You are seductive con artist, Kara Yan.
You are on a high-speed train in northern France traveling from Paris to London, looking idly out the window as the scenery passes by. These last few months abroad have been insufficient to reconcile you to travel by train, and you dislike the loud, cramped compartments and small spaces, easy for your enemy to blend into. Of course, when it comes to blending into a crowd, you have the advantage.
You are traveling to London in search of a certain artifact that, like so many others, was stolen from your family after your father… Well, after certain events transpired. You’d known for a while that some of your rightful possessions had been exported to Europe, but while you were in San Francisco, you’d never tried to go after them.
After the (obviously false) report of your death, you’d decided to get out of the states for a while, just to keep the police off your trail. And so you could think. A lot. It gave you the opportunity to go after some of the items that had traveled farthest since they’d left your family’s possession. At the moment, you were hunting a dark green jade vase, ornately carved, an antique, beyond price. It had been a favorite of yours, growing up, and your father had promised it to you when you were older… Now he would be making good on that promise, whether he knew it or not.
There was another reason you were heading west, of course, whether or not you would admit it. The way you saw it, everyone got more sentimental as the year waned, and the weather grew colder, and idiots started putting up lights and singing carols. Everyone got more sentimental, even you, but usually you just ignored it and moved on. This year was different, somehow. Maybe because it had been a while since you’d last seen Kai, or maybe because things had just seemed different somehow since the last time you’d seen him. And he was in London.
But for now, you focus on business. You’d been given a bad tip about the vase, told that it was in the possession of a very wealthy French collector, but unfortunately when you broke into his mansion you learned that it had just been sold. Fortunately, due to the questionable legality of some of his hobbies (almost certainly some kind of mob ties, you’d deduced), the collector had not called the police. Unfortunately, his own private security was well-trained, ruthless, and probably still on your trail. The thought makes you reach into your canvas shoulder bag and rub the hilts of your knives. It’s a comfort thing.
The train bounces along the tracks at an impressive speed, but you are unaffected. You’ve been on the train for just over two hours now, so you must be in England, nearly London.
On of the possible buyers of the jade vase is Mr. Robert Finch, an English gentleman who you know for a fact will be attending the British Museum’s annual holiday party tonight. Even if he doesn't have it, he might be able to clue you in on who does. And if he did buy it, then perhaps a little champagne will encourage him to tell you exactly how to find it. The trick will be to retrieve it before the owner has a chance to install any serious security, and before the French mobsters catch up with you.
You are so focused on scanning your surroundings for possible threats when you reach the station in London that you almost don’t notice a tallish, geeky looking man with long hair in a Hawaiian shirt. But he notices you.
“Kara?!” You spin around at the sound of your own name from a very familiar voice. Kai is rushing towards you from the ticket counter, almost tripping over someone’s luggage in his haste. You blink, stunned. You’d known Kai was in London, of course, but it’s a large city, and one hell of a coincidence to see him during your first five minutes here.
“Hi, Kai,” you say calmly, when he finally maneuvers the obstacles in his way and reaches you. “I didn’t expect to see you here.
“You didn’t expect to see me? I didn’t expect to see you more! I mean… what are you doing here?” He looks flustered, trying to read your expression.
You glance around quickly. Your face is angled away from security cameras, of course, but this still isn’t exactly a safe place. “This isn’t a good place to talk,” you murmur, and Kai leans in to hear you better. “If you really want to know…” you pause, making a quick decision, “meet me outside the British Museum at 8 PM. I need a date to a party.”
He frowns. “Are you gonna steal something?”
You shake your head, annoyed. Already, you regret inviting him. “No, I’m just trying to gather some information, and I wouldn’t mind having some backup.”
“And the information- it’s so you can steal something,” he guessed.
“Look, Kara, I may not be with the police anymore, but I still can’t condone theft. At least, not outside of video games. So you need to promise me that you’re not going to do anything illegal tonight, okay?”
“Well, I’m not exactly on the guest list,” you snap. “So yeah, I’m going to crash. But other than that, I promise.” As soon as you make it, you feel the weight of the oath pressing on you. Because you know you won’t break it. Not to Kai.”Are you coming or not?”
You half expect, half hope, maybe, that he’ll say no., but instead he smiles slowly and nods. “See you at eight, then.”
“You turn away, then pause. “And Kai?”
“Wear something appropriate.”
You are now Kai Kalaba, former forensic technician of the SFPD and current member of the Special Crimes task force.
Of all the things that could’ve happened today, you think this is probably the most unexpected. You’re going to a party with Kara Yan. KARA YAN. Badass, sexy, crazy, mysterious Kara Yan.
As you prepare for the party, you wonder vaguely what Kara meant by appropriate, and consider whether she knows that it’s Christmas Eve. You were at the train station buying train tickets to attend a British forensics convention, but Kara is worth skipping the convention for. You decide that given the occasion, appropriate is your elf costume. You have it with you in London, of course, because you never know when Santa will need an extra helper!
That begin said, when you see Kara you feel a little underdressed. She’s wearing a blood red dress that falls to about her knees, tight on top but loose enough around her legs to grant her sufficiently free movement to snap a bad guy’s neck with her thighs. You visualize that for a second, then wish you hadn’t.
She’s staring intently at you, her eyes unreadable. You’d like to think it’s because she is so impressed with your festivity, but maybe not. “It’s black tie,” she says slowly. Oops.
“Aren’t you cold?” you ask sincerely, noting her short sleeves and the frigid English weather.
“No,” she snaps. “Come on, Kai, isn’t that a little cliché?” Even as she says that, she shivers slightly.
You hesitate, then slip off the fuzzy green jacket that goes with your elf costume and hand it to her. “I’m too warm anyway,” you say by way of explanation, curious if she’ll take it or if she’ll throw it at you or something.
But she does take it, and puts it on, the lime green tassels hanging against the red of her dress. Slowly, she smiles. Putting out a hand to indicate that you shouldn’t follow, she goes over to talk to the man by the door, and, mere minutes later, comes and tells you that you can go in.
“What did you say?” you ask curiously, impressed. Well, you’re usually impressed by her.
“I do my research,” she says coyly. You walk inside the museum and are immediately struck by the majesty of the place. You want to go everywhere, explore everything, but Kara leads you to a corner and suggests (really, orders) you stay put while she mingles for a while. As you watch her walk away (always the best part of seeing her leave) you feel your phone vibrate in your pocket, and you answer it.
“Hey, Kai,” responds the chirpy voice of your best friend, Amy Chen. “How’s the convention going? I’m a little surprised, I thought you’d call me when you get there. I mean, there’s a seminar on how to identify the age of a corpse based on smell. I was expecting several hysterical voicemails.”
You wince. “Oh, uh, I decided not to go to the convention after all.”
Amy sighs. “We talked about this, Kai. The train is not going to be stopped by Dementors looking for an escaped wizard convict.”
“You can’t know that!” you argue. “But that’s not why. I ran into a friend, and decided to hang out with her instead.”
“Which friend?” Amy asks. You say nothing. She sighs again. “Is it Kara?”
“What?” you hiss into the phone, trying not to attract attention while simultaneously having a drama moment. “How did you know that? Did you know she was in town?”
Amy pauses. “I suspected,” she admits. “She’s supposed to be dead, Kai! But someone matching her description has been moving around in Europe tracking down a number of Chinese artifacts, and the only factor that tied them together that I could find was that they were all in San Francisco in the 1980s. So yeah, I was pretty sure it was her.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Take a guess, Kai. I didn’t want you to look for her. Whenever she comes around, you end up in danger and then afterwards she just leaves. That kind of lifestyle can’t help but hurt the people around her, even the people she cares about. Especially the people she cares about. I was just trying to protect you.”
You grimace, torn between gratitude and annoyance. “Thanks, Amy, really. I appreciate your concern. But I’m a grown-up. Next time, just tell me.”
“You’re a grown up?” she asks, laughing. But then she stops. “Okay, Kai. Just promise me you’ll be careful.”
“Okay, Moooooooom,” you say, and she laughs again before hanging up. You spy Kara striding toward you, and grin.
“Our guy isn’t here yet,” she informs you, casually flicking her hair back over her shoulder. Or maybe it wasn’t casual. Who knows? “So we should just hang out until he gets here, try to act natural, blend in.” She eyes your costume. “As much as we can, at least.”
“Why don’t we dance?” you suggest, glancing at the couples swaying together. Kara grimaces.
“Fine, so long as you don’t step on my toes.”
“I didn’t step on them last time, did I?” you protest indignantly.
“Let’s try to make sure that is the only similarity between now and last time,” she murmurs, pulling you onto the dance floor and putting your hand on her waist. You focus on the steps for a while, until you realize that you two are being completely silent, and she’s staring at you suspiciously.
“Who were you on the phone with?”
“Amy. You remember, the one last time I saw you that-“
“I remember Amy,” she interjects. “Does she know you’re with me?” You nod. “Do I need to worry about begin arrested?”
“Amy wouldn’t do that,” you say quietly. “She’s my best friend.” Kara still looks skeptical, so you decide to change the subject. “Seen any good movies lately?”
You are now Kara Yan.
You thought talking to Kai might be awkward, but once he gets you talking about movies, everything is really…nice. Unsurprisingly you’ve seen a lot of the same ones, and he gets you ranting about the inaccurate martial arts shown in the American movies.
“I mean, I’m not saying you can’t knock someone out with one punch,” you say heatedly, “but come on, not a punch like that! And don’t even get me started on the hand placement; they leave themselves completely open to attack! I swear, that movie was the least accurate rendition of a fight I’d ever seen. It made West Side Story look realistic!”
“The lead girl was hot, though,” Kai comments, and you laugh despite yourself. Impulsively, you lean forward and kiss him. He’s the kind of awkward that doesn't quite know what to do with his hands, but it’s still a really, really good kiss. You’d forgotten how nice it can be when you actually like the other person. When you pull away, he blinks at you but doesn’t say anything. You are trying to decide what to do next when you see a man walking in to the Museum, holding the hand of a little girl in a white party dress with a bow in her hair. The man you were looking for, Robert Finch.
“That’s him,” you whisper to Kai, pointing subtly. “And I guess that must be his daughter.”
“I wonder why he brought her,” he said, a little too loudly.
“Don’t know. I’m going to go talk to him, okay?” Kai nods, and I walk away from him slowly. I can feel his eyes on me as I go, and I grin to myself. Some people never change. Nor should they.
When you reach him, you see the little girl has wandered a few paces away to get an hors d’oeuvre, and you use the opportunity to approach him.
“Is that lovely young lady over there your daughter?” you ask in a crisp British accent.
“She is indeed,” Finch says cheerfully. “That’s Caroline. I don’t think many dads would bring an eight-year-old to a party like this one, but I trust her to behave herself, and I didn’t want to leave her alone on Christmas Eve of all times.” You think of your own father, the walls between the two of you that never went down until the day that he died. You push the thought away, and realize that he’s right, it is Christmas Eve. You’d lost track of the date while you were traveling. You’re spending Christmas Eve with Kai, what a strange thought. “Is that your husband who’s talking to her?”
You look up in surprise to see that, indeed, Kai has left the dance floor and is talking to Caroline Finch. You listen to hear their conversation, and hear just the snippet “Lovely Kitty Paradise, you watch it?” from Caroline. Anime. They’re talking about anime.
“Yes, that would be him,” you say.
“Quite an outfit,” Finch says lightly.
“He’s quite eccentric. You know the type,” you say in an amused voice that isn’t even faked.
He laughs. “I do indeed. I’m sorry, I don’t think I’ve introduced myself. Robert Finch,” he says, shaking your hand firmly.
“Stephanie Chang,” you say, picking a pseudonym very similar to the one you first used on Kai. “and I’m sorry, but are you the Robert Finch?”
“I don’t know,” he says, laughing. “I’m not exactly famous. To which Robert Finch are you referring?
“Robert Finch? The renowned businessman? Collector of Chinese artifacts? Come on, really?”
“That would be me,” he says. “I think this is the first time my reputation has preceded me.”
“Well, I’ve certainly heard a lot about you lately,” you say with a smile. “In fact, you beat me to the punch quite recently on an artifact I rather wanted for my husband and my collection.”
“And what would that be?” he asked.
“The carved jade vase,” you tell him, “being sold by that Parisian.”
“Oh, yeah,” Finch says appreciatively. “That was a gorgeous piece. Well, at least you’ll get to see it.”
You frown, confused. “What do you mean?”
“I bought it to donate to the museum,” he informs you. “My wife passed away this year, and it was just the sort of thing she would have adored. She loved the Museum more that anything, so I thought… Anyway, it’s being brought here tonight. Maybe you’ll get a sneak peak.”
“That’s touching,” you tell him. Fortunately he is distracted by the arrival of a waiter carrying flutes of champagne, so you take the chance to slip away.
“Kai,” you hiss, “the thing I’m looking for: it’s arriving here tonight, I might never get a chance this good. I’ve got to take it. You should get out of here, you don’t want to be implicated in…” He’s giving you sad, puppy-dog eyes, and you feel guilt clench you. You did promise.
“Can we talk?” he asks you, and pulls you away from the party. “Kara, you swore you wouldn’t do anything illegal tonight. I wouldn’t have agreed to go with you if you hadn’t.”
“I know what I said,” you say, feeling defensive, “but this matters to me, Kai. This artifact means a lot to me.”
“Yeah, well, this evening means a lot to me!” he says sharply. “Why do you think I’m here? Maybe I wanted to see the British Museum. Maybe I had nothing better to do. Or maybe, just maybe, I wanted to spend Christmas Eve with you, Kara.”
You close your eyes and say nothing. Seconds tick by, and still you do not open your eyes. That’s why Kai’s here. But why are you here? To steal something you haven’t seen for twenty years? Or to indulge in the fantasy of spending the holidays with someone you actually care about? “Okay,” you whisper finally.
“Okay, I’ll behave. Tonight. For you.”
You sigh heavily. “Yes, really. Now come on, Kai, let’s go back out there before people get suspicious.”
And you really intended to. But at that moment you see a pair of men carrying a large crate past you, and it’s so goddamn easy. You follow them until they’re in a hall, alone, and you’re almost crying because it’s so easy, there is even an exit to the outside. You can leave this all behind tonight. You sneak up behind the men, and incapacitate them so quickly it’s almost funny, Clearly they don’t understand the true value of this item, because if they did they would have given it some security that wasn’t a joke. But you understand, and when you lift the vase out of its cushioned box, it is just as beautiful as you remembered. It is dark and ornate and very heavy, and to you it represents all the best things about your family, the history, the elegance, the strength. And it is finally yours again. For one moment you bask in it, and then everything goes terribly wrong.
You hear a commotion from behind you, down the hall, back where you came from in the party. Thinking, you realize it’s probably time to make your getaway. You wish you hadn’t had to hurt Kai. He didn’t deserve it. But maybe that’s what you do to people. He’s better off without you anyway.
The box is too bulky for you to carry, so you’ll have to hold the vase itself. Risky, but you don’t really have a choice. The artifact is tucked securely under your arm and you are almost, almost out the door when you hear loud footsteps coming toward you, and you turn.
It’s a mistake. Four men are rushing towards you, armed with revolvers. The Frenchman’s security guards. Their weapons are pointing at you and you freeze, perfectly still. There’s no time to run, but you can still talk your way out of this one. You’ve been in worse situations.
You examine them, hoping for any details that might help. They’re big, brawny, which means powerful but probably slow. The leader is clearly the one in the middle, and just looking at them tells you that you were clearly right. The French collector had mob ties, and you coming into his house so late at night must’ve looked like an attempted hit by a rival gang. Fantastic.
“Our employer would like to speak to you,” the leader says in a smooth voice. If anything about this situation was funny, it would be the fact that he mixes lines that sound like an American gangster movie with a frankly comical French accent. “Why not put that pretty thing down, sweetheart, and come with us?”
Oh, so sexist mob enforcers. Your absolute favorite. But they are usually pretty easy to manipulate. You bend your knees slightly to appear even shorter, and adopt a quavering expression while you walk slowly towards the men. You’re holding the vase tightly, and intend to remain doing so. You are only a few feet away from the leader when you stop.
“Sweetheart, what are you…?” And then you struck. Quick as a flash, you kick high, the heel of your shoe hitting his face and knocking him to the ground, blood gushing from his nose. The next man receives an elbow to the side of the face, while your other arm protects the jade vase. You push the third man into the fourth, taking them both down before they can shoot you, and kick them to make sure they stay down. Only four? How insulting.
The leader takes off at this point, but the second man is getting up again. It would almost be admirable, if it wasn’t so pitiable. You hit him in the jaw so hard you can hear his chin rattle, and it’s all over. You adjust your grip on the vase and run, trying to get out of the Museum before anything else can happen. And you’ve almost made it out when you hear a voice behind you shout “Kara, STOP!” and you turn.
It takes a moment for your brain to understand what your eyes are seeing, but once it does, horror sets in. The leader of the group, the one you thought had run away in terror is holding a gun to Caroline Finch’s head. He’s lifted her off the ground, and is advancing towards you. Behind him a crowd has gathered, complete with museum security, Kai, and Robert Finch, but just by looking you can tell that there is no clear shot.
“I see it like this,” he tells you, his voice disturbingly calm, despite the blood dripping down his nose and the struggling girl in his arms. “I come back without you, and the boss finishes me. I need some security, maybe some ransom money. And I’m sure Daddy back there will pay through the nose to get his little girl back. So you’ve got a choice, Kara, if that’s your real name. Either you come with me, or she does. Either way, I win.”
You can still run. You can make it out the door before he can shoot you, run fast, run far. You can leave the country, have a new name, new identity, everything, and keep the vase as a reminder of what you once were. And maybe there was a time in your life when you would’ve done that. But when you said Kai was a bad influence on you, you meant it. You’re different now.
You are unarmed and have lost the element of surprise. You are weighed down by a priceless artifact. But you turn around and walk back towards the man.
“Let her go,” you say in a voice that manages to sound almost bored. It seems like the whole world is holding its breath. A silent night. He’s bigger than you, and in a position of power. You no longer have the surprise of him not knowing you’re fighter. It feels like you’re running out of options, when another one occurs to you. It’s not a good one. You can’t do it, you can’t, you can’t… But you have no choice. You walk towards the man, slowly, but deliberately. His grip is tight on the gun. First things first, you need him to point it away from the little girl.
“Put down the vase,” he orders you.
“Let her go first,” you counter, reaching him and stopping. There is barely a foot of space between the two of you, and you can hear him breathing. Caroline is shaking from head to foot. You wonder how her mother died, and wonder if Caroline is thinking about her right now. Slowly, he puts her down, tossing her roughly away from him. You hear, rather than see her scamper away towards her father. Then the man whips the gun around to face you.
“Coming?” he asks, leering at you. You take one more step towards him and he grabs you, spinning you around against his body. Dimly, as if from miles away, you hear screams coming from the end of the hall, where the crowd has gathered. You hear sirens in the distance. His gun is pointed at you, but the angle is awkward. Even so, you’re not strong enough to fight him, weighed down by the precious vase. You pause, calculating. Now or never, you tell yourself.
He senses the hesitation and you can see his finger tightening on the trigger when you twist away from him. The gun is pointing away from you, but he still has you in his grasp, and it doesn't seem like that is going to change. So you take the vase and slam it, as hard as you can, into the side of his head. It hits the marble floor with a solid crack, and splits down the middle. You would probably cry if you weren’t so busy flipping the man to the ground and pressing a heel into his back.
“Can I get some rope, now?” you shout.
You are now Kai Kalaba.
You couldn’t quite believe your eyes when you saw Kara break the vase. Well, you kind of could, actually. The next few minutes are kind of a rush as Kara uses the cord generally designed to cordon off certain areas as a rope to tie up the bad guys. You’re still not quite sure who they are or where they came from, but it’s been such a weird night that you kind of decide to just go with it. Frankly, it’s just been a strange year.
Somewhere in the chaos Kara finds you and stands next to you, silently. “You should go,” you tell her. You don’t want to get arrested when the good guys arrive.
She nods. “But there’s something I have to do first.” She walks over to the man she was talking to earlier, Robert Filch or Flinch or something. Caroline’s dad. “Listen, I know-“
“You saved my daughter’s life,” he interrupted. “Or saved her from a kidnapping. Whatever. So I’ll never not be grateful for that, Stephanie or Kara or whatever the hell your name is. And if you two need to go, I’ll sort this all out with the police. I've got sufficient money that people generally just accept my version of events.”
“I don’t need to go anywhere,” you volunteer. “I work with law enforcement.” He shoots you a look that says, really? You try not to be offended.
“Thanks,” Kara says. She walks towards the door, and you follow her. “I’m not really sure what role I played in this story,” she muses, looking at you.
“You did save Caroline,” you point out. “I guess that makes you the hero.”
“Sometimes I wonder if things really are as simple as good guy versus bad guy,” she admits, looking down.
“Well, it’s like they say in my favorite sci-fi show,” you start to say, but she glares at you and you stop. “Never mind. What I mean is… I’m glad you saved her. She needs to live long enough to learn that there is much, much less crappy anime out there than the stuff she’s watching.”
Kara laughs. “I really should go,” she says.
You nod, then shake your head. “Wait. Before you go. You can’t keep doing this.”
“Leaving without me knowing when I’ll see you again, if ever. Amy was right, it’s not fair.”
“Life isn’t fair,” she snaps. “What do you want from me, Kai?”
“Maybe next time, you could call me,” you say, nervously. “Just to talk, not because you need backup. Maybe we could be friends.”
“I don’t really do friends,” Kara says, but she doesn’t sound mad anymore. “I could try, though. I guess. No promises.”
“That’s good enough for me. I think.” you say, and she grins. She leans forward and kisses you and, like always, it’s heaven.
“See you around, Kai,” she whispers in your ear, and by the time you open your eyes, she’s gone. All is calm, all is bright.