Link with Hideo? it asks.
“Let me show you something,” he says. “It’s a new communication system I’ve been working on. A secure way for you to contact me.”
I look at the hovering window for a moment, then accept it. The edges of my vision flash clear blue. “What does it do?” I ask.
Send a thought to me, Emika.
It is Hideo’s own voice, soft and warm and deep, echoing inside my mind. A tingle of surprise rushes through me. When I look at him, he hasn’t opened his mouth at all, nor has he made any motion to type. It is telepathy through the NeuroLink, the next evolution of messaging, an intimate, secret bond linking us together. I startle at the novelty of it, then hesitantly send a thought back to him.
You’re in my mind?
Only if you allow it. You are free to disable our Link whenever you desire.
I can’t help smiling, caught between feeling unsettled and excited. It has been almost a decade since Hideo first created something that changed the world, and yet here he is, still doing it, year after year. I shake my head in disbelief.
This is incredible.
Hideo smiles, his dark mood lifting for a moment. I don’t think you realize how much I enjoy your company. So I want to let you in on a secret.
Suddenly, I realize that not only can I hear his words in my mind through our new Link . . . I can sense something. I can feel a hint of his emotions through the connection. Oh, I think back without even realizing it, my breath catching.
I can sense desire in him, a dense, smoldering heat. For me.
I’ve wanted to kiss you, Hideo thinks to me, leaning closer, since the night I saw you in that white dress.
Since the party at Sound Museum Vision. I’m suddenly very aware of my bare shoulder. The steady undercurrent of his emotions through our Link makes me light-headed, and I wonder if he can sense the same coming from me, the rapid, fluttering beat of my heart, the heat rushing through my veins. He must, because one side of his smile tilts higher.
I suddenly feel bold in this dim light and new bond, this space that has become all too warm. Well? I ask him.
Well. His gaze falls on my lips. Perhaps we should do something about that.
All I can think about is his nearness, his dark eyes, his breath stirring against my skin. There is a spark in his gaze now, that darkening of his eyes, something fiery and hungry, something that wants. He hesitates for an agonizing second. Then, his head tilts down toward me. The soft skin of his lips presses against mine, and before I can even register it, he’s kissing me.
My eyes flutter closed. He’s gentle at first, his emotions restrained and searching, one of his hands coming up to carefully cup my face. I lean into his touch, signaling to him that I want more, fantasizing about what he might do next. Can you sense what I want? As if in answer, a low groan of pleasure rumbles deep in his throat. Then he draws closer, pins me against the couch, and kisses me harder. The Link between us magnifies our emotions tenfold, and I fight for air, overwhelmed at the heat of his desire coursing through us—and my own responding passion rushing back to him. I can sense his thoughts, glimpses and glimmers of his hands against my skin, running along bare thighs. My entire body tingles. His hand buries in my hair, tilting my head up toward him. Through the fog of my thoughts, I realize that I’ve wrapped my arms around his neck and pulled him close, until every inch of my body is pressed against him. He feels so warm, the muscles of his arms and chest firm underneath his clothes. The sound of rain against glass continues quietly in the background.
Hideo pulls away for a brief second, his lips hovering right over mine. His breathing is soft and labored, his brows furrowed, the fire still alight in his gaze. His emotions crash against mine, roiling into one, and he is undone in this moment, the reserved, distant, proper version of him stripped away to reveal the part that is unthinking and savage. I am trembling from a storm of sensations, unsure what to focus on, wanting to drink it all in at the same time, struggling for the perfect words.
Okay, I end up gasping. You were definitely too subtle.
His secret smile returns. “I’ll make up for it,” he murmurs against my ear, and then he kisses me again. My teeth tug once, teasingly, on his lower lip. Hideo growls in surprise, and he pulls away from my mouth to kiss the line of my jaw. His lips work their way along my neck, sending shivers up and down my back. His warm hand has found its way inside my sweater, running up along my bare back, tracing the valley of my spine. I can feel the calluses at the base of his fingers, rough against my skin. A million thoughts flash through my mind. I arch toward him. Vaguely, I realize that I’ve slid down along the length of the couch, my head now on the armrest, and Hideo’s body is heavy against mine, pushing me down. His lips go from my neck to my collarbone, kissing along the line of my tattoo, to my bare shoulder.
Then, abruptly, a needle of a foreign emotion slices through our raging tempest, a thread of worry from him. To my disappointment, Hideo leaves one last kiss against my skin. He sighs, murmuring a faint swear against my ear, and pulls away. I’m left feeling suddenly cold, still reeling from what just happened. Slowly, I prop myself up on my elbows and stare at him. He helps me up, then lets his hands linger on mine for a moment. The Link between us settles into place, quivering, until it is calm and quiet again.
“I’m getting you into more than you bargained for,” he finally says.
I frown at him, my own breath still short. “Well, I’m not complaining.” I lean closer to him. “I will find Zero. I’m going to finish the job you hired me for.”
He looks at me for another moment, then shakes his head and smiles. The careful shield he always keeps around him has fallen away, leaving an inner layer of him exposed. There’s something he wants to tell me. I can see the war on his face. “I won’t keep you any longer tonight,” he says. His heart retreats behind the shield again. “Your teammates probably want to celebrate with you.” And with that, he reaches up and disconnects our Link. The sudden absence of his subtle undercurrent of emotions and the echo of his voice in my mind makes me feel emptier. A tiny button lingers in the corner of my vision, something I can tap to reconnect us.
I try to nod along so that he can’t see the disappointment on my face. “Right,” I mutter. “Celebrate. I’d better head back.”
He kisses my cheek. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” he says. But even as he pulls away, I know that the space between us has changed permanently.
I nod, as if in a dream, as if I can’t stop taking this drug. “Yes.”
In the following days, the other official teams have their first round of games. The Andromedans defeat the Bloodhounds in record time, their world set in a maze of fiery catacombs. The Winter Dragons beat the Titans in a trap-filled jungle. The Stormchasers beat the Royal Bastards in the neon streets of a futuristic spaceport. The Gyrfalcons advance against the Phantoms, the Castle Raiders beat the Windwalkers, the Cloud Knights destroy the Sorcerers, and, much to everyone’s surprise, the Zombie Vikings defeat the Sharpshooters.
I watch and analyze each of the games along with my teammates. I train with them as the second round of games begins. We beat the Stormchasers in a blitz of a second round, where Asher and the Stormchasers’ captain, Malakai, faced off one-on-one at the top of an isolated tower while the rest of us fought our way up the tower’s sides.
Every day, I pore through a bunch of data on the other players. I look for more signs from Ren as he moves around the dorms. He doesn’t make eye contact with me. I wonder if he knows.
At night, I dream I’m in Hideo’s bed, tangled in his sheets, my hands running along his bare back, his hands gripping my hips. I dream that someone breaks into his home as we sleep, that I stir beside him to see a faceless figure in dark armor standing over his bed. I picture the news the next morning, broadcasting Hideo’s death. I jerk awake, gasping.
• • • • •
Good morning, beautiful.
I wake up to a dark, stormy day outside and Hideo’s message on my phone. The light in my room is blue-gray, and my heart is pounding from another night of restless dreams. I read his message several more times before I’m sure that he’s alive and well, and then I flop my head back against my pillow and sigh, weak with relief. A small smile lingers at the corners of my lips at his words.
Then I sit up, pull on my shirt, and head to the bathroom to put in my lenses. When I return, a request is blinking in my view, asking if I want to Link with Hideo. I agree, and a moment later, a virtual Hideo is in my room, still bare-chested and in the middle of pulling on his own shirt. I grin, tempted to tell him to just leave it off. He pours himself a cup of coffee while his dog waddles around his legs in a happy circle. It’s pleasantly strange to see Hideo in a way no one else does—boyish, relaxed, wholly vulnerable, hair rumpled and wet from a shower, his sweatpants hanging low on his hips. The pale light coming in through his windows highlights the edges of his hair and face.
He smiles when he sees me. “Before you ask,” he says, nodding off to the side where I can’t see, “my bodyguard is standing right by the door.”