Chapter 12

(in which mercy and cruelty are indistinguishable from each other)

-/-

There was no place like home.

Squalo, emerging from his private bathroom, halted in mid-step and scowled. The hot shower had helped him to temporarily put out of his mind the shit that had been happening all around lately, but now that he was back in the world of problems waiting to be solved and work waiting to be done, his irritation seemed to be coming back to him at the speed of an approaching train.

His long hair was dripping wet, as he had proven unable to locate even one towel, and the marble floor was cold under his bare feet, and the only clean item of home clothing he'd managed to unearth in his pandemonium of a room was a very old pair of pants, faded black and dating at least five years back. Squalo had had no idea he possessed them before today, and he wasn't that sure he liked them, but the rest of his clothes were either dirty and blood-stained or torn in various places, or, in some cases, both, and lay bundled in a gigantic heap in the darkest corner of the room. Besides, old pants were better than no pants at all, and so he'd put them on.

After a moment of hesitation, Squalo chose not to open the adjacent door that led to his office – he had no desire to see the piles of paperwork that had undoubtedly grown to touch the ceiling during the time of his absence. He hated paperwork. He also suspected that Xanxus was well aware of the fact and that it was precisely the reason the stupid boss delegated most of the crap to him. It was twice as unfair because Squalo was perhaps the only person alive who knew that Xanxus himself was, in fact, frighteningly efficient when it came to paperwork. No one in the right mind would ever believe it – he looked like he might have trouble composing even one sentence without using words like fuck and trash as a conjunction. But despite that, the bastard seemed to possess a hidden radar of sorts that enabled him to look at the shittiest document full of evasive bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo for five minutes and know exactly where the catch was. The trick was to make Xanxus and the paperwork finally meet face-to-face, but once this obstacle remained behind, miracles happened. It was Squalo's opinion that Xanxus had been destined to be a brilliant lawyer but due to a terrible karmic accident had ended up with a the Flame of Wrath and a temper of a hungry, impatient dragon.

Not that it impeded him from being nasty on a professional level, of course. Unfortunately.

Putting off the much hated encounter with the written word till later, Squalo surveyed the bedroom again. It was hardly an awe-inspiring view. Apart from the aforementioned heap, there were things strewn all across the floor, an old pair of boots near, or rather, under the bed (a Beretta was stuffed into one of them), and the boots he'd kicked off when he returned an hour ago were lying by the door; and there was a dagger embedded into the wall over the mantelpiece (he'd been looking for that dagger all over the place!), an orange plastic bag hanging from it; not to mention small-caliber garbage like torn-off buttons, pens, condoms, business cards of mysterious origin and who knew what else.

If Squalo was the type to feel remorse, he would have regretted berating Belphegor for living in a room that resembled a garbage can. Being himself, he only swore profusely and cursed Xanxus for keeping him so busy with his shitty requests that he'd had no time to clean up his own bedroom. He made a note to himself to visit the laundry people in their detergent-filled hell on the ground floor as soon as possible – just not immediately. He'd take care of all this crap later in the evening, but right now he wanted an hour to himself. An hour of peace and quiet, far away from his stupid boss and his retarded colleagues. He needed to think. And to drink.

Water still dripping from his hair down on the floor, Squalo crinkled his nose in disgust at the sight of the unmade bed – no way he was climbing into that, no matter how tired he was – and opted for a different route. He padded over to the mantelpiece and grabbed a lonely bottle of wine he'd noticed there earlier on when he had been on his way to the bathroom. It was only half-full, and Squalo couldn't for the life of him remember when he'd first opened it and what had been the occasion, but it should suffice for now. He looked around in case there were clean glasses in the vicinity but couldn't even spot any dirty ones. They were probably all in the office – no better place to get disgustingly drunk, after all. Well, whatever.

Pulling the cork out of the bottle with his teeth, Squalo headed straight for the balcony and kicked the door open, forgetting he had no shoes on and hurting his toes as he did. The night breeze – unfortunately, not as warm as he'd hoped – greeted him like slap in the face and slammed the door shut behind him, making the window glass go zing! plaintively. Propping his elbows on the railing, Squalo spat out the cork and watched it plummet soundlessly toward the dark ground below, where even he, with his sharp eyes, could discern nothing but shadows.

From the balcony, he could see Levi's windows that gave onto the same side as his, down to the left. Curtains were drawn but the room was illuminated from inside with that special flickering kind of light that left no doubts as to what exactly the owner of the room was doing: watching TV; and Squalo would bet his own head it was porn. Levi was famous for his collection of porn DVDs – a fact that he fiercely denied although Belphegor, who had a habit of borrowing from it without asking for permission, agreed that he'd never seen a better selection. There was no reason doubt his words, although Squalo privately believed that it was idiotic to waste time watching someone else have sex, when there were plenty of women to choose from and get some for real. The trick was to get away before kittens, let's-move-in-together's and other horrifying symptoms of the disease commonly known as relationship began to manifest. God only knew why women were so damn susceptible to it, but there it was.

The high windows of the kitchen were also dimly lit – Bel must be raiding it in search of apples or bananas, or whatever else it was he liked to munch in the dead of the night. The rest of the building with its galleries and balconies was dark and silent, as if devoid of all life.

Squalo frowned. Speaking of which, where the hell was the patrol? There should be one at all times. Especially during the night times, dammit. They'd better be rounding the building checking out some suspicious crap or something, the motherfuckers, or he'd make them wish their parents had used a condom. Why the hell was it that every friggin' time he went away for a day or two, the shit here fell to pieces in his absence?

Gulping down the wine from the bottle – too little, too late, as usual, but better than nothing – Squalo glared angrily at the scenery below. Why did he have to remember and check and control every damn detail? When he was younger and more romantically deluded – in his own, slightly bloodthirsty way, yes – he'd thought he'd spend his life fighting and, hopefully, winning, not herding idiots. Developing people management skills had never made it into Squalo's Top Three Priorities.

And he definitely had never expected to feel like someone was making an idiot of him.

Squalo stared off into space with unseeing eyes. There was this weird tingling sensation he always got when his subconsciousness was struggling valiantly to tell him something important and failing. He took a deep breath and went over everything that'd happened in the last two days.

The ever fucking boss. The stupid mission. Mammon's dusty archive with its shitty door and no key. Too much Belphegor. Rokudo's slut. Rokudo's moron of a pupil (too much Rokudo!). The cake issue. Xanxus accepting Rokudo's little shit without as much as a measly test, not even bothering to at least look at the Mammon's file...

Oh yes. That.

Pausing only to hurl the almost empty bottle over the railing, Squalo darted back into the room and grabbed his jacket from where it lay on top of the mountain of dirty clothes. He dug into the inner pocket and fished out the crumpled page he'd taken from Mammon archive before setting out to hunt down the little fuckface.

He smoothed the paper out and scanned it quickly, looking for the one word that was going to be the proof, and there it was indeed, Rokudo, handwritten in black ink, lines as strong and angular and aggressively bold as they had been the last time he saw them. If ever there was a show-off handwriting, that was it.

Only now he knew why it had seemed familiar. In fact, it seemed unbelievable, not to mention unforgivably stupid that he hadn't recognized it right from the start. He should have.

Squalo's face contorted into a grimace of rage so pure it was rendered almost unrecognizable. As he bolted for the door and shot down the corridor, still barefoot, he wished someone would get in his way so he could rehearse what he was going to do to the bastard who'd started this shit and fucking used him as if he were a tool, or a second Levi (and there was no worse insult than that).

But the corridors were empty and the only sound disrupting the silence of the night was that of his own footsteps.

-/-

Wrapping the illusion of invisibility tightly around himself, Fran tiptoed up to a window and tried to force it open, without success – partly because much of the effort went into trying to jump high enough to reach the damn thing. Never before in his entire life had he regretted being short and frail that deeply. Now that he'd seen people like Squalo who could punch through walls in a hysterical fit and never give it a second thought, his own physical flaws seemed to be glaring at him – and, quite possibly, sniggering behind his back too.

He was alone in an abandoned and obviously long-forgotten room on what he hoped like hell was the ground floor. It was hard to tell with that place, since it was all topsy-turvy and confusing, and directions all blended together and played hide-and-seek instead of behaving like they should. The whole building was so old and bursting with history that the logic of modern apartments couldn't possibly be applicable to it. It was like a maze. Still, Fran didn't particularly care where he was, provided that it was indeed the ground floor. He needed to get out, not burrow further in. Out was good, no matter what else it entailed. Of course, there could very well be wild animals in the mountains outside, like maybe wolves and big stray dogs and whatever else Italy had to offer in terms of local fauna, Fran had no idea. He didn't care, either. There were horrible, wild things down (or possibly up) here in the depths of the old place too, and choosing between them and a grizzly bear, Fran would not only pick the bear but also give it a hug. At least the bear would just disembowel him without further ado, unlike these madmen.

He definitely had to get out.

Somewhere in the castle, the freaky four-eyes with the mohawk was probably still looking for him, but Fran hoped the illusionary doppelganger he'd created would last for a while longer, thus giving him time to escape. It must have been Fran's lucky star that had given Squalo the bright idea to appoint the guy as his guard. He had turned out to be quite susceptible to illusions – something Fran had barely dared hope would be the case – and the moment he'd opened the door, caught in the middle of an incomprehensible soup-related monologue of some sort, Fran had cast his spell. He had allowed himself a split-second of triumph as he watched, invisible now, how the Varia idiot ran after the fake Fran, and then sprinted down the corridor.

In the opposite direction.

He had found the stairs, very wide and posh – presumably the main staircase or whatever it was called in places like this – and descended until there was no longer anywhere to descend. It meant that if only he found an open window, the ground and the freedom along with it would not be so far away after all. Hopefully, he could avoid breaking his neck if he jumped out.

Unfortunately, so far the windows were all either barred or simply shut with a finality that required a hammer if he wanted to change the situation. Fran sighed, the memory of Squalo slamming W.W. into the wall with one casual movement floating up to the surface again and filling him with regret. If only he hadn't neglected physical exercise, he'd be able to smash the window or bend the bars. Or both. Or he'd be able to come up to Belphegor and punch the living daylights out of him, and that'd serve him well, the cake-stealing bastard.

Well, that would never really happen, but even he had a right to dream, didn't he?

Fran leaned forward until his forehead touched the uneven stone wall and closed his eyes. This was all completely ridiculous, and twisted and wrong in a million creepy ways. Speaking of dreams, what was going on couldn't be farther from what he'd always imagined his life should be like. He'd wanted – he still wanted – to make something of himself, to be ...well, not popular maybe, but needed, indispensable, so that people would have to actually look at him and see his face, not just pass him by like he was an empty beer can lying on the ground. When Master had manifested himself and shed light on the abilities Fran had always known he had but had never understood, it'd began to look like there was finally some purpose to this whole weirdness called life, something only Fran could do and fulfill. And then Master had dumped him on W.W. and faded away as if he'd never existed and Fran had been left alone again, not knowing what to do.

And then the Varia had come, which was the worst thing to have ever happened to him. He wondered if other people out there had the same problem in the dream department or if it was just him being his usual lucky self. He tried to imagine what someone like Xanxus might dream about, apart from more power, and failed. Fran had only spent about five minutes in the man's company but he could still see those eyes and hear the voice full of malicious disdain. Or Mukuro, for that matter? Well, obviously he'd like to have his freedom back, but after that? Just a lot of revenge? The world just didn't seem to make any sense.

Fran blinked, realizing something was wrong.

The shouting he'd left behind had all died down and an eerie silence had stolen over the place. He could hear the wind howling and whistling down the corridors and hallways, the ominous creaking like a tree branch being broken – but it might be anything here, twisted and multiplied by echoes – and creepy sound putting him in mind of the pattering of small feet (rats? mice? ghosts!?) and they all had an unpleasant invasive quality – once Fran had noticed them, they wouldn't go away. They had crept into his skull and nestled there, and made themselves at home so that the silence of the castle no longer felt even remotely like silence and was now a maddening clamour Fran wished with all his heart he could get rid of.

Of course, he might simply be going mad with fear. Always a possibility.

There was a bang! that sent shivers through stone walls and made Fran's teeth rattle. It went on forever, it seemed, and was followed up by a roar that would make a minotaur cower in shame and terror.

"What the hell do you mean he escaped, you fucking peacock!?"

Eyes going wide, all melancholy evaporating in an instant, Fran shot out of the empty room and into the nearest shadowy passage. He ran into darkness as fast as he could, not knowing what lay ahead and not caring.

Squalo had returned.

-/-

Lussuria stared up at the blurry blob of silvery white that he knew was his Commander and tried to think up something nice and pacifying to put Squalo into a slightly better mood and possibly prevent him from stomping down on Lussuria's face to empasize the degree of his displeasure. The task was all the more difficult due to the fact that his glasses had been knocked off and apparently broken when Squalo had first arrived, realized what had happened and immediately proceeded to hit him square in the face to let him know how strongly he felt about the situation. Now, all Lussuria could discern was the wavering shadow framed by the whiteness that could only be Squalo's hair.

Not that it mattered, really. A completely blind man could find Squalo in the middle of a raging storm by his voice. It was, after all, a voice capable of drowning out the sound of a hundred drills. It was education, if nothing else to hear it up close, Lussuria reflected. Even after all these years, he couldn't help marveling at the sheer volume Squalo's vocal cords could produce. It was only when Squalo spoke when Lussuria could really say he understood what it meant to feel something in his bones.

He waited for a pause – even Commander Squalo had to stop to draw a deep breath after that much yelling – and squeaked.

"But I have almost caught him, you know! If you hadn't knocked me down – "

"You would have done what? Dance a merry jig with the shitty illusion while the little fuck walked away?"

"What illusion are you talking about, Squ dear? I was this close to – ah. Oh. Really? Illusion?" He hadn't been expecting this. How could the boy have been an illusion anyway? Everything about him had been so utterly real.

Disdain rolled off Squalo in a crushing wave, accompanied by a sound that might have resembled an angry hiss except that a hiss wouldn't be enough for Squalo and so he opted for spitting on Lussuria instead.

"Damn faggot! Pathetic doesn't even begin to describe you."

"There really is no need to be like that. Everyone makes a mistake from time to time. That's what being human is all about."

"That's what being an idiot is all about," Squalo replied snidely. "You fuck up once in a serious fight and you're dead meat and your relatives are bringing flowers to you grave. If you have any relatives, that is, which you don't. Hell, right now you don't even have your glasses and already you're fucking useless. If that's Varia quality, I should just retire."

"Oh, but I have all of you," Lussuria pointed out in a cheerful tone more suited to announce lottery winners on TV.

"No," Squalo said firmly, and suddenly there was something flat and resolute in his voice, a certainty that made Lussuria bite back whatever else he was going to add. "No, you don't."

The silvery blob began to move away, which, coupled with the soft sound of footsteps confirmed to Lussuria that the Chief Commander of the Varia had already finished his speech and was now going away – in hot pursuit of the little illusionist, apparently. Well, the boy definitely had to be caught as soon as possible, preferably before the boss got wind of what had happened or there would be retribution.

If only he could find his glasses now...

"Hey, faggot." Squalo's voice, unexpectedly quiet, came from the direction of the side corridor where the insolent little brat had fled. "Just one more thing while we're on the subject. I know you have your little issues and let me tell you, I don't give a damn what they are, nor does anyone else. But that shit only works as long as you play by yourself. Get a grip already, will you? We're not some freaking dysfunctional family or whatever it is you're thinking."

Lussuria froze. He knew that tone and hated it with passion. He also dreaded it almost as much as the boss's occasional insightful monologues. Those also happened once a year but the effect lasted for ages and sent chills down Lussuria's spine when he remembered them.

Squalo didn't often speak to Lussuria, except when he gave orders or discussed plans and other business-related matters, and that he preferred to do in his everyday military fashion, shouting rather than talking. That other voice, almost soft but not quite – this was Squalo after all – was reserved for those rare occasions when the Chief Commander really wanted to get his point across without resorting to bloodshed.

Lussuria licked his lips uncomfortably.

"You have issues too, Commander Squalo."

Squalo scoffed.

"I damn well do. And when they come back to bite me on the ass I won't be expecting any of you lot to sit around and hold my hand while I weep and lament. I deal with my crap and you should deal with yours. Quietly. Because it's really fucking annoying and it's beginning to get in the way of job getting done, like today. If you weren't so full of shit you wouldn't've let the brat escape. Get your act together." Squalo fell silent for a moment, then went on matter-of-factly. "I'll let it go this time, but that's it. If I see that it's easier to get rid of you than to fix the mess you make, I won't hesitate to send you packing. And I don't think I need to remind you, dickhead, that the boss will be much less lenient and forgiving, so consider yourself lucky it's only me for now. Got it? I can't hear you."

"Yes," Lussuria said, and for once there was nothing theatrical in his words. "I got it."

"Good," was all Squalo would offer in response, and then he was gone.


A/N: Ah, Squalo. Isn't he awesome? :) Anyway, I couldn't squeeze the ending into one chapter, so there will be one more.

Please read and review and let me know what you think! =)