Inui stares at the scrap of paper sitting at the bottom of his mailbox. Such a nondescript little piece of paper to carry such a loaded message. He adjusts his glasses until the worst of the wave of nausea subsides, then picks up the note and holds it between his thumb and forefinger. It's a long shot, but he has to try.
Several seconds later, he looks again, and there, faint along the edge of the page in heat-sensitive ink, are four numbers.
It's been four years, two months, and fifteen days since The Incident--four years, two months, and fifteen days since Unit 4215 performed their last mission together.
Inui walks back inside, closing the door behind him and throwing the deadbolt before he allows himself to collapse against the wall, the rest of his mail slipping from numb fingers.
Renji is alive.
Renji is alive and has found him.
It's been too long, and too much has changed. He can no longer read Renji's intent as easily as he used to. Is the message a peace offering, a warning, or something in between? The fact that he's here with a not in his hand instead of dead with a bullet in his head means Renji probably doesn't want him dead, not just yet at least, but beyond that everything is still too murky for him to even begin to speculate.
The appropriate thing to do would be to go into his office, call his supervisor, and hand the whole situation off to someone else.
He's never been good at following orders, especially not when Renji (or someone doing a very good job of impersonating him) is involved. Especially not four years, two months, and fifteen days after Renji was presumed dead.
He still remembers it as if it were yesterday. He wrote the mission report himself using his own calculations.
Probability Yanagi Renji survived: 1.7%.
Less than two percent had been close enough to zero for the higher ups, who wanted to wrap up the whole debacle as quickly as possible so that they could file it away, closed, sealed, and hopefully soon forgotten. They had declared Renji missing, presumed dead, filed all of the appropriate paperwork, and said a few textbook words acknowledging his service. Inui had dragged himself out of the hospital for the memorial, but he had been one of the few in attendance.
The scars on his chest twinge even now when he thinks about the reason. He wrote that part of the report as well.
Probability Yanagi Renji was responsible for the explosion: 50.0%
What is it that Renji knows? Has he found new information about what happened when everything went wrong? Is he saying he's ready to share information only he has about that night? Does he know that Inui is still here and still working in the same jobs? He's had several new partners since Renji, though most of them didn't last long; his current partner is the only one who's made it more than a month without requesting to be transferred. Does he know that none of those partners have been to Inui what Renji was? Does he know about how Inui's chest twinges sometimes when he's lying in bed at night, and Inui's pretty sure it's not just the physical scars that ache?
Inui shakes his head to dismiss that train of thought, nothing good can come of it. He goes into his study instead, but he doesn't call his boss. All he has to go on right now is a slip of paper with two words on it, and a few numbers in a different ink; it would be silly to trouble his supervisor on the basis of so little evidence. No, he will wait and continue collecting data of his own, and the minute he has confirmation that it is in fact Renji trying to contact him, then he'll bring the matter to the chain of command. After all, he doesn't want them wasting their time chasing leads that could go nowhere, especially not when he knows he can follow Renji's trail better than just about anyone else. Or at least he could several years ago.
He turns on his computer and fiddles with the setting for a few minutes before leaving it in favor of reading on his tablet on the chair by the window. He makes sure to leave the curtains open just a crack.
To any casual observer outside, the flickering that is just visible through the curtains will look like nothing more than the glow of a television screen or the flickering of a failing lightbulb, but Renji has never been a casual observer of anything so far as Inui is aware. Anyone looking more closely would realize that there is a pattern to the flickering, a simple pattern of longer and shorter that, if one knew Morse code, would resolve into a set of digits. 4. 2. 1. 5. 4. 2. 1. 5.
Inui has no reason to believe Renji is still around, but part of him, a part that is far less rusty from disuse than expected, knows that Renji hates leaving a scene while a mission is running, and Inui never believed for a second that the letter was the end of the story. It was merely a teaser to see if Inui was still around, and more importantly, to judge how he might react. The real game starts now, and Inui knows that Renji is out there somewhere out of sight waiting for his next move. "I'm interested," Inui hopes his message conveys, "now tell me more."
Inui is only half paying attention to what he is reading, the rest of his focus on the darkness beyond the window. He finally gives up when he realizes he's read the same sentence five times, and retained none of it. He watches the stars coming out overhead instead until a flash of light out of the corner of his eye catches his notice. It's faint, and roughly the color of a firefly, but the way it moves is all wrong for such a creature.
He watches it dart around in a tight circle, and then it suddenly flares brighter for a second before going out entirely. Message received. The ball is back in Renji's court; now he just has to wait and see what happens next.
He tries to sleep at a reasonable hour, but he spends most of the night tossing and turning. For possibly the first time, he's awake and ready and not cursing the existence of dawn when his partner arrives for their morning run.
"You okay?" Kaidou asks.
"You don't like mornings. Don't love running either."
"Didn't sleep well last night. Let's go."
The roads are nearly empty at this time of morning, especially on a weekend, and Inui loses himself in the pound of his feet against the pavement. The rhythm is a steady, reassuring pattern, and for once, he finds himself setting the pace rather than pushing to keep up with Kaidou. His partner's breath is just as ragged as his now, and his legs are probably nearly as tired, but still Inui has no desire to stop. He feels like he could run forever, letting the pounding of his heart and his feet drown out everything else. Is this why Kaidou enjoys physical training so much? Inui usually prefers to sit with the calculations and run numbers constantly as he goes, but there's something almost animalistic and compelling about throwing the data aside.
Renji never understood that feeling, he thinks, and it's enough to throw him out of the zone he was in. He falters, stumbling in his stride, and Kaidou pulls up next to him.
"Need a break? You don't normally go this hard?"
"I'm fine," Inui says, but he knows he's lost whatever mental space he was in. He tries to fall back to usual analytical approach, counting paces and breaths, and his heartbeat in the background, but there's too much else running around inside his head distracting him.
Kaidou slows to a walk as they near the end of their second loop. "Plans for today?" he asks.
"A few reports to finish from last week, and Momoshiro asked me to look at some numbers for his current job. Shouldn't take more than a few hours though. Other than that, just catching up on everything that fell through the cracks during the last op. Probability electricity will be shut off if I don't pay bills today: 100%, and the fridge is simultaneously nearly empty and threatening to achieve sentience."
Kaidou shuddered. "Need any help?"
"I'm set. You're still new, so you don't know what sort of anomaly this is. Take advantage of the downtime while you can; it's a rare occurrence. Unless something comes up between now and Monday morning, we'll have nearly seventy-two hours off between assignments; the last time that happened was two years, one month, and twenty-five days ago."
"I'm just muscle. No one calls me in to consult on extra cases on top of ours. Call if you need anything."
"I will. See you Monday unless something comes up."
"See you. Don't forget to stretch; you don't normally do the second loop."
Inui smiles as his partner jogs back down the road. As partners go, Kaidou really isn't bad--a lot smarter than people seem to give him credit for, but seemingly content to let that fly under the radar, and as an added bonus, he knows how to keep his mouth shut, and doesn't feel the need to pry into other people's lives either. Today, that's especially welcome.
They must have been out for longer than Inui thought, because there's mail in his mailbox, and his mail delivery is nothing if not precise to the minute. He flips through the pile of magazines, bills, and advertising. Nothing looks out of place, but maybe that's to be expected. Does he really think Renji would take the same approach twice?
Then a single coupon falls loose from the pile. Clearly it had been tucked in at the back, not in the middle with the rest of the bulk advertising. It's for one of the coffee shops in town. He's been there several times before and thought their coffee was decent, but he knows he's in a minority. The last time he came back to his desk with a to-go cup, Eiji confiscated it out of concern for his stomach and replaced it with a fresh cup from the bakery next door. Inui hadn't noticed the taste to be honest, he only cared that it kept him awake.
He adds "Go to cafe" to his to-do list for the day, mentally rearranging tasks around it. He'll shower first and deal with the bills and the fridge. He doesn't know how long his detour will take, but hopefully he'll have time to stop at the grocery store on the way back. It's not a perfect schedule, but it's good enough.
It's mid-afternoon before he finally makes it back out the door. In retrospect, he really should have put the fridge before the shower. He's not entirely sure what the thing that had exploded in some sort of ooze had been, but whatever it was, it had necessitated most of a bottle of cleaner dumped into the fridge drawer and a second shower for himself. He's pretty sure he labeled the offending item when he put it in, but labels are useless when they're no longer visible. Maybe he should consider tracking chips for his groceries instead.
His chest aches as he walks to the cafe. It's probably just scar tissue sore from his morning run, but that doesn't stop him from rubbing at it any less. It hasn't ached like this in years. Maybe he should have taken Kaidou's instructions to stretch a bit more seriously (not that he hadn't stretched at all; he had, but only the bare minimum he calculated was necessary to avoid undue stiffness; he was in a hurry after all). He keeps his eyes out for any familiar faces as he walks down the street, but he doesn't recognize anyone other than the grandmother who lives at the end of the street and always tries to confiscate his smoothies and give him cookies instead. He has no smoothie today, but she offers him a cookie anyway.
He doesn't recognize anyone in the cafe either, not that he really expected Renji to show up anywhere this public. As he orders, he wonders what approach Renji will take this time. When the barista brings his coffee to the table, he half expects there to be a message whispered to him or a note passed along with his receipt like something out of a cliche spy movie. He'll never admit it, but he's almost a little disappointed when there isn't.
He drinks his coffee slowly, surveying the cafe for anything that could hold his next clue. Renji couldn't have known which table he would sit at, so he's looking for something in a public place, and something that will have meaning to him but no one else.
There's a message board near the door, and Inui uses the pretense of clearing away his empty cup to look at it more closely. The board doesn't see as much use as it used to, but there are still some yellowed newspaper clippings that were never taking down peeking out from under housing ads and tutoring flyers from college students and a few posters of missing pets. Nothing really catches his notice until he finds a scrap of paper pinned near the bottom of the board. The only things written on it are a set of geographical coordinates and a time and date--tomorrow at 1pm.
Inui commits the information to memory, then slips the paper into his pocket as he leaves. He's halfway home before he remembers he was supposed to stop at the store. Cursing, he turns around again, looking at maps while he walks. The location Renji has given him is in the middle of the nearby park, but not on any marked trail so far as he can tell. It's a good place if Renji wants to speak without being seen. It's also a good place to kill someone and hide a body part of his brain points out, but he shoves that aside. Renji wouldn't announce his presence if he wanted Inui dead.
Despite having his arms full of groceries, Inui stops in his favorite bakery on his way back from the store. Maybe another cup of coffee will help settle his nerves.
"Inui!!!" a familiar voice yells the minute he walks inside, and he barely manages to brace himself before someone nearly bowls him over with an enthusiastic hug.
"Hello, Eiji," he says.
"I baked a new batch of brownies this morning, you really should try one!"
"I'm sure they're excellent, but I think I'll just have a coffee today."
Eiji pushes the grocery bags aside and frowns at Inui's face. "What's wrong?" he asks.
"Then why so glum?"
"It's just...You know how it can get when there's no work."
Eiji shakes his head. "When there's no work, I get to spend more time here! You need a hobby if you can't even manage two full days without work to do. That can't be healthy."
Inui wants to point out that it's not the lack of work precisely that's the problem, it's the nature of the thing that's decided to appear during the downtime, but he holds his tongue. Let Eiji think his workaholic tendencies are to blame; the less suspicions he can raise, the better; it's bad enough that he already gave Kaidou something to question this morning. Plus, it's hard to stay worried for too long around Eiji; there's something almost contagious about his bubbly nature, or maybe it's his tendency to feed baked goods to everyone in sight.
"I made this recipe especially for you," Eiji continues, setting a plate down next to Inui's coffee. "You're always complaining about the lack of nutritional value in desserts, so I tried to make one even you couldn't take issue with. The brownies is made with black beans, there's some protein powder mixed into the frosting, and they taste like brownies should, unlike some of your vile concoctions."
Inui takes a bite since Eiji clearly isn't going to drop the subject, and he has to admit they aren't bad. He's a little offended that Eiji thinks so poorly of his perfect, nutritionally balanced smoothies, but he will concede that Eiji's baked goods do taste better.
Maybe it's the sugar, or the caffeine, or maybe just Eiji's presence, but Inui feels a lot better by the time he leaves the cafe. It hasn't solved any of the looming issues, but at least he feels back on balance for the first time since Renji's note appeared in his mailbox. He'll distract himself with spreadsheets and reports for the rest of the day, and maybe he'll actually manage to sleep tonight.
"Thanks for the brownie, Eiji," he says. "And for the coffee like usual."
"See you on Monday," Eiji replies, "and try not to ruin your stomach with too much terrible coffee before then."
"Probability I will actually be killed by my coffee: less than 1%"
You're up next, prillalar