Episode 23: Happiness (Life)

Slowly the elevator ground to a halt; the doors slid open onto the darkened hallway. Putting on his sunglasses and drawing his gun, the young man jumped out and almost immediately faced gunfire from all angles. Somersaulting out of the way, he recovered from the acrobatics and fired off shots of his own. One by one his assailants fell, but even when the hallway was cleared of movement he knew he had no more time to waste. Reloading his gun with blue-tipped bullets, the young man switched on the nearly invisible earbud nestled underneath his blond curls.

"You there?"

"I await your signal. He is in the main office."

"They always take the hostages there, eh?" the young man wondered, smiling to himself. "Damn mob names their leader 'Vampire' but can't think of a more original place to store prisoners. Jeez."

"The current don is actually known for his unorthodox creativity."

"I know, I know...Hold on." More armed men in sunglasses and suits charged him as he rounded a corner. He disposed of the problem without much difficulty, then turned his attention back to the voice in his ear. "You were saying?"

"Your signal is heading in the wrong direction. You should have taken a left at the last intersection, according to the map in the server."

"It's not my fault; all these big green hallways look the same..." Nonetheless he turned and sauntered back the way he came. "Take a left?"

"Yes. It will be the third door on your right."

"I remember now." The young man paused outside the referenced door, lifted a foot to kick it open; then, reconsidering, he knocked with the back of his fist first before sending the kick plowing into the wood. "Got in trouble last time for not doing that..." he mused as the door banged open, then very calmly sauntered in.

The man tied to a chair behind the desk looked up hopefully at the sound of the door being forced open, but could not speak due to the gag around his mouth and dared not move for the intricate web of ropes pinning him in place, just loose enough to allow him to breathe if he remained very, very still. His eyes, however, landed on the young man and lit up.

"Heya, Bro," the young man said, flipping open a pocketknife and starting to work on the ropes. "How they been treating you?"

"Oi, kid!" A black-haired man with a bandage tied around his forehead jumped out from the side doorway, rifle in hand. Gunfire peppered the desk, broke the window behind it. The young man flung himself down on the plush carpet, knocking the chair over so the prisoner would fall to cover as well.

Crouching behind the desk, he finished severing the ropes and pulled them off. "Can you stand?"Removing the gag, the older man nodded. Both climbed to their feet...then raised their hands as fifteen barrels of fifteen guns stared at them with great leaden eyes.

"Game over," commented the boy lounging in the side doorway, toying absently with the ring thrust through his slightly swollen lower lip. "That was stupid of you, thinking you could get him out of here alive. Now I have two prisoners to play with." Smirking, he snickered to himself. "Take them both away." An elderly gentleman emerged from the door, staring almost mournfully at the pair over round, darkened glasses, and opened up a pair of handcuffs.

"Aand...now," said the young man as the cuffs closed over his wrists.

"Roger," said the voice in the earbud, and the window behind the pair shattered. Standing amidst the rubble, adjusting his black brimmed hat, was a tall, broad grizzled man in a black trenchcoat. The armed, suited men fired, but their shots bounced harmlessly off.

Taking advantage of their enemies' preoccupation, the pair of blond young men leapt into action. Whirling and dodging, they punched and kicked their way through the room until only the man with the bandage, the old man, and the boy in the doorway were left standing.

The boy glared at them as the tall man picked up his two companions. "This isn't over," he threatened, even as they headed for the open window.

"Really?" asked the young man in the sunglasses; taking them off, he winked. "Till next time, then." The man in the trenchcoat jumped, and they plummeted down.

They landed, hard, to a brilliant flash and the sound of a button clicking. The sight and sound continued as the two men dropped from their larger friend's hold (a friend who had started to emit great quantities of steam from his sleeves and collar) and did not halt until a long-haired woman, waiting worriedly inside a police car down the street, ran out and hugged both of the men tightly. "You're safe...you're both safe..." she murmured into their necks, smiling radiantly. "I can't believe it..."

"Hey, this is my job, Mom," said the young man as the news chopper overhead swooped down for a better look at the reunion and the little girl who had caused the flashing and clicking reloaded her camera. "I do this stuff every day."

o0o0o0o0o0o

"...though the perpetrators of the deed were let off due to technicalities, the citizens of Judoh should indeed be glad that Special Unit operative Daisuke Aurora returned early from his sabbatical to the other cities, and that such unfortunate incidents as this past week's secret kidnapping of convict and former General Manager Shun Aurora should decline with his homecoming," finished the reporter on the television, shuffling her papers into a neat stack once more. "That concludes our broadcast for this evening. As always, thank you for watching."

"You hear that, Operative?" Clair asked, switching off the television as Giovanni and Daisuke clinked soda cans behind him, the latter spilling potato chips all over Shogun's basement floor as the bag on his lap fell. Next to the young don, Monica continued sorting her day's earnings into neat piles, counting and recounting to make sure it was all there with an enormously satisfied grin on her face. "Saving you counts as an unfortunate incident."

Daisuke took a long pull from his soda. "Only for Bro. Jeez, did you have to tie the ropes so damn tight?"

Clair shrugged as Shun, throat red and sore in places, nodded his agreement as Phia applied hydrogen peroxide to one of the chafed areas before covering it with a small adhesive bandage. "I wanted it to be realistic. Giovanni did the actual tying." The bodyguard shot his employer a glare, but with his mouth full of chips the intensity of the expression suffered.

"No rope was actually necessary," Boma pointed out from where he stood in the corner, observing the festivities. "The media could not see inside the building. No, Usagi, that is spicy. Do not eat that." The girl put the pepper down, lips already red from failed experiments.

Clair snorted. "Like he'd emerge from a week captive without rope burn!"

"Like having a prisoner would keep you wholly occupied for a week," Kyoko countered, stooping to pick up the chips Daisuke had dropped. Shogun had been kind enough to let the motley group celebrate in his basement, and she was not about to let the room become dirty.

Nona lifted her soda can, more than slightly affected by the caffeine after nearly two decades without it. "A toast. To the rescue team!"

"Which one?" asked Usagi as everyone else lifted their cans and drank; they all stared at her blankly and, shaking their heads, returned to their individual conversations. She shook her head in imitation, slowly acclimating herself to the new society in which she found herself. It was strange, falling asleep without fear or dreams, but a good sort of strange. Usagi fancied that in this new place, with these new and different people, she would indeed find happiness.

"Hey, Dai!" The ladder to the basement creaked and groaned with the added weight of three very eager young women, each carrying a bag bulging with cans and bottles. Daisuke let himself be swarmed by the trio, sheepishly impressed by the attention. "Shogun told us you were all meeting here! How are you? We heard a rumor something was wrong in Magnagalia! Are you all right? We brought beer!"

"Perfect," Daisuke grumbled, looking at his mother, who seemed perfectly capable of becoming tipsy on soda alone. "Just what this party needs."

But they were already distracted. "Hey, Monica! That's a lot of money! How did you sell so many already??"

Scooping up the coins and bills, the girl smiled; something purple flashed between her fingers. "I'm lucky."

"What the--" Clair sputtered into his drink. "Giovanni! You gave her the—Give me those back! They're mine!" He made an ill-fated grab for the child's hand that nearly sent him out of his chair; the three girls tittered at the young don, and he glared at them. "It's not funny! Giovanni, I can't believe you--"

"What can I say? Guess I'm just a sucker for a pretty face." Giovanni sighed. "Sorry, Vampire. Hand them over, little lady. I said they were a loan."

Clenching her small fist over the dice, Monica pouted and shook her head. "I don't think so. Did you see how many people wanted pictures of Dai and Shun landing? I never have a line that long! These work! If you want them back, you'll have to pay!"

Sighing, Clair pulled out his checkbook; Giovanni provided a pen. "Fine. How much?"

"One hundred." He began to scribble. "Each." Clair put down the pen and gave her a look that would have melted a glacier. Snorting voicelessly through her nose, Monica turned her head away and dropped the dice, stonily, into Clair's hand. He shoved them into his pocket immediately.

"Thank y--" He stared at the empty spot on the table: she had swiped his checkbook.

Looking away from the ensuing chaos and trying to block out the harpy cries of a Vampire scorned, Shun scooted over to give Phia more room for her chair. "I'm sorry I took so long," he told her softly, taking her hand. "I didn't want--"

She shook her head. "Don't, Shun. It's all right."

"I missed you, Phia." His green eyes held her blue ones. "Every minute."

"Shun..." She leaned closer.

Nona wandered over and interrupted. "Shun, where's Daisuke?"

He looked up, irritated: damn his mother! "What are you talking about? He's right..." But the young man had vanished. Shun frowned. "Phia, I'll be right back." Standing, he climbed the ladder with Kyoko following, having overheard the Celestial's query.

They emerged into the East Wind and met with three other confused faces. "Go on down," Shun told Edmundo, Mauro, and Monica's mother. "But did Daisuke come up?"

"He just left. Said he needed a walk." Edmundo swung his legs onto the ladder. "Everything all right?"

Shun smiled. "It's all fine. Thank you so much for your help." Looking away in embarrassment, the detective grunted, then descended to the disaster area with his lady friend and Clair's advisor following.

"Daisuke!" Coming out into the street, Kyoko and Shun saw the young man about to round the bend out of the alley. Turning, he blinked in surprise. Shun folded his arms. "Where are you going?"

"Just for a walk, Bro..."

Kyoko pointed to something underneath his arm. "You need your gun for a walk?"

"Damn it..." Daisuke shook his head. "I'm gonna return it, okay? It's just that...well, I left my bike and my stuff in Magnagalia and I figured that, while Clair's still okay with me and will let me have the boat, and while the Celestials still have everybody distracted..."

"So you're leaving again." Shun frowned. "Without telling anyone."

"I'll be right back! We should have picked it all up anyway..." Daisuke's face fell. "You're not going to let me go, are you?"

"Daisuke." Kyoko approached him almost timidly. "What does J think of all this? You're leaving him alone again."

"J? I'm taking J. You think I can drive that thing? That boat is crazy." He put a hand into his pockets. "I won't get caught again. I promise."

"But I just don't think it's fair," Kyoko protested hotly, flushing for reasons she didn't want to ponder too deeply. "What about your mother? She hasn't seen you in so long...she really missed you and she might...she might be tired of...of waiting..." The young woman stopped, horribly aware of what she was actually saying but at the same time longing to continue. Daisuke touched her lips with a halting finger; her eyes darted to Shun, but the older man had receded and was looking away, giving the pair some semblance of privacy.

"Don't make excuses," Daisuke said softly, taking her hand and holding it against the pendant on her chest. "If you have something to say, just say it. Like a real man would."

"Woman," she corrected with a faint smile that quickly faded. "And I...I don't want you to leave again. I gave you three years."

"And I've still got two."

"But I lied." Kyoko screwed her eyelids shut and felt moisture beading underneath. Oh, she was going to cry. Perfect. She would look like some sappy idiot just as he left again. "I...I couldn't bear waiting even after three months..."

He hugged her close, shocking her eyes open. "I've got you beat," he whispered in her ear. "Three weeks."

"Daisuke..."

Shun turned all the way around, granting the couple the solitude they needed. His own cheeks were tinged with red, but he was smiling. Good for his little brother. Maybe Kyoko would keep him out of trouble for once...

"Shun? Did you find him?" Nona stood in the doorway, one flap of the drapes covering it shoved over her shoulder.

"Give him room, Mother." He led her back into the store, letting the cover swing free. "He needs to be alone right now."

She leaned on him, smiling sleepily; he cursed the three girls, thinking those Kabuki Road hussies had gotten his mother intoxicated. But Nona's eyes and speech were clear. "He's leaving again, isn't he?"

"He'll be back. That's the thing about people who leave. They can always come back."

Her lashes fluttered as she looked down. "Except for those who can't. Those like..."

"It's all right. You did the right thing, Mother." He led her back to the ladder. "Now go celebrate with everyone else. I'll be back down in a minute." Nodding, she climbed on; he turned and peered through the curtains, not wishing to interrupt in case his brother and the young auditor weren't quite finished.

But the alley was empty. They had left together.

Smiling wryly, Shun gave the absent couple and their android captain a small salute, feeling awkwardly like his brother but thinking that perhaps he too could get used to such actions. "See you, little brother. Later." Then, replacing his hands in his pockets, he too returned to the clamor and celebration below the ground. Above them, the citizens of Judoh went about their daily lives as if nothing had happened; somewhere far across the ocean, he knew, another city grappled with an inexplicable event from which some of its citizens might never recover. Yet none of them would ever know what really had occurred either. He and his companions—he and his friends?--were the sole keepers of that secret. And he intended for it to stay that way. Because the past was exactly that—over and done with. Time to roll on, as the world kept spinning.

"Dictator Aurora is dead," he murmured to Phia as she ran her fingers through his hair, adjusted her weight on his lap; three beers could tame even Shogun's feared tiger beetle. "My mother killed him."

o0o0o0o0o0o

Only three men attended the moonlit burial, in the dead of night and unpreceded by funeral rites. The formalities had already occurred in a grand farce; to repeat them would be even more clownish.

Slowly the tallest of the three hauled the coffin out of the ground, deposited it to the side of the hole and made room for the new, unmarked casket to be lowered in by his two fellows. The oldest panted underneath the strain but did not complain; the youngest worked in absolute silence, his face as flawlessly expressionless as the marble of the gravestone. Together, they refilled the hole and let the earth swallow the wooden box whole. The man inside it lay with a peaceful smile on his face: fully disconnected at last.

When they were finished and the elaborate coffin loaded onto a waiting van, the young man pulled a white lily from his tuxedo buttonhole and twirled it contemplatively in his fingers. "What can I say, Papa?" he asked softly, the moonlight outlining his silhouette so even in the dead of night he seemed somehow illuminated. "I've said it all already. I can't say how you were so great like they all did the first time; that would be lying. You weren't great. You weren't outstanding. You made mistakes and you hurt people and you got hurt in return. And for what? For some desire you could never have but you chased anyway. What an idiot."

He smiled, not without a wistful bitterness. "But you know something? This whole world is populated by plenty of idiots, yet somehow it holds together. I'm still figuring out how that works. So I guess it's okay that you fouled up so badly.

"After all, you were only human." Kneeling, he placed the lily on the golden nameplate on the headstone, then bent even further and gently kissed the shining gold. "You're human, Papa," he whispered. "For better or worse. And I love you."

He remained crouched in submission at the tomb for a moment longer; then, straightening and tugging out his suit, the young man turned to his companions. "Giovanni, Mauro. Let's go."

"Right, Vampire." The tall man slung an arm around his employer in consolation; the don brushed it off. He did not need such comforts. He could stand, at last, perfectly well on his own.

Together the three descended from the grassy hilltop and back into the bustling, brilliant streets of the city. There was a new day to face, new problems to overcome. Life was just that: a living, pulsing, always moving experience. It was not like a machine. It could not simply, in the face of disaster, shut down.

It was a full moon that night, lending the world its borrowed brilliance; somewhere in the distance, what sounded like a wolf howled, followed by an ecstatic, girlish, wordless shout: the simple unadulterated joy of being and of being with one the hollerer loved.

In that instant, she spoke for her friends as well.