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Acherontia Atropos (Part 7)



Until that time, I'd thought that I'd seen at all, that no horror the world could 
throw at me could really touch me. I thought my sense of humor was in 
impenetrable mask.

I'd seen a lot of ugly things in this war, a lot of things that I'd like to forget, 
but know I'll never be able to no matter how long I live. Some things stain 
the soul, but they're stains that you can live with. I still had nightmares 
about everything I'd seen, but I'd gotten to the point that I was used to them, 
because it was either that or go completely insane or turn into Heero. Yeah, 
I'd thought that nothing could bother me.

God, I was wrong. I was so wrong.

Yan was suddenly bumped to the top of the list of bad shit I've seen. The 
only things that were still over him were the carnage in Maxwell Church 
and the dim memory that I have of the aftermath that killed my family and 
destroyed my home when I was too young to know what violence was. 
Most of the death I'd seen in the war were the clean, quick endings of 
mobile suits or carriers exploding. Nothing like this. 

There was something indecent about it, fundamentally wrong. Death is so 
much more personal when it's someone you know, and violent death is the 
ultimate insult. It becomes an attack on you. It's not really fair, but that's 
how it works. Your emotions get so tangled up that you feel like you’re one 
massive knot inside. On one hand, you feel guilty that the person died, and 
you didn't. On the other, you suddenly feel relief so profound that it almost 
brings tears to your eyes, relief that it was the other person and not you, and 
that only makes you feel worse. You start wondering if there was any way 
that you could have saved the other person, any way at all, and even if there 
wasn't, you feel like shit because there should have been.

I wouldn't be the God of Death if I couldn't admit that. It didn't make it any 
easier, though. Somewhere between the rational and the emotional, 
communication had broken down.

I knelt there in the moonlight, clutching my ribs with one hand and with my 
face in the other, and asked an uncaring sky why the hell I'd left my room 
that night without my gun.

Quatre hovered over me like a worried beam of sunlight. I ignored him. I 
didn't particularly want to talk to anyone, least of all someone that would try 
to pull me out of the guilt and self-accusation that I was wallowing in. I 
wanted that guilt, because I knew it was /mine/ and it was not something 
that I could ever lose, just because some vampire decided to get pissy.

The other guys decided that there was no way we could clean this up or hide 
the body, so we'd just have to do some damage control so that no one would 
figure out that we'd been there.

I was glad that we weren't going to hide Yan's body. It would make life 
difficult when they found it, but at least his parents wouldn't have to go 
through the agony of not knowing what happened to their son. They'd be 
hurting, yes, but at least they'd know. 

Parents.

Ayako's parents still had no idea what had happened to her. There was no 
way to tell them.

The guys left me alone while they cleaned up as much evidence as they 
could. When they were done, Heero came over to me. I didn't say anything, 
and he didn't say anything, either. The blood had long since soaked through 
my pants and gone completely cold, numbing my legs, so wasn't even sure 
if I could get up. Besides, when the power that had come from Yan had left 
me, it took what energy I'd had left, so I don't think I could have walked if I 
even managed to stand. Heero solved the problem for me. Without even 
asking if it was ok, he picked me up and carried me in his arms like I didn't 
weigh anything, all the way back to our room. 

The fight had been far enough away from the dorms that no one got woken 
up by the shooting, or at least if they had, they weren't out and about in the 
halls. Heero carried me right into the bathroom, a very smart move on his 
part, and managed to squeeze both of us into the tiny space by putting me in 
the shower. My pants and shoes were completely ruined, not that I cared. I 
just sat in the shower where he'd put me gently down and stared at the dirty 
blood that was starting to drip from the cuffs of my pants and run down the 
drain.

I'm not sure where it went from there. I managed to get myself cleaned up, 
I'm pretty sure of that. Washing the dirt and the blood off of my legs and 
arms went a long way toward making me feel better, though mental and 
emotional dirt is unfortunately not nearly that easy to clean away. I used 
more of Heero's shampoo to get the blood out of my hair, and the scent of it 
comforted me. I got out of the shower under my own power and made it out 
to my bed, where I let Heero take care of my ribs. If I hadn't been so tired, I 
might have been worried by how nice Heero was being. As it was, I really 
didn't care. 

The next morning, I was awakened bright and early by the sound of sirens. 
There were cop cars all over the place. Heero was sitting by my bed in the 
hard wooden chair that seemed to have become a permanent fixture of the 
room. 

"How are you feeling?" He asked.

I tried to stretch and winced as my ribs protested loudly. I did manage to 
dredge up a little of my normal good humor, and I flashed Heero a grin. He 
wasn't impressed. "I've felt better." I said, "But I'll live." I glanced out the 
window again. The cop cars appeared to be multiplying. "They found the 
mess pretty quickly, didn't they?" That's right, the mess. Think of it as a 
mess, not as what's left of someone you know...

"Aa. Class has been cancelled. I overheard that the school is bringing in 
grief counselors."

"Great." I wasn't sure whether to be sarcastic or not. No class was great, it 
gave me some time to sit and deal with it before I had to go meet the 
woman. Grief counselors...not so great. I would certainly be named as one 
of Yan's friends, which meant that they'd probably come hunting 
specifically for me, which also meant that they would be very hard to 
escape. I didn't want to talk to a damn grief counselor. Psychologists are 
right about the level of lawyers, in my opinion. Both stick to you like a 
second skin when there's something they want. The only difference is the 
type of coin.

Besides, I didn't need anyone to tell me that it wasn't my fault. 
Intellectually, I was well aware that it wasn't my fault. I knew exactly who 
was at fault, and I was planning to deal with them as soon as possible.

Try telling THAT to a counselor, though. You'd probably end up in a room 
with rubber wallpaper.

I was feeling a lot better today, anyway. I was still a little emotionally 
wound, but the bright light of day does a lot. It makes everything seem 
brighter. And there aren't any vampires.

I don't know how long I stared out the window at the black and whites (just 
another name for cop cars). Heero finally just stood up. The chair scraped 
loudly across the floor, which is what drew my attention back to him. 
"Where are you going, Heero?"

"Mission. I was just waiting until you'd woken up."

Despite the emotional load I was trying to deal with, I perked up, ever so 
slightly. Heero had waited around to tell me what was going on himself, 
instead of just leaving that to Quatre. It seemed that my little rant at him 
yesterday had done some good, after all. Things were looking up. "Ok. Be 
careful." I grinned.

Heero hesitated for a moment before gently grabbing one of my shoulders 
as I started turning away again. I jumped at the unexpected touch.

"Trowa and I will be back tomorrow." He hesitated...he actually hesitated. 
Mark this day on the calendar. "Don't go anywhere without your gun." Was 
all he said. Then he abruptly let go and walked out of the room, shutting the 
door behind him.

If I hadn't known better, I would have said he was nervous. What an 
interesting thought.

***

The grief counselors tracked me down and attacked a lot earlier than I'd 
thought they would. I was only half dressed, and my hair wasn't even 
braided. I'd actually been trying to avoid that chore as long as possible. 
Heero had let me go to sleep with it wet and it was a complete rat's nest, 
though it wasn't really his fault, since he has short hair that he never has to 
do anything with. Really, the only other people I knew that would 
understand the trials of long hair were Wufei, whose hair wasn't really that 
long, and Relena, who I wasn't about to sit down and have a chat session 
with.

I was right in the middle of brushing my teeth when they started knocking, 
calling my name through the door. I didn't wait around to see if they would 
actually unlock the door and come in; I just grabbed my shirt and my 
hairbrush, stuck the Browning .40 in the back of my pants waistband, 
opened the window, and went right out onto the ledge that lined the 
building with my toothbrush still clamped between my lips. Being on the 
third floor was no problem at all. I pulled the window shut behind me and 
ran along the ledge until I got to the window that I was pretty sure belonged 
to Wufei's room. It would be a perfect place to escape to, since I didn't think 
Wufei was back yet, and he had one of the few singles on the floor. The 
other option was Quatre and Trowa's room, but that was on the other side of 
the hall, and I just didn't feel like taking the detour. 

The window locks were pathetically easy to open. I don't know why the 
school even bothered with them. They weren't much of an obstacle. Then I 
was sweeping the curtains aside and pulling the window shut behind me. 
Time elapsed, thirty seconds. Damn I'm good.

"What do you want, Duo?"

"AI!" I yelled...well, let's be honest. I yelped. I don't like being startled, and 
I'd been expecting the room to be empty. "Just escaping the leeches, Wu-
man." I tossed my shirt and hairbrush onto the room's desk and headed 
toward the bathroom. Wufei was laying on the room's single bed with one 
arm thrown over his eyes. "Back a little early, aren't you?"

"My enemies were weaker than I had thought. I finished them quickly." 
Wufei said. He sounded very tired, and therefore, very grouchy. Not that 
Wufei isn't always grouchy. Mornings just make it worse. "I just got back a 
few hours ago and was attempting to catch a little rest when all hell broke 
loose." He made that statement sound accusatory, like it was somehow my 
fault that the school suddenly looked like it was hosting a cop convention. I 
hate it when people automatically assume that any trouble was caused by 
me in some way. Never mind the fact that this time, it was.

I finished brushing my teeth, then rinsed my toothbrush. Life seems a bit 
brighter when you're feeling minty fresh, and when I bounded back out of 
the bathroom to get my hairbrush, my cheer wasn't as forced as it had been. 
It had also helped that we still had some of the painkillers left, so my ribs 
weren't hurting me too badly. "Well, you don't have to worry about class 
today, Wu-man. It's been cancelled."

"Cancelled? What the hell happened while I was gone?" Wufei sat up, loose 
black hair trailing in front of his face. He'd lost his pony tail holder 
somewhere, maybe on the mission. Who knows.

"Vampire attack." I said simply before I plopped down in Wufei's chair and 
started brushing my hair out. The Browning dug into my back and I pulled 
it out of my waistband and set it on the desk. I needed to get a shoulder 
holster. A gun in the waistband might look cool, but it's uncomfortable as 
all hell, because no matter where you put it, it'll dig into you when you sit. 
Plus it's easier to draw from a shoulder holster.

Wufei eyed the gun as if he was expecting it to jump up and bite him, and 
he was trying to decide what martial arts move to kill it with. I guess he was 
a little surprised because he hadn't seen it before. "Well, Duo, maybe you'd 
like to start at the beginning."

He's so cute when he's trying to control his temper. But for once, instead of 
poking at him, I just told him everything, from how I got the gun, to the 
woman I was supposed to meet, to the events of last night, all as 
emotionlessly as possible. I /did/ leave out the entire bit about the weird 
energy that I had felt, since I wasn't sure what it was or even if I had been 
imagining it. When I got done, I was still trying to get the knots out of my 
hair, and Wufei had rearranged himself into a lotus position and was 
watching me thoughtfully. "How did you make the vampire follow your 
orders?" He asked. He was taking the entire thing a lot more calmly than I'd 
been expecting, but then again, Wufei can be one cool cucumber when he's 
not ranting about justice.

I grimaced internally. I don't know why I had thought I could keep 
something from Wufei. He was the first one that had asked, though, so I'd 
been hoping that he would just let it slide. "I don't really know, Wu-man. I 
can't think of any way to explain it without sounding all mystical and shit."

"Then go ahead and sound mystical." Wufei snorted. "I think I should be 
able to get the gist of what you're saying."

I blew a long breath out and went back to attacking my hair. "When Yan 
died, he released some kind of...energy, power, magic, I don't know what to 
call it...into the air. It ran right to me like I was a magnet and filled me up 
until I thought I was going to explode. I somehow used it to actually take 
control of the vampire and make it let me go. It escaped almost 
immediately, though."

Wufei didn't say anything. He seemed to be thinking pretty hard. I shrugged 
and went on brushing. Wufei was a smart guy, smarter than me. I figured 
that if there was any good explanation for what I'd said, he'd come up with 
it. He didn't come out with an answer, though. Instead, he just said, "Let me 
think about this." and lay back down.

"Think all you want. If you figure it out, tell me." I'd finally gotten all the 
knots out of my hair. Automatically, my fingers started braiding it. "Oh 
yeah, Wu-man...you want to help Quatre be my backup when I meet the 
woman today?"

"You're still going?"

"I said I would. Besides...I really do think that this has to be something 
important." I tied off the end of my braid with the elastic band that I'd 
wrapped around the handle of the brush. 

"I'll go with you."

"You want one of the guns? Heero left the Beretta for Quatre to use. That 
leaves us with an extra."

"No thanks. I'll stick with my sword."

I shrugged. "I'll take it along anyway. It never hurts to have a backup 
weapon." I grabbed my shirt and pulled it on. "Ne, Wu-man?"

"Aa." He was starting to get the tired/grouchy/annoyed/potentially 
homicidal Wufei note in his voice.

"Can I hide out in here until it's time to go?"

Wufei blew a long sigh out. "Just try to shut up long enough to let me take a 
nap."

***

"Duo, are you SURE that this is the right place?" Quatre asked 
incredulously.

Wufei just stayed quiet, but he had a wild look in his eye that I wasn't sure I 
liked.

Not that I blamed him. Whatever kind of place Carmelita's was, it definitely 
wasn't for family fun. The all leather window display made that pretty 
obvious.

I wiggled my shoulders underneath my black windbreaker, trying to settle 
the straps of my new shoulder rig a little more comfortably. I'd managed to 
convince the guys to leave for town a little early so we could stop and go 
accessory shopping for the new toys. I had gotten a deluxe shoulder rig with 
that had places to put extra ammo, and Quatre had picked up an inter-pants 
holster. After I saw that, I got one for myself, too. We'd actually bought the 
holsters, though the original plan (at least in my mind) had been to steal 
them. I decided on second thought that it wouldn't be a good idea when I 
noticed that the owner of the shop was watching me closely...and that he 
was cleaning a rifle that looked like it would make a really big hole. I'd also 
bought a black windbreaker from the clothing store next to the gun shop...it 
had nice big pockets for even /more/ ammo, since there is no such thing as 
too much ammo, and besides, I needed something to hide the shoulder rig 
with. Walking down a busy street with my guns showing just didn't seem 
like a good idea, especially considering how jumpy the cops were going to 
be after the thing at the school. At least it was still cool enough to wear a 
jacket. I had no idea what I was going to do once we hit late spring. Melt, 
probably.

So that brought us back to the present. Carmelita's. The all leather window 
display. The blacked out windows. The peeling paint on the outer walls. 
The bright red neon announcing the name. What a place. Oh boy.

"Yeah, I'm sure this is the right place." I said. "The lady answered the phone 
with 'Carmelita's.' And this is the address that I was given." I eyed the door 
with a great deal of trepidation. I'm not going to say I'm innocent. Not by a 
long shot. But considering that I hadn't even gotten all the way home, I 
really didn't think I needed to know about the weirder varieties quite yet, 
which I had a sinking suspicion this place was devoted to. I took a deep 
breath. "Ready to go in?"

"I'm never going to be ready." I heard Wufei mutter. He's surprisingly 
prudish for a guy that was once married. I don't know any of the gory 
details on that one, though. He was reluctant enough to even admit to it, let 
alone get down to brass tacks.

Quatre wisely said nothing. He nervously tugged at his own jacket, a white 
one that went with his light pink shirt and did a good job of concealing the 
Beretta, which he'd tucked into the small of his back. I'd asked Wufei if he 
was armed, and he'd said yes. God only knew what he was armed with, 
though, considering he didn't have his sword with him, since it would have 
been a little too obvious. I was afraid to ask again.

"Here we go." I said under my breath, and pulled the door to the little shop 
of forbidden things open.

It was like walking into a cave. Well, kind of. Maybe not. It was certainly 
cave-like in the fact that it was dim and fairly cool inside. That was where 
the resemblance ended, though. Heavy metal music echoed pounded 
through the shop so loudly that if Quatre and Wufei said something when 
we first entered, there was no way I could have heard them. Bass pounded 
along the floor and buzzed up through me. The air was chockingly thick 
with some kind of musky incense that I think was supposed to lend it a 
sensual, dangerous air. It was just cloying. And there were other things 
under the heavy scent, faint whiffs of blood and other bodily fluids that I 
really didn't care to think about.

I turned around to locate Quatre and Wufei. Wufei was doing his best not to 
look at anything. Quatre was openly staring at a glass case that contained 
some whips, several sets of handcuffs that glinted in the harsh light of the 
display, and several...somethings. I've seen some seedy, nasty things in my 
life, but I wasn't even sure what the hell these were. Quatre gave me a wide-
eyed look, half-shouting to be heard over the music. "Duo?" he pointed at 
something that could have been underwear. Maybe. If you turned your head 
and squinted. "Is it anatomically possible to put on something like that?"

I did my best not to stare. Yeah, that's me, Duo, the well-traveled Gundam 
Pilot that's seen it all. Right. "Hell if I know!" I yelled. Someone tapped me 
on the shoulder and I spun around, my hand automatically going for my 
gun. Me? Jumpy? Of course not. 

The only way the woman in front of me could have worn less was if she 
stripped. I kid not. I hastily directed my attention to her face, so that I 
wouldn't either run away or start drooling. Ok, maybe I'm not gay. Who the 
hell knows. This wasn't going to be the place I figured it out, though, that 
was for damn sure. She had a nice face, though she was wearing way too 
much eye make up. It made her look tired, instead of achieving the desired 
effect. Whatever that was. Her hair was very, very blonde, obviously a color 
that came out of a bottle, and it really offset her chocolatey skin tone. 

"Er...gomen, ojou-san. What can I do for you?" I grinned disarmingly.

The woman gave me a hard look, the expression on her face changing from 
something that had been almost predatory to nearly maternal concern. Put 
with the rest of her getup, it looked too weird for words. "Aren't you a little 
young to be in here?" She said sharply, pointing a finger at me. She had on 
fake fingernails. They were painted bright red.

I backed up a step so that her fingernail wouldn't impale me, and shrugged 
helplessly. "We're supposed to meet someone here."

"A lot of guys your age are supposed to meet someone here. So you met 
someone. Now get out and come back after you've reached puberty." She 
gestured toward the door and moved forward, obviously planning on 
chasing us out, if need be. 

I dodged. "My name is Duo. I called yesterday. One of you ladies told me to 
come down here for a meeting. I'm not joking!"

Whatever the magic word in my spiel had been, it stopped the woman cold. 
"Duo, huh?"

I nodded. That's me. Ever helpful.

"She didn't say anything about any friends. Just one guy named Duo." The 
woman crossed her arms, mercifully covering her breasts. I had been 
starting to get embarrassed on her behalf.

I risked a glance back at Wufei and Quatre. Quatre was blushing. Wufei 
looked like he was going to faint. He hissed at me. "Don't you dare leave us 
alone out here!"

"I'm not going anywhere without my back up, ma'am. I hope that won't be a 
problem."

The woman glared at us, then finally shrugged. "It's Carmen's own business 
if she wants to take on three boys. Follow me." I let out a soft sigh of relief 
and followed her, doing my best not to look at her butt. I'll never understand 
how someone can stand wearing a thong. Dear god.

At least we had a name now, though. Carmen. I was hoping that was who I 
talked to. If not, we were in big trouble.

She led us quickly through the little shop of horrors, which was nice, 
because it didn't give us a chance to look at anything else. The nice little 
conga line we formed followed the woman down a set of steps covered with 
extremely worn, thin carpet and into a long, bare hallway. The hall was lit 
starkly with several bare light bulbs. It was white, and the paint was peeling 
badly, revealing an older coating of grey paint beneath it. Graffiti covered 
every available surface. There were doors on every side, covered with the 
same crappy white paint as the rest of the hall. I heard faint clanking sounds 
and whimpering when I went past one of the doors. I really didn't want to 
know. 

When we were almost at the end of the hall, the woman stopped and opened 
a door. "Go in. I'll get Carmen." She shut the door behind us.

Silently, all three of us took in the room. It was tiny, no more than four 
meters by four meters. There was a bed along one of the walls, and it took 
up most of the room. The light was provided by a dim, unshaded light bulb, 
and there were all sorts of interesting looking hooks on the ceiling. There 
was also a chest against the wall opposite the bed. It had faded red hearts 
stenciled on it. That was it. The only places to sit were the bed and on top of 
the chest. All three of us opted to stand.

Wufei glared at me. "What kind of place have you brought us to, Duo?"

"Sorry! I didn't know." I shrugged helplessly. "You have to admit, it's 
certainly educational." I winked at Quatre while Wufei sputtered. 

"Kisama!"

There was a scuffling sound outside the door, and the knob turned. As 
nonchalantly as possible, I tucked my hand into my jacket for easier access 
to my gun. Call me crazy, but places like this make me nervous for some 
strange reason. The door opened, and woman entered.

The best word I can think of to describe her is "statuesque." She was tall, 
she was beautiful, and even better for my personal comfort, she was 
wearing a bathrobe. It was dark green, threadbare, and very tattered, which 
looked odd when compared to her heavy eye make up, her carefully done up 
curly brown hair, and her pale skin. But it was a hell of a lot better than 
what the woman upstairs had been wearing, so I was definitely not going to 
complain, even if it looked a little odd. Without hesitating, she padded over 
to me. She wasn't wearing any shoes, and she was still at least a foot taller 
than me. "You're Duo." She said.

"Yeah. How'd you know?"

The woman held out a hand and I hesitantly took it. Her handshake was 
firm and business-like, nothing more. She smiled, and suddenly the hair on 
my arms stood on end. "I'm always happy to meet another practitioner of 
the Art."

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