It took the surgeons at Mercy General three hours to remove the bullet from Britt Reid's shoulder. If they noticed the coagulated blood, the caliber of the bullet that tore through his muscle or the small bit of DIY Lenore Case had attempted on her kitchen counter with a poultry knife (before Britt had screamed bloody murder and jumped off), they hadn't said anything yet and she was crossing her fingers that they didn't.
That had been less than 24 hours before -- less than six -- and it all still felt like a high resolution fragment of a very surreal dream. Everything felt like a dream except for the reality of seeing Britt being wheeled back to his room on a hospital gurney -- pale under the fluorescent lighting, still where he was usually strobing with frenetic energy, a sedative drip still hooked up to his arm. Lenore opted to sit outside his room, closer to the surreal reality than the garish un-reality of the waiting area -- where she was pretty sure a few reporters from The Times (and at least one guy from TMZ with a pinhole camera in his USC scarf) were keeping a vigil and looking for an opportunity to wander.
Mike Axford was in and out of the hospital, rallying the troops, setting up the temporary offices for the Sentinel staff and -- once Britt was out of surgery -- having the boss groggily sign off on requisitions for equipment lost in the stand-off between the DA and the Green Hornet. He looked grayer than usual by the time he collapsed in the chair next to Lenore's.
"Web edition's up."
"I saw it. It looks great." The headline -- DEMOLISHED, Sentinel Building, staff targeted in criminal stand-off -- coupled with the image of firemen and SWAT members rooting through the rubble of what had been the newsroom was startling, powerful, even on the small browser window of her iPhone. The next article was about Frank Scanlon's murder and Britt's shooting. Mike had written that one, presumably during the cab rides between the police station and the hospital.
"It'll win the cycle," Mike sighed. "It's got a bunch of hits already. And the cable news reporters will only drive them higher."
"Are they still out there?" A few vans had been in the hospital driveway when they arrived.
He nodded. "Settling in, at least until the hospital tells them to go. They want a statement on Britt's condition."
"The surgeon gave one ten minutes ago. I forwarded a transcript to Cheryl to put up on the web. With your say so, of course."
Mike's front pocket trilled. He reached in and retrieved a small Blackberry. "That's her, I bet." His lip quirked as his eyes scanned the screen. "She's written it up already. Good job, Ms. Case."
Lenore's satisfaction died quickly as she watched Mike's fingers ghost over the keypad, the deepening creases at the corners of his eyes.
"He's going to be fine." It came out softer than she'd imagined in her head. In the short time she'd known him, Mike Axford hadn't struck her as someone who would appreciate softness. But he had squeezed Britt's shoulder at the press conference, and there were those numerous quiet asides in his dealings with his young boss. He'd been with the paper for more than forty years, which meant he'd known Britt all of his life.
"I know," he answered, looking at her. "He wouldn't like it if I said this, but he's his father's son. Very little ever slowed Jim down. Of course, he never had to stop a bullet..."
Mike raised his head slowly, eyes widening slightly as they looked off in the distance. Lenore turned her head.
Kato had changed out of his mask, hat and jacket, but clad in his biking leathers and wearing an unreadable expression, he exuded strength and absolute control. It was easy to spot the Green Hornet's mysterious assistant inside now that she knew what to look for (enough to make her feel like an idiot). His stride was more than a little imposing as he made his way toward them. He had a soft, paper-wrapped something in his hand, carrying it low and swinging it slightly with each step. Were those... daylilies?
"Hey!" she faltered, standing up from her chair as he approached. She breathed in, putting the mask back on as she felt Mike stand up next to her. How many days since Kato had been at the Sentinel? A mastermind would probably need to know things like that to keep their cover from being blown. It probably helped that the false estrangement between him and Britt had only been false for about twelve hours.
Kato nodded to Mike once before turning his attention to her.
"I saw the news," he said, coolly. "How is he?"
"He's okay. Surgery was a success. He's been in recovery for the past hour. Sleeping now." Estrangement, she reminded herself. It extended to her, too, as far as Mike knew.
Music filled the air ('Gangsta's Paradise,' she noted) and Kato retrieved his phone from his jacket. He smirked and shook his head. Britt didn't have his cellphone. Lenore knew this for a fact because it was currently at the bottom of her handbag. She wondered how Kato had gotten the other man's ringtone to ring when he hadn't even dialed the phone.
"Ah, of course. Well, you can probably go on in then," she paused, reaching out to grab his elbow (cover, remember the cover). "Just... try not to overtire him."
Kato raised an eyebrow and nodded once, slipping inside the private room and shutting the door.
"I take it the honeymoon's back on," Mike said. He didn't sound suspicious. He didn't even sound surprised. There was even a small heightened note in his tone that might have been amusement. Or relief.
Lenore shrugged, sitting back down. She didn't feel like a mastermind. Not when so much of this seemed to be happening *around* her without her being consulted.
And no one had bought *her* flowers.
When Britt Reid was twelve years old, he was on a school trip in San Mateo with a hundred other sixth-graders when his appendix ruptured.
One minute, he'd been trudging along the Tafoni Trail, pretending to scope out the (in retrospect, pretty awesome) sandstone formations and trying not to step on Rachel Parker's heels. The next, he'd collapsed against the railing at the side of the trail, threading his fingers through the iron bars and doing his best not to vomit where anyone was standing. The next day, Mr. Daniels, the faculty member who'd been elected to wait with him before and after the surgery, told him his father was waiting at the Radisson and would be coming over soon.
But not before Britt had woken up *alone* in a cold hospital room more than twenty miles from the trail with a dozen stitches in his stomach. His favorite t-shirt and jeans had been sacrificed to an EMT's sheers and the attending nurse wouldn't give him his Doc Martens so he could leave.
He didn't like hospitals. Falling asleep and waking up in hospitals was actually one of his worst nightmares – which was embarrassing enough for a man of twenty-eight. For a man who moonlighted as a masked vigilante... he'd been hoping he could work it out on his own later, outside of Kato or Lenore's line of sight. He should have known better.
The sheets were cold and stiff -- he noticed that before he even opened his eyes. The sedative was wearing off and he could feel the hand that had the IV line twitching against the metal rail of the bed. The medical tape was taut and itching (and *confining*) and, still mostly asleep, he reached to scratch at it with his other hand.
Pain erupted in his shoulder at the sudden movement and he felt a sound tear from his throat that was partly a groan and mostly a scream. Then it was a garbled mass of non-syllables as something soft and leathery covered his mouth. He gave screaming a valiant try anyway.
“Britt. Xiong di. It's okay."
He blinked his eyes open, vision slowly coming back into focus.
Kato was wearing his biking gear (including his gloves). He'd showered. The scratches on his face were clean, no longer bleeding. He smelled like the turtle wax, diesel, and burning electrons Britt had come to associate with the garage.
It was... almost calming.
It would have been more calming if Kato hadn't been leaning over his bed with what felt like the majority of his weight blocking his airflow.
"Kmmmphmm." Britt coughed raggedly as the gloved hand lifted away from his face. Several moments passed before he could catch his breath. "Hey Kato."
"Hey. How you feel?"
Britt breathed in, wincing and the cold dry air and the throbbing in his shoulder.
"Like my arm was torn off. It wasn't nearly this bad last night."
"Loss of adrenaline," Kato said, sagely. "You don't like hospitals, why you ask to come to one?”
"Because it's usually the place you have bullets dug out of you,” he answered, not thinking about his friend's startling deduction.
He wanted to ask Kato where the people he had known in Shanghai went to have bullets dug out of them, but he was more than a little afraid of the answer he'd get. Instead, he turned his head to stare at his shoulder, wrapped up in a complicated array of bandages and apparatus designed to keep his arm immobilized.
"Huh. Guess target practice is out of the question for a while. Lenore still here?"
"She's outside with Axford. You want me to get them?"
Britt shook his head, trying to swallow and failing. The inside of his mouth felt like the bottom of an ant farm. Before he could say so, there was the sound of a tap running and Kato handed him a small styrofoam cup of cold water.
"Thanks," he slipped at the water, letting his head fall back against the pillow. "What are you doing here? Everything go all right with the Beauty's getaway?”
"Beauty's fine. Camouflage work perfectly," he answered, more smug than sage.
Britt smiled, gulping down the last of the water and handing him the empty cup. "Genius. So why are you here?"
"Had to swap out bullet,” he reached into his jacket and handed him a small square box. Britt thumbed off the lid to peer inside. It was a small crushed piece of lead that might have, at one time, resembled a bullet. Parts of it were covered with dark brown stain that looked like the lead had been oxidized. Was that his blood?
".223 from a police issue SWAT rifle," Kato's tone was neutral as he explained. "Everyone at the press conference saw you get shot with .45 handgun. Had to swap before cops collected evidence.”
“Won't they notice the .45 slug's not covered with my blood and meat?”
Kato shook his head. “Took a sample.”
“Oh,” he nodded, “when I was changing at Lenore's.”
Kato didn't nod. Britt froze. A full ten seconds passed before he remembered to breathe again.
“Will the doctors' report of the damage match?”
“With so many witnesses, doubtful police will consult medical reports after the initial investigation is closed.”
Right, and closed it would be. Everyone in that crowd had heard the shooter attribute the event to the Green Hornet. It would get filed away in the same open case file that held the rest of the Green Hornet's activities. And it would likely take a low priority – Britt was alive after all, a well-liked district attorney was not.
Of course, there was always the chance that investigation could lead back to them -- phone records, dinner reservations, Scanlon might have been stupid enough to pencil 'kill annoying son of a newspaper magnate' into his datebook. They'd have to prepare for all possibilities. Lenore could probably help them with that. Draw up some strategy maps, points of execution. Just thinking about it made his head hurt.
He could feel sleep beginning to pull him under again and forced himself to breathe deeply, trying to keep his eyes from slipping closed.
“You're tired. Should sleep.”
Britt shook his head. The sound of paper rustling startled him and he looked over to see his friend manhandling a strange package into a vase of water on the table by the window.
“Kato? Are those flowers?”
“What's up with the flowers?”
“Customary. When you shoot someone, bring flowers.”
Even through the haze, Britt was pretty sure that wasn't right. Batman didn't bring the Scarecrow flowers. His father's stories about great-great-uncle John Reid never ended with the former ranger bringing cattle rustlers flowers. And he was pretty damn sure Chudnofsky had never sent any of his victims flowers in his life (unless it was a funeral arrangement). He didn't think it was an East vs. West thing either. Lisann had demanded flowers once when he was being an ass. If he'd *shot* her...
But Kato hadn't shot him. Not even when he had the chance. Not even when Britt said it was fine.
Kato smiled enigmatically. "Took a longer time putting Beauty away. By the time I got here, all the covert entrances were blocked."
He nodded. "And journalists. Had to come in the front door."
Now Britt felt stupid because, clearly, that was supposed to mean something and, judging by the way Kato’s smile was tapering off, he’d missed it entirely. He groped for an idea.
“Front door. Nursing station? You had to come in and ask to see me?”
Kato nodded. Okay, he was on the right track. He remembered all those years ago Mr. Daniels being asked at least half a dozen times if he was Britt’s father, and how each time he’d said no, he’d been subject to interrogation by nurses, P.A.s and even a nosy member of the janitorial staff. What was he doing there? Did he have permission to be there?
Maybe it was the meds, but Britt could almost see the penny as it dropped.
“Hospitals usually only let family visit.”
Kato wasn’t smiling any more, but there was something in those eyes that said he’d gotten it right.
'Partners.' Oh. As in *partners*. Had he said it or had Kato? His head was swimming again and he blinked heavily, trying to drive the sleep from his eyes.
Kato still wasn't smiling. His mouth was set in the same thoughtful line Britt remembered seeing just after he installed a new part of the Beauty's engine, before he turned the ignition on and knew whether his carefully executed design was going to blow up in his face or not.
Half a dozen jokes flitted through his brain, all in the same mildly panicked voice of every Greek Life pledge he'd known at UCLA, every other classmate he'd had in three unsuccessful months at boarding school and a few of the guys he’d met at the clubs on the strip. He slapped all of them down when he realized it was the same voice that had been giving him directions on how to woo Lenore. Not helpful.
“That...” his voice was hoarse and he swallowed, wishing for more water.
What was it? Pretty damn effective, for one. Kato was here. And logical. Because unless Kato designed some covert body armor for them, unless Britt learned to dodge around bullets, unless both of them took crash courses in field surgery, chances were pretty good they were going to end up here again. They'd each need a reason for easy and quick access to the other at any given moment.
On the other hand...
“But Lenore apparently didn't have a problem getting up here as my--”
“Not your man,” Kato shook his head once, resolute.
“You keep saying that but then you bring me flowers.”
Kato shook his head again, lip quirked in a wry smile. “Not. Your *servant*.”
That penny just kept falling. Britt could feel goodwill and lightheartedness fleeing and outrage filling the void.
“I don't mean it like that. I've never meant it like that!" His dry throat picked that moment to act up and his shout dissolved into a hacking cough. Kato appeared next to him, holding out another cup of water. Britt's shoulder picked that moment to start throbbing so hard he couldn't see straight and next thing he knew, Kato was tipping his head back with one hand and bringing the cup to his lips with the other. He swallowed.
This, he thought, was a problem. Had *been* a problem. No synchronicity. He said 'man' and Kato heard 'servant.' Other people heard 'boyfriend.' No one seemed to notice Britt said it and meant something like 'left arm' or 'pancreas.'
“I know,” Kato said. “Compromise?”
Now Kato was giving Britt the same look he’d given him when he asked about the adult undergarments he'd put on him when he was in his coma. And when he'd bitched him out for putting him in the coma to begin with -- completely forgetting the IV port in his hand that had kept him hydrated for 11 days, which Kato had also put on him. Completely forgetting that the whole thing had happened in the first place because Kato had done something nice.
And Britt suddenly felt like he'd missed the point entirely. He took the cup from Kato's hand, removing the barrier from between them.
“Where'd you get the flowers, anyway?”
Kato’s smile was back – small and tight, concerned instead of smug.
“You stole flowers from some dude who was asleep in the waiting area?” The outrage was back, though reduced and heavily laden with amusement. “Kato, you're supposed to be a hero.”
“Also got the recording device he had in it.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a think coil of wire. There was a small electronic device at the end of it, about the size of an earbud. Britt reached out to examine the tiny camera, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger.
“Genius,” he breathed.
"Another journalist?" He couldn't remember if the Sentinel had any equipment that sophisticated. Some of the cable news outlets might.
"Possibly," Kato said, then hesitated. "Possibly not."
The 'possibly not' could mean a few things: what was left of Chudnofsky's men, other gangsters, one of Scanlon's cronies. Britt's mind flashed to the bulletproof glass his dad had had Kato install on the cars and wondered how much reconnaissance it had taken to seriously rattle the great James Reid. Britt himself wasn't scared by the idea that someone might have been watching him. But then again, there was Kato (his partner/associate/kung-fu badass barista/pretend boyfriend), standing there with the camera in his hand.
“Kato, that guy. He wasn’t *sleeping*, was he?”
Kato shrugged one shoulder, re-coiling the wire and tucking it back into his pocket.
“'Was when I left.”
Britt laughed, then winced as pain welled up in his shoulder again, sharp and heavy and spreading out to his chest. Kato glanced at the door and then reached over to hit a button on a control panel by the bed. Britt smothered a groan behind his fingers.
"What was that?"
“More painkiller. You'll have about ten minutes to talk to the cops before you fall asleep.”
Kato ducked his head, angling toward Britt's face and...
It was very strange -- to not be the one to initiate a kiss. And to be kissing someone without the warm distraction of alcohol or a pulsing bass line or the fine, smooth lines of an antique car someone else had bought. It had been a long time since Britt had done either. His eyes widened, then slid shut as his friend's mouth slanted wetly over his. Kato's lips were firm and his back was warm between his shirt and jacket. Britt pressed down on it, feeling the muscle tense and shift under his fingers, ignoring the pull in his hand from the IV that was also sending a torrent of opiates into his bloodstream. He almost didn’t hear the door opening.
“Mr. Reid?” That was Lenore, voice high and breathy and... surprisingly easy to ignore over the pounding in his ears and the tongue that was lapping the roof of his mouth, leaving a trail of fire inside his head.
“Britt?” That was Axford. And, oh *God*, that was a nightmare he didn’t know he'd had. Far worse than the one where he was thirteen and giving a presentation in front of the whole school, naked.
Kato pulled away, slowly, retrieving Britt's hand from his jacket to hold loosely in his own. Britt stared blearily at the two people in the doorway.
“There's some detectives out here," Mike coughed. "They want to get your statement on the shooting.”
Britt nodded slowly, his head feeling heavier by the second
"I'll be outside," Kato whispered. His lips were wet and bruised red and he leaned in again to brush them against Britt's forehead. Britt felt something hard and square brush his arm under the sheet. “Phone's on silent, call if someone else brings flowers.”
"'Kay," Britt nodded, squeezing his Kato's fingers and watching as he turned to follow Lenore out into the hallway. Mike stayed behind, holding the door open for the two detectives – one short, one tall, both wearing dark wool jackets.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he managed to say, voice rusty with impending sleep. “What can I do for you?”
“Sorry to bother you, Mr. Reid,” the tall one said. “We understand you're still recovering.”
Britt nodded, letting his head fall back against the pillow.