Winter Puppets

Winter Puppets

Chapter One : Duty

by Bottou-chan

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Nichiren Niazu leaned contentedly back into his pillows. Outside, snow fell silently onto mountain slopes. Inside was a warm, toasty 82-degrees F, with faint strains of a classical station floating up from the first floor of his Swiss-style chalet. Slightly louder was the sound of shower water running in the bathroom attached to his room. The door was slightly cracked, and wisps of steam drifted out. Niazu could imagine the fogged mirrors and the sauna-like warmth in that room.

The thought made him snuggle deeper into his pillows. How cozy. Soon, she'd be out. She always looked cute, with her hair wrapped up in a towel, like a turban...

He smiled.

"Comfy?" inquired a curious voice, slightly nasal.

Niazu visibly flinched at the unexpected interruption of his reverie. He turned to see a man dressed in an odd costume of black and white, holding a large gray pointy object, standing less than two feet away from his right side. Though masked, his mouth was smiling in false concern.

"Who-- who let you in? How'd you get past the-- the--?" Niazu's fingers clutched the blankets until his knuckles were white, and his voice was a hoarse whisper.

"I dunno," came the cheerful reply. In a more conspiratorial voice, the figure leaned over and added, "But you've got one guess as to why we're here."

"We..?" Niazu pried his gaze from the weird masked face which was right in front of his own, and saw a bored-looking redheaded woman standing in the background, holding a flute. "You're not from... Rikichirou, are you? I thought we'd finished our business."

"Wrong, sorry," came the answer. "Mo-ri Kou-ran." And he punctuated each syllable with a little jab at the front pocket of Niazu's scarlet silk pajamas. "We're his bill collectors, and you haven't kept up with your payments."

"I'll... I hadn't realized we were at this point," laughed Niazu shakily. "Believe me, I'll have the funds deposited into his account Monday morning, first thing."

"Ah, we've danced this little dance before! Neon-han, do you remember the steps?" Joker clapped his hands delightedly, and half-turned to consult the woman.

"For God's sake, stop playing around," said Neon irately, her arms crossed and looking around. The longer they dilly-dallied over Joker's games, the harder it would be to make a clean escape.

"But this time, I swear, I promise," gasped Niazu. "Just please, no, don't--"

"Ah, what good would it do Mori-han if we were to make an example of you?" inquired Joker, flipping a stray rasta braid back behind his shoulder where it belonged. He thumped his Taishaku Kaiten on the Persian rug for emphasis. "All we have is a message from him." His grin widened so that Niazu could see fangs. In English, he added, "Pur-sent-o for you!"

***

Reiko came out of the bathroom, toweling her hair dry. "We're out of the herbal essence. You might want to send Tetsu into town for--" Her mouth fell open as her gaze drifted onto the bed, and all was silent for a moment or two.

Then the silence was split by a scream of horror.

***

"You're going to get us killed someday, with your stupid, childish games," snapped Neon crankily. "If you're going to play around, please don't do it when I'm involved."

"Ah, please, Neon-han; I can't just show up and kill the guy. A little friendly chit-chat first off. It helps break the tension and makes him relax. It's no fun dying when you're tense," reasoned Joker, warming his hands over the heater on the passenger side of the car. The snow was falling in thicker flurries now, and the windshield wipers cleared them away, quickly, rhythmically. Hot air gusted through the heaters at full blast, warming the numbed Uruha assassins after their short trek from the chalet to where their car was lying in wait.

"Curse it. I hate driving in this stuff," said Neon, peering through the windshield. "The roads will re-ice pretty soon, and somehow, that always inspires the bakas of the world to get into their cars and go for rides."

Joker yawned and stretched. "Pilot, unless you need this navigator to navigate you, this navigator will navigate himself into a good nap."

"You need sleep?" asked Neon, arching an eyebrow.

"Why not?" yawned Joker. "You were on that stakeout, too, last night."

"Were we on the same mission? I believe you were staking out the waitstaff," laughed Neon shortly. "I believe *I* was watching Niazu. You were watching the waitresses, his girlfriend, the receptionist at the ski lodge--"

"Oi, Neon-han, so unkind! Do I detect a hint of jealousy?" He gave her an infuriating grin, which she ignored in favor of keeping her eyes glued to the road, on the watch for icy patches.

"We should have put the chains on," grumbled Neon, before glancing at her friend and addressing his question. "It's not so much jealousy as bitterness," she replied sweetly. "If I spent the whole evening staring at the cute guys, I'd never hear the end of it."

"That's because you only have eyes for me," reasoned Joker good-naturedly. "Although I *did* notice that when you weren't staring daggers at me, you *were* watching that Niazu fellow. I can't say I care much for your taste in men, and I can't say anything about his taste in 'jammies, but if he distracts you from my dangerous good looks, I guess I have to accept that." He pretended to preen in the flip-down mirror in front of his seat.

"Oh, please," scoffed Neon, but she was smiling. She even felt spunky enough to add, "How could Niazu *ever* succeed in distracting me from someone as amazingly cool as you?"

"My point exactly!" crowed Joker. "So... whaddaya say we get ourselves a little love nest up in the mountains? I believe there will be a certain chalet going onto the real estate books pretty soon."

"Nahh, I hear some guy was murdered there. In his own bedroom, even. What if his ghost haunts the place?" Neon teased back.

"Point taken," conceded Joker. "Say, I wonder who would have done such a foul deed."

Neon shrugged. "Foul deed or no, he got what he deserved. Anyone who gets involved with the bad side of Mori's business has it coming to them, if we ever have to step in. Since when do we deal with nice people?"

"Mmmm," answered Joker. He tugged his gloves back on, and heaved an enormous yawn. "The warmth... so nice..." He tilted his seat back slightly.

Whatever else he was planning on saying was lost as his breathing became even and easy.