Winter Puppets

Winter Puppets

Chapter Six : Puppets... Or People?

by Bottou-chan

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It was quarter-til-three... and Neon still hadn't come to a decision yet.

Joker wasn't helping much, either.

Chii's husband had finally made his appearance. He was Joker's height, with just a little more weight than the skinny Osakan. He seemed like a decent man; he, Joker, and Chii were laughing and talking together off to one side of the crackling fireplace.

About seven or eight men were scattered around the room, some talking in small groups; another reading a newspaper; still another keeping an eye on the snow outside. The fall had stopped, but the snow remained waist-high. A feeble attempt at a path had been made and given up upon.

It drove her crazy. She was surrounded by Kurei's enemies... she had been specifically told to 'take Shigemasa and his men out of the picture'. Specifically told... specifically told... specifically told... and yet, for the first time, she sincerely loathed to go through with a mission.

With the others, it had been business. Strictly business. Pay Mori off, you were safe. If you didn't pay him for the privilege of living, you risked having your membership revoked.

It was as simple as that.

And yet now, the personal factor had been introduced. It wasn't that she felt a bond towards any of the visitors at the hotel. If it looked like a front, smelled like a front, and Joker said it was a front-- it had to be a front. He was more versed in the knowledge of Who was Who in the underworld. Neon only got to see specific parts of it. Yet it was an abstract bond. Chii obviously had ties to the gang... they were her friends, and by harming Chii's friends, she was hurting Chii.

The woman who had saved them.

What an ugly way to repay her.

A simple 'sorry' wouldn't suffice to make up for the harm she would cause by betraying the woman's hospitality. A neatly-lettered note on heavy paper, check enclosed to cover the carpet-cleaning, wouldn't remove the stains from Chii's heart. She was kind, gentle, and caring. You could tell by how she had bandaged Neon's wrist, patiently pulled the glass from Joker's neck, and was now gazing at her husband.

She had a life. A life that Neon could topple with just a few well-chosen notes of her flute.

And yet... there was her Kurei.

This man, this mysterious rival of his-- he had hurt Kurei. He had further scarred Kurei's already blackened soul. He was just one more reason why Kurei could never be happy. It didn't matter if the mythical Shimegasa was Neon's own personal best friend in the world.

If he had caused Kurei agony, no matter who it was-- they would die. Whoever they were. And yet... Kurei was so far away, and Chii was *here*, smiling and laughing, oblivious to the thoughts passing through Neon's mind.

The redheaded woman stood up abruptly. "It's time to go," she said sharply, tugging at Joker's sleeve.

Joker looked at her innocently. "Oh, so soon? Before we go, there's someone I'd like you to meet." He indicated Chii's husband. "Neon, this is Shimegasa."

***

The words echoed hollowly in Neon's brain. Not only was Chii associated with the drug ring, she was married to its leader?!

Unthinkable!

And yet-- how did that change things?

She steeled herself. With a pleasant smile, she discreetly opened her purse and withdrew her flute. She bowed slightly and replied, "Uruha Jyushinshuu."

A frown flickered across the man's face as Neon raised the flute to her lips. The familiar sound of the Fukyo Waon sang forth, loud and clear.

Joker recognized the familiar sound of "Prelude" and didn't have to even look to know what was happening. Shimegasa stood there, watching stupidly, not quite believing. A focussed sound wave sliced its way across the room, speeding more quickly than anyone could react. All in its path were mown down-- and in a matter of moments, four men had been irrevocably lost to its power.

Understanding seemed to belatedly dawn upon Shimegasa. He lunged forward to pry the flute from Neon's fingers, but she slid through his grasp evasively. Joker slipped in between the two of them to allow Neon time.

"Apologies, especially after your kindness," said Joker, and his tone sounded quite sincere. "But this is nothing personal-- and business is business."

"There's been no bad blood between our groups for years!" exploded Shimegasa, his face purple.

"Obviously, Kurei-han isn't of the same opinion," explained Joker, dodging the other man's wild swings.

A succession of gunshots went off, causing both members of the Uruha to instinctively duck. Shimegasa finally connected with Joker's face and gave him a punch which sent him staggering backwards.

"Rhapsody!" exclaimed Neon, this time announcing her attack.

Joker cringed. Not indoors... not indoors... the IDIOT.

It was as though a bomb had exploded in the room. A giant section of the floor was suddenly just not there... fortunately, this room had been constructed over ground; otherwise, the whole floor might have given way into the basement. As it was, a large section of floor *above* where the Rhapsody had landed gave way, and several walls had large pieces missing from them. Joker eyed the damage warily. Were any of those walls load-bearing...? Flames were dancing merrily on piles of fallen curtains, and several live wires lay exposed on the ground, crackling and humming.

Still, it had taken out the remainder of the men, in one fell swoop.

All that was left was...

"Fugue!"

Chii's hand flew to her mouth as she watched as the last of the victims was claimed. He didn't have time to say a word-- her husband only made a little choking sound, before crumpling to his knees and lying still on a pile of debris left over from the last attack.

Chii glared at Neon. The tears were streaming down her cheeks, although partly because of the smoke coming from the firey draperies.

"You've killed him. You've killed my friends. Take me!" she said fiercely, her fingers flexing and unflexing into claws.

"I won't," said Neon, shaking her head.

"Because I've been kind to you!" sneered Chii. "If this is how you repay kindness-- may you and your accursed leader experience your own downfall soon! Just as I and my men have been torn down-- so will you be torn down! And soon!"

It took a few seconds for the words to register.

"Y-your men?" Neon faltered. Her flute was still held to her lips, although she had ceased to play.

"Yes, my men," spat Chii. "My husband was Shimegasa... so I, too, am Shimegasa. I ruled my empire in my husband's name. All thought that *he* was in charge, when he was only my puppet through which I gave my orders. But puppet or not, I still loved him... I loved him... I loved all my men... and you killed them! Can you say that *your* master loves *you*?"

"My-- Kurei cares for his people, just as anyone would," said Neon. But her words faltered over the lie, and Chii was astute enough to recognize that.

"Your Kurei," she said scornfully. "Your Kurei would be *nothing* without his underlings. If his Uruha was ever scattered, he would be a weak dog with his tail tucked between his legs. He wouldn't be a man at all. He *isn't* a man, he's a demon!"

Neon's eyes flashed angrily. "Don't say that! You don't even know him!" she shouted.

"He's a demon!" insisted Chii. "Even I know enough about him to know that he has no loves. He has no passions. He has no heart. He has no soul. In fact, right now, this very minute, he's only a weak dog, for all that he's driven around by that pseudo-father of his!"

"Don't SAY such things!" Neon half-screamed.

"You protest because you see the truth in my words!" said Chii mockingly. "And tell me, what good is a dog's dog? For that's what you are. You go against your own instincts, your own wants, and your own desires-- that's the *only* reason my men are dead, and that's the only reason I'll join them so quickly. Because you can't think for yourself. Because you blindly do what you're told. You're a puppet... just his puppet... a puppet for a dog, and if you died with me, he wouldn't care," taunted Chii.

"I told you, NO!" Her voice was an inhuman shriek at the moment; she could stand it no longer.

She played a few last notes.

Those were the last things that Chii heard.

***

"Shimegasa will no longer bother you," stated Neon shortly. "They have been wiped out."

"All of them?" asked Kurei, not looking at her. Rather, he was leafing through some papers.

"All of them," answered Neon stolidly.

"Good," replied Kurei. "You may go."

::Good. You may go. That's it?:: thought Neon, looking at him with an odd expression. It was as though she had finished scraping the ice from his windshield. All she had done was merely clear an obstacle away from his happiness.

But that was what he wanted, right?

That was what she wanted to do for him, right?

Kurei glanced at her. "Anything else?" he inquired testily.

"No, sir," said Neon, and left, shutting the door behind her.