It was the sound that drew Machika further into the village, a caterwauling that rose and fell and reminded her of both nails on a chalkboard and a cat being tortured. Curious, she made her way down the side street, weaving with ease through the villagers; they flowed around her, giving her wide berth once they caught sight of the long, slender scythe she carried over one shoulder in an obviously familiar grip. Many muttered as they passed her, giving her their version of the evil eye; children whispered and pointed at her weapon as she strode along, nonplussed. They wouldn't bother her, she knew, because to them she was either a bounty hunter or the bounty –encountering both was something that happened often in these times -and she would not interfere with their daily lives as they knew them. Instead she was a novelty, a taste of a different land and different society gracing their village for a short time much as the wind did. The attention didn't bother her, because she had no plans on dwelling here any longer than was absolutely necessary.
The horrendous cacophony luring her onwards was now descending a scale, each octave abrasive and harsh. Machika rounded a corner and found herself in an area that passed for the town square; ramshackle wooden buildings rose up on all sides, and four streets departed from the center at perfect angles. People were either leaving the square with considerable speed, fingers jammed in their ears, or were glaring at the offending musician as they went on their way. Said musician was leaning casually against a wall, head bowed as he concentrated on coaxing the obnoxious sounds from the small mahogany fiddle he played. Machika smiled as she watched the scene before her; oblivious to the insults and threats being hurled his way by the villagers, the musician played as if he were performing for a crowd of thousands eagerly awaiting each and every clarion note to fall from his instrument. An angry screech prolonged by the slow draw of the bow across the fiddle's strings concluded the massacre of whatever song was being played, and the musician raised his head to smile at his relieved audience. Despite his awful music, he had attracted some attention, most notably from a group of three young women who clustered around him as he lowered the hand holding the fiddle to the side. Machika watched, now openly amused, as the somewhat flustered musician –wearing the garb of a priest, she noticed suddenly- attempted to extricate himself from their fawning appreciative approaches.
Machika's eyes narrowed then as she further studied the musician, something in the far reaches of her memory struggling to be recalled. The musician was tall, and even in the long robe of his priesthood it was evident he was well built and leanly muscled. A simple black hat with a white band was perched atop his head, and from beneath it spilled forth the thick mass of his auburn hair, falling to hang at the base of his spine. He wore a large, round pair of eyeglasses, and the glare from them prevented his eyes from being seen. As he managed finally to free himself from the clinging hands of the young women, he caught sight of Machika standing casually across the street and became suddenly still. It was her weapon, she knew, that made him wonder whether she was here to collect his head; she knew who he was now, the memory coming to her at last. This was the renowned Methuselah, the immortal who had lived since the dawn of time –or so the tale said. He was a prize catch for any bounty hunter; the sheer amount offered for him by any given client was enough to make one person very, very rich. Once upon a time, Machika herself would have been eager to stake her claim on that bounty …
Once upon a time.
Instead, she raised her free hand to her forehead and gave Methuselah a jaunty salute accompanied by a wry smile. He didn't move as she turned and continued on her way; only his head angled to mark her progress. Machika was still smiling as she began to round the corner, off in search of a suitable inn for the night-
The world in front of her exploded, flames and debris from the road reaching after her as she was hurled bodily back into the square. She hit the ground in a skittering roll, the rough gravel from the street biting into her skin. For the merest of moments she lay facedown, stunned; a heartbeat later she was up and diving for her scythe that had been knocked from her grip by the force of the explosion. As her hand closed around the haft she whirled and dropped into a crouch, a fighting stance taught to her so many years ago by her grandfather. The street she'd been thrown from was now covered entirely in thick, roiling black smoke; three men materialized out of the haze, each carrying some sort of firearm. As the stunned villagers remaining in the square began to flee, panicked, Machika regarded her attackers with an air of detached calm.
"That was a merry chase, Machika," said the foremost of the three, dark-haired and dark eyed, bare d muscular arms covered in a myriad of tribal tattoos. His sneer, which she never saw him without, was mirrored on the faces of his companions.
"I like to keep people entertained, Schroeder." she replied, her voice rising over the crackle of the flames left behind by the grenade.
"I just bet you do," Schroeder said. A nod from him prompted his comrades to begin moving, and then they were coming for her, fast. She waited for them to reach her, unaware of the savage smile that had creased her face. She wasn't in the mood to be trifled with.
The man known as Methuselah had been almost certain that the young woman who stood motionless, watching him from across the street was a hunter out for the bounty on his head. The long scythe draped carelessly across one of her shoulders that should have looked unwieldy in her grasp but didn't was a clear indication that she was prepared, in one way or another, for violence. She was young, late teens or early twenties as far as he could tell, which didn't really surprise him. Bounty hunting was becoming more of a fad than an occupation anymore, with many of the younger generations clamoring for the glory wealth to be attained by obtaining the bounties. He waited tensely for her attack to come; when instead all she did was flash him an impertinent salute he was puzzled. Did she realize who he was? Or had she simply mistaken him for a talentless, down-on-his luck fiddle player? He turned his head to observe her progress as she sauntered down the street, more relieved than puzzled. One less bounty hunter meant less violence, less death, and for that he was grateful. As the girl turned a corner he began to swivel away, still watching out of the corner of his eye should her disregard prove to be merely an act meant to fool him-
The explosion whipped him back around; the young women behind him released startled screams as fire, smoke, and building debris erupted into the air with a deafening roar. The girl with the scythe was launched some twenty feet across the town square, landing hard but regaining her feet so swiftly he was astonished. She immediately leapt to retrieve her fallen weapon, and the moment she had it again in hand she assumed a fighting position that seemed vaguely familiar to him. All around him the town square was in chaos, villagers screaming and fleeing for their lives. The only two people to remain where they were were the girl and Methuselah himself. He was more than aware that he should flee with the rest; to remain was to call attention to himself, which was something he went out of his way to avoid. But he was intrigued, now, because the bounty for once was not himself –it was the girl.
Three figures shaped themselves out of the smoke and flame of the burning street; they were young thugs, but the expensive equipment they carried and clothing they wore was undoubtedly a testament to their prowess as hunters. The breeze, heated now from the fire, carried the short, terse conversation between the girl and the leader of the hunters back to him; he now had a name for her. Abruptly two of the hunters were rushing her, and Methuselah took one step forward before stopping. To aid the girl was again to call attention to himself, but he couldn't hardly stand by and watch as she was butchered-
A moment later, he realized he wouldn't have to watch the girl be butchered, because it was the girl who was going to do the butchering. She moved swiftly and with an easy grace, neatly sidestepping the first of the hunters to reach her. As he spun about awkwardly in order to compensate for his rush she met the second with a swift, sharp blow to the chin with the haft of her scythe. She followed through with an uppercut that snapped the hunter's head back; an elbow to the stomach dropped him to the ground, wheezing. The first hunter to charge her had recovered and tackled her full force from behind; they hit the ground in a tangle of limbs, but nimbly the girl –Machika- extricated herself from the hunter's hold and darted away. As the hunter made clumsy yet vehement pursuit she swept his legs out from under him with the scythe haft, and as he lay stunned on his back she brought the butt of the weapon down –hard- on his throat. The rattling, agonized wail that erupted from him as she turned echoed eerily throughout the now deserted town square.
The other hunter had recovered somewhat; as Machika turned to contend with him again, Methuselah caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to see the leader of the hunters down on one knee, taking careful aim with a compact version of a sniper rifle. Without thinking Methuselah was moving, running full tilt towards the two grappling opponents. He struck the girl a flashing second before the gunshot erupted; as he fell with her beneath him he felt the air from the passage of the bullet brush against his cheek. The girl hit first, a whooshing noise escaping her as he landed full force on top of her.
"What the hell are you doing?" She screamed at him a second later when all the air that had been forced from her lungs returned. He opened his mouth to explain, lifting himself off of her with his arms in a push-up motion, but she wasn't prepared to listen. She brought her knee up hard from underneath, striking him hard in the groin; at the same time she delivered an open palm blow to his chin, sharply knocking his head back. Caught between terrific agony both above and below the waist, he was helpless to resist as she roughly shoved his body off of her own and scrambled away. Curling into a tight ball, hands fisted over his injuries, Methuselah watched through watering eyes as Machika, weaponless, rose to face the hunters once more.
"A priest?" Schroeder crowed, grinning. He still held the sniper rifle at his shoulder in a ready position. "What kind of company have you been keeping, Machika?"
"Shut your face," the girl said calmly, standing ramrod straight, her arms loose at her sides.
Schroeder's grin faded. "You're a mouthy little bitch, aren't you?" He raised the rifle's scope to his eye as his companions, one clutching his stomach, the other his throat, slowly limped their way to his side. "I wish I could say it's been a pleasure, but it really hasn't been."
"Likewise." She replied. Methuselah, lying in agony on the ground some five feet away, watched as the girl's body stiffened, as the muscles evident in her bare legs and arms grew taut in preparation for what was to come. He couldn't have moved even if he had wanted to; Machika's aim had been unerring, and though he was immortal he was in no way immune to the resounding waves of pain radiating out now from a prominent part of his anatomy. Instead he was forced to watch as Schroeder's finger flexed around the trigger, as the girl dropped into a crouched stance-
An explosion, smaller than the first but just as loud, ripped through the town center; the flames left over from the grenade had ignited the gas tank of a small motorcycle propped up against a wall. The three hunters all whirled around at the sound; Machika began to move then, gathering herself before sprinting towards them. Schroeder caught sight of her first; his shouted warning was somewhat garbled as Machika's left foot impacted solidly with his face. Blood and other, heavier things flew from his mouth as he toppled, rendered immediately unconscious; the two wounded hunters made no move whatsoever to either gather up their fallen comrade or attack the girl; instead they stood watching her tensely.
"Get out of here," she said sharply. "Get out of here, and take Schroeder with you. You tell him the next time he comes looking for me, I'll kill him. I'll kill you, too."
It wasn't so much the words she spoke as it was the way she said it that was chilling; even Methuselah were he lay could hear the grim, decisive certainty in her tone that made him absolutely positive that she meant everything she said. Apparently the conscious hunters believed her too, because they quickly gathered their fallen comrade as best they could in their own injured states and began to awkwardly and slowly make their way from the town square. Machika watched them until they were out of sight, lost to her by the thick, wind blown smoke still draping itself across the streets and buildings. Methuselah, the pain in his groin having faded somewhat, eased slowly into a sitting position with a wince. The movement caught Machika's eye; she cast him an unreadable glance before stooping and picking up the sniper rifle Schroeder had dropped. After sliding the magazine cartridge out she shook it, letting the unused bullets fall clinking to the street. She then hurled the weapon one handed away from her; it vanished into the smoke, the clatter of its landing audible a moment later.
"Good aim," Methuselah commented, his voice raspy from the pain of the wound she had inflicted.
She didn't reply until she had her scythe again, sliding its strap over her head and letting it rest against her back. "You shouldn't have interfered."
"I was trying to help you. He had a gun."
"I know." She reached him in five steps, dropping into an easy crouch just out of arm's reach. "Schroeder always has a gun. He's too lazy to exert himself physically." She took note of his awkward sitting position, of the way his face was drawn from discomfort, and offered him a small, apologetic smile. "I'm sorry for hurting you."
"Are you?" He asked almost angrily; her smile grew.
"You got in the way, old man. I had to do what I had to do."
"So hitting me in the balls is– what did you call me?"
She held his eyes for a long moment, smile fading, and when she spoke next her tone was somber. "Old man. That's what you are, isn't it? If all the legends are right then you're well over five hundred years old, Methuselah."
He opened his mouth, found nothing to say, and closed it again. Her smile reappeared, a quick curving of the lips. "Don't worry. I'm not out for your head."
"No," he muttered, surprised that she'd known his identity and feeling a consistent, irritating ache settle in the region below his belt, "Only my ba-"
"Anyways," she interrupted loudly, getting to her feet in a swift unfolding of limbs, "I should be on my way. I wouldn't linger here too long, old man. This little escapade is sure to have drawn some attention."
She was turning to go as he got –slowly- to his feet. She'd gone three paces when he called after her, "Why are they out for your head?"
She half-pivoted to reply. "I killed a man."
"What kind of man?"
"An important one." She elaborated after a moment, "The mayor of the town I was raised in."
"Why," he asked, "Would you kill a mayor?"
"Because he put a bounty on my grandfather. And my grandfather couldn't escape all of the hunters that came for him."
"Your grandfather," he persisted, having heard and recognized the heavy, underlying grief in her words "Who was he?"
"You'd know him well, old man," she said, and when she smiled at him this time it was sadly. "He was the Grim Reaper Zol."
She resumed walking then, quickly, before he could ask any of the other questions he wanted to ask. He indeed had known Zol well; of all the bounty hunters to ever haunt the earth, Zol the Grim Reaper was undisputedly one of the best. He had come for Methuselah more than once, and more than once he'd been forced to concede that the immortal Methuselah could not be brought down by his hand. Towards the end it was almost a bond that had been forged between hunter and bounty, a bond of mutual respect. Methuselah had not known Zol had had a granddaughter; he had not know Zol had had any family at all. He watched as Machika left the town center, her sure, quick strides carrying her soon around a corner and out of his sight. He pondered what she'd said and what she'd done, and an instant later he was running after her, his injury only slightly hindering his inhuman speed. When suddenly he appeared before her as though out of thin air, his long hair swirling about him from the swiftness of his movements, she let out a startled gasp and grabbed for her scythe.
"I have a name," he told her in a tone of mock sternness, "And it's not Old Man. It's Rain. Got it?"
"Rain," She repeated, frowning and clearly wondering why he'd followed.
"Right. Now, I know a nice inn on the outskirts of this town. Hardly anybody frequents it, and therefore it's a good place to lie low for a bit. Are you interested?"
"Interested," she said, scowling, "In sharing a room at an inn with you?"
"Heh. Not quite like you're imagining. Listen –you're wanted, I'm wanted. It couldn't be a bad idea for the two of us to watch each other's backs for one night, could it?"
"You," she said pointedly, "Are over five hundred years old. I don't think you'd need much help when it comes to surviving."
"You'd be surprised," he said. "And I'm six hundred and twenty four. For the record."
She regarded him mutely for a moment, lips twitching; after a bit an amused smile quirked her lips and she shook her head at him. "All right, old ma- Rain. I'll come with you to the inn."
"And after?" he prompted, absurdly pleased that she'd agreed and inwardly wondering why it would be so.
"And after, we'll see," Machiko said, and began walking again. "You're immortal, and I'm not. With all the attention you attract, it may be more dangerous for me to hang out with you than it would for me to travel on my own."
She didn't see his lighthearted expression fade at her words, nor did she see the sorrow, acute and poignant, darken his eyes. He started after her then, schooling his face so that it appeared as it normally did to others –carefree and cheerful. This was his penance, after all; he contemplated for a brief moment telling Machika to flee from him, to get as far from him as possible. But then he recalled seeing her own sorrow, her own regret, and realized that he felt as if he'd found and recognized someone who could –possibly- be a friend to him after all these years.
It was too much too pass up. Even for him.
Author's Note: This is my first attempt at IR fanfiction; of all the manga I've come across, IR is by far my absolute favourite, and I'm going crazy waiting for the seventh volume to be released.
I wrote Machika older in this because I figured she'd gain wisdom with age; this doesn't go to say I don't enjoy 14-15 year old Machika, but hey, this is fanfiction and therefore I felt the need to experiment. I would like to continue this, so please let me know what you think.