To be completely honest: I forgot about this story. For a long time. Call me a horrible author (I AM), but that's the truth. .
Meh, spring laziness (although this dates back to what…last September? Oh god…)
But thank you all for your continued encouragement and support regardless. I'll try to get better, I promise.
(I don't blame you if you don't believe me, though -_-)
"I'm through with playing games, Arbitro."
The masked man cringed at the irritation evident in the other's words, staring cautiously at the dark form before him facing the window. The most he could see of the taller man's expression was through the tension in his shoulders, the leather-clad back giving away no further clues. "But, Il Re…"
"You have no choice in this matter. I let you run rampant for far too long on the condition that you'd play by my rules. There's no need to allow you that freedom if you persist in defying me."
Arbitro was powerless against the other, finding his defense unspoken. With this ultimatum, he would lose nearly everything he had managed to achieve as the primary dealer in Toshima. He would lose his fortune, his extravagancies, his position. And without a means of mainstream distribution, chaos would erupt throughout the Igura as black market venues sprang up, dealing out every last bit of the drug until the entire city's supply ran dry.
And then what? The collapse of a valuable enterprise; the destruction of the Igura. Without regulations, without the basic structure he provided to the competitors, the city would degenerate into an apocalyptic free-for-all. There would be no reason, no gain for anyone – just murder for murder's sake. And that, apparently, was how Shiki wanted it.
For not the first time since they had become business 'partners', Arbitro truly felt hatred for him.
You're not invincible, he echoed quietly to himself, playing the part of the loyal servant as he put forth a dramatic bow. And you can't keep your back turned to me forever.
Shiki appraised the gesture with obvious suspicion, incredulous towards the mocking display, before pivoting around to face him completely. "I'll say this one last time, so make no mistake on the intention of my words."
Condescending, as always, but impossible to oppose.
Hatred was perhaps too kind a word for the emotion clawing through him.
"No more Line."
Akira tugged at the zipper on his jacket, growing increasingly frustrated with its immovability. Spare clothes were – not surprisingly – hard to come by in Toshima, and there had been no question over discarding his old ones. Even if he had somehow felt it wise to parade about with dried bloodstains, they had been a bit too…shredded to be of much use. His shirt he had gotten over quickly; his old jacket, not so much.
Keisuke noticed the silent battle wage on, knowing how important hiding what remained of the bandages was to Akira's safety. Any weakness was grounds for a fight, and out on the streets again, it was easier to appreciate the importance of avoiding one.
"Here," he murmured, untying the one he kept at his waist, "Let's trade."
If Akira had an issue with his suggestion, he didn't voice it, opting instead to pull the broken one back over his head and exchange it for the proffered one. The slight wince as he completed the motions didn't go unnoticed to Keisuke.
There had been no explanation, still, for the mysterious wounds – just avoidance. Akira had kept quiet for days before resuming conversation with the others, and even then, the exchanges had been brief and to the point. While Akira had never exactly been one to waste breath on small talk, the graveness that had overcome him was decidedly more distinct than before, more focused somehow. As though he had a specific target in mind, more tangible than just the thought of the challenges before him.
Perhaps that was the reason Akira was making him leave.
"We're not that far from the city limits."
Keisuke nodded, still disbelieving that he had actually agreed to follow his friend so far for the sole purpose of abandoning him again. He still wanted to help, desperately, but there was no longer a need for his presence: Akira had made that much clear.
"You're not staying here."
It was the first words Akira had spoken to him in days, and he was almost surprised to realize that they had, in fact, been directed at him. So overcome with the promise of that revelation, the words didn't sink in until he looked up and met the icily determined stare transfixed on his own.
"There's nothing you can do to help."
Keisuke froze. He had told himself time and time again that he was useless to Akira's plight, but the words had never been spoken aloud before. He had always somehow thought that his friend cared too much to voice the obvious; he had always been content to pretend that Akira saw him differently than he saw himself. The truth hurt more that he could've imagined.
"I'll walk you out tomorrow."
And here they were, crossing the final blocks towards separation, and then Akira would be alone again. Alone with whatever force had instigated this newfound impatience, determined paranoia, whatever had overcome him since their last division, and Keisuke didn't like it one bit. But when Akira himself had said that he was useless, how was he supposed to argue?
Akira stopped, hands tucked into the recesses of his jacket pockets, and cast a wary glance at the surrounding buildings. They had little time as it was; no-one was supposed to leave once inside Toshima, regardless of the fact that most who entered didn't really expect to, but it was still rumored to be patrolled by the Executioners, and that was enough encouragement to keep the vast majority from trying. That Akira was taking that risk said enough to drive the finality of his decision home.
For a second, Keisuke was at a loss of motion, words, everything; by the next, he was holding onto Akira like he'd always wanted to but never tried, crushing his slightly smaller friend in a suffocating embrace neither had been expecting. Akira froze in his arms, clearly taken by surprise, before raising a tentative hand to return the gesture.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, his voice controlled but the words genuine, and that was harder for Keisuke to deal with than just about anything. He considered it a small victory that only one tear escaped in the face of an emotional breakdown.
"I'm sorry," Akira repeated, voice firmer than before, the hardened edge returning, "But you have to go."
Keisuke was in control of himself enough to pull backwards and bring an arm up to wipe at his face in a move that he hoped looked natural enough, and not like a thinly veiled attempt to hide his distraught. It wasn't fooling anyone, he knew it, but it helped him hold on to a semblance of dignity as he nodded in consent and flashed a difficult smile.
Akira nodded, and returned the smile with some difficulty himself.
"I'll see you later," he murmured, noticing the slight burden the words lifted from Keisuke's shoulders. He was more than willing to leave on a hopeful note, more than willing to seem the sorts of confidence he wasn't sure he felt, but still needed someone to believe in.
After this, he would truly be on his own.
After this, every uphill battle would be a war.
But, after this, he was the only soldier left on the field to worry about.
And that meant everything.
"When this is over," he added, for good measure.
Seven steps to the left.
Five steps to the right.
There was no way to avoid the fallout coming; he was at once ruler and prisoner, and while his word was absolute, he was not so sure of the resistance of the declining empire at his feet. Annihilation hadn't been a choice - it'd been the goal from the start. The Igura had started as an arena for a challenger he had yet to face, and had become a self-serving kingdom of chaos. And while pest-control seemed a viable enough reason to stick around, it was lacking as the sole reason for remaining. Although it wasn't, it was beginning to feel so, and, consequently, growing routine.
Yet there was so much left to accomplish. So much still standing in the way. Only one route he still saw the possibilities within, for the chance to emerge from all of this successful, with his kingdom fallen at his feet.
His hand was on the doorknob before he had even decided to leave.
In the two weeks since Akira had been off the streets, not much had changed: drug-addled lunatics still stalked the streets like hungry vultures, the buildings looked no more or less dilapidated, and he was still without tags. Rin had offered him a limited number of junk tags for basics like food and water, but without any substantial ones of value, Akira was no closer to accomplishing his goal.
In more ways than one, his encounter with Shiki had set him back.
The only way to compensate for his losses was to turn his aggression outwards – to eliminate the uncertainty surrounding his actions and fight like he meant to win, not just escape.
And opportunities were endless.
"You wanna fight, pretty boy?"
Three against one, he was at a strength disadvantage. Three homicidal thugs doped up on Line were a little more than a disadvantage. But hell if it didn't seem like the best deal he would get all day, and he was still fairly sure that his potential opponents' lack of mental capabilities helped balance the scale a bit in his favor.
"And if I do?"
An answer they hadn't been expecting, but relished in nevertheless, Akira noted. His fingers clenched around the blade hidden in his jacket pocket expectantly, waiting with all the patience in the world for one of them to make the first move.
When it happened, it was faster than he had anticipated, but not fast enough to catch him; the crowbar sliced through the space his head had only recently vacated before Akira was down on the ground, kicking the legs out from beneath his would-be assailant with a clean sweeping motion. It was all he could do to roll out of the way as a hatchet slammed into the ground next to him, narrowly avoiding dismemberment in the process.
A twist and he was back on his feet, ducking again as the axe whizzed by his head. It was the only cue he needed to rush forward, elbow extended, and nail the launcher in the solar plexus, effectively knocking the wind out of a man perhaps twice his size.
With his peripheral vision trained on the attacker stumbling to his feet, Akira took the opportunity to flip out his dagger, spinning it so that the handle was facing his third opponent, and dart behind him fast enough to jam the blunt end between the man's shoulder blades. The roar of pain and blind swing backwards confirmed the move's effectiveness, and it was easy to dodge and parry the attack thrown back at him.
Only when a hand grasped his ankle did he realize that the supposedly winded attacker had resorted to a different tactic, yanking him down to the ground with a force that made Akira grateful that it hadn't come in the form of a punch. He hit the ground with a grunt and promptly used his free foot to kick the man in the face, relaxing his grip enough to break free of the iron grasp and somersault back into fighting position.
He had only a brief moment to appreciate that he'd knocked the man unconscious before he was forced to catch the hatchet with the edge of his blade. Within seconds he realized he was fighting a losing battle of strength; every moment he gave up an inch, the metal was closer to knocking the knife out of his hands – disarming him completely and leaving him wide open for attacks. Which he discovered he was anyways when the man he hadn't noticed already come to his senses managed to slam the previously discarded crowbar into his side.
It just had to be the one still healing from injury.
Akira exhaled sharply and moved to knee the hatchet wielder in the groin, then ducked out of the way of the incoming blade with considerable effort and stumbled backwards, assessing the damage. A nasty bruise was about the most he had confirmed when he was forced to attempt an uppercut on an approaching assailant. It went smoother than he had anticipated, snapping back the jaw of the other man enough to reverse his momentum, and Akira took the opportunity of the physical distraction to follow-up with a crippling slash to the knee.
The last one was fueled more by rage now than humor, the axe swinging wildly before him in an attempt to catch Akira off-guard. It worked, grazing him on the side of his cheek, but only briefly; in a matter of moments, the weapon was lying harmlessly off to the side, and the last conscious attacker was face down on the concrete, cursing through a bloody nose.
Not too bad, Akira remarked to himself, regaining his breath.
But not good enough, screamed the growing bruise on his side. The dull ache of healing wounds reaffirmed that notion, but the fresh and satisfying rush of adrenaline from victory – no matter how meager – cemented his stubborn optimism. Doubting himself at the point was roughly the equivalent of a soon death.
So he didn't question himself further as he kicked over the stunned thug, probably a little rougher than necessary, and began to search him. Three sets of pockets later and he had come up with a handful of junk tags – not even a face card. It wasn't entirely unexpected, just frustrating. Getting used to disappointment had become something like second nature to him.
Just as an increased awareness of his surroundings had become a necessary part of survival, and damn if something didn't feel off.
Akira tucked the tags into his jacket as he stood, slowly, and reminded himself of the knife waiting at his beck and call. He was on alert, but he felt far from vulnerable, and that made the next few moments a lot less intimidating than they could have been.
"Killing is much more effective."
Behind him, somewhere off to the side. He turned, but there was no distinguishing anything out from the rubble, not even the source of that unmistakably recognizable voice.
Maybe it was the weeks removed from the constant stress of survival, maybe it was the fading effects of triumph, maybe it was just because he had rationalized it all to death, but Akira found the oddest smile make its way on to his face. Not of humor; more along the lines of contempt, and he could virtually see the sneer that reaction earned.
"Not all of us are murderers."
He was poised for an attack that never came, the knife waiting expectantly before him in the direction he was sure was the correct one.
"I find that strangely unconvincing."
His skin crawled more from being left in the dark rather than being confronted, but he was beyond letting it show. Too much, anyways.
"Not all of us have to be."
A sore spot he would have to store away for further reference, Akira decided, as the ambush he had been expecting flew at him from the complete opposite side, leaving him just enough time to fling his blade up to deflect the flashy attack. However, the force he had anticipated behind it wasn't there, and he realized, face to face with the most frequent subject of his contemplation over the last couple of weeks, that he wasn't being taken seriously. And he was sure, judging by the dangerously self-satisfied smile deflecting his bravado, that his hammering heartbeat was audible by a mile.
"I wouldn't be so sure," Shiki murmured, his gaze boring holes into Akira's as their blades remained frozen in a mock clash against each other. It would have been comical, if Akira hadn't known the potential for this to get serious very quickly, so he took it into his own hands instead.
He pushed back with what he could muster in such a short distance, managing to drive both blades against the pale neck across from him before he realized that there was no resistance at all. An inch further and blood would stain flawless skin; another couple and the wound would be a mortal one. Another, and-
The bloodlust in his eyes must have been more evident than he realized, because when Akira pulled his eyes away, he found crimson ones glittering in amusement and the feel of an exhale - a stifled laugh – ghost across his face.
"So easy, isn't it?"
The words seemed all the more real, mesmerizing even, when spoken from only inches away.
"To snuff out a life."
Shiki pushed forward, letting his own sword bite into his flesh in a languid trickle of blood that Akira's scrutiny was inexplicably drawn back to, even as he breathing grew ragged and the fear crawled back under his skin.
"You could do it."
No, no he couldn't, Akira wanted to say, but it was harder to speak when it was so hard to fight the urge to press forward just a little more, to test the allowance he was being given just a little further, without thinking of the consequences.
"You want to do it."
And, no, that was a lie, too, because the last thing Akira wanted was blood on his hands; it contradicted everything he had come here to disprove, everything he had ever lived by. But then there was the subtle swallow that stretched the cut beneath the katana, and it looked painful as hell, but he couldn't look away.
"You have to do it."
It barely even registered when a harsh nip at the corner of his jaw sent shivers of not exactly the bad variety down his spine, and the tongue that followed reminded him of the long-forgotten slice across his cheek, and why wasn't he pulling backwards?
"But you won't. Not now, at least."
And then all pretentions of control vanished as the katana lunged forward and Akira was sent stumbling to the ground. He hit the gravel and managed to roll back into a crouching position, his knife held up in wary defense; Shiki didn't move, just brought a gloved hand up to wipe away the blood trickling down his neck, his demeanor unwaveringly condescending and dangerous, yet it seemed more for effect than any true homicidal malice. He had had more chances than Akira wanted to recount to kill him and still had not done so. There was no need to ask why that was, but in a fit of suicidal curiosity, Akira needed to find out.
"Why," he began, rising to his feet as steadily as he could manage, "haven't you killed me?"
When he got no answer, he tried again, albeit a little less surely: "What do you want?"
A spiteful snicker, amused and at the same time completely not, gave him the only response.
"You're not playing the game," Akira continued, voicing his suspicions with the illusion of self-assuredness. His jaw, the drying saliva across it, tingled with apprehension anyways.
"No," Shiki confirmed, but with a tone that indicated the blatancy of that accusation. As if he were stupid for even bothering to point it out.
"You just enjoy killing," Akira rebuked, remembering the unheeded cries of dying men, the bloodthirsty flock of crows. The glitter of blood against steel in the dying sunlight. "You're just a murderer."
A warning flash of crimson irises cautioned Akira otherwise, but ultimately declined the challenge presented by the words. The playing field was obscenely unbalanced, and it had been proved well enough already, so the smile was unwavering: "And you're just a pawn."
He had to remind himself of his injuries – of how true the words were, even if he didn't want to admit it – to withhold himself from refuting that point. Akira was not ignorant of his predicament, not any less cynical about the reality of surviving the task ahead of him than he felt he should be, but he resented the truth regardless. Especially when put in such black-and-white terms. Especially when the other knew exactly why he was here and didn't want to be. Especially since he had already seen what that katana and its wielder could do.
But defiance had worked so far, fear had not, and he no longer had anyone aside from himself to worry about.
"What do you want?"
The question was repetitive, but it was all he had left. And for some strange reason, it didn't seem like Shiki had come here to fight.
"To make you an offer."
That gave Akira pause. There had been no talk of compromise when the blade had been at his throat before, no inkling of mercy. Which left him to believe that whatever was about to be "offered", he wasn't going to like.
"What makes you think I'd be interested," he spat, "in playing any more games?"
The smile he received retained its condescending bent, but the eyes steeled over slightly. "Because, at this point, you have no choice."
And Akira made a point to reply just as predictably: "Give me one reason," he spat with defiance, "and sparing my life doesn't count."
"Your life isn't the only one you care about."
Which is why he had make Keisuke leave.
"Because you're just as weak and pathetic as the rest of them, in your own way."
Which was why this leverage wasn't going to work.
"But you have use."
Which is why he hoped his friend was as far away from this godforsaken place as possible and had never once thought to look back.
"And you're already fighting a losing battle."
But didn't explain why the words rang so confidently true, and why he was already feeling apprehensive and unsure of himself, his pride momentarily taking a backseat to what he tried to write off as morbid curiosity as he ground out -"What do you want?"- for the third time that day.
Shiki was still bleeding, his neck stained by the crimson liquid, and while it served as a reminder of his mortality, it wasn't helping to portray him in a less dangerous light. Akira knew that it could just as easily have been his own blood he was staring back at, tinting the pale and rigid features.
"Join me," Shiki advised, less of an option than a lenient command, "and I'll guarantee your survival."
There was a silence in which everything from hatred and defiance to humor to bewilderment passed through Akira's head before he was coherent enough to form a response.
"Why?" If his voice had sounded more unsure, he wouldn't have recognized it as his own.
"It's not your concern."
"Then why the-"
"You're still nothing but a rabid dog who's forgotten his leash."
Teeth grit, Akira wasn't taking this one sitting down: "I had no choice!"
"And I'm offering you the chance to make one. To breathe a little beneath that collar."
"What makes you think that I-"
"Because you know, deep down beneath all that false bravado and optimism, that there's no chance for you to win," and with eyes narrowed challengingly, Shiki continued, "as long as I'm still here."
"You'll have every chance to kill me and no-one left to kill you. And then you can run home to your masters to beg for your freedom. It's the only hope you have for leaving Toshima alive, and you know it."
Akira was brave, prideful, and defiant.
He was not stupid.
"Why should I even trust you?"
"Because I haven't killed you yet."
Akira's throat felt like a desert, his mouth so dry that he had to swallow just to soothe the burning ache. There was truth and danger and intrigue all hidden between those words; there were lies, undoubtedly, as well. He had seen murder by that sword, he had felt sociopathic disgust radiate from that smile, he knew the eyes were that of a predator and that he was seen as prey.
But Akira also had the confidence and instinct to make it thus far, and while everything pointed to a swift rejection of this proposition, there was also something about it that intrigued him. He'd been fruitless so far on his own – to the point that he'd resorted to the theft that had led to the beginning of these repetitive and unfortunate encounters – and had no direction. This gave him one. This presented a new array of challenges but also a new array of potential victories. And it let him keep an eye on who was indisputably the strongest force he had encountered thus far, saving him the trouble of wondering just when the next attack would come.
Yet it also threw him into a situation he wasn't quite sure he was prepared for, with a stranger who had already attempted to kill him once. It also forced him under constant surveillance, regardless that he already was from a distance – if the people he was working for had not already written him off as dead or MIA. And it put him at the discretion of a killer, a ruthless and cold-blooded murderer, and that wasn't exactly a good foundation for trust. But it'd be a lie to say that he wasn't already at the discretion of hundreds, maybe thousands, of like-minded individuals dumbed down by the drugs pumping through their bloodstreams with no less remorse for a human life than a mosquito's.
Just, none of them were this dangerous – not really. Whatever he lacked in strength, Akira often made up in brains, but Shiki was no brawny idiot. And if he could outsmart Shiki, he could outsmart anyone left to go through. Perhaps even the Il Re. And wasn't that what he had come here to prove? That he could win the Igura on his own terms and reclaim his independence? That he could do whatever it took to outmaneuver his opponents and emerge with victory? If it took putting aside a piece of his pride to reclaim all of it in the end, could he live with himself for making a deal with a devil?
Somewhere in the distance, Keisuke was waiting for him to come home.
Akira spoke, dropping his shoulders in the slightest, "I'm not killing anyone."
Shiki loomed from the darkness, his voice assuredly pleased by the course the conversation had taken, "You won't have to. But you may want to, eventually. Follow me."
Akira hesitated as he watched the leather trench coat withdraw back into the shadows, wondering for one last time if he had made the wrong decision. There was no turning back from this point, no way to retreat. But his hatred spurred him on. His determination convinced him that this would pay off. That the only person he could ever fathom killing – and that thought still repulsed him, but his subconscious fed it to him anyways - was giving him the best opportunity to do so. That one moment of hesitation would be all it took, and that, until then, he would have to be more alert than ever. There was only one shot to do this.
And with his first step forward, he had taken it.
Wow, I know. MORE build-up. Geez, this stage is taking a lot of work to set, but at least I have a clear idea of where this is heading.
Maybe it's gonna be longer than I originally intended, but I'll try to keep it on my mind more often anyways. Determined to finish this sucker before I die. I can only hope the wait so far hasn't been for naught to you guys, because there are plenty of other ways my time could be spent (like sleeping, occasionally...nah).
And, of course, your reviews have seriously been the deciding factor in me choosing to continue this, so more can never hurt. I can't thank those of you who have already done so enough. You're the best fans I'll never deserve!