hadn’t been there before. Made either by Dom’s teeth or his new watch. “I didn’t know that about you.”

“I guess your background checks weren’t as thorough as you thought.”

“Unlike yours?”

Dom smiled. “Yeah, we missed a few things. Like you being a morning person. If I had known that, I’d never have come over.”

Saito snorted gently.

“And I sure as hell wouldn’t have spent the night.”

But that was too close to the bone, for both of them, and he felt his face flush. He looked away and rearranged the sheet over his chest. “Can I ask you something?”

“Yes.”

“Was there ever a time when you thought you were helping a murderer go free?”

It had been a while since he’d wondered and now that he’d asked, he wasn’t sure he wanted an answer.

But Saito didn’t blink. “Never.”

He frowned. “Why?”

“The man who declined my invitation to…” Saito made a face. “Take care of a disloyal associate would never have killed his own wife. The look on your face when I gave you the opportunity to shoot Nash said it all—you’re not a killer. Not in that way.”

“No, you just thought I was weak.”

“I never said that.”

“No, but you thought it.”

Saito nodded after a moment. “Yes,” he said slowly. “Yes, I did. At the time.”

“And now?”

“And now?” Saito sat up. “And now, I’m wondering if you’re hungry.”

So they weren’t going to talk about it. “I promised the kids I’d take them out to breakfast.”

“Ah.”

“So I need to leave by six-thirty.” He sat up and ran his hand over his head. His hair was a mess, probably standing on end—he tried to comb it down.

“You have an hour.”

He looked sideways. Saito was smiling the smile from Mombassa—smartass and smug all rolled into one and he heard again, ‘I need to protect my investments.’ “That’s not a lot of time.”

“No.”

“And I need to shower first.”

Saito gestured. “My shower is your shower.”

Dom got up and went to the bathroom, looking over his shoulder. Saito was watching with that same smile.

He grinned and closed the bathroom door.

He hadn’t noticed the shower the night before, although how that was possible, he didn’t know—it took up the whole west side of the room. Tiled in grey and red to match the rest of the suite, it was walled off by a thick sheet of curved glass. It was also, he thought as he stepped back and visually measured the space, bigger than his entire bathroom at home. The only sensible thing about it was the showerhead. Instead of a single fixture, the water released from a panel above, no doubt to make it seem like standing in the rain.

He turned the knobs and stepped under the fall. Yeah, except that the water was hot, it felt like rain. The kids would love it so much, they’d never want to come out.

He closed his eyes and raised his face, waiting.

He’d estimated it would take three minutes for Saito to follow, but it was actually only a few seconds later when he heard the door open and felt warm arms wrap around him from behind.

“This shower is too big,” Saito murmured.

“It is,” he agreed, rocking back into Saito’s hot breath, his cool hands. “Typical American excess.”

“I think they were wise, installing the bench and the railings. It makes it so much safer.”

“For what?” Dom asked, even though he knew. And yeah, Saito laughed, low and sexy, and pushed with one hand on the nape of his neck until he was up against the tile, out of the stream of water.

Saito didn’t fuck him but he did the next best thing—he began to thrust against his ass, using his hand to bring him off.

It was quick because they needed to be quick, hot because it was just that way, and after he came, while he was still trying to catch his breath, Saito tugged him back under the water and washed him off.

When he got out, he found that the grey towels were as ridiculously big as the shower. He shook one, then grabbed Saito’s shoulder as he passed by and rubbed the towel over his hair, grinning when he was done—Saito’s hair stuck straight up, like a kid.

Saito mock growled and murmured, “Fool,” but he was smiling when he took the towel and dried Dom off in turn, kissing the bruise on his neck when he got to his chest.

Dom was dressed by six-ten. Saito walked him to the elevator, still in his black robe, and pushed the call button. They waited a careful two feet apart as the night receded and all the worries and cares came crashing back. At least for Dom, they did. He had no idea what Saito was thinking—his face was blank.

He remembered his night with Carrie, the way she’d gracefully let him get away with being an asshole and he wondered, who was going to be the asshole today, Saito or himself?

It was another thing he shouldn’t have concerned himself over.

Because as soon as the elevator arrived and the doors opened, Saito reached for him, reeling him in to give him a kiss that was unexpected, thorough, and entirely sincere.

When Saito was done—when they were done because he’d returned in kind—he stepped back, face flushed.

“I guess that means you really will be coming back,” Dom said, trying for a joke and mostly failing.

“It does. I promise.”

“You have my number?”

“Both of them, yes. I sent you all of my contact information last night, including my private number at the flat.”

“Good.”

Saito nodded. “Good.”

And there was nothing more to say. Dom stepped into the elevator and punched ‘L.’

He didn’t look at Saito as the doors closed. He stared at his reflection and touched his lips, suddenly so eager to see the Phillipa and James it actually made his chest hurt.

_____________________

 

Saito waited until the lift doors closed, sealing Cobb from view. Then he returned to the bedroom, stopping at the foot of the bed. If he were under the PASIV’s spell, no doubt he could relive the previous evening as he wished, from start to finish.

Although…

He wouldn’t change a thing. Not Cobb’s arrival, wide-eyed and somehow lost, rushing over as if he’d been searching for Saito for years and only just found him. And then, in bed…

He closed his eyes and saw it again, Cobb, perfectly silent, white teeth biting his lower lip, every muscle in his body in sharp relief as he came hard from his hand. Just from that.

He sighed and opened his eyes. He didn’t have time for this—they were leaving in less than two hours and he still needed to pack. So he drew off his robe and turned to the bathroom. He needed another shower, this time cold.

***

He was dressed and packed in under an hour. But still in the suite standing before the art case because he had a minor dilemma.

The case wasn’t big—it would easily fit in his suitcase, but that meant leaving out some clothing. Or, he could simply carry it. And then Robert would inquire and even though he had no problem lying, he didn’t want there to be any clue that could lead back to Cobb. The only solution was to buy another suitcase. Still a perfect because it would result in the same question, but it was better than nothing and he was reaching for the phone when another idea came to him.

He’d been planning on purchasing something for Cobb in the gift shop—he knew getting away for an entire night hadn’t been easy and he’d wanted to show his appreciation in some small way. But this would be so much better. More personal and, hopefully, more practical.

He smiled and picked up the phone and dialed ‘0’. When the concierge answered, he said, “I need to send a package to someone in Pasadena. And I’ll also need a box. A large one.”

***

Robert was waiting in the restaurant when Saito arrived, thirty minutes late. He nodded and unbuttoned his jacket, then sat down.

“Good morning,” Robert said calmly. He’d been reading the newspaper and he didn’t look up as he spoke.

“Morning.”

Robert finally glanced up, his gaze dropping immediately to the scratch that Saito’s collar couldn’t hide. “Did you sleep well?”

“Very.” Better than he would have expected, as if he’d slept for days as opposed to a relative few hours.

“The driver will be here in thirty-five minutes.”

“Then I’ll eat quickly.” He smiled at the girl who came up with a pad and didn’t look at the menu as he said, “One poached egg, white toast and coffee.”

She took the menu. “Would you like decaf?”

“No thank you.”

Robert waited for the girl to go, then said, “Need the caffeine?” He shook the paper, straightening it out before folding it neatly.

“It’s a long flight. I thought I might get some work done.”

“About that. Mr. Kim called. He saw the numbers Kaneda faxed to him and wants to meet with us next week.”

“So now he wants to get involved?” He shook out his napkin. “What did you say?”

“That we were comfortable with the size of the group, but that I’d consult with you.”

A boy came by with the coffee. When he’d poured it and left again, Saito said, “He’s worried about the next election. His opponent just came out as a progressive.”

“Hmm.”

Robert was wanting to ask about last night, wanting to ask if the scratch was from a razor blade or a set of sharp teeth—Saito could see it in his eyes. Which was neither here nor there—he had no intention of answering such a question. Robert might know that he’d been to see a new friend—his excuse when he’d called to cancel their dinner plans— but, he didn’t know the details.

“I still need to finish packing.” Robert said slowly as he stood up. “I can put our flight back an hour or so.”

“No need. I’m ready if you want to send someone for my bags.”

“Okay.” Robert didn’t move. “If you’re sure.”

He smiled calmly up. “I’m sure.”

Robert finally left, still walking slowly, as if waiting for Saito to call him back. But he finally left and Saito was able to touch the scratch. It hurt more than it should, but maybe that was his imagination. Maybe he wanted it to hurt so the memories of the night wouldn’t fade too quickly. He smiled.

“Sir?”

He jerked his head up. The waitress had returned with his food and was patiently waiting. “Yes.” He made room for her, then picked up his fork and began to eat.

_________________

When Dom got to Mick and Jeannie’s, he found the kids in the living room, still in their pajamas. They all looked up when he walked in. Phillipa ran to him for a hug, but he wasn’t surprised when James shouted, “Dad!” and didn’t get up—he was wrapped around Zero, holding him tight.

Dom picked up Phillipa and asked, “Who’s hungry?”

They all answered “I am!” even Jeannie, still standing at his shoulder.

“Then come on. We can’t go until you’re dressed.”

“I tried to call you, Daddy,” Phillipa said reproachfully. “I wanted you to bring my purple dress.”

“I’m sorry, honey, I must have turned my phone off.” He got out his cell. Sure enough, the mute light was one. “I’m sorry,” he said again, this time absently. He didn’t remember turning it off—he had six calls, the last one from Arthur. He put the phone back in his pocket. “Can you wear what you brought?”

She nodded and when he kissed her forehead, her smile reappeared. He put her down. “Okay, guys, I’m leaving in ten minutes. If you want to eat, you need to be ready by then.”

It was an idle threat, but it got them going and they ran off, squealing. He turned to Jeannie. “You’re welcome to come with us, you know.”

“And miss the chance to have an extra thirty minutes to myself this morning? I don’t think so.”

“Yeah, I didn’t figure you’d take me up on it.”

She smiled, but distractedly. She wanted to ask about the night before. Generally, he wouldn’t worry about anyone other than Eames asking a question like that, but she was nosy so he put his hands in his pockets and said, “I better go see if James needs any help.”

***

He slowly drove up the drive. Annie’s car was parked by the hedge, but the construction crew hadn’t arrived yet, even though it was almost ten. Normally, he’d stew about it, but not today. Today he was grateful for the quiet. And for Mick’s absence. He needed a few hours to come up with a story, something good that would satisfy both he and Jeannie.

He parked the car and climbed out, then went around to the trunk and got the groceries. The morning newspaper was on the steps, but he left it there. It would just be news about the trouble in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Or the unemployment crises. He’d read it later on.

He was on the porch, trying to find the deadbolt key, when he realized something was out of place, tugging on his peripheral vision. He looked around and saw a large white box on the chair. He stood there for a long moment, then shifted the bags to one hand and unlocked the door. He went to get the box, although he already knew who it was from.

And, yeah, inscriped in the center were the words, ‘Beverly Wilshire.’ He picked it up and went into the house. The vacum cleaner was buzzing in the study, so he shouted, “I’m home, Annie!”

He thought he heard her call out, but couldn’t be sure. He sat the bags on the counter and the box on the table. He needed to put the food away—he’d bought ice cream for the kids and didn’t want it to melt.

But he went to the box instead and opened it up. And raised his eyebrow. In it were two neat piles of clothes—a suit, three shirts and a pair of trousers. He recognized one of the shirts—Saito had worn it on Monday, when he’d first visited. Everything had been cleaned and pressed, still bound by a broad gold ribbon with the hotel’s logo.

He shook his head, still bemused, and looked for the card. He found it, tucked under the lapel of the jacket. It read, ‘I don’t have much time, but wanted to thank you for last night as I hadn’t yet done so. I had to make room in my suitcase for your gift and ask that you hold on to these few things. I’m sure you’ll know why. Please say goodbye to Phillipa and James for me—tell them I will see them soon. MS.’

He stood there for the longest time, staring down at the card, the overly formal words. He knew why Saito had left the clothes, knew that he could have easily bought another suitcase to hold the art, if he’d wanted. No, these were for his next visit—for his return, just as he’d promised.

He shook his head and went to the put the groceries away. When he was done, he took the box to his bedroom and hung the the clothes up, carefully, as if it were very important he get it just right.

He went back out to the kitchen and leaned against the countertop, thinking.

He’d planned on spending the kids’ winter break in Paris. Miles would like it and Marie would never forgive him if he didn’t. But they had almost a month. Maybe they could stay in Paris for two three weeks, then fly to Tokyo for a few days.

He smiled, then touched the bruise on his neck and, with the comforting drone of the vaccum cleaner in the background, got out his phone to check his messages.

 

__________________________________________________________________________

 

Mombassa
September, 2010

 

The thing was, Yusuf thought as he stuffed the notebook in the jar, sometimes being the best at something could be a liability. Sure, it was great when you were offered the world—or at least a great sum of money—because of your special skills. Or when people came to you for relief they couldn’t get elsewhere.

But it was something else when those special skills attracted the wrong element.

He knelt and pushed the jar to the very back on the bottom shelf, behind all the others. If they looked, which he knew they would because they’d be stupid enough, maybe they’d think he was stupid enough to hide the formula in such a ridiculous way, in such a ridiculous place.

“Boy,” Riitho said behind him.

“I know. I’m hurrying.”

“Yusuf?”

“I’ve still got fifteen minutes, maybe more. I need to download the last of the data and destroy the drive. Are you ready?” There was no answer, and he added, “I know you said to leave a liter of the compound, but I’m leaving five. That will give them enough for a week and by then, we’ll be back and—”

“Yusuf.”

Riitho’s voice wasn’t loud or strident, but Yusuf stopped his babbling, and turned.

Riitho was standing in the door to the cellar. Always old, even when they’d first met, he now looked ancient. Bent over, holding onto the doorframe, puffing heavily as if he were drawing what might turn out to be his last breath. “I’m staying.”

Yusuf’s eyes widened. “What? No, of course you’re not. It’s been decided.”

“You must know it is impossible. I am too old. I will slow you down.”

Yusuf jumped to his feet and rushed over. “I’m not leaving without you. You can’t think I will.”

Riitho smiled and clasped his shoulder. “Boy, you know this is how it must be.”

“Riitho—”

“Yusuf? Do you know the little brown bird that lives in burrows in the ground? A thrush, it is called?

Yusuf frowned, completely confused. “What are you talking about?”

“It is a plain little bird, not much to look at. My father told me a story of this bird. When being threatened by a leopard or cat, the mama bird will leave the nest, dragging her wing, pretending to be wounded. The cat, fool that he is, thinks she is an easy dinner and follows.” Riitho smiled. “When the bird has taken the cat far enough from the nest, she jumps in the air and flies away.” He clapped his hands and fluttered his fingers, mimicking a bird in flight.

“Yes, I’ve heard of that. A lot of animals practice the same strategy. But what has that to do—”

“I will be your bird. I will stay here and distract your pursuers, dragging my wing, as it were. It will give you time to get away.”

Yusuf was already shaking his head. “No. It’s ridiculous.”

“It is the only way.”

“Riitho, they will kill you.”

Riitho made a face. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

Yusuf shook his head and said around the lump in his throat, “I can’t.”

“It is not for you to decide. I am staying.”

Yusuf stared at Riitho for a too-long moment and nodded reluctantly. “Very well.”

“And I will keep our guests…” Riitho nodded at the floor. “Safe. As always.”

“I’ll contact you when I can.”

“I know this.”

“Will you watch out for her?” He nodded to Geetika who was hiding from the sun behind a large beaker of valerian.

“Of course.”

“And Mr. Eames?”

“If he returns your call, I will tell him what has occurred. If he is as smart as you say he is, he will know how to find you.”

“Riitho—”

“No.” Riitho shook his head. “This is not the time for grief, Yusuf. You need to go.”

Yusuf jerked his head then picked up the case and turned away. At the last minute, he dropped the case and spun around, rushing across the room to where Riitho was standing. He pulled him in for a quick embrace, chocking back the words that clawed at his throat, then let go and hurried off, grabbing the case on his way out.

The corridor was cool, the walls clammy, and he felt his way down the few steps. Around a corner and down again until he came to the outer door, limed by bright afternoon sun. He unlocked it, then pushed it open slowly. He peered out. He didn’t see anyone but he waited to make sure. Finally, knowing he had to move, he stepped out into the narrow street and began walking. Down, then right and right again, trying to make it seem as if he were simply out for a stroll, no worries here.

It wasn’t until he was a half a kilometer away, that the reality of the situation hit him and he stopped, sagging against a sun-hot wall.

What had he done?

He’d jeopardized his research, Riitho, and many other lives, all in the name of vanity. It wouldn’t end well, it couldn’t end well, and he actually felt his face crumple in grief.

He indulged himself for only a moment. Then he pushed away from the wall, gripping the case with new determination. If Riitho had sacrificed his life, it wouldn’t be for nothing.

So he dashed his tears away and walked faster, heading for the park, hoping Eames had got the message.

 

Continued in The Waking World