Human Resources 9: Damage Control

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Meetings. Always meetings. If it's not paperwork, or showing up at one of the many places we've brought under the Third's umbrella, it's plastering a smile on my face, nodding along while someone talks my ear off, and remembering every little detail. Then again, I signed up for this to deal with people; just this once, I probably don't get to complain.

Plus, I asked her to do this.

Aoi - Miss Katsuragi to me, the nameless janitor to most, generally speaking - sits opposite me, running through her report. As usual, it took me a while to find her even knowing just where she is. She's still got an earphone in one ear, with some kind of soft jazz tune leaking from it. Her way of letting the world know she's barely paying attention, distracted, like you can easily talk circles around her and sneak anything right under her nose. I know better, mind, but it's a good act. I wish I could say I taught her that, but she came through the door with some of it and picked up the rest with time. Not like I can give much of my secrets away anyway, not the sweet and innocent guardian angel of the Third.

Offers me some kind of strange fruit juice thing I can't quite make out. Not sure how she gets it - even if she buys it or makes it herself - but I've never seen her drink anything else. Honestly, after a sip or two, I can see why. On one hand, pretty good. On the other hand, tastes like either hassle or money, not something I'd ever bother with by myself.

She's going on about the results of the little stakeout I sent her on. Watching Hitomi, namely, and the River. Just as well that I sent her, as it turns out; there's plenty I haven't heard from our friendly neighbourhood oracle. A visit from Shimizu herself, to... well now. Is that right? Our rogue murderess is looking out for me. I'm touched, honestly, and... well, I'll be honest, I haven't felt quite this flattered in a long time, but I doubt that's what she had in mind. Still, it's high praise in its own way, isn't it? One of the Third's few innocents, cruelly duped by Sanbey. Hah! Poor guy doesn't have it in him to do that, not really.

"As far as I can tell, she wanted to 'rescue' you. To whisk you away to her side so that you can help her bring down Sanbey and topple the Third, after she exposes whatever she assumes Sanbey's crimes are. She seemed adamant about not hurting you; saving you before she tears down the rest of the Officio, if anything."

Got to say, as meetings go, it's been nice listening to this. Not the first time I think this, but she's got a good narrating voice, that sort of thing. Leave it to me to put everything in film terms, I guess, but it's the kind of thing I could listen to for ages; makes all this a little better. ...Maybe I ought to start spouting film metaphors or something. I mean, if Yumishita's going to act like Sanbey's some sort of cartoon villain - and let's face it, he gets his ideas from me - I better act the part, right? Pulling the strings of the pawns as they dance across the silver screen on the stage of my theatre of the grand guignol-

Ah, hell, I can't do it. Never mind.

"If she has a soft spot for me, whatever her reason," I ask her, snapping back to the here and now to put my best stern look on, "what should that mean after what she's done to so many others?"

No mercy, no quarter, and a lot of other things she's not getting. Sympathy for the devil is, as it turns out, in short supply, even if she did decide I'm too good to this. Hands are tied here: People want blood by now, and they're getting it. Of course, 'hands are tied' isn't quite right; it's not like I ever had any particular interest in sparing her. Still, I'm out to get justice for all those sweet and innocent souls we lost to her, all the people of the Third that she cruelly cut down, and so on and so forth. Put on my angry justice face and people will love every second of it, is what I mean.

"Catch her. That's all there is to this, now and before. We can't let her cause any more harm. Bring her in if we can." Stone-faced, put a sword in the angel's hands. Sometimes people don't want a happy little smile, and learning when to put it away is just part of the job.

"If she plans to 'rescue' me, then that just means we have the bait right here, if it comes to that." Throw that in a second later, after thinking about it a little. Some nice self-sacrificing enthusiasm to get the crowd of one cheering. She's not really a cheering type, but I think that look means she approves. Good enough. ...Really, I'm not even making that up. Or I might not be. There's not all that much of a risk, after all, if she's not going to hurt me; I could set her up given half a chance. I'd rather not - you never know with sparklers - but it's an option I'm happy to have.

"...And Masame," she adds after a bit. "She's been looking into the river every spare moment she gets. If it's not over Yumishita, it's you. Pale as a ghost, trying to find everything she can. Frightened, but I don't know what's scaring her. ...It's probably the same as always. She must see someone die every week, at this rate."

"...Please keep an eye on her. I can't be there for her all the time, but..." My best worried, nervous face; it takes a lot of work to fake crying convincingly, and even more to pull off the look of someone trying to hold her tears back. Good thing I've had practice, really, or I wouldn't be able to keep it up. She agrees, and that's that. She doesn't need to know why. Too much digging in my past or my future is going to turn up a lot of loose ends, a lot of questions I don't want to deal with.

See, that's the problem. You let one thing slip around here and it all comes down like a... well, you know. Something that comes down really easily.

"And try to keep her away from the river. Please."

"If you're worried about her straining herself, I don't think that's enough for Sanbey to-"

I give her the sigh I practiced for a while, and the secret I'm oh-so-grudgingly parting with. Because this is important. Because sometimes, protecting the people who mean the world to you matters more than an officio's secrets. A little one-of-a-kind moment, just between her and I.

"I shouldn't really be telling you this," confiding in her, because she needs to know, because she's earned it, "but... I guess I can tell you a secret, Miss Katsuragi. Sanbey told me not too long ago. He doesn't want anyone panicking, but... we think there might be a witch that can target the river. If any of the visions it sends out catch her..." Another sigh, another frown, a few more tears choked back.

"I hope it hasn't affected her already," and there's my out in case she starts saying anything funny. "We're not sure it's even there yet, that it exists at all, but we've seen hints and we don't want to take any chances. I need you to keep a secret, but... keep her busy, watch the river, let me know if anything strange happens. Please, keep her safe."

She nods, gets up a few minutes later. On the way to the door, she turns around just a little, asks me something over her shoulder.

"When Sanbey came to me, I wished to never be noticed. To blend in."

"I know, you-"

"Did you wish for the same?"

...It's a rare day when I feel nervous, around here. That did it. I doubt she's saying half of what I think she might be, but... Crazy as this sounds, I'm glad I can see her weapon. A little... what was it called? Parrying dagger or something like that. Means she's relaxed, I know that much. If she was tense, she'd pull the mask back up, wouldn't let anyone see something like that.

Secrets are a useful thing. Very useful. Ones you made up five seconds ago, doubly so. Nothing like a little false vulnerability - opening up to someone with none of the risks - to buy you some trust. Seemed like the best trick to break out, right now.

"That's between Sanbey and I. Some people make good wishes. The right wishes. I regret mine, but I hope I can make up for it some day. ...That's all, nothing glamorous." How many of their stories are? A sprinkle of remorse, a dab of imperfection and a hint at some old regret, for that perfect look of baring your soul to someone. All I've got, really; I don't want to bank too much on pretending to be a Callidus, with someone like Aoi.

We trade another minute or two of conversation, and she heads off. She seems to buy it, going by the look she gave me. I hope she did.

What did I wish for, huh? Of all the questions to ask...