Authors Note and Disclaimer at the bottom of the Chapter to avoid spoilers.
VINCI FAMILY MURDERERS APPREHENDED!
Several men involved in the gruesome murders of the Vinci family have been apprehended by a joint Carabinieri and Interpol operation. The men, whose identities are being withheld this time for security reasons, were arrested in their safe house in Florence. Though details are scarce at this time, all five men have links with the Five Republics extremist movement.
The Vinci family massacre is one of the most shocking murders ever perpetrated on Italian soil. Three years ago, the Vincis were taken by surprise in their farmhouse cottage by five men who systematically tortured and then executed the family one by one until only the youngest twin daughters remained. The two girls, aged twelve at the time, were then subjugated to the most brutal and inhumane torture that the men could perform, and then left for dead alongside the bodies of their family members. Upon discovery, the girls were rushed to the nearest hospital. Unfortunately despite the best efforts of onsite paramedics, the younger sister passed away while in transit and the elder sister followed after a week in intensive care.
Many analysts believe that the murdered Vinci family, with its strong ties to law enforcement, was second only to the Croce Incident in its significance in the growing civil unrest in Italy to the levels that are present today. The men are set to be tried for the murders by none other than prosecutor RobertaGuellfi herself. The date of the hearing has yet to be set.
HOPE'S TWO DAUGHTERS
Chapter 01: Sisters, Meeting Again
"I want Henrietta out of Rome, Jose."
"What do you mean Jean?" Jose looked up from his wineglass in surprise at his brother's abrupt statement. Having just completed a mission, the two brothers were sharing a private toast to their recent success in Jose's hotel room in Rome when Jean had said this out of the blue.
"Until the media frenzy regarding the Vinci case dies down, Henrietta will not take part in any of our operations in Rome, nor will she be allowed into the city during your downtime." Jean clarified, without missing a beat. For a moment Jose took a moment to process his brother's order, and then a further moment to realize why that order had been made. In just a scant second, Jose went from calm to livid.
"What the hell are you saying? She should be there, Jean!" Jose protested angrily, slamming his open palm down on the table for emphasis. "If someone hauled Dante onto the defense bench, there would be nothing stopping either of us from getting front row seats to see him burn."
"I understand, Jose." Jean agreed resignedly. The look on Jean's face clearly showed that the man sympathized, if not outright agreed, with Jose's sentiments. However, Jean had a greater duty that superseded his personal feelings. "Since Angelica's death, the mental conditions of the first generation cyborgs are deteriorating." Before Jose could even protest, Jean held up an open hand to stop his brother.
"I know you might not want to believe it, but the scientists have seen the signs. Some of the cyborgs are forgetting things while others… well, let's just say there are some things that are best left forgotten."
Jose averted his eyes from Jean and glared irately at the red wine in his glass. As much as he wanted to deny it, Jose knew his brother was right. The rapidly deteriorating state of their cyborgs wasn't something that any handler, Jose especially, wanted to think about.
This was especially true in the light of Angelica's recent death. Furthermore, Jose had personally helped Marco bring Angelica's dog into the facility. He'd witnessed firsthand that a powerful stimulus coupled with a strong enough memory could overpower the conditioning and allow a Cyborg to remember memories from even before their life at the SWA. For some, that meant remembering things that were best forgotten. Henrietta had been tortured, assaulted and then left for dead beside the bodies of her family by those same men that he wanted to bring her to see.
If there was anything that might make Henrietta remember what had happened to her, this was it.
"The story is all over the news, Jean. I can't even go to the toilet without hearing about how the 'child murderers' have finally been caught. Taking Henrietta out of Rome won't do a thing." Jose pointed out carefully, realizing the seriousness of the problem. His protective instincts towards Henrietta superseded his wish for her to witness her family's killers brought to justice.
"Perhaps it won't, perhaps it will. But we're not going to take that chance. The last thing we need is for Henrietta to remember that those men, who are now under public scrutiny, are responsible for her family's murder." Jean stated evenly. Clearly this was something Jean, and likely their superiors, had put much thought into.
"You're afraid she'll be suicidal?"
"I'm afraid she'll kick down the courthouse doors and kill the men herself." Jean said as he cracked a rare smile. "Don't try and deny it. It's what we would do if we were ever in her position."
"Fine. I'll keep her in Sicily until the media circus calms down. You do know this is going to leave a big hole in our deployment, right?"
"You normally take a Christmas holiday anyway, Jose. But yes, I know I'm going to have to get creative with the team assignments if the press decides to drag the story." Jean agreed as he ran a hand through his hair. "Speaking of which, where is Henrietta? I left Rico in my hotel room, but I don't see Henrietta anywhere."
"I let her roam around town for a while." Jose explained. "After the last few missions, Hillshire and I figured the girls could use a reward for their good performance. What better way than to let them have a little freedom once in a while?" Jean set down his wine glass and massaged his temples at his younger brother's recklessness.
"Jose, what did we just talk about?"
"Relax, Jean." Jose shrugged his shoulders indifferently. "Triela, Petrushka and Beatrice are with her, and it's just for one afternoon. The trial date hasn't even been set. She's perfectly fine." As long as those men were behind bars, Jose reasoned, Henrietta was safe.
What were the odds of her finding something in Rome that could possibly trigger her dormant memories anyway?
Henrietta was completely alone. She was also hopelessly lost.
"Triela? Bice? Petra?" Henrietta whimpered.
Perhaps it was because of her worsening mental condition, or perhaps it was because she was a short girl wandering around in a very large crowd of people, or even because Henrietta was just naturally bad with directions… but the fact was that the SWA's little cyborg was wandering around Rome like a five year old child who got lost in a supermarket.
"Triela? Bice? P-Petra? W-Where are you? I'm, I'm scared."
Henrietta was shy and timid by nature and she was also very dependent on older authority figures such as her beloved Signore Jose and her surrogate big sister, Triela. Despite the fact she had been in life or death situations countless times before, the 'fearsome cyborg' had been reduced to a frightened adolescent girl who had no idea where she was or where she was going.
Had she been in a better mind, Henrietta would have simply gone to the police or some other kind adult to help her on her way. But in her panicked state, coupled with her training and healthy doses of paranoia from her work, Henrietta was seeing possible Padania sympathizers everywhere. That explained why she was hiding in a back alley away from prying eyes, praying for her gallant Signore Jose to come and rescue her.
As she was beginning to despair that her handler would never come to get her, or worse, that he had simply discarded her because of her ineptitude, she heard it. A melodious sound that echoed through Rome, above the din of the city, reached her ears. It seemed to resonate with her very soul.
"I remember tears streaming down your face,
When I said, "I'll never let you go"
When all those shadows almost killed your light…"
Almost as if she had been mesmerized by the song, Henrietta had followed the music all the way to its source. Sitting on a stool in a street corner just a few blocks away from the Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti was a girl in her mid-teens playing an old acoustic guitar. The upturned, wide brimmed cowboy hat at her feet was filled with a small assortment of coins and a note, indicating the girl was probably a street performer. In contrast to the people in the area, the musician wore a worn, rugged traveling outfit. Despite her lack of makeup, the musician's short stature, and her practical shoulder length hair, Henrietta could tell that the girl was very beautiful.
"I remember you said,
"Don't leave me here alone"
But all that's dead and gone and passed tonight…"
Faint strings of recognition pulled at the back of Henrietta's when she saw the musician's face, but no matter how much Henrietta tried, she couldn't figure out if she had seen the girl before. Henrietta soon found herself completely drawn in by the haunting song. Although Henrietta had never heard this song before, it seemed to speak to her soul.
The little cyborg walked up to the musician and sat down beside the upturned hat. She closed her eyes as she lost herself in the music.
Henrietta forgot her fears. She didn't mind that she was lost without supervision. Triela and Signore Jose would never abandon her. They would find her in time. If anything, they were looking for her right now. Besides, the musician would never let anything happen to her (how did she know this?).
Henrietta forgot her worries. It didn't matter that she was a cyborg killer with seemingly no control over her own destiny. She was still a girl who had loving friends to support her, and a loving brother and sister (she had a sister?) who would support her no matter what she chose for herself.
Henrietta forgot her despair. Death suddenly didn't seem like such a scary prospect to her anymore. All things passed on in time, and as long as her other half (what other half?) was beside her, there was always hope. There was no certainly… only possibility, and from there, hope.
"Just close your eyes.
The sun is going down.
You'll be alright,
No one can hurt you now.
Come morning light,
You and I'll be safe and sound…"
For one brief moment, Henrietta Croce was at peace.
Before she knew it, the song ended.
"So you enjoyed that, huh?" Henrietta snapped awake at the musician's amused voice. The rugged brunette giggled as Henrietta's cheeks colored with embarrassment for having been so engrossed in the song. The teenager reached a hand out in greeting. "My name is Danielle Musica. Nice to meet you."
Just for a brief second, Henrietta was too stunned to do anything. This stranger, Danielle, was offering her hand to shake? It suddenly hit Henrietta that she was so caught up in the song that she had forgotten a key point; she didn't know anything about Danielle. For all Henrietta knew, Danielle was actually a spy sent to abduct her.
Doubt began to creep back in her mind as Henrietta remembered the situation she was in. Alone in Rome, without direction or backup-
"Er, is everything okay kid?"
"My name is Harri… Henrietta." Henrietta quickly seized Danielle's hand and shook it, privately wondering where the near slip of her tongue came from. "That was very good. I've never heard anyone play and sing like that before."
"Thanks for the compliment." Danielle withdrew her hand and shook it out in the air. "Strong grip you got there. How much milk do you drink?" Henrietta felt her face flush with shame at forgetting her own strength. Perhaps she had been too eager with the handshake.
"Nah, I'm good. I'm just teasing you. It's not often I get so much attention from my audience that they actually sit down next to me just to listen to my songs."
"Um, where did you learn to play like that?" Henrietta blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
"No idea." Danielle roared with laughter when she saw Henrietta's eyes literally crossed at the admission. "No seriously, I'm completely self-taught."
"You must be a real prodigy then." Henrietta had taken ages to get as good as she did with her violin, but Danielle easily had her beat.
"Not really." Danielle carefully leaned her guitar onto the wall beside her. It seemed like the musician was focusing her full attention on Henrietta. "Practice enough and anyone can get the hang of it. Now come here for a bit."
"What are you doing?" Henrietta jumped back in alarm as Danielle suddenly leaned in towards her. The teenager held up both her hands in a non-threatening gesture in response.
"Sorry if I scared you, it's a bad habit. I suppose I should explain." Danielle gave a loopy grin. "To be blunt I think you're sick and I want to take a look at you to figure out what's wrong so I can fix you."
There was a short pause before Henrietta made the most skeptical expression she had ever given anyone. While it was true that she was sick thanks to her condition slowly degrading her mind, there was absolutely, positively no way that the musician could possibly know that. Furthermore, there was nothing Danielle could possibly do to help her.
"Are you making fun of me, Signorina Musica?" Henrietta said crossly.
"Hey, just saying!" Danielle held up both hands in a placating gesture. "Besides, you listened to my music just now and haven't paid me a cent. Could you just humor me for a moment?'
Henrietta pondered the musician's words. Deciding that the musician seemed harmless enough, Henrietta figured there shouldn't be any problem. "Well, okay I guess."
"And please call me Danielle. I'm fifteen years old, not twenty five."
"Don't worry, this should only take a moment." Leaning forward, Danielle studied intently with keen eyes. Henrietta wilted slightly under the older girl's penetrating gaze, for it seemed like the musician was looking into her soul. "Odd. You're… that's very odd." Danielle frowned as her brows furrowed and her lips curled into a frown. "You just look like-Can't be, you're too young."
"Excuse me?" Henrietta questioned anxiously. She was literally eye to eye with the older girl, and Danielle was clearly concentrating hard. Clearly something about Henrietta had perplexed the older girl.
"Never mind. I just got distracted. Just… seeing things where there aren't any." Danielle seemed to shake herself mentally before she refocused. "Kid, do you have some kind of problem with your brain?"
Henrietta's eye went wide. How did she-
"Brain damage, memory loss… It's like Alzheimer's, but worse. As in, 'I can't believe what I'm looking at' kind of worse. This shouldn't happen to someone your age." Danielle frowned deeply and stroked Henrietta's head with one of her hands tenderly. The cyborg was so startled by Danielle's declaration that she didn't even bother moving to stop the musician from intruding into her personal space. "Just from looking at you, you can't be more than twelve."
Henrietta's mouth opened slightly as she tried to figure out how a simple street performer had determined there was something wrong with her just by looking at her.
"Whoa, this is pretty bad. Good thing you ran into me." Danielle muttered to herself as she continued stroking the top of Henrietta's head carefully. As Danielle's hand stoked her crown, Henrietta felt a warm tingling sensation under her skull. After a few moments, the older girl finally let out a sigh of relief. "Damn kid, that was really weird. You should be careful; brain damage is nasty business."
"How did you do that?" Henrietta whispered.
"Magic." Danielle grinned.
"Why did you say magic?" Henrietta asked as she accepted the ice cream cone that Danielle had bought them with her earnings. After Danielle had 'inspected' Henrietta, the older girl suddenly announced that she would be treating Henrietta to some sweets. Now seated on of the middle steps of the Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti, while enjoying the clear afternoon sun and a cool snack, Henrietta was trying to puzzle out this enigma before her.
"Because it's a trade secret." Danielle set her guitar, now in its case, down beside her. The musician plopped her cowboy hat on top of her head and then started to leisurely lick her ice cream cone. "Besides, a magician never reveals her tricks."
Henrietta still had no idea what to make of the musician at all, but the more time she spent around Danielle, the less time she spent worrying about getting back to Triela and Signore Jose. Danielle's magnetism, to Henrietta at least, was simply unnatural. She felt compelled to understand this person better, and where better a place to start then the strange incident that had just happened?
"So you're not going to tell me?" Henrietta pleaded. "Even if I say please, Signorina?" Henrietta had been told that she had the most adorable puppy dog eyes ever. Judging from the choked breadth Danielle made as the musician caught sight of Henrietta's big innocent eyes, those people were right.
"Well, since you asked nicely." Danielle seemingly relented. "I happen to be a magical girl with healing abilities, so I noticed that there was something wrong with you that was severely affecting your health. I then used my magic to scan you for the problem and then used that same magic to fix your brain." Danielle winked mischievously at Henrietta. "How's that?"
"You're cute when you pout." Daniella giggled.
Try as she might, Henrietta could not tease out Danielle's methods. It was officially the first time her patented adorable face had ever failed to convince someone. In retaliation, Henrietta refused to tell Danielle where her 'illness' came from when the older girl asked. While it wasn't as if Henrietta could actually tell her that anyway, at least this time she had some excuse.
Seeing as how they had hit a dead end on that topic, the two girls started to talk about other random subjects. Danielle took great delight hearing stories about Henrietta's simple life at the Social Welfare Agency, sans the more shady aspects, of course. On the other hand, Henrietta found herself captivated in Danielle's experiences about travelling the globe with nothing but the clothes on her back and the guitar in her hands.
"So you just flew in here from Bakersfield?" While Bakersfield was by no means a small city, it was insignificant as far as the SWA was concerned. Henrietta had no idea it even existed. Even so, some of the other places that Danielle had travelled to were so obscure they were all but footnotes on a map. Danielle was to be the most well-travelled person Henrietta had ever met.
"Yeah. L.A. was the last place I was before I ended up here." Danielle said. "That's where I got my hat from; a souvenir shop from the Los Angeles International Airport."
"Don't your parents get worried about you travelling all by yourself?" Henrietta realized that was the wrong thing to say when she saw Danielle fall silent, her lips pressed into a thin line. "Oh, did something happen between you and them?"
"They're dead. Most of my family is. They've been dead for three years."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"Don't be. I've had a long time to get over it." Danielle gave Henrietta a comforting pat on her back as if to tell the cyborg she wasn't offended. "It was pretty bad though. It took me a long time to pull myself back together afterwards, but I had help from to a few good friends. They're the ones who suggested I go travelling. A 'walkabout', if you will. I might have taken it a mite far though."
Henrietta giggled at Danielle's understatement; the musician had literally travelled around the globe, financing herself the entire way with her guitar. That did beg a very important question though. "So where are you originally from, then?" Henrietta asked. Although Danielle looked like an Italian and her accent suggested she was a local. However her manner of dress, her mannerisms and her ruggedness suggested she came from elsewhere.
"Here, believe it or not."
"You don't seem very Italian."
"I never was a very good Roman." Danielle agreed. "I was more at home when I was touring America than I am back in Rome. I liked the independence and freedom that comes from being on the road. Not really one for dresses. I'm a bit odd that way." Danielle raised a questioning eyebrow at Henrietta. "What about you?"
"Me?" Henrietta lifted her index finger to point at herself.
"You seem pretty well off. You're wearing a designer coat, so 'Signore Jose' must be receiving quite the stipend from the Social Welfare Agency. Where have you been? He must have taken you to some weird and wonderful places."
And just like that, it was Henrietta's turn to feel discomfort.
"I can't remember." Henrietta mumbled on reflex as she scratched her cheek bashfully, trying to hide her uneasiness. Ever since her realization at the opera house yesterday, Henrietta knew that her memories were not what they used to be. The realization that she couldn't even remember what she did last Christmas was a frightening one. Henrietta had been itching to run back to her dorm room to read her diary to find out, but the fear was still there.
She couldn't even remember what had happened when she discovered the truth behind Elsa de Sica's murder suicide-
"Wait. I remember?"
"Remember what?" Danielle tilted her head at Henrietta's sudden exclamation.
"I remember going to Sicily last Christmas." Henrietta said, surprise in her voice. Some of the memories were a bit fuzzy, but the more she thought about it easier it was for her to recollect her memories. "I spent my holiday with Signore Jose at his family's villa. We were having such a good time there when Signore Fermi and Signorina Gabrelli arrived. Signorina Gabrelli taught me how to cook… "
"Family friends I presume?" When Henrietta didn't reply, Danielle waved a hand in front of the cyborg's face. "Hello? Earth of Henrietta?"
Henrietta paid Danielle no heed as she tried remembering other things. Of course there were some unimportant or unremarkable memories that had faded with time, but the vast majority of her memories were open to her. She could even remember waking up in her bed for the first time two and a half years ago! For the first time in what seemed like forever her mind seemed clear of the drugs that had poisoned her mind
"Wait. Don't tell me up to just now you couldn't remember where you've been?" Danielle's eyes grew wide with astonishment. "Wow, if all the girls are as ill as you, this Social Welfare Agency must be saints for taking you all in."
"How?" Henrietta whispered as she tried to comprehend what just had happened. While she was innocent and sometimes a little naïve, Henrietta did keep her eyes and ears open. She knew that the scientists who worked at the SWA were trying, and failing, to stop memory loss in their cyborgs. But suddenly in the span of one afternoon, all the adverse effects of her conditioning had been reversed.
"How did you do that?"
"Magic." Danielle shrugged. "Didn't I just tell you that?"
Time passed until the sun was beginning to set. Henrietta had tried again and again, but no matter how she pressed the issue, Danielle would skillfully brush of any of her questions about what had just happened. This also marked the first time in memory that Henrietta was actively annoyed with someone.
Ever the impressionable girl, Henrietta seriously believed that Danielle had magic. If her miraculous restoration of Henrietta's mind was truly Danielle's work, then Henrietta wanted to know how it had been done. The little cyborg was so excited that she had a half mind to pick Danielle up with her cyborg strength and carry the musician all the way back to the cyborg dormitories just so Danielle could work whatever trick she had used on Henrietta on the other cyborgs.
She thought better of it when she realized that Signore Jose would be very upset with her if she just abducted a random civilian in broad daylight.
When direct questioning went absolutely nowhere, Henrietta had tried being 'clever' and started asking about other things, hoping that those things would be circumstantial to the secret behind 'magic'. Perta told her that was one of Signore Ricci's specialties, so by all rights it should work!
First Henrietta asked Danielle about her guitar, and ended up getting what could only be described as a lecture on the 'illustrious history of the acoustic guitar'. It was an interesting lecture, but not quite what Henrietta was looking for. So Henrietta decided on asking Danielle if she learned magic from watching 'Sabrina the Teenage Witch'. Henrietta was then forced to endure to a longwinded rant about the superiority of Japanese cartoons over everything else, and how hard it was for Danielle to pursue her hobby while on the move with no money.
Henrietta definitely regretted asking about the faint scar over Danielle's left brow. The resulting tale made Henrietta silently vow never to go to Las Vegas. She had no desire to have such an adventure, nor did she wish to get chased out of a burning casino by a ferocious white tiger while wearing a bright pink Pinkie Pie costume.
Finally, after several other different topics, Henrietta chanced across the one question that actually yielded some answers.
"What's that ring you're wearing?." Henrietta curiously pointed at the silver band that rested on Danielle's right ring finger. The silver ring with a small ruby gemstone embedded in it was a very odd thing to find on Danielle's otherwise utilitarian appearance.
"M-My gem?" Danielle nervously rubbed the intricate silver band with her other hand. "It's important to me. Very important."
"Did your boyfriend give it to you?" Henrietta normally wasn't the teasing type, but she felt strangely compelled to give the older girl some mild ribbing for some reason.
"No. My sister gave it to me." Danielle quickly said. After the embarrassment passed, the older girl slipped into melancholy clearly if thinking of a sad memory. "Well, she did from a certain point of view, anyway."
Remembering that Danielle had told Henrietta that her family had been murdered, Henrietta could not help but regret asking that question. "Your sister? Is she-?"
"She's still alive." Danielle said confidently. However, even Henrietta could see the undertone of sadness that underlay the older girl's words. Danielle seemed to stare into the distance in contemplation before turning to the younger girl with a serious expression. "Tell me, Henrietta, do you believe in miracles?"
Henrietta pondered the philosophical question.
Did she believe in miracles? After the life she had lived, her natural instinctive response was to say 'no'. However thinking further Henrietta realized that the mere fact she was standing in the plaza that day was a miracle in itself. Her transformation into a cyborg had probably saved her life. Every joyous day she spent in the presence of Signore Jose was in itself a miracle. Also, Danielle, a self-professed 'magical girl', had seemingly healed her.
Did Henrietta believe in miracles? She most certainly did.
"I think I do." Henrietta answered.
"Miracles don't come easy, you know." Danielle's left hand unconsciously stroked the ring on her right hand as she talked. "It's not like in storybooks where everything automatically works out. In real life, if you want something done, something else has to be sacrificed. Joan of Arc saved her nation at the cost of her own life. Medea of Colchis saved Jason by sacrificing her own brother. Marie Curie pioneered the study on radioactivity, but ended up getting cancer."
"What does this have to do with you and your sister?"
"When my family was attacked, she and I were the only survivors." Danielle explained. "She was… badly hurt. My family's killers had tortured us the entire night and then left us for dead. She was worse off than I was. The police found us the following morning and we were rushed to hospital. Intensive care. We… got separated."
Henrietta felt something begin to stir in the recesses of her memory. Whispers of something from before the day she first woke up in the SWA began to gnaw at her subconscious. Henrietta suddenly felt very awkward listening to Danielle's history, but couldn't figure out why.
"I was told later that she died while they worked to save her. She was too far gone. There was nothing that could have been done." Danielle clenched her firsts in anger. "Which is a god damned lie. When I was feeling well enough, I broke into the hospital archives and found Harriet, my sister, had been removed from the facility by someone. Some kind of 'under the table' deal."
"So she's alive?" Henrietta asked, feeling very breathless all of a sudden. A multitude of emotions washed over Henrietta when she heard the name of Danielle's sister. It was as if someone had stuck a blade in her heart. Hiding her unease, Henrietta continued to listen to Danielle's story.
"Even if I hadn't seen that proof, I would have known. I know people say twins share a special bond, but… Harriet is my other half. I know she's out there. I guess you could say that's the miracle." Danielle nodded resolutely before looking at Henrietta. "You remind me of her you know? You have the same eyes as her, pure and innocent. Hair and face are mostly the same too. I guess that's why I like you so much, kid." Danielle said with a hint of loneliness in her words.
Henrietta realized that it all made sense. It explained why Danielle had taken so much time out of her own day to spend it with a complete stranger; Henrietta resembled Danielle's last memories of her lost sister. They were both drawn together for reasons outside their control.
Henrietta hit an epiphany.
"You've been looking for her."
"…Yeah." Danielle affirmed. "The hospital records never mentioned who took her away, but the cover-up left clues. Whoever took my sister had to be someone big, with a lot of money. I did a lot of digging, but I couldn't make sense of anything until I made some friends in the LAPD. That's why I was in America. They looked at the evidence I gathered and gave me a few pointers. My best guess right now is an underground child trafficking ring. Some sickos might have been willing to pay for my sister."
"That's horrible!" Henrietta gasped in revulsion. She'd actually seen some of those in her line of work. It was so disturbing that she'd had nightmares days afterwards, and that was even with the conditioning drugs to calm her dreams! "But if that's the case, then you should go to the police. Those traffickers are very dangerous. You should get help."
"Don't worry about me kid." Danielle managed to laugh and gave Henrietta another pat on her head. "I'm not going to do anything stupid. I'll find her and then alert the police when I do."
"If you say so." Henrietta said, unconvinced. The cyborg couldn't help but worry that Danielle was going to get in over her head over unnecessary risks. "But if you've been looking for her, why did you come back here? Italy doesn't have much in the way of people trafficking." Not with the SWA's recent crackdowns. Hillshire had been practically leading a one man crusade against that particular industry, with a vengeance.
"The men who murdered my family were arrested." Danielle said softly. "I came back the moment I found out. I'm still not sure why I did, though… revenge? Closure? I don't know. But I felt that I needed to be here. For a while, at least."
The two girls shared a moment of silence for Danielle's family. Henrietta wondered what it must be like for Danielle, who had quite literally lost everything she had because of those men. What must it be like for Danielle to know that after so many years, her family's killers were finally brought to justice? She'd known that Signore Jean was obsessed with revenge, but Signore Jean was a grown man; Danielle as a young girl. Henrietta turned to look at Danielle and saw the musician was actually blinking back tears.
Henrietta felt something stir within her. The image of Danielle sitting there, alone blinking back tears was simply unacceptable. Without a moment's hesitation, the little cyborg leaned over to the teen and, with a gentleness that belied her immense strength, embraced Danielle.
"Uncanny. You even hug like her." Danielle shivered; the waver in the teen's voice did not go unnoticed by Henrietta who felt Danielle's pain in her heart.
"What was she like?" Henrietta found the question glide off her lips before she could stop herself. Even to someone as dense as Henrietta, it was clear that Danielle's raison d'etre was to be reunited with her missing twin. Danielle's dedication to her family was nothing short of astounding, even to a cyborg; the musician was risking life and limb to find her sister, not because of some compellation from a drug, but out of her own free will.
"You want to know what my sister was like?"
"If you don't mind Signorina, could you please tell me about her? You sister, I mean."
Danielle smiled proudly.
"I would be delighted to."
Triela ran up to where Petrushka and Beatrice were waiting for her at their agreed meeting spot on the Ponte Sant'Angelo.
"She's not near the shopping districts. Have either of you had any luck?" Triela panted heavily when she came to a stop. When her two friends shook their heads, Triela hung her head in defeat. "We are in so much trouble. Figures that the one time they let us out on our own, this happens."
"What are we going to do?" Petra was on the verge of a full blown panic attack. Her feisty cyborg's imagination conjured fanciful thoughts of little Henrietta, wandering around lost and alone without her big sisters to protect her. "Should we call our handlers?"
"We have no choice." Bice nodded at the suggestion. "Tell our handlers."
"I'm hoping we don't have to resort to that just yet." Triela sighed wearily, wishing for once that the agency allowed the cyborgs to carry their own mobile phones.
Unbeknownst to the three cyborgs, a pair of girls were having a very similar conversation just a few feet away from them. Two girls, one in her early twenties and the other barely into her preteens, were talking animatedly about a very similar problem.
"What do you mean she didn't meet you at the airport, Aurora?"
"She just didn't, Regina!" Aurora, a small blue eyed girl with her hair tied into a simple ponytail wrung her hands nervously. Regina, a collage age girl with long dark hair in a suit and tie scowled mercilessly as she recounted what had happened. "I went out of my way to slip past my parents and everything, but she just didn't show up."
"I should have sent someone older." Regina muttered, the gears in her mind already turning.
"It's not your fault." Regina assured her young friend. "You've never met before, so maybe she just didn't recognize you from the photo I sent. But still, this is a problem. Musica is far too reckless for her own good. If we leave her alone, who knows what kind of mischief she'll get up to."
Meanwhile, the three cyborgs had come to an agreement on their plan to find their missing sister.
"So we make one more sweep before we call in the cavalry? Are we agreed on this?" Triela concluded. Seeing the simultaneous nods, she continued. "Is there anywhere we missed during our last search? Anywhere at all?"
"Rome is a big place, Triela. Trying to find Henrietta while the sun is up and the crowds are about will be like trying to find a needle in a haystack." Petra bit her lip worriedly. "But now that you think about it, we did miss some of the more popular tourist locales doing our last search. Do you think we can find her at one of them?"
"Henrietta's shy. I don't think she'll go anywhere with a large concentration of people without Jose or one of us to hold her hand." Triela reasoned. "Anyway, we'd best get to it if we want to find her before it really gets dark!"
Just as the trio of cyborgs had come to their agreement so, too, did the other pair.
"The trial is in this city. She couldn't have gone far." Regina pondered carefully. "Danielle also needs to get some money to eat, so she'll probably have gone to a place where she can perform, likely a tourist hotspot. That narrows down the places we need to search."
"So where do you want to start first?"
"For us? The Coliseum." Regina decided as she flipped her cellphone open and began hitting the speed dial. "I'll get everyone we have who can spare the time to search for her. We can cover the whole city in under an hour with I can get even half of us on board. I necessary I'll vene get in touch with the other Matrons and borrow some of their manpower."
"Is she really that important?" Aurora marveled at the lengths Regina was willing to go to find one girl.
"Let me put it this way, Aurora. With the way things are now, if Musica does something rash we might end up in a war with the Northern Italy group." Regina grumbled as she brought the phone to her ear.
"Sonya. Where are you? We have an emergency."
"I was always the stupid one, rushing into things. Our sister Olivia said it best, I think. I was always the one who went looking for trouble, and Harriet was the one who bailed us out of it. " Danielle giggled as she recounted the memory. "That wasn't to say she was the sensible one, though. She could get into as much mischief as I could if she really put her mind to it."
Henrietta couldn't get enough of listening to Danielle's tales about her family. Whereas they had traded stories earlier, Henrietta was now listening to Danielle with rapt attention as the older girl recounted memories that had been long past.
Being a cyborg, Henrietta did not actually have a flesh and blood sibling to call her own. Sure, she had Triela and Rico and all the other cyborgs, but as she listened to Danielle, Henrietta felt that it just wasn't the same. Danielle had literally grown up alongside Harriet for her entire life, experiencing good days and the bad until their tragic separation.
Henrietta delighted in the simple tales Danielle told her, like their first surprise birthday party or their first camping trip. But there was an undercurrent of sadness; Henrietta's heart bled with the knowledge that no matter how happy Danielle had been in those stories, the musician had eventually been ripped from her sister. Danielle had quite literally lost her other half.
"You two were very close, weren't you?"
"We were 'thick as thieves', as the saying goes." Danielle affirmed, her eyes set in their determination. "That's why I'm not going to give up looking for her. No matter how long it takes or how many toes I have to step on, I'm going to find her one day." Danielle waved at her surroundings dramatically for emphasis. "All this is just a side trip. Once I'm done here, it'll be me back on the trail of those child smugglers!"
"She's very lucky to have a sister like you." Henrietta said. A sence of pride inexplicably welled in her chest at Danielle's confident proclamation.
Little Dani had grown up so well…
"I know so!" Danielle laughed heartily.
"There you are, Danielle!" A voice suddenly called out from the top of the steps. Both Danielle and Henrietta craned their necks to see a girl, blonde haired in her late teens, literally stomping her way down the steps towards them. The spectacle was further exaggerated when you took into account the girl was wearing a MacDonald's uniform, of all things.
"Sonya Durante, as I live and breathe! It's been ages, how've have you been?" Danielle casually raised a hand in greeting. Upon realizing that Sonya was not reciprocating her greeting and was in fact looking very annoyed, the musician abruptly dropped her hand. "Er, nice uniform by the way. Is that another part time job? I thought you were working for Starbucks."
"I got fired. Again. What are you doing here? Regina just told me you missed your pick up at the airport." Sonya glared condescendingly with her hands placed firmly on her hips.
"Well, when I couldn't find the new kid you guys sent to pick me up, I made my way over here." Danielle nervously laughed. "I figured someone would come across me, eventually. And, hey look, it was you!"
"You're just as unreasonable as ever." Sonya gave a long suffering sigh, but quickly lit up with a brilliant smile. "It's good to have you back, if only for a bit. Things haven't been the same without you."
"I know it was. Want to take a sit down?" Danielle patted the stone steps beside her as an invitation. "I just made this new friend here!"
"Nice to meet you." Henrietta gave a polite bow while remaining seated. "My name is Henrietta Croce. It's a pleasure to meet you too, Signorina Durante."
When Sonya turned to look at Henrietta, the smile on her face dropped right off her face and was replaced with a look of abject shock, horror and disbelief. The teenager's face had gone deathly pale as well, and she was actually quivering in fear. Henrietta instantly felt her whole body go tense at Sonya's severe reaction.
Henrietta had no way to be sure, but the possibility was there. Could Sonya know what she was?
"N-Nice to meet you too, Henrietta C-Cr-Croce." Sonya said shakily. The blonde haired girl quickly made a big show of looking at her watch. "Oh my, look at the time! It's a really good thing I found you when I did Danielle! We have that appointment to get to!"
"Wait? What?" Danielle blinked in confusion.
"Your welcoming party, silly! Sophia has all sorts of things she wants to tell you about what's being going on while you were gone. Very important things." Sonya reached over and pulled a protesting Danielle to her feet. Quickly grabbing the musician's guitar off the floor and literally shoving the instrument into its owner's arms.
All the while Henrietta never took her eyes off this Sonya person, who kept shooting nervous glances back in her direction. Something was clearly suspicious about her. But more importantly, Sonya was trying to get Danielle away from her, which was making Henrietta unusually angry.
"What the heck is going on? Chill out, sister." Danielle plopped her hat on her head and shouldered her guitar case strap. "I never heard anything about a welcoming party. What gives?"
"It was a surprise party!" Sonya quickly replied. "We wanted it to be a surprise but we're running late and we need to hurry and get there or we will miss everything and…"
"Sonya, you're rambling." Danielle placed a calming hand on the taller girl's shoulder. "I can tell there is something wrong."
Sonya spared a quick glance to Henrietta before leaning into Danielle's ear and whispering two quick words into it. Had Henrietta had a normal person's hearing, she world have missed them. Even as a cyborg, she just barely made out the words.
While those words made absolutely no sense to Henrietta, they seemed to have an immediate effect on the other two girls. Danielle and Sonya had gone deathly quiet. They seemed to simply look into each other's eyes., and their facial expressions seemed to change as time passed, with Danielle giving disbelieving expressions while Sonya looked like she was trying to convince her friend. After some time of observing the two, Henrietta got bored and started to watch the people around her.
"She's twelve years old. This is ridiculous." Danielle finally spoke aloud, drawing Henrietta's attention back on the duo.
"I know, but trust me on this. You know me Dani." Sonya almost begged.
"…Fine. But let me say goodbye first." Danielle huffed before turning towards Henrietta. "Sorry kid, looks like I'm going to have to dash. You going to be okay over here?"
Henrietta nodded, but not before giving Sonya, who was shifting uncomfortably behind Danielle, an angry glare. She would be checking up on this Sonya Durante, that was for sure. "I'll be fine Signorina Danielle. Will you be playing here again?"
"You can count on it." Danielle patted Henrietta on her head one last time.
"Danielle..." Sonya cut in grabbing the musician's arm and pulling Danielle away from Henrietta.
"Hey, watch the arm Sonya! It was nice meeting you Henrietta!" Danielle gave one last wave before she was dragged way by her friend, leaving Henrietta alone on the steps.
Henrietta lowered her hand dejectedly at the feisty musician's departure as the feeling of loneliness settled in. Now that Danielle was gone, all the problems that she was keeping at bay had come back to the fore. She was still lost, and she was still alone.
But there was one difference.
Henrietta didn't feel as bad as she had before. Danielle's stories about having travelled the world seemed to have ignited a spark in Henrietta, a confidence she didn't know she had. So what if she was lost and alone? It wasn't as if she didn't have any options available to her to get back to Signore Jose. If it came to the worst, she could just go up to the police and get them to take her back.
Now in a calmer state of mind, Henrietta picked herself off the steps and was just about to start walking towards the neatest tourist information booth when an all too familiar voice called out to her.
"Henrietta? What are you doing here?"
"Signore Hillshire!" Henrietta's face lit up at the sight of the familiar figure walking towards her. Things were looking up already.
Triela was going to die, and her killer would to be Jose Croce.
Triela had not found Henrietta. She had instead wasted an entire afternoon on one wild goose chase around Rome. Visions of Jose coldly pulling the plug on her wretched existence danced though her mind alongside more fanciful images of him slowly taking a perverse pleasure on drawing out her execution. Triela wouldn't blame him one bit; she had practically swore to him that she would take care of his precious Henrietta before they had gone out on the town.
Petra and Bice had offered to help take some of the blame, but Triela would have none of it; it was her decision to delay telling the handlers, and so it would be her responsibility. But now that she was standing outside the door to Jose's hotel room with no one to watch her back, Triela was beginning to have second thoughts about that particular idea
"Well, nothing to it." Triela said as she steeled herself for the pain. Against every bit instinct of "self-preservation she had, Triela pressed the electronic doorbell to the hotel room door and waited.
"Come in, Triela. I was expecting you."
Triela went shock still.
Jose was already expecting her. Knowing that her doom was near, Triela gave silent apologies to Hillshire as she opened the door and walked into the room.
Henrietta, Jose and Hillshire were seated around the coffee table sharing tea and biscuits.
"Hello, Triela! I thought that was you outside." Henrietta smiled at Triela from where she was sitting. "You have a very distinct footstep."
"Bwah?" Triela opened and shut her mouth like a goldfish. The Tunisian Princess slumped against a nearby wall when she suddenly felt her knees go weak.
"Thanks again for letting me borrow Henrietta this afternoon." Hillshire nodded towards his completely perplexed ward. The German's face was completely devoid of any hint of a lie. "She was particularly helpful in helping me pick out the colors of all your new mobile phones."
"Phones? What phones?" Triela blabbered.
"It was a surprise, Triela!" Henrietta clapped her hands together in delight. "Signore Lorenzo decided that since we were performing so well, he'd allow us to actually have our own mobile phones."
"He did?" Triela officially had no idea what was going on anymore. Hillshire had walked over and gently guided his shell-shocked cyborg over to a vacant chair where she continued to stare dumbly at a very happy Henrietta, enthusiastically treating herself to a plate of biscuits.
"Yes. Although there are going to be a few ground rules." Jose informed Triela. "But the benefit of our cyborgs having a means to call us far outweighs the potential risks, wouldn't you say? Besides, I'm sure you're ready for the responsibility, right Triela?"
"It'll also be very useful if any of us got separated." Hillshire quipped.
"Hey Triela, this phone has a function called a speed dial!" Henrietta exclaimed with delight.
Triela went still as a statue at when Henrietta produced a brand new smart phone from her purse and began to wave it excitedly at her face. Triela then slowly turned to face a stoic looking Hillshire, the edges of his lips slightly twitching upwards despite his best efforts to retain her poker face. Finally, Triela turned to Jose who was calmly looking into her trice damned soul from over the edge of his teacup like he was deciding whether she was going to heaven or hell…
"Okay! I admit it! I'm sorry!" Triela's will collapsed like the proverbial house of cards. "I lost her! I lost her and then I couldn't find her even though I searched the entire city! I'm sorry!"
"I know." Jose couldn't help but grin ear to ear as Triela turned to look at a laughing Hillshire. "Yeah, she folded alright. You called it."
"Of course I did." Hillshire puffed his chest out proudly. "She's my Triela. No one knows her better than me. Honest to a fault, even if she did need a little prodding."
"You do know she'd be terrible at poker." Jose shook his head, not even bothering to hide his mirth.
"I'd better hope 'Sandro doesn't teach Petra that game then!"
"Wait. What? You two planned this?" Triela gawked at the two men as she shifted her gaze from one to another. Seeing them both nod at her, Triela realized that she had been had. For whatever reason, Jose had known about her failure, but instead of getting angry he had decided to prank her instead. Feeling the heat rise to her cheeks, Triela buried her face behind her hands to hide her embarrassment.
"I hate you both." Triela muttered from behind her shame, prompting the two men to break down into laughter.
"Signore Jose?" Henrietta stared at the scene before her in total confusion. "What's 'poker'?"
"So Triela's not going to get punished?"
"No, she's not." Jose said as he tucked Henrietta into bed. "Oh, she might get a few extra chores next week, but that's about all she will get."
What Jose wasn't telling her was that Triela was getting off easy because Jose and Hillshire were holding themselves personally responsible for what had happened. Jean had warned him, after all, and it would be bad form for him to hoist all the fault onto Triela, when it was his poor judgment in the first place that resulted in the mishap. Jean was probably going to give Jose an earful later, but that would be nothing compared to the shock he would have received if Henrietta had actually gone missing.
It was probably why he'd suggested Hillshire, bless that lucky German for finding his Henrietta, to go and buy all the girls mobile phones. Jose wasn't planning on letting his surrogate sister out of his sight ever again, but after today, it would pay to be just a little safe. He'd have to clear it with Lorenzo later, though, since He'd lied through his teeth about them getting authorization.
"So, did you have a good day today?" Jose asked.
"Yes, Signore Jose." She smiled up at him with a smile that just melted his heart. "I even made a new friend today. Her name was Danielle Musica. She's a street musician."
"I see." While his face bore no hint of it, Jose was mentally making a note to find out more about 'Danielle' when he got back to the Agency. Henrietta was safe and sound from the looks of it, but Jose was both a secret agent and a concerned elder brother. 'Danielle' was probably just an average kid, but it was better to be safe than sorry.
"By the way we'll be going to Sicily again." Jose informed her. "It'll be just like last Christmas. I'll tell you all about it in the morning."
"Will Signore Fermi and Signorina Gabrelli be there too?" Henrietta asked, her voice slowly getting drowsier from her nightly dose of medication.
Jose hesitated when he heard Henrietta's passing remark. Considering what he'd been told about Henrietta's condition from the scientists, he was amazed that she could remember that far back. However, he quickly chalked it up to his good fortune and the low conditioning regime he had her on.
He didn't want to count his blessings now, not when he had so few left where Henrietta was concerned.
"I'll have to ask them, then." He told her as he kissed her on the forehead. "Goodnight, Henrietta."
"Goodnight, Signore Jose."
Henrietta's dreams were unusually vivid and peaceful that night. Normally, what few dreams Henrietta had were either that of the mundane innocence of her day to day life at the SWA or vivid yet frightening memories of something horrible she didn't want to remember. However this time, it was different. This time, Henrietta was having her first real dream.
Henrietta was dreaming about playing in a park. She was much shorter than she was now, which, considering her height, was truly saying something. There was another girl who looked exactly like her playing with her. Henrietta and her lookalike were playing hide and seek.
She was hiding and her doppelganger was trying to find her. Henrietta didn't know what she was hiding behind, but she could tell that she was well hidden since the other girl was trying very hard, and was failing, to find her. Henrietta thought the game was fun. The other girl, frantically looking through many other hiding spots, didn't seem to think so. In fact, Henrietta saw that the other girl was desperate.
Eventually after a long time, she got tired of waiting and got out of her hiding spot. She walked over to the other girl, who was facing away from her still looking through another hiding spot, and tapped her playmate on the shoulder. The other girl turned around…
Abruptly, Henrietta was back on the Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti sitting beside Danielle. Unlike that afternoon the pair were alone in the massive plaza, with Henrietta listening intently to Danielle play a slow ballad on her guitar. This time both of them were dressed differently from how she remembered.
Henrietta was in full battle attire. Gone was the simple civilian dress she had been wearing, instead Henrietta was clothed in dark form fitting clothes, from her short sleeved t-shirt and running trousers to her black fingerless gloves. Her back holster, with the Sig Sauer P239 holstered inside, was in plain view, and her faithful FN P90 was resting comfortably in her lap. Despite the fact Henrietta was dressed to kill, literally, Danielle did not seem alarmed at all by Henrietta's appearance. If anything, Danielle's clothing was even more unique.
Danielle was wearing a maroon duster coat that had fancy gold embroidering over a scarlet waistcoat and button up pink blouse. The wide brimmed maroon cowboy hat, very much unlike the one Henrietta had seen her with that day due to the gold embroidering, sat comfortably on Danielle's head. She also wore auburn jeans and maroon cowboy boots, similarly embroidered. At Danielle's right hip rested a single golden revolver of some unknown make in its holster, and a lever action rifle was slung across the girl's back.
The most striking thing, even taking account the weapons Danielle carried, was the golden badge the musician wore proudly on the breast of her waistcoat, just over her heart. It was a six pointed star with a single ruby gemstone in its center. The gem glowed with an unearthly light.
Henrietta paid but a passing acknowledgement to Danielle's strange appearance. Even though both of them were armed, Henrietta felt completely safe around Danielle. The musician's gloved hands danced on the strings of the guitar with practiced skill, the soothing ballad washing over Henrietta like a fresh spring breeze. Like she did that afternoon, Henrietta set aside her worries and lost herself in that comforting memory.
Memories of her new friend.
In the darkness of the hotel room well past midnight, Henrietta's eyes shot open as she realized that in all the excitement something had slipped her mind.
"Oh no! I forgot to ask Danica about the magic trick!"
A/N: After two years, I have completed my mandatory two year fulltime National Service. I'm about as happy as I could possibly be. This means that I can get to writing again. Yayfications!
This story came about as a knee jerk reaction to the bloodbath in the New Turin arc. Triela and Hillshire finally buying a farm, Henrietta and Jose's double suicide… All my favorite characters were just going out in horrible ways. It was just heartbreaking! So I decided to publish a story that would inject some honest to goodness hope into the setting. What better way to inject hope into a setting than to introduce Magical Girls, the physical embodiments of love, justice and goodness?
Except of course, I proceeded to go on another Puella Magi Madoka Magica marathon, and this thing was born. Time will tell how this story will pan out, but I a bunch of interesting ideas!
Thanks for reading this chapter, and I hope you enjoyed it.
Disclaimer – Gunslinger Girl and Puella Magi Madoka Magica belong to respective owners, Yuu Aida and Gen Urobuchi, and this work is strictly not for profit. The character of Danielle is the original creation of Person With Many Aliases. The song 'Safe and Sound' was written and sung by Taylor Swift.
I value my continued existence thank you very much. Attempting to lay claim to Triela or Madoka is a surefire way to get an angry papa-bear handler and time traveler with more guns than god out for my blood. And I don't even want to think about what happens if PWMA sic's Colt on my sorry behind.