Chapter 5:

Murmur in the Corridors

Bullet Loop


I gently returned the charm I took out of the safe before pocketing the other from tonight again. Another triplet of aggressive knocks rapped at my door as I scrambled to put the safe back in its spot.

After practically slamming the drawer back shut, I ran to the door, pistol up to my chest. Slowly, I opened the door just a crack…

“YIN!”

The door flung open, with the person on the other side pulling me in for a bear hug. If it wasn’t for their very recognizable face, I probably would’ve misfired into the air from shock.

“Hey, Jane…” I wheezed as she swayed me to and fro against her chest. They were definitely larger assets than mine. “Nice to see you…”

“Yin! It’s so good to see you well and-” Jane pulled back when she felt the hard metal of my handgun against her side. “... and armed.”

I managed to squeeze myself out of her insane grip. “A lot’s happened tonight.”

In all the time I’ve known her, Jane hasn’t changed much. Her long black hair flowed down the back of her dirtied lab coat. On her face, she still wore those large and round black-framed glasses of hers. Except today, I could see the tears she had been crying earlier still left visible trails down her cheeks.

“I saw! How could you be so reckless?! You know what the Captain has always said!”

I sighed. “The Captain’s part of that ‘a lot’.”

“Oh, no!” Jane closed the distance between us again. “Did he bully my poor girl again?!”

“Jane, wait-ACK!”

She pushed her face close to mine, nuzzling our cheeks together. She was the only person who would make my chest warmly swell up like this. The only person I would let me grab onto me.

She earned her Mom card.

As Jane still had me wrapped up, I heard the gentle spurring of wings fly right past my head. Between our faces, LB’s cylindrical form wedged herself out from below and fluttered up to meet both our gazes. Jane stopped hugging me, her face lighting up.

“Aww, LB! It’s good to see you!” Jane giggled as LB excitedly beeped and flew from side to side. “You’ve been taking good care of my girl, haven’t you?”

“Always have.” I smiled. “Since I was still sucking my thumb.”

She gave LB a little kiss on the top of her body. LB landed on one of her outstretched hands. Suddenly, Jane’s face slightly lost its initial luster of excitement as she watched LB flit her wings.

“Isn’t LB getting a little old, Yin?” Jane caressed one of LB’s sides. “You’ve had her for so long. Do you need me to upgrade her again?”

Again. I didn’t realize last time it meant LB would lose her memories. And I preferred to keep the last upgrade the last time.

“She’s fine, Jane. Even if she can’t fly anymore, you and her are the closest thing I have to a family.”

I watched as LB flew to my right shoulder— her beeping told me she was very happy with my answer. Jane’s concern however, was still clearly on her face.

“The Captain,” she spoke in a lower voice. “I’m guessing the meeting didn’t go well.”

My silence gave her my answer. Of course Jane would know— normally she’s wrapped up in her own world down in the lab. When she heard my name, she must have stopped what she was doing just to come all the way here to check up on me.

“He’s doing the best he can, Yin,” Jane continued. “Running an underground organization that constantly runs against the government's wishes… he needs every safe card he can get.”

With a sigh, I headed back into my room and Jane followed me. If we’re gonna have this talk, best to keep it private. I plopped myself back on my bed as Jane shut the door behind her.

“Yeah, I get it. But you know, for this whole ‘liberating the people’ angle we’re going for, it feels like we’re just attack dogs for shady people trying to kill each other. None of it feels… like it has a point.”

Jane moved over and sat on the edge. Our eyes met.

“When we started this organization, we tried so many crazy things to enact change. But all we did was get so many innocent people caught in the crossfire. The Captain… everything he does is for the sake of everyone this time.”

An unusual, sad glint reflected itself in her eye. We were thinking the same thing, weren’t we?

“It wasn’t any of your faults back then. I remember Mom being a very heartfelt person. And I still remember who took her away from us. Dressed in all black just like them. I’ll never forget the sight till the day I die.”

Jane leaned in and stroked my hair, just like she used to do when I was younger. And just like always, it eased my nerves.

“Your mother was one of the best people I knew. She would be proud of you, Yin.”

Her words were like mouthwash against the bitter taste Eric left in my mouth.

Eric.

“Thanks, Jane.” I moved my hand below my jacket and pulled the old phone from my pocket. “Hey, keep this between us, but… when I met Eric today, I took this from him. Maybe you might enjoy poking around it a little? Since we’re talking about the past?”

She yanked it from my hand like a kid feasting on a new toy.

“I haven’t seen one of these in years! We used to use these when we first started.” She rotated the phone around under the lights, marveling at it from every conceivable angle. “Super antique, but also making them almost untraceable. Perfect for someone who doesn’t want their secrets exposed.”

Jane got up, still completely absorbed with her new device. “Come to momma…”

She walked out of the room without saying another word. I sighed.

Always next time, I guess.

“Oh, hey Jonha!” Jane cheerily yelled from the hallway. “Yin’s free right now if you wanna go talk to her!”

Jane’s footsteps grew distant. I shot up from my bed, stomping towards the door. Sure enough, a shadow quietly lingered on the other side. As soon as I opened it, I whipped my pistol up and held it below Jonha’s chin.

“Whoa, Yin!” Jonha instantly raised his hands in defeat. “Put that thing away! It’s not funny!”

The muzzle of my gun still pressed against his short-trimmed beard. At 6 feet, he was much taller than I was. He was a toned guy from all his work in the field— a pain in the ass if I ever had to wrestle him. But if it was a race, he’d have an asthma attack before the first lap if he ever tried to beat me.

“I think it’s a very appropriate response.” I finally lowered and holstered my weapon. “What do you want?”

“Look, I’m sorry, alright?” Johna slid his hands back down his sides. “I didn’t mean to spy on you, but it sorta just… happened.”

“Pretty sure that’s not the only thing you should be sorry about.”

“Oh, come on Yin! I was only doing a mission debriefing! We’re a team so why would I be out to get you? I don’t like seeing that face of yours get all twisted up when you’re upset...”

Johna cupped his hand on my face. The second his finger brushed my hair, I twisted his hand at an awkward angle.

He fell to the floor. “Ow, ow, ow!”

Good enough— he needed to realize that unlike the Captain or Jane, he did not have any cards with me.

“We’re partners in work, Jonha.” I released my vice grip on his arm. “Only work.”

On the floor, Johna’s breathing told me he was beginning to get over the pain. But the way he was curled also told me my words did a lot more than just physical damage.

“I… I was only having a little fun Yin! Trying to lighten the mood! No need to be so forceful like that… although I do like myself a strong woman.”

Ugh.

I rolled my eyes. Something told me even with a bone sticking out of his body, he’d still try his hand at flirting.

I placed one hand on my hip, tilting my head slightly. “Well, if you have enough strength to flirt and make jokes, I guess you’re fine.”

“I am a very persistent man, Yin!”

“Yes, I got that message. I just choose to ignore it. I have no interest right now.”

Johna’s eyes widened. “‘Right now’?”

“Goodnight, Jonha.”

Johna scrambled to his feet as I went back inside my room and began to close the door.

“Yin, wait-!”

THUD!

Just like that, my day had finally come to an end. I laid on the bed and slowly drifted off.

***

THWOMP! THWOMP! CRACK!

Like clockwork, I was back at the gym the next day, hands careening into the sandbag. Each blow echoed throughout the empty training studio, sending plumes of dust to the floor mat at my feet. I gritted my teeth, clenching my fists hard enough to make my palms almost bleed against my nails.

Missing a day is not an option, but then again, the choice was stark. The walls of this compound and everything within them were my home and world. The handful of ancient manga and books I’ve managed to scavenge here and there was enough to vaguely know what the outside world held, but I’ve never been interested in it myself. For me, it felt too artificial—a life that wasn’t mine. It was the lives of others that counted.

Just like my mother’s did.

“Punch that thing any harder, and you’ll make the ceiling cave in.” I caught Johna slinking into the room, from the shadows and under the dim light. “I can hear you from the floor above.”

Great.

I made sure to put some extra force into a few kicks, just to let him know how welcomed he was at the moment.

“What do you want, Johna? I’m pretty busy at the moment.”

By the time I finished my sentence Johna was already up close and personal. He never missed an opportunity.

“Just thinking I could be your sparring partner. You know, like the good ol’ days.” He began feeling my upper arm muscles. “These aren’t going to grow by themselves. Could show you a trick or two-”

I punched him in the arm, hard. He let go pretty quick.

“I told you last night, Jonha.”

“And I told you I’m persistent, Yin.”

I’ll give him that much I guess.

“You’re right, Jonha. When it comes to persistence, you’re second to none.” I went to the nearby bench, grabbed my bag, and threw my towel over my shoulder. “And your prize is the gym, all to yourself. See ya.”

I waved with my exit, leaving him gobsmacked in the middle of the studio. Not a peep out of him— I quickly walked out to make sure it stayed that way. In the corridor, I heard footsteps rushing towards me. The second I recognized they were coming from Jane, I braced myself for another tackle-hug, only for none to come. She had stopped dead in her tracks right in front of me, heaving like she’d just ran a marathon.

“You alright, Jane?”

Hands still on her knees, she looks up at me and grabs my wrist.

“I need you in my lab. NOW!”

Before I could even ask, she whisked me down the hallway.

***

Even after we reached Jane’s lab, all she told me was to sit on the couch at the back. It was difficult finding a seat though, with all the wrinkled documents sitting between and on the cushions. It was a similar room to the Captain’s, save for the lack of an office space. A whiteboard hung against each wall off to the side, with post-its stacked on top of each other. By the couch were a pair of wooden bookcases, both stuffed to the brim with old science textbooks, cryptic engineering manuals, and some less-than safe for work titles.

Jane’s pride and joy however, was her floor to ceiling computer space. She always ran surveillance for us when we went on high priority missions. It was probably one of the few things that gave me peace of mind on ops.

Yet, in the far corner were reinforced steel vault doors. Living here, I learned pretty quick there were some secrets that were pointless to ask about. Whatever was behind those doors was one of them.

One day, I’ll get inside that vault…

“Uhh… Yin! Close that door!” Jane pointed past me while scrambling through the messy pile around her computer. “This is important!”

“Jane, slow down.” I said, closing the door and hearing the large bolts lock themselves into place. “What’s going on?”

“That phone you got, it wouldn’t stop ringing and ringing. I didn’t dare answer, but then…” Jane came up close, holding the phone’s dim screen up to my face. “Read this!”

I had to squint my eyes to read the text, gradually making out the two words:

[PICK UP]

I snatched the phone out of Jane’s hands, reading it over and over.

“Yin.” Jane’s uncharacteristically stern voice came from my side. “What happened with Eric last night?”

The old Nokia phone buzzed, denying her an answer. I lifted the phone to my ear.

“Finally, you pick up! Did you need a charger, or what?”

“What do you want?”

“With a tone like that after ignoring me for the past day, you’re lucky I didn’t just hang up on you on the spot. I need you for a job.”

“A job.” I made my lack of amusement clear in my voice. “You do realize those typically come with payment, right? What could you possibly offer-?”

“Information.”

I stared at the far wall, feeling Jane’s anxiety get worse with each silent second. I finally turned my attention back on the call.

“Up front.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I deliver. On the rooftop of new scramble buildings overlooking Shibuya. Come alone.”

The line clicked dead. Jane’s frustrated face was the first thing I saw when I looked up.

“It’s a trap, Yin.”

I placed the phone back on her workbench and pulled my mask out.

“I know.”

Xan Ti
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