En Passant

There was a canteen. There were always canteens; any group of people needed some sort of place to eat in common, and any organisation that considered itself professional found a way to sell those people food and drink while simultaneously making a profit from the operation. This came with a different set of prices, of course. Worse food, worse drink, darker walls, and discontent in the air smelling more rancid than the beer.

Himiko sat towards the rear of the room, her back to the wall, and read the newspaper while she sipped her coffee.

She was still learning about command. It wasn't (and oh, the way that her mind skipped over certain words and certain events) something which she had been taught before. Imitating big brother only took her so far. But it was necessary; she was an independent operative with unusual capabilities, and this meant that she either worked separately from the rest of the team but also under the leader's direction, or she was actively in charge. To accept a subordinate station on the team -- and a subordinate salary, as well -- devalued her capabilities, and lowered her status. And it made her vulnerable, too vulnerable, in other ways.

Leaders didn't sit with the general run of guards and thugs and non-specialist drivers. Leaders sat alone and people approached them, rather than the other way round.

Leaders were respected. Leaders were feared.

Leaders knew what to do.

Lady Poison. The words whispered at the back of her mind. She turned over a page of the newspaper to quiet them, and tried to concentrate on the political section.

"Excuse me."

A man's voice. She looked up, part of herself already angry at her failure to notice him coming. His broad-brimmed hat shaded his face, and his long trenchcoat swung in a loose wave as he bent towards her. "The other tables are full or busy. Is this seat taken?"

She glanced across at the empty chair on the other side of the table. He would not be overly close to her. "Please, feel free," she replied.

"Thank you." He seated himself, and folded one white-gloved hand against the other, turning away from her to stare across the room. The angle of his hat covered most of his face, and the single slit in the brim concealed more than it showed, giving only a single angle of pale skin and dark grey eye and shadowy hair.

She overtly returned her attention to her newspaper, turning another page, folding it back on itself, leaning an elbow on the table. Behind that, she allowed herself to breathe, and focused on the physical actions of inhalation and exhalation, on the scents on the air.

Himiko had for a long time now perceived people in terms of scent as well as in the visual or the aural sense. Her friends, and some of her enemies, were as obvious by the air around them as they were by their voices or their faces.

Yes. She had thought so. This man was steeped in the scent of blood. It might be too faint for an ordinary person to recognise, but it was around him like a miasma, strong enough that she could taste it in her mouth, imagine all the shades of colour that it could be.

The man stirred.

She knew that she had given no physical sign of her interest, that she had not breathed in sharply or hissed or said anything or even stiffened, but she knew at the same time that he was conscious of her attention.

"Are you reading the foreign news?" he asked politely.

"Not at the moment." She put the sheets of newspaper on the table. "Would you like to borrow it?"

"If it would be no inconvenience. Thank you."

She slid out the relevant pages, and passed them across the table to him. He nodded in thanks, loose hair a dark cloud around his face and over his shoulders, and reached out one white-gloved hand

rubber gloves, she could smell the rubber, but still the smell of blood behind them, and something behind that -- steel, perhaps?

to fold long fingers over the pages and bring them closer to himself.

Himiko picked up her mug of coffee, and let the smell of coffee fill her nostrils.

The room was full of people talking to each other, making bets over their drinks, discussing the races or the football or the latest movies, laughing loudly and publicly over past dangers, Interacting with each other. She couldn't do that. It would make her too vulnerable, and it would shatter the prestige which she had been building. Lady Poison didn't go and chatter and laugh and act like a normal person, and Lady Poison was her shelter and her safety. Being Lady Poison was being adult, being a leader, being a killer.

Coffee. Blood. Steel. Coffee.

And yet the edge of danger, the consciousness of shared awareness with the man sitting across the table from her, was the closest she had felt to anyone in two years now.

The paper rustled in his hands as he turned a page. She thought about what it could mean that he was prepared to sit with his back to the room, so casually unconcerned by what might result.

Perhaps ten minutes later, he asked for the section on current events on Tokyo, and passed back the foreign news. They exchanged the pieces of the newspaper with careful politeness. When she slipped the foreign section back into the main folds, a drift of bloodscent lay behind the stink of printer's ink and cheap newspaper.

She could smell it now, all around the table. It would linger on her clothes and in her hair once she had left his presence.

Though who else would notice?

The minute hand of the cheap plastic clock on the wall swung to the half-hour, pointing downwards like a knife. She remembered an appointment. It would not do to appear unprofessional.

"I must be going," Himiko stated. She folded the rest of the paper together, and placed it on the table between them. "Would you like to finish this?"

He looked at her from beneath the brim of his hat, then reached up to tilt it slightly. His eyes gleamed through the slit, appreciative in some way that she was not certain how to measure. "Thank you," he said, in a slow amused voice. "I would be most grateful."

Himiko nodded, and rose from her seat, pushing the chair in behind her. The familiar weight of her bandoliers of scent-bottles circled her waist and hung around her thighs and shoulders, comforting in their presence. "Good afternoon."

"Good afternoon," he replied, and turned his attention to the newspaper.

She could still smell blood half an hour afterwards.


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