"Captain, it's about Mizuchi Koushi..." Awashima's voice is tense.
Reisi glances up from the puzzle pattern he's been working on for the past week. "What about him?"
"I hear he's petitioning His Excellency to return to the research facility."
Reisi presses his lips together. "Didn't take him long, did it? It will not happen."
"How can you be sure?"
"His Excellency has agreed that SCEPTER4 will oversee the hospital," Reisi says. "The Strains are our jurisdiction; if another Clan has administrative control over any project involving Strains, we're likely to end up with a reprise of the sort of research Mizuchi was carrying out in secret. More administrative layers means more chances to hide illegal activity, you see. That was why full control was ceded to SCEPTER4. I'll be interviewing all the researchers and getting rid of anyone I do not like. Even the Rabbits may not access it without written permission from me."
Awashima raises both eyebrows. "I can't imagine that sat well with His Excellency."
Reisi chuckles. "His Excellency did not like it in the least, but I managed to persuade him in the end. I could not persuade him to lock Mizuchi up for the abuse inflicted on the underground subjects, but one thing is certain: the facility is under SCEPTER4 control, and Mizuchi is not welcome there, under any conditions."
"It could be argued that such sweeping privileges might lead to abuses of power on SCEPTER4's part," Awashima says with a nervous peek at Reisi's PDA. "Besides, we cannot replace researchers so easily, can we?"
"Indeed, that first argument did arise," Reisi says. "But power is hardly something the current Blue Clan can boast of, wouldn't you agree, Awashima-kun?"
She glances at the massive Gold Clan emblem carved into the surface of Reisi's desk and says nothing. Reisi smiles at her.
His opposition to Mizuchi's return is not without self-interest. Zenjou Gouki would surely slay him if he allowed it; he was livid when he learned that Mizuchi -- who had destroyed SCEPTER4's reputation when the truth about his experiments leaked out -- was allowed to live. If Reisi lets Mizuchi back into any operation under SCEPTER4's auspices, Zenjou will certainly deem Reisi unworthy of the Blue King's throne.
But Awashima does not know of the complicated truce between Reisi and the man who once held her rank. Nor does she need to know.
Reisi does not share Zenjou's fervent, if unspoken, wish for a return to SCEPTER4's former glory, not exactly. He knows nothing of it, for one thing; the organisation he has been rebuilding was a pitiful little group even before Shiotsu Gen disbanded it two years ago; a Clan in name only, answerable to the Gold King and subject to his whims.
The Gold King will not easily cede control he's become accustomed to over a decade, but Reisi can be very patient. And he has a vision for SCEPTER4, though it might not match Zenjou's.
"As for the other thing you mentioned, it is true that SCEPTER4 is a law enforcement organisation," he says to Awashima. "But nothing in our mandate precludes a research division."
Her eyes widen. "You mean to displace the Gold clansmen entirely? Force them out and replace them with researchers from the Blue?"
Reisi hides a grin and turns his attention back to the puzzle. "I am merely suggesting a possibility, Awashima-kun; please do not make such a concerned face."
After she takes her leave, he calls up Mizuchi's file and studies the pictures of his victims -- criminals mostly, but there is the suburban housewife who could liquefy anything, the teenager with precognitive powers, and the sad-eyed little girl HOMRA rescued.
He remembered seeing her at Kusanagi's bar when he visited Suoh. How strange the world was. Judging from Mizuchi's notes on her abilities, she knew exactly what Reisi was the minute he walked inside, yet she did not try to warn Suoh or any of the others. Why? He will never know.
Although her parents were murdered at Mizuchi's behest, he'd used Blue clansmen to carry out his orders. Reisi did not even know supernatural powers existed at the time, but as the head of SCEPTER4, he carries the organisation -- past, present, and future. He has to be able to answer even for past failures; that is the kind of leader he wants to be. Because of that, he hopes he never has to meet Kushina Anna face to face again.
He does not know how to answer for what was done to her.
"Hello," Anna said, staring at the carpet.
"Good afternoon," Reisi said, rising.
"Will you allow me to prepare tea for you?" He pointed to the tatami mats to his right.
Anna glanced in that direction and shook her head. "Thank you," she half-whispered.
As Reisi approached her, he noticed she was much thinner than when he'd last seen her. Paler, too. Her eyes bore the haunted cast he remembered from their first encounter. It hadn't been there in the secret photographs taken of her before Suoh's death. She clutched the front of her dress with both hands, so tightly her small hands turned white at the knuckles.
Reisi had been putting off dealing with her -- as the Red Clan no longer had a King or any powers to speak of, they should not have been in charge of one such as Anna. But powerful Strain or not, she was only a small child who had found a place to belong after her parents' deaths; ripping her away from it had seemed far too cruel to contemplate. Yet here she was.
"In that case, let us discuss your business here. How may SCEPTER4 assist you today?" He looked questioningly at Awashima, who gave a slight shake of her head. So she doesn't know why the girl is here. Interesting. Awashima isn't one to just march a visitor in here without first learning their purpose.
Anna took a shaky breath and raised her head to gaze at Reisi with eyes like tiny sunsets. Has her ability evolved enough to let her see inside my mind without her glass trinkets? he wondered.
"I'll come back to the hospital if you want me to," she said in a thin voice. "But please don't hurt anybody at HOMRA."
Reisi blinked at her in astonishment. "I beg your pardon?"
"You really don't know," Anna said, tilting her head to one side.
Reisi rounded the desk and approached her, then knelt on the carpet to avoid talking down to her.
Awashima put her hand on Anna's shoulder. "Don't know what? Have you seen something with your-- your power?"
Anna shook her head, but did not look away from Reisi. "I have seen Saruhiko near the bar a lot. I tried and tried to see why he was there, but I can't. I thought you Blues sent him."
Reisi and Awashima exchanged looks. She can't see why Fushimi is hanging around HOMRA?
Reisi had been so preoccupied lately that it hadn't occurred to him that if Awashima had noticed that Suoh was still in Japan, Fushimi certainly must have done the same, but he didn't seem to know where Suoh was -- the Munakata family home was probably the last place he would think to look. So he was keeping watch on the bar -- why?
If he means to harm Suoh... Reisi didn't let himself finish the thought. He could not raise a hand to one of his own people.
"Awashima, please see to it that Fushimi-kun's duties put him as far from HOMRA as possible," Reisi said. "I will discuss this matter with him privately at a later time." He looked back at Anna. "I assure you that SCEPTER4 does not mean to concern itself with your organisation. Provided they do not avail themselves of your special powers to conduct their business."
Anna's gaze was blank.
"He means that those guys shouldn't be getting you to use your powers for their sake," Awashima clarified.
"Yes, thank you, Awashima-kun," Reisi said, somewhat sheepish. He had no idea how to speak to children; talking down to them seemed insulting, but speaking as he usually did inevitably made them stare at him the way Anna was just then.
Anna's fingers, which no longer clutched her dress, fiddled with the frilly black lace-work. "My powers don't really work, so it's fine."
"Don't really work?" Reisi asked. Didn't she just say that she tried to use them to find out why Fushimi was shadowing Bar HOMRA?
"I try not to use them," she amended. "They only get people killed."
Her voice began to shake as she spoke, and Reisi had an idea that she had just told them something she hasn't dared say out loud in front of the HOMRA bunch. Because she didn't want them to worry about her. They'd be sure to tell her that the deaths of her parents, of Totsuka Tatara, of Suoh Mikoto -- that these things that happened to her were not her fault and had nothing to do with her powers. And they'd be right.
But she was just a little girl. Despite incredible potential as a Strain, she didn't have the emotional resources to process something as final as death without seeing a relationship between it and her own existence. And who could blame her, really? If the most well-adjusted adult saw four loved ones die in quick succession, it wouldn't be strange if they blamed themselves. We center our world around those we love, and it is around them that it crumbles.
"Captain," Awashima said, her tone clipped. "I'm very sorry, but I am taking this child to your mother's home right now. If you intend to stop me, you will have to restrain me by force."
She is so much better than me at knowing what must be done, Reisi thought. He would have sat here for hours if anyone let him, offering Anna canned kindnesses and trying to figure out how to broach the subject of Suoh's whereabouts. It wasn't right to let her shoulder the burden of his death, not when Reisi knew how much it weighed. But to take her to Suoh wouldn't have entered his mind, because Reisi cared about Suoh a great deal more than he cared about Anna.
"Please don't say such scary things, Awashima-kun," Reisi said, smiling up at her. "I do not intend to hold you back, but I do insist that you allow me to accompany you. It is my home, after all."
Anna lifted a trembling hand to her face. Between her thumb and forefinger shone a red glass marble; she must have been clasping it in her hand over the dress. "I don't understand," she said, making no move to look through the marble. "What is at your house?"
Reisi hesitated. Should I tell her before she sees him? What if he isn't home? What if he's on his way to my apartment? It's already past one o'clock.
"Suoh Mikoto," Awashima said.
Suoh and Chisato were sitting near the door open onto the back porch, the floor around them littered with an assortment of tools and fluorescent fixture bases.
"Mikoto!" Anna cried. She ran towards him, heedless of the mess on the floor, and somehow did not step on anything until she fell to her knees next to Suoh, her arms clutching his midsection as she buried her face against his side.
The pliers Suoh had been holding dropped to the floor with a thud; his other hand landed on top of Anna's head, his fingers catching in the decorative ribbon. He stared down at her shaking frame with a morose expression, and Reisi looked away, aghast at the flash of jealousy deep in his chest.
"Rei-chan, is that his daughter?" Chisato, who had in the meantime got up from the floor and joined Reisi and Awashima by the entrance, asked. "Is that why you two had trouble-- oh, excuse me." She straightened up and looked at Awashima. "I didn't notice we had another guest."
"Mother, this is Awashima Seri, my subordinate," Reisi said, grateful for the distraction. "Awashima-kun, this is my mother."
"Munakata Chisato," his mother added. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Awashima-san." Her smiling face changed abruptly to a look of utter confusion. "Rei-chan? These uniforms."
Oh, shit. Reisi had got so caught up in trying to explain everything to Anna on the way here that he'd forgotten about the uniforms.
"Those uniforms belong to SCEPTER4," Chisato said, looking up at Reisi with her eyes narrowed.
"Indeed," Reisi said, glancing at Awashima. She was staring at his mother with an awestruck expression Reisi didn't understand -- surely it wasn't that surprising that someone would know the SCEPTER4 uniform on sight.
"You work for SCEPTER4," Chisato insisted. "Why have you never told me this?"
"I-- Mother, I don't just work for SCEPTER4," Reisi said with resignation. "I am the commander." She would know what that meant. She would have to. She'd been involved in the Kagustu incident clean-up on the PR side; she would know that if Shiotsu Gen wasn't the leader, then a new King must have come forth.
Silently, Chisato reached into the back pocket of her jeans and took out her phone.
"Who are you calling--?"
"I'm busy right now, Rei-chan," she snapped, selecting a name from her address book and walking out into the corridor.
Reisi looked at Suoh, who was awkwardly patting Anna's back as she continued to sob quietly into his shirt.
"What do you mean, am I still alive? What kind of greeting is that? Like I'd die before your rickety ass!" Chisato yelled from the corridor. "Who are you calling a hag, you creepy old fart? Here I am happily retired, minding my own business just as I promised, and I find out you've been bullying my boy? What the hell were you thinking, making him keep it from me that he's the new Blue King?"
Reisi forgot about everything else and turned to the sound of her voice. He'd never heard his mother use such language with anyone, and judging from the things she'd just said, she was talking to none other than Kokujyōji Daikaku. He was sure of it mostly because no one else had ever told him to keep his King status from his mother.
"Uh-huh," Chisato said. "It's none of your business how I found out. He didn't tell me, if that's what you're wondering, so you'd better not try-- yeah. What?" She listened for a few moments. "No, I'm fine; he just worries too much." Her tone had softened considerably. "Is your foreigner friend still refusing to come down from that blimp of his, by the way?" Pause. "Oh. That's too bad. He'll turn up, I'm sure."
"Anyway, listen, I've got to go, but Rei-chan's getting married soon, so you'd better come to the wedding, or I'll rip out your skull and make it into an ashtray as a present for my son-in-law." All of this was delivered in Chisato's usual pleasant voice, which made it even scarier to Reisi than when she'd been shouting.
He finally understood exactly what his father had meant when talking about his mother's 'outside face'.
"Yeah, I will. You too. Bye." Chisato flipped the phone shut and walked back into the room, looking perfectly composed. "What's with that face you're making, Rei-chan?"
Reisi cleared his throat. "You do realise that the person you were speaking to can literally crush you with his mind, don't you?"
"That geezer," Chisato said, frowning again. "And you! I can't believe you kept something so important from me, Rei-chan; I'm very disappointed."
"I'm sorry," Reisi said, glancing at Awashima and thinking that his image would never recover in her eyes. Awashima was blushing.
Oh. She heard the part about me getting married. And the son-in-law. Damn it, why didn't I think about changing out of uniform?
But Awashima wasn't even looking at him; her focus was on Reisi's mother. "I-- uh, I am sorry for asking so suddenly," she stammered. "But would it be okay to have your autograph?"
Autograph? Reisi lifted his glasses and rubbed one eye, then the other.
"My autograph?" Chisato asked, incredulous. "Nobody's ever asked me for such a thing before, Awashima-san. How about a doughnut instead?"
Reisi coughed. "Awashima-kun, why are you asking for my mother's autograph?"
She blushed deeper. "I'm terribly sorry, Captain; I forgot myself. I just didn't realise-- I mean." She took a breath. "Your mother was the first woman to hold the police commissioner title, and I've heard so much..." Awashima stopped speaking and looked down at her feet, completely flustered.
Chisato patted her arm. "I don't know what kinds of things you've heard but I'm sure they're all lies. I'm just an old lady." She turned to Suoh. "Mikoto-chan, that child looks half-starved."
Suoh and Anna were sitting side by side on the floor, staring at the three of them as though watching a movie. Chisato approached them and knelt in front of Anna, who shifted slightly, as if to hide behind Suoh.
"Don't be afraid," Chisato said. "Look, your hair is as white as mine is. Let's be friends."
After his mother bore Anna and Awashima off to the kitchen for doughnuts, Reisi finally looked Suoh in the eye. "Sorry," he offered, then explained briefly what had happened with Anna.
Suoh got up and walked to stand in front of Reisi as he talked. "Seems like it was meant to happen, doesn't it?"
"I suppose you could look at it that way," Reisi said. "I'm surprised she left your side at all."
"Anna will be fine," Suoh said with a shrug. "She did her marble trick on me while Auntie was lecturing that old fart."
"Really," Reisi said, his face growing hot. "You think it's appropriate to show a young child--"
"I didn't show her anything she shouldn't see," Suoh murmured, stepping closer. "And she's eleven, not four."
"If you say so," Reisi said, willing his heart not to race at Suoh's proximity, without success. "Shall we join them in the kitchen?" As much as he wanted to stay here and let Suoh do as he liked, his mother might let slip all manner of inappropriate things to Awashima about their relationship. Awashima would never ask, but--
Suoh put a hand on the wall on Reisi's left, barring his exit. "I'm gonna take Anna back to HOMRA tonight."
"I hoped you would," Reisi said. "It would be rather cruel to send her back alone, especially if you asked her not to tell them anything."
"I wouldn't do that to her," Suoh said, leaning in. "I was going to come over to your place today, though. Guess that's out." His lips brushed Reisi's cheek.
"Really, Suoh, this isn't the time or the place," Reisi complained, placing his hand against Suoh's chest. He'd just wanted to feel Suoh's heartbeat, but all he could think about was the weapon at his hip, the way that weapon had lodged right where his palm was now, and a sudden wave of nausea swept him, and he pushed Suoh back. "I'm sorry. I need some air."
"Please don't cry," Reisi said to his mother for the fifth time. "It all worked out in the end, so please don't cry." He was deeply regretting having told her the whole story -- about Suoh, and HOMRA, and everything else before Suoh had come to her door two months ago. But he had felt so guilty about having kept his real work from her all this time that he'd felt compelled to be totally honest. They were alone in the house; Shimizu had taken Awashima, Anna, and Suoh back to the city two hours ago.
Chisato sniffed. "Rei-chan, you're really-- how do I say this? What are you made of that you've gone through such horrible things by yourself, never talking to anyone?"
Reisi shrugged. He'd just managed, somehow. He'd never been big on telling others what he felt. With most people, that just meant they had something to use against you when you least expected it. Still, the way she'd said it -- what are you made of -- made him feel unsettled. Would she think of him as some kind of monster now, the way everyone else did?
He'd really rather have heard her story about how she'd come to be on such familiar terms with the Gold King, but that wasn't happening.
She covered his sword hand with both of hers and squeezed it. "You were a very late child; you know that. The doctor was sure my body used up my very last egg to make you. Everyone worried so much that you'd have some kind of deformity. I knew you'd be fine, though. From the day I realised I was pregnant, not menopausal -- I knew you'd be perfect. And you were. Miracle baby, everyone said. Now I wonder if I doomed you to this King business by waiting so long to have you."
"No, it doesn't work like that, so please don't worry," Reisi said, realising what she meant. "If you're born with a power, that makes you a Strain. Kings are normal people chosen by the Dresden Slate; nobody knows how or why. For all I know, the Slate chose me for the Blue because Suoh was the Red already. Because it knew that I'd have to stop him one day."
He had never said that out loud before.
Chisato sniffed, let go of Reisi's hand, and dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief. "I can't believe you didn't tell me that he died."
"I didn't want you to be sad," Reisi said. "Besides, he's alive. If I'd told you he was dead and then he showed up here, that might've been even worse."
Pochi rolled up to them with a pot of sweet-smelling tea and two cups. "Pochi detected that Mistress's lacrimal apparatus has been especially active for thirty-six minutes. Pochi has prepared an infusion of chamomile."
Chisato smiled and patted the robot's dome. "Thank you, Pochi, that's very kind of you." She looked at Reisi as he poured her tea. "Listen, Rei-chan, don't ever cry alone, all right?"
"I haven't cried at all," Reisi said, hoping to reassure her, but for some reason she looked even sadder as her hands closed around the tea cup.
Reisi stretched his legs out off the back porch, breathed deeply of the night air, and took another look at his PDA. Eleven-thirty.
He isn't coming back.
The thought had crept in a couple of hours ago, after his mother had gone to bed, and Reisi had tried ignoring it to the best of his ability, but facts were facts. Suoh had left around five. With traffic, Shimizu would have reached the city by six, six-thirty.
A casual call to Awashima had confirmed it. They'd dropped Suoh and Anna off outside HOMRA at ten past six and made it back to HQ by supper time. At the time, Fushimi was playing solitaire in the rec room; Awashima had said she'd keep an eye on him to make sure he didn't do anything stupid. He hadn't wanted Suoh to return to HOMRA, after all.
Reisi checked the online police blotter again, but the stats were the same: no accidents or even crimes of any sort since early that morning. A rare peaceful day for Shizume City.
He isn't coming back.
And why would he? HOMRA had been Suoh's home for years. Sure, it might have been true that Suoh had come back because of a desire to rebuild his bond with Reisi, but what was that compared to bonds that had never withered slowly until only pain remained? Or, in Suoh's case, nothing had remained at all. He hadn't been shy about admitting that he'd forgotten all about Reisi until he'd been about to die.
"He isn't coming back," Reisi murmured.
The sharp jab of jealousy he'd felt when Anna had hugged Suoh made sense to him now. At the time, he'd felt ashamed for feeling jealous of a lonely little girl, ashamed of wanting Suoh to only care for Reisi. But it was clear now that he always guessed that Suoh's feelings for him, whatever they were, didn't run as deep as Reisi wanted them to. Of course he'd feel jealous of anyone who claimed Suoh's attention. The basis for jealousy was insecurity about the other person's feelings.
He had convinced himself he wasn't scared of Suoh leaving, but underneath the optimism -- which was uncharacteristic for Reisi to begin with -- the fear of being judged unworthy of Suoh's regard had lurked all along.
The way I pushed him away earlier probably was the last straw. Reisi had been sure he was going to vomit, unable to stop thinking about his sabre in Suoh's chest. That was his own fault, for bringing that thing into the house. But he'd felt too ill to explain it to Suoh, and by the time he'd got his bearings after sticking his face into a bucket of well-water, Suoh had already gone to join the women.
He isn't coming back.
Reisi got ready for bed, but he lay awake for a long time, watching the clock projection do its thing on the wall; a dot next to the hour digit blinked the seconds away dutifully. One fifty-six; three hours and four minutes until Reisi's day began.
He dreamt of the day Suoh died again. This time he was a crow in a tree, eyes greedy as the sabre punched a hole through Suoh. Watching the red, red blood splatter out of his chest and dribble out of his mouth in slow motion as he used his last breath to speak to Anna. Who was Anna? From his perch, Reisi could see that Suoh's killer is just a lifelike doll in fancy clothes, perhaps a robot. A tool that had performed its function beyond reproach. In the tree, Reisi laughed harshly -- caw caw caw -- the blare of the alarm.
Despite the dream, he felt oddly energised -- if the nightmares were already back, then numbness wouldn't be far behind. That meant hope that he could go back to his normal everyday life again.
Reisi got out of bed, cleaned his teeth, shaved his face, got into uniform. At least he didn't have to worry about changing, though he'd still need to go back to the apartment for Shimizu's sake.
He walked past Suoh's room on his way out and peered inside -- the futon was folded neatly in the corner. If Suoh had come back in the night, he was gone again. Reisi walked in, turned on the light, and had a look around. The sight of Suoh's worn clothes piled on the floor next to a chair cheered him up a bit, but he was struck by how few there were. Suoh had brought a change of clothes with him from London and bought more things during his stay, but there weren't even enough clothes to fill the tiny wardrobe. Clothes and a small duffel bag on the floor. Just visiting, they seemed to say.
The notebook with Reisi's letters lay on the top shelf of the wardrobe. Reisi took it down, waited until the desire to hurl it at a wall had passed, then stowed it in the wide inner pocket at the bottom of his uniform jacket. This time, he would destroy it, with his own hands.
He left the house and only stopped for a can of coffee at a vending machine near the station.
On the train, he thought about asking Shimizu to pick him up from the train station starting tomorrow. That wouldn't mean that much of a change in routine, and the station was closer to HQ anyway. Or he could just do away with the rule that the King must always be accompanied by a subordinate while on the clock. Whoever had targeted his life back at the start of his career hadn't tried again since then, and Reisi's control over his power had increased and become more refined. He could sense and stop a sniper's bullet now.
At the apartment, he fixed himself breakfast and turned on the early newscast as he ate and waited for Shimizu to arrive. He caught the tail end of the weather forecast -- sunny and hot, as if late summer in Shizume City could be anything but -- and then the international segment began.
"The Secretary-General of the United Nations announced that the Security Council would be moving forward with discussing a proposal for new regulations in the robotics sector that will ensure--"
Suoh stumbled out of the bedroom, still in the same clothes he'd been wearing yesterday.
"The TV's too damn loud," he complained.
[to be continued]