Uhh, yeah. All I can say is, sorry for the delay, and hope I get the next chapter out sooner. Enjoy.
Cloudy to Rainy
Color Pages and Prologues
Bloody to Fair
Color Pages and Connecting Chapter
Epilogues & Remnants
Several Days Ago
Night Over Chicago
A Warehouse Row Near Lake Michigan
The moon rose bright and beautiful on the night of the deal.
The Russo Family had fallen on hard times, surrounded and pressured on all sides by powerful mafia organizations. Their last desperate attempt at clawing their way out of the hole they'd found themselves in involved selling drugs to an Asian based crime family based in a different area.
And the biggest of their sales was scheduled to take place that very night...
"Ah... Isn't this flower beautiful..."
Soft moonlight illuminated the warehouse row.
There were small patches of dirt amidst the concrete that served as the floor around the row, and in one such patch there had blossomed a single flower.
The sole sign of nature in a sea of slate grey.
A young man squatted in front of the tiny flower, talking quietly to himself.
"What a lovely color. What a lovely shape. Just the fact of its existence, of life not only triumphing in the face of such adversity but even mustering the strength to shoot forth a blossom... Simply breathtaking."
His features, softened by the light of the moon, formed a delicate harmony with the flower before him.
But if there was just one thing that seemed out of place in this peaceful scene...
"Hey, hey... I thought we told ya to beat it, asshole."
"This joker break outta the crazy bin or somethin'?"
...It might the group of dangerous looking men encircling the youth and his flower. There were about a dozen of them, all glaring murderously at the foreign element in their midst.
But the young man seemed unaware of the dire straits he was in, still gazing wistfully at the flower.
"Oi! Ya hear me?!"
One of the men stalked up to the flower gazer and grabbed him by the frills on the back of his collar.
He wore strangely antiquated clothes that made him look like a medieval nobleman. Perhaps the only redeeming quality about his archaic getup was the fact that his outfit was colored in dark tones of black and crimson, fitting perfectly with the muted colors of the night.
He didn't resist as the mobster forced him upright, instead looking back at his assailant with a smile as soft as before.
"Don't you think it's inspiring? It managed to grow just fine despite the strong wind blowing in from the lake."
He paid the gobsmacked man no heed and continued.
"Is there nothing I can do for this incredible little flower?"
"...You'll make great fertilizer for it once I'm done with ya, kid," the mobster growled, grabbing the young man by the shoulders in preparation to deliver a dizzying headbutt, followed by a crushing knee to the stomach.
"That's right!" the young man suddenly cried.
The shout came from nowhere, making the man hesitate for just an instant before attacking.
But that hesitation became a full stop as the younger man continued, and his hands suddenly grew slack with shock.
"I think all of you will have to die for this flower's sake."
The man suddenly realized that something was wrong about the smiling face of his adversary.
Every single tooth in the young man's mouth was a razor sharp fang, bringing to mind the jagged grin of a vampire.
Then their eyes met.
The sclera of the young man's eyes were stained deep crimson, and his irises were colored shocking white. In the middle of each bizarrely colored eye was a black pupil, so solid and deep it seemed as though it would devour all its gaze fell upon.
He looked like something from an old wives' tale, or something sprung straight from the horror stories that children would whisper to one another around the safety of a campfire.
"You look just like a vam-"
It was an innocuous sound.
The silver blade sunk deep into the man's throat like a hot knife through butter.
He opened and closed his mouth silently several times, but the keen point severed his spinal cord in an instant, and scant moments later everything went black.
"Hey! What's wrong?"
The men standing behind the dead mobster were slow in realizing what had befallen their comrade.
To them, it looked like he was still standing with his hands on the stranger's collar. They merely thought it strange, perhaps a little worrying that their friend had frozen so suddenly.
As though replying to their confusion in the dead man's stead, the young man began to speak in a friendly voice.
"What's wrong, you ask? Well..."
His knife still stuck deep in the dead man's throat, he glanced quickly over the faces of the assembled mobsters.
"...Ah, you all are so very beautifully worthless, pathetic beings."
Only then did the mafia realize that something was wrong.
Dark thoughts began to fill their heads regarding the fate of their frozen comrade, each one more fearsome than the last, and their features tensed with apprehension as they inched closer.
"That's right! You know, while we're talking, I might as well inform you that the people you were expecting to deal with tonight couldn't make it!"
The men paused, caught flatfooted by the sudden declaration. They'd thought him someone completely unrelated to their business, but now he mentioned their purpose here out of the blue.
Heedless of the way he'd trodden on the unspoken barriers erected by the mafia, the young man kept talking, the gentle smile still fixed on his face.
"You have been abandoned! Forsaken! Your partners have not only refused to accompany you in your journey to the next world, but indeed, they won't even deign to leave flowers on your graves! Why, the thought of how absurd you are would even move me to pity... But alas. Before the beauty of this flower, you are all... equally worthless!"
He finished his short speech with a jerk of the hand that held his weapon.
Sharp, impossibly dry cracks rang in the air.
The sound of gunshots split the night sky, and simultaneously the dead mobster's neck exploded, spewing forth a barrage of bullets.
The closest mobsters suddenly came into possession of bright red holes in their chests and faces, and slumped bonelessly to the ground like masterless puppets.
The remaining men, about ten in number, stabbed their hands into their coats, caught flatfooted at the sudden appearance of death in their midst.
But the young man didn't move an inch from where he stood, using the dead man's corpse as a shield as he continued to pull the trigger of the blade that he held in his hand.
Bark after bark echoed out over the lake, but each and every single one came from the young man's weapon.
His bullets found their mark in those men who were closest to drawing their guns, and when about half their number had fallen, he drew his knife from his human shield's neck. A small fountain of blood spurted sluggishly from the gaping wound.
The mobsters' eyes were drawn to the weapon flashing in the moonlight even as their hands darted to their pistols.
...A gun... and a knife?
Well, it was shaped like a gun; there was no mistaking that.
What surprised the mafiosos so much was the fact that the barrel was much longer than the norm for a gun that size.
Then the moonlight shone on the shadowy thing they'd thought a barrel, revealing a wicked edge.
"A pistol... sword?" one of the mobsters muttered incredulously. He quickly shook off his surprise, drawing his own gun and pointing it at the young man.
Incredibly, the mysterious young man chose to lower his weapon instead of firing, letting his strange gun hang limply at his side. Clearly, his fate was sealed, as the gangster's finger tightened on the trigger.
But something lurking in the shadows would not allow that to happen.
A sharp clang reverberated through the night, a split second after the gunshot.
There was a silhouette standing in front of the youth, one that hadn't been there a moment ago. The metallic impact had come from the figure's arms, which it held crossed in front of its face. A brief cascade of blue-white sparks flew from them as the deflected bullet rocketed away into the darkness.
The mobsters froze for an instant, digesting the sight before their eyes.
"What the hell..."
"Who the hell're you, asshole?! Where'd you come from?!"
"Don't... test me," the shadow growled, scowling at the man he'd just protected. "This isn't the time for games... Christopher."
Christopher shook his head slowly, as though saddened by the anger he was receiving.
"Oh, come now, Chi. You know I'm always serious. And I wasn't testing you just now! I trusted you--there's a difference. Why, you might even say I loved you! Oh, let me make it clear, though. I don't have a thing for men, just so you know. Wouldn't want you to get disappointed."
The man named Chi wordlessly shook his head, stalking toward the remaining mafia. They snapped back to reality, firing wildly at the advancing figure, but the bullets merely pinged off into the darkness, blue sparks on cold metal.
Chi hunched low, his gauntlets forming a circle in front of him as he ran forward. He ducked so close to the ground his chest almost skimmed the floor, allowing his arms to shield his entire body.
The mobster closest to Chi couldn't even finish his last thought.
The circle made by Chi's arms suddenly expanded into a sphere, just brushing by the gangster. Then Chi's limbs flashed and the sphere grew to encompass the his target's entire body in an instant.
What had until then seemed like nothing more than steel gauntlets abruptly split open near Chi's wrists, four wickedly curved blades springing into place over his fingers. The gloves transformed into a pair of claws and passed through his target's head.
Four red lines welled up over his neck and face.
More than deep enough to be fatal.
Chi didn't even have to look; the feeling told him all he needed to know as he bolted forward, past the already dead man. The shadow didn't slow down as it slid through the ranks of the mafia like a bolt of dark lightning.
Half the remaining men fell over, slain.
"What the fuck's goin' on?!"
Those lucky men who had been outside the range of Chi's claws turned quickly, pointing their guns at the retreating shadow's back.
But just as their fingers tightened on the triggers, they heard someone speak behind them.
"Hmm... You all are so very weak, aren't you?"
The dulcet voice sounded like it belonged to a woman, the beguiling tones completely out of place in the night with the scent of blood and gunpowder thick in the air.
For a moment, the men hesitated, deliberating on whether to look behind them or just shoot. Some of them instinctively pulled their triggers, but their shots went wide of even Chi's upraised arms.
The woman's voice behind them chuckled at the sight.
"The Russo Family, was it? I seem to recall hearing that several of your number were killed by some of the local children last year... or was it the year before that? Hah..."
The derision in her voice was gratingly obvious, but even then the men found bewilderment, not anger, at the forefront of their minds.
What the hell are these people?
"How pathetic. I thought the Russo Family was supposed to be one of Chicago's most influential organizations. But if you consider that a few dozen children managed to bring down a handful of you... and now, a few dozen of you are getting handily taken care of by a handful of us... Well, then. I'd say that's quite humiliating. Wouldn't you agree?"
It was clear by now that the woman was in league with the pair of monsters set against them.
That meant she was an enemy.
In that case, the course of action was simple. All they had to do was whip around and fill her with hot lead.
But what if she had a gun?
The time for careful deliberation had come and gone. One of the men turned, his finger already tightening on the trigger.
If the woman was armed, he'd shoot her right between the eyes. If she wasn't, he'd take her hostage.
It was a good plan, and simple too. He whipped around, confident that he'd succeed.
The rest of the survivors, perhaps following his lead, also pivoted to look back...
...and their minds went blank.
There was nothing there.
They'd heard something there--they knew it, but only the rusty red of the warehouse wall greeted their eyes.
Their confusion gradually shifted to fear, and they looked wildly about for the owner of the mysterious voice.
Cold, sharp steel flew from the darkness. Lodged in their skulls, the blades quickly grew warm from their coating of blood, but the mobsters were no longer in any condition to notice.
"The hell's goin' on back there?!" one man yelled over his shoulder; he had kept his eyes fixed on Chi as he approached but nonetheless he realized that something was going wrong behind him. He chanced a look back and saw his allies slumped on the ground, black rings protruding from their heads.
The rings were sunk deep into the bone, actually disappearing into the men's skulls, making it clear even from a casual glance that they were already dead.
Then, a voice.
"I'm sorry," a woman's voice said, clear and quiet, from a shadowed corner of the warehouse. It rang in a way that made it seem like she was talking directly into their minds.
"We weren't planning on killing any of you, but Chris has his moods. You understand, don't you? I'm so very sorry."
The chaotic whirlwind of emotions that ran through each man's mind finally came to rest on one shared feeling: terror. But just as they opened their mouths to give voice to that primitive instinct...
"Shut it. I hate loud people."
...Chi passed among them like a breath of wind, and the screams died in their slashed throats with soft sighs.
Just one among them, bleeding heavily from a wound elsewhere, not from a cut throat, found the strength to curse his killers with his dying breath.
"Dammit... If only... if only Ladd were here... Y-you fuckers'd be so... sorry..."
"I don't know who this Ladd is, but he's not here."
Chi sunk one of his blades deep into the fading man's neck, his face expressionless.
"And that's all that matters."
Less than a minute had passed since the fight began, but already the warehouse air was thick with the stench of blood.
The scene of carnage was enough to drive any normal human being mad, but Chi's face as he stood in the center of the massacre was utterly flat and impassive. His steel claws had already folded back into the shape of gauntlets, the blades lying flat against his arms to shield them.
The mysterious woman was still nowhere to be seen, and only the sound of the wind blowing in off the lake filled the silence around them.
"Ah, yes, flowers are beautiful, aren't they?"
The young man, Christopher, had bowed out of the action at some point in the frenzy and was now lost in his own little world, completely absorbed by the single flower blooming in the street.
"Oh... Oh god..."
A man stood behind him.
He had been among those who had stood surrounding Christopher just moments before, but he stood unharmed, having somehow avoided both Chi's claws and the curious bladed rings. What was more, he hadn't even attempted to draw his gun, or even shown the slightest sign of hostility toward the killers.
Well, he hadn't up till just that moment, to be exact.
Anger clouded his expression as he opened his mouth, readying a tirade against Christopher.
"...What the hell just happened."
"As you can see, a flower has blossomed here. Quite pretty, if you ask me."
"Don't fuck with me! I hired ya to make a commotion and kill this guy and only this guy, not fuckin' everybody!" the man cried, giving one of the corpses lying on the floor a hefty kick. It was the first one Christopher had murdered.
"But... But you did! You fucking did! Now everything's so fucked up I don't even know!"
Christopher turned to face the raving man, a childlike smile gracing his features.
"But you were doomed from the beginning, weren't you? Don't blame this all on us."
Chi spoke from behind the man, taking up Christopher's lead.
"Look, undercover agent. You did well to infiltrate the Russo Family, but our sources say that you've been doped to the gills on the drugs they deal for the past few months. You went in as a hunter, but now you're nothing but trash."
The woman's voice came from the darkness, cutting off the "mobster" before he could defend himself.
"Look at you, darling. You knew that if the Russo Family went belly up, headquarters would learn of your little... hobby. You'd be a criminal yourself. You knew that when you hired us, didn't you? You wanted us to take care of the only man who knew you were an addict, the man who sold you his wares. You wanted us to make it look as though he'd been killed in a disagreement with another organization."
The man tensed, unable to hide his surprise as all the information he'd thought safely hidden flew at him from his hired help.
"...Well, congratulations for findin' that out. But then why the hell'd you do this?! Think how bad it'll look if I'm the only fuckin' one left alive in this whole fuckin-"
"Please don't shout."
Christopher's face loomed suddenly in the man's field of vision.
His smile revealed two rows of sharp fangs that gleamed dully in the light.
"The flower might wilt, you know," he said in an exaggerated whisper, lazily lifting a single finger to his lips.
"If you're in the mood to shout, then why not turn it into a song? A song about flowers! A song about nature! We don't need lyrics for a song that celebrates the world, do we? Anything will do. Now, follow my lead... La... lalala!"
Christopher's clear tones rose into the air, a song with no words escaping his lips.
"Tralala la la la..." A smile broke across Chi's face for the first time as he sang along with the rhythmical voice.
Now the woman's voice joined in from the shadows, surrounding the undercover agent in a gentle ensemble of music.
Naturally, he wasn't in the state of mind to just relax and listen.
"Answer me, dammit! Why'd you do it?!" he shouted, veins standing out on his neck. The leader of the impromptu choir only sighed and shook his head.
"I already answered your question," Christopher said, his voice patient and even, like an adult explaining something to a child. "I did it because this flower was beautiful. That's all."
The undercover detective ran it through his head a couple of times, unable to understand.
"Tha... that doesn't make any sense! Who the hell kills people 'cause they think a fuckin' flower is pretty?!"
"Well, why not? It's all a matter of perspective."
"Like hell it is! It's common fuckin' sense!"
The detective was panting for breath, shaking with emotion, and Christopher's grin grew wider and wider, his head shaking back and forth, as though his own emotions were rising up in unison with the other man's.
"Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong. That is where you're wrong, friend."
Christopher paused his incessant movement and poked the detective on the nose, like a man reprimanding his misbehaving dog.
"Common sense says that killing people is wrong period, for whatever reason. Since, as you can see, quite a few people have been killed, common sense obviously had no place in what happened here. That's what's important."
"That's stupid! What does the damn flower being pretty have to do with killing people?!"
"You wouldn't get it even if I explained. It's got to do with my own subjective views, you see. I just wanted to see a flower blooming amid a bunch of corpses. Life in the midst of death, if you will. Understand?"
"No, I don't, and I don't care, either! You people're supposed to be fucking hired killers! You think you can pull shit like this and still find work?! Huh?!" the detective cried, clearly at his wit's end. Despite the fact that he'd been the one to hire them, he quailed before Christopher like a mouse faced with a hungry cat.
The mouse bared its teeth; backed into a corner, it had no choice but to go down fighting. But Christopher merely smiled, paying the threat no mind. His childlike grin and the razor teeth inside it formed a chilling dissonance that only made him more terrifying.
"I'm sure our reputation is safe. Why, you ask? Well..."
The bladed revolver came to rest against the undercover detective's throat.
"If there's nobody who knows about this job left alive except for us, no one will be the wiser. Right?"
"I love pistol swords, because I can stab someone with the bladed part and then finish them off with a bullet. It's two times the fun. Sort of like a rifle with a bayonet, except I suppose this is a bit small to be called a bayonet, or a rifle, for that matter," Christopher murmured, willfully ignoring the weapon's original purpose. Gently, his finger rose to stroke the trigger.
The detective could sense that there was no hesitation in his movements, and the terror in him rose to an unbearable crescendo. His mouth opened in a scream, but no sound came out.
Christopher moved his gaze to look up at the moon.
"Such a beautiful moon tonight... Mmm, that's right. How could I ever be concerned about things like our contract or our reputation or justice or evil or the people I've killed in the presence of such a sublime moon, of such a perfect flower? Doesn't everything just fade to insignificance in the face of that?"
He grinned brightly, and drew the gun away.
"I was just joking. Surprised? Frightened? Chase that fright away with a song! Come on now, give voice to the relief you feel at still being alive! Tralala, lalalala! Let it flow out of you!"
The detective stood with his mouth still open, struck wordless with terror. Christopher sighed and prompted him again.
"Here, follow me. Lululu, lalala... Come on, sing. I'm getting lonely," he said, the expression on his face open and friendly... but to the detective, that was more frightening than anything else.
"Falala la la... La, la...?"
The smile stayed on Christopher's face as his finger once more crept toward the trigger.
The man's mind, already weakened by weeks of drug abuse, began to shut down under the looming threat of impending death.
The blade mounted on the gun's barrel pressed against his throat, dimpling the skin, just about to draw blood...
Christopher stopped, cocking his head toward the woman's voice.
"I've got a message from the Twins... From Sham and Hilton."
Christopher lowered the gun and turned around.
The only thought that passed through the client's mind was no longer that of complaint toward his unruly hired hands, but pure instinctive relief.
...I'm really alive?
"Oh, that's right. I did lie to you, actually."
"I said that your partners wouldn't be coming, but that was a lie."
"The hell happened here?" a low, flat voice said from behind the undercover detective.
He whipped around and saw, instead of Chi, roughly a dozen Asian men standing in a loose half-circle around him.
"You the one that did this? Answer the question."
The men had chosen to stand where the blood still leaking from the numerous corpses would not stain their shoes. The quiet air of deadly calm that surrounded them battered the detective's mind like a fierce wind.
"N-no... This... it ain't what you..."
He looked behind him, but no one was there.
Not Christopher, nor Chi. Not even the unseen feeling of being watched by the mysterious woman called Liza. Everything was gone, like morning fog evaporating in the sunlight.
Understanding dawned in the detective's drug-addled mind. A different emotion replaced the fear that had gripped his heart just a moment before.
They wouldn't believe him if he explained what had happened.
No, even if they did believe him--about the killers, and that they'd decided to leave him alive--he'd have to explain why they'd chosen to do so. He'd have to tell them that he'd been the one to hire them.
It would be no different from forfeiting his life.
He had to explain it in a way that made it seem as though he'd survived by chance. There was no way he could let them know about the hired killers.
In other words, Christopher hadn't risked his reputation at all. He'd secured its safety just as surely as if he'd killed the detective outright.
He couldn't do anything. He was trapped.
Faced with the despair that was reality, the undercover detective fell to his knees in the sea of blood, mumbling numbly to himself.
"Amazing! Fantastic! Magnificent! A single flower, blooming at the feet of a man falling deep into despair... There's no doubt, this will be one for the ages! A grand epic, a story loved by all!" Christopher cried, peering into his telescope as his boat made its way across Lake Michigan. Beside him, Chi looked into his own telescope and said nothing.
"But one thing does worry me. Will that flower make it through the ages, too?"
"The author of the story would be too dead to care," Chi muttered, but despite the cold rebuttal Christopher grinned widely, baring his fangs in a delighted smile.
"That sounds just fine. They call that impermanence in Buddhism, don't they?"
"...Not that I care, but you do realize that if we keep on doing this, we are going to have to worry about our reputation."
"Ahahahaha. What does it matter? It's just a lark we do on the side, anyway. We only need care about the opinion of one person. That's our real job, isn't it?"
Chi sighed and shook his head. "We've managed to make a name for ourselves in the business over the years. We're not as infamous as Vino or Walken, but try to keep it in mind that we do have a certain presence among hired killers, okay?"
"That kind of fame means nothing to me. What worth is there in such voices, though they be raised in adoration? Oh, that was quite marvelous, what I said just now, wasn't it? Write it down for future generations, will you?"
"Don't push it."
"Regardless! If we're to become the 'biggest names' in the business, we've got to take care of Vino, right? Working our way up through the ranks would be ever so boring."
Christopher stared at the shore for a moment, as the movement of the boat caused the man and flower to be covered in shadow. Uncharacteristically serious for a second, he said, "So what's the word from Sham and Hilton?"
"Don't ask me," Chi replied, but a voice made itself heard from somewhere on the boat, as though it'd been waiting for his dry retort.
"I'll answer that question, since it's related to your 'real' job."
Christopher and Chi looked where the sound had come from, but only a dark expanse of lake water greeted their eyes.
"Liza? Huh? Wait, we're on a boat and you didn't... Where are you?!"
"Hmph. You startled me."
The two men glanced at each other, nonplussed, but Liza's "voice" paid them no heed and continued to talk.
"About what Huey had to say. He wants you to take the train tomorrow to New York and help Tim out."
"Wow," Christopher said, affecting surprise, then grinned widely. "My word! How long has it been! I daresay it's been years--no, decades--since we got called for a real job!"
"It's been three months."
Christopher tacitly ignored Chi and bared his teeth to the world, his eyes sparkling with glee.
"And Adelle! I haven't seen her in ages! She's got to be frustrated, you know, working under Tim and all. That fellow insists on no casualties, can you believe it? Poor, poor girl."
He shook his head in a mockery of sorrow and arched his body back, tilting his head to face the moon full on as it shone down on the lake.
"Well, the time for sadness is past! The moon is smiling down on us, so it's obviously smooth sailing from here on! That's right, my friends. Everywhere we go, we're followed by the sun's blessing... and the blood rain..."
A Few Days Later
Penn Station, New York
"Sun's blessing my ass. And any blood rain that did fall would get washed away in no time," Chi muttered derisively, his bandaged arms crossed over his chest as he stood at the entrance, glaring out at the stormy streets of New York.
"Mother Nature is so very fickle. That's what I love about her," Christopher said with a sheepish smile, brandishing his umbrella with one hand. "Let's sing of rain. Something optimistic, something that would cheer me up even if I was soaked to the bone. Chi, be a dear and think up some good lyrics, will you?"
The fierce rain blasted past the umbrella and began to drench the both of them.
They had arrived, amidst a downpour so fierce it felt like it would slash everything in two.
They had arrived, fully intent on staining the rain a hot and sticky shade of scarlet...
The Same Time
An Abandoned Building Near Grand Central Terminal
"Doesn't look like it's going to let up," Tick murmured quietly, listening to the dull roar of falling rain outside as it intensified.
"...Yeah," Maria replied, huddled in one corner of the dusty, dirty room. The usual levity in her voice was nowhere to be found, leaving her sounding dull and grim.
One clash of blades had sent her plummeting into the abyss.
The blade of a katana, slashing through anything and everything.
That was all she'd ever believed in. No, it was all she was. Her belief in her sword was her raison d'être.
To believe in the keen blade of her katana, to believe that her sword was the best of them all, and to prove that faith with her own two hands and the keen blades they wielded... That was Maria Barcelito's life.
But a crack now ran down the length of that belief.
The spearwoman's words came back to life in Maria's mind, as clear as when she'd heard them for the first time.
"But belief is just, umm... something that you cling to in order to console yourself."
"And as proof of that... You're beginning to doubt, aren't you?"
Again and again she denied it, but the ghost in her head refused to leave, the spear her enemy held screaming toward her neck...
"...You believe that a sword... can't defeat a spear."
The phantom blade plunged deep into the soft flesh of her throat.
Maria had been sitting with knees drawn up to her chest, her arms loosely wrapped around her legs, but suddenly her hands flew to her head as she let out a tortured scream.
For once, the smile vanished from Tick's face as he rushed to her side. The torture specialist looked worriedly into her face as she trembled violently, clutching her head.
"What's wrong, Maria? Are you hurt?"
Maria seemed to get a hold of herself, glancing fearfully at Tick out of the corner of her eye like a frightened puppy. She took a shuddering breath, trying to gather her wits about herself.
"Ah... Ah. Sorry about that, amigo."
"Are you really okay?" Tick pressed, childlike in his insistence.
Maria forced a smile and said, "Of course I am, amigo! Just had a little nightmare..."
"You didn't lose."
Maria's eyes widened at the sudden proclamation, but Tick stayed calm, speaking as though he'd seen the phantom haunting Maria's mind.
"I've been thinking about it ever since we ran, and I think you didn't lose at all, Maria..."
"...Ahaha, there's no need to console me."
"Mmm... But think about it. Mr. Ronnie butted in and messed up the fight. That means there's no winner or loser..."
Maria thought back to the fight, pondering Tick's words.
The name meant nothing to her, but at the same time she knew exactly who Tick was talking about. It had to be the mysterious man who'd butted in just before her fight with Adelle came to its grisly end, taking away both their weapons in an instant.
How had he managed it, when both of them had been so alert, their reflexes dancing on the razor's edge? It did bother her... but not much. Maria had other things on her mind.
"Mmm... No, Tick. I already lost... It wasn't about strength. I doubted my Murasamia, even if it was just for a moment. I lost..."
Maria cut him off before he could say anything. "I'm telling you, I lost! I lost! You don't understand anything about how I feel, Tick!" she shouted, her voice trembling with stress and insecurity. It occurred to her that only the fighters themselves had the right to decide a battle's outcome, and Tick's words came across as supremely thoughtless.
Her pent-up emotions exploded outward in frustration, the downcast girl from a moment before disappearing like a dream. "What do you know, anyway?! You didn't even fight, what do you know about winning or losing? You've never won a fight at all! All you do is cut apart people who can't even resist! You spend your whole life hiding! What could you possibly know about me, Tick?!"
Tick didn't answer.
"All you ever do is smile! How could you, could you, understand..."
Maria stopped, her breath coming in short gasps, regret washing over her. She was a loser, she was pathetic, she was the lowest of the low. And then she'd gone and lashed out with all her sadness and rage at the one person who was trying to help her.
All he'd done once they took shelter in the abandoned building was try to bolster her flagging spirits. In fact, part of the anxiety she felt came from her disappointment at herself, at not being able to rise to his expectations.
Then she'd turned around and unleashed those negative emotions on none other than Tick himself.
She knew she had to apologize. But still she hesitated, unsure of what to say.
Tick took advantage of that moment to speak, the trite tone in his calm voice like that of a boy who'd broken a friend's toy.
"I probably can't understand how you feel because I'm dumb."
...No, that's not it.
Maria tried to deny it, but the casual acceptance in Tick's words had shaken her greatly, giving her no chance to disagree.
"I told you before, didn't I? I can't really understand what you call belief, Maria, because I can't see it with my own eyes. That's why I can't believe in it. If I was a bit smarter, I know I'd be able to understand you. I wouldn't have made you so sad..."
She was at a loss for words.
"...I'm sorry. I can't understand what you feel when you say you've lost, Maria."
Every time he apologized, Maria's heart clenched with guilt. It felt like every word revealed another damning piece of evidence proving her weakness.
But she couldn't stop him. She felt like she didn't even have the right to stop him. A failure like her had no choice but to listen to Tick and carve every word into her heart.
His next words, however, went completely against everything else he'd been saying.
"That's why... you have to win."
"I'm sure I'll be happy if you win next time."
Maria could only wait for Tick to continue, at an utter loss as to what he meant.
"I'm going to try really hard to understand what it's like when you lose, Maria... But you know I'm dumb, so it'll probably take a really really long time."
"But even a dummy like me will have no trouble understanding how you feel when you win. I'm sure of it," he said, the promise coming out like a flippant comment. "I know it because you always smile when you win a fight, Maria, and I know when people smile. That's got to be the same for everyone. So next time, when you win, I'll know for sure how you feel. And besides, you were protecting me earlier, so you can't call that a real fight. Right?"
Tick snapped his scissors shut and smiled a sunny smile, offsetting the chilling words that came from his mouth.
"Because you're not a bodyguard, Maria. You're an assassin."
The Banks of the Hudson River
A Construction Site
The metallic smell of rust filled the abandoned factory.
The place was huge--it looked to have been made for manufacturing heavy machinery of some sort--the interior filled with hopelessly rusted machinery and pipes that would never be filled with steam again. Naked bulbs hung listlessly from the ceiling, providing the bare minimum of light needed to illuminate the building.
"Now what do we do?" a small voice asked, muffled by the dusty interior. The voice's owner was a young man with a tattoo covering half his face, a watery frown twisting his face. He stood surrounded by at least a score of young men and women.
They were a gang that had sprung into existence in New York, a loose gathering of young hoodlums without any name in particular, composed entirely of people who'd come together through shared interests.
The tattooed young man standing in their center sniffled and said, "We're really stuck between a rock and a hard place now... What should we do, Nice?"
"Mmm... Well, I'm guessing that there's probably nobody left at the Genoard Mansion anymore..."
Jacuzzi Splot heaved a massive sigh.
"How did things end up like this?" he muttered to himself, thinking back on the events of that afternoon.
It had been a day like any other.
A perfectly normal, peaceful day, until the moment that their first guests came calling.
But the moment Isaac and Miria had stepped through the doorway, their faces admittedly a sight for sore eyes, the storm front that was abnormality began to roll toward his motley gang.
A peculiar group had come to see them, just a little after Isaac and Miria arrived. They asked only one thing of Jacuzzi's gang--"Wouldn't you like to become immortal?"--and then killed a man before Jacuzzi's eyes.
After Jacuzzi fainted, Chane had suddenly decided to attack the group who called themselves the Larvae, and immediately after, a woman wielding a pair of katana and a man with a thing for scissors had joined the fray--probably the Gandors' people, from what Jacuzzi gathered.
Not satisfied with that, the powers that be had seen fit to add a Martillo Family capo to the chaos, turning the luxurious manor into a scene of hectic bedlam.
To Jacuzzi's gang, both the Martillos and the Gandors were to be avoided at all costs, for they had been doing business on both organizations' turf for the past two years. To be honest, it couldn't really be called business--that made it sound like more than it was, and thankfully both Families seemed to agree, seeing as how neither had seen fit to contact them since they'd settled in New York two years ago. That had led most of Jacuzzi's friends to believe that they were safely beneath the notice of the criminal organizations.
They were wrong.
Jacuzzi's greatest fears had become reality. He and his friends didn't know what kind of negotiations a mafia might take up with a gang of street punks--they hadn't even thought that far ahead--but they instinctively knew that whatever the case, they'd be putting their lives on the line.
"Well, we can't run away forever. That'd just make them madder... I just hope we can settle this peacefully," Jacuzzi said dully, summing up the situation.
"Don't you worry, Jacuzzi!" one of his friends said, drawing his attention.
Jacuzzi turned to look at him quizzically.
"Even if it does come down to a fight, we ain't gonna be on the losing side!"
"What're you talking about, Nick?" Jacuzzi asked nervously.
Nick only snorted and said, "Vino's coming."
A murmur rippled through the assembly. Those two simple words were more than enough to cause a commotion.
"...You called Mr. Felix?"
"'Course we did. Jack's gone to call him right now."
The hooligans looked at each other awkwardly, the face of the man who Jacuzzi had called Felix becoming clear in their minds. There was clear relief in their expressions, granted, but also a sort of uneasiness that clouded their faces.
Their gazes came to rest on one of their number. They came to rest on the pretty young woman wearing a black dress that matched her black hair... Chane Laforet. Her eyes had widened briefly at the mention of Vino, but she soon schooled her features back into a neutral expression and simply stood there silently.
A closer look, however, revealed that the light in her eyes was decidedly softer than normal.
"Must be nice havin' your fiancé coming to save you, hmm?" Nice said with a teasing grin.
Chane looked away, but everyone saw the soft blush that colored her alabaster skin.
The man who currently went by Felix Walken had once been known as Claire Stanfield, though only Chane, his fiancée, was allowed to call him by that name anymore. He'd come to them about a year ago, almost single-handedly taking care of the events that had taken place around Chane at the time.
He was a rather infamous figure in the criminal underworld, called "Vino" by some and "Walken the Cleaner" by others, but to Jacuzzi's gang he was a rather amicable fellow who'd introduced himself to them out of nowhere some time ago, calling himself Chane's fiancee. Chane hadn't quite agreed with this assessment at the time, but things had happened, and lately it seemed like she'd more or less come to accept it.
"I don't know... I think things might just get more complicated if he gets involved..." Jacuzzi muttered anxiously, not bothering to hide his emotions.
The others, too, knew about Walken's quirks, and they nodded cautiously along with their leader.
"But you've gotta admit, we don't stand a chance against that Ronnie guy by ourselves..."
"Bu, but still..."
Jacuzzi shook his head, unable to let go of his worries, but just then one of the guys who'd been standing watch outside came running into the factory.
"Hey! Everyone! That... that guy from back in the mansion! He's here! Alone!"
His warning cry immediately enveloped the factory in a tempest of tense silence.
The weepy pout on Jacuzzi's face disappeared, replaced by a determined frown as he took stock of the situation.
"Which guy? Where's he come from?"
The other young man paused for a moment, sorting things through in his head, then replied with the first thing that came to mind. "Mmm... Yeah, that's right! You remember that guy who came with those weirdoes and got a spear in the neck, then a little after that died a bunch more times to that chick with the swords?"
Dallas Genoard found himself dominated.
His conqueror was a single emotion, one that boiled up from deep within him.
The intent to kill.
A pure, dead black that charred his heart, a terrible thing made up of rage and greed and hate and fear.
The rain soaked him to the bone, but even the fierce torrent of water from the skies could do nothing to cool the searing heat bubbling inside him.
To be honest, there were actually quite a few people he wanted to kill, in quite a few ways, but none of that mattered to him anymore.
Each and every grudge in him had melted into one huge and terrible tidal wave of animosity, one that would be released indiscriminately against the first poor soul unlucky enough to cross his path.
But he needed one thing to unleash that pent up rage, something he lacked... He knew better than anyone what that thing was.
Power. I need power.
Just enough to kill someone. That's all I need.
...Why don't I have the power to kill the bastards I hate? It doesn't make sense, not being able to kill assholes who need killing.
He walked through the rain without an umbrella, wrapped up in his own selfish thoughts.
It wasn't that he lacked the nerve to kill someone. If one were to say that the resolve required to kill another human being in cold blood was nerve, then certainly, Dallas Genoard had nerve in spades.
The only problem was that every single person he wished to kill was out of his league. All Dallas had on his side was the power of incomplete immortality, one beyond the reach of normal humans.
But most of the people he thought of as enemies were complete immortals, and even those who weren't were far above Dallas's capability to take on.
Maybe that stupid couple...
Dallas turned the matter over in his head, unaware that Isaac and Miria, too, were immortal, but soon shoved it aside.
Those shits don't matter... I need to kill Tim and all his fucking Larvae... Right, fucking, now!
His teeth audibly grinding, Dallas looked up to see the construction project on the Hudson's banks laid out before him.
The river, where he'd spent years dead and drowned. He could almost see the watery bottom in his mind's eye, a place that consisted solely of pain.
The only reason he'd come back to such a terrible spot was because he'd remembered something.
He'd had companions when he was dropped into the river. He couldn't even remember their names anymore, but he knew for certain that there had been two of them, incomplete immortals just like him.
He couldn't recall the exact circumstances surrounding his dredging, but nevertheless he'd made his way back to the banks in hopes of finding some sort of hint.
He called them companions in his head, but the word carried no connotations of camaraderie whatsoever. All he felt when thinking about them was a vague sense of expectation, for he knew that they were as immortal as he was, and so they might prove to be undying, reusable tools.
But in the end, all that greeted his eyes was an empty construction site; there wasn't a sign of the tools he'd hoped to acquire, or any hints on where to find them.
"Dammit... All that walking for nothing..."
He glared at the slowly roiling Hudson through the hard rain.
Just a few days ago, it had been his world, a watery prison. He had been forced to drown over and over again, time stretching on until it felt like forever... Dallas had even welcomed the short periods of unconsciousness that came between deaths.
After all, if he'd been conscious for all that time, his mind wracked with unending pain, he might very well have gone insane. The thought twisted his face in disgust, and he spat into the stormy surface.
He was done here. He turned to leave, then froze in his tracks.
A small gang of young people surrounded him in a loose half-circle, old and tattered umbrellas shielding them from the pouring rain. The roaring downpour had masked the sound of their footsteps, preventing Dallas from sensing their approach at all.
"The fuck do you want?" Dallas said, clearly not intimidated despite being vastly outnumbered. The only thing that had changed in him since his many meetings with death was that fear had become a very distant, almost foreign concept to him.
"You got something to say to me? No? Then fuck off. On second thought, even if you do have something to say, fuck off. I'll kill ya."
Dallas' aggressive manner actually made the gang's leader shrink back a little. Jacuzzi fidgeted nervously as he spoke, his voice nearly drowned out by the sound of the falling rain.
"Err... Are you one of the Larvae people...?"
Dallas stared at the tattooed youth, finally remembering where he'd seen him before.
These are the brats Tim said he'd use as bait...
They were the gang of hoodlums who'd been inhabiting the Genoard Mansion on Millionaire Row.
Come to think of it, what were these clowns doing in my mansion, anyway? Tim didn't explain any of that shit to me, that bastard... Bah, whatever. Probably some kinda deal that Dad or Jeff worked out.
Dallas knew that his father and elder brother had had a hand in illegal drug manufacturing. After all, the whole reason he'd left the house was from resentment at being excluded from the business on grounds of being too young. He still didn't know that the Runorata Family had carried out hits on them, so he automatically assumed that Jacuzzi's gang was dealing with his family.
Determined to find out for certain, he made the first move.
"Gimme an umbrella if you want to live, kid."
"Ack... S-s-sorry, I didn't mean to offend you. Here, please don't hurt anyone," Jacuzzi stammered immediately, reflexively handing over his umbrella.
"Jacuzzi!" Nice and the others barked, but Jacuzzi tipped them a small wink, making soothing motions with his hands. A few of them glared resentfully at Dallas, but he ignored them, swaggering up to Jacuzzi.
"What's the matter? Didn't you wanna know who I am? C'mon, hurry up and take me to your hideout already, punk."
"...What? Oh, of course! Right away!"
Dallas stared pensively at the soaked young man and thought back to what Tim had said earlier in the day.
"Though I suppose it'd be more accurate to call them bait."
"I like the sound of that word."
Dallas paid Jacuzzi no mind, chuckling grimly to himself despite the puzzled youth's inquiry. He'd already thought of how to use them in his plans.
If I can make them do what I want... I might be able to kill those Larvae assholes.
He'd found a way to make his murderous intentions a reality. In his mind, Jacuzzi and his gang had already fallen under the classification of "companions."
"Well, looks like we're gonna be seeing a lot of each other from now on..."
The word "companion," in Dallas' mind, was synonymous with "tool."
He drew himself up pompously to greet his new friends.
"...So let's try and get along, eh?"
He looked up as though remembering something, thrusting the hand that held the stolen umbrella toward Jacuzzi.
"Hey, you're getting wet. Come here."
"Ah... uh, okay."
"No need to thank me. Just remember, you owe me one now... No, two... No, three, come to think about it, since I'm gonna be helping you out a lot from now on."
Jacuzzi, though no longer getting any wetter, blanched, unable to get a handle on what sort of person Dallas was. The only thing he knew for certain was that the man sharing an umbrella with him was likely not a man at all, but instead an immortal monster.
Still, monster or not, his curiosity niggled at him, and he opened his mouth to ask, "Umm... We owe you for the... umbrella... and the... advice? And what's the third one?"
"Huh? Slow one, aren't you?"
Jacuzzi frowned, still puzzled, but Dallas paid him no heed as he continued calmly, still wrapped up in his own thoughts.
"You all were living in my mansion, remember?"
Dallas ignored Jacuzzi and his growing number of questions, turning to face the stiff wind coming in off the river bank and walking resolutely forward.
Inside, he chortled in childlike glee, exulting in having found tools to use in the execution of his murderous will.
The rain fell even more furiously... and the sky remained murky and dark.
The Empire State Building
Once, the plot of land had been occupied by the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, one of New York's finest establishments. When the grand hotel finally moved to a different site, the Empire State Building took its place there.
In contrast to the flamboyant Art Deco style of the exterior, the inside of the building had been simply designed, filled with drab offices.
Completed in 1931, the building was rather famous both for being the tallest building in the world at the time of its construction, and the dodgy measures that had been taken to secure that covetous title--for example, the great spire, ostensibly meant to be a mooring mast for dirigibles, that had been added to the blueprints in a bid to surpass the Chrysler Building, which was also being constructed at the time.
Once inside, a visitor would see dozens of elevators, doors to a fortress of offices stretching up and up.
In an office about halfway up the building, there stood a couple who even at a glance were obviously not there on business matters, chattering excitedly to one another as they looked out the windows.
"Incredible! Look, Miria! The people look as small as ants down there!"
"It looks like you could step on them if you wanted!"
The two of them kept talking, looking down at the milling mass of pedestrians walking outside under their umbrellas.
"But wait, Miria! Be careful! You know what they say: make an ant angry, and it'll turn you into a grasshopper and starve you all winter long!"
"Eeek! Save me, Isaac!"
Their conversation, too, was anything but businesslike.
"I had trouble even telling what that was originally supposed to be from," someone sighed from behind them. It was a man wearing a business suit, his sharp eyes closed for the moment in amused exasperation. His manner of dress and the way he carried himself were a marked contrast to the couple at the window, who wouldn't have looked altogether out of place at a dress party.
Standing behind him, a woman dressed in a black business suit and matching pants--Ennis--stared at him quizzically. Making sure that Ronnie had finished speaking, she took advantage of the opportunity to ask him, "Excuse me, Mr. Ronnie, but... Where are we?"
She looked around at their surroundings as she spoke, taking in the men who were working frantically around her. Some of them moved goods back and forth across the large room, while others ceaselessly opened boxes and wrapped their contents.
"This place deals in things like jewelry, watches, small works of art... it's an import agent that deals specifically in small goods."
"No, that's not what I meant..."
"I'm just the director here; the capo societa(1) is the owner. Well, that's what the books say, I suppose. I hardly ever bother coming here," Ronnie explained. Ennis cocked her head to one side, still confused.
"What that means is that we still have to take care about hiding our business. I didn't bring you here to boast, though... I just thought it'd be a decent place to take shelter from the rain."
Ennis allowed herself a sigh of relief as Ronnie casually shrugged.
Just thirty minutes ago, in the mansion on Millionaire Row, he'd been like a completely different person. The sheer force of presence he'd exuded had made her feel like just touching him would destroy her, the light in his eyes so terrible that it took all of her courage just to muster the thought of defying his will.
But the being capable of such terrifying feats had transformed back into the slightly old-fashioned, affable camorrista she knew, the only hint of his true nature being his unusually sharp gaze--and even that looked out of place compared to the rest of him now.
I wonder what he is...
In the space of less than a day, countless questions had come to fill Ennis's mind.
She'd left the Alveare in search of Isaac and Miria, looking to bring them back after their impromptu squabble with Firo. Accompanying her had been Ronnie, ostensibly helping her while he went to take care of some Family business.
How had he found Isaac and Miria so easily?
What had been the cause of the commotion at the mansion he'd led her to?
How had Ronnie stepped in so easily, taking away weapons that had been aimed to deliver killing blows mid-strike?
How did she know me?
There had been a woman using a spear at the mansion, who had opened a small wound on Isaac's cheek. Angered, Ennis had stepped in and grabbed the woman's arm. But then, hearing Isaac and Miria call her, the woman had merely looked at Ennis and repeated the name to herself quietly.
"Ennis? Umm, excuse me, are you Szilard Quates'...?"
To Ennis, the name stood for both the being that had given her life and the most terrible thing she could imagine. But there couldn't be more than a handful of people in New York--no, in the entire world--who knew of her connection to the ancient alchemist.
The thought bothered her as she reflected on the mysterious gang she'd encountered back at the mansion. In comparison to them, the young hoodlums who she'd surmised to be the mansion's owners--though they certainly didn't look the part--had had an entirely different demeanor. The fact that one of the first group's number was capable of wielding such a spear indoors already made it clear that they were far from normal.
Ennis could remember every detail of the spearwoman's face, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't come up with any clues on who she might be.
If the next word to come from her mouth had been "secretary," then Ennis would have been able to rest easy, knowing that the woman was merely a part of the organization that Szilard had created in the past.
But if the word had been "homunculus." If.
That would mean that she knew exactly what the relation was between Ennis and Szilard Quates.
What bothered her more than anything was that the spearwoman had reacted not to Ennis's face, but to the name "Ennis." In other words, that meant that the woman didn't know her face. But she did know the name.
If I meet her again... I'll ask her then.
Ennis's meeting with the spearwoman's group had been through pure chance; they had no actual relation to her current mission. Of course it bothered her, there was no denying that, but she decided that worrying about it more would do no good, and put it out of her mind.
She turned her gaze to the two people she'd originally left to find.
"That's right, Ronnie! Did you remember to leave that letter like we told you?"
"I hope you didn't just eat it without even checking to see what it was!"
Isaac and Miria had also witnessed the chaos in the mansion, but their expressions showed none of the confusion and bewilderment that Ennis felt.
"Mmm... Yes, I took care to leave your... ransom note... on the counter where it'd be sure to be seen," Ronnie replied, smirking.
"Really, now! Thank you so much! We made a solemn oath to ourselves, you see."
"We swore we wouldn't go back until Firo apologized to us!"
Ennis stared oddly at the three of them as they continued their baffling conversation. She'd been standing, uncertain, in the midst of the choking smoke when Isaac and Miria had suddenly grabbed her hands and led her outside. One thing had led to another, and they'd ended up coming to where they were now on Ronnie's suggestion.
The odd couple had said only one thing to her since then.
"We're really sorry about this, Ennis, but could you let us steal you for just a little while?"
"We're really really sorry! We'll apologize more later!"
She had no idea of what had happened, exactly, but somehow she'd ended up stolen--or rather, kidnapped.
"Mwa ha ha, if only we could see the look on Firo's face right now."
"He's got to be at his weakest! He's lost the things he treasures most!"
The two of them gave rare sinister grins, prompting Ennis to finally ask, "Excuse me? The things that Firo treasures most...?"
The kidnappers did a little jig in a circle at her question, the electric lights reflected against the raindrops dotting the window making it look as though they were dancing wreathed in a veil of silver.
"Why, you, Ennis. And Ronnie, of course."
"His faithful beloved and his venerable old master!"
Ronnie smirked again at their declaration, while Ennis's eyes widened in surprise as she stared at them.
"Master, hmm? I think that old Yaguruma probably has a better claim on that title than I do."
"Beloved...?" Ennis said slowly, blinking slowly as she turned the term over in her head. For a moment she was unable to understand what they meant, but at length she said, "I'm afraid you must be mistaken. I only live with Firo..."
"Hahaha. Oh, Ennis. You're a bit slow on the uptake in regards to love, aren't you?"
"That must mean that Firo's love is tragically unrequited!"
Isaac and Miria took a moment to stop and giggle, while Ennis's eyes remained almost comically wide, her head cocked to one side uncomprehendingly.
"It must be terrible, being called slow by those two... Well, no matter." Ronnie shook his head in amusement and walked into the office to oversee the goings on.
Ennis considered their words for another moment, turning her consciousness inwards.
"Firo and I... lovers?"
She'd never even considered it.
Firo had shared his life with her, and if the thought should occur to him that he wanted her dead, then that would be the end of her. Her life was in his hands.
That should have been the entirety of their relationship.
But she couldn't actually think of the word to express that relationship.
It wasn't one of master and servant, and though Firo had given to her a portion of himself, they could not be called brother and sister, nor father and daughter.
Ah. She saw it now. Considering those circumstances, and the fact that Ennis lived with Firo, it made sense that people thought of them as lovers.
Ennis nodded to herself, but for some reason she couldn't completely accept that explanation.
It had not been long since her creation, and Szilard had granted her only the bare minimum of knowledge, so the concept of romance was almost entirely foreign to her. She knew what it was to cherish another person, and what it meant to love.
But she still couldn't fully comprehend the difference between her love for Firo and the love she felt toward, for instance, Isaac and Miria.
What was more, regardless of what others might think of them... what did Firo think?
And what do I think of Firo?
If Firo loved her, but she was incapable of thinking of Firo as a lover in return, how deep a betrayal that would be.
She still didn't understand her own emotions, and so she was helpless in the face of Isaac and Miria's teasing.
I wonder what Firo is doing right now?
I wonder how he would react if he knew that I'd been kidnapped?
Thoughts of Firo ran through her head.
She wondered where the owner of her life was, and what he might be thinking...
Dammit, dammit, dammit!
Look up useless in the dictionary and you'll find a picture of me!
I can't do anything. Not a goddamn thing. Shit.
You call this knowledge, you damn geezer?
All your knowledge ain't helping me, not one bit.
Dammit, it hasn't even been a day since I told Maiza I'd try to overcome these memories by myself.
But now look at me! I can't even control how this one moment goes, much less someone else's past! How dumb is that?
Wait, none of that matters right now.
Doesn't matter that I'm making a fool of myself.
All that matters is Ennis. Is she safe?
That's all I wanna know.
If she's safe... As long as she's safe, I don't care if these memories end up swallowing me whole.
I actually surprised myself.
I didn't know that Ennis meant so much to me, that I'd put my life on the line for her so willingly.
Maybe it's some kinda affection because we've been living together so long?
No, that's not it.
No way it is.
Of course not.
It's not something like that at all.
I fell for her the moment I saw her. I fell for her hard, hook, line, and sinker. Every move Ennis makes, every line of her face, every word she says, every feeling she shows to me.
That's all I need. I don't need a reason to love her.
So... So somebody, for God's sake, tell me what's going on.
How did Dallas do it?
I can't believe that Dallas managed to kidnap both Ennis and Ronnie by himself.
Maybe it's got something to do with that attack on a construction site Ronnie was talking about?
Or maybe the kids from Chicago that Ronnie was gonna go and see?
Hell if I know, dammit. I never knew that not knowing could be so frustrating.
Is running all I can do?
No, there's gotta be something.
But I can't stop running.
My cells tell me to keep going. They're doing the thinking for my head, because my head is too worried to do any thinking at all. Find Ennis, they tell me, you need to find her, find her now because you have to no matter what, you can't stop, even if it kills you...
No... I'm at my limit.
I might be immortal, but the strain that keeping up a dead run puts on my muscles is becoming too much for the power of my regeneration and the natural healing of my body to keep up with.
My legs start trembling, like an engine that's all out of oil...
And then I fall to my knees, the strength draining from my body as I lose my balance and collapse in the street.
The water flowing through the street splashes mud all over my body, but even that's washed away soon enough by the pouring rain.
Now what do I do?
Somebody tell me what to do, goddammit!
I look up, prepared to let loose my frustration in a shout at the rain itself...
But then, I suddenly realize that no raindrops are falling on my face.
I see a black shadow over my head. I think someone's holding an umbrella over me.
I follow the hand in my field of vision up to the arm, and then up to the face and see...
East Side of Grand Central Station
There was a huge building next to the station known as the Mist Wall that served as the gigantic megacorporation Nebula's New York HQ.
It was colored a translucent shade of grey like the mist that was its namesake, the Art Deco style design of the building fooling observers into thinking that a cloud had come down and rooted itself into the earth.
The highest floors were made in the shape of pyramid steps, bringing to mind ancient ruins.
It wasn't quite as tall as the nearby Empire State Building, but all the same it was quite popular with the neighborhood's populace; its stately majesty served to captivate the hearts of those who beheld it.
But unlike the Empire State Building, the Mist Wall was not home to many different businesses, but instead just one. Every room, office, and shop inside, from the first floor to the very top, belonged to the Nebula Corporation. The building stretched up toward the skies, as though to symbolize Nebula's power.
In front of that building stood about a dozen men and women. The young man who led them looked up, toward the top of the building, his umbrella tilted back so the rain fell on his face. He paid it little heed, his mind already far away.
The man... remembered a mouse.
He had been given a white mouse as a pet when he was a boy.
It was a small thing, the first living thing ever entrusted to his care.
To the lonely boy, the mouse was his only friend.
He had no human ones, after all. It wasn't that his peers made fun of him.
It was more that he couldn't accept his peers.
The boy was a little smarter than the people around him at the time.
He saw them as so incredibly dull, so infinitely moronic, that he thought it a waste to even attempt conversation with them.
He didn't just think this way about his peers. He thought that way about his father, about his brother, about his dead mother.
In a way, perhaps the boy was not as bright as he thought himself to be.
He had, after all, driven himself into the depths of loneliness by looking down on others.
From his place in the depths, he found his brother's cheerful sunniness something to be envied.
He himself was so lonely, but his foolish brother smiled as though he enjoyed everything the world had to offer.
The boy couldn't accept that, and hid himself ever more under layer after layer of aloofness.
The only thing to soothe his mind during those dreary days was the white mouse he'd kept on a whim.
The mouse could not reply to what he told it, save in faint squeaks. He spoke to it, telling it all the worries and woes he couldn't tell to anyone else.
Like King Midas's hairdresser whispering secrets into the earth, the boy shared everything with the mouse who would never answer back.
"That's it. I'm just using this mouse to keep myself sane. I'm going to make my world inside this mouse--inside Jimmy," the boy told himself coldly, though he was not yet even fifteen years old.
The mouse was not a pet. It was a tool and nothing but a tool, something to anchor his mind to, something he would use to create a place where he could rest.
And that was all.
At least, that was what the boy decided to think.
But one day... the world that the boy had constructed inside the mouse came tumbling down, and with it collapsed the thoughts he'd built up around it as well.
He walked into his room one day to see a huge pair of scissors, many times bigger than the mouse itself, buried in its white back.
The sight was pure and cruel and real, telling him without a doubt that his brother had stuck his scissors into the mouse.
He killed it. It's dead. Tick killed it. Jimmy's dead.
What had surprised the boy more than anything was that the emotion that welled up inside him was sadness. Far greater than the annoyance of having a useful tool broken inside the boy was the sense of loss at having something precious to him taken away.
The sorrow he felt at losing his close friend soon turned to pain and anger.
The boy cried out aloud.
He screamed over and over again, begging for someone, for anyone to give Jimmy back.
But what he didn't scream was "Why."
Why had Tick killed Jimmy?
The thought didn't occur to him, not even for a second. And as time passed, he came to think that it didn't even matter why Tick had done it.
Whatever the reason, the fact remained that Tick had taken his scissors and stuck the cruel pointed blades into Jimmy's back.
The boy cried and raged and shouted until his throat was sore, and when his fury was spent, he realized one thing.
Not once had Tick offered an explanation. Not once had he said he was sorry.
And... That his brother had looked sad, for the first and only time that Tim could remember.
Not that I could ever tell what the hell he was thinking... But I'm certain that he didn't care what happened to me at all.
In the end, the boy parted ways with his brother without telling him anything, and he continued to grow.
The man who helped him on the road to maturity, who erased his past and assisted him in recreating his self, was none other than his current master, Huey Laforet.
The man who came to meet him when he ran away from home had known everything that went on in his mind. It could be said that Huey understood everything about the boy, from his emotions to his past, even the very the thoughts that ran through his head.
The world that the boy had locked away inside his mouse had appeared before him in the flesh then, speaking directly to him. The white mouse's avatar came to him and returned the world he'd whispered to it, many times over.
Everything about Huey Laforet had been hidden behind a veil. The boy regarded him with equal parts fear and adoration, captivated by his mysterious charisma.
In the end the boy accepted the world that Huey offered, determined to dye the world he lived in with those colors.
It took him years, but the boy managed to change everything about himself.
His name, his hairstyle, his clothing, his voice, his build, his thoughts, his personality. Everything about him save his memories--in other words, everything that made him Tack Jefferson--was discarded in favor of another life, the life of a man called Tim.
But those memories, the only things he had failed to throw away, now stood before him once more as his greatest obstacle.
What's more, they'd been brought meeting someone he's never expected to see again... his brother, Tick Jefferson.
Why did it have to happen now... There's too much on the line! I can't afford to be distracted like this!
It hadn't even been a chance and fleeting encounter, like passing him on the street. They'd met while Tim was on a mission, right in front of Jacuzzi Splot's gang.
And it even seemed like his brother was at odds with Splot and his friends.
But maybe it's nothing to worry about. Nothing changes as long as I don't let it bother me. It's another obstacle, nothing more and nothing less. My past is an obstruction that hinders my mission. I just can't let it distract me. I can't let it...
The young man repeated the line in his head like a mantra, slowly finding his calm.
He remembered how badly he'd been shaken upon meeting Tick, even showing his shock visibly. But it seemed that Tick himself hadn't recognized him at all, treating Tim as a complete stranger as events unfolded.
Well, I did go so far as to shave my head and wear glasses, but still. What the hell. I tried my utmost to forget my past but I still recognized him the moment I clapped eyes on him... But he didn't know who I was at all.
Being family is hardly different from being strangers, in the end. I guess that small hope I held all those years ago, when I ran away from home, can finally be put to-
Tim turned around, finally realizing that someone had been calling him.
"What is it?" Tim asked calmly, deliberately schooling his features to project an outward air of serenity. "Sorry, I couldn't hear you over the rain."
The rain was indeed falling quite fiercely, and the drumbeat of it on their umbrellas made it even more deafening. But it seemed like Tim's underling had been shouting quite loudly, for he looked at Tim oddly before speaking.
"Uh, yeah... We went to pick up Christopher and the others, but they weren't there."
"But they left this letter at the station's bulletin board."
The man passed Tim a small folded note and sighed, clearly miffed.
For his part, Tim gingerly unfolded the letter, skimming over the red colored text as he tried to fight the vague feeling of dread settling over him.
How are you? My own feelings at the moment are wretchedly good.
Do you love nature?
Do you want to water the flowers?
I don't. Want to water the flowers, that is.
Too much water can make flowers rot.
In other words, it can make the world rot.
It can make people's hearts rot as well.
I can see that the rain on these streets is making the hearts of this city's people rot away.
For instance, I've rotted too. I don't want to do this.
Fortunately, however, Master Huey's orders only asked me to help you tomorrow.
So I've decided not to meet up with you but instead go out for a lark.
I'm going to enjoy myself until I'm utterly tired.
I wish to use my rotted heart as fertilizer to make the flowers of cherished memories bloom.
Perhaps I'll make a hundred friends?
Say, do you think the ratio of friends to soul mates is in inverse proportion?
Well, it doesn't really matter to me either way, so I'm off to have fun in rainy New York.
Don't worry. I'll try my best not to kill anyone until we get our mission started.
Oh, that's right. The Twins are watching you wherever you are, so don't call us. We'll call you.
Rain is a part of nature too. But I don't like it.
Someday, I'll throw down with the great will of nature.
Haha. From Hell.
Both the beginning and the end of the letter were quotes from the notes that the infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper had left for authorities to find half a century ago in London. Seeing as how they had little to do with the contents of the letter itself, chances were good it was nothing but a thoughtless homage.
The red letters smelt faintly of iron, making it clear what the "ink" was.
Tim realized it soon enough and shook his head irritably, tired of his co-worker's perverse tendencies.
"Christopher's really bent on testing me, isn't he."
"He mentioned Boss Huey's name, too," Tim's underling said, clearly worried. Huey Laforet was a highly infamous terrorist currently serving a prison sentence, and if the authorities caught any hint that people working for him were in the area, Tim's team would end up subject to extremely unwanted scrutiny.
"He knew full well what dropping that name meant. That asshole's mocking us. He didn't care at all what would happen if the station attendant happened to read it, or if someone else just came and took it. The bastard would just grin and say that things had gotten interesting," Tim muttered anxiously to himself, looking back up at the building before him.
"Dammit, I was hoping I'd have the chance to at least let him scope the place out before we went in for real."
The rain fell so hard it was hard to make out the top of the Mist Wall. Water dripped from his face as he mused aloud, "Not much when you think that it's barely half as tall as the Empire State Building... but when you consider that we're going to be invading this place tomorrow, it gets kinda worrisome."
He kept his gaze fixed there for a moment longer before suddenly looking away, cracking his neck as he turned to the woman standing next to him.
The spearwoman flinched--clearly she hadn't expected to be singled out--and hurriedly turned to look at her leader.
"Go and find Christopher. Tell him to at least scout out the building from outside... We're going back to our hideout. From there we'll try and get a hold of Splot's gang."
"Right!" Adelle yelped, sprinting away into the rain. She stopped after just a few paces and looked back.
The timid girl fidgeted as she confirmed her schedule for the day.
"If I find him quickly and have time left over, umm... I'll go and kill Eve Genoard, like we promised."
Eve Genoard was Dallas Genoard's little sister, and incidentally the hostage they'd had prepared to keep him in check. Not that they'd actually kidnapped her, but they'd made it clear to Dallas that if he double-crossed them, they'd find and kill her.
"Well... No, not yet. We still don't know for certain that he's betrayed us."
"But hasn't he outlived his usefulness? We've already, umm, shown his regeneration to Mr. Splot, haven't we?"
They had recruited Dallas for two reasons. The first was because their boss, Huey Laforet, had taken interest in the Dallas' "incomplete" immortality, intending to use him as a guinea pig if possible.
The other reason was as bait, to lure Jacuzzi Splot and his friends into joining their band.
The plan had been to show them Dallas's immortality first hand, and then coax them into joining forces with the promise of sharing that power. If all they'd intended was to show off Dallas's regenerative powers, then they would have done away with the pretense of him being their companion and just dragged him in front of Jacuzzi's gang to cut open a few times, but that would be self-defeating.
After all, Jacuzzi and his friends would hardly find immortality appealing if it was displayed by having a helpless human guinea pig cut to pieces before their eyes over and over again.
That was why they'd used Eve as a hostage to control him...
But in the end the result had been half success, and half failure.
If all had gone according to plan, then they would have shown Dallas's regeneration and then dragged him out before he regained consciousness and made it clear he wasn't one of the Larvae, but unforeseen events had tossed a wrench into those plans quite neatly.
To make things even worse, Dallas seemed to have recognized some of the people there, and he'd gone wild upon catching sight of them. That had been just one of the many factors that had led to the chaotic mess at the mansion.
Something suddenly occurred to Tim, and he asked, "Come to think of it, Adelle. Do you know that woman in the business suit who was at the mansion? You called her Ennis, I think?"
Adelle had shown a peculiar reaction to one of the women at the mansion, even in the midst of all the chaos. She'd even gone so far as to deliberately drop the name "Szilard Quates" in an effort to see how she'd react.
Of course, the bedlam that had ensued shortly after had cut that conversation short before either side had the opportunity to react, but that was beside the point.
Who was she? The information broker didn't mention her at all, even when we asked about Quates.
Tim frowned, perturbed at the knowledge that there was something he didn't know about the situation, and Adelle's reply only served to further increase that feeling of foreboding.
"Erm... I'm sorry, but this is strictly Lamia business..."
"You mean you can't tell me, despite the fact that I'm the leader of the Larvae, an organization that encompasses the Lamia?"
"Umm... Maybe... But that's what Master Huey told us... So I would have to ask him first..."
Tim heaved a long sigh, Adelle's hesitant reply only serving to annoy him further.
Directly from Huey, huh.
Adelle, Christopher, and the rest of the Lamia were a special team put together specifically for rough work, even among Huey's Larvae. Who they were, and how they'd come to work for Huey, was something that only the Lamia themselves knew for certain.
They were even closer to Huey than Tim himself, but every single one of them had severe personality disorders that made them poor choices for leading the Larvae, and so it came that Tim had to take up those reins.
Even as he lamented the pitiable state of his motley gang, Tim was steadfast in his loyalty to Huey.
But while he might respect the man who had given him his new world, he had no such feelings for the man's underling, Adelle.
"Anyway... Adelle. Don't kill Eve Genoard yet."
"You just want to kill someone, isn't that it?"
Adelle flinched, her mouth snapping shut for a moment before it twisted in an awkward smile.
"Then why did you pause before answering me? Well, whatever. It doesn't matter. Genoard still has his uses, so leave his sister be for now."
"But even now, he might be going to where his sister is..."
"So what if he is? It's already too late to do anything about it at this point, then. Don't bother. That'd be an even greater waste of time. You'll just end up causing more trouble."
Adelle looked down, unable to fully accept Tim's decision, but at length her expression changed to one of resignation as she wordlessly left to find Christopher.
Watching the smooth curve of her shoulders recede from view, Tim shrugged tiredly.
"...Dammit, why do all of Lamia have to be insane in one way or another?" he grumbled, mentally preparing himself to restrain the man he'd be meeting up with the next day.
"It's not like there's anything to see in this pouring rain, anyway..."
"A rainy, rainy, rainy soooonaaataaaa..."
"Really, now. Do you have to be so ornery? Don't you know how hard I worked to come up with a song praising this rain? Ahem. Now where was I? Oh, right. Seeping into all the crevices and cracks in this world..."
Chi didn't even bother to glance at Christopher as the taller man spun his umbrella in circles, singing like a madman.
"But whyyyy? Don't you love songs too, Chi? You even sang along with me back at the warehouse. Don't be such a killjoy. Come on, let's sing. The time is now... Strike! With a fatal rainy punch..."
"I don't hate songs, I hate the abominations you call lyrics. Are you too thick to understand that, or do I need to explain it in more detail?"
"How could I be expected to deduce that from 'shut up' and 'be quiet'?"
"...Mmm, you're right. My apologies for my failure. Let me expand on that, then. Your immature lyrics are an offense to my sense of hearing, and if you don't shut up right now I'll kill you."
The rain fell in sheets on Broadway. Though just a few hours ago it had been bustling and lively, now the rain held it in its viselike grasp, forcing the people of New York to dash willy-nilly toward the entrance of the grand theater. Once there, however, they met with the customers who were trying to leave, creating a human quagmire at the doors.
Christopher's peculiar eyes and mouth were hidden by his umbrella, but Chi's Asian-style red paper umbrella did more than enough to draw the eye.
"You know, your preference in umbrellas is almost as bad as my lyrics. This is New York, my friend! The eastern frontier of the American Dream. Don't you think you're overdoing the pioneer spirit a little, bringing over all that culture from the other side of the Pacific?"
"Not as much as your eyes and teeth."
"Everyone, look here at this terrible specimen of callousness. Making fun of another person's physical characteristics like that simply isn't right."
"You're that way because you wanted to be," Chi shot back, and as the conversation strayed into increasingly strange territory Christopher seemed to give up on the idea of singing.
At length, he gazed admiringly at the black umbrella in his hand and said wonderingly to himself, "Umbrellas are incredible. I daresay I respect them, yes."
"Think about it. The umbrella is the pinnacle of mankind's collective wisdom, the result of its effort to block the great natural phenomenon known as rain. More than any other part of technology, this must be a clear symbol of defiance against nature. I suppose clothes might be up there too, as a way of fighting against nature's changes in temperature, but they're seen as so essential that they don't feel very defiant, wouldn't you agree? But the umbrella! Now, that's a different matter entirely. Can't you feel the will of the person who made it, shouting 'I shan't let you get me wet, you damn rain!' at the heavens?" Christopher grinned, revealing rows of razor sharp teeth as his ruby eyes shone with childish glee. "And so efficient as well! Who would have thought a frame of wire and a little bit of cloth would be able to stand against rain, that which soaks everything on Earth?"
"Can't say it's doing that job very well."
Chi was right. The howling wind that made the rain whip about almost horizontally through the air notwithstanding, the water fell with such force from the heavens that it bounced up off the pavement, soaking the both of them halfway through from the bottom up.
"As long as we don't let the rain get our feelings wet, then we've won. Granted, I love both nature and myself so very very much that it doesn't really matter to me who wins in the end."
"...I don't even know what to say to that."
"Everyone, look here at this man, his heart soaked through and through. I know just the thing to lift your spirits: a song! Now let's sing a song, a song to save your soul. A song to save your world, in other words. My, isn't the scale becoming grand? Marvelous. Shall we kill someone to celebrate?"
"...I thought we'd agreed to try to keep the killing down when we weren't on the job," Chi said, cutting off Christopher's resolve before it could properly gather steam.
He'd worked with Christopher for a long time, so he knew. He knew that Christopher's suggestion hadn't been made in jest at all, and that the instant he himself made any sign of approval, Christopher would not hesitate to shower the people running in search of shelter around them with a rain of blood.
Christopher just shrugged lightly and stopped quietly, confidently, in the middle of the road.
Thankfully, there weren't any people or cars there to complain about him blocking the way. From the way he held himself it seemed as though he considered himself the equivalent of a star on the silver screen.
"Mmm. Here I am, standing in the middle of Broadway. But what's this? The rain keeps me from feeling Broadway's famous frantic energy. Why, I'm even getting a little bored."
"Let's go meet up with Tim's team then."
"Tim's double boring, so no," Christopher said, petulantly turning his head to one side. He started walking again, looking left and right for something to entertain him.
They spent half an hour like that, walking through the rain with Christopher's head swiveling back and forth like some sort of broken doll.
They'd left Broadway quite far behind by the time Christopher finally caught sight of something quite strange.
It was a running man.
The man was quite young, wearing an olive colored fedora that was as drenched as he was, running desperately through the rain without an umbrella. It looked as though he was in search of something, his need so great that he couldn't afford to be bothered by the rain.
They couldn't tell for certain from where they stood, but he looked very young, more like a boy than a man.
"What a peculiar person. He's accepting the rain for all he's worth. I almost feel like I've lost somehow, for hiding under this umbrella," Christopher said with a pout, but otherwise wrote off the running man as nothing of note.
That changed ten minutes later.
Christopher paused to look around and get his bearings in the weblike maze of alleyways, and spied the boy he'd seen earlier running straight at him from a passage to his right.
It seemed he hadn't stopped to rest once since Christopher had last seen him, for the boy's legs seemed to give up on him as he watched, leaving him staggering and gasping for breath.
Still, if he'd been running for ten minutes straight at that rate, that was no mean feat in itself. Not even marathon runners could sprint flat out for more than a few minutes before stopping to rest.
His interest piqued, he looked at the boy's face as he forced himself to keep going, his legs shaking from fatigue.
"Hee." He giggled unconsciously, catching sight of the expression on the boy's face.
It was not an expression of exhaustion, from having run so hard.
It was despair.
Christopher perceived it in an instant, observing the sharp and raw emotions playing across the boy's features.
He and Chi had seen that expression many, many times before.
After all, they had been the ones to cause it.
But to see someone in such despair when Christopher himself had no hand in it... Ah, that was a rare sight indeed. It interested him, as well, as to why a man wearing such an expression would be running so fiercely through the rain.
The boy had just made it past where they stood when his legs finally gave out on him.
His upper body lurched forward, his legs crossing over one another as he fell to the ground.
Christopher stood observing the boy for a while longer... and then, seeing him struggle to rise even as the mud stained his clothes, he began to walk over to him.
Chi, previously silent, realized what his partner meant to do and moved to stop him.
"Leave him. No good ever comes from getting involved in other people's misfortune."
"But don't they say that one man's misfortune is another's good luck?"
He winked with one red eye and splashed his way through the puddles, thrusting his umbrella toward the kneeling boy without a thought for how wet he'd get.
Toward Firo Prochainezo, a man charged with controlling a portion of New York's criminal underworld.
Who the hell?
That was Firo's first thought upon seeing the man offering him his umbrella.
A very strange man indeed had appeared before Firo as he teetered on the brink of utter despair.
He wore stiff, cumbersome clothing, the kind that European nobles might have worn a couple of centuries ago.
White irises encasing dead black pupils floated in a pool of scarlet sclera.
Inside his grinning mouth were two neat rows of fangs, like the maw of a dolphin.
If one were to judge him on appearance alone, he was, in a word, a freak. A timid person would probably have cried out in fright upon seeing him.
But Firo's position as capo of a camorra wasn't for show.
His brow furrowed for an instant, but otherwise he remained unperturbed, coldly waiting for the strange man to make his move.
The despair he'd felt at losing Ennis was still there, of course, but those feelings had been set aside for the moment--he needed to focus all of his attention on the man before him.
The fanged man noticed Firo's change in demeanor and grinned even wider, his voice gentle as he spoke to the soaked camorrista.
True, he did look very strange. But the eyes and teeth aside, he was quite handsome. He looked to be in his early twenties at the latest.
Firo kept his silence.
"Is something wrong? You mustn't run through the rain like that... Why, you might catch your death of cold."
His gentle concern was wildly at odds with his suspicious looks, and Firo couldn't hide the look of chagrin on his face.
"Thanks for caring," he said, looking down at his feet, "but it's really none of your business."
The torn muscles in his legs had knit themselves together, and even the cells destroyed by the incredible stress he'd put them through had completely regenerated.
"...Well then, I'll be leaving."
Firo got to his feet and turned to leave, but for some reason his body refused to listen.
It was the man with the red eyes. He'd grabbed Firo's arm with an unexpectedly steely grip, and he refused to let go.
"Hey... Let go already," Firo snapped uneasily. His voice changed to something that didn't fit with his boyish face at all, to the dangerous tones he used when he was doing "business."
Normally, he'd try and talk things over, but he simply didn't have the time. Firo tensed the muscles in his arm, intending to shake off the other man's grasp as he stared hard into his red eyes.
But instead of backing off, the strange man simply kept talking, the gentle expression still fixed on his face.
"But say I do let go. It's not like you've got a destination in mind anyway, right?"
The man was right.
Firo saw something in his eyes then, something that made him loosen the muscles that had been prepared to break into a flat run. Instead he focused entirely on the man in front of him.
"I saw you earlier too, you know. You looked like you were looking for something you'd lost, something precious to you... but you don't know where to find it, do you? You were just running without any real sort of goal in mind. You don't have any idea of where that something might be."
Who the hell do you think you are!
What do you know?! This isn't any of your goddamn business!
Firo stopped, the words on the tip of his tongue, but the way the stranger's words had cut to the quick made his protests die in his throat.
"From the way you haven't said anything, I'm guessing I was right."
The man chuckled, revealing the teeth tightly packed into his mouth. Each tooth overlapped over another to form a hypnotic twisting pattern. It looked as though he hadn't been born that way, but rather more like he'd removed his original teeth and had the strange fangs put in sometime afterward.
"If you don't mind, could you tell us what's the matter? Who knows? Maybe we might be able to help."
"...I thought I told you it's none of your business."
"So I guess whatever you're looking for isn't important enough that you'd be willing to swallow your pride for it, hmm?"
Firo paused. The stranger was right, but he still wasn't planning on pleading for help. If, say, Maiza had been the one to suggest it, or even Randy or Pecho, he would gladly have thrown his pride away and begged his friends for help without a second thought.
But what did he really stand to gain from doing that with someone he'd just met?
"Oh, right. I completely forgot to introduce myself," Christopher said once he realized Firo was still staring at him, facetiously smoothing his clothes with the hand that wasn't holding his umbrella.
"I'm Christopher Shouldered. This is my first time in New York, but I've got a few connections here so I should be of some help to you. Let's make music together, shall we?"
Christopher gave Firo a fancy bow and then gestured to the man who stood next to him.
That man was taking shelter from the rain under a red paper umbrella, and on further observation he was even more noticeable than Christopher himself.
"This fellow here is Hong Chi-Mei, but we just call him Chi."
The man Christopher had gestured to didn't seem to be a people person at all. He only merely glanced at Firo once and gave him a short nod.
"And I suppose Liza is probably somewhere around there, I suppose, but... Well, I suppose we can get to know each other better some other time."
Firo didn't completely let down his guard even as he listened carefully to Christopher's words.
Why was this man so bent on butting into his business?
And for that matter, what the hell was he, anyway?
The questions rose up one after another inside of him, but Firo couldn't find the words in him to express them. Almost as though reading his mind, the man with red eyes smiled softly.
"I don't really have a reason. I'm actually just here on a job for my employer, but... Well, that doesn't start until tomorrow and I was a little bored, you see. So I thought I'd look for some new friends in this new neighborhood."
Firo narrowed his eyes suspiciously, unwilling to take Christopher's innocent explanation at face value, but looking into the other man's red eyes it was impossible to tell how much of what he'd just said was serious and how much was a joke.
"...That's really it?"
"I've got three things I hold dear to my heart," Christopher said, listing them calmly, "and one of them is the grand bounty of nature. The next is whatever job I happen to be on at any given time. After that comes my handmade knife. And finally..."
Christopher paused, smiling full force in the face of Firo's mistrust.
"...there's wasting time."
Firo frowned, suddenly disturbed for some reason, and tried to mask it by tossing Christopher a meaningless question.
"...Wasn't that four just now?"
"I thought you said you held three things close to your heart."
"...Everyone's got a different definition of what's precious, you know. Trying to corral concepts like that with numbers might be the smart thing to do, but it's just not romantic at all, so I won't," Christopher said, smirking.
I get it now.
Only then did Firo realize what the source of his uneasiness had been.
They're really alike, aren't they.
The thought that rose in Firo's mine was that of his childhood friend.
This guy's personality is just like Claire's.
(1): Italian for "leader of the society." A mafia or camorra's leader.
Chapter 3 End