Author's Note: You're like, "Holy shit, that fic that never updates just updated!", and I'm like, "Hey, man, don't judge me; my life is a big, ugly mess that does not involve working on this fic." And you're like, "That's never stopped you before!", and I'm like, "STFU PLZ."
Yeah. Exactly like that.
I'm going to stop making promises about updates, because they're obviously all lies, but I do fully intend to finish this thing, once I figure out where it's actually going. It's just going to take a while. Mea culpa. Mea kinda sucks lately.
CHAPTER V. THE HOPE
Quillish thought the word in blunt, clear capitals—plain and militaristic, ordinary and uncompromising, like the red stamp at the bottom of a personal file. He thought of the jagged angles of the N and of the inescapable circle of the O, and the word whirled in his head.
No hope. No way out. No ifs, ands, or buts.
No ors, either.
"We'll get a group together," Matt said. "We'll go find him."
"No," Quillish's voice replied.
Five tight, dark faces opened suddenly and palely with surprise.
"Why not?" Odd managed dazedly.
"We can't risk that many," Quillish answered, sounding flat and cold to his own ears. "Not for one man."
"He's not one man," Mello cut in, voice rising in pitch and volume, fingers curling into fists. "He's L. And we're going to find him."
For Mello, it was different—it was more. For Mello, it was returning a favor.
L had saved him once.
L had saved them all, in his way, in many ways.
Slowly and deliberately, Quillish lifted his hands from the desktop and adjusted the strap of his rifle.
"You categorically will not," he announced. "It's utterly illogical—half a dozen kids setting out after a veteran who might not even be alive now. That's insane."
"They moved north," Near put in calmly, curled up on the only available chair. "They must have a base of some kind, and they were too clean to be subterranean. If we start out this afternoon, we may come upon them before they've had a full night to do anything at all."
Quillish stood, palms smacking sharply on the old desk blotter, which chanced a meek crinkle in protest.
"You'll die," he insisted. "We have troupe leaders for a reason—they're the most experienced and usually the best shots. Any vampires who could capture L will be quite capable of picking you off, and they'll kill you."
No one flinched.
Quillish looked at his ink-stained cuticles, his cracked fingernails, the gunpowder ground into the lines in his hands.
"I take it nothing I can say will dissuade you?"
There were jerky nods.
Quillish smoothed the blotting paper carefully. "Further, am I correct to imagine that, should I make a specific interdiction, all of you will shamelessly defy it and set out regardless, armed with whatever weaponry you can steal from our stock?"
Jaws and fists clenched, and there were more unhesitating affirmations.
"Right, then," he said.
He lifted the strap of the rifle over his head, took the gun in both hands, and proffered it to Mello across the desk.
"Officially," he explained to the stunned expressions flickering on stony faces, "you had better be out of here by five tomorrow, when I'll update the census and condemn your irresponsible choice." He smiled, just a little, and not without difficulty. "Unofficially… good luck and godspeed."
Mello lifted the rifle from his hands and shouldered it, returning a thin, shaky smile of his own.
They trooped out, mismatched soldiers, avenging angels in outsized fatigues, overworked and inadequately armed, fortified by determination and a beautiful, irrational kind of hope.
Find him were the words now, spinning wildly through Quillish's mind. Find him, and bring him back.
Matt needed a cigarette.
"We can mobilize by three," Odd noted, consulting the creeping dawn outside the windowpane. "Couple hours of sleep, reassemble at two, get the food, the gear, and the guns, then head north without anyone the wiser."
Mello was stroking the barrel of Wammy's rifle, presumably unconsciously.
"Why do they want him?" he asked. "What has he got that they need?"
"Who are they?" Near took up in a murmur. "They're different; why?"
"What's L's blood type?" Odd hazarded. "Is it something rare? Or—I don't know; is it especially thick?"
"They weren't killing him," Near mused. "They weren't attacking him, not actively; instead they picked him up and dragged him away."
"What else could they want from him?" Mello asked.
"Your bed smells like sex," Linda said.
Everyone stared at her. Near's cheeks went very faintly pink.
"So sit somewhere else," Mello snapped after a long, awkward moment had passed.
"It's okay," Linda said. "Just weird."
No one had any idea what to say to that. Mello shifted as if to speak, then changed his mind, getting a little cozier with the gun, as though it might protect him from awkwardness as well as it would from sudden death and varied foes.
Matt supposed one couldn't have everything.
Odd recommenced pacing and cleared his throat. "What route do you think we should take?" he managed to ask.
"Is that sector even mapped?" Near inquired. "Obviously, the topography is, so we'll need a map for that, but this is a new coven, so I don't know if the territorial schematics will do us any good."
"Probably not," Mello acceded, finding his voice. "Let's just run with it. We can map it out as we go. Maybe we'll learn something before we kill the fuckers."
Matt did not envy the fuckers in question.
"All right," Odd said. "Let's go for it. Let's do it. Let's go."
Matt took a deep breath. "Let's get some sleep first," he cut in. He gave Mello a long look. "And no, you can't keep the gun in bed."
Mello pouted, but he set it down.
Matt collapsed in the middle of the mattress, the only portion of it that was clear. He turned his head, which put his nose within two inches of Linda's hand where it was planted on the bedspread.
"You might want to leave now," he noted. "The cuddling's about to start."
"Goodnight," Odd replied immediately, gathering his things and heading for the door.
"Homophobe," Linda called after him.
Odd grinned over his shoulder. "Not at all," he responded. "Cuddlephobe."
They each managed a tight little laugh as he proceeded down the hall, and then the mood slid down the slope towards quiet melancholy again—towards a slow and absorptive fear.
"I'll get him one day," Linda pledged. "I'll cuddle him when he least expects it."
"That's the spirit," Mello replied. "Now get out."
Linda made a face at him, but she closed the door gently as she stalked out into the hall.
Mello flopped down at Matt's side the moment she had gone, nestling in a little closer, wrapping both arms tightly and a bit possessively around Matt's waist. Matt lifted a hand and gently disheveled the vibrant yellow hair. Near snuggled up on the other side, settling his head on Matt's chest, earning himself a hair-ruffle of his own.
"We'll be okay," Matt said into the silence. "If they wanted him dead, he'd be dead."
"But why do they want him?" Mello muttered back.
"Shut up," Matt told him. "I'm consoling you."
"You're doing a crappy job," Mello retorted.
"I'd be doing better if you'd let me get a word in," Matt countered, rolling his eyes.
"Will both of you please be quiet?" Near asked.
"No," they said in unison.
Near buried his face in Matt's chest and made a noise like "Nnnrgh."
Matt stroked the white curls, let his eyes slip shut, and mustered a little smile.
Near was tired.
He was also very scared.
Mello and Odd were in the lead, which somehow felt right—they balanced each other, flashlights, maps, and stubborn expressions out.
The flashlights weren't on yet. They still had time.
Matt must have seen it all bleeding through onto Near's face despite his best efforts to hide—the redhead caught his hand on the next stride's upswing and squeezed it gently, holding tight as they went on. Matt gave him a little smile, knit glove warm and soft against Near's palm, and Near understood, in that small, generous gesture, why they so badly needed Matt.
He was still gripping Matt's hand as evening fell.
Odd and Mello halted in a clearing that felt spine-cold familiar, in the way Near recognized as how night things looked when lit. There were deep furrows in the carpet of leaves, more than one tree had taken a stray bullet, and it looked like what it was—the wretched aftermath of a battlefield.
Mello's boots crunched on brittle leaves, and the only other sound was birdsong, tentative and intermittent, from their left. Mello stepped up to a particularly broad groove in the soil, which tapered towards the raw, scraped bark of the tree at which it stopped.
"Here," Mello said. He shifted sharply, angling his body, and pointed. "And they went that way next."
Odd cradled his good compass in both hands, tarnished silver faintly gleaming. "Just west of due north," he reported.
"Then that's the way we're headed," Mello announced. "Come on. It's almost sunset, and who knows how far we have to go?"
Near really didn't like the sound of that.
Matt tugged on his hand when he paused, and they followed Mello deeper into the woods.
Night fell, predictably enough. Clouds drifted lackadaisically, misting across the milky surface of the moon, doubling the shadows already cast by the lattice of leaves and branches spread out above them. They trekked onward and, as the terrain steepened, upward, flashlight beams sweeping bleakly across the trees.
They hadn't seen anything. There was literally no indication that anyone had passed this way, that any step had disturbed the forest floor, that any determined path had sliced through it towards some unfathomed destination. They were just moving north-northwest, in the precise direction that was the only clue they had. Near clutched Matt's hand and watched Mello—watched his back and shoulders tighten, watched his hair swing soundlessly as he searched the ground for any trace the universe might kindly yield.
The flashlights' white offerings swayed, and the night thickened, and a new sort of hopelessness curled and knotted in Near's chest. What if they never found anything at all? What if they walked and tracked and wandered for days and never found a scrap of evidence? What if they had no choice but to head back to the House with nothing to show for leaving, not even the worst kind of certainty?
What if they never even knew whether L was alive?
If things kept on like this—
"Wait," Mello said.
"Did you—" Odd was joining him; the white beams merged, pinpointing something on the ground not far from Mello's feet.
Near released Matt's hand in his haste as they and Linda raced to see, forming a lopsided ring around the three-inch crucifix half-buried in the leaves.
The cord was broken, beads scattered in the dirt, as if someone had jerked it free and dropped it; some clumsy, shaking hand.
It was a deep, lacquered black with worn gold ornaments, and it was unmistakably L's. He'd abandoned one of the small protections left to him—forsaken it on the gamble that they'd get this far.
If they hadn't, it might have served some hapless innocent well. L would have liked that.
Mello bent, curled his fingers tightly around the cross, and straightened, tucking it into his breast pocket.
"This way," he said, flicking the flashlight along their path, and Near turned instinctively to look.
The spot of brightness illuminated a tall, narrow-faced vampire in a charcoal-gray trenchcoat.
"On the Hunt, are you?" he inquired.
Linda nailed him in the shoulder instead of the heart with one stunned shot from her pistol, firing from the hip, and black blood splattered, indistinguishable in the dark.
The vampire gritted his teeth, massaging at the wound with his other hand, the affected arm dangling limp.
"Please don't do that," he said.
…this was extremely strange.
"Why not?" Odd asked slowly.
The vampire offered a careful, close-lipped smile. He had dark hair to his shoulders—matted, Near saw as the wavering flashlights pinned him like a moth—and his coat was ragged and frayed, riddled with older bullet holes. He was poised to run.
"Because," he answered, kneading the healing flesh, "I want to help you."
Mello didn't trust the leech any further than he could throw him.
He didn't trust him any further than Near could throw him.
He was encouraged to notice, however, that every one of them had a gun drawn on their so-called ally, to the effect that if the vampire so much as flinched funny, they would reduce him to Swiss cheese.
Mello loved guns.
"How do you mean, 'help'?" he asked.
Sufficiently slowly to placate even Mello's itchy trigger finger—possibly slower than most tectonic plates—the vampire raised his hands, both palms out.
"I want to find the coven," he said. "The one that doesn't fit—aren't they the ones you're after? We have the same destination. You have the firepower, and I see better in the dark."
"The coven," Near interjected, cagily. "What do you want from them?"
The vampire hesitated—which was very interesting indeed.
"They're researching it," he said at last. "They're researching the virus. No one has done much since the first major wave was mostly relegated here, to the countryside, but they're actually doing something—or trying to." He flexed his hands, once again extremely slowly—the extension of his claws was pensive, not threatening. They were a visual aide. "I doubt they'll find a cure," their owner went on, softly, with a rueful smile. "But they might manage something—an antidote, a vaccine. They might do something that stops other people from ending up like me."
Mello's instinct was to say "Don't be so hard on yourself," but in this case, he had to concede the point.
They must all have looked mystified—justifiably, Mello thought—because the vampire decided to elaborate.
It was strange how earnestly he seemed to want their trust—it wasn't as though he couldn't protect himself.
"I was with a southern coven before," was the explanation, the red eyes wide. "I don't know how much gets out—again, the whole problem is that no one's indexed any of this—but the process was probably very much like what you've inferred from fighting the results. They try to turn you into a soldier, or at least to make you act like one. They talk a lot about evolution's course, about being chosen—" This with a disgusted expression that the fangs made frightening. "Absurdities. They forget—or they elect not to recall—that they were only 'chosen' because some rabid, thirsty thing thought they looked iron-rich. They forget that they're diseased—that that's what this is; it's a sickness, and they're its victims." He managed an ironic smile. "Some army, wouldn't you say?"
"One mustn't underestimate the power of rhetoric," Near remarked with a fantastically pointed innocence.
To the leech's credit, he picked it up without missing a beat, returning a thin smile.
"I can hardly ask you to put your faith in me," he noted. "I'd actually count myself rather disappointed if you tried. All I'm proposing is a temporary truce. I can help you, you can help me, and our goal is the same."
Mello's arms had begun to ache; Wammy's rifle was on the heavy side.
"So what are we supposed to do?" he prompted. "Keep a gun on you all the time? Stop blinking? Why do you need us? You've got teeth. You're not as fast as a bullet, but you're faster than a stake, and that's what's important. Why do you want our help at all?"
The vampire shifted his weight—a sign either that he was lying or that he, too, was tired of keeping his arms in the air.
"I'm southern," he said again. "I was born in the southern provinces—just outside the city of Telial, if you've heard of it. That's where I was when I was bitten; I was recruited further south—I don't know this country in the slightest. It's a miracle I made it this far without getting caught and burned alive by villagers tired of my kind." He paused. "I don't know if you've tried cremation; I've heard it works." He cleared his throat. "I'll get killed out here. If I get outnumbered, it's over. Lights out."
Maybe the virus also did weird shit to your sense of humor.
"We outnumber you," Linda commented.
Always the quiet ones.
The leech offered them another little smile, holding out his hands.
"These are the chances we have to take," he said.
Inclusive pronoun. Clever.
"Hey," Matt interjected, garnering everyone's attention at once. He held up a tiny cross on a silver chain, the metal glinting wildly in the unsteady light. "If you put this on," Matt said to the leech, "won't it kind of… subdue you?"
The leech blinked, red eyes hidden and revealed. That might have been the scariest thing—the fact that, eyes and mouth closed, the vampires were indistinguishable. It forced you to remember that they'd been human once.
"Yes," came the cautious reply. "I won't be able to think very clearly." He considered. "That size, I'll probably stay sane. I'm not sure for how long; like I said, no one's—"
"Done the research," Mello cut in, "right. That'll be our next project—wiring leeches up to MRIs and trying out different crucifixes until they lose their minds. For now, don't move a fucking muscle, or I'll blow your fingers off. Those take a while to get back, don't they?"
The vampire's hands, significantly lower than they'd been at the start of this standoff, twitched, as if yearning for the safety of their owner's pockets.
"Weeks," he answered delicately.
"Go ahead, Matt," Mello urged, keeping the rifle trained.
Matt stepped forward, paused, offered the vampire an apologetic smile, and slung the long, thin chain over their self-proclaimed ally's head. The gesture earned a wince as the cross swung and then settled on the creature's chest. Slowly he tucked his hair behind his ears, tugging it out from under the chain to let it settle in inky array over his shoulders again. He took a deep breath, seeming to be struggling not to glance at the rosary, as if it was a bright light hovering at the edge of his vision.
Mello was the last to lower his gun, arms burning with the effort of sustaining the position for so long.
"I guess you're with us, then," Odd said, quietly.
"Thank you," the vampire responded carefully. Maybe Mello imagined the faint tremor he thought he detected in the otherwise silky voice.
They all stood still for a lengthy moment.
"What's your name?" Near asked.
"Teru," the vampire said, softly, one hand jerking towards the crucifix, then dropping again to his side. "Teru Mikami."
There was another heavy pause.
"Nice to meet you," Matt volunteered.
"You as well," the vampire replied.
"I suppose we should go," Odd noted mildly. "I don't think any of us wants to be out here when the night ends."