"..Or Forever Hold Your Peace"
Aya spent the rest of that day and much of the night having an internal debate with herself, weighing the pros and cons of taking up the enigmatic bodyguard's offer.
But in the end, the decision was practically made for her.
She lived in one of the rooms above the shop, so her mail came with the store's. The morning after her strange conversation with Crawford, she made coffee and staggered down the stairs, shoes making an obscene amount of noise on the metal surface. She dug the mail out of the mailbox on the edge of the street, then let herself in the back door. Tossing the bundle of envelopes on the front counter, she went through the store turning on the lights before she shuffled back over to the register. Taking a seat on the high stool, she sipped at her sweetened coffee and began pawing through the mail.
Brain still foggy, it took her a moment to notice the red envelope.
When Seiji came strolling in twenty minutes later, whistling cheerfully, he found her still seated at the counter, head in her hands. He froze, alarmed. "Fujimiya-san? Are you all right?"
She looked up at him slowly, face blank.
"What is it?" He set his bag of crossaints aside and hovered at her elbow in concern. "Fujimiya-san?"
She reached out and picked up four envelopes, including the red one. As she described them in a dead-pan, she tossed each one contemptuously down onto the counter. "Electricity bill-- due next week, by the way. Water bill. Obnoxiously high phone bill. And," she waved the red envelope like a flag, "I'm overdue on this month's rent for the shop." She threw the envelope down in disgust and cradled her head in her hands again, her voice thick with anxiety and anger. "I don't have the money to pay for all of this. I can take care of the electricity bill, and probably the water bill if I cut back on groceries for the month. And if I don't get a rail pass. But there's no way I can come up with enough money to pay for the rent to cover last month and this month. And it's almost March!"
Seiji hesitated. "March?"
"Yes! March!" She glared at him impatiently. "The school year ends. That means students will be going on family vacations and getting part-time jobs; that means less customers! And that means less money coming in."
"Yes, but..." Seiji tried an encouraging smile. "March can be good, too. White Day is coming up. And some people feel sentimental because it's sakura season..."
"You said that on Valentine's," Aya snapped. "But girls were more interested in going to chocolate shops."
"Those were girls," Seiji pointed out hesitantly. "Girls don't give flowers to boys. Boys are more likely to get flowers, right?"
Aya took a deep breath, massaging her temples to ward off a tension headache. "Yes," she finally muttered. "But I still don't think it will be enough." Her fingers stopped their motions suddenly, and her eyes went unfocused. A frown tugged at her mouth.
"Get the shop ready please, Seiji-kun," Aya mumbled.
He hesitated, loathe to leave her in such a state, but aware that pushing her when she was in a temper this early in the morning might end badly. So in the end he reluctantly put on his apron and went to fill the watering can.
Aya turned on her stool, propping her elbows on the counter behind her as she stared at her pathetic little sapling without really seeing it. There was a way to fix this. The money Crawford was offering for this odd 'job' would make all those nasty bills go away. And all she had to do was act like a doting wife and relax on a cruise ship for two weeks.
She picked up a lock of hair and chewed on it thoughtfully, a habit she thought she'd kicked in junior high. Crawford seemed like a decent man, but then, she barely knew him. And she hadn't even met his partner. And there had to be a good reason her brother hadn't liked him. There were a million reasons she shouldn't even consider taking him up on his generous offer.
But there were a few very valid reasons that she should.
"Desperate times call for desperate measures," she quoted around a mouthful of hair. She took a shakey breath. Well, she didn't have to decide right this second. She had until the evening before the offer would be considered null and void.
But as she went through the motions of getting the shop ready to open, she realized that a part of her had already considered her decision made.
And as she stuffed the bills into a drawer, it felt like a weight had been lifted off of her chest.
It was just after six that evening when Aya collected her purse and her courage and hailed a cab with the last of her pocket money. She gave the address on the business card to the driver and sat staring out of the window at the slowly darkening sky, nervous with anticipation.
Seiji was worried about her. He hadn't known what to think when she'd announced during their lunch break that she would be taking a couple weeks off, leaving the shop in his hands. She had given him the choice of trying to run it by himself during her absence or taking his own vacation-- she would pay him on his return. He'd been completely confused by her sudden decision, asking if she was sure she could afford to take the time off, and was she sure she was all right?
She had shrugged off his concerns, assured him that he would do just fine, and dropped the subject. He'd sent her odd looks for the rest of the day, but hadn't bothered to try arguing any more on the matter. Perhaps he thought she was going to visit her brother.
She sat forward to hand over her money as the cab slowed and finally pulled to a stop at her destination. She didn't get out right away, gazing at the building in surprise. She hadn't been sure what to expect; maybe an office building or even Crawford's residence. But it was a restaurant. And while it wasn't the most ritzy in the city, it was definitely one of the kinds men brought their wives for their anniverseries. If they felt up to spending a month's pay on the bill.
Aya looked down at herself, comprehending at last the note she'd found written on the back of the business card in Crawford's neat handwriting. Wear something nice. It had made her wary when she'd read it, but in the end she had complied. She'd dug to the very back of her closet and found her nicest dress. It had only been worn twice, and a small part of her was happy for the excuse to finally wear it again. It was a simple black cocktail dress, with a modest slit on the side that went halfway up her thigh. Now her nervousness was back times ten. Why such a nice restaurant? Just who was he trying to impress? Despite his assurances of his well-meaning, she couldn't help but wonder if he did in fact have some less-than-chivalrous intention behind all of this.
The driver was turning to look at her in impatience, and she'd already paid, so she took a deep breath to steel her nerve and got out of the cab. As the taxi roared off, she paused to straighten her dress and check her hair-- piled loosely on top of her head. She reached into her purse briefly, touching the can of mace to reassure herself. If he tried anything funny, she'd let him have it. But she'd be damned if she let him see how uptight she was.
Straightening her back and lifting her chin, she strode up to the front doors with feigned confidence. The doorman saw her coming and offered her a smile and a 'good evening' as he opened the door for her. She smiled back, hoping her mouth wasn't trembling and giving away her inner turmoil, and stepped inside.
Music was playing softly, some classical piece she only vaguely recognized. The place was even more impressive on the inside, with cushioned chairs and mahagony tables. Small chandeliers were very much in evidence, and the waiters looked professional and sharp in their tuxedoes as they moved expertly about the crowded restaurant, trays balanced easily by their shoulders. Someone cleared their throat, and she turned to see the maitre de watching her expectantly from behind his podium, finely manicured fingers hovering over the thick book of guests. "Do you have a reservation, ma'am?"
"Uh... yes. I'm meeting someone. A..." Oh, damn, she didn't know his entire name. "Crawford?"
He glanced down at his book, but it seemed more of a formality, because he was already coming out from behind the podium. "Ah, yes." He extended his arm with a little bow. "He's right over there. He said he was expecting company."
"Thank you." She followed his gesture across the room to where a man was rising from his table. Head high and heart pounding, she managed to get across the room without falling over-- damn, it had been too long since she'd worn heels --and came to a halt at Crawford's table.
He was wearing a tailored dark blue suit that made him look even more handsome than he had the previous day. He was still standing, and pulled out her chair with gentlemanly charm. She hesitated, eyes flicking to the table's other occupant. "Thank you," she remembered to murmur, and took her seat.
Crawford sat down as well and reached for his napkin, glancing towards the other man at the table. "Fujimiya-san, this is my partner, Schuldich."
Aya realized belatedly that she was staring.
It was another foreigner; loud orange hair and sharp blue eyes gave him away in a glance. He was also dressed in a tailored suit, this one ash-gray, but he looked like Crawford's complete opposite. He was practically lounging back in his chair, foot propped on his knee; one elbow was resting on the back of his chair while the he played idly with his wine glass with his free hand. He was handsome, but not in the refined way that Crawford was. He looked like he would be more comfortable in jeans and a ragged tee-shirt, and the smile he gave her was as sharp as a knife and made her tense all over again.
"Charmed," he drawled in a slightly nasal voice oozing with sarcasm.
"I take it that you've reached a decision," Crawford noted, reaching for his own wine glass.
Aya dragged her eyes away from Schuldich. "Yes. Your offer sounds almost too good to be true, but to be perfectly honest, I could really use the money right now. I'd be a fool to pass it up." Crawford seemed completely unsurprised by her announcement, as if he'd been supremely confident that she would accept. She glanced away, trying not to let her intimidation show. "Though the restaurant seems a bit over the top."
"We're celebrating, ojousan," Schuldich declared, lifting his glass in a mocking salute. "Here's to men willing to pay an obscene amount of money for their protection."
Crawford shot him a warning glance and flagged a waiter down. "We were waiting on you to order. Would you like some wine?"
Aya opened her mouth, but Schuldich was already sniggering into his wine glass. "I doubt she's even old enough to drink," he pointed out.
Aya flushed, feeling like a child for an instant and hating the feeling. "I'm not," she admitted stiffly. "But thank you."
"They won't card you," Crawford assured her.
"No thank you," she said firmly. She opened the menu a crack to take a peek at the prices, and tried not to let her jaw drop. "And.. I'm not hungry."
"Crawdad's footing the bill," Schuldich advised. "Might as well take advantage of it. I sure as hell am."
Crawford leveled him with a tolerant look. Aya stared at Schuldich, amused at the nickname despite herself.
The waiter arrived, and both men gave him their order. Aya hesitated when it was her turn, still unwilling to let someone else pay for her, but Crawford's steady gaze told her than any attempt on her part to decline the offer would be contested, and she didn't feel like getting into an argument and drawing attention. So she ordered an iced tea and the cheapest thing with chicken on the menu, though she couldn't pronounce the foreign name of the dish and had to resort to pointing it out. The waiter was friendly and helpful, and Aya thought it was a bit depressing that he put her more at ease than her strange dining companions did.
"Do you get paid to flirt, or take orders?" Schuldich interrupted him rudely. The waiter flushed, mumbled an apology, and fled.
Aya gaped at him.
"Schuldich." There was a thread of steel in Crawford's voice.
"What??" Schuldich made a face at him.
"Attempt to behave."
Schuldich rolled his eyes, but let it drop.
Crawford reached down and lifted a briefcase from beside his seat, pulling out a folder. He slid it over to Aya, and she opened it after a moment's hesitation. "This is information on the cruise, as well as the more prestigious guests that will be on-board."
Aya glanced up. "Guests?"
"Aigawa is celebrating his fiftieth birthday; he booked the trip and reserved the entire ship for himself and his guests."
Aya's eyebrows shot up. The man must wipe his ass with money. Reserving an entire cruise ship for two weeks had to be obscenely expensive. "Wow," she managed to say.
Schuldich smirked into his wineglass as if he knew what she was really thinking.
"Try to memorize as many faces and names as you can," Crawford continued, all business. "Especially the wives, as they will most likely be the group you will interact with the most. Not everyone will be aware of our true purpose," he indicated himself and Schuldich with a glance towards the other man, "and they will assume we are friends of Aigawa, and will expect you, through me, to be familiar with what their husbands do for a living."
"A boat full of self-important rich bastards and their trophy wives," Schuldich yawned. "At least there's free food."
Crawford ignored him. "Be amiable with the wives, eat the food, and be sure to stay close by for the majority of the trip. All you must do is play the part of the young wife; what you do when I am speaking with Aigawa or otherwise doing my job is not my concern, as long as you don't cause any disturbances or blow our cover. Don't bother to bring your own money, as it will be expected that I pay for my wife's frivolities. You may shop to pass the time if you like."
Aya nodded slowly, wondering dazedly what she had done to deserve Lady Luck's good favor.
"Is that the dressiest thing you own?"
Aya blinked, unsure whether to take offense or not. She had thought she looked rather nice. She kept her hands in her lap and didn't let herself fidget. "Yes. I don't really have a need for dressy clothes."
"You do now," he assured her, handing over an envelope. "You must dress the part. Take tomorrow off if you haven't already, and spend the day clothes shopping. You need enough clothes to last two weeks, and they must all be high-end enough to fit in with the other women. I would advise you to look at swimsuits, as well, as there is supposedly a heated pool on-deck. And work-out clothes if you have a mind to try the gym."
Aya took the envelope, but wouldn't let herself look inside. It was thick, and the thought of holding so much money in her hands made her feel a little light-headed. "I'm assuming this is coming out of my cut?" A moment later she realized how that sounded, and flushed.
Schuldich snorted, but Crawford didn't even bat an eye. "No. These expenses are anticipated."
"I can't let you pay for all of this for me," Aya blurted.
Crawford arched a thin eyebrow. "I highly doubt you could afford the clothes required, and I am not about to let you on that ship in a bargain-priced sundress. Use the money and buy the clothes. This isn't a suggestion, it's a job requirement. Unless you've decided you are no longer interested."
Aya pressed her lips firmly together to keep back her retort, not sure what to think of this other glimpse of his personality.
Their food arrived soon after that, and Aya was disappointed when she discovered her dish was not nearly as appetizing as it had looked in the photograph. She picked at it for a bit, unwilling to leave such an expensive meal untouched, but in the end the taste simply didn't agree with her.
Crawford gave her a few more pointers that sounded more like orders, argued briefly with Schuldich about something sarcastic the other man said, and spent the rest of the meal perusing his own folder.
Aya shifted in her seat, glancing from one man to the other and feeling uncomfortable. She wanted to leave, but she'd barely touched her food-- now gone cold --and she wasn't sure if Crawford was finished explaining everything to her.
Crawford glanced up at Schuldich, who was staring at him, then shifted his gaze to Aya. "You live in the same building as your shop, correct?"
"Yes..." Aya peered at him. "How did you..?"
"Lucky guess." He closed his folder. "Schuldich will come fetch you the day after tomorrow, eight A.M. sharp, so be ready. He will bring you to the dock." His gaze flickered to her food. "We are done. If you are not going to finish that, you are free to leave."
Aya hesitated, biting back a frown. His mannerism was slightly different from how he'd acted at the coffee shop. She wasn't sure she liked it. She shrugged it off mentally. She had basically been hired for a job. He was not her friend, he was her co-worker, now. "I'll be ready," she promised, rising to her feet. She offered a slight bow of farewell. "Thank you for the opportunity."
Crawford nodded distractedly, already opening his folder again. Schuldich wiggled his fingers mockingly, grinning at her. "Tchu▀, ojousan."
Aya collected her purse and hastened off. The moment she was out of the restaurant she let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.
"A taxi, ma'am?" asked the doorman politely.
"Yes, please," she murmured. Her grip tightened on her handbag to stop the minute trembling in her hands. What had she gotten herself into? She barely knew Crawford, and something about Schuldich made her instinctively uneasy. But the money involved was still too tempting to pass up. And it was basically just two weeks' vacation, where she would be expected to lounge about, shop, and eat fine meals.
What could possibly go wrong on a cruise?
"Said the captain of the Titanic to his first mate," she muttered to herself, stepping off the curb towards the approaching taxi.
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