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The Universal Measure

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“He's in Croatia? Are you sure?”

The leather-clad office chair creaked as the man sitting on it leaned back. The day had been uneventful so far – too much paperwork and talk of money. Taking over his uncle's criminal empire had made his life unbearably dull. Sometimes, he lay awake at night and amused himself with thoughts of what might have happened if he'd listened to his mother and gone to college.

He probably wouldn't have such a nice office, then, but at least Tony might still be alive. The bothersome squirt had always followed him everywhere like a puppy.

“Alright, that sounds convincing enough,” he said to his friend on the phone. “I want you to get him. I don't care what you have to do or how much it'll cost, but get him for me.”

He ran his fingers through his greying hair and hummed in agreement.

“Yes, in one piece, if you can. I want to do all the breaking myself.”

***

The shadows in the streets were long enough that Jigen didn't feel out of place as he strolled along the cobblestones. Lurking in darkness was a force of habit and came so naturally that it was often hard to shake the caution and gloom off his shoulders. Even in neighbourhoods like this where there was laughter and friendly conversation behind half-open windows, and people taking out their dogs, he couldn't relax. His mistrust had saved his ass more times than he cared to count.

He decided to take a shortcut through one of the narrower alleys. He'd already been out longer than planned, and there was a decent couch waiting for him at their hideout.

The sound of approaching footsteps made his fingers itch, even after he saw it was only a middle-aged woman carrying a bag of groceries. It'd be easy to hide a gun under broccoli and eggs.

They were walking on the same side of the street, so he stepped aside to let her pass. She had the same idea, and they found themselves still facing each other, she now clutching her plastic bag even tighter. They both took another step aside, in union, and Jigen couldn't help but let his lips curve into a wry smile. He tipped his hat at her.

“Always embarrassing when this happens.”

“Y-yeah.”

She almost tripped over her feet as she finally made a successful skip to get past him. Jigen shoved his hands into his pockets and continued on his way. He could hear Lupin's mocking words in his ears, telling him that the only thing he could do skilfully with women was to scare them off.

They were renting a two-bedroom apartment skirting the shadier parts of the city. Jigen didn't know why they had come all the way to Croatia, but he was sure Lupin had a plan. There had to be a reason for spending the previous week riding tour buses around the city of Crna Stina and visiting every museum they could find. Lupin would fill them in once he was ready.

He arrived at the right house. The wooden door was splintered and the blue paint was peeling off, but the lock was brand new. He didn't really see the point since he was sure a good kick or two would have taken the door off its hinges anyway.

Their apartment was on the fourth floor, which was also the highest. Easy access to the roof was among the first things they looked for when choosing a place to stay. The place came with the added bonus that the staircase was narrow and spiral, so it would be easy to take out even a large group of people who tried to storm upstairs.

He let out a tired sigh as he entered their apartment. He had gone out to get a pack of cigarettes, but the kiosk right around the corner hadn't stocked the brand he liked, and he had needed over half an hour to find one that had. Both Lupin and Goemon had been around when he'd left, but now there was nobody in the cramped space that doubled as a kitchen and a living room. The light was on, so Jigen doubted they had gone out, at least not to do more than drop by the same kiosk he had tried first.

He was thinking about throwing himself on the couch when he heard it. A female laugh, high and breathy and unrepentantly bold, made him freeze in the middle of sticking a cigarette between his lips. His mouth twisted into a grimace.

He couldn't say he was surprised that Fujiko had snuck into their hideout – hell, Lupin had probably invited her – but it made him pause that Lupin was clearly having a successful night with her. Normally, it only happened in his fantasies.

Well, he supposed Fujiko had to say yes every now and then or even someone like Lupin would give up and lose interest in the chase. And that would mean an end to the easy stream of income she got out of double-crossing them over and over again.

There was a moan from Fujiko, followed by Lupin's high-pitched giggling. Jigen put the cigarette into his mouth with an irritated flick of his fingers and headed back for the door. He could barely tolerate Fujiko on a good day, but for reasons that were dangerous to mull on, it was the hardest when she wasn't pulling Lupin's leg for a change.

Goemon must have fled already. With any luck, he might –

The voice he heard next didn't belong to either Lupin or Fujiko. It was Goemon. But that made no sense because why would he... The next thought Jigen's confused mind conjured up was that he had been wrong. It wasn't sex. It couldn't be. The three were doing something else behind that door. Except that he couldn't think of any other activity that would happen in the bedroom and drag that kind of sounds out of them.

The hell is going on here, he thought. How drunk had they gotten Goemon to make him agree to that? Should he barge in there and save him before he did something that he'd regret in the morning?

Then again, he sounded awfully happy at the moment. Jigen pulled down his hat to hide the red tint of embarrassment that he could feel on his cheeks, even though there was nobody looking.

He should leave. Lupin and Fujiko sleeping together was nothing new, but Goemon joining in was a new element he didn't know how to deal with. He had been sharing this apartment with Lupin and Goemon for a week, and yet he now felt like he wasn't supposed to be there.

They could have at least warned him. He would have known to stay away instead of having to stand there and feel like a fucking idiot. They'd have no right to complain if he shot the lock, kicked the door open and ruined their fun.

Except that he realized it was the last thing he wanted. If he faced them now, he'd also have to face the fact that the three of them were there and hadn't thought it necessary to... what exactly? Tell him to spend the night elsewhere? Apologize in advance for the noise?

Ask him if he wanted to – no, no, better not think about that.

He slipped out, needing all of his self-control not to slam the door shut in protest and decided that he and his pack of cigarettes were going to find a friendly bottle of whisky and have a threesome of their own.

He kept a cap on his thoughts until he reached the nearest pub and got a drink in front of him. The alcohol filled him with a warmth that burned more pleasantly than anger. After a while, he was no longer clutching the glass so hard that it hurt.

He didn't have a reason to be angry. It was none of his business what the others did together. It wasn't interfering with work, and they weren't bothering him with it. The remaining liquid in his glass scathed his throat as he downed it with one gulp. He grimaced and ordered another. Lupin and Fujiko had better be treating Goemon well. He was the one who'd get burned if something went wrong.

After some more time, his thoughts began to get more unfocused. Since when was Lupin into guys anyway? He'd chased countless skirts over the years, but Jigen couldn't remember him ever expressing that sort of attraction to men, except as a joke. Sure, he'd never outright denied it, but with a guy like Lupin, he had assumed that if there was interest, he'd show it loud and clear.

Again, he had to remind himself that it didn't matter. Who Lupin slept with didn't concern him. Never had. It was just... He played with the rim of his glass and wished he could have lit a cigarette to ease his raw nerves.

He was pretty sure Lupin knew he was into guys. It wasn't something Jigen liked to advertise, but they were too close, and Lupin was too perceptive. They didn't really talk about it, just like they didn't talk about most of his other private matters. He'd been fine with that. But if Lupin was into guys, too, why the hell had he never said so?

It made no fucking sense. Lupin made lusty eyes at and sweet-talked women into his bed with varying levels of success every time they met one. It was more natural to him than breathing. It never thrilled Jigen how Lupin let himself be pulled along by his dick and how much money they lost because of it, but he had learned to roll with it. That was just how things were.

And it had given him an excuse to bury intrusive thoughts that, if prodded, would make his life complicated. Now that excuse was gone, and he found himself ordering another drink, which he downed just as quickly as the previous ones. Anything to obscure the obvious conclusion he didn't want to arrive at. Right now, he didn't feel like dealing with any conflict he couldn't shoot.

Movement to his left caught his eye. A man with broad, angular shoulders and slicked-back dark hair was approaching him. He had a glass in one hand and a bottle in the other, so Jigen remained relaxed and pretended he hadn't noticed him. As expected, the man sat down in front of him.

“I can't remember inviting you to my table,” Jigen said, though one glance at the bottle made him reconsider. That was good whisky.

The man tilted the bottle to fill Jigen's glass, then his own. “I want to talk business. ”

“I have no idea what you mean.”

“Let's not do this the hard way. I even brought a gift to grease the gears.” The man took a sip of his drink. Jigen didn't touch his, not wanting to give the impression that he was willing to agree to anything.

“I know who you are,” the man continued. “My employer is interested in buying your services, Daisuke Jigen.”

Someone had been watching them – closely enough to know they'd find him here and alone. So much for being careful and not arousing suspicion. It was almost a new record. Usually, they at least got started on their plans before someone figured them out.

“Sorry, I'm here on holiday.”

“It wouldn't take much of your time. Just one night. And the pay is good. That'd make the rest of your holiday more enjoyable, wouldn't it?”

“Not interested. If I was so broke I had to accept vague job offers from strangers, I wouldn't be on holiday in the first place.” Or alive, most likely. He still worked with people other than Lupin, but only if it was someone he knew from before, or there was something particular in it for him. The days when he took needless risks just to eat were long over.

The man let out a grunt of disappointment. “You haven't even heard what I have to say.” Without giving him time for further objections, he proceeded to tell Jigen about a shipment of goods that was coming from Italy by boat the following night. His employer was suspecting one of his local associates of double-cross and wanted to make sure everything went smoothly.

Jigen felt a little insulted. “You don't need me for that. Anyone can show up with a gun and look menacing.”

“The boss only wants the best. And since you're in town anyway –”

“About that, how long have you been watching us?”

The man gave him a knowing smile that seemed unfittingly soft on his features.“It's only natural to want to know what goes on in your own city. People as famous as you can't expect to travel without anyone noticing.”

That might have been true for anyone else, but Lupin could make miracles happen. Jigen didn't know how he did it, but sometimes they just booked a regular flight and walked right through security at the airport without anyone bothering them. That they had been discovered this easily here could mean one of two things – this man and his people were extremely lucky, or they were extremely competent.

“What's your name anyway? I hate guys who don't introduce themselves,” he said. He finally reached for his glass and hoped it made his question seem casual. Lupin could use the information that someone was onto them.

“Fair enough. I'm Marko Vuković.”

Jigen weighed the name in his mind, but it said nothing to him. It could be fake, but he wasn't familiar enough with the local underworld to make a guess.

“Yeah, okay. But like I said, I'm not interested.”

Vuković dipped two fingers into his breast pocket and slid a small card over the table to Jigen. “The amount we're willing to pay is written on the other side. Take this in case you change your mind.”

“Not likely.” Jigen took the card anyway. It might prove useful somehow, and he figured pocketing it was a small price to pay if it got rid of this guy. People who ran errands for criminal hotshots weren't always good at taking no for an answer, but Vuković seemed brighter than the average goon.

“I hope you and your friends will have a good time in Crna Stina. If you don't give us any trouble, we won't bother you.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Jigen said and rolled his eyes under his fedora. He'd yet to meet anyone who was happy about outsiders showing up in their neighbourhood. Their group was particularly unwelcome because the ICPO was always hot on their trail and more often than not took down the local power players in the aftermath of the chaos that Lupin caused. With that in mind, it was a surprise he was getting a job offer. He would have rather put his money on a bullet to the back.

“Nevertheless, I still hope you'll think about our offer.”

“What, you hard of hearing or just stupid?”

The only reaction his words got out of Vuković was a chuckle and a dismissive gesture of his hand. “Don't blame a guy for trying. My boss won't be happy to have me come back with this answer.”

“That's not my problem. We're done here.”

“Yeah, I've taken enough of your time. I'm sure you're busy.”

Jigen watched Vuković get up and tried not to think about how he had nothing better to do than drink alone and feel sorry for himself. He couldn't go back to the apartment yet. He wanted to give the others time to get rid of any evidence that anything was out of the ordinary.

“You can keep the bottle. Take it as a welcome gift,” Vuković said.

“Is everyone in the Croatian underworld this friendly, or should I get ready for nasty surprises?”

“You could accept the job and find out.”

Vuković left, stopping to exchange a few words with the bartender before heading out. Jigen watched him leave but didn't relax until nothing happened for ten minutes. He took out the business card and turned it over to see the amount of money he was being offered.

Shit, he thought. Whatever those guys were transporting had to be worth its weight in gold. He'd never cashed that much on a simple security gig before. Without Lupin's mystery plan, he might have given this a shot.

He finished the whisky in his glass and decided to make it his last for the night. He didn't want to have to crawl back to the apartment, and this encounter had left a bad taste in his mouth. It'd be stupid to dull his senses any further.

***

When Jigen returned to their apartment, there was still light in the windows of the main room, but both bedrooms were dark. He'd taken the bottle of whisky Vuković had given him – anything else would have been a crime, and not the sort he was into – and put it down on the kitchen counter that was already crowded with dirty dishes, take-out boxes and empty bottles and cans.

He tried to listen for any signs of life from the others, but all he could hear was the ticking of the clock on the wall. Jigen snorted in amusement as he shrugged off his jacket and draped it over the couch. He hadn't thought they'd be so spent after their fooling around that it'd be lights out when it was barely one in the morning.

The door to the bedroom he shared with Goemon was slightly ajar. He tried to be quiet as he entered and took off the rest of his clothes, but his balance was off after all the drinks, and he hit his toe on a chair in the dark and couldn't muffle the pained “Fuck!” that escaped.

“It's me,” he said immediately after. He hadn't heard Goemon move, but the click of the Zantetsuken being pushed back into its sheath told him where he was.

“You're late. I thought you only went out to get cigarettes.”

“Found a decent pub on the way and decided to take a look. Sorry to wake you.” Jigen sat down on his bed. He realized that if the others had expected him back earlier, they hadn't tried to hide their hook-up since they'd gone ahead with it. That made him feel a little better, and he pulled on his night cap in brighter spirits. Or maybe that was just the afterglow of the great whisky. Better than sex any day.

***

He woke up later than usual and spent a moment listening to the silence of the apartment before dragging himself out of bed. As much as he liked lounging about, he was usually the one who made breakfast.

Goemon was sitting on the floor, sunk in his morning meditation, when Jigen stepped out of the bedroom. It was a common arrangement for them that if they only had two bedrooms, he and Goemon shared. Lupin always got one to himself since he was the most likely to bring someone over, no matter how many times they told him it was careless and stupid. But if the events of the previous night began to repeat themselves, maybe Jigen would start demanding the luxury for himself.

“We're out of clean bowls,” Goemon informed him.

“Tell that to Lupin. It's his turn to do the dishes. Has been for the past three days.”

Jigen's heart skipped a beat when the coffee jar felt light in his hand, but there was just enough to last them through the morning. The reason he always volunteered to prepare breakfast was that nobody else made strong enough coffee. Right now, he needed it extra thick to clear his head of the pounding that the whisky had caused. He was getting old.

“He's not going to do it. He's waiting for one of us to grow tired and cover for him.”

Now that the coffee was brewing, Jigen lit a cigarette to take care of his other craving. “Well, he can keep waiting. I'll do his dishes for him when I'm his wife, and that's never.”

“I suspected it might come to this again, so I've acquired us disposable utensils in case the situation doesn't improve.”

The only clean thing they had in the kitchen was the rice cooker that Goemon treasured almost as much as his sword. Jigen was about to prepare the usual portion, but then he remembered that there might be an extra mouth to feed.

“Is Fujiko still here?” he asked.

“As far as I know, yes. How did you know?”

“Uh... smelled her perfume when I came back last night. Nasty stench like always. Hey, you sure you don't want any bacon? Plain rice for breakfast must get boring after a while.”

Goemon didn't say anything, but the way he turned to look at him with a puzzled look on his face was enough of an answer.

“Guess not,” Jigen muttered and crouched down to see if they had any eggs in their mini fridge. He didn't want to tell Goemon the reason he knew about Fujiko was that he had heard her moan through the door. Then it might become obvious that he'd heard Goemon, too, and the less said about that, the better.

The smell of the food soon lured Lupin out of bed. He was dressed in nothing but his boxers and staggered to the kitchen side of the room, yawning and scratching his stomach.

“Two eggs for me, Jigen,” he said, peering into a few of the mugs on the counter and poured himself coffee once he found the one that was the least covered in grime. He made a face at the first sip but said nothing. Over time, he had stopped calling Jigen's coffee poison, even if it was clear he'd never grow to like it.

“You don't deserve any food until you do your share of the chores.” But even before he was done talking, Jigen had flipped the eggs on the nearest plate and handed it to Lupin.

“I'm busy. I've got a lot of stuff to plan, so you take care of it for me, okay?”

“Not a chance.”

Lupin gave him a grin, mouth full of half-chewed egg. “You always do if I wait long enough!”

“Hmph.”

The sound of one more pair of bare feet on the floor made Jigen turn around, just in time to see Fujiko emerge from Lupin's bedroom. She was dressed in a night robe that ended just below her knees, which, to be honest, was more modest than he would have expected of her.

Lupin raised his fork in greeting. “Morning, Fuji-cakes! You want eggs?”

“No, thanks.” Fujiko came over to see what Jigen had on the frying pan and wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Yuck, that looks awful.”

“Good thing I didn't make it for you.”

“You should be careful. With the way you smoke, drink and eat, it's a wonder your arteries aren't clogged all the way through.”

“If I wanted to hear that, I'd see a doctor. Having an angioplasty would be more pleasant than talking to you anyway.”

She gave him a light smack to the back of his head. “No need to get grumpy. I'm just worried about you.” She moved past him to take a look at the timer of the rice cooker. There were still some ten minutes before it'd be ready. “I could use some coffee right now.”

“There's some right over there,” Lupin said and pointed at the coffee pot.

“You know I don't drink Jigen's coffee.” She moved to stand behind Lupin and draped her arms over his shoulders, then leaned closer to nuzzle his ear with her cheek. “Lupin, won't you be a dear and run to get me something sweeter at the café down the street?”

It was a wonder Lupin didn't melt into a puddle of goo on the floor. “Of course! Anything for you, Fujiko!” And then he was already pulling on his clothes in such a hurry that he almost tripped over his trousers on his way out.

“You could have just put some cream and sugar into it,” Jigen said. The amused curve of Fujiko's lips annoyed him. It always got under his skin how she could make Lupin do anything with a quick flash of skin or empty promises. It was a game for her, and she took such delight in using him as her errand boy. And somehow, the greatest thief in the world was stupid enough to follow along whenever she tugged at his leash.

With a huff, he sat down with his breakfast and began to stuff his face.

“Fujiko,” Goemon began.

“Yes?”

“When Lupin comes back, can you ask him to do the dishes?”

“Sure, I –”

“I'll do the damn dishes!” Jigen cut her off. Like hell he was going to let her bat her eyes at Lupin and manipulate him into doing anything else for her. And Goemon was encouraging her! Talk about being shot in the back by a friend.

And then, just like that, he realized how little he wanted to be in the room alone with Goemon and Fujiko. With Lupin no longer there to draw all the attention to himself, it was all too easy to remember that this wasn't a normal morning.

At least, for him it wasn't. He kept watching Goemon and Fujiko from under his hat as he ate and tried to spot anything strange about their behaviour. Goemon should have been easy to read. He turned into a blushing mess whenever he let the thought of women enter his head, but here he was, sitting on the couch and talking to Fujiko like they hadn't just slept together.

Maybe it was nothing unusual for them. Goemon had known Fujiko before starting to work with Lupin, and it was clear they had a history. Jigen had never asked for details, but now he couldn't help but wonder. Maybe they did this often.

Goemon got up when the rice was ready and filled two bowls for himself and Fujiko. She thanked him when he handed her portion to her. Jigen tried to remember if she normally talked that sweetly to him. Or was he being paranoid?

“So, what's Lupin's new project?” Fujiko asked after a while.

“No idea,” Jigen said. He was glad that Fujiko hadn't gotten the plan out of him even though they'd slept together. Served her right.

“Like you'd tell me even if you knew. Goemon?”

“He's right. We know just as little as you.”

“It must be something big if he's sitting on it this long. You've been here for a week already. This is going to be interesting.”

“How did you know we're here anyway? Did Lupin invite you?” Jigen asked.

“Not this time, but I'm sure he would have eventually. I followed Zenigata.”

“What? He's here?”

Fujiko shrugged and put some rice into her mouth. “I have no idea why you sound surprised. He always crashes the party.”

“Yeah, but we haven't done anything to catch anyone's attention yet.” Jigen got up and began to clear the sink so that he could fill it with water and do the dishes before Lupin came back.

“Maybe Lupin has sent a note to our target without letting us know?” Goemon suggested.

Jigen grunted in agreement. “Wouldn't be the first time.”

“Goemon, did you really think I'd eat this much?” Fujiko asked and showed him the bowl that was still half full.

“I'm sorry. I didn't realize.”

She chuckled. “You don't have breakfast with women often, do you?”

“Well, I...”

“Here, have some of it.”

Goemon's answer was a choking sound that made Jigen curious, so he turned around to look – and was glad he wasn't holding anything because he was sure he would have dropped it.

Fujiko was balancing some rice between her chopsticks and was offering it to Goemon. The nightgown was in the process of slipping off her frame. When he didn't say anything, only stared at her in confusion, she edged closer and brought the rice to his mouth. He had no choice but to accept it. A furious shade of red was spreading to his cheeks, and Jigen didn't know where to look.

Christ, keep your crap in the bedroom, woman, he thought. He didn't want to see that suggestive smile on her face, or Goemon's awkward reaction to it. It was so easy to imagine that they had both looked just like that last night when she'd made her move – because it must have been her. Goemon would never start it.

Shit. He didn't want to think about his friends like that. Hating himself, he turned around and tried to focus on the dirty dishes.

“Jigen, you want some, too?”

“No.”

“You sure? You and Goemon can share.”

Goemon cleared his throat. “Fujiko.”

Jigen didn't need to turn around to know that the two were communicating silently behind his back. He tried to be gentle with the dishes because if he broke something, the others would notice how pissed off he was. There was no way Fujiko hadn't done that on purpose, just to get under his skin. And judging by Goemon's reaction, he had noticed it as well. What the hell did she want? Make him jealous? Of what?

He didn't know what might have happened if the three of them had been alone for much longer, but thankfully he never had to find out. Lupin returned with Fujiko's coffee, and with him there, the atmosphere returned to normal.

“Here you go, Fujiko! With extra cream, just the way you like it!”

“Thank you. That was so kind of you.” Fujiko took a few small sips of her coffee. “Oh, well, I have to get going.”

“What? You're leaving already?”

“I have some errands to run. I'll take a quick shower and be on my way.”

“Oh, oh, in that case I'll join you!” Lupin began to strip, but Fujiko shoved her coffee into his hands to keep them busy.

“Sorry, Lupin. I'm in a hurry. Maybe some other time.”

“But Fuji-cakes! I was hoping we could start the day with a bit more of what we had last night!”

Fujiko laughed on her way to the bathroom. “Not with me!”

Lupin slumped down on the couch, not bothering to put his pants back on. “The love of a woman is so fickle. After all we've been through, she should be a little nicer to me. What do you guys think?”

“I've said what I think a hundred times. You never learn,” Jigen grumbled.

Goemon was quiet. Normally, he joined Jigen in warning Lupin to stay away from Fujiko. It was a sudden and unwelcome change, and Jigen realized it bothered him more than anything else that had happened during the last twenty-four hours. It was like he was suddenly the last man standing on the battlefield.

This was what women did to men. A few nice words and a warm embrace, and all common sense was lost.

He finished drying off the dishes and tossed the towel down on the counter with an angry huff. At least Lupin and Goemon were acting normal. The moment they started being mushy or undressing each other with their eyes was the moment Jigen started looking into early retirement.

Good thing Fujiko was getting off their back for a while. With her gone, it would be safe to tell Lupin about the job offer he'd gotten the previous night, and maybe they'd finally get some details about their heist out of him. It had better be something profitable to make up for the headache this misadventure was already giving him.