A/N: I suppose my first and foremost reason for doing would be because I haven't seen any...well, real action Noir fanfiction "out there." Action meaning the sounds of guns going off, the thin line between life and death, raw muscles running for one's life...that sort of thing that made me like Noir in the first place. So this would be my attempt of re-creating that atmosphere of danger. And lol, I know it sounds suspiciously like something that came from The Matrix. But aside from a few similarities (e.g. we are not who we think we are), I assure you it's very different and hardly what you'd expect. ^^
Excitate vow e somno, liberi mei. Wake up from your dream, my children.
Cunae non sunt. There is no cradle.
Excitate vow e somno, liberi fatali. Wake up from your dreams, fated children.
Somnus non eat. The dream is not going.
Invenite hortum veritatis. Discover the truth of the Garden.
Ardente veritate. Burn with truth.
Urite mala mundi. Scorch the world of evil.
Ardente veritate. Burn with truth.
Incendite tenebras mundi. Set fire to the world of darkness.
Valete, liberi, Goodbye, children,
Diebus fatalibus. From the days of destiny.
- "Liberi Fatali", Final Fantasy VIII
"Votre café, mademoiselle."
"Merci." The yellow-haired woman elegantly slipped her fingers around the delicate handle and brought the porcelain cup to her lips as the waiter left to serve another table. Legs crossed at the ankles, she watched quietly as Parisians walked across the cobblestone streets and bridges amid the darkening French sky. The sun was a golden coin slowly sinking below the rooftops of the city.
A promise was a promise. Putting it off would only be delaying the inevitable and fooling herself. She had reminded her of it countless times, and if she did not fulfill what she had said, only she would lose face. And Mireille Bouquet always kept her word, even if she would live to regret it.
She set the cup down on the saucer, her eyes accidentally glancing at the little pink handbag comfortably placed on her table. What was the Japanese word for "promise" that Kirika had taught her? Oh yes, yakusoku. And the instrument for that "yakusoku" she had given to her was in that innocent-looking bag holding a less than innocent gun with a full magazine of bullets.
Les balles d'un pistolet. Always to her it seemed that her life would be fated to hang by every bullet she possessed. It was a strange world to live in, one where people lived by destroying others. If that was progress, then what sort of monstrosity would regressing be?
Well, it doesn't matter anyway, she thought, unimpressed. She signaled for the waiter. It wasn't her part to think about the philosophies of being a gun for hire; thoughts like that seemed to belong more appropriately to Kirika, to the likes of Noir...
Noir, she thought darkly as she paid the bill.
"Anything the matter, miss?" asked the waiter, concerned.
"Oh..." The glare vanished from her face as she flashed a brilliant smile, waving her hand nonchalantly. "No, everything's fine. Thank you." She picked up her bag to leave. "Oh, and my compliments to the chef for the soufflé. It was excellent."
The waiter bowed.
Kirika was standing beside her beloved potted plant, looking out the apartment window with a cup of tea in her hands when Mireille arrived, a little soggy from the sudden drizzle that had besieged her on her walk home from the café. The raindrops were tinkling down the roof shingles, coming harder and harder by the minute.
"You're wet," said Kirika, turning around.
"Very astute of you, I'm sure," answered Mireille wryly as she made a beeline for her room. "Go on, say it."
"That you told me so to bring the umbrella with me." Mireille's voice sounded muffled as she closed the door.
Kirika waited until Mireille had towelled herself dry and changed into fresh clothes. "You have an email. For Noir."
Mireille seated herself on the chair beside the pool table without a word, pulling the laptop nearer to her. After the entire Noir incident, she had decided to retain the codename for business' sake, and as a reminder. The Soldats had stopped bothering them and she had thought of relinquishing the title because its dark history, but she changed her mind, deciding instead to keep it for the convenience of her trade contacts and for the reminder that evil could never overcome evil, no matter how good its intentions are.
"Our client is a Wilhelm Schwarz," said Mireille as she read her mail. "Listen to this: 'Only when in Tokyo we meet can I the matter at hand disclose.'" She sounded a little startled. "Well, it's bad enough what the Germans do with their verbs, but I don't think we've ever had a client with this much gall before. What do you think?"
"What else does he say?" asked Kirika, setting her cup down on the table.
"Nothing much, only that whatever is bothering him is of a 'very secretive nature' and demands strict confidence. Just that and some details in making contact, such us him paying for our travel expenses when we meet him in Japan two days from now."
"Sounds pretty iffy."
"It's not so much the money that's bothering me, but I've learned that 'secretive' could mean the same thing as 'dangerous.'" The Corsican swiveled her chair to face her partner. "Well?"
Kirika hesitated. "Well, I won't mind seeing Japan again," she said tonelessly.
Mireille drummed her fingers, thinking. Yes, she probably needed something to occupy herself with before the dilemma of having to kill Kirika would drive her insane. But then why am I so adamant about wanting to keep her anyway? she thought, studying Kirika. She hardly expresses any emotion, rarely says what's on her mind, and the way how those huge, deep eyes of hers stare at me gives me the goosebumps. She's fundamentally an ice queen and not the most ideal companion. Then why? Why had I lowered the gun down in so many perfect opportunities to have this done with? Pour quoi...?!
For the exact same reason why I went back for her to take her away from Altena...
Mireille almost jumped from the sound and self-consciously resumed drumming her fingers in nonchalance. "We've been having a pretty dry spell lately," she finally said, "so it's worth a try, I guess. It's his life he's gambling, anyway." She stopped her fingers and lifted them up. " Got your passport handy?"
The tall man with the grizzled beard sat on one of the chairs of the arrivals gate, catching the attention of many. He was a big fellow with a grim visage in a gray suit, an attaché case steady on his lap with his two hands on top of it. He hardly moved. Only his brilliant eyes behind his glasses swept unceasing over the flow of the plane passengers filling into the lounge.
A young woman sat beside him unnoticedly, carrying a suitcase on one hand and a small bag on the other. She placed the suitcase on the floor near her feet and the bag on her lap, slipping a hand inside. She sat for a moment, her eyes well away from him, then she said in a low voice, "Excitate vow e somno, liberi fatali..."
"Somnus non eat," replied the other, smoothing the sides of his leather case calmly with his hands, not looking at her. A pause, then "Well met," he greeted in English with a heavy German accent, his eyes suddenly upon her, "Noir."
"By arranging a proposal as unconventional as this, Herr Schwarz," said Mireille in the same language, not relaxing, "you understand that we cannot afford having anyone know who we are and that we do follow that rule accordingly. We do not respond to face-to-face contact very well."
"A bullet on my forehead would ensure that, would it not?" said Schwarz with a small grim smile.
Mireille's face tightened.
"Yes, it certainly would," nodded Schwarz, answering his own question. "Only too bad that airport security is so tight that they wouldn't allow anyone with a whiff of a gun in him or her to come in here, so you may take your hand off your bag with ease. But then, killing me doesn't have to happen here and now, does it? That we can later discuss." He shrugged and brought up an index finger. "But you said we. Where is the other?"
Mireille could feel her eyes narrowing, lips pursed. This man knew much, but she was not going to give him the satisfaction of knowing that she knew that, so she kept her hand inside.
"Kirika," said Mireille grudgingly, and Schwarz arched an eyebrow. The person seated on the chair that was linked behind his stood up, carrying her suitcase on her side. She turned and walked around the linked chairs to stand beside Mireille.
"Wie geht es ihnen, Herr Schwarz?" she said quietly in smooth German, without even a hint of an accent.
Schwarz looked surprised, then he smiled genially. "Ah, gut, gut, danke, Fraulein Yuumura. Of course, many languages does Kirika Yuumura know. I almost forgot, beg pardon."
Mireille tried not to let the worry show on her face. Who was this man and how did he know her?
"I mentioned that I will willingly pay for your travel expenses, I believe, Mademoiselle Mireille Bouquet?" continued Schwarz, taking out a leather wallet from his back pocket. "A flight to Japan for two is not easy on the purse, but still..." He took out a small wad of Euros. "At least I didn't have to worry about having to choose between French francs or Deutschmarks. Or would you rather have them in Japanese yen?"
Mireille looked at the cash money in his hands silently. At the rate of how much information Schwarz was dishing out about how much he knew them, she knew that he was a very dangerous man and she did not want to have anything to do with him. On the other hand, she wanted to know very badly who was his source of information, and if he would not talk, she would have to kill him. But he was right; security was tight in the airport and it was swarming with people, and both did not want a bloodshed in plain sight. She would have to tread carefully.
She stretched her hand and received the wad on her palm. Now we're committed, she thought grimly as she counted the money and placed it into her own purse. Now what are we going to do?
"Good, Mademoiselle Bouquet, that was the right decision," said Schwarz, looking relieved as he pocketed his wallet.
Be on guard, Mireille's eyes said warily to Kirika.
"Now if you would kindly follow me," said the man, standing up with his case.
"Where are we going?" asked Mireille almost immediately in a clipped voice, feeling Schwarz's Euros weighing heavily in her purse.
Schwarz looked sincerely apologetic, saying, "I'm sorry, Mademoiselle, but any description of the facility while we are outside of it is classified."
A secret facility didn't sound promising. Mireille wished she had the comforting presence of a gun in her hands as she reluctantly said, "Fine. Lead on."
They were led outside of the airport by the German to the car parking lot; Schwarz had a sleek, black Toyota of the latest model. The windows were thickly tinted. He courteously opened the side door of the back seats, asking, "Would you like me to place your suitcases behind in the trunk?"
"No, thank you, they're fine with us." Their guns were inserted in a special trick flap in the suitcases with special plates that would bounce off an ordinary luggage sensor. Mireille was taking no chances as she and Kirika slid uneasily into the leather upholstery of the car with their suitcases between their legs.
"I don't like this," voiced Kirika suddenly, who had not spoken a word after her greeting to Schwarz.
"Neither do I," Mireille whispered back as she watched Schwarz walked around for the driver's seat. "But we have to know how he knew our names and knew so much about us. It's unnatural."
Schwarz seated himself and turned the key, awakening the engine into a smooth roar. A turn here and they were well on their way out of the airport.
"I do apologize for calling the both of you in such short notice," he began, adjusting the rearview mirror to see them better. Mireille's jaw was taut and Kirika's face emotionless. "And I know you have many doubts. I'll set you clear at once; I'm not here to -how do you say it- pull anything funny...but by the Fatherland, I really do need your help."
"Then why all the secrecy?" demanded Mireille. "If you really needed our help, you wouldn't hide anything from us if you didn't think it would incriminate you, now would you?"
"I promise, all will be revealed once we've reached the facility," said Schwarz earnestly. "Otherwise you will not believe me."
"What?" Mireille's instincts were screaming danger in red lights. "What do you mean by that?"
Schwarz bit his lip, feeling he had said too much. After scratching his beard thoughtfully, he said, "Mademoiselle Bouquet and Yuumura-san, had any of you ever read or heard of the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou?"
"Don't you change the subject, you-" Mireille half-rose from her seat, but Kirika quickly held her hand and pulled her down, glancing at her meaningfully. Then the Japanese girl answered slowly much to Mireille's bewilderment , "No, Herr Schwarz, we haven't."
"He was Taoist and had a lot of interesting stories in his books," said Schwarz, eyes busy on the intersection. "Very interesting thoughts he had."
"I'm sure." Kirika's eyes were still warningly on Mireille's. Mireille stared back at her, perplexed.
"In one of his stories, he had once dreamt that he was a butterfly, happily fluttering along his way and being so delighted about it that he never thought that he was a man." Schwarz waited at the traffic light, tapping a finger on his steering wheel. "Then Zhuang Zhou woke up from his dream and found out that he was a man, and not a butterfly. Then he asked himself, was he Zhuang Zhou who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or was he a butterfly dreaming it was Zhuang Zhou?"
Kirika blinked and looked genuinely enlightened. "That is interesting."
"Yes, so much that the famous Chinese poet Li Bo made a poem out of the thought. If my memory serves me well, part of it went like this: 'Zhauang Zhou in dream became a butterfly,/ And the butterfly became Zhuang Zhou at waking. / Which was the real - the butterfly or the man?'" Schwarz stepped on the accelerator at the signal of the green light towards the city streets of Tokyo. "It's very plausible, and I wouldn't be surprised if someone took it seriously."
Mireille felt more and more bewildered. This seemed to be the Mad Tea Party all over again, only instead of tea and moonlight, this was about dreams and fluttering butterflies. She felt exactly what she felt that night of the full moon: that both her companions had both lost their minds and she was the only sane person left.
"Excuse me, but what has this got to do with anything?" she hissed at Kirika.
"A lot, I think." Kirika look mystified but certain.
Mireille surrendered to the hum of the engine and the cadence of the car, wishing she was somewhere else.
"Here we are."
Mireille clutched and unclutched her hands from gripping her suitcase. Kirika had oddly fallen asleep during the journey and had a countenance of utter calmness despite the seeming danger Mireille felt they were in. She looked outside the window. They had passed the central metropolitan areas of Tokyo minutes ago and were now slowing down to the slummier-looking alleyways. It was getting dark.
The car rolled over to a halt in front of a small, dingy Internet cafe with "DreamHub" badly scrawled in chalk over the plank above the door. The cafe was sandwiched between a ramen shop and a small herbal pharmacy. There was a broken parking meter beside them.
"This is the facility?" Mireille could not help asking as Schwarz turned off the engine.
"Big things come in small packages sometimes, ja, Mademoiselle Bouquet?" said Schwarz mysteriously as he opened his door.
Mireille leaned over Kirika, nudging her and saying into her ear, "It's time."
Kirika slowly opened her eyes, black hair a little tousled, and sleepily stretched her arms before quickly reaching into the bottom of her suitcase. There was a small rip of velcro and the sound of a zipper being pulled before she returned with her Italian Beretta pistol snug in her right palm. Mireille already had her fully-loaded Walther, her hand rubbing its ergonomic hand grip tightly and reassuringly.
"Keep your eyes open," was what Mireille told her before Schwarz opened their door.
The man pushed open the glass door of the Internet cafe and a little bell tinkled on the ceiling. There were a few computer systems on two long desks parallel to each other on both sides of the room. Behind the desks was a small cash register on a table with two coffee-makers and a tray of empty mugs and glasses on the side. Someone was seated behind the table, reading a comic book.
The person groggily pulled down his graphic novel, revealing a young Japanese man with short, cropped hair and glinting glasses. "DorimHabbu e youkoso," he said absently before returning to his comic.
"It's me, Kinomoto," said Schwarz, chuckling. "And these two attractive ladies are with me."
There was a bit of a bluster as Kinomoto opened a drawer and threw his manga into it. He shoved up his glasses, looking a little red and flustered, and bowed profusely. "I'm sorry, Mr. Schwarz, I wasn't expecting you to be back so soon," he said in perfect English, the trace of Japanese phonetics gone. He looked up and saw Mireille and Kirika with interest. "Are they the ones?"
"Yes," said Schwarz. "And they're armed to the teeth, I do believe."
"Ah, sou desu ka?" Kinomoto grinned not unkindly, as if he had already been expecting it. "Then they really must be the ones then."
Mireille gritted her teeth and moved the gun in her bag.
"Oh, where are my manners?" Schwarz gestured at Kinomoto. "Mademoiselle Bouquet and Yuumura-san, this is Akira Kinomoto, a Gatekeeper of the DreamHub."
"A what?" Mireille looked confused.
"You asked for the truth, Mademoiselle Bouquet, and now that we are in the DreamHub, the truth will be revealed, as promised. Come with me." Schwarz walked over Kinomoto's table, wasting no words, and opened a non-descript door behind. There was a small elevator inside.
"Let's go, Mireille," said Kirika, seeming unfazed as she made her way towards the elevator herself.
Mireille felt her legs walking robotically towards them. None of this was making sense. What was a Gatekeeper and a DreamHub? Why did Akira Kinomoto seem to know them as much as Schwarz did? And why was Kirika being so infuriatingly calm about it?
The last question is never really answered, she told herself a little dryly as she stepped into the lift with Kirika and Schwarz, last seeing Akira Kinomoto's bowing figure before the elevator doors closed.
There were no floor buttons on the elevator, only a small panel of circular, red buttons with nothing imprinted on them. Schwarz deftly pressed a series of the buttons in sequential order too fast for Mireille to remember. There was a small hum then the elevator began its descent underground.
"What if I told both of you," began Schwarz pensively, "that none of this is real?"
Schwarz turned around. "Do you remember the butterfly in the dream? That we are completely fictitious entities in a virtual reality, that we are only imaginated characters in a dream, in someone else's sub-consciousness? That we could be 'deactivated' without even our knowing it?"
"I'd say you were crazy," said Mireille coolly, her heart pounding, wondering if she had made the huge mistake of accepting an oblivious madman for a client. She looked at Kirika. She was devoid of any expression and Mireille felt even more alone.
"People who didn't know better would say the same thing," Schwarz mused aloud. "But what of people who do...?"
The elevator stopped ominously at his words with a bell-like ting, but the doors did not open. Then a disembodied voice instructed from a small speaker overhead them, "Destination arrived. Voice recognition required."
Schwarz cleared his throat and much to Mireille's amazement, he sang slowly in a deep, bass voice, "Row, row, row your boat,/ Gently down the stream;/ Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,/ Life is but a dream.
A pause, then, "Voice recognized as Dr. Wilhelm Schwarz. Welcome to the DreamHub. Proceed." The doors of the elevators swished open to a blinding light and the three stepped in. Mireille shielded her eyes.
They were standing on a small balcony overlooking a great, underground network facility of pure, pristine white the size of an airport hangar. Operators, wearing comlinks in their ears, were dressed in white and sat in egg-shaped chairs, their fingers flying over clear, transparent touchpanels that emitted tinny beeps and trills at their every touch, coordinating what seemed to be different maps of the world. Everything worked in efficiency and speed and in silence.
"Mademoiselle Bouquet and Yuumura-san," said Schwarz placidly, picking a long, white coat from the railing of the balcony and slipping it over his shoulders. "Welcome to the central hub of Dreamscape."liberi, end