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Saved by the Cat

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"Wait, I need to talk to you, Huang."

Huang paused as he was about to shuffle out of the park. Hei was gone already after he'd volunteered to take Yin home, but Huang wasn't complaining about the lack of the detour. Though now Mao was more than making up for it with his delay.

"Fine. Make it quick," Huang replied, just to get away from the cat than any real pressing matter.

Purple eyes seemingly glowed from atop the slide. With complete seriousness, Mao announced, "Hei's acting weird."

"Congratulations, you get a cookie," Huang huffed at the obvious statement. But when the cat didn't stop his freaky gaze — honestly, it was creepy to get laser-eyed by a talking animal — Huang deigned to listen. "Weird how?"

"I don't know. More spacey?"

"Spacey?"

Mao rolled his eyes. "Look, I know you're not the smartest of the bunch—" he ducked his head from a thrown cigarette stub, "—but come on, don't tell me you didn't notice it?"

"If it's about him suddenly asking about the upcoming operation, I already told him off." Huang can already feel an incoming headache. Hei asking dangerous questions shouldn't be encouraged, particularly about what the higher-ups planned. The dangerous question in question was about their upcoming mission, a simple observation of doll trafficking. It left a bitter taste in his mouth, but Huang knew better than to air his grievances.

"It's not just that, Huang. Actually, you're our handler," Mao seemingly just realized, with complete disregard for Huang's authority, "has he said anything similar to you?"

Huang's finger twitched. Zero respect, that's what he got for risking his ass for these freaks. It was a bit sad that he was also used to it. "I'm not exactly cozying with the Black Reaper."

"Thank you for that mental image," Mao stated wryly. "But don't you think it's strange?"

"Be more specific, will you? Start from the beginning." This seemed like a long discussion; Huang groped his pockets for a new cigarette.

"It's not really sudden. More like... bits and pieces," Mao began. "Hei's already a strange contractor, but seeing that woman in his place really made me pay attention to him." He jumped from the slide and dragged the nearest pebble he could reach, rolling it back and forth on the ground between his paws.

"Woman?" Huang frowned. Mao usually sat and napped when giving reports. Playing with rock made him seem... twitchy. Like he was cat-fidgeting.

"Yeah. From what I gathered, she was the witness to that job about the flashdrive, the one sold by a professor."

"That the job with the MSS?" Huang clarified, forehead furrowed.

"Yeah. And the witness didn't see anything. But Hei still took her to his place. Saw them cozy together in the morning."

"Ain't exactly the first time Hei cozied with women."

"But Hei wasn't required to get close to this one," Mao pointed out. "The witness didn't see his face, didn't have the flashdrive, didn't have a solid connection to the target except for being a student. There's no rational explanation why Hei would take a girl back to his place and dress her in his clothes."

"They went that far?" Huang's brows rose in surprise, perturbed about the idea that the Black Reaper may have some sort of sex drive. So far, all Hei had done to the women he encountered in missions was to charm them, not outright seduce them. How'd anyone fall for that dopey 'Li Shengshun' act was beyond Huang. "Maybe he just gave her his clothes to change." Which was a better option to think about, but still didn't solve the puzzle.

Mao shrugged, equally disturbed, but his eyes never stopped gleaming. "Unlikely, but curious, isn't it? And I don't know. I think there's something... more. Something more he's specifically keeping. Keeping from us."

"How so?"

"There are a couple of jobs where I had to wake him up early. And he's not there. Sometimes I'd catch him walking back to his apartment before dawn, but he never tells me where he goes. And, I tested this on some days we don't have jobs; I staked his place — and he never sleeps in his apartment."

"You stayed up late for that?" Huang said in disbelief. The cat loved his nap, after all. Huang tapped the ashes off his cigarette. "Still, not really our concern where he sleeps. And you're a creepy stalker."

Mao ignored the insult. "Yeah, but why would he sleep elsewhere? The Syndicate provided his lodgings and stipend to pay for that."

"Maybe he wants better digs," Huang shrugged, but he couldn't deny his interest was now piqued.

"Maybe, but Hei needs his apartment to maintain his cover. It's important for him to keep a low profile; if he's sleeping elsewhere with better housing, he'll attract attention."

Huang deeply inhaled the cancerous stick in his hand, then exhaled in one drawn breath. "It is questionable, I'll give you that," he admitted. "But what do you want me to do? There's not exactly an order that tells him not to sleep somewhere. And so far, he follows the Syndicate's objectives, little disobediences aside. Maybe he's bunking in one of the safehouses, for some freaky reason."

Mao abandoned the rock and stared, thinking. He scratched the ground, a cat form of a human scuffling in thought, maybe. After a few moments, he finally said, "I don't know, Huang. I just feel it's something. Not sure if it's big, but something."

"Hmph. Tell Yin to keep tabs on him."

"That's another thing, Huang. Yin says she doesn't know where he goes. Hei's not one to hide from Yin since she can fetch him for meetings when I can't find him. And if she can't find him, Hei could be purposely avoiding areas with water."

"Which is difficult to do since it's raining these days," Huang noted, rusty detective's intuition uncomfortably pinging. "Which means Hei could be really hiding something, or he just found a new dig without any water." Huang stubbed his cigarette harshly on the bench he sat on.

He didn't like Hei, but he didn't actively dislike him. Sure, kid was a pain in the ass, but they work well together. Better than his previous parade of freaky partners, if he was pressed to admit.

Huang scowled. He must be getting too comfortable with these merry band of freaks.

"Keep an eye out," he decided. "I don't want to bring this mess to the Syndicate if we don't have to. With luck, it could be just another one of Hei's little disobediences."

But then, when has Hei ever been that simple?