AN: Wow, I'm finally posting something new. Hopefully I won't crap out on this story before it gets very far. I haven't been able to really keep to any one story lately.
Okay, this chapter's basically just introducing things, and the next one (which is already written) has a bit more explanation for certain things mentioned in this one. If you're confused, hopefully it'll be addressed in chapter two . . . or later. ;) Wouldn't be much of a story if I gave everything away right off the bat, eh?
His life was shaped by bad luck. It was guided by misstep after misstep, an image forged of mistakes and accidents, never quite right by any standards.
On this occasion, he missed his ride. It was the 11:15 out of the city, the last bus of the night, and he missed it. And he didn't even know it yet.
The bus station could hardly be called such. A small, ill-lit, slightly elevated slab of concrete sat by the side of the road. The only things distinguishing the garish patch of gray from any other piece of sidewalk on the street were the small, easily missed sign that depicted a faded image of a bus, and the tiny booth that was supposed to offer shelter to those waiting for a ride.
Perhaps at one time in the past the booth had been new, but one would hardly suspect now that it had ever been such. Walls that had once been composed mostly of clear windows were now either replaced by wooden boards, or so covered with graffiti that any transparency they had once had was a thing of the past. They made for lousy windows, which is one of the reasons that the 11:15 drove away from the station without ever knowing that there was a passenger inside the booth awaiting its arrival.
The other reason that the waiting passenger missed the bus is that he was fast asleep.
Himesh was curled up inside the tiny booth on the two-seater bench (three if you really squished in there), his shoulder and cheek resting against the grimy, grafitti-covered window pane. He was snoring quietly as the bus pulled up to the curb, and was still sleeping soundly when the vehicle pulled away a few minutes later. In fact, the young man slept peacefully until the wee hours of the morning when the bars of the small city were all finally shutting their doors for the night. Admittedly, curled up asleep inside a bus booth wasn't the best place to be at such a time, even on a typically quiet street.
He awoke with a start to a loud sound reverberating in his eardrum--someone or something hitting the window where his head had been resting. There were shouts to go along with the noise that had awakened him, but for a moment Himesh merely sat on the tiny bench looking confused and feeling terribly dazed. He ran his fingers though his dark hair, which stuck up in all directions and only added to his appearance of bafflement. Then he realized that where his feet touched the pavement there should have been a backpack holding most of his possessions and all of his money. It didn't take more than the quickest of glances to determine that the backpack was gone.
The young man hurried from the booth and tripped on the way. He caught his balance before falling by grabbing the metal pole of the bus stop sign, but his appearance from the booth was neither graceful nor particularly effective for striking fear into the heart of any thief who may have been watching.
"Hey kid," came the jeering reaction to Himesh's grand entrance, "something wrong?"
Himesh risked a glance in the direction of the voice and cringed. It was just his luck to have such an unfortunately familiar face looking back at him.
The taunting continued without pause. "You planning on leaving town, you little freak?" As he spoke, the man hefted Himesh's backpack up with one hand, holding it out as evidence toward the truth of his words. "You know there are some people around here who would be very disappointed if you left." This was followed by a broad grin that hinted at all sorts of unpleasant meanings behind the man's words.
Himesh wished that he could just shrink away to nothing, and his grip on the metal pole tightened in unconscious reaction to the older man's words.
"What's the matter?" the jeerer questioned, and this time his words were laced with annoyance. "Cat got your tongue?"
The young man didn't move, and his gaze didn't meet that of the speaker, but he knew that if he didn't respond soon he would only be making things worse for himself.
"Maybe I should cut out your tongue. . . ." the man suggested, his tone holding no hint of humor.
"I'd rather keep my tongue," Himesh responded weakly. "And I'd like my backpack . . . please. Boyle."
The man, Boyle, laughed derisively. "You want this old thing back?" he questioned as he held out Himesh's backpack. "Why? So that you can run off?" He grinned mockingly. "You're too young to be on your own."
"You're useless. Worse. You're a freak." Boyle dropped the bag on the ground carelessly and stepped past it toward Himesh. "This hot, dry spell we've been having," he added as he advanced on the younger man, "must make things rather difficult for you. Am I right?"
Himesh tensed. The older man was right about the dry weather, but he wasn't about to admit it. As Himesh finally backed away from the pole of the bus stop sign, he wasn't surprised to see that where his warm breath had condensed on the cool metal, the small amount of liquid had formed a thin layer of ice. It was a typical occurrence around him, when he was stressed.
"What's wrong?" Boyle sneered as Himesh backed away from him. "Not very brave when you've got no water to freeze up, are you?"
That was true enough, Himesh knew. In fact, the young man's ability to defend himself relied solely upon the use of frozen water in one way or another; if he couldn't slip them up with ice on the ground, or pelt them with ice falling from the sky, then he was pretty much left wide open for attack. Unfortunately, the recent dry spell meant no readily available water, no water meant no ice, and no ice meant that the advancing Boyle seemed even more threatening than he usually did--and he usually seemed pretty damn threatening.
Boyle grinned cruelly. "I think I'll get some payment for all those times you've made a fool of me with those freakish tricks of yours. Then I'll take you to visit Aodhfin."
The blood drained from Himesh's face at the mention of that name. He took another hasty step back, intending to turn to run--backpack or no--but that step was the one that crossed the threshold between bus platform and street. The drop was only a few inches, but it was enough to catch Himesh off guard and send him sprawling to his back on the concrete. More bad luck.
Boyle was on him in a moment. The older man leaned over Himesh and grabbed the young man's shirtfront in one large fist, hauling him into a seated position as he towered over him. Boyle continued to grin an animal grin. "Aodhfin's going to thank me for hauling your sorry ass back to him."
Himesh bit back a whimper, and was seriously considering begging and pleading as a definite option when he felt something that came as a serious relief. Water. It pattered down from above suddenly, from a cloudless sky, and quickly soaked both him and Boyle above him. The older man tensed, but didn't let go of Himesh's shirt before looking around him furiously for the source of the unlikely shower. Boyle found the cause of the 'rain' before Himesh even considered looking for it.
"Who the hell are you?" Boyle spat.
It was the older man's question that finally directed Himesh's attention toward a nearby alleyway from which the sudden shower of water was actually originating. Half shadowed by the surrounding buildings stood a figure holding a garden hose, the nozzle aimed skyward, water spewing into the air.
"Kiefer," the figure replied with a grin and a nod. "But I wouldn't worry about me. I'm just a casual observer."
"Turn the water off," the older man growled.
Boyle finally released Himesh's shirtfront, straightening and turning toward the alleyway. The ice that had begun forming on his clothes crackled as he moved, and for a moment he hesitated. Ice was building up under his feet, covered by still-falling water, and every step would be a slippery one. And Boyle knew what would come next if things were allowed to continue. He didn't particularly relish the idea of being pelted by ice from above, especially when he had learned from experience that ice can be incredibly sharp.
"Oh, I forgot to mention," Kiefer added pleasantly from the alleyway, "you shouldn't worry about me, but you may want to worry about him." He gestured airily as he spoke, pointing toward the bus stop booth.
Both Boyle and Himesh followed the other man's gesture, looking first toward the booth, and then upwards. The him to whom Kiefer referred was crouched atop the small structure, staring down with a frown that looked like a permanent fixture. His figure may have been cloaked by a long black coat, but it seemed pretty obvious that if it came down to it he would be no easy pushover, even for the imposing Boyle.
"That's Crom," Kiefer said, "and I feel I have to warn you that he's not in a very good mood right now. It's well past his bedtime, and he gets kind of cranky when he doesn't get his beauty sleep." He paused, then added helpfully, "I suggest you scram."
For a moment it looked like Boyle was going to argue, or right out refuse, but slowly the unsettling fact that he was outnumbered and probably outmatched set in and survival instinct took over. He moved slowly, careful not to slip on the ice that was spreading underfoot. Even as his steps took him onto clear pavement he didn't hurry, instead striding away with an indecipherable snarl and some small amount of dignity intact.
"Well," Kiefer said as he tossed the still-running hose back into the alleyway behind him, "that went well."
"If you say so," Crom replied, his tone sounding surprisingly easy-going. As he spoke he hopped easily from the top of the booth, landing on the ice below without the slightest slip or misstep. He looked down at Himesh, who was still seated on the ground amidst ice and water, and shook his head slightly. With a small grin he offered the young man a hand.
Himesh regarded the proffered hand warily for a moment before accepting it with a small, helpless sigh. As Himesh was tugged easily to his feet, Kiefer approached the two carefully, watching his step as he reached the sprawl of ice that covered much of the pavement around them.
"Well," Kiefer said easily, "looks like our work here is done. Problem solved. Let's go home."
Himesh, who had to catch his balance before slipping on the ice he himself had created, cast the other man a puzzled look.
Kiefer grinned. "When you didn't get off the bus at Axhton, we got a little worried that you'd backed out on us, so we came looking for you to see what was going on." He regarded the still confused looking Himesh for a moment before adding, "We work for Bahlol." Then, when he still didn't get a response he continued uncertainly, "Uh, you are Himesh, aren't you?"
The young man nodded before realizing that maybe a verbal response was in order. "Uh, yeah, I am. It's just that I. . . . I mean. . . ."
"Perfectly alright," Kiefer jested with a broad grin. "You're awestruck by our appearance. I can understand totally. We are pretty impressive. Well, at least I'm pretty impressive. Crom doesn't really do much but stand around and look threatening."
Himesh glanced to Crom in time to catch the older man rolling his eyes. Somehow Himesh doubted that look impressive was all that Crom did. Maybe he wasn't the biggest guy, but he definitely wasn't small either. More than that, he looked like he had been through a lot, and like he could stand up to a lot more if the need arose. On the other hand Himesh glanced to Kiefer, who was picking his way carefully across the ice toward Himesh's backpack. The young man couldn't have been more than a few years older than Himesh himself; he was slender and impeccably dressed, and looked like he'd prefer to let someone else do all the hard work.
"We'd best get moving," Crom said as Kiefer pulled the backpack free of the ice that had formed around it. "Bahlol will want to hear that we've found our missing recruit." As he spoke Crom placed a hand on Himesh's shoulder, and whether the motion was supposed to be reassuring or threatening it was hard to say.