Fourth Story – On Becoming Independent – Part 5
A few days after the interview, I handed the cup of freshly brewed coffee to Senpai and decided to pour out the dark, unsettling emotions I’ve been bottling up since the first time we talked with Shuto.
“Senpai, am I doing it wrong?”
“Hmm?” Senpai answered in his usual nonchalant tone.
“I—I think I might be pushing my own feelings onto Shuto. Thinking back, I might have just backed him into a corner. What I’m doing is just meaningless, isn’t it?”
Senpai scratched his head and sipped his coffee. “Do you think it’s meaningless?”
I didn’t expect him to return the question, but then I shook my head.
“No…” I was surprised that my voice came out a little weak and shaky. Something welled up inside me and I felt like crying.
But Senpai nodded and spoke. “No one is 100% confident in this job. If they were, they’re either mistaken or deluding themselves. Every agent experiences anxiety, doubt, sometimes even fear, when dealing with their clients. But if you let fear get the better of you, nothing will change. You get what I’m saying? That’s the reality of the profession you’re in. But—” At that moment, Senpai turned his gaze away from me.
“You’re doing fine. It’s not about being good or bad at it. You’re doing your best, and that’s what matters… As long as you do your best, then it’s all good. It’s—” Just as Senpai was about to say more, the front door burst open with a cheerful voice. “Howdy!”
“Sasamine. What do you want this time?” Interrupted by the uninvited guest, Senpai asked in annoyance.
“Come on, you don’t have to look so inconvenienced by my presence, my friend! Even though I had entrusted the case, I’m still worried about it and you, especially. No, wait! Don’t brush me off yet! As you know, even though I look like this, I can be extra serious when I want to. I was just…curious. I only came this time to see Yuma and hear about the progress report.”
“It should be the other way around.” Senpai frowned. Mr. Sasamine seemed like his archenemy. I could see that Sasamine could handle him quite well because Senpai looked utterly nonplussed.
Seeing Senpai’s expression, Mr. Sasamine laughed. “Oh, well, I suppose you’re right.” Then he winked lightly at me.
“Anyway, I’ve actually already heard the progress report over the phone, and I was really surprised to hear that Yuma was taking charge of resolving the case this time. Shindo, you actually left the case to your apprentice. And it was such a difficult one to boot! It was so interesting that I couldn’t just hear about it over the phone; I had to see it for myself. And so, here I am! Yuma, I’ve heard so much about how hard you’ve been working on this case. Shindo has been singing your praises. How can you handle a case that even I had given up? Tell me more!”
“Stop exaggerating. I only said she was doing well for an apprentice.” Senpai muttered with a sigh. He must be thinking about how sloppy I’ve been handing this.
“Fine, fine, so you say. Well, to be honest, I didn’t come just to talk to Yuma. Today’s the day, isn’t it? Aren’t you going there by yourself? You’ve had it tough every passing year and I figured you can’t leave Yuma here by her lonesome. Even a blockhead like you wouldn’t leave a lady alone by herself, would you? That’s why, I thought I’d come and keep her company.” He said as he spread both his arms wide.
“You are going there, aren’t you?”
Senpai glared spitefully at Mr. Sasamine. “Sasamine, you’re such an asshole—”
“Er, fine, I’ll stop talking about it. I know everyone has a past or two they don’t want to be known. I myself have about ten or twenty. It’s up to you to decide, Shindo, whether you want to talk about that thing or not. It’s none of my business. You know I don’t really like arguing, right?”
“But you’ve already mentioned it! After insinuating as much, you expect me to trust you?”
I’ve never seen Senpai look that angry before. What’s that thing that got him so riled up?
However, Mr. Sasamine didn’t seem the least bit bothered and flashed an innocent smile. “Of course!”
“Anyway, I’ll keep Yuma company for a while. You can go wherever you want. I’ll just hear about the progress report from Yuma herself while drinking tea. You don’t need to worry about anything.”
Senpai’s hands were shaking in anger (first time I’ve seen him like this). But eventually, he let out a loud sigh and drank the rest of his coffee all at once.
“Knowing you, you’re going to ask me to return the favor, aren’t you?”
“Sharp as ever, aren’t we? Well, I suppose our friendship has reached that level where we’ve got a near-telepathic understanding of each other. We’re almost like two peas in a pod.”
Senpai scratched his head. He usually did it out of habit but this time it looked like it was out of frustration.
“Just don’t say anything unnecessary, okay? If you mention anything, I’ll cut your eloquently frivolous tongue and mince it in the blender.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Well then, you better go on your way. I’m not sure who started it, but we’re getting kinda rude here. Anyway, you and I are buddies, and as you might expect, I’ll take my sweet time chatting with Yuma.”
“Whatever. Apprentice, I’ll be out for a while. I’ll probably return late. Don’t take anything this guy says seriously, okay? He was born with nothing else but a mouth. 90% of what he says is nonsense. Just ignore him.” Senpai warned, then opened the door and left.
I was momentarily stunned and lost for words watching that heated exchange between Senpai and Mr. Sasamine. But Mr. Sasamine didn’t seem to care about my dumbfounded state.
“Yuma, let’s have a good time today without Shindo. Can you make me some tea in the meantime? Earl Grey. Three cubes of sugar!” He raised three fingers up.
After Senpai left the office, contrary to my expectations, Mr. Sasamine actually listened intently to my rather poor account of the case’s progress. He would occasionally nod along, as though he could empathize, and sometimes he would encourage me and say things like, “When you want to persuade someone, sometimes you have to be a good listener instead of a good speaker.” He would overreact at times, but he would throw in a few phatic phrases here and there, showing that he had been paying attention and following along, which made me feel comfortable as I talked. His attentive and appreciative manner made me realize that he was indeed a professional even though his earlier impression proved otherwise.
After listening to me talk for a while, Mr. Sasamine smacked his knee with a thud.
“As it happens, it looks like Shindo has got it all under control. I gotta say, I’m impressed. Turns out he made you lead the case not just because he trusts you but also because you could relate to Shuto well, considering what you’ve been through. I think your strategy is great; it’s rather orthodox but you’re right on track. Shuto and I were just not on the same wavelength, so to speak. But this time, even though you guys may be a weird combination, it looks like we’ve got the right people in the right place, and everything’s proceeding smoothly.”
I felt touched. His words were hardly objective, but it made me happy to be validated by another person. After taking a sip of his Earl Grey tea with excess sugar, he gave an affirmative nod.
“I’m relieved. It looks like it was the right move to leave the case to you. The door to Shuto’s heart has already begun to open. It’s a different method from mine, but I see that it works well.”
“Thank you.” I gave him a smile just as he did.
The progress report was over, but Senpai hadn’t come back yet.
Something came to my mind. If it’s him, maybe he’d tell me about that thing? I knew it was intrusive to pry on Senpai’s privacy, but my curiosity got the better of me so I couldn’t help but ask.
“By the way, Mr. Sasamine.”
“What’s that thing you were talking about with Senpai?”
A look of surprise flashed across Mr. Sasamine’s face.
“You want to know? Well, as much as I’d love to tell you, I’m afraid of what Shindo might do so for now, I’ll hold my tongue and exercise my right to remain silent. Oh, isn’t that a tautology? But I guess that makes you even more curious. Frankly, my mouth is itching to tell you about it, but it’s like a fishbone got caught in my throat, preventing me from letting it all out. But I hope you’ll spare me the trouble and refrain from asking about it.”
A little disappointed, I said, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked and put you on the spot. After all, it was something Senpai didn’t want me to know about.”
“No, no, it’s not your fault. It’s good to be curious. I think it’s also good for girls to have that kind of modesty. Well, I can’t tell you that, but as your senior, I’ll tell you one thing.”
Mr. Sasamine took a deep breath and narrowed his eyes. For a moment, I think I saw a mysterious glint flash in his eyes.
“When I look at you, I’m reminded of the old Shindo. The brilliance in your eyes was just like his. The way you can relate with clients and humans. Shindo used to be like that. He’s an agent with impeccable skills and a high success rate in sending souls to heaven, yes, but he’s not perfect. Nobody’s perfect, right? Well, let’s just say, Shindo made an irreversible mistake in the past. After hearing about the case directly from you, I think you should stop getting too involved with humans. An agent just needs to focus on resolving the lingering regrets of the dead. You might disagree, but that’s what I think. Otherwise—”
His tone suddenly dropped an octave as he continued. “Otherwise, without realizing it, you might end up… killing people.”
I was thunderstruck.
If you care too deeply about clients, you’ll end up…killing people?
—Why? How? I don’t understand.
“That’s all I can say. For the rest, ask Shindo himself. It seems like the pumpkin carriage has come to pick up the uninvited guest. Hey Shindo, I was just about to leave. What did I tell Yuma? Nothing. But it looks like you returned early to prevent me from saying anything. What a shame. Anyway, I better get going. But before I go, let me remind the two of you, don’t let your inner demons defeat you. Well, then, I’m off!”
He tapped Senpai, who had just arrived, on the shoulder, then raised his hand at a right angle and waved goodbye as he bolted out of the office.
He was like a transient typhoon. He barged into someone else’s territory, wreaked havoc, then stormed off, leaving cryptic statements in his wake.
“Senpai, welcome back.”
Senpai and I looked at each other, and simultaneously heaved a huge sigh of relief.