Red And Black - By Kirika

The twenty-fifth chapter. I'm back! ^_^

- Kirika

Chapter 25 - The Routine

"I just need a little more time. Just a little. I have the money."

Ichiro Inamine cracked another walnut over the mewling. He pushed the shell fragments with the edge of one hand to the pile that had begun to amass on his desk and popped the edible nut's centre into his mouth. He chewed slowly. He made no attempt to mask his cruel mirth as the walnut crunched beneath his grinding jaws. His sly, smug half-smile was a premonition of things to come, of future dominance and authority over this grovelling trash, this sheep of society that expected charity from wolves.

Ichiro swallowed, his smile growing. His bared teeth were predatory, glinting in the low light, unabashed to show his willingness to abuse that authority. His grey eyes stared, cold but hungry, already tipsy at the prospect.

He reached for another walnut.

It was a clichéd song and dance, as familiar as it was stale. But the client's tired, rambling narrative still brought the smile to Ichiro's face and the sparkle to his eyes; as long as the storyteller changed it was a tale worth hearing again and again. This person sitting before the gangster's desk might as well have been on his *knees*, bowing at Ichiro's feet. The client-'Katsuya Morishita'-was not much more than a name in a ledger to the yakuza leader. But that Morishita's name was written in that ledger, and moreover that his account was long overdue with no sign of being settled, meant that Ichiro's power over the salaryman was absolute. As soon as Morishita's name had dipped into the red ink, Ichiro had become his king and he the gangster's serf, scraping at Ichiro's throne, pleading for his liege's leniency. They never learned. You couldn't expect to deal with the devil and not get burned.

This was the business to be in. This was what to do when you had cash to play with. The lending game. Not investments that take a lifetime to pay dividend, or wipe you out completely without recompense; not the banks with their bullshit and pathetic interest rates-blue chip, term deposits; it was all for the gullible. Loan sharking, where *you* were the bank, where *you* set the rates, was what the smart business men chose. Ichiro was one of those men.

For the clients however, it was for the foolish and the desperate. The house would always win, just like it did at the blackjack, craps and roulette tables on the other side of Ichiro's office door and at the pachinko parlour front outside that makeshift gambling den. It was the same game the whole time, the clientele more and more feverish the closer they came to being inside the gangster's office; they were like addicts unable to help themselves from digging deeper holes to fall in, deeper graves to lie in. In his office the punters just dispensed with the illusion of cards and dice and chance, did away with the pretence of fun and glamour and the expectation of coming out on top, and forked over their cash directly into the yakuza's pockets. It worked for Ichiro. A smart man would think the sheep would catch on. But the hopeful and the hopeless still shuffled in, savings clutched to their chests, willing to wager their lifeline, willing to bet everything they had on big dreams. The clients invariably ended up paying more than they bargained for-and more than they thought they had. Ichiro would claim it all, claim every facet of their lives-he would claim their souls if he could hawk them later. Not all debts were settled in coin. Too late did the sheep realise that.

"Really. I can get it all."

Case in point.

Ichiro squeezed his fist closed, the shiny steel nutcracker in it splitting a walnut shell with a snap. Beyond his office's windowless walls a muffled cheer went up-a winning roll, a trumping hand or a fluky spin to entice, to garner trust... the con before lady luck turned around and revealed herself as the cold bitch she really was. "You *have* the money... or you can *get* it?" The young yakuza boss snorted derisively, glancing at his nearest junior to share his belittling grin for Morishita and get another in return. "I'm confused. Are you confused, Ogami?"

"I'm confused, Kumicho," Ogami said on cue from where he was lounging on the office's sofa, idly playing mah-jong on the round coffee table with a couple other Kooen-kai brothers. He had a smirk on his face as he mixed the mah-jong tiles, knowing the act-they had played it out in front of dozens of other clients many times before.

"I can *get* it," Morishita rephrased. He was sweating in his boring grey suit and visibly swallowed and twisted his neck, as if his shirt collar and necktie was throttling him.

"Well that's good. Because I have this document here-" Ichiro opened a dog-eared manila folder that sat on his desk for just this exact reason and thumbed through the pages until he found the one Morishita had signed. "-a *contract*, that states..." Ichiro snorted again as he looked at the paper, as if only seeing the figure the salaryman owed for the first time, "...that you owe a shit-ton of money, Mr. Morishita. And you have for a while. That is your signature and mark, right? Your blood and thumbprint?"

The yakuza pushed the contract forward on his desk, so that Morishita's name and the red splotch that was the bloody imprint of his right thumb was unmistakable, even in the dim light and smoky atmosphere of the backroom office. Sealed in blood-indeed akin to a deal with the devil himself.

"L-Look, I'm doing everything I can, but my company isn't paying out overtime anymore, and in this economic downturn-!"

"With the interest," Ichiro continued, raising his voice over the stammering client and returning the contract to its place in the folder, "it's roughly seven hundred thousand yen that you owe us." It was quite the sum for a salaryman to accrue. However this salaryman had had a young girlfriend with expensive tastes and the need to keep her. *Had* had a young girlfriend. She had run off when the money had run dry, no doubt to someone younger and better looking... or to someone with a fatter wallet. The Kooen-kai wouldn't be so swift to cut Morishita loose. Ichiro trusted the guy had enjoyed himself, as he would be getting fucked in a totally different and much less pleasant way from now on. Big dreams... Big nightmares.

"B-B-But it was five hundred thousand a week ago!" Morishita squeaked in his chair in front of the loan shark's desk, leaning towards his vanishing contract to gape at it in disbelief.

Ichiro closed the folder fiendishly, denying him. "That was a week ago. We, too, have been affected by this ailing economy. Right, Ogami?"

"Right, Kumicho."

Ichiro shrugged his shoulders in feigned helplessness. A lie, of course. Business was good. Business in this game was always good. And in a weak economy when people were losing their homes let alone their fickle girlfriends, it was not an exaggeration to say it was booming. It was never a bad thing to have a surplus of cash, and with what had been going on in the streets of late a wad of notes in your pocket was probably a man's best friend at the minute. Nearly every gang in the Sumiyoshi-kai was fighting each other to be top dog with the Sosai and Kaicho both doing hard time and everyone else of distinction carted off with them to a life behind bars-or were dead after the Yamaguchi-gumi blitz into Kanto. Ichiro had even heard rumours that their Kansai rivals were making a move on Tokyo-ballsy, and an outright declaration of total war if there was any truth to it. The major turf in Tokyo had belonged to the Sumiyoshi-kai for as long as memory persisted, and would always belong to them regardless of which gang a newly elected interim Sosai would be affiliated with. It was tradition. It was home.

Though Ichiro himself couldn't care less. The Kooen-kai was lying low with the bloody landscape out there, maintaining their lender rackets and underground gambling rings as if the world wasn't on fire right now. Ichiro had no interest in possessing the crown of the Sumiyoshi-kai-surviving, prospering, was just fine with him. The Sumiyoshi-kai was a union of yakuza groups and clans, and no particular one would ever gain ultimate leadership or dominance. The other gangs would remember that sooner or later, once they got tired of the killing and the dying. Yet until then it was gunshots in the night and blood on the pavement-and that was without even mentioning the Yamaguchi-gumi and their incursion. The Sumiyoshi-kai was tearing itself apart.

Ichiro could sit on his hands and wait it out with the Sumiyoshi-kai, but the Yamaguchi-gumi situation could not simply be ignored with the similar hopes it would fix itself. If the Kansai yakuza really were gunning for Tokyo, there would be no hiding, no waiting. No one's turf would be safe. The current climate of the Sumiyoshi-kai made it a prime time to strike, with almost every gang of the confederation out for their own interests, dozens of different groups in civil conflict. Alone, they would be easily picked off by the Yamaguchi-gumi juggernaut.

Ichiro didn't like it and knew that the Sumiyoshi-kai had to be whole to weather the invasion... however... he was pragmatic. He was not about to lead the charge, to unite the clans, to stick his neck out and be the first head to be chopped. If everyone was out for themselves, then so too would he be. There was no hiding from the Yamaguchi-gumi and to oppose them single-handedly was to lose, but *negotiation*... a bargain perhaps wasn't out of the realm of possibility. The Kooen-kai's allegiance to the Sumiyoshi-kai umbrella had been a profitable arrangement for years, but all things were susceptible to change. Even tradition saw its end sooner or later. Even home. Ultimately it was about business. It was about making money. Ichiro made money. He could make money for the Yamaguchi-gumi just as he had for the Sumiyoshi-kai. Honour, tradition, family-they were nice ideals, but from an ancient era when they really mattered. Today the yakuza was like any other corporation. Money made the world go round, including the underworld.

A deal could be struck. A contract to ensure the Kooen-kai's survival should the Yamaguchi-gumi ravage the other Kanto gangs' holdings in Yokohama. However in an honourless world what guarantee did Ichiro have that he would not be muscled out of his leadership role at a later date after a Yamaguchi-gumi victory? Or rubbed out utterly, another bullet-ridden corpse on the street? Why would a king bargain with a serf he could simply crush beneath his heel? Ichiro knew the hazards of deals with devils and would not fall prey to them.

There was another option. An option Ichiro had entertained for the past week. The Sumiyoshi-kai was in chaos, the Yamaguchi-gumi were a devil he knew but still a devil with horns and claws. And then there was the new player in Japan's underworld. The group was nameless, more than a rumour but maybe less than truth. Foreign, the word on the street whispered. Russians, people said. No, they were American. No, it was the Italians others insisted. No, they spoke French, it's a French syndicate. A professional outfit in any case, military discipline and the hardware to back it up, weaponry of the likes Japan's criminal organisations rarely saw. Ichiro thought it was probably the Russians or some other Eastern European group; they were usually hardcore. Yet no one seemed to know why they needed machine guns and grenades or the battles they waged with them or the turf they gained from the secret skirmishes. It seemed their turf belonged to no one, not any yakuza affiliation, and was worth nothing or was nowhere to be seen at all. There was buzz that the foreigners had had a hand in the recent Yokohama courthouse anarchy, but who could say for certain? People had a tendency to pull shit out of their asses and tell you it was roses.

People also said the group was fronted by a small yakuza clan, the Kanagawa Koutetsu. Ichiro was vaguely aware of the name; they were not linked to any of the major Japanese crime groups that dominated the country. Other people also said that the Kanagawa Koutetsu were instead enemies of the foreigners, were in ruin from feuding with them. Disturbing for what Ichiro was weighing up, if that report was accurate. Deals with foreigners were typically distrusted, and deals with westerners more so. Gangs had been made outcasts for their offshore associations before, and seldom did they reap the rich rewards of the alliance for long. The Koreans, the Chinese, alright; but not with the western underworld. Maybe it was the cultural differences, but the yakuza had learned to regret western interference.

It would be a gamble. Siding with foreigners always was. Ichiro never gambled, he only bet to win. He had discussed it with his closest brothers, and they too felt the threat of the Yamaguchi-gumi and the vulnerability of the Sumiyoshi-kai-and the salvation the new blood on Japan's shores could be. The Kooen-kai could usurp the Kanagawa Koutetsu's place as liaison to the foreigners if the position was genuine, could profit from their profit, maybe get their sticky fingers on some of those high-tech shooters and get into the arms dealing business. No one would fuck with the Kooen-kai if they were packing that kind of firepower, not even the Yamaguchi-gumi. Big dreams, though... Ichiro would need to think on it more.

Ichiro cracked open another walnut. "We've been patient, Mr. Morishita." The humour, scornful thought it had been, was noticeably gone from the gangster's voice. You only toyed with your prey for so long. "I've been patient. We gave you a week. And then another. Now, none of us have patience."

"Please, Mr. Inamine... I-"

"You write with your left hand, don't you," Ichiro casually interjected.


"You're left-handed. I've noticed. When you go to work, you use your left hand to write your reports and shit."

"Uh, y-yes..."

Ichiro's gaze shifted minutely to Ogami. He popped the walnut into his mouth as Ogami signalled another brother who was monitoring the gambling hall's security camera feeds on the other side of the office. The two men advanced on either side of a frightened Morishita, as wolves did on wounded quarry. From behind, Ogami leaned over and wrapped an arm around the suddenly bucking salaryman's neck, holding him in place in the chair, while the other yakuza-Tashiro-seized Morishita's flailing right forearm. The limb shuddered as he feebly fought to resist, and it was slowly that Tashiro forced Morishita's arm onto Ichiro's desk, but force it he did.

Tashiro lifted his knee to the desk and put it on Morishita's forearm, pinning the limb beneath his body weight, and with his now free hands started to prise open the salaryman's tightly clenched right fist until he had the first finger out and exposed. A woman late on her payments subsidised the interest with her body. Men bartered with their body too but in a different fashion; a fashion that brought only slightly less pleasure to Ichiro.

Ichiro ate one more nut before he sat forwards and closed the steel nutcracker's teeth around Morishita's finger. As if it were simply another walnut on his desk to be cracked, the yakuza squeezed his fist shut.

Morishita howled and bawled as his fingers were broken one by one, his voice mingling with the cheers of the gamblers outside. As soon as a crunch was heard, as soon as skin split and bone fractured and blood spilt, Tashiro fished out another unlucky finger from the bunch with practiced ease. It wasn't anyone's first time at this unless you counted Morishita. The economy was bad after all.

"You have earned another week's extension," Ichiro said as he wiped off the bloody nutcracker with a handtowel. It would still be fine for the walnuts. "Work hard."

Morishita was sobbing and staring agape at his mangled right hand as Ogami and Tashiro hauled his stiff form out of the chair and to the door. He'd get the money... sooner or later. Hopefully sooner for his sake. Morishita needn't fear for his life however, though it would be an able motivator for him to cough up what he owed. Ichiro was always loath to liquidate a client unless they were a real deadbeat with no earning power whatsoever. Or they pissed him off. A dead man wasn't profitable, just like somebody that was too badly tortured to toil in their day job. Plus Morishita had no family-no one to inherit the debt. If there was a sibling, or a good-looking wife or daughters, or anyone at all, then when he ran out of bones to break Katsuya Morishita would find his life had run out too, and his loved ones would be charged to pay what he had not. It really was a shame the salaryman was by himself. If he had any family collateral Ichiro would be putting the pressure on them as well at this point, what with the Morishita account this bloated and overdue. The more sheep in the herd the better.

As the office door was opened Ichiro saw his next potential client in the hall, being frisked by his man, Aoyama, at watch. It would be a challenge for anyone, any man, to overlook her. The new visitor was a young blonde woman, a westerner, dressed like she didn't need to be at a loan shark's doorstep and beautiful enough to name her price in a hostess bar. Ichiro would have to wrestle her club's name out of her-that was likely where she had come from, especially if she was turning up in the yakuza's neck of the woods. Foreign women that settled in Japan to work and were not tied to a corporation or any other 'legitimate' place of employment usually ended up in one of the thousands of hostess bars, an exotic flavour for the locals bent that way. If the hostess bar was straight then the job was just a job, more respectable than a stripper's work, however Ichiro was well aware of Sumiyoshi-kai run clubs that forced their girls to do more than just drink and converse with patrons. With any luck this blonde was part of a yakuza institution. The Kumicho of the Kooen-kai would be welcomed with open arms and opened thighs in that event, and maybe without the need to flash a single yen to get between the latter's creamy embrace.

Morishita was dumped into the hallway to shamble off and contemplate the rest of his week, the salaryman crawling past the blonde woman's high-heeled boots cradling his hand before scratching up the wall to stand and totter out into the hive of gambling. None of the punters would pay mind to the bloodied man stumbling through them-none of them saw much that was far from the dice and the cards and the wheel. The blonde woman didn't bat an eyelash at Morishita's shaken composure either, no doubt money and the dreams it would make come true filling her gaze and thoughts like any other yearning sheep.

To his credit, or perhaps in a spell of stupidity, Ichiro's doorman didn't take liberties with his pat down of the western woman's model figure. Besides the tight clothes she had a rolled up brown paper bag with her that she unravelled and opened for Aoyama to peek inside, the gangster nodding his okay afterwards.

Ichiro mopped up the droplets of blood from his desk as the woman was allowed inside his office, Aoyama shutting the door after her. Ichiro smiled broadly. Another serf set to proposition their king and a woman this time. This was the business to be in.

"Come in, come in," Ichiro warmly greeted, putting the blood stained towel away in a drawer. "Someone wipe off the chair for the lady," he instructed as Ogami and Tashiro walked back inside. The men glanced at each other and silently decided between them, the younger Tashiro moving to obey, and older Ogami returning to his mah-jong. "Disgusting person, our last client," Ichiro explained as the blonde woman sat down somewhat unenthusiastically on the now sweat-free chair in front of the gangster's desk. "Sweats like a man on death row."

There were smirks all around the room, Ichiro's the biggest.

"You have business?" Ichiro asked.

"Mr. Ichiro Inamine?" the woman said.

Ichiro inclined his head faintly. "You've found me."

"Then I have something for you." The woman's Japanese was surprisingly fluent. She must have been a hostess for a long time.

The blonde reached into her paper bag on her lap, causing anyone that was paying attention to the exchange to tense slightly-everyone but Ichiro; he had seen her frisk. The woman took out a bundle of notes and placed them on the desk. And then another. She had everyone's attention now.

"A settlement?" Ichiro queried, watching the growing pile of bills. He didn't remember any foreigners of her like in his ledger. The westerner must be an intermediary. Damn, that meant she probably wasn't a hostess girl. "For whose account?"

"Yours," the blonde woman said with a sudden smile. A cold smile. A smile not unlike the smile Ichiro gave his prey.

When next her hand emerged from the bag there was no wad of currency in her grasp. It was a lump of metal. Black, with a long barrel.

She moved so fast. Her arm, her finger. The silenced pistol fired a volley around the room before anyone even knew it was a pistol, bullets flying past Ichiro every which way, finding the dumbfounded men. It was all contained in a single killer moment.

Ichiro sat at his desk still, stunned, frozen, shocked and amazed that he was suddenly looking at corpses, surrounded by quiet death. Ogami, Tashiro, Yamada, Maeda, Ito, Tsuchiya-his underlings, how could they be dead? But dead they were, slumped over strewn mah-jong tiles and against blood-splattered surveillance screens.

It took a further second before Ichiro realised he'd been caught in the chest. He panted uncontrollably as he looked down at the blood spreading on his shirt. It didn't hurt. He couldn't feel it. He couldn't feel anything below the neck. He panted harder, knowing that couldn't be good. The yakuza strained to lift his head again, it lolling back against his chair as he looked at his assailant. The blonde was on her feet, her smoking gun pointed at him.

"Like a man on death row," the woman spoke.

Ichiro wanted to say something. Lots of things ran through his head. Who was this woman? Why was she doing this? Was she with the Yamaguchi-gumi? Was it another Sumiyoshi-kai clan? Was it the Russians? What would happen to the Kooen-kai? His business? His loans? The gambling den? The pachinko parlour? What about all his plans, all he had left to do today and tomorrow and next week?

A million thoughts; a lifetime in a moment. Ichiro wasn't ready. He wanted to rage. He wanted to cry. He wanted to reach that drawer with his gun inside.

Then the moment passed. The woman pulled the trigger.

Mireille watched Ichiro Inamine's head slump to one side and something silver and slender slip from his drooping hand onto the floor-a weapon, maybe-his wide eyes staring out. But his eyes didn't see her anymore. Nobody in the room did. The assassin was alone, the kind of alone an assassin rendered like no other.

It wouldn't be for long. Ichiro Inamine was a notorious loan shark, well-known as a sympathetic ear capable of timely generosity when the repomen were scratching at your door and the banks wouldn't let you through theirs-and a hundred times more ruthless than those banks when the day arrived to settle up. Despite the obvious foolishness of submitting to the racket, there would be legitimate clients coming through the office door possibly at any second, and escorted by at least one Kooen-kai member. There were even higher odds of more of the yakuza to come calling to their boss for whatever reason. Whichever case, new faces; more witnesses, maybe with more guns; would upset Mireille's extraction. There was one exit from the backroom office; one door, one hallway; being pinned down here would be untidy.

Following a quick check over her shoulder to see that the closed door belonging to that solitary way out was still closed, Mireille skirted around Inamine's desk, heeding where the blood had soaked into the carpeting, heading for the security camera screens at the back of the room. The blonde woman spared a split second to glance at the black and white displays to place the cameras in the rooms outside and also to ensure that no one was making a beeline for the office, before she nudged a gangster with a hole in his right temple from his seat to get at the security system's recorder. As the man toppled to the floor like the dead weight he was, Mireille ejected the disc that had recorded everything in the gambling hall and pachinko parlour today with a push of her silenced Walther P99's barrel.

Carefully, the Corsican took the disc from its tray between her thumb and forefinger. In the next moment she broke the disc in half. All of a sudden it was as if Noir had never walked into the Kooen-kai building-but for the bodies, the calling card of any capable killer. A good assassin neither required nor craved any other hallmark.

Two bullets in the system's internals later Mireille was back at the desk, recovering the bundles of money she had brought with her on the assignment. They were real, part of Mireille's own funds withdrawn from one of her accounts, and had been necessary for the misdirection; for beating the inevitable body search and to wean the attention off her to orchestrate an opening for the gun. It was a minor amount to a contract killer of the Corsican's long and prominent career, but she took the extra seconds to gather it up into the paper bag again. There was more small cash packets stacked on the desk among pieces of nut shells, and no doubt much better spoils that could be rooted out in the drawers or in a safe somewhere, a sum greater than what the blonde had carried in; plunder from the yakuza's extortion that now could be said was as much hers as it had been theirs. It didn't interest Mireille. Greed wasn't in her, and was a trait that would give anybody, least of all an assassin, a bad ending. She retrieved her own money because it was hers, no other reason. The woman had earned it, it belonged to her, and the thought of leaving it behind wasn't a thought at all-it was simply unthinkable. Perhaps it was an inbred instinct to leave as little trace of herself as possible at a scene of her work. Or maybe it was because it was a slice, even though tiny, of her retirement fund for that make-believe day sometime in the far-flung future that every assassin possessed for when they holstered their weapon for good. Or it could be that after abandoning so much at her home in Corsica as a child, Mireille was attached to that which was hers now as an adult.

Or maybe Mireille just didn't take the value of money for granted. A killer for hire knew better than most what it could buy.

Mireille added the halves of the security recording to the bag, and picking the latter up in her free hand, nipped quietly to the door. It had a peephole, providing a fisheye's view of the man that had frisked her standing at watch in the otherwise empty hall. She could likely slip out swiftly enough armed with nothing more than a smile and a sway without him noticing the bodies of his colleagues in the office behind her, but it was a further risk that she had no motivation to take. Besides, the guard had seen her face and could identify her as the probable shooter-the very instant he had laid eyes on Mireille the man had been damned. He belonged with the bodies.

Mireille thumped her fist against the office door, still spying through the peephole to catch the guard's reaction. It took a few bangs, the yakuza likely used to overlooking the odd strangled cry and loud thud in a backroom such as this, but Mireille spotted when he eventually took notice and decided to check on his boss and gang.

The guard knocked to begin with, asking a little timidly through the door whether everything was fine, no doubt anxious about the angry reprisal if his interruption wasn't looked upon favourably by the man in charge. It took no answer and a few more seconds appearing nervous before the guard decided he better poke his head in and take a look.

The door opened softly and slowly, a respectful crack, and without a word uttered by the humble gangster-not even when Mireille shot him in the head.

Mireille opened the door the rest of the way and stepped over the body lying over the threshold, leaving the door swinging. She shoved her pistol back in the paper bag as she walked down the corridor and eventually into the raucous, muggy atmosphere of the yakuza gambling den. The assassin was out clean. No one would pick her out among the dozens of other faces, even if her face was white. No one cared to. There were degenerates in every casino, but in an underground casino the degenerates were ninety percent of the patrons; they were the only sort that would take the trouble to find such a place, after all, when commonplace pachinko no longer satisfied. Mireille didn't need to worry about onlookers when there was dice rolling and cards on the table and chips on the line.

Mireille worked her way through the crowd to the other side of the room, passing through another hallway and more Kooen-kai lookouts. But to them the blonde was just another gambler seeking something more thrilling and rewarding than pachinko in the front of the building. In the paper bag was her winnings or a donation from Inamine the money lender. No assassin here.

The constant clamour of dropping ball-bearings was the herald of any pachinko parlour, and Mireille heard the din long before she walked into the Kooen-kai front. Pachinko was a strange game, native to Japan and almost exclusive to its shores as far as Mireille knew, loosely resembling an upright pinball machine but without the means to control the ball beyond firing it into the play area. The crux of the game was hoping the balls fell in favourable spots to generate profit-profit being more balls to play with. It was similar to a slot machine but with more flash, and with about the same odds of winning-that was to say, low odds. Despite how it sounded, it wasn't regarded as a gambling device in this country, despite for all intents and purposes being one. Balls could be traded for tokens at the cashier, and those tokens taken to an 'unaffiliated' nondescript kiosk outside the parlour to be exchanged again for prizes or for what most people wanted from their pachinko playtime-hard currency. Gambling was illegal in Japan, yet apparently only to a degree if you were willing to jump through certain hoops.

Everyone was just kidding themselves. As Mireille entered the parlour, the players looked the same as those in the back. They sat on stools at their machines, their eyes glued to the gaudy twinkling lights and chirping cartoon mascots, mechanically pushing ball after ball into the slot, oblivious to anything else. The room was awash with the same smoke and sleaze as in the 'real' gambling hall Mireille had just come from; at least there it had the decency to be what it truly was instead of this farce. The players here in the parlour still cried out, still bet their last coin, and were still desperate for a win. They were fooling themselves if they thought themselves better than the punters playing behind the back wall.

Mireille quickly found Kirika right where she had left the girl, standing at the rear of the parlour with the other children dragged here and soon abandoned by addicted parents and relatives. The kids had designated the back wall dumping ground as theirs, and took to the situation as kids did best-by making their own fun no matter the place or circumstance. Some, the veterans of the pachinko parlour, played card games or fiddled with toys they had wisely brought along, while the rest, with nothing else on hand, looked to the loose pachinko balls gathered from the floor for entertainment. Children were resilient, adaptable. They could endure almost anything.

Kirika stood with the other youngsters, and while some were close to her age, it was distinct that she was not a part of them. She didn't play. She didn't take to the situation. In this respect, Kirika did not-could not-adapt. That was the cost when you endured too much, too soon-you weren't a kid any longer. Mireille remembered that moment herself, in Corsica, gazing at had once been her home with her uncle stealing her away into the night, with memory of her smiling, loving family lying on the floor in their own blood.

The blonde assassin didn't need to say anything. At the sight of her Kirika walked over to her, and the pair began squeezing through the gauntlet of twinkling and tweeting pachinko machines and the brainwashed players chained to their flash towards the exit. Kirika didn't ask if the job had been a success. Maybe there was no doubt in the girl's mind. Maybe her faith in Mireille was unflinching. Maybe Kirika already knew. Mireille had been by herself facing Inamine and his goons, yet she hadn't felt it had been a solo affair. The yakuza office had been in a windowless room in the back of the building but nevertheless Noir had seemed whole.

Could it be...? Kirika had proven before that she was ready to disobey and follow the blonde whenever some enigmatic motivation was pricked, and moreover *wherever* the woman went however impractical or improbable. Had Kirika been there in the midst of the gamblers? Loitering in the shadows of the rear hallways? Listening at a vent connected to the loan shark's office? It seemed unreal, impossible that Mireille could not have noticed... but the woman had witnessed her young partner perform actions and manoeuvres no one else would have fathomed on many occasions; Kirika shaped the impossible into the possible, made it her specialty.

Or perhaps Mireille was indulging in risky romanticism, believing in a safeguard that wasn't really there. Some people believed in a guardian angel that watched over them-she wasn't one of those people. But... if Mireille had been... there could be worse guardian angels than this girl at her side.

On impulse Mireille glanced over her shoulder at Kirika on her tail, her fellow assassin's doe-eye expression its typical cloud, revealing nothing of what was really beyond those eyes; angel or demon, teenager or assassin. Yet whatever it was that should define her, Mireille wanted Kirika near.

Noir walked out into the street and the sunlight, their deed done. It wouldn't be the end of the Kooen-kai; there was always an eager someone on the food chain to replace a higher-up that had fallen. Inamine's business would survive him. Organised crime all over the world was bred the same; the same sort of vermin regardless of how vaunted their history, values, or rise to prominence. Kill a soldier and the pack would breed another, kill a boss and the pack would quiver-then grow a new head. You had to kill them all, every last one above a soldier with a shred of authority or influence, and even then some of the ambitious soldiers had to be put down as well if you wanted to ensure a syndicate burned. People forgot that, tending to arrange hits on one or two leaders or the big boss instead of the whole command structure-the mistake reflected in their contracts.

Mireille doubted Soldats was making the same oversight here, however. They likely didn't want the yakuza clan in the ground but to continue to thrive sans a problematic individual, and perhaps to help maintain the Sumiyoshi-kai collective as a worthy counter to the Yamaguchi-gumi. Whatever the politicking, Ichiro Inamine wasn't the first gangster Noir had murdered in Yokohama this week, nor would he be the last in this city or the others in Kanto to be claimed by the black path.

Jacques had emailed more briefs, more intel-which meant Breffort, *Soldats*, had. There had been many names on those briefs; every one of them linked in some fashion to Japan's yakuza groups. The briefings had been detailed, going into the reasons behind why every person on the list had to be eliminated to move closer to the destruction of Altena's last holdouts in Ishinomori Tower. The reasons had been... reasonable. The women and men were collaborators, or thinking of turning to the Soldats rebellion whether wittingly or unwittingly. Noir's 'contribution' was denying the priestesses allies; powerful allies if the entire Sumiyoshi-kai or Yamaguchi-gumi were corrupted. So was alleged. Reasonable reasons, pointed out in stark, straightforward language-Breffort's doing. He probably thought he was making Mireille's life easier, removing the need to check the facts and intelligence on each assignment before undertaking it.

She checked them anyway.

Mireille still didn't trust Breffort or Soldats, old incarnation or new. Like with any other client, the Corsican meticulously attempted to authenticate every scrap of information provided for each job, always half-expecting a betrayal somewhere-especially now, with Soldats as that client. It wasn't Breffort's life on the line. But most of all Mireille didn't want her grief, her anger, to be used for other goals. Soldats could feed her any sort of rubbish and point to a man, saying he had to die for her and her partner's revenge. Mireille would not blindly shoot. She was not a tool of Soldats, nor was Kirika. If Breffort thought of making the same error Altena had he would find it as fatal as the priestess. Naturally a little faith had to be taken with any client or source, as not everything was verifiable to everyone-what need would there be for an intelligence man of Jacques' or Breffort's ilk if it was? But they were only as good as their word, only as useful for as long as their information was trustworthy. If their intel was honest, then the providers themselves could be as bent as a hairpin and still have success in the trade. Then again, this was Soldats and not some petty street corner snitch. Breffort's word had been trustworthy today. Mireille would believe in tomorrow's with the necessary grain of salt.

Mireille and Kirika past by the pachinko parlour's kiosk, its counter and shelves replete with 'unofficial' rewards for the establishment's dedicated dupes. On a bench not a metre distant from the prizes a shattered man in a dishevelled suit sat hunched, his bloodied hand wrapped in his loosed necktie, and ignored by every other passerby. Inamine's last client. The Corsican knew his face, but he did not know hers-he only knew her taste in leather footwear. His torture had saved his life from Noir. His slate was not wiped clean with the yakuza boss's demise however; good book-keeping outlasted even death. There were no shortcuts in life, just lives cut short in that pursuit.

"Lunch first," Mireille decided with a smile, in no rush to return to the safehouse. She gestured slightly impishly with her paper bag at Kirika. "My treat."

Kirika nodded, as if it wasn't always the blonde's treat. She watched the man too, her head turning with him as they walked on.

A minute later, on another street in front of another building, one half of the broken security disc was in Mireille's palm as she wandered by a trashcan. Then on a different street beside a different bin, the second half in loose fingers. Two casual moments in a crowd of countless. Two lions among the sheep.

Kirika came in after Mireille, her eyes reflexively scanning the living room and its angles; those corners, those blindspots where someone could be lying in wait. The house was their place of safety, their sanctuary from the outside while piercing the darkness in this land, but Kirika couldn't inhibit herself from checking whenever she crossed the front door's threshold. The girl knew these walls, knew the rooms and the furniture, their scent and feel, yet she treated it like any other safehouse that wasn't home in Paris. Because it wasn't home in Paris, though the Yuumura household had been a home of a kind once. This place of memories slept now, the ghosts put to rest, but still there was no peace here. Maybe the problem lied with her. Maybe there was no respite, no reprieve from her instincts and senses, because there was none to be had in Kirika.

['Sanctuary'? 'Home'? They are simply places like any other. Walls no more impenetrable, no more sacred, than those you have breached yourself while sinning. Did you respect the sinners' sanctuaries? Did they really possess peace...?]

Altena's voice also wouldn't see her relax... because it spoke compelling truth. Those corners needed to be checked, her guard needed to stay up. It was moments that killed. A brief lapse, a small slip; that was all it took-the young assassin had used such herself to end people who believed themselves safe and secure in familiarity. Mireille's Parisian apartment hadn't kept the darkness at its doorstep forever either; a safehouse was only safe for as long as you made it so.

Inside, Mireille let go of a breath as if she had been holding it a long time, and with detectible weariness stooped to unzip her boots. She left them in the genkan and shrugged off her coat, the garment sliding lazily from her shoulders and dropped atop a cabinet in the living room. The blonde woman sighed again as she walked barefoot further into the house, stretching her arms above her head for a second, before sitting cross-legged at the table in the middle of the room, focused on her laptop lying there. With one hand Mireille opened the laptop while the other rested her gun next to it, the weapon placed aside with a clunk against the table; one tool of the trade exchanged for another.

Mireille had her routine. Kirika had hers too.

The darkhaired teenager drifted through the living room to the kitchen, and then up the stairs quietly like a gentle breeze. Down the hall she wandered, touring from room to room seemingly without aim. There wasn't anything Kirika wanted upstairs; in the bathroom or in any of the bedrooms. She had everything she needed-her Beretta M1934 in her parka's pocket, her gun never put aside since arriving. The rooms were empty save for her; no stranger under a bed, no figure in a wardrobe. The safehouse was still safe-until the next time.

Her patrol of the house's interior complete, Kirika walked back downstairs and into the living room. Mireille had her back to her, the woman wholly immersed in her computer's screen by now. She leaned towards it, staring with all the intensity the people had possessed at the pachinko parlour for their game machines while waiting for the balls to drop, gauging how and where they would. Mireille was updating their Soldats contact on Noir's success with their latest assignment. Then there would be another assignment. There was always another assignment. By dusk another person would be marked, and before tomorrow's dawn another person would be dead. Kirika and Mireille were players in a game where there were no winners, just all the risk. Just the dead and the soon to be. The balls fell however they wanted, but every one of them was destined for the dark hole at the bottom sooner or later-some sooner than others.

It was a game Kirika was born to play. This routine, in spite of its weight on her, in spite of what it called on her to do, was one she knew. Maybe it was the only routine the girl had ever really understood. This was the life Kirika existed for. Her body was accustomed to the killing, her mind well-versed in the many methods, whatever her heart and soul cried to the contrary. There was fulfilment in following your purpose, in doing what you were built for. Kirika's heart may not have been committed to it, but the rest of her was a well-oiled machine on well-worn tracks. There was comfort to be found, regardless of how uneasy the notion made her feel in every other way. It was like old times with Mireille, just the two of them facing the world and their past, bargaining contracts for information on Soldats. The goal had changed; the target too; but the feeling was the same. Kirika and her partner, Noir, working together as one.

Was it better than Paris? Better than the afterwards, when there had been no more contracts, no more information to gather, no more lives to take? When the pilgrimage to the past had ended, with just the present to look to? Perhaps it hadn't really ended. Here Kirika and Mireille were now, still in the past, still with lives to take. Maybe Paris, the peace, had been a mirage. Or maybe there was never going to be an ending. Maybe it ended when they did, when it was their lives that were taken. Maybe this feeling of solace, of acquiesce to who they were and what they did, was as idyllic as it got. The thought saddened Kirika, but at least she wouldn't be alone in the darkness.

Kirika rounded the kotatsu coffee table, keystrokes substituting for her silent footsteps, permeating the quiet. The girl watched Mireille; watched her long fingers gliding over the laptop's keyboard; watched the light of the screen reflecting in her steely blue gaze. Kirika wanted this, however. What she and Mireille were doing, allying with Soldats, bringing down the last of Altena's flock-Kirika wanted it. The darkhaired girl didn't really grasp the intimacy of revenge, didn't perceive vengeance as her experienced partner did-when Kirika looked in Mireille's eyes she saw heat within them, a fire that burned in only the woman's vision; an... an *anger*. But anger wasn't in Kirika. There was much that wasn't in Kirika. The young girl didn't get angry. Sad, frustrated, but anger, rage and all of its intricacies wasn't part of her. Maybe... maybe it was still somewhere inside, somewhere else, sealed away with everything else missing, taken by that other her. Maybe it was part of a different her.

Vengeance drove Mireille, but not Kirika. Kirika understood the *idea* of it though, of what shouldn't be forgiven. Yet the young assassin wasn't here only because retribution was Mireille's path. Mireille's revenge wasn't Kirika's. What Kirika wanted was for *them* to know it wasn't right. She wanted Soldats, the priestesses-whoever they really were-to *know* that what they had done to her and Mireille wasn't something that could be forgotten. She wanted those responsible to realise there were consequences, that people were hurt by what they had deliberately chosen to do. Kirika wanted them to know that she wasn't going to run and hide from anything that had happened to her, that she wasn't afraid to face the guilty and tell them these things. To think of it invigorated Kirika; made her palms sweat, made her restless. She may not have had the fire Mireille did inside, but she had the same drive.

Kirika slid open the shoji screen door that led onto a rear veranda from the living room, continuing her check of the property. There was a pair of slippers lying on the wooden beams. Hers? She couldn't remember, but they fit, and if they weren't before they were hers now. Kirika wore them, as was her developing habit for when she came out here, and shuffled the short distance across the veranda, which opened into a secluded back garden. It was fenced off, high enough to keep it private, and had a small speck of lawn and some soil beds in the corners with plants growing quietly, gently swaying in the wind. To her recollection the garden had never been tended, yet somehow it seemed to look after itself. It was as if it understood its role; that it was aware it was abandoned like the rest of the house, that it wasn't part of a home but that it still had to play the part-that its purpose was to look like it had one.

The grass sank beneath Kirika's feet as she walked into the centre of the backyard. Her head panned from one half of the garden to the other, studying the small enclosure. There was nowhere someone could hide without being immediately spotted, but Kirika had to be sure the garden was still quiet, still abandoned, still never knowing a visitor except for her. The teenager glanced over the thick grass, seeing no other imprints aside from her own footfalls. She looked at the top of the high fence, scanning over its perimeter, seeing nothing had changed in the tightly laced wood from the last time she'd looked. The garden was still private. Still lonely.

There was nothing left to inspect, the house confirmed as Kirika and Mireille's still, but the Japanese youth stood in the grass a while longer. She looked up at the sky, watched it slowly bleed into pinks and reds. Kirika didn't think of blood or killing, just of the colours, the way they blended into one another like those on a painting. It was a small vision of beauty in an otherwise ugly world. But there was beauty nonetheless if you knew where and when to look. In those moments it was right to stare.

"Is someone there?"

It was Kirika's own query, reflected back at her. The assassin's hand immediately closed around her pistol in her parka's pocket as her head turned in the direction of the disturbance-a female voice, *not* Mireille's. It came from somewhere behind the veil of the fence, on the right side.

For a few seconds Kirika didn't know how she should react. The curious speaker probably wasn't dangerous; a murderer didn't usually announce themselves like this; yet Kirika wasn't spared anxiety. In the teenager's life she had one person she talked to. One person that *was* her life. Her *whole* life. In Kirika's world there was only herself and Mireille; everyone else outside of that world were nameless, faceless figures, distant beings. Sometimes they got a name and a face, but only when a figure became a target, when the being was revealed to be dark travellers like Noir. Kirika didn't talk to other people. Other people didn't talk to Kirika. And if they did, they knew to stop soon after. Strangers were just that to her-*strange*. And now there was one speaking to her, speaking to her at the border of the safehouse, what was meant to be a refuge from the outside.

Maybe she *shouldn't* react. Kirika could sneak away back inside and pretend that she was never in the garden. She could literally leave without a sound. As soon as she thought of that it became the choice Kirika wanted to make.

"Hello? Who's there?"

Kirika had retreated no more than a footstep on the soft grass when the woman called out again, with more conviction, more curiosity, as if she had heard. Hearing her a second time Kirika recognised the friendly tone of the Yuumura household's middle-aged neighbour. She'd first met her when Mireille had, the day after they had arrived in Kawasaki and moved back into the Soldats house. Kirika couldn't remember the woman before then; the girl couldn't remember having neighbours at all when the safehouse had been her home. Kirika had felt totally isolated and alone then, an exclusion from the rest of the world everyone else had seemed to live in.

"Uhh..." Kirika breathed. She was certainly being noticed now.

"Is that you, dear?"

She had to say something. Kirika was still tempted to slink off nevertheless.

"Hello," the darkhaired girl eventually went with. It was all she could think of.

"I *thought* I'd heard someone!" the woman gleefully remarked, sounding pleased to have been right. There was footsteps; crunches on hard dry dirt; and when the woman spoke again her voice was closer, all but up against the fence. "I hadn't seen you for so long, I thought you and your friend might have gone back home."

"Mm-mm," Kirika mumbled in the negative. She stared at the fence, picturing behind it the older woman as she had seen her before-round and stocky, in coveralls and wearing thick gardening gloves and with a wide-brimmed straw hat on her head, chin-length black curls squashed out.

"You're staying longer then? I remember your friend mentioning you were here on holiday for only a short time."

"She... We... had to stay longer," Kirika laboured for explanation, scared that in her clumsiness with speaking to others she could accidently reveal too much. Mireille would get angry if she said the wrong thing.

"Oh? You had to?" The young assassin could hear the smile in the neighbour's voice. "Did you find the sightseeing that irresistible?"

A joke. It took Kirika a moment to realise that; a long, drawn out moment that had the girl struck mute and the silence between her and the woman grow to uncomfortable proportions.


"Business," Kirika meekly blurted. "We had to stay for business."

"Ahhh... a working holiday is it then," the neighbour seemed to ponder. "I knew your friend was the business sort when I saw her. The foreigners that visit normally are."

"Mm," Kirika found herself agreeing, though not altogether understanding.

"Well, tell her I hope she is liking Kawasaki. And I hope you are too. I should let you go now; it's getting dark and I don't want to keep you from your holiday! I'd talk your ear off if you let me! These hydrangeas won't water themselves!"

"Mm," Kirika murmured awkwardly at the end of the spiel. She quickly returned to the veranda, the woman humming softly to herself behind the girl as she went back to her gardening. In the back of Kirika's mind another voice joined in, whispering in the void. The voice of another older woman she recognised, but the true speaker was someone Kirika's own age. What the girl said was too low to make out however, so low Kirika wondered if she was meant to hear it. The muttering mingled with the singing, almost one and the same.

Kirika shut the shoji screen door after her, glad to be back indoors, glad to be away from all the voices. Her other self fell silent when the neighbour was no longer within earshot, plunging back into whatever dark place she resided.

Mireille looked up at her, the blonde still at her laptop. "We have another."

Standing in the living room Kirika nodded, almost with relief.

This was what she knew.

The nights were different here to those of Paris. The City of Light was sallow twilight and shadows, old iron streetlamps dashing mystique across older stone buildings. There was intrigue down every cobblestone avenue, atmosphere on every historic corner. Yokohama was also a city of lights, but of neon, more literally of colour and brightness. The nights here, like in most of Japan's major cities, were painted with reds and greens and blues, the colours shimmering and blending on the rain-slick pavement and roadways like oil on a dark canvas; an impressionist corruption, a Monet for the modern age. The streets were full despite the hour and the wet weather, the alleys leading to more people and more neon, the corners home to another flashy corporate tower. There was no mystery, steel instead of stone, the soul of the city sapped for progress. But there were still shadows if you knew where to look.

Mireille favoured her home city above any other. Perhaps it was the same for everybody. Paris was her favourite hunting ground, in her mind the birthplace of her art, its particular charm unmatched by anyplace else in the world. If she could thrive on Parisian streets, she could thrive on any no matter the language of the signs or design of the buildings. It was with confidence the Corsican walked Yokohama, deep into its nightlife, where arrays of clubs and bars faced one another down narrow lanes.

A light drizzle fell, a pitter-patter on the clear plastic of Mireille's umbrella over her head. She wasn't dressed for the turn in the weather, her violet evening gown with its provocative slit and low back not something one would chose to venture out into the rain wearing. She wore a cream wrap around her bare arms and shoulders to fend off the chill in the air, and her stiletto heels kept her feet out of the puddles. Mireille was dressed for the neon night, dressed to impress, dressed to distract-dressed to kill. Tonight any man would die to meet her. Tonight a particular man would die.

Kirika walked with Mireille, her escort. Or maybe Mireille was hers. Kirika wore a navy dress, pleated and flowing. Cute. The girl looked her age. Mireille had mulled over brushing a little powder on her cheeks and maybe applying a little colour on her lips and around her eyes, but... no. Tonight was not the night for it. Cosmetics would have added a couple of years, but makeup was an indulgence, something fun to share with Kirika on a day or night where the only reason was for *her*. Another day, another night, when the black path wasn't so black.

Mireille was doing her best to hold the umbrella over herself and Kirika, but the woman doubted the girl would mind should the rain soak her. The humming neon city around her didn't seem to strike a nerve in Kirika, suggesting her surroundings could be as blank as her stare was for as much impact they had. The teenager's mind worked differently, her eyes saw different, maybe picked up those shadows more readily than others did, even Mireille. There wasn't any mystique for Kirika. There was just people and concrete structures, strangers and shapes, each city the same as those before it. Every one was Kirika's hunting ground, all equal in the eyes of the best. It rubbed Mireille the wrong way despite the girl's unmistakable talent, taking something away from the art of murder and its allure. But the woman supposed survival, being good at the job, was what was really important. She could not argue with Kirika's artistry in that.

The signs for the nightclubs and bars started to change the further Noir walked, with pictures of simpering women slicked with heavy blush and eyeshadow taking their place, illuminated in shades of pink neon. Mireille and Kirika were almost there. They passed more hostess bars and clubs, where woman pretended to be in love with the patrons-for as long as they kept ordering the expensive liquors. The bigger the tab the bigger the love. Love always had its price, except here it was more well-defined. There wasn't prostitution-at least officially-nor was it the same as a stripclub, it was something... very Japanese, like some offshoot of the geisha culture of old. Mireille could understand the attraction of company of course, but the practice was still regarded as peculiar to her.

Noir stopped at a club where the lights were blue instead of pink and the gaudy signs written in fancy flowing English cursive. It wasn't women's time that was sold at 'The Boudoir'. Company for hire was an equal opportunity business. It was lonely female hearts with a taste for the masculine that could find succour here, conditional though it still was. The headshots outside were of too pretty men-boys really-hair puffed and spiked into coiffures fit for fantasy. Perhaps in any other locale, any other country, it might have been comical. But a host club was as booming an enterprise as its hostess counterpart. And with every booming business with a touch of sin, criminal groups had their dirty fingers all over it.

Lee-Sung Park was this club's seedy mogul. He had a small series of host and hostess clubs throughout Yokohama, nothing too extravagant, but he lived a charmed life with what they allegedly pulled in for the Kiei-kai and its leader. It was more than likely Park's bottom line was well-padded from dalliances turning his hostess clubs into covert brothels. Sex was always where the real money was when flesh was peddled.

Lee-Sung Park's charmed life could have continued indefinitely... if he wasn't going to turn his trade to filling Ishinomori coffers instead of the Sumiyoshi-kai's. His charmed life apparently wasn't charmed enough for him-he wanted something more. More stability, more money, more influence, more power-whatever it was it didn't matter to Soldats. Soldats spies were in every shadow, and seemingly in every yakuza clan in every city in Japan, and had told of the man and his clubs, and of his desire for more-and that desire had been sufficient for them. Mireille could map Soldats' thoughts, even if the organisation was reticent to do so. Park was a leader and people could and would follow his desire, in particular other Koreans entrenched in other yakuza groups. His siding with Ishinomori might make the rebels an attractive option for his expatriate countrymen potentially still ostracised by some of the pure-blooded yakuza cliques or for wholesale criminal groups composed primarily of Korean outsiders. Before Lee-Sung Park could rise up he would be cut down.

Getting to Park was easy. Getting to him in such a way that he would surely catch a bullet was not. Park was savvy in more than just the love market, surrounding himself with bodyguards, men to bleed in his stead. He could be gotten to at his home, in his car, during his daily routine if Noir pushed hard enough-but why use force when a gentle touch would suffice? Anybody could kill, but the assassin made it an art. No, there was a time and place Park would be alone. He had more than a general liking for the host business.

Mireille past the poster boards and placards and walked up the steps to the Boudoir. The windows were veiled by navy velvet curtains, though the front door was held wide open, inviting passersby into the dark and silky fantasyland. A doorman slouched outside watching the street, dressed in a black suit. Kiei-kai, no doubt. His eyes shifted to watch Mireille and Kirika as the pair approached, sizing them up, particularly where the Corsican's dress dipped at her chest. He would be no problem.

Mireille walked by the gangster with more than a second look shot after her; however the man's look changed when he finally saw Kirika.

"Stop. You. How old?"

Mireille had stopped herself at the sound of the yakuza's voice and turned halfway back around. "Old enough," the blonde interceded.

The doorman glanced at her, a little taken aback by Mireille's intrusion, and then again at Kirika. For a moment Mireille thought she might have to ease whatever conscious he had with the tried and true monetary balm-however the moment past. The gangster jerked his head in the direction of the door, his blessing given. He was probably accustomed to seeing high-school aged petitioners at his doorstep, searching for an 'easy' part-time job-there were likely underage boys already working behind him inside. Whatever brought in the most money, and typically being an illegal worker meant your wage was up for brutal negotiation.

There was no profit in turning away a customer either, underage or otherwise, and Mireille and Kirika were treated as valued ones upon entering. A man dressed as an upmarket waiter greeted them inside, his black bowtie crisp and his black waistcoat buttoned tight. He bowed and scraped, taking Mireille's umbrella with one hand and ushering them further inside with the other, where another server escorted them the rest of the way into the lounge proper.

Mireille could see what the Boudoir was trying to achieve. On the other side of the navy curtains was furniture torn out of a parody of an eighteenth century French royal court; chaise longues and lacquer-veneered couches, their silken upholstery pricked with fine gold thread. But the gilding was faded and fraying, the silk worn from too many different bottoms and stained from too many spilt drinks, the lacquer peeling from too many different hands. The lights were turned down low, that clichéd intimate setting, the perpetual dusk preferred for hushed whispers and private moments. The gloom hid a multitude-what you were paying for every drink; yours and your company's; and the 'perfect' face across from yours, not so perfect in harsher light. The atmosphere spoke of opulence and class, of personal fantasy come to life... but the fantasy ran deeper, the trickery in believing in it to begin with. Reality hadn't been left outside; it was as raw here as anywhere else. The realisation came later when you saw your bill and when the men who had whispered sweet nothings in your ear couldn't remember your name.

But there were some that knew the fantasy for what it was and let themselves be lied to. There were more than a few women occupying spots on the tatty furnishings; twenty-somethings with the cash to burn swooning beside their favourite rented beau, along with other women that by appearances were not as well off. Mireille didn't exactly fit in-a little too well dressed, a little too self-confident... a little too blonde. You sold the role you had. She would be remembered, there was no helping it, but only for reasons she orchestrated.

Mireille split from Kirika, allowing herself to be led by one server while another approached the younger girl. Mireille pretended they weren't together, that they had simply come to the Boudoir at the same time; however the blonde woman couldn't stop herself from a surreptitious glance back at her partner, left adrift in an environment not unlike an uncharted ocean to the girl's mind. The other waiter talked to Kirika briefly, before guiding her to another part of the lounge, the teenager following compliantly with a lost look to her eyes. You sold the role you had, but Kirika only had one she knew. Mireille would have to work quickly.

Mireille was presented with her own couch which she made a show of availing herself of, reclining as if she were indeed a queen in a royal court and the hosts and waiters her devoted subjects. With barely a pause a pretty young man appeared, dressed in a suit casually unbuttoned along with the majority of the shirt underneath, all smiles and charm from the get go. Noir weren't the only ones with roles to uphold.

"I'm Akio. May I join you?" he asked, smoothly gesturing towards the empty space on the couch.

Mireille inclined her head equally as smoothly.

"Drink?" the host said once he'd made himself comfortable next to the blonde. It was not an invitation, not really.

Mireille looked to the waiter that still lingered, no doubt precisely for this reason. "I want the very best you have." She spoke leisurely, confidently-and produced a small clump of folded bills to brandish meaningfully. It wasn't too much in truth, but for this place it was an overindulgence that would get attention-the right attention, the kind she was looking for.

Akio's face lit up. He was probably calculating his cut. "Certainly!" He looked to the server, the host's facade disappearing for a moment as he snapped his head sharply at him, urging the server to get a move on. When Mireille was in his sights again his charm oozed back, as if she could not notice the lapse while addressing the 'help'. She smiled and nodded slightly, as if grateful and approving, then slipped the money away, it no longer needed. Payment came at the conclusion of the evening. Noir wouldn't be the ones paying tonight however.

"A woman with taste..."

It was a few minutes of smalltalk with Akio later that Mireille turned her head towards a newcomer, already expecting him. He had personally seen her advertising her earning potential or the waiter had blabbed on his path to the bar; in any case word had spread quickly from the right mouths to the right ears.

"...And beauty as well," Lee-Sung Park finished, one corner of his mouth turning up just a little as he fully soaked in the picture of Mireille. His eyes moved to Akio, who shrunk under the tall man's stare. Wordlessly Akio slid off the couch cushions and slinked away into the lounge's twilight for customers on his level, proverbial tail between his legs. There had been fright in the host's eyes. No one liked dealing with their boss, especially when he was a known gangster.

Park filled Akio's seat, his eyes always on Mireille. The Korean had a head for the host business in more ways than one. He was handsome, no question, with tanned skin and enough dark stubble on his face to accentuate all the right angles. He kept his hair somewhat long, black locks swept back over his head and down the nape of his neck. Park had the looks to curry the favour of the wealthiest of female clients and the most attractive. In his mind Mireille was probably both. He was here to play host himself, likely on the surface for the business's sake but more than likely for his own personal pleasure. Soldats' briefing had been detailed.

"A new face," Park said in a smoky voice, "one I'm not likely to forget. My name is Lee-Sung Park. This is my place. Whatever you desire, I can make it yours."

Mireille's lips pursed slightly, seductively. Her eyes were deep pools. "I desire much. My name is... something you'll have to earn," she coyly replied.

Park's lopsided smile grew. "Can you at least tell me something about yourself?"

"I'm... a widow," the blonde said.

"How unfortunate for you... And fortunate for me," Park quipped.

Low chuckles were shared and champagne arrived. The assassin and her target grinned at one another. He poured and she sipped. Mireille *was* a widow. A black widow.

"So... what's your name? I'm Hiroki."


Kirika watched Mireille from across the room. It was effortless, the way the woman behaved. When she smiled it looked real; it touched her eyes, made them light up. She laughed; little laughs; music that had you wanting to hear it over and over. She leaned into the target, felt his arm, slid her hand along its length and had her fingers dance over his skin. They had just met, yet they looked like they had known each other for a long time. Like they were good friends... more than good friends. It was an ease Kirika envied. She didn't envy that it was missing in her, that she couldn't mimic it herself; be the perfect pretender for a contract, or simply have that outlet for her feelings. Kirika envied that Mireille had it in her yet that it came out for someone else... someone that wasn't Kirika.

The girl was aware it was a lie she was seeing, that there was no true emotion behind the soft-spoken words and warm caresses. However, even if it was make-believe, Kirika was witnessing Mireille as she could be. It was *in* her. Was Kirika's missing pieces holding Mireille back? When they were together, Mireille was... less than what Kirika was seeing now. Muted. More... in check. Was that the real Mireille? Was Kirika merely being fooled by the lie right now as well? Mireille wore many masks, changing them whenever she needed to. Maybe this was just another mask and not a mirror, reflecting nothing of the actual woman underneath. Maybe... But Kirika had seen underneath, had seen the good and loving person that lived there. There was affection in Mireille, affection that would make what Kirika was watching on the other side of the lounge not make-believe. Affection that she wanted to be *hers*. Kirika wanted to be the target. She wanted to be the man, Lee-Sung Park. She wanted to be the one Mireille laughed effortlessly with, the one the blonde touched freely. Kirika watched this man, watched him respond to Mireille's attention, feeding off it and returning it, the pair parallels to one another, a perfect partnership. They were perfect mirrors for each other, while Kirika was the broken one, with missing shards and odd angles, returning emptiness and distortion. Kirika was not someone who could compliment Mireille's love in this way. She couldn't give as she received, couldn't reflect the devotion that might be bestowed upon her, at least not in the manner others did. Kirika wasn't a whole person. For all her masks, Mireille *was*.

"Um... how about a drink? I can get you a drink."

Kirika turned her head to the man sitting beside her. He was young, maybe not as young as her but close, chosen to be a match for her own youth. Chosen as her parallel. She looked at him, at 'Hiroki', at his slicked up hair and exotic clothing, and saw in his face what she felt. Nothing. Emptiness. There was no connection, not even that slightest, barest rapport that normally existed between two human beings. He knew it, Kirika knew it. He still pretended, going through the motions despite the void sitting before him. Kirika could not.

"Anything you want, we have-"

"Juice," Kirika murmured, a robotic answer, a go-to response.

"Juice," Hiroki parroted, smiling, obviously grateful for the interaction, grateful for any progress to alleviate the awkward tension. "What kind?" He clicked his fingers, eager to fulfil the request.

Kirika didn't hear him, instead turned back to the one person in the room, in the world, that she did have a connection with, however fragile, however twisted, however it was. Mireille was pushing the plan forward. The laughter and touching was moving across the lounge, the blonde woman hanging on the target's arm and being led by him elsewhere... yet it was she doing the leading. There was a private room at the back where Lee-Sung Park took clients sometimes. It was away from the eyes of the lounge, away from eyes of any sort; a place where Park wouldn't want them Mireille had said. Kirika's partner hadn't gone into more detail than that, so the rest-the target's mind; his motive; the reason for the obvious vulnerability-wasn't important to know. What Kirika did know, what was important, was that it was an ideal room for someone to quietly die in.

The private room didn't have a door but a dark screen of drapery. The only way in and the only way out. Park pushed through the curtain, then turned back to hold it aside for his deadly company. Mireille smiled demurely at the gesture, disappearing under the curtain and man's arm and into his den.

The curtain fell back into place, however Kirika could still follow, hers the one pair of eyes that still saw. The curtain's folds had dropped favourably, a sliver of space left between them and the doorframe enough for the girl to witness the private hospitality of Lee-Sung Park. There was a couch; old crinkled black leather, battered from many creases from many bodies; and on it Mireille relaxed, unfurling her perfect body like a feline in full stretch. Park was there of course, taking in the view while Kirika did, smirk on his face.

In another part of her mind, through another's eyes, Kirika noticed her host Hiroki had switched his attention to someone else; an older, more normal girl that had just been seated on their couch better receptive to his chatter and personality. Kirika barely registered the rebuff, her training doing the noticing and the rest of her on the assignment. On Mireille. On Park.

Mireille's lush lips curved in delight as Park's hands roamed, following the rise of her hips and slope of her waist, travelling at their leisure upwards, candidly visiting parts of the blonde's body as if they knew them well. The man's large hands smoothed over the bare skin on Mireille's chest left exposed by her dress, then higher, tracing the graceful contours of her arched neck. Park was grinning, riveted by sight and sensation, willingly enslaved by it. Enjoying it. He knew what to do. The world was laid out before him and all he had to do was live in it; drink it in, bathe in the experience. His body reacted as it was meant to in the presence of such a beautiful woman, his touch expected. Wanted. He kept on grinning.

Hiroki didn't notice Kirika wasn't sitting beside him anymore. He didn't see her move. No one did. The girl slipped through the lounge, past other couches filled with people, weaving around waiters-and nobody saw her. That was Kirika Yuumura-the shadow in the dark, the ghost in the crowd, the person that didn't exist. The girl that didn't matter. The invisible demon in their midst. Kirika moved and the world didn't notice.

Kirika nipped behind the curtain and inside the private room, the fabric barely rippling with her passing. They didn't even see her enter. Not until she was there, beside them, an invader within their personal little paradise. Mireille's face was a new mask-shock. Or perhaps, for that one brief instant, there was no mask. The target's face showed surprise too, then quickly anger at the intrusion. Then nothing. Emptiness, a blank slate, all emotion wiped clean, a face in the lounge that was finally a mirror for Kirika's own. It was... good to look upon and to recognise something familiar. It was satisfying to see that the man had stopped his grinning.

Kirika blinked as Park sagged into the leather couch cushions. Slowly he tipped over, crumpling against an armrest. His head flopped loosely about on his shoulders. He stared at the floor in front of his face with unmoving glassy eyes. Then Kirika remembered. The distinctive hard tone of the spine breaking, dulled as it came to her ears through flesh and muscle; the sensation of the bone giving way to a superior outside pressure, bending in a manner that it couldn't, snapping when it could refuse the demand no longer. Lee-Sung Park was dead. Killed by Kirika.

Mireille's breathing permeated the room. Kirika immediately looked to her fellow assassin when the realisation of what she had done sank in. The girl's first thought was for the assignment, for the plan she had ruined. The target was dead, yes, but not by the method Noir had intended. Her mind raced through the possible consequences, much like Mireille's was probably doing at the exact same moment. They were numerous and terrible. Kirika's breathing began to quicken in time with her partner's.

Kirika sensed movement behind her and turned as Mireille's edgy gaze turned also, rushing to look towards the room's only entrance. An oblivious waiter walked inside with two long-stemmed glasses in hand and an ice bucket cradled under an arm, the neck of a new bottle of wine poking above the rim. He seemed to make a point in not looking at the couch where his boss was, his head bowed with practiced subservience. It brought him several steps into the room before he gasped-a wayward glance, whether caused by curiosity or bad luck, revealing to him that his employer wasn't having his usual fun-and wouldn't ever again.

Gunfire. Two shots in quick succession, the sound of each bullet's flight dampened by a silencer. The waiter buckled, suddenly legless, suddenly a mound of dead flesh on the floor. His load followed him, the glasses hitting the floor as the bucket with wine did, the racket of strewn ice and glass banging against metal only somewhat tempered by the carpet. Nothing broke, yet Kirika's breath stopped in the aftermath. It had been loud. There were bodies. Noir was in the open. It wouldn't take much more for everything to go fatally wrong.

Still supine, Mireille held her smoking pistol pointed at the curtain and the doorway, her taut arm unflinching, her eyebrows drawn low and tight, her eyes as hard and cold as the chipped ice scattered around the assassins. Kirika looked towards the doorway as well, waiting, her heartbeat in her ears. The girl should have had her weapon drawn too; however she couldn't seem to pin her thoughts down. All she could do was stare at the curtain, anticipating more waiters, more people, foreseeing them shot down one after the other by her killer partner. All she could do was stare at the only way in and the only way out, waiting in the ideal room for someone to quietly die in.

The conversation outside didn't ebb. The lounge didn't come pouring through the doorway. Kirika heard Mireille take a deep breath and then another, before the woman brusquely sucked air through her teeth. Her lips fluttered, barely perceptible, mouthing a command to herself. To *move*.

Mireille's legs violently thrashed, kicking Park's corpse off the limbs, and then she swung them over the couch to the floor. She scrambled towards the dead waiter, bending down to snatch him by his collar.

"I'm sor-"

"Not here," Mireille said, biting off the words and squashing Kirika's newly found voice.

The girl did as she was told. She watched as Mireille, with no small effort, dragged the waiter by the scruff of his neck out of sight behind the couch with one hand, the other not willing to relinquish her pistol. She was buying them time. A little time sacrificed now for more later when it really would count. Mireille still believed they could get out clean.

Kirika stood there feeling useless as Mireille trod the melting ice into the carpet to soak with the blood, the experienced assassin rearranging the scene as best she could, sanitising it for the casual eye. The bucket once again held the wine, and the glasses were hurriedly stood upright, placed near the foot of the couch. With the blonde's arms under his Lee-Sung Park was put to rest comfortably, lying on the sofa as if sleeping or intoxicated, his eyelids pressed shut and his head turned away from the doorway. The scene wouldn't hold up for long, but maybe long enough.

"You go first."

Kirika looked at her partner as Mireille grabbed a throw cushion to toss over the waiter's blood pooled on the floor-it was a poor cover. She didn't want to go first. She didn't want to go without Mireille. This was all because of Kirika's actions. She *had* to be here until Mireille got out.


"*Go*. I was taken here. You were *not*."

Kirika hesitated. But Mireille was right. The woman was a skilful pretender, she could and would forge a path to freedom paved with lies and misdirection if it came to that, and furthermore could stretch out the time they had to escape suspicion. Kirika would just endanger her if she remained in a room that was meant to be private... more than she already had. Kirika had to get out, had to leave unseen, and had to pray Mireille managed the same.

Kirika needn't have worried about being seen. No one cared to look at her still. She was still the outsider, still didn't matter. She walked through the lounge as she had before, unopposed and unsought after. There was blood on her hands, yet even that stain on her didn't change anything. The people couldn't smell the blood or the predator passing through them. They were ignorant to the death around them, ignorant of the parallel world that existed right beside theirs-their world of laughter and smiles, of simple problems and simple lives. So often did the two crossover, so often did no one notice.

The darkhaired assassin walked past Hiroki, the young man too enamoured with his new friendships with other girls to note her passage. Kirika imagined if she sat down next to him again he wouldn't be able to tell, let alone tell she had been gone for a long while, stealing his boss's life. Her orange juice sat on the table in front of the couch, in front of the empty space where she had been, forgotten. Forgotten like her.

Into the foyer Kirika stole, into the dark recesses. The rain was coming down heavy outside, pounding against the street and the Boudoir's windows. People came inside, gasping, drenched, the rain enough to distract them from the figure in the shadows. They didn't see her watching them. They didn't see her watch a blonde woman flitter through the lounge, deflecting casual inquiries and repelling the too curious with guile and wit. Not even the woman herself saw her as she left through the foyer, exited the building and peered up into the rain-filled sky.

The umbrella popped open with a whoosh, and for a moment Mireille stiffened. Next to her, Kirika held up their clear umbrella over the blonde's head. Mireille looked at her, and had a glance at the umbrella she had probably thought misplaced. Then without a word Noir walked down the street, with the rain and dark clouds above.

Noir carried the silence with them through the night; an impassive, faceless pair, a charade amongst the masses for the masses; right up to the front door of the safehouse. Once inside, once in a place where it was only them and their world, Mireille visibly changed. They were small changes-Kirika questioned whether the woman herself was even aware of them-but she saw. The blonde's muscles tensed, her motion no longer so smooth and controlled but sharp and stiff, at last governed by the previously withheld emotion that was creeping into her hardening features. Her brow began to gain lines as her eyes seemed to become a colder blue and her lips pulled into a darker red. Mireille could burn hot or she could run cold... so very cold. It was the ice that Kirika faced now. But fiery or frosty, it was still anger. It still stung.

"A plan is only good if it's followed," Mireille said. She was careful with her tone, as careful as she was with propping the umbrella against the wall in the genkan. The words still cut, but precisely, keenly, no wasted wrath, straight and to a razor's point. She removed her high heeled shoes one at a time just as painstakingly, bringing them with her in one hand as she walked, several inches shorter, into the living room. "There is no plan if it's not followed." The woman's hand slipped inside the slit of her dress, undoing the holster around her thigh. She turned around to Kirika, gun and ammunition in one hand and shoes in the other. "I know you understand this."

"I'm sorry, Mireille," Kirika said softly.

Mireille surely heard her despite the Japanese girl's hushed voice; however it was as if she hadn't. "He was under my control," the blonde continued, slightly more firm. She made tiny gestures with the shoes in her hand down at her side, small exclamations with every other word. "You broke his neck."

Kirika lowered her head, remembering.

"You always do this. This is a partnership."

"I'm sorry..."

"You can't just do your own thing when you feel like it. One day it will go wrong. It *will* go wrong. And it only takes that one time."

Kirika found herself staring at the shoes as they jerked about every so slightly. She had nothing for Mireille. Nothing of substance to say, no explanation. The girl tried to find something, some words, *something*, but only the tired platitude of 'I'm sorry' was there. She went for it again-she had nothing else. "I'm sorry," Kirika struggled. "I..."

"I keep expecting you to be where you shouldn't. I keep questioning if I can rely on you. If I can't trust you..."

"I... couldn't..." Kirika stammered, her face crumbling alongside her voice. "I... It was..."

The shoes stilled. With her head against her chest Kirika watched from the corner of her eye as her partner put the shoes and the thigh holster down on the kotatsu. The girl looked up to see Mireille standing in front of her. She looked at her face. The ice had melted.

Mireille placed her hands on Kirika's shoulders. Slowly, somewhat gingerly, the hands slid around Kirika's back as the woman drew her into a warm embrace. "I'm sorry," Mireille whispered. When she said it, it sounded as it should, like Kirika had wanted to sound. It sounded real, not an echo of a half-remembered feeling. Kirika pressed into her. At least this felt real. "Tonight... what happened... I should have known better."

Kirika tensed against the woman and her sympathy. It was left unsaid, as it always was, but she understood better where the compassion was coming from now. Mireille believed she'd had no control over herself, that something, *someone* else had taken over, wielding her hands as weapons. The darkness was easy to blame. Everything bad within Kirika rolled into one convenient source. However Altena's voice was strangely silent, her other self asleep for now. Tonight there had been no darkness. Tonight there had only been Kirika.

"It will get better..." Mireille tried to soothe, the assassin unwieldy with the sentiment. But she tried for Kirika. She tried because she cared, because she felt Kirika deserved it. Because Kirika was crying. Mireille didn't know that the tears were for her and her misplaced kindness. "It will. I promise." It was a lie. In her short life though Kirika had learned that lies could comfort, at least for a while, at least until you found the truth... or it found you.

On another day, during another night, Mireille looked through her compact binoculars at a particular large house down the road. It was one of several large homes in an affluent Naka-ku suburb in Yokohama; each shamelessly walled off from the street and the rest of the community, each its own private stronghold. Mireille kept herself behind one of those ten-foot high walls, beyond the corona of a streetlamp, a voyeur in the night. There wasn't much to see however. Yet what the assassin did and didn't see told a story. The house she was interested in was dark, shutdown for the night. There were the usual lights of course, at the gated entrance and at the front door, the typical precautions of the upper crust to ward away night stalkers, fabricated and otherwise. But it was the windows Mireille scanned with her binoculars, where there were no lights. Everyone inside had retired long ago, as expected with the hour so late.

Perhaps a more naive onlooker would reflect on whether the house was empty. The job; her life; had weeded out any such naivety from Mireille years prior. The Corsican had no such concerns. She dropped her binoculars from the house's second floor to street level and the curb, where a black car was parked. It too was dark, but every so often two orange pinpricks of light would smoulder in the driver's and front passenger's seat. Yakuza hounds, abiding their master. They wouldn't be here whiling away the night unless there was something worth guarding on the other side of that curb. Indeed, Mireille was far from naive.

The target was the mistress of Shinpei Ichihashi, head of the prominent Ryujin-kai under the Sumiyoshi-kai. The twenty-four year old Yu Sawajira appeared to be an ordinary young woman on paper, the characteristic empty-headed and pretty-faced spoiled sort fit for a man of Ichihashi's reign and influence. Breffort had seen different. At her man's side Sawajira had Ichihashi's ear, an ear she was bending with talk of Ishinomori and Soldats. How on earth such a woman had come into knowledge of affairs so far beyond the scope of her existence hadn't been unveiled in the assignment's brief; however it was enough for Breffort to need her erased from the game. Mireille had mused on the details herself; primarily on why Breffort hadn't favoured Shinpei Ichihashi's removal instead. It was still in the realm of possibility he and his Ryujin-kai could defect to the Ishinomori rebels after his lady love was dead. Maybe Ichihashi was important to Soldats in some way? For some strategy or political agenda Breffort had foreseen? Or was Ichihashi an agent... or perhaps even a member of the organisation? Or it could be that Breffort had simply chosen the easier target of the two-the civilian eye-candy over the entrenched yakuza boss. Mireille had to be careful, had to keep questioning. She would not strengthen Breffort's or Soldats' position in Kanto if she could help it. Mireille had shaken up many regimes in the past with her work; taken out revolutionary leaders just before the crux of popularity, silenced generals before a coup, executed terrorists before a bloody statement; every time she hadn't cared about what might have come after. The consequences, the world after today. The Corsican was an outsider in all affairs, an independent contractor. But this... Soldats made everything personal. Soldats made you think about the world. They made you remember that you had to live in it too.

Mireille watched the guards for a few moments longer. The pair were to keep their leader's property safe; more the woman than the house. And, most likely, to ensure Sawajira stayed faithful to the Ryujin-kai's Kumicho. Mireille didn't think she and Kirika would bump into any guards inside the residence; any form of male temptation would remain outside those walls unless there was an emergency.

So far the two yakuza did little but smoke. Noir's tally of underworld figures slain was gradually building, yet word hadn't spread. The men weren't on alert. Right now the killings probably looked random and isolated to the respective clans and gangs; Soldats had that effect, their modus operandi murky, often alien to the onlooker. It would keep the spotlight off Noir for longer. Nevertheless, someone was bound to notice the sequence of deaths and the professionalism involved sooner or later. Until then Noir would be spared notoriety in Kanto's organised crime arena, and could operate much more easily. Like tonight.

Mireille lowered her binoculars and turned her shrewd gaze to her companion next to her instead. Kirika looked back, as innocuous as she had ever been. No one would have ever guessed at the strength that could fill those thin arms, or the sinister aloofness that could wash over that affecting stare. Memories of the other night still clung to Mireille. The blonde wondered if they troubled Kirika as well. Surely they must. There had always been violence in Kirika-it was her reason for being, at least in the eyes of those who had made her-but it had never been in her nature. Not truly. She had killed because she had to, because it had been expected-but she had *felt* every life she had taken on some level, every murder no less significant than the last. The other night there had been a change. It had been the rooftops of Paris again, it had been the colosseum at the Manor; it had been someone else, another girl. A girl without feeling. A girl who killed because it was easy, because she knew nothing else. That girl scared Mireille. And Mireille wasn't scared of much.

The woman looked at Kirika and what see saw wasn't clear anymore. It wasn't always her dependable partner. Sometimes she saw a random variable. Kirika might follow the plan, she might perform as she did nine times out of ten; flawlessly, efficiently, backing up Mireille every step of the way towards eliminating the target and beyond. Or she might not. She might go completely off on a tangent, to who knows what outcome. Mireille hadn't been anxious for her or herself when the girl had done her own thing in the past. Well, never *that* anxious. No matter how, no matter where, Kirika had still been Mireille's partner, her other half, forever there to watch her back. The last assignment's execution had been something else. There had been no threat to Mireille. There had been nothing to warrant Kirika's behaviour. Nothing... except if it hadn't really been Kirika. Normally Kirika was compliant, open to suggestion, willing to adhere to Mireille's advice and strategies, her voice of experience and reason. Certainly however, the girl was beholden to her own impulses now and again. That other girl... it seemed she was beholden to her impulses as well. But these impulses weren't like Kirika's. They weren't for Mireille's sake; they weren't for something noble in the end. They were... personal. Part of Mireille probed if she was simply taking a dislike to the idea of Kirika becoming increasingly independent; her own person-that wasn't it. This was not Kirika's person. This was not Kirika. This was not Kirika breaching her shell... this was her shell being crushed into itself.

Mireille looked at Kirika and she wondered. Which girl would she hunt down Sawajira with-her partner or a stranger in her skin?

"Let's begin," the Corsican assassin whispered.

Kirika crossed the road with Mireille, hands in her pockets. Their breath fogged the air; yellow plumes under the sodium vapour of the street lamps. There was no rush in their step, no fear of the light. They walked past the car with the smoking men, pretending not to see them in their dark cabin. To the guards Noir was probably two people out for a late night walk, their reasons their own but no doubt everyday-if the men were even paying attention to the young women passing by. Closer to the sedan Kirika could hear muffled beats coming from inside-music that was bass heavy, virtually cutting the gangsters' ears off from any outside auditory temptation. The men were undisciplined, not true guards, not real soldiers. Not genuine killers.

Noir disappeared behind the eastern wall of the Ryujin-kai estate, returning to the shadows of the night. Kirika took her hands out of her pockets. An instant later her feet were running up the secluding wall, propelling her just high enough to grab the top. She pulled herself up and half over the ledge, lying on her stomach and dropping her arm down just in time to seize Mireille's outstretched hand as the woman followed her climb. Kirika tugged, helping the blonde reach the ledge and join her at the top. Together they slipped over the wall.

The assassin's landed in the garden amid shrubbery and darkness and silence, weapons drawn. For a moment they surveyed their new environment. There had been no blueprints of the house and its grounds to peruse beforehand; this was a private residence, less accessible than a community or commercial building. The lack of a floorplan wouldn't be difficult to work around. Houses generally were the same at their core, with kitchens and living rooms and bedrooms and bathrooms. Each floor would take seconds to sweep.

Mireille glanced at Kirika, and Kirika eyed her partner sidelong. Mireille lingered for a second longer than she should have, however it was only that second before she was darting towards the house. Kirika moved also, making her own approach. She headed for the back, keeping her distance from the building proper, wary of sensor lights or other motion detectors. When the girl reached the rear of the house she paused, studying it; the door, the porch light, the windows. The porch light was on though with the perimeter wall there was no one awake to see her.

The Japanese teenager resumed her approach, quietly running up to the back door. She peeked inside the windows, observing a gloomy kitchen. There was a motion sensor in one corner; an alarm panel was probably closeby. Kirika carefully tried the door and not surprisingly found its handle stuck-locked. With a little time her nimble fingers and some delicate tools would make short work of the door's security.

Kirika sent a silenced round into the lock, where she knew it would do the most damage, and with her shoulder and body weight pressed against it broke the seal on the backdoor. It was controlled, virtually noiseless, and far quicker than a lockpick. She opened the slightly splintered door just enough for her to fit through and closed it behind her, her back against the door. The green glow of an LCD display pointed her eyes to one of the house's alarm panels affixed to a wall, but the alarm itself was switched off. Not disabled, not Mireille's work. Alarms had backdoor manufacturers' codes, emergency resets, vulnerable wires, and inbuilt batteries that could be pulled clean out-they were by no means a flawless security measure. But an alarm could only prove its value if it was turned on.

Kirika slipped through the kitchen, systematically filing away the detail that the motion detectors could be ignored. From room to room she moved, her mind drawing its own plans of the house as she cleared her side of the ground floor. She met Mireille in the foyer seconds later, where the stairs to the second storey were.

"The front door was unlocked," the blonde assassin breathed.

Kirika stoically noted the information, adding it to the list. Neither mentioned the alarm; Mireille would have discovered it early during her own sweep, likewise as Kirika had. The alarm, the door... The target being careless or forgetful? Something else?

[Sometimes people are simpler than you would think. Sometimes they are much more complicated... I hear something.]


Kirika blinked, her glassy gaze vanishing. Mireille's face in front of her seemed pensive, the ease of their entry likely disturbing her.

The girl turned her head slightly, angling it upstairs. "I hear something."

A look passed between the pair, and then together they crept up the stairs.

At the landing Mireille went one way and Kirika the other. The faint noises turned out to be on Kirika's side, and soon, after quickly inspecting the other rooms, she came to a closed door with the noises behind them. She touched the handle, slowly, so very slowly, testing it. It was locked. A breach seemed the best option, a bold and brutal entry, taking anybody on the other side off guard. But it would expose her and Mireille to possible counter fire. The noises could even be a lure, a trap waiting to be sprung. This would not be another Boudoir. Kirika would not put Mireille in unnecessary danger again. Tonight was a night for caution... and atonement.

There were glass doors with light curtains at the end of the hall, leading out onto a small balcony. These doors were unlocked. Outside, there was another balcony alongside it, connected to the room with the closed door. Only a short leap across open air separated them.

[Why look? Why take the time? Strike now, strike hard, while the advantage is yours. This is not you.]

Kirika climbed up on the balcony's metal railing, balanced herself upright for a moment, and took a single springing step over to the neighbouring balcony's guard rail. She jumped across the drop as if were a puddle on the ground, the height inconsequential to the horizontal distance; and the latter was nowhere near daunting. The nimble girl hit her mark easily, resuming her balancing act on the opposite railing before hopping down into the other balcony.

Another white gossamer curtain was draped across the glass doors that opened into the second balcony, and Kirika took refuge behind them, a silhouette against the city light illuminating night's sky. She looked through the glass and the curtain, the scene tinted by an ethereal snowy film, into someone's bedroom, into someone's private moment. She recognised Yu Sawajira straight away, her likeness memorised for the assignment, the woman's shoulder length wavy pink locks unmistakable. Sawajira was lying in her bed. But she was not sleeping. And she was not alone.

Sawajira was making the noises. Her mouth opened and closed in gentle O-patterns, her head tilting back against the pillow and her eyes peacefully shut. She arched her neck and brought her arms back underneath the pillow, grabbing fistfuls, every muscle straining, strumming on her skin. She didn't seem in control of herself, yet she didn't seem to care. Hovering above her was a nocturnal visitor; another woman, a foreigner to Sawajira, slender and fair with long straight black hair. This woman's hands and arms were like serpents, like separate living things, sliding over Sawajira's unclothed body with the grace and ease, fingers performing a ballet over flesh. The woman's head was at Sawajira's chest, kissing with delicate lips; kissing openly, freely, wherever they might be. Places that Kirika had seldom viewed before on a woman. This woman wasn't embarrassed to touch them, feel them as she liked, even letting her tongue slip loose to join in.

Kirika's breathing slowed, matching the measured breaths of the pink haired woman. She watched. She watched as the naked black haired woman moved down Sawajira's quietly writhing form. Sawajira's legs opened, inviting the motion, and the other woman accepted the welcome. Dark hair spilled around Sawajira's thighs, her visitor's fingers and lips coming to rest in a place Kirika hadn't expected. It was as if the unknown woman was playing a musical instrument, Sawajira eagerly responding to the attention shown down there, her noisemaking loudening. Kirika watched, innately comprehending she was seeing something not meant to be seen, something personal and... special. She watched, captivated, as the two women tried to become one being, sharing something undefinable to her, something she couldn't describe yet knew was important. Was this... love? Was this what was done? She had thought she'd had some understanding of it, believed that television and pictures and writings had given her a passable portrayal of what love was. They had not. Kirika thought of Mireille. Had Mireille done this? With who? Had she loved those people? Was this what awaited Kirika with Mireille? Was this what Mireille wanted from her? Was this what Kirika wanted? The teenager's mind was numb with sights and questions, overwrought, confused and fascinated and frightened all at once.

The black haired woman stopped. She reached under the bed.


Instinct propelled Kirika back over the railing, the girl tucking in her legs as she cleared it, and she seized the edge of the balcony as the glass doors exploded outwards in a shower of shards and shotgun pellets. Broken glass stuck in her hair and torn bits of curtain fluttered by on the night air as a second deafening shotgun blast passed above her head, scarring the guard rail. She pulled herself up until her eyes were level with the floor, catching the black haired woman roll off the bed and Sawajira scream over and over not in joy but in terror, pulling the bedsheets towards her, hastily covering herself.

Kirika pulled herself up the rest of the way, vaulting over the railing and back into the balcony, pistol searching for the combat shotgun-wielding woman. The doorknob from the locked bedroom door flew across the room and an instant later the door crashed open, shot and kicked into unlocking, Mireille bursting in. The blonde took the scene in immediately, and much differently than Kirika had moments earlier, firing a flurry of rounds after the armed woman as the attacker flung herself through the doorway of an adjoining room, an ensuite. Sawajira screamed louder, bug-eyed at the appearance of Mireille.

Kirika dashed into the bedroom through the shattered balcony doors as Mireille promptly shot Sawajira in the forehead, abruptly shutting her screaming up. Yu Sawajira fell backwards, head landing on her pillow staring at the ceiling, quickly soaking it through with her spreading blood.

Mireille leapt for cover at the foot of the bed as the barrel of a shotgun stuck out of the bathroom doorway, firing several times, punching plaster out of the walls and shredding bedsheets. Kirika identified the weapon's compact form as a Mossberg 590A1 with a pistol-like cruiser grip-and that the naked woman had already expended half of its magazine capacity.

"Soldats," Mireille sneered at the other side of the bed.

Kirika hummed her agreement. One of Altena's priestesses. The girl realised why Sawajira had fallen under Breffort's notice.

After all the chaos, the following quiet was strange to Kirika's ears. She peeked over the bed into the bathroom where the priestess had holed herself up, listening intently. The girl could hear the woman's heavy breathing. She doubted there was extra ammunition in there, and the woman's clothes were scattered about the bedroom floor. Still, neither side; assassins nor priestess; could wait the night out.

"We're not here for you," Mireille called. Kirika glanced at her. It sounded like a blatant untruth.

"Only death for traitors!" was the snarled response.

Mireille sighed wearily, as if she had known the answer before it had been given. Kirika wondered why her partner had bothered saying anything.

Light spilled into the hallway outside the bedroom. A cadence of footsteps came after, urgent thumping against the stairs.

Kirika met Mireille's eyes briefly. In the next moment the girl was dashing across the bedroom and through the battered doorway, the blonde's hail of muted gunfire into the ensuite at her back, covering her escape.

The young assassin surged into the hall with her Beretta M1934 hammer cocked, needing to take on the newcomers quickly and with surprise on her side. She ran to the landing, the foyer downstairs entering into view with the house's front door wide open. There were men in suits on the stairs. Not the crisp dark homogeneous suits of Soldats agents, but the cheaper and more untidy baggy suits of gangsters. The two guards in the car hadn't been quite so deaf not to hear the commotion a shotgun could induce.

Kirika and the yakuza almost bumped into each other; the men were practically at the top of the stairs, running behind one another-they ran too close, too tight knit in a confined space. It was Kirika, with more room to move, with the higher ground, who struck first.

The assassin lashed out with her left forearm, smacking into the lead yakuza's laryngeal prominence, crushing the larynx beneath. He stopped his ascent and stumbled, grabbing a guardrail and his throat, doubling over to expose his partner behind him. Kirika fired the gun in her right hand, a bullet at close to point-blank range seeking and finding the second gangster's astonished face.

As the gangster fell back, Kirika hit the first man in the head with her arm again before he could think about what was happening, whacking him into the right-most railing to instinctively steady himself while he continued his struggle to force air past his throat. It was the girl's pistol that delivered the knockout blow-a shot to the temple ceased the yakuza's dazed wheezing. He rolled down the stairs after his friend, the both of them laid out on the foyer by the conclusion of their trip, their threat ended before it could really start.

Kirika raced back to Sawajira's bedroom. Mere seconds had past, Mireille's gun still emitting smoke as Kirika peeked within and tapped against the doorframe with her own weapon, announcing her presence to her partner.

Mireille looked over her shoulder for the briefest of moments, confirming Kirika's return, and then flicked her head in the direction of the ensuite, firing another round of staggered suppressing shots through the doorway. Kirika got the message. The teenager ran into the bedroom and leapt on the bed, bouncing off it to reach the edge of the ensuite's doorway as the blonde's 9mm bullets flew by not a few inches from her.

Kirika pressed herself against the wall beside the bathroom's entrance, sliding inaudibly closer, wary of giving away her position to the armed and anxious woman inside. When she got close enough to see through the doorway she dissected the view on the other side. Blood smeared along the tiles, collecting in the seams; spent shotgun shells still rolling lazily through the stains; bulletholes splitting open the sink; a mirror above similarly broken, riddled with spiderweb cracks. The mirror held Kirika's gaze. From her angle she could see the priestess off to one side, sitting on the floor with her back against the bathtub. There was blood on her and on the bath, a lot of blood, the colour standing out on her fair skin and the white tub behind her. One of Mireille's opening shots had found its mark in the black haired woman's gut.

Through the jagged mirror shards Kirika watched the wounded woman point her shotgun in the general direction of the doorway. The girl pulled her head back as a shotgun blast was launched into the bedroom-from the angle it was no more than a retaliatory warning shot, the pellets peppering the bedroom ceiling. The priestess was slow to chamber another shell, her arms shaking as they fought to drag the forend back and forth. The teenage assassin watched, calculating reduced reflexes and awareness, calculating how the woman would die.

It was the mirror Kirika stared at as the silenced barrel of her Beretta snaked around the doorframe. Kirika watched the black haired woman's face streaked with pain and wiped blood, watched as she pulled the trigger. The woman in the broken mirror gurgled and jolted backwards, her arms and her shotgun in them dropping limp into her lap. There was a hole in her neck, dark blood sucking in and out with her rasping breath and spilling down her chest.

Kirika stepped around the doorframe. The woman in front of her was so different from the woman she had watched minutes ago. Her body, though still unclothed, didn't have the same beauty it once had. How quickly it had changed. How quickly a being capable of such love and emotion had been twisted into something else. Blood had that affect. Blood clinging to her, almost everywhere, the woman no better to look at than anyone else now. Kirika watched the woman battle to breath, to live and keep experiencing everything she had with Sawajira earlier tonight-keep experiencing life. Kirika wondered if that was why people struggled. People fought so hard to stay alive. She had killed many, intuitively knowing and saddened that she was robbing them of something more than just their life, but never quite understanding the loss. Kirika did not have that acquaintance with living. She did not grasp life like other people. She faced death without fear because she was not part of that world of emotion. All she had was Mireille and her oath. Kirika lived so Mireille could live. That was all. That had been enough.

Another hole sprang open in the woman's chest, blooming red. She didn't jerk, didn't move, her gurgling quietening. She stared back at Kirika, but there was nothing in her eyes anymore. No passion, no fear. Her fight was over.

Behind Kirika, Mireille lowered her gun.

Kirika stood in the lonely garden at the back of the safehouse, the residence confirmed secure once more. The sun was rising, the first light of a new day peeking above the horizon. Dew glistened on the grass and leaves as the pinks and reds touched them, as if reminding the plants that they weren't forgotten, that they still had life. Kirika smiled. The garden wasn't lonely anymore, not while she was in it. That was all it took. Just one person; one person's interest, one person's attention-one person's care and compassion. As long as Kirika was here, as long as she cared, the garden mattered. And she mattered.

The teenager looked over her shoulder back towards the house. Through the windows she saw Mireille sitting in her usual spot at the kotatsu, picking away at her laptop. Kirika smiled again.

The girl walked back to the house and slid open the veranda door, returning to the living room. Mireille didn't look up, but Kirika knew that she knew she was there.

"We have another," Mireille said, eyes on her computer's screen.

Kirika accepted the inevitability without reply. She walked around the low table and sat beside the blonde. Kirika was wanted. She was needed. She remembered that she mattered to at least one person. That was all it took. People fought to stay alive. So did Kirika. It was for Mireille... and it was for herself. She didn't want this to end. She didn't want to never see Mireille again, never smell her, never hear her voice and listen to the woman call her name. She wanted to live this life and experience everything that came with it. Kirika would fight for it. She would fight to keep it.

Slowly Kirika leaned against Mireille. Her head fell, eventually finding a pillow on Mireille's shoulder, her dark locks among corn silk. Mireille braced an instant, but then she relaxed.

Kirika didn't understand much. What she felt others did not, what she thought others did not. But that was her. It was okay. As long as she *lived*, it was okay.

Kirika reached out and touched Mireille's hand, stilling it above the keyboard. The blonde looked at her, a mixture of puzzlement and surprise in her normally steady gaze. Kirika held her love's hand and a moment later her love held her hand back. The daily routine was what you made it. Life was what you made it.

To be continued...

Author's ramblings:

Due to my hiatus this took freaking ages to finish. It signifies the real start of Kirika and Mireille's physical intimacy. I know it took a while to get to this point! I hope I did a good enough job orchestrating it.

Hope I haven't reused any Japanese names! I lose track.

Kaicho = Godfather

Sosai = President