It took Aya a conscious effort to keep her mouth shut and her eyes from bulging as she tried to take in as much at once without it being too obvious. She was expected to be used to luxuries, and the ship probably wasn't meant to be that impressive to her. So she stamped on an expression of mild complacency and kept her ogling to a minimum.
First off, the ship was much larger than she'd imagined it would be. The main deck, complete with bar, dancing area and stage, and a full-sized pool, looked as if it could hold everyone she'd ever known in high school. There were lights everywhere; it would be quite a sight at night. The crew was scattered here and there, white uniforms immaculately pressed, smiling and bowing as they greeted the guests and took their bags. Schuldich unshouldered his leather duffel bag and swung it into the waiting arms of the nearest crew member.
Crawford gave his name, and the man looked him up quickly on a list and cheerily offered to show them to their rooms. Aya kept her grip firmly on Crawford's bent arm, more out of a need to stay with someone familiar in the crowd than at any pretense to keep up her act as wife. She managed to smile at those they passed, and stuck close to Crawford as they followed the crew member down below to the rooms.
As Crawford's "associate", Schuldich got an adjoining room. A door in the wall that could lock on either end connected the two rooms, and Aya made a mental note to keep it firmly bolted at all times. Schuldich had shown much more scorn than interest towards her, but he was a man, not a particularly nice one, and she wasn't going to take stupid chances.
The room she was sharing with Crawford was nicer than any hotel room she had ever seen, even on television, but she managed to restrain her girlish impulses until Crawford had tipped their escort and sent him away.
Throwing aside her act of mature decorum the second they were alone, Aya gave an excited little squeal and threw herself onto the closest of the two beds, which sank deliciously under her weight. Rolling onto her back, she looked around eagerly, taking in the lush carpet, the ocean view out of the window, the charming antique furniture, and the gilded mirror that covered half a wall near the impressive closet.
Crawford arched a brow at her, but said nothing of her moment of indulgence. He set his briefcase on the desk and snapped it open, pulling out a stack of folders. The door in the wall opened, and Schuldich popped his head in. "You rang?" he drawled, then sneered derisively at Aya as she began wandering around the room, admiring everything. "Good god, could you be more obvious? Someone will think we took a beggar in off the streets."
"Bite me," Aya retorted unthinkingly, then held back the automatic apology that almost followed. Why apologize? They didn't get along, and he couldn't do anything to her anymore. She was part of the job, now, and it wasn't like they could throw her overboard.
Schuldich's lips curved in a secret, unpleasant smile as he stared at her unnervingly for a moment. Abruptly he returned his attention to Crawford, strolling over to sift through the information being laid out on the desk's surface. Aya turned sharply in surprise from her exploration of the lavish bathroom as both men began speaking in a guttural, harsh-sounding language she did not recognize.
If they noticed her staring, they chose to ignore her, and continued to speak in low voices, indicating their papers and obviously making plans. Feeling uncomfortable, Aya turned her attention to the closet, unpacking her bags and hanging up all of her new clothes. She had just finished lining up her shoes neatly on the floor of the closet when there was a blast of sound so loud and sudden that she gave a little startled shriek, barely audible over the noise.
"Wh-what WAS that??" she gasped, trying to ignore Schuldich's condescending look.
"Foghorn," Crawford replied, checking his watch. "The ship is leaving the dock. Everyone will be on deck to watch. We need to go as well. Aigawa will be expecting us to meet with him."
Aya snatched up her sunhat, settling it atop her head. Crawford locked the door behind them; there were several other passengers in the hallway, chatting amicably as they headed for the stairs, and Aya slipped her arm through Crawford's again as they followed, Schuldich bringing up the rear.
Everyone had flocked to the main deck, where they could watch the launch and wave loftily to those on the docks. Aya kept her mouth shut when Crawford stepped up to the guardrail and offered a small wave to the crowd seeing them off; some were family members or servants of the passengers, others were merely curious. Aya was sure the American's wave was purely for show, but wasn't sure why he'd bothered. She almost jumped out of her skin when a voice spoke up directly behind her.
"You are Crawford-san?"
Schuldich turned to lean against the guardrail, offering an insulting smile to the three men who had unobtrusively come up behind them. They, too, were waving to nobody, though their stares were on Crawford, who hadn't even bothered to turn and look at them yet.
"Aigawa-sama will see you now." One of the men gestured politely, and finally Crawford turned and followed silently. Aya clung to his arm, heart thumping in her chest. Aigawa was the man who'd footed the bill for this entire thing. He was the one who had hired Crawford and Schuldich. While she had assumed he would want to see the men he had hired fairly soon, she had not expected to be a part of that meeting.
Appearances, she reminded herself as they approached the knot of people gathered at the foot of the stage. We're not the only people who want to see Aigawa. Maybe Crawford wants to make sure everyone knows who I am.
They had to wait a few moments while the Aigawa family finished their conversation with another couple, and Aya took the time to study them from up-close, checking her memory against the files she had been shown in the restaurant.
Aigawa Tetsuya looked older than his fifty years, wrinkles etched into his face deeply. Aya couldn't help but wonder if it was from stress; he had started out as a struggling entrepeneur at a young age, and fought tooth and nail to get to where he was today. He was known as a somewhat ruthless businessman, and had made quite a few enemies in his lifetime. His second wife, a thin-lipped skinny woman who looked as if her face might crack if she attempted a smile, stood beside him, chin held high and eyes distant and cold. Her gaze drifted over the three of them without interest as they stepped forward to take the place of the couple that had previously been conversing with the hosts.
"Aigawa-san." Crawford bowed slightly, and Aya hastened to mimic him. Schuldich hung back a few paces and refused to offer such a small show of respect, a faint smirk hovering on his lips.
"Mister Crawford," Aigawa greeted formally, face grave. "I am pleased you could make it." He eyed both men keenly, then finally turned his sharp gaze on Aya. "And this must be your lovely young wife."
Aya managed a smile. "Aigawa-san," she murmured. "Thank you for inviting us. It's a lovely ship."
Aigawa's wife sniffed loudly, and Aya wondered frantically if she'd said something wrong. The way the woman was looking at her made it blatantly obvious that she knew Aya was no high-bred woman. Aya felt her spirits sink. If this woman wasn't fooled, would the other wives instantly notice that something was amiss? As long as they thought she was Crawford's wife, their cover wouldn't be blown, but the thought of a boat full of prissy wives looking down at her as some ill-bred trophy wife made her want to hide in their quarters for the rest of the trip.
"Please feel free to join me at lunch," Aigawa said, eyes already skipping to the side where another couple had come over to speak with him. "And bring your friend."
Schuldich inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement of the invitation, Crawford murmured his farewell, and they moved on.
Aya let out a quiet breath of relief. The man was somewhat intimidating, and she had worried every second that she would somehow make a complete fool of herself. "Um, I have a question," she said hesitantly, glancing around to make sure no one was close enough to overhear. "What's with the charade? Why is he being so careful to keep anyone from knowing you two are his bodyguards?"
"A man in Aigawa's position cannot be seen as fearful," Crawford answered, eyes straight ahead as they made their way through the crowd. "He must appear strong and confident. He has 'associates' with him who watch his back, but if word got out that he had hired two outside contracters to guard over him, questions would be raised."
"Not to mention it would offend every stuffed-up twat onboard," Schuldich added with a drawl of dark amusement.
Crawford nodded. "They would demand to know why he feels the need for our presence when in the company of 'friends'."
"Why does he need you?" Aya asked keenly. "He invited everyone here. Are you saying he invited someone he doesn't trust? That seems kind of stupid to me."
"Whether or not he trusts someone completely, it would be public relations suicide not to invite them," Crawford pointed out. "And while I doubt these men he's wary of would literally kill him, he has perhaps gotten a bit paranoid at his age."
"So long as we get paid, the old fart can be as paranoid as he wants," Schuldich said firmly.
Aya murmured agreement, her eyes glued to the buffet table of snacks that had been brought on deck. Every now and then someone would wander over and graze leisurely, picking at this and that. Aya's stomach grumbled at her. She hadn't eaten breakfast, she remembered mournfully. And it was still hours until lunch.
Crawford glanced towards Schuldich, then towards the table. He released Aya's arm. "You may as well get something to eat, and try to mingle with the wives. Schuldich and I need to do a patrol anyhow."
Relieved, Aya made her way towards the table eagerly. Maybe Crawford had heard her stomach grumbling?
Although, she mused, shooting a quick look over her shoulder at the two men as they disappeared into the crowd, that was not the first time Crawford had anticipated what she'd wanted. It was a bit strange, but perhaps he was just very intuitive.
The only odd thing about it was that every single time, he looked at Schuldich first. Perhaps the redhead was the intuitive one. He could easily signal to Crawford behind her back. The real question was, did Schuldich do so just to get rid of her, or did he perhaps have a shred of decency in him? Unlikely. Shrugging it off, she turned her attention on the fare provided.
There were enormous bowls of freshly-cut fruit salad, trays of delicate cheese, little smoked sausages, and wafer-thin sandwiches. Her first impulse was to grab a plate and load it with as much as it could hold, but she managed to restrain herself. She chose one of the tiny little saucers and snagged a sandwich and a bit of the fruit salad. As she nibbled on the tasteless sandwich, she watched a group of women out of the corner of her eye who were chatting nearby, some of them also with nearly-bare plates.
There were five of them, and Aya felt a bit of pride as she mentally named each of them from the files Crawford had given her. But it was the youngest of the group that she focused most of her attention on: Watase Noriko was only a few years older than Aya herself, the cliche trophy wife of a man almost twenty years her senior. She was petite and very pretty in her stylish dress, and seemed a bit uncomfortable around the older women. She had only been married to her husband, a big mover and shaker in the textile industries, about two years. She was his third wife, and the rest of the women seemed to be treating her with vague neglect, as though they were merely tolerating her as a momentary peer.
Aya edged closer, trying to look casual. Noriko excused herself for a moment and joined Aya at the table, spooning a sparse amount of salad onto her saucer. Aya smiled at her in greeting. "Watase-san, right?"
"That's right." Noriko looked at her a bit shyly, but her smile was genuine. She looked relieved to have found another woman close to her age on-board. "Um--"
Aya introduced herself, stumbling over the name at the last second. "Fu-- Crawford Aya." She flushed.
But Noriko gave a little laugh. "Newly-wed?" she guessed.
Aya nodded, trying to hide her embarrassment and flicker of panic.
"It took me almost a year to get used to it," Noriko confided. "I think I still have checks signed with my maiden name somewhere in the house."
Aya laughed back, tension easing. "I must admit, I had begun to think I was the youngest one here."
"You probably are," Noriko agreed. "But we aren't the only young wives here. Hayashi Rei is only twenty-six, I think. She and her husband just got married last spring." She hesitateed, then offered politely, "Please join us." Then she added in a conspiratory whisper, "Please. I feel so out-of-place with them."
Aya grinned back and followed her over to the other wives, who were already glancing her way curiously.
"This is Crawford Aya," Noriko said, and introduced the other women.
"'Crawford'?" A woman wearing too much makeup and jewelry squinted at Aya through her spectacles in sharp interest. "I don't believe I've ever heard the name. And it's certainly not Japanese."
No, really? Aya forced a smile. "My husband is American," she affirmed, keeping her voice light and pleasant and recalling the false facts laid out in the paperwork she had been given. "He is from a family of prestigious lawyers in New York."
"I went to New York once," a middle-aged woman said, dismissively flicking ash from her thin cigarette onto the pristine deck. "I found it a bit boring."
"Oh, I don't know." A woman in a slinky dress curved her lips up in a sensuous smile. "It has its charms. So, Miss Crawford, are you enjoying yourself so far? Not getting seasick?"
Aya wondered why she was being referred to as "Miss" instead of "san" when she was obviously not the foreigner, but let it pass. "I feel all right so far. And it's a splendid ship."
The spectacled woman offered her an indulgent little smile, reminding her of Aigawa's wife.
Snobs, Aya thought irritably.
At least the food was free.
"Your 'blushing bride' is about to snap," Schuldich murmured, sounding morbidly amused at the prospect.
Crawford frowned in annoyance, eyes skimming the crowd for the girl. "It's only been an hour. If she can't even handle the other wives that long, she'll only make this harder for all of us."
"I told you bringing her was a mistake."
Crawford pretended not to have heard. "Any luck?"
Schuldich shrugged carelessly, looking around with a bored expression. "If there's anyone here wishing harm on Aigawa's wrinkled fat head, they're hiding it pretty well. You know I can't dig very deep without giving migraines left and right."
"Hopefully it doesn't come to that."
"Compassion, from you?" Schuldich teased.
"It would be an inconvenience," Crawford retorted, spotting his target and heading in that direction.
"Hey, what're you doing?"
"Keeping up appearances. Keep searching."
Schuldich scowled, but the older man had already slipped into the crowd. He made a face, turning to glare out over the ocean. The weather was nice, and no one wanted to go below-decks. Crawford was right; he should pick through as many minds as he could while they were all collected in one area. Muttering under his breath, he began to circulate again, poking and prodding at the minds around him.
Aya's smile was a bit strained. Crawford glanced at each of the wives as he approached; it was easy to see the faint hint of maliciousness to some of their faces, if one knew what to look for. They were enjoying causing Aya discomfort, though she seemed to be able to hide the majority of her frustration. She lit up when she spotted him, hopefully coming across as a loving wife and not simply a relieved woman desperate to escape.
"Ladies," Crawford murmured to the interrupted wives, then made a curt "come here" gesture.
Aya's brows lowered, a flicker of annoyance crossing her face that she quickly smoothed away. She approached him, lashes lowered demurely, and took his elbow, offering a farewell to the women.
"What am I, your dog or your wife?" she muttered as Crawford led her away.
He glanced down at her with a small frown. It seemed it was time to make sure she knew her place. "You are a child trying desperately to act like a woman," he corrected in a hard undertone. "Be sure not to blow our cover, or the deal is off."
Her grip on his elbow tightened painfully, and she spoke through a smile of clenched teeth, not quite quietly enough. "Oh, I'm sorry, dear. I'll just have to try harder."
Crawford refused to wince, even though her nails were digging into his arm. He hustled her towards the bow of the ship, where they had at least a little privacy, and stood at the railing with her. He pulled his elbow free and retaliated by seizing her arm in a vice grip, shifting her so that his body covered up the move. She gave a stifled gasp of pain, staring up at him in surprise.
"I don't have time for your sarcasm or your impudence. You are to do what you're told. You will behave yourself and show me the proper respect, or this entire thing will be blown out of the water. And that I will not tolerate."
"You're hurting me," she hissed, voice tight with the first hint of fear.
"Good." He gave her a little shake when she tried to twist free. "Don't cause a scene, or I will make you regret it."
She bit her lip hard and went still, staring hard at the railing rather than meet his fierce stare. He could feel her heart hammering from where her side was pressed to his.
"Why are you doing this?" she demanded, keeping her shaking voice low. "I thought we were--"
"Coworkers? Partners? Hardly." He released her abruptly. "We can both act professionally, provided you do what you're told. Do we have an understanding?"
Aya swayed as if to move away from him, but stopped herself at the last second, shooting a quick look towards nearby couples. No one had noticed anything was amiss. She took in a deep breath and forced herself to look up at him. She thought she was keeping her face blank, but his eyes narrowed slightly.
"Your defiance shows in your eyes," he said shortly. "You had better learn to either control that or keep your gaze down." Unexpectedly his lips curled in an unpleasant little smile. "It seems the temper runs in the family. For your sake, you had better be more adept at controlling it than your brother."
"May I be excused, SIR?" Aya growled.
Crawford gazed at her for a long moment, face impassive. Finally he flicked his fingers dismissively, already turning away.
Aya managed to keep a tight grip on her composure as she crossed the deck and hurried down the stairs to the rooms below-deck, lowering her head so that the broad brim of her sunhat hid her expression. It wasn't until she'd slammed the suite's door behind her that she unleashed her emotions.
"COLD-HEARTED BASTARD!" she shrieked, digging her fingers into her scalp. How DARE he lead her on, making her think this would be a relaxed, professional experience?? She didn't particularly like either man, but she'd assumed that they would at least be able to tolerate each other. Now the thought of spending two weeks with either one of them made her want to jump overboard and swim for shore.
She twisted her arm, suddenly fearing that she would be bruised, but she had never been one to bruise easily. Still, physical evidence or not, it still hurt. Just the thought of his hard grip and commanding tone brought on another rush of anger and humiliation.
How dare he... how DARE he!!
She turned around, looking for something to vent her ire on, and ended up seizing and hurling the first thing that came to hand.
Which just happened to be a delictate vase.
The sound of it shattering against the wall helped ground her a bit, pulling short her vicious tantrum. She stood shaking with helpless rage in the middle of the room, panting and struggling not to cry. Finally she sank to her knees and listlessly began collecting the vase shards.
Oh, good going, Aya, she scolded herself bitterly. You have no idea how much this stupid thing is worth. She paused, staring down at her hand and the wedding band weighing down her finger. Impulsively she tried to yank it off, and gave a soft little sob of desperation when it refused to slide past her knuckle. She pulled at it viciously, ignoring the pain in her finger, and was so absorbed in the hated band that she didn't hear the door opening.
"I guess the retard genes roots deep in your particular family tree," came Schuldich's snide voice from just behind her.
She jumped, startled nearly out of her wits, then lurched away when the foreigner leaned down and made a grab for her wrist. "Don't touch--OUCH!" Aya curled her leg up to check the cut on her knee from where one of the vase shards had sliced into the exposed skin.
"I rest my case," Schuldich sneered, and snatched her wrist.
"Let go of me!"
"You're going to dislocate your finger, you stupid twat," Schuldich interrupted, sounding entirely unsympathetic about any of her pains. "And didn't Crawdad tell you not to take this off? Yeah, that's what I thought." He bared his teeth in a brief grimace of disgust, giving her arm a firm tug. "Get up and quit feeling sorry for yourself. It's fucking pathetic. And you look really ugly when you cry."
"I'm NOT crying," Aya snapped fiercely, trying to wrench her arm free without much success. She squeaked in surprise when he hauled her bodily to her feet, hurting her shoulder in the process. "OW, stop it!"
"Oh, boo-hoo," Schuldich jeered, shoving her away so that she was forced to sit on the edge of the bed. "Leave the mess, dumbass. That's what maids are for. Now go clean your fucking face and get a grip."
Aya glared at him with pure loathing, then stood up quickly and marched over to the bathroom. She slammed the door and locked it behind her, hands shaking. Staring at her reflection in the mirror, she was startled to see that Schuldich had been right. She had been crying, though she couldn't remember having allowed herself to do so, and her mascara was running horribly. She looked awful. She soaked a washcloth in warm water and began to wipe viciously at her face.
She was on a ship, surrounded by complete strangers, in the company of two cruel men who suddenly seemed a little more dangerous than she'd previously thought. She'd been on-board for less than two hours, and she was already breaking down from the strain. How on earth was she going to make it two weeks??
She lowered the cloth, meeting her own eyes in the mirror and seeing the same burning defiance Crawford had glimpsed.
"Two weeks is not forever," she whispered harshly to her reflection. "You need this money, Aya. All you have to do is play the part. This will all be over soon. Just play the part, get the money, and tell them where to stick it."
She didn't dare act out in public again and give Crawford an excuse to hurt or belittle her. There was no one she could trust or turn to here. No friends, no brother, no Seiji-kun. She would have to look out for herself. Lowering her eyes in exhausted defeat, her gaze landed on Crawford's small bathroom travel kit. After a moment, she unzipped it and rooted through it until she found what she was looking for. Lifting his razor, she studied it with an odd sort of calm. This time the eyes in the mirror were calculating and hard.
She would be the perfect little trophy wife when they were in public. She would try not to cross him openly when they were alone and he could hurt her.
But that didn't mean she couldn't get back at him.
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