Chapter 1: Session 1
These chapters will parallel the other chapters in the Office AU series; this one takes place a little before The Flowers. The timeline isn't precise, mainly because I keep changing it. Whoops.
Haruko took a soothing sip of tea as she wrapped up her notes from her last session. The warmth of the tea was welcome - sessions with Ayami were always difficult. Not through any fault of Ayami’s; in fact, the young woman had been making great progress in the past month. It was simply that listening to the descriptions of her abuse at the hands of her father, seeing the pain of remembered trauma flash across the girl’s open and honest features, never failed to break Haruko’s heart. Her husband always told her that she let herself empathize too closely with her clients; but Haruko felt that she had no hope of helping someone who she couldn’t understand.
She closed Ayami’s folder with a sad sigh and turned to her calender. A new client had the next appointment. Thus far the only information Haruko had was the basics: male, age twenty-three, never married but currently in a relationship. The reason he’d given for wanting to start therapy was a topic from her menu of pre-written options: Communication within a relationship. Her colleague Mariko always griped about the options; she felt that discouraging a client from writing out their own reason for seeking counseling hindered their ability to be honest about the problems they faced. Personally, Haruko preferred the canned choices. In her experience, clients who thought they knew the exact issue they needed help with were usually wrong. Framing things more generally helped them get to the real root of things more quickly.
In any case, this new appointment would make a nice break from her usual clientele. Haruko loved her field of expertise, and she was damn good at it - but it had been a long time since she’d had a chance to do some straightforward relationship counseling. She glanced at the notes again. Age twenty-three, never married. Most likely he was ready to settle down yet afraid to commit; pressure from his girlfriend to get married would certainly put a strain on their relationship, especially if he was the type who’d never learned to express his emotions well.
The little pendulum clock on her desk chimed one. Haruko took another sip of tea, then rose and crossed her office to open the door and peek out into the little waiting room beyond. It was empty save for one person, a young man sitting rather stiffly with his hands clasped in front of him. Haruko did a quick assessment: casually but neatly dressed, tidy grooming - that was a good sign that he intended to take therapy seriously. He was gazing expectantly at her, eyes slightly wide with nervousness. It made her feel like a school principal. She was used to that feeling.
She smiled kindly. “Li Hei?”
He stood. “Um, yes.”
“I’m Dr. Uchiumi Haruko. Pleased to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too, doctor.” He started to bow, but she laughed and waved a hand.
“No need for formality here - call me Haruko, if you don’t mind. May I call you Hei?”
“Sure,” he said as she ushered him into her office.
It was a warm and inviting room, decorated with a few live plants and colorful floral artwork. Her desk stood in front of a large window that overlooked the not-so-scenic freeway interchange, but let in a lot of light. The cushy office chair that she used for therapy sessions was placed directly in front of the desk, opposite a grey loveseat. A matching armchair formed the third side of the square, with a coffee table in the center. It was reminiscent of someone’s living room - an intentional effect. A homey atmosphere coupled with Haruko’s relaxed wardrobe and gray-tinged hair helped her clients feel as if they were in a welcoming place, a place where they might open up without fear of judgment or repercussions.
“Can I get you anything to drink?” she asked as Hei took in the room with a quick glance before seating himself in the armchair. Interesting choice, she thought. Most new clients instinctively chose the end of the loveseat - it was closest to the door (in fact shared a wall) and furthest from her own chair. The armchair would put them at right angles for their conversation; but it did offer the best window view, such as that was. “Tea?”
“No, thank you.” He clasped his hands in front of him, clearly ill at ease despite his polite demeanor.
Haruko retrieved her own teacup along with a yellow legal pad and pen, and settled into her chair. “So, is this your first therapy session?” It was always good to find out if the client had any past experience with counseling, to understand whether that had been helpful or not; and if not, why not.
He nodded. No surprise there, considering his obvious nerves.
“Well, then let me explain how this works. I’m here to help you with your problems, whatever those problems might be. My goal is to help you reach your goals, without criticizing, judging, or instructing. We can talk about whatever you want to talk about; I’m merely your guide.”
“Um, okay,” he said. And nothing else.
A quiet one, she realized. Communication problems indeed. “Let’s start with, why did you choose me as your therapist? There are quite a few of us in Tokyo to choose from.” There were certainly many therapists who dealt with more mundane issues than she did, including those who specialized in relationships; it was strange that he hadn’t selected one of them.
“My partner got your name from one of her colleagues at work,” he said.
“Oh? Where does your partner work?” She smiled again, but it didn’t seem to help put him at ease.
“With the police.”
Ah, that explained a lot. The majority of her clients were victims of some sort of trauma, and those referrals did tend to come through law enforcement channels. His girlfriend probably did clerical work for one of the criminal investigations departments. “Are you with the police as well?” He certainly looked the part, she realized. Fit enough to handle the physical demands of the job, kind and honest features that would encourage trust from the public.
“Yeah. I just joined a few months ago. Misaki - my partner - she suggested it.”
Haruko tapped her pen against the pad. “It doesn’t sound as if you’re very enthusiastic about the job.”
Hei shrugged. The movement seemed odd, until Haruko realized that it was the first time he’d moved at all since entering her office. “I don’t mind it; I like the physical activity. I just don’t know if I’m a good fit for that kind of work. Misaki thinks I am, and she’s usually right about those things, but…” he trailed off with another shrug.
Lack of commitment to a career…that could cause some strife in a relationship. She made a quick note on her legal pad.
“You don’t record these sessions, do you?” Hei asked in sudden alarm, his gaze fixed on the pen in her hand.
Hm, paranoia? That’s surprising. “No,” Haruko assured him. “When I do record, I always ask permission from my client first - but I prefer not to. I just take the occasional notes, to help my memory between sessions. Is that alright?”
He eyed her pen for another long moment before nodding. There was a lot to unpack there, she was sure; but it would have to wait for a later session, after she was able to build up the trust between them.
“Well,” she said, “I’d like to talk about your career goals at some point, since it sounds like you could use some clarity there. But I think we should start with a more basic question: why therapy? What is it that you hope to achieve from our sessions?”
“Misaki thought it would be a good idea if I talked to someone. We’ve, um, had some problems communicating in the past. Neither of us is very good at talking about our emotions. So we’ve been trying to work on that - and we’re doing a lot better, I think. But there are some things that, I guess, she’s not really sure how to talk about with me.”
Haruko nodded. “You said both of you aren’t very good with discussing emotions - but you’re here alone. Why not couples’ therapy?”
“It’s not our communication that’s the problem. Now, I mean - it used to be. Mostly, it’s things from my past. That I’ve never talked about with anyone before. She’s helped me through a lot just by listening, but some of it…” he trailed off helplessly. “She thought maybe talking to a professional would help. So, I told her I would make an appointment.”
“What I’m hearing is that therapy was your partner’s idea, not yours.” And your job, as well; but we’ll get to that later. Haruko folded her hands in her lap. “I’m going to be upfront with you, Hei. Wanting to do something because it’s meaningful to someone you care about is perfectly valid. I’m glad you were willing to take this first step for her.” It was certainly a good sign that he didn’t seem to be blaming his girlfriend for forcing him into therapy; but that wasn’t quite good enough. “If you’re not fully invested in this process, if you’re not here to work through your problems with honest intention, then you’re not going to get much out of this. So let me ask again: what is it that you hope to achieve from our sessions?”
He blinked, then furrowed his brow. “I…I guess…relationships have never been easy for me. But I want things to work out between me and Misaki - I want to be there for her no matter what - and it’s not going to work if I can’t be completely open with her. I want to be open with her, and I’m trying. But, like I said, some things I just don’t know how to talk about.”
Some things, Haruko mused. It was an incredibly vague statement. In fact, everything he’d said so far had been far from specific. The first session was hardly the time to push, though. She jotted down a reminder to herself to bring it up later. “So, tell me about your relationship with Misaki. How long have you two been together?”
“Um, about four months.”
Only four months? That was quite a short-lived relationship to already be talking about therapy. Haruko opened her mouth to ask a follow-up question when Hei added, “Not counting a year ago. I don’t know if that should count or not.”
“A year ago?”
Hei finally unclasped his hands and placed them on his knees, gripping the fabric of his jeans in a slight display of anxiety. “Well, we were working together on one of her cases, and the chemistry between us was just…hard to ignore. Then one night we were arguing about something, and…” He trailed off awkwardly.
Haruko was pretty sure she knew what he was leaving out, but it wasn’t very healthy that he couldn’t even put it into words. “You slept together?” she prompted.
“And what happened afterward?”
A guilty expression flashed across his face. “I, uh, sort of panicked. And left in the middle of the night without talking to her.”
“I imagine she had something to say about that the next time you saw her.”
The guilt returned in the knit of his brow. “Well, we didn’t really get a chance to talk at all after that. I had to leave the country suddenly for, um, legal issues.”
Again with the vague references and lack of detail - she was going to have call him out on that next week. For now, she said, “Let’s go back to the part where you panicked and left her in the middle of the night. You clearly realize now that it wasn’t the best reaction. So why do you think you did that?”
“I…don’t really know, exactly.”
“If you had to guess?”
He ran a hand through his hair. The more he talked and opened up, Haruko noticed, the more outwardly animated he became. “I think that was the first time I realized just how much I cared for her. I was afraid that she would regret it once she woke up, and I - didn’t want to see that regret, I guess.”
Haruko scratched another note to herself: low self-esteem in the relationship; avoids conflict. “Why would she regret it? Did you have reason to doubt her initial consent?”
“No,” he said, blushing slightly. “She was, um, enthusiastic. But after…I’m not the sort of person I would expect her to want to be with, even casually. Misaki has a very strong sense of ethics, and I, well, I don’t. We argued about it all the time. I was sure that she would see it - us sleeping together - as a, I guess, a moral failing on her part.”
Haruko’s eyebrow rose. There was quite a lot to unpack in that statement alone. But she didn’t want to address it now; it would take at least one, probably more, fully devoted sessions. “But you’re together now, so clearly she didn’t feel that way. Have you talked about that night, discussed how each of you felt about it?”
“And did she give any indication that casual sex was something she sees as a moral failure?”
His brow furrowed. “It wasn’t the sex I thought she’d have a problem with, it was, well, because it was me. But she didn’t, and now we’re together.”
The poor boy looks so confused, Haruko realized as the clock on her desk chimed twice. “Well, we’re out of time for today. I think we uncovered some important issues that we can work on over the next fews weeks. For this week, I have a homework assignment for you.”
She smiled. “It feels a bit like school, I know; but I want to remind you of what I told you at the start of our session: there isn’t much that you’ll get out of therapy if you’re not willing to put in the work. And most of that work will have to be done outside of this office.” He nodded his understanding, though he still looked a bit apprehensive. Haruko continued, “This week, I want you to ask Misaki to tell you one thing that she loves about you.”
He looked positively panicked now. “One thing…”
“That she loves about you,” Haruko nodded. “I’ve gotten the sense that you feel as if you’re not good enough for her, or that she looks down on you somehow. Sometimes it can be hard for the people who love us to articulate that in a way that we can grasp onto; so I want you to ask her. Just one thing. I bet she’ll surprise you.”
Haruko walked him to the office door, then shut it softly behind him and returned to her desk. She poured herself a fresh cup of tea, thinking about her new client. It was fairly clear that communication wasn’t the real problem he was dealing with. Feelings of low self-worth had a tendency to prevent even the most heart-felt declarations of love and caring from being heard and believed. She would focus the next session on uncovering where that lack of esteem was stemming from; then it was simply a matter of working through it. Unless there was some hidden depth there, some unrevealed trauma - and Haruko was an expert at spotting trauma - it would be a straightforward issue.
Humming softly to herself, she added a few final notes to their session record. He seemed like a sweet young man who definitely cared a great deal about his girlfriend and was invested in doing what he needed for their relationship. It was nice to start out a new therapy journey feeling so optimistic about a client’s potential. She was going to enjoy working with Li Hei.
“So how was your week?”
Haruko’s client didn’t shift from his unnaturally straight posture. “Um, fine,” he replied, addressing the tissue box on the table between them.
A vague and noncommittal answer; it wasn’t unexpected, considering his reluctance to open up during their first session. His nerves were apparently getting the better of him again, which was unfortunate. There was nothing that she would be able to help him with if he didn’t talk to her. But Haruko was nothing if not patient.
“Did you and Misaki do anything fun over the weekend?” she prompted, relaxing back in her chair, her yellow legal pad perched on her knee.
Hei gave a minute shrug. “Nothing special.”
“Well, it doesn’t have to be special to be fun, does it? What sort of things do the two of you enjoy doing together?”
“Um, work, mostly, I guess.” A somewhat rueful smile flitted across his features.
“Is she the workaholic, or are you?” Haruko asked, even though she was pretty sure that she already knew the answer.
“Well, we both like staying busy. Misaki can spend hours going over her case files, so much that she forgets to eat and sleep.” He wasn’t quite smiling, but the affection in his voice was obvious.
“Um, I can’t sit still for that long, so I go for walks around the city. Yesterday I got her to take a break and walk to the park with me. And I’m teaching her how to cook. Trying, anyway,” he added. “She says she wants to learn, but uh…well, she’s getting better. Sort of.”
Haruko smiled. “It’s great when couples can participate in each other’s interests - do you enjoy teaching her?”
“Sure. It takes twice as long to get anything done, but I just like spending time with her.”
“How often do you get to see each other, outside of work?” She wasn't even sure that they did see each other during the work day, she realized; he'd never said whether they worked in the same department or not.
“Well, I moved into her apartment a couple weeks ago. So a lot, I guess.”
Haruko raised an eyebrow. “Oh? How has that been working out?”
“Fine, I think.”
“It can be a huge adjustment, learning how to live with someone, even someone that we love,” she said. “Disagreements about who does what chores, annoying habits that we never realized the other person has, the lack of privacy. The key is to make sure that communication channels stay open, that you can talk about small problems before they become major issues.” At his worried expression, she added, “And communication is what I’m here to help you with. How did the two of you come to the decision to move in together?”
“Um, since we started seeing each other I was over most nights anyway,” Hei said. “Then there was a fire at my apartment building - someone left a hot plate on. Not me,” he added, as if that would have been Haruko's first assumption.
Curious, she thought. Was there something there that he was worried about being associated with himself, or simply a general guilty conscience?
“The building isn't livable anymore,” he continued. “So Misaki invited me to move into her place.”
“I'm so sorry to hear about the fire - did you lose very much?”
He shrugged noncommittally. “I had time to grab my bag. That’s all I have anyway.”
Haruko tried to interpret an emotional context within that statement. The words themselves sounded nearly tragic, but his tone conveyed nothing more heavy than if he’d lost something as inconsequential as a store receipt. She couldn't get a read on his expression, either.
“Why is that?” she tried.
He shrugged again. “I've spent most of my life traveling; there's not much point in buying a lot of things.”
“I suppose that's true; I suppose it can also be very freeing, to not be burdened with many material possessions.”
When he gave no response to her comment, she continued, “So, how are you adjusting to living with your girlfriend? It's only been a couple of weeks; does it feel like home?”
His mouth opened to form a response, but instead he paused, his furrowing slightly. “I don't know. I mean, I like being that close with Misaki...”
“Do you feel welcome there, like it's your space as well as hers?”
“Sure. She made space in her closet for my clothes.”
Haruko raised an eyebrow. Was that his definition of home? “I noticed that you called it her closet; if your clothes are there as well, then that makes it your closet it too. Feeling like we belong in a shared space can be challenging, especially if we’re worried about accidentally rocking the boat. It’s quite common in new relationships, but you can’t build mutual trust if you’re trapped seeing yourself as an outsider.” She tapped her chin absently with her pen. “You said that you’ve spent most of your life traveling; was that even as a child?”
“Yeah. Since I was twelve.”
“Your family moved around a lot, then? For your father’s job?”
It was a perfectly reasonable assumption, but the way his expression suddenly froze told Haruko that she was way off base - and that she’d accidentally stumbled across an extremely delicate subject.
“No,” he said shortly.
It was obvious that Hei was certainly not ready to open up to her about whatever this subject was. Haruko recalled what he’d said in their first session, that his girlfriend had suggested therapy because he had difficulty talking about certain things from his past. Perhaps this was it? Well, once they built up more of a rapport, they could delve into his history. For now, she wanted to focus on improving his self-confidence. Teach him the tools to cope with the small issues; then tackle the big ones. That meant making sure that he felt safe and supported in his current relationship.
“It can be difficult for people who have never had a permanent home to put down roots,” she said as she wrote Father Issues on her legal pad and underlined it twice. “Sometimes that’s because they’re simply too restless to stay in any one place for very long; or it may be that the frequent moves were out of their control, and now they’re afraid to trust that the rug won’t be yanked out from under their feet yet again.”
At the latter suggestion, his stony expression softened a bit as his brow furrowed in thought.
There it is, Haruko told herself. “Does that sound accurate?” she said aloud. “Are you afraid that if you put forth the effort to make yourself feel at home with Misaki, she’ll suddenly abandon you?”
He ran a hand through his hair. “I…she won’t abandon me. Misaki isn’t like that. Even if we end up breaking up, it won’t be - it won’t be a betrayal or anything.”
Betrayal - interesting choice of words. “But does that fear resonate with you?”
“Well, I hadn’t actually thought that. That that was what I was doing. I mean, it’s her apartment -”
“And she invited you to live there. Have you cohabited with a partner before?”
It was a simple question, but for some reason the furrow in his brow deepened. “Um,” he began, “I…don’t know. My last, um…relationship? I guess? Well, we were together all the time, but really I was living with my sister. And that wasn’t…well, I guess I should say no. Not in a normal sort of situation. Like with Misaki. I don’t really know how to do anything the normal way.”
The cloud of confusion surrounding his mind on the subject was practically palpable. And as for her own confusion, well, absolutely nothing that he’d just said made any sense. “Just because you're in therapy doesn't mean you're not normal,” she joked.
Her attempt at levity, however, failed miserably. Hei’s shoulders stiffened and his gaze dropped away from hers.
Well, that was an unexpectedly touchy subject. There was something there in that past relationship - unless it had been the mention of his sister - that had obviously influenced his present views of himself and his ability to form relationships. Haruko was a strong believer in uncovering the emotions and experiences that affected her clients’ current-day psyches; but oftentimes dredging up those old, uncomfortable memories could only complicate the present situation even further. She didn’t want him to close off even further than he already was.
“Hei, it’s alright,” she said gently. “Nobody feels like they’re normal, I promise. But therapy isn’t about ‘fixing’ problems or aspects of ourselves that we feel are somehow ‘wrong’; it’s about coming to terms with the challenges that we’ve faced in the past, and learning the tools that will help us to cope with the challenges we’re facing now. That’s what I’m here to help you with.”
Doubt flickered across his expression, but Haruko understood. They would get there eventually, once he felt comfortable enough to be open with her. And there was one subject she’d already discovered that could get him talking. “I’d like to talk about the assignment that I gave you last week,” she said as she jotted down a note to herself to circle back to this last relationship at a later point. “I asked you to have Misaki tell you one thing that she loves about you. Were you able to speak with her?”
He nodded. “Yes, but, I meant to ask - am I allowed to talk to Misaki about what we talk about here? Because I couldn't figure out a way to get her to tell me without just asking, so that's what I ended up doing.”
Oh dear. “Of course.” Haruko made an opening gesture with her pen. “I encourage you to share as much with your partner as you're comfortable with sharing. Your goal is to improve the communication between the two of you, after all.”
Relief flooded across his face. “Oh good. I didn't want to lie to her about anything.”
Something in his tone waved a tiny red flag. She tilted her head. “Have you lied to her before?”
“Not - not exactly,” he said, and left it at that.
“Maybe there are some things that perhaps you should have told her, but left out?” Haruko suggested.
His gaze flicked down to the tissue box between them. “Um...”
There's more of that guilt. These trust issues are a bit worse than I thought. “Well, we can dive into what untruths you might have told her in the past, and why. I think we should, in fact. But at a later time; for now I want to stay focused in the present. What did Misaki tell you?”
“Um, she said a lot of things, actually.”
Haruko smiled. “I'm not surprised; you sound like you are, though. What is one thing that she said - the most unexpected thing.”
“The most unexpected? Um.” His brow wrinkled again. “She said that she loves that I’m always putting other people first.”
“And why was that unexpected?”
“Because I don’t,” he said simply, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“You don't? So why would Misaki believe that you do?”
“I don't know.”
“Can you think of anything that you've done recently, where you put someone else's needs ahead of your own?”
“Now that does surprise me,” Haruko told him with an encouraging smile. “Because all you've talked about in our session today is what you're doing to make Misaki happy. You moved in with her because she asked you to, even though it sounds like it's far outside of your comfort zone to live with another person; you're teaching her how to cook despite how challenging that must be.”
“Well, making her happy is what makes me happy, so...” he trailed off.
“And what about your work?” Haruko asked. “You work for the police - surely that job in and of itself requires selflessness, no matter what your reasons for joining were.”
“Well, that's just work,” he said uncomfortably. “I just joined because Misaki said she would hire me, and I didn't know what else to do. It's mostly filling out reports.”
His girlfriend was his boss? Not to mention, a female supervisor in a traditionally male role. That certainly added a new layer to their relationship. Haruko made a note on her legal pad, then snapped her pen closed.
“I have a new assignment for you this week. I want you to keep thinking about everything that Misaki told you, and see if you can understand why she would believe those things about you.” She rose from her chair and walked around behind her desk to pull open a drawer, from which she removed a new spiral-bound notebook. “To help you with that, I want you to take a few minutes each night and write down everything that you did that day for someone else. Something that got you nothing in return.” Returning to her chair in the little seating area, she handed the notebook over to him. He took it with no small amount of trepidation.
“Our memories aren't the most reliable thing,” Haruko told him. “They can be very selective, especially when we have pre-existing beliefs that may influence how we see ourselves or others. By making a record of these events as they happen, we can take a more objective look at our lives.”
She could hear the doubt in his voice; but she'd had many clients use this strategy, and it almost always proved valuable. She was sure that if he could just get out of his own head, see himself the way the people he cared about saw him, he might start to believe it. “ We'll go over your list in next week's session. And one last thing: this week, I want you to make one small change that will help you feel more at home in your apartment.”
“Like what?” Hei asked, his face blank.
“I don't know - something simple. A new potted plant that you like, a reading chair or small desk where you can do your own work, separate from Misaki. It's up to you. Talk with Misaki about it; you two share that space now, so you should be in agreement about how you change it. After all, I'm sure it's been a huge adjustment for her as well, having someone new move into a place where she's been used to living alone. But you need to feel as if you live there too, and know that you have some kind of decision-making power in the relationship.”
“It probably doesn’t feel as if we’ve made much headway so far,” Haruko said gently. “This is a long process. I haven’t pressed you on much yet; next week, though, I’m going to start asking for details in some things. You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to; but all I can work with is what you give me. Okay?”
He blanched at that news, but nodded.
Haruko watched him shuffle out of the office, conscientiously shutting the door behind him. They’d hit on a few things during this session that were clearly troubling for him. She was going to have to learn what sort of family situation had to led to his frequent moves as a child, what exactly had happened in his last relationship that had left him so confused.
Betrayal, she mused. He used that word on his own. Did his last girlfriend cheat on him, perhaps? It would go a long way to explaining why he seemed to feel as if he needed to cater to Misaki’s needs instead of his own, his fear of concrete investment in a relationship despite his obvious devotion to her.
Well, she would learn in time. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t be anything that she hadn’t seen and treated before. One step at a time, she reminded herself. He’ll get there.
“A set of knives?”
Hei nodded. “Misaki's are pretty cheap, and she doesn't take very good care of them. I spent an hour trying to get a good edge on her chef's knife, and then it went dull again after just one onion. So I thought a new set might be nice. I've never had good knives before. For cooking,” he added unnecessarily.
“Then that sounds perfect. And how about your other assignment?”
The spiral-bound notebook that she'd given him last week was sitting on the coffee table; Haruko could have picked it up from where she sat, but she waited for Hei to hand it to her. He did so with as much solemnity as a grad student handing over his final thesis. Curious as she always was when she asked her clients to keep track of something in their daily lives, she flipped open to the first page and was pleased to find that it was almost full.
“Monday,” she read aloud. “Held the door for an officer in the lobby. Held the elevator for another officer.”
Well, they were small things, but it was a start. At the next line, she noticed that the handwriting had changed from cramped and barely legible to clean and clear characters. “Spent an hour babysitting a witness's preschooler so that she could give her statement without him seeing his mother cry.” Haruko raised an eyebrow and glanced at Hei.
“Um, Misaki added that after I fell asleep. She did that the first couple of nights; she didn't think I was writing enough down. We did them together starting on Wednesday.”
“You didn't think that pausing your work for an hour to look after a child was very selfless?”
“I mean, I didn't mind doing it; kids are alright.”
Haruko read on. “Rewrote all of Kouno's reports for him even though he's a grown man who needs to learn for himself how grammar works.”
“Uh, she must have added that too. How did she even know I did it?” he added, half to himself.
“At lunch, accidentally paid too much for noodles and didn’t ask for the money back. Yours?” she asked, though the handwriting made it obvious.
It was always difficult to filter through a client's perspective and determine whether they were seeing themselves. It could be entirely true that Hei was as self-serving as he seemed to believe; it could also be true that his putting Misaki up on such a pedestal was baseless, and she was in fact domineering and unreasonable, and he was refusing to see it. But given this list - helping out the public, taking on tasks for his co-workers - it was pretty clear that it was his girlfriend who had the accurate view of him.
She moved on to the next line. “Tuesday: risked life and limb to get Matsumoto to safety after he was injured and nearly killed by a contractor.” Her eyes widened slightly. “This is in Misaki's handwriting, not yours.” It was difficult to keep a note of accusation out of her voice, but she managed.
“I was just doing my job.” The way that his gaze skated away from hers told her that he was holding something back.
“I'm sure you were. I'm also sure that there are plenty of police officers whose reactions would be to protect themselves first; but obviously that wasn't yours.” She folded her hands in her lap. “What is it about this incident are you not saying?”
“It...” he began before trailing off into distracted silence.
“Hei,” Haruko said gently, “it's okay to acknowledge our fears. There's no way to grow as a person if we ignore the things that make us afraid, the hard truths. I'm here to help you with that.” He still looked uncomfortable, so she continued, “I remember when the government first told us about contractors a year ago. Everyone was pretty freaked out, and understandably so. To know that such dangerous people are out there, with frightening powers that we can't understand; it's normal to be afraid. Your position in the police makes you even more vulnerable. I can't even imagine what it must be like, to go out there every day and know that not only are you facing normal criminals, but something potentially superhuman as well. Is this first time you've run across a contractor?”
He blinked. “No. I know how to handle contractors; that's why Misaki hired me.”
Haruko's mouth opened slightly as she tried to figure out what to say.
Hei ran a hand through his hair. “But Matsumoto wouldn't have been hurt at all if I'd been paying more attention. It was my fault.”
“Does the rest of your team blame you for the injury?”
“No. They think I was -” his mouth twisted slightly - “heroic, for a rookie.”
“But you don’t think so. Why not?”
“I saw - I saw something that should have tipped me off about the second contractor, the one who broke Matsumoto’s leg. Something that I shouldn’t have seen, so I acted like I hadn’t.”
Haruko tapped her pen on her pad, trying to parse his words. “What do you mean, shouldn’t?
“It - it doesn’t really matter.”
This lack of concrete details was starting to frustrate their ability to communicate; but this was the most that he'd volunteered in all of their sessions combined. She had to remember that and not push too impatiently. “I take it you haven’t told Matsumoto or the rest of your team about this?”
He shook his head glumly.
“What about Misaki?”
“I…left it out of my report. No.”
“Why? Are you afraid you'll get in trouble with her, as your boss?”
“No. She'll - I don’t know. I guess I'm afraid she'll be disappointed in me. She has this idea in her mind of who I am, and I'm trying to be that person.” He heaved a sigh, the most emotional reaction Haruko had yet seen from him. “But I was trying to protect myself by not saying anything to Matsumoto. If I had, maybe he wouldn't have gotten hurt.”
“Maybe - do you know that for sure?”
He shrugged. “Shit happens in the field. I know. But I still could have been more prepared, if I hadn’t been so worried about myself.”
Haruko sighed. “Hei, I think you're focusing on the wrong part of this situation.”
“The wrong part?”
“Let's look at the facts here,” she said, spreading her hands. “You were out on patrol with Matsumoto?”
“We were tracking down a lead on a contractor involved in one of our cases,” he amended.
“And you saw something that should have tipped you off about an attack, but you didn't mention it because it would have revealed...something...about yourself that you don't want your coworkers to know. So you stayed quiet; there was an attack, and you risked yourself to save your partner.”’
He gave a single, heavy nod.
“How long did you have to make a decision, between when you realized…whatever it was you realized, and when the contractor attacked?”
“I don't know. A few seconds, I guess?”
“A few seconds. You had only a few seconds to decide how to treat this situation before the attack; would saying something have made any significant difference?”
“I…don’t know. Maybe?”
“And in the end, what happened - you saved Matsumoto's life. You didn't have to. It was your job to watch out for your partner, yes, but you risked your own life to do so. Very, very few people would be willing to do that. Maybe it was a mistake to not speak up, but in no way does it make what happened your fault. Did you attack Matsumoto?”
“Well, no, but -”
“But you saved his life. That is what you need to be focusing on. You seem to have a pretty major blind spot when it comes to your own actions. It's why I asked you to take notes on everything you did last week that demonstrates you putting others ahead of yourself.” She jabbed the notebook with her pen. “I'm looking over it, and what I see is that the things that you noted down are kind gestures, certainly; they're small, but there are an awful lot of them. Is that how you see yourself - as someone who is generally kind to people, but has very little positive impact on their lives otherwise?”
“Um, I guess so?”
“And here are the things that Misaki wrote down for you - going to extra lengths to help out strangers, taking hours out of your busy day, risking your life. Do you really think that her opinion of you is so wrong? That you're not a selfless person?”
“Well...” He frowned, as if he was trying to think of a counter argument; but apparently unable to come up with anything, he stayed silent.
“Let's go back to the reason why you didn't say anything to Matsumoto during the incident, and why you omitted this detail in your report,” Haruko said.
His gaze was focused on his hands, clasped together in his lap. She wasn’t entirely sure that he was listening to her at all, and was just about to repeat her question when he said, “Matsumoto and the others - they don't know, about me. And I'm not ready - Misaki says it'll be fine if I tell them, but...I don't know.”
Oh dear. Where to start? “And this thing that they don’t know, this is why you left that detail out?”
He nodded, still unwilling to meet her eyes.
“But Misaki knows, even though you didn’t tell her about this incident either?” Haruko took a steady breath; it was time to push. “Hei, what is it that Misaki knows about you that your co-workers don’t?”
He looked up. “That I'm a criminal,” he said simply.
“You - what?” Well, that certainly wasn’t my first guess.
Then again, she realized, Hei didn’t exactly have an accurate perception of himself. What constituted a crime for him might not be the same for the general population. Given the cloud of guilt currently surrounding him, she had a feeling that that was the case. “You are a criminal, or you were?” she asked. “Are you actively committing crimes, right now?”
“Um...” His brow furrowed in thought. Why does he have to think about this answer? “No? Well, mostly not, I guess.”
“My papers are forged. But Misaki knows, and she said it was alright. She waived the background check requirement for my hire.”
That sounded extremely irresponsible, and not at all in character with the Misaki that Hei had described thus far. “Misaki, your boss, a police officer who has hiring powers, knows that you're using false papers and hired you anyway?”
“Yeah, it kind of surprised me too, actually - she's pretty strict about laws and things. I didn't turn a library book in on time once and she was more upset with me than the library was.” The corner of his mouth quirked up in a half smile.
It was sweet how much he loved his girlfriend, Haruko thought to herself, remembering back to those days when she and Michio had been newly in love, before each other's quirks had gone from adorable to an annoyance to learn to live with for nearly two decades.
Having false papers didn’t sound much like the sort of criminal activity that would cause cops to turn on one of their own if they knew about it. The reason for needing forgeries, however….
“Does this have anything to do with what happened a year ago, when you and Misaki first met? You told me that you were helping her with a case; I assumed that you were already with the police at that time.” But the time lines didn’t line up, she realized - he’d joined the police just a few months ago, after having been away for a year…having left the country for ‘legal reasons’.
As expected, Hei nodded. “I was, um, a confidential informant. Giving her information on my employers.”
Having crooked employers still didn’t make him a criminal. They were going to have to do some serious work on this self-recrimination problem. “How did Misaki recruit you?”
“Well, she didn’t. I went to her.”
Interesting; and totally in character for him. “Did you single her out specifically?”
“Yeah. I’d run into her a few times before, and I knew - well, I was pretty sure - that she would take me seriously and not just try to arrest me.”
Haruko smiled. “In other words, you knew you could trust her?”
The ghost of a smile finally returned to Hei’s own features. “Yeah. And it wasn’t just me - my whole team, there were four us - we decided together that we should do something. It was my idea to go to Misaki. If I hadn’t been sure about her…I wouldn’t have risked them along with me.”
And he still didn’t understand why Misaki believed him to be selfless. One thing still didn’t quite make sense to Haruko, however.
“So your papers,” she began when the clock on her desk chimed the hour. Damn - just when we were finally starting to get somewhere. She sighed. “Well, it looks like we’re out of time today. Next week, I want to pick up right here.” She didn’t miss the worry that appeared briefly in his eyes. “I want you to continue recording your selfless acts every night. If Misaki is interested, maybe you two can keep separate lists, and compare them at the end of the week.
At that suggestion, he looked positively horrified; Haruko had to laugh. “I think we’re making progress,” she continued. “Think about everything we discussed today. Also think about telling Misaki what you left out of your report. It’s okay if she’s disappointed in you - disappointing others is an inevitable fact of life. But hiding the things we’re ashamed of, pretending they don’t exist - that’s not the way to move forward.” She gave him a pointed look. “You trusted Misaki with your association with these criminals; you’re trusting her with the knowledge that you are not in the country legally, and she went as far as to bend the rules for you so that you could work for the police. Don’t you think you can trust her with this one small thing?”
He nodded, taking the notebook back from her. “I’ll - I’ll think about it. Telling her.”
“Good. That’s all I ask.”
It was only after he’d left the office that she remembered that she’d meant to ask him about his previous relationships. Well, maybe next time; they needed to deal with this strange perception that he was a criminal first.
Except, he said that Misaki hired him because he knew how to handle contractors… She shook her head. Eventually, this unexpectedly surprising new client was going to make sense. Eventually.
Haruko swept the last of the crumpled tissues into the waste basket, then fetched a fresh tissue box from the cupboard in the corner of her office. This last session with Ayami had been difficult: her father had reached out to try and mend bridges, and she was torn. Haruko was torn as well, for that matter. Given all that she knew about that man’s treatment of his daughter, she had trouble imagining that he wasn’t simply seeking to use her for his own ends. Haruko wanted to advise Ayami in no uncertain terms that she never make contact with her father again; but Ayami was so hopeful about a reconciliation. Ultimately, it was the client’s choice, not Haruko’s. And that just made it more difficult.
With a sigh and no small feeling of relief, Haruko placed Ayami’s file in her drawer and drew out Li Hei’s. She didn’t have to look over it to know exactly where she wanted to start today.
He was on time, as usual. It was a small thing, but Haruko appreciated it. I wonder if he writes ‘On time for appointments’ in his notebook, she thought to herself with a smile as they seated themselves around the coffee table.
“So,” she said, uncapping her pen, “how did your week go?”
Hei was more relaxed today than he had been in their previous sessions, leaning back against the chair rather than sitting straight and stiff. “Um, good, I guess.”
Laconic as always. “How are things at the office, after your co-worker was injured last week?”
Hei shrugged. “Matsumoto was released home from the hospital; the others pretend they don’t miss having him around, but I can tell they do. Misaki’s been having a hard time with it, though; she thinks it was her fault. I keep telling her that it wasn’t - she sent us out with the best information we had. There was no way of knowing there was a second contractor.”
“That sounds familiar.”
“There was no way for her to know,” Hei said, his shoulders finally loosening as he sagged forward the tiniest bit.
At this rate, Haruko was going to have him doing self-reflection exercises for the next ten years. “Well, did you do as I asked you to last week, and think about telling Misaki that you left something out of your report?”
The way his eyes shifted away from hers told her the answer. “I thought about it,” he said, almost sullenly. “But I bought her some flowers to cheer her up.”
Well, we’ll get there eventually. “That was sweet of you. Did she like them?”
He nodded. “Yes; but she was annoyed that I sent them to the office instead of just bringing them home. It was too risky; I should have realized that.”
“Risky?” Haruko had planned on addressing his trust issues today, but the conversation had already taken a strange turn. “How is giving flowers to your girlfriend risky?”
“Well, because people don’t usually send her flowers. Everyone saw. I didn’t sign the card, but now the whole team is talking about who might have sent them, and they might guess it was me.”
Oh dear. “Hei, are you saying that your co-workers don’t know that you and Misaki are seeing each other?”
“There’s no rule against it,” he said hurriedly. “Misaki checked. But I…well, I guess I don’t want them to judge her. If they find out about me.”
Honesty, Haruko wrote in large characters and circled it. “If they find out about your criminal history, you mean?” she asked.
“Yeah. She has perfectly logical reasons for hiring me, but dating me…it wouldn’t look very good for her.”
“Has Misaki said that to you? That she would be embarrassed if people knew the two of you were together?”
“Well, no. But why wouldn’t she be?”
Oh dear. “Hei, do you remember our conversation last week? About how your perception of yourself might not be entirely accurate, and you need to look at things objectively?”
He nodded, brow furrowed.
“Let’s do that, then. Look at the situation objectively.” Haruko held up one finger. “Misaki, knowing about your past, hired you for her team.” She extended a second finger. “If I remember correctly, she told you that she was sure it would be alright if you told the others about your past. And three,” she held up a third finger, “she has been nothing but trusting and supportive of you in your relationship. Would you say that that’s accurate?”
“I guess so.”
“Whose idea was it to keep your relationship a secret?”
“Um, we both decided. Together.”
“And what was her reasoning for coming to this decision?”
His frown deepened. “That the others would worry that she’ll give me preferential treatment. Which is stupid,” he added. “Misaki is always completely fair, about everything, and everyone knows that.”
“So given those facts, you’ve come to the logical conclusion that she’s embarrassed or ashamed of you?”
“I…yeah. I guess it doesn’t make any sense. Logically.”
“It doesn’t,” Haruko agreed. “Which makes me think that this shame is coming from you. You’ve hinted repeatedly that you’re ashamed of who you are - or at least, who you used to be, and whatever illegal things you might have done. This is the real root of the issue, what we need to address.” She folded her hands in her lap. “How does it make you feel, keeping this relationship a secret? To not be able to acknowledge in front of your co-workers that you care about her?”
He shrugged uncomfortably. “I don’t know. I’m used to keeping secrets. It’s not that hard.”
“I didn’t ask if you were used to it. I asked how you feel about it.”
“I…” He trailed off, running a hand through his hair in obvious frustration. Then taking a deep breath, he said, “I hate it. I’m so tired of lying all the time. Being with Misaki is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a normal life, and I - I want more it.”
Haruko breathed a sigh of relief. She was only just coming to realize how difficult it was for him to be honest with himself; this was a huge step forward. And it was also not the first time that he’d expressed the belief that he was somehow different from the rest of the human population - that he either didn’t belong, or didn’t deserve to.
“Good,” she told him. “There’s no reason that you can’t have more normality - you just have to allow yourself to. The issue isn’t that you’re hiding your relationship with Misaki. I’m not saying that it’s at all healthy; but the larger problem is why. And that seems to be the fact that before you joined the police, the people you used to work for were involved in some kind of criminal activity. Do you agree?”
He nodded slowly.
“You’ve kept this fact from your fellow police officers, the teammates that you work with every day. What is your relationship with them like?”
“Would you say that you’re friends? Do you chat with each other at the office, hang out after work? Do you hate each other?”
“Um…well, we don’t hate each other. They all get along great.”
He was being vague and avoiding again. Haruko merely folded her hands on top of her legal pad and waited. After several awkward silent moments, he continued, “Well, Saitou and Kouno have been partners for three years. They’re always teasing each other, about how cheap Saitou is, how terrible Kouno is at dating, that sort of thing. Saitou knows all the best noodles stands in the city. Matsumoto has been with the police for almost twenty years, but he doesn’t tell a lot of stories or talk down to the younger guys. And he has great connections with most of the beat patrols; some of the best leads come through him. Ootsuka’s pretty quiet, but she’s usually the one who arranges going out to the bars, office birthday parties, things like that.”
Haruko listened to him talk, describing his co-workers mannerisms, habits, and personalities. It was like he was some kind of office anthropologist, observing and recording a newly-discovered culture without taking part himself lest he disrupt their way of life.
Eventually, she held up a hand, and he immediately fell silent. “Hei, you seem to have an excellent grasp of the interpersonal relationships in your office. But what I really want you to think about here is how you fit in.”
He shifted in his seat. “How I fit in? Um, I mean, we grab lunch together while we’re out in the field. Sometimes I go to the bar with them when the shift is over, when they invite me. They usually invite me; I don’t always go.”
Again, Haruko said nothing, but merely lifted an eyebrow.
“I guess…well, I could probably join in Saitou and Kouno’s conversations more. They don’t exclude me, I just don’t really say anything. And Matsumoto…he seems to worry about me a lot. Like he thinks I need a - um, Misaki called it a mentor - in the police. Ootsuka didn’t talk to me at all for the first month, she would just blush and then go hide every time I tried to say something.” He frowned. “Sometimes I wonder if she remembers - I mean, I ran into her once last year, before I worked with the police. She was pretty drunk; I don’t think she remembers.”
That last cryptic remark aside, the conversation was finally moving forward. “Would you say that everyone has a good opinion of you?”
“Sure, I guess. I’m pretty good at getting people to like me.”
There was such a self-deprecating tone to his voice that it gave Haruko pause. “You don’t think they should like you?” she asked gently.
Hei shrugged, but didn’t answer.
“You don’t seem to interact with them very much on a personal level. Why is that?”
“I don’t…I mean, I don’t really know where I fit in yet.”
“Do you trust them, to have your back out in the field?”
“Of course I trust them,” Hei said. He seemed surprised that she would even ask that question. “They have a lot of experience, and loyalty to the team is something that Misaki makes a point of.”
Haruko didn’t miss the touch of pride in his voice. “And you? Do they trust you?”
“They -” he faltered, his gaze flicking away from hers. “I’m still kind of new, so they take extra care of me, even though they really don’t need to. But I guess they trust me. For now, anyway. I’d never betray them, but, there’s no way for them to know that.”
“You make it sound as if you don’t really care either way. You can lie to me all you want, Hei, but I need you to be honest with yourself. Is it important to you to have their trust?”
The tissue box on the coffee table suddenly seemed to have his full attention. Haruko tapped her pen on her pad. “Remember when we talked about how you’ve been afraid to make yourself at home in your relationship with Misaki, that she might one day abandon you?”
“She doesn’t abandon people,” he said quietly to the tissue box, but Haruko saw the worry in his eyes.
“Do you think that maybe you’re doing the same thing with your co-workers? Refraining from investing yourself in any kind of friendship with them for fear that they’ll turn on you once they find out the truth about your past?”
“Why wouldn’t they.”
The quiet resignation in his words tore at her heart. “Let’s look at this objectively,” she said gently. “I want you tell me why your co-workers, who all like you and depend on you, would suddenly stop trusting you once they know that you didn’t tell the truth about one small thing.”
He continued to stare at the tissue box in silence. At last, he said, “It’s not one small thing. Misaki and I visited Matsumoto at his home this week. He’s on bed rest until his leg heals well enough for a walking cast. He was happy to see us - both of us. It was…strange. We talked about everyone back at the office, and baseball, and what it was like to have a broken bone. It felt so…normal. But it was still a lie. I lied about not seeing the specter, and Matsumoto got hurt. Lying is what people like me do, and they know it. It’s what I’ve always done. No one ever trusts me once they know who I am.”
Haruko had no idea what specter meant, but she let it slide; it wasn’t important. “Hei, why did you not tell anyone that you saw this…specter?”
“Because then they would know. About me.”
“And knowing about you would cause them to mistrust you, because people like you lie. What other things do you think you might lie about to them in the future?”
He hesitated. “Well, nothing…except things about myself. That I don’t want them to know.”
“And why don’t you want them to know about these things?”
“Because…” He frowned. “Okay. You’re saying that if I just tell them, then I don’t have any reason to worry? It’s not that simple…”
Haruko spread her hands. “I’m sure it’s not simple at all. But it’s a place to start, isn’t it? Misaki is sure that everyone will still accept you if you tell them the truth - isn’t that what you said?”
Hei nodded doubtfully.
“I want you to imagine this scenario in your mind: you tell your team that you were once involved in criminal activity, and that you lied to them about it. What happens next, exactly?”
“Well…they’ll get angry. They’ll question Misaki’s judgment in hiring me, and refuse to work with me because I can’t be trusted.”
Is this the only outcome he can think of? She’d hoped for a bit more reflection. “And what will Misaki do?”
“She’ll - well, she’s been talking about hiring a, um, someone like me for a long time. I know the others don’t want her to; they’ve told me,” he added despondently. “But even if they object, she won’t fire me. She believes in her vision for the police too much. Maybe I’ll just work on my own, attached to the department but still sort of freelance. I’m used to working alone; that wouldn’t be so bad. But I don’t want her to be criticized for it. Maybe I shouldn’t have joined the police at all.”
Oh dear; and the discussion was going so well. Haruko held up a hand before he could spiral any further. “Misaki makes her own choices; and she’s made those choices with full information, yes?”
Hei ran his fingers through his hair again, but nodded.
“She made the decision to hire you, knowing exactly what the potential consequences might be. That’s not the issue here. Look at it this way - this may be the perfect opportunity to redefine yourself.”
“You don’t have to let the past dictate who you are today. Maybe the Li Hei you used to be lied, all the time. Maybe he used to work for people who turned out to be criminals. But that’s not who you want to be - so don’t let it be you.”
For some reason, that advice was not received with the thoughtful optimism she’d hoped for. Instead, he looked almost distressed. “I don’t want to be just an alias anymore…”
Just an alias - that’s some rather odd phrasing. Haruko perched her chin on her hand and thought for a moment. “Let’s pause here and jump back to our conversation from last week. You mentioned that you were in the country illegally - can you explain that for me?”
“Um, well, I don’t have a real passport to use; I had to get a fake one.”
Haruko didn’t have the first idea how one went about getting a fake passport. “Did the police help you with that?”
To her surprise, he shook his head. “I have a contact in Hong Kong who does that sort of thing. I have to have false papers because, well, I'm legally dead.”
Haruko blinked. Okay, that might actually be a first.
At her dumb stare, Hei shrugged and added nonchalantly, “I've been using aliases for a long time.”
“So, Li Hei isn't your real name?” She felt strangely…disappointed at that knowledge. As if his mere existence as her client was a lie specifically directed at her. His worries about his co-workers’ reactions had a whole new context now.
He gave a half-shake of his head, then stopped. “It's not the name I was born with, but...I don't know, it feels more…real…than any other name that I've used.”
“What do you mean by that?”
He stared into the tissue box again. “Hei is how I've thought of myself for the past ten years, even when I was working under a cover story; it's who I was when I met Misaki. No,” he amended, “technically I was Li when I first met her; then when I asked for her help I also asked her to call me Hei.”
“Why is that?”
“Because...that's who I was asking her to help, I guess. Me, not my alias. And I couldn’t - I couldn’t ask her to trust me, if I was lying to her about something as basic as my name.”
The question of why he needed an alias to begin with - how he came to be declared dead hung over the conversation, but they were running out of time for this session already. Haruko instead refocused on the previous topic. “So when you returned to Tokyo a few months ago, you created a new identity for yourself - chose your name, chose a career with the police.” Haruko tapped her fingers on her legal pad. She'd never had a client in quite this position before, but if she thought it through... “Do you see Li Hei as a -” what was the word he'd used? “- an alias? Another false persona to mask who you really are?”
“I...I don't want it to be. I want to be myself, but who I was as just Hei...the whole time I was him, I wished I was someone else.”
“And yet you chose that name.”
He frowned. “I used it on my application to get Misaki's attention.”
“You couldn't have gotten her attention another way? Called her, maybe?”
He didn't answer, lost deep in thought. At last, he said, “If I'm not Hei, I don't know who I am.”
“It's tempting to want to run from our past, rather than face it,” Haruko said gently. “If you chose a completely new name, would that wipe out everything that you did as Hei that you're ashamed of?”
“No. But you can redefine who Hei is. Take the assignment that I gave you - recording all of your selfless acts. The more you write them down, the more you'll realize that that is who you are; you'll start to believe it. Once you believe it, it's true. And what about Li? That was an alias you were using when you met Misaki?”
“Is that why did you choose that for your family name? There are quite a lot of Lis - it's one of the most common names in China, isn't it? Why choose that?”
He gave a half shrug. “Common names make good aliases. It was easy, and I knew Misaki would recognize it.”
“You already had Hei for her to recognize,” Haruko pointed out. His logic made perfect sense to her, but he was yet again refusing to meet her eyes. There was another layer here that he was reluctant to share. “Was it necessary to add Li as well?”
He didn't answer, which Haruko took for confirmation that he had an answer and didn't want to vocalize it. “Why Li?” she asked again. “Did you know someone with that name?”
“It - it used to be my name. Before I was Hei. It was my father's name.” His voice was so quiet that she barely heard him; and she didn't miss his use of the past tense. She also didn’t miss the slight tremble in his hands, which he quickly masked by clasping them together.
“Is it painful, to think about your father?”
“That's why I don't,” he said curtly. His knuckles were turning white; Haruko took that as a sign to stop pushing for now.
“I won’t ask you to talk about anything that you don’t want to,” she reminded him. “But ignoring painful emotions - it’s a coping mechanism that many people turn to. It’s one that may have helped you through difficult times in the past. But in the long run it’s only going to make things harder.”
“It’s always worked before.” The tightness hadn’t left his voice.
Haruko raised a questioning eyebrow. “I would argue that it hasn’t. We’ll leave that for next time, though - we’re out of time for today. This week, I want you to continue your daily log. I also want you to decide who you want Li Hei to be. I don't mean things like how you dress or what you eat for lunch,” she added, remembering his list of observations about his co-workers. “What are your values? What are the goals for your life? Is police work truly the career that you want to commit to, and why? Include Misaki in this exercise if you want, she’ll probably have some great insight for you; just make sure that all of these decisions are ultimately coming from you, and not anyone else.”
She'd given this assignment to many clients before, and after several weeks of intense contemplation they would find it helpful. Of course, none of those clients had been truly redefining themselves, in the sense that they'd never changed names or lives like changing a suit of clothes, as Hei had made it sound. But the concept was the same; she was sure that if Hei actually sat down and examined what he wanted out of life, he would find it a valuable exercise as well.
“Does that make sense?” she asked when he didn’t respond.
He nodded once, brow furrowed. “It’s - it’s strange,” he said. “This is the first time in my life I’ve been able to decide who I want to be. But what if - what if I can’t redefine myself? What if I really am just Hei? How can I change what I’ve been for so long?”
“That’s what we’re going to figure out,” Haruko told him kindly.
Hei's backstory that I'll be referencing from here on out is the same one I used in Distractions - see Into the Dark Night for more.
Also, shoutout to loremipsxm's A Guide to Admitting That You Love Her for the "Section Four thinks Hei's a straight edge" head canon!
"So you and Misaki both accidentally let the truth slip?" Haruko asked as she leaned down to pick up her cup of tea. Another cup was sitting on the table across from hers; it was the first time that Hei had accepted her offer of hospitality since he'd started coming to see her. He hadn't taken more than a sip yet, but still she saw his acceptance as a sign of the growing trust between them.
He nodded. "And, well, you were right, I guess. It wasn't her dating me that she wanted to hide; she's worried that the fact that she's in a relationship at all will make her look weak. It's hard for her," he continued, "being in charge of men who are older than her. People will say that she only got the position because of her father, or because the department is trying to make a political statement - but everyone who's ever worked with her knows that she works harder than anyone, and she's earned it."
Haruko smiled, always pleased to hear his unwavering support of his partner; but they weren't there to discuss the social politics of the National Police Agency. "How does it feel, to have your relationship out in the open now?"
"It's…more of a relief than I thought it would be," Hei admitted, somewhat reluctantly. "I'm so used to having to guard everything that I say and do; it's nice having one less thing to lie about."
Her client seemed happier than usual today - not that he ever showed up to their sessions in a bad mood. He was typically so guarded in his emotion that half an hour would pass before she could get a read on how he was feeling. "Did anything else happen this weekend, or is it just the relief that has you in a good mood?"
He blinked, as if surprised at her insight, then smiled. "Well, yes. Misaki gave me a key to her apartment."
Haruko took a sip of tea to give herself an extra moment to parse what he'd just said. "You didn't have a key?" she asked. "But haven't you been living together for several weeks now?"
"Yeah. But I don't really need a key. We leave for work at the same time - she drives, and I take the train, or at least I did - now I drive with her. If I got home before her I'd pick the lock to let myself in."
Nothing in his voice suggested that he saw anything strange in that arrangement. Oh dear, where to start… "Misaki didn't mind you essentially breaking into her home?"
"Does it count as breaking in if I live there too?"
Haruko started to laugh before she realized that he was genuinely asking. "I suppose not. But why hadn't Misaki gotten you a key before now?"
Hei shrugged. "Her only spare key is with her dad, and he's been traveling. She doesn't have much time during the day for errands like having a copy made, and since I didn't really need one, it didn't make much sense to bother. But I guess she'd been wanting to give it to me for a while, as a surprise for my birthday - the one on my papers was a couple weeks ago. Since I can't remember when my real birthday is, she gave me the key on Saturday."
Breaking into your own home every night because getting a key made was too much of a hassle? It was unconventional, to be sure - but if neither of them had a problem with an arrangement like that, Haruko didn't see the need to discuss it. Instead, she asked, "So what does a key you don't need represent to you?"
That question caught him off guard. His brow furrowed in thought. "I guess… it means that she really is serious about us. She wants me to stay a part of her life. The rest of the team knows about us now, and I can come and go like it's my home too. It's - it's real," he said softly as comprehension dawned on his features.
Haruko smiled warmly; she lived for breakthroughs like this. However, they were continuing to skirt around the larger issues; it was time to push. If she didn't push, then she was useless as a therapist.
"That was really sweet of her, to prepare a surprise like that for your birthday. But, what did you mean, you can't remember when your birthday is?"
"I've had so many aliases - each one with a different birthday that I had to memorize," Hei said offhandedly, still obviously basking in the glow of his newfound realization. "It's get confusing after a while. And I stopped celebrating my own a long time ago. There was no point. I think maybe it's in March…or is that my sister's?" A look of real panic flashed suddenly across his face. "Crap, I don't remember her birthday!"
Haruko resisted the urge to smile at the watered down curse. He'd only mentioned his sister once before, and that had been in oblique reference to something in the past. That, coupled with his emotional shutdown after mentioning his father last week, told her that something had happened to his family early on, something that had left him scarred. She had to navigate this conversation carefully.
"Why is it so important to remember your sister's birthday, when you don't seem to care about yours?" Haruko asked, watching his face.
He didn't meet her eyes. "It felt important to remember, after - after we left. Normal. I don't know why I bothered, because she didn't care. The sixteenth!" he said with a sudden exhale. "March sixteenth."
"It made you feel normal to remember her birthday," Haruko said, walking a careful line down the conversation. She desperately wanted to dig into his past further, but with something like this - whatever this was - it was best if he brought up the subject himself. "That's something you still struggle with, isn't it - feeling normal?"
He nodded, his usual reserve settling back upon him. Haruko decided to try and boost his mood a little again.
"That's something that's been holding you back in your relationship with your co-workers. Was it difficult to admit to them who you are? I'm proud of you for doing it, by the way - that was a huge step for you."
He actually blushed a little at her words. "Knowing that Matsumoto didn't have a problem with it helped. The others all respect his opinion. So it felt like the right time."
"You seem a bit hesitant still. What's worrying you?"
"Saitou and Kouno…I don't think they really believed me. I mean, they didn't accuse me of lying; if Misaki hadn't made it so obvious at the bar they probably would have thought it was a joke."
"Why don't you think they believed you?"
"I'm pretty good at convincing people that I'm someone I'm not," he said bitterly.
"We've talked about this before," Haruko reminded him, though she could sympathize with his co-workers. She herself was having trouble believing that he was anything other than the kind young man who sat on her couch every week, despite his continual allusions to some sort of dangerous, other self. It was a strange dichotomy. "Your perception of yourself is very different from how others see you; but you can't be faking it twenty-four hours a day. Those acts of kindness and selflessness that you do without thinking - you do them because that is who you are."
Her words didn't mollify him. "Saitou told me flat out that if he'd known who I was from the beginning, he would never have agreed to work with me."
"Has he shown any signs of not wanting to work with you since then?"
Hei shifted in his seat. "Well, no."
"Why do you think that is?"
"Well, they know that Misaki wouldn't bring someone untrustworthy into the team."
"Is it only Misaki's opinion of you that's convinced Saitou? Or do you think that maybe you've proved yourself to him already, on your own?"
"Maybe, I guess." He sighed and picked up his teacup to stare into it without drinking. "I've been so careful to hide that part of myself…the stories they've heard are completely different from how they've been seeing me. They used to swear around me all the time," he said. "When they stopped, I didn't notice at first. Then one morning Kouno spilled hot coffee on his shirt and swore - and handed some change to Ootsuka. She put it in her drawer. When everyone left for lunch, I looked in the drawer and found a jar that said Li's swear jar. Now they know that a year ago I was on their most-wanted list - and then this morning I saw Saitou add more money to the jar after saying damn it. That's how they've been thinking of me: as someone who can't handle cursing, when really I'm just used to not doing it. Telling them that I'm someone different hasn't changed anything."
He'd been so worried that his teammates would react badly to finding out about this truth; their reaction had proved to be the opposite of what he'd expected, and now he couldn't accept it. Haruko drummed her fingers on her legal pad. "You said you don't swear because you're not used to doing it. That's the only reason - it truly doesn't bother you when other people do it?"
"No. I just…always tried to set a good example for my sister. I don't know if it made any difference; my cousin was always swearing when we were growing up, and then…later…the people around us were…well, they didn't care about cursing in front kids. But she was younger than me, and our parents had always told me I had to be careful, because my sister looked up to me."
The hollowness in his voice tore at her heart. His family was definitely the source of a lot of his issues; Haruko wondered if maybe it wasn't time to start digging after all. For now, though, she said, "What if you did start swearing at work? I imagine a police bullpen is rife with colorful language. If it doesn't bother you to do it, it may help your co-workers feel more at ease with you - or at least help them see that you aren't exactly this naive person."
He finally took a sip of tea, collecting his thoughts. "That's the sort of thing I would do if I was working undercover in the department. Whatever I needed to do to fit in. But…how much of what I do is because I'm still operating like I need an alias, and how much is just, me? What you said last week, about reinventing myself… Misaki and I have talked about it a lot. The rest of the team hasn't seen me work - not the way I'm used to working. I hid it from them because of how they would react; now that they know, it'll be easier. I don't have to pretend that I don't speak Russian and Portuguese, or that I've had less hand-to-hand combat training than them. But, that person, the one who's had all that training…that's the person I've always hated. If I let myself be that person again, even in small ways…" His grip on the teacup tightened. "Kouno wants me to start sparring with him. When I train, I don't hold back. Not anymore. And I don't want to hurt anyone who's on my side. I can't be that person again."
There was a lot in what he'd just said - a lot of confusion and very little focus. Sometimes, a therapist was merely an editor for her clients' thoughts. Haruko folded her hands on top of her legal pad. "What do you mean, you don't hold back anymore? There was a time when you did?"
Hei nodded slowly and set his teacup on the table, where he continued to stare into it. "My grandfather ran a wushu school back in China. I started training there as early as I can remember. Kids always got hurt during sparring - bruises and skin burns and that sort of thing. It never bothered me, or anyone really. Then during one class I was up against this other kid. I aimed a strike at his face. He was a lot bigger than me; I expected him to block it, so I put all my strength into the punch. But he didn't block. I hit him square in the nose. I heard the bone crunch - there was blood everywhere - and he screamed. I thought I'd killed him."
The horror in Hei's voice was almost palpable. "What happened after that?" Haruko asked.
"I refused to spar for months after that. My grandfather convinced me to start fighting again, after he promised that I could hold back and not fight to win."
"It doesn't sound as if your grandfather was upset about what happened to that boy."
Hei shook his head. "It was a normal part of training; he knew that I hadn't meant to hurt anyone. He told me - he said that choosing nonviolence could be more challenging than choosing to fight, and he was proud of me for making that decision." At those last words, Hei's mouth twisted slightly.
When I train, I don't hold back, he'd said. Haruko suspected they were starting to approach the root of his pervasive sense of shame. "Why did you stop holding back then?" she asked gently.
"I couldn't hold back anymore; not if I wanted to keep my sister safe. So I learned to fight with everything that I had. And if I want to keep my new team safe, I have to do the same. That's why - I don't know how to change who I am."
"Protecting the people you care about is nothing to be ashamed of. What does your grandfather think about this change in your decision?"
Grief washed over his features. "I don't know. I haven't been in contact with any of my family in over a decade. I don't know if he's even still alive."
"You left home," Haruko said, piecing together the bits of information that he'd let slip throughout their conversations. The respect he obviously held for his grandfather, the fact that he'd (unconsciously or not) taken his father's family name as his own when he could have chosen anything, his devotion to his sister - a runaway was the last thing she would have pegged him as. "Why did you leave?"
He stared into his teacup. "A week after the Gates appeared, my sister became a contractor and killed our parents."
Behind her, Haruko's clock chimed the hour in a silent room.
The chime of the clock died away; the only sound left in the room was the quiet tick tick tick of the seconds bleeding out.
Hei stared down into his teacup, unwilling or unable to meet her eyes. He looked a bit dazed, as if he’d just narrowly avoided being hit by a truck.
Haruko felt as if she had been run over, as she mentally grasped for the right words to say. That must have been difficult was far too cold; I’m sorry woefully inadequate.
At last she said, “Can you stay? I have the next thirty minutes open.”
Hei clasped his hands together, still staring downwards. After a moment, he nodded once.
“Okay,” she said, and looked into her own teacup. The tea had gone stone cold. Hei had only taken a single sip of his and showed no interest in touching the cup again; still, this was no time for cold tea.
Haruko scooped up both of the cups and took them to the little sink in the sideboard. She poured out the cold tea, worry vying with relief as the questions flooded her mind. A contractor. She’d never seen one in person before, but working as closely with the police as she did, she’d heard the stories, and had worked with the victims.
And his sister. What would she have done if Suzu - she cut that train of thought off immediately. She’d dealt with those emotions a long time ago; there was no point in unearthing them now, not when a client needed her help.
She poured two fresh cups of tea from her cheery yellow electric kettle and returned to the little sitting area. Hei took the proffered cup wordlessly; again, he didn’t drink, but held it in his hands as if to soak up the warmth. Haruko did the same with her own as she settled back into her chair, desperately running through a list of potential followup questions to get him talking again.
“You remind me of my aunt sometimes,” Hei said abruptly, startling her. “Whenever she thought someone was upset, she would make them a cup of tea with leaves from a blue jar. She used a different jar for everyday tea. I'm pretty sure they were same leaves, but for some reason the ones from the blue jar tasted different.”
Haruko didn't miss the shift in topic from his parents to his extended family; but if that was where he was most comfortable to start, then she was happy to oblige.
“Were you close with your aunt?” she asked gently, careful to keep anything that might sound like pity from her tone. She didn't think he would respond well to that.
He took a sip of his tea. “I guess. My sister and I were over at my grandparents' house after school all the time. Our parents had to work long hours,” he added, almost defensively.
It was still too soon to ask directly about his parents, Haruko judged. Instead she asked, “What's your favorite memory of that time, of your grandparents' home?”
Hei paused in thought. “Playing with my sister and our cousins, I guess. We were all around the same age, went to the same school.”
“What did you do together?”
“Just…played. I don’t know. There was this tree in the yard that we used to climb in the summer, and pretend we were monkeys - except Xing, she always wanted to be a bird.” A wistful expression crossed his features. “Sometimes Grandfather would come out and sit on the porch to smoke his pipe and watch us.”
Haruko smiled at the detail. “My grandfather used to use a pipe too - I've always loved the smell of pipe tobacco because of it.”
“I hate it,” Hei said flatly.
“Why is that?” she asked, surprised at the vehemence.
“I can't...if I'm around that scent...I have to leave.”
The need to avoid conflict in his relationships with other people was something that she’d noticed about him in their earliest conversations, and it was becoming increasingly clear that he shied away from internal conflict as well. Learning the tools to face and deal with difficult emotions was going to have to be their priority. For now, though, she was happy that he was finally starting to open up to her. It boded well for his progress.
“You have to leave - because it reminds you of him?” she asked quietly.
His mouth pressed into a thin line, and he nodded once.
“What happens if you don't leave, or can’t?”
Hei shrugged stiffly. “Just a panic attack, sometimes.”
“Just a panic attack?” Haruko asked, almost choking on a sip of tea. “Do those happen often?”
“I can deal with it, but if I don't have to I'd rather not.”
He hadn’t answered her question, she noticed. Haruko made a mental note to add that to the list - she wasn't writing anything down now, lest she accidentally distract him from his willingness to talk.
“What do you do to deal with it?”
“I just breathe through it,” he said. “I know it’s an automatic reaction; if I focus on what’s actually happening in the present, I can calm my mind down and get my heart rate back to normal.”
“Who taught you that?” Haruko asked. That was exactly the recommended technique for dealing with any sort of anxiety attack, yet he’d never seen a therapist before.
His parents had been killed when he was still a child, and he’d never seen a therapist, she abruptly realized. It was a marvel that he’d managed to cope so well thus far; even so, maybe they ought to move to two sessions per week.
“No one,” Hei said, bringing her back to the present topic. “I figured it out on my own. It was…pretty bad in the first few months after we left home, almost debilitating sometimes. I knew I had to get control of it to survive; finally one night I remembered the meditations that my grandfather taught us to focus the mind during training, and it worked.”
Survive. That was an informative word choice; though it didn’t make much sense in context. He apparently had had a close, caring extended family. Why had he left? They’d come a long way from communication within a relationship. “Do you still have these panic attacks?”
“Sometimes. They sort of…come and go. A few years ago I had them all the time; then almost never. Then they started again, but not as bad. Having Misaki there now helps.”
“She can help calm you down?” Haruko asked, trying to get an idea of how his partner was handling this aspect of their life together.
“I just remind myself that she’s safe, that - that I’m not alone. I’ve only had a couple since we started dating, and they were small enough that she didn’t notice.”
Haruko didn’t miss the relief in his voice; he hadn’t told his girlfriend about these episodes, and didn’t want her to find out. Haruko could understand why - that sort of vulnerability was often hard to share, even with loved ones. They would have to address this at some point, but she could let it slide for now. She didn’t want them to wander too far astray from the elephant in the room that Hei had been dancing around for the past ten minutes.
“Have you told Misaki about your sister?” she asked, hoping to reintroduce the subject gently. “And the way you left home?”
“Was it difficult to tell her?”
“I’d never really talked to anyone about it before, so…it wasn’t easy, I guess, because of that. But Misaki already knows the worst of me. I don’t have to worry about telling her anything simple like this.”
Simple. The murder of his parents by his own sister was simple? It was almost ludicrous; however, Haruko was starting to see the shape of his emotional acumen in the gaps between what he was and wasn’t willing to talk about.
“It sounds as if you have a great respect for your grandfather,” she said, “and close bonds with the rest of your family.”
He blinked at the apparent change in subject. “Yeah. I mean, I did.”
“How did they react to your sister’s change?” From their very first session, no mention of his sister had passed without his expressing concern for her wellbeing. He’d obviously never stopped caring for her. If the rest of the family had disowned her, that could explain why he had left home.
To her surprise, however, he said, “I don’t know.”
Haruko’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, we all noticed that she wasn’t acting like herself. I thought maybe she was sick; I’d never seen my mother so worried. But no one knew what a contractor was yet, and she didn’t threaten anyone or use her power. It was just a little strange, that’s all.”
“What was she like, before?”
“She was...happy.” A ghost of a smile appeared briefly on his face. “All the time. Even when she would get upset, it would be easy to get her to smile again. She wanted to be a nurse, like our mother - to help people feel better.”
“She looked up to you?”
He nodded. “We hardly ever argued; completely different from my cousins - they fought all the time. Xing was usually the only one who could get them talking to each other again.”
“I imagine all that changed, after she became a contractor?”
He nodded again, slowly. “She just woke up one morning...different. She didn't want to talk to anyone, didn't want to go to her dance classes. She didn't care about anything anymore.”
He paused there. Haruko let the space in the conversation open up, but he continued to stay silent, staring down into his tea once again.
Haruko hated asking direct questions about sensitive topics, but sometimes it was the best way. She sensed that now they’d reached that time.
“Will you tell me what happened to your parents?” she asked softly.
The clock ticked away long, empty seconds before he spoke again. “I came home late from wushu practice. I had to climb in through a window in the back, because the curfew had already started and there were police in front of our building - because of the Gates. I don’t know what they were afraid would happen, but everyone had to be inside after dark.”
Haruko remembered that time well. The chaos, the panic, the destruction - she didn’t know if there had been a curfew here in Tokyo. It had been weeks before she’d been able to leave her bed, let alone worry about returning to normal life. Once again, she pushed those thoughts aside, surprised that they kept slipping into her mind today.
Though really, she shouldn’t be surprised.
“I’m not sure what they’d been arguing about,” Hei continued in a flat, emotionless tone, “but when I walked into the room, I saw my father on the ground. My mother was pleading with Bai, then she saw me in the doorway. I don’t know if she was talking to Bai then, or me - but she said to get out. Then Bai killed her.”
Bai? She thought his sister’s name was Xing…well, that wasn’t what was important right now. He had delivered the details in a detached, clinical way, as if he was describing a crime scene wholly unconnected to himself. That ability to separate facts from emotion must come in handy working for the police; dealing with the emotions of his past he obviously struggled with, as well as the here and now.
He dealt with panic attacks on a fairly regular basis, it seemed, and had learned to navigate through them, using this separation technique. It was an effective coping mechanism; emotions couldn’t be painful if you didn’t allow yourself to feel them. But it just made them that much harder to handle when they did surface. And as his panic attacks demonstrated, they did surface.
“What was the first thing you felt, when you saw your sister kill your mother?” Haruko asked. She hoped that he could forgive her for asking the question. If he was serious about moving forward with this new life, he would.
Hei inhaled sharply, and his brow furrowed. He set the teacup down on the table slowly, as if it might break at any moment, and clasped his hands tightly together. Then he exhaled one long, drawn-out breath.
“Are you alright?” Haruko asked with concern.
His voice was tight when he replied, “Fine.” He took one more deep breath, then said, “I felt…sick, at first. Like I had to throw up. Maybe I did, I don’t really remember. And then…like…like I’d been abandoned. My parents were gone, and my sister may as well have died. I barely even had time to blink and suddenly I was alone.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Is that terrible thing to say? My parents didn’t die on purpose, they would never have abandoned me -”
“Hei,” Haruko interrupted gently, “don’t ever feel guilty for feeling the things that you feel. Your parents had always been there for you, then suddenly they weren’t. Of course you would feel abandoned. But,” she continued, “you had other family. Your aunt, your grandfather. Didn’t you go to them?”
“No. I didn’t even consider it.” He sighed heavily. “Grandfather always said I have a problem with that - acting without thinking. I didn’t know how they would react - I didn’t think they’d hurt her, or anything, but they would have had to call the police. And then what would happen to her? What if she tried to stop them from calling? All I knew was that I had to get her away, someplace where she would be safe. There just wasn’t any place like that,” he finished in a low, hollow tone.
So he’d made a choice in the heat of the moment, and that choice had apparently defined the rest of his life.
“Do you blame your sister for what she did?” Haruko asked, watching his face carefully to be sure that she wasn’t pushing too hard. Though he was difficult to read, she was beginning to pick up on the subtle cues that meant he was having trouble handling what he was feeling. He was close to that edge now, she thought, but they still had some room to work with.
His eyes narrowed. “It wasn’t - I mean, I used to think, maybe if they hadn’t pushed her, or maybe if I’d gotten home earlier. She didn’t mean to kill them; she was still just learning how to use her ability, and anyway, she was only nine.”
Haruko frowned to herself at his defense of his sister. “It was an accident, then?”
“It…no,” he admitted. “She was trying to hurt them. She told me that much.”
His self esteem problems were coming into clearer focus now: when he’d made that choice to walk away from his surviving family and look after his sister - a contractor, a killer - in a way that had been a moral choice. He had to come to her defense, in order to rationalize his own actions. No wonder he felt so insecure in his relationship with a woman who, by his own admission, had a strong ethical sense.
“Do you regret it?” she asked. “Choosing to help your sister run away?”
Hei thought for a long moment, hands gripping the fabric of his jeans. “No,” he said at last. “Knowing what I know now, I think it was the safest choice for everyone. For Xing - Bai, I guess...well, that's complicated. She would have hated what she had become, but she was still - she was still a person, who needed me. She was still my sister.”
He hadn't once mentioned his own reaction to any of this, Haruko realized. As the actions noted down in his notebook showed, he thought of others first, himself second. His only concern after his parents had died had been taking care of his sister. Their killer.
“Was it the best choice for you?” she asked.
He glanced up at her briefly - the first time he'd met her eyes since they'd started down this subject. “Probably not,” he admitted softly. “But it's what I chose, and I don't regret it.”
That sort of confidence was rare. The majority of Haruko's patients were plagued with doubts over the choices they’d made in throughout their lives, no matter how far in the past. Hei's worries seemed to be more focused on the future.
“You haven't been in contact with your family since then?”
He shook his head. “They think I'm dead. Xing too. It's probably better that way.”
“Is it?” Haruko asked softly. A treacherous spark of hope kindled in her heart; she shunted the feeling aside to be dealt with later, when she didn't have a client who needed her attention. It was useless to let such hope take root; she knew that, yet emotions weren't something that one could control so easily. “Do you think they'd wouldn't be happy, to know that you're actually still alive?”
Hei shrugged half-heartedly. “Would they be? When I chose a contractor over all of them? Over my parents?”
A sudden knock sounded on the door and Haruko jumped. She checked her watch guiltily. “That's my next appointment; I'm sorry. We'll have to pick this up again next week. In the meantime,” she smoothed down her skirt as she rose and went to her desk, where she plucked a business card from the stash that she reserved for her clients who needed more support than the once-a-week chats.
“This has my cell phone number on it,” she told him, passing over the card. “If you need to talk, about anything, and can't wait until our next session, send me a text. I'll call you back as soon as I'm free. I know it’s not easy to talk about these things, but it’s like anything else: the more you do it, the easier it gets.”
He cast her a doubtful look; she smiled sadly.
“This week, I want you to keep adding to the list in your notebook. And there’s one more thing that I want you to try: imagine picking up the phone and calling your grandfather. Walk through the entire conversation. What will you say to him, how will he respond. What will he say when he learns that his grandson is alive after all?”
Hei’s face went pale. “I don’t know if I can…” he began, before trailing off.
“It’s going to be difficult. I know. Even if you don’t make it past hello, I want you to try.”
He nodded stiffly, and Haruko walked him to the door. Before she opened it, she laid a hand on his arm. “Thank you for being honest with me today. Talk to Misaki about our session, and don’t put too much pressure on yourself, okay? These things take time.”
He gave her a small smile; she opened the door to see him out.
“Oh, you are here!” the young man on the other side exclaimed, his hand raised for another knock. “I thought - I mean, I was worried - “
“Just running a little late today, Keiji; I’m sorry,” Haruko said as Hei left. She ushered Keiji inside.
Before she shut the door again, however, she watched Hei walking across the waiting room. His back was straight, his gait confident; there was a warm smile on his face as he stopped to chat with Toya at the reception desk. Seeing him now, she would never have guessed that he’d just gone through his most challenging, emotional session yet.
Interesting. If only she had the next couple of hours free to write up her notes and contemplate the session’s revelations…but this was Keiji’s time now. Suppressing a frustrated sigh, she closed the door.
Haruko tapped her fingers on her desk as she stared at her little ornamental clock. It was five minutes til one, and Ayami hadn't answered her text yet.
The girl had sent her a message that morning, warning her that she might be late to her session; her father wanted to meet for lunch. Her abusive, yakuza thug of a father.
Haruko heaved a heavy sigh, wishing that Michio would be coming home from his conference tonight rather than Wednesday; being alone in the house for too long always left her feeling morose, even with the distraction of work.
She couldn't make her clients' choices for them; if Ayami wanted to reestablish a relationship with her father, then who was Haruko to stop her? All she could do was provide guidance.
Though she didn't like that she hadn't heard from Ayami even once since the start of their scheduled time. It worried her, despite there being no specific reason to be worried. But what could she do? It wasn't like she could call the police, not without any evidence that something was actually wrong.
The thought flitted through her mind that she might ask Hei for his advice on the situation, being with the police as he was. But she dismissed it; he had his own burdens to deal with right now.
Was it too much to ask that her clients had their emotional crises at different times?
Well, yes, it probably was.
Haruko glanced at the clock again; Hei's session would start in a minute. Despite that she'd given him her personal cell number, she hadn't heard from him all week. It wasn't surprising, reticent as he was. And he had Misaki to lean on for support - then again, he hadn't told his girlfriend about his panic attacks. Haruko made a mental note to bring that up today.
She thought again of the way his posture had changed after he'd left her office, of the casual smile and friendly ease with which he'd chatted with her receptionist. It had been such a stark contrast to his behavior during their sessions, as if he'd been putting on a mask - or rather, as if he wore a mask every day, and took it off when he walked into her office in order to be honest about his emotions.
And last week had been especially emotional for him. Part of her worried that, despite his previous punctuality, Hei would be a no show today as well. It happened more often than not with her clients - as soon as she broached a difficult topic, they would start avoiding their sessions. First Ayami, then Hei; maybe she should -
A soft knock sounded on the door: one o'clock, right on time. Haruko smiled to herself. She shouldn't have worried. Taking a steadying breath, she filed her concerns for Ayami away; then she went to the door and ushered Hei in.
He walked slightly hunched, as usual, though there was an uncharacteristic apprehension on his face.
"Tea?" she asked as he took his customary seat in the armchair.
"Um, yes please."
It was a small victory, but Haruko would take it. She poured out two cups of tea; handing one to her client, she took her own seat and settled her yellow legal pad on her knee.
"How was your week?" she asked, hoping to calm his nerves. Maybe someday she wouldn't have to ask - he would volunteer the information on his own - but for now she didn't mind continuing to give him that nudge.
"Alright, I guess."
No small talk this week, it seemed. Time to jump right in, then. "Tell me about the assignment I gave you last week."
"Oh. I have my notebook…"
"Not the notebook," Haruko said gently as he reached into his jacket pocket. "The other assignment."
Hei froze. "I - I couldn't."
"Couldn't what?" She hadn't expected him to be able to get through an entire conversation, even imaginary; would have been shocked if he'd managed it. Still, simply attempting to formulate an explanation to his family would be a helpful exercise.
"I couldn't even pick up the phone."
Haruko raised an eyebrow. "I didn't ask you to actually call, just to imagine it."
"I know." He ran a weary hand over his eyes. "Even pretending to pick up the phone - I couldn't. Couldn't even think about doing it. I had to stop."
Not even that much? "What stopped you?" she asked. "What did you think that made you say, I can't do this?"
Hei took a long, shaky sip of tea. Haruko waited.
"I just…I could see him, so clearly, answering the phone. He always frowned when people called, like they were intentionally disturbing him."
"Did you worry that you would disturb your grandfather by calling?"
"No. It was - I could see him picking up the phone ten years ago, after - after it happened, and desperately hoping that it was me, or Xing, or - or even our mother. For weeks; maybe months. How much pain he must have gone through, because of me," Hei finished quietly.
That pain…Haruko blinked to clear away an unexpected tear. Why were her sessions with this particular client dredging up those old feelings?
His needs were what were important right now, this burden of blame that he had placed on himself despite that he had only played a small part in the tragedy that had befallen his family. They would have to work on that feeling.
"And how would he feel to pick up the phone and finally hear your voice on the other end?" she asked, her voice thankfully still steady.
At that question, the emotion drained from his voice. "I'm dead. He wouldn't recognize my voice, and he wouldn't believe it even if he did. If he - if he's even still alive."
Hei took a sip of tea, his apparent calm betrayed by the slight shake of his hand. Haruko considered him for a long moment. At last she said, "Let's think about a hypothetical situation. Someone you love is in an accident, and you're told that they've died. Misaki, perhaps."
He flinched visibly at his girlfriend's name. Even hypotheticals were going to be difficult here, Haruko realized. Nevertheless, she continued, "For ten years, you live believing that Misaki has passed away. Then one day, you answer the phone, and it's her voice on the other end. What do you do - assume it's some sort of trick, hang up the phone, and forget about it?"
"No," he said sharply.
"No? So what do you do?"
His eyes narrowed. "I do whatever I have to do to find her again."
"And you think your grandfather would somehow act differently? When it's his own grandson?"
Hei exhaled heavily and buried his face in his hands. After a moment, he lifted his head and ran his fingers through his hair. "No," he said at last. "He wouldn't - he wouldn't give up so easily."
"Then what is it that's holding you back?"
He took a long sip of tea before setting the empty cup down on the table. "I'm not the same person I was when I left home," he said, staring into the dregs at the bottom of the cup.
"None of us are the same as we were ten years ago," Haruko pointed out. "And why should we be? People change."
"He'd be disappointed."
"Disappointed that you've changed? You were only a child when you left home."
"Disappointed in how I've changed. What I've done."
They were coming back around to where they'd started six weeks ago: his shame at others discovering that he'd worked for people who had turned out to be criminals. How he'd gotten involved with them in the first place she still didn't know, though she suspected that it had something to do with his sister.
"You've told Misaki about your past," Haruko said. "And she's accepted you. You were worried about your co-workers finding out; now they know, and unless you aren't telling me everything, they've accepted you as well. Why should your grandfather reject you? You have a good job with the police, a loving and stable relationship - wouldn't he be proud of you?"
But Hei shook his head slowly. "He was proud of me when I refused to fight or hurt other people."
"And now you hurt people?" Haruko asked, disbelieving. "Is that what you're saying?"
His voice was barely audible when he answered. "I've hurt a lot of people."
Haruko folded her arms in her lap, considering. She had difficulty believing that he had ever been as terrible a person as he seemed to think, though it was quite clear that he genuinely believed it of himself. Arguing - however logically - over this opinion might only result in him digging his heels in even further, set him at odds with her. Instead, she elected to give him the benefit of the doubt and accept his version of his character for now.
"Even if you have," she told him, "part of loving other people is accepting their flaws and forgiving their mistakes. I think parents - and grandparents - may understand this more than most."
Hei's expression clouded. "I don't think my mother would have forgiven Bai for what she did. She called her a monster; then she died."
Haruko felt all the weight of that statement. She gentled her voice as much as she could and said, "Are you afraid your mother wouldn't forgive you for choosing to help your sister?"
The long, empty silence was her only answer; but it was answer enough.
At last Hei looked up, his eyes full of grief. "I -" Abruptly his gaze flicked away from hers to focus on something behind her; then his eyes returned to her face, and his expression closed off. "I forgot. I have another appointment; I need to head out early, I'm sorry." He stood, back straight, and smiled apologetically.
Haruko frowned. "Hei, I really don't think this is a good time to leave."
His smile stiffened at the use of his name. "It's police business - I'll be late if I don't go now."
"Wait -" she began, but he was already walking out of the office.
Haruko sat blinking at the sudden departure. Hei's method of coping by avoidance was nothing new, but thus far every emotional challenge she'd given him had been met with silence or frustration. Running out like that - that was strange. Even stranger was that smile. It was the same falsely cheery smile that he'd given the receptionist on his way out last week.
He'd been so open with her this afternoon - what had prompted the sudden change? There was no one to put a mask on for here. She turned, but there was nothing behind her but her desk, the big office window, and an open view of the gray November sky.
Well, it was strange, but it was far from the strangest thing a client had ever done. Haruko sighed, scooped up the teacups, and returned to her desk to write up her notes. This was turning out to be a thoroughly frustrating day.
"Hm." Haruko shifted her grip on her phone as she tipped some water into the bonsai ginkgo on her desk. "Maybe next time I'll take the week off and come with you."
Michio laughed, sending a ripple of loneliness through her. "And abandon your clients? You've been saying that for the past twenty-five years; I'll believe you when you actually do it. You're still at the office right now, aren't you."
Haruko smiled. "I'm leaving in a minute."
"I knew it," her husband said, and she was sure she could hear his own smile half a country away. "Well, I've got to go over my presentation now, honey. Go home and get some sleep; I'll see you in a couple of days."
"Good luck tomorrow," Haruko sighed. "I love you."
"Love you too - good night."
Haruko ended the call, turning to gaze out at the dark night beyond her window. She missed the moon on nights like this; the city lights and the false stars were too cold and distant to be of any comfort.
A light flashed as it abruptly streaked down towards earth. A star had fallen - a contractor had died, if the newspapers could be believed.
Haruko thought of Hei, and his sister. Was her star still there in the heavens? What had happened to his sister after they'd run away from home was a question that Haruko didn't yet feel comfortable asking. And with his unexpected departure in the middle of their session this afternoon, she was even more unsure how much he trusted her. Whether he would be back at all.
She sighed again, and gathered her coat and purse. Just when they'd started to make some real progress. Well, she would try giving him a call tomorrow, see if she could talk him into another session this week. She would call Ayami, too - the girl had finally replied to her texts, but the banality of the reply had left Haruko feeling worried.
For now, though, it was time to go home, maybe read a little before bed. Haruko shut off the lights to her office. The waiting area outside was already dark; Toya had gone home hours ago. But Haruko often stayed this late, especially when Michio was away, and had no trouble navigating to the corridor outside and the elevators beyond.
It was chilly inside the parking garage when the elevator doors dinged open. Haruko wrapped her wool coat tightly around herself and walked briskly down the center aisle, her skirt swishing around her ankles.
The garage was practically empty this time of night. There was only a single van, parked in the distant corner; long shadows stretched behind the concrete pillars that lined the aisles. The exit to the street and the train station was on the other side of an L-shaped bend in the garage structure. A gust of wind swirled up from that direction, scattering a pile of discarded paper flyers into a corner.
One of the overhead lights buzzed fitfully, then went out. Haruko picked up her pace, grateful that her soft-soled flats made no noise as she walked. Not that there was anyone with her in the garage to hear. But for some reason, she couldn't shake a distinctly uneasy feeling, like she was being watched.
She'd almost reached the corner that would take her to the path to the\ exit when something like a pebble being kicked echoed somewhere ahead of her. Haruko stopped dead in her tracks, her heart pounding. Was someone there? Feeling a bit silly but no less uneasy, she reached into her purse for her phone, straining to see into the shadows.
The voice came from behind her. She spun with a gasp, fumbled her phone, and dropped it with a clatter onto the ground.
A figure stepped out from behind a column and into the light of a fluorescent bulb.
"Hei?" she said in relieved surprise, pressing her hand to her thumping heart. "You startled me! What are you doing here so late?"
"Oh, sorry." He rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "I was just on my way up to your office."
Haruko stooped to pick up her phone. "Did you need to talk? You could have called me."
Hei shrugged, his arms resting loosely at his sides. The posture seemed odd at first; then Haruko realized that he usually walked with his hands in his pockets whenever she saw him for their sessions.
"I left my phone somewhere; it seemed easier to just stop by. I, um, I wanted to apologize for this afternoon. That was rude of me."
"It's alright," Haruko said. Something else had caught her attention. His smile - it was the same slightly stiff, almost ingenuous smile that he'd worn when he'd left her office. "I was pushing you pretty hard; I could have backed off a little, given you some space to breathe."
"No; I shouldn't have walked out. Well, that's all I wanted to say, I guess. Um, is your car here?" he asked, gazing around at the obviously empty garage.
"I take the train," Haruko said carefully. Everything about his behavior was warning her that something was off, something was wrong - and yet she didn't feel threatened by him in the slightest. It made no sense.
"Oh. Well, I can walk you to the station. It's pretty late." He smiled again; the smile was friendly, but when his eyes met hers she got the distinct impression that he was trying to communicate something to her. She just didn't understand what.
Her heart was starting to pound again. Haruko slipped her phone back into her purse, grasping around until her hand closed on another item: the can of pepper spray that Michio had bought for her last year. She pulled it out as surreptitiously as she could manage.
"Sure," she said, turning so that he was still in her line of sight, the pepper spray held loosely at her side. "It's this way."
She'd taken two steps towards the turn in the garage lane when another figure stepped around the corner ahead of her.
"Dr. Uchiumi Haruko?" the stranger asked.
Haruko blinked. She didn't recognize this man at all. Tall, broad-shouldered, neatly dressed in a silver business suit; there was some kind of tattoo just visible beneath his crisp shirt collar, climbing the side of his neck. He must be the one who had kicked the pebble earlier, she realized. "Yes? Do I -"
Two things happened at once: the stranger reached beneath his jacket and whipped out a handgun; an eerie blue glow lit up around him.
Haruko stood frozen in confused disbelief. Then something heavy slammed into her back, pushing her to the hard concrete floor as a gunshot exploded through the air above her.
Haruko caught herself before her face hit the concrete, but just barely. A jolt slammed through her hands and into her wrists as she landed; if she cried out she couldn't hear it over the ringing in her ears.
The weight pressing her down abruptly vanished. Sprawled against the grimy garage floor, she turned her head to see what was happening and was overcome with a wave of nausea. The ground lurched beneath her, then tilted sideways. Earthquake? She tried to twist around again only to see the floor spin dizzily away.
She squeezed her eyes shut. The world was still spinning, but the ground beneath her hands felt solid. What was happening - where was Hei? He'd been right behind her…
Belatedly she realized that the weight that had pushed her to the floor had been him, reacting to the contractor before she'd even - the contractor!
Haruko snapped her eyes open, swallowing the bile that rose up with the vertigo. There was a blue glow to her left, the sound of scuffling footsteps. Another gunshot rang out and she dropped instinctively to the ground again - or had it risen up to meet her?
What was going on? She could hardly tell up from down anymore - it was like being sprawled on the deck of a little boat in a storm-tossed sea.
And was Hei alright? Her stomach tightened in fear; police officers weren't permitted to carry their weapons off-duty. Was he fighting off the contractor barehanded?
A small black object a few feet in front of her caught her eye. Her pepper spray. Haruko stretched out her arm; the ground that the little cannister rested on seemed to bend away from her. Closing her eyes, she tried again.
This time, her fingertips brushed against cool metal. Yes! She gripped the pepper spray and opened her eyes. The world lurched sideways again, but -
The blue glow abruptly disappeared and there was a sound like a sack of rice hitting the ground. Haruko braced her hands against the oily concrete; it didn't move. She pushed herself up into a seated position and another wave of nausea hit her.
"Are you alright?"
Haruko gasped aloud when a pair of hands gripped her upper arms from behind. It was a steadying grip; belated she recognized Hei's voice.
"I think so," she managed; but when she turned to look at him her stomach roiled and she could no longer fight it.
Hei kept his grip on her arms, supporting her as she emptied her stomach onto the concrete.
She wiped her mouth with the back of a shaking hand. "I'm sorry…"
"You should feel better in a minute," Hei said kindly. "That contractor had a nasty power."
"Power?" Surprisingly, she did feel better as Hei helped her to her feet. Her hands were covered in oil and grime; she wiped them self-consciously on her skirt.
Once she was steady, he stooped to collect her purse and her phone from where they'd fallen on the ground. "That disorientation," he explained. "I've seen it before; it would have been better to take him alive," he added, sounding more annoyed than anything else, "but with a power like that I couldn't risk the time. You have to take them out as quickly as possible."
Haruko turned to see the contractor who had attacked them lying prone on the ground a few yards away. Her stomach churned again, but this time it had nothing to do with the lingering vertigo. "He's dead?"
Hei was watching her face carefully, his own expression unreadable. "Yes," he said. "You should…probably sit. Over here."
He led her over the base of one of the concrete pillars; there was a bit of a curb surrounding it that he helped her lower down onto before handing her her things. She stared blankly at her cell phone for a long moment. "Oh, we should call the police…"
"Police?" Hei blinked. "Oh, right." Then his eyes narrowed and he gazed around the empty garage. "I'm pretty sure this guy was working alone; it should be safe to call, and wait here."
Haruko started to hand him her phone, but he shook his head and pulled his own phone from his jacket pocket. "I'll call; this should go straight to Section Four anyway."
As he dialed, he stalked over to the body of the contractor and crouched down to examine something.
Hei must have seen a few bodies since joining the police, Haruko thought, watching him. Still, he was handling the situation exceptionally well, given his sensitive personality - it really ought to be her comforting him, not the other way around. She had to turn her head from the sight with a shiver, and wrapped her coat more tightly around herself.
"They're on their way," Hei said, startling her. She hadn't heard him come up beside her.
"Section Four?" Haruko asked. The department that dealt with contractors had been top secret up until last year. Haruko had heard of them prior to that - she'd worked too closely with trauma victims for too long to not know of their existence - but she'd never actually met any of those elite officers.
Hei nodded, slipping his phone back into his pocket.
"Wait," Haruko said suddenly, "I thought you lost your phone - that's why you stopped by tonight instead of calling?"
A guilty look flashed across his face. "I, um, lied about that."
She blinked in surprise. She was damned good at spotting lies, and thus far in their sessions Hei had been an open book. Reserved, yes, but he hadn't hidden his emotions very well. "Why?"
He exhaled slowly and lowered himself onto the curb next to her. "I -"
"You're hurt!" Haruko exclaimed. Now that he was on the same level as her, she could clearly see a slash of bright red on his neck, beneath his jacket collar.
Hei frowned and reached up to touch the spot; a bit of blood came away on his fingers. "It's not deep."
"Hang on, I have a bandage." Haruko opened her purse and located the plastic baggie that held her small assortment of medical supplies. She fished out a sterile packet with an adhesive gauze bandage and handed it over.
"You keep all those supplies in your purse?" he asked as he took the packet from her.
Haruko smiled sadly. "It's a little excessive, I know; but old habits die hard."
"My mother used to do the same thing," he said, his voice so quiet that she had to strain to hear him.
"You said she was a nurse?" Haruko asked as she helped him position the bandage over his cut.
"She must have been a very caring woman."
He didn't add anything to that, and Haruko didn't ask. She tucked the empty wrapper from the gauze back into her bag, then said, "You were going to tell me why you lied about not having your phone?"
Hei sighed, and turned to look at the still figure on the ground; Haruko still couldn't bring herself to. She watched Hei's face instead.
"I was waiting for you here. I thought there might be trouble, so…" he trailed off with a shrug.
It was the type of vague statement that she might let slide in one of their sessions; as long as he knew what he was talking about, she didn't necessarily need to. But - for some reason she couldn't even begin to fathom - her own safety was wrapped up in this as well now. Now, she needed to know.
"What made you think there would be trouble?" she pressed. "Does this have anything to do with why you left early today?"
He nodded. "In the middle of the session, a specter popped up in the plant on your desk."
"Specter?" Haruko frowned at the familiar-yet-not term. "This is the same thing that you saw when your teammate was injured, that you didn't want to tell anyone about? What is it?"
"But it was on my desk? I didn't see anything out of the ordinary." From the context, it sounded like some sort of harbinger of contractors.
Hei glanced over at her, then nodded once. "Specters are still classified, but basically, they're used for surveillance. Only contractors can see them - and I can, too. Even though I'm not a contractor," he added emphatically. "I mean, mostly not. It's…complicated."
Oh dear. That was a mess of an admission. How could a person be mostly not a contractor? His confusion and lack of confidence regarding his place in the world were starting to become a little more clear. Not much, but a little.
"They live in plants?" she asked, trying to understand the immediate situation. They could talk about his supposed similarities to contractors later.
He shook his head. "The police specters use the power grids; others, the ones owned by spies and criminal organizations use other mediums. This one just happened to be the type with an affinity for growing things. Which meant that it wasn't police." He gazed around the garage once again. "There's nothing here for it to use, so we should be fine. Whoever sent that contractor won't know he's dead yet."
Invisible things, spying on them? Haruko shivered in spite of herself. "Why was it watching us?"
"I assumed it was tracking me, at first," Hei told her. "That's why I left: I didn't want it to hear anything personal that I might tell you. But once I got out of the building, I didn't see it anywhere - and I'm pretty good at spotting specters. The only explanation I could think of was that it was there watching you. I called Misaki; she approved the use of a dedicated police specter in your building, and I waited in the parking garage to watch for trouble."
"You waited all afternoon and evening?" When he nodded, she continued, "But why was it watching me? I don't have anything to do with contractors!"
He only shrugged. "Have you ever seen that man before?" he asked, indicating the contractor that he had killed. There was still no confusion in his voice, no regret or panic at the realization that he had just taken a human life. Even seasoned police officers could take a death hard. Then again, she remembered his well-used method of coping: avoid even thinking about the painful emotion. It would hit him later; she would have to make sure that he knew he could call her to talk through it.
Hei was still waiting for an answer, she realized. "No," she said. "I mean, I didn't get a good look at his face before he attacked - it happened so fast. But nothing about him was familiar. Thank you, by the way - you saved my life tonight."
Her client shrugged again, more uncomfortably this time. "He knew you, though. Is there any -"
The unmistakable sound of an approaching car cut him off. Gesturing for her to stay where she was, Hei stood and took a couple of steps away from the curb. He positioned himself between her and the route that the vehicle would have to take, his posture tense.
Haruko watched with bated breath as a silver sedan turned the corner and pulled into one of the empty parking spaces near the pillar where she sat. There was nothing Hei could possibly do, unarmed, against a moving vehicle. She wished that she hadn't put her pepper spray away.
Hei, however, relaxed once the sedan came into view. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and waited as the car's engine shut off and two men exited. One of the men was tall and broad, and wore an off-the-rack gray suit. The other was shorter and slimmer, fair-haired and dressed more casually in jeans and a leather jacket. Everything about their easy walks and nonchalant glances at the dead contractor suggested police.
"Li!" the taller of the two exclaimed, eying Haruko before turning back to her client. "Everything alright?"
Hei nodded. "No injuries. A tricky power though; I tried to incapacitate him, but my aim was off."
That wasn't quite the same thing that he'd told her, Haruko noticed. Yet as before, he sounded merely annoyed that he had killed rather than captured the man.
The officer nodded gravely. "Protecting civilians comes first. Kouno, check out the body."
"Yeah, yeah, already on it," the other man said, waving in annoyance as he headed over to the fallen contractor.
The first speaker followed Hei back to where Haruko still sat on the curb.
"This is the witness?" he asked Hei, his tone businesslike but not unfriendly.
Hei nodded. "And intended target." He turned to her. "Haruko, this is Detective Saitou. Saitou, Dr. Uchiumi Haruko."
Haruko stood, and attempted to brush the spots of grime off her skirt. The detective nodded in greeting, and Haruko realized that she recognized the name. That, combined with the familiarity with which Hei had greeted the newcomers, connected some unexpected dots. "Section Four?" she asked, then turned to Hei. "You're with Section Four?"
Her client blinked. "Yes. I didn't tell you that?"
I know how to handle contractors, he'd told her. Still, she would never have guessed that he was someone with the skill or ability to take on such dangerous criminals, especially alone.
Though he'd just proved her wrong tonight.
"You two know each other?" Detective Saitou asked, looking between the two of them.
"No visible wounds," the other man interrupted, walking up. "Definitely a zap to the heart; haven't seen a corpse like that in a while. Nostalgic, really. What's up?" he asked, obviously noticing the confused looks.
"Um," Hei said. "Haruko, this is Detective Kouno." He turned to both of his co-workers. "Haruko is, uh, my therapist."
He hadn't needed to admit to that; Haruko certainly would have been willing to cover for him, claim a more general association. Still, she was proud of the way he had opted for the truth. Especially given his worries just a couple of weeks ago.
His co-workers, however, stared at her in disbelief. Then Saitou abruptly laughed. "That was the Chief's idea, wasn't it?"
Kouno shook his head. "You are one brave woman," he told her, then jerked a thumb towards Hei. "I'd hate to be inside this guy's head."
Haruko glanced over at Hei to see how he was taking the ribbing. He didn't seem offended or overly embarrassed; if anything, he looked relieved.
"Yeah," was all he said. "Get anything from Astronomics yet?"
"SF-184, probably," Kouno said. "Time stamp of the fall matches up, anyway. Also synchronous with your activity. Who's after you? Thought you shook off all your old enemies."
Hei shook his head. "He was after Haruko, not me."
"Are you sure?" Saitou asked doubtfully, but Kouno glanced over at Haruko with raised eyebrows.
"Wait, but she's your therapist?"
"It's nothing to do with me!" Hei protested, a hint of exasperation in his voice.
Haruko was at a loss as to why anyone would be after Hei either; she wasn't sure if his co-workers were simply giving him a hard time after his confession that he had a minor criminal history, or if they genuinely thought that he might be involved with contractors.
"According to Interpol files, SF-184 was a Chinese national," Kouno added significantly.
Hei shrugged. "He had a Beijing accent, yeah. But I never operated in China, not since the start of the war anyway. Did you see his tattoo?"
The other man nodded, almost reluctantly. "Yeah. Yakuza, probably."
"Mafia?" Haruko asked. She hadn't been able to follow most of their discussion, full of unfamiliar terms and details as it was, but that caught her attention.
All three looked at her. "Do you know anyone with mafia connections?" Hei asked.
Before Haruko could answer, however, the steady hum of a car engine echoed through the garage. They all turned towards the blind corner; a moment later, a blue sports car - Porsche, Haruko thought, though she'd never been good at recognizing cars, to Michio's vast amusement - pulled into view.
"You called the Chief?" Saitou asked Hei. "I thought it was her night off."
Hei shook his head. "I texted her to let her know everything was fine; she probably got a ping from Kanami."
Kouno laughed. "Nothing like having a government agency keeping tabs on you for your girlfriend."
Hei didn't respond, but there was a faint smile on his face now.
The Porsche had pulled up next to the silver car. The engine had barely died when the driver's side door opened and a young woman climbed out. She was slender, casually dressed in jeans and a cream turtleneck; her long brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail. It looked damp, as if she'd just gotten out of the shower before rushing over.
The woman strode up to them, eyes flashing behind her glasses as she took in the scene. "Is everyone alright?" she asked, real concern in her voice as her gaze landed on Haruko. Then her eyes shifted to Hei, lingering for a moment on the bandage on his neck.
"Fine," Hei said. "Saitou and Kouno just arrived; no sign of any more specters."
The woman nodded. "Unis?" she asked the other two.
"On their way, along with the medical examiner," Kouno replied.
"Right. Saitou, Kouno, start processing the scene. Check out that van, see if it belongs to any of the building's tenants."
"Right, Chief!" Detective Saitou practically saluted. He removed a small notepad from his pocket and headed over to the body while Kouno jogged up to the van in the far corner of the garage.
The woman turned to Haruko, and held out her hand. "Kirihara Misaki," she said. "It's nice to finally meet you, doctor; I just wish it was under different circumstances."
"Uchiumi Haruko." Haruko grasped her hand instinctively before remembering how dirty her own was; but if Kirihara noticed she didn't react.
Kirihara Misaki. Haruko had heard that name a few times before, whenever contractor-related news made headlines. The head of Section Four. This was Hei's girlfriend, she realized in surprise.
Haruko gave herself a mental shake. "It's nice to meet you too, Chief Kirihara. But please, call me Haruko."
Kirihara smiled. "And I think you can call me Misaki, considering," she said with a glance at Hei. Then her expression turned businesslike again. "Do you feel up to giving a statement?"
Hei spoke up before Haruko could answer. "I don't want to keep her out in the open like this for too long. Whoever sent that contractor will probably try again - maybe even tonight."
Kirihara - Misaki - nodded. "But do we have any idea who that is?"
"You started to say something about the mafia?" Hei asked Haruko.
She nodded wearily. Her wrists were hurting from the fall; she was ready to go home, not talk. But that didn't sound like an option at the moment.
"Let's sit," Misaki suggested, watching Haruko's face.
Hei offered his arm for support; Haruko took it and let him lead her back to sit against the concrete pillar. Misaki sat down on her other side.
"I'm not sure," Haruko said, staring out across the garage in thought. "But when you mentioned the yakuza, it made me think. I have a client whose father is a small-time gangster."
"Do you have any reason to think that you might have gotten on his bad side?" Misaki asked in the same sort of tone that Haruko used to help reticent clients feel safe enough to open up about something painful. It shouldn't have surprised her that it was effective, but it was. All she needed was a cup of tea.
Haruko shook her head. "I've never met the man. His daughter - my client - is still in high school but she lives separately from him."
"Ayami?" Hei asked suddenly. "The girl whose appointment is before mine? She wasn't there today."
Haruko turned to him in surprise. "You know Ayami?"
He shrugged. "She usually looks upset when she comes out of your office. So I started talking with her before she leaves, to cheer her up."
"Talking with her?" Ayami was extremely wary of strangers, especially strange men. How had Hei gotten her to stop and chat every week?
Misaki gave a small cough. "So this girl's father is a gangster, and she didn't show up today?"
Haruko refocused. "Right. She texted me tonight to apologize. She didn't sound quite like herself, but it didn't seem as if anything was wrong, exactly. I should have called the police, shouldn't I. If I had, maybe -"
Misaki laid a hand on her arm. "We don't know that there's anything wrong. If there is, we'll figure it out. But I still don't see why this man would target you."
"I don't know that he would," Haruko said. "He and Ayami have been estranged for years; recently he's been contacting her about a reconciliation. I haven't told her not to meet with him - I don't give my clients orders - but I haven't done a good job of hiding the fact that I think it's a terrible idea, for her."
"You think her father would see you as a someone who could influence her against him?" Hei asked quietly.
"It seems extreme," Haruko admitted. But, if she thought about everything Ayami had told her of his treatment of women… "But it's possible, I suppose."
Misaki nodded. "It's a place to start, anyway. I need this man's name - and any information you have on him. We'll coordinate with Criminal Investigations, see if they have any records that will be useful."
"I'll call Lieutenant Hoshi," Hei said.
"Who?" Misaki asked blankly.
"He works in CI records. The officer whose car I jump started outside the ramen stand, remember? He'll be able to get us any relevant files without having to go through official channels; that's too slow."
Misaki shook her head, but she was smiling. "Alright. Send whatever you get straight to the office."
"What about…him?" Haruko asked, angling her head in the direction of the fallen contractor without actually looking at him.
"The ME will pick up the body," Hei said shortly. "It's doubtful he has anything helpful on him. A dead contractor is useless."
Haruko blinked in surprise; she had never heard such recrimination in his voice before.
The look that Misaki cast him was unreadable - at least to Haruko. Hei, however, sighed and added, "SF-184 only moved into the Tokyo area a couple weeks ago. Called in by his Chinese employer's connections here, probably. He would have spilled everything about his employer if I'd had time to subdue him, but," he shrugged, staring down at the ground like he stared at the tissue box in her office, "it's too late for that."
"That specter hasn't shown up again?" Misaki asked.
"It can't, in here. There's only the one from Astronomics." His gaze flicked briefly up to one of the overhead lights. Haruko squinted until her eyes watered, but she didn't see anything other than the light bulb.
"Well," Misaki said, "if it picks us up outside, the Astronomics medium has orders to send out an alert. The safe house isn't that far, we should be fine."
"Safe house?" Haruko asked in sudden alarm.
Misaki nodded. "If they know where you work, they probably know where you live too. Is there anyone at home right now?"
Her heart skipped a beat. "No; my husband is in Hokkaido until Wednesday. You don't think he's in danger too, do you?"
"It's unlikely," Misaki reassured her. "But I'll call our office up there and have them put a protective detail on him until we have this sorted out." She turned to Hei. "I'll have Matsumoto start on the research; you want first shift at the safe house?"
He nodded once. "Give me a few minutes to check it out first."
"Hei, it's a safe house, it's perfectly -"
"I haven't been past there in the last month."
Misaki sighed. "Alright, if it'll make you feel better. We'll follow in the car in fifteen."
The chief of Section Four raised one eyebrow. "Thirty? You need that much time?"
"I want to swing by home first and pick up my gear bag."
At that, Misaki's lips pressed into a thin line. She and Hei stared at one another for a long moment; at last she nodded. "Fine. Thirty. Call me if you notice anything suspicious."
Hei nodded and stood. Then, as if suddenly remembering that she was there, he turned to Haruko. "I'm sorry about all this," he said. "Misaki will bring you to the safe house; I'll be there ahead of you, and we'll take care of everything."
It wasn't often that Haruko saw her clients outside of their therapy sessions. The Hei that she had gotten to know over the past couple of months was quiet, sweet, and drowning in insecurity. But right now, she felt as if she could be in no better hands than his.
She nodded, wishing only that Michio was there with her as well. "Okay."
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come home?”
Haruko clutched the phone as if by holding it closer to her ear she was actually, physically closer to her husband. Just the sound of his voice threatened to start her sobbing. She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue and took a deep breath. “Of course I want you home; but the police said you’ll be safer where you are.”
“I don’t care how safe I am,” Michio said, “I’m worried about you.”
“I’m alright.” From her low seat on the curb against the concrete pillar, Haruko gazed around the parking garage. Several patrol cars and uniformed officers had arrived in the past half hour, along with a forensics unit and the coroner’s van. They crawled over the scene like flies over a trash heap. Chief Kirihara - Misaki - was in the midst of it, issuing directions and fielding calls on her cell phone practically simultaneously.
Fortunately none of them bothered Haruko. At one point an officer approached, but Misaki intercepted him, for which she was grateful. She wasn’t up to answering any further questions, not when she had no idea what had happened herself. Why her, of all people? All she wanted to do was help her clients create better lives for themselves. Why should anyone want to kill her for that?
“I’m in good hands here,” Haruko continued. “The police said that it isn’t likely anyone will go after you, especially not in a public area. You’ll be okay if you stay at the conference center and do what the police say. And I’ll be okay if I don’t have to worry about you.” Her words were confident enough, but she was unable to keep the tremor out of her voice.
“Hey, just focus on taking care of yourself,” Michio reminded her gently. “No need to worry about me.”
“I know. I just miss you.”
“I miss you too - I’ll see you in a few days.”
Haruko ended the call, wiping her eyes on her already-grimy sleeve and wishing for a cup of tea to calm her nerves. Was it only an hour ago that they’d been chatting so casually, with nothing more serious on their minds than Haruko’s usual concern over her clients?
She sighed to herself, and forced those feelings aside. There was no point in dwelling on them now; not with Ayami missing, and Hei off somewhere on his own.
Hei had left almost immediately, pausing only for a brief, private word with Misaki before disappearing into the shadows of the garage. Haruko frowned, absently watching the police at their work.
Several of her clients over the years had killed others, either in self-defense, the defense of others, or purely by accident. It had been traumatizing for them all, even when they knew logically that they had done the right - or at least the best in those circumstances - thing. Years of patient work was required in most cases to learn how to handle those memories and feelings of guilt. Even veteran police officers had similar problems; she’d worked with one or two of them.
Hei, however, had seemed to brush aside his killing of this contractor as if it had been only a minor annoyance, like getting a parking ticket. He’d shown more concern over her own reaction.
She would have expected that from a senior officer, perhaps; Section Four dealt with far more dangerous people than the rest of the police force, so it would stand to reason that its members would eventually become used to the need to take a life. But Hei hadn’t been with them for all that long; and he’d told her that Misaki had recruited him for this team specifically to handle contractors.
Haruko shifted her gaze to the police chief, currently crouched over the contractor’s body as if it was merely an interesting leaf on the ground and discussing something with Detective Kouno. She hadn’t seemed overly concerned with Hei’s actions either.
During their earlier goodbye, Haruko had seen Misaki reach up to touch the bandage on his neck, then squeeze his arm briefly. Hei had glanced in Haruko’s direction, said something to Misaki, then left, as if everything that had happened in the garage had been completely normal. Misaki had spared only one unreadable look at his retreat before taking charge of the crime scene with an undeniable air of authority.
Kouno shifted over, giving Haruko a clear view of the corpse; she hurriedly adjusted her gaze to stare at the now familiar blank spot on the wall across from her.
She wished that Hei had been more forthcoming with the details of his past; it would make it so much easier to understand where these contradictions in his character were coming from. But if he wasn’t ready to talk about it, then her pushing wouldn’t help anything. She’d just have to continue to be patient.
Another thought abruptly occurred to her as she tried to wipe the sight of the body from her mind - there wasn’t any blood.
Haruko was by no means an expert in forensics, but wasn’t there usually a lot of blood when someone was killed? Strangulation was bloodless, she supposed, but that took time. Hei had told her that he’d dealt with the contractor quickly because of his ability; and in any case, the thought of her client, with his kind eyes and gentle nature, patiently choking a man to death was almost ludicrous.
Still, the hardness that had been in his eyes tonight…
The question pulled Haruko back to the present. She looked up; Misaki was standing over her, her smile tight.
“To head to the safe house,” the police chief clarified.
“Oh.” Haruko tried to wipe her hands on her skirt again - she wasn’t sure she would ever get the grime off - and stood. “Yes. Any word about Ayami?” She stooped to collect her purse and followed Misaki to her car.
“We have a trace on her cell phone. If she - or anyone else - uses it again, we’ll be able to narrow down the phone’s location. And her photo has been distributed.”
That didn’t seem to be very encouraging news. Haruko’s stomach twisted in worry for her client; what were the odds of someone both seeing the photo and Ayami, and within a close enough time frame to actually recognize her?
They climbed into the blue sports car, Haruko folding her skirt around her legs to keep it from getting caught in the door. Michio would be so jealous if she got the chance to tell him she’d ridden in a Porsche.
When, not if. She was definitely going to see him again.
“Thank you for this,” Haruko said as they pulled out of the garage and onto the busy nighttime street. “Your men said this is your night off?”
Misaki nodded, her eyes on the road. “Yes, but I usually end up working on my days off anyway.” A smile brushed her lips as she added, “Well, before Hei and I started dating, I did.” She hadn’t removed her shoulder holster when they’d gotten into the car, a fact that simultaneously reassured Haruko and set her nerves on edge.
“What changed?” Haruko asked, more out of a need to distract herself from thoughts of hidden eyes watching from them from the shadows as they headed towards this safe house.
“Well, I do love my job; but sometimes I end up working just because there isn’t anything else to do. With someone to spend time with at home now, I guess I get less bored. And he’s always finding new stuff to do around the city.” Misaki shook her head, but she was still smiling. “I’ve lived in Tokyo my whole life, but it’s like there’s this whole other layer to it that I never knew existed.”
It was so gratifying to hear the affection in Misaki’s voice, a clear contradiction to many of Hei’s worries. Haruko smiled, her own worries momentarily pushed to the background. “I suppose being a newcomer to the city makes it easier to see things from a different perspective.”
“Hm, probably. Mostly I think it’s just that he listens to people.”
“Listens - not talks?”
Misaki took the car around a sharp corner; Haruko tightened her grip on the arm rest.
“He has this way of asking one or two casual questions, getting people talking,” Misaki said, weaving through traffic now. Haruko wondered if she was trying to keep someone from following them, or if she normally drove this…unpredictably. She did seem to keep casting glances in the rearview mirror. “He’s genuinely interested in what they’re saying - in five minutes someone will be spilling their whole life story, it’s really amazing. So he finds out about all kinds of new restaurants, events in the neighborhood, that sort of thing. A couple weeks ago we went to a kite festival that a ramen stand owner told him about; apparently it’s been held in the park down the street from my apartment for years, and I never knew.”
That did sound like the client that Haruko knew. She remembered his offhand comment about being good at getting people to like him, and the distaste with which he’d said it.
“I swear he already knows half the metropolitan police force by now,” Misaki continued. “And they all owe him favors, I’m sure.”
Haruko frowned a little at that. “You mean he has an ulterior motive for talking with people?”
“No, nothing like that! He listens and hears what people need; then he helps, without expecting anything back.” It was Misaki’s turn to frown. “He would say that he’s not actually being helpful, that it’s just instinctive after all his training. But people can tell when someone is being disingenuous. He wouldn’t be so good at it if that wasn’t naturally the type of person he is.”
“Like with Ayami,” Haruko realized. “I was surprised to hear that Hei had even learned her name; she’s very mistrustful of strangers, but she doesn’t have anyone to talk to, aside from me.” Hei did have an open and nonthreatening presence; Haruko could imagine Ayami responding to sympathetic question or two.
Misaki laughed. “That’s his big brother complex. Sorry, I know that’s probably not a real term - but it explains him so perfectly. He had devoted his life to taking care of his little sister; now that she’s gone, he’s always finding other people to look after.”
So he had lost his sister then. Haruko had expected as much, from the mere fact that he never talked about her. But it warmed it her heart that Hei had found a partner who understood him so clearly; he needed that support. “That’s not a real term, no - but it sounds like he would be very devoted to any future children.”
Misaki very nearly plowed into the Toyota in front of them; the seatbelt dug into Haruko’s shoulder as the brakes squealed.
“That - oh, um, we haven’t talked - there’s still plenty of time to think about something like that.” Misaki coughed and waved a hand vaguely. If the car’s interior hadn’t been so dark, Haruko was sure her face would be beet red.
“I’m sorry, that was too personal,” Haruko said, abruptly realizing that she was dangerously close to crossing a professional line. It wasn’t often that she met the friends and family members of her clients; when she did, she was always careful not to fish for information that they weren’t ready to tell her, or accidentally share things they wanted to keep private from those close acquaintances. She usually didn’t slip up like this; it must be her weariness after the chaos of that evening.
“It’s alright. This isn’t exactly a normal situation, I guess.”
“Why did Hei go on ahead of us?” Haruko asked, steering the conversation back onto more neutral ground; though she couldn’t help but note that Misaki clearly needed to do some introspection of her own. And that she hadn’t used it’s too early as an excuse; that was a good sign that she was thinking in the long term, just like Hei.
“Because he’s paranoid.” Misaki pursed her lips. “I don’t mean that as a criticism; he’s needed to be paranoid for most of his life. It’s just that sometimes it’s a little…excessive. But it makes him feel better to check things over himself. And you’re someone he cares about, so he wanted to take that extra step; otherwise I might have pushed back.”
Haruko blinked. Hei could hardly even make eye contact during their discussions. Then again, it did fit with his need to look after others, as Misaki had described.
He seemed like such a good fit as a police officer. Again, she wondered why it was so hard for him to see that.
“But he went home first?” she asked. That hadn’t made much sense to her at the time; but the further they drove from the crime scene, the calmer and more focused Haruko was feeling.
“Mm. To pick up his gear.”
“That sounded like an old argument,” Haruko said before she could catch herself.
Misaki, however, didn’t seem to mind the comment. “It's not so much an argument as...a fine line that we're trying to navigate, I guess,” she said. “I thought it would be simple for him to transition to the police - just like changing jobs. You take the skills you learned at your old job, apply them in your new position while adhering to the company's protocols. Easy. I just keep forgetting that the methods he knows - the methods he's an expert at - aren't exactly in line with police procedure. He wants to help people, and he’s trying his best to follow what I tell him. But it’s completely different from the way he’s used to working, even if he’d like to forget those skills.” She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. “As a supervisor, I know that I'm under-utilizing his talents; but as someone who cares about him, I just feel so guilty asking him to do anything that reminds him of that former life.”
“I didn't hear you asking him to do anything,” Haruko pointed out. “It was his request.”
“I know. But it's still my responsibility for agreeing.” She sighed. “Oh, I should probably warn you; he’ll most likely be in his tactical gear when we get to the safe house.”
Haruko nodded, trying to picture her diffident client decked out in full swat regalia. It was as absurd as imagining him strangling a person.
“He’ll also probably be cooking,” Misaki added with a warm smile.
“Cooking?” That sounded like the Hei she knew.
Misaki laughed. “It helps him relax when he’s tense. But it really threw me for a loop, the first time I saw it. Here was a guy who could kill me with his bare hands - who I thought would kill me, before I got to know him - standing over my stove with a wooden rice paddle.”
“Why would you think he would kill you?” Haruko asked, aghast.
“Well, it was my job to arrest him. Contractors don’t usually have any compunction about killing cops who get in their way. Of course, looking back I realized that he’d always gone out of his way to avoid hurting me; but it was definitely my biggest fear when he showed up at my door.”
“He said that he isn’t a contractor…”
“Technically, no. I wasn’t at all surprised when he told me that he’s human after all, after having worked with him for so long.” She snorted. “He hides it well, but he is way too emotional for a contractor. Though at that time we both thought that he was one. So yeah, that was my first reaction.”
Haruko blinked, trying to process this unexpected information. She remembered that Hei hadn’t been armed tonight, that there had been no blood around the body. “So…tonight wasn’t the first time he’s killed someone.”
“Of course not.” Misaki frowned. “Actually, it is the first time he’s had to use lethal force in the course of duty - shit, we’re going to have to talk about that,” she added to herself.
“What…exactly was his job before joining the police?” Haruko asked weakly.
Misaki glanced at her before returning her eyes to the road. “What do you mean? He said that he told you about how we first started working together.”
“He said that he and his team found out that their employers were doing something illegal.”
“Well, that’s, um, technically true. Also a massive understatement. I mean, everything the Syndicate did was illegal.”
Haruko’s eyebrows rose in disbelief. “The Syndicate? That shadow government that tried to blow up the country - Hei worked for them?”
Misaki grimaced. “I’m sorry - I thought he’d told you all of this, or I wouldn’t have said anything.”
“I try not to push; sensitive topics have to be treated with care.”
“It’s not even that he’s sensitive,” Misaki said. “Well, unless it has to do with his family or his time in South America. Life with the Syndicate was just so…normal for him, that I think he naturally downplays details from that time, because he doesn’t realize how awful it is. I mean, most people would try and get help when they wake up shaking and sweating several nights a week; he just moves to the couch so he won’t bother me.”
“Night terrors? He only told me about his panic attacks.” With casual nonchalance, she recalled.
“Dammit, Hei,” Misaki muttered under her breath, then sighed in obvious annoyance. “See what I mean? He’s had them for so long that to him, they’re normal. Apparently his subconscious learned not to scream during his night terrors, because he could be found and killed in his sleep. So at least there’s that.” She snorted. “Getting him to actually talk about these things is almost impossible - either because he honestly doesn’t see how it’s important, or it’s so painful that he can’t even think about it.”
“I’ve noticed,” Haruko said with a sigh. “But that’s why therapy is a process. He’s making an effort.”
“I know. Shit, I shouldn’t even be talking like this. I guess I just needed to vent.” She gave a rueful smile as the car came to a stop.
Haruko glanced out the window, and was surprised to see that they had pulled up outside of a modest house. “We’re here?” she asked, the apprehension settling in her stomach once again.
Misaki nodded, shutting off the engine. “Do you feel okay with this? I can always send Hei back to the office and have Kouno -”
“That’s alright,” Haruko said, hoping that she’d managed to inject some confidence into her voice. He had saved her life tonight; and after all, he was still the same insecure, kind young man who sat across from her in her office once a week. “I’ll be fine.”
Misaki strode up the short walkway to the safe house. Haruko followed one step behind, her stomach unaccountably nervous. She glanced up and down the street, imagining the invisible eyes of specters on her. Did they even have eyes? And were they always associated with contractors? Was there a contractor heading her way this very moment, intent on killing her as the man earlier tonight had been?
But hypothetical contractors were one thing; an actual contractor was waiting for her in the safe house.
Or not. It's complicated, he'd said. How was that complicated? A person was either human or contractor - weren't they?
Clients lied to Haruko all the time; she was used to that. They just usually lied to her about things like how well they were coping with their emotions or whether they'd called their ex again when they'd promised not to. Not that they'd been the sort of criminal who murdered people. Hei had sat across the coffee table from her for six weeks now and she'd never once suspected that he was a killer.
Though, she thought to herself as Misaki knocked three times on the door, he hadn't lied to her, exactly. He'd merely left out some details. Important details, to be sure, but he had been up front about the fact that he'd spent much of his past on the wrong side of the law, doing things that he was ashamed of. She was the one who hadn't believed even the little that he had allowed himself to say.
More important, she decided, was why he hadn't told her those details.
And the police trust him, she reminded herself. She didn't know Misaki very well, but the police chief didn't seem like the kind of woman who was easily deluded.
Misaki knocked twice more in succession, then paused, a frown on her face. "Damn it," she said with an exasperated sigh, "I can never remember your codes; you know it's me."
A person would have had to be standing directly on the other side of the door to have heard her; yet there came the unmistakable click of a latch and the door opened just wide enough for the two of them to slip in single file, Misaki ushering Haruko in ahead of her.
While it was a relief to be off of the open street, Haruko couldn't help a small shiver of trepidation as she entered the safe house.
The first thing that she noticed was that Hei had changed: instead of the button-down shirt and jeans that'd he'd been wearing in the garage, he was now dressed in some sort of black athletic wear. All black. It was a bit unsettling.
As was the dagger that he had strapped to his leg.
"It's not that hard," Hei said tersely as he locked up behind them.
"It is when I never actually need to use them," Misaki retorted, standing in the small living area with her arms crossed.
Hei turned from the door. Haruko was used to seeing closed-off expressions from him, but she'd never seen him so…blank. As if he truly was a contractor, devoid of all emotion. She couldn't help another small shiver.
"It's called being careful -"
"Hei, this isn't the Syndicate!" Misaki said in obvious annoyance. "Did you make any coffee?"
At the mention of the Syndicate, Hei's eyes snapped to Haruko, a look of surprised alarm flitting across his previously stoic face.
He was ashamed of his past, she knew. And afraid of her judgment of him. He might be a killer, but he was still her client.
Haruko took a deep breath. "And I could use some tea, if there is any."
That didn't seem to be the response he was expecting. After a brief hesitation, he said, "Um, right." He turned through a doorway which, Haruko saw as she followed, led to a small kitchen and the sound of something frying.
And the delicious smell of something frying.
A wok was set out on the stove. Hei headed towards it; but instead of stirring the contents, he lifted a small tea kettle from one of the other burners and poured out some liquid into a waiting mug. Wordlessly, he handed the mug to Haruko.
"Thank you," she said in surprise, and took a small sip. It was fresh; he must have started the brew as soon as they pulled onto the street, knowing that she would need a cup of tea. Always thinking of others, she mused. He'd better write this down in his notebook. Oh god, is he going to write 'killed a man in a parking garage' too?
Hei didn't respond to her thanks. Instead he removed a pot from the coffee maker at the end of the counter and poured out another mug, which he handed to Misaki.
"Oh my god, you're a lifesaver," the police chief said, cupping it with both hands to inhale the steam before taking a swallow. A faint smile brushed Hei's lips at her words - or maybe at the irony of them.
Haruko glanced down at her own mug, feeling suddenly a bit like an intruder on a private moment - and noticed with disgust the oily black smudges on her hands.
"Is there somewhere I can wash up?" she asked.
Misaki nodded. "There's a bathroom just past living room; it should have some clean towels and toiletries."
"Thank you." Haruko turned to set her mug down on the breakfast table - a jolt went through her at the sight of an array of wicked-looking knives, blades as long as her forearm, hanging off the back of one of the chairs. It was like something out of those ninja-assassin movies that Michio loved.
She glanced behind her; Misaki had seen her reaction and was gazing at the knives, her mouth pressed into a flat line. Hei had his back to the both of them, concentrating now on stirring the contents of the wok; though the tension in his shoulders suggested that he was well aware of both Misaki and Haruko's focus of attention. Dressed all in black, in form fitting clothing that emphasized his athletic build, she could easily imagine him playing a starring role in those movies.
And not the role of the hero.
Haruko was beginning to understand the warning that Misaki had given her in the car, now. Taking a deep breath, she carefully placed her mug on the table opposite the chair with the knives, and left the kitchen.
The bathroom was easy to find; it was a small house, with what looked like only one bedroom. As Misaki had said, there were fresh hand towels and an unopened bar of soap near the sink. It was almost like a hotel, albeit a bit shabbier than any that Haruko had stayed in.
She turned on the water as hot as she could stand it, and scrubbed the oil and grime from her hands and arms. Her face was next. Not caring that she was washing away most of her makeup, she scrubbed her skin under the scalding water until she felt as if she'd peeled off the fear and nausea that had been present, bubbling just below the surface of her mind, ever since that contractor had attacked in the garage.
As she washed, she contemplated her client. Was he a contractor? The knives, the ease with which he'd killed that other man in the garage tonight would suggest so. Misaki had even said as much during their drive over. Yet she - and Hei - had both said that technically he wasn't one. Haruko was by no means an expert on contractors, but she was pretty sure that they were by definition without emotion. Unless Hei was an exceptionally good actor, he had all the emotional range of a normal human. And there was no reason she could think of for a contractor to pretend to see a therapist.
She was going to have to ask him about this outright, she decided; she simply wasn't going to be of any help to him with so many basic questions stacked like a wall of bricks between them. It would have to wait until their next scheduled session, unfortunately; even if his girlfriend knew everything about him already, these weren't the sort of questions to ask in front of an audience.
She could only hope that such directness wouldn't push him further into his shell of avoidance. At least he wasn't the type to get violent when confronted…or so she hoped. Haruko had always relied strongly on her intuition about people, and this afternoon she would have given her solemn oath that Hei was not the type of person to ever hurt of fly.
And she would have been dead wrong.
Drying her face, Haruko noticed that several long strands of hair had come loose. Instead of trying to fix it, she undid her clip and twisted the whole mass up and out of her face. What she really needed was a hot shower, but she couldn't stand the thought of dressing in the same filthy clothing after finally getting clean.
Feeling at least somewhat human again, Haruko made her way back to the kitchen. Hei and Misaki were still standing by the stove, talking quietly. Misaki's hand was resting on Hei's arm; she looked…apologetic? Haruko couldn't see Hei's expression, but the tension had left his shoulders. Whatever disagreement they'd brought with them to the house, it seemed they had talked it out, or at least come to an understanding.
Despite the fact that Hei was still facing away from the entrance to the kitchen, he was the first to notice Haruko's return. "Are you hungry?" he asked over his shoulder, not quite making eye contact.
"I told you he'd be cooking." Misaki leaned up against the counter and offered Haruko a sympathetic smile. "Even if you aren't hungry, you should eat something."
"I wasn't," Haruko admitted, "but now that you bring it up, I could eat a bit. It smells delicious."
"It's just a beef stir-fry," Hei said, a bit awkwardly, as if he was uncomfortable with the compliment. He probably was, Haruko realized. Compliments and praise didn't seem to be something he was used to.
Hei dished out three bowls of the stir-fry while they settled around the table. Haruko carefully avoided the chair with the knives draped over it; Misaki took that seat for herself. She grimaced as she sat, but said nothing. Neither did Hei say a word as he brought the bowls over and sat across from Haruko, his expression once again closed off.
"How long will I be here?" Haruko asked, poking at her food. As much as she hated going home to an empty house, she'd rather be home than in a strange place, under guard. Even if it was safer.
Misaki had just taken a huge bite of rice. She swallowed hurriedly and said, "We'll reevaluate the situation in the morning, when hopefully we'll have more information. If it turns out to be longer than a day, I'll send someone to pick up a change of clothes and whatever else you need."
Longer than a day? Haruko's heart sank. "What about my clients? I have a full day of appointments tomorrow!"
"You have to put your own safety first," Hei said in the same blunt tone with which he'd greeted them at the door. He didn't look up from his bowl. "Your clients can deal with it."
Misaki shot Hei an unreadable look. "You'll have to excuse him," she told Haruko. "He forgets the existence of tact when he's pretending to be a contractor."
"I'm not pretending to be anything," Hei retorted quietly, still in that flat voice. "If I have to stick my knife into someone tonight, I'm not going to be thinking about how to do it tactfully."
Haruko blanched, and forced herself to eat a small bite of food. It was every bit as tasty as it had smelled, but the thought of Hei needing to kill someone else, on her behalf, was making her more than a little queasy.
"No one is asking you to stick a knife in anybody - you're the one who insists on keeping those things, not me! Why did you even bother throwing away your mask?"
Maybe they hadn't dealt with that disagreement after all. Haruko sighed to herself. For the first time all evening, she was finally on firmer ground. Queasiness aside.
"This is the best stir-fry I've had in a long time," Haruko said with a smile. "You must enjoy cooking quite a bit, to be able to make such good food."
Both Misaki and Hei turned to her in surprise; Haruko had the distinct impression that they'd forgotten she was even there. Then Misaki smiled lightly and took another bite of food, leaving Hei to answer for himself.
"Um, I guess," he said at last.
"What is it you like about it? Cooking's always been more of a chore, for me."
She'd actually been meaning to ask that question for the past couple of weeks now, after the obvious interest with which he'd described his purchase of a set of good kitchen knives; the reasoning behind her clients' likes and dislikes often provided quite of bit of useful insight for them both. However, this wasn't a therapy session; she just felt the strong need to distance herself from this semi-stranger in black, find the Li Hei that she was more comfortable with. And distract him from his argument with his girlfriend.
"I guess…it gives my hands something to do, while my mind can just…rest."
"I thought that's why you like running," Misaki interjected.
Haruko was about to protest what seemed like an unnecessary antagonism - then she noticed a knowing light in Misaki's eye, and decided to let it stand.
Hei frowned slightly. "It is. I can like two different things for the same reason." Then he paused. "With cooking, though…it's something I can do for other people. That they can actually appreciate."
Misaki smiled at that, and gave his arm a quick squeeze before returning to her food. Hei responded with the faintest of smiles, his eyes still fixed on his bowl.
"Do you ever cook for your co-workers?" Haruko asked, ignoring the pang of loneliness that shot through her heart at that brief sign of affection. Michio would be home soon, in just a couple more days. All of this would be over then.
"Once -" Hei began before the buzzing of a cell phone cut him off.
Misaki quickly swallowed another mouthful of stir-fry and pulled her phone from her back pocket. "Kirihara," she answered brusquely.
Haruko wondered if she ought to feign polite deafness; Hei was listening fixedly, however.
"Where?" the police chief asked. "Any data?" She paused. "Damn. Alright, I'm on my way." Without bothering to say goodbye, she ended the call.
"Someone found the girl?" Hei asked as soon as she'd hung up. Haruko's chest tightened at all the potential meanings of that question.
Misaki nodded. "A specter picked her up at one of the properties registered to her father."
"Is she hurt at all?" Haruko asked, her heart pounding now.
"We have no way of knowing right now," Misaki said carefully. "All we know is where she is. And that when her father was questioned as to her whereabouts, he said that he hasn't seen her in weeks."
"That - that lying bastard!" Haruko swore, her tongue tripping over the little-used curse. Across from her, Hei coughed into his napkin.
Misaki's mouth pressed into a hard line. "No doubt he is. Saitou and Kouno are headed there right now to do some recon."
Recon? When Ayami could be hurt, or worse? "You can't just go in and get her?"
"Theoretically, yes, we could. But our star analysis is suggesting that this organization has - or had, now - two contractors working for them. We have to go in carefully."
"I'll go," Hei cut in, once again stone-faced. "What's the address?" He reached for the harness of knives hanging on the back of Misaki's chair, but Misaki folded her arms and leaned back, trapping the straps.
"What do you mean, you'll go?"
"You need someone to do recon without being spotted by a contractor. That's me."
There was a pleading edge to his voice. It was barely there, yet unmistakable. Was he merely highlighting his skills, or was this an attempt to make up for the slip that he still felt guilty over, when an unseen second contractor had injured his teammate? Haruko didn't like the idea of him rushing into a dangerous situation under pressure to prove something.
Misaki, however, was unmoved. "You're on safe house shift until oh-six-hundred."
"You can -"
"Hei, I know you want to help everyone, but you can't be in two places at once. I need you here."
Hei opened his mouth as if to protest; then he closed it again, glancing at Haruko. He nodded. "Alright. But keep me updated."
"You have your phone?" She raised an eyebrow.
Wordlessly he reached into a back pocket and tossed a cell phone onto the table.
Misaki snorted with amusement. "That's a first. I'll stay in touch. We don't know anything about this contractor - YR-385. Have you heard of him?"
Hei shook his head. "If I know him, it's not by his Messier code."
"Right." The police chief strode over to the counter and refilled her coffee mug. "Well, let me know if anything comes to mind, and keep a sharp lookout here. Kanami's leaving one medium assigned to you, but there's still that other doll out there, the one that sent a specter to the office."
There was a dangerous note in his voice now. That, apart from the thought of another, dangerous contractor out there, sent a small shiver down her spine.
Sparing them nothing more than a grim smile, Misaki picked up her keys and left the safe house, leaving Haruko alone with Hei.
“I’m sorry you’re stuck babysitting me,” Haruko said as Hei rose from his chair and headed to the stove.
He paused with his bowl halfway to the wok and glanced back at her, eyebrows raised. “What? It’s not babysitting; someone needs to stay here and keep you safe.”
“I know. You just seemed eager to go help out the rest of your team.”
Hei returned to his seat with the last of the stir-fry heaped in his bowl. Haruko wondered idly where on earth he put it all; she’d forgotten how much young men could eat. She glanced down into her own bowl. About half of her portion was still uneaten, but tasty as it was, she found she had no appetite.
“I’m not very good at sitting around waiting when I could be doing something more…active, I guess. I mean, Saitou and Kouno are great at handling contractors - they wouldn’t be in Section Four if they weren’t. But I’m better.” He said it matter-of-factly, without a trace of ego. “If there’s a chance that there’s another contractor guarding the place where Ayami is being held, then I should be there.”
“Misaki wanted you here; do you trust her judgment?”
“Of course,” Hei said quickly. Too quickly.
“But…what?” Haruko prompted.
Her client didn’t respond. His shoulders tensed, and his gaze rested on his now-empty bowl.
To give him some space to collect his thoughts, Haruko scooped up both bowls and took them to the sink, where she turned on the water and began to wash up.
“You don’t have to do that,” Hei said.
“I know. I want to. Sometimes when I’m stressed I just need something routine to focus on, you know?”
Behind her, Hei let out a slow, quiet exhale. The chair legs scraped on the wood flooring as he stood; then he joined her at the counter. He picked up a towel and began drying what she’d washed so far.
“You’re dealing with this whole thing pretty well,” he said.
Haruko smiled wryly. “Am I? I certainly don’t feel that way; but I wouldn’t be a very good therapist if I couldn’t follow my own advice.” She took a deep breath. “I’m safe right now; I can’t do anything about poor Ayami’s situation, but I realize that, and I know that the very best help is on their way.”
“Almost the best.” A touch of pride eeked through his characteristic modesty.
“Well, I am glad it’s you that’s here,” Haruko admitted, pleased to have discovered at least one aspect of himself that he seemed confident in. “It’s nice to have a friendly face, in the middle of all this.”
She paused in scrubbing the wok, letting the warm water run through her fingers. “I suppose that’s selfish to say; if Ayami really is in trouble, she should have the best help possible, not me.” She prayed that the girl was alright. Ayami must be so frightened; if this had happened because of something that Haruko had advised her to do, she’d never forgive herself.
Hei shrugged lightly, though Haruko thought he seemed moved by her trust. As always, it was hard to tell. “There should be two of us here, actually. Criminal Investigations is going to send another officer over soon, once they get themselves organized. Their chief isn’t as on top of things as Misaki is,” he added offhandedly, “even if they are usually pretty competent. Though I wouldn’t trust you to two of them; so I guess it’s good that I’m here. Saitou and Kouno can handle whatever third-rate contractor a yakuza boss can manage to hire.”
“Then you do agree with Misaki’s decision?”
Maybe this wasn’t the right time or place to be asking such questions; this wasn’t a therapy session, after all - a man had just tried to kill her an hour ago - but Hei was sorely lacking in introspection, and she was afraid to let the opportunity pass them by.
And, it helped her forget that a man had just tried to kill her an hour ago.
Hei was silent for a long moment as he wiped a bowl dry. He’d been on that same bowl for several minutes now, Haruko noticed, but she didn’t comment.
“It’s not her decision I disagree with,” he said at last. “Disagree isn’t even the right…I mean, she’s in charge. She knows how to handle these situations and her team better than anyone. I’m not going to argue with her about things like that. She’s usually right, anyway,” he added with a touch of fondness.
“Then what is it?” Haruko asked gently.
His gaze drifted from the bowl in his hands to the harness of knives hanging on the back of the chair. “She probably doesn’t want me working with the rest of the team right now. I mean, they know what I am, but they’ve still been treating me like…like Li, I guess. Because that’s the only side of me that they’ve seen. Now… They aren’t going to want me watching their backs tonight, after I just killed a contractor.”
Haruko frowned to herself. She hadn’t gotten that sense from his co-workers at all. What had that detective said about the corpse - nostalgic. It had been more commentary than judgment.
And again, she couldn’t help but notice his own complete lack of reaction to his killing of a man.
“Did Misaki say anything that would lead you to believe that?” she tried.
Hei gave a half shrug, still focused on drying his bowl. “No. But it stands to reason. I left a lot of crime scenes behind like that, the first time I was in Tokyo,” he said bitterly.
“Have your co-workers never had to use -” what was the term Misaki had used? “- lethal force when trying to catch a dangerous contractor?”
“Well, yes. Sometimes that’s the only way to protect people.”
“So why is it any different when you do it?” Haruko asked. “If you hadn’t killed that man tonight, he would have killed me.” Her hand was trembling as she scrubbed the wok; Haruko forced herself to relax. She was safe here; she was fine.
“It’s not like I shot him,” Hei muttered.
Haruko failed to see how the method made any difference. Dead was dead. Silently she finished washing the wok and waited to see if he would be able to clarify his own doubt.
“She didn’t like that I brought my own weapons tonight,” Hei said at last. “She doesn’t like that I even still have them.”
Misaki had mentioned something like this in the car on their way here tonight; but she hadn’t phrased it quite that same way.
“Why do you think that is?” Haruko asked, wondering how well his reasoning would line up with his girlfriend’s.
“I don’t know... They’re not regulation, and Misaki doesn’t like doing anything against official police procedure.”
“Is that the reason? She hired you knowing that your papers were false and didn’t tell the rest of the team who you really were; not to mention having an affair with a confidential informant. I shouldn’t think that any of those things fall under ‘official police procedure’.”
Hei’s brow furrowed. He finally set the bowl aside and began drying the wok. “They’re the tools I’m used to using. It’s not like the police don’t carry guns. My knives have the same purpose, I don’t know why she still won’t let me carry them.”
That definitely was not the reason that Misaki had given Haruko. And we’re back to ‘communication within a relationship’, she mused. I guess they really do need to do some work there. She refrained from pointing out that he’d just contradicted his own reasoning. Instead she said, “Maybe it’s the symbol she dislikes?”
“The symbol?” Hei frowned, wiping the wok a little harder. “They remind her of who I used to be, I guess. Someone who worked against the police.”
“Someone who your new co-workers will remember investigating?” She sighed. It wasn’t a simple situation, to be sure; yet she was sure that his insecurities were over-inflating the facts. “And what are they symbolic of, to you?”
“Nothing. They’re just knives. They’re what I used my whole life; I’m useless with a gun. Misaki knows that. If she wants me to be able to protect my team to the best of my ability, I need the tools I’m most effective with.”
He was avoiding the question. Well, it wasn’t exactly an easy one.
“You didn’t have any knives tonight, in the garage,” Haruko commented.
Hei stared intently at one particular spot on the wok; Haruko got the impression that rather than focusing on his task, he was trying to avoid her gaze.
“No,” he said after a long moment. And left it at that.
Haruko waited, but he didn’t seem inclined to add anything else. She was almost desperate to push harder, to get him to really understand this conflict within him…but it would be useless to antagonize him. He needed to know that she was on his side, no matter what.
The sink was empty of dishes now, save for her mug. Haruko picked up the kettle from the stove, but when she tried to pour, it was empty.
“I’ll make some more,” Hei said quickly. “You should get some sleep; it’s late.”
She glanced at her watch, and was shocked to see that it was already one in the morning. “I probably should,” she said, “but I doubt I could fall asleep right now; not until I know Ayami is safe.”
Hei nodded. “There should be some magazines and things in the other room, if you want something to do.”
She didn’t really want to read a magazine. What she wanted to do was curl up under a blanket at home, knowing that everyone she cared about was safe.
Still, she wandered into the living room, where she found a low bookcase stocked with a small collection of cheap paperback novels and outdated magazines. Some of them were manga clearly aimed at young children; it hurt her heart to think of some poor child having to be shut up in a safe house because something out there in the world wanted to harm them.
None of the books looked at all appealing, and trying to focus her mind on any sort of narrative sounded like pure torture right now. Then something on the bottom shelf caught her eye.
When she returned to the kitchen, Hei was just pouring out two fresh mugs of tea.
“Do you know how to play chess?”
He looked up in surprise. “Yes? I’m terrible at it though…”
“Do you have to be good, to play?” Haruko placed the battered box on the kitchen table and began unpacking the pieces; she hoped they were all there, it was a very well-used set. “I’m not that great either,” she smiled. “We’ll be evenly matched then.”
Hei passed her the tea and then settled across from her at the table. Haruko gestured for him to choose which side to play; he picked up the black king, she noted with interest.
“I haven’t played in so long,” she commented as they placed their pieces. “I used to all the time, with my - husband.”
She mentally cursed herself for her near-slip. Hei, however, didn’t seem to notice. “Misaki has a set at home,” he said. “We’ve never played though.”
“Where did you learn?” The first move was Haruko’s. She studied her two rows of pieces for a long moment before moving a pawn to e-four in the classic Italian opening.
Hei hadn’t answered her question yet. She looked up to find that his expression had closed off. That alone told her the answer - then to her surprise, he spoke.
“My father.” He moved his pawn to d-six. “He said I needed to learn how to wait and act with patience.”
That still seems to be the case, Haruko thought with a wry smile. Hei’s move had opened a path for his dangerous queen while leaving his vulnerable king protected; but it was a terrible counter to her own play. He doesn’t think more than one or two moves ahead. Like running away from home to protect his sister when maybe his family could have helped him instead.
“Did you ever win against him?”
“No. I was lucky if I lasted ten moves.” His face softened slightly. “Xing used to love watching us play; but she would get too distracted to learn herself. Until she became a contractor, anyway.”
He’d left one of his knights wide open, but Haruko pretended not to see, and captured a pawn with her bishop instead. “Contractors play chess? I shouldn’t think they would enjoy things like board games.”
“It was part of her training. Well, our training. To learn strategy,” he said, his voice hard. “I never got any better, but after she changed…anything she saw a purpose in learning, she focused on relentlessly until she mastered it. They liked child contractors, for that reason.”
“The Syndicate?” Haruko asked softly.
Hei nodded once, studying the pieces in front of him; but she could tell that he wasn’t really seeing the game.
“You weren’t a contractor, like your sister.” At least, that was her guess; that whole situation was still rather unclear. “What exactly did you do for them?”
“I protected her,” he said simply. “After she used her power, she had to sleep. Sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for hours; it depended on how much power she’d used. I would hold her until she woke up, like I did when she was little, and had nightmares.”
Haruko smiled. He must have been an exceptionally sweet child. But there was more to it than he was describing, she was sure.
“You had to undergo training in strategy, for that?” she asked as a little nudge.
“I was her backup, too. Sometimes…if there were extra guards hindering the mission, she couldn’t use her power too early. I had to take care of them, clear a path for her.” Hei moved his queen to the center of the board, capturing Haruko’s bishop. It was an aggressive move; one that he would pay for in just two turns, if Haruko pressed her advantage with her rook.
“Then the second South American conflict started,” Hei continued, still not looking up from the board. “The first had proved that the Heaven’s Gate anomaly was too dangerous for mere humans, so contractors were sent in. Bai and I were in one of the first waves.”
“Bai?” Haruko asked, hating to interrupt now that he was talking; but this had been confusing her for a while. She shifted her rook, three squares away from his queen in a tactical retreat. “I thought your sister’s name was Xing.”
“Bai was the code name the Syndicate gave her. She never used Xing after that. In my mind…I thought of Xing as the girl she used to be; Bai was the monster she’d become. It’s a little fuzzier, now. The last time I saw her…I saw Xing.”
“You can’t really have thought of her as a monster,” Haruko said gently. “Not when you were still willing to keep her safe.”
Hei rested his chin in his hand and moved a pawn forward, even though he had to know that Haruko would capture it on her next turn. “I used to wonder, all the time, how many people would still be alive if I stopped protecting her. All the people that she killed…all the people that I killed. If I’d known what she was going to do to Heaven’s Gate…I guess that’s why she never told me. I wouldn’t have been able to make that choice.”
“Don’t ask me about that right now,” Hei said quietly. There was a world of grief in his voice.
The details of what exactly had happened during the three South American conflicts, before Heaven’s Gate had vanished and taken half the continent with it, were still largely hidden behind governmental Top Secret stamps. Haruko did know that the conflicts had been exceptionally violent and bloody; and if contractors had been involved, it must have been nightmarish. For Hei to have been there…he was so young. How had he survived with his humanity still intact?
She left Hei’s vulnerable pawn unchallenged, and shifted a knight instead. “What happened to your sister?”
He was silent for a long time. Haruko was just beginning to worry that she pushed to far when he spoke at last. “I was just outside the boundary of the anomalous zone when the Gate vanished. All I remember is a bright flash of white light…then I woke up in a field hospital in Argentina a few days later. Bai was gone; my whole team was. No one could tell me what had happened to them. And…I had her power. And her star.”
“You…became a contractor?”
“I thought I had. I didn’t have her price, but sometimes they’re subtle. I just assumed it was something I couldn’t detect.”
“So you weren’t a contractor?” Haruko asked, confused.
“I found out years later what had happened. In order to protect me, she sacrificed herself and transferred her power to me. The final price of the contract is paid; I’m still human. But I spent five years living as if I was a contractor, assassinating people for the Syndicate - what kind of person doesn’t realize for five years that they’re human? I may as well be a contractor.”
It was almost painful to hear the disgust in his voice. “I think it makes sense,” Haruko said slowly. “You joined the Syndicate to stay with your sister…you did things you didn’t want to do, in order to protect her. That was your purpose. Then she was gone, and your purpose was lost with her. How were supposed to excuse your actions then - unless, you were a contractor? A contractor doesn’t need moral justification. But, why did you stay with them?”
“I didn’t want to believe I’d never see her again; staying with the Syndicate was the best chance I had at finding her.”
“And why did you join the police? To atone for everything you’ve done?”
“No,” Hei said sharply. “There’s no way I can ever…it’s not possible.”
Haruko nodded in understanding. She’d always believed that pursuing atonement was a fruitless chase; actions could never be truly undone. “Then why?”
“I…wanted to see if I could really do it. Live like a normal person. Do something good; help people instead of hurt them.”
“That sounds very human to me,” Haruko told him gently. “You gave up your own future for your sister; that was a very compassionate choice. As is choosing to do what you can to protect others as part of the police. You should be proud of that. I would think your family would be, too.”
His mouth pressed into a flat line. “Even if I can explain that to them, how do I tell them about Xing? I was supposed to protect her; then she died for me. How can I forgive her for that?”
This one is going to take a lot of work, Haruko thought sadly. There was no easy answer. “Contractor or not, a person’s choices are their own,” she reminded him. “You have to accept that, even if you don’t agree with it. Your family certainly never will, if you don’t.”
His face was set in a grim expression; she wasn’t sure that he really understood what she was trying to tell him.
“Have you mourned her?” Haruko asked.
“Have I - what?”
“You said you spent five years not knowing what happened to Xing; then you found out that she died for you. What did you do after that? Did you set up a shrine, light a lantern? Something to help you let go?”
“I…no. I mean, it’s a little more complicated than her dying…” He ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t like thinking about it.”
“It’s hard to lose someone,” Haruko told him gently, a slight hitch in her voice. “But it’s even harder when we can’t let go.”
“Who did you lose?”
Haruko opened her mouth, then shut it again, caught off guard by his quiet compassion.
She always drew a hard line about sharing personal things with her clients; it put them on too much of an equal footing. But, she realized, the lines here had been stretched and torn to the point she wasn’t sure they even existed any longer.
“My son,” she said softly. “He was at his school’s chess tournament in Chiyoda when Hell’s Gate swallowed everything there eleven years ago.”
"I'm sorry," Hei said simply.
Haruko wrapped her hands around the heat of her mug. "I was supposed to be there with him," she said softly, "watching the tournament; but a client was in the midst of a breakdown and I was at the office instead. It was hard for me to forgive myself for that. For a long time, it was hard." Her heart seized up a little at those old memories, as it always did. How long had it been since she had last talked about him with anyone other than Michio?
Hei didn't answer, but she could see the pain in his eyes. He understood what that feeling was like; he just didn't know how to let himself feel it. Not yet, anyway.
"Suzu was only twelve," Haruko continued. The same age that Hei had been too, she knew from the demographics he'd provided in his file; little details like that still jumped out at her, even after all these years. She'd long ago given up trying to stop them. "I spent days waiting with the other victims' families outside the police cordons for them to tell us something, anything about what had happened, whether he was safe."
She had been so sure she would see her little boy walking out of that dust-filled dome, in his school uniform and carrying the wooden fold-up chess set that his father had made him for his birthday. She'd refused to eat, despite Michio's begging her to; she hadn't slept, for fear that she would miss him; Michio had had to carry her home after she'd passed out from exhaustion on the third day.
The sharpness of that pain had faded long ago, though it had never fully left her. In those first few weeks Haruko had thought it might kill her - and hadn't cared.
"It's easy for me to tell you to try and let go," she said with a sigh. "Though honestly, I haven't quite managed it myself yet. I never had a body to mourn or ashes to inter - any kind of closure."
Her mug trembled slightly as she raised it to her lips for a sip of tea. "The hardest part is still not knowing what happened. No one who was in the Hell's Gate boundaries when it appeared was ever seen or heard from again. No one who went in looking for answers has ever come out. That we know of, anyway."
Nearly half a million people…it was hard to believe that so many human beings could be just…erased like that. Occasionally on sleepless nights she would still find herself walking along the barbed-wire-topped chainlink fence that marked the edge of the Restricted Zone, gazing at the impossibly tall wall now surrounding the Gate and wondering if there was a way to slip through. To find him. Some nights, it was only the knowledge of the pain that it would cause Michio that kept her on this side of the fence.
"I catch myself imagining that beyond the Wall, the world continued on as normal. Suzu won his chess tournament; finished school, grew up. On the other side of the Wall, he's happy. Strange things happen around the Gate, they say; it's possible."
Haruko stared into her mug. "That sort of thinking is easy; but in the long run, it only makes the pain worse. Because it isn't the truth. It's a lie I tell myself, and nothing good ever comes from lying to yourself. But there are things that help. I make Suzu's favorites sweets every year on his birthday; my husband and I donate regularly to the Gate Relief Fund. And every year on the anniversary of the Appearance I leave a chess piece for him at the Shrine of the Gate."
This summer would mark the twelfth year; she would take one of White's bishops. She was saving the black pieces for last; Black had always been Suzu's favorite side to play.
"They're just small gestures, but it helps me to focus on the good memories that we had with him; to make a space in which to remember him, so that I don't feel as if I'm trying to cut him out of my life when I'm not spending every second of every day thinking about him." Haruko glanced up from her mug to see Hei gazing thoughtfully down at the chess board. "Maybe you could do something similar for your sister? Make her favorite meal on her birthday?" she suggested, recalling his panic when he'd momentarily forgotten what day that was. "Or maybe visit a shrine on South American Remembrance Day?"
Hei didn't answer for a long moment. Then he met her gaze and said, "I've been inside Hell's Gate. Almost to the center."
Haruko's eyes widened. "What - how? Why?"
"Saving the world, maybe." He shrugged. "Or maybe just saving myself. I don't know. A lot of people…died, to get me inside. But I've been there; I've seen what it's like."
Haruko opened her mouth, but no words formed. Did he have any idea of the enormity of what he was offering her?
Yes, she realized; he knew. That was why he was offering.
Did she want to know? That fantasy, of a boy living in some existence separate from her own, but still nonetheless real, had sustained her through many endless nights. Yet at the same time, the thought of her son living forever apart from her on the other side of an impenetrable wall was almost as painful as the thought of his death.
The idea flitted through her mind that Hei could be lying; she would have no way of knowing the truth, especially not the truth as told by a professional liar.
But the Hei that she had come to know - surprises and all - was first and foremost a compassionate person. He would he tell her nothing rather than an untruth; and furthermore, he was leaving the choice up to her.
What she wanted wouldn't change the truth. Knowing would mean an end to the wondering. The worrying.
Still unable to find her voice, Haruko held her breath and nodded.
"It's empty," Hei said simply. "There are cars, buildings - but there's no one in them. Like a ghost town. There aren't any animals, either, not even birds. Even the plants look like they're only…half there. Just barely existing. There's no way anyone could live there for longer than a day or two."
Haruko felt all the blood drain from her head as her mind was flooded with too many emotions to name. She dropped her head into her hands, struggling just to breathe as a weight she hadn't even felt was there was lifted.
My poor boy…you really are gone, then.
Dimly she was aware that Hei had risen from the table and was doing something in the kitchen, but she paid no attention. She wanted to call Michio, tell him what she had just learned; he had moved on long ago, but had never chided her for failing to do the same.
He would chide her for letting herself break down over such an old wound when they still didn't know if she was safe, however; and he would only end up worrying about her even more than he already was.
Haruko took a deep breath and wiped the tears from her cheeks. When she looked up, Hei was in the kitchen pouring them both fresh cups of tea. He really is a sweetheart, she thought. I hope, for their sake as much as his, he does reach out to his family.
The sudden ring of a cell phone broke the silence. It was the tinny, generic ringtone that was default to the model and kept only by those who couldn't figure out how to change it, or who never used their phones enough to care.
Hei deftly transferred the teapot to his other hand without spilling a drop and pulled his phone out of his back pocket to answer on the second ring. "Update?" he asked, his voice once again cold and professional, despite that Haruko was sure that it was Misaki on the other end.
He listened for a long moment. "Copy. No. ETA? Understood." He made a move as if to end the call, then paused and said in a quiet voice, "I love you too."
"Any news?" Haruko asked as Hei tucked the phone back into his pocket and brought the two mugs over to the table.
"Criminal Investigations has Ayami safely in custody."
Haruko sat up straight, her heart suddenly pounding. "Is she alright?"
"A little bruised and shaken, but otherwise okay."
Once again, Haruko's head sank into her hands. "Thank god," she murmured. "That poor girl - she must have been so frightened."
"Misaki said she kept asking about you - apparently she'd mentioned to her father that she'd talked to her therapist about their relationship, and he took that to mean that you now know all the secrets of his organization."
"What? That makes no sense - even if she had, what would I do about it? My obligation is to my client first and foremost."
Hei shrugged dismissively. "He's a small-time yakuza; they're not exactly known for their critical thinking skills."
"I suppose not. So, does this mean I can go home now? Can I see Ayami?"
"An officer is going to bring her here; CI never sent their backup, so he'll stay with us too."
"Stay? But -"
"The boss somehow escaped the raid; Section Four is tracking him down, but he might try to come after you still. You'll have to stay here until he's caught."
She suppressed a small shiver. "How likely do you think it is, that he might try to - to come after me again?"
Hei frowned slightly. "Not very likely. He'll have to assume that whatever damage you could do to him has already been done - especially after kidnapping his own daughter - and focus on his own survival now."
"Then what's wrong?"
Hei glanced at her, as if surprised that she had noticed his discomfort. He hesitated, then said, "There wasn't a second contractor there."
"Maybe he's on the run too? Acting as a bodyguard?"
"That's what Misaki thinks; or that maybe they read too much into the tertiary star analysis, and there never was a second one to begin with."
It was Haruko's turn to frown. "That doesn't sound like a problem."
"If that's the case, no. But if there were two…" Hei idly picked up the rook that he had moved to guard his king. "One to be your hitman; I took care of him already. Then one to stay close and protect your seat of power."
"So…he probably ran with his boss."
Hei set the piece down with a heavy hand. "No. These are contractors we're talking about; their loyalty ends at the first sign of trouble."
Haruko still didn't see what the problem was. "If the police are after his boss, then he would jump ship, right? Just take off? While I don't like the idea of a criminal like that getting away, he's not a threat to Ayami any longer." Then they could be done with this whole mess, and she could go home where she belonged.
But Hei shook his head. "The boss was afraid that you knew about his operations; his operations included the contractors that he hired. If it was me…" He touched the black knight that he had yet to put into play. "I would be on my way here."
This time Haruko couldn't stop the shudder that ran down her spine. Hei was normally so modest and self-effacing; the cold authority with which he now spoke was unnerving. "But…I don't know anything about any contractors."
"That doesn't matter. He can't take the risk. Facing one or two police officers in a safe house is less of a risk than leaving you alive with any details about him."
"He - he can't know where we are, right?"
At the question, Hei's expression softened. "No," he said. "I'm sure Misaki was careful not to be followed, and we have a specter to run interference on any recon mediums that try to take a look inside. And in a few minutes that CI officer will be here with Ayami. If that contractor tries anything, I'll take care of him."
There was that matter-of-fact tone again. "It really doesn't bother you, to kill a contractor?" Haruko asked softly.
Hei looked down at the chess piece in his hands, and carefully placed it back on the board. "Of course it does," he said in a voice even more quiet than hers. "I hate it. I wish I never have to take another life, ever again. But…sometimes it's necessary, to protect someone who can't protect themselves. So if it has to be done, it might as well be me. It's what I'm best at."
"Misaki said earlier that you were pretending to be a contractor -"
"I'm not pretending to be anything," Hei interrupted, bitterness creeping back into his tone. "I know what I am."
Haruko raised a placating hand, wishing that she had her yellow legal pad, her artificial shield. "But you look and sound like a very different person whenever you're talking about killing someone. And I understand. It's to protect yourself, to protect the person you want to be from the things that you have to do - the things that you hate. A sort of…pseudo-personality, to separate those two sides of yourself. And…I think you should continue to keep it."
Hei blinked. "You do?"
"If it's helping; and if you're sure that there's no risk of losing yourself to that other person."
"I nearly lost myself already," he said, still gazing down at the black knight. "I won't let that happen again."
Haruko nodded, absently twirling one of the pawns that she had captured from him as they lapsed into a long silence. She believed him; just as she believed that his reliance on this cold, emotionless facade would eventually fade as he allowed himself to fully be the police officer that he feared he was only masquerading as. At last she said, "I was thinking about your name last week."
"Yes. Li Hei... Li for your father, and the family that you haven't let go of; Hei for the person that you forced yourself to become, for your sister. The person who decided to devote himself to the police. I think your subconscious gave your answer when you chose that name."
He regarded her with a blank look. "It was just the first thing I thought of…."
"Exactly." Haruko smiled. "Never underestimate your gut reactions. Just like your name is a blend your two lives, so are you." She gestured to the knives that still hung from the back of Misaki's empty chair. "You need to find a compromise. A way to blend the skills you've learned as Hei with Li's goal of protecting people. And you need to talk to Misaki about it - honestly. If you aren't convinced of your reasons, she'll never be. Just don't assume what her objections will be; make sure you hear them, and you understand. You both need to accept who you are, right now, without trying to force yourself into some predefined box. There's always room to grow, but it has to start from a place of understanding."
Her client's expression turned pensive. "It was really hard at first, trying to do things Misaki's way - like wear a suit every day - and not carry my knives. I mean, I always had one or two hidden on me anyway, but I felt guilty about it. She said I didn't have to wear such formal clothes when I asked her about that…maybe I can talk to her again about the knives."
"If you can explain why they're important to you - not just practically, but what they mean to the person you want to be - I think you'll find her more amenable than you think," Haruko said, remembering Misaki's comments on the drive over.
Hei nodded, a trace of optimism in the slight upwards curve of his mouth. "I meant it when I said I threw out the mask, though - I'm done with that."
"Mask?" Haruko said blankly.
Before Hei could respond, however, there was a loud knock at the door.
"Ayami!" Haruko rose from her chair, but Hei had already leapt to his feet, hand raised to halt her.
"Stay there," he ordered. Without so much as glancing in her direction, he picked up his weapons harness and threw it around his shoulders.
Haruko's heart was pounding. "Are…those…really necessary?" she asked weakly.
"I hope not," he said as he buckled the harness, still not meeting her eyes. "There's a door to the back alley through the bedroom; two deadbolts. If something happens - even if it looks like nothing is happening - if I tell you to go, you go. Don't argue, don't ask questions. Just run."
"Run? But -"
"I'm not your client right now. My job is to protect you, no matter what; that means you do what I say, and don't worry about me."
Haruko swallowed the lump in her throat. She had just told him that he shouldn't worry about using the cold-hearted persona that he adopted in difficult situations. It may make her uncomfortable - it did make her uncomfortable - but it helped him. She shouldn't complain. Even if it was sending ice through her veins.
"It is just that other officer with Ayami at the door, isn't it?"
"Probably," was all he said before leaving the kitchen.
Haruko followed a few steps behind. Hei had told her to stay put, but Ayami must still be shaken up; she ought to be able to see a familiar face as soon as she came in.
Well, Haruko supposed, Ayami did know Hei - but this Hei wasn't exactly the same person that chatted with the girl outside her office every week.
She paused in the kitchen doorway and watched as Hei silently approached the front door. Resting his fingertips lightly on the wooden panels, he pressed one eye to the peephole.
"Is Ayami there?" she couldn't help asking.
Hei glanced briefly at her and nodded once before returning his attention to the door.
"Who is it?" he asked in a low voice.
If Ayami is there, it must be fine, Haruko thought, her heart lifting at last. Then why is he still being so careful? In her head she heard the police chief's voice - Because he's paranoid. Sometimes excessively so.
A man's voice answered on the other side of the door. "Officer Koga. Criminal Investigations; escorting the witness."
Hei frowned slightly. "Show me your badge."
The officer must have done so, because after a moment Hei exhaled visibly and unlocked the door. When he opened it, a man - in his thirties, most likely - wearing a blue Metropolitan Police uniform entered, gently guiding a crying Ayami inside with a hand at the small of her back.
The officer balked at the sight of Hei, dressed all in black and wearing at least three knives; but Haruko hardly noticed. The sight of her client - a tear in her pink t-shirt, a cut lip, bruised and swollen eye - filled her vision and her heart nearly broke.
"Ayami!" she exclaimed, and rushed into the living room.
At the sound of her name, the girl turned towards her - and broke out in a fresh flood of tears.
"Haruko!" Ayami bawled, wrapping her arms around her. "I'm so sorry!"
Haruko hugged her back, patting her short-cropped hair soothingly. "It's okay; none of this is your fault. You're alright now, that's all that matters."
"But Daddy - he tried to hurt you! You told me I shouldn't talk to him again, and I didn't listen. I -"
"It's not your fault." Haruko held Ayami at arm's length so that she could meet her eyes. "You didn't know he would do this. You aren't responsible for anyone else's actions."
The girl sniffed; Haruko felt her own tears ready to fall. She pulled Ayami back into a tight hug. "You're okay now," she repeated. "I'm okay too; don't worry, the police are going to keep us safe."
Ayami turned to look at the two men in the room. She blinked, her brow furrowing. "…Li? You're a police officer?"
"That was going to be my question," Officer Koga said, casting a wary eye over Hei. "Are those knives standard issue in Section Four?"
"Special dispensation," Hei said curtly. His arms hung loosely at his sides, as if he was ready to reach up and grab one of those knives at a moment's notice. He turned to Ayami. "Yes, I'm with the police; I've been looking after Haruko."
While his voice had softened to address the girl, Haruko noticed that he hadn't quite taken his eyes off of the other officer. She supposed this must not be someone he'd met before.
"Thank you," Ayami sniffed. At those simple words, Hei's mask of cold indifference slipped ever so slightly. Though he still made no move to approach her; perhaps he was worried that she would reject him out of fear, dressed as he was now. Ayami continued, "It would have been my fault if Dr. Haruko got hurt; I'm glad you took care of her."
Haruko gave the girl another squeeze. "I told you - it's not your fault." The tendency to blame herself for her father's actions was something they had been working on for a long time; this incident certainly wasn't going to help, Haruko thought sadly. It was far too much pressure for any seventeen-year-old to handle.
"So you're the therapist?" Officer Koga asked Haruko.
She nodded, and Koga smiled, showing all his teeth. "Good thing you're here, then. The girl's pretty shaken up, but that Section Four woman didn't want her taken to the hospital until all threats were neutralized."
Haruko glanced at Hei, expecting him to take offense at that description of Misaki; but Hei merely continued to regard the officer with the same guarded expression.
"Is there any coffee in this place?" Koga asked, turning back to Hei.
"That's a good idea," Haruko said. "Ayami, you should have some tea; Li just made a fresh pot for us."
"It's in the kitchen," Hei told the officer. He made no move to go pour out a couple of cups, as Haruko would have expected given his general consideration. Especially since he was standing closer to the kitchen than Koga.
"I'll go -" Haruko began when the officer's gaze flicked to the side, a brief frown appearing on his face.
"Don't worry about the specter," Hei told him. "It's just here to keep other dolls from looking in."
"Ah," Koga said, "good -"
Both men moved at the same time, faster than Haruko would have thought possible. Hei whipped a wicked-looking knife from the sheath at his side and sent it flying straight at the officer. "Go!" he shouted.
But Koga had already raised his hand, palm out and glowing blue - and the knife stopped in midair.
Blue, Haruko realized dumbly, frozen to the spot in fear. The same as that man in the garage. Contractor.
The next instant, the contractor flicked his wrist and sent the knife flying directly at Hei, who threw himself to the floor in a somersaulting roll. "Go!" he shouted again.
Even as he rose up, hand on the hilt of his next knife, the officer - contractor - flicked his wrist again, and Hei was flung backwards into the kitchen with a horrible crash. The contractor charged in after him.
Haruko couldn't move; couldn't breathe. She had to help Hei, somehow, but -
Ayami let out a frightened cry. "Li!"
At that, Haruko jolted back into life. She grabbed the girl's arm and yanked her away from the kitchen.
Through the bedroom, she thought desperately, dragging a terrified Ayami with her. Two deadbolts.
There were no lights on in the bedroom; Haruko charged blindly in, praying that she wouldn't trip over something and break an ankle. Straight back; there was a soft square outline opposite her - light from the city outside leaking in through a curtain.
She almost slammed face-first into the door. With shaking hands, she fumbled against the wood for the deadbolts, Ayami sobbing beside her.
Behind them came another loud crash. Haruko flipped the second deadbolt and gripped the round knob. She opened the door to be hit with a gust of chill November wind, but she hardly felt it, her blood was racing so quickly.
The two stumbled out into the street; Haruko slammed the door shut behind them, wishing that she had some way of locking it.
"Where do we go?" Ayami clutched her hand so tightly that Haruko could hardly feel her fingers anymore. "What about Li?"
"Li will be fine; he can handle himself." He said he could; I hope to god he's right.
But where should they go? Haruko glanced up and down the narrow, cluttered alley, lined with brick garden fences, parked cars, and bags of garbage waiting to be removed.
She turned them right at random, pelting down the alley, the instinct to flee from danger at war with the feeling that she was safest with Hei. But he was fighting that contractor alone; he couldn't protect them.
She could call - no, her phone was in her purse. In the house. She didn't even know what neighborhood they were in; would any of these residents open the door to a stranger pounding on it at two in the morning? Did she dare risk bringing a dangerous contractor down on them?
There was a stitch in her side, getting worse with every step; beside her, Ayami was hiccuping for breath.
Haruko had just decided to risk knocking at the next house they reached when a door slammed open to the alley behind them. Her heart lurched; without thinking, she pushed Ayami behind a parked car and threw herself in after her.
They huddled there on the ground together, in the one-foot gap between the car and a brick wall; the corner of the car's bumper dug into Haruko's spine. She struggled to breathe evenly, terrified that even the smallest inhalation would give them away. Ayami was shaking, her hand clamped over her mouth to hold in her sobs.
It was just some homeowner, realizing that he'd forgotten to set the trash out, Haruko told herself. Not the contractor. Or it was Hei. He…took care of Koga, or whoever he is, and is looking for us.
She knew in her gut, however, that it wasn't Hei. She couldn't imagine him ever making so much noise, unless he was trying to attract their attention - and if he wanted to attract their attention, he would have called her name.
Footsteps crunched on the asphalt, getting closer.
I shouldn't have run, she thought desperately. I know he said to, but there must have been something - how could I just run and leave him alone like that?
The footsteps were just on the other side of the car now. Haruko searched for a way out, but there was nowhere to go - they were between the car and wall. The wall was too high to climb, and the next hiding place was across an open stretch; surely the contractor would see them. Maybe they could crawl under -
"Come now, my darlings," came the voice of Officer Koga, just behind them. "It's no use hiding - no one is here to save you. Section Four really ought to hire better personnel, you know."
Ayami whimpered silently, and Haruko wrapped her arms tightly around her, a tear escaping from her own eye. Why hadn't she kept her pepper spray with her? There had to be a weapon, something she could -
The car they were hiding behind abruptly flew back, flipping end over end down the alley to land with a resounding crashing on top of another car, revealing a grinning Koga. Blood was dripping copiously from a slash in his cheek, but he seemed to disregard it.
"There you are," he said casually, as if they'd just met up in a coffee shop. "I'll make it quick, I promise. I may be a contractor, but I always keep my word." He raised a hand, that eerie blue glow coalescing around him.
Haruko gritted her teeth and shifted herself in front of the girl. He could kill her, fine, but he wasn't going to hurt Ayami -
A black shadow detached itself from the wall above them and leapt at the contractor's chest, knocking them both to the ground. The blue glow wrapped around both forms - no, it was coming from them both, Haruko realized - as a black-gloved hand clamped down on Koga's head. There was a loud, crackling snap!, like a miniature bolt of lightning. The contractor's entire body convulsed; then he went limp, the glow disappearing like a candle that had just been snuffed.
Hei crouched over the body, checking the pulse; then he turned to them.
"Is he…dead?" Haruko managed to ask, though she could guess. Blood-flecked foam leaked from the man's mouth, and the stink of urine filled the air. His eyes were wide open, empty and unblinking.
"Yes," Hei said, eying her and Ayami with a mix of wariness and worry. "Are you both okay?"
"Yes; I think -" Haruko had just begun to say when Ayami leapt up and launched herself at Hei, throwing her arms around his waist.
"You saved us!" the girl choked out through her tears. "Thank you!"
Hei flinched, his eyes widening in surprise; after a moment, he hugged her back, slightly awkwardly. "Um. You're welcome."
How many times has he been thanked in his life, Haruko wondered as she picked herself up off the ground, brushing the dust of her skirt. Not very many, I'd bet.
When Ayami released him at last, a glimmer of pain flashed across his face and he put a hand to his ribs.
"Are you alright?" Haruko asked in alarm.
"Fine. Just a couple bruised ribs."
"Just - Hei, that can be serious! Sit down -"
He only waved her off. "It's nothing; I'm fine."
Any further protests were cut off by the ringing of his phone. Suppressing a grimace at the movement, he reached into his back pocket and pulled it out. "Let me guess," he said in lieu of hello, "you found Officer Koga, dead and stripped of his badge and clothes. Yes; don't worry, I took care of it."
Hei wiped a weary hand down his face. "Misaki, it's not your fault," he said softly. "He didn't catch me off guard - you know how paranoid I am. Both Haruko and Ayami are fine." He paused. "Yes, I am too. I said yes." Another pause. "Just some bruised ribs, probably - alright, I'll sit down." He sighed heavily, but Haruko could see the corners of his mouth turning upwards. "I need a team to clean up the alley behind the safe house. Alright; see you soon."
"The real Officer Koga is dead?" Haruko asked quietly after Hei had hung up.
He nodded solemnly. "The contractor must have been watching the raid on the yakuza headquarters from a hidden vantage point; he heard Koga being given the instructions to drive Ayami to this address, guessed you would be here as well, and killed him. Then got in the squad car in his place."
Ayami sniffled. "He was so nice in the car. He said he was taking me someplace safe and that everything was going to be okay."
"Contractors are liars," Hei said, the bitterness clear in his voice.
Haruko sighed. She stepped up and gave him a hug of her own, reaching up to peck his cheek as she had done so many times for Suzu before sending him off to school. "Thank you," she said with a warm smile. "It seems like police work is what you were meant to do."
"Do you think so?" he asked, almost wistfully.
"Yes. I do."
It took ten minutes for Section Four and the uniformed units accompanying them to arrive; a long ten minutes during which Hei couldn't leave the scene, in case any local residents stumbled across the contractor's body, and he refused to send Haruko and Ayami back to the house on their own, even though he assured them that it was most likely safe now.
The crash of the car had stirred some people in the nearby homes; several poked their heads outside to see what the commotion had been. Hei had dragged the body into a deeper shadow up against the block wall, stating that it was better than letting it be seen by the public.
"Don't bother calling the police," Hei told one man for the third time. "I am the police."
"Where's your badge?" the pajama-clad man demanded.
Hei smiled that same disarming smile that he gave Haruko's receptionist every week. "Uh, I must have left it in my other pants. Don't worry, a squad car will be here soon."
"Why don't you have a badge," Ayami asked him when he joined her and Haruko, sitting on the hood of an undamaged car a few feet away from the dead contractor. "You are a cop, right?"
"I should have grabbed it; but I didn't want to wear it with these clothes."
"It's too, well, too shiny," he muttered.
To Haruko's pleased astonishment, Ayami actually giggled at that. The girl swung her feet idly against the bumper. "I used to wish I had an older brother," she said. "Someone who - who would protect me from my dad. If I did have one, I think he would be just like you."
Hei stared pensively at the ground. Undeterred by his lack of response, Ayami continued, "Do you have any younger siblings?"
"I have a little sister."
"I bet you look after her, too."
He sighed. "I did. Until she decided that it was her job to look after me. There's Saitou and Kouno," he finished as a pair of headlights swung into the alley.
Ayami leaned into Haruko, as if seeking safety. "Are they going to make me go to the hospital? I don't want to."
"Don't worry," Haruko said, stroking her back. "I'm going to go with you. And then you're going to come home with me, and spend the night at my house."
Haruko felt a squeezing of her heart at that hopeful question. "Really."
The silver car pulled up next to them. Hei stood; before he could join his fellow officers and the chaos of a police crime scene ensued, Haruko slid off of the car's hood and joined him. "I'm still going to see you at your appointment next week, aren't I?"
He gave her a quick smile. "Of course."
She nodded, relieved. At least there won't be any more surprises, after this. Then another thought occurred to her. "You talked to Ayami about your sister as if she was still alive."
"Uh…" was all he said.
Haruko frowned. "Right?"
"Well…I mean…I guess it depends?"
"Depends on what?"
"On how you classify the quantum fusion of two separate individuals?"
Oh dear. She sighed. "Well, we'll get to that eventually, I'm sure. Are you going to write down tonight's events in your notebook?"
At that, he gave her a genuine, if sheepish smile. "I guess I should, shouldn't I."