Housekeeping notes: This is the first installment in The Office series, many stories of which originally appeared as chapters in Distracting Drabbles. Because the series has taken on a life of its own, I have moved those stories into new stories (with placeholders left behind, so as not to lose the reviews. If you reviewed the first time a story was published and want to review again, I certainly won't stop you...), labeled with the order in which they're meant to be read.
However, due to the fact that I'm writing this series without a plan and out of order, those numbers will change as I add new installments. Everything is neat and tidy over on AO3, because of the feature that allows me reorganize stories within a series. But I want to make sure everything across the two platforms is the same, since not everyone reads both sites. So, bear with me if things start to get a little messy!
Example: The Informant is currently incomplete, and eventually I'll add more chapters; but I've also published a dozen stories that take place after it, and will probably keep writing more. Apologies for the chaos...
Hei tensed at the sound of footsteps rapidly approaching the doorway where he stood and pressed himself further back into the shadows. He made no move to intercept the runner; his role tonight was merely to provide a distraction. The Syndicate wanted this target alive and out of the hands of the police.
Section Four had gotten close, too close to the target on more than one occasion. Hei had no idea what would happen if the man was caught by either party, but the higher-ups were clearly nervous about the possibility. There was a lot that he didn't know about the higher-ups and the games they played with their assets' lives. He'd never cared to know; but things were different now. Now, he couldn't help but wonder.
The target's footsteps pounded past his hiding place; the man didn't so much as turn his head in Hei's direction as he flew past and down towards the busy street at the end of the alleyway.
Lucky. Hei was wearing his Li costume tonight, and even though he'd swapped his usual white shirt for a forest green button-down, it was no replacement for black. The target would have easily spotted him if he'd been paying attention.
The man's footsteps had just faded into general noise of Shinjuku's nightlife when another set of running steps alerted Hei to the presence of the chaser, fast approaching. He couldn't see around the edge of the doorway, but the racing footsteps were loud and clear.
Still tensed, Hei took a deep breath. The timing had to be just right.
The chaser rapidly drew abreast of his doorway. It was now or never.
He let out the breath that he'd been holding and stepped out into the middle of the alley.
Kirihara Misaki hit his shoulder at full force. Prepared for the blow, Hei didn't even stagger; Kirihara, on the other hand, fell backwards, her eyes wide with surprise.
Reflexively, Hei reached out and caught her upper arm before she could topple over. She let out a startled Oh! as he pulled her back onto her feet and into his chest. The hilt of her gun was obvious where pressed into his shoulder.
"Oh, Chief Kirihara!" Hei exclaimed in his best Li voice. "Um." He looked down at his grip on her arm and let go, jumping back several inches in awkward embarrassment. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean - I didn't see you!"
The police chief blinked. "Li? What - don't worry about it. Did you see a man run through here just now?" She craned her neck to look past his shoulder; Hei shifted his weight innocently, blocking her view.
"A man? No, I didn't see anyone. Besides you, I mean -"
"Never mind. I've got to run - you should be more careful, it's not safe to wander around dark alleys this late at night."
"Oh right, sorry…" Hei trailed off as Kirihara politely but hurriedly pushed past him and started off down the long alleyway. She'd taken only a few steps before she glanced back over her shoulder at him, frowning. Then with a slight shake of her head, she took off after the target once again.
Hei watched her go with narrowed eyes, his heart pounding. The delay had been less than a minute, but that should have been plenty of time for Huang to grab the asset, get him loaded into the car, and disappear into the busy traffic before Kirihara caught so much as a glimpse.
However, the success of the mission was the last thing on his mind right now.
"Well?" a familiar voice asked from the shadows.
"It's done," he said flatly.
The bell on Mao's collar jingled as leapt onto a nearby dumpster and scratched his ear nervously. "I hope you know what you're doing - we're putting an awful lot of trust into your judgment here, Hei."
Hei continued staring down the alley mouth. Kirihara disappeared around the corner, ponytail streaming out behind her. "I don't trust my judgment," he admitted. "But I do trust her."
And in a few hours, he'd know whether this risk had even the smallest chance of paying off - or if he'd just made the worst mistake of his life.
"Damn, damn, damn," Misaki muttered to herself. She kicked the tire on her Porsche once to drive the point home. "Damn."
The buzzing of her phone interrupted another string of curses. Misaki pulled it out of her jacket pocket and leaned against the car. "Anything?"
"Negative," Saitou answered. "Disappeared right out from under us."
She sighed. "I had him in sight before he turned up a blind alley. But it was dark, and I ran into someone; I lost him."
"Shit. Maybe we'll get another chance?"
Misaki appreciated the optimism in her subordinate's voice, even if she didn't believe it. "Maybe," she said. "Let's reconvene at headquarters for a debrief." Without waiting for a reply, she snapped the phone shut and gazed moodily down at the pavement in front of her.
She'd been so close to catching EG-388! He'd been right in front of her, not twenty yards away before disappearing; that alleyway was the only place he could have gone, but Li had said that he hadn't seen anyone. Unless he'd ducked through a door and into the back of a shop? But if he'd done that, Li still should have seen him.
Li. She might have actually nabbed the contractor if she hadn't run into Li and wasted those valuable seconds. Misaki hated to curse at someone as sweet as him, but…damn it! His timing couldn't have been more terrible if he'd tried.
That unexpected thought froze her foot halfway to her tire. No…that was ridiculous. It was a coincidence, that was all. Why would Li be working with a contractor?
The cop side of her brain asked, Why would Li be lurking in a dark alleyway and lie about seeing anyone else there?
She shook her head. A couple of coincidences were not evidence of any sort of wrongdoing. There was no reason for him to not be in that alley, really. Maybe he'd just been taking a shortcut. Tracking down EG-388 was what was important now.
It wasn't until she reached into her pants pocket for her car keys that she found the note.
The police have been compromised. I can help.
The words danced in her head the entire drive back to the office, burned themselves into the back of her eyeballs. Who had sent that note, and what did it mean? Compromised by who? If it was a joke, it was a poor one.
The handwriting on the scrap of paper was barely legible; she didn't recognize it. There was no way of telling who had slipped it into her pocket, or when. It could have happened at any time throughout the long day.
Although really, there was only one logical explanation. It was just the one that made the least sense, and a knot formed in the pit of her stomach every time she thought about it.
She'd run the several blocks back to that alleyway after discovering the message; but it was empty except for a black cat skulking in the shadows, only visible by the distant street lights reflected in its eyes. Li had vanished as thoroughly as EG-388.
Had someone asked him to slip the note to her, put him up to it? She'd never felt a thing; that, coupled with the perfect timing with which he'd stepped out of the shadows...she shivered in spite of herself. In retrospect, that had been no amateur move - if it had indeed been him.
There were no details about a meeting, not even after she'd scoured both sides of the scrap, and she spent the entire debrief so distracted by the message that even her team noticed, exchanging worries glances with each other. But until she knew what it meant, she didn't dare mention it.
Misaki didn't arrive home until after one in the morning. With a tired sigh, she unlocked her apartment and kicked off her shoes into the tray by the door as she flipped on the light. - and saw a pair of worn, shabby sneakers already there.
For a brief, stupid moment she thought that she must be in the wrong apartment. Then she looked up.
Li was sitting on her sofa, wearing a dark green shirt and jeans, his expression dark and unreadable. His posture was casual - leaning forward, arms resting on his knees - but it was obvious that he'd been waiting for her.
Misaki stood frozen for a long moment, heart pounding in sudden fear as she tried to make sense of his presence. How he'd gotten in and how he even knew where she lived was hardly relevant at the moment. Her hand was still on the door handle; her phone was in her pocket, her gun strapped to her chest. Whatever was going on, she had the upper hand.
With that bit of knowledge to bolster her confidence, she asked levelly, "What are you doing here?"
"You know who I am."
It wasn't a question. His voice was cold and flat, nothing like what she'd heard from him before; and as soon as he said the words, all those coincidences became clear and she knew.
He inclined his head slightly in acknowledgment, or perhaps approval.
"What are you doing here?" she repeated. She didn't take her hand from the doorknob.
"I'm just here to talk." He twisted his wrists so that his palms were facing up, empty. It was an empty gesture, considering his power; but she could appreciate it.
"Is this about your note?"
He nodded once. Misaki stayed where she was, but relaxed her grip on the door handle. If he was there to kill her, he would have done it already; he certainly wouldn't have taken his shoes off first. She'd never had a more considerate house breaker.
"So what exactly is this about?" she demanded. "What did you mean, the police have been compromised?"
"Do you know anything about who I work for?"
She frowned, debating how much to give away. But without knowing what he wanted, it was impossible to judge. "No," she admitted at last. "I don't know a damn thing."
"They're an international conglomerate known as the Syndicate. They have people in all the major governments and intelligence agencies, including yours." His voice was eerily without inflection, almost robotic.
"A global conspiracy? That's a little far-fetched." So was this entire situation. Was she seriously having a conversation with the Black Reaper, on her living room sofa?
"Okay, so let's assume you're telling the truth." Misaki let go of the door handle and took a few steps into the living room, where she stopped in front of the sofa - out of easy reach - and folded her arms. "Your Syndicate has people in the Japanese government - who are they, and what do they want?"
"I don't know."
An edge of frustration began to squash her fear. Why the hell was he here, talking to her? Was this some of joke? "You -" she began, but he interrupted.
"I've worked for them for the past ten years. I still have no idea who they are or what their purpose is. I never cared, before."
"But you do now?" She eyed him, trying to figure out whether he was telling the truth or not. But unlike Li, his expression was impossible to read. "Why?"
He stared at the carpet between his feet, as if collecting his thoughts. "One of my team members listened in on a conversation that he shouldn't have," he said after a long pause. "He didn't catch all of the details, but it sounded as if the Syndicate's higher-ups are preparing for another Heaven's Gate disaster, at Hell's Gate. It sounded as if they're planning it."
Misaki's heart caught in her throat. An event like that, even if at a fraction of the magnitude, would be horrific. "You can't be serious."
"He might have misunderstood. But...there are things - recent events - that make me think he was right."
Her mind was racing. She wanted details, any scrap of information that he could provide. But first, she had to take a step back and ask the most important question. "So what are you doing here - why come to me? And what does this have to do with the police?"
"I'm pretty sure that one of the higher-ups has a high position in the police. I don't want what happened in South America to happen here. Neither does the rest of my team."
Misaki raised an eyebrow. Altruism? From a contractor?
He continued, "But we're just tools of the Syndicate - we have no resources or power beyond what they give to us. And even then, I wouldn't know what to do with that information. But you might be able to do something. It would help us both - get rid of your mole in the police, and protect us from the Syndicate's plan."
Typical contractor logic, she thought. Saving Japan from a nationwide disaster was more than enough motivation for her to want to help; it didn't have to be so personal to convince her. Assuming that he wasn't lying through his teeth.
"You say that the Syndicate has infiltrated the police. How do you know that I'm not one of them?"
He regarded her steadily; she refused to flinch. "I don't," he admitted. "It's possible that you are. But I don't think it's likely."
He shrugged. "I can't really say. I just have to trust my instincts."
Misaki drummed her fingers on her arm. Trust. If he was telling the truth, then he was taking a massive risk just showing up here, letting her see his face, and telling her all of this. She couldn't think of any reason why he would take that risk, unless he was telling the truth. The question was, just how far could she trust a contractor - especially one with the reputation of BK-201.
Well, if he could trust her thus far, she could at least reciprocate a tiny bit. Moving slowly so as not to accidentally spook him, she crossed the few feet to the sofa and sat down on the opposite end. He tensed the tiniest bit, but otherwise didn't react.
"Alright," she said. "Let's say that I believe you. What exactly is it that you propose to do?"
Despite her change in position, he didn't move to face her; it was almost as if he was more comfortable addressing the floor.
"I can pass you information about our jobs. The Syndicate's been very interested in Gate-related artifacts recently; and I've met a couple of high-ranking Pandora officials that you might be interested in."
Misaki sat up a little straighter. She certainly would be interested in knowing exactly what Pandora was up to. But… "When you say information about your jobs, do you mean before or after the fact?"
"After. If Section Four intercepts all of our missions, the Syndicate will know someone from my team tipped you off. This is about putting together the big picture."
"I know how to run a confidential informant," Misaki said testily. "But there has to be a give and take here - I can't sit idly by waiting for you to feed me bits and pieces only to find out that there is no big picture. No offense, but so far I have no reason to trust you."
He nodded wearily. "That contractor you were chasing tonight - we, uh, accidentally let him escape. Into police custody. He can tell you a lot about a certain device that his employers are working on."
Misaki eyed him as she pulled her phone out of her pocket. He met her gaze without flinching; was there worry in his eyes, or was she imagining it? She dialed Saitou's number.
"Chief!" her subordinate answered, "I was just about to call you! Unit three-oh reported that they caught a man matching IE-388's description. I checked it out, and it's him; we're heading to headquarters now."
Misaki hoped that the surprise wasn't showing on her face. "Good. I'm on my way; hold the interrogation until I get there."
She snapped her phone shut. "You prepared that ahead of time? Before you knew what my answer would be?"
"We thought you might want proof that we're willing to cooperate. And he deserved to be caught."
The bitterness in his tone caught her off guard, but she let that latter statement go for now. "By we you mean your team? Will I be able to meet them?"
"No," he said, almost sharply. "I'm the only one you'll be dealing with."
Interesting, she mused. Was he trying to protect them by taking the bulk of the risk on himself? Out loud she asked, "So what is it that you want in return?"
"Let us leave the country unimpeded."
Misaki blinked, surprised. "That's it? No money, no official pardons, offers of new identities?"
He shrugged. "If the Syndicate catches wind of our betrayal, we'll have to run. If they don't, and you manage to stop whatever it is that they're planning, then we'll be out of a job. And we'll still probably have to run; they have the resources to hunt us down. There's not much that the police can do to protect us."
"Alright," Misaki said slowly. She still wasn't entirely sure that this conversation was actually happening, that she wasn't dreaming while asleep at her desk. "This is what I'll agree to. From tonight on, you'll be my confidential informant. I'll make my own personal records of our meetings, but they'll use coded language and be kept under lock and key. Unless absolutely necessary, I won't tell anyone on my team that I even have a CI; if you're right, and this is a long game that the Syndicate is playing, the best strategy will be to watch and wait while we collect information."
He nodded his agreement, and she continued, "You and I will have regular meetings. I'll leave you to arrange those, since you'll have a better idea than me whether you're being watched and when it's safe to talk. You'll give me all the details of your jobs, beforehand - and I promise I won't interfere unless it's absolutely necessary, in which case I'll warn you that I intend to make a move."
His eyes narrowed slightly at that, but he didn't protest it.
"In return for your information, I'll refrain from arresting you in the field" - as if she'd ever come close, but still - "and when you or any of your team deem it necessary to leave Japan, I'll make sure that you get out. This agreement will stand until I have the leadership of the Syndicate in police custody. Is this acceptable?"
To her relief, he didn't answer right away, but instead took a few moments to consider. That was a good sign that he was really in earnest about this proposal, absurd though it seemed. At last, he nodded once. "Agreed."
"Good. I won't make you sign in papers for the sake of secrecy, but can we shake on it?" Willing her muscles to remain steady and not tremble, she held out her hand.
The Black Reaper looked at it as if she was the one with the power to kill at a touch; then, slowly, he reached out his own hand and shook. His palm was surprisingly warm, his grip firm without being overbearing.
Misaki smiled in almost giddy relief. "Alright. It'll be interesting working with you, Li."
"Hei. That's my name. I'm only Li in public."
There was a note of disappointment in his voice, she thought. "Hei, then."
He nodded again, then stood abruptly and headed towards the door and his shoes.
"One more thing," Misaki called out. When he turned, she said sternly, "The next time you stop by here, you knock first."
A sheepish expression flitted across his face before returning to blankness. "Yeah. Sorry. I just wanted to get your attention this time."
Misaki watched him leave; it wasn't until several minutes after the door had shut behind him that her heart rate finally returned to normal. She sighed and rested her chin in her hand, thinking. Li, the Black Reaper! Stranger still, BK-201, working with the police?
She'd never taken such a huge risk before. Either this would pay off in spades, or she'd just made the worst mistake of her life.