Hei was never good at not idly listening in on any conversation he happened to be within earshot of – free knowledge! who’d pass that up? – but there were some things his brain had simply grown hardwired to take notice of whether he wanted to or not.
Case in point:
"– can’t connect it to the electric net –" ‘Electric.’ Ding ding ding! Pay attention! "– to check if it even works. Are you sure we don’t have a compatible battery anywhere around here?"
"No. I’m afraid we’ll have to import one, or build one from scratch. The original probably was home-made. Everything else in this thing seems to be."
Hei took a few steps back and stuck his head around the door of the evidence lab just far enough to get a peek inside. Section Four police officer Fukuda... something, and Tanaka Rena, one of their computer experts, were bent over a rough-looking laptop together. They worked different shifts, but Hei saw them around the office often enough.
"How long would that take?" Fukuda asked.
"Well..." Tanaka scratched her head uncertainly, dislodging the headband keeping her long hair out of her face in the process. She put it back in place and cleared her throat. "They went to great lengths to avoid industry standard materials; importing the right stuff would take a few days, at least."
"And if you made the parts yourself?"
"Easier said than done. I’ve never built a battery before. First I’d have to teach myself how to do it normally, and then I’d have to figure out how to modify the process for this little monster."
"And that would take valuable time too," Fukuda finished. He put his hands on his hips and blew a sigh at the ceiling. "Foiled by a melted battery and some glue in a port. Damn. And on a time-sensitive case like this..."
"No, no, it’s our fault. We presumed too much, thinking we’d have all the time in the world to gather evidence."
"Can I help?" Hei asked, leaning further into the doorway and causing Fukuda and Tanaka to jump a mile.
"Officer Li!" Tanaka squeaked, before quickly choking back her surprise and bringing her voice down an octave and a half. "You? Help? How?"
Rather than keep hovering in the doorway, Hei shifted the bundle of case files under his arm and approached Tanaka and Fukuda’s table. He nodded towards the laptop. "You need a way to power that, right?"
Tanaka’s eyes went wide. Fukuda’s eyes went wider.
"You can... do that?" he asked, still clutching the front of his shirt.
"Of course. An electric current is an electric current." At the look on their faces, he clarified: "It doesn’t have to be strong enough to short-circuit anything."
Fukuda looked distinctly uncomfortable nonetheless. "I’m not sure that’s such a good..." he started.
"How much does that thing eat?" Hei asked Tanaka.
"Um..." She shot a quick, uncertain look at Fukuda before answering. "We’re not actually sure. Given some of the things we know it’s been used for, it’s probably on the heavy end for a laptop, but..."
Hei put his files on the table and reached for the computer, but Tanaka drew it towards herself, shooting another look at Fukuda.
"You’re sure you can use your power without damaging anything?" she asked.
"Trust me, I know what I’m doing," Hei said.
After a moment’s consideration, Fukuda frowned and nodded. "Fine." He pointed a finger at Hei. "But on your head be it if there’s evidence on this laptop and you fry it all."
"I’ll be careful," Hei assured them, keeping his voice and expression bland, and took the laptop Tanaka offered him.
He couldn’t blame them for their caution, he knew. He didn’t think he’d used this power in a non-destructive or non-violent way in the line of duty yet since he’d joined Section Four. Still, he was a consummate professional. He wasn’t going to screw up something this simple.
Because it was simple, no matter how tensely Fukuda and Tanaka were watching him. He turned the laptop upside down. Tanaka was right, this was the weirdest-built computer he’d ever seen. Normally he’d use the little metal teeth you slotted the battery into, but... no, okay, that right there must be it. He fit the tips of two fingers into the metal ridge inside the empty, S-shaped slot where the apparently melted battery should have been, turned the laptop right side up again, opened it, created a current on the modest end of what a laptop might need (someone’s breath caught at the sight of the resulting synchrotron radiation), and pressed the ‘on’ button.
The screen lit up with a simple progress bar, but the sixth sense that came with the Contract said more power would be better. So he slowly increased his output until the laptop’s mechanisms didn’t feel so thirsty anymore.
Then he presented the laptop to his coworkers with a smile and a, "Ta da!"
Tanaka’s eyes lit up like her birthday had come early. She made a grab for the laptop and only a hurried exclamation of "Don’t unplug me!" stopped her from snatching it right from Hei’s hands.
"Right! Sorry! Fukuda, bring this man a chair."
And that was that.
Tanaka was good at her job, and wasn’t afraid to let them know it now that the ball was in her court. Hei got a chair and the order not to take his hand out from under the laptop, and Fukuda was bossed around like an intern on his first day; fetching aforementioned chair so Hei could sit across from Tanaka at the table while she worked, handing Tanaka the tools, parts, and devices she needed, and, once it became clear this could take a while, making her and Hei tea. Tanaka talked Fukuda through everything she found and did, and he made notes in between doing her bidding.
"Are you still okay to continue, Officer Li?" Tanaka asked every few minutes, to which Hei would answer, "Yes, I can keep this up for quite a while, don’t worry."
Over, and over, and over.
Eventually it occurred to him that his increasing aggravation with the questions was probably giving Tanaka the impression that his answers were lies to cover up increasing distress, so she had to keep asking to keep track of how egregiously he was lying, i.e. how close he was to cutting off her power. An interestingly selfless motivation to ascribe him. Maybe he was doing something right after all.
Taking a deep breath, he let his annoyance flow away and responded to her next check-in more calmly.
Hei absently wondered, as he leafed through his case files with his free hand, whether he should tell her about the day Kirihara arrested him – and recruited him. It hadn’t been his personal record, because his personal record involved Syndicate supervision and drugs to keep him awake until the scientists got tired of the test and said, ‘okay, we get it, the answer is indefinitely, let’s move on to the next experiment’. But it should still be a prolonged enough use of his power to put Tanaka’s mind at ease.
He wasn’t getting much reading done. The sounds of footsteps in the hallway behind him kept faltering or stopping altogether when they passed the door to the evidence lab, and no doubt his synchrotron radiation was at fault. Old habits died hard; his exposed position was setting him on edge. But he didn’t look back, and he kept his eyes downcast as much as possible. Most people got used to the blue light fairly quickly, he’d found, but the red glow in his eyes was a different story.
"– Li? Officer Li?"
Hei raised his head, blinking owlishly. "Yes?"
"I’m done for now," Tanaka said. "I’ve shut down the computer."
"Oh. I see."
Letting the electric current die away, he withdrew his hand and shook the feeling back into his arm.
"Are you okay?" Tanaka asked. She looked openly worried now. Huh. Maybe she already knew the arrest-recruitment story, or part of it, and that was why she was so worried. He had collapsed and spent most of that day in the hospital, after all. Perhaps, over the course of being retold, the story had lost the detail that the reason had actually been poison.
Tanaka wouldn’t be the first to attribute anything and everything about him to the Contract, but she might be the first who did it out of worry for his well-being.
Hei didn’t have to fake his awkward laugh when he flexed his arm and patted his biceps. "Yeah, it’s fine. Just a little cramped from staying in such an awkward position for so long, that’s all."
"Ah, sorry about that. But actually I meant –"
"This is amazing," Fukuda interrupted, brightly oblivious. He waved a stack of notes and print-outs around in his excitement. "This – this will let us nail the bastards, I know it!"
Hei felt himself relax a little. "That’s good."
"Thank you, Officer Li," Fukuda said, and bowed to him, grinning widely. "We wouldn’t have been able to get this without your help."
"Oh, I only sped the process up a few days," Hei said. "You’re welcome, but it was no trouble. I joined the police to help solve crimes, after all. If you need my help with the laptop again, come find me any time, alright?" he added to Tanaka before scooping up his own papers, bowing, and excusing himself.
"Wait!" Tanaka exclaimed.
Holding back a sigh and forcing something like a smile on his face, Hei turned back. "Really, I’m fine. Using my power isn’t taxing at –"
But Tanaka, who had been feverishly rummaging through her desk drawers, abruptly shoved a box of... pocky...? in his face?
"Please accept this as a token of my appreciation!" she requested at the top of her lungs, while bowing deeply enough to make looking Hei in the eye impossible.
"Miss Tanaka... this isn’t necessary..." he said helplessly. Hei looked at Fukuda, but he could only stare himself and shrug, equally bewildered. "It was the least I could do."
"No, no, I insist, please enjoy it," Tanaka said, still not looking up at him.
Giving in was the path of least resistance, but oh boy, he hoped this wouldn’t come back to bite him in the ass later.
"Alright," he said, gingerly taking the box from Tanaka’s outstretched hands. "Thank you."
She snapped back upright like a spring mechanism. A brightly beaming spring mechanism. "You’re welcome!"
She looked at him expectantly.
"Thank you," he said again. And bowed a little.
She nodded and kept looking at him expectantly, her eyes pointedly moving from his face to the box of pocky in his hands and back.
Taking the hint, Hei opened the packaging and bit a chocolate stick in half.
Tanaka sighed in relief.
"What?" Hei could just hear her hissing to Fukuda under her breath as he fled down the hall. "Everybody knows about his appetite!"
A few days later, it came back to bite him in the ass.
Hei was alone in the break room, finishing the last cup of tea from the communal pot and waiting for new water to boil, when a fellow Section Four officer approached him. Kamenashi Ryo, if Hei remembered right. He was on the arrest team that was going to act on the evidence Hei had helped Fukuda and Tanaka extract, later tonight. Hei was vaguely surprised Kamenashi was still in the building; the organized commotion that always preceded an operation of this size had died down a while ago. Kamenashi, a man with sharp eyes and a severe haircut even to police standards, looked agitated but determined, all business and clearly chomping at the bit to get moving.
"Officer Li?" he asked without ceremony.
"That’s me," Hei said, gulped down the last of his tea, and put his cup down on the counter. "What can I do for you?"
"You recently helped my partner, Fukuda Yamamoto, on a case by using your Contractor power. I’m sorry to ask this, but..." he said, without a trace of actual reluctance, and held out a headset. "The batteries died on me downstairs just now, and I can’t find any spares anywhere. Can your power recharge them?"
"Sure, no problem."
Hei held out his hand, and with a look of relief, Kamenashi dropped the headset in his palm. Hei took the tiny batteries from the headset, squinted at the even tinier print for the output and capacity, and closed his hand around them. They were non-rechargeable alkaline batteries, so he couldn’t recharge them with a quick zap.
"This might take a couple of minutes," he said, closing his eyes and calling on his power. "Can you make the tea when the water boils? I have to focus."
Luckily for Kamenashi, Hei had been practicing this trick in his downtime. He doubted there would ever be a lot of use for the more ambitious applications of his power in the field; his ‘electron-based alchemy’, as the Chief put it, was too time-consuming and took up too much of his concentration to be compatible with his fighting style. But the better he was at controlling every aspect of his power, the easier it was to pretend he wasn’t just helplessly dangling in the grip of whatever forces had brought Contractors into existence in the first place.
"Done," Hei announced, and secured the batteries in place again just as Kamenashi finished efficiently refilling the big tea thermos.
"Ah, thanks." Kamenashi took the headset back and immediately fitted it to his ear. "Thanks a lot. I, uh..." For the first time, he looked uncomfortable. He reached behind his back, under his jacket – for a moment, Hei instinctively expected this interaction to take a bizarre and violent turn – and withdrew... a box of mango-flavored daifukumochi.
"Here," Kamenashi said, offering Hei the box with the steely demeanor of someone absolutely determined not to let his embarrassment show. "For your trouble. I hope this is okay, it was all I had on hand."
"Um," Hei said.
"Come on, man, take it, I’m in a hurry!"
"Okay!" Hei said, and obliged quickly. "Thank you. Don’t let me keep you."
"Right," Kamenashi said brusquely, and clapped Hei on the shoulder. "Good man."
...and just for a moment, Hei’s brain screeched to a halt.
Without looking Hei in the eye again, Kamenashi hurried off.
Hei followed out of the break room at his own pace to watch him go. Once Kamenashi rounded the corner towards the elevators, he looked down at the box of sweets in his hands and frowned. Hm.
Then he made a beeline for Kirihara’s office.
...and doubled back, detoured to his desk to pick up Tanaka’s box of pocky, and remade his initial beeline.
Her door was open; he knocked on the frame. "Chief, can I have a word?"
Kirihara looked at her watch, but not at him. "Yes, but make it quick. I need to finish this."
Just as well. Hei walked up to her desk, put the boxes down in front of her, and asked: "Does Section Four have a tradition of exchanging sweets that I didn’t know about or did you tell the office to bribe me with food to encourage even the tiniest acts of basic courtesy?"
Kirihara did a double take, finally looking him in the eye. "Say what now?"
He nodded to the chocolate sticks and rice cakes he’d deposited on her desk and crossed his arms. "People keep giving me candy when I help them."
"And you’re complaining? Are you okay?"
Hei didn’t return her teasing smile. It felt like his coworkers were treating him like an ill-behaved child that couldn’t be trusted to do his damn job unless they spoiled and coddled him. Hei was offended.
That last part may have shown on his face, because Kirihara sobered, and a thoughtful frown appeared between her eyebrows. "Help them how?"
"I powered a confiscated laptop with a busted battery so Fukuda and Tanaka could comb through it for evidence on Monday, and recharged Kamenashi’s in-ear radio just now."
"With your power?"
Kirihara’s smile returned. "Think that through for a second, Li."
"Of course I considered that, but I told you I don’t have a remuneration."
"Ah." Kirihara blinked. "Well, yes. But I didn’t tell anyone else that."
Now it was Hei’s turn to do a double take. "Why not?"
"Because I know the reason you don’t have one makes it very personal to you, and you should get to decide when and how you want to tell anyone about it yourself."
"Oh," he breathed, stunned. They stared at each other for what felt like an eternity before he could bring himself to clear his throat and say, "Thank you, Chief."
He scratched the back of his head, falling back on Li Shengshun-mannerisms without thinking. "Uh, you want one?"
"Oh no, I shouldn’t," Kirihara said quickly. Very, very quickly. "I get so much less exercise in now that the department has gotten so much bigger and I’m responsible for so many more people..."
Hei raised his eyebrows and smiled teasingly.
"Okay, just one," Kirihara admitted with a laugh, and tore into the box of mango mochi.
He left it with her when he departed.
Another couple of days later, Ootsuka settled at her desk in the morning as usual, but quickly devolved into moaning "Oh noooo, I can’t believe it!" under her breath.
Hei swivelled in his chair so he could look at her. "Is something the matter?"
Ootsuka dropped her head in her hands with her open cell phone still clutched in her fingers. "There was a power outage in my neighborhood all night, so my cell phone didn’t charge, and I woke up late because my alarm clock got reset and I didn’t realize I needed to bring my power cord with me to work and now –"
She had impressive control of her airflow as she rambled. Hei distantly wondered if she had musical training of some kind.
Hei also tried, honestly tried, to control the impulse that welled up in his chest as she poured out her tale of woe. But when had that ever worked out for him?
"I can help with that," he said.
Ootsuka raised her head and gave him a funny look. "You can?"
A beat, and then the lightbulb went on above her head.
"You can!" she exclaimed joyously, before blushing and hunching her shoulders. "You would?"
"Sure," he said, smiling faintly – at himself more than anything. "It’s easy."
Ootsuka handed him her phone when he reached for it, and he lit up without a second thought; he had the same model and knew its requirements by heart.
"Give me a couple of minutes, alright? If I rush it I could damage the battery."
"Sure, sure... no problem."
She was looking in his direction as if mesmerized. Looking through him and around him, rather than at him. Looking at the synchrotron radiation he emitted, he knew; the expression was pretty distinctive. When he happened to meet her eye, she startled. Caught at her staring, she looked away and blushed furiously.
"You can watch, I don’t mind," Hei said.
But Ootsuka shook her head. "No, no, I’m sorry. I – I’ll get you something from the vending machine. What do you like?"
Huh. That was faster than expected.
Sighing, Hei confessed: "Eating isn’t my remuneration, you know."
"What?!" Ootsuka’s eyes went as wide as saucers. "But the way you eat is so –"
Abruptly, she cut herself off.
Hei raised an eyebrow.
"...bizarre," Ootsuka finished with a mutinous expression. "There, I said it. You’ll be fat before you hit thirty."
"I hear that a lot," Hei said mildly.
"Because it’s true," Ootsuka insisted. "You look so good right now, why would you ruin that?"
"Worried about the state of my collarbones?" Hei drawled, which caused her to blush an unprecedented shade of crimson. Allowing himself a smug little smile, he handed her cell phone back. "Here, it’s full."
The first thing she did was turn the phone on, check the little battery icon, and make a noise of appreciation and admiration. "Thank you." She studied him from beneath her bangs, a little shy but with a speculative look in her eyes. "So what is your price? I never see you do anything else unusual after you use your power."
Hei shrugged. "Maybe I just have to be wearing a shirt."
"...oh. That’s anticlimactic."
She looked comically betrayed.
"Maybe it would be, if it was my payment."
That took a moment to sink in. But when it did, Ootsuka beamed.
"Oh, you were joking!" She ducked her head for a moment and chuckled. "Well, why wouldn’t you make fun of a silly question like that. And here we all thought we had your number. Are you sure I can’t get you anything from the vending machine? I’m getting myself a soda anyway, so..."
Hei opened his mouth, willing to consider it now that it was a normal friendly gesture, but was interrupted by a new arrival before he could say anything.
"Um, Officer Li?" a nervous, young-sounding voice asked.
Hei and Ootsuka turned toward the sound. An indeed young and nervous-looking fellow police officer stood behind them. He clutched a phone of his own in his white-knuckled hands and practically prostrated himself once he had Hei’s attention.
"I’m so sorry, but I saw you charge Liaison Officer Ootsuka’s phone, and I – I –"
"That’s Uchi Kazuya. We live in the same building," Ootsuka whispered to Hei.
"Okay, give it here," he said quickly, before Uchi threw out his back from the stress or something.
"THANK YOU SO MUCH!" Uchi had honest-to-god tears in his eyes as he thrust the phone at Hei. "I have a box of chocolates in my desk from when my girlfriend dumped me the week before White Day, I’ll go get them for you."
"No, I –" Hei started, but Uchi had already rushed off. He stared after him unhappily. "I should tell everyone, shouldn’t I?"
He wasn’t looking forward to that. At all. Ootsuka was one thing; Ootsuka was harmless. But with more people, there would be questions. There were always questions where his remuneration or lack thereof was concerned, and he always hated them. Even now.
He didn’t think Misaki knew exactly how big a favor she’d done him.
But Ootsuka whispered heatedly, "No, are you kidding? Free candy!"
And for a moment, Hei could only stare. Because somehow, he’d gotten so caught up in his coworkers’ strange behavior and the awkwardness of his lack of payment that the thought ‘hey, free candy!’ hadn’t even occurred to him until now.
He had never considered himself to have much of a sweet tooth. Give him something hearty and filling any time; with his bottomless pit of a stomach, cookies and candies and the like had always felt a little like expensive, deceptively solid, flavored air. Even setting aside the misconceptions about his Contract, in a practical sense, it was completely pointless to let people foist the kind of deliberately light snacks you found around an office on him.
If it happened again, he would just refuse to accept the food a little more firmly, or make up something vague about the department reimbursing all of his business expenses, significant look, pointed silence, yada yada yada.
Probably. Yeah, probably was good.
In the meantime, though... it wasn’t like Ootsuka didn’t have something of a point. Tasty flavored air.
Hei shrugged. "Yeah, okay, free candy."
The box of chocolates Uchi brought was high-quality, expensive stuff. It made Hei want to start his firm refusal streak early, but Uchi insisted that he wouldn’t be able to eat any without choking on painful memories anyway. From the look of him, that was exactly what would happen, so Hei let it slide.
He shared the chocolates with Ootsuka.
Waiting until she had her mouth full, Hei put on his most deadly serious face and told her: "You realize that this makes you an accomplice, right? Now you’re just as guilty of food fraud as I am, and the fact that you’re directly benefitting from it means there’s no more pretending you’re not a bad influence on me. Me. A Contractor. Good work on that unprecedented achievement, Liaison Officer Ootsuka."
Ootsuka choked on her chocolate and all but died of the giggles.