Hideo comes striding in, his face a mask of anger and worry. His eyes lock on mine, and some of his expression dissolves into relief.
“You’re awake,” he says as he sits down on the side of my bed.
“You can’t,” I reply, pointing at the TV. My mind is still spinning. “Pulled? Really? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Would you have me keep you both in and risk everyone’s lives?” Hideo replies. “We didn’t know how long it would take for you to wake up. I had to make a decision.” His eyes are dark with fury, although it seems to be directed inward; his expression reminds me of how he looked as he spoke about his brother.
“What about not caving to intimidation?”
“That was before Zero threatened you and other players.”
“How will taking me out of the tournaments stop whatever Zero’s planning to do during the final game?”
“It won’t.” Hideo’s jaw tightens. “But I’d rather not see you involved in it. The whole reason for entering you in the games was for you to have better access to information, but I think you may have collected everything you possibly can from being an official team member.” He sighs. “It’s my fault. I should have taken you off the team a long time ago.”
The thought of abandoning my team and sabotaging their chances at a win . . . I close my eyes and lower my head. Breathe. “I heard Ren’s talking to the police.”
“He’s in custody, yes, and being interrogated.”
I start shaking my head. “You’re not going to get anything out of him that way. His arrest will only alert Zero that you’re on to him, and he’ll move his operations further underground. Hideo, come on. The next time I go to a game sponsored in the Dark World, I’ll have no—”
“You won’t be,” Hideo interrupts. His eyes search mine, dark and resolute. “I’m letting you off the job.”
I blink. “You’re firing me?”
“I’m still paying you the bounty,” he replies. Why does he sound so distant? His tension makes him cold, even hostile.
My head is spinning. But—every locked door has a key. I haven’t found the key yet—I can’t leave now. “It’s not about the bounty,” I say.
“You’ve earned it. The money is sitting in your account now.”
The ten million. I start shaking my head in disgust. “You have to stop doing that. Why do you always think you can just throw money at people and get them to do what you want?”
“Because it was the whole reason why you came here in the first place,” Hideo says, his tone clipped. “I’m giving you what you wanted.”
“What the hell do you know about what I wanted?” My voice rises. I can feel the burn of my cheeks. Flashes of my father appear in my thoughts—then, myself curled in a ball on my foster-home bed, struggling to find a reason to live. All of my Memory Worlds are now gone, deleted, taken by Zero. I can’t look back on my memories of my father if I wanted to. “You think I’m just here for the money? You think you can fix everything by writing a check?”
Hideo’s eyes seem to shutter. “Then we understand each other less than I thought.”
“Or maybe you’re not understanding me.” I narrow my eyes at him. “I saw Zero standing in our dorms before the bomb went off. Listen—he didn’t show up there to threaten me just on a whim, or just because he now knows who I am. We tracked down Ren and have proof that he’s connected to Zero’s mission. You even have him in custody now. That means Zero feels threatened. He thinks we’re closing in, and that’s why he’s lashing out. Planting a bomb means that he’s risking alerting the authorities in an attempt to keep me off his trail. We’ve backed him into a corner. All of the momentum is on our side.”
“And that means he’s at his most unpredictable,” Hideo finishes. “This is someone we still know nothing about, and I am not going to see another bomb go off just because I want you to catch him for us.”
“Just because you take me off the job doesn’t mean he won’t attack again.”
“I know. That’s why I’ve cancelled every dome event.”
“Every dome event? Around the world?”
“I will not have people physically gathering by the thousands in stadiums across the world, not if it poses a risk for them. They can enjoy the rest of the tournaments from the comfort of their homes.”
No, I can’t give up now. My old, familiar panic is rising up again, the terror of seeing the wall go up between the problem and the solution. Of standing helplessly by while danger circles someone I love. There’s something missing here, as if a new development had suddenly changed Hideo’s mind about everything. “You always knew this job involved some risks. Why are you pulling me out now? You’re too afraid of seeing me hurt?”
“I’m too afraid of involving you in something far bigger than yourself, that you didn’t even choose.”
“This is what I do,” I insist. “And I know what I’m doing.”
“I’m not questioning your talent,” Hideo responds, sounding annoyed now. He looks like he wants to say something more, but stops short and just shakes his head. “Right now, all I want to do is minimize any risks, to make sure no one will be harmed.” He looks at me. “You’ve already done your job, Emika. You gave us enough information to know when his operations will happen, and you tracked down someone involved with his plans. It’s enough for us to keep the audience safe. I’ve dismissed the other hunters, too. Let the police take it from here.”
“But you still haven’t caught Zero. That’s not called finishing my job. So if you have a better explanation than that, I’d like to hear it.”
“I’ve already given it to you.”
“No, you haven’t.”
“You want a better explanation?”
“Yes,” I reply, my voice rising. “I think I deserve one.”
Anger flashes hot in Hideo’s eyes now. “I’m telling you to leave, Emika.”
“I don’t take orders from an ex-boss,” I snap.
Hideo narrows his eyes. Suddenly, he leans forward, puts his hand on the back of my neck, and pulls me forward. He kisses me hard. My slew of words comes to a screeching stop. A knife cuts through my rising anger.
He pulls away, his breath short. I’m too startled to do anything except gasp for air. He leans his forehead against mine, then closes his eyes. “Leave.” His voice is raspy, desperate, angry. “Please.”
“What aren’t you telling me?” I murmur.
“I cannot, in good conscience, keep you on this job.” His voice turns quieter. “If you don’t believe any of my other reasons, at least believe this one.”
Before all this, I used to sit on my bed and flip through article after article about Hideo, wondering what it might be like to meet him someday, to become as successful as him, to work with him and talk with him and be like him. But now Hideo is before me, exposing some fragile, inner working of his heart, and I’m sitting here and staring back, flustered and confused.
Something is missing. Something he’s not telling me. Had Zero threatened him in some way, too? Had he threatened me in front of Hideo and prompted Hideo to pull me out of everything? I shake my head and hug my knees tighter. My mind spins.
He studies me for a moment. “You and your teammates will be moved somewhere safe. I’ll see you after the tournaments are over.” Then he stands up and leaves my bedside.
That night, I sleep poorly. The hospital bed doesn’t fold quite right, and no matter what I do, I can’t get comfortable on it. When I finally do drift off, old memories seep into my dreams, scenes from when I was eight years old, when my life was back in New York City.
I came home from school one day with my yearbook clutched in my arms. “Dad, it’s here!” I shouted as I shut the door behind me. The school had let my third-grade class decorate the book’s front cover that year, and I’d spent the entire past week painstakingly drawing in the elaborate swirls on the cover’s corners.
It took me a second to realize that our home was in complete disarray—strips of watercolor paper everywhere, cut-up clothes in small piles on the floor, paintbrushes and buckets strewn across the dining room table. In one corner of the room was a haphazard dress Dad was working on, pinned to a bust in a dozen places. I threw down my backpack at the front door and looked on as Dad bustled past me, holding a few pins between his lips.
“Dad?” I said. When he didn’t answer, I raised my voice. “Dad!”
“You’re late.” He flashed me a quick scowl as he settled back into his rhythm of work. “Help me get the snow peas out of the freezer to defrost.”
“Sorry—I was finishing up my homework in the library. But look!” I held up the yearbook with a grin. “They’re here.”
I’d thought for sure that his eyes would jump immediately to the swirls on the cover, that he’d break into his familiar smile and hurry over to have a closer look. Oh, Emi, he’d say. Look at your line work!