Authors: Marie Lu
Tags: #YA, #Carly
If I thought
the amount of publicity I’d gotten so far was overwhelming, it was nothing compared to after our first win. We’d barely made it out of the Tokyo Dome when the first enormous broadcasts appear on the sides of the buildings surrounding the arena, the headlines in giant, screaming letters.
ASHER WING, FIRST PICK EMIKA CHEN
LEAD PHOENIX RIDERS TO STUNNING UPSET WIN
A recap of me plays over and over beneath each of these headlines, my rainbow hair flying in the wind, my figure crouched on the head of a towering creature, lassoing its head, forcing it down toward Jena. Above the dome, the two crests—the phoenix and the hooded demons—suspended over the building have now
morphed into only our phoenix, its flaming wings spread as wide as the dome, its head arching up to the sky in triumph.
My level has skyrocketed from 28 to 49.
But all I can think about is that Hideo could have died tonight. And that no one knows. My thoughts continue to churn, looping back over and over on Kenn’s words.
He will listen to you. Please.
What is Hideo saying about me that makes Kenn think this?
A mob of reporters descends on our bodyguards as we flee the arena toward our waiting cars, and suddenly I can’t see anything but a field of flashing lights and microphones.
“No training tonight!” Asher exclaims as we finally reach our waiting limousine and all climb in. The others cheer as he gives the car an instruction to take us into Shibuya instead of back to our dorms. Behind our car, a team of bodyguards climbs into a second car and follows us. Reporters in vans linger in traffic nearby, tailing us. My mind stays on Ren, and instead of looking up and grinning at the reporters outside the window, like Asher’s doing, I keep my eye on where Ren’s clapping Roshan on the shoulder.
A message blinks on in my view. It’s Kenn.
Can you get away tonight?
To go to Hideo?
He’s not even listening to you.
He never listens to me, not when he’s got an idea planted in his mind. But I’m not his bounty hunter, and more specifically, I’m not you.
Why would he listen to me?
I can almost feel Kenn’s frustration as he answers.
I can count on one hand the number of people he fully trusts. But he talks to you frequently. He takes you to dinner, unannounced.
I’m not his bodyguard. I can’t force him to protect himself.
You’re his hunter. He has hired you to tell him what he needs to know. You have a right to insist on his safety. He won’t shut his door on you.
I glance up from our conversation as my teammates roar with laughter about something. Tonight’s our celebration night, and they’ll expect me to be just as excited about our win. If I leave too soon, they’ll be poking and prying in no time, and Ren will suspect something’s up.
“Hey,” Hammie says to me, and I look up to see her curious expression, her cheeks still flushed from victory. “You okay?”
It’s strange to me that no one else in the stadium knows what happened, that they must really think the two sparks of light in the balcony seating were blown transistors instead of gunfire. I must be wearing all of my anxiety on my face right now. I give her a brilliant smile that I hope looks convincing, and then shake my head. “I’m fantastic. Just still in shock.”
Hammie grins and pumps a fist in the air. It nearly hits the
limo’s ceiling. “Karaoke, baby!” she shouts, and the others all shout along with her. I do as well, cheering as loudly as I can in order to drown out the storm of thoughts brewing in my head. I do it so forcefully that I almost believe it.
Soon, we’ve settled in a karaoke bar in the heart of the Roppongi district, with men in black suits guarding every entrance and exit. The halls are lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, reflecting the light of chandeliers adorning the ceilings, while the doorways to each private karaoke room are painted in glittering gold. Outside each doorway stand virtual figures of smiling supermodels, congratulating each of us by name as we walk past. I stare down the hallway, memorizing a path out, before we enter our own private room.
In here, the music has already been turned up to deafening levels. Ren laughs as he scrolls through the song list with Roshan. Every time they rotate onto a new track, our room transforms to match it—“My Heart Will Go On” changes the room into the bow of the
while “Thriller” surrounds us with dancing, leather-clad zombies on a dark street. Roshan, usually reserved, can’t help laughing as Ren says something in French while mimicking the “Thriller” shuffle.
I watch Ren from the corner of my eyes as I sit sandwiched between Hammie and Asher. Had no one else noticed his expression as the game ended? Even now, there is something tense about his posture, as if things tonight hadn’t gone as well for him as they had for the rest of our team.
“To Roshan!” Hammie yells, startling me from my thoughts. “Most Valuable Kicking-Tremaine’s-Ass Player!”
Roshan sobers a little at the mention of Tremaine, but he hides it behind a smile. “To Hams,” he calls back. “Thief of a Thousand Power-Ups.”
“To Emika!” Asher exclaims. His cheeks are flushed, pushed up by a huge grin. He shakes his head. “Girl, you put the
in wild card.”
The cheers flow fast.
I need to sneak out,
I think as I laugh along. It might be my overactive imagination, but Ren’s smile seems tighter than everyone else’s, his happiness for me strained.
It doesn’t take long for the chaos in the room to reach a peak. Asher leans heavily against Hammie, repeatedly telling her that he loves her. She’s whispering into his ear in return. The karaoke microphone squeals in protest as Ren yells an off-key note into it. Roshan winces at the sound. As everyone bursts into another storm of laughter, I grab my phone and text Hideo.
Where are you now?
A few seconds pass with no response. Maybe Kenn put too much faith in me, or too little faith in Hideo’s stubbornness. I bite my lip, then send a second message.
I have more info for you. Best to talk in person. It’s an emergency.
Info from his hunter—it’s the only thing I can think of to say that might get him to see me.
More time drags on. Just when I’m starting to think Kenn has gotten it all wrong about me, an encrypted message appears. I confirm my identity to unlock it, and in return, an address pops up in my view. Hideo’s address. I almost sag in relief. Then I store the location in my GPS and delete the message.
Beside me, Asher raises his voice. “Anyone want to play a shots game? We need the waiter to come back.”
I hop to my feet. “I’ll go find him!” I say, then make a beeline for the door. Perfect. By the time the waiter gets to them, they’ll be so busy having fun that none of them will notice I’ve left. Plenty of time for me to come up with a good excuse. I exit the room and hurry down the hall. As I go, I bring up my map with Hideo’s current location.
His gold dot pops up somewhere in the northern area of the city. I hurry down a side corridor. Moments later, the hall leads me out into the narrow back alley behind the building and near its garbage bins.
A cold drizzle has dampened the sidewalk, and as I step outside, I’m hit with a blast of chilly night air. Neon lights reflect against the wetness, painting the ground a menagerie of smeared gold, green, and blue. The city block’s number—16—hovers in bright yellow letters over the pavement, while a gold dotted line leads from where I stand to the corner of the block, where it turns right and disappears from view. A cheerful
message and an estimated arrival time hover in the center of my vision, waiting for me to follow the map. Thirty minutes.
I shiver, draw my hoodie tightly up so that it covers all of my hair, and pull on a black face mask. I also download a virtual face to disguise myself. Anyone on the street who’s logged in to the NeuroLink should now see me as a complete stranger instead of a face they recognize from the news. Better than no disguise. Then I throw my electric skateboard down and jump on it. It shoots me forward as I follow the gold line.
Half an hour later, I emerge in a quiet, upper-class neighborhood on a hill overlooking the city. The travel time shifts in my view as I go, counting down the minutes that it will take for me
to arrive. The drizzle has turned into a steady rain now, soaking through my hoodie and drenching my hair. I try to stop myself from trembling.
Finally, I’m here. The gold dotted line stops in front of the gates of a warm, well-lit estate with a curved wall and carved lions outside its doorway. I don’t know how much security Hideo usually has at his residences—but tonight, at least five cars are sitting here, and two bodyguards are at the front gate, waiting to greet me. Others look like they’re scattered around the estate.
One of them approaches me now, then tells me to hold out my arms. I turn off my virtual face and do as he says. He pats me down thoroughly, pausing to inspect my board. When he’s satisfied, he holds out an umbrella for me as I hurry to the entrance.
“It’s okay, I don’t need the umbrella anymore,” I tell the man. When he eyes me sideways, as if he never gets this order, I gesture to my soaking clothes. “Seriously.”
He reluctantly puts it down, and we walk in silence for a moment before reaching the front entrance. Inside the house, I hear a dog barking.
Hideo answers the door. His bodyguard blinks in surprise, as if this is not something Hideo does often. He’s still dressed in his clothes from earlier, but one sleeve of his shirt is pushed up to his elbows, while he’s undoing the cuff link on his other sleeve. His collar is flipped up, the top buttons open, and his black tie is draped loosely over his shoulders. His hair is damp with a few drops of rain, the silver streak shining white. He looks concerned and bewildered, a sudden, startling reminder to me of just how young he is. It’s so easy to forget.
“You’re soaking wet,” he says.
“And you’re alive,” I reply. “That’s good.”
The bodyguard leaves us alone. Hideo opens the door wide
and ushers me inside. Beside him trots a fat orange-and-white dog with short legs and enormous fox ears. It stops in front of me, wags its stubby tail, and looks up at me with a panting smile. I pet it vigorously, then remove my wet shoes near the doorway and step inside.
The home is impeccably clean, with soaring ceilings and beautiful, modern furniture. Soft music plays from some sort of built-in sound system. To my surprise, I see no virtual letters, colors, or numbers anywhere in the house. Everything is real. How much does a house as gorgeous as this cost in a city as expensive as Tokyo?
“You’re trembling,” he says now.
I shrug it off. “Just get me out of these clothes.” Then I realize what I’ve said, and heat rushes to my cheeks. “I mean, well, not that—”
The edges of Hideo’s lips twitch with a smile, a brief respite from his grave look, and he nods for me to follow him. “I’ll bring some dry clothes for you.”
“I got a glimpse of a single file from Ren,” I tell Hideo as we head down the hall. Then I mention its name. “It’s obvious that Zero wanted to, well . . . try an assassination today. How’s your bodyguard doing?”
“He’ll live. There have been worse attacks than today.”
Worse attacks. “Any word on the culprit?”
Hideo shakes his head as he pushes his second sleeve up to his elbow. He’s weary, his dark mood still not lifted. “Kenn says the power had been thoroughly cut. In all the confusion, whomever it was managed to get away and blend in with the crowds. We’ll be studying every nook and cranny of the dome for evidence, but I won’t lie. They were ready.”
The culprit is still out there. I try to swallow my fear. “Just
because nothing happened today doesn’t mean Zero’s not waiting in the wings to act. It could be one part of his grand plan.” I take a deep breath. “They’re going to try again. They could have been trying even before this. And there will be plenty of times when you won’t be as guarded as you were in the dome.”
Hideo’s lips tighten slightly, but it’s the only response he gives about his safety. He stops for a moment to look at me. “Did it report any data back about you?”
I hesitate. I hadn’t thought about the possibility of Zero grabbing info of
from the object—and the idea sends a shiver through me, even as I warm at Hideo’s obvious concern. “Shouldn’t be possible,” I reply. “I’m fine. Besides, it’s not me that we should be worried about. The more pieces of this that I find, the more ominous it sounds.”
“My security detail is used to being careful. After your warning, we did a full sweep of my home. They’ll be watchful.”
“That’s not what I mean. Hideo, you almost
tonight. You realize that, don’t you?”
“I’m well protected here. There are eight bodyguards on my premises alone.” He nods toward the rest of the house. “It sounds like you’re edging closer and closer to finishing this, at any rate.”
“I don’t understand how you can be so calm about this,” I say, my frustration rising. No wonder Kenn sounded so exasperated. “You need to get out of Tokyo. It isn’t safe for you here. Every moment you stay puts you in danger.”
Hideo casts a serious look my way. “I’m not going to be chased out of my city by a vague threat,” he replies. For the first time since I’ve known him, a note of anger creeps into his voice. “This isn’t the first time someone has targeted me, and it won’t be the last.”
I’m about to raise my voice, but then I sneeze. The cool air in
the house is seeping straight into my soaked clothes, and I realize that my teeth are chattering.
Hideo tightens his lips. “We’ll continue this after you warm up. Come with me.”
We reach a spacious bedroom, its glass walls leading out into a serene Zen garden adorned with golden dangling lights. A large bathroom suite branches off from one side of the room.
“Take your time,” Hideo says, nodding toward the suite. “When you’re ready, we’ll talk further. Would you like tea?”