Chapter Eighteen: Shadows and Wormwood

In the alley behind 2217 Malmsey Street, a figure crept toward the back door of Zero's house.

The man scanned the other houses, and set to his task.

He smiled---a chilling smile---recalling the message he had received, concerning his target.

Hello Angel, what a lovely morning. Pity it's your last. He paused, listening for the click of a yielding lock. And you, Coach Enna, what a shame you had to get involved with this little scum. Maybe a bit of schooling will change your mind? Of course, if you're going to be stubborn, I can still have some fun.

The stranger glanced up, and opened the door.

Hiead Gner woke to the sound of Zero's voice, speaking in a murmur, before hanging up a telephone.

He pressed his face into the pillows, breathing in the scent of the previous night. A hand touched his shoulder, moving up to ruffle his hair. Soft lips descended, kissing the nape of his neck.

"Morning, koishii," Zero murmured, before nibbling on Hiead's ear. "Did the angels keep you company?"

"Yes," he replied, turning to gaze at the blue-eyed man. "One angel stayed the night with me."

"Was the angel beautiful?"

"Beyond language," Hiead answered, planting a kiss on Zero's nose.

Zero's eyes twinkled in a mix of desire and mischief. "What did the angel say?"

"He whispered that I was his own." Hiead took Zero's left hand, studying the ring finger, before kissing the palm. "And he whispered something else."

"What did he whisper to you?"

"That he is mine." He paused, a smile tugging at his mouth. "Jealous?"

"Not really," Zero grinned, kissing Hiead on the lips.

"Who was that calling you?"

"That was Clay." Hiead drew in a breath. "He and Saki are coming over a bit later. Said he had something urgent."

"So when will they be here?"

"They should be here in a couple of hours." Zero whispered, "But we can't greet them as we are, now, can we?" Hiead purred, feeling hot breath and teeth nibbling at his ear.

"No, I suppose we can't."

Zero tugged the sheets from the bed, as Hiead sat up. Ruby-red eyes glowed, roving over his itooshii's body---long muscles accenting smooth skin, slender legs, graceful arms and fingers, and deep blue eyes, lit like a winter's evening, in a face that radiated joy, desire, and fierce devotion.

The dark-haired man gazed at his koishii, whose creamy skin, flushed from sleep, smelled of the previous night.

Zero blushed, recalling the afternoon when he first touched Hiead, after one of Azuma's lectures. And if I needed proof that Hiead Gner did, indeed, have naturally silver-white hair---I got it that day! What would the instructor have said, if he knew what took place on his desk? "No, sensei, we were just discussing the theory of relativity." Yeah, right. Azuma would have burned the desk, that is, if he didn't blackmail us into being his boy toys!

"Oi, what's brewing in that pretty little mind of yours?" Hiead's voice snapped Zero out of his reverie.

"Just thinking of that afternoon we spent in that classroom. The first time, I think, we really dared touch each other." He smiled. "Oh god, but you were gorgeous that day---worth every hickey and cat scratch. And," he added, in a husky growl, "you still are."

Hiead wrapped his arms around Zero, who nestled in them, sighing.

{And they were naked and not ashamed, wasn't that the verse?}

{Second chapter of Genesis, if memory serves.}

{Were you and I alone today, I would gladly spend it clothed in you, Hiead.}

{When do Clay and Saki get here?}

{Around 9:30, why?}

Hiead traced spirals along the nape of Zero's neck.

"I think we have a little time before they get here. And when they leave," he chuckled, "then we can spend the day however we please."

"Oh, the possibilities," Zero laughed, rubbing noses with Hiead. "But shouldn't we at least have a bath?"

"Just a bath?" Hiead teased, nipping Zero's lower lip.

"If you're very, very wicked, we can make it more interesting."

Hiead scooped the dark-haired man up, walking them to the bathroom.

An hour later, the two stepped out of the bathroom, wrapped in towels and each other.

Habibi bounded up the stairs, wreathing the lovers.

"Little love?" The calico meowed, stretching at Zero's feet. "Did you miss us, little love?"

Habibi gave them a sidelong glance, before walking toward the landing, and settling there.

Zero nudged Hiead. "He's taking another nap."

They retreated to the guest room, towels falling off.

"Rei, do you have a change of clothes I can borrow? At least for now?"

"I think I can scare something up. The trousers might be a close fit."

"So long as they fit," Hiead replied.

Zero gave him a kiss, and motioned for Hiead to follow, as he retreated to his bedroom.

"I can't help but think," Zero said, as he began dressing, "about what it would have been like if we'd spent the last seven years together."

"No knowing," Hiead replied. "But we're here, and this is now." He caught a pair of jeans, a long grey pullover, and a navy sweater.

Zero yanked a plum turtleneck over his head. Dark, still-damp spikes fanned out.

A low click echoed from downstairs.

Habibi woke, hissing and yowling.

Zero turned to Hiead.

{Can you hear that?}

{Someone just broke in.}

Zero flew out of his room, making a dash for the stairs.

{Stay where you are.}

{Rei, have you flipped?}

{I don't know who's there, but I don't like the vibe I'm picking up.}

{Neither do I. Call me if things get crazy.}

{I'm a big boy, Hiead.}

{So?}

Zero rolled his eyes.

{All right. I'll let you know if I need help.}

{You do, or I'll thrash you, Enna.}

{Promises, promises. Bite me, Gner.}

{What, and risk a rabies shot?}

{You are such a comedian.}

{Did I say I was joking?}

Zero growled.

{Just be careful, okay?}

Hiead shook his head, and finished dressing. He sat on the landing, next to Habibi.

Mother Kannon, shield him.

Once downstairs, Zero checked the front door. All the locks are still locked. No sign of force. Check and check.

He inspected the windows, making his way to the kitchen.

The sharp sound of heels on the laundry room floor---"trrrrr"---sent a jolt down Zero's spine.

Whoever this is, he's an awfully cocky bastard.

He slipped out of the kitchen, toward the back door. Don't know who you are, but I really have no time for games. Show yourself, already.

The back door creaked.

Zero bristled, but followed the sound, through the open door, and into the alley.

Shadows washed over Hiead's car.

A figure stepped forward: tall and muscular, dressed head to foot in black. Jet-black hair fell around the man's shoulders; eyes the color of malachite stared through Zero.

The man advanced, catching Zero's forearms in a firm grip. "Where is the bounty hunter?" he hissed. "I've come for the Angel."

"He's gone." Zero met the stranger's glare. "He left, sometime during the night. No explanation," he added, in a tone that he hoped sounded like that of a jilted lover, "just gave me a night 'for old time's sake' and vanished."

"Little boy," the man spat back, "you are a terrible liar. The Angel would never leave his car behind. Not unless he wanted to meet our boys on the road. He is here. Two of our men met him at a truck stop, en route to Red River City. Another spotted him, in your company, at the viewing for Kuerten's dead brat."

"You want the Angel?" Zero laughed. "I suggest you take a number. He's made enough enemies for a lifetime. You barely qualify."

The man loosened his grip on Zero's forearms, delivering a knee to the solar plexus. He collapsed, knees first, onto the floor, coughing.

"Awfully big mouth," the man sneered, "for someone who let his comrade, and his star player, die." He watched Zero's face. "And here I thought you had at least a shred of compassion. You must be a true Zenoah, after all."

"Who are you," the brown-haired man gasped, "to tell me what I am? You haven't even bothered to introduce yourself."

Meanwhile, Hiead had padded downstairs, and into the kitchen.

The stranger smiled. "Seeing that I am a gentleman, let me rectify the matter. Call me Harbinger, second in command, Order of the Falling Star."

"You must love the sound of your voice in the morning," Zero replied. {Hiead? What are you doing in the kitchen?}

"Boy," Harbinger cut in, "don't play the idiot on me. We were talking about how today was a lovely day for you---and the filth you're harboring--- to die. But maybe you wanted to have a last breakfast?"

{Zero! Who is this blowhard?}

{Calls himself Harbinger. Real piece of work. Order of the Falling Star, or some such tosh.}

{I've heard of them---the crème de la crème among mercenaries. They give new meaning to the phrase "killing machine."}

"Hello, pretty boy," the black-haired man said, "let's get ourselves into the kitchen, then. We eat, have a little chat, and then we can work out your disappearance and death."

Zero got up. {Go into the living room. Wait till I've seated him before you join me.} He smiled at Harbinger. "Come this way." He walked on, followed by the other man. "Take a seat," he said, motioning toward a chair. "Not every day I entertain an assassin. Would you prefer coffee or tea?" he asked, filling the kettle. "I've got some brioche from yesterday's bakery run, which I can warm up. Fancy a tortilla de papas? Very easy to make, I assure you. I've also got some frozen red grapes, yummy! And I can set you up with some palmiers while you're waiting."

"Shut up and cook," Harbinger snapped.

Zero started rummaging the refrigerator and the pantry. "Mind if I play the radio?"

"Yes." He rolled his eyes, watching Zero set up his work area.

"Tough." He switched on the radio. {Whenever you're ready, make the entrance. Got it?}

{Got it.} Hiead shifted up from the sofa, and sat behind the assassin.

A crackle of white noise, and then: "And that was 'Police on my Back,' from The Clash. Stay tuned for songs from Sheila Nicholls, Robert Johnson, and Uncle Tupelo. Zobeida Chahine with you till noon, here, on Radio Flora."

Harbinger scowled. Leave it to the First to send me to the house of a man who's mental as anything. This is the one who took out the mothership? I doubt it. He snorted, unaware of the silver-haired man behind him, who removed his weapons with great stealth. Daft punk---I'm here on a mission, and he's asking me if I want tea!

Hiead smiled to himself, settling in another chair.

"Oi, Harvey," Zero said, "do you want some orange juice?"

"Don't call me Harvey."

{He winds up easily, doesn't he, Zero?}

{Needs to get the pole out of his ass. Eh, all apologies, creepy visualization there.}

"Sorry, Harvey-baby, wasn't thinking." A familiar melody began; Zero squealed. "I love this one---sing with me, won't you?"

{Hiead? Is he clean?}

{Whistle-clean. Only a body-cavity search would ensure he's exhaustively disarmed---and I think we can skip that delightful activity.}

{Of course. Thanks for sharing.}

Harbinger fumed, "It's not Harvey, nor is it Harvey-baby ---the name is Harbinger, you twat! And I do not sing nancy-boy songs, got that?"

"Try to lighten up the mood, and look what you get. Suit yourself." He began to sing along, while beating the eggs.

"We move like cagey tigers, oh we couldn't get closer than this. The way we walk, the way we talk, the way we stalk the way we kiss! We slip through the streets while everyone sleeps, getting bigger and sleeker and wider and brighter. We bite and scratch and scream all night; let's go a- flow, all the songs we know. Into the sea, you and me, all these years where no-one heard. I'll show you in Spring, it's a treacherous thing; we miss you, hiss the Love Cats! Daa-da-da-da, da-da, da-da, daa-da-da-da, da- da-da-da!"

Zero set the eggs aside. He peeled three potatoes, sliced them, and placed them in a skillet, sizzling with olive oil.

Hiead sat back in his chair, watching the show his love was putting on. I hope you know what you're doing, Zero, 'cos I'm a little foxed at the moment.

"You're so wonderfully, wonderfully, wonderfully, wonderfully pretty. Oh, you know that I'd do anything for you. We should have each other to tea, huh? We should have each other with cream, then curl up in the fire and sleep for a while. It's the grooviest thing; it's the perfect dream. Into the sea, you and me, all the years where no-one heard. I'll show you in spring, it's a treacherous thing; we miss you, hiss the Love Cats! We miss you, hiss the Love Cats! We miss you!"

While the potatoes browned, he pulled a bowl of red grapes from the freezer, setting them on the table. Whatever you do, don't panic, Enna. He turned back to the skillet, checking the potatoes and pouring the eggs into the pan.

"So wonderfully, wonderfully, wonderfully, pretty! You know that I'd do anything for you. We should have each other to dinner. We should have each other with cream, then curl up in the fire, get up for a while. It's the grooviest thing; it's the perfect dream. Hand in hand is the only way to land and always the right way round, not broken in pieces like hated little meeces; how could we miss someone as dumb as this? We miss you, hiss the Love Cats, we miss---ohhh!"

A flash of color streaked into the kitchen; Harbinger flinched.

"Habibi," Zero said, "I'm sorry, little love, did I disturb you?" The cat nuzzled his leg, as he removed the skillet from the stove, to finish the omelet in the oven.

Habibi paused, inspecting the stranger. What was the silver one doing? Hiead caught the cat's stare, and then smirked, as Zero brought over a plate with brioche, butter and palmiers.

"My cat," Zero said, to the man at the table. "Doesn't take well to being roused." The cat bristled, back arched. "He also doesn't like strangers." Habibi circled the assassin, hissing and spitting.

Harbinger looked over the calico. "Yeah, well I don't particularly like him either." He moved a leg, waiting for the cat to approach.

Habibi lunged for the man's face, clawing his cheek.

"Little monster!" Harbinger grabbed the cat by the scruff. "You just wasted your last life."

He shook the calico, which spat and thrashed.

As he prepared to throw Habibi, a steely hand gripped his wrist, forcing him to drop the cat.

"On the contrary," Hiead said, "you're not much longer for this world."

Zero leaned down, smiling at the assassin. "Have you made out your will recently?"

Harbinger craned his head, eyes widening, as he saw the face of the man who had restrained him. This is the one Slattery and Cray went on about.

"Let him go."

Hiead released him, snorting in derision. He glanced at Zero, and pulled his chair next to that of the intruder.

Harbinger crossed his arms, feigning boredom. Calling off the bounty-boy? Big mistake, Coach Enna. I've got a few goodies up my sleeve for you both. He leaned back, popping a grape.

A few pats and prods later, his eyes flashed in shock. Nothing? But I was armed to the hilt, when I came in.

Hiead smiled. "Missing something?" He pressed a pistol, fitted with a silencer, into the man's left cheek.

"Whoever briefed you on the Angel," Zero said, "either failed to mention his disarming abilities, or he did, and you blew the briefing off."

Harbinger's eyes narrowed, his face falling into a venomous glare. "The First will hear about this."

"Oh, really? And who is this First when he, or she, is at home?" Zero asked.

"As if it matters," the mercenary sneered. "You and your little friend here should never have messed with the Shadowcatchers in the first place, Angel."

"Please," Hiead growled, "don't speak."

Zero walked over to the radio, turning it off again. "You know, Harvey- baby, he does have a point. All you've done so far is talk about how we've mucked with the wrong people, how we're going to die, yadada yadada yadada. If that's all you have to say, then you really do lack imagination. And anyway, how do you intend to kill us, disarmed as you are, and at a two-to- one disadvantage?"

Harbinger shot a lethal grin at Hiead, before grabbing his right arm, and pinning it behind his back. "I thought I would start here," he replied, forcing the other man onto the floor and taking the pistol. "Thank you, Angel, for keeping my weapon. Is there anything you want to tell the little nancy-boy before I put you out of my misery?"

"There is," Hiead rasped. "Zero---I want to dedicate this one to you." He began singing: "I want to tell you, my head is filled with things to say. But when you're near, all the words, they seem to slip away."

Zero's eyes welled with tears. {That's it? You're giving in to this loudmouth?}

{Hn. As if I die that easily.} "When I get near you, the games begin to drag me down. It's all right. I'll make you, maybe next time around."

He glanced up at Zero. {Rei, itooshii, meu anjo, stop freaking out. Can you test him for weak points?}

{I'll try. If that bastard---}

{Calm down. If I could disarm him, he couldn't be that invulnerable.} "But if I seem to act unkind, it's only me, it's not my mind that is confusing things. I want to tell you, I feel hung up and I don't know why. I don't mind. I could wait forever; I've got time."

"You've got a lovely singing voice," Harbinger said. "Maybe you'll make the Choir Eternal." Zero paced toward the mercenary. "Shut up."

The mercenary removed his foot from Hiead's neck, and rushed to meet him. "What did you just say to me, faggot?"

Zero met him halfway. "I said, shut up." {Get up, Hiead, and now.}

Harbinger reached for Zero's throat, jabbing the gun at his temple. "I was going to save you for later. Oh well, at least you'll finally join that reject you called a boyfriend. I wonder what he'd say if he knew you'd been shagging some ragtag bounty hunter?"

"Ask him yourself, moron." Zero closed his eyes, taking in as much oxygen as Harbinger's grip allowed. Let's see what you keep in that head of yours.

Golden light suffused Zero's body, and coursed through the assassin, who dropped him---and the gun---with a strangled yelp.

He felt strong arms grab him; metal clicked, as cuffs tightened at his wrists.

"What did you want to know, Second?" Hiead asked, as silver light flashed into view. "How the dead man returned from the Outlands?"

Harbinger's eyes widened. "That's not possible." The light coming from both men subsided.

"Not possible, you say? Tell me, Wartlliam," Zero said, "did anyone ever find Hiead Gner's body?"

The cuffed man flinched, struggling against his restraints. "Force Wartlliam died in a motorcrash three years ago. Look up the records if you don't believe me."

"I think not," Zero replied, checking the omelet. "I remember the funeral-- -a closed-casket affair, no viewing, no autopsy. And no photos of the crash site, or anything on other casualties. How could that happen--- unless you'd planned your 'death' ahead of time?" He rubbed his throat, and grabbed a kitchen towel. "You never really seemed happy unless you were grinding someone's face under your feet."

"This coming from a queer whose boyfriend was a sociopath," Force replied. "A violent, bloodthirsty freak with no remorse whatsoever---"

Zero placed the skillet on the stove, with a trivet underneath. He walked up to the bound man, silent, with no expression on his face.

"I asked you a question, Force: did anyone find Hiead's body?"

Force glared at Zero, and spat in his face.

He gasped as light rose from Zero's body, linking with the light coming from the man behind him. "No. Only three people ever did that---"

He turned his head; ruby-red eyes bored through him.

"Yes?" Hiead murmured. "You were saying?"

"The First---he never told me." Force looked down, fatigued and lightheaded.

"Is the First a Zenoah?" Zero asked.

"No." Who's in that chair? And who are the shining ones?

"Did he even see the mothership destroy the INGRID?"

"Yes."

"And he never thought to ask whether, somehow, Hiead Gner might have survived?"

"He believed that Omega had been fulfilled."

"Was he the mastermind?" Hiead wanted to know.

"He was."

"And what is his name?" Hiead and Zero gazed into his eyes, dull and unfocused.

"Wormwood," Force said, his voice slurring. "But his real name is Kuro Rivould."

The two men laid hands on his shoulders. "Sleep now," Zero said. "Forget what you came to do. And do this instead: when you wake, leave the way you came. Go home. Pack what you can carry, and find safe haven. Leave no forwarding address. I am sorry."

Force slumped forward.

Hiead removed the cuffs. "Help me." With Zero's help, he settled the man on the couch.

An hour later, Force woke up. He walked into the kitchen.

"Gner," he said. "So I wasn't dreaming."

Zero approached him, with a canvas bag. "Take this," he said. "It should tide you over for a while. I've packed some pan con tortilla, strawberries, and a thermos of strong coffee. Be careful."

Force accepted the food. "Thank you," he replied, "I'll try." He glanced back at Hiead, then turned back to the dark-haired man, who motioned him toward the back door.

"I'm sorry," the former Pilot said, a haunted gleam in his eyes.

"So am I," Zero replied.

Force walked away.

Zero turned back, walking inside. He shut and locked the door behind him, and walked through the kitchen, into the living room. Note to self: change the lock, and make sure to get an extra key.

Hiead sat on the sofa. "Well?"

"Koishii," Zero said, as he collapsed onto the sofa, "wake me when Clay and Saki get here."

He ran a hand through the dark spikes.

I'd forgotten how much this sort of thing wore you out.

Hiead stroked Zero's hair, lost in thought.



Author's Notes

Hello all, and a Happy 2003. (It is still January, so I think I can get away with saying that.) It has been a good while since I've updated, and your patience and support mean a great deal---now and always.

I see myself concluding this part of the series after Chapter 25 (28, by the numbering here) and starting work on the second part. I also look forward to updating "Entertaining Angels" and "Megami Kouhosei ½" soon. Look for a couple of one-shots as well. Not to promise the earth and sky, but I love writing, and I like the challenges!

Ksya-chan: thank you. I'm glad you are enjoying the story. (And if I knew Russian, I'd be knee-deep in Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, and the rest. Alas, the extent of my vocabulary is limited. But who can say?) KLMeri: here's the new chapter. Please let me know how you like it. AA_Chan: I'd love your input on a special! Really and truly! Halloween here was quiet--- ditto Thanksgiving and Christmas---but good. Rebecca Hascha: Welcome, miss, and thank you. I shall be wrapping up this part of the epic, I promise. Look for more. Nozomi-san: Keep an eye cracked. Clay-sama and Saki-san are at the door as we speak (pregnant pause here). So you like the songs I've mentioned? Coolissimo. Listen on!

Music notes and radio recommendations: In the midst of the drama, Zero sings along with "The Love Cats" by The Cure, written by the wonderfully eccentric Robert Smith. "I Want to Tell You" is from the Beatles album Revolver (a masterpiece in any genre). George Harrison (may his memory be eternal) wrote the song. Check out AccuRadio (accuradio.com) for some really great listening---good selections abound. BBC World Service (bbc.co.uk) is a good source for news, arts, and information. And Radioio (radioio.com) always has fresh, smart, eclectic music.

Food notes: If you go to a Spanish restaurant, you'll find different types of tortilla on the menu. They're like a fritatta: partially cooked on the stove, then finished in the oven. The tortilla con papas is a thick potato omelet, which you can order by the slice. With a side salad and a little flan, you've got lunch. You can also make a sandwich---or a pan con tortilla---with crusty bread and a little butter (or allioli, a garlicky mayonnaise). Palmiers are made with rolled puff pastry, cut crosswise, brushed with butter and sugar. They open out, a bit like leaves on a palm tree. As for the frozen grapes, well, I just like them.

Stories and such: Silver Kitsune finally updated "Dark and Light," one of the more angsty H/Z stories I have read to date. Check it out. Missfortune has also updated "Realizations"; the latest chapter focuses on Azuma's past. Moving work. And do drop by her site (cookies.forchan.net) and see her other goodies. Nozomi-san has updated "A Death at Hand." Beautiful, gothic, and decadent---Hiead and Zero knee-deep in murder, intrigue, and passion. You must not let this story pass you by. UE has added a new chapter to "This is Heaven to No One Else But Me"; she really captures the tensions and emotion in the relationships between Garu, Ernest, Rio, Leena, and Tune. And lest I forget---spend some time curled up with gundamesca's "The Miscreant," another impressive AU with the beautiful, shining bishounen. Please do give them feedback; they write well, and for the love of it.

Language notes and references: "meu anjo" is Portuguese for "my angel." Early on, Hiead refers to Genesis 2:25, and alludes to the Song of Songs 2:16---not an exact quote, more a paraphrase. The question that Zero asks "Harbinger" (aka Force) about the "First" got its prompt from A Hard Day's Night.

Next Chapter: When Clay and Saki show up, they have a story to tell. What is "The Order of the Falling Star," and what role does it play in the trafficking of Quark? What drives the Order, and what do Hiead and Zero face, after their close encounter with its second-in-command? Each answer begs another question. Stay tuned.

I greatly appreciate all of your comments, feedback, criticism, and support. Thank you, ever so much.

Antoinette (poetisa)

Ha P.S. The Hiead/Zero Mailing List (groups.yahoo.com/group/HZML) is a terrific group. Check it out. Spread the word. And say hello to Nozomi- san. Later, y'all.