CHAPTER 32: EXCHANGES

His accommodations were far from terrible, he supposed. It could have been one of the many detention cells he had seen in his line of work. Instead he was in what basically amounted to a hotel room, surrounded by modest furnishing. Were it not for the guards standing just outside the only entrance, it would almost be pleasant. He looked over to where Lory sat at a small table reading a book. The company would have been pleasant as well, except they agreed to keep conversation to a minimum.

"I don't want anyone digging around in my head because you decided to tell me your life story," Lory had said earlier in a tone that sounded angry, but not with him.

Ren recognized a warning when he heard one. After everything they witnessed, it was not a stretch to deduce that the two of them were kept together for a reason. Everything would be used against him, up to and including his own supervisor. Thus, no one was surprised when, after several hours of tense silence, the door to their room opened.

And in walked Yukihito Yashiro.

When Lory remained seated where he was, Ren took his cue and kept standing by the room's only window. Yukihito nodded once in approval and shut the door behind him. Their normal pleasantries were set aside and they got right to business. Their visitor pulled a folded sheet of paper from his jacket and set it on the table in front of Lory. After opening and reading it once, he threw it across the table and motioned for Ren to have a look.

He approached the table slowly, dreading the words he would find on the paper. Mostly because he was fairly certain he knew what they were. He just hoped one particular part would be omitted. Ren picked up the paper, opened it, and began to read.

It was a written statement of the proposed charges against him. The first one he already knew as it was already exposed during the hearing; concealing his identity as Kuon Hizuri and working under an assumed name. The second was also not a surprise, but he still had no details as to how it was discovered; his connection with the Keypointe Incident and failure to identify himself as the cause of it when the investigations first took place.

But there was no third item and, for that, he had to repress a sigh of relief. Barring any further surprise revelations, she was still safe.

"I'll agree to it," he said, folding the paper and handing it back to Yukihito.

"Ren, are you sure—" Lory was interrupted by Ren holding up his hand.

"It's fairly obvious that I have nowhere left to run," he explained. "Besides, running is pretty much what got me into this in the first place. If it will put an end to the investigations and the extractions on innocent people." He looked pointedly at Lory. "I'll do it."

"You're still within your rights to request a fair trial," Yukihito reminded him.

Ren huffed. "After all this, I'm surprised you could call anything they'd offer me fair. There's nothing fair about this. But, I agree. I will not waive my rights, even with a confession. I want to know what evidence they've collected to make a case against me."

"You know what they'll do to you." Lory's voice was quiet and he stared down at his hands, the book he held laid open and forgotten on the table.

"I've always known." Ren walked away from them to stand again by the window. "I wouldn't be here like this if I didn't."

He turned his back to them, signaling that this was no longer up for discussion. Still he saw the older men exchange a look in the window's reflection before Yukihito left. The door closed again and three became two once more. Ren pushed a hand into the pocket of his slacks, fishing around for the small stone he knew would be there. Holding it up in the light coming from the window, he tilted it back and forth. Unfortunately, the changing colors did little to ease his mind. He clutched the stone tightly into his fist, taking deep breaths and fighting for a sense of calm.

His days were smothered in storm clouds and he had no idea where to find his sun.

But, if he played his cards right, no one else would either.


Kyoko had to give them the abridged version of the story. It was late and relating the entire saga would be physically, and emotionally, exhausting for everyone involved. As such, she made sure to cover the important parts; her real name, the details of her and Kuon's parting in Keypointe, the general story behind their reunion and subsequent retrieval of their missing memories, and the decision to go their separate ways.

"That sounds very much like our son to do that." Kuu looked bewildered, clearly still processing everything she just shared with them.

"I would've stopped him if I knew," Kyoko was quick to defend, her anxiety manifesting through her hands as she twisted them around each other. "But he didn't exactly include me in the decision-making process."

"Because he was trying to protect you," Julie soothed, giving her husband a knowing look.

"He's still trying to protect you," Kuu added with a nod.

Kyoko let her shoulders sag in acknowledgement.

"I know and I'm not exactly happy about that. Still, he did have a point." She looked between Kuu and Julie. "What happened back then was significant, but the assumption was always that it was caused by one person. You know what would happen if they found out there were two of us."

Julie sighed. "This is what happens when you raise a self-sufficient child. They think they can just save everyone."

"I don't think now is the right time for us to lament our parenting choices," Kuu groaned, running a hand over his face.

Julie shrugged off his words. "I've been doing it since the day he left. This is nothing new."

Kuu shook his head and patted gently at his wife's arm. "I'm sure it'll be almost impossible for us, but we should get some sleep. We can tackle… whatever this is about to become in the morning."

As predicted, Kyoko slept no more than a couple of hours that night when everyone retired to their respective beds. She mostly lay there, staring at the stark white ceiling for longer than she cared to reckon. When she heard the sounds coming from the kitchen, she crept out of her room to find Kuu rummaging through the refrigerator.

"Can't sleep either?" she asked as quietly as she could in order to not startle her host.

Her efforts were for naught as she still caught him by surprise. Kuu barely avoided slamming his hand in the door. He turned to face her, a plastic container in hand and a sheepish smile on his face that she could just make out in the muted grays of the darkened house.

"Julie always said stress-eating was my other Ability." He held up the container. "Can I get you something?"

Kyoko shook her head. "I don't think I'll manage to keep anything down."

He nodded and set down the container before leaning to one side to switch on a light over the stove. The dim, orange glow only illuminated the kitchen enough to upstage the scant moonlight filtering in through the windows. Kuu then pulled a glass from a nearby cupboard to join the one he already had placed on the counter beside him. Filling it with water from the sink, he offered it to her. She took it and sat on one of the stools pulled up alongside the island in the center of the kitchen.

Kuu rummaged through a drawer for a fork before sitting beside her. "So, did you come out to talk or are we just going to sit in the mostly-dark together in awkward silence?"

"I didn't really have a plan when I came out here." She sipped her water before sighing. "I rarely seem to have those as it is."

"Could've fooled me," Kuu said as he worked the edges of the container's lid free. "You've made it awfully far for someone without a plan."

Kyoko wanted to laugh, but not because any of this was at all humorous. Even if she had made a semblance of a plan when she originally set out, all of it had been turned on its ear. Kuon was more suited for that sort of thing, not that she'd voice it aloud. That wound was still raw and weeping for all of them.

"I had some help," she chose to say by way of an alternative. "The rest was— I don't know. Intuition, I suppose."

Kuu hummed around a mouthful of whatever he had pulled from the refrigerator, taking his time to chew slowly and swallow before speaking. "There's something to be said for intuition. It's how we subconsciously take life's experiences and apply them to a variety of situations through critical thinking."

"I guess," she conceded, nudging her glass along the countertop. "But, now that I need it again, it seems to be awfully silent about the entire matter."

"What are you hoping it'll tell you?" Kuu asked, shoving the fork back into the container to pull out a messy jumble of what appeared to be noodles.

"I'm not sure," Kyoko faltered. "Maybe I just want some hint as to what my next move should be. I want to do… something. I want to help somehow, but it seems as if my only choices are to stay where I am or go back to where I was. Neither of them seem ideal."

"True," Kuu admitted. "There's little you can do from here and, if you return, your Ability will almost certainly be revealed."

"If it was just my Ability, I don't think I'd be as hesitant. That only puts me in danger," she corrected him. "Now I'm afraid they'll make the connection between our situation and your research. If Kotetsu could get close enough to send me to you, it's not that farfetched to say the Academy wouldn't be able to do the same."

Kyoko may have regretted ever learning about Kuu's research but she had to admit that the knowledge she gained at least prevented her from making a fateful mistake. The knowing sat in the pit of her stomach, cold and hard and covered in sharp edges. Kuon was her Complement but no one else could ever know. It was a reminder of how something beautiful could be warped and mangled in the wrong hands. It was a reminder of yet another thing she could never have.

Kuu let the hand holding another forkful of food drop, cold noodles and stainless steel landing with a soft plop. "And you'd be giving them exactly what they need; a matching set."

"How about you unmake the set, then?" They were interrupted by the sound of Julie's voice coming from the hall as she approached the kitchen.

"Meaning what, exactly?" Kuu called out to her.

"They're holding our son responsible because they think they know everything," Julie explained as she made her way into the kitchen, stopping to perch beside her husband. "What they don't know is they only have a part of the story. Kuon would never tell them the rest of it and they'd have a difficult time trying to extract it."

"So…?"

"So, Kyoko could turn herself in to our Academy, making a public statement that he was covering for her and she wanted to set the record straight. With her unique Ability, her story will completely overshadow his. I'm assuming Kotetsu already knows about it, right?" When Kyoko nodded, noticeably bewildered, Julie continued. "Then we also have confirmation from a respected Sensor."

"Our Academy won't treat her any kinder, Julie," Kuu warned.

"I know," she relented. "But she wouldn't be seized against her will. She'd go to them willingly and they would let her. She doesn't have to tell them the entire truth, just the parts that are convenient. Nearly every Academy has tried for a decade to be the one who cracked the case. Don't think they wouldn't jump at any chance to take another Academy down a few pegs."

She listened to their rapid-fire exchange with a mixture of wonder and horror. They were seriously arguing the merits of her surrendering herself to another Academy in a barely lit kitchen in the dead of night. Were they actually insane? Was this not just running from one predator into the waiting jaws of another? Kyoko wondered if this was what it felt like to drown. To be dragged beneath the surface, flailing and fighting helplessly against the burning need to inhale.

He scoffed. "And you think they'll just, what, let her name her own terms?"

"That's the beauty of it," Julie exclaimed in triumph. "They'll have no choice. She's nothing they've ever dealt with before. If they want the prestige of claiming her, they also have to recognize that she could just as easily go somewhere else and they can do very little to stop her."

All right, Kyoko had to concede that Julie made a decent point. She nodded begrudgingly in acceptance.

However, Kuu lifted a hand, putting his wife's eagerness on pause. "This conjecture is fine and all but this is based on the very big assumption that Kyoko would want to do any of this."

And here Kyoko was beginning to wonder if they had forgotten she was still in the room. It was a small comfort in the face of the very big, very intimidating 'solution'— for lack of a better term —they proposed. It still felt like too much of a best-case scenario. There were variables that were beyond her experience for any of it to seem viable.

"Oh, absolutely," Julie agreed, offering Kyoko an apologetic look. "We wouldn't force you into doing anything you're uncomfortable with. Kuu's comment gave me ideas and I guess I was just getting carried away."

"As usual," her husband muttered and was swatted on the arm in retaliation.

"It's fine." Kyoko's offhanded assurance was quiet and unsteady. "I mean, it's not really fine. None of this is fine but I get it. We all want to do something to help him. We don't know how best to do that, but we all seem to agree that I'm the one who has the best chance at affecting any sort of change."

"You would be more impactful," Kuu acknowledged with a shake of his head. "That doesn't mean we shouldn't explore other options. You're not a crutch and we shouldn't lean on you like you are."

She could definitely see where Kuon got his sense of responsibility. Despite knowing that she was directly involved in the event that entrapped their son in a dangerous game, they were willing to respect if she wanted to stay out of it. A wave of bitter guilt swept through her and she frowned. Guilt had no place there, not for something that was out of her control at the time. Not when no choice was given to her.

But she had a choice now.

"What kind of safeguards do you think we could put in place for me and him if I were to go along with this?" Kyoko asked, dragging a finger around the rim of her glass.

"Kyoko, you really don't have to—" Julie began.

"No," Kyoko stopped her. "I don't have to. I want to. You were right, this is my chance to do this on my terms."

"Are you sure?" she pressed.

Kyoko nodded.

"I think my intuition finally has an opinion," she said, catching Kuu's huff of recognition with a grim smile. "It says that it's my turn to do the protecting for once."


YES I STILL EXIST: I was not just a figment of your imagination.

This chapter sat unfinished for months mostly because I had to be in a very particular frame of mind to write it and that part of my mindscape was inaccessible for a long time. Things will still be slow-going for a while but I'm making an effort to keep working on it. Stay well, everyone.

AUTHOR OUT