GG Snippet 2: ILLUSIONS

The background noise of the bar had been reduced to a muted roar, a few raucous laughter from the corner tables occupied by Millenion's True Graves the only exceptions now and then. Brandon Heat squinted at half-melted ice cubes in his whisky tumbler, mesmerized by the play of fractured light among the glass and ice. He was feeling pleasantly mellow, his usual sense of alertness dulled down to a sedated level. It was a bit like being wrapped by warm cotton wool, not a terribly uncomfortable sensation. Time seemed to pass by more slowly, a sluggish slow motion. Brandon was fine with that. Too often lately, he felt like time raced past him and he was being left behind in the dust.

Brandon slid the glass down the counter to where the bartender stood polishing his glasses. "Another shot of Glenmorangie please." He noted that his voice still sounded steady, a little fact that he found pride in. So little things to take pleasure in, but every small things counted, now that he just had had the major pillars of his life yanked right out of him.

He heard the sound of liquid poured over clinking ice, the rasp of glass over polished wooden top as his tumbler was pushed over. He raised his hand without looking, waiting for the glass to reach his hands. But it never came.

The faint whiff of tobacco told him who it was before he tilted his head the few centimetres necessary to squint up at the newcomer. Kugashira Bunji, one hand holding the full tumbler and rolling it in what looked like an idle gesture. Brandon had known him long enough to know that it often doubled as a nervous gesture.

Bunji chewed the end of his cigarette – there was always one cigarette, lit or unlit, on one corner of his mouth – as he looked down at Brandon. His omnipresent shades hid his gaze.

Brandon waited.

"Mind if I take this one, Aniki?" Bunji finally said, gesturing with the hand holding the tumbler.

Brandon considered that, then nodded slowly. Bunji looked faintly relieved, or as relieved as a man like Kugashira Bunji would allow himself to be, and drank half of the whisky in one gulp. Brandon raised a finger to catch the bartender's attention before making a sign for another drink. Bunji frowned when the bartender delivered the drink himself to Brandon's hand.

Brandon considered the amber liquid, considered his state of sobriety, and downed the shot in one gulp. It burned going down.

"Aniki."

Brandon waited patiently for Bunji to continue. Bunji's jaw worked a few times before he finally blurted out, "I think something's wrong with my car's engine. Can I go back with you and borrow your car afterwards?"

Which was, Brandon mused, Kugashira Bunji-speak for I think you're too drunk to drive and I'm sending you home now except that I don't want to get a bullet or a punch for being a smart-ass.

Was he too drunk? Almost as soon as he considered that, the whole slew of discoveries that had driven him here ambushed him from where the alcohol had driven them aside temporarily.

"Tell me, Bunji…"

"Aniki?"

"Can a man really change so much, that you can't recognize him any more?"

There was a wary silence from his side. Bunji probably knew the loaded question for what it was and trying to figure out the how and the why of it. He could probably tell who Brandon was referring to, but at the moment Brandon did not care. The alcohol had loosened him a bit and he wanted… no, he needed to get some of these things out of his chest before he exploded. Funny that Bunji was the one he ended up talking to, a man who was notorious in being as uncomfortable as he was in dealing with emotions. Tough luck that he was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

But who else could he talk to? Maria, whom he had assiduously avoided in almost a year? Big Daddy, who was not exactly an impartial piece in this ridiculous situation and who would be well within his rights to order Harry's execution?

Harry himself!

A rasp of chair legs as Bunji unexpectedly decided to make himself comfortable. Brandon had half-expected the man to escape. They were comrades-in-arms, and in a battle they trusted and depended on each other completely. But aside from their job they had little things in common. Neither Bunji nor Brandon were the type of person who were comfortable discussing their thoughts and feelings with other people – Brandon because he was taciturn by nature, and Bunji because… well, men like Kugashira Bunji would rather be caught naked in a whorehouse raid than talk about their innermost thoughts, dreams and hopes, let alone the fears and insecurities keeping them awake at night.

Which was why Brandon was even more surprised when Bunji started to talk. "You know, Aniki, I've seen some people… You think you know them, and then… bam! They go and do something stupid or they betray you. And you end up thinking… how come I don't see this? They are supposed to be your friends…"

Up the tumbler went and Bunji crooked a finger at the bartender for more refills before he leant back against the counter. He did not look at Brandon as he continued to speak, his voice an unfamiliar, thoughtful drawl that Brandon had only heard on several very rare occasions. "That's why I worked alone, Aniki. Preferred it that way. 'least, until I met you and Harry-aniki. Joined Millenion and never looked back. The two of you, you showed me that people can stick together, watch each other's back and stay together through thick and thin." Bunji laughed drily. "I mean, talk is cheap. People say that they're your brother, but when the chips come down, they took off. I've seen it happen too many times to count. But the two of you make it work, you know? And I felt that too, among True Graves."

Bunji's voice dropped. "I told you, I didn't know what family felt like. But here… I think I'm starting to understand. I think, most of it is because of you, Aniki."

"I always felt that you are True Graves' soul."

The sound of liquid being gulped down, glass tumbler put down forcefully. "So," Bunji continued with forced cheer, "I thought, hell, why not? If you can make it work, I'll make a go for it."

Brandon did not know what to say. Ironic that it seemed he had converted Bunji, a hard-core cynic, without consciously doing anything about it. Yet the very things that Bunji now believed in, things that he himself used to never question, were the very things that he were starting to wonder about.

"Bunji, can you let me have another half hour? Alone."

"Sure, Aniki."

Bunji's faint steps, much quieter now than it had been when he first met the man, receded.

Brandon stared down at his own glass of whisky. Bunji had thought that everything was fine between Brandon and Harry. Brandon had thought that everything was fine between Brandon and Harry. But Harry had not trusted him with this.

The sense of betrayal was thick in his throat and chest. It had stayed with him, bitter and choking from the first moment that he saw the pictures of test tubes filled with once-human things, read confidential reports from hired hackers that detailed how a huge amount of funds were cleverly transferred from multiple offshore companies, rendered untraceable, and sunk into several accounts held by fictitious companies. Follow the money, Harry used to say, and it will lead you to the heart of the enemy.

But did Harry betray him? They never talked about it, so technically Harry had not lied to him. Neither had Harry specifically forbidden him from the knowledge, he just never looked. He trusted Harry to lead them, the way he always had way back since they were both snot-nosed little kids from the orphanage. Harry had always taken the lead and it made sense – Harry was the smart one, the more aggressive, the one who wanted more. Brandon was content to just be with Harry and do what Harry told him to do. After all, Harry had always looked after them, always did what was best for them.

Didn't he?

Or did his trust made him blind?

He wanted, more than anything, to be able to find Harry and asked him:

Why did you continue the experiments?

Why did you fund the abominations?

Why are you keeping this a secret?

What do you want to do with them?

Didn't you see what they did to us (me) before?

Aren't we (I) enough for you?

Do you need dead soldiers who follow you blindly, who would never question your orders?

What are you planning, Harry? Are you doing this for Millenion or for yourself?

How far are you willing to go to get what you want? How far are you willing to sacrifice?

How much have been sacrificed? What other things have I missed all these years and why have I not seen them?

And yet he knew that he could not. Even if Harry was standing here in front of him right now, he could not ask. The reason was very simple – he was afraid. Afraid of the answers.

"I'm a coward," he cursed himself.

Once he knew the answers, he would have to act, one way or another. In either road, he would lose someone that he loved, be forced to turn on people he had sworn to protect.

He was not ready. He may never be ready.

Brandon pressed his hand against his left breast. Hidden in the pocket inside the jacket's lining was a plain piece of white paper with a phone number on it. No name, no address, nothing to link it to anything incriminating. It was the number of a mobile phone that was even now being discreetly delivered to the Dr. Tokioka, he of the infamous necrolysis experiments. The phone was new, untraceable, and completely clean of listening devices. In two more hours, his contact would inform him of the success or failure of the delivery, and he would use the number to have a very long, very detailed conversation with the good doctor. The doctor would talk, one way or another he would make sure of that.

Blind faith worked before, but he was no longer seventeen. He had responsibilities, people who depended on him and who could not afford for him to be wrong. If Millenion had taught him anything, if Harry had taught him anything, was that information was power. Before he could even decide on whether to confront Harry on this, he needed more information.

And only then would he decide on the course of action to take.

The vibration of his mobile phone made him jump, he had been so focused on his thoughts. He fumbled it out of his pocket, fingers clumsy from the amount of drinks he had had.

"Hello?"

"Brandon. It's me."

Harry. For an irreverent moment, Brandon wondered whether his thoughts had summoned his friend's call.

"I'm supposed to go on a date with Sherry this weekend, but her dad cancelled it. Said some shit about Walken family business, can you believe it? Anyway, I thought it's been a while since we went out together. Want to go for a drive with me?"

Brandon stifled a sigh. Out of the blue… but then most of Harry's invitations came out of the nowhere. Harry was more of a creature of impulses and whims than he would like most people to believe.

"I usually go fishing with Daddy on Saturday."

"Oh." A pause. "I thought it was on Sundays?"

"It's Saturdays and Sundays now." Saturdays used to be for Maria, but since he started avoiding her…

"I see." A longer pause. "Guess it's not a bad idea to be spending more time with Big Daddy. I'm curious though, what do you talk about anyway, all those long hours? You can't possible not talk for half a day… what am I saying, you can do just that…"

"Millenion, mostly," Brandon cut in, stopping Harry's rambling. "Just… Daddy needed someone to talk to, sometimes." Just like I needed someone to talk to from time to time.

"Oh, really?" Harry's voice was still cheerful, but there was a slight edge to it. Most people would not notice, but Brandon had practically lived with Harry half of his life and he had long mastered the art of capturing his friend's subtle nuances. "It's about 'harmony' again, isn't it? You got to love the old man, but the way he goes on and on about it, you'd think he's a priest trying to convert you. Is your soul saved yet, Brandon?"

"Harry…"

"Okay, okay, never mind that. Go enjoy your time with the old man, I'll just have to find another time with you."

"Wait… I'll go."

"Huh? You serious?" Harry sounded genuinely surprised. "But this is Big Daddy we're talking about here."

Brandon closed his eyes. "I want to." There were so many things he wanted to say: I want to see you. I want to talk to you. I want to listen to you talk about our past and our future. I want to know that you're still my best friend.

But he had never been good with words.

"… okay then, I'll pick you up around ten." Harry's voice had gone deeper, warmer, the way it sounded when he was genuinely pleased. "We'll go for the strip near the beach and see how fast we can burn the miles."

"Ah."

"And Brandon… go with Bunji tonight, all right?"

"… Bunji called you?"

"One of these days, buddy, you got to tell me what's bothering you. I know it's no use trying to pry it out of you when you're not ready, but I'm here when you are."

Brandon bit on his lower lip until he could taste blood. It was all he could do to make a sound that might pass for an affirmative.

"See you then."

"Ah. See you."