Disclaimer: Mine. All. 100% Original. You touch you die. Clear?




01


The air tasted like death.

The sharpness of it, the vivid clarity was palpable, thick and damp and pressing as a midsummer mist, it called all who contacted into itself. Clinging, coating skin and tongue it filled the throat with each breath--an animal musk, hard copper like blood; the bite of perspiration, of too many heaving bodies packed too closely into the hot night. Above, or beneath, or through it all some less primal scent or flavor carried--the decayed warmth of alcohol; the dizzy, needling sparks of chemical narcotics. It stifled, muffling sound and presence, it did not breathe for no wind disturbed the miasma. But it was not still, could not remain still: it jumped and pulsed with the wild music of breathing, the thumping pulse of padded or taloned feet, grunts and growls; dancing or dying it writhed beneath the dirty translucent ceiling, maddened by the moon. It was place where the frightened came, and the lonely, a place to pack together, crush together into one seething, restless animal. Even the corners, or the scattered seats and benches around the cracked walls could not be alone. Groups of three or four huddled about them, the sources of that drunken narcotic stink. Every cell of the beast was built of several individuals; every action flowed in broken unison, one heartbeat, one mind. But even this creature was flawed--a foreign chemical had entered its pounding body, and did not answer the intoxicating call.

Beneath the dim strobes and dirty moonlight the intruder's colorlessly pale skin and hair shone ardent silver: he did not belong there, his foreign solitude so complete even darkness shunned him. He watched the dirty one-room dive with empty eyes, and breathed through thin and faintly parted lips--to him the air tasted not of death but of life, and even as he swallowed it down he washed its stale film from his mouth. The dirty glass held in one hand contained nothing stronger than ice and water; the rim flecked with small and pinked dots of blood. He was a virus, a parasite in the diseased body--he did not belong, and thrived in his resultant isolation.

But of course he did not belong; even had he slipped from his stool and let himself be drowned in the panting sweat-slicked tide of unity, he could never have belonged here. Even had he desired to, he could could never belong here. This place was the sanctuary of a different breed of hunter, den of a different brand of beast than he himself. It belonged to the wide-eyed girl behind the bar whose soft-edged features and delicate claws attested to early adolescence, ears laid flat and tail stiff with the nervous fear of inexperience; it belonged to the hulking blue-grey Krassem where he sat against one wall with a bottle in one scaled and taloned fist and a stone bowl of some smoking herb in the other, membranes closed over slitted yellow eyes in his own private ecstasy, crooked rows of teeth gleaming wetly in the light. They knew him as a stranger by his scent and hunger, and if he had tried to join them he imagined they would tear him apart without skipping a beat, and dance their broken spirals through his blood and bones.

He smiled ever so faintly, a thin sardonic half-curve of his lips, and took another drink. It was familiar feeling. If he had been drunk it would have made him nostalgic-- he imagined that was why he was drinking water tonight, and why his blood had been sober.

Releasing his glass the stranger laid the palms of his hands flat on the gouged bar, and leaned across. "You, kitten." He snapped his fingers when the young tender did not immediately respond. "Pay attention."

The girl jerked her head around towards him, backing up a step. She hissed a bit, baring her teeth--beneath painted lips they were small and white, needle-sharp, but it was an action of fear more than threat and they both knew it. He long tail twitched and lashed, a puffed and tabby-striped blur of grey and brown. "W-what do you want?" Chin lifted so that she looked down her nose at him, her expression of distaste was somewhat offset by the tremble of fear in her voice.

The stranger offered her the thin and comfortless line of his half-smile. "I'm not going to bite you, little girl. I'm looking for someone."

"There's nothing for you here." One of her hands jerked at his humorless comment, and she turned away abruptly to busy herself with the bottles and glasses littering the shelves behind her. She did not organize them, but rather seemed to be pushing them into an even more haphazard state. "Go away, blood-drinker."

With a sigh, the stranger shook his head, pale hair falling before his eyes. It was never easy here, was it? He didn't come here because it was easy, certainly. "Maybe you didn't hear me right. . ." He reached out and grasped the girl's arm, yanking her back abrubtly against the bar. She let out a frightened mew as he leaned over her shoulder to speak against her ear; he could smell and taste her panic, feel it in the wiry muscles of her trembling form. "I'm here looking for someone very specific. Once I find them, I will gladly leave. Now, you're going to tell me if you have seen them, and then I will let you go. Clear?"

She nodded unsteadly with another frightened mewl, and tugged at her arm slightly, begging without words to be let go now, to be released from the intruder's vile and contaigous touch. He tightened his grip and the sound became a faint squeal. "I-I don't know! It's. . .it's a busy night--" She yowled now, hissing and spitting faintly.

"I'm looking for--" He stopped, smacked her casually so that she stared at him in shocked and frightened silence after clawing his hand reflexively. He ignored the lines of garrish crimson on his deathly skin. "Kuai. She's one of you, Furre." She was one of them, and by name or scent they knew each other--they were all one creature, bound even outside of these bared and crumbling concrete walls. It was a terrifying phenomenon to a solitary hunter--he could feel the stares, the hungry hateful glares of the other animals, hear the low undertone of protective growls warning him away--but ever so useful in the line of business. He jerked the girl back again, raising his hand once more--she cringed and stared at him, or past him, nostrils flaring.

She caught the new scent, subtle and soft as it drifted through the sharp musk of the dive, before the stranger did. Her muscles loosened and relaxed in almost the precise moment that the stranger tensed beneath the cold press of metal against his neck; the acrid taste-smell of gunpowder and packing oil lost beneath a wash of bitter tea and lavender, or jasmine. He drew a slow, hissing breath through his teeth, and released the young tender. His eyes followed as she bolted away across the floor on all fours, and he raised his hands slowly.

"You go through an awful lot for a glass of dirty water, don't you."

The frigid pressure of the gun relaxed, and hot air once again swept across the stranger's neck. He rolled his shoulders slightly--not a shrug so much as a release of sudden tension, trying to push the heat away--and snorted faintly. He lifted his glass again. "Better than dirty blood. You're always here when I come looking for you."

"You always come looking for me when I'm here." She brushed past him carelessly, laying her gun on the bartop beside the wet ring of his glass. In the pulsing light the oiled metal looked alive and aware--a predator in and of itself, instead of the makeshift teeth or talons it represented. Watching the fine but calloused hand slide from the barrell in an almost-affectionate almost-caress, the stranger thought that perhaps it was alive. To her, it probably always had been. "You're going to die in this hellhole one of these days. You should just call me."

Listening to his companion take a seat on the stool beside him, the stranger did not turn his head. He had told her she was beautiful, once. Sometimes when he was drinking he still thought as much, as if only the depths of sodden nostalgia could rekindle the stupidity of his youth. But he was not drunk tonight--his blood sober and his glass filled with melting ice--and her one unaccountably piercing eye would have brought him nothing but the bitter taste of hate. He snorted faintly, and waved a hand. "I'm not worried." He had called her, a long time ago. She had never picked up. "How is business?"

"Straight to the point as usual." The sound of blunt fingers drummed briefly on the bar--her nails, as usual, clipped from their natural short talons. He did not quite remember when she had started doing that. "Buy me a drink."

". . .Excuse me?"

"You heard me, soldier. If you want to talk to the lady, buy her a drink."

From the corner of his eye, he watched her stretch languidly, a shiver running down the narrow silhouette she made in his periphiary vision, from the tips of her pointed ears to the white brushtip of her tail. She was not dressed in her usual clothing, traditional to a fault. She was not armed or armoured for work. He could smell her perspiration, so close and familiar. She had come here for the call of the moon. She had come here to dance. For some reason that thought made her request seem more reasonable. ". . .I don't think the tender is coming back. What happened to Krekkau?"

His companion leaned forward, arms crossing over the bartop. "I'll take a raincheck. The old bird is dead."

"Really." Somehow it did not surprise him. "Drugs?"

"Nn. Harboring criminals. Valentin and Yassay brought him in, if you can believe that. Legally this place is closed." Body twisting, she slid herself towards him along the counter. Both sarcasm and curiosity held equal measures in her voice--she was mocking him, his way of life. The choices he had made. "Your sort must be dying for work if veteran Hunters like that are doing streetjobs."

At least she did not make him look at her. "There's nothing special about either of them--no real talent or inclination. It doesn't surprise me at all."

"Valentin was making clean kills when you were still a boy bleeding rats in Munich." One of her ears flicked faintly, rotating forward. He felt it brush against his hair. "Or whatever hapless settlement coughed you up. And Yassay walks Deadside. You could learn a lot from them."

Munich. He hadn't been back there since before he could remember--he wasn't even certain he could speak the language anymore. When had he told her about that? He shrugged. "At least we aren't nosing around for paranoid couples."

For a moment she was silent. The stranger allowed himself the faintest hint of a triumphant smile, before she laughed her soft and faintly rough-edged laugh and the expression vanished without a trace. "Is that what you think of it? You really do need new teachers."

She had taught him everything he knew. He scowled--she was calling him a bad student and a fool, in her own way. His way. Their way. "Then what are you doing?"

"My clients' business are none of your concern."

He turned his head ever so slightly, so that she entered his vision as something more than a shadow, less than a face. She was closer than he had given her credit for--he could see the light on her sweat-slicked hair, the faint flush of color on her cheeks. Years later she could still take him by surprise, but he knew he was not losing his edge. ". . .I'm not asking about your clients."

Her arms unfolded from their place on the bar, and she sat upright to lean back on her stool. The action effectively removed her details from his vision, but he could still see her hands fold over the gun, and tuck it away in some unknown cache. He wondered if he had said something wrong. He wondered if his ex-commander, his ex-partner, wasn't feeling more than a little nostalgic herself, tonight.

"Kuai?"

She laughed again, short and clipped, and reached up to run her fingers through her bangs. "Kuai?" It was the bark of a fox, and he heard her small canines snap together as it died. "Whatever happened to that sickening nickname, what was it, 'Kit'?" She had been Kit last time but she had always hated it, and he meant to answer--he felt compelled to answer, who knew why--but she waved a hand, shaking her head. "I ran into Sul this morning on my way back in."

"And he didn't take you in as a traitor?"

"Now's your chance to get his job, if you want to do it instead. He wanted me to deliver this to you, if I saw you." He did not see from where she withdrew the black envelope, stamped with its white circle and stark lettering, but he saw it skid into his line of vision when she tossed it carelessly to the bar. He put a hand over it to stop it, but did not break the seal. "I told him it stopped being my job to keep track of you years ago, but I thought I'd do him a favor."

"Merrick needs the work more than I do." It was a lie--he needed the work plenty, or at least his partner did--but he was tired of low-class pickup jobs. Perhaps the reason he had not responded to Kuai's earlier bait--no, Kit's, always Kit's taunts that bit hardest--was that it had been the truth. His kind was always hurting for work, and why not? Humans had the ability to keep the best jobs for their own people, and he did not blame them for using it. He slid the folder back towards her. She didn't need to know he was low on time and low on money. "Take it to him."

He watched her reach out, and knew even before her hand passed unhalting over the envelope that she would not take it. She took his water instead, and he listened to her finish it in one pull and crunch the thin flakes of ice that remained between her teeth. "There's a hole in the Ward Seven wall." She sounded amused. "Remember Lucky Seven? Sul's superiors want the best they have on this, and he knows that's you."

Lucky Seven. The Society's high-security prison ward. The stranger blinked once, slowly, as he processed this idea. Generally speaking Seven was reserved for the 'violent uncontrollables'--Dragons, Dires, the rare Demon or Spirit--anything that couldn't be held by chains, bars, and sedatives. He had stocked those halls before-- his sterling record, long and blackend only by blood, bearing the names of countless shifters and hoarders that had long since met their deaths at sentence's end or sooner. But nothing had ever escaped. There was no escaping Ward Seven, those hallowed halls stinking of piss and blood and hatred, the epitome of everything humans hated in the 'animal' subnaturals; of everything his kind hated in frail and fearful humans. The choking control. No creature, no power, had escaped. Ever.

She wasn't telling him something.

He raised his eyes from the envelope to see her slip from her stool, like liquid shadow flowing back into the light. Her one dark eye, fathomless and colorless beside the blank patch of it's absent twin; her sharp face, the fine dark lines of her whiskers, the curve of satin-furred ears emerging from black hair--she looked the same as before, the same as always. Even her skin--pale and dusky in the way only her far eastern heritage could craft it--seemed full with secrets. A part of him wanted to reach out and push aside the veil, see everything, know everything. He wanted to taste her blood again and know the things she was hiding, from him and everyone around her. He wanted to drain her dry, the traitorous bitch, and leave her withered body on the ground.

". . .How do you know about that?" His voice hoarse with so many secrets of his own, he coughed in the wake of his question. "That fact alone should be classified."

She brushed a vagrant coil of pallid hair from his face, tucking it back behind his ear, and offered him a wry look. "If you don't know my ways by now, you never will." She turned. Walked away. Took her secrets with her, carried by the smells of gunsmoke and oil, of bitter tea and jasmine and burnt offerings to her whim. Her tail drifted behind her lazily, black brushed with cream, like an eyeless and wingless sentience hovering in her shadow. "My business, after all, is none of your concern anymore either."

If he had meant to watch her slip away and melt into the crowd of One, he did not. At those words he turned away, staring at the damp ring left by his glass, the oily smudge of her gun on the counter, the faint damp shadow of sweat where she had leaned on the splintering wood. He had told her she was beautiful, once. Sometimes when he was drinking he still thought as much, as if only the depths of sodden nostalgia could rekindle the stupidity of his youth. But he was not drunk tonight--his blood had been sober and his glass filled with melting ice. He put his head in his hands, and stared down at the folder. Black and white. So clean, so simple.

A hole in the Ward Seven wall. Her mocking voice hiding secrets and schemes, prisoners and escapes. The stranger sighed and lifted the folder from the counter. One finger slid beneath the seal as he made his way along the wall to the door, in an empty path created by his personal void. They would not miss him here. They would know he was gone only because he had not belonged. They would call death on him for desecrating their den, their lair, their crumbling House of Luna.

And when the job was done, he would come back.