A/N: As always, feedback is very much appreciated, anonymous or not, and thanks for reading. :) Enjoy!
"Aiko..." the man across the table from the woman swayed slightly, thick, black smoke spewing from his mouth as he breathed out. "I'm sure you and I can work out some sort of compromise. You don't have to protect these people, Ratti."
The careless information broker, in turn, kicked her dirtied boots up onto the wood, grinning smugly. "Sorry, but that's not my issue here. They don't need my protection."
Grinding his teeth anxiously, the man replied, "Then what is?"
"Well," Aiko started, "for one thing, I don't see that you can cough up enough to get me to spill anything."
"I beg to differ," the man answered, "I've got more than enough to pay."
Aiko's smile persisted. "Oh no you don't. You don't have any idea of the cost of this information, do you?" The man stuck the cigarette back between his lips and leaned back in his seat, refusing to answer. Aiko grasped at the opportunity to take another drink from the tall glass set before her, and disappointedly realized that there was nothing left of the drink but a bit of froth at the bottom. She noisily hollered for a waiter, before promptly being silenced by the man accompanying her.
"Keep it down, will you?" her acquaintance muttered indignantly, "You've had enough for an entire lifetime. I can't believe you're still awake after how much you drank."
"Oh, you know me, Mariani," Aiko laughed. "I can hold my alcohol better than anyone."
The man called Mariani huffed annoyedly at the girl's nonchalant attitude towards his entire ordeal, and growled, "Aiko, I'm done asking nicely. Give me the information I want to know, or you won't have legs to stagger home with."
Aiko simply giggled some more. "Oh my, I feel threatened!" She folded her arms, and said, "Lighten up, jackass! Who shit in your cereal, hm?"
"Stop stalling and tell me what I want to know!" Mariani shouted angrily. "Who are they?!"
Aiko's smile disappeared. She breathed heavily, blinked once, twice. And then she leaned in, putting an open hand around her mouth. Mariani eagerly listened to her. She whispered, slowly, "Well, Mariani, the thing is..." That beam of hers returned, and she mumbled in a sing-song voice, "...I can't do that!"
The man sighed in frustration, and decided to humor her, asking, "Why not?"
"Because the truth is," Aiko sat back, smirk still very evident, and laughed, "I know absolutely nothing about them."
"What?!" the man yelled, outraged. "One month of investigation, and you can't tell me anything?!"
"Well, I guess I can tell you some things."
"Then give me what you have."
Aiko shrugged. "Most of it is just gathered from stories you've already heard."
"You don't know that," Mariani grumbled, waving her away.
"Oh yes, I know that you know, because everybody knows." He still payed close attention to her words. Aiko told him, resting her arms comfortably on the table, "Well, I can tell you one thing: Shinobi."
"Shinobi?" Mariani repeated, confused.
"Look it up. You might learn something about them." She gave him a shrug. "That's what they are. They're mercenaries. But not just any mercenaries. In short, it's like fighting an invincible, ninja Freddy Krueger-Terminator amalgamation from Hell; you're just not going to win. But, their names? Unknown. Their faces? Unknown. Their numbers? Unknown. And whoever is on their blacklist is as good as dead. End of story."
She paused, waited for a reaction. Mariani said nothing. She began to smile again; she smiled an almost evil smile, as she asked amusedly, "They're going to kill you, aren't they?"
Mariani sat motionless across the table, and visibly swallowed, his teeth clenched.
"A word of advice," Aiko added, standing from her seat. "Don't be a problem. They just may give you a quicker death." With that, the woman sauntered nonchalantly away, laughing to herself, as the man broodingly put his head in his hands.
I am not insane, am I?
She had been wondering this a lot over the past couple of weeks. The girl found herself asking that question at least once or twice a day. She concluded, every time the question arose, that the answer was no. That her mind was in perfect working order and that everything was fine. But then she also wondered whether or not insanity went beyond just the brain itself. If something had corrupted her very being. If she no longer was, for lack of a better term, human, and couldn't be the judge of what was right and wrong—or what was sane and what was insane.
But then she asked herself another question; a question that she asked herself even more often than the former. What difference does being mentally unstable make? Why should I trouble myself over whether or not I've lost my humanity or my sanity? The important thing, at this point, is survival.
Whenever she thought about it, she realized she had more important issues to pay attention to. Whatever may have gone on in her mind, it had to keep her alive, no matter what. That was what it came down to: life or death. And if that meant insanity? Then so be it. Any sane person would choose life over death anyways, so that answered both of her questions.
It may not have satisfied them. But it answered the questions.
Allison allowed herself a brief sigh, the autumn wind turning her cheeks a deep red and leaving her shaking like a leaf. I hate autumn, she decided, hugging herself to keep warm. Honestly, she just wanted something else to think about. It's always so cold, and everything dies. Even the number of assassination jobs seems to increase during the fall...
Walking down the streets of New York in a big crowd of people in 30 degree weather while not at all dressed for it was a pain. Usually, going out was necessary. How else was she to work a job, or to buy groceries? Although, she never usually went out for groceries; she would just shop for them online. She hated going out more than she hated autumn. And the combination of the two was astronomically more terrible. Worse still was going out in winter. But, worst of all, this walk in particular brought no reward.
Her brother had locked her out of the house and told her to return in an hour, no sooner. He backed this proposition up by saying she needed to get some fresh air, to see the world, to talk to someone for once, to look at people without murderous intent. He himself would normally be the only exception, but due to him being "absolutely unbearable," she felt nearly the same way about him. As anyone who knew Allison would've guessed (and that was a small number indeed), the excursion was destined from the start to yield no treasure except the ice cubes that would be her fingers and toes.
She had visited one place: the sidewalk. It didn't occur to her until on her way home to go into a store, where it would most definitely be warmer, and at realizing this, she cursed her unthinking brain a number of times. She cupped her hands together and blew hot air into them, in a futile attempt to warm her gloveless fingers, before noticing that she would be coming up on her house soon. She quickly stuffed her hands back into her pockets and picked up her pace, seeing it in the distance.
She knocked politely at the beaten up wooden door, saying robotically, "Kyō wa."
"Kon'nichiwa. Anatahadare?" she heard from the other side of the door.
"Watashi wa 041807-desu," Allison answered, and the door opened.
"Hey Al," her brother greeted her with a grin. "How was your walk?"
"Gesu yarō..." Allison replied in annoyance, shoving past him and into the house. "Why did you do that to me? I nearly kicked the door down in spite of you."
"Well, you were getting weird on me, and we can't have that," Zack answered, pulling a couple of candy bars out of his pockets and handing them to his sister, who avidly accepted them. "So, what did you do with your time?"
Allison neglected to answer him, retreating to the couch in their living room and ripping the plastic off of her gifts. "I am not pleased with you," she told him, and began to stuff her face with chocolate.
"Right..." Zack chuckled, and then said, "I think I can live with that."
"Think again," the short girl grumbled.
"Well, I'm sorry, but it had to be done. So can't you just let it go?"
Allison shook her head, her mouth full of candy.
"Even after I gave you sugar?" Zack pouted, folding his arms.
"I could've acquired that on my own; you were merely displaying common courtesy."
"Okay, fine," Zack waved her away, "but I've got some news that might make you feel better."
Allison continued eating, and mumbled, "I'm listening."
"Well, I didn't have anything to do—you were out, and I couldn't bother you—so I went searching for jobs for us to do. And I found us a winner." This information piqued Allison's interest. "A two million dollar bounty on the shoulders of a school kid." Allison twisted around to give her brother a look of disbelief. Zack picked a laptop off of the kitchen counter and brought it to the coffee table adjacent to where she sat.
"You are... joking, correct?" The girl looked at the target's photo with disgust. "A schoolboy? He probably isn't even capable of pickpocketing, and he has a two million dollar bounty on his head?" Zack nodded. "Was he a witness to a large-scale crime?"
"I don't know for sure," Zack replied with a shrug, "but I'm pretty sure it was just theft. I do know that the kid's just a kid though. I did some poking around, and the guy has no criminal record to speak of. I mean, he's just seventeen, after all." Seventeen years of age, and he's wasting his life as a petty thief, Allison thought, shaking her head. If I had your kind of opportunities, I would study hard, not steal from people.
"Matthew Akker..." she narrowed her eyes as she said the name. "So what did happen to him? Is he being punished on account of someone else's wrongdoings, or is this claim of theft actually legitimate?" Allison shook her head directly after saying the words. "I'm sorry. Excuse my insolence, it's not my place to ask about such things. There's nothing to be worried about."
"Are you sure?" Zack asked, looking back at his computer.
"Yes." Allison looked confused. "...Who wants him killed anyway?"
"No clue. They didn't say anything about that. They only gave a phone number and an address to do business at. But whoever they are, they sure do have a lot of something riding on this, if they're willing to pay two million for his body and this laptop he's got with him."
Allison nodded. "I'll take it." She paused. "What do you think he did? Has it got something to do with that laptop? Did he steal it?"
"I don't know," Zack answered, "but like you've said many times yourself, sometimes it's best just to follow orders and not ask questions. We are just mercenaries, after all."
"Yes, of course. You're right. I shouldn't even be asking. I'm not supposed find out the why. I never find out the why."
At this, though, Zack looked worried. "Well, that doesn't mean you have to just go along with it. Do whatever you think is right."
She furrowed her brow at his sudden change of heart. "What I think is right?" Allison kept eating her candy, letting his comment sink in. What I think is right? What the hell is that supposed to mean? Does he truly believe I'm sane enough to be able to choose between right and wrong? Is there a right and wrong here? Does it even matter? She finally chose to tell him, "Zack, I'm a killer. I have no morals. And that means there's no difference between right and wrong except what is rational and what isn't, and rationality is not very compatible with morality." She looked down at the ground. "At least, that's how it's always been." There was an awkward pause between them. Allison wasn't sure she said what she wanted to say, but she knew it was the right thing to say. She was right, wasn't she? In her opinion, there was no point in pretending to be a good guy, especially when she was about as far from good as they come. "When should I leave?" she asked, looking up at the picture on the computer screen again.
"At 3:30. He'll be on his way home then. He lives in a pretty remote area, so you should be able to lure him in and knock him out without anyone noticing," Zack said, sitting back in his chair. "He should have the laptop in his backpack. If he doesn't, well, take him back here, and we'll have to ask him ourselves."
"Do you think he has family?" Zack raised an eyebrow, and looked over at his sister. He actually hoped that she cared, that she wasn't just a machine that did whatever she was told. He hoped she still had some benevolence left in her. She stared at Matthew's picture on the laptop, lost in thought. He didn't know what she could be thinking about. With Allison, it was always the most practical thing. If you knew her, it really wasn't very hard to tell. She was usually just thinking about her most current situation. The best way to approach the problem at hand. Normally, she'd be figuring out how to assassinate the boy. But, there was pretty much no need. It would be an easy task to pick him off. So now, it was hard to tell.
"Why do you ask?"
"No reason. I'm just wondering." She blinked a few times, sighed, and stood up from her seat to throw her trash away. I wonder why I have to kill that boy... she thought, for the first time in her life. Something about his face just screamed innocence to her; so much that she felt like it would be... wrong, to kill him. She had never felt that way about a target before. All the others were established criminals and lowlives. They deserved death, in her eyes. But for Matthew... no reasoning was provided.
"If you don't want to do this, I can go ahead and do it instead," Zack said. He wondered if that would get a reaction from her.
"No. I'll be fine. Don't worry about me," Allison assured him. I worry about myself enough, she thought. I don't need you to do it, Zack. But... am I going to do something about it? I'm not supposed to. I'll get in trouble. More trouble than I care to deal with. And besides, this assassination could get us quite a large amount of finances. I wouldn't have to kill anyone else for at least a few months; perhaps even a year or two. But... he looks like an innocent boy. I don't feel right killing him when he's done nothing wrong. Ugh, what the hell am I thinking? I don't even know what he did, I can't make any judgements... Despite her internal conflict, she smiled lightly. How ridiculous... I'm still trying to figure out whether or not I'm psychotic, and I can't decide what's worth more; a dubiously innocent man, or two million dollars. I guess I really am mentally ill. Any sane person would know to choose the money. Whoever wouldn't take that would be an idiot.
Matthew was on his way home from school, hands in his pockets, and his bag slung over his shoulder, whistling a tune and brandishing a broad, innocent smile. Allison was nearby, with a pair of binoculars on her face, looking at the carefree boy going about his business. She could have knocked him out and taken him hostage a long time ago. But the boy's smile kept her from doing so. She didn't know why; she thought he looked like an ignorant fool. He had absolutely no clue about what was going to happen, yes, but he didn't seem to have a reason to smile. From what she could gather, this boy had the most boring, average life a person could have. It must have been miserable. Still, she couldn't imagine why someone like him had to pay such a heavy price. There was just no reason for it. She had her doubts before, but that smile made it official: he had done nothing wrong. And frankly, it pissed her off. She didn't want to kill an innocent person. Honestly, she didn't really want to kill anyone. Even though it didn't make sense to her, she just didn't kill innocents. Huh, she thought, kind of ridiculous for a murderer like myself to have any sort of moral compass. Nevertheless, she kept simply watching him from a distance as he walked down the street.
And, while observing him, she also noticed the small red dot on his forehead. A laser sight. That seemed about right. She wasn't the only bounty hunter around, after all. There were going to be others that would try and kill him. Well, if someone else beat her to the punch, that would mean she wouldn't get a cent. So, she searched around briskly for the sniper, and quickly found the man, hiding up on a nearby rooftop. Allison, however, concluded that it was better to stay closer to her target on this particular assignment, for just this sort of occasion.
She hid in an alleyway below, covered by the shadows, and ready to leap out at any given moment. She aimed a handgun at the man, even though he was way out of range. But what if I miss? Or if he shoots first? What do I do then? There's no time to hesitate, think of something. After only a moment of being totally indecisive, she figured that she needed to do anything but stand there, and leapt abruptly out of cover, sprinting towards the unsuspecting teenager.
Matthew walked nonchalantly down the street, whistling a tune. And then all of a sudden, he was tackled to the ground.
A gunshot sounded, and Matthew yelled in fear. "What the hell was that?!"
Allison, the person who had tackled him, said to herself in utter disbelief, "Why did I do that...?" completely ignoring Matthew. Recalling that there was a sniper aiming at their heads, she stood, turned, pulled out her handgun, and fired. The shooter was down. And she couldn't help but smirk at her insane luck. He certainly was way out of range.
"Hey, lady, what the hell is happening, what was that noise just now, what's-"
"Shut up," Allison pointed the gun at his head, "or I'll make you shut up." Matthew nodded, fear in his eyes. Allison frowned. She knew she couldn't kill him, because she didn't know where the computer was yet. But she didn't want to kill him either. It was strange. She felt more like she couldn't kill him, even if she wanted to. In fact, she almost had an obligation to protect him. He certainly wasn't going to be able to protect himself. "Stop looking at me like that. Come on. We have to get out of here." She grabbed Matthew by his arm and helped him to his feet. She then went to a nearby car and opened the passenger door, ushering him inside.
"So, who are you exactly?" Matthew said, once they were moving.
"That's not important," Allison said, keeping her eyes on the road.
"Are you a midget?" Allison shot him a menacing glance.
"Negative. I'm exactly four feet and ten inches," she said, gritting her teeth. "Or, 149.86 centimeters."
"So you're a tall midget?" Allison sighed in frustration, and continued driving. "Well, who was that guy who was trying to kill me?"
"A bounty hunter. You confiscated something that belongs to someone else. Now they that person wants you dead. And they're paying a large sum of money for it to be done. These bounty hunters are going to do anything to acquire that money, even if it puts their own lives in danger." She looked him over and then added, "Although I'm quite sure that they're not expecting any significant resistance."
"Wha... Why don't they just ask for it back?" Allison looked at him incredulously. But when she thought about it, he had a valid question. They could just go to the lost and found and say it belongs to them. This Matthew kid obviously had no idea what he was holding. There was no reason to kill him.
"I... I don't know... But that isn't going to happen, so there's no point in discussing it."
"Well... I guess a better question to ask would be, 'why are you helping me?'"
And Allison, in turn, reluctantly answered, "I haven't the foggiest idea."
A/N: As you have likely noticed, some of the characters in this chapter (and others) speak a different language—Japanese (and on one occasion, a small bit of Italian). Therefore, for your convenience, I have decided to do two things: avoid using any Japanese characters in favor of English characters (for pronunciation reasons), and I have also posted the rough English translations of the Japanese in these author's notes. If you continue on, you will be able to read the aforementioned translations.
Shinobi- Japanese word loosely referring to the ninja
Ratti - Rat (Italian; in this case, used as a nickname for a particularly sly or untrustworthy individual)
Kyō wa - Good afternoon (Japanese)
Kon'nichiwa. Anatahadare? - Hello. Who are you? (Japanese)
Watashi wa 041807-desu - I am 041807 (Japanese [random fun fact for fun: 04/18/07 is Allison Wolff's birthdate])
Gesu yarō - Asshole (Japanese)