CHAPTER 31: ENCLOSED
Ren entered the Chief Inquisitor's office that morning in a fouler mood than he left it the evening before. His ill-advised decision to consume more drink than he intended and his subconscious trying to force some sort of cognitive therapy were premium ingredients in a foolproof recipe for a downright choleric attitude. He tried to rein it in somewhat, fully aware that he should refrain from letting his personal issues interfere with his professional commitments. Unfortunately, those two realms had not received that memo, and continually intertwined themselves whenever possible.
The previous day's meeting was to arrange his schedule so that he was never left alone for lengthy periods of time. After the tales of his last encounter with Kimiko, Lory was adamant that Yukihito be in his company at all times. Not so much to protect him, per se, but to ensure that there was a witness. That morning's follow-up gathering was to discuss strategy regarding the next phase of the reopened Keypointe investigation; mainly the hearing with which Lory's name and a number of other individuals were involved. The man in question was already on his feet, pacing the floor when Ren and Yukihito arrived. He paused only to throw a nod in their general direction before he continued.
"We've run out of time," he said without any pre-empt. "They start the hearing tomorrow."
"Run out of time for what exactly?" Ren asked, bemused. "We barely even know what we're up against."
"We've run out of time to keep you from getting involved."
Ren sighed and balled one hand into a fist, pressing it hard against his leg. "I was involved from the minute that woman waltzed in here and told you I was going to be used as the Assembly's tool."
Lory scoffed. "Bold of you to think you weren't their tool already."
"Okay, the bickering is not helpful here," Yukihito finally intervened. "I thought we were meeting to try and discuss ways to minimize potential damage."
"The best way would be keeping him from being questioned in the first place."
"Is it?" Lory challenged. "All I know is what you've told me and I specifically instructed you to be sparse on the details for this very reason. Other than that, my testimony as to my whereabouts during the Keypointe Incident are the same as they were ten years ago. I have no reason to resist and, if I did, it would be a pretty damn good indicator that I've something to hide."
"He has a point," Yukihito chimed in again. "The way they've gone about everything thus far feels as if they're trying to make someone misstep. They've basically announced their every move in advance and, tactically, you would only ever do that if you're trying to feel out how your opponent is going to react to it."
"So you're saying we should just go along with it?" Ren asked, skeptical.
Lory nodded in agreement. "It would be in everyone's best interest, yes."
Lory stopped his pacing to let Ren take a turn and sat on the corner of his desk. The Chief must have noticed the barely concealed agitation pulsing under his skin. He always was good at reading Ren's temperament and acting accordingly. Long strides took Ren swiftly from one end of the office to the other and back again. His hand swept through is hair repeatedly, leaving tracks of mussed strands in its wake. It probably made him look somewhat mad but that was the least of his cares.
"I don't like it," was all he said before he turned on his heel to begin yet another lap of the room.
"Ren, we can't risk showing our hand too early. From what you've told me, they have very little to work with regarding Kyoko Mogami's disappearance. The point of all this is to keep it that way, is it not?"
"That's just it." Ren paused, eyes wild and absently smoothing a hand over his jaw. "I get the feeling that there's more to it than just that."
Lory raised an eyebrow. "How so?"
"Every extraction I performed with Kimiko," he did his best to not gag on the name as he spoke it, "it seemed as if she was purposefully trying to get a rise out of me. She would say things, about me and about Kyoko, and I could tell she was only saying them to get some sort of reaction. It was almost as if Kyoko's disappearance was only a secondary concern."
"And did she?" Yukihito asked.
"Did she get a reaction?" He clarified.
"No." Ren shook his head. "At least, I don't think so."
Lory frowned. "Why are you only mentioning this now?"
Ren began to pace again. "Because it didn't occur to me until just now. I was too busy being disgusted with her behavior towards me to think of anything else. But, when Yukihito mentioned trying to read potential reactions from an opponent, it made me realize that was probably what her angle was all along."
She did a fine job of keeping him distracted enough to not realize the game she was playing. This bothered Ren more than any pushy comment or uncomfortable leer of hers could. The general malaise he felt whenever he was in her presence—really, even a passing thought of her was enough to do it—was nothing compared to the terror he now felt. The whole time he thought he did well enough at keeping her at a distance and dodging her advances, only to learn that every wink and coy smile was deliberately choreographed so she could observe him and he never noticed. She might as well have stripped him bare and left him to fend for himself in a pitch black forest. That would have almost been kinder.
"So all of those extractions…" Lory began.
Ren nodded and wrestled with the lump forming in his throat. "Were probably only arranged so that she could spend enough time around me to see if I was hiding anything."
"If Ren is correct in recalling that he never took the bait then, she never got what she was looking for and it doesn't matter right?" Yukihito pointed out.
"That's true, but not really the point," Lory gave a loud sigh and rubbed at his goatee. "The point is, what does Kimiko, and her superiors, think they know about Ren to necessitate this sort of approach?"
The words came out so plainly and without emotion. But that was, quite possibly, the scariest question Ren had ever heard. At least that was what he believed.
He believed it right up until the day of the hearing. That was one obligation he was unable to avoid. Lory warned him in advance that his presence was mandatory for the proceedings, per the request of Yuki Kuresaki and Jouji Morizumi. He had little hope of challenging it but, realizing what he had about Kimiko, that was all he wanted to do.
The hearing was held in a large room in the Justice building. Large oak desks were arranged in a semicircle around a longer central desk. Microphones evenly spaced along the surface of the wood sat in front of every studded leather upholstered chair. Surrounding the gathering of wood and leather were rows of smaller seats along the perimeter of the room. Ren deliberately chose two open seats towards the back and nearest to the door for himself and Yukihito.
He sat and tuned out as much as he could so he could maintain an expression of bored placidity. He wanted to look around, but stopped himself before his eyes wandered. Kimiko was definitely there—though he dared not to look for her and confirm it—and she was definitely watching. He could give nothing away.
Still, Lory's question from the day prior echoed in his ears, tuneless, haunting, and unwelcome. It grew louder as time passed. It nearly drowned out the sound of every other voice in the room but at the sound of one name, it went deathly quiet.
"… Chief Inquisitor Lory Takarada."
Ren forced himself to look at where Jouji sat at the central table and nowhere else. The questions the others had to answer were fairly mundane. Most of them were the same question asked in different ways, as expected of a hearing. The same approach was used with the Chief Inquisitor. Oddly enough most of it focused on his role within the Academy. There were only a few that addressed his whereabouts at the time of the Incident.
"You have been Chief Inquisitor for thirty years, is that correct?"
"Yes." Ren could hear the repressed desire to roll his eyes in Lory's reply.
He wondered if there was any point in them frantically trying to strategize their next move. If this was the worst they would do, they had nothing to worry about. Maybe they were overthinking it. Maybe they were wrong about Kimiko's supposed hidden agenda. Maybe the question Lory posed the day before was not as dreadful as he imagined. Of course, as soon as he thought that, the next question they asked Lory cast his previous worries into a terrifying shadow.
"And for how many years were you aware that you had an Inquisitor in your employ that was using an assumed name?"
"So their Abilities are stronger when they're in closer proximity, but they also negate each other? Did I read that correctly?"
Kuu gave Kyoko the previous day to take her time going through the contents of the folder he kept hidden in his office. He said it was to allow her to digest it in her own way before coming to him to discuss and ask questions. It was, unbeknownst to him, a small mercy. She needed most of that time to push aside the intrusive thoughts of her own situation before she could focus on anything else.
"Almost," Kuu said with a distracted nod, his eyes drifting to the window beside him for moment. "They don't exactly negate each other. It's more like when they used their Abilities on one another, they were less—."
She noticed Kuu acting strangely for most of the latter half of that day. Sometimes he would start sentences then trail off as he did just then and she would have to prompt him to continue. Other times he would stare at nothing in particular in a tense, contemplative silence. The only theory she had was that something happened when he left the office to pick up lunch for both of them. He was fine up until that point but, when he returned, something was very off about him. And every time she wanted to open her mouth and ask about it, only to snap it shut again and remind herself that she was a guest and it was none of her business.
"Obviously, I can't say that this would apply all Augmenteds, whether they have a Complement or not," he eventually continued, not bothering to finish his previous thought. "Our sample size was far too small for that."
Some things about her interactions with Ren and their respective abilities made a lot more sense. But other things still remained a mystery. There was so much more she wanted to ask but refrained for fear of the question being too specific to her. As it was, the whole setup had been arranged under the pretense of her basically 'asking for a friend.'
"I feel like anything else I'd ask you, considering the limitations of your study, would be purely conjecture at this point."
Kuu just nodded again, his gaze flitting to the window once more. She patiently sat, waiting for him to focus on her again and wondering if it would be kinder instead to suggest that they stop there for the day.
She decided to side with kindness.
"Perhaps we should leave the conjecture for another day?"
Kuu's eyes snapped to hers and he immediately looked more present in his own body than he had in hours. His face softened with relief and he hummed in agreement. They packed up and left in short order. Kyoko made a mental note to insist that she help with dinner. The last thing anyone needed was Kuu burning the house down because of his own distraction.
Dinner was much quieter than normal. Julie also noticed her husband's preoccupation within the first few minutes of seeing him when she returned home. She looked across the table at Kyoko with questioning eyes that darted between her and Kuu. Kyoko should only shrug and shake her head in response.
"So did you and Kyoko make any groundbreaking discoveries today?" Julie put on her best airy voice to engage her husband in conversation.
Kuu shook his head and continued to push a piece of carrot around his plate. That, in itself, was uncharacteristic behavior as he was usually the first person to finish eating, oftentimes getting up to fill his plate a second time. That night, he barely seemed to have appetite enough for one serving.
"A note was delivered to my mailbox this afternoon," he finally spoke. "It was from Lory."
It was Julie's turn to slow her eating. Her fork stopped its descent and hung in midair. "Oh? How is he doing?" she asked, her voice suddenly strained.
The carrot took a few more meandering paths around Kuu's plate. "He sent me a photo of his granddaughter. He says she's growing up so fast he barely recognizes her and wonders how much longer until she leaves home, never to return. You know, his usual sentimental ravings."
Julie's grip on her fork weakened, sending it clattering onto her plate and drawing Kyoko's attention away from Kuu to focus on her. Flustered, she picked it back up with a weak laugh and placed it on the table. Then Kyoko watched her lock eyes with her husband and hold there for seconds that were stretched too long and too tightly. She knew that look, it was one Kuon (or Ren, as he was at the time) had on his face the few times he ever spoke to her telepathically. The abilities of her hosts were never really a conscious thought for her during her time around them but she was painfully aware of it then.
Their silent conversation was brief and Kyoko spent most of that time staring at the table. While she tried her best to mind her own business, the uneasy twisting in her stomach told her she would not remain uninvolved for long. It seemed that everyone at the table had lost their appetite.
They turned on the news that night; a strange occurrence in the Hizuri household as far as Kyoko could tell. Most days, they only watched the news for a short period in the morning before going to work. It started with the usual narratives of weather reports and stories of local interest. The voices of the reporters started to blend together with their perfectly timed intonation that varied predictably between highs and lows to match the mood of the story. Kyoko had a hard time focusing and her attention began to drift.
The quiet gasp that came from where Julie sat on the couch with her husband yanked her awareness back to the television. It was a brief teaser of the latest breaking international stories before they cut to a commercial break. The feature story was advertised with a wobbly video of an older gentleman with a mustache and goatee being led away by dark suited men on either side. It ended before they could focus on the second person being escorted behind him in a similar fashion, but the ever-growing discomfort in Kyoko's chest, paired with the familiarity of the setting of the video told her almost everything she needed to know, but nothing she wanted.
She knew that city. She knew that silhouette. That unmistakeable hair and height.
Sparing a glance at her hosts, she saw Kuu and Julie tightly gripping each other's hand while staring, tight-lipped, at the screen. The silence in the room was heavy enough to suffocate the unnecessarily loud advertisements that blared from the television. No one present in that room heard them. Each was trapped in the fear that seized their minds. It was an unbearable eternity of commercials.
The news returned and Kyoko felt the creep of icy panic through her veins. Although she tried to listen carefully to the reporter, the words sounded like whitewater tumbling over rocks and all she could manage to catch in between were words like "Keypointe," "investigation," and "custody." The words were lost as she fixated on the video clip of Ren and the older gentleman being led away.
"Oh no. Oh no, no, no, this can't be happening," Julie's breathy, broken whisper floated across the room.
Kyoko stopped a whimper from escaping her lips at the very last second because she noticed something. Something about Ren's hands. Something she missed because it happened too quickly. Despite not wanting to watch the same footage again, she silently hoped they would show it again—as news channels often like to do when they knew they had a sensational story. Her wish was granted in short order as the talking head was replaced with a replay of the earlier video. This time, she made sure to watch a little more interactively.
There was once a time when all she could manage was slowing down time for a little while but, under Kotetsu's patient tutelage, she was able to control her ability far better than she ever imagined. What her teacher had failed to mention was having her ability actuate from the heart was increasingly more difficult when her heart was already in agony. Well, perhaps he had mentioned it and she chose to ignore that part. It was a bit too late for regrets then anyway.
The footage was grainy, making it hard to notice a lot of details, but she had no need for them. She was trying to catch the moment Ren's back was turned to the camera. It hurt to see his wrists bound behind him like that. Knowing that he had chosen one prison only to be suddenly thrust towards a wholly different one made it hurt all the more.
The moment she was trying to capture finally came. She stopped everything around her and scrutinized the image on the screen. He had locked his thumbs together, twisting them once around each other to keep them in place. His fingers on both hands were splayed out on either side of them.
They looked like wings. Butterfly wings.
Kyoko knew in an instant that it was a message meant for her though, had any one asked her how she came to that conclusion, she probably could not explain it. The best she could do would be to say that it was a feeling. A feeling not unlike the one she had that told her she could trust Ren the day they met in that blandly furnished room. A feeling not unlike finding a puzzle piece and knowing immediately where it fit, but never knowing why.
The memory of catching butterflies in the forest was still fairly fresh, considering it had only recently been returned to her. She remembered showing him how to carefully enclose his hands around the butterfly to trap it without hurting it. Was that what he was trying to tell her? That they quietly and gently trapped him?
No, that seemed too humane for them.
Hot tears poured from her eyes without warning and onto her cheeks, leaving twin trails running all the way to her chin. She curled her knees up towards her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs as tightly as she could. It was the only way to hold herself together when she felt like she was falling apart.
"Oh Kuon." Her voice broke on his name. "They caught you by the wings and you couldn't fly away."
The sound of another voice alerted her to the fact that the video had resumed without her noticing. Her control slipped; the overwhelming shock having broken her concentration. Kyoko's body went rigid, but her eyes slowly, and reluctantly, slid over to where Kuu and Julie stared aghast at her.
"What did you just say?"
There was no easy way of getting out of this. She knew she had to tell them, but had no idea where to begin. There was nothing that could soften the blow. They just had to sit through watching their worst nightmare come to life in the company of a complete stranger. Whatever encoded warning Kuu received would never have adequately prepared them for that.
Kyoko used the sleeve of her shirt to wipe at her eyes. If Kuon had to deal with his identity being compromised, what hubris was she clinging to in hopes that she would be able to avoid doing the same? Nothing regarding her and Kuon would ever go the way they intended. That was a lesson she seemed to keep learning. And, as always, she had to do the best she could with what she was given.
One shaky breath was all she allowed herself before she began.
"I knew—I still know your son. We met years ago as children… i-in Keypointe." She swallowed hard; she had to clear a path or else her next words would never come out. "And, I think, the choices we made back then have finally caught up with us."
THIS CHAPTER WORE ME OUT, Y'ALL. The struggle to turn this chapter from scenes in my head into actual words was too real. However, I persevered and got it done. So yay for me and yay for you too because you got to enjoy it without having to wait for two more months! Everyone's a winner!
Except Ren and Kyoko. Whoops.