Cloudy to Rainy
Color Pages and Prologues
Bloody to Fair
Color Pages and Connecting Chapter
Epilogues & Remnants
"I got the umbrellas."
Tick and Maria had taken shelter from the rain in the abandoned building, but a few long hours with no sign of the rain letting up had prompted Tick to leave for the nearby train station and pick up a couple of umbrellas. It was normally only a few minutes' walk, and Tick had dashed through the rain as fast as he could, but such was the downpour that he was already soaked to the bone by the time he got back.
"...Thanks, amigo," Maria said, forcing a weak smile.
It still bothered her in the back of her mind that she'd gone and blamed Tick for her troubles, but Tick himself was acting as though it had never happened. It was a small mercy that kept her sane, but at the same time even his quiet acceptance weighed down on her heavily, like steel manacles shackling her mind.
There was the possibility that Tick was not choosing to ignore the conversation, and had instead actually forgotten it completely, but Maria didn't consider that.
"Hmm... What should we do? I don't think we can just go back empty-handed like this. And we don't know where Mr. Ronnie from the Martillos has gone either."
He thought it over for a moment and nodded resolutely, taking Maria's hand and helping her to her feet.
"Let's go and visit Mr. Splot's house again."
Maria hesitated for a moment.
That was where she'd nearly fought to the death against the spearwoman.
There, she'd tasted bitter defeat.
"Who knows? Maybe someone'll have come back by now."
"Y-yeah. Yeah, you're right, amigo."
But what if that someone was the spearwoman?
Maria imagined it and found herself shivering, chilled to the bone for a second in a way that had nothing to do with the rain.
...Am I afraid? Me?
"Are you okay?"
"Ahaha! Of course, of course! You told me yourself, didn't you? I didn't lose at all! Right? And if we end up fighting again, I'll be the one to come out on top, just you watch! You can believe in me, amigo!" Maria blustered, inwardly terrified of admitting the truth to herself.
She knew, of course.
She knew that whatever Tick might say, his words didn't matter at all if she couldn't accept them herself.
And to do that... she'd have to defeat her.
She'd given it some brief thought, thinking that perhaps there might be some other way to go about things, but she'd ended that train of thought even more certain that the path she'd chosen was the only way to do things.
It wasn't as though she could change the way she worked when that was how she'd lived her whole life, after all. She knew that she had no choice but to tackle the problem head on, as she always had.
But can I really win? she asked herself. Can I beat her... No, can I beat her spear?
The spear was a formidable weapon, and it was wielded by an equally formidable opponent.
Maria would have to penetrate a killzone nearly twice as long in pure range, and many times larger in sheer area covered, just to bring her own katana to bear. Even if she did make her way through, the cross-bladed point of the spear was easily wide enough to deflect both of her weapons at once.
If only her weapons could reach as long as that spear...
Maria shook her head fiercely.
She'd won handily against guns before, hadn't she? And those had an effective range many times that of any melee weapon. Chalking up her loss to a simple difference in reach would be, in effect, acknowledging that her swords were inferior.
Still, it was true that the spear had a longer reach than her swords. No use denying that.
When she fought people armed with guns, she'd dart in while avoiding bullets, dodging them not through speed but through skill--she would read the directions the barrels were pointing and move accordingly. She overcame the difference in power with sheer technique.
But would that work against a spear as well as it did against a firearm?
And not just any spear. Could she prevail against a spear wielded by someone she'd already lost to once, without any time in between to train in preparation?
True, she hadn't fully understood her enemy's style, and there were many unknown factors that could come into play should they fight again.
But the most important thing was Maria herself, and she was still afraid that she might not have it in her to win.
She wasn't afraid to die, of course. What she feared was that the life she'd lived up to that moment--that her swords, Murasamia and Kochite--would be rendered meaningless in one fell swoop.
Her hands balled up into fists, hiding the tremors that ran through them.
Tick didn't seem to notice, and he smiled reassuringly as he said to Maria, "It's alright. I'll believe in you for real this time, okay? You won't lose to anybody, Maria."
The young man's eyes were as clear and honest as a child's, and Maria could see her own face reflected back at her behind his slightly squinted eyelashes.
Embarrassed at her own failure to overcome her nerves, Maria nodded once, forcefully, to hide her uncertainty.
Of course, her smile said, and she looked Tick straight in the eyes for the first time.
It might have been that she envied the way he could smile so.
"...Yeah, thank you. Thank you, amigo."
She took an umbrella from Tick, ignoring the slightly confused look on his face as she passed him by and walked outside.
Filled with both anxiety and resolve, she stepped out onto the streets, out into a downpour that seemed bent on washing away all of creation.
It was almost as though she was trying to hide the thundering of her quailing heart with the sound of the rain.
The Abandoned Factory
"...So what that means is, the bastards were planning on icing all of you from the very beginning. You guys still following me?"
Jacuzzi's gang stood in a loose ring around Dallas as he gestured grandly in the center of the old building, arrogantly dominating his fitfully lit stage. He'd been like that since the moment he stepped into their hideout, swaggering about as though he were the guest VIP at an exclusive gentlemen's club.
None of Jacuzzi's friends were really keen on welcoming such a person into their midst, but the valuable information he held kept them from kicking him out. Of course, they could have tortured him until he talked, but Jacuzzi obviously wouldn't have approved. Nobody bothered to mention that option.
They needn't have resorted to that anyway. Dallas had barely taken a cursory glance around before he launched straight into a long explanation, telling them everything he knew about the Larvae and immortals.
Well, no, "telling" wasn't the right word. The way he spoke made it obvious he thought he was bestowing some great favor on them, and indeed, he'd paused several times in his explanation to let them know as much.
"Don't forget, you owe me. If I hadn't decided to help you guys... Well, you'd all be too dead right about now to regret it, and you'd have died as chumps to boot."
To Jacuzzi and his friends, Dallas' story was almost as far-fetched as a fairy tale.
For starters, there was the story of what had led to Dallas becoming immortal in the first place. Naturally, Dallas had discretely left out the parts that made him look bad, but even then the story came off as wildly unbelievable to his rapt listeners.
Jacuzzi himself had once faced the Rail Tracer, an alien and terrifying being, and just the knowledge that such a thing existed in the world made Dallas' story somewhat easier to swallow. Still, if not for the fact that they'd all seen Dallas regenerate and come back to life from the dead, his outlandish tale of elixirs of immortality and shadowy organizations with connections that spanned the nation would have been impossible to believe.
They still couldn't accept it completely, but faced with Dallas' immortality they had no choice but to go along with it.
Still, his story only brought up several more questions.
"Uhh... So that Ennis person back at the mansion. You say she worked with the evil man? Szilard, was it?"
"Yeah, and don't let that pretty face fool ya. She's killed dozens. Hundreds, even. A cold-blooded murderer if I ever saw one."
Dallas had no idea as to how many people Ennis had or had not killed, but he needed something to spice up his story and murder was as good as anything for that purpose. Technically, Ennis had killed a few people under Szilard's orders, so it wasn't as though what he said was a complete lie.
"But... but it looked like she knew Isaac..."
"Isaac? Oh, him. Who cares about that pair of retards?"
So the man's named Isaac. Gotta remember that, to help me track him down and kill him later.
Both Isaac and Miria were actually on Dallas' hit list, but he decided that telling Jacuzzi's gang as much probably wouldn't be the wisest decision.
"Err, so, uhh. Mr. Dallas. You're really one of the Genoards, and it was your mansion we were staying at?"
"Dammit, how many times do I have to tell you?" Dallas snarled.
"Well you see, that's the part we find hardest to believe, boyo," a voice said from behind them. Apparently, John wasn't as willing to back out of the matter as Jacuzzi was. "You mean to tell us that you're Miss Eve's brother, then?"
"What...?" Dallas' eyes widened briefly, then narrowed, a brief show of his surprise at hearing his little sister's name brought up by a complete stranger.
"How do you know about Eve?"
"How do I know about Eve? I very well should, seeing as how she's the heiress to the Genoard family, and she's the one who let us borrow the mansion..."
Dallas could hardly believe his ears.
Eve? Heiress? The fuck?! What happened to Dad and Jeff, then? They're dead? Someone really went and whacked those assholes!
He took a deep breath and calmed himself, but his mind still raced on at breakneck speed.
Wait, so if they're dead... Then it's my lucky fuckin' day!
If both his father and his older brother really were dead, that meant that he only had to prove that he himself was still alive, and the entirety of the family fortune would be his. Sadness for his murdered relatives didn't even enter the equation as his greedy mind filled with sudden glee at the unexpected windfall on his hands.
Dallas didn't know the sorry state that the Genoard fortune was in, so the news filled his head with visions of mountains of money and endless days living the good life.
"Hmm? Something the matter?" John asked, and Dallas hastily raised a fist to his mouth and made a show of coughing.
"Uhh. Err, no, I mean, yeah, Eve's my little sister. But remember, now that I'm back, I'm the rightful heir to the family fortu... the family."
"Well, not that it matters to us, but Miss Eve's been worrying herself spare over her older brother, and now that we've finally met him in the flesh... Well, I must say you aren't quite what we were expecting," John said, the criticism clear in his tones. Normally, Dallas would have taken the bait in an instant and gotten himself into a fight an instant after that, but at the moment he couldn't care less.
He was remembering the last time he'd seen his sister, the scene flaring back to life in his mind.
People might call Dallas trash, and truth be told he often did his best to live up to their expectations. The only person who he held precious--the only being who linked a man who even saw the death of his father and brother as an unexpected stroke of good luck to normal human society--was his little sister, Eve Genoard.
She was also Dallas' Achilles' heel (not to say, of course, that Dallas was anywhere near as formidable as the ancient Greek hero), and the only person in the world to whom he would ever show anything resembling kindness.
"...Leave her out of this. I'm my own man," he said calmly, not even deigning to give John a scorning glance. Perhaps sensing the change in his demeanor, John dropped the subject of Eve. Dallas, in turn, didn't mention her again.
Eve was Dallas' weak spot, and also the reason why he was so bent on killing Tim and Adelle.
It went without saying that he hid the bit about Eve being held hostage against him from Jacuzzi's gang. The fact that they were merely tools to him had something to do with it, but more importantly, there was the fact that he was afraid of others finding out what could make him hurt.
Even at that very moment, Eve was at the forefront of Dallas' mind.
He'd actually stopped to give her a call before going to seek out Firo Prochainezo, but she hadn't picked up for some reason.
Fear had gripped him for an instant, and he'd worried that maybe the Larvae had already gotten to her. But then he thought it over and realized that there was no way that they could have made it all the way to the Genoard estate in New Jersey in the time it had taken him to escape the Millionaire Row mansion and get to a phone.
He couldn't deny that part of him still worried about it, but it wasn't like he had any way of making Eve realize the danger she was in and run for it. No, he had to choose another plan of action to keep her safe.
He had to take care of Tim and Adelle, and all the rest of the Larvae.
And in order to do that, he needed to figure out a way to get this motley band of misfit kids to do what he wanted.
The question was, how would he convince Jacuzzi that Tim and Adelle were his enemies?
Dallas himself hadn't been completely filled in on what the Larvae were after. But he remembered for certain that Tim had mentioned needing tools, and something about assaulting a place.
So Dallas had simply taken that information and run with it, adding his own conclusions and quite a bit of imaginative creativity in introducing the Larvae.
Based on what little he'd heard, he surmised that they didn't have the secret to immortality--the "liquor" he'd heard mentioned. That meant that wherever they were planning to attack most probably did.
"Yeah, so like I was saying. The Larvae bastards meant to use you as a distraction, making you attack the place where that elixir is while they sneak past and make off with the stuff."
Dallas had no idea whether the elixir of immortality the Larvae sought was the knockoff he'd drunk, or the real deal. But whatever the case, it was clear what the outcome would be once they obtained their objective.
"They'd probably kill you all once they got the stuff they wanted... Or who knows, they might share it with you. Like they promised. But what'd happen after that, huh? Who knows, they might have a real immortal with 'em, and then that one'd eat all of you."
Tim hadn't actually bothered to elaborate on what fate would befall Jacuzzi's gang, but Dallas continued to explain things as though it was a given that the Larvae would turn on them once the job was done. He drove the point home again and again.
"Think about it. They let you see me--now you're in on the big secret. You know there're immortals out there. You think they'd let you just walk away from this, whether you took 'em up on their offer or not?"
His plan seemed to be working, because Jacuzzi looked distinctly worried as he glanced at his friends.
"We're in another giant mess, ain't we?"
"Well, shit. What do we do now?"
"Those assholes thought they could pull a fast one on us, eh?"
They seemed inclined to believe Dallas, urging their leader to take action, but a few of them--Nice and John among them--still looked unconvinced.
"Hold on a second, I don't want to jump to any conclusions."
"I won't say you're lying... But it's pretty clear that some of what you're saying is just conjecture."
Tim and his Larvae worried them, no doubt, but that didn't mean they were going to just let down their guard around Dallas and believe everything he said.
Bah. These fuckin' punks are doubting me? Who do they think they are?
Dallas snarled irritably inside his head, but kept up an appearance of outward calm.
"Well, it's up to you to believe me or not... It ain't like it matters to me what happens to you in the end," Dallas said, giving Jacuzzi a meaningful look.
Jacuzzi thought it over for a moment and decided to start with organizing the information they had, starting with the basics.
"Uhh... So you said that you weren't sure what kind of organization these Larvae people were, right? Are you at least sure that their leader is the one called Tim? That's it? Nobody above him, no group pulling his strings?"
"What, you think they sat me down and gave me a lecture on-"
Dallas stopped mid-rebuttal, his mind racing back into the past.
Come to think of it, they did tell me something when I first came to, didn't they.
"We're a band of crazy misfits."
Don't I know it. Wait, I think there was a bit more to it...
"We're a band of crazy misfits who serve Huey Laforet."
That's right, the name was...
"Huey Laforet..." Dallas finally said, returning from his trip down memory lane. It surprised him that he could actually still remember the name. He chalked it up to having seen it once in a newspaper or something.
"Yeah, now I remember. They said that they were working for this guy named Huey Laforet..."
He'd been talking mostly to himself, but the words had a massive effect on those around him.
Jacuzzi's gang immediately stopped gossiping and fell silent, their gazes shifting as one to focus on a young woman who'd been standing on the outskirts of the main group.
Dallas followed their stares, baffled at the sudden change in the atmosphere.
His gaze came to rest on a young woman with black hair and golden eyes, and it was obvious even to him that she was fundamentally different from the rough-and-tumble gangsters surrounding her.
She stood and met his stare with one that was frighteningly intense, her eyes wide and her back ramrod straight.
She didn't react to his irritated question; Jacuzzi hesitantly stepped forward in her stead.
"Are... are you sure about that? About who's in charge of them?"
"...Why're you asking? What, is this Huey person famous or something?"
"Ah... Well, we know him. Kind of. Not that I've met him myself, but..."
To most people, the name Huey Laforet would bring to mind the infamous terrorist who'd made headlines some time ago for plotting to overthrow the government, but to Jacuzzi and his friends, it meant something a little different.
Jacuzzi's gang had attempted a train robbery about two years back, and through a stroke of sheer bad luck they'd come face to face with a band of terrorists who'd been plotting to take over the same train.
The terrorists, a band of dark-suited men called the Lemures, had set their plan in motion intent on demanding the release of their leader, Huey Laforet.
It had been a grand and ambitious plan, one that involved holding an entire train full of people hostage, but unfortunately for the Lemures, Jacuzzi's gang had gotten involved. Not only that, another organization also bent on taking over the train had jumped into the mess feet first, and finally a terrifying being called the Rail Tracer had attacked the train as well. Needless to say, the Lemures suffered an ignominious defeat.
One of the few among them who'd survived the fiasco had ended up joining Jacuzzi's gang. Her name was Chane Laforet, and she was Huey Laforet's biological daughter.
Jacuzzi and his friends all knew who she was and where she came from, but they'd accepted her unconditionally as one of their number nonetheless, and she'd been living in New York with them quietly and without incident ever since.
Until just a few scant moments ago, that is. Until Dallas mentioned the name of Huey Laforet.
"What? The hell's going on? C'mon, spit it out," Dallas said, left completely bewildered by the sudden turn of events.
But if Dallas was merely bewildered, then Chane's world had been turned upside down.
How did Father's name come to be mentioned here?
Chane trembled violently, unprepared to face the sudden reality before her.
The most terrible thing about what Dallas had said was the fact that if he was telling the truth, and her father was indeed controlling the Larvae, then everything made sense.
It made sense that they knew of immortals. It made sense that they were trying to make more of them. If she looked at it under the assumption that it all was one of her father's experiments, then everything clicked.
But did the Larvae know about her? Chane was curious, but she realized that she had no way of knowing for certain just based on how they'd acted.
After all, her father was exactly the sort of man who would see even his own daughter as just another guinea pig.
As far as she knew, there was only one person in the whole world who her father acknowledged as a human being other than himself.
There was a reason why her father refused to sacrifice innocent bystanders in the name of his experiments. He'd told Chane, and only Chane, why. "Elmer would be sad," he'd said.
She'd never had the chance to meet this Elmer herself, but she could surmise easily enough that he was probably a friend of her father's. The only time that naked emotion showed on Huey's face was when he spoke of him.
Inversely, of course, that meant that Huey was always slightly detached when speaking of others.
Anyway. Huey Laforet would not sacrifice innocent bystanders.
But to those who did not fall into that category--to those he labeled as "specimens"--he showed no mercy whatsoever.
That was what worried Chane.
If... if Father decides that Jacuzzi's gang are specimens...
Then that would probably mean I'm one to him, too.
That doesn't matter. I would gladly sacrifice myself for Father.
But could I stand by and watch while Jacuzzi... or Nice... or Donny or John or Fang or Jack or Nick...
The names of the people around her fluttered through her mind.
They were her friends, people who had welcomed her as one of their number even though they knew of her past. They were her companions, true companions, the likes of whom she'd never known during her time with the Lemures.
What would she do, if her father ever told her to kill them?
She thought to herself that she would probably follow her father's request.
But they were almost as precious... No, at this point, they were effectively just as precious to her as her own father was.
The more she thought it over, the more frightened she became.
Fear was an emotion that had been unknown to her before she met Jacuzzi's gang.
It had taken life on the streets of New York for her to realize what it meant to lose something.
To Chane Laforet, who would have thrown her own life away without a thought if only her father were to say the word, the thought of losing her friends was the most frightening thing she could imagine.
Like Maria, who had been terrified of losing her pride... Chane teetered on the brink of being swept up in a fearsome tempest of swirling emotion.
"Well? Who's she and why're you all staring at her?"
Jacuzzi stammered and looked away, but still he refused to answer Dallas. Irritated, Dallas opened his mouth to force the younger man to answer or else.
Then he stopped.
Everyone in the abandoned factory suddenly became aware there was something was out of the ordinary.
It felt like the very air itself had grown cold.
As though something that had not been there before had entered the building...
Dallas looked around, trying to catch sight of what only his instincts told him was there, and soon found it.
There. The woman with the gold eyes, the one everyone had been staring at.
No. Behind her.
Behind her was a shadow that had not existed a moment ago.
But Dallas had been looking straight at Chane the whole time, as had Jacuzzi and everyone else in the building.
When had the shadow appeared behind her? Nobody could say for certain, except for the shadow itself.
Jacuzzi gasped despite himself, realizing what the dark silhouette was.
Chane herself, however, seemed still unaware of the being behind her, still wrestling with the doubts that had suddenly welled up inside her. The roiling emotion in her eyes grew increasingly intense, threatening to overcome her whole body...
And then the shadow took a step forward and placed its hands gently on her slender shoulders.
She flinched at the sudden hug from behind, but soon realized who it was and relaxed, melting into his embrace. The muscles of her face barely moved, so those who didn't know her well probably wouldn't have noticed her relief, but it was there.
"It's okay," the shadow murmured softly, soothingly. "It's okay. Whatever it is, don't worry about it. You have me."
To the casual observer, the words would have seemed preposterously arrogant, blindly presuming that the shadow's presence alone could solve whatever problems Chane had despite remaining ignorant of what those problems actually were.
But Chane knew otherwise.
It seemed flippant and presumptuous, but Chane knew that the shadow's assurance was backed by rock solid, absolute strength.
The man behind her could turn even the most casual utterance into a thing of power, just by giving it voice, just by believing in it.
Everyone in the room knew who what his name was and what he could do. Everyone except Dallas, that was.
For his part, Dallas had no idea who the stranger was, but he found that he was shivering despite himself, unconsciously affected by the sudden pallor on the faces of those around him.
The word he finally managed to force from his suddenly dry lips rang in the still air, warranting him a single glance from the man embracing Chane.
A single glance, and nothing more, as though everything that Dallas was had been perceived and judged and dismissed in that one instant.
Normally, the way he'd been casually ignored would have had Dallas up in arms, but he found himself unable to move, swallowing hard as he watched the man's every move.
If he looked away for an instant, he'd be dead. The man before him radiated such an impossibly overpowering sense of danger that Dallas could hardly think straight. The man's hair, flaming red in the naked bulb's harsh light, seemed like the warning colors of a poisonous animal.
Dallas realized that his mind had simply given up and acknowledged defeat.
This guy's... dangerous.
He had no way of knowing, but the emotions washing over him at the moment were almost the same as those that Jacuzzi and his friends had felt back at the Genoard Manor, confronted with Ronnie Schiatto.
Dallas himself had been various states of unconscious or dead through the duration of Ronnie's visit and so hadn't noticed, but those who had seen both Claire and Ronnie would swiftly realize that both men triggered an almost instinctual desire to run away in those who faced them.
For Jacuzzi's gang, it was their second encounter of the day with such a dangerous man, but they clearly weren't as tense as they'd been when Ronnie had come to them. They knew that the man in front of them now was not, at the very least, an enemy.
"That's Felix to you," the man said to Jacuzzi, not even bothering to turn around.
"Ah... Right, I'm sorry, Mr. Felix."
"Claire is the name of my soul. Only Chane's allowed to call me that. What part of that don't you understand?"
He said it lightly enough, but the dangerous emotion pulsing off of him in waves made it clear he was dead serious.
It seemed ridiculous that only Chane, a mute girl, would be allowed to call him by his real name, but nobody dared point it out.
The man who answered to Claire but insisted he was Felix looked down at Chane for a moment, smiling gently as he brushed the shallow cut on her cheek with his fingers.
"...Were you hurt anywhere else?" he asked, and Chane silently shook her head.
Felix let out a sigh of relief... and like magic, the heavy atmosphere that had blanketed the factory evaporated.
"I see... Mmm, well, you know." He made a show of coughing. "I'm glad you're alright."
Chane stared up into his eyes, as though she had something to say.
"Hmm? Oh, that's what you were worried about? I'm telling you, it's fine. You're more important to me than any job... Yeah, yeah, don't worry about that. I'll talk things over with Luck, and settle things with this Ronnie guy one way or another.... Mhmm. Of course. I'll make sure nobody lays a finger on your friends," he said, pausing from time to time as though he were answering questions.
Chane hadn't said a word, or even opened her mouth, but that didn't stop Claire from smiling reassuringly and saying, "What? Oh, yeah, sure. Leave your father to me too. He's going to be my father-in-law one day, right? It's the least I can do.
"One thing, though. Whoever it was who did that to your face... Well, I don't even need to tell you that something's got to be done about that, right? I'm not doing this part for you. Not really. I just can't let it slide on a personal level, see."
It looked like he was talking to himself, gesturing at nothing.
An ignorant third party would most probably have written him off as a mental patient.
But a closer look would reveal that Chane was reacting to Felix's words, nodding or shaking her head appropriately in time to his words. Sometimes she even smiled. It looked like she might actually be conversing with him somehow.
"Umm, Mr. Felix," Jacuzzi said, finally mustering the courage to butt in on the lovers' conversation, "can you really understand what Chane's saying?"
Jacuzzi stared at him for a moment before wordlessly turning to Chane.
Realizing what he meant to ask, Chane nodded immediately, acknowledging that there was indeed a proper conversation going on between them.
"But you're not using sign language or anything. How're you doing it?" Nice said, shaking her head.
Felix stared at her as though she were the strange one and said, "I can tell by the look in her eyes, obviously."
"That doesn't even make any sense."
"Well, I do love Chane with all my heart, so that probably explains it," Felix said, without the slightest hint of embarrassment. It was clear he meant every word. Jacuzzi realized that pursuing the matter any further would be futile and shut up, though he looked absolutely floored and was obviously itching to ask more questions.
Chane, too, stared at her erstwhile fiancé as though he'd grown a second head, but--though perhaps it was a trick of the imagination--it seemed almost as though a light tinge of pink dusted her cheeks.
Perhaps she was embarrassed.
The man standing next to his inexpressive lover gestured with his hands in a deliberately exaggerated motion, moving the topic onward.
"So, what do I need to do?"
Felix Walken, sometimes known as Vino, glanced once around the factory, his gaze coming to an abrupt stop on Dallas. Dallas himself blanched, still utterly confused as to what was going on, but Claire ignored him and instead spread his arms yet wider.
"You've got balls, daring to use me as a tool. Just make sure you don't hurt yourself trying to use it... Understand?" he said, the last with a pointed nod to Dallas.
The Genoard suddenly found himself in the spotlight, still at an utter loss as to what was going on.
"Wha... Who the hell are yo-"
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. I don't need to hear whatever it is you've got to say. I heard everything anyway."
Nobody knew when he'd entered the factory, and so it was unclear as to just how much of Dallas' explanation he'd heard, if at all.
Still, Dallas found himself reluctant to point that out.
The look in Felix Walken's eyes made it clear, after all, that he would brook no argument. The penalty for ignoring that look might be death.
And so Dallas only nodded, his mind filled with vaguely formed dread thoughts.
"So let's cut to the chase here. You're trying to use these kids to get rid of the Larvae or whatever you call 'em, right? Oh, I get it. There's some kinda personal grudge between you and them, huh."
Caught utterly flatfooted at being revealed, Dallas' jaw dropped, but he wasn't the only one who was surprised. Jacuzzi's gang immediately erupted in excited gossip.
Some of them--namely Jacuzzi, Nice, and John, among others--had caught on to Dallas' plan some time ago and had been merely waiting to see where he'd try and take them, but now that Felix had revealed Dallas' intentions to all and sundry they could do nothing but sit back and watch to see how things would unfold.
"You... I... That's not..."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever." Felix interrupted, waving one hand dismissively. "Beating around the bush ain't my style. Like I said, let's cut to the chase."
He sauntered over to where Dallas was sitting and casually placed one hand on the other man's shoulder, leaning in close. There was a smile on his face, but the fearsome strength in his voice belied his sunny demeanor.
"I don't really care what you're up to. Whatever it is, it stopped being a threat the moment I got here," Felix said loudly, displaying arrogance that put Dallas' best to shame. "It doesn't matter what kinda scheme you might come up with. It's not even worth entertaining the thought that whatever harebrained scheme a punk like you can come up with might possibly threaten my world, and these kids weren't born yesterday, either. So let me just make this clear. If you're really bent on using me--on using us--then fine. Go ahead."
The threat hidden in those words was obvious to all who heard them.
"Just know that we'll use you in turn," huh...
It went unspoken, but it was no less effective on Dallas for it.
"I'm gonna use you as it suits me, too."
He actually said it.
The encounter, if it could be called that, ended almost as soon as it had started, but it was more than sufficient to make Dallas realize he was up against someone not to be trifled with.
Felix Walken wasn't the sort of person who schemed and plotted, adjusting his plans according to the people he was up against. No, he merely put into action whatever plan might suit his fancy. There was an absolute confidence in him that served to back up those actions.
This fucker's got everything I don't. All the power I need, he has it. That's right, everything. He probably has all the power that exists in this goddamn world!
The emotion that washed over him together with that realization was not envy, but terror.
How can someone like this even exist? Ain't this against the rules or something?
Of course, Dallas hadn't actually seen Felix in action, but the very fact that the man could say and do such things without the slightest hesitation had impressed Felix's power on him just as surely as if he'd had it shown to him physically.
Dallas found himself utterly cowed by the mystery that was Felix Walken, but it wasn't like he could turn tail and run. He kept up an expression of outward calm despite the sweat beading his forehead, frantically trying to come up with an excuse to salvage the situation.
But before he could even open his mouth to say anything, Felix suddenly spoke, cocking his head curiously to one side.
"Hey, aren't you still hiding something?"
"Well, I guess I should say, you are hiding something. Trust me, pal, I know! But it doesn't matter to me."
Truth be told, Dallas was hiding so many somethings that even he had no idea as to which something Felix meant. The sudden inquiry only knocked him further off kilter, so much so that he actually opened his mouth and said, "How did you know?"
Dallas didn't have the faintest idea which of his secrets Felix might know, but he decided to at least acknowledge that Felix knew something, if nothing else.
He sat and stewed, waiting for Felix's reply, unable to predict that that reply might be.
"Hmm? Gut feeling, I guess. Or maybe I can just tell by looking in your eyes. Actually, it's kinda hard to think of a good word for it now that I actually try to tell someone about it. But I guess if I had to express it in words, what I'd say would be..."
Felix paused, briefly searching for the proper words... and finally came up with something that would have sounded more at home coming from the mouth of a fairy tale wizard.
"For me, anything's possible."
The sun had long since set over the Row, leaving only the dark and the steady drumbeat of falling rain.
Soft light shone from the wide windows in each mansion, illuminating the garden plants. The raindrops flashed like short-lived gems, briefly reflecting the light before pattering down into the foliage.
A man and a woman walked silently along the dimly lit rows, shielded from the rain by a pair of umbrellas.
"Hmm... I'd better clean my scissors later, or they'll get rusty..."
"Mhmm. It's about time I gave Murasamia a good sharpening too."
The two of them gazed at their weapons for a moment, eyeing the moisture beading their sheathes before laughing sheepishly.
"We really don't tend to our weapons well, do we."
"Not so, amigo! I look after my swords every day!"
"But they say that the worst thing for the lifespan of a blade other than chipping it on metal is using it to cut living things."
"Ahaha, now that's a lie, amigo. I've heard that it just makes the blade stronger!"
Their voices light and their words dire, the assassin and the torturer continued toward their destination.
There had been such a huge commotion there that it wouldn't have been strange for the Genoard Manor to be in shambles, but there was actually nothing on the outside that made it apparent anything had happened there at all that day. Needless to say, there wasn't a trace of the choking smoke that had flooded the mansion earlier that day.
"Hmm? The lights are on."
Tick and Maria caught sight of the light pouring from the first floor windows and looked uncertainly at each other. They'd expected nobody to have made their way back to the place after such a huge commotion, or at least that anyone who did return would choose to lie low and hide themselves, not leave the lights on after dark.
"Is someone home?"
"Maybe it's the police, amigo."
It was likely, in fact, that the police had turned out in force after hearing reports of the thick smoke that had billowed out of the mansion. It wasn't like the ruckus had taken place in the slums, after all. This was Millionaire Row, home of the rich and powerful. Any strange occurrences would surely be noticed and reported to the proper authorities immediately.
"What do we do?"
"Hold on, let's take a quick look first."
Tick had a pair of wickedly pointed scissors hanging conspicuously from his belt, and Maria was even worse, with two honest-to-God katana sheathed at her side. If the police were to see them, chances were that they wouldn't believe that Tick and Maria were simply a barber and Broadway actor passing by.
They peered cautiously through the windows, but it didn't seem like there were any police inside or in the immediate vicinity. Still, they kept themselves on the alert as Tick stepped up and pressed the doorbell.
The sound should have been shrill, but the rain drowned out even the doorbell's piercing voice, taming it into something careful and subdued.
Tick raised his hand to press the doorbell again, unsure of whether the sound had penetrated the roar of rain...
The door swung upon slowly, the current master--or rather, mistress--of the house cautiously poking her head out.
"Huh?" Tick said, taken aback at the sight of her. "Excuse me, but... who are you?"
It was a question that had no business being asked by the visitors, but in this case Tick had a right to be surprised. He had, after all, expected to be greeted by a group of surly punks, not a slender, gentle-looking girl who looked to be in her mid-teens at the latest.
Granted, there had been a few teenage girls in Jacuzzi's gang who were around that age, but the girl before them radiated none of the roughness that those young women had.
She looked to be someone who had grown up utterly untainted by the dark side of humanity, someone who, had she been but a bit older, would have brought to mind the word "lady" rather than "woman." Tick and Maria, themselves full-fledged members of the criminal underworld, were completely blindsided by the unexpected appearance of this sheltered flower.
"Pardon? Oh. I'm sorry. My name is Eve Genoard," the girl said, duly replying in turn to the question she'd been asked.
She gazed pensively at them for a moment as though considering something, then asked, "Pardon me, but are you Fang's friends?"
Tick and Maria glanced quickly at each other.
All they knew was that the leader of the gang they'd been sent to talk with had been named Jacuzzi; the names of the rest remained a mystery.
Was this Fang part of Splot's posse, or was he someone entirely unrelated?
It was entirely possible that Fang was the name of the repairman who'd been called to fix the destroyed interior, or someone connected to the police.
Still, they couldn't very well say "No." How would they explain their visit otherwise?
"Mmm..." Tick scratched his head, at a loss as to what to say.
Maria, however, had no such qualms. "That's right, amigo!" she said brightly, giving Eve a sunny smile.
"Maria?" Tick whispered.
"Just leave this to me," Maria hissed back.
Eve heaved a sigh of relief and smiled, oblivious to the quick conversation being held between the two criminals.
"Ah, I see! Wait just a moment, please. I'll tell Fang you're here. Won't you come in out of the rain for the moment?"
"Oh, thank you, amigo."
"Pardon?" Eve said, the foreign language alien to her ears. Still, ever the gracious hostess, she smiled and let it slide, turning and walking back into the mansion.
"Fang? Fang?" she called, and soon enough an Asian man with a white bandanna wrapped around his head walked out from one of the rooms a little ways away from the hallway.
"Hey, what happen while I was out shoppi..."
Apparently he'd come out expecting to see his companions. He walked toward them already talking, but soon realized that something was wrong and stopped dead in his tracks.
"...Who are you?" he asked, his brow furrowed with concern.
"Who are they?"
Eve began to turn, but Maria had already begun to move, dashing forward across the hallway in a beeline toward her.
Eve drew a single breath.
Then Maria was there, and the temperature in the mansion abruptly plunged below zero.
"...I don't think you want to move, little princesa."
Murasamia had appeared in her hand as if by magic, coming up and around as she slid into place behind Eve. The keen blade came to rest at the Genoard heiress's throat, and Maria grabbed her roughly around the waist and dragged her back, placing her own back against the wall and facing Fang.
"Ack! Miss Eve?!" Fang cried, but froze in place as he realized it was already too late to do anything.
"Maria, what are you doing?"
Maria tipped Tick a playful wink to allay his worries, wordlessly telling him to trust her. The smile vanished from her face as she turned to Fang.
"Ahaha! I don't need to tell you what's going on here, right? Now, I just want to ask a few questions."
Eve soon overcame her fear and surprise at having a live blade against her throat and struggled to throw off Maria's arm, but the assassin proved surprisingly strong and didn't budge an inch despite the smaller girl's efforts.
She'd trained day in and day out with a heavy metal blade; she didn't even need to exert any visible effort to restrain Eve. If need be, Maria could probably subdue her completely with just one arm.
"Fang, was it? I've got just one question for you, amigo. Do you know Jacuzzi Splot?"
Fang hesitated, unsure of what to say, and Maria flashed a mischievous smile.
"Actually, it doesn't matter what you say, amigo! I can tell that you know him just because you're here in this house! And even if you don't, I'm guessing that this girl might have a clue," she said, sticking out her tongue at him.
Tick cocked his head to one side, uncertain how to react to Maria's strong-arm tactics, but overall seemed disinclined to interfere. He seemed to be able to tell that she had no intention of actually killing anyone.
"I'm sorry, amigo, but... Oh?" Maria said, looking down at Eve as she struggled against her grasp. She seemed surprised for some reason.
"...Have we met somewhere before?"
Eve stopped struggling and cautiously looked up at Maria's face.
At first she didn't make the connection, but soon enough the assassin's unique appearance really began to sink in. Slowly she sifted through her memories of her short time in New York, finally coming up with...
"Wait... Were you with Mr. Gandor at the newspaper office last year...?"
"Huh...? Oh. Oooh. I remember you now, amigo. You're that girl Vino brought along, aren't you?"
They'd never talked to one another, or even been introduced. Their only connection they had was that they'd caught sight of each other's faces for a fleeting moment a year ago, when Eve had been kidnapped and dragged to the Daily Days' office by the Runorata Family's cronies, and Maria had been hired to kill Vino.
Normally that wouldn't have been nearly enough to leave a lasting impression, but Maria's flamboyant getup had stuck in Eve's mind, and Maria in turn seemed to have remembered the willowy, almost ethereal maiden, so unlike the hardened criminals she worked with on a daily basis.
"How... Are you Mr. Gandor's friends? Why are you doing this?"
"Wait, you know our boss?"
...Well, this is bad, to say the least.
The edge up Maria had seized by taking the girl hostage promptly evaporated as it became clear that she was, at the very least, an acquaintance of Luck Gandor.
Still, it wasn't as though she could back out now. Maria kept her eyes on Fang, never loosening the tenseness of her body for a moment.
"Well, uhh... Where's Jacuzzi Splot? No telling what I might do if you don't lead us to him, amigo."
She grinned sheepishly as she told the simple truth.
"Because honestly, I'm kind of at my wit's end here."
"Dallas, hmm? Sounds like the name of a city... Oh, it is." Christopher said, grinning jovially as he sat back in the abandoned building they'd decided to stop at for the moment, south of Grand Central Station.
It just so happened to be one of the secret meeting places that Szilard Quates had installed all over the world, and it was also the very same building Tick and Maria had taken shelter in to avoid the rain just a little while ago, though they had no way of knowing any of this.
"So let me get this straight. This Dallas person is the only lead you've got to finding your friends, right? A little strange, don't you think? Usually ransom notes have demands on them, you know."
"He's that sorta guy. I only met him a few times, but I know that much. He likes to see people hurting, that's all."
"My, that's a scathing review if I ever heard one," Christopher said lightly. He sounded like a man casually commenting on the weather.
To be honest, that was perfectly normal, because Christopher really had no personal stake in the matter at all. One thing had just led to another and Firo had found himself looking for Ennis together with his two new "friends." He'd originally had no intention of dragging complete strangers into his business, but Christopher had rather forcefully insisted on helping.
This just ain't my day...
Besides, it was true that he needed all the help he could get in finding Ennis.
He'd briefly entertained the idea of going back to the Alveare and asking the other Martillo members for help, but he didn't really have any leads and not many of them knew what Dallas looked like. Considering that, Firo didn't think it'd be a great idea to have a large group wandering about without a clear target, doing nothing except making a noticeable commotion.
That ransom note was right there and Maiza saw me leave, so I'm sure he knows that Ennis and Ronnie've been kidnapped.
Ennis had no official connection to the Martillo Family besides living with Firo, but Ronnie Schiatto was none other than the Family's chiamatore. It would take something very serious happening to keep the Martillos from searching for Ronnie, whether Firo asked them to or not.
Come to think of it...
Firo paused in his explanation, a stray thought entering his mind.
Ronnie said something about having something to take care of when he went out to look for Isaac and Miria. Something about a talk with kids from Chicago...
Maybe that group had something to do with Dallas.
It wasn't like Firo had any other leads, so he decided to go with that, as unlikely as it seemed. He had to call Maiza to explain why he'd suddenly run out, anyway.
"...Just a second, I have a phone call to make. I'll be right back, I just need to go to the station," he said to Christopher and Chi, and turned to leave.
Christopher grabbed his arm before he could do more than take a couple of steps.
"What do you want?"
Firo turned back and found his field of vision dominated by a black umbrella.
"Take this," Christopher said, smiling as he handed Firo his umbrella.
Firo paused, looking down at the umbrella as though he couldn't tell what it was for a second, then finally gave Christopher a quick nod. "...Uhh, thanks."
He took the offered umbrella and dashed out into the rainy night, opening it up as he went. It was still pouring outside, and Firo found himself glad for the respite from the rain as he ran, the streets quiet save for the dull pounding of the rain.
...Well, maybe he ain't as bad a guy as he looks.
"Hold on, you're really going to help him out?" Chi asked incredulously, as soon as Firo was safely out of earshot.
"Well, of course. He's my very first out of an eventual one hundred friends!"
"We've got to help Tim tomorrow, you know."
"Well, we'll do that, and then this."
"It might not be that easy," Chi snapped, looking askance at his partner. For his part, Christopher looked as though he couldn't figure out why Chi was angry.
"Look at it this way. If he really won't let us take care of our work," he said, rows of sharp teeth exposed in a gentle smile, "we can just get rid of him."
"...You'd kill your friend?"
Chi fixed him with a cold stare, and Christopher gave it some thought before spreading his arms wide.
"...The death of a friend! Sadness without end! But alas, it is something we must all learn to overcome. We can't go through our lives sad all the time, after all."
"The state of your mind makes me sadder than anything," Chi muttered, heaving a huge sigh. "Christopher. What am I to you?"
"A friend. Why?" Christopher replied immediately, grinning innocently. "How many decades have we worked together? Don't worry. No matter how many friends I may make in the future, you'll always be my number one. Oh, but don't get me wrong. Like I said before, my tastes don't run toward men, so you can rest easy on that."
Chi didn't look relieved at all, his face staying stony as he asked his next question.
"If I betrayed Master Huey, would you kill me?"
"Well, of course!" Christopher cried without a second thought. From his expression it looked like he was even a little surprised that Chi even had to ask. "Why did you want to know?"
Chi saw the expression on his "best friend's" face and sighed again.
"In a way, I have to respect Master Huey for whatever he did to make you as twisted as you are."
The Empire State Building
"Looks like I don't even warrant a footnote to Firo compared to Ennis," Ronnie murmured, tapping his temple with his index finger. He smirked and rested his chin on his palm.
"Well, no matter."
He ignored Isaac and Miria's excited chatter behind him as they examined the wares, calmly staring out the window at the rainy streets.
"The only thing that bothers me is Firo's new friends..." he said, almost as though he could see where Firo was and what he was doing at that very moment. He tapped his temple once more and then stopped suddenly, sitting back.
"Well, no matter. Seeing more would just take the fun out of it..."
Ennis stared at him as he spoke to himself, perplexed.
"Did you say something, Mr. Ronnie? Something about Firo?"
"It was nothing. Don't concern yourself with it."
"Right... But anyway, what are we going to do now?" she asked, a tad worried.
"I am going to have another talk with Jacuzzi Splot tomorrow. You are free to come along, or not, as the case may be."
"You have some business with that other group, don't you?" Ronnie said casually, directing his piercing gaze down at the streets below.
It was foolish to think it, but from the intensity in his gaze it seemed almost like he could see everything that was going to happen in the days to come.
The Abandoned Building
"...Strange," Chi said suddenly.
"What is?" Christopher looked up as his friend uncharacteristically chose to break the long silence. "That there's an abandoned building right next to Grand Central Station? Does it really matter? I prefer to think of it as divine intervention, a little help from on high to get us out of the rain. My most sincere thanks to the holy Great Depression for vacating this building for us."
"That's not it," Chi said, his brow furrowing with concern. "I want to know why Liza hasn't stopped you yet."
Chi put a hand to his forehead as he mentioned their invisible companion.
"Stop me? Why would she stop me? What would she stop me from doing?"
"This. Your whims. Normally she'd have told you to stop it by now... Or if things really got out of hand, she'd have taken care of that Firo kid herself."
"I don't see the problem here. I'm sure Liza just wants me to make friends. A hundred of them, even," Christopher said with a shrug. He grinned sunnily, and Chi heaved a massive sigh.
"...Liza's a dozen times more loyal to Master Huey than even you are. She's willing to follow your lead when it comes to our side job, but she'd never sit by and let you sleep on the job when it comes to his orders."
"Wow, do you really think that little of me? I'll have you know that I'm a hundred times more loyal than Liza is!"
"...The only way that equation could work is if both of you had a loyalty of zero. But to be serious that doesn't matter at all. I was just wondering if something had happened to Liza-"
"Nothing's happened," a voice said from nowhere, ringing inside the abandoned building. It was a smooth, seductive voice that seemed to languorously slip through the air and into their ears.
But no matter where the two men might have looked, they would not have seen the voice's owner. Only the voice itself was there, lacking a mouth but still heard.
"...So you were here."
"My, how cold you sound. Is there a reason I can't be? It isn't like I'm spying on you, you know."
Chi ignored the voice's jests and pursued his original train of thought.
"You heard me, didn't you? Why haven't you stopped Christopher?"
"Because I don't feel like it right now. Chris is right; the job we've got with Tim is tomorrow, not today," Liza said, chuckling. Chi's sharp eyes narrowed even more, becoming razor shards of flint.
"Is that really it? Or... Does this Firo have something to do with our mission this time? Maybe something to do with Master Huey?"
"You're jumping at shadows, Chi dear. Master Huey isn't behind everything I do or don't do. Honestly, honey, you really aren't cut out to be a detective," the voice jeered.
"...Though, you're right," it added a moment later.
"What's that mean?"
Chi's eyes widened, and Christopher, too, directed his gaze at the empty air in surprise. It was only natural, since they couldn't see where the voice was coming from, but even then the sight of two men staring intently at blank space was a strange one.
"I can't tell you yet, and to be honest I'd rather not even if I could. Besides, even I only heard that there might be something about him from the Twins just a moment ago."
"...Then why did you feel the need to make fun of me again?"
"Because life is boring," the voice muttered quietly, as though to herself, and then continued as though nothing had happened.
"I have a message for you from the Twins, Christopher."
"Let's hear it."
"Apparently Adelle is out alone on the streets looking for you. The poor thing's going to catch her death of cold, and it'll all be your fault."
Christopher only made a small noise of vague interest at Liza's taunting, then slowly stretched. It was a lazy, languid thing, like a cat stretching after a nap, almost making it look like his body was made of rubber or supple leather.
"Liza, would you be a dear and tell Adelle we're here?"
"What? You're actually willing to work?" Chi asked, his eyes widening with surprise.
Christopher just shook his head. "What in the world are you talking about, Chi?"
"The more people we have to look for Firo's friends, the better our chances of finding them!" the redhead cried, a wide grin gracing his features.
Chi only sighed and drooped, his arms falling limply as though his steel gloves had suddenly become too heavy to lift.
"...I just realized that I don't think of you as a friend at all."
"W-what?!" Christopher blanched and shuffled backwards hastily. "Does that mean you think of me as a lover, then?!"
"You're someone I'd love to kill, but circumstances prevent me from doing so. For almost four decades now, come to think of it..." Chi said, though both he and Christopher looked to be in their early twenties at the latest.
A casual observer would no doubt have dismissed it as a joke, but Christopher only chuckled bashfully, taking it as a complement. On the one hand it almost looked like he was deep in thought, but on the other hand, almost like he was thinking of nothing at all.
Only the soft sound of Liza's laughter filled the silence between them, coming from everywhere and nowhere.
"Are you sure this is the right way?"
A strange group of people made their way through the roaring torrent of rain that had taken New York literally by storm, heading west along the streets of Manhattan.
"...Yeah," the Asian man at the head of the group said, his expression making it obvious he was none too eager to please.
The two women walking behind him, the one dressed like a dancer holding the younger blonde close as though they were sisters, were sharing a single umbrella. Beside them, a young man with many pairs of scissors hanging from his belt walked along under an umbrella of his own, lost in thought.
Fang waited until they were alone, on a narrow road leading to the Hudson River, before speaking.
"Come on, is enough already, yes? Let Miss Eve go and point that sword at me instead."
"Not happening, amigo. I get the feeling this is keeping you more honest than that would."
At first glance it looked like Eve and Maria were walking together, like good friends. But a closer examination would reveal that Maria was standing slightly behind Eve, her slender fingers resting lightly on the hilt of the katana hanging at her belt, reading to draw at a moment's notice.
She wasn't actually threatening them with it, per se, but everyone there knew that nobody could stop her if she decided to draw and slash. In fact, the threat of her sheathed sword and the lightning fast strike hidden inside was far more effective than a naked blade.
"Fang, don't worry-"
"'-about me and run', you want to say? No way. If I do that, John will hit me, and then Nice will kill me, and then Jacuzzi will cry over dead body. No can say which is worst."
Fang sighed, resigned to his fate, and decided to lead Tick and Maria to the abandoned factory on the Hudson's banks for better or worse. Jacuzzi's gang had agreed ahead of time to regroup there in case of an emergency.
He'd more or less figured out what they were after once he realized that they worked for the Gandors, but what worried him was that they hardly seemed like negotiators at all. That observation led in turn to dark musings about what exactly it was that the Gandors had intended when they'd sent the two of them to "talk" to Jacuzzi.
He forced himself to ignore those troubling thoughts and turned his attention to thinking up a way to get Eve, at least, out of the situation alive and unharmed.
He'd come home with a load of groceries only to find the mansion emptied and the mistress of the house at the front door, looking about uncertainly. Apparently Eve had decided to stay at the Millionaire Row manor for a while while she looked for clues on her missing brother, but she hadn't expected it to be deserted. A quick look at the back entrance and the hallways had told Fang all he needed to know: something had taken place while he was gone. Something violent.
"Good heavens! The scoundrels even broke this vase! Did they even know how much this is worth?!" cried the butler, Benjamin, staring down at the broken fragments.
Actually, that was Jacuzzi... well, never mind.
After that, Benjamin and Samasa had gone to contact the police, while Fang and Eve had stayed behind to look after the house. Scant minutes after the butler and the maid left, a pair of uninvited guests had shown up at the door, and...
Fang couldn't be sure, but he guessed from what the mysterious Gandor Family members were saying that they had had a hand in whatever had caused the main hallway to look like someone had run it through a sawmill.
For the moment, though, he accepted that resistance was futile and continued leading them to the abandoned factory.
Isaac and Miria were there too... Hope they okay, Fang thought to himself, unaware of the complicated interactions going on silently behind him.
Tick stared pensively at Maria, the everpresent smile on his face just a tad dimmer than usual.
"What's wrong? Something on my face?" Maria said. She turned to look at Tick, but most of her attention remained focused on Eve.
She'd forced Eve to hold the umbrella, leaving both her hands free, and the threatening air she exuded made it impossible for Eve to even think of running.
Maria didn't, of course, intend to really cut Eve at all, but Eve didn't need to know that. She needed to keep up a deadly pretense to keep up a credible threat. Tick knew this as well, so he didn't worry too much about Eve's safety.
Neither gave much thought as to what effect the whole fiasco could be having on Eve's mental health.
Stray raindrops caught in Maria's hair glimmered in the dim light, wreathing her in a sparkling halo that made her even more attractive than usual. Tick stared intently at her beautiful face for a moment, then whispered to her in a low voice.
"You know, Maria, I really think we should stop this whole hostage thing..."
"...What's wrong, amigo? You're a torturer, I'm a killer. Don't tell me you're getting cold feet about this all of a sudden? It's not like we care what other people might think about us."
Actually, other people might care very much--Luck Gandor in particular, who would not look favorably on anything that might drag down the Gandor Family's reputation--but Tick didn't mention that. Instead, he chose to voice his observations in a brutally frank way.
"You're trying too hard, Maria."
"I thought I told you you haven't lost yet. But you're still nervous inside. You're really scared."
Outwardly, it looked like Maria was still following Fang like she'd been doing just a moment ago, but inside she was shaking, her attention wildly flickering back and forth between Eve and Tick.
Even Eve seemed to notice the change in the assassin's demeanor, and she began to listen in on the conversation in earnest instead of letting it slip past her.
The rain fell in a steady pitter-patter around them, but to Maria they might as well have been stuck in a soundless vacuum, Tick's words blocking out all sound and ringing fiercely in her heart.
"You really believe you lost that fight, don't you, Maria? That's why you're trying so hard to do this as loudly as you can, so that you can cover that up. You want to forget that you lost and get your confidence back."
A jolt of icy lightning ran down Maria's spine.
It felt like Tick had dug his fingers into an old wound... No, more like he'd torn the scabbed flesh from a poorly healed gash that she'd only just covered with a hasty bandage. Every word that passed Tick's lips struck true, unerringly revealing the thoughts behind her actions.
A sudden cold sweat dampened her clothes, and she floundered in a futile effort to deny him, to deny his words. But no excuses came. Even the simple act of speaking proved a nigh-insurmountable obstacle.
"How... How do you... How do you know all this?"
"Well. I've tortured a lot of different people, you see. I might not understand their feelings, but I know how they work, a little. That's how I could tell you were trying so hard to deny that you're afraid. You look the same as the people I cut sometimes, when they try to be brave and show me they're not scared. Before I break them, that is."
The grisly example would have had any eavesdropper running in fear, but it barely registered to Maria as Tick continued.
"Maybe it's because I've been thinking really hard."
"I've been thinking ever since you asked me, 'What could you possibly know about me?' I've been thinking about you all this time so that maybe I could understand your feelings even a tiny bit better. Mmm... So that's why I said what I did. I saw the expression on your face and that's what I thought you might be thinking," he said slowly, thoughtfully, smiling at Maria all the while.
It was an innocent smile, the same as always, one so pure it looked out of place on the face of an adult.
"So was I right? Was I?"
Maria shook her head slowly as Tick cocked his head to one side curiously, like a curious rabbit.
"You know, amigo... Some things you just shouldn't say aloud, even if you know they're true," she said, an incredulous note entering her tone.
And yet, she smiled.
It was there and gone in an instant, faint like a shadow on a rainy day, but it was genuine. It had been a carefree thing, and for a moment she had looked like the Maria of a day ago.
She had smiled.
Eve came to an important realization.
She decided that if she made a run for it at that moment, the swordswoman would not move to stop her.
But she didn't run.
She'd looked back, and seen for a fleeting moment the smile on her captor's face.
It had not been the sort of smile that she could easily envision gracing the features of an evil person.
I wonder if Dallas can smile like that too...
She quickly brushed the thought away, scolding herself for even comparing her brother to the assassin.
I wonder who took him away...
I wonder if I'll ever see him again...
SoHo, Lower Manhattan
"I have to say, I wasn't expecting this," Tim said frankly, caught genuinely flat-footed by the sight before him.
He sat on a chair turned backwards, his arms folded casually over the back, taking in the rabble crowding the Larvae's temporary hideout.
Dallas Genoard had suddenly appeared at his doorstep, bringing with him a small army of teenagers. It was Jacuzzi Splot's gang, and Splot himself had entered together with Genoard, flanked only by his closest friends. The rest of his gang arrayed themselves in a loose ring around the house, standing far away enough that they wouldn't attract undue attention.
Tim briefly scanned the group packed into the small room and spoke again, his voice tinged with something that might have been grudging respect.
"Not bad. I thought you would've given up on your sister and made a run for it after what you went through today."
"...Eve's safe, right."
It wasn't a question. The hostility oozing from Dallas' every word promised dire consequences if Tim were to provide an unsatisfactory reply.
Tim's mocking smile didn't wilt at all in the face of that murderous glare, and his tone stayed light and casual as he laid out the simple truth.
"Adelle was all for hunting her down and bringing back your little princess's head on her spear, but I told her to wait on it. Taking that into consideration, I believe some thanks are in order. What do you say?"
Dallas took half a step forward at Tim's first words, but managed to keep himself in check once it became clear Eve was still safe.
Tim took this all in with detached, amused air that could almost lead one to believe he was only a slightly interested third party instead of the direct target of Dallas' ire. He turned his gaze to the tattooed youth standing behind Dallas.
"So. I hear you've decided to throw your lot in with us?"
"Yeah... As long as you keep up your part of the deal."
"Of course, of course. Once we're done, I promise I'll make you all the same as Genoard here," Tim said, calmly handing out promises of immortality like a door-to-door salesman peddling his wares.
He got to his feet and gave Jacuzzi a quick once-over from head to toe, his gaze suddenly piercing, as though he was staring straight through Jacuzzi's exterior and into his soul.
"Y'know, though. I don't mean to come off as suspicious, but I'm having a little trouble believing you. Surely you don't expect us to believe that you believe in us unconditionally?"
"...We don't have the time to argue over it. The local mafia might decide to hit us any moment now. I don't want to die and neither do my friends, so we're throwing our lot in with you," Jacuzzi said, looking away. Tim chuckled, satisfied.
"Hahaha. Believe me, I know. Tell the truth, we worried a little about that ourselves, wondering whether the Gandors and Martillos might strike before we could get to you. I suppose it all turned out well in the end, since they just ended up nudging you toward us."
He paused for a beat, the eyes behind his glasses suddenly growing sharp and focused.
"...Mind telling me where the young woman in the black dress who attacked me has gone?"
"We left her back at our hideout. We figured that'd be better for you and for us."
"I don't mind, actually. I was just curious as to why she decided I needed killing in the first place, you see..."
Jacuzzi looked away again, the question catching him off guard despite the fact that it should have been the first thing to expect.
"Umm... Err, I guess... Maybe she just didn't like you?"
"Really, now. I'll have to take care not to be disliked by random women in the future, then," Tim muttered, clearly unsatisfied at the blatant lie, but Jacuzzi hastily changed the subject before he could properly get started.
"So... What do you want us to do?"
"Hmm? Oh, right, right. Sorry about that. That commotion earlier today kept me from telling you the most important part, didn't it."
Tim sat back down, drumming his fingers absently on the table beside him.
"...Well, I'll cut to the chase. If we're to make you guys immortal, we need some special liquor."
"Yeah. Let's dumb it down and call it the Booze of Immortality. It's a cheap knockoff and incomplete at that, but beggars can't be choosers."
Tim conspicuously neglected to explain exactly what it was that made the liquor incomplete, and instead continued to lay out the details of the plan.
"Some alchemist made this stuff a long time ago. After he went and got himself eat- I mean, after he went missing, we lost track of his liquor, but we just found out a little while ago that some company stole it, and they've been hording it all away somewhere."
He flashed a roguish grin and continued.
"Now, we're going up against this band of thieves. They call themselves Nebula. You might've heard of them. All we have to do is liberate the liquor and take it back to where it came from."
Jacuzzi was unable to suppress the light gasp that escaped his lips at the mention of the word "Nebula."
Nebula was, after all, a huge conglomerate, a brand name recognized all over the country--no, all over the world. In terms of financial resources and political sway, the company was on the level of a small country.
And Tim had declared his intent to take something from the grasp of that colossal organization.
He'd come looking for them, which naturally meant that whatever his plan was, it was probably more than a little removed from the right side of the law.
Jacuzzi narrowed his eyes, putting the pieces together.
"You're asking us to help you sneak in and steal this liquor, then."
"Close, but not quite," Tim said, shaking his head in mock sorrow. "We want you do help us storm the building and take it by force."
The impromptu mission briefing came to an end as the phone rang, and one of the Larvae picked it up. He held a brief conversation with whoever was on the other end, then called Tim over and handed him the receiver.
"It's Adelle. The Twins've told her where Christopher is, and she's heading over to pick him up."
"...The Twins, huh. Always leave a bad taste in my mouth, those two... Where're they getting all this info?" Tim muttered, voicing his disapproval with Huey's messengers as he lifted the receiver to his ear.
"Hello. Adelle? Things're going well over here. Yeah. Genoard came back on his own. Yeah, you should just stay with Christopher's group for now. We're done for today, just make sure that you're all where you need to be come tomorrow and..."
Jacuzzi turned to his friends as Tim continued to talk, whispering to them urgently.
"...You think we're gonna be okay? This is turning out to be a lot bigger than we thought..."
"Not like we can back out now, Jacuzzi," Nice murmured soothingly, but John seemed less than content as he stood beside her, his face twisted in a pensive frown.
"What's wrong, John?"
"Well... I just remembered something and it's bothering me."
"W-what is it?" Jacuzzi asked, dread coloring his voice. John gave it a bit more thought and finally voiced his concern.
"...We forgot Fang..."
The Abandoned Factory
"...So you did lie to us after all, eh, amigo?"
"No, no, wait! I just as surprised as you! Where did they all go?!"
The hollow racket of rain from outside the old factory provided the perfect backdrop to the Chinese cook's frantic denials, liberally interspersed with choice invectives in his native language. Fang sounded angry and terrified at the same time, perhaps because Maria had drawn one of her swords and was holding them ready as though to strike him down for his mistake.
The factory was empty. Jacuzzi wasn't there, and neither was anyone else.
Maria had immediately turned on Fang, intent on making him regret his decision to mislead them, but from the tone of his voice and the way he acted she could tell that he was probably telling the truth.
"Calm down, Maria," Tick said, the picture of calm himself as he reined in his partner.
Eve had already become more of a proper member of the group rather than a hostage herself, and she stood unsure on the sidelines, temporarily forgotten as events unfolded.
She had just decided that she'd do something--she didn't know what, but something--if Maria took just one more step toward her Chinese friend, but before she could put that decision into motion, a stiff wind blew past her.
She only had time to see that it was something that glinted silver even in the dim light...
And the next instant the sharp sound of metal on metal filled the factory.
"...Who?" Maria asked.
The playful irritation of a moment before had vanished, replaced with a cagey, guarded smile that was equal parts wariness and anger and curiosity.
She'd swung her sword around in an instant, the blade drawing a tight arc around her body just in time to deflect the silver flash aimed at her back, sending it clattering to the floor. A quick glance at her feet revealed that it had been a small, slender shiv, made specifically for throwing. Slowly, she raised her eyes to look at where the knife had flown in from, and saw a young woman wearing a black dress.
The woman held a pair of knives in her hands, lethal things that would have looked more at home in the hands of a hardened soldier, and animosity was clear in her golden eyes as she glared at Maria.
"Chane!" Fang cried, relief flooding his voice.
For her part, Maria's smile grew feral, her eyes alight with eager recognition as she drew Kochite alongside Murasamia.
"Hey, amigo... Ready for round two, eh?"
It never even entered Maria's mind to question what the knife wielder was doing in the factory. All she saw was a chance to destroy the doubt that festered and grew inside her.
Chane answered with only a glare, all her attention focused on the woman who'd threatened her friend.
The air became supercharged, both women poised on a razor's edge as they waited for someone to make the first move.
Tick looked uneasily back and forth, unsure of what to do, and suddenly realized that someone else was also in the building.
A man stood in the shadows of the machinery behind Chane, away from the single bulb's revealing light.
At first Tick had no idea who it might be, but the sight of the man's blood-red hair, visible even in the shadows, clued him in on the man's identity.
Perhaps noticing that Tick had recognized him, the man slowly walked forward, showing himself.
"So Luck sent you to negotiate this business, Tick?" Claire--no, Felix Walken--said, and Tick smiled innocently in return.
"Yup, Mr. Vino. Wow, it's been a while, hasn't it?"
Maria, on the other hand, didn't take the news quite as gracefully.
"Vi... Vino!" she cried, freezing in place as she stared wide-eyed at the man. "What're you doing here?!"
"What am I doing here? What're you doing here?" Claire shot back. He dismissed her without waiting for a reply, turning to look at Tick instead.
"You friends with Amigo Girl here, Tick? I dunno what the heck was Luck thinking, sending a torture specialist to negotiate with a buncha kids..."
"Well, Mr. Luck told me that this was mostly Martillo Family business, but he thought it wouldn't do for us to look like we were sleeping on the job, and I was free at the time, so..."
"This is news to me, amigo," Maria said, her eyes wide, though she didn't seem too put out. All she cared about was slashing people, and she was fine with Luck hiding things from her as long as it didn't mean she'd have to rein in her fighting instincts. Her surprise had merely been because of the casual way Tick had replied to Vino's question.
"...Eh. Well, there goes the mood," Maria sighed, lowering her swords but not sheathing them. Turning to look at Chane, she said, "I'm willing to fight if you are, I guess. Your call, amigo."
Chane hesitated, blinking slowly. Still keeping most of her attention focused on Maria, she looked up out of the corner of her eye at Vino as he walked up to stand beside her.
Naturally, Vino understood the intent behind her actions immediately and spoke soothingly to her.
"It's okay, Chane. Tick's my friend, and señorita here is weak, so you can just leave this to me."
It was a casual, thoughtless taunt, but the single word made Maria freeze where she stood.
Claire, of course, wasn't one to miss that kind of reaction. He gave it a moment's thought and said, "That's a pretty strong reaction to being called weak. I don't remember you being like that. Lemme guess, you lost a fight to someone besides me recently, didn't ya?"
Not a taunt, and not an expression of pity. It was a simple question, asked out of curiosity, but Maria could not reply.
Vino tore open the wound that had once again just begun to heal.
"Guess I was right."
"None of your business, amigo."
The Maria of that afternoon would have lashed out right then and there in a storm of doubt-driven rage, but she just barely managed to keep her calm thanks to her talks with Tick and the passage of time dulling the pain.
"Not like it matters. As long as you're still alive you can get revenge, right? Besides, being called weak by me? Doesn't mean much. Same goes for 99.999999 percent of the rest of the world, too. Compared to me, that is."
"...I'll slash you too someday, amigo."
"Why not today, here and now? Because you're weak, that's why," Claire said, with an air of finality. He turned away from Maria and plodded over to Tick, his shoulders suddenly slumping.
"Y'know, Chane an' I were having a romantic moment all to ourselves before you all had to go and show up..."
Vino studiously ignored his fiancee's luminescent blush and instead looked to the young girl standing beside Tick.
"Huh... Hang on a second, you're one of Keith and Luck's friends, right?"
"E-excuse me?" Eve stammered, caught completely off guard. She hadn't expected to have the spotlight shone on her at all, but even if she'd kept her composure she would probably have answered the same, for she couldn't remember ever having seen the redheaded man before.
Claire looked down at her and took in her surprise, then suddenly raised a hand to his own forehead as though remembering something.
"Geez, look at me. I forgot I was wearing glasses and a fake mustache back then."
Vino and Eve had met, about a year ago. But Eve couldn't think of who she could possibly have met under such conditions, and her confusion only deepened.
"So, what're you doing here, miss?"
Fang hastily stepped in to cover for Eve while she got her bearings.
"Ah, Mr. Felix, she is the owner of the house we borrowed."
Vino gave a low whistle of appreciation, and even Chane's disinterested expression shifted to one of slight surprise as she stared at Eve.
"What? What's up with her?" Maria asked, finding herself completely in the dark.
"Nah, it's nothing. I was just surprised. Pretty good, miss. You can brag about this if you want. Ain't every day something surprises me, after all."
"Never would've expected Dallas' little sister to be a pretty girl like you. Not much of a family relation, is there."
Now it was Eve's turn to reel in surprise.
"You... You know Dallas?!"
"Whoa, whoa. Is it against the rules for me to know him or something?"
"Please! Please tell me where he is! Please..."
Claire shrugged and gave her the truth, seeing no reason to hide it from somebody who was clearly so desperate.
"Well, he's probably busy now with Jacuzzi's gang, trying to pull off that infiltration plan of theirs, but if you wait I guess you'll be able to meet him tomorrow."
Just then, rapid footfalls from outside alerted them all to someone approaching.
Everyone turned to face the potential new threat, but Vino just called out to the newcomer, as though he'd recognized who it was just from the sound of the nearing footsteps.
"So how'd it go, Jacuzzi?"
Jacuzzi Splot stopped in the doorway, gasping for breath as he reported the results.
"Great... They hardly suspect a thing. I think they're gonna try and storm a building together with that Dallas guy tomorrow."
Jacuzzi took a deep breath, gulping hard against the dryness in his throat.
"It's called the Mist Wall... It's that huge white building that belongs to the Nebula Corporation!"
"So our target for tomorrow is called the Mist Wall? Belongs to the Nebula Corporation, hmm? I wonder if it's visible from here. Mmm. No, doesn't seem like it. What a shame."
Christopher walked in circles inside the building as the rain fell hard outside, his voice as light as ever.
Firo had yet to return, but a woman had joined their group instead.
"Umm... Tim said to... Well, he said to at least scout out the building before we go in tomorrow..."
"Haha. Yes, well, that is pretty important, Adelle. Tim's absolutely right. But I don't feel like it."
"B-but..." Adelle stammered, unsure of what to say. Christopher waved his hands in exaggerated soothing motions.
"I want it to be a surprise, that's all. It's no fun if we know what we're getting into, you know? Besides, I promised someone I'd help him find his friends."
"So why don't you help us, Adelle? You will, won't you? Of course you will. Thank you, dear." Christopher said, running roughshod over her weak protests as he laid out his plan. "Alright. We're looking for three people. Two of them have been kidnapped, and one did the kidnapping. Their names are..."
"Dammit... What's the matter with 'em? Even the boss and Mr. Yaguruma goin' all 'Ronnie can take care of himself'... What a load of crap. If he could take care of himself then he wouldn't've gotten himself kidnapped in the first place!" Firo muttered darkly to himself as he made his way back to the abandoned building. He stopped in the doorway, catching sight of the unknown young woman who'd joined Christopher's group while he was away.
"Welcome back, friend! This here is Adelle. She and I go way back," Christopher cried jovially, and the timid woman beside him gave Firo a short, hesitant nod.
"Ah, uh, yeah. Nice to meetcha, I guess."
How'd he call her? There's no phone in this building...
Firo paused for a moment, but soon dismissed it in favor of telling his new companions what he'd learned.
"Sorry, I couldn't get anyone to help me, but I learned where my friends were headed. They were going to see this guy named Jacuzzi Splot-"
"Yes, yes. We know."
Christopher smiled cheerfully, though the color of his eyes and the fearsome look of his teeth twisted the smile into something that was quite removed from the word "cheerful" and steered it squarely into the territory of "terrifying."
"What? You know?"
"We do indeed. In fact, Adelle here says she even knows where Dallas is."
"Wha?! You... you do?!"
Firo took a step toward Adelle despite himself, making her shrink away. "How... What happened?!"
"Eep. Umm. I mean..."
Christopher stepped in on Adelle's behalf, smoothly laying out the situation.
"Funnily enough, Adelle says she actually met this Jacuzzi fellow earlier today."
"And what's more, she says she saw a young woman wearing a black business suit there, named Ennis."
Hardly any women in New York at the time wore business suits, so hearing even that small detail was enough for Firo to get his hopes up.
"So where is she now?!"
"Well, that's a bit of a problem. Seems there was a commotion over at Jacuzzi's place, and everyone there ended up scattered to the four winds. She doesn't know where they went from there."
"I... I see. Damn..."
"Oh, don't look so down," Christopher said, drawing out the fun as he tantalizingly revealed bits and pieces of vital information, one morsel at a time. "This Dallas you're looking for has apparently teamed up with Jacuzzi Splot's gang."
I see now... Those Chicago kids were working with Dallas... So Dallas got Ronnie when he went to talk with this Jacuzzi guy, and then Ennis too?
Firo grew ever more nervous as he jumped to outlandish conclusions, making up stories in his head that had little to do with reality.
"So anyway, we know where Dallas is going to be tomorrow-"
"Wait," Firo said, holding up one hand as he ordered up the confused thoughts in his head.
How the hell do you people know all this? What are you guys up to-
"Excuse me," Adelle said quietly, almost as though she'd read Firo's thoughts and wanted to cut him off. "There was someone named... Ronnie... back at the house too."
"Ronnie? Oh, yeah, of course he'd be there."
"I just wanted to know... umm... what is he?"
Firo found himself at a loss for words.
Ronnie Schiatto was his superior, and also the man who had taught him how to fight with a knife. He was an immortal, just like Firo himself.
At least, as far as Firo knew.
"What do you mean, what is he?"
He stalled for time, trying to figure out how to answer the question while hiding the matter of immortality from them.
"Well, it doesn't really matter," Christopher said, butting into the conversation. "Whoever or whatever he is, this Ronnie person doesn't have anything to do with us, right?"
He turned to Firo, fixing him with a stare that seemed to pierce his soul.
"And of course it doesn't matter whoever or whatever we are, either, as long as we're helping you find your friends... right?"
He'd had the niggling feeling at the back of his head that something was off about Christopher and his companions, but now Firo reassessed them in his head, making a definite note to be on his guard around them.
"...Yeah, you're right," he said cautiously. But inside, he resolved to find out who they were and what they were after before all was said and done. The thought even entered his head for a moment that maybe these people were actually in cahoots with Dallas.
Technically, if one were to look at it in a very roundabout way, both Dallas and Christopher were currently working for Huey Laforet, but Firo had no way of knowing that.
In a way, it was only natural that Firo was jumping to the wrong conclusions. Every decision he made and every thought he had was, after all, based on the erroneous assumption that Dallas had kidnapped Ennis.
Adelle stood to the side with her head bowed, unable to butt in on the conversation as Christopher and Firo carried it away from her.
"What happened? Something between you and this Ronnie?" Chi murmured from beside her, breaking his customary silence. Her eyes still downcast, Adelle whispered back to him in a voice low enough that nobody but Chi could hear.
"He was... foreign, somehow... different... More than any other human I've ever met... That is... even more than Master Huey..."
Chi snorted, but Adelle knew what she had sensed.
"I think... I think that Ronnie person..."
She remembered the way the very air had frozen in the man's presence, and trembled.
"...wasn't a person at all..."
The Empire State Building
"This is an unexpected turn of events," Ronnie said to himself, looking out the window. Once again he had his hand to his head, tapping his temple with one finger. With each slow tap his expression changed, as though he were seeing something new every time.
"Hmm. I wonder how much I should get involved."
Beside him, Ennis stared at him, more confused than ever, unsure of what to think of the Martillo capo's mutterings.
"Excuse me, Mr. Ronnie. What are we going to do now?"
"Do you even need to ask? If you don't feel like playing along with Isaac and Miria, then you should probably go back home now and stop Firo's worrying."
Ennis glanced at the couch that had originally been placed there for guests. Having tired themselves out from dancing some time ago, Isaac and Miria were sprawled in an ungainly tangle of limbs on the expensive leather, leaning against each other and snoring softly.
She'd originally come to take them with her, but somehow or other she'd ended up tagging along with them instead. She found herself torn between the urge to go along with what the odd couple had asked of her, and the increasing burden of guilt she felt over having left Firo behind.
But even stronger than that guilt was the feeling that if she went back to Firo as she was, she'd lose sight of something important, something that danced teasingly at the edges of her consciousness.
"I don't know what I should do... So much happened today that I..."
"It's just the conversation you had with that woman today, isn't it? Rather, that name she mentioned. Szilard Quates."
Ennis looked down, acknowledging that he was right.
"The shades of what Quates left behind still lurk in the dark corners of this nation--no, of the world--just waiting to trap the unwary. It might be quicker to stand and face them, instead of running away."
"What was that?"
Ennis found herself even more confused than ever in the face of Ronnie's inexplicable knowledge.
How does he know about Master Szilard? Maybe he heard about it from Mr. Maiza.
She started suddenly, realizing that the title of "Master" still unconsciously accompanied the thought of Szilard Quates inside her head. The revelation only served to complicate her heart even more.
Ronnie chose that moment to speak, his voice calm and measured as though he could read her mind and sought to soothe her distress.
"...I could tell you who that woman with the spear was, but if you want to understand what's going on and find the answer for yourself... Pay a visit to the Mist Wall tomorrow."
"The Mist Wall? The white building just a little down the street?"
"That's the one. Tomorrow... Well, tomorrow, something's going to happen there, and the spearwoman'll show up there too, along with her friends," Ronnie said, with an air of finality that made it seem like he was stating a fact and not conjecture. Ennis' curiosity finally reached its limit.
"Excuse me... Mr. Ronnie. Who... What are you?"
Ronnie kept his silence for a second, then smiled enigmatically, as though to test her.
"Which answer do you want, Ennis?"
"Do you want me to tell you that I'm some omnipotent being, an existence that far surpasses mankind? Or do you want me to tell you that I'm just a normal man? Perhaps you want something else. Do you want me to brush it off with 'I am who I am', or do you want me to tell you that that's a question I can't answer? Whatever I choose to say, it's up to you whether or not to accept it. In that case, it's pointless to tell you right now."
It seemed deep and mysterious at first glance, but in reality the words had just been chosen to confuse her without providing a straight answer.
Ennis couldn't find it in herself to press for one.
She felt like something precious inside her would break if she learned the truth.
Ronnie did not wait for her to reply, instead staring out at the dark, rainy night.
"...Don't worry. I've decided I don't know the future. It takes all the fun out of life. That's why I'm looking forward to what'll happen," he said, his words making it clear that he very well could know what the future held, if only he so willed it. A smile appeared on his face, as though he was enjoying the whole situation.
"I've become a little bit curious, you see. I want to see who'll finally end up untying this hopelessly tangled knot... Or, on the other hand, if Huey or Nebula just decides to swallow it whole."
The rain continued to fall, heedless of the being who watched it with a dark smile gracing his features.
The heavy pounding of water on concrete slashed through the darkness, running rampant through the night.
As though the rain sought to sink all of Manhattan under the waves, drowning all the many things that were tangled up inside...
Chapter 4 End