Li and Kevin have a high-stakes game ahead of them. In more ways than one.
|Notes/Warnings: For the prompts: “noir” and “wuxia.” Implied human-trafficking and illegal gambling.
“Are you ready, Li?”
I snorted, blowing out sweet smoke as I looked up at the unassuming den of iniquity where my fate and my brother’s would be decided. “Don’t I look ready, Kevin?” I said with more cool than I expected. More cool than a man who was about to have his life and his twin’s possibly gambled away in less than an hour should have, at any rate.
“You look like a wet dream.” Kevin Dodds laughed nervously: a short, sharp bark of sound that set my nerves on edge. I took a shaky drag off my clove and curled my lip in a sneer as I looked him over.
“Maybe you should be asking yourself how ready you are.”
Laughing again, Kevin ran a hand through his messy blond hair, and looked up and down the dark, rain-soaked street. Nothing moved or made a sound. Add to that a low, lingering fog, and we could’ve been the only two people left alive in the universe. “Nah, I’m ready. I mean, I have to be, right?”
“I dunno about have to. But you’d better be. It’s not your nicely-toned ass that’s on the line, here, bub.”
“I know, I know,” he said, hunching his shoulders and looking down at his feet. His shoes were scuffed, the laces barely tied. My father always used to say you could tell a lot about a man by the condition in which he keeps his shoes.
My father was always full of horseshit.
“Do you . . . do you think they’ll have Wei in there?” I asked suddenly, without meaning to. This time, my voice shook, and Kevin looked up, frowning. His face—friendly, in a homely sort of way—wasn’t suited to the expression.
“Not where we can see him, but since he’s part of the pot, yeah . . . he’ll be on the premises.”
I grunted and took another drag. “No doubt dosed to the eyelids on whatever crap he’s been shooting, lately. To keep him docile.”
“No doubt,” Kevin agreed, shoving his hands in his pockets and looking outright miserable. For some reason, that made me smile. Made me want to throw my arms around him and. . . .
Well. I told myself I didn’t know what would happen after that. But I assumed it wouldn’t be a manly bout of arm-wrestling, followed by bible-study.
Keep your eyes on the prize, I told myself sternly, the way my mother might have, if she’d ever learned to speak English. Wei’s in there, and Kevin Dodds is just a means to get him out . . . nothing more. You can’t mix business with pleasure, this time, Li. That's a Wei-move you can't afford.
Not that that stopped me from sighing wistfully, and reaching out to pound Kevin’s arm. It was solid and strong. He, unlike me, was built low and brutal, like a bulldog, or a brick shithouse. He was all width and muscle. He looked like a construction worker or a boxer, or something . . . not like one of the most infamous card-sharps on the West Coast.
“Chin up!” I said brightly, almost manically. I didn’t know how much of that bright mania was for Kevin’s benefit, and how much was for my own. “For better or worse, this’ll all be over in an hour or two.”
“Hopefully for the better,” Kevin said heavily, wiping a light sheen of sweat from his brow and shaking his head. “I gotta say, I've never played for stakes as high as two human lives, before.”
“And hopefully never will again,” I replied dryly, pitching my butt into the gutter. There were no cars on the street—not this street—this late at night. Probably parked around back. Kevin and I had taken a cab here, knowing full well that we’d likely be walking back to his motel.
Or, rather, he'd likely be walking back to his motel. As in, alone.
As in, without the brothers Shen.
Not for the first time, I cursed my older—by seven minutes—brother Wei. Cursed him for getting in over his head. For gambling while high, and incurring nearly half a million dollars in debt to Harvey Feng. For the bond between Wei and I that, though stretched and strained in the years since our mother died, had never truly broken.
For the fact that, in all likelihood, I was about to become Harvey Feng’s property, just like Wei had.
Suddenly, I was finding Kevin’s gross, old shoes interesting, too. It wasn’t until I blinked and tears ran down my face that I realized just how keyed up and anxious I was. Even though it was maybe a few miles below my chilly exterior, I was still scared as hell that Kevin wouldn’t just lose my brother, but that he’d lose me, too.
“Fuck,” I whispered, shuddering as tears fell down my cheeks to drip on the already wet ground, where they were absorbed by mist and rain. I put my hand up to cover my eyes—I didn’t want Kevin to see me cry. In all the weeks we’d been working our way up to Feng’s circle of high-stakes gamblers, I hadn’t once shown a softer side than rock-hard to Kevin. Every game we went to, all the money we won . . . none of it fazed me. None of it had gotten my hopes up like tonight had. And that hope? Was nearly unbearable.
“Shh, shh,” Kevin murmured, putting his hands on my waist and pulling me close. Despite myself, I wrapped my arms around his neck and let myself be held for a few minutes, while he continued murmuring comforting nonsense and stroking my back.
Thankfully, like a summer squall, my crying-jag passed quickly, and I started noticing other things that had nothing to do with my worry and misery. Like how good Kevin smelled—like patchouli and my cloves—and how warm he was . . . how strong his arms felt around me.
I steeled myself and started to pull away from him at the same time he started to pull away from me. “Sorry,” he was mumbling, his hands trailing reluctantly from around my waist. “Sorry.”
“No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come over all Beaches on you.” I rolled my still-wet eyes and tried on a smile. Kevin returned it—a much better look on him than a frown—briefly and searched my eyes. His own muddy hazel ones were solemn and worried.
“You sure you’re gonna be okay? Going in there, I mean?” he asked quietly. I shrugged—twitched, is more like it. Like a frog on a hot skillet.
“I have to be, don’t I? I’m the arm-candy. And the pot. I have to be at my inscrutable, Oriental best.”
Kevin reached up to brush a few late-comer tears off my face with his callused thumb. My face went up in flames. I didn’t think I’d ever blushed so hard in my life. And for no reason other than Kevin was touching me so, so tenderly, while staring into my eyes, concern writ larger than life in his own.
Before I could think better of it, or stop myself, I leaned in and kissed Kevin on the lips, pressing his mouth with mine for long moments. When I leaned back a little, he breathed: “Li, what. . . .”
“For luck,” I said softly.
“Oh,” he sighed, sounding disappointed and starting to pull away. But I grabbed him by the lapels of his wrinkled, tan raincoat and pulled him close again.
“And this one’s just for me,” I admitted, kissing him once more. After a few shocked moments, Kevin was tilting my face up with one hand, the other clenching on my waist as he moaned, and began to kiss me like he meant it. Like his mouth was on fire and mine was a bowl of water.
When I started to feel the lack of oxygen, I broke the kiss and leaned my forehead against Kevin’s.
“Gosh, I wish I’d done that sooner,” I panted, and Kevin chuckled almost wearily.
“I was thinking the same thing. Though maybe, with tonight and everything, it’s better this way,” he said grimly, his hands clenching on my waist. “I can concentrate better . . . keep all my focus where it belongs, and not on . . . the possibility of losing you.”
My heart began to beat faster, in a way I very much was not used to, and more tears leaked out of my eyes. But this time, I covered it up by pulling out of Kevin’s arms and turning to face the plain, unmarked building where the game was going down.
“I just hope you remembered to bring your poker-face,” I said brusquely. “Rumor has it, Feng’s so good at reading people he doesn’t need to cheat.”
And with that, I stalked toward the front steps of the dilapidated-looking townhouse. But Kevin grabbed me by the waist again and pulled me back against him.
“When this is over, Li—”
“Don’t,” I begged. “If there’s an after, we’ll deal with it when it gets here.”
“Okay,” Kevin whispered against the back of my neck, gently kissing the spot his breath had tickled. “But I will win your brother back for you. I will.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Kevin.”
“I never do,” he said, sliding his arm around my waist. For a few moments, I allowed my head to rest on his shoulder. . . .
Then, together, we walked into Feng’s den of iniquity.