Empire of Dirt
Notes: The characters are not mine, and the story is! I advise the readers to listen to the song Hurt by Johnny Cash while reading. This story would not exist if it was not for that song, and in fact, the original version (which is not posted here) contains the song's lyrics. For the flashback with Akemi, I have used the manga dialogue, because I don't have the anime version on hand right now. All is as it is in the English translation, except for changing "syndicate" to "Organization". And of course, the last two spoken sentences in that flashback are my own invention.
Gin was never certain exactly how it happened. He had returned to his suite after completing his latest assignment, feeling apathetic, as he almost always did now. The thrill, the excitement of the hunt had long ago dissolved into a cold, hard sense of fulfilling a duty to those to whom he was bound. He did not feel much of anything any more, and had not for some time. It was similar to how he had felt when he had begun his training as an assassin, only it was different in the respect that now he had seen and experienced---and had lost---so much. Before, when he had come to Japan at age eighteen, he had known what would likely happen to him, but he had not realized how it would so deeply affect him and the lives of those around him.
As he opened the door of the darkened room and flicked on the light, he took in the emptiness with a dull numbness, as he had done every day for a time period the length of which he had lost track. Everything was the same. The furniture was arranged as it always had been---the two chairs across from each other, the coffee table between them, the stands to the sides of the chairs bearing ashtrays, the lamp. . . . The bedroom doors, one closed, the other partially open. . . . All the same. And yet it was not the same as it had once been.
Hearing a soft crackling underfoot, he looked down and saw that he had stepped on an envelope that had been pushed under his door. Muttering, he picked it up and reached for the knife he had been using as a letter opener.
He still did not know how it managed to slip. But as he sliced the top of the envelope, a sharp, pronounced pain suddenly stabbed into his right wrist. Looking down, he saw that the blade had cut into his flesh. Blood was starting to drip from the wound, onto the knife, and onto the envelope and the floor. Cursing, he dropped both weapon and parcel onto the nearest stand and clutched at the injury with his left hand. More crimson sneaked through his fingers.
He was surprised at how much such a seemingly simple wound could hurt. He had been injured far worse than this over the years he had worked as an assassin for the Black Organization---among other things he had been repeatedly shot, poisoned, involved in car accidents. . . . But this small stab wound from an ordinary pocketknife seemed to throb much worse than any of those other times. Perhaps it was because he had not felt anything for so long. He had been living on auto-pilot. And suddenly this injury had jarred him fully into reality. Or was it the only thing that was real?
Instead of going to take care of it, as he should have, he sank down into the nearest chair, still gripping his wrist. Everything over the past few months seemed like a bizarre dream, a chain of events that logically should not have come to pass and yet had anyway. He was alone in the suite, and had been since that one assignment had gone wrong, resulting in him and Vodka both being badly injured---and for Vodka, it had been fatal. That had been half a year ago.
He had finally encountered Sherry again, two months previous. She was dead now, his longtime mission finally completed. But instead of feeling any sort of satisfaction over sending her on to Akemi, he had felt a strange emptiness as he had watched her collapse into the snow, bleeding from the fatal wounds. They had grown up together, they had loved each other deeply, and they had come to feel betrayed and had hated each other. Gin had made it his goal to find and eliminate her, but now that she was indeed gone, he felt, in some strange way, alone. There was nothing left. All of the people he had ever been close to in some way were gone.
He had completely closed himself off to everyone, even more so after Sherry's demise. The bitterness he felt had been mounting---bitterness toward Vodka, Sherry, and Akemi, the Organization in general, and himself. All of them had been mercilessly used and manipulated by the Black Organization's leader. Their lives had all been for naught. After their worth was gone, they were picked off, one by one. His own time would come eventually. But perhaps death would not be such a bad thing. It had been the only release for the others. And in the meantime, he would continue to do what was expected of him, as he had done for years.
Slowly he became aware of a knocking on the partially open door. He had forgotten to close it, and when he looked up, he found to his annoyance that Vermouth was there. She was the last person he wanted to see right now. "What do you want?" he growled.
She pushed the door open further and stepped inside, the quiet smirk he despised so much gracing her features. "I just decided to drop by when I heard that you'd got back," she answered, and surveyed the blood on the table, the knife and the envelope, and oozing from between Gin's fingers. Her reaction surprised both herself and Gin.
Her blue eyes widened and the smirk left her face. "You idiot! What did you do?" she cried, seizing Gin's left arm in an attempt to pull his hand free from the wound.
Not having expected this at all, Gin's grip was loosened. "What is your problem?" he snapped, glowering as she began examining the wound.
She looked up at him. "How did this happen?" she demanded, still with that same concerned tone of voice.
He regarded her with irritation. "I had an accident with the knife," he answered flatly.
She blinked, and then seemed to relax. The smirk returned. "I didn't know you were so careless, Gin," she remarked. "And you should be taking care of this so it doesn't get infected."
Gin gave her the gaze of emerald ice that had scared away many a fool who had spoken to him out of turn. "You're not my nursemaid," he snapped. "I was going to take care of it."
"Ouch," she purred. "Well, you should do it then." She watched him get up from the chair and head for his room. "You're lucky it didn't slice the vein," she commented now.
In the bathroom adjoining his room, Gin turned on the faucet and held his wrist under the hot water. He glared at his reflection in the mirror, pondering over Vermouth's odd initial reaction to him having been wounded. And then there was her most recent comment.
He was not surprised when he noticed her own reflection in the mirror as she came and leaned in the doorway, though he was definitely irritated. "What are you saying?" he growled. "Did you think I'd done it myself, on purpose?" He turned off the water and reached for a towel, patting the wound and the surrounding area dry before getting out the first aid kit and setting it on the counter. He cursed when he could not get it open with one hand.
Vermouth reached over to give him some unwanted assistance, and the case snapped open. Gin began to search through it until he found the bandages. Vermouth simply stood back and observed him, her expression sobering again. "Gin, let's not kid ourselves," she said then. "You've never been the same since Vodka was killed. . . ." And since you killed Sherry, she added silently. "I know you're not a suicidal person, but when I came in and saw the knife and the blood . . . I don't know. I wasn't thinking."
Gin looked up at her, his eyes burning. "Why should his death mean anything to me?" he retorted. "I was trained to not care about anyone." He fumbled with the bandage, but at last unwound it and wrapped it around the injury. She did not have any right to come in here and speak of things that she did not understand. She always seemed to think that everyone else's problems were her business.
"You refused to take another partner," Vermouth said after allowing him a moment of silence to work out the frustrations of the bandage. "Instead you've done your work alone. And you've continued to stay here, in this suite, while you're on the base. . . ."
"Because there wouldn't be a reason to leave," Gin answered harshly. "I don't have any connection to Vodka or to this place. He lived here once. Now he doesn't. And I don't want another partner because I can get things done better on my own. Someone else wouldn't know me well enough to work with me without screwing up." He glared at her coldly as he slammed the box shut and replaced it in the cupboard. "I'm not the only person to refuse a partner after a previous one was lost."
"Yes, I know," Vermouth nodded, and then paused. "But you admit that Vodka knew you, then." She smiled. "Someone else could learn how to work with you . . . but they wouldn't be able to take his place. And . . . I doubt that you would ever have the same sort of rapport with someone else."
Gin stormed out of the bathroom, through his room, and back into the living room. "Vodka and I worked well together, it's true," he admitted. He opened a drawer in the stand and took out a cigarette pack. Removing one of the objects inside, he placed it in his mouth and lighted up. After a moment he looked over at Vermouth, who had followed him in. "But if you think I'm some kind of sentimental sap, you couldn't be further from the truth."
Vermouth regarded him with mock horror. "Oh, of course not!" she said, and then sobered again. She came and stood in front of him, looking firmly into what she could see of his green eyes. "I know you're not like that. You're a hardened assassin, one of the man's favorites. But to care about someone is only human, Gin. And underneath it all . . . you're still human. You cared about Vodka, in some way."
Gin snorted. Still human. . . . It sounded preposterous, for anyone to say that to him, and especially in the context in which Vermouth meant it. "It's also human nature to mindlessly fight amongst ourselves and destroy each other like animals," he pointed out flatly, ignoring her other comments.
Vermouth smirked. "True," she acknowledged calmly.
She paused. "The man was pleased with you for finally getting rid of Sherry," she remarked.
Gin looked at her searchingly. "So what?" he retorted.
"Nothing," she said calmly, "except that you haven't seemed as gratified as I thought you would be. You'd been looking for her for so long, with the intention of killing her for being a traitor."
"And I did." Gin was irritated. "If all you want to do is try to pick apart my brain, you're going to be disappointed. You should just leave now." None of this was Vermouth's business. How dare she show up here, acting as though she knew everything about him and what was going on in whatever was left of his heart? How could she, when Gin did not know himself?
Gin had loved Sherry, but he had killed her out of hate. Or had there still been some of the old feelings there when he had pulled the trigger? Had he wanted to send her on to Akemi, knowing that it was the only way for her to be free of the Organization's grip? Perhaps Vermouth's concerns over Gin killing himself were not entirely unfounded. Both of them knew very well that to die was the only real way out. But no, that was not the way he would choose.
The blonde woman continued to regard him as if she knew him. Her eyes had narrowed slightly now, as if she was growing vexed. "You're such a stubborn jackass, Gin," she said now. "You could never admit to caring about anyone, whether it was Akemi, Vodka, or Sherry." Then she paused, as if something else had just ocurred to her. "You could never even say it to yourself," she declared. "As far as you're concerned, you really don't care about anyone, do you?"
"That's right," Gin snapped.
Vermouth shook her head. "You're hopeless," she murmured. "It's no wonder you're one of the man's most favored operatives. You're harshly efficient, so much so that you will kill whoever you have to without a moment's hesitation or regret." She stepped closer. "Or will you? Did you feel anything when you shot Akemi after the billion yen robbery? Or was she just an unimportant traitor, someone to be eliminated regardless of the fact that she was your best friend? Do you see so much in stark black and white that your friendship with her didn't matter?" She took the cigarette out of his mouth, wanting him to give her his full attention. He glared down at her in annoyance.
"What's your point?" he growled. "We kill who we have to. It's not as if you don't."
"That's not my point, Gin." Vermouth looked at him seriously and then reached up, brushing his long bangs away from his eyes before he could protest. "My point is, did you stop caring about her---and Sherry---when you were assigned to kill them? Did you struggle with the orders? Or was it easy for you because once they were traitors, they suddenly did not matter anymore?" He did not answer, and she persisted. "Gin . . . was there some deeper reason, something that made it easier to kill them if you did still care about them?" His eyes widened in shock and Vermouth felt certain that she had struck a nerve. Calmly she gave him back his cigarette, placing it in his mouth.
Gin choked momentarily on the smoke, as he was caught up in his astonishment over Vermouth's remarks. But then he got control of himself and glowered at her again. "Get out," he ordered, his tone dark and menacing.
Vermouth was unafraid, but she smiled and turned to the door. "Gin . . . one of the reasons why you're having such a hard time coping with all of this is because you can't admit that you still have the ability to care about people," she said quietly. "You feel something about Akemi's and Vodka's and Sherry's deaths, but you don't understand what it is and you can't accept that maybe you're not a complete monster." She looked back at him, her expression having softened slightly. "It's okay to say that you miss them, that you care about them, that you want them back. It will help you get through the grieving process." Without waiting for him to answer, she walked out and shut the door quietly behind her.
Gin stayed where he was for a long moment, simply pondering over everything Vermouth had told him. All of it was absurd. He killed mercilessly. No one's death meant anything to him, and especially not the death of any traitor. The only feeling he ever experienced over such deaths was satisfaction. Traitors deserved to die. It did not matter who they were.
He crossed the room to the other chair and sank down in it, gazing off into the distance. The memories were still fresh in his mind of when he and Vodka had met Akemi down at the docks that fateful evening. He had not been close to her for several years, since rising in the ranks to become one of the Black Organization's most feared assassins, but after receiving the order to kill her, he had arranged the billion yen robbery and had contacted Akemi to take part in it, promising her and Sherry freedom from the Organization if she cooperated. He could never forget the look in her eyes as she had approached---indignation, anger, mixed with flickers of sadness and hope.
"You promised!" she cried, her voice rising. "You said if this job is completed, my sister and I are free to leave the Organization!" Her voice wavered as she looked up at him, searching through the icy eyes of a murderer for any trace of the mischievous boy with whom she had spent many happy hours. But there was nothing, and traces of tears appeared in her blue orbs, but did not fall. Clearing her throat, she spoke again. "Bring her here and I'll tell you where the money is!"
And he smirked. A cruel, heartless, amused smirk. "That's impossible. She is one of the greatest minds in the Organization." Should she not have known better? Sherry could never go free. They had been grooming her for years to be one of their scientists. But Akemi had believed him when he had told her of the promised freedom. She had still trusted him, as her dear friend, and she had believed that he would fulfill his promise.
Now the color drained from her face. "What?" she burst out. She took a step back, looking as if she had just been slapped in the face. Now panic and betrayal were the rising emotions in her eyes. She had been lied to. All of this, all of the killing, and the robberies, had been for naught. Sherry would not be free.
He ignored her hurt expression. She did not understand. "Unlike you, we need her," he said coldly, the smirk never leaving his face. Akemi was not needed. She could go. She could be free, just as he had promised.
She swallowed hard. "Then . . . you never intended to . . ." She trailed off, the full comprehension sinking into her heart and soul. Suddenly her throat was dry. Her childhood friend, and Sherry's romantic interest, was dead. She had known it, and yet she had wanted so badly to believe otherwise, when he had told her that they could be free. But he had never meant any of it. He had become ruthless and uncaring, as she had long ago warned him would happen. Her heart shattered.
He drew out his gun, holding it up at her. "This is your last chance," he said darkly. "Where's the money?"
And in an instant, Akemi swallowed all of her pain. A smirk of her own graced her features. She would not let this stranger see her agony. And surely . . . surely he would not pull the trigger. . . . "Think again," she retorted evenly. "Kill me, and you'll never know where the money is." He had lied to her, but he would not kill her. . . . Surely he still remembered. . . . Surely he knew how it would crush Sherry. . . . He would lose her. . . . Even if he no longer cared about her, surely Sherry still held a place in his heart. . . .
"No, you think again," he informed her, his green eyes glinting. "We have an idea of where the money is." The weapon clicked, and she suddenly knew it was all over for her. "And didn't I tell you? This is your last chance."
The bullet rang out, piercing her stomach. She gasped, falling back as she clutched it. Blood oozed through her fingers, and she stared at it blankly, then up at him as he surveyed her with satisfaction. And, unbidden, a tear slipped down her cheek. "Why, Enok?" she whispered. But he was already gone, vanishing into the shadows.
Still, she was almost certain that she heard a faint voice on the wind. "Be free, Akemi. . . ." But then she heard footsteps running in her direction and she did not stop to think about what that statement could mean.
Gin ground his cigarette into the ashtray. He had never expected Akemi to understand. Yes, he had wanted to set her free. She was a traitor to the Organization, but she was also his friend. And she had been unfairly manipulated by the syndicate throughout her time there. Gin had manipulated her, too. He was well aware of that. But he had still cared about her. Other than Sherry, he was the only one in the Organization who had cared. He had not known any other way to grant her freedom. Or had it all been a rationalization to help him deal with the fact that he had to kill her?
He hated that Vermouth believed that she could see into his soul. He hated even more that she could. No one else had been able to read him. Why could she?
Though . . . sometimes Vodka had seemed to know more about him than Gin had been willing to say. Gin had never confirmed that what Vodka would think was correct, but he had been surprised sometimes, by what Vodka would have figured out. Then again, they had lived and worked together for so long that perhaps it was not that strange. Gin had come to feel that he had known Vodka quite well. But he felt that way about most people with whom he had a lot of contact.
He reached for another cigarette. Vodka. . . . That idiot. If he had been more careful, maybe he would not have ended up following Akemi. Flicking the lighter open, Gin applied the flame to his cigarette and glared into the distance again. Would he never not be plagued by the memories? He had tried to get rid of them. But getting drunk only made them more pronounced, and he was not about to try drugs. So he just suffered with the ghosts of the past, day in and day out.
Gin cursed as the figure darted down the otherwise deserted hall, vanishing around a corner. He and Vodka had been trailing the vindictive traitor for hours through the twisting corridors of the office building. Several times now, they thought they had caught the person, but then he would escape once again. Gin was growing frustrated. It seemed that this chase would never end.
"Bro, he went into the stairwell again!" Vodka exclaimed, appearing from around the other corner. "I thought he'd be trying to get out of the place, but he's heading for the basement! There's no way out from there!" He clutched his gun tightly, feeling confused. What would their target's game be? They were on the main floor, and he could have easily jumped out a window.
Gin growled, his green eyes flashing furiously. "He wants us to follow him," he stated flatly, storming over to the door and pulling it open. "He wants to have a showdown, and he thinks he's going to get the upper hand."
Vodka swallowed nervously. "What if he will, Bro?" he asked then. "We don't know what's down there. . . ."
Gin cursed, starting down the stairs. "It doesn't matter," he answered. "He'll soon find out that it was a bad idea, to betray us. I'm not going to let him get away." His pride was damaged. Ordinarily he would have been able to locate the target ages before now, especially since they were in the same building. He was tired of this wild goose chase, and he would see that it ended here. He would not be mocked.
Vodka did not want them to go down there. He had a bad feeling that something would go wrong, but he knew that Gin would not be convinced. And so with a sigh, he followed his partner, keeping his gun held out in case the man they were chasing suddenly popped up in front of them.
The basement was mostly a maze of pipes and mechanical devices that controlled the utilities, with the boiler near the center. As soon as Gin arrived at the bottom of the stairs and pushed open the door, he could tell that something was amiss. Everything was completely still, but something in the darkened room did not feel right. Cursing low, Gin advanced with his gun, weaving his way around the various machines. There was not any sign of the person whom they had been tailing, nor what he might have done, until Gin rounded another corner and found himself in front of the boiler. He gripped the gun tighter.
Vodka caught up to him at that moment and followed his gaze. Behind the sunglasses, his eyes widened in alarm. "Bro . . ."
Gin whirled around, shoving the other. "We have to get out of here!" he growled. "The safety valve was taken off the boiler and it's overheating. This is a trap." This was not really a surprise to him, but it was angering. Chances were that their target figured that they would be trapped down there if there was an explosion, and that he was sneaking out even as they spoke.
Vodka did not need any coaxing. He hurried back the way he had come, trying to find his way. Gin was right behind him, berating their misfortune.
They never did make it back to the door. In the darkness, a gunshot suddenly rang out and narrowly missed hitting Gin. Growling angrily, he dodged it and watched it bounce off a pipe and ricochet back toward him. Without warning he reached out and pushed Vodka to the floor, then followed suit. More bullets soared around them, and one knicked him in the arm, but otherwise it almost seemed as if the person was deliberately missing. And Gin could not tell where the shots were coming from, so he could not return fire. If he tried, there was a good chance he would hit the boiler.
"He's trying to taunt us!" Vodka exclaimed, holding onto his gun desperately. Though he could not shoot back, he felt better somehow, to be clutching it.
After a moment the gunfire ceased. Gin waited for another minute before getting up slowly and looking around the area. Slowly he moved forward, trying to be completely quiet. Vodka stood as well and followed him. The sniper was in there somewhere, but the question was where. In any case, they should get as far away from the boiler as possible.
Abruptly the target's laughter echoed around the musty room. "I know you thought you'd be able to catch me," he called, "but I'm the only one who'll come out of this alive. I'm not as stupid as most of the people are who you deal with." Another shot was fired, and it hit its mark.
Gin cursed as the explosion ripped through the basement. As he was suddenly pushed forward by Vodka, the force of the blast sent him even further. He skidded across the floor, dazed and semi-conscious from a blow he had taken from a pipe. The second blast left him senseless.
It was the water dripping onto his face that woke him. Slowly he forced his eyes open, focusing on the broken water pipe directly above his head. He was laying in a large puddle, completely drenched. When he regained enough awareness to realize this, he tried to force himself up and promptly hissed in pain, grabbing at his shoulder. It was aching tremendously, and as Gin touched it, he found that it seemed to have been dislocated. He felt around, trying to determine for certain, and looked around the room, coughing from the smoke that was floating through the air.
"Vodka?" he choked out, trying to see where the other was. He did not receive an answer, and after a moment he struggled to his feet, grunting in pain. His shoulder was definitely dislocated, and he pressed hard on it, ignoring the pain as he tried to set it back in place. It was a dangerous thing to attempt on his own, but Gin did not care. He did dangerous things everyday. "Vodka, where are you?" he yelled with a curse, taking several shaking steps forward. He nearly slipped and fell, and he had to grab onto a nearby pipe to steady himself.
What was left of the room was a disaster area. Large portions of the ceiling had caved in, pipes were strewn about everywhere, and many of the machines were damaged. Gin wondered if the building would hold up at all. Perhaps there was a danger that it would either collapse or else go up in flames. Or maybe the water had put out any fire.
He limped forward, muttering to himself. He wondered if he had twisted his ankle, and as he looked down, he noticed crimson mixing in with the water. His eyes narrowed and he looked up, deciding that Vodka had to be nearby. He pushed harder on his shoulder, gritting his teeth as he heard it snap back into place. Then he advanced again, stepping over a thick pipe that was in his path.
He found Vodka laying on his side, lifeless and bleeding from a head wound. His sunglasses were hanging half off his face, and Gin could see that the other's eyes were closed. Growling, he reached out with his good hand and shook him on the shoulder. "Wake up!" he ordered. Vodka did not respond.
Biting back his frustration, Gin leaned down and listened for any breath or a heartbeat. There was nothing. Cursing, he pushed Vodka onto his back and leaned down, applying artificial respiration in an attempt to revive him. But it was not any use, as he soon realized. Vodka was dead.
Gin took the cigarette out of his mouth, clutching it tightly between his fingers. Vermouth had brought some of the other agents to help him get out, as she had been nearby and had heard the explosion. When they had managed to pick their way into the basement, they had found Gin trying in vain to resuscitate his partner, half-dazed from the explosion and the way he had been shaken during it. As he had leaned back, Vermouth had seen an expression of confusion come over his features, as if he could not believe what had happened.
Gin did not remember any of that, but when he had been recovering back at the base, Vermouth had informed him. He had snorted in derision, saying that he had been perfectly coherent and aware of the situation, and that he had accepted Vodka's death then and there.
He put out the cigarette and gazed up at the ceiling. He had finally tracked down the man who had gotten away that night in the boiler room. The traitor had escaped through the ventilating system, but Gin had caught up to him four months after Vodka's death. Killing him, however, had only made Gin realize just how much he blamed himself instead.
He would usually blame Vodka, saying that the other had simply been careless, but sometimes in his quiet moments, he would think about how Vodka had been hesitant to go in the basement in the first place. It was Gin who had insisted, even though he had known that it could be a trap. He could not stand being outsmarted in such a way, and he had wanted to make the traitor realize what a mistake he had made by leading them on as he had. As far as he was concerned, it was actually his own pride that had killed Vodka. But he would never admit it. Instead he would suffer in silence, as he had always done.
He still wondered why he had lived. Was it because Vodka had shoved him forward? Was it just his own bad luck? Sometimes he envied those who had gone on before.
Sherry looked up at him, that wry smile that he knew so well gracing her features. She gripped at her shoulder, blood oozing through her fingers, and he was reminded of their previous encounter in the snow. From her eyes, she remembered as well.
"I knew you'd catch up to me eventually," she remarked. "That's always been your goal." In her other hand she gripped a gun of her own. Gin wondered if she would try to use it on him. Even if she did, he would be faster. He had already shot her twice.
"This is a familiar scene, isn't it," Gin answered, the dark smirk widening. "I wonder if we are destined to always meet like this, in the snow. Maybe it's fate, telling you that this is how you should die---amidst a pure white substance."
"Why, so I can taint it?" Sherry smirked in reply. "We both know that I'm not pure by any stretch of the imagination." Her expression darkened. "I helped the Organization many times, developing deadly substances that you and the other operatives could use."
"It's amazing, what people will do to stay alive, isn't it." Gin advanced, shooting her again. She stumbled, but tried to regain her balance. Though she was still holding the gun, she did not try to shoot him, and Gin was somewhat puzzled by this. "Why don't you defend yourself?" he demanded. "You know I'm going to kill you if you don't."
She sighed softly, raising her blue-eyed gaze to meet his emerald ice. "I know you're wearing a bullet-proof vest," she answered calmly, "so I can't shoot you in the chest. I could try for your head, but you would be faster and shoot me again first. We both know it."
"So you're not going to do anything?" Gin frowned. She seemed so resigned to her death. He had not expected that. He had been certain that she would fight him tooth and nail, and try to shoot him down as payment for killing Akemi.
"I don't see the point," she replied frankly. What did she actually have to go back to? She had lost her sister and both of the people she had loved romantically---Gin to madness, and Shinichi to Ran. She would never get in their way. Shinichi had never loved her in the way she loved him, and she would not think of breaking Ran's heart. Ran had waited for him for so long.
Gin stopped and studied her. "Do you want to die?" he asked then, training his gun on her chest.
She shrugged. "You'll kill me whether I want to or not," she told him. But her eyes revealed what she would not say. Perhaps she did not especially want to die, but she did not see what there was to live for.
He smirked again. "You're still a traitor, Sherry," he hissed, "and traitors have to die." He pulled the trigger again.
She gasped in pain, her eyes widening as this bullet slammed into her chest. Dropping her gun, she gripped at the wound and then sank into the snow on her knees, breathing heavily and shuddering.
Gin observed her, slowly putting his gun away. That would be enough to do it. But to make sure, he would stay there until she died. It should not take long.
She looked so small and cold and pale as she fell forward onto her stomach in the swirling white midsts. . . . He did not want to, but he could not help remembering a time so long ago, when they had both been children and some of her cruel classmates had been pushing her into the snow. Every time she would try to get up, they would knock her down again. He had come along and seen this, and he had been furious. They had always feared him, and they had quickly scattered once they had seen him. He had gone to her then, helping her up, and she had looked at him gratefully.
Now he went to her again, kneeling down next to her in the snow and lifting her trembling body into his arms. He did not know why. But as soon as he was holding her, it felt so right. This was how it should be.
She looked up at him blearily, partially wanting to pull away and partially wanting to sink into his embrace, forgetting the present and thinking only of the past. She wanted to remember him as he had been, before their lives had been torn apart. But it was delusional thinking because of her wounds and the cold. He was no longer the man she had loved. She struggled, trying to get out of his grasp, but soon found it useless. He was too strong, and she was too weakened.
"Why?" she finally whispered.
"I want to make sure you die," he answered.
"You don't have to keep me so close," she objected. "Don't worry . . . soon I'll be gone." Her breathing had already grown more pained. She slumped into his arms, her red hair falling limply around her face. Her eyes closed, and for a moment she rested, wanting to make believe that the circumstances were much different. She wanted to be back in her childhood, when she had not fully understood the power of the Black Organization and the way it would warp and twist Gin's soul. She wanted to be back in the days when they had confessed their love for each other and Gin had shown her one of his rare moments of affection. He had held her then, as well. But then she opened her eyes again and saw the swirling snow, the blood, and the ice-cold eyes looking down at her. She swallowed the lump in her throat, but then promptly began to cough, blood appearing at her lips. He simply watched her, seemingly emotionless. And it haunted her, as it always had done.
"Where's your shadow?" she asked when the coughing had subsided. "I thought he almost never left your side."
Gin's eyes narrowed slightly at the reminder. "Vodka is dead," he answered simply.
She looked up at him. "Did you kill him?" It would not surprise her. Gin would kill anyone, if he believed he had a reason.
His expression darkened more. "Yes." In his mind, he had. Vodka might still be alive if Gin had handled the situation differently, if he had not allowed himself to become so indignant and to feel that his pride had been damaged.
There was the wry smile again. "I didn't think you cared about him. You've not cared about anyone for years, if you ever cared at all." These words were tinged with bitterness. She had often wondered if he had always lied to her, and had not cared even when they were children. Sometimes she found that easier to bear than the idea that he had loved her once but then had stopped.
He grunted, a flicker of something indecipherable going through his eyes. But then it was gone.
Again she fell silent. It was getting so hard to breathe, and to see. . . . Her vision was going out, and she knew she would not last long. She would fall unconscious and then swiftly die, or else die immediately without first passing into senselessness. She reached up with a shaking hand, gripping a handful of his coat with a bloodied hand. "I loved you," she choked out, tears appearing in her glassy eyes. "I hate you . . . but I loved you. . . ." She gripped tighter. "Why . . . why did it have to be this way. . . . Why did everything have to fall apart. . . ."
He looked down at her, his expression still unchanged.
A moment later her grip loosened and her body fell slack, her breath slowing and then coming to a halt. She was dead. And Gin continued to kneel where he was, holding her close to him and gazing off into the distance, as if he had not fully accepted her death. She looked so beautiful, laying in his arms. . . .
Gin slowly came back to the present, grumbling as the lights flickered and went out due to the storm that had been raging all night. The generator would kick in soon, but for a few moments he would be in complete darkness. Not that he had not figuratively been so for years.
He reached for another cigarette. Vodka had once mused over what would have been their fates had they not been brought up in the Black Organization, and Gin thought about it more than he would admit. There was no telling how they would have turned out then. Perhaps they would have all been happy. Now they were all dead, except him.
He opened his lighter and applied the flame to his cigarette. The small, lone light hovered for a brief moment and then vanished as the container was closed, swallowed up in the darkness.