Title: "Cold War"
Series: The Herder of Penguins
Summary: A conflict between K and one of the trainees brings back the memories of K's first serious assignment. [The Herder of Penguins. Part 4]
Dedication: Happy belated b-day, my fearsome and awesome HLL!
A/N: This one's choppy and heavy again, featuring a lot of character remarks and weird action. I'd like to go back to the poetic style of the first installment, but somehow the story refuses to work with me.
…outside the hospital the war was still going on. Men went mad and were rewarded with medals.
Joseph Heller. 'Catch-22'
A gust of wind steals beneath his shirt and picks its way between the shoulderblades. From the moment he saw J walking through the hall, something has been off.
"If he so much as looks in her direction," K hisses, "I will pick him apart circuit by circuit!"
He can feel her then, watching, listening. This is the side of him speaking that he doesn't want her to see. He turns to glance at her, brimming with dull anger. She stands just around the corner, a paper doll sliced in half, so that only scraps of her are visible. A bunched up sleeve of her coat, a shoulder taut over with striped fabric, wisps of wavy red hair. He doesn't know how much she has heard.
"Please wait in the room, trainee," Agent O says, looking past him. T vanishes like an apparition exposed to light. "I know how you must feel," says O, patting his shoulder gently.
"What exactly do you know?" spits K. "They sent me to drag a reluctant man in just to fix that abomination! Did you–? Did you know J was a replica? What else is there that they aren't telling us? And speaking of the doctor, where is he now? Has anyone seen him? Is he even alive?"
O fixes him with a shocked wide-eyed gaze.
"What's wrong with you?" she mouths. "We've all got levels of clearance. It's always been like that."
"And it doesn't disturb you in the least that your colleague is essentially a cyborg and you've only just been informed of it."
"It doesn't disturb me," O says listlessly, "because that's what I've signed up for. We all did. There are things we're not supposed to know."
"They won't disclose even the information we're formally allowed access to."
O squints down at her wrist-watch. K takes a deep breath, willing himself to calm down. He is burning up inside, the dry, fragile flames of strange, youthful fury, a cocktail of emotions he hasn't felt since he was a fresh, incompetent newbie. He lets it all settle down. Perhaps he does sound odd, ranting about conspiracies and looking for justifications where none are due.
He lets himself into a small room, smaller and stuffier than the one they usually occupy. When the trainees are seated, he casts a quick searching gaze about the room and wonders where Agent V is: it's odd to see the seat in the front row empty. Probably running late, they tell him.
He distributes the encrypted texts among the trainees, and they begin reading, decoding the information as they go. He rubs his nosebridge, feeling sleepy and sluggish.
V barges in some twenty minutes into the lesson, asks to sign some slip and runs away again, beaming at everyone proudly. He has just been assigned some special job in the Script Codes Department.
"Show-off," one of the girls mumbles under her breath.
K twines the red ballpoint between his fingers. He should not be here either. He should be working on his own 'special project', rummaging through the Archives, looking for Kutaragi – anything to even begin to understand what the hell is going on in the Agency now.
He pulls a homework paper out of the stack in front of him. The trainees tense visibly, but as he begins reading aloud, crossing out the foolish mistakes, it becomes clear the paper doesn't belong to any of those present in the classroom. Must be V's. K chuckles. The style tells a lot. Definitely V's. A burst of laughter somewhere in the corner shows him he's not the only one to think so.
"Why are you laughing?" R asks icily. "People make mistakes, you know. No need to make us feel like we're idiots."
K looks up, spots her harsh, beautiful face by the window. Her lips are pursed and her eyes bore into him, betraying flashes of deep-seated hostility.
K smiles. "Who's laughing, me? On the contrary, I feel quite like crying." He shoots a glance towards the laughers. At least someone is having fun.
R's face darkens.
"You think you're so smart, don't you?" she says, the steel in her voice sharper than ever. "You obviously find pleasure in deriding our mistakes all the time. I'm well and truly sorry that the only student body you have interaction with is made up of lazy, inept fools, but you could at least pretend you think higher of us. It's called professional ethics, did you know?"
K squares his shoulders. Somehow despite the closeness, it's got colder in the room. Several pairs of wide, astounded eyes are trying to keep watch of both K and R. The girl goes perfectly rigid, inching to the edge of her seat, never taking her eyes off of K's face.
"I'm sorry if you think so low of yourself," K says, careful to maintain his cool mask. He finds her accusations hardly more than laughable. "I have never once implied that your division was inept. I hold you in the highest regard. You would have noticed it if you had but once taken a break from complaining about my teaching skills."
He intends to continue the lesson, but she is obviously not done yet. He cannot say he is particularly surprised: she has been acting like a volcano ready to erupt ever since he met her. He never thought she would take everything so personal, though. Almost as if his 'taunts' are directed at her alone.
Ten minutes of that, and he can barely control himself any longer.
"I am not trying to humiliate you," he says in a forcibly restrained voice. "How else should I point out your mistakes? I should very much like to see you do any better, Agent. I daresay you haven't met an instructor who really enjoys humiliating students. Down to making them burst in tears. This isn't something I'm striving for."
"Pointing out our mistakes, is that it?" The pitch of her voice escalates. "How would you call shutting us all off in the classroom while you're off doing field work? How is that educational in any way?"
"Do not make this personal, Agent. If it shatters your nerves so much, perhaps you should consider choosing another profession."
She gets up, swiftly, nostrils flaring, a lock of ash-blond hair gone astray over her forehead. He rises as well, looking her in the eyes across the room. The girl sitting next to her, D, places her palm over R's had cautiously. R remains unresponsive.
"Should I just ignore the mistakes you make then? Would that make you content?"
For a moment it seems she is ready to let go. D looks up at her friend, hopefully.
"Should we ignore your mistakes?" R queries.
The silence in the room has a dry feel to it, as though electrified.
"What exactly do you mean by that?" K inquires, uncertain if he really needs to know that.
Her eyes harden. He didn't think it was possible.
"Those scary teachers you've told us about," she says slowly. "Do they let their trainees die and then have the criminals responsible for it walk free?"
He wants to hit her then, but that would destroy everything he believes in, every law he abides by in his life, and he reaches tentatively to pull on his control's strings and get himself together.
"Guys," C mumbles self-consciously, "maybe we should get back to work…"
K clenches his fists so hard his knuckles turn white. The silence is deafening, as though a bombshell has just exploded right over their heads. He can see by the look on R's face that she is willing to admit she has said too much, but something – pride perhaps – prevents her from doing so. Neither of them knows how to break this impasse.
"Right," R says sharply. "It's not like anything's going to change."
Gracefully, she slides back on her seat. That leaves him standing alone, towering over the division members like a solitary tree. He gulps down the bitter, cold thickness that swells in his throat and picks the lesson up from where they have left off. His voice comes out treacherously thin, weary. He can hardly believe how exhausted he feels. The classroom feels like a tomb.
The canals lay in their beds of granite, steam smoking faintly above still waters. Winter in Japan is unlike any winter in the world; or so he thought because by all standards he had been away from home for too long.
He reached out and flicked his fingers over the touchscreen. The requested casefile sprang into a viewing mode before him. A photo of a woman, Japanese, in her late thirties, took up half of the screen.
"So this is her then," a voice came. "Oni. She is a celebrity even where I come from."
F acknowledged the other's presence with a curt nod. Footsteps. The visitor drew closer.
"Do you know what an oni is?" asked F.
"A demon from the Japanese folklore. You don't need to worry about me, senpai. I've done my homework."
F gazed up at him then, a ghost of a smirk unapologetically conspicuous in the corner of his mouth. He had asked for reinforcements, some fresh blood, and the Home Office had decidedly dispatched this one. Way too fresh, in his opinion, but then again, who was he to question the Director's judgment?
Then kid was no more than twenty-one and looked even younger. Yet there was some uncanny gravity about him, which showed in everything he did. He had already spent two days in the Osaka office; no one could stand him except for the local trainees who catered to his every whim, which he had many, mostly in the area of familiarizing himself with the cases. What few local girls worked in the Office, happened to fall head over heels for his steel-blue eyes, naturally turning all vets even further against him.
F liked the kid. This pedantic attitude would most definitely do him no good, but as far as potential went, he was a goldmine. He was not in the least submissive and he had imagination, the trait F valued in his trainees immensely but rarely stumbled upon.
"Oi, Chibi-kun!" H had called after the kid the day before. "Get me some coffee on the way out, will ya? It's gonna be a long night."
Tough shit, F had scoffed. The kid was leaving. Fetching an older colleague a cup of coffee, while not a particularly difficult task in itself, still meant the trainee would have to go the roundabout way, which in turn signaled his willingness to comply with every demand of the old-timers. Disobeying would seem disrespectful. F waited to see what the kid would do.
He had certainly found a remarkable way to solve the problem. They had all heard the coffee machine buzzing in the hallway, spewing coffee out. Silence followed. Then loud rumbling rolled heavily along the hall. A moment later a dinner trolley trundled inside and came to a halt just short of colliding with H's desk. A few drops of coffee dribbled down the plastic walls of the cup that was positioned right in the middle of the trolley. Next to it lay a paper tissue marked with a line of Japanese characters:
"Clown!" H barked, but chose not to reject his much needed caffeine.
It was then that F knew the kid had a future in their department.
Yamamura Michiko, 37, alias 'Oni', a former murder suspect in the case of Yamamura Hideki's suicide. Highly unstable.
"She's been off the meds for months," H reported gruffly. "Breakdown after breakdown. She's a nutter. And she's got a fucking bomb."
K glanced at the blueprints of the school where Yamamura Michiko was currently holding four people hostage. Three local teachers and one guest teacher from Britain.
"The bomb is not on her," H went on. "According to our sensors, it's somewhere in the basement, but she has a remote control."
"That means we can't take her out before we disable the bomb," a petite, neat-looking woman said. "We haven't got much time, though. Gunshots have already been heard. We don't know if anyone inside needs medical help. She refused to tell us."
Mori Junkou, K checked her off mentally. Strictly speaking, she was not with the Agency, though he recalled seeing her name in the Agency reports on more than one occasion.
"Have you tried negotiating with her?" K asked, looking up from the blueprints.
The agents gazed at him somewhat curiously, as if they had already forgotten about his existence. Mori appraised him briskly and said coolly:
"She has made no demands. If she blows the bomb, she dies as well. It seems she is perfectly fine with that. She wants, I quote, 'retribution'."
"Evacuation complete," an officer reported.
Mori shook her head impatiently. "We need to mark time. Distract her somehow. But she won't let anyone in, not even to check up on the hostages' condition."
K tilted his head back. The tall windows of the gym lined with shades of thick protective bars glimmered ominously in the sunlight. Indistinct shadows stretched along two of the windows. Almost as if somebody was standing there, unable to move.
"How the hell did she manage to fix it up anyway?" H growled. "There are three guys in there, one of them a fucking kung fu master!"
"You'd be surprised what a gun in your face does to people," K muttered. That earned him a glare from H and a dry chuckle of approval from Mori.
The school was now empty aside from the four hostages, and to K's muted surprise, it didn't seem to bother Oni in the slightest. So it really was revenge. He glanced back at the group of agents conversing a few feet away from him. If things moved at such a pace, he risked turning into a coffee boy again. The hostages had it worse though, running the risk of burning to crisp should the lady with the remote control lose her temper.
K picked up the loudspeaker.
"Yamamura-san! Good afternoon. This is Agent K speaking."
Mori spun around and was by his side in a blink of an eye.
"What the hell do you think you're doing!?" she hissed. "She wouldn't talk to us; why should she talk to you?"
K glanced down at her and shrugged. "I can be pretty likeable." He took a deep breath and brought the loudspeaker closer to his mouth. "I bet you're having a lot of fun there, Yamamura-san, but I'm afraid we don't have all day. Sooner or later, either party will have to take action."
"Put that thing down, trainee!" H spat. The vein on his temple was pulsing. "That's an order."
The emphasis he put on K's rank didn't escape the young agent. K's lips curved into a slight smile.
"We could always start a little competition," he went on nonchalantly. "Who do you think will be faster: you pushing the button or the sniper pulling the trigger?"
"Are you out of your fucking mind?" Mori yelped. "You're going to provoke her!"
H had already managed to produce a gun and was short of pointing it at K who flashed him a friendly smile and lowered the loudspeaker. From the corner of his eye, he could see F watching him. Unlike the others, his supervisor wasn't trying to stop him. There was something in F's face that told K his actions weren't that much out of line.
A small ventlight in the window that was according to the blueprints closest to the door cracked open.
"You're a funny guy," a cool female voice said. "You want to talk? Come on in. Faster. I won't wait for you to bring all your spy equipment in."
"This is insane!" Mori exclaimed as K started moving towards the entrance. "Are you seriously considering letting him go without a vest or wire?"
Time, K told himself. We need time. He didn't feel particularly keen on chatting with a madwoman without any protection; but then again, a Kevlar vest would hardly save him in case she followed through with her grandiose plan.
F called after him and tossed him a small black plate with a pulsing red dot. The sensor. The moment the dot turned green, the bomb would be dismantled. K nodded and pushed the plate under the wristlet of his watch. It felt unnaturally warm against the interlacement of his veins.
"Don't let anyone die on you," F said. That was all the encouragement he needed.
Oni turned out to be a haggard woman about a head shorter than him. Her thick long hair parted artlessly in the middle was done up in two plaits and looked dusty and unkempt. She had a sad, intelligent face that could be considered pretty at a stretch, but her eyes looked completely lifeless and lacklustre. She searched him rapidly, never drawing the gun aside from him, and gestured towards the horizontal bar attached to the wall at the end of the gym near the basketball hoop. A funny thought flashed through K's mind as Yamamura fixed his wrists with a rope against the bar: tossing a ball into the hoop and watching it bounce off of his head would make a nice torture.
Having made sure he wouldn't be able to move, Oni stepped away and cocked her head.
"What did you say your name was?" she asked brusquely, with an air of a person completely disinterested in the answer.
"We go by letters. I'm K."
"Well, K-san, I want you to meet my friends." She waved around flippantly, and his gaze traveled over the hostages. Two of them were bound to the bars protecting the windows. Their bodies provided the shadows he had seen from the yard. The Englishman, an obese red-faced man with the eyes of a frightened piglet, was half-sprawled on the floor, dangerously short of breath. A young woman, a Geography teacher hardly much older than K himself, was trembling nervously by his side, arms thrown around her knees.
K fixed his eyes on the bound ones. One of them was burly and wiry with a rough crew cut and a long sharp nose. Satou Jirou, K remembered from the casefile. PE. Married, two children, a certain monarchist. The other one was short even by Asian standards and had lively facial features. His expression remained fluid even now, changing from scared to furious to desperate to ferocious every now and then. Tanaka Masayoshi, Biology. K had never liked Biology.
Oni took a small glossy photo out of her pocket and demonstrated it to K.
"My son, Hideki. And these are his murderers." She flicked the gun up. "Who do you think should go first? The PE teacher?" She flashed Satou a cryptic smile. "A classic villain in every school. Or the foreigner who claimed my boy had no 'linguistic skills'?"
Her face hardened as she squinted down at the Englishman. Martin Simmons, K reminded himself, snobbish and efficient, been here for a little over five years. Simmons felt her gaze sooner than he noticed it. His entire body seemed to have shrunk like a clot of slime, and he whimpered in heavily accented Japanese:
"I was just doing my job!"
A curt laughter tore itself from Oni's lips. "For your sake, I hope you don't come from the same parts."
She put the photo away and stood motionless in the middle of the game markings on the floor. She looked calmer than he expected, almost serene, and in spite of her age, much like a child.
"How did you do it?" K wondered. "How did you mine the building?"
"Is that what you want to talk about?" She sounded miffed.
"What do you want to talk about?" When she deigned him no answer, K tried another question. "Why these four? You let everyone else go."
"My son killed himself a few years ago, did you know that?" Yamamura swayed lightly like a person walking an open road in the wind. "This is an elite school. Its elitism is obviously measured by the strain put on its students." She scoffed bitterly. "My boy did his best to succeed. He was a very smart boy. Everyone loved him. And then he shot himself. With this gun." She dropped her hand and it hung lax along her body. "I was a murder suspect. Because the gun belonged to me and had my finger prints all over it. As if I could kill my own child!"
She turned to face him, her eyes burning with fierce anger. At that moment she resembled closely the demon whose name she had come to share by the grace of the reporters.
The case of Yamamura Hideki could have been one of many. Teenage suicides were a common thing in this country, but this particular death had managed to attract outrageously much attention. A grieving mother accused of murder, unrepentant teachers who continued flaunting their superiority over the other students, incompetent work of investigators; public opinion would have been in her favour if not for the threatening letters and calls which she had been showering the supposed culprits with. Then the breakdown came. She had been committed briefly and had vanished out of sight upon release. And now this.
"These four are monsters," said Oni harshly. "Ask them if they're sorry. They'll tell you it's just their job."
"Maybe it is," K remarked.
"Those who were doing their job went free."
K skewed his eyes up on the sensor. The dot remained red. The wristlet covered it completely so that but a reddish shade against his skin indicated the colour. Could they work any slower? K thought grouchily.
"I never liked thinking about death," Oni said pensively. "Not before… well… But you obviously do."
"What makes you think so?"
"Your job for one thing."
K forced a smile. Her attitude alarmed him. For a clinically insane person, she appeared to be far too level-headed.
"I'm still a trainee. Technically, I'm not allowed to do this sort of thing."
She compressed her lips in mild amusement. Her fingers hovered dangerously close to a broad strip of leather strapped on her left wrist. A small button that looked more like a fashionable clincher on a bracelet caught K's attention momentarily. This was it, the remote control. He frowned. He knew this technology – but how the hell had she come across it? It was a delicate, intricate device, something he would expect to find on a full-blown terrorist rather than in the possession of a middle-class housewife. No wonder the Agency had got involved in this case.
"That's a fancy trinket you have there," he observed cautiously.
Oni laughed abruptly. "You don't expect me to tell you where I got it, do you?"
K flashed her a strained smile. He probably shouldn't have skipped that series of seminars back at the Academy that dealt with carrying on negotiations.
He watches her during the break. She looks uncomfortable, surrounded by the girls from 301 who are talking in low voices. Oddly enough, he doesn't remember what sort of look she had on her face during his squabble with R.
"Damn," she murmurs. "We hurt him."
C's voice: "He looks like a ruffled up sparrow."
The girls giggle. K arches his eyebrows. The hell!
"He needs a hug!" T declares categorically.
He should probably leave but if he walks past them now, it'll be clear he has heard their conversation. K leans against the wall, with a sigh. Eavesdropping on students. That's what he's come down to.
"R shouldn't have," says L. "Really… shouldn't have. On top of all, she used S's death as a weapon. That's just low."
The corners of K's lips twitch upwards, a small smile plastered on his face. They remind him of children, now more than ever. Brave little children ready to stand up for their kindergartener. Albeit he doesn't bruise easily.
"Wretched cold," C mutters.
"Sensei's jokes will keep us warm!" L laughs.
"If he's still in the mood to joke," T remarks moodily.
He chooses that moment to make an appearance. The girls tense at the sight of him. He walks past them nonchalantly, tosses the keys to the room they will currently occupy to whoever is fast enough to catch them and continues on his way.
The thudding of his own heart annoyed K. Fear was a tricky thing. He had once done a paper on fear for his Psychology course; back then, it had been no more than dry theory.
It came in waves, imperceptible and lethal. It brought tightness in his throat and dryness in his eyes. Sweat cropped up on his palms. He failed to notice how swiftly he had begun falling into that black pit. He forced himself to filter it out. He could still talk and breathe and think past the terrible numbness of his brain, but his gaze kept tripping between Oni's bracelet and the sensor hidden beneath his watch. The dot begged to be excused: it preferred being red.
Yamamura was losing it. She mumbled to herself, dashed to and fro between K and the hostages, and her fingers kept returning to the leather bracelet, freezing indecisively just short of touching the clincher. Every time anyone made a sound loud enough to attract her attention, she would brandish the gun as if it were a knife and spit out an insult. It took K a while to figure out she was barking at the voices inside her head rather than the people in the gym.
"They talk!" she snapped, pressing the barrel of the gun into his temple. "All the time!" A snappy sound, a cross between a snort and a giggle, escaped her lips. "Maybe if I blow a hole in your head, you will be able to hear them. Would you like that?"
K clenched his teeth. She asked him if he was afraid. He stared blankly at the tall barred windows of the gym that shimmered like shreds of blinding white paper pasted against the dirty grey background, perfectly smooth, no chipped layers of paint, no cracks, no flaws at all. Sweat trickled down his forehead.
"Can you find me someone who's not afraid of dying?" he whispered. Surprisingly, what he felt afterwards was close to relief.
Oni scowled and pulled away. "At least you're honest."
She strode towards the opposite end of the gym in her odd skipping gait, her braided hair bouncing neurotically about her shoulders. She threw up her hand holding the gun and held it before her like a wanderer in the night would hold a torch to light his path.
"Why are you doing this?" K asked.
Oni snorted. "Oh, please! We had such a great start! And now you're getting all traditional."
The last word sounded like an insult. She glanced at him briefly, a scathing smirk playing on her lips.
"Suppose I'm really trying to understand. You won't bring your son back like this and you know it. You'll only lose him forever."
Her face contorted with some emotion he couldn't quite place. Suddenly she shrieked and aimed the gun at him. Her hand was shaking. She had to wrap the fingers of her left hand around her right wrist to forcibly stabilize it. He was only glad it wasn't vice versa.
"No one ever listens!" she yelled. "Sometimes, if only once, you have to listen!" She rushed up to him, digging the barrel of the gun into his chest. "Now I have them. Constantly. They never stop, and I am compelled to listen!"
"Why did they blame it on you?" K asked quietly. The tear-stained face of the young Geography teacher that he could see so clearly past Oni's head seemed to turn even paler. "Was it because you'd grabbed the gun, trying to stop him? The discharge outlet was all messed up. They thought you'd pulled the trigger. You've already been falsely accused once. If you kill all these people, you'll commit a real crime."
"I will go with them," she grinned and touched his cheek like he was a small unreasonable child. "And so will you. Neither of us will have to care."
She lowered the gun and took a few steps back. The Geography teacher sobbed uncontrollably. The gun flew up, pointing at her. Oni growled irritably.
"She didn't even work here when your son died," K said urgently. "It's only her third week."
He tried to soften his tone, but the tension wouldn't drain away, not now that he found himself unable to look away from the Geography girl, her plain lilac blouse and her black culottes, her straight glistening hair fixed in a bun at the back of her head that remained unblemished even now. Unwanted details cluttered his mind. She was twenty-three, engaged, born in the Okayama Prefecture, last name Fukushima…
He willed himself to stop.
"Well, that changes everything," Oni said wearily. "Except I could care less."
The gun cocked.
"You would have an innocent woman answer for the crimes of another!" K blurted out. That seemed to have caught her attention. She looked back at him, her hand still in position. "Except you can't get to her predecessor because he had a heart attack and he's dead."
He hoped his point was clear enough to reach her. Oni trembled, as if uncertain what to do. K addressed Fukushima a curt nod. If she didn't break down and provoke the Oni, things would go fine from here. To give the girl credit, she sat perfectly still like a statue, breath caught in her throat.
"Do you have someone you care for?" Oni asked all of a sudden. It took K a moment to realize the question was addressed to him. "I don't suppose you have children. But maybe a spouse? Significant other?"
She turned away from Fukushima now and cocked her head, considering something. Her voice, when she spoke, came out distant, pensive.
"Surely you have friends. Parents? Maybe siblings?"
He didn't like where this was going. "Like everyone else." A frown creased his forehead.
She marched up to him and shoved her hand into the pocket of his jacket and fished out his cell phone. "Call them."
For a moment K's carefully constructed mask slipped off. He glared at her, eyes open wide with fury and disbelief. He would never let her bring his family into this.
Oni was adamant. She shoved the phone into his hand, impassively.
"Make a call, now."
When he didn't budge, she spun around, picking a victim, and laughed abruptly under her breath. She approached Fukushima and grabbed her by the shoulder, forcing her to stand up. Fukushima's lips trembled as she muttered desperately: "No, please, don't–!"
"You seem to be fond of this one," the Oni scowled. "I'll make myself clear: if you don't make that call, she dies. What about that?"
Her speech was punctuated throughout with Fukushima's sobs and incoherent pleas. She was losing control very quickly. K took a shaky breath.
"Who do I call?"
A lazy smile crept up on Yamamura's face. She pushed her hostage in K's direction until only a short distance separated them and said with conviction:
"Your mother. I'm doing you both a favour. I couldn't get through to my boy before he died."
His fingers felt numb. He dialed deliberately slowly. She might not be at home. She might be sleeping; it was still pretty early back home. What the fuck was going on in the basement? Was it so hard to disable one fucking bomb?
The call came through. It must have shown on his face because Yamamura took the phone from him and listened. To make sure he wasn't trying to chat with his pals outside, she explained.
K froze. He could hear it from here. His mother's voice. Oni handed him the phone and mouthed: now talk. He had little idea what she wanted him to say.
"Who is it?" his mother asked across miles of land and water. Somehow she seemed impossibly far away.
"Mom," he breathed, perhaps a little too hastily.
He felt his face burning up. He glowered at Oni who watched him impassively, and prayed inwardly Fukushima would stop hyperventilating. That sound was not something he wanted his mother to hear. He composed himself and said briskly:
"How are you? How's Dad?"
"Good." She sounded surprised. He hadn't called in months. "Is everything okay? How's your study course?"
"Terrific. Very, uh… educational."
His tongue felt heavy. He imagined her standing in the middle of their small apartment (she would always stand up when something puzzled her). Tell her, the Oni mouthed.
"I miss you," he said automatically. "Both of you. I miss you very much."
"We miss you too." Now she was close to panic. He knew that tone very well. She might as well buy a ticket to Japan now.
"It's nostalgia, Mom," he protested against the statement she hadn't made yet. "It happens. But I'm great here. I just wanted you to know that–." He glared at Oni who drilled him with a blazing look. His voice dropped to a shaky whisper despite his best efforts to prevent it. "I miss you."
"Victor," mother said gravely, her tone vaguely reminiscent of his own when he was in no mood for anything but work, "I'm beginning to think somebody is holding a gun to your head." He almost chuckled at that; she often got close to the truth without knowing it. "If you don't tell me what's going on right now, I'll–."
"I've been thinking of you, that's all. I'll drop by first thing when I return." He blinked. His eyes were getting strangely wet. "I have to go now. Say hi to Dad for me."
He switched the phone off before she could answer. Oni shook her head disapprovingly.
"Don't go making promises you won't be able to keep."
He gritted his teeth. "Are you happy now? Happy enough to let her go?"
Oni bit her lower lip in thought and gazed at Fukushima as if having forgotten about her completely. The young teacher kept shivering, her breathing heavy and irregular. Oni pushed her down roughly.
"How old are you?" she asked K.
"Twenty-one," he said reluctantly; lying about such matters seemed a bit pointless.
She nodded for some unfathomable reason. "So young and so eager to throw your life away for a bunch of strangers."
He shrugged as far as the restraints let him. It seemed like the right thing to do. For a few minutes the gym lapsed into tormenting silence.
Anger flooded him. He needed to get her to the window and get it over with. The sniper was waiting on the roof of the opposite building. Riddle me this, he scoffed to himself, whose reaction is better?
He peered at his wrist intently. His heart sank. He couldn't see the sensor. It must have slipped deeper beneath the wristlet when he had been on the phone. So had the damn dot changed its colour or not? K gritted his teeth. Fifty-fifty then.
Don't let anyone die, F had said.
K imagined what it must feel like to die in an explosion. If the bomb was as far below as in the basement, it should be a hell of a bomb. There was always a gun, of course. A bullet tearing up the flesh, digging deeper, a burning foreign body in his system.
But that was selfish. Don't let anyone die on you, F had said. These precise words. It didn't matter much if K died, but it mattered if they did. Could he gamble with their lives now? He cast another rapid glance at the wristlet. He couldn't see a thing.
"Michiko-san," K murmured, "let these people go. You've already let them know what a dastardly crime they're responsible for. Living with that kind of guilt will be far worse than dying."
For a while Yamamura appeared to ignore him; then her hand twitched, and she giggled breathlessly.
"You didn't love your boy enough," K added nonchalantly.
The silence that followed was dry and ruthless. The fat Englishman on the floor moaned quietly. Fukushima ceased her neurotic exhalations. Oni looked around, eyeing K curiously, her face like a mask.
"If you loved him, you would hurt his murderers. You would do as the voices told you to do. They tell you to punish these people, to make them suffer. But you're so quick to let them off the hook."
"Shut up," Yamamura cut him off.
"Hideki endured years of humiliation in this hellhole. What is a second of pain compared to that?"
She staggered backwards, withdrawing from him as if he had splashed her with boiling water.
"Do not pretend that you know what it's like!" she shrieked and took another step back. "I'll kill them! I'll have their lives now!" She fiddled with the remote control, as if choosing between that and the gun. Fukushima started weeping loudly.
Yamamura was almost in front of the window already. She was shaking violently, spewing out nonsensical tirades in smothered whisper.
"But you do know, don't you?" A ghost of a smile crossed his lips. "You've got firsthand experience. That's a scary thought. You've asked yourself many times: what if you did pull that trigger? What if that wasn't suicide?"
"You will die with me," she said abruptly in a very clear voice. "You've already said your goodbyes."
K scoffed. Those slowpokes could do better. Perhaps it was time to pray.
The Oni whirled in place, having just felt the slight draught coming from the window. He knew what she saw: a tiny red dot gliding up her body, finding its target. Her head snapped up. The shot blew a hole in the window. The Oni's body careened; someone, most likely Fukushima, screamed. K released a sharp breath; waves of numbing heat burst in his stomach. He looked downward. A dark red stain was spreading over his shirt. As Yamamura's body hit the floor and the sounds of footsteps and outcries grew deafening, reality began slipping away from K.
It wouldn't be fire then. Just a bullet.
Back when he got paid for killing people, life was less troublesome. Nowadays he gets paid for being friendly and helpful, and his trainees bite at him for it.
He strums a beat on the steering wheel mindlessly, choking on the stupid spring flower-scented warmth that flows inside the car through the half-opened window. He shouldn't let it affect him so. He wants to curse loudly.
She walks past the car, her coat unbuttoned, her face weary and guarded. She keeps turning her cell phone between her fingers. As she moves farther away, he grabs his phone and rings her up.
"You look tired."
She spins around, spots his car, and a crooked smile comes up on her face. He smiles too, though she can hardly see it.
"I'm mulling over a problem."
"How to apologize to me for R's words?"
She keeps silent for a minute. Then she begins walking, her back turned on him.
"Something like that."
"Everyone's entitled to their opinion."
"You heard us, didn't you?"
She has almost turned around the corner already. She stops there; he has to crane out his neck slightly to catch a glimpse of her. Half of her, again. Softly, she says:
"We don't want you to fall away."
"Don't push your luck."
He laughs and starts the engine.
"I'll be expecting a picture. As a token of your huge appreciation of me."
When F entered the room, the kid had just finished buttoning up his shirt. A thick smell of medication diluted with a vague aroma of hospital coffee cloyed the air.
"How's it rollin'?" F asked.
K chuckled and then turned around, looking perfect as always.
"I've been better."
That was new. Almost an attempt at humour. The kid looked relaxed, oddly at ease with himself.
"The whole department is really impressed," F informed him. "You've had no special training, have you?"
K shook his head. Despite himself, F smiled. The kid looked younger than he should, and those shiny eyes of his glimmered with odd naiveté one wouldn't expect to find in a special agent. He had something in him, something it took to make a difference. F hoped this potential would not be laid to waste.
"Thanks for letting me do it," K said plainly. F nodded. Some things were better left unsaid.
"So have you made up your mind already?" he wanted to know.
"I was leaning towards the cryptography unit, but now I'm not so sure. I was thinking more along the lines of Special Ops."
"They don't do hostage crises in Special Ops. Not unless things get political."
Something indecipherable flashed in K's eyes. A tiny smirk tugged at the corner of his mouth.
"Exactly," he said plainly, and then there was time to say goodbye.
Even now he keeps the memories catalogued inside his mind. That first case spilling over into a major weaponry heist and arms trafficking case, political scandals, scientific research races, conflicts with other defense agencies – every single thing in that chain of events has led him here. To this very place.
He remembers F retiring shortly after the Oni case. H dying in a gun battle seven years ago. Mori going off the radar. A pushing and pulling depending on her mood and the importance of gain.
In all these years there has been only one thing he was afraid of admitting to himself.
He didn't care if the dot had gone green in time.