This is your job.

You drive the car. Sometimes you run errands. Buy the groceries at the convenience store, carry them back to the safe house. Paper bags of oranges and instant ramen. Two cartons of milk and a dozen eggs. (Organic, or Watanuki will pitch a fit.) Sometimes you follow him, and stand around holding a gun under your arm. Making sure to look capable of murder.

But mostly, you just drive the car.

Today's no different. You're in front of the wheel, Watanuki strapped into the passenger's side, looking sour. He always looks like he's sucking on a lemon when you're with him.

He says, "Park in that alleyway," so you do. He says, "Let me do the talking. If you say anything, you're likely to get us both killed." (You think this is slightly unfair, but decide not to argue.)

The apartment block looms above you both, a mile of rotting brick and grey-green concrete. You look in the trunk of the car, and decide to go with the sub-machine gun today.

Upstairs, you let Watanuki do all the talking. He sits at a square folding card-table, across from the largest man you have ever seen squashed into a tailored suit. Jabba in a tux. Two beady black beetle-eyes embedded in a doughy face. He smiles, revealing rows of putrid teeth delicately clutching the end of a fat cigar. There's a single light bulb suspended from the ceiling.

They sit there at the table together, and the man laughs. Watanuki laughs. Neither of them is really amused. Then Watanuki gets up. He does it slowly, with no sudden movements. Gun-toting lackeys watch from the shadows. He turns towards the door, towards you, and you catch a glimpse of his face, taut with fear, and pale. You follow him down the corridor on the way out. Shielding him with your body. You think about limp, fried tofu and Chinese take-out instead of the possibility that any moment now the space between your shoulder-blades could be filled with lead.

And then, mercifully, you're back out in the sun, on the sidewalk. Passers-by glance nervously at the bulge in your jacket, and keep walking. You're still trailing Watanuki, so you're perfectly positioned to catch him by the arm when he stumbles off the curb, his knees giving way, crumpling like a sack of potatoes. You pull him back to his feet.

"You alright?" you ask, gruffly, hefting the sub-machine gun up under your free arm. He scowls and shakes you off, then turns to lean against the car, discreetly steadying himself. There's hardly any colour in his cheeks. He looks like a corpse.

"I'm fine. Don't touch me."

You glance at him, and shrug a shoulder, as if to say Whatever you like. You get into the driver's side and start the engine with a vicious twist of the key. The car idles while Watanuki remains outside, waiting for his head to stop spinning, for his breathing to become even. You put both hands on top of the steering wheel and stare straight ahead, saying nothing. It's not as if anything you can say will ever convince him that you care.

You meet for the first time at Yuuko's, an up-market penthouse in the heart of Algonquin. You go to her because it was the only clue that your grandfather left you, and, well, the last he ever would. But first you find out what you can, though, from your network of contacts so industriously assembled over the years. It turns out that the Watanuki family owned a restaurant down in Broker; at some point, apparently through no fault of their own, they fell into debt to one Ichihara Yuuko - who is not, as they say, an unkind woman, but one who never fails to collect on a debt. Because of this, their son, the young Watanuki Kimihiro, cut a deal to work off the debt at Yuuko's "office" downtown - which, while dubious-sounding, was still better than admitting you'd become an errand boy for a mob boss.

No doubt he'd had plans to return to the family business when the deal was done. Settle down; spend the rest of his life cooking takeout for hungry college students, or scraping grease off the stove. Now, though - now the word on the streets is that even though he worked off his debt a long time ago, he's got nowhere else to go. They say that Yuuko's taken him in, even. And nobody on the streets who knows anything messes with someone under Ichihara Yuuko's protection.

It's all very sad, of course, but none of this tells you what you most need to know. Doesn't mean it won't come in handy, of course. Someday. For now you keep this information in the back of your mind, and nod along unsmilingly as Yuuko outlines your duties in a crisp, business-like manner. It actually does look like an office, what with the expensive furniture, the high-backed CEO's chair. There's a broad, solid-looking picture window behind her seat which provides a nice view of the city and Algonquin Bridge. Probably bullet-proof glass; you can't imagine someone like Yuuko leaving that up to chance.

Watanuki waits until she's not looking before swiftly stepping on your foot, like a cobra.

(If cobras had feet.)

(...with which they could step on people. Alright, maybe not the best metaphor. But then again, you're not getting hired for your literary prowess.)

Another thing you've noticed is that the second Watanuki set eyes on you, sparks flew. The bad kind of sparks, though, like when a cop gets lucky and hits one of your tires so it's nothing but a helplessly flailing scrap of rubber, but you still have to drive the fuck away, and you end up dragging the metal rim on asphalt for fifty yards before your getaway car finally gives up the ghost. That's fine, though - you appreciate the occasional healthy challenge. It keeps you on your toes.

Watanuki steps on your foot again, and makes a face when you glance at him. (This one's got maturity by the bucketload, you can just tell.) Yuuko, perhaps sparing a thought for whatever is left of Watanuki's dignity, pretends not to notice.

"...and so," she says, and you straighten up. "I'll need you to look out for Watanuki. Make sure he doesn't get into trouble. You know, watch his back."

She pulls a handgun out of a drawer, places it on the polished lacquer desk, and slides it across to you. Her fingernails are long and red, immaculately painted; they click on the table's surface, spider-like, and you can't help but follow their movements with your eyes. (You wonder, idly, how many people she's had killed.)

You palm the gun comfortably, giving it a quick once-over, before pointing it towards the ground as a matter of courtesy.

"Very good." She smiles, and touches one of those long nails to her chin, coyly. "You're not afraid of getting hurt, are you? Doumeki?"

"No," you reply, calmly.

"I don't -" Watanuki's eyes bulge dangerously; he looks like he's having an embolism. "I don't need protection!"

You both ignore him, which sends him sputtering into apoplectic fits of rage. (You find this oddly satisfying, and make a mental note to keep doing it.)

"You're starting small," continues Yuuko, calmly, "so this is all you'll get from me for now. But, you know, feel free to work your way up. I pay well," she adds, without a trace of irony. As if you're doing this for the pay. You both know better, but that doesn't mean you'll turn down a steady income. Even you have to eat, after all.

"I'll do that," you say, agreeably, and that's when Watanuki turns round and kicks you in the shin.

How you came under one Ichihara Yuuko's employ is an entirely different matter. It takes you many months to track her down; she has dozens of fronts around the city, both legit and otherwise, but if you're looking for the woman herself, she's nowhere to be found. Finally you just waltz into that little sushi bar on Galveston near closing time and announce to the guy at the counter: "I'm looking to work for Ichihara."

When you wake up you find yourself strapped to a table in a dingy, dimly-lit room, staring down the slightly-bent business end of a crowbar. A blood-stained crowbar, you note, going a little cross-eyed. How very quaint.

"WHO SENT YOU!" roars the ape holding the crowbar, in a tone of voice which has no suggestion of actually being a question. Your head throbs. It feels like there's something wet on the side of your head, near your right temple, which might very well be blood. You try to say something, but all that comes out is a raw little croak. The crowbar rises ominously, out of your line of sight, and you cringe, and brace yourself for the inevitable blow -

But it never arrives, and then you hear - in quick succession - a bovine grunt of pain, a thump, and the clatter of metal skidding across the basement floor.

"Shut up," says a calm female voice. "The kids are watching cartoons."

At this point your savior saunters into view. You can't make out her face too well at this angle, but she has long black hair, and you can see she has a red metal baseball bat resting casually on her shoulder, the way a soldier might hoist his rifle.

"So, I hear you want to work for me," she drawls. Mostly all you can see of her is that she's wearing jeans - you didn't know denim could be that fitting - and she has legs up to here.

"Eyes up here, kiddo," she adds, and taps the underside of your chin with the end of the bat. The metal is cold, and the tapping makes your teeth click together uncomfortably. With some effort you pull your eyes up, up, upside-down, and try to make out Yuuko's face in the shadows. You croak, cough, croak again, and after some time finally find your voice, hoarse as it is.

"I was looking for you. I'm willing to do any work, as long as it pays."

"Is that so?"

Yuuko chuckles, and strolls around to the far side of the table, near your legs. Neck straining, you lift your head at an angle off the table to track her movement. She stops by your feet, and lifts the bat again with a toothy smile.

"Isn't that funny. And here I thought you were looking for someone named Watanuki Kimihiro."

Shit. Your blood runs ice cold. Yuuko's tone is nonchalant, almost playful, but her eyes bore straight into yours. She's got you by the balls, and you both know it. "Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that?"

Alright, think fast. But try as you might, you're just not fast enough. You feel blood oozing from your temple; hear the gears whirring in your own mind, painfully slow. Yuuko seems to hear them too, and smiles wider, shark-like.

"I just-" you start, and cough, sounding perfectly unconvincing, even to yourself, "- I just want to know what he had to do with -"

"He had nothing to do with it." She says this so emphatically that you decide to just shut the hell up before she rips you a new one. "But you're a clever boy, you must already know that." She keeps moving, pacing around the table, all the while swinging the bat, shifting it from shoulder to shoulder, never letting you forget that it's there. "So what is it that you really want from him?"

Choose your words carefully. (And try not to sound too pathetic.)

"I want to find out... who did it. And why." It's hard to explain, but you feel a sort of kinship with Watanuki, even though you've never met him. The other survivor. You believe, with some conviction, that one day whoever did it will come back to finish the job. When he does, you want to be ready, and to do that... "If I can be near him, then maybe-"


You later learn that Yuuko has a highly-developed bullshit-detector gland, which is just one of the talents which helped her get to where she is today. So it's a very good thing that you're not bullshitting her at that moment, or you'd probably find yourself getting cozy with that bat, and the police would never find your body. In the end, the fact that she puts you in charge of Watanuki's protection probably has some sort of deep, nested irony in it. But it's a job like any other, and you intend to do it well.

Your first assignment is to drive Watanuki home. In retrospect, you should have taken it as a herald of things to come; for now you just wonder why Watanuki has a car if he doesn't know how to drive.

"I do know how to drive, idiot," snaps Watanuki irritably, arms crossed over his chest, leaning his forehead against the passenger's-side window. You're not an expert in body language or anything, but just judging by the way he's crushed himself up against the door it seems he wants to put as much space between the two of you as is humanly possible without just getting out of the car. You wait a while, but Watanuki doesn't elaborate, and there's no point in asking about it unless you're in the mood for more vitriol, and you aren't, so you don't.

But on that note, your second, third, and fourth jobs are pretty much the same, with only the destinations to switch it up a bit. Not that you mind being a glorified chauffeur, because the pay's good, and you get the rest of the time off. By the sixth or seventh time you don't bat an eye as Watanuki gets into the passenger's side, slams the door and snaps at you to pick him him up at five sharp. The rest of the ride is spent in silence; Watanuki picks at the fraying threads on the seat of his chair, and glares moodily out the window. You drop him off on the corner of Montauk and Dillon, and drive off before he hurls any more abuse your way.

You drive around for a few hours, aimless, burning gas because the money for it doesn't come out of your pocket. You buy a hotdog; eat every last inch of the greasy, mustard-smothered sausage and then sit in Meadows Park, feeding pigeons with what's left of the bun. At four fifty-five you're parked across the street from where you dropped him off, hand draped casually out the window, trying to look like you have a good reason to be there whenever a cop drives by. After a good twenty minutes Watanuki finally appears, head down, hands in his pockets. Conscientious as ever, he looks both ways before crossing the street, and you start up the engine, ready to leave.

Then, out of the corner of your eye, you notice the shiftless kid stalking Watanuki, his hood pulled down over his face and something bulky inside his jacket. He's not bad at what he's doing - for one, Watanuki clearly hasn't noticed a thing - but to a third party situated at a distance, he's painfully conspicuous. Well, can't have that happening. It's in your contract, anyway - a minor clause; something about keeping Watanuki alive.

Of course, Watanuki just shoots you a cold glare as you get out of the car, opening his mouth, no doubt to say something nasty and cutting which you're really not in the mood to listen to right now. So that's when you casually sidestep him, grab the kid by the throat, spin him around and slam him face-down on the hood of the car.

"W- what are you doing?" blurts out Watanuki, from behind you, sounding panicked. You ignore him, twisting the little shit's arm behind his back until he yells, and drops the gun into your open palm. Then you lean down, driving your elbow into the kid's spine with your weight, and inform him calmly,

"I'm about to let you go. In ten seconds, if I can still see you, I will shoot you."

Then you let him up. He stands there for a moment, dazed, but then you cock the pistol; the sound seems to wake him up and he makes a run for it. You wait until he stumbles and disappears around the corner of the apartment block across the street before turning to Watanuki.

"Get in the car," you say, gruffly. And for once, he doesn't argue.

In a roundabout fashion, that's how you find yourself standing in Watanuki's apartment, just kind of hovering around in his living room: the embodiment of awkward. As it turns out, even someone like Watanuki can occasionally experience something bordering on gratitude, because you can't think of anything else that would compel him to invite you up to his place for food.

"If you touch anything," Watanuki reminds you, yelling from the kitchen, "I will hurt you."

Privately, you think this is unlikely, as Watanuki seems to have the muscle tone of wet tofu, but voicing this thought would surely neutralize this unexpected spate of good fortune, so you wisely keep your mouth shut. Instead you look around, inspecting the domicile of the mystery that is Watanuki Kimihiro. It's clean and neat, obsessively so; you're not a particularly messy person, but your place looks like a veritable pigsty compared to this haven of organized storage and consistent house-keeping. Everything is in its place, even down to the embroidered cushions on the sofa, which are positioned at perfectly regular intervals and incidentally do not look like they have ever been sat on. (You add this to your mental file of information about Watanuki, another interesting fact for posterity. "Lives in a house which does not seem lived in.")

Eventually you find your eye drawn to a door at the back of the hall, slightly ajar. You should really know better than to have a look inside, but you can't seem to stop yourself from taking a peek. It looks almost the same as the living room, compulsively tidy, all right-angles and dust-free surfaces. You stop just short of stepping inside - you might be being slightly rude at the moment, but you're not retarded enough to chance the full brunt of Watanuki's wrath. But then you notice a yellowing scrap of paper lying unassumingly on top of his dresser, by the door. Headline: Gang violence in Bohan causes five deaths, countless injuries.

Something tightens in your throat. You know this article. Pick it up, hold it in your hand, turn it over. You have one too, at home; maybe a little less wrinkled than this, definitely a little less... tear-stained. Turn it over again. Highlighted in the wall of text, the name Doumeki, sticking out like a sore thumb. You should've realized Watanuki would know something, too, but... Would've, should've... At least it would explain a lot-

Look up to find Watanuki staring at you across the room, face white. In a few quick strides he crosses the space separating the two of you, and reaches out, snatching the article from your hand with a snap of his wrist.

"You-" Color rapidly fills his bloodless cheeks, staining them an ugly mauve. "You were looking at my things! My private things!"

"No," you offer, in the hopes that this will make a difference.

It doesn't. He stares at you incredulously, mouth opening, jaw working, words having completely deserted him. Finally he thrusts a bag into your hands, keeping the article away from you, out of your sight, and then jerks his head curtly towards the door. Get out.

Afterwards, standing alone by the bus-stop with the bag dangling from your hand, you think to yourself: at least he has a reason to hate you now. (You eat Watanuki's home-cooked meal by yourself in the lobby of your apartment, and find to your surprise that it isn't half bad.)