"So he's still asleep?"
"Yes. Every attempt they've made to wake him failed. Bianchi thinks that he is somehow resisting treatment."
"The flesh is weak, but the spirit endures?"
"I've heard of incidents like this, but I never expected to see it myself."
"I'm sorry, Jean."
"It wasn't my brother. It was Henrietta."
"Yes. It was when Giuseppe and I first met her."
"You told me that she wanted to die back then."
"But we saved her."
"Did we?" It was the first time Jean ever sounded uncertain
"You did. We did." Mireille regarded their prisoner with pity. "So this man is going through the same… despair?"
"It's the only explanation I can think of."
"That girl must have been very precious to him."
"Yes. She probably was."
They watched their prisoner dream of different days.
"I wonder what he is dreaming of…"
"You killed my family. You killed everyone I cared for.
"I hate you! I hate you! I will never forgive you! That's why… that's why…
"I'll kill you!"
Gunslinger Girl and the other shows mentioned here are not mine. I only own my original characters.
To my Grandmother, Julita Cipriano Nagtalon, always Lola Juling to me, who was reunited with her beloved husband last October.
Paalam po. Mahal na mahal ko po kayo.
He straightened out of his lazy slouch. He couldn't have his wife scold him over poor body posture. Though Christian and Catholic, she also believed in perfect Zen balance. And he believed in her, who believed in him.
"Hai, anata?" he asked.Yes, Dear?
It was the doting (cuckold to the cynic like him, but in this case –his case– he trusted in the former interpretation) husband's automatic response.
"May I hold a chaji for you?"
Hibiki learned her English from a half-Brit bibliophile friend. Her cultured British accent always awed him. His own command of the language came from the 'tax-evading colonies'. An already bastardized version further corrupted by a people who all too happily copied whatever was popular at the time. A people whose policy in trying times was to laugh things off, or at least smile, which he now did.
"Of course, Dear…"
They wordlessly put on kimono reserved for formal occasions. Hibiki wore her favorite red set. He picked randomly from a quartet of black kimono and was helped into it without protest or teasing, him the doting husband, her as his devoted wife.
Down the dewy path ambled the odd couple, the samurai's daughter and her gaijin husband. Hibiki bore the storage box of the traditional tea-making tools straight into the teahouse. He waited outside for her signal, rinsing his hands and mouth from the basin beside the stone bench as his mind sifted through clues and possibilities.
Nihongo is a very specific language. Chaji translated to 'tea function'. The word referred to the formalSadō, the complete tea ceremony with all the symbolic frills installed by the T'ang Dynasty and Zen Buddhism. Compare this with the casual chakai or 'tea meeting', the tea lover's equivalent to drive-through fast food.
Hibiki didn't insert that lone Japanese word for local flavor. She only held a private chaji for him when she wished to discuss something important. The last time she did so–
She sent me off with her blessings to avenge Mom and Dad.
Summoned at last by the ringing of a bronze gong, he entered the teahouse door bare-footed. Hibiki sat seiza style on the tatami mat before him. He carefully settled into the same position. By now he not only withstood the steady stress on his joints but appreciated the ache it brought. It proved he could still feel. It proved he was still alive.
Or so he hoped.
Hours blurred by. He considered his performance flawless. Not a single wasted joule of energy, his motions precise to the millimeter, directed by the superhuman focus he'd learned from his host, his sensei in so many matters of the mind and body and heart.
At last Hibiki put away the tea-making utensils. In his younger days, he would have taken that as the sign to promptly collapse, his legs relieved at last of that crushing weight. Now, he bowed properly, the honored guest's traditional show of appreciation. Seiza was nothing to him now, nothing compared to his heartache.
"Domo arigato gozaimasu."Thank you very much.
"Dou itashi mashite de gozaimasu." You are very welcome.
Thede gozaimasuwas a polite speech affectation of hers. The verbal tic established her roots as a classic samurai, the last of the line founded by her infamous ancestor, a man who forsook power and riches and homeland for an alien faith and a strange new world.
He waited for her judgment of his performance.
That worried him. She was always quick and accurate to the point, like the iajitsu style she inherited, mastered, and taught. To have her deliberate…
"Elde," Hibiki finally began, "I think you should leave."
He gaped. His clever tongue failed him for a full minute. He recovered his voice but not his composure. "What do you mean?" he sputtered.
"You should leave this place. Travel somewhere else. Go anywhere but here."
"You're kicking me out?"
"When you returned–"Samurai decorum forbade Hibiki from shaking her head. He wished she could submit to human need this once. "No," she corrected herself. "You have yet to return. Your heart remains there. You are still there."
He could not meet her haze. She was not accusing him. There was no need for her to do so. Prosecutor, judge, jury, executioner, and condemned – he played all those roles himself.
Vengeance was the Lord's. But he gladly served as His burning sword. He hunted down and killed every single soul involved in the murder of his parents. The code name Rouge –a mistranslation of Rogue, the fairly light-hearted moniker he first wanted– came to be overshadowed by a darker title.
Masakari teasingly called him Kira. Killer. It was a very truthful name. No one survived his onslaught. He murdered all who got in his way.
All save one.
"I knew it."
Jeremy Colt often confided in an imaginary person. He needed receptive sounding boards. Chloe took him too literally. Colt himself admitted to be abnormally sarcastic. His migraines didn't help. Neither did the latest cause of his headaches.
"He never learns. You'd think he'd learn." Every syllable dripped disgust. Colt wanted to spit out the painkillers he'd just chugged down. "Not."
The warning came through the evening news. A fierce fire in Trastevere had gutted half a dozen houses. One of them happened to be Rolito's new HQ as confirmed by Chloe. And Rouge did not answer or call back.
Colt didn't believe in random chance. Sometimes he even believed a fickle tsundere tyrant super director goddess was out to get him. Considering the whole of Creation as The Enemy helped to keep him on his toes.
Rouge tended to forget that cardinal rule. Rather, that idiot Flip liked to ignore it. And look what it got him. Again.
"Deja vu," Colt grunted. "It's Manila all over again."
And if bad turned to worse– like it always did…
His Alfa Romeo was brand new, completely legal, and paid with cash, Rolito being ever generous with advance pays. Colt easily kept a brisk eighty klicks per hour on the empty highway to Austria. His lowdown to Chloe proceeded at the same pace.
"Rouge won't talk. He thinks blabbing equals betrayal. And there's nothing he hates more than traitors. He'd kill himself first before he betrays his buddies. But the little girl–"
"Elena," Chloe corrected. She was shooting yet another of her thousand-yard-stares out the window.
"-yeah, well, she's MIA, too. You saw how soft Rouge is on her." And it looks like you're soft for her, too, Chloe. "If I were the baddies, I'd use her against him."
She regarded him even more coldly than usual. Colt stifled a snort. And to think you and the kid were about to kill each other when you first met. Women…
But he didn't want a knife in his shoulder during a live session of World's Scariest Police Chases. So he elaborated. "I don't even need to actually touch her. I'd just tell him I'll make a woman out of her, if you know what I mean."
Chloe's blank expression eloquently stated her inability to understand his euphemism.
"Anyway," Colt sourly continued, "Rouge will tattle to protect her cute little head. Guess who he'll rat on first?"
"Information about Amalgam would be more valuable to the enemy."
"Yeah, it is. But Rouge will hold out. That's his ace in the hole. He's smart. He knows he's at their mercy. So he'll try to persuade them he is important. But he can't tell them about Amalgam-"
"-because his master will not take betrayal kindly," Chloe finished. "Yet he is willing to betray us to the enemy."
"He expects us to survive. Maybe kill some of the guys who come after us."
"Would that not cause his captors to disbelieve him?"
"You take risks to win big."
"Rolito plays a very dangerous game."
Colt grimaced. "It gets nastier. His kid is probably dead."
"We do not know that for sure."
"Something blew up, Chloe."
"Perhaps the kitchen had a gas tank."
"It had an electric stove and oven. I checked the brochure. So did you."
"An electrical fire, then," Chloe persisted.
"The place was brand new. It was a bomb. It was probably an incendiary since there wasn't much of an explosion," guessed Colt.
"Rolito isn't the type to use bombs."
"Not when I knew him, no. But now that he's a member of Shocker?"
"Whatever," Colt dismissed. "The bomb is to cover up stuff. Destroy something that should stay secret."
Chloe reluctantly did so. "Elena?"
"The kid was a super advanced fighting robot. Amalgam wouldn't want her wonder doodads with anyone else. So they melt her instead."
"Melt?" Her shock came as a whisper.
"That girl is a cyborg, Chloe. Living tissue over metal exoskeleton. If she's anything like the American dolls, she's tough. Even if she blows up, there'll be enough left of her for the Italians to copy whatever she's made of. So the bomb has to melt her to be sure. It was probably thermite. That stuff will melt tank armor. She's good as barbecued." And burnt human smelled like pork. Colt knew. All too well. "The only good thing about this sorry story is that the bomb was probably rigged with a dead man's switch. So she was already dead when it went off..."
He stopped too late. Chloe's head wasn't just in the clouds; it had entered low Earth orbit.
The greatest assassin in the world was emo beyond belief.
This sucks, Colt groused.
Chloe knew the bitter taste of loneliness all too well. When last overwhelmed by that unpleasant sensation, it had taken a fork to her sternum and a near-death experience to snap her out of it.
And now she was alone again. That Child wasn't here. Corsica's daughter stood against her once more. And Jeremy– he had always been there for her, ever since that day in the middle of nowhere where she died and was reborn, and even earlier. But he wasn't a very nice man.
Neither was Chloe herself. She was Shin Noir, after all. One of the most fearsome assassins on the planet, she could penetrate any defense and kill almost any target.
And yet the title which defined her ensured that she was perturbed. She slew only when necessary. She spared when given the chance.
If love could destroy, hate could save. That was her mother's creed. That belief had been killed for sure by That Child's fork. But traces of it lingered in her adopted daughter. And the exception proved the rule.
There was no honor, no purpose in slaughtering children, cyborg or not. She was a killer, not a murderer. There was a difference.
"Jeremy? What will happen now?"
"What else? Rome is going to be ground zero for World War III."
"Where are you? Are you here?"
That was the question Hibiki posed to him.
"I don't know. I don't know anymore. I want to know."
Silence, it was said, was the greatest passion of them all. They dwelt in its fury for the longest minute of their lives.
"Go," Hibiki finally said. "Leave, Elde."
"I don't want to leave you," he immediately pleaded.
"I do not wish to part us, either. But I love you, Elde. That is why I must let you go."
Hedgehog's Dilemma. They loved one other. But they hurt each other when they came close. So they needed to stay apart for their own good.
Then why did he lie? Why did he try to hurt her more by resisting, moving closer, claiming "This is where I belong"?
But she would not stay. "Prove it to me," she told him.
He couldn't. One lie hurt enough. And why should she believe in him? He didn't believe in himself anymore. He didn't know why she trusted him.
"I will wait for you," Hibiki assured him.
"You've waited far too long."
"I am no use to you this way."
"That's not true!"
He wept. For himself, a sorry wretch who didn't deserve her– and for her, who could do anything but cry.
Her hands caressed his damp cheeks, gently lifted his face up to hers. "I tried, Elde," Hibiki whispered. "I did my best to lift your spirits. But I failed. I could not banish your grief."
He saw all too clearly, knew all too well, how much it pained her. The last direct descendant of a exiled Kirishitan Daimyo, mistress of her ancestral sword school, a Yamato Nadeshiko whom he loved even more than he ever worshipped Vien, but Takane Hibiki still lost to a dead little girl. She, whom he believed invincible, gave up, surrendered.
"It is up to you now, Elde. You must find the strength in you to move on."
"Yes. I will. I promise, Hibiki."
They made love, then, in the one place in the Takane domain that had been spared so far. Their day-long tryst probably caused the spirit of the clan progenitor, Dom Justo Takayama, to rise from his grave and beg mercy from his all-too-improperly-enthusiastic descendant. It did finally grant a dearly departed mother's wish for a grandchild. As Elde would have expected, their firstborn proved a boy. And little Jestoni Junior inherited his father's peaked nose.
But that was in the future. All they knew at that time was that life needed to go on. That he needed to go.
"Take care, Dani."
They hugged. Not for the last time, they fervently hoped and fiercely prayed.
Playtime was over. Capturing the still-unnamed Amalgam agent spooked Crazy Horse into a run for the Austrian border worthy of a Grand Theft Auto game. Mr. Superior had dispatched additional Teams to counter whatever new firepower and assistance Amalgam had provided its newest recruit. Those Teams already in theater were ordered to continue bird dogging for their backup.
The Americans and their Italian sisters-in-arms exchanged ardent goodbyes. A tearful Henrietta promised to write back. The equally emotional Danielle directed her to Claes' computer for a quicker e-mail correspondence. Meanwhile, the desktop's owner gifted a copy of Lolita to Yuki, who'd come to like the book. Yuki sealed the deal with the first volume of Kodomo no Jikan.
"It belonged to Dani," the pale-haired girl explained matter-of-factly to all the eyebrows raised. "She gave it to me so that I have something to give Claes in return."
"I see," was Claes' deadpan reply.
Vincent became very nervous around his sweetly-smiling ward ever after.
Henrietta helped Danielle pack. It was a melancholy affair. Though they stood together, they felt so apart. And all because of that mission, that man…
Several days ago…
Henrietta could breathe again. Mireille told her that their target was guarded by a girl cyborg. She believed her handler. Why would her Miss Mireille lie to her?
Yet worry still clenched her chest. It could be him. Their target resembled the man in black from the Mirasol, the man that Liesel glimpsed. This man could be his handler.
What would she do if she saw him?
Anxiety aided her disguise. The girl who answered their doorbell didn't spare them a second glace. Rookie maids like the ones they cosplayed (and what a strange term that was, even coming from Dani) were understandably nervous when meeting with new employers. That allowed the two hit-kids to get the first, fatal shot.
Danielle kicked the door open and the corpse onto its back. Her Mateba prepared to ensure their enemy was well and truly dead. Else, she would be the one on the floor with Etta weeping over her lifeless body– if Etta was still alive and not killed by an enemy playing possum.
Dani couldn't allow that. She wouldn't let anyone hurt her precious friend.
But this bloody mess wouldn't hurt even a fly, not anymore. Red mush overflowed from the girl's left eye socket. The surviving brown pupil stared straight at the ceiling without seeing.
Good, Dani thought.
The gunslinger girls spun. Fingers froze over triggers. The apron-wearing man was unarmed. That made him easier to take alive.
"Freeze!" Danielle yelled. Henrietta belted out the Italian equivalent.
They were ignored.
"I said freeze!"
The command fell on deaf ears. The man bore eyes only for the dead girl. His lips fluttered with every step he took. Enhanced hearing picked up every syllable.
Dani did not like being ignored. But her orders forbade killing their target. So she contented herself with grabbing him.
"Uso!" No way!
She must have imagined that the air around her had gone cold. But the hairs on the back of her neck shot straight up. "Etta!" Dani warned.
Henrietta had the man in her Kahr's sights. She couldn't miss at this range.
Yes, she saw, all too clearly, the veil of sorrow drawn across his unseeing eyes, his seemingly silent approach, the way he struggled feebly against dead weight chained to his ankles and wrists and throat.
He faded by her.
To Dani's amazement, Henrietta let the man pass.
Just like I let Giuseppe go…
The man knelt beside the dead girl. He gathered up the tangled mess in his arms and settled his lips upon her pale forehead. "Elena," he murmured anew. Then he pressed the devastated face against his flour-dusted apron, sank his face into her matted hair, and wept.
"Mahal kita, Elena. Mahal na mahal kita. Magpakailanman."
Henrietta heard it all. She didn't understand the foreign words. Neither did Dani. But the man's feelings felt all too familiar. They were Etta's own. They were Giuseppe's.
He loves her. Like how Giuseppe loves me.
The accusation struck like a bolt out of the blue. Only now did the full portent of her heinous crime occur to her.
She loved her handler.
She also loved a boy who shared his face.
Did she treasure one more than the other? If so, who did she truly adore? Did she desire the cyborg because he looked like her handler? And why did she want him when he tried to kill her? When her handler already dwelt in her heart? Did she want to replace Giuseppe with– but who was who?
"I don't know if I love you… But I want to know. Do you love me?"
Stunned by the enormity of her infidelity, Henrietta stood heedless of the insistent electronic beeps coming from the dead girl at her feet.
And everything went to Hell.
"The girl had a bomb in her body," Danielle grimly explained later that day, back at the former monastery. "It was set to blow up if she was killed." Her small hands clenched. "Amalgam is really evil…"
Dani had saved the mission. She had shoved the dazed Henrietta out the door, then grabbed their mark and cleared the apartment just as the dead girl became a funeral pyre.
It hadn't been much of a blast. Where was the earth-shattering kaboom? Yet it brought Hell on Earth, a raging ifrit that resisted baptism and exorcism, Trastevere's winding streets hampering firefighters' best efforts and oversized equipment. Amazingly, no civilians were hurt, though the damage ran into the millions of euros.
Dani focused on more important matters, a far more important person, to worry about than fire and brimstone come straight out of Dante's Inferno.
"Are you all right, Etta?"
"Yes… thank you, Dani. You saved my life back then."
"It's nothing. You'd do the same for me, right?"
"Of course. You're very important to me."
Their chuckles were strained and solitary. Suddenly they were strangers again. Dani hastily broached another topic.
"Hey, did you feel something weird about that guy we caught? When I grabbed that guy for the first time, I missed. I could have sworn I had him dead to rights! But I missed!"
Encouraged by Henrietta's obedient nod, Dani persisted in bridging the unexpected gulf between them. "And when you tried to shoot him, you froze up. It's like he somehow hypnotized you!"
"Y-you're right… I did feel odd…"
"You see! What is it with that guy? Is he some sort of esper?"
Henrietta's stare this time was her usual curious confusion. "What's an esper?" she finally asked.
"You have got to read more, Sis…"
She did just that. Etta and Dani adored each other. They were practically joined at the hip in the short time they'd known each other. Fratella, the others jokingly called them. They certainly looked the part of sisters, of family.
Yet even siblings couldn't fully understand each other. Even families kept secrets.
And so, with Danielle gone now (forever?), Henrietta whispered his name. And this time she thought she knew whom she invoked.
He settled on Sheo Darren. That particular alias amused him. It was so easy to mispronounce his first name. She-oh? Shio? Two identities for the price of one, so said–
Italy sat on the other side of the planet. He liked the pleasant weather, great food, and warm people. He even bothered to master the language. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
Well, save trouncing a mom-and-pop restaurant, like the half dozen soccer hooligans that he spotted one fine summer day in Trastevere.
He shrugged it off. He was nobody's hero. He couldn't save the ones he loved. What more these utter strangers?
Then he glimpsed the name of the restaurant.
Well, now. Who'd have thunk it? A restaurant named after his favorite alias. It flattered him.
It also made the harassment personal.
He ambled over to the biggest specimen of Eurotrash oft found in a Luc Besson movie. This worthy held up a bruised French kid by an expensive shirt front.
"Excuse me," 'Sheo' politely asked the human Mount Etna towering head, shoulders, and chest over his graying head.
"What?" that modern day Neanderthal sneered. "Can't you see I'm busy?"
"I know, but I'd like to order something."
"Blow me, Chink. Do I look like a waiter in your slitty little eyes?"
"Search me." And he made a show of shrugging. "YouAmericansall look alike to me."
That did it. Compare a European to anythingbutthose tax evader colonials. The thug dropped his victim and snarled "You picking a fight with me?"
"Hah! Who do you think you are?"
A rhetorical question, that. He needed no distraction. These weren't the Devil; they were practice. And it was stupid to spout a smartass crack during a fight, even one where he outnumbered and surrounded the enemy by his lonesome.
Yet why shouldn't he? He was a Filipino. He loved Filipino action movies rife with such one-liners, where the good guy always won the bar fight and the gun fight and the girl's love. He was about to perform something on the same level of awesome as the 80 ton Assault class BattleMech. And the remark that started it all would even become a motto of his later down the line.
Who did people think he was, indeed?
"Me? I'm just a writer. And as everyone knows, the pen is mightier than the sword."
The always-late police found six thugs in need of critical medical attention. 'Sheo' discovered a home away from home, surrogate parents, and an annoying notional sibling whom he often needed to bail out of many a sticky situation.
"Kid, the next time your pecker wanders into some random blonde Dutch delight's pants, I swear, it's your funeral by neck snap…"
Somehow he managed to put up with that stupid Gaul stud. Auntie Carla and Uncle Francisco did adopt the kid first. Live and let live.
You killed the first and last sister you ever had. You don't deserve better.
The phone call caught him in such a fugue. "Hello?" he muttered into his cell phone.
"(I need a killer.)"
They found him. They always came at this time. How did they always find him?
"… I'm listening," he muttered.
He'd heard bits and pieces about Amalgam. His initial impression rivaled his opinion of the wretched hive of scum and villainy called Roanapur. And he knew better than to be charmed by the good manners of the pretty boy with the sleek waterfall of silver hair. Not with Spetnaz Grandpa and the dynamic duo of Iron Man and War Machine to dampen the mood of the meet. Politeness did go arm-in-arm with having a plan to kill everyone you met.
So his common sense tingled when this interview with the Dark Side proceeded way too smoothly for the taste of one recently fallen Jedi Knight, or so he whimsically imagined himself.
"What happened?" he asked.
"To condense a long and convoluted story fit to fill several short novels, I was shot in the head." The younger man smiled. "And then I got better."
"Mr. Silver, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship…"
And then they got to the giant robots. That could turn invisible. And create force fields using courage. Or fighting spirit. Or something to that effect.
And he was entitled to one such super robot as a perk.
"(Best job in the world, boys! Mwahahahahaha!)"
Those were the shining days. He was the crazy awesome anti-villain with the good publicity and penchant for gambits worthy of the goddamned Batman. He fought alongside elite mooks and magical girls turned mad scientists and tyke bombs. He taught some, led others, and even befriended a few.
And to an orphaned boy and his dying sister, he became their father, family, and salvation.
"Yes? Who are you?"
"What do we know so far about this man, Jean?"
"That he is dangerous and better off this way," was his prompt answer.
A Section Two safe house currently hosted their prisoner. The Amalgam agent was hooked up to an IV drip, an EKG, and a machine that collected body waste. He had been comatose the whole week.
Danielle swore that it wasn't her fault. "I didn't hit him! Uh, okay, maybe he landed badly on his head when I chucked him out the doorway right before the bomb exploded," the little girl amended. She knew better than to try and deceive Jean Croce.
Jean barely cared. At least their prisoner survived the subsequent explosion. But almost-dead men kept secrets just as well as the dearly departed. And the Amalgam agent was not going to wake up soon.
He did have hearsay to sift through. "Our Padania informant identified him as Remue Dadaam Herumet," he informed Lorenzo. "It's an alias, of course. Herumet claimed his surname is the Japanese rendition of the German 'Helmut'. But Vincent told me that the proper translation is Herumuto, not Herumet." Jean frowned. "Vincent also pointed out that the name sounds a lot like 'Remove the damn helmet' in English. That line is a long-standing joke regarding a character in an anime called Gundam."
"So we have a terrorist with a twisted sense of humor and a taste for old cartoons?" Lorenzo grunted.
"Anime, Sir. There is apparently a difference."
He knew that look on Lorenzo's face. The one plainly wondering if his star performer was turning into an anime otaku like Vincent and his Henrietta-lookalike cyborg.
"Anime is Asian in origin," Jean persisted. "And Herumet appears to be Asian. It's a weak link, but it's all we have right now. His profile, DNA and fingerprints do not match anything on any crime database. His cyborg is also a dead end."
In more ways than one, Jean didn't bother adding. Her fiery demise reduced the apartment to ashes and melted a laptop, a bevy of cell phones, and herself into unsalvageable puddles of plastic and metal. Not even Massi could discern much from slag. And despite Henrietta's drawings and the blood splatter recovered from the man's apron, identifying the girl would be arduous, tedious, and ultimately futile. Section Two knew best just how many orphans littered Italy.
This nameless girl was just another victim.
He recalled Mireille's sympathetic opinion during yesterday's briefing. "She still serves him in death," she said of the dead girl.
"What a waste," had been his reply back then. Jean now wondered if he had meant it as backhanded praise.
"What else do we know?" Lorenzo asked him.
"The CRG prisoners from the Mirasol call him Colonel Daren. They've been led to believe that Herumet is a Taiwanese weapons dealer. So have Olga's contacts in the KGB; Herumet is listed as Shu Tao Ren in China and Russia. In Spain, he goes by the name of Alexis del Mundo and is apparently a supporter of the Basque terrorist group ETA."
"Amalgam seems to get around a lot. This man must be an important agent." Lorenzo frowned at what appeared to be a consortium of evil. "His organization is going to respond to his capture with everything they have…"
"I've prepared for that eventuality. Herumet doesn't seem to have any tracking beacons inside his body. But we kept him in a heavily-guarded safe house just in case." Jean timed his next disclosure. "I've also taken the liberty of contacting a mercenary group to bolster our security."
"It was necessary, Sir. Amalgam possesses Arm Slaves. We cannot match their firepower."
"Why not just contact the Italian Army or NATO? We're on good terms with the Sparrows. They have Arm Slaves, too, right?"
"Sir, ten years ago, a lone Amalgam Arm Slave wiped out an entire US Marine battalion." That level of lethality chilled Jean. No single man should equal an army. "Amalgam is not any mere terrorist organization. They're merchants of death with access to technology and weaponry beyond our imagination. Not even the Sparrows can stand against them."
"But these mercenaries you hired can?"
"They specialize in fighting terrorists like Amalgam. They've been doing so for the past two decades. You can say they are Amalgam's natural enemy."
"What are they called?"
"Them? I thought they were an urban legend…"
"I thought so as well. But Master Sergeant Germi helped me contact them. Mithril has agreed to assist us. They've deployed their best team in Italy. I've assigned Mireille to serve as their liaison."
"How much is it going to cost?" The issue always came down to money.
"Enough." Jean allowed a cold smile to permeate his handsome face. "They gave us a discount. Mithril wants to interrogate Herumet as much as we do."
"If he wakes up…"
"He will, Sir. We'll make him."
Vien found them. She was always the super cop. No evil could escape her sight. She was the law. And the law was not mocked. There was nothing in the world they shared… not anymore. It was either her or him.
She spirited them away. She nursed him back to health. Destroyed all evidence and covered up his mistakes.
She was his cousin. She loved him.
She was his first love.
Jessica was finally reunited with her parents. Her mother had died giving birth to her. Her father gave up his life for her during one dark and stormy night, not knowing the dark knight into whose arms he entrusted his beloved daughter would fail. And Nana, poor Ate Nana, desperately in love with the devil, willing to take on the deep blue sea of onrushing revenge-
"If you want to kill Kuya Jess… you must kill me first!"
And he did. He made it quick and painless. And he wept while doing so.
Nana was his cousin. He loved her almost as much as he did Vien.
And yet he murdered her all the same.
They were all dead. Uncle Jestoni and Nana died by his hands. Jess…
He killed Jess, too, didn't he? He promised to protect her. But he failed that promise. He let her die.
He should have joined them. But he survived. Heaven would never accept him. Hell's denizens feared him. So in Limbo he remained, forever wandering this Purgatory, burning for all his sins, weeping for all his victims, for Jess.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. All he ever dreamed of was to become a hero who defended the right. All he ever wanted was to protect the ones he cared for, the girl he loved the most.
So why did he become the villain of the story? Why was he the bad guy now?
Either you die a hero, or you live long enough to become the villain.
Yet, in the end, good or bad or guy with the sword, his deeds were done. The ghosts of Raoul and Evelinda Talon could rest easy. Not a single accomplice to their murder survived. Their dutiful son made sure of it.
Captain Vientiane Vegamora, Philippine National Police, closed the Kira Case as Unsolved. Colt moved on to greener pastures. Masakari, Lilith that she was, likewise vanished into thin air.
No reason remained for Rolito Miranda to further exist.
And so Takane EldeneeTalon returned to Kyoto. To his wife Hibiki. To his life.
It was over.
It never ended.
He could never stop making himself pay.
One kind act cannot redeem a life of misdeeds. It is only enough to damn you.
"This is for my father! And this is for Ate Nana! And these are for everyone else you killed!
"Did you think I didn't know? Or did you believe I would have forgotten? I'm not an idiot! I'm not your doll!
"I waited. All those years I waited. I pretended. I played nice. I lied. I hated myself for being powerless, for doing nothing.
"But now… now the time has finally come.
"You killed my family. You killed everyone I cared for.
"I hate you! I hate you! I will never forgive you! That's why… that's why…
"I'll kill you!"
And Jessica drove the knife deep into his chest.
"Doctor! Doctor Bianchi! Come quick!"
"His vital signs are dropping like a rock! He's going into shock!"
"How did that happen?"
"I don't know!"
"Apply CPR! I'll get the defibrillators!"
Just gonna stand there and watch me burn…
Well, that's alright because I like the way it hurts…
Just gonna stand there and hear me cry…
Well, that's alright because I love the way you lie…
Love the way you lie…
Mireille Bouquet stared at the Special Response Team, the token of Mithril's alliance with them. She gaped at one member, in particular, a slim Oriental girl with tousled black hair and, most striking of all, irises a shade of brown gone almost red, eyes that showed sadness whenever their owner killed.
This can't be happening, she begged herself. This is impossible.
"I'm sorry, Mireille," the girl apologized. "I lied to you."
"(Good evening, Mr. Gray.)"
The speaker loomed over the startled Italian. The being was darker than twilight, darkness beyond blackest pitch, deeper than the deepest midnight suddenly shorn of moonlight and stars. It was a lord of terrifying dreams, a king of darkness who somehow shone like scintillating gold across a roiling sea of black bedlam. It regarded the man on the bed as a fool who dared stand in its way, a fool soon to be utterly destroyed by the power it possessed, terrifying power that could shatter even the souls of gods.
To his credit, the man who pretended to be Mr. Gray refused to give in to an onset of gibbering terror worth a primal scream. He didn't even go for the compact pistol he kept beneath his head pillow, a consolation he somehow understood to be worthless against the shadow that beckoned. He simply asked, almost calmly, of this bogeyman, "Who are you?"
"(I am Ciro.)"
To Be Continued