Saturday, October 7, 2017

Evil, Meet Justice Chapter Three

That evening, that night, even the next morning; they’re all blurs to her, but wonderful blurs. Fun ones. Good times of a particular nature that she can hardly even say she’s ever experienced before; no, if she thinks about it, she really hasn’t. She’s never before been in a room of people her own age that she’s on friendly terms with. Dawson had always been there. She’s experiencing... freedom. Freedom and friendship.

There was nothing about her job which said she couldn’t make friends, nothing which said her training was at all intended to inhibit her social growth in any way, nothing that stood against her having emotions as long as she refrained from expressing them in the line of duty. Nonetheless, these things were as alien to her as if she’d been strictly ordered against fraternization and feelings.

She couldn’t even claim the tragedy of her profession as a factor of her upbringing. This was entirely her own fault, if she got down to it. She could blame Dawson, of course, for her seclusion... However, his influence was as strong as ever now, she only decided for the first time to defy him. The only factor in her life that she could pin on the job was how mature she was for her age.

If you want justice, find something concrete.

As soon as she’s finished with her breakfast, always a splendid production when a friend lives at a restaurant titled Casa Del Pancake, she borrows a bit more money from Arturo with the promise to pay him back and makes her way out, arriving at the stop a good ten minutes before her bus is supposed to arrive. It’s a different bus than the one which leads into the city, so if she misses one it’s not so easy to get the next one. This is the bus to the shooting range, after all, and that’s quite a ways away from downtown Albuquerque.

People are in pain all over the world, constantly, at any and all times.

The bus pulls up, she steps on. Her sneakers sound strange on the stairs, so she looks down. The bus driver’s got mats for the bus stairs, welcome mats that have silly puns written on them. A playful introduction, as if this isn’t the bus thats only stops are suburbia and a shooting range. She chuckles a bit, not at the puns, but at the absurdity of it. Hands her money over to the driver, who gives her a wide grin and a thumbs-up. She smiles back, and waves as she turns to find her seat. This bus is always empty, more or less. She supposes that’s how the driver can be so friendly, and remember all of the passengers too.

You can’t help them. Find a serial killer. That’s justice.

She sits, and stares out the window, and remembers the first time she heard those words which she regurgitated to Arturo. How old was she? Four. She was four, and it was a week before her fifth birthday, when she went to orientation. When that woman... No, that girl, she couldn’t have been older than sixteen, explained what was going on. She said those words first in Japanese, then in English, then in Spanish. They sounded natural each time.

The room had no features. She can remember, though. She can remember that there were other people there, people she had never seen before and would never see again. Their faces are blurred now, but that’s unimportant. What matters is that she is not alone. She is not the only young person out there with a memory of a red-haired woman, raised from childhood just like she would be, explaining the future.

Tina Packard was chosen.

She has no idea why, but she can only assume it was the result of some poor decision on the part of a family member of hers, that she should be spirited away to orientation at such a tender young age. The only words she really recalls from that meeting are the ones she told Arturo. The ones that stuck with her, because they were in response to a question she asked. After being told that she had been selected to be trained as a young member of a group titled the ‘International Intrigue Agency’, she asked if that meant they were crusaders of justice.

She asked if it meant that she could save people from suffering.

That woman said she couldn’t. Not in the way she was thinking, anyway. To these people, everyday pain was trivial. If only one person was being hurt, then it was fine. Nothing to be concerned with. The IIA was intended to combat greater threats.

Some people are simply intended to go through Hell.

She sets her head against the window. It vibrates, and feels horrible, but something about the cool glass is comforting nonetheless. When that woman said those things to her, did she know? Could she have known, that Tina must have been one of those people who was fated to suffer? No, that’s impossible. The words she said were terrible, yes, but not cruel. She was not malicious, that woman. She was only doing her job. Only doing exactly what Tina did herself, just the day before.

Told somebody what she had been taught. An employee of the IIA would have been told exactly the same thing, after all. International Intrigue Agency, even the name conveyed that feeling. Justice was something larger. Justice was not retribution for people who hurt another person, it wasn’t giving an injured party a chance at relief. It was protecting the world. It was retribution for people who harmed multiple people. People in multiple countries... or, federal cases that needed to call in outside help.

And of course the IIA’s agents are considered the top force the world has to offer. Operating outside of any single country, regulations are unimportant. As long as they continue offering help to countries they take children from, there will be no backlash. Tina’s been told that she’s as competent now, at age twelve, as some FBI agents are. By the time she’s an adult, she’ll be a force to be reckoned with, by anyone. Anyone but her brother, that is.

She knows that it’s psychological.
She could stop him easily, if he tried anything...
Assuming that she could actually be stirred to action.

She knows that she’s stronger than him, and yet, she also knows that he has complete power over her. Perhaps that’s how more seasoned IIA agents feel about their higher-ups. A group of scientists, physically weak, but superior merely by virtue of asserting the fact that they are undeniably the ones in charge. She hasn’t spoken to anyone in the IIA but that woman at orientation and her shooting instructor, but she knows nonetheless what those scientists are capable of, even if she could beat each one of them in an arm-wrestling match in such youth as hers. It’s better to be complacent.

Only stand against people she’s told to. That’s something she’s been taught, in part, but what she’s learned on her own is that it translates to complacency. She feels robotic. She’ll do anything she’s ordered to by somebody in a superior position, even if it means defying, attacking, killing somebody else. The answer to her question back then... no IIA agent is a crusader of justice. That implies autonomy. They’re merely puppets, soldiers, manufactured beings.

And yet, in this complacency, she is complacent in that fact.

Nonetheless, she knows that she could stop. She could give up on this easily, they wouldn’t come after her. She could turn her back on the IIA at any time, but she won’t. Not because she’s been groomed into being obedient to them, but rather because of the person who did it. He always reminds her she could leave. He’s by far the least complacent agent they have, and thanks to him, she won’t leave.

He’s the one who makes her think that maybe, she can take matters into her own hands. She knows what those scientists can do, but she doesn’t fear them. She always clung to that, only as proof of her individuality, but with Arturo’s words, it means something more to her. It means that she can go against them. If she sees injustice in her life... who’s to stop her from standing against it? As long as she’s a valuable asset to the agency, they won’t touch her.

She’s pulled out of her thoughts when the bus grinds to a stop, and looks up, waiting only a second before she stands and gets off of it. This bus stays at its stops for quite a while, a good ten minutes, but she doesn’t want to risk it in case for some reason the driver decides today is the day to go fast.

As soon as she gets out of the sliding doors, the summer heat hits her, almost as strong as the sounds of the range. No need to wonder if those are fireworks; for once, it’s most certainly gunshots. She takes a deep breath of dry air before walking up the short path from the bus stop to the building. As soon as she gets in, there he is. Ssnad.

“Oi!” He turns around to greet her without even looking first. Probably just recognized her by the way she opened the door, “Tina Packard! How’s it going, anyway?” He asks, ruffling her hair, but before she can answer he speaks again, “Wait, no, let me guess,” He grins, cupping his chin in his free hand, “You look tired, but happier than usual. So if I had to say... I think that you’ve probably made some friends, and slept over last night? Great job, kiddo!”

“Yeah,” She nods, and doesn’t even question how he figured it out so well. Of course he did; in all the years she’s known him, he’s been like this. He’s only twenty-two, but looks a lot older, and has been training her for the past seven years. Even when he was fifteen, though, he looked about twice his age. He’s built large, and the entire right side of his face is covered in burn scars from an accident that apparently occurred when he was very young. Only the left side of his scalp can grow hair, so he just shaves all of it.

“Y’know what? How bout, to celebrate you making friends, we do something a little different today? All your training so far’s been with pistols, right? Well, that’s cause the knockback on a rifle’s bound to be a little much for a kid, but I think you’re probably strong enough to try it out by now...” He trails off, then crosses his arms, staring off into space. Tina frowns, then gets up on her toes and waves her hand in front of his face, “Oh, sorry. I was just thinking.”

“Thinking about what?” She leans herself to the side to stay within his vision field, on his left as he starts walking. She keeps up with him easily, since he naturally walks rather slowly.

“You, your training, all that sort of thing,” He shrugs, then slides his hands into the pockets of the navy-blue vest he always seems to wear. It used to be a bit oversized on him, but now fits just right, as if it was a gift from somebody who could predict what size he’d end up being when he was grown, “You know, I started teaching you when I was fifteen. My first missions started a year before that. My training partners... Sasane, she’s a year older than me, and they had her working as a translator just as soon as they made me a teacher. And Iwako...”

“What about her?” Tina asks, enthralled by what he’s saying. It’s so rare that he tells her anything about himself. Ever since she questioned his scars, he hasn’t told her much at all, although he did part with that information easily. Perhaps he only wanted to earn her trust, by dispensing with one of many secrets.

“Well, she was always brilliant. She’s a doctor, you know, but that’s not exactly the right thing to call her. She’s what people call an angel of death,” He chuckles a bit, under his breath, but seems somehow sad, “Do you know what that is, Tina? It’s a Doctor or Nurse who kills their patients. The IIA uses her ruthlessly. There are a lot of criminals taken alive who probably shouldn’t be, after all. Many of them injured in the process. Doctor Iwako Same, she ends them.”

“I see...” She notes, going over all she was just told in her mind, useful information that she wouldn’t want to forget, “So, I guess this agency has a lot of different ways to use people and their skills...”

“It does,” He nods, then sighs as he pulls one hand back out of his pocket to gesture for the range assistant to get a rifle, “Too many ways. I joined of my own volition, but most people don’t. Usually, the agency just decides that some child has the potential to be useful, and starts training them. They say you’re allowed to leave, but you know... it’s hard to turn your back on something you’ve known since childhood.”

“Yeah...” Tina nods as the assistant hands her the rifle, then repeats herself a bit louder when she realizes she could barely hear herself over the headphone-like sound mufflers, “Hey, I’ve got a question though. Why don’t I have training partners, like you apparently did?”

“Part of it’s because I volunteered instead of just being picked for it,” He explains, stepping closer to adjust her arms just a bit, for a better stance. His hands are guiding, like a teacher’s should be, and he doesn’t touch her any more or for any longer than necessary, “And part of it’s because there were so many kids being trained, at that point. Sasane was picked for her skill with languages, and Iwako was already working in hospitals by age six.”

“That’s sort of scary? Isn’t it dangerous, to teach somebody like that how to be one of the most physically competent people in the world?” She wonders out loud before firing off a shot. A near-miss, but at least she hits the target, and she doesn’t budge from where she’s standing. She’ll probably end up with a bruise by her collarbone, but otherwise it seems she’s strong enough to handle the gun.

“Maybe, but I really don’t know. The IIA will use criminals if they seem useful, after all, and Iwako definitely did. She’s completely stable, and very intelligent, if a bit... emotionally difficult,” He explains while giving her a thumbs-up for a good first shot, “She compulsively commits murders, see. All the IIA had to do to make her useful was point her in the direction of people they wanted dead.  Even if she wasn’t all that useful, the scientists wanted to add to their ranks, and study someone like her.  It’s not every day they could experiment on somebody whose family is considered a myth.”

“Right,” She nods as she readies another shot, “I almost forgot that the higher-ups are more concerned with the human condition than actually protecting the world. Too bad I’m just a routine kid, right? I bet they’d be happier they picked me if I had something fascinating about me...”

“Except that you are fascinating to them,” He notes, and in her shock she fires again. This time she does miss the target. Frowning, she puts the gun down and turns to him. She doesn’t even need to ask for him to know he has to explain better, “You were fascinating since orientation. Even before you were taught anything, you were compelled by the idea of justice. Everyone at HQ is waiting to see what you end up doing in your life, you know.”

“Well, that’s just plain wrong,” She crosses her arms and looks away, “Right there at orientation, my dreams about that sort of thing were crushed. They told me my idea of justice was wrong, and I believed them. There’s nothing out of the ordinary anymore about me.”

“You know,” He bites his lower lip, tapping his foot, “Why don’t we head out, right? It’d probably be better if we talked about this in private, kid.”

“Already? But, I hardly did any practice at all yet,” She frowns, disappointed, “I wanna know the answers, yeah, but I don’t want to sacrifice my training for it... Wouldn’t you get in trouble?”

“Nice to know that you care about my situation,” Ssnad chuckles, putting his hands into his pockets in a relaxed position, “But, Tina, I won’t get in trouble for anything. I’m kind of in a gray area. I can get in trouble for some things, but not the things everyone can get in trouble for, and the things I would get in trouble for are things I’d never do.”
"Let me see if I've got this straight," Tina pauses, trying to think her way through what Ssnad's told her in the past ten minutes, "They seriously don't even care what you do, because you joined up willingly when you were a kid?"
"Yes, that's basically what it boils down to," Ssnad  can't help but let out a hearty laugh as he puts a hand on her back and leads her away from the shooting range, "So unfortunately, you never got the chance to get same 'fire me, I dare you' attitude that I've got, but who knows.  Maybe if you're an especially good agent, you'll end up in a similar position yourself.  I can't honestly say I know what's going to happen, after all, it's your life.  I'm just honored to be a part of it."
"Thanks," She's genuinely grateful for the way that he's phrased that.  It's her life.  The fact that he uses the term honored is a bit strange to her, but it makes her feel good, a glowing sort of pride in herself which she just couldn't shake even if she wanted to.  The way that he talks to her is so different from the way her own parents do, when they do.  It's an uncommon occurrence in the first place, but even so, they never make her feel proud.  She receives praise from them for all that she does, but pride is something which seems devoid.  She's not proud to succeed at living without them, because she wishes things were different.  She isn't proud that she's keeping Dawson alive, because every single time she heats up a frozen dinner for him, he gets more and more obsessed with her.  She's proud to hear that her mentor believes she has free will, though.  It's a very odd thing to be so empowered by.
Ssnad leads her to a hotel, as it's the easiest place to get a room to talk in private.  They've done this plenty of times before, but it seems like there have been some recent hires, because Tina doesn't recognize the man at the desk.  She approaches, following two steps of distance worth behind Ssnad, as he was obviously going to be the one to buy the room.  Tina has never heard of a hotel which allows check-in when under eighteen, and this is one of the only ones, according to Ssnad, that allows check-in under 21, which was important for a few years of her training.  The fact that there's only a decade between them is still odd to her, because he always seems to wise and knowing, and... Fatherly, though she supposes she doesn't have any real gauge on what fatherly is.
"Heh, cute chick you've got here," The man at the desk chuckles when he sees the pair of them, comparing their starkly different features and already come to the conclusion that there was no way they were related, "Looks kind of young though.  Hey, girl, can I see some ID?"
"I don't have an ID, I'm twelve.  Thirteen next week," Tina answers, screwing up her face, "Why?"
"Yeah, I thought so," The guy at the desk turns to Ssnad again, "Buddy, whatever you're trying to do here, I won't be an accessory to-"
"Oi," Before anyone can even blink, Ssnad's got his handgun out, and he's pointing it straight at the employee.  While the employee is wide-eyed and scared, as are a few other guests, Tina's just smirking to herself, and a similar look adorns a few other employee's faces, with the rest of them just looking bored, "What sort of man are you to look at a twelve-year-old and think whoever's with her sees her as a sexual being?  The only people who should think about twelve-year-olds having sex are other twelve-year-olds.  Every weekend we come here in order to discuss important business where we can't be overheard, and plenty of people on your staff can and would attest to that fact."
"Jesus Christ, you could have said that without pulling a gun," The man at the desk puts his hands up, grimacing as he looks around, "And nobody even cares?"
"Not in the least," The woman working the other desk line answers, punching numbers into her screen.  She's very pale to be living and working in New Mexico, Tina notes.  Actually, upon closer inspection, it seems that she's albino, "You brought this on yourself.  Though it's kind of included in the job description by now.  If you get a gun pulled on you by Mister Ssnad more than once, then you'll probably be fired.  It's a sign that you haven't improved at all.  Mister Ssnad has been coming to this hotel for six years, four months, fifteen days.  His gun-using ways have become a staple."
"Thanks very much, Miss Shijian," Ssnad thanks the albino girl, who smiles at him and gives a short bow in response.
"No, thank you, Mister Ssnad," She tucks her long hair back behind her ear, then turns to help the next customers.  Tina and Ssnad make their way up to the room to talk.
"That girl at the front desk..." Tina starts as she sits down at the table in the hotel room, "You know each other?"
"You could tell, huh?" He chuckles, folding his hands in front of himself, "Actually, I'm the one who got her this job, as a favor to a friend of mine.  You've heard of Alice, correct?"
"Of course," Tina nods, "You told me before, Alice Chekhovich is the IIA's leading psychology researcher, right?"
"Yeah, and getting Miss Shijian this job was a favor to her," Ssnad explains, "Actually, I try my best to help Alice out whenever I can, because she's one of the good ones.  There's this project starting up, for example, trying to recreate the effects of a certain genetic structure.  Alice has advised against using Doctor Same's psychological experiences in that project.  She's always trying to help her friends, too.  When she was a child, she went through something quite drastic, and has a number of friends from that time who are working through mental illness and trauma.  Miss Shijian is one of those."
"I see," Tina nods, "That's very kind of her, and very kind of you to help her accomplish it, too."
"We're just trying our best to be good people.  You'll do that too, won't you, Tina?" Ssnad questions, looking away.  He won't make eye contact as he says this, and sounds sad.
"Of course I will," Tina stands back up, pressing her hands against the table, "I have to, after all... I made a promise with my friend, that we would both follow our dreams to help as many people as we can."
"That's not what I'm asking," He shakes his head, "I know that you'll help people.  I want to know that you'll try.  There are always going to be times when you fail, after all.  You can't beat yourself up over those failures.  Especially now... Justin has expressed concerns that we're going to have a lot more responsibilities soon.  That a group is growing in power and ambition, and could become our enemy.  There are going to be people... Many people who we can't save, we can't protect.  I don't want you to hold yourself to such a high standard that you end up in a bad situation, beating yourself up over things you can't control."
"I won't let that happen," Tina decides, "I won't-"
"You already have, Tina, so I can't honestly believe you when you say that."
"What... What do you mean?" Tina questions, furrowing her brow in concern.  As far as she can tell, she hasn't set any impossible standards on herself.
"You're already too hard on yourself.  When it comes to Dawson, anyhow.  You subject yourself to his abuse just because he'll 'hurt somebody else' if you don't.  You don't know that, and you don't have to do that.  You could move in with somebody else.  I'm traveling between here and Japan too often to trust myself with taking care of you, but I have plenty of connections who would be willing.  All you have to do is say the word, and you won't have to deal with him anymore.  I want to help you before it's too late.  You don't know if he'll become more bold," Ssnad sighs, "I don't want to just sit and watch as you subject yourself to suffering."
"I'll... Think about it," Tina gives him a tense nod, digging her fingernails into the palm of her hand, "I mean... It's a compelling offer.  And I don't know, actually, if there's anybody else right now that he could redirect to, so maybe I should take you up on that.  We're visiting our cousin in Washington for spring break, so I guess I'll have an answer for you after we get back."
"Oh, Washington?" Ssnad asks, raising his eyebrow, "Where in Washington?  I know some people up there.  I mean, that's where a bunch of Alice's friends are from."
"It's not Seattle or anything, it's an island town that used to be an industry hub during World War Two, but sort of became a ghost town when the factories shut down.  It's called Mesteri," Tina explains, "The only real interesting things there are Highway Zero and the 'Home for Wayward Youths'."
"...Wow, would you look at that.  Small world, huh?" Ssnad laughs a bit, holding a hand over his mouth in a sort of half-facepalm, hiding just how much amusement he was getting out of such a coincidence, "Alice made her friends in that Home for Wayward Youths.  It was a pretty awful place before she reformed it, you know."
"I heard," Tina blinks a few times before she starts laughing too, "I can't believe this!  We're in New Mexico, so how do we both have connections to that one town?"
"I guess it was just a matter of time.  I have connections all over, so eventually you'd have to have a connection to the same place as me," Ssnad notes, "Though it definitely is weird that it's Mesteri, Washington, and not a city with a higher population."
"Yeah," Tina nods, biting the inside of her cheek as she thinks through how odd it really is, "Well, I think it's kind of cool, actually.  Dawson and I might end up moving up there for high school, Mom says, so at least if I move it's to somewhere you already know...  Assuming I don't decide to stop living with Dawson, of course."
"Yeah," Ssnad nods, and he feels as if she has no intention to take him up on his offer to get her out of that awful situation.  It isn't that she doesn't want to escape it, but she really is worried that if she isn't there to absorb his issues, he'll find somebody else to push them on.  Maybe part of it, too, is that she feels like he's come to rely on her so much that he'd just end up dead if she was to leave now, and she didn't want that on her conscience.  Bad as he is, she doesn't think he deserved to die, and she certainly doesn't want to be responsible for it.
And Ssnad can tell.  He's dealt with enough people just like Tina, and he's going to continue dealing with more.  She has a complex, so it's impossible for her to disconnect from the situation and think rationally about it.  It would be easy for her to just stop being involved with Dawson at all, would be the easiest thing in the world with the options she's being given, but she won't.
She's worried about the well-being of others to a fault, and Ssnad needs to take his own advice that he's given her.  He can't save everyone that he wants to, and Tina is one of those people who just has to be left to her own devices. left to make her own decisions, even if they are bad decisions.  It's fine.
The conversation turns to practical discussion, just working through various new IIA related information which is pertinent to Tina, and talking about her continued training.  Nothing which is all that peculiar.  The psychological talk is done with, and it's just the usual fare from that point on.  Ssnad buys her some fast food after they leave, as she prefers it to that hotel's room service, then he drives her home rather than having her take the bus back.  The usual schedule; she has always only taken the bus to the firing range rather than back from it.
With today's training finished, Ssnad drops her off a few blocks away from her home.  He recommends that she find somewhere else to go if she can, but she knows that she has to face the demon eventually, and since she never came home yesterday, going out again today would just make it worse when she did go back, which she at least needs to do for the sake of the spring break trip to Mesteri.  She rarely gets to see her cousin, but they get along when they do meet.
She sighs and holds her arms in close to herself as she makes her way back to her house, steeling herself for whatever Dawson has to say about her overnight disappearance yesterday.  It'll be fine, she assures herself.  Things will work out.
They have to.

Next Chapter ->

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