Lavi sweated under the hot, Argentinian sun. He swiped at his brow, a good stripe of his glove completely soaked with perspiration. He whistled low, looking around the station for a respite from the blazing sun. All he found were a few scraggly trees and some brush. Several of the natives were lounging underneath the blistering heat of the winter haze. After having trudged through snow nearly two days before, this was a shock to his system. Lavi suddenly sneezed, and he groaned. There was a reason why God hadn't given them instant teleportation lightly. Still, that didn't mean it wasn't handy.
Lavi sneezed again, and he muttered under his breath. The redheaded Exorcist decided to get a bit of an idea of where he was.
He was in the desert town of Pueblo de Rio Seco de Maria de la Immaculada Concepcion de Belen. Of course, that was an utter mouthful, so he'd asked Komui for the short name, and he'd merely told him "Rio Seco", or Dry River. Something strange was going on in this small city of only 5,000 people. The entire river that had once supported the town had been dry for hundreds of years, though once it had been fed by a spring in the mountains. And now, suddenly, after perhaps three to four hundred years of dry river beds and hoping for rain, the water had all come back. All of it. Lavi muttered to himself as he reviewed this information, "I think they'll need to change the name of the town." Even so, it was dusty here, the sand from the desert blowing in and blocking every nook, cranny, and crevice. Perhaps fifty miles from what Lavi could see from the main street at the edge of town, the land suddenly turned flat and unforgiving. There was scrubland out beyond the town, but it was sparse and in patches, doing nothing to block the sand and wind. Lavi was currently standing at the edge of town, adobe and brick buildings rising around him. It appeared that the middle street he was standing on was the major artery of the small settlement.
A truck trundled down the boulevard. The back of it was full of dusty, worn looking workers, all of them browned from prolonged subjection to the sun. They watched Lavi with dark stares, their eyes penetrating him and seeming to strip away everything that he was down to the core elements. Lavi shivered imperceptibly under their gaze, looking away. Apparently, white folk like him weren't usual. He stripped off his jacket, relishing in the feel of wind blanketing over sweaty skin. He looked around, wondering what exactly he was waiting for. Lavi realized that he didn't have a Finder with him, and he'd automatically waited for one to show up somewhere. However, seeing as they hadn't let one come with him, they had recruited someone from the South American branch. Lavi silently berated himself, suddenly realizing how much he took those guys for granted. Lavi made an agreement with himself that the Finder they sent him would get an ice cold drink at the first place they stopped at, as well as a well-deserved rest.
Finally sick of waiting for something to happen, Lavi walked over to a very well-used phone booth, and he hooked his golem to the telephone line. He picked up the phone, dialed the correct number, and listened to the tone as it changed to the familiar ring of the Order's telephone system. Finally, someone picked up.
"Hello?" Komui chirped, and Lavi smiled. Just the person he needed. He was glad that he had a good golem. Otherwise, he would've been waiting for hours and hours...
"Hey, Komui, did you ever send for a Finder here in Argentina?" Lavi asked brightly, or, at least, as brightly as he could while still being tortured by the trapped sunlight in the sweltering telephone booth. Komui, however, noticed Lavi's apparent suffering, and he laughed as he said, "Well, you see, I was going to dispatch one of ours, but it's so hot out there that they'd melt!" Lavi's facial expression dropped as Komui cackled.
"You didn't answer my question!"
"Uh, well... You see, there were some paperwork problems that had to be handled, and - "
"You didn't, did you?" Lavi should've assumed that the first time around. There was a sigh on the other end of the line.
"No, no I didn't," Komui answered honestly, at last, and Lavi rolled his eyes. Komui sounded indignant as he said, "Oh, stop rolling your eyes."
"How do you know I'm rolling my eyes?"
"I can hear them rattling around in your skull through the phone." Lavi shook his head, laughing. He could almost see the giant smile appearing on Komui's face as Lavi snickered, and he said, "Okay, well, did you send anybody? I don't speak a whole lot of Spanish, you know." That was partly a lie. Lavi did speak a good amount of Spanish, but Lavi also was getting the vibe he wasn't too welcome here. There was no love lost between the Argentinians and white men. Lavi would rather have some sort of translator to act as a buffer between him and them, just in case things either got ugly or he stepped on toes on accident. He wasn't used to Argentinian culture, though there was one time when he'd been in Chile on a mission with Panda-jiji -
Lavi carefully rebuilt the mental walls that separated that memory from the rest of his memories, trying to keep all of those different people from blending together. Each Bookman mission was a separate identity, a separate brain almost in its own right that it held its own memories and stayed apart from everything else. All of those people he had been, all those things he'd played as. He'd die and be reborn, over and over again. And the only way he'd been able to cope with this cycle was by keeping all those memories separate and at the back of his mind but never truly forgetting that they existed. As soon as the memories belonging to the person that had been Manuel had erupted in his mind, he had trapped them again and dragged them away from Lavi, the person he was now. Jarringly, Lavi realized that Komui was speaking to him.
"As a matter of fact, I think there is something about a partner in your dossier sheet. A native to the area, been living there for a little over three years, probably handy in a little town like that. It's awfully lucky that the South American branch had someone like that. Usually, they have lots of Brazillians, though I guess it makes sense they had a few Argentines there as well. Argentina's not exactly tiny. Did you read your dossier sheet?" he asked abruptly, and Lavi guiltily murmured, "Uuuuuuh..."
"You didn't, did you?"
"I think I'm getting dejavu here, you know." There was a chuckle. Lavi smiled slightly, and he said, "I'll read it, don't worry. How long will it take for her to get here?"
"It should say in the dossier." With that, Komui hung up, and Lavi smiled. He unhooked the golem and walked out of the telephone booth, suddenly glad for the wind. Even if it got sand in his white shirt and all over his Order-issued pants, he didn't care. It was way better than sweating to death in the dead, still air. He sat down on the sidewalk, and he dug around in his shoulder bag. He found the folder holding the mission information, and he cracked it open. He'd already read the missions specs, about the danger level and the bare bones around the phenomenon that may or may not be caused by Innocence. Lavi rubbed his eye, and he sighed, flipping through the other papers he hadn't cared to read.
Finally, he found it.
Associates: Esperanza Castillo, South American Order Branch. Age: 17. Eyes: Brown. Hair: Brown. Ethnicity: Argentinian. Innocence: Creacion Metallico. Length of time within the Order: 3 months. Living family...
Lavi sighed, slightly disappointed. He had nothing against women, or young women at that, but he'd been hoping for someone both older and male. Chances were, she was inexperienced, inept, and incapable of keeping her emotions under control. Three months of fighting. That wasn't a whole lot to go on, and Lavi was wary of taking on someone so young as a partner. Even though he'd worked with Lenalee, she was a bird of a different feather. She had years of experience, emotional control, and a past with Lavi. He trusted her. He wasn't sure how he'd feel about this Esperanza, especially considering she'd be more like his apprentice than his partner. Luckily, though, from what he could see on the dossier, she was fluent in both English and Spanish. At the least, she'd be helpful in town with interviews and things of that nature.
He scanned the rest of the dossier, trying to find something about a rendezvous. It jumped out at him from the very bottom of the page. His partner was supposed to be staying at a hotel not far from here. The Rosa de Desierto, no doubt the same place he'd be staying while in Rio Seco. He trekked through the dust, easily locating the hotel. At the ground floor was a saloon, and he walked in. Sunlight filtered through gaps in the wood paneling, and several dark vaqueros watched him with sullen looks as he traipsed inside like a daisy in the sunshine. They stopped their conversations to stare at him, their near-black eyes watching closely. He whistled brightly, though it slowly petered out as the looks he was cast turned darker and darker. He made his way to the bar, and as soon as he turned his back, the buzz of Spanish conversation resumed. He leaned forward across the bar to the bartender, a rickety, worn looking stick of a man with large glasses on top of his large nose and boisterous mustache.
"Ahem, um, pardon me, senor, pero estoy buscarado por una senorita. Se llama Esperanza," Lavi said in very blatantly English-tinged Spanish. The man looked at him dully before answering, "We speak English here, diablo blanco. Which Esperanza. There are ten that work here." Lavi's eye twitched. There were ten...? No, he needed a guest named Esperanza! But then again, he had her last name, too...
"Her last name is Castillo," he said, careful to pronounce the surname with proper pronunciation. This seemed to placate the bartender somewhat, and he pointed over the redhead's shoulder to a person wearing a black wide-brimmed hat, a long duster, long boots, and gloves. Lavi nearly fell over. That didn't look like an Esperanza to him... He couldn't see her face in the dim lighting, and it suddenly occurred to him that, just maybe, Esperanza was the name of a guy rather than a girl. He swallowed, knowing that guys with girly names tended to be tougher than snake hide and easier to piss off than a tiger with a sore tooth. His mind strayed to certain, feminine-looking Exorcist, and he nearly turned white.
"Um, Esperanza isn't usually used as a name for a boy, right?" Lavi asked cautiously, wide-eyed as he stared at the person drinking a tall glass of... something. The bartender looked at him with a quirked eyebrow, and he stated, "Not unless his madre hated him from birth. Or she was drunk." The bartender shrugged. He was called over by another Argentinian, and Lavi was left to himself at the bar. He looked back at the table with its lone occupant, and he decided he might as well give it a shot.
He sat down next to the dark figure, and he coughed into his fist, saying in Spanish, "Ahem, excuse me, muchacho, if I could just -"
There was the click of a gun's hammer being cocked back, and Lavi realized that something cold and hard was pressed to his temple. He sat completely still, his eyes trained at the bar where the bartender's eyes were wide as well as just about everybody else's in that cactus juice joint. The figure took a drink of the glass, the gun lazily pointed at Lavi's head, and a deep, alto voice said, "Call me muchacho, again, hombre, and I might give you a closed casket funeral." Lavi gulped. Yeah, that was definitely a girl. Apparently, she didn't like being called muchacho either.
"I will ask you three questions. If you answer wrong, you will die," she said casually, and Lavi refrained from groaning. He hated hitting young ladies. He really did, but he would if he had to. Like now was a good situation for smacking down a girl. He had his fingers wrapped around Little Hammer, and he nodded.
"All right, Senorita Misteriosa, ask away," he said, trying to sound confident and not the least worried about having his brains painted across the floor.
"Uno. What is your name?" Lavi almost frowned.
"Lavi," he answered somewhat hesitantly. There was no sound. The air was getting thicker, it seemed, and it was getting harder to breath, but perhaps that was just him. Guns made him nervous. Especially when pointed his direction. Nothing he couldn't handle, though. After all, Akuma used dozens of guns, and they didn't faze him, right?
"Dos. What is your supervisor's name?" Lavi was beginning to worry. These questions were too easy.
"Komui Lee," he answered. Still no sound, and his head was intact, and he hadn't had to open any cans of whoop ass.
"Tres. What is the name of the Exorcist that lives above the circle of God's Crystal?" Lavi's one eye widened, and he realized what she was doing. She was checking if he was an Akuma or not. No Akuma would be able to sit through a test, much less answer correctly. But that would mean Lavi would have to be an Akuma... Then again, she'd never met him nor seen a picture, so it was understandable. And there was one Noah who could shapeshift into any form she wished. Suddenly, Esperanza's strange and threatening moves made a lot of sense.
"Hevlaska," Lavi whispered quietly. Esperanza's gun lowered easily, and she raised it to her neck. Lavi turned his head slightly, his good eye watching. It suddenly seemed to melt, turning into a silverish-black ball of puddy before reforming again into a large crucifix. Metal beads sprouted around the crucifix, creating a rosary. Lavi whistled. That was handy. Everybody seemed to calm down, settling back into the rhythm of drinking and talking in low voices. Esperanza picked her teeth with a sliver of wood, and Lavi watched her cautiously.
"So, uh... Esperanza..." The woman finally revealed her face, and Lavi tried to keep his reaction muted. There were three large scars across her eye, all of them puckered and white against the skin. It was definitely an eye-catcher, if the pun could be pardoned. So perhaps Lavi had underestimated her a little bit.
"Eres el Exorcisto de Ingles, no? You are the Exorcist from England, no?" she asked, and Lavi answered, "Si - "
"I think it is best if you leave the Spanish to me, senor." Lavi snapped his mouth shut. He looked away from her, but he secretly studied her from the corner of his eye.
...Not quite as easy, considering his good eye was on the wrong side of his face for discreet analyzation. Still, of what he could see, she had small scars on her face, white scars that stood out against dark brown skin as well as near-black wavy hair framing an oval face. Her eyes were an incongruous bright blue. She slowly reached for the glass, looking over at Lavi with a flick of her eyes, and Lavi looked away, knowing he'd been caught staring at the scars.
"Go ahead. Ask," she said abruptly, and Lavi frowned. He turned to her. Her Spanish accent wasn't too thick, but it was thick enough to tinge all of her words with the Spanish roll. Lavi himself knew that he stood out painfully because of his rounded pronunciation of Spanish words. His hair and eyes didn't help, either, though he knew that Argentinians could be white skinned. In this town, though, it seemed a bit of a novelty. Or, more like, a curse.
"So, uh... what's the run down on this mission? I mean, I've only got the bare bones in this file." He slapped the manilla file on the table, and Esperanza flipped through it. She frowned, and she stated, "That was not what I was aiming for, senor, but I will give you a small... what is it called? Summary?" Lavi nodded, and Esperanza drummed her fingers on the table. Lavi noted that, despite the heat, she wore leather gloves and long sleeves. To keep out the dust? Reduce the chance of sunburn? Lavi already could feel his skin frying inside of the saloon, and he'd only been in the sun for a few minutes before that.
"You know the Rio Seco, yes? It means Dry River for a reason. My grandfather's grandfather's grandfather saw the river run with water once, and it had only been a trickle then. Now, the water is flowing very freely from the mountains, and you think this is a good thing, yes? Well, we people are superstitious. It is not such good thing that many good things happen all at once, especially with the water," Esperanza said. She traced the lip of her glass.
"So this is an inauspicious omen? Running water in a dry river is bad?" Lavi asked incredulously. Esperanza seemed amused.
"Only here, senor. Solo aqui. Here, we are behind the mountains behind the... the sombra lluvia. Where there is no rain," she tried to explain, and Lavi suddenly understood.
"The rain shadow of the mountain? Where the rain doesn't reach?" he asked, and she nodded. The Argentinian continued.
"The rains reach only the very top of the mountain. The water trickles down the river, until it reaches us in the desert as a small stream. Sometimes, it doesn't run at all. It has been like this since we can remember. I believe there are pictures on the walls of the river," she said, pointing to black and white photos lining the saloon. Lavi eyed them curiously, getting up from his chair.
Carefully, he examined them, peering into the grainy eyes of a camera to the photos of men standing in front of a very dry river bed. The desert spanned behind them, the very tail of the mountains showing at the edge of the photo. He moved to another photo. Again, the same thing. The dry river bed, lined with dead mesquite bushes and dried up cacti. Mountains staged the background, however. There was yet another photo, this one shown from the other side of the river. It showed the town in the background, and he could clearly see the dilapidated old saloon at the edge of the photo. Again, the river was dry as dust, not a single drop of water in it.
"So the river's always been dry," Lavi stated, and he could almost feel Esperanza's nod. She suddenly said, "Come here, senor. Perhaps if you see it, you will understand." Lavi turned around to see her walking out of the saloon. He followed close behind, walking into the bright sunlight. They walked for nearly ten minutes until finally, they reached the river.
Lavi stared. It was a torrent. Grayish-blue water filled the entire thing to the brim. It was almost bursting its wide banks, spanning a good half-mile across. Lavi frowned as he watched it course and buck like a living thing, carrying branches and other debris with it.
"If the water rises over the banks, we will have many problems. The town could be swallowed by the river. No one in Rio Seco has seen the water so high. There are no records of the river becoming full like this," she said almost reverently. Lavi frowned, looking up at the mountains. Their tops were covered in cloud, and somewhere up there an Innocence possibly awaits.
"What else makes this a possible Innocence phenomenon?" Lavi asked. When he didn't get an answer, he looked back at Esperanza, who was doing the sign of a Roman Catholic cross. He frowned at her as she clasped the rosary around her neck. Superstitious was right... Even this sensible woman seemed a little spooked by whatever was going on around here.
"A man came. He is a mountain man, crazy, loco. He... he said that the source of the river is a giant spring, one we call Lago de los Condenados. That it heals people of their wounds, their ills. But, also, if you are not careful, it also kills those who are pure in heart. He brought a child with him once, kidnapped her... He came back with her, dead, but there was no mark on her. No poison, no strangling, no cuts. It was as if she died in her sleep as old men do. We are... frightened," Esperanza said, her face troubled. She looked up from underneath the wide brim of her hat.
"We shot him. We should not have," she stated ominously, and Lavi almost shivered under the blistering rays of the sun.
"How many other people have gone up to the spring?" he asked. This was pretty standard. Healing spring, he'd heard of. Killing spring... not so much.
"Cuatro. Four people. Three came back healed, and one of them came back dead. The one who died... he was the priest in the church. We do not know what happened to him, though. Only that he did not come back down the mountain. The guides said that he had died in the spring, but I do not trust them," she told him, and Lavi knelt down to look into the water. It was rushing past at a very fast pace. He followed the river as far as his eye could see before tracing an imaginary path up the mountain to the Lake of the Damned. He straightened up, wondering if this was the cause of Innocence or something much more sinister.
"Has anyone else been up there? To the lake?" he asked, and Esperanza shook her head. Her scars glared white in the sun, the rays seeming to wilt all surrounding plantlife despite the fact that the water seemed to be reviving what little there had been at the riverbed. Lavi sighed, wondering what this could all mean. It didn't seem like Innocence activity. Stranger stuff happened when an Innocence went haywire, like ghosts, revived automatons, and entire towns reliving a single day. He'd have to talk it over with the supervisor.
"I'm not exactly sure what it is, then, that's the problem. Don't send anyone to the spring and rebuild as far from the river as you can," Lavi stated simply, and the flash in Esperanza's eye made Lavi realize what he'd just said. It was basically 'I'm done here. You people aren't worth my time.' However, she said nothing.
"Of course... senor. I will relay to the Major. He will decide our actions on the matter. Meanwhile, I will take you to your hotel," she said coolly, and Lavi could've cringed if he thought that it wouldn't make his situation worse. He'd just alienated the only person who could possibly help him out here in the desert. He followed the woman back to the hotel, and she handed him a room key. It was a heavy brass piece, made for a sturdy lock. Lavi looked up at Esperanza, but she was already up the stairs to her own room. Lavi followed suit, and he found his room to be quite roomier than the ones he was used to.
Another hotel in another life, Eli lay down on a bed with his hands behind his head, wondering when those idiot humans would ever realize that fighting solved nothing, and that history repeated itself. Always, always, it was the same routine, the same pattern. These filthy things that roam the planet, they knew nothing of what they were doing. What sort of God would want to save such sorry people -
Lavi found himself with his fist crashed into the wall, knuckles bleeding. He was breathing hard as he tried to contain the memory of anger and disgust. There was a knock on the door, and Lavi lowered his fist from the wall, the pain beginning to lance up his arm in great spikes. He opened the door to see Esperanza's slightly concerned face. Without her hat to shield her visage, he could see that the scars he had seen extended far across her eyebrows, cutting it into three sections. The scars went straight past her hairline, cutting swathes of white. Where the scars were, hair didn't grow, and so she was missing three lines where white stood out prominently against sun-browned skin. Noticing his scrutiny, Esperanza turned her head slightly away.
"Lo siento, senor, if I interrupted you. I thought I heard something from your room." Lavi gave a smile, and he shrugged. He put a hand on the doorpost and stated, "Sorry, I -" He watched Esperanza's eye stray straight to his hand, and he knew that a lie wasn't going to work. Her eyes cut to his own, and he knew there was no fooling her.
"I help you," she stated simply, walking into his room.
"N-no, no, you don't have to - "
"I am used to it. Sit." He did as she commanded very quickly. She promptly left the room, but he didn't budge an inch. There was a way about Hispanic women that when they told you to do something, you did it without questioning it. Perhaps because he felt that if he whined about it, she'd hit him on the head with a wooden spoon and start saying something in rapid Spanish to him. Not long after, she came back with bandages and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. He winced as she dabbed the alcohol over his knuckles were the skin had split, and she wrapped the bandages firmly around his hand. Feeling awkward just sitting there and letting her fix him up because of his foolishness and emotional incapacity, he asked, "How do you know English?"
She looked up at him. Her look was hard to read. She finally said, "I worked on a white man's plantation for many years before fighting as an Exorcista. I was a vaquera, at first, but then I was turned into a maid." Lavi tilted his head to the side to look at her better, and he asked, "Is that where you got all those?" He gestured to his face, and he suddenly felt like kicking himself in the teeth. Of all the things to ask, he should know better than to question where scars come from. Esperanza's hands stilled, and she didn't look at him.
"Senor, you ask many questions," she stated, continuing her work and dodging his inquiry. He wasn't learning any more about her today. She got up, told him to meet her for dinner downstairs so they could go meet the first of the three healed men, and promptly left without another word.
Lavi sighed. This mission already seemed to be going downhill. It was going to be a long trip.
The late night air was punctuated by the drone of cicadas. The plantation was rich with flowering plants and trees, brought alive by the sudden spur of water. It had once lain lorn, completely barren, but expensive irrigation and some bribing had taken care of that. A man in a bolero tie and good clothes stood with his hands in his pockets, enjoying the night air. He heard the rustling of leaves, and he turned to stare in the direction of the noise. The air was curiously still, and his eyes narrowed as he watched a liquid figure slip from the shadows.
A woman wearing a suit walked out into the hot, night air. Her blonde hair was pulled into a ponytail at the back of her neck, and bangs swung just above sunglasses. Her eyes were hidden, but the man knew that, when revealed, they were the color of gold coins. Her skin was porcelain white - for now - and she seemed like one of those European trickster Faerie Queens, with the confidence in her walk and the slide in her step. He watched her warily, his hand resting on a gun in its holster at his hip. He fingered the trigger unconsciously as she stood less than five feet from him. However, other than this he denoted no discomfort or nervousness.
"You keep your appointments," she stated in fluid Spanish, and the man answered back, "Yes. And you keep your punctuality. Good evening, Senorita Lulu." The woman smiled, a cheshire-like stretching of the lips across her face. The man suppressed a shiver. They stood for a few moments in the night air before Lulu stated, "Do you know if that spring works on the Akuma? Can it repair them?" The man looked back with shifty eyes. He stated, "The Akuma you gave us killed our members and guides before they could get to the spring. Two of them made it, though, and they came back fully healed. It seems they do not need us humans to lead them there." Lulu shook her head, making tutting noises.
"That's not what we need you for, Senor Dominguez. The Akuma are not your concern. You are for protection purposes more than guiding ones," she stated. She looked up into the night sky, the stars seeming to swivel overhead as they made their rounds through the dark firmament. Lulu looked over at Dominguez with a knowing look. The man did nothing to acknowledge her as he asked, "And my daughter?"
"No worries, Senor. She is perfectly safe. The spring will heal humans as well as Akuma. It only depends on her heart - and the Earl's mood at the time," Lulu said with a sly smile. Dominguez finally stared at her, eyes intensely fixated on the visage that was liaison between him and his daughter's hope.
"Your thugs will keep people discouraged from going near the lake?" she asked. Dominguez nodded his head. Lulu stared at him, examining the scars and pocks of a hard life of disease and bullets. These humans knew nothing but suffering. It was all they could relate to. This caused her to smile.
There was always more where that came from.
"Then you have nothing to fear. We are on your side, Senor. I do not understand your anxiety," she said, almost coyly. She briefly put a hand to her cheek in contemplation, folding her other arm over her chest to rest her elbow on top of it. Dominguez looked down, not willing to look at her. Finally he stated, "You are inhuman. My business may profit from this, but you... I do not enjoy trading with your kind." Lulu chuckled.
"Well, that tells me one thing." Dominguez narrowed his eyes at her. She looked at him over her sunglasses, and she stated,"You are a very smart man."