Chapter 13

(in which the night is young, the dreams are wild, and some people are just naturally better than the other)

-/-

The night was peaceful and quiet, the dark sky above littered with big, friendly stars. A gentle breeze whispered its secret stories in the leaves of the tall trees, and here and there a bird would begin to trill in admiration.

Lying face down on the cold ground behind a very untidy, very thorny bush, Fran was contemplating the path he had taken, and was quickly coming to the realization that indeed he had been right – he was a special someone in the eyes of the universe. There was no other explanation as to why nothing could ever turn out right for him.

On the other side of the bush, a Varia night patrol was having a quiet moment. Two were smoking, the third one was berating them for smoking the entirely wrong stuff, and all three were wishing they could go hitting on women instead of patrolling the territory. In a couple of minutes Fran learned more about sexual intercourse than he had ever imagined was there to learn, although some things seemed to be anatomically impossible and thus left him puzzled and wondering if he should start practicing yoga for additional flexibility. What if The Lucky Day came and he was unprepared? He wouldn't want that now, would he?

He stored the information away for future reference and tuned back in.

Sadly, the light of wisdom must have left the Varia thugs and they had already switched to a different topic.

"Y'know what, I can't fucking believe they got back so soon," grumbled the small, stocky one shuffling from foot to foot. "And that smoke'll give us away!"

"Screw you, that's some good shit." The second one puffed out more smoke and swayed a bit as if to prove his point.

"If it's good, then you share... and hurry the fuck up, we can't stick around here all night, or Squalo's gonna show up, I'm telling you, the bastard's back."

"And pissed off like ya don't even want to imagine, I heard. What bit him now?"

"Dunno, but heard he went to Paris to get something done and it got all fucked up or whatever..."

"Yeah, but anyway, when was the last time he was happy, eh?"

"Like... when he's fighting and stuff?"

"C'mon, who the hell cares? He's gotta be sleeping like a log then," the third man kicked up an empty beer can from the ground, then stepped on it, producing a high, unpleasant sound. "Even that's not gonna wake him up now."

"Keep it quiet, asshole, or somebody else will wake up!"

"I'll take Squalo over Bel, if you ask me," the second one snickered. "At least Squalo's not psycho."

One could argue that point, Fran thought miserably, feeling the cold seep into his bones. Something moved and then dropped down onto his head from the branches.

The other two thugs seemed to be of like mind.

"Less psycho than Bel, ya mean. But that's like, easy. I mean, all them knives, yeah? Kinda tells you something."

"Yeah, sick, but Squalo's just nuts too, whoever goes 'round loping people's heads off like crazy these days? It's the blood he likes, I'm telling you."

Or perhaps he's just so used to having idiots like you around, he has forgotten how normal people talk and act, Fran mused silently as whatever it was that had fallen from the bush and got tangled in his hair tried to fight its way out. He wondered how many legs it had and if it was poisonous.

"Guns are way better," the first speaker concluded in the meantime. "Even – what's the word? - merciful. Cause we're not some bloodthirsty monsters, we're businessmen. That's what the Mafia's all about."

A busy silence fell upon the scene as everyone, including Fran, tried to work that out and decide if it was safe to agree.

"So, like..," said the third man slowly. "The boss is a merciful guy, after all?"

Under the bush, Fran thought of Xanxus's red eyes, of his snarling voice and his angry scars, of the fire that wanted to be unleashed on the world. Merciful was definitely not a tag that one could easily stick on the boss of the Varia, unless, of course, one had to choose between a quick death from a shot to the head and a happy hour alone with Belphegor and his knives.

"The boss," said the second thug with what sounded like a fear of accidentally committing a sacrilege, "is the boss. He's just... you know, right? The boss. That's the word."

"Yeah, you can't argue with that."

"Can't go 'round arguing with the boss."

"Cause he'll get, like, real mad and kill you."

"Well, he's the boss, 's only natural."

A mere couple of days ago I would have never even believed these people could be real, Fran thought in awe and amazement as he listened to their insightful conversation. Before he was abducted by the Varia it would never have occurred to him that there could be a point in time and space where a great big lump of a man with the brains of a very small bug, brute strength of an adult rhinoceros and no understanding of right and wrong whatsoever would talk about someone as if about a god. And now there were three of them doing it, with a weird reverent note in their voices that hinted at the superstitious belief that a being as omnipotent and omniscient as Xanxus might hear their prattle and materialize out of thin air to organize the Judgement Day a bit ahead of schedule.

It was incredible – they hadn't even called him a bastard, not once. They fully expected him to obliterate them for no good reason and they not only accepted that as natural, but seemed to harbour an unexplicable sort of respect for such atrocious behavior as well. As if Xanxus had long since passed beyond good and evil and common standards didn't even apply to him.

It was simply fascinating. In fact, it might be considered a separate brand of magic – very powerful magic – and one Fran had never suspected could exist.

Or maybe Xanxus was the Ubermensch, after all. In disguise.

Fran realized he was straining to hear the footsteps of the Varia boss and had to quickly remind himself that it would be in his best interests to focus on escaping for now and leave the vague theories and assumptions for another, preferably Varia-free day. When he was out of this hellish place and back in Paris, he would sit down comfortably on a bench near W.W.'s house, maybe with an ice-cream if he got lucky, and allow himself a quiet moment of cogitation. But first he had to get away from this insanity.

Never laying his eyes on Xanxus again would be a nice little extra. Some things were meant to be admired from afar.

From the great hulking shadow of the castle came a sound of doors being thrown open with a bang, of people running and talking excitedly to each other, and – as expected from the assassination Squad commanded by psychos – muffled groans indicating that someone was already in pain.

Fran hoped like hell the sudden outburst of activity was not related to him, but he knew better. Squalo had already found out he had deceived the mohawk freak and escaped the cell, and the swordsman did not look the type to just wave his hand nonchalantly and say oh well, let him go if he doesn't like it here all that much. Squalo would want blood, lots of it, and just about now he would be rounding up the goons to comb through the territory. The idiotic hope that the Varia Squad members would not know their own Headquarters very well and might just miss him and his cozy bush by chance did not even dare take shape in Fran's mind. That would be too much to ask of the universe, and luck was very rarely – if ever – on his side.

That meant he could not delay his flight any longer. He had to run now.

Far above, a star winked out of existence.

-/-

"Lazy assholes! Fucking useless morons! If I see any of you miserable idiots standing there and gaping at me like dead shrimps in a salad, I'll damn well make sure you regret the day you were born! I want the little shit found now, you hear me? Now!"

"Aren't you an inspiring sight, Captain Squalo. Have you lost your boots? And your shirt."

"Huh? Oh, it's you, brat. Fuck off."

"Happy to see me again, aren't you?"

"Are you dead already, shithead? No? Then try again."

"I see you're still playing hide-and-seek with the frogface." Belphegor's mouth stretched into a lunatic grin. "Just how much energy do you have, Captain Squalo? After all the running I did in Paris I totally had to go and have a nap. It felt really good."

Squalo limited his ever-growing frustration to an impatient sigh and reminded himself that he could not afford to lose time bickering with Belphegor – conversations of that kind could go on for hours, that much he knew from experience, and Fran was still wandering free somewhere out there. Hopefully, still somewhere close enough to be caught again. They needed a new illusionist, whatever his personal opinion about the Mist element might be. Hell, even if the only fucking thing the newbie turned out to be good for was to become Belphegor's new dartboard, Squalo would still vote for keeping him. Maybe then he would be able to get on with his own job and eventually have a rest.

A day off. That was what he needed, and soon. A wonderful day he would use wisely: not on whores, not drinking, not even fighting, because that he could do any time. Well except for whores maybe, they were hard to fit into a busy schedule, but he had been able to manage it alright up till now, so there was no need to change anything. What he really needed was sleep.

What he wouldn't give for a day alone, in a dark, quiet room, with all the alarm clocks and cellphones and the rest of the shit switched off, Squalo thought bitterly.

No, what the hell was he thinking, a fucking week and no less – a whole week away from the brainless dickheads that made up the majority of the Varia. A week away from the intrusive, babbling faggot, from Bel with his annoying laugh and the even more annoying habit of messing up simple tasks because he felt creative all of a sudden, from Levi with his million obsessions – from just about everyone, really.

A week away from his bastard of a boss.

Well, here a lifetime's worth of vacation would not be enough.

Squalo gritted his teeth. Xanxus had a lot to answer for.

"What's up with your face, Captain Squalo? Have you finally decided to resign so I can have your job? We could even give you a decent pension, I guess. You'll pass the rest of your life repairing old bicycles or maybe fishi– fuck, that hurt!"

"Good to know it did, you little shit!" Squalo barked as Belphegor slowly picked himself up from the floor and proceeded to dust off his pants. "Be grateful I didn't hit harder or your empty head would've split open like a fucking melon, not that anyone would miss you, asshole."

"I thought you only had one hand made of metal," Bel noted, touching the back of his head gingerly. "But I admit I was wrong this time – it's too early for you to retire if you can pack a punch like that even with the other one." His crazy grin returned, as if by magic. "Although you were only lucky because I wasn't expecting it. So actually it doesn't count. I was in the middle of a monologue."

"And that's how you're gonna die one of these days, brat," Squalo scoffed with disgust. "Running your filthy mouth and spouting crap until someone creeps up on you and cracks your skull. And when it happens, we'll finally get to see if royal brains are a different color."

A thoughtful look appeared on Bel's face. "A different color?"

"Yes. I expect no less than indigo from you, shithead. You fail, and I promise to make sure it's on your gravestone too. We wouldn't want our descendants, the poor bastards, to think you were an actual prince when really you're just a smartass."

"I am an actual prince," Bel snapped, and he was no longer amused. There was a sulky tone to his voice. "And whatever color my brains are, I will always be more intelligent than you. Not that it's hard because you are about as primitive as a goldfish."

"And how many Nobel prizes have you won, genius?" Squalo scrunched up his nose derisively as he turned on his heel to walk away leaving Bel behind to complain to the universe about ungrateful peasants if he was so inclined. Obviously, the idiot deserved to have his head chopped off, no difference from the rest of the population, but the Squad still needed his skill. Too bad, really.

But if one day it didn't any more, Squalo said to himself reassuringly, than he personally would bury the little asshole so deep underground that even worms and maggots would have a hard time looking for him.

Oddly enough, the brat hadn't even started to fling his frilly knives around yet. It was not Bel's natural disposition to progress beyond the second insult without referring in one way or another to the world of pain and torture his opponents would soon discover, and usually he was more than happy to advertise it in advance. Maybe he was still feeling sleepy or just too lazy, who could say, but Squalo chose to not contemplate the mystery any longer. The less time he wasted here, the better. He had an illusionist to catch and squash and a boss to confront.

The second part especially was tricky because he was yet to decide how to go about it. The idea of kicking the shit out of Xanxus crossed his mind but was discarded with the deepest of regrets. If things were that simple, Xanxus would not be the boss of the Varia at all. Perhaps one day, Squalo thought, when he felt truly suicidal, he would indeed embark on that journey and go down fighting, hopefully dragging the bastard along as he did, but for now it might be better to remember there was such a thing as self-control.

"I'm going to look forward to the moment you find out you've been played for a fool again, Chief Commander." Belphegor's soft, hissing voice echoed behind his back, and Squalo halted in his tracks.

"What the hell's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing I would like to share with you for now. I'm not going to deny myself the pleasure of seeing you discover how much of an idiot you are if you can't even understand the game. No wonder you never made it to the boss of the Varia, you're just to thick."

Very slowly, as if the world had gone frozen and a mere breath could shatter it into million pieces, Squalo rotated on the spot and faced Bel again. Knives were still nowhere to be seen but now the reason had become more than clear.

The little bastard knew. In fact, it appeared that he had been in on the secret for quite some time now. For how long exactly, Squalo wondered. Had Xanxus told him from the start? Because if he had...

If he had, it might just imply that a very disturbing possible scenario was about to unfold.

For example, Xanxus might have decided that Bel would make a better Second-in-Command. Than the whole ordeal would have been orchestrated specifically for the purpose of seeing if he, Squalo, would fail the assignment. Which he would have failed indeed, no matter how he felt about it, because it was next to impossible to find a high-level illusionist in one day with no directions, no hints, no nothing. In that case, Bel must have been there to watch and maybe report. Had the shithead made any calls during their Paris escapade? There was no way to be sure.

No, that didn't make sense. Bel had been the one who found the folder with the info on Fran. He could have kept it to himself or buried it under the already discarded shit, which he hadn't, so at that point he couldn't have possibly known anything. Also the bastard hadn't even wanted to go to the archive in the first place. On the other hand, it'd taken the brat only a couple of minutes to open the damn lock, how fucking suspicious was that? And all his squeaking could have been a show anyway. And then he had become so eager to go to Paris, all of a sudden, despite being a lazy asshole with no sense of duty.

Also, if Xanxus had wanted Squalo to fail and Bel had been aware of the plan, the little shit could sabotage the mission. By accidentally killing Fran in the process, for example.

Except that he hadn't tried that. Or had he? He had thrown those frilly knives at the Mist brat and later on there had been the matter of the plastic bag...

No, Squalo told himself firmly. He had to stick to the logic, the one and only thing that had yet to fail him. Xanxus never told his subordinates more than he absolutely had to, partly because he didn't believe in making life easy for other people and partly because he was so fucking lazy. There hadn't been any reason for him to change tactics. The bastard might be the next incarnation of Machiavelli when it came to plotting and scheming, but he wasn't fond of complicating things when there was a simple solution, and here the simple solution would be to shoot Squalo's head off.

Bel had always been situational, volatile and quick to change his decisions and opinions. He could spend hours looking for something and declare he didn't give a damn the moment he finally found it. The only thing that remained forever the same was his insanity, but that was an entirely different story.

And, more importantly,Xanxus had deemed the mission a success in the end. In his own ungrateful, arrogant manner, sure, but that was the boss, after all. Flowers and rainbows were not to be expected.

Bel must have guessed the truth of Xanxus' involvement himself, perhaps even the same way Squalo had, the only difference being that the brat had seen the light a bit earlier and decided to stick around to gloat a bit.

When?

Fixing Belphegor with a stare, Squalo quickly went through the mental list of everything that had occurred in the last twenty-four hours.

Aha...

A grin spread across his face, so wide and mirthless, that across the corridor Belphegor tilted his head to one side, wiped away the lunatic smile that, in Squalo's personal opinion, did nothing to embellish his features, and slid his hands into the pockets in a seemingly casual movement – to make sure the knives were at the ready, no doubt.

Well, not that it mattered. In the back of his mind, Squalo understood perfectly that he was losing time and that in the meanwhile Fran could already be speeding away from the Headquarters, never to be seen again. He didn't care. There was a limit to everything, including his patience and Belphegor had long since crossed the line. He'd deal with Xanxus later.

"Hey, dickhead," said Squalo in his best Christmas voice as the time and space narrowed down to exclude everything beyond the corridor walls from the immediate reality. "As you can probably see, I didn't bring my sword, but tell you what. Wanna find out if I can still make you bleed all over the floor here? I mean, look at all the fucking dust and shit. I'm in the mood to try and wash it all the hell away. You're about to help."

-/-

Picking leaves and bugs and who knew what else out of his hair, Fran half-crept, half-crawled in the general direction of liberty, equality and fraternity and all the other good things Paris promised to grant its inhabitants. Maybe a new cake could be added to the package to make up for the one eaten by the fake prince with extreme cruelty.

That was one more thing about the Varia that Fran could not understand no matter how much he tried. What did they all mean by calling Belphegor a prince? Was it some sort of an inside joke? It had to be because obviously there was no way the maniac could actually be royalty. Anyone with a lick of sense and a drop of royal blood would use any means available to them to get as far away as possible from the unspeakable horror that was the Varia, and Bel clearly enjoyed himself like crazy here. The crown, though, was a bit of a puzzle. It was real, solid gold, and there was no mistake about it – any self-respecting kleptomaniac, and Fran could proudly label himself one, would be able to tell the difference just by looking. It was gold through and through and cost a fortune big enough to buy a fancy racing yacht.

Fran had seen yachts like that many times because in summer he would usually travel to the French Riviera and, using his invisibility trick to deceive the cameras, hang out on the private beaches of the rich people and steal food. The yachts would bob gently on the waves when no one was around, and when the wind was strong and the owners were in a competitive mood, they would raise the sails and head away from the shore, and the yachts would glide majestically toward the horizon where – on certain days – the sea became indistinguishable from the sky and it made the yachts look almost like they were flying.

There were very few things under the sun that, in Fran's opinion, deserved to be called majestic, and he was always happy for a chance to use the word, it had just the right ring to it. That was why he liked the yachts. They were real and free, like birds.

He had never set foot on one, though.

Belphegor probably owned at least one somewhere. Maybe even more than one. The guy had a crown made of solid gold, after all, it spoke volumes about his social status.

Pausing behind a conveniently thick tree to let a couple of Varia thugs tramp noisily through the nearby bushes cursing Squalo and undoubtedly causing terrible trauma to the local wildlife, Fran leaned against the trunk and fantasized about being filthy rich.

Oh, the things he would buy: more shirts with funny prints (he had always wanted one with a Madagascar penguin – the one that made things go ka-boom!), and new sneakers (two pairs! different colors!), and a cool leather jacket like in the hollywood blockbusters, and definitely a borsalino hat, and oh, the things he'd get to eat – in real restaurants too, with waiters! And the look on W.W.'s face when she saw him finally being in charge of his own life and, more importantly, his own budget. For once, a captain of his own ship – of his own yacht, so to speak.

He'd kinda like a yacht too. A real one so he could sail away into the sky.

And the only thing that stood between him and the Dream was a psychopath with a penchant for unnecessary cruelty. A killer too. A killer for hire, which was worse because it meant there was no sob story behind his choice of lifestyle. A sadist, really.

Life was so very unfair.

Poking his head from behind the tree with caution, Fran cast a longing glance back at the mansion. Somewhere in there, Belphegor was probably fast asleep, golden crown resting comfortably on a night table or maybe on the floor under the bed, since Bel didn't look the type to care very much about being tidy. Somewhere in there, was perhaps the very thing that might alter Fran's destiny forever.

Fran's eyes glazed over. He liked to read when he had the chance, and although most of the books in his life had been stolen, he still remembered them all fondly, especially those that happened to contain graphic description of people having sex – it was a thrilling subject that no-one ever wanted to discuss with him for some reason. That aside, one thing was crystal clear: whenever the hero was faced with a choice between a strategic retreat to safety and a walk into the dragon den – with the dragon being very definitely in it at the time, of course – going back home would always be a sign of poor taste and would immediately strip the so-called hero of his heroic status and doom him to spend the rest of his life in the company of nothing but beer, tv dramas and an ugly wife that would nevertheless also sleep with the guy next door. If the hero ventured into the heart of danger, though, he'd be sure to get out rich, awesome, with a princess slung over his shoulder and an arrogant, but attractive smirk on his face, and the dragon would have become barbecue by that happy moment.

Fran sighed. With his luck, he'd be barbecue in no time at all, and the dragon would be smugly chewing on his bones before it went to sleep again. He surveyed the mansion again, thoughtful and unmoving, calculating possibilities.

Where would the fake prince reside in this great sprawling monster of a building? Right on top, where the windows were the biggest and the balcony was more like a terrace with a fancy balustrade? No, certainly not. If Fran understood anything at all about life, that floor would all belong to Xanxus. Even if he occupied one tenth of it, he would not let anyone else set foot there. He was the boss of a criminal organization, a cold-blooded killer and who knew what else. He'd want to display his power for everyone to see and be in awe of him. He'd want to be on top in all possible senses of the word.

Logically, the fodder would huddle somewhere on the ground level – they had to do shifts patrolling the territory and probably some menial labour as well, because there were always chores and it didn't look like the Varia had an army of maids to keep the place clean, trim rose bushes and cook.

That meant the other bastards would share the middle part of the mansion and how they might have split it between them, heavens only knew. Looking for Bel's room without any understanding of the general layout and while the whole squad was looking for him, searching every inch outside–

Fran blinked. Provided you didn't want to be found, when everyone believed you were outside where did it make the most sense to be instead? The safest place of all would be there.

Behind him, the mountains stood dark and silent against the starry sky.


A/N: yes, yes, I'm still alive and the story will have another chapter. Hopefully soon, but you know me. :)

Thanks a lot to everyone who reviewed - every time I got feedback I remembered I actually had to finish this thing, and that writing, in fact, is an interesting way to pass some time. Please review if you can spare a moment! It'll make me happy.=)

Ciao!