Title: The Keeper's Watch
Author: Amethyst Hunter
Rating: R (violence, adult content)
Warnings/Spoilers: See above.
Notes: I'm not quite sure where this one came from, but I like the idea so I'm going with it.
-- According to Wikipedia, per the language of roses, a purple rose is said to mean protection.
-- Also, the name Mathilda (sometimes spelled Matilda) is of Teutonic derivation, from words meaning "might, strength" and "battle" (alternatively, "strength in battle") – and as we all know, our darling Kuroudo has a fondness for such attributes..!
Disclaimer: GB and its loverly transporters sadly aren't mine.
Summary: Akabane has his hands full chasing after a battle prospect, and when a mysterious visitor appears on his doorstep, he's left to play sitter while trying to stay one step ahead of a deadly adversary.
The knocking was slight but intent: three quiet raps on the door followed by an obligatory silence. When no answer was forthcoming, the sequence repeated itself, once, twice, before the homeowner deigned to investigate.
Kuroudo Akabane closed the book he was reading and listened for the sound again, frowning. He did not encourage casual visitors. On average, he disliked most people, finding them to be annoying and trivial in their habits, and expressions thereof. He preferred the solitude of his quiet woodland cottage, away from the city's detritus and noise. Anyone to come calling, much less at this hour of night, was either a wayward soul or someone with malicious intent.
Akabane did not believe in cheap coincidences. Scalpels hissed from between his fingers as he laid his book aside and got up to answer the door.
He rather hoped he wouldn't have to kill anyone tonight. Not because he had any moral opposition to it – his chosen profession gave him ample opportunity to indulge certain of his proclivities. He simply wasn't looking forward to the hassle of locating a suitable disposal service to clean up the inevitable mess, nor was he willing to forgo that convenience by permitting the remains to linger. He prided himself on keeping a tidy nest and the presence of decomposing corpses would have spoiled the purity of his retreat.
The knocking came again, no louder than it had been before. Akabane suspected that whoever it was already knew he was home; they were trying the polite approach first before resorting to the cruder break-and-enter method. Then, it was not an ordinary thug come to attack. Of the associates he knew in the underworld business, few were as given to proper manners as he was. Most yakuza only paid lip service to respectful tenets, and dealt with their problems in timely but brutal fashion.
In spite of the inconvenience, Akabane allowed a tiny smile to creep along his lips. Perhaps he would be fortunate, and the opponent would prove a decent challenge. It had been a while. His favorite playmates had been kept unusually busy by a flurry of assignments. They seldom had time for him these days, a fact which sorely disappointed Akabane.
He stepped up to the door and looked into the peephole. Nothing was out there except the ink of nightfall. Then the knocking came, low, insistent. Akabane raised a brow. The sound had come from the lower half of the door, denoting someone of short stature. Curious as to what kind of assassin could be that small, he chose to risk discovery. Still sporting a fistful of knives poised to attack, he unlocked the door and pulled it open, keeping to the backside of it in case of a nasty surprise.
Nothing happened, and he peered through the crack by the door's hinges to catch a glimpse of the source. Surprise drew his brows together in a crinkled knit. A child of about five or six stood huddled on the steps, arms wrapped tightly around a worn blanket that looked to be just as dampened by the night's drizzle as the rest of the small form. No coat was visible, which further puzzled him as it was drawing near the winter season and nights were decidedly uncomfortable without a thick layer of clothing.
When the dark head lifted, large brown eyes set in a pale face were visible, and Akabane could see that it was a little girl. Hardly assassin material.
He came around the other side of the door, hiding his hand with the scalpels behind his back, still not entirely certain that this wasn't some sort of trick. "Good evening. Can I help you?" he inquired calmly.
The little girl slowly tipped her head back to look up at him. An adorable child she was, to be sure, or would certainly be if dry and cleaned up. She stared at him with the typical candor of those young enough to be impressed by anything but not yet old enough to understand societal niceties such as refraining from inappropriate eye contact. Then she walked into his house.
Akabane blocked her path and smiled pleasantly at her. "It's not polite to enter someone else's dwelling when they haven't yet granted permission," he said. "Where are your parents?"
The child didn't answer. She stood, silent, not looking at him now but at the floor, clutching her blanket as if it was some sort of lifeline. From time to time her fragile form trembled, though she tried not to move.
Akabane frowned as he mulled his options. This was interesting, but not the type of intrigue he favored. He stepped around the girl, through the doorway, and studied the forbidding darkness at the entrance to his hearth. Nothing was out there that he could tell posed any threat, and he wasn't sensing anything out of the ordinary that might have hinted at lurking treachery. He gave one last look around, and then sheathed his scalpels. He went back inside and closed and relocked the door.
The child was still rooted to the spot he'd left her at. What to do now? Make the best of it, he supposed.
Akabane approached her again, this time kneeling in front to put himself more at her level. "Where did you come from, little one? It's awfully late and not very hospitable weather for wandering out in the woods, hmm?"
She didn't answer him, and he wasn't really expecting her to. The girl seemed lost in a world of her own, only interacting with this plane when necessary. Her gaze was clear but plainly focused elsewhere.
Nevertheless, Akabane tried again. "Do you have a name, child?"
Still no reply.
He could have gotten irritated, could have made clear in no uncertain terms that her reticence was testing his patience. But it wouldn't have served any purpose, and for some reason he found that he was reluctant to coerce the girl into obeying. She reminded him of someone, but he couldn't place just whom yet. A silly whim, he knew. Akabane was hardly concerned with relationships, and felt that he was (mostly) above the weakness of human emotion.
Even so, he couldn't help but feel a pang of pity for the wretched creature that was apparently seeking shelter under his roof this night. If only she knew what sort of devil inhabited this haven, she surely would have expired from sheer terror. Rather like a foundling animal that had, either unwittingly or unconsciously, chosen the lair of a serpent as her final resting place, he thought.
Despite these musings he had no intention of harming her. A man had to have some principles, after all. Resigning himself to the fact that he had a stray on his hands, Akabane rose and offered a hand to the girl. When she didn't take it, he reached for one of hers, and gently towed her along to the spare bedroom.
"Now, then," he spoke kindly to the child. "First thing we need to do is dry you off. You'll catch a chill from being out in this damp weather." She was still quiet, but he imagined that the sound of his voice was comforting somehow, and so he continued to speak as if she was active in the conversation. "I'm not sure whether you've had anything to eat, but if you like, I might have some soup waiting in the kitchen afterwards."
She stood still while he examined her clothes – a navy jumper dress with a long-sleeved blouse - and determined that only the top layers were wet enough to warrant immediate removal. Aside from the rain, they weren't damaged or dirtied, so he took hangars from the closet and hung them up in the bathroom to dry. Her undergarments were fine, but she would need something more substantial to sleep in. After judicious searching, Akabane found a clean pajama top that he hadn't worn in a while, and dressed the girl in it once he'd toweled her hair and extremities off. It was ridiculously oversized on her, but it would have to do.
"Better," he declared, watching as she balled up her fists in the voluminous sleeves. Her blanket had likewise been hung in the bathroom to drip dry. "Would you like something to eat now?" Without waiting for a response, be it of more silence or an actual vocalization, he led her back out to the kitchen and seated her at the table.
He had to stack several large books on the chair so that she could reach the countertop. He was pleased to note that she kept her elbows quite properly off the table, and sat with hands folded in lap as if genuflecting. Whoever she was, wherever she'd come from, she had obviously been taught good behavior. Mostly, he reflected with a wry smile, remembering the bold way she'd up and walked inside his house without first having been asked.
He kept talking to her while he looked through the cupboards in his pantry for something suitable to a child's palate. "You're very fortunate that you ended up here instead of lost in the forest. We're a long ways from the city, dear, and there are plenty of dangerous animals in the wild." Like Doctor Jackal, for instance. "I shall have to have a few words with your family about their lack of proper supervision."
Akabane picked out a can of the parent's perennial favorite, chicken noodle soup. He looked to see if the girl was watching him. She wasn't. He turned his back to her and the scalpel slid noiselessly into his gloved fingers. He could have done it the conventional way, but sometimes this was just easier. A swipe later, the can was neatly opened, and he carried it over to the stove, where he poured the contents into a pan and began heating it.
While they waited for the soup to warm Akabane went back to the bathroom and inspected the child's belongings more closely. As he'd suspected, there was writing on one corner of the blanket. He squinted at the faded marks.
"Mathilda," he said upon returning to the kitchen and his young charge. "Is that your name? It's very pretty." He checked the soup and stirred it. "You may call me Akabane-san." A cursory glance proved that the food was ready, and he shut off the burner. When he'd poured a bowl for her and fetched a glass of water as well, he brought along a bottle of red wine plucked from the nearby rack. That was for him, since he usually enjoyed a small glass of it shortly before adjourning to bed.
"Be careful, now. It's hot. Blow on it just a little before you eat." He helped her roll up the long sleeves of the pajama top so she wouldn't get them in the bowl.
He sipped his glass and watched while she tentatively nibbled at each spoonful she took; he was glad that she was cognizant enough of her surroundings to be able to feed herself. Akabane pondered what he was going to do with her in the meantime. She would have to stay the night, of course. In the morning they would pay a visit to Shinjuku, and locate the proper authorities.
Akabane chose to ignore the nagging impression that the girl had no guardians who would readily be found. He was willing to play foster parent, but only for a limited time. His habits and lifestyle weren't conducive to long-term babysitting. His associate Lady Poison might be more amenable to such, but she would probably turn down the offer on much the same grounds as he claimed, and he preferred not to impose upon her if it could be helped.
The girl – Mathilda, he reminded himself – ate about half of the soup before stopping and resuming her motionless vigil. She didn't swing her feet idly or fidget or fuss like most five-year-olds were wont to, and Akabane found himself wondering more. It wasn't the Professor her shadowy mannerisms reminded him so much of as it was another person he imagined, someone whom he believed would have exhibited the same withdrawal in certain circumstances.
As Ginji-kun wasn't available for comment, he set his thoughts aside and focused on the present.
"Finished? There's a good girl," he said, helping her down from the seat. "Run along to the bedroom, now, and I'll be by shortly to help you brush your teeth and tuck you in for the night." Trusting that she would follow his directions, Akabane gathered up the remnants of their dining and set to washing the dirtied dishes.
That task accomplished, he went to the spare room to check on Mathilda and found her attempting to climb into the bed, not getting very far due to the height gap and her apparent mental disconnection. He chuckled and went to catch her. "Not just yet, little one," he said. "You'll need to brush your teeth before going to sleep. We can't have you neglecting your dental health."
By now he was feeling rather sleepy himself, so to expedite the process Akabane picked her up and carried her into the nearby bathroom. She seemed to enjoy this, cleaving to his side like a limpet, and slid bonelessly from his arms when he set her in front of the sink.
"I'm afraid I don't have an extra toothbrush. But, for tonight, we'll make do with this," he explained as he took out a clean washcloth from the linen closet and dampened it with some water before putting a dab of paste on one corner. "Here you go, Mathilda-chan. Rub it over your teeth – yes, like that – and be sure to get back behind your molars, there."
Deciding that this was also a good time for him to attend to his own nightly rituals, he left her with the promise that he'd return soon, and went to his bedroom. A change of clothes and completed toilette later, he went through the house and turned off any remaining lights, and returned to help Mathilda rinse out the used toothpaste and finish washing up. As before, she clung to him when he scooped her up and took her back to the spare room. She weighed almost nothing in his hold, despite clearly being a healthy child.
"I'll leave a light on in the hallway in case you wake during the night," Akabane told her, laying her on the mattress after having pulled down the covers for her to climb in beneath. "My room is just down the hall here. The door will be shut, so if you need something, be sure to knock first." He held back a grim smile as he administered the cautionary note, not out of respect for manners but in regards to safety. He would hate for the poor girl to find out the hard way that he didn't take kindly to being unexpectedly roused. Maguruma had done that once during the early days of their association and almost lost an arm because of it.
Mathilda's eyelids drooped and she yawned while he pulled the blankets up on top of her, making sure that she was comfortable. For the first time since she'd entered his house, she looked directly at him, and seemed to see him instead of through him. Intrigued, Akabane bent closer, meeting her eyes, and then the contact was broken when she withdrew once more into her unseen shell. Curious, that.
He straightened and smiled at her. "Good night. Sleep well," he said, turning out the light and leaving her to dream whatever tender innocence inhabited children's slumbering visions.
In the hallway, he located a small night-light and plugged it into an outlet. Its ivory glow assured him that Mathilda would have plenty of illumination to navigate should she require assistance.
Akabane returned to his own room, closing but not latching the door. It hadn't occurred to him then if she'd noticed the scars on his hands – out of habit, he'd removed his gloves when changing into his pajamas – and now he wondered idly what she thought of them, if she had seen them. Not that it mattered; very few people were afforded that privilege and those that earned it knew not to speak of it in any more frank terms than Akabane would allow. In that respect, he supposed, it was likely a good thing that he'd not revealed the scars on his torso; undoubtedly they would have terrified the little girl. Except when staying someplace overnight on an assignment, he usually slept nude. For this one night, he could make an exception.
He went to close the laptop that was resting on the nightstand and paused, regarding the screen's contents thoughtfully. He made a mental note to check his emails in the morning, seeing that an informative source had sent him the latest updates on the current subject of his fascination:
The Middleman must have struck again.
Akabane lowered the laptop's case and turned off the bedroom light, shucking off his slippers as he got into bed. Stretching himself out on the sheets, he folded his arms beneath his head and gazed at the darkened ceiling.
Six times now, it had to have been, and the police – or the underworld – were no closer to solving the mystery. Akabane wondered who had been the latest unlucky transporter, and whether it was someone he or his more familiar associates had known. He supposed he would find out tomorrow. In spite of his tiredness, a thread of interest had begun to coil through his body, and he had to concentrate on unraveling it lest he be unable to sleep. He very much wanted to face the Middleman, knowing that it would be a worthwhile fight – but there was a time and place for everything, and his had not yet arrived. He could wait a while longer.
He laughed softly. Between tracking new prey and a surprise houseguest, he had his hands full. "Things are getting interesting around here, hmm?" he mused to the furry ribbon that had snuck out from under the bed and leapt up to curl by his side. Unimpressed, the cat meowed its droll agreement, and settled in to sleep.
Akabane closed his eyes and drew the covers over himself, and drifted off into his own mists of simple yet bloody dreamscapes.